Woman in Gold: Blu-ray
Shortly after Iraqi troops were driven from Kuwait in 1991, then-Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz announced that hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of looted property would be returned to the emirate. The plunder included civilian jetliners, gold and currency taken from a Central Bank vault, computers, furniture and priceless museum pieces. Restitution for property stolen from private citizens and businesses, including dealers of luxury cars, wasn’t directly addressed in announcement, but several billion dollars in reparations have reportedly been paid. Although required to pay reparations for the destruction it caused in World War II, Germany has largely been allowed to weasel out of repaying its debts to countries it once occupied. That includes Greece, whose crippled economy could benefit from having its IOU honored by the same country that’s demanding it now repay money owed to the European Union. Germany paid considerable reparations to Israel and World Jewish Congress in the name of the millions of Jews murdered, displaced, plundered and forced into slave labor before and during the war. Decades would pass, however, before life-insurance companies agreed that policies written for people who would die in the death camp were valid and payments should be made to their heirs. Whether it’s great works of art extorted as part of the early immigration process or gold teeth yanked from the mouths of doomed prisoners, the Gestapo and its minions were crooks before they became war criminals. And, while it’s impossible to precisely identify the owners of the silver and gold items melted down to support the war effort, determining the provenance of paintings, sculptures and other object art would seem to be a far easier task. It came down to a question of how one lawyer defined theft and what his opponent described as barter.
The David vs. Goliath legal struggle dramatized in Woman in Gold should disabuse viewers of any notion that the war in Europe ended with Adolph and Eva’s suicide in the bunker. The bloodletting may have stopped, but some parties refuse to admit defeat. When it comes to reuniting survivors with treasures stolen or extorted from family members, the battles being fought are deeply personal and the good guys don’t always win. Fifty years after VE day, the full scope of this particular debate was revealed in Lynn H. Nicholas’s “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” and revisited a dozen years later in Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham’s documentary adaptation, The Rape of Europa. In Woman in Gold, director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and freshman writer Alexi Kaye Campbell move from the general to the specific, focusing on one elderly woman’s effort to recover what everyone outside Austria felt she was owed. Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) had convinced L.A. shopkeeper Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany/Helen Mirren) to stake her claim to one of the most celebrated paintings of all time, the famously gold-leafed portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. It was the more famous of Gustav Klimt’s two portraits of the Viennese heiress and patron of the arts that had been hanging in the state-owned Belvedere Palace gallery since the end of the war. It and other family treasures had been confiscated when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. No fan of what he termed “degenerate art,” Hitler allowed Austrian Gallery officials to take possession of the family’s Klimt paintings, which, otherwise, might have become kindling in a Nazi bonfire. As a concession to home-grown anti-Semitism, the curators changed “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) to “Woman in Gold,” in order to disguise its provenance and mask the fact that the model was a prominent Viennese Jew.
Curtis uses flashbacks to depict Altmann’s vivid recollections of family life before and directly after the Anschluss, and the difference couldn’t be more striking. Even 50 years later, when Altmann reluctantly returns to Vienna with Schoenberg for court hearing, it’s clear that modern Austrian officials are far more willing to fight attempts to surrender the paintings than their ancestors were in protecting their borders and Jewish residents from the Gestapo and Wehrmacht. Indeed, as the legal process evolves, Altmann’s tentative resolve in pursuing Schoenberg’s faltering case – inspired by the investigative reporting of Viennese journalist and editor Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) — is continually renewed by the dismissive attitude displayed by the museum officials and the lack of remorse or guilt feelings shown her by almost everybody she meets in Vienna. For his part, Schoenberg’s determination is re-enforced by what he learns about his composer grandfather’s close relationship with his client’s parents and aunt, and how his own life was changed by the Holocaust. (In fact, he is the grandson of two Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, both of whom successfully immigrated to the United States, escaping almost certain death.) Mirren, as usual, is spell-binding as Altmann. If there are times when Reynolds comes across as being too young for the part of Schoenberg, the facts validate his characterization. Campbell’s screenplay could be nitpicked for certain concessions to poetic license, but, if anything, the larger story could never fit within a 109-minute format. For example, Altmann’s status as a simple Los Angeles shopkeeper doesn’t begin to describe her post-war life in America. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘Woman in Gold’”; feature commentary with Curtis and producer David M. Thompson; a trailer for the documentary, “Stealing Klimt”; and press conference at New York’s Neue Galerie, after the painting was purchased by Ronald Lauder and put on display there.
Clouds of Sils Maria
I wonder if Meryl Streep gets depressed when she isn’t nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Maybe she feels relieved, knowing that she can avoid the annual crush of parties, press conferences and all of the ass kissing that comes with each and every nomination. Maybe, someday, Streep will be allowed the privilege of being chosen alongside one or both of her acting daughters, Grace and Mamie Gummer, or simply cheer them on from the sidelines. Streep doesn’t appear in Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’ brilliant drama about actors and acting. If any actress deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Streep, it’s Juliet Binoche, who not only stars in Clouds of Sils Maria, but also delivers one of the great performances of her career. It’s entirely possible that more people witnessed her work in last year’s international blockbuster, Godzilla, than in all of the nine films for which she received Cesar nominations, combined. You can probably add the box-office tallies from her English-language successes, Chocolat and The English Patient. In an interview, Binoche said that she agreed to co-star alongside the giant fire-breathing dragon to believably deliver a line from the Clouds of Sils Maria about acting in blockbusters. Binoche was the perfect choice to play an English-speaking actress, Maria Enders, who, almost by chance, finds herself in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier. It was written by a famously elusive playwright, for whom she’s traveling to Zurich to accept an award as the movie opens. Not at all sure that she wants to perform a task even the playwright has refused to do, Maria finds herself enmeshed in an even greater drama when she’s told on the train that he’s died. Naturally, the news causes a flood of memories to come crushing down on her.
At the ceremony, Maria is paired with the same pompous actor (Hanns Zischler) who had sweet-talked her into bed during run of the play and would love to stage a romantic encore in Zurich. Maria knows that if she accepts the role of the older woman in the play, it will mean acknowledging that, henceforth, her characters will always be women of a certain age. Stepping into her previous role in the play is a young American actress (Chloë Grace Moretz), possibly modeled after Britney Spears at her most reckless. In a shattering scene near the end of the film, Maria suggests a slight change in the brat’s portrayal of her character, but is rebuffed. You can almost feel the air escaping from the hole in Maria’s ego as she realizes that she’s about to pass the torch to a younger and, perhaps, less capable generation of actors. In a very real sense, she represents every living actor who has or is about to pass the same threshold, feeling they still can get away with playing Hamlet and Ophelia, instead of Claudius and Gertrude. Also very good here is Kristen Stewart, as Maria’s loyal personal assistant and trusted confidante. The generation-gap isn’t nearly as noticeable in their relationship, until she begins revealing personal tastes that are more pop-cultural than sophisticated. Stewart renders the ambiguity stamped on her character’s personality so well that she was honored with a César, making her the first American actress to win one. (Adrien Brody is still the only American male to win one, for his work in The Pianist.) Sadly, the DVD doesn’t contain any bonus features.
Although there’s nothing insignificant about the accident that kicks things off in Paolo Virzì’s constantly evolving drama, Human Capital, it mostly serves as the point around which more interesting things revolve. In fact, viewers are encouraged to hold the collision between a bicycle and SUV, on a winding downhill road on an inclement Christmas Eve, in abeyance until we get a better handle on the kind of people we’re dealing with here. The family that lives on the top of the hill, overlooking the Lombardy countryside, imaginations itself to be above the laws of man and economics. Already wealthy by anyone’s standards, hedge-fund magnate Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) can’t pass up a dishonest deal when it presents itself to him. In a boastful mood, Bernaschi might even tip a less fortunate tennis partner to a deal from which he could benefit … or not, depending on how the cards fall. The one thing the two men have in common, besides tennis, are a son and daughter who are dating each other. Massimiliano Bernaschi (Guglielmo Pinelli) is a bright and handsome young man who appears ready to step into his father’s shoes as a world-class prick, but uses alcohol as a crutch to get there. Massimiliano’s girlfriend, Serena (Matilde Gioli) has been severely damaged by the loss of her mother and what she inaccurately perceives to be the encroachment of her pregnant stepmother, a genuinely nice doctor (Valeria Golino). Her father, Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), is the poor sap who believes he can buy a ticket to financial independence by playing tennis with his filthy-rich friend. Clouding Serena’s crystal ball is the sudden arrival of a bad-boy classmate, Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), who attracts her attention with his sketches and hard-luck story.
By far the most interesting character here is Giovanni’s wife and Massimiliano’s mother, Carla, played by the always watchable Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, whose sister, Carla Bruni, is married to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once an aspiring actor, she sold her creative soul for a luxurious, if totally compromised life in the mansion on the hill. With Massimiliano ready to leave home for college and Giovanni willing to reward her for 18 years of never appearing or acting less than the perfect upper-class wife, she asks him to buy her an abandoned entertainment complex that would otherwise be turned into a shopping mall. It isn’t until she discovers that the other man she needs to complete her dream of owning a theater is as big a piece of crap as every other male who’s feigned interest in her ambitions, but only to get into her knickers. It’s at this point that Virzi decides to deploy a dogged cop to re-emphasize the bicycle accident and challenge his characters to rise above the messes in which he’s put them. Or, rather, the dilemmas to which they were led in the Connecticut-set novel by Stephen Amidon. The adaptation by Virzì, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo (The First Beautiful Thing) makes it feel if Amidon intended for his story to be transplanted to Italy in the first place. Human Capital should appeal to arthouse audiences who don’t mind a little class-conscious intrigue with their whodunit. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a music video.
Deli Man: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Erik Anjou’s mouth-watering documentary Deli Man and feels inclined to board the next plane to New York City, just to savor a mountainous pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, probably ought to check out the restaurant’s website before booking a flight. Tempted thusly, I was disheartened to learn that the Midtown landmark is, as of this writing, closed temporarily for repairs, possibly related to legal problems caused by the discovery of a tapped gas line. The Carnegie is far from the only deli worth sampling while in New York, but, as is emphasized in the film, it represents a dying breed of restaurants that reflect nearly 130 years of Jewish culture in America. By the time this culinary theme park opened in 1937 – a half-century after Katz’s Delicatessen was founded on the Lower East Side – there were more than 1,500 kosher delis in New York, alone. Competition from supermarkets, specialty shops and changing urban tastes have reduced that number significantly, even as the search for the perfect pastrami sandwich has expanded to include Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and Houston, of all places. Among the restaurateurs we meet in Deli Man is Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation New York “deliman,” who began learning the business as a boy from his Hungarian-immigrant grandfather and brought authentic New York deli to Texas, across the street from Houston’s Galleria, in 1999. Consistently rated one of the top dining destinations in the city, Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen, resembles a museum exhibit as much as it does a restaurant. According to Gruber, the number of delis has plummeted from a high of 2,000 in New York, alone, to 120 in North America, although that figure may not include all of the deli food trucks that have begun to attract customers in urban areas. Among the other people Anjou calls as witnesses are entertainers and lifelong deli habitués as Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Freddie Roman and Alan Dershowitz, who add some spice to the testimony. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews.
Goldberg & Eisenberg
Holocaust Genocide & Survival
Stories of a Young Nation
Israeli writer/director Oren Carmi’s debut feature, Goldberg & Eisenberg, may sound like a sequel to Deli Man, but the only thing the two films share are kosher roots. It is, in fact, the rare Israeli export: a horror film … and a good one, at that. Set in Tel Aviv, “G&E” is built around an antagonist who should be as familiar to American audiences as the dangerously loud and angry guy next-door, who can’t be bothered with shushing his incessantly barking dog or the crazy panhandler who decides that you’re his new best friend and imminently worth stalking. Most of us would consider such plagues to be part and parcel of living in a big city and dismiss them as a momentary nuisance. When condensed into 90 minutes of paranoid psychodrama, however, these annoyances open the door to a Son of Sam scenario. Goldberg (Yitzhak Laor) is a desperately lonely computer programmer, who spends his free time scouring the Internet for potential girlfriends. One night, while walking his dog in the park, the harmless nebbish encounters the slovenly piece of human garbage, Eisenberg (Yahav Gal), who insinuates himself into Goldberg’s life with dirty jokes and feeble attempts at conversation. Naturally, what begins as an uncomfortable encounter in a dark and largely unpopulated park, evolves into a serious introduction to pure evil. It spills over into Goldberg’s private life, to the point where Eisenberg demands to be included in his dates as a spectator and is willing to torture animals to demonstrate how far he’ll go to maintain his enemy’s attention. As if Eisenberg weren’t sufficiently grating, Carmi allows unseen dogs to bark continually through the Tel Aviv night and give one of his characters a cellphone with barking ringtone. Neither does Carmi feel it necessary to explain the presence of Eisenberg’s occasional neo-Nazi companions and police completely unsympathetic to Goldberg’s plight. Far from perfect, “G&E” takes a while to catch hold, but, once it does, you’re hooked. Israelis generally have more horrifying things to consider than things that go bump in the night on the big screen, but, “G&E” and such genre pieces as Big Bad Wolves, Rabies and the first Israeli zombie flick, Cannon Fodder, have added something new to the menu.
Horror may have taken a while to reach Israel, but the national cinema began in Palestine during the silent era and got a boost in 1954 when the Knesset passed the Law for the Encouragement of Israeli Films. Since then, Israel has been nominated for more Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category than any other country in the Middle East, which may or may not constitute a big deal. Sisu Home Entertainment offers an expanding catalog of features, documentaries and cultural films that speak to the Jewish experience in Israeli and abroad. The first new compilation, “Stories of a Young Nation,” includes four surprisingly entertaining films – Newland, Over the Ocean, There Was No War in ’72 and The Flying Camel – that tell the personal stories of individuals and families sharing the growth pangs of a country that had yet to come of age. Made in the 1990s, all of these films have a distinct period feel and merge drama, comedy and romance. The second collection, “Holocaust: Genocide & Survival,” offers three very different documentaries about pretty much the same thing. Produced by MTV, I’m Still Here employs an emotional montage of sound and images, with music by Moby and readings by celebrities, from the diaries of young people who lived during the holocaust. Out of Europe: Escaping The Holocaust follows one fortunate family’s survival route from Belgium to America. Last Stop Kew Gardens: You Can Go Home Again tells the story of a post-Holocaust “immigrant village” in New York that gave birth to stars of film, TV, and comedy, as well as prominent members of the philanthropic, business and literary communities.
The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe: Blu-ray
In 1973, the notion of Americans embracing a French comedy was pretty far-fetched. That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears had already revealed the funny side of Jean-Paul Belmondo, while King of Hearts demonstrated that college audiences could fall just as much in love with a quietly subversive Gallic comedy as more intellectual works by Godard, Truffaut and Resnais. The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe’s arrival on these shores signaled a couple of positive things: 1) That French filmmakers had actually learned something about story telling from watching all of those Jerry Lewis movies, and 2) someone other than Philippe de Broca could make Americans laugh. Yves Robert earned the director’s credit on “Tall Blond Man,” sharing the writing honors with Francis Veber, whose influence on Hollywood was a story yet to be written. In it, Pierre Richard plays a gawky concert violinist, randomly selected by a French secret-service agent to play the decoy in a plot to expose a double-crosser within the agency. When he’s “tagged” by the agent at Orly Airport, François Perrin is inexplicably wearing one black shoe and one brown one. If it isn’t terribly relevant to the narrative, the gag makes a terrific title. What Francois doesn’t know is that the duped agents will be following his every step, bugging his apartment, listening to his phone calls and attempting to steal what they believe to be foreign intelligence. In his case, at least, ignorance is bliss, especially when a blond bombshell (Mireille Darc) hired by Francois’ pursuers pretends to fall in love with him. As silly as the setup is, the Cohen Media Blu-ray edition of “Tall Blond Man” also serves as an easy way to kill a couple of hours in front of the tube. Two years later, Robert and Veber would reteam on The Return of the Tall Blond Man. In 1985, Tom Hanks starred as the peculiarly shoed violinist in the Americanized, The Man with One Red Shoe. Veber’s work would further inspire Hollywood remakes in the form of The Toy, with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor; The Birdcage, from La Cage aux Folles; Billy Wilder’s final picture, Buddy, Buddy, from A Pain in the Ass; Three Fugitives, from The Fugitives; Pure Luck, from La Chevre; Father’s Day, with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, from Les Compères; and Dinner for Schmucks, from Le Diner de Cons. His other, strictly American titles include My Father the Hero, The Valet and Partners, a gay buddy-cop film starring Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt. If very few of these Hollywood remakes – some re-written and directed by Veber, himself – could hold a candle to the originals, the filmmaker cashed the studio checks, anyway. By the way, the stunning Guy Laroche “ass-crack” dress in “Tall Blond Man” was re-worn by Lori Singer in the remake and, since then, dozens of actresses – including Hilary Swank at the 2005 Academy Awards — hoping to make a lasting impression on the red carpet. Now, that’s entertainment.
Belle and Sebastian
As long as someone, somewhere is producing movies as spectacularly beautiful and terrifically entertaining as Belle & Sebastian, no one can say that the family audience is being ignored. And, by family, I mean everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents. Kids can enjoy it as a boy-and-his-dog buddy adventure, while older viewers will recognize elements of “Heidi” and Jack London’s “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild.” If Lassie were a Great Pyrenees, instead of a collie, her adventures could be factored into the equation, as well. Based on characters from a French TV series in the late 1960s, created by Cecile Aubry, “B&S” is set high the French Alps, on the border of Switzerland, in World War II. The landscape is foreboding enough to discourage the Nazi occupation force from drifting too far from the villages below. If nothing else, it gives hope to Jewish refugees and French resistance fighters that they might be able to avoid capture, if and when they decide to risk their lives on a perpetually snow-covered pass. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. When we meet him, Sebastian (Félix Bossuetis) is a 6-year-old on a mission. Hunters and herders have determined that Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Belle, is a demon determined to deny them of their livelihoods. Sebastian knows that the gigantic white dog is innocent of the crimes attributed to it, but can’t prove that wolves or poachers are responsible for killing the sheep and goats. Sebastian has convinced himself that America lies over the highest pass, because that’s where his mother was heading when she left the village. As unlikely as that may be, it gives the boy hope for his own future, away from his aged grandfather. He knows, however, that, before he can escape to America, he has to clear Belle’s name and prevent the Germans from learning their plans. This, of course, is easier said than done. Writer/director Nicolas Vanier has worked the terrain previously, in the documentaries The Last Trapper, L’enfant des neiges and Siberian Odyssey, and the wolf vs. reindeer drama, Loup. Clearly, French cinematographer Eric Guichard is comfortable at high altitudes, as well. The DVD adds an interesting, if chilly making-of featurette.
Phillip Rhee’s awkwardly titled Underdog Kids may not be able to boast of having the same universal appeal as “B&S,” but, considering the growing number of young Americans enrolled in karate classes at the local strip mall, there’s no reason it shouldn’t find an enthusiastic audience. Writer/director/producer Rhee plays Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee, a former MMA champion whose career suddenly ended when a car crash caused serious damage to his body. Still widely respected in the sport and his old stomping grounds, Lee reluctantly agrees to do a favor for his mentor (Max Gail), whose inner-city dojo is populated with youngsters who make the Little Rascals look like model citizens. They’ve already driven off several less patient teachers, but are won over by Lee’s reputation, patience and willingness to meet them half-way. Lee’s goal is to have the kids ready in time for a citywide competition against far more experienced and sartorially advantaged teams. The group from Beverly Hills, of course, takes Lee’s team the least seriously of all the competitors. It’s led by an old rival
(Patrick Fabian), anxious to humiliate Lee. Rhee is well-known in martial-arts circles as the producer/director/star of Best of the Best franchise and, although his resume has a 17-year hole in it, adds an air of authority to the over-familiar proceedings. His screenplay contains more than enough humor to keep young viewers interested between the fight segments. I wonder, though, if Rhee might be working towards a black belt in fart jokes. If so, he’s got a ways to go.
Merchants of Doubt: Blu-ray
The Drop Box
As Abraham Lincoln reputedly once opined, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” And, yet, that’s exactly what every one of the 717 Republican candidates for the presidency are attempting to do as the primary season kicks into high gear. Democrats aren’t immune to exaggerating the truth, but there aren’t nearly as many liberal candidates to fact-check the things that come out of their mouths. Neither, can they afford to hire the same professional liars, think-tank charlatans and right-wing flunkies (a.k.a., spin-doctors) provided the GOP by the Koch brothers and special-interest groups financed by major conglomerates and their lobbyists. Robert Kenner’s depressingly astute documentary, Merchants of Doubt, based on Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title, describes just how easy it’s become to hijack the facts behind such scientifically verified threats as toxic waste, pollution, genetically modified food products, climate change and second-hand smoke from cigarettes. Essentially, their job is to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of chronically skeptical Americans every time a piece of progressive legislation is proposed in Congress or state legislatures. They, then, are able to offer the services of well-coached “experts” to Fox News, talk-show hosts and assemblages of paranoid citizens, willing accuse everyone not in favor of poisoning our planet in the name of predatory capitalism of being a communist or un-American. These personable conmen, whose credentials are easily impeachable, also delight in ridiculing high-profile environmental advocates — including Al Gore and, now, Pope Francis – and shifting the argument away from the facts. Wisconsin, once one of the most environmentally secure states in the union, currently is being sold piecemeal to corporate interests aligned with the Kochs, who invested mightily in Governor Scott Walker’s recall and re-election races. His entire presidential campaign strategy has been built around lies, half-truths and demonstrable inaccuracies. The rest of the field isn’t much better. But, if you don’t believe me, lesson to the testimony of such conservative free thinkers as Matthew Crawford, Michael Shermer and former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, who put their careers at risk when they questioned right-wing doctrine. Kenner is able to keep the discussion lively by comparing the doubt-meisters to magicians and other purveyors of hocus-pocus. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kenner; a post-screening Q&A at the TIFF; and the featurette, “Unlikely Voices,” in which conservative leaders, Debbie Dooley, George Shultz and Swiss Re, promote environmental causes.
Images of newborn babies being abandoned in the dead of night at the doorsteps of convents, churches, nursing homes, orphanages and, perhaps, even the odd brothel, have been repeated countless times over the last 100-plus years of movie making. For a while there in the 1980-90s, depictions of high school girls leaving unwanted or already dead babies in dumpsters became prevalent in the media. It’s nothing new … Moses was a foundling, too. Brian Ivie’s inspirational documentary, The Drop Box, describes how South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak became a guardian and surrogate father to hundreds of disabled, discarded and unloved children left at his residence by a parent who had run out of the time, money or ability to care for them. Women who had babies out of wedlock faced social stigmas, as well. After word spread about Lee and his wife’s acts of Christian generosity — “every human life is sacred and worthy of love,” he explains – they were flooded with children left at Seoul’s Joosarang church, sometimes without the protection necessary to survive the night. To prevent such tragedies, Lee devised a sturdy “baby box,” with a light, padding and a doorbell to announce the arrival of another wee newcomer. Without making the Lees look like saints or zealots, The Drop Box explains how they have been able to accommodate the influx of babies, which increased significantly after South Korea instituted its new Special Adoption Law, in 2012. It stipulates that infants can’t be put up for adoption without their births being registered with the government. It also requires that mothers remain with their newborns for a minimum of seven days before putting them up for adoption. This was done, in large part, to stem the flow of newborns to adoptive parents overseas. (Abortions are illegal in South Korea, but readily available if certain conditions are met.) I should be noted that The Drop Box is being distributed by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, which has never been reluctant to solicit donations to support its ultra-conservative agenda, which doesn’t include non-traditional families and adoptions by opposite-sex couples. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, post-screening interviews and some faith-based promotional material.
The Lovers: Blu-ray
In 1985 and 1987, Roland Joffé was justifiably nominated for Academy Awards as Best Director for The Killing Fields and still vastly underseen The Mission. Depending on one’s point of view, the native Londoner has either been paying for that temerity ever since or has been waiting for an equivalent screenplay to prove the nominations weren’t flukes. Every subsequent Joffe production has been measured against those two fine films and, for a hundred different reasons, has failed to meet the test. The Lovers, a time-traveler romance, was greeted by critics with sharpened knives and practically no expectations of brilliance. And, it didn’t disappoint. Josh Hartnett (“Penny Dreadful”) stars as present-day marine archaeologist Jay Fennel, who, following a diving accident while rescuing his wife, is left in a deep coma. While unconscious, his imagination takes him back to colonial India, where he’s a Scotsman fighting to preserve British rule. In this previous incarnation, James Stewart is a Scotsman in the British army, assigned to protect a local warrior queen, Tulaja (Bipasha Basu). The object that connects Jay to James is an enchanted ring, created centuries earlier in India and discovered in the wreck of the ship that trapped his wife, Laura (Tamsin Egerton). So, the question we’re left to ponder is whether Jay/James will return to the present and return to the sea or remain hooked to a breathing apparatus and live in the past. The other option, of course, is that Laura pulls the plug and Jay gets a one-way ticket to purgatory. Apart from some lovely cinematography, the time spent in India mostly serves to bog down the narrative, which possibly could have benefited from the erotic vision of Mira Nair (Kama Sutra). It was an R-rated picture already, so a little skin wouldn’t have hurt anything. As it is, Basu’s Bollywood roots too clearly show through the beautiful costumes and gold jewelry. Nonetheless, fans of epic romances may find something here to like.
All American Bully
The change in title from “The Innocent,” back in 2011, to the more topical, All American Bully, tells me that this indie message film went through some serious changes from inception to its straight-to-DVD release. So do the cast members in the dust-covered interviews contained in the bonus package and misleading image on the cover. It suggests that the movie contained therein is about an attack on a school by a pistol-packing mass murderer, instead of the bullying of three geeky teenagers by the same armed assailant. I only mention this because bullies are more often the targets of crazed mass-murders than the perpetrators, who prefer to pick on people half their size and unable to defend themselves. The point lost in the cover and change in title is that the damage done by bullies can sometimes by negated by the same geeks, who can turn the tables on their tormentors by deploying social media and other computer-generated weaponry from the comfort of their laptops. It’s a risky business, to be sure, but revenge movies are all about taking chances. Here a gang of bullies, led by a Fonzie clone (Daren Ackerman), delight in torturing three students who couldn’t do any harm to them if they were armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs. For kicks, they force one on the teens to admit to being a “fag” before they kick the crap out of him, for reasons known only to bullies. A film of the so-called confession is uploaded to social media, giving the other students something to giggle over the next day in school. The humiliated boy, who can barely walk from bruises inflicted on him during the beating, has no choice but to consider suicide. Or, does he? What happens next will make fans of such things feel sorry for the bully and reconsider their attitude toward cyber-revenge. It doesn’t take long for writer/director Jason Hawkins to redirect or sympathies, again, in a narrative meltdown that defines the word, “overwrought,” and really only serves to put an end to the madness. There’s a rather extensive interview session included in the bonus, in which cast members are asked to relate their experiences with bullying (mostly, none) and what lessons are to be taken from All American Bully. Sadly, they aren’t asked about the most interesting questions raised by Hawkins in his screenplay: What happens when the bullied become the bullies? Is turn-about fair play or just another moral quagmire? Can the people who monitor social networks be charged with aiding and abetting criminal acts if they don’t treat bullying in the same way as ludicrously banned images of mothers nursing their babies?
Reunions of estranged siblings rarely fail to produce emotional fireworks, especially when one of them was left behind to mind the store or care for a loved one. Once the hugging ends, the recriminations begin … that sort of thing. In Wade Gasque’s debut feature, Tiger Orange, that scenario is complicated by the fact that brothers Chet (Mark Strano) and Todd (Frankie Valenti, a.k.a. Johnny Hazzard) are gay, one overtly so and the other still with one leg in the closet. Todd decided to escape small-town boredom and bullies by splitting for L.A. the minute he turned 18, while Chet stayed behind to run the family store and savor the simple pleasures rejected by his brother. The fact that Todd didn’t bother to attend their dad’s funeral becomes a sticking point when he comes home from Los Angeles with no job, no money and his bad-boy attitude intact. The rest of Tiger Orange plays out according to mainstream form and with more talk about sex than depictions of it. Despite its familiarity, the film is easy to enjoy and the production values are well above average.
All the Wrong Reasons
There are a couple of good reasons to pick up All the Wrong Reasons, but fans of “Glee” won’t be required to look for anything beyond the presence of Cory Montieth, who died of a drug overdose before the film could find distribution in the U.S. While it found some traction in the Great White North, most stateside companies are reluctant to send out a marginal product starring a recently deceased star, lest they be accused of exploiting that actor’s fame. Montieth’s name did nothing to boast sales of McCanick, a police drama that debuted at the same 2013 Toronto International Film Festival before a limited release into theaters here six months later and unceremonious dumping into the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace two months after that. Montieth doesn’t enjoy the support of David Morse and Ciaran Hinds in Gia Milani’s debut feature, All the Wrong Reasons, but, at least, he is far more visible in it. His character, James Ascher, manages a discount department store well enough to qualify for a transfer to the company’s Toronto headquarters. His wife, Kate (Karine Vanasse), plays close attention to the security cameras, albeit primarily as a form of therapy to take her mind off her sister’s suicide and her near-paralyzing battle with PTSD. Unfortunately, for James, her ailment prevents her from engaging in physical contact with other human beings, including sexual contact with him. After a year, Kate’s condition has finally touched his last nerve, leaving him vulnerable to the advances of an opportunistic single mother, Nicole (Emily Hampshire), who sees in her boss an answer to her financial problems. Also thrown into the mix is a disabled firefighter, Simon (Kevin Zegers), who takes a security job at the store while waiting to be re-qualified for work in the department. Like Kate, Simon has become dependent on prescription drugs. Given just that much information, most viewers could correctly predict what transpires in the ensuing 118 minutes of screen time. Of these characters, Montieth’s probably is the most underwritten and, as such, least credible. The others are much more interesting, if only because they’re able to pull off the comic elements with less visible sweat.
Der Todesking (The Death King): Blu-ray
The Pact 2: Blu-ray
Alien Outpost: Blu-ray
Dark Summer: Blu-ray
When critics conclude their review of a particularly offensive or disturbing movie by pointing out that it isn’t for everyone, it’s something like saying, “enter at your own risk.” Let’s skip the niceties by cautioning, up-front, that Jorg Buttgereit’s Der Todesking (“The Death King”) may not be for anyone, let alone everyone, not even those hard-core horror buffs who made it through Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 and, yes, even Cannibal Holocaust unscathed. Cult Epics is presenting Der Todesking as the third release in its Corpse Fucking Art series. Sandwiched between the Nekromantik duo, it is a seven-story anthology in which all of the stories are connected by a chain letter sent to unrelated people who either are contemplating suicide or have become obsessed with death. The letter serves as a catalyst for whatever atrocity is likely to follow and the interstitial image separating the chapters is a gradually decaying corpse. Buttgereit doesn’t take the gag so far as to insinuate that the body is real, but try telling that to your stomach. That said, however, anyone who did make it through the Nekromantiks without serious brain damage probably won’t be able to resist picking up this almost ridiculously complete Blu-ray package. If Germany had the won the war, films like these would be packaged in double features with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will. Available for the first time in hi-def, Der Todesking goes out uncut and uncensored in a new HD transfer (taken from the original 16mm negative) and with the filmmaker’s making-of “shockumentary,” “Corpse Fucking Art”; a new introduction by Jorg Buttgereit; audio commentary by Buttgereit and co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; another making-of featurette; a still photo gallery; the original musical soundtrack; trailers; and a silver-embossed 25th Anniversary slipcover and “Corpse Fucking Art” postcard.
Just because a no-budget genre flick makes a ton of money on its own merits doesn’t mean that its sequel will work as well, given a similar budget, creative team and largely new cast. All it really means is that you might be able to fool enough fans of the earlier picture in its first week of release to turn a profit, before genre completists spread the word of the sequels’ inadequacies. That used to work better when distributors were able to hide a movie from critics until opening weekend, knowing that few people bothered to pick up the Monday papers. Today, of course, it’s impossible to hide a movie for more than a few hours, even if it’s released straight into video, thanks to the immediacy of the blogosphere and irrelevancy of mainstream critics when it comes to genre pictures. In the case of The Pact 2, returnees include Caity Lotz, Haley Hudson and Mark Steger. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy is gone entirely, replaced by the unheralded tag team of Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath serving in both capacities. New to the cast are Camilla Luddington (“Grey’s Anatomy”), who cleans up crime scenes for a living; Scott Michael Foster, as her cop boyfriend; Patrick Fischler (“Once Upon a Time”), as an FBI profiler; and Amy Pietz (“Caroline in the City”). The primary question to be answered is whether the Judas Killer has returned or a copycat is following in his bloody footsteps. After a few early scares, Pact 2 resorts to being a slasher flick, which completely defeats the purpose of a sequel to a movie that worked so well as a supernatural thriller.
Alien Outpost (a.k.a., “Outpost 37”) is a very bizarre, if not particularly successful attempt to merge such modern war documentaries as Restrepo and Occupation: Dreamland with Transformers: Dark of the Moon and War of the Worlds. Ten years after an alien invasion is thwarted, robotic survivors join Taliban fighters in an attack on the remote Outpost 37, where an international team of elite warriors may be the only thing keeping Earth from being recaptured by the aliens. We witness the action and casual interplay between the soldiers through the lens of a camera wielded by embedded documentarians. It’s not the worst idea in the world, but the presence of Islamic insurgents within the context of a nearly inexplicable alien attack is jarring. Alien Outpost was co-written and directed by Jabbar Raisani, whose list of credits is topped by “Game of Thrones,” for which he toiled as visual-effects supervisor.
It would be difficult for anyone who’s seen Disturbia not to flash back to that suburban thriller while watching Dark Summer, if only because teenage protagonist Daniel Williamson (Keir Gilchrist) is under house arrest for cyber-stalking a classmate, Mona (Grace Phipps), but can’t resist the temptation to cause further mischief. The always wonderful Peter Stormare plays the probation officer who warns the boy against using his computer, inviting friends to the house and testing the limits of his ankle bracelet. Naturally, Daniel ignores all three orders. Long story short, he’s contacted by Mona through some kind of haunted social medium and the house becomes a cage, allowing ghosts and other demons to terrorize the kids, who, by now, include Maestro Harrell (“Suburgatory”) and Stella Maeve (“Chicago P.D.”). Things get pretty messy. The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Paul Solet; several making-of featurettes; interviews; and a long and entertaining conversation with Stormare. Among the things I learned was that the native Swede was discovered by Ingmar Bergman and has a list of stage, TV and theater credits longer than most actors’ right arms.
PBS: Poldark: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards: Volume Three: Blu-ray
Syfy: Bitten: The Complete Second Season
Disney Channel: Teen Beach 2
Barney Miller: The Final Season
Nature: Animal Childhood
Nickelodeon: Bunch of Playdates
Given the need for the BBC and “Masterpiece Theater” to have a ready alternative for “Downton Abbey” when it finishes its next and final season – and something for its mammoth fan base to savor until then, as well – it probably was inevitable that comparisons to “Poldark” would be encouraged, if only as a marketing gimmick. The 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s 12 novels had provided a huge boost for public television at a time when it was emerging from its “educational TV” pigeonhole, so it wouldn’t require much of a learning curve on the audience’s part. Instead of the more than 25 hours of precious airtime required to absorb the original series, the new one would only take eight hours to cover the first two books. “Poldark” must have done well enough in its British run, at least, because it’s already been renewed for a second stanza. Not having seen the original adaptation or particularly interested in making comparisons to “Downton Abbey,” I went into Season One without prejudice. Being a sucker for spectacular hi-def cinematography, “Poldark” made a quick positive impression with its sparkling shots of the Cornwall coastline and the lush green blanket of grass and crops that extends from its majestic cliffs to the terraced hills. The series’ titular protagonist (hunky Aidan Turner) returns to Cornwell after being wounded in a guerrilla ambush in the American Revolution. A nobleman before leaving for the war, Poldark became increasingly dubious of his country’s colonial policy while being shot at by the highly motivated Yanks. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he’s come back to a changed country. His father died in the interim, penniless, and his stingy uncle, Charles (the late Warren Clarke), has no interest in releasing Poldark from debts left behind in his wake. The family home has nearly been destroyed by neglect and their mine presumably has been played out. The servants are surly and the mineworkers are famished. Worse, considering the story’s soapy foundation, his onetime lover Elizabeth (Heida Reed) accepted rumors of his death as fact and agreed to marry his twit cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller). Elizabeth claims to be happy with Francis, but has reserved her right to flirt with her devilishly handsome old flame. Into this emotional quagmire arrives the redheaded runaway Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), who he accepts as a servant and his personal Eliza Doolittle reclamation project. And, that’s only in the first episode. There’s plenty more intrigue, back-stabbing and scurrilous gossip to come. I don’t think many fans of “Masterpiece” will be disappointed by “Poldark,” which is related to “Downton Abbey” only by English blood. The Blu-ray adds three featurettes of varying value.
When Emmy nominations are announced next week, Netflix’s superb political thriller “House of Cards” is lead-pipe cinch to walk away with a whole bunch of them. Predicting whether any of the finalists will come out on top on September 20 is a far more difficult assignment, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright weren’t nominated, at least. Frankly, I’m not sure if episodes representing Season Two or Season Three were eligible for consideration – Emmy guidelines are only slightly less Byzantine than those governing induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame – and it probably wouldn’t matter either way. The Blu-ray/DVD release of “House of Cards: Volume Three” should provide all the evidence anyone needs to how far the producers and writers are willing to push the dramatic envelope. Unlike the original British series from which it was adapted, the Netflix series threw in some subplots this year that are on a par with Joseph Kennedy conspiring with the Mafia to get his son elected president or candidates Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan collaborating with the governments of North Vietnam and Iran to defeat Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, respectively. Strange, but true. Season Three picks up with President Francis Underwood’s loyal aide Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) awakening from the coma into which he slipped after being hit over the head by a rock wielded by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the sex worker who could bring down Underwood’s fledgling administration. Meanwhile, Francis’ plummeting popularity is threatening his first official run for the office and his enemies are taking their animus out on the world’s sexiest First Lady, who is anxious to become our ambassador to the UN. Also threatening to upend the president are a truly evil Putin clone (Lars Mikkelsen) and computer hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), who is beginning to resemble fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden. And, that’s just for starters. The Blu-ray adds a comprehensive behind-the-scenes featurette and a closer look at the shocking goings-on later in the season in New Mexico. This is can’t-miss stuff, folks.
Syfy has gained a great deal of notoriety lately for its roster of original sci-fi/horror flicks, which range from cultishly laughable to just plain laughable. If they’re the public face of the cable network, it’s the company’s ability to cherry-pick highly entertaining, millennial-skewing co-productions from Canada and England that is getting serious attention from adult viewers and critics. Based on Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series of novels, “Bitten” straddles a line that roughly divides “Twilight” and “True Blood.” Filmed in the lush Ontario countryside, “Bitten” isn’t solely targeted at teenagers with a taste for forbidden love. The witches and werewolves are slightly older, just as beautiful, but reveal a tad more skin and skivvies by Victoria’s Secret. Not being a premium cable network, however, Syfy is unable to go toe-to-toe with HBO’s “True Blood,” when it comes to nudity and supernatural sex. Still, “Bitten” is extremely well made and there’s no scrimping on the story-telling. Laura Vandervoort plays the ass-kicking Elena Michaels, presumably the world’s only female werewolf, She/it has a human boyfriend, but can’t resist the pull of the “pack” and her ex-finance, who is responsible for sharpening her fangs. A third season of episodes begins shooting this summer.
The Disney Channel’s original movies Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach 2 are a throwback to the beach-blanket movies that practically defined 1960s youth culture before Brian Wilson discovered acid and hot rods gave way to VW vans with “Flower Power” decals. Sad to say, however, they made me wonder how many of these kids are going to end up scandalized by their own inability to handle success. The mere thought of Annette Funicello sending out a nude selfie of herself on the Internet – however appealing that might be to a generation of Boomer males – made me consider going to confession. The fact is, however, Annette was 21 when Beach Party was released, and Frankie Avalon was 24. Sandra Dee was 17 when she became Moondoggy’s groupie, four years earlier, in the first Gidget. I don’t remember much singing and dancing in the fact-based story. ”Teen Beach 2” is set at the end of summer, just in time for one more beach bash before school starts and some of the kids, at least, have to start thinking about college. The producers must have really loved the “West Side Story” time-warp theme in the first movie, because the process is reversed in the sequel. The music and dancing infinitely more polished than in the days of Beach Blanket Bingo, when a bunch of guys with bushy blond hairdos played songs that made the dudes and dudettes twist the night away.
The Shout! Factory compilation, “Barney Miller: The Final Season,” wraps up eight seasons in the sitcom-y lives and exploits of everyone’s favorite Greenwich Village police squad. Characters played by Hal Linden, Max Gail, Ron Glass, Steve Landesberg, Ron Carey, and James Gregory made it all the way to the 22nd episode finale, along with several of the more popular miscreants who shared space in the decrepit squad room. (Jack Soo died after the fifth season, while Abe Vigoda’s “Fish” retired as of the fourth season.) Naturally, the final episodes played to the tear ducts of loyal viewers. The show’s serio-comic approach to police work and insistence on character diversity would be emulated in such influential shows as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue,” which advanced the genre by leaving the squad rooms for location shoots.
For parents who worry about the entertainment choices they make for their toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, and don’t use DVDs solely as unpaid babysitters, it’s never easy to determine precisely when a child is ready to leave behind such compilations as Nickelodeon’s animated “Bunch of Playdates” and pick up a live-action title like Nature’s “Animal Childhood.” Nickelodeon’s three-disc collection offers seven hours of educational and musical fun, in 18 hours of material from “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Go, Diego, Go!,” “The Wonder Pets!,” “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” “The Fresh Beat Band” and “Blue’s Room.” The cover of the “Nature” presentation promises all sorts of cute-and-cuddly stories about how baby animals make their presences known in the world for the first time and either learn from their parents how to survive in the cold, cruel world or evolve in non-nuclear arrangements. It’s a wonderfully conceived and produced show that parents can enjoy with their kids. As is the case in such cherished Disney movies as Bambi and Old Yeller, however, there are moments when baby animals are shown struggling for their lives in what might otherwise be considered to be learning situations. Here, in addition to the usual stragglers targeted by predatory lions, hyenas and wolves, there’s a wee elephant whose mother can’t prevent him from being swept away in a rain-swollen river. It might be too much for a sensitive child to bear … or parent.