Camp X-Ray: Blu-ray
If only for laughs, I would love to see all 9,000-and-counting Republican presidential candidates, as well as the handful of Democratic hopefuls, debate their nonexistent plans for Guantanamo Bay and the prisoners – a.k.a., detainees – still being held on our Cuban base. Despite a campaign pledge to close the detention center, President Obama has had no better luck dealing with the controversial facility than his predecessor, George W. Bush. If nothing else, the population has dwindled from 800, at its height, to the current number, 122. Fifty-seven detainees have been approved for overseas transfer, most nearly five years ago, but the impossible dream of bipartisan support for anything in Washington has stymied all progress on the issue. If the candidates say anything except, “I don’t know,” feel free not to believe anything else they might propose, because none has a single clue. After all, where would we stash any or all of the ISIS leaders we might capture? That Peter Sattler’s provocative drama, Camp X-Ray, was greeted with a collective yawn by most mainstream distributors, as well by potential viewers in the very few markets in which it opened, testifies to how little Americans care about their country’s indefensible stance on holding enemy combatants indefinitely, without charges or trials. (By contrast, American Sniper, which did offer an alternative to taking prisoners, became a huge hit. In April, reports of the cancellation of screenings at a couple major universities got the folks at Fox News all riled up.) After more than a decade of obfuscation, we’re still stuck in the “Out of sight, out of mind” and “Not in my back yard” stage of the debate. If Camp X-Ray doesn’t really attempt to answer any of these questions, it convincingly demonstrates how the presumed terrorists aren’t the only people trapped behind overlapping coils of razor wire, inside cages and forsaken of all hope for reform. In a very real sense, too, American taxpayers are being held hostage by the muddled intentions and political shenanigans of representatives who prefer inaction to compromise.
Kristen Stewart is very good here as Cole, a fledgling MP who volunteered to serve her country by “doing something important,” instead of sitting around after her high school graduation and waiting for someone to offer her a job that might pay more than minimum wage. Her first yearlong posting is Guantanamo Bay, where, as her commanding officer insinuates, once-gung-ho soldiers, marines and sailors are left to stagnate and no one, including the bad guys, wants to be. (At least, the guards get to go home when their year is over and enjoy the weekly barbecue and boat ride.) Cole’s assignment is to walk up and down the hallway of her unit – about 10 cells — peeking through the thin vertical windows on the doors every five minutes, mostly to make sure the men aren’t doing anything to harm themselves or are planting booby traps. The monitoring process recalls the non-stop pacing of animals driven insane inside their impossibly cramped cages at ancient zoos. Mostly, the detainees stare back at the MPs and, when motivated, taunt them with insults, tirades and declarations of their innocense. The guards retaliate by pulling the offender out of his cell, strapping him to wheelchair, putting a mask over his head and finding an out-of-the way place to stick them. The punishment extends to sleep-deprivation and moving him from cell to cell without warning. This is what happens to Ali (Payman Maadi), a non-fundamentalist detainee who was arrested in Germany and may or may not be guilty of plotting against the U.S. To break the tedium after eight years, Ali tests each new MP with personalized tirades and insults. The guards are warned not to engage the prisoners or reveal any personal information to them, but Cole can’t help herself from responding to his chatter. Ali rewards her naiveté with a dreaded “shit cocktail after she makes the mistake of extending her arm through the small opening used to exchange plates and books. As part of the extraction team, Cole is further punished for her good intentions with an elbow to the jaw. Because this is a movie and not real life, Ali and Cole ultimately will come to the conclusion that, given the alternatives, it’s better to find some common ground and it’s in the books she delivers to the cells of those who request one. The upside for Cole is having someone to converse with who’s more interesting and thoughtful than her fellow MPs, who are portrayed as unabashed patriots, good ol’ guys and gals, and potential rapists, when overserved at the weekly rave-ups. How this squares with reality is anyone’s guess. Ali, at least, supplements his reading of the Quran with “Harry Potter” –the most popular book in the facility, according to Sattler’s research – and other books and periodicals. He considers it to be another form of torture that only the first two of the seven fantasy novels are available to him and it’s difficult to argue the point, considering he may not actually be guilty of any crime. Camp X-Ray doesn’t take the prisoner/guard relationship, however constricted, into places most of us would find uncomfortable, not to mention unrealistic. Sattler prefers to demonstrate how ignoring the dictates of the Geneva Convention might not be in the best interests of the United States and one or two of the detainees, at least, might benefit from being treated as something other than guilty. The Blu-ray adds an informative and thoughtful making-of featurette.
Free the Nipple
More a mockumentary or work of reality-based fiction than a pure documentary, Lina Esco’s provocatively titled Free the Nipple tells the story of an actual socio-political movement that could easily be mistaken for a publicity stunt. Last summer, when such celebrities as Miley Cyrus, Rumer Willis, Nico Tortorella, Lydia Hearst, Cara Delevingne and Chelsea Handler were dropping their tops for the paparazzi, it seemed to be a little bit of both. These attractive people and other, less-known activists, volunteered their bosoms to promote the logic of according women the same right to go topless in public places as men. This would apply as much to exhibitionists as breast-feeding moms, and in Times Square as much as the beach at Coney Island. If religious hang-ups and aesthetics considerations – blubbery bellies being as offensive to some of us, as naked sunbathers are to bible-bangers – a goodly percentage of Americans probably could agree that nipples should be as legal as marijuana, at least. Esco’s film, in which actors play characters based on real people, does a nice job describing how such movements can sprout from grass roots, but only if liberally sprinkled with tax-free donations and graced with the bright rays of media attention. As anyone who’s ever attempted to raise money for such causes can attest, the task is easier to promote than to accomplish. Begging for money from friends, relatives and corporations is a humbling experience. Conducting bake sales and peddling magazines are far easier. Conveniently, engaging the mainstream and social media something of a cake walk for Free the Nipple proponents. All they had to do was position protesters within 100 yards of a phalanx of armor-plated cops and cartoonish images of New York City cops struggling to arrest topless young women would travel around the world in a relative heartbeat. (If Pussy Riot had been named the Russian Bangles, instead, how much news coverage would their arrests have garnered?) The more persuasive point being made by Esco is how hypocritical it is to treat partial nudity as somehow more harmful than America’s fetishistic obsession with graphic violence. This hypocrisy has been debated feverishly for decades, already, by critics of the MPAA ratings system. Then, too, women have been attempting to de-stigmatize breast-feeding in public and de-criminalize semi-nude sun-bathing for several decades. What’s new is the attention-grabbing name, Free the Nipple, and willingness of celebrities to put their breasts where their mouth is. They’re aren’t advocating for an end to war, but who cares? Putting an end to hypocrisy would be a grand achievement, too. I do think, however, that within two weeks of freeing women’s nipples, an equal number of activists would come out of the woodwork to demand that men not be allowed to ogle them on street corners or at the beach. The First Amendment is funny that way. Among the actors who portray activists here are Casey LaBow, Monique Coleman, Zach Grenier, Griffin Newman and Lola Kirke. [
Project Almanac: Blu-ray
Back to the Jurassic: Blu-ray
Aspiring novelists are routinely encouraged to “write what you know” and, I suppose, the same advice applies for first-time screenwriters. Although no one has actually experienced time-travel, enough movies have employed it as a central conceit to make one think it’s as common as catching a bus in Chicago. The 1914 short, “A Christmas Carol,” likely was the first to demonstrate the adaptability of the concept. Remarkably, it would take another 35 years for H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” to be adapted for the screen, in a BBC teleplay. For his first feature, the clever teen adventure Project Almanac, Dean Israelite elected to add found-footage to the mix. It’s appropriate that Israelite and screenwriters Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, also freshmen, consciously acknowledge such predecessors as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future, Back to the Future: Part II, Chronicle, Time Cop and, in a cute classroom riff, Groundhog Day. Non-nerd David (Jonny Weston) has just fulfilled a lifetime dream, by getting accepted into M.I.T. The bad news is that he won’t be able to attend the premier college, unless he can come up with a sufficiently impressive science project to change the minds of the scholarship committee. A possible solution might lie hidden among the papers of David’s father, a brilliant scientist who died after a party for his son’s seventh birthday. In the attic, his sister discovers an old camcorder with footage shot at the very same event. On close examination, David and his geek posse are stunned to discover David’s current likeness reflected in a mirror. The anomaly ultimately leads them to a long-ignored workshop in the basement of the house, where plans for a “temporal displacement device,” batteries and other gadgets and gizmos have been gathering dust for a decade. It sets off a chain of events that includes all of the usual time-travel hijinks, while adding the geek pipedream of having the school’s superhot queen bee, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), fall for him. (In a concession to reality, David’s actually handsome and athletic.) Ultimately, the fun stuff that can be accomplished through knowing the future – lottery numbers, test questions – turns ugly. Rod Serling cautioned us against toying with past events in at least three separate “Twilight Zone” episodes. Without such deterrents as someone worse than Hitler taking power in Germany after he’s assassinated by a time-traveler, we’d all have a time machine in our garage … right? It’s likely that teens will warm to Project Almanac (a.k.a., “Welcome to Yesterday”) more readily than adults, even on Blu-ray, if only because it isn’t in the same league as Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future. Sharp viewers might notice producer Michael Bay’s fingerprints on the film, as executive producer. The Blu-ray adds an alternate opening; deleted scenes; and a pair of alternate endings.
The animated feature, Back to the Jurassic, is based on very similar premise. First a caveat, however: it is a retitled, repackaged and re-released version of the 2012 Dino Time (a.k.a., “Dino Mom”), with the sole addition being an upgrade to Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D. Why the distributors felt it necessary to pull the wool over the eyes of parents looking for an innocuous time-killer is beyond me, but it’s become increasingly prevalent gimmick in the children’s market. Of course, there’s nothing mysterious about the timing of the release. With the PG-13 Jurassic World opening on Friday, Back to the Jurassic offers a PG option – inflated, considering the harmless family-friendly material – for parents being badgered by their children captivated Universal’s ubiquitous marketing campaign. Just for the record, then, three children accidentally get a time-machine to work, while playing in the workshop of a scientific-minded parent. It transports them from a futuristic Jurassic theme park, 65 million years back in time, to the real deal. Once there, the kids are adopted by a doting dinosaur mom Tyra (Melanie Griffith) and a rambunctious dinosaur named Dodger (Rob Schneider). Rival predators (William and Stephen Baldwin) stand between the time-travelers and home.
Some movies about personal redemption pile up the melodrama so high that viewers hagve tough time waiting for the protagonist to be cut the slack he needs to escape his dilemma and maintain our interest. Comeback Dad is just such a movie. In it, the always excellent Charles S. Dutton plays a broken-down piano player who’s trying to re-connect with the daughter he lost when he decided to entrust his future to several thousand bottles of booze. When we meet Othell, he looks like just another down-and-out guy desperately seeking a soft touch to finance his next meal. In fact, he’s stalking the young man he thinks holds the key for a reunion with, Nima (Tatyana Ali), whose hate for the old man knows no boundaries. If Othell can somehow convince her fiancé of his sobriety and willingness to repent, maybe he’ll carry the message to Nima, who’s inherited his musical genes. Not knowing the whole story, Spence (Brad James), misjudges Nima’s deep disgust for her father, who complicates matters by showing up out of the blue at a restaurant and the home of his ex-wife. Even if we’re convinced of Othell’s determination to stay clean, director Russ Parr (Hear No Evil) and debuting screenwriter Kimberly Walker continue to dig new potholes for him to escape and us to endure. Things don’t get any easier for him when Nima agrees to attend a reunion celebrating the 80th birthday of the family matriarch. No sooner have his siblings gathered for dinner than it takes on the appearance of an encounter group at a rehab clinic. In between verbal exchanges, it’s clear to see that Othell’s problem began with his father’s discouragement of his career in jazz. Everyone else in the family followed the party line by going into the law or medicine, but, by following his heart, Othell actually accomplished what his siblings were afraid to do. So, by succumbing to alcohol to ease the pain, he had confirmed his family’s worst expectations and given them reason to gloat. In effect, Nima would become collateral damage in a war they couldn’t control. One what think that the filmmakers could have eased up on the clutch at this point, but there are a few more secrets and missed opportunities to reveal before Comeback Dad hits the 90-minute mark. And, while Dutton is up for the task, only a student of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson could keep things on the right track dramatically. I doubt very much if this is what the producers had in mind, however.
The Australian prison drama, Healing, also chronicles the redemption process through time, trials and self-discovery. Here, however, co-writer/director Craig Monahan gives the protagonist more opportunities to succeed than fail. After 18 years in prison, convicted murderer Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) is transferred to a low-security facility for short-timers. Khadem is fortunate that penal authorities in Victoria have established a program dedicated to rehabilitation over lifelong isolation and punishment. In an American prison, especially one of those for-profit deals, he’d still be cooling his heels. The conceit that drives Healing is that these are broken men, whose only chance of becoming fully rehabilitated is by finding something other than their tarnished souls to save. Here, a program has been instituted for select inmates to work with seriously injured eagles, falcons and owls, so they can be re-introduced to the wild. Not all of the prisoners take advantage of the program and a few even work out their frustrations by trying to sabotage it. Khadem’s crew has its ups and downs, but the time spent with the birds – in the aviary and in the field – is impossible not to admire and enjoy. The men’s personal trials – not unlike those of Othell in Comeback Dad — are also depicted with honesty and compassion. If the denouement borders on the sappy, the movie’s already earned the right to pull at the heartstrings one last time. Sadly, American prisons haven’t been in the rehabilitation business for a long time. It costs too much money to implement and maintain, and the public hasn’t demonstrated any passion for anything expect punishing and isolating convicted criminals. Lately, though, some American prisons have adopted programs in which hard-core prisoners endeavor to turn traumatized pit bulls and military dogs into service animals. My guess is that the dogs have a far better chance of earning their freedom than their trainers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. As usual, anyone who only knows Australia from its lovely coast and brutal Outback might be surprised by the visual splendor of Victoria’s interior.
Giuseppe Makes A Movie: Blu-ray
The DIY movement probably can be traced back to the earliest shorts of Kenneth Anger and John Waters, who then were considered to be underground filmmakers. With such seriously weird titles as “Senators in Bondage,” “Kustom Kar Kommandos,” “Invocation of My Demon Brother” and, by way of Baltimore, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” “Eat Your Makeup” and “The Diane Linkletter Story,” there was no mistaking their budgetary restraints or target audiences. The introduction of Super 8 technology in the mid-1960s gave impetus to a movement that would facilitate the production of experimental and underground productions, while also encouraging thousands of Baby Boomers to try their luck at film school. Ultimately Super 8 and 16mm cameras would give way to hand-held camcorders, palm-corders, handy-cams and cell-phones. The success of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Richard Linklater’s Slackers and Harmony Korine’s Gummo laid the groundwork for the guys we met in the 1999 documentary, American Movie, which chronicled the tortuous creation of “Coven,” a horror short that was as home-made as a movie could be at the time. Milwaukee native Mark Borchardt hoped that the proceeds from “Coven” would help finance a longer project, “Northwestern.” That didn’t work out as planned, but Borchardt is still active in the industry – more or less, anyway – and the doc’s director, Chris Smith, has gone on to make Home Movie, The Yes Men and terrific coming-of-age drama, The Pool. Thanks to YouTube, shorts and music videos that were dying on the vine suddenly were being seen and critiqued by like-minded viewers. Today, distributers of truly niche programming are risking the few bucks they have on quick-and-dirty DVDs and POV opportunities. The trickle of do-it-yourself titles as grown to a something resembling a stream, if not yet a river. I was immediately reminded of American Movie while watching Adam Rifkin’s documentary/profile, “Giuseppe Makes a Movie.”
At 36, Giuseppe Andrews has already experienced the kind of roller-coaster career few people in Hollywood could easily endure. It didn’t really kick in until he and his father had traded down from a trailer park to a van and were cast in an infomercial. His first credit was earned at 10, as Joey Andrews, in Randal Kleiser’s Getting It Right. He would go on to such entertainments as “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” Detroit Rock City, Independence Day and music videos backing the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” and “Perfect.” In 1999, Andrews decided to become his own boss by making more than 30 long-form and short movies that easily fit the DIY mold. Rifkin’s doc chronicles the making of the nano-budget “Garbanzo Gas” and “Shlong Oysters,” whose casts include alcoholics and drug addicts, trash-talking senior citizens, ex-strippers, dumpster divers, skate-punks, a former backup guitarist for the Bee Gees and some characters Diane Arbus might have approached with caution. The funny thing is that Andrews somehow manages to elicit half-way decent performances from his motley repertory company and his direction is equal to a lot of things I see on DVD each week. The stories, which most other filmmakers wouldn’t pick up with tweezers, should appeal to fans of Waters, Korine, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and early Werner Herzog. In some ways, they resemble bargain-basement adaptations of Marat/Sade, M and The Beggar’s Opera. That Andrews is able to maintain a straight face and deliver his own lines amid the chaos demonstrates how good an actor he still is. The second disc adds commentary, deleted scenes, the full “Garbanzo Gas,” interviews with the now-Austin-based auteur and “Trailer Town” star Bill Nowlin, and the proposed pilot of a delightfully demented TV sitcom, “5TH Wheel.”
Spider Baby: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Not having been much of a horror aficionado in the glory days of the 1980s, I missed a lot of entertaining movies that only now are being in resurrected in Blu-ray and given the kind of attention once reserved for bona-fide classics in disrepair. Released in 1989, Society is unlike any horror flick I’ve ever seen, before or since. Tangentially related to the Re-Animator franchise, Society isn’t so much scary as it is a nightmare come to life through the magic of special effects. Greeted with enthusiasm overseas, but devastated by the mainstream American critics who previewed it at the Cannes market, Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut pretty much got lost in the pack of genre titles that flooded the theatrical and VHS arena at the time. Thanks to a marvelous restoration and repackaging by Arrow Film & Video, Society is finally being made available to the ever-expanding audience for quality horror. It does take its time setting us for the truly stunning ending, however. Soap-opera heartthrob Billy Warlock stars as the handsome and socially active Bill Whitney. Despite his family’s wealth, Bill is made to feel like a second-class citizen at his Beverly Hills private school by the ruling clique. (In the interviews included here, Yuzna freely acknowledges his desire to make a quasi-political statement about life in Reagan-era America, when simply being rich was never enough.) As the story evolves, Bill becomes convinced not only that his life is in danger, but also that his parents and sister may be holding back family secrets from him. And, of course, he’s right. When he finally catches the eye of the clique’s resident seductress, Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), things get even more confusing for the poor lad. It doesn’t help that someone appears to be playing mind games with his fragile psyche, by faking the deaths of classmates. An unexpected invitation to the home of one of Beverly Hills’ most prominent families gives Bill some pause, but not enough to stand up Clarissa. No sooner does Bill get two feet inside the door than Society turns into an extended orgy of special-effects-driven perversity. It’s here that Japanese “surrealistic makeup designer and creator” Screaming Mad George (Bride of Re-Animator) jumps into the driver’s seat, deploying a “shunt” effect that allows for the liquefaction and reshaping of the characters’ skin. It truly has to be seen to be believed. In his interview, Mad George describes how was able to re-create surrealistic images from the work of Salvador Dali and apply them to the makeup effects in Society. Anyone who’s gotten this far into the Blu-ray package likely will want to re-watch the orgy scene, at least one more time. Besides Yuzna’s commentary, there are several other interviews and Q&A’s, a Mad George music video and collectors’ booklet.
Also from Arrow comes Spider Baby, a rare example of a creature feature that works both as comedy and horror. Finished in 1964, but not released until 1967, the black-and-white thriller looks as if it might have been shot as an episode of “Thriller,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” or “Night Gallery.” It could also be mistaken for a very special episode of “The Addams Family,” with Morticia, Gomez and the clan housesitting for their country cousins in the “Psycho” mansion on the Universal backlot. It really is that kind of movie. In fact, the mansion is inhabited by a mentally regressive family of deviants whose eating habits were more influenced by rats, arachnids and other killer insects than Emily Post. Retired Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. plays the loyal chauffeur and conscientious baby-sitter to the seriously in-bred man-child, Ralph (Sid Haig), and a pair of Lolita-wannabes, Elizabeth and Virginia Merrye (Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner). Chaney also sings the movie’s theme song, which plays over the “Pink Panther”-inspired opening credits. Into this toxic environment arrives distant relatives and their lawyer (Carol Ohmart, Mary Mitchel, Quinn K. Redeker ), who hope to dispossess the family of its home. Needless to say, the interlopers weren’t prepared for what they found. None of this would have worked as well as it does if the actors hadn’t taken the tongue-in-cheek material as professionally as they did and first-time director Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters, The Big Bird Cage) wasn’t a natural in the exploitation game. The great African-American comic actor, Mantan Moreland, makes a wonderful addition as the first victim. The other crazy thing to know about Spider Baby is how it was handled once it made it to the screen. Its working title, “Cannibal Orgy or the Maddest Story Ever Told,” is alluded to in the clever theme song to Spider Baby, which also was sent to drive-in theaters as The Liver Eaters. It was the same movie, but held two places on the marquee, as if to prove that patrons don’t pay attention to the second-half of a double feature. The sterling Blu-ray upgrade adds enjoyable audio commentary, with Hill and Haig; a panel discussion with cast and crew members, recorded in September 2012; the featurettes, “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” and “The Merrye House Revisited”; an alternate opening title sequence; an extended scene; original trailer; gallery of behind-the-scenes images; “The Host,” Jack Hill’s 1960 short film featuring Haig in his first starring role; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a booklet, with essays by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax magazine.
Who knows how many of today’s straight-to-DVD movies will stand the test of time and find new audiences decades after their initial release? Some of today’s crop of genre filmmakers almost surely will be asked to look back on their early films in featurettes recorded 20 years from now for Blu-ray or whatever new format is being foisted on consumers. If Jared Black hits the jackpot somewhere down the road, I have no idea what he’ll have to say about Delirium, a psycho-thriller about a young girl who returns home after a year away from her family. No one knows what happened to Emily or who might have been responsible for her disappearance, but her biological father has decided to launch a messy custody war against the girl’s mother and stepfather. Since returning home, Emily has had a difficult time sleeping, because of something she suspects is living in the attic. There’s evil afoot here, but’s so ill-defined as to be more peculiar than frightening. My problems with Delirium include not being able to keep track of the shifts in time or quickly determine the motivations of any of the key characters. Some of the atmospherics are pretty good, however.
The Pillow Book: Blu-ray
Has anyone in the DVD/Blu-ray/LaserDisc industry endeavored to determine how the bonus features included on most discs today are used by consumers? Deleted, extended and alternative scenes are the easiest to sample, of course, and probably widely viewed. Too often, though, the interviews and background featurettes are nothing more than Electronic Press Kits, as intellectually compelling as a promotional appearance on a late-night talk show by a film’s most attractive star. Original trailers attached to classic movies can be amusing, whereas the inclusion of trailers on discs of recently released titles qualifies only as filler. But, what about the commentaries, which require one repeated viewing, at least, and, as such, may be too daunting for casual fans? Too often, a certain lack of enthusiasm can be detected in the voices of the participants. The laws dictating hubris also apply for directors, producers and stars who want us to believe that the bomb we’ve just witnessed is far more worthy of praise than the opinions already proffered by critics and lack of box-office interest. On some soundtracks, too, it’s only too clear that the participants aren’t sharing the same viewing experience or are reading from a prepared text. Some of these are useful, while others are complete waste of time. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. If any movie I’ve seen lately demands a second viewing, with accompanying commentary, it is Film Movement’s Blu-ray re-release of Peter Greenaway’s mesmerizing The Pillow Book. Greenaway has consistently proven to be one of the modern cinema’s most intellectually challenging practitioners and I simply couldn’t wait to check out the commentary track to check if my observations jibbed with his intentions. I found the experience to be extremely enlightening. (I also recommend checking out Ray Pride’s vintage interview with the Wales native elsewhere on the MCN website.) Although the 73-year-old painter-turned-filmmaker clearly is reading from text or speaking extemporaneously – he doesn’t comment on the scenes in front of us and the track ends halfway through the movie – his passion for the medium is never less than palpable. For those of us who hadn’t revisited The Pillow Book since its initial release, the discussion of his influences and intentions is must-viewing.
Greenaway’s Pillow Book is adapted from an ancient Japanese diary – observations, advice and, perhaps, the first “listicles” — by royal courtesan Sei Shōnagon around the year 1000 during the middle Heian period. Here, the female protagonist, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), writes her musings on her skin and that of acquaintances, including the western translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor). Because she uses the entire body as parchment, Pillow Book caused a sensation upon its release in 1996 for its graphic male and female nudity and other visual conceits. Nagiko is the daughter of a master calligrapher, who would write poetry on her face on each new birthday. By the time she reached adulthood, her attention was divided between calligraphy, fashion and modeling. Her skin-texts are exquisitely rendered and, then, photographed by a close friend for inclusion in a book. The most likely publisher, an old family nemesis, refuses to endorse the concept until Jerome allows himself to be sexually compromised, as had Nagiko’s father, years earlier. It isn’t long before the publisher recognizes his place in the through-line and becomes obsessed with seeing how the story plays out on the various skin-palettes sent to him. But, again, therein lies a peculiarly Greenaway-esque twist.
Like the European Impressionists and artisans so influenced by cultural exchanges with Japanese artists in the 19th Century, Greenaway sees calligraphy as “illustrated text” and as much a part of a Japanese painter’s vision as the image, itself. This speaks not only to the differences in the way art is considered by Eastern and Western observers, but also in what the writer/director says is the text-vs.-image conundrum that’s challenged filmmakers for more than a century. The cinema may, indeed, by a visual medium, but, he argues, the overwhelming majority of stories told are adapted from books, magazine, newspapers and other print media. In this way, movies have been required to abide by rules established in 18th- and 19th-century literature. Historically, Eastern artists have intended for their art to be read and seen, simultaneously. As one student is advised here, “The word for rain should fall like rain … the word for smoke should drift like smoke.” When exposed to traditional paintings and scrolls, westerners, myself included, absorbed the calligraphy as we might a caption on a photograph in a newspaper. Our unfamiliarity with the language prevents us from celebrating the organic marriage of text and image. In his commentary, Greenaway allows that digital and green-screen technology now allows for just artistry and understanding. In 1996, he exploited the technology available to him to stimulate and engage viewers from several points of view and entry points. Today, those same techniques border on the primitive. Even so, Greenaway’s painterly eye and keen sense of composition turned The Picture Book into something that addressed the future, as much as it embraced the present and past. As such, it’s the rare movie that can be savored on a frame-by-frame basis or enjoyed without distractions as a testament to Blu-ray technology.
Starz: Survivor’s Remorse: The Complete First Season
Thunderbirds: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hart to Hart: The Final Season
The Facts of Life: Season Six
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2004
The Beginner’s Bible: Volume 2
The Starz mini-series “Survivor’s Remorse” is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) it attempts to do for a basketball superstar and his posse what “Entourage” did for a bunch of contemporary Hollywood brat packers, and 2) contains no actual footage of basketball being played other than on a playground, once. In the six-episode half-hour sitcom, Jessie T. Usher (When the Game Stands Tall) portrays Boston-raised phenom Cam Calloway, who’s just been signed to his first huge free-agent contract by the Atlanta Hawks. Calloway was raised in the ghetto, where he partook in all the usual temptations presented to a teenager, and he’s constantly reminded of his questionable behavior by old cronies perfectly willing to blackmail him. As an adult, however, Cam’s evolved into something of an innocent in a world perfectly willing to exploit his talent and charisma for personal gain, while he still has some exploitable talent left in him. His posse is comprised of family members who range from his ghetto-fabulous mom to a lesbian sister who hits on every woman within six feet of her. They probably could have used a remedial course in real-world etiquette and tact before following Cam to Atlanta, but where would be the fun in that? The first season concerned itself with Cam and his posse’s introduction to Atlanta society, as well as near-misses with reporters anxious to tear his still-developing reputation to shreds. Not being of the African-American persuasion, I couldn’t say with any authority if the humor might be considered racist by black viewers. Things have changed since “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times,” after all. A white guy, Mike O’Malley (“Glee”), created the series, but, with LeBron James listed as one of several exec-producers, my bet would be that the scripts are closely perused before they’re aired. And, much of the writing is quite good. It will be interesting to see the direction “Survivor’s Remorse” takes in its 10-episode second-season run, which begins in the fall. The supporting cast includes Mike Epps, RonReaco Lee, Erica Ash, Teyonah Parris and Tichina Arnold.
The folks at Shout! Factory/Timeless Media have finally come to the point in the release of vintage titles from “The Gerry Anderson Collection” that Blu-ray has become a desirable option. The upgrade may have been prompted, though, by last year’s release of the feature-length Thunderbirds Are Go/Thunderbird 6 combo in hi-def by Twilight Time. Aired in 1965-66, “Thunderbirds” fits in the canon between “Stingray” and “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” already available in DVD. The stars of this Supermarionation interplanetary adventure belong to the wealthy Tracy family, circa 2065, whose base is a high-tech paradise that includes a space station to monitor the problems of Earth and its inhabitants. Available to them is a fleet of flying and “swimming” vessels, knowns as Thunderbirds. The exploits of the International Rescue team are collected in “Thunderbirds: The Complete Series,” which also arrives with the “Launching Thunderbirds” documentary and a vintage publicity brochure available in PDF format, accessible from a Blu-ray drive.
Nickelodeon has given fans of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise something more to live for, in three new compilations from 2013 story arcs: “NYC Showdown,” “The Search for Splinter” and “Pulverizer Power.” As usual, with these kids-oriented collections, check the episode titles before ordering, as some are repeats.
Among other new golden-oldie collections this week are “Hart To Hart: The Final Season” and “The Facts of Life: Season Six,” both from Shout! Factory. BBC Home Entertainment’s “Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2004” represents the 26th season of the world’s longest running sitcom. Meanwhile, the second chapter in StarVista’s “Beginner’s Bible” kiddies’ series adds animated interpretations of “Noah’s Ark,” “David & Goliath” and “The Creation.”