The Master: Blu-ray
Nothing harms a movie more than advance speculation in the media – wired, print, Internet – about what was going on in the heads of the director or screenwriter when they were developing it. Typically, the scuttlebutt is much ado about very little, but any publicity is good publicity when the total product is fragile. The early buzz on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” was that it would depict the founding of Scientology and Philip Seymour Hoffman was modeled directly after L. Ron Hubbard. Gossip about Scientology’s links to some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, while interesting as it pertains to Tom Cruise and his wives, primarily tickles the fancy of bloggers, investigative reporters and conspiracy theorists. I’d venture to say that more potential viewers of “The Master” were turned off by the thought of investing more than two hours of time in a small, if powerful cult religion than were willing to read early reviews arguing that it is, in fact, a very good movie. “The Master” didn’t quite bomb at the box office, but it didn’t immediately cover its nut, either. In fact, “The Master” doesn’t mention Scientology by name and the organization led by Hoffman’s charismatic Lancaster Dodd is far more of a composite of the many cults, pseudo-religions and self-help movements that bloomed in the wake of World War II and the Korean War. Dianetics had the most staying power. “The Master” was informed, as well, by leftover material from Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” Jason Robards’ stories about drinking in the Navy during wartime, the life of John Steinbeck and, more than anything else, John Huston’s post-war medical documentary, “Let There Be Light.” Huston was given free access to military hospitals dedicated to helping soldiers, sailors and marines with psycho-neurotic ailments that manifested themselves in the war. The government’s assembly-line approach to psychotherapy was required before the men could be released into a peacetime America largely oblivious to the rigors of combat. Indeed, some of the scenes in “The Master” were lifted directly from the documentary. “Let There Be Light” is included in its entirety in the Blu-ray package.
Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as Freddie Quell, a sailor who killed non-combat hours drinking anything remotely intoxicating, including fuel from torpedoes. Although it’s never made clear if Quell’s rage issues and breakdown were caused by combat or merely exacerbated by the mind-numbing hooch, he’s required to pass through the treatment mill. Although he’s hardly a model patient, Quell is deemed sufficiently sane to take a job as a portrait photographer at a large department store. It doesn’t take long, however, for his hair-trigger temper and drinking problems – he’s graduated to paint thinner and darkroom developing fluids — cause him trouble among civilians. One drunken evening, Quell hops a yacht in a west-coast port and wakes up on the open ocean with no clue as to how he got there. “Cause” leader Dodd (Hoffman) has appropriated the vessel from one of his wealthy patrons for a group-therapy marathon and welcomes the severely hung-over drifter to join the seminars being conducted en route to Philadelphia. At first glance, the men seem to be an odd match and they are. Dodd claims that he remembers meeting Quell somewhere, perhaps in one of his many previous lives, and takes him on as a personal project. They bond over poisonous liquids and a common intolerance for dissent. Dodd intends to erase painful memories of traumatic episodes in Quell’s past lives, while the newcomer sees in the Master a friend worthy of his protection. He’s been adopted by Dodd’s family (Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers) and travels with them to Cause events around the country. Finally, though, he’s given an ultimatum by the pragmatic Mrs. Dodd to quit drinking or leave the safety of the nest.
There’s nothing to gain by revealing anything more of the narrative here, but, in his restless quest for truth, Quell reminded me of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, the Beat heroes of “On the Road.” Kerouac’s book was written during the same post-war period in which veterans not cut out for the suburbs and 9-to-5 jobs sought refuge in all sorts of movements, including off-brand religions, motorcycle gangs and thrill sports. What’s distinguishes “The Master” from almost every other movie released in 2012 is the intensity of the dramatic interplay between Phoenix and Hoffman. The success of “Argo” notwithstanding, you won’t find better performances in any of the Best Picture nominees, now arriving in DVD and Blu-ray. In addition to Huston’s hugely disturbing documentary, the bonus package includes “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute montage of deleted footage edited by Anderson and set to Jonny Greenwood’s original score, and a very unusual 8-minute making-of featurette. “The Master” is, as they say, not for everyone. It practically defines what it means to be an arthouse movie and, even then, requires tight focus. Those who approach it with an open mind and a surplus of patience will be greatly rewarded. – Gary Dretzka
Holy Motors: Blu-ray
I won’t pretend to understand most of what transpires during the course of Leos Carax’s widely admired “Holy Motors.” I take comfort in knowing, however, that the raves on the summation page at Metacritic.com fail to reflect a consensus of critical opinion, either. It would take an abacus to add up all of the multisyllabic adjectives used on just that one page to describe what pundits admire about the movie. Getting inside Carax’s head is another story, altogether. If I had to choose only one adjective to describe “Holy Motors,” it would be “phantasmagoric,” as in “a shifting medley of real or imagined figures, as in a dream” or “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions.” “Holy Motors” is all of that and a box of popcorn. Denis Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, a master in the art of special-effects makeup whose role in life appears to be transforming into disparate characters while being chauffeured around Paris in a white stretch limousine. The various characters play roles defined by Oscar’s boss, Celine, a stiffly coiffed blond with a seemingly limitless imagination. In the nearly 24-hour period covered here, she assigns him to portray an ancient female beggar, hustling tourists with a tin cup; a ninja warrior in a costume typically used in motion-capture animation; a concerned father of a teenage girl; an assassin; a business executive; the leader of a marching band of accordionists; a grotesque sewer snoid; and a half-dozen other personae. Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes also participate in Celine’s sometimes lethal game.
I use the word, “phantasmagoria” because of Carax’s brilliantly inconsistent and thoroughly absorbing deployment of colors, textures and light. If you can imagine driving the entire length of the Las Vegas Strip in a clown car, wearing holographic sunglasses, you’ll get only half of the picture. Paris is portrayed as being both the City of Lights and an overgrown warehouse district through which no one drives after dark. We’re taken from the depths of Monsieur Merde’s subterranean hideout to the roof of the landmark Samaritaine department store, with a brief stop at a fashion shoot in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Carax makes all sorts of cinematic references, so, maybe, all that he’s saying is that all life imitates the movies, and I wouldn’t argue that point. Anyone looking for explanations beyond that will have to trust their instincts or stay tuned for the extended making-of featurette and interviews. And, yes, “Holy Motors” does look splendid in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka
The Loneliest Planet
No one knows how strong a marriage or relationship is until it’s tested. More often than not, the test comes in the most obvious and traditional ways possible – cheating and being caught lying about it – while, in other cases, the trigger event is so imperceptible as to be invisible. In Julia Loktev’s completely unexpected drama “The Loneliest Planet,” Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play a soon-to-be-married couple, Alex and Nica, who are backpacking through the rugged mountains of Georgia (the country). It would be difficult to imagination a more compatible man and woman. They thoroughly enjoy one another’s company and even play word games in foreign languages. To coin an otherwise useless cliché, they complete each other. The only things viewers are required to do during the entire first half of “The Loneliest Planet” is marvel at the magnificent Caucasus Mountains scenery. They’re accompanied by an experienced local guide, Dato, played by Bidzina Gujabidze, a seasoned rock climber in his debut role. He understands enough English to be useful and join in the linguistics games over the nightly campfire. If Dato doesn’t seem particularly happy, it’s because he’s recently been abandoned by his wife and now lives too far away to maintain contact with his son.
There’s no faking the majesty of the mountains and how much they dwarf the trio when the camera pulls back to the middle distance. About halfway through, they come across a group of locals returning to Dato’s village. He knows the men, but it isn’t made clear if they’re hunters, smugglers or guerrillas. Something completely unexpected happens that changes the complexion of the story and demands that we reconsider the strength of the ties that bind. There will be another telling incident later in “The Loneliest Planet,” but it’s more difficult to see how it fits into the picture. We expect terrific performances from Bernal, who plays happy as well as any other player in the game. Furstenberg is the discovery here. Wildly expressive and blessed with flaming red hair, the Israeli-American actor looks enough like Laura Ambrose to be her kid sister and could be mistaken for Jessica Chastain, as well. Gujabidze may have been typecast as a rough-hewn outdoorsman, but he delivers the goods by demonstrating how even the strongest of men can have their hearts broken. “The Loneliest Planet” was adapted from Thomas Bissell’s story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” Even in DVD, the Caucasus range couldn’t be more beautiful. It’s accompanied by a making-of featurette that suggests just how difficult the location shoot must have been.
Also from Eastern Europe comes another movie that explores the inner landscape of a soul and the borders of love. Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” takes only 75 minutes to tell a story that carries the weight and directness of a novella. It is a road movie of sorts, with elements of the buddy film informing it, as well. Its flavor, though, is distinctly Russian. Immediately after the death of his wife, a burly middle-age man from the west-central Kostroma Oblast, on the banks of the Neya River, asks a writer friend to accompany him to the region in which they were born. It once was dominated by the Merya, an ancient culture that was assimilated by the East Slavs in the 11th Century and has all but disappeared. What keep it alive today are a language and certain unique traditions. One requires the widower, Miron, to prepare his wife’s corpse and transport it to a fondly remembered place, where her body will be cremated. Along the way, Miron describes intimate details of his marriage to Aist as part of a mourning process called “smoking.” Aist listens quietly to the reflections, while adding background asides for viewers. After the ceremony, which recalls the funeral pyres along the Ganges in India, the men take the tradition even further. The ending is a stunner, but no less poetic than anything that’s preceded it. – Gary Dretzka
The Kid With a Bike: Criterion Edition: Blu-ray
Chronicle of a Summer: Criterion Edition: Blu-ray
Belgium’s filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, make movies about people who normally don’t register on the radar screen of life. They are decidedly working-class folks, struggling to hold on to what they already have or looking for angles to make their stays on Earth slightly more comfortable. To accomplish this, the more unscrupulous among them take advantage of orphans, illegal immigrants and vulnerable young women with plenty to lose. They get away with such abuses because their lives and crimes typically are too mundane to involve anyone besides members of their immediate family. This makes them perfect candidates for closer examination through the Dardennes’ exquisitely precise microscope. They’ve come to life in such naturalistic profiles as “La promesse,” “Rosetta,” “Le fils,” “L’Enfants” and “Le silence de Lorna.” Titles like these are what make festivals such alluring destinations for cineastes, critics and buffs afraid that films of such high quality won’t make it to the boonies. “The Kid With a Bike” differs from previous Dardennes efforts in the relatively bright color scheme used and inclusion of music. What begins as a tragedy waiting to happen evolves none too swiftly into something resembling a fairy tale about “a woman who helps a boy emerge from the violence that holds him prisoner.”
In “The Kid With a Bike,” the Dardennes cut almost immediately to the chase, leaving no room for an expository opening or convenient narrative device. They test the viewers’ ability to get a quick handle, but reward them as the details of the protagonist’s backstory emerge organically throughout the story. (Imagine picking up a novel and skipping the preface and first chapter before digging into it.) We’re introduced to 12-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) in mid-rant. He’s demanding that a caretaker at a foster home – or, perhaps, reform school — attempt, perhaps for the hundredth time, to call a number that only a month ago belonged to his father. Once again, of course, the boy is told that the phone has been disconnected and there’s no forwarding information. Cyril’s positive that the operator is lying to him, for perhaps the hundredth time, and his father simply isn’t picking up the phone at their apartment. More than anything else, the boy is interested in finding out what happened to the bicycle his father gave him before he was sent to what we now know is a placement center for orphans and abandoned children. After acting out his frustration on the supervisor, he takes advantage of a quiet moment to once again jump the facility’s fence and high-tail it to the apartment. Knowing he’s being trailed, Cyril attempts to find sanctuary in a doctor’s office, citing an obviously phony injury. The receptionist tips the caretakers of his presence, but, instead of immediately dragging the boy back to the foster home, they agree to take him to the apartment. What he finds is an empty dwelling, but no bicycle. Cyril still refuses to believe that his father would abandon him or sell his bike, which is exactly happened.
Fortuitously, a woman who was in the doctor’s waiting room takes pity on Cyril and volunteers to track down the bike. After buying it back from the new owner, Samantha (Cécile de France) delivers it to the foster home, where it’s almost immediately stolen by older boys. They don’t get very far before Cyril runs them down, however. As Samantha’s about leave the facility, the boy catches up to her and pleads for her to let him spend weekends with her. She may ultimately become the story’s fairy princess, but, for now, the single, childless businesswoman doesn’t comprehend the task ahead of her. Cyril quickly convinces her to help him find his father, which she does, but the boy appears to blame her when the man refuses to embrace him. Worse, he uses his time away from the foster home to indenture himself to a local hoodlum. There’s no reason to spoil the ending, except to say that things get much worse for Cyril before they get a whole lot better for both of them. “The Kid With a Bike” is a terrifically heart-warming story with universal appeal and characters we must learn to love. The Criterion Collection version looks excellent in Blu-ray and features such enhancements as a conversation between film critic Kent Jones and both of the Dardennes; interviews with actors Doret and De France; a half-hour documentary, in which the Dardennes revisit five locations from the film; and booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoff Andrew.
Also new from Criterion Collection is “Chronicle of a Summer,” a documentary collaboration between anthropologist Jean Rouch, sociologist Edgar Morin and Michel Brault, the French-Canadian cinematographer who is credited with introducing to Europe. It begins with a discussion among the filmmakers about whether the presence of a camera during the production of a documentary necessarily turns non-actors into actors, thereby corrupting the information captured by the filmmakers. Volunteers then take to the streets of Paris, asking passersby if they’re happy and why. It is the summer of 1960, a time in French history when the wars for independence in African were being widely debated, the gap between the working class and bourgeoisie was widening, more women and immigrants were entering the work force and the French New Wave cinema was in full bloom. The discussions would continue in workshop settings, individually and even on a vacation outing. To cap off the documentary, the participants were assembled once again to watch the footage gathered and discuss its veracity.
Cinéma verité would soon become an important tool in the documentary-making process, but, in “Chronicle,” it’s in its infancy. The filmmakers didn’t even know yet what kinks they’d have to work out for their films to be taken seriously. Because of its focus on French issues and lifestyles – which still felt quite foreign to non-Francophiles — not all of the material will be relevant to American viewers. At the time, we were emerging from our Eisenhower-era hibernation, Vietnam wasn’t on anyone’s mind, agriculture was losing ground to industry, the suburban idyll was being realized and Communists and Socialists had no footing in politics, as they had in Europe. Later, fly-on-the-wall documentaries by Lionel Rogosin, Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker would disabuse us of the notion that Americans were without sin, but, in 1960, “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver” were as close to reality as most people wanted to get. The most surprising and revelatory conversation in “Chronicle,” perhaps, comes when two Africans are asked if they know what the numbers tattooed onto the arm of one of the women in their group meant. In fact, they had no idea how the numbers related to the Nazi concentration camps, the existence which had been revealed 15 years earlier. The men appear stunned by the woman’s explanation of the Holocaust and her description of Auschwitz. With memories of Dien Bien Pho fresh in their minds, some of the participants also demonstrated frustrations with the ongoing Algerian crisis and collapse of the colonial way of life. Less than a decade later, average Americans would echo those same concerns.
The Blu-ray benefits from a new high-definition digital transfer of the Cineteca di Bologna restoration of the film; a separate 73-minute documentary, with outtakes and new interviews with Morin and some of the film’s subjects; archival interviews with Rouch and Marceline Loridan, the Holocaust survivor; a new interview with anthropology professor Faye Ginsburg, organizer of several Rouch retrospectives; and a booklet with an essay by Sam Di Iorio. – Gary Dretzka
A Simple Life: Blu-ray
One of the most enduring clichés about Asian families is the great reverence reserved for elders by younger generations. I don’t know if the tradition has changed as China, Japan, Korea and other countries have adapted western habits and wealthy families have begun to split their time between the Old Country and the United States. Ann Hui’s deeply affecting “A Simple Life” suggests that while some families maintain generational ties to their elders, the pace of life and business in urban centers has eroded the tradition, at least. “A Simple Life” describes life on the cusp of past and present. Roger (Andy Lau) is a successful movie producer, living in Hong Kong. Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has worked for Roger’s family as a nanny and maid over the course of four generations and she’s treated like a respected aunt. With most of Roger’s immediate family living in San Francisco, Roger is the beneficiary of Ah Tao’s good cooking and close attention. One day, she suffers a stroke and needs someone to care for her. She insists that Roger place her in a western-style nursing home, where she’ll get therapy but be surrounded by residents far more miserable and alone than she is. Roger never stays away for long and her humor returns with her dexterity. Still, she’s far too modest to let any kindness pass without putting up some sort of a fuss.
“A Simple Life” is about a woman whose sacrifices to a family not her own are rewarded as if she shared their DNA. It couldn’t be described any more simply than that. At nearly two hours, the film may be a tad long for western audiences, especially those who may be queasy about making similar decisions about nursing homes for loved ones or themselves. As bleak as some of the scenes in the facility may be, Ann Hui’s film is, more often than not, uplifting. All of the attention being paid to Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winner, “Amour,” should help “A Simple Life” find its natural audience here on DVD and Blu-ray here. It was interesting to learn that Ip is Lau’s godmother in real life. Both are terrific in the lead roles. Look for cameos by Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and other fixtures of the Hong Kong cinema. – Gary Dretzka
Anyone who was thoroughly creeped out by Woody Allen’s courting of Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan,” or Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives,” can stop reading now. “Madrid 1987” won’t be your cup of tea. In Spanish writer/director David Trueba’s claustrophobic anti-romance, a pretty young college student (Maria Valverde) spends most of a day and night in the company of a political columnist, who looks as if he might remember when Franco’s fascist legions took Madrid. Journalism student Angela needs to do a paper on an important Spaniard and gets a friend to pass along Miguel’s phone number. (“I don’t go into the office, because they won’t let me drink anymore.”) Finally, they connect in a restaurant, which, like everything else in the city, is mostly vacant over a holiday weekend. Miguel may have been a handsome man at one time, but now looks a bit like Charles Bukowski crossed with Ron Jeremy. He completely overwhelms Angela with self-serving blather designed to make her think she’d be a fool not to give him a roll in the hay. She follows the geezer back to his buddy’s apartment, where he slowly but surely wears down her resistance. Instead of a roll in the hay, however, they consummate their interview on the tub of a cramped bathroom, whose door automatically locked them in when it closed. Their session may not be pretty, but it’s blessedly short.
Unfortunately, mostly for Angela, their only means of communication with the outside world is a small vent window. No one in the neighborhood is around to hear them, anyway, so she has to listen to his jaded observations and ancient war stories until the neighbors get back from their vacations. Fortunately, primarily for Miguel, the only thing in the bathroom that could be confused with clothing is the towel she’s clinging to her chest. He had, you see, snuck into the bathroom while she was taking a shower and kicked their clothes outside the door. Naked and wet, Angela could easily pass for a 16-year-old, which doesn’t bother Miguel in the least. (He’s so distracted that he neglects to snuff out his cigarette before inviting himself into the shower.) Now, it’s entirely possible that Angela was fully aware of the possibility that they might end their interview with sex. Miguel doesn’t have to resort to coercion or violence to grease the skids and his seduction routine doesn’t seem to faze her. Trueba picked 1987 for his story because it was a period of political and social upheaval in post-Franco Spain. A younger generation, tired of listening to the old-timers rehash the Civil War, was coming to the fore and demanded change. It’s been suggested that viewers conversant in Spanish will find more humor in the dialogue than subtitles allow. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
Chicken With Plums
When it comes to Iran, most Americans find it difficult look beyond the day in 1979 when radical Islamist students stormed our embassy in Tehran and held 52 workers there hostage for 444 days. In a very real sense, the country’s leaders – some of whom participated in the takeover – have held us captive ever since then. The media feel compelled to address every ludicrous threat to Israel and update on the country’s nuclear program, even knowing they’re being played like a fiddle. It helps explain why “Argo” caught the nation’s fancy, finally winning an Oscar for Best Picture. No matter how compelling Tony Mendez’ actual story is, the writers felt it necessary to suggest that Iranian police were so incompetent they couldn’t prevent a jetliner from taking off a hundred yards away from them. In fact, while the security guards may have been fooled by the false Canadian passports and visas, there was no Keystone Kops-like attempt to get through closed doors and gates, let alone a car chase with a 747. Even if “Argo” served as the feel-good movie of the year for American viewers – and it is undeniably entertaining – but, fact is, we’re no closer to peace now than we were in 1979.
That mainstream audiences in the U.S. have ignored the many fine movies made by Iran filmmakers in and out of exile is no mystery. We avoid anything that arrives on our shores with subtitles and actors whose names and faces don’t ring a bell. Last February, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” was denied a nomination for Best Picture, even though it was inarguably one of the three or four most honored films in the world in 2011. It was accorded Best Foreign Language Film honors, instead. No film in recent years has said as much about the human condition as “A Separation” and, even though it was made in Tehran, Farhadi was able to reveal several sad truths about life in the Islamic Republic. By contrast, the powerful French drama “Amour” was nominated for the 2013 Best Picture, while also winning in the foreign-language category.
In 2008, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud were nominated in the same race for their animated adaptation of the graphic novel “Persepolis.” It describes how a teenage girl who cheered the demise of the Shah’s regime found herself equally disappointed by the restrictions imposed by Islamic fundamentalists. After being sent to Austria to study and wait out the fanatics, the character effectively becomes a woman without a country. Their follow-up effort, “Chicken With Plums,” also is set in Tehran, but only five years after an American-led, British-backed coup toppled Mohammed Mossadegh’s democratically elected government. The Shah had been installed as dictator and Tehran was becoming a cosmopolitan and still multicultural metropolis. There’s an undercurrent of political change in “Chicken With Plums,” but it’s almost imperceptible. It’s very easy to identify the magical realism and human tragedy that informs a story that reminded me of both “Hugo” and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.”
As played with great elasticity and compassion by Mathieu Amalric, Nasser-Ali Khan is a violinist of considerable talent, but little luck in life. After his prized instrument is broken, he desperately searches for a violin at least as special as the last one. After being disappointed twice, Nasser-Ali decides that his life no longer is worth living. Nothing, including his family, holds meaning for him. In the week or so that follows this decision, Nasser-Ali can only reflect on what’s gone before in his life. He has no future, after all. (We’re told that he dies early in the narrative, so no need for a spoiler alert here.) Satrapi and Paronnaud take us back with him as he reminisces about a hurtful sibling rivalry he was forced to endure as a child and the refusal of a clockmaker to approve his marriage to the man’s daughter, simply because he believes that musicians will always be poor. Instead, her hand is given to a soldier.
The Angel of Death visits his bedroom, allowing him a peek into the surrealistic future of his children. Nasser-Ali’s wife (Maria de Medeiros) hopes to coax him out of his malaise with his favorite dish, chicken with plums, and by letting down her hair, but to no avail. Satrapi and Paronnaud intersperse live-action with animation, stylized sets and hand-drawn backdrops that wouldn’t have been out of place on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Finally, if we aren’t encouraged to shed any tears for Nasser-Ali, we sympathize with him for the many missed opportunities and disappointments in his life. The Blu-ray presentation greatly enhances the experience, as it plays directly to the filmmakers’ visual strengths. It adds commentary and a festival Q&A. – Gary Dretzka
How to Survive a Plague
Today, it would be difficult to be more than one or two degrees of separation from someone who’s HIV-positive, but living an otherwise healthy, happy and productive life. It was a different story 30 years ago, when hemophiliacs comprised the primary at-risk group and concern over blood used in transfusions reached new heights. In 1987, gay and lesbian activists in New York formed ACT-UP to demand progress in the diagnosis, care and treatment of those with HIV/AIDS. The deaths of Rock Hudson and Liberace showed that wealth, celebrity and access to the best medical treatment couldn’t prevent AIDS-related deaths, but it wasn’t until 1991, when basketball superstar Ervin “Magic” Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive that the plague hit home to mainstream Americans. Not only did Johnson insist that the virus was transmitted through heterosexual contact, but he also vowed to fight the disease with the same intensity as any opponent on the court. Besides coming out of retirement twice to play basketball, he would live to found the Magic Johnson Foundation, become a full-fledged business tycoon and purchase a share of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fortuitously, the odds of Johnson and thousands of others in his condition surviving for more than a few more months and years would greatly improve from accelerated research into treatments. Finally, clinical trials would test combinations of multiple drugs and FDA approval of experimental drugs was accelerated. It is believed that use of “AIDS cocktails” resulted in a 60-80 percent decline in rates of AIDS, death, and hospitalization in the United States. Outside of North America and Western Europe, however, the pandemic continued claim lives at an alarming pace.
“How to Survive a Plague” chronicles ACT-UP’s crucial role in the process. While the organization was born out of frustration, grief and anger, its surviving members, at least, could take comfort in knowing that their efforts gave millions of people real hope for survival. A cure may still elude scientists, but almost all of the roadblocks to finding one have been removed … except money, of course. The thing that concerned the activists most was the lack of speed and determination displayed by the FDA and other government-funded research agencies to push testing of antiretroviral treatments and combinations of drugs. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical firms were being allowed to gouge patients in the name of research and development, and insurance interests could refuse compensating hospitals for treatment. Underground networks created to supply drugs still not approved by the FDA flourished, even without guarantees the medicine would work. ACT-UP made sure no one forgot what was at stake, by staging rallies and disruptive office takeovers, challenging the official Roman Catholic stance on condoms, standing up to such conservative bullies as Jesse Helms and prodding the media with guerrilla actions. It also committed itself to learning everything there was to know about the disease, treatment options, promising drugs and finding money to fund research. The two-pronged strategy put ACT-UP in the unique position of knowing more about the disease than most researchers and public-health officials. David France’s documentary is comprised of much archival video footage from meetings and protests, home movies that recall people who succumbed to disease and interviews that span 1987 and today. It can be argued that “How to Survive a Plague” errs by virtually ignoring what was happening outside New York and focusing too little on the scientists who were as desperate to find solutions as anyone else. It is, however, a fine addition to the growing catalogue of documentary titles on the subject. – Gary Dretzka
Kiss the Abyss
Border Run: Blu-ray
Joshua Tree: Blu-ray
There’s no law that prohibits critics from cutting a break or two for movies that try really hard to be please horror fans, but end up in straight-to-DVD purgatory, anyway. Absent substantial budgets and recognizable stars, though, these overachievers are totally dependent on cover art and positive reviews in genre-specific websites. “Kiss the Abyss” has enough good things going for it to have attracted some positive attention there, but it could easily get lost in the crowd. Ken Winkler’s debut feature tweaks a theme that’s as old as “Frankenstein” – the book, that is – and, if he doesn’t actually breathe new life into it, at least there’s some gratuitous nudity and enough fake blood to deplete the supply of corn syrup and red dye in most small towns. Soft-core princess Nicole Moore (“Femme Fatales,” “The Babymakers”) plays Lesley, an artist whose husband (Scott Wilson) makes the mistake of getting between feuding meth-head neighbors, one of whom kills her with a baseball bat. Lesley’s wealthy father convinces the husband to take her lifeless body to a garbage-strewn outpost in the desert, where a guy (Douglas Bennett) who looks like Harvey Keitel’s younger brother has developed a re-animation serum. Maybe, you can guess what happens next. When Lesley gets back home, alive, she begins to display several ugly anti-social tendencies, one of which is a decided taste for other people’s blood. The real fun comes when the husband and his brother-in-law return to the desert to get their deposit back. Unfortunately for everyone involved, except viewers, the mad scientist has a strict no-refunds policy.
In “Border Run,” Sharon Stone plays a decidedly non-glamorous TV reporter, whose conservative views on immigration make her a hero among the “kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” crowd in southern Arizona. Her Sofie Talbert lives to unmask politicians who pretend to be hard-liners on the subject, but vote otherwise in Congress. When she discovers that her relief-worker brother (Billy Zane) has disappeared while working in Mexico, she decides to cross the border herself to bring him or his corpse home. In doing so, Talbert discovers an upside-down world of desperate migrants, corrupt and trigger-happy cops, vicious coyotes, heroin smugglers, bad guys disguised as good guys and good guys disguised as bad guys. She also is unhappy to learn that all of the American-flag pins in her jewelry case can’t protect her against slimeballs working both sides of the border. It’s safe to predict that whatever right-wing beliefs that she was harboring before going south would begin to melt as soon as she met flesh-and-blood migrants and was fired upon by American vigilantes, toting high-powered rifles and an urge to kill Mexicans. Handed this much baggage to carry, director Gabriela Tagliavini did well by making “Border Run” as exciting and unpredictable as it is. The vast desert landscapes look impressively desolate on Blu-ray and an aura of unharnessed violence permeates the narrative. Given how divisive the immigration question is in the U.S., it’s not surprising that the distributors decided to release it first on DVD and Blu-ray.
I don’t mean to sound insensitive here, but the release on Blu-ray of “Joshua Tree” (a.k.a., “Army of One”) seems as if it were timed to exploit the tragic events surrounding the manhunt for cop-killer Christopher Dorner. Of course, Shout Factory scheduled it months before the news about the first deaths and release of Dorner’s manifesto began to unfold, so the company’s innocent of pandering. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to watch the less preposterous parts of “Joshua Tree” without flashing on that terrible week in SoCal history. For one thing, the distance between Joshua Tree and Big Bear is about the same as that between Big Bear and Los Angeles. More to the point, however, Dolph Lundgren’s character can’t get anyone to believe his story about being framed by corrupt cops in the murder of a Highway Patrol officer. His escape from custody sparks a manhunt involving law-enforcement agencies throughout the region. In the course of evading the pursuit, Lundgren’s Wellman Santee also destroys a car that would lead police to his location. In fact, though, director Vic Armstrong and writer Steven Pressfield staged “Joshua Tree” as homage to Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra,” which is referenced during the movie. All coincidences aside, “Joshua Tree” remains a competently made action flick, staged amid some of the desert Southwest’s most spectacular scenery – Lone Pine, Mount Whitney, Palm Springs, Death Valley — and with enough recognizable stars to distract viewers from the story’s shortcuts and lapses in logic. Armstrong’s vast experience as a stuntman didn’t hurt, either. Joining Lundgren here are George Segal, Kristian Alfonso, Geoffrey Lewis, Michelle Phillips, Michael Paul Chan and Khandi Alexander. The Blu-ray transfer looks pretty good and it adds fresh interviews and an alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka
Writer/director Charles Matthau probably could have made a worse adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s sendup of 1960s radicals living in Reagan-era America, but I seriously doubt that he could have made a better version of “Freaky Deaky” than he already has. That’s not intended to be taken as a compliment. While he sticks pretty close to the 1988 book’s basic structure, Matthau’s decision to turn back the clock to the early 1970s essentially makes it a cross between a freak show and a sight gag. That’s because a cast that once reportedly included Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, William H. Macy, Craig Robinson and Sienna Miller ended up being headed by Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, Andy Dick, Michael Jai White, Billy Burke and two pretty young women, neither of whom are up to the task of impersonating a Leonard-drawn femme fatale. Burke plays Chris Mankowski, a member of the Detroit Police Department’s bomb squad mustered out for investigating the wrong people. Glover and Dick play millionaire brothers Woody and Mark Ricks as if they were channeling their own worst behavior, as reported in People magazine. Slater plays a Weather Underground wannabe, who, along with his ex-con girlfriend (Breanne Racano), are blackmailing the Ricks brothers for money and revenge. They use sticks of dynamite to get their point across. The way Mankowski fits into this mess is his expertise with explosives and interest in a rape charge against one of the Ricks, brought by an exotic dancer (Sabina Gadecki). Glover, Dick and Slater hold up their end of the bargain in “Freaky Deaky,” but everyone around them is decidedly subpar. The less one knows about Leonard’s books, the more likely they’ll be to find something here to enjoy. – Gary Dretzka
Noel Gallagher: International Magic Live at the O2: Blu-ray
Not all high-definition productions are created equal. Sports look great on HDTV, while dramas and sitcoms benefit only marginally from the technical upgrade. Movies shot on film and transferred to Blu-ray look fine, but they don’t necessarily sparkle and pop like those shot, edited and transferred digitally. It explains why animation, concerts and nature films stand out from the crowd. I was reminded of this tendency while watching “Noel Gallagher: International Magic Live at the O2” in Blu-ray. I often find it difficult to distinguish more than two or three of Oasis’ hits from dozens of other songs the feuding Gallagher boys recorded. What held my attention throughout the Blu-ray, though, was the clarity of the cinematography, especially when intensified by the laser show and other lighting effects. The audio presentation, as well, delivers the muscle of the brass and choral elements backing Gallagher’s High Flying Birds unit. The two-disc set follows the guitarist and songwriter as he performs live in London and plays an acoustic set at Toronto’s Mod Club. It also includes a 20-minute film created using his “Ride the Tiger” music videos, plus footage of live performances from the 2012 NME Awards. As an added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with a bonus audio CD with thirteen exclusive demo tracks. – Gary Dretzka
Company of Heroes
Set during the Battle of the Bulge, the first half of Don Michael Paul’s World War II thriller, “Company of Heroes,” unspools like an episode of the old TV series, “Combat.” Every effort was made to produce an authentic look and enough action to satisfy video gamers in love with WWII strategy, simulator and shooter titles, as well as the dwindling number of veterans wondering why they don’t make actors like John Wayne, Audie Murphy and Vic Morrow anymore. It isn’t bad, considering that it probably was always designed to go straight-to-video. In the second half, a unit that manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge is assigned to make contact with an OSS officer, who will direct the soldiers to a target where a nuclear bomb could be in the developmental stages. When we were told that the movie was “inspired by true events,” I now assume the producers had Operation Alsos in mind. An Allied mission to deny German scientists the “heavy water” necessary for the production of nuclear energy had already taken place in Norway. Alsos was more focused on the scientists and progress of Germany’s program.
Although the Alsos teams determined that the Germans were lagging in their development of a nuclear bomb, intelligence officers on both fronts simultaneously were scrambling to beat each other to the targets. While the Americans and Brits were anxious to keep the most valuable information from a similarly composed Soviet unit, the Yanks weren’t particularly forthcoming with their partners, either. Knowing what the Soviets might have in store for them, if captured, Nazis involved in the rocketry and atomic programs chose to surrender to the Americans. Some of them would be forgiven their sins and assigned to luxury postings in NASA. If “Company of Heroes” provides something of a primer on Alsos, the primary focus is on action and melodrama. (There’s even a bit of skin thrown in for good measure.) The cast includes Tom Sizemore, Chad Michael Collins, Neal McDonough, Vinnie Jones, Jurgen Prochnow and Melia Kreiling, whose Grecian beauty could have inspired another installment in the “Why We Fight” series. The DVD adds some decent making-of featurettes. (Those interested in the Norwegian mission should check out “The Heroes of Telemark” and non-fiction “The Real Heroes of Telemark.”) – Gary Dretzka
Nobody Gets Out Alive
It’s difficult to find much of anything to say, one way or the other, about a slasher flick that pays homage to the classics of the genre, but forgets to add anything new to the mix. At a mere 78 minutes, “Nobody Gets Out Alive” contains enough bloody murders to fill a longer movie. If anyone had something fresh to contribute, there was plenty of time left for it. Either the producers ran out of money or the director ran out of ideas. I’d hate to think it simply was a matter of the local Halloween supply store running out of fake blood. Writer/director Jason Christopher opens his sophomore feature with the blessedly off-screen death of a little girl who’s hit by a car driven by out-of-control teenagers. Her father, Hunter Isth (Brian Gallagher), only took his eyes off her for a second before the sound of tiny bones being crushed fills the air. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it causes him to go mad. Instead of tracking down the driver and passengers in the speeding car and dishing out his revenge, Isth goes the Sasquatch route, by hiding out in the woods and killing everyone who attempts to enter his lair. Before long, a generic group of teenage campers makes the mistake of doing just that. Only the pretty blond teen, Jenn (Jen Dance), a recent graduate of a mental hospital, lives to tell the tale to the best known member of the cast, Clint Howard. The surprise ending isn’t all that surprising, but, at least, it ties things up. The making-of featurette shows more initiative than the screenplay. – Gary Dretzka
Released in the U.K. ahead of the Summer Olympics, “Fast Girls” goes the inspirational route to promote teamwork, selflessness and sportsmanship among viewers in the teenage-girl demographic. Although we’re encouraged to anticipate a “Bend It Like Beckham”-like dramedy, precious little original thought went into the cliché-ridden story. British viewers would have been much better served if freshman director Regan Hall and his quartet of writers had watched and studied Robert Towne’s similarly themed “Personal Best.” As it is, though, I think “Fast Girls” was more interested in getting casual fans of track and field interested in the Games than showing the blood, sweat and tears that are an integral part of training. Neither did it hurt box-office prospects that the women runners we meet are uniformly gorgeous and disco-ready at all times.
As played by Lenora Crichlow (“Being Human”), Shania is a parentless child and brilliant runner from the wrong side of the tracks. Her problem is that she has an insecurity complex that’s equal parts self-destructive and unattractive. Of Jamaican heritage, Shania naturally is pitted against the privileged blond sprinter Lisa, played by Lily James (“Downton Abbey”), whose father is a total jerk. Can the girls get their personal acts together before the Olympics? If they do, will they be rewarded with cosmetics endorsements? “Fast Girls” is enhanced by a bouncy ska-influenced soundtrack and an atypically diverse cast. The bonus material includes pieces on cast training, the relay race, costume design, shooting at night, the “Fast Girls Championship” and “Fun With the Fast Girls.” – Gary Dretzka
Discovery: Africa: Blu-ray
The Client List: The Complete First Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rise of the Turtles
Disney Channel: Phineas & Ferb: The Perry Files: Animal Agents
PBS: The Reagan Presidency
No matter how much we’ve come to expect excellence in the nature and wildlife series co-produced by the BBC and Discovery, there’s always plenty of room left for surprise. “Africa,” the latest installment in the BBC Earth franchise, is just such a production. It takes everything we know and have seen previously about the continent and adds stunning visual evidence for every new revelation. It took four years to record what we witness in the three-disc, six-part series, which takes us from South Africa’s Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, which are teeming with aquatic life, to the great Sahara Desert, where the animals are few and the sand dunes “sing.” As usual, Sir David Attenborough is there to explain how the natural phenomena came to exist, their relationship to mankind and what can be expected in the future. Naturally, we also visit the Congo rainforest, vast East African savannah, surprisingly well-populated deserts of the Kalahari and outposts where every effort is being made to preserve what’s left of endangered species. I’ve seen dozens of documentaries about gorillas and the fragility of their environment, but it’s never been documented so poignantly as in the footage showing an alpha male looking out from his cloud-swept habitat at the plantations and estates encroaching on all sides of the forest preserve. He’s trapped and probably knows it. Neither have I ever seen the gathering of rhinos that takes place nightly at a convenient watering hole on the savannah. It might as well be a disco in Nairobi. Other rituals are captured as they’ve been performed out of sight of man for centuries. The Blu-ray adds a bonus episode, “The Future”; outtakes and deleted scenes; and interviews with the host, producers and cinematographers.
The sexy prime-time soap, “The Client List,” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure for women who fantasize about beating the recession by working in a high-end massage parlor or brothel. Hey, it’s Lifetime, the network where women rule. The many Victoria’s Secret moments have attracted an unusually large number of male viewers, as well. The show’s primary drawing card, of course, is lovely and voluptuous Jennifer Love Hewitt. The presence of the notoriously modest JLH probably wouldn’t nearly be as alluring if she had given in to the financial temptations of posing in the buff for Playboy or some less prestigious rag. The most revealing thing Mr. Skin could find on her resume was a momentary underwater “nip slip” from “The Tuxedo.” On “The Client List,” JLH plays a former Texas homecoming queen, who married her high school jock boyfriend but has fallen on hard economic times. To make ends meet, and then some, Samantha reluctantly accepts a job in a massage parlor. After being shocked by her customers’ advances, she learns to enjoy the work. The series also features appearances by Cybill Shepherd, as mom; Loretta Devine, as the owner of the massage parlor; and Colin Egglesfield, as the estranged husband. The DVD includes 10 episodes, deleted scenes and outtakes.
Of all the superhero franchises that bloomed in the 1980s, few have had the same impact or enjoyed the longevity of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The new DVD from Nickelodeon, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Rise of the Turtles,” is comprised of episodes from the third animated series based on the adventures of brothers Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo who live in the sewers of New York but take care of business on the streets above their lair. The series benefits from a mutation of its own, this one to a snappy CGI-animated format that looks terrific. In doing battle with Kraang-droids, a mad scientist and a robot turtle, among other enemies, Donatello has been re-armed with naginata, as well as a bow, and Michelangelo gets to use a kusarigama, along with his nunchaku. Leonardo is also given an opportunity to prove his mettle with a katana. The voicing cast includes Jason Biggs, Rob Paulsen, Sean Astin, Greg Cipes, Hoon Lee and Meg Whitman. The DVD arrives with the double-length “Rise of the Turtles,” four other episodes, six making-of animatics, a karaoke music video and poster.
In “Phineas and Ferb: Animal Agents,” supporting-cast member Perry the Platypus (a.k.a., Agent P) and the animal agents of O.W.C.A (Organization Without a Cool Acronym) team up to thwart Dr. Doofenshmirtz and his dastardly “Inators.” In the two-part cliffhanger, “Where’s Perry,” the gang is transported to the savannahs of Africa, where they are monitored by O.W.C.A. surveillance devices. The series is extremely colorful, cleverly scripted and fast-paced. The villain is also a pretty decent singer. The DVD package contains 12 episodes dealing with Perry and the Animal Agents of O.W.C.A.; an activity-based spy kit, with a set of paper binoculars; trading cards; and O.W.C.A. I.D. badge.
It has often been said that Richard Nixon, if he were still alive, would be run out of the Republican Party for being a liberal. As the Tea Baggers strengthen their hold on the party, the same thing has begun to apply to Ronald Reagan. Despite his hard-line conservative views and electoral mandate, Reagan was known to make the occasional compromise with Democrats and moderate his views when they were successfully challenged by people he respected. The new Republican right doesn’t respect anyone, besides each other, and their refusal to compromise is threatening to sink the country they say they love. Presented by Iowa Public Television, “The Reagan Presidency” examines the late president’s legacy, with an eye toward the policies that led to the end of the Cold War, stalled inflation and fueled the economy. History has demonstrated how initiatives launched a quarter-century ago led to the 2007 Depression and destruction of the economy. It wouldn’t be fair to heap all of the blame on Reagan, but he certainly opened the door for the greed-is-good generation and Americans of all political persuasions could hardly wait to pass through it. The three-hour documentary is informed by interviews with Sandra Day O’Connor, Condoleezza Rice, Walter Mondale, Douglas Brinkley, Reza Aslan, Oscar Arias, Robert Reich and Paul Volcker. It also contains interviews with writer/director Chip Duncan and composer Peter Batchelder. – Gary Dretzka