Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson
Venus and Serena” Blu-ray
Yes, Brian Helgeland’s biopic of the superlative athlete and humanitarian, Jackie Robinson, touches many of the same bases as other inspirational Hollywood movies about sports figures, including several of the clichés that drive in-the-know viewers crazy. More than anything else, though, the thing that makes us cringe most is the vehemence of the racism faced by the man wearing “42” on his back as he bridged what once was considered to be an insurmountable gap separating white ballplayers and those of color. In 128 minutes, the n-word is spat from the mouth of hard-core racists more frequently than most viewers will have heard it said in their entire lives. Unlike the word’s deployment in “Django Unchained,” however, each and every time it’s uttered in “42,” it stings a little bit more that the time before. Helgeland wants us to ask ourselves: how could Robinson have possibly continued to turn the other cheek as spectators and players, alike, heaped abuse on him? If, today, we’re capable of being stunned by the kind of overt displays of racism as we witnessed in the Paula Deen controversy and Trayvon Martin trial, it’s because the passage of time hasn’t their sting and such vestiges of Jim Crow are even avoided by diehard bigots. So, when the actor playing real-life Phillies manager Ben Chapman stands outside his team’s dugout and hurls the worst possible epithets at the rookie, don’t be surprised if you get the urge to kick a hole in your TV screen. I certainly did. If “42” had expanded its focus, by covering Robinson’s entire career, the toxicity of the poison might have been diluted. During the three seasons chronicled here, though, there was no shelter from the storm, either for Robinson or viewers of “42.” That would only come after Robinson established himself as a bona-fide star and other black and Spanish-speaking players were signed to competing teams.
Helgeland nails the sense of complete isolation Robinson must have felt after leaving the all-black Kansas City Monarchs and joining the white-as-snow Montreal Royals and Brooklyn Dodgers. Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey told him what to expect on and off the field of play, making it clear that their crusade wouldn’t be won easily or without pain. Aware of Robinson’s fiery temper and previous confrontations with bigotry, Rickey, in effect, dared him to accept the challenge of breaking the strictly enforced, if unofficial color line. Even if it can be argued that Rickey’s primary objective was to sell tickets to African-American fans, the crusty Methodist knew only too well that he would be severely tested by fellow executives who enforced the ban without questioning its morality, unfairness or business logic. As co-protagonists, Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford both stand out from the pack here. Among the rest of the generally excellent cast members, my heart went out most to the actor assigned to play Chapman, Alan Tudyk (“Suburgatory”). I can’t imagine how he might have reacted when he was handed the script and saw the words he was being paid to deliver in rapid-fire repetition. (He should be considered, at least, for a Supporting Actor nomination, come January.) Nicole Beharie is fine as wife Rachel Robinson, a Californian appalled by the Jim Crow restrictions imposed on blacks in the South, as are Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith, the man who recommended Robinson to Rickey, and Lucas Black (“Sling Blade”) as Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger who stood beside his teammate in the face of fan hostility. Of all the production values on display in “42,” the one I least admire is the musical soundtrack, which couldn’t be any more bombastic and manipulative. The Blu-ray package adds three standard-issue making-of featurettes.
The documentary “Letters From Jackie: The Private Thoughts of Jackie Robinson” picks ups where “24” leaves off. In addition to describing his rise to stardom after his rookie season, Robinson’s letters to family, friends, business associates and politicians expand on his role as a crusader for civil rights off the field. A prolific letter writer, Robinson wasn’t shy about sharing his feeling about important issues of the time, especially the hypocrisy shown by the Democratic Party over soliciting black voters, while also kissing the asses of Dixiecrats. Indeed, he openly supported Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, believing that Republicans were less beholding to bigoted politicians than the Democrats, who consistently blocked aggressive civil-rights legislation. The courtship wouldn’t last, of course, but the Kennedys eventually took his words seriously. Another fascinating aspect of the documentary is Robinson’s longtime friendship with a 10-year-old Wisconsin pen pal, Ron Rabinovitz, whose love for the ballplayer was rewarded with family visits and a candid sharing of opinions.
Released to coincide with Wimbledon, my copy of “Venus and Serena” must have gotten lost in the mail. With the U.S. Open soon to begin, however, there’s still plenty of time to catch up with Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s uneven bio-doc. Granted, the Williams sisters didn’t demolish the color barrier in tennis – Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Evonne Goolagong and Yannick Noah pretty much took care of that – but the allegiance of the sport’s predominantly white, middle-class fans can never be taken for granted. After winning a gold medal at the 2012 Games, Serena was chastised in the media for supposedly celebrating her triumph with a few steps from the “Crip walk,” instead of curtsy or sky punch. In an interview for the documentary, Chris Rock blames the fickleness of their popularity on one unmistakable thing: “Their braids are not country-club black. They are black-black.” The Williams’ straight-outta-Compton history has been repeated so many times that it now borders on the mythic. Frequently described as “warriors” or “gladiators” on the crowd, the sisters are scrutinized more closely in defeat than in victory. Fact is, however, even when tennis is played right, it exacts a heavy toll on the bodies of the players. When top-seeded contestants drop out of tournament or match over physical ailments, ticket-buyers are quick to ascribe other reasons for their withdrawal. No one is immune from booing, but the loudest has been reserved for the Williams when fans are denied an opportunity to see them compete against each other.
“Venus and Serena” follows the siblings through the 2011 campaign and much of 2012, when Venus was 31 and Serena was 29, ages at which most players begin to think about retirement. Although both were coming back after long layoffs caused by serious ailments, they were expected to win, win, win. In fairness, V&S held themselves up to similarly high expectations, sometimes blaming a loss on incompetence, instead of something more basic. The documentary isn’t nearly as “unfiltered” as the cover blurbs would have us believe. If the closeness of the sisters is wonderful to behold, it’s counterbalanced by the agony of watching their parent/coaches’ us-against-the-world stance and the inflicting of it on their daughters. That’s the kind of sport tennis is, however. Personal coaches and tennis-fathers, especially, are allowed to interject their personalities into what happens on the court more than in any other sport. The more persistent among them have even been banned from attending matches or getting too near the athletes, off and on the court. “Venus and Serena” is informed, as well, by the observations of Billie jean King, John McEnroe, Anna Wintour, Bill Clinton, Gay Talese and other siblings and half-siblings. It is, however, Rock’s candid comments that make the most sense. Conspicuously missing are fresh interviews with opposing players and coaches, as well as a wider perspective on the impact the sisters’ success has had on African-American girls from modest backgrounds. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews with the filmmakers.
Back to baseball: “Home Run” tells the story of a big-leagues slugger whose Achilles heel is his addiction to alcohol. Until Cory (Scott Elrod) is busted on a DUI rap, he’s been able to avoid paying the price for substance abuse. This time, however, he’s suspended for two months, during which he’s expected to return to his Oklahoma hometown and go through the rehab wringer. His agent (Vivica A. Fox) has arranged for him to coach a Little League team, primarily as a PR stunt. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Cory doesn’t take recovery seriously. That doesn’t happen until he reconnects-cute with his high school sweetheart, who, all too conveniently, is a competing coach and single mom. Because “Home Run” is a decidedly faith-based drama, the road to recovery inevitably leads through the twin cities of transformation and redemption. Although well directed and shot by David Boyd (“The Walking Dead”), there are times when “Home Run” feels like an infomercial for Celebrate Recovery, an actual program founded at Saddleback Church by John Baker.
Bullet to the Head: Blu-ray
The most noteworthy thing about this adaptation of the French graphic novel, “Du plomb dans la tête,” isn’t the appearance of Sylvester Stallone as a mob enforcer double-crossed by a corrupt New Orleans businessman. Now 67 and as buff as ever, Sly has never been away long enough for anyone to miss him particularly or be surprised when his name is used to sell tickets. No, what’s interesting is finding Walter Hill on top of the list of credits as director. Away from directing feature films for more than 10 years, the creator of such action hits as “The Warriors,” “The Long Riders” and “48 Hrs.” prefers to make movies that he’s also written. “Bullet to the Head” was never going to be anything but an exercise in cartoon violence, so, when Hill took over for Wayne Kramer early on, something, besides a paycheck, must have caught his eye. Given that the movie clocks in at a brisk 92 minutes, I’m guessing Hill took more out of the screenplay than he added to it. Stallone’s mumble-mouthed Jimmy Bobo is a sharp-dressed guy who could do double-duty as a spokesman for steroid-abuse charities. His inclination is to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. His hatred of police borders on the pathological, but it’s probably because the New Orleans Police Department is known to be nothing more than a street gang with uniforms.
After a knife-wielding thug kills his partner, Bobo reluctantly allows a Washington cop to tag along with him as attempts to avenge the murder. The by-the-book cop, Taylor (Sung Kang), has reasons of his own to find the guy who killed Bobo’s partner. Being post-Katrina New Orleans, it’s tied into an elaborate scheme that requires its perpetrators (Christian Slater, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to buy the support of countless politicians, from the French Quarter to Georgetown. The details are embedded in a USB flash drive, which leaves the decidedly analogue Bobo at a distinct disadvantage. It’s the promise of Bobo eventually having to fight the seemingly indestructible thug, Keegan (Jason Momoa), that towers over everything else in the nearly incomprehensible story and Hill doesn’t disappoint us. When they finally come face to face, Keegan demands they use conveniently placed fire axes to settle the score. (“Are we fuckin’ Vikings?,” Bobo quips.) No matter what Stallone’s detractors think, action junkies should find the showdown to be worth the price of the rental. In Hill’s hands, it’s as exciting as it is ludicrous. (Keegan twirls the ax as if it were a Wiffle bat.) For eye candy, “Bullet to the Head” offers Sarah Shahi, who, at 33, could play Stallone’s tattoo-artist granddaughter, instead of his daughter. The Blu-ray package adds a decent making-of featurette.
Wild Bill: Blu-ray
In his directorial debut, “Wild Bill,” British actor Dexter Fletcher shows off some of the things he learned while performing for Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh. Set in London’s East End in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, it combines the gritty look, twisted sense of humor and insular vernacular of contemporary British gangster flicks with a story about real-life family values. Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles) has been released on parole after eight years in prison for something related to dealing drugs. When he arrives at his housing project home, Bill learns that the mother of his 11- and 15-year-old sons, Jimmy and Dean, has taken a powder for Spain, leaving the boys to fend for themselves. Typically, this would mean following into the family business of low-level crime, but, with the Olympics approaching, Dean manages to find a job on a construction project near the stadium. If the job keeps the wolves from the door, it can’t prevent social services from threatening to break up the family. Although Bill would just as soon hightail it to Scotland, Dean asks him to stick around for appearances sake. At the same time, Bill’s former mates are none too happy that he’s discouraging Jimmy from peddling their stuff and screwing up their business. Meanwhile, kids in the housing project are also feeling the subversive effects of puberty. Fletcher does a nice job balancing both aspects of the story, while also eliciting excellent performances from the young, largely untested cast members. Unfortunately, kitchen-sink movies like “Wild Bill” don’t get much play in American theaters, anymore, and Fletcher’s face is far more familiar than his name on a poster. It should look just fine on your TV. The Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes and a couple of short featurettes.
Considering how few of today’s movies feature predominantly Asian-American casts and behind-the-camera talent, it seems unfair to pick nits in reviewing Quentin Lee’s coming-of-age drama, “White Frog,” in which there’s plenty of both. So, I won’t do it. What’s interesting in “White Frog” is the absence of a singularly Asian-American theme, cast or neighborhood. The proverb that explains the title has its roots in Old Country soil, but that’s the extent of it. In that way, at least, “White Frog” is a movie that mirrors everyday life in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Honolulu, miles from the tourist traps and sweatshops in the local Chinatown and first-generation poverty. The issues are common to all American families, regardless of their ethnic and racial persuasion. The only reason “White Frog” stands out from other movies with multi-ethnic casts is the absence of conflicts precipitated by racial division. Written by the mother/daughter team of Ellie and Fabienne Wen, “White Frog” describes what happens to a well-off suburban family when their teenage son, Chazz (Harry Shum Jr.), is killed in an automobile accident, taking a rather large secret with him to the grave. Chazz means everything to his younger brother, Nick (Booboo Stewart), who has Asperger’s syndrome and has an extremely difficult time relating to other people, including his parents (BD Wong, Joan Chen). For Nick, coming of age in the usual ways that boys do would be difficult enough without the loss of his brother, but it now borders on the impossible. Fortunately, one of Chazz’ close friends invites him to join their weekly card game. The Indian-American and African-American boys have a more difficult time adjusting to Nick’s idiosyncratic ticks and behavior, but they come around once he begins kicking their ass in poker.
As if this weren’t enough weight for one low-budget indie to carry for 93 minutes, the parents are coming apart at the seams, even before the family-size secret is revealed by Chazz’s best friend. When it is, Nick and his parents react in a very un-cool way. It threatens to disrupt a theatrical production Chazz and his pals had spent many hours planning for and rehearsing. For it to be shut down over issues relating to intolerance and misguided honor would do nothing more than temporarily ease their own despair. It would neither bring him back nor pay tribute to a life well lived. I don’t know what it means that the parents have adopted Christianity and the father seeks the advice of a priest, while a therapist gets much of the credit for independently saving the brothers from going off the deep end emotionally. Fortunately, the youthful cast is sufficiently buoyant to keep things afloat long enough to forge an ending that avoids sentimentality and moralizing. Among the places you’ve seen the faces of the actors are “Twilight,” “Glee,” “Teen Wolf,” “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “The Vampire Diaries.” Wong and Chen do a nice job as the severely tested parents. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.
45 Minutes From Broadway
If I recall, Henry Jaglom’s play, “45 Minutes From Broadway,” was well received critically and at the box-office in its Los Angeles run. Two years later, the mainstream critics who saw it in its far-too-limited release would uniformly pan his big-screen adaptation. The first thing Jaglom’s fans should know is that the film version of “45 Minutes From Broadway,” while typically talky and populated with accomplished middle-class neurotics, is exceedingly stage-bound and the frequently stilted dialogue is delivered as if a live audience were present. Basically, it lacks the smart organic vibrancy that usually attends Jaglom’s movies. That said, admirers of Jaglom’s work, who live outside Los Angeles and New York and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see the play, should value the opportunity to catch up with it. The actors certainly will be familiar to Jaglom completists. Among them are, of course, Tanna Frederick and Michael Emil, David Proval, Jack Heller, Diane Salinger, Harriet Schock, Mary Crosby and siblings Sabrina and Simon Orson Jaglom. They’re part of a show-biz family that collectively thinks of itself as capital-A Actors, or “Us.” New to the writer/director’s repertory company are Julie Davis and Judd Nelson, who play an engaged couple representing the lower-case-A Audience, or “Them.” Despite sharing the same parents, Frederick and Davis’ sibling characters could hardly be more different. When Them (she’s Jewish, he’s a “goy”) arrive at the country retreat housing Us (much is made of roots extending to the Yiddish theater), a crisis arises between the sisters that you can see coming all of the 45 miles separating the cottage and the Great White Way. Fans won’t have a problem with that, however. The features add Jaglom & Co.’s commentary, deleted scenes and outtakes, and clips.
Heavy Traffic: Blu-ray
Knowing that Ralph Bakshi’s “Heavy Traffic” was heavily influenced by Hubert Selby Jr.’s unforgiving blue-collar tragedy, “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” makes it much easier to understand what the filmmaker had in mind, besides creating something demonstrably hip, experimental and Impressionistic. After starting out in the traditional cartoon racket, in the 1960s, Bakshi was sufficiently impressed by the anarchic energy on display in the Underground Comix explosion to test how the same thing would work in full-screen animation. The result was his hit 1972 adaptation of R. Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat,” which, in a decision that still begs credulity, the MPAA branded “X.” Crumb would disown the movie, but it captured most of the comic book’s irreverent flavor and counter-countercultural tone. A year later, “Heavy Traffic” would combine live-action and animation in the service of a story about a New York City far more recognizable to Selby than Woody Allen or Neil Simon. The central character is Michael Corleone, the artistic son of a constantly bickering Italian father and Jewish mother. After leaving home and moving to the Lower East Side – pre-gentrified, mind you – Michael re-imagines his life in the form of a comic book. The trigger separating live-action and animation is an old-fashioned pinball machine, which allows the artist to separate himself from reality and enter the demi-monde of junkies, winos, prostitutes, transvestites, bums and jazz musicians. Like Crumb, Bakshi drew his women with an exaggerated notion of what attracted men to blowsy libertines, prostitutes, waitresses and African-American goddesses. The hepcats and musicians could have been refugees from the zoot-suit riots of 1943. From a distance of 40 years, the images that don’t look deliberately racist and misogynistic have the aura of quaintness about them. It’s worth recalling, though, that political correctness was a notion embraced then by overly sanctimonious liberals and ridiculed by people with a more anarchic view of the world. Exaggerating certain unappealing stereotypes and embracing the bohemian lifestyle was one good way to keep everyone off-guard. If the cool kids were in on the gag, only the squares that didn’t get it could complain, right? It explains how images many would consider to be offensive co-exist, even today, so amicably alongside those that are sublime. Those were the days. For better or worse, “Heavy Traffic” can only be judged within the context of the tumultuous time. There are no special features on the Blu-ray, which looks as good as it ever will again, considering that state-of-the-art in 1973 often falls short of that 40 years later.
Street Trash: Special Meltdown Edition: Blu-ray
Hands of the Ripper: Blu-ray
Cannibal Possession: Heart of Ice
The Life After Death Project
Although “Street Trash” is too original to be listed among movies that are so bad they’re good, it may be the most overtly transgressive micro-budget indie ever committed to film. It’s also one of the funniest, in a scabrous sort of way. Although technically laughable by today’s standards, its outrageously imaginative deployment of special makeup effects still do the intended trick a quarter-century later. Believe me when I say that they defy description. Directed by J. Michael Muro and written by Roy Frumkes, “Street Trash” describes what happens when an insanely toxic and incredibly cheap brands of wine is introduced to bums living in New York’s Skid Row. (Remember that this was shot before winos, derelicts and various other nut cases were filed under the politically correct rubric, “homeless.”) It defines the term “rotgut,” as it devours the digestives systems of its partakers, causing their vomit and entrails to resemble a Technicolor nightmare. The wine was introduced to Skid Row denizens, with the expectation that they’d steal a bottle and pass it around the old campfire. New Yorkers were getting tired of the guys who squeegeed car windows at red lights, using liquids that only compounded the problem. Eradicating a few of them wasn’t likely to raise a ripple of concern in a city ripe for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, a vigilante cop makes it his mission in life to clear a Brooklyn junkyard of the human vermin who’ve taken refuge there. It gets worse. There’s a rape scene so realistically violent that it induced flashbacks in the actress playing the victim of a similarly horrific attack years earlier. The most memorable image in “Street Trash,” though, is from the series of shots of a detached penis being tossed around in a mad game of keep-away. The final one approximates the bone heaved into the sky at the end of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That it was shot on location in some of New York City’s least desirable locales – then, anyway – only adds to the fun. The two-hour making-of featurette created for Synapse’s “Special Meltdown Edition” Blu-ray package is every bit as entertaining as the feature. It also contains the original 16mm short version of the film, commentaries and marketing material.
Made near the end of Hammer Studio’s creative period, “Hands of the Ripper” demonstrates what can happen when producers offer audiences something different than brand-identified characters and predictable storylines. As it opens, a very young child witnesses the death of her mother at the hands of her father, who, as the timeline suggests, could very well be Jack the Ripper. We encounter Anna (Angharad Rees) again as a teenager toiling for a fake psychic. Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) attends one of the séances, after which someone is murdered. He suspects Anna is the murderer, but it isn’t until he rescues her from a jail cell full of prostitutes that he can do anything about it. Using Freudian techniques, he wants to prove that Anna is suffering from schizophrenia and can be cured of her murderous urges through analysis. He disputes the suggestion that she’s the infamous serial killer’s daughter and can’t help but repeat his offenses. The audience, though, is working from clues not available to Pritchard and other investigators. Even so, Hungarian director Peter Sasdy is able to maintain an aura of suspense that keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout “Hands of the Ripper.” It helps that Rees is such a fragile thing that her abrupt transitions always surprise us. The extreme violence caused American censors to demand certain cuts, which are restored here. The Synapse Blu-ray adds the informative backgrounder, “The Devil’s Bloody Plaything: Possessed by Hands of the Ripper,” the U.S. television introduction, a photo gallery and isolated music and effects audio track.
The cover art and title that accompany the “Cannibal Possession: Heart of Ice” DVD would fit easily alongside dozens of other horror flicks on the shelf of your local video store. In fact, though, it’s a surprisingly scholarly documentary on the Wendigo phenomenon described in the mythology of the Algonquin and other North American tribes. The Wendigo is a cannibalistic creature into which humans have the ability to transform and cause other mayhem, as well. In Canada, where the legend is endorsed most commonly, stories of Wendigo possession carry much the same currency as theories surrounding Jack the Ripper and the Donner Party. It most recently came to the fore after a passenger on a Greyhound bus leaving Edmonton was slaughtered by the man, Vincent Li, sitting next to him. Besides stabbing his victim dozens of times, Li cut off his head and other body parts, some of which he later was seen eating. The spooky part involves the timing of the incident, which occurred after a long article about the Wendigo phenomenon was published in the same newspaper Li delivered to make money. The same sort of thing happens in the United States and other countries, of course, but the cannibalism is attributed to other phenomena. The Jeffrey Dahmer case continues to inform horror and true-crime flicks – “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” DVD arrives later this month – and the international media went nuts, as well, when news of Miami’s “Causeway Cannibal” broke. Freshman documentarian Christian Tizya’s film neither sensationalizes the Wendigo legend, nor does it dismiss it as sheer boogeyman hocus-pocus. The people he’s interviewed represent a cross-section of thought about such horrifying cases. While a couple goes along with Aboriginal superstition, most lay the blame on other severe mental-health issues. None ridicules the notion or turns a cynical eye toward believers. Because the legend is most common in snowbound northern Canada, it would follow that trapped miners or natives may have ate the body parts of other human beings simply to survive, as did members of the Donner Party. Horror fans looking for something meaty on which to chew before the next course of zombie movies arrives could do worse than digesting this sober discussion of a hard-to-stomach subject. (All puns intended.)
Paul Davids’ made-for-Syfy documentary, “The Life After Death Project,” also balances the more far-out theories of its witnesses with the scientifically correct views of skeptics. As the title suggests, the two-disc DVD is chock-full of stories presented to convince us that death doesn’t necessarily mean our dearly departed friends are finished with us. The possibility that life exists after death—in one form or another—has been the central source of wonder and contemplation since humans abandoned their caves. And, give or take a burning bush or two, the question has never been answered definitively. And, yet, most people on Earth set their moral compass as if something exists on the “other side.” Sadly, too many of those people seem to believe that killing in the name of God is their ticket to heaven. “The Life After Death Project” is tipped heavily on the possibility that editor and writer Forrest J Ackerman, the godfather of Hollywood sci-fi and monster worship, continues to play tricks on former friends and associates, five years after his death. That Ackerman, himself, was an atheist and skeptic on all things pertaining to the afterlife is given much significance in Davids’ film. If the evidence isn’t entirely compelling, one way or another, it’s sometimes quite entertaining. A second disc is dedicated to the accounts of believers, only too happy to share their supernatural experiences.
London: The Modern Babylon
The Fruit Hunters
Timed to coincide with last summer’s Olympic Games, “London: The Modern Babylon” uses a dizzying array of movie and video clips, archival newsreel footage, snippets from interviews and curbside conversations, and lots and lots of music, to tell the story of a city that always looks on the brink of disaster, but somehow manages to get by, anyway. Julien Temple’s decidedly non-linear 125-minute tour begins in the 1890s and ends with the run-up to the Olympics. (We meet a woman who lived through 107 of those years.) If the city looks dysfunctional by most American standards, its vibrant pulse and bustling streets make the U.S. look as if it could use a cocktail made of Geritol and methamphetamine. The movie firmly demonstrates how Londoners have dealt, sometimes poorly, with such immensely difficult issues as immigration, poverty, unemployment, terrorism and multi-cultural overload, but, in times of crisis, have come together to stand up against tyranny, economic displacement and war. They pulled off the same trick with an Olympics many people feared would be spoiled by gridlock, racial hostility or bombs. Temple argues that the proverbial “London mob,” which could break out in riots at the drop of bobby’s helmet, has been a good thing for the city because it forces people to deal openly with crucial issues that politicians ignore at their peril. His encyclopedic grasp of the British music and culture adds greatly to the notion that each new wave of immigrants and disaffected youth has created a sound that changes the common rhythm to which the metropolis pulsates. In its collage of striking images, “London: The Modern Babylon” almost dares us to recognize such faces in the crowd as a very young David Bowie and David Gilmour, representing the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Men With Long Hair; Margaret and Denis Thatcher planting roses in their garden; various crowned heads; Malcolm McLaren on the Thames; Twiggy in a mini; and Madness singer, Suggs. The DVD adds an interview with Temple conducted in what appears to be a Rolls-Royce.
The temptation here is to call “The Fruit Hunters” delicious and leave it at that. For anyone passionate about fruit and other things they put in their tummies, Yung Chang’s documentary easily qualifies as pornography. Adapted from journalist Adam Gollner’s book, whose full title is “The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession,” the documentary explores numerous aspects of the fruit trade, from where they got their names to the plagues that threaten their existence. Not so long ago, it would have been impossible to find affordable fruit in the dead of winter. In today’s global market, there’s a ready supply all year long. The downside of such universality, however, is flavors that have been engineered to satisfy only the most common of taste buds and for the least amount of money expended. Adventurous consumers might occasionally risk doing permanent damage to their checkbooks by seeking out specialty stores and farmers’ markets that offer a greater variety of produce than that at the local supermarket. The people we meet in “The Fruit Hunters” literally travel to the ends of the Earth to discover new tastes and bring them back home alive. Sometimes, that means climbing to the top of a tree in a rain forest canopy to collect a mango specimen, if only to preserve the seeds and genetic coding for future cultivation. If this movie doesn’t make your mouth water, chances are that you’re dead.
Nikkatsu Erotic Collection: Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9/Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger
Cinemax: Femmes Fatales: The Complete Second Second
The latest releases from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection represent a shift toward lighter subject matter and romance in the workplace, where, in the 1980s, women assumed a far more visible role. Apart from a truly off-putting gang-rape scene, “Horny Working Girl: From 5 to 9” is the funniest entry in the series I’ve seen. It consciously combines key structural elements from Colin Higgins’ “9 to 5” and its American hard-core counterpart, “8 to 4.” In it, Chieko (Junko Asahina) is hired as an assistant manager for a large corporation specializing in sex toys. It doesn’t take long to see that Cheiko was hired, in part, to help her boss work out his kinks after hours. She’s bright, ambitious and insatiable, as is the boss’ far more traditional wife. Turns out, the boss also is forcing himself on a pretty young clerk, who isn’t in the same league sexually as the other two. When the three women finally quit blaming each other for their problems and begin plotting against the common enemy, “From 5 to 9” becomes atypically enjoyable. Although nothing sexually graphic is shown, the violent attack on the youngest woman is tough to sit through, even if it’s a staple of Japanese soft-core of the period. The consensual stuff is far more appetizing.
“Nurse Diary: Wicked Finger” is built from a similar template, but, by comparison to most other Roman Porno titles, it’s practically a rom-com. This time, Ryoko (Etsuko Hara), a respected nurse in a large hospital, decides to trade her dorm-like residence for an apartment. Not only is she in search of a little peace and quiet, but Ryoko is also being quartered there for convenience of her boss, a powerful doctor. As much as it pleases the old coot, the arrangement disturbs Ryoko’s “little sister,” who’s now vulnerable to the advances of female predators in the dorm. As in “From 5 to 9,” it takes her a while to figure out that the doctor never is going to leave his wife, whose father is on the hospital board, or stop messing around with an aggressive seductress whose fantasies involve office visits. Also living in the apartment complex is a comically horny student, who spies on Ryoko from the apartment above her bed. Hopelessly shy, he finally is introduced to the nurse after he goes to the hospital to a have a vacuum-cleaner hose pried from his penis. She gets a big kick out of his predicament. Once again, the revenge-minded women will get have the final say in the matter. Any time there is more than one woman in a room in a Nikkatsu sex film, the odds for girl-girl action breaking out become astronomically high. In these two movies, it’s considered to be part and parcel of the women’s-empowerment movement. The DVDs come with informative booklets and newly translated subtitles.
Japanese pornos from the period are notorious for blocking genitalia and pubic hair with black strips, blurry boxes and pixelization so grotesquely applied that it is as obscene as the material being censored. On Cinemax and other premium-cable services, the same censoring takes place, but in a far more cleverly choreographed manner. The subterfuge includes well-placed arms and hands, bizarre camera angles and various bedroom accessories. The current trend of removing all or most follicles of hair between lovers of both genders has made the censor’s job that much easier. The noir-tinged “Femmes Fatales,” inspired by a pulp magazine comprised of racy stories written by actresses, may be the most provocative title in Skinemax’s late-night programming bloc. All of the actors are either abnormally handsome or ridiculously beautiful, although most of the femmes look as if they’ve spent a considerable amount of time enhancing their assets. More than anything else, though, it’s the quality of the stories that drive the narratives. Among the recognizable guest stars included in the episodes compiled in the Season Two package are Vivica A. Fox, Eric Roberts, Casper Van Dien, Jeff Fahey, Nikki Griffin, Robert Picardo, Ashley Hamilton and Steve Railsback. The bonus features add commentary for every episode, several background and making-of pieces, deleted scenes, a clip from a 2012 ComiCon panel and the international cut of “Libra,” with commentary.
Rooster Teeth: Best of RT Shorts and Animated Adventures
Anyone already familiar with the web series “Red vs. Blue” has a pretty good idea of what to expect in “Rooster Teeth: Best of RT Shorts and Animated Adventures,” a series of short films that go a long way toward defining geek humor. At a time when every major studio on the West Coast was attempting to find ways to exploit the Internet for their narrow financial demands, guerrilla production studios like Rooster Teeth were entertaining the wired masses with byte-sized series and bargain-basement comedy. Hollywood never could figure out what attracted Internet-savvy viewers to one show and not a dozen others. Dweebs tend to laugh uproariously at things most people would take a week to find funny and adding a laugh track would only alienate the stars. Even so, after imbibing massive quantities of beer and pot, almost anything on the Internet is more entertaining than a network sitcom. Austin-based Rooster Teeth understands its audience to be largely comprised of gamers, sci-fi obsessives, Beck fans and people who surf the Net specifically to find silly shows to share with their friends. Some of RT’s best stuff lampoons popular movies, podcasts and games and, for that to succeed, you have to be on the same wavelength as the audience. Check. It also helps if the shorts and cartoons feature characters that also could pass for extraterrestrials or the artists TA in applied physics. Check. Much of the material on Disc One is shot behind the scenes at Rooster Teeth headquarters, while Disc Two is comprised of “Animated Adventures” in which the RT crew describes things that happen to them and around them when they venture outside the shop. Before and after each short, the gang describes what we’ve just seen, laughing their heads off. Some of it is funny, but too many of the pieces are just plain stupid. The bonus features include “The Kinda True Story of Rooster Teeth,” bonus shorts, behind-the-scenes stories from the Animated Adventures, 3D Animated Adventures, outtakes, trailers and Animation Adventures production time lapses.
An Affair of the Heart: Blu-ray
Several years ago, I invited my 17-year-old daughter and her friend to join me at a performance of “EFX,” which, before “Ka,” was in residence at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Every couple of years, the production – once the most expensive in the world – changed marquee stars. In 2001, Rick Springfield was called upon to follow Michael Crawford, David Cassidy and Tommy Tune, all of whom had brought his own unique personality, musical chops and fans to the show. I expected my daughter to give me one of those, “Sure, dad” looks and politely reject the invitation. Instead, she responded with a semi-ecstatic, “Really?” and rushed to the phone to call her friend. The full extent of my knowledge of Springfield’s career was that he had a big hit in the 1980s, “Jessie’s Girl,” and once served as the good-guy hunk on “General Hospital.” The thing I didn’t know, at the time, was that “Jessie’s Girl” had emerged as one of those crazy pop songs that exist on a completely different plane than most other pop songs. For a while, it was the kind of ditty that cool kids hate to admit they love and others have had on their playlists for all of the last 22 years. I know that it took me by surprise when the drug dealer played by Alfred Molina in “Boogie Nights” sang along to it on his stereo, just as all hell was about to break loose. That was good enough for me. “An Affair of the Heart” is a documentary about what Rick Springfield has meant to his fans over the years, since they first heard “Jessie’s Girl” or saw him on “General Hospital,” and vice versa.
What’s clear is that, although he disappeared for while in the 1990s, Springfield never stopped rocking. The doc doesn’t dwell on the potholes he stumbled into along the way, including serious bouts with depression, but it doesn’t ignore them, either. One of the most entertaining sections of the movie comes before an appearance the musician gave in Sweden recently, opening for Aerosmith and Guns ’n’ Roses. Springfield could easily have been dragged back to his trailer by Nordic metal heads, but, to the delight of the crowd, he ended up stage diving and climbing amplifier towers, instead. Later, on a fan cruise to the Bahamas, the filmmakers interview passengers who had no idea what they were getting into when they booked passage. The film also devotes time to his son, Dustin, who as a toddler, Springfield carried onto the stage on his shoulders. Now, the aspiring rock star is given time to wield his own ax. The only thing missing for me were the 10 minutes Springfield spent with my daughter and her friend after the “EFX” show, mostly just shooting the breeze. It is a moment the now-adult girls have in common with the many fans we meet in “An Affair of the Heart.” A separate disc adds extended scenes, bonus interviews and “premiere” footage.
In 1999, an amazing little company named Napster opened a veritable Pandora’s Jukebox, releasing into the digital world a host of evils all determined to destroy the infrastructure of the music industry. When teenagers Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker launched the Internet file-sharing service, they had no idea of how dangerous their entrepreneurial vision would become to executives commonly referred to as “weasels.” No one did. The common belief governing Napster and the tens of thousands of young people using it at the time was, “The Internet wants to be free,” while music-industry brass considered Napster users to be “pirates.” In the end, the U.S. court system agreed with the industry and, although Napster was effectively neutered, the music establishment was dealt a serious blow, as well. “Downloaded” chronicles Napster’s rise and fall, primarily through archived interviews and news coverage. The fresh material has been collected by director Alex Winter – yes, that Alex Winter – reminds us how alternately clueless and venal Napster’s opponents were, even in victory. If it smacks of 20/20 hindsight, it’s only because mainstream news media – then and now – has always been behind the 8-ball when it comes to digital technology, second only to the music industry. Instead of collaborating with the Napster brain trust, industry lawyers began suing the people who downloaded music files to their MP3 players. The media ate it up every new batch of indictments, but the public-relations damage was done. Soon, music lovers would flock to iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, Pandora and other innovative distribution networks for affordable ways to complete their “record” collections. Even as the industry was gloating over its victory, the paradigm had shifted below them. At 106 minutes, “Downloaded” is a long, if frequently fascinating slog. It could have benefited from chopping 15-20 minutes of legal stuff and taking a deeper look at what’s followed in the wake of Napster. That, or finding another 5-10 minutes to introduce some of the pre-Napster pioneers, including those in the deejay, rave and electronic-dance-music communities.
AMC: Hell on Wheels: The Complete Second Season
DirecTV: Damages: The Complete Fifth Season
BBC: Who: The Doctors Revisited 1-4
PBS: America’s Test Kitchen: Season 13
PBS: Secrets of Chatsworth
My first encounter with the dandy AMC Western series, “Hell on Wheels,” was through a binge-viewing session after the debut-season compilation arrived on DVD. In some ways, it reminded me of a PG-13 version of HBO’s salty “Deadwood.” Being on a basic-plus tier, the cable series couldn’t compete with “Deadwood” in its presentation of the expletives favored by railroad workers or the general state of undress among the brothel employees. Even so, it did very well for the network in the ratings department and was great fun to watch. Somehow, I completely missed Season Two. I think it was caught in the tug-of-war between Dish, AMC and other networks that took quite a few weeks to settle. Now, with the arrival of the Season Two package, I’m killing seven hours of time binging on it, again. The predominantly Irish laborers hired by the Union Pacific line are slowly working their way toward connecting with the mostly Chinese workers of the Central Pacific. Meanwhile, former Confederate officer Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is still haunted by the death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers. Plenty of other roadblocks have been put in the way of the UP crew in the race toward the untold riches that go the bosses of the laborers. The third season opens on August 3, but in a new Saturday night timeslot. The DVD set adds “Where Season One Left Off,” cast interviews, “On Set With Anson Mount” and a making-of featurette.
A programming situation similar to the one that caused confusion for Dish subscribers arose when “Damages,” migrated from FX to the satellite delivery service, DirecTV, which requires a much greater financial commitment than simply waiting to pick up a seasonal compilation. The move was necessitated by declining ratings on FX, arguing, once again, not to underestimate the willingness of Americans to settle for crappy network shows when plenty of better ones are available elsewhere. Fortuitously, the show’s producers convinced DirecTV to share expenses, giving its Audience Network a marquee series, not unlike Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Season Five would prove to be the final go-round, though. In it, big-shot lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) is once again pitted against her former protégé and perennial daughter figure, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). As if the writers had known the Edward Snowden scandal would break in time for the DVD release, the season-long case involves a WikiLeaks-inspired cyber-hacker (Ryan Phillippe) and documents exposing a corporate scandal. The character who dies early is a frightened business executive (Jenna Elfman). The other storyline involves an ugly custody battle pitting Patty against her own son. Special guest stars also include Michael Gaston, Janet McTeer, John Hannah, Judd Hirsch and Chris Messina. The package adds deleted scenes and outtakes. The entire five seasons have also been collected for release this week.
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who,” the BBC’s home-video division continues to parcel out upgraded editions of select episodes of the venerable series. While there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind the DVD release pattern, the representation of the show’s 11 “Doctors” – with a new one to arrive this fall—seems important to someone at the company. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the 50-year mark is a tad misleading, in that the show was put on hiatus throughout most of the 1990s. Even so, 798 episodes, encompassing 239 “stories” and a TV movie, is nothing at which to sneeze. Next season, a second 3D episode, with David Tennant and Billy Piper making a brief return, will air along with a Christmas special at which time the identity of the 12th Doctor will have been revealed. In “Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited,” stories featuring the first four protagonists—William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker— will be represented. They are “The Aztecs” (1964), “Tomb of the Cyberman” (1967), “Spearhead From Space” (1970) and “Pyramids of Mars” (1975). The package includes a set of refrigerator magnets.
Nowhere is the connection between food preparation and science emphasized so much as on the weekly PBS series, “America’s Test Kitchen,” which has just exited its 13th season. Besides the more than 30 full-time chefs and tasters who participate in the show on a recurring basis, it is shot at a fully operational, 2,500-square-foot kitchen facility in Brookline, Massachusetts. It’s said that a recipe may be require as many 50 tests before they feel as if it’s ready for prime-time. During a typical week’s show, as many as three dishes joined by a common theme are prepared, alongside the airing of such occasional features as “Equipment Corner,” “Gadget Guru,” “Tasting Lab,” “Science Desk” and “Quick Tips.” Among the recipes prepared last season are such standards as pot roast, chicken potpie, slow-roast pork shoulder, stuffed turkey and chicken, cherry pie and buttermilk waffles. Among the international cuisines visited are those of Greece, Argentina, Italy and Mexico.
People who live and die with every new episode of “Downton Abbey” and other period soaps on PBS will want to continue their tour of grand old British country manors with “Secrets of Chatsworth.” Truly one of the most awe-inspiring estates open to the public, Chatsworth has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family and presently serves as the Derbyshire residence of the current 12th Duke of Devonshire and his family. In addition to the tour of the magnificent rooms, gardens and art collection, the documentary shares with viewers intrigues that have surrounded its residents. Among them, the far too short romance between Kathleen Kennedy and heir Billy Cavendish. Kathleen was represented at her wedding by only one of the Kennedy clan’s siblings, simply because Cavendish wasn’t Catholic. When she was killed in a plane crash soon thereafter, at 28, only her father attended the funeral. Her grave is nearby at the Cavendish family plot at St. Peter’s Church in Edensor. Consider that the next time you hear Camelot and Kennedy in the same sentence.
PBS Kids: Big Kid Caillou
PBS Kids: Dinosaur Train: Nature’s Trackers
PBS Kids: Arthur Stands Up to Bullying
PBS Kids: Hansel and Gretel: A Healthy Adventure
The “PBS Kids” collection is well represented this week with collections of episodes from four popular shows. “Caillou” is based on the popular series of books by Christine L’Heureux, whose titular character is a 4-year-old boy with a vivid imagination about the world around him. With his strangely bald head, Caillou bears a passing resemblance to Nancy’s boyfriend, Sluggo. His ability to transform everyday objects and ordinary places to sources of wonder and education goes a long way toward helping viewers, 2 to 6, fit into their own universe. Besides “Big Kit Caillou,” the episodes include “Caillou’s Glasses,” “Calliou’s Dance Party,” “Helping Mrs. Howard,” “Caillou’s Fun Run” and “The New Girl.” The bonus material adds coloring pages and activities.
The series, “Dinosaur Train,” combines two subjects that PBS’ youngest viewers find endlessly fascinating. Although the pairing of dinosaurs and trains borders on the surreal, it affords the Nature Tracks a quick and easy way to reach places to best study the life sciences, natural history and paleontology. The episodes here include “Stargazing on the Night Train,” “Get Into Nature!”, “Shiny and Snakes,” “Tiny Loves Flowers,” “Buddy Explores the Tyrannosaurs,” “Rainy Day Fight,” “That’s Not a Dinosaur” and “Tiny’s Garden.” The bonus material adds a Nature Trackers Club coloring and guidebook; an interactive “How Big?” game; and additional PDF coloring pages and activities.
Sadly, kids never are too young anymore to learn about the cruelty of bullying and perils of being bullied. “Arthur” is based on the best-selling children’s books by Marc Brown, which follow the world’s most famous anthropomorphic aardvark, 8-year-old Arthur Read and his family and friends as address common social issues and health problems. Bullying and teasing could hardly be more topical.
No one in children’s literature had a sweeter tooth than the Wicked Witch who captured Hansel and Gretel and held them prisoner in her gingerbread house. “Hansel and Gretel: A Healthy Adventure” uses the example of the fairy-tale characters to teach a lesson about proper nutrition. It does this by demonstrating to Red and her friends that good food doesn’t have to taste bad. “King Eddie Who Loved Spaghetti” extends the lesson to dinnertime, when Whyatt’s favorite meal is put under the microscope. The DVD adds interactive educational games, music videos, coloring pages and resources for parents.