The East: Blu-ray
Based solely on her drop-dead good looks, shiny blonde hair and ability to dominate the screen whenever the camera is pointed in her direction, 31-year-old Brit Marling probably could have her pick of television sitcoms and Hollywood rom-coms. Like Greta Gerwig, who emerged from the ranks of the mumblecore movement, though, she exudes a palpable aura of intelligence that prevents casting directors from steering her toward playing “dumb blond” characters or women whose only goal in life is to avoid being stood up at the altar. (There are enough of those wandering the streets of Hollywood, anyway.) Apart from a semi-glam role in “Arbitrage,” as Richard Gere’s daughter, Marling has chosen to write her way onto the screen. Surely, Alfred Hitchcock would have been able to harness her inherited Nordic beauty, striking physique and icy sensuality for a couple of hours, but, these days, even Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren would be hard-pressed to find suitable work. With only a half-dozen prominent roles on her resume, the onetime Goldman Sachs intern already exudes the intelligence and maturity of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon at mid-career. If you haven’t yet heard of Marling, it isn’t because the reporters at “ET” and “TMZ” have been shirking their responsibility as pop-culture-vultures. Marling has chosen to maintain a low profile as a collaborator and muse for indie writer/directors Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”), whose films are too issue-oriented and challenging for mainstream appeal. She’s the real deal, folks.
Marling co-wrote and stars in the strangely compelling anti-terrorist thriller, “The East,” which was co-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and directed by Batmanglij. She plays Sarah Moss, an idealistic new recruit at an elite private intelligence firm. In our post-9/11 world, it’s exactly the kind of place that’s profited from corporate paranoia and the government’s willingness to entrust freelancers with duties once handled by the CIA, FBI and NSA … and we all know how that’s turned out. Instead of protecting industrial secrets and sussing out corruption, the company is attempting to infiltrate and subvert a band of eco-terrorists modeled after the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. Although, in reality, the movement has become largely irrelevant, the company’s director (Patricia Clarkson) is anxious to convince her clients of the continued threat to officially sanctioned corporate shenanigans. Sarah is a true believer in the fight being waged by the government and multinational corporations against “anarchists” who would balance the scales of justice with eye-for-an-eye attacks. Here, the targets include conglomerates whose oil leaks kill defenseless animals, birds and fish, as well as pharmaceutical firms that knowingly sell harmful products to civilian and military interests. Sarah is able to infiltrate “The East” by dressing down to the point where she’s only average-pretty, hopping boxcars for transportation and eating discarded food, as is advocated by members of the “freeganism” movement. The radicals are prominently white, highly educated, extremely clever and totally focused on their missions.
Unlike the left-wing and anti-war agitators previously depicted in Hollywood films, these folks aren’t also obsessed with “free love,” drugs or random violence. This isn’t to say that they don’t practice goofy rituals of their own, just that Batmanglig and Marling’s screenplay takes them seriously as activists and individuals. Among other things, Sarah is allowed to maintain her basic convictions, even as she grows fond of the participants and begins to sympathize with their beliefs, if not their tactics. Besides the ever-formidable Clarkson, the cast includes Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan and Jason Ritter. They’re all very good here. Batmanglij maintains an even pace throughout most of “The East,” hitting the accelerator only towards the two-thirds mark. By splitting the narrative’s setting between the thickets of rural America and slick office buildings of corporate America, he also draws a line in the sand for his well-bred characters. The filmmakers also pose a question for viewers: is it morally acceptable for dedicated individuals to punish corporate executives, when our judicial system gives them a free pass? Similarly testing questions are asked of us by Marling in “Another World” and “Sound of My Voice.” The Blu-ray package adds a few deleted scenes; six short making-of featurettes and discussion points; and a Q&A moderated by journalist Malcolm Gladwell, at the film’s New York premiere. – Gary Dretzka
Gimme the Loot
The We and the I
These modestly budgeted and vastly under-screened indie dramedies — both of which overflow with fresh faces and natural talent — accomplish something that has eluded even the most experienced and celebrated chroniclers of growing up black, poor and untarnished by despair in New York City. While the teenagers in “Gimme the Loot” and “The We and the I” are absent parental control and guardianship, the plot doesn’t revolve around how they handle such freedom or dilemmas that can be traced to easy access to drugs, booze or clandestine sex. Neither do all of their daytime activities lead inevitably to the nighttime anarchy of “House Party” or “Project X.” This isn’t to say, however, that the filmmakers weren’t influenced by Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin or, perhaps, John Hughes, because it would be difficult to find anyone under 40 who hasn’t enjoyed their movies. Unlike those artists’ products, these films reflect more of a slice-of-life approach.
In Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot,” we are asked to join a pair of graffiti artists – or, more precisely, taggers – in their quest to leave an indelible mark on New York, without firing a shot in anger or buying a building upon which they could be immortalized in neon. Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson play best pals and fellow graffiti “writers” Sofia and Malcolm. When the movie opens, Sofia and Malcolm already are friends with a common goal: to “bomb the apple.” As the legend goes, no tagger has been able to spray-paint his or her personal logo on the enormous apple that rises up from the center-field stands at Shea Stadium, whenever a Mets player hits a home run. The old stadium is about to be razed, so precious little time is left to accomplish the feat. Apparently, Shea is a tougher nut to crack than the city’s railroad yards, bridges and billboards, because the only way to access the ballpark is by bribing a security guard. The toll is $500, but it might as well be $50,000 for the degree of difficulty involved in raising the money. Only someone supremely confident in their street savvy would even attempt such a thing, and Ty is already working with several strikes against him. An encounter with a wealthy young white woman, desperate to score some marijuana, offers Ty some reason for optimism, but that door shuts pretty quickly on him. Leon assembled a large cast of inexperienced actors for his $165,000 debut project and it would be difficult to find anything that more money would improve. The musical soundtrack is good, but never threatens to dominate the narrative, and, even at 81 minutes, “Gimme the Loot” never feels rushed or incomplete. It’s simply a portrait of city life most of us would never see, otherwise.
The second half of our Big Apple double-feature, “The We and the I,” has several things in common with “Gimme the Loot.” They include a cast of unknown actors – here, of the amateur variety – an urban backdrop undiluted by set designers and a super low budget. “The We and the I” takes place on a school bus that’s ferrying South Bronx teenagers home from their last day at school before summer vacation. The kids are all black or of a mixed-race background and, even if they’ve shared the same bus route all year long, they are by no means homogenized. Facing a break of nearly three months, they’re more spirited than usual and this occasionally results in temperamental outbursts. That’s not what the movie is about, either. Viewers aware of Gondry’s reputation as an experimental filmmaker are at a distinct disadvantage going into the picture because we keep waiting for something out of the ordinary to happen. His fingerprints are only occasionally visible and they show up outside the context of the ride home. Gondry was inspired to create “The We and the I” after listening to the stories told by Bronx teenagers enrolled in “The Point,” a program designed to provide them exposure to arts and activism. Gondry’s trademark playfulness shines through only when he allows a passenger’s imagination to take flight and in the winnowing process as the number of students hits two. (The bus driver plays a key role, as well, but primarily as a parental stand-in and tool to accelerate the narrative.) “The We and the I” clearly wasn’t made in anticipation of wide commercial appeal, but I can’t imagine any teenager, educator or observer of big-city mores not finding something entertaining in it. – Gary Dretzka
Iron Man III 3: Blu-ray
The third installment in the “Iron Man” series made more than $1.2 billion at the international box office, roughly $400 million of that total courtesy of U.S. audiences. If Disney elected to open it in foreign markets almost two weeks ahead of its release to avoid possibly negative reviews from grumpy American critics, it needn’t have worried. They were in the sequel’s corner as much as any geeked-out fan of the Marvel collection. (And, yes, there were a few detractors among the faithful, as well.) That’s a backwards way of saying, “Iron Man III” is going to kill in DVD, Blu-ray 2D and Blu-ray 3D no matter what anyone with access to an Internet review site has to add to the discussion. Despite having gotten my fill of comic-book superheroes with “The Avengers” – of which “IMIII” is merely an extension — I was completely won over by Robert Downey Jr.’s delightful screen presence here, the evolution of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts from damsel-in-distress to hard-ass defender of liberty and the introduction of budding star Ty Simpkins. Watching Ben Kingsley devour the scenery as the media-savvy terrorist, Mandarin, also is a blast to watch. After saving the world in “IMII,” Tony Stark attempts to enjoy a well-earned hiatus in his Malibu pad. All hell breaks loose when it comes under attack by helicopters wielding Sidewinder missiles. Like a turtle removed from its shell, Stark is forced to go into battle without the benefit of body armor. He’s also required to deal with a new rival, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whose bitterness over rebuffs by Stark and Potts fuels the acceleration of a plot involving his Extremis virus. Frankly, I lost track of the storyline when the different iron suits began to blur my eyes and I had to refer to marvel.wikia.com to get on the right path.
I was pulled back into the action during a terrific set piece involving an attack on Air Force One and Tony’s encounter with the inventive youngster from Tennessee, Harley Keener. At first, Tony appears to brush the kid off with some rude wisecracks, but his contributions clearly will be put to better use later in the story. For celebrated screenwriter and second-time director Shane Blake, “IMIII” represents a successful return to the big screen after an eight-year absence. He co-authored the script with freshman scribe Drew Pearce. Hollywood can never get enough action specialists, one supposes. I haven’t seen the Blu-ray 3D edition, but, because “IMIII” wasn’t shot with the format in mind, viewers shouldn’t to expect the same impressive audio/video presentation as the Blu-ray 2D. The bonus package includes Black and Pearce’s commentary; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; a preview of “Thor: The Dark World”; a behind-the-scenes featurette; a “deconstruction” of the Air Force One sequence and a labor-intensive second-screen experience. Best of all is the Marvel One-Shot short film, “Agent Carter,” in which Hayley Atwell plays Steve Rogers/Captain America’s wartime flame and gung-ho novice, Peggy Carter. – Gary Dretzka
V/H/S 2: Blu-ray
When done right, a DVD’s commentary track should answer most of the questions a viewer has about the movie they’ve just watched or re-watched. Too often, though, the commentators skip the details and stick to amusing anecdotes and information we could glean from a press release on the movie’s website. “Room 237” is a documentary that unspools very much like any unauthorized commentary track might. In addition to being more than a little bit nutty, Rodney Ascher’s thought-provoking conceit is conversational, inviting and loaded with Kubrick trivia. The title not only refers to the mysterious hotel room in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining,” but tangentially with Kubrick and King’s preoccupation with numerical permutations. It’s well known that King wasn’t a fan of the movie. In his opinion, Kubrick strayed too far from the story and its mythology, while ignoring King’s attempts to restrain his him. (Could the author have expected the leopard to change his spots?) Along with more than a few readers, King was much happier with the 1997 mini-series of the same title.
Well after “The Shining” found traction among audiences and critics, Kubrick obsessives found the time to wonder why he tinkered with so many key elements of the novel and inserted as many seemingly unrelated angles as he did. These included an anti-Semitic version of “The Three Little Pigs” cartoon, Nazi typewriters, the genocide of Native Americans and things that normally would be dismissed as mistakes in continuity. Ascher also revisits a theory that forwards the idea Kubrick staged the moon landing for NASA. More ambitious theorists are encouraged to somehow project a backwards rendition of “The Shining” over a screen playing the movie as it is supposed to be seen. You won’t believe who Jack Nicholson morphs into at one point in the movie. If the director hadn’t been such a mysterious fellow and “The Shining” hadn’t scored at the box-office, “Room 237” would be given the same weight as 40-year-old rumors about Paul McCartney dying before the release of the “Abbey Road” album. At 102 minutes, however, the documentary begs comparison to unofficial investigations into the JFK assassination. If “Room 237” is weighted in favor of the existence of a grand, overreaching ego trip, Ascher had the decency to add a panel discussion in which all sides of the issue are represented, defended or lampooned. None of this should deter newcomers from sampling “The Shining” or, for that matter, the novel and mini-series. The movie is perfectly fine the way it is. There’s also commentary, the “Secrets of ‘The Shining’” panel discussion from the First Annual Stanley Film Festival, 11 deleted interviews, a featurette on the music and a discussion on the poster design with Artist Aled Lewis.
Snowbound hotels and abandoned houses are scary enough, without the added intrigue of video-cassettes left behind in the wake of one heinous crime or another. “V/H/S/2” extends what is essentially an emerging straight-to-DVD franchise. Both opened in a handful of theaters, but anthology series have traditionally worked better on the smaller screen. Here, private investigators break into an empty house and, instead of finding a missing student, discover a cache of VHS tapes. Each contains found footage of a horrible event, typically involving paranormal circumstances. Could they be linked to the young man’s disappearance? Except for the excessive deployment of jump-scares and eardrum-shattering noise, “Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” might very well have been inspired by the ghosts in “The Shining.” It was directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, collaborators on “You’re Next” and the “Q” segment of “The ABCs of Death.” Among the other contributors are Jason Eisener (“Hobo With a Shotgun”), Gareth Evans (“The Raid”), Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (“Blair Witch”) and Jamie Nash (“Lovely Molly”). – Gary Dretzka
There are three very good reasons to pick up a copy of “Unfinished Song” and their faces all appear prominently on the cover of the DVD: Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton. Otherwise, your enjoyment of Paul Andrew Williams’ two-hankie musical dramedy will depend on how willing one is to be manipulated by old Brits refusing to go gentle into that good night. Stamp plays Arthur Harris, a grumpy pensioner whose wife, Marion, is only able to endure the final stages of a terminal illness in the company of the men and women in her choral group. The senior ensemble is directed by Arterton’s character, Elizabeth, whose upbeat personality is contagious. When Marion does pass over, Harris is left with a void in his heart that he won’t let his estranged son and granddaughter to fill. If you’re guessing that Elizabeth will attempt to chip away at Arthur’s thick crust and convince him to find a reason to go on living, give yourself an “A” in Film Tropes 101. If you’re also willing to bet that his recovery will somehow include finding his singing voice, add a “plus” to that mark. No matter how obvious that scenario is, “Unfinished Song” (a.k.a., “Song for Marion”) has a couple of other neat tricks up its sleeve. I don’t want to ghettoize such movies, but, clearly, Williams is targeting the same disenfranchised viewers who embraced “Quartet,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “How About You?,” “All Together,” “My Afternoons With Margueritte” and “Is Anybody There?” Despite the presence of highly recognizable actors, none of these films was made specifically for American audiences … unless they still read books and newspapers, and their favorite cable channel is TMC. – Gary Dretzka
This weekend, the Showtime network debuts its much anticipated mini-series, “Masters of Sex.” It describes how research conducted by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1950s-60s led to an understanding of human sexual response and sexual dysfunction. Anyone who wants to know how far we’ve come in the last 140 years need only pick up a copy of the French rom-dram “Augustine,” or, for that matter, “Hysteria,” “A Dangerous Method” and “The Road to Wellville.” (And, even after all that time, how many men still couldn’t find a woman’s clitoris with a road map?) Alice Winocour’s film is based on the work of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, known in Belle Epoque Paris as the “Napoleon of neuroses.” Among Charcot’s many areas of interest was the condition then popularly known as hysteria and if it might be recognized and treated through hypnotherapy. In some cultures, such seizures were linked to demonic possession and the only permanent cure was exorcism or execution. This was because the victims often clutched their breasts and genitalia during their convulsions. Charcot’s stated reason for pursuing a cure was to put an end to such prejudice and persecution. One way to do so was to convince the medical community that hysteria had been misdiagnosed all along. This is what Charcot told his patient, Augustine, when she balked at being put on display, naked, before galleries of curious doctors.
French singing sensation, Soko, plays the 19-year-old kitchen maid, who comes to Charcot’s attention after suffering a seizure while serving dinner to her employer’s guests. It leaves her partially paralyzed and with one eyelid permanently shut. Charcot pokes and prods Augustine in an attempt to localize the problem, but, it isn’t until he hypnotizes her and induces an attack that he is able to formulate a theory. Reading the pain on her face tells us a different story. Part of Winocour’s premise here is that the “peep-show” atmosphere was nearly as hurtful to the doctor’s patients as the seizures and paralysis, not that it will come as any relief to them now. It was, however, considered to be an evil necessary for the advance of his science, facilities and financial well-being. By the time Augustine begins to feel relief from the paralysis, she’s fallen in love with the married Charcot. For his part, the doctor is attracted to something primal in Augustie. Soko and Vincent Lindon turn in masterful performances in the sometimes agonizing roles of doctor and patient.
The only thing that bothered me about “Augustine” was the distinct lack of orgasmic pleasure on display during the girl’s seizures, which leave her twisted like a pretzel. Other patients bear witness to the curative powers of sexual release, but Augustine only looks miserable. It wouldn’t be the first or last time a woman would be disappointed by a man who’s in a position to manipulate her genitalia. The Blu-ray includes archival photographs of the real-life Augustine and other patients at Charcot’s hospital; Q&A interviews with Soko and Winocour; two of Soko’s music videos; and, best of all, two wonderful shorts by the writer/director. – Gary Dretzka
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Psycho II/Psycho III: Collector’s Editions: Blu-ray
Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of ‘Friday the 13th’
A lot of interesting ideas are explored in John Carpenter’s underappreciated 1987 genre thriller, “Prince of Darkness.” Not the least of them involves the biblically prophesized showdown between the forces of good and evil and whether modern science might play a role in its outcome. That the question is posed within the fuzzy parameters of a quintessential B-movie format only makes it that much more accessible to the rank-and-file audience. Here, the Dark Lord has been laying low for hundreds of years in a large cylinder — full to the brim with green goop — in the basement of an inner-city church. How it got there is pretty much beside the point. We learn of its existence after an elderly priest is found dead, clutching an ornate silver box that contains a key. Apparently, the priest was about to reveal to Church officials the existence of the cylinder and it contained. Donald Pleasence plays a priest who’s summoned to the abandoned church and school to determine what, if anything, the late cleric’s undelivered proclamation might have revealed. Unwilling to entrust the future of the world to the power of the Eucharist, alone, Pleasance’s “Priest” invites Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and his team of theoretical-physics students to join him in the investigation. As they move their computers and sensors into the school’s empty classrooms, Satan’s minions gather across from the church in the guise of disheveled vagrants. Among them is a street prophet played by Alice Cooper. No shit. As ludicrous as the events depicted in “Prince of Darkness” are, at times, it’s as unpretentiously entertaining as anything currently gathering dust video stores. The Blu-ray presentation also works to the benefit of Carpenter’s 25-year-old special effects. The package includes “Sympathy for the Devil: An Interview with John Carpenter”; “Alice at the Apocalypse,” an amusing interview with the outrageous singer; “The Messenger,” an all-new interview with actor and special-visual-effects supervisor Robert Grasmere; and “Hell on Earth,” a look at the film’s score with co-composer (with Carpenter) Alan Howarth; an alternate opening from TV version; “Horror’s Hallowed Ground,” a locations tour with Shout’s resident guide, Sean Clark; a Q&A “Easter egg” from 2012′s Screamfest; and commentary with Carpenter and actor Peter Jason.
If ever a film needed no introduction, it’s Carpenter’s landmark slasher film, “Halloween,” which is newly available in a snazzy “35th Anniversary Edition.” Coincidentally, Pleasance also plays a key role here, as the doctor who wants to bring demented sister-killer Michael Myers back to the institution from which he’s just escaped. It is, of course, better known as the picture that made a star, if not yet an object of lustful desire of Jamie Lee Curtis. The Blu-ray arrives in a special “digibook” package, with an embossed cover, foil accents and an attached booklet, featuring 20 pages of photos and an essay about the film. More to the point of such re-releases, it benefits greatly from a much-needed HD upgrade, overseen by the techies at Anchor Bay. Other newly created bonus features include commentary with writer/director Carpenter and Curtis and “The Night She Came Home,” a documentary-style piece showing what happens when geek-goddess Curtis attends a fan convention. The “vintage” add-ons are “On Location: 25 Years Later,” marketing material and footage from the sanitized TV version.
Among the many unwritten rules of filmmaking in Hollywood is, “Always mess with success.” It encourages studios and producers to milk every dollar they can from brand-new series. It applies as much to such gold-plated characters as James Bond, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, as to such floundering genre series, “Final Destination,” “Resident Evil” and “Saw”; lazy sequels to “The Hangover” and “Meet the Parents”; the increasingly tired “Die Hard” and “Underworld” titles; and even “Indiana Jones,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Men in Black,” whose most-recent performances were inflated by overseas receipts and DVD/Blu-ray revenues. Although the pursuit of franchise success is as old as “The Thin Man,” “Andy Hardy,” Inspector Clouseau and Sergio Leone’s “Dollar Trilogy,” it didn’t become institutionalized until the mid-1970s, with Francis Ford Coppola’s prequel/sequel to “The Godfather” and John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to William Friedkin’s “French Connection.” It wasn’t enough for Coppola to be canonized for the critical and commercial success of “The Godfather Part II.” He reinvented how business would be done in Hollywood by the chronological reassembling of “Part I” and “Part II” for television, using deleted footage and editing out the naughty bits. The ratings success of NBC’s “Godfather Saga” inspired Paramount to order a re-edit of the re-edit, “The Godfather Epic,” for the less-censorial video-cassette and LaserDisc market. After the 1992 release of “The Godfather Part III,” the process would begin again, inspiring even more collections in DVD and Blu-ray. Ditto, for the afterlife of “Apocalypse Now.”
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Universal decided to risk tarnishing the reputation of one its most cherished titles – and theme park attractions – by green-lighting a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Studio executives considered releasing “Psycho II” direct-to-video, but took a chance on a theatrical run, anyway. Fortuitously, Anthony Perkins was game for a remake and, after 23 years, it was probably time for Norman Bates to be released from the hospital for the criminally insane. Naturally, he returns to the Bates Motel, where he’ll face the vengeful wrath of Vera Miles, once again playing the sister of Janet Leigh’s unfortunate Marion Crane. The picture was greeted by surprisingly positive reviews and box-office returns sufficiently large to inspire a “Psycho III” and, a few years later, the prequel, “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” again with Perkins on board. “PIII” picks up a month after the events described in “PII,” which starred Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia and Dennis Franz. In “PIII,” made with Perkins at the helm, Norman is allowed a girlfriend (Diana Swarwid). Jeff Fahey plays a mysterious drifter and Roberta Maxwell is a nosy reporter investigating how such fiends as Bates win parole. (Hint: blame Ronald Reagan for cutting funds to mental-health facilities.) When someone dressed like Mommy Dearest goes on a killing spree, guess who the cops make the primary suspect. The movie didn’t make nearly as much money as its predecessors — in 2013-equivalent dollars, anyway — but it probably didn’t cost a lot to produce, either. If anything, though, it received better notices than “PII.” Shout!Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” packages come loaded with interviews, both vintage and fresh; new commentary with screenwriters Tom Holland and Charles Edward Pogue; and the reflections of body-double Brinke Stevens and effects creator Michael Westmore. “PIV” didn’t go anywhere, unless one considers A&E’s “Bates Motel” to be the prequel series Universal intended to produce in the early 1990s. It’s a good thing, the studio waited 20 years. The show has been renewed for a second season, beginning in 2014.
In Warner/Paramount’s recently released “Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection,” an excerpt from the print edition of the definitive “Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of ‘Friday the 13th,’” was included in the package. Fans who haven’t gotten their fill of Jason Voorhees – or have just finished binging – can now pick up the 400-minute-long documentary version. Narrated by Corey Feldman, it traces the franchise from its humble beginnings in 1980 at a New Jersey summer camp to the blockbuster release of its 2009 “reboot.” The four-disc set includes hundreds of rare and never-before-seen photographs, film clips, outtakes, archival documents, conceptual art and behind-the-scenes footage. There also are interviews with more than 150 cast and crew members, spanning all twelve films and the television series. – Gary Dretzka
A Letter to Three Wives: Blu-ray
Joseph L. Mankiewicz walked away from the 1950 Academy Awards ceremony with Best Director and Best Writing/Screenplay honors for “A Letter to Three Wives,” losing a Best Picture statuette to “All the King’s Men.” A witty rom-com, with a whodunit thrown in for good measure, it stars Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Jeanne Crain as small-town wives, who waste much of their free time gossiping at the local country club. It isn’t until they receive a letter from an absent fourth friend that they begin doubting the strength of their marriages. Addy claims she’s having an affair with one of the ladies’ husbands, but doesn’t identify the cheater. Instead of hiring a private detective to investigate, Deborah, Lora Mae and Rita burn calories fretting about the rumor. Meanwhile, Addy adds fuel to the fire by sending gifts and letters to the men, making sure the women see them, as well. Unaware of the first letter, the men dismiss the gifts as mere signs of friendship. The wives, of course, know better. Mankiewicz encourages viewers to participate in the guessing game, but only leaves us with the barest of clues. We aren’t even shown a portrait of Addy. The sharp and leading dialogue is what keeps “A Letter to Three Wives” from looking like an antique … that, and the fine digital transfer. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kenneth Geist, Cheryl Lower and Christopher Mankiewicz, a 45-minute “Biography” segment on Darnell and a short clip from Fox Movietone News on the 22nd Academy Awards ceremony. Thirty-four years later, porn purveyor VCA would release “Alexandra,” an unusually well-conceived homage – not to be confused with the now-popular XXX parodies of hit titles — to “A Letter to Three Wives.” While I’m not suggesting that many readers could benefit from comparing the two pictures in the privacy of their own home, anyone looking for a novel reason to sample vintage porn might want to give it a look. – Gary Dretzka
Fill the Void
One of the basic tenets of life in the United States is that all Americans have the right to practice their faith without interference from the government or people who would prefer not to see certain religious beliefs flourish. Even so, in 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that plural marriage, as practiced by many members of the Mormon Church, was not protected by the Constitution. In 1994, American Indian Religious Freedom Act overrode efforts by states – approved by the Supreme Court – to deny the Native American Church the freedom to use peyote in rituals that pre-date the Constitution. The borders grow fuzzier when discussing the imposition of religious or cultural rites on children by their parents or religious leaders. What does it say about our country that, by re-classifying female circumcision as “female genital mutilation” or “female genital cutting,” parental discretion can be criminalized, while the male- circumcision rite is protected by law? The court will have to cross that bridge someday soon. Starting with the re-emergence of Christian fundamentalism as a political force during the Reagan presidency and compounded by increased media scrutiny of male-dominated, faith-based communities — from Williamsburg to Kabul, Waco to the Vatican — the whole notion of freedom of choice for children and women has been thrown open to question. After watching Israeli director Rama Burshtein’s exquisitely crafted and heart-wrenching family drama, “Fill the Void,” I was left with more of those sorts of questions than answers.
The film is set in a tight ultra-Orthodox community in Tel Aviv, where one Hasidic family’s way of life is about to be shaken to the core. The oldest daughter, Esther, is nine months into her first pregnancy, when, with warning, disaster strikes. After collapsing in her bedroom, Esther is rushed to the hospital, where, after delivering a son, she dies. The entire community is devastated by the tragedy, even if it can be attributed to God’s will. In the cruelest of all possible coincidences and over the course of single afternoon, her husband, Yochay, will be required to participate in the burial of Esther and celebrate the circumcision of his newborn child. Tradition dictates that mourning will soon take a backseat to finding a second wife for the handsome and virile Yochay. The most likely suitor is a woman Yochay’s known for most of his life, but hasn’t seen in many years. The problem is that she lives in Belgium and even the possibility of losing her grandson, so soon after her daughter’s death, drives Esther’s mother into a frenzy of grief. Yochay may sympathize with his mother-in-law’s dilemma, but he also understands what’s expected of him as a father and man of faith. In desperation, his mother-in-law comes up a compromise that would sound as if it were inspired by King Solomon, if only it didn’t threaten to ruin the life of Esther’s18-year-old sister, Shira. Without seeking anyone’s guidance, except the boss rabbi, the woman offers her daughter’s hand in marriage to Yochay. For all sorts of reasons, the only person who considers this to be a win-win proposal is the Shira’s mother.
Although Shira (Hadas Yaron) hasn’t spent her formative years watching MTV Israel or reading fashion magazine and planning where she’ll go to college, like her peers in the secular world, she’s nowhere ready to become a mother and wife. She wants to have some say, at least, in choosing a husband and would appreciate having a nine-month headstart on preparing for parenthood. The role of a wife in a Hasidic household is limited to what is expected of her by her husband and religious tradition. Shira isn’t averse to entering such a life, but not if it means sharing the bed of her sister’s husband. She would prefer her husband to be every bit as awkwardly virginal as she is on her wedding night. The prospect of breaking her mother’s heart also feels her with dread.
Burshtein’s parallel conceit in “Fill the Void” is maintaining the integrity of the decision-making process, without putting the weight of her own fingers on the scale. The American-born writer/director doesn’t factor into the debate any of the considerations she knows would be relevant to women and teenage girls outside the Hasidic community. While she doesn’t excoriate the second-class status of the women we meet here, neither does she ignore it. Burshtein lays out the facts as she sees them and allows us to eavesdrop on the process of coming up with a solution, good or bad. These aren’t people we would have met anywhere else and she would prefer us not to prejudge them based on ignorance and unfamiliarity with the environment. As Burshtein explains in a Q&A interview included in the bonus package, it’s a small miracle she was able to tell this story in any sort of authoritative way. The Hasidim are notoriously camera-shy and suspicious of media coverage. (Anyone who saw Boaz Yakin’s ridiculous “A Price Above Rubies” would immediately sympathize with their stance.) The celebrations and rituals shown in the movie feel entirely authentic and non-rehearsed. One is left to wonder, though, if the women we meet in “Fill the Void” might be assaulted if they attempted to pray at the Western Wall or if they would even dare try. – Gary Dretzka
In the House: Blu-ray
Nothing excites a teacher more than finding a student who truly wants to excel and, with tutelage, could become the one in a million who goes on to achieve something great. In Francois Ozon’s smart and only slightly creepy “In the House,” a dyspeptic literature teacher with the unlikely name of Germain Germain discovers a cocky16-year-old who appears to possess just such a gift. In his nightly perusal of essays assigned to a class of typically bored teenagers, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is struck by the precise description of a sexy MILF (Emmanuelle Seigner) the boy, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), encounters at the home of one of his friends. Germain is so impressed that he reads the passage to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), to see if she agrees with his assessment of the boy’s talent. She’s likewise surprised by the fact that the boy ends each chapter with, “To Be Continued.” Germain critiques Claude’s essay, while also encouraging him to live up to his promise of continuing the story. Claude decides that the best way to spy on the gorgeous housewife is to volunteer to help his somewhat nerdy friend with their math assignment. When the boy comes home with an “A,” Claude practically is invited to become one of the family. In fact, from the little Ozon gives us about Claude’s background, it’s clear that his outgoing persona masks wounds from a troubled childhood. For Germain and Jeanne, the nightly recitation of every new chapter adds a bit of a lift to their sagging marriage.
There comes a point, however, when Germain begins to notice something slightly disturbing in the narrative, perhaps patently false, as well. Still, Claude’s writing continues to improve and it wouldn’t benefit either of them to end the experiment. It’s when we begin to have trouble discerning fact from fiction that Ozon shifts “In the House” – based on a play by Juan Mayorga – into a higher gear. We sense that things will end badly for someone, but the director doesn’t telegraph from which direction the storm will come. If none of this sounds very amusing, you should know that Claude evolves into someone closely resembling a French Eddie Haskell. His games don’t fool anyone, but he continues to play them, anyway. Everyone in the cast is very good, with Luchini, as usual, standing out in a role that requires a great deal of emotional range. The bonus material includes a making-of featurette, footage of the premier at Le Grand Rex, bloopers, costume fittings, a poster gallery and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
Interview a hundred prostitutes and it’s possible that you’ll receive a hundred different reasons for their decision – forced or otherwise – to get into that line of work. In the movies, though, the choices can be narrowed down to the dozen or so with some sort of visual appeal. As the so-called Queer Cinema inches ever more closely to embracing mainstream and indie standards, the backstories of some male and female prostitutes have begun to sound remarkably similar. Pau Masó wrote, directed and stars in “Aleksandr’s Price,” a well-made, if a bit too familiar drama about an illegal immigrant, living alone in New York, who probably wishes that he never left Mother Russia. In short order, the recently arrived Aleksandr loses his father, sister and mother. Broke and distraught, a woman friend tips him to an opening at a gay nightclub. Instead of serving cocktails to customers, he’s asked to dance and climb poles for dollars. One night, he agrees to accompany one of the customers to his apartment for a little of the old in-out. When it’s over, Aleksandr is shocked and angered by the gentleman’s gift of $500. He hadn’t considered prostitution to be an option, but it grows on him. Inevitably, though, he makes the same mistake as Sera in “Leaving Las Vegas,” suffering the same brutal and painful fate. Instead of learning the same valuable lesson as she did, Aleksandr is driven to accept riskier invitations and acts of self-humiliation. We learn about his fall from grace through on-going psychiatric sessions and flashbacks. Apparently, Masó trimmed an hour’s worth of explicit sexual content and graphic violence from the movie, choosing, instead, to focus on the emotional through-line. It explains why there’s very little full frontal nudity and other harder stuff here. – Gary Dretzka
3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
La Cage aux Folles: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In the annals of Hollywood history, the headline-making love affair between Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini was every bit as scandalous as Liz & Eddie, Liz & Dick, Marilyn & JFK, Woody & Soon-Yi and Brad & Angelina. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Edwin C. Johnson condemned her as a “free-love cultist” and “a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence for evil.” Unlike the characters Bergman played in “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Joan of Arc,” the Swedish-born actress was neither a nun nor a saint. Their affair cost her temporary custody of her daughter, Pia, and the ability to travel freely in the U.S. Rossellini’s greatest crime — in the eyes of Hollywood’s elite, anyway — was kidnapping and soiling one of America’s sweethearts and box-office stars. She would return triumphant seven years later, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, in “Anastasia.” The new Criterion Collection package, “3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman,” reminds us that her marriage to the great Italian director bore cinematic fruit, in addition to three children.
Their pairing on “Stromboli,” set on the small volcanic island off the north coast of Sicily, was the result of a fan letter Bergman mailed to Rossellini. She plays a Lithuanian refugee, who, after escaping from Nazi agents throughout Eastern Europe, finds temporary shelter and a permanent husband in an Italian internment camp. He takes his bride to his home town, a fishing village on Stromboli, where she stands out like Lady GaGa at a prayer breakfast. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that she’s simply traded one internment camp for another. After nearly being run out of the village on a rail by the townswomen, she finds God on the summit of a lava-belching volcano. Rossellini’s eye for neo-realism captured several precious images, including the frenzy surrounding an extraordinary haul of tuna in the town’s communal nets. The scandal didn’t do much for business at the international box office, but, as it faded from memory, the film’s stature continued to grow.
The title of Rossellini and Bergman’s second collaboration, “Europe ’51,” is vague to the point of being misleading. As the director explains in his introduction to the 1952 movie, it is a contemporary parable that asks the question, “If St. Francis of Assisi were to come back to life, how what he be received?” Standing in for the good friar here is Bergman, a snooty Italian socialite who finds Jesus after the death of her young son. Nearly comatose from grief, the woman agrees to participate in an act of charity that would require her to purchase the drugs necessary for a poor boy to survive a serious illness. The satisfaction she gets from performing this simple act imbues her with the true spirit of Christianity. Even though she doesn’t act one bit crazy, that’s exactly what her wealthy family thinks she is. “Europe ’51” was considered to be a giant step away from “Rome, Open City,” “Paisan” and “Germany Year Zero,” and like “Stromboli,” it failed at the box office. It should be viewed today through a prism of today’s disgraceful treatment of people struggling with debt, unemployment and the effects of corporate greed and political indifference. The same was true for poor people living in the shadow of Italy’s post-war “economic miracle.”
Released in 1954, “Voyage to Italy” follows a pair of British sophisticates on a journey to Italy to settle the affairs of a recently deceased ex-pat relative. Their’s is a marriage of convenience, based primarily on business interests. This works OK, but only as long as the couple remains consumed with their responsibilities in London. Once on “vacation,” however, they realize that they have almost nothing else in common and might be better off divorced. The couple was portrayed by Bergman and George Sanders, a British actor, who, besides marrying two of the Gabor sisters, was famous for playing heels and villains. In “Voyage to Italy,” Sanders merely was required to act supremely bored with his marriage and playing the tourist. (It would be the same reason he gave for later committing suicide.) Although our natural assumption is that their characters will separate and, perhaps, one of them would might in Italy, something resembling divine inspiration alters the narrative’s trajectory. Again, the picture probably plays better on this exquisitely restored Criterion edition than it did in theaters, before audiences more attuned to Westerns, frothy melodramas and war pictures.
Criterion has also filled the boxed set with enough bonus features to warrant a separate disc, offering an array of period documentaries, commentaries, new interviews with family members and associates, short films, visual essays, home movies and separate Italian and English dialogue tracks. The enclosed booklet features print essays by critics Richard Brody, Fred Camper, Dina Iordanova and Paul Thomas; letters exchanged by Rossellini and Bergman; “Why I Directed Stromboli,” a 1950 article by Rossellini; a 1954 interview with Rossellini conducted by Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut for Cahiers du cinéma; and excerpts from a 1965 interview with Rossellini conducted by Aprà and Maurizio Ponzi for Filmcritica.
I don’t know where “La Cage aux Folles” fits into the official history of the gay-rights movement, but it certainly has earned a footnote, at least. Released nine years after the Stonewall riots, the outrageous comedy proved that mainstream audiences would embrace a stage play, Broadway musical and studio-backed movie in which LGBT characters aren’t wallowing in self-pity (“The Boys in the Band”), are suicidal or murderous (“Ode to Billy Joe,” “The Eyes of Laura Mars”), freaks of nature (“Myra Breckinridge”) or deeply closeted (“Reflections in a Golden Eye”). Its success also showed that Americans would read subtitles, if duly rewarded. The foundation was so solid, in fact, that, with few changes, “The Birdcage” (1996) would gross $124 million at the domestic box-office. Today, the premieres of both pictures probably would be picketed by church groups and the Republican congressional delegation.
Fans of Mike Nichols’ adaptation of “La Cage aux Folles,” which starred Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria – and, for that matter, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” – are especially encouraged to pick up the Criterion Blu-ray edition. The movie looks and sounds better than it has in years, thanks to its 2K digital restoration, and also includes a new interview with director Edouard Molinaro; archival footage featuring actor Michel Serrault and Jean Poiret, writer and star of the original stage production of La Cage aux Folles; a new interview with Laurence Senelick, author of “The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre”; French and U.S. trailers; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet, with an essay by critic David Ehrenstein. – Gary Dretzka
Foyle’s War: Set 7
Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series
Some television shows refuse to die. In one of the great bone-headed decisions in modern television history, a short-term executive at Britain’s ITV network decided to cancel “Foyle’s War,” its enormously popular World War II detective series, after its fifth season. It caused creator/writer Anthony Horowitz to discard scripts set during most of 1943 and 1944. Less than two years later, a new executive reversed the decision and ordered at least three more two-hour episodes. Two more seasons have been or will be shot for broadcast in the UK and on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery.” The interruption meant that the seventh and eighth seasons – according to the British calendar, anyway — would be set after the end of the war. The new package of episodes from Acorn Media finds former cop and current intelligence officer, DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), back in England after a sojourn in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the A-bomb was developed. The mysteries include “The Eternity Ring,” in which Foyle is drawn into an MI5 investigation of a Russian spy ring, possibly involving his former driver, Sam; “The Cage,” in which Foyle investigates the mysterious deaths of several Russian defectors and unexplained disappearance of a British housewife; and “Sunflower,” in which Foyle is charged with looking into assassination attempts against an ex-Nazi, working with MI5 to sift out Soviet spies. In case anyone’s keeping score, Season Eight in Britain is the same as “Set 7” on DVD.
Trying to make sense of the order in which “Dr. Who” seasons and specials are dispensed on DVD would require a mind far more nimble and orderly than mine. The new 700-minute, 5-disc package from BBC Home Entertainment, “Doctor Who: The Complete Seventh Series,” represents Matt Smith’s last stanza as the Doctor and includes 13 episodes and a pair of specials, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and “The Snowmen.” The episodes open with “Asylum of the Daleks” (September 1, 2011) and close with “The Name of the Doctor” (May 18, 2013). It also contains interviews with Smith and Jenna-Louse Coleman from BBC America’s “The Nerdist”; new featurettes “INFORARIUM,” “Clara and the TARDIS” and “Rain Gods”; vintage featurettes “The Making of the Gunslinger,” “Creating Clara,” “Last Days of the Ponds” and “Pond Life”; specials, “The Science of Doctor Who,” “Doctor Who in the U.S.,” “The Companions” and “Doctor Who at ComicCon”; prequels to the episodes, “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” “Asylum of the Daleks,” “The Snowmen,” “The Bells of Saint John” and “The Name of the Doctor”; and commentary for “The Snowmen,” “Cold War,” “Hide” and “The Crimson Horror.” By the time you’re done with all this, you’ll be ready to welcome Peter Capaldi and the 3D 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” – Gary Dretzka
TV to DVD
Hannibal: Season One: Blu-ray
2 Broke Girls: The Complete Second Season
Modern Family: The Complete Fourth Season
Two and a Half Men: The Complete Tenth Season
Family Guy: Volume 11
Of all the characters NBC could have chosen as the titular antagonist for a prime-time series, odds were against it being Hannibal Lecter, the world’s most brilliant and notorious cannibal. Americans are a forgiving lot, however, so it makes sense that the same country that embraced vigilante killer Dexter Morgan would find something positive in the young Doctor Lecter. Even so, creator Bryan Fuller had his work cut out for him. Like “Dexter” and other offbeat cable hits, the first season of “Hannibal” would be limited to 13 episodes and, if renewed, subsequent seasons would equal the same number. And, yes, a second season is on tap for 2014. The formula prevents writers and producers from spreading good ideas so thin that they wear out on the long haul to the 22nd episode of each season. Such gimmicks as stunt casting and adding near-death experiences for the primary characters are substituted for solid plot development and there’s rarely a dull moment on every new show. Fuller is so confident of his show’s chances for surviving seven seasons, at least, that he plans for the first three to consist of original material; the fourth, fifth and sixth dedicated to the periods covered in “Red Dragon,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”; and the seventh given to an original storyline detailing Hannibal’s demise. In the first season, we were introduced to FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), whose specialty is hunting the most notorious serial killers. His hook, if you will, is the ability to think, see and feel like a monster. Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) introduces Graham to the noted psychiatrist and undercover fiend, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who enjoys playing both ends against the middle. The Blu-ray package adds commentary on the episodes, “Aperitif” and “Savoreux,” with Fuller, Dancy and producer David Slade; storyboards for the pilot episode; “Hannibal Reborn,” a featurette on the development of the series; “A Taste for Killing,: a humorous piece on the cannibalistic subtext of the character; a gag reel; deleted scenes; “A Symphony for the Slaughter,” with composer Brian Reitzell; “The FX of Murder,” on the series’ design elements and special effects; an unaired episode; and “producers’ cut” versions of several episodes.
When it launched two years ago, “2 Broke Girls” was in the envious position of following in the wake of the season debut of “Two and a Half Men,” which was the first without Charlie Sheen. It would be difficult to mess up that kind of a lead-in on Week One, but, after that boost, the show would have to succeed on its own merits. Like the show that preceded it, “2 Broke Girls” was replete with raunchy situations, double entendres and what some critics considered to be racial stereotypes. If anything, though, it was an equal-opportunity offender. In Season Two, the show took over the timeslot previously occupied by “Two and a Half Men.” It did well enough to reclaim the space going into the 2013-14 season. When the season opened, Max and Caroline finally got the break they needed to open their cupcake shop. Things got better with an endorsement from Martha Stewart. By Episode 18, they were back scratching for money. Unlike the Season One package, the second year isn’t available on Blu-ray.
Meanwhile, “Two and a Half Men” just keeps rolling along, no matter who’s in charge of the Malibu beach house and what night of the week it appears. Following “Big Band Theory” on Thursdays, all the characters had to do was show up. This year, it opens in the hammock position between Robin Williams’ new program and “Elementary.” Ashton Kutcher stuck around for another round as the billionaire playboy, while Holland Taylor and Marin Hinkle all but disappeared from the show. Half-man Angus T. Jones caused a stir when he publically criticized “Two and a Half Men,” calling it “filth” and asking young people not to watch it. Otherwise, there was quite a bit of discussion about love and marriage.
On Sunday, “Modern Family” was awarded its fourth straight Emmy as Best Comedy, tying “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as the top dog in the category. It’s interesting, because, if all anyone knew about the question of same-sex marriage was what they saw on “Modern Family,” they’d assume it had long since ceased being a bone of contention. As presented in the context of a being a “modern American family,” however, the sitcom rings truer than any hidebound politician or bonehead preacher would dare admit. Season Four was full of landmark transitions, including Haley’s freshman year in college, Jay and Gloria’s anticipation of a new addition to the family, new homes and a funeral. Guest stars include Matthew Broderick, Shelley Long and Elizabeth Banks.
Animated shows on Fox enjoy life spans that equal those of whales and tortoises. “Family Guy,” for example, is entering its 12th season. For this reason, alone, it can be argued that the Griffin family is every bit as representative of American families as the Pritchetts and Dunphys, over on ABC. The 11th-season package is comprised of 23 uncensored episodes and such bonus features as scene animatics and side-by-side commentaries with “Seahorse Seashell Party” and “Viewer Mail #2”; a full-episode animatic from “Back to the Pilot”; “Fishin’ Around With Ricky Gervais,” and audio outtakes; Ron MacFarlane Reads Viewer Mail; and deleted scenes. As usual, non-animated stars lined up around the block for voice cameos. – Gary Dretzka
Blood of Redemption: Blu-ray
If someone ever were to inaugurate a Hall of Fame honoring actors who’ve specialized in movies that bypass theaters and make their money in the straight-to-video business, at least four of the actors in “Blood of Redemption” would be inducted on the first ballot. This shouldn’t be confused with saying Giorgio Serafini and Shawn Sourgose’s shoot-’em-up has an all-star cast, however, only that Billy Zane, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones and Robert Davi understand the limits of the genre, as well as their fans’ love of simulated violence and strippers. They also know that it’s better work at your craft, than wait by the phone for Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese to call. Not that it matters, but, for the record, “Blood of Redemption” weaves a tangled web of deception, betrayal, revenge, weapons that go boom, bodies that go splat, blood spray, fists of fury, titties, cocaine and counterfeit money. You could say the same thing about 90 percent of the action pictures that are made for the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. It includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven
When really bad, big-budget movies transcend their lowly status and become cult favorites, there can be no good reason to compound the disaster by adding a sequel or feature-length parody. The original 1995 “Showgirls” fairly earned all 13 of its Razzie nominations and, if it weren’t for an astonishingly successful VHS and midnight-movie campaign, might have lived on simply as an oft-repeated embarrassment on cable television. Even Elizabeth Berkley has been able to shake off the onus of delivering some of the most hideous dialogue ever committed to paper. She doesn’t appear in “Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven,” but Nomi Malone’s footprints are all over Rena Riffel’s epic-length sequel, which can’t seem to decide if it’s an outrageous parody or soft-core drama. At an almost interminable 145 minutes, “Penny’s From Heaven” has the time to be anything it wants to be. In her 25-year acting career, Riffel has shed her skivvies in more movies than Sally Rand had ostrich feathers. Apart from the many Skin-emax movies in she’s appeared, her more prominent credits include roles in “Striptease,” “Married … With Children,” “Breast Men,” “Mulholland Drive” and, of course, Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” In “Penny’s From Heaven,” the 5-foot-8 actor/dancer/model not only reprises her Penny Slot character from “Showgirls,” but she also wrote, directed, produced and edited the sequel, if a 145-minute movie can be said to have been edited. She also directed and wrote “Trasharella” and “Trasharella Ultra Vixen.”
Nearing 40, Penny wants to end her career as a lap dancer and find work in Hollywood on a show like “Dancing With the Stars.” As longtime boyfriend and fellow “Showgirls” veteran James “Jimmy” Smith (Glenn Plummer) cautions, however, the only dance Penny performs well isn’t one featured on “DWTS” or any other such show. She decides to give ballet and show dancing a whirl, but, frankly, stinks at it. Even so, Penny is convinced to move to Hollywood by a trick who says he knows someone in the business. She makes it to L.A., alright, but not before having her luggage stolen, getting in the middle of a shootout, being treated shabbily by a Bad Samaritan and conned by an even worse dancer in a Marilyn Monroe costume. In other words, Penny is treated pretty much like every other wannabe actor/dancer/model that comes to Hollywood to find fame, but leaves town with scabs on her knees. Despite it all, she keeps a stiff upper lip. If Riffel’s script sounds as horrifying as the original, it should be noted that Eszterhas and Verhoeven’s aborted idea for a sequel to “Showgirls” had Nomi taking the same route from Las Vegas to L.A. Accidentally or on purpose, a fair amount of “Penny’s From Heaven” can be enjoyed as parody. Unlike the original, its sex scenes are tame enough to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. Besides Riffel and Plummer, Greg Travis and Dewey Weber play the same characters in both movies. – Gary Dretzka
21st Century Serial Killer
While we’ve seen several good comedies about contract killers who can’t shoot straight and husband and wives who are hired to put a hit on each other, there’s not much humor to be found in the personal odysseys of serial killers. It helps explain why Henry Weintraub’s surprisingly funny “21st Century Serial Killer” didn’t have much luck finding a distributor. The original poster carried the face of the movie’s protagonist with a cartoon balloon, inside of which were the sketched images of Charles Manson, the Unabomber, David Berkowitz and other serial killers. The DVD jacket is even more freakish, in that the protagonist is made up to resemble John Wayne Gacy in his clown outfit. The tag line reads, “Dare to dream big,” and there’s no indication that what’s inside is a comedy. The character whose face is on the poster and cover of “21st Century Serial Killer” is Aaron Schwartz, whose uneventful life bores the young man to tears. He dreams of making a name for himself in the one activity guaranteed to make him famous. Once Aaron commits himself to the task, however, he realizes that he’s not predisposed to kill … not even close. When a real serial killer does show up in town, Aaron asks him to be his mentor. Once again, it’s a thing that’s easier asked than done. To his credit, Weintraub doesn’t oversell the premise of the movie. Neither does he appear to overestimate his own ability to make viewers laugh at things that aren’t inherently funny. That, in itself, is a pretty tough trick to pull off on shoestring budget. – Gary Dretzka
SlugTerra: Slug Power!
In boning up on the action/fantasy series “SlugTerra,” I learned that the folks at Disney/ABC/ESPN/etc. also own a digital cable and satellite channel that’s specifically niched to accommodate the entertainment needs of tweener boys and the little girls who love them. Disney XD looks like fun, even if the difference between ages 6 and 13 is getting larger every day. When puberty hits, a boy’s attention will turn toward the next generation of Disney Channel hotties to replace Debbie Lovato, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale and Raven Symone. “SlugTerra” is a Canadian export that has more characters than “War and Peace” and nearly as many pertinent storylines. At its core, “SlugTerra” is an animated Western, set in an underground kingdom in which human gunslingers battle for control of SlugTerra, using good and bad slugs as ammunition. Our Hero is Eli Shane, son of the legendary leader of the Shane Gang . The antagonist is Dr. Thaddeus Blakk, an evil entrepreneur who collects slugs for his “ghoul arsenal.” He’s never satisfied with what he already has. “Slug Power!” is the third collection of “SlugTerra.” It contains 110 minutes’s worth of entertainment, adding YouTube “slugisodes” and a background featurette. – Gary Dretzka