Fifty Shades of Grey: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
Not having watched Fifty Shades of Grey in a theater, surrounded by rabid fans who’ve memorized the naughty bits of E.L. James’ runaway best-seller, I committed myself to approach the unrated Blu-ray edition with an open mind. I was pretty sure that Jamie Dornan’s contractually proscribed penis wouldn’t make a cameo appearance, but, otherwise, would be at a loss as to what was added to the original for it suddenly to be considered too hot for an R or NC-17 designation. If I were to guess, I’d say that several seconds of the extra three minutes, at least, can be found in the seriocomic contract-negotiations – my favorite scene in the movie – when a couple of the line-item vetoes might have disturbed MPAA screeners. As everyone else in the free world knew before checking out Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation – except moi – Anastasia Steele is an innocent in a world filled with attractive sexually active white folks, some of whom are exceedingly wealthy and twisted. The first man Ana meets with whom she’s willing to do the deed is an emotionally retarded young fellow who’s made a shitload of money doing God knows what and, after having his cherry broken as a submissive by a friend of his mother, now insists on playing the dominant role. For a virgin in her early 20s, Ana seems a bit too anxious to cross the final threshold into full womanhood and simultaneously engage in BDSM horseplay as dictated by someone who could be considered insane. A mutual interest in the novels of Jane Austen normally wouldn’t open the door to romance and pain on the same night. But, then, how could any modern gal resist such material pleasures as having a helicopter at your beck and call, gifted sports cars and state-of-the-art computers, and a glider ride straight out of The Thomas Crown Affair. Where “50 Shades” most differs from 9½ Weeks, its predecessor in R-rated BDSM, is in the lack of worldliness displayed by the two lead characters – one a recent college graduate and the other a tycoon — and Christian’s deeply submerged vulnerability, which rises to the surface at the strangest times. (He only reveals the source of his anxiety and pain while she’s fast asleep beside him.) Even if Ana is as cute as a button on Shirley Temple’s faux military garb in Wee Willie Winkie, as drawn, she couldn’t last five minutes in a sex-play dungeon against Kim Basinger’s novice submissive. The same holds true for Grey’s rough-tough creampuff vs. Mickey Rourke’s nicotine-stained arbitrageur. Although some of the lovemaking is inarguably sensual, the contract-negotiating scene is the only one that rivals the best passages choreographed by Adrian Lyne in 9½ Weeks or such classics of the sub-genre as Belle du Jour, Secretary, Crash, The Story of O or The Image. As difficult as it is to take potshots at a picture that’s made more than a half-billion dollars in worldwide distribution or might match that in DVD/VOD/Blu-ray revenues, I still think we have a long way to go before mainstream audiences are allowed a real taste of non-generic eroticism, unless it’s in sex-umentaries on HBO and Showtime. For those who like their BDSM Lite, however, three more minutes of “50 Shades” should prove three minutes well spent. The Blu-ray offers both versions, as well as several short making-of featurettes; interviews with cast, crew, author and BDSM consultant; a 360-degree set tour of Christian’s apartment; and music videos. And, yes, two more segments of the trilogy already on the drawing board.
Anyone who wants to extend their personal Fifty Shades of Grey experience really ought to consider picking up the kinkier Australian coming-of-sexual-age export, My Mistress. Unlike such early-‘80s adolescent fantasies as My Tutor and Private Lessons — during which teenage boys gain a first-hand appreciation of the Playboy Philosophy from women who easily could grace a magazine centerfold — co-writer/director Stephan Lance appears to have crafted his 16-year-old protagonist here, Charlie Boyd (Harrison Gilbertson), from a second or third re-reading of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Upon arriving home one day, Charlie is greeted by the corpse of his father hanging from a beam in the garage. For this, he blames his mother (Rachael Blake), who he believes is having an affair with his dad’s best friend. Charlie is so convinced of her culpability that he insists on treating the garage as a crime scene and spray-paints an indictment on the garage door. On his way off the deep end, he pays a visit to the mysterious MILF (Emmanuelle Beart) who lives down the lane. After offering his services as a gardener, Charlie sneaks a peek of Maggie servicing a client’s masochistic desires as a fully outfitted mistress. The sight transfixes the boy, who has a hard time processing the visual data assaulting his senses inside the suburban estate. Watching an outwardly normal fellow enduring pain for pleasure taps into something raw and unguarded in Charlie’s already fragile psyche. What he senses intuitively is that he’s in the presence of the Anti-Mom and she’s the only one capable of guiding him into manhood. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not really how S&M works. As it turns out, Maggie has been a bit out of sorts lately, herself, and sees in her gardener’s obsession something perversely therapeutic. None of this would be remotely credible if Maggie weren’t played by the sensational French actress, Beart, who’s been down this road in previous movies. At 51, she has grown comfortable playing all sorts of characters, from straight to twisted, and filmmakers no longer require that she appear naked in all of her roles. Even so, no amount of stage makeup or airbrushing could make her look any hotter or more appropriate for the part of Maggie as she does in Gerard Lee’s offbeat drama. Naturally, this sort of mentoring affair can’t be allowed to go on forever and someone’s going to get hurt. Blessedly, the longtime Jane Campion collaborator has provided an escape hatch that doesn’t pander to anyone’s expectations or insult either the viewers or characters. I’m pretty sure that American distributors were scared off by the fact that the protagonist is 16 and Maggie isn’t cut down by a bolt of lightning at any time during the proceedings. The DVD adds a few short, but informative interviews.
Even if director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s fine historical drama, Selma, didn’t do quit as well during awards season as many observers thought it should, they were far from alone in that distinction Most of the clamor was directed at members of the Motion Picture Academy – despite an Oscar for Best Original Song and Best Picture nomination – and its historic lack of minority representation. Maybe so, but the media’s obsession with the non-scandal tells me three things: 1) the only nominations that really count in Hollywood are those for Academy Awards, 2) perceived snubs against Oprah Winfrey ring louder than perceived snubs against everyone else, and 3) members won’t vote for something they’re too lazy to see in an actual theater or screening room. Selma is a very good movie about an important event in American history. It also made a bit of money at the box office. The only real rap against it is the depiction of President Johnson as a man willing to put personal honor – his well-intentioned and entirely essential War on Poverty – above the strategic demands of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). In fact, LBJ did more heavy lifting for civil rights than all of the Kennedy brothers combined. It goes unsaid in Selma how much credence JFK, RFK and even Jackie O gave the toxic reports of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, at the time, was wiretapping and blackmailing King and the Kennedys. It’s also telling that DuVernay was required by King’s absurdly litigious estate to rewrite some of the speeches delivered by MLK in the film, because the family had already sold the rights to another studio. None of that should have negatively impacted the campaigns behind DuVernay and Oyelowo, because nominations in their categories would have come from members of the respective branches, not the entire academy. It’s more likely that voters reacted negatively to the decision not to send out screeners of Selma, seeing it as a ploy designed to force them to get off their asses and attend one of many free screenings arranged especially for them.
Last week, Paramount Home Media Distribution took the higher road by announcing its intention to donate a copy of the DVD free of charge to every high school in the U.S., along with companion study guides to help initiate classroom discussions. It would be interesting to know if the guides mention Governor Wallace’s later renunciation of his position on segregation and made a record number of African-American appointments to positions in Alabama. Or, for that matter, how to handle any discussion of MLK’s infidelity to his wife, Coretta Scott King, a hot potato that’s dropped almost as soon as its raised in the movie. The Blu-ray adds commentaries with DuVernay and Oyelowo, who’s terrific in the lead role; DuVernay, director of photography Bradford Young, and editor Spencer Averick; featurettes, “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma”; several deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Glory”; a collection of vintage newsreels and still images; short pieces that name the supporters of the Selma Student Ticket Initiative and introduce the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute; and a discussion guide. The important thing about getting Selma in front of students is the necessity for encouraging them to register to vote and, then, show up at the polls. Many of the same techniques used to deny minorities the right to vote in the 1960s are being used today by Republican and Tea Party officials to keep blacks and Hispanics, especially, from exercising their rights. The only way they’re able to get away with such an abuse of power is through the pitifully small turnout of minority, student and working-poor voters. That, I think, is the message that Dr. King would want viewers to take away from Selma.
Mr. Turner Blu-Ray
Last May, Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his delightfully crusty portrayal of British painter J.M.W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s spectacularly photographed Mr. Turner. In it, Spall is required to re-create the final two decades of Turner’s life, which ended in 1851, at the ripe old age of 76. Unlike so many of the Impressionists who would be influenced by his use of color, texture and light, Turner was successful in his time and his paintings were being sold outside Europe. If his fame would be eclipsed less than a century later by Van Gogh, Gaugin and Monet, recent gallery and museum installations prove that his work is more popular than ever. Like the eccentric Leigh, Turner was quite a character. Several critics have suggested that the Palme d’Or-nominated film is the closest Leigh has come to a self-portrait. If so, he’s sullen, communicates largely in grunts and is more than a little bit dyspeptic. An entirely original filmmaker, Leigh doesn’t make movies like anyone else does. Most of his work in theatre and film is done without any initial script and the air of improvised spontaneity has endeared him to arthouse audiences. Although Turner is known primarily for landscapes, sky-scapes and maritime paintings, his paintings also reflect the gritty dynamics of the Industrial Age. Through Spall, who was asked to study painting for two years before production began, Leigh’s great accomplishment here is capturing Turner’s reverence for natural light and ability to anticipate exemplary outbursts of what he considered to be manifestations of God’s glory. To this end, cinematographer Dick Pope was awarded a special jury prize at Cannes, as well as an Oscar nomination, for his ability to re-create images almost exactly like those painted more than 150 years earlier. Spall, who isn’t a small man, is especially appealing when he’s portraying Turner’s physically awkward dalliances with his lovers and mistresses. The masterful Blu-ray presentation adds comprehensive commentary with Leigh; the featurettes “The Cinematic Palette: The Cinematography of Mr. Turner” and “The Many Colours of Mr. Turner”; and an additional scene.
The Last Five Years: Blu-ray
If any actress is busier these days than Anna Kendrick, I can’t imagine who she might be. Ever since being nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar in 2010 for her irresistible performance in Up in the Air, the petite brunette has been churning out four or five movies a year, including those in the Twilight series. We’ve also learned that she can sing a lick or two. There are moments in The Last Five Years when it looks as if all of the hard work has begun to catch up with Kendrick. That might have as much to do with makeup or lack, thereof, intended to reflect the problems her character is experiencing than fatigue, however. Unlike Into the Woods and the Pitch Perfect franchise, Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical doesn’t require its two stars to do anything but sing. The lyrics of Brown’s 14 songs tell the entire story of a love affair and marriage between rising New York novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling singer/actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick). There are other contrasts, but the only one that really matters is Cathy’s growing anxiety over not becoming successful as quickly as Jamie. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting time-line device. All of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backward in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. The stories meet in the middle, during their wedding. Once one gets used to the back-and-forth, The Last Five Years makes sense as something that might actually have happened to Brown and his ex-wife, Terri O’Neill. The songs are interesting enough on their own, but anyone expecting anything resembling those in Kendrick’s previous movie musicals might need a few moments to adjust to narrative style. I doubt that anyone knew how to market The Last Five Years before dumping it into a couple dozen theaters and the VOD marketplace. Kendricks’ fans may not have been aware that it even existed. For them, The Last Five Years could make an irresistible virtual double-feature with Pitch Perfect 2, which arrives on May 15. The Blu-ray adds sing-along subtitles and a short “Conversation with Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown.”
When the absorbing South American terrorist drama, God’s Slave, began making the festival rounds in 2013, director Joel Novoa and writer Fernando Butazzoni couldn’t possibly have known how the horrifying events it describes would be eclipsed by the death in January of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman and assertions of a cover-up against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman. In both cases, the focus is on the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building, in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured. The car-bombing, which has gone unsolved for more than 20 years, is virtually identical to the pivotal event in God’s Slave. In the movie, which is equal parts procedural and human drama, two deeply religious men on opposite sides of the Mideast struggle are brought together in the hours before another planned attack in Buenos Aires. Each was shaped by killings witnessed as children and beliefs re-enforced by decades of acrimony, mistrust and violence. After Admed Al Hassamah (Mohammed Alkhaldi) witnesses the murder of his parents by a masked man with a gold Rolex on his wrist, he was adopted into a radical Islamic sect and trained to become a deep-cover terrorist. Years later, he’s embedded into a sleeper cell based in Caracas, where’s he’s given a cover job, assumed name and doctored passport, is encouraged to marry and soon commits to family life. Eventually, Admed will get the call from his handlers, directing him to fly to Buenos Aires and get fitted for a suicide vest. Meanwhile, Mossad agent David Goldberg (Vando Villamil) is on the verge of being sent back to Israel as the scapegoat for not stopping a deadly synagogue bombing. He’s memorized the names, aliases and faces of dozens of terrorists operating outside the Mideast. He recognizes Admed as he crosses the street in front of him on a final visit to the mosque closest the cell’s safehouse. What happens next will be heavily influenced by both men’s feelings for their own families and consciences. Although several deadly attacks happened in the direct wake of the actual AIMA bombing, God’s Slave is only interested in pursuing the human story. In the not-too-distant future, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an epic drama, similar to Munich, on the AIMA attack, reports of Argentine police complicity, investigative incompetence, corruption, cover-ups and murders that continue today not only in Argentina, but also Iran, Lebanon, Israel and several other countries. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, director’s statement and the shattering short-film, “Machsom,” which is largely set at a volatile security crossing between the West Bank and Israel.
Uplifting stories about nuns and priests once were a staple of Hollywood. They’re still being made, but there’s no longer any guarantee the characters will be portrayed with the same reverence as they were when the Legion of Decency was nearly as powerful as the Hays Office. Today, there might as well be a target painted on the backs of clergy … sometimes for good reason, but other times not. One of the best films released in 2014 was Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s, Ida. It tells the story of a young woman on the verge of taking vows as a Catholic nun, circa 1962, when she learns that she’s Jewish and her parents were killed shortly after the Nazi takeover of Poland. It’s a beautiful film, full of small surprises and revelations. Leaders of the Polish Catholic Church objected to some parts of it, but not with enough factual authority to influence critics or prevent it from winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Guillaume Nicloux’s adaptation of Denis Diderot’s Enlightenment novel “La Religieuse” describes the ordeal of another novitiate, albeit with a very different revelation about her parentage. Diderot was inspired by the death of his sister, a nun, who he believed to have been overworked by her superiors at the convent. He constructed “La Religieuse” around a series of letters he had actually written to the Marquis de Croismare to lure him back to Paris in support of his sister. The scheme may have worked, but its public exposure caused the all-powerful Church launch a censorial campaign against Diderot than lasted past his death. Completed in about 1780, the work was posthumously published in 1796.
In The Nun, the correspondence from Suzanne Simonin (Pauline Etienne) to her lawyer actually finds its way to the marquise, who’s appalled to learn that her parents banished her to the nunnery to afford dowries for her sisters. Apparently, it was a common practice for financially burdened families to relinquish a daughter, who could then be exploited as a beast of burden, sex slave or handmaiden to the Mother Superior. Suzanne’s refusing to play along with the charade of volunteering to commit her life to Christ shocks the priest officiating at the initiation service. He orders her sent home, even if they still claim to be unable to support her. Desperate to “expatiate” the sins of her family, instead, Suzanne’s mother (Martina Gedeck) reveals to her bright and creative 16-year-old daughter that she’s the bastard product of a short-lived love affair after her marriage. Suzanne agrees to return to the convent, only to learn that a new, much younger and far more sadistic Mother Superior (Louise Bourgoin) is now in control of the place. It’s as if she has stepped into a production of “Cinderella,” complete with a Wicked Stepmother and several Sisty Uglers. This time, Suzanne’s letters find their way to an aide to the now-fictional Marquis de Croismare, who arranges for her to be transferred to a convent supervised by a much nicer Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert). This time, the abbess openly encourages the young woman to refine her singing and piano playing talents. In return for favored treatment, however, Mother expects some sexual favors of her own. Nicloux’s solution to this horrifying situation doesn’t come as a complete shock to us, but it is satisfying. The splendid scenery, set design and acting allow us to endure Suzanne’s painful treatment, even if we don’t yet know where he’s taking us.
Amira & Sam: Blu-ray
Written and directed by Sean Mullin, a comedian and onetime U.S. Army officer, Amira & Sam is a debut feature that borrows just enough from real life to turn the familiar odd-couple conceit into something fresh and surprising. Just back from Afghanistan, where he served as a Green Beret, Sam Seneca (Martin Starr) is experiencing problems fitting back into American society. Their differences aren’t serious, as these things go, but Sam hasn’t been back in the U.S. long enough to realize that the people saying, “Thank you, for your service,” are only trying to make themselves feel comfortable about not enlisting after 9/11. While they’re happy you made it home, they don’t give a good crap about what’s happening over there and aren’t likely to help the veteran find meaningful work or treatment for your PTSD. After he’s fired from his job as a security guard at a high-rise apartment building – a funny scene, actually – Sam is encouraged by his financier brother to use his military background as a lure to attract wealthy investors, who also served in one of this country’s many recent foreign wars. He doesn’t snap to what his brother is up to until he’s asked to pull his dress uniform from the closet to wear to his engagement party. Several prominent ex-military clients have been invited to the affair and he’s expected to glad-hand them.
By this time, Sam has befriended Amira, the niece of an interpreter on his team in Iraq. She’s bitter over the fact that her father, also an interpreter, was killed in action and her uncle felt it necessary to bring her to New York to avoid being murdered. Amira makes a feeble living selling pirated DVDs on street corners, which, even in New York, is illegal. After escaping from a cop who could uncover her lapses in reporting to immigration officials, her Uncle Bassam (Laith Naklil) asks Sam to give her safe harbor until he can find her a more permanent home with relatives in Michigan. Naturally, after some rocky moments, they discover things they like about each other. It’s at the reception for Sam and his pregnant fiancé that Amira – who’s wearing a spectacular red sari and hajib – learns just how uncomfortable Americans are in the company of people who remind them of their government’s misadventures. The party ends when Sam gets in a fight with his brother – who reluctantly admits that he might be in a wee spot of bother with the SEC – and Amira accidentally elbows the condescending fiancé, causing her to file charges that could result in deportation. If this scenario stretches credulity, at least it requires Sam to take positive action on their future. This includes acting on Amira’s encouragement to realize his dream of performing at a comedy club. By comparison, the Taliban were pussycats. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.
Matt Rabinowitz’ intense father-son drama, The Frontier, probably would fit more comfortably in a small theater than on a large screen, if only because so little of it takes places outside the wooden-fence barrier of a smallish home in the country. Indeed, most of the dialogue is exchanged over tables in the kitchen and living room. Max Gail (“Barney Miller”) is extremely credible as the retired literature professor, Sean, who’s seemingly spent his entire life lecturing his students, children and lovers, quoting Walt Whitman and rejecting their opinions. In some college towns, such a tireless blowhard would be only too archetypal a character. Coleman Kelly plays Tennessee, the son who needed to put some space between himself and his father after his mother died. We’re led to believe that Sean kept a weather eye open for vulnerable female students and rarely turned down the lubricant of a free drink. Not surprisingly, Tennessee decided that working with horses and cows was preferable to academia, where he might have been surrounded by men exactly like his father. When he receives a letter from his dad asking him to return home before he goes to the big library in the sky, Tennessee cautiously agrees to do so.
Upon his arrival, Tennessee is greeted first by a drop-dead blond beauty who has moved into the house as the old man’s personal assistant and editor of his memoirs. Even if Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) is allowed to escape the chains surrounding “the young woman” in such stories, until Tennessee’s arrival, she’s required to play Sean’s audience of one. To avoid succumbing to such treatment, Tennessee commits his time to fixing things around the home, including the fences, which are badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Finally, though, Nina rightly susses that the two men need some alone time, during which they can work out their differences over a bottle of whisky. The unusual thing about The Frontier is that three of the five listed actors are first-timers and one of them is a former “production driver” who’s appeared in a couple of features that no one has seen. Ditto writer Carlos Colunga and co-writer/director Rabinowitz. If I were forced to guess, I’d say that The Frontier began its journey to the screen as a script work-shopped by aspiring actors in a class taught by Gail or someone he owed a favor. It explains the intimacy of the story, which frequently gets lost as a full-blown movie. People who’ve enjoyed Gail’s work, largely on television, over the course of his 40-plus-year career, are the likely audience for The Frontier.
Murder of a Cat
Judging solely from the Saul Bass-inspired poster art, Gillian Greene’s comedy whodunit Murder of a Cat should be the kind of DVD or VOD that might fill a couple of hours of time on a quiet weekend night. Horror master Sam Raimi’s name is the first one mentioned, as producer, higher even than those of his wife Greene and actors J.K. Simmons (Oscar-winner, for Whiplash), Blythe Danner (Emmy-winner for “Huff”), Greg Kinnear (Oscar-nominee, for As Good As It Gets) and lead actors Fran Kranz (“JourneyQuest”) and Nikki Reed (Twilight). The trouble is, the poster is so much more appealing than anything in the first feature screenplay by Christian Magalhaes and Robert Snow (“New Girl”) that there’s almost nothing that Raimi and the A-list actors could have done to save it. Kranz plays Clinton Moisey, a small-town man-child who sells knick-knacks and handmade action figures from a table set up on the front lawn of his mom’s house. One morning, he wakes up to discover that his beloved cat has been killed and presumably murdered by an arrow shot by an unknown archer. Disturbed that the local sheriff (Simmons) isn’t treating the case as if it were the assassination of a public figure, Moisey decides to take the investigation into his own clumsy hands. It doesn’t take him long to discover that his cat divided its time between him and an eccentric young woman (Reed) who somehow has been able to rent an apartment in a facility for senior citizens. The trail then leads him to the mega-store, at which the arrow was sold and is owned by a man (Kinnear) that Moisey blames for ruining his “business.” His amateur sleuthing does turn up a couple of underwritten, kooky suspects, but he can’t get anyone to take them seriously, either. This complicates things for his mom (Danner), who has recently started dating the sheriff. It’s the kind of movie in which everything feels calculated to spark laughter among people who fill their idle hours on Facebook, exchanging pictures of their pets.
Fans of the subgenre of British rom-coms practically invented by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) should embrace Christian Ditter’s modern fairytale, Love, Rosie, which argues in favor of the proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.” In this case, anyway, it’s possible to substitute, “Love deferred …,” for “Hope deferred …,” and come up with a more appropriate synapsis. As children, Rosie (Phil Collin’s daughter, Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Claflin) are inseparable friends and confidantes. We know that Ditter and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi will require us to sit through nearly 100 minutes of false starts, missteps and blunders before the inevitable conclusion. The only question is how long we’ll remain interested in following their journey. Based on a 2004 novel by Cecelia Ahern, “Where Rainbows End,” Love, Rosie is propelled by another terrific performance by Collins (Mirror Mirror, Stuck in Love), who, compared to everyone else in the story, looks small enough to take up residence under a banana leaf at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The turning point for the two friends here comes when they attend their prom with separate dates and Rosie is impregnated in one of the most embarrassing ways possible. Rosie and Alex were anticipating to traveling to Boston together for college, but, after refusing to get an abortion, she remains in Ireland to raise her daughter in her parents’ home. (She also postpones introducing the girl to her birth father until much later.) Picky viewers could drive a truck the holes in the plot, but, sometimes, logic in rom-coms is overrated.
Against the Sun
Brian Falk’s debut feature tells the harrowing true story of three U.S. Navy airmen forced to survive for 34 days on an inflatable raft after crash landing their World War II torpedo bomber in the South Pacific. If that synopsis sounds familiar, it’s only because Against the Sun was released almost simultaneously with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which benefited from a larger budget, greater marketing reach and an equally dramatic second half that takes place on land. Also fresh in viewers’ memories were Robert Redford’s All Is Lost and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, both of which involved characters stranded at sea. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea and any number of movies based on the Titanic disaster immediately come to mind when recalling movies about men stranded at sea. The marketplace can only support so many of these dramas. Here, Tom Felton, Garret Dillahunt and Jake Abel portray the three men stuck on a raft half as large as the ones available in Unbroken to Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips in their 47-day ordeal at sea. (Francis McNarma died 33 days after their plane crashed.) Otherwise, the men endured essentially the same punishing circumstances, relying on their wiles to catch the occasional fish or sea bird, avoid being eaten by sharks or capsized by giant waves, and survive on virtually no potable water or protection from the sun. Falk’s makeup department couldn’t possibly have made extreme sunburn look any more ugly and painful as it does in Against the Sun. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.
Mahogany: The Couture Edition
After scoring a Best Actress nomination in her first time at bat in Hollywood — her star turn in the Billie Holliday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues – Diana Ross probably could have had her pick of roles, regardless of race, for her follow-up feature. Like Barbra Streisand, the former lead singer of the Supremes was at the height of her diva-hood and looked invincible. Too bad, no one thought of pairing these two superstars in a feminist remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even 15 years later, they probably could have pulled off Thelma and Louise, but Ross couldn’t resist the temptation to chew the scenery in the diva-ready Mahogany. While the part didn’t require her to sing, it allowed her sole credit for costume design, which must have seemed equally cool. You knew that the production was in trouble, however, when Motown boss Barry Gordy decided to take over the director’s chair originally manned by two-time Oscar-winner Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). Today, if Mahogany is remembered at all, it’s as the movie that launched a thousand drag impersonations.
Borrowing a classic mid-century template, Ross plays a fashionable young woman who grew up poor on the South Side of Chicago, but aspires to greatness as a designer of the kind of clothes not favored by the women who shop at Marshall Field’s. Instead a magazine photographer (Tony Perkins) discovers her at a shoot, mistaking her for a potentially in-demand “clothes hanger.” Instead of staying in Chicago and nurturing her relationship with a street-level politician (Billy Dee Williams, also from “LSTB”), she decides to take the photographer up on his offer of a big modeling assignment in Rome. Even though he insists that Mahogany is only there to model, she decides to wear one of her more adventurous creations for the shoot. This goes over like a lead brassiere, of course, and sparks begin to fly between them. Mahogany then decides to showcase her own orange-kimono creation at an important fashion auction, instead of the more subtle white number assigned to her. The photographer attempts to embarrass her on the runway, but is trumped by an Italian aristocrat (Jean-Pierre Aumont) with lots of money, but limited patience for bad behavior. As if to convince us of how much of a diva she’s become – yes, a diva playing a diva — Mahogany even manages to alienate her Chicago boyfriend when he comes to Rome for a visit. Things get even more retrograde from there. Rumor had it at the time that Gordy personally lobbied the academy to make sure the original Michael Masser/Gerry Goffin composition “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was nominated. All things being equal, the peppy chart-topper probably should have beaten “I’m Easy,” from Nashville. Judged solely on its value as a low-octane camp distraction, Mahogany delivers the goods. The only new addition to this DVD package are “collectible” prints of fashions worn by Ross in the film. There’s also a stills gallery.
Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera: Special Edition
There are two, maybe three very different things going on in Paul von Stoetzel’s provocative Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera. It opens with a lengthy discussion of the snuff-film phenomenon, which the director describes as pertaining to “movies that are sold for profit in which a person is murdered.” The notion that such things exist on the underground market became popular in the 1970s, following the Manson Family killings and the emergence of ultra-graphic horror films, here and abroad. Hollywood has tackled the subject in such pictures as Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Joel Schumacher’s 8MM. John Alan Schwartz’ Faces of Death and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust set the table for the torture-porn sub-genre to come. Russian, Mexican and Philippine mobsters have attempted to sell products that purport to be snuff films, but proof of the real things existing is lacking. Among the legitimate experts interviewed here are longtime observers of the video/DVD industry, filmmakers, law-enforcement officials and academics. The documentary is informed, as well, by a couple dozen clips from representative films. What distinguishes Von Stoetzel’s take on the subject is the truly disturbing and controversial material that falls under the sub-headline, A Documentary About Killing on Camera. Using this distinction, Von Stoetzel is able to argue that Edison Studios’ infamous 1903 “actuality” film, “Electrocuting an Elephant,” was little more than the staged execution of a troublesome carnival attraction for amusement of Coney Island patrons and use in Edison kinetoscope arcades, as well as promotion of Edison’s campaign for AC electricity. By definition, it can be considered the first true snuff film and, today, it creation and distribution would be as illegal as kiddie porn. Less easy to define are sickeningly graphic films recovered from actual serial killers by police and shown here alongside heavily censored films collected by war cinematographers, but only available through underground sources. As appalled as most Americans are at even the possibility that an animal might have been harmed in the making of a movie, it’s become necessary for producers to allow Humane Society observers to monitor scenes involving creatures as large as Topsy and as insignificant as cockroaches. If a fish is to be caught, viewers are relieved to learn it was with a barb-less hook.
How, then, to explain the continued marketability of movies that graphically dramatize the commission of such heinous crimes as torture, rape and murder? It’s simple, really. Just as free-market economists defend the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful or unhealthy consumer products by asserting the principles of supply-and-demand, filmmakers justify pandering to audiences’ appetite for violence and mayhem by falling back on the First Amendment, adding a cautionary PG-13 or R rating and, yes, citing supply-and-demand or demand-and-supply. Since the advent of the ratings system, though, sexuality and the frequency of f-bombs have been judged far more harshly than violence. Two of the most significant images to emerge from the Vietnam War were those involving a little girl escaping a napalm cloud, naked and scarred with serious burns, and the summary execution of a Viet Cong combatant, with his hands tied behind his back, by Saigon’s chief of police. Re-creating those terrible incidents on film today, using special-effects magic, would be child’s play. How many of the same people who paid to watch the killing of Islamic insurgents by a Navy SEAL in American Sniper have also combed the Internet for actual combat footage and propaganda showing Americans, British and Arab combatants at the instant of their deaths? Our government makes every attempt to suppress these images, while filmmakers study them for accuracy and impact. Photos and films of Iraqis being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison were Internet favorites, as were videos of people leaping, sometimes hand in hand, from the highest floors of the World Trade Center, sometimes set to music. The beheadings of captives held by Islamic insurgents are routinely filtered by most legitimate news outlets, but easy to find on the Internet. I wonder how these “hits” would translate into Nielsen ratings. At the same time as our government refused to allow the circulation of photographs of flag-draped coffins at a Delaware airport, it was circulating titillating videos of Iraqis being vaporized by American missiles, as if to ensure taxpayers that their dollars were being used wisely. (The happy chatter of the people pushing the buttons in helicopters or from drone-control headquarters half a world away was, in many cases, censored.) So, today, can it rightfully be argued that one man’s snuff film is the ethical equivalent of another man’s propaganda footage? In a thoughtful interview, Von Stoetzel poses this and other tough questions, while also admitting to having had qualms about where the lines might have been drawn in this deeply upsetting documentary. As it is, “Snuff” should be made mandatory viewing for decision makers in government and Hollywood. The DVD includes the Q&A and Danny Cotton’s grisly short, “Dinner Date.”
Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned
Some exploitation titles are simply too tantalizing to pass up. Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned is one of them. Like Mark Mackner’s companion piece, Daisy Derkins vs. The Bloodthirsty Beast of Barren Pines, it would have no artistic reason to exist, except to keep a half-dozen buxom babes off the unemployment lines. Here, Daisy has just gotten a part-time job as a dog sitter for a very strange dude in a black robe. Instead of paying strict attention to the beast from hell, she invites a couple of even more skanky friends over to drink, consult a Ouija board and discuss their hideous boyfriends and stalkers, who seem to either play in death-metal bands or moonlight as wrestlers in Mexico. When things get too weird, Daisy summons paranormal specialist and pin-up girl Delia Anguish to film the proceedings for her cable-access show. Other freaks of nature making cameos are a witch, serial killer and wendigo with a crush on Delia. The amazing thing about this black-and-white atrocity is the lack of nudity, which normally is a given in these sorts of things. As such, it practically qualifies as family-friendly exploitation … almost, but not quite. The DVD adds two shorts, including the one that inspired the feature and some truly unappetizing previews.
Great Figures of the Bible
If a river no longer can be found on a map, does it still exist? When it rains on our big cities, the water has to go somewhere and, usually, it finds the same paths laid when the first great storms carved the canyons, valleys, hollers, ditches and gullies that led to marshes, swamps, lakes, seas and oceans. Compare maps of New York City from the 1600s, 1700s and today and it’s easy to see how city planners’ efforts to fool Mother Nature worked, almost each and every time. Consider, though, the history of the Collect Pond, which, for hundreds of years, supplied the native and European residents of Lower Manhattan with their water. Fed by an underground spring, Canal Pond has resisted every effort to make it disappear by devouring the landfill dumped into it and destabilizing everything constructed on it. Today, it serves city residents as a park with a manmade water fixture. Collect Pond isn’t included in Caroline Bacle’s fascinating documentary Lost Rivers, but its partial reclamation, which began in 1960, may have influenced some of the environmentalists we meet in it. She takes us to the Cheonggyecheon Stream, in Seoul; the Saw Mill River, in Yonkers, N.Y.; the Bova-Celato River, in Italy; the River Tyburn, in London; the Petite rivière St-Pierre, in Montreal; and the Garrison Creek, in Toronto. The reclamation projects, sometimes called “daylighting,” are intended to improve the riparian environment for a stream by tearing off the tops of culverts, pipe and drainage systems to which they were confined to protect residents for water-borne diseases and pollution. Where only garbage once bloomed, fish now grow and children play.
Originally released in a four-disc set, in 2004, Great Figures of the Bible is comprised of stories from the bible, as interpreted by Elie Wiesel while sitting on a stiff wooden chair in front of an unseen audience, presumably of young people. Knowing that parents and other adults might be eavesdropping on the discussions, the Nobel Prize-winning author and human-rights activist seems to go out of his way not to dumb-down the lessons, as is the case in so many other such collections. Neither do the producers rely on animation to illustrate the stories. That aspect is taken care of through the use of classic paintings, sketches, tableaux and brief live-action dramatizations filmed on location in Israel. The subjects of Weisel’s faith-neutral insights include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Job, Moses and David. As is the case with the ink-and-paper bible, especially the Old Testament, every answer raises a half-dozen more questions.
AMC: Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
BBC/Starz: Dancing on the Edge: Blu-ray
ITV/BBC America: Broadchurch: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: Season 3: Blu-ray
PBS: Baby Genius: Favorite Children’s Songs
Who knew how much fun it could be watching computer geeks do battle over who did what, when, and to what financial gain, in the development of the PC, Apple Mac and evolution of social media? Although the lineage can be traced directly to the 1984 frat-boy comedy Revenge of the Nerds, that picture wasn’t so much about socially inept techies as the outcasts who routinely were denied access to the fraternities associated with the jock elite and the sorority girls who snubbed them. The phrase, itself, proved so elastic that it was paraphrased for use in the 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which included interviews with such Silicon Valley pioneers as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, Ed Roberts and Larry Ellison. The strangely entertaining AMC mini-series, “Halt and Catch Fire,” took a real chance by dramatizing the frequently byzantine technical and financial machinations that occurred back in the day, when IBM and Apple were battling for dominance of the PC market. (The title refers to computer-code instruction HCF, whose execution would cause the computer’s central processing unit to stop working.) Before this could happen, however, the hardware had to be made accessible to consumers who simply wanted one to send e-mails, write essays or play solitaire. The 10-episode first season, set in the Silicon Prairie of Texas, circa 1983, benefitted from the intense interaction between Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a key player in the debut of the IBM Personal Computer; Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant cyber-punk recruited by MacMillan’s new employer, Cardiff Electric; and the pragmatic Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a former system builder turned sales engineer, who represents the early geek community. The Blu-ray edition adds a third disc containing supplemental material, including episode-by episode summaries and discussions and the featurettes, “Re-Making the 1980s,” “Rise of the Digital Cowboys” and “Setting the Fire: Research and Technology.”
Although the proper pronunciation of his name still may present a bit of a hurdle for American tongues, Chiwetel Ejiofor has become one of the brightest stars in the entertainment firmament. A native Londoner of Nigerian Igbo lineage, Ejiofor came to the attention of most of us with his Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave.” Released on BBC Two a few months before Steve McQueen’s searing antebellum drama debuted at Telluride, “Dancing on the Edge” is set in post-crash London, among a group of swells who didn’t lose nearly enough money to curb their greed. Just as America’s Jazz Age had faded from views, New Orleans’ gift to the world was finding its way across the pond and into underground clubs and fancy ballrooms. The Louis Lester Band is being championed by a young journalist (Matthew Goode), who helps the Duke Ellington-inspired leader arrange a four-month stand at the grand Imperial Hotel. After a brisk start and publicity sparked by the attendance of the Duke of Kent and his brother, the Prince of Wales, the band is getting restless for the fame that comes with a recording contract and radio spots. It isn’t until the band is asked to play at a New Orleans-style funeral for the manager of an estate owned by the reclusive Lady Lavinia Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset) that things begin to take off for Lester and story being told. She loves “new” music and is especially partial to Lester (Ejiofor), whose career would hugely benefit from Lady Cremone’s intercession with stodgy BBC executives. Writer/director Stephen Poliakoff warns viewers ahead of time not to expect smooth sailing for Lester and he delivers on his promise by putting the band in direct contact with key movers and shakers in the pre-World War II period, not all of whom are enlightened on racial issues. John Goodman is typically good as an enigmatic American billionaire who has enough money to manipulate all of the other characters, even those only slightly less rich. The clash of old and new is fun to watch, and nothing at all like what was happening at the same time in the U.S., where jazz, R&B and blues musicians were being ripped off by record company and radio executives. The final episode is quite remarkable, really, in that it falls somewhere between a series of outtakes and the discussions in My Dinner With Andre.
The second season of BBCA’s “Broadchurch” is a two-pronged continuation of events that everyone thought were sewed up at the end of Season One. Rather than concentrating exclusively on murder most foul, creator Chris Chibnall split the spotlight between the crime and the habitués of coastal Dorset. This was no problem for American viewers, weary of mysteries shot in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto. In Season Two, we’re asked to follow the courtroom drama ensured by Joe Miller’s not-guilty plea, as well as the reopening of the Sandbrook case by detective-inspectors Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller (David Tennant, Olivia Colman). Joining the show this time around are Charlotte Rampling, Eve Myles, James D’Arcy and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Chibnall’s connection to “Torchwood,” “Doctor Who” and “Life on Mars” ensured the presence of familiar actors in starring and guest roles. I haven’t heard if Chibnall’s superfluous American copy, “Gracepoint,” has been picked up for a second season, but I doubt it. A third season of “Broadchurch” has been announced. The DVD adds making-of and background featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.
In the third stanza of the surprisingly successful ITV/PBS series, “Mr. Selfridge,” we bid a sad farewell to Rose Selfridge and a bittersweet “welcome home” to the men and women returning home from World War I. To no one’s pleasure, Lord Loxley is also back in London causing trouble for the American department-store magnet. To take his mind off his wife’s death, Harry has been given almost more than he can handle with a pet project to build affordable housing for returning vets. Compared to Season One, when he was portrayed as a playboy and scoundrel, Harry now appears as if he might be auditioning for sainthood. It’s his children who are carrying on the Selfridge tradition by getting arrested in nightclubs, making enemies at work and getting fleeced by hucksters … and that’s only in the first three episodes. Harry’s also caught in a pickle involving unemployed veterans and the women who filled their jobs when they volunteered for the war. It hasn’t been easy for me to accept Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, but I’m in the minority on this one. All of the actors seem to fit just fine, including those who’ve left the store behind and are still being followed by the show’s writers. The UK Edition Blu-ray adds a 35-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, focusing on new characters and story arcs.
The latest installment in PBS’ “Baby Genius” franchise, “Favorite Children’s Songs,” extends to its youngest fans – their parents, too — a personal invitation from Vinko, DJ, Tempo, Oboe and Frankie, as they introduce babies and toddlers to colors, shapes, letters and numbers through classical music, childhood sing-along favorites and engaging videos. The songs include, “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Do You Know the Muffin Man,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and several “Baby Genius” originals. Special features add ”Baby Animals Favorite Sing-A-Longs,” “DJ’s My Name,” “Sing-A-Longs” and a bonus song; subtitles in English and Spanish; and a Spanish audio track.