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

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: La Belle Noiseuse, 50 Shades Freed, 4K Titles, Paradox, Manifesto, Dear White People, Butterflies and more

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

La Belle Noiseuse: Blu-ray
“Take My Word for It” might be a better title for this column, especially as it applies to movies that went to straight-to-video or streaming or are made by filmmakers yet to establish reputations. Jacques Rivette’s 1991 masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse, doesn’t fit those categories, but, with its four-hour length and ready availability of an inferior 125-minute cut, La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento, Cohen Media’s upgraded Blu-ray may benefit from any endorsement. La Belle Noiseuse (The Beautiful Troublemaker) won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes and was nominated for a Palme d’Or. Roger Ebert called it “the best film I have ever seen about the physical creation of art, and about the painful bond between an artist and his muse.” The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa named it one of his two favorite movies of the 1990s — with Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks – calling it the best filmed display of a struggle of an artist doing his craft, as well as a movie he would have liked to have directed. The four-hour length didn’t bother them or most of the other mainstream critics who saw La Belle Noiseuse in its first release. Michel Piccoli plays the artist, Frenhofer, who, judging solely from his lovely countryside chateau/studio in Provence, did very well for himself before developing a crippling creative block a decade earlier. At the time, his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), served as his principle model and muse. Although they’re still married and supportive of each other, something is missing in that part of their relationship.

When a young artist, Nicolas (David Bursztein), visits the reclusive artist with his beautiful, if slightly aloof girlfriend, Marianne (Béart), Frenhofer is inspired to return to a painting he long ago abandoned, using her as his model. Liz recognizes the spark and encourages Marianne to stick around. She’ll be asked to pose nude for long periods of time and in positions that will test her patience and strength. It would be easy for viewers to assume that sometime in the laborious process, Frenhofer will try to use patriarchal status to coerce her into having sex. While there’s plenty of contact between them, including the occasional shared cigarette, things don’t progress in that way. And, in the era of #MeToo correctness, we’re happy they don’t. This isn’t to say, however, that Marianne and Frenhofer don’t begin to develop a shared obsession for the work, “La Belle Noiseuse,” or that it doesn’t impact negatively on their relationships with Liz and Nicolas. It’s also reflected in the artist’s process, which Rivette depicts in painstaking detail. Like everyone else in the movie, except Frenhofer, viewers are left guessing as to how the final painting might look. The paintings and sketches to which we’ve been made privy are as disturbing as they are revealing of the artist’s tortured state of mind. La Belle Noiseuse is based on Honoré de Balzac’s short story, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” and inspired, as well, by elements of Henry James’ “The Liar,” “The Figure in the Carpet” and “The Aspern Papers.” The Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski; an archival interview with Rivette; and an interview with co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent.

Fifty Shades Freed: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray: 4K UHD
Here’s a spoiler you won’t read anywhere else: you can tell when Anastasia is truly angry at her demanding husband when she chooses to wear pantyhose, instead of the black thigh-highs she favors while being tortured by Christian, working at the office and hanging out in one of Seattle’s many coffee shops. It may be a small point, but in this, the final chapter of the “Fifty Shades” series, she’s given precious few ways to declare her independence. It’s about time. Few franchises have been more immune to the opinions of critics, who probably hoped they could clip this turkey’s wings before they would be forced to review the other two installments of E.L. James’s Teflon Trilogy. Like Ronald Reagan, whose presidency was compared to the chemical used to coat cookware, nothing negative sticks to the “Fifty Shades” franchise. Fifty Shades Freed is no different in this regard. Despite reviews that would make some filmmakers weep, admirers of the best-selling book pushed the trilogy past the billion-dollar barrier, based on global ticket sales. Consider this, as well: despite Metacritic scores of 46, 33 and 31, viewers’ opinions on CinemaScore rose from Fifty Shades of Grey’s C+, to the B+ shared by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Grades for sequels rarely improve. The opening weekend audience for “Freed” saw the highest ratio of female-to-male audiences yet in the series, with women making up 75 percent of opening-weekend moviegoers and women under the age of 30 comprising 55 percent of that audience. It’s safe to assume that male viewers bailed on their dates after being dragged to the first part, disappointed by the lack of below-the-belt nudity and a realization they could never measure up to Christian financially or sartorially. (It’s almost impossible to maintain a two-day growth of facial hair, without shaving every so often.) Women, even those with an aversion to nipple clips and whips, apparently found the highly fictionalized romance to their liking. I wonder how many of them have graduated to Barbet Schroeder Maîtresse, Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary or Radley Metzger’s The Image, all of which do a better job of depicting the pleasures of pain.

In Fifty Shades Freed, it doesn’t take Christian more than a couple of minutes to show his true shades of gray. His unwarranted jealousy surfaces at the wedding reception and continues throughout most of the film’s remaining 110 minutes. And, while he gives Ana every reason to doubt his fidelity – with his real-estate agent and, of course, Mrs. Robinson (Kim Basinger) – her anger at his callous behavior lasts only so long as it takes Christian to purchase an ever-costlier gift … like a private jet at their beck and call, an expensive sports car and top-shelf whips, dildos and butt plugs. (Unlike the novel, Ana isn’t depicted using the latter.) Christian buys a fabulous bayside mansion – seen in an earlier film – without even bothering to consult his better half. Neither does his sexy interior designer (Arielle Kebbel) ask Ana about her plans to gut the Old World interior and replace it with the latest look favored by subscribers to Architectural Digest. For once, though, Anastasia stands up for herself, by insisting the designer piss up a rope. Later, she’ll forgive Christian for berating her on a French beach for shedding her top to sunbathe, while every other woman has her ta-tas on full display. In “Freed,” Christian turns out to be nothing more than just another grumpy and overly possessive guy, who treats his wife like property. When Anastasia informs him of their accidental pregnancy, Christian freaks out and demands she get an abortion. It isn’t until an old nemesis, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), threatens to kill Ana and his sister, Mia (Rita Ora), that he pulls up his big-boy pants and rides to her rescue. Blessedly, it isn’t accompanied by Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.”

The very capable director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) returns to the director’s chair, but he appears to have been handcuffed by a cliché-ridden script. I should have guessed that the screenwriter, Niall Leonard (“Wire in the Blood”), is married to author/producer James and that his only other big-screen credit is for Fifty Shades Darker. His background as a writer of television mini-series – some quite good — is pretty obvious. John Schwartzman’s cinematography enhances the Blu-ray and 4K UHD additions, as does Danny Elfman’s complementary score. From what I can gather, the difference between the rated and unrated versions of Fifty Shades Freed is the inclusion of a couple of brief scenes that were shown in the trailer, but, then, trimmed for the theatrical release. Bassinger appears in a couple of those very brief segments. The bonus package adds the self-explanatory deleted scene, “Hickey and Apology”; a 33-minute making-of featurette, “The Final Climax”; “Christian & Ana by Jamie & Dakota,” in which the actors discuss their characters; “An Intimate Conversation,” with James and actor Eric Johnson; and music videos, “For You (Fifty Shades Freed)” by Liam Payne and Rita Ora, “Capital Letters” by Hailee Steinfeld x Bloodpop, and “Heaven” by Julia Michaels. If James ever runs out of money, she’s left a bit of room for a third sequel.

Saving Private Ryan: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Braveheart: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Gladiator: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Source Code: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Paramount’s impeccable 4K upgrade of Steven Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat’s Saving Private Ryan: Commemorative 20th Anniversary Edition couldn’t possibly improve upon the film’s gut-wrenching depiction of the Omaha Beach assault on D-Day. Nor does it enhance the heart-wrenching drama that accompanies the search for PFC James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the last-surviving brother of four servicemen killed in the Normandy invasion. How could it? Even so, Spielberg’s graphic portrayal of the slaughter – accented by sonic effects that made some viewers dodge imaginary bullets – could hardly be more impactful, no matter the video or audio format. What makes the new UHD edition of Saving Private Ryan an essential purchase for owners of the latest home-theater technology is a 12-bit Dolby Vision presentation that comes as close to replicating the big-screen experience as is currently possible. The Dolby Atmos audio track makes the sounds of war that much more frightening and the dialogue more legible. Two decades later, it’s fun to see how many of the cast members would go on to enjoy substantial show-business careers. It’s also worth recalling the controversy that erupted after Saving Private Ryan inexplicably lost out to Shakespeare in Love for the Best Picture Oscar. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 5:  Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing and Best Director for Spielberg. Credit for the upset went to Miramax’s unprecedented promotional campaign and the faulty memories of academy voters, who had no trouble remembering their reactions to the December release of Shakespeare in Love, but who forgot what drove audiences to Saving Private Ryan five months earlier. The upset was one of the things that helped turn Harvey Weinstein into the notoriously untouchable bully he would become, until being cut down to size for sexual abuse two decades later. The separate 4K UHD disc doesn’t include any new bonus features. The Blu-ray-combo disc contains previously issued featurettes, interviews and commentaries.

And, while we’re discussing advanced technology, it’s worth noting ahead of time that Paramount is also about to re-release a pair of its monster hits from 1995 and 2001, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR. Unlike “Private Ryan,” both won the Best Picture Oscar they so richly deserved, along with a bunch of other trophies and nominations. All three are enhanced by the addition of 2160p/Dolby Vision and a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Fans who purchased earlier Blu-ray editions – including the subpar transfer of Gladiator, since repaired – should know not to expect any new bonus material on the 4K UHD. The already adequate featurettes have been ported over to the Blu-ray discs included in the package. Superfans will have to decide for themselves if the noticeably better audio/visual presentation – closer to the theatrical experience — is worth another investment in money and time. Most, I think, will say it is.

Also new to Blu-ray 4K UHD is Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley’s high-voltage action/thriller, Source Code, from Lionsgate. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays U.S. Army pilot Captain Colter Stevens, who wakes up one morning on a commuter train headed to Chicago. Because the last thing he can remember is being on a mission in Afghanistan, Stevens is completely disoriented and annoyed about his inability to figure out what’s happening to him. His traveling partner, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), is more amused by his confusion than alarmed. When Stevens looks at himself in the bathroom, he appears to be someone else: a school teacher named Sean Fentress. As he attempts to come to grips with this revelation, the train explodes, killing everyone aboard. This time, when Stevens regains consciousness, he’s inside a dimly lit cockpit, communicating with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She verifies Stevens’ original identity and insists he stay “on mission” to find the train bomber, before a second bomb explodes in downtown Chicago. Turns out, Stevens is trapped inside the “Source Code,” an experimental device designed by scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). In the computer-generated realm, he experiences the last eight minutes of another compatible person’s life within an alternative timeline. It’s tricky, but, once the gimmick is revealed, viewers shouldn’t have any problem playing along with it. It, too, benefits from a 2160p UHD and Dolby Atmos upgrade. It adds commentary with Jones, Ripley and Gyllenhaal, and “5 Crazy Details You Might Have Missed.”


Blood and Glory
If most sports movies are founded on certain clichés and tropes, it’s refreshing to find a guard-vs.-prisoners flick that breaks new ground. The first iteration of Robert Aldrich The Longest Yard (1974) certainly did, as it captured the anti-establishment fervor of the period. So did the rigged football game in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1972), which added a couple of Vietnam-era touches. Although John Huston’s 1981 soccer drama, Victory (a.k.a., “Escape to Victory”), pitted Allied prisoners of war – including Sylvester Stallone and Pele — against a team of German all-stars in occupied Paris, it was inspired by two European movies, released in the early 1960s. The Hungarian black-and-white drama, Two Half-Times in Hell, and Soviet Tretiy taym (a.k.a., The Last Game) honed much closer to eyewitness reports from an actual soccer game, known as the Death Match. During the German occupation of Kiev, several members of Dynamo Kiev formed a team with other bakery employees, playing in a league against teams supported by the Ukranian puppet government and German military. After they beat a team from a local German Air Force base, the league was disbanded and several of the team members were arrested by the Gestapo, with four reportedly executed. It’s entirely possible, as well, that the Death Match inspired the central conflict in Sean Else’s Blood and Glory, which is set in 1901, during the Second Boer War. The compelling, if all-too-familiar drama follows Willem Morkel, a Boer/Afrikaans farmer who is captured and sent to a British P.O.W. camp on St. Helena Island, halfway between Argentina and Namibia, in the Atlantic Ocean.

The prisoners are treated harshly, forced to break rocks from morning until evening, and fed poorly. While the guards are preoccupied, watching their mates partake in a game of rugby, one of the prisoners sneaks behind them to steal a uniform. He’s caught, of course, and sentenced to be executed. The film’s protagonist, a farmer named Willem Morkel (Stian Bam), offers a deal to the brutal Australian camp commander, Colonel Swannell (Grant Swanby). If the prisoners can beat the soldiers in a game of rugby, Swannell must agree to postpone the execution. If not, Morkel agrees to be executed alongside his fellow P.O.W. As is typically the case in these David-vs.-Goliath setups, the prisoners will have to be taught how to play the game and practice only after their work day is done. Swannell also ensures that the prisoners are undernourished, underequipped and unprepared to lose a key player when one mysteriously drowns. I’m sure you can guess the rest, except for the fact that the island’s British governor (Michael Richard) and his daughter (Charlotte Salt) are appalled by the mistreatment of their temporary Afrikaner guests by fellow Brits. Blood and Glory alludes to the possibility that South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, evolved from that game and one of the players went on to play for the South Africa National Rugby Union team. I couldn’t find anything to back up those assertions, however. Nonetheless, anyone who’s a sucker for such movies should enjoy this one.

Valentina’s Wedding
Lionsgate and Pantelion’s latest cross-border collaboration, “La Boda de Valentina” (Valentina’s Wedding) did pretty well in its opening weekend in 331 U.S. theaters. It would go on to collect nearly $2.8 million here, while raking in another $8.3 million worth of pesos in its concurrent international run. While the stars are largely familiar from Mexican telenovelas and English-language soaps, I don’t know if the distributors focused their marketing efforts on those viewers. Recent Pantelion titles I’ve reviewed are Everybody Loves Somebody, How to Be a Latin Lover, 3 Idiots and the animated feature, Condorito: La Película. None would be confused with high-brow fare, but arthouse audiences don’t watch soap operas … except on PBS. The title character is played by the very appealing Marimar Vega (Daniel and Ana), whose telenovelas include “Silvana Sin Lana Amor,” “Cautivo” and “Eternamente tuya.” Valentina has the “perfect” life in New York, with the perfect job and a perfect American boyfriend, Jason (Ryan Carnes). They plan on getting married, but Jason can’t understand why she refuses to do it in Mexico, surrounded by her family. It isn’t until her thoroughly dysfunctional and scandalous relatives demand that Valentina return to Mexico City, and pretend to be married to her ex-boyfriend, Angel (Omar Chaparro), do we fully appreciate why she’s keeping them at a distance. Naturally, as romcom conventions demand, she reluctantly agrees to return home and go along with the ruse, to protect her father’s political campaign. If you’ve already guessed that Valentina’s proximity to Angel will test her devotion to Jason, give yourself a pat on the back. When she asks Angel to show Jason around the capital, it’s also safe to assume that the two men either will kill each other or find bromance. By the end of the movie, one of the three characters will be left standing at the altar, but it wasn’t the one I would have chosen. Too bad. Coincidentally, perhaps, Vega’s next picture is “La Boda de la Abuela,” in which she plays a character named Ana, from another series of rom-coms.

The Devil Incarnate: Blu-ray
Widely considered to be the dean of Spanish horror films, in the Golden Era of European exploitation, at least, Paul Naschy (a.k.a., Jacinto Molina Alvarez) has been overshadowed here by the purveyors of Italian Westerns, giallo and cannibal epics. To the extent that Naschy is known outside Europe, it’s for his portrayal of the tormented werewolf Waldermar Daninsky, a character he introduced in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968) and reprised in a dozen subsequent sequels. Like his hero, Lon Chaney Jr., Naschy also played such horror mainstays as the Mummy, Jack the Ripper, Dracula, the Hunchback, the Frankenstein monster, Phantom of the Opera and, in The Devil Incarnate (1979), the ruler of all that’s dark and evil in the universe. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Belushi, the devil has decided to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, by impersonating a mere mortal to investigate what’s happening on Earth. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time or place than16th Century Spain, which was embroiled in the Spanish Inquisition. It was a time when the monarchy entrusted priests with the responsibility of maintaining Catholic orthodoxy and, in doing so, could easily be mistaken for emissaries of Satan. Together with a human companion, Tomas, Leonardo wanders through the countryside like Don Quixote, encountering all sorts of local gentry, nuns, knights and prostitutes, who are ripe to be plucked of their riches and virtue. Neither is Leonardo reluctant to delegate his authority to underlings willing to do his dirty work for him. Eventually, though, the devil finds he’s no match for the devious desires and unbridled greed of God’s earthly creations. Unlike most of Naschy’s horror films, The Devil Incarnate can stand on its own as a bawdy picaresque that doesn’t rely on makeup effects and gore for its appeal. Besides Naschy, it stars Sara Lezana, David Rocha, Ana Harpo, Blanca Estrada, and Irene Gutiérrez Caba. The Mondo Macabro edition, the first to be released on Blu-ray here, was created from a 4k scan of the original negative. It includes an introduction by Naschy; interviews with Rocha and sons Sergio and Bruno Molina; a tour of Naschy’s study and home; and commentary by Troy Howarth. The Mondo Macabro previews are almost worth the price of a rental, themselves.

The House That Dripped Blood: Blu-ray
House of Evil
Forty years after Amicus Productions quit producing genre films in England, it’s easy to confuse its output with that of Hammer Film Productions, which, by the end of the 1960s, was starting to lose market share. While they shared many of the same stars and themes, Amicus favored the anthology format. In this regard, The House That Dripped Blood fits neatly alongside Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Torture Garden, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave. While some worked better than others on the big screen, the format does better on DVD/Blu-ray. The segments in The House That Dripped Blood not only share an overarching setting and other connective tissue, but they also were written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) or based upon his stories. The film is a collection of four short stories linked by the association of each one’s protagonist with the eponymous building, which existed for a time on a far corner of the Shepperton Studios lot. Their title and source are, “Method for Murder” (Fury #7, July 1962), in which a hack writer of horror stories (Denholm Elliott) moves into the house with his wife (Joanna Dunham), only to be haunted by visions of the psychopathic central character of his latest novel; “Waxworks” (Weird Tales #33, January 1939) features

a retired stockbroker (Peter Cushing) and his friend (Joss Ackland), who become fixated with a wax museum that appears to contain a model of a lady they both knew; “Sweets to the Sweet” (Weird Tales, Volume 39 #10, March 1947) with Nyree Dawn Porter playing a private teacher hired by a wealthy widower (Christopher Lee) to mind his strange young daughter (Chloe Franks); and “The Cloak” (Unknown, May 1939), in which a temperamental actor (Jon Pertwee) moves into the house, not far from where he’s shooting a vampire film, already occupied by a voluptuous vampire (Ingrid Pitt). The Shout Factory upgrade adds commentaries by film historian/author Troy Howarth and with director Peter Duffell and author Jonathan Rigby; a new interview with second assistant director Mike Higgins; the vintage featurette, “A-Rated Horror Film,” featuring Duffell and actors Geoffrey Bayldon, Ingrid Pitt and Chloe Franks; and original marketing material.

In addition to being the title of a 2017 Italian horror flick newly released into DVD, House of Evil practically defines the subgenre in which it exists, Evil Houses. In Marco Ristori and Luca Boni’s follow-up to Zombie Massacre 2: Reich of the Dead (2015), a young married couple is turning their back on city life by moving to a spacious mansion outside Florence. Eighty-five minutes doesn’t leave much room for exposition, so things begin to take a turn toward the weird almost immediately, with sightings of people who shouldn’t be standing in the field outside and the occasional ghost. Unbeknownst to the couple, their new home was the scene of a heinous crime and the perpetrator — or his spirit – doesn’t appear to have left the premises. As time passes, the husband, John (Andrew Harwood Mills), grows more and more distant from pregnant wife, Kate (Lucy Drive). Finally, when Kate’s best friend, Corrine (Désirée Giorgetti), and a seemingly innocuous local priest (David White), reveal the house’s sad history, House of Evil begins to resemble an all-too-obvious cross-fertilization of Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror. If it doesn’t break any new ground, at least it looks good and offers more than a few old-school chills.

Paradox: Blu-ray
When the teenage daughter of Hong Kong police negotiator Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) goes missing in Thailand, her trail leads to an American gangster, Sacha (Chris Collins), who is operating an organ-smuggling ring in Bangkok. The 16-year-old went there to visit a friend after she informed Chung-Chi that she’s pregnant and Daddy Dearest had her boyfriend arrested. With his conscience weighing heavy on him, the cop travels to Thailand, where he’s confronted with a thick wall of political and governmental corruption. Fortunately, he’s met there by fellow Chinese cop Tsui Kit (Yue Wu) and his Thai partner, Tak (Tony Jaa), presumably the only two honest police officers in Southeast Asia. A series of clues not only leads Chung-Chi to the gangsters who hold his daughter’s fate in their hands — it hinges on the teetering health of a top city official — but he also finds himself in a position to expose the smuggling ring and take out Sasha. Any more information would qualify as major spoiler. The bottom line is that Paradox (a.k.a., “Kill Zone 3”) overflows with action – choreographed by Sammo Hung – and it’s more violent than usual. Wu and Jaa contribute as much of their considerable skills to the mix as Koo. If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because Paradox is the third installment in Wilson Yip’s “SPL” series, after Kill Zone and A Time for Consequences, or that it could describe a third sequel to Taken, with Koo sitting in for Liam Neeson. Yip also directed the “Ip Man” trilogy. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

In Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, an extremely versatile Cate Blanchett portrays 13 individual characters, recounting 12 artists’ manifestos in as many different disguises. In doing so, she recalls Anna Deavere Smith, in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”; Lily Tomlin, in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”; and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, in which a half-dozen disparate characters embody a different aspect of Bob Dylan’s life. In the latter, Blanchett played Jude Quinn, an alias for the Dylan represented in D.A. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back (1967). In retrospect, Manifest makes I’m Not There look like an episode of “Biography.” Originally a video installation, with all 13 sections playing simultaneously, on a loop, on 13 different screens, Manifesto was exhibited first at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, in Blanchett’s hometown, Melbourne, alongside one of her two Oscars. It draws on the writings of Futurists, Dadaists, Fluxus artists, Suprematists, Situationists, Dogma 95 and other artist groups, as well as the musings of such individual artists as Claes Oldenburg, Yvonne Rainer, Kazimir Malevich, Andre Breton, Elaine Frances Sturtevant, Sol LeWitt and Jim Jarmusch. Blanchett performs these “new manifestos” as “a contemporary call to action,” while inhabiting the personae of a school teacher, puppeteer, newsreader, factory worker and homeless man, among others. On film, at least, it’s a tough slog. Extras include a conversation with Blanchett and Rosefeldt.

Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God … Be Back By Five: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Several years before Jon Cryer hit the jackpot playing Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men, he was still known primarily as the scene-stealing Duckie, in Howard Deutch and John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink (1986). And, truth be told, if it weren’t Cryer’s hilariously passionate dance to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” he might only have been remembered for bit parts in sitcoms. Now, he’s as recognizable as anyone in Hollywood. In between those two career highlights, though, Cryer co-wrote and starred in Richard Schenkman’s intriguingly titled The Pompatus of Love and Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God … Be Back By Five, which was probably too long to fit on any exhibiter’s marquee. Today, both the independently made pictures probably would fall under the category of “bro’s will be bro’s,” but, in the mid- to late-1990s, they offered decent alternatives to big-budget studio films. “Went to Coney Island” spent two years on the festival circuit before being accorded a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release in 2000. It’s been given a fresh Blu-ray polish by MVD for its Rewind Collection, with a new introduction by the principles and vintage commentary, interviews, a making-of featurette, Schenkman’s short comedy, “The Producer,” and a mini-poster. The movie follows three childhood friends as they grow into men in one of New York City’s slow lanes. None is particularly successful, but Cryer’s character, at least, doesn’t have the added burden of an alcohol/gambling addiction and bipolar disorder. When Richie (Rafael Baez) mysteriously disappears, Daniel (Cryer) and Stan (Rick Stear) take it upon themselves to find him and report back to his mother. The invisible trail takes them to the Coney Island, which, in the dead of winter, more closely resembles a slum than an amusement park. Only a few attractions and restaurants are open, and they’re mostly populated by people who don’t want to be there. When they do find Richie, he’s been off his meds for some time and clearly off his rocker. Meanwhile, Stan’s bookie has run out of patience with him and is threatening bodily harm. Being an indie dramedy, “Went to Coney Island” doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. It does, however, deliver a well-acted story, with some clever dialogue and an unusual setting. Other recognizable contributors include Ione Skye, Frank Whaley, Dominic Chianese, Leslie Hendrix Judy Reyes and Peter Gerety.

Netflix: Dear White People: Season One
PBS: Nature: Sex, Lies and Butterflies
PBS: The Art of the Shine
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Bubble Puppy’s Awesome Adventures
It isn’t likely that most viewers have been exposed to the Netflix series, “Dear White People,” let along Justin Simien’s feature film of the same title, upon which it’s based. It describes the day-to-day experiences of a diverse group of black students at a fictional Ivy League college that “isn’t as post-racial” as it considers itself to be. The Netflix series opens with a party thrown by the white, male staff of Winchester University’s satirical magazine, Pastiche. For some ungodly reason known only to themselves, the overindulged students think it might be fun to attend in blackface. Apparently, their intent was to protest the controversial campus radio show, “Dear White People,” hosted by black student Samantha White (Logan Browning), during which she points out the many racist occurrences on campus and how white people should respond to them. It also examines concerns about such timely issues as appropriation, assimilation, elitism and exiting various closets. Samantha is a bundle of contradictions, herself. They include having a white lover and being a rabble-rouser, when a little logic and patience might have worked better. She exasperates the turmoil caused by the party, which was banned by the African-American dean, but somehow managed to go on, nonetheless. After a popular black BMOC is held at gunpoint after another party, the overriding issue becomes police brutality. When the protests threaten the school’s tranquility, key benefactors threaten to pull $10 million from the minority-enrollment program. Sam must decide whether to continuing making waves or appease the school’s backers. “Dear White People” could have been a cliché-ridden mess, but it feels completely real and original. Season One episodes depict the growing furor through the eyes and personalities of other students. “Dear White People” plays out over 10 lively half-hour episodes. Season Two has already begun on the premium Netflix streaming service.

Watching PBS’ spectacularly photograpahed “Sex, Lies and Butterflies,” I was once again reminded how far we’ve come in the last couple of decades when it comes to learning about the wonders of science and nature. Take moths and butterflies, for example. Who can forget taking pop quizzes that, first, required students to spell “metamorphosis” correctly and, then, relate how it applies to the life cycle of butterflies and moths, naming each new stage of development. Given that most students already had a rudimentary knowledge of how such beautiful creatures come to be, it wouldn’t be the greatest challenge we’d faced in high school. Still, most of what we learned was gleaned from textbooks or collections of insects pinned to a board. Compare those memories to what’s revealed in a single 60-minute episode of “Nature,” whose producers were able to follow scientists on research missions around the world and eavesdrop on findings once impossible to imagine. In one visit to Africa, the scientists used hyper-sound and macro-filming techniques to study a concentration of moths being attacked by bats, guided to their prey by sonar. What they didn’t know going into the investigation was that the flying insects weren’t nearly as defenseless as we previously thought they were. Far from being sitting ducks, if you will, apparently they’re able to block the bat’s radar, using audio responses not unlike those employed by stealth weapons. Butterflies and moths have survived for more than 50 million years, and in a dazzling array of nearly 20,000 different species, so they must be doing something right. Also examined are their 360-degree vision, deceptive camouflage, chemical deterrents and ability to take advantage of high-altitude winds to travel from continent to continent in a relative flash. The Blu-ray presentation is splendid. The episode is narrated by Paul Giamatti.

Among the rites of passage that have pretty much disappeared over time are those related to boys and their grown-up shoes. Before Nike, Adidas and Puma began manufacturing footwear that would henceforth be deemed appropriate for all occasions, dads insisted that their sons learn how to spit-shine their shoes until they could pass muster in a lineup at boot camp. Some would even go so far as to purchase do-it-yourself kits, complete with buffing rags, brushes and daubers, cleaning soap, various creams and waxes, scraper, shoehorns, foot grips and polishes in several different colors … maybe, even, a couple of spare sets of laces. Unlike the stiff, black leather shoes we were forced to wear to special events, the ritual could be fun. The next step in a boy’s transition to manly footwear typically arrived with a surprise visit to a shoeshine parlor or “smoke shop,” where you sat on a chair high above the resident bootblacks and let a pro take care of business, with a snap of the buffing cloth and tap on the toe upon completion. A boy could learn a lot while waiting his turn for a shine – such institutions were replete with such adult toys as tobacco, cigars and condoms — but rarely in the company of his dad. At one time, it also was possible for hotel guests of both genders to leave their shoes outside their door at night and wake up to newly shined shows in the morning, next to the day’s newspaper. Today, it’s widely considered to be a lost and largely unnecessary discipline. Or, is it? The delightful PBS presentation, “The Art of the Shine,” argues against the total disappearance of shoeshine professionals, outside the occasional train station or casino lobby. It does so by visiting some of the men and women who still make their living from it. They include the brash street shiners of New York City, the masked shoe shine boys of La Paz, a survivor of the Sarajevo sniper war and old pros who now command $8 per shine in barber shops and boutique operations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the men and women we meet gave up lucrative jobs and college degrees for the relative freedom of shining the shoes of a never-ending variety of customers.

Time Life/WEA has reached Season Four (1970–71) in its a la carte rollout of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” episodes. The regular cast now includes Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin, Johnny Brown, Dennis Allen, Ann Elder, Nancie Phillips, Barbara Sharma, Harvey Jason, Richard Dawson and Byron Gilliam. It opens with the inclusion of guest celebrity Art Carney and includes such goodies as a boxing match between Sammy Davis Jr. and Wilt Chamberlain; Goldie Hawn’s return, after winning an Oscar for Cactus Flower; Ernestine’s calls to Aristotle Onassis and Gore Vidal; and Don Rickles impersonating Arlene Francis, a then-famous game-show contestant that no one under 80 is likely to remember. Look for cameos by Joey Bishop, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Carol Channing, Tim Conway, Bing Crosby, Phyllis Diller, David Frost, Andy Griffith, Peter Lawford, Rich Little, Bob Newhart, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Rod Serling, Orson Welles and Flip Wilson. The package is comprised of seven DVDs, containing all 26 episodes, plus bonus interviews with Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson. Sensitive souls should know that the term “politically correct” didn’t exist in 1970 and many of the jokes wouldn’t make the cut today.

The latest release of episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Bubble Guppies” puts a tight focus on “Bubble Puppy’s Awesome Adventures.” Voiced by Frank Welker (“Scoobie-Do!”), their “rambunctious pet” is Gil’s adopted pet puppy and best friend. He has orange and white fur, and a green collar with a yellow fish license. The third and fourth season episodes include “Temple of the Lost Puppy,” “Wizard of Oz-Tralia,” “The New Doghouse,” “Sheep Doggy” and “Bubble Kitty.”

The DVD Wrapup: In the Fade, Insult, In Between, Please Stand By, Kaleidoscope, Schlock, The Unwilling, Tremors, Capitalism and more

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

In the Fade: Blu-ray

In Fatih Akin’s award-winning drama, In the Fade, we’re asked to share the grief of a woman whose husband and son are murdered in a racially motivated bombing so intense that police say they were burned beyond recognition. German-born Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is married to a Turk – once convicted for selling hashish, not that it matters – whose business is in a part of Hamburg where the immigration community has been vulnerable to attacks by nationalist and anti-immigration groups. Just after she drops her son off at his dad’s office, Katja cautions a young woman against leaving her bicycle unlocked on the street. By the time she returns to pick them up, the bomb has already been detonated and the damage done.

The police promise to explore every possible avenue to identify the perpetrators, of course, and Katja provides their sketch artist with a remarkably accurate description of the woman she saw. Well before the investigators are willing to commit to a suspect, Katja assumes correctly that neo-Nazis were responsible. It wouldn’t be the first time Hitler’s bastard grandchildren used violence to terrorize guest workers. Thanks to the dead-on sketch, it doesn’t take police long to make arrests and hand prosecutors what they consider to be an airtight case against the woman and her husband.  In the film’s second of three chapters, however, their case springs a leak that allows a demonic defense attorney to introduce a slim shadow of doubt in the minds of the judicial tribunal. While the young neo-Nazi couple couldn’t even convince family members of their innocence, the judges bought into the defense’s claim that they were in Greece, enjoying the company of a member of that beleaguered country’s fascist party. A jury probably would have seen right through the ruse, but, in the judges’ minds, the prosecution hadn’t proven beyond a doubt that the defendants’ signatures on a ledger weren’t forged. It nullified fingerprint evidence, Katja’s memory and compelling testimony by the male defendant’s father. The outburst of joy shared by the defense team trips the same kind of wire inside of Katja that devastated the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman when O.J. Simpson celebrated his acquittal in open court.

In an interview contained in the DVD/Blu-ray’s bonus package, Akin articulates the dilemma faced by Katya and, by inference, all survivors of such man-made tragedies. What happens to a woman when her primary source of happiness and self-esteem – her husband and child – is stolen from her in little more than a heartbeat? For the rest of Katja’s life, when she looks at herself in mirror, she’ll see a victim in the place where a wife and mother once stood. Worse, perhaps, how can she strive to live a normal life, knowing that the people whose action triggered the greatest pain a wife and mother can endure won’t be penalized? Suffice to say that Akin provides Katya not only the opportunity to avenge the crime – and time to consider her options — but also the possibility of a successful appeal of the verdict. If Akin makes it clear that Katya can never be made whole again, he demands of viewers that they bear part of Katja’s burden, at least, by taking a stand on the option she chooses. Because we may be forced to make the same choice someday, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Even though Kruger was named Best Actress at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and Akin was nominated for a Palme d’Or, neither made the cut in Academy Award competition. (In the Fade was named Best Foreign Language Picture by the HFPA.) It’s an extremely powerful movie, even if some of the narrative points could have been sharpened. The supplemental package includes “Behind In the Fade: The Story,” with Kruger and Akin, and separate interviews with the writer and director.

Aside: With each new mass murder of children in schools and terrorist attack in Europe, it becomes easier for jaded adults to compartmentalize the horror and write it off as something else we can’t control. The companies that manufacture the weapons that are purchased by teenage sociopaths risk nothing for such extreme manifestations of their greed and suicidal militants don’t concern themselves with opinion polls. The students who’ve been marching to call attention to their very real fears of being gunned down outside their lockers shouldn’t despair when our lawmakers do what they’ve always done when NRA lobbyists take them to lunch. Congress and state legislatures, but they shouldn’t despair if nothing comes of their efforts. Ballots can be as effective as bullets when it comes to getting some jobs done. As much as we empathize with the families of the victims, most of us will never feel the same pain or bear the same emotional burden as they do. That’s a good thing.

The Insult: Blu-ray
Like In the Fade, Ziad Doueiri’s provocative drama, The Insult, asks viewers to follow two proud men’s pursuit of justice to the point where the tether breaks and the court’s verdict is finally rendered meaningless. Set in today’s Beirut, where the scars of a long and bloody civil war are still visible, a Lebanese Christian and Palestinian refugee exchange insults that re-open scars that should’ve healed long ago. In the U.S., such verbal exchanges occur every day, especially in traffic jams and acrimonious political debates. Typically, even the worst insults are protected by the First Amendment and libel suits are rarely worth the cost it takes to file one. Here, auto mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) gets into a squabble with a construction foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), over some water that dripped on him from Tony’s balcony. On closer examination, Yasser notices that the drainage pipe has been illegally installed and offers to fix it. Even though Tony slams the door in his face, Yasser tells his men to replace the gutter, as stipulated by law. Infuriated by the gesture, Tony smashes the plastic pipe to smithereens, causing Yasser to call him the Arabic equivalent of “fucking prick.”

At that precise moment, their argument ceases to be about an illegally installed drain pipe and who’s responsible for repairing it. Tony demands an apology for the insult, but Yasser isn’t about to relinquish the high ground. Worried about lost time and money, Yasser’s boss convinces him to apologize, however insincerely. Enflamed by a televised speech by the slain Christian leader Bachir Gemayel, Tony responds to Yasser’s advance by saying, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Yasser then punches the mechanic, cracking two of his ribs. This time, Yasser is arrested and charged with assault, which could prompt a small fortune in fines. Since Palestinians aren’t allowed to hold jobs that a Lebanese worker wouldn’t consider to be beneath him, Yasser could be ruined, whether he wins or loses. Frustrated, the judges pretty much throw up their hands, effectively absolving Yasser from any guilt. This doesn’t sit well with Tony, of course, and he accepts an offer from a highly placed lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), to appeal the case. His tactics include dredging up memories of 40-year-old atrocities and antagonisms barely suppressed since the civil war.

Because Yasser’s lawyer just so happens to be Wajdi’s daughter, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), it’s difficult not to sense how much of the disposition of the case is invested in their familial rivalry and potential for lost pride. As things heat up, the Palestinian and Christian spectators begin to hurl insults at each other that dwarf the “fucking prick” that set everything off. A reporter captures this on an iPhone, setting off fights in the streets of Beirut. Even the prime minister is rebuffed when tries to intervene. Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma, who collaborated on the underseen Lila Says, devise some interesting ways to pull this pot of hot water off the front burner before it boils over. Two of them involve out-of-court encounters between the two men, and they should come as a complete surprise to viewers. The Insult was Lebanon’s first-ever Oscar finalist in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The Cohen Media package adds the wide-ranging “Conversations From the Quad,” with Doueiri and Richard Pena.

In Between
Although I’m reluctant to compare Maysaloun Hamoud’s remarkable debut feature, In Between, to HBO’s “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” I will risk the guffaws if it means that some adventurous readers will take a chance on something new and very different. It follows three strong and independent-minded Palestinian women, who share an apartment in Tel Aviv, largely unburdened by the constraints of conservative parents and oppressive religious dictates. I say “largely” because one of them, Nour (Shaden Kanboura), who’s introduced early on as a graduate student from a small village, dutifully wears a hijab and is engaged to a fundamentalist who despairs of her roommates. The other two are equally fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and dress in a way that makes them completely indistinguishable from their Jewish contemporaries. Ultra-chic lawyer Layla (Mouna Hawa) and lesbian disc jockey Salma (Sana Jammelieh), are part of a Palestinian cultural underground, which means they partake in drugs, alcohol and boogey until the cows come home. At first glance, it would appear as if Nour is there to spark debate and ridicule about her traditional ways and the juxtaposition between the roommates’ opposing views of propriety. The absence of such discord is as refreshing as it is surprising. It isn’t until Nour’s fiancé begins to show his true colors that the hypocrisies of religious life in modern Israel and Palestine are addressed.

They’re revealed, as well, when Layla’s seemingly perfect boyfriend refuses to introduce her to his conservative family. Salma makes the mistake of bringing home her new girlfriend, a doctor, for a dinner meant to introduce her to yet another clueless male suitor. When Salma’s Christian mother discovers them in a casual embrace, she brings it to the attention of her intolerant husband, who, after smacking her in the face, forbids his daughter to return to Tel Aviv. Her detention doesn’t last any longer than it takes for her parents to fall asleep. The region’s politics and discord are handled in the subtlest way possible. No one is required to pass through any roadblocks or be frisked by handsy Israeli soldiers. The nightclubs they frequent could be found anywhere outside the Middle East and there are no explosions or sounds of gunfire in the distance to remind us of the cold realities of life for Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more of the lead actors, especially Hawa, whose exotic beauty and wild hairdos are almost unique in the Middle Eastern cinema. It will also be interesting to see if Hamoud will be able to make pictures that continue to surprise us with diverse characters and atypical situations. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and short film, “Scent of the Morning,” by Hamoud.

Please Stand By
What do you think are the odds of a young autistic savant, with a “Star Trek” obsession, to find herself lost in a strange city and be rescued by a cop, who, like her, speaks fluent Klingon? Not great, I’ll admit, but of such unlikely coincidences are some delightfully offbeat dramedies born. Because autism isn’t one of those disorders that can be depicted in a one-size-fits-all performance, I’m willing to believe that Dakota Fanning did the research necessary to portray the “Star Trek” obsessive, Wendy, not only to her satisfaction but director Ben Lewin and writers: Michael Golamco, who adapted the screenplay for Please Stand By from his stage play. Patton Oswald’s too-brief take on the Klingon-literate cop is such a treat that it practically demands a sequel of its own. Wendy lives in an assisted-living facility in San Francisco, where the resident psychiatrist, Scottie (Toni Collette), has found a job that she can handle with few frustrations and convinced her to keep a notebook with all the tips she needs to get to and from work at the local Cinnabon, without crossing Market Street. Making eye-contact with other people is something that comes and goes, and she still gets temperamental when denied the ability to move back home with her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), and her newborn daughter. As a lover of all things “Star Trek,” Wendy dedicates all her free time to winning a screenplay competition. To do so, she must get her epic 500-page script into the Paramount mailroom, no later than 5 p.m. four days hence. When a tantrum threatens to blow the deadline, Wendy decides to hop a bus to L.A. and hand-deliver it. Not surprisingly, the 400-mile journey presents more than a few miscues. Scottie and Audrey locate Wendy, thanks to the Klingon cop, but she comes close to blowing the deadline, anyway. If you think that it’s a foregone conclusion she’ll win the $100,000 prize, think again. Please Stand By won’t conform with everyone’s concept of a good time, but Fanning’s fans shouldn’t mind the contrivances and Oswald’s contribution is worth the wait.

Kaleidoscope: Blu-ray
There may be no more versatile actor in the world than Toby Jones, who, somehow, at 5-foot-5, stands out in any crowd of actors that surrounds him. Written and directed by his brother, Rupert, Kaleidoscope is a claustrophobic thriller that largely takes place within the head of a schizophrenic ex-con, Carl, who lives in a cramped apartment atop a crowded London housing estate. The less literally viewers take what happens to Carl in the first 15-20 minutes of the film, the more likely they’ll be to accept what happens to him thereafter. Carl has arranged an Internet date with a woman, Abby (Sinead Matthews), who is either out to steal his money or earn it on her back. With an accent that betrays her working-class roots, Abby is wonderfully exuberant and playful with Carl. It isn’t until she notices the surgeon’s saw below the sink and books never returned to the prison library that she begins to worry. So, do we. After Abby is locked in the bathroom and Carl returns from a quick trip outdoors, the apartment looks as if it were torn apart by burglars searching for an elusive prize or a damsel in extreme distress. Very soon, Carl’s mother, Aileen (Anne Reid) appears almost out of thin air, making him very nervous and defensive. Someone claiming to be Abby’s husband also knocks on the door of the apartment. Meanwhile, Carl is shown washing clothes that we’ve seen on Abby and carrying a large duffel bag around the estate. Clearly, screenwriter/director Jones wants us to believe actor Jones has committed a heinous crime and Aileen is interrupting his plans to dispose of the evidence. On closer investigation, though, nothing is quite what it seems to be inside the apartment or Carl’s head. Fortunately, the three central performances are good enough to warrant instant replays and repeat viewings. It pays to watch the bonus interviews and making-of featurette.

The Unwilling: Blu-ray
This nifty little horror/thriller (81 minutes) has been making the rounds of specialty festivals since 2016, probably in search of a distributor that knows how to market genre-straddlers and cares enough about its products to spend some money on them. Finally, however, The Unwilling was released straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with Jonathan Heap’s cast, which includes Lance Henriksen, co-writer David Lipper, Dina Meyer, Jake Thomas, Robert Rusler, Bree Williamson, Austin Highsmith and Levy Tran. Henriksen’s name on the packaging, alone, should be enough to boost sales and downloads during the opening week. He plays the evil patriarch of a family whose members suffer from such things as OCD, narcissism, drug addiction and the great equalizer, greed. After the old man dies, they gather at his residence for the reading of the will. Shortly after their arrival, a strange antique box is delivered to the house and the son, David (Lipper), places it on the coffee table. David recalls seeing the chest in his father’s office as a child, but he doesn’t know what it contains. Six long needles protrude from the box, which appears to have a mind of its own. When the family members prick their fingers on them, a wish is granted. One seeks wealth and is rewarded with a gold bar that could be used in an expensive game of hot potato. Another one desires drugs to feed his habit and they kill him. Meanwhile, the house itself appears to be haunted by apparitions and other things that go bump in the night. Not all the loose ends are tied by the time the end credits begin to roll, but viewers shouldn’t be disappointed by the special effects and highly efficient acting. The package adds several interviews with cast and crew.

Once Upon a Time: Blu-ray
Epic Chinese fantasies have become an exportable product in the same way that American comic-book adventures now are one of this country’s most profitable commodities. They do very well in the movie-hungry PRC and are attracting niche audiences here theatrically and on DVD/Blu-ray. If Chinese authorities really wanted to retaliate against President Trump’s call for punitive tariffs on its products, they could add a fee to the sale of tickets to see Hollywood blockbusters there. MPAA and studio executives would scream bloody murder, of course, as would representatives of the Chinese exhibition industry. It’s taken years of tough negotiations just to get Chinese officials to raise the quota of foreign-made movies to 34. What’s sexier … a punitive tariff on Chinese steel and Mardi Gras beads or a retaliatory strike summer popcorn movies? Talks were going smoothly until Trump got a bug up his ass one morning and launched an ill-considered tweet storm. If talks fail, the studios could round up its A-listers and put on a charm campaign modeled after the NRA. Because cinematic exports from China are currently so marginal, any tit-for-tat tax would be meaningless. Such a scenario came to mind after watching Once Upon a Time, a big-budget CGI fantasy that attracted large crowds at Chinese theaters and is indicative of the progress being made in competing with American pictures. Such impressively staged epics aren’t the only kinds of movies that have improved over the last decade, or so. So, too, have historical and crime dramas made by filmmakers once forced to work outside the PRC or in Hong Kong. Censorship has limited the import and production of romances that are deemed to risqué for Chinese audiences. While the 50 Shades trilogy has done boffo business overseas and along the Pacific Rim, it’s been banned from exhibition in China and Malaysia. That hasn’t prevented pirates from circulating bootlegged copies, of course, and profiting from them.

All of that speculation is a roundabout way of delaying my comments on Once Upon a Time, a film that risks sensory overload and requires a Wikipedia scorecard to keep the characters straight. It is based on Qi Tang’s best-selling fantasy novel, “Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms,” which has already inspired a 58-episode maxi-series, “Eternal Love,” and an English translation titled “To the Sky Kingdom.” Being unfamiliar with the source material, it’s difficult for me to say with any certainty if I’ve grasped all the subtleties of the story. All I needed to know, really, is that it is the story of Bai Qian (Yifei Liu), a goddess and monarch from the Heavenly Realms, who, in her first life, was the disciple of the God of War, Mo Yuan (Yang Yang). After a devastating conflict, Mo Yuan’s soul was destroyed while sealing the ghost lord Qing Cang (Yikuan Yan). Seventy thousand years later, while Bai Qian is trying to prevent the Demon Lord from breaking free, she is sent to the mortal realm to undergo a trial to become a High Goddess. There, she meets Ye Hua (Mark Chao), with whom she falls in love and eventually marries. However, their love ends tragically. Three-hundred years later, the two star-crossed lovers meet again as deities, but all her memories have been erased. By the way, crown prince Ye Hua is 90,000 years younger than Bai Qian. That’s only a rough outline of what happens during the 109-minute course of Zhao Xiaoding and Anthony LaMolinara’s effects-laden movie. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. Apparently, it was almost entirely made inside a studio where the color presentation, wire work and green-screen activity were closely monitored and tightly controlled.

Schlock: Blu-ray
Actors in gorilla costumes have been entertaining moviegoers ever since the 1918 silent film, Tarzan of the Apes. Even as the suits have become more realistic, knowing that there’s a human being inside impacts our enjoyment of a movie, TV show or comedy sketch. (David Warner’s impersonations in Karel Reisz’ Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment are still my favorite.) Adding a cigar, sunglasses or hat to the mix – as Ernie Kovacs did in his Nairobi Trio skits — only makes the gorillas funnier. In Schlock, John Landis’ 1973 debut as writer/director, he also donned a gorilla suit to play the title character, a long-slumbering “banana monster” who awakens after spending 20 million years in a cave below the surface of the San Fernando Valley. The beast can’t seem to decide if he wants to be cute and cuddly or a menace to humanity. With no more reason to exist than Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), Schlock benefits greatly from Landis’ appreciation of timeless Hollywood genre clichés and B-movie tropes. After escaping from his hole in the ground below modern-day Agoura, Schlock falls in love with a blind teenager who thinks he’s a large dog. When she regains her sight and realizes her mistake, the girl’s horror sparks a massacre. He must be stopped. Not only did the personally-financed no-budget flick introduce Landis to Hollywood, but it also gave makeup artist Rick Baker his first big break. It didn’t take long for Landis to be handed the reins to Animal House and The Blues Brothers, and Baker would begin contributing to such blockbusters as The Exorcist, King Kong and Star Wars. Schlock has just been released on a limited-edition Blu-ray by the German distributor, Turbine Media Group, through its Facebook page. It offers several entertaining featurettes, including a lengthy dialogue with Landis and some fellow film nerds, in which he covers his early career in Hollywood and Europe, making Spaghetti Westerns.

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell
For those of you who’ve grown weary of keeping score at home, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is the sixth entry in a franchise that began in 1990 and has also spawned a couple of TV series and several video games. As far as I can tell, the common denominators are star Michael Gross, as Burt/Hiram Gummer, and his invertebrate nemeses, the Graboids. For 25 years, Gummer has been the only thing standing between the subterranean worm-like creatures and Armageddon, or something closely resembling the end of the world. Here, Burt and his son, Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), find themselves up to their ears in Graboids and Ass-Blasters, when they head to Canada to investigate a series of deadly attacks. Arriving at a remote research facility on the frozen Arctic tundra, Burt begins to suspect that Graboids are secretly being weaponized. Before he can prove his theory, however, he is sidelined by Graboid venom. With just 48 hours to live, the only hope is to create an antidote from fresh venom. To do that, someone will have to figure out how to milk a worm. Yes, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is every bit as silly and stupid as it sounds. If one is in the mood for such brain-numbing entertainment, however, it probably will do the trick. The bonus material adds “The Making of Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell,” “Anatomy of a Scene” and “Inside Chang’s Market.”

For his first theatrical feature, Follower, Ryan Justice has elected to make a found-footage “thriller” about the dangers of living one’s life in the crowded fast lanes of social media. For no good reason that I can discern, Brooke and Caleb (Amanda Delaney, Justin Maina) are known far and wide for her work as a yoga and lifestyle guru, and his reputation as a celebrity boyfriend. As such, they intend to webcast their celebration of a special anniversary, which they’ve arranged to take place on a camping trip in the backwoods of Florida. The problem is, of course, that neither of them account for the possibility that they will be stalked by two of their followers, hence the title. Conveniently, Nick and Jake (Sean Michael Gloria, Nishant Gogna) are two aspiring filmmakers intent on making a documentary on how easy it is to track someone down through social media … and kill them. Pretty easy, I’d say. Another problem arises when the two couples are confronted by a group of swamping-dwelling cultists, wearing white togas and wielding mad cutlery. The cautionary tale about social-media surveillance doesn’t kick in until well after most viewers will have stopped watching.

Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games: Blu-ray
With the world’s honey-bee population in danger of being snuffed out, it’s comforting to know that one century-long hive is thriving and shows no sign of being extinguished. The roots of Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games extend all the way back to 1912, when Waldemar Bonsels’ 200-page book, “The Adventures of Maya the Bee” was published in Germany. It has since been re-printed in many other languages and revised to tone down the author’s more militaristic undertones. The first adaptation into film was German director Wolfram Junghans’ 1924 silent feature – it “starred” real insects — which was restored in 2005. In 1975, a 52-episode anime series aired on Japanese television and around the world. It wasn’t shown on American television until 1990, when it joined the Nickelodeon lineup. A second series was commissioned 1979, but it didn’t enjoy the same positive response as the original.  In 2012, Studio 100 Animation produced 78 episodes of 13 minutes in length. It was shown here on Netflix, until a parent noticed the outline of a penis etched on a log in the background of a scene and it was canceled. A 2014 film, rendered in 3D CGI animation, was based upon the 2012 series. There’s also been an opera, puppet musical, stage musical and video games based on “Maya the Honey Bee.”  Shout Factory’s straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games – co-directed by Noel Cleary, Sergio Delfino and Alexs Stadermann – borrows elements of The Hunger Games, after an overenthusiastic Maya accidentally embarrasses the Empress of Buzztropolis. Maya and Willy are required to accept the benefits of teamwork, if they’re going to save the hide. The package adds the featurette, “The Making of Maya The Bee 2: The Honey Games.”

Van Wilder: Unrated Version: Blu-ray
In its wisdom, Lionsgate has decided to re-release its rated/unrated Blu-ray edition of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (a.k.a., “Van Wilder: Party Liaison”), a comedy that could be dismissed as sophomoric if the protagonist wasn’t a seventh-year student, who has no plans to graduate. At this point in his college career, Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is content to be a full-service party planner, pimp, facilitator and all-around ne’er-do-well. That is, until his father learns that his tuition money is being flushed down the toilet and he decides to turn off the tap. Moreover, his behavior is embarrassing the school’s administration and a cute cub reporter at the school’s paper (Tara Reid) has been assigned an expose on how such a thing is possible. The simple answer would be: anyone who can afford to pay tuition can stay in school for has long as he or she maintains a certain grade average or continues to show forward momentum. If a lack of interest in claiming adulthood were all it takes to warrant an investigation, half of the nation’s graduate students and most our professional athletes would be eligible for the cover of Time magazine. Here, it’s simply a ruse to endear Wilder to the reporter, whose boyfriend is a complete dick. If Van Wilder is guaranteed to elicit laughter from each incoming class of college freshman, all most adults will be left with are some bulldog-testicle sight gags and two more minutes of risqué humor in the unrated version. They presumably include several extended flashes of coed boobs and poo-poo gags. While Reynolds’ career has survived Van WilderDeadpool 2 opens in a couple of weeks — poor Tara Reid, who’s very cute here, has had to settle for starring roles in the Sharknado series.

Capitalism: A Six-Part Series
Marx Reloaded
PBS: Spying on the Royals
Smithsonian: Civil War 360
One of the great fallacies of American life is a top-down confusion of the terms “democracy” and “capitalism.” Schools have done a pretty good job explaining how our democracy works and differs from other forms of government. What is overlooked is the role capitalism has played in the shaping of our democracy and maintenance of the status quo, from an early acceptance of slavery and discrimination against women and minorities, to the bailout of the banks after the 2008 Depression and current return to laissez-faire principles … or, lack thereof. From French television, “Capitalism: A Six-Part Series” delivers a college-level exploration of how the economies of the world’s most stable democracies work and how vulnerable they are to the whims … not of capitalism, but capitalists. Ilan Ziv’s documentary is neither an indictment of capitalism, nor an endorsement of communism or socialism. It traces the evolution of capitalism from the great thinkers who influenced Adam Smith, through the academics who interpreted “The Wealth of Nations” for future generations, and on to bankers who brought the world to its knees in 2008. What emerges most clearly, however, is the sad reality that capitalism couldn’t have survived and flourished without colonialism, slavery, greed, fear and corruption to prop it up. A bit more time devoted to the allure and failures of communism might have been useful, but the time devoted to a closer reading of Karl Marx’s theories is extremely useful. The 2014, pre-Trump documentary took two years to produce. It was filmed in 22 countries and features interviews with 21 of the world’s leading economists, historians, sociologists and political scientists. They include Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, James Kenneth Galbraith, Kari Polanyi Levitt, Lord Robert Skidelsky, Dr. Kwame Osei and Dr. Wang Ming. As someone who resisted taking any economics courses in colleges, I found “Capitalism” to be a surprisingly accessible and frequently eye-opening experience.

Also from Icarus Films, Marx Reloaded is a 2011 German documentary short, written and directed by the British writer and theorist Jason Barker, which appeared on several European networks and symposiums. It features interviews with several well-known philosophers and economists, who manage to put a human face on a figure known principally for his great beard and utopian vision. In fact, his critique of capitalism has stood the test of time and may be as relevant today as it has ever been. If that sounds ridiculous, especially in light of the collapse of Soviet-style communism in Europe and rise of market-based communism in China, it’s worth a second listen. In the United States, workers who rejected their unions now are forced to kowtow to the greed of plant owners whose roots in American soil have proven to be very shallow, while also having to listen to pundits extol the virtues of a robotic society. There’s certainly no dismissing Marx’s observations of commodity fetishism. At 53 lively minutes, “Marx Reloaded” asks questions that are becoming increasingly relevant in a world of haves and have nots. It arrives with Bob Godfrey’s short animated film, “Marx for Beginners,” adapted from a graphic novel by Mexican cartoonist Ruis.

Perhaps, because of Wallis Simpson’s American background, the abdication of King Edward VIII has been looked upon as an affair of the heart, pure and simple. We were more willing to forgive the couple for their political indiscretions before and after World War II, because they were considered harmless and fun to observe in social settings. They survived nicely for the next 25 years, largely on the fruits of the British Empire and the kindness of peers. The PBS presentation, “Spying on the Royals,” examines their story stripped of romanticism and schmaltz. Classified documents that have gone unseen for more than 70 years bring to light the secret story of the stunning events of 1936, detailing what could have devolved into the most controversial espionage operation in British history. As it is, the spying, wire-tapping and cooperation between intelligence agencies – in Britain, throughout Europe and the U.S. – went undiscovered by the press for decades. If the would-be monarch had, in fact, favored Adolph Hitler over the leaders of other European nations, it’s possible that German troops might have been allowed to invade England without a struggle. Edward might have been retained as figurehead leader of the country and rubber stamp for Nazi policies. That’s the worst-case scenario, anyway. As it was, the prince and duchess were uprooted from their live of luxury in Portugal – officially neutral, but a haven for fascists – and sent to the Bahamas to count coconuts and monitor the comings and goings of U-boats.

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” was successful, in part, because it employed a bit of artistic chicanery, zooming and panning across still images of Mathew Brady’s photographs; having celebrities with lovely voices read excerpts from letters, diaries and journals written by soldiers, officers, politicians and spouses; and backing them up with music that triggered emotional responses from viewers. In the Smithsonian Channel’s similarly fascinating, if less riveting, “Civil War 360,” fresh insights into the conflagration are provided through the displays of historical objects, memorabilia and artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian museums. Some have been put on display, while others have been deemed too fragile for exhibition. The three-part series explores famous and little-known aspects of the Civil War, from the perspectives of the Union, the Confederacy and the millions of enslaved people struggling for freedom. It is hosted by Ashley Judd, Trace Adkins, and Dennis Haysbert, all of whom had ancestors greatly affected by the war.

The DVD Wrapup: Hostiles, Moon Child, Violent Life, Backstabbing, Strings, Grease at 40, Joe, Ringo and more

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Hostiles: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Writer-director-actor Scott Cooper’s behind-the-camera career began auspiciously, in with the award-winning drama Crazy Heart in 2009. Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a broken-down country-music singer in dire need of redemption, while Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett’s “The Weary Kind” was awarded Best Original Song and Maggie Gyllenhaal was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category. At the Independent Spirits’ beach party, Crazy Heart was named Best First Feature; Bridges won Best Actor; and Cooper was nominated for Best First Screenplay. It should have been a tougher act to follow, but Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015) proved his freshman success was no fluke. Based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart (The Hunt for Red October), who died in 1999, Hostiles presented Cooper with a larger-than-life challenge, not only because it’s a traditional widescreen Western shot almost entirely outdoors, but also because the independently produced and distributed picture was targeted from the get-go for awards consideration. We know that because it was put into limited release on December 22 and forced to compete for the eyes of critics, awards committees and big-city audiences during the year’s busiest week and against studio-financed marketing campaigns. It’s difficult to argue that Hostiles was snubbed by the Academy, but outstanding performances by Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike deserved more consideration than they got, as did cinematographer Masanobu “Masa” Takayanagi (The Grey). Cooper took full advantage of the most beautiful and rugged locations northern New Mexico and Arizona have to offer, including locations near Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch. While good, old-fashioned American bigotry and genocide are on full display in Hostiles, Cooper’s balanced depictions of Native American customs, language, culture and, yes, cruelty to settlers and other tribes were lauded by the National Congress of American Indians for the film’s “authentic representation of native peoples.”

The picture opens with the slaughter of a family of homesteaders by a rogue band of Comanches. Pike’s Rosalee Quaid barely survives the attack, but she is deeply scarred by the loss of her husband and children. At approximately the same time, a short distance away, Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker and his men have captured an Apache family that escaped from detention at Fort Berringer, New Mexico. They resist the temptation to beat or hang the head of the family, which was less a threat to their safety than a stray coyote or angry prairie dog. Upon his return to the fort, Blocker is ordered – very much against his will — to escort the desperately ill Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana. Along the way north, Blocker’s platoon chances upon the Quaid’s burned-out cabin, where they find Rosalee grasping the dead body of an infant. Yellow Hawk and his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach) volunteers to help Blocker track down the renegade Comanches, but he refuses the offer. His intransigence will soon cost him the life of one of his trusted soldiers and the use of another. When they reach Fort Winslow, Colorado, the camp commander asks Blocker to escort a disgraced sergeant (Ben Foster) to a fort further north, where he’ll be court-martialed and hanged for actions no longer approved by the army. Both men participated in the slaughter at Wounded Knee and other atrocities, so the sergeant begs for mercy and frontier justice. No dice. In addition to having to escort the Indians and angry captive north, the widow Quaid has decided to accompany Blocker all the way to Montana.

As if to demonstrate the Comanches don’t have a monopoly on shameless behavior, a ragtag group of miners kidnap Rosalee and Black Hawk’s wife, for the sole purpose of beating and raping them whenever the mood strikes. With Yellow Tail’s help, Blocker rescues the women, but not before they’re traumatized emotionally. Cutting to the narrative chase, Hostiles then provides Blocker and Yellow Hawk – who’s committed his own fair share of war crimes – to weigh their past actions, seek forgiveness for their sins and, for lack of a better term, bury the hatchet between them. They know they’ve reached the end of a bloody era and the fate of the West rested in the hands not of warriors, but lawyers, robber barons and thieves. Hostiles is a long picture and viewers looking for non-stop action may find their patience tested by the many contemplative parts that fans of revisionist Westerners will like better. When Cooper and Takayanag make the time to linger on the magnificent western landscapes, the beauty and goodness of nature overwhelm the follies of men. The final scenes, which include a bloody skirmish at a sacred burial ground, will leave audiences dizzy with mixed emotions. Viewers with 4K UHD units will especially appreciate Takayanag’s wide-screen cinematography, as Hostiles looks as if it were chosen by advocates of the format to showcase its benefits. The lengthy making-of featurette is well worth perusing, as well.

Moon Child: Blu-ray
Loosely inspired by a novel written by British occultist Aleister Crowley in 1917, Moon Child was invited to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, but it pretty much disappeared immediately thereafter. It isn’t that difficult to see why it could find distribution, really. Thirty years later, though, it’s easy to see how an adventurous distributor, such as Cult Epics, might take a chance on Agusti Villaronga’s mystical fantasy on Blu-ray. (A version duped from a European VHS tape was passed around a few years ago, but it was a mess.) Moon Focus’ focus is on 12-year-old David (Enrique Saldana), an orphan who’s been placed in a research facility for kids with extraordinary mental powers. There’s no reason to think that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, creators of the X-Men comic books, were inspired by Crowley’s book, but certain parallels can be drawn between the facility here and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men. David has reason to believe that he’s the Child of the Moon, whose arrival has long been prophesized by shamans gathered at a central African watering hole. They agree that the boy will be of a pale-white complexion, possibly an albino, and his arrival will be telegraphed by something resembling a fire storm emanating from the full moon. The despotic administrators of the school have been made aware of the same prophesy and, as occultists, are anxious to make it work to their benefit.

They orchestrate the forced impregnation of a dimwitted female student (Lisa Gerrard) by the grandson (David Sust) of the expatriate mystic who delivered the prophesy to them. David’s ESP causes him to anticipate just such a scheme, which requires the couple to have sex on a table positioned under a hole in the ceiling, directly in line with the moon’s path. After Georgina and Edgar seal the deal, David convinces them to escape with him to Africa, where the shamans will either recognize him as the Moon Child or the baby being carried by the increasingly weak Georgina. Hoping to short-circuit David’s plan, the administrators ask a sympathetic teacher, Victoria (Maribel Martin), to follow the trio’s trail, by plane, as they make their way from oasis to oasis through the Sahara Desert. It isn’t likely that Georgina will ever be strong enough to return to the institute, but Victoria devises a plan to make the plane work in David’s favor and satisfy the shamans. At two hours, Moon Child probably could have benefitted from more time spent observing the students’ telekinetic powers and determining how they could be exploited by the administrators. Even so, Villaronga (In a Glass Cage) capably establishes a tone of sinister intent and mystery, while also taking advantage of some extraordinary African settings and music by the ethereal Australian band, Dead Can Dance. The Blu-ray has been remastered from original 35mm elements and adds a new interview with Villaronga, a lobby-cards gallery and isolated score by Dead Can Dance.

A Violent Life
Among the world’s storied organized-crime organizations, the Corsican mob has claimed a niche disproportionate to its numbers and the size of the island that its members call home. You could trace the history of today’s crime families back to Louis and Lucien Franchi, twin protagonists of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novella, “The Corsican Brothers,” but the book’s vendettas, greed and lusting for power probably didn’t originate in the authors imaginations. Some grudges have kept families on Corsica and Sicily feuding – like our Hatfields and McCoys –for much longer than 180 years. Besides their fondness for evening scores, Corsican criminals have gained a reputation for making sure that they get a cut of whatever illegal commerce passes through the island’s ports and markets, and their willingness to cut deals with crime families from the European mainland, Africa and the Middle East. Their notoriety has inspired filmmakers to use Corsican criminals in dozens of movies and TV mini-series, including MHz Choice’s “Mafiosa,” Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Peter R. Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the Japanese anime series, Noir, and Thierry de Perett’s Apaches. In some of them, Corsican assassins travel far and wide to perform onerous tasks for crime families of many different nationalities. In A Violent Life, Corsican native De Perett revisits the island’s violent nationalistic and separatist struggles of the 1990s. Jean Michelangeli plays Stéphane, an 18-year-old student who’s busted after agreeing to carry a bag loaded with weapons from the mainland on a ferry. During his incarceration in Bastia, Stéphane is radicalized by members of a nationalist splinter group, hoping to provide an alternative to the government’s commercial ambitions for the island, an established separatist organization and the traditional interests of organized crime. Stéphane isn’t accorded a position of authority within the fledgling nationalist group, but he gets caught up in the maelstrom triggered by the assassination of one of it leaders, during a wedding reception. Another fiery assassination, this time of a relative, demands of Stéphane that he remain in hiding – possibly forever – or stand up for his convictions, by returning to his home town for the funeral. I initially expected A Violent Life to more closely resemble Gomorrah or The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, but, like Corsica, itself, it is more French than Italian, favoring narrative over action. It’s well made, however, and more than a little bit suspenseful. I recommend watching it before sampling the more contemporary Apaches.

Last Seen in Idaho
Typically, when an actor plays the protagonist in a thriller they wrote and was directed by a spouse, the result is a movie that errs on the side of promoting the character’s virtues and dialing up the threats from less-than-credible villains on the way to a contrived ending. I expected as much from Last Seen in Idaho, which debuted on DVD this week and promised nothing more than an interesting title. Although there’s nothing particularly new here, Eric Colley’s no-frills direction nicely complements Hallie Shepherd’s taut script, providing ample room for suspense. Shepherd plays a financially strapped young woman, Summer, who works in an automotive garage frequented by shadowy characters. One night, she witnesses a murder and flees the scene, carrying a cellphone containing video evidence of the crime with her. Summer doesn’t get very far before she’s involved in a fiery crash that should have killed her, but leaves her in coma, absent any memories of the night’s events and the whereabouts of the phone. Not long after she awakens, she starts having shocking premonitions of a kidnapping and murder, both involving her future safety. And, yes, some of them are realized. Casper Van Dien, Wes Ramsey and Shawn Christian are among the men – some posing as undercover cops and lovers – who present threats to the safety of Summer and her ditzy sister, Trina (Alexis Monnie). The DVD adds a half-hour making-of feature, a shorter backgrounder on the action sequences and a blooper reel.

Backstabbing for Beginners: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing upon which most cynical Americans agree, it’s that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even if they’ve never heard of British politician Lord Acton, what he said in 1887 still rings true. What voters can’t seem to agree upon is whether it’s safer to retain the crook you know or elect someone new, whose inevitable corruption might work in your favor. Newspaper columnist Mike Royko condensed Acton’s observation to explain how things have always worked in Chicago. He proposed that Chicago’s official motto, Urbus en Horto (“City in a Garden”) be changed to Ubi Est Mea (“Where’s Mine?”). Unfortunately, both sentiments apply directly to America’s post-World War II foreign policy, which appears to be based on a belief that the easiest way to assure the support of foreign leaders is to allow them to “wet their beaks” by siphoning off a generous percentage of the money we send them in aid packages. If a tinhorn despot decides to steal more than we feel is due him – or threatens to shift allegiances to someone willing to raise the ante – it’s been easy enough to install someone who would play ball. Or, as happened in Cuba, politicized insurgents would find ways of dealing with blatant corruption on their own terms. We all know how that turned out.

Per Fly’s riveting diplomatic procedural Backstabbing for Beginners, which debuts on Blu-ray/DVD and DirecTV this week, describes how corporations and political leaders around the world wet their beaks in the UN’s humanitarian Oil-for-Food program when sanctions were imposed on Iraq after the first Mideast war. Cynical Americans assumed that Operation Desert Storm was intended less to contain Saddam Hussein’s power grab than to maintain the flow of moderately priced oil from the region to the U.S. and its allies. Reinstalling the royal Kuwaiti family and protecting Saudi Arabia’s rulers was the easiest way to do that, short of a full-blown invasion of Iraq. After he left the Defense Department, where he oversaw that war, Dick Cheney became Chairman and CEO of Halliburton Company, which profited mightily from business done with Iraq in the wake of Desert Storm. As Vice President to George W. Bush, Cheney made sure Halliburton was free to make its beak even wetter by controlling the supply lines to allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of this was lost on participants in Oil-for-Food, who found ways to rig the allocation of oil exports, send expired pharmaceuticals to Iraqi hospitals and overcharge for all imported products. Hussein not only received his cut, but he made sure that aid packages were divvied unevenly between Shiites and Sunnis, and different ethnic populations within his borders. In a nutshell, that’s what aspiring diplomat Michael Soussan (Theo James) discovers after being hired as an assistant to Pasha (Ben Kingsley), a seasoned diplomat and Michael’s boss at the UN.

It doesn’t take Michael long to smell a rat in the Oil-for-Food program or to find the nest of vermin directly under the nose of Pasha’s boss, Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Pasha should have known better than to hire an idealistic young diplomat whose father was killed in a terrorist bombing in Lebanon, but he lets hubris get in the way of pragmatism. He believes that he can convince Michael of the efficacy of compromising the Oil-for-Food program to benefit of everyone, including, eventually, the people who needed the food. If, he reasoned, the graft was eliminated, no one at the UN, Pentagon, Baghdad or on Wall Street would have any reason to keep it active. And, Pasha was probably right. On the other hand, the corruption was so onerous to other diplomats – including Jackie Bisset’s Christina Dupre – that they threaten to risk toppling the house of cards to advance reform and protect the Kurdish population, upon whose population Hussein had unleashed toxic gases. Michael is confronted with so much conflicting information that he nearly gives up trying to get to the bottom of things. When Pasha’s chief rival is assassinated, however, he decides to spill the beans to the Wall Street Journal, whose reporters perform the legwork necessary to expose the scheme. When one spigot is shut down, however, another is allowed to flow unchecked. Today, billions of dollars in aid money continue to disappear into Swiss and Panamanian back accounts. Although Backstabbing for Beginners is a tad dry and talky, it should appeal to fans of Syriana and The Constant Gardener. It includes the featurette, “The Truth Behind Backstabbing for Beginners.”

The Final Year
It’s difficult to imagine any liberal Democrat being able to sit through Greg Barker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Final Year, without shedding a tear, or two, in anticipation of its inevitable ending. The film revolves around President Obama’s foreign policy team as they travel the world, attempting to solidify and “lock in” policies they believe will define their legacy, promote diplomacy over large-scale military actions and fundamentally alter how the U.S. government confronts questions of war and peace. The key players include such seasoned diplomats and dedicated politicians as Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and national security adviser Susan Rice, with their boss appearing every so often to deliver pep talks and words of wisdom to young and old, alike. Even though the GOP presidential primaries have begun to swing in the direction of a Trumpian juggernaut, no one is ready to acknowledge what the Republican candidate’s team already knows: Hillary Clinton is vulnerable in traditionally Democrat strongholds, where voters have lost faith in their leaders and are willing to gamble on a man who openly flaunts their core beliefs. What the people we meet here can’t possibly know, even when it becomes clear that Trump has won the electoral college, is how much of their work in Obama’s name will be nullified in the coming months. Neither could anyone in Washington have imagined how truly inept Trump’s revolving-door replacements would prove to be, especially by comparison to the diplomacy on display here. The Final Year doesn’t reveal any greater truths than that, however.

War of the Planets
If this truly silly Italian sci-fi drama had been released in the early 1950s, instead of 1977, it might be remembered as a reasonably prescient precursor to Star Wars, “Star Trek,” 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella and John Carpenter’s wonderfully do-it-yourself space-comedy, Dark Star. As it is, however, War of the Planets incorporates ideas from all these pictures – including Spock’s ears, Roddenberry-inspired uniforms and insignias – without adding anything more intriguing than a zombie twist at the end. How this public-domain extravaganza has managed to avoid being lampooned on “MST3K” is anyone’s guess. Distributed by Cheezy Flicks Entertainment, War of the Planets (a.k.a., “Cosmos: War of the Planets,” “Cosmo 2000,” “Cosmo: Planet Without a Name” and “Year Zero: War in Space”) is not only considered to be a remake of the Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), but also the first of four films in Alfonso Brescia’s rapid-fire sci-fi series: Battle in Interstellar Space (a.k.a., “Battle of the Stars”), War of the Robots (a.k.a., “Reactor”) and Star Odyssey (a.k.a., “Seven Gold Men in Space”). The film begins with the crew of an Earth-based craft reporting explosions in space and asteroids flying by it. They are afraid that they are going to be hit, but their vessel’s computer, named Wiz, tells them that they were seeing the “refraction” of an event that took place millions of years ago. Meanwhile, a mysterious signal from deep space reaches Earth, disturbing all communications, and a UFO appears above the “Antarctic Sea.” Captain Alex Hamilton (John Richardson) and his crew are tasked with finding the origin of that signal, finally reaching a planet where a crazed and short-circuited robot has enslaved an entire population of humanoids by sapping their psychic energies. A fiery climax reminded me of how some bad little boys dispose of the toys they no longer want. Hint: firecrackers and lighter fluid.

Forever My Girl: Blu-ray
Movies that extol the redemptive powers of country music have become a subgenre of contemporary melodrama. Some moderately budgeted films, like Forever My Girl, carry a faith-based message and enjoy the backing of the Dove Foundation. Others tell stories about musicians whose lives hinge on making it big in Nashville, a task only slightly less challenging than being discovered at a soda fountain on the Sunset Boulevard. Almost everyone involved in the creation of Strings is making his feature-film debut, including recording artist Jason Michael Carroll, co-directors Patrick Dunnagan and Robert Wagner, and writer Adam Tarsitano. It’s a familiar tale, Jimmy Ford has grown weary of living the life of a rock-’n’-roll road warrior and hopes to change his luck in Music City. Rock and country music are practically interchangeable today, so all some artists require to make the transition is a change in shoes and hats. Despite his obvious talent and expectations, Ford will run into barriers unique to the commercial music mills in Nashville. Success proves elusive until Malinda Price (Katie Garfield), an up-and-coming singer, takes an interest in him. As their relationship blossoms, so do his musical prospects. Just as his career and personal life begin to take off, however, Ford is forced to face past issues. How he deals with them could make the difference between happiness and despair. T’was ever thus.

Bethany Ashton Wolf’s super-sappy Forever My Girl is based on Heidi McLaughlin’s first novel, of the same title. The romantic drama enjoyed a decent theatrical release in January, making enough money to cover its production costs and then some. This, despite a formulaic premise and a relatively unknown cast … and temperatures averaging between 110-115 degrees on the frequently stormy Georgia location. The movie opens as future country-music superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) is about to leave his lovely fiancé stranded at the altar of his father’s church. We won’t know why he pulled such a cruel trick on Josie (Jessica Rothe) until much later in the film. Presumably, he decided that the pursuit of fame and fortune was more satisfying than marriage and small-town life. What he didn’t know is that she was carrying their bun in her oven.  Eight years later, Liam returns home for the funeral of a close friend. His reunion with Josie doesn’t go well. It should come as a surprise to no one that Liam will learn that he’s father of Josie’s delightfully precocious daughter, Billy, who shares his gift for music. His father tried to inform him of this blessed gift, but Liam was too preoccupied with his drug-and-booze-fueled career to answer phone calls and letters from home. Forever My Girl adds a twist or two – a helicopter trip to New Orleans that’s straight out of Fifty Shades of Grey — before conjuring a best-of-both-worlds outcome in which Liam is forced to re-consider what it takes to be a dad and superstar simultaneously. Despite some very negative reviews, however, it’s safe to surmise that fans of the book won’t be disappointed.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert: Blu-ray
When it comes to snubbing great artists and repeatedly recognizing the same tried-and-true acts – individually and as members of noteworthy bands — the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is right up there with the Academy Awards and Hollywood Walk of Fame. After a few years of clearly warranted inductions, the foundation began putting a premium on record sales and longevity over innovation and underground credibility, and label executives with chips on their shoulders could veto musicians simply to punish past bad behavior. When the foundation was established in 1983, there was no guarantee that rockers known for throwing televisions out of hotel windows and destroying the instruments on stage would agree to show up for gale induction ceremonies or donate memorabilia without being reimbursed in kind … as was the practice with the Hard Rock Café and, later, Planet Hollywood collections. Well, it didn’t take long before labels, agents and publicists convinced their acts of the financial benefits of appearing on the televised awards ceremony and happily accepting the trophies. Thirty-five years later, most of the more egregious snubs have been corrected and the Cleveland landmark is a major tourist attraction … just like the far-less-legitimate Hollywood Walk of Fame. One thing that’s remained consistent, however, is the enjoyment that comes from watching the live performances and jam sessions that accompany the frequently moving induction speeches and shots of stars in funky formal wear. From Time Life/WEA comes the latest edition of “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: In Concert,” in DVD and Blu-ray, which covers ceremonies from 2014-2017. There’s something for everyone in this generous package, including fans of groups who probably could have waited a few more years for induction. Among the highlights are Bruce Springsteen joining belated inductees, the E Street Band, for the deep-cut classic, “The E Street Shuffle”; Pearl Jam delivering thundering performances of “Alive,” “Given to Fly” and “Better Man”; also from Seattle, Nirvana survivors Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic being joined on stage by Lorde, Annie Clark, Kim Gordon and Joan Jett; a long-exiled Yusuf Islam (a.k.a., Cat Stevens) performing a version of “Father & Son” that drew tears from the Barclays Center crowd; Journey performing “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” “Lights” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”; previous inductee Ringo Starr being welcomed into the hall as a single act, with a little help from Paul McCartney; Zac Brown doing a killer version of Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Born in Chicago”; and induction speeches by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, for Peter Gabriel; Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, for Deep Purple; Patti Smith for Lou Reed; Stevie Wonder, for Bill Withers; Fall Out Boy members, for Green Day; and Glenn Frey, for Linda Ronstadt.

Grease: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD HDRDoctor Detroit: Blu-ray
I don’t suppose there’s anything to infer from the almost simultaneous hit runs of pop musicals “Hair” and “Grease” on Broadway and, nearly a decade later, on film. Tonsorial architecture played key roles in both entertainments, demonstrating how much hairdos changed in little more than a decade. Brylcreem and hair spray gave way to a more natural, often shaggy look. Because mainstream America looked askance at all deviations from the norm, teenagers used extreme hairdos to declare their independence. The styles worn by the teenagers in Grease — Olivia Newton-John being the sole exception – looked prehistoric by the time the musical was adapted for the stage and screen. Hair only felt outdated when the military draft was eliminated and no one in the audience faced the same fate as Claude Hooper Bukowski and his surrogate, George Berger. Both musicals were honed at nightclub theaters, before reaching Broadway, and they’ve enjoyed dozens of revivals, re-mountings and reconsiderations ever since. More to the point, they remain exceptionally entertaining in their various iterations. In February, Olive Films released a no-frills DVD of Hair, while Paramount is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Grease with a 4K UHD HDR upgrade and enhanced Blu-ray, supervised by director Randal Kleiser. The bonus package is dominated by ported-over features, but it also includes “Grease: A Chicago Story,” which features new interviews with writer Jim Jacobs and original cast members of the Chicago show, itself revived in its original form in 2011; an alternate ending salvaged from the original black & white 16mm print, discovered by Kleiser; and alternate animated main titles. Both versions are markedly improved over previous Blu-ray versions. In addition, a “Grease Collection” is available in a Steelbook Locker, containing the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray of Grease, as well as Grease 2 and Grease: Live! on Blu-ray for the first time.

Arriving three years after The Blues Brothers, Universal expected Doctor Detroit to tap into the same audience that made the “SNL”-spinoff act an oddball sensation in-concert and on big and small screens. Several things worked against those expectations, though: 1) John Belushi’s death put a damper on the production and marketing plans; Dan Aykroyd’s unproven ability to carry the weight of a lead role; anticipation over the release of “Return of the Jedi” had already begun to build; and complete absence of positive buzz. Based on a Bruce Jay Friedman story, the adaptation whitewashed the original characters by making them pimps and whores with a heart of gold … white gold, that is. It effectively dulled the edge built into Friedman’s story. When fast-talking pimp Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) finds himself in hot water with Chicago crime boss Mom (Kate Murtagh), he claims that there’s a new player in the game: Doctor Detroit. There isn’t, but the ruse buys him the time he needs to find someone who can be molded into a bad-ass pimp and merciless enforcer. He arrives in the form of a nebbishy college professor, Clifford Skridlow (Aykroyd), who jogs to work and worships the chef at the local Indian restaurant. A night spent partying with Smooth and his girls convinces Skridlow that it might be fun to join the gang, even if he couldn’t tell the difference between a prostitute and a Girl Scout selling cookies. Meanwhile, he’s expected to fulfill his responsibilities to the school, which is run by his father (George Furth) and is in desperate need of a cash infusion. The setup ensures all sorts of slapsticky gags based on crossed wires and mistaken identities, none of them particularly funny. The best moments in Doctor Detroit arrive courtesy of a pair of set pieces choreographed to a James Brown rave-up and the festive atmosphere of a Pimps-and-Hos’ Ball. In my opinion, Doctor Detroit would have fared better if it had been handed to Ralph Bakshi and he adapted the original story more faithfully as an animated feature. As such, there would be no pressure on him to cast the working girls — Fran Drescher, Donna Dixon, Lynn Whitfield and Lydia Lei — as freshly polished graduates of a finishing school. The Blu-ray includes commentary with director Michael Pressman and pop culture historian Russell Dyball; a separate interview, in which Pressman details the development of the movie from serious novella to “a Dan Aykroyd comedy” and tactical revisions in the soundtrack. He shares a story about Glenne Headly’s deleted role, clarifies what the “The Wrath of Mom” sting was all about and talks extensively about his 1979 movie, “Boulevard Nights,” which was recently selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.

A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Duccio Tessari: Blu-ray
One tell-tale sign that a Western is of the spaghetti or Euro variety, and not one made in the American west, is the presence of windmills more appropriate in an adaptation of “Don Quixote.” That, of course, and the slippery dubbing. There’s one such windmill, at least, in A Pistol for Ringo (1965), a movie that, despite its Andalucian locales, looks very much like it might have been shot in the American Southwest or Durango, Mexico. Alongside The Return of Ringo (1965), Duccio Tessari introduced another iconic hero to the genre, dominated by such brand names as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Terrence Hill’s Trinity and Franco Nero’s Django. Here, Ringo (Giuliano Gemma, as Montgomery Wood) is a clean-cut sharpshooter, who, for much of movie, has been stripped of his gun. After wiping out an entire family of bad guys — in self-defense, of course – and being thrown in jail, Ringo cuts a deal with the sheriff. Ringo can earn his freedom by infiltrating a ranch taken over by Mexican bandits and freeing their hostages, one of whom is engaged to the lawman. It’s no contest. Ennio Morricone’s music adds to the fun.

In The Return of Ringo, which isn’t easily identifiable as a sequel, the title character has been transformed into a former Civil War captain named Brown. He’s forced to enter his home town incognito, because a different gang of Mexican banditos, led by Esteban Fuentes (Fernando Sancho), has seized control of it. To Brown’s consternation, he’s been declared dead and his wife, Helen (Hally Hammond), may be forced to marry the jefe. Both films set the foundation for a flood of Ringo flicks to come, perhaps, even, the animated Western, Rango. The refurbished Arrow Video package adds commentaries for both films by Spaghetti Western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke; the 38-minute “Revisiting Ringo,” with learned and entertaining analysis by Tony Rayns; a pair of archival featurettes, “They Called Him Ringo,” with Giuliano Gemma, and “A Western Greek Tragedy,” with Lorella de Luca and camera operator Sergio D’Offizi; original trailers and promotional images; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranc.

Killer Klowns From Outer Space: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I don’t know if the folks at Arrow Video planned to release this special edition of the cult classic – or kult klassic, if you prefer — Killer Klowns from Outer Space in anticipation the phenomenal international success of New Line’s It. If so, their timing was impeccable. Unlike too many other killer-clown movies being sent out in the wake of It – including Him, a.k.a. “The Devil’s Warehouse” – the re-release of the Chiodo brothers’ movie can be justified for all sorts of reasons. Most of all, it’s entertaining. On a dollar-per-dollar basis, it can stand on its own against most pictures costing 10, 20 or 30 times as much to make. Next month, Killer Klown’s 30th anniversary will be celebrated at Los Angeles’ Montalban Theater with multiple performances, as well as fortune tellers, contortionist Bonnie Morgan (Rings), a Q&A with the cast and crew, and a screening with a live-score accompaniment from the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Massari. Most movies of that vintage must settle for a re-release on Blu-ray and a few fresh featurettes. Moreover, the Chiodos are pursuing a series for cable. “We wondered, should we do a sequel to the first one or do we do a remake? We came up with a ‘requel’ – it’s a sequel and a remake. It follows the continuing adventures of new people who are experiencing this phenomenon of a Klown invasion, and, once in a while, you see some of the old guys pop up and hear their stories … find out what happened over the last 25 years.” That should be something. The Arrow Video edition has been restored from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and newly remastered stereo 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Among the extras: vintage commentary with the Chiodos; “Let the Show Begin,” a new interview with the original members of the American punk band, the Dickies; “The Chiodos Walk Among Us: Adventures in Super 8 Filmmaking,” a documentary highlighting the making of their childhood films, from the monster epics made in their basement to their experiments in college; fresh HD transfers of the complete collection of the brothers 8mm and Super 8 films; “Tales of Tobacco,” an interview with star Grant Cramer; “Debbie’s Big Night,” with Suzanne Snyder; “Bringing Life to These Things,” a tour of Chiodo Bros. Productions; deleted scenes and bloopers; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sara Deck.

Luis Antonio Rodriguez and Humberto Bocanegra’s 80-minute non-thriller, Him, is only likely to appeal to Killer Klown Kompletists, I’m afraid. When a businessman fails to keep his end of a deal with a mysterious emissary from hell, his warehouse becomes the property of the devil. When some young paranormal investigators decide to spend the night at the warehouse, they soon find that the rumors of its haunting by a mysterious clown “are not only real, but they can also be deadly.” Evil-doll completists might also find something useful here as they’re scattered around the warehouse as warnings of the devil’s presence.

Joe: Blu-ray
Just as presidential-candidate Trump prompted his blue-collar followers to attack protesters and journalists at his rallies, President Nixon encouraged patriotic construction workers to confront anti-war protesters in the streets of New York. The symbolic difference between the two groups of aggrieved patriots is represented in their choice of hats. Nixon’s legions were known by their “hard hats,” decorated with American-flag decals, while Trump supporters prefer red baseball caps with “Make America Great Again” embroidered on them. Back in the day, protesters preferred to let their “freak flags” fly in defiance of the status quo, and it made them easy targets. As a symbolic rebuke of Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” comments, tens of thousands of protesters headed for the Women’s March on Washington wearing “pussy-power hats,” created by an army of knitters, crocheters and needlesmiths from coast-to-coast. With this in mind, I re-watched John G. Avildsen’s era-defining drama, Joe, for the first time in nearly 50 years. Employing an Us-vs.-Them scenario and dialogue that would be deemed prohibitively inappropriate today – on either side of the political divide — Norman Wexler’s script set viewers up for a confrontation between stereotypes so diametrically opposed to each other that they shouldn’t be able to co-exist in the same country. But, they did, in the same way that the cardboard villains in Death Wish would come alive, four years later. Credit for this belongs to the amazing portrayals of polar-opposite characters by Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon, in their theatrical debuts.

If Wexler’s interpretation of Boyle’s Joe Curran now feels like a parody of blue-collar ideals and attitudes, the actor stops well short of caricature. He finds a kindred spirit in Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive who makes Joe’s acquaintance at a neighborhood bar, boasting that he killed a drug-dealing hippie (Patrick McDermott). Pressed for facts by the intrigued hard-hat, Bill attempts to retreat from his boozy confession, saying that he was merely joking. When, a few days later, a news report confirms the rage-induced murder, they form an unlikely vigilante alliance. Before the incident occurred, Bill had determined that the long-haired pusher had kidnapped, brainwashed and forced the non-fatal overdose of his flower-child daughter, Melissa (Sarandon), on a smorgasbord of psychedelic drugs. After she learns of her father’s culpability in her boyfriend’s death, Melissa leaves the hospital prematurely. After confronting her parents, she splits the city for an Upstate commune. Joe and Compton search for her in the Village, finally locating a group of hippies who might know her whereabouts and plying them with drugs Bill stole from the pusher. An unlikely “orgy” leads to a confrontation in which the hippies are forced to give up the location of the commune. It’s where Joe and Bill will be given the opportunity to put up or shut up. If any of this sounds silly, I can assure you that it was taken very seriously by audiences and critics in 1970. Boyle and Sarandon would go on to become major Hollywood stars, while Avildson’s credits would include Rocky and The Karate Kid, and Wexler would pen Saturday Night Fever and Serpico. Absent any bonus features, viewers are allowed their own parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign and the current air of provocation.

Disney Z-O-M-B-I-E-S
Dead Justice
Cyborg: Blu-ray
Apparently, we live in a cinematic universe in which humans not only must learn to defend themselves against flesh-eating, foot-dragging zombies, but also how to co-exist with Disney Z-O-M-B-I-E-S. Just as there’s a huge difference between the plague-carrying mice now spreading death and disease throughout the American Southwest and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, there are significant differences between these legions of the undead and the ghouls terrorizing an Old West town in Dead Justice (a.k.a., “Cowboy Zombies” and “Walking Dead in the West”). They’re recognizable by the way they shuffle their feet, attack with their arms raised and pointing forward, and a hunger for human flesh that causes them to approach mortals in suicidal waves. The eponymous creatures who populate the Disney Channel’s “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” are based on an unaired TV pilot, “Zombies and Cheerleaders,” purchased by Disney, and they could hardly be more dissimilar. Although their origin story resembles that of the protagonist in The Toxic Avenger, the characters more closely resemble those in Disney’s “High School Musical.” Fifty years after an explosion at a local factory covered half of the city of Seabrook with a toxic lime slime, the undead survivors have co-existed peacefully with human survivors in parts of the city separated by fences and other barriers. A cure for their condition arrived in the form of “smart bracelets” that allow zombies to quell their appetite for flesh and enjoy some semblance of normalcy.

Except for the strictly enforced segregation, Seabrook qualifies as the kind of idyllic suburban city Walt Disney intended Celebration, Florida, to be. This is the year that the Seabrook school board has decided to integrate the local high school, by transferring the zombie kids from their separate, unequal facility across town. To reduce the fear of the human kids, the school is maintaining its segregation of the computer class, pep squad and sports tryouts. When the aspiring zombie football player, Zed (Milo Manheim), makes a love connection with the fiercely determined human cheerleader, Addison (Meg Donnelly), all attempts to deliver a subtle, understated message about diversity, tolerance and equality will disappear. That’s because Addison has been hiding a deformity of her own from her friends and fellow students, suspecting that their bigotry will come to the fore and she’ll be ostracized. As anomalies go, Meg’s prematurely white hair isn’t really all that weird. Teenagers can be cruel, however, even on the Disney Channel. Not only have the zombies in “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” been rendered more of less harmless, but they also can sing, dance, cheer and play football as well as anyone else in the school … better, in some cases. They’re also clean, happy, conscientious and friendly. If George A. Romero hadn’t died last year, Paul Hoen’s light-hearted “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S” might have killed him. The DVD package adds a blooper reel and deleted scenes; audition footage, with Milo Manheim and Meg Donnelly; “Survival Guide to High School,” hosted by Donnelly and Manheim; music videos; a dance tutorial, with Donnelly, co-star Kylee Russell and choreographer Christopher Scott; and glow-in-the-dark temporary tattoos.

Dead Justice is a traditional Western in most ways, except that the 1870’s town is being terrorized by the undead, instead of rampaging Indians, drunken survivors of a long cattle drive, kinfolk determined to spring a son or brother from the hoosegow, or outlaws waiting for the stagecoach to arrive. It is the 27th film to be shot on the Cowtown Studios Old West, in Arizona, and the town, indeed, looks as if it might double for a dude ranch attraction. Co-writer/director Paul Winters plays the town’s marshal, Frank Wilcox, who, along with a Buffalo Soldier from the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army (Calion Maston), must galvanize a group of survivors to fight back when the living dead rise and seek the flesh of the living. They’re joined by an Apache chief, outlaw prisoner, preacher, a dwarf and a couple of bar girls. The zombie makeup isn’t bad, though, and the unusually diverse cast makes up for some of the structural missteps.

In 1989, Cannon Group’s dystopian martial-arts actioner, Cyborg, described what happens when, in the not-so-distant future, a plague cripples civilization. Known as the “living death,” its victims behave very much like zombies. Dayle Haddon plays half-human/half-cyborg scientist Pearl Prophet, a gorgeous blond capable of developing a vaccine. Her quest is cut short, however, after being captured by cannibalistic Flesh Pirates, who plot to keep the antidote for themselves and rule the world. It’s left to the saber-wielding mercenary (a.k.a., slinger) Gibson Rickenbacker – Jean-Claude Van Damme in an early starring role — to rescue her and save civilization. Cyborg is full of the kind of improbable action and despicable characters that would mark Albert Pyun’s tenure with Cannon. The post-apocalyptic sets serve nicely as backdrops for fights and hiding places for zombies. There’s also a terrifically entertaining fight staged in a salt marsh. The movie did well enough to inspire two sequels: Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow (1993), starring Elias Koteas and Angelina Jolie, and Cyborg 3: The Recycler (1995), a direct-to-video release, with Zach Galligan and Khrystyne Haje. The Shout Factory collector’s edition features a 4K remaster of the film; new commentary with writer/director Pyun; “A Ravaged Future: The Making of Cyborg,” featuring interviews with Pyun, actors Vincent Klyn, Deborah Richter and Terrie Batson, director of photography Philip Alan Waters and editor Rozanne Zingale; “Shoestring Fantasy: The Effects of Cyborg,” with visual-effects supervisor Gene Warren Jr., Go-Motion technician Christopher Warren and rotoscope artist Bret Mixon; and extended interviews from Mark Hartley’s documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” with Pyun and Blood Sport writer Sheldon Lettich.

Henry Miller: Asleep & Awake
Filmed when the author was 81, “Henry Miller: Asleep & Awake” opens the door to what must have been the coolest bathroom in America. Miller turned it into a shrine, celebrating his life, loves and many friendships with photos and drawings collected over the course of his travels and career. Graciously, in his unmistakably raspy voice, Miller points out the highlights of his improvised gallery decorated with images of philosophers, writers, painters, mad kings, women and friends … naked and clothed. He says that guests frequently disappear for an hour or more after paying a visit to the loo, just to study the memorabilia. Along the way, Miller’s muse, Brenda Venus, makes an unforgettable cameo. Director Tom Schiller also was able to get Miller to travel to his onetime home in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. This selection from IndiePix is part of a recent series of vintage releases currently available to subscribers via streaming and DVD platforms. It’s always nice to see a purveyor of arthouse titles join the fray. Recent offerings include Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette; Paola Mendoza and Gloria LaMorte’s Entre Nos; Rayya Makarim and Ravi Bharwani’s Jermal; Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots; Joël Lévy Florescu and Michaël Lévy Florescu’s So Bright Is the View; and Syllas Tzoumerkas’ Blast. The ones I’ve seen are very good.

ITV/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten, Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: Bill Nye: Science Guy: Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Animals With Cameras
PBS: Impossible Builds, Volume 1
PBS: Survival Guide for Pain-Free Living
Digimon Adventure tri 4: Loss: Blu-ray
Currently holding a secure place on PBS’ Sunday-night lineup, “Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten” debuted on Britain’s ITV in October 2015 and has already completed a second-season run. It was created by Chris Lang (“The Tunnel”), a former actor with two more mini-series already on the drawing boards for the network, besides a third stanza of “Unforgotten.” If it isn’t likely to make anyone forget “Prime Suspect,” “The Vice” or “Endeavour,” it’s a solid procedural that features two of British television’s most popular stars: Nicola Walker (“MI-5”) and Sanjeev Bhaskar (“The Kumars”). When the skeletal remains of young man are discovered, buried in a derelict building, first-responders immediately suspect that they might have been lying there since Roman times. A little more digging uncovers a rusty key for a sports car of more recent vintage. DCI Cassie Stuart and her partner, DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan, use its markings to identify the car to which it belonged, if not its owner. Once that question is answered, the detectives are led to a farm outside London, where they discover the car’s decaying frame, wheel covers and a bag containing a barely legible diary. A tad more sleuthing leads the team to four elderly suspects, each with something to hide. As their deceptions are discovered, the people they love most begin to wonder what else they might have done. It’s likely that same mystery would have been solved within one or two episodes of “Law & Order,” but Lang keeps the story moving in forwardly direction with explosive revelations, crude deceptions and great writing. The veteran cast, which includes Tom Courtney, Peter Egan, Trevor Eve, Gemma Jones and Ruth Sheen, does the rest. The UK version of “Unforgotten, Season 2” will be released on May 15.

At a time when President Trump and his Cabinet members are working hard to prove that all science is fake science and good things happen to dumb people, it’s nice to know that “Bill Nye: Science Guy” is here to disabuse our children of such notions. Nye has made it his personal mission to stop the spread of anti-scientific thinking around the world. In this behind-the-scenes portrait, Nye sheds his lab coat to take on those who deny climate change, evolution and a science-based world view. The former host of a popular kids’ show on PBS now is CEO of the Planetary Society, where he’s leading a project to launch LightSail, a satellite propelled by sunlight, while, in turn, fulfilling the legacy of his late professor and Planetary Society co-founder Carl Sagan. As Bill Nye: Science Guy, he also continues to inspire millennials to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. Also appearing are astrophysicist, author and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos” co-writer Ann Druyan.

The “Nature” presentation “Animals With Cameras” may, at first, bring back memories of David Letterman’s monkey-cam, which, when affixed to the head of a hyperactive primate, came to symbolize the anarchic side of the host’s personality. He recently recalled the time the monkey bit comedian Sandra Bernhard by quipping, “Actually looking back, maybe it wasn’t that much fun.” Technically, there isn’t a world of difference between the original monkey-cam and the cameras worn by the animals – a cheetah, chimp, seal, bear, sheep dog, penguin, meerkat, chacma baboons and Chilean devil rays – which take viewers to places they’ve never seen and in real time. We follow them as they hunt, hide, evade predators and settle into their hidey-holes. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s thoroughly engrossing.

Impossible Builds” examines the creation of some of the world’s most technologically advanced and architecturally imaginative construction projects, from sub-aquatic homes to futuristic towers and pencil-thin skyscrapers. These are structures nobody thought could be committed to a blueprint, let alone built. Now, however, revolutionary technology and cutting-edge construction materials are being used on five improbable projects taking shape across the world. They include Miami’s curvaceous Scorpion Tower; six islands off the coast of Dubai, designed to remind visitors of Europe; and a floating villa with living spaces above and below the surface of the sea … where else, but Dubai.

Yoga is as commonplace today as doing sit-ups and push-ups was for several generations of GIs and high school weaklings. For 40 years, Peggy Cappy has been teaching yoga to students of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes. In the PBS special “Survival Guide for Pain-Free Living,” Cappy and neuromuscular therapist Lee Albert demonstrate how easy-to-do stretches and other yoga moves can help relieve pain in your back, knees, hips and head, including chronic migraine headaches. The four-disc set features four separate yoga regimens that are easy – yeah, easy for you to say – and effective in controlling pain.

Digimon Adventure tri: Loss” is the fourth in a series of six feature-length movies produced by Toei Animation to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Akiyoshi Hongo’s Digimon franchise. They serve as a direct sequel to the first two television series, “Digimon Adventure” and “Digimon Adventure 02.” After the “reboot” and Meicoomon’s rampage, Tai and friends arrive in the Digital World. They reunite with their fellow Digimons, who have all lost their memories. As everyone discusses what they should do from here in the Digital World, Meicoomon suddenly appears and then disappears. Meanwhile in the real world, Nishijima receives word that Himekawa has gone missing. Special features include “The Evolution So Far,” in which Joshua brings fans up to date on the series.

DVD Wrapup: Commuter, Oscar, A Taxi Driver, Humor Me, Prince, Doris Day, Shakespeare Wallah, Pomegranates and more

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

The Commuter: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As high-concept pitches go, “Liam Neeson on a train” is right up there with “snakes on a plane” and “MTV cops.” What else would any screenwriter need to know to fill the blanks? Nothing that it should take three separate screenwriters to formulate, probably. To make Neeson’s latest actioner, The Commuter, as needlessly complicated as it became, however, three was plenty. In a scenario that frequently recalls Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2014 thriller, Non-Stop – a.k.a., “Liam Neeson on a plane” — The Commuter finds the 65-year-old onetime Oscar-nominatee (Schindler’s List) playing a former cop, whose tortuous day at the office only gets worse on the ride home, when he’s forced to do battle with terrorists/extortionists/gangsters … take your pick. Since leaving the force, Michael MacCauley has been taking the same train to and from work in Manhattan, as an insurance salesman, every day for 10 years. On the same day that MacCauley is unceremoniously laid off, however, he’s approached by a mysterious fellow commuter, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who inexplicably offers him $100,000 to locate someone on the train and put a tracking device in his or her bag. To convince him to cooperate, Joanna offers proof that his family is being held as collateral. Before disappearing from the train, she tells MacCauley that he should look for someone named “Prynne,” who may or may not have a connection with Hester Prynne, in “The Scarlet Letter.” Soon enough, dead bodies begin to turn up in unlikely places and MacCauley narrows his search to faces he doesn’t recognize for his 10 years of commuting. Alfred Hitchcock would have handled the same situation – innocent man in extraordinary circumstances — differently, but, with Neeson on board, action takes precedence over intrigue. The Commuter marks Collet-Serra’s fourth collaboration with Neeson — including Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night — so the action, while sufficiently convincing, might have been too familiar to ticket-buyers in a competitive post-holiday lineup. Ironically, last fall, the actor told a gaggle of critics gathered in Toronto that he had reached the age where action stars lose their credibility and would turn to less exciting kinds of films. He’s since recanted that pledge and suggested that he would be happy to reprise the character, Qui-Gon Jinn, in any new Obi-Wan spin-off film. The Commuter looks fine in Blu-ray and 4K UHD, even if the effects don’t demand too much of the format. There are a pair of making-of featurettes of the EPK variety.

A Taxi Driver: Blu-ray
At the risk of implying that I can’t tell the difference between two of Asia’s most popular actors, I approached Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver as if it were a comedy starring Jackie Chan. The broadly smiling face of the cabbie leaning out from the window of his light-green taxi, belongs to Song Kang-ho, but, at first glance, he sure looked like Chan. I should have recognized Song from Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), among other South Korean hits. And A Taxi Driver does open with several scenes that would suggest it’s aiming for broad laughs. Based on an incident that occurred during the political upheaval that followed the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, on October 26, 1979, it describes the relationship that develops between a down-on-his-luck taxi driver, Kim Man-seob, and the German journalist who hires him on a secret mission. Part of the early comedy derives from their inability to communicate with each other and Kim’s desperate need for a larger-then-normal fare. It continues after the cab is blocked from approaching the city of Gwangju by soldiers. Kim finds a detour that would be better suited for a Jeep than a compact car, and it will need some repairs to get back Seoul. What the journalist, Peter (Thomas Kretschmann), neglected to tell Kim when he promised him 100,000 won, now becomes obvious, and it’s anything but funny.

Peter’s going there to cover confrontations between students and police over the power grab by Chun Doo-hwan, chief of the Defense Security Command. Even though Kim cautions Peter of the seriousness of the situation, he doesn’t want to lose the fare home, either. Together, they seek safe locations to film the riots and locate students to translate their conversations. They also interview students and residents who fear the truth of what will soon became known as the Gwangju Uprising might be buried by authorities, if the sole western reporter is prevented from collecting evidence. This is very serious stuff, indeed, and Song uses archival newsreel footage to convey the savagery of the soldiers and police against mostly defenseless protesters. When officials become aware of Peter’s assignment, they target him and Kim as much as the students. Finally, their escape from Gwangju, aided by a flotilla of little green cabs, adds a bit more humor. Somehow, Jang manages to maintain an uneasy balance between the film’s light and dark moments, including Peter’s ability to get the footage out of the country. Without the revelations and a return to a true democracy, South Korea might still be a dictatorship. Ironically, despite the movie’s commercial appeal, Chinese censors have banned A Taxi Driver, just in case viewers in Beijing see parallels between Gwangju and Tiananmen Square.

Humor Me: Blu-ray
Fans of “Flight of the Conchords” who simply can’t wait for the Kiwi duo’s upcoming hourlong comedy special on HBO to air – a concert tour was canceled last month after Bret McKenzie broke some bones in a fall – can fill half of the void with Humor Me. In it, the ever-hangdog Jemaine Clement somehow manages to lose, nearly simultaneously, his job as a playwright, his wife and son, and apartment. His Nate Kroll is trapped within a writer’s block so thick he would need a chisel and laser to cut through it. As a last resort, Nate begrudgingly moves in with his widowed father, Bob (Elliott Gould), in his New Jersey retirement community. Always quick with a joke, Bob uses humor to deal with all of life’s challenges, even if it requires him to fake the occasional heart attack. He arranges for his son to take a job with the property’s handyman, Ellis (Willie Carpenter), who needs Nate’s help like he needs a stone in his shoe. While at work, Nate stumbles on a group of senior citizens rehearsing a production of “The Mikado.” The ladies welcome the professional help, no matter how grudgingly it comes. One crisis leads to another, of course, pushing Nate and Bob’s relationship to breaking point. Naturally, fate intrudes at the last minute to ensure a happy ending. Humor Me benefits from the presence of such veteran entertainers as Gould, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth and Ingrid Michaelson, a thirtysomething singer/songwriter who’s every bit as restless in the retirement community as Nate. Marking his directorial debut, Sam Hoffman (“Old Jews Telling Jokes”) has crafted an endearing father-son tale with the right mixture of laughs and melodrama to satisfy viewers in the same age bracket as the characters.

Elvis: The Beginning
Prince: The Only Ones Who Care
Heartworn Highways/Revisited
You’d think that after watching HBO’s four-hour documentary on the life and music of Elvis Presley, “The Searcher,” there wouldn’t be anything more to learn. You’d be wrong. Narrated by Jack Perkins, “Elvis: The Beginning” takes an up-close-and-personal approach to the first multistate tour taken by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. It followed a 4,500-mile loop, starting in Memphis and stopping for more than 200 one-night stands. At 19, Elvis was the baby of the group, still requiring the written approval of his parents to perform. In addition to appearing on the “Louisiana Hayride,” the band played drugstore openings, church halls, honky-tonks, high-school gyms and benefits for wounded GIs. Along the way, Elvis paid visits to local deejays and record stores, all the while impressing locals with his impeccable manners and good-ol’-boy charm. The screaming fans would come later. We meet an old girlfriend, or two, and people who connected with the young entertainers in one way or another on their musical journey. “The Beginning” fills in the blanks with dramatizations and material taped at the source. A later interview with Moore is also included. Judging from how youthful Perkins looks, I imagine that the show was created for a television show, possibly “Biography,” in the early 2000s. Even so, it provides a solid 82 minutes of fun.

Prince: The Only Ones Who Care” is a music-only celebration of one of the greatest rock stars of all time. It features more than 90 minutes of live performances, recorded from TV broadcasts throughout his career, and ranging from solo acoustic sets to full-band rave-ups, with dancers, backup singers and amazing costumes. He’s in great form. The performances appear to have been recorded on a VCR from such shows as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” BET and “Today.” How the producers got the rights to the material is anyone’s guess, as it doesn’t look like public-domain or music-video clips. More recent live material is readily available on YouTube, including his spectacular sets at Coachella, Super Bowl and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony.

Last fall, when FilmRise re-released the original Heartworn Highways alongside Heartworn Highways Revisited, the only hitch came from knowing they’d be manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. If it wasn’t the optimum situation, it was quite a bit better than nothing. Now, the company has decided to send them out in standard delivery formats. For those unfamiliar with the documentaries, Heartworn Highways was made in 1976, before the “outlaw country” movement had grown to include such Austin- and Nashville-based singer-songwriters as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and John Hiatt. By the time it was released theatrically, in 1981, James Szalapski’s eye-opening film was regarded as an underground classic. Forty years later, “Revisited” lured Clark, Young and Coe to reprise their appearances, but, this time, in the company of such next-generation “outlaws” as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin and Phil Hummer.

Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey
Some people will be surprised to learn that Doris Day, who hasn’t made a movie or starred in a television series since 1973, is still alive and presumably kicking in Carmel Valley, California, where she’s lived for nearly a half-century. In 1985, Day hosted “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” a show on the Christian Broadcast Network about celebrities and their pets, but it only lasted a season. She continues to spend most of her time caring for her pets and strays that find their way to her estate, as well as an advocate for animal-welfare groups around the world. At the time of her retirement, we learn in “Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey,” she was still one of the top box-office attractions in Hollywood. When her third husband, Martin Melcher, died on April 20, 1968, Day was shocked to learn that he and his business partner had squandered her earnings, leaving her deeply in debt. Moreover, he already committed her to various projects, including a CBS sitcom, about which she wasn’t keen. Clearly, it left a bitter taste in her mouth. For a woman who was frequently described as “America’s virgin” and a representative of all that’s chaste and holy in the pictures, Day led an uncommonly difficult life. Her career trajectory was altered as a teenager by a terrible accident, causing her to substitute singing for dancing. Her first marriage, to an abusive trombone player, took her off the road for a year, before she could dump him, return to Les Brown’s band and make her way to Hollywood. She doted on her son from that marriage, Terry, a record producter, who, some might recall, ran afoul of Charlie Manson. “Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey” was broadcast on PBS stations in 1991, with Roger Ebert serving as a narrator, and appearances by Kirstie Alley, Clint Eastwood, Rosemary Clooney Molly Haskell, Tony Randall, Kay Ballard, John Updike, Betty White and her biographer, A.E. Hotchner. The set also includes a surprisingly personal visit to Merv Griffin’s talk show, in 1975; an episode of “The Doris Day Show,” from 1968; and a collection of trailers, teasers and other publicity material from her heyday.

Shakespeare Wallah: Blu-ray
Among other attributes, Shakespeare Wallah represents the second collaboration of principals behind a long line of Merchant Ivory Productions. The first, The Householder (1963), combined the producing talents of Ismail Merchant, direction of James Ivory and writing of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from whose novel it was adapted. “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory,” Merchant once observed. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster.” Their 23 movies together, including Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, A Room with a View and Heat and Dust and were far more heavenly than monstrous. Merchant and Jhabvala are no longer with us, but the production company has continued apace, with Call Me by Your Name, which was adapted by Ivory from the 2007 novel by André Aciman. His Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay made Ivory the oldest-ever winner in any competitive category. Released around the globe in the mid- to late-1960s, Shakespeare Wallah is based on the diaries of actor/manager Geoffrey Kendal, describing his family’s travelling Shakespeareana Company in post-colonial India. (Kendal became known there as Shakespearewallah, or Shakespeare-expert or Shakespeare-salesman.) In fact, the Kendals play loosely drawn versions of themselves in the movie … wonderfully.

Here, Tony Buckingham (Kendal) and his wife, Carla (Laura Liddell), oversee the troupe, which also includes their coming-of-age daughter, Lizzie (Felicity Kendal), as she falls in love with Indian playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Sanju’s affections are shared by Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a star in the increasing dominant Bollywood film empire. In real life, MIP-regular Kapoor married Felicity’s older sister, Jennifer Kendal. (They would make important contributions to the Indian film industry until her death, in 1984.) Until then, the Kendals made a reasonably decent living performing selections from the Bard’s canon — in traditional costume and in the king’s English – before prep-school and collegiate audiences, makeshift theaters in the boonies and for wealthy patrons of arts. Watching the duplicitous Sanju juggle his affection for the coquettish Lizzie and Bollywood diva, Manjula, frequently elevates the always delightful Shakespeare Walla to laugh-out-loud funny. The Cohen Film Collection release accords the black-and-white presentation a pristine 2K restoration, while adding lengthy conversations with Merchant, Ivory, Kapoor and Felicity Kendal, and with Ivory and Madhur Jaffrey, conducted by Mallika Rao from the Village Voice.

The Color of Pomegranates: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching Criterion Collection’s new, fully restored edition Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 masterwork, The Color of Pomegranates, made me wonder if anyone alive today will see the day when dreams can be recorded and played back on a video monitor, with the ability to rewind and pause images for psychiatric appraisal. It seems impossible today, but, in the 1960s, who could imagine owning a movie as amazing as The Color of Pomegranates and being able to watch it at home – let alone, a phone — whenever one wanted, without the scratches, splice marks and artifacts that attended 16mm film? “Pomegranates” plays out in a series of tableaux that blend the tactile with the abstract, reviving the splendors and hardships of Armenian culture through the story of the 18th Century poet-troubador, priest and martyr Sayat-Nova. Parajanov introduced the film as a poetic fantasy, an artistic form he knew would run counter to government-approved socialist realism. It employs iconographic compositions, rather than traditional narrative — some lasting no more than a few seconds – to chart Sayat-Nova’s intellectual, artistic and spiritual growth.

Soviet censors, unwilling to spend the time it would have taken to fully evaluate Parajanov’s vision, decided to ban the film, re-edit it and send the director to a prison camp. They even changed the title from “Sayat-Nova” to The Color of Pomegranates. This edition has been cobbled together from long ignored and hidden prints and restored to capture the brilliant color and audio scheme. Because everything about “Pomegranates” is noteworthy, viewers should make time for the supplemental package, which includes Mikhail Vartanov’s long-suppressed “Paradjanov: The Color of Armenian Land” (1969) and Martiros Vartanov’s “The Last Film” (2014); a new commentary, featuring critic Tony Rayns; a video essay on the film’s symbols and references, featuring scholar James Steffen; documentaries “Sergei Parajanov: The Rebel” (2003) and “The Life of Sayat-Nova” (1977); and an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose: Blu-ray
Made at a time when road pictures and buddy films defined what it meant to be a young person in a post-Vietnam and post-hippie America, Floyd Mutrux’s Aloha, Bobby and Rose successfully merged elements of Breathless, American Graffiti and Bonnie and Clyde into a drive-in tragedy. As the advertising blurb asserts, “Bobby has a ’68 Camaro. Rose has a five-year-old kid. On their first date, they become lovers and fugitives.” Paul Le Mat plays Bobby, an L.A. grease monkey who’s only a shade removed from hot-rodder John Milner, in American Graffiti. He talks one of his garage’s customers, Rose (Dianne Hull) – a single mother, who doesn’t get out much, anymore – into a night on the town in his totally cherry Camaro. After stopping at a liquor store for some liquid courage, Bobby thinks it might be fun to pretend to rob the cashier with the screwdriver he carries in his pockets. The store’s owner can’t see the screwdriver, however, and he mistakenly shoots and kills the cashier. Immediately sensing that their happy days are over, they gather a few things and head for Mexico.

In between, they run into the kinds of characters they might never have met back home in L.A., but who represent elements of Old West lawlessness. Anyone who’s seen Jean-Luc Godard or Jim McBride’s version of Breathless will know what to except when Bobby and Rose go on the lam. No reason to spoil the ending for anyone else, however. Although mainstream critics weren’t kind to “AB&R” on its release, in 1975, it turned a nifty profit for Columbia Pictures, based on a $600,000 budget. Today, it looks as if it might have been made for Roger Corman, instead of a major studio, and can be enjoyed accordingly. It features strategically spotted songs by Elton John, Bob Dylan, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, and The Temptations, and early appearances by Robert Carradine, Tim McIntire and Edward James Olmos. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Multrux, LeMat and Carradine.

Enigma Rosso Blu-ray
I don’t know enough about Agatha Christie’s mysteries to draw parallels between Alberto Negrin’s giallo whodunit, Enigma Rosso (a.k.a., “Rings of Fear”), and characters featured in “A Caribbean Mystery” and “Nemesis.” Any linkage between Miss Marple and a movie as salacious as Enigma Rosso and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange?, which it resembles, should be considered advisedly, though. I think it would be much easier to make a giallo out of a British cozy than for a writer of popular British mysteries to write a screenplay for Dario Argento or Mario Bava … which, of course, is neither here nor there. Here, when the brutally violated body of a young woman is found wrapped in plastic, Inspector Gianni Di Salvo (Fabio Testi) is drawn to dark deeds at an exclusive girls’ school, where the beautiful members of a group called the Inseparables are being targeted with sinister letters and attempts on their lives. Following a clue in the dead girl’s diary, he soon discovers a web of sordid sex and homicide. The culprit should come as a surprise to most viewers. The film also stars Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Jack Taylor and Helga Liné. The Blu-ray adds commentary with historian Nathaniel Thompson.

Sleeping Dogs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Made in 1977, before New Zealand could boast of anything resembling a film industry, Sleeping Dogs became the first Kiwi export to make a splash in North American theaters. It marked director Roger Donaldson’s transition from television to films and Sam Neill’s introduction to the world at large as a future star. Sleeping Dogs is a paranoid political thriller based on “Smith’s Dream,” by C. K. Stead. The novel was inspired by the author’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the early 1970s. According to Stead, “It brought the war home to New Zealanders by putting a Vietnam-type situation in a local setting.” In the movie, a dictatorial prime minister uses the pretext of a severe oil crisis to crack down on homegrown dissidents. The head of the secret police orchestrates a shooting of military personnel called in to quell a protest. The uproar allows him to impose martial law and use force against his opponents, who hardly represent a great threat to the nation’s democracy. For some reason, the authorities have pinned some of the blame, at least, on Neill’s character, Smith, an apolitical loner homesteading on a deserted island owned by the Maori. He’s arrested for a crime he had no idea had even taken place. It will take viewers a while to figure out that Smith has been set up by both sides. After his escape, police chase him from one end of the topographically diverse island to the other. An unexpected treat arrives in the person of Warren Oates, the great American character actor, who plays a U.S. Army veteran enlisted to play the obnoxiously macho adviser to a special anti-insurgency unit. The Arrow Films package adds commentary with Donaldson, Neill and Ian Mune; the featurettes “The Making of Sleeping Dogs (1977)” and “The Making of Sleeping Dogs (2004)”; and a nicely appointed insert booklet, which contains writing by Neil Mitchell and a reproduction of the film’s original press book.

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2: Blu-ray
The complete title for this, the third collection of films by Seijun Suzuki released by Arrow in less than a year, is “Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 2 — Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies (1957-1961).” It arrives two months after the similarly precise, “Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1 — Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies (1958-1965)” and, by another six months, “Seijun Suzuki’s The Taisho Trilogy (1980-1991).” It represents a remarkable cross-section of pictures from one of Japan’s most important directors of genre flicks and studio-financed B-movies. They complement the titles released by Criterion Collection from the same period. Unlike the more action-oriented crime thrillers in “The Early Years” collections, “The Taisho Trilogy” entries are more reflective and overtly arty. Available for home-viewing for the very first time outside of Japan, “Volume 2” is less interested with the Yakuza and teen gangs shown in “Volume 1,” than with crimes related to vice – drugs, prostitution, gambling smuggling — and international intrigue. At the time, Japan is being buffeted by waves of great social change and they’re reflected in the genre pictures, just as American movies captured the tumult and contradictions of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition and Great Depression.

The Sleeping Beast Within (1960) is a gripping crime thriller in which a newspaper reporter’s search for his girlfriend’s missing father leads him into the heart of the criminal underworld of Yokohama’s Chinatown. Its companion piece, Smashing the 0-Line (1960), follows the descent of two competing reporters into a scabrous demimonde of drug and human trafficking. In Eight Hours of Terror (1957), a bus making its precarious way across a winding mountain road picks up some unwelcome passengers. In Tokyo Knights (1961), a college student takes over the family business in the field of organized crime. The Man With a Shotgun (1961) marks Suzuki s first entry into the territory of the “borderless” Japanese Western, which combines traditional cowboy tropes with those of modern Yakuza films. It’s easily one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. The “Limited Edition” (1,500 copies) adds audio commentary by critic and author Jasper Sharp; the always entertaining and informative Tony Rayns on the background to the “Crime and Action Movies”; a stills gallery; reversible sleeves, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a 60-page illustrated collector’s book, with new writing by Sharp.

I Am Somebody: Three films by Madeline Anderson
Among the many distinct images to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s are those of heavily armed and helmeted police and soldiers, many of the leading dogs, riding on horses and pointing fire hoses at unarmed African-Americans protesting for rights, wages and benefits that today are largely taken for granted. The troops aren’t there because they enjoy busting heads, although some of the racist cops clearly do. They were there to enforce laws instituted by the white establishment to prevent blacks, Hispanics and poor whites from attaining an equal station in life as their own. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, watching the PBS documentary “Delores,” in which police automatically were enlisted in the service of corporate farmers and agribusiness interests interested in maintaining a status quo of substandard wages, intolerable working conditions and segregation. The strikers and activists didn’t carry weapons and their demands have since proven workable and legitimate. The documentary triptych “I Am Somebody: Three Films by Madeline Anderson” is another documentary that combines horror with triumph. To get to the uplifting moments, viewers must endure lasting images of man’s inhumanity to man. And, in various forms, it’s still happening today. Too many people are making too little money – or living in hellish conditions – and too many obstacles stand in the way of reform, including armed police and soldiers sent to “Make America Great Again.”

The Icarus package is comprised of Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970), which chronicled a strike by 400 black women, employed a Charleston hospital, who desired union recognition and a wage increase. They were met by National Guard troops, with bayoneted rifles and police. The strike and economic boycott were supported by Andrew Young, Charles Abernathy and Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Integration Report 1 (1960) examines the struggle for black equality in Alabama, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., incorporating footage by Albert Maysles and Ricky Leacock, protest songs by Maya Angelou, and a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. A Tribute to Malcolm X includes an interview with Malcolm X’s widow Dr. Betty Shabazz, shortly after his 1965 assassination. The extras include a “Smithsonian Oral History Interview” (2017), between Rhea L. Combs and Madeline Anderson, and “Celebrate Moe!” (2002), a film about Moe Foner for the Service Employees International Union. After completing “I Am Somebody,” Anderson found it difficult to find financing for topical documentaries. She returned to television to work for the Children’s Television Workshop, where she was an in-house producer/director for “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”

Honor Up: Blu-ray
Ostensibly a treatise on the challenges of maintaining a strict code of honor and loyalty among thieves, Honor Up is so full of gratuitous violence and ’90s-gangsta clichés that it feels as if it’s been locked in a vault for the last 25 years. It’s been compared to Paris Barclay’s 1996 spoof, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood,” but completely absent the laughs, satire and irony in the Wayans brothers’ script. Honor Up follows the exploits of a Harlem street hustler, OG — played by hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash – a strict adherent to the code and someone who remains loyal to the man who brought him into the game. He expects the same from his crew. Of course, the worst crime a gang member can commit is snitching on a comrade in arms to cover his ass. It marks that person as a rat and puts a target on his back.

Apparently, though, snitching can be as contagious as any other communicable disease, because, once it starts, it causes the foundation of the gang to crumble. Sensing their weaknesses, a dogged police detective, played by Nicholas Turturro, borrows into the gang’s infrastructure like a termite. When the OG smells a rat in his midst, the punishment is dramatized in slow motion, backed by operatic music. Co-writer/director Dash surrounds OG with characters played by rappers Cam’ron, Smoke DZA and Murda Mook, and a girl gang with Stacey Dash and Eishia Brightwell. If Honor Up was going to find any traction theatrically, which it didn’t, it would have been on the back of executive producer and merchandise maestro Kanye West. The only publicity the movie received, however, derived from a visit paid by Kanye and a post-partum Kim to a top-secret screening. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Dash and producer/actress Raquel M. Horn.

Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil
Like anything else that feels exhilarating before it gets too expensive to afford, making films can be addictive. At least, that’s what happens in Fernandel Almonor’s microbudget comedy about a guy, suspiciously named Oscar Micheaux III, who gets in trouble after spending his fiancé’s nest egg on his film. More precisely, the money was borrowed from his future father-in-law, who, if he knew the truth, would have allowed the loan shark, Little Idi (Tony Tambi), to cut off Oscar’s fingers. Before he can get back behind the camera, however, Oscar (David Haley) is required to work off the loan at his father-in-law’s Front Page Jamaican Grille, and to attend a 12-step program. The laughs in Oscar derive from some extremely broad insider gags – the program’s moderator is named Alan Smithee (Arthur Roberts) – and some agreeably Third World slapschtick. Some of the testimony offered at the Filmmakers Anonymous meeting certainly will ring true in the low-rent districts of greater Hollywood. Comparison to I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Hollywood Shuffle (1987) may be a stretch, but only in execution, not in spirit. The cast also benefits from enthusiastic performances by Michelle Grant, Alvaro Orlando and Mykel Shannon Jenkins.

Despite reviews for Killjoy that redefined the term, scathing, the folks at Charles Band’s Full Moon Features decided to try their luck with urban horror, again, two years later, with Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil (2002). The series would go on to include five titles, over 16 years, not all of them interested in pursuing an African-American tradition. As before, the antagonist is a killer clown who can be summoned through voodoo incantations to rid the world of miscreants of color. This time, a group of juvenile delinquents – none of whom look a day younger than 30 – are required to serve their time working in a shelter in a dense forest, a place as foreign to them as Manhattan would be to a Hopi snake dancer. After one of them is shot by a local, the survivors seek refuge in the home of a voodoo sorceress, where they mistakenly summon the legendary clown-faced demon, Killjoy – yes, he has an unkempt Afro wig — who begins hunting them down one by one. Apart from some funny fish-out-of-water gags, Killjoy 2: Deliverance From Evil is largely devoid of laughs or thrills. The only actors whose careers survived their encounter with Killjoy are scream queen Debbie Rochon, Nicole Pulliam (“Fashion House”), Choice Skinner (“Black Lightning”) and Trent Haaga, who’s made a career out of playing the killer clown.

47 Below
When it comes to exploring and challenging the elements, the worst thing that can happen – short of death – is creating the impression that anyone proficient at Pilates or completing a 10K run is also capable of climbing the world’s tallest mountain or sailing around the world solo. Just because something has been made to look easy on TV doesn’t mean it is. Enticing photos of the human traffic jam leading to the summit of Mount Everest probably were as much to blame for the great disasters in 1996 and 2014 as changing weather conditions. In 47 Below, we join Australian doctor Geoff Wilson in his attempt to complete a coast-to-pole crossing of Antarctica, to honor a friend’s fight with breast cancer. In doing so, he transformed one of his equipment carriers into a “boob sled,” painted pink and designed to resemble a pair of, yes, breasts. Where Robert Scott, Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen were able to make the trek with the assistance of dog teams and other explorers, Wilson decided to do it alone, accompanied by a selfie camera and a kite that he attached to his body and the sled, allowing him to travel as fast as the wind took him … when it was blowing in the right direction, anyway. To survive, he had to battle ferocious blizzards, with winds exceeding 100 kilometers per hour, frostbite, deadly crevasses, loss of food and key equipment, and Antarctica’s terrifying isolation. Dogs would have provided some warmth and companionship, at least. If nothing else, the expedition raised $250,000 for breast-cancer research.

Hell’s Kitty
Rave Party Massacre
It isn’t often that stories that begin as YouTube webisodes are interesting enough to warrant a larger home on screens intended for feature films. After five minutes, or so, the seams begin to show, and the narratives run out of steam. Hell’s Kitty is an exception, if only for people who believe a pet can be possessed by the devil and make dating a hellish experience for its owner. Such is the case with aspiring screenwriter Nick Tana, whose obsession with his cat blinds him to the fact that friends, lovers and acquaintances are dying in its company. When relatives of the victims come to him asking questions, Nick scrambles to defend his pet. Typically, Hell’s Kitty would be a one-gag-per-episode experience, if it weren’t for some nifty editing. In the 98-minute feature cobbled together from the segments, it succeeds through the large number of cameos by familiar actors and lots of jokes only a dog lover would fully grasp. By the time Nick is convinced to have a kitty exorcism, most viewers will be sold on the picture, I think. Among the actors who pop up more than once are Nina Hartley, Michael Berryman, Adrienne Barbeau, Bill Oberst Jr., Doug Jones, Creep Creepersin and Lynn Lowry. It’s difficult to imagine they could be paid much, if anything for their contributions. Perhaps, they were compensated in cat nip.

The scariest thing about Rave Party Massacre (a.k.a., “Dead Thirsty”) is having to endure President George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of a New World Order before the United Nations on September 11,1990. Two years later, such talk would be greeted with derision and outright revolt, but it almost sounded reasonable before the first war with Iraq. In any case, it’s annoying.  On the eve of an abandoned hospital’s demolition, a large group of party-hardy yuppies gathers in its empty surgical theaters and waiting rooms to dance to EDM delivered at a pulsating 150-beats-per-minute. It’s 1992 and the president is about to be swept out of office by Bill Clinton. When Rachel (Sara Bess), Branson (Jared Sullivan) and other ravers are ushered into the illegal party, they are handed a hallucinogenic drug that inspires nightmarish visions and leaves them open to torture by malevolent forces. The party, itself, consumes only about 20 minutes of time, while the rest is chewed up in chases through empty hallways and listening to Rachel scream on a morgue platter. As for a massacre, well, it’s pretty much limited to a small handful of unfortunate revelers. The ending brings a decently conceived and reasonable plot twist, but it’s a bit late in the game for logic. The bonus package adds a director’s commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, set- design sketches and on-set interviews with cast & crew.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Season 11: Blu-ray
I’ll leave it to the fanatics, who financed the 11th season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” through a successful Kickstarter campaign, to decide if the effort was worth it. I suspect that they would reply in the affirmative, but not without some debate over the relative merits of the individual components. This time around, hapless Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) is trapped on the dark side of the moon and forced to watch cheesy movies by the evil, profit-obsessed mad scientist Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and her fawning henchman Max (Patton Oswalt). Jonah shares his thoughts on Satellite of Love’s movie menu with his wisecracking robot pals, Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount) and Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). Also on board are guest stars Mark Hamill, Neil Patrick Harris, Joel McHale and Jerry Seinfeld. There’s no debate as to quality – or lack thereof – of the playlist of classically crummy B-movies, however: Starcrash, At the Earth’s Core, Reptilicus, Cry Wilderness, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, Avalanche, The Land Time Forgot, The Loves of Hercules, Yongary, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I/II, Carnival Magic and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. Featurettes include “Special Features and Technical Specs” and “We Brought Back MST3K Documentary.”

The DVD Wrapup: Mohawk, Insidious IV, Proud Mary, Are We Not Cats, Fencer, Man From Earth, Mary Stark, Child in Time and more

Friday, April 13th, 2018

Mohawk: Blu-ray
I’d like to promote a gritty action adventure picture so small it didn’t even register a blip at Box Office Mojo. If Mohawk had been produced and released in the same general vicinity as Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Black Robe or The Last of the Mohicans, writer-director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) might have found a niche among fine revisionist Westerns. As it is, he can be proud of almost universal raves in and kudos for showing a different side to Uncle Sam’s decades-long campaign to eradicate native Americans from their homes. Make no mistake: Mohawk is a genre film from start to finish. No one holds the high ground for very long. Now that the true horrors of American genocide are no longer hidden under layers of dust in museums and university archives, Geoghegan isn’t required to build a case for the revenge-minded Indians – the ones not killed in the smallpox epidemic if 1635, anyway – before they’re driven to war. Here, they are still being punished for backing the losing teams in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 and refusing to buy into the American dream of dairy farms and white picket fences, stretching from sea to shining sea.

After a frontier outpost is overrun by Mohawks unwilling to relocate to Canada, it becomes incumbent on the survivors to capture them and either lead them to justice at a nearby fort or kill them on the spot. The disparity in fire power is represented by a British arms dealer’s efforts to trade hatchets for furs, while the Americans carry muskets, pistols and swords. The Mohawks’ greatest ally is their sibling relationship with the forest, but the advantage is shrinking with every new Yankee victory. After the fair-minded American officer is killed, his spot is taken over by a venom-spouting racist who never met an Indian he didn’t already hate. He makes the unilateral decision to torture and hang a young warrior, who shares a lover with the Brit. Made up (or tattooed) to resemble a ghost, Oak is played with gusto by Kaniehtiio Horn (“Hemlock Grove”), a 5-foot-8 Canadian Mohawk who’s pregnant and in love with both the captive and British arms trader. Carnage begets carnage, until there’s no one left to draw last blood. The costumes and makeup seem reasonably accurate throughout Mohawk and the action is staged, in part, at Syracuse’s Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. While I wouldn’t care to hazard a guess as to the movie’s historical accuracy, Mohawk looks great and Geoghegan nimbly injects a supernatural angle that enhances, but never gets in the way of the cold-blooded action.

Insidious: The Last Key: Blu-ray
If any working actress could survive being cast as the title character in Helen Keller vs. Nightwolves (2015), it would be Lin Shaye. The genre-bending horror, which should never be confused with The Miracle Worker, “explores the true story that the government didn’t want you to know, about how Helen Keller really lost her eyesight and hearing.” The only way it could have succeeded at the box office was on a double-bill with “Grandma Moses’ Death Pact With the Art Mafia.”  Even then, however, only an actress with Shaye’s horror cred could avoid being burned at the stake by politically correct critics. In Adam Robitel and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: The Last Key, Shaye once again reprises her role as parapsychologist Dr. Elise Rainier, who returns to her family home with her ghostbusting team of Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to face the unrelenting demons that have plagued her – and subsequent home owners — since childhood. For the record: “The Last Key” is the second prequel in the franchise, which continues to make money for the Universal and Sony co-release. It takes her to her childhood abode, where Elise first made contact with the “Further” and Key Face, as well as ghosts she left behind when she escaped her possession. All these years later, she’s still drawn to the Further by a lonesome whistle in the basement. Elise is confronted there by a series of doors, some of which lead nowhere.

Once again, Elise is vanquished by Key Face, but, somehow, lives to tell about it. While not particularly scary, relying mostly on jump scares, “The Last Key” exudes creepy atmosphere throughout. If you’ve seen the previous three chapters, you’ll know what to expect in “The Last Key” and won’t be disappointed. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s only because I don’t have any brain cells already invested in the story. Shaye’s growing legion of admirers – where’s her star on the Walk of Fame, by the way? – benefit the most from her presence here. That, and some of the special makeup effects are pretty good. The first time I interviewed Shaye was after she scored a trifecta in the Farrelly Brothers’ gross-out trilogy, Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary as a disgusting old hag. And, while I wasn’t expecting a human gargoyle, per se, Shaye couldn’t have been more different in person. Despite more than 200 acting credits on, she’s been one of Hollywood more underappreciated actresses, supporting and otherwise, for 25 years. It doesn’t look as if she’s spend much time telling stories to the hosts of American talk shows, either. Shaye deserves her moment in the sun, however. The Blu-ray adds a quick refresher course on previous Insidious installments, several deleted scenes, an alternate ending and several making-of featurettes, including one devoted to the character, Elise.

Proud Mary: Blu-ray
I’ll admit to being among the small minority of Americans who’ve yet to see Black Panther. I have, however, enjoyed Marvel Knights: Black Panther, a motion comic from Shout! Factory that was presented as an eight-episode mini-series, in 2012. The character was a franchise waiting to happen. If Screen Gems had been able to read the tea leaves a bit more clearly, it might have held off releasing its throwback actioner Proud Mary until it saw how the African-American community reacted to a movie that features a black comic-book superhero. There were plenty of superheroes back in the era of blaxploitation flicks, but their domains were limited in scope and scale. Their chief superpower was limited to being smarter than the goombahs and corrupt cops who exploited the ghetto community, while their “superfly” costumes protected them from being considered square in an ocean of cool cats and swinging kittens. The approach worked in Harlem and the remote African kingdom of Wakanda.

Proud Mary may not be in the same league as Black Panther – as a commercial vehicle or fully realized story – but it features an excellent performance by Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”) and atmosphere to spare. Loosely based on John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands’ Gloria (1980), Proud Mary stars Henson as a ruthless assassin for a mob operation fronted by Danny Glover, with connections to a bunch of twitchy Eastern Europeans. When Mary shoots a sociopathic if protected mobster, to save a slick street urchin (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), she puts herself in mortal danger. Neither is it anything that would have been expected of her. They have good chemistry together, and it almost saves the rest of the picture from undernourished clichés. That, and a lot of madcap violence involving automatic weapons and hand-to-hand combat. The studio decided, instead, not to screen Proud Mary for critics and they reciprocated by trashing it. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Mary’s World,” “The Beginning of the End” and “If Looks Could Kill.”

Are We Not Cats
In John Waters’ largely ignored sex comedy, A Dirty Shame (2005), one of the points he makes is that a bizarre fetish need not stand in the way of love or romance. In a world in which it only takes two to tango, a partner in perversion shouldn’t be that difficult to find … if they know where to look. I don’t recall that any of Waters’ characters engaged in trichotillomania and trichophagia — the compulsive pulling-out of one’s own hair and eating it – but they wouldn’t be the strangest of compulsive activities that occasionally lead to romance in the movie. Xander Robin’s possibly autobiographical Are We Not Cats harkens to a time when New York’s punk, New Wave and dispossessed underground was represented on film by such films as Ulli Lommel’s Blank Generation, Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan, and Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. Things haven’t changed all that much for the young people who comprise New York’s hipster proletariat, as represented here by Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson). Eli’s a friendly enough chap, but he lacks the drive and passion for life necessary to make a living in the Big Apple. Here, however, Eli’s having a particularly rough week. Not only has he been dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his garbage-route job, but he’s also been thrown out of his immigrant parents’ apartment. They received an offered they couldn’t refuse and decided to pull up stakes for Arizona. His mother invites him to visit, but he wouldn’t last a week in the desert sun.

Instead, Eli ends up sleeping in the back of the track passed along to him by his father, and now allows him to make a few bucks performing errands for the kinds of people whose work is always done off the books. On a delivery run upstate, Eli befriends a shady rock entrepreneur, Kyle (Michael Godere), and his kooky, blond-wigged girlfriend, Anya (Chelsea Lopez). When Kyle observes the chemistry growing between Eli and Anya, he warns him not to take everything about her at face value. After a very weird night together, it’s clear what Kyle meant about Anya’s hidden personality traits. In a shocking conceit that some viewers will find difficult to digest, Eli’s trichotillomania complements Anya’s trichophagia, but only to the point where tragedy overcomes the generally dark comic tone. Did I mention that Are We Not Cats isn’t for everyone? Its idiosyncrasies should appeal, however, to those who can identify the fine lines that separate comedy, horror and romance in the underground cinema. Nicholson and Lopez deserve a lot of credit for being able to keep their characters working within the line and not straying into caricatures.

The Fencer
If there’s a subgenre in which American filmmakers excel, it’s the sports melodrama. Hoosiers, Miracle, Brian’s Song, Rocky, Seabiscuit, Million Dollar Baby, Remember the Titans and Rudy topped one best-of list I found on the Internet, but there are hundreds, maybe thousands more titles that fit the generic mold. Several good movies have been made in which ping-pong, bowling, water polo and volleyball factor into drama, comedy or romance. Ridley Scott broke his directorial cherry in 1977 with The Duellists, in which a small feud between two Napoleonic officers escalates into a decades-long series of duels. Since then, however, it’s entirely possible that the only filmmakers who’ve taken fencing as seriously as Scott have been Klaus Härö and Anna Heinämaa. They’re the creative team behind The Fencer, the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards. Newly released into DVD by Music Box Films, it does for swordplay what Stand and Deliver did for math, McFarland, USA did for cross-country running and The Great Debate did for, yup, debate. In addition to playing the David-vs.-Goliath card, The Fencer describes how a group of kids from an enslaved Baltic state took on better-equipped teams from around the U.S.S.R., giving their outcast coach an opportunity to stand up to Joseph Stalin’s goons … for a while, anyway. Härö, working from a script by fellow-Finn Heinämaa, has crafted a story that fits alongside the aforementioned titles as an inspirational drama, unabashed crowd-pleaser and hankie-optional tear-jerker. And, while it’s informed throughout by Cold War politics and repression, The Fencer doesn’t require a refresher course in European history to be enjoyed by American teens and adults, even if they couldn’t find Estonia on a map.

A prologue explains how, after 20 years of independence, Estonia was taken over, first, by communist forces; then, Nazi Germany; and, once again, by the Red Army. Each time, Estonian men were conscripted into the armies of their traditional enemies and put on the front lines in suicidal offensives. Those who survived the war found themselves in an emotional and philosophical limbo, caught between the Soviet Union and a resistance movement doomed to failure. The title character here, Endel Nelis, was conscripted into the German army in 1943 and, possibly, forced into the hastily assembled Estonian Waffen-SS division. (Others escaped to Finland, where they volunteered to join the Finns in their battles with the Soviets.) After escaping from Stalin’s secret police, Endel changed his identity to find work at home in a small country school. Although he was a competitive fencer before the war, Endel is reluctant to tip his hand as to his true identity. One of the chores he’s assigned is arranging athletic activities for the students. No sooner is he able to get the kids excited about a skiing expedition than the equipment is commandeered by Soviet forces occupying the town. It only adds to the emotional burden they’ve been carrying around like a backpack full of rocks.

When one girl catches Endel practicing fencing moves in the gym, she pleads with him to teach her the basics of the time-honored sport. He reluctantly agrees, unaware of how desperate her classmates would be to join the fun. To compensate for a lack of equipment, they make swords out of reeds they find in a marsh and share protective padding. Envious of Endel’s popularity, the school’s toady principal does everything he can to sabotage the fencing club. By then, however, a handful of the kids has been invited to the competition in Leningrad, where it would be difficult for Endel to avoid arrest, possible execution or a labor camp in Siberia. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the coach risks his freedom by sticking with his team. The principal makes sure Soviet officials are aware of his identity and decision to go to Leningrad. Even so, Endel is allowed the time to complete his coaching duties, before being hauled away by the police. The spotlight then turns back to the kids, who, in fact, are quite formidable. Härö also finds room for an us-against-the-world romance and a parents’ revolt against the hardline principal. Then, too, watching the faces of the students as they evolve into individuals with dreams and goals of their own, while coming together as teammates, is nothing less than thrilling. Oh, yeah, The Fencer is based on real people and actual events. The DVD adds several deleted scenes and a lengthy interview with Härö.

The Man From Earth: Holocene: Blu-ray
Normally, it would be easy to dismiss The Man From Earth: Holocene as a novelty sequel to a work of speculative fiction that enjoyed a modicum of success, after it was widely shared through geek-to-geek networks and found an afterlife on stage. Director Richard Schenkman claims that “Holocene” wouldn’t have come about if it weren’t for a groundswell of support from fans loyal to the source material, The Man from Earth, and, in turn, respect for midcentury fantasist, Jerome Bixby. And, therein, lies the tale that makes “Holocene” a compelling entertainment. Among other things, Bixby is credited with writing “Requiem for Methuselah,” which aired twice during the third and final season of “Star Trek.” The teleplay’s roots extend back even further than that, however. Some “Star Trek” scholars believe that it was based on ideas advanced in Forbidden Planet (1956), which, in turn, was inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Bixby’s final screenplay, for The Man from Earth, was conceived in the early 1960s and completed on his deathbed in April 1998. In 2007, it was turned into an independent film project executive produced by his son, Emerson Bixby, directed by Schenkman and starring David Lee Smith, William Katt, Richard Riehle, Tony Todd, Annika Peterson, Alexis Thorpe, Ellen Crawford and John Billingsley. It’s possible, as well, that Bixby cribbed the core conceit from his screenplay for It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), which – wait for it – is said to have inspired Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien (1979). What’s this mystically powerful idea? Selective immortality.

The Man from Earth’s plot focuses on John Oldman (Smith), a university professor, who claims to be a Cro-Magnon who’s secretly survived for more than 14,000 years. As his colleagues press him to explain his sudden departure from the university, Oldman reluctantly reveals that he relocates every 10 years to keep others from realizing that he does not age. Oldman asks his academic friends to challenge his claim, prompting a lively debate on subjects ranging from pure science to science-fiction and religion. Like a multi-millennial Leonard Zelig, Oldman always appeared to be at the right place at the right time, alongside the right people. He was a Sumerian for 2000 years and a Babylonian, who traveled east to become a disciple of Gautama Buddha. He brought these teachings to ancient Palestine, at the time of Jesus. He also dropped the names of Christopher Columbus and Vincent Van Gogh into the conversation. Atypically, for sci-fi, everything in the movie transpires within the walls of a rural home and the special-effects budget couldn’t have been more than a few bucks. It explains the easy transfer to the stage. The Man From Earth: Holocene picks up a decade later, after Oldman resurfaces at a different college, as comparative-religion professor John Young. While he’s well-regarded and something of a campus heartthrob, Young maintains a healthy distance between himself and his students. Thanks to the Internet, a group of his admirers trace his disparate roots to a widely discredited book written by one of the professors (Katt) who attended the going-away party and took Oldman’s story as something other than hokum. Knowing how such an amazing story, if proven true, could disturb easily freaked-out people, Oldman/Young tries mightily to keep his secrets just that … secret. One of the students, a Christian fundamentalist, takes exception to his professor’s account of history, and it leads to a Judas-like betrayal. Once again, “Holocene” relies more on words than action. Here, though, the tension isn’t heightened by a claustrophobic setting.

Bixby hadn’t envisioned a sequel, so “Holocene” takes liberties with the original concept. Indeed, Schenkman foresees the possibility of a TV series, not unlike “Kung Fu” or “Quantum Leap.” As it is, though, the sequel only found an audience through a festival screening and guerrilla distribution network, based on self-pirating the film via the Internet. According to Schenkman and producer Eric D. Wilkinson, they’ve received nearly $45,000 in donations via their site,, from fans and supporters around the world, including China. Besides Smith and Katt, “Holocene” features credible performances by Vanessa Williams, Michael Dorn, Sterling Knight, Akemi Look, Brittany Curran, and Carlos Knight. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Schenkman and Wilkinson; a 40-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with cast and crew; a piece on the original score; a Q&A with Schenkman at the Dances With Films World Premiere; deleted/extended scenes; a ”Primal Kickboxing” instructional video; photo gallery; and original posters.

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds: Blu-ray
Although the smash Korean action/fantasy Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds is officially based on Joo Ho-min’s popular webtoon (a.k.a., manhwa), it shouldn’t be difficult for western viewers to identify traces of Defending Your Life (1991), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Heaven Can Wait (1943). The guiding conceit, however, is provided by an ancient Buddhist belief that when a person of substance reaches the afterlife, they are judged 7 times over the course of 49 days, and “only the souls who pass trials relating to deceit, indolence, injustice, betrayal, violence, murder and filial impiety can be reincarnated.” Maybe, maybe not. If anyone deserved to bypass the seven trials, you’d think it would be the heroic firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-hyun), who saved the life of a little girl by using his body to break her fall from a high floor in a skyscraper inferno. After some natural confusion on his part – Kim can hear people lauding his heroic sacrifice – he’s guided to the afterlife by three guardians, who, themselves, aren’t very clear on the seven-trials concept. Even though Kim led an exemplary life, his reincarnation can be affected negatively by unforeseen repercussions from positive acts. In other words, celestial prosecutors can use the butterfly effect against the defendant … times seven. At 140 minutes, there’s plenty of time for a dazzling display of CGI-driven flashbacks and guilt trips, fantasy landscapes, demons and angels, gods and goddesses. If the appeal still is to fans of Pacific Rim cinema, I can see how kids here might be attracted to it for the same reasons they’re drawn to The Wizard of Oz. The background featurettes aren’t up to snuff, however.

Braven: Blu-ray
If the poster art for Braven is intended to remind browsers of Logan/Wolverine, of X-Men fame, it just could work. Jason Momoa stares out from the photograph, with a snow-covered mountain and dense forest in the background, a bow in his left hand, a quiver on his back and a fresh scar on the side of his face. Although his hair looks frozen in place, the sleeves of his T-shirt only extend to middle of the Polynesian tattoo on his forearm. On the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray box, the same photo of Momoa is used, with a handgun in his right hand, the bow and quiver erased, and, instead of a mountainous background, the forest is quite a bit denser. A cabin has been set on fire, apparently, by marauders on snow-mobiles. The differences aren’t terribly misleading or inaccurate, however. The Hawaiian-born, Iowa-raised Momoa may have struck the same sort of pose in marketing material for “Baywatch: Hawaii,” “Stargate: Atlantis,” Conan the Barbarian, “Game of Thrones,” “The Red Road,” “Frontier” and the “Justice League,” where he plays Aquaman. At a buff-and-tumble 6-foot-4, the camera didn’t have to add muscles where they don’t exist. If there’s any deception intended here, it’s to make the modestly budgeted Canadian indie look several million dollars more expensive than it probably was. But, Northwoods logger Joe Braven is only half the story here. The other half is provided by the spectacular scenery along Newfoundland’s coastline, all of which is extremely well utilized by stuntman-turned-director Lin Oeding, cinematographer Brian Andrew Mendoza and a trio of stunt coordinators.

When a truck transporting logs and heroin slides off the road during a severe snowstorm, the driver and his assistant find a temporary hiding place for the drugs in a nearby cabin. Inconveniently, for the traffickers, Joe and his father (Stephen Lang) have picked the same weekend to take advantage of the cabin’s isolation to chart the crusty old man’s future in anticipation of Alzheimer’s. Unbeknownst to them, as well, Joe’s daughter, Charlotte (Sasha Rossof), has stowed away in their SUV. When the bad guys can’t wait any longer, they decide to storm the cabin and eliminate the owners. If they had held off for a couple more hours, they could have walked into the shed unobstructed and carried away the stash. What fun would that be, though?  The shootout, which, yes, includes pinpoint-accurate archery and wolf traps, is extremely well choreographed and executed. At a brisk 94 minutes, hardly a moment is wasted for idle chitchat, time-consuming romance or needless exposition. Even when Joe’s bow-hunter wife, Stephanie (Jill Wagner) is introduced to the mix, the action never wavers or seems absurd. The story’s economic use of violence might remind some viewers of similar work by Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel. It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think. The package adds the featurette, “The Braven’s Views.”

Gone Are the Days: Blu-ray
Despite the fact that he’s pushing 78, Lance Henriksen has more work on his plate than actors half or two-thirds his age. As one of the most recognizable, genre-defying hard-guys in the movies and television, the New York native has played more wildly different sorts of working-class heroes – and villains – than one can instantly identify. He’s excelled as astronauts (Alien) and vampires (Near Dark) and provided voices in several animated features. Typically, though, character actors don’t wait for their phones to ring on the days that awards nominations are announced. Even so, Henriksen’s portrayal of psychic FBI profiler Frank Black, in “Millennium,” garnered three consecutive Golden Globe nominations for Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Drama Series. In Mark Landre Gould and Gregory M. Tucker’s atmospheric oater, Gone Are the Days, he plays a notorious outlaw, Taylon Flynn, who’s heading rather quickly toward his last roundup. Despite his bad health, Taylon saddles up for one last shot at redemption, by relieving one last bank of its money. Once inside the mining town, he discovers the daughter he abandoned decades earlier, working in a seedy brothel. Naturally, the brothel owner doesn’t want to lose one of his prized assets, so he enlists the local sheriff (Tom Berenger) to his cause. Gone Are the Days may not break any new ground, but it serves as reminder as to the genre’s continued vitality and ability to entertain.  Also on hand are Danny Trejo, Steve Railsback and Jamie McShane. The package adds a making-of featurette and cast/crew interviews.

My Friend Dahmer: Blu-ray
With a title like My Friend Dahmer, you’d think that Marc Meyers’ disconcerting drama would have a snowball’s chance in hell of being watchable. Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes were so heinous and thoroughly covered by the media that it would have been difficult to find an angle worth revisiting. What would be the point, anyway? My Friend Dahmer is based on the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, who attended the same high school as the future serial killer and considered himself to be one of his few friends. And, by “friends,” I mean fellow students who adopted the terribly shy and awkward teenager as their personal plaything. The band nerds who comprise the Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club here have no trouble convincing Dahmer (Ross Lynch) to do oddball things that would draw attention to himself and cause other students to shun him. While the hazing easily qualifies as bullying, Dahmer seems to welcome the companionship it provided him. The other boys might have been surprised to learn that Dahmer already fits the profile of a future sociopath. He collects bones and dissects roadkill, has dysfunctional parents (Anne Heche, Dallas Roberts) and lives in a world of his own creation. He fixates on a neighborhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser), who appears like clockwork on the road outside his home. For all his weirdness, however, he’s a good student and not without ambition. Meyers lays out all of Dahmer’s pluses and minuses in as neutral a way as possible, using Backderf’s subsequently published sketchbook as a roadmap to the psychological profile. My Friend Dahmer climaxes at the point where Dahmer – angry after his mother pulls up stakes without alerting him – decides to take his first human life. Blessedly, we’re spared any depiction of the crime. My Friend Dahmer is the culmination of a comic- book project that began in 1994, shortly after Dahmer was murdered in prison, and has since grown to include the self-published 24-page “My Friend Dahmer” (2002) and a 224-page version, released in 2012. The Blu-ray adds an interview with actor Ross Lynch and behind-the-scenes slideshow.

Jasper Jones
This coming-of-age tale about life in a claustrophobic Western Australian town, circa 1969, is based on an award-winning novel by Fremantle writer Craig Silvey. It could just as easily been set in the American South, during the same period, without missing a beat. Because Jasper Jones addresses small-town crime, racism and intolerance in similar ways, several Down Under critics have compared it favorably to Stand by Me and To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), a bookish 14-year-old, finds himself caught in the middle of an investigation into the disappearance and probable murder of a teenage girl, Laura Wishheart, who was dating mixed-race 16-year-old Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath). Even absent a body, all fingers in town are pointing in Jasper’s direction. We suspect that he didn’t commit the crime, if only because the evidence against him is too conveniently laid out. (If he were guilty, why would Jasper coax Charlie out of bed on that fateful night to help him deal with her lifeless body.) To protect Jasper, Charlie goes along with the scheme, first, and ask questions later. Complicating things for Charlie on a personal basis is his burgeoning relationship with the victim’s whip-smart sister, Eliza (Angourie Rice). The boys suspect that the killer is a reclusive swamp rat, Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving), who’s harboring secrets that may or may not have anything to do with the crime. It’s to Rachel Perkins’ credit that there’s sufficient room left in the narrative for compelling parallel storylines, involving prejudice faced by a Vietnamese immigrant family, and a reckless affair between Charlie’s mom (Toni Collette) and a local cop. Not everything is tied together with a neat little bow, but it’s easy to see how Jasper Jones became a big hit in Australia. Bonus features include interviews with director Perkins and stars Collette, Weaving, Rice and Miller; a short film “Death of a Unicorn,” narrated by Tilda Swinton; and director’s statement.

Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer
At its heart, Leslie Zemeckis’ exhaustively researched documentary, Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer, is the story of a Kentucky girl who ran away from home, joined the circus and, for the next 57 years, was one of its greatest stars. After being raised in poverty, and stints as a nurse and hoochie-coochie dancer, Mabel Stark became the first woman to train tigers, doing things with big cats in the center ring that few other performers dared. She headlined shows with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, survived multiple maulings and tempestuous marriages, and starred in Hollywood movies (Doctor Doolittle, Tarzan). At one time, Stark managed up to 20 tigers at a time, forming intimate bonds with each one, rather than using the whip. In 1968, her life ended tragically just outside of the Jungleland amusement park, in Thousand Oaks, California. The circus setting adds a lot of color to what might have been just another first-woman-to-do-such-and-such story. Her marriages, alone, could have inspired through-lines in a dozen soap operas. Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer does a nice job encapsulating American entertainment history as the circus moved from big tops to big-city arenas, with no room for midway rides or freak shows. By the time Stark left the circus for good, there were only a few traveling units. The archival material is enhanced by fresh interviews with historians and circus folk. The DVD adds several bonus features. And, yes, a theatrical feature is currently in the planning stages.

The City of the Dead: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Deep Red: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Full Moon High: Blu-ray
Sometimes, there’s nothing more comforting than a nearly 60-year-old exploitation flick that refuses to succumb to the clichés that cling to its surface like barnacles to a whale. On its surface, the only thing worth savoring in The City of the Dead (a.k.a., “Horror Hotel”) would be an early performance by Christopher Lee, who, in 1960, was well on his way to becoming a horror icon. Produced in England but set in the colonies, the British actors were required to speak with American accents throughout. The City of the Dead takes places in the fictional Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn is about to be burned at the stake. Before that can happen, though, she confesses to being Satan’s host on Earth and curses the town’s inhabitants for generations to come. Flash forward a few hundred years and a comely student of Lee’s Professor Alan Driscoll has been encouraged to visit Whitewood for a paper she’s doing. Nan’s visit corresponds with Candlemas Eve, when local wiccans sacrifice a young girl to sate Satan’s appetite for virgins. Even in 1960, Venetia Stevenson probably wouldn’t be mistaken for a virgin, but she’ll do in a pinch. Two weeks later, Nan’s brother follows her path to Whitewood, which, by now, is surprisingly lively for a ghost town. If that scenario feels more appropriate for a horror anthology, it’s probably because the script was originally written by George Baxt as a pilot for a TV series – possibly “Thriller” — starring Boris Karloff. And, yet, thanks to the British cast and a fresh 2K polish, City of the Dead in none the worse for the wear and Lee, as usual, is a delight. The Arrow package adds the slightly shorter American version, “Horror Hotel,” which was released in 1963; a 45-minute interview with Lee, from the DVD release; a 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews with directorJohn Llewellyn Moxey and Stevenson; commentaries by Lee, Moxey and actor/historian Jonathan Rigby; and an insert booklet with essays and production photos. For some reason, City of the Dead has resonated through the years with such bands as Iron Maiden, UFX, Kid Diamond, Rob Zombie and In This Moment, all of whom have borrowed snippets for songs and videos.

Arrow Video extends it Wonderful World of Giallo series – my words – another month with Dario Argento’s way-over-the-top fright fest, Deep Red (a.k.a., “Profondo rosso,” “The Hatchet Murders”), starring a totally cool David Hemmings, beguiling Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia and Macha Meril. It arrived four years after Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” changed the way the world looked at Italian genre filmmaking. As such, it represented a refinement of the genre, which previously had to overcome tight budgets and skeptical critics, and a stepping stone to Argento’s more supernaturally themed material. One night, musician Marcus Daly (Hemmings) witnesses the brutal ax murder of a woman in her apartment. Racing to the scene, Marcus just manages to avoid the perpetrator. Now moonlighting as an amateur sleuth, Marcus becomes ensnared in a bizarre web of murder, mystery and the macabre, where nothing is what it seems. The action is backed by a throbbing score from the progressive Italian rock band, Goblin, and a color scheme from a Technicolor wet dream. The two-disc Limited Edition is enhanced by the inclusion of the original version and shorter export edit of the film; six postcard-sized lobby-card reproductions; a reversible fold-out poster, featuring two original artworks, and reversible sleeve, with newly commissioned work by Gilles Vranckx; a booklet, with new writing on the film by Mikel J. Koven, author of “La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film,” and an archival essay by Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills; audio commentary by filmmaker and Argento expert, Thomas Rostock; an introduction, by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin; and several archival featurettes.

For a while there, genre parodies were almost as prevalent as the movies they spoofed. The best of them — Shaun of the Dead, Scary Movie and What We Do in the Shadows, among them – could stand on their own merits as entertainments for buffs and casual fans. Most best-of lists I’ve seen omit Lawrence Cohen’s Full Moon High, which, even upon its release in 1981, gave off cheap and outdated vibes. By using the 24-year-old I Was a Teenage Werewolf as its inspiration, Cohen appeared to be betting against the odds that kids newly enthralled by slasher and splatter flicks would find something amusing in tropes that no longer carried much weight. Knowing that the high-school experience, with its bizarre subcultures and codes, hasn’t changed all that much in the last 200 years, or so, Cohen simply lowered his sights to include viewers for whom whom Mel Brooks might as well have been Moliere. One indication that he wasn’t dumbing down the humor to reach the lowest common denominator, however, was his decision to cast Brooks regular Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein, The Producers) as the handsy Coach Cleveland. In such a target-rich environment, Cohen didn’t have to look too far more inspiration than that. Adam Arkin plays Tony, a star athlete whose horndog father (Ed McMahon) insists he accompany him on a business trip to Romania. Locked out of their room, while daddy’s romancing a pair of Transylvanian hookers, Tony is ambushed by a werewolf and inherits the full-moon curse. Skip ahead 20 years and Tony is every bit as fresh-faced, athletic and handsome as he was when he split town to avoid revealing his sickness to his friends. He pretends to be his own son, but there’s no way to fool an old girlfriend. Full Moon High may not be able to bear more scrutiny than that, however.

Up in Smoke: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Cheech and Chong’s debut motion picture has been released, re-released and repackaged enough times for veteran stoners to have memorized lines and set up gags of their own as trip-wires for fellow potheads. For lots of Old Hippies, Up in Smoke is one of those movies that delivers new laughs no matter how many times they’ve seen it. It’s anyone’s guess, however, how well Lou Adler’s lucrative collaboration with Cheech & Chong will hold up at a time when pot is legal in a growing number of states, THC content can be adjusted to fit a smoker’s moods and no-smoke-toking threatens to put the Zig-Zag man into a retirement home. Paramount’s “Up in Smoke: 40th Anniversary Edition” carries over several featurettes from previous editions and anniversaries. It adds newly recorded interviews with the boys, reflecting on four decades of marijuana-enhanced memories. A special “Deluxe Edition” is also addition. If Adler’s name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the geezer with courtside seats next to Jack Nicholson at every Lakers home game.

Condorito: The Movie
Tad, The Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas
I don’t know if the popular Chilean comic-strip character, Condorito, shares any avian DNA with the Disney’s Jose Carioca, but their respective ages and geographical proximity to each other suggest that they might. The anthropomorphic Condorito was created by René Rios Boettiger (a.k.a., Pepo) in 1949, seven years after Uncle Walt’s “dapper Brazilian parrot” was introduced throughout the Americas in Saludos Amigos (1942). While Carioca appears to be enjoying semi-retirement at various Disney parks around the world, Condorito is still going strong throughout Latin America. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Condorito: The Movie as much as I did. In the opening prologue, we learn that he’s a descendant of a “featherless condor” who saved humanity from an alien attack during pre-Columbian times, by stealing a powerful amulet that was used to enslave humans. The character leads a decidedly less heroic life, today, in the fictional village of Pelotillehue, where he’s something of a slacker. The aliens return in Condorito: The Movie to retrieve the amulet. When the aliens call Condorito to demand the talisman in exchange for anything he desires, he assumes it’s spam from wireless company. As a lark, he agrees to turn over the gem if they agree to take away his girlfriend’s overbearing mother, Tremebunda, which, of course, is just what happens. In one fell swoop, Condorito manages to alienate his girlfriend, Yayita, and promise to deliver an amulet he can’t find. And, even if he does locate it, the amulet would give the aliens the power to conquer the universe, so why bother? Condorito and his condor nephew, Cone, team up to find the amulet and rescue Treme without allowing the aliens to take over the universe. What’s a poor bird and his nephew to do? I was impressed by the first-class animation and sense of humor which occasionally shifts from kiddy-friendly to ribald.

From Spain, Tad, The Lost Explorer and the Secret of King Midas merges the dubious archeological skills of construction worker Tad Jones with the genuine ability of Sara Lavrof, as a renowned scientist and explorer. Imagine Indiana Jones and Lara Croft coming at their respective jobs from completely different skill levels. Two years after their last mission, Tad travels to Las Vegas to attend Sara’s presentation of her latest discovery: the papyrus that points to the existence and whereabouts of the Necklace of Midas. Their reunion will be clouded by an evil millionaire, who kidnaps Sara to find the necklace and gain infinite wealth. Along with his friends, the parrot (Belzoni) and his dog (Jeff), Tad will have to use his wit and limited stamina to rescue Sara, who could be anywhere. The animation isn’t bad. The story, however, sometimes gets bogged down attempting to balance elements designed to keep kids and adults interested.

Enzo d’Alo’s brilliantly colored take on Carlo Collodi’s classic novel, “Pinocchio,” finally arrives in the U.S., five years after it was nominated for top awards at the Annecy Cristal and European Film Awards ceremony. Reimagined for a new generation and bursting with songs, laughter and thrills, this witty adaptation includes new, rarely explored chapters of the story. Carved by the lonely woodcutter, Geppetto, who’s longing for a real son, playful Pinocchio is eager to do good and become human. Sadly, he keeps getting distracted from his quest. Constantly captured by con men, creatures and constables, he finds solace in the courtesy of the helpful souls who recognize the wooden puppet’s kind heart. Children already familiar with the Disney version might enjoy seeing how the rest of the world views the same lovable character.

PBS: Masterpiece: The Child in Time: UK Edition
Adapted from Ian McEwan’s Whitbread Award-winning novel, “The Child In Time” (1987), the 90-minute installment of “Masterpiece” provides a splendid opportunity to watch two of our finest actors work together under extremely difficult emotional circumstances. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald play Stephen and Julie Lewis, a highly accomplished British couple with few, if any dark clouds on their horizons. The sunshine disappears in an instant, when, while shopping, Stephen momentarily takes his eyes off their 4-year-old daughter, Kate, who’s sat down on the floor next to the checkout line to read a book. The very next thing he knows, Kate is gone for good. Julie is quick to accuse her husband of negligence, berating him mercilessly. Two years later, Kate is still missing, and her parents are completely estranged. They will both admit to catching sight of a little blond girl in a yellow coat, running behind a fence or vanishing in a crowd. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but, sadly, nothing completely out of the ordinary in our culture. Director Julian Farino (“Ballers”) and adapter Stephen Butchard (“The Last Kingdom”) throw the couple a lifeline, but it comes so late in the game that’s there’s no guarantee they’ll recognize it when it comes. I haven’t read the book, but it’s easy to see how other things that happen in the Lewis’ lives serve to undermine their stability even further. They include inexplicable changes in the personalities of close friends, coincidental apparitions and fractures in the time-space continuum. A potential girlfriend for Stephen is introduced, then ignored, and a potential sighting causes him to invade the classroom of an innocent little girl, who shares facial features with Kate. The mental breakdown of a longtime friend is well handled, but difficult to understand. Confused viewers may find their only recourse is to find a copy of the book and read it cover-to-cover, which isn’t the worst solution in the world.

As time runs out on a busy week of viewing DVDs, I’m only able to mention the titles of other fine shows newly available to those of us with broken VCRs. Also from PBS, they are “The New York Cantors”; “Understanding the Opioid Epidemic”; “The Last Rhino”; the “Secrets of the Dead” presentation, “Scanning the Pyramids”; from “NOVA,” “Black Hole Apocalypse” and “The Impossible Flight”; PBS Kids’s “WordWorld: Let’s Eat” and “Wild Kratts: Madagascar Madness”; and the Smithsonian Channel’s “Victorian Rebel: Marianne North.”

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

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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