The Iceman: Blu-ray
I don’t know how the competition is shaping up for Best Actor in a Lead Role in the current Oscar race. My record as a prognosticator is about as reliable as that of a Chicago barfly who always picks the Cubs to win the World Series. Still, I hope academy voters will take the opportunity they’ll surely be accorded to watch Michael Shannon’s absolutely chilling performance in “The Iceman.” Based solely on the picture’ meager box-office returns, however, I would suspect that the one-time Oscar nominee would be considered a longshot, at best. In Ariel Vroman’s critically lauded, if sometimes horrifying biopic of a mob assassin, Shannon plays the real-life contract killer hitman and all-around dirt-bag Richard Kuklinski. If the name is familiar, it’s because the one-man crime wave appeared in two HBO documentaries, while incarcerated in Trenton State Prison, in which he confessed to every major crime since the killing of the Bobby Kennedy. Kuklinski was also the subject of two print biographies. He would die in a prison hospital in 2006, at age 70.
In addition to Shannon’s hulking physical resemblance to Kuklinski, the actor looks as if he might be capable of taking out his displeasure with a critic by sticking an icepick in his ear. In troubling dramas like “Boardwalk Empire,” “Return,” “Take Shelter” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” Shannon’s characters could have been written with him in mind. (He was nominated for his disturbing supporting role in Sam Mendes’ 2006 drama “Revolutionary Road.) Vroman’s interpretation of Kuklinski’s life and misdeeds in no way whitewashes the crimes or makes him out to be some kind of avenging angel. It does, however, advance the notion forwarded by his wife Barbara—portrayed well by Winona Ryder—that by all outward appearances theirs was “the all-American family.” If anything, “The Iceman” allows for the possibility that childhood abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father may have played a significant role in turning his two sons into killers. (A brother, Joseph, was incarcerated at the Trenton facility, as well, for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.) Mostly, though, he killed for kicks and money.
Ray Liotta plays the New Jersey mobster who introduced Kuklinski to the murder-for-hire game and not so lovingly referred to him as “the Polack.” Chris Evans is excellent as Mr. Freezy, a onetime rival assassin who operated out of an ice-cream truck and introduced Kuklinski to cyanide mist, explosives and freezing bodies as way to mess with medical examiners. I didn’t recognize David Schwimmer in the role of one of Liotta’s other henchmen or Stephen Dorff as brother Joseph. In what amounts to his continuing game of “Where’s Waldo,” James Franco also makes a de rigueur appearance. The Blu-ray adds lengthy making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
The English Teacher: Blu-ray
After laboring for 20 years in the fertile vineyards of television—“Weeds,” “Nip/Tuck,” “United States of Tara,” among other excellent series—director Craig Zisk probably thought 2013 would be as good a time as any to make the leap to the big screen. And, with Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear and Nathan Lane on board “The English Teacher,” who could blame him? Always terrific, Moore plays a teacher at a suburban high school where the students are motivated only when recommendation letters are required for acceptance at the best colleges. Nevertheless, Linda is devoted to her work and the kids who show a spark of interest, at least, in literature. A borderline spinster, she has decided to test the market for men capable of meeting her standards, which appear as cartoon balloons during their dates. The perfect candidate arrives in the unexpected presence of a former student, who’s about to give up his dream of becoming a playwright in New York. Before Jason (Michael Angarano) acquiesces to his dad’s dream of him entering a field significantly more secure than the theater, Linda convinces him to let her read the only script he’s completed. Predictably, she falls in love with it. She also convinces the school’s pompous drama teacher, Carl (Lane), to consider it as an option for the annual school play, instead of the umpteenth rendition of “Our Town.”
The thoroughly uptight principal and vice principle reluctantly give their approval, but only if Linda and Carl can convince Jason to come up with an alternate ending, which doesn’t involve a gun. They agree, knowing full well that Jason would rather chew off his fingers than revise it. Anyone who hasn’t already guessed what happens next probably deserves to have the moment spoiled, because it’s pretty much telegraphed from Minute One. Still overwhelmed by the script and its sad, seemingly autobiographical tone, Linda allows herself to be ravaged by Jason in her classroom. Is it a crime? No. Both are well past the age of consent, after all. Is it a wildly inappropriate use of school furniture? Of course. Still, Linda almost immediately regrets her decision and tells Jason that his cougar fantasy should be considered a one-night stand.
The fact that Jason doesn’t handle the news well doesn’t require a spoiler alert, either. What’s really important is the way he handles his disappointment and how, when the news leaks out, Linda pays the price for her lapse in judgment. Moreover, it’s the student actors who drive the action in second half of “The English Teacher.” Their evolution, as well as that of Jason’s father (Kinnear), is logical and satisfactorily handled. Dan and Stacy Chariton’s screenplay doesn’t leave too much room for nuance, so there are times when the movie appears to be heading toward a Cinemax version of “Glee.” Zisk manages to reel it back in before too much damage is done, however. Still, the Blu-ray version of “The English Teacher” fits the small screen pretty well and, of course, finding Lane and Moore in the same movie is a rare treat. Older teens and their parents might have some fun putting their heads around the issues addressed in the play—beyond the more obvious implications of sleeping with a teacher or boss—and finding some common ground. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of piece with cast and crew.
Now You See Me: Blu-ray
The producers of this fascinating brain-teaser of a movie must have had a kitten when “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” tanked two months ahead of the release of their movie. Even though the Steve Carell comedy was backed by an expensive marketing campaign and featured a cast loaded with recognizable talent, it simply laid a giant egg at the box office. Had hellishly negative word-of-mouth killed “Burt Wonderstone” or was magic a subject audiences simply had no interest in seeing dramatized in a movie? The live-magic boom had crested in 1990s, after all, and the publicity that preceded “Now You See Me” made it look very much like just another movie about, yup, magic. With mainstream critics divided roughly in half, the burden of carrying the opening weekend was on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson. Somehow, “Now You See Me” went on to become one of those rare pictures that doubled its box-office revenues in its second week of release and triple it by the fourth go-round. In a summer overflowing with high-profile busts, it did very well by its investors.
“Now You See Me” tells the story of four hardscrabble magicians who finally realize success by putting their rivalries aside and combining their specialties as the Four Horsemen. In only a few years, they go from obscurity to the kind of popularity David Copperfield enjoys. Somewhere along the way the Four Horsemen also discover their collective conscience. It would come to the fore in Las Vegas, where they pull off an illusion that appears to loot the vault of a bank in Paris. The money is undeniably real, however, and it is inarguably absent from the bank. Not only does the trick make headlines, but it also puts the Four Horsemen in the crosshairs of the FBI and Interpol, as represented by Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”). At first, the agents display the same skepticism to the heist as anyone who believes magic is for suckers. It isn’t until the Horsemen take their act to New Orleans and make their filthy-rich manager (Michael Caine) their stooge—relieving him of millions of dollars—which the agents begin to take them seriously as crooks. When they do, the cops inadvertently become part of the act.
Frustrated, the agents reluctantly agree to listen to Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who’s made a fortune debunking the work of illusionists. Bradley, too, has more than a few cards up his sleeve for the cops. They need all the help they can get when the Horsemen arrange a showdown performance in New York, daring the FBI, Interpol and Bradley to stop them from stealing an even greater fortune. They also challenge us to figure out how they’re going to escape being caught in wonderfully choreographed chases through the streets of New Orleans and New York. The best thing about “Now You See Me” is the level to which director Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”) and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt make viewers complicit in the elaborate heists, even if we can only guess as to how the illusions are created. (And, no, not all of them are reliant on CGI.) The professional and romantic tension between Ruffalo and Laurent also adds to the fun. The Blu-ray package offers both the theatrical and extended versions of the movie, with deleted scenes and an alternative ending that predicts the recently announced plan for a sequel; commentary with Letterier and producer Bobby Cohen; a 15-minute interview package; the featurette, “A Brief History of Magic”; and marketing material. If you enjoy “Now You See It” rent a copy of “The Game,” a similarly thrilling mind-twister from David Fincher.
Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger made his mark in the international cinema in 2003 with the raunchy sex comedy “Torremolinos 73.” He’s returned, after a 10-year absence, with the silent, black-and-white fairytale “Blancanieves,” an enchanting rethinking of the Brothers Grimm story, “Snow White.” It is to the Disney version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” what Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” is to Disney’s decidedly more kid-friendly adaptation of the 1893 book. They’re all good, but the Disney interpretations don’t leave children quivering in mortal fear of making a youthful faux pas or being an orphan. Berger has adapted the classic story to fit its Catalonian and Andalucían setting and Spain’s traditional tolerance of bloodsport. The most eyebrow-raising thing about “Blancanieves” is something that was completely out of the Berger’s control. Arriving, as it did, in the colossal wake of “The Artist,” some observers wondered if he hadn’t borrowed the silent movie conceit to capitalize on its commercial and critical popularity. By the time Berger learned of Michel Hazanavicius’ triumph at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he already was in the early stages of production on “Blancanieves.” No matter, because the two films are sufficiently different from each other to discourage easy comparisons. For one thing, “Blancanieves” is as distinctly Spanish as Valencian paella.
Carmen is a pretty young woman, whose flamenco-dancer mother died after giving birth and whose father is confined to a wheelchair after almost simultaneously being gored by a bull named Diablo. The precocious little girl would be raised by her grandmother, who encouraged her to pursue an early interest in traditional Spanish culture. When her abuela dies, 7-year-old Carmen (Sofia Oria) is sent to live with her sadistic stepmother and invalid father in his Andalusian mansion. As played by the wonderful Spanish actress, Maribel Verdu (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”), Encarna is cruel both to Carmen (Macarena Garcia) and her husband (Antonio Villata). She forbids the girl from having any contact with her father, who is locked away on the second floor and, she believes, remains emotionally detached from his daughter. Meanwhile she cheats on him with her masochistic chauffeur, Genaro. Carmen uses a keyhole to spy on Encarna, as she puts a saddle on Genaro and strikes him with a riding crop, as they prance around the estate’s ballroom. Carmen discovers her father’s veritable prison and commits herself to bringing him out of his comatose state. She accomplishes this by secretly entertaining him with her singing and flamenco skills. He, in turn, encourages her knack for bullfighting. His physical condition is hopeless, however. Even before his coffin is lowered into a grave, Encarna has conspired with the chauffeur to eliminate Carmen—now, a beautiful young woman—as a threat to their continued financial well-being.
Long story short: Carmen survives the attempt on her life, with only the temporary loss of her memory. She’s rescued by wandering troupe of dwarves, who fight miniature bulls and bring some laughs to fans of the corrida de toros. One day, out of the blue, Carmen is able to return the favor by saving the pint-sized torero from suffering the same fate as her father. In doing so, her sublimated skill as a bullfighter reveals itself to the dwarves, the crowd and a clever promoter. Carmen’s rising profile doesn’t escape Encarna, who devises a way—via a poison apple, of course—to get to her out of her hair for good. Seemingly, all that’s left is for viewers to anticipate a prince’s life-giving kiss. That’s assuming such a savior even exists in this adaption of the Grimms’ tale. Berger doesn’t use many dialogue cards to explain what’s happening, but, like Hazanavicius, the acting speaks for itself. He does, however, rely a great deal on Alfonso de Vilallonga’s distinctly Spanish score, which combines string-heavy orchestral music and zarzuela-like vocals. The effect is quite wonderful. The Blu-ray includes an interesting 30-minute making-of featurette, a short audience presentation by Berger, a “Director’s Diary” and a five-minute sample of the live orchestral presentation at a public screening. “Blancanieves” should appeal primarily to anyone drawn to inventive filmmaking and Spanish themes, but mature viewers may want to see an adaptation of “Snow White” that hones closer to the folk tales that inspired the Brothers Grimm original.
As Queer Cinema has evolved with the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian culture, it’s no longer unusual to find ensemble dramedies targeted to general audiences and populated with characters whose situations aren’t limited by sexual identification. While major studios and distributors have yet to hop aboard the normalcy bandwagon, indie labels now are taking the opportunity to welcome viewers unafraid to veer from the straight and narrow path. Actors, writers and directors once primarily familiar to GLBT audiences now find themselves working alongside stars easily recognizable from television and Hollywood movies. Both “Petunia” and “I Do” benefit from the broadened horizon. From Wolfe Releasing, “Petunia” tells the exceedingly familiar tale of a family that is coming apart at the seams because everyone is either talking past each other or not conversing at all. Individual through-lines spread the misery evenly among various family members, no matter if they’re gay, straight, bisexual or no longer functioning. None of the characters are required to live half of their lives in a closet or battle AIDS. The sex is scenes aren’t terribly explicit and they aren’t limited to same-sex relationship.
Christine Lahti plays the matriarch of the Petunia family. That she’s a psychotherapist does nothing to further her relationship with her asexual husband, Percy (David Rasche), who has completely tuned out the craziness swirling around him. Brothers Michael (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Adrian (Jimmy Heck) are hiding infidelity and sex addiction, respectively. Another brother, Charlie (Tobias Segal), has broken his vow of abstinence by sleeping with his downstairs neighbor (Michael Urie), whose wife (Brittany Snow) is game for a polyamorous adventure. Adrian’s new bride (Thora Birch) is pregnant and the fetus’ father is more likely to be Michael than her husband. Adrian doesn’t seem to be perturbed by the possibility, as he’s discovering things about himself he probably should have guessed before tying the knot. Considering what the budget must have been for “I Do,” co-writer/director Ash Christian squeezes a lot of laughs out of the premise, including several during a scene in which Lahti drops Ecstasy during a girl’s night out. The DVD adds the director’s commentary; cast interviews, deleted scene, music videos and film-festival features.
From Breaking Glass, “I Do” offers another familiar dilemma with a gay twist. A young British man living in New York has just been informed that his visa has expired and he must return home. Not only does he enjoy American life, but he’s also committed himself to watching over the wife and daughter of his recently deceased brother. His only solution, albeit temporary and technically illegal, is to find someone who will agree to marry him and protect him from the INS. To this end, Jack (David Ross) convinces his best lesbian friend, Ali (Jamie- Lynn Sigler), to escort him to the altar. Ali is a “gold-star lesbian” and proud of the distinction. Strictly clitly, she can’t even answer their question as to whether or not Jack is circumcised. (“He’s English,” she answers.) What’s more, Ali has grown sick of bearding for him while he’s out shagging stray men and asks for a divorce. Normally, this would allow Jack more time with his new boyfriend, Mano (Maurice Compte), his sister-in-law (Alicia Witt) and niece. Instead, Ali’s decision requires him to spend it thinking of ways to avoid deportation. If the producers of “I Do” had the foresight to hire a soothsayer, they might have known that the Supreme Court decision would soon strike down DOMA laws, effectively clearing the way for gay couples to sue for immigration rights and green cards. No law, no problem … unless, of course, one of them crossed the Rio Grande on an innertube. As it is, the characters in “I Do” are required to experience the same agonies as any other couple in similar straits. The presence of the Witt and Siglar makes up for some of the holes in Ross’ script and Glenn Gaylord’s direction.
Slightly Single in L.A.: Blu-ray
If someone held a gun to my head and forced me to synopsize “Slightly Single in L.A.” in a single sentence, I’d say: “‘Sex and the City,’ without the sex or laughs, in L.A.” Oh, there’s a bit of simulated fornication, but it’s the kind in which the actors keep on their underwear and never seem to enjoy. Its center is occupied by newcomer Dale Squire (Lacey Chabert), a dead ringer for Jennifer Love Hewitt, who keeps looking for love in all the wrong places. Although she was warned about the vapidity of the people she’d meet in Los Angeles, Dale manages to surround herself with exactly the kinds of people she was advised to avoid, male and female. Even so, she fits right in and, for the time being, anyway, they’re the only ones she’s likely to find. The ladies snipe and gossip behind each other’s back, while the men can’t take their eyes off every woman within a 50-yard radius. At one point, the blond friend demonstrates her displeasure with a casting agent’s assessment of her butt by standing up in the middle of a restaurant and demanding a second opinion. One of the brunettes can’t stop boring her friends—and us—with her insipid wedding plans.
Just when Dale reconnects with a John Mayer wannabe and things begin to look up for her, the other brunette finds a way to distract him—for five minutes, anyway—by affixing her lips to his penis. But, hey, what’s a hummer between friends? Dale gives up her claim to the musician, even though he doesn’t want to change partners. Naturally, the movie then becomes a game in which the characters attempt to get Dale back with her rightful boyfriend. In an interview included in the bonus package, writer/director Christie Will allows that much of the material is based on her own experiences as a single woman in L.A. Like Dale, she made friends and realize her dream of becoming a filmmaker. I have no idea how “Slightly Single in L.A” might play among teens and young adults in similar straits as Dale. It wasn’t given much of release, if any. Co-stars Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Simon Rex, Haley Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Mircea Monroe, Kip Pardue, Mercedes Masohn and Chris Kattan would seem to possess oodles of name recognition, however. If it’s any consolation to Chabert and Will, the 40-year-old Kattan has appeared in at least a half-dozen movies and countless “SNL” sketches that are worse than “Suddenly Single in L.A.”
From Up on Poppy Hill: Blu-ray
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Since 1966, when Disney took over distribution of Studio Ghibli films outside Japan, American fans of the animation arts have embraced Hayao Miyazaki as one of the genre’s true giants. Sadly, the master announced his retirement after his latest feature, “The Wind Rises,” was screened at this week’s Venice Film Festival. “From Up on Poppy Hill” is directed by Goro Miyazaki from a script written by his father and Keiko Niwa and based on a popular 1980 manga. It is being distributed here by GKIDS, a relatively new company that is associated with the New York International Film Festival. In addition to sending out such truly wonderful animated features as “Chico & Rita,” “A Cat in Paris,” “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “The Painting,” GKIDS has inherited North American distribution rights to Studio Ghibli titles previously held by Disney. If GKIDS isn’t already on your radar screen, “From Up on Poppy Hill” should make its mark very soon.
Like other GKIDS releases, any assumption that “From Up on Poppy Hill” is strictly for kids should be dispelled early in the narrative. It describes a pivotal period in post-war Japanese history through the eyes of teenage students who rally to preserve a campus landmark from the armies of enforced modernity. It’s set in Yokahama ahead of the 1964 Summer Olympics, during which Japan would re-introduce itself to the world as an up-to-date nation more interested in the future than its bloody past. In opposition to the administrators’ acquiescence to government plans, students have decided that the nation’s march to progress should bypass the ramshackle “Latin Quarter” building that is home to the school’s clubs. Shun Matsuzaki, the editor of the school’s paper, is championing the movement. Politically realistic and handsome, to boot, Shun finds in fellow student Umi Matsuzaki an ally and potential love interest. Umi is known locally for raising signal flags, visible to ships entering and exiting the busy port, from her family’s Poppy Hill boarding house. She does so in memory of her father, who was lost at sea during the Korean War. As if the business at the Latin Quarter hadn’t raised enough of an uproar in their lives, Umi and Shun are further distracted by a disclosure that could rock the foundations of their personal lives. Although the parallel narratives play out logically and in emotionally satisfying ways, they may fly a bit too far over the heads of younger viewers. The hand-drawn images in “From Up on Poppy Hill” skew far more in the favor of viewers in their mid-teens and above. The bonus package in the attractive Blu-ray presentation includes a feature-length progression of storyboards; a documentary history of Yokohama; the music video, “Summer of Farewells”; a piece on the English-language voicing cast; a lengthy press conference on the choice of a theme song and accommodations required after the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami; and Hayao Miyazaki’s remarks to studio employees after a screening.
Obviously, no such cautionary notes are necessary in advance of a family viewing of Disney’s modern-classic “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” It remains what it’s always been, an easy and effective way to spark a child’s imagination and love of reading. I’d also wager that anyone who enjoyed the feature-length movie and books of A.A. Milne wouldn’t have to be told twice about how animals and humans serve each other’s needs in the natural world. It does so in a manner so soothing it could have been delivered by the postmaster general of “Mr. Roberts Neighborhood.” At a time when animators are creating kookier and increasingly more frenetic products, ostensibly to retain the attention of kids raised on video games, 74 minutes with Winnie and his friends is as refreshing as a cold glass of lemonade.
The 1977 movie might have looked considerably different if Walt Disney had been able to create a fresh stand-alone story set in the Hundred-Acre Wood. As it was, Uncle Walt would only live long enough to see the completion of a 26-minute featurette, attached to the long-forgotten live-action comedy, “The Ugly Dachshund.” “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” would see further duty 11 years later when it was stitched into a package that also included the featurettes “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” and “Winnie the Pooh and the Blistery Day.” To smooth the edges, Sebastian Cabot was hired to narrate introductions to the individual stories, all positioned within the framework of a storybook. The “franchise” would grow to include additional featurettes, a live-action series, an 83-episode animated series, four more feature films and two series for pre-school children. Baby Boomer parents and grandparents will immediately recognize the voices of Cabot, Sterling Holloway, as Pooh, and Paul Winchell, as Tigger, as well as the delightful Sherman Brothers’ songs on the soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds “Disney Intermission,” with Hundred Acre Wood activities; “Pooh Play-Along”; the animated short, “A Day for Eeyore”; the making-of featurette, “The Story Behind the Masterpiece”; the theme song, performed by Carly Simon; and five “Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” shorts.
Cockneys vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
The surprising cult success of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” left the door wide open for dozens of other bright young filmmakers to turn high-concept ideas into movies that bridge comedy and horror. “Cockneys vs. Zombies” is about as high-concept as these things get. Steve Lawson’s more ambiguously titled “Dead Cert” pitted East End gangsters against Romanian zombie thugs, mostly in the basement of a nightclub both groups coveted. No such confusion is possible with “Cockneys vs. Zombies.” Early on, at a London construction site, a backhoe operator breaks through the door of ancient crypt, loosing a plague of zombies on the city. At the same time, a gang of inept bank robbers is attempting to raise the money necessary to keep a retirement home from evicting their relatives. Among the old-timers are such venerable British actors as Alan Ford (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), Honor Blackman (“Goldfinger”), Georgina Hale (“The Devils”) and Richard Briers (“Watership Down”). They have great fun mangling the Cockney rhyming dialect and taking on creatures even slower than they are. Otherwise, “Cockneys vs. Zombies” doesn’t break much new ground. The Blu-ray arrives with separate commentary tracks with director Matthias Hoene and writer James Moran; deleted scenes and a half-hour backgrounder.
The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD
In April, 1943, while most of the world was preoccupied with the ongoing war, a Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann absorbed a small quantity of lysergic acid diethylamide through his fingertips and effectively embarked on the first acid trip. Further studies would take him to Mexico where he identified the hallucinogenic properties of plants used by indigenous people in religious ceremonies. It allowed him to synthesize psilocybin, the active ingredient in what would become known as “magic mushrooms.” Before his discoveries found their way to the hippie ghettos of San Francisco, New York and London, the U.S. Army conducted experiments at its Edgewood Arsenal to see if the substance could be used as a “truth serum” or for non-lethal chemical warfare. Meanwhile, civilian researchers were hoping to find more clinical and psychotherapeutic uses for LSD. The CIA’s top-secret MKUltra program was launched in 1953 and continued for another 20 years, until congressmen were alerted to its existence and director Richard Helms ordered all relevant papers to be destroyed. In 1977, it was revealed that the CIA frequently tested LSD and other substances not only on volunteers, but unsuspecting civilians here and abroad. A few of the guinea pigs and researchers were so impressed by the effects of the drug that they began spreading the word among friends and underground chemists. Hence, the Summer of Love.
Martin Witz’s mostly scholarly documentary “The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD” describes the discovery, experimentation process, popularization, misuse and potential for the substance. He uses as his primary source taped interviews with Hofmann, who died in 2008, at 102. To add a little spark to the proceedings, he interweaves the more sober scientific material with trippy archival footage from the drug’s heyday. If the Army and CIA are criticized for twisting their research to fit their particular needs, Hofmann also suggests that unsupervised usage in the 1960s caused the governments of the world to go into hysterics over the emerging counterculture and block further studies. At first, Timothy Leary and other promoters of LSD as a tool for psychotherapy cautioned against uncontrolled experimentation, but eventually allowed themselves to be used by the media as freak-show attractions. Ken Kesey, who participated in MKUltra studies at Stanford, would join Leary as the leading proselytizer for psychotropic drugs, but for the purposes of recreation, mind-expansion and enjoying the Grateful Dead. LSD never went out of favor in some quarters, even as the kindred drug Ecstasy exploded in popularity. Only now are researchers returning to the roots of Hofmann’s experimentation, specifically with terminally ill patients seeking relief from fear and anxiety. If viewers go into “The Substance” with an open mind, they’ll benefit from a sober discussion of a substance whose potential for good was upended by those who found it easier to promote it as a miracle drug or condemn it as a bogeyman. The DVD adds a more material from the interview with Hofmann.
Song of the South: Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band
I’ve watched and reviewed a couple dozen rock-docs from such distributors as MVD Visual, Chrome Dreams and Sexy Intellectual. The biographies of musicians and band histories almost always have been made without the active participation and authorization of the artists, themselves, while the “Under Review” titles are limited, as well, by the restrictions imposed by copyright laws and licensing fees. Finding two hours’ worth of worthwhile material to fill a DVD—mostly from music videos, news clips and public-domain sources—isn’t easy. It’s the testimony of associates, critics, producers, historians and friends that makes one disc better than another. “Song of the South: Duane Allman & the Rise of the Allman Brothers Band” is among those few documentaries that stand alone at the top of my list of favorites. Apart from being a bona-fide Rock God, Duane Allman was one of the most widely recorded and available musicians of the 1960-70s. His blues roots are easily identifiable and it isn’t difficult to find people who worked alongside him or reviewed his records as they were released. His impact on contemporary musicians, especially those from the South, is inarguable. Sadly, for his many admirers, Allman would ride his motorcycle to an early grave. As difficult as it might have been at the time, the band that carried his surname and that of his brother, Greg, someone managed to recoup and retain its fan base. Their stories are interesting, as well. “Song of the South” follows Allman’s journey from his early days a garage and party band in Florida, through the launch of more sophisticated ensembles, and collaborative sessions at Muscle Shoals and with Derek & The Dominos. The rise of the Allman Brothers Band from virtual obscurity to superstardom also is fully chronicled. Among the contributors are engineers and producers, the Albert Brothers; Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section founding members, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson; former co-members of Duane and Greg’s late 1960s group, the Hour Glass, Paul Hornsby & Pete Carr; Allman Brothers road manager Willie Perkins; biographers, Randy Poe and Scott Freeman; band archivist E.J. Devokaitis; and Rolling Stone critics.
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie: Blu-ray
A decade before Fox News introduced its lineup of provocateurs and loudmouths, Morton Downey Jr. successfully turned the word, “liberal,” into a synonym for unpatriotic. Well before Jerry Springer whipped his studio audience into a frenzied state on a nightly basis with freaks and strippers, Downey performed before crowds of rabid fans he accurately referred to as “the beast.” Long before Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, Karl Rove, Larry Elder and Herman Cain made it OK to ridicule and misconstrue the beliefs of people with whom they didn’t agree, Downey blew cigarette smoke in the faces of his guests and allowed audience members to insult them during Q&As. Without Morton Downey Jr., Howard Stern might not have risen to the top of the radio heap as quickly as he did and Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and Springer might not have so freely baited Klansmen and neo-Nazis for sweeps-month ratings. It’s also fair to say, however, that Downey may never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for right-wing rabble-rousers Joe Pyne and Wally George. Without the liberality of Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael and Oprah, he wouldn’t have been able to re-rouse Spiro Agnew’s dormant “silent majority.” He was as representative of 1980s lowbrow culture as the WWF and Andrew “Dice” Clay. Today, though, the mouth that roared is little more than a footnote in the history of television. Like other tinhorn demagogues, Downey discovered the downside of hubris at the height of his career. That said, it’s likely that liberals and progressives probably wish they had someone a bit more rabid than Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann to sic on their opponents.
For those who care about such things, Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jerry Newberger’s provocative documentary, “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” attempts to answer the three questions people ask every time such a phenomenon corners the media spotlight: 1) Does he really believe the things he says on the show?, 2) Does he act like a jerk when the cameras aren’t rolling?, and 3) Why would any guest in his or her right mind agree to be browbeaten by someone who can’t be outshouted and doesn’t listen to anything they have to say? The same questions continue to be asked of Limbaugh, Beck, Springer, Bubba the Love Sponge, Sean Hannity, Al Sharpton and any number of shock jocks and trash talkers. In addition to chronicling Downey’s rise and fall, as well as his influence on the next generation of talkers, the filmmakers spend a lot of time discussing his very public personal life and lost battle with lung cancer. Indeed, the only time Downey comes off as anything but a precisely calculated madman is when he renounces himself for defending the cigarette industry and polluting the minds of young viewers as an unrepentant chain-smoker. Such self-flagellation may have come too late in the game to save his life and those of other adults addicted to tobacco, but, for once, he wasn’t looking around to see which camera he was on.
Among those recalling the man and his times here are the show’s producers; activist attorney and frequent guest, Gloria Allred; fiery commentator Pat Buchanan; novelist and critic Stanley Crouch; lawyer and columnist Alan Dershowitz; comedian and Downey impersonator Chris Elliott; media executive Robert Pittman; and talk-show rival Sally Jessy Raphael. The highlights include watching Downey shout down future presidential candidate Ron Paul and CORE chairman Roy Innes shove Sharpton out of his chair during a debate over the Tawana Brawley hoax. The film benefits from some interesting animation, which is used to depict certain incidents in Downey’s career.
TV to DVD/Blu-ray
Starz: DaVinci’s Demons: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Starz: Spartacus: War of the Damned: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
BBC: Blandings: Series 1
NBC: Revolution: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
Syfy: Haven: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
The CW: The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
The CW: Supernatural: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
With September comes the season of binge viewing. Networks are swamping video outlets with full-season compilations, primarily of renewed series and hit shows that were given an honorable burial in the past few months. If you slept through the 2012-13 season, now’s the time to get up to date. I’ve never understood the logic of a network selling full-season compilations of shows it may someday want to sell into syndication—or already is being rerun on other channels—but they certainly wouldn’t do it if the practice weren’t profitable. Cable and satellite outlets have an altogether different economic model, but, likewise, have sold sanitized versions of “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” in the after-market.
Unlike Showtime and HBO, the premium-network Starz has only recently gotten into original-programming game with such series as “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” “Boss,” “Spartacus” and “Da Vinci’s Demons.” All are worth the effort for non-subscribers to find. Starz and BBC Worldwide co-produced the wonderfully inventive mini-series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which seems to be equal parts “Sherlock” and “The Borgias.” Tom Riley plays Leonardo Da Vinci as a handsome and as-yet-beardless 25-year-old in Renaissance Florence. He’s gone beyond the budding-genius stage of his life and is creating wondrous flying machines and terrible weapons at an almost alarming pace. His allegiance in all things military is to the Medicis, but their rival, Pope Sixtus IV, attempts to woo Da Vinci with promises of access to the treasures of the Vatican archives. Brilliant beyond any rational explanation, he not only possesses a photographic memory—allowing him to slow down the beatings of a bird’s wings and study the movements in flight—but he’s also able to conceptualize the architectural skeletons of buildings and other objects when necessary. In Season One, this talent helps Leonardo escape the Carpathian castle of Vlad the Impaler. As fanciful as that might seem, most of things that happen in “Da Vinci’s Demons” are well-researched and historically feasible. Parents should know that there’s no scarcity of battlefield gore and boudoir nudity in the series. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes and short making-of featurettes.
In a very real sense, Starz’ sword-and-sandals mini-epic, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” never really recovered from the untimely death of Andy Whitfield, the first season’s protagonist. To buy time while the actor battled non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Starz offered fans a six-episode prequel, “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” Liam McIntyre would step in to fill Whitfield’s shoes after he finally succumbed to cancer. The official second-season mini-series, “Spartacus: Vengeance,” picked up where the first stanza left off and “Spartacus: War of the Damned” extends the legend. The series is set during the Third Servile War against Rome, whose army is led by Marcus Licinius Crassus, between 73-71 B.C. The rebel forces have grown dramatically, but their battlefield successes have quietly, maybe inevitably led to dissension even among Spartacus’ trusted generals. His decision to spare non-military Roman prisoners from slaughter is especially unpopular among the freed slaves. Adding to the fun is the introduction of Julius Caesar to the cast of characters. He’s a seasoned fighter and restless for power. After infiltrating the rebel ranks, he plays a significant role in setting one general against the other. “Spartacus” succeeded, in large part, because of the hyper-realistic portrayal of violence on the battlefield and in the arena. The blood and gore pops out even further in hi-def. In its nearly four seasons, the series also raised the bar on depictions of sex and nudity, as well. Who knew that breast implants, shaved pubic hair and fashionable hairdos were so prevalent two millennia ago? In “Spartacus” and “Da Vinci’s Demons,” alike, homosexuality wasn’t frowned upon or uncommon among macho men, either. (Da Vinci is put on trial on a pederasty beef, but it’s politically motivated.) The Blu-ray presentation is nothing short of brilliant, visually and audibly. It comes with several making-of featurettes, audio commentaries and extended scenes.
Adapted from the “Blandings Castle” stories of P.G. Wodehouse, the BBC comedy series, “Blandings,” is the perfect antidote for overexposure to “Downtown Abbey,” “Upstairs, Downstairs” and other shows about the care and feeding of Britain’s upper-crust twits. The always-delightful Timothy Spall plays absent-minded Lord Clarence Emsworth, who would rather commune with his prize pig, the Empress, than have anything to do with the relatives, acquaintances and accountants who show up on a weekly basis at the Shropshire estate. Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) is his imperious sister and his comically loyal butler is portrayed by Mark Williams. Also adding a touch more nuttiness to the mix is Jack Farthing as Clarence’s halfwit son, Freddie, who someday might find a home among the other bewigged doofuses in the House of Lords. Americans might find “Blandings” to be a bit too leisurely in the exposition of its sitcom-style plots, but, given time, the show grows on you. In Episode One, for example, a crisis arises after the Empress goes off her feed two weeks before the Shropshire fair. Knowing that the Empress won’t respond to anyone but his regular groomer, the local magistrate and fellow swine enthusiast arrests the man for alcoholism and sentences him to a week in jail. Sure enough, the pig stops eating entirely. Even though Clarence pulls out all of the stops to get the Empress back on track, it takes one of Freddie’s brainstorm ideas to prevent the magistrate’s pig from winning the blue ribbon. I guarantee that you’ve never seen another pig quite like the Empress.
If there’s one thing that the networks don’t lack these days, it hour-long dramas in which attractive young women and handsome young men save civilization from destruction by alien beings, undead creatures and other supernatural oddities. If you see a character older than, say, 45, it’s a sure bet that person will be toast by the second commercial break. Pandering to the key 18-34 bracket may sell commercial time, but it results in shows that appear to be set on another planet. It also accounts for storylines that no one over, say, 35, would consider credible. But, what do I know? I haven’t been part of a key demographic group in years.
NBC’s “Revolution,” is based on a premise so far-fetched that it could hardly stand up to the close scrutiny of longtime sci-fi fans. Still, success speaks for itself and the show’s been renewed for another season. One day, not so different than today, something mysterious causes a complete electrical blackout on Earth. Fifteen years later, the lights and power are still out. (This doesn’t explain why automobile engines and battery-powered vehicles can’t be operated, but that probably will be explained down the road.) Resourceful Americans have reverted to their pioneer roots, as nature has reclaimed nearly all of the land previously covered with concrete and steel, including Chicago’s Wrigley Field and O’Hare airport. Meanwhile, fascist militias and rebel cadres have organized to save their own precious asses. Almost from Minute One, we’re reminded of the “X-Files” mantra, “Trust no one.” All of this is viewed through a prism supplied by a single extended family, the Mathesons, one of whose members may hold the key to overall survival. The Blu-ray adds more than an hour of bonus features, including commentaries on select episodes, a panel discussion from the 2013 Paley Festival, deleted scenes, a gag reel, NBC.com webisodes and several making-of and background pieces.
Syfy has garnered far more than its fair share of attention for its silly, made-for-cable movie, “Sharknado.” Its instant cult status attracted the media, of course, overshadowing the rest of the channel’s original programming, which has done pretty well in the cable environment. Entering its fourth stanza, “Haven” is loosely based on a Stephen King novel, “The Colorado Kid.” King left plenty of room in the story for readers to come to their own conclusions about the mystery of the Colorado Kid, a luxury producers of series didn’t have. Instead, they added new characters, an overriding supernatural atmosphere and a possible second life for the Kid. In the third season, too, the writers filled in some of the blanks in the life of FBI Agent Audrey. The Blu-ray contains a half-dozen commentary tracks, interviews with the cast, a panel discussion from New York ComicCon, webisodes, deleted and alternate scenes, backgrounders and a Season Four preview.
You know a series has done well for a network when a spinoff show is ordered and scheduled. That’s the case with “The Vampire Diaries,” which is entering its fifth season on the CW and has inspired a new series, “The Originals.” At first glance, “TVD” resembles a cross between the “Twilight” series, “True Blood” and “Dawson’s Creek,” which shares Kevin Williamson’s DNA as a co-creator. It is, instead, an adaptation of a series of young-adults novels by L.J. Smith. Going into the fourth year, viewers were left hanging on the status of Elena. In addition to entering her senior year, she’s struggling with the transformation from human to vampire. Guiding her is bad boy, Damon. She’ll also have to contend with the town’s vigilante Founders’ Council. Among the Blu-ray extras are “The Evolution of Elena Gilbert,” cast and creators’ favorite moments from Elena’s human-to-vampire transition; “Blood, Boys, and Bad Behavior: Becoming a Vampire,” about the new dynamics caused by Elena’s transformation; “The Vampire Diaries: The Ultimate Prop Master”; “Inking the Brotherhood: The Hunter’s Mark,” about superhuman muscles and supernatural tattoos; “Creating Silas’s Island”; a fan video, “The Impact of a Single Show: The Vampire Diaries”; a gallery of fan-created artwork; and a gag reel.
Eight seasons is a long time for any series to stay around, these days, and now the CW’s supernatural drama, “Supernatural,” is steaming toward another fall debut. Like “TVD,” fans will get a mid-season sneak peek of a spinoff series. It’s next to impossible to summarize a season of the show in a paragraph—the storylines are that far out—but, here goes. Season Eight opens with Dean escaping Purgatory—yes, that one—where he’s been put on ice for a year. He does so with the help of a vampire, Benny, whose soul he carries in his belly. Brother Sam had given up hope of finding his brother and took up with the veterinarian, Amelia, who’s no longer in the picture. Eventually, Benny will cause problems in the Winchester family, but they regroup to keep Crowley and his search for the magic tablets … or something like that. The Blu-ray includes producer commentaries on three episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes “Finding Supernatural: Creating the Found Footage Episode,” “For the Defense of Man: The Tablets Revealed” and “Angel Warrior: The Story of Castiel.”
PBS: Frontline: Rape in the Fields
PBS: Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild
Last year, Kirby Dick’s startling documentary, “The Invisible War,” launched a national discussion on the “epidemic” of rape and sexual harassment that’s tarnished the honor of our armed forces. Far from acknowledging the extent of the problem, Pentagon officials and Congress have wasted time debating semantics and the logic of allowing commanding officers to determine what does and doesn’t constitute sexual harassment in what until recently was strictly an ol’ boys club. At least, it’s a start. Earlier this summer, “Frontline” and “Univision” combined resources to produce “Rape in the Fields,” a similarly horrifying plague. As jointly reported by “Frontline” correspondent Lowell Bergman, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, women who work the fields of California and other agricultural states are frequent targets of predatory supervisors. Among the other problems facing undocumented migrant workers, especially, is a justice system weighted against their interests and safety. The documentary focuses on the attempt by one woman, Maricruz Ladino, to expose the shocking problem and punish the perpetrators. Ladino was an 18-year veteran of the fields of Monterey County when, one day, her supervisor took her to a remote location and sexually assaulted her. Like fellow workers, documented and otherwise, there was nothing secure about her job and she feared being fired. She wouldn’t be the first whistler-blower to be blackballed, so, for a few months, anyway, kept her mouth shut. Her legal battle with Anthony Smith Co. began in 2006 and ended with an undisclosed settlement in 2010. Once she made a formal complaint against her supervisor, the 40-year-old grandmother was indeed fired. Despite the settlement, her attacker continues to walk, just like every other supervisor accused of such crimes.
For many motorists, the vast flatlands that stretch from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains are a little more than a test of one’s ability to stay awake while driving. The PBS presentation “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild” suggests that we slow down and savor what’s left of an ecosystem still teeming with life, but threatened by pollution, careless farming practices, fracking and reduced habitats. Native Nebraskan Michael Forsberg has been photographing the wonders of the prairie for several decades and he continues to be amazed by what he finds. Indeed, after practically giving up hope of ever capturing images of bobcats, he discovered some living 10 minutes from his home. If the shrinkage continues, there might not be any room left for already-endangered species and Dust Bowl conditions could return to haunt farmers and ranchers. Although diminished in numbers, there’s still time to see bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, deer, prairie dogs, prairie wolves, prairie chickens and the occasional bear and mountain lion. Forsberg’s camera has also recorded dozens of species of brilliantly colored birds and fish for us to admire. At 120 minutes, “America’s Lingering Wild” more than scratches the surface of a subject we dare not ignore.
PBS Kids: Wild Kratt’s Wildest Animal Adventures
It’s never too early for kids to learn about the dangers facing the greater and lesser creatures on Earth, as well as the things that make them so important to the eco-system. One easy way to accomplish this is to introduce them to the “PBS Kids” series “Wild Kratt’s Wildest Animal Adventures.” Naturalists Martin and Chris Kratt host the series as both live-action and animated characters. They travel all over the world to teach young viewers about the dangers facing animals and their habitats, no matter how ugly and scary they may be. To accomplish this, the brothers don Creature Power Suits, which are charged by discs encoded with a creature’s DNA. It allows them to blend in where larger human beings would stand out like a sore thumb. The newest compilation includes 20 episodes from the first four of five seasonal collections.