The Monuments Men: Blu-ray
The amazing story of how an elite team of Allied soldiers won a race against time to prevent Nazis from destroying some of the world’s greatest art isn’t exactly new to moviegoers. Even 70 years after the fact, however, their heroics, as related in “The Monuments Men,” remain fascinating. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller, “The Train,” tells essentially the same tale, but gathers speed like a runaway locomotive as the rescue effort plays out. Rene Clement’s “Is Paris Burning?” describes how the City of Light, itself, was saved at the last moment from Hitler’s wrath. In 2006, Lynn H. Nicholas’ book “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” was turned into a fascinating two-hour documentary. Nicholas’ research led directly to an acceleration in legal cases against people, galleries and museums in possession art confiscated by the Nazis in World War II. Although George Clooney’s film is a co-production between German and American interests, there’s no attempt made to sidestep the Third Reich’s culpability in any of the thefts or to suggest that Hitler and Herman Goering bullied every other Nazi official into buying into plans for the Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria. If anything, the Red Army takes it on the chin here for its part in confiscating art treasures, as reparation for the high cost the Soviets paid in defending their country and defeating Hitler on the Eastern Front. Our stated goal was to return the treasures to their rightful owners, even if so many of them failed to survive the death camps or sold the objects to afford passage to freedom. In those cases, the art was transferred to museums and other institutions, some of which sold individual items to dealers or private interests.
As for the movie, I think that too much of Clooney’s character’s time is spent away from the Western Front, in Washington, convincing politicians and military officials of the importance of the mission. The opposition argues that anything that impedes the race to Berlin is a potential threat to the fighting men. The question that weighs heavy over the entire movie – “Is a work of art worth the life of a single soldier”? – is most profoundly debated only two memorable scenes. In the first, one of the Monument Men begs advancing artillerymen not to destroy a historic church steeple. Clooney stacks the deck here by planting a machine-gun nest in its steeple. The other comes at the very end, when a old man we assume to be Clooney, circa 2014, shows his grandson one of the magnificent pieces that was saved during the operation, along with other rescued treasures. One answer seems to contradict the other, while also pointing out the futility and complexity of waging war, even one deemed inarguably just. The ending isn’t so much a cop-out as much as it is the ribbon that completes the package. A similar argument was posed in “Saving Private Ryan,” where the seeming absurdity of risking the lives of many soldiers, in order to save just one, was justified during a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-mer. Because the cathartic ending played even better with overseas audiences, than ticket-buyers here, the combination of an all-star cast and Hollywood ending was guaranteed for “Monuments Men.” The A-list stars here included Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Clooney. (It would gross $77 million in both markets, on a production budget of about $70 million.) The downside of having too many stars in a movie, of course, is having to find enough time to satisfy the actors and accommodate their characters. There were times when “Monuments Men” felt so top-heavy that it was in danger of becoming “Ocean’s 14.” In “The Train,” at least, Burt Lancaster didn’t have to worry about finding the art, just how to keep it from reaching Germany. Still, not a bad way to spend two hours in front of the TV. The Blu-ray package contains deleted scenes, and several featurettes of the EPK variety, “In Their Own Words,” “The Real Monuments Men,” “George Clooney’s Mission,” “Marshalling the Troops” and “A Woman Amongst the Monuments Men.” They aren’t nearly as informative as they ought to have been. – Gary Dretzka
3 Days to Kill: Blu-ray
There are basically two kinds of tick-tock thrillers: one is a race against a frequently seen clock or digital timer, while the other is more biological in nature. Once the threat to the protagonist has been revealed, however, a desperate search for antivenin to heal a snake-bite victim pretty much equals the hunt for terrorists sitting on a dirty bomb hidden in a suitcase. More often than not, the difference between a threat and gimmick is the ability of a director to stack the deck against the audience. McG and Luc Besson set up “3 Days to Kill” in a way that worked pretty well in the first “Taken.” In both movies, a government-trained assassin is deemed expendable by his employer and required to re-introduce himself to his estranged wife and children. Because most of their heroics remain classified or are simply too repugnant for tender ears to hear, he’s forced to pussyfoot around the truth about what he’s been doing for the last 20 years, or so. Inevitably, though, he will be put in a position to use things he learned on the job to save their lives. It doesn’t always work, but, if we like the character, there’s a good chance the clock will take care of the rest. The presence of children and spouses in danger cuts both ways. James Bond wasn’t required to consider the feelings of his wife and kids before jumping off a cliff with a Union Jack parachute on his back. In FX’s fine spy-vs.-spy series, “The Americans,” the teenage children of the KGB agents are a constant weight on their minds. With Liam Neeson, in “Taken,” and Kevin Costner, here, the endangered families are their characters’ sole motivations.
In “3 Days to Kill,” Ethan (Costner) discovers early-on that brain cancer has already spread to his lungs and it’s impairing his ability to perform. On what should have been his final victory lap, Ethan’s steady cough and lack of breath contribute to a blown assignment. His partner, Viva (Amber Heard), a world-class beauty who looks as if she just graduated from high school, let both of their targets escape from a Belgrade hotel before their bombs explode. Knowing that he’s about to be forced into retirement, Viva makes Ethan an offer he can’t refuse. In return for shots of an as-yet-approved cancer drug and enough money to keep his family (Connie Nielsen, Hailee Steinfeld) afloat for years, he must agree to continue the men peddling a dirty bomb. When he arrives at his wife and daughter’s Paris suite for the first time in years, Ethan is about as welcome a pimple on prom night. Except for the details, Zoey knows that she has been lied to all her life and doesn’t dig it. She’s more than a little bit reluctant to accept daddy-dearest back into her life, especially if he’s going to deny her such pleasures as boogying the night away with decadent Parisians, anxious to take advantage of her blooming sexuality.
As generic bad guys, “The Albino” (Tomas Lemarquis) and “The Wolf” (Richard Sammel) aren’t sufficiently frightful to hold Oddjob’s chapeau. Even so, we’re given no reason to believe they wouldn’t sell a nuclear device to any nutter with enough cash to pay for one. They’re no less credible than comic subplots involving the Malian squatters in Ethan’s Paris apartment and the purple bicycle he bought Zoey as a peace offering. As hard as they try to stand out, Nielsen and Steinfeld can’t compete for our attention with Heard’s black-leather outfits and micro-minis. The good news is that, even as Ethan begins coughing out his lungs, Costner keeps the character something more than a liability to the mission. His unique blend of vulnerability and machismo saves the day, giving us hope there is a miracle cure for cancer, after all. McG and Besson must have begged on their knees and begged for their star to repeat the best known image from “The Bodyguard.” Knowing that Neeson is almost three years older than Costner, I suppose that fans could someday hope to see a combined sequel or prequel to “3 Days to Kill” and “Taken.” If it would end up looking anything like “RED 2,” however, I’d recommend forgetting the whole thing. The Blu-ray extras add a 10-minute making-of EPK, shot largely in Paris; a short profile of the McG; and “Concert Operation,” a piece featuring a former CIA agent. The difference between the theatrical and extended versions is five minutes, although nothing jumps out at me as to what it might be. – Gary Dretzka
Like Someone in Love: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami plays poker, he probably is the kind of guy who holds his cards close to the vest and whose “tells,” if any, are imperceptible. There are moments in “Like Someone in Love” when the film stands at the crossroads of comedy and drama, romance and terror. A step or gesture one way or the other would reveal his hand, allow us to settle back in our seats and let the movie wash over us, as it should. Eventually, we’re given hints as to what the characters can expect, even if we have no way of knowing how much faith we should put in them. “Patience, grasshopper,” he might as well be saying to us. Even so, observant viewers will find surprises around every corner. The opening sequence is set in a busy Tokyo bar, where several conversations are taking place at once, but only one is distinctly heard. An attractive young woman moves from one table to the next, as if to advance the dialogue. Instead, Kiarostami reveals how easy it is for a filmmaker to play sensory tricks on an audience, by introducing us to the person actually on the phone. Borderline funny, the gimmick opens the door to the character and affairs of co-protagonist Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a call girl who looks very much like the college student she is in daylight hours. She’s carrying on a conversation with her off-screen boyfriend, whose jealousy can be read in her responses. Her elderly pimp refuses to allow her a night off in order to prepare for a test and meet her grandmother at the train station. Instead, Akiko is ordered to hop in a cab and high-tail it to the suburbs to meet with a client who’s simply described as being distinguished. What could that possibly mean? The professor, Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), looks as if he might have been sent over from Central Casting to audition for the part of Generic Japanese Grandfather. That is, if the average Japanese grandpa has a taste for girls a third his age and, probably, in possession of their first “Hello Kitty” book bag. Once again, as soon as we think we’ve got a peg on it, the story takes a quick left turn.
After a brief nap in the cab, Akiko meets the professor outside the local noodle shop. Once upstairs, she can’t stop inquiring about the books and art in his modest apartment, including a painting that hung in her grandmother’s home. For his part, Takashi turns out not to be a sweaty old perv with a thing for school girls, but an educator and writer partially retired from the same university at which Akiko is enrolled. It’s entirely possible that he really did hire her for her company and to share a late dinner from her home province. Without specifying sleeping arrangements, Takashi agrees to take the still-groggy student to the university. As he waits for her to reach the building, Akiko is accosted by her fiancé and berated for something we can’t hear. The next thing we know, Noriaki (Ryo Kase) is begging a light from Takashi and confiding in him as if he were Akiko’s grandfather. This is where Kiarostami decides to give us a chance to make an educated guess as to the direction “Like Someone in Love” might ultimately take. A comedy of errors, perhaps … a horrible tragedy? You won’t get the answer from me, even if it would be safe to assume that the professor’s view of life outside academia never will be the same. The writer/director, who’s only once before worked outside Iran – on “Certified Copy” — seems perfectly comfortable in the home of minimalist Yasujiro Ozu, a place where infinite patience and attention to detail are valued and rewarded.
Kiarostami has said that he got the idea for this story after driving around Tokyo one night and glimpsing a young girl on the side of the road, dressed as a bride. In subsequent visits to Japan, he would look for her, even knowing that he couldn’t possibly recognize the girl without the gown. Even so, she’s as much a part of him as any acquaintance. “Like Someone in Love” is an excellent addition to the Kiarostami canon, which demands to be seen by everyone who considers themselves to be a buff. Outside of the arthouse crowd, however, it qualifies as a tough sell. The Criterion Blu-ray adds an informative 47-minute making-of featurette and an illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by film scholar and critic Nico Baumbach. – Gary Dretzka
House of Dust
In horror as in life, itself, it’s almost impossible to deny one’s natural curiosity and avoid temptation, however dangerous. If it’s out there to tickle our sensory impulses, the odds are good that we’re going to sample it. In A.D. Calvo’s uneven ghost story, “House of Dust,” a long-shut insane asylum on a college campus proves to be far too irresistible a temptation for a group of party-hardy freshman to avoid. Based on that much information, alone, it wouldn’t be too difficult to guess the rest of the story … but why spoil a good gimmick? Turns out, 60 years earlier, the doctors treating seriously ill mental patients there had come up with a cruel new way to lobotomize them. When one of the patients managed to break free from his restraints and kill a doctor, it put an end to any future experimentation. Administrators were left no choice but to burn the human evidence in their crematorium and shut the place down for good. Now, in any other universe than the one populated by straight-to-DVD screenwriters, the university would have torn down the property and buried the incriminating ashes. Here, though, the ashes of the criminally insane were swept into jars and left on a shelf for the next six decades. How they weren’t disturbed by other generations of nosey students is anyone’s guess, but they’re weren’t. The kids we meet are representative of most college classes, I suppose, except for one pretty girl (Inbar Lavi) who’s had mental issues in the past. The real fun begins when the kids decide that it might be a blast to break into the deserted and unlit facility. While exploring, they open the door to the oven, knock over a couple of ash-filled jars and snort up the equivalent of two lines of once-human dust. If you still can’t guess the rest, you probably should stick with Caspar the Ghost. Even so, for teens and beginners, many of whom will recognize the cast members from television, “House of Dust” should provide ample entertainment and more than a few jump scares, at least. It doesn’t surprise me that the movie’s based on experimentation that routinely went on in the United States – lobotomies, especially — before drugs were available to treat patients. – Gary Dretzka
With only two features under his belt, ex-marine Josh C, Waller has recorded an unusually high body count. “McCanick” and “Raze” are very different films, but they demonstrate a willingness on the filmmaker’s part to push the limits on violence and dissection of raw emotion. If neither title is particularly easy to watch — unless you’re a sadist — it’s Waller’s ability to keep us emotionally involved in the characters’ fates that makes it difficult to tune out. “McCanick” benefits greatly from the presence of David Morse, one of the great character actors of the last 40 years. No one plays severely damaged cops and innocent victims of life’s random miscues better than Morse. His portrayal of the chronically over-compassionate Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison, in the 1980s medical series “St. Elsewhere, remains unforgettable to this day. Here, he plays the title character, Eugene “Mack” McCanick, a Philadelphia narcotics detective, who becomes on unhinged when he learns that a low-life he’d put behind bars has been released from prison. The late “Glee” heartthrob Cory Monteith, in his last film role, plays a former junkie who believes that he’s paid his debt to society and wants to stay on the straight-and-narrow path. For reasons of his own, McCanick refuses to let him off the hook. The collateral damage from his pursuit borders on the staggering. Considering his own demise to heroin, Monteith probably was playing a bit too close to type as an addict, and is performance couldn’t possibly stand up alongside that of Morse. Philadelphia proves to be an excellent setting for the depravity unleashed by Waller, though. Unfortunately, he keeps viewers in the dark too long as to what’s been eating at the cop for so long. Ciaran Hinds adds a touch of class to the proceedings as McCanick’s overly tolerant boss. Bonus materials includes a making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes.
Although virtually impossible to recommend to anyone with a weak stomach or a pronounced sensitivity to depictions of violence against women, “Raze” does offer viewers a bit more than gratuitous blood and gore. In it, several dozen physically fit young women are abducted and forced to live in an underground bunker, until it’s their turn to engage in mortal combat with another prisoner. In fact, in these mano a mano exchanges, “Raze” reminds me very much of the “Mortal Kombat” video-game franchise, as crossed with “Fight Club” and “Spartacus: War of the Damned.” What makes Waller’s story different than a dozen other “Mortal Kombat” adaptations is the fact that all of the combatants are women, who fight to prevent the organizers from killing their loved ones. It doesn’t take viewers long to discover that the matches are organized to entertain rich-looking men and women, who don’t seem to mind a little death with their dinners. Although none of the prisoners are unattractive, they’ve ostensibly been chosen for their fitness and athleticism. The one we learn to care the most about is played by Zoe Bell, a world-renowned stunt woman and martial-arts expert. The fights are staged well, if nothing else, and Doug Jones (“Hellboy”) and Sherilyn Fenn (“Twin Peaks”) are credible as the evil organizers. Fans of Rachel Nichols may be interested in knowing that she appears in both of these movies. – Gary Dretzka
Nosferatu: The Vampyre: Blu-ray
To describe the pairing of director Werner Herzog and fellow German actor Klaus Kinski as a match made in heaven would be to miss the entire point of “Nosferatu: The Vampyre.” Rarely have two obsessive personalities come together so naturally on a project that demanded a certain degree of madness to create. It was Herzog’s intention to use contemporary tools to remake F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror,” which he considered to be Germany’s greatest film. Kinski, who didn’t need makeup to be scary, modeled his Count Dracula after Max Schreck’s unforgettable Count Orlov. (Copyright laws forced Murnau to change the characters’ names from those in Bram Stoker’s novel.) Even on a tight budget, Herzog sought to make his “Nosferatu” as realistic to the period as possible. Much of the movie was shot on location in the Carpathian Mountains, Germany and Holland, where the architecture matched that of 1850 Wismar. In a decision that continues to defy logic, the writer/director also sought verisimilitude by importing thousands of white laboratory rats into Holland, from Hungary, and dying their fur black. The result was a PETA member’s worst nightmare, in that the ravenous rats began to cannibalize each other and the dye harmed the rodents when they tried to lick it off. Apart from that fiasco, Herzog’s version retains its ability to frighten the tar out of modern audiences, as can Murnau’s classic. The scenery is beautifully shot and attention to period detail is impressive. Knowing that American audiences no longer had the patience to read subtitles, the actors were required to shoot their scenes twice, once in English and, again, in German (both included here). “Nosferatu” also stars Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz and Roland Topor. The new Blu-ray version adds commentary tracks in English and German, an original making-of featurette, stills gallery and reversible wrap. – Gary Dretzka
Weekend of a Champion
I don’t know how someone forgets or ignores the fact that they made a film, years earlier, which deserved to seen by every new generation of buffs, since then. That, however, was the case in 1971, when Roman Polanski shared a few days with the great Formula I driver Jackie Stewart, who was preparing for the Grand Prix of Monaco and another possible driving championship. It spawned the documentary, “Weekend of a Champion,” which captures a moment in time specific to the period. Even if their fates and fortunes would diverge dramatically in a few short years, both men were at the top of their professions. Before the Manson Family murders put him in a deep freeze, in 1969, the Polish director stunned American audiences with “Rosemary’s Baby.” Six years later, Polanski would return to the screen with one of the greatest P.I. movies ever made, “Chinatown.” Steward would, indeed, go on that year to win his second of three Formula I titles. At the time, the Grand Prix circuit more closely resembled a war of attrition – practically a blood sport — than an orderly competition among privileged gearheads. It was simultaneously the most dangerous and glamorous sport in the world, commanding the same attention as World Cup soccer. Even in the wake of his wife’s murder, Polanski remained a high-profile celebrity and world-class party boy. It wasn’t until he was arrested in Los Angeles for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and jumped bail before sentencing that he became something of an international pariah. Those events must now seem as if they happened a million years ago, even if he’s still a wanted man.
As captured by co-director Frank Simon, the only things on both men’s minds on that weekend were the race, itself, and very distinct possibility that persistent rain would turn the most celebrated of all Grand Prix event into a death trap. If its grandeur and appeal to a vast cross-section of rabid European fans couldn’t help but dominate the hours not spent on the track, it merely served as a backdrop for the interviews, whose subjects ranged from mundane to the meditative. And, yet, “Weekend of a Champion” disappeared almost immediately after its debut at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Bear and went away with a “special recognition” prize. Apparently, for the next 40 years, the negative gathered dust in the vaults of London’s Technicolor lab. When Polanski was contacted as to his desires for its disposition, he and producer Brett Ratner agreed to clean it up, re-edit it to some degree and add a new ending. In it, Polanski and Stewart returned to Monte Carlo to engage in lively conversation about changes made to the sport, racetrack, principality and themselves. (Most about hairstyles and their health.) There are two times in “Weekend of a Champion” when Stewart focuses so intensely that he almost transcends the medium. The first comes as the “Flying Scot” attempts to answer Polanski’s questions about things a driver does instinctually, almost subconsciously’ during the course of a race. The second comes when Stewart brags about the physical changes made to Formula I track after the drivers unionized and demanded changes in the infrastructure, on-track medical facilities and technical issues. In 1971, he points out, even the world’s best drivers faced a one-in-three chance of retiring intact from the sport. At the time of their most recent conversation, no deaths had been recorded in Formula I for nearly two decades. “Weekend of a Champion” nicely complements such excellent racing flicks as “Senna,” “Rush,” “1,” “Hunt vs Lauda,” “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans.” – Gary Dretzka
LA Law: Season Two
CW: Nikita: Season 4: Blu-ray
BBC: Waking the Dead: Season 9
BBC: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 9
BBC: Call the Midwife: Season 3
Like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Miami Vice” before it and “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Boston Public” and “Ally McBeal” after it, “L.A. Law” was a prime-time series that broke the mold by freely borrowing story ideas from news headlines, addressing social issues and contemporizing the fashions and attitudes of the characters. Instead of treating doctors, lawyers, cops and other professionals as if they were infallible demi-gods, the updated characters ranged from highly professional to wildly eccentric. Old fogies and fuddy-duddies criticized the shows for exaggerating how business was done in our corridors of prestige and power, and it sometimes took months for the ratings to stabilize. Even so, younger viewers in the same professionals watched what the characters were wearing and how they behaved on the job. Indeed, “L.A. Law” became so much a part of America’s colorful pop-cultural fabric that the characters’ ethical behavior was discussed as part of law-school curricula. At McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, the polar opposites were represented on one side by old-school attorneys Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) and Douglas Brackman Jr. (Alan Rachins), while the other end was held up by the sexually insatiable Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) and the frosty feminist Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry). None of the lawyers who passed through the firm’s doors during its eight-season run were completely free of kinks and hang-ups, however, and each one would eventually inform one story arc or running gag, at least. Unlike previous legal dramas, the cases in “L.A. Law” weren’t solved over the course of a single episode and, unlike Perry Mason, the lawyers weren’t required to do the police department’s job for it. Every once and a while, the attorneys would cheat to get the desired outcome for their clients … just like almost every other professional in a show created by Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. In Season 2, the team fills voids on the staff with a much-coveted African-American lawyer, Jonathan Rollins (Blair Underwood), and Benny Stulwicz (Larry Drake), as a developmentally disabled clerk. There also was a preoccupation with nuptials of Stuart Markowitz and Kelsey and how such a union would impact the other partners. It should be noted that a very good show could have been made about the back-stabbing, scandals and poor decision-making that went on behind-the-scenes on prime-time television, when the broadcast networks were kings of their fiefdoms and Fox was still considered to be an upstart.
Maggie Q, the almost impossibly hot Honolulu native and actress, hasn’t let much grass grow below her feet since “Nikita” ended its run on the CW Network. Besides portraying Tori Wu in the film adaption of Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel, “Divergent,” she’s set to star in Kevin Williamson’s “Stalker,” for CBS, this fall. The titular character of “Nikita” was created in 1990, when Luc Besson introduced her in the French action-thriller “Le Femme Nikita.” Bridget Fonda would take over for Anne Parillaud as the onetime Death Row resident, turned government assassin, in the English-language remake, “Point of No Return.” Peta Wilson starred in the USA Network’s television adaptation, “La Femme Nikita,” which ran from 1997-2001. Q’s tenure on the girls-with-guns thriller ran from 2010-2013 on the CW Network. As we enter the fourth and final season on Blu-ray/DVD, Nikita’s on the run from every law-enforcement official in the world – and amateur bounty hunter – as a suspect in the assassination of the President. Even when cornered by a pair of two-bit cops in the first episode, Nikita proves to be a very naughty girl, indeed. Everything in the six-episode season builds toward the wild finale, in which she tempts fate and escapes death. The show appears to have existed on a planet where none of the women characters were over 30 and less than an “8.” The men look a bit more seasoned, but are no match for Nikita or, for that matter, any of the other women. “Nikita” may only qualify as a guilty pleasure, but, as long as there are leggy actresses begging for jobs in Hollywood and automatic weapons to put in their hands, the possibility of a “Nikita” revival will exist.
The premise of the BBC’s advanced-forensics series, “Waking the Dead,” will be familiar to anyone hooked on cold-case and missing-person investigations, including CBS’ late, lamented “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case.” (It isn’t related to a feature film of the same title from the same year, directed by Keith Gordon.) “Waking the Dead” enjoyed a nine-year run on the BBC and BBC America, ending on April 11, 2011. It spun off an unsuccessful series, “The Body Farm,” which only lasted a season. Unlike such shows here, each new “Waking the Dead” episode is shown in two hour-long parts. The added time makes a big difference in the development of characters and pace of the investigations. The Cold Case Unit here is comprised of a pair of CID officers, a psychological profiler, a forensic scientist and former blond anti-terrorist fighter. Her stiff ethical stance and shortsighted behavior contribute as exciting a season finale as one could possibly hope. The cases handled, personnel and interdivisional intrigues reminds a lot of the excellent BBC series, “MI-5.”
“Dalziel and Pascoe” is another long-running British crime drama, whose hook will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a movie or TV show in the last 50 years. Primarily set in Yorkshire, the title characters are polar opposites when it comes to their methodology in solving crimes. Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel (Warren Clarke) is a rough-hewn throwback to the days when cops were allowed to cross all sorts of lines and embrace political and social philosophies that would cost them their shields here. Detective Inspector Peter Pascoe (Colin Buchanan), then, would be his university-trained and well-mannered opposite. Both men look the part, but Dalziel’s leathery mug and English-bulldog demeanor are what sell the character. In the first two-part episode of Season 9, body parts and other medical waste have begun to wash up on the shores of a local lake and it appears as if they are related to plans to turn the region’s only public hospital into a private, for-profit facility. Pascoe is involved in a collision that puts him in the hospital with severe head trauma. The differences between them don’t look quite so imposing as Pascoe struggles for his life and Dalziel tries new tricks to arrest the killer. Eventually, though, when he’s nursed back to something resembling health by an adoring nurse, he finds ways to help his partner.
Currently in its third season on the BBC and PBS, “Call the Midwife” is a series whose popularity almost begs credulity. In Europe, at least, midwifery and in-home obstetrics has always been more common a medical practice than it’s been here for most of the last 100 years. Indeed, the American Medical Association has done everything in its power to end the role of the midwife, by exaggerating the risks of childbirth to healthy mothers-to-be and promoting techniques based on eliminating pain and unnaturally speeding the delivery process. This made sense at a time when Americans, especially, were led to believe that hospital administrators, medical associations and insurance providers had the best interests of patients in mind, all of the time. When the business of childbirth was exposed for the racket it had become by the 1960-70s, more and more women began challenging AMA propaganda and promoting midwifery as an option to spending three or four days in a hospital and forking over $20 for a box of Q-tips when only one or two might have been used. Recent history in England suggested the same thing was beginning to happen there. That’s a long way of saying that “Call the Midwife” was probably too obscure a title to attract an audience. What some of us didn’t take into account was the Brits’ insatiable appetite for stories about their parents’ and grandparents’ ability to survive both the war and the next 10-15 years of poverty and sacrifice. The series follows newly qualified midwife Jenny Lee, as well as the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House. It is an Anglican nursing convent, dedicated to helping residents of the Poplar district of London’s desperately poor East End. After three seasons, the overworked women are given more to do than deliver the 80-100 babies born each month in Poplar. – Gary Dretzka
Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure: Blu-ray
Anyone who regularly watches “The Ellen Show” already knows that it’s the closest one can get to a little girl’s sleepover party and still be on national TV. Everybody from the host and guest stars, to audience members and viewers at home, kicks up their heels and dances when the spirit moves them. They scream whenever Ellen introduces a celebrity, no matter how obscure. Lately, Ellen appears to have adopted a pair of British tots with as much pep as a kitten that’s overdosed on caffeine. Welcome to the wonderful world of Sophia Grace & Rosie, who made a name for themselves by singing disco songs in high-pitched voices on YouTube. They favor pink tutus and tiaras and appear to have ants in their pants. If that sounds even a little bit insufferable, then, “Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure” probably isn’t for you. Don’t completely dismiss it, though, until you’ve consulted with any 10-year-olds in your home. In it, Sophia Grace and her younger, less speedy cousin, Rosie, travel to Switzelvania as correspondents for “The Ellen Show.” They’re there to report on the coronation of a new queen, but insinuate themselves into a competition between three feuding princesses. The Blu-ray adds “Pink! Pink! Pink! The Story of Pink”; “The Royal Music Jam: Laying Down the Beats With Sophia Grace & Rosie”; “Ellen’s Favorite Tea Times Moments”; outtakes; and bloopers. – Gary Dretzka
Martial Arts Movie Marathon
Out of the dozens of martial-arts movies produced and released in the mid-1970s by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Co., I wonder how Shout!Factory decides which ones will be included in its newly released double-feature and movie-marathon packages. Given the state of deterioration already noticeable on most films from the period, it’s likely that many titles simply are impossible or too difficult to rehab. Sending out scratched and sloppy-looking products is one of the things that killed VHS. “The Skyhawk” is interesting primarily because it features the late work of 70-year-old Kwan Tak-Hing and early appearances by actor/instructor Sammo Hung, Carter Wong and Nora Miao. Set in Thailand, it was a showcase for the boxing kung fu style popularized by Bruce Lee. The production values look prehistoric, especially when compared to the genre products of today, but, as entertainment, millions of people around the world swore by them.
Hung gets top billing in “The Manchu Boxer,” if not the lead male role, exactly. Made on the cheap in South Korea, it follows a roaming fighter who enters a boxing tournament to thwart an evil warlord. A similar theme plays out in “The Dragon Fighters,” which is noteworthy primarily as John Woo’s second film. Woo had yet to formulate his singular style, but he was able to churn out product with the best of them. It stars Carter Wong, James Tien and Ji Han Jae and contains a bit of toplessness for foreign consumption. There’s even more sexuality in “The Association,” although it’s of the grindhouse/drive-in variety. That’s represented in one scene by a juicy free-for-all in a shower. It stars Yu Byong, Tien Nei, Angela Mao Ying and Carter Wong. Too bad, there’s no bonus material. – Gary Dretzka
Kill the Scream Queen
God Thinks You’re a Loser
In the 20th Century, browsing joined loitering as a pastime available to Americans of all walks of life, no matter if they were rich or poor. Credit goes to the relaxation of vagrancy statutes, which prohibited bored cops from punishing transients – often defined as unemployed minorities, hippies and protestors – or simply transporting them to the nearest border and demanding they leave town, pronto. In the mid-1980s, the sudden proliferation of video stores provided new options for those of us who had hours of free time on our hands and virtually nothing constructive to do with it after exhausting the inventories of local libraries, magazine, book and record shops, shopping malls and supermarkets. Through “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” Kevin Smith gave this unsung minority a voice and presence in society. Less than two decades later, that voice would be largely silenced. Surfing the Internet replaced browsing as way to avoid work and amuse one’s self, while occasionally absorbing something worthwhile in the process. It’s easy enough to do, but, as is the case with Google and Costco, unless one knows where to look beforehand, it isn’t difficult to get lost. In the specific case of straight-to-DVD movies, the art of separating wheat from chaff was facilitated by simply being within arm’s length of a cool-looking cover, juicy blurbs and a MPAA ratings sticker that assured graphic nudity and violence therein. By contrast, even today, a perusal of Amazon is an exercise in frustration. The vast majority of all reviews are phony or written by semi-literates and, more often than not, there’s no mention of bonus features. In the case of movies in the do-it-yourself sub-genre, even less information is available to browsers.
Take the urban-horror tale, “Bloodmarsh Krackoon,” for example. While taking a virtual stroll through the MVD Visual catalogue – something I do once every six weeks, at least – I was stopped cold by the title of Jerry Landi’s offering. Not even the image of a rabid-looking varmint, with the New York skyline in the background, was as convincing as the title or brief description, “Urban legend claims a vicious crack-addicted raccoon, nicknamed ‘Red Eye,’ was behind a series of gruesome murders in the Bronx neighborhood Locust Point.” The word, “krackoon,” had already sold me on it. The only surprise, I suppose, came in learning that the cast of characters was predominantly Italian-American and they might best be described as Tony and Carmela Soprano’s retarded kinfolk. “Bloodmarsh Krackoon” is as goofy as it sounds, but not without its humorous depictions of Bronx trailer-trash.
With all due respect for John Waters and other indie pioneers, Montclair State University’s contribution to the cinematic art, “Bill Zebub,” could easily be considered the D.W. Griffith of the DIY-horror movement. With such immortal titles as “Antfarm Dickhole,” “Forgive Me for Raping You” and “Jesus, the Total Douchbag,” hardly anyone else is playing in the same league with him. Made in 2004, “Kill the Scream Queen” has been re-edited and re-released as the only “director-approved” version. It contains “never-before-seen footage in a much creepier edit.” In it, several legitimate actresses respond to an Internet ad seeking participants in a make-believe snuff filmsq. During their screen tests, the women ask the director why there’s no crew or why no script was made available to them. Desperate for work, they convince themselves of the director’s credibility and artistic mission. Instead, he punishes their gullibility by raping and murdering them. In an interview, Zebub suggests that such a scenario not only is valid, but also inevitable. Uncharacteristically, the film adds a behind-the-scenes chapter in which the actors break character, as well as the illusion of suffering. The interview, with the owner of something called Rough Pictures, also reveals some of secrets of the torture-porn subgenre. It’s a vile way to make a point about something Zebub’s loyal fans already take for granted, but that’s DIY. The DVD also adds “Ravage the Scream Queen,” a harder take on the theme. Most of the actors are from Zebub’s repertoire company and the music is strictly death- and industrial-metal.
As far as high-concept ideas go, “Blackwater” takes this week’s top prize. Three words sum it up: “Deliverance”/Everglades/MILFs. I could have added rape/arrows/canoes/in-breds, but you knew that already. As derivative as it might be, a woman’s take on “Deliverance” really isn’t a bad idea for a movie. An entire industry has blossomed in the 42 years since Burt Reynolds led his ill-fated mission down the Cahulawassee River, providing women with opportunities to travel together to the world’s most scenic and potentially hazardous locations. No men are allowed, either … except, perhaps, for a buff young guide to cook the meals and take his shirt off when framed by the campfire. Problem is, here, that the acting is at the level required by community theater troupes and, while the swamp is easy on the eyes. I got the impression that everything was shot within a half-mile radius of the craft-services truck. Considering that none of the four writers and directors has worked previously on a feature film, it’s surprising that “Blackwater” turned out to be as watchable as it is.
Having begun his filmmaking career in 1970, with a small part in Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud,” Gary Chason also has a dozen directing titles on resume, most of them shorts. Knowing this, it would be a tad disingenuous to put “God Thinks You’re a Loser” alongside do-it-yourself pictures by less-experienced folks. The Austin resident is, however, is listed as writer/director/producer and that’s good enough for me to lump it together with the movies in this list. Described as a supernatural black comedy, “GTYAL” bounces between heaven and hell in telling its parable about oil-industry executives and strippers in boomtown Houston in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the women who are more interesting than the men, who are, by profession and personality, jerks. In death, they revisit each other. The reason I was attracted to the movie in the first place is its cover, upon which a cartoonish drawing of a suicide victim concludes on her way to the pavement, “… I changed my mind!!” Like the doomed stripper, I fell for it. – Gary Dretzka
Angered by his girlfriend saying he’s so ineffectual that his men wouldn’t follow him to a brothel, Brigadier General Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos (Peter Ustinov) of the Mexican army hops on his white horse and orders his men to join him in a mission to re-capture the Alamo. They do, but only being threatened at gunpoint by his loyal aide-de-camp (John Astin). After crossing into the United States at a sleepy border crossing, Max sneaks into downtown San Antonio in tourist garb to scope out the historic monument. He does this by joining a tour group and chatting with a guard old enough to have participated in the attack. Sure, enough, the plan works, without a shot being fired. The chief of police (Harry Morgan) needs to be convinced that anyone would have the temerity to actually pull off such stunts – usually a subject of prank calls – but draws his own line in the sand at raising the flag of a foreign nation over the shrine on his watch. Before he’ll release his hostages and surrender, however, Max demands to negotiate with someone of equal standing at the Pentagon. Instead, he gets General Billy Joe Hallson of the Texas National Guard (Jonathan Winters) and a staunch anti-communist crackpot (Keenan Wynn), who insists that Max is Chinese. Blessedly, the men on both sides carry unloaded weapons and an embarrassing bloodbath inside the Alamo is avoided. “Viva Max!” is typical of absurdist Cold War comedies of the late 1960s, including “The Russians Are Coming/The Russians Are Coming” and Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22.” Enough San Antonio residents complained about what they perceived to be a desecration of the Alamo that production was asked to leave town. It’s interesting that “Viva Max!” was based on a novel by journalist Jim Lehrer and directed by Jerry Paris, best known for his work on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Happy Days.” Alas, Cheezy Flicks didn’t waste much time or money cleaning up the movie for its first appearance in DVD. – Gary Dretzka
The King Family: Classic Television Specials Collection, Volume One
It’s easy to forget how weird things got in the mid-1960-70s, when the Republican Party and corporate interests attempted to counter the counterculture with music-based propaganda of their own. It began with Sing Out shows of the Moral Re-Armament organization and Up With People, a large song-and-dance ensemble of teens and young adults who never stopped smiling and looking wholesome. But, then, neither did the Osmond Family, Anita Bryant and the King Family Singers. The movement’s crowning moment came on March 23, 1969, when Bryant joined Jackie Gleason, the Lettermen and Kate Smith at Miami’s Rose Bowl, in a Rally for Decency to protest the sexually suggestive antics of Jim Morrison during a Doors concert there. More than 30,000 people might have attended the rally, if the organizers hadn’t forbidden admittance to “longhairs and weird dressers.” Pat Buchanan, then an aide to the president, encouraged Nixon to exploit “the pollution of young minds,” calling it “an extremely popular issue.” Up With People, marching bands and other acts deemed clean and patriotic would famously dominate half-time entertainment at the Orange Bowl and Super Bowl for years to come. I wonder how many corpses were spinning in their graves when the NFL began inviting such entertainers as Madonna, Prince, U2, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones and, lest we forget, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake to its party.
“The King Family Show” featured The King Sisters and their extended musical family, which, at times, numbered as many 75 people. The first ABC show aired from January, 1965, to January, 1966. The series was revived in 1969, airing from March to September, 1969. Although, the Kings mostly eschewed hot-button issues and interpreted pop hits in their own harmonic way, their non-network specials didn’t hesitate to mix church and state or exploit a King in military uniform. MVD Visual is distributing the first two-disc volume of the Kings’ “Classic Television Specials Collection,” celebrating Easter, Mother’s Day, June and Back to School themes. The women, especially, take full advantage of the expanding popularity of color television by wearing matching pastel outfits – and white go-go boots for the whole family – and colors that match the touristy outdoors settings. The Kings continued to produce syndicated specials until things got a bit unwieldy, but still get together special occasions and King Cousins tours. The package, which, everything considered, looks and sounds pretty good, adds such bonus material as the “lost” Valentine’s special, on-set home movies, performances from the “Graduation Day” special and an eight-page booklet. – Gary Dretzka