Blind Chance: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At the time of his death in 1996, at the far-too-young age of 54, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski had become one of the most widely admired writer/directors on the planet. His name might not have meant much to mainstream audiences in Western Europe and United States, but, among critics and arthouse denizens, Kieslowski’s living-legend status had already been established. This was based primarily on the Polish television miniseries, “The Decalogue,” The Double Life of Véronique and his “Three Colors Trilogy”: Blue, White and Red, for which he received two Oscar nominations. The majority of his documentaries and feature films were made at the height of the Cold War – and occasional thaw, however brief – which meant that hardly any were seen here outside festivals. Blind Chance, for example, was made in 1981, a year after the Solidarity movement raised hopes for freedom among millions of Poles and anti-Communists in the Eastern bloc. That optimism was put on hold for such kindred filmmakers as Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland after the government, citing the possibility/likelihood of Soviet intervention, cracked down on dissidents and other free-thinkers. Blind Chance, would be kept on ice for six years, when a much censored version was allowed to debut at Cannes. The new Criterion Collection edition of the film – whose template was borrowed for Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors – is complete, except for a short segment that couldn’t be found. If there’s no question that Blind Chance is a product of its time and political environment, it also is informed by events recalled from his personal life and the loss of family members.
The protagonist of Blind Chance is a Lodz medical student, Witek (Bogusław Linda), about to lose his father to a serious illness. Although he isn’t able to make it home in time to comfort his father, he is left with a final message that frees the young man from fulfilling his dad’s directive to become a doctor. What happens to him next will depend on whether or not he catches a train about to pull out of the station. In the first of three parallel story threads, Witek is able to grab hold of the door handle on the final car and climb aboard. Once inside, he chances on a fellow passenger who convinces him that the Communist Party needs some fresh thinking and he’s just the sort of positive fellow who could be valuable in the wake of Solidarity. Once he climbs the first few rungs of the party ladder, however, Witek realizes that the old guard is deeply entrenched and afraid of anything resembling change. In the second scenario, Witek is blocked from reaching the train by a security guard, beaten and arrested. The experience leads him to groups of idealistic men and women, who base their anti-Communist stance on Christian ideals and socialistic reform. In the third thread, he not only makes the train, but is allowed to complete medical school and maintain principles that include a non-partisan ethical code. These scenarios include alternative romantic and family lives, as well. Not willing to let well enough alone, Kieslowski reserves one last surprise for Witek and audiences members. He would reprise the conceit years later, in The Double Life of Véronique, and segments of the trilogy. One needn’t have grown up behind the Iron Curtain to see the relevance in Witek’s chance encounters … blind and otherwise. The film has been restored in 4K by TOR Film Studio in Warsaw. The Blu-ray package is further enhanced by a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski; an archival video interview with writer-irector Agnieszka Holland; a side-by-side comparison of scenes that were censored in its 1987 release and those recently restored; an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim and a 1993 interview with Kieslowski.
Furious 7: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
After Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident on November 30, 2013, it put the future of the entire Universal Fast and the Furious franchise in doubt. Absent only from the third installment, “Tokyo Drift,” Walker co-anchored a series that began as a mid-budget hot-rod flick, but, after abandoning the street-racing conceit, grow’d like Topsy into a “Mission: Impossible”-on-wheels. (Vin Diesel skipped the first sequel, but made an uncredited teaser cameo in “Tokyo Drift.”) Indeed, of the $1.51 billion Furious 7 amassed at the worldwide box office, only $351 million represented domestic U.S. sales. The 14-year-old franchise’s consistently greater success abroad mirrored Hollywood’s growing dependence on the international audience’s love of CGI-driven action flicks. Walker’s disappearance will continue to haunt any new sequels, of course, but, with Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham already scheduled to appear in 2017’s Furious 8, there’s no reason to think interest in it will flag. Before Furious 7’s belated global release last April 1, the second question on the minds of fans and industry observers was what horror specialist James Wan (Saw) would bring to the table as Justin Lin’s successor in the director’s chair. Short answer: plenty. Having already trounced Ghost Protocol, it will be interesting to see if Furious 7’s numbers hold up against the upcoming 007 sequel, Spectre, whose budget will trump it by $100-150 million. While it lags behind Jurassic World by $100 million in overall worldwide grosses for 2015, Furious 7 has managed to overcome Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lead in domestic revenues by beating it $1,160.7 billion to $943.8 million, again, with a substantial smaller production budget. Those numbers wouldn’t mean anything to anyone outside Universal City, however, if the “Furious” franchise wasn’t keeping its fans begging for more on the screen.
Series newcomer Jason Statham plays rough, tough and canny Deckard Shaw, whose brother Owen was left lying in a British hospital, seriously burned and in a coma, at the end Fast & Furious 6. Shaw has sworn to avenge Owen’s likely death, by destroying Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew. Shaw scores a tactical edge by putting DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) in the hospital for most of the picture, albeit in far less serious shape than Owen. Meanwhile, Dominic is attempting to nurse the amnesia-stricken Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) back to the same shape she was in after her reintroduction in Fast & Furious (“4”). The news of Han’s suspicious death, in Japan, causes him to call on Brian O’Conner (Walker), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Taj (Ludacris) back from semi-retirement. O’Conner packs his partner, Mia (Jordana Brewster) to a relative’s gilded fortress in the D.R. As much as Shaw is obsessed with making Toretto and his “family” pay for his loss, Dom is committed to avoiding anymore funerals. He finds an unlikely ally in the form of a CIA-style spook (Kurt Russell), who’s been on Shaw’s trail since he joined forces with Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of a mysterious pack of well-equipped cyber-mercenaries, headquartered in Azerbaijan. They’ve kidnapped a stunning computer geek, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who’s invented an insanely precise global positioning system, known as “God’s Eye,” which could tip the balance of power in the intelligence game.
In one of the most entertaining chase scenes I’ve seen in a long time, Toretto & Co. ambush the gang’s motorcade in the Carpathians, attacking it from above. After a fierce chase on a twisting mountain highway, the good guys are able to free capture. The sense of victory is short-lived, though, because, before being captured, Ramsey mailed the chip to a contact in Abu Dubai. Another spectacular chase ensues, because the chip is hidden in a rare Lykan Hypersport, on display in a party-central penthouse in the upper reaches of a shiny new skyscraper. After the hard drive changes hands twice more, Chris Morgan’s script demands that Toretto, Shaw, Jakande and stealth helicopter run roughshod through downtown L.A. The plot may have been rendered completely nonsensical by this time, but, throughout Furious 7, Wan proves every bit as adept as Lin at translating pointless action into splendidly choreographed chases and set pieces. Also nice is the inclusion in the cast, if only in cameos, of a dozen characters/actors who’ve appeared in previous “TF&TF” chapters. Not that it matters, but I have no idea where the three minutes of “extended” material was added to the theatrical release. Fans will find the Blu-ray package to be must-viewing, as the featurettes do an excellent job explaining how everything — except the shooting around Walker’s death — came together. Besides deleted scenes, there are pieces on every aspect of the production, especially the choice of vehicles and green-screen elements. The sadly nostalgic music video, “See You Again,” is the only one that directly recalls how Walker’s death impacted the cast and crew.
The Seven Five
If Sidney Lumet had lived long enough to see Tiller Russell’s startling documentation of police corruption in the Big Apple, he might have considered adapting it, if only to complete a rare superfecta that began with Serpico, Prince of the City and Night Falls on Manhattan. In street-level NYPD officer Michael Dowd, Lumet would have recognized many of the same character traits embodied by Al Pacino’s Frank Serpico, Treat Williams’ Detective Daniel Ciello, Andy Garcia’s Sean Casey and, for that matter, Vin Diesel’s turncoat mobster in Find Me Guilty, Nick Nolte’s racist cop in Q&A and Melanie Griffith’s undercover Detective Emily Eden in A Stranger Among Us. As The Seven Five almost mournfully suggests, the code of misplaced entitlement found in the DNA of New York City cops exists, as well, in its mobsters, druglords, Wall Street bankers, slumlords, media chieftains, religious authorities and the immigrants whose first job in this country is selling bogus designer goods in the subway. The risks run by police officers who put their pensions on the line every time they shake down a drug dealer or torture a “perp” are equal only to risks taken by whistleblowers. In The Seven Five, we witness how the code of dishonor infected an entire precinct, leading its most notorious criminals to assume that they deserved greater access to NYPD services than citizens who work 9-to-5 and are afraid to leave their homes at night. The widespread abuses of power and outright criminality described in The Seven Five first came light with Dowd’s arrest in 1992 and were subsequently substantiated with the release of the Mollen Commission report. Its findings demonstrated how, according to the New York Times, the “New York City Police Department had failed at every level to uproot corruption and had instead tolerated a culture that fostered misconduct and concealed lawlessness by police officers.” Today’s corruption, the report said, “is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.”
Dowd was assigned to the city’s far less than posh 75th Precinct during the heyday of the crack-cocaine explosion of the late 1980s and early ’90s. When he decided to go over to the dark side, the Long Island resident didn’t have to look very hard for drug dealers interested in buying their own personal cop. Indeed, when the first dealer he approached balked at the terms, he was introduced to an even larger fish in the sea, one who knew the value of someone who didn’t have to hide his gun under his shirt tails. The amount of money dangled in front of underpaid police officers at the height of the cocaine epidemic represented the greatest temptation to God’s humble creations since the snake tempted Eve with an apple from Tree of Knowledge. As easy as it was for bulk dealers to create a network of sales reps that mimicked the distribution of Amway and Mary Kay products, it was almost as simple to buy protection from a cop who had a network of his own to support. It began with convincing his partner to share in the booty and ended with the arrests of a half-dozen other cops. Dowd would go so far as to advertise his prosperity by occasionally driving to work in a bright red Corvette and hiring a limousine to pick him up at the station house for gambling trips to Atlantic City. If Dowd and his partner hadn’t gotten so greedy, selling the cocaine they received from their benefactor and setting up a direct-sales operation of their own in Long Island, who knows how long the business might have prospered. Besides the usual array of newspaper headlines and TV news video The Seven Five was provided with video recordings of Dowd’s testimony before the Mollen panel. Also fascinating are the interviews conducted recently with Dowd – who served 11½ years in prison – and his partner, who risked his life by agreeing to wear a wire, rather than spend any real time behind bars. Also recently interviewed are his partner’s wife, internal-affairs investigators, prosecutors, the Suffolk County cops who finally busted Dowd’s Long Island operation and Adam Diaz, the Dominican drug kingpin whose headquarters was an ordinary looking bodega. After serving his time, Diaz was shipped back to the island, none the worse for the wear. If plans for a theatrical adaptation of The Seven Five are ever realized, Diaz still looks young enough to play himself. Unlike Dowd, he hasn’t lost an ounce of his swagger.
Disneynature: Monkey Kingdom: Blu-ray
Disney has been shooting live-action nature documentaries for more nearly 70 years, all of them designed to appeal as much to adults as kids. The studio’s “True-Life Adventures” series, which began in 1948 with the two-reel “Seal Island” short, evolved five years later into feature-length presentations, stretching from The Living Desert to 1960’s Jungle Cat. Each of the longer movies would subsequently be cannibalized to make education films under different titles. The Disneynature label was launched in 2007, with a 90-minute re-tweaking of the esteemed BBC series, “Planet Earth.” The new banner’s first all-new feature, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, was released a year later. The newest title, Monkey Kingdom, will be followed next year by “Born in China.” Unlike other such endeavors, the Disneynature installments are typically co-produced with outside companies and sent out across numerous platforms. Apart from that, Disneynature is a chip off of the old block. Amusing anthropomorphic touches are added to the narrative storyline – here, provided by Tina Faye – which is, at once, educational and entertaining. Monkey Kingdom’s paradisiacal setting is the sacred city of Pollonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, which is characterized by vast forests and the ancient stupas, Kiri Vehera, Menik Vehera and Rankoth Veher. The toque macaques that inhabit the temples, which overlook the vast forest, maintain a strict caste system. The macaques that live closer the forest floor exist primarily on leftovers and harder-to-reach resources, while their superiors dine on fruit, nuts, berries, flowers and first choice of the annual bloom of flying termites. As is typical of most Disney nature films and animated fairy tales, there is a fair amount of turmoil and tragedy for sensitive audiences to endure. There’s nothing more unnerving than a fight between gangs of screaming simians, who no longer seem so cute and cuddly in their natural habitat. When one tribe of macaques Is toppled from their penthouse, it finds refuge in a nearby city, where their maneuverability and cunning allows them to plunder the kiosks of merchants selling fresh fruit, vegetables and potato chips. When the exposure becomes too risky, they return to the forest to strategize against the macaques who took their temple. In the meantime, they’re required to keep an eye out for monitor lizards, sloth bears, mongeese and other rivals. One area in which Disneynature titles are superior to those in the “True-Life Adventures” series is their ability to tap into the extraordinary advances in cameras, lenses and the camouflage that allows for close observation at short range. Miniature cameras hidden in nooks and crannies of temples and caves can be manipulated from remote locations. The quality of high-definition presentation borders on the spectacular. You practically can count the hairs on a monkey’s chinny-chin-chin. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes, as well as a music video.
High-definition camera work also favors the dazzling set pieces in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a story that doesn’t exactly cry out to be remade every six months, or so. The lush ballroom sequence is so robustly enhanced by the Blu-ray presentation that some pre-teen girls might come to prefer it to Disney’s animated version or, even, the one in Beauty and the Beast. Also outstanding are Sandy Powell’s colorful costumes, Dante Ferretti’s elaborate production design, Haris Zambarloukos’ imaginative cinematography and Patrick Doyle’s lovely original music. Director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz’ story remains reasonably true to the 1950 version, which, itself, was inspired by Charles Perrault’s concept of the fairy tale. As far as I can tell, no expense was spared on any aspect of the product, including a largely Brit cast that includes Lily James and Richard Madden as the blessed couple; Cate Blanchett, Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as the wicked stepmother and her defective daughters; Helena Bonham-Carter, as Fairy Godmother; and, in shorter supporting roles, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Ben Chaplin, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon and Hayley Atwell. That’s a lot of firepower for an oft-told tale. The Blu-ray adds the theatrical short “Frozen Fever” and other Disney-esque featurettes, deleted scenes and an alternate opening. It will be interesting to see if Bill Condon’s live-action take on Beauty and the Beast, set for a 2017 release, can top Disney’s recent re-adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella. (Oh, yeah, sit patiently through the closing credit roll and you’ll rewarded with new versions of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” performed by Lily James and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively.)
Closer to the Moon
Anyone who believes that anti-Semitism disappeared from Europe after the existence of Nazi death camps was revealed at the end of World War II probably also believes that FDR and Winston Churchill didn’t know that Stalin was going to devour Eastern Europe as soon as the ink dried on the Yalta agreements. Anti-Semitism never really went away, even in the countries in which Jews played a vital role in resistance movements and post-war Communist governments. It was simply hibernating until the rest of world stopped paying attention to the poor souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In May, Criterion Collection released its edition of Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, in which Yves Montand portrays Artur London, the high-ranking Czechoslovak Communist Party leader, who, in 1952, narrowly missed a date with a hangman’s noose. Along with 13 other leading party members, 11 of whom were Jewish, London had been found guilty of participating in a phony “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist” conspiracy. Eleven were hanged and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Bad news didn’t travel fast in the Eastern bloc in the 1950s, so it’s possible that the real-life characters in Nae Caranfil’s Closer to the Moon hadn’t heard about the Stalin-directed purge of Jews from the leadership of Communist parties throughout Central and Eastern Europe. By 1959, it had reached the point where Romanian Jews in positions open only to top Communist Party stalwarts were beginning to feel the heat. Like London, the character’s we meet here fought the good fight against the Nazi occupation and helped organize the CP infrastructure. A dozen years later, dreams of a Marxist republic were replaced by the reality of Communist-style totalitarianism, even in the post-Stalin era.
Vera Farmiga and Mark Strong play two of the five disillusioned Jewish Communists who decided that it might be good idea to rob the National Bank of Romania, thus embarrassing the country’s iron-fisted leaders. In the mostly accurate Closer to the Moon, the four men and a woman who comprised the Ioanid Gang convinced the driver and guard of an armored car that they’d interrupted the production of a movie, but should pretend they belong in the scene. Having no idea how movies are made, the two bozos handed over several bags full of currency that, in any case, would have been worthless outside of Romania. Naturally, after several weeks had passed, they were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Before that could happen, however, the gang members would be required to re-create the crime for an actual government film crew, ostensibly in return for a reduced sentence. Caranfil tells this story from the perspective of a young man, Virgil (Harry Lloyd), who just happened to be sitting in a cafe across the street from the faux bank robbery and is asked to stand in for the alcoholic cameraman. He hits it off romantically with the doomed Alice, who’s playing herself in the movie and confides in Virgil as to how the real heist was planned and her accidental participation in the crime. If that sounds confusing, it’s only because bizarre stuff like that happen all the time in totalitarian states. My confusion was exasperated by the filmmakers’ decision to have all of the characters speak perfect English in a setting that otherwise resembles post-war Bucharest. To make this bizarre incident more entertaining, presumably for western audiences, Caranfil also decided to emphasize what he considered to be the darkly comic aspects of the story. Frankly, they eluded me. Snippets from the long-secreted movie can be seen at the end of Closer to the Moon.
Heaven Knows What: Blu-ray
If told without any punches pulled, stories about heroin addiction and the day-to-day struggle of junkies to stay high should be as difficult to watch as any film with graphic depictions of self-destruction and death. Fixing can be depicted as a near-sacramental ritual or an act of violence committed against one’s own body. Portrayed accurately, it’s the one sure way to force viewers to cover their eyes or turn their heads from the screen in unison. Unless the character overdoses within seconds of the fix, some curious viewers are likely to wonder how exhilarating a high must be to justify playing Russian roulette with a needle, instead of a gun. Seemingly, it’s a blast … until someone turns blue and dies. Ben and Joshua Safdie’s excruciatingly raw Heaven Knows What most closely resembles Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 The Panic in Needle Park, which starred Al Pacino and Kitty Winn as a pair of junkies desperate for a fix during a serious drought. In most ways, Pacino’s electrifying performance was the equal of Robert De Niro’s interpretation of Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets, and duly noted by casting directors. (Pacino’s next assignment would be The Godfather, while The Godfather II awaited De Niro.) Winn took the Best Actress prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. If there were any justice in the world of movie distribution, Heaven Knows What would have been shown in more theaters than 11 non-festival venues and be mentioned in the same breath as Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, Sid and Nancy, The Connection and High Art. If Arielle Holmes, who plays the film’s pathetic protagonist, Harley, hasn’t been more widely recognized for her performance, it’s probably because she was 19, homeless and an addict when she was discovered by Josh Safdie in a New York subway. He encouraged her to write down her personal story, parts of which were adapted into the script by Joshua Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs). If there’s hardly a sliver of difference between Harley and Holmes, it would be difficult, as well, for viewers to parse the real actors from the homeless recruits who act alongside her. Naturally, most of Harley’s time is spent panhandling for money to cop heroin or in relishing the high. You wouldn’t wish her male friends on your worst enemy’s daughter. One of the street “tramps” (Caleb Landry Jones) convinces her to slit her wrists, simply to prove her love for him. Moreover, Safdie’s vision of Manhattan harkens back to the hell on Earth it was in the 1970s, well before the Disneyfication of Times Square. Adventurous indie buffs are strongly encouraged to find Heaven Knows What, a movie that will stay with you long after you’ve savored the deleted scenes, making-of featurette and music video by Ariel Pink. A date for the publication of Holmes’ memoir, “Mad Love in New York City” has yet to be announced.
Immoral Tales: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Beast: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Walerian Borowczyk was a Pole of an entirely different stripe from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Born nearly 20 years apart, the only things they shared was a Polish arts education and the need, at different points in their careers, to move to Paris. More difficult to define is an intellectual commonality shared by Eastern European artists, whose formative years were spent in the watchful eyes of totalitarian governments. A graduate of Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts, Borowczyk’s early career evolved from painting and lithography, to the creation of movie posters and surreal animations. After leaving for Paris in 1959 and working with Chris Marker, he moved into stop-motion and live-action films. The stop-motion shorts included in these Blu-ray packages suggest that he was a major influence on Terry Gilliam, one of the founding members of Monty Python. To make a living from his art, however, Borowczyk was convinced to turn his filmmaking talent to erotica and literary-based pornography. Not as inelegantly formulaic as the hard-core films that followed in the wake of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, the 1974 erotic anthology Immoral Tales more closely resembles the classy soft-core movies produced by Randall Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet, The Image) at the same time. The film, as released, is split into four erotic-themed stories that involve the loss of virginity, masturbation, bloodlust and incest. The latter two sections were riffs on the Erzsébet Báthory and Lucrezia Borgia legends. A fifth chapter in Immoral Tales was originally planned, but removed and developed into the feature film La Bête. It has been restored in one of the “IT” discs included here, but clearly is no match for the separate full-length iteration. With that exception, the sexual encounters in “IT” are handled in as classy a manner as these things got in the 1970s. After portraying the young man who claimed the innocence of a 16-year-old nymphet, Fabrice Luchini would quickly become one of the most respected actors in France.
Before and after the release of La Bête/The Beast, comparisons inevitably were made to “La Belle et la Bête,” the 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont that inspired Jean Cocteau’s 1946 surrealist fantasy and, 45 years later, Disney’s animated musical of the same title. In fact, though, Borowczyk’s The Beast was informed by Prosper Mérimée’s 1869 horror/fantasy novella, “Lokis.” In it, wealthy American businessman Philip Broadhurst has died and left his entire estate to his daughter, Lucy. The stipulations require of Lucy that, within six months of his death, she marry Mathurin, the son of his best friend, the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance. They are required, as well, to be married by Cardinal Joseph do Balo, the brother of Pierre’s uncle, the crippled Duc Rammaendelo de Balo. That’s easier said than done, because the dim-witted Mathurin has a deformity that prevented him from being baptized and his only interest in life is the family’s horse-breeding business. Pierre bribes a local priest, a pederast, to allow him to perform the baptism behind a closed door, leaving only the arrival of the incommunicado cardinal to overcome. While Mathurin is ambivalent toward marriage, Lucy becomes obsessed with the estate’s hidden history of bestiality, as well as the violent coupling of a well-hung stallion to a broodmare, literally dripping with desire. The legend of bestiality that dominates Lucy’s subconscious derives from the story of an 18th Century ancestor, Romilda (Sirpa Lane), who was raped and impregnated by a bear-like creature. The Beast is every bit as grotesque as it sounds, but not without large dollops of inky-black humor. A hit in Europe, the film’s notoriety caused it to be heavily censored and banned in other markets.
As has been the case with most of Arrow’s intricately conceived rehabilitation projects, the bonus features are as interesting as the cult-classics being shown. The nicely upgraded edition of Immoral Tales includes an introduction by Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird; “Love Reveals Itself: Making Immoral Tales,” with production manager Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and cinematographer Noël Véry; “Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk,” a newly edited archival interview in which the filmmaker discusses painting, cinema and sex; two versions of “A Private Collection,” Borowczyk’s documentary about a truly remarkable collection of erotic memorabilia; and a reversible sleeve cover. The Blu-ray edition of The Beast adds an introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw; “The Making of the Beast,” camera operator Noel Very; “Frenzy of Ecstasy,” a visual essay on the evolution of Borowczyk’s beast; “The Profligate Door,” a documentary about Borowczyk’s sound sculptures, featuring curator Maurice Corbet; “Boro Brunch,” a reunion meal recorded in February, 2014; a trio of mid-‘60s commercials by Borowczyk; “Gunpoint,” a documentary short by Peter Graham produced and edited by Borowczyk; a reversible sleeve featuring Borowczyk’s own original poster design; an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and an archive piece by David Thompson, illustrated with original stills.
It’s only fitting that Liliana Cavani’s second of three biographies of St. Francis of Assisi should arrive in DVD/Blu-ray as preparations for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States draws nigh. I don’t know if the pontiff caught Francesco, when it opened in Argentina in 1994 and he was Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, but, if so, it’s entirely possible that he asked the same question raised by Italian critics and other observers, myself included: what, in God’s name, prompted Cavani to cast Mickey Rourke against type in the lead role? In the seven years after his breakthrough performances in Body Heat and Diner, Rourke had become an international star for such gritty films as The Pope of Greenwich Village, Year of the Dragon, 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart, A Prayer for the Dying and Barfly, in which he portrayed the notorious writer, alcoholic and horserace handicapper Charles Bukowski. With that image still fresh in viewers’ minds, it was virtually impossible to imagine how his hard-ass persona could meld with that of the popular, if not entirely accurate image of St. Francis. Over the years, the Vatican marketing department has convinced Catholics that he more closely resembles a patron saint of the Haight-Ashbury than a warrior for Christ. That’s based on his belief that all of God’s creations – animals, as well as the poorest of the poor – are equal in the eyes of the Lord. He’s been depicted in art as a Donovan-like flower child, surrounded by birds, bunnies and good vibes. That was only one aspect of his mostly tortured ministry, however. In Francesco, which is said to have been based on a Herman Hesse monograph, he’s drawn more accurately as a child of wealthy parents, who, after seeing the light, traded his silk garments for beggars’ rags. Pope Francis described his namesake as, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.” It explains why the Holy Father has been so outspoken on such issues as global warming, capitalistic greed and closing borders to political and economic refugees.
Although Rourke doesn’t embarrass himself or tarnish anyone’s pacifistic pre-conception of Saint Francis – even after being held for ransom as a Perugian POW, he enlisted in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne – the actor frequently seems as out of place in Francesco as Bukowski would have been reading his poetry at the Louvre. Neither did Cavani insist on her protagonist being shorn in the traditional manner of a friar. Instead, Francis is made to look as if he traveled to Rome every two weeks for a razor-cut hairdo. That image changes dramatically as Francis’s order of friars expanded and leadership became an unwieldy responsibility. Rourke is most convincing in the final segment, when Francis became more isolated and his spirituality took a decided turn toward Christian mysticism and extreme sacrifice. Finally, during a 40-day fast at the La Verna retreat on Monta Penna, it’s said that he was approached by a six-winged angel on a cross and presented with the stigmata of Jesus Christ. As the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history, Francis become the subject of great adoration. Some wags believe that Rourke has been carrying the stigmata ever since that performance. Still, Cavani (The Night Porter, Ripley’s Game) does an excellent job balancing the beauty of the Abruzzo countryside with the cruelty of poverty and war in 13th Century Italy. It’s almost possible to feel the weight of Christ’s cross on Rourke’s shoulders in his imitation of Francis of Assisi. The rest of the cast is comprised mostly of Italian actors, who fit right into the story, as does Helena Bonham Carter as, Clare, the earliest follower and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies (a.k.a., Poor Clares), a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. Greek composer, Vangelis, provided the musical score. The only bonus feature is a snippet from a press conference at Cannes.
All American High: Revisited
The timing of the release of two long-lost documentaries on DVD, both about high school life the early 1980s, practically tests the limits of coincidence. Last month, we welcomed the arrival of Seventeen, the chapter in PBS’ “Middletown” series that was banned outright from being broadcast and, apart from a couple of festival showings, was put on a shelf to gather dust for the next 25 years. PBS said that the filmmakers had exploited its key subjects, leaving them open to shame and condemnation for their extreme behavior. I’ve seen worse, but it probably would have shocked the socks off of the good citizens of Muncie, Indiana – dubbed Middletown, in an early study – with its harsh language, disrespect for parents and teachers, drugging and drinking, and testy interracial relationships. There’s no reason to think, however, that PBS viewers in larger ’burgs would have been disturbed by this coldly accurate portrayal of several at-risk teenagers in the American heartland. By contrast, Keva Rosenfeld’s All American High, surveyed a year in the lives of a broader cross-section of Torrance High School’s senior class, through the eyes of Finnish exchange student, “Rikki” Rauhala. Given the close proximity of the high school to everything a teenager might consider to be worth doing in Los Angeles, the students were far more cosmopolitan than their counterparts in Indiana and substantially more laid back about their lifestyle choices and plans for the future. They misbehaved, as well, but a certain amount of it was expected of them, it seems. In 1984, at least, Torrance High seemed to be a pretty decent place to go to school. The teachers are conscientious and the kids seemingly less likely to sass or disrespect them. Where Muncie was beginning to shiver in the first cold winds of dire economic change, Torrance’s multicultural, middle-class community enjoyed far more options. The doc received several positive reviews, but not enough to ensure distribution beyond the festival circuit. After 30 years of obscurity, All American High: Revisited benefits greatly from Rosenfeld’s decision to find and re-interview quite a few of the primary figures, most of whom appear to have followed separate paths in life. In an ironic twist, for example, one of the leading party animals became a cop, responsible for busting up the same kinds of beer bashes from which he once prospered. Another compared his high school tenure to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and admits to not recalling being interviewed by Rosenfeld. Seventeen should have attempted the same thing.
There is a particular kind of coming-of-age drama in which an older sibling takes charge of the affairs of his younger brothers and sisters after the loss of their parents. Typically, the elder orphan is required to overcome several seemingly insurmountable hurdles before demonstrating that the newly re-invigorated family unit would prevail. The scenery may change, but these stories tend to write themselves. Little Glory is a horse of a slightly different color. That this extremely worthwhile story has gone largely unseen here since 2011, on both large and small screens, says everything one needs to know about fissures in the distribution business. Within a very short period of time, the parents of 19-year-old Shawn (Cameron Bright) and his 9-year-old sister, Julie (Isabella Blake-Thomas), disappear from their lives. The death of his mother was a crushing blow to Shawn, leaving him at crossroads where one path leads to a better-than-nothing job in Nowhere, USA, while the other points to a time-share in a penal facility. With the family’s anchor gone, his boozy father uses Shawn as an easy target for his rage and inability to balance expenses. He treats Julie like a barmaid, whose only mission in life is to ferry bottles of beer from the refrigerator to the kitchen table. In return for Julie’s obedience, the old man made her the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy. After the ogre’s work-related death, the possibility of deciding how his sister might spend the $100,000 windfall prompts Shawn to battle his Aunt Monica (Astrid Whettnal) for her custody. Even a blind social worker could see that Shawn is uniquely unqualified to raise a 9-year-old girl, but he’s determined to prove everyone wrong, even if it means stealing the money they need to keep up appearances for the court. Although his mercenary approach to child-rearing softens over time, Belgian director Vincent Lannoo (Vampires) and freshman writers John Engel and François Verjans can’t resist testing our natural sympathy for Shawn, who probably mlbwould benefit from moving into Aunt Monica’s house more than Julie. To compensate, they find extra room in his life for a slightly more grounded girlfriend, nicely played by Hannah Murray (“Skins”). Little Glory’s ending may not satisfy all viewers, but it’s far from cliché, at least. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.
Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade
Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC: 1980-90
At a time when tickets for any performance by Van Morrison would sell out with an hour of being put on sale, it’s difficult to imagine how his career came to a virtual stop in the late 1970s. Van the Man wasn’t the only future hall-of-famer whose music would be eclipsed by purveyors of punk, progressive, glam, heavy metal and stadium rock, but the rare artist who refused to pander to trends, critics and audiences, demanding something he had no intention of giving them. The Sexy Intellectual/MVD bio-doc, Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade, puts on tight focus Morrison’s musical output in the 1980s, after he’d become a teetotaler and disillusioned with the entirety of the industry. Fiercely independent, the Belfast Cowboy simply began to record only what obsessed him at any given moment in time, whether or not it sold albums. Famously prickly with the rock press, Morrison was his own worst enemy when it came to pitching his products. As his preferences bounced between rock, jazz, R&B, folk spiritual and meditative idioms, it would have been nice if he didn’t of his music that it speak for itself. It’s fun to know what motivates genius. We asked the same of Bob Dylan, who, much to the detriment of record sales, was going through similarly radical changes. Back then, all it took was one great song or album to bring fans back to the flock and convince them to keep the faith for a while longer. With the release of “The Best of Van Morrison,” compiled by artist himself, that the doldrums of the 1980s ended and fans agreed to let Van be Van, as long as he threw them the occasional bone and embarked on a concert tour. Director Tom O’Dell is to be commended for pulling together enough concert footage, interviews and learned opinion for fans to understand what actually was going on in his head during this difficult period. The featurette included in the bonus package is devoted to the reporters and critics whose job it was to interpret the whims and wisdom of a popular artist, who considered them to be little more than pests.
If any large American city could have benefitted from a punk-rock insurgency, it was Washington, D.C., during the Reagan years, An angry surge of electronic noise might have drowned out all of the nonsense emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill about free-market and trickle-down economics, whose birds finally came home to roost in the 2008 recession. Apparently, there were enough punk musicians in the District to form a quorum, at least, and a handful of rock-docs, 30 years later. “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90)” follows in the short wake of “Positive Force: More Than a Witness” and a recent episode of the HBO documentary series, “Sonic Highways.” Still to come are “Finding Joseph I” and “Punk the Capital: Straight from Washington, D.C.” The only things that linked the hard-core scenes in Washington and England, besides the booger-buddy relationship between Maggie Thatcher and President Reagan, was that they were sown from seeds planted in the ruins of economically ruined cities. Crack cocaine, unemployment and systemic government neglect had devastated the majority African-American community, leaving plenty of vacant space for white musicians from the suburbs to rehearse and play. One of the most influential bands of the period was fronted by punk-rock/reggae singer, Paul “HR” Hudson – subject of the 2012 film, Bad Brains: A Band in DC — but the dominant sound emanating from car radios and boom boxes was hip-hop. Some rock musicians affiliated themselves with progressive social movements and activist groups, including Positive Force, but audience members were more interested in moshing than organizing around lyrics rendered indecipherable by the extreme volume of the music. Among the usual suspects rounded up for interviews here are Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and actor Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”). The target audience for “Salad Days” are people who’ve ever bought a ticket to see Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man or Fugazi. There are several dozen other docs about local punk scenes from which to choose, however. The DVD adds extended interviews and 10 live performances from D.C. bands.
I’m No Dummy
Am I the only dummy out here who isn’t familiar with the term, “venting,” when used to describe what happens on stage between a ventriloquist and a puppeteer’s “dummy”? I’ve heard it referred to as “throwing a voice,” of course, and recently learned that diviners in Ancient Greece somehow convinced wealthy patrons that the sounds emanating from his digestive track were, in fact, messages to them from the dearly departed. The talent was called “gastromancy” and its practitioners included the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle. This most primitive form of ventriloquism served spiritualists until the Middle Ages, when it was equated with witchcraft. By adding the carved likeness of a curious looking human being to the act, ventriloquists effectively turned gastromancy into entertainment. If I were forced to guess, I would say the addition of “vent” to the show-biz lexicon was an attempt to re-brand ventriloquism to a new generation of ticket buyers. Ever since Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and other host of variety shows disappeared from the television landscape, ventriloquists have found it difficult to showcase their art outside Las Vegas, cruise-ship stages and the talent portion of the Miss America broadcast. Bryan W. Simon’s delightful and informative documentary, “I’m No Dummy,” has been re-released six years after its original debut, with the addition of two hours of fresh material. The first disc contains the complete 2009 film, a director’s commentary, two Q&A’s with the filmmakers from the Seattle International Film Festival and a special interview with Jeff Dunham and his vintage figure, Skinny Duggan. The second disc adds previously unseen outtakes and interview material; additional comic performances; an interview with Las Vegas headliner Terry Fator; and a tour of the Vent Haven Museum, the only such facility dedicated to the art of ventriloquism. It’s another film that can enjoyed as much by parents and grandparents, as kids who wouldn’t know Mortimer Snerd from Donald Trump. Last year’s live-performance DVD, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” is also a lot of fun.
The Legacy: Blu-ray
By the time Katherine Ross agreed to star in the Hammer-esque horror thriller, The Legacy, such early successes as The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Stepford Wife had practically disappeared from the rear-view mirror of her career. Meanwhile, the career trajectory of her co-star (and future husband) Sam Elliot was in its ascendency, thanks to a breakthrough performance in Lifeguard, the kind of guilty-pleasure rom-dram that no one east of Southern California would admit to enjoying. (I did.) Here, they play a pair of L.A.-based decorators, Margaret and Pete, hired to work their magic on a mansion smack dab in the middle of a sprawling English estate. Before they can get there, however, their motorcycle collides with a truck piloted by a suspiciously careless driver. Once they arrive at the mansion, they’re surprised to find several other invited guests, including rocker Roger Daltrey, who exude wealth, but aren’t long for this world. The story is far too convoluted to synopsize here, but no one should be surprised to learn that satanic forces will soon make their presence known. To what end remains a reasonably well-kept secret throughout most of the movie, which was directed by Richard Marquand, whose more noteworthy credits (The Jagged Edge, Star Wars: Episode VI) were still ahead of him, and written by frequent Hammer Films collaborator Jimmy Sangster. The Blu-ray upgrade adds to the total experience, which would have benefitted from fresh interviews with Ross and Elliott, in addition to editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) and effects artist Robin Grantham, and a photo gallery.
Looks are deceiving here, from a cover that suggests that what’s contained inside is soft-core porn, to a plot that advances as many stereotypes as it seeks to deflate. The husband-wife team of Oscar Torre and Chuti Tiu directed, wrote and star in Pretty Rosebud, about an Asian-American “career woman” caught between her parents’ old-country beliefs and the same desire for independence shared by most women who’ve decided not to follow in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers. Tiu further burdens her character, Cecilia “Cissy” Santos, with an unemployed husband (Kipp Shiotani), who refuses to respond to her sexual advances – the most unlikely of the film’s conceits – and a mother-in-law who demands she mass produce children in her son’s broke-ass name. Frustrated, Cissy turns to recreational boxing and hit-and-run trysts with a veritable rainbow coalition of lovers. As if she weren’t confused enough, she also decides to confide in a friendly priest, who hopes to convince her to return to the flock. Cissy’s brother (James Kyson-Lee) is similarly alienated from their parents, because of his decision to marry a non-Asian woman and poor attendance at church. The only thing that saves Pretty Rosebud from drowning in its own freshman-filmmaker clutter is an appealing performance by the gorgeous Ms. Tiu. As problematic as the picture is, it’s great to see a movie populated with seasoned minority actors who rarely are accorded an opportunity to shine.
Aquarius: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
The Bold Ones: The Protectors: The Complete Series
The Hee Haw Collection 3 DVD Set
The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes
Portlandia: Season Five
While binging on NBC’s curiously addictive “Aquarius: The Complete First Season” on Blu-ray, I frequently wondered if the officials at Corcoran State Prison – Charles Manson’s longtime home — had allowed inmates to watch the show when it aired this summer. The opportunity to see how the facility’s most notorious resident ended up in stir probably would have kept the inmates quiet for an hour or so each week, at least. Now that’s it’s available in an uncensored version, with extended episodes, it’s a question that begs to be asked once again. (Unlike the vast majority of “uncensored” TV series transferred to video, “Aquarius” walks the walk with partial, unblurred nudity and coarse language. None of it is any more gratuitous than the average episode of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime, though.) The first-season episodes follow Manson and his Family members as they begin to lay down their roots in Los Angeles, circa 1967, two years before the killing spree that led to life sentences for several of the characters we meet here. The hyper-charismatic career criminal has already accumulated a harem of starry-eyed flower children and a posse of violence-prone men. The show also posits that Manson had extended his grasp into the corporate offices of L.A., by doing dirty work for hypocritical executives, some of whom are linked to Richard Nixon’s comeback campaign. Manson, who started his criminal life as a pimp, traded the sexual favors of his followers for entrée into the city’s pop-music establishment. He was every bit as obsessed with becoming a rock superstar as the Family members are devoted to helping Manson succeed. If that was all “Aquarius” was about, however, it would have become tiresome after the first episode. Instead, writer John McNamara (“In Plain Sight”) hooks us by showing how the daughter of wealthy Republican parents. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), allows herself to become one of Charlie’s most fervent devotees. Frantic, Emma’s mother calls on an old lover, homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), to help track her down. In turn, Hodiak is allowed to recruit a shaggy undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to shine light into corners unavailable to the flat-topped detective. Through Hodiak and Shafe, viewers are provided a first-hand look at a LAPD that, at the time, was a proto-fascist force of militaristic bigots. Shafe is far more liberal on most issues than Hodiak, who’s only slightly more progressive than the rest of force. Of course, he’s also a borderline alcoholic. In 1967, Los Angeles was a metropolis coming apart at its seams, with its segregated police force the largest target available to activists. The storylines also work in well-considered looks at the Vietnam War, the peace movement and Black Panthers. Not all of it will ring true to Boomers who witnessed the turmoil at ground level, but, by and large, the clichés, archetypes and stereotypical portrayals are close enough to pass muster. The summer startup series already has been renewed for a second season. The Blu-ray adds the backgrounder, “First Look: Aquarius,” and webisodes.
Leslie Nielsen enjoyed one of the most remarkable careers of any actor who straddled the worlds of television and movies in second half of the 20th Century. The first of 150 credits for his television work were recorded in 1950, at the dawn of the medium’s first Golden Age. His 100-title big-screen career began auspiciously enough with a turn as Commander Adams in the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet. For the next 50 years, the Saskatchewan native would bounce frequently between the different entertainment mediums. It was in 1980, however, that Nielsen experienced the kind of revitalization most veteran actors can only dream of having, and it only required that he put a 180-degree spin on characters he’d played for the past 30 years. In Airplane!, Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves were asked to play against type, spoofing then-popular disaster films with a straight face. Two years later, he was recruited once again by Paramount and satire specialists Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker (The Kentucky Fried Movie) for “Police Squad!” As hilarious as the show was, it only lasted six episodes on ABC. Nielsen’s Detective Frank Drebin was accorded a second lease on life in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and its sequels. As the average age of his fan base dropped by 40 years, Robert Ebert dubbed him, “the Laurence Olivier of spoofs.” A dozen years before Drebin was immortalized on “Police Squad!,” Nielsen portrayed a very different sort of cop in NBC’s “The Bold Ones: The Protectors,” a short-lived series that played in rotation with “The New Doctors” and “The Lawyers.” Newly released on DVD in a complete-series package, “The Protectors” starred Nielsen, as the newly installed deputy chief of police in a racially divided California city, and Hari Rhodes as the progressive African-American district attorney. They were required to put aside their political differences to prevent San Sebastian from going up in flames or be dominated by career criminals. Unlike other series, “The Protectors” wasn’t laughably clueless about the black liberation and anti-war movements and other topical social concerns. Guest stars included such still-recognizable actors as Edmond O’Brien, Edward Andrews James Broderick, John Rubinstein, Robert Drivas, Fred Williamson, Aldo Ray, Joe Besser, Ruby Dee, Max Julien, Lorraine Gary, Billy Gray and Louise Sorel. Writer/producer William Sackheim (“The Flying Nun,” “Gidget”), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Close Encounters of the Third”), director Lamont Johnson (The Last American Hero, “That Certain Summer”) and composer Tom Scott (“Baretta,” “Stir Crazy“) were among the prominent behind-the-camera talents.
As guilty pleasures go, there are many far less entertaining diversions than watching reruns of “Hee Haw.” The show was positioned by CBS as a hayseed alternative to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for 23 years – 21 of them in syndication, after the network failed to renew it — lived up to that billing. Hosted by country artists Buck Owens and Roy Clark, it combined old-school country music with unapologetically cornball humor for millions of viewers who might otherwise be tuned in to broadcasts emanating from the Grand Ole Opry. In fact, when the recurring cast of musicians and comedians weren’t taping segments for the coming weeks’ shows, they might very well have hopped into their pickup trucks for that evening’s performance at the Ryman Auditorium, as many of the regulars were permanent members of the Opry. In its sole concession to the nascent sexual revolution, which informed much of the humor on “Laugh-In,” there were the “Hee Haw Honeys.” Their risqué outfits were inspired after the wardrobe favored by buxom blond Daisy Mae Yokum, in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip, who might have been kin to Daisy Mae Duke, of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Although the recording industry has labored long and hard to distance itself from the archetypal characters and traditional country and bluegrass music that attracted millions of viewers to the show each week, its track record speaks for itself. While the house band was comprised of Nashville’s top studio musicians — Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, Charlie McCoy, Danny Davis, Jethro Burns and Johnny Gimble – the guest stars included such then-current chart-toppers as Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Jr., Dottie West, Charlie Rich and Donna Fargo. The only drawbacks in these appearances came when the lip-synching became too obvious and in the ridiculously chaste dresses worn by the women headliners, who were further burdened with hideous bouffant wigs. This would change as years went by, but any resemblance between the Lynn and Wynette we see in these compilations and today’s crop of hooker-chic songbirds is limited is to their sterling voices. By comparison, the male stars either looked as if they had just finished milking the cows or left a fitting at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. The DVDs add fresh interviews and vintage comedy routines.
The archivists at TimeLife have also expanded on their inventory of treasures from “The Carol Burnett Show” and its various spinoffs. “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes” adds material for the first five seasons, some of it not seen for more than 40 years. Among the gems are the show’s debut episode; the first performances of “As the Stomach Turns,” “The Old Folks & Carol & Sis” and “Gone With the Breeze”/“Went With the Wind”; on-set pranks and bloopers; and fresh chats with Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, Tina Fey, Jim Nabors, Jimmy Fallon, Jack Jones, Steve Carell, Vicki Lawrence and Bob Newhart. Newcomers to vintage television variety shows probably will be appalled by the elaborate song-and-dance numbers and peculiar deployment of Vegas-style showgirls, which made viewers pray for commercials to arrive. They stand in direct contrast to everything being embraced by the counterculture in the late-1960s.
If “Portlandia” aired on HBO, Comedy Central or FX, instead of the sometimes difficult to find IFC, it would be hailed in the same breathe as such fringe comedies as “Louie,” “Veep,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Girls.” Like Amazon’s even more obscure “Transparent,” it is a show that owes its popularity to word-of-mouth and appearances by its stars on talk shows that skew to young audiences. The sketch-comedy series is an outgrowth of Internet and video collaborations between “SNL” alum Fred Armisen and musician/writer/actor Carrie Brownstein. If Portland were a person, instead of a city, it would fit the description of someone criticized for being “tragically hip.” As desirable a place to settle as it is, Portland is a magnet for an idiosyncratic collection of college-educated dweebs whose tolerance for anyone who strays from their politically correct agenda is roughly zero and defines liberal fascism. It’s entirely possible that the only constituency that doesn’t find “Portlandia” to be particularly funny are residents of the Rose City, who don’t think anything pertaining to them is amusing. Among the highlights of the show’s fifth season are “The Story of Toni & Candace,” which traces the corporate roots of the uber-feminist Women and Women First Bookstore; the double-barreled “Fashion,” during which Portland’s Dollar Store recruits Quinn (Brownstein) as the face for their rebranding campaign and Spyke (Armisen) faces trial for making unlicensed Bart Simpson merchandise; “4th of July,” in which Kath and Dave hire a party planner (Jane Lynch) to organize an alternative Independence Day celebration and the mayor (Kyle MacLachlin) searches the “deep web” for alternative fireworks; and the self-explanatory, “Doug Becomes a Feminist,” during which Sandra also discovers the horrors of ride sharing. Among the guest stars are Ed Begley Jr., Matt Groening, Oscar the Grouch, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Goldblum, Anna Gunn, Paul Simon, Paul Reubens, Olivia Wilde and Natasha Lyonne. The DVD adds deleted material from the ride-searching sketch.
American Experience: Walt Disney: He Made Believe
Masterpiece: Arthur & George
JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness
Frontline: Rape on the Night Shift
American Experience: Blackout
Counting on Birds: Tales of Migration
Seven Wonders of Brazil
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show
Although some viewers will consider the two-part “American Experience” bio-doc, “Walt Disney: He Made Believe,” to be a warts-and-all profile of a true visionary and creative genius, others might wonder why the producers stopped short of isolating the virus that caused the warts in the first place. Executive Producer Mark Samels and the “AE” team received extraordinary access to the Disney archives, which hitherto have been protected from outside surveillance as if it were the vault at Fort Knox. It adds video evidence to previous print biographies that dared to dig below the surface of the great man’s legacy. His testy relationship with his father is recalled alongside the importance of his brief, idyllic stay with relatives in rural Kansas as a boy. The film also gives proper credit to Roy Disney, who kept the wolves away from the studio gates long enough for Walt to realize artistic dreams that tended to go over budget. In fact, it wasn’t until the success of Disneyland was assured, thanks to a helping hand from fledgling ABC, that the wildly inventive showman was able to work his magic without fear of being foreclosed. He also owed a great debt of gratitude to the children who so loved his movies and cartoons that they demanded of their parents that they buy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of coonskin caps, toys, trading cards, records, comic books, wands, tiaras and other branded products that paid the bills when ticket sales lagged. It isn’t until the end of the first half of the documentary, when studio employees, including several of his most loyal artists, decided that Uncle Walt’s concept of “family” didn’t square with the financial realities of raising families of their own that our perceptions of life the Mouse House change. Disney blamed their decision to form unions on communists in their midst and refused to negotiate a settlement in an ugly strike. It wasn’t until he split for a tour of South America that Roy was able to achieve a settlement. Six years later, Disney would get his revenge by appearing as a “friendly witness” before the HUAC panel investigating the influence of communism in Hollywood.
It wasn’t until 1950, after “Cinderella” became a gamble that paid off big for the studio, that Disney was able to finance an ambitious slate of animated- and live-action projects, establish his own distribution company, enter television production and begin building Disneyland without looking over his shoulder for the nearest creditor. It also allowed him to further distance himself from those employees who could remember a time before he decided to take away such luxuries as rugs, comfortable chairs, adequate lighting, affordable cafeteria food and other things employees valued. Instead, he took time away from the studio to construct a narrow-gauge railroad at his home and form a splinter company to avoid the concerns of bean-counters. The bio-doc ends with the success of “Mary Poppins” and plans for Disney World, whose completion he wouldn’t live to see. Unlike the compact Anaheim facility, where growth was extremely limited, Disney bought enough land – surreptitiously, as possible — to control everything from who could build hotels and gas stations on roads leading to the property, to largely avoiding state, county and city interference. Where “He Made Believe” falls a tiny bit short, however, is in its seeming unwillingness to explore the root causes of his rabidly anti-labor stance – apart from being a control freak — and inability to see how some constituencies might feel left out of the overall Disney picture. A good deal of time is devoted to the controversy over “Song of the South,” which he considered to be a celebration of folklore, but African-Americans considered to be little more than an extension of the South’s ante-bellum plantation mentality. Although the movie was put on the shelf to avoid further protests here, it wasn’t pulled from overseas circulation and feelers about its re-release are sent out on a semi-regular basis. Criticism over images of racial minorities and non-European characters have always been a thorn in the studios side. The same is true of the 800-pound gorilla in Disney’s legacy: accusations of anti-Semitism. The doc’s producers argue that such charges couldn’t be verified in their research and, therefore, didn’t make the cut. It’s difficult, though, to separate Disney’s outrage toward union leadership and his lone-wolf stance among other Hollywood studio chiefs from suspicions that some deeply held bigotry from his formative years might have avoided extinction. Should such things matter in 2015? It’s hard to say.
Some PBS affiliates are in the midst of an Arthur Conan Doyle revival with a terrific adaptation of Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel, “Arthur & George,” and reruns of the Season Three episodes of BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, forming a double-feature, of sorts. (The UK-approved compilation is already available on Blu-ray/DVD. A fourth season is expected in 2017.) On July 4, 1906, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lost his first wife, Mary Louise, to tuberculosis. In his despondent state, he was left unable to write or do much of anything else. It wasn’t until his secretary, Woodie, presented him with a possible case of institutionally condoned injustice that he could be roused to action. It was a bizarre situation, to be sure, involving mutilated farm animals in rural South Staffordshire and obscene threats to a half-Indian/half-British solicitor. George Edalji has already been tried, convicted and released from prison for the crimes, but there’s ample reason to believe he received a fair trial. After serving three years of a six-year sentence, George needs help to clear his name, so he can get on with his chosen life. Conan Doyle isn’t absolutely convinced of his innocence until he comes face to face with the local constabulary, who can’t disguise their contempt for anyone a shade or two darker than the average Midlands farmer, even the son of a minister. It’s an actual case, which had serious ramifications in British law. It’s also a grand entertainment, during which Conan Doyle uses methodology whose validity Holmes would be would be ashamed to admit.
The PBS documentary, “JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness,” not only goes a long way toward correcting misconceptions about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s record on civil rights – advanced in last year’s historical drama, Selma – but it also pinpoints exactly what’s wrong with politics-as-usual in today’s Congress. Although unfairly lumped together with the Southern voting bloc by liberals who couldn’t see beyond his Texas drawl, Johnson had been a lifelong opponent of racially based injustice, especially as it was applied to Mexican-Americans in his home state. After the assassination of President Kennedy, in 1963, Cabinet holdovers fretted over what they assumed would be the vice-president’s lack of enthusiasm for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, advanced by the previous administration. Even with Kennedy’s sponsorship, the legislation was no sure bet for passage on the Hill. Fortunately, that era in politics was marked by a bipartisan desire to get some important things accomplished, even if it required compromise. LBJ knew that he couldn’t rely on Southern Democrats for support, as they were dyed-in-the-wool segregationists. Instead, he worked directly with Republican leadership – this was before the GOP had committed to flat-Earth beliefs and governance by fear – to get the job done. They understood that compromise was as much a part of American politics as being corrupted by lobbyists would become, 20 years later. Unfortunately, for Johnson and the American people, he also was stuck with Kennedy’s war in Southeast Asia, which the Pentagon and CIA still felt could be won by putting more American boots on the ground. He left office, a shattered man, only three years later.
In “Rape on the Night Shift,” the producers of “Frontline” return to an issue thoroughly investigated and uncovered two years ago in “Rape in the Fields.” Instead of blowing the whistle on the “open secret” of violent sexual harassment, including rape, of undocumented agricultural workers, the reporters tackled sexual abuse of undocumented women in the service industry. The film examines allegations of abuse across the janitorial industry – especially those subcontractors hired by building managers – and how the government, law enforcement and companies fall short in dealing with the problem. Contrary to everything Donald Trump has to say on the subject of immigration, the crimes are largely perpetrated against hard-working, poorly paid women by American citizens, who knew they controlled the fate of the undocumented workers.
The “American Experience” chapter, “Blackout,” revisits the events of July 13, 1977, when New Yorkers lost their electricity for more than a day and thousands of them used the cover of darkness to riot, start fires and confront police and firefighters. While millions of other citizens found non-violent ways to beat the heat, humidity and outage by grinning and bearing this inconvenience of city life, they were excluded from the headlines. Compounding the problem was high unemployment, the layoffs of police and firefighters, cuts in municipal services and the Son of Sam killings. Anyone who’s seen Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam already knows what to expect in “Blackout,” writ large. And, although the root cause of the disaster was an electrical storm, it was the lack of anticipatory preparations that kept the lights from coming back on any time soon.
Also new to the lineup of PBS-sourced DVDs, are the two-disc compilation “Counting on Birds: Tales of Migration,” in which host Willem Lange explores the migratory patterns and documentation of birds native to New England, including the broad-winged hawk; “Seven Wonders of Brazil,” a journey into the heart of the South American behemoth to explore the incredible spiritual diversity of Brazilian Christianity; the feature documentary, “Game Play,” traces the history of video games from Pong and Pac Man, to Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, with an eye toward the future; and “Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show,” an exploration of the world of U.S. television showrunners and the creative forces aligned around them, with Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and other successful producers.