Jurassic World: Blu-ray
To paraphrase the Budweiser advertising jingle, “When you’ve collected $1.58 billion at the worldwide box office, you’ve said it all.” No amount of unenthusiastic reviews or over-familiarity with the subject matter could prevent the Jurassic World juggernaut from storming its way up, up, up the charts. Far from being a paint-by-number addition to a beloved franchise, Colin Trevorrow’s second feature – to clever indie debut, Safety Not Guaranteed film – still hones closely to conceits introduced 22 years ago by director Steven Spielberg and writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Even so, Trevorrow doesn’t appear to have been required to recall much from “The Lost World” and “JPIII,” which is just as well. Early on in Jurassic World, uptight theme-park executive Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), quips, “Face it, no one is impressed by a dinosaur, anymore.” A bit later, BD Wong’s Dr. Wu, explains, “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. If the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.” One doesn’t need much more information than that to feel at home here. When the Indominus runs amok in Jurassic World, as we know it will, its capture falls to the likable and brave trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Because the park is overflowing with tourists and men in business suits, who knows how much damage could be done by a crazed automaton. (Nothing short of a nuclear strike could put a dent in the franchise.) While Owen is a true macho man, the script treats the pompous female executive, Claire, as if she had no more business on the island than the Super Mario Bros. Trevorrow requires her to explore the park and escape marauding dinosaurs in the same ludicrously high heels she wore hours earlier, while escorting investors around the attraction. Because no Spielberg-produced movie would be complete without the inclusion of endangered children, Claire’s nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins) just happen to be visiting Jurassic World on this fateful day. All of those clichés aside, Jurassic World is a wonderfully rendered entertainment, with every penny of its $150-million budget visible on the screen. Howard and Pratt make the kind of compelling team we wouldn’t mind seeing again in the sequels already being planned. They get great support from an international cast of familiar actors, including Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee and Katie McGrath. The science isn’t bad, either. Fans of the series will enjoy sorting out the homages and physical references to the three previous “JP” installments. Less entertaining are the myriad product placements, ranging from Mercedes to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant chain. They border on being offensive. If the writers had wanted to make a meaningful statement, they might have linked Indominus’ love of genetically modified grain for its monstrous size and temperament. It almost goes without saying that Universal’s Blu-ray/3D/DVD/UltraViolet audio and visual presentation is excellent, fully complementing the superb special effects and lush tropical settings.
Back to the Future 30th Anniversary Trilogy: Blu-ray
Among the most memorable moments in Back to the Future are the ones in which Marty McFly is required to discourage Lorraine, the woman who would become his mother, from falling in love with him. Besides making tens of thousands of male viewers queasy, the Freudian subtext dissuaded several studios, including Disney, from picking up the picture when the script was passed around Hollywood executive suites. Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, also partners on Jurassic World, will be eternally grateful that they did. Audiences, too, reaped the benefits of a script didn’t back down from a little controversy. The only things truly new in Uni’s comprehensive “30th Anniversary Trilogy” package is a fourth disc dedicated to two hours’ worth of featurettes and additional content. Otherwise, the three Blu-ray presentations, already upgraded once, retain the previously available supplementary material, of which there is plenty. The set comes housed in a DigiBook-style case, with rigid cardboard sleeves comprising the “pages” and serving as disc holders. For those not keeping score at home, the set was released to coincide with the studio’s celebration of October 21, 2015, a date that figures prominently in Back to the Future mythology. Naturally, the hook-starved media took the bait. Passionate fans, already in possession of the 25th-anniversary package may not want to re-invest their money in the same three pictures, just to pick up some new featurettes. They’ll probably turn up online or at Netflix, anyway, and are well worth checking out. It includes “Doc Brown Saves the World,” an all-new short featuring Christopher Lloyd; “Outatime: Restoring the DeLorean,” an inside look at the extensive 2012 restoration of one of three DeLoreans used in the film, but left for years to deteriorate; “Looking Back to the Future,” a nine-part retrospective documentary, from 2009, on the trilogy’s legacy; two 1991 episodes from “Back to the Future: The Animated Series” (“Brothers” and “Mac the Black”), featuring live-action segments with Lloyd as Doc Brown; and newly minted “commercials” for properties seen in Back to the Future II, including are “Jaws 19” and “Hoverboard.”
Inside Out: Blu-ray
Toy Story That Time Forgot: Blu-ray
A LEGO Brickumentary: Blu-ray
Somehow, I managed to overlook the release of Disney/Pixar’s highly ambitious and thoroughly entertaining Inside Out when it finally dropped domestically on June 19. By that time, though, the $175-million animated feature had already been showcased at festivals in Cannes, Seattle, Sydney, L.A., Taormina and Buenos Aires. It also had opened theatrically in Egypt, the UAE, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and a couple dozen other far-flung places before American audiences got a crack at it. I’m just patriotic enough to be concerned about what Disney’s increasingly erratic distribution patterns have to say, if anything, about serving mainstream audiences at home, as well as the confusion that occurs when reviews are published or aired any time within a nearly month-long window … six months, if you count the Blu-ray/DVD trades. It’s entirely possible that I read the trade reviews from Cannes, published on May 18, and wasn’t paying attention when the glowing opinions of mainstream critics were issued three weeks later. I concur, so anyone looking for a contrary opinion will be disappointed. If Oscar voters don’t give it serious consideration as a Best Picture candidate, they deserve to have their credentials revoked. At first, I thought that Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen and their team were searching for a clever way to create a narrative based on the many different emoticons that are used as shorthand in Internet communication. On closer examination, however, Inside Out is far more complex and challenging for parents who may be required to give their kids a crash course in Psychology 101. The story concerns an 11-year-old Minnesotan, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), who’s devastated by her father’s decision to take a job in San Francisco, which mostly exists as a playground for adults. Things get even worse when she fails to make a smooth transition to her new school. Mirroring Riley’s outer turmoil are anthropomorphized inner Emotions: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Each is represented by different colors, shapes, tones and textures. (The writers considered up to 27 different Emotions, but settled on five to make the story less complicated.) Also impacting Riley’s mood shifts are thousands of memory beads, stored like drops of honey in a giant hive, also controlled by the Emotions. With a bit of assistance from Riley’s understanding parents, she will come to appreciate the things San Francisco has to offer an 11-year-old, but not before attempting a jailbreak. If you’re thinking that her separation from her school’s hockey team might be one of the things the Emotions must overcome, you’d be right … but, stay tuned. The audio/visual presentation on Blu-ray is impeccable. As you can imagine, the richly endowed color palette employed by Inside Out’s artists is more crucial to any appreciation of the movie than most other animated features. I paused the picture several times to study the intricately drawn images. The choice of shapes and colors also was crucial to the depiction of the Emotions. Each of the actors voicing the Emotions — Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black — is given a unique look and hue. Not surprisingly, Black’s Anger is painted bright red. The bonus material included on the film disc includes; “Lava,” a short, musically centered, volcanic love story; another related short, “Riley’s First Date?”; “Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out,” in which female cast and crew members share stories from their lives, their work on the film, characters with whom they identify, their thoughts on human emotion and how they connect with the film; “Mixed Emotions,” a quick look at character design; and commentary with Docter and Del Carmen. A separate disc adds deleted scenes and several more making-of featurettes.
With at least three years to go before Disney-Pixar delivers “Toy Story 4,” the Blu-ray edition of Toy Story That Time Forgot will have to keep devoted fans satisfied. In fact, the delightful 22-minute short was unveiled on television almost a year ago, as something of a pre-holiday stocking stuffer. It has since been made available through streaming services, legally and surreptitiously, on the Internet. Normally, an already widely available movie wouldn’t be an easy product to recommend for purchase, even considering that voicing superstars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Kristen Schaal, Don Rickles, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn and newcomer Kevin McKidd (“Grey’s Anatomy”) were hired to class up the short film. Here, during one of Bonnie’s post-Christmas playdates, the Toy Story regulars are challenged by a set of action figures that were given to her friend, Mason. His Christmas haul includes a full line of Battlesaur action figures and a new video game system, complete with a virtual-reality headset. As befits their bellicose nature, the Battlesaurs threaten Mason’s old-school guests with extinction. Their only hope for survival is to convince Reptillus Maximus that he’s a toy, not a wartime leader. Writer/director Steve Purcell (Brave) does double-duty here as the cunning Cleric. The big selling point, though, besides the sparkling hi-def presentation, is a bonus package that includes, “Reptillus!,” a catch-all look at the importance of building a detailed backstory for the new characters, through design, digital animation, study in the real world and voice acting; “Toy Story Goes to Comic-Con”; “Karaoke: My Unexpected Friend,” with “Reptillus Sings” and “You Sing”; “Battlesaurs: Animated Opening,” a mock-up opening sequence for the fictitious Battlesaurs TV program; deleted scenes; and audio commentary with Purcell and Head of Story Derek Thompson.
One of the highlights of the 2014 film calendar was the release of The LEGO Movie, a truly inspired entertainment that accomplished with tiny plastic bricks what most studios can’t with nine-figure budgets, marquee actors and the best crews in the business. While nowhere near as surprising, A LEGO Brickumentary complements that accomplishment by showing how real-life Master Builders have expanded on that vision by creating sculptures, toys and artwork that border on the miraculous. They’re also being used in therapy and schools to encourage creativity, individual achievement and teamwork. Like any other geek pursuit, LEGO’s reach is global and “Brickumentary” is as dispassionate a film as its fandom’s zeal is uncontainable. Directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge open with an examination of the company’s surprisingly long roots, before describing how it bounced back from over-exposure in the early 1990s, basically trusting its customers to lead it into new directions. There’s no telling what parents might discover about their kids by watching “Brickumentary” with them. The Blu-ray makes good use of the toys’ bright color scheme, adding lengthy deleted scenes and an obligatory pitch for San Diego’s LEGOLAND amusement park.
The Benoit Jacquot Collection: Blu-ray
There’s no better example of the importance of niche distributors of DVD/Blu-ray titles than Cohen Media Group’s The Benoit Jacquot Collection. It serves as a triple-feature of films made in the 1990s by a veteran French director, only recently risen to prominence in the United States, with Farewell My Queen and Three Hearts (also from Cohen). Those pictures are far more accessible to mainstream American audiences than the decidedly arthouse-oriented The Disenchanted (1990), A Single Girl (1995) and Keep It Quiet (1999), which reflect more of a post-New Wave approach. Born in 1947, Jacquot began his career as an assistant director on Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972) and India Song (1975), and also an actor in India Song and Jean-Claude Biette’s 1973 short film La Sœur du cadre. Duras’ minimalist influence is most apparent in The Disenchanted and A Single Girl, which can be enjoyed as closely observed character studies of young French women whose young lives are very much in flux. Indeed, one of Jacquot’s strengths has been his ability to elicit signature performances from such prominent French actresses, including Virginie Ledoyen, Judith Godrèche, Isabelle Huppert, Vahina Giocante, Sandrine Kiberlain, Isabelle Adjani, Isild Le Besco, Léa Seydoux, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni. In The Disenchanted, Godrèche plays a 17-year-old standing at an unusually messy crossroads of sexual maturity, adult responsibility and youthful curiosity. In A Single Girl, Ledoyen’s curiously vague hotel maid also is required to come to grips with unexpected realities of adult life, after discovering she’s pregnant and, for the most part, alone. Keep It Quiet is an ensemble piece, in which a popular television host (Vincent Lindon) becomes emotionally unglued after his CEO brother (Fabrice Luchini) is released from prison, taking on a persona roughly that of Chance the Gardener, in “Being There.” Huppert and the much younger Giocante find themselves caught in the middle of the sibling drama, but from very different perspectives. All three of the films reward viewers for their patience, as Benoit typically maintains an almost glacial pace. Each is presented for the first time in new high-definition re-masterings, with commentaries by critics Wade Major and Tim Cogshell and insightful discussions between director Benoît Jacquot and the New York Film Festival’s Kent Jones.
In the Grayscale
Liz in September
Dreams from Strangers
Eastsiders: Season 2
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
Set in Santiago, Chile, where being gay probably isn’t as commonly accepted as it is in other countries, movies like In the Grayscale still resonate with young-adult professionals coming to grips with their sexual identity. As such, the emotional tug of freshman director Claudio Marcone and sophomore screenwriter Beppe Norero may be diluted for American audiences by overfamiliarity with the coming-out process. Here, Chilean TV star Francisco Celhay plays an architect, who, in the course of researching a commission, develops passionate feelings for an openly gay history teacher and guide, Fernando (Emilio Edwards), who’s helping with the project. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bruno is married and the father of a son at an impressionable age. After moving out of their home, ostensibly to “find himself,” he realizes that his refusal to commit one way or the other isn’t doing either of the people he loves any good. The pressure builds to the breaking point when his son is teased by a boy whose father witnessed an indiscreet kiss between Bruno and Fer, in public. The boy is so shaken by the revelation, along with Bruno’s absence from home, it causes the adults to finally deal decisively with the dilemma. That Bruno’s wife engaged in a dalliance of her own modulates her desire to punish him unreasonably for hurting the child. As Fer begins to prod the architect into making a commitment to him, Bruno’s work begins to reflect his inner torment, as well. Despite any overfamiliarity, In the Grayscale displays Marcone’s sure hand on the throttle. The Chilean setting is interesting and performances are uniformly solid. I wonder if Celhay risked any career blowback from his fan base, which presumably extends throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
Reportedly Venezuela’s first lesbian drama, Liz in September is based on Jane Chambers’ landmark play, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.” In a low-key debut performance, Eloisa Maturen plays an attractive straight woman, Eva, whose car breaks down in a small coastal village. With no room at the local inns, the mechanic points her toward a resort hotel he neglects to tell her has a loyal lesbian clientele. It’s crowded, as well, but a bed is found for her. An annual reunion is being held by a multigenerational group of friends, all of whom appear to have slept with the titular character, Liz, played by Venezuelan actress and supermodel Patricia Velasquez (“The L Word”). Not at all shy about her sexual prowess, Liz bets the other women that she can seduce the newcomer within the three days it probably will take the mechanic to fix the car. It takes a while for us to learn that both women are nursing painful secrets, unrelated to any previous sexual conquest. Indeed, a different sort of relationship develops between Liz and Eva. It will be tested when Eva’s husband arrives to rescue her from the world’s laziest repairman. The wager forgotten, by now, the fate of their relationship rests on Liz’ willingness to fight for Eva’s love and Eva’s ability to live apart from Liz, even for a day or two. Everything that happens from here is patiently rendered by director/writer Fina Torres (Woman on Top). Despite the potential for fireworks and the jerking of tears, Liz in September is neither exploitative nor maudlin. The movie benefits, as well, from the beautiful coastal setting.
Roberto Cuzzillo’s timely Russian drama Dreams from Strangers uses evocative cinematography and poetic words to describe how painful it can be for gay men to connect in a society turned against them by the country’s despotic leader, Vladimir Putin. Italian swimmer Massimo falls in love with the team’s interpreter, Vladimir, while in St. Petersburg for a competition. Besides any natural cultural barriers between the two men, Putin’s virulently anti-gay stance ahead of the Winter Olympics has effectively put a bounty on LGBT people caught expressing their feelings in public. Cuzzillo employs artsy black-and-white photography to reflect the depth of the emotions shared with viewers in these desperate times. The DVD adds Cuzzillo’s short film, “Polaroid.”
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that it took the horrifying murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, in 1998, to awaken Americans to the epidemic of bullying and harassment of LGBT youths that went largely unchallenged by police, lawmakers and opinion makers. Gays and lesbians had been demanding protection from such attacks for almost 30 years before the news broke and, in some cases, policing their own communities. Prosecution of those arrested in such cases remained difficult, however, if only because too many potential jurors bought into the belief that predatory homosexuals were a greater risk to society than hate crimes. The facts in the case against the men charged in the robbery and beating death of Shepard in a field outside Laramie were so ugly that the media picked up on it – after being tortured, the 21-year-old was tied to a fence post and left to die – and spread the news around the world. Benefits would be organized, support groups formed, plays commissioned and legislation proposed … all in Shepard’s name. Freshman documentarian Michele Josue, a close friend of Shepard’s, made Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine to separate the man she knew from the symbol he became. Using personal reminiscences, never-before-seen photos, rare video footage and new revelations about Shepard’s life, it succeeds on all counts. Maybe if Putin could be encouraged to view the documentary, the sad conditions dramatized in Dreams From Strangers might change cease to exist without the interference of martyrdom.
Although Los Angeles’ primary gay ghetto is located in West Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park have emerged as affordable alternatives both for millennials and couples who want to distance themselves from the bar and barbell scene in WeHo. Silver Lake also is home to a large collection of yuppies, hipsters and artists. Eastsiders is a Web-based soap opera that’s recently made the leap into streaming video. Without offering as much gratuitous nudity and lascivious behavior as “Queer as Folk,” its gay, lesbian and semi-straight characters share many attributes. (“The L Word,” set on L.A.’s far west side, always struck me as being more obsessively bourgeois.) Clearly not blessed with a large budget, actor/writer/director Kit Williamson (“Mad Men”) is able to take advantage of such talented actors as Van Hansis (“As the World Turns”), Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Brea Grant (“Heroes”), Brianna Brown (“Devious Maids”), Steven Guarino (“Happy Endings”), Willam Belli (“Rupaul’s Drag Race”), John Halbach (“Such Good People”), Matthew McKelligon (“Interior Leather Bar”) and Vera Miao (“Best Friends Forever”). Anyone who can recall when Traci Lords (Cry Baby) scandalized the porn industry by admitting to being underage when starring in several prominent adult films might be amused to learn that, in Eastsiders, she plays the hard-drinking mother of one of the male characters.
Paulo Coelho’s Best Story
Although I consider myself to be a well-read fellow, I have to admit to not knowing a lot about an author, lyricist, screenwriter and playwright whose international reputation is almost inconceivably grand. The 68-year-old Rio de Janeiro native, Paulo Coelho, is credited with having written 30 books that have sold over 165 million copies in more than 150 countries and been translated in 56 languages. This doesn’t take into account the numbers associated with his musical collaborations, plays and Internet correspondence. Not to belabor the obvious point made by Daniel Augusto in his choice of titles, but Paulo Coelho’s Best Story truly is himself. Coelho’s life could hardly have been more eventful. Like so many children of successful parents, his desire to pursue a literary life as an adult was greeted with disapproval. Unlike most children with such aspirations, however, his dreams prompted his parents to have him committed in a mental institution, from which he escaped three times by the time he reached 20. Coelho’s willingness to appease them resulted in a one-year stint in law school. It was followed by a lifestyle that closely approximated that of millions of hippies around the world. If nothing else, he would learn that he wasn’t alone in his desire to explore the planet, savor different cultures, embrace the occult, partake in various illegal substances and treat the act of making music as if it were a sacrament from God. When he became popular enough for Brazil’s military junta to pay attention to the lyrics to his music, they mistook quasi-religious references for subversion and threw him in prison, where he was tortured. It caused him to move to France, where he began writing novels. His most popular and noteworthy work, the allegorical novel “The Alchemist,” was published in 1988 and is still going strong. The folks who keep track of such things at Guinness World Records, were impressed by the fact that, by 2009, the book had been translated into 67 distinctly different languages. Among his non-literary achievements, Coelho would turn his personal enlightenment on the 500-mile Road of Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, in northwestern Spain, into a destination for spiritual tourists. As is too often the case with literary biopics, however, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story is more reverential than inspirational. Fans of Coelho shouldn’t find that to be a problem, thanks to Julio Andrade’s fine portrayal. They will want to stay put for bonus material, which is more extensive than most making-of featurettes.
Seymour: An Introduction
Giving Up the Ghosts: Closing Time at Doc’s Hall
It’s possible that the word, “genius,” has been applied to classical musicians and composers more often than to any other professional. Count the number of times musicians have been profiled on “60 Minutes,” for example, and you’ll understand the reverence with which these men and women are held by society. Simply put, they’re able to express themselves in ways most of can’t and never will be able to do. It’s a language that knows no borders and affects listeners of all nationalities and backgrounds. A musician’s dedication to his or her art demands discipline rarely found outside of concert stages and rehearsal halls. We’ve bestowed genius on athletes, scientists and the occasional chef, but, somehow, the great musicians respond to a higher calling and greater audience. Even their idiosyncrasies are more interesting and, therefore, tolerable to those of us whose duty it is merely to listen to them. If that makes genius sound like one long cliché, watch Ethan Hawke’s heartfelt documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, and tell me how else to explain the brilliance of its subject, Seymour Bernstein. If his name is less familiar than other prominent classical musicians and composers, it’s probably because there are so few public venues for their genius in the United States, outside of concert halls and a handful of radio stations dedicated to their work. The disappearance of Ed Sullivan’s variety show, which routinely added highbrow music to its mix of vaudeville acts, Broadway stars and comedians, greatly reduced exposure to musicians who consider Carnegie Hall to be a second home. Bernstein, a virtuoso pianist, gave up a successful concert career, at 50 – he turned 88 in April — to teach music and write. These are noble callings, to be sure, and Hawke allows us to eavesdrop on his sessions with students, during which he imparts words of wisdom, as well as insightful reflections on art, creativity and the search for fulfillment. His gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, backed by the authority that comes with age, is infectious. It’s a beautiful documentary that deserves to make the short list of Oscar candidates, at least, when it’s announced. The DVD includes a performance, filmed in what appears to be a street-level Steinway showroom in New York.
Doc’s Music Hall may not resemble Carnegie Hall in any of the usual ways, but, for the jazz and R&B cognoscenti of Muncie, Indiana, they might as well share a post-office box. Muncie is one of those Rust Belt towns whose once-thriving downtown business district took a direct hit in the industrial downturn of the 1980s, leaving plenty of abandoned buildings that could be used for art studios and musical venues, like Doc’s. If nothing else, it attracted folks who hadn’t been downtown since their favorite shoe store years earlier. From 1992 to 2012, things worked out pretty well. Music doc specialist Robert Mugge (Last of the Mississippi Jukes) has made a living discovering hidden treasures in the nooks and crannies of America’s still-vibrant blues, folk and zydeco scene. Giving Up the Ghosts: Closing Time at Doc’s Music Hall feels very much like a valentine sent to an old friend who’s probably spent most of his earnings promoting good music and young talent in what’s affectionately known on the coasts as the boonies. Proprietor John Peterson splits his time between his medical practice, where he merges traditional and alternative medicines, and the club. Before he got the calling, the Iowa native toured the Midwest opening for more prominent acts and scratching for greater recognition. The experience provided the keyboardist with plenty of anecdotes to share with his audience in the club’s final concert, recorded here for posterity. The club also provided a local stage for better known touring acts, whose music sometimes would be channeled into the house band’s improvisational riffs. The film also includes a discussion of the ghosts of long-dead entertainers that many claim to have seen and heard in the building over the years. Anyone who’s experienced the cultural deprivation that comes with life in small-town America will recognize the folks who populate Giving Up the Ghosts.
The Death of April
Completed in 2012, Ruben Rodriguez’ Internet-inspired thriller, The Death of April, is only now finding a home on DVD. The idea of using a video blog to chronicle the descent into madness – and beyond – of 19-year-old Meagan Mullen would have been quite a bit fresher, if it had been released before the tsunami of lost-footage flicks deluged the marketplace in the interim. Katarina Hughes’ portrayal of the unfortunate student is as lackluster as the character, who remains in her bedroom even as the evidence mounts that it’s haunted by a digital poltergeist hidden somewhere in the wireless router, one presumes. The lost-footage element only comes into play after the first false climax, when a police spokesman admits to being flummoxed by what everyone’s witnessed before their eyes. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone lost much time or money in the creation of The Death of April.
Bloody Knuckles: Blu-ray
It’s sick, depraved and disturbing movies like Bloody Knuckles that give the horror genre a bad name … or a good one, depending on one’s ability to endure 85 minutes of unforgiving and largely gratuitous quantities of violence. Or, to wade through piles of gore to find the humor in situations most mainstream critics wouldn’t waste more than 10 minutes of their time watching. And, yes, I made it through the whole thing. Believe me, the bonus short film “Electric Fence” may even be worse. Perth native Adam Boys (Leprechaun: Origins) plays Travis, a boundary-pushing author of an underground comic book, Vulgarian Invasions, that succeeds in its mission to offend anyone not on the same wavelength. When one of the issues insults a Chinatown crime boss, the gangster punishes Travis by chopping off his drawing hand. While Travis drowns his sorrows, the discarded hand prepares for its entrance, stage right. Soon after, the artist and the vengeful hand join forces with a masked S&M superhero to rid the city of evil. Anyone with the stamina to make it this far in the narrative will already have bought into Matt O’Mahoney’s twisted sense of humor and willingness to test the limits of censors, should any make their feelings known. For those looking for romance, there’s a bit of that here, too. In addition to the pair of short films, O’Mahoney is interviewed individually by editors of genre publications.
Mining for Ruby
Without much fanfare, Mischa Barton has managed to resurrect her once-promising career by becoming one of the reigning queens of straight-to-DVD cinema. In the past two years, alone, the former star of “The O.C.” has worked alongside such genre stalwarts as Lorenzo Lamas, Ving Rhames, Michael Pare, Danny Glover, Vinnie Jones, Eric Roberts, Danny Trejo, Andy Dick, Tom Sizemore, Michael Madsen, Daniel Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Kal Penn … some of them, two or three times. If there was a Walk of Fame in Toronto or Vancouver, those names would be embedded in stone. Someone’s got to make ’em, right? Rapidly approaching the ripe old age of 30, Barton is quite good in the title role of Operator. In Amariah and Obin Olson’s police thriller, she plays a 911-line operator trained to guide crime victims through their ordeals. Burdened with family problems, her Pamela Miller is in danger of losing her job, due to tardiness and careless mistakes. On this day, a caller demands she not break contact with him, as he requires her to keep direct police – including her estranged husband – to places in the city where their lives might be endangered. If Pamela disobeys the orders, she risks putting their young daughter further in harm’s way than she already is, after being kidnaped from the school playground. Viewers are encouraged to guess the identity of the all-knowing caller, with just as many clues as those given Pamela. Typical of a DVD original, logic gives way to action at about the halfway point in Operator, but, by then, you’re either willing to cut it some slack or shut it off. Barton plays Pamela with much the same intensity and sense of purpose as Halle Berry’s 911 operator in Brad Anderson’s The Call.
Barton is given much less to do in Zoe Quist’s Alaska-set rom-dram, Mining for Ruby. Mostly, she gives advice by phone to her brother, Jack (Daniel Ponickly), a handsome bloke who’s still despondent over the death of his wife. He doesn’t know if he’s ready to fall in love with the gorgeous graduate student, Ruby (Antoinette Kalaj), he meets as she’s investigating a possible toxic-waste discharge near his cabin outside Fairbanks. In a forced contrivance, Jack is required to prove his manhood against Ruby’s dimwitted ex-boyfriend, while she’s conned into defending data that’s been manipulated by a rival student. Billy Zane, the king of straight-to-DVD movies, plays the students’ largely chair-bound adviser.
PBS: The Great Fire: Blu-ray
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
PBS: In Their Own Words: Jim Henson/Queen Elizabeth
PBS: Food Forward
As devastating blazes go, the Great Fire of London still ranks as one of the all-time worst. It began shortly after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, in a London bakery on Pudding Lane, and raged for four days. Although the death toll is believed to have been surprisingly small, the physical damage was huge. The fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Much of what we know about the inferno has been gleaned from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, an obsequious gent who plays a prominent role in the four-part ITV mini-series, “The Great Fire,” which hasn’t been accorded the same exposure as other such period productions of late. Unlike the doubts surrounding the guilt or innocence of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, in the Great Chicago Fire, it’s known exactly where the London conflagration began and almost certainly how. Thanks to Pepys, we also have very good idea as to what was on the minds of Charles II and his brother, James, the Duke of York, who’s portrayed as being a participant in a conspiracy to assassinate the king. Meanwhile, Charles II was encouraged to believe that Roman Catholic terrorists, on the orders of the Pope, were also lying in wait for His Majesty. To dramatize what was happening in the streets, writers Tom Bradley, Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford framed the chaos through the fictionalized perspective of Thomas Farriner, at whose bakery the spark was lit. And, he’s given sufficient reason to be angry with the royals, if not to destroy his business. Pepys intercedes at least once on Farriner’s behalf, but can’t keep the sister-in-law from being a prime suspect in a trumped-up conspiracy. The fun comes in watching the interaction between the royals and residents of the city, several of whom, we’re told, were forced to prostitute themselves to slumming royals to pay the bills. Not surprisingly, the costumes are wonderful, especially the men’s wigs. I couldn’t help but wonder if any American producer might borrow the conceit and build a similarly dramatized mini-series around the Chicago fire.
The second season of Starz’ sexy-pirate adventure, “Black Sails,” not only lived up to the expectations of its first-season critical notices, but also its notoriety on the celebrity-skin websites. It also extended a dandy lost-treasure storyline that kept the attention of viewers who expected a bit more for their premium-cable dollars. Here, the Walrus crew is stranded in Nassau with an army of Spanish soldiers, standing between them and their precious Urca gold. Chained together for earlier sins, former rivals Flint and Silver must join forces in a desperate bid for survival. Meanwhile, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) struggles to maintain her grip on Nassau, as a new breed of pirate arrives in the form of the sadistic Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy). It requires hunky Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) to commit to the powerful blond wench or the respect of his scurvy knaves. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV, with something to please men and women viewers, alike. Shot in South Africa, “Black Sails” looks terrific on Blu-ray.
There’s no mistaking a Syfy-original movie from every other DVD in my ever-lofty stack of screeners. Their titles and cheesy jacket art give them away. And, as if there was any question, a cover line on “Lavalantula” reminds browsers, “From Syfy, the network that brought you “Sharknado.” What better advertising could there be? “Lavalantula” may not measure up to that virtual blockbuster’s exacting standards – What could? – but it follows the recipe pretty well, and that’s usually all that’s necessary. After a dormant volcano erupts in the Santa Monica Mountains, it triggers an onslaught of giant arachnid-like creatures with an obsidian-black exoskeleton. Oh, did I mention that the spiders spew molten lava at their targets? The critters may look goofy as hell, but it explains the title, “Lavalantula” … if the creatures more closely resembled tarantulas, that is. The presence of Steve Guttenberg (“Diner”), playing a washed-up action star, ensures that the comedy in Mike Mendez’ second enormous spider flick in two years (Big Ass Spider!) is genuine. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.
Considering that every man, woman and cartoon character of any stature, whatsoever, has been profiled on the History, Biography, A&E and related cable channels, it’s nice to see that PBS is making the effort to add something new and different to the genre. “In Their Own Words” explores “an elite few of the 20th Century’s greatest figures” through words that “describe the subject creatively and intimately.” The inaugural season features episodes on a diverse trio of extraordinary subjects: Muhammad Ali, Queen Elizabeth II and Muppets creator Jim Henson. While none of these august personages is a mystery to viewers, the graphic presentation and reliance on quotes adds a new spin to the tired formula.
One of the cottage industries in the DVD universe involves promoting current theories in food production and preparation, with an emphasis on how multinational corporations have disrupted God’s original plan. Watch enough of these things and you’ll be tempted to give up eating anything that hasn’t been personally supervised by Anthony Bourdain or Alice Waters. The PBS series “Food Forward” showcases innovators and food rebels who are transforming the way we grow and eat our food. In it, we meet farmers, chefs, teachers, scientists, fishermen and ranchers in more than 50 cities across the country providing new solutions to help combat America’s growing food challenges. To this end, every episode incorporates beautiful cinematography, clever animation, cooking segments and original music videos, blending personal storytelling with a unique educational perspective. The newly released compilation weighs in at 390 reassuring minutes of tasty content.