I Am Chris Farley: Blu-ray
A more appropriate title for Brent Hodge, Derik Murray and writer Steve Burgess’ sadly nostalgic bio-doc, I Am Chris Farley, might have been, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Goofball,” as it precisely describes the rise and fall of an attention-starved child of the American Midwest. The Madison, Wisconsin, native somehow knew from an early age that being fat, reckless and funny opened doors closed to kids who merely were overweight and willing to make themselves the butt of other people’s jokes. As the middle child in a large family, he had to earn the attention given him at the dinner table – or in the backyard, playground or football field – if he was going to ever find a stage large enough to fit his giant talent. It’s not an unusual story, really … Bill Murray grew up similarly, in the Chicago suburbs, for example. Murray, like Farley’s idol, John Belushi, laid a path for guys like him – including several brothers — to follow to stardom. Psychiatrists may have a word for such traditions, but I don’t know what it is. I Am Chris Farley offers a congenial forum for dozens of friends, family members and peers to testify on what it was like to grow up and work alongside this human dynamo for as long as he was put upon this Earth to entertain us. Growing up in comfortable surroundings in a leafy Madison neighborhood in the 1970s meant that there would be no shortage of photographs and home movies available to the filmmakers or, for that matter, archival material from school plays, amateur groups, Second City and “Saturday Night Live.” Farley was the kind of natural-born ham, who, when a laugh was needed, would “drop trou” or run around naked to lighten the mood, and his brothers often followed suit. Although it hardly seemed possible at the time, he possessed the capacity for out-Belushi-ing Belushi in skits that required volcanic bursts of energy and great athleticism. Even so, Farley is remembered here as much for his humility, loyalty to friends, dedication to his craft and outsized personality as his notoriously self-destructive tendencies. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were warned by the witnesses that they wouldn’t participate if they delved too deeply into Farley’s worst trait, even 17 years after he died.
Left unanswered are such questions as how Farley could have been allowed to die in nearly the same way as his hero, Belushi? We know that friends cared enough about him to make sure he attempted to clean up in several prominent rehab facilities and they encouraged him to lose some of the weight he carried like a ticking time bomb. Given these warning signs, though, how could Farley ever be left alone long enough to call his drug dealer, hire a prostitute or order a tub full of ribs and chicken? On the night he died, a buddy hired an “exotic dancer,” Heidi Hauser, to keep him company in his final hours. Instead of calling paramedics when he passed out from a lethal cocktail that included morphine and cocaine, Hauser reportedly took his picture and split the scene. Those ghastly images are still floating around the Internet. There are tasteful ways to deal with such negative aspects of a celebrity’s life and remain true to the spirit of the filmmakers’ approach to the subject. Fellow recovering addicts, including his drug counselor Dallas Taylor (who died in L.A. last January, at 66), have already gone on record about Farley’s inability to deal with his demons. In I Am Chris Farley, however, these cautionary touches sit there like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the living room. Nonetheless, everything else about the comedian’s life is fully and fairly represented, as are his uproarious appearances on “SNL,” the Letterman show and his movies. Among those contributing anecdotes and observations are Christina Applegate, Tom Arnold, Dan Aykroyd, Bo Derek, Pat Finn, Jon Lovitz, Lorne Michaels, Jay Mohr, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Bob Saget, Adam Sandler, Will Sasso, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Brian Stack and Fred Wolf. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews with family members.
American playwright, screenwriter and film director Stephen Belber has adapted his Tony Award-nominated play, Match, into a dramatic comedy that doesn’t benefit a bit from being opened up for the big screen. Patrick Stewart is excellent as a Manhattan ballet instructor, who has agreed to be interviewed by Seattle graduate student (Carla Gugino) about his life in dance. A child of the 1960s, Tobi has spent most of the last 40-plus years on the road, touring with the Caracas Ballet and teaching gifted students at Julliard. He has plenty of amusing tales to tell about the good old days and his role in them. Gugino’s Lisa Davis isn’t terribly convincing as a PhD candidate, but she’s a good listener and wholly sympathetic character, largely because her homophobic cop husband, Mike (Matthew Lillard), is such a homophobic jerk. Since his primary function in the film’s early stages is holding a tape recorder for Lisa and occasionally interrupting the flow of the interview, his rude behavior makes us wonder what purpose he’s supposed to serve. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Mike has an ulterior motive for his presence and Lisa is enabling his bad behavior by asking questions that have little to do with her stated purpose. Viewers won’t have any trouble guessing what the couple is attempting to discover and why Mike, at least, is being such a prick. It isn’t until Tobi demands that he leave the apartment that Stewart and Gugino can get down to the serious business of entertaining us with a conversation that elicits a wide range of emotions. A trick ending helps get us past the homophobic slurs and bitterness aimed at Tobi, but, I wonder, how many viewers will make it past the first 45 minutes of vitriol.
The Treatment: Blu-ray
Americans who bemoan the violence that’s made some parts of our great cities as dangerous as Kabul and Baghdad often cite more favorable crime statistics in Japan and Europe to make their case for tougher gun laws. These comparisons are fairly made, even if they don’t necessarily apply to the movies imported here from around the world. Finding handguns doesn’t appear to be any problem for hoodlums in even the most desirous of tourist destinations and organized crime knows no borders. And, when it comes to sexual offenses, it seems as if the smaller the country, the more hideous the crime. Stockholm might as well be Prohibition-era Chicago for all of the murders that have occurred there in movies and television series over the last 10 years or so. As adapted by Belgian director Hans Herbots, Mo Hayder’s 2001 novel, The Treatment is as dark and nasty as Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Its protagonist, Police Inspector Nick Cafmeyer, is investigating a case involving a mother and father who have been bound and beaten and had their young son taken from them. He discovers that there have been similar cases, which remain open. Other parents have been forced by a psychopath to harm their own children, who then vanish. Cafmeyer’s fever-pitch police work is informed by the unsolved disappearance, many years earlier, of his 9-year old bother. The false leads and dead ends are as creepy as the trail that ultimately leads to the final solution.
Deep Sea Blues: Blu-ray
I don’t know if the number of jazz, folk and blues festivals now equals that of film festivals, but it has to be close. Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Berlin opened the flood gates for hundreds of others around the world. Before Woodstock, Monterey and Newport, you could count the number of popular and niche music festivals on one hand. Only a few years later … the deluge. I don’t know how entertainment bookers feel about having to compete with other cities to fill their bills, but audiences and musicians aren’t complaining. The latest twist on the theme is re-creating the atmosphere of such star-studded festivals on board tourist vessels. There also are themed cruises to accommodate classic-movie buffs, mystery lovers, bikers, nudists, gamers and, of course, singles. Cruise ships have always provided entertainment for their passengers, whether it’s comedians, bands, jugglers or full-blown revues. The idea behind blues cruises is to attract as many fans of the genre as possible and giving them exactly what they want to see and hear for several days at a time. (Polka, classical, rock, oldies and reggae tours are also available.) If things work out as planned, the passengers and musicians share an experience that can’t be duplicated on land. Even when director Robert Mugge drifts dangerously close to the shoals of infomercial territory, Deep Sea Blues provides two hours of terrific R&B and blues performances and jams on several different stages, during the 2007 Caribbean cruise. Also offered are pro-am jams, workshops, autograph sessions, industry panels, theme nights and culinary events. As enormous as the cruise ships are, they frequently are completely sold out. Now, I can see why. The bonus material adds “All Jams on Deck” skips the hard sell to focus on acts that performed on the 2010 Blues Cruise to the Mexican Riviera, featuring Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro, Johnny & Edgar Winter, Kim Wilson, Lee Oskar, Commander Cody, Coco Montoya, Lowrider Band, Larry McCray, Rick Estrin, Jimmy Thackery and Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, among others.
From MVD Visual come performance-oriented DVDs, “Club Millennium,” “R&B Special Edition” and “Yelawolf & DJ Paul,” shot in and around clubs in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to the musicians on stage, the cameras capture audience members shaking their tail feathers, popping their bottles and engaging in the occasional gang fight.
Soaked In Bleach
If there’s one thing made clear in this investigative documentary, it’s that next-of-kin should be very careful about the private dicks they hire to search for clues in the disappearance of a loved one. Courtney Love’s choice of Los Angeles P.I. Tom Grant mere hours before Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body was found in the greenhouse of their Seattle home has, 20 years later, resulted in Benjamin Statler’s Soaked in Bleach, a documentary that implicates the Hole founder in his death. More to the point, Grant indicts the Seattle Police Department for rushing to its judgment of suicide and not pursing leads that might have led to a reopening of the case in the years since April 5, 1994. The entertainment media relied on single-source gossip for their coverage of Cobain’s demise, only adding to the confusion surrounding the events that led to it. Once suicide has officially been named as the cause of death, apparently, police investigators in Seattle waste little time closing their books on a case, especially when the involve a 27-year-old rocker with track marks on his arm. And, while Grant’s largely circumstantial argument sounds compelling enough on film, his assertion that the Nirvana frontman had turned a corner on his depression would hardly be sufficient cause for reopening the case. Statler has rounded up a convincing number of police and forensics experts to back up Grant’s concerns and utilizes dramatizations to amplify their concerns. Cobain’s alleged suicide note and correspondence with Love and close friends also is scrutinized. Rumors about Love’s involvement in her husband’s death have been floating around for most of the last 20 years, without finding much traction. She doesn’t have many allies among Nirvana fans, but that, in itself, isn’t something prosecutors tend to take into account, these days, either.
Reminiscence: The Beginning
The People Under the Stairs: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At their core, Christopher Nolan’s mega-budget sci-fi adventure, Interstellar, and Akçay Karaazmak’s micro-budget sci-fi/horror thriller, Reminiscence: The Beginning, concern the same things: the vagaries of time and space. Because the former is set largely in an unexplored recess of our solar system and the latter takes place on a deserted beach in Turkey’s Cesme Peninsula, you’d think the two movies would be worlds apart. Here, though, a Slovakian physicist, Miska (Michaela Rexova), has travelled to the rocky shore of the Aegean Sea with her boyfriend to determine if her calculations have led them to exact place, where, every six years, intersections in planetary coordinates create the conditions necessary for temporary gravity fields to open a gateway to a black hole. It sounds complicated, but Miska is able to explain it to Akcay (Karaazmak) using sand, a stick and several small stones. If her theory still doesn’t appear to hold water, viewers can simply sit back and wait for the interstellar bogeymen to appear to them as “shadows” in time. The same thing happens to clueless Americans, whenever they pitch their tents on ancient Native American burial grounds or buy a house built over the portals of hell. No sooner do Miska and Akcay settle in than very strange things begin to happen around and to them. Doppelgangers appear out of thin air to menace the couple, then vanish as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived. Some resemble Death, in The Seventh Seal, while other appear to have escaped from a splatter flick. While not terribly frightening or gory, Reminiscence: The Beginning is undeniably creepy. There isn’t a single aspect of the production upon which Karaazmak’s fingerprints can’t be found and the cast is comprised exclusively of beginners. His score and cinematography, especially, appear to have been informed by multiple trips on psilocybin mushrooms, whose hallucinatory properties can produce dramatic sensory effects. The visual effect is almost impossible to describe precisely, but anyone who’s opened those particular doors of perception will recognize the territory. Karaazmak’s gift is being able to re-create the experience, without attempting to make those scenes resemble an acid test. The things that go bump in the night also are pretty scary.
Even if mainstream and genre critics weren’t terribly impressed by Wes Craven’s 1991 freak show, The People Under the Stairs, it paid handsome returns for Universal in its theatrical run, while performing extremely well in VHS. I’m not sure what demographic Craven was targeting with this fairly tame genre flick, whose protagonist is a 13-year-old African-American boy. Because I don’t think the R rating would hold up under scrutiny today, it’s possible that Craven’s original intention was for The People Under the Stairs to be something of a starter kit for teens and pre-teens just beginning to taste the pleasures of horror. (A freakier version of The Borrowers, perhaps.) In a scenario that fits our time all too well, a mystery surrounds a tightly locked house owned by the Robesons, landlords who aren’t at all disturbed by their reputation for cheating their renters. Facing eviction, tenants Leroy (Ving Rhames), Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) and the boy, Fool (Brandon Adams), break into the house, quickly learning some of its secrets. The larger mystery, as the title suggests, lies under the floorboards and within its walls. Of the three, only Fool survives the first break-in, returning home with several gold coins that might be part of a greater fortune hidden in the basement, along with the Robesons’ prisoners. Some of them are children and teenagers (A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen), while others appear to have been locked up since the house was built. (Craven based the story on an actual break-in and similar discovery of captives.) Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are the personification of evil, itself, as the seriously twisted Robesons. In addition to the excellently choreographed action scenes, Craven lightens the moods every so often with his own brand of dark humor. The special Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory adds plenty of bonus features sure to be of interest to Craven loyalists. They include separate commentary tracks with Craven and actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Burg; revealing interviews with Wendy Robie, special make-up effects artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, director of photography Sandi Sissel, and composer Don Peake; behind-the-scenes footage; a vintage making-of featurette; and stills galleries.
Police Story: Lockdown: Blu-ray
Fans of Jackie Chan who’ve already enjoyed five previous iterations of the “Police Story” series will be the ones most drawn to Police Story: Lockdown, in which the Hong Kong superstar, now 61, plays one of his trademark characters, perhaps for the final time. As happens to many movie cops as they reach retirement age, Police Captain Zhong Wen (Chan) has become estranged from his daughter, Miao (Jing Tian). For most of her life, Miao has played second fiddle to his dedication to police work. On this night, Zhong hopes to rekindle their relationship, while also meeting her fiancé, nightclub owner Wu Jiang (Liu Ye). His club is a splashy joint that comes complete with go-go dancers, fancy lighting and furniture, expensive drinks and a cross-section of the city’s rich, corrupt and trendy elite. Wu has other things on his mind than getting acquainted with his future father-in-law, however. They share a bit of ancient history, which has been festering within the young man for years. After some light fish-out-of-water levity, Zhong and Miao are among a crowd of club patrons rounded up and held captive by Wu and his fellow gangsters. One of their demands is to have an elderly crime boss (Zhou Xiaoou) released from prison and brought to the nightclub to face the music. “Lockdown” ends with an extended chase and shootout scene that should satisfy old and young fans of Chan, alike. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, cast interviews and an English-dub track.
Pre-Code Double Feature: Secret Sinners/Beauty Parlor
Every so often, TCM devotes an evening’s entertainment to movies made before the Production Code was instituted to pre-empt plans by puritanical lawmakers to impose censorial restrictions on Hollywood studios. The titles programmed by the cable network tend to feature well-known stars – John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Pat O’Brien, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, among them – while such outlets as Alpha Home Entertainment package films in the public domain. If the technical presentation sometimes isn’t up to par, at least the price is right. The Hays Office originally was originally created to alleviate concerns over violence in the first wave of gangster movies, but it also eliminated storylines in which premarital sex, prostitution, infidelity, suicide and bedroom etiquette were prominent. It worked swell, didn’t it? Whatever sinful behavior is on display in Alpha’s “Pre-Code Double Feature: Secret Sinners/Beauty Parlor” is so slight as to be invisible to modern eyes. Still, after 1934, it’s likely that these movies wouldn’t pass muster in Hollywood. In Secret Sinners, an innocent young woman, Sue (Sue Carol), loses her job as a maid for socializing while at work. A more worldly acquaintance (Cecilia Parker) is able to find her a job as a chorus girl in burlesque. By then-current standards, she might as well have taken up residence in a brothel. The poor girl is snatched from the line by the club’s playboy owner (Jack Mulhall), who neglects to tell her that he’s already married. When his wife figures out what’s going on behind her back, she raises her price for a divorce from $500,000 to everything he owns. More to the point, however, is the devastating impact the ruse has on the defenseless chorus girl and her self-respect. Feeling tainted and depressed, she decides to run away and find a sugar daddy. With its nightclub setting, Secret Sinners offers some diverting music and dance interludes.
In Beauty Parlor, sexy manicurists are confronted daily by elderly male customers, all of whom look as if they might have been the inspiration for Mr. Monopoly. The lechers may lack the qualities the women normally look for in a husband, but, at the time, good-looking young men with money were tough to find. It was also possible that the geezers would expire before the end of the Depression and they’d be left with sufficient money to afford the guy of their dreams. To this end, some of the women also agree to serve as paid escorts, while off the job. When one of them (Joyce Compton) is arrested on an extortion beef, her roommate (Barbara Kent) raises the bail by agreeing to marry a client, who has more integrity than anyone gives him credit for having. A more age-appropriate suitor (John Harron) hangs around, just in case the opportunity arises to ruin the old-timer’s fun. Beauty Parlor offers plenty of sharp dialogue, especially from the manicurists, and no small amount of humor. This can be attributed to director Richard Thorpe, whose career extended from 1923 to 1967, and writer Guy Trosper. They would team again 25 years later on Jailhouse Rock.
Israeli Passion/Nights of Tel Aviv
Because most of the news reports out of Israel concern war, terrorism and a national psyche scarred by violence, it’s possible for American audiences to imagine a cinema obsessed with the same terrible things. The good folks from Sisu Home Entertainment have worked hard to dispel us of that notion, by distributing DVDs that reflect a broad variety of interests and themes. The names of the principle actors may not ring a bell, but some of them will be familiar from their work in American and European movies. The “Israeli Passion” collection contains four recent movies that merge comedy and drama, while commenting on modern love, jealousy, religion and crime: Belly Dancer (2006); Zur Hadasim (1999); Jewish Vendetta (1997); and Avanim (2004). The compilation, Nights of Tel Aviv, should be of special interest to crime buffs, no matter their native tongue. It is comprised of three detective stories wholly or partially set in Tel Aviv. The noir-tinged dramas are The Investigation Must Go On (2000), The 5-Minute Walk (2001) and Sherman in Winter (2001).
Fury, Volumes 1-5
WE: Kendra on Top: The Explosive Third Season
Maude: The Complete Second Season
The Jeffersons: Season Eight
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: High-Speed Adventures
PBS: Super Why: Cinderella & Other Fairytale Adventures
Ask any Baby Boomer boy to name the TV shows that influenced him as a child and he’s likely to include the Saturday-morning standby, “Fury,” which followed “Howdy Doody” and “Andy’s Gang” on NBC. As “the story of a horse … and a boy who loves him,” it was a contemporary Western that gave kids credit for being able to learn valuable life lessons from non-animated parents, strangers and pets. Occasionally, they would bring desperadoes to justice, as well. These were live-action shows, shot on location, and featuring adult characters who served as mentors, role models and pals. “Fury” resembled “Lassie” and “Rin-Tin-Tin,” in that the animal protagonist collaborated with the adult and child stars to solve problems and risk their necks for those in need of assistance. In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to the orphan, Joey (Bobby Diamond), who is taken in by recent widower, Jim Newton (Peter Graves), after an altercation with another boy in a nearby city. Fury is the wild black stallion on Jim’s ranch that none of his wranglers can tame. When Fury is injured by another rancher, Joey runs away to help the wounded stallion. Jim and his friend, Helen (Ann Robinson,) find them in the nick of time to save Fury’s life. Jim adopts Joey as his son, and so begins a lifetime of adventure for Fury at the Broken Wheel Ranch. Also prominent in the show were William Fawcett, as ranch hand Pete Wilkey, and Roger Mobley as Homer “Packy” Lambert. The show ran from 1955 to 1960, the same year “Howdy Doody” was canceled.
If any human being was destined to live out her natural life in front of a television camera, it’s Kendra Wilkinson. Apparently born without the gene that controls one’s sense of shame, Kendra is still known best as one of three twentysomething concubines, who lived with octogenarian Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion and made E’s “The Girls Next Door” a huge hit. As sordid as the arrangement seemed at the time, anyone who’s had the privilege of attending a party at the Holmby Hills pleasure palace might have accepted the same invitation as Holly, Bridget and Kendra. All of the “girls” benefited from the popularity of that show in the furtherance of their careers, but it was Wilkinson who completely sold out to the gods of reality television. After successfully launching several reality shows of her own and appearing on other people’s programs, Wilkinson moved to WE TV’s “Kendra on Top,” which resembles a 1960s sitcom, as conceived by the Marquis de Sade. In it, she is the mother of two small children and wife to former NFL player Hank Baskett, a nice enough fellow who always seems intimidated by his loud and brassy wife. Season Three opens only days before Kendra will deliver her second child, a daughter, Alijah Mary Baskett, and news of the most unsettling variety reaches her via the tabloid press. Hank is being accused of escaping the show’s omnipresent cameras in the clutches of transsexual model, Ava Sabrina London. Naturally, she’s devastated by the accusations. Worse, Baskett is laying low in New Mexico with Hank Jr., seemingly with no intention of explaining himself to her. Just as Kendra’s wounds appear to be healing, however, the meathead decides to confide in his male friends, rather than open up to her. In most ways, these episodes are like watching a train wreck in a nudist colony … as uncomfortable as the damage makes us, it’s impossible to take our eyes off of it. The only truly poignant moment in a season full of embarrassing moments comes when Kendra returns to the Playboy Mansion to visit Hef, who’s wearing his trademark captain’s cap and pajamas. His advice about second chances gives Kendra the courage not only to reconsider her feelings for Hank, but to find her long-estranged father and ask him why he deserted his family. A new season begins in two weeks.
Among the things that set Norman Lear’s sitcoms apart from most others was his refusal to fall back on the tropes and conventions that have fueled the genre since the 1950s. A simple perusal of episode synopses reveals a wide and varied array of conflicts and gags. As Season Two of “Maude” opens, Walter (Bill Macy) is forced to deal with his growing problems with alcohol and violence toward his wife (Bea Arthur). Other storylines involve the departure of Maude’s housekeeper, Florida (Esther Rolle), her decision to get a face-lift; Vivian’s divorce and subsequent manhunt; Carol’s attitudes toward dating test her mother’s liberality; Maude takes a job in real estate; and the lead-up to Viv and Arthur’s nuptials. By Season Eight, “The Jeffersons” had grown into a juggernaut that showed no sign of slowing down. This time around, George’s misadventures include facing off with a street gang, taking charm lessons, erecting a museum to himself and attempting to fix Lionel and Jenny’s marriage. The search for a maid to replace Florence keeps Louise busy, as do reports that indicate her father may not be dead, after all. The ensemble cast, led by Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover, remains as sharp as ever.
Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: High-Speed Adventures” contains four episodes from the first season, “Bouncy Tires,” “Stuntmania,” ”Epic Sail” and “Team Truck Challenge.” Sometimes, it’s difficult to discern whether this show is more interested in telling CGI-enhanced stories or selling monster-truck toys. Another DVD aimed at the youngest of viewers is PBS’ “Super Why: Cinderella & Other Fairytale Adventures.” “Super Why” introduces letters, spelling and reading to children whose interest in such things is beginning to emerge. In addition to the stories, the DVD provides interactive material for kids who want to extend the experience.