No movie released in 2012 scored higher marks among critics and festival judges than Michael Haneke’s emotionally draining “Amour.” It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Oscar and BAFTA awards in the academies’ foreign-language ghettoes. If “Amour” faced a commercial roadblock outside France and, perhaps, Haneke’s native Austria, it’s only because the film deals with a subject few people find to be particularly entertaining: how we deal with the debilitating illness of a loved one. Even if couldn’t have been handled any more honestly than it is in “Amour,” there are only a very few cities in which it would qualify as an appropriate date movie or enjoyable night out on the town. On the other hand, you won’t find another movie that so clearly demonstrates what it means for two people to be in love, no matter their age. Sarah Polley’s similarly touching “Away From Her,” with Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, tread much the same territory in 2006 and came away with equally brilliant Metacritic ratings. Anyone who could handle the drama in “Away From Her” should have no trouble handling “Amour.” It does pay dividends, though, to prepare for the experience ahead of time.
French acting legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant deliver tour-de-force performances as retired music professors Anne and Georges. The morning after spending an enjoyable evening at the recital of a former student, Anne experiences what likely was a small stroke. No fan of hospitals, she resists seeing their doctor. Not long thereafter, Anne suffers a far more devastating stroke, which leaves her paralyzed on the right side of her body. The furthest Georges will go toward finding full-time care for her is hiring nurses to see to her daily needs. This isn’t out of any disregard for her condition, however. He truly believes that he can do a better job of taking care of his wife than anyone else. When he senses that Anne isn’t being treated in the most caring way possible, he insults and fires a nurse with otherwise impeccable references. The fact is, however, that Georges can’t handle the demands of the task and it’s his love for Anne that has blinded him to the truth. He also begins to recall things from their life together in ways that confuse reality with fantasy. In one especially poignant scene, he appears to wistfully watch Anne play the piano. It isn’t until he surprises us by clicking off the amplifier behind his head, however, do we understand how far his own condition has declined due to fatigue and sadness. Isabelle Huppert, still amazing at 60, plays their all-business daughter, Eva, who is at first unhappy with her father’s stoicism, then becomes unnerved by his efforts to isolate Anne.
Because Haneke is, by now, confident of his audiences’ ability to appreciate what he’s attempting to do on film, he takes chances that few directors would dare. To dramatize Georges’ slide into grief-induced madness, he asked Trintignant to orchestrate the movements of a pigeon that finds its way into the anteroom of their apartment. It’s a bit strange, but Trintignant makes the conceit work wonderfully. Neither is Haneke reluctant to slow down the clock on his characters. It allows them to spend more time with each other, even as the inevitable looms around every corner. It almost goes without saying how brilliant the acting is in “Amour.” The 82-year-old Trintignant came out of virtual retirement to take the role, which was written with him in mind by Haneke, and, at 85, Riva became the oldest Best Actress nominee in Academy Award history. The Blu-ray adds an entertaining making-of featurette and funny post-screening Q&A with Haneke. –
Floating City: Blu-ray
Most Americans will remember the anxiety that preceded the handover of Hong Kong by the British to China, in 1997, and the relief that followed when the Special Administrative Region of the PRC grew even richer and more welcoming. Co-writer-director Yim Ho, a key figure in the Hong Kong New Wave Movement of the 1970s-80s, uses “Floating City” to comment on the variables at play in the transition and how they impacted one family of resident “boat people.” We meet Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok) as a young boy, having been sold by his mother for $500 after being raped by a British sailor. As a mixed-race member of the minority Tanka community, Bo already had two strikes against him. The British colonists and the native Chinese treat him as if he belongs on a boat, selling fish to make ends meet. A rough encounter with his stepfather convinces Bo to take a chance on a future on dry land. Although illiterate, he lands a position on the bottom rung of the ladder at the Imperial East India Company. As a company that had been integrally involved in the island’s commercial development since the early 1800s, its future remains a question throughout most of “Floating City.” Through dogged perseverance and a commitment to support his family, Bo dedicates himself not only to find a “home” with the company, but also ignore the racism and elitism that continually conspire to keep him down.
Long story short, the closer the story gets to the actual turnover, the more responsibility Bo is given in the company. It’s possible, of course, that part of his rise can be attributed to the Brits’ need to smooth the transition to new economic realities. We know that he deserves everything given him. Bo also delivers on the promise he made to his stepfather that he would take care of the family through thick and thin. This includes making a home for his stepmother, siblings and wife away from the boats, a reality as foreign to them as it could possibly be. His children will grow up in the lap of relative luxury. Not surprisingly, “Floating City” pulls all sorts of emotional strings on its audience. If it finds any traction in the U.S., it likely would be among viewers in the Asian-American community. (And, no, martial arts and wirework don’t figure in the story.) Although the prejudices Bo is forced to overcome shouldn’t surprise viewers, Yim does a nice job showing off corners of Hong Kong most visitors don’t see on screen or in person. There’s also some interesting interplay between the sophisticated UCLA-educated temptress, Fion (Annie Lau), who takes it upon herself to prepare Bo for a new life among the island’s “elite.” The time Bo shares on-screen with the three adult women in his life also is the most rewarding for viewers. –
This Is Martin Bonner
Heart of the Country
Even if hardly anything exciting happens in this unexpectedly contemplative and emotionally tempered second feature from Chad Hartigan, the weight of the world seems to rest on the shoulders of its protagonists. The only thing Martin Bonner and Travis Holloway have in common is their pursuit of a second chance in a world that passes by them with the speed of a semi hauling ass through Reno on its way to somewhere else. In the hands of veteran Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn, Martin is a former preacher who left the church when he discovered that he had nothing more to say about Jesus or anything else. After divorcing his wife and saying goodbye to his two grown children, he struggled to find a job that would satisfy his intellect and put some money in his bank account. Nothing happened. He finally found work as a volunteer with a Christian-based agency that supports released prisoners as they attempt to adjust to freedom. I hope the word “Christian-based” doesn’t make you hit the delete button, because there’s very little bible-banging in “This Is Martin Bonner” and what there is of it fits naturally within the context of the story.
Martin meets Travis (Richmond Arquette, the least familiar of the Arquette brood) outside the gates of the prison in which he’s been spending the last 12 years for vehicular manslaughter. His counselor couldn’t make the trip and Martin was happy to take his place. The program provides Travis with a room and a reference while he’s looking for what almost certainly will be a minimum-wage job. Based on what we’ve seen in other dramas in which men seek redemption for misdeeds, we continually wait for the messy flashbacks, backsliding and angry outbursts to arrive here, as well. They don’t. When Travis asks Martin to become his counselor, in lieu of his current Jesus-praising adviser, he does so politely and without malice. Martin not only sees in Travis a potential friend, companion and project, but also a way to practice the form of Christianity that drew him to a vocation in the first place. The closest thing to action comes when Travis’ college-age daughter arrives in Reno and their reunion nearly ends before it begins. “This Is Martin Bonner” is both a mood piece and portrait of people we hardly ever meet in the movies, anymore. It’s easy to see how it might have won an Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance, yet still not be deemed sufficiently commercial to warrant a wide release. In DVD, the financial risk is minimal. It comes with commentary and background pieces.
“Heart of the Country,” on the other hand, is faith-based in the way we’ve come to except such films in the sub-genre. Typically, a bible parable is appropriated as a plot device, around which is built a contemporary story that teaches the same lesson. It is done in way that won’t offend those Christian viewers who don’t believe Satan is the chief financier of the industry. Once again, the parable adapted in North Carolina-based filmmaker John Ward’s weepy melodrama is the evergreen story of the Prodigal Son. In this case, however, the absentee child is a young woman, Faith, played by singer and star of “One Tree Hill,” Jana Kramer. Years earlier, Faith married an ethically challenged Wall Street wheel-dealer, Luke (Randy Wayne), who faces prison time for his non-active part in a Ponzi scheme. No longer the toast of Manhattan, Faith decides to return to her father’s comfortable rural home, the harsh judgments of her condescending sister and holier-than-thou neighbors who aren’t reluctant to chastise her for seeking a divorce.
Her dad (Gerald McRaney) has no trouble accepting Faith back into the fold, but he would prefer it if she and her husband devoted themselves to healing the marriage than starting anew. As far as I can tell, Luke’s greatest sin was not telling Faith what was happening at work and why he wouldn’t rat out his superiors. How many men would? All too conveniently, Dad is diagnosed with brain cancer and the best surgeon her estranged husband’s money can afford is in New York. Luke doesn’t hesitate to help her, even if his social and professional cachet doesn’t cut much ice, anymore. Dad doesn’t especially want to undergo an operation that probably wouldn’t help his condition much, anyway, but the trip to New York with Faith could provide him an excuse for meeting the son-in-law he never met. The only other complicating factor is the presence of a handsome country doctor (Shaun Sipos), who would seem to be a perfect fit for Faith, but could end up the odd-man-out in her father’s meddling. “Heart of the Country” is only as good as it has to be, but, for the target audience, that might be enough to make them happy. The DVD adds a music video from Kramer. –
Who said people in Los Angeles don’t use public transportation? In the claustrophobic tick-tock thriller, “Redline,” several passengers of the Metro Red Line, which runs from Union Station to Universal City, are stuck in a subway train that is derailed and demolished by a terrorist bomb. Among the survivors, one is non-fatally impaled by seat fragment and others are trapped in various odd positions in their cars. One guy is surprised to discover the body of his wife, who supposedly has claustrophobia and probably would be reluctant to ride a train in any circumstance. When one of the survivors comes across a ticking IED in a first-aid kit, speculation arises that a terrorist is still alive and the first bomb went off prematurely. Naturally, suspicion rests on the guy who most looks like a terrorist. That he’s both Portuguese and a train buff – which explains the documents in his knapsack – are the only excuses needed to qualify for a beating by a fellow passenger. If he’s not the terrorist, a possibility we’ve already dismissed as too obvious, it could only be one of a half-dozen other riders. They have 16 minutes of movie time to figure it out or the second device could explode. Or, there could be a third, fourth or fifth bomb.
Although director Robby Kirbyson and co-writer Tara Stone’s screenplay reads as if it were written according to the not-terribly-rigid specifications of the average Syfy or Lifetime movie, Kirbyson’s production values are well above average for this sort of thing. Frankly, it wasn’t until watching the making-featurette did I learn that the crew members and other behind-the-camera talent represented students and faculty of John Paul the Great Catholic University, including teacher Kirbyson and student Stone. (I hadn’t heard of the San Diego school, either, but it offers a MBA degree with a tight focus on film production.) The lack of experience helps explain such silly dialogue as, “They’re probably going to make a movie about this someday and I’ve always wanted to play a hero.” Neither did the writers see fit to include more than one African-American and Hispanic character, each. Hello, this is L.A. and the public transit system is largely supported by minority and blue-collar riders. Then, too, as earthquake-prone as the city is, its early responders take a criminally long time to establish contact. Despite these improbabilities, “Redline” hangs together surprisingly well, with a decent air of tension sustained throughout. –
With a cast of indie all-stars topped by Danny Glover, Parker Posey and Billy Burke, “Highland Park” is the kind of movie in which multiple, interwoven storylines come together in the final reel, rewarding the viewers’ patience and willingness to play along with the director’s conceit … or not. It is set in the small Detroit enclave of the same name, which is in nearly the same horrible financial shape as the rest of the city. Like almost everyone else whose paychecks are guaranteed by taxpayers, a group of high school faculty members face the loss of their workplace and incomes. For the last 10 years, they’ve played the same Powerball numbers and, in the unlikely event that they hit, intend to use the money to save their school and finance other civic programs. Well, guess what, the numbers do hit, but, and I’m not giving much away here, Glover’s character decided to play the ones suggested to him by a fortune cookie, instead. Trouble is, in the time it takes for Glover to return home from a fishing trip and deliver the bad news, the teachers and the town’s corrupt mayor have begun announcing plans for their windfall. What can they do next, besides contemplate suicide? Stay tuned. Given the built-in limitations of the scenario, “Highland Park” is a reasonably entertaining picture. Ironically, the movie’s greatest asset is the backdrop of urban decay provided by the city of Detroit and the arsonists who’ve left their fingerprints on every gutted building on view. –
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Welcome to the Machine
Level 42: Live
When lightning strikes, it’s a good idea to have a bottle around to catch it. If the remaining members of the hugely popular 1980s rock band, Journey, had been paying attention in the weeks leading up to June 10, 2007, they might have been able to capitalize on a decision that was the TV equivalent of a lightning bolt out of the blue. Who could have known that David Chase would choose the band’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the last song Tony Soprano heard before the screen went black and the series ended. While Chase didn’t make any friends by ending one of the greatest series of all time with giant question mark, sales and downloads of “Don’t Stop Believin’” went through the roof. Unfortunately, Journey was between lead singers at the time and couldn’t capitalize on their great good luck by arranging a quick tour. Former lead singer Steve Perry had left the group in 1998 and the voice of his replacement, Steve Augeri, finally gave out in 2006. In the next 18 months, Journey went through two more lead singers. Ramona Diaz’ heart-warming, “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” tells the story of how the still highly popular band discovered the singer who’s been with them since December 2007. It’s a doozy.
As had happened with the recently departed Johnny Hunsicker, guitarist and co-founder Neil Schon turned to the Internet, where he found covers of the band’s songs being sung by one Arnel Pineda in Manila. Pineda was a journeyman (no pun intended) singer-songwriter with the Filipino club band, Zoo, and his gift for mimicking Perry and other rock gods impressed Schon enough for him to send an e-mail. After being convinced that the message was genuine, Pineda agreed to fly to Marin County for a nerve-wracking two-day audition. By joining Journey, Pineda automatically became the second most-recognized Filipino in the world, behind boxer Manny Pacquiao. Both men share similar rags-to-riches stories. And, yes, Pineda’s voice and long black hair make him a dead-ringer for Perry, at least from the cheap seats. Diaz followed Pineda most of the way from Manila to Marin to stardom on the arena-rock circuit. Fans will enjoy the close-up look at their favorite band on stage, in the studio, on the bus and at home, as well as the generous helping of music. Non-believers are free to wonder why Diaz decided to leave out the blemishes, if any, that usually accompany all such supergroups. Fact is, though, after 30 or 40 years on the road – Pineda’s career began, at 15, in 1981—some rockers do grow up and act their age. The bonus package includes backstage footage and an interview with Diaz.
The frenetically edited “Welcome to the Machine” opens with an oft-repeated quote from Hunter S. Thompson, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” In fact, Thompson was commenting on the television industry at the time, but his toxic observation applies just as well to the recording industry. In compiling a “12 Commandments” of the music business, director Andreas Steinkogler has provided aspiring rockers and pop artists with a primer on what to expect on the road to stardom, failure or compromise. He accomplishes it by collecting quotes from dozens of artists he’s interviewed as they toured Europe and made themselves available to him for purposes other than to plug their new albums. They literally represent a United Nations of rock, pop, dance and R&B. Among them are Kim Wilde, Fatboy Slim, Cypress Hill, Bloodhound Gang, Kool and the Gang, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Lydia Lunch, Megadeth, Melissa auf der Maur, Poppa Roach, Uriah Heep and Nada Surf. Also represented are video directors, journalists, educators and label executives. Even if “WTTM” doesn’t pull any punches, I can’t imagine that any wannabe stars would be dissuaded by anything they see and hear in the music- and video-filled documentary, and that’s a good thing.
I don’t know how much attention was paid the British pop/funk/jazz ensemble, Level 42, at the height of its popularity in 1980-90s, but I’m told that it didn’t have any trouble selling albums and attracting fans to concerts. By the time “Level 42: Live” was committed to videotape in 1992, only Mark King and Mike Lindup were left from the original 1980 lineup. This didn’t prevent the group from performing a dozen of their Top 40 hits and some new material. The film was shot at London’s sold-out Town and Country Club at the end of their “Guaranteed” tour. –
Tortoise in Love
Much of what happens in this lighter-the-air rom-com could easily be mistaken for a “Monty Python” skit about the peculiar pastimes of rural Brits. This would include the re-enactment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by the women of the Barley Townswomen’s Guild sketch. “Tortoise in Love” takes place in and around a stately mansion in Kingston Bagpuize, Oxfordshire. (A Pythonian name if I ever heard one.) Apparently, the men of the village are notorious for their inability to court the local lovelies in ways generally accepted to be effective elsewhere. Tom, the mansion’s gardener, is considered to be quite a catch. Because he takes the advice of his friends and male co-workers, though, he nearly fails to connect with the Polish au pair, Anya, who takes care of the mansion owner’s frightfully neglected son and takes an immediate shine to him. Anya is to Tom, then, what a rabbit is to a tortoise. Fortunately for the slowpoke, Aesop’s Fables have been translated into Polish, so she knows what to expect of her intended and waits for him to catch up to her. The nice thing about Guy Browning’s debut feature, besides the swell scenery, is the fact that financing was crowd-sourced by local companies and residents, many of whom are extras in it. Anyone who enjoyed “Calendar Girls” and “Saving Grace” should find something to like in this unpretentious rom-com. –
The most obvious difference between going on a blind date and being assigned a roommate in college is the likelihood that a bad date will end soon and you’ll never see that person again. Getting university housing officials to approve a divorce between roommates is exponentially more difficult. Even worse, the friends of an incompatible roommate tend to be more bothersome than the roommate himself … or herself, as the case may be. They, too, are part of the nightmare. “Drinking Games” is set in a college dorm as a major storm has begun to form and almost all of the residents have left town for Christmas break. Unlike everyone else stuck in the dorm this night, Richard (Blake Merriman) needs to finish a term paper before his vacation can begin. Without asking for Richard’s permission, his roommate, Shawn (Nick Vergara), has volunteered the use of their living space for an annual party for stragglers. Shawn is the kind of guy who brags about his sexual prowess, but has remained a virgin for the entirety of the first semester. The 800-pound gorilla in the dorm room isn’t easy to see, at first, because it’s represented by the comatose body of Shawn’s obnoxious friend, Noopie (Rob Bradford).
Noopie is the kind of world-class party animal, who, while not unattractive, would have a hard time getting laid if it weren’t for his willingness to share his cocaine. He also is known campus-wide for his boozy concoctions, whose secret ingredient is the date-rape drug, Rohypnol. Before Richard can talk Shawn into moving the party to another room, Shawn wakes up and gathers a group of his friends to begin the festivities. By this time in the narrative, I’m expecting “Drinking Games” to turn into a quickie “National Lampoon Goes Back to College” comedy. Instead, Noopie’s menacing behavior, especially towards the few women in attendance, shifts the tone dramatically in the direction of a horror/thriller. It’s entirely possible that Noopie already has flunked out of school and has nothing to lose by being a bully, so, the more he ingests, the scarier he allows himself to become. Ryan Gielen adapted “Drinking Games” from Merriman’s off-Broadway play, “DORM.” It’s available as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R through Amazon and other retail outlets. –
Hitting the Cycle
It’s almost too easy to make a movie about a professional ballplayer that can’t face the fact that he’s lost a couple of inches on his fastball or begun to find rust on his swing. Lately, the formula demands that such a character turns to the bottle to sharpen his edge, which never happens, or return to his hometown to find something missing in his life, which often does. The trouble comes in the character’s belief that a baseball player away from the diamond is just another fish out of water. You could write an opera about an over-the-hill soccer player in any language, besides English, and the same message would come through loud and clear. In “Hitting the Cycle,” Rip has just been released from his team – probably in the same league as the Durham Bulls – in part because he’s injured his knee and refuses to undergo an operation. Conveniently, a day after he’s dropped, he receives a call from his sister-in-law informing him of the hospitalization of his father (Bruce Dern). The crusty old man is a local legend, but he did something to his son that caused them to be estranged to the point that he skipped his brother’s wedding, rather than return home. Writer/co-director/star J. Richey Nash looks every bit the part of a professional athlete, even as he’s pouring booze down his throat and bedding teenage she-fans. Despite the movie’s familiarity and Rip’s moody personality, “Hitting the Cycle” is easy to watch and delivers a positive message about the power of redemption and forgiveness. It’s one that wouldn’t be lost on the Major Leagues players who recently were suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs. –
An American Ghost Story
Scary MoVie: Unrated: Blu-ray
Unlike dozens of other horror flicks that followed in bloody wake of Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (1982), “Wither” is a down-and-dirty gorefest from Sweden that doesn’t waste any time getting to the business at hand. Where most of the wannabes spend at least 15 minutes setting up the first act of violence perpetrated against a group of young people hoping to spend a quiet weekend in the woods, “Wither” opens with the twin-killing of a demon-possessed ghoul and the girl who once loved him. As we suspect, the guy who blows off their heads is her father. Not long thereafter, the rifle-toting woodsman uses the incident as a cautionary tale for the city-slickers who have taken up quarters in an abandoned cabin with a secret in the basement. Naturally, they think the geezer is nuts. That is, until one of their own begins exhibiting the symptoms of becoming a demon-possessed ghoul with a hunger for her friends’ flesh. As soon as the woman stricken with the curse takes a nip out of another vacationer, that person becomes infected with the same lust for blood. In this way, all but one member will have to be sacrificed for the good of the group and appetite of the monster. They don’t die easily, either. If the formula is familiar, co-directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s execution is what sets “Wither” apart from similar pictures, which delay the bloodletting with shower scenes, drunken revelry or fake jump scares. The Swedes simply cut to the chase. Amateur horror buffs should know that Laguna and Wiklund don’t pull any punches when it comes to gore. This one isn’t for those with weak stomachs. The DVD arrives with a half-hour making-of featurette and deleted scene.
The concept behind “An American Ghost Story” can be summed up pretty neatly by a good-news/bad-news joke. Boyfriend says, “The good news is that I love you and want you move into the house I’ve just rented” When she says “OK,” but wants to hear the bad news before committing, he replies, “The address is 112 Ocean Avenue, in Amityville, New York.” Except for the location, that pretty much sums up what to expect in director Derek Cole and writer-star Stephen Twardokus’ tasty little thriller from Breaking Glass Pictures. Paul is a writer looking for a break when he decides to rent a house in which a terrible multiple murder occurred several years earlier. Even if it is haunted, he thinks he can deal with the ghosts of owners past. It doesn’t take long for Paul’s girlfriend to bail on the experiment, though. After hearing loud noises and witnessing some unexplainable phenomena, she was on the next bus home. Paul decides not to wimp out on the project, choosing, instead, to reason with the demons. We’re not talking about Casper, here, so it’s a decision he soon begins to regret. The result is an extremely satisfying genre flick, with plenty of thrills, chills and surprises. Besides the lack of proper lighting in the house – or Paul simply forgetting to turn on the lights – “American Ghost Story” benefits from a soundtrack full of creepy cello music and loud noises designed specifically to make viewers jump. And, we do.
The parodies in the intermittent “Scary Movie” series make just enough money to ensure another one will be released in the next three to seven years. The problem, I suppose, is that there aren’t all that many horror movies worth satirizing these days and, with only a few exceptions, the A- and B-list actors anxious to be in the parodies is dwindling. By far the most entertaining moment in “Scary MoVie” (a.k.a., “Scary Movie 5”) comes in the sexual pas-de-deux between Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan before the opening credits roll. Neither of the actors appears to be taking themselves or their degraded reputations over-seriously here and it works in their favor. As for what happens after their prelude, one need only peruse of list of targets to guess how “Scary Movie” might play out: “Paranormal Activity,” “Mama,” “Sinister,” “The Evil Dead,” “Inception,” “Black Swan” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Any horror fan probably could write a reasonably similar script simply with those titles in mind. That the one used was penned by Pat Proft and Jerry Zucker (“Naked Gun”) didn’t save “Scary MoVie” from being roasted by the critics. Viewers with less stringent standards to uphold likely will be more forgiving. Besides Sheen and Lohan, the cast includes Ashley Tisdale, Snoop Dogg, Katt Williams, Katrina Bowden, Kate Walsh, Heather Locklear, Molly Shannon, Terry Crews, Simon Rex, Jerry O’Connell, Shad Moss, Kate Walsh, Sarah Hyland and Mike Tyson. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.
Chronically cool Danny Trejo and 1986 Oscar nominee Eric Roberts get top-billing on the cover of “The Cloth,” a horror-comedy about exorcisms in the 21st Century. If you put a stopwatch against the actors’ combined screen time, however, it would be less than the average “Roadrunner” cartoon. Both play priests in the war against Satan, but, get this, Trejo’s character is Irish. “The Cloth” opens with a not-bad exorcism, right out of the 1973 classic, in which Trejo is killed by the demon. The rest of the story involved discovering new ways to counter an epidemic of possessions. Enlisted in the war are two young men and a woman who operate in cavern underneath a church. The woman (Perla Rodriguez) speaks in a voice so low it doesn’t register on the decibel meter. One of the men (Kyler Willett) is an atheist, whose father was a longtime crusader against the devil, while the other (Cameron White) is an expert in making transformer-like weapons with crosses on them and grenades full of holy water. It’s entirely possible that what happens in “The Cloth” is intentionally funny and writer/director Justin Price is using it as an audition for a gig with the “Scary Movie” franchise.
In an interesting coincidence, Trejo began his movie career as drug counselor, boxing coach and convict extra on “Runaway Train,” the movie for which Roberts was nominated. Director Andrey Konshalovskiy offered him a better assignment, opposite Roberts in a fight sequence, after watching him coach the picture’s star. While serving time in San Quentin, he won the prison’s lightweight and welterweight boxing titles. The DVD’s bonus package adds a making-of featurette, another one on the weaponry, deleted and alternate scenes, and the “Hell and Back” music video.
American Sasquatch Hunters: Bigfoot in America
Fear the Forest
For people who dedicate most of their non-working hours to the pursuit of something most others consider insane, a very thick skin may be the only defense they’ll ever have against ridicule. In “American Sasquatch Hunters: Bigfoot in America,” J. Michael Long introduces us to several men, primarily, who absolutely believe in the existence of the humanoid creature, “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch.” They do this even in the absence of irrefutable prove of its existence. Some say they’ve been in the presence of the legendary beast, while others accept other people’s accounts as fact. They point to large plaster casts of footprints found in the Pacific Northwest and, increasingly, other areas with thick forests. There’s also the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, which, in 1967, seemed to show an apelike creature in its native habitat. It has since been examined with the same close scrutiny accorded the Shroud of Turin and 486 frames of an 8mm home movie taken of the soon-to-be-late President Kennedy by Abraham Zapruder. Sasquatch hunters believe that modern digital and forensics technology will allow them to follow-up on reports of sightings and scientifically sift through evidence left behind it. If precious little of that has been collected, either, it hasn’t stopped these outwardly normal and seemingly credible researchers from seeking it. “Bigfoot in America” is from the same Reality Entertainment that, for the last seven years, has been churning out low-budget documentaries and docudramas on supernatural and other unexplained phenomena. It is hosted by a believer who looks suspiciously like John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski.”
And, speaking of Bigfoot, there are several good reasons why the pros make the big bucks … in sports, on the stage and in movies. None are on view in the DIY monstrosity, “Fear the Forest.” This Sasquatch non-thriller might have gotten a B- as a high-school AV project, but, as for being ready for prime time, it’s not. The only good reason for mentioning “Fear the Forest” is that Bigfoot buffs might be directed to it in a Google or IMDB.com search and be so angered by what they see that they threaten to take legal action on the behalf of their beloved monster. For the record, though, a Sasquatch-looking beast has long been terrifying campers in the forests of northern New Jersey. After a lull of 10 years, it appears to have returned from its vacation in the Pacific Northwest and is killing young adults looking for a good time in the woods, one of whom (the other Anna Kendrick) is the governor’s daughter. Or, has it? Dozens of in-bred locals and bounty hunters also are roaming the forest, so anything is possible. The best part of the package is a making-of featurette, part of which actually would be helpful to aspiring makeup-effects artists.
Q: The Winged Serpent: Blu-ray
Re-watching “Q” from a distance of nearly 30 years begs the question as to whether – all other things being equal—a 2013 remake would benefit from a much higher budget, extensive CGI effects and a more high-profile cast? For the answer, one only needs to look to Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” Devlin/Emmerich’s “Godzilla,” Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” Frank Oz’ “Stepford Wives” and Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” … or don’t. From nearly any angle you choose, they don’t measure up to the original and neither would “The Return of Q.” The more money a studio spends on a remake, the fewer chances are taken and less spontaneous are the performances. Or, to put it a different way, if a low-budget indie makes a modest $20 million at the box office, it’s considered hit in the eyes of the producers, who may never have expected a return ranging from 10 to 20 times their original investment. For a mega-budget adaptation to make the same claim, it probably would have to clear $2 billion in the international marketplace. Moreover, critics and genre buffs would expect nothing less than a movie that looks as if it cost $200 million to make and market, not merely a “guilty pleasure.”
Although, the newly retitled “Q: The Winged Serpent” easily qualifies as a guilty pleasure, it can stand on its own merits as a creature feature. Unlike “Rodan,” “Godzilla” and other movies in which the monsters are a byproduct of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the appearance of a giant killer lizard in the skies above New York has something to do with a museum exhibit of native Mexican artifacts, many of which were inspired by the Aztec plumed-serpent deity, Quetzalcoatl. The creature, whose lair is far atop the Art-Deco Chrysler Building, has only recently begun to feast on humans it finds working or tanning (topless, of course) on Manhattan high-rises. Indeed, as writer/director Larry Cohen explain in his commentary, the production had direct access to the highest reaches of the magnificent tower, where its giant metal bird heads may have lured Q. After a diamond heist blows up in his face, Michael Moriarty’s sad-sack crook, Jimmy, takes refuge in the same perch. It will come in handy when he needs to shake the hoodlums who set him up for botched job, and when he needs to cut a deal with the cops who can’t seem to discover where the killer Q is hiding and why. That’s a pretty good setup for a movie that might have languished forever in grindhouses, drive-ins and VHS purgatory. Instead, it benefited from some decent reviews and marketing material that pushed all the right buttons. And, it’s still fun to watch, with or without the entertaining commentary track engaged. Moriarty is joined here by David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Candy Clark, Malachy McCourt, a dozen or so off-duty New York cops and Dodger infielder Ron “Penguin” Cey, of all people.
One of things that makes “X-Ray” unique among 1980s slasher/stalker flicks is its dubious distinction of having two other titles, “Hospital Massacre” and “Be My Valentine … Or Else.” It is paired with “Schizoid” in a new Scream Factory double-feature package on Blu-ray. Unlike many slasher movies that fail to live up to sub-genre expectations, both feature a high and gory death toll. In “X-ray,” the primary attraction is the appearance of Hugh Hefner’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton, until she grew too old for his tastes, and her boobs. She plays a recent divorcee, who is dropped off a hospital to pick up the results of a physical she needs for a new job. When someone purposefully switches her x-rays, however, Susan is checked in further study. Unless one forgets that everything here, including the opening flashback, takes place on Valentine’s Day, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s behind the series of gruesome murders. If Susan weren’t constantly screaming, she’d be able to spot the killer a mile away by his extremely loud heavy breathing. But, it’s that kind off a misbegotten thriller. The amazing thing is that the screenplay is credited to Marc Behm, who also came up with stories for “Help!” and “Charade.” It includes an interview with director/schlockmeister Boaz Davidson (“The Last American Virgin”).
Anyone too young to have witnessed a killing spree committed a character played by Klaus Kinski might consider “Schizoid” (1980), the second half of the double feature. It may not be his best turn, but he’s creepy enough for any 10 actors. Here, a newspaper advice columnist (Marianna Hill) starts receiving threats in the form of letters composed of words cut from magazines. Could the mail be from the same guy using scissors to slay members of Kinski’s therapy group? Sure, why not? Among the other cast members are Donna Wilkes (“Angel”), Joe Regalbuto (“Murphy Brown”), Craig Wasson (“Body Double”), Flo Gerrish (“Don’t Answer the Phone”) and a very young Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future”). The interview here is with Donna Wilkes. –
Race War: The Remake
Not having seen the original “Race War,” if such a movie even exists, I couldn’t possibly comment on the similarities and disparities between the original and “Race War: The Remake.” It wouldn’t matter, anyway. No DIY, no-budget, exploitation flick I’ve seen since I figured out what DIY means comes close to Tom Martino’s debut effort. That includes the thoroughly beyond-the-pale Troma/Astron-6 collaboration, “Father’s Day.” As the story goes, crack dealers Baking Soda and G.E.D. are shocked to learn that a rival gang of white hoodlums has begun selling drugs on their turf and they intend to eliminate them. Soda, G.E.D. and their buddy Kreech – half Creature From the Black Lagoon” and half blaxploition-era superhero—are at a distinct disadvantage because the drugs the honkies sell have the power to turn dope fiends into zombie slaves. Even if the Grand Wizard of the KKK had been hired as a consultant on the screenplay, “Race War” couldn’t possibly have turned out more gratuitously racist, violent and stupid. I don’t know if “nigga” qualifies as an n-word, but it and “bitch” represent every other word out of the mouths of Soda and G.E.D. Because the Creature speaks in a language only Soda understands, subtitles are necessary. If the subtitles added to a conversation between the dealers and an Arab tavern owner – played by a Lamp Chop sock puppet—weren’t written in Arabic script, we might have been able to understand him, too.
Other outrages include hyper-offensive wall-to-wall gore, flatulence, ethnic stereotypes and weak parodies of conventional movie tropes. In fact, though, Martino knows exactly what he’s doing in “Race War” and invites the audience get on board, even as the opening credits roll. How much one enjoys “Race War” depends entirely on how much sophomoric humor he – no woman would waste more than 10 minutes watching it – can absorb and not want to take a shower. If the answer is, “a lot,” the movie should prove to be a true hoot. If not, it will resemble something swept off Rob Zombie’s floor. The DVD adds a gag reel, a demented commentary, a behind-the-scenes “gore reel” and similarly scandalous trailers from DWN Productions and Wild Eye Releasing. –
PBS: The Life of Muhammad: Blu-ray
Nova: Manhunt: Boston Bombers
For many non-Muslim people, terrorism and intolerance in their myriad physical manifestations are the public face of Islam and all they know about a culture and civilization that’s grown from nothing in 570 AD to what it is today. The BBC mini-series “The Life of Muhammad,” now airing on PBS outlets here, represents an exhaustive attempt to explain Islam to western audiences and what seem to be contradictory interpretations of the Koran. It’s a fascinating story, no matter what anyone thinks about the religion Muhammad spawned. In a journey that is both literal and historical, host Rageh Omaar retraces the footsteps of the Messenger of Allah from his humble beginnings in Mecca to his death in 632 and legacy. The three-part series describes the struggles Muhammad faced in his lifetime, including persecution, assassination attempts, strategic retreats, mythology and the creation of a physical and philosophical foundation for Islam. There are important lessons to be learned in the mini-series. One of them is an understanding of the split between militant fundamentalists and the vast majority of other Muslims. Most significant, perhaps, is an exploration of the Constitution of Medina and such practices as sharia law and jihad. Just as Christian fundamentalists and Zionists have twisted basic biblical teachings to fit their own purposes, Muslim militants use the Koran to justify terrorism, holy war and a refutation of the Prophet’s struggle for peace. Omarr chronicles the events that led to the continuing hostilities between Muslims and Jews—Muslims and other Muslims, as well—and explains how they have been misinterpreted ever since by fundamentalists of both religions.
One of the manifestations of ignorance and bloodlust occurred at 2:50 p.m. on April 15, 2013, when two bomb blasts turned the Boston Marathon into a nightmare. The IEDs left three dead and hundreds injured. Even as the casualties were being transported to area hospitals, the investigation into identifying and capturing those responsible for the crime had begun. Before it was over, the media would misidentify suspects and a form of martial law would effectively shut down one the country’s largest metropolitan areas. Crucial to the identification of Chechen immigrants Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were surveillance cameras installed by merchants and hundreds of photos and videos taken by amateurs using cellphone cameras. As we learn in the “Nova” presentation “Manhunt: Boston Bombers,” amateur Internet sleuths helped as much as they hindered the identification of the brothers and one of the mistakes found its way to the cover of the New York Post. Professional investigators began using facial-recognition tools not only to identify suspects, but also collect evidence valuable to their capture and prosecution. The documentary goes on to describe how experts in forensics, explosives and infrared photography contributed, as well. In a sense, the episode is the fact-based equivalent of a police-procedural mystery and that’s not at all a bad thing. Even if we know the outcome of the five-day search, “Manhunt” adds greatly to our understanding of what happened during that terrible week in American history. –
Walk the Dark Street
Lovers of vintage movies and TV could spend hours perusing the catalogues published on the websites belonging to Facets Video, Netflix, Movies Unlimited, Oldies.com and MVD Entertainment. The posters, alone, are worth the effort to find them. I found the Alpha Entertainment release “Walk the Dark Street” at MVD, which handles dozens of the company’s public-domain titles. Wyott Ordung’s 1956 noir thriller tweaks the story advanced in “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which a skilled hunter, played by Joel Crea, finds himself stranded on an uncharted island owned by a mad Russian count. Bored with hunting animals, the count gives McCrea a knife and a head start, but he also saddles him with another stranded traveler, Fay Wray. Normally, this would have been more of a blessing than a curse. Here, though, she’s more like a fifth wheel. By contrast, “Walk the Dark Street” takes place in and around Los Angeles and both hunters are similarly armed.
A big-game hunter played by Chuck “Rifleman” Connors is given an opportunity to avenge the death of his brother, in Korea, for which he blames a senior officer. When Lt. Dan Lawton comes to Frank’s lair to describe the battle during which the brother was killed, the hunter convinces the bored ex-soldier to join him in a dangerous game. Incredibly, Dan believes Frank when he tells him that the rifles are equipped with cameras, not firing mechanisms, and the first one to take the other’s picture wins a sizable prize. It’s crazy to watch two men walk through the streets and harbor of Los Angeles toting cases that could only accommodate a rifle, golf clubs or a trombone. What we know that Dan doesn’t is that Frank isn’t interested in photography, just revenge. In his effort to win the contest, the soldier remembers things about the hunter that he learned from his brother before he died. It leads him to a nightclub, where he picks up the man’s floozy ex-fiancé. Hey, it could happen. Although the print has seen better days, it isn’t hard to ignore the film’s condition and enjoy the story. Ordung doesn’t have a long list of credits, but he is credited with the directing the first film produced by Roger Corman, “Monster From the Ocean Floor.” –
After nearly 40 years in the game, Oz-ploitation veteran John Jarratt still makes for a convincing psychopath. His reputation is such that he was asked to make a cameo in “Django Unchained,” alongside Quentin Tarantino, as an employee of the Le Quint Dickie Mining Co. (Unlike Jarratt, Tarantino had to fake his Aussie accent.) In “Savages Crossing,” which he wrote with his son, Cody, Jarratt plays a man driven crazy by the thought that his estranged wife and son are trying to steal money from him. Phil catches up with them in rural pub, which has become a refuge for travelers stranded by flooding caused by a lingering storm. Being a bully, boor and alcoholic, he quickly alienates himself from everyone else in the pub. Phil’s rage extends to a cop who comes in late and, if anything, is louder and more profane than he is. Fortunately, an Outback cowboy takes it upon himself to quiet things down, even as the storm rages outside. Director Kevin James Dobson’s best asset in “Savages Crossing” is the weather, which is as threatening as any of the human characters. –
Spooks, Hoods & JFK: The Shocking Truth
I Shot JFK: The Shocking Truth
Confessions from the Grassy Knoll: The Shocking Truth
With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy rapidly approaching, it’s as good a time as any to get caught up on all of the conspiracy theories that have arisen since the last big anniversary. It also may be the last best time for geriatric mafia assassins and self-serving spooks to lay claim to knowing the “truth” about who killed JFK and who paid them to participate. To that dubious end, MVD Visual has released three new documentaries that attempt either to clear the air on the unsolvable mystery or stir the pot. “Spooks, Hoods & JFK: The Shocking Truth” revisits accounts by the late Chauncey Holt of his participation in the assassination, as a hitman linked to both the mafia and America’s other, even more secret intelligence community. That both carried grudges against the liberal president has been assumed for decades, but, so far, only criminals have provided anything resembling first-hand evidence of such a lethal conspiracy. That’s not to imply, however, that such a diabolic plot is inconceivable.
To that end, as well, “I Shot JFK: The Shocking Truth” and “Confessions from the Grassy Knoll” also offer the testimony of one James Earl Files (a.k.a., James Sutton), who, in 1994, admitted to being the “grassy knoll shooter.” Unless he dies in the interim, Files will celebrate the anniversary in a cell at the Statesville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. The latter title is a longer version of the former, created by Dutch filmmaker Wim Dankbaar, who expands on material compiled by P.I. Joe West, who died before a scheduled date to interview Files. By November, the hills will be alive with the sound of 80-year-old geezers confessing to their roles in the true crime of the century. –
Children Make Terrible Pets
Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late
The latest release of titles from Scholastic’s “Storybook Treasures” collection includes the prize-winning “Children Make Terrible Pets,” based on the book by writer/illustrator Peter Brown. It describes what happens when a bear cub, Lucy, encounters a little boy in the woods and asks her mother if she can adopt him. Her mother’s answer can be found in the title of the book and animated, read-along DVD. Other stories include “All the World,” by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee, narrated by Joanne Woodward; “Crow Call,” by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline and narrated by Julia Fein; and “Elizabeth’s Doll,” by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, illustrated by Christy Hale and narrated by Lynn Whitfield. Interviews with the authors come with the package.
The other DVD is comprised of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late” and other wonderful children’s stories by Mo Willems. In the title entry, Willems asks viewers to prevent a stubborn pigeon from staying up late at night, no matter what it does to win their confidence. It features the voices of Willems and John Scieszka. The DVD adds “Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion,” featuring the voices of Trixie, Cher and Mo Willems; “Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct,” with Cher and Mo Willems; an interview with Willems; and a recipe for Edwina’s chocolate-chip cookies. –