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The DVD Wrapup: Agnes Varda, Macbeth, Coming Home, Finding Gaston and more

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Jane B. Par Agnès V./Kung-Fu Master: Blu-ray
At 87, the much celebrated European filmmaker Agnès Varda doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Aligned with the French New Wave, her early work not only pre-dated the movement and but also influenced its more identifiable practitioners. If she isn’t as well-known as André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and her future husband, Jacques Demy, it’s because of her desire to make films that didn’t focus on established traditions or classical standards. So it took longer for American audiences to warm to her singular vision and experimentation. Being a woman in an industry dominated by men couldn’t have helped her chances for commercial success, either. Varda also has remained active as a creator of stylized documentaries, a judge at prestigious festivals and frequent recipient of honorary awards. Cinelicious Pics has done the arthouse crowd a huge favor by releasing a double feature of rarely seen films Varda made concurrently with Jane Birkin in the mid-1980s: Jane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master (a.k.a., “Le Petit amour”). Varda has described the former as a collaborative portrait of a woman at 40. Although a huge star and multitalented celebrity in Europe, Birkin probably is best known here for being, 1) one of two topless nymphets who invade David Hemmings’ photo studio in “Blow-Up” and, 2) the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. She’s enjoyed far greater popularity in England and France as an actress, singer, model, cultural attaché, activist and “muse” to French composer Serge Gainsbourg. In 1986, she was approaching 40 with trepidation. Varda, who had passed that milestone 20 years earlier, hoped to convince her that it was a glorious age, with much room left to accomplish great things. In the non-linear bio-doc, Birkin relives key moments in her life through fantasy tableaux, some verging on the surreal. She wanted to “make a feature film about how I really am: jeans, old sweaters, messy hair, barefoot in my garden. Just once, I’d like to forget wigs and pretty costumes. I’d like to be filmed as if I were transparent, anonymous, like everyone else.” While Jane B. Par Agnès V. isn’t remotely mundane, Birkin comes across as a celebrity without airs or false modesty. For those familiar with the London-born personality’s history, it’s as revealing as it is entertaining.

Sometime during the filming of Jane B. Par Agnès V., Birkin described to the filmmaker a story in which a desperately lonely single mother of two girls fills the void in her life with a fling that would qualify as statutory rape in most civilized countries in the world. (In others, the perpetrator probably would be a candidate for summary execution.) Varda saw so much promise in the premise that she put their primary project on hold and quickly embarked on Kung-Fu Master, a purposely misleading title. In it, Birkin’s Mary-Jane becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy – played by the director’s son, Mathieu Demy – who can’t hold his liquor at a birthday party and required the help of a maternal figure to make it through his dry and wet heaves. In due course, Mary-Jane develops an unlikely crush on Julien, whose parents have left him alone while they’re gallivanting through Africa. In the time it takes most people to spell M-I-L-F, Varda has put the character on the path of forbidden love, albeit one that remains relatively chaste on screen. In one of her first roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Mary-Jane’s teen daughter, who’s having her own troubles with boys, if of a far more normal variety. The title refers to Julien’s obsession with a violent arcade game of the same name. It reminds us that the boy is a long way away from being mature, while the decidedly immature Mary-Jane might have benefitted from having a son to nurture in more acceptable ways. She even goes so far as to invite Julien to join her and the girls on a trip to England, to visit her folks, and on a vacation to a secluded island. And, yes, it’s fraught with danger for everyone involved. As if to ground the story in something resembling reality, Varda adds a through-line involving a media campaign to alert young people in France and England about the then-growing peril of AIDS. If the thought of a 40-year-old woman becoming sexually infatuated with a 14-year-old boy disgusts you, as it should, Kung-Fu Master is definitely not for you. Ditto, if the fantasy romance between Mena Suvari and Kevin Spacey, in American Beauty, made you squirm. This one, methinks, is strictly for Varda/Birkin completists, who would allow the creative process some slack. Cinelicious Pics has done a nice job restoring both pictures from the original 35mm camera negatives. The set adds new interviews with Varda, one with Miranda July, and an essay by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis

Macbeth: Bu-ray
There’s nothing that demands to be seen live, in a theater, more than the plays of William Shakespeare. Several great adaptations have been committed to the big screen, as well, but too many of them feel forced, contrived or inconsequential. The ones that knock me out are those that take advantage of the settings Shakespeare left for his audience to imagine, through his words. The first time I traveled through Europe, for example, I was astounded by the number of castles visible from the windows of a train. I was also impressed by the close proximity of ancient battlefields, some hundreds of centuries older than the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. In an instant, I was able to envision events impossible to grasp completely in a classroom. The number of film adaptations of Shakespeare plays now is well beyond easy count. Stage productions captured on video only add trees to an already dense forest. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from Justin Kurzel’s recent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender as the Thane of Glamis, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth and a host of terrific Brits in key supporting roles. What differentiates this version of “the Scottish play” from others, though, is the verisimilitude of meteorological conditions that must have plagued generations of warlords and soldiers hoping for fair skies, under which to conduct their bloody business. “Macbeth” is gloomy enough, without adding enough rain, fog, muck, dirt, dust and portentous clouds to test the resolve of any seasoned cinematographer. Here, Aussie shooter Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective”) turns all of those potential hurdles into gifts from the cinematic gods. Many of the battle scenes were staged on the rocky slopes of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly major island in the Inner Hebrides. Blood had been shed there for hundreds of years before King Duncan was born. Other sites include Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland; Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire; Hankley Common, Surrey; and the as-yet unsettled landslip of Quiraing, on Skye. It’s easy to imagine terrible things happening there.  In this, I was reminded of Grigori Kozintsev’s Soviet-era Hamlet and King Lear – available through Facets Video which were shot largely in Estonia and featured translations by Boris Pasternak, music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Jonas Gricius’ icy cold cinematography. You’ll want to keep a sweater close, before hitting play on these DVDs. The splendid Blu-ray adds an excellent Q&A with Fassbender and descriptive “Making Macbeth” featurette. And, how’s this for trivia: Fassbender is the fourth actor of the “X-Men” franchise to play the future king of Scotland, but the only one who’s never played the character on stage. James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have all played the role on stage and on screen. Moreover, Cotillard has twice starred opposite an actor who played Magneto in the series.

Nights With Theodore
Of all the millions of tourists who visit Paris each year, I wonder how many get a chance to stroll through Parc des Buttes Chaumont, an island of serenity situated in northeastern Paris. Its history, alone, would require another movie or documentary to fully explore. From certain vantage points, it’s possible to marvel at City of Light, fully illuminated, bookended by the Eiffel Tower and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. Other attractions include two manmade streams, an artificial lake, waterfall and grotto, left behind from the park’s days as a gypsum and limestone quarry. (Before Emperor Napoleon III assigned Jean-Charles Alphand to reclaim the land, it had also served as a site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed, as a refuse and sewage dump, and a place for cutting up horse carcasses.) The gardens, woods, bridges and “Temple of Sybille” are pretty spectacular, too. If your Parisian friends are reluctant to share their love of the park, it’s only because they don’t want to see it overrun by tourists. Anyone who picks up a copy of Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights With Theodore, which is largely set within its fenced perimeter, will almost certainly want to add it to the itinerary on their next tour of the 19th arrondissement. The beguiling romance began its life in 2012 as a made-for-TV movie, which explains the 67-minute length. One night, at a party, willowy college student Anna (Agathe Bonitzer) and an underemployed millennial, Theodore (Pio Marmaï), are smitten with each other, if only because this is a fairytale and serendipity is at play. Not wanting the night to end, Theodore leads the Modigliani-esque beauty to a climbable portion of the fence protecting Parc des Buttes Chaumont at night. They fall asleep under a majestic tree, awakening when the sun is high and the park is bustling. It’s a great way to begin a romance and one night of bliss leads to several more, if not always under the same tree. So far, so idyllic. It isn’t until they discover the presence of another park resident that things begin to get weird. Although Theodore is in fine fettle at night, alone in the park with Anna, outside of it he can barely make it from his bed to the door. Could it be that the park, which has a long and fascinating history, provides some magical curative charm over Theodore? Are we supposed to associate Theodore’s condition with Mimi, in La Bohème? And, what’s the deal with the other people who arrive there on moonlit nights to sit on a hill and stare into space? It’s that kind of enigmatic story. Even if we’re left with more questions than answers, the time we spend with the possibly star-crossed lovers is well worth the too-short visit to Paris.

Coming Home: Blu-ray
Zhang Yimou’s name might be familiar to Americans, if at all, as director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Movie buffs, however, know him from such modern classics Red Sorghum, Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern, Not One Less, Hero and  House of Flying Daggers, some of which were seen by more people in the west than in the PRC. One of the curious things about Chinese censorship is that it allows for movies unavailable to its citizens to be shown openly elsewhere. Zhang is one of several Chinese artists, who, despite such impediments, continue to work there.) His latest period drama, set during and immediately after the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, anticipated problems with the censorship board and worked around them. Apparently, there are certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution that Communist Party officials don’t want to see revisited. Coming Home was adapted for the screen by Zou Jingzhi (The Grandmaster) from Yan Geling’s novel, “The Criminal Lu Yanshi.” While the Shanghai-born Yan was serving with the army in Tibet, Zhang was sent to the boonies to work on a farm and in a textile mill. His crime: having a father, uncle and brother who left for Taiwan after the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War. It was a small miracle that he was allowed to enroll in film school after the madness of the Cultural Revolution ended.

Zhang has said that he’s wanted to make a film that dealt specifically with the horrors of life during the period, but was prohibited from using that half of her novel for his film. Instead, he focused on the aborted romance between a professor, Lu (Chen Daoming), forced to work in a labor camp during the 10-year period, and his long-suffering wife, Feng (Gong Li), who develops amnesia to compensate for her pain. After escaping from his labor camp, Lu risks immediate re-arrest by making a beeline home. Being a loyal follower of Chairman Mao, his daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), turns him in to police after a brief, if less-than-fruitful reunion. For her trouble, Dandan is denied a leading role in her ballet company’s production of “Red Detachment of Women.” When Lu is finally freed, along with millions of other men and women, Dandan has abandoned dance and is working in a factory. His wife not only doesn’t recognize him, but she also associates his face with that of a supervisor who sexually harassed her. Without giving too much away, the rest of the movie is taken up with the reconciled father and daughter’s struggle to fix Feng. Not surprisingly, Gong Li delivers a powerful performance for Zhang. Not so coincidentally, her acting debut was in his first film as director, Red Sorghum. The Blu-ray adds a Q&A with Zhang Yimou at the Toronto International Film Festival and directors’ commentary.

Flesh for the Inferno
When it comes to exploitation, few filmmakers are as reliably prolific and, well, exploitative than Richard Griffin, who’s churned out more than 30 movies in the last 15 years. Not all of them are gems, but who can resist such titles as Accidental Incest, Seven Dorms of Death, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, The Disco Exorcist and Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon? In the giallo-inspired Flesh for the Inferno, Griffin and writer Michael Varrati (Jagoff Massacre) jump on the pederast-priest bandwagon. In 1999, four nuns at a Catholic school confront a priest over allegations that he’s been molesting children. After listening to them patiently, he shoots one in the forehead and walls the other three behind a brick wall in the basement. Before they suffocate, the nuns sell their immortal souls to the devil … not that it does them any good. Skip ahead 15 years and the school’s been abandoned by the archdiocese and is ripe for gentrification. Guess what happens when a neighborhood youth group volunteers to clean up the place? That’s right, someone accidentally dislodges the bricks in the nuns’ prison, unleashing the demonic zombies and turning Flesh for the Inferno into an ungodly splatterfest. It helps that Griffin’s been able to round up his usual repertory company of genre-ready actors, Jamie Lyn Bagley, Anna Rizzo, Michael Thurber and Jamie Dufault.

You’re Killing Me
Black comedies don’t get much darker than You’re Killing Me, Jim Hansen’s LGBT answer to “Dexter.” It tells the story of a group of friends so self-absorbed that they not only fail to recognize the presence of a sociopath in their midst, but also refuse to believe him when he admits as much to them. As played by Matthew McKelligon (“Eastsiders”), Joe may not seem normal, exactly, but he’s far too gorgeous and sexy to be a serial killer. It must be a joke. Before George (Jeffrey Self), a narcissistic wannabe Internet star, begins to date Joe, viewers have already witnessed what happened to his last boyfriend. A week into their relationship, he made the mistake of pressing Joe on the sex thing and paid the price for pushing his luck. Joe then became obsessed with George after seeing him perform on his very silly webcast. It isn’t until the folks around them start disappearing that George and his colleagues begin to take Joe seriously. Is it too late or will Joe have the last laugh? While You’re Killing Me lacks the polish of Eating Raoul or “Dexter,” it’s certainly in line with other movies currently attempting to cross over from the LGBT festival circuit.

We Come as Friends
The age of colonization may be long gone, but imperialism continues apace in Africa, where Chinese and American interests now are fighting over what was left behind when the Europeans took their balls and went home. The newly liberated nations basked in the glory of independence for a while, but the celebrated ended when they realized how little was left in the way of easily exploitable resources. Meanwhile, the vultures, buoyed by unlimited capital or religious zealotry, hovered overhead in wait for the most megalomaniacal and greedy leaders to emerge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 and has endured internal conflict ever since then. Apart from traditional tribal rivalries, the largely agrarian population is divided by religion, politics, economics and other allegiances. The government also is required to burn what little money it has protecting its borders. In We Come as Friends, Austrian-born documentarian Hubert Sauper returns to the continent that inspired him to make the similarly harrowing Darwin’s Nightmare and Kisangani Diary.

This time, he arrived in homemade ultralight plane that took him to places not accessible to large craft and also served as an ice-breaker in more hostile areas. Impoverished villagers and refugees from the north are far more accustomed to the giant transport planes that could either be carrying relief provisions or heavy equipment to rape the and. South Sudan may not have been blessed with the best climate or rich soil, but it has oil, timber and minerals desired in the outside world. Some of their new “friends” didn’t even wait for the fighting to end to come calling. Unfortunately, once the oil started flowing, the prospect of jobs and prosperity didn’t follow. Sauper’s easy mobility allows him to flit from one village to next, listening to the elders’ stories – some of which extend beyond the arrival of the first European colonists – and meeting with politicians charged with cutting deals with the neo-colonists. He eavesdropped on missionaries selling Christianity, Islamists demanding allegiance to the Koran and business executives promising better times to come. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is as optimistic as anyone on the subject of trickle-down economics, even as oil drilling has poisoned the ground water supply garbage dumps have spoiled the scenery. If We Come as Friends asks troubling questions, it’s important to understand why poor people around the world still associate their poverty with U.S. “interests” … Chinese, too.

The Mask You Live In
Finding Gaston
It’s not out of the question to think that filmmaker/actress/speaker/activist Jennifer Siebel Newsom could someday be residing in the White House. She’s married to California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a Kennedy-esque politician and odds-on favorite to succeed Jerry Brown in 2018. Only 48, Newsom probably already is being groomed for the nation’s highest office. Her resume is impressive, as well. After moving behind the camera, Jennifer’s executive produced two of the most provocative documentaries of the decade: The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. In 2011, she co-directed with Kimberlee Acquaro another eye-opening film, Miss Representation, which explored the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and challenged the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman. The Mask You Live In examines gender issues from the other side of the fence. Without promoting what could be dismissed as a feminist agenda, the film explores how our culture’s definition of masculinity is harming boys, men and society at large, practically from the cradle to the grave … or, to be more precise, from the color of the paint in a newborn’s nursery to the tears we’re only allowed to shed at the funeral of a close friend, spouse or relative. Some boys can fit into any pigeonhole they’re placed, sailing through life confident in our choices and without resorting to bullying or accepting stereotypes as fact. Others are able to roll with the punches and reach our preferred destination without making too many compromises or concessions to predetermined notions of manhood. Increasingly, though, society is being forced to come to grips with the effects of boys being bullied, shunned, humiliated and forced to conform with absurdly rigid societal norms. Newsom has gathered a diverse group of witnesses to testify on the own experiences, observations and research. They include experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education and media. And, blessedly, none argues for boys and young men to accentuate their “feminine side.” The discussions cover sexuality, homophobia, sexism, pornography, abuse, suicide, rape and acting like a dick because that’s what is expected of males in certain social situations. The Mask You Live In is the kind of film that could be shown in prenatal parenting classes – without putting any macho-man dads on the spot – and again when a son or daughter reaches puberty.

Julia Patricia Perez’ mouth-watering documentary, Finding Gaston, provides even more evidence of the value of a young male listening to his heart and acting accordingly, even if it temporarily causes a parent apoplexy. Gaston Acurio, the only son of a prominent Peruvian politician, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, first as a lawyer and, then, as a candidate for office. It wasn’t to be. After one day in a law office, Gaston traded his briefcase for a toque and never looked back. The documentary follows his journey from student, in Paris, to one of the most admired chefs in the world. After establishing himself in Paris, Gaston’s father encouraged him to return to Peru and give something back to the culture and people who influenced his ascendency in the culinary universe. And, that’s exactly what he did. In popularizing Peruvian cuisine, Gaston listened to farmers, fishermen and women whose recipes had been handed down to them for generations. He returned the favor by founding schools for aspiring chefs and everyday homemakers, alike, while also providing a market for native produce, fruit, fish and spices. The Lima restaurant he opened with his wife, Astrid, started out French, but grew increasingly Peruvian as they became more familiar with the food available in their own backyard. Its influence spread throughout South America and among foodies, for whom Peru is now a destination for something other than Machu Picchu.

Sucker
In the right hands, there’s almost nothing more fun than a good heist movie. Scam artists come in all sizes, shapes and colors – witness the “Oceans” franchise – and recognize no language barrier. In the wrong hands, of course, the tell is visible from the first sleight-of-hand gag and only an inattentive blind person could miss it. The Australian export, Sucker, falls somewhere in the middle. Its saving grace is a typically delightful performance by Timothy Spall, as a career con artist who takes an 18-year-old Chinese-Australian lad under his arm. TV specialist Ben Chessell collaborated on the screenplay with comedian/actor Lawrence Leung, whose one-man show “Sucker” was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Sydney Opera House. Viral Internet star John Luc (“Mychonny”) plays Leung as a fragile young man who becomes estranged from his parents after being caught cheating on his entrance exams for medical school. Banished to his uncle’s house for the summer, Lawrence meets the Professor (Spall) after he single-handedly takes on the local chess club … drunk. The kid’s such a quick study that the Professor enlists him as a silent partner in his cons. The old man’s teenage daughter is already on the team, so, maybe, you can already see where this thing is headed. If not, hint, it’s a high-stakes card game in which Prof hopes to exact revenge for a beat-down he took years earlier. Frankly, it isn’t much of a scam, but Spall helps the kids pull it off.

The Golden Cane Warrior: Blu-ray
For the past 10 years, Well Go USA Entertainment has been a primary source for new martial arts and action pictures from China, South Korea, Japan and other Pacific Rim countries. It takes real nice care of the DVDs and Blu-rays distributed under its banner here. The Golden Cane Warrior is a fantasy wuxia picture not unlike others produced elsewhere in the region, except for the fact that it was made in Indonesia, by Indonesians, for distribution inside and outside Indonesia. Moreover, it looks as if someone invested real money in the project. The weapons of choice are staffs and sticks, including the “golden cane” of the title. The multigenerational cast of characters is comprised of men and women, boys and girls, who twirl their sticks with the same intensity as any Miss Texas aspirant, albeit with exponentially more lethal force. As Master Cempaka and her four disciples – orphans of her enemies, now potential heirs to the golden cane – prepare for the new warrior guardian to ascend, a treasonous act threatens to destroy the clan. The trouble starts when Cempaka separates Dara, the youngest of the two young women, and Angin, the youngest of the two boys from the group. One will be awarded the Golden Cane and learn the secret maneuver only handed down to masters. The two orphans who are left behind decide to uphold the honor of their parents’ clan by ambushing Cempaka and stealing the staff, thus tipping the balance of power in the mountainous region. Let the fighting commence. The Golden Cane Warrior’s greatest asset might be Indonesia, itself. The vast multi-island nation has been largely unexploited by movie and television teams, so almost anything shot in the boonies would look new and different. And, it does. The Blu-ray easily captures the contrasting colors, flora and topography. If Ifa Isfansyah’s unrated film had gone through the MPAA process, it probably would have qualified for a PG-13 tag. The violence isn’t particularly graphic and, Indonesia being a predominantly Muslim nation, there’s no sex or nudity. What it mostly is, though, is fun.

Children of the Stars
Anyone who thinks that the cosplay phenomenon began at midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hippy-dippy Renaissance fairs, Trekkie conventions and ComiCon, isn’t taking into account Civil War re-enactments and gatherings of sci-fi fans in 1908 and 1939. It’s only within the last 20 years that every subset of genre fanaticism has been represented in gatherings around the planet. Bill Perrine’s jaw-dropping documentary, Children of the Stars, introduces us to the late Ruth Norman (a.k.a., Uriel), who, in 1954, founded the Unarius Academy of Science with her husband, Ernest. Unarius is short for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science” and, if it sounds wacky, imagine trying to explain Roman Catholic, Mormon and Scientology tenets to a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon. If it weren’t for the fact that Spanish missionaries threatened the indigenous peoples of the New World with death and dismemberment, they would have been laughed back to Europe. That the Unarius faithful appear to be normal, whatever that means, and not at all cultish, attests to lengths people will go to find something – anything – to hold on to as the world spins its merry way around the sun. At the Unarius Academy of Science, death does not exist, Nicola Tesla was a Space Brother, Satan drives a Cadillac and “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry was a fellow traveler. Members stage their own pageants, make their own movies and get together to discuss where they met and who they’ve been in previous lives. For some reason, Hitler’s name is dropped throughout the film. Not at all self-conscious, believers opened the archives to Perrine and offered testimony that doesn’t sound at all goofy, compared to the nonsense spouted by this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates. Indeed, given the choice between an America led by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or the next incarnation of Ruth Norman, a lot of us would pick up the Uranius flag. In any case, Children of the Stars should be of special interest to folks drawn to the early docs of Errol Morris and Trekkies who look for hidden meaning in the original series and its spinoffs. The DVD adds 25 minutes of bonus material.

Open Season: Scared Silly: Blu-ray
After 10 years and four animated features, the four-legged stars of Sony Pictures’ “Open Season” franchise show no sign of throwing in the towel, even after a wholesale change in the actors who voice them.  Open Season: Scared Silly follows the pattern of opening theatrically in some overseas markets, before debuting on DVD in others, including the U.S. The nice thing about it is that it doesn’t shortchange fans, by trimming each new installment to an hour or less and saving money on the animation. This time around, Elliot the mule deer entertains the woodland creatures with a campfire story meant to raise a few goosebumps before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, the legend of the Wailing Wampus Werewolf only serves to scare the bejeezus out of the scaredy-cat bear, Boog. The thought of confronting a werewolf in Timberline National Forest convinces Boog that he should skip the annual summer camping trip. The critters come together on a plan to scare the fear out of their ursine pal, if that makes sense. The Blu-ray comes with bloopers and outtakes; a “super speedy” re-cap of the movie; the featurettes, “Stepping Into the Spotlight: Mr. Weenie’s Process” and “Scaredy Pants: The Fears of ‘Open Season: Scared Silly’”; feature commentary with director David Feiss; and a director profile.

Decline of Western Civilization: Blu-ray
Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 14/15
Shout! Factory has released a la carte chapters of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, which, in 1981 and 1988, deconstructed punk and metal music, respectively, for adults too frightened to address the issue with their spaced-out kids. A third installment, which could have been subtitled, “Teenage Wasteland,” was only peripherally concerned with the music in 1998. Chapter One is distinguished by vintage performances with X, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Germs and Alice Bag Band, as well as conversations with their more coherent representatives. “The Metal Years” takes a fast-paced look at Sunset Strip’s outrageous Heavy Metal scene of the late ’80s. It features Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, members of Aerosmith, Kiss and Motorhead, as well as performances by Megadeath, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Borden, London, Odin and Seduce. It’s the more entertaining of the two, if only because of the amount of alcohol and drugs consumed and ubiquitous groupies.

Impulse Pictures’ comprehensive series of sleazy 8mm shorts, “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection,” has turned the corner on volumes 14 and 15. By my conservative count, that brings the total to more than 200 entries in the collection, all designed to be viewed during lunch hours and coffee breaks. The no-frills action is definitely not intended for couples’ viewing, unless, of course, the booth is built for two and your partner wasn’t averse to extreme back hair and sticky floors. Among the helpfully descriptive titles in these two volumes are “Totem Pole,” “Licking Lezzies,” “Slippery When Wet,” “Three’s a Ball” and “In the Barn.” Among the recognizable stars are Annie Sprinkle, Erica Boyer, Desiree West, Serena, Linda Shaw, Tina Russell and Veri Knotty, although I think the last one is a ringer. The sets arrive with liner notes from film “archeologist,” Dimitrios Otis, and hall-of-famer, Serena.

TV-to-DVD
IFC: The Spoils of Babylon: Season 1
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart
PBS: Nature: Natural Born Hustlers
PBS: NOVA: Life’s Rocky Start
PBS Kids: WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks
What began in 2007 as a free-form Internet outlet for comedians and other clever people has evolved, as these things sometimes do, into a spot where producers and programming executives visit regularly to scout talent and borrow ideas. Like National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and Second City before it, Funny or Die has become a brand synonymous with guaranteed laughs and an audience willing to go the extra mile to find offbeat humor. Founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, Funny or Die showcases videos of various lengths from a number of famous and amateur contributors. The in-house Funny or Die Team now creates original material for the site and other outlets. One such project, “The Spoils of Babylon,” aired on the IFC channel. In it, Ferrell plays Hemingway-esque author Eric Jonrosh, a master of dramatic fiction and chronicler of the Morehouse family. In a pose once adopted by Orson Welles to pitch wine to TV viewers with uncultivated taste buds, Jonrush introduces each week’s episode, following it with a postscript of overripe pomposity. In the first series, patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) shepherds his daughter, Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), and adopted son, Devon (Tobey Maguire), from meager beginnings in the Texas oil patch to powerful boardrooms in New York City. Just as the Welles impersonation might fly over the heads of millennial viewers, the obvious references to such 1970-80s’ mini-series as “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War” probably work more effectively on their Boomer parents. Even so, it was pretty easy to buy into the conceit, especially as enhanced by guests Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, David Spade, Michael Sheen, Molly Shannon, Haley Joel Osment and a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan.  Not yet on DVD is the follow-up series, “The Spoils Before Dying,” in which Jonrosh’s banned movie of the same title is unearthed for a hipper generation of viewers.

When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart” originally aired over the Christmas holidays as “A New Year’s Wish.” I don’t know why Hallmark felt it necessary to change the title, but it isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. Thus, as they said in ancient Rome, caveat emptor. Neither does it look particularly wintery in Hope Valley, this year. In fact, it looks downright tropical. Everything in the frontier outpost has a fairytale aura. The women are all gorgeous and the men abnormally attractive for the period. Everyone has good teeth and fashionable hairdos. There are other anomalies, but who’s counting? This time around, Rosemary’s essay on what it’s like to be a “real frontier family” has attracted the attention of a reporter from the San Francisco Herald, who arrives in time for the annual fireworks show. Problem is, because Rosemary isn’t married, she has to pose as Lee’s wife. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger pays a visit to the handsome Pastor Frank and Abigail opens her door and heart to a pair of ragamuffin orphans. There’s more, of course.

The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Natural Born Hustlers,” introduces younger viewers, especially, to animals noteworthy for their ability to fool predators and attract meals through genetic chicanery. They are the shape shifters, mimics, masters of disguise and illusion, cheats and sneaks in the natural world. The series reveals the modus operandi of remarkable animals going to elaborate lengths to claw their way to the top. I only wish that “Nature” was available in Blu-ray. “NOVA” continues its studies in advanced geology, with “Life’s Rocky Start.” Mineralogist Robert Hazen explains, in language most of us can understand how the same tumultuous convulsions that shaped the Earth also created the conditions ripe for the origins of life.

Also from PBS comes “WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks,” a show designed to help the youngest viewers get a leg up on the basics, when it’s their turn to begin school. All of the characters are made from the letters that spell their names, so, when Frog loses the letters PL from his plane, he and Bug Band must scour the jungle to find them. This DVD set is comprised of eight episodes, all pertaining to movement and travel.

The Bible Stories: In the Beginning
After serving President Jimmy Carter as White House communications director, the advertising and political strategist Gerald Rafshoon began a third career as a producer of such television docudramas as “The Atlanta Child Murders” and “Iran: Days of Crisis.” Getting a Georgia peanut farmer into the White House might have been a piece of cake compared to collaborating on a rapid-fire series of eight TV movies inspired by Old Testament scripture. The international co-productions were shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a desert mecca for studios in need of a reliable place to shoot period flicks set in the Holy Land. “The Bible Stories” collection has been released on video/DVD a couple of times since they aired here on TNT in the mid-1990s. The new Shout!Factory series looks as good as new. The three titles released this week are the four-disc collection, “The Bible Stories: In The Beginning,” with “Abraham,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Moses”; “Abraham,” starring Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey; and “Moses,” with Ben Kingsley, Frank Langella, David Suchet and Christopher Lee. Individual releases of “David,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Samson & Delilah” will trickle out through the spring. “Esther” and “Jeremiah” don’t appear to have a street date.

The DVD Wrapup: Danish Girl, Boy, Intruders, Beautiful When Angry, Iron Sheik and more

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

The Danish Girl: Blu-ray
As the just completed awards season evolved, the biggest controversy surrounding The Danish Girl was the decision made by its distribution company, Focus Features, to promote the movie’s wonderful Alicia Vikander in the academy’s Best Supporting Actress category, instead of in the more prestigious and competitive Best Actress race. In fact, the rising Swedish superstar is on screen longer than the formidable Eddie Redmayne, who was properly placed in the Best Actor grouping. The strategy worked, of course, and went unmentioned in Vikander’s acceptance speech. If the brouhaha over the lack of minority nominees hadn’t erupted, someone might have made a bigger deal over the maneuver, which the Academy has rarely cared to challenge. As expected, 26-year-old Sacramento-native Brie Larson walked away with the Best Actress Oscar, for Room, and everyone walked away happy … except, perhaps, the other Supporting Actress candidates. Vikander will be back soon enough. Still, whenever the Motion Picture Academy lowers itself to the level of the Golden Globes, where The Martian was deemed a comedy-musical, instead of a drama, well, it raises eyebrows. Oscar’s presence in the ancillary marketing campaign – albeit, tarnished – should encourage potential viewers to take a chance on Room and The Danish Girl on DVD-Blu-ray or VOD. If neither picture performed particularly well at the domestic box office, Danish Girl is doing very well globally.) It will be interesting to see if Universal Studios Home Entertainment places advertising in Sunday’s second-season premiere of “I Am Cait” or finds a way to piggy-back off the critical success of Amazon’s “Transparent.” However much overhyped, Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlyn Marie Jenner brought more attention to the struggle for LGBT rights and respectability than could have been achieved in a dozen marches on Washington or PBS documentaries.

Adapted from David Ebershoff’s best-selling novel by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and director Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl is an intelligent and absolutely gorgeous movie. If neither the book nor the movie bear much resemblance to the historical facts, the film’s interwar European settings, set design and period costumes are splendidly rendered and the lead characters’ paintings are very easy on the eyes. As are Redmayne’s Einar Wegener/Lily Elbe and Vikander’s Gerda Wegener. In the book and film, Gerda is the loyal wife and fellow artist who supports Einar from the decisive modeling session in which he meets his inner Lily, through Lily’s first awkward relationships with men and the surgery that came with no guarantee of success. By choosing to focus on a romance that tested the limits of loyalty, patience and love, Hooper risked offending those of us who prefer the truth to pathos and unharnessed sentimentality. The real story, which has been obscured by time and distance, is extremely compelling, if not nearly as cinematic. What else is new? There’s certainly no discounting the drama of the sexual-reassignment surgery and Lily’s decision to undergo a relatively unproven procedure. Neither has Gerda’s struggle to be recognized as an artist of significance in a man’s world lost any of its relevance. Indeed, what happens in the next nine years in Gerda’s life – she died in 1940, at 54 – would provide ample material for a sequel, if anyone chose to tackle the subject. Also fascinating here is the depiction of German gynecologist Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) and his relationship to the work already being conducted in Berlin at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research. Anyone inspired to learn more about the early years of sexual-identity research should know that most of it was destroyed in 1933, when the Nazis closed the institute and Hirschfeld was able to escape to France. Gerda’s erotic paintings, illustrations and portraits of Lili currently are on display at Copenhagen’s ARKEN museum, with addition stops on the tour possible. Einar/Lili’s work, largely landscapes, is tougher to track down, but some pieces can found in public collections, including the Vejle Art Museum, in Jutland, Denmark. The Blu-ray, which nicely captures Danny Cohen’s imaginative lighting and camera work, adds “The Making of ‘The Danish Girl.’”

The Boy
Intruders
Craig William Macneill’s second feature, The Boy, has several good things going for it, not the least of which are excellent performances by David Morse and Rainn Wilson, as diametrically opposed father figures to a 9-year-old sociopath. Morse plays John Henley, divorced father of Ted (Jared Breeze) and struggling proprietor of an old-fashioned motor lodge in an undefined mountain setting. His wife had her fill of trying to make a dollar stretch to the breaking point and split for Florida, leaving them both behind. The motel’s been in the family for a generation, or two, and John expects to hand it over to Ted when the time comes, whether he likes it or not. Odds are, though, there won’t be anything left to inherit, thanks to a distinct lack of tourist dollars. At first glance, John seems to be a decent father. Before long, however, his bouts with self-pity and booze begin to wear on Ted, whose assignments include sweeping road kill off the highway, feeding the chickens and cleaning up after the guests. One of the first clues that any boy is developing antisocial tendencies is a fondness for killing defenseless animals. One rainy night, Ted uses strewn garbage to lure a deer into the middle of the highway, where, he expects, a speeding car won’t see it in time to hit the brakes. The driver of that car is William Colby (Wilson), who’s escaping something that has something to do with the ashes of his wife carried in a box next to the driver’s seat. Although Colby isn’t looking for company as his wounds heal, he finds Ted’s willingness to help him get back on the road irresistible. For his part, Ted sees in the mysterious stranger an opportunity to hitch a ride to Florida. Every new visitor to the Mt. Vista Motel provides the boy fresh victims for his insipient sociopathy. And, yes, things do get ugly a hurry. In an interview included in the bonus package, Macneill admits to envisioning The Boy as the first installment in a trilogy about the evolution of a serial killer. That kind of thing works if Chapter One is as powerful as The Silence of the Lambs or, dare I say, The Godfather. A more recent example of misplaced chutzpah was evidenced in the dreadful Atlas Shrugged trilogy, which, dollar for dollar, may be one of the greatest box-office flops in history … times three. Even if The Boy looks like the first chapter in the Mad Max series, compared to that hot mess, I can’t see how a direct-to-DVD thriller could raise much financial interest in a trilogy. But, like I said, the performances are worth a look and the mountains – Colombian, as it turns out – are well photographed by first-timer Noah Greenberg.

Just as The Boy teases us with potential, so, too, does Adam Schindler’s debut feature Intruders, which was forced to change its better title, “Shut In,” to avoid confusion with an upcoming film starring Naomi Watts, Oliver Pratt and boy wonder, Jacob Tremblay. Beth Riesgraf, who was so good as the larcenous acrobat in “Leverage,” stars as a pretty blond, Anna, whose agoraphobia is so severe that she can’t even leave the confines of her spacious Victorian house to attend the funeral of her brother. In fact, she can barely accept the fact he’s left her behind. Part of her undesired inheritance is a bag full of money, possibly ill-gotten, that she tries to donate to her flakey Meals-on-Wheels driver, Dan (Rory Culkin), who qualifies as her only friend. Instead of going to the funeral, Anna is at home when a trio of low-life thugs decide to break into the house to steal the money. How they even know the money exists is a mystery to Anna – and us – until what should be the most obvious answer to the question is revealed. In the meantime, she proves herself quite adept at taking on the intruders on her own terms. Everything that happens after Anna takes out the first crook qualifies as a spoiler. What I can say, however, is that Intruders eventually reminded me of a cross between O’Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” crossed with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Reisgraf demonstrates her versatility as Anna evolves from victim to tormenter and avenging angel. How far is she willing to push her luck? Stay tuned. It the screenplay by newcomers T.J. Cimfel and David White isn’t able to sustain the story’s promise, well, it isn’t likely anyone will be bored or come away from the movie unimpressed by Reisgraf.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
The nine words guaranteed to make anyone born after 1980 cringe are, “This is how we did it in the ’60s.” No single generation of Americans has proven to be more self-absorbed than the Baby Boomers, of which I was a member. Yes, we helped change the world for the better, if not always for ourselves, then our children and grandchildren. But, we’ve made it awfully difficult for anyone else to carve a niche for themselves. If Mary Dore’s extremely timely history of the women’s liberation movement, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, can be criticized, it’s because it too often feels self-congratulatory and, maybe, if I were 30 years younger, preachy. The women we become reacquainted with here deserve to have their story told and hard-won victories recalled. It isn’t until the final few minutes that we get to the crux of the matter, however. The same young women who’ve benefitted most from the feminist imperative – and, too often, reject the appellation, feminism – are the ones who stand to lose the most if the Supreme Court is allowed to swing even further to the right. In a very real way, the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade sparked a war that no one saw coming until Ronald Reagan sold what was left of his soul to evangelical activists. Like the appointment of Antonin Scalia, it went largely unchallenged by members of the so-called Me Generation. Now, it may too late.

What’s happening today in Texas, Mississippi and most of the other “red” states could spread to the “blue” states in a heartbeat. And, not just the right to have an abortion on demand or equal pay for equal labor, either. The threat can’t be exaggerated. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry rightly traces the women’s liberation movement of the 1960-70s to the Suffragettes, who, decades earlier, had refused to be dismissed or silenced. That the campaign for women’s suffrage became associated with the temperance movement would come back to haunt activists when Prohibition raised its ugly head. Unlike zealots in the New Left and anti-war movements of 1960s, who too often treated women as if they were slaves, with benefits, progressives came to realize that women’s liberation couldn’t be achieved unless they reached out to sisters of all ethnic, political, religious, economic and sexual orientations. Dore doesn’t ignore the deep fissures in the movement, either. In some cases, victories were won despite the static of dissent. The excitement and passion heard in the voices of the film’s witnesses is so palpable that it might inspire young women today to stand up for the rights they stand to lose in a worst case political solution. Another positive thing about She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is that it allows the daughters and granddaughters of the activists we meet in the film to see them when they were young, burning with passion and had the numbers … not simply as the prigs who bug them about wearing mini-skirts, heels and too much makeup to school. It wouldn’t kill sons and grandsons to watch it, either. The DVD adds deleted scenes that probably were difficult to edit out of the finished product.

Narcopolis: Blu-ray
One of the great conspiracy theories of the 1960s involved tobacco companies, anticipating the inevitable legalization of marijuana, bidding to trademark such brands as Acapulco Gold and Panama Red, which, at the time, were the marketing equivalent of Burgundy wine, Roquefort cheese and Scotch whisky. If the rumor wasn’t true then, it almost certainly will become true as legalization and decriminalization continues apace. And, of course, once Big Tobacco gets its greedy hands on the product, the next most likely thing to happen is the criminalization and taxation of home- and boutique-grown herb. Sound familiar? If not, pick up a copy of Thunder Road or google, “moonshine/NASCAR.” That worst-case scenario is the easiest thing to grasp about Justin Trefgarne’s overcomplicated debut thriller, Narcopolis, which imagines a not-too-distant future in which the manufacture and consumption of all drugs have been legalized, just as long as said drugs have been grown or dispensed by licensed pharmaceutical firms. And, of course, licensing breeds corruption. In the dystopian underground of 2024, an elite police unit, Drecks, has been created to keep black-market dealers off the streets and the drug companies rich. Elliot Cowan (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) plays a former cop and addict, Frank Grieves, called in by Dreck to investigate the identity of a corpse and source of the drug shot or ingested. Not surprisingly, it’s traced to a conglomerate, Ambro, so large its right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing … or, if it does, refuses to acknowledge it. The biggest question then becomes, if the establishment wants to protect itself from the truth, why hire someone capable of upending the applecart? Once the jig is up, all that’s left is a long chase that goes nowhere none too fast. On the plus side, the low-budget project looks better than it has any right to be, thanks to newcomer Christopher Moon’s Blade Runner-inspired cinematography and set/art/production designs that provide a legitimately futuristic environment. Also prominent are Jonathan Pryce (“Game of Thrones”), James Callis (“Battlestar Galactica”) and Elodie Yung (“Daredevil”).

Weaponized: Blu-ray
With hall-of-famers Tom Sizemore, Mickey Rourke and Michael Paré on board, almost any straight-to-disc movie is going to have a leg up on the competition. It hardly matters if the story doesn’t make sense or the director is in over his head, because some genuinely nutty stuff is bound to happen between the credit rolls. Weaponized (a.k.a., “Swap”) is no exception. Timothy Woodward Jr.’s action-heavy sci-fi thriller opens with a terrorist attack intended to remind viewers of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. Private military contractor Kyle Norris (Sizemore) facilitates the development of a bio-mechanical weapons program by Professor Clarence Peterson (Rourke), who’s seeking revenge for the death of his son. According to the synopsis, the program allows soldiers to swap consciousness with an enemy target, giving them complete, if temporary control. While the program was intended to combat terrorists and safeguard American soldiers, its goals have been subverted. Naturally, when Detective Walker (Johnny Messner) unwittingly stumbles upon the program, he’s removed from the investigation by his captain (Pare) and a world of shit lands in his lap. I added that part. Frankly, I lost track of what was going on pretty early in the proceedings. Consciousness swapping is a new gimmick to me and I can’t say that it makes much sense. Still, watching these masters of schlock at work is worth the price of admission … barely.

The Sheik
The genius of professional-wrestling magnate Vince McMahon came to the fore in the 1980s, when he took a page from Stan Lee’s book and turned the WWF into a spectacle worthy of a Marvel Comics reunion. By turning a bunch of underappreciated ex-jocks and barroom brawlers into costumed superheroes and supervillains, then adding a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack to the proceedings, McMahon made fans of a generation of young people more attuned to Kiss and Metallica, than Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher. Igal Hecht’s extremely entertaining bio-doc, The Sheik, describes how a supremely talented Iranian athlete would find fame half a world away in an activity that resembles amateur wrestling in the same way that ballroom dancing approximates pogoing and stage diving. Born in Teheran in 1942, Khosrow Ali Vaziri represented Iran in the 1968 Olympics, as part of the Greco Roman wrestling team, before becoming a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran and his family. After his good friend, Olympic gold-medalist and national hero, Gholemreza Takhti, was found in his hotel room, dead of a not-so-apparent suicide, Vaziri decided to split for the United States. He became an amateur champion and coach, before joining Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. After kicking around various North American circuits for several years, the Islamic fundamentalists who captured the American Embassy opened the door to eventual superstardom in the then-WWF. As the Iron Sheik, he taunted fans by spouting pro-Iran gibberish and waving the country’s flag. His trajectory was straight up, finally winning the championship in 1983 from old-schooler Bob Backlund. A month later, the Iron Sheik’s tenure would be overwhelmed by Hulkomania. His athleticism and showmanship allowed him to go from supervillain to superhero, until the fateful day in 1987 when Vaziri and his “arch-rival” “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper and busted for possession of cocaine and marijuana. His cover blown, the Sheik would lose his standing in the WWF and develop habits that threatened his marriage, career and health. Most of the second half of the no-holds-barred documentary is devoted to those dark years, from which he would emerge in the early 2000s as a pop-culture hero. What differentiates this film from a dozen others on the same topic and sports, in general, is the forthrightness of Vaziri, family members and 25 fellow wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who add their testimony on his place in WWF/WWE history.

Paprika: Blu-ray
Peekarama: Erotic Adventures of Candy/Candy Goes to Hollywood: Blu-ray
Peekarama: The Young Like It Hot/Sweet Young Foxes
Sensual Encounters of Every Kind
Sex and Astrology
Movies featuring prostitutes, call girls, mistresses, madams, pimps and other freelancers are dime-a-dozen and have been since the silent era. Those set within the walls of a brothel are fewer in number, if for no other reason than the reality of life in a house is less easy to manipulate than those of individuals caught up in the game outside of one. The truly legendary bordellos no longer exist and the prostitutes can in no way be manufactured from a mold or cookie cutter. Among the titles that stand out are Belle de Jour, House of Tolerance, In the Realm of the Senses, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Love Ranch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pretty Baby, Working Girls, Saint Jack, the French TV series “Maison close” and such documentaries as “Cathouse: The Series,” Chicken Ranch and Born Into Brothels. The hypocrisy of the American government quietly sanctioning the existence of brothels during times of war, while legislating them out of existence in times of peace, was noted in “Biloxi Blues,” “Catch-22,” “From Here to Eternity” and the History Channel’s “XY Factor: Sex in World War II: The Pacific Front.” Released in 1991, Paprika combined social realism with co-writer-director Tinto Brass’ personal memories of killing time in legal brothels in post-war Italy, instead of attending college classes. It was inspired by John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill,” published in 1748, but updated to 1950s Italy. The astonishingly gorgeous and naturally sexy Debora Caprioglio plays a country girl, Mimma, who, after the death of her parents, lands a job in a big-city brothel to earn money for her boyfriend to start his own business. Given that the only business for which he’s shown any skill is pimping, Mimma soon will be sharing her earnings with the cad and Madame Collette, who nicknames her Paprika for her physical attributes. She only anticipates working at the brothel for two weeks, but is encouraged to stay on and conserve her money. To call Mimma a natural wouldn’t be an exaggeration. With a few exceptions, she enjoys the work and adapts well to the relative luxury and security of brothel life. The patrons are relatively well-heeled, but she falls for an aspiring seaman with dreams of owning his own boat. Mimma’s personal ambitions lead her from one house to another, as well as benefactors of increasing wealth and privilege. Besides the debt Mimma’s been led to believe she still owes her first boyfriend, the underlying tension throughout Paprika is a conservative initiative to close the brothels and return control of the business to pimps and mobsters. In an entertaining interview, Brass explains how the new legislation, while detrimental to his social life, probably forced him to focus on a career in filmmaking. Considering that Brass would become renowned as an eroticist, obsessed with busty babes with big butts, he clearly found a way to monetize the time wasted in his college days. Paprika isn’t exclusively interested in promoting the pulchritude of Italian womanhood, as is usually the case with Brass’ output. The narrative also offers commentary on the hypocrisy of Italian lawmakers and the plight of working girls, who, after the Merlin Law went into effect, in 1958, were forced to work the streets, take on pimps, rely on their own resources for health concerns and weather the ravages of age on their own. If Paprika has a happy ending, it can be credited in large part to the gumption and inspiration of Fanny Hill. Part of what makes Brass’ films such a treat are the brilliant production values on display, including the lighting, sets, costume designs and many strategically placed mirrors. No matter how one feels about his sexual appetites, his slightly softer than hard-core approach to porn never lacks polish, eye candy or winking humor. And, it looks great on Blu-ray.

Vinegar Syndrome’s series of “Peekarama” double-features takes viewers of a certain age back to a time in American eroticism when some companies gave lip service, at least, to the idea that porn needn’t be peddled exclusively to the rain-coat crowd. Some movies were distinguished by recognizable narratives, sex-positive couplings and attractive actors. (Ron Jeremy didn’t always resemble an overgrown Chia Pet.) That, of course, would change as budgets were kept from matching the aspirations of the more creative artists. In 1978, shortly after the amazing financial success of Deep Throat suggested that all things were possible, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner teased buxom blonds everywhere by hinting of a worldwide search for the actress to portray Playboy’s cartoon goddess, Little Annie Fanny, in a live-action movie. That didn’t happen, of course, but it wasn’t for lack of inspiration. VCX beat Playboy to the punch, intentionally or otherwise, with Erotic Adventures of Candy and Candy Goes to Hollywood, whose star, Carol Connors, combined the attributes of Daisy Mae Yokum and Little Annie Fanny. As conceived by Gail Palmer, the former is a comic adaptation of Voltaire’s, “Candide,” by way of Terry Southern’s novel, “Candy,” in which the virginal farm girl is curious about sex, but is forced to learn all the essential lessons the hard way. In Candy Goes to Hollywood, our heroine no sooner steps off the Greyhound on Hollywood Boulevard than she attracts the attention of a predatory sleazeball (John Leslie), who convinces her that he should serve as her agent. This one is full of the then-current pop-cultural references, including Saturday Night Fever and “The Gong Show.” The sex scenes aren’t anything special, but everything else easily qualifies as comedy. It includes a guest appearance by the late punk performer, Wendy O. Williams. Also in the mix of both pictures are such Golden Age stars as Desiree Cousteau, Sharon Kane, John Holmes, Rhonda Jo Petty, Richard Pacheco, Don Fernando, Georgina Spelvin, Paul Thomas, Patti Cakes and Eileen Welles.

The second double-feature is from 1983 and, therefore, more buttoned down, as these things go, anyway. Both qualify as couples’ viewing, though. Otherwise, Bob Chinn’s The Young Like It Hot and Sweet Young Foxes are noteworthy for introducing the glamorous Native American actress and two-time Miss Nude Galaxy, Hyapatia Lee, to adult-movie fans and, boy, did she make an impression. In The Young Like It Hot, telephone operators at a small-town company turn to phone-sex when threatened by their boss with automation. In Sweet Young Foxes, Lee plays a college freshman home from school and bored out of her mind. Along with some hometown friends, none of whom look remotely young enough to still be in college, Lee uncovers a world of sexual delights she never knew existed. In addition to Lee, the casts include Kay Parker, Shauna Grant, Lili Marlene, Herschel Savage, Mike Horner, Joey Silvera, Cara Lott, Pat Manning, Eric Edwards and a 30-year-old Jeremy. All four movies have been scanned and restored from 35mm camera negatives and add original theatrical trailers. Interviews with director Bob Chinn and actor Bill Margold are included in the former.

As long as we’re strolling down mammary lane, here, there’s 1978’s Sensual Encounters of Every Kind in which several more future all-stars – Leslie Bovee, Serena, Dorothy LeMay, Jon Martin, the ageless Spelvin and ubiquitous Leslie – pass an ancient talisman from one generation to another. Possession ensures its owner will be granted an ultimate sexual fantasy. The plot device will be used and reused for as long as porn exists. The new 2K restoration adds an audio interview with Jon Martin. Co-written by Harold Lime (Amanda by Night) is pretty hot, actually.

Even if Matt Cimber hadn’t created the ridiculous 1980s TV series, “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” or anticipated the mainstream porn revolution with the 1971 mockumentary, Sex and Astrology, his place in the show-biz hall of shame would be assured by the notoriety surrounding the Pia Zadora vehicle, Butterfly, which he adapted from a James M. Cain novel. Historians will immediately recall Butterfly as the movie most closely identified with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s greatest moment of infamy. It also was nominated for 10 Razzies, including two for Oscar-winner Ennio Morricone and one for Orson Welles. (To be fair, Cimber also directed recently re-released The Witch Who Came From the Sea, which wasn’t half-bad.) Anyway,

in Sex and Astrology, Cimber explored the erotic, humorous and downright unappetizing confluences of the constellations and human sexuality. It extends from toga parties in ancient Greece and Rome, to hippie freakouts in the psychedelic 1960s. Vinegar Syndrome brings it to home video for the first time, restored in 2k from newly discovered 16mm vault elements.

Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
Common wisdom among moviegoers today holds that trailers not only are too goddam loud, but that they give away far too much of the plot. If the trailer sucks, it’s highly likely the movie it plugs will, too. The nature of the cinematic beast now demands that teasers sometimes appear a year ahead of a potential blockbuster’s release, serving best as trailers for trailers to come. Those savvy viewers who wouldn’t think of taking their seats after the trailers begin to roll know that the earlier a trailer is shown, the less likely it is that a scene they see will appear intact in the finished product. The same is true for the music and, even, a character. That’s because the first trailers for highly anticipated movies are finished before shooting is completed and long before the soundtrack has been recorded or special effects edited. Exhibitors who gather in Las Vegas each spring expect to be shown previews of films they’ll be showing at Christmas, if not some early footage and appearances by a star or two. Genre films not destined for holiday release are allowed to take their time. From Severin Films comes “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury,” a two-hour compendium of vintage previews for dozens of movies from the Golden Age of Hong Kong action flicks. What’s wonderful about them is the amount of martial-arts action and stunt gags represented in the trailers, leaving almost nothing to anticipate when the finished product finally arrived. And, for Western audiences, many of these pictures never did open. Among the many actors shown in various stages of their career are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Lo Lieh, Sammo Hung, Angela Mao, Chuck Norris, Jimmy Wang Yu and Wu Tang, in such classics as The Way of the Dragon, Death Blow, Two Champions of Shaolin, Daggers 8, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Shaolin Wooden Men, The Story of Drunken Master, Enter the Fat Dragon and Brutal Boxer. There’s plenty more, as well. They’ve been transferred in 2K from a collection of recently unearthed 35mm reels. Blu-ray bonuses add “A Brief History of Kung Fu Cinema,” with martial-arts nerds Ric Meyers and Frank Djeng; commentary with Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Michael Worth (“The Bruceploitation Bible”), martial-arts instructor Greg Schiller and Rick Stelow of Drunken Master Video; “The Way of the Cube,” on the discovery of the original 35mm trailers underneath the stage of a maverick UK cinema.

TV-to-DVD
The Bold Ones: The New Doctors: The Complete Series
Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 3
Disney XD: Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Brave Heroes Big Rescues
With the release of “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors: The Complete Series,” Shout! Factory archivists have completed the cycle of groundbreaking series under NBC’s “The Bold Ones” umbrella: “The Lawyers,” “The Protectors” and “The Senator.” The network had also employed the wheel format for anthology series produced by Universal Studios, “The Name of the Game” and “The NBC Mystery Movie.” All of them reflected an effort by a new generation of producers to break from prime-time clichés and personality-driven gimmicks. Along with a mix of movie-tested actors and attractive newcomers, “The Bold Ones” showed new thinking in the various disciplines. “The New Doctors” chronicled the inner workings of the “prestigious” David Craig Institute of New Medicine, where Dr. David Craig (E.G. Marshall) and his assistants Dr. Paul Hunter (David Hartman) and Dr. Ted Stuart (John Saxon) tackled the most challenging of cases, frequently using cutting-edge medical techniques and “psychosocial” reasoning. At the dawn of the HMO era, doctors could afford the time to dig into maladies that today would be dismissed out of hand or passed along to another health-care provider. Despite some unrealistically soapy elements, the individual episodes – which ran for four seasons, from 1969 to 1973 — hold up pretty well today. Like most other network series of the time, women and diversity protagonists were limited to guest spots. (In “The Protectors,” African-American actor Hari Rhodes played a liberal district attorney to Leslie Neilsen’s conservative deputy chief of police.) Co-creator Steven Bochco was still a decade away from revolutionizing the industry with such series as “Hill Street Blues,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” Directors included Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) and Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor). The 43-episode set adds an “Ironside” crossover.

I don’t know if the producers of “Drunk History” have considered adding an interactive home game to the hilarious Comedy Central franchise. It wouldn’t be difficult for amateur comedians/alcoholics to improvise on their own, but a collection of scripts would save a tedious Wikipedia search for themes. The winners could be awarded a free Uber trip to a local rehab center or AA meeting. The star-studded show is an offshoot of the “Funny or Die” web series created in 2007 by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner. In each episode, an inebriated narrator struggles to recount an event from American history, while actors enact the narrator’s anecdote and lip sync the dialog. Season Three topics include New Jersey, Miami, spies, New Orleans, Cleveland, games, journalism and Los Angeles. Guests include Kat Dennings, Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Jaleel White, Greg Kinnear, Stephen Merchant, Justin Long, Jason Ritter, Tony Hale and Christopher Meloni.  Since January 12, 2015, a British version of “Drunk History” has been broadcast on the UK’s Comedy Central.

A comparison can be made between “Drunken History” and the five-part mini-series “Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales,” in that the entire “Star Wars” story — “Phantom Menace” to “Return of the Jedi” – is told through the subjective memories of R2-D2 and C-3PO. As far as I know, the beloved robots were stone-cold sober while recalling events in the mega-franchise’s history, as dramatized by characters (and backdrops) built from Lego bricks. A working knowledge of all-things-Star Wars is probably necessary to fully enjoy the mini-series, but not essential. An accidental kidnapping occurs while the droids are reminiscing at a victory celebration in the Ewok village on Endor. Some parents may be concerned that “Droid Tales” is nothing more than an infomercial for related products, but, sadly, such interlocking synergies have become a fact of life. At least, young fans should enjoy the action and writing.

Nickelodeon’s popular adventure series for pre-schoolers is represented by the six-adventure collection, “Paw Patrol: Brave Heroes, Big Rescues.” Their daring canine heroes are required to “em-Bark” on missions that take them through dangerous caves, bunny-filled woods, an icy tundra, under the waves and Adventure Bay, to prevent a dinosaur invasion.  and more adventures.

Capture the Flag
Enrique Gato’s computer-animated sci-fi feature, Capture the Flag, was made in Spain, about one of the great conspiracy theories in American history. No sooner did the Apollo 11 team splash down in the ocean than skeptics began to spread the theory that the mission was staged on a Hollywood backlot and directed for broadcast by Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey has made NASA groovy. Capture the Flag revisits the paranoia surrounding the mission and others to come. Mike Goldwing is a “plucky” 12-year-old surfer, whose father and grandfather were astronauts. Grandpa Frank remains haunted by the decision that kept him from joining Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface. Even that memory is being threatened by a billionaire, who wants to fly to the moon, mine its resources and steal the American flag planted there. In an effort to thwart the scheme and redeem his grandfather’s reputation, Mike, gramps and his best friends, stow away on the shuttle. While Capture the Flag could never be mistaken for a Pixar or DreamWorks production, scientific-minded youngsters should find something here to enjoy.

Dudes & Dragons
What I know about cosplay movies could be put in a thimble, with room left over for spare change. I can’t even tell the difference between a straight fantasy adventure and a parody of a fantasy adventure. The title here, Dudes & Dragons, sounds as if it could be a satire, but I think I missed most of the jokes. Then, I learned that it originally was called, “Dragon Warriors,” which, while more accurate, wasn’t nearly as promising. It has to count for something, though, that Maclain Nelson and Stephen Shimelk’s film won a top prize at the 2015 Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival. What was able to discern immediately was that all of the action was shot in front of a green screen, so, occasionally, it seems as if elements from other movies or podcasts are accidentally intruding on the characters in Dudes & Dragons. Despite the momentary presence of Luke Perry, I suspect that most male viewers will be attracted to the movie by the beautiful Lady Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who spends an inordinate amount of time chained to makeshift gallows in an outfit that reveals plenty of side-boob, if not nearly enough front-boob. She’s being punished for refusing to marry the evil wizard, Lord Tensley (James Marsters), who, in retaliation, releases a deadly dragon to terrorize the land and eliminate love. Only the intercession of a true Dragon Master can break the curse and neutralize the dragon. It gets far more complicated from here. At 122 minutes, there’s plenty of time for things to get uncomplicated. How many viewers will make it to the end is another question altogether.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Spotlight, Good Dinosaur, Cannibal Women, Bees and more

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Spotlight: Blu-ray
Sometimes, when the words “priest,” and “pedophilia” appear in a feature story or movie review, everything that comes after them is superfluous. As bummers go, the subject of Roman Catholic priests abusing their power by molesting children is right up there with gang rapes and terminal cancer. Some folks simply don’t want to be forced to deal with such a sordid subject, while others have already gotten their fill of it. At first glance, the late Oscar favorite, Spotlight, would appear to promise just such an unpleasant experience. The fact is, though, it’s no longer the kind of societal phenomenon that can sneak up and surprise anyone, anymore. Child abuse among priests and nuns has already been well covered in several fine documentaries and dramas, including Deliver Us From Evil, Sex Crimes and the Vatican, Twist of Faith, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Doubt, Sex in a Cold Climate and its dramatization, The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena and both The Boys of St. Vincent and The Boys of St. Vincent: 15 Years Later. Instead,like All the President’s Men, Spotlight is a journalistic procedural and the target of the investigation is abuse of power. While terrible crimes are unraveled, the excitement comes from watching highly trained and unusually dedicated reporters work on all eight cylinders in pursuit of a single goal: the truth. Just as President Nixon and his co-conspirators corrupted the power vested in the highest elected office in the land, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston used every available legal and extralegal tactic available to it to subvert justice and keep the crimes of its clergy secret. Nixon’s spokesmen told bald-faced lies to reporters, as did Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. In both instances, records that might have revealed the truth earlier were destroyed, misplaced or corrupted. In both journalistic procedurals, the papers’ publishers know exactly what’s at stake and understand the potential for reprisals by the targets, readers and advertisers. In both cases, too, reporters and editors acted as if the sanctity of the First Amendment depended on their professionalism, which, of course, it did. The biggest difference between the two movies can be found in the depiction of the investigative teams. By necessity, director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman portrayed Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee as if they were demi-gods and someone nicknamed Deep Throat was in possession of the Holy Grail.

Outside of the Globe newsroom, the Spotlight team mostly toiled in anonymity, absent the trappings of superstardom and exaggerated opinions of themselves. Incoming editor Marty Baron, now at the Washington Post, gets the props he deserves for finding a way to advance the story beyond what had already been reported by the Boston Herald and Phoenix. Laboring outside New York and the Washington Beltway somehow renders everything a journalist exposes less important, even taking down a deeply entrenched and ethically challenged Cardinal of the Church. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) does a nice job cutting through the fog of hard-core Catholicism that permeates every nook and cranny of official Boston. He gets terrific performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams, as the Spotlight reporters; Liev Schreiber, as Baron; John Slattery, as Ben Bradlee Jr.; and Stanley Tucci as attorney Mitchell Garabedian, the primary subject of the Showtime drama on the same case. The movie’s subtext pertains to the self-inflicted diminishment of the newspaper industry in the years since the Spotlight investigation. In 2001-02, the American newspaper industry was still riding pretty high. That would begin to change dramatically in the next few years, as papers began to pay attention to the demands of Wall Street over the expectations of readers. In some communities, investigative teams were deemed luxuries and dismantled. That situation is addressed in a panel discussion with the actual Spotlight reporters, “Uncovering the Truth: A Spotlight Team Roundtable,” along with a couple of short featurettes.

The Good Dinosaur: 3D/2D Blu-ray
The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar
If Pixar/Buena Vista’s The Good Dinosaur didn’t exactly set the international box office on fire when it opened in time for our Thanksgiving weekend, if not anyone else’s, it might be because, 1) animated dinosaurs are as overexposed as zombies on the big screen, or 2) news of it being a “troubled” project spread beyond the Hollywood trades, diluting any positive buzz before it began. My guess is No. 1. By all of the usual standards, The Good Dinosaur is a very good movie. It tells a compelling story in an entertaining way and looks great on whatever size screen it’s shown. Critical mass had already been reached on anthropomorphic dinosaurs, along with stories about lions, tigers, polar bears and penguins threatened by man’s encroachment on their habitats. Then, too, there’s the matter of the PG rating, which, while not unusual for Pixar, is something parents expect of Disney products. When characters die or are wounded severely in a Disney movie, the MPAA invariably gives it a pass, with a “G.” This doesn’t always apply to Pixar-branded products, however, and The Good Dinosaur does contain a couple of things that might disturb very young viewers, if no one else. The “what if” premise might require some explaining, as well, especially for home-schooled children of fundamentalists. What if the asteroid believed to have been responsible for the destruction most animal life 65 million years ago actually missed the planet by an eyelash and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Among other things, the movie suggests, giant cold-blooded lizards would be the dominant life force and human evolution would be stunted by the sheer force of their enormity and head start in the evolutionary race. Wisely, The Good Dinosaur doesn’t address the possibility that the Garden of Eden, itself, might have been devoured by grazing does omnivores, leaving Adam and Eve naked and hungry. Instead, vegan dinosaurs here have mastered the ability to raise crops on farms on well-manicured farm, while carnivores herd buffalo instead eating everything in sight. (Appropriately, Sam Elliott provides the voice of the cowboy T-Rex.)

After being washed away from his family in a flood, an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes friends with a feral human boy, Spot, whose playfulness sometimes gets in the way of the journey home. The imaginatively drawn landscapes and backdrops – reminiscent of the American west – will help younger viewers understand what’s happening. So will the stellar voicing cast, which includes co-writer/director Pete Sohn, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley and, of course, John Ratzenberger. The final product probably was compromised a bit by a midcourse correction during its six-year production schedule. It resulted in the original director being replaced, the story rewritten and most of the voice cast let go. Serious staff compression couldn’t have helped morale, either. The highlight of the 2D/3D Blu-ray package is the Oscar-nominated theatrical short, Sanjay’s Super Team, in which a fully assimilated Indian-American boy, Sanjay, connects with his family’s traditional religious beliefs by fantasizing a battle between three Hindu deities and a three-headed demon. Pixar board artist Sanjay Patel (The Incredibles) directed the semi-autobiographical short, with Brent Schraff providing the voices. As a thematic and stylistic merging of West and East, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is an example of the freedom accorded makers of short films, unhindered by commercial expectations and meg-budget pressure. Other bonus material includes an audio commentary, with Sohn and teammates going deep on making-of and inspirational background; “The Filmmakers’ Journey,” with Sohn addressing issues related to embarking on a first feature, especially in midstream; “Hide and Seek,” with Arlo and Spot; “|True Lies About Dinosaurs,” in which kids can learn what separates movie dinosaurs from real ones; “Recyclosaurus,” the crew competes to create the best dinosaur ever, from discarded items; “Every Part of the Dinosaur,” which explores the animation challenges; “Following the T-Rex Trail,” in which artists visit a working cattle ranch to research how things are done; deleted scenes, with intros; and scenes developed for the previous version.

The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar extends Disney’s Pride Lands franchise by introducing Kion, the son of Simba and Nala, and the younger brother of Kiara. He serves as the prince of the Pride Lands and the leader of the Lion Guard, an elite team of animals tasked with preserving the savannah. Along with Bunga the honey badger, Fuli the cheetah, Beshte the hippo and Ono the egret, Kion vows to defend the Pride Lands from predators and maintain balance within the Circle of Life. Typical of the series, “Return of the Roar” benefits from lots of lots of humor, music and kids’ familiarity with beloved characters. It coincides with the debut of a new “Lion Guard” series on Disney Channel.

The Girl in the Book
Freshman writer/director Marya Cohn’s The Girl in the Book could have wound up being the quintessential made-for-Lifetime movie, in that its protagonist is an ambitious young woman whose bad choices as teenager come back to haunt her as an adult. Although Emily VanCamp’s movie-star good looks sometimes work against the credibility of her character, Alice Harvey – she tries to un-glam the publishing-house drone, but to little avail — she’s probably representative of a certain kind of yuppie, who blows her paycheck on fashions seen in Vogue, makeup and overpriced cocktails. Ana Mulvoy-Ten, the European newcomer who plays the teenage version of Alice, kind of reminds me of Stevie Nicks on her best days. As the daughter of an aggressively obnoxious literary agent, teenage Alice allows herself to be seduced by one of her dad’s clients (Michael Nyqvist) in return for some writing advice. When she discovers that the loss of her virginity plays a central role in the cad’s new novel, she crawls into a shell she’ll be forced to carry throughout early adulthood. Instead of punching out the writer, Alice’s dad (Michael Cristofer) applauds her choice in mentors. Nearing 30, Alice is doing well enough as a virtual go-fer to somehow afford a cool Manhattan apartment, but she suffers from almost chronic insecurity caused by the first two men in her life. In another soap-opera cliché, it manifests itself in occasionally feverish bouts with promiscuity. At the same time as the novelist unexpectedly walks back into Alice’s life, and she’s cynically assigned to supervise his publicity junket, she discovers a needle in the haystack in the form of an up-and-coming female author. Instead of being hailed as the house’s next great literary agent, Alice is forced to watch the men in her life – now, including her dick boss – stumble over themselves taking credit for the find. It probably works that way in real life, too. Cohn’s juggling act includes humanizing Alice’s various dilemmas while avoiding the yuppie and feminist clichés that offer easy answers for difficult problems.

Frankenstein: Blu-ray
As rites of passage go, watching the 1931 version of Frankenstein, alone, in a darkened room, is pretty imposing. Not only has this introduction to the horror genre passed the test of time, but it also serves the purpose of bonding parents to their children. Usually, fathers and sons, but, occasionally, dads and daughters. (I’ve never met a woman who’s bonded with her daughter or son over a classic Universal monster flick, not even Bride of Frankenstein, and certainly not the Three Stooges.) Even though they share the same title, Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein shouldn’t be confused with James Whale’s original, especially as a rite of passage. Rose has given us such idiosyncratic indie entertainments as Immortal Beloved, Ivansxtc, The Kreutzer Sonata, Mr. Nice and 2 Jacks. The closest he’s come to the mainstream is Candyman, a warmly recalled horror fantasy partially filmed in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Housing Project. His Frankenstein is told entirely from the perspective of the monster (Xavier Samuel), here named Adam. As created by Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss in their 21st Century lab, Adam is born with superhuman strength, but the mind of an infant. At first, his creators are giddy with hope for Adam. It doesn’t take long before he begins to regress physically, however, coaxing the scientists to start all over again with a cloned Monster. Adam may not be a genius, but he recognizes the pain that could come with a premature autopsy. His strength allows him to break away from his constraints and escape into a world he can’t possibly be prepared to face. From this point on, Frankenstein follows Mary Shelley’s blueprint, right down the unfortunate little girl and blind musician. His basic problem is that he doesn’t know how to differentiate kindness and confrontation. Neither is able to modulate his Hulk-like strength. The reason I caution those unfamiliar with the story and its place in the canon from starting with Rose’s Frankenstein is because of the hyper-realistic depictions of surgical gore and brutality. This includes Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to dissect his failed creature and coping with life as a homeless Monster. As before, viewers will be required to decide for themselves as to whether Adam is more or less humane than humans he confronts on the mean streets of L.A.

Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death: Blu-ray
American Horror Project, Volume 1: Blu-ray
At one time, political satirist and standup comedian Bill Maher must have harbored ambitions of becoming a star of the comedy stage, silver screen and television. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Watch his magnum cinema opus, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, and you’ll see for yourself how much more difficult it was Maher to play a politically incorrect jungle guide than to become a politically incorrect talk-show host and celebrity atheist on HBO. Of course, he was young in 1989 and probably envisioned parleying “Cannibal Women” into a regular sitcom gig, in addition to his standup gigs, just like everyone else on the comedy circuit. In J.F. Lawton’s feature debut, Maher also had to overcome playing second fiddle to Shannon Tweed and Adrienne Barbeau, who had already reached iconic status in the world of T&A exploitation flicks. The movie itself is a parody of radical feminism, constructed on a foundation laid by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with a few references to The African Queen, Indiana Jones and Disneyland’s Jungle Ride thrown in for pop-culture mavens. Tweed plays Margo Hunt, a card-carrying member of N.O.W. – really! — and respected anthropology professor at a SoCal college. She’s enlisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to counter a plot by fellow educator Dr. Kurtz (Barbeau), who’s raised a guerrilla army of Piranha Women to corner California’s avocado market. No man dares enter the jungle surrounding San Bernardino and Riverside – that’s right, jungle – as long as the cannibal warriors control the orchards. Accompanying Maher and Tweed on the harrowing up-river journey is Bunny, an impressionable home-economics major and brunette in dumb-blond drag. While the leading ladies get to keep their clothes on, a few of the Piranha Women get viewers hopes up by shedding their tops in the opening scene. This qualifies as a semi-bummer, considering that most of the reason for watching “Cannibal Women” is the possibility of Hall of Fame boobage from Tweed and Barbeau. In its place is a screenplay that is frequently quite funny and genuinely satirical. The nicely upgraded Blu-ray only adds a bevy of trailers from other kooky Full Moon pictures.

Over at Arrow Video/MVD, this week’s genre treat arrives in the form of American Horror Project: Volume 1, a compilation that promises “three tales of violence and madness from the 1970s” and largely delivers. The first, Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), is most noteworthy for the appearance of Herve Villechaize, immediately prior to his breakthrough appearances in The Man With the Golden Gun and “Fantasy Island.” Here, though, the heavily French-accented actor is only one of several malevolent freaks residing in the bowels of a run-down fairground. Outsiders Vena Norris and her parents take jobs at Mr. Malatesta’s carnival, running a midway game booth, so they can search for their missing son. Its manager, Mr. Blood (Jerome Dempsey), is a vampire who sees in the Norris clan a temporary supply of plasma. In an underground chamber, Malatesta (Daniel Dietrich) performs deranged experiments and runs old horror films to keep the company of cannibal freaks amused. Christopher Speeth keeps thing creepy by experimenting with camera angles, lighting and atmospheric music. The movie’s low-budget constraints are part of its charms.

In Matt Cimber’s truly disturbing American giallo, The Witch Who Came From the Sea, Millie Perkins plays a woman whose dreams and fantasies – triggered by memories of her sexually abusive father – push her to the brink of madness at a most inopportune time for her male lovers. Twenty years after her dad “disappeared at sea,” Molly is finally coming to grips with the reality of her childhood ordeal, which she’s sublimated for all those years. Now, hooked on pills and booze, and working in a Venice Beach nightclub, Molly takes advantage of her access to high-profile father figures to take out her frustrations. They include a pair of Muscle Beach boneheads, a pair of NFL stars and an actor in a popular commercial for razors. Still best known for her debut performance in The Diary of Ann Frank, Perkins shows a lot of courage in a role that requires her to be semi-nude for long stretches of time and be a credible psycho-killer. Turns out, she was perfect for the part. The fact that the story was written by her second husband, Robert Thom (Bloody Mama), probably explains why she accepted such a challenging role. Forty years later, it easily qualifies as an arthouse slasher flick.

Robert Allen Schnitzer’s The Premonotion tells the story of another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After she’s released from a mental institution, the still unstable Andrea (Ellen Barber) is determined to locate the daughter she gave up for adoption years earlier. When her closest friend, a well-meaning midway clown, takes a photograph of a girl who looks like the child, only five years older, it triggers Andrea’s obsessive need to kidnap her. Danielle Brisebois (“All in the Family”) plays little Jennie, who loves her foster family and has no desire to reconnect with her birth mother. Jennie’s foster mother, played by Sharon Farrell, has premonitions of bad things to come, so it comes as no surprise when investigators are required to rely on ESP and other paranormal techniques to locate and rescue the child. Andrea’s the key suspect, so things get very weird and scary when she’s killed in an accident before the child is discovered. Bonus materials on the six-disc set include three short films by Schnitzer; several background and making-of featurettes, featuring fresh and vintage interviews with casts and crew; a production stills gallery; reversible sleeves for each film., featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork; and a limited edition 60-page booklet, containing new articles on the films. Each film arrives with interesting interviews and background material. This is especially true for Perkins’ recollections from “The Witch.”

The Bees: Blu-ray
The Curse/Curse II: The Bite: Blu-ray
Millennium / R.O.T.O.R.: Blu-ray
The environmental consciousness that grew out of the 1960s’ political movements not only inspired Earth Day and its various green-tinged offshoots, but also a slew of eco-horror films informed by the same dire warnings of disaster that fuel today’s cautionary tales about global-warming. Lacking sophisticated CGI technology and hobbled by Corman-esque budgets, few of these movies were scary enough to keep audiences from collapsing in unintended laugher. Nevertheless, eco-cide wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility, so devising new twists was never a problem for screenwriters. Among the critters that were exploited almost to extinction, but still pop up occasionally in straight-to-DVD flicks are the 28 recognized subspecies of Apis mellifera, a.k.a., killer bees. The “Citizen Kane” of killer-bee movies, of course, remains Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, a big budget affair with lots of stars. Also released in 1978 was Alfredo Zacarias’ much less ambitious The Bees, which probably cost a tenth of what Allen spent on his picture, but squandered every opportunity to become a cult classic. Even with a driven-in-proven cast in John Saxon, Angel Tompkins and John Carradine, the Mexican director approached the project as if Tompkins hadn’t already proven her grindhouse cred in Prime Cut, The Teacher and Walking Tall, Part 2; Saxon hadn’t co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and was coming off a string of giallo flicks; and Carradine wasn’t a living legend in the horror genre. Instead, Zacarias played it completely straight, with his stars portraying the only three scientists standing between an accidental invasion of killer bees and the apocalypse. Vinegar Syndrome has accorded The Bees a bright new 2k restoration from the 35mm negative and added a video interview with Zacarias,

In a double-feature of The Curse and it unrelated sequel, Curse II: The Bite from the late-1980s’ drive-in circuit, the eco-monsters are represented by a toxic meteorite from space hell and irradiated rattle snakes. Neither movie is very good, but genre completists will find a modicum of value in both low-budget pictures. Based on H. P. Lovecraft’s short novel, “The Colour Out of Space” – re-adapted in 2010 by the promising Viet-German newcomer, Huan Vu — The Curse describes the evolution of a waterborne plague somewhere in the rural South, caused either by a virus carried by a meteorite or a fear-mongering land speculator. As the icy-blue rock begins to melt, the nearest farm’s vegetables and fruit appear to flourish unnaturally. On closer inspection, the produce is rancid. Soon, the drinking water is corrupted, as well, leaving residents horribly disfigured. When I say “horribly,” however, I don’t mean in a scary way. As directed by actor David Keith and written by David Chaskin, the most frightening thing in the movie is Claude Akins’ bible-banging bully of a patriarch. Also along for the ride are Wil Wheaton, Malcolm Danare, Cooper Huckabee, John Schneider and, as the horny hausfrau, Kathleen Jordon Gregory. The campier they play it, the better the movie is. Curse II: The Bite is set in the desert Southwest, where radioactive residue from an abandoned nuclear test site has had an adverse effect on the snake population. Once bitten, a snake’s victim begins to develop characteristics of the serpent (enhanced by special-effects master, Screaming Mad George). Here, the central focus is on a pair of young lovers (J. Eddie Peck, Jill Schoelen), who reject the advice of a local yokel by making a detour through the impacted area. Also playing along are Jamie Farr, Shiri Appleby and Bo Svenson.

A second double-feature from the same period and distributor, Shout! Factory, resurrects a pair of sci-fi turkeys, one of which could have benefited from a much larger budget and higher production values, and the other, a RoboCop and Terminator 2 rip-off, that is so unbelievably bad, it demands to be seen. Based on a novel by John Varley, Millennium opens with the collision of a commercial jetliner and alien spacecraft, trolling through a crack in the time/space continuum. Kris Kristofferson plays the NTSB investigator, who, after being encouraged to investigate the peculiar radio transmissions from the cockpit, can’t help but fall in love with a time-shifting woman warrior, Louise (Cheryl Ladd), from 1,000 years in the future. Louise’s cohorts want to prevent the Earth’s suicidal rush to environmental apocalypse, but her romantic inclinations complicate their mission. Originally slated for a much grander presentation, directed by Douglas Trumbull, Millennium suffers from budgetary malnutrition. In 1989, kiddie-television specialist Cullen Blaine decided to jump into the deep end of the filmmaking pool with R.O.T.O.R., a movie about a futuristic cop from the Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research workshop near Dallas. In its prototype stage, R.O.T.O.R. is mistakenly activated and hits the street looking for criminals on whom to exercise its programmed directive: “Judge and execute.” We know that robotics have come a long way from the drawing boards of 1989, but, if anyone had actually seen it, R.O.T.O.R might have stopped all development in its tracks. That said, you may never experience a better worst movie.

The Space Movie
In 1979, British rockumentary specialist Tony Palmer was commissioned by NASA to make a film celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It wasn’t a natural fit, but someone at the space agency admired his epic history of 20th Century music, All You Need Is Love – spanning ragtime and glam rock – and gave him a shot at the project. At the time, the space program had lost the luster attached to it during the 1960s and early 1970s, and American taxpayers had adopted a been-there/done-that attitude, which would extend to the shuttle missions. Released to almost no acclaim or marketing push, Virgin Films’ The Space Movie combines rarely, if ever seen color footage made available by NASA with the prog-rock stylings of British musician and composer Mike Oldfield, whose “Tubular Bells” became a smash hit after being showcased in “The Exorcist.” Nowhere near as trippy as Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” Oldfield’s heavily engineered score complements the underlying mood of excitement and apprehension that accompanied every space mission, from the early rocket tests to the landing on the lunar surface. I’m pretty familiar with most of news footage that emerged from that period, but was surprised by the different looks NASA made available to Palmer. The same applies to some of the radio communications between the astronauts and engineers in Houston.

When Bette Met Mae
If there are two more luminous stars in the Hollywood firmament than Bette Davis and Mae West, you’d need the Hubble Space Telescope to locate them. Ingénues come and go, but the great stars shine forever. If When Bette Met Mae won’t win any awards for its documentary attributes, as a souvenir from a bygone era, it’s a pip. In the fall of 1973, a cocktail party was given by Charles Pollock, a West Hollywood antiques dealer, for his irrepressible friend, Davis, and her truly legendary guest, West. While they’d never met, Bette and Mae held each other in high regard. West was accompanied by her two escorts, Stan Musgrove and Glenn Shahan, who were eager to meet Davis. Also present were Vik Greenfield, who had been Davis’ personal assistant, and Wes Wheadon, a young optometrist and friend of the host. That night, Wheadon happily agreed to serve drinks to Pollock’s guests. He also made sure that a reel-to-reel tape was running and unobtrusive. Blessedly, the men held their peace while Mae and Davis discussed their careers, how they crafted their unique styles of acting, their screen images, writing scripts, demanding fair pay, screen rights and residuals. Neither did they ignore censorship and the Hays Code, stardom, husbands, boyfriends, children and their loyal gay fan base. Indeed, Mae recalls her controversial 1927 stage show, “The Drag,” which was gay, gay, gay before being gay was cool … or legal. What’s captured on tape and dramatized by lip-synching actors is the very definition of the lively art of conversation. If the acting is bothersome, close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to the radio. Sally Kellerman serves as narrator, adding some historical background and introducing archival clips, Polaroids and contemporary interviews. The tape recording has been painstakingly restored and is easy on the ears. The only regret comes in hearing Wheadon admit to running out of tape just as dinner was being served.

Becoming Bulletproof
Every so often, an actor with a physical or learning disability will land a recurring role on a television series, such as “Glee,” “Life Goes On” or “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” While their characters aren’t necessarily there to send a message to viewers about the need for inclusivity in the media – Peter Dinklage and Marlee Matlin are prime examples of actors who’ve transcended what others might consider to be their disability – it’s no sure bet these parts will go to similarly disabled actors. Becoming Bulletproof is a documentary about a Western being made by mixed group of able and disabled actors, as part of an annual endeavor under the Zeno Mountain Farm marquee to write, produce and star in original short films. The participants come from all parts of the United States and represent a myriad of disabilities. Prominent in both the documentary and “Bulletproof,” for example, are A.J. Murray, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, and Jeremy Vest, who was born with Williams syndrome and plays the film’s titular hero. Such assignments aren’t easy to perform, but all of the performers are committed to completing the project and attending the Hollywood premiere. There’s nothing sappy about it. Two years ago, activists raised a storm when NBC cast Blair Underwood to play the paraplegic protagonist in a re-boot of the 1970s hit, “Ironside.” It’s possible that the network felt as if it could dodge controversy by hiring an African-American actor, but protesters would have preferred someone who’s actually confined to wheelchair. The makers of Becoming Bulletproof are making a similar case, although it’s more likely that it will be easier to prove their points by appearing in podcasts and on stage, first. To paraphrase the legendary Chicago Alderman Paddy Bauler, “Hollywood ain’t ready for reform.”

TV on DVD
Jesus of Nazareth: The Complete Miniseries: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Chuggington: Delivery Dash at the Docks
One thing is clear from the GOP presidential debates: while all of the candidates claim to have a personal relationship with God, none understands what it means to be Christian, according to the gospels in anyone’s bible. If Jesus suddenly appeared on the stage of a televised debate, he’d sweep it clean of politicians and spin doctors the same way he evicted the merchants and money changers from the Temple. When Pope Francis observed, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” he was acknowledging the messages delivered in “Jesus of Nazareth: The Complete Miniseries: 40th Anniversary Edition.” The pontiff probably would disagree vehemently with some of the positions held by Hillary and Bernie, as well, but, at least, they don’t claim to have God on their sides. While it’s true that Pope Paul VI asked Sir Lew Grade to consider making a film on the life of Jesus, the British impresario envisioned the project as being truly ecumenical in spirit. Directed by Franco Ziffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) and co-written by Zeffirelli, Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (White Nights), “Jesus of Nazareth” has been described as a cinematic Diatessaron (“gospel harmony”), blending the narratives of all four New Testament accounts. Even at 382 minutes, the writers elected to compress aspects of the biblical texts and use a few composite characters. There are miracles, but none that require elaborate special effects. Anticipating an international audience, Grace rounded up a cast of familiar names and faces, including Olivia Hussey, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Claudia Cardinale, James Earl Jones, James Mason, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasance, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Michael York, Stacy Keach, Ralph Richardson, Fernando Ray and Sir Laurence Olivier. Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were considered for leading man, but it was awarded to the relatively unknown Robert Powell, whose performance appears to have been informed by Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told. In 1977, Zeffirelli’s no-frills, naturalistic approach to the subject and setting stood out from such less-traditional plays, books and movies as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” “The Passover Plot” and even “Life of Brian.” It should be noted that Jesus doesn’t break out in song at unexpected moments and families escaping tyranny aren’t referred to as “terrorists.”

I don’t know how much the British children’s series, “Chuggington,” owes to the earlier success of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends,” both of which feature anthropomorphized train locomotives and adventures targeted at very young viewers. Despite giving more than a 25-year head start to the folks at ITV/PBS behind “Thomas,” including guest conductors Ringo Starr, George Carlin, Alec Baldwin and Pierce Brosnan, the Ludorum/BBC production benefits mightily from a distribution partnership here with Disney Junior. It would have been difficult for the creators of “Chuggington” not to be impressed by the merchandising, licensing and video acumen that propelled “Thomas” into the commercial stratosphere. In “Chuggington: Delivery Dash at the Docks,” Koko is thrilled to be spending the day training with Daley, the yard’s new express delivery engine, and new dock master Skipper Stu. Patience and teamwork are the primary lessons being learned in the new DVD compilation, which contains six episodes from the show’s fifth season and a collectible Daley collectible toy.

The DVD Wrapup: Black Mass, Trumbo, Death by Hanging, Taviani Trilogy, Iron Ministry, Paprika, Black Panthers and more

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Black Mass: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s only started watching movies recently would think that South Boston has always been the crime capital of America. It wasn’t until Peter Yate’s splendid adaptation of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle was released in 1973 and, a decade later, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict and several TV series and movies based on the novels of Robert B. Parker, that Beantown crime statistics became relevant to anyone outside New England. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s familiarity with the turf would help Gus Van Sant make Good Will Hunting such a treat, but it wasn’t until the release of the hyperviolent Southie and The Boondock Saints that South Boston assumed its rightful place, alongside New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, as a breeding ground for Irish American hooligans. Dorchester native Dennis Lehane picked up where George V. Higgins and Parker left off, with Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River providing the source material for two very good movies. (His short story, “Animal Rescue,” was adapted and relocated to Brooklyn, as the underappreciated The Drop.) Martin Scorsese found fertile ground in Boston for turning the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs into The Departed, and Affleck would return home as director of the bank-heist thriller, The Town. Last year, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass further tested the skills of Hollywood stars to master a dialect only recognizable to longtime residents of Southie or Dorchester. Like the fictional Showtime series, “Brotherhood,” which featured two Irish-American brothers on opposite sides of the law – Rhode Island, standing in for Southie — Black Mass depicts the rise and fall of gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger and his improbably more civilized sibling, political kingpin William “Billy” Bulger. (Jack Nicholson’s thuggish crime boss in The Departed was loosely modeled on Whitey Bulger, as well.)

Black Mass picks up on Bulger’s career after his release from federal prison in the late 1960s and the beginning of his longtime relationship with FBI Special Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who had grown up in the same housing project as the Bulgers and needed a leg up in the agency’s pecking order. As the battle-scarred leader of the Irish mob’s Winter Hill Gang, Bulger was a major player in every crime category in South Boston. He broke the time-honored rule against cooperating with law-enforcement officials to cement his position of power over the Patriarca crime family. This was OK with the FBI agents who were more interested in the breaking the stranglehold of the Italian Mafia and would benefitted professionally by bringing it down. In return for Bulger’s tips, not all of which were helpful, the Winter Hill Gang was given a free pass to run South Boston for 20 years. The FBI’s side of the quid pro quo would prove more embarrassing for the department than would the revelation of Bulger’s decision to rat on his enemies. Finally, though, the corrupted agents were replaced by new ones. In 1994, one step ahead of a RICO indictment, Bulger went on the lam for 16 years with his girlfriend. Trapped, his cohorts rushed to save their own asses. Some of them received lesser sentences than the federal and state authorities convicted of aiding the Winter Hill Gang. Connolly, credited with “turning” Bulger, has never shown much remorse for his action and is still in prison. All of this was related in, “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, a decade before Bulger would be brought to justice.

Unlike so many other Hollywood gangster movies, Black Mass doesn’t waste a lot of time attempting to humanize Bulger and his pals. Indeed, it can be argued that Johnny Depp’s decision to wear icy blue contact lens occasionally makes him look too demonic. At one point, the recently released ex-con orders his buddies to help an elderly woman with her groceries, but it’s a brief sequence, quickly overshadowed by violent crimes. Bulger’s pain over losing his 6-year-old son, Douglas, to Reyes disease, is feels genuine, if only because it heightens his resolve to stay out of jail. Otherwise, Depp’s portrayal honestly describes a sociopathic killer, who doesn’t feel as if societal rules apply to him. His wings would be clipped in 2011 after federals agents, responding to a tip, swooped down on the Santa Monica apartment he shared with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig. She’s currently cooling her heels in a low-security Minnesota prison for conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and identity fraud. Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) remained loyal to his older brother and it ultimately would cost him his jobs as president of the Massachusetts Senate and that of the University of Massachusetts system. Cooper treats his downfall as fact, not tragedy. As crucial to understanding how things happen in Black Mass and other Southie-based films is the overwhelming perception of a community so lacking in charm, charisma and positive inertia that it practically defines what Karl Marx meant by lumpenproletariat. The only things that get between the characters and their shot glasses are family, religion and sports. Robert Mitchum’s Eddie “Fingers” Coyle and Peter Boyle’s bartender, Dillon, created the template for the characters in Black Mass more than 40 years ago, both as snitches and pawns in a much bigger game. If Bulger’s saga feels incomplete, it’s only because the book and movie end on a question mark. I’m sure there’s room for a sequel, documenting the gangster and his moll’s international search for a home, but Constantine Nasr’s fascinating hour-long documentary, “The Manhunt for Whitey Bulger,” included in the Blu-ray package renders it unnecessary.

Trumbo: Blu-ray
The story of the Hollywood 10 has haunted the movie industry for more than 60 years. The debates and protests that surrounded the awarding of an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan, in 1999, demonstrated just how little interest many insiders had in recognizing those artists who named names, while also being accorded the freedom to make unquestionably great films. With the exception of the Broadway theater guilds, blacklisting maintained a tight grip on all providers of entertainment and information for more than a decade. Even when the dam broke, a cloud of uncertainty remained as to how willing audiences and advertisers would be to forgive, forget and admit they’d been duped by megalomaniacal despots in Congress. The success of Spartacus and Exodus, both written by Dalton Trumbo, were huge successes despite his refusal to name names or otherwise participate in the witch hunt. He had won two Academy Awards in the 1950s, but under someone else’s name. Not everyone was so fortunate … or as necessary to the success of other actors and directors. Bryan Cranston’s twitchy portrayal of the writer in Jay Roach’s Trumbo has been nominated for a Best Actor statuette. He performs an amazing balancing act: maintaining Trumbo’s now-popular image of heroic crusader for personal liberty, while also depicting a man so self-absorbed that he treats his family as if they belonged to someone else. As delightfully idiosyncratic as Trumbo seems while sitting in his bathtub writing scripts, the rudeness directed at his daughter for interrupting him to share her birthday cake reveals something dark in the heart of this “millionaire communist.”  Likewise, when the teenager asks for time away from her courier duties to participate in civil rights protests, the writer dismisses her request as being somehow less important than churning out melodramas and exploitation vehicles in his tub. In fact, by comparison to too many other targets of the HUAC panel Trumbo’s agony was short-lived and limited to moving the family from a pleasant farm-like setting to blue-collar Highland Park. John McNamara’s screenplay doesn’t ignore or minimize the problems faced by others, but Trumbo isn’t their movie and the complexity of the politics surrounding leftist activity in Hollywood is to a few sentences in the prelude.

Being an advocate of workers’ rights and unions before and during World War II, when the USSR was ally, was relatively easy when compared to taking a stand against Stalinism and redefining what it means to be a socialist in a country whose economy depended on keeping unions in check. Louis C.K. does a nice job as Arlen Hird, an amalgam character who represents the true believers in the Writers Guild and pays for it with inoperable cancer. He and Trumbo nearly come to blows when they disagree on survival strategies. Political debates aside, however, it’s easy to spot the antagonists and cowards in Trumbo. The squeakiest wheel among the anti-communist contingent is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who attacks the perceived passivity of studio heads with anti-Semitic threats. The cowardice of the Jewish-immigrant studio heads, who kowtowed before the weight of her rhetorical power. Walt Disney’s antagonism toward the guilds was well known and much appreciated by the HUAC panelists. The unasked question that will be left in the minds of some viewers is, “Could history repeat itself?” Trumbo doesn’t directly address it, perhaps because it would spoil the happy ending. Demagoguery has already raised its ugly head in the GOP primary debates and it’s only a matter of time before one of the candidates opens the can of worms containing evangelical and conservative desires to rein in the godless studios, writers and artists they blame for polluting popular culture. Absent the silver-tongued eloquence and political connections of Jack Valenti, the MPAA may not be powerful enough to hold off attacks by evangelical Christians, Tea Party politicians and Fox News pundits … who benefit whenever Rupert Murdoch’s studio interests score a direct hit at the box office. I can hear it, now: “Are you now or have you ever been an Atheist, Jew or Muslim? Despite the popularity of Cranston and John Goodman’s terrific portrayal of a producer more interested in making money than bowing to HUAC demands, Trumbo grossed less than $8 million in a release that never exceeded 660 domestic screens. The similarly themed Good Night, and Good Luck made several times that much money and did OK overseas, as well. The Way We Were, which also addressed the blacklist period, did pretty well, too. Even with my reservations, I think that Trumbo deserves to find an audience in DVD/Blu-ray. It adds a making-of featurette and backgrounder on the characters.

Death by Hanging: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
According to data reported on the Death Penalty Information Center website, there have been 47 botched executions of condemned criminals in U.S. prisons since 1982, some more hideous than others. I only mention this to alleviate any skepticism raised by the failed execution, by hanging, that constitutes the central conceit of Nagisa Oshima’s inky black Death by Hanging. Made in 1968, the famously provocative Japanese filmmaker (In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) sets up the by-the-book execution by reminding viewers of the public’s overwhelming resistance to eliminating the death penalty. He also wonders out loud how many of the people in favor of retaining it actually know how the state goes about killing someone it deems unworthy of life. American audiences have a pretty good idea, by now, of the procedures observed here, but the Japanese system adheres to a formality that has been strictly observed for decades. The circus atmosphere that attends some executions here is thwarted by a degree of secrecy that would take the fun out of it for some American proponents of the death penalty. Here, every detail is taken into account and described by the narrator in a matter-of-fact tone. The only hitch in Death by Hanging comes when the doomed man refuses to give up the ghost and the witnesses have no idea of how to proceed. In America, the warden might simply order someone to close the curtains in the chamber until the presiding nurse or doctor can hit the right vein with the needle or the victim finally stops moaning, twitching or smoking, depending on the method favored at the time. Here, though, the warden, clergy, guards and other dignitaries are forced to deal with sometimes contradictory legal, extralegal, religious and existential questions that border on absurdist theater.

Not only do they argue over whether someone can be executed twice for the same crime, but also what constitutes death and consciousness. Moreover, in Japan, the killer must be aware of the severity of his act and understand that capital punishment is the proper remedy for this affront to humanity. If he’s left unconscious or amnesiac, as is the case in Death by Hanging, what the man had admitted to before the failed execution applies to a second attempt. Or, does it? Oshima was inspired by the case of Ri Chin’u, a Korean who murdered two Japanese girls in 1958. In the film, the corpse that refuses to die belongs to “R,” who, Oshima wants us to believe, was shaped by Japan’s historic persecution of South Koreans and growing up too impoverished to anticipate a meaningful life. Not only does “R” not die in the hanging, but, when he regains consciousness, he’s completely unaware of the circumstances under which he was imprisoned. To spark his erased memory, the witnesses and guards even go so far as to re-enact the rapes and murders of the girls. The behavior will remind viewers of works by Brecht, Beckett, Kafka, Ionesco and Pinter. Things get even stranger when the re-enactors leave the chamber and go into the city streets, where the crimes happened. The supplemental features include a new video piece, featuring critic and film historian Tony Rayns; and Oshima’s documentary short, “Diary of Yunbogi,” which informs Death by Hanging.

Paulette: Blu-ray
While there’s certainly been no scarcity of movies about marijuana and folks who smoke imbibe, it’s the rare stoner flick that’s advanced the subgenre beyond Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, which, in 1978, was dismissed by critics, but has since been embraced by tens of millions of entry-level potheads and their nostalgic parents. Among the titles that have endured are Half Baked, The Big Lebowski, Dazed and Confused, Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Go, The Wackness and Smiley Face. The jury’s still out on last year’s Dope and Inherent Vice. Tucked into a smaller niche are curiosities as Humboldt County, Saving Grace and Paulette, which aren’t any more about the stoner phenomenon than were Easy Rider and The Harder They Come, although parsing the difference might require an X-Acto knife. All three of these stories are told from the supply side, with Saving Grace and Paulette adding a clever senior-citizen twist to proceedings. In Saving Grace (2000), Brenda Blethyn’s recently widowed character conspires with her gardener, played by Craig Ferguson, to solve their financial dilemmas by growing high-grade pot in her greenhouse and selling it in London. The next logical project for British director Nigel Cole would be the delightfully cheeky Calendar Girls. Newly released in DVD/Blu-ray, Paulette takes a slightly different tack on the subject of widows and weed. In it, the late New Wave star Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore) plays an unlikeable old crone, who’s managed to alienate almost everyone in her life, except a very few elderly friends. Aggressively bigoted, Paulette distanced herself from her daughter for marrying a cop of African descent and bringing a mixed-race grandson into her life. She also refuses to disguise her distaste for the immigrants who’ve changed the racial balance in her neighborhood.

One night, while digging through piles of junk on the street, Paulette comes into possession of a large chunk of hashish. Instead of handing it over to her son-in-law, she makes a deal with the local drug dealer to share proceeds from anything she can sell on her daily rounds. Naturally, she discovers plenty of eager customers for such high-quality product. The dealer is sufficiently impressed to increase her supply, the proceeds from which she needs to prevent eviction. Almost accidentally, Paulette extends her brand by adding hashish to her already famous baked goods. The sweets are such an instant hit that she recruits her friends to bake and sell the products. As is the case in most of these movies, Paulette’s success attracts the attention of far more organized criminals, who want to muscle into her business and force her to sell to kids with a sweet tooth. The movie’s brightest moments are supplied by 7-year-old Ismaël Dramé, who, after being dumped on his grandma in a babysitting crisis, neutralizes her bitterness by helping in the kitchen. The Blu-ray adds 10 deleted scenes.

Labyrinth of Lies: Blu-ray
Every so often, an elderly German immigrant is arrested for crimes against humanity he may have committed 70 years ago. Typically, the man has lived a simple and quiet life in a working-class suburb and has kids and grandchildren who have only a vague idea of how he spent the war years in the Old Country. They’re as surprised as anyone else when he’s charged for crimes purportedly committed as a guard or flunky at a one of the many death camps spread across eastern Europe. They’ve heard the numbers, but can’t grasp how the bald and toothless old men they know and love could be an accomplice in the extermination of millions of Jew, Gypsies and other minorities deemed undesirable by Adolph Hitler. Perhaps, if they’d remained in Germany, they’d have blended into the woodwork like so many other camp workers. The task of locating, arresting and trying such people didn’t begin in earnest until the mid-1960s, and there were bigger war criminals laying low in Lima or working for their former enemies at Cape Canaveral or behind the Iron Curtain as spies. If Germaran officials had really been interested in prosecuting Joseph Mengele and other second-tier war criminals, all they had to do was wait for them to return home for a funeral or leave their South American lairs for Switzerland on their annual skiing vacations. Their assumed names weren’t that difficult to crack. Giulio Ricciarelli’s compelling legal drama, Labyrinth of Lies, explores this chapter in postwar history, while also showing how a handful of lawyers opened old wounds that had only recently begun to heal. After the completion of the Nuremberg trials, in autumn 1946, many Germans who served in the death camps assumed that they’d dodged a bullet and could get on with their lives. The average citizen knew less about Auschwitz than Americans who’d read stories about the liberation of the camps or seen newsreel footage captured after the Nazis split ahead of the Allied advance. Those who made it home unscathed were loath to describe what they’d seen and done in the war. It wouldn’t be until 1958 that judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer, himself a former prisoner at the Lager Heuberg camp, could establish a precedent for going after guards and other low-ranking personnel responsible for crimes already on the books and make those charges stick. It would take another five years for the actual trials to begin.

In Labyrinth of Lies, Alexander Fehling plays the young, naive and idealistic public prosecutor Johann Radmann, who had heard the name, Auschwitz, but didn’t know anything more about it. Before being assigned to Bauer’s team, a reporter had approached him about the possibility of investigating a Berlin teacher, recognized by a camp survivor as a particularly vicious guard at the camp. The teacher dismissed the queries, by presenting papers showing he was occupied elsewhere at the time. Such documentation was as uncommon as a bratwurst at a picnic on the Rhine. Everyone in Germany had played a role in the war, so it was wise for civilians not to scratch too deeply under the surface. Former Nazis still held key positions in the West German bureaucracy and could still cause trouble for people with surplus amounts of conscience. Despite encouragement from Bauer, it didn’t take long for Radmann to tire of hitting roadblocks in his inquiries, official and otherwise. The deeper he digs into his own family history – his father had been declared missing on the Eastern Front – the closer he comes to hurtful truths about friends and relatives in his inner circle. It wasn’t until he was allowed to go beyond the borders of Germany to locate camp survivors that he could link faces and names to actions that didn’t fall under the category of “we were just following orders.” In this way, the national penchant for documenting events and collecting photographs helps him succeed. The sheer volume of information and paperwork helps explain why so many camp workers have avoided detection for all these years. Most have yet to be fully studied. Ironically, at 124 minutes, Labyrinth of Lies sometimes feels a bit too bogged down in German bureaucracy, as well. History buffs should find it to be worth the effort, though. It made the short list of foreign-language films nominated for an Oscar, but not the final five. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ricciarelli and Fehling; deleted scenes; and a post-screening Q&A at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.

The Taviani Brothers Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the Italian film industry was in a post-giallo doldrums and the giants had disappeared into the background, brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviano carried the standard for artistry and tradition in independently produced entertainments. The brothers became obsessed with film after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan as students in Pisa. After honing their reporting skills, they were able to merge journalism with cinema in class-conscious dramas and documentaries. Cohen Media’s The Taviani Brothers Collection is comprised of their first three films that captured the attention of international audiences: Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars (a.k.a., “La notte di San Lorenzo”) and Kaos. They reflect the Tavianis’ commitment to retelling history in a manner that combines the integrity of neorealism with the ingenuity of folk tales and legends. Shot on location in the villages from which the stories originated, the period feel was enhanced by the use of non-actors in key roles and natural production techniques. Winner of the 1977 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, Padre Padrone is based on the autobiography by Italian scholar Gavino Ledda, who, if it were up to his Sardinian father, would have remained an illiterate shepherd all his life. Ledda didn’t escape his father’s domination until he’d left the army and, at 27, received his high school diploma. Six years later, he began his advanced studies at the Accademia della Crusca, under historical linguist Giacomo Devoto, and very soon would be nominated assistant professor in Cagliari, Sardinia. His escape from enforced poverty and menial labor provides the foundation for a story that crosses the divide separating agrarian and modern Italy.

The Night of the Shooting Stars, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at 1982 Cannes Festival, is a story about the inhabitants of a small Tuscan town, in the summer of 1944, trapped between the threat of destruction by the retreating German forces and the perhaps false promise of liberation offered by the advancing American army. It is told years after the fate of the town had been decided, by a mother to her child, almost as a fairytale. Herded into a church, after the soon-to-retreat Germans had set booby traps in their homes, the residents are divided by the possibility that they will be slaughtered in any case, or can reach the U.S. troops in time to save themselves and those left behind in the village. Tradition allows for the possibility that prayers recited during the Perseids meteor shower, which coincides with the Feast of San Lorenzo, will be answered. The supernatural aspect turns what might have been a by-the-book war story into something fair more magical and poetic. Set in the far southern province of Ragusa, Sicily, Kaos knits together four stories by master storyteller Luigi Pirandello and an epilogue, set in turn-of-the-century Italy. The Travianis’ eye for beauty is a natural fit for the twists built into the folk tales imagined by the author. The set includes a feature-length interview with the brothers that covers a lot of interesting territory.

Pray for Death: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Mutilator: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Judging from the worldwide success of the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, released in 2014, there’s no reason to believe that the ninjutsu subgenre of martial-arts flicks is danger of disappearing any time soon. In fact, fans of the franchise may already be lining up for its sequel, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, which opens June 3. For all practical purposes, though, the heyday of the ninjas ended in the 1980s, when the entries became so mechanical that they ceased being enjoyable. The 1997 Chris Farley vehicle Beverly Hills Ninja did OK at the box office, but it relied mostly on the sight gags provided by watching the deceptively athletic actor executing slicker-than-owl-shit moves alongside the more adept Robin Shue. The thing that distinguishes ninja films from most samurai and wuxia titles is that, by definition, ninja (a.k.a., shinobi) were assassins, scouts and spies hired by territorial lords to conduct operations from which samurai were forbidden, according to the bushido code. In other words, they could employ stealth, costumes and all manner of flying weaponry to serve their masters.

Arrow Video has resurrected a prime example of the western ninja film in Gordon Hessler and James Booth’s 1985 action-thriller Pray for Death. If there had been anything resembling a bushido code in place for directors and writers of martial-arts pictures, they would have been honor bound rewrite the screenplay several more times before unleashing on an unsuspecting public. Fans deserved more than a promising premise. Before leaving Japan, at 19, in pursuit of an economics degree at Cal State/L.A., Sho Kosugi won the All Japan Karate Champion title and was a promising baseball player. Economics would take a back seat to teaching martial arts and competing on the North American circuit. It took eight more years for Kosugi to graduate from extra roles to co-starring in Enter the Ninja. In Pray for Death, Kosugi plays an Okinawan restaurateur and secret ninja warrior who allows his half-American wife to talk him into moving to America for a business opportunity. No sooner than he and his family pass through Customs than his character is targeted by the mob for allegedly stealing a necklace he couldn’t possibly have known existed. The morons decide to pressure Akira by threatening his wife and two sons. Soon, real tragedy strikes, and Akira decides to go ninja on the crime boss (Michael Constantine), his henchman (James Booth) and a small army of corrupt cops. Everything leads to the excellent fight in a mannequin warehouse that caps the movie.

The truly strange thing about Pray for Death is that Kosugi’s two pre-teen sons play key roles in fighting and non-fighting roles. It’s fun to watch then-11-year-old Kane Kosugi kick ass, almost side-by-side with his dad. The Arrow Video Blu-ray includes the unrated and R-rated versions of the movie, which are differentiated by varying degrees of simulated violence and a scene with an attempted rape, murder and bare breasts. Today, it probably would rate an R, even though the presence of the kids in such close proximity is a tad disturbing. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray restoration, which adds two good interviews with the star, one vintage and the other new, and a trailer gallery. The nasty material edited out of the R-version is distinguishable by the unfinished color coding.

There is absolutely nothing fresh or particularly original about Mutilator (a.k.a., “Fall Break”), a 1984 chase-and-kill slasher flick that only made some noise at the box office outside North Carolina, where it was made, and because it promised of lots of unrated gore and T&A.  (It did enjoy a short run on 42nd Street and the grindhouse circuit, apparently.) Still, as an early example of DIY filmmaking, it’s earned whatever cult notoriety it achieved. Obscurity has never been a factor in determining the release of Arrow Video products, however, so the company’s interest in the inventive special effects and tagline, “By sword, by pick, by axe, bye-bye …,” isn’t particularly surprising. Shot largely in a beachside cottage by first- and last-time director Buddy Cooper, Mutilator practically defines the old phrase, “amateur night in Dixie.” North Carolina had yet to emerge as a production hub, so Cooper and his team had to rely heavily on previously untested local talent. Only a few would go on to work on another film and most of those folks were involved in behind-the-camera activities (makeup supervisor Mark Shostrom, cinematographer Peter Schnall). In addition to Arrow’s 2K restoration from original vault materials of the R-rated and unrated versions of the film, the set adds original mono audio; brand new interviews with cast and crew; reversible sleeve, featuring original artwork; fully-illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, alongside archive articles from Fangoria magazine; and a very entertaining making-of featurette.

Estranged: Blu-ray
With a protagonist named January, it wasn’t difficult for me to flash on Wednesday of “The Addams Family,” as the nasty business in Estranged began to thicken. Amy Manson could easily pass for a grown-up version of Wednesday Addams, if she had decided that things had gotten far too weird at home and ran away to South America with her perfectly non-ooky boyfriend. After nearly being killed in a collision between motorcycle and car, Wednesday comes down with a bad case of amnesia about certain key aspects of her life. Not only has she forgotten her family, but also the circumstances that caused her to leave home. As it turns out, January’s family could easily give the Addams a run for their money. It takes viewers about 10 minutes to figure out why her return to the remote English estate was ill-advised and, confined to a wheelchair, as she is, how alone she feels when her quite unwelcome boyfriend disappears into thin air. Her chronically withdrawn mom and hulking beast of a dad (Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo), if they are who they say they are, say that January is welcome to stay, but only on their terms. Her brother, sister and butler (Nora-Jane Noone, James Lance, Craig Conway) are every bit as creepy and similarly sadistic. The only question left to answer is whether January can regain her memory before it’s too late. The package adds a making-of featurette.

The Iron Ministry
Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with train travel will want to find J.P. Sniadecki’s documentary, The Iron Ministry, which was filmed over three years on China’s vast network of railways. I haven’t seen another movie that so accurately captures the sensory overload that comes with long-distance travel in crowded carriages, teeming with passengers of all ages, vendors, conductors, janitors and small-time hustlers. The only thing missing is the smell of a ripe passenger car, a day or more into a long journey, its garbage bins and ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes, diapers, food, aftershave and cologne. Women carry produce onto the train in baskets hanging from a bow, while men butcher meat and hang the pieces on hooks between the cars. Sniadecki had no problem finding people to share their opinions on almost every subject under the sun. The only place his cameras weren’t particularly welcome was in the sections reserved for people who could afford first-class tickets. The contrast between the treatment of first-class passengers and those in steerage would make Chairman Mao spin in his mausoleum. The Iron Ministry is the latest feature production from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is less interested in scenery than human interaction, even if it’s limited to watching a railroad employee sweeping up a small mountain of debris dropped on the floor for lack of anywhere else to put it. It’s also possible to learn a lot from watching weary travelers sleep or try to find a position conducive for a cat nap, at least. Last year, 2.5 billion people traveled by rail across the wide expanse of China. This year, alone, China Railway Corp. plans to spend $121.5 billion toward construction, expansion and modernization of its system, with an eye toward attracting tourists and business travelers. If only American politicians weren’t so pigheaded about investing in rail service here. The Iron Ministry is the perfect companion piece for Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, which documents the annual migration of China’s 130 million workers to their home villages for the New Year’s holiday.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
National Geographic: Saints & Strangers
PBS: Best of Big Blue Live
PBS: Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers
PBS: American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde
PBS: Frontline: Terror in Little Saigon
McHale’s Navy/McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force
Nickelodeon: Blaze & The Monster Machines: Rev Up & Roar
If through some wrinkle in time it would have been possible for members of the Black Panther Party of the 1960s to have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, instead of a bunch of heavily armed ranchers and marginally employed rednecks, how long would it have taken the federal government to clear the grounds? Or, for that matter, militants of the American Indian Movement or SDS. In the same regard, how many of the NRA supporters who have won the right to carry weapons into schools, shopping malls and movie theaters are willing to credit Huey Newton and Bobby Seale for demanding that American citizens be allowed to openly carry firearms, even in the halls of the California State Legislature? None, probably. By contrast, if the FBI hadn’t successfully crushed the BPP, using illegal surveillance tactics and other provocations, would police officers around the country so freely shoot to kill children and young people of color? Those questions and more naturally come to mind while watching Stanley Nelson’s “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which was picked up for airing on PBS. Released to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, the film features firsthand accounts from participants, including Kathleen Cleaver, the first Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party; Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party chairman; Emory Douglas, the party’s Minister of Culture and chief art director for the party’s newspaper; retired police officers; lawyers; and much archival news footage. Police repression and government legal maneuvering inspired white radicals and liberal activists to enter the fray on the side of BPP, even when their contributions were questioned. The free breakfast programs for children in impoverished neighborhoods was largely ignored by the media or dismissed as a diversion. When Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Seale chained to his chair and gagged in the trial of the Chicago 8, simply for demanding his right to a fair trial, the national media began to understand what was at stake. Even so, when police raided the apartment of Illinois BPP chairman Fred Hampton, killing him and another sleeping member, the local Chicago media bought into the lie that he was killed in a “shootout.” In fact, an investigation soon would show that the hail of bullets was one-sided and the raid was based on lies supplied by a paid FBI informant. If the same thing had happened to one of the leaders of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, the shit storm would be keep Fox News buzzing for months. In effect, though, the Black Panthers were victims of their own image campaign. The black clothes, leather jackets, shades, berets and swagger – with or without openly carried weapons — brought the awe and respect of students and community members, along with the contempt and fear of J. Edgar Hoover, who demanded the movement be quashed. It wouldn’t take long before the national party collapsed under the weight of its individual egos, internecine squabbling, legal costs, paranoia and dissension. Much of what’s reported in Nelson’s film may qualify as old news, even if most of it has been long forgotten. What remains is the ironic notion that the more things changed in the early 1970s, the more they’ve stayed the same in the relations between the African American community and trigger-happy police, even with a black president. “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” ends on a reflective note, neither optimistic nor overly pessimistic. Neither does a recounting of the party’s official list of demands by survivors sound particularly radical compared to the inflammatory rhetoric of the Republican leaders in Congress and candidates perfectly willing to arm right-wing kooks.

If it weren’t for the necessary violence and mild language concerns, the National Geographic Channel’s 192-minute mini-series, “Saints & Strangers,” would be an appropriate docudrama to show schoolchildren before they prepared for their first Thanksgiving pageant. By the time they’re adults, most of the wee pilgrims and Indians will have forgotten the message of the story, anyway, and this vivid representation is likely to stick in their memory longer than any recollection of Squanto’s good works and the promise of that first communal meal. Paul A. Edwards’ mini-series is best when it depicts the landscape of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and divisions that tested the resolve of both the English and Native Americans who populated the region. To put it bluntly, the pilgrims were divided by greed and religious fanaticism, with soldiers on hand to do what all soldiers are trained to do best: kill people who are a mystery to them. The religious colonists know that robbing graves and stealing food could cause problems down the road, but, since it’s God’s will for them to survive in Plymouth, it’s probably OK. For their part, the Pokanoket, Narragansett, Massachusetts and Wampanoag tribes were rewarded for peaceful overtures, generosity and restraint with an epidemic and being sold as slaves after 50 years of piece. Among the cast members are Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”), Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”), Ron Livingston (“Office Space”), Ray Stevenson (“Rome”) and Natascha McElhone (“Californication”). Comedian/actor Tatanka Means (“Maze Runner”) and Kalani Queypo (“The New World”) and Del Zamora (“The Red Road”) may be recognizable in the Native American cast. All in all, it probably would have been better if Native Americans had discovered Europe, instead of the other way around. The DVD adds several deleted scenes.

As occasionally happens during TV coverage of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament, the competition was dwarfed by the majesty of the oceanside setting. The sun shone on the competitors for the entire weekend, but the drama of a close finish was a sideshow to the crashing waves, blimp sightings of whales and other aquatic life, and scores of people gathered on the beach for reasons other than golf. Conditions aren’t always as conducive to tourism on the Monterey Peninsula. Sometimes, the fog turns Carmel, Pebble Beach and its 17 Mile Drive into a ghostly journey to points unknown. The terrific PBS documentary “Best of Big Blue Live” reminds us that golf isn’t the only thing that brings visitors to peninsula each spring. In what some might consider to be a perfect storm of disparate ecological forces, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary provides a semi-permanent home for marine life attracted by a bounty in krill and other edible links on the foods. “Best of Big Blue Live” is a whittled-down version of the original three-hour BBC One series, which was carried live from the observation deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as well as research vessels, helicopters and divers on the edges of the kelp beds. It documents the extraordinary rejuvenation of the once endangered ecosystem through the migratory confluence of humpback whales, blue whales, orcas, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks, shearwaters and brown pelicans. If the hosts are sometimes overly giddy about the whip-around feeds, their enthusiasm is easily excused. If nothing else, viewers will be encouraged to conserve their money for an eco-cruise the next time they’re in the neighborhood.

From PBS, “Hudson River School: Artistic Pioneers” feels like one of those intentionally dull documentaries that used to bore high school students to death and, maybe, still do. As bright and colorful as the paintings on display are, the narration and interviews are just that dull and drained of emotion. The hour-long film explores the accomplishments of the first American school of landscape painting. From early 19th Century enclaves in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Adirondack Mountains, Catskill Mountains and White Mountains of New Hampshire, a group of American painters led by British born artist Thomas Cole forged an artistic vision of the American wilderness. While frequently overlooked by art teachers and curators, who favor European artists and sculptors, museum-goers enjoy discovering monumental paintings of the American frontier on their own. They don’t even seem to mind that the artists’ sometimes stretched the visual truth by adding spectacular dawns and sunsets, Native Americans, shepherds or children at play, and other unlikely juxtapositions. The same thing would happen as American artists wandered west with the easels and encountered such natural wonders as Yosemite. Even so, they describe an America that would soon give way to the intrusions of Industrial Age. Tellingly, perhaps, the film is sponsored by something called Clean Oil Painting, the city of Rhinebeck, N.Y., a paper-goods store and an agency for Hudson Valley tourism. You get what you pay for, I suppose. Here, the art speaks for itself.

By contrast, PBS’ “American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde” is a real crowd-pleaser. In addition to being a story with which we all are familiar, the documentary benefits from being unencumbered by Hollywood mythology and fact compression. Unless one discounts Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the most famous criminal couple in U.S. history. What may surprise fans of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde is the savagery of Barrow’s early prison experience and Parker’s movie-magazine vision of live outside Depression-era Texas. He bore no resemblance to Robin Hood, let alone Warren Beatty, and she didn’t intend for her photographs to be splashed on the pages of newspapers across the country. The undeveloped film was discovered after they were hurriedly forced to exit a hideout. Even absent the embellishments, though, “Bonnie & Clyde” is pretty entertaining. The old clippings and photographs are fascinating to see, as is coverage of their funerals … separate, but equally well attended.

While American politicians fret about undocumented workers who cross the border to provide cheap labor to agricultural conglomerates and Beverly Hills households, our government seems unwilling to protect immigrants already in this country legally from exploitation by some their own people still fighting long-lost wars. That’s one of the messages conveyed in an investigation, “Terror in Little Saigon.” It was conducted by “Frontline” and ProPublica” into the murders of five Vietnamese-American journalists and a broader pattern of violence within the refugee communities that grew up in America after the Vietnam War. The violence goes back more than 30 years and appears to have perpetrated by a death squad sponsored by the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, an organization with tentacles extending from Houston to Laos. The journalists questioned whether the front was extorting money from members of the Vietnamese community in the U.S., ostensibly to finance an invasion of their home country from Laos and Thailand. Cuban-Americans have been praying for the same miracle for more than a half-century. What the show’s reporters discovered is that the FBI has suspected the Front for many years, but quietly closed its domestic-terrorism inquiry in the late 1990s. It’s possible that it’s investigators found too many links between the CIA and the Front and tired off hitting dead ends. Even 20 years later, a reporter was able to gather information and interview suspects – some reluctantly – able to provide insight into the killings. Their arrogance and disregard for American laws is frightening, if not terribly unusual.

The most significant difference between “McHale’s Navy” and McHale’s Navy the theatrical release is the Technicolor presentation and, well, that’s it. The TV series was shot on black-and-white film, but little was gained because the movie was shot on Universal’s backlot. It must have done some business, because McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force followed a year later, this time without Ernest Borgnine and Carl Ballantine. It could also be noted that, in 1942-43, McHale’s Navy could only have joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. Even by the low standards of the mid-1960s, these movies are irredeemably boring. What might have prompted Universal to risk millions of 1997 dollars on a remake, based primarily on the presence of Tom Arnold, Debra Messing, Dean Stockwell and David Alan Grier is anyone’s guess.

AJ is an 8-year-old techie, who drives monster-truck Blaze, the top racer in Axle City. The two go on adventures that have them taking on problems involving science and math. Many of the predicaments they face are caused by Blaze’s rival, Crusher, a tractor-trailer that will do anything to beat other vehicles to the finish line. Targeted at pre-schoolers, the animated “Blaze & The Monster Machines: Rev Up & Roar” covers areas of science, technology, engineering and math. It is comprised of the episodes, “Zeg and the Egg,” “Dino Dash,” “Gasquatch” and “Dragon Island Duel,” as well as a “Blaze of Glory” video storybook.

The DVD Wrapup: 99 Homes, Grandma, Crimson Peak, Jan Troell, Sheba Baby and more

Friday, February 12th, 2016

99 Homes: Blu-ray
One way to view Ramin Bahrani’s gut-churning drama, 99 Homes, is as a powerful indictment of the corrupt practices embraced by the real-estate industry in the still unresolved collapse of the American economy. Lenders profited from the misery of homeowners who lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the first and second mortgages they pursued to afford everything from necessary home improvements to such luxuries as swimming pools, vacation condos and sports cars. As long as the economy was firing on all eight cylinders, everything was jake. When it spit out the bit, however, vultures like the character played by Michael Shannon in 99 Homes swooped in to displace the suckers and enrich themselves. The movie opens with single father Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) losing his only source of income when the loans supporting his construction business dry up and he faces being evicted from the home he no longer can afford. No matter how much Nash pleads for mercy, he can’t convince Shannon’s Rick Carver to give him more time to settle his debt. With the Sheriff’s Department and courts on his side, Carver’s able to give Nash, his mom (Laura Dern) and his son exactly two minutes to vacate the premises. In Shannon’s more than capable hands, Carver is only slightly less despicable than his assassin, Richard Kuklinski, in The Iceman.

Bahrani cleverly turns the screw once notch further by offering Nash a job with his tormentor, cleaning out a repossessed house so filthy even his regular crew couldn’t be convinced to touch it. One Carver scam invariably leads to another, until Nash is making the kind of money – dirty as it may be – to afford to return to the life he once lived. In doing so, however, he’s required to sell his soul to the same devils as Carver once did. This time, of course, he would have the law on his side. While Carver seems not to mind evicting families, or ripping off Fannie Mae on the side, Nash eventually begins to recognize himself in the people he’s helping evict from their homes. If, by this time, we’ve figured out how this based-on-a-true-story account probably is likely to end, we’re no less willing to cut Nash some slack. Just as he sees himself in his victims, we see ourselves in him. After all, how many of us could resist the urge to save our families at the expense of someone else’s troubles? If, at times, the pieces fall too neatly together, it’s difficult to feel overly manipulated by a scenario so realistic. Once again, the HFPA, Independent Spirit and SAG voters got it right by nominating Shannon for a Best Supporting Actor prize. The Blu-ray, which for some reason is only available at Best Buy, adds a deleted scene and Bahrani’s commentary.

Grandma: Blu-ray
Although it’s been 40 years since Lily Tomlin was last nominated for an Academy Award – Best Supporting Actress, Nashville – she had every right to expect a nod for her work in Paul Weitz’ Grandma. She should have taken home a Golden Globe, as well, but, by now, Jennifer Lawrence is a mortal lock in any HFPA category she’s nominated. I say that having seen and enjoyed Joy. What the academy voters were looking at, instead of Grandma, I have no idea. In it, Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet beyond a certain age who’s just broken up with her younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), if for no other reason than she woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Almost simultaneously, her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), unexpectedly shows up at her home, needing $630 before sundown the next day for an emergency medical procedure. A true child of the 1960s, Elle agrees to help, but recently cut up her credit cards in a display of idealistic pique and is short on available cash. Because Sage has already made an appointment with the clinic, time is of the essence. Writer/director Paul Weitz uses the deadline to arrange reunions with an ex-lover (Sam Elliott), Sage’s meathead ex-boyfriend (Nat Wolff), a onetime business partner (Elizabeth Pena) and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Elle’s estranged daughter and Sage’s moralistic mother, Judy, who’s so preoccupied with her business that she’s attached a makeshift desk to her exercise machine. Mom did, however, provide Sage with condoms, a gesture neutralized by the teenage couple’s decision to go without when the supply ran out.

Among the things we learn about Elle is that, while she’s been a less-than-perfect wife, mother, lover and friend, she’s shares many of the same negative traits as other peers trying to keep the 1960s alive in their hearts. The encounters with old friends are alternately funny and sad, with Sage getting a crash course on what it feels like to be trapped between two distinctly different generation gaps.  Neither does Weitz force Tomlin to play to the cheap seats in her first leading role in 27 years, by attempting to sugarcoat Elle’s negative traits with reminders of her days on “Laugh-In.” When the chips were down – especially after her disastrous collaboration with John Travolta and future wife, Jane Wagner, on Moment by Moment – she took to the stage for one-woman shows, sometimes with a whole new set of archetypal characters. Travolta’s career resurrection borders on Hollywood legend, of course, while Tomlin didn’t get enough credit for her supporting work in Nine to Five, Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, Tea with Mussolini and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion. Her versatility and appeal have been showcased, as well, on such hit series as “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Damages,” “Web Therapy” and “Grace and Frankie,” which returns to Netflix in May. Weitz has said that he wrote Grandma with Tomlin in mind and the love shows in every scene. The Blu-ray’s special features include “A Family Portrait: The Making of ‘Grandma,’” a Q&A with Tomlin, Elliott, and Weitz, and commentary with Tomlin, Elliott, Weitz and Garner and Garner.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
As brilliantly conceived and bloody as Crimson Peak is, the infrequency of genuine scares in the Gothic romance suggests that co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) had far too much on his plate between 2006 and 2014 to focus on the things that made his early movies so chilling. It’s been reported that Del Toro wrote the original script with Matthew Robbins – whose resume includes Steven Spielberg’s first feature, Sugarland Express, MacArthur and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings — in 2006, but its production was delayed for more than 6½ years to afford time to work on Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Hobbit trilogy and Pacific Rim. Normally, an artist as brilliant as the Mexican-born Del Toro could get away with knocking out a genre thriller in his spare time. Crimson Peak is so heavily steeped in literary, cinematic and Del Torian symbolism, though, it probably was easy to overlook the kind of edge-of-their-seats tension that made him an international sensation. The debt owed to such Victorian Age writers as Mary Shelley and the Brontës is made clear in the exchanges between aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and her perspective publisher and supportive, if doomed father. The only person who encourages Edith, who’s haunted by the ghost of her mother, is a mysterious stranger, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), from England.

They meet in Buffalo when Thomas approaches Edith’s industrialist father for money to complete a machine that extracts ore from the earth. Failing that, Thomas succeeds in comforting Edith after daddy’s “accidental” and whisking her away to his mansion on a barren patch of red clay in rural England. It’s there that Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), reveal their true designs on the Cushing fortune. That the mansion’s resident phantoms seem willing to save the new bride from a disastrous fate works in the favor of the unsuspecting young American and, finally, viewers. As does the unexpected arrival of an old friend and spurned suitor, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Even if genre fans were advised by critics not to expect to be scared out of their wits and early word-of-mouth bolstered that critique, Crimson Peak can be savored for its superlative production design, costumes, musical score, lighting and cinematography, all of which were unfairly ignored by Academy Award nominators. I can’t think of a better example of the added value designers and craftsmen/women bring to a story that CGI technicians simply can’t provide. It’s, as they say, worth the price of a rental by itself. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a treasure trove of making-of featurettes, as well as some deleted scenes and Del Toro’s commentary.

The Emigrants/The New Land: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released nearly back-to-back in 1971 and 1972, Jan Troell’s epic story of the quintessential American experience, The Emigrants and The New Land, could hardly be more relevant today, as the Republican candidates for president want to pull back the welcome mat to a new generation of immigrants. Adapted from the novels “The Settlers” and “The Last Letter Home,” by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, it’s a heart-tugging reminder of how millions of new Americans struggled not only to make a life for their families in America, but also find the courage to pick up stakes and make the hazardous journey to their new homes, which frequently had to be carved from the wilderness.  With only a small stretch of the imagination, the story of impoverished Swedish immigrants Karl-Oscar (Von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullman) echoes those we heard being told by our parents and grandparents about their experiences in the New World. Instead of the 15-foot wall Donald Trump and others want to see built to keep newcomers out, our ancestors are guided here by the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. At 151 minutes, Troell gave himself ample time to explain both how difficult it was for Karl-Oscar and Kristina Nilsson to leave Smaaland and how the harsh reality of life in mid-19th Century Sweden necessitated their decision to leave. Along with other Swedes from the same region, they suffered through a harrowing journey by ship to New York. They would end up in rural Minnesota, where, at least, they wouldn’t be surprised by the weather. Indeed, the homesteaders were buoyed by the discovery of soil so fertile that their plot backs home might as well have been concrete.

The New Land picks up where The Emigrants left off, with the Nilssons welcoming children into the world and beginning to reap the rewards of choosing a section of land that, after much hard work, would allow them to engage in commerce with local store owners. As important, they were free to practice their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Through Karl-Oscar’s brother, Robert, and his friend, Arvid, Troell expands the narrative to include another aspect of the immigrant experience. After helping Karl-Oscar create something bountiful out of nothing, the young men set out for the gold fields of California. As difficult as the journey by sea had been, the trip west was several times worse. Robert would return to Minnesota, only to be accused by his older brother of lying about the small fortune in money he was carrying and requiring the comfort of Kristina in battling a debilitating illness. Troell then adds storylines concerning the Civil War, a bloody Sioux uprising and the dilemma faced by Kristina, who, in return for complying with “God’s will,” risked her life to mass produce children for her husband, even if he was willing to forego sex to keep her alive. The epic length of The New Land and The Emigrants today probably would have required they be divided into a mini-series. (Five years later, “Roots” would prove the viability of the format.) It probably would have been a good one. As it is, Troell’s films were greeted with enthusiasm on both sides of the pond, garnering Oscar nominations in major categories and making a decent amount of money. The splendid Criterion Collection edition adds interviews with Troell and Ullmann. Harder to find on DVD is Zandy’s Bride, which Troell made for Warner Bros. two years after The Emigrants. Set in and around Big Sur, it stars Ullmann as a mail-order bride delivered to a gruff rancher played by Gene Hackman.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist
In their feature debut, Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell Smart appear to have borrowed the premise of Stephen Frears’ hipster rom-com High Fidelity to tell the story of a self-absorbed lesbian, Elsie (Diane Flacks), facing the prospect of middle-age solitude. Because she was dumped at an early age by her first schoolgirl crush, Elsie long ago vowed to be the dumper, instead of the dumpee, in future relationships. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist reminds me quite a bit more of Kissing Jessica Stein than the John Cusack vehicle, but mostly for its willingness to dial down the sex to appeal to a crossover audience. Canada has a long history of making LGBT movies that put to shame similar efforts by filmmakers in Hollywood. Among the films that even found traction here are Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Is Falling, Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island and Anne Wheeler’s Better Than Chocolate. Set in the Toronto’s clean and trendy Parkdale neighborhood, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist describes how Elsie’s friends and family members deal with her latest breakup, which seems to have been more than a little bit cruel. While Robyn (Carolyn Taylor) is able to bounce into the arms of another woman, Elsie’s commitment to play the field and not embark on yet another monogamist relationship appears to be taking on water. At the same time, Elsie is facing a troubling upheaval at her progressive radio station, which appears to be abandoning listeners her age. She takes up with a younger club deejay, who eventually tires of being treated like a homewrecker by the old farts in her girlfriend’s circle and some rude relatives. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist suffers from many of the same trivial conceits that afflict melodramas and rom-coms – gay or straight — in which yuppie characters invent their own problems. On the plus side, none are required to squeeze their way through a closet door or obsess over going all the way on a first date, and that’s a blessing. (Did Jessica Stein ever get past first base?)

Second Coming
Sweaty Betty
Every Family Has Problems
I wonder if any woman in the last two millennia has been able to convince her husband of the possibility that the unexpected and largely unwanted child she’s carrying is the result of being impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Not many, I suspect. Even Joseph wondered what was going on with his new bride, before being visited in a dream by an angel of the Lord who asked him to go along with the ruse for the next 18 years, or so. (It’s believed that Joseph took his secret to a relatively early grave.) In Debbie Tucker Green’s provocative feature debut, Second Coming, an Afro-Caribbean woman living in south London is faced with a dilemma that would benefit from the appearance of a holy messenger. Instead, Jax (Nadine Marshall) dreams of strange lights and leaking ceilings. Jax hasn’t had sex with her husband, Mark (Idris Elba), in a long time, and, in any case, was told after the birth of her son JJ (Kai Francis Lewis) that she’d no longer be able to bear children. It explains why Jax has only confided in her best friend from work, who logically suggests she get an abortion before she begins to show. Before long, however, JJ tips his dad off by asking him what he intends to name the child he couldn’t possibly have helped conceive. Naturally, the mystery threatens to tear the hinges off their marriage and the stability of their working-class family. Green probably deduced early on that such a premise probably wouldn’t fly on the face of it, even though it’s a dandy idea. She wisely decided to invest in JJ a curiosity and wisdom that could be perceived by viewers as being angelic, without also requiring him to sprout wings or a halo. Second Coming requires a heck of a balancing act on the part of a first-time filmmaker and there are times when the center fails to hold. The acting more than compensates for the rocky patches, however.

With all due respect to the humans we meet in Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed’s thoroughly irresistible DIY docu-drama, Sweaty Betty, it could have just as easily been titled “Petz n the Hood” and attracted the same amount of attention in indie circles … possibly more. As far as I can tell there’s no Betty, sweaty or otherwise, in the movie. There is a 1,000-pound hog named Ms. Charlotte, however, and an abandoned pit-bull named Kilmer. The hog is owned by Floyd, a huge Redskins fan who takes Charlotte to tailgate parties in hopes of getting someone to name her an official mascot. “The Hogs” was a term coined by offensive line coach Joe Bugel during team’s training camp in 1982, when he told Russ Grimm and Jeff Bostic, “Okay, you hogs, let’s get running down there.” It caught on and encouraged diehard fans to wear hats designed with a snout and tail … still more politically correct than wearing an Indian war bonnet. It’s entirely possible, as well, that the street after which the terrier – it resembles Petey on “The Little Rascals” — was re-named to honor former Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer. Otherwise, the connection between the real-life characters is tenuous. Sweaty Betty offers a slice-of-life portrait of a neighborhood that straddles the border of the capital and suburban Maryland. Although it’s a leafy and clean residential neighborhood, the mostly African-American residents appear to be, by most standards, poor and marginally employed. A few blocks away from Floyd live Rico and Scooby, two teenage single fathers and best friends, who see in Kilmer an opportunity to make money by raising puppies or selling her outright. They get help from family members to nurture the children, who appear to be well taken care of, healthy and happy. Kilmer … not so much. Anyway, as the three men make their rounds in the neighborhood, we’re given an opportunity to watch people interact in ways movies, TV sitcoms and dramas, the nightly news reports don’t. If their dreams border on the highly unrealistic, the men share an enthusiasm for life that’s palpable. Likely shot on a cellphone camera – as was the prize-winning TangerineSweaty Betty is as unpolished as a penny found lying on the sidewalk. Its fresh approach to the subject matter, however, is fresh and often quite funny. Oh, yeah, like The Harder They Come, the dialogue is subtitled to reflect the urban vernacular and patois. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a very weird short.

Like his older brother, Tyler, Emmbre Perry makes movies, some of which are produced as live recordings of stage plays. Also like his brother, the 36-year-old multi-hyphenate isn’t averse to slapping his name and photograph on DVD covers and lists of credits, whether or not he deserves the recognition. Unlike Tyler, however, Emmbre’s products aren’t even close to being ready for prime time. Every Family Has Problems is the second movie he’s written and the fourth he’s directed, behind No More Games, Let God Be the Judge and God Send Me a Man. You’d think, by now, he would have figured out how to mix an audio track in a way that doesn’t require viewers to continually adjust the sound levels. If it weren’t for the synopsis printed on the DVD cover, I wouldn’t have known what was happening on screen. Apparently, Every Family Has Problems concerns the disposition of a $500,000 life-insurance payout bequeathed to one of two stepbrothers living under the roof of an ill-matched pair of stepparents. Everyone suspects the boy has either stolen the money or is selling drugs. Perry plays the comic-relief grandfather with a beard so phony it wouldn’t fool a child, let alone the “upscale urban consumer” targeted by Perry’s production company. The cast also features Thomas Mikal Ford, rapper Lil Chuckee and a bunch of actors who were left off the credit roll, so as not to steal Emmbre’s thunder.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)
Sheba, Baby: Blu-ray
If the minority-challenged folks at the motion-picture academy really want to make a statement at their annual Oscars soiree, they should, in addition to inviting the most bankable representatives of the African-American talent pool, consider going old-school … and I don’t mean trotting out Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, again. How about teaming Melvin van Peebles and Pam Grier to announce the winner in a high-profile category? Some observers might consider that to be a bit condescending, but it sure would make up for the absence of Will and Jada Smith. Joe Angio’s critically lauded 2005 tribute to Van Peebles, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It), presents all the evidence anyone would need to warrant such an honor, while also presenting a history lesson in African-American cinema. Although his self-produced 1971 feature film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is widely credited as the first Blaxploitation film, its topicality and importance as a groundbreaking indie can’t be understated. Moreover, its early, no-nonsense take on police brutality speaks to what’s happening in cities around the country, today. Van Peebles’ contributions to the American theater, rap music and the civil-rights movement remain are significant, as well. The DVD adds a recent interview with Van Peebles, who’s as outspoken as ever.

The case for Grier is even easier to make. Simply put, for more than 40 years, she’s been one of the coolest actors — of any color or gender — in the business. Quentin Tarantino reminded us of that in Jackie Brown. More to the point, she was a bankable in her heyday as any actress not named Barbra Streisand. After starting out doing badass women-in-prison pictures in the Philippines, Grier claimed a new niche in Blaxploitation as a bona-fide action hero. Arrow Video/MVD’s refurbished edition of William Girdler’s 1975 Sheba, Baby may not constitute a prime example of the subgenre, but she’s in fine form as the revenge-minded daughter of an extortion victim and it’s still fun to watch. Her other 1975 credits included Bucktown and Friday Foster. Arrow adds such supplemental features as an original trailer for the film; a collection of stills and promotional materials; “Pam Grier: The AIP Years,” with historian Chris Poggiali; a new interview with producer and screenwriter David Sheldon; two audio commentaries; and a 14-page illustrated booklet, featuring Patty Breen’s essay “Sheba, Baby.”

This Changes Everything: Blu-ray
Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 1
Facets Kids
What will it take for citizens of the world to rise up and take action against global warming and the pollution caused by stripping the world of its natural resources: a) a series of meteorological disasters too relentless to ignore; b) the gradual absorption of prime real estate by swelling seas; c) when profit motives are stripped from the ecological equation, or d) the release of more well-meaning documentaries like This Changes Everything? All of the above certainly, but, as narrator Naomi Klein asks rhetorically in her introduction to Avi Lewis’ provocative, if less than groundbreaking film: Have we finally come to the point where preaching to the choir has actually become boring? This Changes Everything presents seven portraits of communities on the front lines of the fight, from Montana’s Powder River Basin and the Alberta Tar Sands, to the poisonous skies of South India and Beijing. Lewis produced the film in conjunction with Klein’s bestselling book of the same title, filming in nine countries and five continents over four years. Her premise: we can seize the existential crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better. This Changes Everything was made before the unexpected decline in oil prices effectively took some of the wind out of the sails of the environmental movement, by encouraging short-sighted consumers to buy less efficient toys powered by carbon-based fuels. It also has given industrialists, utility companies and investors an opportunity to promote free-market solutions for problems caused by predatory capitalists. In California, however, when consumers successfully lowered water consumption in response to the ongoing drought, utilities requested a raise in rates to compensate for loss of profits. They’ll follow the same tack when and if independent solar-energy companies gain a foothold. Neither was the film made in time to reflect the lack of interest by presidential candidates of both parties to address the same issues in their so-called debates. Has the media pressed them to explain their positions, or lack thereof? No. Several of the Republican candidates have suggested either that global warming doesn’t exist or, if it does, it’s God’s will. As wonderful as it is to witness grass-roots activism occurring around the globe, it’s just as clear that most people won’t take climate change seriously until the patios of their beach homes are submerged under three feet of saltwater and the clouds above them rain coal dust. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews, as well as access to teaching tools.

Just when it began to seem as if every film student in the western world is putting the finishing touches on a groundbreaking new movie about zombies or spring break with Robert DeNiro, Facets Video comes along to remind us that there’s still room for expressions of disgust for the status quo, repressive governments, capitalist swine and unfettered gentrification. Actually, the 26 short-form experimental non-fiction titles collected in Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 1, aren’t limited to any particular historical period, country or cause. Curators Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner have successfully established a new history of film as political resistance, with radical global narratives that span from 1914 to the early 21st century and represent the diversity in approaches to documentary filmmaking. The collection has been arranged in nearly hour-long segments, representing “Globalized Resistances,” “Live Like a Refugee,” “Cultural Displacements” and “Performative Provocations.” It is intended to serve political and educational purposes, offering film, media and scholars a chance to review unaccountably under-appreciated works of film, video and animation that propose various strategies of resistance to power. And, no, not all of the films can be construed as being anti-American. Among those that are is John Greyson’s almost heartbreaking “14.3 Seconds,” a work of speculative video based on the notion that only 14.3 seconds worth of film stock went undestroyed after the 2003 bombing of Iraq’s film archives. In 2004, ICARP (Iraq Coalition Archives Restoration Project) announced that it intended to use these scraps to painstakingly reconstruct what was once considered the greatest collection of Arab Cinema in the world. It resulted in six different restorations, all lasting 14.3 seconds, in which the frames have been mixed and match in separate genre configurations.

For more than 30 years, Facets has hosted the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the largest such event in North America. It annually welcomes 25,000 Chicago-area children, adults and educators, and features more than 250 films from 40 countries. These include live-action and animated feature films, shorts, TV series, documentaries and other child-produced works. Its mission is to showcase “the best in culturally diverse, non-violent, value-affirming new cinema for children, and is one of the only Academy Award-qualifying children’s film festivals in the world.” Facets’ Kids Film Camp introduces kids ages 7-14 to the techniques, language and process of filmmaking, through the expertise of professional filmmakers and respected critics. To coincide with the introduction of a new streaming service Facets Kids, four volumes of representative films have been released in DVD. They are “The Power of Imagination,” “Embracing Differences,” “Family and Community” and “Overcoming Obstacles.” There’s nothing quite like these compilations in the marketplace.

Sociopathia
Serial Kaller
Far better than it has any right to be, the micro-budget slasher flick, Sociopathia, was co-produced, -written, -directed and -edited by multi-hyphenate scream queen Ruby Larocca, who also found time to co-star in it. She does so alongside such like-talented actresses as Nicola Fiore (Slaughter Daughter), Asta Paredes (Return to Nuke ‘Em High), Tammy Jean (Apocalypse Kiss), Nicolette le Faye (Call Girl of Cthulhu) and lesser-known ingénues Tabetha Ray, Desiree Saetia and Brandy Noir. I don’t expect anyone to be familiar with most or any of these names. I just enjoy repeating them. Jean plays the mild-mannered Mara, a prop designer by day and psycho-killer by night. Desperately lonely, Mara can’t stand the thought of saying good-night to her lovers – mostly of the female persuasion – so she kills them and trusses them up as living dolls. When she’s hired by a fledgling producer, Kat (Parades), Mara faces choices she never thought would be available to her and the “dolls” resent having to share her creator with someone new. If the acting here won’t make anyone forget such legendary scream queens as Jamie Lee Curtis, Debbie Rochon, Tiffany Shepis or Linnea Quigley, at least they deliver the goods when it comes to semi-nudity and looking reasonably dead in zombie makeup. Moreover, it’s nice to see genre players get their own slice of the pie, for once. The DVD adds a complete B&W version of Sociopathia – don’t ask why – and seven deleted Scenes, including one with George Stover, a cult actor best known for his work in John Waters’ films.

Even more scream queens have been rounded up for Dan Brownlie and Dani Thompson’s Serial Kaller, in which a group of beautiful Internet models are trapped inside their studio by an unstable fan. Instead of stroking the caller’s ego, while he’s stroking his … the models decide it might be fun to insult him. Other factors may be at work, but dissing a paying customer is never a good idea. Among the voluptuous stars are Thompson, Debbie Rochon, Suzi Lorraine, Jessica Ann Brownlie and Ashleigh Lawrence. The ladies divide their time between their double-mattress stages and the dressing room, rarely bothering to change their lingerie, in between. Serial Kaller isn’t even as good as Sociopathia, but, at least, the actresses are given more to do than scream on cue.

In the House of Flies
Madness of Many
While having to listen to the disembodied voice of renaissance punk Henry Rollins would be unnerving in the best of circumstances, it seems especially diabolical coming from a telephone in a cinderblock dungeon occupied by a pair of unfortunate young lovers in In the House of Flies. The innocent couple, Heather (Lindsay Smith) and Steve (Ryan Kotack), have been abducted for no apparent reason by a stranger whose voice resembles that of the former frontman of Black Flag. The Voice’s “game” involves pitting his captives against each other, by promising things he may or not be able to deliver. He has left various props inside suitcases strategically placed inside the dungeon, which seemingly has no exit. That Heather is pregnant effectively raises the tension level in Gabriel Carrer and Angus McLellan’s alternating absorbing and tedious psychodrama. The DVD adds a 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary; footage from the Spanish premiere; deleted scenes; and commentary.

Clearly inspired by Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik) and Tom Six (The Human Centipede), Danish filmmaker Kasper Juhl has created in Madness of Many a work of torture porn, so hideously graphic and profane that it begs the question as to what passes for sanity these days in Scandinavia. According to the marketing blurb, “The film depicts the psychological journey of a young woman named Victoria. Since her childhood she has been sexually abused by her family. One day she decides to escape but the world is against her and she soon finds herself cast into an inferno of torture and punishment. This causes her unimaginable suffering, but she also comes to understand the true meaning of her existence …” I take the last five words to mean that Victoria (Ellen Abrahamson) should accept the fact that she’s just one more female character in extreme jeopardy, who exists solely for the entertainment of sadists and perverts. To this end, Buttgereit is a master at creating makeup effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a snuff film. In a preface to Madness of Many, he says, “Pain and suffering expands my consciousness to find peace.” The problem comes in not being able to differentiate between storytelling and the equivalent to killing cats for masturbatory fun. It’s interesting, as well, that the DVD arrives in a package containing three separate discs, including one for bonus material and another for the soundtrack. The making-of featurette does a nice job demonstrating how much fun the actors were having on the set and why horror is just another form of make-believe … except when it isn’t, of course. When Buttgereit isn’t making movies, he’s the lead singer in the death- metal band Abscission. Of course, he is.

Freaks of Nature: Blu-ray
Mansion of Blood
Hangman: Blu-ray
Black Mountain Side
Hellions: Blu-ray
The temptation to make and star in satires of genre flicks must be hard to resist. Mel Brooks did the world a favor by churning out parodies so dead-on funny that most potential imitators decided not to risk failure. The Scream and Scary Movie franchises reopened the floodgates, even as the National Lampoon series was running out of steam. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright demonstrated the right way to have fun with genre parodies, in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, without insulting anyone’s intelligence or disrespecting time-honored tropes and conventions. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows would be tough to beat, as well. Freaks of Nature (a.k.a.,“Kitchen Sink”) would appear to have had everything going for it, before it got caught up in some kind of a logjam at Columbia/Sony at the time of the hack . If I had to guess, I’d say it too closely resembled Hell Baby – also with Keegan-Michael Key – and The World’s End, with their all-star casts and Millennial humor. Among the recognizable players here are Nicholas Braun, Ed Westwick, Mackenzie Davis, Denis Leary, Vanessa Hudgens, Bob Odenkirk, Rachael Harris, Mae Whitman, Patton Oswalt and Werner Herzog’s disembodied. Director Robbie Pickering (Natural Selection) and writer Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) don’t leave any of them hanging, exactly, but the laughs are sporadic. In a plot that might have been inspired by Troma’s Toxic Avenger, Freaks of Nature is set in the peaceful town of Dillford, Ohio, where vampires, zombies and humans co-exist in separate residential zones and everyone owes their well-being to a factory manufacturing dangerously unhealthy snacks made of brains. One day, a giant space vehicle hovers over the town and plant, causing the citizenry to panic and each other in stampedes. A force field prevents them from leaving. The key for their survival stands right before their eyes, but isn’t unleashed for 90 minutes of screen time.

In the horror comedy Mansion of Blood, Mike Donahue (Pooltime) appears to have invited everyone he’s ever known to a party at a haunted mansion in River Ridge Iowa, where the millionaire owner expects a lunar eclipse to shine light on a mystery that’s last several generations. As is the case in most eclipses, though, light eventually gives way to shadows. It does inspire a local witch to cast a spell to summon the spirit of her dead boyfriend, a trick that would be akin to bringing coals to Newcastle. The most noteworthy appearances here are by a creepy servant, played by Gary Busey, who looks more like Donald Trump every day. The other strange thing about Mansion of Blood is the inclusion of “college girls” whose breast implants might be older than the average age of their school’s student body.

I don’t know if Adam Mason’s Hangman is supposed to be a parody or comedy, but I lumped it in here because it very easily could have been funny and produced better results. Returning from vacation, the Millers (Jeremy Sisto, Kate Ashfield, Ty & Ryan Simpkins) find their home has been broken into by a very messy home invader. Naturally, they feel violated, angry and confused about what to do next. After a house search that completely misses the presence of the intruder and several screens linked to security cameras in the attic, they decide that lightning can’t strike twice in the same place and begin to go about their business as if nothing happened. Somehow, the Millers’ guest managed to install cameras so unobtrusively that they can’t be seen in the dozens of places they’re located. Every so often, the masked man drops down from the attic door to play pranks on the Millers and get closer to them than the cameras allow. His ability to do so, without causing the homeowners to call in exterminators or lock the door to the attic, finally becomes laughable.

In a high-altitude variation of The Thing and The Thing From Outer Space, writer/director Nick Szostakiwskyj pits a team of archeologists against a mysterious figure lurking on the fringes of the forest in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains. Being the dead of winter, the scientists are trapped not only by the snow and cold, but also curiosity over the seemingly ancient structure they’ve found buried nearby. With nowhere to go, it becomes difficult to tell if the greater threat comes from the unknown or cabin fever. If nothing else, Black Mountain Side is easy on the eyes.

In Hellions, veteran Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald puts a rural twist on the Rosemary’s Baby conceit by having the interested bystanders to a teenager’s pregnancy be greedy little monsters using Halloween as a pretext for wearing creepy costumes and masks. Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) just learned of her pregnancy that morning and is awaiting trick-or-treaters in the guise of an angel or fairy. The kids keep coming, even after the candy runs out. Ostensibly, the pro-life brats are torturing Dora because they assume she’ll abort the fetus. Always a welcome presence in genre flicks, Robert Patrick keeps everyone guessing as to his character’s motivation. McDonald also does a nice job with the arty dream sequences.

A Violent Life
Comin’ at Ya!: Blu-Ray 3D/2D
Hector the Mighty
E.N.D.
I’m not enough of a genre buff to know just how valuable One 7 Movies’ newly released A Violent Life might be to collectors of mid-century Italian cinema, except to point out that the 1970 drama appears to have lost its original title, “Ostia,” in the translation and given one used by Pier Paolo Pasolini for a 1959 novel about life among dispossessed youth in post-war Rome. The 1961 film adaptation of that book, by Paolo Heusch and Brunello Rondi, carried the title Violent Life, from the original “Una vita violenta.” Co-adapted and directed by frequent Pasolini collaborator, Sergio Citti (Salo, Accatone), Ostia/A Violent Life remains interesting for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it prefigured the artist’s ghastly murder – still unsolved – on the same beach, five years later. Bandiera (Laurent Terzieff) and Rabbino (Franco Citti) are inseparable brothers – the sons of a brutal anarcho-communist peasant — who live on a patch of land outside Rome. As children, they’re traumatized by the callous devouring of a pet sheep and take out their rage on their drunken father. Years later, in the same fields, the petty criminals discover the body of a vivacious blond, Monica (Anita Sanders), whose sleep they mistake for death. The young brothers don’t seem particularly interested in ravaging the beauty, but their cronies take advantage of her dazed condition to finish what a wandering soldier and her father had previously attempted to do. While Bandiera and Rabbino are in prison for one crime or another, they’re given an opportunity to “cohabitate” with Monica, but only one shag per visit. Forced to choose between them, Monica inadvertently causes a rift between the brothers, who, otherwise, hadn’t shown any interest in her sexually. Upon their release, the trio goes for a swim in the sea. The sight of her nude body so casually displayed – in combination with latent jealousy – sparks a confrontation that’s possibly intended to remind us of Cain and Abel. A Violent Life may not be in the same league as Pasolini’s more noteworthy works, but it is of a piece with his earlier post-war studies of how poverty and caste impacted Italy before the economic “miracle” brought la dolce vita. Sadly, there are no bonus features.

Fifteen years after Italian genre specialist Ferdinando Baldi directed Django, Prepare a Coffin and Texas, Adios, he attempted to blow fresh air into the deflated Spaghetti Western category with Comin’ at Ya! Inspired, perhaps, by John Wayne’s 3D Western, Hondo, Baldi and writer/star Tony Anthony enthusiastically embraced the format. The story follows bank robber H.H. Hart (Anthony) as he exacts his vengeance on a pair of desperadoes who kidnap his fiancé, Abilene (Victoria Abril), at the altar and leave him for dead. The gunmen lock Abilene in the basement of a hacienda with a couple dozen other women they intend to sell as sex slaves. The question, of course, is whether H.H. can rescue the prisoners before they’re sold and dispersed throughout Mexico. Baldi appears to have been less interested in the intricacies of the story than creating opportunities to show off 3D effects. These include darts, snakes, beans, rats, spears, grasping hands, spiders, a bowling ball, bats, gun barrels, swords, cowboys falling down stairs, a spinning yo-yo and pinwheel, gold coins, apple peelings, flaming arrows and a baby’s bottom. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to purchase a 3D television simply to take advantage of the special effects, but those who’ve already made the investment might want to check out Comin’ at Ya!

Where the archivists at Cheezy Flicks find the masterpieces in their inventory, I’ll never know. As far as I can tell, Hector the Mighty never opened in the U.S. and, given the opportunity, stars Giancarlo Giannini and Vittorio De Sica might have considered buying the negative and destroying it. Giannini was on the verge of becoming a huge international star with Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi and Love & Anarchy, while 71-year-old De Sica still would go on to direct A Brief Vacation and The Voyage. Writer/director Enzo G. Castellari’s future held jobs helming The Inglorious Bastards and The Loves and Times of Scaramouche, so he, too, might have had reasons to keep Hector the Mighty submerged. Students of the Greek mythology might recognize the debt Castellari owes to Homer, as Helen of Troy’s kidnapping by Theseus is recalled in the abduction of Elena (Rosanna Schiaffino), wife of an Italian mob boss. Two powerful gangs compete to rescue her, even if she doesn’t want to be returned to her husband. Giannini plays Ulisse to Michael Forest’s Achilles. Because both men are recognized for their voicing talent, it’s a shame that they’re dubbing appears to have been performed by Three Stooges impersonators.

Five Italian filmmakers contributed to E.N.D. The Movie, a zombie-apocalypse drama whose related segments cover three different time periods, three different locations and three different gradations of a worldwide plague. The first takes place in a funeral parlor, where different employees are forced to deal with the earliest stage of an epidemic spread by cocaine. Soon, the corpses ready for the burial wake up in their coffins. On Day 1466, when the epidemic has already devoured the whole country, an American soldier and a pregnant woman are surrounded by zombies in a cabin in the woods. By Day 2333, the country is divided in two factions — humans and undead – neither of them what they appear to be. The DVD adds an interview with screenwriter Antonio Tentori.

Red Krokodil
Maybe you’ve heard or read about the street drug krokodil, which has been known to rot the skin of users from inside-out. Mostly popular in Russia and former Soviet states, where it surfaced in a heroin panic, krokodil was first synthesized in 1932 and patented in 1934 as desomorphine. A dose can be 8 to 10 times more potent than morphine, but have a far shorter active period. While it hasn’t been manufactured for pharmaceutical use for more than 30 years, it is relatively easy to make, given codeine and other ingredients readily available in Russia. Because it is known to cause such extreme gangrene and abscesses that a user’s muscles, tendons and bones can become exposed – and scaly ruptures surround the injections — it’s difficult to imagine even the most strung out junkie finding it therapeutic. Even so, a few cases of krokodil abuse have been reported in the U.S. In Domiziano Cristopharo’s harrowing Red Krokodil, we watch as the drug slowly destroys a young man who’s survived a nuclear disaster, like Chernobyl, but is consumed by loss and lack of hope for a future. Even though he lives in an apartment that can only charitably be described as a pigsty, his hallucinations carry him to places in nature where he can roam freely, naked as a jaybird. It doesn’t take long for Him (Brock Madson) to return to his world of hurt and decay, however, where his only companions are an imaginary Bunny Man and a stuffed toy crocodile given to him as a child. Red Krokodil is as nihilistic a movie as one is likely to encounter and not one for the faint of heart. As metaphors go, though, the drug certainly conveys how the filmmakers feel about a civilization destined to destroy itself. The DVD adds an alternate ending, a couple of deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

Hard Scrambled

Kurtwood Smith (“That ’70s Show”), whose face is far more familiar than his name, shines in David Scott Hay’s stagey character study, Hard Scrambled. Set primarily in a rundown urban eatery, Alice’s Diner is the kind of place where street urchins gorge themselves on coffee, but don’t spend much money on food. When the restaurant’s namesake (Beth Grant) suffers a terrible accident in the kitchen, Smith’s ex-con character and Richard Edson’s dreamer, Joe, compete to take over the operation, opening the door for financial scams and double-crosses. Hard Scrambled began its life as a play and its roots show throughout the movie. The DVD contains a lengthy making-of featurette, which likely will appeal to aspiring filmmakers.

Masterless: Blu-ray
I wonder if Craig Shimahara ever considered titling his debut feature “Gotta Serve Somebody,” after Bob Dylan’s gospel-rock classic, instead of the more ambiguous, Masterless. Kane Madison (Adam LaVorgnais) is a recently laid-off L.A. architect, whose spirit exists in two worlds. The first is in a hellishly competitive business environment, where godless capitalists are too busy worshipping the holy dollar to notice the emptiness inside them. The other is among the ancestors of his Japanese wife, who’s deathly ill, but must have some samurai blood coursing through her veins. In a conceit that’s far-fetched even by faith-based standards, Kane’s doppelganger spirit, Ronin, is an Anglo swordsman without a master, wandering through the forests of 19th Century Japan. He’s struggling in both spheres of consciousness. The idea, of course, is that no one can succeed without a master – God, for example — no matter how ruthless and well-armed they might be. (The word, “ronin,” also can be interpreted to identify a “salaryman,” between employers.)  Shimahara deserves credit for taking a chance here, both thematically and technically. Despite the elaborate conceit, it’s easy to keep track of the time shifts and the only really unlikeable character is Kane’s shrewish mother-in-law, who blames him for taking her daughter to America and allowing her to follow a Christian path. Those so inclined might enjoy the fresh approach to the genre by Masterless.

David Bowie: In His Own Words
Coldplay: Live Stories
Dicks: The Dicks From Texas
Charles Bradley: Live From the House of Soul
As coincidences go, this week’s package from MVD Visual contained a real doozy. No one at the company could have foreseen the loss of David Bowie, last month, at 69, to liver cancer, so the release of David Bowie: In His Own Words is purely and simply a coincidence. No one from the company called to give me head’s-up, as I’d already requested a copy in December. It’s possible that AXS-TV hadn’t scheduled showings of D.A. Pennebaker’s splendid 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, before his death, but I’m glad I was given an opportunity to tape it. Filmed during the last stop of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour/incarnation, it could hardly be more entertaining or difficult to find through normal channels in mint condition. By contrast, “In His Own Words” contains virtually no music. The same applies to the same company’s Keith Richard: In His Own Words, released last month. They’re both comprised of interviews in the public record and other archival material, absent anything the producers would have to license. Because of the nature of the publicity tours from which most of the material was generated, the Bowie session provide far more insight into the man. For one thing, he’s asked better questions by interviewers who include Conan O’Brien and Carson Daly. Neither does he appear to be selling anything. He’s personable, funny, absent all pretext and completely forthcoming. Bowie seems at home talking about the fate of the planet, making wild but intriguing predictions about the future, chatting about the path of music or discussing any number of writers, poets, philosophers or artists who have inspired him. At 90 minutes, there’s more than enough material to make fans happy.

A similar coincidence applies to Coldplay: Live Stories, whose release coincided with the British band’s near disastrous appearance during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Through no fault of the band’s own, it was expected to impress a packed stadium and tens of millions of TV viewers in exactly the wrong demographic range with songs they might have heard on the radio, but not associated with Coldplay. Neither did it help attract eyes when Chris Martin admitted to not knowing anything about American football. Why would he? Probably realizing that they’d made a mistake, the Pepsi promoters decided Coldplay couldn’t hold the interest of nacho-stuffed fans long enough to sell their latest concoctions. So, they invited Beyonce to join the party and plug her new album, alongside Bruno “Crazy Legs” Mars. Coldplay has filled venues around the world that are twice as big as Levi’s Stadium. No matter, it’s likely the check didn’t bounce and Coldplay didn’t look any worse, in retrospect, than the Carolina team. Coldplay: Live Stories, too, is largely free of music until near the end, when there’s plenty. What it does have, in spades, is band history going back to previous iterations and commentary by longtime followers. And, again, fans should love it.

Not at all coincidental, but similarly compelling are the two other music docs included in the delivery. Dicks: The Dicks From Texas recalls the early-1980s heyday the Austin band, which probably couldn’t get into the Super Bowl, even if the members purchased tickets. Cowpunk and “queercore” before either of those subgenres were remotely cool in Texas, the Dicks’ lead singer Gary Floyd could pass for Divine’s illegitimate child on stage. By all accounts, the Dicks were – and still are – influential in the national hard-core punk scene, even if they didn’t make any money at it. A good time is had by all in the DVD.

If Daptone Records sounds familiar, it’s probably because of its association with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the funk/soul ensemble that backed Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough album, “Back to Black.” The Brooklyn-based label’s been around longer than that, however. Charles Bradley: Live From the House of Soul represents the first installment of Daptone Records’ new video series. Before settling on a career in the funk/soul/R&B arena, Bradley was a well-regarded James Brown impersonator.

Trancers: City of Lost Angels
Sci-fi completists are the primary audience for Trancers: City of Lost Angels, a long lost chapter in a three-part anthology concocted in 1988 by Full Moon founder Charles Band as “Pulse Pounders.” Once the money disappeared, so, too, did the 35mm negatives for “The Evil Clergyman” and a “Dungeonmaster” follow-up. A quarter-century later, a VHS transfer of an edited work print surfaced. In the 30-minute short, Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, a supercop from the future, who has put away three centuries worth of time-traveling criminals. Velvet Rhodes plays the violent assassin Edlin Shock, a recent escapee from a maximum-security prison. Now based in 1988 Los Angeles, Deth is involved in shaky relationship with 21-year-old Helen Hunt. The DVD adds some background features.

TV-to-DVD
El Rey: From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series: Season Two
MHz: A French Village: 1941: Season 2
MHz: Spiral: Season 5
PBS: Nova: Making North America
PBS: BBC Earth: Earth’s Natural Wonders: Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: The Mine Wars
PBS: American Experience: Murder of a President
Independent Lens: A Ballerina’s Tale: Blu-ray
While there’s no shortage of hot young vampires on television, very few of them are conversant in Spanish and represent the fastest-growing minority in the U.S. Developed by Robert Rodriguez, the supernatural crime series “From Dusk till Dawn” expands on its namesake film and straight-to-DVD franchise, which employs a more comic/horror tone. If you haven’t heard of the show, it’s only because the series is the cornerstone production of the El Rey network, which is only carried on a handful of cable and satellite services. In addition to the usual bloodsuckers, the featured creatures include characters from Aztec and other Mexican traditions. In Season Two, Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza González) and Richie Gecko (Zane Holtz) are impersonating a modern version of Bonnie and Clyde, Seth Gecko and Kate (Madison Davenport) are scraping by as small-time criminals in north Mexico and Ranger Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia) is struggling to protecting his family in the suburbs. Naturally, the Titty Twister strip club attracts desperadoes like a Venus flytrap attracts, well, flies. As confusing as the shapeshifting can be, the mix of little known actors and popular guest stars is nicely choreographed. While full of fantasy violence and mayhem, nudity is of the partial variety. Look for visits by Danny Trejo, Wilmer Valderrama, Jake Busey, Robert Patrick, Esai Morales, Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson. The Blu-ray adds commentary on select episodes, recaps, making-of featurettes and a presentation from the 2015 NYC Comic Con.

The MHz Networks import, “A French Village,” chronicles the impact of World War II on a small village in central France from the beginning of the German occupation, 1940, until the liberation by Allied forces in 1944. Newly available on DVD is the second of six seasons, mostly encompassing the events of 1941. As the residents settle down for the long haul, the German presence in Villeneuve has become firmly entrenched, eclipsing any notion that the Vichy government had any say in the matter. The interaction between the German troops and residents is about to devolve from almost cordial to antagonistic, with the resistance taking shape and threats to Jews becoming more direct. One interesting storyline involves discussions among Communist Party members as to how to show their support for their comrades on the Eastern Front, where the Nazis still appear to hold the upper hand. As we already know, any violent resistance against the enemy would result in reprisals against the population at large. Here, though, there’s still room dialogue, commerce and soap-opera romance. It’s an amazing series, well worth the effort it takes to endure the subtitles. The MHz streaming site appears to be a year ahead of the DVD releases.

Also from MHz comes Season Five of the contemporary police procedural, “Spiral,” winner of the 2015 International Emmy for best Drama Series. It is about the men and women who work at the heart of the Parisian judicial system, especially the interaction between the lawyers, judges, prosecutors and detectives who cross paths on the most serious and heinous crimes. As is the case with “Law & Order,” reality tends to spiral out of control for each character, blurring the boundaries between private and professional life. If anything, the tension between men and women on the force is greater in “Spiral.” Season Five begins with the shocking double murder of a woman and a girl, found bound together in a canal. Naturally, the investigation begins with the father, who appears to have disappeared with his young son, after a bitter domestic clash. Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) is still reeling from the death of a partner in Season Four and her demeanor is further tested by an unplanned pregnancy. As seemingly unrelated investigations develop, the characters find similarities to the original murders.

In its continuing effort to make viewers regret not taking advanced geology and Earth-sciences in college, PBS appears to have made it its business to explain not only how the world as we know it was shaped, but also the ways its continued to change … imperceptibly and in great physical upheavals. More to the point of television, though, such science-based series as “NOVA” and “BBC Earth” have made these changes look far more spectacularly beautiful than previous generations of students got have imagined. Drone technology probably will add new dimensions to our appreciation of the geologists’ art. The latest entries include “Making North America” describes how such elemental forces as volcanic eruptions, floods, glaciers and meteorites conspired to shape our land. The “NOVA” presentation serves as a sweeping biography of our continent and how it came to be. It is enhanced by hyper-realistic CGI animations, immersive geological field missions and the latest scientific research, The BBC’s “Earth’s Natural Wonders” travels to some of the planet’s most extraordinary destinations to show how their environments shape the lives of those who live there. They include Mount Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, the Amazon Basin and Grand Canyon.

From PBS’s “American Experience” come “The Mine Wars” and “Murder of a President,” the first taking an in-depth at struggle of mine workers to be compensated commiserate to the hazards of the job and needs of their families. The mine owners, of course, would have preferred the miner paid them to work there. They fought every effort to organize unions with repressive legislation, brutal police and national guard units, scabs and mercenary violence. If enormous profits weren’t available to management and the country didn’t need the coal to fuel our industrial engine, the strikes might never have been settled. It seems as if the unions have been fighting the same battles for respect, safety and adequate compensation since the early 1900s covered here. “Murder of a President” recounts the assassination and excruciating final months of President James Garfield’s life. Our 20th president was gunned down by a deranged Stalwart politician only a few months after taking office. He would die two months later from the wounds. A brilliant scholar, courageous general and fervent abolitionist, Garfield never wanted the job of president, but, once in office, he worked tirelessly to reunite a nation still divided 15 years after the Civil War.

Now playing on select PBS stations is “A Ballerina’s Tale,” which is a short version of Nelson George’s beautiful bio-doc of Misty Copeland, who made history when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer of the legendary American Ballet Theater. George followed the Los Angeles-raised dancer for the past two years, during which her profile was raised to almost astronomical heights, if only because her backstory is as compelling these things get. Because of her ethnic background and non-traditional “body type,” the spotlight shown on her during her rise was harsher than the one accorded non-black ballerinas. The film also describes her career-threatening surgery for six stress fractures to her tibia. It is, at once, highly inspirational, motivational and entertaining,

The DVD Wrapup: Bridge of Spies, Truth, Snow White, Breathe and more

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Bridge of Spies: Blu-ray
There’s always a point in a Steven Spielberg movie where I want to pull out my cellphone–or hit the pause button on my remote–to check the validity of what’s just happened on the screen. Likewise, there are times in every performance by Tom Hanks when he appears to be channeling Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, instead of remaining within the skin of his character. It doesn’t take me out of the picture for very long, just enough to remind me that the operative word in “based on a true story” is “based,” not “true.” Most fact-based movies made in Hollywood require a suspension of disbelief for the sake of telling a story. It comes with the price of a ticket. If any collaborative team is allowed more latitude than Spielberg and Hanks, however, I’d be hard-pressed to name it. Their work on the Cold War drama, Bridge of Spies, provides a perfect example of why purists avoid going to see movies about their primary areas of interest, while others applaud a good screenwriter’s ability to make a historical event more entertaining than it was in real life. The drama surrounds the exchange of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet KGB Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (a.k.a., Colonel Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) on February 10, 1962, at the Glienicke Bridge connecting West Berlin and Potsdam. At the same time, American student Frederic Pryor — accused of espionage by East German authorities –was quietly allowed to pass through Checkpoint Charlie, a free man. Both were arranged by New York insurance lawyer and former assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials in Germany political negotiator James B. Donovan. In the movie, it appeared as if someone in Washington had pulled Donovan’s name from a hat, when, in fact, he was General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1945. If Donovan’s name hadn’t been made public, Spielberg might have invented a composite character of him for Hanks to play.

Reporters dubbed the Glienicke span, Bridge of Spies, after the 1985 swap of 23 American agents held in Eastern Europe for Polish agent Marian Zacharski and another three Soviet agents arrested in the west. A year later, Soviet political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and three western agents were traded for five eastern agents. The bridge also played a role in screen adaptations of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People and Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. Even so, Bridge of Spies didn’t exactly write itself. Spielberg enlisted Ethan and Joel Cohn to polish Matt Charman’s original script, adding some spice to the negotiations between Donovan and the almost morbidly drab KGB and East German agents. Hanks took it from there, practically winking at the audience when Donovan pulled one over the dullards. He took a more serious tack when, against all odds and professional advice, Donovan nearly convinced the Supreme Court to free his much-loathed client from jail on a technicality. Spielberg’s signature touch can be recognized in the film’s icy depiction of life behind the still uncompleted wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. The bombed-out cityscape stands in bold contrast to the brightness of life in the west. Alan Alda and Amy Ryan are the only two cast members whose faces would be recognized outside an SAG pep rally, but Hanks makes everyone look good in his company. Besides grossing $162.4 million worldwide and receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim, Bridge of Spies has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Mark Rylance), Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Berlin 1961: Re-Creating the Divide,” “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” “U-2 Spy Plane” and “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act.”

Truth: Blu-ray
When Robert Redford played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, the Watergate crisis was fading from the memory of most American and journalism schools were churning out investigative journalists as if they’re so many sausages. Today, many of those same J-school graduates have been laid off from their jobs, with nary a parting handshake for their contributions to our great democracy. Investigative reporting took a big hit on the chin a few years later when CBS and ABC executives kowtowed to Big Tobacco for their own selfish reasons, denying the veracity of reports known to be accurate and making a mockery of the First Amendment. CBS’ betrayal was dramatized in The Insider, which, while making less money than All the President’s Men, did reasonably well at the box office. Al Pacino played reporter-producer Lowell Bergman and the picture attracted a flock of awards nominations. For its part, ABC cut a deal with a target of a “Day One” report to settle lawsuits ahead of its sale to Disney. In Up Close & Personal, Redford played a nearly washed up TV news director, who mentors, then falls for an ambitious blond reporter (Michelle Pfeiffer). The film had been intended to chronicle the rocket rise and tragic demise of Jessica Savitch, until studio buffoons decided that audiences really wanted to see another love story, featuring two blond leads.

In Truth, Redford plays another respected journalist and anchorman, Dan Rather, who could have benefited from having an editor like Ben Bradlee, instead of a bunch of Chicken Littles scurrying away at the first hint of controversy. Unlike All the President’s Men, James Vanderbilt’s debut feature serves as a reminder of how far the once-mighty industry has fallen in the eyes of the public. If Rather couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth – an argument made in the film not by viewers, but network suits – then, why not watch “Wheel of Fortune” or “Roseanne” reruns, instead? The trouble is, the Watergate scandal is probably fresher in the minds of today’s moviegoers than the 2004 fracas at CBS. If the impact of the events chronicled in Truth had made a dent on the American psyche, it didn’t register at the box office. In fact, it recovered less money in its domestic release than it cost to make ATPM in 1976. This, despite awards-caliber performances by Redford and Cate Blanchett, who, instead, was nominated for her work in Carol, and universally excellent reviews. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, Redford’s producer and chief reporter on an investigation into George W. Bush’s alleged ability to avoid the draft by phoning in his obligation to the Texas Air National Guard. While there would be no shame in Bush or anyone else attempting to find a way out of going to Southeast Asia at that particular point in time, he did so by calling in favors from Bush family friends. Even more reprehensible, 30-plus years later in Bush’s re-election campaign, his advisers would tar his opponent, Vietnam vet John Kerry, by accusing him of being a liar about his service to the U.S. Neither would the president hesitate to put tens of thousands of American lives in harm’s way, when Bush ordered the unnecessary invasion of Iraq. It was an ill-conceived blunder for which we’re still paying.

All of that was in play when Rather went on “60 Minutes” to present Mapes’ findings to an audience of millions. Instead of putting Bush on the defensive, the report put them in the crosshairs of a smear campaign that prompted CBS brass to put extraordinary pressure on their news-division stars to recant and apologize for a story that, at its worst, could have used one more on-the-record source and a few more days to report. Too many of the people who had verified Mapes’ findings caved in to threats from Republican power-brokers. The network’s investigation stunk to high heaven and it looks even more politically motivated in Truth. Rather would resign in shame, while Mapes would be fired. Other than write the book upon which Vanderbilt based his story, the Peabody Award-winning news producer – who also broke the Abu Ghraib scandal — has remained unemployed. After losing Rather would be hired by the obscure AXS-TV channel to do high-profile interviews and location reporting. I don’t know who thought this particular scandal would sell tickets, no matter how well made it might be. It didn’t topple a president or indict a major industry for knowingly causing the deaths of millions of its customers. There’s more tension, suspense and empathy built into 10 minutes of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News – Holly Hunter’s character was modeled after former Rather producer, Susan Zirinsky – than in the entirety of Truth. Special features include commentary with Vanderbilt and producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak; a Q&A with Blanchett, Vanderbilt and co-star Elisabeth Moss; deleted scenes; “The Reason for Being,” in which Rather, Mapes and cast members discuss the history behind the movie; and “The Team,” in which actors describe their characters.

Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
When it comes to new Blu-ray editions of classic films, it’s always a good idea to read the fine print on the back cover before investing in something that may only be marginally different than what’s already on your shelf. While the differences between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray are obvious, those separating one Blu-ray iteration from another may be limited to qualities that have little or nothing to do with the audio-visual presentation. The addition or elimination of featurettes and other bonus material may not be sufficient reason for a replacement copy. It’s only been five years since Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – perhaps, the brightest jewel in the studio’s crown – in a brilliantly hi-def Diamond Edition. By all technical measures, the new Signature Collection is identical to the Diamond release … excellent. The bonus package here is highlighted by the Disney Digital Copy voucher found inside the case. It enables buyers of DVD and Blu‑ray discs to receive the digital version of the movie in their choice of iTunes or Windows Media formats. The fresh featurettes include, “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with archival audio footage from an interview with Walt Disney in 1956; “Iconography,” which begins with individuals reflecting on their history with the film and continues on to discuss the title character’s long-standing popularity; “DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” in which animator Mark Henn and art directors Michael Giaimo, Bill Schwab, and Lorelay Bové discuss the film’s character design history, inspirations and the artists who designed Disney’s first princess and supporting characters; “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”; “Snow White in Seventy Seconds,” a rapid-fire hip-hop retelling of the story; “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” a never-before-seen sequence featuring Snow White meeting the Prince for the first time; and “Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a lengthier version of the supplement, “The One That Started It All,” found on the Diamond Edition release. The only missing featurettes anyone is likely to miss are some interactive activities, a music video and familiar studio history.

As great a movie as “Snow White” is, it isn’t a bad idea to warn parents against taking its G-rating at face value. As is the case with all of Disney’s animated fairy tales – and several live-action pictures – there will be material capable of frightening sensitive kids or prompting them to ask questions only a grown-up is qualified to answer. Disney has always gotten breaks from the ratings board that other companies don’t. Sometimes all a child needs to get through a “Bambi,” “Old Yeller” or “Snow White” is a hand to hold and a parent should be there to offer it.

Breathe
The least subtle moment in Mélanie Laurent’s taut teen drama, Breathe, comes in a high school science class, as the students absentmindedly watch a documentary about a noxious weed, cuscuta reflexa whose tentacles wind around the stems of a host plant, inserting sharp pincers into its vascular system. After the monster, as the teacher refers to it, is done sucking the sap and nutrients from a flowering plant, now smothered with “devil’s hair,” the predator will either attach itself to another plant in close proximity or, itself, die of starvation. Since we’ve already been introduced to the girls who will serve as the host and predator in this adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s popular YA novel, “Respire,” it isn’t difficult to imagine how things are going to play out in Breathe. It’s to Laurent’s credit that we never give up on Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laâge), even as we begin to witness the “monster” attempting to crush the life out of the flower. At first, Charlie appears to be a perfectly normal high school senior, happiest around a close-knit group of classmates and anxious to take her final exams. At home, however, it’s a different story. The sometimes violent exchanges between her estranged parents have left her feeling insignificant in their lives and her own. Charlie also suffers from asthma, so we know exactly when the pressures of life are beginning to choke her.

Enter Sarah, the new girl in town who’s as funny, flirty and brash as Charlie is fragile and withdrawn. After their homeroom teacher seats the girls next to each other and asks Charlie to get Sarah up to speed, they become fast friends … too fast. Because Sarah is adept at hiding her own pain, what begins as a complementary friendship eventually succumbs to feigned intimacy and the usual tyrannies of being a teenager. That the ending telegraphs itself doesn’t make it any less powerful. Laurent, who’s starred in Inglourious Basterds, Aloft and Now You See Me, has elicited terrific performances from her two young and relatively inexperienced leads. They look and act the part of teenagers on the verge of womanhood, vulnerable but optimistic that things will get better once they’re on their own. This month’s Film Movement short film, “Bonne Esperance,” describes an unlikely alliance between a belligerent teenage girl and the social worker who falls under her elusive spell. The DVD also includes interviews with Mélanie Laurent, Josephine Japy and Lou de Laâge, and a Q&A with the filmmaker.

Take Me to the River: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s spent more than a day or two in Memphis already has felt the beating heart of American music. For most of the last 100 years, the city has provided a home – however temporary – for the men and women who shaped gospel, soul, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, jazz and the blues, on its journey from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago aboard the train they still call the City of New Orleans. The rhythm of the railroad, as it cut through the bayous, cotton fields, woodlands and farms, day and night, on its way to the promised land of the industrial north, served as the metronome for Memphis’ gift to the world. Personally, Martin Shore’s wonderfully entertaining documentary, Take Me to the River, warmly recalled the time I spent in the city with my son, visiting some of the same shrines and listening to the same music represented here. Shore uses multigenerational jam sessions, produced by descendants of the creators of the Memphis Sound at Hi, Royal and Stax studios, to link yesterday’s stars and session gods to such hip-hoppers as Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Al Kapone, Frayser Boy and Lil P-Nut. Among the old-timers represented, some for the last time on film, are Bobby Rush, William Bell, Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T. Jones and Hubert Sumlin.

It’s tres cool to listen to guitarist Charlie “Skip” Pitts recall sessions for “Duke of Earl” and Wilson Pickett and how he introduced the famous “wah wah” guitar riff to Hayes for “Shaft.” You’ll never guess the origin story of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming.” Terrence Howard, who shot “Hustle & Flow” in Memphis, serves as host, plays the guitar and sings, while native sons Luther and Cody Dickinson demonstrate how black and white artists were able to cross boundaries in the studio that were closed outside. To that end, Bland pairs up with Gotti, on a mournful “Ain’t No Sunshine,” over a montage of images from the civil-rights struggle that led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, memorialized just a short drive from the studios. Although Take Me to the River doesn’t carry the same firepower as other recent documentary homages to creators of basically the same music, there are other joys to savor. I would have welcomed a bit more love shown to Sun Studios, but you can’t have everything. For those considering a trip to Memphis, I recommend stops at the Stax museum, Sun Studio, Beale Street, the Lorraine Motel memorial and civil-rights museum next-door, and, yes, Graceland. The DVD adds extended interviews and historic video footage.

The World of Kanako: Blu-ray
Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Confessions) has never been known for his restraint in depicting the ripple effect of violence, not only on its victims, but also perpetrators and society. His no-holds-barred approach has occasionally cost him the financial backing of major studios and some pointed criticism. His films do very well at the domestic box office, however, so it isn’t likely Nakashima will dial down the action any time soon. Based on a novel by Akio Fukamachi, The World of Kanako (a.k.a., “Thirst”) certainly lives up to the director’s reputation … or down, depending on where one stands on the subject of gratuitous violence. It opens with disgraced former police detective Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) berating his ex-wife after she calls to inform him of the disappearance of his daughter, who he probably couldn’t recognize in a lineup. Fujishima lost his job after beating the crap out of the man with whom she was cheating. He went on a six-month bender after being fired, resisting any outreach from his fellow cops, many of whom were crooked, corrupt or twisted. Before she went missing, both parents considered Kanako (Nana Komatsu) to be a model student and upholder of feminine virtues. It doesn’t take long for her father to uncover evidence of behavior that would shock a marine drill sergeant. After beating up and raping his ex-wife to temporarily silence his demons, Fujishima agrees there’s enough blame to go around for the girl’s inglorious slide.

In his effort to rescue Kanako from Tokyo’s forces of darkness, he bullies her friends into revealing what little they know about her and where she might be. The forced testimony makes it clear that his little flower is involved in illicit sex, hard drugs and other unladylike behavior. Even when Kanako’s shown kindness to bullied classmates, it came with a catch. Fujishima’s journey of discovery will remind some viewers Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, in which George C. Scott made the descent into the hell of Southern California’s porn industry to “rescue” his daughter and bring her back to Grand Rapids … and her senses. Unlike Scott’s strict Calvinist businessman, the boozy ex-cop in The World of Kanako becomes less and less inclined to bring his bad seed daughter home. Her disgrace is his cancerous tumor. Yakusho’s depiction of a Japanese Dirty Harry is so far over the top that viewers will be hard-pressed to find someone with whom to sympathize in The World of Kanako. Nakashima contrasts Fujishima’s dark, neo-noir mission with flashy J-pop images of his daughter partying hardy in nightclubs run by the yakuza. The operatically composed Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette and interviews with the cute-as-a-button Komatsu and the borderline creepy novelist, Fukamachi.

The Beauty Inside: Blu-ray
As gimmicks go, the one that informs Baek Jong-Yeol’s debut rom-dram The Beauty Within is pretty good. I doubt that the writer/director had Groundhog Day in mind when he embarked on a film in which the protagonist goes to bed one person, but wakes up the next 100-plus mornings looking radically different. Watching it during the first week of February, however, begged the question. On any given morning, Woo-jin could find himself in the body of someone of a different shape or size, gender or ethnicity. Inside, though, he’s the same lonely furniture maker he was before he fell asleep, only slightly more frustrated each time. Only his mother and nerdy best friend are privy to the situation. During one of his more manly morphs, Woo-jin is bowled over by the lovely Hong Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju) and it causes him to do something drastic about the problem. One way is to stay up for three nights, milking his good looks, however temporary, for all they’re worth. God forbid, he should fall asleep and wake looking like Ted Cruz. Would Hong be attracted to his inner beauty, anyway? There’s more to the story, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Han is terrific as the imminently patient love interest for the many popular Korean actors and actresses playing Woo-jin. The Beauty Inside was adapted from the 2012 Web series directed by Drake Doremus and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
In the short documentary, “Draft Day,” which accompanies the feature on this Wolfe Video release, writer/director Josh Kim follows two transgender Thais as they prepare to participate in their country’s mandatory military-conscription lottery. It requires of 18-year-old youths to draw cards from a container held above their heads. Those pulling red cards must prepare immediately for military service, those holding black cards are exempt. As is the case in most countries, the sons of wealthy parents rarely are called to serve in any position, as are those deemed medically or mentally unfit. Not all transgender women (a.k.a., ladyboys or kathoeys) desire to play the abnormal card and are absorbed into the branch to which they’ve been assigned. Such matters are handled differently in Thailand, where, one suspects, everyone has better things to concern themselves with than gender-identity issues. It explains Kim’s matter-of-fact approach to the subject in his first feature, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), in which key transgender characters are required to make the same choice. That’s only indirectly what the film is about, however.

The Korean-American filmmaker puts a tighter focus here on growing up on the economic fringes of Bangkok, where some of the “better things” to worry about include gangsters, corrupt politicians and a general lack of education and hope for boys growing up poor in contemporary Thailand. Based on two short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) observes the maturation process from the point of view of 11-year-old Oat, an orphan living with his aunt and kathoey brother, Ek, who’s approaching his 18th birthday.  Just as Ek protects his brother from the dangers of life in the high-crime neighborhood, Oat is determined to fix the draft in Ek’s favor. First, though, he must come up with the money necessary to bribe the local crimelord, whose son has nothing to fear from the coming lottery. In a captivating debut performance, Ingkarat Damrongsakkul comes of age before our eyes. The title refers to the game Oat and Ek (Thira Chutikul) play to fortify their bond. As good as it is, “Checkers” failed to make the short list of candidates for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a movie from Thailand – or anywhere else, for that matter – that doesn’t exploit the country’s infamous sex trade or its participants, not all of whom see themselves as victims or slaves.

Sticky: A (Self) Love Story
Historically, masturbation has not been a subject discussed with any degree of comfort in society … polite or otherwise. That reluctance has changed significantly since the media decided it was no longer a taboo subject. Seemingly, the children of the men and woman who fought in the Sexual Revolution no longer are taught they’ll be prohibited from entering the gates of heaven –  go blind or grow hair on the palms of their hands, either – if they occasionally bring themselves to orgasm. Even so, most parents still feel it necessary to react unfavorably to the discovery of evidence that suggests Babs or Junior is partaking in the joys of spanking the monkey or polishing the pearl. Instead of punishing them or attempting to add shame to the embarrassment of being caught red-handed, as it were, might I recommend a screening of Sticky: A (Self) Love Story as an alternative form of therapy? While tracing the stigma back to a basic misreading of Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis, we’re introduced to ethicists and religious scholars who question the long-held belief that God condemned Onan for refusing to honor the teachings on levirate marriage and getting his rocks off without asking permission of a burning bush. Nicholas Tana’s strangely compelling documentary attempts to explain why masturbation is something most everyone does, but, until recently, few people will admit to doing. And, yet, the stigmatization that can cause permanent psychological damage or bullying on the social media continues. If we no longer buy into the same sort of FBI propaganda that linked compulsive masturbation to serial killers, then why have comedians Pee-wee Herman and Fred Willard paid such a high price for jerking off in a porno theater where, one might assume, it’s why they exist in the first place. Indeed, the relaxed attitude is reflected more accurately on television (“The  Contest” episode of “Seinfeld”), film (American Pie, There’s Something About Mary), music (“Sticky Fingers,” for one) and comedy clubs (too many to mention). Among those offering expert testimony are Janeane Garofalo, Nina Hartley, Larry Flynt, Film Threat founder Chris Gore and former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was fired by Hypocrite in Chief Bill Clinton for advocating a more reasonable approach to drug legalization, contraception in schools, abortion and masturbation.

Home Invasion
Thrillers involving home invasions and hostage situations are a dime-a-dozen on DVD. Once a director is able to establish a rapport between the victims and viewers, all that’s required is convincing us of the perpetrators’ willingness to do great mental and bodily harm to the captives. The news media have already laid that foundation in countless reports of crazed killers and rapists terrorizing suburbia. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, along with its English-language twin sibling of the same title, tapped into the fears of all middle-class citizens already frightened by the random encroachment of inner-city crime on their seemingly secure enclaves. Screenwriters, of course, have encountered no obstacles to preventing sadists, sociopaths and other desperate criminals from bypassing elaborate security codes, hidden cameras and thick gated walls in their pursuit of mayhem. David Tennant’s straight-to-DVD thriller, Home Invasion, probably doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Funny Games, but it works unexpectedly well as a scary time-killer. In it, a group of extremely well-coordinated and heavily armed bandits break into a home on an island linked to the mainland by a single-lane bridge. By disabling the bridge’s ability to open and close, the invaders buy themselves a couple of hours of time, even if the security system works correctly.

Natasha Henstridge’s Chloe is attempting to make peace with her belligerent stepson when the break-in occurs. Her husband has been out of town on business for a longer-than-normal time and completely out of touch with the family. The crooks’ knowledge of the home’s layout reveals a financial agreement gone bad between them and Chloe’s husband. She’s unaware of it, so can honestly plead ignorance when they demand to know the whereabouts of a safe filled with stolen money. Preoccupied with their mission, the crooks barely pay attention to the absence of Chloe and the boy when they escape into the large house’s many nooks and crannies. A storm is raging outside, so, even when she is able to contact the security company’s headquarters, its response team, led by Jason Patric, is unable to launch a land-and-sea rescue effort. Patric’s character is, however, partially able to monitor the movements of Chloe, the boy and the crooks, using cameras not blacked out in the early minutes of the invasion. They communicate via cellphone, but quietly and without any assurance it won’t be discovered by the gang’s sadistic leader (Scott Adkins). In some ways, I was reminded here, as well, of Wait Until Dark, another home-invasion thriller with a harrowing twist and a female protagonist who’s unable to say where a stolen doll, filled with heroin, is located. Home Invasion may not be essential viewing, even for genre buffs, but it makes good use of its limited resources.

The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
Eight years have passed since the last entry in Universal’s “The Land Before Time” franchise, “The Wisdom of Friends,” found its way into the dinosaur-loving hearts of young DVD viewers. The 14th chapter in the saga, Journey of the Brave, follows the Apatosaurus Littlefoot, as he attempts to learn the whereabouts of his father, Bron, who returns to Green Valley once a year to lead his herd. Apparently, Bron became stranded in the wilderness when the “fire mountain” erupted and he needs some help. Littlefoot embarks on the journey with his friends Cera, Ducky, Petrie and Spike to find him. After a disagreement between Littlefoot and Cera on which path to take, Littlefoot (voiced by Scott McAfee) decides to go ahead, alone, where he meets a Pteranodon, Etta (Reba McEntire), who knows his father. As they travel across strange terrain, Littlefoot, Etta and Wild Arms (Damon Wayans Jr.) discover that by pulling together they can overcome any challenge. The series began in 1988 with The Land Before Time, directed and produced by Don Bluth and executive produced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It made enough money on a moderate budget to prompt a total of thirteen direct-to-video musical sequels and a TV series, even without the participation of its heavyweight trio.

TV-to-DVD
Mercy Street: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: Downton Abbey: Season 6: Blu-ray
The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics
The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes
Nickelodeon: Shimmer & Shine
In the wake of the recent re-lease of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” comes the six-part mini-series, “Mercy Street,” which dramatizes life, death, love and political intrigue in a Union Army Hospital, across the Potomac River from Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia. The thread of soap-opera melodrama that runs through the story is bolstered by the conceit of having the facility situated inside a previously grand hotel owned and managed by a family that believes strongly in the Confederate cause. The Greens aren’t entirely altruistic, of course, seeing as though James Green (Gary Cole) is a businessman first and patriot second. If viewers are supposed to think of Gone With the Wind’s O’Hara family when considering the machinations of the Greens, it works. Some also will recall the film’s single most powerful scene, panning the immensity of makeshift hospital grounds barely able to cope with the carnage of the battle for Atlanta. What happens inside the Mansion House is a microcosm of that and other scenes in “GWTW,” as well as the BBC’s fine WWI frontline-hospital mini-series, “The Crimson Field,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “ANZAC Girls” and James Kent’s Testament of Youth. (Even stately Downton Abbey was converted to a medical facility.) Likewise, “Mercy Street” puts a tight focus on several volunteer nurses, surgeons and patients, representing a myriad of opinions on what’s at stake in the American Civil War. Then, too, parallel storylines follow former slaves walking a tightrope between tenuous emancipation and the possibility they could be kidnapped and returned South, even as freed men and women; corrupt Union officials; and plots to murder President Lincoln. The series is created by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel and inspired by memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

If the British writer Robert Graves had lived long enough to be a fan of “Downton Abbey,” he might borrow some thoughts from his autobiography, “Good-Bye to All That,” to describe his feelings about the show’s sixth and final season. The book was published in 1929, when the author was 34 and quite ready to leave behind the world described in the beloved “Masterpiece” series. As much as we’d all love to see “Downton” last forever – or, at least, until Mick Jagger or Jimmy Page bought the estate – the family’s lifestyle no longer could be sustained … or tolerated. Creator Julian Fellowes has done a nice job wrapping things up, without resorting to maudlin devices or atypical fireworks. He has allowed for the luxury of tying up loose ends, however, by inviting back some long-absent characters. “Season 6” remains what “Downton Abbey” always been: a class act. For those viewers who can’t wait until next month’s finale – or, are still catching up – the Blu-ray arrives with the featurettes, “Cars of Downton Abbey,” “Farewell to Highclere,” “Changing Times” and, of course, a “Visit Britain” interstitial. I suspect that a gala compilation will become available shortly before Christmas, so fans may want to start saving their pennies. The fate of “Mercy Street” has yet to be decided.

Time Life/WEA continues to dish out bite-size portions of much larger and more expensive compilations, the latest being “The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics.” The latest package of episodes from the long-running syndicated series, which gave new meaning to the terms, “cornpone” and “hayseed,” contains Episodes 45 and 48. They include contributions from series regulars Buck Owens, Roy Clark, the Hagers, Nashville Edition, as well as guest stars Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Bill Anderson and Peggy Little.

Last Saturday, Carol Burnette accepted a lifetime-achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild for her six decades on the big and small screen, including her groundbreaking namesake variety show, which ran for 11 years. During the late-1960s, CBS was sometimes called “The Carol Burnett Show Network,” a joking reference to the program’s huge ratings and value to its advertisers. And, yet, the first five seasons hadn’t resurfaced — no reruns, streaming video, DVDs or other formats — until Time Life introduced “The Lost Episodes.” The new six-disc set, “The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes,” features 15 uncut episodes and such guest stars as Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers and Mickey Rooney. There are more than four hours of bonus features.

Nickelodeon’s newest addition to its Nick Jr. block, “Shimmer & Shine, features a young girl named Leah and two apprentice genies, Shimmer and Shine, who happen to be fraternal twins. They are allowed to grant three wishes every day, but, first, must travel to Earth from the magical land of Zahramay Falls, which is located inside their genie bottle. When not granting wishes, Shimmer and Shine live with their pets Nahal and Tala and travel around on a magic carpet. The trouble is, as genies-in-training, they sometimes misinterpret Leah’s wishes and often accidentally grant her wishes she didn’t mean to make.

The DVD Wrapup: Burnt, Assassin, New Girlfriend, Patels, Mr. Robot and more

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Burnt: Blu-ray
A few years before Bradley Cooper broke from the pack of nearly interchangeable white male actors in The Hangover, he starred in an ill-fated Fox TV series, “Kitchen Confidential,” based on the memoirs of “bad boy” chef Anthony Bourdain. The celebrity-chef phenomenon had yet to reach critical mass on television, so the audience’s response probably had less to do with Cooper than the subject matter. In Burnt, he plays a character who more closely resembles Gordon Ramsey — Don Rickles, in a toque — than the hipper-than-thou bon vivant. Where the protagonist of “Kitchen Confidential,” Jack Bourdain, was required to overcome serious problems with substance abuse, Burnt’s Adam Jones not only has had to kick alcohol and drug habits, but also rage issues that precede him wherever he goes. Otherwise, the two productions could have been cut from the same template. Depending on how one feels about Ramsey, specifically, viewers either will be turned off after the film’s first half-hour or anxious to follow Jones on the road to redemption. To his credit, director John Wells also sought the advice of less idiosyncratic cooks Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Clare Smyth, who understand the difference between controlled chaos in the workplace and temper tantrums. Led by a supporting cast of fine international stars – Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sam Keeley, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy – Burnt is best when Wells’ focus is inside the kitchen and dining room of Jones’ new London restaurant. Emma Thompson is typically good as Jones’ shrink, but, by now, the advice of one movie therapist is as good as anyone else’s opinion.

In “Kitchen Confidential,” apparently, the protagonist’s goal was to impress the restaurant critic of the New York Times. Here, in an unlikely scenario, the top London critic accepts an invitation to a preview dinner and makes sure everyone knows he’s there. More accurate is the anxiety that consumes Jones over what the Michelin critics might say after their surprise, if not entirely clandestine visit. A third star on his resume would validate everything Jones and his staffs have had to endure to get one. Curiously, the cuisine Jones prepares has less in common with the tastes of modern foodies than that of his rival (Rhys), whose kitchen is known for its micro gastronomy. As mouth-watering as Burnt is, I would discourage anyone from assuming that all foodie movies taste the same. The cranky-perfectionist conceit works better in Daniel Cohen’s Le Chef, Jon Favreau’s Chef, Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night and Brittany Murphy’s largely undiscovered gem, The Ramen Girl. Also tempting are Mostly Martha and its Hollywood remake No Reservations, Woman on Top. Tampopo, Ratatouille, Julie and Julia and, of course, Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate.  The Blu-ray adds the informative featurette, “Burnt: In the Kitchen with Bradley Cooper,” several deleted scenes, Q&A highlights with the director and cast, and commentary with Wells and executive chef consultant Marcus Wareing.

The Assassin: Blu-ray
When Ang Lee’s sumptuous martial-arts drama, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning 4, lots of people wondered if the academy finally was willing to give future Chinese wuxia a fair hearing, at least, from voters. Apart from consideration in a few non-marquee categories, however, the genre has been given short shrift. Fact is, though, no other such movie, with the exception of Kill Bill and Kung Fu Panda, however, has generated the same excitement at the domestic box office as “CT/HD.” Having made several 10-best lists compiled by prestigious American critics and garnered awards from Cannes to Palm Springs, many wuxia enthusiasts felt that Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin might be accorded the respect accorded Ang Lee. Although it survived the first cut in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the Taiwan entry didn’t make the list of finalists, let alone for Best Picture. Neither did it find traction in any of the same tech categories as “CT/HD.” Where most martial-arts movies emphasize the action over anything except the production design, The Assassin takes a more patient, painterly approach to a story loosely adapted from Pei Xing’s late 9th Century tale “Nie Yinniang,” which has informed other swordsmanship and wuxia fiction.

Hou has set his adaptation in 8th Century China, during the Tang Dynasty. Shu Qi (A Beautiful Life) plays Nie Yinniang, a killer appointed to slay corrupt government officials by her master, Jiaxin, a nun who raised her from the age of 10 for this express purpose. When Nie displays mercy toward a target, Jiaxin punishes her with a ruthless assignment designed to test her resolve. It requires her to travel to Weibo in remote northern China to kill its military governor, her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), to whom she had once been betrothed. Staged on location in China’s Wudang Mountains and Daiju Lake, in Hubai Province, as well as lush forest preserves on Taiwan, the mist-covered settings reflect Nie’s contemplative approach to her duties. The thick woods also provide cover for the assassin and the men sent to kill her. The 68-year-old Hou (The Voyage of the Red Balloon) has said that he intentionally delayed making a period piece until “he is older.”  In the eight years he’s been absent from the director’s chair, Hou must have used the time to study everything from armaments and clothing design to the obscure Chinese dialect spoken by the actors. For their part, the actors knew that the maestro would expect the same courtesy in return. Their respect for him is duly noted in the brief making-of featurettes. As such, The Assassin is a cinematic feast to be savored.

The New Girlfriend
If all one knows going into a screening of The New Girlfriend is that the psychosexual thriller has been adapted by director/writer François Ozon from a short story by Ruth Rendell, there’s more than a fighting chance you’ll enjoy the compelling French export. Rendell’s crime fiction has benefitted from interpretation by several European directors – Claude Chabrol, Pedro Almodovar, Claude Miller – if only because their audiences are more willing to embrace sexual situations that push the limits of mainstream tastes and taboos. Moreover, they do so without calling attention to the edgy subject matter or courage of the actors in lead roles. The New Girlfriend opens with the untimely death of a young wife and mother, Laura (Isild Le Besco), and a teary eulogy delivered by Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), in which she describes a blood oath made as childhood friends to take care of each other’s loved ones, if such a calamitous occasion arose. Devastated by the loss, Clair one day drops in unannounced on Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris), while he’s feeding the baby in full drag. Claire’s first inclination may have been to label him a “pervert” and rush out the door, but she allows David to elaborate on his longtime desire to lounge around the house in his wife’s clothes. Furthermore, he believes the baby would benefit from having the support of a father and a mother, however faux. After Claire agrees to go along with the parental ruse, she also agrees to help David overcome his fear of going out in public as Virginia. Eventually, Claire accepts Virginia as an emotional surrogate for Laura in her own life. Ozon now is in a position to play all sorts of head games with his characters, who, for all purposes, didn’t exist at the beginning of the movie. For American audiences still trying to get their heads around Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence from the Kardashian closet, The New Girlfriend provides a decidedly different spin on the protagonist’s gender-identity issues and how they impact his relationship with his BFF, her husband and his bourgeois in-laws. The movie is extremely well made and the acting is of the highest quality. The Blu-ray adds 10 deleted scenes and a making-of featurette describing Duris’ daily transformation into Virginia.

Meet the Patels
About 16 years ago, an article was published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine answering a question asked by American tourists struck by the large number of people named Patel they encountered while checking into a roadside motel. If it seemed as if every motel on a given stretch of highway was owned by a Patel, they were right.  In 1999, according to the latest figures from the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, slightly more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States were owned by people of Indian origin. Of that number, about 70 percent of all Indian motel owners — or a third of all motel owners in America – shared the same last name. The extremely long and exhaustively researched article explained how the so-called Patel Motel Phenomenon came to be and why the surname didn’t necessarily mean that every Patel on the Eastern Seaboard or in rural Texas shared common blood. Geeta and Ravi Patel’s documentary/romcom Meet the Patels effectively updates the article, “A Patel Motel Cartel?,” by introducing us to some of the assimilated descendents of the original Patel pioneers and eavesdropping on the marital rituals encouraged by their parents. The desire to match adult children of recent immigrants by nationality, race or religion is nothing new, of course. The difference in Meet the Patels is observing the great lengths – as up to date as the tablet computer — some parents will go to ensure that Patel traditions continue in the New World. Co-director Ravi Patel is a not-so-young Indian-American, who, after breaking up with his non-Indian girlfriend, agrees to allow his match-making mom to search the planet for the right Patel girl for her boy. In addition to participating in meet-and-greets and blind dates from coast to coast, Ravi travels with his family to the region in India populated almost exclusively by Patels of the Gujarati Hindu sub-caste. Ravi’s pickiness is matched only by his mother’s desire to exhaust every option available to her. The frequently amusing documentary is marked by the love shared by this family of Patels and their common willingness to compromise, if only for the sake of the movie. Finally, Meet the Patels is as American a story as any you’re likely to find.

Naz & Maalik
Jay Dockendorf’s impressive debut feature Naz & Maalik introduces us to a convivial pair of black teenagers struggling to come up with the money they’ll need to afford their college tuition. We’re amused by their attempts to sell “lucky” lottery tickets, aromatic potions and pictures of Roman Catholic saints to Brooklyn pedestrians who don’t appear to be disturbed by the interruption in their daily routines. They know they’re fighting a losing battle, but, if nothing else, they might have enough loose change in their pockets at the end of the day to buy a live chicken to be slaughtered according to Muslim law for a birthday feast. As their day wears on, however, Naz & Maalik evolves from offbeat walking-and-talking comedy to a closely observed drama about the many different obstacles facing urban youths as they make the transition to adulthood. And, as if being poor and first-generation African-American Muslims weren’t large enough burdens, Dockendorf also has made them gay and sufficiently naïve to paint themselves into a corner with the FBI. In fact, it isn’t until the night before we meet them that the longtime friends take their first giant step out of the closet by acting upon their sexual attraction to each other. Being gay is no picnic in any religion, but, as otherwise devout Muslims, Naz and Maalik face losing everything they cherish in the world, including the love of family members and access to their religious community.

In what could be described as an exercise in piling on by the filmmaker, a shady white street hustler points them out to a federal agent who’s trolling for potential terrorists in the Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The informant was sufficiently upset by their refusal to buy a handgun from him that decides to use them as bait for a handout … apparently, anyway. The agent’s clumsy follow-up demonstrates how frustrating it can be for any black Muslim – let alone those who abide by the laws of their state and religion – in post-9/11 America. Then, just when you think their day couldn’t possibly get any worse, Dockendorf devises a couple of interesting twists to do just that. After making the rounds of gay-and-lesbian festivals, it will be interesting to see if Naz & Maalik finds an audience outside the niche demographic, including those academy members who continue to bemoan the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Frankly, I’m surprised that it didn’t find any support among the generally more responsive voters at the Indie Spirit gatherings.

Luther the Geek Blu-ray
Sonny Boy: Blu-ray
Jack’s Back: Blu-ray
The Toxic Avenger Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Among the words that have almost completely lost their original meaning over the last 30-40 years is “geek.” Although it’s generally accepted today that a geek is a nerd with the ability of getting things done, instead of obsessing over how cool something will look once it’s finished, we’re reminded by writer/director Carlton Albright that it describes a gnarly midway performer who bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood. If the ASPCA hasn’t already convinced legislators to ban such freakish behavior, it’s unlikely there’s much call for the talents of a geeks outside Tea Party conventions and birthday parties for meth addicts. In Luther the Geek, a gang of Depression-era farmers attends a performance of a caged geek, held in a barn. While they taunt him in the usual hayseed fashion, a boy accidentally hits his mouth on a board, dislodging several teeth. The taste of blood, combined with the excitement that comes with watching a crazed man decapitate a chicken, encourages Luther to follow the caged performer into show business. Before long, he’s replaced his lost teeth with steel dentures, filed to razor-sharp precision capable of biting through the throats of human beings. Absent the stealth and wiles of Jack the Ripper, Luther is captured and sentenced to an eternity in prison. In modern penal terms, an eternity too often translates to anywhere between 10 and 50 years. Somehow a majority of parole-board officials recognizes in Luther something resembling good behavior and he’s allowed to join polite society. No sooner is Luther kicked out of a supermarket – brazenly chugging raw eggs from a carton — than he attacks an elderly woman and attempts to bite off her head. To avoid the cops, the clucking geek (Edward Terry) jumps into the car of a shopper heading back to her farmhouse. Once there … well, you can probably guess the rest. If Luther the Geek could never be mistaken for a competently made horror film, it maintains a brisk pace throughout its 80-minute length, with more than enough gore, nudity and stupid behavior to satisfy the average genre nerd’s passion for mayhem. Newly refreshed with a 2K scan from the 35mm negative, the Blu-ray edition adds commentary with Albright, an interview with actor Jerome Clarke, outtakes and deleted shots, and reversible cover art.

If there was a film made in the 1980s as thoroughly reprehensible – in a good way — as Luther the Geek, it’s Robert Martin Carroll’s almost unrepentantly sick – again, in a good way – Sonny Boy, which co-star David Carradine once characterized as being a cross between Bonnie and Clyde, Bringing Up Baby and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the remote desert town of Harmony, N.M., a psychopathic petty crook and purveyor of stolen TVs, Slue (Paul L Smith), is enjoying a life of redneck bliss with his transvestite girlfriend, Pearl (Carradine), when a local good-for-nothing, Weasel (Brad Dourif), delivers onto them a baby boy. Weasel had stolen the red convertible from the infant’s parents – now deceased – but neglected to look under the blankets piled on the back seat. It wasn’t until he got to Harmony that the baby decided to alert Weasel of his spoiled diapers, at which time Pearl decides she wants to experience the joys of motherhood. Her lover decides, instead, to cut out Sonny Boy’s tongue and toss him into a corn bin to fend for himself for the next 15 years. When the feral child (Michael Boston) escapes and begins to terrorize the unsuspecting residents of Harmony, they rise up as one to destroy Slue and Pearl’s stronghold. Because Slue owns a military-grade cannon, the body count promises to be impressive. For what should be obvious reasons, Sonny Boy was accorded a record low number of days in distribution. It arrives on Blu-ray in nearly pristine condition, alongside commentaries with Carroll and writer Graeme Whifler and a BD-Rom draft of the script.

No less gory, but far more coherent is Jack’s Back, in which a L.A.-based serial killer celebrates Jack the Ripper’s 100th birthday by committing similarly grisly murders. Because James Spader plays twin brothers John and Rick Wesford and is the only still recognizable star, there’s a very good chance he’s either the killer or will be the lead suspect required to prove one or both of them is innocent. Naturally, the brother who’s a surgeon and has the cutlery to prove it is both the most and least likely person to have killed the hookers.  For Spader, Jack’s Back was sandwiched between key supporting appearances in Less Than Zero and Wall Street and a breakout lead performance in Sex, Lies and Videotape. He worked steadily through the 1990s, but the movies shrank in importance. His return to form wouldn’t come until a dozen years later with a wicked turn in Secretary and the introduction of his ethically challenged lawyer, Alan Shore, in “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Writer/director Rowdy Herrington’s next assignment would be directing the endearing cult classic, Road House, with Patrick Swayze and Kelly Lynch. The Blu-ray adds Herrington’s commentary, a making-of featurette and interviews with producer Tim Moore, actress Cynthia Gibb and DP Shelly Johnson.

And, while we’re on the subject of gloriously grotesque cinema, there’s the arrival on Blu-ray of Troma’s The Toxic Avenger Collection, which is comprised of The Toxic Avenger, The Toxic Avenger Part II, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie and Citizen Toxie. For the uninitiated, the oddly endearing cult character, Toxie, arose 15 years ago from decaying carcass of Melvin Junko, a nerdy mop boy in a Tromaville gym, who dived out of a window, landing headfirst into a simmering vat of toxic waste. Suddenly, the woefully deformed Melvin has been transformed into a dogged crusader against corruption, thuggish bullies and indifference. In “Part IV,” however, an explosion transports Toxie to a parallel universe in which the superhero and his evil doppelganger, Noxie, chose opposite sides of the environmental fence to defend, while also impregnating the blond princess Sarah and her own evil doppelganger. Similarly affected by the explosion are Sgt. Kabukiman, the obese Chester/Lardass, Dolphin Man, and the late Lemmy Kilmeister. The “Toxet” adds intros by Lloyd Kaufman, commentaries, interviews with the cast and crew, marketing material, “Apocalypse Soon: The Making of ‘Citizen Toxie’” and Tromatic videos.

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Arrow Video once again discovers gold in a most unusual place. In the late 1950s, the venerable Nikkatsu film studio inaugurated a star system, designed to locate exploitable male talent and assign them to its Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures. This collection celebrates three of the Diamond Guys with classic films from directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril). Veteran tough guy Hideaki Nitani stars in Suzuki’s Voice Without a Shadow (1958), a noir whodunit about a former telephone-switchboard operator, Asako, who’s still haunted by the taunting voice of a disembodied killer. Reporter/narrator Ishikawa (Nitani) is pulled into the cold case when Asako recognizes the same voice emanating within the walls of her own home and calls her former co-worker for help. It belongs to one of the three men her husband has invited home for dinner and a game of mahjong. Her discovery triggers even more violence and an investigation that leads Ishikawa into the criminal underground.

Next, 1950s subculture icon Yujiro Ishihara stars in Masuda’s Red Pier as “Lefty” Jiro, a killer whose arrival in Kobe is complicated when he witnesses a man die in a crane “accident” that turns out to be anything but accidental. Much of the story unfolds in smoky nightclubs popular with trampy young women and slick gangsters. If Elvis Presley had been stationed in Japan, instead of Germany, he might have been convinced to spend his leave time acting in Saito’s The Rambling Guitarist, a 1959 action drama that resembles King Creole. Instead, pop superstar Akira Koabyashi stars as wandering street musician whose pugilistic skills endear him to a local crime boss and his daughter. The color cinematography adds a bit more of a Hollywood feel to the production, as well.

TV-to-DVD
USA: Mr. Robot: Season 1: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon Favorites: Whiskers & Paws
PBS Kids: Superwhy: Three Billy Goats Gruff & Other Fairytale Adventures
The Facts of Life: Season Eight
If, like me, the first time you paid attention to USA’s “Mr. Robot” was after it won two key Golden Globe awards, then you’ll be happy to learn that it’s easy to catch up on the series via DVD/Blu-ray, the USA Now app and select streaming services. Normally, I don’t give much credence to the organization, but, like a blind pig, it should be given due credit for finding the occasional acorn. The trophies for Best Television Series: Drama and Best Supporting Actor: Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Christian Slater) – as well as Rami Malek’s well-deserved Best Actor nomination – came as a happy surprise and vindication for early promoters of the show. The series follows Elliot Alderson (Malek), an extremely gifted, if totally creepy engineer, who works at the cybersecurity company Allsafe. As conceived by executive producer Sam Esmail (Comet), Elliot’s thought processes are heavily influenced by social anxiety disorder, paranoia and clinical depression. He connects to people by hacking them, like “human malware.” He isn’t averse to using his gifts to protect friends or punishing miscreants, including, in the first episode, a yuppie douchebag who mistreats his dog. Even so, Elliot finds himself at a crossroads when the mysterious leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect. The antiheroic anarchist, known as Mr. Robot (Slater), woes Elliot by detailing a conspiracy designed to cancel all personal debts by taking down one of the largest corporations in the world. It’s the kind of revolutionary action behind which any TV viewer with a credit card or student loan can rally. At first, the scope of the plan intimidates Elliot. On balance, though, he decides that the mega-company is far too evil to be left to its devices. Just when the disparate pieces begin to come together, Elliot is forced to admit to a debilitating morphine addiction. What’s revealed in the detox-induced hallucinations takes us deeper into Elliot’s Lynchian backstory than some viewers may want to go. If there are times when Elliot acts as if he’s the love child of Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, Esmail admits to being influenced by such disparate entertainments as American Psycho, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, Fight Club, Risky Business and “Breaking Bad.” Mac Quayle’s nightmarish soundtrack raises more than a few goosebumps along the way, as well. Anyone plagued by the notion that the Internet could come crashing down, 20 minutes before they were able to cash out their investments, may want to avoid binge-viewing “Mr. Robot.” It’s that freaky. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurette.

Nickelodeon Favorites: Whiskers & Paws” features more than two hours of laughs from some of Nick’s newest shows. “Shimmer and Shine” and “Fresh Beat Band of Spies” make their DVD debut, as they encounter a zoo full of animals and an out-of-control bundle of bunnies. Other Nick adventures include the “PAW Patrol” pups trying to control some naughty kittens; “Dora and Friends” making peace between cat and dog; the “Bubble Guppies” getting an education in house cats; and Blue spending time with her bilingual kitten friend Periwinkle in “Blue’s Clues.”

In PBS Kids’ “Super Why: The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Other Fairytale Adventures,” the Super Readers employ basic literacy tools and strategies to uncover hidden clues in new and interactive ways. Among other things, the Super Readers reconsider “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” from the point of view of the Troll; Princess Pea and Red are partners in a potato sack race, but can’t decide whether to go slow and steady, as dictated in “The Tortoise & the Hare,” treat it as a sprint; and “The Elves and The Shoemaker,” in which Whyatt has a secret admirer and wants to know who it is.

In Season Eight of “The Facts of Life,” Blair, Natalie, Tootie and Jo say goodbye to their beloved Mrs. G, after she finds love and moves away. Her sister Beverly Ann (Cloris Leachman) steps in to keep an eye on them, but as the year passes and graduation from Langley College looms for Blair and Jo, things remain in flux. There’s also a rockin’ trip back to the 1960s; an Eastland girls’ reunion, featuring such familiar faces as George Clooney and Stacey Q.; and a surprising murder mystery, in which no one is truly safe.

The DVD Wrapup: Straight Outta Compton, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Howl, I Am Thor and more

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Straight Outta Compton: Blu-ray
As difficult as it might be for fans of Straight Outta Compton to believe that it was nearly shut out of Oscar competition, it’s just that hard for me be to believe that enough voters in any category actually watched enough of the movie to endorse it. Unlike The Help and 12 Years a Slave, the story behind the rise and fall of the genre-shattering hip-hop group, N.W.A., had several things working against it from the get-go. Not all of them can be attributed to racial insensitivity and the lack of diversity in the academy, although they can’t be discounted out of hand. For example, I can’t imagine any voter over, say, 40, rewarding a movie whose acoustics required them to keep a tight grip on the remote control every time the explosive musical soundtrack kicked in on their state-of-the-art Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 system. And, then, feel it necessary to readjust the sound when dialogue is exchanged. Even if that obstacle could be overcome, of course, there still was the matter of what was being said. The theatrical cut, alone, included 293 f-bombs and at least as many colorfully delivered variations of the n-word for people who depend on studio-provided screeners to endure. Clearly, such concerns were of little consequence to those who actually were required to purchase tickets for the privilege of watching a movie. The fact that Straight Outta Compton grossed $200 million at the international box office argues that it effectively crossed over to audiences of several distinct ethnic groups, all conceivably below the age of 40. That, to me, is what should have made F. Gary Gray’s extremely well executed film a candidate for one of 10 potential spots in the Best Picture category. (In fact, only eight were deemed to be “of extraordinary merit.”) Beyond the irony of having its four white writers nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, observers were left scratching their heads over the omission of Gray as a Best Director.

If the academy was more diverse, or had been required to see the movie in a theater full of hip-hop fans, the Best Picture voting might have been different. As it is, other organizations did the right thing by honoring the movie’s ensemble cast. The larger and more obvious injustice – to outsiders, at least — could be found in the Best Supporting Actor category, in which Sylvester Stallone was honored for his work in Creed, at the same time as Michael B. Jordan was being stiffed in the Best Actor race. Finding Stallone’s name on the ballot after all these years likely was too great a temptation for old-timers in the actors’ branch to ignore … once they figured out that this Michael Jordan didn’t wear a “23” on his robe. Many predictions had Idris Elba a finalist in the supporting-actor category, for Beasts of No Nation, and Will Smith a Best Actor contender for Concussion. (If I was of Chinese background, I’d be angry that The Assassin wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and several design categories.) Oscar-ceremony host Chris Rock probably will have the last laugh on the subject come February 28.

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the “seminal” gangsta-rap group, N.W.A., whose appeal crossed racial boundaries and withstood attempts by police, the FBI and other conservative groups to silence its message. The outsider drama stars O’Shea Jackson Jr.as his real-life dad, Ice Cube; Corey Hawkins, as producer extraordinaire Dr. Dre; Jason Mitchell, as the doomed wordsmith Eazy-E; and Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, as the less visible MC Ren and DJ Yella. Gray eloquently dramatizes the group’s us-against-the-world origin story, which provided a beacon of hope for a legion of rappers to follow. Moreover, even before the Rodney King beating and acquittal of the officers involved in it, the song “Fuck tha Police” would shine a light on the very real problems of police brutality, racial profiling and arbitrary prosecution of minority youths. (The same issues would enflame passions a quarter-century later.) Predictably, perhaps, paranoia over the distribution of great wealth among the artists, promoters and labels prompted the artists to take sides against each other. Old-school rock manager Jerry Hellman (Paul Giamatti) exploited the fissures, causing some members to take shelter in the evil empire of Shug Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). Foreshadowed here, too, are the murders of Tupac and Biggie and emergence of such rappers as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Snoop Dog, LL Kool J and Sean Combs as cross-media actors and celebrities. The women are relegated to roles as pool-party ornaments, coke whores, and blindly supportive wives and girlfriends. (What was left out of this storyline probably could have filled another 20 minutes.) The extended director’s cut edition seamlessly adds 20 minutes to the theatrical version, as well as deleted scenes, a deleted song performance, the director’s commentary track and several making-of and background featurettes.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Blu-ray
Teenage girls are notoriously protective of the thoughts they collect in their diaries. They’re maintained with a nearly religious dedication and hidden from their nosy moms with the same care the government reserves for state secrets. It’s the rare diary, though, that can avoid detection by a person who has almost unlimited access to dressers, pillow cases and closets, and, of course, probably kept a diary of her own. The jottings that teens feared would shock parents, back in the days when Sandra Dee, Sally Field and Annette Funicello served as role models, probably would be viewed today with amusement and no small amount of relief. The innermost thoughts of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley), as revealed in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, might even raise a blush in the cheeks of Bridget Jones. As originally conceived by novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and later adapted for stage and screen by Heller, Minnie is the daughter of Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). The divorced San Francisco mother of two is still living the Flower Power dream, a decade after it began to wither. They live in a neighborhood that looks very much like the Haight-Asbury of old (and probably still does). Minnie is exposed on daily basis to a wide variety of individuals specific to the city’s post-hippie generation, including all manner of libertines, predators and misfits. In her brief time on Earth, Minnie has developed precocious notions about the holy trinity of big city life in the 1970s: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Among other things she admits to in her dear-diary confessions are trysts with her mother’s sexually blasé boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and a growing fondness for hallucinogens. More telling than anything in her taped missives, perhaps, are illustrations in her notebook inspired by underground comics artist, Aline Kominsky, who, in 1978, would marry R. Crumb. The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls few punches in its depiction of sex that qualifies in most jurisdictions as statutory rape, no matter how consensual. Powley may be 23, but she easily passes for 15. As such, parents of teenage daughters, especially, might find scenes depicting Minnie’s sexual awakening to be uncomfortably realistic, no matter how integral to the story and non-exploitative they are. In this way and others, I was reminded favorably of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Larry Clark’s Kids and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Powley, Heller and the ensemble cast have been nominated for Indie Spirit Awards in three categories. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong making-of featurette, deleted scenes and L.A. Film Festival Q&A.

I Believe in Unicorns
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature I Believe in Unicorns bears easy comparison to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in that it tells the story of an awkward teenage girl, in San Francisco, coming to grips with her first not entirely pleasurable sexual experience. The boy the waifish Davina (Natalia Dyer) chooses to share her coming-of-age is a skateboarding Adonis, who plays the guitar, shoplifts and wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for denim jeans. Sterling (Peter Vack) also is genetically predisposed to violence towards women when things get difficult for him. In addition to being obsessed with unicorns, the seemingly grownup Davina sometimes dresses in animal costumes and collects dinosaur figurines. She also is required to take of her invalid mother, who once enjoyed many of the same fantasies. That Davina’s impressionistic dreams and fantasies are rendered in stop- and fast-motion cinematography is what makes I Believe in Unicorns so compelling. Jarin Blaschke’s camera also does a nice job chronicling Davina and Sterling’s excellent adventure through the rolling hills of northern California. The inclusion of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” familiar from the Badlands soundtrack, almost immediately surrounds the lovers with an aura of dread. Visually, I Believe in Unicorns could hardly be more inventive and the story, itself, carries the ring of truth. Although, it debuted on the Internet after a run on the festival circuit, I can easily see how it might enjoy a cult following among teenage girls, if they can only find the DVD.

Howl: Blu-ray
Unlike movies featuring vampires and zombies, it isn’t often that one comes across a werewolf movie to recommend. From British makeup-effects specialist Paul Hyett (The Seasoning House), Howl borrows from three different sub-genres for a very decent thriller, set in and around a broken-down commuter train, stuck in the woods somewhere outside of London. It’s late at night and the cars are sparsely populated with a variety of passengers and railroad employees, none of whom is particularly thrilled to be large at all. Things begin to get weird after the engineer leaves the train to investigate the extent of the damage and discovers a stag crushed under one of the carriage’s steel wheels. This, in itself, wouldn’t be sufficient cause for alarm, except, perhaps, for a vegan passenger who might blame themselves for the deer being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn’t take long for viewers, at least to discover what spooked the animal and it doesn’t bode well for the people on board. Naturally, when the engineer fails to return, they begin to frighten themselves with all of the various possibilities. Even after they barricade themselves inside one of the stalled cars, the passengers begin the serious job of looking out for their own best interests. They defend themselves admirably against what they believe to be the killer, not anticipating that the werewolf might not be alone in the darkness. Soon enough, the full extent of the threat is revealed and all that’s left for viewers to do is sit back and wait for the fun to begin. It’s a simple story, really, but writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler – perhaps inspired by their work on “Thomas the Tank Engine” – have given Hyett all the story he needs to create thrills and chills out of prosthetic gore, nasty fake fur and frightening masks and teeth. His team of set designers, lighting specialists and composers do the rest. The Blu-ray adds several making-of vignettes.

I Am Thor: Blu-ray
One of the most endearing things about rock ’n’ roll is its ability to surprise even its most jaded critics with unexpected twists on genre clichés and weird coincidences. Who would have guessed, even 35 years ago, that the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frye and Lemmy Kilmister would warrant notice on the front page of the New York Times? And, yet, there they were … on the newspaper’s website, at least. I wonder how many editors of the august publication could have picked Lemmy out of a lineup at the Hall of Fame before his death, at 70, on December 28. God knows, how they’ll handle the deaths of Ozzy or Jimmy Page … not to mention Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. I doubt very much that Canadian rocker Jon Mikl Thor would warrant more than a few inches in the Times or any other American newspaper. That’s part of what makes Ryan Wise’s I Am Thor such a welcome addition to already saturated field of rock-docs and bio-pics. Equal bits Spinal Tap and Last Days Here, which chronicled the rise, fall and resurrection of Pentagram singer’s Bobby Liebling, I Am Thor introduces us to the onetime bodybuilding champion whose stage act included bending steel bars, smashing concrete blocks and blowing up hot-water bottles. Before emerging as Thor the Rock Warrior, the Vancouver native was best known as the first Canadian to win both the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA trophies, competing against Lou Ferrigno, among others, in international competition.

He retired in 1973, at 19, to pursue a career in entertainment, first as a naked waiter in a Vegas revue and, then, as a cosplay rocker at the old Aladdin resort. Thor attracted the attention of Merv Griffin, mostly as a novelty act, appearing on television from Caesar’s Palace. While there was no denying his certifiably gruff “metal” voice and innate showmanship, bad timing and worse luck would account for Thor and the Imps’ inability to compete at the same level as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS and Lemmy’s creation, Motörhead. The zenith of his career came in 1984, when “Thunder on the Tundra” and “Let the Blood Run Red” topped the British charts. After an untimely nervous breakdown three years later, Thor would retire from live performances to focus on movies and his own record label. While living in North Carolina, Thor would be encouraged to dust off his props and send his costumes – which now barely fit his pot belly – to the dry cleaners for an attempt at a comeback. Director Wise and producer Alan Higbee met Thor in 2000, began filming in 2001, and only finished shooting in 2014, in time for last year’s Slamdance festival. Besides much background material, I Am Thor capably demonstrates how difficult it can be to re-ignite the fire under an act reduced to ashes 10 years earlier. It isn’t pretty. Even so, I Am Thor is blessedly free of sad tales of substance abuse, burned bridges and corporate rip-offs. Instead, it is informed by the singer’s winning personality and drive to make audiences happy. Against all odds, we’re left with the feeling that Bob Seger was thinking of Jon Mikl Thor when he wrote “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Third Season
PBS: Frontline: Inside Assad’s Syria
PBS: Off the Menu: Asian America
The Saint: Seasons 3 & 4
Sisters: Season Three
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou Learns to Share
Although it would be difficult to exaggerate the amazing achievements of the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, the highly entertaining Starz’ mini-series, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” suggests that he might, in fact, have been the first Marvel superhero. Impossibly handsome, a gifted swordsman and capable of visualizing complex scientific concepts in thin air, the troubled genius portrayed by Tom Riley more closely resembles Leonardo di Caprio or Leon Trotsky than the “portrait of a man in red chalk,” attributed to a 60-year-old Da Vinci, currently housed at Turin’s Biblioteca Reale. Riley’s Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t be out of place in the CBS Western series, “The Wild Wild West,” playing Artemus Gordon to Secret Service agent James West. Through three seasons, Starz audiences have followed Da Vinci’s search for the mystical Book of Leaves, which, in Season Two, even found him in the New World. In the show’s third and final stanza, the Medicis and Pazzis continue their terrible rivalry, even as Turkish forces have established a beachhead at Otranto. This year, DaVinci’s vulnerability to the whims of the powerful leaders of Rome and Florence – as well as representatives of Satan, in the Labyrinth – nearly does him in. As the season comes to a close, however, a multi-episode re-appearance by Vlad the Impaler turns Italy’s darkest hour into a delightfully excuse for war. “Da Vinci’s Demons” must have been a terribly expensive show to mount, as it never looks less than convincing historically and the CGI touches never feel anachronistic. The show’s primary drawback, ratings-wise, might have resulted from a scarcity of the gratuitous nudity that attracts male eyes to other premium-cable shows. It’s there, but blink and you’ll miss it. Everything else about “Da Vinci’s Demons,” even the ending – re-shot after the cancelation was announced — is first-rate.

Even before Syria erupted in civil war, the country inherited by Bashar al-Assad from his dictatorial father was something of a mystery to most Americans. We knew that Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had been a thorn in the side of western nations for most of his 30 years in charge of military and government affairs, specifically for harboring terrorists (including a Nazi war criminal), fomenting turmoil in Lebanon and being a staunch ally of the former Soviet Union. Syria remains, of course, a constant threat to Israel, with which it shares a disputed border. Beyond that, however, zilch. When the country did explode, as part of the Arab Spring uprising, the U.S. somehow convinced itself that Assad would be the next tyrant to topple at the hand of its own people. What President Obama and his advisers didn’t take into account, however, was the lack of common purpose in the Syrian resistance. Syrians were divided by religion, wealth, politics and ability to mount a rebellion. ISIS emerged from the fog of that war, as did a million or so refugees. What we’re learning today is just how desperate is the state of Syrians outside Damascus and the region controlled by ISIS. Entire populations are being starved to death and relief efforts are stymied. In the “Frontline” investigation, “Inside Assad’s Syria,” correspondent Martin Smith (“Obama at War,” “The Rise of the Isis”) was accorded access to government officials, militia leaders and areas generally off-limits to journalists. One of his guides, an Arab journalist, was killed in combat a day after they parted company outside the capital. Even as the death toll mounts, Smith was able to find delusional elements in the government and business community willing to promote Syria as a destination for tourism. He could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing.

In their continuing efforts to keep pace with the Food Network and other food-centric programming, such PBS shows as “Off the Menu: Asian America” draw viewers by championing diversity and our willingness to merge cross-cultural influences. A half-century ago, no cuisine was as foreign to the American palate as that of Pacific Rim countries. Outside of New York and San Francisco, Chinese food came out of a can and Japanese dishes practically were non-existent. One of the great victories in the foodie revolution came with the realization that fresh ingredients and exotic spices could be blended to satisfy famously picky American tastes. Young people turned to their grandparents for recipes that reflected their ethnic backgrounds, instead of disguising them with ketchup, sugar and gravy. “Off the Menu” looks beyond China and Japan for examples of Asian/Pacific/American fusion. It takes us on a journey from Texas to New York, and from Wisconsin to Hawaii, using our obsession with food as a launching point to delve into a wealth of stories, traditions and unexpected characters that help nourish this nation of immigrants.

In the third season of “Sisters” Georgie (Patricia Kalember) carries Frankie’s baby via surrogacy and gives birth while trapped in car after an accident. Following the birth, Georgie has maternal feelings for the baby and feels unable to give the baby to Frankie (Julianne Phillips). Teddy (Sela Ward) finds success as a fashion designer; Alex (Swoosie Kurtz) feuds with Teddy and Alex’s daughter, Reed (Ashley Judd), gets married to Kirby (Paul Rudd). Frankie and Mitch (Ed Marinaro) deal with custody problems when they divorce and Alex battles cancer. Otherwise, nothing of much consequence happened. At the time considered groundbreaking for focusing on the lives of four women, “Sisters” dealt with human issues with warmth, heart and sensitivity.

A timeless figure of adventure since his creation by Leslie Charteris in 1928, “The Saint” has thrilled adventure aficionados with his exploits in a variety of media, including novels, movies and radio, but nowhere was the dashing Simon Templar more indelibly realized than in his 1960s television series. It starred the pre-Bond Roger Moore in the title role and, in Seasons Three and Four, featured early appearances for such actors as Burt Kwouk (“The Pink Panther” films), Carol Cleveland (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) and Donald Sutherland. The generous package adds “Behind the Scenes, With Sir Roger Moore as Director” and commentaries on “The Happy Suicide,” with guest star with Jane Merrow, “The Saint Bids Diamonds,” with Moore, producer Robert S. Baker guest star Eunice Gayson.

From PBS Kids, “Caillou Learns to Share” teaches his young fans one of the toughest and longest-lasting lessons they’ll ever have to learn. In it, Caillou discovers that sharing his things with the people he loves always turns out better in the end. From teaching his classmate Clementine his special art technique, to taking turns at playing conductor with his friends and family, to sharing his favorite things with little sister Rosie, Caillou learns that sharing not only makes him feel really good, it makes those around him feel good, too.

The DVD Wrapup: The Walk, Irrational Man, Look of Silence, Bitter Rice, Last Horror Film and more

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The Walk: Blu-ray
On September 10, 2001, it’s likely that some visitors to Lower Manhattan pointed to the summit of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and recalled the day, 27 years earlier, when a 24-year-old French daredevil covered the 138-foot distance between the two spans on a steel cable, not once, but eight times. Twenty-four hours later, Philippe Petit’s amazing test of human mettle would be obscured in the clouds of dust and debris raised by the collapse of the two 110-story towers in a horrifying terrorist attack. Absent any physical evidence of the edifice’s longtime mastery of the city’s skyline, Petit’s feat might just as well have been a scene from a movie. Almost a year later, though, Petit would remind us of his courageous stunt in “To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers,” an impressionistic memoir of “le coup” that read like a crime thriller. Its publication would soon be followed by Mordicai Gerstein’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” which he wrote and illustrated in response to the September 11 attacks. It’s possible that New Yorkers weren’t ready to re-embrace Petit’s achievement, while the memory of the deaths and destruction were so fresh in the collective consciousness. As politicians and developers continued to fine-tune plans for the construction of a new World Trade Center, a documentary based on the two books would test the public’s willingness to look beyond the attacks, however tentatively.

James Marsh’s universally-acclaimed documentary, Man on Wire, served both as a testament to Petit’s courage and the towers’ majesty. He also introduced the pickup team of French and American amateurs who helped Petit realize his dream. It would make a clean sweep of documentary awards and win the unanimous support of critics. What it didn’t do was make a lot of money at the box office … hardly unusual for documentaries. Even so, six years later, Robert Zemeckis thought enough of the story to give it another shot, with his vertigo-inducing The Walk. In a sense, the creator of Forrest Gump and Cast Away re-cast Petit as a superhero, with powers equal to those of Batman or Spider-Man. Dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks, The Walk allows for more backstory and a romantic subplot, involving Petit. A true Hollywood visionary, Zemeckis has long been an advocate for digital technology and exhibition, CGI animation and IMAX 3D. He not only intended to place viewers on top of the WTC with the aerialist – well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – but on the wire, itself. Even if Petit avoided looking into the abyss, Zemeckis practically rubs our noses in it during the final third of the movie. Anticipating just how effective a conceit this could be, I consciously avoided watching The Walk on a large-format screen. It was scary enough on the much smaller 4K screen in my living room. The PG-rated film looks spectacular on Blu-ray, in 2D and, I’ve read, in 3D. It’s also funny, inspirational and extremely moving. It adds deleted scenes and such background featurettes “First Steps: Learning to Walk the Wire,” with Petit coaching Levi on the art of wire walking; “Pillars of Support,” which introduces the cast that portrays the supporting characters; and “The Amazing Walk,” on the confluence of human drama and movie magic.

Irrational Man: Blu-ray
For longtime admirers of Woody Allen’s comedies, there may be nothing scarier than hearing his name mentioned in the same breath as Fyodor Dostoevsky. His latest, Irrational Man, represents Allen’s fourth film that borrows themes from “Crime and Punishment,” following Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. Throw in Leo Tolstoy (Love and Death), Anton Chekhov (September), Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, Another Woman, Husbands and Wives) and William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), and you have a Murderer’s Row of influences mainstream audiences avoid like the plague. Those of us who’ve given up waiting for his sequel to Bananas – and carry library cards in our wallets — aren’t nearly so particular. There are wonderful things in all of his pictures, including the hardly distributed and, therefore, barely seen Irrational Man. The best reason for sampling it on DVD/Blu-ray is a cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey and supporting actors who demand we pay attention to what’s happening in the background, as well as the foreground. Everyone works hard, as if to show Woody that his confidence in them is warranted. When compared to such delightfully original recent successes as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love and Blue Jasmine, however, Irrational Man does feel more than a wee bit slight. Phoenix plays a boozy professor of philosophy, Abe, invited to teach at an elite small-town college, despite a sordid reputation that would disqualify him from working in most other institutions.

No sooner does Abe arrive on campus than he’s hit on by an unhappily married professor (Posey), who plies him with bourbon, and a star-struck student, Jill (Stone), who’s half their age. While he’s able to avoid being blinded by flattery, he’s never met a single-malt he could resist. Pure chance changes everything when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge and a decision that could have disastrous implications for a mother and her child. Where Jill sees the conversation as an excuse to discuss situational ethics, Abe treats it as an opportunity to put his philosophical money where his mouth is, by plotting the perfect murder. The film’s impact is limited by the small number of people whose lives would be influenced by any action taken – or avoided – by the characters. Irrational Man works best as a closely observed crime novella or short story targeted at graduates of such institutions, where gossip and betrayal are the coin of the realm. As usual with Allen’s Blu-ray releases, the featurettes are limited to red-carpet chit-chat and a photo gallery.

The Look of Silence: Blu-ray
Hate Crimes in the Heartland
Three years ago, a truly shocking documentary, The Act of Killing, demonstrated precisely what Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Adolph Eichmann’s role in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Director Joshua Oppenheimer risked his life by tracking down perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, especially the monsters who, in victory, never were required to pay for their sins. Indeed, four decades later, they lived freely among the families of the million-plus “communists” who were slaughtered as politicians, police, government troops and American advisers physically distanced themselves from the carnage. The elderly fiends even agreed to re-enact their crimes, as if Oppenheimer was a Hollywood casting director, instead of a documentarian. A decade after those interviews were recorded, the filmmaker dared to return to Indonesia at the request of Adi, the brother of a man whose death was detailed for the first time in The Act of Killing. For The Look of Silence, Adi would accompany Oppenheimer and, while fitting the old men for eyeglasses, cautiously interrogate them as to their memory of his brother’s ghastly death. He then would prod neighbors and family members as to their roles in the subsequent cover-ups. Truly disturbing, The Look of Silence, finds the perpetrators of the violence to be no less unrepentant or prepared to seek redemption for their acts than they were 12 years earlier. The conversations are almost surrealistically civil. A few of the men go so far as to describe the ritual of drinking the blood of their victims, whenever their determination to continue lagged. One man justified his willingness to eliminate the perceived threat thusly, “We did it because America taught us to hate communists.” Ari also asked them about the lies still being taught as facts about the political beliefs of the victims and actions blamed on the victims by the actual perpetrators. Although Oppenheimer was extremely cautious in approaching the interview subjects, he was pleased to note that The Look of Silence was being screened in public, before thousands of viewers, and young Indonesians are looking forward to the day that truth and reconciliation panels might be established, as they were in South Africa, to openly discuss and heal wounds left untreated for 50 years. The bonus features include post-screening Q&As and expanded material from the interviews.

If any country needs to undergo the truth-and-reconciliation process, it’s the United States. Race relations throughout the country are worse today than at any time since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the leading candidates to replace President Obama are blatantly exploiting long-held fears and unfounded prejudices. Watch Rachel Lyon’s eye-opening Hate Crimes in the Heartland after The Look of Silence and you’ll understand why advocates for the downtrodden of the world no longer look to the United States for hope and direction. Lyon demands we examine two events that took place 90 years apart from each other, in the same American city, with a similarly devastating impact on residents. How many of us can say that we’ve heard about the so-called Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which left the prosperous “Negro Wall Street” district of Greenwood devastated and destroyed. It began, as so many vigilante attacks and lynchings have, with a rumor that turned out to be a lie. This one was spread by a white woman who made physical contact with a black elevator operator and, for some reason, cried rape. Within 24 hours, a mob of white Tulsans levelled 35 city blocks, leaving as many as 300 people dead and more than 10,000 homeless. Thanks to officially sanctioned racism among police, politicians and newspaper editors, not one white person was ever arrested, tried or convicted of any crime related to the attacks. The documentary then flashes forward to the 2012 Good Friday Murders, a string of racially motivated killings that left three African-Americans dead and two injured. This time, white Tulsans Alvin Lee Watts and Jacob Carl England would be quickly arrested and accept plea agreements, trading a date with the gas chamber for life-without-parole sentences. As the documentary makes clear, the difference in the two incidents is the aggressive response by the law-enforcement community to arrest and prosecute the killers, in large part to avoid the kind of anti-police riots that rocked the U.S. last summer. Far drier than The Look of Silence, Hate Crimes in the Heartland convincingly examines the underlying racial tensions in Tulsa, some of which have festered since the 1921 riot. It does so using interviews with a variety of scholars and public figures, in and away from the city, with an eye toward reconciliation.

Contracted: Phase II: Blu-ray
In the original edition of Contracted, a deadly sexually transmitted disease is mysteriously carving its way through a section of Los Angeles, making the symptoms of full-blown AIDS look acne. That isn’t to diminish the impact of the killer disease, just to characterize the vomit-inducing body-horror effects on display, some of which might have been inspired by “The Hearse Song.” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout…”) Because almost every character of any consequence died in the 2013 original, director Josh Forbes and writer Craig Walendziak have chosen to focus Contracted: Phase II on Riley (Matt Mercer), a peripheral character who stupidly courted infection by giving in to his lust for the already decaying Samantha. With the maggots now beginning to wheedle their way through his body, Riley is racing the clock to find a cure or someone who might hold the answer to the disease’s origins. To this end, he turns to a curious police detective (Marianna Palka), while being stalked by B.J. (Morgan Peter Brown), who may or may not hold the key to a solution. At 78 minutes, Contracted: Phase II feels very much like the second chapter in a mini-series or a straight-to-DVD addendum to “The Walking Dead.”

Hotel Transylvania 2: Blu-ray
Never known for his subtlety or sophistication, Adam Sandler took a more active role in the creation of Hotel Transylvania 2, than merely providing the voice of Dracula in the original and serving as executive producer with Robert Smigel. Here, Sandler adds co-writer to his previous responsibilities, which makes sense, considering the animated comedy’s target audience. While adults quickly tire of overly broad characters, slapstick humor, cheap sentimentality and lame situations, kids rarely do. Neither are children influenced by critics who blame Sandler for countless of hours of screening-room agony. If it looks funny, they’ll give it a shot. I went into “HT2” without paying any attention to the cast list, so wasn’t prejudiced by memories of such recent disappointments as Grown Ups, Jack and Jill, Just Go With It, Blended and The Ridiculous 6. By marked contrast, the 6-year-old buried inside of me genuinely enjoyed Hotel Transylvania 2, even after perusing the publicity material. Sandler is one of several familiar actors reprising the roles they voiced in “T1,” along with Moscow-born director Genndy Tartakovsky. Among the new voices are those of Mel Brooks, Dana Carvey, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. Three years have passed since Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and Mavis (Selena Gomez) broke all sorts of human/vampire taboos by falling in love and getting married. There appears to be some confusion as to whether baby Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) is going to be one, the other or a hybrid of his parents’ gene pool.

Vampa Drac (Sandler) isn’t nearly as anxious to find out as his intolerant father, Vlad (Brooks), who still can’t understand why the hotel has put out the welcome mat for human guests. While Mavis and Jonathan are enjoying their first vacation in the outside world, Drac, Vlad and some monster friends decide to enroll Dennis in the same “monster-in-training” boot camp attended by his mother and her fanged friends. Nothing is quite the same there, either, however. The campers of both species are coddled to same degree as kids in a suburban pre-school program. If Dennis is going to earn his fangs, thus endearing himself with great-grandpa Vlad, and it will have to be here. “TH2” offers plenty of good noisy fun for kids, as well as some painless kicks for parents. The bonus package is targeted directly at younger viewers with separate commentary tracks; deleted scenes; a sketch gallery; a sing-along with Monster Scary-Oke; and interactive featurettes “Make the Scary, Silly Sounds of Hotel Transylvania 2,” “How to Throw the Ultimate Monster Party,” “How to Draw Your Favorite Characters” and “The New Guys: Meet Vlad, Dennis, Kakie.”

Bitter Rice: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Although the title of Giuseppe De Santis’ earthy drama, “Riso Amaro,” is commonly translated as Bitter Rice, it also translates as “Bitter Laughter.” The difference may only be relevant to linguists and those buffs who enjoy splitting such hairs, but it explains some of the ambiguity attached to a movie that’s defied easy classification. While most critics and historians lump Bitter Rice together with other products of the then-popular neorealism movement, it generally comes with an asterisk. De Santis’ leftist political beliefs can be detected in some decidedly anti-western conceits that feel out of place in a work of post-war drama. Apparently, by the time of its release, the spread of American pop culture was such that leftists feared it would turn the proletarian masses into bobby-soxers. That fear is reflected in the characterization of De Santis’ characterization of the sultry peasant girl, Silvana (Silvana Mangano), as the kind of jitter-bugging, gum-chewing bombshell, who, when she wasn’t in the fields, studied movie magazines. A former Miss Rome, Mangano graduated from the same finishing school as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot. Their obvious charms would clear the way for the code-flaunting exploitation of Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. Then, too, while also decrying the brutal working conditions endured by displaced women in post-World War II, De Santis adds a criminal subplot that might very well have influenced Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

It’s the confusion of conceits that prompted neorealism purists to slight the film as prurient entertainment and for audiences to embrace it. (The film even was nominated for the 1950 Academy Award for Best Story.) Bitter Rice is set in 1948, outside a train station where unemployed women are gathered to be transported to the rice fields of northern Italy for 40 days of largely thankless labor. Silvana is entertaining the crowd with her suggestive dancing, which wouldn’t be out of place in an American juke joint. Among Silvana’s admirers are Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Walter (Vittorio Gassman), who are on the lam from a jewel heist in France. Identified by police, Walter entrusts the jewelry to Francesca’s care, while he hops a train heading in the opposite direction. Francesca decides to cast her lot with the migrant workers – already divided by the employment of “scabs” — in particular the woman who seduced her boyfriend with her swiveling hips and come-hither eyes. The intrigue shifts to the rice fields, where the women express their pain, joys and solidarity in song and pine for boyfriends who are likely scratching for work in northern Europe. The melodramatic resolution occurs after Silvana and Francesca’s lovers return to collect what they think rightfully belongs to them. By then, however, the labor-hardened women have shifted their allegiances. The fully restored Blu-ray adds the 2008 documentary, “Giuseppe De Santis”; a 2003 interview with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani; and an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone.

The Last Horror Film: Blu-ray
Joe Spinell, a character actor who bore a passing resemblance to porn icon Ron Jeremy, will forever be known for his portrayal of Corleone Family henchman Willi Cicci in the first two installments of the Godfather. (He originally was intended to appear, as well, in The Godfather: Part III, but was written out and replaced by the character of Joey Zasa, following Spinell’s sudden death in early 1989.) In Rocky, the first of several films he made with Sylvester Stallone, he was the loan shark, Gazzo. In William Lustig’s critically reviled slasher classic, Maniac, co-writer Spinell portrays a momma’s-boy psychopath, loose in New York City, killing young women and taking their scalps as his trophies. Not nearly as loathsome as that film, The Last Horror Film stars Spinell as a demented fanboy – OK, fanman –who hopes to pitch and cast his slasher film at the Cannes Film Market. The trouble is, of course, that everyone who travels to the south of France in mid-May is too consumed with their own projects, image and party plans to screen a movie by a guy who looks as if he might have just escaped from a mental institution. Each new rejection, of course, results in an increasingly gory murder, with his ultimate target being the bombshell scream queen, Jana Bates (Caroline Munro).

None of that would be sufficient cause for excitement about The Last Horror Film’s Blu-ray release, 33 years later, if it weren’t for one thing: the ability of director David Winters (Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare) to turn the actual Cannes Film Festival into his own personal backlot. Employing guerrilla tactics, he found ways to inject Spinell’s psycho-killer, Vinny, into press conferences, parties, screenings and red-carpet arrivals. Viewers never know who’s going to show up in a scene. Winters also appears to have had the run of the city for locations, although it isn’t likely he paid a dime for permits. In this way, at least, The Last Horror Film reminded me of Henry Jaglom’s 2001 romcom, Festival in Cannes. I have no idea if Jaglom employed the same guerrilla tactic, but it’s the rare indie film that can afford such glamorous locations, cameos or music from a then largely unknown Depeche Mode. The Troma Blu-ray includes a new introduction by company president Lloyd Kaufman; commentary; “Mr. Robbie,” a short film by Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), starring Spinell; highlights from the 2015 Tromadance Film Festival; a Dolphin-Man bit; and a full episode of Troma’s latest web-series, “Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner,” starring tattoo artist Paul Booth.

White Panther
Chasing a Star
One the common elements of the international cinema is the use of boxing to dramatize the struggle faced by minorities and immigrants seeking acceptance within a society that has little use for them, otherwise. The not so subtle message being transmitted is, “If you can make it the ring, you can make it anywhere,” no matter your race, religion or nationality. Maybe, maybe not. Likewise, White Panther is an Israeli movie about making it in the ring, as well as a society less united by race, religion and nationality than most Americans have been led to believe. In Danni Reisfeld’s debut film, Alex Zeitlin (Yevgeny Orlov) is just one of an estimated million Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. In the former Soviet Union, where following religious traditions was largely taboo, intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was a relatively common occurrence. If the newcomers expected to be accorded a red-carpet welcome upon their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Even those non-Jewish fathers who volunteered for the military were shunned as outsiders – Alex’s KIA father was refused burial in a Jewish cemetery — and their children treated like third-class citizens reduced to living in rundown housing projects, surrounded by affluence and catering to tourists. Ironically, the immigrants were frequently scorned as atheists and troublemakers by the Sephardim, who historically have been looked down upon by the dominant Ashkenazi Jews.

These fissures explode intermittently during the course of the story, as gangs of Russian and Sephardi youths antagonize each other in the poorer sections of Tiberias. When Alex is arrested for participating in a brawl, he’s given the option of staying in jail or joining a fight club run by the cop, David, who arrested him. The religious Moroccan Jew takes Alex under his wing after learning that his late father was a champion boxer in Moscow, and “hero” of an IDF operation. This doesn’t sit well with David’s other boxers; his lovely daughter, Yasmin (Meytal Gal); or Alex’s hoodlum brother and his skinhead buddies. It sets the stage for melodrama of the most familiar sort: a still maturing young man finds himself torn between two father figures, until flaws of their own are revealed. “Bad seed” brother Yevgeny is destined for a life in prison for his self-loathing behavior, while the coach’s prejudice is revealed when Alex and Yasmin fall for each other and David’s prejudices are tested. While there’s nothing particularly unique in the boxing sequences, White Panther is enhanced by its Sea of Galili setting and views from hills that surround Tiberias. Boxing completists and viewers interested in Israeli themes should find a lot to like here.

Sports and gangsters figure, as well, in Avi Malka’s broadly farcical Chasing a Star (a.k.a., “Where Is Moshe Ivgy?”). In a plot that could have been inspired by Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, real-life Israeli movie star Moshe Ivgy (playing himself) is kidnaped by a disgruntled actor, Alex, whose agent appears to have forgotten he exists. If Alex can make Ivgy disappear for 24 hours, he might score a commercial intended for the more established actor. To accomplish this, he borrows a limousine from his chauffeur buddy and picks up Ivgy, who’s been slipped a mickey at party. Unfortunately, for Alex, the limousine is hijacked by a recently released ex-con who owes a pile of money to his old partners in crime –Russian, of course – and plans to split the country with his teenage lover. Sports enters the picture in the person of a talented forward for the police department’s women’s soccer team, who won’t participate in the championship game until Alex is safe and the limousine, with or without Ivgy, is located. Although Chasing a Star benefits from the fresh setting and attractive cast, the comedy probably won’t seem very new here.

Bolero/Ghosts Can’t Do It: Blu-ray
The name, Bo Derek, may not mean a lot to Americans born and raised in the Internet era, but, in the wake of her unforgettable appearance in Blake Edwards’ 10, she set the standard against which all great beauties would thereafter be measured. As the sexy newlywed Jenny Hanley, she rewarded Dudley Moore with a roll in the sack for rescuing her husband from drowning. Hanley may have defined what it meant be an “11 out of a possible 10,” but very few men disputed Bo’s claim to the title. She’s also famous for inspiring tens of thousands of white women of all shapes and sizes to embrace the ancient African art of cornrow braiding. Like her acting in movies produced with her husband, the modern-day Svengali John Derek, it was an unfortunate touchstone in the cultural zeitgeist of the Reagan era. Unlike the Kardashians and other reality-show bimbos, Bo Derek never held herself up as a paragon of beauty, acting or anything else, for that matter. Despite well-received appearances in 1981 and 1982 issues of Playboy, as well as several of the worst-reviewed movies of all time, the Dereks tended to keep to themselves, while pursuing their personal interests. For Bo, that included becoming an advocate for animal welfare legislation and support for organizations helping wounded veterans. While serving on the California Horse Racing Board, Bo’s also made guest appearances on several television shows and movies. Her husband, who also shaped the careers of sultry blond actresses Ursula Andress and Linda Evans, died in 1998.

If anything, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray double-feature, Bolero/Ghosts Can’t Do It, demonstrates how ill-equipped the photographer and former actor (All the King’s Men, The Ten Commandments), John Derek, was to direct his wife, or anyone else, in movies he’d also written. These titles contributed directly to Bo’s near-record haul of Razzy nominations and, in 2000, at the 20th Golden Raspberry Awards, for her being nominated as “Worst Actress of the Century,” alongside Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Berkley, Pia Zadora and eventual winner Madonna. Last year, she appeared in Syfy’s breathlessly awaited, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! Apart from some gorgeous scenery and much gratuitous nudity, Bolero owes far less to the soundtrack of 10 than it does to such Rudolph Valentino flicks as The Sheik, Blood and Sand and The Son of the Sheik. Blessedly, George Kennedy’s chauffeur is one of the few characters who manages to keep his clothes on. Ana Obregon, Olivia d’Abo and Mirta Miller more than compensate for that lapse.

Worse, perhaps, is Derek’s swan song as a writer/director, Ghosts Can’t Do It, which combines elements of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait. Here, Bo stars as a young widow determined to bring her elderly rancher husband (Anthony Quinn) back to life after he’s stricken with a debilitating heart attack and commits suicide. Julie Newmar is the angel who greets him on the way to his date with Saint Peter. She comforts Quinn while widow Bo travels to some of the most exotic corners of the Earth – the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, and Hong Kong — in her search for the perfect body to receive his reincarnated soul. The film was given a perfunctory release here, in 1990, but not before its VHS release overseas. Believe it or not, Donald Trump appears in an extended cameo as himself. Along with both Dereks, Newmar and Leo Damian, the future presidential candidate was nominated for a pair of Razzies, winning one for Worst Supporting Actor. Quinn dodged a bullet by being snubbed by the voters. Sadly, Ghosts Can’t Do It and Bolero don’t offer viewers any bonus features, although I’m sure Trump could have been convinced to do a commentary track, if asked.

The Image Revolution
In 1992, the world of comic-book heroes and villains was dominated by two companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, just as it had been since the debuts of Superman, the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner in Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1. The Image Revolution recalls the upheaval caused by the departure of a group of illustrators and writers who had revitalized the industry by creating characters more in tune with Gen X readers. As has been the case in most businesses accustomed to maintaining extreme profit margins, Marvel executives refused to pay its most talented staff members what they believed they deserved for their contributions. Led by the outspoken Todd McFarlane (“Spawn”), the upstarts would form Image Comics and introduce a business model that would change the industry at a most propitious time. Among them were Rob Liefeld (“Deadpool”), Jim Lee (“X-Men”), Marc Silvestri (“Wolverine”), Erik Larsen (“Savage Dragon”), Whilce Portacio (“X-Factor”) and Jim Valentino (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Harnessing such creative talent would prove no easier for Image than it had for Marvel and DC, however. The story is told through rare archival footage and new interviews with all seven founders, as well as industry insiders, comics historians and current Image Comics creators, including Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”).

TV-to-DVD
UpTV: Love Finds You in Charm
Hill Street Blues: The Final Season
The Wonder Years: Season Four
PBS: Reading Rainbow: Miss Nelson Is Back
How ya going to keep them Amish beauties down on the farm, once they’ve seen Charm, Ohio? That’s the musical question asked in UpTV’s original movie, Love Finds You in Charm, an extension of Summerside Press’ “Love Finds You” series of Christian-romance books. Although dozens of titles have been published, only Terry Cunningham’s Love Finds You in Charm and Love Finds You in Sugarcreek have been filmed. Love Finds You in Valentine is on tap for release next month on the Up TV cable network. Being made aware of that connection allowed me to make sense of the newly released DVD, which is set among Amish communities in Indiana and Ohio. The last Amish romance I can remember is Peter Weir’s Witness, in which Harrison Ford goes undercover to protect an Amish boy who’s the only witness to a murder in New York. While in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the newly bearded cop falls for a local widow (Kelly McGillis) and ruffles the feathers of a perspective husband played by the late Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov. (Thirty years later, McGillis would appear as a spinster aunt in “Sugarcreek.”) Frankly, I’m at a loss as to how true Amish and Mennonites feel about movies set in their communities. Absent electricity, it isn’t likely they’d have much opportunity to screen the finished products, in any case. In Love Finds You in Charm, a pretty Amish teenager, Emma (Danielle Chuchran), decides to expand her horizons by moving to her widowed cousin’s farm in Charm, where she’ll help her sell prize-winning produce to tourists. Eventually, Emma will have to decide whether she wants to live among the “Plain People” or ride around town in her friend’s red convertible and sell her hand-made cheese on the Food Network. Anyone who enjoys inspirational stories about Christian love and romance – as practiced by fundamentalists – should find “Charm” charming.

The latest release from Shout! Factory’s library of “Hill Street Blues” episodes represents the landmark show’s seventh and final season. In it, officer Patrick Flaherty (Robert Clohessy) and officer Tina Russo (Megan Gallagher) attempt to rekindle the intensity of the Bates-Coffey relationship of years past. Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky) was lowered to secondary status part way through this season, but it wasn’t until Daniel Travanti announced he would not return the next year that producers decided to pull the plug on the series. It was also moved to Tuesday nights, almost midway through the season, so as to clear the way for “L.A. Law” to inherit the catbird seat on NBC’s must-see Thursday nights.

In the fourth season of “The Wonder Years,” Kevin (Fred Savage) is entering his last year at Kennedy Junior High and feeling the effects of puberty more acutely than ever.  With Winnie (Danica McKellar) now attending a different school, he’s open to temptation in the form of Madeline (Julie Condra), a new girl in his French class. Later in the season, Winnie and Kevin will struggle to maintain their relationship, suffering heartbreak, denial and even injury in the tear-jerker episode, “The Accident.” At home, mother Norma (Alley Mills) takes a job at Kevin’s school; father Jack (Dan Lauria) gets a promotion that takes him on the road; elder brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) buys a car; and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) enters college, leaving her room up for grabs. In other firsts, Kevin gets a job as a caddy and tries to crash a 10th-grader’s slumber party (with beer). Again, the original music has been restored to newly released seasonal packages.

For more than 30 years, the PBS series “Reading Rainbow” has been bringing print stories to life. In “Miss Nelson Is Back,” hosted by LeVar Burton, we learn what happens when the teacher in Room 207 disappears for a week and the kids conspire to “really act up.” LeVar embarks on a treasure hunt, gets transformed by a makeup artist and attends a performance by Blackstone the Magician, before stumbling upon a surprise birthday party meant for him.

The DVD Wrapup: Sicario, Sleeping With Other People, Maneater, Cruel, Broad City and more

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Sicario: Blu-ray
In 2010, Gianfranco Rosi’s frightening interview with a real-life cartel assassin, El Sicario, Room 164, was awarded the top-documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival. Based on a Harper’s magazine article by Charles Bowden, El Sicario gave a hooded killer the opportunity to elaborate on how he came to work both sides of the law in Juarez, one of the most dangerous places on Earth to live.  Having recently experienced a religious catharsis, his confession effectively put a $250,000 price tag on his head. That the interview actually took place in one of the squalid motel rooms in which kidnap victims were interrogated and tortured only made the documentary that much more chilling. Anyone who’s watched El Sicario, Room 164 naturally would be suspicious of Denis Villeneuve’s ability to equal those spine-tingling recantations in the largely unrelated Sicario. An assassin’s handiwork can be observed in the opening scene, during which a FBI assault team led by Emily Blunt discovers the decaying bodies entombed behind a wall of a Tucson safehouse. Beyond that, however, Villeneuve (Incendies) and writer Taylor Sheridan are more interested in the wealthy Mexicans who pull the sicario’s strings.

Stripped to its narrative framework, Sicario is a powerfully rendered procedural that, while chronicling a strike against a cartel kingpin, forces viewers to endorse or decry the extralegal tactics used in the elimination of so-called narco-terrorists. In the same way that Osama Bin Laden was denied the luxury of a trial by a Navy SEAL hit squad, the target of the CIA-led commando unit in Sicario isn’t likely to require the services of a lawyer, either. Do we care? No more than we sweated the details of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Villeneuve reserves those questions for Blunt’s ethically grounded FBI agent, Kate Macer. After leading the charge on the safehouse, Kate is assigned to a special inter-agency task force, based in El Paso. She’s never completely sure as to the role she’s supposed to play in the unit, but, by all appearances, it’s a real cowboy operation. Josh Brolin is the spook in charge, but, constantly at his side is a mysterious Colombian (Benicio Del Toro), who’s earned a reputation among drug traffickers as “Medellin.” When the CIA-led team crosses the border into Mexico to collect a prisoner from a Juarez jail, Kate is left to wonder how she’ll be able to square her participation with her superiors in Washington. Standing alongside the visibly larger and far more heavily armed commandoes, Kate senses that it has nothing to do with her tactical skills. After a shootout at the border, the prisoner is strongly encouraged by the Colombian to reveal everything he knows about the cartel’s methodology. As in any investigation of organized criminals, one clue leaked by an informer could leads to another, finally revealing the entire hill of beans.  Cutting corners through torture sometimes speeds the process.

Villeneuve has found the perfect vessel in Blunt, whose expressive eyes can’t disguise her distain either for the cartel or her unit’s tactics. He stacks the deck even further by putting her directly in harm’s way throughout Sicario, causing to wonder if Medellin is an agent of justice or a mercenary hired to settle an old score. The deceptively barren landscapes of northern Mexico and the American Southwest – as captured by perennial Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins – make the answers to her existential musings even more elusive. Neither does Villeneuve ignore the economic forces that drive poor Mexicans to risk their lives for the cartels, who profit from the insatiable appetite for illegal drugs by Americans undeterred by the body count along the shared border. Del Toro delivers an awards-quality performance as the presumptive sicario. Brolin, too, is excellent as the supercool American agent, who seemingly enjoys his job too much to listen to his conscience. The terrific Blu-ray presentation adds the featurettes, “Stepping Into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario,” which focuses on tone as much as actual cinematography; “Blunt, Brolin and Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario,” features interviews with various cast and crew members; “A Pulse From the Desert: The Score of Sicario” profiles Jóhann Jóhannsson; and “Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario,” with graphic evidence of cross-border horrors.

Sleeping With Other People
Somewhere between last year’s Sundance and a tentative limited release in September, Leslye Headland’s racy romcom, Sleeping With Other People, lost all of the wind that filled its sails going into the festival circuit. Its early reviews were largely positive, so the critics can’t be blamed for killing the buzz. That’s not unusual, though, as festival favorites cater to different audiences than the one necessary for commercial success. Sensing the change in momentum, distributors increasingly will redirect their resources toward the VOD, PPV and DVD marketplace. With its snappy dialogue and attractive young characters, Sleeping With Other People, reminded me of Ed Zwick’s Brat Pack adaptation of David Mamet’s 1974 play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” In an effort to capture the markedly different sexual zeitgeist of the me-decade, the producers of About Last Night decided to largely abandon Mamet’s rhythmic dialogue and episodic structure, in favor of narrative concessions more likely to appeal to mainstream yuppie audiences. It did well, considering its “R” rating, but fans of Mamet’s early theatrical works weren’t impressed. What About Last Night was able to capture, though, were characters, who, having tired with the dating grind, were willing to consider, at least, pairing up and settling down. The Reagan-era economic boom afforded them soft places to land if these relationships failed.

For a while, anyway, Sleeping With Other People offers similarly attractive characters and much bright and funny dialogue. Sadly, though, just as the narrative begins to get rolling behind the kooky sexual entanglements of the star-crossed Jake and Lainey (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie), Headland turns down the heat. Instead of fueling the momentum behind their almost bromantic relationship, the story inexplicably takes a detour into the realm of sitcom clichés. The movie opens promisingly in 2002, when students Jake and Lainey get over their unearned sexual braggadocio long enough to take each other’s virginity on the roof of his dorm at Columbia. Love doesn’t have much to do with their encounter, so we aren’t surprised to learn that they haven’t seen each other in a dozen years. In an extreme example of unlikely coincidence, they bump into each other at a 12-step program for sex addicts. Instead of becoming lovers, again, though, Jake and Lainey become confidantes. Obviously, given the undeniable appeal of Sudeikis and Brie, such a limiting situation can’t be allowed to last very long. Naturally coquettish, Brie is especially fun to watch. Like Demi Moore in About Last Night, she easy conveys the heartbreak that comes with putting too much trust in a cad.

The Complete Lady Snowblood: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Memories of the Sword: Blu-ray
The House Where Evil Dwells/Ghost Warrior: Blu-ray
The most convenient reason for American fans of Japanese manga to seek out Criterion’s two-film collection, “The Complete Lady Snowblood,” is for its resemblance to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” Lucy Liu’s half-breed assassin, O-Ren Ishii, is believed to have been inspired by Meiko Kaji’s interpretation of the brilliant swordswoman, Lady Snowblood, in Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 revenge thriller, Lady Snowblood, and its almost immediate sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance. Tarantino’s never felt it necessary to limit his inspirations to one or two sources, so O-Ren Ishii isn’t an exact match to Fujita’s Yuki Kashima. Still, the resemblance not only is uncanny, but also a very good excuse to invest in a rental or download. Kaji was a familiar presence in such Japanese genre pictures of the late-1960-70s as Stray Cat Rock, Female Convict Scorpion and Wandering Ginza Butterfly. She sings the theme songs to Lady Snowblood (“Shura no Hana”) and the Female Convict Scorpion series (“Urami Bushi”), both of which were used in Kill Bill. In the “Lady Snowblood” twin-bill, she plays the deceptively flower destined to avenge the deaths of her mother’s husband and son at the hands of four brutal bandits. After being sentenced to a life penalty for killing the bandit who raped and enslaved her, Yuki’s mother seduces a guard for the sole purpose of conceiving a child capable of exacting her vengeance on the three remaining bandits. The woman dies shortly after giving birth, but not before handing Yuki over to a stern priest anxious to begin her training in the martial arts. At 20, she’s fully prepared to carry out the responsibility inherited from the mother she never knew.

From this point on, Lady Snowblood offers almost non-stop action in the form of over-the-top swordplay and criminal chicanery. On the way to completing her mission, a reporter coins the nom de guerre Lady Snowblood – a play on the Japanese words for Snow White – ensuring mythic stature in the popular press. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance picks up the story just as Yuki is about to be executed for her killing spree a year earlier. Instead, as she is sent to the gallows Yuki is rescued by Kikui Seishiro, head of the secret police, who offers her a deal to assassinate some revolutionaries and retrieve a crucial document. The plan backfires when Yuki begins to sympathize with her anarchist target, becoming a threat to the secret police and Imperialist government. The supplemental features include original trailers for the two films; new interviews with writer Kazuo Koike and screenwriter Norio Osada; and an illustrated leaflet with Howard Hampton’s essay “Flowers of Carnage.”

From Korea comes Memories of the Sword, another epic story of revenge in which a young swordswoman fulfills the destiny handed down to her by her parents. Set in the Goryeo era (sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries), Park Heung-Sik’s drama chronicles teenager Hong-yi’s (Kim Go-eun) quest to kill legendary fighters Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) and Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun), the two anti-imperial dissidents who murdered her father. It’s worth mentioning that Hong-yi’s hard-as-steel mother is blind. The handicap doesn’t prevent her from being a formidable warrior and an expert reader of the aroma of tea leaves. The story, which may actually be too complex for western audiences forced to rely on subtitles, benefits from some spectacular scenery, wild martial-arts action, dynamic swordplay and the fun that comes with watching another precious flower evolve into a stone killer.

The House Where Evil Dwells and Ghost Warrior put an American spin on a pair of Japanese genre standbys. Considering that both pictures probably were destined for drive-in purgatory here, I was surprised by how entertaining they remain three decades after their original release. When I say “entertaining,” however, I don’t want to imply that either film bears comparison to most newly imported Asian fare, just that they retain a certain campy charm. The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) offers early evidence that American filmmakers were aware of the appeal of Japanese ghost and haunted-house stories. In it, an American family newly transferred to Japan falls in love with a traditional home in which a terrible tragedy occurred a century earlier. The three participants in the ill-fated love triangle still inhabit the houses, but as ghostly specters intent on messing with any new tenant’s mind. Viewers of a certain age will appreciate the casting of Edward Albert (Galaxy of Terror), Susan George (Straw Dogs) and Doug McClure (Humanoids From the Deep), as well as the typically unsubtle direction of Kevin Connor (Motel Hell). For once, the doubly exposed ghosts look reasonably credible.

From 1984, Ghost Warrior (a.k.a., “Swordkill”) describes what happens when the intact body of a 400-year-old samurai warrior is found by skiers entombed in an ice cave. After being smuggled into the U.S., Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka) is miraculously revived through cryosurgery. If it weren’t for a hapless attempt to steal his 400-year-old sword, Yoshi might not have been able to escape the evil scientists’ lab and Ghost Warrior would have been far shorter than its current 81 minutes. Instead, Yoshi’s allowed to wander through L.A., in search of sushi bars, antique stores selling ancient armor and homeless people to rescue from street gangs. Ghost Warrior benefits from our memory of the discovery, seven years later, of the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, high in the snowfields that separate Austria and Italy. Instead of cryosurgery, though, Ötzi’s DNA could potentially be used in any re-animation experiment. The Charles Band production stars Janet Julian (King of New York).

Deathgasm: Blu-ray
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse: Blu-ray
if there were any two artistic pursuits that are made for each other, they’re heavy-metal music and zombie movies. Deathgasm, digital-effects specialist Jason Lei Howden’s first feature, combines both disciplines in a horror movie that’s so far over the top that it might not be considered appropriate viewing for anyone older than 18 or with an IQ score higher than, say, 80. It tells the story of the head-banging new kid in a high school dominated by jocks and cheerleaders. Just as water will always find its level, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) has little trouble hooking up with the handful of like-minded dudes in school, as well as a Barbie look-alike who sees in the newbie an excuse to have her breasts and thighs tattooed. Naturally, these misfits form a band, while Medina (Kimberley Crossman) causes a rift between Brodie and her square boyfriend. Long story short, Brodie and his pal, Zakk (James Blake) stumble upon a mysterious piece of sheet music said to grant ultimate power to whoever plays it. The downside, however, is revealed when the music summons an ancient evil entity known as Aeloth, the Blind One, who threatens to destroy humanity as we know it. Once this force is unleashed, the only way to put the genie back in the bottle is to play the song backwards. Meanwhile, the gratuitous violence and zombie-inspired carnage perpetrated on the Auckland populace is, as they say, epic. The gore is so phony, it’s laughable. But, that’s sort of the point. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Howden, featurettes and the music video “Bulletbelt Deathgasm.”

Christopher Landon’s Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse should appeal to the same demographic as Deathgasm, if not fans of more sophisticated undead fare as Sean of the Dead and What We Do in the Shadows. In it, three young friends and fellow scouts — lower-case “s,” so as not to be confused with Boy Scouts of America — are enjoying a wilderness camping adventure when a zombie epidemic breaks out back home. When two of the boys’ boredom gets the better of them, they wind up in a gentleman’s club devoid of patrons, but rife with zombies. The one stripper who was powdering her nose when the zombie apocalypse erupted joins the scouts on their new mission to save the town. Of course, she does.

The Barefoot Artist
Watching Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub’s bittersweet documentary profile of artist-without-borders Lily Yeh, I couldn’t help but recall Mother Teresa’s selfless devotion to India’s poorest and most desperately ill citizens. I doubt that the Chinese-born artist, educator and humanitarian is destined for sainthood, as was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, but a statue or Kennedy Center Honor shouldn’t be out of the question. If the Eagles have earned one, why not an artist who brings joy and hope to the victims of war and poverty, without charging hundreds of dollars for her services? The Barefoot Artist takes its title from the organization Yeh founded to further her personal mission of using art to replicate the “village model” in devastated communities around the world. It began in 1986, when the professor of painting and art history at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was asked by dancer Arthur Hall to create a park, mural and sculpture garden in the abandoned lot next to his studio in North Philly. The park, created, as well, from the hard work of neighborhood residents, was the beginning of the Village of Arts and Humanities project. After transforming more than 120 other lots into gardens and parks, it also began renovating vacant homes, creating art workshops, a youth theater and educational programs. In 2004, Yeh left the Village of Arts and Humanities to pursue other work internationally. It took her to Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, Ecuador, India, the Republic of Georgia and the Ivory Coast, where impoverished and war-weary citizens used scavenged material to create art that reflected both their bitter memories and newfound hope for the future. The Barefoot Artist also follows Yeh back to China, where her father’s long ignored “second family” was severely punished for his role in the civil war as a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Yeh’s intention was to make amends, but some wounds had yet to heal. As uplifting as most of the movie is, Yeh’s cathartic tracing of roots she didn’t know existed is almost too heart-breaking to bear.

The Gambler
Set in a Lithuania that doesn’t appear to have changed much since the last Soviet troops departed in August 1993, The Gambler offers as bleak a view of humanity as any movie made in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The national pastime still involves drinking to excess, then passing out, and the walls of the buildings don’t look as if they’ve gotten a fresh coat of paint since the Nazi occupation. When the film’s moody protagonist, Vincentas (Vytautas Kaniusonis), isn’t saving lives as the best emergency doctor in Vilnius, he’s pissing away his paycheck as a degenerate gambler. He owes a small fortune to a mobster who doesn’t care how many people Vincentas has pulled from the brink of death. To make up for the deficit, the doctor invents a game based on the old dead-pool principle. Instead of using celebrities, though, the doctors in his unit wager on the estimated day and time one of their very ill patients will die. In their downtime, they compare notes on the severity of the ailments in play and how unforeseen complications might impact the patients’ date with Saint Peter. Because the medical data is shared on a computer network, doctors and paramedics from all corners of Lithuania rush to join in the fun. The longer the patients stay alive, the greater the jackpots grow. The higher the prizes, the greater the potential for corruption and tinkering with God’s timetable. Things get even more complicated for Vincentas when he falls in love with a fellow medic, Ieva (Oona Mekas), a single mother with a seriously ill son. Because of this, Ieva is the only medic who refuses to participate in the game. Because her medical bills now rival Vincentas’ gambling debt, however, it’s only a matter of time before she’ll have to consider compromising her values. It’s at this point that the darkness of the Baltic soul takes hold, carrying the story with it. It’s an excellent story … just don’t expect any happy endings.

The Maneater
The French title of Natalie Saracco’s debut film, The Maneater, is “La mante religieuse,” or, “The Praying Mantis.” It could just as easily have been titled “Jezebel,” as that’s the wholly appropriate name of the incendiary protagonist, played to the hilt by Mylène Jampanoï. Because that title will forever be associated with Bette Davis and “The Praying Mantis” isn’t nearly as provocative as “La mante religieuse,” the American distributors probably figured that a Hall & Oates’ reference, combined with a sexy poster, could only help sales. Maybe … maybe, not. Unlike the titular insect, Jampanoi’s Jezabel doesn’t even bother to blend into the background as she pursues the handsome village priest who conducted the funeral mass for her father. Once their eyes meet, you instinctively know that Jezabel’s real target is Father David’s soul, not his heart … and vice versa. Throw in the jealousy felt by Jezabel’s très épicé lesbian lover and loyalty of Father Dave’s acolyte, and you have a pretty decent tug of war. Even if it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, The Maneater offers plenty of cheap thrills for Francophiles.

Cruel
French crime novelist Eric Cherrière makes a smooth transition from page to screen in his riveting directorial debut, Cruel. His protagonist, Pierre (Jean-Jacques Lelté), is the textbook example of a sociopathic serial killer. His personal issues can be traced to childhood musings about a distant future — most of them unfulfilled — repeated over home-movie footage taken of him frolicking on a pristine beach with his long-gone mother. Required to spend far too many of his waking hours taking care of his chair-bound father, who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, Pierre only takes mind-numbing work in places he’s able to blend completely into the woodwork. It’s difficult to say what triggers his worst impulses, but they seem to involve separating his victims from what they cherish most. He studies his prey before pouncing, then locks them in the same basement cell in which his father once hid Jews from the Gestapo. Why Pierre tortures the helpless old man with his darkest thoughts also is open to the viewer’s conjecture. What’s more important is knowing that he’s a terribly efficient killer, who finally decides to help hapless police investigators connect the dots on his victims. It isn’t until Pierre is introduced to a lovely musician, Laure (Magali Moreau), that he’s given a viable alternative to killing and maintaining his anonymity. Of course, it also gives us cause to fear for her well-being. Cherrière’s pacing is such that we’re able to understand a bit more of what’s meant by “the banality of evil.” In the right hands, Cruel probably could be translated into a decent English-language thriller, but only if the temptation to cast a well-known actor is avoided.

Captive: Blu-ray
TV One: Stock Option
UPTV: Lyfe’s Journey
Valley Inn
This week’s selection of faith-based DVDs includes three films of special, but certainly not exclusive interest to African-American audiences. The best, Captive, combines true-crime drama with a story of redemption inspired indirectly from Pastor Rick Warren’s inspirational best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Clearly a product of a bargain-basement budget, Jerry Jameson’s hostage thriller benefits hugely from lead performances by David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, who probably agreed to take a substantial cut in pay as a favor to the producers. Brian Bird’s screenplay was adapted from Ashley Smith’s recollections of her harrowing experiences on March 12, 2005. In a bizarre confluence of desperate circumstances, Smith was abducted and held hostage by Brian Nichols, who was on trial for rape when he escaped from custody and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and later a federal agent. Already a captive to drugs, Smith was able to talk Nichols out of continuing his bloody day-long spree, in part by sharing passages from Warren’s books. In the movie, at least, she has just been given a copy of the book by her aunt (Mimi Rogers), who’s looking after Smith’s young daughter while she’s in the process of kicking her addiction. Blessedly, the proselytizing takes a distant backseat to the drama inherent in two people looking directly into the face of death. Given the popularity of Warren and Smith’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, I’m surprised that Captive didn’t draw numbers in line with War Room and other faith-based fare. It adds several making-of and background featurettes.

In Stock Option, an out-of-work and homeless stockbroker (Amin Joseph) catches a break when he rescues a model (Antonique Smith) from being raped by a hoodlum lurking in the alley next to her studio. In an unlikely act of gratitude and Christian charity, Alina invites Marv – short for Marvelous, no less — home for a shower, meal and change of clothes. Not surprisingly, a little TLC does a world of good for the strikingly handsome young man, who also turns out to be a glib conversationalist. Before long, he volunteers to help Alina complete some household chores, for which he enlists other homeless buddies. Her sudden interest in the down-and-out stockbroker doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, of course, who’s in a far less charitable state of mind. Marv will be required to clear several other hurdles before redeeming himself in the eyes of Alina’s family and friends he disappointed on his way to the bottom.

Although both movies debuted on different cable channels, Lyfe’s Journey is a product of the same Atlanta-based production company, Swirl Films. The company bills itself as America’s “number one urban film production company,” with over 40 original titles in the past 6 years. With a seemingly insatiable audience for original programming on niche cable outlets, it’s no wonder that evergreen dramatic conceits are recycled on a regular basis. The same strategy worked for Lifetime, after all. Here, family man David Lyfe (Keith Robinson) unexpectedly loses his lucrative job as a banking executive when the company falls into dire financial straits. It couldn’t come at a worse time for the father of a little girl and another in the oven. Despite solid references, Lyfe isn’t able to find another job. One night, he makes the mistake of commiserating over drinks with a suspiciously sympathetic young woman. The next thing he knows, his wife has thrown him out of the house. Desperate for a helping hand, he connects with a preacher who specializes in patching the broken souls of folks willing to contribute to their personal redemption. Besides paint-by-numbers scripts, both movies share attractive casts and protagonists we want to see succeed.

Valley Inn may be targeted at a different audience, but it shares the same Christian foundation as other faith-based films. If it also includes a subtle anti-capitalist subtext, then, so be it. Super-cute ingénue Jordan Scott plays a New Jersey college student, Emily, who accepts a summer job selling Christian books door-to-door in rural northwest Arkansas. Despite its location at the buckle of the bible belt, the territory proves to be less than fertile for book peddlers, especially those hawking tales already familiar to local residents. Expecting to be greeted with suspicion by stereotypical hillbillies, Emily finds herself surrounded by a surprisingly colorful and supportive collection of potentially new friends. The problem, of course, comes in knowing that the company for whom she toils expects sales and Emily isn’t anxious to force books on people with greater needs. Everything in Kim and Chris Spencer’s slight, if easy-on-the-eyes rom/dram/com leads to the region’s biggest event of the year, the Rodeo of the Ozarks. It’s here that Emily is given the opportunity to demonstrate just how much she’s grown over the course of a summer.

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Flesh and Bone: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 2
PBS: Nova: Cyberwar Threat/Inside Einstein’s Mind
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Vampire Legend
PBS: American Experience: American Commandante
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Australian Adventures
The world of ballet may seem an unnatural setting for a premium-cable mini-series, but the folks at Starz have proven themselves to be remarkably adept at turning atypical subjects into captivating entertainments. In a remarkably short time, such shows as “The Missing,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Spartacus,” “Boss,” “The Pillars of the Earth,” “Magic City,” “Outlander,” “Camelot” and “Crash” have attracted viewers to what once was considered to be a minor-league operation. Among the things the mini-series share, to one degree or another, are attractive stars, interesting locations, nudity, contentious situations and provocative dialogue. Did I mention nudity? “Flesh and Bone” doesn’t skimp in any of these categories, especially what some might consider to be gratuitous sex. (Not me, of course.) The artistic milieu also allows for some not-so-usual homosexual liaisons and post-coital extortion. The intrigue begins when Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) flees her Pittsburgh home, for reasons that won’t become apparent for several episodes to come. No sooner does Claire arrive in New York than she impresses the socks off of the imperious creative director of a prestigious ballet company. Naturally, this spurs an outbreak of jealousy and suspicions among the other dancers. Adding to her other problems is the appearance of a potentially dangerous specter from her past. Loyal fans of premium-cable miniseries won’t be at all surprised to learn that the artistry of classical ballet isn’t the only dance discipline likely to be exploited. Claire also is drawn to a local gentleman’s club – run by a Russian gangster – where she excels in contemporary lap dancing and stripper-pole gymnastics. As goofy it sounds, “Flesh and Bone” could hardly be more compelling. This ballet on display isn’t bad, either.

If Beavis and Butt-Head died and were reincarnated into a pair of twentysomething Jewish women, both single and living in New York City, their show might look a lot like Comedy Central’s hilarious sendup of contemporary hipster mores, “Broad City.” (And, yes, it matters that they’re Jewish.) The show is an extension of improv specialists Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s web-series, which found an angel in Amy Poehler. Their characters, Ilana and Abbi, spend most of their time avoiding hard work and anything resembling mainstream culture. They smoke dope and drink wine to excess and, when high, enjoy experimenting with makeup and sex toys. Their closest friends and acquaintances are only slightly less extreme examples of themselves and, perhaps, archetypal characters introduced in “Seinfeld” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” They might be completely foreign to viewers outside New York and other urban centers, but Ilana and Abbi probably aren’t much different than your average Starbucks barista or Whole Foods clerk. Among the weekly pleasures in Season Two are surprise guest spots by such familiar faces as Kelly Ripa, Janeane Garofalo, Seth Rogan, Kumail Nanjiani, Susie Essman, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Kimiko Glenn, Alia Shawkat and Patricia Clarkson. The set includes 10 episodes, deleted scenes, pop-ups and extended skits. The show has been renewed for a third season, beginning next month.

This week’s selections from PBS include a pair of “Nova” episodes, one of which might leaving you staring at your computer in fear, while the other could leave you gasping at the brilliance of a theoretical physicist easily confused with Harpo Marx. “Cyberwar Threat” is informed by documents released by Edward Snowden and stolen from Sony Pictures – as well as the “stuxnet” attack on an Iranian computer network — as stepping stones to a frightening discussion of the potential for disaster at the hands of computer hackers. Their anonymity and elusiveness only adds to the intrigue. “Inside Einstein’s Mind” retraces Albert Einstein’s early “thought experiments,” which led to an understanding of gravity and the theory of general relativity. I tried to understand the simplified explanations, but left as clueless as ever.

In the “Secrets of the Dead” episode “Vampire Legend,” Oxford professor John Blair uses forensics sciences to demonstrate how the vampire legend popularized by Bram Stoker in “Dracula” might actually have originated in England, not Eastern Europe. Evidence discovered in recently unearthed graveyards suggests a common belief that the dead could rise and terrorize the living. Beheaded skeletons found among intact remains have inspired a reexamination of the modern vampire mythos.

 

In the “American Experience” offering, “American Commandante,” we’re introduced to a renegade American soldier and fighter for other people’s freedom, who, had he not actually existed, could have emerged from a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The full story of Cleveland native William Alexander Morgan remains shrouded in mystery, but what is known describes a man who completely reinvented himself, trading a reputation as a military washout and mob flunky, for a larger-than-life hero in Cuba’s revolution and Fidel Castro’s subsequent betrayal of democracy. Oh, yeah, he might also have served J. Edgar Hoover as a counter-revolutionary.

PBS Kids’ “Wild Kratts: Australian Adventures” takes the Kratts’ crew Down Under, where they will test their wiles against harsh conditions of the vast Outback desert and endangered Eucalyptus forest. The episodes include “Koala Balloon,” in which Martin and Chris help a young koala stranded in the Outback get back to his natural habitat; “Kickin’ It With the Roos,” in which they meet up with a mob of pugilistic kangaroos and get their car keys stolen by a mischievous joey; and “Platypus Café,” during which the brothers are required to save the eggs of a platypus from ending up on the breakfast menu of a wicked chef.

Steam Room Stories: Volumes 1, 2 & 3
One of the things that distinguish web-based series from mainstream television is their ability to appeal directly to niche audiences. Neither are they limited to any one length or timeslot. This isn’t to imply that their appeal is limited to a specific audience, however. While “Steam Room Stories” scored a direct hit with its intended demographic: young gay men, who spend as much time on their appearance as they do on anything else. This 248-minute collection is comprised of 99 episodes of the series, in which a small handful of attractive guys, clad only in towels, exchange observations that are alternately witty, catty, bitchy and perceptive, about all sorts of things. The skits are consistently funny and observant.

IndiePix Mix 10 II
The second grab-bag collection of previously released DVDs from IndiePix – 918 minutes’ worth of provocative entertainment for just under $80 – once again is a tantalizing mix of drama, comedy and documentaries. It includes the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury-winning documentary, We Live in Public, which documents the loss of privacy in the Internet age; Bhopali, about the world’s worst industrial disaster; Disarmed, on the continuing threat from antipersonnel mines deployed in wars long past; White Shadow, Noaz Deshe’s horrifying drama about the plight of Tanzanian albinos; That Girl In Yellow Boots, a voyeuristic drama set against the sprawling chaos of Mumbai; Soldate Jean, a deadpan Austrian comedy from Daniel Hoesel; Road to the Big Leagues, on baseball in the Dominican Republic; Satellite, a romantic fable about a young couple who give up everything to find something better; and So Bright Is the View, an offbeat story about a Romanian woman seeking a job in Atlanta that probably doesn’t exist.

The DVD Wrapup: War Room, Nasty Baby, Queen of Earth, Leonard Cohen and more

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

War Room: Blu-ray
When it comes to faith-based movies and box-office obsessives, the old bromide applies, “They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, you can’t argue with success.” Even more simply put, “Numbers don’t lie.” After Alex Kendrick and co/writer Stephen Kendrick’s War Room dueled Straight Outta Compton for Labor Day audiences, pundits trotted out all of the same explanations that have applied to movies targeted at evangelical Christian audiences since Mel Gibson’s staggering success with The Passion of the Christ. The marketing campaigns are practically invisible, by Hollywood standards, anyway, and they are usually superseded by word-of-mouth campaigns advanced through church groups. I don’t pay enough attention to Christian broadcasting networks to know if the stars of such movies as God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real pimp their products in the same way as mainstream actors required to do on late-night talk shows with Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien. Something’s working, though. The last four movies produced by the Kendrick brothers have grossed $146 million in their worldwide theatrical runs, against a total production budget of $5.6 million. Heaven Is for Real, which also was distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, grossed $101 million against $12 million. The ratio for God’s Not Dead, from niche Pure Flix Productions, was $63.8 million/$2 million. Those numbers don’t take into account any ancillary markets, either. Strictly from my point of view, I’ve seen a marked qualitative evolution in the entertainment product, itself. One reason for that is a shift away from the imperative that all faith-based content be family friendly. A very good movie, Ragamuffin, broke all sorts of new ground by fully documenting the struggles that led to singer/songwriter Rich Mullins (Michael Koch) becoming, with the assistance of Christian singing star Amy Grant (Amy Schultz), one of the largest-selling acts in the biz as a singer and songwriter for other artists. Just as success didn’t come easy to Mullins, neutralizing his demons long enough to record and tour would be a constant battle. As such, his story wasn’t all that different from dozens of others told about rock, country and jazz musicians. Indeed, it’s why so many listeners related to his message. By refusing to fudge history in pursuit of a PG rating, Ragamuffin was able to honestly depict one man’s Christian journey and inspire viewers who may have come to his songs only after his death in an automobile accident in 1997.

By comparison, War Room is a Sunday-school lesson on film. It stresses the core belief that all good things are derived from prayer and Satan is lurking in the shadows waiting to claim the soul of anyone who doesn’t bow down before God and ask his permission to cross the street. In the Kendrick’s uplifting drama, such beliefs are imparted on a troubled African-American wife and mother, whose husband (T.C. Stallings) is a philanderer, crook and liar. In the course of attempting to sell the house of an elderly woman, real-estate agent Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla C. Shirer) is shown the nearly empty closet to which Aunt Clara (Karen Abercrombie) retreats whenever she feels the need to go to war against the devil. Sensing Elizabeth’s anxiety over her husband’s behavior, which is only getting worse, Aunt Clara suggests she establish a war room and a battle plan of prayer for her family. This would, however, involve forgiving her husband and taking him back whenever he’s ready to start behaving. If Elizabeth’s prayers aren’t heard, well, she obviously isn’t praying hard enough. Aunt Clara is the kind of old-school bible-banger who praises Jesus every time something positive, however insignificant, happens in her daily routine. If she had served her country as a chaplain in the army – as did her long-dead husband — it’s possible that wars could be prevented before anyone got hurt. If only that were true. The question remains, however, if God failed to hear the prayers of the millions of men and women whose spouses were sent to war over the course of the last 2,000 years, why would he listen to the wife of a jerk who doesn’t deserve her? Yes, I know, He works in mysterious ways. Screenwriters favor the magic-wand approach. There’s no reason to think that the makers of War Room are being insincere in their simplistic approach to prayerful problem-solving, because the Kendricks’ body of work suggests otherwise. Neither would I surmise that $67.8 million in box-office receipts some kind of mirage. What it all really boils down to is, “It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, you can’t argue with success.” The Blu-ray adds commentary with Alex and Stephen Kendrick; several deleted scenes;   bloopers and outtakes; “‘War Room’ in 60 Seconds,” a condensed version of the story with special scenes filmed just for this extra; “The Heart of War Room,” a closer look at the film’s central message: the power and importance of prayer; the music video, “Warrior,” by Steven Curtis Chapman;  and a half-dozen other related featurettes.

Nasty Baby
No “Saturday Night Live” alumnus as taken as many risks with their career as Kristen Wiig. After scoring a direct hit in her first starring and co-writing role with Bridesmaids, she probably could have skated along for a good long while, appearing in silly character-based comedies, alongside other “SNL” veterans, or providing voices for animated features. Instead, Wiig’s kept busy honing her improvisational skills in various sketch-comedy shows and lending her considerable talents and good name to such edgy indies as Friends With Kids, Revenge for Jolly!, Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, The Skeleton Twins, Welcome to Me and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. If you haven’t heard of any of these titles, it’s not for lack of trying on Wiig’s part. She’s gives them her all and isn’t reluctant to appear on talk shows promoting them. In Shira Piven’s thoroughly offbeat Welcome to Me, Wiig left nothing to the imagination in her portrayal of a bipolar woman who decides to stop taking her meds after winning the Mega-Millions lottery. She uses the money to finance her own talk show on cable television, basically to talk about herself, some fairly unappetizing recipes and masturbation. If anyone had gone to see it, Wiig might have gotten a Spirit Award nomination, at least.

Even fewer people saw Sebastián Silva’s challenging adult comedy, Nasty Baby, in which Wiig plays Polly, a Brooklyn woman who wants to create the “new normal” family with her closest friends, a gay couple, Freddy (Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe). It appears as if Freddy’s primary interest in fathering a child is to use it as a metaphorical prop in his film about the infantilism of modern men and women. When his sperm proves insufficient for the task of procreation, they turn to Mo, who’s much less enthusiastic about the prospect of being used a stud by his best friends and lover. He eventually warms to the idea, but not before exploring the idea with his mainstream African-American family, which is still getting over the reality of him being gay. The 36-year-old Chilean filmmaker has already made a name for himself in arthouse circles with The Maid, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Magic Magic. His first U.S.-set production is as much a riff on films about contemporary gay couples as it is a commentary about life in a newly gentrified neighborhood in New York. Polly’s neighbors run the gamut from artists and yuppies, to schizophrenic street people and cranky agitators. They all will figure into the equation sooner or later. Despite excellent performances all around, Nasty Baby’s appeal is limited to festival audiences and those who believe New York is the center of the universe. It’s emphatically not for viewers whose familiarity with Wiig begins with”SNL” and ends with Bridesmaids or, even, her key supporting role The Martian.

Queen of Earth
Like Kristen Wiig, Elisabeth Moss has resisted the temptation to be pigeonholed into roles that would remind “Mad Men” fans of the upwardly mobile doormat, Peggy Olson. Before landing a key role in current Oscar hopeful, Truth, Moss played prominent roles in a series of independent dramas that received excellent reviews but struggled for exposure. Her most prominent performance to date has come in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set mini-series, “Top of the Lake,” in which she plays a dogged, if seemingly overmatched cop assigned to investigate a murder involving a Manson-like thug and his harem of brain-washed women. Shown here on Sundance Channel, it easily qualifies for binge viewing on VOD or DVD. In Queen of Earth, Moss portrays Catherine, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After the recent death of her father, a famous artist, and being dumped by her boyfriend, Catherine accepts an invitation from her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) to recuperate at her lake house. Although her memories of the house include images of happy times spent with her then-boyfriend, Catherine anticipates spending quality time with Virginia. While it’s possible to anticipate the close friends partaking in some sexual healing, what happens next is far more disturbing. Instead of devoting her time to Catherine, Ginny picks up a local stray, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who delights in picking the aspiring artist’s emotional scabs. Catherine piles on with some pent-up aggression of her own. For a while, Catherine is able to hold her own in the increasingly nasty verbal exchanges. Moss’ facial expressions provide all the evidence we need to determine precisely when Catherine reaches her breaking point. Alex Ross Perry’s Bergman-esque approach to his story benefits from the pastoral setting, and he’d already established a rapport with Moss in Listen Up Philip. Waterston’s icy take on the back-stabbing BFF is spot-on, as well. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Sand Dollars
I doubt very much if any candidate for this year’s Best Actress Oscar has delivered a performance nearly as risky, nuanced and well as Geraldine Chaplin does in Sand Dollars. At 71, Chaplain bares her body and soul in ways most American actors her age probably would refuse out of hand, if they were offered such parts in the first place. As much as I would love to see Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close appear in a drama about the sexual exploitation of Third World men by North American women well beyond a certain age – and the price paid by them for a week’s worth of illicit pleasure – if there wasn’t a place in it for Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, it wouldn’t get made. Unlike Laurent Cantet’s steamy 2005 drama, Heading South, Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Sand Dollars doesn’t specifically address the many questions surrounding sexual tourism, as practiced by northern snowbirds of the female persuasion. (For that matter, how many dramas about male-oriented sexual tourism in Holland and Thailand have the studios attempted?) In Heading South, the ever-fearless Charlotte Rampling played Ellen, a French-lit professor from Boston, whose itinerary included sand, sun, clubbing, perhaps, sampling the local talent. For a fistful of Yankee dollars, these very young men allow themselves to be courted and won, for as many as seven days and six nights. The more gullible among them even believe their temporary lovers might want to continue seeing them if they can find a boat strong enough to make it to Miami. Ellen’s idyll sours after one of sexually exploited young men demands to be treated with the same respect as any other island entrepreneur.

Sand Dollars takes place not far from the Haitian beach upon which Rampling lounged, in the popular Dominican Republic resort town of Las Terrenas. Chaplin’s seemingly wealthy French character, Anne, may no longer qualify as being a woman of a certain age, but it hasn’t stopped her from entering into a financial understanding with a fragrant island flower 50 years her junior. So far, it’s lasted three years. For her part, Noeli (Yanet Mojica) is working a long con on Anne, by passing her boyfriend, Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio) off as her brother. The problem comes when Noeli is impregnated by the impatient Yeremi and realizes that it will prevent her from accepting Anne’s invitation to come with her to Paris and be spoiled rotten on a more permanent basis. Viewers may see the danger in such thinking, but what could be better than breaking away from the cycle of poverty that enslaves so many young women on this largely Roman Catholic island. In the short time Anne has left in the D.R., Noeli’s indecision and Yeremi’s machismo combine to push her last nerve. It’s to the credit of the husband/wife filmmaking team that we’re allowed to see both sides of the coin simultaneously and take sides based on the evidence on display. Adding greatly to our enjoyment of Sand Dollars is the native bachata music of Ramon Cordero and Edilio Paredes, who can make audiences dance through their tears. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, interviews, deleted scenes and a short film.

Keith Richards: In His Own Words
Leonard Cohen: Triumvirate
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise
Jaco: The Film: Blu-Ray
Hawaiian Rainbow/Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture
No one embodies the rock ’n’ roll persona than Rolling Stones’ guitarist and co-founder Keith Richards. The fact that he’s still alive and kickin’ it at 72 has inspired tens of thousands of his fans to believe they’re also immortal. You can hate everything the Stones have recorded in the last 40 years and still love Richards, if only because, in 2006, while in Fiji, he was seriously injured while climbing a coconut tree, actually snorted the ashes of his cremated father and that he’s reprising his performances in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in the 2017 sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. After Johnny Depp admitted to infusing his character with Richards’ mannerisms, he agreed to play the continuing character Captain Teague, the father of Captain Jack Sparrow. I.V. Media’s makeshift bio-doc Keith Richards: In His Own Words effectively serves as an unauthorized supplement to his best-selling and critically lauded 2011 autobiography, “Life.” The DVD includes almost two hours of previously filmed interviews with the guitarist/singer/songwriter, a couple of which were staged during the publicity tour for the book. As such, much of the material is repetitive. Even so, it’s fun listening to Richards from different periods in his career, including about hiatus projects apart from the Stones. In one, a very pretty Italian reporter actively flirts with him, basically handing him the keys to her hotel room after the interview concludes. I may be wrong, but it seems as if he couldn’t get away from her fast enough … maybe because Patti, his wife of 32 years, was lurking somewhere in the background.

If there were a competition for the coolest man in rock ’n’ roll, Leonard Cohen would either be a close runner-up to Richards or first in the singer/songwriter division. From Collector’s Forum comes the three-disc Leonard Cohen: Triumvirate, which includes the previously released Leonard Cohen: Under Review: 1934-1977, Leonard Cohen: Under Review: 1978-2006 and Leonard Cohen: The Mind of a Poet, a new compilation of vintage interviews and events. The analysis that accompanies the musical clips in the first two discs are extremely well-reasoned and informative. The career-spanning interviews package is marked by Cohen’s sense of humor and intellect, as well as visits to the Zen Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy and other locations. (If anything, European audiences are more reverential than their North American counterparts.) This would make a terrific gift for anyone who’s fallen in love with Cohen’s music and poetry. Here, too, a toothy blond Scandinavian reporter cautiously passes along the question her co-workers urgently believe needs to be asked: Will you sleep with me? His enigmatic answer suggests he might have taken the bait, if he weren’t on his monkish best behavior.

Neither was the delightfully eccentric jazz composer, musician, band leader and mystic Sun Ra lacking in the coolness department. Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise does a nice job showcasing the improvisational master’s musical range on the piano and the “cosmic jazz” that shocked and challenged jazz audiences for more than four decades. Listen close enough and you’ll hear references to Count Basie. Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, alongside those to Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg and Shostakovich. He was an early pioneer in the free-jazz movement of the 1950-60s, introducing synthesizers and electric keyboards to the mix. Holding him back, however, was a penchant for pthurple robes, pointed hats and philosophies that go back to ancient-traveler myths and the pyramids. It’s fun, but only for a while. My favorite chapter features Sun Ra exploring his deepest roots in a selection informed by several different blues stylings, but it’s the wild presentations of the Arkestra that we recall most fondly. Robert Mugge spent two years shooting Sun Ra and the Arkestra in a wide variety of locales, among them Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom, Danny’s Hollywood Palace in Philadelphia, and on the roof of Philadelphia’s International House on the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Sun Ra’s poetry and mythological pronouncements were filmed in the Egyptian Room of the University of Pennsylvania’s anthropology museum, in a sculpture garden in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., and inside and outside of the house he shared with key band members in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Songs performed in the film include such Sun Ra classics as “Astro Black,” “Mister Mystery,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” “Along Came Ra/The Living Myth,” “Spaceship Earth (Destination Unknown)” and “Requiem for Trevor Johnson.” The DVD includes extended audio versions of the songs.

How many homeless people have been accorded the honor of having the park they once inhabited named after them? Not many, I’ll bet. On the date that would have marked his 56th birthday, December 1, 2008, Jaco Pastorius Park was dedicated in Broward County, Florida. It’s where the bassist extraordinaire spent the nights leading to his untimely death on September 21, 1987, at 35. Wracked by bipolar disorder, Pastorius had 10 days earlier substituted alcohol for his meds and began kicking in the door of a local nightclub. The beating inflicted on him by the club’s bouncer would cause the massive brain hemorrhage that led to his death. Blessedly, Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak’s heart-breaking Jaco: The Film saves the sad stuff for the end, after exploring his extraordinary contributions to jazz, rock, Afro-Cuban and other musical disciplines. Among other things, Pastorius radically changed the way musicians and audiences perceived the contributions of the electronic bass to a band or orchestra. By pulling out the frets with a needle-nose pliers, he discovered a way to make the bass perform like a cello and add a harmonic voice to the ensemble. Almost immediately after his death, he was inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame, joining only six other bassists: Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden and Milt Hinton. In 2008, Fender also released the Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass, a fretless instrument in its Artist Series. Besides some amazing musical performances, Jaco: The Film features revelatory interviews with such artists as Flea, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Geddy Lee, as well as friends, family member and industry executives. A second disc adds another 100 minutes’ worth of outtakes, anecdotes and stories, in addition to special footage used during the historic Jaco’s World Tribute Show 2015 at the Hollywood Bowl. True-blue fans will notice some missing associations with other prominent artists, but what’s here is pretty compelling stuff.

The evidence on IMDB.com suggests that no documentary maker has stuck his camera into as many musical corners as Robert Mugge. In addition to the aforementioned Sun Ra documentary, this week’s mailbag included the combined screener, Hawaiian Rainbow/Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture. Released back-to-back in 1988-89, the films introduced traditional Hawaiian music, dance, myths and culture to mainlanders whose concept of greater-Polynesian culture is limited to poi, pig roasts and lei greetings at the airport. In fact, the musical heritage is extremely rich and its roots stretch from Portugal and Spain, to Honolulu and back to Nashville. Inspired by what he encountered during his first visit to Hawaii in 1986, Mugge joined forces with Dr. Neil Abercrombie, University of Hawaii ethnomusicologists Dr. Ricardo D. Trimillos and Jay W. Junker, educator Vicky Holt Takamine and Honolulu Academy of Arts film programmer Ann Brandman to produce an 85-minute documentary on Hawaiian music shot largely on the Island of Oahu. Then, with the help of Cove Enterprises executives Roy Tokujo and Ronald Letterman, a second 85-minute documentary on Hawaiian dance was shot on all six of the primary Hawaiian Islands. In both cases, Abercrombie was able to convince his former colleagues in the state legislature to fund the films because of their educational and promotional value for the state. And, the narrative frequently sounds far too distant and bland, by comparison to the music and dance. Hawaiian Rainbow focuses on Hawaii’s traditional chants, percussion, ukulele, slack-key and steel guitar, male and female falsetto, and lush vocal harmonies. Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture examines the art of the hula and Hawaiian dance traditions going back to 500 AD, when Polynesians first arrived in the islands. Takamine and other respected kumu hula – master educators and trustees of ancient knowledge — reveal how traditions have survived, despite attempts by 19th Century missionaries, plantation owners and the U.S. Marine Corps to repress Hawaii’s indigenous culture. Both films were transferred to HD video from their original 16mm and stereo audio masters and lovingly restored.

Jenny’s Wedding
Although same-sex marriages have only been recognized by legal authorities for a couple of years, gender-neutral co-habitation within the LGBT community predated it by several decades. Watching Mary Agnes Donoghue’s strangely old-fashioned pro-tolerance rom-dram Jenny’s Wedding, I was left with the same feelings I had after enduring Hollywood’s first tentative steps toward recognition of interracial marriage, gay rights and women’s liberation. In an effort to offend the least number of viewers, studio executive essentially rendered their own products irrelevant to huge numbers of more enlightened audiences. If members of the Fox News demographic cared to see a primer on gay marriage and the misconceptions forwarded by their pinhead pundits, Jenny’s Wedding would be that movie. They probably wouldn’t dig the ending, but, at least, they could leave the theater knowing some of the archetypal characters here aren’t beyond redemption. After years of living together, Jenny (Katherine Heigl) and Kitty (Alexis Bledel) have decided to get married. They make an extremely cute couple, by anyone’s standards, have good jobs and probably haven’t received a speeding ticket since their Sweet 16 parties. Somehow, Jenny’s outwardly liberal parents (Tom Wilkinson, Linda Emond) have missed all of the signs that point to their daughter being a lesbian. They still can’t figure out why she isn’t interested in the men she’s introduced to by her happily married brother or why she hasn’t shown much interest in having children, like her unhappily married sister. No sooner do Jenny and Kitty break the news of the impending nuptials and hoped-for pregnancy to the family than Jenny’s parents and sister declare that they’ll take a pass on the ceremony, no matter that it’s going to take place in a church. The rest of the movie concerns itself with finding ways to make mom, dad and sis feel guilty about their decision and stopping them from treating Jenny – Katherine Heigl, for God’s sake – like a freak. No matter how Donoghue spins it, though. the process holds no surprises for anyone who watches ABC’s “Modern Family.”

Bread and Circus
Axe/Kidnapped Coed: Blu-ray
Nightmares: Blu-ray
The Life of Death
Every so often, a genre picture from Scandinavia comes this way and typically it’s a doozy. It’s taken a dozen years for Blood and Circus to make the journey from Norway to the U.S. and, in all that time, it hasn’t lost any of its ability to gross out viewers. In a kingdom where non-conformists are hunted and killed, a man is born as a child to Mother Earth … literally. After his afterbirth is cleaned off, the Normal One is examined and allowed to enter the system. When NO gets old and useless, he’s scheduled for execution. Before that can happen, though, he carves a message on a stone for future generations to consider before they’re given business suits, marching orders and expelled through Earth’s anus. Outlaws lead a zombie-like existence, always wary of the shotgun blast to the brain that will wipe them out, too. A couple that finds the message attempts to put an end to the oppressive system. The rest is splatter. Blood and Circus should satisfy genre extremists’ lust for gore while repulsing everyone else.

From Severin Films comes a truly curious novelty. The Axe and Kidnapped Coed double feature is comprised of a pair of super-low-budget crime/horror films, from the mid-1970s, that appear to have been made back-to-back and with common elements. In each one, a small-time criminal (Eddie Matlock) conceives a nasty crime, which backfires in his face, leaving him in similar circumstances as the victim. In Axe, Jack Canon plays the heavy in a killing spree that ends with a hostage-taking situation at a remote farmhouse. The residents are a paralyzed old man and his teenage daughter, who’s more capable of defending herself than anyone could expect. In Kidnapped Coed, a young woman living in a boarding house is kidnapped by a small-time criminal (Canon), who hopes to be compensated by her wealthy father. When other crooks learn of the scheme, they short-circuit the abductor’s plans. In doing so, they get stuck in the kidnapped girl’s web. Taken on their own merits, these films feel incomplete. A third movie included as a bonus feature, Bloody Brothers, is an independently made mash-up of both pictures, in which Canon’s characters are evil twins separated from each other at birth. As adults, they unknowingly commit the similarly terrible crimes documented in Frederick R. Friedel’s Axe and Kidnapped Coed. It’s weirdly satisfying. The Blu-ray package adds several more bonus features than anyone would have felt necessary in the mid-‘70s.

Nightmares is a pretty decent, if tame horror anthology, directed by Joseph Sargent after he made MacArthur, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and White Lightning. His next high-profile picture would be the abysmal Jaws: The Revenge, so, maybe, he made a deal with the devil for early success and it ran out after Nightmares. The stories, though, all display the handiwork of a professional filmmaker and recognizable stars. If they aren’t terribly frightening, at least they’re clever and well made. Cristina Raines is a chain-smoking Topanga Canyon homemaker, who insists on going out for cigarettes even as an escaped madman is being hunted nearby. Emilio Estevez plays a video-game hotshot, who dares to take on a strange challenger. A troubled priest (Lance Henriksen) seeks to find the faith he has lost on the road, but instead encounters someone in the desert who is trying to drive him out of his mind; and, finally, when Claire (Veronica Cartwright) hears rats in the walls, her husband (Richard Masur) mistakenly believes he can take care of the problem with a few mousetraps.

In The Life of Death, real-life genre specialists discuss how they’ve come to perceive death during various periods in their lives and, likewise, how its certainty has influenced their work. It includes interviews and insights from Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, artist Bob Fingerman, writer Jack Ketchum, special-effects artist Tom Sullivan and scream queens Debbie Rochon and Caroline Munro, among other pros. It’s interesting, if only because the horror genre demands that death be considered separately with every new project.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson
American Experience: The Pilgrims
The Nanny: Season Five
PBS’ “Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson” demonstrates the debt owed to the Gloved One by artists of a foreign musical genre. Peruvian-born, Miami-raised producer/multi-instrumentalist/arranger Tony Succar was able to round up more than 100 musicians and such Hispanic superstars as Judith Hill, Jon Secada and Obie Bermúdez in the first-ever Latin album salute to the King of Pop.

In the two-hour “American Experience” presentation “The Pilgrims,” Ric Burns chronicles the history, origins and critical first decade of the first permanent English colony in New England. Who were the men and women who constituted this multifarious band of English Protestants, in whose name we gorge on autumnal treats, football and parades? It’s a bit more complicated than what’s depicted in grade-school holiday pageants.

In the fifth season of “The Nanny,” Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) faces the very real possibility that her romance with Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy) might lead to a promotion from babysitter to bride. This stanza’s guest stars include Ray Charles, Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg and Elton John.

The DVD Wrapup: M:I, Ted 2, Burroughs, Time Out of Mind, Slow Learners and more

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation: Blu-ray
A year ago, I think it’s safe to say, Alicia Vikander and Rebecca Ferguson probably would have been off the radar screens of paparazzi everywhere, except in Stockholm – if such varmints exist that far north. After her star turns in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl, Vikander no longer will be able to go to Starbucks without a gaggle of photographers sniffing around behind her. Earning two Golden Globe nominations in the same year, for different movies, tends to impress tabloid editors and the bottom-feeders at “TMZ.” For her part, Ferguson received a GG nom last year for her portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen consort of England, in Starz’ one-season wonder, “The White Queen.” It’s her performance in Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation, however, that will keep her name on Hollywood’s A-list, at least until the next chapter in the “M:I” franchise, to which she’s already been assigned. As long as Tom Cruise is up to the challenge of playing IMF agent Ethan Hunt, she’ll have to share the spotlight with him. After that, who knows? In “Rouge Nation,” though, Ferguson manages to steal it from everyone else in the cast. In it, she plays Ilsa Faust, a MI6 agent working deep cover in the Syndicate, which is the Paramount franchise’s answer to SPECTRE. That ultra-secretive global criminal organization was resurrected, of course, in the latest James Bond chapter. By contrast, the Syndicate is an international criminal consortium that shares its illicit profits with the world’s greediest government officials. Officially, the CIA doesn’t believe the Syndicate exists. It’s more interested in usurping the power of the Impossible Missions Force and taking over its assets.

Essentially, that’s all viewers really need to know about writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s action-packed story to enjoy it. Audiences flock to “M:I” for the chases, fights and interplay between Hunt and fellow IMF agents, played here by Ving Rhames,  Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. Interior logic runs a distant second. It explains why Paramount may never be required to consider turning “M:I” into a straight-to-DVD series or skimp on budgets that afford location shoots in such places as Morocco, Austria and all over London. Anyone who loves the movies surely will invest the time and money on the DVD and Blu-ray packages, whose bonus material reveals the secrets behind the magic. There’s nothing remotely stale or overly familiar about Paramount’s excellent Blu-ray presentation of “Rogue Nation.” Cruise and McQuarrie provide an enthusiastic commentary track, while the featurettes include “Lighting the Fuse,” a look at McQuarrie’s attachment to the project; “Cruise Control,” about his hands-on involvement in the filmmaking process; “Heroes …,” with glimpses at the four primary IMF characters, plus Ilsa; “Cruising Altitude,” on the film’s spectacular opening action sequence; “Mission: Immersible,” on the grueling underwater sequence; “Sand Theft Auto,” a look at crafting high-speed vehicle chases; and “The Missions Continue,” in which cast and crew discuss the franchise’s staying power. A DVD copy of the film and a voucher for a UV/iTunes digital copy are included with purchase, as well.

Ted 2: Blu-Ray
Unlike fine wine, the aging process isn’t likely to be kind to today’s movies. Once the cork is popped, there isn’t much left to savor. I doubt very much if we’ll ever see Criterion Collection editions of Ted, Dumb and Dumber, Jackass or any of their sequels or marathon showings on TCM. Comedy Central is a different story, altogether, commercials and bleeped-out words notwithstanding. Ted 2 probably made some money for Universal, but not nearly as much as the original, either at home or worldwide. The surprise that comes with watching a cute Paddington Bear look-alike impersonate Andrew “Dice” Clay only lasts so long, even when you’re stoned to the gills. The funny thing about Ted 2 isn’t found as much in the gags as its proximity to being socially relevant. In the years that have passed since the first movie became a smash hit, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and Lori Collins dissolved their marriage and Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) has gotten married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), whose desire to have a baby is complicated by his non-existent sperm count. Because a baby would go a long way toward saving their relationship, John agrees to find them a donor. Laughter ensues. In its effort to stifle their plans for artificial insemination, the State of Massachusetts aggressively challenges Ted’s claim to personhood and those rights accorded other citizens. If that scenario reminds you of the very real Dred Scott Case, well, you probably are too well-educated to find much humor in the conceit. Their inexperienced and slightly pot-addled lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) is no match for the state’s legal team, so they attempt to hire a prominent civil-rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) to overturn the decision. He demurs, but only after doing a background check to determine if Ted has done anything positive in his life. The answer, of course, is “no.” Meanwhile, Ted’s longtime nemesis, Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), has approached the head of the Hasbro toy company about abducting the bear and creating more “live” teddies from his DNA, as it were. The climax takes place at New York Comic Con, where the product placement is almost as shocking as John’s clumsiness at the fertility clinic. Nonetheless, Ted 2 is several times less painful to watch than MacFarlane’s odious A Million Ways to Die in the West or the feature version of Entourage, which was produced by Wahlberg. (Here’s an idea: send Ted to California and make him a member of Vince’s posse for the second sequel.) Ted 2 arrives in a 20-minute-longer unrated edition, which likely includes material eliminated to preserve its R rating. It also includes an entertaining commentary track; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and making-of featurettes “Thunder Buddies 4 Lyfe,” “Creating Comic-Con,” “Roadtripping,” “A Giant Opening Dance Number” and “Cameo Buddies,” with Morgan Freeman, Tom Brady, Liam Neeson and David Hasselhoff.

Burroughs: The Movie: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Everyone who’s fallen in love with the mythos of the Beat Generation has, at one time or another, wondered how William S. Burroughs fit into the bigger picture. Apart from being an extremely cool guy, an accomplished writer, avant-garde artist and intellectual outlaw, the grandson of the man who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company didn’t fit into any of the molds created by the media to explain the confederation of artists that most prominently included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Herbert Hunke, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso. It’s almost impossible to imagine Burroughs hitchhiking across the country with Kerouac and Cassady, simply to “go,” and not be mistaken for a mortician or bible salesman. And, yet, go he did … to Mexico, Tangier, Paris, Rome, London and the Amazonian rain forest. His drugs of choice were heroin and morphine and to afford his habit he once was reduced to selling the stuff and fencing stolen property with Hunke. Even those who’ve never read a word he’s written are aware of the William Tell “act” in which he accidently killed his second wife, Joan. It might surprise them to learn that the autobiographical novel, “Queer,” even had a wife or enjoyed target shooting. A half-century after the publication of “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch,” and 18 years after his death, Burroughs’ influence on music, fiction, art and lifestyle choices is still palpable. Howard Brookner’s essential documentary, Burroughs: The Movie, was released in 1983, but quickly disappeared from distribution. Aaron Brookner, the late director’s nephew, would discover a clean print of the film in 2011 and spearhead a restoration. At the time, the writer was 69 and far more spry than could be expected of a man who’d been pushing limits for most of those years. Six years later, he would be re-introduced to the hip world in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy – based on a short story from “Exterminator!” — as a defrocked priest addicted to heroin. He died on August 2, 1997, at 83, in Lawrence, Kansas. Brookner’s profile differs from most of the other attempts at encapsulating his life and literary legacy primarily for his access to Burroughs and his willingness to reveal himself to viewers. He freely discusses Joan’s death, which he describes as an accident, and we’re introduced to their son, Billy, who, as an adult, battled addictions to narcotics and alcohol, but also wrote two well-received novels based on his experience. Sadly, he would die of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage, associated with micronodular cirrhosis, at 33, during the film’s production. Among the witnesses called to testify are Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, Patti Smith, Terry Southern, Jackie Curtis, James Grauerholz and John Giorno. In another poignant scene, Burroughs and his brother, Mortimer, converse in the backyard of his St. Louis home, recalling their Midwestern childhood. (Mortimer allows that he started reading “Naked Lunch,” but couldn’t get through it.) The special Blu-ray edition adds a new, high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Aaron Brookner and Tom DiCillo; outtakes; footage from the 2014 New York Film Festival premiere of the film’s restoration; a 30-minute experimental edit of the film from 1981 by inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton Jr.; an essay by critic Luc Sante; and a collage poster by artist Alison Mosshart.

Time Out of Mind: Blu-ray
Homelessness is an issue that disappears from the public’s eyes as soon as something more media-friendly comes around to replace it on the evening news … like terrorism or, in L.A., a car chase. While the problem doesn’t disappear, the absence of pressure on public officials neutralizes its urgency. For the millions of Americans who aren’t required to skirt the local Skid Row on their way to work or be confronted by panhandlers while shopping, that’s just as well. Until it hits home, anyway. Oren Moverman’s grinding drama Time Out of Mind is a perfect example of a movie that asks all the right questions about a difficult social issue, but might as well have not existed outside a few film festivals. And, that’s really too bad, because Richard Gere delivers one of his best performances in years as a man whose daily struggle to find food and shelter has begun to affect his cognitive skills … that, and years of alcohol abuse. George is a fairly representative of a type of homeless person who once had a job, home and family, but pissed them away for reasons of his own. Indeed, he won’t even admit to being homeless. Every time George is rousted from a temporary squat, he argues that he’s only waiting for his long-gone wife to get home. Gere plays the character straight down the middle, seeking empathy for a fellow human being, but refusing to sugarcoat the conditions that led to his homelessness and mental illness. When George finally acknowledges that he’s no longer in control of his own well-being, he voluntarily seeks refuge in New York City’s no-nonsense social-welfare system. Like all the other men in the shelter, George is required to obey a tough set of rules and adjust to life in a community of similarly damaged residents.  Among them is a former jazz musician (Ben Vereen) who’s lost his ability to rest his vocal chords for more than 30 seconds at a time. Before the chatterbox gets on George’s last nerve, however, Dixon dispenses the kind of street knowledge his new sounding board will need to survive in the mean streets of Manhattan. As is probably the case with such down-and-outers, George and Dixon encounter as many predators as Good Samaritans. Jena Malone plays George’s estranged and embittered daughter, from whom he seeks forgiveness but is treated to a cold splash of well-earned resentment in return. Steve Buscemi portrays a contractor, who, in the course of rehabbing a tenement building, stumbles upon a bruised and battered George sleeping off a hangover in a bathtub. The appropriately gloomy Blu-ray adds commentary, interviews and a PSA with Gere.

Slow Learners
While Sarah Burns is far from a household name, fans of “Married,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Drunk History” and “Enlightened” should have little problem placing her face. As a resident performer at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Burns is blessed with the same improvisational gift as Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Maya Rudolph and Tina Faye. In Slow Learners, her quirky personality dominates the character of Ann Martin, an unlucky-at-love teacher whose awareness of her own dorky persona causes her to seek a hipness replacement over summer break. Ann isn’t just socially awkward, though, she’s aggressively unpleasant. Adam Pally, of “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings,” plays her similarly nerdy best friend, Jeff Lowry. The puffy and slightly effeminate guidance teacher is a decent enough guy, but he might as well have “buzz kill” tattooed on his forehead. Jeff, too, commits his summer vacation to a crash course in cool behavior. It isn’t as if they are shunned by the cool kids, it’s just that they always succumb to their worst instincts and winning personalities aren’t something that can be easily taught. What distinguishes Slow Learners from most other nerd-centric comedies – including SNL’s hilarious skit, with Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray) – are Burns and Pally’s well-honed comedy chops and improvisational reflexes. Everything else is window dressing in Don Argott (Rock School), Sheena M. Joyce (The Atomic States of America) and writer Heather Maidat’s story. Because of its raunchy humor, Slow Learners is the kind of off-the-wall romance that will appeal primarily to teens and fans of free-form, Internet-based comedy.

Sex, Death and Bowling
While it can be argued endlessly as to whether bowling is a sport, hobby or excuse to smoke, drink beer and pretend it’s exercise, there’s no question as to how it’s been depicted by Hollywood filmmakers. In Five Easy Pieces, bowling alleys were where embittered oil worker Jack Nicholson went to drown out memories of being raised in a family of effete classical musicians. In Deer Hunter, King Ralph and Joe, bowling was used to establish blue-collar bona-fides. In The Big Lebowski, it marked the border between anarchy and order (“This is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”). Kingpin is a delightfully low-brow parody of The Hustler. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore exploited the irony of giving away guns to promote sound capitalistic practices. Likewise, in There Will Be Blood, unlimited greed and power turned a simple spherical implement designed for leisure-time pleasure into a crushingly murderous capitalist tool. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Great Bikini Bowling Bash and Dream with the Fishes locate the nexus of bowling and sensuality. If the title of Ally Walker’s debut feature, Sex, Death and Bowling, was chosen to remind potential viewers of Sex, Lies and Videotape, it’s likely to have the exact opposite effect. Walker’s character-driven drama may indeed deal with sex, death and bowling, but not as a unified whole. They could just as well be chapter headings.

The “sex,” which is less graphic than implied, is largely limited to flashbacks to a scandalous event in one of the primary character’s high school days. “Death” is a preoccupation shared by everyone, especially 11-year-old Eli McAllister (Bailey Chase), whose curiosity over his father’s terminal illness leads him to seek the consul of a Roman Catholic priest and his catechism full of answers, however dubious. “Bowling” is the common denominator in a community whose carved-in-stone rituals and traditions long ago forced Eli’s Uncle Sean (Adrian Grenier) into self-exile in London. An annual bowling tournament also provides the opportunity for redemption and reconciliation among long-estranged family members and longtime rivals. Walker’s underdeveloped script and characterizations collapse under the weight of drama that’s stacked like a layer cake. Fortunately, a cast that includes such familiar pros as Selma Blair, Drea de Matteo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Drew Powell, Melora Walters, Richard Riehle and Daniel Hugh Kelly keeps the narrative from succumbing to its more maudlin tendencies. In the central role of Uncle Sean, Grenier demonstrates more emotional range in five minutes than in the entirely of the Entourage movie.

Walt Before Mickey
It’s been a heck of a year for those who worship Walt Disney and everything he accomplished in a life cut short at 65, by lung cancer. In addition to Sarah Colt’s exhaustive “American Experience” bio-doc, “Walt Disney”; Saving Mr. Banks; The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story; and As Dreamers Do: The Amazing Life of Walt Disney. The latest addition to the list is Walt Before Mickey, a fact-based depiction of Uncle Walt’s formative years. Like “As Dreamers Do,” Khoa Le’s debut feature complements the epic “American Experience” doc, by focusing specifically on his pre-“Steamboat Willie” period and early financial struggles in forming an animation company. As such, it hues pretty closely to Timothy S. Susanin’s book, “Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928,” for which Diane Disney Miller supplied a forward. Shot on what must have been a miniscule budget, Le’s film looks as if it might have been intended for television, first, ahead of a DVD release. And, while the story rings true, the production values leave quite a bit to be desired. That said, Walt Before Mickey should interest newcomers to Disneyana, especially kids interested in the history of animation. At the ripe old age of 35, Las Vegas-native Thomas Ian Nicholas is convincing as Disney in his early adulthood. Once his fiancé, Edna, convinces him to grow a mustache, Nicholas is a dead-ringer for the real Disney. It might surprise some viewers to see the honest depiction of his cigarette addiction, which began during World War I, during which he served the Red Cross, and continued unabated for the rest of his life. Tom Hanks, who played the studio chief in Saving Mr. Banks, has said that the movie would have gotten a R-rating if it showed him smoking. Maybe so, but Walt Before Disney was accorded a PG and it accurately portrays his drug of choice. Where Bogart and Bacall made smoking look sexy, it looks like suicide here. Jon Heder does  a nice job as older brother, Roy Disney, whose influence on Walt can’t be understated.

The Surface
Melbourne-born model Harry Hains has the kind of deep-set blue eyes and long brown hair that can’t help but lure magazine readers into ads for jeans, gym shorts and all manner of au courant hipster attire. He’s frequently called upon to shed his shirt, revealing a cowboy-angel physicality and androgynous persona, that once might have defined “heroin chic.” In his feature-film debut, Hains could have been called upon to play a vampire, like those in the Théâtre des Vampires scene in Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. In The Surface, however, Hains plays a young gay man who was raised in a series of foster homes and emerged grasping for anything that resembles a family. Evan’s dreamy appearance has attracted a wealthy lover, close to his own age, but from a far loftier social class. College isn’t working out as planned, but he knows that things could be worse. One day, at a yard sale, Evan picks up an old 8mm camera that belongs to an elderly gentleman, who, long ago, stopped using it to capture family memories. He sells it to Evan at a rock-bottom price on the condition that he develops the film already in the camera and shows it to him. He returns in two weeks with the footage, only to learn from the man’s adult son that he’s died. After striking up an unlikely friendship with the 43-year-old Peter (Michael Redford Carney), Evan feverishly begins work on a film spliced together from the home movies. His lover, Chris (Nicholas McDonald), feels slighted in the shift of attention to Peter, causing a serious rift. Writer/director Michael J. Saul (Crush) avoids the usual sturm-und-drang associated with such breakups, maintaining an unusually low-key approach to the drama and its resolution. It takes a while to get accustomed to the deliberate pace, but it should leave viewers satisfied. Like too many other underseen niche films, The Surface deserves a shot at success outside the LGBT festival circuit.

Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story
If you can imagine an artistic endeavor that merges “Dancing With the Stars” with Best in Show and Babes in Arms, it might look a lot like Justin Turcotte’s offbeat documentary, Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story. It follows an aspiring theatre director – simply, Ray — as he realizes his dream of mounting the first ever theatrical performance featuring dancing dogs, their amateur handlers and indoor kite flying. Ironically, perhaps, Ray’s inspiration for the show was Cirque du Soleil, which, in its first iteration, became famous for eliminating animals from the circus experience. He might also have been encouraged by the musicals staged by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and community-theater director Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman. As easy as it is to watch “Unleashed!” and laugh at its conceit, there’s no questioning the dedication and zeal of the women who’ve literally taught their dogs to dance alongside them in coordinated routines. The Vancouver group spent more than two years, helping their first-time director realize his vision, by writing scripts, building sets, raising funds and rehearsing to the point of exhaustion. As is the case in any live production memorialized on screen – from “Guffman” to A Chorus Line, but writ much smaller — we’re also made privy to the mounting tensions and unexpected potholes along the way to Opening Night. Animal lovers won’t have any trouble falling in love with “Unleashed!” The dogs truly are amazing and their handlers easily recognizable as kindred spirits. I don’t know what to say about the kites.

What Have You Done to Solange?: Blu-ray
Count Dracula: Blu-ray
Zombie High: Bluray
The Dungeonmaster/Eliminators: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Blood Rage/Nightmare at Shadow Woods: Blu-ray
Arrow Video has almost singlehandedly breathed new life into exploitation flicks long dismissed as being cheapo knockoffs of American genre fare. At its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Italian movie industry was churning out about 350 titles a year, only a handful of which found their way into arthouses here. If most of them weren’t very good by anyone’s standards, some have aged pretty well. Taken in context, they are quite entertaining and not at all cheesy. An Italian-German co-production from 1972, What Have You Done to Solange?, can be enjoyed as both a classic specimen of early giallo and an erotic whodunit. Typically, once it reached these shores, the film was given at least four different names – “Terror in the Woods,” “The School That Couldn’t Scream,” “The Secret of the Green Pines” and its current, more representative title – and it almost certainly was independently edited for full-frontal nudity and some very nasty stuff involving knives and surgical tools. That most of the violence is perpetrated on sexually active teens – played by older-looking actresses – must have made American theater-owners queasy, as well. What immediately distinguishes What Have You Done to Solange?, though, is a creative team that includes director Massimo Dallamano (cinematographer on both A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More), veteran writer Bruno Di Geronimo (Dead Men Ride), music by the great Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Joe D’Amato, a sleaze-meister of the first water. The plot boils down to a search for a serial killer preying on the students of a prestigious all-girls academy in London. (The English setting and international cast was intended to snare global distribution.) There’s no shortage of suspects or clues, some of which may have been left behind as fool’s bait. Fresh off a key role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Fabio Testi plays the prime suspect in the case, an oily gym teacher and seducer of one of the murdered students. Camille Keaton, who plays the missing girl, would go on to star in the infamous I Spit on Your Grave. As usual, the bonus package comes loaded with interesting making-of featurettes, commentary and freshly shot interviews, including one with Spanish co-star Cristina Galbó, who freely dishes the dirt on the production.

By the time Jesus Franco convinced Christopher Lee to reprise his signature role of Count Dracula in his adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, he had already portrayed the Prince of Darkness a half-dozen times at Hammer Studios. Lots of people think he’s the best actor to put on fangs. Franco convinced Lee to join his multinational production, shot largely in Spain, by promising him that Count Dracula would faithfully re-create Stoker’s narrative, minuses the flourishes added by the dozens of filmmakers who felt they could improve on genius. Lee remains the primary draw here, as well, but he gets more than ample support from Herbert Lom (the “Pink Panther” series); nutty Klaus Kinski, as the bug-eating Renfield; Franco’s muses Maria Rohm and Miranda Soledad; and versatile regulars Fred Williams and Jack Taylor. And, Franco does play it straight … more so than fans of his soft-core work would have expected or desired. As movies about alpha vampires go, it’s pretty darn good. Extras for the Severin Blu-ray release include the uncut feature at Franco’s approved aspect ratio of 1.33:1; “Cuadecuc, Vampir,” an experimental making-of documentary by Pere Portabella; commentary with horror historian David Del Valle and actress Maria Rohm; “Beloved Count,” interviews with Franco, Taylor and Williams; “Stake Holders,” an appreciation by filmmaker Christophe Gans; and Christopher Lee’s dramatic reading of the original novel.

Virginia Madsen, Sherilyn Fenn and James Wilder had hardly begun their careers in earnest when they agreed to play lead parts in the teens-in-jeopardy horror flick, Zombie High, which, even by 1987 standards, was pretty weak stuff. Their association with the zombie-less stinker didn’t hurt their careers, however, for the simple reason that no one bothered to go see it, apparently not even casting directors. In it, Madsen plays the perky new blond at a classy prep school, where a sexy brunette, portrayed by Fenn, is her roommate. It doesn’t take long for viewers to sense that something sinister has cast its spell on the student body, apparently composed of the sons and daughters of the Stepford wives. The faculty members are quite a bit livelier, if only because they’re the beneficiaries of the blood that once flowed through the veins of the student body. When the voluptuous blond and her townie buddy (Richard Cox) discover the school’s secret laboratory, they’re confronted by their teachers and seemingly lobotomized classmates. By comparison to almost everything else in the genre in 1987, Zombie High could have passed as an afterschool TV special. How it earned an R rating is a mystery. Co-star Paul Feig would survive, as well, going on to create the TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and direct such films as “Spy,” “Bridesmaids” and the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”

Released and retitled at the height of the Dungeons & Dragons craze and dawn of the Nintendo and Sega home-entertainment era, Dungeonmaster (a.k.a., “Ragewar”) required the services of seven different directors and eight writers to create a film that delivers about 15 minutes of entertainment. Prolific-to-a-fault producer Charles Band thought it might be fun to assign different levels of the arcade-game experience to members of his creative team who wanted to add their stamp to a feature film, however sliced and diced it might be. Jeffrey Byron plays a young computer wiz, Paul, who becomes so obsessed with a new arcade game that he begins to ignore his girlfriend, school work and meals. Paul has been challenged by the deus ex machina, Mestema (Richard Moll), to a series of seven death-defying encounters, which he must survive not only to beat the game but also to save the life of his girlfriend (Leslie Wing). No one knows what happens when a player conquers all seven levels, because it hasn’t been done. It doesn’t take more than 73 minutes for us to find out, however. Dungeonmaster probably would have been a more entertaining film if Band had allowed his team the freedom to fully test their imaginations in the anthology format. Until I watched the featurettes, I was unaware that each level was conceived by a different filmmaker.

Sharing the Scream Factory double-bill with Dungeonmaster is Eliminators, a very silly sci-fi/action/adventure flick also produced by Charles and Albert Band’s Empire Pictures. The protagonist is a half-human, half-cyborg Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds), created as part of a sinister time-travel experiment by an evil scientist, Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice), and his well-meaning assistant, Doctor Takada (Tad Horino). Takada helps Mandroid escape the jungle laboratory before he’s decommissioned by Reeves, but is struck with amnesia on the way to civilization. To prevent the scientist’s scheme from being carried out, Manimal enlists the help of Andrew Prine, Denise Crosby and Conan Lee. Before they reach the lab, however, Manimal leads them through a time warp or two, where they encounter cave men, river pirates and a robotic Tinkerbell ’droid. The making-of featurette provides a glimpse into what must have been a very bizarre location shoot. As it is, Eliminators is more fun than it has any right to be and, for guys, anyway, the presence of Der Bingle’s granddaughter is worth the price of a rental.

What’s that old line about something being so nice, they made it twice? In the opinion of Arrow Films’ crack restoration team, the 1983 slasher epic Blood Rage was so nice, they not only made it thrice, but they also gave it three different titles: “Slasher” (clapboard), “Blood Rage” (1983) and “Nightmare at Shadow Woods” (1987 U.S. release). Even in its final incarnation, John Grissmer and Bruce Rubin’s movie wasn’t something anyone would wait in line more than 10 minutes to see. Almost 30 years later, it’s worth a visit for several buff-specific reasons: 1) the violence and gore are  gloriously excessive, even considering how late it arrived in the subgenre’s heyday; 2) Louise Lasser, still riding the success of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” is a delight, despite a push-up bra that would make Frederick of Hollywood choke on his popcorn; 3) the female characters’ ridiculously “big” hairdos; 4) a punishingly creepy synth score; and 5) special makeup effects that deserve enshrinement in the Hollywood Museum, housed in the Max Factor Building. By any name, Nightmare at Shadow Woods boils down to a good-twin/bad-twin picture, in which the good twin was committed to a mental facility by mistake, after a brutal ax attack on naked lovers at a drive-in movie theater, and, 10 years later, his escape threatens to trigger a killing spree by the evil twin. Apparently, the impressionable lad was traumatized by watching his parents make out and decided to punish all young lovers. The Blu-ray bonus package is extremely generous, copious making-of featurettes, interviews, outtakes and three complete versions of the film.

TV-to-DVD
Netflix: Marco Polo: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: Althea
PBS: Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans American History
PBS: Frontline: My Brother’s Bomber
PBS: Nova: Dawn of Humanity
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: David Kinch: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Pets: Wild at Heart
Although I would encourage students of Asian history to take what is depicted in the Netflix mini-series, “Marco Polo,” with more than a few grains of salt, it would be nice if lessons were presented in as entertaining a fashion. Teachers could require their students to watch movies and mini-series, then work backwards by pointing out the mistakes and actual history of the events portrayed. The scene in which a naked-except-for-swords royal courtesan, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), uses her kung-fu skills to defend herself from a trio of soldiers loyal to Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han) from brutally raping her, alone, would provide enough incentive for any young scholar to check out its accuracy in Wikipedia, at least. The same merger of dubious history and 21st Century sensuality prevails in such period mini-series as “Rome,” “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” “The White Queen” and “Da Vinci’s Dreams.” Here, Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is a Venetian stud, whose father built the land bridge connecting the trade routes of Asia and Europe. When the strangely ecumenical Kublai Khan decides to test the mettle of the Holy Roman Empire, he orders the father to return to Italy and bring back emissaries of the Pope. The son, Marco, is left behind as collateral. In the meantime, he makes himself extremely valuable to the Khan as an intellectual and military adviser. He also becomes proficient in the martial arts, under the tutelage of a blind monk known as Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu). The Mongol empire has long been in conflict with the Song Dynasty, soon to be led by Jia Sidao, whose headquarters are behind the fortified walls of Xiangyang. For fans of graphic violence, the Khan’s willingness to brutally dispatch with anyone perceived to be thwarting his will is well represented, with beheadings, slave soup and enemies trampled by Mongolian horsemen, while wrapped in rugs. What I liked about the mini-series most, aside from the aforementioned sword fight, are the magnificent Kazakhstan locations, which closely approximate the Mongolian steppes. The interior settings and costumes are splendid, as well. Netflix reportedly invested $90 million in the 10-episode project and every penny shows. This includes music by Mongolian bands Altan Urag and Batzorig Vaanchig of Khusugtun, who appears as a singer. The lavish presentation includes the many interesting bonus features, among them a 40-minute documentary on the historical Marco Polo, with the filmmakers and their technical advisers; several other making-of pieces; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

It’s entirely fitting that PBS’ “American Masters: Althea” should arrive almost simultaneously with the naming of Serena Williams as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. While it’s entirely possible that Serena and Venus Williams might have become tennis champions without Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe first paving the road for them, the color barrier might still have been in place upon their arrival on the scene. As it is, they faced an uphill climb in the press and tennis establishment. When Gibson emerged from the streets of Harlem in the 1950s, much of the sporting world was as segregated as any capital of the American South. She would become the first African-American to play and win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, a decade before Ashe. The profile covers her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter, the family’s migration north to Harlem, her mentoring from Sugar Ray Robinson, David Dinkins and others, and the fame that thrust her unwillingly into the glare of the early Civil Rights movement.

Ric Burns’ “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans American History” aired on Veterans Day, as a tribute to the history of disabled fighting men and women. It isn’t always a pretty or particularly honorable picture that Burns paints. “Debt of Honor” takes an unflinching look at the reality of warfare and disability, beginning in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and continuing through today’s conflicts in the Middle East. It is informed by interviews with some of the country’s most prominent disabled veterans.

For some 25 years, filmmaker Ken Dornstein has been haunted by the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The ghastly terrorist act killed 270 people, including his older brother, David. Now, Dornstein sets out to find the men responsible, hunting for clues to the identities and whereabouts of the suspects in the ruins and chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya in the “Frontline” spy thriller, “My Brother’s Bomber.”

For PBS’ “Dawn of Humanity,” producers from “Nova” and National Geographic were accorded exclusive access to an astounding discovery of ancient fossil human ancestors, deep in a South African cave. A special team of experts has brought to light an unprecedented wealth of fossils bridging a crucial gap in the record of our origins that spans the transition between the ape-like australopithecines (such as the famous Lucy) and the earliest members of the human family.

The latest installment of PBS’ “The Mind of a Chef” follows award-winning Chef David Kinch as he reflects on his inspiration, creative drive and the unforeseen challenges faced by chefs in their pursuit of excellence. In Season Four, Kinch invites us to explore a night of service at his restaurant, the people that make it work, the purveyors that provide the ingredients and his travels back to New Orleans to cook with old friends.

And, finally, what would box full of DVD screeners from PBS without at least one for lovers of domesticated animals. The “Nature” presentation “Pets: Wild at Heart” invites viewers into a secret world of wild behavior and natural abilities that we hardly notice or recognize. This two-part series explores the extraordinary senses and special skills of our pets, using with all sorts of high-tech devices:  spy cameras, moving X-rays, night-vision cameras, drones, miniature on-board cameras and high-speed cameras.

The DVD Wrapup: Ant-Man, Minions, Blind, Girl King, Speedy, Lucky and more

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

Ant-Man: Blu-ray/3D
Although Ant-Man was introduced to the world in 1962, via Marvel Comic’s Tales to Astonish No. 27, the shape-shifting superhero made his first live-action cameo in 1979, in the hilarious “Superhero Party” sketch, with the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Newlyweds Superman (Bill Murray) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) invite their superhero pals over for a cocktail party, during which the Hulk (John Belushi) and Flash (Dan Aykroyd) ridicule Ant-Man’s comparatively meager superpower – he’s able to shrink to the size of an insect, while retaining his human strength — and Lois confides in Clark Kent (Murray, again) that she’d been unfaithful to the Man of Steel. Like all of the other superheroes, Ant-Man (Garrett Morris) took full advantage of Lois’ dissatisfaction with Superman’s underwhelming sexual prowess. Thirty-five years later, Morris would be cast as Cab Driver – not a superhero – in Peyton Reed’s big-screen adaptation of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s venerable comic book. Here, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas both play iterations of the original Ant-Man character. In the 2015 Ant-Man, though, while the character still shrinks to the size of an insect, his powers increase proportionally. Morris’ cameo is shorter than his Ant-Man turn on “SNL,” but about the same as the one traditionally accorded Lee.  It’s almost too easy to dismiss Ant-Man, by suggesting that the eight-minute sketch is more entertaining than the 117-minute movie, which cost an estimated $130 million to make. Considering that I’m old enough to remember the first cast of “SNL,” and with no small amount of fondness, I don’t suspect that my opinion matters on the subject much, one way or the other. What the sketch didn’t have, of course, are world-class special effects, armies of killer ants and the certitude of a 2018 sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” because it did very well at the worldwide box office.

As Scott Lang, Rudd was caught burgling the laboratory of Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), where, instead of money, he grabs a prototype of the Ant-Man suit the scientist is hiding from his rivals, whose size-shifting experiments aren’t going so well. With the cat out of the bag, as it were, Lang and Pym join forces to work out the kinks in the costume and save the planet from bad guys, represented by Darren Cross (Corey Stall). While in shrink-mode, Lang is confronted by representatives of several of the 12,500 ant species known to exist on Earth. Just as the residents of every little boy’s “ant farm” are amazing to watch – until they escape, anyway – the non-human characters here a fun to watch, too. The story, however, is predictable and almost beside the point. Because of Ant-Man’s 12-year gestation period, during which Disney bought out Marvel Studios, many of Edgar Wright’s original ideas were altered to modulate Pym’s less than kids-friendly characteristics. As a merger of Honey I Shrunk the Kids and The Fly, it may actually be too kids-friendly for fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and other less-compromised superhero flicks. The handsome Blu-ray presentation adds the featurettes, “Making of an Ant-Sized Heist,” “Let’s Go to the Macroverse” and “WHIH NewsFront,” with newscast clips from the film’s world; deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary by Reed and Rudd; a gag reel; and feature-length commentary with R&R. Not having seen the 3D version of Ant-Man – on either the big or small screen — I can’t comment on it.

Minions: Blu-ray
Is anyone surprised to learn that Universal’s family-oriented Minions sailed right past the movies from which it was spawned, Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, on its way to an astonishing $1.157-billion worldwide box-office haul? I was. Clearly, we haven’t seen the last of the little boogers. For the uninitiated, Minions are small, yellow critters that have existed since the beginning of time, evolving from single-celled organisms into beings with only one purpose: to seek out, serve and destroy the most unctuous villains they can find. In 2010’s franchise-opener, Despicable Me, the Minions attached themselves to Gru, a super-villain so despicable that he adopts three little girls to help him shrink and steal the moon. It didn’t take long for Universal to foresee a time when the Minions could be spun off to a franchise of their own. A series of short films – once known as cartoons – was almost immediately launched. Minions speak in a language, Minionese, that consists of funny sounding words from Italian, Korean and other languages best appreciated at 78 rpm. If you liked the Chipmunks, you’ll love Minions. If not, well, caveat emptor. As directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, and written by Brian Lynch, Minions serves as a prequel to Despicable Me. It’s 1968 and the Minions are living in self-imposed exile in Antarctica, absent a host villain to torment. After hitchhiking to Orlando for the annual Villain-Con convention, Kevin, Stuart and Bob hook up with London-based Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world’s first female supervillain. As is his wont, Kevin immediately invites the other Minions to pack their bags and leave Antarctica, where they had befriended, then unfriended a Yeti. Scarlett and her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), assign them to infiltrate the Tower of London and steal the Queen’s treasures, so she can have a coronation of her own. Things don’t work out as planned, of course, but, being 1968, the oldies’ soundtrack is great. It’s at this point, too, that a young Gru (Steve Carell) makes his presence known to the Minions. The Blu-ray package adds a deleted scene, a trio of clever “mini-movies,” an around-the-world interactive map, “Behind the Goggles: The Illumination Story of the Minions,” “Jingle Bells Minion Style” and a theatrical trailer for “The Secret Life of Pets.”

The Girl King
Not having watched Greta Garbo, in Queen Christina (1933), or Liv Ullmann, in The Abdication (1974) – and not being a student of advanced Scandinavian studies in college — I was unaware of the existence of Christina, Queen of Sweden (a.k.a., “Minerva of the North”), who reigned from 1632 to 1654. At the age of 6, Christina succeeded her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, upon his death at the Battle of Lützen. That fact, alone, wouldn’t make her all that noteworthy in the history of the crowned heads of Europe or worthy of two major English-language movies. Those films could only tell half of her story, however, because the rest of it has for centuries been relegated to the realm of conjecture, gossip and rumor. In his fascinating period biopic, The Girl King, Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki (L.A. Without a Map) attempts to fill in some of the holes left unfilled by previous filmmakers, but, by necessity, only was able to take it as far as Christina’s voluntary abdication, at 28, and her setting out for Rome. Pope Alexander VII saw Christina’s conversion as a great boon to the counter-Reformation, describing her as “a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame.” Kaurismäki presents the Queen as an atypically educated and worldly monarch, who shocked her advisers by calling for an end to the Thirty Years’ War and having no interest in marriage.  He also elaborates on Christina’s admittedly intimate relationship with her lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre and determinedly androgynous approach to dress, manners and discourse. Malin Buska, who closely resembles Christina’s portraiture, balances her portrayal of gender ambiguity with a pre-feminist approach to leadership. Her constant companion, Sparre, is more overtly feminine and trapped between the expectations of her parents and queen. If there’s one thing that filmmakers have always done well, it’s approximating the grandeur of life at court in the sets and costume design. Likewise, the filmmakers’ Scandinavian background works in the favor of providing a contrast between Christina’s environment and those of the more familiar courts of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette. The fact is, Christiana’s life outside Sweden, post-abdication, is every bit as fascinating and provocative as the 20-year span covered in The Girl Queen. Just knowing that she’s one of only three women and, possibly, the only lesbian, buried in the Vatican grotto makes it worthy of consideration for a mini-series.

Blind
It’s taken for granted that the human body is able to compensate for the loss of a sense by making at least one of the others stronger than it might have been, otherwise. Although recent studies suggest this phenomenon is limited to people who weren’t born without sight or hearing, circumstantial evidence is easier to believe than scientific papers. So, why not in the movies, too? In his erotically charged drama, Blind, writer/director Eskil Vogt (Oslo, August 31st) demonstrates how the imagination of one beautiful blond woman, Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Pettersen), kicks into overdrive after a genetic condition leaves her without sight. At first, the former teacher spends most of her time at home adjusting to her environment and trying to answer the rhetorical question, “Why me?” While her architect husband, Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), is supportive of her situation, Ingrid’s emotional withdrawal eventually takes its toll. He compensates by turning to porn and occasionally spying on Ingrid before announcing that he’s in the apartment. She doesn’t seem to mind that his eavesdropping includes checking out the stories she’s been writing, which are surprisingly titillating. In one story, Ingrid describes the loneliness and frustration of an unattractive Oslo loner, who occupies his time at home peeping on a blind neighbor and devising ways to ingratiate himself into her life. As time goes by, the author begins inserting Morten into this scenario, giving her husband a sex life away from home, however fictional. Ingrid’s writing reveals something within herself that prompts her to expand her own narrowed horizons, adding yet another layer of make-believe to the game Vogt is playing with the viewer. Vogt won the Screenwriting Award for World Cinema/Dramatic and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance festival.

Speedy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray     
To borrow a line that could have been, but probably wasn’t found on posters promoting Harold Lloyd’s final silent feature, “Speedy: Come for the laughs, stay for a bite of the Big Apple.” The same slogan applies to the Criterion Collection’s impeccable 4K digital restoration of the wonderful 1928 comedy, for which director Ted Wilde was nominated for the first and only Academy Award as Best Director of a Comedy. Speedy is first and foremost a tremendously entertaining movie in the great tradition of Hollywood silent comedies. What’s most fun about this Criterion Collection edition are the bonus features, in which historians describe how Lloyd and Wilde succeeded in making an action-comedy under extreme circumstances, most of which couldn’t happen today. Shooting in New York has never been a piece of cake, at the best of times, but, in the 1920s, crowd-control restrictions and permits didn’t exist. Lloyd’s elaborate stunts with horse-drawn trolleys would be conducted on the busiest streets of the busiest city on the planet, making them exponentially more dangerous than they already were. In character and at the height of his popularity, Lloyd was as instantly recognizable on the streets of New York City as he was in the backlots of Hollywood or on any screen in the world. Because Lloyd wanted Speedy to look as realistic as possible, cinematographer Walter Lundin frequently was required to hide his camera inside a box. This was the case in scenes shot at Coney Island on one of the hottest and most crowded days of the year. It’s interesting to learn how Lloyd and Ann Christy were able to partake in the amusement park’s rides and other attractions, more or less unrecognized, while completely surrounded by paying customers. (It’s here, too, that Lloyd famously flips the bird to himself in a funhouse mirror.) Another highlight of the film is an extended cameo by Babe Ruth, who, two weeks later, would hit his record-setting 60th homerun.

The story describes the attempts made by the scatterbrained New Yorker, Speedy, to helps his sweetheart’s grandfather either save the city’s last horse-drawn trolley line or be compensated for its demise. A greedy would-be monopolist doesn’t want to fork over a dime to the old-timer, preferring to hire thugs to convince him to call it quits, before a court-mandated deadline. The trolley’s fictitious route allows for a scenic tour of Manhattan, which was supplemented by inserts added in Los Angeles. To fully appreciate this conceit, viewers should take advantage of the audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, and Turner Classic Movies’ program director Scott McGee. Goldstein also hosts a documentary about the New York locations – then and now – and the L.A. replications. Other highlights include a 1992 musical score by composer Carl Davis, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo; truly rare archival footage of Ruth, presented by David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; a new visual essay featuring stills of deleted scenes from the film, narrated by Goldstein; a selection of Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd; “Bumping Into Broadway,” a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler, newly restored and with a 2004 score by Robert Israel; and an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.

Ballad of the Weeping Spring
The Dealers
I don’t pretend to understand all of the vagaries of film distribution, except to the extent that it defines the military-slang acronym FUBAR and, outside of a handful of niche companies, festivals and YouTube, rarely works in the interest of consumers. From SISU Entertainment comes Ballad of the Weeping Spring, a truly remarkable musical drama that transcends cultural and political borders, but has only been shown outside Israel in a few Jewish film festivals. Whatever the reason, it’s a crime. In very different ways, Benny Toraty’s film reminds me of Buena Vista Social Club, The Pied Piper of Hutzovina, Rembetiko, Genghis Blues and, even, The Commitments … movies about the transcendent properties of music and the people who maintain its integrity. If all anyone knows about Israeli folk music is “Hava Nagila,” Ballad of the Weeping Spring will come as a stunning, if wonderfully pleasant surprise. In most ways, it’s a universal story of loss, redemption, reconciliation and a reaffirmation of one’s roots. The roots here, however, extend through countless generations of Jewish life and tradition, outside the mainstream of its prevailing environment. With his father on his death bed, Amram Mufradi (Dudu Tassa) knows that he is running out of time to make a dream come true for the once famous Mizrahi musician. To accomplish this, however, Amram is required to locate Jossef Tawila (Uri Gavriel), the legendary tar player of the band Ensemble Tourqouise, and convince him to break out of a shell that’s been calcifying for 20 years. After the debut of Tawila and Avram Mufradi’s “Crying Spring Symphony,” the band was involved in a terrible, if entirely preventable automobile accident, in which two of the orchestra’s members were killed and the singer was crippled. Even if Amram is able to convince Tawila to pick up his instrument again, after two decades, they’ll then be required to recruit musicians capable of performing the symphony, using traditional instruments. Nothing comes easy in these sorts of stories, of course, even if a happy ending is assured from Minute One. The music of the Mizrahi Jews is informed by a long history of life in predominantly Muslim countries. It is more easily associated with Arab and Gypsy music, than the klezmer bands of eastern Europe. Like the earthy rembetes culture of Greek refugees from Asia Minor, it derives from a certain economic and cultural demi monde, populated by denizens of the night. Amram and Tawila’s mission takes them through parts of Israel not typically seen in movies from the region and in venues more related to juke joints of the American South or Gypsy weddings.  The brilliant musicianship was supervised by composer Mark Eliyahu and enhanced with an emotionally charged performance by singer/actor Ishtar.

If nothing else, Oded Davidoff’s slacker comedy, The Dealers, reveals a side of life in Jerusalem that rarely finds its way onto news reports from the Middle East. Almost nothing that doesn’t involve violence and religious intolerance is able to cut through the noise. Set in the residential neighborhood of Ramot, the 2012 release introduces us to a group of young-adult slackers, who spend most of their afternoons and nights smoking grass and hashish, dropping ecstasy and drinking American booze. The guys, at least, spend their mornings practicing for a city-wide soccer tournament. It’s a mixed group of Palestinians and Jews that doesn’t look as if they could play an entire match, without calling periodic time outs for oxygen and shots of Novocain. The women among them seem only marginally less useless. Because Rami and Avishay, both 27, owe money to a local gangster, much of the intrigue here involves their struggle to come up with the cash, without actually having to work terribly hard to get it. Also participating are some older friends from the same neighborhood, who’ve been to war, prison or both. What makes The Dealers different than any number of other slacker films extant is the firestorm its posters ignited, before the movie even opened. The marketing campaign was altered to remove images of its female stars because some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe pictures of women that distract men’s attention are unacceptable. The incident follows escalating tensions that have seen other film posters and publicity torn down.  (Recently, in anticipation of angry protests, images of Jennifer Lawrence on publicity for The Hunger Games were removed in some heavily Orthodox Israeli cities.) It’s gotten to the point where some films are made by women, specifically for female audiences, and they’ve even been withheld from the DVD market to ensure they don’t fall into the hands of men. Not surprisingly, this has created a backlash from more liberal Israelis, who feel as if their rights are being subordinated to placate the overzealous arguments of fundamentalists. They responded by demanding that The Dealers be allowed to continue its original marketing campaign and restrictions on the visibility of women be rescinded. If only the movie were as interesting as the debate.

One Eyed Girl: Blu-ray
Likely inspired by the suicide cults that developed around the quasi-religious rants of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite, One Eyed Girl is a technically proficient and occasionally disturbing first directorial feature by Aussie cinematographer Nick Matthews (2:37). Mark Leonard Winter plays Travis, a young psychiatrist haunted by the death of one of his patients. On the brink of a nervous breakdown, Travis meets Grace (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) as she’s trying to hand out brochures promising spiritual salvation to commuters. She isn’t all that convincing, but something about Grace’s frail, but determined demeanor causes Travis to accept one. Desperate for redemption, he follows her to a rural compound outside Adelaide, where everyone appears to be just as messed up as he is. The church is run by the charismatic Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand), who, before trying religion, could have hosted infomercials on TV. Selling utopia to neurotics is far easier. Not surprisingly, Father Jay has a past life that about to catch up him. The flock’s questionably violent methodology also will come into play. Even if One Eyed Girl is all too familiar, the actors are convincing and Matthews knows how to build and maintain tension. His surprise ending works pretty well, too.

Lucky
Journalist Laura Checkoway’s debut documentary is about a young woman named Lucky, whose life has been anything but lucky. Petite in stature and covered in tattoos and piercings, Lucky Torres was born into poverty and raised by the state. A hundred years ago, she might have made a living in a midway freak show or appearing alongside Groucho Marx, as he sang “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Today, however, she’s just one of a million other kids who’ve buried their pain and lack of self-esteem in top-to-toe ink and metal protuberances. Unlike most of them, however, her tattoos don’t stop at the wrist and neckline. Lucky’s covered her face, neck and hands with the kind of skin art that tells everyone in the square world that she doesn’t give a shit what they think of her appearance. If Lucky can’t find a job that pays enough to take care of her son, rent, clothes, drugs and booze, it’s only because she doesn’t live in New Zealand, among the Maori, and employers here don’t care to have their customers insulted by the self-deprecating language etched on her face (“Bitch”), “fuck” and “you” on the back of her thighs, or numerous images of rapper L’il Wayne. Checkoway’s Lucky is exceedingly sympathetic to the titular subject, even as she threatens to self-destruct before her camera. The journalist followed Torres for six years before finishing the documentary. They met at the Christopher Street Pier, in Greenwich Village, where LGBT kids hang out in a community based on alienation, solidarity and friendship. Her sister, Fantasy, also has tattoos but they can be easily hidden by clothing. Neither is she as openly hostile to authority figures. While it’s difficult to feel sorry for Lucky – and she isn’t begging for pity — Checkoway’s intimate portrait demands that we live in her world for 72 minutes, and it isn’t easy. Maybe someone at Suicide Girls could find something for Lucky to do.

Women’s Prison Massacre: Blu-ray
There are a couple of things going on Women’s Prison Massacre (a.k.a., “Blade Violent”) that make it different than other women-in-prison pictures. Foremost, it combines the Emmanuelle/Emanuelle and WIP subgenres, with Laura Gemser adding her consider talents to the mix. Gemser’s presence classes up any piece of garbage to which she’s attached herself and Women’s Prison Massacre is crappy, even by the standards associated with a subgenre that’s migrated from Hollywood, to the Philippines, Italy and Japan. The other noteworthy thing is that the 1983 made-in-Italy grindhouse non-classic is almost a carbon copy of Caged Women (a.k.a., “Violence in a Women’s Prison”), except that Gemser only disrobes in the former. In the 1982 Caged Women, Emanuelle (one “m”) is a journalist who voluntarily goes undercover in a women’s prison to expose the corrupt officials, horrible living conditions, the guards’ poor treatment of the prisoners and prisoners’ poor treatment of each other. In Women’s Prison Massacre, Emanuelle is on the verge of breaking a big story about a corrupt politician when she gets framed and sent to a women’s prison, where the administration is dirty, the facility filthy, the cops are brutal and the prisoners feral. After four dangerous men are temporarily transferred to the facility, the sadists overpower the guards and torment the prison population. It’s up to Emanuelle and her fellow inmates to re-take control of the prison. It’s worth noting that the original “Emmanuelle” (two m’s) series, was palpably erotic where the single-m sequels feature gratuitous sexuality and violence. Although Gemser is a legitimate cult goddess, the people who wrote and directed her “Emanuelle” titles couldn’t be bothered with class and style. Bruno Mattei directed both pictures under two different pseudonyms, while co-writer and AD Claudio Fragasso would go on to direct Troll 2, one of the “best worst movies” of all time. (Gemser is credited as costume designer.) The Blu-ray restoration is better than it has any right to be.

TV-to-DVD
Dora and Friends: Season 1
CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season 1
Unlike so many other popular television characters, Nickelodeon has given Dora an opportunity to grow older and evolve alongside her fan base. In the bilingual “Dora and Friends: Into the City!,” the Latina heroine moves into an urban environment, where she attends school and makes friends with kids who work together to give back to the community. Armed with a magical charm bracelet and trusty Map App, Dora is always ready to solve problems, speak and teach Spanish, and go on real-life adventures. The four-disc “Dora and Friends: Season 1” offers more than seven hours of edutainment, including the never before-aired episode, “Dragon in the School,” a Nick Jr. bonus disc, doggie adoptions, puppy princesses and beautiful mermaids.

Just for the record, “CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season 1” delivers only six complete episodes culled from the complete-season package released in May by Time Life/WEA, so, if you have one, you don’t need the other, unless as a stocking stuffer. Episodes include “Oh Captain My Captain,” where the chauvinistic Sharkey (Don Rickles) meets his new commanding officer, who turns out to be a woman; “The Dear John Letter,” in which Chief Robinson (Harrison Page) suspects Sharkey to be a smooth ladies man; “Goodbye Dolly,” featuring an inflatable doll that causes a ruckus in the barracks, until Sharkey deflates the situation; “Sunday in Tijuana,” with some South of the Border jail time for the men of Company 144; “Sharkey Boogies on Down,” where Rickles tests his dance moves at a disco for Chief Robinson’s birthday; and, “Sharkey’s Secret Life,” in which the recruits are convinced that Sharkey may be gay after he purchases a toupee from a mysterious, shoulder-purse-toting wig salesman.

The DVD Wrapup: Momentum, Amorous, Secrets of War, Grace of Monaco, The Wall, The Square, Hunting Ground, MST3K and more

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Momentum: Blu-ray
Last week, the dull thud of one of the worst box-office duds of all times reverberated from the U.K. to trade and gossip sites across the U.S. Momentum, a crime thriller that cost an estimated $20 million to make, returned a whopping $69 to its investors from its opening week’s run in 10 theaters. How is that even possible? The headlines I saw attached Morgan Freeman’s name to the report, as if he were somehow responsible for the Momentum’s disastrous performance … or lack thereof. Considering how little time the Oscar-winner is on screen, the blame should have been shared, at least, by leads Olga Kurylenko and James Purefoy. And, yet, that wouldn’t have been fair, either. No, Momentum is an example of a movie in which actors were betrayed by their director and writers, in addition to the total absence of positive buzz from earlier runs in such disparate markets as Russia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Toronto, the UAE and the Philippines, where the total gross failed to pass a million dollars. At a time when overseas returns are compensating for bad decisions made by pinhead studio executives here, how is that even possible? By the time Momentum was ready for Brit audiences to see, its distributor, Signature Entertainment, probably decided to cut its losses by refusing to waste another cent on marketing.

In the U.S., the Capetown-shot heist flick opened on Internet, cable and other VOD outlets, before being sent out on DVD/Blu-ray, where Kurylenko has earned a reputation as a reliable action star. Is Momentum really as bad as all that? Yes, but being instantly forgettable, the pain doesn’t last long. Kurylenko looks hot, as usual, playing Alexis Faraday, the infiltration expert of a high-tech armed-robbery crew, whose disguises appear to have been rented from George Lucas. In addition to a cache of diamonds, the robbers now have in their possession a computer file incriminating a U.S. senator (Freeman) in an international conspiracy designed to trigger another expensive war on terrorism, destined only to benefit defense contractors. He sends out a hitman, Mr. Washington (Purefoy), to find and eliminate the gang members holding the disc. Instead, he wastes time ogling Alexis, allowing enough time for a long and needlessly confusing chase to ensue between the sort-of good guys and the really bad ones.

Amorous
Anyone who watched Showtime’s now-cancelled “Polyamory: Married & Dating” already knows how difficult it can be for multi-partner families to thrive in a society designed to promote monogamy, including newly legal gender-neutral marriages. The same problems that vex committed hetero- and LGBT couples – sexual, financial, hierarchical – are compounded in polyamorous settings. On the other hand, when things work out, the bliss can be magnified exponentially. Joanna Coates’ Amorous (a.k.a., “Hide and Seek”) moves the discussion from southern California to England, where four Londoners move to an isolated country cottage in an effort to escape the pressures and expectations of big-city life. In exercises that will seem extremely bizarre to people not accustomed to New Age tropes and adult-play therapy, the group fashions new rules and rituals to help them combat complacency and cynicism. The feeling-out process also includes becoming comfortable with each other sexually, by swapping partners and exploring unconventional relationships. There’s no guarantee it will work, of course, but the characters give it their best shots. The new personal and sexual bonds are tested by the arrival of an ex-lover, as was the case in “Polyamorous.” Josh O’Connor, Hannah Arterton, Rea Mole and Daniel Metz wouldn’t qualify as perfect-10s in most corners of the world, but that’s a good thing. By Hollywood standards, most of us wouldn’t make the cut in a beauty contest. The pastoral setting does add a make-believe aura to the fun and games, though.

Secrets of War
In such thrilling World War II movies as Black Book, Soldier of Orange, Winter in Wartime, and, now, Dennis Bots’ Secrets of War, Dutch filmmakers have demonstrated a remarkable ability to dramatize multiple aspects of the Nazi occupation simultaneously. Depictions of the resistance movement, threats to Jewish residents and German brutality toward the citizenry, in general, are common threads, of course, but we’ve also watched the war through the eyes of children, farmers, prostitutes and collaborationists … heroes, saints and finks. Based on a best-selling novel by Dutch scientist, politician and author Jan Terlouw, Winter in Wartime was the story of a 16-year-old boy who contributes to the resistance in any way he can, including rescuing British airmen whose flight paths take them over the Dutch countryside. The boy is conflicted, however, by his loyalty to his father, the mayor, who seemingly is only interested in maintaining the status quo between the town and the German Army. The lasting image I have of the movie is of the boy (Martijn Lakemeier) sneaking secret papers past German soldiers on his bicycle. Dutch children’s author and playwright Jacques Vriens wrote the book from which Secrets of War was adapted. The boys here may be younger, almost by half, but their everyday life in a rural village forces them to come to grips with issues related directly to the occupation and Holocaust.

Tuur and Lambert (Maas Bronkhuyzen, Joes Brauers) are best friends, with fathers on opposite sides of the ideological fence. They’ve been left largely in the dark about the uglier aspects of the occupation, but can’t help witnessing such injustices as the Nazis’ seizure of farm animals and occasional arrest of the local priest for his anti-German sermons. The boys take sides when playing games with make-believe guns, but have no idea what’s really at stake in the war. Neither are they aware of the contents of the locked box cars on trains travelling from Amsterdam to the Germany. It isn’t until a clever student, Maartje (Pippa Allen), transfers into their school and becomes their best friend, that they’re introduced to the ugliest truth of the war, by far. Maartje’s parents have been arrested by the Gestapo, but not before they were able to arrange for her identity changed and lodging with relatives in the village. It isn’t until youthful jealousy rears its ugly head that the horrors of war are visited on the trio. One of the primary things working in Bots’ favor are locations in the Benelux countries that probably haven’t changed much since 1945. This is especially true in the vast network of caves actually used in the war to hide downed pilots, Jewish families and resistance fighters looking to move between Holland and Belgium. Secrets of War can be watched by parents and their older children without concerns about gore, the glorification of militarism or nightmare-inducing images of genocide. It adds a decent making-of featurette and Kate Tsang’s short film, “So You’ve Grown Attached,” about some of the vagaries of growing up, anywhere.

Grace of Monaco
If the Principality of Monaco didn’t already have a patron saint – Devote, 283-303 AD — Prince Albert II could have sent Olivier Dahan’s overly pious biopic of his mother, Grace of Monaco, to the Vatican for consideration as a worthy candidate. The only thing missing is a halo radiating over the head of Nicole Kidman, who plays the expatriate princess and, of course, Oscar winner. What American film lover hasn’t heard fairytale story of Grace Kelly of Philadelphia and Hollywood giving up her acting career to marry the monarch of a geographic entity still known primarily for a Grand Prix race and casino. Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) must have been a helluva kisser, because he was no Prince Charming … or Cary Grant, for that matter. In the eyes of her filthy rich subjects, she was little more than a commoner. (Never mind that her personal fortune was greater than Rainier’s then-insolvent treasury.) Arash Amel’s heavily edited screenplay focuses less on the fairytale than her difficulties in adjusting to life as a subservient wife and the role she played in saving Monaco from being occupied by French forces. Charles De Gaulle wanted Rainier to begin taxing his subjects and contribute the revenues to his colonial escapades. Princess Grace would use her cinematic wiles to win world leaders’ support for breaking the French blockade and raise her profile as a great humanitarian.

By emphasizing this footnote in the history of celebrity diplomacy, screenwriter Arash Amel gave Dahan ample opportunity to level the playing field upon which the royal couple played their games, as well as the occasion for a rip-roaring speech before a room full of dignitaries that included De Gaulle, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Philip Delancy), Ari Onassis (Robert Lindsay) and Maria Callas (Paz Vega), who sang for her supper. Despite Dahan’s pedestrian direction, what stands out in Grace of Monaco are the lush settings, grand interiors and wonderful fashions. I would have liked to see more of the principality than is on display here, however. It’s an interesting place, with a splendid history, but you’d think it was an attraction at Disneyland, with Rainier left to impersonate the monarch in the Burger King commercials. The movie took a terrible critical drubbing when it opened the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, so much so that it was shown theatrically everywhere, except the U.S., where it opened on Lifetime a year later. Despite all of the negative word-of-mouth and tinkering, Grace of Monaco made $26.5 million at the international box office. Add the Lifetime, PPV and likely DVD/Blu-ray revenues to that figure and Weinstein Company shouldn’t do too badly. Certainly, they saved a few bucks by not adding commentaries or featurettes to the discs.

Roger Waters: The Wall: Blu-ray
I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song
How long future generations of musicians and actors will profit from performing rock operas and musicals identified with long-dead musicians pretty much depends on how long the heart of rock ’n’ roll is still beating. (Thank you, Huey Lewis.) Touring companies of “Hair,” “Godspell,”“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Tommy” and “American Idiot” and such “jukebox musicals” as “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Mamma Mia!,” “We Will Rock You,” “Fela!,” “Jersey Boys” and “Million Dollar Quartet” could probably go on forever, as well. I wonder if Pink Floyd’s magnum opus, “The Wall,” will survive after Roger Waters, David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason reunite with Richard Wright and Syd Barrett in Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven. Among other things, it’s difficult to imagine anyone outside of Las Vegas possessing the financial wherewithal to mount a production that would approximate the monumental concert experience memorialized in the Blu-ray/DVD  “Roger Water: The Wall” and previous performance films. Moreover, it would be exceedingly difficult to assign to anyone else the personal story attached to it by Waters. It was informed, in part, by the wartime deaths of his father and grandfather, as well as he and Gilmour’s alienation from the band’s audiences on the 1977 tour. The magnitude of “The Wall” in concert is perfectly demonstrated in time-lapse featurettes showing the complexity of the seven-day process of staging it in a Buenos Aires soccer stadium. The “wall” separating the audience from the band – and other societal disconnects – stretches from one side of the stadium to the other, while the video screen and canopy tower over the grandstands. The lighting and other special visual effects, alone, would bankrupt several small countries. It’s an amazing show. The only caveat here derives from Waters’ choice of integrating filmed vignettes into the concert footage. While heartfelt, they disrupt the musical flow throughout the production. In them, Waters visits memorials at battlefields throughout Europe, while also flashing back to prominent moments in his past. “Roger Waters: The Wall” was shot during the sold-out 2010-13 world tour, which included 219 shows, in 4K and mixed in Dolby Atmos. The package adds UltraViolet access; a visit to the Bulgarian grave of anti-fascist writer Frank Thompson; and Facebook films.

I can’t immediately recall the songs on my digital playlist 15 years ago, but I know that it didn’t include Lee Ann Womack’s heart-rending Song of the Year, “I Hope You Dance.” I have nothing against Womack or the song. It simply wasn’t on my radar … or the satellite stations to which I was tuned. According to the evidence presented in John Scheinfeld’s I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song, Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders’ crossover hit has had a significant impact beyond the folks who downloaded it from the Internet or chose it for their wedding promenades. The documentary explores how a song about hope, faith and optimism — just under five minutes in length – has changed the lives of several “real” people in profound ways. In addition to introducing us to a half-dozen of them, there are testimonials from Dr. Maya Angelou, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, Pastor Joel Osteen, Vince Gill and Womack. It also showcases a new version by four-time Grammy-nominated artist, Mandisa. Instead of being sappy, the film feels as genuine today as the lyrics did when first heard.

The Square
It’s taken almost three years for Jehane Noujaim’s excellent documentary, The Square, to wind its way from Sundance to DVD. I suppose there’s a good reason for the delay, but I’ll be damned if I know precisely what it is. Here’s my guess: after its festival debut, late-breaking events in the “continuing Egyptian revolution” forced the Cairo-born filmmaker (Control Room, Startup.com) to update the ending of her finished product twice, before the crowd-sourced doc began its Oscar-qualifying runs in the fall and was picked up for streaming, on Netflix, in January, 2014. This meant that anyone whose interest was piqued by The Square’s Oscar, Emmy, IDA and Independent Spirit nominations, would only find it at Netflix, which, at the time, was transitioning from an all-mail to largely streaming service. The mass-distribution screener I received is from City Drive Entertainment Group and MVD Visual. In that 20-month interim, of course, the Arab Spring devolved into the ISIS Winter. The people Noujaim introduced us to in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, probably would want us to know that the revolution that began there in January, 2011, is still evolving. The Square’s abundant optimism flows through the hearts and minds of six very different protesters, who were there at the beginning and maintained their revolutionary spirit throughout the contentious struggles to come. They all had different reasons for coming to the original tent city, but shared a willingness to listen to the opinions of everyone around them, whether Muslim or Christian, left or right, young or old. That bond would be seriously tested twice more, at least, but Noujaim’s foresight held true. The DVD adds more than 90 minutes of deleted scenes and exclusive content.

Jerusalem: Blu-ray
For 43 minutes, at least, the creative team behind the beautifully rendered documentary, Jerusalem – originally shot for 3D IMAX theaters – shows us a deceptively peaceful city, where men and women of several different religions worship openly, without fear of being killed for their beliefs or stoned for praying in the wrong place. This is a city where hope reigns supreme and fundamentalists don’t pray for the End Times to arrive, so they can get to heaven before the rest of us … or not. In that regard, Jerusalem may hedge the truth, but it’s a fib most of us wish was true. Daniel Ferguson, who’s worked on similar documentaries about the pilgrimages to Mecca, opens the gates to the city with the assistance of three teenage girls – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – who share with us their love for Jerusalem and it vibrant cultures. As was the case in his films about the hajj, Ferguson sought and was accorded exceptional access to the holiest of shrines and rites. But, before he could begin filming, he had to cut through what must have seem like miles of red tape at every turn. He takes us directly above the Temple Mount, by helicopter, and to foundation of the ancient city, where natural spring water still flows. He was allowed to spend the night among religious leaders at Christ’s tomb. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to Israel in my lifetime, but, at least, I’ve seen more of Jerusalem than I thought I would. The Blu-ray arrives with commentary, deleted scenes, several extended interviews, making-of material and a well-reasoned explanation as to why Ferguson chose to avoid the politics of hate in his film.

Goodnight Mommy: Blu-ray
Hole
Killing Heat
When Mother (Susanne Wuest) returns to her isolated glass-walled summer home with bandages wrapped around her face, we, like her twin sons, Lukas and Elias, wonder what happened to her in the hospital. Was she in an accident? Has she undergone cosmetic surgery to repair damage done by an abusive husband or merely to maintain looks that once graced the cover of fashion magazines? The boys’ father isn’t around and there aren’t any photos of him on the walls. Mom seems lost in a world of her own. More to the point, however, is the almost telepathic relationship shared by the twins, who have full run of the gorgeous property, which lies between a pristine Austrian lake, thick pine forest and a carefully managed cornfield. By all outward appearances, they’re perfectly normal 9-year-olds, with imaginations that sometimes lead them astray. Because we’ve seen the kind of mischief twins get into the movies – those not made by Disney, anyway – we’re ready for anything. As much as Mother tries to distract their attention away from her face, she can’t keep the boys from wondering if she might have been switched with another woman while in the hospital. Their concern becomes especially acute after she appears to be favoring one of them over the other and forbidding the other to speak or wear clothes of his own choosing. In their minds, Mother is merging them into a single entity and they don’t like it. Considering how close we are to being in Michael Haneke territory, nothing ought to surprise us from this point forward. The boys become more conspiratorial, while Mother is too consumed with her self-image to recognize the signs of imminent danger. Goodnight Mother (a.k.a., in German, “I Spy With My Little Eye”) easily qualifies as “arthouse horror,” if only because of how writer/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz use the house’s unique architecture to add another layer of tension to the story. There’s no reason for other genre buffs to be intimidated by the fancy stuff, though. The Blu-ray adds an interesting conversation with the filmmakers.

Ed Kunkle, the antagonist of Hole, also has mommy issues. When he was young, she would tie him to a chair in a room full of wooden dolls and berate him. Guess what Ed grows up to be?  Remember “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs? The two characters share several horrifying traits, including a fondness for sewing. Joaquin Montalvan’s follow-up to The Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher does a pretty good getting inside the mind of an ex-con who’s tormented by demons of his own making and others left behind from his mother, after he killed her. By the way, Ed’s weapon of choice is a sledge hammer. What distinguishes Hole from most other DVD originals is Montalvan’s ability to drive his narrative with something other than the periodic bludgeoning deaths of his victims. If the movie thrives on the many conceptual conceits he invests in the story, they sometimes feel gratuitously clever. Much of Hole was shot on what appears to be damaged film stock, while the soundtrack mimics the drone of defective brain cells reverberating through the skull of a maniac. Montalvan mixes colors and textures at will, usually, though, to good effect. He also bombards us with flashbacks, flash-forwards, visual references to other horror films and experimentation for the sake of experimentation. Paul E. Respass, who plays Kunklem, has appeared in the director’s last two films and seems comfortable in the role of the monster. The DVD adds commentary, a making-of featurette and “Ed’s Journal,” which re-creates a weathered facsimile of “Wisconsin Death Trip.”

Also from exploitation specialist Wild Eye Releasing comes Killing Heat, an action flick with almost no action – until its half over, anyway – but plenty of disturbing attitude. Set in some infrequently seen Thai locations, co-writer/director/actor/producer/cinematographer Daniel Dahl’s thriller-without-thrills is so ludicrously scripted and ineptly made as to be laughable. And, it might have been funny, if its racism, sexism and violence weren’t so crudely drawn and executed. Imagine if the “two wild and crazy guys” from “Saturday Night Live” made a home movie while seeking “swinging adventures” in an exotic setting. And, I don’t mean Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd playing the Czech brothers … I mean the Festrunks, themselves. Here, Norwegian businessman J.D. is invited to Thailand by his bro’s for a bit of R&R after being fired from his desk job. For a couple of nights, they have a good time getting wasted, laid and tricked into paying for blowjobs by two of Bangkok’s famous lady boys. After one such debauched night out, J.D. wakes up in the jungle with no memory of how he got there. After raping a child – I’m not kidding – J.D. is forced to hightail it back to Bangkok, with half of the rural population chasing him. He manages to kill most of them with marksmanship that rivals Annie Oakley. Even the dubbing is horrible. The Festrunks couldn’t have made Killing Heat worse than Dahl already has, no matter how hard they tried. The only truly good idea Dahl has to offer comes in the final five minutes, but it’s too little, too late.

A Year and Change
Addiction: A ’60s Love Story
While it’s possible that fans of “How to Make It in America” and “One Tree Hill” will find something interesting in Bryan Greenberg’s performance in Stephen Suettinger’s unfocused rom/com/dram, A Year in Change, it isn’t likely that anyone else will. He plays Owen, an alcoholic vending-machine proprietor who’s squandered every opportunity in life, but feels as if there’s still time to sober up before things get too dire. That point comes when his ex-wife (Kat Foster) tells him that she’s landed a job in San Diego and is taking their son with her. It also coincides with him falling off the roof at a house party, while reaching for a bottle of beer in the rain gutter. If that weren’t sufficiently symbolic, Owen is required to endure several other indignities before the filmmakers deem him salvageable. Characters played Marshall Allman (“True Blood”) and T.R. Knight (“Grey’s Anatomy”) have troubles of their own, but look so much alike I managed to confuse them halfway through the film. Besides nearly screwing up his relationship with his son, Owen also is required to misread every cue thrown his way by a lovely, recently jilted bank teller (Claire van der Boom), who’s far too good for him. Unfortunately, by the time Suettinger and Jim Beggarly’s script allows for Owen to redeem himself, we’ve given up on him.

The same caveat applies to Addiction: A ’60s Love Story. Only fans of “Pretty Little Liars” star Ian Harding – or Luna Lovegood, in the “Harry Potter” films – are likely to do handsprings over what they see in Tate Steinsiek’s debut feature. In it, Harding does an OK job as Max Bornstein, a Jersey boy who dropped out of college to pursue a career in the then-underground porn industry, a heroin addiction and broken marriage. Long after getting clean and sober, Bornstein wrote a book about his experiences, which, except for the porn, resembles every other memoir by a middle-class white guy, who fell in love with drugs and pissed away a fortune in friends and money before finding the light. His real talent was hiding his vices from his family, including his wife (Evanna Lynch), until his book was published. The DVD adds interviews.

The Hunting Ground
A few weekends ago, CNN aired Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s stunning documentary about rape on campus, “The Hunting Ground,” despite threats of legal action from a lawyer for one of the athletes specifically accused in it by a “survivor.” That player, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, had ducked investigations while enrolled at Florida State University and law-enforcement officials in Tallahassee failed to investigate the alleged rape. Once the national media caught wind of the allegations and began to smell something fishy about the ease with which FSU athletes have been able to avoid persecution on most crimes, the police announced that they had no reason to believe the sex wasn’t consensual, as Winston argued, and refused to press charges. If FSU was an isolated example of athletes being allowed to behave badly, Dick and Ziering (The Invisible War) probably would have been forced to leave well enough. Instead, they discovered a network of dozens of women, connected by the Internet, who were willing to come forward and tell the world how they were seduced by their assailants and abandoned by school officials. The patterns are all too familiar, as they largely involve officially sanctioned fraternities and athletes who traditionally have been given a pass.

While it’s extremely difficult to differentiate between consensual sex between overserved and often underage students, it’s difficult to argue against the intention of frat boys chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” for all the world to hear. The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates how little support university officials will accord victims – women and men – when alumni money and prestige is involved. There’s also the testimony of parents, fathers mostly, who had watched helplessly as their precious daughters were vilified and bullied by Internet fiends and ignored by college administrators. Detractors have complained about the film’s structure and FSU president John Thrasher called The Hunting Ground “inaccurate and incomplete.” Like other officials mentioned in the film, Thrasher lacked the courage to appear on the follow-up program CNN arranged to address such complaints. As for questions raised by critics, they didn’t prevent Producers Guild of America from nominating the film for its top documentary award or Oscar nominators to include it on their short list.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Blu-ray
Wake Up and Kill: Blu-ray
The Amazing Doctor G
For a short story first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of the Saturday Evening Post, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” has enjoyed a long and fruitful life on the screen. Nine of them, at least, not including the parodies that followed very closely in the wake of the story’s publication. The idea of commissioning different artists to freely adapt “The Black Cat” isn’t new. Universal Pictures released a “Black Cat” in 1934 and 1941, and borrowed from the story for “Maniac,” also in 1934. In 1962, Roger Corman and Richard Matheson’s Tales of Terror combined “The Black Cat” with “The Cask of Amontillado” and sandwiched it between adaptations of “Morella” and “”The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The 1990 film Two Evil Eyes presents two Poe tales, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat.” The former was written and directed by George A. Romero while the latter was written and directed by Dario Argento. Arrow Video’s lavish Blu-ray box, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats” goes all giallo on us with Sergio Martino’s kooky 1972 thriller “Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key” and Lucio Fulci’s nasty 1981 take, “The Black Cat.” It’s funny how movies that once looked so cheesy on VHS become classic with 2K scrubbings from the original camera negatives and hi-def presentations. Martino’s contribution puts a hippy-dippy spin on the tale, as well adding sexy star turns by Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Angela La Vorgna and Dalila Di Lazzaro. Fulci’s contribution brings the story and the cat to an estate in rural England. Patrick Magee is outstanding as the mad psychic, who thinks he can control the cat’s killer instincts. The package arrives with new interviews with Martino; the featurettes, “Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino” and a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring Martino’s unique contributions to the giallo genre and historian Stephen Thrower on “Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci”; reversible sleeves featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and a limited-edition 80-page book, featuring new writing on the films and Poe’s original story.

Also from Arrow Video and Italy, Carlo Lizzani’s Wake Up and Kill (a.k.a., “Wake Up and Die”) chronicles the exploits of the notorious armed robber Luciano Lutring, who, during the 1960s, committed more than 100 armed heists in Italy and on the French Riviera. Like Jesse James, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, Australia’s Ned Kelly, France’s Jacques Mesrine and Canada’s Edwin Boyd, Lutring was afforded a Robin Hood-like mystique by the media. Dubbed “the submachine gun soloist,” because he kept one in a violin case, Lutring’s stylish career lent itself to exploitation by filmmakers and Wake Up and Kill began production only months after his arrest on September 1, 1965. Compared to the poliziotteschi to come, in the 1970s, Wake Up and Kill is a no-frills account not only of Lutring’s spree, but also the glamorous singer (Lisa Gastoni) who became his moll. Robert Hoffman bears a closer resemblance to James Dean than Lutring, who died a free man in 2013, at 75. (The same can be said of Alain Delon, about his portrayal of the “gentleman thief” in Jose Giovanni’s 1975 thriller, Le Gitan.) Lizzani’s career spanned nearly 60 years, beginning in post-war neo-realism (Bitter Rice), moving on through giallo, cops-and-robbers and spaghetti-Westerns (Requiescant, The Violent Four), topical dramas (Love and Anger, Kleinhoff Hotel) and documentaries (Celluloid). Wake Up and Kill was scored by Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in the West), co-scripted by Ugo Pirro (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), shot by Armando Nannuzzi (The Damned) and co-starring Gian Maria Volonté (The Death of Mario Ricci). That’s a lot of fire power for a movie that some might construe as a genre flick, albeit one that was hugely popular in Italy. The  Arrow upgrade, as usual, is excellent, and it arrives with a short English-language version.

The great Spanish actor Fernando Rey has done outstanding work in such noteworthy films as The French Connection, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire, Tristana, Elisa, My Life, Seven Beauties and Don Quijote de la Mancha. He’s been directed by William Friedkin, Luis Buñuel, Frank Perry, Robert Altman, Carlos Saura, Lina Wertmüller and Orson Welles. In the same year that Rey appeared in Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, he played the title character in a James Bond parody, The Amazing Doctor G, which also was sold as “The Two Crazy Secret Agents,” “Two Mafiosi Against Goldginger” and “Goldginger.” The Bond books and movies have been satirized endlessly since the early 1960s, often very well. From the appropriately named Cheezy Flicks – a distributor that specializes in such amusingly toxic fare — The Amazing Doctor G is not one of them. By comparison, it makes Austin Powers in Goldmember look like Commedia dell’arte. The evil Doctor Goldginger is planning to take over the world by brainwashing important leaders from around the world and start a war between the USA and the USSR. Upstaging Rey at every turn are photographers Franco and Ciccio, who are kidnapped by Goldginger. Sicilian comedians Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia play the foils to Goldginger and Agente 007 (George Hilton). These sorts of parodies were churned out for popular consumption during a period roughly spanning the end of Italian neo-realism and the rise of spaghetti-Westerns and giallo.

Assassination: Blu-ray
For many people, World War II began well before the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the hand of a divided Congress. It’s one of the things Americans can learn in new movies from Korea and China, where Japanese imperialist forces were making life miserable for the native populations long before December 7, 1941. The overall quality of the war pictures that find their way to the U.S. is excellent, with larger than ever budgets for talent and special effects. At 140 minutes, Choi Dong-hoon’s Assassination may seem like too daunting a test for Americans whose knowledge of what transpired in the Pacific Theater is necessarily limited to the Allies’ tortuous island-to-island march to victory. In 1933, much of Korea’s resistance movement is in jail or hiding in Manchuria. A group of exiled rebels have been instructed to return to Korea to assassinate the governor of the Japanese garrison in Gyeongseong and a pro-Japanese Korean business tycoon. Before they can begin, however, an elderly hero from an earlier resistance movement is recruited to break three specifically trained fighters from jail and take them to Shanghai, before re-entering Korea. One is a petite woman sharpshooter, who will have less trouble clearing security personnel than the men. Once inside Korea, however, they are required to deal with the added inconvenience of ferreting out an informer. Freelance assassin Hawaii Pistol and his sidekick Old Man have been hired to intercept the assassins. It’s complicated, alright, but there’s plenty of time to sort things out and the tension is relieved by more than a few light-hearted moments.

All About E
After watching Louise Wadley’s sure-footed buddy/road picture, All About E, I wondered what a 2015 remake of Thelma & Louise might look like if the protagonists were allowed to fall in love on their journey, naturally and without the angst usually associated with coming to grips with one’s sexual identity. They wouldn’t kick Brad Pitt out of bed for eating crackers, but they’d sure as hell not leave him in the same room with their money. Would the dynamics between Harvey Keitel’s sympathetic Detective Hal Slocumb and T&L change if he learned that the outlaw buddies had become don’t-give-a-shit lovers? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they wouldn’t feel it necessary to take the plunge into the canyon after their goodbye kiss. Maybe they’d call Gloria Allred, instead. In All About E, Mandahla Rose plays the title character, a Lebanese-Australian lesbian, who is the star deejay at a Sydney nightclub frequented by gay men, including her red-haired BFF, Matt. She’s lost her interest in a music career and her blond lover, Trish, has split for an Outback farm to escape the drama. One night, E finds a bag full of suitcase full of cash, lying there for her to steal it. When she learns that it belongs to her boss, a gay hoodlum, E decides to grab Matt for a road trip to the unknown. After visiting her parents, who’d love for her to pick up the clarinet again, E&M head for the farm for a possible reconciliation with Trish and a showdown with her very pissed-off boss. Things don’t work out exactly the way E imagined they would, but the ending is satisfying, anyway. The DVD adds interviews with Wadley and the filmmakers.

Zoolander: SteelBook Edition: Blu-ray
As most of the civilized world already knows, Zoolander No. 2 arrives February 12, in time for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and the Feast of Saint Valentine. As far as I know, neither Sacha Baron Cohen nor supermodel Bruno make appearances in it, although it would be fun if one or both of them did. I suspect that diehard fans already own the Blu-ray or DVD edition of the outrageous fashion-industry comedy, which share most of the same bonus features. Zoolander: SteelBook Edition, available only at Walmart until February 2, adds footage of Owen Wilson and Justin Theroux rehearsing their “epic” breakdance fight, under the direction of Ben Stiller, and an alternate version of the brainwashing sequence told through storyboards. What makes it giftable, though, are a collectible Zoolander headband, embellished with Derek’s world-famous coif; a look at “Zoolander No. 2”; and a coupon worth up to $8 towards a ticket to see the new film in theaters.

TV-to-DVD
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIV
The Bold Ones: The Senator: The Complete Series
Angry Birds: Toons/Piggy Tales/Stella
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Revenge!
Shout Factory’s latest compilation of intergalactic schlock, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIV,” puts a tight focus on American International Pictures and its ability to change the way teenagers, especially, watched movies during the 1950s youthquake. The major studios tight grasp on available screens had been loosened significantly by new anti-monopoly laws and drive-in theaters provided a home away from home for kids anxious to taste the newfound freedom provided by access to automobiles. It’s not a new story, but one that’s fun to revisit on film. The titles represented here follow Samuel Z. Arkoff’s “formula” for producing a successful low-budget movie: action, entertainment, revolution, killing, oratory, fantasy and fornication … not necessarily in those exact words or order of preference. The selections include Roger Corman’s Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (a.k.a. “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent” ) and The Undead; Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast; and Edward L. Cahn’s The She-Creature. The longest of these is 77 minutes, which affords plenty of room for a second feature, intermission, previews and, perhaps, a cartoon. They also provide plenty of excuses for necking through the dull parts. In a fresh interview, Corman allows that “Viking Women” severely tested his ability to work with advanced special effects on a miniscule budget. A lengthy featurette discusses AIP and its place in cinematic history.

Timeless Media Group adds to its “Bold Ones” collection that includes complete-series sets of “The Bold Ones: The Lawyers,” featuring Burl Ives, Joseph Campanella and James Farentino; “The Bold Ones:  The Protectors,” with Leslie Nielsen and Hari Rhodes; and “The Bold Ones: The Senator,” with Hal Holbrook and Sharon Acker. “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors,” with E.G. Marshall, John Saxon and David Hartman, has yet to be shipped. Produced by Universal Television, the series were broadcast on NBC from 1969 to 1973, using the same wheel format that worked for “Columbo,” “McCloud” and “McMillan & Wife.” Instead of relying of being tied exclusively to crime-solving and personality-driven themes, “The Bold Ones” developed stories inspired by headline-making events, without stereotyping the characters. Examine the credit lists and you’ll find the names of veteran actors alongside those of such up-and-comers as Michael Ritchie, Steven Bochco, John Badham, Richard Donner, Will Geer, Georg Stanford Brown and Fred Williamson. They’re still fun to watch.

Originated in Finland, “Angry Birds” has grown from a single video game, in 2009, to a marketing phenomenon, in 2010, to a huge multimedia franchise, today, with a 3D feature film scheduled for May, 2016. There are almost too many non-gaming spinoffs – from toys to soft drinks to theme parks — to count. We’re talking billions of downloads here, folks. On March 16, 2013, “Angry Birds Toons,” a TV series based on the game, made its debut on Comcast’s Xfinity On-Demand, Samsung Smart TVs and Roku set-top boxes. “Toons” is available on mobile devices, by an additional Toons channel on all of the Angry Birds apps home screens. In April, 2014, Rovio released “Piggy Tales,” a stop-motion animated series that tells the stories of the Minion Pigs’ life. Stella and her five BFF’s have been given their own series as well. The new DVDs include, “Angry Birds: Stella: The Complete First Season,” “Piggy Tales: The Complete First Season” and “Angry Birds Toons: Season Two, Volume One.”

In the episodes included in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Revenge!,” Leo, Raph, Donnie and Mikey encounter new mutants, time travel and take on new Earth-threatening enemies. The two-disc collection contains the final 12 episodes (67-78) from Season Three of Nickelodeon’s hit animated series. Some of the new and old mutants are Muckman, the Mighty Mutanimals, Mondo Gecko, Serpent Karai, the Mega Shredder, Tiger Claw, the Creep, Bebop and Rocksteady. The DVD adds special features and a Leonardo zipper-pull gift with purchase.

The DVD Wrapup, Gift Guide II: Great American Dream Machine, McHale’s Navy, Brothers Quay, Shaun the Sheep, No Escape and more

Friday, November 27th, 2015

The Great American Dream Machine
McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series
Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Final Season
The counterculture of the 1960s not only was spawned from the antiwar, civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements, but also a collective belief that white bread, pollution and petroleum-based products would have the same lasting effect on American consumers that Agent Orange had on the forests of Vietnam. Such feelings of impending doom, combined with the malaise caused by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys and Malcolm X made the United States a rather humorless place to be, heading, as we were, into the 1968 presidential race. What this country needed more than anything else, perhaps, was a good laugh. With Lenny Bruce already gone and Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory busy chasing down conspiracy theories, such previously conventional comics as the Smothers Brothers, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, George Carlin and Richard Pryor stepped up to fill the vacuum and give network censors fits. The controversial decision to allow Donald Trump to host “Saturday Night Live” might have been made by someone old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s brief appearance on “Laugh-In,” 47 years ago, simply to ask the rhetorical question, “Sock it to me?” If nothing else, it demonstrated that Tricky Dick might actually have a sense of humor, buried under his jowls and scowls. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was extended an invitation, as well, but declined. According to George Schlatter, the show’s creator, “Humphrey later said that not doing it may have cost him the election,” while “[Nixon] said the rest of his life that appearing on ‘Laugh-In’ is what got him elected.” It certainly didn’t hurt.

At a time when public-broadcast stations were commonly referred to as “educational TV,” a show likened to an “intellectual ‘Laugh-In’” began production on New York City’s non-commercial WNET. “The Great American Dream Machine” was a weekly satirical variety television series – first 90 minutes, then 60 – that was picked up by PBS affiliates around the country. Its audience may have been miniscule, compared to “Laugh-In,” but it was composed of hard-core liberals, media mavens and the next generation of opinion-makers. It didn’t take long for the show to bear fruit in the form of “The Groove Tube,” “Saturday Night Life,” “SCTV” and Kentucky Fried Movie.  (Imported episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “That Was the Week That Was” and Mad magazine also deserve credit in this regard.) The first disc in Entertainment One’s long-awaited greatest-hits compilation, “The Great American Dream Machine,” opens with citizens from all walks of life being asked to relate their concept of American Dream. Not surprisingly, none was the same as the one before or after it. The first person profiled as a possible Great American Hero, was Evel Knievel, who, at the time, was known more for breaking his bones in failed motorcycle jumps than completing them. The show also featured animated material, skits, music, literary readings and satirical reports by Marshall Efron, who lambasted laws that were intended to protect consumers, but mostly protected corporations from lawsuits. Another fondly recalled bit is Albert Brooks’ hilarious short film, “The Famous Comedians School,” which, in merging comic clichés and magazine ads for the Famous Artists School, was a precursor of the mockumentary subgenre. Interview subjects included oft-divorced band leader Artie Shaw, burlesque queen Blaze Starr and hot-rod designer “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. Other notable contributors included Chevy Chase, Andy Rooney, Penny Marshall, Henry Winkler, Tiny Tim, David Steinberg, Linda Lavin and Charles Grodin. Watch the show today on DVD and you’ll recognize the forebears of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver. Liner notes are provided by critic David Bianculli.

If John F. Kennedy had decided to stay in Boston and get into the roofing business, instead of politics, it’s hard to say if anyone would have made a fuss over his heroism in the South Pacific, during World War II. After the boat he captained was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut in two, Kennedy used his swimming prowess to help rescue several of the 11 men who clung to PT-109’s slowing sinking bow. He also would swim to neighboring islands in search of water, food and communications equipment. There’s no question of the future president’s role in the harrowing attack or that the story, minus the bravery of native islanders, was milked by his advisors in future political campaigns. After he entered the White House, the incident became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring a song, books, movies, various television shows, collectible objects, scale-model replicas and an action figure, from Hasbro. It must have convinced ABC to green-light the comedy series, “McHale’s Navy,” which appeared to be inspired as much by “The Phil Silvers Show” as the President’s heroism. In it, a rag-tag crew of sailors was left stranded on a tiny South Pacific island, after a bombing raid by Japanese fliers. Although Earnest Borgnine bore no physical resemblance to JFK, as did Cliff Robertson in the 1963 biopic, PT 109, the Academy Award-winning actor (Marty) would be enlisted to play Lt. Commander Quinton McHale in the 1962-66 series. He favored Hawaiian shirts over fatigues and dress khakis, and, when his men weren’t shooting craps on the pier or hitting on the wahinis, they enjoyed water-skiing behind PT-73. The show’s beleaguered base commander, Captain Wallace B. Binghamton, was played by the ever-exasperated Joe Flynn, with Tom Conway also on board as the flustered Ensign Charles Parker. Long before Gavin McLeod took the wheel of the Love Boat, he portrayed the sailor, Happy Haynes. From Shout! Factory, “McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series” comes in a cardboard ditty box, containing 61 hours’ worth of programming; the featurettes, “The Crew Reunion” and “Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway Remember”; and two full-length feature films, McHale’s Navy (1964) and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965). Listen carefully and you might hear a character mention an unnamed commander of torpedo boat, PT-109.

“Sgt. Bilko” would also provide the template for “Hogan’s Heroes” and “F Troop,” madcap military farces in which conflicts between historical antagonists were played for laughs. For those fans of the classic comedy who don’t already own “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series,” Shout! Factory finished rolling out individual complete-season DVDs, “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Final Season.” The episodes are as funny in repeat viewings as any show currently on television. In Season Four, Bilko and the rest of his platoon are transferred to California’s Camp Fremont, a vacant facility where Bilko is convinced that a fortune in gold is hidden. Although his scheme doesn’t pan out as foreseen, at least the camp is closer to the target-rich cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tijuana and Reno. It also allowed for cameos by such stars as Dean Martin, Lucille Ball, the sons of Bing Crosby and Mickey Rooney. Bilko’s schemes get more elaborate as the finale nears.

The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films: Blu-ray
To the extent that Stephen and Timothy Quay’s short films are known outside the arthouse and academic communities, it’s for the puppetry and stop-motion animation featured in music videos for Alice in Chains, Peter Gabriel (“Sledgehammer”), His Name Is Alive, Michael Penn, Sparklehorse, Legion of Horses, Pere Ubu and 16 Horsepower, as well as contributions to Frida and Jack and Diane. Someone even went to the trouble of replacing the soundtrack to the whimsical short, The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart’s “Willie the Pimp,” and attributing it to another animator. Unlike most of their imitators, the Quays aren’t reluctant when it comes to revealing their influences, who range from the Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, to puppeteers Wladyslaw Starewicz and Czech Richard Teschner, writers Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser and Michel de Ghelderode, and Czech composers Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Pole Leszek Jankowski. They’ve also designed book covers, theater sets and installations for prominent galleries. Their best-known film, the 21-minute Street of Crocodiles, was based on the darkly metaphorical memoirs of Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz, murdered by a Gestapo thug in 1942. In describing the bleakness of life in interwar Poland, the Quays follow a mute protagonist as he explores a realm of “mechanical realities and manufactured pleasures.” It was selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the 10-best animated films of all time, while and critic Jonathan Romney included it on his list of the 10 best films in any medium for Sight and Sound’s 2002 critics’ poll. Most of their films feature puppets made of doll parts, and other objects and surfaces discovered Eastern European markets. They’re posed within tableaux resembling dollhouses haunted by ancient ghosts and extinguished dreams. The carefully chosen avant-garde musical scores complement the macabre settings and bizarre inhabitants of the Quays worlds. The intricacy demands repeat viewings, and Zeitgeist Films’ splendid Blu-ray edition, The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films, allows for nearly microscopic inspection of the materials and props. Along with the aforementioned titles, the compilation includes This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), Stille Nacht I-IV (1988-94), The Comb (1990), Anamorphosis (1991), In Absentia (2000), The Phantom Museum (2003), Maska (2010), Through The Weeping Glass (2011), Unmistaken Hands (2013) and “Quay,” an appreciation by Christopher Nolan (2015). Inside the digipak is a 28-page booklet, containing an updated Quay Dictionary and an introduction by Nolan. Although most of the shorts can be appreciated on one level or another by anyone with a childlike fascination of miniature worlds and clockwork gadgetry, for gifting purposes, “Collected Short Films” likely will best be appreciated by serious students of the animators’ art and amateur Freudians. The brothers’ commentaries, alone, are worth a second viewing.

The Civil War: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
In case anyone is wondering if Ken Burns’ exceedingly giftable The Civil War: 25th Anniversary Edition features a different outcome to our country’s most terrible conflagration, the answer is “no.” The good guys still win, but, sadly, a minority of loudmouths on the losing team continues to wage war against human decency, civil rights and common sense. Some of them are even running for president. Neither has Burns anything new to add in the way of history lessons, beyond what we learned in the comprehensive nine-episode mini-series that drew millions of viewers to PBS. What makes this volume valuable is the effort that went into preserving the original footage for optimal video and audio quality. Blessedly, very little was damaged while in storage for the last quarter-century. So, all that was needed was a good digital scrub to restore details and eliminate artifacts. It looks good as new … maybe better. The six-disc collector’s set also features more than two hours of new bonus video, including the featurettes, “Making ‘The Civil War’: 25 Years Later” and “Restoring ‘The Civil War’” and complete Shelby Foote interviews.

Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series
Although the obsessive popularity enjoyed by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers has fluctuated over the last nearly 25 years, it’s never completely evaporated. New iterations of the concept have appeared in different formats and mediums, with a new theatrical film, designed to reboot the series, planned for release in January, 2017. If that comes as good news to you or someone on your gift list, you might want to consider picking up the boxed set, “Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series,” the original Japanese series that inspired the Power Rangers franchise. The Toei entertainment conglomerate titled the series, “Star Rangers,” for international consumption. Elements from it were merged into the second season of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” specifically the action sequences between the giant robots (which became the Power Rangers’ Thunderzords) and some of the monsters. It would take a full day to lay out the many permutations of the story and characters, and I’d probably get them wrong, so let’s assume that fans of one series likely would be interested in seeing the source materialq.

The Colbys: The Complete Series
Released on DVD last spring by Shout! Factory, “The Colbys: The Complete Series” is one of those shows that must have looked like a no-brainer upon its release on ABC, on November 20, 1985, but, after a bright opening, lost all of its luster going its second and final season. Originally titled “Dynasty II: The Colbys,” the prime-time soap starred Charlton Heston, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Ross and Ricardo Montalban, who, at the time, might have been better suited for appearances on “The Love Boat,” which didn’t have much steam left in it, either. Produced by Aaron Spelling, it was a spin-off of the top-rated “Dynasty” – some critics called it a clone – featuring characters who are relatives by marriage of the Carringtons. If anything, they were even wealthier and more decadent than their in-laws. In a decision that smacked of suicidal hubris, ABC positioned the series against NBC’s powerhouse lineup of “Cheers” and “Night Court.” A year later, it was forced to stand up to CBS’ “Dallas” spinoff, “Knots Landing” and the Peacock’s re-positioned “The Cosby Show.” For that reason, alone, it might be more fun to watch the show today, than 30 years ago, when Americans were still trying to master their VCRs.

Shaun the Sheep Movie: Blu-ray
Through its mastery of stop-motion animation, Aardman has carved a niche in the family-entertainment game that few of its competitors have been able to match. It’s been a while since anything attached to company frontman Nick Park has lasted longer than 30 minutes and that was 10 years ago, with the Oscar- and BAFTA-winning The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The latest feature-length Aardman Animations production, Shaun the Sheep Movie, is based on Park’s “Shaun the Sheep” television series, which began in 2007 and is still going strong. Here, though, Park handed the reins to Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, who were able to commit six years of their time to the project. That it works so well without a single line of recognizable dialogue is a testament to the team’s ability to tickle our imagination with things other than words and anthropomorphic characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a petting zoo. Park introduced Shaun the Sheep in the 1995 “Wallace and Gromit” short “A Close Shave,” which also took top prize in Academy Award and BAFTA competition. Since then, Shaun has starred in 31 shorts of his own. Here, the mischievous ball of wool conspires to put the Farmer to sleep, in the usual sheeply way, so they can have some fun. The dull-minded doofus decides to take a nap in a trailer that soon will be rolling out-of-control to the nearest big city, where quickly loses his memory of anything except the use of shears.

Meanwhile, when things take an anarchic turn on the farm, Shaun and the flock decide to track down their master and bring him back to Mossy Bottom Farm, where the pigs have taken over the farmhouse. Unaware that untethered animals can be rounded up and impounded, until such time as they’re claimed or euthanized, Shaun makes the mistake of getting on the wrong side of the city’s animal-containment officer, Trumper. While inside the pound, Shaun finds allies in other caught critters, anxious for freedom. Almost accidentally, the escapees discover that Farmer has become a big star, shearing the heads of humans in fanciful shapes. Once again, the sheep put him to sleep and bring him back home, where Trumper is waiting for them. If the plot sounds simplistic, Aardman fans know to expect enough clever sight gags, musical cues, homages to previous films and crude barnyard humor to satisfy kids and adult viewers, alike. The Blu-ray’s audio/visual presentation literally sparkles, technically and artistically. The bonus features add “Making the Shaun Movie,” “Meet the Characters,”  “Join Shaun Behind the Scenes,” “Meet the Crew” and a “Parody Poster Gallery.”

No Escape: Blu-ray
In an interview contained in bonus package, John Erick Dowdle and his brother, Drew, describe No Escape as a “family drama, masquerading as an action film.” They’re too young to remember the type of political dramas that also were referred to as “paranoid thrillers,” but there’s a bit of that subgenre visible in No Escape, as well. Among the titles lumped under the same heading were The Parallax View, The China Syndrome, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and, even, All the President’s Men. The Dowdles’ probably owe more to such films as Taken and Die Hard than any of those titles, but, here, too, bad things happen to good people for politically motivated reasons that will be revealed somewhere down the road. Owen Wilson plays a Texas-based engineer hired by an international conglomerate that facilitates the availability of fresh water in underdeveloped countries. Because he believes in his new employer’s mission, Jack convinces his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and two young daughters, to move with him to an unnamed Southeast Asian nation that borders on Vietnam. Because viewers have already witnessed the assassination of a local potentate, after a meeting with a western business executive, we know more about what’s about to happen than the jet-lagged American. The next morning, while Jack is wandering the neighborhood of his swank hotel for a newspaper, he finds himself trapped between a phalanx of riot police and insurgents dressed like the assassin. Jack’s route back to the hotel is now strewn with hacked-up bodies and the flaming husks of automobiles and motorbikes. Outside the entrance to the hotel, the same rowdy bunch of protesters is clamoring for something or other. When another westerner is murdered before his eyes, Jack rushes to the rescue of his family. On his way up the elevator, he encounters the mysterious fellow, Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), they befriended on last night’s trip from the airport to the hotel. Before dealing with a pair of rebels in pursuit, Hammond tells Jack to take his family to the roof. The chase is on.

Any resemblance between the mob outside the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi and the machete-wielding rabble outside the hotel likely is coincidental. In a few minutes, Jack will discover that they’re pissed off at his company, which is conspiring with the government to monetize the water system by charging for a commodity that has always been free. (This already is happening in sub-Saharan Africa, where potable water is as precious as gold.) When the government inevitably runs out of money to pay for their end of the deal, the conglomerate takes control of the water system, setting rates poor people can’t afford. Because Jack’s face appears on a corporate banner in the hotel lobby, he’s being held responsible for the objectionable policy. At this particular point in the narrative, mind you, Jack has no idea why his company is being singled out or why no one there has made contact with him. By this time, though, it doesn’t really matter, because the crowd has fallen in love with the smell of blood and wants more of it. Despite a certain absence of logic as to why there’s been so little military response to the lightly armed crowd, the Dowdles do a nice job investing us in the safety of the family and, tangentially, Hammond. If viewers were given a few seconds to think about the conglomerate’s odious designs, we’d probably sympathize with the insurgents, who are dressed to resemble Al Qaeda wannabes. Any questions we have about other political affiliations and motivations, like those surrounding the identity of the country, will go unanswered. Wilson and Lake are entirely credible as endangered and likely clueless couple, while, as usual, Brosnan keeps things interesting whenever he’s on the screen. The can be said about the Chiang Mai, Thailand, setting. The Blu-ray adds a couple of deleted scenes and interviews.

The Dinner
A few years ago, Hollywood fell in love with stories in which seemingly normal kids in model communities commit horrible crimes and their parents are forced to deal with the consequences. These ranged from deciding whether to report their children to police after a terrible automobile accident, to facing the survivors of a massacre caused by their demented little angels. These weren’t abstract situations, either on film or in contemporary life. That parents are among the last people to recognize the signs of potential psychosis in their kids no longer is unthinkable. In the aftermath of school massacres, we’ve learned that classmates tend to understand the motivations of perpetrators of crimes better than any parent could be expected to perceive in conversations around the dinner table. Based on a best-selling novel by Herman Koch, The Dinner Party immediately recalls Barbet Schroeder’s Before and After and Terry George’s Reservation Road, in which the moral dilemmas faced by the adult characters are thrown into the laps of viewers. Ivano De Matteo and co/writer Valentina Ferlan’s story adds an additional layer of tension between adult brothers – a lawyer and a doctor – and their respective wives, who only see the worst in each other and their kids. The movie opens with an incident that is only tangentially related to the brothers. In a case of road rage, a brutish Roman driver takes offense at hand gestures directed at him by another motorist. When both cars come to a stop, the offended driver picks up a baseball bat and charges the driver, who’s still in the driver’s seat. Just as the bat is about to hit glass, the second driver – a cop – picks up his service revolver and shoots, killing the man and wounding his son. Not being the United States, the cop is taken into custody in advance of an investigation into unauthorized use of a weapon. At the couples’ monthly dinner, brothers Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) spark over the former agreeing to defend the cop, while the doctor is treating the seriously injured boy. At this point, it’s little more than a coincidence.

Paolo’s wife, Clara, is addicted to a popular real-crime show on television. As she’s watching a segment in which security-camera footage captured the unsolved beating of a homeless woman being mercilessly beaten, Clara intuitively begins to worry that her teenage son, Michele, might be involved. If so, the tape might also reveal the participation of his cousin, Massimo’s daughter Benni, who had invited Michele to a party that night in the same neighborhood. Of course, they deny everything. Clara decides to do an end-run around her husband, by consulting Massimo, not only about their legal options, but also how to squeeze the truth from the cousins. Paolo’s immediate response is to be pissed off at his wife for consulting his brother, first, and possibly giving him something to lord over the doctor. When Benni is forced to acknowledge her role in the crime, both couples are required to come to grips with a situation that could ruin their families’ stability and damage their reputations in equal measure. Michele and Benni are willing to blame everything on being wasted at the time of the incident and, therefore, absent of any real blame in what they perceive to be an accident.

Naturally, the adults aren’t so sure about how to proceed. Both of the men are bound by the moral dictates of their jobs to be advocates of the truth. They disagreed on how the road-rage killing should have been handled and, here, the murder of a homeless woman can’t even be dismissed as self-defense. Presumably, the in-laws’ next discussion over the dinner table will result in an agreed-upon solution to their dilemma, without destroying their kids’ futures or sending the wrong message by not holding them accountable. After all, crimes like this don’t happen in the best of families. DeMatteo never ratchets down the tension that’s built up between the couples or, for that matter, between the characters and viewers. The Film Movement DVD adds a making-of featurette. Apparently, an American adaptation of Koch’s novel, with Cate Blanchett at the helm and Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy) at the typewriter.

Applesauce: Blu-ray
Like The Dinner, the primary characters in Applesauce are couples who meet for dinner on a regular basis, but who share one secret too many between them. Writer/director Onur Tukel plays Ron Welz, an inner-city teacher who challenges his students to put down their cellphones and check out what life has to offer. A decent guy, with discernible doofus tendencies, Ron is fascinated by a radio talk-show host (Dylan Baker), whose great talent is allowing his listeners the space to hang themselves with embarrassing revelations about themselves. On the night he works up the nerve to reveal his own worst moment, Ron is forced to sign off early by his wife, Nickki (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who’s anxious not to be late for their weekly dinner. When they’re asked why they’re late, however, Ron feels obligated to tell them what he was about to say to thousands of talk-show listeners. While unappetizing and potentially embarrassing, his faux pas more closely resembles an urban legend than actual occurrence. Even so, the next time they got together, Ron feels entitled to ask Les (Max Casella) the worst secret he might be harboring. Turns out, it’s a real game-changer for the four friends.

Meanwhile, after Ron reveals his secret about causing an adversary to lose a hand in a college tussle, someone begins sending him severed body parts in the mail and other deliveries. It unnerves him to the point that he begins to mistrust Les, Nikki, the Chinese take-out guy and an unruly student. Attentive viewers won’t have the same problem as Ron. Les’ secret, too, takes on a life of its own. In such uber-indies as Summer of Blood and Richard’s Wedding, the New York-based Tukel has already proven what one determined guy can accomplish on a mercilessly tiny budget, a few good ideas and game actors. When boiled down to the basics, Applesauce is a dark comedy about the law of unintended consequences and the dangers of being too honest with friends and strangers, alike. Not everything works as intended, but Applesauce demonstrates how Tukel may be ready to take a step or two up the indie ladder.

Ghost Story: Blu-ray
Audiences have become so accustomed to not seeing adults over the age of 30 in starring roles that the cast of John Irvin’s 1981 supernatural thriller, Ghost Story, might seem freakish to them. With the exception of two actors who play double roles — Craig Wasson (Body Double) and Alice Krige (Star Trek) – the movie represents something of a walk-of-fame reunion. Nearing the end of their long and distinguished careers, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman play four elderly New England gentlemen, who don tuxedos on a regular basis and tell tales of horror to each other. The Oscar- and Tony Award-winning actress, Patricia Neal (Hud), is a spring chicken compared to her older co-stars. Today, the odds of finding such a distinguished lineup in a genre film would be small-to-none. In 1981, however, any picture adapted from a best-selling novel by Peter Straub would warrant a budget that elevated it from ranks of drive-in and grindhouse fare.

The way Irvin makes us aware of the awful secret the lifelong friends have carried with them for more than 50 years is through flashbacks to their Jazz Age selves. In the interim, they became pillars of the town’s social and business communities. Recently, though, a ghost from the past has returned to haunt their dreams and those of younger family members. Knowing that their time in this world isn’t long, the specter appears to be working overtime to make their passage to the other side as painful as possible. As might be expected of a movie adapted from a novel, the thrills derive less from special makeup effects and jump scares than old-fashioned lighting tricks and anticipation. It worked then and still does, today. It helps mightily that the big reveals take place near the end of the movie. More than anything else, though, it’s fun to watch and guess along with the characters as to who will be the next to die. The upgraded Blu-ray adds commentary by Irvin; interviews with Straub, Krige, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, producer Burt Weissbourd and matte photographer Bill Taylor, as well as a vintage theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots and a photo gallery.

The Badger Game: Blu-ray
As most students of crime already know, a badger game is an extortion scheme in which a married man – usually – is lured into a compromising position by an attractive woman – usually — and blackmailed into scrapping up enough money to satisfy the crooks holding evidence of his cheating ways. Anyone attracted to Joshua Wagner and Thomas Zambeck’s The Badger Game by the wildly costumed actors on the cover needn’t worry about picking up a highlight reel from the University of Wisconsin’s march to the Final Four last year, because we’re talking about a different set of badgers. Here, two young women (Augie Duke, Jillian Leigh), who’ve fallen victim to a wealthy philanderer, scheme with a stripper and ex-con (Sasha Higgins, Patrick Cronen) to blackmail the man who’s done them wrong. They know that the “mark,” Liam (Sam Boxleitner), is worth $2 million and, because most it comes from his wealthy wife, he’d hate to give her reason to cut off the funding. It’s a sound idea that even allows for a couple of unexpected wrinkles. What can’t be anticipated, however, is Liam’s stubborn response to the threats and how the women will react to the cruelty of the sadistic ex-con. Hesitation and rookie mistakes ensure that everything that can go wrong in the basement of the big house in the woods does go wrong, including the arrival of a private eye interested in extorting the guy’s money before the amateurs get to it. The directors pull back from the sight of extreme torture, preferring to focus on tensions that arise upstairs between the kidnapers. The actors keep things from getting boring, at least. The package includes two separate commentary tracks and footage from a reception at a festival screening. (By the way, such blackmailing schemes go back at least to 1792, when the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was extorted for money and information by the husband of Maria Reynolds, with whom he was having an affair.)

Blood and Lace: Blu-ray
When Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace found its way to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, giallo was a subgenre of Italian psycho-thrillers in its infancy. Critics greeted it and other Italian imports with only mild interest and some outright disdain, comparing the style to something Hitchcock might have dismissed on the way to making Psycho. Every visual and audio aspect seemed exaggerated by half and the cinematography felt garish in the extreme. In 1971, Philip Gilbert’s Blood and Lace was released to similarly glum notices, disappearing not long after its debut. VHS was still years away, so it wouldn’t be easy to find for a long while to come. I can’t recall how long it took before Americans began to accept giallo as entity onto itself, certainly longer than the acceptance of spaghetti-Westerns. The proliferation of classic titles pretty much coincided with the introduction of DVD and the added value of commentaries and other bonus features. Today, it’s as popular and widely imitated as it ever was. Still, it’s taken this long for the first American giallo to find a distributor willing to invest some money in an upgrade.

Typically, Blood and Lace opens with the hyper-violent murder of a prostitute and her trick, while asleep, by a hammer-wielding fiend whose face isn’t shown. Before the woman’s teenage daughter, Ellie (Melody Patterson), can leave town, she’s captured and sent to an isolated orphanage run by Gloria Graham’s sadistic Mrs. Deere and her handyman, played by Len Lesser, who would go on to immortalize Uncle Leo, from “Seinfeld.” They profit from the number of orphans they house and the corners they cut on budget items that are subsidized by the state. When one disappears, it raises suspicions with local authorities, including a sheriff played by Vic Tayback (“Alice”), who has a special interest in Ellie. It becomes especially acute when it appears as if the hammer-wielding stranger has begun to stalk the girl. Blood and Lace remains as unapologetically lurid today as it was 40 years ago. It exists more as a curiosity than anything else, especially for the involvement of 1952 Best Supporting Actress, Graham (The Bad and the Beautiful) and the recently deceased blond bombshell, Patterson (“F Troop”). The Arrow Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith and an alternate opening title.

Cut Snake
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Last House
In such testosterone-fueled movies as Romper Stomper, Chopper, The Hard Word, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition and the Mad Max series, Australian filmmakers have shown international audiences what it means to be a hard-ass action hero from Down Under. Look at some of the early films of Bryan Brown, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Heath Ledger and Joel Edgerton and it’s possible to wonder how anyone that intimidating could play rough-and-ready in one film and soft-and-sensitive the next. Feel free to add Melbourne-born Sullivan Stapleton to that list of actors who seem to appear out of nowhere, grab you by the throat and leave you kicking and screaming for more. In Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake, Stapleton plays the kind of prison-sculpted monster we met in Chopper and Bronson and hoped would never be released from stir. Set in 1970s Australia, it describes what happens when hardened criminal Pommie (Stapleton) is freed from prison and heads straight for the home of his former cellmate, Sparra Farrell (Alex Russell), who, since his release, has lived the life of a fully rehabilitated citizen. He’s engaged to the beautiful Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and gainfully employed as a machinist. It isn’t until well past Pommie shows up on their doorstep that Sparra feels it necessary to come clean about his stint in prison. Being young, handsome and not particularly tough, Sparra almost immediately becomes a target for the psychopaths and sexual predators. When Pommie took him under his wing, however, the torment ended. Once free, Pommie expected that Sparra would quit everything and go on a hell-raising tour of eastern Australia. It didn’t take much to set the musclebound ex-con off, however, and, within days, Pomma has set the wheels in motion for disaster. The story appears to have been informed, in part, by 1973 firebombing of the Whisky Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane, in which 15 people lost their lives. Admirers of The Hard Word and Animal Kingdom should find a lot to like in Cut Snake.

I wonder if Stanford University gets royalties from the half dozen, or so, movies and documentaries based on its famous 1971 prison experiment. Conducted from August 14–20, by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the experiment was staged in the basement of the psychology building. Twenty-four male students were divided into groups of 12 guards and 12 prisoners, including 3 alternates in each team. Zimbardo took on the role of the superintendent, and an undergraduate research assistant the role of the warden. They attempted to approximate the many variables that affect real prisoner/guard dynamics. After six days, the experiment had gotten so out of hand that Zimbardo was encouraged to call it off, which he did. Six years later, Italian director Carlo Tuzii adapted the experiment to an Italian environment, in La Gabbia (“The Cage”). The 1992 documentary, Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment – written by Zimbardo and directed by Ken Musen — was made available via the SPE website. Mario Giordano’s novel “Black Box” was adapted for the screen by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, as Das Experiment. An English-language remake of that film, The Experiment, was released in 2010. Newly released into DVD, The Stanford Prison Experiment, stars Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, from whose point-of-view the story is told. Other cast members include Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Michael Angarano and Thomas Mann. Spoiler alert: the conclusions are the same in all of the films. Ironically, the study was financed by U.S. Office of Naval Research, which apparently neglected to pass the results along to the guards assigned to the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. As could have been predicted, they abused the powers not specifically denied them by their superiors. Commentary on the DVD is provided by Zimbardo and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. It adds featurettes, “Bringing to Life the Stanford Prison Experiment” and “The Psychology Behind the Stanford Prison Experiment.”

I was reading one of those where-are-they-now articles on the Internet a few days ago and, in it, the writer speculated on what Jason Mewes might have been up to since his last on-tour film, Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green. Mewes, who knows he’ll never be mistaken for Sir Laurence Olivier, has had endured several well-documented run-ins with the law and addiction problems since becoming Kevin Smith’s muse, in Clerks, but a quick perusal of IMDB.com would have shown that he’s currently as busy as ever. He serves as leading man in Sean Cain and Wes Laurie’s hookers-in-jeopardy thriller, The Last House (a.k.a., Breath of Hate), which is set in a for-sale Hollywood mansion taken over by a trio of loony-bin escapees. The leader of the gang, Hate (Ezra Buzzington), has a thing for female sex workers, so it’s only natural that he becomes possessed with one named Love (Lauren Walsh). The others suffer the same fate as naughty girls in horror movies, in which sex is followed by death. To rescue his damsel, Mewes’ Ned is required to follow a trail that leads through an unusually sleazy strip club and a pimp who keeps a turtle as a pet. Otherwise, it’s fairly standard straight-to-DVD fare. It’s interesting to see such soft- and hard-core veterans as Monique Parent (Play Time) and Joanna Angel (Tattooed Babysitters Club), if only for the most obvious of reasons. The DVD adds a deleted scene, director interview and festival Q&A.

The Color of Noise: Blu Ray
Dirty Works: Rebel Scum
In the history of contemporary music, the underground sub-genre “noise rock” represents little more than a footnote. But, in the eyes and ears of many parents, all music produced after the swing era qualified as noise, so why parse the difference. Freshman documentarian Eric Robel, the writer/director/cinematographer/producer of The Color of Noise, thought enough about the post-punk, pre/grunge movement to devote two hours of digital space, not including featurettes, to the subject. It could have been longer, but Robel wisely chose to focus his efforts on former U.S. Marine Tom Hazelmyer (a.k.a., Artist Haze XXL) and his notorious record label, Amphetamine Reptile Records. To be precise, Hazelmyer joined the corps only after he’d become disillusioned with his future as a punk musician. While stationed near Seattle, he established Amphetamine Reptile with the intention of issuing albums by his band Halo of Flies, which had already been turned down by several recording labels. “Ooh Rah!” Eventually the label’s roster expanded to include releases by Helmet, the Melvins, the Cows, Helios Creed, Chokebore, Servotron and others. The operation would move to Minneapolis, which, like Seattle, was home to a burgeoning alt-rock scene. In addition to the time devoted to performance footage, The Color of Noise excels in the label’s role in the resurgence of poster art, EP covers and concert leaflets. The artistic discipline had lain more or less dormant since the collapse of the psychedelic era. The film also features more than 50 interviews from fans and practitioners around the globe.

Representing yet another rock subset is the Knoxville-based, the Dirty Works, which describes itself as a “white trash punk band” and the nexus of the Bible Belt and Punk Rock. Dirty Works makes the Sex Pistols look like the Beach Boys, while its frontman Christopher Scum makes Iggy Pop look like Donny Osmond … not in a particularly good way, either. In Video Rahim’s almost painfully intimate documentary, Dirty Works: Rebel Scum, we watch as what essentially is a single-gimmick bar band develops delusions of grandeur and self-destructs in a haze of marijuana smoke, heroin, methadone and, especially, hard liquor … lots and lots of it. Scum’s shtick basically requires of him that he bang his head throughout each set, while shouting anti-social lyrics, until blood begins to drip from his forehead. It isn’t the most original gag in the biz, but it still impresses the rubes. Rahim appears to have been given an all-access pass to some of the worst behavior ever displayed by a rock band, much of which falls under the general heading, “It’s only rock ’n’ roll.” In fact, though, alcoholism and heroin is never attractive, especially when the victim lacks the financial and professional wherewithal of Keith Richards. Or, when the lead singer’s devoted girlfriend gives up trying to help him repel his demons and joins him in partaking in the poison. As entertainment, Dirty Works: Rebel Scum is pretty unappetizing, but, as a street-level cautionary tale, it could hardly be more effective.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Xmas Without China
Comedy Central: Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Jamestown’s Dark Winter
PBS: The Brain With David Eagleman
When it comes to production values and research, Alicia Dwyer’s seasonally appropriate documentary, “Xmas Without China,” doesn’t rival a Rick Burns’ production. It does, however, make some interesting points about how Americans celebrate what once was a religious holiday, with the help of people once considered to be godless communists. In fact, if it weren’t for China and its infamous sweatshops, Christmas would be a rather drab and far more expensive celebration. Dwyer follows Chinese immigrant Tom Xia around his family’s adopted hometown of Arcadia, California – heavily Asian-American and increasingly upper-middle-class – where he’s challenged residents to celebrate the holiday without the benefit of exports from China. The products would necessarily include the types of toys roundly condemned by consumer advocates for being potentially harmful to children. Xia wasn’t attempting to make any particular political point, preferring to question the American media’s blanket condemnation of imports from the PRC. The Jones family, which seems representative of the city’s non-Asian citizenry, agreed to give up toys, plates, lamps, clothes, appliances, entertainment platforms and decorations. They could substitute with products made elsewhere, but it turned out to be a more difficult task than actually finding a bull in a china shop. Meanwhile, Tom’s parents are constructing a new home, proudly using Chinese materials to build their American dream house. When they attempt to emulate their neighbors in the ritual of decorating their home and yard with lights, they, too, learn a lesson in consumerism, American style. (Having lived in the same neighborhood for many years, I can attest to the intense competition for most-brightly-lit house and hugely inflated prices for houses, which is forcing longtime residents, like the Jones, to consider selling at the top of the market and finding homes, elsewhere.) Xia also shares a visit to family members in China, where he also checks out how or even if the country’s export-based prosperity has trickled down to average citizens.

I wonder if anyone at Comedy Central has started a pool to guess how long superstar comedian Amy Schumer will continue hosting “Inside Amy Schumer,” before reserving her talents exclusively for the big screen. She’s already lasted a year longer at the network than Dave Chappelle, who took a powder from his hugely popular “Chappelle’s Show” after being accorded a $50-million contract. It’s difficult to believe that Schumer would risk her still young career for the uncertainty of Hollywood fame, but stranger things have happened. The third season DVD package represents her sassiest and most provocative stage and, yes, she’s already committed to a fourth stanza. The show has received a Peabody Award and has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards, winning two. Season Three opened with a bang, with Amy joining Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette in a discussion about how it felt to reach their “Last Fuckable Day” in show business, as well as a hip-hop version of the scatological “Milk, Milk, Lemonade,” with Method Man, Amber Rose and other special guests. It would have been tough to top those show-stoppers, but Amy found ways to keep “Inside Amy Schumer” rolling for another nine episodes, ending at the same orifice that she began the season. It includes an unaired sketch and other goodies.

In PBS’ fascinating, sometimes macabre series, “Secrets of the Dead,” state-of-the-art forensics techniques are used to shed light on some of the most mysterious events in recorded history. The new DVD release, “Jamestown’s Dark Winter,” was inspired by a discovery made by a team of archaeologists excavating the site of the famously doomed early-American colony. Buried in the trash layer of a cellar, they discovered the remains of a young woman, dating back to 1609. The settlers faced an extremely harsh winter, surrounded by hostile members of the Powhatan tribe, who weren’t in a Thanksgiving state of mind. More surprising than the location in which they were found are the cut marks on the lower jaw and front of the cranium. With the help of forensic anthropologists, the extraordinary and frightening story of this young woman comes to life.

The six-part PBS series “The Brain With David Eagleman” reveals the human story behind neuroscience by blending scientific truth with innovative visual effects and compelling personal stories. Written and hosted by the genial scientist, the program attempts to educate neuroscience neophytes on the most fundamental processes of our most important organ: how it channels thought, how it processes reality, how it functions in both conscious and unconscious states. With barely a brain scanner or a white coat in sight, “The Brain” focuses on understanding the fundamental truths of what it means to be human now and in the coming centuries, while communicating these elegant and simple ideas as they apply to us and our experiences.

Shelby: A Magical Holiday Tail
Up TV: Marry Me for Christmas
Up TV: Christmas Mix
Up TV: Merry Ex-Mas
Original Christmas Classics Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: A Totally Awesome Christmas
It’s been a while since a truly endearing movie about Christmas has been released into theaters and went on to become an annual treat. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the costs of making and marketing such recent holiday pictures as Arthur Christmas, Four Christmases, The Santa Clause series – however modest and likely profitable – no longer is worth the risk. The number of available screens has also been reduced by studios pushing their awards candidates and potential blockbusters. The safer option today has become the VOD, PPV and straight-to-DVD marketplace, where a few recognizable names on a cover can mean a few million dollars in revenue. Shelby: A Magical Holiday Tail is the kind of picture that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves dogs – especially those of the talking variety – and can remember the better days of Chevy Chase, Tom Arnold and, even, Rob Schneider, whose best work since “SNL” has come as a voice actor. Shelby is a stray beagle, who has proven adept at escaping dog pounds. Arnold plays the frazzled animal-control officer whose life Shelby has made miserable. When a spoiled rich kid tries to adopt him for all the wrong reasons, Shelby runs away and hides in the suburban basement of 10-year-old aspiring magician Jake Parker (John Paul Ruttan). After the rich kid’s family offers the dogcatcher a $5,000 reward for the slippery doggy, Chase plays Jake’s grandfather and most dependable ally. The Dove-approved movie adds enough rowdy behavior and silly pranks to keep everyone happy.

Another reliable place to find holiday-themed entertainments is cable television, especially the niche networks that have learned a few tricks from the folks at Lifetime: recognize your audience, give your viewers what they want and don’t push your luck by taking them for granted. Once known as the Gospel Music Channel, Up TV is dedicated to presenting “uplifting, family-friendly original movies, series and specials.” It doesn’t cater specifically to so-called urban audiences, but those who remember its gospel roots haven’t been forgotten. Up TV began putting its holiday inventory of original programming on heavy rotation, beginning on November 1. I don’t know how much the 2013 rom-com, Marry Me for Christmas, owes to The Proposal, in which a pushy boss (Sandra Bullock) forces her young assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her in order to keep her visa status in the U.S. and avoid deportation to Canada. Here, Marci Jewel (Malinda Williams) is the owner of an up-and-coming ad agency and thrilled with her single life in New York. With the pressure on at home for more grandbabies – and a deadline looming at work – Marci drags her employee, Adam (Brad James), to Atlanta, where he’s required to pretend to be her fiancé. While caught up in the family’s frenetic holiday drama, Marci learns some unexpected lessons about love, trust and family, particularly when it comes to her new ‘fiancé’ and lifelong friends.

As is too often the case with made-for-cable movies, Up TV’s original “Naughty and Nice” turns up on DVD as Christmas Mix. After infuriating advertisers with one of his trademark stunts, Los Angeles radio personality Pepper Sterling (Tilky Jones) gets exiled to the quaint town of Idyllwild for the holiday season. Forced to share airtime with his polar opposite, the buttoned-down psychologist Sandy Love (Haylie Duff), Pepper finds that he has met his match. After Christmas, Pepper is offered the chance to return home and resume his life as a radio celebrity. Gee, I wonder what he’ll do.

I can’t think of an actor who’s starred as the romantic lead in as many cable-original movies as Dean Cain. In Ion Television’s Merry Ex-Mas, he plays security specialist Jessie Rogers, who’s caught in a compromising position with his rock-star client, his humiliated wife Noelle (Kristy Swanson) swiftly files for divorce. Unable to convince her of his innocence, Jessie gets an assist from Jack Frost when they’re stuck in a cabin during a blizzard.

The Original Christmas Classics Anniversary Collector’s Edition” includes Blu-ray editions of seven holiday favorites that are so old they’ve begun to grow whiskers: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus Is Comin to Town,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Frosty Returns,” “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Cricket on the Hearth.” The set adds several new hi-def featurettes, including “Be an Artist and Create,” starring Joe Vance, director of character art at DreamWorks; the “Kringle Jingle” ditty; “Santa Special Delivery,” with historical factoids about Santa Claus, trivia about the television show and song, as well as some interstitial interviews with kids; “Learn to Draw,” with Dave Burgess of DreamWorks Animation; “Rudolph Unwrapped,” another trivia track; another sing-along, “Magical Melody”; and “Frosty Snowflake Surprises,” with trivia factoids. After decades of use, these old chestnuts have never looked better.

At PBS Kids, the name of the game is repackaging, a common practice when showcasing DVDs for the youngest viewers. In fact, not all of the episodes in these holiday-themed collections have anything to do with Christmas. In “Peg + Cat: A Totally Awesome Christmas,” Santa’s got serious problems, Peg and Cat have to figure out how to make and wrap presents for all the children of the world, and then deliver them using 100 sleighs. “WordWorld: Merry Christmas” offers five adventures, including “The Christmas Star” and “A Christmas Present for Dog.” “Caillou’s Christmas” features 12 fun-filled holiday- and winter-themed adventures, from visiting Santa and going Christmas-tree shopping in “Holiday Magic,” to planning to stay up all night to see Santa in “Caillou’s Christmas Eve.” “Odd Squad: Reindeer Games” follows Olive and Otto to the North Pole, where Santa needs help delivering presents and rounding up reindeers that have escaped from their pens. The set also includes “Ms. O Uh-Oh” and “Party of 5,4,3,2,1.”

The DVD Wrapup: Crumbs, Meru, Tenderness of Wolves, Living in Oblivion and more

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Crumbs
Forbidden Zone
As tiresome as most movies about our shared dystopian future have become, longtime fans of the increasingly predictable sub-genre shouldn’t give hope of finding something new and different until they’ve seen Crumbs, an instant classic from a place that looks as if it had already experienced the apocalypse and was left standing. Earlier this year, Ethiopia-based Spaniard Miguel Llansó captured the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival and the Imaging the Future Award at the Neuchâtel International Fantasy Film Festival. If it isn’t given serious consideration for a Spirit Award, it’s only because the folks at Film Independent haven’t cast their nets out far enough this season. If it had been made 30 years ago and released here as a midnight movie, Crumbs might be mentioned today in the same breath as El Topo, Eraserhead, Freaks, A Boy and His Dog and Pink Flamingos. It’s that fresh and unique. Crumbs was shot primarily in the far northeastern tip of Ethiopia, in and around the ghost town of Dallol, which is one of the most remote human settlements on Earth. It makes the Salton Sea look like the Garden of Eden.

CRUMBS_Nazi_640

A tiny malformed scavenger, Candy (Selam Tesfayie), whiles away his daylight hours in the punishing sun, picking through remnants of late twentieth century pop culture. At night, he shares a long-abandoned bowling alley with his artistic lover, Birdy (Daniel Tadesse), who worships the found relics in the same way as religious artifacts, ancient coins and antique jewelry are today. An amulet crafted from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurine is considered to be an especially significant item, as are a vintage copy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” LP and is a framed photograph of Michael Jordan. The only other thing of relevance to the Amharic-speaking survivors – including a witch, gangly old man in a Santa Claus suit and a horseman in Nazi garb – is a mysterious spacecraft that hovers over the planet, like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Silent for generations, Candy senses that the ship is coming back to life – the ball-return machinery starts working again – and he wants to be on it when it makes its next move. Llansó makes full use of the remnants of the mining community that were left behind after its minerals were played out in the 1960s. He and cinematographer Israel Seoane also pay homage to such fantasies as District 9, WALL-E, E.T. and Wizard of Oz along the way, with a special musical nod to Andrei Tarkovsky. If this all sounds suspiciously pretentious, know that Crumbs times in at a comfortable 68 minutes and the surprises along the way make it feel even shorter. The DVD adds “anecdotes” and the short films “Night in the Wild Garden” and “Chigger Ale,” also featuring Tadesse.

If the mere mention of the band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo raises a smile, it isn’t necessarily because you can recall whistling along to the band’s hits, “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science,” or that you were among the few to see Forbidden Zone, upon its release 35 years ago. Relegated to the midnight-movie ghetto, it disappeared completely after politically correctness reared its ugly head and the whistle was blown on some inarguably racist characterizations. Forbidden Zone originally was conceived as a video showcase for the theatrical eccentricities of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s extravagant live performances. Tentatively titled “The Hercules Family,” the 16mm film would consist of 12 musical numbers and bumpers loosely constructed around a family’s unfortunate decision to move into a house whose basement served as a portal to hell. As Richard’s 16mm vision evolved into a 35mm reality, the musical sequences were extended to reflect its completely off-the-wall narrative and the Elfmans’ cinematic aspirations. It now betrayed influences ranging from Spike Jones and the City Slickers; the Three Stooges; Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer’s 200 Motels; Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees’ musical, Head; music videos by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; and Terry Gilliam’s animation on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Among the many surprises in Forbidden Zone, apart from 3-foot-11 Hervé Villechaize’s portrayal of King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension, are delightfully twisted, if questionable homages to Josephine Baker and Cab Calloway. There’s also a human-size dancing frog, jockstrap-clad Kipper Kids, a chicken-boy able to communicate telepathically with his transvestite brother, Joe Spinell as a drunken sailor, classroom violence, a Jewish wrestler fighting a guy in an ape suit, and Danny Elfman playing Satan, while singing “Minnie the Moocher.” The Blu-ray set includes a re-mastered version of the original B&W film, a later colorized edition and interviews with the Elfmans, co-writer Matthew Bright, and co-stars Susan Tyrrell and Marie-Pascale Elfman. Danny Elfman’s next project was composing the theme music for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Meru: Blu-ray
Gringo Trails
Before April 18, 2014, when an avalanche crashed down the slopes of Mount Everest, killing 16 Sherpa guides, climbing the world’s tallest peak was becoming as newsworthy as riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Reports of gridlock on the most direct route were being common, as were issues surrounding decades’ worth of garbage and human waste, and, more recently, how to deal with the growing number of frozen corpses of less-fortunate mountaineers visible to trekkers. Even after Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and Lou Kasischke’s “After the Wind” described the events surrounding the 1996 tragedy, in which eight climbers were killed, the rush to “conquer” Everest continued apace. So did such theatrical films, documentaries and cautionary tales as Touching the Void, The Wildest Dream, The Beckoning Silence, K2: Siren of the Himalayas, The Summit, Messner, Cold, North Face, Dying for Everest, The Climb, Blindsight and Farther Than the Eye Can See. No such traffic jams exist on the trails leading to Meru Peak, a mountain which lies in the Garwhal Himalayas, in the Uttarakhand region of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2001 that Russian climber Valeri Babanov reached the summit of Meru Central, overcoming a 100-meter rock face along the way. It would take another 10 years before the more direct and difficult central route – imagine clinging to the edge of a shark’s fin, 21,000 feet high — was used to reach the top by a team consisting of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. The fabulously thrilling documentary, Meru, is their visual record of the feat, as well as the preparations and setbacks that led up to it. It was co-directed by Chin, who carried a Red Epic digital camera on the climb, and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who chose to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground. Mountain climbing isn’t often lumped together with so-called extreme sports, unless fingernails are used instead of ropes and climbers sleep in portaledges, high above the floor of a canyon below them. There’s almost nothing in Meru, however, that viewers wouldn’t consider to be extreme, in one way or another. The Music Box Blu-ray is excellent, with deleted scenes, commentaries and interview segments.

No matter how spectacular the images in Meru are, it isn’t likely that tourists and amateurs will beat a path to the doors of its permanent residents, including the local fakirs. The peak is far too forbidding for anyone not a world-class climber to attempt. Icarus Films’ provocative documentary, Gringo Trails, raises questions asked previously in films decrying the trashing of Everest. It boils down to  the steep price paid by the native populations when their homeland is “discovered” and revenues from tourism become impossible to resist. The exploitation of each new earthly paradise happens in dozens of different ways, some obvious and other far more subtle. As depicted by director Pegi Vail, associate director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, the examples are all too familiar to what’s happened in and around our national parks, and during spring break in Florida, Texas and Palm Springs. In 1981, Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg survived a month lost in the Amazon, emerging from the jungle nearly as emaciated as a concentration-camp survivor. Rather than frighten tourists away from the Amazon basin, his memoirs resulted in a new cottage industry, with adventurous tourists delivering prosperity to some and new forms of poverty to others. Likewise, an intrepid backpacker’s search for an “unspoiled” island paradise in Thailand has the unintended effect of turning it into a destination for debauched young people from around the world. Another victim of word-of-mouth publicity is the original inhabitant of an island on the Salt Flats of Bolivia, whose kindness to strangers nearly turned his backyard into an eco-tragedy. If all Vail related in her film were horror stories, it would hardly come as news to most enlightened American travelers. (The titular gringos aren’t limited to Yanks, by any means. We’re simply the most desired and despised of tourists.) She finds several examples of local residents taking control of their own tourist industry and limiting our footprints to something manageable and eco-friendly. Several of the experts interviewed are travel journalists whose job it is to discover such destinations and alert well-heeled readers and their backpacking kids to them before they’re spoiled by Euros and other people just like them. Bonus material adds another 45 minutes to the 79-minute film.

Short Skin
When it comes to dealing with sexual maturity, teenagers have a tough enough time without adding rare and potentially embarrassing ailments to the mix. In the sensitively rendered Italian export Short Skin (“I Dolori Del Giovane Edo”), Edoardo is a 17-year-old virgin with an obstacle to manhood most males aren’t even aware exists. While most boys his age routinely fret about the width, length or shape of their penis, even despairing of the appearance of pubic hair, Edoardo (Matteo Creatini) suffers from phimosis: a potentially painful condition, in which the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back to accommodate urination and/or ejaculation. (In women, phimosis prevents the clitoral hood from retracting, limiting the ability to experience orgasm.) Apart from that, Edoardo is every bit the normal teenage boy: gangly, chronically horny and regrettably ill-informed about human physiology. This summer, however, he’s complicated his situation by accepting a wager proposed by his best friend as to which of them will be the first to lose their virginity. Fortuitously, the post-pubescent girls in his neighborhood have begun to see in Edoardo something they could use to cure their strange longings. What they can’t see, of course, can’t freak them out. Sensing future sexual challenges, he reluctantly seeks the advice of his parents and local doctors. It isn’t until he consults a prostitute, though, that he’s made to feel reasonably confident that he’s not a freak. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make it easier for the girls in his life, also virgins, to accept the fact they aren’t causing his pain by doing something “wrong.” As unentertaining as this might sound, first-timer Duccio Chiarini finds ways to mine enough humor from the material to enjoy it as a comedy, in all of the usual ways coming-of-age films are funny. Among other things, Short Skin does for octopi what American Pie did for apple pie. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a pair of short films by the director.

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
While movies and documentaries about noteworthy artists and sculptors can be stimulating, they are rarely, if ever more fulfilling than visits to a museum or in a private collection. Films that dramatize the struggles of women artists — Séraphine, Frida, Artemisia, Camille Claudel – tend to be significantly more interesting than biopics of male artists, struggling or otherwise. Movies in which models, clothed and unclothed, steal the spotlight from famous painters — La belle noiseuse, Renoir, Klimt, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Surviving Picasso, Goya’s Ghosts – are better than those in which artists sit around a table at a Parisian bar sipping absinthe. Mr. Turner and Vincent & Theo succeeded, in part, because they demonstrate how difficult it is to capture the grandeur of nature on canvas and why so few artists are capable of doing so. In terms of sheer entertainment value, however, it’s difficult for biopics to beat stories in which forgers, phonies, thieves and conmen exploit great beauty for their own selfish purposes. Arne Birkenstock’s fascinating documentary, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, many not ask as many penetrating questions as Orson Welles’ F for Fake, but it does a nice job getting inside the head of artists of a more larcenous bent. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger and artist, who has admitted to producing hundreds of fake paintings from the works of about 50 prominent painters. Beltracchi, his wife, and two accomplices sold these as original works by such famous artists as Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Kees van Dongen. Beltracchi’s genius, if you will, involved selling the legitimacy of the forgeries to people whose job it is to protect well-heeled consumers, auction houses and gallery owners from crooks exactly like him. For the police to build their case, though, they not only had to separate the masterpieces from the fakes, but also get Beltracchi’s victims to admit that they were capable of being conned.

If there were a mold, from which forgers and thieves were cut, it probably wouldn’t fit Beltracchi. If anything, he resembles a former hippie who struck it rich somewhere along the way and sees no reason to cut his hair or throw away the jeans he wore to Woodstock. He’s personable, funny and forthcoming, even as he is being interviewed within the lax confines of a minimum-security prison in Germany.  Before their release, Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, even were allowed to take commissions and work together in their home studio during the day, before having to return to their respective cells at night. His six-year sentence, which began in 2011, ended last January with a promise to paint only in his own name and move from Germany to France. There’s no indication in the documentary that Beltracchi suffers from remorse, guilt feelings or poverty. He was charged and found guilty of forgery and corruption related only to 14 works of art, which sold for a combined $45 million.  One of the ways he escaped detection for as long as he did was forging paintings by well-regarded, albeit lesser-known artists, and confusing their provenance through dummy galleries and auction houses. In an overheated marketplace ruled by blind greed, it wasn’t difficult to create and maintain a business creating paintings that few outside the cognoscenti would recognize, let alone sniff out as forgeries. A great Hollywood ending might have come if Beltracchi and his merry band of con artists had sold a piece of art to an investor whose collection was subsequently stolen by thieves whose fence recognized the works as phonies. A similar scenario played out in Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley Under Ground,” in which Tom Ripley is confronted by a collector, who correctly suspects that the paintings sold to him are forgeries. He probably should have left well enough alone.

Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax
Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Gil Scott-Heron didn’t coin the Black Power slogan, “The revolution won’t be televised,” but, by surrounding it with radical poetics, bongos and conga drums, he created an anthem for the movement that had left “We Shall Overcome” behind, in its militant wake. Forty-five years later, the B-side to Heron’s first single, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” has lost none of its ability to stir dissent. Although the Chicago native’s popularity would wane in the years before his death, in 2011, the debt owed to him by two generations of rappers and hip-hop artist is still being paid. In Robert Mugge’s essential 1982 documentary, Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax, the self-described “bluesologist” gave viewers of the UK’s then-brand-new Channel 4 Television a tour of Washington, DC, unseen by tourists. In soft, but authoritative tones, Heron could be mistaken for an afro-coiffed Fred Rogers welcoming guests to his adopted ‘hood, starting with the monuments within walking distance of crime-plagued projects and flop houses. The setting moves to the Wax Museum Nightclub, where Heron stands among frozen-in-time politicians, musicians and celebrities to introduce half-sung/half-spoken renditions of his repertoire, backed by his 10-piece Midnight Band. Although “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” isn’t on the night’s playlist, the doc features full performances of “Winter in America,” “Alien,” “Johannesburg,” “Storm Music,” “Waiting for the Axe to Fall,” “Gun” and “‘B’ Movie,” a scathing analysis of how Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. On his walk-and-talk tour of the capital, Heron recites his poems “Paint it Black,” “Black History,” “Billy Green is Dead,” “The H2O-Gate Blues” and “Whitey on the Moon.” The original 16mm print has been restored to tip-top shape.

Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary may be a long and unwieldy title for a concert Blu-ray/DVD, but it conforms to the truth-in-marketing dictates of the DVD Wrapup. That’s because Martha Davis and the Motels is what remains of groups formerly known as The Motels Featuring Martha Davis, Martha Davis, solo, The Motels, Angels of Mercy and, way back in 1971, the Warfield Foxes. To be completely accurate, please note that it’s the venerable Whisky a Go Go that was marking its 50th year in business, not the group, which, excluding separations, is closer to 27. Of the original members on stage that night, only Davis and sax and keyboard player Marty Jourard performed. Even so, the audience dug watching Davis belt out such hits as “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Only the Lonely,” “Mission of Mercy” and “Total Control.” Being her birthday, Davis was gushingly introduced by Rosanna Arquette and singer-songwriter Linda Perry. The film was shot in hi-def by Roy H. Wagner, and directed by choreographer Denise Faye. It includes a chat with former band members.

Tenderness of the Wolves: Blu-ray
The Voyeur: Blu-ray
Queen of Blood: Blu-ray
Although only partially based on the same serial killer who inspired Peter Lorre’s character in M, Ulli Lommel’s thoroughly disturbing crime drama, Tenderness of the Wolves, is cut from the same torn cloth. As portrayed with nightmarish precision by co-writer Kurt Raab, Fritz Haarmann is within weeks of being arrested, charged and convicted in the sexual assaults, murders, mutilations and dismemberments of at least 24 young men and boys in Hanover, Germany, between 1918 and 1924. Unlike Lorre’s deeply disturbed fiend, Hans Becker, Haarman was a homosexual. (The word, gay, doesn’t quite fit the description, here.) He earned the moniker, Vampire of Hanover, by attempting to rip out the Adam’s apple and trachea of his victims, before strangling them. Shaved bald and bearing a curious resemblance to Lorre and F.W. Murnau s Nosferatu, Raab plays Haarmann as a reasonably social being, with friends in high and low people. They weren’t limited to gay men and he didn’t have to lurk in the shadows to narrow down his choices of victims. Germany was still reeling from the impact of losing World War I – here, updated to World War II — and Hanover bore no resemblance to the divinely decadent Berlin. Lommel does a great shop capturing the menace in the air and desperation in the streets that followed both wars. He experiments with German Expressionist shadings, but a color scheme favored by producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder is especially scary in Blu-ray. Considering the nature of the crimes, Tenderness of the Wolves limits the extreme violence to specific scenes. We’re also spared any questions of guilt or innocence based on mental illness. What’s likely to shock most viewers are the insinuations of non-censual sex between Haarmann and minors, and full-frontal male nudity in more consensual preludes to murder.  The high-definition digital transfer was prepared by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, which is doing a great job restoring his library. Also new are insightful interviews with Lommel and director of photography Jürgen Jürges; an informative appreciation, by film historian and expert on European horror cinema Stephen Thrower; a theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Tony Rayns. If Lommel’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of his mid-career move from Fassbinder’s factory to Andy Warhol’s Factory and such movies as Cocaine Cowboys and The Blank Generation, in which the artist cameoed as himself, and a string of straight-to-video genre flicks universally loathed by critics. (Look for a brief Fassbinder appearance in “Wolves.”)

At a time when American porn specialists were draining the eroticism from soft- and hard-core films, Tinto Brass decided to fill the worldwide vacuum by breathing fresh air into the moribund Euro-porn sub-genre. By 1990, home-grown producers of hard-core movies had fully committed to video and gonzo sex that was completely devoid of a narrative framework. Soft-core films were made to conform to the dictates of late-night cable television, which required of surgically enhanced actresses that they strategically position their hands during sex, so as to avoid any hints of genital-to-genital contact or pubic hair. Brass embraced fables of sexual desire, adding world-class cinematography, lush soundtracks, expensive lingerie, sumptuous locations and performers capable of acting and making love simultaneously. If he too often fell back on the use of mirrors, reflective glass and window frames in his films, and he favored women with large buttocks to those with more average figures, not all of the women required breast implants, at least. And, in another departure, male roles weren’t limited to gym rats under 25. The Voyeur was adapted from the erotic novel, “L’uomo che Guarda,” by Alberto Moravia. It tells the story of “Dodo,” a handsome professor of French literature who fears being cuckolded by his exhibitionist wife and cock-blocked by his father, whose live-in nurse specializes in leaving her clients with blue balls. Even when Dodo allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous mixed-race student, his wife steps in at the last moment to share the experience with him. The Voyeur may look overly familiar to longtime fans, but newcomers and couples should be pleasantly surprised by what they see. The extras include a stills gallery, trailers for the main feature, as well as other Tinto Brass films, and a 25-minute interview with the quintessential dirty ol’ man, himself.

There’s nothing quite so foolhardy for a genre journalist to attempt than make a movie of his or her own and invite criticism from juries of their peers. Chris Alexander is the Toronto-based editor of Fangoria magazine, a critic with the Toronto Film Critics Association and, of late, a multi-hyphenate filmmaker. His 2012 directorial debut, Blood for Irina, won the Best Experimental Feature Film award at the 2013 PollyGrind Film Festival, in Las Vegas, which may offer prizes in more categories than the AVN Awards, which I never thought possible. I don’t often say this, but I doubt there’s any way that someone not familiar with the original can fully appreciate the sequel, Queen of Blood, as they share the same dialogue-free conceit and blood-starved lead character, the vampire Irina (Shauna Henry). In the former, Irina has reached the end of her 100-year run on Earth. By day, she’s living in a run-down motel on the water (probably Lake Ontario), while, at night, she stalks city streets looking for fresh blood. Her desperation is mirrored by the motel manager and a prostitute “living a life on the fringe, trapped in world of literal and figurative decay.” In the latter film, we first encounter Irina slowly emerging from a bog in the middle of a forest, trailing a stream of blood like the umbilical cord it represents. After being rescued by a mysterious fellow who lives in an isolated cabin, she seems to appreciate being cleaned up and given new clothes. Just as we begin to think that pathetic creature might have adopted an ethical code, she uses her razor-sharp fingernails to rip out his throat. And, so it goes, until Irina comes upon a pregnant woman … and, well, you might be able to guess the rest. Queen of Blood benefits from a certifiably Euro-horror look and an evocative soundtrack that almost makes up for the lack of dialogue.

The 9th
Here’s a movie that arrives with almost no advance marketing push or buzz, from a fledgling production company with no track record, except for a single festival appearance, in Europe. The synopsis in the press kit doesn’t appear to have been translated correctly into English and there were no published reviews for The 9th. What the DVD does have going for it, however, is the kind of cover art that draws one into a movie like a magnet, not unlike a classic poster by Saul Bass. The setting for Nathan Codrington’s debut feature, promoted as “a neo-noir psychological drama,” is a cocktail party in the penthouse apartment of what appears to be a swank urban residence. I kept waiting for Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world,” to walk in at any minute, surrounded by young men in tuxes and women in low-cut gowns. Here, though, the drink of choice is champagne and mystery is in the air. In fact, something terribly sinister is happening in a room not far from the gathering. A man in diapers and angels wings is being tortured for reasons unknown by thugs whose faces remain unseen, as directed, perhaps, by the party’s Master of Cermonies (Edward Barry). The 73-minute film clearly is based on two very different entertainment vehicles: the game, Clue (a.k.a., Cluedo) and seminal jazz pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines. (The names of the characters are derived from famous singers and musicians.) Beyond that, I’m not sure of anything, including my interest in discovering who’s doing what to whom and why. The music, as performed Nigel Hart and Dan James, had the desired effect on me, however.

Nightmare Code
3’s a Shroud
Troll/Troll 2: Blu-ray
Listen to enough futurists and you’ll think that day artificial-intelligence technology supplants human intelligence is just around the corner. After watching the Republican debates, however, a robot would make a better alternative to any of the morons hoping to call the White House home. Nightmare Code is a cautionary sci-fi thriller that argues against our current system of checks and balances being able to stand up to a threat built into a computer network by a mad genius. Here, a paranoid nerd goes off his rocker when he comes to believe that he won’t get the credit he deserves for inventing an important new computer program. To avenge the perceived slight, he introduces a virus into the Internet that overrides the software from controls programmed into the system, triggering artificial intelligence at its least benign. Almost everything that happens in Mark Netter’s surprisingly accessible debut feature takes place through the multiple lenses of security cameras monitoring activity in the technology-company’s offices, hallways, computer system and meeting rooms. The government client appears ready to shut down the advanced behavior-recognition project, perhaps causing a key programmer to commit suicide and take a few of his colleagues with him, ostensibly to consult with Steve Jobs in the afterlife. With just a month to finish ROPER and a depleted staff left to do it, a famously brilliant young programmer, Brett Desmond (Andrew J. West), is recruited to burrow his way through the installed software to discover how much damage was done by the paranoid slob before he ate his pistol. As it turns out, more than anyone can imagine. And, beyond that, lie spoilers. Blessedly, the use of a quartered-frame screen doesn’t feel as gimmicky as it usually does, actually complementing the action taking place within the Skype-like system and reading the minds of the characters as they move out of one and into the other. Because Brett brings some emotional baggage of his own to the rescue mission, important things are revealed, as well, in conversations with his wife and daughter, at home. Mei Melançon plays the hot Eurasian programmer who inconveniently and unexpectedly adds her baggage to Brett’s pile. The DVD interviews are helpful.

3’s a Shroud is described as a modern British horror anthology in the tradition of Asylum and Tales From the Crypt. It earned some favorable notices on the festival circuit in 2012, none of which translated into a wide distribution. This hardly qualifies as news to horror aficionados, especially fans of the anthology sub-genre. With the exception of scream queen Suzi Lorraine (Busty Cops), none of the segments writers or directors — Dan Brownlie, David V.G. Davies, Andy Edwards — has yet to make a splash in feature-length films, so name recognition always becomes a problem. The individual shorts aren’t at all bad, however. Randle plays the maughty-nanny babysitter, who’s asked to read three scary stories to the boy and his Teddy before dozing off. None of them can be summarized in a sentence or two, except to suggest they might not be the kind of bedtime stories you’d want a babysitter to tell your children.

Eleven years before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels became a worldwide sensation, Noah Hathaway and Michael Moriarty played Henry Potter Jr. and Harry Potter Sr. in John Carl Buechler 1986’s cult classic, Troll. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The resemblances between Trolls, Ghoulies and Gremlins, however, is much more suspect. Harry Potter Sr. and his wife, Anne (Shelley Hack), are moving into a rented apartment in San Francisco, when Junior and daughter Wendy (Jenny Beck) first encounter the wicked troll, Torok, who uses his magic ring to possess the girl’s body as a host to transform the apartment dwellers into other trolls. When Junior senses that something is wrong with Wendy, he consults upstairs neighbor/witch Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart). If the presence of Lassie’s mom weren’t enough, Troll also represented Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ first film appearance (and nip slip) and one of Sonny Bono’s last, before accidentally becoming mayor of Palm Springs. It adds “The Making of Troll,” with interviews and background material. Also included in the Blu-ray package is Troll 2, a film so onerous that it once maintained a 0-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (That’s improved to 6 percent with “top” critics and a stunning 44 percent audience score.) Apart from not resembling the original in any meaningful way, the sequel is about as frightening as a “Three Little Pigs” cartoon. Actors George Hardy and Deborah Reed provide commentary. A limited number of Blu-ray packages contain a separate disc with the feature-length, “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary that extends making-of memories to include reconnections with cast and crew.

Swim Little Fish Swim
It would be just as unfair to lump every quirky low-budget indie, informed by hyper-chatty dialogue and socially unformed characters, to the Mumblecore subgenre as it is to think that every neurotic New York Jew, wearing nerdy glasses and addicted to psychotherapy, is created by a Woody Allen wannabe. Sometimes, it just seems that way. Still, I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar’s practically weightless rom-com Swim Little Fish Swim than to say it reminds me of films that might have featured the work of Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers. That, or Lena Durham. Set in the New York demi-monde of aspiring artists, musicians and perpetual slackers, Swim Little Fish Swim stars the waifish Bessis as a visual artist, Lilas, desperate to convince immigration officials to renew her visa. One night, after being tossed out of her crash pad by a pervy artist, Lilas finds shelter in the already crowded apartment of  Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Brooke Bloom), a married couple about to discover just how unsuited for marriage they are. While Mary works overtime as a nurse to support their household, Leeward jams with friends who play instruments they might have purchased at a FAO Schwarz toy store. Thoroughly coddled by his anti-capitalist parents, Leeward has convinced Mary that he’s willing to do commercials to help her out financially, but has committed his resources to a CD of songs written for his pre-school daughter, Rainbow/Maggie, depending on which parent you ask. Some of them aren’t bad, while others are aggressively pretentious. Not surprisingly, Lilas and Leeward are two peas in a pod. Her hang-up, though, it being the daughter of a prominent avant-garde artist, who denigrates her multi-media collages whenever she can. In various off-kilter ways, they lift each other’s spirits and even enlist Sunshine/Maggie in their harmless conspiracy. Swim Little Fish Swim ends much better than it begins, I think, even though none of the characters appear able to survive in New York’s artistic community without trust funds or generous grandparents.

Living in Oblivion: 20th Anniversary: Bluray
The great thing about re-watching Living in Oblivion, probably for the third time in the last 20 years, comes in the realization that the more you know about how independent films are made, the funnier it is. In 1995, I’d never been on a set, interviewed a star, attended a festival or covered a Spirit Awards ceremony. As much as Tom DiCillo exaggerates the process in Living in Oblivion, everything about it now rings true to me, especially how many things can go wrong in a short period of time. Then, too, there’s the coddling of fragile egos, the boredom that allows tensions to fester, the obsequious nature of on-set etiquette and the surprises that come with improvisation. While I haven’t witnessed the kinds of outbursts we see in the film, I have seen the happiness on the faces of everyone on the set when things go indisputably right. It also is wonderful to see some of the great actors of our time, at a point in their careers when they were standing on the cusp of crossing over from indie popularity to mainstream stardom. See if you recognize these names: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage. The sad thing is knowing that after making the entertaining, if unprofitable Johnny Suede, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy, Delirious and the Doors documentary, When You’re Strange, has been limited to doing episodic television. It’s better than the alternative, however. The Blu-ray includes a deleted scene, a 2002 Q&A with the DiCillo and Buscemi, and longer interviews with cast and crew.

The Breaking Point
At a brisk 75 minutes, The Breaking Point probably could have been trimmed even more to fit the boundaries of a cops-and-courtroom drama on television. There are several scenes in James C. Hunter’s thugs-in-the-hood drama that wouldn’t missed and room made for commercials, without ruining the flow of the narrative. Does this sound familiar? Three gangbangers with completely different physiques and hairstyles enter a convenience store. Before they can even demand the contents of the cash register or Lottery tickets, one of them pulls out a gun and, instead, points at the angelic white woman we’ve just seen handing out goods to local residents. When she resists, he shoots and kills her. Turns out she’s the wife of a former cop, who vows revenge, knowing the unlikelihood of the store manager going the distance as a witness in a trial. It then becomes a race between the angry widower and the police, as in any procedural. Well, not only is there a trial, but a “Law & Order” trick ending, to boot. While it’s nice seeing this many young African-American actors working a feature film, it’s a shame that The Breaking Point feels as if it were made in 1987.

MHz Networks
The Churchmen: Season 1
Don Matteo: Sets 11/12
Kaboul Kitchen: Season One
Camilla Läckberg’s The Fjällbacka Murders, Set 1/2
A French Village: 1940: Season 1
MHz Networks is a programming service that has begun to provide viewers in the U.S. access to some of the most interesting shows on networks around the world via streaming and over-the-air digital transmission. In this way, it’s similar to Acorn TV, which specializes in English-language programming from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, including series and mini-series previously shown on PBS and BBC America. Both services are well worth the effort it takes to find them on such services as Hulu, Roku, Samsung Smart TV, iPhone, iPad, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For the purposes of DVD Wrapup, however, many of the shows are now being packaged on DVD, as well. The latest MHz titles I’ve seen include:

From France, “The Churchmen” is the most unlikely of mini-series dramas. It follows five young candidates for the priesthood after their arrival at Paris’ Capuchin Seminary. As is usually the case with such ensemble shows, the characters come from wildly different backgrounds, bringing with them very different reasons for setting out on such a difficult path. As they prepare to take their vows, each of the men will be tempted, tested and tormented by forces from outside and within the seminary walls. As, yes, that includes issues of sexual preference of the adult variety, if not pedophilia. They also are required to slog their way through an aging institution fraught with its own weaknesses, not the least of which is a power struggle between seminary head Father Fromenger and the ambitious Bishop Roman. One needn’t be Catholic to become hooked on “The Churchmen” after giving it an episode or two. The intricate drama is complemented by settings that recall an institution that’s withstood countless dilemmas – most of its own making – and hasn’t surrendered to the same trappings of modernity embraced by the American Church.

In the same ballpark are the extremely popular “Don Matteo” mysteries, from Italy, in which Spaghetti Western star Terence Hill (They Call Me Trinity) plays the titular small-town priest with an extraordinary ability to read people and solve crimes. The series has been airing since 2000 on the premier channel of Italian national television. Hill’s cheeky portrayal reminds me a bit of “Columbo.”

I wonder how American audiences would react to “Kaboul Kitchen,” a black comedy set in the embattled Afghan capital, circa 2005, years before the current Taliban offensive and at a point when dollars were flowing through the hands of warlords and profiteers like water. The Kaboul Kitchen is a multipurpose gathering place in the heart of the city, where westerners can enjoy a non-halal meal, a stiff drink and a dip in the pool, surrounded by women in bikinis. As such, much of the show’s intrigue comes from the owner, Jacky (Gilbert Melki), having to negotiate his way through the roadblocks of war, religion, bureaucracy, corruption, espionage and family. After operating his business on a par with Rick Blaine, in Casablanca, Jacky walks into the club one day only to find his long estranged daughter, Sophie (Stéphanie Pasterkamp), who’s taken a job with a humanitarian-aid organization whose most recent charitable contribution was a truckload of skiing equipment. The series is loosely based on the real life experiences of journalist and co-creator of the series, Marc Victor.

The Fjällbacka Murders” is based on the world of Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg’s character, Erica Falck. She’s a successful crime writer and mother of three, who’s moved from the city to her hometown of Fjällbacka, a fishing village on a picturesque island off the coast of Sweden. Her return seems idyllic, but simmering beneath the village’s surface lie hidden secrets, twisted desires and murderous deceit. The chapters are based on the characters from Läckberg’s novels, but the stories are largely new, with actors Claudia Galli and Richard Ulfsäter playing the lead characters. Like most other Swedish exports, this mystery series is quite engrossing.

The ambitious period series ”A French Village” is set in Villeneuve, a fictional town in German-occupied France during World War II. Since 2009, it has dramatized year-by-year accounts of life there, as despair gave way to hope and fascists of both the German and Vichy variety fought for control of the sleepy district with the Resistance and Allied saboteurs. Liberation would come to central France, of course, but for not for five more TV seasons.

TV-to-DVD
Manimal: The Complete Series
Automan: The Complete Series
Sisters: Seasons One & Two
PBS: Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres
PBS: Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration
Comedy Central: Nathan For You: Seasons One & Two
Gene Autry Collection 12
The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Final Season
During his nearly 50-year career in television, Glen A. Larson wrote and produced some of the most memorable series in the history of the medium. Such long-running series as “Knight Rider” (1982), “The Fall Guy” (1981), “Magnum, P.I.” (1980), “Battlestar Galactica” (1978), “Alias Smith and Jones” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979) will find homes on cable-TV outlets for a long time. Others barely lasted half a season. Newly released in complete-series packages are two shows that will live in infamy for as long as historians retain a sense of humor about the 1980s. In his lifetime, Larson frequently was accused of ripping off concepts, characters and storylines from popular movies. It’s possible, then, to imagine that the 1983 sci-fi “Manimal” was inspired by the erotic thriller, “Cat People,” in which a brother and sister shared the ability to shape-shift into black panthers. “Manimal,” which lasted all of eight episodes, told the story of Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), who could turn himself into any animal he chose to fight crime, but preferred being a black panther. Only two people were aware of Jonathan’s secret, his friend Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts) and police detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson). The transformation sequences were designed and created by the Academy Award-winning SFX artist Stan Winston. Sadly, the potential for a bestiality throughline involving Chase and Mackenzie never was fully realized. Otherwise, this one had “cult classic” written all over it from the moment it was canceled on December 17, 1983

The lineage of Larson’s “Automan” was far more obvious, as the sci-fi/cop series shared a producer (Donald Kushner) with Tron, a movie that many considered to be several years ahead of its time, because it took place inside a video game. The brilliant blue outlines for the computer-generated vehicles and uniforms look exactly the same. Desi Arnaz Jr. plays Walter Nebicher, who’s constantly ridiculed for pushing computer-based crime detection on the department’s resident dinosaurs. Their attempts to keep Nebicher rooted at his desk are stymied, however, by an artificially intelligent computer hologram that looks real, sounds real and given enough electrical power can physically exist in the real world. Together, Walter, Automan and Cursor — a small floating droid that creates any object Automan desires — battle crime on city streets. It’s every bit as lame as it sounds. It lasted 13 episodes, before being achieving immediate cult status.

As unfathomable as it sounds today, NBC’s “Sisters” was the first primetime network television drama series to focus specifically on the lives of women and the issues relating to them. “Maude” dealt with many of the same hot-button issues, years earlier, but it typically used caustic humor to make its point, often at the expense of the recurring male characters. The sponsors of

“Sisters” risked losing male viewers to capture women in the key demographic segments. The 1991-96 show succeeded well enough to log a run of 127 episodes, a number that easily cleared it for syndication. “Sisters” follows the trials and triumphs of the four very different Reed sisters, living in the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb, Winnetka. Besides having unique personalities, the characters played by Sela Ward, Swoosie Kurtz, Patricia Kalember and Julianne Phillips looked as if they had either been adopted or had different fathers by the same mother. The poor sap had died a year before the series’ storylines began, causing his wife to bury herself in an alcoholic haze. He left enough secrets behind, however, to inspire several episodes throughout the show’s tenure. The new compilation contains all 29 episodes from the critically acclaimed first and second seasons, The series would go on to receive eight Emmy Award nominations, winning once in 1994 for Ward as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Kurtz was also nominated twice in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category in 1993 and 1994. The package adds lengthy conversations with created by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who also developed the American adaptation of “Queer as Folk.”

Celebrity chef Jose Andres returns to Haiti, once again, after the 2010 earthquake inspired him to found the World Central Kitchen, as a non-profit that fights hunger and poverty in developing nations. He opened a bakery in an orphanage in Haiti that not only feeds the orphans and staff there, but also provides job training for the kids and has become such a successful business that it is bringing in several thousand dollars a month. In “Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres,” he hopes that by boosting the profile of Haitian cuisine, he can inspire more travelers to visit the much-maligned island. The special shows him spending time with local chefs and markets, and sampling island specialties ranging from spicy pikliz sauce to djon-djon rice and akasan, a sweet, thick, milky beverage. In between hunting for crabs, visiting a hilltop fortress and attending a voodoo ceremony, Andres visits with former President Bill Clinton and chef Mario Batali.

She “turned the world on with her smile” on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration” features dozens of classic clips, plus comments from Betty White, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, John Amos, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and the actress, herself. Plus, Oprah Winfrey recounts Mary Tyler Moore’s critical role in inspiring her — and millions of other women — as TV’s first independent career woman.

Nathan Fielder is an “alternative” Canadian writer and comedian, who’s found a niche on cable TV offering off-the-wall business tips to entrepreneurs in desperate need of turning a profit. The fun in “Nathan For You” comes from convincing the business owners to embrace marketing tactics no traditional consultant would dare attempt. He made headlines when one of his clients agreed to create a coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks. He also suggested inventing a poo-flavored yogurt and staging an elaborate viral video, in which a pig saves a goat. While Nathan’s efforts may not always succeed, they always have big results. The package includes all 16 episodes from the first two seasons!

Beside the good ol’ boy joshing around between cowboy hero Gene Autrey and sidekick Pat Buttram, the 12th edition of “The Gene Autry Collection” features The Sagebrush Troubadour (1935), in which Rangers Gene Autry and Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) travel undercover as Western troubadours to find the killer of old, half-blind Frank Martin. Their only clues are a guitar string and a swayback horse that is the key to finding the dead man’s lost goldmine. It’s one of only two whodunits on the singing cowboy’s resume. The other movies in the set are Ride, Ranger, Ride (1936), Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge (1937) and Gold Mine in the Sky (1938).

Shout! Factory brings out farewell packages of “The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two,” in which the protagonist visits his namesake city and has to convince a diehard Confederate loyalist from killing General Grant, and “WKRP In Cincinnati: The Final Season,” which opens with the station getting a terrorist threat and the staff’s attempt to form a union.

The DVD Wrapup: Stations of the Cross, Code Unknown, Julien Duvivier, Eric Rohmer and more

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Stations of the Cross
Marie’s Story
Last awards season, Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s impassioned story about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, walked away with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Agata Trzebuchowska delivered a stunning performance as a young woman who was raised as a devout Roman Catholic, but discovers on the eve of taking her vows that almost everything she’s learned about her parents and religious background is a lie. While providing a not altogether unkind profile of the Church under Nazi and Communist domination, Ida revealed truths about the deeply engrained anti-Semitism of many of the faithful. Stations of the Cross is Dietrich Brüggemann’s tragic depiction of religious fundamentalism at its most destructive and, as such, can be construed as serving as an indictment of one particularly conservative Catholic order. This one is based in southern Germany, an area not immune to fanaticism. Given the Vatican’s current leadership, it’s difficult to believe the cruelty perpetrated here on the 14-year-old protagonist in the name of Christ. American Catholics who came of age in a darker period of Church history shouldn’t have any trouble accepting the film’s premise, though. Bruggemann shares the writing credit with his sister, Anna, who also plays a character in the movie. Like Trzebuchowska, newcomer Lea van Acken is unforgettable as Maria, a 14-year-old German girl about to be confirmed as a soldier of Christ. In many Catholic homes, it is a sacrament that priests and nuns take far more seriously than the parents of the kids forced to endure accelerated catechism lessons. Maria’s mother (Franziska Weisz) takes the rite very seriously, indeed, as do the clergy attached to the real-life Society of St. Pius X. Founded in 1970 by the traditionalist French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, its adherents reject the more secular rulings of the Second Vatican Council, especially changes in the liturgy and revisions to the Roman Missal. While the longing for a return to the Latin mass isn’t particularly unusual among older Catholics, Maria’s treatment is something quite different. She’s been taught that anything that brings pleasure – contemporary music and helping boys with their homework, for example – could lead to promiscuity. Mutter insists that even the most innocent contact with boys her age opens the door for Satan. Because Maria is too isolated too challenge her parents’ beliefs, she maintains a safe distance from temptation. In her mind, disobeying Mutter would be as disrespectful as using a crucifix as a doorstop.

The title, Stations of the Cross, refers to the 14 Stations of the Cross that Jesus endured on his path to Golgotha. Maria’s been taught that the same path not only leads to heaven, but also could cure her younger brother’s autism. Bruggemann tells Maria’s story through 14 fixed-angle, single-shot tableaus. The same ritual was depicted in excruciating detail in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (On the cover, Maria is shown wearing a crown of thorns.) The nearer Bruggemann gets to the 13th and 14th station — Jesus dying on the cross and being laid in his tomb – the closer Maria gets to her personal Calvary. Instead of pulling the girl back from the brink of disaster, Mutter treats Maria’s ordeal as the first step toward beatification. Anyone who grew up Roman Catholic in a predominantly Catholic community, during the 1960-70s, won’t have any trouble recognizing the forces at play in Stations of the Cross. While many priests and parishioners embraced the reforms brought about during the Second Vatican Council, a vocal minority rejected it outright and still prays for a return to fundamentalist values. In their eyes, the pope is anything but infallible. It’s impossible not to equate Maria’s plight with the treatment of Moslem girls — Malala Yousafzai comes to mind — as they approach puberty and the likelihood of enslavement to a man not of their choosing. Certainly, Mutter and the parish priest could give the Taliban a run for their money. Stations of the Cross is powerful film that deserves to be seen and discussed by co-religionists and anyone who thinks Islamists have a monopoly on fanaticism. Bonus features include the director’s commentary and the short film, “One Shot.”

Also from Film Movement comes a more familiar story of Catholic faith and near-saintly charity. This time, the central figure is a French nun who sacrificed her own personal freedom to mentor a deaf and blind girl nearly given up for lost by her helpless parents. The true story of Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré) and Marie Heurtins (deaf actress Ariana Rivoire) unfolded at roughly the same point in the late 1800s as when Annie Sullivan was working her magic with Helen Keller, an ocean away in Massachusetts. Marguerite taught deaf girls to sign at the esteemed Larnay Institute, near Poitiers. In Jean-Pierre Améris’ tremendously moving Marie’s Story, her great challenge comes when a humble artisan brings his deaf and blind daughter to the rural facility in a last-ditch effort to keep her from being sent to an asylum for the mentally ill. When Marie is left at Larnay, the girl acts out her bewilderment, fear and anger in ways that recall Victor, Francois Truffaut’s l’enfant sauvage in The Wild Child. When the mother superior denies Marguerite’s request to tame the feral child, she’s treats the rejection as a direct challenge from God to serves as his miracle worker on Earth. (I wonder if Keller ever learned of Marie’s parallel story.) To accomplish this feat, the nun felt it necessary to distance herself from her other obligations and search for answers in nature. After much tussling, frustration and exploration, Marguerite feels confident of Marie’s ability to return to Larnay, where they can learn out to correspond using hand-to-hand signing techniques. Sadly, the other girls have yet to be taught the meaning of Christian charity, as they torment Marie whenever Marguerite leaves the room. Learning that the nun has been diagnosed with tuberculosis only makes us feel that much more fearful for Maria’s fate. Améris keeps a tight hold on the throttle here, nicely balancing the dramatic throughlines and resisting the temptation to play to the cheap seats. The acting is universally excellent and the lush rural settings open up a story that might have induced claustrophobia if the action remained indoors. Do I need to mention that Marie’s Story easily qualifies as entertainment for the entire family? The bonus features include an informative making-of featurette and the Iranian short film, “Motherly,” in which a blind woman “spies” on her wheelchair-bound son to determine if his girlfriend is marriage material.

Code Unknown: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When Code Unknown debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, the influx of immigrants into Europe was still deemed manageable and writer/director/playwright Michael Haneke was known primarily for his almost unbearably intense home-invasion thriller, Funny Games. Haneke would go on to become a perennial favorite at international festivals and, by 2015, undocumented immigration would reach crisis proportions throughout Europe and North America. If anything, critics then were more impressed by Juliet Binoche’s terrific performance than Haneke’s observations about the growing communications gap between native Parisians and newcomers from Africa, Kosovo and other hotspots. Today, I think, the opposite would be true. We’ve come to expect great acting from Binoche and Haneke’s response to the immigration problem would be considered prescient. The complete title, “Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” sums up the filmmaker’s narrative conceit pretty well. The central event involves the runaway brother of Binoche’s boyfriend, a photographer drawn to war zones around the world. Angry that the actress refuses to accept the boy’s frustration with farm life as seriously as he does, Jean crumples up a bag of pastry and rudely throws it into the lap of a Kosovar woman begging on a curb outside the bakery shop. Disturbed by the show of disrespect, a Malian student confronts the boy and is arrested for being the instigator of a tussle. The beggar is deported and the boy returns to the farm. Haneke revisits these characters throughout the rest of the movie, through vignettes separated by short blackouts. He also bookends the series of vignettes with scenes from a game of charades played by deaf students from several different cultural backgrounds.

In Code Unknown’s most troubling sequence, the actress is confronted on a subway train by an Arab youth, whose idea of fun is intimidating passengers he knows won’t fight back. At the time, at least, such provocations weren’t at all uncommon. Today, of course, the fear would be that the Arab youth would be in possession of a bomb or knife. I suspect some viewers might see the provocations as being too one-side and deduce that Code Unknown is an exercise in politically incorrect stereotyping. It would be difficult, however, to overstate the potential for violence and political extremism in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. Until President Trump clears the street of America of illegal immigrants, it will remain a problem without a solution here, as well. In this regard, even after 15 years, Code Unknown feels fresh and urgent. Haneke’s ability to keep the disparate characters from tripping all over each other is remarkable. Ten years after Funny Games raised his flag at Cannes, Haneke felt compelled to remake it almost verbatim for English-speaking audiences. Is it too much to ask of him to consider revisiting the issues raised in Code Unknown in a contemporary setting? The Criterion Collection upgrade includes a newly restored 2K digital transfer, approved by the director, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a new and vintage interview with Haneke; an introduction by Haneke, from 2001; a 2000 making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Haneke, Binoche and producer Marin Karmitz; a new interview with film scholar Roy Grundmann; and an essay by critic Nick James.

Eclipse Series 44: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
No less an expert than Graham Greene called Julien Duvivier’s Algiers-set crime drama, Pépé le moko, “One of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing. … (It) raises the thriller to a poetic level!” It would serve as inspiration for Greene’s novel, “The Third Man,” and the American remakes, Algiers (1938) and Casbah (1948). As if to demonstrate that Duvivier was no one-hit wonder, Criterion Collection has released a quartet of films he made between the end of the silent era and the release of “Pepe,” in 1937. Though decidedly French in origin, all four films would fit neatly on the nights Turner Classic Movies devotes to film noir classics. David Golder (1931) is Duvivier’s the first sound film and first collaboration with actor Harry Baur, who appears in all four pictures. it brings to life the vivid protagonist of Irène Némirovsky’s novel, an avaricious, self-interested banker whose family life is as tempestuous as his business dealings in inter-war France. Poil De Carotte (“The Red Head”) is Duvivier’s 1932 remake his own silent adaptation of a popular turn-of-the-century novella about a farm boy nicknamed Carrot Top, who desperately wants to connect with his father; 1933’s La tête d’un Homme (a.k.a., “A Man’s Neck”) is one of the first adaptations of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. It stars Baur as a novelist, investigating the odd circumstances surrounding the killing of a wealthy American woman in Paris. Every bit Baur’s equal is the Russian émigré actor Valéry Inkijinoff, cast as a nihilistic, reptilian medical student. Julien Duvivier gives the viewer one evocative image after another, constructing a work of sinister beauty. In Un Carnet De Bal (“Dance Program”), a rich widow, nostalgic for the lavish parties of her youth, sets off across Europe to reconnect with the many suitors who once courted her. In doing so, she embarks on a journey of discovery, both of herself and of how greatly the world has changed in two decades. The set is the 44th entry in Criterion’s valuable Eclipse Series.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
At a time when executions in the U.S. have been postponed in several states, due primarily to questions raised about the legality of the chemical formula used in lethal injections, it may come as a surprise for many Americans to learn that France relied on the guillotine until 1977. Four years after the execution of Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian pimp convicted of torture and murder, the guillotine and death penalty finally were abolished there. Four years before Djandoubi fell victim to the steel blade, a movie written and directed by a former Death Row inmate may have laid the foundation for their abolition. Far from being an emotionally draining drama on the order of Dead Man Walking, however, José Giovanni’s Two Men in Town (a.k.a., “Two Against the Law”) stuck a knife directly into the heart of France’s hypocritical justice system, which promoted punishment over rehabilitation for convicted criminals … much in the same way as American prisons do today. Giovanni (born, Joseph Damiani), knew whereof he spoke. After World War II, he joined the Corsican mob as a petty criminal and was involved in a crime that claimed three lives, including those of his older brother and an uncle. Despite the fact that he wasn’t armed, Giovanni was convicted and sentenced to death. After some political strings were pulled, clemency was granted and he began a more legitimate career, as writer of hard-boiled fiction set in the criminal underworld or prisons. Several would be adapted into excellent movies, starring such high-profile European leading men as Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paul Meurisse, Daniel Auteuil, Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. He would add a couple more hyphens to his title before his death, in 2004. In Two Men in Town, Delon plays a safecracker who’s released from prison early after being vouched for by a social worker and prison reformer, portrayed by Gabin, then 69. Committed to going straight, Gino Strabliggi encounters three huge obstacles in his path: a tragic romance, his former mates and a cop bent on sending him back to the joint. Throughout it all, Gabin’s Germain Cazeneuve remains in his corner. Finally, though, a system that puts its trust in crooked cops, over rehabilitated sinners, causes Gino to make the kind of foolish mistake that results in dates with the guillotine. Although Two Men in Town suffers a bit from a less-than-fluid narrative, it doesn’t soften the power of Giovanni’s message. Last year, his original screenplay would be re-adapted to fit an American setting by Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory), with Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel facing off against each other in comparable roles. Newly restored in 4K, the Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary by Gabin biographer Charles Zigman, as well as the very different original and re-release trailer.

Full Moon in Paris: Blu-ray
The Marquise of O: Blu-ray
Amour Fou: Blu-ray
And, since we’re on the subject of foreign films, here are three more Film Movement releases to consider, all with deep connections to the famously idiosyncratic French auteur, Eric Rohmer. His 1984 romantic drama, Full Moon in Paris, is the fourth in his “Comedies and Proverbs” series, in which he probes the cycles, permutations and mysteries of love and desire. (Who does this kind of cool stuff, anymore?) It stars the dangerously thin and weirdly coiffed Pascale Ogier, who died very soon after winning the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actress prize, at 26. Her flighty interior designer, Louise, personifies the film’s gender-reversed epigram, “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.” Louise lives with her hunky boyfriend, Remi (Tcheky Karyo), in a suburb of Paris. She loves him, but doesn’t dig his possessive nature or the wasting away of her young life in the sleepy town. Plus, Remi doesn’t dance. So, Louise elects to divide her time in a Paris apartment, where she strings along her effete friend, Octave (Fabrice Luchini), a married writer. She doesn’t mind living or sleeping alone, even while retaining strong feelings for both men. It isn’t until Louise lets down her guard to the point where she spends the night at a rock musician’s apartment that she begins to understand the wisdom in the epigram. If Louise looked a bit more like a young Catherine Deneuve or Nathalie Baye, we’d wonder why such a determined female character would care to split her time between such imperfect men. In a Hollywood movie, though, Ogier would be relegated to geeky sidekick roles and settling for scraps left behind by her friends on the cheerleader squad. It’s these kinds of departures from the norm that make Rohmer’s work so diverting.

The natural tendency when first coming across Rohmer’s 1976 period drama, The Marquise of O, is to assume it has something to do with the Marquis de Sade or the S&M classic, “Story of O,” by Anne Desclos (a.k.a., Pauline Reage_. Alas, no. In fact, it was adapted from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella, about a young widow, the Marquise, who places an ad in the local paper seeking the father of the baby she’s carrying, but doesn’t remember conceiving. In flashback, Rohmer recalls an attack by Russian soldiers on a northern Italian town, during the Napoleonic Wars and the attempted rape of Die Marquise by soldiers overrunning the citadel. It is interrupted by the Russian Count F (Bruno Ganz), who returns the unconscious damsel to safety. The Marquise is distraught that her savior had to leave town after it was ransacked and was mistakenly reported dead in the advance. Soon thereafter, however, the count returns to her home and asks Der Vater – who had unsuccessfully defended the town against the Russians — her hand in marriage. Before this can happen, however, the count once again is called back to duty, with the promise that the matter would be revisited upon his return. Soon thereafter, the Marquise will learn she is pregnant and begin the search for the father. Things get considerably more complicated, but in ways that are difficult to predict. Ganz is excellent as the imperious count, as is Edith Clever as the extremely fragile Die Marquise. The film, which is an exhaustive depiction of long-buried manners and protocol, won the Grand Prix Spécial Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.

The connection to Rohmer in Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is the dramatization of the hopelessly romantic Von Kleist’s final weeks of life, which culminated in a double suicide with the similarly minded musician Henriette Vogel, who lived in a grand estate near Potsdam. Greatly impressed by Von Kleist’s poetry, Vogel invites him to spend time with her family, which includes a husband and child. Led to believe that she’s suffering from a terminal illness, Vogel (Birte Schnoeink) allows the writer (Christian Friedel) to talk her into going out in a blaze of romantic glory, according to the lofty dictates of his poetry. This account differs from the historical record, as does the mystery that surrounds Vogel’s illness, but where’s the fun in the truth? While the dialogue leading to the suicide pact borders on crazy-talk, Hausner’s depiction of life among the aristocracy at a time when the clamor for democracy and the potential for taxing the rich were blowing strongly in the wind is captivating. She also does a splendid job depicting the grandiosity of the estates where the bewigged twits frittered away their days. The bonus features include commentary with the director, deleted scenes, “Why We Selected” and the short film, “OIDA.”

Do I Sound Gay?
I wonder if, even 20 years ago, David Thorpe’s insightful documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, would have attracted the number of men willing to be interviewed on a subject that, in other hands, might be considered politically incorrect. It’s also worth considering where such a film might have been exhibited outside of gay and lesbian film festivals. Back then, religious zealots still were able to sell the idea that homosexuality could be reversed or cured. Today, of course, the stigma of speaking in a stereotypically gay voice – or, what once was dismissed as a lisp – has practically disappeared, at least in big cities and campus communities. Not caring how one sounds in social situations, job interviews, on screen or at church is as much a sign of the times as having same-sex marriage announcements published in the New York Times. Thorpe uses the break-up with his boyfriend as an excuse for confronting his anxiety about “sounding gay.” To this end, he solicits the advice of acting coaches, linguists, friends, family, total strangers and celebrities. What starts as a personal journey, though, effortlessly evolves into larger discussions about sexuality, identity, self-esteem and, finally, gay pride. The interesting thing to remember is that actors have been affecting gay voices and mannerisms for a very long time, and not always in cruel parodies. Some have been able to use their normal voice and profit from it. It isn’t likely that Liberace, Paul Lynde and Clifton Webb would have profited from going butch. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is how what’s accepted in entertainers and celebrities can still divide families. Among the more prominent witnesses called to testify here are Tim Gunn, columnist Dan Savage, David Sedaris, George Takei and Margaret Cho.

Bound to Vengeance: Blu-ray
When J.M. Cravioto’s hyper-violent revenge thriller Bound to Vengeance was shown at this year’s Sundance Festival, its title was “Reversal.” There probably was a logical reason for the change, although I can’t think of one right now. The reviews that followed its screening were close enough to the ones that greeted I Spit on Your Grave and its sequels to raise the question as to just how violent a movie has to be these days to offend critics gathered at a festival devoted to indies. While there’s no denying Bound to Vengeance’s exploitative ambitions, such reviews suggest that the bar separating good exploitation from bad exploitation hasn’t moved much in the last 37 years. In Rock Shaink and Keith Kjornes’ story, a young woman, Eve (Tina Ivlev), escapes her psychopathic captor after being chained in a basement and abused for nine months. While attempting to take flight, Eve discovers photos taken of other women whose lives appear still to be in jeopardy. Assuming that her captor knows where the others are imprisoned, she beats him to within an inch of his life and puts him in a metal harness, which can be manipulated to inflict more pain. By promising the fiend (Richard Tyson) medical attention, Eve is able to elicit the location of another victim, who agrees to join her crusade, and, so on and so forth. The further the trail leads into the horror zone, the more resistance they meet … and, yes, reversals. The obvious questions become, why doesn’t Eve call the police and where does vengeance end and sadism begin? Then, too, is a harder line drawn by mainstream critics when an exploitation flick debuts at Sundance, instead of going straight to DVD, where such genre fare can be ignored? Methinks, yes. Critics don’t enjoy wallowing in gore any more than the victims in exploitation movies. I don’t either, but VOD and straight-to-video titles are a large part of my workload. That said, because the violence in Bound to Vengeance is directed far more at the evil male characters than helpless women, the titillation factor associated with I Spit on Your Grave and its ilk isn’t at play here. While far from a home run, the movie is just good enough to raise the profile of its talented Mexican director in his debut feature.

The Aviation Cocktail
Like other first features made on miniscule budgets, David R. Higgins’ The Aviation Cocktail is long on style, but short on follow-through. At its best, the Nebraska-set crime drama represents the kind of rural noir Richard Brooks injected into In Cold Blood. Set in the kind of sleepy Midwestern town profiled in Truman Capote’s account of the Clutter Family murders, Higgins’ film benefits from being shot in, around and above the Sandhills National Natural Landmark, in the north-central part of Nebraska, as well as a snow-covered patch of nothingness in Colorado. There are times when it also resembles the more barren landscapes of Coen Brothers’ Fargo, North Dakota. The movie opens with a shootout between a posse of police sharpshooters and the kidnaper of a girl, who’s already dead when they approach the dilapidated shed. While the wounded suspect is being flown to a hospital in a shiny silver prop plane, the three other passengers conspire to exact their own form of vigilante justice on him. Sheriff Henry Fisher (Beau Kiger), his brother, Jack (Michael Haskins), and friend Bob Halloran (Brandon Eaton) are World War II veterans, not at all averse to keeping the prisoner’s fate secret. Things don’t begin to unravel until the cuckolded sheriff’s unfaithful wife, Alice (Leah Lockhart), begins flashing her boobs to everyone willing – or unwilling – to look at them. Her lovers include the pilot, Bob. Like everyone else in town, Jack is aware of the situation, but doesn’t want his brother to slide completely off, into the deep end. As if to demonstrate how haywire things can go in a small town largely populated with heavily armed alcoholics, Higgins adds the dead girl’s religious-fanatic brother (Connor L. Boyle) to the mix and gives him a handgun. By the time the shit hits the fan between Henry and Alice, though, the story’s gotten bogged down with too many characters and subplots. Even so, it’s difficult not to be impressed with Higgins’ choice of locations and obsession with period accuracy, especially in the vintage vehicles.

Before We Go: Blu-ray
If I were to guess, I’d say that prolific-to-a-fault screenwriter Ron Bass woke up one morning thinking it might not be a bad idea if someone crossed Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and that his assistants might have fun throwing it together. Before We Go reportedly began to take shape in 2008, as “1:30 Train,” and with director Joel Schumacher and Monica Bellucci attached to the project. By the time shooting began, in 2014, the retitled rom-com starred frequent superhero Chris Evans and Reece Witherspoon look-alike Alice Eve, with Evans doubling down as first-time director. Evans has said that he doesn’t want to play Captain America forever, but, even if Before We Go is far from a disaster, he may want to reconsider killing the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. In it, Evans plays a subway busker, Nick Vaughan, who hopes to join an established jazz ensemble after an audition scheduled for the next day. He becomes attracted to Eve’s Brooke Dalton after noticing that she’s missed her train to New Haven and is upset because her expensive purse has been stolen and her phone is broken. Sensing a damsel in distress, Nick volunteers to help her locate her bag and raise the money she needs to get back to her philandering husband. They make a cute couple, traipsing around the Lower East Side, even if there’s no guarantee they’ll still be a twosome by the time sunrise rolls around. The problem is that they don’t look as if they could survive a night in the mean streets of Omaha, let alone Manhattan, especially while attempting to recover a purse worth more empty than Nick’s made in all of his performances at Grand Central Station. We’re left with an urban fairytale as phony as the knock-off accessories sold on street corners by Nigerian conmen.

Charlie’s Farm
Stung: Blu-ray
Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Theatre of the Deranged II: Blu-ray
Symphony in Blood Red Blu-Ray,
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.: Blu-ray
Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween
Bloodsucking Bastards: Blu-ray
If the Aussie export, Charlie’s Farm, is based on an overly familiar trope, writer/director Chris Sun deserves a lot of credit at least for creating a monster that fans of old-fashioned slasher flicks aren’t likely to forget. The story opens with a flashback to the night a vigilante mob confronted the owners of an Outback farm, believed to house a family of serial killers of trespassers and cannibals. The only person who escapes the carnage is the son, Charlie Wilson, who, 20 years later, has grown into a grotesque 6-foot-11, 360-pound killer, who wields handmade weapons of medieval origins. On this particular weekend, a quartet of fearless young suburbanites descends on the vacant farmhouse to test the validity of a horrifying local legend involving Charlie. While it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen to the couples, horror fans should enjoy guessing how they will be dispatched and in what order. It’s all pretty blood-curdling. American viewers may be tempted by the presence of Tara Reid, who hasn’t starred in anything more noteworthy lately than “Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2.”  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that a sequel is already in the works … probably without Reid.

Reportedly, first-time screenwriter Adam Aresty came up with the idea for Stung while working as a caterer at an outdoor party with a severe wasp-infestation problem. Based solely on that much background information, anyone who can’t guess what transpires over the course of the next 87 minutes of Aresty and Benni Diez’ film should be required to take a remedial course in creature features. Although I would have held out for predatory yellowjackets, Diez’s special-effects acumen (Melancholia) worked in the favor of the increasingly large, black wasps. If Stung had been made in the 1960-70s, it might have attracted Roger Corman’s attention and been distributed to drive-ins around the country. As it is, I can’t imagine how Syfy might have passed on it. It stars Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Matt O’Leary (Mother’s Day) and Jessica Cook (Awkward).

Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies isn’t the final movie Rowdy Roddy Piper made before his death this summer, at 61, but he’s the only good reason to check out Cody Knotts’ follow-up to Breeding Farm and Lucifer’s Unholy Desire. Although the title doesn’t need any further explanation, it’s worth noting that the battle royal takes place at night in an abandoned prison, where a troupe of professional wrestlers is booked for a private show. To their great surprise, the grapplers are confronted by a small army of zombies. The wrestlers turn to their weapons of choice – ladders, folding chairs, boards and sleeper holds – to turn back the undead horde, which relies primarily on rotten teeth and decaying fingernails. Besides Piper, the humans include Matt Hardy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Franchise Shane Douglas, Kurt Angle, Reby Sky, Sylvester ‘Bear’ Terkay and associate producer Camera Chatham Bartolotta. The action isn’t any more violent than what one might see at a Wrestlemania. The biggest problem is the under-lit setting, which makes the action tough to dicipher, even in hi-def. It adds commentary by Knotts and an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman.

In the sequel to Troma’s 2012 horror anthology, Theater of the Deranged, Internet freak Damien Shadows takes over the reins as host from Andy the Arsonist. Shadows calls himself a paranormal investigator, a title that’s hardly exclusive to self-promoting young webheads who resemble Alice Cooper. As before, Theater of the Deranged II is comprised of a half-dozen very strange short films, this time directed by James Cullen Bressack (Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys), Shawn Burkett (A Shameless Revenge), Eric Hollerbach (Pets of the Rich and Famous), Christopher Leto (Die Die Delta Pi), Dustin Mills (Kill That Bitch) and Shane Ryan (Amateur Porn Star Killer). And, yes, included in the cast of miscreants is a killer mime. It adds bloopers, commentary and other Troma stuff.

There may very well be more filmmakers imitating Dario Argento, today, than there ever were during the heyday of giallo. And, why not? Those movies were built on a recognizable foundation of violence, sex and vivid imagery and the DVD/Blu-ray revolution works to the advantage of those sick individuals for whom murder, nudity and stylistic cinematography are as vital as mother’s milk. The 2010 Troma import, Symphony in Blood Red, doesn’t bother to conceal its influences, even adding a pair of featurettes in which Argento’s name, spirit and thoughts are invoked. In it, a psychologist unleashes her mysterious patient’s latent madness, by insisting he seek further help in a more specialized institution. Instead, he kills her and becomes his own therapist, recording his feelings in a crazy “crescendo” with a small camera. Somehow, he’s come to belief that he’s emerging from a chrysalis state and the next step is full-blown madness. Symphony in Blood Red was written by Antonio Tentori (Dracula 3D) and Luigi Pastore, who also is the director. The genre-specific score is by Claudio Simonetti. The Blu-ray comes with an intro by Lloyd Kaufman; a documentary with the “best voices of Italian horror,” including Dario Argento; a behind-the-scenes piece; a “Minute With Dario Argento: Make Your Own Damn Movie lesson; highlights from the 16th Tromadance Film Festival; Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner trailer; and a music video, directed by Kaufman.

And, we’re not done with Troma just yet. On the 25th anniversary of Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., Lloyd Kaufman has decided to re-launch the sci-fi cop adventure in Blu-ray. Harry Griswald is a NYPD cop possessed with the spirit of a great Kabuki master. This has made him “the chosen one” to do battle with “the evil one.” Sadly, not everyone in the Big Apple is ready for reform or such superheroics. Among the bonus features are commentary by Lloyd Kaufman, an animated Kabukiman, Kabuki rap, “Sgt. Kabukiman Accused of Sexual Harrassment,” Tromaville Cafe with Rick Gianasi and the ever-popular Troma Trailers.

Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween isn’t from Troma, but it might as well be, I guess. The titular protagonists return to the DVD marketplace to mess with sci-fi and horror conventions and clichés, while also paying homage to classic scenes and characters. Previous chapters have included C&O’s Summer Camp Massacre, C&O’s Deadly Xmas and C&O Meet Dracula’s Lawyer. It helps to have a solid background in horror history.

You know that any improv-comedy group with the chutzpah to name itself Dr. God is going to work extra hard to make people laugh. Anything less would be sacrilege. Dr. God is a Los Angeles-based troupe that develops content for film and television, in addition to performing live all across the country. Besides producing Bloodsucking Bastards, it currently is working on “MOCKpocalypse” for AXS-TV.  It is intended to appeal to fans of such movies as Shaun of the Dead, Office Space and “The Office,” among other influences. The DVD adds a gag reel, a making-of featurette and commentary with Dr. God members, including director Brian James O’Connell, producer/actor Justin Ware, writer/actor Sean Cowhig and actors Neil W. Garguilo and David F. Park.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
Nothing in Jeremiah Zagar’s intriguing documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart leads me to believe that the subject of his inquest was railroaded or deserves a new trial. It does, however, demand of viewers that we question, at least, if any defendant can get a fair hearing after being deemed exploitable by media outlets able to introduce facts, hearsay and outright lies jurors wouldn’t be allow to hear in court. Twenty-five years ago, Pamela Smart’s case made a huge splash when she was charged with encouraging her teenage lover and his slacker buddies to murder her husband. She had met the three teenage boys and a girl at Winnacunnet High School, in Hampton, New Hampshire, where she was employed as a “media coordinator.” Before the seduction and murder occurred, Smart and the students were linked by a mutual interested in heavy-metal music. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because of the intense media coverage of the trial – the first, even before O.J., to be televised from start to finish – and Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel, “To Die For,” which was adapted by Gus Van Sant’s movie of the same title, starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon and Joaquin Phoenix. Smart also was portrayed by Helen Hunt in the CBS movie, “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story,” and she appeared on “Oprah” in 2010 to plead her case for a new trial. It was rejected, despite several inconsistencies in the testimony of her co-conspirators.

Zagar’s most salient point is that, once the media began to exploit the story for all it was worth, it would have been impossible for Smart’s case to be fairly heard by an untainted judge and jury. If a presumption of innocence is the rule of law in any courtroom, a presumption of guilt is what sells papers and pumps up ratings. Among the things working against Smart was a too-pretty face, an expensive hairdo and photos of her in a bikini. How could three boys in their mid-teens resist such a sorceress? Or, so the prosecutor’s argument went. Even if we agree with the guilty verdict and punishment of life without parole, what are we to make of decisions that have already allowed the boys, including the 15-year-old who stabbed Smart’s husband to death, to already be free on parole? Zagar asks other worthwhile questions, while also interviewing Smart in prison. The documentary is informed, as well, by numerous court records, transcripts and fresh interviews with people on both sides of the argument. For those who followed the trial or simply are fans of true-crime stories, “Captivated” should be considered a must-see.

Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar
Although Adam Ant enjoyed a substantial career in the UK, in the post-punk 1980s, I can only recall him having a single memorable hit on the U.S. charts, “Goody Two Shoes.” He found some traction on MTV for his theatrical music videos and quasi-military costume  – he appeared to be channeling Monty Python’s inept highwayman, Dennis Moore – but pretty much disappeared by 1985. Jack Bond’s documentary, Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar, describes the 61-year-old singer/actor’s attempt to relaunch his career after stops along the way doing television, film and theater gigs and dealing with his bipolar condition. This time around, Ant (born, Stuart Leslie Goddard) resembles a cross between Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. He’s still rocking – thanks to a solid band and hyperactive backup singers — but the lyrics to his new songs sound as if they were written during therapy sessions. Even so, the doc should appeal to 1980s’ nostalgists and fans who might have lost track of Ant. Among the more familiar guest stars are Charlotte Rampling (he’s a big fan of The Night Porter), guitarist Mark Ronson, sculptor Allen Jones, John Robb (Goldblade) and Jamie Reynolds (The Klaxons). Bonus features include live performances of “Whip in My Valise” (at The Scala in London), “Deutsche Girls” (at Electric Ballroom), and “Young Parisians” (duet with Boy George of Culture Club). There’s also an extended Q&A with Bond and Robb.

PBS-to-DVD
Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series
On Two Fronts Latinos & Vietnam
American Masters: Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey
Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes
The Jewish Journey: America
Nature: Nature’s Miracle Orphans
Cook’s Country: Season 8
It isn’t always easy to keep track of our favorite British series once we’ve fallen in love with them on PBS or BBC America. Few of them can afford the marketing push that alerts us to every new season of “Downton Abbey” and “Dr. Who,” so we’re pretty much left to our own devices. Fortunately, the release of these shows on DVD/Blu-ray has become far more predictable, and at their original UK lengths. (Yes, the U.S. outlets edit for language, nudity and the time necessary for pledge-drive hustles and commercials.) It explains why the arrival of “Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series” will be greeted with joy by fans of British spy stories and Bill Nighy, in particular. As conceived and administered by David Hare, Johnny Worricker is a veteran MI5 officer, whose boss and best friend (Michael Gambon) in the first chapter, “Page Eight,” died unexpectedly, leaving behind a mysteriously encrypted file that threatens the stability of the agency. Meanwhile, a seemingly chance encounter with Johnny’s striking next-door neighbor and political activist (Rachel Weisz) proves too good to be true, forcing Worricker to leave the agency to discover the truth. In the second chapter of the trilogy, “Turks & Caicos,” Worricker is laying low on the titular tax-exile islands, when a CIA agent (Christopher Walken) forces him into the company of some ambiguous American businessmen who claim to be on the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. When one is found dead, the head of the company’s publicity agency (Winona Ryder) leads Worricker in what could be a wild goose chase that leads back to the events described in “Page Eight.” The third episode, “Salting the Battlefield” follows Worricker as he criss-crosses Europe with a former girlfriend (Helena Bonham Carter), attempting to stay one or two steps ahead of MI5 agents pursuing him in the name of the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a terrifically excitin series, with plenty of fresh insights into the game within the game. The casts also include Judy Davis, Olivia Williams, Rupert Graves, Felicity Jones, Dylan Baker, James Naughton and Tom Hughes.

More than any previous conflict involving American soldiers, the Vietnam War was fought by conscripts of working-class and impoverished backgrounds, most of whom had no desire to be there. Meanwhile, college deferments allowed more privileged youths to postpone or entirely avoid their obligation to become cannon fodder for Uncle Sam. When Hollywood finally caught up with Vietnam, it was largely portrayed as a war in which African-American males either were killed or came of age as dope fiends or Black Panthers. The cold facts demonstrated that young working-class Latinos were drafted in similar proportions to black high school graduates and paid the same terrible price. A generation later, Hispanic men and women would comprise an inordinately high percentage of slots in the all-volunteer military. This number included undocumented immigrants who would parley the experience into American citizenship. The PBS documentary, “On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam” frames the documentary within the memoirs of two siblings, Everett and Delia Alvarez, who stood on opposite sides of the Vietnam War, one as a POW and the other protesting at home. Other stories deepen the narrative: in Greenlee County, Arizona, miners’ children fought and died for their country in devastating proportions; sisters and mothers took notice and action; and a farmworker’s son translated his military experience into a career, before resigning in protest from his post on a local draft board.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey,” tells the remarkable story of a Mexican-American native of then-segregated Mesa, Arizona, who developed a love of art, photography and architecture that carried him to the loftiest peaks of his craft. His collaborations with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson have been seen by millions of magazine readers who have no idea who took the photographs or how his cultural background may have influenced his work. He also established an international reputation photographing the mid-century modern houses of such luminaries as Eero Saarinen, Edward Durell Stone, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, John Black Lee and Joseph Salerno. Magazine assignments also took him to Julia Child’s pot-lined kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and to John Huston’s castle in Ireland. For his early opposition to the Vietnam War, however, Guerrero was blacklisted by the same publishers of major shelter magazines who profited from his work. One needn’t be Hispanic or a student of design to enjoy this beautifully composed profile of an important American artist.

Among the historical figures who deserve to be given a temporary rest, at least, by filmmakers and documentarians are the Henry VIII of England and his unfortunate wives. It’s not that we’re not interested in their stories of star-crossed love, just that it’s almost impossible to imagine anything new and compelling to be derived from them. Tell that to historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, who, in “Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History,” puts a tight focus on the heir-obsessed monarch and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In what amounts to a fact-based Harlequin bodice-ripper, Lipscomb illustrates her exhaustive research with sumptuous dramatizations and reconstructions, drawing on first-hand accounts from the time, and visiting the places where Henry and Anne lived. The only thing missing is a cameo appearance by Fabio, as the Lord High Executioner.

At a time when it would seem impossible to discover new accounts of heroism from World War II, here comes “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes,” which adds quite a bit more than a footnote to the story. In it, we’re introduced to dozens of largely unsung protectors of Jewish refugees, including Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali and citizens of a city that risked annihilation for hiding them. The film also offers an alternative take on the Catholic Church’s role in protecting scores of refugees. While not denying the presence of Vatican-endorsed “ratlines,” which allowed countless ex-Nazi leaders to escape Europe, Oren Jacoby’s film chooses to promote the actions of priests and nuns who adopted a more Christian response to Mussolini and Hitler’s insanity. Not all of the accounts have a happy ending, of course, but more than were previously known, at least. The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini.

On a significantly brighter note, “The Jewish Journey: America” traces Jewish immigration to the U.S. from the earliest arrivals in the mid-17th Century through the impact of the Nazi regime in World War II and subsequent breakup of the USSR. It also chronicles the choices made by American-born Jews in the 20th Century, as the religion faced challenges from within. Among those interviewed are two American-born rabbis whose own “Jewish Journey” has taken them from an assimilated household, with no real roots in the rituals of the religion, back to a life of observance. Top scholars, notable writers and immigrants themselves share stories of those who made a leap of faith to escape persecution or pursue opportunity.

There were several times during the two-part “Nature” mini-series, “Nature’s Miracle Orphans,” when I was tempted to put on one of the many recordings I have of the traditional Negro spiritual, “Motherless Child.” There were other times, however, when a happier tune would be a more appropriate accompaniment. As sad as it is to watch baby animals come to the grips with the absence of their parents – especially those of the maternal persuasion – it’s just that uplifting to see them discover ways to survive and prosper independently. While some orphans are taken in by foster parents, others are forced to go it alone or with the help of human volunteers. They include baby koalas, wallabies, kangaroos, sloths and anteaters.

Season Eight of PBS’ mouthwatering “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen” features the usual array of regional specialties prepared by host Christopher Kimball and chefs from America’s Test Kitchen. Among them are Delta Hot Tamales, Smoked Bourbon Chicken, Dakota Peach Kuchen, Latin Fried Chicken, Pork Ragu, Frosted Meatloaf and Barbecued Burnt Ends. It also includes “Tips & Techniques,” food tastings, equipment tests, and printable versions of all 26 recipes.

The Farmer’s Daughter
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13
Watch enough porn and you’ll be surprised at who shows up in one. The late, great monologist and actor Spalding Gray plays a leading role in a nasty little ditty, The Farmer’s Daughter, which has been re-released by Impulse Pictures. It also starred Golden Age favorites Marlene Willoughby, Susan McBain and Gloria Leonard, but it should hardly come as a shock to find them in a 1976 porno. Directed by Zebedy Colt (a.k.a., Edward Earle Marsh), it extended the old joke about the farmer’s daughter by adding a couple siblings, a trio of escaped convicts, a moronic farmhand and trigger-happy farmer, a girl-on-boy gang rape, gender-neutral golden showers, incest and some anal. If it weren’t so rough, The Farmer’s Daughter could pass for comedy. Gray doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as one of the randy convicts … that would come eight years later, when he played the U.S. consul, in The Killing Fields. In 1985, he gained prominence on stage with the autobiographical monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.” Gray also took uncredited roles in a pair of adult classics, Maraschino Cherry and Little Orphan Dusty. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for struggling actors to supplement their income with work in XXX flicks. No one could foresee the introduction of VCRs or that anyone might be able to reference past work in unsung flicks. Some of the then-unknown actors and peep-show veterans, including Leonard, would go on to make very decent money in the genre and never feel the need to apologize for it.

Among the future stars who likewise honed their craft in loops and other grindhouse attractions are Chris Cassidy, Tina Russell, Susan Nero and Sharon Mitchell, who can be found in “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13.” The recently deceased Leonard, who also would serve as publisher of High Society, has appeared in previous editions of the series. As usual, liner notes for both sets are provided by Cinema Sewer publisher, Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: Jurassic World, Back to Future, Inside Out, Toy Story, Benoit Jacquot and more

Friday, November 6th, 2015

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.

Operator
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.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The Great Fire: Blu-ray
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Syfy: Lavalantula
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.

DVD Wrapup Gift Guide I: W.C. Fields, IndiePix, Grinchmas, Human Centipede, Flowers, Neon God, Home Fires … More

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Now that Halloween is nearly upon us and early birds have begun to camp out in front of Walmart and Toys ‘R’ Us, in anticipation of Black Friday bargains, it’s the time to think about shelling out big bucks on giftable DVD/Blu-ray collections and holiday specialties. New multidisc packages will be released on a fast-and-furious basis – if you get my drift – over the course of the next eight weeks and they will be competing for eyes and shelf space with hundreds of sets already in the marketplace. Price tags can be steep, but terrific bargains can be found on the Internet and stores that handle previously viewed items. Like any serious vinyl collector, buyers for such second-hand stores pay meticulous attention to the condition of items they purchase and, of course, discs resist damage in ways vinyl never could. Most Internet outlets offer free shipping for sales of multiple items or a minimum purchase.  Here are some recent releases that have caught my eye:

W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection
Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection
The Marx Brothers have stood the test of time, delighting every new generation of comedy lovers. I wonder if W.C. Fields has demonstrated the same resilience with kids whose only knowledge of gin blossoms comes from the rock band, not one of the most famous lushes in Hollywood history. From Universal, the W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection serves both as a nostalgic reminder of movies past and an excellent starter kit for uninitiated youths. Serious collectors of vintage comedy will already possess most of the titles here, but certainly not all of them – Million Dollar Legs and Tillie and Gus — on actual DVD, as opposed to DVDr. For movies that are between 70 and 80-plus years old, the audio/visual quality far surpasses anything shown on television sets, dormitory walls and classrooms in the interim. Every one of Field’s sarcastic asides rings perfectly clear, even in DVD. This collection features 18 of his most memorable films, including Alice in Wonderland, If I Had a Million, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Mississippi, International House, It’s a Gift, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, Man on the Flying Trapeze, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, You’re Telling Me!, The Old Fashioned Way and Poppy. It adds the less-well-preserved bio-doc, “Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields.” There is other Fields material extant, but not under the Universal banner.

While Fields tended to reserve his most toxic vitriol for children, dogs, spinsters and fellow boozehounds, “insult comic” Don Rickles adopted a more in-your-face approach. There’s no question both men were cut from the same cloth, however. Arguably at his best when least confined by network censors, “Mr. Warmth: Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection” demonstrates how caustic a comedian could be on prime time and still pass through the medium’s many filters. I would love to see footage of Rickles’ wee-hours’ Las Vegas lounge act, which attracted the Rat Pack and other marquee talent to the Sahara like a magnet, but, alas, evidence of those shows likely is lost to the ages. The Time Life/WEA compilation contains four one-hour network television specials, from the 1970s, and the complete series of “CPO Sharkey” episodes. Bonus features add never-before-seen outtakes and unedited scenes, with new introductions from Rickles; the “Tonight Show” clip with Johnny Carson’s surprise visit to the “CPO Sharkey” set; and the TV Land Awards’ Legend Award presentation by Jimmy Kimmel. Among the stars on display here are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jack Klugman, Bob Newhart, John Wayne, Helen Reddy, Loretta Swift, Rip Taylor, Don Adams, James Caan, Michael Caine, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Godfrey, Elliott Gould, Michele Lee, Larry Linville, Jack Palance, Otto Preminger, Bobby Riggs and Loretta Swit.

IndiePix Mix 10
Parsing the difference between studio and independent films can be a tiresome exercise, even for moviegoers who make it a point to tune into both the Oscar and Indie Spirit Awards ceremonies. More often than not, anymore, the same artists, films and producers are nominated for awards in similar categories, while the budgets for many Spirits candidates match those accorded studio “prestige pictures.” There are strict rules for governing such things, but … well, why bother. One of the nice things about the Spirits has been a willingness on the part of voters to honor movies that have been exhibited on the festival circuit, without the benefit of a theatrical distributor.  Such is the case for several of the movies included in “IndiePix Mix 10,” a virtual grab bag of titles from the company’s decade-plus mission to unearth gems from festivals around the world and offer them to consumers on DVD. It isn’t the only company providing such a service, of course. Viewers’ acceptance of PPV and other streaming services has allowed niche distributors to target audiences for indies, arthouse, foreign, documentary and animated products, without spending a bundle to market them. Heavy on documentaries, the titles include The Axe in the Attic, which focuses on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; Jack Taylor of Beverly Hills, a nostalgic look at the tailor to such stars as Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra; Echotone, a close-up view into the lives and lifestyles of Austin’s young musicians; Frontrunner, set in Afghanistan during its first democratic election, with a tight focus on the country’s first candidates; Shooting Star(s) follows Johnny Nunez as he overcomes the obstacles imposed by his humble upbringing in Brooklyn, to become today’s most prominent hip-hop celebrity photographer; The Devilles, a verite glimpse into the lives of burlesque stripper and Marilyn Monroe lookalike Teri Lee Geary (a.k.a., Kitten DeVille) and her punk-rock-singer husband, Shawn Geary; and Candyman, a documentary recounting the true story of David Klein, the eccentric L.A. candy inventor who came up with the concept of Jelly Belly jellybeans. Dramas include “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” about a fortune teller who lives and works in a haunted house at the edge of the woods; Artois the Goat, about one man’s quest to create the greatest goat cheese the world has ever known; Evergreen, in which a Pacific Northwest teenager yearns to reinvent herself and find something she can be thankful for in the face of poverty. If the list is heavy on non-fiction, it’s only because docs are enjoying a creative renaissance, thanks mainly to advancements in technology. The titles have previously been available on an a la carte basis.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Grinchmas Edition: Blu-ray
I wonder how many people expected Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas to do for Jim Carey what Aladdin did for Robin Williams, which is to say, add an entirely new dimension to a career that desperately needed a jump start. In the Disney animated feature, the directors allowed Williams to hit warp speed and stay there as long as they could stretch the Genie to fit his anarchic improvisation. Something tells me that director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer kept a tighter grip on the controls, allowing Carey less freedom to make gags up as he was going along. Neither was Williams required to act in costume, which required Carey to spend countless hours in the makeup and costume trailers. The physical restrictions imposed by the prize-winning designs, alone, would have been sufficiently stringent to discourage flights of fancy. (The Grinch did bear a fleeting resemblance to the actor’s creepy Fire Marshall Bill character, on “In Living Color,” though.) The movie’s huge budget, especially in circa-2000 dollars, also would have demanded more creative control on Howard and Grazer’s part. When foreign receipts and DVD/Blu-ray sales were added to a very decent domestic return, the folks inside Universal Studio’s hulking Black Tower probably breathed a sigh of relief. Critics, no strangers to Grinch-y behavior, gave the movie mixed reviews, mostly in reaction to the new material that had to be added to the 69-page children’s book – long on pictures, short on words – to fit a 104-minute movie. Kids don’t have much use for numbers, of course, so it’s likely the newly upgraded – mercifully so – edition will retain its ability to enchant the Suessian fan base. Besides the tech facelift, the Blu-ray picks up the features package included in the 2009 hi-def edition, including enhanced commentary with Howard, several making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes and Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?,” as well as BD Live and D Box.

Among the other early holiday releases are “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Christmas,” a themed collection of three vintage episodes: In “The Christmas Aliens” (2004), Michaelangelo runs afoul of a group of criminals hoping to attain a profit from some stolen toys; “The Way of Invisibility” (2003), in which the Turtles are required to deal with Foot Tech Ninjas that raise the bar in the ways of invisibility; and “Fallen Angel,” where Casey Jones tries to stop a young girl from becoming a member of the dangerous Purple Dragon gang. One of the titles sounds seasonal, at least.

Shout! Factory is offering “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour: Christmas Specials,” which packages two holiday shows from 1969 and 1970, late in the era of variety shows on prime-time television. The mix included guest appearances by George Gobel, Jerry Reed, Anne Murray, Shecky Greene, Mel Tillis, Cher, Andy Griffith and Paul Lynde.

Shalom Sesame
Chanukah & Passover on Planet Matzah Ball
There’s no particular reason for those who celebrate Chanukah to feel at a loss for gifts that reflect traditional values, while also taking into account their kids’ tech-savvy craving for at-home entertainment and virtual babysitters. SISU Entertainment, which caters to Jewish viewers of all ages and interests, offer a wide array of titles, most of which you’d be hard-pressed to find in the usual retail outlets. In the latest addition to its “Shalom Sesame” lineup, Grover and celebrity host Anneliese van der Pol (“That’s So Raven”) travel to Israel to discover the vitality of Jewish culture and tradition, as well as the diversity of Israeli life, intended for American children and their families. Each 30-minute episode combines live-action and animated sequences based on themed storylines, highlighting lessons on Hebrew letters and words, and unique sites in Israel. The six-DVD set is co-produced by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street” — and Israel’s Channel HOP! An additional DVD features two programs from the classic “Shalom Sesame” – “Jerusalem” and “People of Israel” – as well as a free 30-day trial download of the program, “Welcome to Israel.”

SISU also has a full line of Chanukah-specific titles. “Chanukah & Passover on Planet Matzah Ball” takes young viewers to a planet partially inhabited by Jews, but absent most Jewish traditions. One day, a menorah traveling through space crash lands on Planet Matzah Ball – I kid you, not — and the furry Jewish aliens don’t know what to make of it. Determined to solve the mystery of the menorah, 9-year-old Oogy uses a super-powered telescope to investigate all possibilities. Finally, he spies four children enjoying a Chanukah party in Cleveland, of all celestial landmarks. As he observes them, a clever Chanukah tale unfolds in his mind. It involves puppets, animation and music, all of which bring the wonderful holiday traditions to life. The DVD features include an interactive menu, karaoke and a guide for parents and teachers, as well as the companion video, “The Seder on Planet Matzah Ball.”

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls (Three Movie Gift Set)
And, what would a holiday gift guide be without something to excite young girls, brony brethren and pegasisters, in almost equal measure. After all, the “My Little Pony” video phenomenon was preceded by the success of an ever-expanding line of toys. The early animated titles weren’t particularly impressive, but they’ve improved markedly in the past five years. The DVD/Blu-ray package, “My Little Pony: Equestria Girls,” contains three feature-length movies – led by the title picture — that received limited runs in theaters before crossing over into DVD. When her crown is stolen from the Crystal Empire, Twilight pursues the thief, Sunset Shimmer, into an alternate world where she finds herself turned into a teenage girl. I couldn’t begin to explain with any accuracy the intricacies and plot twists at play in Equestria Girls, but, of course, I’m not a brony. The new package adds Rainbow Rocks and Friendship Games.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series
Transformers: Robots in Disguise: A New Autobot Mission
While collectors are happy whenever complete-series sets of their favorite shows become available, they get cranky when they sense that distributors are toying with their affections. A quick perusal of retail and fan sites reveals how disappointed are with “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series.” While emphasizing their love for the product, fans who’ve waited for an all-inclusive three-season package have voiced their displeasure with the lack of a Blu-ray option and what they believe to be a missed opportunity to clean up visual problems, especially in Season One. With fans as loyal as those committed to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” it’s dangerous to take shortcuts. Neither am I sure how loyalists will take the sweetheart deal with Amazon. In addition to the complete-series box, its customers will find the book, “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise Part 1,” written by the co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The events described in the 80-page book take place directly following the ending of the series.

Considering that the first season of “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” ended more than a month ago and complete-season sets are what devoted fans are most interested in purchasing, it borders on cruelty for Hasbro Studios to send out “Transformers: Robots in Disguise: A New Autobot Mission” with a grand total of only 5 out of 26 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes featurette. That said, the new Autobot mission begins when a prison ship crashes on Earth, setting hundreds of Cybertron’s most dangerous Decepticons free. Optimus Prime responds by ordering Bumblebee and his new squad — Strongarm, Sideswipe and former Decepticon, Grimlock, and two human allies – to track down and recapture the evil escapees.

The Human Centipede: The Complete Sequence: Blu-ray
Flowers: Limited Edition
The Horror Network
Anyone considering gifting The Human Centipede: The Complete Sequence either has a very twisted sense of humor or a giftee with a peculiar taste in movies. That doesn’t make the three-film compilation a bad present, necessarily, just one that many people might consider to be inappropriate, at best. In the six years since the first installment in the trilogy was released, comedians and sitcom writers have used The Human Centipede as a verbal cue for eliciting disgust and self-conscious laughter among horror and pop-culture cognoscenti. In Tom Mix’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence), a mad scientist (Dieter Laser) kidnaps and mutilates a trio of German tourists, in order to reassemble them by stitching their mouths to another victim’s rectum. It’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed and, apparently, enough people sought it out in DVD to warrant two sequels. To say these films aren’t for everyone is like saying body snatching isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. If the first installment in the series could fairly be judged as an extreme example of inky black humor, the sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), represented more of the same, absent any pretense of humor. In it, Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is a mentally disturbed loner who lives with his mother in a bleak housing project. He works the night shift as a security guard in an equally grim and foreboding underground parking complex. To escape his dreary existence, Martin loses himself in the fantasy world of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), “fetishizing the meticulous surgical skills of the gifted Dr. Heiter, whose knowledge of the human gastrointestinal system inspires Martin to attempt the unthinkable.” Laser and Harvey return in The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence), but as very different characters. Laser plays Billy Boss, the warden of George H.W. Bush State Prison, while Harvey is the troubled facility’s chief financial officer. No amount of torture and degradation of the prison’s worst offenders dissuades the other inmates from misbehaving and rioting. Vexed to the point of considering mass castration, the accountant convinces Boss to borrow from their favorite movie, instead. When the pictures are shown to the prisoners, they react by shouting out actual quotes pulled from reviews written by mainstream critics. Finally, of course, the joke will be on them … unless Texas law-enforcement authorities agree to intercede. “The Complete Sequence” compilation adds the 48-minute featurette, “The Ladies of The Human Centipede,” with new interviews from Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Maddi Black and Kandace Caine, from “First Sequence” (adult star Bree Daniels is the only woman in “III”); the color version of “THC2”; an alternate poster gallery; and Laurence Harvey’s audition tape.

Anyone who can’t make it through even one “sequence” of The Human Centipede saga isn’t likely to make it through 15 minutes of Flowers, an exercise in existential horror so potentially upsetting that it should carry a warning label. Phil Stevens’ debut feature demands of viewers that we empathize with the victims of a serial killer to the point where we might conjure a scenario in which they regained consciousness in their final resting place. Here, Stevens might have been inspired by the young men tortured, murdered and buried in the crawl space of John Wayne Gacy’s suburban Chicago home. In Flowers, the victims are all women … or, perhaps, one woman played by six different “flowers.” They are required to make their way through blood, guts and filth, until they are able to find an entrance to the house. Once inside, they relive the trials and tortures endured before their untimely deaths. Watching Flowers isn’t that far removed from trying to imagine the indignities suffered by women and girls kidnapped by fiends and forced to live in captivity until they can escape or be rescued. Try too hard and your dreams will never be the same. Even buffs, I think, would find Flowers a difficult movie to watch. But, I suppose, people in the 16th Century said the same thing about Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish depictions of hell in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights” … not that I’m making the comparison. The bonus package on the three-disc package adds commentaries with Phil Stevens and editor Ronnie Sortor; an interview with actor Bryant W. Lohr Sr.; Makaria Tsapatoris’ audition tape; a stills gallery; deleted scenes (with optional commentary); a trailer reel; an isolated FX track; featurette “Floravision: The Making of Flowers”; storyboards video gallery (with optional commentary); a CD soundtrack; and two versions of the short, “Kiss Me Whore.” It really will be interesting to see what Stevens comes up with, next.

Sometimes, when researching the work of an interesting actor or filmmaker, I turn to the pages on IMDB.com reserved for such things, only to find several short films listed among their credits. A quick trip to YouTube sometimes will provide an opportunity to see an artist’s earliest work. Occasionally, too, anthologies such as Creepshow, Tales From the Crypt, V/H/S and The ABCs of Death serve the same purpose. The Horror Network combines the efforts of six largely unsung writer/directors for five short films that test the limits of terror experienced by characters unaccustomed to strange noises, creepy neighbors and inanimate objects that unexpectedly become animated. Creators Brian Dorton and Douglas Conner reportedly sampled more than 200 films to get to the five that made the cut in The Horror Network. It succeeds, even absent such frills as a Cryptkeeper or animated interstitials.

Rebels of the Neon God
It took 25 years for Tsai Ming-liang’s excellent debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God, to be accorded a theatrical release in the United States. Since then, the Malaysian-born writer/director has developed an international reputation with such idiosyncratic entertainments as Vive L’Amour (1994), What Time Is It There? (2001), Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) and The Wayward Cloud (2005), all of which showcase minimalist values and atmospheric settings. Most clearly informed by the French New Wave, Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and either James Dean or Nicholas Ray (or both), his disaffected characters frequently seem overwhelmed by the chaos of urban life that surrounds them. Such is the case with Rebels of the Neon God, in which the lives of three aimless Taipei youths intersect in streets teeming with cars, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and an endless parade of pedestrians, all going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. At night, a different population moves at a less impatient pace, seeking refuge from the garishly lit streets in the shadows and behind the doors of skating rinks, video arcades and all-night restaurants … anywhere, but in the tiny apartments they call home. The catalyst for drama is a mindless act of vandalism, committed by Ah-tze and his buddy Ah-ping after a taxi inadvertently cuts off their motorbike. It escalates exponentially when the cabbie’s son, Hsiao-Kang, recognizes the young hoodlums and, for lack of anything better to do, begins to stalk them. Hsiao-kang exacts his revenge in an even greater act of vandalism. To cover the damage, Ah-tze commits a crime that backfires badly on him. A curious romance, involving Ah-tze and a lovesick clerk at the rink, is every bit as hit-and-run as the careless incident in the streets, hours earlier. The characters don’t waste a lot of time exchanging dialogue and, when they do, it mostly serves to add a touch of humor to the drama.  The bustling Taipei setting adds greatly to the overall sense of alienation that permeates the story, just as America’s similarly mean streets informed Martin Scorsese’s early works.

Forever
If the name, Tatia Pilieva, sounds familiar it’s because of her short film, “First Kiss,” in which 20 strangers share kisses, to varying results. It caught fire on YouTube last year, registering more than 66 million visits. It isn’t likely that the filmmaker from the Republic of Georgia, now living in Los Angeles, would be known for her first feature, Forever, which found hardly any traction in theaters before being released into DVD.  The uneven drama was co-written with the late Gill Dennis, who previously shared screenwriting credits on Ring of Fire and Return to Oz. “True Blood” alums Deborah Ann Woll and Luke Grimes play Alice and Charlie, who meet very un-cute at a commune full of extremely troubled people, led by a doctor (John Diehl) whose methodology can best be described as curious. Alice is a passionate investigative reporter, who, after the suicide of her boyfriend, takes on an assignment requiring her to check out what’s happening in the compound across the lake from her hometown. Deep in the forest, she discovers what appears to be a multigenerational refuge for men and women who are either contemplating suicide or whose depression has reached an intolerable level. The mystery at the core of Forever requires Alice and viewers, alike, to decide if the doctor is a quack or a genius. And, if it’s the former, can Alice and Charlie escape the compound before the shit hits the fan? Not everything that transpires around the communal dining table translates into heart-tugging drama, but the cast, which also includes, Rhys Coiro, Jill Larson, Ioan Gruffudd, Tom Everett Scott, Shanola Hampton and Seth Gabel, give it their best shot.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Home Fires: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Nuclear Meltdown Disaster
No one beats the Brits when it comes to soapy mini-series about life between and during our last two world wars. The UK’s unique perspective on the toll paid by civilians, medical and diplomatic personnel, stationed at home and abroad, is reflected in a continuing parade of movies and television shows. ITV’s fine period melodrama, “Home Fires,” is only the latest example. More gossipy than previous mini-series, it opens in a rural Cheshire village, in 1939, just as Hitler is about to light the fuse on war. Memories of England’s great losses in World War I remain fresh in the minds of older residents, just as the call to duty summons of men too young be intimately familiar with the carnage in the trenches. To fully appreciate “Home Fires,” American viewers need to know a little bit, at least, about the Women’s Institute, around which the story revolves. The community-based organization was founded in Stoney Creek, Ontario, by Adelaide Hoodless in 1897, and expanded to Britain 18 years later. The WI’s wartime mission involved revitalizing rural communities and encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. During World War II, they looked after evacuees, performed tasks normally handled by the men now training for combat and, somewhat famously, running the government-sponsored Preservation Centers, where volunteers canned or made jam from excess produce. The produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations sent to soldiers. It explains why novelist Julie Summers titled the book that inspired the six-part series, “Jambusters.” The emphasis here is less on food production than with the members’ interpersonal relationships and decisions that impacted daily life in the community, at home and in their work. A large ensemble cast is led by Samantha Bond (a.k.a., Miss Moneypenny) and Francesca Annis (“Wives and Daughters”). The first season ends with the harrowing Dunkirk evacuation. The PBS Blu-ray represents the full UK-length edition.

PBS’ “Nova” covers natural and man-made catastrophes with the same intensity – and frequency – as the E! network covers the Kardashians. “Nuclear Meltdown Disaster” takes the tick-tock approach to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, providing details that would have scared the crap out of the Japanese citizenry, if they had only been alerted to the perilously close call at the other Fukushima nuclear plant a few miles away from the meltdowns. The producers were accorded unprecedented access inside both facilities and to workers who there during the first harrowing days. We’re also introduced to an employee who has worked there since Day One and became the unsung hero who kept the disaster from spreading.

The DVD Wrapup: Larry Fessenden, My Favorite Martian, Testament of Youth, A Special Day and more

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

The Larry Fessenden Collection: Blu-ray
Frightmare: The Horror Star:  Blu-ray
Demonoid: Messenger of Death Blu-ray
Like Clint Howard, Larry Fessenden is a seemingly tireless supporting actor whose horror-perfect face is far better known than his name … outside of Hollywood and fan conventions, anyway. If they hadn’t found work in the pictures, both could easily be mistaken for carnies, roustabouts, road-crew workers and reprobates of all stripe. As the son of Rance and Jean Speegle Howard, and brother of Ron, Clint Howard started acting early and hasn’t stopped, yet. Fessenden’s background may smack of East Coast establishment, but he caught exploitation fever in his teens and hasn’t had time to look back since then. At 52, he has more than a dozen credits as an actor (84), director (22), producer (58), writer (13), editor (15) and cinematographer (14). Not all of them have been memorable — Hollow Venus: Diary of a Go-Go Dancer, for one – but it hasn’t slowed him down much. Fessenden has 10 acting performances in post-production. Whether he “deserves” a Blu-ray retrospective at this point in his career is open to debate. Shout! Factory thinks so and that’s all that counts. “The Larry Fessenden Collection” contains four movies representative of various aspects of his career: The Mind’s Eye (acting), No Telling (acting, writing, directing, producing), Wendigo (actor, director, editor, writer) and The Last Winter (co-writer, director, actor, producer, editor). All have been accorded fresh director-approved HD transfers, Fessenden’s commentary and never-before-seen photos, storyboards and sketches, along with a 24-page booklet, with liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold. The compilation also includes several making-of featurettes, interviews, music videos, Glass Eye Pix sizzle reels, music videos for “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped,” “Save You from Yourself” and “Tired of Killing Myself,” and the short films, “White Trash” (1979), “Habit” (1981), “N Is for Nexus” (from Magnet Releasing’s The ABCs of Death 2), “Jebediah,”“Origins” and “Mister.”

Frightmare: The Horror Star borrows its central conceit from one of the greatest of all Hollywood legends. It involves the corpse-napping of Jack Barrymore from a funeral parlor, by director Raoul Walsh, for the purpose of scaring the bejeezus out of mutual friend and fellow alcoholic Errol Flynn. The story may very well be apocryphal, but its sounds good. In Norman Thaddeus Vane’s uneven horror thriller/comedy, legendary genre villain Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne) – a combination of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – dies of a heart attack before he can address a group of college-age buffs. Feeling a tad cheated, the film society members decide to break into Conrad’s crypt and bring the Count Dracula look-alike back to their fraternity house for some drinks and frivolity. Conrad had already ordered funeral parlor management not to cremate his body, insisting that his work on his Earth wasn’t done. And, it isn’t. When Conrad’s widow and her friend Elizabeth (Nita Talbot) get word, they decide to hold a séance to try to contact his spirit and have it tell them where the body is. Instead, they accidentally raise Conrad from the dead. The film society kids are no match for the resurrected spirit of a demon from hell, anxious to wreak havoc on the arrogant students. The cast includes Luca Bercovici, Jennifer Starrett, Alan Stock, Jeffrey Combs and Chuck “Porky” Mitchell. The Blu-ray adds some looking-back material.

Early in Demonoid: Messenger of Death (a.k.a., Macabra), Samantha Eggar ignores the warnings to enter a Mexican mine, believed to be cursed. She wants to track down her husband, who’s seeking a treasure in silver. Naturally, her character is wearing high heels as she walks through the rocky shaft. In due order, she causes a small rockslide, which reveals a hidden chamber containing skeletons with their left hands cut off. It also reveals a silver chest, in which a fleshy hand is contained. Of course, the mine owner removes the chest from its longtime resting place, inadvertently unleashing the curse of the hand on the unwitting citizens of Guanajuato. Apparently, Alfredo Zacarías’ “Demonoid” was made two years before Oliver Stone’s The Hand and shelved until it could piggy-back on the marketing campaign for the WB/Orion release. It isn’t very good, but disembodied-hand completists will watch it, anyway.

I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine: Blu-ray
Although Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert effectively nailed the coffin shut on the budding I Spit on Your Grave franchise, way back in 1978, no guardian of public morality since then has been able to prevent the monster from rising from the grave 32 years later, first, as a direct remake of the original, and, then, in 2013, a rape-revenge sequel to both of its predecessors. In limited release, the 2010 remake actually received some not-entirely-negative reviews, which took note of the heavier emphasis on revenge and the director’s desire to lay guilt trips on viewers drawn to the film for its violence against women. By launching in only a single theater, I Spit on Your Grave 2 was able to avoid mainstream critics entirely. I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine follows a similar pattern, except for the VOD option which won’t come until late next month. The strategy might work, if only because the franchise’s brand identity is strong enough to live or die on its own merits … or lack thereof. The good news for fans is the return of Sarah Butler as Jennifer Hills, the New York novelist who was savagely raped by backwoods sadists in the cabin she used to write. Still traumatized, Jennifer’s psychiatrist (Harley Jane Kozak) recommends that she join a support group for survivors of sexual attacks. Mostly, though, the experience only serves to depress her even further. One night, after hearing yet another horror story, Jennifer joins forces with a woman (Jennifer Landon) who’s actively planning to seek revenge against some of the other victims’ attackers. That she’s killed before they are able to formulate a plan only serves to convince Jennifer of the urgency of the mission. And, that requires Jennifer to set traps for guys who can’t imagine such a pretty little thing being so dangerous. Series followers know to expect violence of the most hideous sort.

 

My Favorite Martian: The Complete Series
Looking back at Halloweens past, I wonder how many Baby Boomer kids took a cue from their favorite television show and trick-or-treated in a costume that mimicked the one occasionally worn by Ray Walston, in “My Favorite Martian,” which ran from 1963-66. It would be easy to replicate, today, as it resembles the Spandex and Lycra bodysuits worn by serious athletes to cut seconds from their best times. The lime-green suit frequently was worn with a skull-gripping hood and, of course, the character’s retractable antennae. As the story goes, a human-looking extraterrestrial (Walston) crash-lands near Los Angeles in a one-man spaceship. The ship’s pilot, henceforth known as Uncle Martin, is an anthropologist and inventor from Mars. He is rescued by a reporter, Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby), on his way home from Edwards Air Force Base, where he was covering the flight of the experimental X-15 hypersonic research aircraft. Coincidence? I don’t think so. To the delight of viewers, Uncle Martin demonstrated such unusual powers as becoming invisible; reading and influencing minds; levitating objects with the motion of his finger; communicating with animals; freezing people or objects; and speeding up himself (and other people) to do work. Martin’s inventions benefitted the show by allowing time travel, including to such places as medieval England, St. Louis at the opening of the frontier and the early days of Hollywood, and transporting Leonardo da Vinci and Jesse James into the present. You get the gist. In addition to inspiring an animated series, nostalgic feature film, short-lived comic book, plastic model kit and, in 2012, an Uncle Martin bobble-head figure, “My Favorite Martian” created the template for such shows as “Mork & Mindy,” “Alf,” “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “The Neighbors” and, perhaps, the Coneheads on “SNL. In more than half of the 107 unedited episodes collected here, Pamela Britton (D.O.A.) plays their snoopy landlady Lorelei Brown. Part of the fun that derives from watching these retrospective collection is finding still-familiar guest stars in early- or late-career appearances. Here, look for Linda Evans, Gavin Macleod, Marlo Thomas, Jamie Farr, Bernie Kopell, Alan Hale Jr., Butch Patrick, Michael Constantine, Henry Gibson, Frank Devol, Madge Redmond and Shelley Morrison, among many others. The MPI Home Video release adds behind-the-scenes home movies, themed commercials and “bumpers,” special-effects explainers, a photo gallery, interviews with Bixby and Walton from Lucille Ball’s radio show and the original CBS pilot, “The Man in the Square Suit” (a.k.a., “Who Is Benny Goodman” and “Rambling Wreck From the Discotheque”). It starred Paul Dooley, Diane Sherry Case and Michael Blodgett, in a fish-out-of-water setup that differed quite a bit from that of first real episode.

Testament of Youth: Blu-ray
No event in modern history has demonstrated the futility, unfairness and insanity of human nature run amok than the First World War. Even if we’re able, today, to understand the posturing and provocations that led to the multinational conflagration, it’s difficult to understand how what amounted to a bloody stalemate was allowed to continue for as long as it did and for no discernably good reason. The crowned heads of Europe, who so desperately wanted to maintain the status quo, were doomed when the men fighting in their names realized that the emperors had stopped wearing clothes. In the end, World War I would simply be a proving ground for the greater horror to come, 20 years later, and the power of extremists to manipulate the passions of people who came to feel as if the cards would forever be stacked against them. The young British men and women we meet in Testament of Youth could barely wait for war to be declared before answering the patriotic call to duty. Like every other man in uniform, they wanted to believe the lies told by political and military leaders, who assured them that victory was pre-ordained and it would come quickly. It didn’t take long for them to realize that swords, side arms and troops on horsebacks would be no match for machine guns, artillery shells and armored vehicles. Based on the World War I memoirs of Vera Brittain, James Kent’s brilliantly acted film is told from the point of view of a first-year student at an elite college, who learns the truth after volunteering to be a combat nurse at the front lines in France. It this way, at least, Testament of Youth resembles “ANZAC Girls” and “The Crimson Fields,” in which combat nurses played roles as crucial to the Allied cause as the men in the trenches. More than anyone else, perhaps, they understood exactly how much more fearsome this war would be than any other in memory. It soon became apparent that wounded combatants were in far greater need of immediate care than the nurses were ready to provide. They would be required to make the same life-and-death decisions as doctors, who, likewise, were ill-prepared to deal with the sheer numbers of wounded and dying soldiers. The constantly evolving weapons of war — poison gas, warplanes, mortars, hand grenades, field artillery — raised the ante to limits impossible to anticipate when the shooting started. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), as fine a young actor as there is on the planet, plays Brittain, whose brother and three close male friends volunteered almost immediately, sometimes against the wishes of their parents. Believing that their station in life would make them leaders of men, instead of mere trench dwellers, they were smart enough to recognize what was happening very quickly. For the first time in their lives, they were helpless. As was the case in “The Crimson Fields,” the drama is enhanced by the fact that England was close enough to the front lines in France to allow home visits, during which they experienced first-hand the disconnect between what they’d witnessed and the lies told civilians to make them feel better about the sacrifices being made by their sons and daughters, just across the channel. In one excruciatingly poignant scene, Brittain, who’s back home on leave, is left to comfort the parents of a friend who’s been killed. The letter sent by his commanding officer praises the young man’s courage, while insisting that his death was instantaneous and painless. Reading between the lines, she senses that this couldn’t have been the real story. Upon learning the truth, she’s forced to decide between validating the comforting lie and overburdening her friend’s parents with the truth. Upon her return to Somerville College, Oxford, Brittain appears to be too shell-shocked to function, especially in the company of peers unaffected by the carnage. She eventually would find an outlet in writing novels about her experiences and friends who made the ultimate sacrifice. It wasn’t until 1933 that she was able to relive her experiences in “Testament of Youth,” a book that would gain a loyal following among pacifists and feminists. Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Dominic West all are excellent in key supporting roles. As coming-of-age dramas go, it would be difficult to find another one as powerful as Testament of Youth. The bonus package adds deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette and commentary with Harington and Kent.

A Special Day: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There’s certainly no better reason to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Ettore Scola’s A Special Day than to watch Sophia Loren (Marriage Italian Style) and Marcello Mastroianni (La dolce vita) working together at the top of their game. Besides being two of the most popular and instantly recognizable actors of the last half-century – who couldn’t be more representative of the Italian cinema if they came dipped in marinara sauce – Loren and Mastroianni had already worked together several times and anticipated each other’s moves as well as any dance team. The title refers to the fateful day in 1938 when Benito Mussolini and a million Roman citizens welcomed Adolf Hitler to the Eternal City for the first time. These were heady times for Il Duce’s fascisti faithful, who probably felt as if anyone who could get Italian trains to run on time also would be able to win a war. By the time Loren’s harried housewife, Antonietta, gets her husband and six children ready in their black shirts and silly caps, she’s too exhausted to fight the crowds. Instead, she stays in their crowded apartment, exchanging unpleasantries with her pet mynah bird parrot, Rosamunda, who decides that life on the other side of the apartment complex might be more interesting. Rosamunda finds a convenient perch outside the apartment of Mastroianni’s Gabriele, a recently fired announcer on the government-sponsored radio station. Even though Antonietta’s is enough of a fan of Mussolini to collect newspaper clippings and photographs in a scrapbook, she warms to Gabriele’s sensitivity and cultural cultivation. Moreover, he treats her like a woman deserving of respect, instead of a broodmare. Without knowing exactly why Gabriele lost his job and is considered a “degenerate,” Antonietta relishes his little courtesies and kindness toward her. Through newsreel footage taken on that day in history, viewers are far more acutely aware of what an outcast might be facing in the near future. When their friendship takes an unexpected turn, followed by the excited return of her family, we are left to wonder how the war will impact the futures of these two special people. Although Mastroianni is recognizable as the fastidious radio host, Loren interprets her character as being a woman too exhausted to fixate on her wardrobe and makeup. Even then, however, she radiates a natural beauty few women, including actresses, possess. The Blu-ray features a newly restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Scola, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with Scola and Loren; a recent short film, starring Loren and directed by her son; two 1977 episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show,” with Loren and Mastroianni; and an essay by critic Deborah Young.

Northern Limit Line: Blu-ray
On June 29, 2002, North Korean naval forces unleashed a surprise attack on South Korean patrol ship PKM-357. Kim Hak-Soon’s throwback war story, Northern Limit Line, dramatizes the events surrounding the so-called Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, along a disputed maritime boundary near Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. North Korean military leaders timed the confrontation to coincide with the 2002 World Cup consolation match between home team South Korea and Turkey. Before setting out on that night’s mission, officers on the South Korean vessel sensed that the sailors were pre-occupied with the match and voiced their displeasure. Once the fighting began, below the NLL, however, everyone reacted to the escalating situation very quickly. The drama is drawn out further with one sailor’s fight to stay alive in the hospital. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Northern Limit Line carries the distinct odor of partisan political spin, but no more than one expects in any country’s war pictures. If the special effects suffer a bit in comparison to similar Hollywood action dramas, it’s only because the crowd-sourced budget was on the snug side. American audiences, concerned that the South Korean military may not be able to carry its weight in any invasion from the north, should come away from the movie feeling that its forces are ready, willing and able to defend its side of the DMZ and not every confrontation or provocation needs to result in all-out war. The credit roll updates viewers on the fates of some of the actual sailors, whose actions inspired the characters.

#Lucky Number
There came a time, probably after Universal wasted $1 million on Vanilla Ice for Cool as Ice, when casting directors decided that hiring flash-in-the-pan chart-toppers wasn’t worth the trouble of teaching them to act. If, in their dramatic debuts, Mick Jagger and John Lennon couldn’t even approximate the box-office appeal of Elvis Presley, it wasn’t likely that Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees would do any better with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, yet, some studios still tried to buck the trend. The opposite proved to be the case for hip-hop musicians, whose presence in independent movies really hit the target. The posturing required of gangsta’ rappers on stage gave them a leg up when it came to impersonating African-American cops and criminals stories designed to appeal directly to urban audiences. Once they proved their value at the box-office, the roles offered them expanded greatly, into comedy and action pictures intended for crossover appeal. Today, of course, they’ve joined the ranks of behind-the-camera talent and executives on television. The list of rappers who’ve made the transition with seeming ease continues to grow. Will Smith, Ice Cube, Ice-T and LL Cool J opened doors previously closed to black actors. They would be followed by such double-dippers (soundtrack and acting credits) as Queen Latifah, Fredro Starr, Eminem, 50 Cent, Sean Combs, Xzibit, RZA, Will.i.am, Coolio, Eve and Master P, among several others. #Lucky Number co-stars Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man, as a New York basketball star, who, after being forced to get a new number for his cellphone, finds certain aspects of his life being usurped by someone who was given his old number. Tom Pelphrey plays the aspiring sportscaster, whose life takes a dramatic turn for the better, while the superstar’s stock sinks in every possible way. When the white upstart begins to cash in on the player’s lady friends, however, things escalate in a hurry. The movie’s loose and rowdy tone holds up pretty well for the rom-com’s brisk 80-minute length.

Enough Already!
From niche distributor SISU comes Enough Already!, an animated musical based on the Jewish folk tale about a poor farmer, who, on the advice of the town rabbi, brings one animal after another into an already over-crowded house. The result is a clever lesson in being grateful for what we have. It features the voices of Tom Lieberman and Rabbi Joe Black, as well as lively original songs, inspired by traditional klezmer music.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: The Making of the Mob: New York
PBS: The Widower
Syfy: Olympus: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: The Bomb
The Facts Of Life: Season Seven
If there’s any one entity that defines the term, “endlessly fascinating,” it’s the Mafia. How else to describe the proliferation of mini-series, docu-dramas, movies and television shows that began when ABC decided to test the Hollywood Production Code with the violent Prohibition-era series, “The Untouchables.” It drew an unprecedented amount of heat from Italian-American interest groups, anti-violence crusaders and historians who deplored the creative license applied to actual hoodlums and crimes. When sponsors began to kowtow to the protests, the producers made concessions in their portrayal of Italian-American criminals. Still, the show’s popularity allowed networks to expand the limits on violence shows that would debut in the 1960s. On the big screen, the MPAA’s new ratings system helped The Godfather open the floodgates to productions that ran the gamut from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone. When the cable-television industry completed its long march to critical mass, one of the first places to which it turned for original programming was the Mafia … that and Adolph Hitler. Documentary series about organized crime served both as entertainment and correctives for the first 50 years of myth making. When there was nothing more to be said about the New York and Chicago mobs – accurately or inaccurately – creative types looked toward New Jersey, Cuba, Boston, Miami, Las Vegas and L.A, as well as motorcycle and ethnic gangs.  Following on the heels of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” came such presentations as “Public Morals,” “Mob City,” “Magic City,” “Justified” and AMC’s “The Making of the Mob: New York,” which is newly available in DVD/Blu-ray. Narrated by Ray Liotta, it is an eight-part series that begins in 1905 and spans over 50 years to trace the rise of Charles Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, Dutch Schultz and other notorious New York and Chicago gangsters. The dramatizations look as if they were staged on leftover sets from Casino, Goodfellas, The Cotton Club and “Boardwalk Empire.” What the series does best is integrate the dramatizations into a gumbo that also includes archival footage, visual effects and snippets from interviews with such observers as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Meyer Lansky II, Thomas Dewey III, Chazz Palminteri, Drea de Matteo, Joe Mantegna, Vincent Pastore, Frankie Valli, Frank Vincent, attorney and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, and noted author and historian David Pietrusza, among many others. I learned a couple of new things from the series, but nothing most fans of the sub-genre would find earth-shaking. The material is presented in an easy-to-follow format, with interesting visualizations and decent acting. The Blu-ray bonus package includes additional scenes and featurettes “The Real Arnold Rothstein,” “The Secret Life of a Mob Wife,” “The Mob and Mussolini,” “Style,” “Mob Innovations” and “Mob Shrink.”

Anyone missing the estimable presence of Archie Panjabi (a.k.a., Kalinda Sharma) from the continuing saga of CBS’ “The Good Wife” will find her in the Blu-ray iteration of “The Widower,” a 2013 mini-series from the UK now playing on some PBS affiliates.  Panjabi plays one of several lovers and wives of sociopathic hospital worker Malcolm Webster (Reece Shearsmith), who, in the 1990s and 2000s, engaged in a killing spree that moved from the UAE, to Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Paris, New Zealand and back to Scotland. Not all of the women he targeted in his schemes to collect their life-insurance money would die, but they were the lucky ones. In addition to the murder of first wife, Claire Morris Webster (Sheridan Smith), he’s believed to have induced insulin shock to three children in an Abu Dhabi hospital. The other women smelled a rat in their relationships with Webster before he could do his worst. Panjabi’s character, Simone Banerjee, bought into Webster’s claim of having leukemia, until she received an “Osman warning” from authorities spelling out their suspicions and detailing known facts about his personal life. She later said, “He is a very good actor and would give Colin Firth a run for his money. He was charming and that’s what made him so plausible.” He also was a world-class conman, thief and liar. In Shearsmith’s capable hands, Webster couldn’t seem more credible. Anyone looking for a production similar to those regularly featured in PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” series will find one in “The Widower.
As long as television executives are in desperate need of time-honored material, Greek mythology will make their lives easier.

Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have provided more characters and story lines than any source, with the possible exception of the bible. It isn’t often that Homer has received the writer’s credit he’s due, but, the low estimate on IMDB.com is 43 times. The 13-episode Syfy series, “Olympus,” represents a young man’s quest to solve the riddle of the Gods, by unlocking the doors to Olympus and becoming an immortal. Here, Hero is a male character, played by Tom York (“Tyrant”). His epic journey leads him through the darkest realms of ancient Greece, accompanied by the beautiful, but twisted Oracle of Gaia (Sonya Cassidy), the powerful sorceress Medea (Sonita Henry) and genius inventor Daedalus (Matt Frewer). Hero battles trickster gods, vicious monsters, seductive nymphs, kings and despots, as he transforms from a fresh-faced youth into a ruthless, cold-hearted killer, and a match for the gods themselves. As the story goes, when Zeus asked Prometheus to make Man, he buried deep inside the mind of one of his favorites the knowledge that could turn him into a God and translate it into a map that lights the way to Olympus. This knowledge – known as the Lexicon – was passed down from father to son, with Hero being its current host. The Blu-ray edition of “Olympus” adds a brief overview of the show, with interviews; “Creating the World of Olympus,” which focuses on elements like green screen and other VFX; “The Characters of Olympus,” with interviews with cast members; “The Mythology of Olympus,” a sketchy look into this show’s conception of some of its themes; and “The Epic of Olympus,” which celebrates the series’ lofty ambitions. It’s yet to be revealed if the Canadian-British co-production has been renewed for a second season.

PBS has been heavy on in-depth science documentaries lately, from physics, to chemistry, life sciences and space flight. Deciphering the gobbledygook for largely unscientific-minded viewers (a.k.a., taxpayers) has always been one of the channel’s primary missions. On the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, PBS has outdone itself on the subject of nuclear fission. In “The Bomb,” we’re once again told how humans harnessed this incredible power and what challenges we have faced living with it since 1945. Using recently declassified material from the creation of the first atomic bomb and rare footage from bomb tests through the 1950-60s, it demonstrates the deadly power and strangely compelling beauty of nuclear explosions. Providing testimony are historian Richard Rhodes, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of State George Shultz, as well as scientists, weapons designers, pilots, witnesses, and ordinary men and women who have lived and worked with the nuclear bomb.

The a la carte edition of “The Facts Of Life: Season Seven” opens with the girls arriving home from summer vacation, ready for anything except the sight of Edna’s Edibles destroyed by fire. Undaunted, Mrs. Garrett and the girls decide to rebuild their store into an updated version of a 1950s malt shop. Mrs. Garrett hires a good-looking young carpenter, George Burnett, to help out, but it doesn’t takes long before he becomes a distraction. And, yes, he is played by George Clooney, who, at the time, was fresh off of the series, “E/R” – a different one than the NBC drama that would make him a star – and sported a modified mullet hairdo. When the business finally reopens, it will be a novelty shop called “Over Our Heads.”