Inside Llewyn Davis: Blu-ray
Despite being one of the best-reviewed movies of 2013, the Coen Brothers’ exquisite “Inside Llewyn Davis” suffered from a slow, tightly controlled rollout that lasted from the Cannes Film Festival to mid-January, 2014. By the time it reached its maximum exposure of 289 screens, awards nominations had come and gone, and too many of the people who would have wanted to see the movie in July or September already assumed that it already was in DVD. That’s one of major problems with distributors putting all of their marketing eggs in one basket, expecting the positive buzz from one or two early festivals to last until it’s rekindled by nominations and critics’ polls. When the buzzing stops, the movie is dropped like a hot potato. In my opinion, “Inside Llewyn Davis” wasn’t even given a fair shot on the arthouse circuit, where the nearly unanimous opinion of major critics would have done it some good. The film’s primary audience, after all, was always going to be Boomers who remember the second folk-music boom, of the early 1960s, and the artists who nearly disappeared in the wake of the Bob Dylan phenomenon. No matter how many boos rained down on Dylan at Newport and the Royal Albert Hall, the intransigence of traditionalists was duly noted by younger, more inclusive audiences and pretty much ignored. It lead to the rise of the singer-songwriter and a so-called third folk revolution. Dylan had yet to enter the picture when the Coens’ protagonist — played with great passion by Oscar Isaac – was struggling to make his presence known. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is far more informed by the early career of Dave Van Ronk and his memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” In real life, Van Ronk mentored Dylan and other soon to be popular folk artists. He would be overshadowed outside New York by the new generation of folk- and blues-rockers. Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One,” confirms the movie’s depiction of a time when up-and-coming folkies slept on each other’s couches, worked the “basket joints” for tips and emulated Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and recently re-discovered Delta blues musicians. Van Ronk’s music was more politically engaged than the songs Davis plays in the movies, but Isaac nicely captures his raspy voice, sometimes prickly nature and dedication to traditional acoustic tastes.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” describes a decidedly unpleasant week in Davis’ life and career, assuming he went on to have one. Not only has he tired of playing the same songs night after night at the same dimly lit clubs, but he’s also worn out his welcome at several of his favorite crash pads, lost a friend’s cat, learned that he might have a daughter living in Ohio — with another possibly in the over — and been punched out by a mysterious stranger. He travels all the way to Chicago, only to be told by a prospective manager (Albert Grossman, as channeled through F. Murray Abraham) that he’s lost the kid’s demo album and wasn’t the right fit for the new trio he is was forming: Peter, Paul & Mary. Frustrated to the point of resignation, Davis decides to hop a ship bound for the Far East, but not before visiting his seriously ill father in a home for retired seaman. By this time, most viewers either will have been completely alienated by Davis’ behavior or losing their patience with the Coens for messing with the trajectory of a career we wish more closely resembled that of Van Ronk. A clever twist near the end of the movie, though fictional, should make viewers in the latter category happy. As was the case with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” T Bone Burnett does wonders with the period soundtrack and overall musical tone of the movie. Bruno Delbonnel’s impeccable cinematography recalls winter in Lower Manhattan and the remarkable cover photograph for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Also good in supporting roles are Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Carrie Mulligan, Adam Driver and Stark Sands. The Blu-ray adds an excellent behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Book Thief: Blu-ray
Whenever a high-profile movie underperforms at the box office, you can bet that at least one member of the creative team will volunteer to stand up and point the finger at someone else. Put in that exact position during a post-mortem interview for “The Book Thief,” screenwriter Michael Petroni opined, “My major disappointment with the rewrites was that they took out most of the magic realism that’s featured in the book. Fox wanted a film that would appeal to families, not just adults, and (director Brian Percival) wanted to tell more of a straight, dramatic tale.” I don’t know about you, but, in my opinion, “magic realism” works far better in print than on the screen and almost never in places like Germany, where reality hardly ever make makes allowances for magic. As it is, Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel works just fine on its own terms, as both a compelling story about a German girl in World War II and as a lesson about how the unlikeliest heroes sometimes emerge from the pits of hell. There isn’t much I find family friendly about World War II – unless one uses puberty as the defining point for youth – but, just as the novel was targeted to young adults, so, too, is the movie a natural fit for teens and their older siblings. As narrated by the Angel of Death (that’s right), Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is an adolescent girl separated from her mother and brother in the lead-up to WWII, because the woman was a communist. (The boy dies on the journey by train.) Liesel winds up with foster parents in fictional Molching, Germany, which seems fairly typical of a mid-sized city prospering under the industrial boom between wars. Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) is a gentle house painter, who much prefers playing waltzes on his squeezebox to joining the Nazi riff-raff breaking the windows of Jewish shopkeepers and burning books in the town square. As played by Emily Watson, Rosa is a no-nonsense hausfrau, who takes in wash and tries very hard not to let her heart of gold shine through her bristly exterior. After Kristallnacht, a young Jewish man, Max, also finds refuge in the Hubermann household. By the time the war does begin in earnest, Percival, like Zusak, has committed the story to playing out in mostly peaceful Molching. Gestapo snoops are never far away, but we’re more interested in finding out how Liesel’s obsession with reading plays out in country where books are treated as the enemy. In this regard, “The Book Thief” is quite wonderful, as the precocious teenager is quite capable of finding enough reading material, besides “Mein Kampf,” to keep her mind occupied. The story allows room for subplots involving Liesel’s friends and Max’s plight, before the Allied bombers begin to target Molching, which doesn’t appear to be of any strategic importance to them. And, in case we forget, Death’s emissary makes his presence known every so often. Sophie Nélisse’s greatest challenge, perhaps, was avoiding her character being blown off the screen by old pros Rush and Watson, and she pulls it off quite smartly. All of the other production values are top-drawer, as well, especially the period-perfect set design, John Williams’ score and beautiful Saxon countryside. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a making-off featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Patience Stone
Try as I might, I can’t remember who walked home with the 2013 Best Actress Oscar or, for that matter, most of the other statuettes. Even without looking up the actress’ name, however, I can’t imagine a better performance than the one turned in the previous year by Golshifteh Farahani, who holds the distinction of being the first Iranian star to be banned from leaving Iran after performing in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies.” In “The Patience Stone,” which resembles a contemporary “Sherezade,” Farahani plays a more or less typical Muslim wife and mother, caught between militias in an Afghan city. The Woman, as she’s identified in the credits, has resigned herself to the task of helping her war-hero husband (a.k.a., the Man) recover from a life-threatening wound received in a post-war incident, defending the honor of his family. Ever since, he’s laid comatose in the front room of their bullet-riddled home, located directly on the front line of the fighting. The Woman has been given no reason to believe her husband ever will emerge from his coma, but has been driven into poverty by continuing to provide the medicine for his IV drip. At this point, the audience is largely clueless as to the country in which the movie is set; the war in which the man fought; and the sides the militias represent. In fact, though, it could be any one of a half-dozen Middle Eastern or North African locales, where women dare not leave home wearing anything short of a full burka and the men (and their meddling mothers) demand their wives meet certain expectations, including bearing male heirs. Indoors, the Woman is free to leave the burka in the closet, a simple act that allows a free flow of dialogue when she’s with other women. This includes the house of her far worldlier aunt, who agrees to take in the children. One night, after a particularly rough afternoon fending off Koran-toting fighters and ministering to her lifeless husband, the Aunt recalls for her a lesson from Persian mythology. It describes a woman who would recite her troubles and history to a well-weathered rock she places before her. When the stone can absorb no more of her pain, it shatters, freeing the woman from her burdens.
In effect, the motionless Man becomes the stone for the Woman, who spends her lonely nights with him describing her trials and secrets, of which there are many. As one might suspect, the Woman comes to represent – especially for western viewers – the millions of Muslim women rendered anonymous by the burka and forced to endure the dictates of a male-dominated culture. The intention of co-writer/director Atiq Rahimi here isn’t to condemn the teachings of the Koran or pit Sunni against Shia. Instead, he shows us how they can manipulated by men to forgive all sorts of crimes against women and justify practices no one’s God would endorse. Throughout their 10-year marriage, the Man ignored almost everything she had to say to him. Now, he’s a captive audience. Although the soliloquies are delivered in a straightforward manner, their emotional power is nothing short of volcanic. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything revealed in the narrative. “The Patience Stone” was shot in Casablanca and Afghanistan, but more indoors than outside. Anyone who’s been impressed by “Wadjda,” “Mother of George” and “A Separation” will recognize several story threads they have in common. The acting, too, is revelatory. I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Farahani that they check out her work in “Just Like a Woman,” “About Elle” and “Chicken With Plums,” as well as “Body of Lies.” It arrives with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Mademoiselle C: Blu-ray
So many of the very well-known fashion designers and magazine editors have been profiled in documentaries that we’ve started to see films about people only known to fashionistas and other obsessives. I think that Carmine Roitfeld, the subject of “Mademoiselle C,” was mentioned in “The September Issue,” which followed Vogue editor Anna Wintour as she oversaw the creation of what, at nearly five pounds, purportedly was the single largest issue of a magazine ever published. I seem to remember some discussion about Carine Roitfeld being the fashion industry equivalent of the wicked witch of the east or some such nonsense. A nod to their rivalry apparently also made the final cut of “The Devil Wears Prada.” For most of her 59 years on Earth, the daughter of Russian émigré and film producer Jacques Roitfeld has breathed the rarefied air of the industry as a model, writer, stylist, consultant, “muse” and editor. Like Wintour, Roitfeld is used to be courted by designers, photographers, celebrities and exceptionally rich, if otherwise useless rich people. Unlike the editor of American Vogue, she can frequently be seen – in the film, at least – manipulating her facial muscles into a smile. Her Rocky Raccoon eye makeup and lithe physique make her look as young as some of the models she employs. “Mademoiselle C” chronicles the period immediately after she left Vogue Paris and prepares to launch her new magazine, “CR Fashion Book,” whose primary distinction is that it has two cover photos and a central point where content collides. Like Vogue, it features high-end photography, advertising and models. If Roitfeld or Wintour has ever come in contact with anyone worth less than a million dollars or drives in anything not resembling a limo, it isn’t obvious from the documentaries made about them. Neither is it clear what differentiates Roitfeld’s editorial genius from that of other great editors. We have to take it on faith. That said, “Mademoiselle C” is well made, glamorous and full of celebrities in whose footsteps most of us will never walk. If she does have a blind side, however, it’s an unhealthy regard for pop-culture parasites. With all of the interesting, creative, beautiful, intelligent and influential people Roitfeld could have chosen for the cover of her third edition, it’s discouraging that she succumbed to cliché by picking Kim Kardashian. Score one for Anna Wintour. The Blu-ray adds footage from the premiere party in Paris, with even more celebrities and industry type. Anyone allergic to images of Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace and air-kisses may want to avoid this one. – Gary Dretzka
If James Franco isn’t the hardest working man in show business, I don’t know who is. His name has been attached to nearly three dozen projects in the period between 2012 and 2015. And, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t simply phoned in any of his performances. In “Homefront,” Franco plays a meth cooker, “Gator,” living in the bayous of Louisiana. For reasons known only to him, Gator decides to get involved in a petty feud started by his tweaker sister (Kate Bosworth) and a mysterious newcomer to town, Phil Broker (Jason Statham), whose daughter beat up her son at recess. Action junkies already know that any character played by Statham is going to be tougher that any five thugs put together and Gator is just a backwater bully. Turns out, in a previous career, Broker worked underground for the DEA. During the course of his last assignment, the son of the leader of the biker gang into which he had infiltrated was killed in a bust. Gator manages to blow Broker’s cover and sell the info to the gang leader in prison. The rest is carnage. The only thing that differentiates “Homefront” from a dozen other such movies is the script, which was written by Sylvester Stallone. To the extent that Stallone’s knowledge of action tropes is important to the success of any movie, the story is as exciting as it was ever likely to be. The swampy milieu adds greatly to the overall aura of menace and serves to hide most of the more glaring holes in the script. And, not surprisingly, perhaps, Franco easily pulls his weight in the caper. Moreover, the Blu-ray captures all of the nuances in Theo van de Sande’s atmospheric cinematography and Mark Isham’s bluesy score. It includes several deleted scenes and inconsequential VPK interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Ozploitation Trailer Explosion
Dead Kids: Blu-ray
Among the more entertaining staples of the video age are films comprised entirely of trailers. The more reliably outrageous the genre, the more hilarious are the previews of coming attractions. This applies primarily to exploitation and porno flicks, of course, with Italian giallo and Kung Fu movies also providing a good reason to get to the theater early. At one time, trailers for mainstream American movies used to be distinguished by all manner of bombastic hyperbole and ludicrous claims (“Most Expensive Movie Ever Made,” as if that were a good thing). Today, of course, the marketing departments of the major studios control nearly every aspect of the process, preferring to rely on surveys and test groups to sell movies as if they were toothpaste. Anyone who enjoyed the 2008 documentary “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!” will find a lot to like in “Ozploitation Trailer Explosion,” which contains 156 minutes’ worth of raunchy, sexy, hyper-violent and downright ridiculous previews from the Golden Age, 1970 to 1986. While it’s important to remember that the first flowering of Aussie arthouse cinema was taking place at the same time, the titles represented here likely served the greater audience. I found it interesting that the first screen appearance by the future Dame Edna Everage (a.k.a., Barry Humphries) was in John B. Murray’s 1970 comedy, “The Naked Bunyip.” A year later, Humphries would collaborate with Bruce Beresford on “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie,” which also starred singer Barry Crocker, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Dennis Price, Dick Bentley, Willie Rushton, Julie Covington, Clive James and Joan Bakewell. It is an example of the “ocher” subgenre, featuring Australians who speak and act in an uncultured manner, using a broad Australian accent. The film is divided into three distinct sections, representing the sexploitation pictures, car crash/action flicks, and horror/sci-fi. Among the more recognizable stars are a very young Mel Gibson, Sam Neil, John Phillip Law, Henry Silva, George Lazenby, Dennis Hopper, Jack Thompson, David Hemmings, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Agutter and Judy Davis. I wondered about the the inclusion of Peter Weir’s legitimately chilling “The Last Wave,” with Richard Chamberlain and Aboriginal actor David Gulplil, as it only seemed to exploit Aboriginal myths.
Severin Films is doing its part to honor the genre by releasing a pair of horror “classics,” “Thirst” and “Dead Kids” (a.k.a., “Strange Behavior”). To my mind, neither is specifically Australian or particularly Ozploitative. For example, “Dead Kids” purports to take place in Galesburg, Illinois, and is top-loaded with American stars Michael Murphy, Dan Shor, Dey Young, Louise Fletcher, Scott Brady, Marc McClure and the great character actor, Charles Lane. In it, a widower sheriff is assigned the task of investigating several unsolved slasher slayings, perhaps caused by the teenage sons of prominent citizens. If you’re guessing that a mad scientist, his evil nurse and long needles are involved, you win a kangaroo burger. “Dead Kids” could very well have emerged from the Roger Corman/New World catalog. The Blu-ray add commentaries by director Michael Laughlin, writer Bill Condon and actors Shor and Young; an interview with makeup effects artist Craig Reardon; and an isolated musical track by Tangerine Dream.
Likewise, “Thirst” could just as easily emerged from Hammer Studios, with its updated Gothic touches. Its shower scenes, featuring Chantal Contouri, pay homage to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The lovely Contouri plays a direct descendant of the bloodthirsty Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who introduced the cosmetic benefits of bathing in virgin blood to the horror genre. Conveniently, David Hemmings and Henry Silva represent an international blood-drinking cartel known as the Brotherhood. In Bathory’s heir, they see an opportunity to expand their herd of human “blood cows” into a business servicing a master race of vampires. Clearly, at some point during the past several hundred years, this representative of the clan has lost her taste for blood. Can it last? The upgraded Blu-ray edition adds commentary with director Rod Hardy and producer Anthony I. Ginnane, an isolated musical score and marketing material. – Gary Dretzka
In Fear: Blu-ray
One of the lessons that’s been pounded into our heads since the crimes of the Manson Family is not to pick up strangers on country roads, bereft of streetlamps and directional signs, especially at night. We’ve seen dozens of movies that exploit the same formula and most them come out the same. The British import, “In Fear,” is among the small handful of pictures in the subgenre capable of raising goosebumps among seasoned viewers. Tom and Lucy (Iain De Caesteckerm, Alice Englert) are driving to a festival in the remote Irish countryside, when they leave the main highway to look for their hotel. Even though they follow the signs to the letter, the couple can’t seem to locate their destination. Soon enough, the sun goes down and the only lights available to them come from their car. Out of nowhere pops a young man who may be able to point them in the right direction. Or, the stranger could be a sadist bent on torturing the couple before he kills them. The forest and inky dark sky serve the same purpose as the walls and ceiling in a haunted house, lit only by candles or a flickering flashlight. Jeremy Lovering’s first non-TV project works surprisingly well, pushing all the write genre buttons, while forsaking most of the noisy clichés. Allen Leech (“Downton Abbey”) is fine as the menacing force. It includes a behind-the-scenes featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review
Before he had even bent a single note in the United States, American fans of British rock were aware of Eric Clapton’s place in the Pantheon. In the autumn of 1967, the guitar virtuoso was prematurely deified in what may have been the most talked about graffito since Kilroy left town. By spray painting “Clapton is God” on a wall in the Islington Underground station, an admirer testified to the wisdom of Paul Simon’s observation, via “The Sounds of Silence,” that, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” Clapton, himself, was embarrassed by the sentiment, perhaps preferring the famous photograph of an elderly woman passing by another corrugated wall with the same observation. It is at this exact spot that her dog decided to relieve himself. By the time he recorded “Layla,” three years later, Clapton was on the shortlist of musicians accorded the title, “guitar god.” With the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, artists Clapton greatly admired, his name would again rise to the top. At an epic length of 151 minutes, not counting bonus material, Sexy Intellectual’s “Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review” attempts to answer the obvious question raised by such hyperbole, “Blessing or curse?” The portrait painted of the man nicknamed “Slowhand” is one filled with ecstasy and agony, almost in equal measure. The title, “The 1970s Review,” is a tad misleading, in that no profile could be considered complete unless it followed the road that led to Cream and Blind Faith and extended to marrying Pattie Boyd and finally kicking alcohol, the habit that replaced heroin in his life. In between, Clapton had tried to blend into the background of the Delany & Bonnie traveling circus – much to the consternation of his label and managers – and shift his musical emphasis from power rock and blues to reggae, ballads and the so-called Tulsa sound. After he came out of his alcohol-induced hibernation, Clapton would perform in a continuing string of benefits and charity concerts and shift to a more hits-oriented approach. Thirty years later, as his early fans have modified their tastes, he may be as popular and commercially viable as he’s ever been. In my opinion, “The 1979s Review” is the best entry in the Sexy Intellectual series of critical retrospectives. It contains more live footage and recorded material than usual and the witnesses interviewed are, in most cases, only one degree of separation from the source. They include Bonnie Bramlett, Bobby Whitlock, the Albert Brothers, George Terry, Willie Perkins, Bill Halverson, Clapton biographer Marc Roberty and critics who’ve observed Clapton through most of his changes. – Gary Dretzka
Iron Sky: Director’s Cut: Blu-Ray
Less than two years ago, when a considerably shorter “Iron Sky” landed on my desk, it reminded me of a midnight movie in search of a cult audience. Although clearly made on a tight budget – largely crowd-sourced — the idea of an unrepentant Nazi force invading Earth from their refuge on the dark side of the moon was compelling. The only thing preventing the Germans from making an earlier blitzkrieg than 2018 was a computer capable of executing the mission. When a space capsule filled with astronaut/models crash-lands near their headquarters, the Nazis seize an iPhone belonging to one of them. It is, of course, a billion times more powerful than the ancient computer controlling operations at their lunar base. Fortunately, a Sarah Palin look-alike is the incumbent POTUS and she’s itching for a war with anyone – Australia was her first option – to ensure her place in history. She orders the crew of the USS George W. Bush to put aside its exploratory mission to Mars to lead the charge against the demented Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier, of course) and the giant Gotterdammerung war machine. Perhaps, to keep the geeks and fanboys happy, co-writer/director Timo Vuorensola cast sexy Julia Dietze, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul and Kym Jackson as trigger-happy war mongers. The “Director’s Cut” edition, which arrives in a SteelBook package, is a full 20 minutes longer than the original and quite a bit more coherent. For a Finn/Kraut/Aussie co-production, “Iron Sky” looks remarkably good on Blu-ray and the special effects are surprisingly effective. The score, by the Slovenian art-rock band, Laibach, combines elements of Wagner, our National Anthem and Pink Floyd to good effect, as well. Bonus material adds a 90-minute making-of documentary and a 32-page concept-art booklet. If the R-rating means anything to you, it’s only for coarse language and some violence. It could just as easily pass for PG. – Gary Dretzka
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 1
Schoolgirl Report Vol. 12: Carnal Campus
Before “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” helped pornographic movies make the leap from stag parties and “smokers” to Main Street America, mercenaries in the sexual revolution unashamedly put themselves on display in short 8mm films known as loops. They could be purchased through ads in the back of men’s magazines or peep-show emporiums in such liberated zones as New York’s Times Square. The latest installment in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever” series, “The Peep Show Collection,” offers several “classic loops” with such titles as “Deeper Throat,” “One Hung Low,” “Nurse’s Aid,” “Wet and Wild” and “Spice of Life.” While most of the actors are unrecognizable, future stars John Holmes, Annie Sprinkle, Susan Nero and Lisa DeLeeuw can be easily identified. Unlike the feature-length pornos to come, the filmmakers and couples waste no time flirting, petting or acting out a narrative. The costumes worn by the actors are the only hints offered as to how one loop is different than the next. Given the nearly 45 years that have passed since they were made, the films are reasonably well preserved. There are plenty of scratches, edit marks and artifacts, but no more than could be seen after two weeks of continual rotation. The DVD adds liner notes from Cinema Sewer Publisher, Robin Bougie.
Fans of period erotica may or may not be distressed to learn that the German soft-core series, “Schoolgirl Reports,” will come to end with the next release from the Image catalog. The penultimate 12th entry, “Carnal Campus” (a.k.a., “If Mom Only Knew …”) is comprised of vignettes that dramatize letters solicited by the editors of a high school newspaper. They run the gamut from innocently silly (rolling in the hay, literally) to intentionally disturbing (incest, drug abuse). A typical gag involves the mistaken identity of a French foreign-exchange student assigned to the family of a horny German high school girl. Expecting a girl named Nicky, they instead are asked to welcome an athletic boy named Nicky. The girl’s high-strung father knows immediately where the danger lies, but is encouraged by the ladies in his life to accept their fate. Even as the father is relieved to learn that the grunting and bumping he hears emanating from the top floor involves Nicky’s calisthenics, even a committed jock can’t resist the advances of a steam-room full of his sexually aggressive classmates. In a darker chapter a teenage girl falls in love with her much older brother, a pilot, who has been a surrogate father to her in the absence of their parents. Smart enough to recognize the danger of such a crush, the pilot resists … until fate intercedes. Even though “Schoolgirl Reports” is hopelessly outdated in 2014, the vignettes are more revealing and entertaining than most of the stuff one finds on Cinemax late at night. The context here is everything. – Gary Dretzka
Necronos: Tower of Doom
The blood-soaked German import, “Necronos: Tower of Doom,” is billed as the goriest example of European splatter-porn you’ll ever see, but, even if it weren’t, it definitely pushes the envelope as far as it will go. The only things keeping “Necronos” from being a classic of the subgenre are the too-obvious special-makeup-effects, which wouldn’t pass muster in most YouTube videos. Even so, it’s difficult to keep one’s eyes on the screen when heads are rolling on the floor and naked women are being mutilated in places usually reserved for fun. The story is simple enough, however. Necronos has come to Earth at the behest of his boss, Satan, to marshal an army of the undead under leadership of barbaric demons, called Berzerkers. The human victims are drained of ingredients essential to a devilish cocktail. The Mighty Witch has been recruited, as well, to locate a virgin. The outdoor locations aren’t bad, but the Tower of Doom interior is pretty cheesy. The DVD add a behind-the-scenes slide show.
Also from Troma Team, “Dangerous Obsession” (a.k.a., “Mortal Sins”) is a 1989 comic-thriller that failed to pass “Go” before landing in straight-to-video hell. Brian Benben (“Dream On”) stars as Nathan Weinschenk, a private detective who keeps reminding us that he’s Jewish. He does this, I’m guessing, because he doesn’t want anyone to miss the forced irony of a Jew getting caught up in a comic murder mystery involving a pair of corrupt televangelists. That’s really all there is to the movie, which doesn’t take enough advantage of its New York locations or cast members Benben, Peter Onorati, Anthony LaPaglia, Debra Farentino, Sully Boyar and Maggie Wheeler (as Maggie Jakubson), who played Janice on “Friends.” Special features add “James Gunn: How to Sell Your Own Damn Movie Documentary” and some Troma-related extras. – Gary Dretzka
Rogue: Complete First Season
BBC: Vikings: The Real Warriors
Syfy: End of the World
Owned by the DirecTV satellite service, Audience Network offers interesting programming from Canada, the UK and Australia, as well as off-network and off-cable reruns that tend to appeal to young men. I will be forever in its debt for showing the seriously weird Canadian comedy, “Trailer Park Boys,” and intense Aussie crime series “Underbelly.” I haven’t seen it in while, so I can’t say if it has maintained such high standards. The Oakland-based cops-and-crooks series, “Rogue,” represents the network’s first entry into the arena of original dramas. While it isn’t in the same league as “Underbelly,” “Rogue” has several good things going for it, including a fresh cast and plausibly scuzzy Oakland backdrop. The dialogue is mostly distinguished by the number of dropped F-bombs and cop-show clichés. Thandie Newton looks far too classy to play an undercover cop, Grace/Jackie Hays, working for a sleazy NoCal gangster, but it’s TV, after all. She’s motivated by the recent death of her son in a drive-by shooting. After a suspicious leave of absence, she rejoins Jimmy Lazlo’s operation. Her timing is good, because ballistics have matched the slug that killed her son to one that killed Lazlo’s accountant and one intended for Lazlo that ended up in her shoulder, instead. Newton’s never been shy about showing off her tight body and, here, she’s given more than a few opportunities to do so. Others do, as well. For the ladies, there’s Ian Hart’s not so tight package. The 10-episode season gets better as it goes along, so I imagination that the second season will be worth the effort of finding. The collection adds a making-of featurette and webisodes.
If there’s any ethnic group that hasn’t been underrepresented on television lately, it’s the Vikings. Several theatrical films and mini-series have aired, all describing the ferocity of the wandering Scandinavian traders and settlers. Naturally, documentary series from the UK stress the brutality of the Viking attacks on Lindisfarne and attempts to conquer the entire kingdom. In the BBC’s extraordinary docu-series “Vikings,” host Neil Oliver doesn’t even get to Heathen Horde until the middle of the second episode. Before they get to England, the Vikings have already made their way – peacefully, mostly – through all of Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia, Constantinople and, perhaps, all the way to Baghdad. Oliver had scoured the museums along the way, looking for treasures, artifacts, plunder, linguistic and genetic traces, and other clues to the extent of the Vikings’ empire … dung collected from cesspits, even. After the warriors settle Britain, Iceland, and Greenland, transforming themselves from illiterate pagans into Christian farmers, statesmen and kings, they sailed for unknown waters in the west. Watching “Vikings” is the next best thing to auditing a class in ancient European history the local university.
For every hybrid megamonster featured in an original Syfy movie, it seems as if there are two others in which things fall from the sky for no apparent reason, predictive of one version of the apocalypse. It’s as if the network was being programmed by Chicken Little. These incidents appear to be limited to rural British Columbia, where, seemingly, there are more conspiracy theorists and crackpot scientists per square mile than anywhere else on Earth. In “End of the World,” the designated looney is played by –who else? – the always on-call, Brad Dourif. When electro-magnetic blasts begin to bombard Earth, the only people who suspect the truth are Dourif’s crazy sci-fi writer, Doc, and two goofballs who work at a video store in the local strip mall. If that sounds preposterous, it’s only because that’s how Syfy rolls: equal parts self-mocking humor, bargain-basement effects and apocalyptic dread. I’ve seen the same scenario played out with flying icicles. The target audience for “End of the World,” as usual, is boys in their early teens who enjoy watching people and things vaporize before their eyes. Here, the action only gets sillier the longer the movie goes on … but, in a good way. – Gary Dretzka
Above Suspicion: Set 3
George Gently: Season 6
Vera: Set 3
The Science of Measurement
Talks About Nothing
At a time when BBC America has put its big hits, “Top Gear” and “Doctor Who,” into heavy rotation and recycled Hollywood movies have shoved too many fresh shows off the schedule, it’s no longer easy to find fresh Brit sitcoms and hour-long dramas. PBS offers several of the major programs, but, in Los Angeles, at least, almost none is on the primary outlet (KCET), except in distant reruns. One has to hunt-and-peck through five stations to find “Downton Abbey.” The other dirty secret about British imports is the editing and self-censorship that happens once those shows hit the air here. Too often, it’s better to wait for the Blu-ray/DVD release. Speaking of which, the relatively new DVD and streaming company, Acorn Media, is doing a nice job keeping us abreast of new collections from Britain, Canada and Australia, as well as vintage compilations of episodes from popular shows. This week, for example, American audiences can trip back to 1984, when the period Australian mini-series debuted in Sydney; to 2012, for “Under Suspicion, Set 3,” based on the Lynda La Plante thriller, “Silent Scream”; last year, to Northumberland for “Vera: Set 3,” starring Brenda Blethyn; and last month, when the sixth season of “George Gently,” debuted in London. They can be accessed through the Acorn website and Netflix.
Acorn’s non-fiction subsidiary, Athena, is well-represented with two fascinating mini-series. “The Science of Measurement,” a follow-up to “The Science of Math,” takes an exhaustive look at mankind’s historic need to understand and master their world by quantifying and measuring everything around them, whether it’s time, potables, speed or distance. It also questions our obsession with precision. If Big Ben loses a second a day or week, for example, is it less reliable than a clock that won’t lose a second in our lifetimes? How has the science of measurement shaped the course of history, science, civilization and the mundane chores of daily life? The series is hosted by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who makes this insanely intricate study accessible, more or less, to viewers who may never receive a PhD.
The title, “Talks About Nothing,” is as misleading as the material contained therein is riveting. And, yet, the metaphysical concept of nothingness has fascinated artists, intellectuals and clerics for as long as humans could put their heads around it. What “Talks About Nothing” isn’t is a panel discussion with a dais full of smart people, all attempting to get a word in edgewise. Neither is it a mini-series that aims to make the philosophizing tolerable by hopping from one picturesque college, museum or institution to another at breakneck speed. Curators at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art simply asked pairs of gifted conversationalists to sit in comfortable chairs and discuss things about which they’re knowledgeable. Remarkably, the discussions are rarely off-point and never inconsequential or boring, even if the guests are known primarily in their spheres of influence. Among the pairings are neurologist Oliver Sacks and blind photographer John Dugdale; Shakespearean actor Brian Cox and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik; filmmaker Ken Burns and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche; performance artist Laurie Anderson and Charles Seife, author of a book about zero; Laurie Anderson and Charles Seife; actor Fiona Shaw and philosopher Simon Critchley; and director/teacher Peter Sellars and economist/author Raj Patel. An essay, “Zero: A Brief History of Nothing,” accompanies the package. – Gary Dretzka
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mayhem
Drawing With Mark: Something Fishy/A Day at the Aquarium
Drawing With Mark: Good to Grow/Life on the Farm
Bubble Guppies/Dora the Explorer/Wild Kratts/Caillou
As usual, Our Heroes are up to their shells in danger, this time as Shredder and Kraang team up with Karai, the Rat King and Foot Bots to enjoy the ninjutsu Turtles, newly joined by Casey Jones. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mayhem” is comprised of six episodes of the 2012 series. Among the additions to the 145-minute feature are the making-of “Mutation of a Scene” and “Channel 6 News Special Report: Creatures of the Night.”
New Englander Mark Marderosian is a prolific cartoonist, animator, children’s and comic book illustrator, and toy designer. He may be best known for his Walt Disney-licensed children’s books – “Mickey’s Wish: A Deluxe Super Shape Book,” “Disney Princess: Jewelry Box” – and “Angels From the Attic” line of stuffed toys. In 2010, Marderosian and designer/animator Robert Palmer Jr. created a television program called “Drawing With Mark” for Big City Publishing, which sells storybooks, coloring books, flash cards. After offering the show for free to public-access TV stations, it was picked up by more than 100 cable outlets across the country. Marderosian has said that, “The show’s overall theme is about helping kids unlock their creativity, especially in these days of brutal budget cuts on so many institutions.” Last year, he was nominated for an Emmy by the Boston/New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences nominated “Drawing with Mark” for a Regional Emmy award in the Children’s/Youth category, and he’s won a Parents’ Choice Award. Each DVD includes two 30-minute episodes. In “Something Fishy” and “A Day at the Aquarium,” Marderosian takes viewers to the Woods Hole aquarium, where they’re taught to draw marine animals. In “Life on the Farm” and “Good to Grow,” visits a working farm. Other newly available package include “Reaching for the Stars”/”A Day With the Dinosaurs” and “We All Scream for Ice Cream”/”Happy Tails.”
Other new titles for kids in comparable age brackets are “Bubble Guppies: Animals Everywhere,” in which the title characters take field trips around the world to learn about squirrels, ducks, rhinos, elephants and other critters; “Dora the Explorer: Dora in Wonderland” replicates Alice’s famous through-the-looking-glass adventure; “Wild Kratts: Bugging Out,” in which Martin and Chris use their Creature Power Suits to gain access to exotic wildlife; and “Caillou: Caillou’s Garden Adventures,” with such self-descriptive episodes as “Caillou Can Compost,” “Caillou’s Tree,” “Caillou Saves Water,” “Blueberry Point,” “Class Pet” and “In the Garden.” – Gary Dretzka