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The DVD Wrapup: Chris Farley, Match, Treatment, Blues Cruise, Reminiscence, Soaked in Bleach, Police Story 6, Fury, Israeli Passion … More  

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

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.

The DVD Wrapup: Madame Bovary, Adult Beginners, Descendants, Salvation, Wyrmwood, Seashore, Snow Girl, Flamenco, Bilko … More

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Madame Bovary: Blu-ray
Among the distinguished women who’ve portrayed Emma Bovary on film over the last 80 years are Isabelle Huppert, Frances O’Connor, Carla Gravina, Jennifer Jones, Pola Negri, Lila Lee and, if you count David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, Sarah, Miles. There have been more, of course, but these are the most recognizable actresses. Like the Olympics and presidential elections, a new adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel comes around every four years, or so, whether the public is clamoring for one, or not. In Sophie Barthes’ lushly mounted Madame Bovery, 25-year-old Aussie Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) convincingly plays the disillusioned wife of a country doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) whose unmet expectations and boredom are sated by material pleasures they can’t afford. If there isn’t anything wrong with the approach taken by Barthes (Cold Souls), its bourgeois trappings and rural splendor are all too familiar in a marketplace filled with period adaptations of classic novels, however tragic and sexy. What could be more contemporary than a story about a woman so disgusted by her husband’s lack of financial drive that she decides to take matters into her own hands … and his credit cards? Given the media’s obsession with celebrities and their closets full of designer fashions, how could a modern Emma Bovary resist the temptation of looking, acting and partying like a Kardashian? Greedy enablers, like Rhys Ifans’ unctuous Monsieur Lheureux in Madame Bovary, can found everywhere these days, especially on such fashion-lust shows as “Project Runway,” “The Rachel Zoe Project” and red-carpet coverage leading to the Oscars, Emmys and Grammy awards ceremonies. (Or, the Home Shopping Network and QVC for a low-rent remake of “Madame Bovary” for shut-ins.) It wouldn’t take long for a spouse – gay, straight or indifferent – to drive a successful lawyer, doctor or athlete into bankruptcy these days. A fresh take on the story wouldn’t have hurt. Also on hand in Barthes’ Madame Bovary are Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Laura Carmichael (“Downton Abbey”), Logan Marshall-Greenand (“Dark Blue”) Paul Giamatti (Sideways).

Adult Beginners: Blu-ray
Like so many other comedies featuring actors, writers and directors who’ve graduated from such sketch-comedy mills as National Lampoon, Second City, the Groundlings, “SNL” and Upright Citizens Brigade, Ross Katz’ intermittently funny,  yet heart-warming Adult Beginners appears to have been inspired by an existing character or improvisational conceit. It worked in such extended-skit movies as The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, but fell flat in a dozen other “SNL” offshoots. The Nick Kroll we meet at the beginning of Adult Beginners isn’t at all dissimilar to the characters he’s invented previously in “The League,” “Kroll Show” and “Parks and Recreation.” Kroll’s Jake is an arrogant hipster entrepreneur accustomed to living large and partying like it was still 1999. When the bottom falls out of one of his investment schemes, he becomes persona non grata with everyone who put money into it. Jake has nowhere to turn, except the sister he hasn’t seen in three years. Justine (Rose Byrne), Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3-year-old son, Teddy, live in the suburbs in a too-small home and with another baby in the oven. After a few months of lounging around on the couch and feeling sorry for himself, Jake is asked to act as a nanny for Teddy. He’s a handful, but no worse than most of the other kids left in the hands of male adults in such comedies. And, of course, Jake quickly learns the benefits of showing up at the local playground with child in tow and a tale of woe to tell the husband-less mommies. Writers Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive do a reasonably good job avoiding most time-worn clichés of the sub-genre, so Jake’s maturation process isn’t as predictable as it could have been. Credit, there, belongs to the seasoned supporting cast and such occasional drop-ins as Joel McHale, Paula Garcés, Caitlin FitzGerald, Mike Birbiglia, Jason Mantzoukas and Bobby Moynihan. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Every Secret Thing
Sometimes, even the certified best novels fail to make the transition from page to screen. Of all the hundreds of mysteries published each year and dozens optioned for possible production, only a handful are fully adapted and made available for viewing. Best-selling author Laura Lippman has written dozens of novels and short stories. I don’t know how many have been optioned, but only one has been successfully translated into a feature film, Every Secret Thing. Besides making book-sellers and critics happy, the 2004 novel was accorded top honors in genre competition. Its success allowed Lippman to quit her day job at the Baltimore Sun. Alas, the difficulties inherent in attempting to stuff 400-plus pages of a novel into a 93-minute R-rated thriller are readily apparent in Every Secret Thing. Although the story’s skeleton holds up pretty well, a whole lot of good stuff gets lost along the way, including the original scene of the crimes, Baltimore. In Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg’s first feature film, the action has been transferred to a more generic city in Upstate New York. Two creepy 11-year-old girls are convicted of kidnapping and murdering an infant they’d snatched from a stroller on a porch. Seven years later, skinny blond Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) and seriously overweight Alice (Danielle Macdonald) are released from their juvenile-detention facilities, far from rehabilitated and wholly unprepared for a world full of harmful temptations. Sure enough, not long after the girls, now 18, get back home, a child goes missing. Based on similarities in the kidnappings, Ronnie and Alice are quickly visited by dogged police detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks). As drawn by screenwriter Nicole Holofcenor, both of them are potentially guilty and wholly unworthy of our sympathy. As portrayed by Diane Lane, Alice’s crazy mother could be every bit as guilty of something, anything, as her daughter. The boyfriend of the newly kidnapped girl’s mother (Common) also is grilled by the cops, but, because we already know he’s only guilty of being a belligerent jerk, his presence mostly is a diversion. Even so, Every Secret Thing can be recommended for the quality of the acting and sustained aura of menace. Banks’ character, especially, would be a welcome addition to a series of her own.

Hot on the heels of Disney Channel’s vibrant time-travel musical, “Teen Beach 2,” comes “Descendants,” a clever merger of classic fairytale characters and the cable network’s fabulously successful “High School Musical” franchise, right down to director/choreographer Kenny Ortega. Here, the live-action offspring of several famous Disney villains, including Maleficent (Kristen Chenoweth), Evil Queen, Jafar and Cruella De Vil, are cleared to leave Isle of the Lost for the first time, to attend prep school in idyllic Auradon, with the children of beloved Disney heroes. Their parents include Belle, Beast, Snow White and Prince Charming. While the kids from Isle of the Lost have been instructed to corrupt the squeaky-clean preppies in Auradon, it’s likely that good ultimately will triumph over evil, as it always does in suburbs of the Magic Kingdom. After watching a few of these extravaganzas, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the production values invested by the studio into what’s basically a made-for-TV (and DVD) project and the stunning level of teen talent on display. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Disney has a robotics factory hidden somewhere in the swamps of Orlando, where fresh-faced actors are created to fit the needs of the Disney Channel. Before they leave the plant, the singing and dancing cyborgs are programed to smile, even under duress, and sublimate their natural sexual urges, lest they follow in the tarnished footsteps of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, Vanessa Hudgens and Lindsay Lohan. The stars here include Dove Cameron, Booboo Stewart, Cameron Boyce and Sofia Carson. The DVD adds a backstage featurette, bloopers and “eMal.”

Brother’s Keeper
Any Day
Just when you think that faith-based filmmakers have begun to treat their audiences with the same level of respect as their mainstream peers, along comes a Brother’s Keeper to dissuade you of that notion. I’ve rarely encountered a movie that plays as fast and loose with internal logic and narrative integrity as co-directors T.J. Amato and Josh Mills and writer Briana Hartman’s debut feature. What seems to have been ignored by the filmmakers is that Christian audiences occasionally turn off Pat Robertson long enough to watch the many legal shows on networks programmed by unsaved TV executives. A casual perusal of “Perry Mason” reruns should have told them that our legal system, while imperfect, doesn’t work the way it does in Brother’s Keeper, even to accommodate the lesson in John 15:13 and Ephesians 4:32 . (That last bit constitutes a spoiler, if such things matter to you.) Identical blond twins Andy and Pete Goodwynn (Alex and Graham Miller) have been dealt a really crappy hand in life, losing their mother and father to violence at an early age. One walked the straight-and-narrow path in 1950s Georgia, while the other has yet to find one he cared to follow. With high school graduation near, Pete plans to marry the love of his life, Maggie (Mackenzie Mauzy), and head off to the seminary to become a preacher. Alex is the quintessential greaser, right down to his leather jacket and cigarettes. On prom night, the son of the town’s most prominent asshole, er, citizen (Ray Wise), rapes and murders Maggie in the bathroom of the high school. Only minutes later, Pete is seen running from the bathroom after Gordon (Daniel Samonas), who viewers know is responsible for the killing.

During the chase, the guilty teen trips and hits his head on a log. Knowing that Pete looks dirty as sin in the killing, Andy demands that he be allowed to take the rap until the truth is discovered by police and the court. Instead of going along with the ruse, Pete later feels compelled to confess to the thoroughly corrupt police chief (Michael Rooker) and city officials, including the part about who really belongs in jail. So, while Pete changes places with his brother, Gordon’s powerful father conspires with the judge and sheriff to make sure the jury only hears perjured testimony from unreliable witnesses. While Pete is being railroaded to the electric chair, apparently minus appeals to higher courts, Andy decides to find Jesus for himself in the seminary and Gordon stews in his own juices, afraid to defy his father by admitting his guilt. Anyone who’s managed to stay with Brother’s Keeper this long wouldn’t have to be a bible scholar – or  the world’s worst lawyer – to guess what happens in the next hour, or so. Having already suspended my disbelief to its maximum level, I was surprised to find myself as moved by the overall experience as I was. I do know it had more to do with the ability of the Miller twins to make the plight of the Goodwyn twins credible than any sudden concession to logic. Maybe I just needed to be reminded that it takes more than a bad script to ruin good Scripture.

The similarly faith-based Any Day borrows from the familiar story of an ex-boxer struggling for redemption after being imprisoned for killing a man with his fists. Although a manslaughter plea probably could have saved Vian McLean (Sean Bean) several of the 12 years he spent in jail, he probably needed the time to dry out from a severe alcohol problem. Upon his return to civilization, Vian is reluctantly given shelter by his sister, Bethley (Kate Walsh), who demands he remain sober while he’s under her roof. His case is helped by the immediate bond he establishes with his nephew, Jimmy, who’s not only missing a father figure in his life, but also is tired of getting bullied at school. The only place in town that Vian can find work is in a restaurant run by a guy (Tom Arnold) who’s faced many of the same hurdles, before turning to AA. After a few weeks of good behavior, Tommy helps Vian strike up a conversation with a pretty woman, Jolene (Eva Longoria), he meets in a supermarket. After much coaxing, they begin dating. The problem, of course, is that Vian exaggerates the minimum-wage position he holds at the restaurant, while leaving out his place of residence for the last dozen years. This is only one of the roadblocks he will face before something resembling a true miracle occurs. That it is revealed in a scenario that might have been borrowed from a dime-store religious calendar is one of things for which critics blasted Any Day upon its limited release. Working in its favor are the fine performances writer/director Rustam Branaman elicits from his cast, especially Walsh, who’s already proven that she’s as comfortable playing working stiffs as more glamorous types.

The Salvation: Blu-ray
It probably wouldn’t be fair to describe Kristian Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Salvation as a modern spaghetti Western, made in South Africa by Danes, but, really, therein lies its considerable charm. The presence of Mads Mikkelsen (“Hannibal”) and Eva Green (“Penny Dreadful”), alone, would be enough to recommend a movie, let alone one that should also remind viewers of any number of Clint Eastwood’s Westerns. As a conscious throwback to the dawn of the “existential Western,” Levring has added more than 60 genre references – ranging from the obvious to the obscure — to The Salvation. Going back and finding them is almost as diverting as it was attempting to figure out where the movie had been shot, during the first time through it. If not Andalusia or Monument Valley, where? Mikkelson plays Jon Jensen, a former soldier, who, after fighting in the German-Danish conflict, travelled to America with his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), to find peace and prosperity. Typically, Scandinavian immigrants in movies never make it past Minnesota, but, here, Jon and Peter scratch out a meager living by hunting and farming. As the movie opens, Jon has come to town to pick up his wife and young son, who he hasn’t seen for several years. Not unexpectedly, tragedy strikes on the stagecoach ride back home. The rest of The Salvation plays out as two-pronged search for revenge. After Jon tracks down the men who killed his family, the brother of one of the killers holds the residents of a small town hostage until they turn the Dane over to him.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a nice job as Henry Delarue, the truly evil leader of a band of outlaws hired to scare off the settlers. Not anticipating that anyone would miss the men he killed, Jon rides into town with his brother on their way to a new start, further west. Even after listening to Jon’s story, the residents don’t hesitate turning him over to the man who’s been terrorizing them. There’s no reason to spoil the rest of the story, so let’s leave it at that. Even if little new ground is broken in The Salvation, Levring, a veteran of the Dogme95 movement, is able to draw on his lifelong love of the genre to make it look like the real deal and keep the action fast-paced. His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Jens Schlosser, also has an excellent handle on what the American west is supposed to look like, no matter where it isn’t. So, where does Green fit in all of this? After being kidnapped by Indians and having her tongue cut out – a grotesque Western cliche, if there ever was one – she marries the sleazebag killed by Jon in the first reel. With his brother dead, Delarue considers his sister-in-law to be fair game as a lover, partner in the land scheme and punching bag. The Blu-ray adds copious interviews and a making-of featurette.

Inner Demons
Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead: Blu-ray
The Last Survivors: Blu-ray
In a rare example of shoo-what-you-know, the director of Inner Demons borrows here from his experience in the reality-television game to make a thriller that exploits well-worn genre tropes and conventions. Seth Grossman uses what he learned producing three episodes of “Intervention” and a few more of “Hollywood Hillbillies,” “On the Rocks” and “Kiss & Tell,” to make a thriller about the demonic possession of a teenager featured in a rehab show.  When the daughter of religious parents transforms from straight-A student into heroin addict almost overnight, they agree to allow a reality TV show crew to stage an intervention and document her recovery. Newcomer Lara Vosburgh delivers a credible performance who self-medicates her inner pain with hard drugs and, at the same time, affects the look and behavior of an aggressively unpleasant Goth girl. Apparently, the demon that’s invaded Carson’s body isn’t at all pleased about being revealed as the kind of monster who picks on little girls, simply because they study the bible, so it takes every opportunity to ruin the show and her family. Things get pretty crazy, but most of the scary stuff gets diluted along the way by our overexposure to found-footage flicks and “reality” shows that require a couple dozen writers to invent the truthful encounters, as is the case with “Intervention.” If nothing else, though, Inner Demons demonstrates how little progress has been made in the exorcism business in the 43 years since a mere mortal was able to free little Regan from her demons in The Exorcist with little more than a crucifix and holy water. Still, fans of the demonic-possession subgenre should find something here to enjoy.

It shouldn’t have taken two directors four years to make what essentially is “Mad Max vs. the Zombies.” The long-awaited fourth chapter in that franchise cost 10 times as much money to make as the first three chapters, combined, and, while fun to watch, “Fury Road” barely carried its weight at the international box office. Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner’s Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is a throwback to the glory days of Ozploitation in all of the best ways possible, including a miniscule budget pushed to the limit to produce maximum results. If, at times, it sometimes resembles a parody or homage to the current zombie-apocalypse craze, all the better. Barry (Jay Gallagher) is a talented mechanic and family man whose life is torn apart after his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradey), is kidnapped by a team of gas-mask wearing soldiers. She’s taken to a warehouse and experimented on by a psychotic, disco-dancing doctor. Also imprisoned are zombies captured to determine if their high-octane emissions can be refined, like gasoline, to service a fuel-starved nation. The costumes and vehicles look as if cut from the same templates as the ones used for “Beyond Thunderdome.” Fans of ultraviolence and gory makeup effects won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette, which explains how a genre flick can take four years to make … and not look like crap.

It’s possible that Thomas S. Hammock and Jacob Forman’s intention in making The Last Survivors (a.k.a., “The Well”) was to exploit the current drought impacting the Southwest for the purpose of creating a dystopian thriller. The setting is near-future Oregon, which usually is swimming in water, but, in 10 years, conceivably could resemble Mojave Desert. Indeed, that’s where The Last Survivors was shot by Seamus Tierney (The Narrows), who deserves kudos for capturing both the harsh reality of a rain-starved terrain and the stark beauty of the California desert. The conceit here is that 17-year-old Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) is waiting out the apocalypse in the ruins of the same juvenile facility she was raised. It is the site of one of the few wells containing a smidgen of potable water and it’s supporting a small community of survivors. When a greedy water baron lays claim to what little of the precious resource remains underground, Kendal must decide whether to run and hide or resist the corporate takeover. The Last Survivors can be recommended for its unique look, if not the improbable teenager-saves-the-world angle.

Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s coming-of-sexual-age drama is so subtle that’s difficult to tell what we’re supposed to make of it. Knowing that Seashore is based on memories shared by  the filmmakers when they were in their teens helps viewers understand why emotional fireworks are less essential to the story than quiet reflections on a time when everyone’s confused about everything. Martin and Tomaz (Mateus Almada, Maurício Barcellos) rekindle their childhood friendship on a weekend trip to the seaside town in southern Brazil where they were raised. Martin is expected to sort out a family inheritance matter, but the filmmakers’ are more focused on how sexuality inserts itself into the lives of teenagers, when left to their own devices and confronted with having to choose between same- and opposite-sex romances. In lieu of action sequences and raw sexual encounters, Seashore is carried on the backs of young actors whose lack of professional experience is more of an asset than a detriment to the proceedings. The temperamental skies of winter on the shore also contribute to the movie’s tone.

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal: Blu-ray
Black & White: The Dawn of Assault: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to determine how much a movie that required an estimated $30 million to make in China would cost if it had been produced by a Hollywood studio. My guess: a lot. Co-directed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Tianyu Zhao (The Law of Attraction), the CGI-enhanced romantic fantasy adventure Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal may, indeed, be a harbinger of expensive things to come from mainland studios. Shown in 3D and released in time for Chinese New Year, the movie reportedly pulled in more than $53 million in the first two weeks of its domestic release, a number that reflects a growing acceptance of home-made entertainments for mixed-age audiences. The goal, I imagine, is to eventually churn out the kind of non-political pictures that can compete in the international marketplace, if only in the potentially lucrative Asian diaspora. As the legend goes, once every millennium – on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month — it becomes possible for beings from Heaven, Earth and Hell to cross between the realms. Without going into too great detail, an emissary from the Jade Emperor sends his disciple, Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), a former scholar turned demon hunter, on a mission to hell. He is able to steal the Dark Crystal, a powerful force that acts as a safeguard for the integrity of the realms. Enraged, the Demon King sends Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) to Earth to get it back. She arrives with a group of other demons, masquerading as a female entertainment troupe visiting the city of Hu. It doesn’t take long for Zhong Kui to recognize Snow Girl as the mysterious woman with whom he had an intense love story three years earlier. It sets off a battle royal for control of the realms, as well as hope for renewed, if unnatural love between a demon and demon hunter. Although the filmmakers sometimes fail to maintain the equilibrium between action and romance, fantasy and reality, the problem isn’t one that prevents viewers from enjoying the spectacle. The excellent Blu-ray presentation adds a making-of featurette, along with pieces on musical soundtrack and visual effects.

The impact of American blockbusters on the Chinese/Taiwanese cinema is obvious, as well, in Black & White: The Dawn of Assault, an urban buddy film so packed with action that it’s hardly worth the effort it would take to find a coherent story within its 142-minute length. If Bruce Willis popped up somewhere in the middle of a car chase or helicopter gag, it would have come as almost no surprise to me. Released in 2012, “Black & White” actually serves as a feature-length prequel to a Taiwanese television series of the same title and sub-genre. It only lasted a single 24-episode season, but has inspired not only this prequel, but a sequel, to boot. Western audiences can jump into it without fear of having to do any homework on the series. In it, daredevil cop Ying Xiong (Mark Chao) is on the outs with his superiors for participating in yet another dangerous high-speed chase through Harbor City that ends in explosive fashion. So frequent are these occurrences that Xiong is suspended and ordered to undergo psychological evaluations. When he’s implicated in an unsuccessful diamond deal with a terrorist cell, Xiong is required to team with ready-to-retire gangster, Xu, played by popular mainland character actor Huang Bo. They find an ally in the mysterious hacker, Ning Feng (Angelababy) and are chased by a government agent (Alex To). Co-writer/director Tsai Yueh-Hsun also adds an appealing group of oddball characters to supplement the many lavish set pieces.

Flamenco, Flamenco
I Dream of Wires
Before the demise of variety shows on network television, it wasn’t unusual to turn on “Ed Sullivan,”  “The Tonight Show” or any number of entertainment specials and find a tango or flamenco artist, such as Jose Greco or Juan Carlos Copes on the night’s bill. In 1969, Greco opened for Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace, while Copes was featured in a Broadway dance revue in the early 1960s. In his 1980s’ “Flamenco Trilogy” (Blood Wedding, Carmen, El Amor Brujo), Carlos Saura provided audiences here with examples of a dance form not limited to clicking heels and clapped hands. Shortly thereafter, the Gipsy Kings introduced the rumba/salsa/flamenco hybrid, popular in Catalonia, to American audiences who enjoyed the offshoot’s pop flavor. Tango got a boost in 1985 when the French dance show “Tango Argentino” transferred to Broadway, revealing its many artistic facets and musical influences. Such films as Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997), Saura’s Tango (1998) and Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2002) kept the flame burning here by adding dramatic narratives to what already was a sexually charged and borderline violent atmosphere. The travel industry has since made it easy for aficionados to chase their passion for tango and flamenco to Argentina and Spain, without going broke. Beginners need look any further than Saura’s beautifully mounted odes to the countries’ native dance, art and music, Tango and Flamenco, Flamenco. Unabashedly sensual, flamenco has never looked as compelling as it does in Saura’s cross-generational exploration of the dance form’s evolution, influences, tradition and future. Exquisitely photographed by three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), the 21 short musical and dance numbers were shot at the Seville Expo ’92 pavilion against a lush background of paintings by such artists as Picasso, Goya and Klimt. The performers range in age from pre-teen to 79-year-old singing legend, Maria Bala. Saura and Storaro even find new ways to make dueling pianos exciting. The sparkling DVD adds a worthwhile background featurette.

I think it’s safe to assume that, at 107 minutes, I Dream of Wires, will be at least 47 minutes too long, even for fans of electronic dance music and other synthesized sounds. Narrated as if it were an AT&T infomercial, Robert Fantinatto’s exhaustively researched documentary chronicles the rise, fall and return to popularity of a musical genre that requires copious amounts of Ecstasy to enjoy. That isn’t to say, however, that techies won’t get hard listening to the engineers rhapsodize over the relative merits analog and digital equipment and resurgence of high-end modular synthesizers favor by a new generation of plugged-in musicians. Fantinatto’s gathered an impressive list of witnesses on the subject, including Trent Reznor, Gary Numan, Flood, Carl Craig, Morton Subotnick, John Foxx, Vincent Clarke, James Holden and Factory Floor. Prohibitive licensing fees probably prevented the filmmaker from adding more melodious examples of genre fare, which is a shame.

She Loves Me Not
In Brian Jun and Jack Sanderson’s underwhelming three-chapter drama, She Loves Me Not, Cary Elwes plays an novelist whose acute alcoholism is complicated by a severe case of narcissism. Through most of the movie, it’s a near-lethal combination for the writer and viewers, alike. We meet Elwes’ Brady Olinson as he’s bouncing along the rock bottom of his career. He’s living with one of his students (Briana Evigan), an aspiring novelist who puts up with Olinson’s self-destructive behavior because he allows her to sleep around, a bit, and it might pay off in the form of blurb on the jacket of her first novel. The sting that comes with knowing Olinson’s been in no hurry to read the manuscript is mollified by sharing his mansion, which overlooks the Mississippi River. Because Brady tends to pass out before climbing the stairs to bed, their sex life isn’t anything to write a novel about. More frustrated than cruel, Charlotte finally decides to push Olinson toward some kind of recovery by inviting her current lover home and doing the deed upstairs, while he’s stewing in his own juices. In the second chapter, Charlotte is long gone, but not at all forgotten. If Brady’s still a bad drunk, at least he can fall back on the profits from his new book, which his publisher is sure will be a best-seller. To that end, he’s been assigned a publicist (Caitlin Keats) who’s also expected to keep him sober long enough to make it through each day’s cycle of interviews. In the final vignette, Olinson’s been clean for several years, but is no less obnoxious to the women in his life. Here, they’re represented by his real estate agent (Joey Lauren Adams) and a potential buyer (Lisa Edelman), with whom he’s more interested in seducing than forging a deal. She Loves Me Not’s two biggest problems are that it’s defeated by its own conceit and we’re aren’t given an opportunity to know the writer before we’re expected to dislike him. The late, great and eternally spooky Karen Black shows up in the center segment completely without warning or any reason to be there, except to work her Karen Black magic. By trimming some fat and adding some narrative muscle, the filmmakers could have done away with the forced chapter format and strung together a more coherent story.

PBS: Frontline: Outbreak
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Heart of the Family
BET: Chocolate City
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The Third Season
BBC: Last Tango in Halifax Season 3
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures
In a tidy coincidence, the release of the “Frontline” report “Outbreak” on DVD coincides with news out of Africa that a potentially “game-changing” vaccine has been successfully tested in Guinea and its use could soon be expanded to Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Although the number of newly reported cases has decreased to nearly zero in these countries, medical teams on the ground know that “nearly zero” isn’t good enough, when dealing with a disease than can spread like wildfire if unchecked. Not only does “Outbreak” trace the spread of Ebola from its origin in a bat-infested tree, but it also exposes tragic missteps in the response to the epidemic. Because the sick and dying weren’t as visible from Day One as the victims of a giant tsunami or earthquake, local and national officials had virtually no idea how to handle one case, let alone hundreds at a time, and the World Health Organization dragged its feet in declaring an international health emergency. It allowed time for uninformed residents to fall back on witchcraft and mob rule. President Obama’s decision to send American troops to help contain the mobility of victims and establish clinics proved to be a turning point in the crusade, but, by then, thousands of people had died and no vaccine was in sight. It’s a scary report, but one that needs to be heeded at a time when news of potential epidemics has begun to arrive at regular intervals.

I don’t know about you, but every time a uniformed member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police appears in a movie or television show, my mind flashes back to Dudley Do-Right on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” The ever-upright nimrod is in constant pursuit of his nemesis, Snidely Whiplash, and hyper-alert to the perils of his personal damsel in distress, Nell Fenwick. Not that I’m the target viewer for Hallmark’s Dove-approved series, “When Calls the Heart,” I still can’t help but be taken aback whenever Daniel Lissing arrives in Hope Valley, as Jack Thornton, in his blazing red jacket. That’s just me, however. In “Heart of the Family,” Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) returns home and immediately volunteers to look after a neighbor’s rural homestead and his two children. After Jack agrees to lend a hand, they wind up chatting by the fire, which is as close to sex as anything that transpires on Hallmark. Meanwhile, in Hamilton, Bill Avery (Jack Wagner) sets about busting a counterfeiting ring wide, an endeavor that surprisingly leads him to Hope Valley. Elizabeth is even more surprised to see her former suitor, Charles Kensington.

If there’s a harder working multi-hyphenate in the urban-entertainment scene than Jean-Claude La Marre, I haven’t found one. He makes Tyler Perry look lazy. He didn’t have to look very far to find the inspiration for Chocolate City, which has been airing on BET lately. Allusions to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike are made loud and clear throughout the movie, which is also about the trials, tribulations and reward that derive from well-endowed males sticking their junk in the faces of women with dollar bills in their hands. La Marre needn’t have been so persistent. Anyone who subscribed to HBO in the late-1990s could watch black male strippers strut their stuff before a crowd of rabid women, in its “Real Sex” documentary series. It was a wild scene, natural for exploitation as a feature film. Besides a bigger budget and more familiar stars, the difference between Magic Mike and Chocolate City is the amount of time spent in church. Afro-centric genre films almost always make room for faith-based storylines and, here, a cash-strapped college student (Robert Ri’chard) is forced to choose between hurting the feelings of his religious mother (Vivica A. Fox) and girlfriend (Imani Hakim) or making the money needed to dig his mom out of hock and getting married. His dilemma is compounded when other dancers at the club get jealous of his money-making prowess. The dancing is good, anyway, and, for what it’s worth, Carmen Electra plays the club’s DJ.

I’m already on record as saying that “Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show,” which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959, remains one of the four or five funniest and most influential comedies in the history of television. It captured three straight Emmy Awards as Best Comedy series, with Silvers winning one Best Actor trophy out of four nominations. The setting for Bilko’s schemes has yet to shift from Fort Baxter to Camp Fremont in California, but, otherwise, things remain largely the same. Guest stars in Season Three include Dick Van Dyke, Margaret Hamilton, Kay Kendall, George Kennedy, Gretchen Wyler, Barbara Barrie, Phil Rizzuto, Gil McDougald, Yogi Berra, Red Barber and Whitey Ford.

Proof that elderly Americans have yet to give up on broadcast television can be found television can be found in the surprising success of the BBC export, “Last Tango in Halifax,” which airs here on PBS affiliates. Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid play widowed septuagenarians, Alan and Celia, childhood sweethearts who have been apart for 60 years. After being reunited via Facebook by their grandchildren, they meet, fall in love and plan to marry. Reid and Jacobi enjoyed having the chance to play out a love story between older people. As delightful as their relationship is, there’s plenty of room left over for drama within the extended family. Loyal followers of BBC dramas and prime-time soaps also will recognize such recurring stars as Sarah Lancashire, Nicola Walker, Nina Sosanya, Tony Gardner, Ronni Ancona, Dean Andrews, Sacha Dhawan and Josh Bolt. A fourth season is in the works.

New from Nickelodeon, “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures” features three double-length episodes, focusing on Dora and Boots as they encounter pirates, fairytale characters and a dancing elf. The three-disc set includes more than four hours of adventures and special features. In “Dora & Friends: Doggie Day,” Dora and her friends have committed themselves to helping their puppy friend Cusco reunite with his brothers before Doggie Adoption Day. The DVD adds three bonus episodes, representing Dora’s journeys to Magic Land, Opera Land and Fairytale Puppet World.

Sweet Trash/The Hang Up
My Sinful Life/Las Vegas Girls
Avon Triple Feature: Savage Sadists/Den of Dominance/Daughters of Discipline
As we occasionally make the trek down Mammary Lane – last week we focused on a DVD release of stag films and a series of Japanese “pink” flicks from the 1960s –invariably arriving at the point where the full impact of Deep Throat’s release becomes even more apparent than it already is. I don’t know where Vinegar Syndrome dug up the latest additions to its Drive-In Collection — Sweet Trash and The Hang Up, both from 1970 – but they appear to provide a missing link between early Russ Meyer and narrative soft-core porn. Their director, John Hayes, was a writer, director, editor, producer and occasional actor, whose 1958 short, “The Kiss,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He would soon become a prolific purveyor of exploitation fare, occasionally starring his then girlfriend, Rue McClanahan, before she was discovered by sitcom pioneer Norman Lear, in the 1970s. Sweet Trash and The Hang Up featured full-frontal female nudity and simulated sex to attract grindhouse audiences and plots that may have been rejected by the Mickey Spillane School of Fiction. In Sweet Trash, an alcoholic longshoreman, deep in debt to the mob, is forced into an increasingly debauched nightmare as he tries to avoid the thugs out to get him. The Hang Up opens with a bust at an L.A. drag bar, complete with brawny cops in drag. The actors might very well have been recruited from a local burlesque house.

My Sinful Life and Las Vegas Girls are noteworthy, if at all, as twin 1983 releases by porn auteur Carlos Tobalina, although they look as if they were shot in the same warehouse as the previous two VS releases from 1970. In the former, Danielle plays a young woman who learns the sensual arts from her adopted parents and takes the knowledge to college, where she finds work in a brothel. Las Vegas Girls follows private eyes Karen Hall and Dan Boulder, as they search for a runaway teen from Texas who left her oil baron father and gold digger mother to turn tricks. William Margold hosts a swingers party in a casino penthouse that might as well be in Boise. Vinegar Syndrome has given both sets 2k restorations, sourced from original 35mm camera negatives.

Another porn auteur, Phil Prince (a.k.a. Phil Prinz), labored primarily for New York underground studio, Avon Productions. Newly restored by VS from rare 16mm vault materials and collected on DVD for the first time are Savage Sadists, Den of Dominance and Daughters of Discipline. They’re strictly for collectors of hard-to-find films of the whips/chains/leather persuasion.

The DVD Wrapup: Unfriended, Water Diviner, Reckless, Life on the Reef, Lost Soul and more

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Unfriended: Blu-ray
Facebook has become such an unavoidable force in our culture that the mere threat of being “unfriended” by a fellow user now carries the same stigma as a church member being shunned for breaking a commandment. The act of eliminating a relative or acquaintance from one’s list of “friends” is not undertaken lightly. The finality, alone, can be deeply traumatic. With that in mind, it’s worth knowing that Levan Gabriadze’s clever thriller, Unfriended, originally was titled “Cybernatural,” which isn’t nearly as to-the-point. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram represent different things to different people, especially teens trying to out-hip their computer-savvy parents. Beyond the hundreds of millions of cutesy-poo photographs of children, cats and dogs that clog social media are the occasional attacks on individuals deemed worthy of being harassed by pinhead bullies. And, as we’ve learned to our collective shame, with bullying comes the occasional suicide. If the chatroom and webcam users in Unfriended belong to a more generic Internet community than Facebook, there are more similarities here than differences. In it, a typical group of young computer-literate pals is interacting in a chatroom, when their conversation is interrupted by the supernatural presence of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after being cyber-bullied. No one knows how or why their chat is being disrupted or who else might have something to gain from taunting the others. Before long, however, dark secrets are revealed and actual friendships are being pushed to the breaking point. But Unfriended isn’t for the casual users of the Internet. The multi-image presentation, which is extremely sophisticated, requires far more work on the part of the viewer than the typical narrative feature. The more experience one has in the world of cyber-communication, the scarier Unfriended will be.

The Water Diviner: Blu-ray
No fan of historically based movies needs to be reminded of the debates that typically follow the first screenings of films that dare play fast-and-loose with the facts. Typically, a very good story is capable of overcoming the negative effects of creative license, but not always. What solid narratives and good intentions can’t do, however, is make survivors of wartime tragedies ignore the reality of battles fought in vain. Neither can they appease viewers whose contrarian interpretations of historical events are dismissed as irrelevant to the story. Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is precisely the kind of film that opened itself up to criticism for reasons other than its ability to entertain. As formulated by veteran Aussie television writer/producer Andrew Knight and scholar Andrew Anastasios, the movie basically picks up where Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli ended, with the Ottoman defenders celebrating the retreat of Anzac troops after eight months of carnage. Flash back a bit to pre-war Australia, where hard-scrabble farmer Joshua Conner (Crowe) has divined the presence of water below the surface of an arid patch of unpromising land. The discovery allows Conner and his wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), to carve a successful living from an unlikely corner of the country, while raising three rough-and-tumble sons. When the lads hear the call of duty from war-torn Europe, they, in concert with thousands of other young Aussie and Kiwi males, volunteer to assist the Brits in eliminating Johnny Turk and his German friends from the equation. Their ill-advised mission was to take the beach at Gallipoli and advance on the ridges above, where the Ottomans could survey their every move. The Anzac troops fought valiantly, but, as we’re reminded in the movie by an enemy officer, would come up just short of victory. What they didn’t know was the defenders had been reduced to bayonets and had been ordered to die, rather than surrender or fall back from their trenches.  One more thrust might have sealed the deal for the allies.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. When the smoke cleared at Lone Pine, all three of Connor and Eliza’s inseparable sons would be declared missing and presumed dead. In all, more than 10,000 in the Anzac units, 56,000-68,000 Turks and 43,000 British and French troops were slaughtered. Tens of thousands more men, on both sides, would succumb to disease. Back on the farm, four years later, Eliza dealt with her grief by committing suicide. Conner vowed to honor her wish that the boys’ remains be returned home to lie beside her on consecrated ground. He’s convinced himself that his skills as a diviner will be welcomed by the British forces attempting to find and identify the long-buried corpses, so they can be laid in a common grave. After the armistice, Turkish officers were required to join the effort by pointing out the exact positions where the fighting took place. It’s at this point where fact forms an uneasy alliance with fiction. In Anastasios’ research of the Imperial War Graves unit, he came upon this brief notation in a soldier’s diary, “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave. We did what we could for him and sent him on his way.” Unable to trace the background of the “old chap,” the co-writers based Crowe’s farmer on a relative with a talent for divining. From there, they added a friendship based on mutual respect between Connor and the Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and, after he returns to Istanbul, a complicated relationship between a beautiful Turkish war widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and her precocious pre-teen son. Connor’s friendship with the Turk officer leads to him joining Hasan in the burgeoning nationalist movement and adventures fighting Greek insurgents. An even more unlikely, if emotionally compelling scenario develops when Connor’s “visions” lead him to a Sufi monastery that once had served as POW facility. Sure, it sounds preposterous, but no more so than a hundred other wartime dramas we’ve all seen.

What the filmmakers failed to take into account, however, is historical context and the unfortunate timing of the U.S. and European release on April 24, 2015. Apart from insinuating that Greek guerrilla fighters are little more than a fictional hybrid of the Taliban and the James-Younger Gang – instead of longtime victims of Ottoman repression and brutality – there’s the omission of any mention of the Armenian Genocide. While it can be argued the systematic murder of 1.5 million people had next to nothing to do with Gallipoli – except for some Turks’ specious assertion that Armenians spied for the allies — there’s no ignoring the fact that the centennial of the failed invasion coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. By extension, it’s possible to believe that some of the same nationalist characters befriended by Connor participated in the slaughter. Worse, the arrival of The Water Diviner coincided, as well, with well-attended demonstrations across the country, marking that anniversary. Activists didn’t waste any time making the connection for anyone unaware of the significance of the date for Armenians, Australians and New Zealanders, alike, as well as those countries forced to fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Water Diviner was condemned for “whitewashing” Turkey’s role in this horrifying series of events, but I see it more as an oversight typical of a commercial imperative that doesn’t allow for details that get in the way of narrative flow. If only the histories of wars and genocide were sufficiently elastic to accommodate ignorance and lack of foresight. In its favor, The Water Diviner recently won three Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Erdogan) and Best Costume Design. It had received five additional nominations, for Best Lead Actor (Crowe), Best Supporting Actress (McKenzie), Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design and Best Editing. Featurettes include “The Making of ‘The Water Diviner’” and “The Battle of Gallipoli.”

House on the Hill
The first thing to know about Joram Lürsen’s claustrophobic Dutch thriller, Reckless, is that it is nearly a direct remake of the well-received 2009 British export, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was given a limited release in the U.S. before finding its natural audience on DVD. The second thing to know is that both are worth the effort of finding. Like J Blakeson’s original, Reckless describes what happens when the adult daughter of a rich industrialist is kidnapped and held for ransom in a sound-insulated room in a high-rise apartment whose only amenity is a new bed and mattress. Thrown on the bed and forcibly stripped naked, before being given new coveralls, Laura Temming (Sarah Chronis) is blindfolded, handcuffed to the frame and required to relieve herself in plastic bottles in her captors’ presence. It’s nasty, alright, but secrets lie behind the men’s ski masks that separate this kidnapping from the one chronicled recently in the not completely dissimilar Kidnapping Mr. Heineken and The Heineken Kidnapping.

By contrast, Jeff Frentzen’s directorial debut, House on the Hill, amounts to nothing more than a series of re-creations of kidnappings, robberies, rapes, mutilations and murders that were recorded in northern California in the early-1980s. Ex-Marines Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were responsible for the deaths of between 11 to 25 men, women and children in a non-descript cottage and unattached torture chamber in the Sierra Nevada foothills. While Lake was able to avoid prosecution by ingesting cyanide pills after being arrested on an unrelated charge, in 1985, Ng has remained on Death Row at San Quentin since 1999. Because House on the Hill offers little in the way of new information on this case or serial killers in general – except, perhaps, maddening video clips of Lake explaining his motivations – it is nothing more than torture porn in docu-drama disguise.

The Color Out of Space: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
First released in Europe in 2010, Huan Vu’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s popular 1927 short story, “The Color Out of Space” is finally being made available to sci-fi/horror enthusiasts here in Blu-ray/DVD. Previously interpreted as Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and The Curse (1987), the German-language The Color Out of Space benefits from being shot in ominous shades of black, white, gray and, finally, lavender. The story involves an American man’s search for his father, 30 years after he disappeared in the Swabian-Franconian Forest in immediate aftermath of World War II. Before the war, a meteorite had crashed near the remote farm of the Gärtener family. Scientists came and went, stymied by the rock’s ability to retain intense heat while also shrinking. No sooner was a specimen collected than it disappeared. The first manifestation of something weird occurring at the farm came in the form of larger-than-normal fruit – tasteless to the point of being inedible – and gigantic flying insects. Then, individual members of the Gärtener family began to go mad or decompose prematurely. With nothing left to study, the scientists disappeared, leaving behind a mystery and a legend that endured after the war and to the 1970s, when the flooding of the valley began behind the creation of a dam. It is at this point in the narrative that Jonathan Davis (Ingo Heise) begins gathering the clues that could lead to discovering the fate of his father (Patrick Pierce). Although only one of the locals is particularly interested in helping Jonathan, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. A possible answer blossoms before our eyes. The Blu-ray adds a variety of Lovecraft audiobooks, limited-edition newspaper reproduction, a “lost” scene” and three featurettes.

3 Hearts: Blu-ray
Among the more timeless properties in the Hollywood repertoire is Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, which, since its debut in 1939, has been translated in full or in part into McCarey’s own re-do, An Affair to Remember (1957), Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Glenn Gordon Caron’s Love Affair (1994), the Bollywood remake, Mann (1999), a pair of “Lux Radio Theater” broadcasts, with Irene Dunne, and last year’s melancholic French twist, 3 Hearts. In the Gallic version, director/co-writer Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen) adds a new player to the game, stretching the time-lapse romance to form a triangle. In a town outside Lyons, Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) misses his train back to Paris, allowing a chance meeting with a fellow chain-smoker, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s one of those chance encounters we all wish would happen to us on a rainy night in a strange town. The next morning, Marc and Sylvie make plans to meet a week later at the Tuileries Gardens. Naturally, fate intervenes … this time in the form of an anxiety attack disguised as a stroke. Lacking the foresight to have exchanged e-mails, our star-crossed lovers miss what could be their last opportunity for eternal bliss. But, wait, there’s more. A couple of years later, Marc meets and falls in love with Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), who, unbeknownst to him, is Sylvie’s needy sister. At this point in the story, it’s only logical to foresee an awkward reunion at Marc and Sophie’s nuptials, but Jacquot finds convenient ways to postpone the inevitable. Even then, Jacquot manages to keep us guessing, if not laughing. His ace in the hole is Catherine Deneuve, who, as usual, shines in the role of Sophie and Sylvie’s nurturing mother, adding something warm and wonderful to every scene in which she appears.

And, while we’re on the subject of star-crossed lovers, fans of rom/dram/coms might consider Justin Long and Emmy Rossum’s affair to remember in Comet.  They meet while waiting in line for the gates of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to open in anticipation of a late-night viewing of a meteor shower. (It’s actually a popular spot for Angelenos to gather for open-air screenings of classic movies.) Long’s character, Sam, takes the opportunity to hit on Rossum’s Kimberley, even though she’s in the company of a hunky guy capable of snapping him in two with his thighs. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Esmail flashes backwards and forward several times to show difficult it will be for Sam and Kimberley to maintain anything resembling a meaningful longterm relationship. The only problem that viewers familiar with Long and Rossum’s work are likely to have with Comet is a script that fails to add punctuation marks to Sam’s endless self-absorbed chatter. Otherwise, it’s cute enough to sustain the interest of romantically inclined renters.

Ghost Town: Blu-ray
Future Justice
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau: Blu-ray
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXIII
More an example of what can happen when genres collide than a movie that can stand on its own merits after a 25-year absence, Ghost Town begs the question as to how John Wayne might have fared in a horror movie directed by John Ford or Sergio Leone. This isn’t to suggest that the low-budget Empire Pictures production has anything in common with those giants than a southwestern setting, only that it made me wonder how they would have prevented the zombie apocalypse. Here, a beautiful blond bride (Catherine Hickland) avoids lifelong commitment by escaping into the desert in her convertible and disappearing into a cloud of dust. When hunky Deputy Sheriff Langley (Franc Luz) follows her tracks into the desert, he encounters a phantom horseman (Jimmie F. Skaggs) who lures him into a ghost town, populated by real ghosts. It’s an idea, like so many others, that would have fit more appropriately in an hour-long episode of “The Twilight Zone,” but, at 85 minutes, is stretched to its breaking point. Nonetheless, genre completists and Empire buffs should be able to find something here to justify their interest.

Not to be outdone by tales of the Himalayan Yeti, North American Sasquatch, Scotland’s Nessie and Mexican Chupacabra, Australia’s Aboriginals came up with a famously elusive cryptid of their own, naming it Yowie. It is this hairy beast that in Travis Bain’s Throwback attacks separate pairs of treasure hunters, a couple hundred years apart, when they drift into its densely forested habitat in far northern Queensland. And, as if Yowie weren’t a sufficiently ominous predator, the writer/director has added a park ranger named Rhiannon (Melanie Serafin) and a wild-eyed ex-homicide detective, McNab, played by action veteran Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior). Reportedly made on a budget of only $200,000, Throwback easily earns its Ozploitation stripes.

Richard Griffin, who’s given us such unforgettable horror films as Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, Accidental Incest and The Disco Exorcist, enters the world of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Future Justice. It is a movie that borrows from Escape From New York, The Chronicles of Riddick and a half-dozen cheapo exploitation flicks from the 1980s. Here, intergalactic super-villain Python Diamond is being transported to Earth from Saturn’s prison moon, Titan, under the watch of an inept quintet of police escorts. What the flight crew doesn’t learn until it’s too late is that Earth has been decimated by a cataclysmic nuclear war. Conveniently, not everyone on Earth has been killed. Their search for survivors leads to a group of scientists hiding in a warehouse and several gangs of marauding thugs, fully capable of wreaking havoc over the provisions contained in the bunker. Also troublesome is the faceless monster lurking in the shadows. It’s pretty goofy, but in a fun, bargain-basement, DIY sort of way. The DVD adds a commentary track and the short film, “Mutants of the Apocalypse.”

Once upon a time in Hollywood, an overoptimistic studio executive gave the green light to yet another adaptation of H.G. Wells’ visionary novel “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” which used vivisection as a launching pad for a condemnation of unchecked scientific experimentation and cruelty to animals. Advances in special makeup effects would allow for hybrid beasts more closely resembling those envisioned by Wells and the production wouldn’t be limited to a soundstage. In South African writer/director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil), New Line executives felt as if they had the right man in place to create a wildly imaginative picture and bring it in on budget, even with the participation of such notoriously difficult actors as Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in tow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Everything that could go wrong with the movie actually did go wrong, and it was going wrong half a world away from southern California. Released 20 years after the fact, David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau makes Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse look like a behind-the-scenes featurette for HBO. The often inadvertently hilarious documentary features never-before-seen footage, new interviews with actors Fairuza Balk and Rob Morrow, studio executives, crew members and recollections of the famously reclusive and roundly vilified Stanley. Gregory also takes a film crew and survivor of the production to the location, which has nearly returned to its original rain-forest roots.

The latest compilation of cinematic atrocities from the annals of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – numero XXXIII – is comprised of Daddy-O (1958), with future gangster auteur Dick Contino; Bert I. Gordon’s creature-feature Earth vs. the Spider (1958); the juvenile-delinquent non-epic Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955); and Agent for H.A.R.M., with the odd couple of Wendell Corey and international sex star Barbara Bouchet. Beyond the informed commentary of the Satellite of Love crew, the set includes the featurettes “Beatnick Blues: Investigating Daddy-O,” “This Movie Has Legs: Looking Back at ‘Earth vs. the Spider’,” “Film It Again, Sam: The Katzman Chronicles,” “Tommy Cook: From Jungle Boy to Teenage Jungle” and “Peter Mark Richman: In H.A.R.M.’s Way”; MST Hour Wraps; theatrical trailers; and four mini-posters by Steve Vance.

Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland
Built on Narrow Land
Nice Bombs
Our Daily Poison
Anyone familiar with the archetypal weirdos created by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein for their dead-on IFC satire, “Portlandia,” will recognize all of the people we meet in Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, except the neo-fascist cops who equate riding bicycles to promoting Bolshevism. An exaggeration? Not according to the evidence presented in Joe Biel’s curious documentary, which chronicles the rise of “bicycle culture” from the early 1970s to the late 1990s and resistance to it by the right-wing police department. I remember visiting Portland during this period and enjoying the overriding sense of liberation and personal freedom I experienced there. The city reflected through Biel’s lens more closely resembles East Berlin or Warsaw, during the Cold War. “Aftermass” is described as being the first feature documentary to explore the events, people, politics and social changes that led to Portland becoming the first major bicycle city in the United States. It accomplishes this by putting a tight focus on the then-grassroots movement Critical Mass, whose membership does, indeed, resemble the characters in “Portlandia,” right down to a bike-riding mayor and annoying anarchists. The organization was the subject of illegal spying by the police Red Squad and citations registered against its members ranged from expensive traffic citations to busted heads and confiscated equipment. Once the number of dedicated bicyclists actually did reach critical mass, however, they were able to take control of the ballot box and force city officials – many of whom rode bicycles to work or for recreation – to stop kowtowing to the ridiculously powerful police hierarchy. Today, Portland is a bikers’ paradise, with hundreds of miles of paths and roadways dedicated to commuters and other enthusiasts. Bonus features include 21 additional short bicycle films, 18 deleted scenes, 1,000 legal documents to peruse and a downloadable soundtrack.

I doubt that many Americans would mind terribly if Cape Cod were to be cleared of its semi-permanent residents and their land was returned to its original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Indians. In exchange for helping the Pilgrims, whose arrival pre-dated that of the Kennedys by roughly 300 years, the Native American tribe was given a steady diet of small pox and other diseases, enslavement and expulsion, anti-colonial wars and crappy land deals. Today, it’s known primarily as a playground for the rich and famous and mecca for Jaws fanatics. Malachi Connolly’s debut documentary, Built on Narrow Land, is a film that looks at a moment in Cape Cod history when the spirit of European modern architecture inspired a group of bohemian designers — professionals and amateurs both–to build houses that married principles of the Bauhaus to the centuries-old local architecture of seaside New England. As long as eastern Cape Cod was largely free of tourists and developers, the homes existed as fully functional seasonal dwellings that confused Modernist ideas with those of trailer-park designers. Not all of the homes held up in the punishing Cape Cod winters, but others have supported tourism and semi-permanent residency until today. In 1961, President Kennedy signed legislation establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore, which gave National Park Service jurisdiction over the fate of the remaining landmark houses. Besides offering a fascinating discussion on the history and cultural importance of the homes, Connolly interviews relatives of the Bauhaus crowd, temporary residents of the homes and people who understand the politics and peccadilloes of Cape Code’s permanent residents. The musical score is provided by Josephine Wiggs, of the Breeders.

Released tentatively into theaters and festivals in 2007, Nice Bombs offers a slightly dated, but still relevant look at post-invasion Baghdad, this time through the eyes of men, women and children who lived through the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party. Chicago-based filmmaker and newly naturalized American citizen Usama Alshaibi (Profane, American Arab) used the occasion of the newly elected government to return to Iraq with his father and American wife. The family had left the country after his educator father refused to join the Baathist party and his mother settled in Iowa. They had plenty of relatives left in the capital, so an open-arms welcome was guaranteed. What wasn’t known ahead of time was how they would be greeted by folks in the street, who, by now, had gotten tired of the continued American presence and resultant insurgency. Alshaibi borrowed the title from something his cousin said after hearing an explosion outside the home. “It’s a bomb. A ‘nice bomb,’” he enigmatically explains. In 2003, any bomb or missile that didn’t hit one’s own home could be considered to be a “nice bomb.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the people we meet here are the ones caught between the occupation forces and the insurgents, who aren’t clearly identified. One relative complains that an American patrol wouldn’t allow him to return home, even though he was standing 30 meters from his front door. At the same time, Alshaibi also reminds us of the toll paid by innocent victims of the mosque and market bombings. We meet relatives, friends and American contractors, all of whom have weapons secreted in their homes, and children with firm opinions on who’s to blame for their continued misery. By the time Alshaibi has returned to Iraq’s border with Jordan, we’ve been introduced to enough perfectly hospitable, if completely disillusioned Iraqis to wince when an American border guard asks the filmmaker why the citizenry isn’t more appreciative of this country’s sacrifices and continuing occupation. (Someone was buying the Cheney-Bush propaganda, anyway.) The DVD adds several deleted scenes, three of Alshaibi’s shorts and commentary.

Our Daily Poison is a cautionary documentary about food sourcing that would be far more alarming if we hadn’t heard it all before now. Produced by the French investigative documentarian Marie-Monique Robin, it describes how several already notorious multinational agricultural interests have been allowed to “poison” the European food chain in the name of increased production and higher profits. To make her case, Robin points to World Health Organization data that shows the incidence of cancer in developed countries has doubled over the last 30 years, with the increase in leukemia and brain tumors in children up around 2 percent per year. Similar trends for neurological diseases, auto-immune disorders and reproduction dysfunctions have also been recorded. Robin has scoured the archives of the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, and talked her way into secret meetings, to show how little oversight is provided by the agencies assigned to regulate abusers of our trust. Indeed, she argues, some 100,000 chemical molecules have invaded our environment, primarily our food, since the end of the Second World War.

PBS: Life on the Reef: Blu-ray
Syfy: Helix: Season 2: Blu-ray
Justice League: Gods and Monsters: Blu-ray
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 6
Currently playing on PBS affiliates, the Blu-ray iteration of “Life on the Reef” examines life on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef over the course of a year. Where previous documentaries have focused on environmental issues and sharks, the three hours allotted “Life on the Reef” allows for a comprehensive study of the ebb and flow of events that impact life on and around Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a rigidly protected region east of Queensland. A year on the reef covers myriad reproduction cycles, migrations, meteorological events and prime scientific opportunities. Also covered are the impact of shipping routes on the reef, poaching and interaction between human residents and sea life. Not surprisingly, the Blu-ray presentation is consistently spectacular.

The Syfy series “Helix” lasted all of two seasons, which, in hindsight, is a year longer than most new shows are accorded, even on cable. A stylish hybrid of The Thing and any number of rampant-virus thrillers, it probably did well enough for first-timer Cameron Porsandeh to expect another assignment in the near future. Season One kept the CDC crew in “Thing” territory for all 13 episodes, so a thaw was in order. This time around, Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) and his team travel to the mysterious and remote wooded island of St. Germain, where a deadly new virus presents a different sort of threat, as do members of a well-entrenched religious community. When Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) travels to the same island, she is captured by a stranger who repeatedly asks her, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” Later it is revealed that Julia is on St. Germain 30 years in the future, and she is shown Farragut’s grave near the ruins of the base.  The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and outtakes.

Released as a direct-to-video and digital-download project from Warner Home Video, Justice League: Gods and Monsters is an animated superhero film that appears to have been influenced greatly by the popularity of DC Comics’ occasional Bizarro World storylines. Here, though, Superman is the son of Zod, not Jor-El; Batman is Kirk Langstrom, a genetically altered vampire-like creature with super strength and a thirst for blood; Wonder Woman is scorned Princess Bekka, granddaughter of New God Highfather; and the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter are nowhere to be found. Justice League fans should appreciate the break from form and bright animation.

The new Star Vista/Time collection, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 6,” includes such episodes such as “Mama Fights Back,” as she chews out K-Ray radio’s consumer watchdog on the air and promptly gets hired as his replacement. In “The Big Nap,” after watching TV detective movies for a week, Mama dreams she’s a film-noir private eye. In “Pinup Mama,” Bubba creates a flier for a senior mixer using a photo of mama’s head on a young model’s bikini-clad body. In the series finale, “Bye Bye Baby,” Vint and Naomi move from Mama’s basement with their new addition.

Sleazy Stags, American Style
The difference between a stag film and a loop, as pertains to the underground porn industry pre-“Deep Throat,” was largely a function of exhibition opportunities. Generally speaking, loops were single-reel productions that could be appreciated by patrons of adult bookstores and peep shows on a pay-per-minute basis, one movie per booth. Once they were purchased under-the-counter or through mail-order sources, the films could be shown on 8mm projectors – typically reserved for home movies of the period – or commercial 16mm machines at “smokers,” stag and bachelor parties, garages and basements. By the 1970s, the “stags” no longer featured men in masks giving lonely women what they wanted sexually, but dared not admit desiring. Male actors no longer kept their socks on during sex, although garter belts and stocking were optional for women. With the advent of home-video players and late-night “skinemax” offerings on cable TV, the stags and loops became obsolete and were discarded, put into storage or lost. Sleazy Stags, American Style, from After Hours Cinema, contains more than three hours of these films – which make the Bettie Page fetish flicks look like Boogie Nights — many available for the first time on home video. They’ve been restored as well as possible, but are of mostly historical interest to collectors. There aren’t as many still-familiar actors anonymously participating in these films, either, as has been the case with loop collections from Impulse Pictures. Still, the mostly generic faces of hippies in need of fast cash weren’t the drawing card, anyway. The trailer reel is almost as good as the stags, themselves.

The DVD Wrapup: What We Do In Shadows, Resnaisx2, Marfa Girl, and more

Friday, July 24th, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows: Blu-ray
Mockumentaries and genre spoofs come and go, these days. Such hit-and-run parodies as Vampires Suck, Date Movie, The Starving Games and Meet the Spartans take the scattershot approach, riding the success of one hit picture to take none-too-subtle potshots at a dozen other movies. The best, including Airplane!, This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, are in no hurry to tip the gag to viewers who aren’t in on the gag from the get-go. Zombie, vampire and alien-intruder movies rely so heavily on genre tropes, conventions and clichés that it’s sometimes difficult to discern the line separating satire from homage. The sub-genre can be traced all the way back to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, in 1948, or, perhaps, seven years earlier, in Hold That Ghost. Among the luminaries who milked mirth from monsters in the 1960-70s were Roman Polanski (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) and Stan Dragoti (Love at First Bite). Cult favorite Udo Kier, who’d already played Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein under Andy Warhol’s banner, added a certain amount of credibility to Charles Matton’s 1976 curiosity, Spermula. A couple of decades later, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would kick off another round of genre parodies, with the smart and wickedly funny Shaun of the Dead. Jonathan Levine would allow for the possibility of romance and redemption among the undead, in Warm Bodies, while Cockneys vs. Zombies added a unique regional flare to the splatter-fest trend. Otherwise, a lot of very amusing titles have been wasted on comedies that would have benefitted from more money and more laughs.

One needn’t have been a zealous fan of “Flight of the Conchords” and Eagle vs Shark, or even a vampire completist, to be drawn to What We Do in the Shadows. Those who are, however, probably will get a real kick out of this razor-sharp genre parody from New Zealand. The largely improvised mockumentary defies the odds by doing an end-run around the Scary Movie and Scream franchises and adding a supernatural spin to such bros-will-be-bros pictures as Swingers and Saturday Night Fever. It is the conceit of co-writers-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi that a group of vampire roommates in contemporary Wellington permit a camera crew full access to their weeks-long preparation for the annual Unholy Masquerade. It is a formal bash, where the vampires party with the city’s zombies, banshees and other mutants. Like an upside-down version of MTV’s “The Real World,” the apartment they share is an unholy mess, with dirty dishes filling every flat surface and dried-up blood soiling the pots and pans in the kitchen. They might have acquired their fashion sense directly from George Bryan “Beau” Brummel or Oscar Wilde. The bloodshed, of which there’s plenty, is at once delightfully gratuitous and borderline gut-churning. More than anything else, however, What We Do in the Shadows provides lots of good R-rated fun for genre nuts. Rhys Darby, who played the singers’ hapless agent in “Flight of the Conchords,” is a key part of the cast, as are as several Kiwi actors from Eagle vs. Shark. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clement and Waititi, promo clips, deleted scenes, in-character interviews and clips, a background featurette and poster gallery.

Love Unto Death/Life Is a Bed of Roses: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s taken an Introduction to European Cinema course in college can attest to the head-scratching that followed screenings of Alain Resnais’ arthouse classics, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as the anxiety caused by having to write papers on them. Some of the confusion came from Resnais’ work being lumped together with other examples of the French New Wave, which emerged coincidental to his move from documentaries (Night and Fog) to fiction. In exploring the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, Resnais frequently disregarded conventional notions of narrative and story development. The elliptical framing could be as perplexing and inexplicable as any viewer’s personal recollection of a dream or nightmare. Because Resnais frequently collaborated with such accomplished French authors and left-wing scenarists as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Gruault, Henri Laboritand, David Mercer, Jean Cayrol, Jorge Semprún, Jacques Sternberg and Chris Marker, it was particularly difficult for Americans to determine where the writers’ contributions ended and the director’s began. Even those early arthouse buffs who fell in love with Breathless and The 400 Blows felt intimated by the intellectualism that informed Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad.  I wonder how many of the students who gave up on Resnais in college have returned to those films in retrospectives or on Blu-ray and attempted to reinterpret them from the point of view of an adult. With all of the informative bonus features and first-person recollections now available to viewers, there’s no telling what they might take from these beautifully crafted landmark films. I’m happy that I made the effort, even if some of the mysteries remain unsolved, and have gone to tackle works from later creative periods.

Cohen Media’s winning streak continues with remastered editions of films Resnais directed back-to-back in the mid-1980s, featuring popular European actors who appear in both pictures. Released in 1983, Life Is a Bed of Roses could hardly be more French and, therefore, more foreign to American eyes … although a Wes Anderson remake wouldn’t be completely out of the question. As such, brushing up on the intellectual fantasy before diving into the deep end only makes sense and shouldn’t be construed as cheating. In it, Resnais and Gruault (The Story of Adele H, My American Uncle) pay tribute to three important French filmmakers — Georges Méliès, Marcel L’Herbier and Eric Rohmer – by interweaving three stories from different eras around a cotton-candy castle in the Ardennes. In an extended period of peace before the outbreak of World War I, the fabulously wealthy Count Michel Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) announces plans to build a Disneyland-like complex for the exclusive pleasure of his family and friends. What doesn’t go according to this powerful man’s plans are the decision by his intended queen of the realm (Fanny Ardant) to marry another of their friends (Pierre Arditi). If that rejection wasn’t enough to dissuade Forbek, the Kaiser’s intentions to invade France were. Years later, the count invites friends who survived the war to the castle for a utopian interlude complete with flowing robes, love potions and pre-hippy philosophy. That it stands alone on the property doesn’t make the castle any less interesting. Skipping ahead, once again, this time to the 1980s, the castle has been converted to a school dedicated to the theory that children can learn everything they’ll need to know in life through free play and curiosity. A conference of progressive educators has been convened to toss around ideas, but none of the guests are willing to concede that their ideas are anything but sacrosanct. Educators are like that. Other bonds are established, however, through the promise of romance and Philippe-Gérard’s evocative soundtrack.

Resnais and Gruault find an interesting way to use the music of composer Hans Werner Henze, as well, in Love Unto Death, a drama as emotionally wrenching as its companion piece is fantastical. In what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, Henze’s music serves as fifth voice. Simon, an archaeologist, and Elisabeth, a botanist, are deeply in love, despite being together only a short time. Out of the blue, Simon suffers a heart attack and is declared dead. Just as the doctor is about to leave the home they share, Simon rallies to the point where he refuses further treatment. As it turns out, their closest friends, Judith (Ardant) and Jerome (Andre Dussolier), are Lutheran clerics. They respond to their friend’s near-death with compassion, of course, but also great curiosity. He remembers key elements of his aborted journey to the afterlife, after all, and, even though he’s an atheist, was profoundly moved by the experience. Judith and Jerome had recently lost a parishioner to suicide and had yet to come to grips with their inability to prevent it. Naturally, much soul-searching follows their discussions over the dinner table and in private. Simon, whose career-long obsession has been the disposal of refuse in primitive communities, rightly wonders if anyone will give a damn about the subject when he dies. And, if not, what then was the point of being alive? Elisabeth refuses to listen to any of this post-traumatic philosophizing. She can’t imagine living without her lover and a visit to the archeological dig only adds to their confusion about how Simon ought to proceed, given the fragility of his heart. The snowy interstitials and musical interludes give viewers something else to consider. Clearly, Love Unto Death is the furthest thing from a comedy. Still, the subject is something familiar to all of us, in one way or another, and the occasion of a short-lived miracle offers a perfect forum for such exchanges of thoughts and fears. Commentary is provided on both films by Wade Major and Andy Klein.

Marfa Girl
A couple of years ago, “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer paid a visit to tiny Marfa, Texas, which inexplicably has become a mecca for artists and other hipster visionaries, despite being located in the middle of cow country, 200 miles away from the nearest airport. In his introduction, Safer surmised, “Marfa lives on, is even thriving: its renaissance spurred by the arrival of a host of young, cutting edge artists. Mixing cowboys and culture might seem like a bad idea, but it’s made Marfa a capital of quirkiness … and it’s produced a harmony as sweet as the country music that fills the air.” When cutting-edge filmmaker Larry Clark traveled deep into the heart of Texas to make Marfa Girl, he probably ate in the same restaurants as Safer mentioned and, perhaps, visited a gallery or two. You won’t find them in his film. Although one of the young women we meet is a promising artist, she largely functions here as an extreme example of an innocent child corrupted by her hippie parents’ radical incorporation of free love into their child-rearing regimen. For decades, now, Clark has specialized in photographing and filming teenagers and young adults who live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first movie, Kids, documented a day in the life of a group of aimless New York City teenagers, with nothing better to do than cop drugs, skate, drink, smoke and have unprotected sex. The difference between the kids in Marfa Girl and those in Kids is that, no matter how burned out the New York teens were at such an early point in their lives, they were surrounded by people who had overcome similar circumstances and succeeded on their own terms. The list includes writer Harmony Korine, who was a 19-year-old street kid when he met Clark. In Marfa, the characters might never have met anyone who achieved anything greater than landing a job at the local diner and made a career of it … that, or the military.

We’re introduced to Adam (Adam Mediano) on the eve of his 16th birthday, as he’s being picked up on curfew violation by a brutal Border Patrol agent. (The city doesn’t appear to have a police force of its own and isn’t close to the nearest border.) The cop has it out for Adam, in large part because any infraction gives him an excuse for returning the boy home to his parrot-obsessed mother, who brings out the most vile sexual fantasies in him. Adam’s birthday gifts arrive in the form of an erotic paddling from a hugely pregnant teacher, several joints and sex with a neighbor who aspires to be a stripper. His more age-appropriate girlfriend gives him the same present. If this is an unusual coming-of-age ritual for Lone Star teens, no one in Adam’s crowd seems surprised by it. In a funny exchange, the boy and the slightly older artist (Drake Burnette) are strolling along a dusty path when she asks if he is aware of the sexual properties of the clitoris. He responds, “Only from what I’ve seen on ‘South Park.’” This leads to a rather detailed explanation of how the female sex organ works and ought to be pleasured. Any modicum of blissful sexual innocence remaining in the teens is lost within the next several hours by the actions of the porn-addicted patrolman. If viewers already familiar with such Clark works as Bully, Ken Park, Wassup Rockers and the The Smell of Us aren’t shocked by the ending of Marfa Girl, it’s only because it’s of a piece with those titles. And, where Kids was correctly perceived to be a cautionary tale, Marfa Girl’s power to shock will likely be limited to the parents of children approaching high school age. As usual, the most powerful performances are delivered by first-time actors. Clearly, this is not Morley Safer’s Marfa, Texas.

Red Knot
Not long after the introduction of the birth-control pill and publication of Masters and Johnson’s “Human Sexual Response,” it stopped being unusual for men and women to cohabitate before entering into marriage. Such arrangements allowed them time to check each other out before committing to matrimony, one way or the other. Parents raised their eyebrows, but it was difficult to argue the logic of sampling the goods before making a commitment. The widespread availability of contraception devices allowed couples the time to get to know each other, before having to focus all of their attention on a third member of the family. If the divorce rate continued to rise into the early 1980s, it was for reasons unrelated to shacking up ahead of nuptials. Many analysts are convinced that the overall rate has declined since its high and it may now be below 50 percent, if not by much. I don’t know if the couple we meet in Scott Cohen’s tense relationship drama, Red Knot, lived together before getting married and setting off on a disastrous honeymoon excursion, literally to the end of the earth. The characters played by Olivia Thirlby (Just Before I Go) and Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) seem very happy to be together in the opening minutes of Cohen’s debut film. If Chloe would have preferred a cruise to Tahiti or the Cayman Islands, instead of Peter’s destination of choice, Antarctica, she tries her best not to let her disappointment show. The tiny cabins and bunk beds afforded passengers on the Red Knot may not have been measured with the needs of honeymooners in mind, but they give it the old college try, anyway.

Even before they reach Antarctica, though, Olivia begins to feel as if Peter is paying more attention to the scientists aboard the ship than to her. It’s so subtle that Peter, like many men in the same position, is unable to notice any changes in his behavior or any of the fissures growing between them. Neither do we, really. A professional decision impulsively made by Peter causes Olivia to go off like an M-80 in the hands of a careless teenage boy. Within moments, it seems, she’s flirted her way into the good graces of the handsome Captain Emerson (Billy Campbell), who finds her a more accommodating cabin. If Emerson has reasons of his own for spending months at a time at sea, Cohen wisely avoids the temptation to turn Red Knot into an R-rated episode of “The Love Boat.” The truly big chill is felt every time the Red Knot cuts through the ice pack and passages between the snow-covered mountains that tower over the ship.  Cohen and cinematographer Michael Simmonds (The Lunchbox) capture aspects of the continent I haven’t seen in the many recent documentaries about penguins and the year-round population of scientists and support crews. The scenery is utterly spectacular and the skies above couldn’t be more ominous. Blessedly free of clichés and easy answers, Red Knot describes exactly what can happen when a marriage hits an iceberg.

Cemetery Without Crosses: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Two-thirds Spaghetti Western and a third Escargot Western, Cemetery Without Crosses (a.k.a., “The Rope and the Colt”) is that rare blend of French and Italian sensitivities that honors the mythology of American West without also smearing the boot prints of Sergio Leone or John Ford. Multi-hyphenate filmmaker and star Robert Hossein gives credit where it’s due, however, by dedicating his terrifically entertaining Western to Leone, under whom he served in Once Upon a Time in the West. Favorable comparisons to the “Dollars Trilogy” can be made, though, in the majestic Andalusian exteriors, spare sets and costume designs, and no-nonsense protagonist. Those distinctively haunting Ennio Morricone musical cues may be missing in Cemetery Without Crosses, but Andre Hossein’s score and Scott Walker’s theme song easily bridge the gap. Although not quite as menacing as the anti-heroes and villains in Leone’s films, Bob Hussein is very good as the gun-slinger, Manuel, whose good friend is hung at the gate of his modest homestead after being caught in the middle of a feud between two rival families. (I can’t understand why anyone would choose to farm patches of desert that even cacti avoid for lack of water, but it didn’t seem to bother Ford or Leone.) The man’s stunningly beautiful widow, Maria (Michèle Mercier), finds Manuel in a creaky ghost town not far from the homestead. She pleads with him to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of the Rogers clan, but he is non-committal in the kind of way that tells us he’s already bought into it. After gunning down a bunch of Caine family ruffians in the saloon/brothel, Manuel is able to insinuate himself into the good graces of the Rogers clan, where his plan includes kidnaping Old Man Rogers’ daughter and turning her over to Maria for nefarious purposes of her own. The French touches can be found in Hossein’s treatment of the female characters, who are given more to do here than in most oaters. The action in Cemetery Without Crosses isn’t of the non-stop variety, but, when it erupts, it’s pretty entertaining. Hossein shares writing credit for the film with Claude Desailly and Dario Argento, although the extent of the giallo specialist’s contributions are in doubt. Arrow Video’s 2K restoration is typically first-rate, adding the all-new featurette “Remembering Sergio,” vintage interviews with cast and crew and Hossein, trailers, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by James Flames, and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918
In last week’s column, I looked at the mini-series “Crimson Field” and 1979 remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 is the third winner in this World War I trifecta. Like his Decasia, The Great Flood and Just Ancient Loops, Beyond Zero combines rare archival material and contemporary music. In this case, the seriously distressed 35mm nitrate footage was shot on and around battlefields of the First World War. It is accompanied by the Kronos Quartet, performing a score created by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. For those unfamiliar with Morrison’s work, watching largely eroded film stock accompanied by music can have the same effect as a good old-fashioned light show at the Fillmore in the 1960s. The images that find their way through the damage often takes the form of ghosts from the far past. Here, they include recruiting rallies, planes flying in formation, tanks crushing everything in their path, troops advancing from the trenches and, my favorite, a dog standing guard over a dead or wounded soldier lying in a farm field, barking to alert stretcher bearers of his master’s location. It’s a truly remarkable document and, at 39 minutes, not at all taxing on the eye. The DVD adds footage of the Kronos Quartet performing in front of a large screen showing the film.

Gangs of Wasseypur: Blu-ray
The easiest way to describe Anurag Kashyap’s gangland saga, Gangs of Wasseypur, is to boil it down to a cross between The Godfather trilogy and an atypically violent Bollywood movie. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic, Gangs Of Wasseypur chronicles the a multigenerational rivalry between two families whose mafia lineage begins with the divvying of spoils at the end of British rule in India’s coal-rich Dhanbad district and extends to the bloody settling of long-held debts in 2009. The influence of Bollywood can be seen in the complicated romantic entanglements and a soundtrack that includes 25 popular and traditional songs. One family is controlled by the cunning politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), who exploits his constituents while also promising them protection from the descendants of the notorious train robber, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat). Singh’s muscle is provided by the city’s Qureshi Muslims, a sub-caste of animal butchers known to punish their enemies in the same manner as they prepare meat for their customers. The patriarch of the Khan family went from robbing trains to taking over the coal mines handed over to rich Indian businessman by the British, before leaving Dodge. From there, corruption would flow through his son, Shahid Khan (Manoj Bajpai) and his five sons from two concurrent wives. If Shahid’s son had been a Corleone, he’d be Sonny, while Singh’s son more closely resembles Fredo. The wives may know what’s expected of them in such a male-dominated environment, but they can be as cold and calculating as Connie Corleone Rizzi in Godfather III. Culled from the ranks of supermodels and stars of regional Indian cinemas, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadda, Reema Sen and Anurita Jha are as talented as they ethereally beautiful in the Bollywood tradition. The biggest drawback for American viewers will be the film’s five-hour length. Naturally divided into two parts of equal lengths, it can be further subdivided by viewers, as if it were a mini-series. Kashyap is also responsible for the gritty coming-of-age story, That Girl in Yellow Boots, in which a half-Indian Brit is lured to the less glamorous precincts of Mumbai by a letter sent by her estranged father. It’s considered to be a prime example of the burgeoning Indian indie movement.

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie: Blu-ray
Anyone privy to the press releases sent out regularly by Troma Entertainment’s marketing staff knows that company co-founder Lloyd Kaufman has kept busy over the past few years basking in the glory of finally being recognized as one of the most distinctive and influential filmmakers in the horror genre and a true pop-cultural icon. Like John Waters, he travels around the world accepting lifetime achievement awards, holding seminars and retrospectives, and conducting master classes. He also finds the time to direct or co-direct a picture each year, make cameos in other people’s movies, write the occasional book and oversee the distribution of non-Troma originals. Shot and released almost concurrently, in 1989, with The Toxic Avenger Part II, Toxic Avenger III: The Last Temptation of Toxie finds Our Hero back in Tromaville, after his sojourn to Japan. He returns to a town virtually free of crime. So, after taking on the censorial owners of chain video stores, he has next to nothing to do. Desperate to raise money for the experimental surgery that could restore his blind fiancée’s eyesight (Phoebe Legere), Toxie accepts a lucrative job with the evil multinational conglomerate, Apocalypse Inc. (a.k.a., the Devil). His greatest challenge, though, may be avoiding being called “yuppie scum” by Tromaville hipsters. Blu-ray exclusives add a new Introduction by Kaufman; “American Cinematheque Honors 40 Years of Troma” and “TroMoMA”; “Make Your Own Damn Horror Film!,” featuring Kane Hodder and Bill Mosley; “Rabid Grannies! The Informercial!”; LK “Pests” promo video; Troma YouTube “Halloween” and Troma trailers.The vintage DVD material adds commentaries by Kaufman and actor Joe Flieshaker; “Satanic Memories”; interviews; “Confessions of a Snake Lady”; a Toxic posters compilation; and “Lord Fartacus Cult.”

Lost for Words
Although almost nothing rings true in Stanley J. Orzel’s cross-cultural romance, the contemporary Hong Kong setting comes close to making Lost for Words recommendable to fans of star-crossed love stories. An American IT specialist, Michael (Sean Faris), fresh from an eventful stint in the Marines and bad breakup with his girlfriend back in the states, falls in love with an up-and-coming ballerina, Anna (Grace Huang), from mainland China. After a couple of chance encounters, they agree to meet for impromptu language lessons. These lead to sight-seeing dates, during which they discuss their impressions on the shape of clouds and exchange other tentative pre-sex chatter. One cliché follows another – a harpsichord even accompanies a rainy-night stroll on the waterfront – until they hit something resembling an insurmountable roadblock. It would be easy enough to pick apart Orzel’s unabashedly old-fashioned depiction of modern romance, if that’s all there was to Lost for Words. Instead, he takes us to places in Hong Kong, far from the hustle and bustle of the markets, street vendors and bars already surveyed by John Woo and Tsui Hark, among others. As for being an ex-Marine, there are times when Faris barely looks old enough to have gotten out of high school. It might have made more sense if Michael’s background was something substantially less butch. But, since I’m not the intended audience for Lost for Words, I probably should remain neutral on the casting. I will say, though, that Anna’s sarcastic roommate, Mei Mei (Joman Chiang) adds some much-need spice to the dialogue.

Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: Kindness
PBS: Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue
Good manners, forgiveness, friendship and teamwork are the lessons being taught in Nickelodeon’s newest DVD, “Let’s Learn: Kindness.” It features six “super-polite episodes” of the network’s popular franchises, “Wallykazam!,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Ni Hao, Kai-lan.” It contains 140 minutes of social-skills fun, plus a bonus educational worksheet for on-the-go learning.

The CGI-animated “Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue” follows 12-year-old orphan Mia, as she discovers a portal to the magical land of Centopia, where teamwork is required to save it from the evil Queen Panthea.  In this three stories the fantasy world’s unicorns require the help of Mia and her friends among the flying elves, dragons, and other amazing creatures. The stories are “Trumptus Lost,” “The Golden Sun” and “Onchao’s Oasis.”

The DVD Wrapup: Salt of the Earth, Ex Machina, It Follows, Goodbye to All That, Black Stallion and more

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Salt of the Earth: Blug-ray
Dozens of compelling stories are told in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth, which chronicles the life and career of “social photographer” and environmentalist Sebastiao Salgado. Arguably, his most famous photo was taken at the site of Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold rush, which occurred in the early-1980s and petered out pretty quickly after that. From a distance, the open-pit mine resembles a giant toy ant farm carved into a hillside, revealing terraces, tunnels and precarious paths crawling with activity. Look closer and you’ll see that, instead of ants, tens of thousands of mud-covered human beings are clinging to hundreds of crudely made wooden ladders, carrying packs on their backs filled with what they hope and pray to be paydirt. Anyone unfamiliar with the Serra Pelada lode might assume that the photograph had been taken in the late 1800s and the men with packs on their backs were slaves. In fact, they were prospectors from all walks of life, driven by news that gold-yielding ore was being extracted from the pit without the benefit of tools or heavy equipment. If the gravel in any of those backpacks contained gold, a percentage of its value would go to the miner who carried it all the way to the surface. If the California and Klondike gold rushes could have been reduced to a single hole in the ground, it might have resembled the chaos generated by the discovery of a 6-gram nugget on the banks of the river on Genésio Ferreira da Silva’s remote farm, 270 miles south of the mouth of the Amazon River. Once seen, these photographs can never be forgotten. The same can be said of the hundreds of black-and-white images Salgado brought back from forced migrations of refugees in war zones around the world. These displaced men, women and children knew the closest thing to a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow would be relief from carnage, drought, hunger, cholera, brutality and despair.

For more than two decades, Salgado found subjects for his photojournalism all over South and Central America; Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mali, Congo and the Sudan; the Krajina region of Croatia and into Bosnia; among the impoverished ship dissemblers in India and Bangladesh; the victims of land mines in Cambodia; the sabotaged oil fields of Kuwait; and Third World nations supplying tea leaves and other commodities to First World consumers. After witnessing the horrors perpetrated on non-combatants in central Africa by machete-wielding tribesmen and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, Salgado arrived at his breaking point. He returned to his homes in Paris and Brazil, determined to devote a far greater amount of his personal time to wife/editor Laila and his sons, to whom he was a stranger. By this time, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was old enough to accompany his father on his journeys to record the lives of lost tribes in New Guinea and deeper into the Brazilian rain forest than the gold mine. Juliano and Wenders had planned to make separate documentaries on Salgado’s career, but, after much disagreement and rancor, settled on a single format in which both men provided narration. In addition to the dozens of black-and-white photographs, Salt of the Earth contains color film footage taken during Salgado’s shoots.

The color cinematography is especially effective in the final third of the film, which documents the family’s remarkable success in breathing no life into the blighted farm of his grandfather where Salgado spent much of his childhood. The farm had once been a part of the Atlantic rain-forest system, but, after the trees were cut and sold, erosion turned the property into a death zone. Laila suggested they attempt to reclaim the land by planting indigenous trees and finding ways to conserve what little water found there. After several re-plantings, the roots took hold and a thriving forest was reborn. Thus began the Instituto Terra, which is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education. The Blu-ray presentation often borders on the spectacular, with every shade of black, white, silver and gray strikingly represented in hi-def. Also included are commentary with Wenders and Julian Ribeiro Salgado; a recollection of the highs and lows of their collaboration; and deleted scenes. A similar pose is struck in Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1954 dramatization of the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County, New Mexico. In docu-drama fashion, it deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. It also emphasized the strength of the women in the community, who may have been even more committed to the strike than their husbands, brothers and fathers. Salt of the Earth was made by filmmakers blacklisted in Hollywood – the director served six months in prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC inquisitors – and predictably condemned as left-wing propaganda by right-wing politicians and commentators, and many weak-kneed liberals, as well. It wasn’t made by Salgado, but the depictions of mistreatment, manipulation and racial prejudice would have been in his strike zone. It’s well worth finding.

Ex Machina: Blu-ray
It is a function of the male computer geek’s discomfort in the company of strong and sexually affirmative women that so many sci-fi movies depict the search for a sexually compliant, anatomically correct and subtlely subservient female android, instead of a more gender-neutral robot design. Male screenwriters are fond of fembots, as well, but most would settle for a life-size sex doll or Fleshlight that was cast from the naughty bits of their favorite porn star. The theme can be traced at least as far back as the “Twilight Zone” episodes “I Sing the Body Electric” and “The Lonely”; the “Star Trek” episode, “Requiem for Methuselah”; TV’s “Bionic Woman”; the replicant babes in Blade Runner; the cyber-actress protagonist of S1m0ne; and the Japanese porn anime, Imma Youjo: The Erotic Temptress 2: The Perfect Love Doll. There are others, but you get the picture. There isn’t a less-than-gorgeous female character in any of them. The same holds true for Alex Garland’s highly ambitious digital wet dream, Ex Machina, which advances the sub-genre by setting it in an idyllic retreat, owned by a reclusive cyber-billionaire, and infusing his megalomaniacal vision with ideas inspired by Greek and Roman tragedies and mythology, the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Titian, Mary Shelly, crappy 1970s disco and Depeche Mode. Ex Machina is the kind of super-smart movie that should carry footnotes at the bottom of the screen. In it, a 26-year-old coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a competition to spend a week with his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who spends his free time punching a heavy bag, drinking vodka and harassing his super-sexy cyber-maid. It’s the kind of macho activity one has come to expect from the Silicon Valley billionaires who’ve overcome years of bullying by purchasing sports franchises and raising the price of beer and nachos to unconscionable levels. It doesn’t take Caleb very long to realize that he could have left the sun screen at home, because his room is a concrete-and-glass cell monitored by cameras and absent windows to enjoy the scenery.

Although it’s never made precisely clear as to what Caleb has been brought to the compound to do, in lieu of enjoying the scenery and stroke his boss’ ego. If the earlier model cyborg, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), resembles every yuppie male’s idea of how an Asian girlfriend should look and behave, the more fully evolved fembot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is such a dish that she looks great, even with her mechanical skeleton in full view. Vikander is 26, but, in a pinch, could pass for 14. It begs the question as to whether Nathan might be considered flaunting the laws governing sex with minors, simply by making Ava an android. Ava and Caleb hit it off immediately, despite being separated by a wall of glass. She becomes his sole confidante when he begins to doubt Nathan’s motivations and sanity. Her reasoned responses reveal evidence of artificial intelligence and a desire for independence. So far, at least, Nathan has been cunning enough to keep his guests under permanent lockdown. Part of his reason for bringing Caleb to the compound, I suspect, is to see if his programming expertise can detect holes in the system. His endgame remains murky throughout most of Ex Machina, though. Garland’s philosophical conceits should play better with hard-core sci-fi fans than those attracted to shape-shifting aliens and Nazis from outer space. There’s some relatively artistic nudity, but nothing that can’t be enjoyed out of context at Mr. Skin. More compelling, I think, is the Norwegian setting, which comes complete with cascading waterfalls, placid meadows and plush valleys. The Blu-ray package adds a 40-minute making-of featurette, post-screening Q&A and background vignettes.

Goodbye to All That
Anyone attracted to the offbeat relationship drama, Goodbye to All That, by Paul Schneider’s name on the DVD jacket probably won’t be surprised when the “Parks and Recreation” semi-regular steals their hearts. What’s unusual is how far first-time director Angus MacLachlan requires Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) to play against type in her portrayal of a stone-cold bitch, who demands a divorce but refuses to tell her perplexed husband, Otto, what he did wrong or what she wants, instead of him. Lynskey has previously portrayed women who’ve begun to question their marriages – most recently, “Together” – but we have a pretty good idea of makes them tick. Here, she’s a real shrew, whose screen time is pretty much limited to chilly handoffs of their daughter, Edie (Audrey P. Scott), on the custody shifts. Otto is a perfectly average suburban guy, who loves to jog and occasionally pushes the limits of personal safety in his outdoors activities. After he breaks his leg in an accident while speeding through the woods in an ATV, Otto also is required to find a new home for himself and enough space for Edie to pretend she’s a queen of the realm. One Sunday, out of the blue, Edie demands that her still-despondent dad take her to church. It marks a turning point in the narrative that changes almost everything that’s come before and gives meaning to the title, Goodbye to All That, if not in the way some church visits change people. Almost immediately, divorced women in the congregation begin contacting him to see if he’s ready to start dating again. What they’re really asking is if he’s willing to sate their appetites for sex. Thus inspired, Otto also tries his luck with an Internet dating service and an invitation to a reunion of summer-camp pals. Everywhere he turns, he’s greeted by women with minds of their own when it comes to sex and personal fulfilment. They know what they want from him and aren’t afraid to take it in ways that range from romantic to hilarious. In this area, Lynskey’s sour personality is easily compensated for by the lively performances of Anna Camp, Heather Graham, Heather Lawless, Ashley Hinshaw and Amy Sedaris. This entirely satisfying turn of events is in line with what we liked in MacLachlan’s 20005 Junebug, a fish-out-of-water comedy that opened many academy members’ eyes to the emerging talent that was Amy Adams. Goodbye to All That was launched on the festival circuit and VOD outlets, but deserves a better shot on DVD.

It Follows: Blu-ray
If you want to know what gets the juices of horror buffs flowing, check out David Robert Mitchell’s demonic-possession thriller, It Follows, which arrives on Blu-ray in the wake of his previous well-respected indie, The Myth of the American Sleepover. These days, it’s rare to find a low-budget picture that’s capable of breaking through the pack and impressing critics who can be brutal to newcomers. Besides the almost universally laudatory reviews, It Follows may be the only DVD/Blu-ray whose commentary track is supplied entirely by Internet opinion-makers capable of making or breaking a new release. For 100 minutes, these bloggers mostly geek out on a movie that satisfies their passion for a picture that offers substantially more than one-dimensional monsters, serial slashers, special makeup effects and gratuitous gore. (Gratuitous nudity is always welcome, though.) Mitchell also provides plenty of references to past genre classics, without beating audiences over the head with stale tropes, clichés and stereotypes. In fact, the demon in It Follows is more of a specter than a tangible threat to the residents of a quiet town in suburban Detroit. Mitchell took a chance by basing the picture’s central conceit – when teenagers lose their virginity, it opens the door for all sorts of monstrous possibilities, even death – that was put on the shelf after the Scream and Scary Movie franchises batted it around like a ping-pong ball. Here, the punishment for taking advantage of free love is less tangible than a masked fiend with a butcher knife in Lovers Lane. While 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is home from college, she caps a date by having sex with a young man who passes along a STD that can’t be cured with a shot of penicillin. It is a hand-me-down curse that unleashes a shape-shifting stalker on whoever is the current carrier. The demon is invisible to all of Jay’s friends, even as it brushes against them on its way to the pretty blond. Jay knows what has to be done to get rid of the curse, but doesn’t want to put any of her male friends in harm’s way. Things get really weird when the demon takes the form of her late father, who throws electric appliances at her when she’s in a public swimming pool … and, no, he isn’t trying to electrocute her. It was at this point that things stopped making sense to me. Even so, Mitchell’s patience keeps the pacing tight throughout the story and a palpable degree of tension is added by the eccentric musical soundtrack provided by the composer Disasterpeace, who is interviewed in the bonus package.

An Honest Liar
In the 1990s, after over-exposure on cable television killed the comedy-club boom, magicians, escape artists and illusionists picked up the baton and ran with it for a while. Soon, nearly resort in Las Vegas featured an in-house magician and magic shop. Entire multimillion-dollar shows – EFX at the MGM Grand, for example – combined magic, music and dance. It was a heady time for the artists, but, again, television helped kill the goose that laid the golden egg. One controversial Fox show even went so far as to hire the Masked Magician to reveal the secrets behind the classic tricks and illusions. Again, however, it was over-exposure that spoiled the game for everyone else. If one magician was going to make an elephant/helicopter/truck disappear into thin air, someone else was going to upstage him the next week by making the Statue of Liberty vanish or by appearing to be cut in half by a “death saw.” Today, about a dozen magicians, illusionists and mentalists are capable of headlining their own shows in Las Vegas, with Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Mac King and Criss Angel being the most prominent. In the fascinating documentary, An Honest Liar, we’re re-introduced to Randall James Hamilton Zwinge (a.k.a., The Amazing Randi), who’s spent most of his retirement challenging psychics, faith healers and occultists to come clean or be revealed as frauds out to extract donations from gullible believers. By portraying themselves as the real deal, instead of as fellow magicians or illusionists, Randi deemed them worthy of exposure. Offended by the popularity and public effrontery of Uri Geller, he even went so far as to arrange for one of his mind-bending gags to be debunked before millions of viewers on “The Tonight Show.” Geller was baffled when the objects that typically moved at his command didn’t behave as planned. Amateur magician Johnny Carson was so impressed that he made Randi a frequent guest. In the 1980s, Randi took on such faith healers as Peter Popoff and João Teixeira de Faria (a.k.a., João de Deus). At the ripe old age of 86, Randi isn’t at all reluctant to open up the books on his own accomplishments and reveal such personal details as his marriage to ex-con painter Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (a.k.a., José Alvarez), after exiting the closet in 2010. An Honest Liar includes testimonials by Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Alice Cooper, Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss. The DVD adds deleted scenes and extended interviews.

Dawn Patrol
Watching Rita Wilson guzzle beer, chain-smoke marijuana and slander Mexican immigrants in Dawn Patrol, I experienced the same hollow feeling as when I first saw Katey Sagal play the white-trash biker moll in “Sons of Anarchy.” After a couple of episodes of the long-running series, though, Sagal’s presence made sense within the context of the narrative and her anti-heroic character. As matriarch of a clan of SoCal surf Nazis, Wilson simply looks as if she stepped into the wrong movie and wasn’t about to turn down a payday. Surf movies come and go, of course, but only a few have stuck to the wall. Big Wednesday, Break Point, Blue Crush and Chasing Mavericks extended the Endless Summer mythos to include coming-of-age dramas, existentialist quandaries, serious criminality and romantic melodramas. Working from a screenplay by Rachel Long and Brian Pittman (A Haunting at Silver Falls), Daniel Petrie Jr. has crafted a story of revenge, misplaced clan loyalties and good-old-fashioned bigotry from an ugly incident in which a sun-bathing beach bimbo deliberately sets off a race war that’s supposed to link metaphorically to the war in Afghanistan, but doesn’t. The story is told from the point of view of John (Scott Eastwood), a surfer who comes unglued after his headstrong brother is killed by someone everyone assumes to be the Mexican who diddled his slutty girlfriend … and, no, there’s really not a better way to describe the character played by Kim Matula (“The Bold and the Beautiful”). Tensions between various ethnic groups began to rise when speculators and developers deemed the Ventura County beach communities to be ripe for exploitation. Until then, they had provided the foundation for working-class homeowners to feel as good about themselves as the millionaires who call Malibu home. But, contractors looking to boost profit margins by hiring undocumented workers and laid-off residents found it impossible to maintain their way of life. Property values skyrocketed, even as some neighborhoods began to look like beach-adjacent slums. About to have their home foreclosed on, John is taunted into retaliating against the Mexican interlopers by his embittered parents, played with no degree of subtlety of finesse by Wilson and Jeff Fahey. Assumptions that seemed sound one minute were turned inside-out the next by the facts. It’s all supposed to remind us of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, but it’s buried so deep in the sand that it gets bogged down in melodrama. Petrie’s first two writing credits were The Big Easy and Beverly Hills Cop, both home runs. Dawn Patrol is his first feature as a director since 1994, when he gave us In the Army Now, with Pauly Shore and Andy Dick. Hollywood’s a bitch.

Here Is Your Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Black Stallion Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Anyone as impressed by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the folks who helped it secure six Academy Award nominations and a Supporting Actress statuette for Patricia Arquette might consider extending the experience by picking up Jan Troell’s debut feature, Here Is Your Life. Based on a series of semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winner Eyvind Johnson, it describes a teenager’s coming-of-age at a pivotal time in the history of Sweden and Europe. While the rest of the continent was engaged in a horrific conflagration, Sweden remained neutral. It explains how 14-year-old Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) wasn’t sent to the front after being forced to leave his impoverished foster family and fend for himself. He could have returned home to his natural parents, but the burden of having another mouth to feed would have made things tougher for his siblings. Unlike Mason, the young protagonist of Boyhood, Olof can’t afford the luxury of attending school or partaking in extracurricular activities. He understands his lot in life and, for now, anyway, it means taking jobs intended for grown men and learning by doing. He finds one in the remote northern part of the country as a logger, risking his life as part of a gang whose duties include breaking up logjams on a roiling river. Because the men share a secluded shack, Olof is privy to the stories laborers swap after a hard day of work and several shots of vodka. Not at all cocky, Olof is as attentive to his co-workers’ eccentricities as he is to the rigors of logging. Next, he finds slightly less dangerous work in a sawmill and brick kiln.

His first job in a community setting comes when he’s hired by the owner of a primitive theater that offers silent movies and concert recitals. When he isn’t posting announcements on the sides of buildings, selling tickets and hawking candy, Olof uses the time left over to flirt with local girls and read books. It is here, as well, that he’s introduced to the differences between working stiffs and white-collar businessmen and entrepreneurs. The disparities are such that he’s inspired to consider joining the burgeoning international worker’s movement. When Olof gets hired away from the theater by a traveling projectionist, who works the carnival circuit, he is introduced to entirely different class of people. Better yet, he’s introduced to the joys of sex by a fortune-teller, who treats him like a boy toy. At 169 minutes, Here Is Your Life is only slightly longer than Boyhood. It provides plenty of space for the vignettes to play out naturally and take full advantage of the film’s historically accurate settings and Sweden’s natural beauty, very little of which is lost in Troell’s evocative cinematography. Given that this was his first theatrical venture, it isn’t surprising to discern the influence of Ingmar Bergman. By the end of the first half of the film, however, what we’re watching is all Troell.  He would go on to make such period gems as Everlasting Moments, Hamsun, Zandy’s Bride, The New Land and The Emigrants. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an introduction by filmmaker Mike Leigh; a new conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie; interviews with actor Eddie Axberg and producer/screenwriter Bengt Forslund; the short film, “Interlude in Marshland,” which preceded Here Is Your Life, starring Max von Sydow; and an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Carroll Ballard’s wonderful family adventure, The Black Stallion, is often included in lists of the most beautifully photographed movies ever made. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to learn that Caleb Deschanel’s work was ignored when the Oscar nominations were announced in the Best Cinematography category, ahead of the 1980 awards ceremony. Back then, being snubbed by your peers was part of the hazing ritual for freshmen in the tech categories. The Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital transfer, supervised by Deschanel, attests to the film’s rich cinematic legacy. (In 2002, The Black Stallion was accorded the honor of being named to the National Film Registry.) In Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel, a determined American boy and magnificent Arabian horse survive a disaster at sea, only to be tested once again after washing ashore a deserted island off North Africa. The only way to get through their mutual ordeal is by learning to trust each other. Once they’re rescued and returned to Alec’s hometown, a dilemma arises as to where one puts a magnificent steed accustomed to roaming freely and answering only to single voice. It comes to a head after the Black stallion bolts from the house’s backyard and is almost killed in a frantic tour of the city. It ends at farm owned by a former jockey, expertly played by Mickey Rooney. The film’s basic color scheme and visual context has changed dramatically by now, allowing for a dramatic test of equine heroism and stamina in a championship race. Hollywood legend has it that, upon viewing The Black Stallion for the first time, a studio executive asked rhetorically, “What is this, some kind of an art film for kids?” The easy answer to that question was then and still is, “Yes.” Ballard’s masterpiece would go unreleased for two years, until executive producer Francis Ford Coppola made sure that justice was served. Sadly, it’s a common tale, oft told. The Blu-ray adds a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; five career-making short films by Ballard, with introductions by the director; a conversation between Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas; a new interview with Deschanel; a piece featuring photographer Mary Ellen Mark, discussing her images from the film’s set; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Some Call It Loving: Blu-ray
Scratch the surface of an interesting, if long-neglected picture newly re-released on Blu-ray/DVD and you’re likely to uncover a story that puts a completely new spin on what you’ve just seen. Such is the case with the Vinegar Syndrome/Etiquette Pictures’ oddity, Some Call It Loving, a kinky soft-core fantasy made a year before Emmanuelle tested the limits of the old X-rating. In an unusual twist of fate, the actor who played the protagonist of James B. Harris’ film – Zalman King – would, 20 years later, successfully test the limits of cable television, with Showtime’s couples-friendly, “Red Shoes Diary.” He also collaborated with director Adrian Lyne on the S&M-lite feature, 9½ Weeks. Here, King plays a handsome jazz musician, who impulsively decides to buy the Sleeping Beauty attraction from a traveling carnival. Somehow, Robert senses correctly that the beautiful young woman, Jennifer (Tisa Farrow), really is in a deep trance and isn’t faking it for the rubes. He brings her comatose body to the secluded mansion he shares with a pair of women (Carol White, Veronica Anderson), who, likewise, get their kicks from role-playing games and other fetishes. Robert is able to awaken his new playmate with a kiss and taste of the potion given him by the sideshow barker. At first, he attempts to isolate Jennifer from the sex play, but, like the perfect fembot in Ex Machina, she develops a mind of her own.

In a completely detached sidebar, Richard performs at a nearly empty jazz club with his band. One of the habitués is a strung-out junkie and alcoholic played by Richard Pryor, who was nearly penniless at the time, but would soon emerge as an A-list actor, as well as a star comedian. The character presages the introduction of Mudbone in his albums and standup routines, a year later. Although the story, inspired by John Collier’s short story “Sleeping Beauty,” is more of a curiosity than anything else, the movie is enhanced by Mario Tosi’s gorgeous cinematography, sumptuous art direction of Rodger Maus and Ray Storey, and eerie score by Richard Hazard. Because Harris produced Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” “Lolita” and “The Killing,” some critics have suggested that Some Call It Loving may have influenced the look of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s more likely that Harris borrowed ideas generated by Radley Metzger in such arthouse erotica as The Lickerish Quartet and Camille 2000. The dandy Etiquette Pictures Blu-ray benefits from a 2K restoration from the 35mm camera negative; a six-page booklet, with an essay by Kevin John Bozelka; commentary by Harris and Sam Prime; “Some Call It History,” in which Harris recounts his early years in the Korean War, where he met Kubrick; “A Dream So Real,” a conversation with Tosi, who shares his thoughts on career choices; and outtakes, with commentary.

Singularity Principle
Of all the fascinating ideas put forward in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar, the most complex and compelling was the concept of a parallel universe, accessible through wormholes discovered in our solar system. Not having a degree in the sciences, that’s as far as I’m willing to go when attempting to synopsize movies whose plots are based on astrophysics. If anything, the pure science and mathematics that inform the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Singularity Principle, are even more intricate and, therefore, far more baffling than anything in most genre titles. This likely is because it was co-written, co-produced and co-directed (all with Austin Hines) by physicist Dr. David Robert Deranian and no one falls more in love with their chalk work than an academic. As such, Deranian boasts of “paying particular attention to accurate scientific detail and using the fascinating science of parallel universes to bring audiences a story that will both illuminate and entertain.” Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Singularity Principle opens with the disappearance of a noted scientist, Professor Jack Brenner (John Diehl), during an unauthorized parallel-universe experiment. It sets off all sorts of bells and whistles at a “clandestine black-ops agency,” which, of course, is anxious to learn how it might be able to exploit the data or fears that Brenner’s parallel universe might be found in Russia or China. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with emphasizing science over fiction in these sorts of movies, there’s something to be said for fudging the details to expand the audience. Science nerds should be able to find something in Singularity Principle to stimulate their intellects and imagination, though.

The Stray Cat Rock Collection: Blu-ray
The Outing/The Godsend: Blu-ray
Cellar Dweller/Catacombs: Blu-ray
Japanese exploitation movies of the 1950-70s frequently borrowed from conventions and tropes established by filmmakers toiling in the fields that belonged to Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Pick a subgenre that drew crowds here and Japanese filmmakers paid homage to it by copying its conceits and putting them through a blender of home-grown eccentricities. The five films in the Stray Cat Rock series, newly collected by Arrow Films, merge several themes crucial to post-war B-movies in the United States, along with stylized violence, gratuitous nudity, psychedelic rock music and fetishized vehicles, ranging from rice-burner motorcycles (no Harleys to be seen) and Jeeps leftover from the occupation, to gas-guzzling Detroit products, dune buggies and the occasional bicycle. The Japanese were especially fixated on juvenile delinquents, most of whom appear to have taken their cues from Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and West Side Story. In the Stray Cat Rock pictures, though, most of the girls look as if they were just as influenced sartorially by Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, even when waving knives at each other. There’s also room for a butch gang-banger to kick ass and take names when the boys join the fray. Among the constants are the lovely-but-deadly Meiko Kaji, Tatsuya Fuji and Bunjaku Han. The limited Blu-ray set from Arrow contains upgraded versions of Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71; new English subtitle translations; interviews with director Yasuharu Hasebe and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, star of Beat ’71; original trailers; a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; and original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays).

Unlike other double-features released by Scream Factory, this week’s offerings likely will be of interest specifically to 1980s completists and other people with niche tastes. Otherwise, the only things they have in common are a few momentary thrills and short titles. The Outing combines two time-honored tropes: the evil genie released from his lamp and the frightful night spent in a haunted museum. Even Ben Stiller wouldn’t have been able to save this one, though. In The Godsend, a very strange woman with alabaster skin leaves her newborn baby with an unsuspecting family that’s kind enough to take the wee lass in. Before long, she’s proven herself to be quite the little vixen.

Cellar Dweller’s crime is that it takes a perfectly good idea for a short film and almost ruins it by stretching it to a turgid 77 minutes. Twenty-five years after a comic-book artist is killed by one of the monsters he’s created on paper, a fan (Debrah Farantino) returns to the scene of the crime to investigate what happened and what can be salvaged from the panels he left behind in the basement. With the punchline revealed in the first five minutes, all that’s left is the blood-letting. There are two things to recommend Catacombs to horror fans, 1) the exterior scenes were shot at a historic monastery in the mountains surrounding Terni, Umbria, and 2) a scene in which a life-size Christ literally comes down from a cross, pulls a stake from his foot and attacks a priest. Actually, it’s the work of a satanic spirit imprisoned in the catacombs of the church since the Inquisition.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
All Quiet on the Western Front: The Uncut Edition: Blu-ray
Released 35 years before Donald Trump and other Republican nitwits declared illegal immigration to be the greatest threat to our democracy since the War of 1812, Hollywood tackled the problem with compassion, without also minimizing of the scale of the situation. Sadly, though, we no longer can count on the services of Charles Bronson (Borderline) and Telly Savalas (Border Cop) to jump in and solve the current quagmire. The latter was committed to DVD in 2003, while the former is new to disc this week. Bronson stars as Jeb Maynard, a steely U.S. Border Patrol officer stationed between San Diego and Calexico. Things heat up fast after his friend and partner (Wilford Brimley) is murdered by a vicious “coyote” – a white one, this time, played by Ed Harris, in his first credited role in a feature – along with a child who’s just made the crossing. An investigation takes Maynard to Tijuana, with the mother of the dead boy, so he can make the trek through the border as if he were sneaking into the country. The trail leads to a major grower in the Imperial Valley and a corrupt businessman in San Diego. I doubt that a border agent would be allowed to show as much compassion as Maynard, today, because of the political ramifications of being such behavior. Borderline may have its limitations as a product of its time and a rather obvious vehicle for Bronson, who was a huge star in 1980, but it’s well made and the based-on-fact story is reasonably entertaining.

After watching the 1981 box-office bomb The Legend of the Lone Ranger, it was only natural that I would compare it not only to the original TV show, but also to the 2013 box-office bomb, which starred Johnny Depp and someone named Armie Hammer. While neither measures up to the hit Western series, I enjoyed the earlier adaptation quite a bit more than the $216-million The Lone Ranger, which took huge liberties with the mythology. The biggest problem with “The Legend” wasn’t what ended up on the screen, but how it got there. For one thing, Klinton Spilsbury apparently was chosen to appeal to the teenage-girl demographic, not fans of classic oaters. Besides looking like a refugee from a boy band, Spilsbury wasn’t much of an actor. Compounding the problem was the treatment shown to Clayton Moore – the much-loved creator of the character on television – by one of the producers, who also owned the rights to the Lone Ranger brand. Moore was prohibited from appearing in public in costume, so he elected, instead, to wear oversized sunglasses. All that aside, “The Legend” stuck far closer to the origin story, with a surprisingly dapper Christopher Lloyd as the head of the treasonous Cavendish Gang and Jason Robards having a whale of a time as Ulysses S. Grant. Plus, Merle Haggard provides the original songs.

Forty-nine years and three major wars passed between Louis Milestone’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1979 made-for-television remake, starring Richard Thomas, Ian Holm and Ernest Borgnine. The new Blu-ray iteration of the latter adds nearly a half-hour to the original running time. There’s no need to compare the two versions too closely, as they’re both products of their time and medium of choice. The Delbert Mann-directed production had to accommodate commercial breaks and more expository narration than was required in the early talkie. There’s also the matter of the flat American and English accents of the German soldiers. It’s difficult to ignore completely, but, given time, other things vie for our attention, including the emphatic anti-war message. The timing is interesting, though, as it arrives on the heels of the Criterion Collection edition of The Bridge, Bernhard Wicki’s semi-autobiographical drama about a close-knit group of German teenagers drafted into the German army in the closing weeks of World War II. The young men in both movies are, at first, buoyed by patriotism sparked by misleading government propaganda and love of the Fatherland. No sooner do they leave basic training than they’re thrown into the hellfire of a conflagration for which there’s no chance for victory and leaders who should have been sent to the frontlines before anyone else.

BBC/PBS: The Crimson Field: Blu-ray
PlayStation: Powers: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History
BBC/PBS: Tales From the Royal Wardrobe
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC
It’s probably unfair to compare the compelling BBC/PBS mini-series “The Crimson Field” to a “M*A*S*H” without the laughs, but, then, how better to describe a wartime drama that combines testy nurse/doctor relationships with realistic portrayals of operating-theater horrors and triumphs. If World War I failed miserably as a “war to end all wars,” it helped improve the care and treatment of wounded and traumatized soldiers in future wars. The unprecedented volume of incoming patients and increased degree of difficulty in treating wounds, toxic gases and emotional disorders forced caregivers to rethink their approaches to healing. The International Red Cross had been founded only 50 years before the start of the war and nothing that had come before had prepared Red Cross workers and volunteers for the sheer enormity of their mission. In previous wars, the same wounds might have gone untreated except for the application of a surgical saw and unsanitary rags. In the “crimson fields” of France, the agency also was responsible for POWs and mail delivery, as well as other services. The mini-series’ soap-opera through-lines emerged from the close proximity of doctors, nurses and patients and intensity of the shared experience in a post-Victorian environment. In the absence of a steady rain of bullets and mortars, hospital personnel face were required to navigate divisions related to class distinctions, religious conventions and reservations concerning advanced treatments. Because the tented field hospital in “The Crimson Field” serves as a buffer between the battlefield and homefront, relatives of the wounded men were allowed to visit them. For those unprepared to deal with the severity of the wounds suffered by their loved ones, the shock of recognition could be frightening. Just as the unlikely hit series “Call the Midwife” took a while for Americans to embrace, “The Crimson Field” grows on you. That can be credited to the excellent writing and such familiar actors as Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kevin Doyle, Kerry Fox, Jeremy Swift and Alex Wyndham. The BBC cut of the series allows for a bit more realistic approach to the material than that allowed by PBS censors.

Even those viewers who can’t get enough of shows about superheroes and other supernatural shenanigans may be unaware of “Powers,” an original series available only via PlayStation platforms. Based on the graphic novel by Michael Avon Oeming and Brian Michael Bendis, it demands that we consider the ramifications of a world in which superheroes, supervillains and uniquely gifted mutants are as prevalent as, say, Starbucks. Powers-deficient humans would be defenseless against the bad apples, if it weren’t for the brave men and women of the Powers Division. It is represented primarily by homicide detectives Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Not being an aficionado, much of the mythology flew right over my head. Still, it’s the gamers who subscribe to the PlayStation Network who will make the final determination on “Powers” when it comes to ratings and renewals. There’s no reason to think it won’t have a bright future in the niche market.

Except for the occasional defection, hit movie revealing backstage intrigue or Kirov sighting, news from the world of ballet is practically non-existent in the mainstream media. That changed recently when Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history. Her personal story is so compelling that “60 Minutes” devoted an entire segment to it. While she’s a prominent dancer in Ric Burns’ “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History,” her appearances and opinions are threads in a tapestry whose creation began in pre-Soviet Russia and is still being woven. Anyone who thinks that Burns’ documentaries begin to look the same after a while should be surprised by what they see here. In addition to the archival material and talking heads, the show features some of the most elegantly photographed dance scenes and intimate interactions between performers I’ve ever seen. Burns was accorded unprecedented access to the company, including dramatic live performances, grueling rehearsals and tight focuses on Copeland, Gillian Murphy and other young stars following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In BBC/PBS’ “Tales From the Royal Wardrobe,” the affable British historian and TV host, Dr. Lucy Worsley, is in fine form as she explores the sartorial tastes of kings and queens from Elizabeth I to the present Queen Elizabeth II. Rather than simply precede over a series of photographs, sketches and newsreel footage, Worsley explains how the royal wardrobe is a carefully orchestrated piece of theater, managed by the royals themselves to control the right image and project the right message to their subjects. This extends to a time when wealth dictated what courtiers could and couldn’t wear to events and actual documents that laid out the guideline. She also models the extravagant fashions worn by queens and princesses, with special attention paid to the impracticality of their architecture. Fans of period programming on the BBC will find the show to be particularly entertaining and informative.

Also available from the same source are “Doctor Who: The Daleks,” which recalls the many the confrontations between the mutant creatures and the Doctor and his companions. The three-part documentary series, “BBC’s Shark,” goes up-close-and-personal with 30 species of the legendary predator, with footage from dozens of habitats worldwide, There is even a shark that walks on land.

From Shout comes “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season,” a compilation of all 22 episodes from the show’s penultimate season. It was at this point of its run that CBS began to treat the series like a pawn on its chessboard, by moving it around the schedule without concern for viewers or narrative continuity. Even the actors were at a loss as to when it would air. Most of original musical licenses have been renewed for DVD, but not all of them.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC” is a single–disc release from Nickelodeon, comprised of seven “central” episodes from Season Three. The Turtles’ mission is to retake New York, save their Sensei, search for Karai and team–up with the Mighty Mutanimals for a rescue mission into Dimension X.

The DVD Wrapup: Woman in Gold, Clouds of Sils Maria, Human Capital, House of Cards and more

Friday, July 10th, 2015

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.

Human Capital  
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
Underdog Kids
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
Tiger Orange
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.

The DVD Wrapup: Danny Collins, Get Hard, Decline of Western Civilization, Downtown 81 and more

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Danny Collins: Blu-ray
There are moments in Dan Fogelman’s wildly uneven rock-‘n’-roll fantasy, Danny Collins, that suggest the author was raised on classic-rock radio and his titular protagonist (Al Pacino) was modeled less after Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or Rod Steward, than Neil Diamond, Billy Joel or a post-Wings Paul McCartney. That much is clear when Collins arrives on stage for the first time, looking as if he might rip into “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Katmandu” or “Maggie May,” but, instead, delivers what amounts to Diamond’s between-innings anthem, “Sweet Caroline.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the Fenway Park favorite. It just sounds out of place when sung by a wrung-out, blurry-eyed geezer, whose “Elvis scarves” are older than everyone in his band. Collins has been so strung out for so long that he hasn’t written a new song in 30 years and can’t readily recall the details of two of his marriages. As the inspired-by-a-true-story story goes, Collins’ longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old letter written to his client by John Lennon, but intercepted by the Rolling Stone reporter who conducted the interview that caught the Beatle’s eye. In it, Collins was given some positive career advice and invited to visit him and Yoko when he was in the neighborhood. Being a huge fan of Lennon, there’s no telling how Collins’ career path might have changed had he been aware of the letter. (In fact, throughout much of the 1970s, the drunk-and-disorderly Lennon was in no shape to offer advice – solid or otherwise – to any up-and-coming musician.) Like Scrooge, after his cathartic journey into the future with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Collins is inspired by the letter not only to clean up his act, but also make a pilgrimage to New Jersey to make nice with his bitterly estranged son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), incredulous daughter-in-law, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and super-cute granddaughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).

Even if Tom and Samantha want nothing to do with the genuinely repentant Collins, he eventually weasels his way into the family’s good graces by enlisting Hope in his campaign. Not surprisingly, the toddler reacts favorably to a tour bus full of toys and some playful piano tickling. At the same time, Collins is wooing the manager of the mid-range motel in which he’s staying. Annette Bening is uncharacteristically schoolmarish as the no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone Mary Sinclair, who, at first, easily resists the Pacino-ish charms of the reformed musician, but eventually succumbs to his charms. As the author of Last Vegas, The Guilt Trip and Tangled, Fogelman knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the emotional roller-coaster rolling for 106 minutes. All of the actors, especially Pacino, deliver performances sufficiently likeable to bridge the gaps between fantasy, reality and schmaltz. His appearances in such largely unseen indies as Manglehorn, The Humbling, Salome, Stand Up Guys and The Son of No One Pacino have given DVD renters a great return on their investment. But, they mostly reminded us of earlier work and such memorable characters as Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), John Milton (The Devil’s Advocate) and Lefty (Donnie Brasco). As long as his hair doesn’t fall out completely, he’ll always look younger than his 75 years and still make a credible date for female characters a decade or two younger than him. Bening may even remind some viewers here of Diane Keaton’s Kay, in the Godfather trilogy. A couple other things should be mentioned in any discussion of Danny Collins: 1) The Lennon-dominated soundtrack is so appealing that it completely overshadows the original music by Ryan Adam and Theodore Shapiro, and 2) onerously obtrusive product placement disturbs the rhythm of nearly every scene in which a name brand is dropped or logo added in the background. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and gallery of faux “Danny Collins album covers” through the years.

Get Hard: Unrated: Blu-ray
Far be it from me to recommend marketing strategy to a major studio, but the next time Will Ferrell is cast in an odd-couple, Mutt-and-Jeff or fish-out-of-water comedy, some thought should be given to the less-is-more theory as it pertains to publicity. Whether he’s promoting a Major League Baseball tie-in or sequel to an earlier blockbuster, Ferrell defines the word, “overexposed,” and like Sasha Baron Cohen, he tends to appear in character. Talk-show hosts and their audiences eat it up, as do the entertainment “news” shows, but it’s only fun in small does. More problematic, however, is the over-familiarity that comes with oft-repeated production anecdotes, video clips and character sketches, leaving practically nothing to the imagination. His many cameo appearances in the movies, television shows and websites of fellow comedians – along with such vanity projects as the Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption,” with Kristen Wiig – have made him a ubiquitous media personality. Like a good soldier, Ferrell pulled out all of the stops for Get Hard, as did his nearly inescapable co-star Kevin Hart. Considering his long and arduous trek to the A-list, no one can blame Hart for milking his 15 minutes of fame. By contrast, Ferrell has been in the spotlight for so long, he’d probably go through withdrawal if denied it.

Because Hart and Ferrell are two of the most popular actors on the planet right now, I would think that Warner Bros. expected more than $105 million in worldwide box-office revenues. (The marketing campaign, alone, probably cost WB more than the estimated production budget of $40 million.) Get Hard was funny enough to please fans of both actors, but not nearly enough to ignite the same kind of cross-over business as such kindred comedies as Trading Places and Stir Crazy, which it resembles. Outside of England and Canada, however, I doubt that many overseas viewers fully grasped the central gag. Here, Ferrell plays a successful hedge-fund manager, James King, who’s been set up as the patsy by his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) to take the fall for a highly lucrative, if thoroughly illegal investment scheme. In a true stretch of current reality, James is put on trial and convicted of fraud. Sentenced to several years at San Quentin, James has been allowed 30 days to get his affairs in order before surrendering to prison officials. This scenario is so preposterous as to beg unintentional laughter. After all, how many financiers have been found guilty of anything since 2008 and, of that handful, how many were required to do hard time? For all of his crimes, Bernie Madoff is being allowed to spend the rest of days in a medium-security prison.

James’ fear of being beaten, killed or raped by hardened San Quentin cons, who can smell a fresh fish from across the San Francisco Bay, isn’t really all that preposterous. In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a convicted coke dealer played by Ed Norton voluntarily takes a beating from a pal, so as to make himself less susceptible to rape in prison. Unwilling to take such drastic measures, James recruits the only African-American he knows, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to prepare him for the experience. What he doesn’t know is that Darnell has always been an upstanding, law-abiding citizen and doesn’t know any more about how to survive prison than Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. Not wishing to disappoint a valuable customer in his car-wash customer, Darnell makes a futile attempt to toughen James up by enlisting some local hoodlums to give James a tutorial in survival. In an effort to play to the cheap seats, co-writer/director Etan Cohen has Darnell take James to a restaurant popular with gay men for brunch. He reacts accordingly, even if the paying customers don’t. This may be Cohen’s first directorial credit, but he’s collaborated on such features as Men in Black 3, Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, so he knows how to use broad material to make people laugh. Ferrell and Hart’s fans should enjoy the seven minutes of fresh material added to what already was a R-rated picture. The Blu-ray package includes both versions of Get Hard; deleted scenes and gag reel; and several comic featurettes, including “The Kevin Hart Workout,” “A Date with John Mayer,” “Will Ferrell, Gangsta” and “Twerking 101.”

The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection: Blu-ray
Downtown 81
At a time when punk and heavy metal were being dismissed as the bastard stepchildren of rock ’n’ roll, Penelope Spheeris took the music seriously enough to showcase them as evolving art forms and accord the musicians the same respect shown any other chart-topping performer. The rock-media mainstream had yet to embrace the artists and record labels weren’t anxious to back unproven commodities whose uncouth manners and angry lyrics could backfire on them. Released in 1981, The Decline of Western Civilization focused on the burgeoning punk-rock scene in Los Angeles, especially as it migrated from temporary homes on the Sunset Strip, Chinatown and concrete bunkers in the beach communities. The American punk crowd had never been beholden on British acts, except for fashion tips, so it didn’t miss a beat when Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February, 1979.  Spheeris’ ability to locate its beating heart was, perhaps, its greatest accomplishment. A minimalist affair from Day One, she captured the organic, if frequently mock-violent relationship between the musicians and fans, for whom safety pin jewelry and Mohawk hairdos weren’t reserved for special occasions. Like punk, heavy metal music existed as an identifiable subgenre for nearly 20 years before Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and hundreds of garage-rock aficionados had opened the door for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, T-Rex and, by extension, the Sex Pistols. They’ve never really gone away, either.

One thing that Spheeris was able to discern rather quickly was how punks and metal musicians defined success and accepted their place as outsiders and provocateurs. By this time, of course, most mainstream bands and performers had been seduced by gigantic contracts and the mountains of cocaine that were delivered to their homes whenever they were running low. The desperation voiced by X in early songs “The Unheard Music,” “The New World” and “I Must Think Bad Thoughts” lamented the status of L.A. punk bands, while refusing to give an inch to convention or cooptation. You could ride skateboards or mosh to punk and metal, but the likelihood of Michelob or Coors licensing a song for a commercial was nil. This, of course, made it easy to spit on the trappings of lifestyle conformity and adopt a nihilistic stance. By contrast, the heavy-metal musicians we meet in the sequel are direct descendants of the glam-rock pioneers, right down to the high-heel boots, makeup and bouffant hair styles for men. That much would disappear, at least, as the Beavis and Butt-heads of the world embraced a decidedly more proletarian vibe to the movement. In 1987, though, the androgynous look still appealed to groupies – it even survived the satirical lashing administered by This Is Spinal Tap – and, without them, the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll would be meaningless. A few years later, “The Osbournes” and Ozzfest would bring heavy metal into the mainstream, but not nearly to the same extent as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. Among the still-popular musicians we meet as hairy young adults in “The Metal Years” are Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy, Bret Michaels and several other unabashedly hedonistic musicians and groupies.

Judged solely as documentaries, the first two segments of The Decline of Western Civilization hold up very well as windows into a world that was far more shocking three decades ago than it is now. They have inspired scores of filmmakers to follow suit. That isn’t the case with The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, a disturbing film in which you can actually watch the chickens of a crippled society come home to roost. It is much less about the evolution of hard-corps music and rabid fan base, circa 1998, than a delayed sequel to Spheeris’ 1983 culture-clash drama, Suburbia. In 1998, the streets, alleys and abandoned houses of Hollywood were home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless youth commonly dismissed as “gutter punks.” Their self-destructive nihilism echoes the nearly indecipherable lyrics hurled at us in “Part I” by the Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear and Circle Jerks. In 1998 and, maybe, still today, these kids had to panhandle, steal or sell their blood to purchase tickets to see their favorite bands in a club. Mostly, though, if they couldn’t sneak into a club, why bother? In the absence of their parents and siblings, the teenagers we meet have formed families of their own, but without any of the safety nets provided by society or relatives. Just as Hollywood has changed in the interim, we’re left to wonder how these young people have fared since then. All three films are collected in this long-awaited Shout Factory box, which is enhanced by new 2K scans supervised by Spheeris; commentary by Dave Grohl; vintage interviews with the director; never-before-seen original footage of performances and interviews; theatrical trailers; and a 40-page booklet, featuring rare stills and text by Domenic Priore.

At the exact same time as Spheeris was surveying the L.A. punk scene for the first installment of “TDOWC,” Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien collected snapshots of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side for Downtown 81 (originally, “New York Beat Movie”). Although these neighborhoods resembled “Dresden after the war,” a closer examination of the shaded corners, blank walls, basements, studios and dive bars revealed a veritable ant hill of cultural activity by artists and musicians of all stripe. O’Brien recalls how Downtown 81 was first envisioned as a New Wave fairytale, but exists today more as a documentary about a city and scene that no longer exist. In it, the camera follows then-undiscovered street-artist Jean Michel Basquiat from a hospital bed, to his locked apartment, to underground recording studios and fashion fittings, CBGB and the Mudd Club and other landmarks of the hipster diaspora. He’s in a desperate search for the $500 required to reclaim access to his studio/home. Although Basquiat had yet to become a cause célèbre in the art world, he was already known in some quarters as a graffiti artist and scenester. O’Brien had served as the first editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before launching the public-access sensation, “TV Party,” which was to the New York underground scene what “Soul Train” was to R&B and hip-hop.

Among the people who make cameos or perform here are Debbie Harry, Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Plastics, Fab 5 Freddy, Vincent Gallo, Maripol, Debi Mazar, Coati Mundi, Chris Stein and Elliott Murphy. They all fit into the underground scene organically, but aren’t asked to impersonate themselves. Basquiat’s desperate search for bread adds an urgent pace and tempo that would have been missing in a documentary. Today, however, Downtown 81 can be viewed as a funky travelogue of a section of New York absent AIDS, gentrification, drug rehab, crack, media vultures and inflated egos spawned by fame. That’s all gone now. By contrast, Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard have remained pretty much the same, although noticeably cleaner and safer. Production hassles resulted in Downtown 81 being held captive in an Italian warehouse for 20 years before its limited debut in 2001. Despite the fact that the dialogue track was lost, the restored edition looks and sounds better than ever. A second disc adds fresh interviews and the recollections of O’Brien, Maripol and Fab Five Freddy; vintage video clips; and a gallery.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter: Blu-ray
If the Coen Brothers had made a feature-length sequel to Fargo, instead of merely lending their names and suggestions to the creators of the FX series, “Fargo,” as executive-producers, it might have looked a lot like Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Just as Fargo had convinced viewers that the inspiration for the movie came from an actual event in the criminal history of Nordic Minnesota, David and Nathan Zellner based their film on an urban legend – or, in this case, a North Woods legend – that proved too good to be completely accurate. In it, a young Japanese office worker, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), discovers a VHS cassette of Fargo hidden under a rock, while on dreamlike stroll on a misty beach. The tape has been degraded to the point where the video images appear scrambled and barely intelligible. The one thing Kumiko is able to discern is the scene in which a battered and bloody Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buries a suitcase full of money in the snow, along a long fence line that parallels the wind-swept highway. Already emotionally damaged by the barely veiled threats of her horny boss, Kumiko imagines the video images to be gifts from God, directing her to an actual hidden treasure. After measuring the distances between the fence posts that lead invariably to Fargo, North Dakota – actually, Bemidji, Minnesota, home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – she hops on a plane to the Twin Cities, absent any of the provisions one would need to spend more than 10 minutes outside in the middle of winter.  And, that includes enough money to afford lunch, a motel room, parka or translation app for a cellphone.

Despite looking like a discarded piece of Kleenex on the side of the road, Kumiko gets rides, food and unheeded advice from cops and other strangers. In an effort to convince her that Fargo is a work of fiction, a policeman who shares several Minnesota-nice traits with Marge Gunderson, searches high and wide for a sushi restaurant, where the owners might be able to serve as interpreters. The closest they come is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. After mistaking the cop’s kindness for love, Kumiko begins to lose hope of locating her treasure. The Zellners are content here to follow the same roadmap laid by north-country mythologists intent on expanding the tourist trade already generated by the many quirky events described in Coens’ fish story. Since the ending is essentially the same, viewers should resist the temptation to conduct an Internet search for the woman who inspired the story, Takako Konishi. It can wait. Kikuchi’s portrayal of the painfully withdrawn and utterly colorless Kumiko stands out from everything else in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, except an evocative score by the Octopus Project and the brilliant cinematography by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love), which makes the forbidding Minnesota winter look every bit as cold as it is, but more beautiful than anyone living south of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport could ever imagine. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director David Zellner, writer/producer Nathan Zellner and producer Chris Ohlson, as well as deleted and alternate scenes.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Of Girls and Horses
If the name of Czech filmmaker Jaromil Jireš doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he elected to continue working in the nation of his birth after the Warsaw Pact nations crushed the reforms brought about by Prague Spring, as well as the spirit of filmmakers associated with the Czechoslovak New Wave. He wasn’t soft on communism, by any means, but, by choosing not to follow Miloš Forman, Ján Kadár, Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec into self-exile in the West, he was required to abide by government censorship and soften his political edge. It’s difficult to imagine how the delightfully surrealistic and overtly erotic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders slipped past the eyes of humorless censors long enough to be shown in a handful of foreign venues. Between the late 1970s and its release on DVD in 2004, however, the movie mostly disappeared from view anywhere. And, yet, its influence likely extended to English writer Angela Carter, whose screenplay for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) echoed similar themes. It’s also possible that “Valerie” caught the eye of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose surrealistic The Holy Mountain and El Topo captured the imagination of arthouse audiences and acid heads in the 1970s. “Valerie” is a period piece based on a Gothic fantasy by Vítezslav Nezval. In it, the first period of a charming 13-year-old (Jaroslava Schallerova) triggers a series of hallucinatory events that mirror the sexual confusion and disturbing urges that are synonymous with the arrival of puberty in many unsuspecting girls and boys. In Valerie’s case, the passage is tipped when earrings left to her by her mother are stolen while she’s sleeping in a gazebo — either by the malevolent Weasel or benevolent Eagle — and replaced the next morning while lounging in a pool with three giddy blonds. The arrival of a carnival only serves to confuse an already bewildering situation, complicated by the appearance of vampires, witches, wicked priests and twisted relatives. As perplexing as these daydreams and nightmares may be, Jireš (The Joke) cloaks them in a phantasmagoria of colors and distinct cinematic textures. At a brisk 73 minutes, “Valerie” comes and goes like a fractured dream on a restless night. Anyone in the mood for more New Wave challenges ought to check out Vera Chytilová’s Daisies “Criterion’s Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The Blu-ray features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; three of JIres’ early shorts, “Uncle,” “Footprints” and “The Hall of Lost Steps”; a new interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames; earlier interviews with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák; an alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack by the Valerie Project; and an essay by critic Jana Prikryl.

With a title that will come dangerously close to being misunderstood by people with porn on their brains, Monika Treut’s Of Girls and Horses reminds me more of a Germanic The Horse Whisperer than the lesbian coming-of-age drama it also resembles. In fact, the attachment between girls and horses here closely corresponds to the opinion shared by Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” that women “identify with their strength … and are a source of power and motion and transformation.” I wouldn’t know, but it makes sense within the context of the movie. Alex (Ceci Chuh) is a self-destructive 16-year-old, who has finally gotten on the last nerve of her adoptive mother and is sent to a farm in northern Germany to work with horses as an intern. Given her pissy moods and generally downbeat attitude toward life, we aren’t given much reason to hope for Alex’s reform. If she rebels against the entry-level chores she’s assigned, her next step is reform school or prison. Like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, the farm’s resident trainer, Tina (Vanida Karun), senses an immediate attraction between the city girl and horses. Even so, Alex is always one step away from messing up. Her biggest challenge comes when an upper-class girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), arrives with her magnificent Thoroughbred and practically lives in the same stall with him. In a departure from form, Treut doesn’t require her characters to become mortal enemies, whose differences suddenly narrow after a cathartic event. Their differences do narrow, but naturally and over time. Most of the tension comes when Tina’s relationship with her lover in Hamburg (Ellen Grell) becomes complicated and she begins to take it out on Alex. Instead, that tension brings the teenagers together amid the gorgeous rolling hills of northern Germany.

Soldate Jeanette
Chantal Akerman, From Here
Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais
It isn’t often these days that one comes across such an unrepentant art film as Austrian writer/director Daniel Hoesl’s debut feature, Soldate Jeannette (“Soldier Jane”). Appealing primarily to the nichiest of niche audiences, it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Palm Spring for distribution outside the festival circuit or feminist film clubs. That it is the product of something called the European Film Conspiracy recalls a time when radicalism in film mirrored the rebellions in the streets. Jean-Luc Godard led the way in Europe, making movies that no longer told stories but embraced political movements for which creative freedom was anathema. In the U.S., John Cassavetes experimented with form and function, limiting politics to the diplomacy practiced by men and women over the kitchen table and in bed. These films weren’t made for those people who frequented the local Bijou to be entertained or relieved of their cares for 90-plus minutes. They were intended to challenge, provoke and enflame us. The best were puzzles for the mind, while the worst were masturbatory wastes of our times. Soldate Jeannette seems to combine elements of Godard’s work with the spirit Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands. Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg is the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown here, a middle-age Viennese resident of haute-bourgeois persuasion. Jane’s boredom with her lifestyle is manifested by her refusal to pay rent, embezzle money from her family’s trust fund and discard expensive clothing she’d purchased only moments earlier. When she finally decides to forgo her yoga and self-defense classes, Jane buys fancy boots and camping equipment and heads for the Alps. To keep her warm the first night, Jane burns thousands of dollars’ worth of Euros. After sharing her body with strangers for a place to sleep, she takes up residence in a communal farm and slaughter house that might have seemed ideal in the 1960s, but, today, remains a bastion for male entitlement. Newly emboldened by her own quest for freedom, Jane takes it upon herself to rescue a younger woman of less privileged background. Nothing is resolved, but, as a character study, it held my attention. The DVD adds interviews with Orsini-Rosenberg and Hoesl, as well as a couple of shorts.

In a bit of a coincidence, Godard and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman are referenced in Soldate Jeanette in the same week as films about them are being released by Icarus. Both will be of interest almost exclusively to arthouse buffs and Francophiles. Chantal Akerman, From Here is a wide-ranging interview rendered almost useless by a gimmick employed by the filmmaker to re-create one of Akerman’s artistic conceits. A stationary camera points into a boardroom or dining room, from outside a door in the hallway, allowing for a view of a seated Ackerman and whoever else might pass before the lens. The anonymous interviewer is hidden behind a wall thick enough to muffle his questions and push some of her answers well out of context. It helps, somewhat, that the discussion is primarily in English.

The title, Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, makes the event related here sound as if it might have been a championship fight promoted by Don King. Instead, this too-brief meeting of the minds, recorded in 2009, only skims the surface of careers that literally changed the face of the international cinema. Neither Godard, 79, nor Ophuls, 82, was ready to retire, even if both men would have been put out to pasture long ago in Hollywood. The conversation, which took place before a small audience of admirers, is lively and the recollections are frequently profound. Especially compelling are the directors’ recollections of growing up under the cloud of World War II.

The best reason for picking up Simon Blake’s slow-burn thriller, Still, is an electrifying performance by Aiden Gillen, a Dublin-born actor who specializes in mesmerizing performances. If his face is familiar, it’s because he played an ambitious Baltimore politician in “The Wire” and Lord Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones.” No one does intense with more intensity than Gillen. Here, he plays a London photographer who’s yet to recover from the death of his teenage son in a hit-and-run accident a year earlier and divorce from a wife who once properly fit him like a glove. For no good reason, Tom Carver has become the target of teenage punks, who object to his kindness to a boy too weak to protect himself against the bullies. It takes a long time for Carver to turn into Charles Bronson in Death Wish, but, once he’s pushed beyond his limit, the explosion can be heard from miles away. Anyone anticipating a clichéd ending, though, will be pleasantly surprised. Gillen gets more than ample support from tough-as-nails Sonny Green, Jonathan Slinger, Elodie Yung and Amanda Mealing.

Charlie Levi’s first and only feature, Childless, deals with the grief associated with the unexpected loss of a child, as well, but in very different ways. Having sat on a shelf gathering dust since at least 2009, the intense drama practically dares us to empathize with the four adults closest to the teenage girl, who’s probably getting far more attention in death than she ever did while alive. As played very well by Barbara Hershey, Joe Mantegna, Diane Venora and James Naughton, the middle-class Angelinos prepare for the funeral by wallowing in self-pity and hurling accusations and recriminations at each other and the camera, not only for the conditions that prompted Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss) to take her life, but also the fissures in their own marriages and those of peripheral relations. If Levi leaves the door open for reconciliation, it’s only over Katherine’s cold dead body. Edward Albee might have been able to make these people interesting, if not exactly sympathetic, but Childless could never be mistaken for a sequel to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Even so, it’s always fun to watch actors of this stature at work in something other than TV crime series and horror flicks. The DVD adds a not particularly enlightening making-of featurette.

I Am Evel Knievel: Blu-ray
As difficult as it is to believe in 2015, there was a time not so long ago when a daredevil with the unlikely name of Evel Knievel held the world in the palm in his hand, simply for his willingness to risk life and limb by jumping his Harley-Davidson over several dozen automobiles, buses, tanks filled with shark and crates containing snakes. Mostly, though, Kneivel is remembered for crashing his bike in ways that can be only described as spectacular. It begged the question as to whether fans paid to see him complete the jumps or die trying. Knievel was a master showman in an era when simply showing up wasn’t enough to please an audience. By the time he announced his intentions to jump the Grand Canyon, but had to settle for a failed attempt to bridge the Snake River, there was nowhere to go but Hollywood. That proved to be as big a flop as the Snake River debacle. Among those testifying in Knievel’s defense are celebrities Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Rock, Guy Fieri, Robbie Maddison; daredevils Spanky Spangler and Mike Vallely; Willie G. Davidson, of Harley-Davidson; comedian Bob Einstein (a.k.a., Super Dave Osborne); racing promoters Chris and J.C. Agajanian; and family members, including sons Kelly and Robbie, and former wives Linda Knievel and Krystal Kennedy-Knievel. Not surprisingly, footage of his successful jumps isn’t nearly as captivating as the film taken of Kneivel hideously rolling head over heels on the forgiving concrete, breaking a new bone with each bounce. Derik Murray and David Ray’s I Am Evel Knievel exceeded my meager expectations, at least, reminding me of a time when a man could become a hero simply by putting on a red, white and blue jump suit and putting his reputation on the line for a few thousand paying customers. Or, was that Elvis? The Blu-ray adds plenty of like-minded bonus features.

Contamination: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Jester’s Supper
Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back
Ghosthouse/Witchery: Blu-ray
If genre buffs have learned anything from the ongoing digital revolution, it’s that you can’t keep a good “video nasty” down … or any other long-buried exploitation flick, for that matter. Contamination, newly re-released into Blu-ray by Arrow Films, is a perfect example of the zombie-fication of sleazeball cinema. The video-nasty designation was applied to DVDs of questionable taste by Britain’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association and endorsed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. For it to be enforceable, the legislation needed to be updated to take into account then-current technology. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 didn’t prevent these films from being shown elsewhere or to re-edited and re-submitted. It did, however, serve to elevate the value of bootleg copies in Britain and raise the profile of movies otherwise destined for drive-ins and grindhouses. Noteworthy primarily as a late example of Euro-horror, Contamination borrows key elements from Alien — football-sized eggs and alien “chest bursters” — and relocates them to a ghost steamer speeding toward the docks of New York. No stranger to the international exploitation game, Luigi Cozzi (a.k.a., Lewis Coates) decided that the easiest way to distinguish his film from Ridley Scott’s landmark thriller was to raise the ante on gore, while the cheapest way was to eliminate the spaceship and hire a lower-profile star than Sigourney Weaver. Here, police investigators led by Lieutenant Tony Aris (Marino Mase) are startled to find a cargo containing strange, oversized eggs and the bloody remains of the humans on board. It doesn’t take long before some of the government inspectors to become infected and, when the eggs explode inside the victims’ Hazmat gear, it approximates what might happen if a turtle was cooked in a microwave oven. The investigation leads military personnel headed by Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) and former astronaut Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) to a Colombian coffee farm, where the eggs are being manufactured by a one-eyed Martian brought back by a space mission. I kid you, not. If Contamination isn’t a world-beater cinematically, Arrow’s hi-def restoration makes the 95 minutes pass by quickly. It includes an amusing Q&A session with Cozzi and McCulloch and separate interview with the director; an archive making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film, illustrations and original stills and posters; “Sound of the Cyclops,” in which Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini discusses the creation of the score; and commentary with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.

It’s impossible to predict what a package from One 7 Movies might contain when it arrives in the mail, as the films in its catalog range from vintage porn to obscure foreign horror titles. Made in 1942, in Mussolini-controlled Italy, The Jester’s Supper (a.k.a., “The Dinner of Practical Jokes”) is a rather primitive period piece set in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de Medici. The city is run by a ruthless pair of aristocrat brothers who specialize in playing cruel pranks on their enemies. When one of the victims decides to retaliate, things escalate in unexpected ways. One of them involves the sexual attack on a young woman favored in the Chiaramantesi household by street rabble. None of this would be of current interest if it weren’t for the fact that leading lady Clara Calamai made history by allowing her blouse to be ripped off, revealing the first naked breasts in the Italian sound cinema. The Jester’s Supper isn’t likely to be shown on TMC, but it’s readily available on the Internet.

It isn’t likely that Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back will log much air time here, either, but, as curiosities go, it isn’t bad. The conceit, which begins on the jacket of the DVD, requires horror fans to buy into a movie made in 2008 to look and sound like Nosferatu, Vampyr or Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. And, that it does. The difference between “Lilith” and Shadow of the Vampire, the 2000 John Malkovich vehicle, is that its historically based story is far more interesting. Gianni Virgadaula’s original intention with “Lilith “was to make a 17-minute short that combined elements of the vampire, werewolf and haunted castle subgenres. At 81 minutes, the only thing missing is a compelling story.

The latest double-feature from Scream Factory would be noteworthy mostly for the pairing of David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair in Witchery, virtually guaranteeing a celebration of cheesy cinema. Ghosthouse, which offers no such star power, was made specifically to fool Italian audiences into thinking they were watching a Sam Raimi movie. Doesn’t sound promising, but, guess what, they’re both pretty good. The credit belongs to directors Fabrizio Laurenti and Umberto Lenzi, respectively, embellishing American drive-in tropes with the garish gore-for-gore’s-sake excesses of Euro-horror. There’s isn’t much more to say about movies, except that one features an evil clown doll and the other … well, when you say, Hasseloff and Blair, you’ve said it all.

Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline
Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9
BBC: Planet Ant
1913: Seeds of Conflict
If the only thing aspiring mystery buffs know about Scandinavian writers is Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy,” which opened with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they owe it to themselves to widen their horizons with the many fine crime novels exported to the U.S. before and after that media sensation crashed upon our shores. For those of us allergic to ink and paper, however, the good news is that many of the best series have been translated into movies and television shows, now available here on Blu-ray and DVD. And, yes, they’re imminently binge-worthy. They include, of course, the Swedish/Danish- and English-language translation of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series; Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Pusher Trilogy”; “The Bridge,” which made the transition from Copenhagen/Malmo to Juarez/El Paso; the Martin Beck mystery series, adapted from the novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; the “Easy Money Trilogy,” inspired by the novels of Jens Lapidus; and, from Norway, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” with Stellan Skarsgård. The unsinkable Netflix/AMC series, “The Killing,” is a direct translation of the popular Scandinavian series “Forbrydelsen” (a.k.a., “The Crime”).

American crime series require of their women protagonists that they be drop-dead gorgeous, sexually active or sexually ambiguous, sharpshooters, feisty and either constantly worried about their children or worried that the expiration date on their eggs is drawing near. As compelling as some of the characters have become, it’s the rare female cop, medical examiner, judge or legislator who isn’t required to defer to a male superior. In the episodic Danish political drama, “Borgen,” currently shown on PBS outlets, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) unexpectedly becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. The job comes with a target on her back for all manner of corrupt politicians, business executives and special interests to take aim, while also worrying about a distressed daughter and failed marriage.  Newly available through MHz Newtorks are chapters from the excellent Swedish series, “Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline” and “Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9,” neither of which, as far as I can tell, have appeared on America television. Helena Bergström stars as crime reporter Bengtzon in two feature-length films, adapted from Liza Marklund’s best-selling literary series. The abrasive Bengtzon not only is required to investigate crimes, but combat virulent strains of male chauvinism rarely seen any more in films. In “Paradise,” a murder in Stockholm’s harbor leads her to widespread conspiracy involving a government-funded women’s shelter. In “Deadline,” she leads her paper’s investigation into a series of bombings, apparently targeting organizers of the country’s Olympics committee. Eva Röse returns as police inspector Maria Wern in two new movies based on the crime novels by Swedish author Anna Jansson. After the death of her husband, Maria moves to the picturesque Swedish island of Gotland with her two children. Wern is more agreeable than Bengtzon, but no less dedicated to solving crimes, especially the kind of murders one wouldn’t think possible in such an ideal location.

Perhaps you’ve heard a variation of the time-honored riddle, “What are the only things that would survive a nuclear bomb?” One answer suggests, “Cockroaches and a fruit cake. And the cockroaches would starve.” After watching the BBC’s amazing scientific report, “Planet Ant,” I’d be willing to wager that ants not only would be able to survive the blast, but they’d also figure out what to do with the leftover fruit cakes. We’ve all owned an Ant Farm, accidentally disturbed a colony of red ants or been tested on the information gleaned from an educational documentary in school. “Planet Ant” uses state-of-the-art technology to delve even deeper into the miracles of the ant realm, including how they appear to solve mathematical problems that defeat modern computers.

Given the likelihood that war is a more likely prospect in the Middle East than peace and cooler heads will never prevail, now would be a good time to take a step backward, back to a time when a palpable degree of harmony did exist in the region. PBS’ eye-opening “1913: Seeds of Conflict” examines a critical yet overlooked moment of transformation in Palestine, long before the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate, which was never going to work as intended. That’s because no one anticipated how events in other parts of the world, as well as intra-faith divisions, would impact the Jews, Arabs and Christians already co-existing at the fragile crossroads of three of the world’s great religions.

The DVD Wrapup: Timbuktu, The Bridge, Pit Stop, Dog Soldiers and more

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Timbuktu: Blu-ray
Any religion that allows itself to be shanghaied by criminals, thugs or perverts probably ought to think about making its core beliefs more specific and membership requirements more rigid. If a faith’s most sacred texts can be so easily misinterpreted that co-religionists can’t even agree on its position on murder in the name of God, it will take something more powerful than assault rifles to open the gates of heaven to them. Or, maybe the priests, rabbis and mullahs entrusted with interpreting scripture are too personally invested in conflict to come together for the sake of peace. Bob Dylan probably could have written a dozen more verses to “With God on Our Side” and still not captured the insanity that began with Cain and Abel and continues today. This terrible reality was all I could think about while watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s extraordinary depiction of life at the crossroads of sanity and madness, Timbuktu. Islam was introduced to West Africa in the 11th Century and, since then, it has been the predominant religion of Mali, of which Timbuktu remains a regional capital. Mali’s been down on its luck economically for a long time, thanks, in large part, to a lingering drought, severe heat and uncertain political leadership. At one time, though, Timbuktu was a crossroads trading center, as well as a magnet for Islamic scholars and repository for religious texts and manuscripts. Despite its multiethnic population, religion wasn’t a divisive force in the region until recently. Sissako’s Oscar-nominated film depicts the relatively brief period when jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda (and/or ISIS) were able to take advantage of a split between Tuareg secessionists and Islamic radicals to take control of Timbuktu from the fractured Malian military. Among the first things they did was impose Sharia law and destroy libraries containing centuries-old religious texts, including cherished editions of the Koran.

Timbuktu puts a tight focus on Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) a cattle herder; his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki); his pre-pubescent daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed); and Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), a shepherd boy, who is like their own son in the shrinking tent community outside Timbuktu. Their lifestyle is as uncluttered and traditional as the Bedouin, who once crisscrossed the southern Sahara. Kidane shares the waters of a nearby lake with a fisherman from a different ethnic background, but also living in the dunes. One day, a cow breaks away from the herd, destroying a section of the fisherman’s nets. He retaliates by immediately killing the cow — Issan’s favorite – and cursing the boy. When Kidane confronts the belligerent fisherman, the pistol he’s carrying to intimidate the man accidentally discharges, killing him. This sets off a series of events that puts Kidane in direct contact with the jihadists and their alternately severe and absurd interpretations of Sharia law. It outlaws music, dance, laughter, cigarettes and, even, the bare hands of women selling messy products in the market, while authorizing stoning adulterers to death, lashing outlawed musicians and accepting bribes and granting favors. Kidane’s biggest problem is his inability to come up with the compensation – 40 cows – ordered by the court, which includes a man who’s itching to steal the herdsman’s wife. If this was all Sissako gave us to ponder in Timbuktu, it would be an unbearable experience. Instead, he lightens the overall tone by demonstrating the determination of residents to get around the rules, even under the watchful eyes of the fanatics. After soccer balls are banned, for example, kids make do by staging realistic games, albeit with an imaginary ball. At the same time, bored jihadists are shown killing time by discussing the stars of European soccer leagues and their favorite teams. There are other amusing examples of resistance, but they’re far outweighed by the cruelty of the Sharia jurists, especially to women. Timbuktu benefits greatly from the wonderfully evocative cinematography of Sofian El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Color), which shifts nimbly from the sunbaked dunes and courtyards at high noon, to the velvety-black sky that shrouds the desert at night. The Blu-ray adds thought-provoking interviews with the filmmaker.

Stop the Pounding Heart
As difficult as it may be for liberals to believe that the Republican presidential candidates actually believe the outrageous crap they spew everywhere they go on the campaign trail, it’s just that easy to believe that Democrats have never gone very far out of their way to understand what makes so many voters buy into the button-pushing rhetoric of Tea Party-approved politicians. Considering that Texas is ground zero for the lunatic fringe of the GOP, along with Florida, it might be enlightening for supporters of Hillary and Bernie to pay a visit to territory claimed by Ted Cruz and Rick Perry. Or, they could start by watching the engrossing docu-drama Stop the Pounding Heart, which constitutes the third chapter in Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s “Texas Trilogy,” along with The Passage and Low Tide. In it, we’re introduced to the Carlsons, a large family living on a goat farm in East Texas according to precepts set down in the bible. While their faith is grounded on fundamentalist beliefs, they appear to have formed their own opinions on what’s important in life, based on personal experience … good and bad. While the Carlsons don’t seem to be particularly interested in what’s going in Washington, they’re exactly the kind of people Cruz and Perry claim to represent.

Leeanne and Tim Carlson have decided that their 12 children will be sheltered from the world in which they grew up through home-schooling and strict interpretations of scripture. The central focus of Minervini’s no-frills film is Sara, an intentionally plain teenager who has only recently begun to doubt her mother’s daily testimonials to chastity, devotion to God and subservience to the man in her life. Sara’s closest male friend, Colby, is an aspiring rodeo rider who appears to have divided most of his formative years falling off mechanical bulls and getting tattooed. His father found religion after succumbing to hard drugs and, like the Carlsons, has retreated from the world at large to protect his family from the same fate. Through Colby, we’re also introduced to Texas gun culture, which is as much a part of growing up in the Big Thicket as, well, falling off mechanical bulls and getting tattooed. Watching Colby’s very pregnant sister taking target practice may be unnerving for some viewers, but she appears to be having a lot more fun on the firing range than she will be a couple weeks later delivering her baby in the living room of her home. Minervini’s presence doesn’t appear to have unnerved his subjects, although you never know how things actually went down off-screen. We’re aren’t encouraged to draw conclusions, one way or the other, besides those that arise naturally from witnessing the quality of Sara’s homeschooling, whose curriculum appears to include milking the goats and cows. It’s also possible to wonder how she’ll find an appropriate life partner when she isn’t allowed to date or mingle with infidels. In some way, Stop the Pounding Heart is the antithesis of such redneck reality shows as “Duck Dynasty” and the one with Honey Boo-Boo. As unfamiliar as the Carlsons may be to those of us who live in Blue State America, in the rural South they’re as common as kudzu, if far less insidious. Their faith is in a God who speaks to them in mysterious ways, not the Republican Party.

The Bridge: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Along with the hellish images collected from World War II death camps, some of the most penetrating photographs sent back to America in 1945 were of the German boys and elderly POW’s captured as the Allies began their final drive to Berlin. These weren’t the faces of heroes or battle-hardened soldiers. These were the victims of Adolph Hitler’s refusal to end the madness and save Europe from further carnage. Many of the raw recruits – the youngest ones, especially — were so brainwashed by Nazi propaganda they actually believed their participation could turn the tide, bringing about the final victory promised them since the invasion of Poland. Bernhard Wicki’s remarkable anti-war drama, The Bridge, was based on Gregor Dorfmeister’s autobiographical novel, published in 1959 under a pseudonym. Dorfmeister was one of several high school buddies drafted into the Wehrmacht and, days later, assigned to defend a bridge over a river near their homes. It was of almost no strategic value – except to facilitate the desertion of veteran officers and escape of wounded troops – but their lack of adequate training caused one of their more realistic superiors to place them as far out of harm’s way as possible. What the officer didn’t take into account, however, was the boys’ faith in Der Fuhrer evolved from their participation in Hitler Youth programs that promoted devotion to the Fatherland as much as physical strength and stamina. What their elders saw as lost cause, the boys assumed was a path to glory. Wicki gives viewers plenty of time to get to know them as everyday teenagers, preoccupied with their studies, girlfriends, causing mischief and performing chores for their families, many of which were missing an adult male authority figure. Each is allowed individual character traits and dreams of a productive future in Third Reich. Roughly halfway through the 103-minute film, they are sent to the bridge and ordered to dig in and hold the position. A flyover by P-51 Mustang provided the first hard evidence that Hitler hadn’t levelled with them.

Their fate is sealed when their commanding officer is attacked in the streets of town by a pair of marauding SS troopers and killed before he can order his charges to surrender in the face of superior fire power. Before the American tanks arrive, the boys kill a couple of hours horsing around on the bridge, as if they were in a pretend war. It doesn’t take long after Mustang strike for the distant rumble of advancing tanks can be discerned in the near distance. Still, armed with grenade launchers and machine guns, they stand their ground. Instead of taking flight, the boys give the advancing patrol all they can handle. At first, this inspires a palpable sense of pride, even the occasional smile after killing a GI. Stunned by the presence of boys in Wehrmacht uniforms, one of the Americans actually pleads with them to surrender. Instead, he’s cut down by a sniper. The resulting firefight eventually separates the boys from the men, leaving only one of them to relate this story of quixotic patriotism to Germans still reluctant to admit their culpability in the war. (The skirmish turned out to be such an insignificant event, it didn’t even rate a footnote in official records or, until the book became a best-seller, a plaque at the bridge.) Based on facts and unsparingly honest in its depiction of war, The Bridge is a powerful drama no matter on which side of the Siegfried Line one sits. According to director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), it directly influenced members of the New German Cinema, who grew up watching movies that ignored the Nazis’ culpability in the war and atrocities that no one wanted to admit happened. The Criterion Collection 2K digital restoration makes the black-and-white film feel as if it were made yesterday and includes a remarkable bonus package distinguished by refreshingly candid new interviews with Dorfmeister and Schlondorff; a 1989 television profile of Wicki, who had spent 10 months in a concentration camp; an excerpt from a 2007 documentary by his wife, Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss, featuring test-reel footage from the shoot; and an by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Survivor: Blu-ray
You know that things have changed when three of the top action stars in the world are a former supermodel, a late-blooming Irish thespian and a graduate of the WWE acting academy. Had Liam Neeson and Dwayne Johnson appeared alongside Milla Jovovich in James McTeigue’s tick-tock, cat-and-mouse thriller, Survivor, it’s still conceivable that it would have sunk like a stone at the box office. At least, it would have enjoyed something better than a kiss-off VOD release. As it is, Jovovich is accompanied by such capable actors as Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett and Robert Forster, none of whom can be accused of phoning in their performances. No, the blame here falls directly on an incoherent screenplay by freshman scripter Philip Shelby and the quizzically haphazard direction by McTeigue (V for Vendetta). The picture opens in Afghanistan, where two members of an American helicopter crew have been shot down and captured by Taliban insurgents, hoping to trade one of them for a lucrative ransom. The other survivor, who’s black, is summarily executed, ostensibly because he wouldn’t be worth as much money to the kidnapers. Really? Just as quickly as this scenario is introduced, it’s put aside and ignored by McTeigue and Shelby. Flash forward and geographically sideways, to London, where the hunt for terrorists continues apace. Jovovich plays an American Foreign Service Officer, Kate Abbott, working with British security officials to ferret out potential troublemakers employing ever-more-sophisticated techniques to bypass airport checkpoints. As someone who lost several close friends in the 9/11 attacks, Kate is determined to find the terrorists before they get to the U.S. Shockingly, the first person (Roger Rees) who raises a red flag at Heathrow is allowed to pass through a checkpoint by a seemingly jaded U.S. official, Bill Talbot (Forster). What an American is doing at Heathrow, determining who’s allowed into England, is anyone’s guess.

Naturally, the first thing the mad scientist does is hook up with a crazed watchmaker (Moore), who’s considered to be the most notorious mercenary assassin on the planet. The scientist delivers a gaseous weapon of mass destruction to the watchmaker – a sharpshooter – who’s created a delivery system to be tested in London, but activated in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Conveniently, Kate recognizes a criminal conspiracy when she sees one and, after doing a Google search on the scientist, becomes the target of turncoat American agents, British cops and whoever it was who hired Nash, the watchmaker. Instead of eliminating Kate in a restaurant explosion, Nash succeeds in blowing up all of her co-workers. No one at the embassy believes her story, so, when she’s photographed fleeing the scene of Talbot’s accidental killing – shades of North by Northwest – an hour-long chase ensues. It ends, of course, on a tall building overlooking Times Square at its most crowded. At a brisk 96 minutes, Survivor appears to have jettisoned logic and common sense in the service of the Kate’s one-woman crusade to halt an attack designed to kill more innocent Americans than those murdered on 9/11. Viewers shouldn’t be forced to accept such lapses in logic, simply to get through to what promises to be an explosive climax. Nu Image Films decided to cut its losses by opening it in only a handful of theaters, simultaneously with a VOD release on iTunes, On Demand and, for free, via the new Hoopla app, which is supported by public libraries in a way I don’t quite understand. (The same teaser approach was employed with Kristin Wiig’s Welcome to Me.) The Blu-ray arrives with deleted scenes and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Meet Me There
Crypt of the Living Dead/House of the Living Dead:  Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In 2002, when Dog Soldiers was first released in England, the werewolf subgenre was experiencing a bit of a resurgence, thanks mostly to the Canadian teen-exploitation flick, Ginger Snaps, which overcame a slow start by building buzz in the VHS, DVD and cable after-markets. Werewolves would resurface once again, thanks to such TV and movie franchises as “True Blood,” “The Twilight Saga,” “Underworld,” “Being Human,” “Teen Wolf” and “Supernatural.” All of these titles owe more to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling – both released in 1981 – than any of the Universal horror classics, with the possible exception of Werewolf of London, which inspired a great song by Warren Zevon. Credit is due, as well, to Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, whose innovations in the creation of special makeup effects allowed for more frightening transformations and sexier monsters. Virtually ignored here on its release, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers should be must-viewing for those who consider themselves aficionados of modern horror. Being of British persuasion, its closest relative probably is Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which combined gory effects and smart humor in the service of movie that could be enjoyed as a thriller and/or parody of genre tropes and clichés. If the gags and references in Dog Soldiers are harder for non-buffs to recognize, it’s compensated for by the imaginative deployment of special effects. As was the case with Ginger Snaps, the filmmakers chose not use to rely on CGI effects, preferring prosthetics and makeup for the action sequences. By comparison, the story is simplicity, itself. Members of an elite unit of the British army’s Special Forces is transported by helicopter into a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands. All they are told is that it’s a survival-training assignment and the idea is to avoid detection by other units. When the soldiers come across the gruesome remains of a platoon previously inserted into the area, it becomes abundantly clear that other forces are at work here and their behavior is lycanthropic. Thanks to the well-timed appearance of an animal-behavior expert (Emma Cleasby), the soldiers are able to find shelter in the nearest cottage, which is 50 miles from anywhere else and beyond the reach of cellphone signals. What happens next could very well be taken as a supernatural homage to Assault on Precinct 13. Also along for the ride are Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer and Darren Morfitt. The new 2K-scan HD transfer was supervised and approved by Marshall, who also provides commentary. The bonus package includes a new making-of featurette, with cast members, producers, special-effects artist Bob Keen, special effects supervisor/creature designer Dave Bonneywell, production designer Simon Bowles and director of photography Sam McCurdy; a fresh look at the model of the sets created by Bowles; a pair of still galleries; and Marshall’s short film, “Combat.”

Austin-based director Lex Lybrand opens the smart and creepy Meet Me There with a death scene so poetic that it makes you wonder how he’s going to top it over the course of the next 90 minutes or if he’s even going to try. His patience — and our’s — will be rewarded in this regard, but not before we’re introduced to a backwoods community of in-bred characters who make every day seem like Halloween.   Hipster-chick Ada (Lisa Friedrich) has been seeing a shrink to make sense of her inability to relate sexually to her boyfriend, Calvin (Micheal Foulk). On her recommendation, they embark on a journey of discovery to her tiny hometown in the middle of Nowhere U.S.A. Ada’s sure that her aunt will give them a place to stay, but it’s the only indication that something resembling rural hospitality exists here. Indeed, once Ada realizes what caused her to leave the town in the first place – blotting out all memories of it – Lybrand kicks the real gothic horror show into gear, finally ending in the same place as it began. Filmed on a budget that probably was close to non-existent, Meet Me There had me on the edge of my seat for most of its run-time. But, then, I’m of the opinion that the true monsters among us don’t telegraph their bloodlust with sharpened teeth, skull tattoos and stormtrooper boots. That’s for amateurs. One look at Preacher – created by Dustin Runnels (WWE’s Goldust) – and you know that God has abandoned his church. Bonus features include interview with Runnels and Jill Thompson (“Scary Godmother”), who plays Aunt Lindsay.

In Cross, Daniel Yee Heng Chan Leung (Trilogy) takes a slightly different approach to the Angel of Mercy trope, which typically demands that a sociopathic nurse or doctor play God in determining how long a terminally ill patient should live. Simon Yam (Ip Man) plays a man so traumatized by the suicide of his wife that he decides to provide his lethal services to anyone contemplating taking their own life at the risk of eliminating any chance they’ll go to heaven. To provide such a service, Leonard contracts with people he encounters on a website dedicated to assisting people on suicide watch. He has a plan for the disposition of the money, as well, but it’s too far-fetched to mention. With the death toll mounting to alarming heights in Hong Kong, police psychologist Cheung (Kenny Wong) is assigned to the case, whose trail leads him to the same online web forum. Unlike Leonard, Cheung is less interested in saving eternal souls than closing the loophole he provides them. It’s up to viewers to decide who stands on higher ground.

Vinegar Syndrome is a Bridgeport-based distribution company and film archive dedicated to the preservation, restoration and release of the exploitation titles in its library. It’s one of several such businesses that have kept the DVD/Blu-ray trade from stagnating in recent years. This week’s double-feature is pretty representative of VS’ stated mission. A strictly limited edition of Crypt of the Living Dead and House of the Living Dead takes buffs back to the early 1970s, when such drive-in fare was ignored by teenage lovers and beer-swilling jocks. Made in Spain and shipped to the U.S. as “Hannah, Queen of the Vampires,” Crypt of the Living Dead stars Andrew Prine as a young American engineer who travels to the spooky island where his scientist father was crushed by the crypt of a vampire queen. In investigating the incident, the engineers inadvertently opens the door to the undead beauty’s savage soul. The bonus film, House of the Living Dead, has been shown here as “Curse of the Dead,” “Doctor Maniac” and “Kill, Baby, Kill.” It takes place on a colonial vineyard outside Capetown, South Africa, where a mad scientist plots to steal people’s souls and place them into jars for eternity. The only person standing in his way is buxom blond Shirley Anne Field, who previously had appeared in such fine British films as Peeping Tom, Alfie, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Entertainer and could later be seen in My Beautiful Laundrette and Shag. It’s kind of like discovering Jayne Mansfield in a crowd scene in Citizen Kane. The films have been restored in 2k from 35mm negatives.

Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical
About 10 years ago, semi-retired porn superstar Veronica Hart directed Misty Beethoven: The Musical!, a XXX feature adapted from one of the most popular adult titles of all time, The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Like the 1976 Radley Metzger (as Henry Paris) original, “MB:TM” was informed by the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” and Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” As conceits go, Hart’s hard-core musical comedy was right up there with turning John Waters’ edgy comedy about sex and race in 1960s Baltimore, “Hairspray,” into a rather tame Broadway musical. Still, it gave actors an opportunity to show off other assets than those best savored in the boudoir. It also produced a soundtrack album. Rolfe Kanefsky’s much softer Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical contains 12 original songs performed by actors known mostly to late-night viewers of Cinemax. I suspect that Kanefsky originally intended for Adventures Into the Woods to be an extension of the “Emmanuelle” franchise, as he had previously directed and written a half-dozen movies exploiting the classic character.

Once again, Kanefsky enlists Allie Haze, the prolific star of soft- and hard-core vehicles – including parodies of movies and TV shows — to portray Emmanuelle. During a science experiment, Emmanuelle falls through a wormhole and winds up in a forest not unlike the one Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep traversed in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical, “Into the Woods.” Apparently, the forest falls within the boundaries of Wonderland and, during Emmanuelle’s journey home, she’ll encounter Alice, the Big Bad Wolf, Humpty Dumpty, Snow White, the Evil Queen, Little Bo Peep, Little Miss Muffett, the Mad Hatter and characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” all played by porn actors and scream queens. Apart from the fact that nothing particularly remarkable occurs during the 100-minute length of Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical, it strains credulity to think that anyone attracted to “Into the Woods” would make a beeline for “The Sexy Musical.” Adding “Emmanuelle” to the title might have encouraged fans of that franchise to take a chance on something very different in the genre. And, there is plenty of full-frontal, if not particularly gynecological nudity to distract viewers not interested in the songs. The DVD adds extended musical numbers and deleted scenes.

Spike Island
Few regional music scenes have been captured as intimately and with as much passion as the one associated with Manchester, England. Among the groups that emerged from the industrial center in the 1960s were the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, Freddie and the Dreamers and an early incarnation of the Bee Gees. They would be followed in the 1970-80s by the Smiths, the Buzzcocks, 10cc, the Fall, Joy Division and its successor group New Order, Oasis, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, James and the Stone Roses. In 2002, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People chronicled the city’s music scene from the now-legendary June 4, 1976, Sex Pistol concert at Lesser Free Trade Hall, to the juncture of post-punk, electronic dance music, Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub and emergence of ecstasy in the late 1980s. Five years later, Anton Corbijn’s Control dramatized the tortuous rise and tragic fall of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis. In Spike Island, director Mat Whitecross (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) and writer/co-star Chris Coghill use the occasion of a 1990 Stone Roses’ outdoor concert at Manchester’s Spike Island to tell a coming-of-age story about a group of five aspiring musicians determined to deliver a demo tape to the headliners. The concert has been described as a “Woodstock for the baggy movement” – neo-psychedelia and acid house-influenced guitar music – that attracted most of its 27,000 paid attendees from Manchester. The guys aren’t able to purchase tickets or sneak over a tall fence, but the music can be heard well enough on the lawn behind the barrier, where hundreds more young men and women are holding their own party. The event serves as a watershed moment for the lads, who, almost overnight, will be required to leave high school behind and assume responsibilities associated with adulthood. Who knows, they might yet become pop stars. Besides some petty linguistic and cultural differences, there’s no reason why Spike Island shouldn’t appeal to American audiences. Included in the cast are Elliott Tittensor, Nico Mirallegro, Jordan Murphy, Adam Long, Oliver Heald, Emilia Clarke, Lesley Manville and Matthew McNulty, who might be familiar to fans of BBC America and “Masterpiece Theater.”

Pit Stop: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Looking back through the fog of pop-cultural history, it’s easy to think that California car culture was fairly represented by such music groups as the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, and in movies like American Graffiti, Eat My Dust, Gone In 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Gumball Rally and, to some extent, Bullitt. Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road focused on moonshine running and rarely played north of the Mason-Dixon Line, while White Lightning and other high-octane Burt Reynolds’ epics also represented the South. I can’t recall a movie in which demolition derbies played a central role and, until very recently, I hadn’t seen a movie set in the world of Figure-8 racing. It was the kind of roughhouse activity reserved mostly for fairs and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” In 1969, the erroneously titled “Pit Stop” introduced Figure-8 racing to drive-in audiences around the country, before disappearing for 30-40 years. Made in black-and-white on a budget that even impressed the famously frugal Roger Corman, Jack Hill’s follow-up to Spider Baby and Mondo Keyhole easily qualifies as one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. And, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Arrow Video’s “2-Disc Director Approved Authorized Special Edition” clearly belongs to a period of time when the price of a gallon a gas was about the same as that for a gallon of Coca-Cola. There were enough pre-WWII cars still around to turn into hot rods and any decent mechanic could spend an afternoon in a junk yard and leave with everything he needs to make a serviceable stock car. In the interviews included in the sterling Blu-ray package, Hill says that he intended to make “an arthouse movie about stock-car racing.” If it doesn’t quite reach that pinnacle, at least it’s supremely entertaining. Richard Davalos plays street racer Rick Bowman, who, after getting in trouble with the law, is challenged by a local promoter (Brian Donlevy) to become a champion Figure-8 racer. At first, he considers the sport to be too crazy even for his low-brow tastes. When the region’s top driver (Sid Haig) disses him in front of a crowd of gearheads that he takes the bait and, by the way, his girlfriend (Beverly Washburn). Eventually, their rivalry will take them to an oval racetrack, but not before Hill takes us to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area for a bit of dune-buggy racing. The real topper, though, is watching Ellen Burstyn playing a red-hot grease monkey. Two years later, she would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in The Last Picture Show. The Blu-ray arrives with an original trailer; commentary with Hill; interview with Corman and Haig; a restoration demonstration; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Glenn Kenny and musicologist and writer Gray Newell on the film’s soundtrack.

BBC America: Ripper Street: Season Three: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Workaholics: Season Five: Blu-ray
PBS: Caring for Mom and Dad
It’s interesting how things work on television these days. Take the terrific period crime series, “Ripper Street,” for example. Filmed in Dublin and set in post-Jack the Ripper London, the show’s first two seasons aired on the BBC and BBC America. When the BBC decided to stop funding it, 40,000 fans signed an online petition to bring it back for a third stanza. The production company cut a deal with Amazon UK to stream “Ripper Street,” beginning last November. Those same episodes, give or take a trim for commercials or occasional nudity, were shown here on BBC America. Its third-season run ended last week. The really good news is that Amazon UK has renewed the series for a fourth and fifth season. Creator and lead writer Richard Warlow said he has plans to follow Whitechapel’s H Division “right through to the end of the Victorian age itself,” while star Matthew Macfadyen, responded to the news by saying that he’s looking forward to “embarking on another dose of ‘Ripper Street’: blood and guts, pocket watches and Victorian head-gear, wonderfully dark, moving and mysterious story lines.” The eight-episode third season picks up in 1894, with a train accident in Whitechapel that kills 55 civilians. An investigation reveals that the derailment was initiated by Long Susan and her attorney as part of a scheme to access bearer bonds to finance the gentrification of Whitechapel. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid also learns that his long-lost daughter, Matilda, is alive and not a drowning victim.

Back in April, 2011, the odds against the protagonists of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” holding any job for five years were prohibitive, against. The same probably could be said about the show, in which slacker best friends and roommates Anders Holmvik, Adam DeMamp and Blake Henderson – Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Blake Anderson, respectively — try their level best to keep their jobs while avoiding work. It’s a conceit that can get old pretty fast on television, especially as it deals with individuals no one would want to count on at work or date your daughter. It also requires great patience and better timing from the actors playing opposite the stars. I don’t know how much the series’ creators owe to Mike Judge, but the easiest way to describe “Workaholics” is to call it a hybrid of his “Office Space” and “Beavis and Butt-Head,” if those two wonderful characters ever got it together long enough to find a job. The fifth-season Blu-ray adds bloopers, deleted and expanded scenes, a Season Five “trailer” and a few other short featurettes.

With Obamacare surviving another challenge in the Supreme Court and Republican politicians still pledging to kill it, without having a backup plan of their own, PBS’ one-hour special report, “Caring for Mom and Dad,” couldn’t be more topical. According to narrator Meryl Streep, 75 million baby boomers are entering their retirement years at a rate of 10,000 a day. The question then becomes, who will care for this aging population when they can no longer care for themselves? The easy answer would be the children of the baby boomers, but there’s no assurance they’ll have enough money to handle the load, either. No one in Washington appears ready to deal with the loss of jobs by middle-age, middle-class Americans, either. Because much of the information shared in “Caring for Mom and Dad” is anecdotal, the show poses more questions than it answers. Maybe Streep could be asked to moderate one of the presidential debates and attempt to get solid responses from candidates, who, thanks to their government sponsored benefits package, will never be required to face the same health-care dilemmas as their constituents.

The DVD Wrapup: Welcome to Me, Wild Tales, Gett, Bob Hope and more

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Welcome to Me: Blu-ray
Since leaving “Saturday Night Live” and starring in the barely seen Hateship Loveship, Kristen Wiig has appeared in movies that, had they made it that far, might have found an audience among arthouse regulars, if not fans of the show, her 2011 breakout hit Bridesmaids or any of the animated features to which she’s lent her voice. That’s not a knock on the wonderfully gifted actor, merely an observation based on box-office data. On “SNL,” Wiig never hesitated to take her characters into places that were equal parts funny and disturbing, and she was rarely less than brilliant. For all sorts of reasons, that same vibe has yet to translate to theatrical audiences, accustomed to more fully fleshed out characters, perhaps, or a more precise seriocomic blend sustained over time. With “Ghostbusters” and “Zoolander 2” on tap for 2016, however, Wiig may very well realize her destiny as a major player on the big screen. In Shira Piven and writer Eliot Laurence’s Welcome to Me, it can be argued that her seriously bipolar Alice Klieg might have worked better as a recurring character on “SNL” or “Funny or Die” than as the protagonist of a feature-length film that may best be described as a comic psychodrama. Kleig has been “off her meds” for quite some time when she wins the Powerball lottery, making her filthy rich, if not an iota less mentally troubled. We know this because, when interviewed on local television about winning the grand prize, she takes the opportunity to suggest how it might affect her masturbatory habits. When she learns that this was trimmed from the news reports, Kleig takes it as a personal affront.

In response, she pays a visit to a Palm Desert studio that produces the kind of infomercials that over-populate late-night television, but somehow find viewers with money to burn. It’s one of the channels she watches when Oprah Winfrey isn’t on the air or she’s tired of reruns on OWN. Now blessed with F-U money, Kleigh asks station executives how much it would cost to have her own show. As nutty as the proposal sounds, the executives are just that desperate for bread and can’t wait to take her money. She uses the show, “Welcome to Me,” to realize personal fantasies – being wheeled onto the set on swan chairs – and settling scores with people who done her wrong in childhood. She also offers cooking tips – meatloaf cake, for example – and other lifestyle suggestions. There’s no way that Wiig and a cast that includes James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Cardellini and Wes Bentley could make such a setup anything but funny … for a while. It’s when Kleig, a onetime veterinary assistant, becomes an advocate for neutering dogs and, then, begins demonstrating the procedure for her viewers, the producers begin to sense her financial contributions may not be worth the hassle of lawsuits or the disgust of other paying customers. Any doubts that Wiig might not be able to accurately depict her character’s tortured mental state disappeared when leaked photos of a stark-naked Wiig, walking through a crowded Palms Spring casino, began to appear on celebrity-skin websites. It’s a brave performance and Wiig is excellent throughout Welcome to Me. How far her fans are willing to accompany Kleig into her journey into madness is open to question. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette.

Wild Tales: Blu-ray
Anthology films rarely are accorded the respect they deserve by audiences and festival juries, if only because the vignettes tend not to be of equal quality and they frequently have different pedigrees. Critics weigh each segment as an independent entity, while viewers pick favorites. The stories of Raymond Carver have been interpreted in dozens of different ways – Short Cuts, Birdman, Jindabyne – but typically expanded to feature length. If the overriding theme of Damien Szifron’s Wild Tales may be revenge, each entry exists independently from the others. If it hadn’t been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, each of the stories could theoretically have been entered individually in the Best Live Action Short category and picked as a finalist. It’s entirely possible that voters were attracted to the film by Pedro Almodovar’s name on the list of producers and the presence of the great Argentinian actor, Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens). Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s work probably didn’t hurt, either, although one now should take such endorsements advisedly. Unlike most anthologies, all six of the segments in Wild Tales were written and directed by the same person, Szifron, and none was genre-specific. The revenge is served cold and hot, comic and tragic. To explain them in any more detail risks spoiling the surprises, which are immediately remindful of really good episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s most apparent in In “Pasternak,” in which a casual conversation between a music critic and a model, eventually reveals a connection between all of the passengers in the cabin and a man named Gabriel Pasternak, who quietly arranged for their tickets. From just that much information, you might be able to guess what happens next, but why spoil the fun? In “Bombita,” Darin plays a demolitions expert, who innocently becomes trapped in a web woven by corrupt city officials and bureaucrats. After his career and personal life are nearly ruined, he becomes a people’s hero by sticking it to the “man” in the only way left to him. None of the short films overstays its welcome and each makes good on its promise of delivering poetic justice. The excellent Blu-ray presentation adds the 25-minute featurette, “Wild Shooting: Creating the Film” and short Q&A with Szifrón conducted after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Blu-ray
It may come as a surprise, even to daytime television junkies, that the longest running courtroom show of all time is the syndicated “Divorce Court.” With the show’s 35th season now completed, it leads the second-ranked “The People’s Court” by five years, although “Divorce Court” hasn’t been in constant distribution since its debut in 1957 and its format was changed to substitute real couples for actors. Because the litigants have already filed for divorce and must abide by the ruling of a former judge, the original soap-opera nature of the episodes was eliminated. I doubt very much that the Roman Catholic Church looks favorably on such desolations, but, thanks to Martin Luther and Henry VIII, “Divorce Court” never seems to have run out of cases. I don’t know if a version of the show can be found on Israeli or Iranian television, either. Anyone who’s seen Cyrus Nowrasteh’s shocking 2008 drama, The Stoning of Soraya M., Asghar Farhadi’s heartbreaking, A Separation (2011), or Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) already knows where a woman stands in the dissolution of her marriage under Islamic law. In “Soraya M.,” a husband uses false accusations of adultery to prevent his wife from getting in the way of his plans to take a 14-year-old bride. In the other two films, women are required to put their lives on hold, sometimes for years, while waiting for their husbands to agree to a divorce. As Israel’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem demonstrates, once again, how thin a line divides the laws of Islam and Judaism, at least when it pertains to keeping women from exercising their human rights. Essentially a courtroom drama, sibling filmmakers Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz chronicle the final stages of a marriage they began to follow in 2004, in To Take a Wife, and, four years later, in 7 Days, neither of which are readily available in the U.S. It isn’t necessary to have seen the previous two installments in the trilogy to appreciate “Gett,” however. It’s enough to know that child-bride Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) has regretted agreeing to marry the older, ultra-Orthodox Elisha Amsalem (Simon Abkarian), through all three installments of the saga.

A year before initiating divorce proceedings, Viviane left Elisha to live with her sister. Their adult children are on their own and Viviane had been chafing under her husband’s conservative yoke for many years. We will learn that neither party has committed adultery – his lawyer will imply she’s a slut for sitting in an outdoor café with her lawyer – and physical violence isn’t an issue. Elisha, though, is a ninja when it comes to passive-aggressive behavior and controls everything from who is allowed to visit their home to rejecting her request to have a family car. For every restriction he imposes on Viviane, Elisha is able to quote scripture to substantiate his objection. For a divorce to be considered legal under Jewish law, a man must grant his wife a religious divorce — a gett — of his own free will. She may receive a civil divorce, but cannot remarry within her religion and that’s some serious shit in Israel. Even if Elisha hasn’t initiated sex with Viviane in years and he doesn’t approve of her behavior, he has refused to appear before sessions of the rabbinical court, even after being so ordered. After three years of this nonsense, Elisha is forced to attend sessions and provide witnesses who will attest to his character and lie about what they know of their marriage. Viviane is also instructed to bring witnesses before the tribunal, but their testimony –and appearance — is put under much greater scrutiny than that of the male witnesses. This frustrating process continues for another two years, even as Elisha appears to acquiesce to the gett, before rescinding his approval moments later. Finally, it becomes clear that Elisha’s overriding demand is that Viviane not have sexual relations with another men, ever. It’s a maddening 115 minutes of drama –almost entirely shot in the cramped courtroom or the hallways where negotiations happen — relieved by some fabulous acting and evocative cinematography. The runtime allows for  the Elkabetz’ to give all parties, including the rabbis, ample time to state their cases, even if I think any TV judge worth his or her salt would have settled the litigation in a half-hour, including commercials. The Blu-ray adds an excellent making-of featurette.

Spirited Away: Blu-ray
The Cat Returns: Blu-ray
Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle
Now that Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki has retired and shows no sign of picking up his pen, again, every new Blu-ray of past classics deserves to be treated as an unexpected gift from a relative overseas … or Disney studios in Burbank, one. I don’t know how many more Studio Ghibli titles Disney has salted away in its vaults, but hi-def is definitely the ideal way to watch these fine movies. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns (2002) share several fantastical story points, including young female protagonists who find themselves trapped in fairytale land far away from their parents and must call on powers they didn’t know they had to get home. In Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new house, ending up at a tunnel leading to a failed theme park, which, at night, comes alive with a wild array of spirits. Instead of turning around and getting back on the right track, the intruders stick around long enough to sample some of the treats left out for the nightly bacchanal. The ethereal regulars don’t take kindly to the newcomers, turning mom and dad into pigs to be fattened for slaughter. Chihiro is left with the task of insinuating herself into the royal bathhouse – a thinly disguised brothel in the Japanese edition – and convince the sorceress (Suzanne Pleshette) to spare her parents. Fortunately, she’s able to convince a spirit boy (Jason Marsden) to be her guide to this realm of soiled demons, spirits, and evil gods.

In The Cat Returns, the precocious schoolgirl Haru saves the life of an unusual cat, unexpectedly setting off a series of events that could lead to her hand being awarded to the King of the Cats’ son, Prince Lune, in marriage. Most cats would consider this to be quite an honor, but, Haru has little interest in being turned into a kitten queen. In this fantasy world, dominated by all manner of felines, Haru (voiced by Anne Hathaway) will encounter political intrigue and a magical maze designed to test her ability to avoid danger. Once again, the female protagonist is supported by a gallant spirit, a.k.a., the Baron (Cary Elwes). Fifty minutes shorter than Spirited Away, The Cat Returns was originally intended for airing on television. It is, nonetheless, delightful. Much of the credit for that belongs to a voicing cast – added for the Blu-ray release — that also includes Judy Greer, Kristen Bell, Rene Auberjonois, Andy Richter, Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, Tim Curry and Erin Chambers. Blu-ray features includes an introduction by John Lasseter, original Japanese storyboards, voicing featurettes and other making-of material. As the Blu-ray offerings dwindle down to a precious few, it will be interesting to see if Disney changes its mind about releasing Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991). In it, a 27-year-old office worker travels to the countryside, while reminiscing about her childhood in Tokyo. Although Disney owns the rights to the coming-of-age movie, it has refused to release it on DVD/Blu-ray because it contains a reference to menstruation and Miyazaki won’t allow any editing or censorship. Maybe, Disney could release the film on its Buena Vista label, which isn’t afraid of adult material … even if it pertains to a naturally occurring physical transition experienced by roughly 51 percent of the world’s population.

Moving, now, from the sublime to the ridiculous – or merely very silly – we have Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle, the second sequel to the 2006 theatrical release that featured the voices of Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright and, of course, Clint Howard. The only carryover actor is Frank Welker, who’s voiced more animal characters than even his agent can count, by now. If anyone has earned the right to have a star purchased for him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – perhaps, alongside Mel Blanc – it is Welker. He deserves it far more than restaurateur to the stars Bobby Flay, who was so honored on June 2. All of this is a long way of saying that the new addition to the “Curious George” saga, which began in 1941 after his creators escaped the Nazis, it should appeal primarily to kids still unable to ride a bicycle without safety wheels. Here, the little rascal has been asked to take part in a space mission, which inadvertently ends in a crash-landing in Africa. In addition to Welker, guest voicers include Angela Bassett, John Goodman and franchise veteran Jeff Bennett, as the Man in the Yellow Hat. The DVD adds sing-along videos.

Tentacles/Reptilicus: Blu-ray
Anyone who cares enough about cinematic schlock to trace the roots of such upcoming Syfy creature features as “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” need not look any further than this twin-spin package of Tentacles and Reptilicus. Released in 1977, the former offers a rare example of a Eurotrash movie that was made in America, directed by a Greek and features a multinational cast of actors, some of whom actually qualify as stars. Besides Oscar-winners John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Henry Fonda, it includes Delia Boccardo, Cesare Danova, Claude Akins, Bo Hopkins, Marc Fiorini, Franco Diogene and Sherry Buchanan. Clearly intended to exploit whatever juice was left over from Jaws (1975), Ovidio G. Assonitis’ rubbery opus follows the same blueprint as the one drawn by Steven Spielberg. This time, however, the great white shark is a dopey giant octopus and the threatened beach community is on the left coast. Just when all SoCal life appears doomed, an employee of Marineland of the Pacific – now, a Donald Trump golf course – remembers that the killer whales he trains are the natural enemy of octopi and they might hold the key to salvation. Not before some Euro-babes are scared out of their bikinis, of course. Fonda spends most of his time on screen, standing in a booth barking orders into a phone. Huston, only three years removed from his great performance in Chinatown, plays a dogged reporter at a seaside rag. At this point in her career, Winters pretty much accepted any role thrown her way. If the movie made any money at all, it’s only because nothing, besides the actors, required more than credit card to create and one good weekend on the drive-in circuit would put it into the black.

Released in 1961, after the first tsunami of Japanese sci-fi/horror flicks hit our shores, Reptilicus is the real deal: a movie so bad that it borders on being a masterpiece of lame intentions. Besides being the first and only monster movie made in Denmark, it was the brainchild of the legendary schlockmeister Sidney W. Pink, who had already given the world Bwana Devil, I Was a Burlesque Queen, Flame Over Vietnam and The Angry Red Planet. While drilling for copper in a remote Danish location, the carcass of a prehistoric beast is hauled to the surface and delivered to a lab somewhere within shouting distance of Tivoli Gardens. When someone accidentally turns off the air-conditioning in the laboratory, the monster’s disparate parts are re-generated. After escaping from the lab, it grows to the size of Godzilla and demonstrates that it carries the same fire-breathing gene as the monster that terrorized Tokyo. Naturally, NATO troops are called in to eliminate the menace with weapons left over from World War II. M-1s and bazookas didn’t work against Godzilla in Japan and they don’t work in Denmark, either, but for a different reason. As the Scandinavian scientists and their buxom-blond assistants predict, every time an appendage is blown off the monster, it regenerates into an entirely new beast. The greatest minds in northern Europe are required to devise a plan to kill the monster and save the population, without damaging the herring and lutefisk industries. Supposedly shot in Pathécolor, it looks as if the negative spent too much time in the rinse cycle. Reptilicus is just that wonderful.

The Happiness of the Katakuris: Blu-ray
The prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike isn’t at all reluctant to put his loyal viewers through wringers, squeezing every ounce of sweat out of them and testing their ability to withstand outrageously graphic depictions of violence and perverse sexuality. Miike’s movies may not be for the faint of heart, but his fan base now extends around the world. Not all of the movies make it past national boards of censorship intact, however. A year before the release of the deceptively merry family musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris, the promoters of Ichi the Killer raised eyebrows by handing out branded barf bags to critics at the Toronto Film Festival. Judging simply from the cover art of The Happiness of the Katakuris, one might think the movie was a Japanese version of The Sound of Music. The alpine backdrop and happy faces of the multigenerational Katakuri family recall a romp through the edelweiss in pre-Anschluss Salzburg, far more than what we know of rural Japan. Based on Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim’s spooky feature debut, The Quiet Family, the dream of the Katakuris is to use the patriarch’s unemployment settlement to rehab an abandoned lodge situated on a former garbage dump near the base of Mount Fuji and turn it into a jolly B&B. The White Lover’s Inn is strategically located near the path of a road being built to the resort district. Their timing is a shade off, however, as the highway may not be finished before the Katakuris go bankrupt from lack of business. Still, the family is able to unite behind their dream and wait patiently for the first customers to check in and spread the word on the Japanese equivalent of Yelp.

The first guest, a television personality, uses his room to commit suicide. The next, a Sumo wrestler, suffers a fatal heart attack while humping his girlfriend, causing the wee thing to suffocate. The bodies are buried in a makeshift plot on the hillside, so as not to draw attention to what some might consider to be a curse. No sooner do relatives begin missing the now-dead tourists than the Katakuris are notified of the impending extension of the road, which is expected to run through the growing pile of corpses. It’s not an uncommon dilemma for murderous fiends to face in horror movies, but rarely to people who are simply are victims of circumstance. In Miike’s hands, the original solution to their problem naturally evolves into something far more ghastly. The result is a surreal horror-comedy, distinguished by claymation sequences, musical and dance numbers, a karaoke sing-along scene, and dream sequences. For good measure, Miike throws in the threat of a volcano erupting and literally melting the mountainside. The Happiness of the Katakuris was one of eight movies churned out by Miike in 2001, so he might fairly be accused here of overextending his reach creatively. There’s no question it divided critics and his fan base at the time. I enjoyed it as a warped, digital-age parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan. There are several spectacularly grotesque images, including the face of the poor girl crushed by the Sumo wrestler in flagrante delicto. Its farcical tone does make it seem more of novelty than the fully developed horror story we normally would expect from Miike. As usual, now, with Arrow Blu-ray releases, this one is backed by several entertaining making-of featurettes, interview sessions, commentary and booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Johnny Mains and a re-printed interview with Miike conducted by Sean Axmaker, illustrated with original stills. The hi-def cinematography enhances the presentation in all the right ways.

Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops
A more precise title for this trip down Memory Lane probably would have been “Hollywood Goes to War: Entertaining the Troops.” Bob Hope may be the first name that comes to mind in any discussion of morale-boosting missions overseas in times of war, but the 90-minute “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops” takes a far more expansive look at such activities in World War II. It opens with the newsreel footage of the Hollywood Canteen, bond rallies and the successful mobilization of nearly every A-, B- and C-list actor, radio star and musician who hadn’t already been drafted or volunteered two weeks after Pearl Harbor. It was ends with a wonderful 1987 reunion interview with Hope and the nucleus of his touring troupe, Frances Langford, dancer Patty Thomas and musician Tony Romano. (Jerry Colonna had died a year earlier.) Their anecdotes are pretty entertaining. Director Robert Mugge also includes footage of such familiar participants in the USO tours as Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour, the Andrews Sisters, Abbott and Costello, Lena Horne, Carole Landis, Dinah Shore, Danny Kaye, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Larry Adler, Kay Kaiser, Cass Daley, Irving Berlin and Mel Blanc. There’s a discussion of the role played by pin-up models and cartoon characters in the war effort, as well. Hope would continue to perform before our troops in and out of war zones until 1990. Although such tours hit a bump in the road during the Vietnam War, which a lot of our troops didn’t find particularly amusing, he would set an example for the current generation of entertainers, whose contributions often go unheralded. The bonus package adds extended footage of the reunion interview.

All Yours
As much as the queer cinema has matured, moving well beyond the tortured coming-out clichés that dominated earlier specimens, it’s still rare to come across a film that can compete on even terms with other indies in festival competitions not limited to LGBT themes. Although limited commercially by a few scenes of hard-core sex, All Yours is enhanced by the kind of production values expected of any other foreign export. The acting is terrific and the direction never calls undue attention to itself as a movie targeted at a niche audience. I think that writer/director David Lambert (Beyond the Walls) was gratified by the fact that his picture wasn’t ghettoized in festivals, even if it probably will be in video outlets, if only for the sake of easy categorization. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (“Epitafios”) plays the Argentine protagonist, Lucas, who supports himself by performing sex-on-demand for an international audience of gay men – presumably – through his website. One of those gentlemen, Henry (Jean-Michel Balthazar), a corpulent baker in a small Belgian town, pays for Lucas’ flight to Europe. He does so even though he knows almost nothing about the young man beyond what he can intuit from the website. Henry expects Lucas to service him sexually in return for the price of the ticket, but he also demands of the increasingly perplexed lad that he work in the bakery for his room and board. There was no disguising the unhappiness on Lucas’ face when he’s greeted by Henry at the airport. Neither does the language divide do them any favors or the lack of a separate bedroom in Henry’s apartment. Imagine Laurel and Hardy trying to sleep comfortably in a double bed.

On the plus side, Henry can be a jolly fellow when things are going right and no one in town appears to view their relationship with distain, open or otherwise. Already working in the bakery is a pretty single mother, Audrey (Monia Chokri), who makes fast friends with Lucas. She doesn’t have to steal money from the till to afford a glass of beer at the local pub, however, or a jacket for the cold fall air. Their friendship is largely based on the fact that they’re two lonely people, living in a small town and working for a man who needs them more than they need him. Even after making her acutely aware of the nature of his former job, they get close enough to each other one night to have sex. It doesn’t preclude Lucas from servicing Henry or making a few bucks on the side at a gay dungeon in a nearby town, but the atmosphere inside the bakery becomes decidedly lighter. It’s when Lucas begins showing signs of a flu-like condition that things get complicated in the triangle. Once again, Lambert, manages to steer the narrative away from the maudlin and toward something reasonably unexpected and uncompromised. The DVD package adds the short film, “Live a Bit Longer,” that inspired the feature, All Yours.

PBS: Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist
PBS: Inside the Court of Henry VIII
PBS: Nature: Animal Homes
Before Lance Armstrong broke the hearts of millions of Americans by finally admitting to something everyone in competitive cycling already took for granted, the charismatic Italian racer Marco Pantani carried the cross for athletes whose integrity was being tarnished by sketchy accusations of doping and using performance-enhancement drugs. A likeable young man from a humble background, he was nicknamed “The Pirate” for wearing a scarf over his bald head, sporting an earring and boldly attacking the leaders on hill climbs. In 1998, three years after colliding with a car head-on during the Milano–Torino race, Pantani became the first Italian since Felice Gimondi, in 1965, to win the Tour de France. He would go on to become only the seventh rider in history to achieve the Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double. Seventeen years later, he remains the last rider to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Naturally, as had always been the case with competitive cycling, such success caused him to be accused of cheating. (The same thing happened to sluggers Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire as they broke records once considered to be unreachable.) In the late 1990s, testing wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it would become in the Armstrong era and the specifications for doping were vague. Even though Pantani had never tested positive during his career, he would be yanked from the 1999 Giro for a slightly elevated haematocrit reading. He would be exonerated three years later, but, by then, the damage was done. Pantani had gone into a deep depression and self-medicated himself with cocaine. In February, 2004, at the age of 34, he was discovered dead in a seedy Rimini hotel, from acute cocaine poisoning. First released into theaters, then shown on PBS outlets, “Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist” is a powerful documentary about a sport that may not recover quickly from the Armstrong travesty. More than anything else, however, James Erskine’s film demonstrates why Europeans are nuts for cycling and why the people in charge of the sport should have done something definitive about such serious issues decades earlier. It’s also a beautiful film from a scenic perspective. (Imagine holding the World Series in Aspen every year or the Super Bowl overlooking the ocean in Big Sur.) The DVD adds lots more material, including footage of a downhill run at speed.

Of all of the recent TV mini-series and movies based on King Henry VIII, PBS’ 60-minute-long documentary “Inside the Court of Henry VIII” may be the most informative and historically valid of them all … unless, of course, one requires the presence of naked royals in their history lessons. Among other things, it benefits from expert testimony from scholars and settings that may actually have Tudor ghosts residing in them. It doesn’t ignore any of the wives or conspiracy theories that haunted Henry throughout his reign, but adds context and perspective that got lost in more exaggerated accounts. Moreover, the scholars are perfectly willing to point out the man’s positive points. A little nudity wouldn’t have hurt, however.

Sometimes, the simplest ideas make for the most interesting documentaries. The PBS series “Nature” proves this point on an almost monthly basis. How much more basic could a film titled “Animal Homes” possibly be? Didn’t we all learn everything we need to know about bird nests, beaver dams and other animal habitats in 3rd Grade? Basically, yes, but elementary school teachers didn’t have the same access we all do now to reference material that allows interior shots of these habitats and computer representations of the architecture. It’s truly amazing and an important reminder of what gets lost when habitats are destroyed and species are threatened by pollution and reckless exploitation of the land. Ecologist Chris Morgan serves as guide and “real estate agent,” evaluating and deconstructing animal homes, their material, location, neighborhoods and aesthetics.

The DVD Wrapup: Camp X-Ray, Free the Nipple, Giuseppe Andrews, Pillow Book and more

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

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.

Comeback Dad
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.”

Society: Blu-ray
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.”

The DVD Wrapup: McFarland USA, Scarecrows, Mickey Rourke, Justified, Rectify and more

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

McFarland, USA Blu-ray
There is a subgenre of sports movies in which hard-scrabble groups of young athletes defeat immense odds by becoming champions. Typically, they represent one ethnic-minority group or another, but it can be stretched to include a movie like Miracle, the dramatic story of the 1980 U.S. ice-hockey team’s amazing triumph over the dominant Soviet team or, even, Stand and Deliver, about Jaime Escalante’s determination to turn potential dropouts into competitive math wizards. Recently, too, we’ve seen inspirational stories about the first group of poor Mexican kids to win the Little League World Series (The Perfect Game) and Hispanic students from Texas who pit their robotic creations against those from a team from MIT. In basketball, there’s Hoosiers, in which a group of farm kids from a tiny Indiana school, conquered an Indianapolis team led by Oscar Robertson and perennial powerhouse Muncie Central, and Glory Road, in which five African-American players started for the first time in a NCAA championship game upset Kentucky’s all-white squad, coached by the “legendary” Adolph Rupp. All such films take liberties with the facts, if simply to boost dramatic effect or condense the disparate elements, but the climaxes can hardly be fudged.

Kiwi filmmaker Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA is the latest entry in the subgenre. Kevin Costner is typically effective as the high school football coach who’s fired for throwing a shoe at the starting quarterback – the wiseass deserved worse – and forced to look for work elsewhere. He finds it in a predominantly Mexican-American school in the Central Valley of California. As beneficiaries of the unionization of farm workers, led by Cesar Chavez, the families no longer are migratory and some have found ways to control their own livelihoods.  They are still poor, however, and many of their kids are required to split their days between work in the fields and school, with little or no hope of going on to college. As depicted here, Jim White (a.k.a., Coach Blanco) and his family are dismayed by their first impressions of McFarland, which they find to be as boring as it is impoverished. As an assistant to the school’s bone-headed football coach, White witnesses abuses that appear to be taken for granted by the principal. Long story short, White volunteers to create the school’s first cross-country team, based simply on watching a few of the boys running around during gym class or in the fields. Conveniently, California had just agreed to fund off-brand sports in minority-heavy schools and organize an inaugural statewide meet in cross-country. You can probably guess the outcome of McFarland, USA from that much information, alone.

What wouldn’t be obvious, though, are the many fresh twists added by Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, A Heavenly Vintage) to avoid clichés and invent dramatic confrontations where none actually existed. The rapport between White, his wife (Maria Bello) and daughters, and the students and their parents isn’t always ideal, but it feels genuine and the bad times are frequently relieved with humor. Moreover, Mexican-American family life is depicted in a straight-forward fashion that doesn’t ignore the strains caused by living with belts constantly tightened, while accentuating the positive aspects of life in a close-knit ethnic community. Being 1987, the inexperienced and poorly equipped Cougars are easy targets for the racist taunts of runners from Palo Alto and other all-white teams. Once the meets start, however, the cheap shots end. As anyone who’s driven north or south on I-5 can attest, the terrain in around McFarland doesn’t lend itself to picture-postcard sentimentality, but what beauty does exist is nicely captured by Terry Stacey and Adam Arkapaw. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Juntos,” by Juanes; and featurettes “McFarland Reflections” and “Inspiring McFarland,” which describes how the miracle continues, today.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water: Blu-ray
I wonder if sales of marijuana – medical and otherwise – were up in the week preceding the theatrical release of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. I’m old enough to remember when the Beatles’ animated musical, The Yellow Submarine, opened to audiences of older teens and young adults, who were stewed to the gills on pot and psychedelics. It wasn’t the kind of movie intended specifically to blow the minds of its audience, but its animators probably weren’t discouraged from paying special attention to themes, shapes and colors that catered to altered states. Launched in 1999, “SpongeBob SquarePants” is an animated television series created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg for Nickelodeon. The series chronicles the adventures of the title charac6ter and his various friends in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom. While there isn’t an obvious link between “SpongeBob” and “Yellow Submarine,” they’d make a dandy double feature at Sea World or on the flat-screen TV of your local dispensary of legal marijuana. Perhaps, it’s worth noting here that the ticket-counters at Box Office Mojo estimate that the audience for “Sponge Out of Water,” which combines live-action segments and animation, was 53 percent male and 60 percent under the age of 25. My guess is that most of those viewers under 25 grew up watching “SpongeBob SquarePants,” first as wide-eyed kids, but, then, as teens and young adults able to parse the hip double-entendres and cross-generational sight gags. Consequently, the movie outperformed estimates by posting $53.3 million in revenues over its opening weekend, on its way to a pre-video haul of $163 million at the domestic box office and another $148.6 million overseas.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s central conflict involves the theft of the secret Krabby Patty formula, not by Plankton, as could be expected, but a real-life pirate, Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), who wants to convert his amphibious vessel into a food truck. Absent the recipe, Bikini Bottom is threatened with becoming a ghost town. It causes SpongeBob and Plankton to put aside their differences long enough to recover the recipe and put Bikini Bottom back on the underwater map. This brief synapsis in no way does justice to the crazy stuff that happens between the theft and recovery of the recipe or of the delightfully drawn characters and backdrops and zippy musical interludes. The retention of original cast members Tom Kenny, Clancy Brown, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Doug Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence and Paul Harrison Tibbitt ensured, as well, that 16 years of fandom wouldn’t be disappointed by a possible introduction of promotable guest voices and cameos. The Blu-ray looks terrific, in or out of 3D, and the bonus features go a long way toward explaining how the movie and TV episodes come together, especially the voicing of characters. The featurettes are divided into four segments, “On the Surface,” “Underwater Awesomeness,” “Bikini Bottom Boogie” and “Deleted/Extended/Alternate/Test Scenes.” All add value to the total package, without spoiling any of the fun.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Blu-ray
In 1966, any progress China was making in the creation of the ideal socialist state, whose leaders were answerable only to “the people,” was thwarted by the paranoid delusions of 72-year-old Chairman Mao Zedong and the so-called Gang of Four. The intended goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of what a handful of Communist Party zealots considered to be revisionist elements determined to restore capitalism and bourgeois values to the Peoples Republic. They established the militant Red Guards to root out individuals hey determined to be less than committed to armed struggle and the elevation of what party leaders determined to be proletarian values. Anyone whose job required a modicum of intellectual thought or clean hands, even, could be sent to the boonies to work on communal farms, quarries or re-education camps. One byproduct of the Cultural Revolution was the banning of all plays and ballets that didn’t glorify the accomplishments of the Peoples Liberation Army or promote revolutionary change. When all was said and done, Mao’s widely despised wife, Jiang Qing, approved the creation of six model operas and two ballets, including Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, based on a novel by Qu Bo. It chronicled an actual battle in the Chinese Civil War, between a squadron of Peoples Liberation Army soldiers and a gang of bandits and brigands terrorizing villages in the mountains of northeastern China. The play was adapted into a rousingly patriotic movie in 1970 and, again, last year, as an action adventure by the estimable Tsui Hark. Shot in winter in the same mountains, “Tiger Mountain” stars Tony Ka Fai Leung as a ruthless bandit whose fortress sits beneath the summit of Tiger Mountain. Zhang Hanyu plays the spy sent to destroy the gang from the inside. To divert the warlord, Lord Hawk, a map to a treasure left behind by Japanese troops is fabricated. The Vietnamese native, Hark, is renowned for his Hong Kong action pictures and his brilliantly staged fight scenes are wonderfully entertaining. While the PLA soldiers, including a gung-ho woman warrior, wear drab standard-issue military uniforms and winter gear, Lord Hawk and his officers are decked out in all manner of fashionable furs and trinkets. (“Game of Thrones” appears to be referenced in the costumes.)  The mountainous backdrops couldn’t be any more formidable, either. Viewers may require a scorecard to keep track of the many different characters and storylines. There’s also a contemporary framing device, intended, I suppose, to appeal to viewers who may never have been required to memorize the Little Red Book of quotations from Chairman Mao. Western audiences may not grasp the conceit, but fans of modern Chinese epics won’t have any trouble getting past it. The Blu-ray captures the grandeur of the setting, as well as the winter chill, while adding interviews with cast and crew.

Scarecrows: Blu-ray
I wonder how many farmers still use scarecrows to ward off birds and other critters anxious to ravage their fields before crops have had an opportunity to take hold. While watching McFarland, USA, which is set in California’s agricultural belt, I didn’t notice a single burlap sack, stuffed with hay to resemble a ragamuffin’s torso. Of course, I didn’t see any hot-air balloons, tin men or yellow-brick roads, either. Neither, does William Wesley’s 1988 chiller, Scarecrows, take place near Kansas, Oz or anywhere else corn is grown in large quantities. Those geographical lapses aside, the movie makes the most of what little the filmmakers were given and the ability of cinematographer of Peter Deming (My Cousin Vinny, Mulholland Dr.) to allow us to make sense of a movie that takes place almost entirely in the dark, hundreds of miles from the nearest scarecrow. In it, a group of five former commandoes steals $3 million from Camp Pendleton, the sprawling Marine base between San Diego and Los Angeles. To make their escape, the heavily armed men and a woman force the pilot of a small propeller plane to take them to Mexico, which isn’t more than 50 miles south, as the crow flies. To ensure the pilot’s cooperation, the crooks also take his teenage daughter hostage.

Somewhere along the way, one of the commandoes grabs the money and parachutes from the plane, landing in a cornfield. Now, unless the pilot decided make a detour over the Imperial Valley, a hundred miles east of Camp Pendleton, it isn’t likely that much in the way of corn was being grown in the desert south of Mexicali. It’s where the Colorado River goes to die, after all.  In fact, Scarecrows was filmed in Florida, where there probably are several large fields of corn. Nonetheless, the commandos are able to use their search-and-destroy skills to locate the cornfield and abandoned farmhouse, around which a fierce firefight will take place. The scarecrows may not be armed with automatic weapons, but, with Satan on their side, aren’t about to let the invaders have free access to their cursed cornfield. Given the movie’s age and limited resources, Scarecrows offers a decent viewing experience for genre buffs with Blu-ray equipment. The set adds commentaries with Wesley and producer Cami Winikoff, and with Deming, co-screenwriter Richard Jefferies and composer Terry Plumeri; the featurettes, “The Last Straw,” – an interview with special makeup-effects creator Norman Cabrera, and “Cornfield Commando,” an interview with actor Ted Vernon; original storyboards; and a still gallery.

In the curiously titled Asmodexia, an itinerant exorcist pastor, Eloy (Lluís Marco), roams around the outskirts of Barcelona with his supernaturally blessed/cursed granddaughter, Alba (Clàudia Pons), curing souls possessed by the Evil One. Unlike most exorcist-themed movies, Marc Carreté’s first feature treats demonic possession as if it were a plague that attacks the soul and makes its victims resemble zombies. They exist in catacomb-like basements, some of which recall Mayan tombs with their scattered iconography and foreboding architecture. We know that there’s something special about Alba because we were there at her birth and observed the spiritual cleansing that followed her untidy delivery. At the time, Eloy was involved with a quasi-hippy religious sect. Being in a pretty bad place, the survivors welcome the return of Eloy and the girl, who might turn out to be a reasonable facsimile of the messiah. Another hint that things aren’t quite right in Catalonia is a December heat wave that has residents turning on their air conditioners and heading for the beach. Most of what’s scary in Asmodexia derives from the special makeup-effects work done by Monica Murguia and bleached-out cinematography of Xavi Garriga, in his feature debut. “Asmodexia” is a word invented by the director to make viewers think of diseases as yet unnamed. While not particularly gory or frightening, at 81 minutes, it never wears out its welcome.

The Legend of Longwood
This charming Dove-approved fantasy/adventure describes what happens when a 12-year-old American girl, Mickey (Lucy Morton), is forced to leave everything and everyone she knows in New York and adjust to life in rural Ireland. Her mother’s dragged Mickey and her little brother to the Emerald Isle to start a new life in a run-down mill she’s inherited in the tiny town of Longwood. It doesn’t take Mickey long to figure out that destiny has summoned her back to Ireland to fulfill a role in The Legend of Longwood. The village is haunted by the specter of the Black Knight, whose sad story involves having his baby daughter taken from him 300 years in the past. Mickey loves horses, so her attitude brightens when she discovers a castle with a small stable of magnificent white horses. If she can harness the most stubborn of the steeds, Mickey and a newfound friend might be able to lift the Black Knight’s curse. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lisa Mulcahy, my enjoyment of The Legend of Longwood was enhanced greatly by the beautiful scenery.

Eat With Me
Low-budget indie films tend to need all the help they can get when it comes to finding financing, distribution and an audience. It’s with that reality in mind that I tend to forgive niche distributors from putting pictures of well-known actors on the cover of movies in which they may only appear for a few minutes. Danny Trejo and Michael Madsen are famous for lending their brands to action flicks that might not find viewers, otherwise. Robert Englund provides the same service for producers of horror movies. George Takei may, indeed, be the most prominent actor in freshman writer/director David Au’s appealing fairytale romance, Eat With Me, but his photo on the DVD’s cover makes it look as if he plays a more prominent role than almost anyone else. Takei’s cameos come at pivotal points in the narrative, but anyone who chose that time to get a free refill of popcorn wouldn’t know he’d come and gone. On DVD, at least, hitting the pause button is a far better option. Eat With Me opens with Emma (Sharon Omi) realizing that her marriage to the inconsiderate Ray (Ken Narasaki) has run its course and she’s in desperate need of R&R. The closest escape route takes her to her son’s loft apartment in Los Angeles. Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who’s taken over the lease at his late uncle’s failing restaurant, isn’t exactly sure what to make of his mother’s arrival, which has come straight out of the blue. In the past, Emma has shown herself to be uncomfortable with the possibility of Elliot being gay, but it’s more of a hang-up for her than it is for him. Coincidental to mom’s arrival, Elliot is dealing with commitment issues with the men in his life, as well as eviction notices at the restaurant. The inconvenience of his mother’s presence is greatly alleviated by a neighbor (Nicole Sullivan) who practically adopts Emma, allowing her to hang out in her spacious apartment during a dance class and sharing a dose of Ecstasy after she mistakes it for aspirin. Still, when mom catches junior asleep in bed with his hunky musician boyfriend, she realizes that she’s still not ready to accept reality. Enter George Takei, as George, the wise gay stranger she meets in the park. You can probably already guess what happens from here, but the focus on food as the great equalizer keeps thing from bogging down in clichés.

The Pope of Greenwich Village/Desperate Hours: Blu-ray
The crime dramas that comprise this bi-polar double feature from Shout!Factory are notable primarily for the presence of future Best Actor-nominee Mickey Rourke, as well as the direct and indirect influence of Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter). Ever since his breakout performances in Diner and Body Heat, Rourke has confounded critics and viewers with his determination to play different variations of his eccentric self, instead of fully rounded and imaginatively realized characters. He looked and feIt right at home in the lead roles of Barfly and The Wrestler, and, in between, was extremely well utilized in brief supporting roles. As a romantic lead, however, Rourke was pushing his luck. His stylish wiseguy, Charlie, in The Pope of Greenwich Village simultaneously recalls Harvey Keitel’s similarly anal Charlie, in Mean Streets, and the greaseball arbitrager, John, in 9½ Weeks. They all dress as if they were about to attend a mafia funeral and care more about ruining the polish on their shoes than being punched in the face. Based on an excellent first novel and screenplay by Vincent Patrick, The Pope of Greenwich Village leads the protagonists into “Of Mice and Men” territory, this time in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Eric Roberts, already a known quantity from Star 80, plays Charlie’s borderline-moronic cousin, Paulie, whose criminal pipedreams always come back to haunt him.

After Paulie gets Charlie fired from his job as maître d’ of a mob-owned restaurant, Paulie lets him in on his plans for a $15,000 racehorse and a break-in at a warehouse, where a safe is stuffed with money. Paulie’s already enlisted a veteran safecracker (Kenneth McMillan), who’s always one eggroll away from a heart attack.  The problem is that the money belongs to a mobster known throughout Greenwich Village as Bed Bug Eddie (Burt Young) and a crooked cop is accidentally killed during the commission of the crime. It only takes about 10 seconds for Eddie’s men to narrow down the list of usual suspects to Paulie, who can’t wait to turn on the safecracker, but keeps his cousin’s name out of it for as long as he can. In another conceit that would carry over to 9½ Weeks, Rourke’s chain-smoking hustler has been awarded a beautiful blond girlfriend, this time in the form of a dance teacher played by Daryl Hannah. As 31-year-old mobster-themed movies go, The Pope of Greenwich Village remains surprisingly entertaining, thanks, in large part, to its New York locations. The Cimino connection can made from reports that the Deer Hunter director had been approached to direct the movie, but declined, only to agree to fill in for Stuart Rosenberg (Brubaker) on a few scenes when he fell ill. Geraldine Page delivered a splendid blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance as a nicotine-addicted mother of the corrupt cop, who’s confronted by his cronies looking for incriminating tapes. The Blu-ray arrives with some EPK interviews.

In 1990, Cimino directed Rourke in the risible hostage drama, Desperate Hours. Joseph Hayes’ hit play and novel had been re-adapted several times since 1995, when “The Desperate Hours” won a Tony as Best Play. I haven’t seen any of the other film re-makes, but I can’t imagine them being as ridiculous as the one crafted from a screenplay by Hayes, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (The Jewel of the Nile). By opening Desperate Hours up from its stage iteration, the filmmakers were given far too much freedom to mess up what basically was a pretty intimate drama. The nonsense starts early, as Kelly Lynch is speeding through the Utah desert in a Ferrari, before stopping at a rest stop alongside a gorgeous mountain lake. Nancy is dressed to kill in a slinky business suit, black thigh-high stockings and spikey heels. The next thing we know, she’s climbed a steep rocky hill – in her heels – and arrived at the exact spot on the highway, where, inexplicably, there’s a bus stop. The bus must have been prompt, because Nancy – a lawyer – gets to the courthouse in time to argue for the early parole of Michael Bosworth (Rourke), who pretends not to want her help, but gets it anyway in the form of a dainty little handgun attached to her garter, which is within easy reach of Mickey’s shackled hands. As intricately choreographed as his delivery to the courtroom was by sheriff’s deputies, it’s just that easy for Mickey to escape. From there, Mickey’s hustled to the Ferrari by his brother (Elias Koteas) and a nutcase played by David Morse. Almost all of the rest of the picture takes place inside a suburban house near Salt Lake City, inhabited by Mimi Rogers, Anthony Hopkins and their two children. If there’s a connection between that family and Mickey or Nancy, I missed it. Meanwhile, a FBI unit led by a strangely coiffed Lindsay Crouse has taken over the hostage siege, again, for no clear reason. Things don’t get any more logical or coherent as Desperate Hours unspools. What makes it watchable, though, are nearly over-the-top performances by Hopkins and Rourke, who appears to have been channeling Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (High Sierra), Cody Jarret (White Heat) and Sonny, in Mad Dog Afternoon. In Cimino’s hands, Desperate Hours is never less than so bad, it’s good.

FX: Justified: The Final Season: Blu-ray
Sundance: Rectify: The Complete Second Season
Lifetime: With This Ring
Nickelodeon: Dora the Explorer
“Mad Men” and “Late Show with David Letterman” weren’t the only noteworthy television series that ended their natural lives in 2015. Also saying goodbye were “Parks and Recreation,” “Parenthood,” “Glee,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Cougar Town” and, soon, “Nurse Jackie” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Among the shows I will miss the most is FX’s “Justified,” which was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” and never wavered from the master’s ability to create sleazeball villains, conflicted heroes and memorable dialogue. Leonard must have really cherished his creation, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant), as he also made the Stetson-wearing, Glock-toting lawman the protagonist of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” In those books, Givens is assigned to Miami Beach, where he set some kind of record for the justified shootings of dangerous criminals. In “Fire in the Hole,” Leonard had Givens transferred to his boyhood home of Harlan County, Kentucky, as a round-about punishment for provoking a Western-style shootout with an enemy on a hotel deck in Miami. It effectively reunites Givens with his old mining buddy, Boyd Crowder, now the leader of a white supremacist group, his ex-wife, Winona, and Boyd’s sister-in-law, Ava Crowder. In a dandy bit of narrative symmetry, all four of those characters also play crucial roles in the powerful and violent sixth season. It opens with the remaining members of the Crowe and Crowder clans up to their old tricks and Raylan attempting to talk Ava into testifying against the duplicitous Boyd.  For her part, Winona has split for Florida with baby, Wila, awaiting Raylan’s final decision about hanging up his holster and coming to live with them. It remains an open question for the next 13 episodes. Among the actors making their first appearances here are Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Garret Dillahunt, Jeff Fahey and Jake Busey. Jamie Davies returns as the incarcerated Dickie Bennett, as does Patton Oswald as the hapless Constable Bob Sweeney. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and featurettes, “Hollywood to Harlan,” “Directing the Show: Adam Arkin” and “Dutch Speaks,” a vintage interview with Elmore Leonard about his thoughts on “Justified.”

In its first two years on Sundance, critics have made “Rectify” one of the most honored shows on television. Besides being named to 10 different top-10 lists, twice, the series was awarded with a 2014 Peabody Award. The committee called it, “A powerful, subtle dramatic series about a death-row inmate released after nearly two decades thanks to new DNA evidence, it ponders whether what’s been lost can ever be repaid, not just to him but to everyone he and his alleged crimes touched.” At a time when more and more prisoners are being vindicated for crimes they never committed and another state, Nebraska, has decided that no more possibly innocent inmates should die, it’s no small issue. While the media is always at the prison gates to document their release, next to nothing is said concerning the officially guiltless ex-cons’ re-entry into society. No matter how much microscopic DNA is collected, some folks will refuse to accept the fact that our system of justice is imperfect. Indeed, the second season picks up with Daniel (Aden Young) in the hospital, comatose, after taking a beating from hooded thugs seeking to avenge something he didn’t do. In his dream state, Daniel imagines being back on death row with his best friend – executed before he was freed – and a convict who tormented them. Finally out of his coma and released to the care of his family in Paulie, Georgia, Daniel is far from normal. The search for his attackers intensifies, with the most obvious suspect being the slain teenager’s brother.  Seemingly with plans of his own for the man, Daniel refuses to bring charges against him. And, of course, things get stranger and more complex until season’s end. The third stanza begins on July 9.

Halfway through Nzingha Stewart’s romantic fantasy, “With This Ring,” I began to wonder why it looked so much like a Liftetime original movie. If anything, with its entirely African-American cast and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” attitude, I thought it might be a movie that ends up on BET or Starz, between “Power” and “Survivor’s Remorse.” First instincts almost always being right, however, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that “With This Ring” was, in fact, a Lifetime movie, one of only a few made to attract so-called middle-class urban audiences. While attending a friend’s New Year’s Eve wedding, three thirtysomething women make a vow not to be single by the time the bride’s first anniversary rolls around. Besides being attractive and sufficiently wealthy to afford homes that wouldn’t be out of place on any of the “Housewives” series, the women have jobs on the upper-rung of the entertainment industry. And, yet, they’re desperate enough to land husbands they’d settle for second- or third-best, simply to make good on a silly vow. Regina Hall, Jill Scott and Eve portray an up-and-coming talent agent, popular gossip columnist and between-gigs actress, respectively, all facing challenges common to single African-American women of a certain age. The gossip columnist enjoys a friendly relationship with the father of her young son, but, until she took the vow, treated him as if he were a business associate. Just as is the case in most afternoon and prime-time soap operas, there are few allowances for reality when it comes to fashions, décor, nightclubs and parties. All of the characters, including the extras, look as if they could star in their own series, as well. This includes Brooklyn Sudano, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, Stephen Bishop, Jason George and Brian White. “With This Ring” was adapted from
“The Vow” by Denene Millner, Angela Burt-Murray and Mitzi Miller, and should appeal to women –mostly – who enjoyed “Waiting to Exhale,” “Jumping the Broom,” “Think Like A Man” and “Baggage Claim.”

Like the above-mentioned series, Nickelodeon’s formidable “Dora the Explorer” has slipped off into the sunset to make room for the spin-off series “Dora and Friends: Into the City!” and a slightly more mature female protagonist. New friends have been introduced and the destinations are more urban in nature. In fact, though, the change was initiated in 2011, with “Dora’s Explorer Girls: Our First Concert,” in which Dora and her friends get five tickets to see Shakira in concert but lose them among the charitable donations to the show. It forces them to go on a desperate search through Puerto Verde for the valuable ducats. The “Big Little Movies” collection adds “Dora the Explorer: Dora Saves Fairytale Land,” which debuts on DVD before its TV premiere. In this extended adventure, Dora and Boots must travel deep into the Never-to-be-Seen-Again Forest to the Sparkling Lake in order to bring magic back to Fairytale Land. In this offering, the younger iteration of the extremely popular character prevails. In “Big Little Movies: Umi Space Heroes,” the Team Umizoomi crew goes into action to save the moon after the Trouble Makers blow it into four pieces. Their intergalactic adventure requires them to use their math and problem-solving skills. They’re joined by the compilations, “Max & Ruby: Sharing & Caring” and “Bubble Guppies: The Puppy & the Ring.”

The DVD Wrapup: Magician: Orson Welles, The Confession and more

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles: Blu-ray
I think that it can be argued persuasively that a week in the life of Orson Welles, whose centennial we celebrate this month, was more intrinsically interesting than two years in the lives of everyone who’s made the cover of People, US Weekly, the Enquirer, Life & Style, OK!, In Touch and Star, at least since Kim met Kanye. I was reminded of this while watching Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Chuck Workman’s glowing biopic of one of the greatest artists and celebrities at a time when simply being young, attractive and rich wasn’t sufficient cause for worship by the media. If Workman’s film doesn’t add much to what most of us already know about Welles, or have gleaned from his still fascinating films, “Magician” is worth it for the archival material chronicling his rise to prominence with the Mercury Theater. It’s also informed by the testimony of filmmakers, actors, critics, relatives, lovers and, even, restaurateur-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck, who’s probably still holding Welles’ IOUs from their days at Ma Maison. And, what would any Welles documentary be without the recollections of Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom? Ironically, for at least one generation of TV viewers, the man who gave us “Citizen Kane” will still be remembered most vividly as a talk-show raconteur, pitchman for Paul Masson, golden throated narrator of cartoons and documentary series, and occasional guest roaster on “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.” As someone who actually could read the names and address off a phone book and make them sound like Shakespeare, Welles was as much fun to watch as anyone else who sat beside Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, back in the glory years. And, yes, he also was a heck of a magician. Typically, Welles was able to convince Bogdanovich that no less an illusionist than Harry Houdini taught him his first tricks, in the 1920s. Whether or not this qualifies as one of his whoppers, it’s a great story and usually that’s enough for a genuine celebrity. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an interview with Workman.

The Confession: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Merchant of Four Seasons: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I wonder how the work of the Greek director Costa-Gavras would have been judged in the late-1960s and ’70s if The Confession had preceded Z into theaters around the world, instead of the other way around. As powerful a statement against fascism and right-wing barbarism as Z was, it also was criticized in some quarters for being anti-American and promoting political division in Greece. That’s because the film’s co-protagonist (Yves Montand) – patterned after anti-war activist Grigoris Lambrakis — was a prominent spokesman for a pacifist group opposed to the government of an unnamed European country, unmistakably Hellenic. After speaking at a rally, Deputy Z is killed in an attack by thugs hanging off the back of a small truck. Responding to the protests of enraged pro-democratic crowds, the government covered up the attack by saying the he died from wounds suffered in a collision with drunk driver. A typically routine investigation, led by an uncharacteristically skeptical magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), determines that the deputy’s death had been orchestrated and carried out by security forces employed by the conservative government. By the time Z opened theatrically, in 1969, people already protesting the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, racism and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were able to embrace an anti-Hollywood movie that appeared to confirm their views about America’s role in propping up totalitarian regimes in the Third World countries. Z ends by reminding viewers that democracy and civil liberties were casualties in the struggle for peace and the men responsible for Deputy Z’s death received slaps on the wrists. Of course, this mirrored events in Greece after a repressive military junta replaced the conservative government. Costa-Gavras would return to similar themes, only this time from a South American perspective, in Missing and State of Siege.

Released in 1970, The Confession attacks oppression and treachery from a completely different ideological direction. This time, however, Montand portrays the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia at a time when the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on all of the Iron Curtain countries. One day, after work, Gerard (London) notices that he’s being followed by carloads of brutes who look as if their other job was breaking bones for the Teamsters Union. Normally, given their standing in the Czech Communist Party, Gerard and his wife, Lise (Simone Signoret), would be among the last people in line to be purged for their political activities. In fact, their credentials could be considered to be little short of impeccable. Even so, in the early ’50s, an increasingly paranoid Stalin demanded action against potential advocate for reform and the first place his puppets looked was in the direction of high-ranking Jews, or anyone who might have spent time in the West fighting with the International Brigades on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and had joined the French Resistance after escaping the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As an enthusiastic party member in his early 20s, London had the distinction of being sent from Moscow to Spain to spy for the Soviet Union and, after retreating to France, being arrested with his pregnant wife and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Having managed to somehow escape death in the camps, the Londons took up residence in Switzerland, until being lured back to Czechoslovakia, where he quickly moved up the political ladder. In 1951, he was arrested but not charged for unnamed abuses of power and party privileges. For almost a year, London was kept in isolation and tortured to within an inch of his sanity, through sleep deprivation, constant harassment and cruel prison conditions. His inquisitors demanded that he confess to participating in a Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy, as well as numerous anti-Soviet crimes, along with 13 other party leaders. Tellingly, 11 of the 14 co-defendants in the Slánský show trial were Jewish and 11 would be executed after admitting to trumped-up offenses. (Surviving the death camp as communist and a Jew had already raised bushy eyebrows in Moscow and Prague.) Like Gerard, London would escape the hangman’s noose, but be sentenced to several years of hard labor. To avoid harsher punishment and confirm he had been “re-habilitated,” London would testify in the show trials of other Czech and Slovak officials. By the time he was released, Stalin was dead and his iron grip relaxed. It wasn’t until the violent Soviet quashing of Hungarian revolt, in 1956, and Prague Spring, of 1968, that the Londons fully acknowledged the rotten odor emanating from the Kremlin and he decided to write his memoirs, “On Trial.”

Based on a screenplay by Jorge Semprún Maura, whose own story mirrored that of London, Costa-Gavras’ depiction of the months-long torture experienced by Gerard not only is extremely difficult to watch, but also eerily reminiscent of what we’ve learned about the treatment accorded Islamic prisoners by CIA officials and untrained National Guard sadists. For some viewers, the show trial accorded the doomed Czech officials resembled the show trial of the Chicago 8, before it was reduced to a Yippie carnival and repudiation of Chicago Machine politics. Before his death, in 1986, London continued to say that his memoirs shouldn’t be construed as being anti-communist, just anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist. Costa-Gavras makes the same point about The Confession. If Z hadn’t preceded it, however, the Young Republicans of 1969 might have trashed his reputation by using it as a recruiting tool for the Nixon Youth. The new 2K digital transfer, supervised by Costa-Gavras, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds several featurettes that add perspective to London’s thrilling story and the difficulty of maintaining one’s belief system in the early years of the Cold War, never knowing who to trust or believe. Other featurettes include “You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London,” a 21-minute documentary by Chris Marker, shot on the set of The Confession; a new interview with the film’s editor, Françoise Bonnot; a conversation between director Costa-Gavras and programmer and scholar Peter von Bagh, from the 1988 Midnight Sun Film Festival; “Portrait London,” a 1981 interview with Artur and Lise London; an interview with actor Yves Montand, from 1970; a new interview with John Michalczyk, author of “Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film”; and an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.

In the stage and cinema works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it wasn’t always easy for postwar German audiences to differentiate between social satire, parody and provocation. The same holds true for his legacy on film, outside Germany. In a career that lasted 16 years, he was responsible for writing, directing and acting in nearly 50 movies, shorts and TV mini-series, as well as continuing to create Brechtian theater pieces. After beginning his career in the late 1960s making films that ranged from experimental to difficult, Fassbinder would turn to the Hollywood melodramas of German émigré Douglas Sirk for creative inspiration. While he continued to explore the role of the outsider in society, as well as the interplay of racism, sexual orientation, politics, class and family dynamics, his movies became noticeably more accessible to mainstream audiences on the international stage. The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first movie to benefit from his exposure to Sirk’s themes, which, of course, had been muted by Production Code restrictions. Set in the late-1950s, before Germany’s economic miracle, it tells the story of a lumpen loser, Hans (Hans Hirschmüller), whose every attempt to improve his lot in life is thwarted by acts of sheer stupidity, the bullying of his impossible-to-satisfy mother, alcohol abuse and post-war malaise. After being kicked off the police force and leaving the foreign legion, Hans humiliates his family by settling for a job peddling produce from a pushcart in the courtyards of tenement buildings. His wife Irm (Irm Hermann) sometimes tags along, but that ends when Hans reacts to her interrupting him at a tavern with a beating in front of their daughter. When she leaves and threatens divorces, Hans is stricken with a heart attack. It prevents him from engaging in the physical aspects of the job, but triggers an impulse in the reunited couple to expand the business by hiring others to do the heavy lifting. With Irm’s assistance and support, the business begins to thrive. And, while it raises his family’s opinion of him, the idle time also causes his mind to wander back to the real turning point in his life. He saw a bright future for himself, which wasn’t shared by his beautiful girlfriend’s father, who couldn’t allow his daughter to accept life with a peddler. Sensing that things aren’t likely to get any better for him, Hans decides to share his misery with as many friends and family members as possible. The Merchant of Four Seasons has been given a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary with filmmaker Wim Wenders; new interviews with actors Hermann and Hirschmüller, and film scholar Eric Rentschler; and an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.

So Bright Is the View
In the long wake of the collapse of the Ceauçescu regime, a new Romanian cinema emerged from the rubble, marked by sardonic humor and bleak recollections of life in a land that time and the faint promise of Marxism forgot. It took a while for the concept of creative freedom to catch hold, especially among older citizens conditioned to mistrust Western philosophies and bourgeois intellectuals. Several Romanian films screened at Cannes in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that the world stood up and took notice of such pictures as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, California Dreamin’, Tales from the Golden Age, Police, Adjective, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu and Tuesday, After Christmas. If these titles rarely played outside art houses and festivals – beyond Bucharest, anyway – commercial filmmakers from outside Eastern Europe beat a path to Romania for its diverse locations, historical architecture, crack crews and inexpensive overhead, as well as its symbolic relation to the Draculian legend. In Joël and Michaël Florescu’s downbeat contemporary drama, So Bright Is the View, Estera (Bianca Valea) is a middle-class resident of the capital, caught between the prospect of moving to one of two New Jerusalems – a promised job in America or Israel, where her mother pretends to be thriving – or by maintaining a lackluster career as a drone in a tech company. As those options effectively dwindle from three to none, Estera can’t help but feel as if her strings are being pulled by a God who disapproves of hubris, however humble. As difficult as it is to watch this appealing young woman’s bubbles being burst before our eyes, it’s worth remembering that Estera’s fate is being by shared hundreds of thousands of recent university graduates here, who’ve learned the hard way that the mortgage on their American Dream is held by insanely greedy bankers and politicians too compromised to approve the reforms that would lift the burden of college loans off their shoulders. The Florescus allow the pregnant Estera’s more down-to-earth boyfriend to assure her that, no matter what happens to them, their child will participate in the  rebuilding a country that has natural beauty and seasonal change going for it, at least. That’s if Estera doesn’t go ahead with her plans to abort the baby, of course. In a country with as many qualified actors and as much behind-the-camera talent as Romania, it’s interesting that only one actor, Ovidiu Niculescu, has more than one feature credit on their resume. If nothing else, this seems to indicate that the fledgling Romanian Independent Film Collective is off to a bright start of its own. The group’s mission statement asserts that the organization is “comprised of young writers, photographers, actors, editors and film technicians who join together for the advancement and enrichment of cinema and cinematic media as art and expression in Romania. It is an anti-bureaucratic, anti-exploitative, democratic and free association of members.” Good luck, on that.

The True Cost
When it comes to decrying the terrible injustices endured by the world’s poorest and least protected workers – too many of whom are paid pennies to manufacture clothes that range in price from expensive to bargain-basement — there are several ways to grab the attention of consumers, corporate executives and lawmakers. One way is to sneak hidden cameras into sweatshops as a direct challenge to the lies advanced by industry spokespersons every time a building occupied by hundreds of sewing-machine operators collapses, trapping them in the rubble or killing them outright. Instead of accepting the blame and facing the consequences, company executives claim they weren’t aware that their legitimate Asian sub-contractors would then sub-contract the work to disreputable interests so far removed from the chain of accountability they probably can’t imagine why anyone would care. By now, too, consumers have grown so tired of being told that the problem wouldn’t exist if there were no demand for inexpensive clothes, they’ve stopped listening. Last month, the wonderfully caustic HBO satirist John Oliver trashed the fashion industry and its media lapdogs for blindly encouraging consumers to participate in Black Friday madness and buy clothes on sale at prices that they must have been sewn by children or indentured servants. The True Cost is a 92-minute documentary that takes us from the shaming of Nike in the early 1990s for subcontracting with sweatshop operators, to the devastating building collapse in Bangladesh and fires at factories in Pakistan, killing a combined total of 1,386 people and injuring 3,115 others. It also shoves our noses into even less-accountable operations in India, where freelancers dump chemicals used in the treatment of leather directly into ditches and tributaries of great rivers in which children play, animals feed and water for all sorts of other purposes is taken. Blessedly, director Andrew Morgan and producer Michael Ross have been able to identify enough forces for good in the overall garment industry — Stella McCartney, Livia Firth, Vandana Shiva, among them — to suggest that someone, somewhere is aware of the problem and is taking steps toward reform. All of the documentaries in the world wouldn’t provide enough impetus for change, however, if consumers weren’t as anxious as they are to seize on bargains promoted on television shows like “The View” and “Today”; in glossy magazines and red-carpet shout-outs; on billboards looming over such high-traffic thoroughfares as Times Square and the Sunset Strip; and local TV newscasts that count down the seconds to the opening of Walmart stores on the day after Thanksgiving.

Smoking Laws
First released in the UK in 2011, but reportedly made three years earlier, Matthew Ehlers’ once-observant indie dramedy Smoking Laws recalls a time, not so long ago, when office workers addicted to nicotine would cluster outside the doors of their buildings puffing away as if they were outlaws waiting for a train. In Chicago, at least, that meant braving temperatures that ranged from a dry 20-below-zero to 95-above, with an equal percentage of humidity in the air. I don’t know if these informal gatherings of like-minded smokers still exist, especially since many building owners, insurance companies, middle-management executives and chronic whiners now insist on enforcing a 30-foot perimeter around each entrance for such activities. For a time, this left taverns, restaurant patios and casinos as the only areas open to smokers accustomed to engaging friends and new acquaintances over drinks and snacks. Predictably, anti-smoking activists then were able to convince regulators to prohibit smoking in bars and some non-Indian casinos. It didn’t break my heart, but, occasionally, more customers could be found outside the tavern than inside, spending money. Smoking Laws depicts how the patrons of one fictional establishment adjusted to such a ban – a half-dozen years ago, anyway — by taking their kibitzing, bickering, cell calling and hooking up just outside the doors to the bar or kitchen. The story is told from the point of view of the bar’s manager, who not only has to focus on all of his customers’ satisfaction, but also the workplace dramas of his employees. Smoking Laws probably could have been funnier and more trenchant, given more money and talent. More to the point, how interesting are the people around you who still smoke?

Gun Woman: Blu-ray
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf: Blu-ray
Cannibal Ferox: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Island of Death: Blu-ray
From Asia With Lust Volume 2: Lipstick/Weekend
Just when you think you’ve seen it all and nothing new can sneak up on you, the mailman drops off a few packages containing movies so bizarre they restore your faith in the medium to shock, disturb and entertain in almost equal measure. This week, already, I’ve watched four such films on Blu-ray, all from different distributors and three different countries. Two are the product of the same fertile mind. Born in Tokyo and educated in Fresno, Kurando Mitsutake brings a distinct Pacific Rim sensibility to Gun Woman and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, a pair of bloody soft-core Eastern Westerns shot in and around Agua Dolce, Lone Pine and Death Valley, California. In both, too, blind or half-blind Japanese protagonists dedicate themselves to avenging the rape and murder of a spouse to a crazed pervert. I don’t know if Mitsutake was more influenced by Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, Sergio Leone or Beat Takeshi, but their fingerprints are all over his movies. (He directly credits Tomisabura Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu, Kihachi Okamoto and Sergio Corbucci in final roll.) The almost entirely gratuitous nudity harkens to the “pink” era in Japanese cinema and possibly Russ Meyer. In Samurai Avenger, released in 2009, Mitsutake assumed the lead role of Blind Wolf, a master swordsman required to run a gauntlet of seven assassins before he can get to the monster who killed his wife and daughter and forced him to blind himself with a dull stick. That’s all the information most potential viewers would need before taking a shot on “Samurai Avenger” on disc. Everything else can be learned in the 90-minute making-of featurette.

By contrast to the almost primitive special makeup effects in Samurai Avenger, Gun Woman looks as if Mitsutake was handed a hundred-million-dollars and told to make sure every cent of it finds its way to the screen.  While it’s more likely that he was allotted only a small fraction of that amount, Gun Woman looks that much more accomplished a picture. It, too, opens with a violent rape, murder and disfigurement, this time inside the home of a prominent Japanese doctor. To avenge the crime, the ruthless half-blind Mastermind (Kairi Narita) recruits a destitute street urchin (Asami) with nothing to lose – except, perhaps, her life – if the mission fails. After extensive training with guns, swords, knives and kung fu, Mayumi is ready to infiltrate the previously impenetrable desert bunker of the necrophilic fiend who murdered her mentor’s wife. Knowing that Mayumi will have to be naked and in a trance-like state to gain entry into the killer’s lair, the Mastermind stuffs parts of her handgun just under the skin of her chest and shows her how to rip out the sutures when she awakens from her trance. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the necessity of her being completely nude on her mission and, bless her, during the long and arduous training sessions. It’s amazing, really, and, after about 15 minutes, as erotic as separating recyclable items. At 5-foot-3, the plucky Asami is well known in Japan as a star in adult-video industry. By now, though, she’s probably a better fighter naked than the WWE Divas are in tights and sports bras. The only question that lingers throughout Gun Woman is how Mayumi is going to be able to rip the parts of the pistol from her surgically altered body, re-assemble them, take out the target’s well-armed bodyguards, execute the killer and get to a waiting ambulance, before all of her blood drains from her wounds. The Mastermind calculates his student will have 23 minutes, on the outside, to do it. If this scenario sounds too ridiculous to be taken even remotely seriously, you haven’t seen enough Japanese genre flicks. Admittedly, Gun Woman frequently goes beyond the pale, but Mitsutake pulls off the crazy stuff with aplomb. As is made clear in the making-of featurettes and commentaries included in both Blu-ray packages, working alongside Mitsutake is truly a singular sensation.

Moving a bit further back in time, Cannibal Ferox asks us to take at face value the boast made on its cover: “The most violent film ever made.” It inspired me to look up the definition of “Ferox,” as a way of anticipating what could possibly make Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox more violent than Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which I’d just reviewed on Blu-ray. As the Latin word for “fierce,” “ferox” already had been affixed to the scientific names of several nasty species: a ferocious line of brown trout, long-snouted lancefish, lizardfish, sand shark, a soft-shelled turtle, the carnivorous fossa of Madagascar and several notoriously hazardous plants and trees. At first glance, the title, Cannibal Ferox, would appear to be needlessly redundant — cannibalism, by its very nature, being an act of violence — but the original title, Make Them Die Slowly, probably could have been confused with any number of torture-porn specimens and more than a few Westerns. Lenzi had gotten the cannibal craze rolling in 1972 with Man From the Deep River (a.k.a., “Sacrifice!”), which cross-pollinated Elliot Silverstein’s controversial Western, A Man Called Horse, with Mondo Cane. In 1980, he moved the flesh-eating scenario from Thailand to New Guinea in Eaten Alive! (a.k.a., “Doomed to Die”). Like “Holocaust,” “Ferox” opened in Manhattan but quickly found itself in a remote port on the Colombian side of the Amazon River. In the picture, as in real life, Leticia is used as stepping-off point for traders, hunters, explorers and drug traffickers. Here, a group of gringos from New York – one of whom appears to be hiding out from mobsters – is on a dual mission, involving research into the possibility of cannibalism in deep-forest tribes and the black market for precious gems. The subtext, of course, is that so-called civilized people will instinctively revert to crude primal instincts as soon as the safety nets and security blankets of contemporary society are removed. In doing so, the camera is attentive to tribal customs guaranteed to shock first-world viewers, including the on-screen butchering of decidedly non-animatronic creatures, rape, primitive torture practices and prevalent nudity. While Cannibal Holocaust’s most lasting gift to the international cinema was introducing the found-footage conceit, “Ferox” doesn’t break any new ground, beyond adding a few new torture methods to the repertoire. Grindhouse’s 2K, restoration is accompanied by deleted and banned scenes; a re-mix of the musical score; a surprisingly candid commentary with Lenzi and star John Morghen; interviews with Lenzi, stars Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Danilo Mattei and Zora Kerowa, and special effects master Gino DeRossi; original Italian, German and U.S. theatrical trailers; a gallery of stills and poster art; a booklet containing liner notes by 42nd Street historian Bill Landis and director Eli Roth; and a bonus CD with an original soundtrack album by Budy-Maglione, newly re-mastered in 24 bit/96khz sound from the original studio master tapes.

Like Grindhouse, Arrow Video delights in breathing new life into exploitation flicks that long ago were given up for dead. Cannibal Ferox and Nico Mastorakis’ similarly unappetizing Island of Death have plenty of things in common, including material their creators’ refuse to defend in newly recorded interviews. Nearly 40 years after it debuted in Greece, Mastorakis admits to having been inspired to make Island of Death (one of its many different aliases) by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s performance at the international box office. The Athens TV personality vowed to make a movie even more violent and sexually perverse than Tobe Hooper’s splatter classic for the same reason as Hollywood hacks churn out crappy sequels to crappy movies: drachmas. That said, it’s not for nothing that Island of Death and Cannibal Ferox became hot properties on the underground cassette exchange. Here, the carnage occurs on the famously sunny Greek island of Mykonos, known for its party-hearty nightlife and quaint laid-back village vibes. At first glance, Christopher and Celia (Robert Behling, Jane Lyle) seem no different than tens of thousands of other tourists who arrive by boat every day, between May and September. Within hours, though, they’re back to committing the crimes that put them on the lam in the first place. In addition to the hyper-violent murders he commits, Christopher finds plenty of opportunities to spice his sex life with bestiality, water sports and incest. Blond bombshell Celia isn’t averse to using her charms to arrange hookups for Christopher, photograph his crimes and fake an interest in girl-girl action when its suits him. Inconveniently, they aren’t alone on the island when it comes to acting out their worst instincts. Among the writer/director’s more interesting artistic conceits was setting some of the bloodiest violence in broad daylight and in direct contrast to the vividly white buildings and turquoise sea. The other thing the Arrow package shares with the Grindhouse title is a bonus package that vastly overcompensates for the bad taste left by the movies. Mastorakis doesn’t hesitate to remind us of grindhouse credits that include Death Has Blue Eyes, Terminal Exposure and Death Street USA, along with such quasi-mainstream efforts as Blind Date (Kirstie Alley, Joseph Bottoms), Hired to Kill (Oliver Reed, George Kennedy) and the Next One (Keir Dullea, Adrienne Barbeau). In addition to a lengthy interview and verbal self-portrait, Mastorakis returns to the island to show us how little things have changed since the mid-1970s.

Rape/revenge fantasies have been a staple of Japanese exploitation fare for most of the last 50 years. Sexual violence also was exploited in such Western hits as Death Wish, Billy Jack, Straw Dogs, Mad Max and, yes, Deliverance. In these films, the rapes of female characters (and one hapless male) are avenged by men who take the law into their own hands. In Japan, however, it’s generally left to the women and her friends to exact revenge. That’s because, until recently, women had more to lose by admitting to being raped – and, effectively, devalued in a male-dominated society — than the men who forced themselves on them. (Murder was, of course, a far rarer occurrence in Japan.) According to UK film historian Colette Balmain, in the Introduction to her book, “Japanese Horror Film,” “Rape in Japanese society has not been considered a crime until recently. This attitude lies in the Japanese ideal of female obedience and submission that sees the woman as to be blamed for the violent expression of male desire. … Rape becomes a sexless act of cruelty committed on the woman’s body, whose main role is to re-establish the power relationship (domination-submission) between men and women.” It explains why police and the courts aren’t key forces for justice in such films as Lipstick and Weekend from Troma Entertainment’s tellingly titled From Asia With Lust series. Here, however, female protagonists are allowed not only to resist violent advances and groping by men, but also to feel newly empowered by exacting their own justice. The presence in both movies of “adult superstar” Miyuki Yokoyama adds a level of titillation that helps viewers overlook the criminal nature of vigilantism and suggests that it takes a more hardened or even more worldly sort of female protagonist than those women who have had to accept being groped on crowded subway trains and buses as just another manifestation of the male prerogative. It shines a different light on how we, in the West, view exploitation films from other cultures.

Sword of Vengeance: Blu-ray
First-time director Jim Weedon’s Sword of Vengeance may be set in the north of England in the 11th Century, but, if you alter the accents and re-conceptualize the clothing worn by the Saxon and Norman warriors, what’s left is a samurai revenge flick. That the mysterious warrior who rides in to save the peasants also resembles Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “man with no name” trilogy gives Sword of Vengeance another handle for American audiences to grasp. Hunky Stanley Weber (“Borgia”) plays Shadow Walker, a freedman with a grudge against the Norman family exploiting local farmers in the name of power, greed and a reign of terror referred to as the Harrowing. The Saxon peasants won’t learn until much later what exactly the stranger has against the powerful warlord, but it’s enough to know that he’s on their side. It’s fun to watch Shadow Walker shape the farmers – men, women and children — into a formidable fighting force, capable of using military and guerrilla tactics that might still work today. As a member of the creative team responsible for the Viking actioners, Hammer of the Gods and Valhalla Rising, writer/producer Matthew Read probably could craft a terrific period video game out of expertise on the subject. As it is, Sword of Vengeance is less interested in creating a historical drama than a royal rumble in the mud, with pissed-off peasants dressed to kill and seemingly invincible Norman soldiers in uniforms from the Darth Vader Collection. Visually, the foreboding skies and murky surfaces give Weedon’s film a graphic-novel texture that should delight young men and boys addicted to heavy-metal action. Those looking for a lesson in ancient British history, however, may want to stick to PBS and the BBC. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Weedon and producers Rupert Preston and Huberta Von Liel, and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Let Us Prey: Blu-ray
I have to assume that Irish director Brian O’Malley and co-writer David Cairns intentionally chose “p-r-e-y,” instead of “p-r-a-y,” for the title of their first feature. Book publishers play fast and loose with homonyms and homophones all the time, if only to catch the eye of grammarians, copy editors and English teachers, all of whom are considered to be primary consumers of mysteries. With thousands of virtually indistinguishable thrillers, chillers and whodunits released each years, anything that draws attention to a title can help boost sales. The same applies in the DVD arena. Let Us Prey needs all the help it can get to reach an audience of paying customers, not because it isn’t very good, but because it’s just one more tree in a large and dense forest. O’Malley admits to owing a debt of gratitude to John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 is indirectly referenced in Let Us Prey. Steve Lynch’s evocative musical soundtrack also reflects Carpenter’s style. Here, Pollyanna McIntosh is convincing as a rookie cop, Rachel Heggie, whose first assignment is in a small town jail staffed by police jaded by time and experience. Rachel’s determination to play by the rules is tested on the night shift by both her fellow cops and the prisoners. In fact, the prisoner named Six (Liam Cunningham) is holding everyone in the building hostage. He had been arrested earlier in the evening, less as a suspect in a killing than for a being a mysterious stranger in a small town and somehow surviving a head-on collision with a speeding automobile. The driver of the car is cooling his heels in a cell next to Six and a couple of men booked on serious charges. In addition to being able to make wooden matches levitate, Six is able to get inside the heads of everyone in the building and torture them with memories of their misdeeds and wicked fantasies. Rachel, alone, appears to be without blemish, but her connection with Six is even more profound. The resulting mayhem is predictably gory and explosive, but not without a certain visual aesthetic.

Madman: Blu-ray
The Food of the Gods/Frogs: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Urban legends, hazing rituals and campfire stories are to the horror genre what Grimm’s Fairy Tales are to Disney and other purveyors of family entertainment: time-honored and completely free sources of exploitable material. The Burning and Madman, made almost simultaneously in the Golden Age of Slasher Flicks, both were inspired by the reliably scary “Tale of the Cropsey Maniac,” whose retelling became an annual ritual at summer camps in and around New Jersey and upstate New York. Only The Burning was able to directly refer to the camp caretaker, Cropsy (no “e”), whose face was badly disfigured in a prank and has vowed to punish those responsible, as well as naughty boys and girls who wander too far away from the nightly campfires. In Joe Giannone and Gary Sales’ cult-favorite, Cropsey has mutated into Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers), who resembles the late, great wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, but whose name recalls the mid-century TV pitchman, Earl William “Madman” Muntz. Otherwise, it relies on the same slasher formula that wore out its welcome by 1986. The remarkable thing about Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray re-release is a bonus package that would put most Criterion Collection offerings to shame. Besides a short introduction by co-writer/producer Gary Sales, there are a pair of commentary tracks, one with Sales, Ehlers and the late Joe Giannone and actor Tony Fish, and the other with the podcasters known collectively as The Hysteria Continues; featurettes “Madman: Alive at 35,” “The Early Career of Gary Sales” and the 92-minute “The Legend Still Lives,” made in 2011; a stills and artwork gallery; “Music Inspired by ‘Madman’,” which highlights fan submissions that utilize the picture’s atmosphere to fuel grim lyrics; “In Memoriam,” during which Sales  discusses the work of Giannone, Tony Fish and actor Carl Fredericks, who died in 2012; a couple of Dead Pit interviews from a 2008 horror convention; and promotional clips.

Just before the tidal wave of slasher and splatter flicks came to dominate the drive-in scene in 1980, the kind of sci-fi/horror movies that Japanese filmmakers stopped making in the 1950s suddenly began popping up on screens across the U.S. Just as Rodan and Mothra spoke to the residual effects of radioactive fallout from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American filmmakers created creatures mutated from carelessly discarded toxic and nuclear waste and chemicals that found their way into the food chain or ground water. Released in 1972, Frogs did for amphibians and reptiles what Birds did for birds, a decade earlier. It also reflected the success of Willard, in which a social misfit deploys an army of rats on his tormentors. The casting of Ray Milland as a millionaire who poisons wildlife on his private island lent an air of credibility to a story that could easily have been dismissed as a mere novelty. The geezer invites his family to his estate for a birthday celebration, not anticipating that the island’s frogs, snakes, bugs, Gila monsters and other creepy crawlers have picked the same occasion to exact revenge on him. Look for very early appearances by Sam Elliott and Joan Van Ark, who adds her recollections to the bonus featurette. The other half of the double-bill is the H.G. Wells-inspired The Food of the Gods, from 1976, in which a group of football players who use their week off to go hunting on an island in the Pacific Northwest – or, if you’re Canadian, the Pacific Southwest – where they become the prey for giant wasps, chickens, worms and rats. The mutations are caused by a mysterious substance that is oozing from the ground and is too tempting for the critters to avoid. Besides the backsliding evangelist, Marjoe Gortner, it stars Ida Lupino, Ralph Meeker, Pamela Franklin and Jon Cypher.

Empire of the Ants would be worth the price of admission, if only to watch a sleazy land developer played by Joan Collins – just slightly past her prime, but still a babe – being attacked by giant ants. Like The Food of the Gods, the low-budget sci-fi/horror hybrid was adapted from an H.G. Wells story by genre specialist Bert I. Gordon. The Wisconsin native holds the distinction of having the most movies shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Here, a group of investors has been lured to south Florida by one of those all-expenses-paid come-ons that are never worth the price of a free ticket. As it turns out, the development has been polluted by radioactive waste that’s been leaking from barrels that have been dropped into the waters off of the Everglades. Voila, the island’s ants have grown to the size of bugs of the Volkswagen variety. After a harrowing escape through the swamps, the investors discover an even more sinister scheme than Collins’ land deal. None of Empire of the Ants is terribly convincing or compelling, but it is of a piece with other AIP drive-in fare of the period. The second half of this double-feature is Bob Claver’s 1981 thriller, Jaws of Satan (a.k.a., “King Cobra”), a title, at least, that combines two of the most prominent themes of the past decade. Here, a Southern town is being plagued by unusually aggressive snakes, which display traits associated with cobras, rattlesnakes and copperheads. Satan has mobilized the local serpent population against a priest who’s inherited an ancient Druid curse and it’s up to Fritz Weaver, Gretchen Corbett, Jon Korkes and a 10-year-old Christina Applegate to stop the plague before a new dog-racing facility opens or the Apocalypse. The Scream Factory upgrade makes the movies easier to watch than they might have been on “MSTK3” or matinee revivals.

Blood Slaughter Massacre
#EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe
Valley of the Cycle Sluts
Camp Massacre
Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan
Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead
Smokey and the Hotwire Gang
At a time when even the most familiar names in Hollywood are forced to watch their movies going straight to DVD/VOD/Blu-ray, the path to distribution has grown even narrower for filmmakers trying to catch a break with an off-brand company willing to take a chance on something new. Even then, if it weren’t for the niche websites that focus on genre products, cash-strapped artists and executives would find it next to impossible to find the right audiences for their films. Last week, the New York Times announced that it no longer would feel obligated to review every movie that opens in a theater between New Jersey and Connecticut. The problem comes down to the limited amount of money budgeted for freelance critics and reductions in the space allotted for reviews each Friday. I can see the Times’ point, considering the number of movies given limited runs in one city or two, before being shipped to the after-market, preferably with a few kind words lifted from an otherwise lukewarm review. The other issue brought up by critics of the new policy is the likelihood that faith-based and family-friendly titles, exhibited in theaters leased by backers for a week or more, can be even easier to ignore than in the past. Technically, God’s Not Dead wouldn’t qualify for inclusion, even though it grossed more than six times its $9.2-million production budget in leased runs. On the other hand, the benefits of a New York Times review for certain niche titles – especially one likely to be negative – probably aren’t what they once were.

The retro splatter thriller Blood Slaughter Massacre was screened in the Big Apple last week, ahead of its release on DVD. I couldn’t find a review in any mainstream outlet, despite the interesting story behind it … just as well. Manny Serrano and co-writer Louie Cortes’ movie originated as a series of faux trailers for 1980s-vintage horror flicks. When combined, the trailers practically tell the entire story of a movie that’s waiting to be made. After screening the series at a short-film competition at the Saturday Nightmares Convention, in New Jersey, Serrano and Cortes were approached by the founder of the New York City Horror Film Festival, the late Michael J. Hein, who encouraged them to expand the idea into a feature and put them together with the production company, Mass Grave Pictures. It has since been released by Wild Eye. “BSM” adheres to all the basic rules governing slasher films in the Golden Age, especially the one about having no pity for girls who show their titties. The opening flashes us back to a party, 10 years earlier, during which several teenagers were brutally murdered by a fiend in an ill-fitting mask. The killer escaped justice and the incident was covered up by local authorities. Flash forward to the present and the same two cops who were called to investigate a noise complaint at the house where the party was being held recognize signs that the same killer is back. No genre troupe is ignored or cliché avoided in advancing a story that wallows in blood and gore. Clearly, the filmmakers are big fans of the classics and expect viewers to be similarly inclined. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and the original short films.

Jokes Yanes’ fast and sexy #EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe is another movie that’s destined to get lost in the shuffle of straight-to-DVD releases that kinda-sorta resemble each other and whose stars wouldn’t be recognized by anyone outside their hometowns. That would be too bad, because it captures the sounds, rhythm and color palette of Miami in ways rarely achieved by filmmakers who parachute into southern Florida every now and again, and split back for Cali a half-hour after the Martini Shot is slated. And, yes, all of the usual touchstones of Miami nightlife are covered: drugs, discos, guns and insanely hot guys and gals. The common denominator is the hustle … and the horror of watching young lives destroyed by things they couldn’t have seen coming. One of the protagonists’ hustle is using his company’s tow truck at night to hook up expensive cars and take them to chop shops, but not before he strips it of everything that’s loose and valuable; an underage teenage girl is living the fast life with a dealer; her brother would take the guy out in a second, if he wasn’t working on a hustle with the Russian mob and didn’t need the aggravation; and they’re not alone. Everything begins to congeal when the truck driver steals a bag of pills from a sports car and, assuming they’re Ecstasy, begin peddling them around town. The results couldn’t be more devastating if Jack the Ripper had moved into the same South Beach apartment building as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The EDM soundtrack keeps things from slowing down even a little bit.

Most of the actors in Valley of the Cycle Sluts (a.k.a., “Death Riders,” “The Bandits”) look as if they had been recruited from prisons, biker bars and strip clubs and were being paid in beer, gasoline and free tickets to a David Allan Coe concert, in lieu of cash. Instead of having to depend on early morning wake-up calls to round up cast and crew, the PA’s simply waited for taverns to close and taunted the bikers into chasing him to the location of the shoot. They didn’t even have to change clothes. Sleaze veteran Jason Williams plays Wade Olson, an undercover cop, who, after humiliating a couple of street-level smack peddlers, is kidnapped by a gang of biker babes. Once in the desert, they stake him to the ground and force him to watch them strip to down to their Frederick’s of Hollywood Outlet Store skivvies and pierced nipples. The first woman who gives him a hard-on, without using her hands, gets to kill him. Most men are capable of getting aroused looking at a nurse’s ankles, while on a metal table waiting for a colonoscopy, but not this guy. Later, after Olson is allowed to escape, we’re treated to the sight of women in garter belts, stockings and teddies running after him in the desert. It’s a tiny bit sexy, but only in the most perverse sort of way possible.

Someone had to make a horror movie in which contestants in television weight-loss competition are killed off one-by-one, possibly to improve the odds of one or more of them winning the million-dollar first prize. Most of them would have died in the course of the competition, anyway, but where’s the fun in merely watching nature takes its course? In John Waters’ hands, Camp Massacre (“Fat Chance”) could have been a real hoot. Even the momentary presence of adult-star Bree Olson, wrestler Al Snow and “ghost hunter” Scott Tepperman could save this big glob of fat.

In Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan, pirate Captain Zachariah Zicari somehow finds himself on the banks of the Ohio River, circa 1714, where he saved settlers on the American frontier from unleashing the forces of hell. Captain Z accomplished this by preventing a group of she-demons from unleashing the force of a powerful amulet that would have released something called the Leviathan. Three hundred years later, the amulet is discovered in the river by a bunch of hillbillies who believe that it could fetch a fortune on e-bay or “Antiques Roadshow,” simply for its gold content. Instead, they’ve summoned the spirit of Captain Z, who resembles a cross between Captain Morgan and Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the staff of the local after-work hangout begins to act as if it’s being taken over by Red Lobster. The whole thing smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie,” but, then, that much is clear from the cover art.

If you don’t dig writer/co-director Richard Griffin’s latest low-budget horror chiller, it’s not because Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (a.k.a., “Dr. Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead”) is the work of an amateur intending to go pro. He’s already made a dozen-plus features of varying quality, including Pretty Dead Things, The Sins of Dracula. The Disco Exorcist and a few other titles I may or may not have reviewed. I’m guessing that “Hungry Dead” is the closest Griffin’s come to a traditional horror in a long while. A group of wise-ass students pay a visit to a wax museum one afternoon as part of a class outing. Some decide to come back at night for a wee bit of hanky-panky, not knowing that the museum’s owner is related to the original Dr. Victor Frankenstein had he’s inherited some of the family DNA. Just when the kids think they’re alone, safe and ready to party, the monsters come out to play. No one could mistake it for a Universal or Hammer classic, but it’s a movie and, in the end, that’s all that counts.

Anthony Cardoza’s Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is so old it should come with a razor to cut the gray hairs from the beards of the car nuts who can remember the last time a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar and CB radios were flying off the shelves of Radio Shack … soon to be a memory, itself. I’d be lying if I said that I was able to follow the narrative of this Smokey and the Bandit wannabe, beyond the presence of big rigs, truck stops, citizens-band radio and busty waitresses. At one point, I mistook legendary car customizer George Barris for porn star Ron Jeremy, who also was active in 1979. He plays a supporting role as a car buff whose van is stolen and used in an armored car robbery. Like Bert I. Gordon (Food of the Gods), Cardoza was a frequent contributor to “MST3K,” as an actor in Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls and Coleman Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), The Skydivers (1963), Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) and The Hellcats (1968).

The Saint: The Complete Series
The Nanny: The Complete Series
The Wonder Years: Season Three
The big news on the TV front this week is Timeless Media Group’s release of all 118 episodes of “The Saint” for the first time on DVD. For those keeping score at home, that translates to 5,660 minutes of material on 33 discs. The ITC series starred Roger Moore, whose debonair and practically unflappable screen persona had already been cemented in such series as “Ivanhoe,” “The Alaskans” and “Maverick,” as cousin Beauregarde Maverick, before the British launch of “The Saint,” in 1962. The first two black-and-white seasons were shown here in syndication, before the show was picked up by NBC for its prime-time schedule. The show’s protagonist, Simon Templar, was created in 1928 by British-American author Leslie Charteris, who also deployed the character in novellas, short stories, a long-running comic strip and movies, tackling television. Although “The Saint” was listed alongside such spy series as “The Avengers,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Danger Man,” “I Spy” and “Get Smart,” Templar was considered to be more in line with Robin Hood, in that he preferred returning stolen money to its rightful owners than toppling evil regimes. Like Richard Boone’s Palidin, in “Have Gun – Will Travel,” Templar was a ladies’ man conversant in politics, current events and the arts. He was no more required to remain in London than Paladin was limited to taking job in the Bay Area. Look for guest star appearances by Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Edward Woodward (“The Equalizer”) and such Bondian beauties as Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell). Moore’s decision to remain active in the production of “The Saint” and other TV projects, effectively pushed his move to the James Bond series until 1973.

To describe Fran Drescher’s voice as merely being nasal is to completely miss the point of what made the Queens native one of the most popular of all 1990s sitcom stars. Neither does it explain why so many aurally sensitive viewers, like me, would no more tune into “The Nanny” than they would entice a flock of magpies to nest in that big shade tree in their back yards. I was reminded of this phobia while sampling select episodes of the show in Shout! Factory’s “The Nanny: The Complete Series.” Nevertheless, there’s no arguing with success and that exactly what “The Nanny” was for CBS from 1993 to 1999. The show was the brainchild of Drescher and her then-husband Peter Jacobson. While on a trans-Atlantic flight between New York and London, Drescher sat alongside top network executive Jeff Sagansky, for whom she had starred in the short-lived “Princesses.” After some gentle nasal persuasion, he agreed to let her and Jacobson pitch to an idea for a sitcom to CBS. While in London, visiting Twiggy Lawson, Drescher refined her pitch to a spin on “The Sound of Music,” but, “Instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door as Fran Fine.” The doorstep belonged to Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), who was looking for a nanny for his daughter. The contrast between the WASP-y Brit and the loud and impulsive Jewish gal from Queens proved irresistible to viewers, who already anticipated that the friction between them someday would soften and turn to love. The DVD set includes the pilot episode, with commentary my Fran Drescher, along with commentaries on “Imaginary Friend” and “I Don’t Remember”; a background featurette, “The Making of the Nanny”; and reunion special.

Also new from Shout! Factory is “The Wonder Years: Season Three.” The four-disc DVD set contains all 23 episodes of the show’s third season and features songs from the original broadcasts by the Jackson 5, Paul Simon, The Who, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Diana Ross, The Righteous Brothers, James Taylor, The Byrds, Jackie Wilson and James Brown.Bonus extras include a roundtable discussion with Danica McKellar, Fred Savage and Josh Saviano; the featurette “A Family Affair: At Home With the Arnolds”; and interviews with several cast members.

The DVD Wrapup: Leviathan, Lovesick, Before I Disappear, Blue Room and more

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Leviathan: Blu-ray
If any modern country exemplified the nearly ancient epigram, “The more things changes, the more they stay the same,” it’s Russia. A quarter-century after the Iron Curtain was lifted and Soviet repression gave way to the hope of freedom and democracy, Russia is led by a paranoid thug who makes Nikita Khrushchev look like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of being iron-fisted by Communist Party functionaries, however, the populace is ruled by an increasingly militaristic government and bullied by plutocrats, gangsters, small-minded politicians and conservative leaders of the ascendant Russian Orthodox Church. That much, at least, can be inferred in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s overtly allegorical drama, Leviathan, which ironically was inspired by the story of a Colorado man whose beef with city officials eventually led him to armor-plate a bulldozer and use it as a battering ram against bureaucratic intransigence. Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin also admit to have borrowed from the biblical stories of Job and Naboth’s Vineyard. The creature alluded to in their film’s title at one time thrived in the fertile waters of the Barents Sea. Today, however, the whale’s sun-bleached skeleton lies on a lonely stretch of sand and rocks outside the fictional town of Pribrezhny, as drained of promise as the peoples’ dreams for a new Russian state. The aggrieved party in Leviathan is an auto mechanic and army veteran, Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), whose simple ancestral home is situated on a lovely parcel of land overlooking the sea. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the corrupt mayor of Pribrezhny, covets the site for purposes of his own self-aggrandizement. He’s able to have the property expropriated for a sum well below its compensatory value and not even close to its sentimental worth. After nearly exhausting every legal appeal available to him, Kolya convinces an old army buddy and well-connected lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to travel to the coastal community to represent him in his last stand against injustice. The cocky Muscovite carries with him a dossier that, if necessary, could be used against the mayor as blackmail.
Also factoring into Kolya’s dilemma is a problem with alcohol shared by almost everyone else to whom we’re introduced in Leviathan and, by inference, the nation. His wife’s frustration with his alcoholism is further compounded by the hostility directed at her by Kolya’s teenage son from his first marriage. Depressed by the likelihood of having to trade her home for a crappy apartment in the town, the love-starved Lilia (Elena Lyadova) sees in the handsome and self-assured lawyer an opportunity to escape to a better life in the capital. When all of the individual ingredients begin to combust, the explosion can be heard as far away as the whale’s empty carcass. If you’re wondering how any movie as obviously critical of the country’s fragile democracy and religious establishment managed to be submitted as Russia’s official candidate for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, you wouldn’t be alone. (After winning a Golden Globe and being chosen as a finalist for an Oscar, it lost to Poland’s superb Ida.) According to several observers, it isn’t likely any future depictions of “ordinary” Russians as drunkards and slaves to an inherently corrupt system will so easily avoid the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture. In an interview with the New York Times, Russian journalist Vladimir Posner observed, “Anything seen as being critical of Russia in any way is automatically seen as either another Western attempt to denigrate Russia and the Orthodox Church, or it’s the work of some kind of fifth column of Russia-phobes who are paid by the West to do their anti-Russian work or are simply themselves profoundly anti-Russian.” Apart from any political considerations, part of what makes Leviathan so extraordinary is the actors’ ability to convince us of their characters’ ordinariness, if you will. We’re able to feel every ounce of their pain and frustration with every ounce of vodka poured down their gullets from an ever-present shot glass. I’ve never seen drunkenness depicted so realistically on stage or in a movie. The starkly beautiful cinematography holds up well in the Blu-ray edition, which also contains commentary with Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky; an informative making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and introductions and a Q&A from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Jealousy, possibly the most toxic of all human emotions, has provided fodder for artists and storytellers practically since the beginning of biblical time. Among the most powerful depictions of the effects of jealousy on the heart and mind, of course, remains William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” The presence of the green-eyed monster has been chronicled in scripture, mythology, literature and such films as Mildred Pierce (also an excellent HBO mini-series) and Fatal Attraction. Turning jealousy into comedy has long proven to be more problematic, for the simple reason that its victims tend to look more pathetic than aggrieved. Sadly, “pathetic” is the first word that comes to mind when attempting to describe Luke Matheny’s fatally undernourished rom-com Lovesick. Matt LeBlanc plays Charlie Darby, a well-liked elementary school principal whose relationships with women habitually end when he begins to display to the symptoms of chronic jealousy. It manifests itself in ways that make him look desperately obsessive and possibly dangerous. Although Charlie recognizes his shortcoming, scripter Dean Young finds ever-more embarrassing ways for him to blow every prospect of love. And, while he gets solid advice from Adam Rodriguez (“C.S.I. Miami”), he seems to prefer the misguided observations of a buttinsky neighbor played Chevy Chase. Naturally, when Charlie is this-close to a nearly perfect blond, Molly (Ali Larter), he does everything in his power to make her disappear. Its neither funny nor credible. LeBlanc is so much more interesting in “Episodes,” as an actor with similar personality defects, it’s possible to wonder if he accepted the role as a favor for someone related to the filmmakers. Larter (“Heroes) brightens up everything she’s been assigned and her fans might enjoy seeing her here, alongside the former co-star of “Friends.”

Just Before I Go: Blu-ray
Before I Disappear
Romanticists typically have portrayed suicide as an act of courage or despair, precipitated by a series of emotional crises that trigger a response validated by the dictates of personal freedom. Artistic dramatizations have added an air of nobility to deaths that might easily been averted if logic and patience had prevailed. Moreover, there’s a huge difference between romanticized descriptions of suicide in literature and the objective language found in coroner’s reports or chilling photographic evidence of distended tongues, brain-spattered walls and slit wrists. As long as the Production Code prohibited graphic depictions of death on screen, the ugly reality of suicide was shrouded in avoidance and euphemism. Once that passed, realistic depictions of violent death evolved with every new advance in special makeup effects and squib engineering. The quickest and most startling way to end any crime drama in a movie or television show merely requires of a doomed antagonist, usually of the male persuasion, to place the barrel of a handgun on his head and pull the trigger. Far from Shakespearian, it brings the final curtain down on time. The uneven suicide dramedy Just Before I Go represents the feature debuts of director Courteney Cox and writer David Flebotte, both of whom previously collaborated on the dark takedown of celebrity journalism, “Dirt.” Seann William Scott, who created and finally humanized the scene-stealing Stifler in the American Pie series, here portrays the suicidal loser Ted Morgan. At 41, the divorced L.A. pet-shop owner decides to return to his hometown to confront the school bullies, snotty debutantes, sadistic teachers and cruel family members who made his adolescence a living hell. As is typical in such you-actually-can-go-home-again exercises, Ted eventually comes to the realization that his old nemeses had already committed a form of suicide by accepting suburban rot as a way of life. Out of the blue, he meets a pretty young woman (Olivia Thirlby) hoping to capture his last few days on film. That’s a show-stopper if there ever was one. Forced, instead, to intercede in the serious problems of other characters in the movie, Ted discovers things inside himself he didn’t know existed. If there’s nothing particularly enlightening in Just Before I Go, it’s only because Cox and Flebotte decided at one point to throw the protagonist into a kitchen sink full of sexually dysfunctional supporting characters and slapstick scenarios. (Kate Walsh’s somnambulistic onanist is something to behold.) I suspect that the same people drawn to every new American Pie sequel – nor a petty sum — will find something to enjoy in Cox’s freshman film.

Expanded from Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short film, “Curfew,” Before I Disappear takes a far more realistic approach to suicide brought on by despair, while also introducing a determinedly optimistic tyke who could have been played by a 12-year-old Shirley Temple. Besides writing and directing, Christensen plays a young man seriously addicted to pills and various white powders. Richie is working off his debt to a sadistic dealer and a nightclub owner (Ron Perlman) by cleaning toilets in bathrooms no sober human being would consider using, except in the most dire of digestive emergencies. After he discovers the lifeless body of an overdosed girlfriend in one of the stalls, Richie decides to pull the plug on his own worthless existence. While lying in a tub full of seriously polluted bathwater – his own blood trickling from his wrists — Richie answers a call from his estranged sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), demanding that he pick up his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), from school. Maggie makes it clear that she wouldn’t ask him for help if anyone else in her orbit had been available. In something of a surprise decision, Richie wraps his wounds with cloth once probably used as a hankie and heads off to the girl’s school with a code word and instructions not to screw up the assignment. Almost immediately, Sophia pointedly reveals her mistrust of her uncle’s ability to accommodate her after-school activities and preparations for an important test in the morning. In this, she’s as prescient as she precocious. Because of his obligations to various dealers and thugs, Richie is unable to escort his charge from school to acrobatics and back home without several ill-advised pit stops in between. Concerned more with not being prepared for her test than fearful for her physical well-being, Sophia ends up playing cards and sharing Chinese food with his dealers’ bodyguards, who also create a safe space for her to study. As it turns out, Maggie has been arrested in a violent altercation with her married lover and is cooling her heels in jail. The guy’s wife is anxious to confront Maggie, but is willing to use Richie as a punching bag in her absence. At some point in the proceedings, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, if only because most of Before I Disappear takes place in several different locations in the wee hours. It isn’t as accomplished as those two films, but audiences drawn to bleak urban drama should find Christensen’s conceits interesting, alongside Ptacek’s spunky performance.

The Blue Room
In this most French of erotic thrillers, co-writer/director/star Mathieu Amalric plays a handsome, if otherwise non-descript adulterer, who risks everything for a few satisfying assignations with the extremely sultry and unmistakably married Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau). As drawn to Esther’s raw sexuality as he is, Julien Gahyde doesn’t appear to be particularly unhappy at his rural home, with a still-alluring wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker) and charming daughter. As interpreted by the immensely prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon, one man’s seven-year-itch is his lover’s perfect excuse for murdering her husband. The larger question here, though, is whether Julien’s itch is so great that he’d enter into a conspiracy with Esther to broaden her felonious intentions and somehow get away with it. Amalric does a really nice job keeping us guessing as to the non-carnal motivations of Julien and Esther – their chemistry in bed speaks for itself — while also leaving the door open to the possibility that one, both or neither of them might be culpable in the unseen deaths. Even under the intense interrogation of the local prosecutor and police officials, it’s difficult for us to piece together any more of the details of the case than are allowed the courtroom audience. We think that we know more than the spectators because of the elliptical nature of the narrative, but we don’t. The title refers to the color motif of the rooms in which most of the most telling activity takes place. Admirers of the mysteries of Claude Chabrol and previous Simenon adaptations shouldn’t hesitate picking up The Blue Room.

The Living
Jack Bryan’s unexpectedly satisfying sophomore feature, The Living, is the kind of low-profile picture that gives the straight-to-DVD business a good name. If the industry sidebar didn’t exist, after all, how many of the admirable low-budget indies would have an ice cube’s chance in Miami of being seen outside the festival circuit? The Living describes what can happen when ill-considered decisions are put into motion for reasons that seemed good at the time they are made, but in the clear light of day might have been re-thought. Here, a mousy young Pennsylvania man, Gordon (Kenny Wormald), is pressured by his mother and friends to avenge the beatings given his sister, Molly (Jocelin Donahue), by her worthless husband and blackout drunk, Teddy (Fran Kranz).. Joelle Carter, who rode an emotional roller-coaster as Ava Crowder in “Justified,” is the kind of mother who isn’t reluctant to pick the scabs off her less-than-perfect children and instigate trouble when they don’t behave according to her dubious ethical code. Although Teddy deserves a good ass-kicking – or jail, one – Molly prefers to punish him her way. She’s the kind of victim who is willing to forgive her abuser if he displays the proper degree of remorse and promises not to drink to excess, again. We know this is baloney, but Molly would rather live with someone she still is capable of loving to being tormented by her know-it-all mother. As a favor from a friend, brother Gordon has been given the phone number of a destitute ex-con willing to kill Teddy for $2,000. The only caveat comes in having to travel to the Mississippi home of the hitman, Howard (Chris Mulkey), and listen to his menacing b.s. all the way to Pennsylvania. When Gordon witnesses the kind of mayhem Howard is capable of causing if provoked, he begins to wonder if the price of his manhood is worth the risk of ending up in prison. It’s from this point on that The Living begins to demonstrate why it deserves a solid shot in the DVD and VOD marketplace.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
The best reason for picking up a copy of Two Men in Town isn’t the participation of such high-profile actors as Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzmán, Ellen Burstyn and Mexican star Dolores Heredia, although that normally would be sufficient cause for celebration. Instead, it’s the welcome return of writer/director/producer Rachid Bouchareb – London River, Days of Glory, Outside the Law — to these shores as an interpreter of the American Dream. It also marks his return visit to New Mexico, where much of his previous project – Just Like a Woman, which paired Golshifteh Farahani and Sienna Miller as a pair of on-the-lam belly dancers – was shot in 2011.  Two Men in Town is set along the border separating New Mexico and old Mexico, where as many dreams are destroyed as left to blossum. Although the movie doesn’t avoid the subject of illegal immigration, it’s secondary to the dramatic interplay between the newly paroled convicted murderer, William Garnett (Whitaker); his by-the-book parole officer, Emily Smith (Blethyn); and Sheriff Bill Agati, whose deputy was killed by Garnett 18 years earlier. Garnett converted to Islam while incarcerated and it appears to have made him a better man. The sheriff is itching for an opportunity to send the ex-con back to prison, while Smith is doing her level best to keep that from happening. Condemned to spend the next three years of his parole period in a dusty border town, Garnett is required to choose between a minimum-pay, maximum-work job at a cow-milking mill or accepting a job with the local crime kingpin, Terence (Guzman), with whom he has a checkered past. His decision to stick with the cows angers Terence to the point where he even threatens Garnett’s bank-teller girlfriend (Heredia), a lovely woman who deserves none of the shit about to rain on her head. Even though he recites his prayers at the appointed times – at work and in his flophouse apartment – the Koran provides only minimal protection against rage issues that were merely patched over in prison. Two Men in Town is a loose adaptation of the 1973 crime drama of the same title by Jose Giovanni, whose work was informed by the years he spent on Death Row in a French prison. Restaging the story on the border adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story that occasionally gets in the way of Garnett’s redemption. It partially explains why Cohen Media decided to add Rory Kennedy’s insightful 2010 documentary, The Fence, which documents the impact of the manmade 700-mile barrier on communities on either side of the same border with Mexico. Also enhancing the Blu-ray presentation is Yves Cape’s brilliant cinematography, which finds beauty in places to many Americans are quick to dismiss as wastelands.

Bordering on Bad Behavior
The South African director/writer team of Jac Mulder and Ziggy Darwish accomplish in Bordering on Bad Behavior what tens of millions of peace-loving citizens of the world have wanted to do for more than 60 years: lock representatives of all warring parties in the Middle East into an inescapable space and demand they arrive at solution to their mutual issues before being allowed to leave. Then, when they reach each inevitable impasse, pump high-grade marijuana into the chamber and substitute the drinking water with booze. It might take a while for the inebriants to take effect, but, once they do, something resembling agreement might be secured. That, I think, is a reasonable summation of what happens in the outlandish military dramedy Bordering on Bad Behavior, whose first half is dominated by vitriol and second half actually resembles a stoner comedy. The story opens with an Australian special-forces commando of Lebanese Arab background getting lost during a stroll with his soldier cousin along the border with Israel. Although Baz (Bernard Curry) has managed to survive for several years in some of the hairiest war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t until he’s on leave, visiting his relatives, that he makes the greatest mistake of his military career by accidentally strolling into a top-secret Israeli communications base. It’s here that he’s confronted by Bob, an American officer and full-time Texan in Israeli garb (Tom Sizemore) and a bitter Israeli commando assigned to take over the post in the morning. Don’t ask. In the time it takes Baz to pull back the hammer on his service revolver, the door to the facility slams shut with a loud click. Because he was able to get the drop on the laid-back short-timer, Bob, and the seriously pissed-off Israeli patriot, Avi (Oz Zehavi), Baz succeeds in keeping things from getting out of hand. Even though he’s there to provide the movie’s Arab point of view in the angry exchanges with Avi, Baz has also been assigned a Jewish wife (Liv Jackson) and flashbacks from the day he saved the life of an Israeli seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Again, don’t ask. The reward for his selfless actions came in the form of being berated by a relative of another victim and hassled by cops for presumably being of the same faith as the suicide bomber. For his part, Ari’s deep bitterness derives from having lost a sister in a suicide bombing – perhaps the same one – and being fed a load of anti-Arab propaganda in school. Knowing that these three outwardly very different men will be forced to co-habit the facility for the next six hours, Bob talks Baz and Avi into observing a ceasefire. Fortunately for everyone involved, their temporary man-cave is well supplied with drugs, booze, steaks, porn and ammo. The soldiers’ willingness to partake in such timely diversions ensures that the second half of Bordering on Bad Behavior will overflow with politically incorrect laughs, good-natured ribbing and other bro-mantic behavior. As absurd as this scenario might sound on paper, it would be nice to think that such rapprochements — however unlikely — were possible in the real world.

Strange Magic
Maya the Bee Movie
Nickelodeon: Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car
Rarely have “George Lucas,” “Lucasfilm” and “Disney” appeared in the same sentence as “bomb,” but that’s exactly what happened in box-office summaries of the weekend Strange Magic opened on 3,020 screens across the U.S. As executive producer and story creator, Lucas probably hadn’t experienced this much negative press since the bumbling Jar Jar Binks was introduced in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Not only did the animated fairy tale tank at the box office, but it was trashed by critics, who, as a group, have yet to forgive Lucas for creating the aforementioned Binks and fear the Naboo native will make a cameo in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Primarily influenced by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and two other Shakespearean comedies, Strange Magic deploys 60 years’ worth of Top 40 hits “to tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with the imaginative settings and characters, as drawn, and an excellent voicing/singing cast that includes Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Anne Bull, Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph and Peter Stormare. What I found awkward was the juxtaposition of cutting-edge technology and a soundtrack loaded with songs lifted from an era when vinyl was king and analog was the sound. (A few of the songs were of more current vintage, but none that stood out as much as the golden oldies.) Youngsters attracted to the fantasy and fairies likely were intimidated by the Shakespearian conceit and unimpressed by a libretto enhanced by songs made famous long before they were born. Without the kids’ insistence, parents weren’t likely to drag them to the multiplex just to hear a few songs from their teen years. And, even in its third week, Paddington was still able to finish third that weekend. That said, Strange Magic is far easier to endure on DVD and less expensive, to boot. I kind of enjoyed hearing the tunes again, this time sung in the wee voices of enchanted forest creatures. The animation looks terrific on my 4K screen, too. Strange Magic could end up doing well on DVD, but only if parents and Boomer grandparents can find a way to convince the kiddies that they’ll dig songs made famous by Freddie Mercury, Robert Palmer, Bob Marley, Mickey & Sylvia, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Heart, the Doors and ELO as much as they do. The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes.

Shout! Factory didn’t bother to invest a great deal of time and money in an effort to attract kids to an animated tale of German-Australian origin, based on a Teutonic fable written in 1912 by Waldemar Bonsels, about a newborn bee possibly afflicted with ADHD. There was nothing to gain by releasing Maya the Bee Movie in theaters and plenty of good reasons to focus on a DVD strategy, instead. Alexs Stadermann (The Woodlies Movie) wasn’t blessed with an easily marketable voicing cast and the story was more familiar to European and Japanese families. In fact, Maya the Bee Movie represents the latest in a long line of adaptations of Bonsels’ “The Adventures of Maya the Bee,” a book that appeared to espouse militarism, naturalism and racism in defense of the common good of the hive. Sound familiar? These “-isms” have lost most of their sting over the course of a century, in which the book was adapted for a 1924 live-action feature film (starring bugs), comic books, an anime, a pair of television series, video games, a children’s opera and merchandise. In the latest iteration of the story, Maya isn’t at all keen about being born into a world of rules and group-think. She prefers flitting around the meadow, making friends with a violin-playing grasshopper, a dung beetle and a young member of the much-maligned hornet tribe. When the Queen’s royal Jelly is stolen, the hornets are the prime suspects and Maya is thought to be their accomplice. Maya may have been banished from the hive, but she and her friends understand the value in finding the missing jelly and preventing a potentially disastrous war between the bees and hornets.

Preschoolers who may be a year or two away from Maya the Bee Movie can get their animated kicks from the latest Nickelodeon compilation, “Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car.” In it, Milli, Geo and Bot use their math powers to find Shark Car and return it to their friend, Jose, before the ferry leaves. Other episodes include “Umi Toy Store,” “Stompasaurus” and “Lost and Found Toys.”

Stigmata: Blu-ray
If the Vatican ever wanted to extend its franchise, what better way than to open its archives to screenwriters and take a cut of the action. The Inquisition, alone, would provide fodder for dozens of factually informed mini-series and torture-porn flicks. The statute of limitations has run out on most of the Church’s crimes, so its army of lawyers probably wouldn’t have to worry about lawsuits, except, perhaps, from the descendants of the Jewish babies who were kidnapped and handed over to childless Catholic families or sent to convents and seminaries. With every new mini-series and movie based on the Crusades, Henry VIII, the Borgias, the House of Medici, the Gnostic Gospels, the post-WWII “ratlines,” exorcism and other manifestations of Christian mysticism, Vatican copyright specialists are practically giving away money. If nothing else, we might be spared such half-baked entertainments as Stigmata, a 1999 suspense vehicle newly re-launched in Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with basing a thriller on the bewildering phenomenon, in which an ordinary person mysteriously displays the marks of the wounds of Christ. No less a writer than Elmore Leonard found a way to work the stigmata into a novel – albeit, his most obscure title – later adapted into a decent thriller, Touch, by Paul Schrader. In Stigmata, Rupert Wainwright’s very loud, if stylish thriller, the question isn’t whether a young blond hairdresser’s wounds are legitimate or not, the writers also demanded that Frankie (Patricia Arquette) undergo the full Exorcist experience, babbling in ancient tongues and scribbling Coptic text on a wall in her loft. (Actually, Hebraic lettering was substituted for Coptic or Aramaic.) As a self-described atheist, Frankie hasn’t the vaguest clue as to what’s happening to her or why the hallucinations appear to be triggered by strobe lights or flashbulbs. (Would St. Francis Assisi’s stigmata react to the same stimuli if he were to reappear today and go clubbing?) Gabriel Byrne plays the Vatican-based priest who travels the world investigating the validity of such miracles, but is snubbed by his superiors when he has the temerity to take his job seriously. When a priest knowledgeable in Christian mysticism chances on one of Frankie’s stigmatic freak-outs on a subway train, his report raises Byrne’s eyebrows and causes panic within the heeby-jeeby crowd in Rome. Suddenly, we’ve gone from Linda Blair’s bedroom and into territory Dan Brown would mine in “The Da Vinci Code.” The set designs are far more compelling than the narrative, while a Billy Corgan/Mike Garson should still be of interested to younger viewers. Also notable are appearances by Jonathan Pryce, Portia de Rossi, Nia Long and the ever-ominous Rade Sherbedgia. Arquette, who won an Oscar this year for her key role in Boyhood, later would play a housewife who communicates with the dead in CBS’ paranormal drama, “Medium.” Scream Factory adds commentary with Wainwright; deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Divine Rites” and “Incredible But True,” taken from a History Channel special about stigmata; and a Natalie Imbruglia music video from the film’s soundtrack.

Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing
Neil Young: The Road Goes On Forever
On Tender Hooks
All This Mayhem: Blu-ray
With the possible exception of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, there probably aren’t two American musicians more thoroughly analyzed than Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who, unlike most singers before them, also composed the lyrics to their songs. It’s difficult to imagine anything more to add to Dylan’s back pages since the publication of his memoirs, “Chronicles,” and airing of Martin Scorsese’s authorized profile for PBS, “No Direction Home.” Young bared his roots and inspirations for Jonathan Demme in “Journeys” and “Heart of Gold.” Once famously enigmatic, both of these amazing musicians have become as elusive as robins in May. More than a few Dylan/Young-centric bio-docs of European origin have already been released by MVD Visual, which distributes titles from such niche companies as Sexy Intellectual, Chrome Dreams, Pride, Jinga, IMV/BLUELINE, Iconic and Gonzo. These labels also have direct access to concerts televised in Europe and previously unavailable here. Even so, you’d think that the appeal for Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing and Neil Young: The Road Goes on Forever would be drastically limited by their complete dependence on public-domain resources, promotional videos, news clips, second- and third-hand witnessing, and other archival material. It’s made perfectly clear on the DVD jackets that the subjects didn’t participate in the creation of the film or agree to lift licensing considerations. It hardly matters, because the lack of access to these famously guarded celebrities – in some cases, not always – allows for an open discussion from critics, musical and business associates, and artists with unique points of view on the subject. Here, the absence of authorized concert and studio footage allows for thorough discussions of the historical context in which Dylan and Young emerged and triumphed. Snippets of songs are all one usually needs to recall them in total, anyway.

At 121 minutes, Roads Rapidly Changing leaves plenty of time to expand on Dylan’s place in a folk scene that was already thriving when he arrived in Greenwich Village, from Minnesota, in the early 1960s, but was on the verge of a complete re-invention of itself by the time he “went electric.” By way of introduction, director Tom O’Dell focuses on the roles played by Lead Belly, Josh White, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the genesis of the folk movement and its relation to left-wing activism in the 1930s-’40s and near destruction in the communist witch hunts of the ’50s. By the time Dylan had become a media darling and commercial commodity, dozens of singer-songwriters were finding homes on niche record labels and folk-rockers were bridging the gap separating Laurel Canyon and Nashville. We also learn how Dylan chose to bypass the Woodstock festival, practically within shouting distance of Big Pink, and use a hitherto obscure musical gathering on the Isle of Wight to announce his recovery from a serious motorcycle accident. In addition to the input provided by British authors and critics, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, we also here from contemporaries Maria Muldaur, Eric Andersen, Martin Carthy, former Fug Peter Stampfel, Tom Paxton and Izzy Young, founder of the Folklore Center and producer of Dylan’s first major concert.

Exactly twice as long as the Dylan bio-doc, The Road Goes on Forever isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might seem. While the alternately candid and repetitive second disc is comprised of broadcast and promotional interviews conducted over the course of the last 40 years, the more entertaining first half of the DVD package traces Young’s rock and folk roots from deepest, darkest Winnipeg, and early bands the Squires and Mynah Birds; past the folk clubs of Toronto; to the Sunset Strip, where Buffalo Springfield would begat a solo career and CSN&Y, which would begat Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, the Stills-Young Band and a collaboration with Pearl Jam; and more baffling genre experimentation than Dylan ever dared. All along, there’s no question that Young continues to follow his own drummer and stick to principles that inspired his co-founding of Farm Aid and the acoustic Bridge School Benefit concerts, as well as political and environmental activism. Fans will find The Road Goes on Forever to be two-plus hours well spent.

One doesn’t enter a viewing of Kate Shenton’s tortuous documentary On Tender Hooks lightly. Shining any light on the “body modification and suspension community” necessarily requires graphic demonstrations of the piercings and other procedures that most people consider too painful to endure, but the fetishists we meet here anticipate in the same way as some chronic-pain suffers welcome sessions with their chiropractor. Anyone who’s seen images of a Plains Indian enduring the Sun Dance ceremony – tethered to a pole by a rope attached to rawhide thongs affixed to the skin of his chest – already has a pretty good idea what to expect here. Outlawed in the U.S. and Canada for nearly 100 years, the ritual employed pain and personal sacrifice as both a cleansing mechanism and as a prayer to benefit family and community. In On Tender Hooks, the practitioners find something resembling bliss through being suspended on metal hooks pushed through the skin on their backs. Why stop with piercing one’s earlobes or genitals, when so much other epidermal landscape awaits exploitation?) To help her audience understand what’s required of novice fetishists, Shenton undergoes the painful procedure so we don’t have to do it ourselves. It’s pretty horrifying and, yes, it’s almost possible to feel some of her pain. But, hey, whatever floats your boat. Also included in the DVD are several of Shenton’s short films, for which she duly acclaimed.

All This Mayhem tells the all-too-familiar story of niche athletes who didn’t see the price tag that comes with fame and allowing themselves to be exploited by purveyors of T-shirts and sporting goods. The cautionary tale of Australian brothers, Tas and Ben Pappas, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi and Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator in that the subjects spend so much time honing their skateboarding skills and partying their brains out, they are unable to recognize the point where the cocaine and booze turned them into monsters. What differentiates All This Mayhem from a dozen other rags-to-riches-to-rehab docs is the brotherly bond and high-octane personalities that connected the skateboarding standouts on the way up and down that same ladder. Because Eddie Martin’s film ends on a marginally optimistic note, the dark parts probably aren’t sufficiently bleak to keep aspiring superstars from desiring the same wealth and fame that allowed the Pappas bros to skate on the edge of oblivion for as long as they did. The DVD adds lots of deleted scenes and other skateboarding stuff.

3 Holes and a Smoking Gun
Of all the mysteries of the cinema, the art of coming up with a saleable title is one of the most difficult aspects to master. Some, like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, come easy. Others demand far too much familiarity with the source material or presence of a mega-star – Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, The Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (Eddie Murphy) – to support the weight of leaden content. While it’s unlikely that the backers of “Three Holes, Two Brads and a Smoking Gun” had the money to afford test marketing, at some point in the post-production process the title was pared down to the only slightly less unwieldy, 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun. Either way, when combined with the ominous cover art, I was instantly reminded of Guy Ritchie’s much copied, rarely matched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If anything, though, Hilarion Banks and Scott Fivelson’s inside-Hollywood conceit more closely resembles Robert Altman’s The Player, in that the theft of a screenplay is the catalyst for all of the intrigue, mayhem and hubris that follows. Newcomer Zuher Kahn plays Jack Ariamehr, an aspiring filmmaker and student of a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter, Bobby Blue Day, who split for New York with his tail between his legs. It isn’t until he writes Ariamehr’s assignment script that Day begins to think he might have found his return ticket to the Big Show. What neither teacher nor student see, however, is the toxicity that radiates from the pages of the screenplay. It leaves everyone who touches it under the sad misapprehension that the story belongs to them and they actually deserve to claim all royalties it meet accrue. It isn’t a bad premise, but Banks and Scott Fivelson add so much baggage to the load 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun already was carrying that it began to sink before it could swim. On the plus side, anyone who’s wondered whatever happened to Richard Edson —Desperately Seeking Susan, Stranger Than Paradise, Do the Right Thing – will find the answer here.

C.P.O. Sharkey: The Complete Season 1
DirecTV: Rogue: The Complete Second Season
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season Two: Blu-ray
Spike: Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues
UP: My Dad’s a Soccer Mom
Known far and wide as the insult comic with a heart as big as the great outdoors, Don Rickles has enjoyed a career that has spanned nearly 65 years and continues as a popular guest on talk shows and occasional live stage appearances. He’s found success, as well, in such movies as Casino, Kelly’s Heroes, a series of ’60s beach-party movies and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story series. After risking his fledgling show-business career and possibly his kneecaps taking potshots at Frank Sinatra while on stage in a Miami Beach nightclub, “Mr. Warmth” found a home in Las Vegas as the king of late-night lounge comedians, attracting audiences filled with post-show performers and camp followers of the Rat Pack. On television, he became a popular guest star on talk shows, sitcoms and the “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast” specials. His shtick became so familiar by the late-‘70s, his fans couldn’t go to a hockey game without recalling Rickles’ trademark “hockey puck” gags. Before landing the starring role in “C.P.O. Sharkey,” he hosted a short-lived variety show on ABC. In 1995, he gave the sitcom racket another shot, co-starring with Richard Lewis in the doomed “Daddy Dearest.”  Time Life’s new collection of first-year episodes of “C.P.O. Sharkey” is newly available on DVD. Besides the politically incorrect material, the show is best remembered for the times when 6-foot-7 Seaman Lester Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) would stand alongside the 5-foot-6 Sharkey, exchanging homilies and barbs. Having served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Cyrene in World War II, Rickles frequently looked more comfortable in his role than the calculatedly diverse cast of targets, er, characters. John Landis’ 2007 documentary for HBO, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” re-introduced him to another generation of comedy lovers. When Rickles passes, knock on wood, he’s certain to match the same volume of praise from peers of all ages accorded Joan Rivers on her demise last September.

At a lithe 5-foot-3, Thandie Newton probably would have a tough time meeting the physical requirements of an undercover detective in most big city police departments. Fortunately, besides being a terrific actor, the native Brit of Zimbabwean descent is just game enough to convince Bay Area hoodlums that she’s a drug queenpin, gangster’s moll, revenge killer, prostitute (of course), mother of a sexually precocious teenager and, yes, emotionally troubled rogue cop. Produced by DirecTV, “Rogue” feels very much like a European mini-series, in that the protagonist walks a thin line between heroism and anti-heroism and occasionally puts people she loves in precarious positions. Being a premium offering, there’s rarely a scarcity of nudity and graphic bloodshed. At the start of Season Two, detective Grace Travis is still struggling with painful issues left over from the first go-round, when a sexual relationship with a prominent gangster went way beyond the call of duty. After convincing a fellow agent to go undercover as a sexual plaything for the target in an even more complex and dangerous sting, Grace is devastated when it goes sideways. The investigation’s tentacles eventually reach from Oakland to the Pentagon, Vancouver and Pakistan. Several peoples’ jobs are put on the line, as is Grace’s relationship with her conspiratorial mother and vulnerable daughter.

The fact that Netflix’s terrifying prison drama “Orange Is the New Black” is required to compete among comedies and musicals in Golden Globe and Emmy voting is a mystery to me. There are more laughs in a single episode of “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” than an entire season of “Orange Is the New Black.” Maybe, it’s just me, because I don’t find Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” particularly comedic, either. In Season Two, Taylor Schilling’s “suburban white girl” character isn’t required to carry most of the narrative load. While remaining a key story thread, Piper’s ordeal is subordinate to the battles of will being waged in other racial, sexual and power cliques. The addition of Lorraine Toussaint’s sociopathic Yvonne “Vee” Parker to the cast of character raised the level of tension to alarming heights. At the same time, prison officials were required to pay the toll for their avarice and greed. There’s no better show on television right now, but it’s definitely not for the skittish … or anyone looking for laughs or music. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and commentary on a couple of episodes.

Growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee reputed to have more taverns per capita than any other city in the country, I took for granted that the corner bar served as a home away from home for almost everyone I knew. Some even curried a quasi-family appeal with bar food and fish fries. Trick-or-treating the boozehounds would become half the fun of Halloween. As an adult, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why, all things being equal, one bar made money and another went broke. By the time Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” came around, I was too old to realize the childhood dream of everyone raised in Milwaukee, by opening a tavern to call one’s home. It’s just as well, because the responsibility of maintaining my friends’ addiction to alcohol would probably have landed me in the poorhouse. And, that was before the competition for customers required tavern owners to emphasize aspects of the business beyond bar food, happy hours and the occasional free round. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when loyal patronage was rewarded by the occasional free round.) “Bar Rescue” isn’t any different than other reality-rescue shows in which an expert tears employees of a troubled restaurant, beauty salon or country inn a new asshole, before putting them on the right road to profitability. Here, Nightclub Hall of Fame inductee and bar-management specialist Jon Taffer is commissioned to save dying businesses from themselves by scaring the crap out of owners and employees, first, and, then, providing them with the wherewithal to correct mistakes and woo new customers. He accomplishes this in collaboration with a rotating team of specialists with expertise in drink and food preparation, customer service, economics and interior design. Not all of the owners are ready to admit their mistakes when Taffer unloads on them, but the smart ones eventually get with the program. “Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues” adds the featurette “Taffer’s Top 10: Most Disgusting Bars” to the four featured episodes.

Anyone old enough to remember Rodney Dangerfield’s 1992 sports comedy, Ladybugs, is 1) already familiar with what happens in My Dad’s a Soccer Mom and 2) probably has kids or grandchildren young enough to enjoy it.  The gist of the story is that “Marion “Mad Dog” Casey (Lester Speight) has run out of NFL teams that are willing to employ him and is stuck performing the chores associated with being an archetypal “soccer mom.” It requires chauffeuring his 10-year-old daughter, Lacy, from school to ballet and theatre class activities – neither of which she really enjoys – and, then, to soccer practice, which she loves. Much of the humor derives from the fact that Marion is a very large man and something of a bull in a china shop on the soccer pitch. Because Up TV is short for “Uplifting Entertainment” and began as the Gospel Music Channel, the fun is family oriented and important lessons are learned.

The DVD Wrapup: Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne, Retaliation, Beloved Sisters, Mad Max, Jamaica Inn, Make Way for Tomorrow, Power, Welcome to Sweden … More

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne: Blu-ray
Retaliation: Blu-ray
It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and a few other influential directors began championing movies previously dismissed as “too foreign” or mere genre specimens that it became possible for us to see how small distance between grindhouse and arthouse really was. The time had finally arrived when the restorer’s art and modern technology could be combined to reverse the clock on movies ravaged by time, indifference and neglect. As the DVD and Blu-ray revolution took hold, distribution companies, almost certainly inspired by the high-end success of Criterion Collection, formed to feed the demand for obscure cult, experimental and genre classics. Digital software and old-fashioned TLC eliminated the scratches, artifacts and careless edits that helped contribute to the near demise of VHS cassettes, even as long-lost reels and snippets of valuable footage were being discovered in basements and lockers around the planet. Once a market for such arcana was established on DVD, it became possible for the addition of more learned commentary, background featurettes, deleted scenes and interviews than was possible with laserdiscs. The corporate pioneers of DVD only foresaw bonus packages comprised of original trailers and foreign language tracks. It wasn’t until the filmmakers themselves embraced DVD and Blu-ray that everything else came to pass.

Arrow Video’s truly revelatory reclamation of Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is representative of the British company’s dedication to restoration, education and collaborations with the growing number of academic institutions tilling the same gardens. Born and educated in Poland, Borowczyk would immigrate to France in 1959 and settle in Paris, where he was free to focus on painting, lithography, cinema posters and various schools of animation. Ten years later, he would become a leading figure in the re-invention of pornography as a vehicle for artistic and social expression. Not surprisingly, his surrealistic ideas and hard-core visions didn’t always correspond to the demands of the marketplace. It explains why Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, under one of its many different titles and edits, failed to find an appropriate audience for its outrageous blend of horror and eroticism. Despite earning Borowczyk the Best Feature Film Director distinction at the 1981 Sitges Film Festival, mainstream exhibitors weren’t anxious to promote controversy that comes with such borderline material, thus consigning it to theaters on the fringes of respectability. Not surprisingly, the raincoat-wearing crowd displayed little patience for the narrative and artistic interludes between sex scenes, which, themselves, were more perverse than titillating. After being chopped, channeled, censored and renamed, Borowczyk’s adventurous adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s time-honored novella was shelved and largely forgotten. In it, Udo Kier plays the infamous London doctor with a decidedly split personality as a considerably younger man, about to be married to the lovely Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a name inspired by Stevenson’s own wife. The couple has invited several guests to a party at Jekyll’s intricately designed mansion to announce their betrothal. Meanwhile, Hyde makes his presence known in a series of rapes and murders in and around the house. Obsessed with “transcendental medicine” and its relationship to the current fascination with empiricism, Jekyll is experimenting with a substance that, when added to water, allows Mr. Hyde to take control of his personality, turning him into a sexually insatiable sadist. The kicker here is his fiancé’s mad desire to experience the same urges.

Unlike Stevenson and previous adapters, Borowczykq refused to introduce women simply as victims. Fanny’s willingness to experience the same pains and pleasures of her lover’s curse – harkening to the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and her taste for blood baths – didn’t feel out of place in the nascent post-feminist ‘80s. There’s more to the story, of course, but the beautifully shot movie defies easy summarization. For that, viewers are invited to stay tuned for the several informative featurettes analyzing the director’s visual influences (including Vermeer), Bernard Parmegiani’s avant-garde musical soundtrack and evolution as a filmmaker who some would dismiss as a pornographer with pretentions of glory. The Blu-ray and DVD presentation is impeccable, adding English and French soundtracks and optional English SDH subtitles; a somewhat dry, but informative introduction by critic Michael Brooke; audio commentary, featuring archival interviews with Borowczyk, Kier, Pierro and producer Robert Kuperberg, and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo; more interviews and visual essays; Marina and Alessio Pierro’s short, “Himorogi,” and the recently re-discovered “Happy Toy,” inspired by Borowczyk’s interest in Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope; a reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design; and a booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive materials, illustrated with rare stills.

Last month, Arrow released the terrific 1967 Japanese film noir, Massacre Gun, as part of its first wave of restored Blu-ray titles for American consumption. Its director, Yasuharu Hasebe (Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter), and popular action star, Jo Shishido (Gate of Flesh), would re-teamed a year later in Nikkatsu’s color classic, Retaliation. It harkens to a time in the 1960s when Japanese farmers were pitted against corporate, federal and gangland interests for the control of their lush fields just outside Tokyo. The country’s post-war recovery didn’t make allowances for farmers whose crops were being grown the same way and in the same places for countless generations. Planes now carrying American tourists and business executives to Japan are landing and departing over those same fields, now covered by concrete. Here, three different gangs are battling not only for the negotiating rights to the farmland, but also control of vice in a nearby industrial district. Major star Akira Kobayashi (Black Tight Killers) plays a yakuza lieutenant, who, after serving an eight-year bit in stir, returns home to find his godfather’s power completely compromised and no one immune from back-stabbing, deceit and less-than-honorable behavior. Shishido plays the rival gangster waiting to kill him in retaliation for the death of his brother and the similarly popular Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) is the farmer’s daughter who gets caught in the crossfire.

Hasebe pulled out all of the stops for Retaliation and keeping track of the gangsters in this operatic drama requires a sharp eye, if not a scorecard. His roving, handheld camera offers a different perspective on yakuza action, preferring a raw and intimate examination of the costs of violence, including rape. (A home-erotic bromance is suggested, as well.) Although a genre film from a studio that embraced both traditional exploitation themes and overt sexploitation, Retaliation never looks as if it had produced on an assembly line or could be accused of taking shortcuts to save money. Arrow’s limited-edition Blu-ray (3000 copies) includes the restored high-definition edition and standard-definition DVD presentation; the original uncompressed mono audio, newly translated English subtitles, fresh interviews with Jô Shishido and critic/historian Tony Rayns, the original theatrical trailer, a gallery with rare promotional images, a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp.

Make Way for Tomorrow: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
And, while we’re on the subject of film restoration, it’s easy to believe that the absence of movies in which elderly people are allowed authentically romantic feelings for each other is something new. The pristine classics we enjoy on TMC may play to an older demographic, but the characters are often cross-generational. (Bogie and Bacall, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, among them.) If On Golden Pond became a sensation in large part by pairing Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in a December-December relationship, it would take another 31 years for festival audiences and jurors to raise the profile of the aching French drama, Amour, for mainstream consumption. By comparison to the actors in those films, the romantic leads of 2014’s Love Is Strange — Alfred Molina and John Lithgow – are spring chickens. Leo McCarey’s rarely seen 1937 jewel, Make Way for Tomorrow, was far more admired by the director’s peers than studio heads and audiences, who much preferred such crowd-pleasers as Duck Soup, An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way. (According to Hollywood legend, when McCarey received his 1937 Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, he alluded to Make Way for Tomorrow by saying he got it for the wrong film.) Made at the height of the Great Depression, Make Way for Tomorrow tells the all too real story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore) separated after the old man is released from his longtime job as a bookkeeper and their home is repossessed by their bank. They reluctantly agree to live apart in the homes of two of their four children, where, at least, they’ll have company and some comfort for their ills. Unlike Ma and Pa Joad, Barkley and Beulah aren’t trading one economic disaster for another, though. Their children are surviving the Depression very well, thank you, and in comfortable surroundings. The greatest inconvenience comes when a teenage daughter is required to share her room with Grannie and an illness causes Gramps to take over the master bedroom. Long-distance phone calls are still a luxury, however, and the postal service takes its merry time delivering correspondence. Although things remain civil in their adopted homes, it soon becomes clear that the situation is too far from ideal to please anyone.

When Gramps is instructed to move to California for his health, the daughter we haven’t met on screen tells him that she only has room for him. His wife, meanwhile, has agreed to move into a pleasant senior residence. Before parting again at the train station, possibly forever, they are allowed nearly a full day together in the city, during which they relive memories of their honeymoon. Instead of cluttering their time with madcap Manhattan misadventures or cheap melodrama, McCarey permits them as satisfying an interlude as anyone could hope to experience in Gotham. The small surprises not only delight the couple, but also leave the door open for a happy ending … or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The film’s emotional pulse is so different from movies of the period – today, too – that it catches us off-guard … like a German comedy or Chinese Western. Indeed, it’s said that Yasujirô Ozu’s universally admired Tokyo Story was inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow, in that it recognized the cusp separating time-honored Japanese family structure and post-war indifference to traditions. Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that the film “would make a stone cry” and I have no reason to challenge that observation. The Blu-ray upgrade adds “Tomorrow, Yesterday and Today,” a worthwhile 2009 interview with Bogdanovich; another with critic Gary Giddins, in which he discusses McCarey’s artistry within the political and social context of the film; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from Robin Wood’s 1998 “Leo McCarey and Family Values.”

In his review for the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent predicted that Jamaica Inn “will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture.” Immediately after completing his adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier drama – the first of three – Hitch moved his tack from England to America, where he already was a known quantity. Nugent wasn’t attempting to dissuade readers from checking out the picture, only cautioning against expecting “those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor (and) the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures.” That review may have run in 1939, but his opinions still hold true today. Because Laughton owned half of the production company, he was going to portray the wicked and oily squire who benefitted most from the plunder of shipwrecks off the rocky Cornwall coast, circa 1800. The pirates who did the dirty work didn’t resemble those working the Caribbean, but having distressed ships come to them was generally a safer proposition. Laughton discovery Maureen O’Hara plays the naïve young woman, who, after losing her parents, travels to Cornwell to live with her aunt.  No sooner is her trunk thrown up the staircase of the Jamaica Inn to her room than she is drooled upon by the lascivious squire – a naughty vicar in the novel, but changed to pass Hollywood censors — and finds herself stuck in the web of violence and deceit that made the place notorious. It doesn’t take long for the spunky country girl to adjust to her new environment and discover an ally, but Laughton wasn’t about to be overshadowed by the ingénue, her rescuer or Hitchcock, for that matter. The result is a movie that can be relished in the same way that we enjoy other period classics in which the star is allowed free reign. Cohen Media’s splendid 4K restoration adds commentary with historian Jeremy Arnold and the essential featurette, “Shipwrecked in a Studio: A Video Essay With Donald Spoto.”

Mad Max: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
These Final Hours: Blu-ray
When Mad Max: Fury Road opens around the world this week, it will benefit from a marketing campaign several dozen times greater than the entire cost of making, advertising and distributing the Oz-ploitation classic, more than 35 years ago. Actual production costs for the fourth installment in the hugely popular and influential franchise are so much greater than what was available to co-writer/director George Miller that it’s permissible now for older fans to wonder if success might spoil “Fury Road.” Some mainstream pundits rated the far more lavish Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome higher than the original Mad Max and its immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, while others found that extra dollars and its “Lord of the Flies” conceit more than a little bit off point. Still, as the trilogies go, Miller’s holds up better critically than “The Godather” trio. I know that the primary audience for “Fury Road” is likely not to be the Boomers who found something fresh and exciting in the post-apocalyptic asphalt-burner – one of the first – but the Boomlets who launched the “Fast & Furious” franchise into the stratosphere and might relish seeing it in 3D. It’s unlikely that the “Furious” soon-to-be octet would exist without Mad Max or H.B. Halicki’s even earlier high-octane/low-budget actioner, Gone in 60 Seconds, so I strongly recommend to  newcomers that they pick up the hi-def Scream Factory edition asap. (Try Roger Donaldson’s kiwi follow-up, Smash Palace, too.) What I think they’ll be surprised to see is a cinematic vision this is so spare and unpretentious that it might have been churned out by Roger Corman’s exploitation mill. Indeed, it practically looks pre-apocalyptic. It might also be interesting for them to watch Mel Gibson, before he achieved A-list status and, later, destroyed his career by allowing alcohol to reveal his barely submerged inner demons. There simply was no way Gibson, in only his second feature, wasn’t going to become a superstar. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Gibson, co-star Joanne Samuel and DP David Eggby; vintage featurettes “Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar” and “Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon”; a photo gallery; and commentary with Eggby, art director Jon Dowding and special-effects artists Chris Murray and David Ridge. And, no, this isn’t the version of Mad Max for which perfectly intelligible Australian English was dubbed over by the voices of American actors. That bonehead decision nearly killed the appeal of the movie in its first U.S. release.

When viewed from certain angles, Zak Hildtich’s latter-days thriller, These Final Hours resembles a prequel to Mad Max. A giant comet is seen streaking across the sky, heading for points unknown. Minutes later, we hear that the resultant fire storm is destroying the planet one time zone at a time. Perth, being the “most remote city on Earth,” is likely to be the setting for mankind’s last roundup. Already, residents are settling old scores, committing ritual suicide, praying on street corners and having sex … lots of it. The highways aren’t yet flooded with cars carrying desperate souls attempting to escape the final holocaust. Where would they go? James (Nathan Phillips) faces the dilemma of choosing to die with his pregnant lover, Rose (Angourie Rice), in her oceanfront pad, or making his way cross-town to a friend’s “epic” party, where his fiancé Vicky (Kathryn Beck) and several dozen other hard-core Aussie hedonists are snorting, smoking, screwing, swimming, chugging and playing Russian roulette to while away their final hours. Naturally, James picks the latter. Before he gets there, however, James saves a pre-teen girl from being raped by thugs who resemble members of the motorcycle gang in Mad Max. Uncharacteristically, he commits himself to helping Rose (Angourie Rice) locate her father at a designated meeting place. When that doesn’t happen, James brings Rose to the party, where an ancient hippie chick plies her with a mind-altering substance. The message being delivered here is that even facing imminent death, seriously debauched individuals, like James, can achieve something resembling redemption … or not. These Final Hours benefits from cinematographer Bonnie Elliott’s overriding hazy yellow light and Hildtich’s ability to pull emotional strings most other low-budget dystopian thrillers ignore, preferring instead to add more zombies to the mix. Neither does he cop out at the film’s end.

Beloved Sisters: Blu-ray
At 171 minutes, Dominik Graf’s speculative biopic of Weimar writer/historian Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller would test the endurance of most graduate students in German cultural history, especially those living outside the borders of whatever Reich it is that country is currently enjoying. Fortunately for everyone involved, Beloved Sisters isn’t intended for scholarly analysis or strict adherence to known truths. Instead, it is an epic romance that demands little more than our attention. When Schiller first met Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld, they were living a relatively frugal life as lower aristocrats in Rudolstadt, an artistic mecca in the central state of Thuringia. Already a controversial playwright and accomplished poet, Schiller affects the garb and genial demeanor of a carefree rover who thrives as much on romance as air and water. Although Charlotte is already committed in an unhappy marriage to a local courtier, both sisters dote on Schiller to the point where he rarely lacked for love … or, as is implied by Graf, intimacy. He had a wealthy lover on the side, as well, but the sisters’ irresistibility radiates from the screen. Once Schiller settles into a professorship at the University of Jena, and Christine delivers their first of four children, things take a sharp turn in the direction of melodrama and strident conflict. What really sells Beloved Sisters, however, is Graf’s good fortune in being able to stage his story in urban and natural settings that haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last 225 years. Many of the locations are quite beautiful, too. Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung are quite convincing as the three sides of a literary love triangle. (Surprisingly, for all the ripping, only a single pair of nipples manages to escape a bodice and neither aureole belongs to the sisters.) The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the region’s natural beauty and arrives with a decent making-of featurette.

Little Sister
Back in 1995, when Robert Jan Westdijk’s Little Sister became a sensation on the international festival circuit, the idea of shooting a movie simply from the point of view of a subjective camera operator was fresh and daring. The Blair Witch Project was still four years away from taking the video world by storm and very few people remembered that Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust had been the first out of the gate, in 1980, purportedly comprised of found video footage left behind by a news team that disappeared in the Amazonian rain forest. Today, of course, it’s the rare POV or found-footage film that is capable of holding our interest for more than 10 minutes. Once we know how the trick is done, after all, it’s no longer capable of surprising us.  Here, on the occasion of her 20th birthday, Martin pays a visit to his sister Daantje’s Amsterdam apartment. At first, she reacts to the camcorder in her face as if it’s a weasel awaiting the first opportunity to rip her flesh. After much prodding, Daantje begins accept Martin’s constant presence and annoying personality. He follows her to a class at fashion school and a party that only ends when everyone has passed out. It’s also used to collect evidence against Daantje’s boyfriend. Finally, the real moment of horror arrives when the point of view is reversed and Daantje takes control of the camera. We’ve already been tipped as to what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. In the case of Little Sister, anyway, being first does have its advantages.

Now that this year’s fight of the century is fading from memory – except for the unhappy punters and PPV viewers unaware of the loser’s bum shoulder – it’s probably a good time for fans of the “sweet science” to remind themselves why they cared about the match, in the first place. Bert Marcus’ compelling, if celebrity-burdened documentary, Champs, goes a long way toward answering their questions, without also addressing one of the sport’s most pressing concerns. And, no, it has nothing to do with concussions, dubious judging or Don King, none of which are ignored by the filmmaker. By focusing so much attention on Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and the fighters who challenged them in their prime, I was left wondering why the heavyweight division is so much less interesting today than the one unified two weeks ago by Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s victory over Manny Pacquaio. Both welterweights weighed in at roughly 145 pounds, practically guaranteeing a more entertaining fight than any heavyweight skirmish in recent memory. Middleweight Bernard Hopkins, the other great boxer featured in Champs, normally carried between 155-160 pounds, even as a light heavyweight. A popular champion, Hopkins debuted as a pro on November 10, 1988 and was still drawing a paycheck in the ring last November 8, when he was defeated by the Russian light heavyweight champ, Sergey Kovalev. With the money potentially available to a serious American heavyweight contender, it remains curious as to why so few currently exist. By recalling the careers and travails of Tyson and Holyfield – as well as the excitement that surrounded their fights – Marcus pretty much repeats everything we already know about their careers. Hearing the former champs tell their own stories so candidly adds a great deal to the presentation. Hopkins’ escape from a life cursed by poverty and crime echoes the stories of hundreds of other American fighters — from a dozen different ethnic backgrounds — since Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Champs features clips from classic bouts, as well as the colorful observations of journalists, educators and such high-profile fans as Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Spike Lee and Mary J. Blige.

Stay As You Are
Frequently, in Italian films of the 1970s, the line separating exploitation and more artistic endeavor was blurred to the point of non-existence. That’s partly because of the commercial appeal of movies featuring women who were as beautiful fully clothed as they were naked, and directors whose talent exceeded the demands of genre work. There are times in the beginning of Alberto Lattuada’s 1979 erotic drama, Stay As You Are, when the music and seemingly gratuitous nudity recall giallo pictures from earlier in the decade. On closer inspection, however, it doesn’t seem likely that Marcello Mastroianni and composer Ennio Morricone would, at this point in their careers, lend their considerable talents to a project designed simply to titillate arthouse audiences. The presence of a barely 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski is easily explained by the fact that she already was a celebrity in Europe for following in the footsteps of her father Klaus. She already was in Rome during the casting process and on the fast track to international success in Tess, Cat People, One From the Heart, The Moon in the Gutter, Unfaithfully Yours and Paris, Texas. And, of course, she wasn’t at all shy about disrobing on screen. Here, Kinski’s perfectly suited for the role of a college student who either truly prefers dating way-older men or simply gets off on toying with their neuroses about growing old. Mastroianni, plays Giulio Marengo, a landscape architect who reluctantly allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Francesca after meeting slightly cute at a Florentine historical site. Still extremely handsome at 55, Giulio is estranged from his wife and vulnerable to temptation, if not from Francesca then from her equally game roommate. What begins as a setup for a randy erotic comedy takes a sudden turn for the perverse when Giulio learns from a friend that his new girlfriend might be the lovechild of an old girlfriend and, by extension, his daughter. When he informs Francesca of this possibility, she doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it … or, at least, not as bothered as we are. Lattuada, whose credits by now included Mafioso, Variety Lights (with Federico Fellini), La steppa and Oh, Serafina!, was able to leave viewers with an ending that didn’t require taking a shower after seeing it. Besides the joy of watching Mastroianni in a meaty role, accompanied by Morricone’s music, we’re also treated with location shots of Florence’s Piazza San Giovanni, Piazza San Marco, Villa La Pietra and Boboli Gardens. The Blu-ray extras include the “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” and an optional English-language or Italian-language track with English subtitles. I suggest the latter.

The Sleepwalker
There aren’t many decisions that viewers anticipate with greater anxiety than when a movie’s bipolar antagonist decides it’s OK to discontinue taking his or her meds. That’s what happens in Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, The Sleepover, a four-character psychosexual drama that keeps getting creepier as it goes on … until, at the end, it doesn’t. Newlyweds Kaia and Andrew are restoring her family’s sprawling and secluded rural home when their routine is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kaia’s emotionally disturbed sister, Christine, and her boyfriend Ira. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that the sisters share a bizarre, possibly violent history and it’s possible that the worst is yet to come. For one thing, Christine is a somnambulist who doesn’t seem to have any control over what happens when she’s on her late-night prowls. The more we get to know about the sisters, the likelihood grows that something truly messed up is going to happen within the handsomely mounted film’s 91-minute duration. The tension between the women brings out the worst in Andrew, whose hair-trigger temper doesn’t allow much room for behavior he can’t predict or control. Ira doesn’t appear to understand what’s going on with his pregnant girlfriend, let alone be able to prevent her disappearances.  All we know for sure is that whatever happened in that same house when they were kids is on the verge of happening again. The spooky mood is enhanced by the many scenes that take place at night and Sondre Lerche’s atmospheric score. Without revealing anything that happens in the final half-hour, I can safely predict that as many viewers will be disappointed by the ending as are satisfied. I’d also be willing to bet that Fastvold’s next effort will be something that finds wider release and be greeted with anticipation by critics. The DVD adds a Q&A conducted at Sundance, where the movie debuted in 2014.

The Drownsman: Blu-ray
Extraterrestrial: Blu-ray
Syfy: Icetastrophe
Chad Archibald, director of the surprisingly chilling straight-to-DVD thriller, The Drownsman, includes in his helming credits the CTV documentary series, “Creepy Canada,” which took viewers to places even the Mounties fear to dread. Writer Cody Calahan is listed as art director for a bizarre reality-based series, “Canada’s Worst Driver,” that ran on Discovery Channel Canada. I don’t know when low-budget horror films officially overtook improv comedians as Canada’s leading export to the U.S., but what began as a trickle has become a deluge. At one time, these tax-incentive projects betrayed their origins as clearly as a maple-leaf patch on the backpack of a Canadian hoping not to be mistaken for an American while hitchhiking through Europe. Today, the actors are as self-assured as their contemporaries in Hollywood and much more care is given to eliminating such obvious production “tells” as the unique sound of police sirens and look of their uniforms; clearly foreign street signs; and the tell-tale pronunciation of certain vowel combinations. Streets still look cleaner there, I suppose. The Drownsman is about a young woman, Madison (Michelle Mylett), who, after falling into a lake, comes face to face with a dreadlocked monster that resembles a cross between the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Swamp Thing. She is so freaked out by this encounter that she locks herself in her room for a year and avoids all water. When Madison even goes so far as to ignore her best friend’s wedding, she is forced to undergo something resembling an “intervention.” During it, something is triggered within the humanoid beast that causes him to target all of the women, not just Madison. The Drownsman is shot in exceedingly dark tones, with light supplied by candles and the light from drowning tanks in the creature’s lair. There is a backstory to this madness, but it’s so unlikely that it can be easily ignored. Genre buffs have been quick to point out the similarities (a.k.a., homages) here to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, while also praising Archibald’s fresh approach to the material. As the serial killer turned supernatural psychopath, Ry Barrett is plenty scary.

Inspired, perhaps, by the Butcher Brothers (The Violent Kind), Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz adopted the nom de plume, The Vicious Brothers, for Grave Encounters (I & II) and Extraterrestrial. The difference between these filmmakers and, say, the Coens, the Hughes, Wachowskis and Polishes, is that they aren’t siblings or particularly evil. Extraterrestrial begins as a cabin-in-the-woods thriller, but ends up in a UFO, piloted by creatures that fit the accepted profile of the Roswell and “ET” aliens. Just as viewers are getting used to the likelihood that most or all of the archetypal cabin-dwellers are going to perish in the woods during the course of the weekend, a fireball streaks across the night sky. Now, for all we know, the flaming starship could be carrying the entire stable of Universal monsters, a shitload of alien zombies or a collection of slasher killers from the 1980s. Unable to contain their curiosity, the campers discover an alien spacecraft and indications that the passengers are still out there, somewhere.  The ending may not surprise everyone, but those new to one or both of the subgenres will have better luck getting off on it. Michael Ironside is the most prominent cast member, although Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, Melanie Papalia, Jesse Moss and Emily Perkins probably have fans of their own, especially those of the Canadian persuasion. The Blu-ray adds a reversible wrap with alternative artwork, commentary tracks by the Vicious Brothers and actors Brittany Allen and Melanie Papalia, the featurette “The Making of Extraterrestrial” and deleted scenes.

A meteor also figures prominently into the truly goofy made-for-cable thriller, Icetastrophe (a.k.a., “Christmas Icetastrophe”), which borrows effects, characters and stereotypes from nearly every Syfy disaster movie ever made. At the very least, this means that residents of a small town in a picturesque corner of British Columbia are subjected to dangerous objects falling from the sky, other mysterious objects breaking through fissures in the streets and pretty young scientists from a nearby university joining forces with buff local lawmen and/or park rangers to save humanity. Veteran director Jonathan Winfrey (Carnosaur 3: Primal Species) and writer David Sanderson (Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse) only required one unique conceit to differentiate Icetastrophe from dozens of other Syfy titles. Here, the meteor splits in two above a small town in the shadow of a mountain, putting the town and its lake into a deep freeze. It mimics the effects of Ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and the superpower of Mr. Freeze, in various Bat-man and DC titles. The crystallization of buildings, streets and humans can be immediate or take its merry time, as when a motorboat carrying two of the protagonists are attempting to outrun the ice on the lake. As also tends to occur in these movies, two young lovers separated by circumstances or parental interference must come together to save themselves and the town.  The effects here are low-budget even by cable-television standards, but that probably won’t prevent younger teens from enjoying it.

The Vatican Exorcisms
An Irish Exorcism
At a time when Pope Francis is making new friends for the Church around the world with his progressive views on human rights and other social issues, he’s also been surprisingly candid on the iffy subject of exorcism. Now, while I think there’s sufficient evidence to argue that Satan possesses several world leaders, Wall Street financiers, hardened criminals, studio executives and pedophiliac clergy, rarely are they the subject of movies and documentaries about exorcism. Typically, it’s the domain of unruly children, disobedient wives and incessantly barking dogs. Earlier this month, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 25 years, suggested that practitioners of yoga and fans of such fantasy novels and TV shows as “Harry Potter,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries,” might be opening themselves to possession. He’s previously cautioned against satanic sects within the Diocese of Rome and cabals of Freemasons. Somebody has to do it. This week, a pair of unrelated DVDs, The Vatican Exorcisms and An Irish Exorcism, have arrived in my mail, purporting to tell the truth about the current state of the practice. While neither is particularly convincing, they are harbingers of a tsunami of new straight-to-DVD faux-cumentaries on the subject. I’d have preferred seeing a mass exorcism of priests accused of crimes against parishioners and only recently acknowledged by the Vatican.

I’d have given more credence to The Vatican Exorcisms if the Italian-American filmmaker, Joe Marino, didn’t remind me so much of Father Guido Sartucci. Fans of “The Smothers Brothers Show” and earlier editions of “SNL” will remember Sarducci as comedian Don Novello’s chain-smoking gossip columnist and rock critic for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Sarducci is more credible than any of the priests interviewed in these movies. Nonetheless, Marino traveled to Rome accompanied by Padre Luigi, “a true exorcist,” and the south of Italy, described as a place where “Christian rituals are inextricably linked to the pagan ones.” I’m all for legitimate exorcisms, but suspect that Satan would notice a full camera and audio crew documenting one of his earthly manifestations. By watching a couple of episodes of “60 Minutes,” Marino would have realized that a hidden camera is more likely to produce results than a hand-held camera and sound boom.

An Irish Exorcism is less about the attempt to rid a tormented child of demonic possession than it is about anthropology student Lorraine (Aislinn Ní Uallacháin) and her half-assed approach to recording an exorcism for her final paper. A comely lass, Lorraine convinces a pair of local priests to sit for interviews about an exorcism they’ll perform soon on a local girl, Lisa, who’s either truly possessed or has watch The Exorcism too many times. Naturally, we’re required to endure watching the negotiations and interviews from the point of view of the production crew. If Dante Alighieri were to return to Earth today, he’d devise a way for sinners to be further punished by forcing them to watch an endless loop of POV shows and found-footage movies, such as An Irish Exorcism, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Duck Dynasty.” A special place would be reserved for horror flicks that aren’t scary. Somewhere, Linda Blair is spinning in her split-pie soup.

Magical Universe
How come I wasn’t surprised to learn that the co-director of Who Is Henry Jaglom? also has given us Magical Universe, the strangely compelling bio-doc of an elderly artist in Maine who’s spent most of his life creating elaborate dioramas featuring Barbie dolls in a staggering number of poses, outfits and situations. It took 10 years for Jeremy Workman and his girlfriend, Astrid, to capture the essence of Al Carbee, an 88-year-old outsider artist, who, when he isn’t in the company of Barbie, writes fancifully drawn screeds about  himself and whatever else is on his mind. Carbee’s work has been exhibited in a gallery in Portland, but I can’t recall any mention of sales. (He died owing several credit-card companies a small fortune in unpaid debts.) There’s no questioning the artist’s sincerity or talent, however singular, or Workman’s personal affection for Carbee and his eccentricities. Viewers, though, may get the feeling that he’s spent way too much time alone, tending his thousands of guppies in his spare moments. After so many years as a recluse, Carbee clearly fell in love with Workman’s camera. Another fascinating aspect of the artist’s life is his seemingly ramshackle home, which has hidden caverns and makes Pee-wee’s playhouse look like Romper Room. The DVD adds background material and outtakes.

Dinosaur Island
It seems like a hundred years have passed since the original Jurassic Park captured the world’s attention with its wonderfully imaginative and strangely lifelike depictions of dinosaurs specifically cloned to populate a theme park for the enjoyment of kids of all ages. Steven Spielberg made anxious viewers wait a while before revealing the first breathtaking panorama of the park, with its many different dinosaurs peaceably assembled in the kind of idyllic setting only Hawaii could provide. He would make us hold our breaths even longer for the pivotal scene in which the park’s alpha T-Rex arrives, adding a palpable taste of horror to the speculative fiction first imagined by Michael Crichton in novel. Scientists have learned so many more things about dinosaurs in the ensuing 22 years that one can hardly wait to see if the Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World team has been able to make the same exponential leap forward in the art of creating cinematic dinosaurs. Dinosaur Island is a smallish, low-budget adventure for kids that features CGI dinosaurs that would have stunned audiences in advance of Jurassic Park. Compared to Avatar and other such visual extravaganzas, though, Matt Drummond’s film is the cinematic equivalent of small potatoes. As far as I can tell, it went straight-to-DVD overseas and wasn’t even accorded the decency of a limited theatrical release in the U.S. The fact is, Dinosaur Island is small potatoes. It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, who, on his way to visit his father, finds himself stranded on an island in the South Pacific that’s populated with dinosaurs and other creatures, amazing vegetation, aboriginal tribes, a graveyard for 707s and a girl who’s been stranded there for several years. Parents who watched adults being attacked by velociraptors and a T-rex in the original “Jurassic” series might not be impressed by the velociraptors and giant “millipedes” in Dinosaur Island, but it could whet the appetites of kids already anticipating the as-yet-unrated Jurassic World.

Power: The Complete Season One: Blu-ray
Welcome to Sweden: Season 1
Masters of Sex: Season Two
The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show
The Midnight Special
It would be unfair to credit the popularity of Starz’ urban crime drama “Power” to the stunning success of Fox’s “Empire,” which, at first glance, would appear to be drawingfrom the same demographic pool. Exec-produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and show creator Courtney Kemp Agboh (“The Good Wife”), the series began more than six months before “Empire” hit the ground running. Neither was anyone at the premium-cable network positive if it could compete on the same turf that produced “Spartacus,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons” and, now, “Turn.” It did well enough, at least, to warrant a second season, which begins in early June. If it hadn’t been re-upped, the writers would have left nearly a half-dozen cliffhangers in its wake and thousands of followers unhappy. It took me a couple of episodes to get hooked, but, once I was, it was easy to come back for more “Power.” The story revolves around James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a street-level punk who parlayed his profits into a chain of laundromats – literally, to launder money – and, finally, a glamorous nightclub where New York’s elite meet to drink, network and snort blow in the washrooms. It’s a slick operation and the uber-slick St. Patrick rules the roost, while his longtime partner-in-crime, Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), oversees their subsidiary drug empire. St. Patrick and his wife and confidante, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), live the kind of penthouse life that typically would be out of reach for a mere laundromat magnate. The family lacks for nothing, except, perhaps, the security that comes with not being in cahoots with a Mexican cartel. Everything is going swimmingly for Ghost and Tommy, until a female assassin in pink boots begins to intercept shipments and kill their couriers. Then, too, there’s St. Patrick’s chance meeting in the club with an old Nuyorican flame, FBI agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), which is witnessed by Tasha. Certain to cause problems during the show’s initial eight-episode run is Angela’s ignorance of how Ghost makes his money and vice-versa. The only thing that truly distinguishes “Power” from “Empire” — from the male viewers’ point-of-view, anyway – is the proliferation of gratuitous female nudity, as is the custom of premium-cable programming. Fortunately, Kemp Agboh’s experience as writer/producer for such series as “The Good Wife,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hawaii Five-0” keeps the story’s disparate threads from fraying, altogether. The flashy Blu-ray adds a few undernourished background featurettes.

Some cynics, myself included, may suspect that NBC’s “Welcome to Sweden” owes its existence on the network to Amy Poehler’s role as executive producer and presence of her brother, Bruce, as the male lead and a staff writer. The premise of the sitcom supposedly derives from Bruce Poehler’s own experience as a New Yorker who moves to Sweden to live with his girlfriend. Besides the fact that a nebbish like Bruce (the character) wouldn’t last two weeks with a world-class babe, like Emma (Josephine Bornebusch), no one as socially inept could last one tax year as a CPA for celebrities in his sister’s orbit. It’s the job he gives up upon leaving New York, but, for some reason, won’t return to in Sweden, despite his inability to handle menial tasks in the tourism industry. On a more positive note, almost everything else in the sitcom is worth a look, starting with Emma’s very Swedish family, the beautiful setting and nutty recurring characters. It also is enhanced by an international crew of writers, who keep the culture-clash conceit from tilting too far on the side of American sensibilities.  Their influence is detectable more in later episodes than those earlier in the season. Bruce’s former job ensures the regular inclusion of celebrity guests, such as Aubrey Plaza, Illeana Douglas, Malin Akerman, Will Ferrell, Gene Simmons, Neve Campbell, sister Amy and such Scandinavian celebs as ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, Claes Månsson, Christopher Wagelin and Per Svensson. The always welcome Lena Olin plays Emma’s delightfully cold-hearted mother.

Masters of Sex” has become such a complex and surprising series that, when I received the “Season Two” package, I actually thought it’s been on Showtime for three, at least. Maybe that’s because it usually takes more than two years for other series to pack the same amount of drama into their storylines. On closer inspection, I realized that its season, like that of “Shameless,” is 12 episodes long, compared to the 8 or 10 received for other important series. In “Season Two,” the writers expanded the narrative beyond Masters, Johnson and their human guinea pigs. Such then-timely taboos as interracial love and substance abuse were introduced, as well as the potential for television to educate viewers and make celebrities out of people otherwise toiled in anonymity. Moreover, there was so much nudity in Season One that it practically became a non-issue in Season Two, except for the hospital administrators and mid-century prudes for whom Hugh Hefner had yet to become a household name. Masters and Johnson, separately and together, also are faced with losing control of their research and loved ones. The season’s must-watch episode is “Fight,” during which we learn more about Masters (Michael Sheen) than in the entirety of the first stanza. We’re also introduced to gender issues as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. The Blu-ray adds the lengthy featurettes, “The History of Sex,” “The Women of Sex” and “The Men of Sex,” as well as episode-specific deleted and extended scenes.

I don’t know how many times that highlights of “The Ed Sullivan Show” have been packaged, re-packaged and subdivided, as VHS and DVD collections exclusively available through television advertorials, at Amazon or other retail outlets. This time around, under the auspices of Time Life Entertainment, the performances included in the six-disc “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” package look better than ever. Given the crappy speakers built into mid-century television sets, the classic acts on display here can be considered as good as these things get, as well. From 1950 until 1971, the Sullivan show the owned 8 p.m. timeslot (Eastern and Pacific) on Sunday nights, at least on CBS, before cable and satellites began to eat the broadcast networks’ lunch. Sullivan, known first as a newspaper columnist, promised audiences something for everyone and delivered it. The word, “variety,” meant that a plate-spinner might be sandwiched between an opera diva and a scene from a Broadway drama. Sullivan showcased Elvis Presley, the Beatles and James Brown at times when they were being lambasted in the mainstream media, but screaming teenagers were making them millionaires. “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” doesn’t ignore the occasional controversy, but there were so few as to be deemed laughable over the course of a few months. The package is divided into six categories: “Unforgettable Performances,” “The 50th Anniversary Special,” “The All-Star Comedy Special,” “World’s Greatest Novelty Acts,” “Amazing Animal Acts” and “Bonus Interviews.” Among the rarities isthe only known film of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, the Muppets’ first TV appearance, comic impressions of Sullivan, Broadway appearances from “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story,” appearances by Barbra Streisand, Humphrey Bogart, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett and thousands more performers and audience guests.

Another television classic that’s been sliced and diced over the years is “The Midnight Special,” a late-night show that took rock, pop, R&B and country acts as seriously as the producers of the Sullivan show.  The latest permutation of last fall’s comprehensive gift box is a three-disc set that includes such timeless acts as Glen Campbell, Earth, Wind & Fire, ELO, Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Etta James & Dr. John, Heart, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, and Van Morrison, and such barely remembered performers as the Bay City Rollers, Captain & Tennille, Eddie Rabbit, Mac Davis, Albert Hammond, Peaches & Herb and Chic. Among the comedians represented are Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Steve Martin. Bonus features include an interview with guitarist George Benson and a featurette with series creator and producer Burt Sugarman.

The DVD Wrapup: 50 Shades, Selma, Mr. Turner, The Nun, Snuff and more

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
My Mistress
Not having watched Fifty Shades of Grey in a theater, surrounded by rabid fans who’ve memorized the naughty bits of E.L. James’ runaway best-seller, I committed myself to approach the unrated Blu-ray edition with an open mind. I was pretty sure that Jamie Dornan’s contractually proscribed penis wouldn’t make a cameo appearance, but, otherwise, would be at a loss as to what was added to the original for it suddenly to be considered too hot for an R or NC-17 designation. If I were to guess, I’d say that several seconds of the extra three minutes, at least, can be found in the seriocomic contract-negotiations – my favorite scene in the movie – when a couple of the line-item vetoes might have disturbed MPAA screeners. As everyone else in the free world knew before checking out Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation – except moi – Anastasia Steele is an innocent in a world filled with attractive sexually active white folks, some of whom are exceedingly wealthy and twisted. The first man Ana meets with whom she’s willing to do the deed is an emotionally retarded young fellow who’s made a shitload of money doing God knows what and, after having his cherry broken as a submissive by a friend of his mother, now insists on playing the dominant role. For a virgin in her early 20s, Ana seems a bit too anxious to cross the final threshold into full womanhood and simultaneously engage in BDSM horseplay as dictated by someone who could be considered insane. A mutual interest in the novels of Jane Austen normally wouldn’t open the door to romance and pain on the same night. But, then, how could any modern gal resist such material pleasures as having a helicopter at your beck and call, gifted sports cars and state-of-the-art computers, and a glider ride straight out of The Thomas Crown Affair. Where “50 Shades” most differs from 9½ Weeks, its predecessor in R-rated BDSM, is in the lack of worldliness displayed by the two lead characters – one a recent college graduate and the other a tycoon — and Christian’s deeply submerged vulnerability, which rises to the surface at the strangest times. (He only reveals the source of his anxiety and pain while she’s fast asleep beside him.) Even if Ana is as cute as a button on Shirley Temple’s faux military garb in Wee Willie Winkie, as drawn, she couldn’t last five minutes in a sex-play dungeon against Kim Basinger’s novice submissive. The same holds true for Grey’s rough-tough creampuff vs. Mickey Rourke’s nicotine-stained arbitrageur. Although some of the lovemaking is inarguably sensual, the contract-negotiating scene is the only one that rivals the best passages choreographed by Adrian Lyne in 9½ Weeks or such classics of the sub-genre as Belle du Jour, Secretary, Crash, The Story of O or The Image. As difficult as it is to take potshots at a picture that’s made more than a half-billion dollars in worldwide distribution or might match that in DVD/VOD/Blu-ray revenues, I still think we have a long way to go before mainstream audiences are allowed a real taste of non-generic eroticism, unless it’s in sex-umentaries on HBO and Showtime. For those who like their BDSM Lite, however, three more minutes of “50 Shades” should prove three minutes well spent. The Blu-ray offers both versions, as well as several short making-of featurettes; interviews with cast, crew, author and BDSM consultant; a 360-degree set tour of Christian’s apartment; and music videos. And, yes, two more segments of the trilogy already on the drawing board.

Anyone who wants to extend their personal Fifty Shades of Grey experience really ought to consider picking up the kinkier Australian coming-of-sexual-age export, My Mistress. Unlike such early-‘80s adolescent fantasies as My Tutor and Private Lessons — during which teenage boys gain a first-hand appreciation of the Playboy Philosophy from women who easily could grace a magazine centerfold — co-writer/director Stephan Lance appears to have crafted his 16-year-old protagonist here, Charlie Boyd (Harrison Gilbertson), from a second or third re-reading of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Upon arriving home one day, Charlie is greeted by the corpse of his father hanging from a beam in the garage. For this, he blames his mother (Rachael Blake), who he believes is having an affair with his dad’s best friend. Charlie is so convinced of her culpability that he insists on treating the garage as a crime scene and spray-paints an indictment on the garage door. On his way off the deep end, he pays a visit to the mysterious MILF (Emmanuelle Beart) who lives down the lane. After offering his services as a gardener, Charlie sneaks a peek of Maggie servicing a client’s masochistic desires as a fully outfitted mistress. The sight transfixes the boy, who has a hard time processing the visual data assaulting his senses inside the suburban estate. Watching an outwardly normal fellow enduring pain for pleasure taps into something raw and unguarded in Charlie’s already fragile psyche. What he senses intuitively is that he’s in the presence of the Anti-Mom and she’s the only one capable of guiding him into manhood. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not really how S&M works. As it turns out, Maggie has been a bit out of sorts lately, herself, and sees in her gardener’s obsession something perversely therapeutic. None of this would be remotely credible if Maggie weren’t played by the sensational French actress, Beart, who’s been down this road in previous movies. At 51, she has grown comfortable playing all sorts of characters, from straight to twisted, and filmmakers no longer require that she appear naked in all of her roles. Even so, no amount of stage makeup or airbrushing could make her look any hotter or more appropriate for the part of Maggie as she does in Gerard Lee’s offbeat drama. Naturally, this sort of mentoring affair can’t be allowed to go on forever and someone’s going to get hurt. Blessedly, the longtime Jane Campion collaborator has provided an escape hatch that doesn’t pander to anyone’s expectations or insult either the viewers or characters. I’m pretty sure that American distributors were scared off by the fact that the protagonist is 16 and Maggie isn’t cut down by a bolt of lightning at any time during the proceedings. The DVD adds a few short, but informative interviews.

Selma: Blu-ray
Even if director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s fine historical drama, Selma, didn’t do quit as well during awards season as many observers thought it should, they were far from alone in that distinction Most of the clamor was directed at members of the Motion Picture Academy – despite an Oscar for Best Original Song and Best Picture nomination – and its historic lack of minority representation. Maybe so, but the media’s obsession with the non-scandal tells me three things: 1) the only nominations that really count in Hollywood are those for Academy Awards, 2) perceived snubs against Oprah Winfrey ring louder than perceived snubs against everyone else, and 3) members won’t vote for something they’re too lazy to see in an actual theater or screening room. Selma is a very good movie about an important event in American history. It also made a bit of money at the box office. The only real rap against it is the depiction of President Johnson as a man willing to put personal honor – his well-intentioned and entirely essential War on Poverty – above the strategic demands of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). In fact, LBJ did more heavy lifting for civil rights than all of the Kennedy brothers combined. It goes unsaid in Selma how much credence JFK, RFK and even Jackie O gave the toxic reports of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, at the time, was wiretapping and blackmailing King and the Kennedys. It’s also telling that DuVernay was required by King’s absurdly litigious estate to rewrite some of the speeches delivered by MLK in the film, because the family had already sold the rights to another studio. None of that should have negatively impacted the campaigns behind DuVernay and Oyelowo, because nominations in their categories would have come from members of the respective branches, not the entire academy. It’s more likely that voters reacted negatively to the decision not to send out screeners of Selma, seeing it as a ploy designed to force them to get off their asses and attend one of many free screenings arranged especially for them.

Last week, Paramount Home Media Distribution took the higher road by announcing its intention to donate a copy of the DVD free of charge to every high school in the U.S., along with companion study guides to help initiate classroom discussions. It would be interesting to know if the guides mention Governor Wallace’s later renunciation of his position on segregation and made a record number of African-American appointments to positions in Alabama. Or, for that matter, how to handle any discussion of MLK’s infidelity to his wife, Coretta Scott King, a hot potato that’s dropped almost as soon as its raised in the movie. The Blu-ray adds commentaries with DuVernay and Oyelowo, who’s terrific in the lead role; DuVernay, director of photography Bradford Young, and editor Spencer Averick; featurettes, “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma”; several deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Glory”; a collection of vintage newsreels and still images; short pieces that name the supporters of the Selma Student Ticket Initiative and introduce the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute; and a discussion guide. The important thing about getting Selma in front of students is the necessity for encouraging them to register to vote and, then, show up at the polls. Many of the same techniques used to deny minorities the right to vote in the 1960s are being used today by Republican and Tea Party officials to keep blacks and Hispanics, especially, from exercising their rights. The only way they’re able to get away with such an abuse of power is through the pitifully small turnout of minority, student and working-poor voters. That, I think, is the message that Dr. King would want viewers to take away from Selma.

Mr. Turner Blu-Ray
Last May, Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his delightfully crusty portrayal of British painter J.M.W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s spectacularly photographed Mr. Turner. In it, Spall is required to re-create the final two decades of Turner’s life, which ended in 1851, at the ripe old age of 76. Unlike so many of the Impressionists who would be influenced by his use of color, texture and light, Turner was successful in his time and his paintings were being sold outside Europe. If his fame would be eclipsed less than a century later by Van Gogh, Gaugin and Monet, recent gallery and museum installations prove that his work is more popular than ever. Like the eccentric Leigh, Turner was quite a character. Several critics have suggested that the Palme d’Or-nominated film is the closest Leigh has come to a self-portrait. If so, he’s sullen, communicates largely in grunts and is more than a little bit dyspeptic. An entirely original filmmaker, Leigh doesn’t make movies like anyone else does. Most of his work in theatre and film is done without any initial script and the air of improvised spontaneity has endeared him to arthouse audiences. Although Turner is known primarily for landscapes, sky-scapes and maritime paintings, his paintings also reflect the gritty dynamics of the Industrial Age. Through Spall, who was asked to study painting for two years before production began, Leigh’s great accomplishment here is capturing Turner’s reverence for natural light and ability to anticipate exemplary outbursts of what he considered to be manifestations of God’s glory. To this end, cinematographer Dick Pope was awarded a special jury prize at Cannes, as well as an Oscar nomination, for his ability to re-create images almost exactly like those painted more than 150 years earlier. Spall, who isn’t a small man, is especially appealing when he’s portraying Turner’s physically awkward dalliances with his lovers and mistresses. The masterful Blu-ray presentation adds comprehensive commentary with Leigh; the featurettes “The Cinematic Palette: The Cinematography of Mr. Turner” and “The Many Colours of Mr. Turner”; and an additional scene.

The Last Five Years: Blu-ray
If any actress is busier these days than Anna Kendrick, I can’t imagine who she might be. Ever since being nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar in 2010 for her irresistible performance in Up in the Air, the petite brunette has been churning out four or five movies a year, including those in the Twilight series. We’ve also learned that she can sing a lick or two. There are moments in The Last Five Years when it looks as if all of the hard work has begun to catch up with Kendrick. That might have as much to do with makeup or lack, thereof, intended to reflect the problems her character is experiencing than fatigue, however. Unlike Into the Woods and the Pitch Perfect franchise, Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical doesn’t require its two stars to do anything but sing. The lyrics of Brown’s 14 songs tell the entire story of a love affair and marriage between rising New York novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling singer/actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick). There are other contrasts, but the only one that really matters is Cathy’s growing anxiety over not becoming successful as quickly as Jamie. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting time-line device. All of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backward in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. The stories meet in the middle, during their wedding. Once one gets used to the back-and-forth, The Last Five Years makes sense as something that might actually have happened to Brown and his ex-wife, Terri O’Neill. The songs are interesting enough on their own, but anyone expecting anything resembling those in Kendrick’s previous movie musicals might need a few moments to adjust to narrative style. I doubt that anyone knew how to market The Last Five Years before dumping it into a couple dozen theaters and the VOD marketplace. Kendricks’ fans may not have been aware that it even existed. For them, The Last Five Years could make an irresistible virtual double-feature with Pitch Perfect 2, which arrives on May 15. The Blu-ray adds sing-along subtitles and a short “Conversation with Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown.”

God’s Slave
When the absorbing South American terrorist drama, God’s Slave, began making the festival rounds in 2013, director Joel Novoa and writer Fernando Butazzoni couldn’t possibly have known how the horrifying events it describes would be eclipsed by the death in January of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman and assertions of a cover-up against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman. In both cases, the focus is on the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building, in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured. The car-bombing, which has gone unsolved for more than 20 years, is virtually identical to the pivotal event in God’s Slave. In the movie, which is equal parts procedural and human drama, two deeply religious men on opposite sides of the Mideast struggle are brought together in the hours before another planned attack in Buenos Aires. Each was shaped by killings witnessed as children and beliefs re-enforced by decades of acrimony, mistrust and violence. After Admed Al Hassamah (Mohammed Alkhaldi) witnesses the murder of his parents by a masked man with a gold Rolex on his wrist, he was adopted into a radical Islamic sect and trained to become a deep-cover terrorist. Years later, he’s embedded into a sleeper cell based in Caracas, where’s he’s given a cover job, assumed name and doctored passport, is encouraged to marry and soon commits to family life. Eventually, Admed will get the call from his handlers, directing him to fly to Buenos Aires and get fitted for a suicide vest. Meanwhile, Mossad agent David Goldberg (Vando Villamil) is on the verge of being sent back to Israel as the scapegoat for not stopping a deadly synagogue bombing. He’s memorized the names, aliases and faces of dozens of terrorists operating outside the Mideast. He recognizes Admed as he crosses the street in front of him on a final visit to the mosque closest the cell’s safehouse. What happens next will be heavily influenced by both men’s feelings for their own families and consciences.  Although several deadly attacks happened in the direct wake of the actual AIMA bombing, God’s Slave is only interested in pursuing the human story. In the not-too-distant future, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an epic drama, similar to Munich, on the AIMA attack, reports of Argentine police complicity, investigative incompetence, corruption, cover-ups and murders that continue today not only in Argentina, but also Iran, Lebanon, Israel and several other countries. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, director’s statement and the shattering short-film, “Machsom,” which is largely set at a volatile security crossing between the West Bank and Israel.

The Nun
Uplifting stories about nuns and priests once were a staple of Hollywood. They’re still being made, but there’s no longer any guarantee the characters will be portrayed with the same reverence as they were when the Legion of Decency was nearly as powerful as the Hays Office. Today, there might as well be a target painted on the backs of clergy … sometimes for good reason, but other times not. One of the best films released in 2014 was Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s, Ida. It tells the story of a young woman on the verge of taking vows as a Catholic nun, circa 1962, when she learns that she’s Jewish and her parents were killed shortly after the Nazi takeover of Poland. It’s a beautiful film, full of small surprises and revelations. Leaders of the Polish Catholic Church objected to some parts of it, but not with enough factual authority to influence critics or prevent it from winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Guillaume Nicloux’s adaptation of Denis Diderot’s Enlightenment novel “La Religieuse” describes the ordeal of another novitiate, albeit with a very different revelation about her parentage. Diderot was inspired by the death of his sister, a nun, who he believed to have been overworked by her superiors at the convent. He constructed “La Religieuse” around a series of letters he had actually written to the Marquis de Croismare to lure him back to Paris in support of his sister. The scheme may have worked, but its public exposure caused the all-powerful Church launch a censorial campaign against Diderot than lasted past his death. Completed in about 1780, the work was posthumously published in 1796.

In The Nun, the correspondence from Suzanne Simonin (Pauline Etienne) to her lawyer actually finds its way to the marquise, who’s appalled to learn that her parents banished her to the nunnery to afford dowries for her sisters. Apparently, it was a common practice for financially burdened families to relinquish a daughter, who could then be exploited as a beast of burden, sex slave or handmaiden to the Mother Superior. Suzanne’s refusing to play along with the charade of volunteering to commit her life to Christ shocks the priest officiating at the initiation service. He orders her sent home, even if they still claim to be unable to support her. Desperate to “expatiate” the sins of her family, instead, Suzanne’s mother (Martina Gedeck) reveals to her bright and creative 16-year-old daughter that she’s the bastard product of a short-lived love affair after her marriage. Suzanne agrees to return to the convent, only to learn that a new, much younger and far more sadistic Mother Superior (Louise Bourgoin) is now in control of the place. It’s as if she has stepped into a production of “Cinderella,” complete with a Wicked Stepmother and several Sisty Uglers. This time, Suzanne’s letters find their way to an aide to the now-fictional Marquis de Croismare, who arranges for her to be transferred to a convent supervised by a much nicer Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert). This time, the abbess openly encourages the young woman to refine her singing and piano playing talents. In return for favored treatment, however, Mother expects some sexual favors of her own. Nicloux’s solution to this horrifying situation doesn’t come as a complete shock to us, but it is satisfying. The splendid scenery, set design and acting allow us to endure Suzanne’s painful treatment, even if we don’t yet know where he’s taking us.

Amira & Sam: Blu-ray
Written and directed by Sean Mullin, a comedian and onetime U.S. Army officer, Amira & Sam is a debut feature that borrows just enough from real life to turn the familiar odd-couple conceit into something fresh and surprising. Just back from Afghanistan, where he served as a Green Beret, Sam Seneca (Martin Starr) is experiencing problems fitting back into American society. Their differences aren’t serious, as these things go, but Sam hasn’t been back in the U.S. long enough to realize that the people saying, “Thank you, for your service,” are only trying to make themselves feel comfortable about not enlisting after 9/11. While they’re happy you made it home, they don’t give a good crap about what’s happening over there and aren’t likely to help the veteran find meaningful work or treatment for your PTSD. After he’s fired from his job as a security guard at a high-rise apartment building – a funny scene, actually – Sam is encouraged by his financier brother to use his military background as a lure to attract wealthy investors, who also served in one of this country’s many recent foreign wars. He doesn’t snap to what his brother is up to until he’s asked to pull his dress uniform from the closet to wear to his engagement party. Several prominent ex-military clients have been invited to the affair and he’s expected to glad-hand them.

By this time, Sam has befriended Amira, the niece of an interpreter on his team in Iraq. She’s bitter over the fact that her father, also an interpreter, was killed in action and her uncle felt it necessary to bring her to New York to avoid being murdered. Amira makes a feeble living selling pirated DVDs on street corners, which, even in New York, is illegal. After escaping from a cop who could uncover her lapses in reporting to immigration officials, her Uncle Bassam (Laith Naklil) asks Sam to give her safe harbor until he can find her a more permanent home with relatives in Michigan. Naturally, after some rocky moments, they discover things they like about each other. It’s at the reception for Sam and his pregnant fiancé that Amira – who’s wearing a spectacular red sari and hajib – learns just how uncomfortable Americans are in the company of people who remind them of their government’s misadventures. The party ends when Sam gets in a fight with his brother – who reluctantly admits that he might be in a wee spot of bother with the SEC – and Amira accidentally elbows the condescending fiancé, causing her to file charges that could result in deportation. If this scenario stretches credulity, at least it requires Sam to take positive action on their future. This includes acting on Amira’s encouragement to realize his dream of performing at a comedy club. By comparison, the Taliban were pussycats. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

The Frontier
Matt Rabinowitz’ intense father-son drama, The Frontier, probably would fit more comfortably in a small theater than on a large screen, if only because so little of it takes places outside the wooden-fence barrier of a smallish home in the country. Indeed, most of the dialogue is exchanged over tables in the kitchen and living room. Max Gail (“Barney Miller”) is extremely credible as the retired literature professor, Sean, who’s seemingly spent his entire life lecturing his students, children and lovers, quoting Walt Whitman and rejecting their opinions. In some college towns, such a tireless blowhard would be only too archetypal a character. Coleman Kelly plays Tennessee, the son who needed to put some space between himself and his father after his mother died. We’re led to believe that Sean kept a weather eye open for vulnerable female students and rarely turned down the lubricant of a free drink. Not surprisingly, Tennessee decided that working with horses and cows was preferable to academia, where he might have been surrounded by men exactly like his father. When he receives a letter from his dad asking him to return home before he goes to the big library in the sky, Tennessee cautiously agrees to do so.

Upon his arrival, Tennessee is greeted first by a drop-dead blond beauty who has moved into the house as the old man’s personal assistant and editor of his memoirs. Even if Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) is allowed to escape the chains surrounding “the young woman” in such stories, until Tennessee’s arrival, she’s required to play Sean’s audience of one. To avoid succumbing to such treatment, Tennessee commits his time to fixing things around the home, including the fences, which are badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Finally, though, Nina rightly susses that the two men need some alone time, during which they can work out their differences over a bottle of whisky. The unusual thing about The Frontier is that three of the five listed actors are first-timers and one of them is a former “production driver” who’s appeared in a couple of features that no one has seen. Ditto writer Carlos Colunga and co-writer/director Rabinowitz. If I were forced to guess, I’d say that The Frontier began its journey to the screen as a script work-shopped by aspiring actors in a class taught by Gail or someone he owed a favor. It explains the intimacy of the story, which frequently gets lost as a full-blown movie. People who’ve enjoyed Gail’s work, largely on television, over the course of his 40-plus-year career, are the likely audience for The Frontier.

Murder of a Cat
Judging solely from the Saul Bass-inspired poster art, Gillian Greene’s comedy whodunit Murder of a Cat should be the kind of DVD or VOD that might fill a couple of hours of time on a quiet weekend night. Horror master Sam Raimi’s name is the first one mentioned, as producer, higher even than those of his wife Greene and actors J.K. Simmons (Oscar-winner, for Whiplash), Blythe Danner (Emmy-winner for “Huff”), Greg Kinnear (Oscar-nominee, for As Good As It Gets) and lead actors Fran Kranz (“JourneyQuest”) and Nikki Reed (Twilight). The trouble is, the poster is so much more appealing than anything in the first feature screenplay by Christian Magalhaes and Robert Snow (“New Girl”) that there’s almost nothing that Raimi and the A-list actors could have done to save it. Kranz plays Clinton Moisey, a small-town man-child who sells knick-knacks and handmade action figures from a table set up on the front lawn of his mom’s house. One morning, he wakes up to discover that his beloved cat has been killed and presumably murdered by an arrow shot by an unknown archer. Disturbed that the local sheriff (Simmons) isn’t treating the case as if it were the assassination of a public figure, Moisey decides to take the investigation into his own clumsy hands. It doesn’t take him long to discover that his cat divided its time between him and an eccentric young woman (Reed) who somehow has been able to rent an apartment in a facility for senior citizens. The trail then leads him to the mega-store, at which the arrow was sold and is owned by a man (Kinnear) that Moisey blames for ruining his “business.” His amateur sleuthing does turn up a couple of underwritten, kooky suspects, but he can’t get anyone to take them seriously, either. This complicates things for his mom (Danner), who has recently started dating the sheriff. It’s the kind of movie in which everything feels calculated to spark laughter among people who fill their idle hours on Facebook, exchanging pictures of their pets.

Love, Rosie
Fans of the subgenre of British rom-coms practically invented by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) should embrace Christian Ditter’s modern fairytale, Love, Rosie, which argues in favor of the proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.” In this case, anyway, it’s possible to substitute, “Love deferred …,” for “Hope deferred …,” and come up with a more appropriate synapsis. As children, Rosie (Phil Collin’s daughter, Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Claflin) are inseparable friends and confidantes. We know that Ditter and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi will require us to sit through nearly 100 minutes of false starts, missteps and blunders before the inevitable conclusion. The only question is how long we’ll remain interested in following their journey. Based on a 2004 novel by Cecelia Ahern, “Where Rainbows End,” Love, Rosie is propelled by another terrific performance by Collins (Mirror Mirror, Stuck in Love), who, compared to everyone else in the story, looks small enough to take up residence under a banana leaf at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The turning point for the two friends here comes when they attend their prom with separate dates and Rosie is impregnated in one of the most embarrassing ways possible. Rosie and Alex were anticipating to traveling to Boston together for college, but, after refusing to get an abortion, she remains in Ireland to raise her daughter in her parents’ home. (She also postpones introducing the girl to her birth father until much later.) Picky viewers could drive a truck the holes in the plot, but, sometimes, logic in rom-coms is overrated.

Against the Sun
Brian Falk’s debut feature tells the harrowing true story of three U.S. Navy airmen forced to survive for 34 days on an inflatable raft after crash landing their World War II torpedo bomber in the South Pacific. If that synopsis sounds familiar, it’s only because Against the Sun was released almost simultaneously with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which benefited from a larger budget, greater marketing reach and an equally dramatic second half that takes place on land. Also fresh in viewers’ memories were Robert Redford’s All Is Lost and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, both of which involved characters stranded at sea. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea and any number of movies based on the Titanic disaster immediately come to mind when recalling movies about men stranded at sea. The marketplace can only support so many of these dramas. Here, Tom Felton, Garret Dillahunt and Jake Abel portray the three men stuck on a raft half as large as the ones available in Unbroken to Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips in their 47-day ordeal at sea. (Francis McNarma died 33 days after their plane crashed.) Otherwise, the men endured essentially the same punishing circumstances, relying on their wiles to catch the occasional fish or sea bird, avoid being eaten by sharks or capsized by giant waves, and survive on virtually no potable water or protection from the sun. Falk’s makeup department couldn’t possibly have made extreme sunburn look any more ugly and painful as it does in Against the Sun. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Mahogany: The Couture Edition
After scoring a Best Actress nomination in her first time at bat in Hollywood — her star turn in the Billie Holliday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues – Diana Ross probably could have had her pick of roles, regardless of race, for her follow-up feature. Like Barbra Streisand, the former lead singer of the Supremes was at the height of her diva-hood and looked invincible. Too bad, no one thought of pairing these two superstars in a feminist remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even 15 years later, they probably could have pulled off Thelma and Louise, but Ross couldn’t resist the temptation to chew the scenery in the diva-ready Mahogany. While the part didn’t require her to sing, it allowed her sole credit for costume design, which must have seemed equally cool. You knew that the production was in trouble, however, when Motown boss Barry Gordy decided to take over the director’s chair originally manned by two-time Oscar-winner Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). Today, if Mahogany is remembered at all, it’s as the movie that launched a thousand drag impersonations.

Borrowing a classic mid-century template, Ross plays a fashionable young woman who grew up poor on the South Side of Chicago, but aspires to greatness as a designer of the kind of clothes not favored by the women who shop at Marshall Field’s. Instead a magazine photographer (Tony Perkins) discovers her at a shoot, mistaking her for a potentially in-demand “clothes hanger.” Instead of staying in Chicago and nurturing her relationship with a street-level politician (Billy Dee Williams, also from “LSTB”), she decides to take the photographer up on his offer of a big modeling assignment in Rome. Even though he insists that Mahogany is only there to model, she decides to wear one of her more adventurous creations for the shoot. This goes over like a lead brassiere, of course, and sparks begin to fly between them. Mahogany then decides to showcase her own orange-kimono creation at an important fashion auction, instead of the more subtle white number assigned to her. The photographer attempts to embarrass her on the runway, but is trumped by an Italian aristocrat (Jean-Pierre Aumont) with lots of money, but limited patience for bad behavior. As if to convince us of how much of a diva she’s become – yes, a diva playing a diva — Mahogany even manages to alienate her Chicago boyfriend when he comes to Rome for a visit. Things get even more retrograde from there. Rumor had it at the time that Gordy personally lobbied the academy to make sure the original Michael Masser/Gerry Goffin composition “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was nominated. All things being equal, the peppy chart-topper probably should have beaten “I’m Easy,” from Nashville. Judged solely on its value as a low-octane camp distraction, Mahogany delivers the goods. The only new addition to this DVD package are “collectible” prints of fashions worn by Ross in the film. There’s also a stills gallery.

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera: Special Edition
There are two, maybe three very different things going on in Paul von Stoetzel’s provocative Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera. It opens with a lengthy discussion of the snuff-film phenomenon, which the director describes as pertaining to “movies that are sold for profit in which a person is murdered.” The notion that such things exist on the underground market became popular in the 1970s, following the Manson Family killings and the emergence of ultra-graphic horror films, here and abroad. Hollywood has tackled the subject in such pictures as Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Joel Schumacher’s 8MM. John Alan Schwartz’ Faces of Death and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust set the table for the torture-porn sub-genre to come. Russian, Mexican and Philippine mobsters have attempted to sell products that purport to be snuff films, but proof of the real things existing is lacking. Among the legitimate experts interviewed here are longtime observers of the video/DVD industry, filmmakers, law-enforcement officials and academics. The documentary is informed, as well, by a couple dozen clips from representative films. What distinguishes Von Stoetzel’s take on the subject is the truly disturbing and controversial material that falls under the sub-headline, A Documentary About Killing on Camera. Using this distinction, Von Stoetzel is able to argue that Edison Studios’ infamous 1903 “actuality” film, “Electrocuting an Elephant,” was little more than the staged execution of a troublesome carnival attraction for amusement of Coney Island patrons and use in Edison kinetoscope arcades, as well as promotion of Edison’s campaign for AC electricity. By definition, it can be considered the first true snuff film and, today, it creation and distribution would be as illegal as kiddie porn. Less easy to define are sickeningly graphic films recovered from actual serial killers by police and shown here alongside heavily censored films collected by war cinematographers, but only available through underground sources. As appalled as most Americans are at even the possibility that an animal might have been harmed in the making of a movie, it’s become necessary for producers to allow Humane Society observers to monitor scenes involving creatures as large as Topsy and as insignificant as cockroaches. If a fish is to be caught, viewers are relieved to learn it was with a barb-less hook.

How, then, to explain the continued marketability of movies that graphically dramatize the commission of such heinous crimes as torture, rape and murder? It’s simple, really. Just as free-market economists defend the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful or unhealthy consumer products by asserting the principles of supply-and-demand, filmmakers justify pandering to audiences’ appetite for violence and mayhem by falling back on the First Amendment, adding a cautionary PG-13 or R rating and, yes, citing supply-and-demand or demand-and-supply. Since the advent of the ratings system, though, sexuality and the frequency of f-bombs have been judged far more harshly than violence. Two of the most significant images to emerge from the Vietnam War were those involving a little girl escaping a napalm cloud, naked and scarred with serious burns, and the summary execution of a Viet Cong combatant, with his hands tied behind his back, by Saigon’s chief of police. Re-creating those terrible incidents on film today, using special-effects magic, would be child’s play. How many of the same people who paid to watch the killing of Islamic insurgents by a Navy SEAL in American Sniper have also combed the Internet for actual combat footage and propaganda showing Americans, British and Arab combatants at the instant of their deaths? Our government makes every attempt to suppress these images, while filmmakers study them for accuracy and impact. Photos and films of Iraqis being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison were Internet favorites, as were videos of people leaping, sometimes hand in hand, from the highest floors of the World Trade Center, sometimes set to music. The beheadings of captives held by Islamic insurgents are routinely filtered by most legitimate news outlets, but easy to find on the Internet. I wonder how these “hits” would translate into Nielsen ratings. At the same time as our government refused to allow the circulation of photographs of flag-draped coffins at a Delaware airport, it was circulating titillating videos of Iraqis being vaporized by American missiles, as if to ensure taxpayers that their dollars were being used wisely. (The happy chatter of the people pushing the buttons in helicopters or from drone-control headquarters half a world away was, in many cases, censored.) So, today, can it rightfully be argued that one man’s snuff film is the ethical equivalent of another man’s propaganda footage? In a thoughtful interview, Von Stoetzel poses this and other tough questions, while also admitting to having had qualms about where the lines might have been drawn in this deeply upsetting documentary. As it is, “Snuff” should be made mandatory viewing for decision makers in government and Hollywood. The DVD includes the Q&A and Danny Cotton’s grisly short, “Dinner Date.”

Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned
Some exploitation titles are simply too tantalizing to pass up. Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned is one of them. Like Mark Mackner’s companion piece, Daisy Derkins vs. The Bloodthirsty Beast of Barren Pines, it would have no artistic reason to exist, except to keep a half-dozen buxom babes off the unemployment lines. Here, Daisy has just gotten a part-time job as a dog sitter for a very strange dude in a black robe. Instead of paying strict attention to the beast from hell, she invites a couple of even more skanky friends over to drink, consult a Ouija board and discuss their hideous boyfriends and stalkers, who seem to either play in death-metal bands or moonlight as wrestlers in Mexico. When things get too weird, Daisy summons paranormal specialist and pin-up girl Delia Anguish to film the proceedings for her cable-access show. Other freaks of nature making cameos are a witch, serial killer and wendigo with a crush on Delia. The amazing thing about this black-and-white atrocity is the lack of nudity, which normally is a given in these sorts of things. As such, it practically qualifies as family-friendly exploitation … almost, but not quite. The DVD adds two shorts, including the one that inspired the feature and some truly unappetizing previews.

Lost Rivers
Great Figures of the Bible
If a river no longer can be found on a map, does it still exist? When it rains on our big cities, the water has to go somewhere and, usually, it finds the same paths laid when the first great storms carved the canyons, valleys, hollers, ditches and gullies that led to marshes, swamps, lakes, seas and oceans. Compare maps of New York City from the 1600s, 1700s and today and it’s easy to see how city planners’ efforts to fool Mother Nature worked, almost each and every time. Consider, though, the history of the Collect Pond, which, for hundreds of years, supplied the native and European residents of Lower Manhattan with their water. Fed by an underground spring, Canal Pond has resisted every effort to make it disappear by devouring the landfill dumped into it and destabilizing everything constructed on it. Today, it serves city residents as a park with a manmade water fixture. Collect Pond isn’t included in Caroline Bacle’s fascinating documentary Lost Rivers, but its partial reclamation, which began in 1960, may have influenced some of the environmentalists we meet in it. She takes us to the Cheonggyecheon Stream, in Seoul; the Saw Mill River, in Yonkers, N.Y.; the Bova-Celato River, in Italy; the River Tyburn, in London; the Petite rivière St-Pierre, in Montreal; and the Garrison Creek, in Toronto. The reclamation projects, sometimes called “daylighting,” are intended to improve the riparian environment for a stream by tearing off the tops of culverts, pipe and drainage systems to which they were confined to protect residents for water-borne diseases and pollution. Where only garbage once bloomed, fish now grow and children play.

Originally released in a four-disc set, in 2004, Great Figures of the Bible is comprised of stories from the bible, as interpreted by Elie Wiesel while sitting on a stiff wooden chair in front of an unseen audience, presumably of young people. Knowing that parents and other adults might be eavesdropping on the discussions, the Nobel Prize-winning author and human-rights activist seems to go out of his way not to dumb-down the lessons, as is the case in so many other such collections. Neither do the producers rely on animation to illustrate the stories. That aspect is taken care of through the use of classic paintings, sketches, tableaux and brief live-action dramatizations filmed on location in Israel. The subjects of Weisel’s faith-neutral insights include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Job, Moses and David. As is the case with the ink-and-paper bible, especially the Old Testament, every answer raises a half-dozen more questions.

AMC: Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
BBC/Starz: Dancing on the Edge: Blu-ray
ITV/BBC America: Broadchurch: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: Season 3: Blu-ray
PBS: Baby Genius: Favorite Children’s Songs
Who knew how much fun it could be watching computer geeks do battle over who did what, when, and to what financial gain, in the development of the PC, Apple Mac and evolution of social media? Although the lineage can be traced directly to the 1984 frat-boy comedy Revenge of the Nerds, that picture wasn’t so much about socially inept techies as the outcasts who routinely were denied access to the fraternities associated with the jock elite and the sorority girls who snubbed them. The phrase, itself, proved so elastic that it was paraphrased for use in the 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which included interviews with such Silicon Valley pioneers as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, Ed Roberts and Larry Ellison. The strangely entertaining AMC mini-series, “Halt and Catch Fire,” took a real chance by dramatizing the frequently byzantine technical and financial machinations that occurred back in the day, when IBM and Apple were battling for dominance of the PC market. (The title refers to computer-code instruction HCF, whose execution would cause the computer’s central processing unit to stop working.) Before this could happen, however, the hardware had to be made accessible to consumers who simply wanted one to send e-mails, write essays or play solitaire. The 10-episode first season, set in the Silicon Prairie of Texas, circa 1983, benefitted from the intense interaction between Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a key player in the debut of the IBM Personal Computer; Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant cyber-punk recruited by MacMillan’s new employer, Cardiff Electric; and the pragmatic Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a former system builder turned sales engineer, who represents the early geek community. The Blu-ray edition adds a third disc containing supplemental material, including episode-by episode summaries and discussions and the featurettes, “Re-Making the 1980s,” “Rise of the Digital Cowboys” and “Setting the Fire: Research and Technology.”

Although the proper pronunciation of his name still may present a bit of a hurdle for American tongues, Chiwetel Ejiofor has become one of the brightest stars in the entertainment firmament. A native Londoner of Nigerian Igbo lineage, Ejiofor came to the attention of most of us with his Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave.” Released on BBC Two a few months before Steve McQueen’s searing antebellum drama debuted at Telluride, “Dancing on the Edge” is set in post-crash London, among a group of swells who didn’t lose nearly enough money to curb their greed. Just as America’s Jazz Age had faded from views, New Orleans’ gift to the world was finding its way across the pond and into underground clubs and fancy ballrooms. The Louis Lester Band is being championed by a young journalist (Matthew Goode), who helps the Duke Ellington-inspired leader arrange a four-month stand at the grand Imperial Hotel. After a brisk start and publicity sparked by the attendance of the Duke of Kent and his brother, the Prince of Wales, the band is getting restless for the fame that comes with a recording contract and radio spots. It isn’t until the band is asked to play at a New Orleans-style funeral for the manager of an estate owned by the reclusive Lady Lavinia Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset) that things begin to take off for Lester and story being told. She loves “new” music and is especially partial to Lester (Ejiofor), whose career would hugely benefit from Lady Cremone’s intercession with stodgy BBC executives. Writer/director Stephen Poliakoff warns viewers ahead of time not to expect smooth sailing for Lester and he delivers on his promise by putting the band in direct contact with key movers and shakers in the pre-World War II period, not all of whom are enlightened on racial issues. John Goodman is typically good as an enigmatic American billionaire who has enough money to manipulate all of the other characters, even those only slightly less rich. The clash of old and new is fun to watch, and nothing at all like what was happening at the same time in the U.S., where jazz, R&B and blues musicians were being ripped off by record company and radio executives. The final episode is quite remarkable, really, in that it falls somewhere between a series of outtakes and the discussions in My Dinner With Andre.

The second season of BBCA’s “Broadchurch” is a two-pronged continuation of events that everyone thought were sewed up at the end of Season One. Rather than concentrating exclusively on murder most foul, creator Chris Chibnall split the spotlight between the crime and the habitués of coastal Dorset. This was no problem for American viewers, weary of mysteries shot in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto. In Season Two, we’re asked to follow the courtroom drama ensured by Joe Miller’s not-guilty plea, as well as the reopening of the Sandbrook case by detective-inspectors Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller (David Tennant, Olivia Colman). Joining the show this time around are Charlotte Rampling, Eve Myles, James D’Arcy and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Chibnall’s connection to “Torchwood,” “Doctor Who” and “Life on Mars” ensured the presence of familiar actors in starring and guest roles. I haven’t heard if Chibnall’s superfluous American copy, “Gracepoint,” has been picked up for a second season, but I doubt it. A third season of “Broadchurch” has been announced. The DVD adds making-of and background featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

In the third stanza of the surprisingly successful ITV/PBS series, “Mr. Selfridge,” we bid a sad farewell to Rose Selfridge and a bittersweet “welcome home” to the men and women returning home from World War I. To no one’s pleasure, Lord Loxley is also back in London causing trouble for the American department-store magnet. To take his mind off his wife’s death, Harry has been given almost more than he can handle with a pet project to build affordable housing for returning vets. Compared to Season One, when he was portrayed as a playboy and scoundrel, Harry now appears as if he might be auditioning for sainthood. It’s his children who are carrying on the Selfridge tradition by getting arrested in nightclubs, making enemies at work and getting fleeced by hucksters … and that’s only in the first three episodes. Harry’s also caught in a pickle involving unemployed veterans and the women who filled their jobs when they volunteered for the war. It hasn’t been easy for me to accept Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, but I’m in the minority on this one. All of the actors seem to fit just fine, including those who’ve left the store behind and are still being followed by the show’s writers. The UK Edition Blu-ray adds a 35-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, focusing on new characters and story arcs.

The latest installment in PBS’ “Baby Genius” franchise, “Favorite Children’s Songs,” extends to its youngest fans – their parents, too — a personal invitation from Vinko, DJ, Tempo, Oboe and Frankie, as they introduce babies and toddlers to colors, shapes, letters and numbers through classical music, childhood sing-along favorites and engaging videos. The songs include, “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Do You Know the Muffin Man,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and several “Baby Genius” originals. Special features add ”Baby Animals Favorite Sing-A-Longs,” “DJ’s My Name,” “Sing-A-Longs” and a bonus song; subtitles in English and Spanish; and a Spanish audio track.

The DVD Wrapup: The Gambler, Wedding Ringer, Boy Next Door, Paddington, Eddie Coyle, Wolf Hall and more

Friday, May 1st, 2015

The Gambler: Blu-ray
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s exceedingly flexible short novel, “The Gambler,” has been strictly and loosely adapted many times since its publication in 1867. I doubt that country-music songwriter Don Schlitz was thinking of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera, “The Gambler,” when he wrote the song that became Kenny Rogers’ signature hit, but, in a sense, all such entertainments lead back to the Russian novelist. The song’s core message – “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away/know when to run …” – applies as much to the protagonist of the novel as it does to Mark Wahlberg’s character in Rupert Wyatt’s 2014 adaptation, The Gambler. In it, gambler Jim Bennett can’t push himself away from any table long enough to walk away with his temporary winnings. Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) borrowed rather freely from Karel Reisz’ 1974 adaptation, which starred James Caan and provided James Toback with his first screenwriting credit. Like Dostoevsky, Toback suffered from a severe addicti1on to gambling. Like Caan’s character, Axel Freed, Toback was born into a wealthy New York family and taught aspiring writes at a college in New York. Not to be flip or dismissive of Wyatt’s The Gambler, but in some ways it reminds me of a Bizarro World version of Reisz’ take on the novel. Bennett is the quintessential SoCal bad boy, who wears shades in the dark and somehow manages to look cool in rumpled designer suits. He teaches literature at a school that resembles USC and he lives in a modern hillside dwelling that some real-estate agents might list as a treehouse. He tools around L.A., from Koreatown to Bel-Air, in red BMW 1M convertible that’s always five minutes from being used as collateral for a gambling. Axel Freed settled for a Mustang ragtop. One is Jewish, while the other is a back-sliding WASP. Bennett owes the most money to an enigmatic Korean financier, whose henchmen are proficient in the martial arts. He also has borrowed large sums from an African-American bone-breaker (Michael Kenneth Williams), who lurks in the shadows of the illegal downtown casino here, waiting to for gamblers to require his services, and a sports bettor (John Goodman) who could have been Marlon Brando’s stunt-double in Apocalypse Now. All of them recognize the symptoms of Bennett’s disease and advise him to seek help.

Bennett isn’t as much a degenerate gambler as one who refuses to win, even when he’s holding a pat hand. No matter how much he’s up, everyone from the pit bosses to viewers knows he’s going to give it all back and borrow even more money to keep losing. When he convinces his beleaguered mother (Jessica Lange) to give him a small fortune in cash to pay off the debts, everyone, including Mom, knows he’s going to piss it away. Brie Larson is the pretty student who succumbs to his classroom bullshit and devil-may-care attitude, while Anthony Kelley is the athlete whose cynicism about his future in the pros figures into The Gambler’s fairytale ending. I say that because screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) has elected to tweak Toback’s original conclusion to fit the Bizarro nature of the remake. After failing to rouse any interest from awards-voters in its limited early release, the movie would open in a few dozen theaters at the end of January. I can’t imagine that much money was invested in a marketing campaign, so it came as no surprise when it stiffed. There’s much to recommend The Gambler to renters, however, including much slick cinematography and atmospheric set dressing. Of all the cast members, it’s most fun to watch Goodman play a green-felt Buddha. There’s nothing wrong with Wahlberg’s performance, but we’re never given any reason – except for a death-bed dismissal by his filthy-rich father – to identify with his character. If we sympathize with Bennett, it’s only because he’s being played by someone we’re pre-disposed to like. The fine-looking Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes and backgrounders, along with deleted and extended scenes. Anyone who enjoys this edition of The Gambler really ought to check out the original, along with both of The Hustlers, Robert Altman’s California Split, Joe Pytka’s overlooked comedy Let It Ride and Toback’s Fingers, which was remade in 2005 by Jacques Audiardas as The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

The Wedding Ringer: Blu-ray
It’s called “development hell” and that’s where The Wedding Ringer – a.k.a., The Golden Tux – languished from 2002 to 2013, when the relatively unknown comedic actor Josh Gad and soon-to-be superstar Kevin Hart were assigned roles that may have been written to attract the attention of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. The duo was responsible for Wedding Crashers, after all, the anarchic comedy that ultimately led to such send-ups of modern love and romance as The Break-Up, Knocked-Up, You, Me and Dupre, The Hangover, Hall Pass, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bachelorette, Bridesmaids, Couples Retreat, Date Night and I Love You, Man. Of all these titles, the one that appears to have benefitted most from Wedding Ringer being stuck in development hell was “I Love You, Man.” Both share a common conceit: a young man has popped the question, but, unlike his bride-to-be, hasn’t enough friends to pull together his half of a wedding party. In “I Love You, Man,” Paul Rudd’s search for a best man ends when he meets millionaire investor Jason Siegel at a business function and they develop bro-mantic feelings for each other. In The Wedding Ringer, Gad plays a friendless nebbish, Doug, who hires Hart’s Jimmy Callahan to be his best man and recruit a motley crew of groomsmen for the bachelor party, ceremony and reception. Doug complicates things for Jimmy by telling his fiancé (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) – who’s a million miles out of his league – that he’s never been able to introduce her to “Bic” because he’s been serving overseas as a military chaplain. This, of course, opens the door for Jimmy not only to impersonate Doug’s best man, but also serve as a last-minute substitute for the minister. Co-writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender provide the oratory that Hart delivers with the same gusto he brings to his standup routines, minus the n-words. It’s an extremely polished performance. The script doesn’t demand much more of Gad than he’s delivered in previous performances as the unfortunate overweight dweeb, a modern archetype he has mastered. (To see Gad at his best, check out the FX Network’s “The Comedians,” in which he plays Billy Crystal’s comic nemesis.) The Blu-ray adds Gad and Garelick’s commentary on select scenes; quite a few deleted scenes and outtakes; “Going to the Chapel of Love,” in which cast and crew share their own wedding memories; and the music video, “Can You Do This,” by Aloe Blacc.

The Boy Next Door: Blu-ray
The best thing to be said about The Boy Next Door is that, while it reportedly cost a mere $4 million to make, it look as if 10 times that amount was spent on it. With a worldwide gross approaching $50 million, Rob Cohen’s sexy thriller easily qualifies as one of the surprise successes of the year. For one thing, the entire story was given away in the extensive television-marketing campaign and, despite an R-rating, it wasn’t likely that leading-lady Jennifer Lopez was going to make her first skin-tastic appearance in nearly 20 years. (Newcomer Lexi Atkins assumes that responsibility.) For those who can’t recall seeing the commercials, Lopez plays the recently separated MILF who succumbs to the temptation posed by the ab-tastic teenager, Noah (Ryan Guzman), an accomplished handyman who’s insinuated himself into the life of her oft-bullied son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). Misgivings give way to terror after Mrs. Peterson realizes that the stud next door is morphing into the psycho next door. For one thing, Noah seems determined to save her from the man who done her wrong (John Corbett), as well as the perceived meddling of her best friend and fellow teacher (Kristin Chenoweth). Cohen is too good a director of action sequences to blow a no-brainer ending, so things end on a high note. What I would have preferred to see is an R-rated adaptation of “Leave It to Beaver,” with Lopez and Corbett playing June and Ward Cleaver, Guzman as Eddie Haskell, Nelson as Wally and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver. In hindsight, the sexual tension between June and Eddie should have been obvious, even in 1957. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘The Boy Next Door’”; deleted scenes; and Cohen’s commentary.

Paddington: Blu-ray
No matter the whims of Wall Street, this week’s release of Paddington into DVD/Blu-ray and imminent arrival of Ted 2 in theaters ensure that the anthropomorphic bear market will continue into July, at least. With global box-office receipts of $219.1 million, Paddington now stands as the industry’s highest grossing non-Hollywood, non-animated family film. If Ted 2 takes off at the box office the way its predecessor did on its way to worldwide revenues of $549.3 million, the movie gods may find a way to forgive Seth MacFarlane the hideous ego-trip that was A Million Ways to Die in the West. Paul King’s irresistible adaptation of Michael Bond’s internationally beloved series of children’s books borrows from several different storylines, while featuring a computer-animated Paddington Bear – voiced by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) — interacting with human characters in a live-action environment. Such is the respect accorded the world’s most celebrated and, perhaps, only Peruvian bear that a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins,, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi and Julie Walters lined up to bask in the reflected glare of his computer-animated shadow. The movie opens in the dense rain forest, where a British geographer has discovered a family of highly intelligent, marmalade-addicted bears and invites them to visit him in London if they so desire. Years later, circumstances arise that cause Paddington to take the geographer up on his offer. The problem is that Montgomery Clyde is nowhere to be found and the patience of the family that offers him temporary shelter isn’t limitless. When an evil museum taxidermist (Kidman) discovers that a talking bear is within her grasp, she decides that Paddington belongs in her collection. (Her logic escapes me, but it serves the plot.) To avoid such a fate, the bumptious bruin sets out to find Clyde or die trying. His search takes him from one crazy character to another and misadventures sure to please family audiences. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, except for a features package that isn’t up to par. It includes three short backgrounders, a sing-along feature and “The Making of ‘Shine’” with Gwen Stefani & Pharrell Williams.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Blu-ray
I’d be willing to wager the full retail price of the Criterion Collection edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle that George V. Higgins’ 1970 source novel and Peter Yates’ 1973 no-frills adaptation have influenced more genre specialists than any other kindred entertainments produced in the last 40 years. Once enjoyed, buffs have hardly been able to wait to recommend them to friends. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is the rare novel that can be savored in a single day. Yates’ film has influenced countless writers and directors, but no one has dared remake it. Here’s what Elmore Leonard said in his introduction to a later printing of the novel, “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free.  So, this is how you do it.” Then, there’s Roger Ebert’s original four-star review of the movie, in which he observed, “Eddie is played by Robert Mitchum, and Mitchum has perhaps never been better.” Personally, since becoming addicted to crime fiction, I’ve recommended both titles to friends, genre enthusiasts and aspiring writers countless times. The only thing I suggest ahead of time is reading the book before watching the movie. The Higgins influence can be seen most in such early Leonard novels as “52 Pick-Up,” which inspired an excellent adaptation by John Frankenheimer; “Switch,” released in 2013 as Life of Crime; and the underappreciated “Unknown Man No. 89” and “City Primeval.” If Leonard gets most of the credit for capturing the unique dialogue shared by cops and criminals, it’s only because Higgins’ best work came early in his second career and only two of his novels were converted to film. Although their literary output was comparable, “Dutch” outlived “George V” by 28 years, dying 14 years and probably several million dollars apart from each other.

Mitchum famously plays the mid-level mob functionary, Eddie Coyle, who, because he is facing a long stretch in the joint, agrees to cut a deal with a federal agent. Unbeknownst to the gun-running hoodlum, several of Coyle’s “friends” have simultaneously decided to curry favor with various other law-enforcement agencies by dropping his name as a potential bargaining chip. Besides the mob, Higgins anticipated the increasing militancy of the radical left and intersecting interests of the political and criminal underground. The SLA might fairly well have studied “Eddie Coyle” before taking their act on the road. It would take another three decades for other writers and directors to capture the unique flavor and texture of inbred Boston criminality and corruption. Such films as The Boondock Saints, The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, as well as the neighborhood-specific novels of Dennis Lehane, turned the city into a hotbed for location shoots. Again, though, Yates laid the foundation by electing to not to shoot The Friends of Eddie Coyle on a soundstage. It’s all Boston, all the time. In its infinite wisdom, the motion-picture academy neglected to nominate, Mitchum, Yates or co-star Peter Boyle for top honors. The Criterion Collection’s restored high-definition digital transfer and uncompressed monaural soundtrack has been approved by Yates. It includes his commentary from 2009, a stills gallery, an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 1973 on-set profile of Mitchum from Rolling Stone.

Accidental Love: Blu-ray
Frame for frame, dollar for dollar, no potentially mainstream production has wasted as much top-shelf talent as Accidental Love (a.k.a., “Nailed”). Shot and shelved in 2008, it had “troubled production” written all over it front Day One. Developed as a broad political satire by David O. Russell (American Hustle), Accidental Love was finally given a tentative pre-DVD release this spring with Russell’s name removed in favor of Stephen Greene, a close relation to Alan Smithee. Serious financial troubles, including the repeated stiffing of union cast and crew, caused numerous walk-offs and an abbreviated shooting schedule. The result is a comedy that rightly anticipated the freak-show atmosphere surrounding the debate over Obamacare in Congress, but wasted all of Russell’s good instincts. As it is, several transitional segments appear to be missing and almost none of what’s left warrants the appearance of such fine actors as Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Kurt Fuller, Beverly D’Angelo, Bill Hader, Kirstie Alley, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens, James Brolin, Malinda Williams and a half-dozen other familiar faces. Not privy to the fragile financial situation, the actors must have relished the opportunity to work with Russell, who was between the box-office disappoint I Heart Huckabees and game-changing The Fighter. As written by Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser, Biel plays a small-town roller-waitress who accidentally gets a nail driven into her skull while at her restaurant. Because Alice isn’t insured and the Burger Hop manager denies liability, she seeks the help of her congressman (Gyllenhaal) to pass a bill that would cover such accidents. Besides her boyfriend, a local cop (Marsden), Alice is supported in her crusade by the local Squaw Girl troop. Once in the nation’s capital, the petitioners discover that the freshman representative isn’t likely to rock the boat by supporting the lost cause of health-care reform. Improbably, whenever the waitress accidently jostles the nail embedded in her head, it sets off a reaction closely resembling nymphomania. Unable to resist a pretty woman willing to trade her body for a favorable vote, the congressman pretends, at least, to support her cause. Accidental Love is occasionally funny, but, like the premise, more often stupid than darkly comic.

The Barber: Blu-ray
Despite the presence of two razor-toting protagonists, director Basel Owies’ feature debut, The Barber, is surprisingly light on genuinely frightening encounters between psycho-killers and helpless victims. The movie opens with the release from police custody of the likely suspect in a series of 17 murders of young women in the Chicago area. Flash-forward 20 years and the same man, Francis Alan Visser (Scott Glenn), is a model-citizen barber in a small town relatively free of abhorrent crime. Visser looks harmless, but there’s something in his closely guarded demeanor that make us suspect that he’s constantly holding something back. We’re also introduced to the son of the police investigator who committed suicide after Visser was let go due to tampered evidence. It takes us a while to figure out which side of the law the cop’s son, John McCormack (Chris Coy), is working when he arrives in town and confronts Visser – now living under an assumed name – outside a local diner with a knife. For one thing, while waiting for the barber to finish his dessert, McCormack looks as if he’s setting up the restaurant’s outwardly promiscuous waitress for a journey to the dark side. Then, after being grilled by the local chief of police, Visser goes out of his way to befriend the young man, who demonstrates his knowledge of the barber’s true identity. It’s as if two spiders are weaving webs on separate branches of the same tree, hoping that the other will eventually make the mistake of trespassing and getting stuck on his adversary’s silk. The added degree of danger here, of course, comes in knowing that both men are carrying straight-edge razors and the potential for violence fills the air. Beyond that, lie spoilers. Glenn is his usual cool, calm and collected self, playing a fiend who’s remained free for nearly a quarter-century and has no intention of being tripped up now. Coy’s good, as well, as the avenging angel. You can also throw into the mix a cocky female cop (Kristen Hager) who’s followed the same evidence that led McCormack to Visser’s barbershop and fits the description of many of the women he was accused of killing. Unfortunately, this promising scenario doesn’t produce anything particularly scary, except, perhaps, for the serial killer’s next victim. The DVD adds an alternate ending and deleted scenes.

Little Acccidents
Sara Colangelo’s heart-breaking debut, Little Accidents, effectively dramatizes how the dynamics of life in a small American town change in the wake of a tragic event. Here, as the title implies, the tight-knit community is required to deal with more than one catastrophe simultaneously.  Shot in the actual coal town of Beckley, West Virginia, Little Accidents opens several weeks after a mining accident claimed the lives of 10 men. After recuperating from his injuries in an out-of-town hospital, lone survivor Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is further traumatized by people who expect him to testify one way or the other before an investigatory board, even though he has little recollection of the accident. Meanwhile, a mining company executive and his wife (Josh Lucas, Elizabeth Banks) are desperately searching for clues in the disappearance of their teenage son. We’ve already been made privy to the terrible secret behind his fate and have developed mixed feelings for the only two people who know it, too, was an accident. Some people think that the disappearance may be connected to a grudge against the executive, who almost certainly required his employees to ignore safety violations. Colangelo adds another layer of melodrama by connecting the emotionally wrought wife of the mining executive with the guilt-ridden son of one of the dead miners and the surviving victim of the explosion. When something as devastating as a mining disaster occurs in small town, already cut off from the world by mountains and rivers, its residents tend to band together as friends and neighbors or be divided by outside interests and ancient passions. Jacob Lofland, who was so good in his first film, Mud, delivers a devastating performance here, as do Holbrook and Banks.

50 to 1
With the 141st renewal of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” right around the corner, what better time than the present to recall one of the most unlikely victories in the history of the Kentucky Derby.  Jim Wilson’s 50 to 1 may not be the crowd-pleaser that longshot 3-year-old gelding Mine the Bird turned out to be on the first Saturday in May, 2009, at Churchill Downs, but the gelding’s story is entertaining enough to stand on its own four legs. Besides the masterly ride by daredevil jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in the film, the primary focus of 50 to 1 is the team of New Mexico yahoos who believed in Mine the Bird, despite its spotty record and goofy stance. Just as Thoroughbreds from New Mexico aren’t supposed to make it to Kentucky, even if they took their first steps on the blue grass, dudes wearing cowboy clothes tend not to mingle with the swells, socialites and sheiks who gather there on Derby Day. If the movie isn’t as technically proficient as, say, the studio-produced Seabiscuit or Secretariat, its charm derives from the same sport that produces unlikely heroes with uncanny regularity. It explains why so many people who’ve never bet on a race pay attention to the Triple Crown series. That wasn’t in the cards for Mine the Bird, but its second- and third-place finishes in the Preakness and Belmont proved the Kentucky Derby victory was no fluke. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of featurette.

Boy Meets Girl
First Period
The fact that Diane Sawyer’s “20/20” interview with Bruce Jenner attracted an audience of 17.1 million viewers – not counting those tuning in and tweeting via the social media – demonstrates just how far Americans have evolved in matters pertaining to the LGBT community. In households representing the key 18-49 demographic, 17 percent of all active televisions were tuned to the newsmagazine’s two-hour report on the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion’s sexual transition. How many of those viewers are only familiar with Jenner because of his Kardashian connection isn’t broken down in the Nielsen ratings’ data. By comparison, Sawyer’s March 18 “20/20” special “The Untold Story of ‘The Sound of Music’” – which included a chat with Julie Andrews – lagged behind the Jenner interview by a 271 percent margin in the same demographic. As if to prove that the audience – 68 percent of which was female – wasn’t solely interested in seeing how Jenner looked at this point in the process, ratings actually increased in the second and third half-hour segments, before dipping slightly in the final 30 minutes. If “Bruce Jenner: The Interview” had aired on a Sunday night, instead of Friday, those numbers almost certainly would have jumped considerably … or kept DVRs working overtime. I only mention this because, no matter how the geezers on the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriages in the next two months, the LGBT cat is already out of the bag. But, then, anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of the so-called Queer Cinema already is aware of this trend.

Not to put too fine a point on an arguable proposition, but, Eric Schaeffer’s genuinely heartfelt coming-of-age rom-dram-com, Boy Meets Girl, could very well mark a coming-of-age moment for independent films in the LGBT niche. For years, genre specialists have been searching for ways to tell stories that cross over to mainstream audiences, without compromising emotional sincerity, sexual integrity and honest portrayals of complex characters. In other words, is there a way to get the same viewers who flocked to see Tootsie, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Crying Game to embrace a low-budget film that stars a transgender actor? In Boy Meets Girl, newcomer Michelle Hendley is remarkable as the girl hoping to make her mark on the world outside rural Kentucky, where the fashion industry exists only on cable television. Thanks to the unforced understanding of her father and longtime best friend, Robby (Michael Welch), Ricky has managed to find a niche for herself after overcoming serious identity issues and the early death of her mother. While waiting to learn if she’s been accepted in a fashion school in New York, Ricky and Robby become friends with the pretty daughter of locally prominent parents. Unaware of Ricky’s current state of transition, Francesca (Alexandra Turshenra) is impressed by her senses of style and humor. Francesca, who’s engaged to a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, takes the news of Ricky’s sexual identity in stride, even to the point where she commissions a party dress from her and invites her new friends to a swank party at her parents’ home. Francesca’s curiosity will soon get the better of her, leading to a tastefully handled romantic interlude in which Ricky is every bit as nervous about making out with a woman as she is. Everything that transpires from this point on is blessedly free of clichés and enhanced by some genuinely surprising occurrences. Anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by the media circus surrounding Bruce Jenner – or teenagers facing identity issues of their own – ought to pick up a copy of Boy Meets Girl, which also benefits from some lovely scenery and cinematography.

The gentle spirit of Harris Glen Milstead (a.k.a., Devine) hovers cherubically over the broad teen farce, First Period, which could serve as the missing link between John Waters and John Hughes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Freaks and Geeks,” “Hairspray” and “Grease.” Limited to a “dental-floss budget,” Charlie Vaughn and Brandon Alexander III successfully avoid the many pitfalls that have tripped up other filmmakers attempting to emulate the work of such past masters as Waters, Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Alexander Payne, Cameron Crowe and the many graduates of the Roger Corman Film School. Comedy isn’t nearly as easy to pull off as these guys make it look and it’s rarely pretty. Anyone who’s enjoyed Chris Lilley’s delightfully off-kilter “Summer Heights High,” “Ja’mie: Private School Girl” and “Jonah from Tonga” – exported from Australia to HBO – will have a pretty good idea what to expect in First Period. Alexander plays Cassie, the new girl in school whose unsavory habits and obesity turn off everyone, except Maggie (Dudley Beene), who’s even more off-putting than Cassie. Together, they decide the quickest way to impress the ruling clique of cute boys and popular girls is to come in first at the school’s talent show. Their lack of talent doesn’t matter, because none of the other students are remotely talented, either. Their nemeses, the Heather and Other Heather, expect to win the contest as models. The Heathers hope to further humiliate the “girls” – who are anticipating their “first period” – by instructing their boyfriends Brett and Dirk to go on a date and check out what’s under their hoods. Naturally, their scheme backfires when the boys develop a taste for plus-size girls. It helps that Alexander and Beene aren’t required to carry the entire weight of the 1980s-era comedy on their ample shoulders or rely on sight gags for laughs. They get plenty of help from Jack Plotnik (“Reno 911!”), Judy Tenuta (“Chant Mania”), Cassandra Peterson (“Elivra: Mistress of the Dark”), Tara Karsian (“ER”) and Diane Salinger (“Carnivàle”).

Always Woodstock
Debut features don’t have to imitate the ever-changing rhythms of life to be credible, but too many plot twists based solely on coincidence can ruin a picture before the first reel has unspooled. No matter how much good will is invested in a film by its cast and crew, nothing can keep viewers interested once they’ve been asked to buy into one too many convenient contrivance. How many movies and television shows have we seen in which the lead character, who’s already having a bad day, arrives home early and unannounced, only to capture their lover or spouse in delicto flagrante. In Always Woodstock, aspiring record-label executive Catherine Brown (Allison Miller) is fired for failing to kiss the ass of a punk singer (Brittany Snow), whose bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in the monkey house of any zoo in the country. Upon her arrival home, Catherine discovers her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) in the shower with a friendly blond bimbo. Distraught, she decides to drive up to Woodstock, New York, the rural musicians’ ghetto where her parents still own, but don’t inhabit, a cabin. The disgusting condition of the place, gives Allison an excuse to postpone her new career as a songwriter, by making a beeline to a local honky-tonk. It’s here that she’ll meet everyone she needs to know for the remainder of the movie, including a local legend singer and family friend, Lee Ann (Katey Sagal); a bartender (Rumer Willis) who happily overserves the newcomer; and the town’s handsome young doctor, (James Wolk), who’s in the right place at the right time to rescue her from alcohol poisoning. Before drinking herself into oblivion, however, Allison is able to demonstrate her karaoke skills. To fill the next 80 minutes, or so, Merson demands of her protagonist that she piss off everyone already in her corner with unnecessary temper tantrums and false accusations. Anyone who can’t guess what happens from here has never watched a Lifetime movie. Always Woodstock probably could have been saved if Merson had focused less on her boring protagonist and more on the redemptive power of a location only a hop, skip and a jump from Big Pink, a shrine to the singer-songwriter’s art if there ever was one.

Motivational Growth: Blu-ray
Class Of Nuke ‘Em High II: Subhumanoid Meltdown
The Toxic Avenger Part II: Blu-ray
From a Whisper to a Scream: Blu-ray
Jonah Lives
In the 1990s, homeowners lived in mortal dread of discovering toxic black mold growing on the walls of their basement or hidden behind the drywall upstairs. Besides the real and imagined health fears associated with the mycotoxins present in Stachybotrys chartarum, hurriedly passed legislation prevented owners from selling their homes without full disclosure or proof of eradication. Forget the Blob, black mold was a real-life horror whose progress could be followed as it spread through one’s home. In Don Thacker’s wildly imaginative first feature, Motivational Growth, a clinically depressed young man survives a suicide attempt, only to awake in a fever dream in which his one-room apartment has been overtaken by a clump of black mold growing from the filth in his bathroom. The reclusive Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) is so far off the deep end that he’s named his ancient television set Kent and exchanges dialogue with “The Mold,” whose voice is supplied by horror-genre veteran Jeffrey Combs. (Imagine Darth Vader impersonating the carnivorous Audrey II in Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors.) Occasionally, a stranger will be appear at the door, like an unexpected visitor to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, bearing gifts or conversation designed to further mess with his mind. Between the Mold’s stentorian advice and Kent’s bizarre selection of vintage infomercials and video games, Motivational Growth occasionally drifts into freakazoid territory previously surveyed by David Cronenberg in Naked Lunch and TerrorVision. The longer it goes on, the more surrealistic things get. Fans of more conventional horror film might tire of Thacker’s hallucinatory dissection of one man’s descent into madness. As far as I’m concerned, however, Motivational Growth really hit the spot. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Combs, DiGiovanni and Thacker.

While we’re on the subject of fever dreams committed to film, the good folks at Troma Entertainment would like you to revisit the madness of Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown and The Toxic Avenger Part II on Blu-ray. I can hear some of you saying, “Releasing these low-tech franchises on hi-def is like putting lipstick on a pig.” Part of the fun of watching Troma films is the groddy audio-visual presentation, which masks the endearingly cheeseball special effects and famously illogical narratives. Those of you who’ve worn out their VHS copies of the originals, however, might as well upgrade to the advanced technology, if only to catch up on the featurettes already added to the DVD and handful of new ones. Class of Nuke ’Em High 2 takes place six years after the extraordinarily messy events chronicled in the original. Out of the ashes of Tromaville High has risen Tromaville Institute for Technology (TIT), now located inside the Tromaville Power Plant. The school’s foxy genetic scientist, Professor Holt (Lisa Gaye), has developed a human life form that matures within nine months and performs tasks no one else wants to do. These Subhumanoids are identified by belly buttons that function as mouths. It’s almost impossible to condense what happens next into words, except to say that, yes, a giant squirrel is involved in the mayhem. In The Toxic Avenger Part II, the former Melvin Junko is lured to Japan to look for his father, but not until he deals with the fiends who blew up the Tromaville Centre for the Blind. While Toxie’s away, the bad guys at Apocalypse Inc. return to Tromaville to play their evil games. Here, too, what follows defies logic and easy explanation. The sequels won’t make anyone forget the originals, but, given enough killer weed, viewers won’t know the difference.

Jeff Burr’s surprisingly good horror anthology, From a Whisper to a Scream, didn’t even register a blip on my radar screen when it was released in 1987 as “The Offspring.” I’m glad that I caught up with it now in its new Scream Factory Blu-ray edition. The quartet of short horror films are set in a rural Tennessee town over the course of four different historical periods. Wrap-around segments hosted by Vincent Price and Susan Tyrrell set up each individual chapter, while explaining the connection to the town of Oldfield. In the first, Clu Gulager plays an elderly man pursues a romance with a younger woman to the grave and beyond. It’s followed by a story in which a wounded man on the run from creditors is rescued by a backwoods hermit with the secret to eternal life. My favorites involve the freakish events that occur when a glass-eater in a travelling carnival attraction develops a bad case of indigestion and a platoon of Civil War soldiers is treated to a dose of their own medicine by a household of malevolent orphans. The story behind the creation of these stories is nearly as entertaining as anything else in the package.  It’s covered in a full-length making-of featurette, with Burr and his creative team, and another documentary about how a group kids growing up in Dalton, Georgia, fell in love with filmmaking by making pictures on now-primitive, then-sophisticated Super 8 equipment. Also included are commentaries with Burr, writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner; a stills gallery; and original “Offspring” TV spots.

There’s a special place in hell reserved for movies by first-time filmmakers in which a group of bored teens attempt to establish contact with the dead, using a Ouija board. This week’s attraction at the 666 Multiplex is Luis Carvalho’s schizophrenic thriller, Jonah Lives. While their parents and other adults frolic upstairs, at an alcohol-fueled “key party,” a bunch of unremarkable teens in the basement hopes to allay their boredom with a Ouija Board. After some false starts, they decide to conjure the spirit of Jonah, a murdered gent whose widow (scream queen Brinke Stevens) is upstairs putting her body up for grabs. Indeed, Jonah does show up at the appointed hour, but with an appetite for blood that’s practically insatiable. Again, while the slaughter continues only a few feet below them, the grown-ups anxiously await the draw of keys belonging to that night’s booty call. It isn’t until the very last moment of Jonah Lives that a connection between the two halves of the movies are linked to one another. Apparently, Carvalho couldn’t come up with a way for the horror and frivolity to overlap, as is sometimes done in more accomplished films. Even so, younger genre buffs might find it amusing to watch fellow teens attempt to run away from a slowly plodding zombie.

Any new horror movie made by the son of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) is going to attract a modicum of interest, at least, in the genre press. Because G. Cameron Romero has already weighed in with such titles as Staunton Hill, The Auctioneers and Repressed, however, the pressure is on to finally produce a breakthrough film worthy of the name. Auteur isn’t it … not by a long shot. It probably not fair to lay all of the blame at Romero’s feet, however, since the very capable and prolific James Cullen Bressack shares the writers’ credit with two newcomers and a director lives and dies on the strength of his source material. Here, a dimwitted documentarian is promised an opportunity to break into Hollywood, but only if he can locate his employer’s semi-legendary son and bring back the film he directed, before walking off the set with it. To locate the burn-out filmmaker, Jack Humphreys (B.J. Hendricks) rounds up cast and crew members – including the hyper-prolific Tom Sizemore — and uses the ruse of making a documentary on the production of “Demented” to trace his tracks. In fact, Charlie Buckwald (Ian Hutton) is about as difficult to find as a Starbucks on Wilshire Boulevard. Apparently, Buckwald went crazy attempting to add some real demonic hocus-pocus to his movie about faux satanic hocus-pocus. Like most alcoholics, he’s only lucid in fits and starts. The same can be said about Auteur.

PBS: Masterpiece: Wolf Hall: Blu-ray
PBS: Ken Burns: Story of Cancer/Emperor of All Maladies: Blu-ray
PBS: Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit
PBS: The Physics of Light
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 5
Nickelodeon: Wallykazam!/Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.
PBS: Mia & Me: Discover Centopia
Through history books and works of fiction across all media platforms, the life and legend of King Henry VIII has been well-documented. We’re similarly familiar with his wives and challenge to the supremacy of the Roman church. I think it’s safe to say that we know more about the larger-than-life English monarch than most of American presidents. Apart from being dullards, our leaders have been required to govern within boundaries the crowned heads of Europe couldn’t imagine. Only a relative handful of them were allowed the freedom and opportunities to shine as individuals. Given what we’ve learned about Henry VIII and other prominent royals, that’s probably a good thing. The engrossing BBC/PBS production “Wolf Hall” reminds us that behind these powerful men and women stood largely anonymous counselors and advisers with agendas of their own. It’s through that prism that Hilary Mantel’s wrote her Booker Prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The best-selling historical novels describe the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII, with an eye toward changing the generally accepted perception of him being a manipulative power-broker to one that shows him to be a multidimensional man of the world, brilliantly pragmatic strategist and loyal servant to his masters: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and King Henry. As powerful as he became, however, the lords and ladies of the court continually dismissed Cromwell as the lowly son of a blacksmith and, as such, less than a gentleman. Because of his extensive travels throughout Europe and ability to speak several languages, Wolsey and Henry both paid attention to his advice on matters of state, religion and backroom politics. Here, he’s played by Mark Rylance (“The Government Inspector”), a cunning actor who looks as if he’d just stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. As was the case in Showtime’s “The Tudors,” where Henry VIII was played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) portrays the king as being handsome and in athletic shape, rather than robustly built and plain-looking. In a steely performance by Oxford-trained Claire Foy (“Little Dorrit”), Anne Boleyn is a formidable suitor and queen, willing and able to preserve her place in history, although she couldn’t possibly imagine how their marriage would impact the future of England and the world. Not at all surprising is the visual appeal of the six-part series, which begins with the impeccable costume designs and continues through the choice of medieval and Tudor structures at which it was shot. “Wolf Hall” caused me to wonder if Henry Kissinger – Cromwell’s equal in American political affairs – might someday well into the future get similarly sympathetic treatment in mini-series form. The Blu-ray adds several background and making-of featurettes, as well as cast and crew interviews.

How many thousands of doctors, surgeons, researchers and scientists have spent their entire careers searching for a cure for cancer, only to retire knowing that they hadn’t made a dent in controlling, let alone conquering the terrible disease? As far back as 4,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians studied cancer, finally concluding there was no cure for it. The only thing subsequent generations of doctors knew for sure was that cancer honored no borders and struck, as If at will, people of all ages, racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. The more we learned about it, the scarier it became. Even saying its name out loud was discouraged, as if it carried the same stigma as a sexually transmitted disease. The Ken Burns-produced documentary series, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It not only attempts to demystify cancer by explaining everything we know to be true about the disease, but it also serves as a reminder of the fact that tens of thousands of highly trained men and women have refused to surrender to the many threats made by cancer. It’s the nature of the disease that every forward step is rewarded with two steps backward. Therapies and drugs hailed in newspaper headlines one day more often than not outlive their promise over the course of field trials. And, yes, the experimental remedies frequently have proven more deadly than the disease. Still, the fight continues on more fronts than most people know exist. Despite the cautiously optimistic note struck at the end of the three-part series, no punches are pulled or false hopes for a cures offered. It does so by presenting the data and anecdotal evidence as matter-of-factly and dispassionately as possible. Even so, the human factor is never far from view. While it’s impossible not to feel helpless as we watch children suffer, we’re also impressed by the specialists who comfort patients and families through the emerging palliative-care discipline. The series interweaves a sweeping historical perspective with intimate profiles of current patients and investigations that take us to the cutting edge of science. The three segments are titled: “Magic Bullets,” “The Blind Men and the Elephant” and “Finding an Achilles Heel.” The question that remains, of course, is why the governments of the world continue to waste billions of dollars each year fighting killing each other’s patriots, when the money saved in a ceasefire could be used to mount an international crusade against cancer. Even if took years to make progress on a cure, think of all the people who wouldn’t die from bullets and bombs.

Better news is reported in PBS’ “Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit,” which relates heartbreaking and life-affirming stories from inside the world’s leading fetal surgery center, the Special Delivery Unit at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The mini-series invites us to step into operating rooms, where state-of-the-art technology allows surgeons to enter the womb and operate on babies before they’re even born. Unlike the war on cancer, the battle to save children from being delivered with terrible maladies likely to kill them, anyway, appears winnable. Viewers are left to decide for themselves if fetal surgery is just another way to take God out of the equation or it’s our obligation as God’s children to keep hope alive as long as possible for all parents.

I really can’t say whether or not the six-part PBS series “The Physics of Light” answers any more questions about how our universe was formed and continues to grow than such deep-science books and films as “A Brief History of Time,” “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” and “The Theory of Everything,” or, for that matter, “The Big Bang Theory,” “Monty Python: The Meaning of Life” and “Futurama.” Growing up, I probably enjoyed math and science more than the next student, but hit a wall at physics and trigonometry. No amount of studying — or prayer – helped me understand anything beyond the most basic concepts. Fortunately, my teachers understood how unlikely it was for some of us to grasp the subtleties of math and science and rewarded us with bonus points for simply showing up and staring blankly at the blackboard. That’s kind of how I feel about such productions as “The Physics of Light,” which use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a starting point for explorations into the nature of light, the intricacies of the atom and cutting-edge theories in physics. It’s divided into the chapters, “Light and Time,” “Light and Space,” “In Pursuit of Light,” “Light and Atoms,” “Light and Quantum Physics” and “Light and Strings.” By connecting available research to the miracle of light, “we can gain a deeper understanding not only of our immediate reality, but of the unseen realities that are hidden beyond our perception.”

StarVista/Time-Life’s subdivision of its comprehensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” continues apace with the latest “Mama’s Favorites” package, covering the show’s penultimate fifth season. The episodes included here are: “The Really Loud Family,” “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money,” “Mama’s Layaway Plan,” “Mama in One” and “Dependence Day.”   I’m not sure how much thinner this pie can be sliced.

In Nickelodeon’s “Wallykazam!,” a boy named Wally Trollman and his pet dragon, Norville, live in a forest among giants, goblins and other fantastic creatures. Wally has a magic stick that makes words come to life on the screen, playfully transforming the world around him. It the network’s first preschool series that embeds a literacy curriculum into a full-length story, introducing skills such as letter and sound identification, rhyming, vocabulary development and comprehension strategies. “Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.” introduces kids to join their favorite Nick characters in an exploration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) curriculum. “Mia & Me: Discover Centopia”: On her first day at a new school, Mia is given a book and bracelet that are more than they appear. The items have the power to transport Mia to a magical storybook world, Centopia, where she becomes a flying elf who has the ability to talk to unicorns.

The DVD Wrapup; Curling, God Help the Girl, Like Sunday Like Rain, Escape From New York and more

Friday, April 24th, 2015

While traveling through Southeast Asia, Noel Coward observed that no one except, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” If he had visited Quebec in January or February, I wonder what he mighthave said about the folks who insist on going about their business as normal, even in temperatures verging on ridiculously cold. We meet one such person in Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau), who performs menial maintenance tasks at a 5-pin bowling alley and a no-tell motel, while his daughter, Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau, and, yes, they’re related), is condemned to home-schooling in a house too remote to be accessible to anyone in the town. Jean-Francois is afraid that exposure to negative elements could result in her ending up in prison, just like her mother. The problem is, he’s exactly the kind of paranoid numbskull who shouldn’t be allowed to home-school his or any other child. Even his boss, who’s sympathetic to his limitations, describes him as “the kind of fool who jumps in the lake to get out of the rain.” Julyvonne’s lack of exposure to the rest of world has caused some people to believe she’s retarded, which she’s not.

Like Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, New Brunswick native Denis Côté (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Bestiaire) is an emerging force in the international cinema and his work deserves to be seen well beyond the French-speaking marketplace. Curling may be a prime example of minimalist filmmaking, but watching father and daughter emerge from their respective cocoons can be extremely fulfilling. What little comedy exists in Curling is dark, mysterious and handled capably by writer/director Cote. The sport of curling does figure in the narrative, but not as much as in Paul Gross’ kooky 2002 comedy, Men With Brooms, co-starring fellow Canadians Molly Parker and Leslie Nielsen. Anyone who can make curling entertaining to folks living north of, say, Duluth is either very imaginative or is a big fan of the Winter Olympics. Here it’s simply an activity, like bowling, that keeps residents occupied during the long winter nights. Thanks to Josée Deshaies’ empathetic cinematography, this corner of Quebec does look like a forbidding place to spend winter. If this makes Curling sound hopelessly dreary, it’s enigmatic ending should lift viewers’ spirits.

God Help the Girl
Life Inside Out
Something tells me that Stuart Murdoch’s underappreciated musical fantasy, God Help the Girl, might have found its rightful audience if the title were a bit more precise in targeting its intended audience. Something like, “MTV Presents ‘God Help the Girl’” or “Belle and Sebastian Want You to See This Movie” or “Love in the Time of Retro Rock.’” Inspired by B&S’ 2009 album of the same title, the mix of catchy pop tunes and teen angst immediately recalls John Carney’s irresistible Once, and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. If you hated those pictures, there isn’t much chance you’ll like this one. Indeed, several mainstream critics seemed to enjoy slamming it. There’s no denying the appeal of the actors, who wouldn’t be out of place in a movie about Carnaby Street in London’s Swinging ’60s. Australian pixie Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays Eve, a college-age Glaswegian who starts writing songs during a stay in a mental-health clinic for anorexia. Against the wishes of her therapists, Eve one day decides to fly the coop and find kindred musical spirits who might consider recording her songs. They impress singer-guitarist James (Olly Alexander, of Years and Years) and his music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray, of “Skins”) enough to start the band, God Help the Girl. As it turns out, Eve’s doctors probably were correct in surmising that she wasn’t quite ready for life in the rock-‘n’-roll lane. There’s a thread of melancholy that runs through the entire score, but is relieved by some genuinely peppy material that accompanies dance routines in the film. I may be a long way from the target demographic for God Help the Girl, but I think that word-of-mouth from the DVD could turn it into a cult attraction. Special features include deleted scenes, “Origin” and a music video.

The redemptive power of music isn’t a rare or unusual subject in the family-friendly flicks that carry the Dove seal of approval. Typically, though, the songs contained therein are of faith-based persuasion. When hard-core musicians hit rock bottom, for example, they tend to find relief in the arms of the church choir. This is OK, as far as it goes, but hardly original. Jill D’Agnenica’s Life Inside Out takes a different approach to reach the same destination. The musician in question, Laura (actress/co-writer Maggie Baird), is a “woman of a certain age,” who fulfills a popular fantasy by returning to her song-writing roots when her husband’s career blows up in his face. Instead of attempting to pursue a career in “scrapbooking,” with her sister and friends, Laura pulls her guitar case out of the closet and fights to return to the place she left when she got married and dedicated herself to raising three now-teenage boys. One of them, Shane (Finneas O’Connell, of “Glee”), has lost his will to participate in school activities and has become a pain in the ass at home. It doesn’t help that his brothers and his friends are pricks. In the most accidental way possible, Shane feeds off his mother’s renewed passion for music by discovering an innate talent of his own. Although some of the plot elements here might seem a tad contrived and predictable, more than a few surprises will reward viewers’ patience.  The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and additional performances. The music is quite good, as well.

Like Sunday, Like Rain
In 1994, Frank Whaley starred alongside Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, one of the best movies ever made about working one’s way up the corporate ladder in Hollywood. He’d also impressed critics with key roles in The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, Field of Dreams, Swing Kids and Pulp Fiction. If, in 2015, he’s better known as “that guy in …,” it’s not because his career tanked or good roles fell into other people’s laps. Instead, Whaley’s dedication to indie films and the stage offered opportunities he found more appealing. He’s written and directed several indie features, Joe the King, New York City Serenade, The Jimmy Show and, most recently, Like Sunday, Like Rain, and found work on television, playing meaty parts on “Buddy Faro,” “The Dead Zone” and “Ray Donovan.” If his features found surer traction on the festival circuit than in theaters. Like Sunday, Like Rain, at least, deserves a big shot on DVD. Far from perfect, it can be recommended simply for the performances turned in by Leighton Meester and newcomer Julian Shatkin. The “Gossip Girl” alum portrays a hard-luck beauty from Upstate New York, Eleanor, who, after moving to the city, compounds the mistake of falling in love with a punk-rock musician (Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day), with expecting him not to turn Neanderthal when she throws his guitar out of the window during a squabble.  (Clean-cut Eleanor doesn’t look as if she’s ever been in the middle of a mosh pit, let slept alone with a band member.)

After Dennis throws a tantrum in the restaurant in which she works, the penniless Eleanor is fired and forced to scrounge around for work. Conveniently, she scores a live-in assignment as a nanny for a 12-year-old cello prodigy, Reggie, who makes no attempt to endear himself with Eleanor or viewers.  Depressed, jaded and world weary, Reggie is well on his way to becoming the next Oscar Levant. His filthy-rich mother (Debra Messing) thinks the hardest part of mothering is a hiring people to perform the tasks she isn’t remotely interested in doing. For his part, Reggie pays his chauffeur, maid and camp counselor to ignore his mother’s directions and allow him to do his own thing when she’s out of town. Eleanor is, at first, put off by the boy’s impatience with her lack of experience as nanny and what he perceives to be an inferior IQ and intellectual growth. Because she needs the job every bit as much as he needs a good spanking, Whaley finds a way to put them on equal footing. The surprising part is how natural their relationship becomes after an understanding is reached and their strengths become complementary. If Like Sunday, Like Rain is short on belly laughs, its big heart and quiet surprises make up for them. The only DVD extra is an interview with Whaley, during which he answers the softball questions with wiseass replies.

Supremacy: Blu-ray
The true incident upon which Supremacy is based was so disturbing that the psycho-sociological embellishments employed by the filmmakers to score points about racism with viewers not only feels manipulative, but completely unnecessary, as well. Blatant racism is never pleasant to encounter, in real life and on the screen, but to have one’s face rubbed in it for the entire length of a 106-minute movie borders on cruel and unusual punishment. In 1996, a just-paroled Garrett Tully (Joe Anderson) is being chauffeured home to Bakersfield by the girlfriend, Doreen (Dawn Olivieri), of a fellow Aryan Brother inmate at the “supermax” Pelican Bay State Prison. After Garrett turns down a welcome-back blow job on the side of the highway, Doreen hands him a loaded handgun as a consolation prize. Tully grasps the weapon as if it were the lover he’d waited 13 years to embrace, leading us to believe that it won’t be long before he does something to earn a return trip to the northern California stockade. When he uses it to murder a sheriff’s deputy on a routine traffic stop – they’re actually casing a store to rob — it provides the orgasmic release Doreen failed to accomplish. Not even 24 hours from his release, Tully and Doreen are the subject of an intense manhunt. Before being captured, they invaded a nearby home and took the family hostage. That much of the story is portrayed with reasonable accuracy. Of all the NoCal homes in which director Deon Taylor and writer Eric J. Adams could have elected for them to take refuge, however, wouldn’t you know that it would probably be the only one within miles inhabited by an African-American family (Danny Glover, Lela Rochon, Evan Ross, Robin Bobeau). They also chose to make the slain cop black.

Sadly, the coincidence allows the filmmakers carte blanche to pepper Tully’s dialogue with language that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the heat of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. None of the members of the multigenerational Walker family is spared his racist venom, which is so toxic even Doreen feels compelled at one point to apologize for it. Instead of merely stealing the keys to the family car, Tully spends most of the night waving his gun around the kitchen and threatening to shoot the “niglet” infant if their demands aren’t met. By allowing them to waste precious time venting their rage, however, the filmmakers have dug Garrett and Doreen a hole from which there’s no hope of escape. It’s the kind of claustrophobic scenario that might have worked better on stage, where all of our attention is focused tightly on the credibility of the characters and machinations of the standoff. On film, however, the intensity of the mindless vitriol constantly distracts us from Tully’s attempts to play one family member against the other. Because we’ve already been told that he’s No. 3 in the hierarchy of the Aryan Brotherhood, there’s really no use to bang us over the head with the n-word and its derivatives. In real life, Robert Walter Scully Jr. and Elaine Watters did murder Deputy Sheriff Frank Trejo and were captured under similar circumstances. I couldn’t, however, determine if the residents were African-American. Too bad the language gets in the way of the message.

Hit By Lightning
Despite his 12-year run as lovable nebbish Alan Harper, on “Two and a Half Men,” baby-boomers will forever recall Jon Cryer as Molly Ringwald’s hovering best friend, Duckie, in Pretty in Pink. Unlike Duckie, whose rockabilly hairdo has probably been immortalized in a Hollywood hair museum, Cryer no longer hides the fact that he’s nearly completely bald and, last week, turned the big 5-0. In Ricky Blitt’s dark and unconvincing rom-com, Hit by Lightning, he plays a loveless loser who gets the kind of good-news/bad-news wakeup call all such jinxed characters expect when something nice happens to them. At 40, Ricky and his accountant pal, Seth (Will Sasso), have come to sad realization that they are the only unattached men left in their high school class. To remedy this, Ricky has reluctantly joined to find a proper mate. The good news arrives in the heavenly form of Danita (Stephanie Szostak), a suspiciously vivacious woman who wastes no time jumping into the sack with him. In classic film noir twist, Danita then reveals she’s already married to a crime novelist and former rabbi, Ben (Jed Rees), and she needs Ricky’s assistance in killing him. Before Seth can spit out, “cherchez la femme,” viewers will have sized up the ramifications of such a collaboration. Has Ricky watched the same movies and learned the same lessons as Fred MacMurray’s poor sap insurance salesman in Double Indemnity or is he destined to repeat them? Cryer’s fans may be willing to overlook Blitt’s ham-handed direction here, but others probably will regret not having picked up a copy of the original, instead.

Everly: Blu-ray
Perhaps to demonstrate that she can be every bit the action star as Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman, Michelle Rodriguez, Michelle Yeoh and Kate Beckinsale – while also looking insanely hot in a torn white blood-splattered slip — it’s difficult to understand what Salma Hayek is doing in this video game of a movie. She’s done the bad-ass things several times already and, on the cusp of 50, certainly has nothing to prove in that department. Because Everly’s finer points are lost in the muddle of a minimalist narrative, it’s never precisely clear why a Yakuza militia has been assigned the task of over-killing her. It’s pretty safe to assume that Everly’s considered to be the property of a tyrannical Japanese gangster, Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), against whom she’s turned state’s evidence or betrayed in a less formal way. In return, Taiko uses the occasion of Christmas to make her a present of the severed head of a police detective. Wave after wave of assassins are then sent into her apartment building – including bounty-hunting prostitutes — to fill her full of bullets, slice-and-dice her with finely honed blades, or tear her to pieces with explosive devices. Co-writer/director Joe Lynch has designed Everly’s apartment in such a way that she can dodge most of the metal projectiles and samurai swords, while licking the wounds caused by the ones that make contact. Her drive to remain alive is as strong as it is because her mother and child also are targeted in the assault. An actor of Hayek’s status brings high expectations to any role she accepts, and that’s Everly’s biggest problem. We’re always aware of the fact that it’s Hayek we’re watching, instead of a stone-cold warrior played by an up-and-coming actor hoping to use the role as a springboard to superstardom. Otherwise, action junkies will find plenty to savor here, especially the frenetic pace of the attack; imaginative array of assailants; and mega-decibel soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Lynch, co-producer Brett Hedblom and editor Evan Schiff and second track with Lynch and cinematographer Steve Gainer. A music video of “Silent Night,” directed by Lynch, is performed by Raya Yarborough and Bear McCreary.

Blind Woman’s Curse: Blu-Ray
When I first became aware of martial-arts movies, Bruce Lee was so far above the rest of the pack that everything else paled by comparison. In his wake, most of the genre flicks available to American grindhouse and drive-in audiences felt stupid and irrelevant. Released at about the same time as Lee was becoming a household name in this country — and newly made available in Blu-ray by Arrow Video — Blind Woman’s Curse is representative of a period in Japanese cinema when practically anything was fair game, except pubic hair. In it, notorious writer/director Teruo Ishii combines martial arts with Yakuza, horror, gore, sexploitation and slapstick comedy in a way that is as fun to watch, today, as it must have been for buffs in its day. Also known as “Black Cat’s Revenge,” “Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo,” “The Haunted Life of a Dragon-Tattooed Lass” and “The Tattooed Swordswoman,” Blind Woman’s Curse tells the story of Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), the young heir apparent of the Tachibana gang. In a showdown between Akemi and the rival gang leader responsible for her father’s death, she accidentally blinds his sister Aiko (Hoki Tokuda, who, in 1999, would marry author Henry Miller). Ever since, Akemi has suffered from nightmares and come to believe that she is cursed by a cat that means to suck her blood. Three years after being sentenced to a prison with other bad-ass women, Akemi returns to her gang absent much of her old bravado. Not to worry, though, because the sightless Aiko has used the same three-year period to recuperate from her calamitous wound and is itching to get her revenge. (She wouldn’t by the only blind swordsman in the genre.) Akemi, too, is forced to get herself back in fighting trim. This is some extremely wild stuff, complete with some of the coolest tattoos in movie history and other abhorrent behavior. Arrow Video did a nice job with Ishii’s color scheme and traditional music. It adds commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; the original trailers for four of the films in the Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series, made at the same studio as Blind Woman’s Curse; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; and collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, illustrated with original archive stills.

Sweet Lorraine
It isn’t often that a movie with as much star power as Sweet Lorraine comes around to rival the travesties perpetrated on the American movie-going public by Edward D. Wood Jr., the fellow who inspired the time-honored kiss-off, “so bad, it’s good.” With a cast that includes Tatum O’Neal in the lead role, Steven Bauer, Julianne Michelle, Peter Greene, Jimmie Walker, Scott William Winters and Robyn Peterson, the dubious political satire Sweet Lorraine would be unwatchable if it weren’t so hysterically ludicrous. Academy Award-winner O’Neal plays the wife of a New Jersey minister on the same mayoral ticket as a mob-connected bozo (Bauer) who’s schtupping their randy teenage daughter (Michelle). Their opponent (Winters) is on the down-low as a cross-dresser, who frequents the same nightclub where Lorraine (Tatum) secretly participates in women’s boxing matches and J.J. performs magic tricks. And, that’s just for starters. The man responsible for this mess, Christopher C. Frieri, whose resume includes I Was a Teenage Mummy, The Orbitrons and The Stranger (“A cynical tattooed loser first loses his job as a janitor in a bar run by a dwarf, then loses his mind.”), hasn’t made a movie in more than 20 years and none of them featured a recognizable actor. How he lured such name actors to Sweet Lorraine is a mystery, indeed. I hope they got paid ahead of time. Needless to say, the DVD includes no extras.

Escape From New York: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Breakin’/Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo: Blu-ray
Ghoulies / Ghoulies II: Blu-ray
Like Walter Hill’s The Warriors, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York stands today as an artifact of a period in time when the Big Apple was circling the drain and the Disneyfication of Times Square was so far from the realm of possibility that only the most Pollyannish of visionaries would risk humiliation by even mentioning it. The city was bankrupt, crime-ridden and filthy. If a great seismic event had caused the five boroughs to separate themselves from the rest of the state, the legislature probably wouldn’t have freed the funds necessary to pay for a fleet of tugboats to repatriate them. The prevailing attitude on New York’s future allowed Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle the luxury of setting their dystopian vision in 1997, only 16 years in the future. By this time, Manhattan and Liberty Island have, indeed, been cut off from the rest of New York, as they’ve become a dumping ground for hoodlums, parasites and assorted other miscreants. The bridges have been mined and tunnels bricked up to prevent them access to the rest of the world. When Air Force One crash lands inside the perimeter, the notorious outlaw and former Special Forces war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is coerced into agreeing to rescue the president (Donald Pleasence) before the bad guys can locate his hiding place and use him as a bargaining chip. To discourage Snake from skipping out on the assignment, an explosive device with a 24-hour electronic fuse is implanted in his neck. The rest, of course, is cult-classic history. Russell’s gritty portrayal of the one-eyed Plissken freed him from the chains he’d carried with him since his days as a Disney regular, while the movie, itself, served as a template for dozens of action fantasies to come. The Blu-ray upgrade from Shout! Factory includes commentaries with actress Adrienne Barbeau and director of photographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter and Russell, and producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves; a separate disc adds several good making-of featurettes in hi-def; interviews; a deleted opening bank-robbery sequence; and photo galleries.

Like so many skeletons in Hollywood’s closet, Shout! Factory is also resurrecting double-features of movies that probably should have remained buried and forgotten. Ghoulies and Ghoulies II borrow liberally from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, with hand-puppet critters who emerge from the toilets of hell to torment a group of college kids who dare to summon the devil in a bargain-basement ritual. In the sequel, the surviving gremlins hitch a ride in Satan’s Den, a traveling House of Horror operated by carnival workers who are facing foreclosure on their truck and trailer. Not at all scary, Ghoulies is best suited to kids who are beginning to embrace horror. The package arrives with commentary, new interviews and deleted scenes.

No 1980s retrospective would be complete without Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo!, which does for break dancing what Roller Boogie did for inline skating and Perfect did for hot babes in leotards, headbands and ankle warmers. In the former, Lucinda Dickey plays a rich girl who avoids the advances of her dance instructor by teaming up with street dancers Ozone and Turbo to become “a poppin’ and lockin’ princess.” In the follow-up, the dancers take on a greedy real-estate developer seeking to close their studio space.

Mysteries of the Unseen World 3D: Blu-ray
We’ve all seen the frightening photographs taken of mites and other minute creatures by scientists using electron microscopes. If possible, imagine a horror movie in which species exponentially smaller, hairier and creepier than the critters in Antz, A Bug’s Life and Bee Movie, combined, are digitally captured and inserted into stories not dissimilar to Fantastic Voyage, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Journey to the Center of the Earth. The National Geographic presentation Mysteries of the Unseen World employs advanced high-speed and time-lapse photography, electron microscopy and nanotechnology in the service of a documentary that is designed to alert us to phenomena that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Everything from skin follicles to particles of outer-space waste are as common and prevalent as the air we breathe and water we drink. Most of us have also seen super-slo-mo images of bullets blasting through pieces of fruit or watermelons being dropped on concrete. Here, these images are slowed down to the point where it might take several seconds for that same bullet to pass through an apple or we can observe how individual drops of rain repeatedly break down into ever-smaller beads of water. Mysteries of the Unseen World also benefits mightily from being shot in color and 3D, giving it an otherworldly texture. Included is a featurette that explains in layman’s terms how the technology works and the movie was made.

Pivot: Fortitude: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Being Mortal
PBS: Nature: The Last Orangutan Eden
Chiller: Deep in the Darkness: Blu-ray
Considering all of the time I’ve spent lately watching TV shows and movies set at or near the South and North Poles, almost the last thing I wanted to add to my must-watch list was the 12-part police-procedural series from Europe, “Fortitude.” Set in a tiny town north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, but shot in Reyðafjörður, Iceland, the story is as dense and disturbing as most mini-series get. It opens with the accidental shooting of a man by an elderly photographer (Michael Gambon), who’s scouting the icy seacoast for wildlife. In fact, the photographer was aiming at a polar bear that was mauling the poor guy, when Sheriff Dan Anderssen was taking aim at the predatory beast. Anderssen tells the frightened old man to go away and not worry about any investigation. Meanwhile, Governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) is attempting to assure investors in a hotel to be built inside a nearby glacier – think Club Med on the rocks — that the absence of crime makes Fortitude an ideal destination for eco-tourists. Halfway through her presentation, the governor is informed of the murder of the professor who had reversed his opinion on the project, citing the recent discovery of woolly mammoth carcasses on the glacier. If that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, the discovery of mumps in a local boy not only stirs fear that his father might have carried the disease with him after serving in Afghanistan, but also that mumps could lead to polio in unvaccinated residents. Two more residents simply disappear into thin air and a half-dozen secret sexual liaisons have been exposed as collateral damage in the investigation. And, that’s simply the first episode. A British forensics officer played by Stanley Tucci is enlisted to get to the bottom of this mess, but almost no one in Fortitude wants to cooperate with him. All of that established, mini-series creator Simon Donald (“Low Winter Sun”) slows the pace considerably to focus on the interaction of between impacted townsfolk and let his cast do the heavy lifting as each new plot twist is revealed and genre lines are crossed, a la David Lynch. The series has been renewed for a second season, so any investment in time won’t go to waste. The Blu-ray adds 30 minutes of bonus material, including interviews.

If fatally ill patients and their doctors have one thing in common, it’s that neither of them are comfortable coming to grips with the reality of death and dying. How could they be? “Hope is not a plan,” argues renowned surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande in the PBS/”Frontline” documentary “Being Mortal.” “We find from our trials that we are literally inflicting therapies on people that shorten their lives and increase their suffering, due to an inability to come to good decisions.” The film also explores the burgeoning art and science of palliative care and the ways in which having a conversation around the question “What are your priorities if your time is limited?” can empower patients to live their lives fully, all the way to the very end. The subject may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but being prepared for the inevitable shouldn’t be limited to the purchase of life insurance and burial plots.

The PBS/”Nature” documentary “The Last Orangutan Eden” takes us to the Leuser Ecosystem on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s where an orphaned orangutan named Udin was raised in captivity by the not-for-profit Orangutan Project. Now deemed ready to be released into the wild, Udin’s progress will be followed by researchers who are comfortable working in the extreme conditions presented by the remote rainforest. It’s here that orangutans are sheltered by poachers and developers burning down the trees to facilitate the production of palm oil. In the film, getting is half the fun.

Based on a novel by Michael Laimo, the Chiller Network’s Deep in the Darkness borrows from a half-dozen better movies in the service of a story that is roughly divided in half between setup and execution. Sean Patrick Thomas plays Dr. Michael Cayle, a New York City physician anxious to trade the hustle-and-bustle of the big city for pastoral joys of life in puny Ashborough, New Hampshire. It takes a while before the family starts to notice that Ashborough might have been horror-master Ira Levin’s home away from home. What’s hiding just below the surface of this Stepford look-alike is an ancient tribe of hairy cave-dwelling savages, who have the locals scared shitless. Clearly, Cayle neglected to ask the right questions of the real-estate agent who negotiated the sale of the house. Although hardly the scariest movie available to renters, Deep in the Darkness represents above-average made-for-cable fare. Dean Stockwell is along for the ride as a town elder.

The DVD Wrapup: Babadook, Big Eyes, Happy Valley, Tale of Winter, Odd Man Out, The Missing and more

Friday, April 17th, 2015

The Babadook: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Despite the warm welcome accorded The Babadook by festival audiences and critics of both the mainstream and genre persuasion, this nifty Australian export about things that go bump in the night received an unfairly puny release upon its arrival here. I can’t explain why that might be so, except to point out that someone in the distribution game really missed the boat. I’d be interested to know how Jennifer Kent’s debut performed on VOD platforms, as horror tends to do very well on the highly convenient platform. Shout! Factory not only picked up The Babadook up for its genre-specific Scream Factory label, but also packaged it in a style that approximates the nerve-tingling storybook at the movie’s heart. Seven years after the violent death of Amelia’s husband, as they raced to the hospital for the birth of their son, she remains an emotional basket case, barely able to function in the real world. The boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is troubled in a very different way. If ever a child could be expected to grow up to be a sociopath, it’s him. Samuel acts out his pain at school and with unsuspecting playmates. The one thing the boy can’t seem to handle, however, is the possibility that he might be the target of a monster – or actual bogeyman – who stands up to him in the netherworld where nightmares bleed into reality. One night, Amelia allows Samuel to pick out a book for them to share at bedtime. He selects “Mister Babadook,” a slim illustrated volume that one day mysteriously appeared in his bedroom and features sinister poetry and spooky pop-out characters. It’s at this point that things really begin to bump in the night for the haunted child and mother, who forces herself to return to the narrative to see if this gift from hell might have been delivered by her late husband. After some slicing and dicing, Amelia is able to discern a message that could bring them some temporary peace, at least. It isn’t often that a horror movie reveals as many maternal characteristics as The Babadook, in which mother and son share a bond that extends back to the womb. The Blu-ray adds Kent’s “Monster,” the short film that inspired the feature; deleted scenes; featurettes on the set, stunts and special effects; interviews with cast and crew; and a piece on illustrator Alex Juhasz, who created the book that plays such an integral part of the film and its packaging in Blu-ray/DVD. You definitely don’t want to watch The Babadook alone.

Big Eyes: Blu-ray
If Hollywood played by the same rules that govern journalism, an argument could be made that Tim Burton possibly agreed to produce and direct Big Eyes because he owned paintings made by the protagonist, including portraits of Lisa Marie, Helena Bonham Carter and his late pet Chihuahua. While undeniably compelling, Margaret Keane’s story feels a tad too slight for his enormous imagination to embrace. Still, when word got out that Keane’s almost unbelievable tale was being told by Burton, sales of her paintings hit new highs. Even if true, as current scandals go, any such controversy would be small potatoes compared to the ones that have tarred Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Dan Rather, whose profession does demand adherence to certain ethical standards. And, truth be told, in Hollywood, ethics are measured by the number of zeros and commas in a film’s box-office tally. In a move that probably enhanced the box-office potential for Big Eyes, producer Burton took over the directorial reins once held by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had developed the project with the intent of writing and directing it. The former USC roommates had collaborated with Burton on Ed Wood and, back in 2010, entertainment reporters salivated over rumors that they would be working with him, again, on an animated feature inspired by “Addams Family” cartoons in the New Yorker. Like most such pre-production rumors reported as fact in the trades and blogs, this one never made it to the launch pad.

If the hero of Big Eyes is Margaret Keane, she’s frequently overshadowed by the egomaniacal antics of former husband, Walter Keane, who she met at a vulnerable point in her life and to whom she foolishly relinquished authorship of her art. The roles fit Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz to a T. Margaret’s singular portraits of waifs with large round eyes became a sensation in the 1960s, perhaps as a backlash to the rise in Modern, Abstract and Post-Impressionist painting that had come into vogue in the post-war period. This was the art embraced by the same critics – represented here by Terence Stamp — who lambasted the big-eye paintings as being blatantly commercial and overly repetitive. Waltz’ portrayal of Walter veers from the buffoonish to being a textbook case in defining psychological and physical spousal abuse. While probably correct in assuming that patrons of the arts were too set in their ways to invest in paintings that carried a woman’s signature, Keane appears to have convinced himself that promoting her work for fame and fortune was the same thing as creating it. It took Margaret Keane a long time to stand up to her husband’s identity theft and bullying tactics. Even Hawaii proved to be too short a distance from him to prevent meddling and counter demands that she maintain the ruse. When Margaret finally did demand recognition, in an interview with a local radio host, Walter sued her for slander. This led to a courtroom confrontation that would be hilarious if Walter’s behavior weren’t so demonstrably sociopathic. While Big Eyes may lack the cutting-edge heft usually associated with Burton’s films, he does inject the occasional surrealistic touch and it’s inarguably entertaining. Moreover, the performances are worth the price of admission, alone. The Blu-ray adds post-screening Q&As and making-of featurette.

Happy Valley
Antarctica: A Year on Ice: Blu-ray
The irony that drips from the title of Amir Bar-Lev’s latest documentary, would be too much to bear, if, as the home of Penn State University, Happy Valley weren’t so isolated from the world that exists beyond the shadow of academia’s ivory tower and the economic safety net it provides the greater community of 105,000 shining, happy and largely overweight residents. Outside of the classrooms and fields of play at PSU, status quo appears to something people have determined to be well worth fighting to maintain. As such, they tend to take everything that happens there as personally as the crew and passengers of the SS Minnow, on “Gilligan’s Island.” The folks we meet in Happy Valley, the movie, have determined that, as long as their blood runs blue, their precious Nittany Lions football team will be protected as if the mascot represented an endangered species. For the most of the 61 years, Joe Paterno stood on the sidelines as an assistant or head coach of the team. He was as loyal to the community, university and student body as they were to him. He was as close to being a living god in central Pennsylvania as any one person could be and, while far from being a tyrant, Paterno was able to avoid sticky situations by basking in the glare of their love. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant achieved similar status in Alabama, as did Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in Wisconsin, if for much shorter periods of time. Nearly 50 years after his final victory on the frozen tundra, Lombardi is still referred to as “Saint Vince.” Before his death to cancer, at 85, JoePa logged more victories than any other college coach and saw to it that most of his players leave school with a diploma.

Although Paterno had nothing to do with the allegations, his achievements and reputation sustained collateral damage when the child-sex-abuse scandal involving his longtime defensive coordinator began making Page 1 headlines around the country. In November, 2011, Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. Most of the molestation victims were introduced to Sandusky as participants in his non-profit charity camp for underprivileged children. Because Sandusky stood beside Paterno for 30 successful years and probably turned down dozens of job offers from schools in need of a head coach, he was treated like a demi-god in Happy Valley. When the national media caught wind of a three-year grand jury investigation of Sandusky, impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, reporters descended on Happy Valley like a plague of locusts. When they got tired of reporting virtually the same rumors about potential witnesses and indictments, day-after-day, they turned their attention to how much the coach knew about his assistant’s behavior, when he first heard about it and what he did with the information. With the previously secure borders of Happy Valley already breached, Paterno became the next giant to fall. Yes, he had reported two previous accusations of abuse to his superiors in the university’s food chain, but a separate investigation found that he failed to follow-up on them and may have been involved in a cover-up to protect the image of the athletics program. Worse, he continued to allow access to PSU sports facilities to Sandusky, who used them for nefarious encounters with underage boys. In a move that many people saw as being premature, pre-emptive and unnecessarily cruel, the Penn State Board of Trustees rejected Paterno’s offer to retire at the end of the season and fired him with a couple of games left on the schedule. In two months, Paterno would die of cancer. In another six months, the NCAA vacated all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 through 2011, adding sanction that would have negative effect on recruiting players and remaining competitive in the Big 10.

Happy Valley doesn’t re-argue the cases against Sandusky, Paterno or the university officials who covered their heads in sand. Neither is it particularly unkind to the media horde that follows such stories from one place to another, like so many Kardashians to a red carpet. Instead it describes how the controversy turned University Park into a laboratory for gauging the effects of moral equivalency and the deification of sports figures in whose reflected glory fans are allowed to bask. Bar-Lev gives all sides in the debate ample time to state their cases and demonstrate where their loyalties lie … and, yes, make fools of themselves. Among those who agreed to be interviewed are die-hard PSU loyalists, conflicted students and townsfolk, child advocates, a muralist who removed Sandusky’s likeness from his wall painting of the PSU Pantheon, the Paterno’s naturally protective sons and Sandusky’s adopted son, who wasn’t even aware he had been molested until hearing the testimony of other victims.

In an interview conducted for the DVD package, Bar-Lev makes a direct correlation between the Penn State scandal and the on-going Bill Cosby controversy. As long as the beloved comedian can avoid being indicted for rape, his legion of fans and allies will defend his right to continue performing. Like the young who risked everything to testify about what Sandusky did to them, the women who allegedly were drugged and raped by Cosby may never be able to crack the thick veneer of respectability surrounding their attacker. To that end, the NCAA has already buckled under pressure from a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania state representatives against the organization. It restored Paterno’s record and other sanctions on the program in return for an agreement by university officials to free up $60 million for programs serving victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

I seem to recall a cartoon in which every bird in a “waddle” of Antarctic penguins is being stalked by a “waddle” of videographers. Because of all the documentaries, features and TV shows that have followed in the wake of March of the Penguins, no caption was required. Anthony Powell’s frequently stunning Antarctica: A Year on Ice is the latest in a long list of documentaries – animated features have become every bit as prevalent – set on our southernmost continent and showcasing one species of penguin or another. (The only things that separate these films from those shot in the Arctic are the penguins and the lack of wild game and an indigenous population.) As a study of isolated populations, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is kindred to Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga – also from Music Box – Herzog’s similarly placed Encounters at the End of the World, the BBC series “Frozen Planet” and the tense Russian drama, How I Ended This Summer, set at a meteorological station on a desolate island in the Arctic. Powell and wife, Christine, have lived and worked in Antarctica for many years. After more than 10 years of filming, his documentary is divided roughly in half by spectacular images of the rugged terrain and brilliant skies – day and night — and home movies in which the scientific bases’ yearlong residents describe their experiences and feelings about virtually being cut off from the world for six months at a time. If you’ve ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated on the South Pole or how people remain sane in such extreme circumstances, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a good place to start. The Blu-ray easily met the challenge of my new 4K monitor, somewhat justifying the expenditure. Special features include behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, Powell’s commentary, an interview on New Zealand radio, a short excerpt in which a penguin attacks an invasive camera and visits to the newly preserved huts of explores Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

A Tale of Winter
Odd Man Out: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
That Man From Rio/Up to His Ears: Blu-ray
If the machinations of love and romance weren’t so complicated, it would be easy to categorize Eric Rohmer’s films as fairy tales for adults. The characters are easily recognizable and their hang-ups as familiar as looking in a mirror. If they talk more than people in most other movies, their dialogue, at least, is intelligent and frequently stimulating. More than any other thing, though, Rohmer’s stories serve as reminders that love isn’t easy and romance is worth the pain and shame that sometimes accompany it.  A Tale of Winter (“Conte d’hiver”), the second in the master’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” may have a predictable ending, but everything that precedes it is unexpected.  The willowy beauty Charlotte Véry plays Félicie, a flakey young Parisian who commits an almost unbelievable blunder after falling in love with the handsome restaurateur, Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche). It happens during a vacation on the shore, where other of Rohmer’s romances have blossomed. Felicie is so sure of her love for Charles that she neglects to insist on a condom. In the act of saying goodbye, she makes the mistake of giving him an address to her residence that places it in a different suburb altogether. Because he was on the road scouting restaurants, Charles was unable to reciprocate with an address of his own. Fast-forward five years and we know without being told that Felicie is the single mother of a beautiful daughter, Elise, while a photograph on her dresser confirms that Charles is the father. She is so confident that he will come to rescue them on a white horse that she allows Elise to share her dream of reunion with the father she only knows by name. Meanwhile, though, Felicie has left herself an escape route by falling into something resembling love with two other men and stringing them along as to the likelihood of Charles miraculously re-entering her life. It’s a cruel game, but each of the men is willing to cut the fairy princess some slack, as long as she continues to spend her nights with them. Although A Tale of Winter mostly unspools in Paris, Rohmer also treats us to some sunny days at the shore and a short visit to the quaint and scenic town of Nevers, which, situated on a hillside along the banks of the Loire River, adds to the film’s fairytale vibe. The moral of the story, I suppose, is to follow one’s heart and never give up on a dream. Even if that Disney-worthy advice works to the advantage of the protagonists in Rohmer’s romances, it’s not something that young lovers in the real world should take to heart.

If all anyone knows about Carol Reed’s movies derives from one or more screenings of his mesmerizing post-war thriller, The Third Man – yup, the one in which Orson Wells plays second fiddle to Anton Karas’ zither – they owe it to themselves to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Odd Man Out. Released two years before Reed’s adaptation of the Graham Greene story, Odd Man Out likewise benefited greatly from Robert Krasker’s amazing black-and-white photography, which merged American film noir with German Expressionism. The shadows may not be as dramatically pronounced as they are in The Third Man, but the same overall sense of dread prevails throughout Odd Man Out. James Mason is terrific as Johnny McQueen, the leader of a clandestine Irish organization – not very unlike the IRA – hiding out in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland after escaping from prison. The organization is getting short on cash, so a cell decides to hit a factory on payday. Fearing that McQueen might not be up for such strenuous work, so soon after being in stir, his followers urge him not join them on the heist. And, sure enough, a momentary lapse in judgment causes McQueen to be seriously wounded in the escape, setting off a chain of events that exposes the organization’s top operatives and their supporters to extreme danger. After losing his grip on the getaway car, McQueen ended up on the concrete, with the police hot on his trail and a bullet in his crushed shoulder. After allowing him temporary shelter in a backyard shed, Reed turns his attention to choreographing a chase between the well-organized constabulary and the men and woman attempting to rescue McQueen before he’s arrested or bleeds out. In between, Reed introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of local residents and various landmarks along the way. Then, there are the turncoats willing to sell out their neighbors in exchange for a quid pro quo from police. We’re never sure how the chase will end and who survives it. Given everything’s that’s happened in Northern Ireland in the ensuing half-century, we have the benefit of understanding how such crimes and chases will finally add up to one bloody mess, unrelieved by reason or compromise. Criterion’s superb high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds greatly to our enjoyment of this 65-year-old classic. The featurettes include “Postwar Poetry,” a new documentary about the film; fresh interviews with British cinema scholar John Hill, musicologist Jeff Smith and composer William Alwyn; a 1952 radio adaptation of the film, starring Mason and Dan O’Herlihy; an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith; and, best of all, “Home, James,” a 1972 documentary in which Mason revisits his hometown of Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

After a series of hard-guy roles that established Jean-Paul Belmondo as an international star, it must have bordered on sacrilege to find him in the extremely broad James Bond spoofs, That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears. If Jerry Lewis, himself, had donned the same white dinner jacket as Belmondo and traveled halfway around the globe – twice – in pursuit of a combined 212 minutes of slapstick humor, it would have made more sense than finding the star of Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, Le Doulos and Pierrot le Fou in such blatant crowd-pleasers. Nonetheless, both of the Philippe de Broca-directed comedies turned in big numbers at the box office, with That Man From Rio even performing well here. Although the Belgian cartoonist, Hergé, wasn’t accorded official recognition for Tintin’s influence on what transpires in That Man From Rio, there’s no escaping the resemblance in plot points, pacing and visuals. In Up to His Ears, at least, Jules Verne’s “Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine” was credited as the movie’s inspiration. In the former, Belmondo’s character chases the kidnapers of the ravishing daughter (Françoise Dorléac) of a famous anthropologist, from Paris to such Brazilian destinations as Rio de Janeiro, a then-nascent Brasilia and Amazonas. They believe she holds the key to an ancient horde of diamonds hidden in a cave in the rainforest. In the latter title, whose plot borders on the ludicrous, Belmondo is a millionaire playboy, who believes he’s being chased by assassins. After sailing into Hong Kong on his yacht, Belmondo’s character is told that he’s lost his fortune – presumably in the stock market – and must scramble to recoup the money needed to maintain his lavish lifestyle. This time, the female lead is none other than Ursula Andress, who was coming off eye-popping performances in Dr. No, Fun in Acapulco, What’s New Pussycat, 4 for Texas and She. In addition to Hong Kong, the spectacular locations include Langkawi Island, Malaysia; Kathmandu and Patan, Nepal; and Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. The Blu-ray features add several lengthy and revealing backgrounder interviews, including a humorous reminiscence by co-star Jean Rochefort.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken: Blu-ray
I can’t recall the amount of media attention here accorded the 1983 kidnaping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken in Holland. It was certainly big news in Europe, especially as it suggested that the lull in abductions of high-profile industrialists and politicians by leftist groups was over. In fact, the Heineken snatching was successful, despite the near-amateur execution of the snatch. Arrogant to the point of refusing the protection of bodyguards, Heineken was an easy target for the five-man gang. Because they weren’t affiliated with organized crime and known political factions, they were able to keep their victim and his driver hidden from police for three weeks, before a 35-million-guilder ransom was paid. The story of the eventual capture of the kidnapers and their trials is nearly as exciting as the crime, itself. It’s so compelling that two movies dramatized it. Daniel Alfredson’s Kidnapping Mr. Heineken  arrives on Blu-ray after brief and extremely limited theatrical run, three years after Maarten Treurniet’s excellent The Heineken Kidnapping. Both take slightly different approaches to the same material, with Alfredson’s version being more accessible to non-Dutch audiences. It features a delicious performance by Anthony Hopkins, as the increasingly perturbed victim, and kidnappers played by Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanteen, Mark van Eeuwen and Thomas Cocquerel. In a return to Holland after some 30 years, Rutger Hauer did an equally nice job as Heineken. You can’t go wrong with either version.

With this year’s fight of the century just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to learn as much about the combatants as possible. For all of his success in the ring, undefeated welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. isn’t the most charismatic or likeable representative for the sweet science.  Very few observers would be unhappy if Mayweather were to be beaten by the scrappy 36-year-old Filipino, Manny Pacquiao, who may be on his last legs, but remains a fierce competitor. Mayweather’s rise from the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, rivals that of Pacquiao’s struggle to escape rural poverty in the strife-torn province of Sarangani. The difference is that Pacquiao, who now represents his home district in the Philippine House of Representatives, used boxing as a means to keep his family from going hungry, while Mayweather, having been born into a family of boxers, drug addicts and criminals, chose the only straight road left to him and he never looked back. Even so, he lost any chance of becoming a people’s champion after serving a two-month sentence for spousal abuse and his flamboyant Las Vegas lifestyle began making headlines in the tabloids. Although Pacquiao would prove not to be a saint, his worldwide status became a source of great pride to the Philippines and he reciprocated by contributing his time and money to charitable projects.  Leon Gast and Ryan Moore’s bio-doc, Manny, doesn’t dwell on the significance of the upcoming fight, choosing, instead, to focus on Pacquiao’s personal story and professional evolution. It also shows how a young fighter who could barely speak English when he began winning championships – and was an easy mark for corrupt managers and promoters — has become something of a talk-show darling, as well as a singer, preacher and politician. And, what Manny lacks in cinematic flair is made up for in information and fight footage. The DVD adds several background featurettes.

Vengeance of an Assassin: Blu-ray
If Sam Peckinpah had ever traveled to Thailand and left behind a son or a daughter, they might have grown up to make a movie as inventively violent as Vengeance of an Assassin, which opens with a brutal game of kung-fu soccer and ends with a body count at least as high as that in The Wild Bunch. Fans of Thai action films probably already are aware of the fact that it represents the final directorial effort by Panna Rittikrai (Ong-Bak), who died last July at the too-young age of 53. Rittikrai is responsible for some of the most amazing stunt work in the martial-arts genre and found success after branching out into directing, acting, writing and producing. Perhaps because Vengeance of an Assassin was being filmed at the same time as Rittikrai was battling complications from multiple organ failure, it is long on action and short on plot development and logic. Natee (Dan Chupong) became a killer for one reason- to discover who killed his parents and reciprocate. As he gets closer to uncovering the secret network of powerful men he believes are responsible, Natee becomes the target of a double-cross that threatens everything he loves. As usual, one of the side benefits of Thai products is scenery and locations not common to other genre products.

Echoes: Blu-ray
From the Dark: Blu-ray
Long Weekend: Blu-ray
Enter the Dangerous Mind: Blu-ray
If I were struggling with insomnia and night terrors, the last place I’d want to spend a weekend alone is in a glass-walled home, sans curtains, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Apart from the occasional garbage-robbing coyote and night-crawling rattlesnake, there are the tormented ghosts of long-dead Indians and undiscovered Manson Family victims. That’s pretty much the setup for Echoes, a very decent first feature by newcomer Nils Timm. A troubled screenwriter (Kate French) accepts just such an invitation from her agent (Steven Brand), who keeps asking her to rewrite the same script, while neglecting to offer her any advice. It’s a wonderful house, though, designed with spectacular panoramic views, and no fences to keep out the boogeymen. When the agent is called back to his office, he encourages the writer to enjoy the weekend and try to get some work done. That’s easier said than done, especially when a light in the backyard turns it into a theater for the macabre. It’s up to viewers to determine if the writer is hallucinating or the house really is haunted by evil spirits lurking among the boulders and sagebrush. This may not be the most original premise for a horror whodunit, but Timm takes full advantage of the setting to raise the ante on fright.

The clever Irish director Conor McMahon, who’s already given us Dead Meat and Stitches, adopts a more minimalist approach in From the Dark. It opens with a farmer methodically digging out brick-shaped clods of peat, until he discovers the mummified remains of a human being … or, perhaps, the corpse was simply biding its time for the old man to find it. Flash ahead a few hours and cut to a young couple experiencing car trouble while on a road trip through the Irish countryside, which, of course, is beautiful on a moonless night. The driver does what anyone would do in the same situation: leave his girlfriend in the car while he seeks help at a home we’re pretty sure was owned by the peat farmer. When no one responds to his knocking, naturally the young man lets himself into the house, where he’s confronted by the 1,000-year-old spirit inhabiting the geezer. Tired of waiting, the perturbed companion follows her boyfriend’s tracks to the home, where, she, too, is confronted by the fiend. Once the couple determines that the creature can’t stand being illuminated, From the Dark becomes a claustrophobic game of tag between the light-seeking couple and a monster intent on keeping them inside a darkened house. Somehow, it works. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The truly classic Ozploitation flick, Long Weekend, makes the most of a nature-strikes-back premise that might have been written and shot during a holiday trip to the beach. It’s this simple. A pair of squabbling Aussies sets out on a camping trip to the bush, hoping to save a marriage hobbled by the wife’s regret over an abortion demanded by her husband. Because they’re shown littering and driving away from a collision with a kangaroo, we’re pre-disposed to dislike them. Once they get to the beach, however, the rifle-toting husband becomes exponentially more onerous than she is. It explains why we side with the native wildlife – including the bloated corpse of a “sea cow” and a transplanted Tasmanian devil – as the critters begin to run roughshod on the campsite and unseen demons launch their strategic attacks. Our natural response is to ask why Peter and Marcia don’t simply pick up their stakes and split back for civilization. Sadly for the couple, the vegetation conspires with the animals and birds to prevent this from happening. Twenty years after Birds, the avian attacks in Long Weekend retain their ability to shock us, but these are considerably more credible. Horror and exploitation buffs should find a lot to like in this Synapse Films reclamation project. The Blu-ray adds commentary from producer Richard Brennan and cinematographer Vincent Monton, as well as an audio interview with Hargreaves.

Enter the Dangerous Mind (a.k.a., “Snap”) received some of the most scathing reviews I’ve seen in a quite a while and I think I know the real reason why it pissed off so many critics. In it, Jim (Jake Hoffman) is a painfully shy young man who’s only able to drown out memories of a traumatic youth by sitting in his room and mixing electronic dance music, heavy on dubstep beats. The music could hardly be more loud and disturbing. I spent most of the movie adjusting the volume, via remote control, so as to avoid being thrown out of my apartment unit. Perhaps, in a nod to “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Jim is tormented by a sociopathic voice in his head instructing him how to approach women, specifically the abnormally beautiful Wendy (Nikki Reed), who he meets on a visit to his social worker (Scott Bakula). It’s all kind of messy, but a decent twist at the end works in the movie’s favor. The problem, of course, is that filmmakers Youssef Delara and Victor Teran will have lost most their audience by this time, fearing their hearing is endangered.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine
The Way Things Go: Blu-ray
In Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s thoroughly enigmatic quasi-documentary, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a mysterious African-American hipster, who some viewers will recognize as avant-garde musician Robert A.A. Lowe, serves as our guide on a somewhat anachronistic journey through far northern Europe. It begins with a visit to either the first or last surviving hippie commune on a small Estonian island and ends at a discomfiting “black metal” concert in Oslo. These sequences serve as bookends to the contemplative middle chapter, during which Lowe fishes, alone, in a rowboat on a serene lake in the Finnish wilderness. On shore, he directly communes with nature via a mushroom with a bright red cap. I’m not sure what any of it means, except, possibly, the Chicago-based musician is a cool guy whose influences are many and varied. If, as I suspect, we’re expected to glean some philosophical, religious or metaphysical significance from the 98-minute A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, the first and third parts tend to neutralize the sublime meditations they surround. It’s also true that 30 minutes of in-your-face black metal would be enough to fill most uninitiated viewers with, at best, a great deal of anxiety. Even so, fans of Lowe and the filmmakers will be ecstatic to learn that it’s available in DVD.

John Aes-Nihil, whose greatest gift to American culture may be the transgressive Manson Family Movies, does for William S. Burroughs what, at one time, must have seemed to be impossible: turn the truly iconic beat writer into someone frightfully old and inconsequential. Ostensibly, William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine is a documentary about the flickering gizmo created in the early 1960s by artist Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville to simulate brain waves. Aes-Nihil uses Burroughs marquee value to stretch about 10 minute of solid material into 70 minutes of vacuous content. His presence basically serves as window dressing, along with irrelevant appearances by Allen Ginsberg and Leo DiCaprio. While it’s true that Burroughs and other influential mid-century artists embraced the apparatus, Aes-Nihil wouldn’t be the first person to exploit a famous author’s name to sell material previously available to the public. Nik Sheehan’s 2008 documentary FLicKeR was a far more persuasive vehicle for a discussion on the subject of the Dreamachine and it features even more celebrity witnesses. The machine has at its core a 100-watt bulb, which is surrounded by a spinning open column with tiny curved windows to allow the light to shine through. Oddly, it is to be experienced with one’s eyes closed. The hypnotic or hallucinogenic effect is supposed to simulate a drug-less high. In the Dreamachine represents Cult Epics’ contribution to the centennial of Burroughs’ birth. Sadly, the footage shot at a 1966 reception at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art and subsequent material taken from a Nova Convention tribute and at Burroughs’ farmhouse, shortly before his death, wouldn’t get a passing grade in most high school AV classes.  The camera is static and the voices are mostly unintelligible. The DVD also includes a photo gallery and David Woodward’s 2007 Dreamachine Installation at the Freud Museum of Dreams, in St Petersburg, Russia. An interesting discussion is neutralized by a lack of subtitles or editing out of long-winded translations.

Of these three largely experimental films, by far the most accessible and entertaining is The Way Things Go (“Der Lauf der Dinge”), which documents an art installation that might have been created by the combined talents of Rube Goldberg and Redd Foxx’s junk-yard genius, Fred G. Sanford. The 100-foot chain-reaction structure is comprised of such commonplace objects as tires, ladders, boards, ramps, aerosol cans, flammable liquids and other discarded household objects. Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss document the 30-minute dissembling on a slow-moving camera, without embellishment or commentary. The best way to experience it is with kids, who should begin to howl with laughter and delight after five minutes. Who knows what they might be inspired to create, themselves, by watching the magic unfold.

Class of 1984: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Eddie and the Cruisers/Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives: Blu-ray
Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2: Blu-ray
In his comments for the Blu-ray edition of Class of 1984, co-writer/director Mark Lester makes it sound as if the exploitation classic possesses the greatest gift of prophesy since 2001: A Space Odyssey, primarily for its inclusion of metal detectors at the doors of his anarchic “inner city” Lincoln High. He recalls the rave reception the movie received at Cannes and Roger Ebert’s supportive review, while also citing such influences as Blackboard Jungle, High School Confidential and A Clockwork Orange. He might just as well have mentioned Zero de Conduite, If … and The 400 Blows. The movie he didn’t  point to, unless I missed it, is the one I thought of first: New World Pictures’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, a film that, like Class of 1984, spawned Troma’s immortal, Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Lester also deserves demerits for a scene in which a gang of white hoodlums, led by Timothy Van Patten, beats the crap out of a gang of black thugs in a rumble staged in the heart of the ghetto. It’s a small point, perhaps, but even on “Welcome Back Kotter,” Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs was allowed to represent African-Americans as a fellow Sweathog. That’s all academic, however, because for better or worse exploitation flicks play by their own rules. The Shout! Factory edition presents enough solid evidence of the Class of 1984’s place in the Pantheon of Exploitation to discourage any further delusions of grandeur. Perry King plays the naïve music teacher who is hired by Lincoln High to replace an instructor who was driven nuts by the punks who turned his class into their own personal playground. The first thing he notices in the parking lot is the gun carried by a jaded fellow teacher (Roddy McDowell) who can’t wait to retire. The second is that four of the five chief troublemakers aren’t even enrolled in the music program. Timothy Van Patten’s spoiled rich kid plays a mean piano, but prefers to torment his teachers and the school’s geek population, which includes a puny musician played by Michael “No J” Fox. If the first half of Class of 1984 is riddled with holes and clichés, the exciting second half more than makes up for it. It’s violent, but in a way that would satisfy fans of Death Wish and Dirty Harry. A fascinating interview with King more than makes up for the less down-to-earth moments in chats with Lester, Lalo Schifrin, Lisa Langlois and Erin Noble.

In other news from Shout! Factory, similarly restored double-feature packages of Eddie and the Cruisers/Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives and Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2 are newly available on Blu-ray. In the former, 20 years after the car of a New Jersey rock legend (Michael Pare) careens off a bridge, a TV reporter (Ellen Barkin) begins to suspect that the singer might have survived the crash. The original film didn’t become a hit until it was shown on cable and was embraced by teenage viewers.  In the sequel, Eddie comes out of hiding to front a different band. Some featurettes have been picked up for the re-release.

Despite the title, the Carrie double-bill is comprised of the 2002 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tale of horror and retribution, which aired on NBC and starred Angela Bettis, Patricia Clarkson and Rena Sofer. Released theatrically in 1999, The Rage: Carrie 2 is the kind of unnecessary sequel that is made whether anyone wants to see it or not. Neither of these titles should be confused with Brian De Palma’s original Carrie or Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 remake, which received a handful of good reviews and may have turned a profit in the international market. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary by directors David Carson and Katt Shea, deleted scenes, an alternate ending and special-effects sequences.

Starz: The Missing: Blu-ray
Syfy: Metal Hurlant Chronicles: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Joe 90: The Complete Series
PBS: Wild Kratts: Shark-Tastic
PBS: Lights Out!
Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Hall of Famers/Stingers and Zingers
When a child disappears or is found dead, the loss is felt far beyond members of the immediate family. It’s as if we all have a stake in the outcome. Our compassion explains the widespread acceptance of Amber Alerts and the ability of bottom-feeding cable-news personalities to exploit such crimes for their own benefit. While we all want happy endings, too often all we’re left with are prayer vigils, live courtroom coverage and relief that it wasn’t our children who fell victim to the monsters around us. The international co-production “The Missing” – shown here on Starz and, in England, on BBC 1 – is an intricately drawn and imminently binge-worthy mini-series that examines one such disappearance as both a police procedural and heart-wrenching human drama. Fans of BBC America and PBS’ “Masterpiece” collection will recognize several of the key players as the cream of England’s acting crop, with some top French and Belgian actors lending their talent to the cross-Channel investigation. Brits Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor), along with their young son, Olly, are vacationing in a town near Paris when car trouble forces them to spend the night in a B&B. An important soccer match has the entire town transfixed and, being a pleasant summer night, most are watching it in the plaza. At a critical moment, Tony loses hold of Olly’s hand for a precious few seconds. It’s in that wink of an eye, that the boy slips off into the night, perhaps forever, opening the floodgates of fear, recriminations and fevered speculation. Unwilling to lose track of even the memory of their son, the Hughes take up residence in the hotel for long periods of time over the course of the next eight years. European superstar Tchéky Karyo plays the dogged police detective for whom the investigation becomes an obsession shared with Olly’s hugely impatient father. Over time, the two men’s relationship grows from tepid acceptance born of necessity to a true friendship. Not surprisingly, Tony and Emily’s marriage is stretched to the breaking point and back. “The Missing” is so full of twists, turns, false leads, red herrings and cliffhangers that any synapsis would be too laden with spoilers to do justice to the complexity of the narrative. Let’s just say that, at various times, the suspects include everyone from the town’s politically expedient mayor to the town’s resident pedophile. None of them are given short-shrift by director Tom Shankland (“Ripper Street”) and writers Harry and Jack Williams (“Full English”). The package’s three short featurettes add almost nothing to our enjoyment of the mini-series or anticipation of a second season.

Distinguished by a hyper-realistic visual texture and intense heavy-metal audio presentation Syfy’s “Metal Hurlant Chronicles” offers fans of dystopian sci-fi a distinctly adult vision of the distant future. The self-contained stories in this noisy English-language Franco-Belgian anthology series are based on material already published in Métal Hurlant/ Heavy Metal magazine. Co-writer/creator Guillaume Lubrano’s unifying force is the titular asteroid – the last remnant of a once thriving planet – destined to search the cosmos for individuals struggling to survive amid the ruins, while retaining a semblance of humanity in a universe that couldn’t give a shit less. The episodes, patterned after “The Twilight Zone” and other sci-fi anthology series, feature some very decent CG animation, but, generally speaking, are too short be of much intellectual value to viewers. Still, for a couple of seasons, anyway, it filled a niche on Syfy. The cast includes Rutger Hauer, Michael Biehn, John Rhys-Davies, James Marsters, Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Kelly Brook, Joe Flanigan, Michelle Ryan and Dominique Pinon. Some viewers will be happy to learn that titty bars serve oxygen cocktails in deep space.

From Shout! Factory/Timeless Media, “Joe 90” is the latest compilation of Supermarionation television adventures, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” “Thunderbirds”) in the 1960s. After the brilliant Professor Ian McClaine develops a machine called BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer) he decides to use his adopted son, Joe, as his guinea pig.  Having been imbued with the ability to become an expert in any field, the 9-year-old boy is recruited by the World Intelligence Network to join their quest to stop evildoers wherever they may arise.  “Joe 90: The Complete Series” contains 30 episodes of entertaining kids/geek programming, as well as commentaries with designer Mike Trim and director Ken Turner, and an interview with Gerry Anderson.

In the new PBS compilation, “Wild Kratts: Shark-Tastic!,” the environmental crusaders are researching ways to prevent the extinction of aquatic life around the planet, starting with the decimation of great white sharks by fishermen in pursuit of fins required to satisfy the expensive tastes of thoughtless diners. Next, when Martin knocks the Creature Power Suits into a deep Arctic trench, the brothers use the new Octopod submarine to search for them. Then, Aviva takes the lead when she wants to upgrade the Tortuga with swimming capabilities and the team attempts to decode the secret language of dolphins using a new invention.

Occasionally, one of the fine scientific investigations provided us by PBS raise questions about subjects most of us take completely for granted and only question when something goes wrong. The one posed in “Lights Out!” is new to me, however: Is too much artificial light a bad thing? Apparently, some scientists now believe that exposure to artificial light at night, even the glow of a cell phone or computer screen, can throw our internal body clock out of sync with the planet and may even be leading to serious illnesses. The producers visit nightshift workers at the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant, go for a ride-along with truckers on a cross-continental run and meet a New Orleans scientist who fights cancer by day and plays trumpet with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band by night. Among other things, they discover that hot spots are everywhere, from the illumination in the hospital ICU to the tiny screens of our mobile devices. I wonder of this Canadian export got much play on the Las Vegas PBS affiliate.

When Justin Bieber was cut to pieces by a jury of his peers on the latest Comedy Central roast, the jokes were passed through social media for days to come. The insults were largely R-rated and not all them were hurled in the direction of the bad-boy singer. There’s a lot of collateral damage in these affairs. While pretty hot in their day, the bon mots exchanged in Dean Martin Roasts: Stingers & Zingers and Dean Martin Roasts: Hall of Famers now seem as tame as the kittens and puppies in a pet-shop window. This isn’t to say, however, that they no longer are able to raise a smile or two, especially when the barbs are aimed at some of the biggest names in mid-century entertainment, politics and sports. “Stingers & Zingers” is an eight-DVD set that includes 24 complete “Celebrity Roasts “ and features a wide variety of guest roasters. “Hall of Famers” puts a tight focus on some sports figures as Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. The Aaron segment was taped only 10 days before he broke Babe Ruth s longstanding career home-run record. The distinction provided no shield against the pointed gags.

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 9
Impulse Pictures’ series of vintage-loop collections continues apace with 15 short films made in the period just before pornography went mainstream. Although the credits didn’t carry any credits, within a couple of years some the actors’ names would appear on Times Square marquees and the covers of VHS packages around the world. Some of the actors would simply disappear into the ether, of course, probably hoping and praying these nine-minute flicks would disappear forever. The digital revolution ensures they’ll live forever, instead. Among the more familiar names assembled here are Kandi Barbour, Aunt Peg, CJ Laing, and Vanessa Del Rio. As usual, liner notes are provided by Cinema Sewer editor, Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Immigrant and more

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

A Most Violent Year: Blu-ray
For many years, the 105-year-old National Board of Review has prided itself in being the first critical organization to reveal its list of the year’s best films, as well as handing out awards in several awards categories. As such, it not only has avoided getting lost in the avalanche of similar announcements, but also assured that no one in the greater cinematic community could forget its very existence. By comparison, the membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is an open book. Because of the attention given the board’s announcement by celebrity-obsessed media, publicists for the movies and artists so honored are accorded a head start in the increasingly competitive and absurdly expensive race for Oscars. (Never mind that most of the films named won’t reach audiences beyond New York and L.A. until mid-January, if at all.) When the NBR anointed J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year 2014’s Best Film, along with bestowing top honors on stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac – who shared the prize with Birdman’s Michael Keaton — it raised expectations for Academy Award nominations that never came. (The academy would also largely overlook the NBR’s other season-bests, Fury, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, The LEGO Movie and Nightcrawler, all of which were undeservedly snubbed.) Even if it had made the finals, though, A Most Violent Year wasn’t likely to beat Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel for Best Picture. Still, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it nominated for the unfilled ninth or tenth slots in the category. Alas, it wasn’t to be … such is life in the mean streets of Hollywood.

It’s worth noting that the title of Chandor’s easily recommendable thriller derives from the fact that 1981 – the temporal setting of A Most Violent Year — was one of the most violent, perhaps the most violent year in New York City history. No single industry, ethnic group or social stratum was immune to the madness. In a scenario that might have attracted Sidney Lumet, Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of one of the city’s leading suppliers of heating oil. Just as his business is about to expand, someone begins hijacking Morales’ trucks and selling the valuable contents on the black market. Like Morales, viewers are kept in the dark as to who’s responsible for the sometimes violent attacks, except that the likely suspects include competitors, a Teamster rep, loan sharks and organized crime. Chastain is typically excellent as Morales’ wife, a mobster’s daughter with a taste for Armani and protecting the company she helped prosper. Also terrific are Albert Brooks as Morales’ ethically conflicted lawyer and David Oyelowo, an ambitious district attorney, desperate to announce indictments. The interesting thing about Morales is that, for all of his gangster swagger and slick attire, he may be the one character in A Most Violent Year whose integrity is the least questionable, and that includes his wife. Even if I found myself tying up loose threads in the narrative, none interfered with my enjoyment of the picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb; the 44-minute background featurette, “Behind the Violence”; four “conversations” between longtime friends, Chastain and Isaac; deleted scenes; and other tidbits.

Interstellar: Blu-ray
If A Most Violent Year appeared to come out of nowhere to capture three top National Board of Review honors, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar began generating audible buzz even before debuting in early October. Here’s what Variety’s chief film critic, Scott Foundas, had to say about it, “Interstellar reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Gravity in the canon of Hollywood’s visionary sci-fi head trips. Global box office returns should prove suitably rocket-powered.” And that’s just what happened. To date, it has earned more than $672.6 million in the international marketplace, of which $188 million can be attributed to domestic revenues. As was the case with A Most Violent Year, however, early buzz failed to translate into high-profile nominations. It received four nominations in technical categories and one for Hans Zimmer’s original score, resulting in a single Oscar for visual effects. Typically, I don’t like to paraphrase other critics’ observations, but, as comparisons go, it would be difficult to find any more apt than the four classics mentioned in the Variety review. If you think The Wizard of Oz might be a stretch, well, judge for yourselves. Authors Jonathan and Christopher Nolan conjure a time in the foreseeable future when the planet has exhausted its ability to replenish its resources and a mass evacuation, as unfeasible as it sounds, is seen as a possible way to save humanity. The problem of finding a suitable planet to relocate the masses, however, remains unsolved. To this end, NASA has embarked on a highly classified mission – under the guidance of Nolan mainstay, Michael Caine — to send a select group of astrophysicists and a biotechnologist to a location somewhere in the direction of Saturn, where a newly identified wormhole might provide a superhighway to inhabitable worlds orbiting the massive black hole Gargantua.

As if to provide a more identifiably human protagonist for Interstellar’s audience to embrace – other than the data jockeys, engineers and conceptual cosmologists at NASA and Cal Tech — we’re given veteran military pilot and astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  A quintessentially down-to-Earth heartlander, Cooper retired to his vast family farm after NASA lost its funding. Evidence already visible on the horizon suggests, however, that a second Dust Bowl is imminent and, this time, nothing of lasting value will be spared. Cooper shares the farm with his crusty father-in-law (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and precocious 10-year-old daughter “Murph” (Mackenzie Foy), who believes her bedroom is haunted. If so, the poltergeist is sufficiently well-versed in the properties of gravitational waves to leave binary-coded coordinates that lead Cooper to the hidden NASA facility supervised by Caine’s Professor Brand. During a final visit to the farm, Murph demands that Cooper not join the mission and throws a heart-breaking tantrum when he insists that he has no recourse but to at least attempt to save mankind. If he makes it back to Earth, which seems unlikely, Cooper knows that his children will have aged by as many as 50 years, while he’ll still be handsome and spry. (It’s complicated.) In the meantime, however, Murph (now, Jessica Chastain) will have joined Brand at NASA headquarters and Tom (Topher Grace) will have taken over the farm.

Once the space probe has left the Earth’s atmosphere, Interstellar moves swiftly into territory previously explored by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Cooper’s crew consists of Brand’s biotech daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a pair of intricately programmed robots. There’s no way I could do justice to what happens when they enter the wormhole, accept to say that it isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before on film. Instead of merely providing a visual treat for acid heads – as 2001 would become — the Nolans combine aspects of traditional sci-fi with survival drama, metaphysics, advanced cosmology and theology. McConaughey’s good-ol’-boy demeanor ensures that the mission won’t sail completely over the heads of viewers without PhDs. This isn’t to say, however, that amateur astronomers, Trekkies and other card-carrying space nerds will be disappointed by concessions made for those of us who are tested by the jargon in “The Big Bang Theory.” The science is sound, if theoretical, and expertly rendered by CGI wizards right here on Earth. To this end, an entire disc in the Blu-ray package is dedicated to interviews, making-of material, explainers and a 55-minute featurette in which the Nolans introduce us to theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne, upon whose research Interstellar is based. Besides helping a generation of filmmakers make “the most exotic events in the universe … accessible to humans,” Thorne’s reputation recently was enhanced by an event depicted in The Theory of Everything. As portrayed by Enzo Cilenti, Thorne wins a bet with Stephen Hawking – based on theory that underlies Interstellar – who was then required to subscribe to Penthouse magazine for a year. He also was involved in the creation of Errol Morris’ “A Brief History of Time,” the PBS mini-series “The Astronauts,” Carl Sagan’s novel, “Contact,” and the “Interstellar” video game and tie-in novel.

The Immigrant: Blu-ray
Several excellent films have been made about the American immigrant experience and sometimes perilous passage from Ellis Island to the Promised Land, just a short ferry ride in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. As such James Gray’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Immigrant shares elements of period pictures that include The Godfather II, Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America, the CBS mini-series “Ellis Island,” the 3D IMAX Across the Sea of Time, John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet and Emanuele Crialese’s sadly underseen, Golden Door. Likewise, images from Stephen Wilke’s “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom,” JR’s “Unframed: Ellis Island” and Lewis Wickes Hine’s “social photography” consciously and subliminally have provided countless art, set and fashion directors with an accurate look at how millions of immigrants spent their first few days in the United States. Extremely well-crafted and emotionally taxing, The Immigrant depicts one Polish immigrant’s introduction to the dark side of the American Dream, circa 1921. Ironically, if it suffers at all, it’s from the familiarity we have with all of the movies and documentaries that were informed by the same photographs and newsreel footage. Practically every scene harkens to images already etched into our collective consciousness. It couldn’t help but distract me, even momentarily, from the personal drama of Ewa Cybulska. As portrayed by Marion Cotillard, Ewa is an impoverished refugee from war-torn Eastern Europe. As if the trip from Poland weren’t taxing enough, her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), is quarantined in the island’s hospital after showing possible symptoms of TB. Meanwhile, rumors that Ewa turned tricks on the voyage west cause immigration authorities to separate her from the pack, as well. Like a turkey vulture attracted to roadkill, showman/pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) just happens to be in the cavernous waiting room as Ewa is led to a holding area.

In a scenario that I can’t recall seeing previously in movies set on Ellis Island, Weiss is able to bribe a guard into allowing Ewa to do an end run around the validation process. Ewa speaks enough English to be wary of Weiss’ intentions, but not enough to feel secure in the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, where, she’s been led to believe, her aunt and uncle have abandoned her. Before being introduced to prostitution, Ewa works in the costume department of Weiss’ burlesque house and occasionally appears on stage as Lady Liberty. Still committed to getting Magda off the island, she has pretty much indentured herself to the miracle-worker, Weiss. She also has made a friend in his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), who’s better known around town as Orlando the Magician. Emil is no more trustworthy than Bruno, but, at least, he isn’t a procurer of destitute young women. As the tension between them nears the volcanic level, all three characters find themselves running out of time to accomplish their respective goals. Things get especially dire for Ewa as the full weight of New York corruption and the debilitating exploitation of immigrants causes her to despair of ever freeing her sister. Can Bruno or Emil work their devious wiles before they’re either killed or run out of money? Stay tuned. If there’s something strangely off-putting about Cotillard’s portrayal – her ability to speak English goes largely unexplained – it doesn’t keep us from sympathizing with her plight or that of the other women helped by Weiss’ crooked connections. Because Gray and Phoenix had already collaborated on The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, it isn’t surprising that Weiss is the most fully realized character in The Immigrant. The Blu-ray adds Gray’s commentary and featurette, “The Visual Inspiration of ‘The Immigrant’,” which describes how the filmmakers were able to nail the period look, using Hines’ photographs and period paintings as primary source material.

Three Night Stand
If You Don’t, I Will
There are so many things wrong with the straight-outta-Canada rom-com Three Night Stand that it begs the question as to how it got green-lit in the first place. If I were to guess, I’d say that it was sold on the promise that teenagers and young adults would find it difficult to stay away from a sexual farce set in the gorgeous Laurentian Mountains, not far from Montreal, and starring such familiar hotties as Sam Huntington, James A. Woods and Meaghan Rath – all three from the North American iteration of the BBC’s “Being Human” — Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”), Reagan Pasternak (“Being Erica”), Aliocha Schneider (“Les Jeunes Loups”) and Dan Beirne (“Flashpoint”). Writer/director Pat Kiely had enjoyed a few moments in the spotlight as a key collaborator on Who Is KK Downey?, a publishing-industry satire that found some fans on the 2008 festival circuit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kiely also played a recurring character on “Being Human.” Instead of attempting to cobble together a successful rom-com from these inarguably attractive parts, Kiely might have been better served if he’d made a feature version of the supernatural crime series. As it is, Huntington and Rath play a yuppie couple, Carl and Sue, whose marriage is failing for a dozen different reasons. Carl hopes to re-kindle the last remaining spark of their relationship during a weekend getaway in the snow-covered mountains. In one of those coincidences that only occur in movies held together by star power and duct tape, the lovely chateau is owned and managed by Carl’s old girlfriend, Robyn. When Sue learns that it once served as a love shack for Carl and Robyn, the exotic beauty begins to suspect she’s being played. Also staying at the resort are a French-language pop star, Anatolii, and his bi-cougar mom, Lise, and two of Carl’s friends from work, who responded to his distress call. Complicating matters even further is the arrival of Robyn’s estranged husband, Aaron, a pugnacious asshole from B.C., who can’t accept the fact that she left him for anything or anyone else. Somewhere in this mess is the framework for a decent farce, I think, but Kiely simply was incapable of pulling one out of the fire. The dialogue bounces awkwardly between French and English; the women are incalculably more attractive and sympathetic than the men; the sexuality is closer to PG than R; and Anatolii’s relationship with his mother is inexplicably perverse. The only thing wrong with the gorgeous wintertime setting is Kiely’s attempt to wring humor from a sex scene that requires of the characters that they wear cold-weather gear and remain on their snowmobile. It’s about as romantic as a tortoise humping an old shoe.

Sophie Fillières’ strangely compelling French dramedy, If You Don’t, I Will, deals with several of the same issues addressed in Three Night Stand, but vive la difference. Where Kiely attempted to mine humor from a played-out vein, Fillieres allows it to emerge organically from situations most viewers wouldn’t necessarily consider to be fertile ground for laughs. Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, who are as simpatico as any two actors can be, play a middle-class couple from Lyon whose 15-year marriage has run its course. Things Pomme and Pierre once happily shared now provide excuses for corrosive bickering and strategic indifference. At first, it’s easy to believe that Pomme deserves the bulk of our sympathy, but the more we learn about their personal history together, the less we’re inclined to solely blame Pierre for their mutual distress. Pomme has a son from a previous marriage, but he’s old enough to get along on his own, and she’s recovering from surgery for a brain tumor that happily was benign. He’s supportive, but has a girlfriend on the side. They probably are capable of maintaining a semblance of marriage for many more years or they could wake up one morning and pull the plug on the charade. On a hike through the mountainous Chamoiselle Forest, Pomme abruptly decides to take off on her own, while Pierre heads for the parking lot. Days pass in this gorgeous setting, allowing her plenty of time and opportunity to contemplate her present and future. Increasingly more concerned about his wife’s well-being, Pierre returns to the forest, where Pomme’s already plotting her exit. Without revealing what happens from this point in If You Don’t, I Will, I can say that it’s nothing most viewers will be able to predict. It’s also here that the dark comedy really kicks in. Like so many other French entertainments, If You Don’t, I Will wouldn’t last 20 minutes on the DVD players of most mainstream American viewers. For the art-house crowd, however, the joy of watching Devos and Amalric play off of each other should be reason enough to invest in a rental. The Film Movement release adds interviews with the stars and writer/director, as well as the funny Belgian short film, “Driving Lessons.”

Massacre Gun: Blu-ray
In an enjoyable interview included in Arrow Video’s lovingly restored Japanese crime thriller, Massacre Gun, the formidable genre star Jô Shishido allows that such films essentially attempted to do little more than slavishly re-create the noir conceits of B-movies cranked out of Hollywood in the 1940-50s. In time, the industry would develop a genre style of its own – combining noir conceits, with violent crime, sexual exploitation and rock music – but that would come later in the ’60s. At the beginning of the decade, though, filmmakers used their medium to depict the anti-social by-products of the American occupation. As was the case with American noir, the reliance on monochromatic was less a stylistic choice than one based on studio economics. Japanese filmmakers developed a keen eye for the nuances of black-and-white cinematography and, while largely derivative, churned out a steady supply of yakuza and samurai hits. Some, of course, were better than others. By 1967, Yasuharu Hasebe (Black Tight Killers), Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) and Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships) had emerged from the pack as directors to take seriously. In between historical epics, Akira Kurusawa had contributed High and Low (1963) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) to the upper shelf of gangster-genre flicks. If movies such as Hasebe’s Massacre Gun failed to impress western audiences, it’s probably because the action sequences lacked the visual credibility even of TV’s “The Untouchables” and we had more than enough hoodlums with which to contend on our shores.  Viewed from a distance of 50 years, however, they can be enjoyed for their sheer entertainment value and technical flare. Here, Shishido plays an obedient a mob hitman, Kuroda, who, after being forced to execute his lover, decides to go straight. This, of course, isn’t looked upon with approval by his bosses or the gangsters who depend on him for their income and protection. After they tear apart the nightclub and boxing gym belonging to Kuroda and his brothers, a full-blown mob war becomes impossible to avoid, with heavy casualties on both sides. The shootouts are stylishly shot, but it’s the nightclub scenes that are most memorable. That’s primarily because of the cool-jazz soundtrack by Naozumi Yamamoto and atmospheric art direction of Takeo Kimura. Besides the interview with Shishido, the Blu-ray adds a fresh one with writer and film historian Tony Rayns; a gallery of rare promotional materials; an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and illustrations by Ian MacEwan; and original archive stills.

Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn
Invaders From Mars: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly 100 years since the first film adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Since then, it’s been remounted for screen and television more the 50 times, including here in first-time director Jo Kastner’s Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. If one can get past the fact that this adaptation was filmed in Bulgaria, instead of Missouri, the Danube makes a reasonable facsimile of the Mississippi and only a few of the European actors retain a discernible accent. Kastner’s screenplay follows the trajectory of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” finishing with a hint of what’s to come with Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they drift down the river on a raft. American stars Jake T. Austin, Joel Courtney and Katherine McNamara should be familiar to pre-teens and teens who follow such shows as “The Fosters,” “R.L. Stine’s ‘The Haunting Hour,” “Happyland” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” if not their parents. Val Kilmer, who’s impersonated Twain on stage, plays the author as a very old man, recalling the events of his stories for a pair of young admirers. Parents could certainly use Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn as a starter set for kids they want to introduce to the classics of American literature.

No matter how much time kids spend grousing about their parents, doing chores and homework, one of the primal fears shared by all children is that they’ll wake up one morning and find them gone completely or so changed that they might as well be robots. It’s just that feeling of abandonment and uncertainty that informs Invaders From Mars, more so in Toby Hooper’s 1986 remake than in William Cameron Menzies’ original 1953 version. Although both films are built on the same foundation – Richard Blake’s timeless screenplay – Dante’s mission appears to have been engaging teens and pre-teens, who, unlike their parents, already were conversant with most sci-fi conventions and archetypes. After all, by 1986, how kids hadn’t already fallen in love with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the first Star Wars trilogy? When the original was released, Martians were as likely to invade the U.S. as hordes of Chinese communists. Hooper knew it would have taken more to frighten American kids than the thought of E.T. returning to Earth with all of his friends and relatives on a giant spacecraft. The critics lambasted his remake, but, once again, treated it as if it were made specifically to please them and people old enough to remember Menzies’ picture. Instead, the collaborative team of Hooper, writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, and creature-effects masters Stan Winston and John Dykstra, decided that kids in 1986 probably could use a few laughs to lighten the thought of losing control to Martian invaders. Grown-ups will appreciate the filmmakers’ efforts to engage older viewers with trick casting and other homages to the original. For example, Jimmy Hunt, who played young David MacLean in the original, was cast as the police chief in the remake.  Hunter Carson, fresh off his stellar debut in Paris, Texas, is frequently joined on screen here by his mother, Karen Black, cast as the school nurse who becomes convinced David is telling the truth. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds Hooper’s entertaining commentary; the excellent 36-minute backgrounder, “Martians are Coming: The Making of Invaders From Mars”; a production illustration gallery from artist William Stout; storyboards; and a stills gallery.

Breathless: Blu-ray
By reversing the physical settings, as well as the nationalities of the lead characters from Jean-Luc Godard’s epochal Breathless (“A Bout De Souffle”), the ever-provocative American writer/director Jim McBride risked offending tens of millions of film buffs who regard the nouvelle vague classic as one of the most important films in the international repertory. Richard Gere’s career was still very much on the ascendency, but almost everything else about McBride’s Breathless was a risk most observers didn’t think was worth taking. Mainstream reviews of the finished products appeared to concur with that observation. In a very real sense, however, the filmmaker probably was inspired as much by the irresistible Otis Blackwell/Jerry Lee Lewis song of the same title, which preceded even the release of Godard’s movie. It’s heard throughout the 100-minute Breathless, sung by Lewis, Gere and X. There’s nothing wrong with Gere’s frenetic portrayal of Las Vegas gigolo, who steals a Porsche to get to L.A. to cash an IOU from a fellow hoodlum. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, he foolishly gets into a chase with a highway patrolman. The movie could have ended there and then, if Jesse hadn’t found a handgun in the glove box and left it on the front seat, where the temptation to use the damn thing was too great resist. The violent act certainly doesn’t help his chances of getting to L.A., locating his banker and hightailing it to Mexico with the girl of his dreams. Twenty-year-old Valerie Kaprisky, whose experience was largely in soft-core sexploitation flicks, couldn’t have been a less likely candidate for the job of being the UCLA architecture student with which Jesse becomes obsessed after a tryst in Las Vegas. If Gere offers a reasonable alternative to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Kaprisky could never be mistaken for Jean Seberg. She looked too much like a teenager and her English was almost laughable. What she did have going for her, though, was a body that must have defied the urge for her to get dressed every morning. And that was perfectly alright with Jesse, who, of course, was doomed from the point of his altercation with the cop. If there was one Blu-ray re-release that warrants commentary or backgrounder it would be McBride’s Breathless, but, alas, all we get is a trailer.

BET: The Book of Negroes
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Grantchester: Blu-ray
If Black History Month had existed when I was in school, I might not have been so taken aback by the off-putting title of its mini-series, “The Book of Negroes.” After all, the word, “negro,” exists mostly as the n-word that spawned the more onerous n-word, whose usage today is condoned as street slang in some circles and condemned as a racial epithet when thrown around by others. Indeed, when American publishers decided to pick up Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill’s historical novel for distribution here, its title was changed to “Someone Knows My Name.” Although, it refers to a notion at the heart of the book and mini-series, it hardly packed the same intellectual and emotional punch as “The Book of Negroes.” Frankly, though, throughout much of the mini-series’ first three episodes, I wondered if I wasn’t watching an attempt to bridge ABC’s landmark “Roots” with last year’s tentatively linked “12 Years a Slave” and “Belle.” It opens in West Africa, in 1750, when native slave traders murder the parents of young Aminata Diallo (Aunjunae Ellis) and put her on a boat leaving for South Carolina. Naturally traumatized, Aminata befriends a boy from a nearby tribe, Chekura Tiano (Lyriq Bent), who was in the company of the slave traders, but took pity on her because she could speak his language … and she was pretty. At the end of the trek, however, Chekura, too, was put in chains and loaded on the boat to America. Their oft-interrupted friendship/romance exists as the primary subplot throughout all six episodes, beginning with their separation at the slave market in Charleston and, a few years later, a reunion in the forest behind the plantation that’s become her home. Aminata has a couple of things going for her that the other female slaves, at least, don’t. She is conversant in several tribal languages and English; she can read, write and engage in the art of storytelling; maintains Islam as a moral and ethical foundation; and, from her mother, has learned how to “catch” babies as a midwife. Each of these attributes evolves, later on, into a survival skill.

The melodramatic elements of the mini-series begin to disappear, when, Aminata is able to escape the clutches of both a sadistic owner and one who treats her well, but sells her infant daughter into slavery. The series then moves to New York, where a flourishing colony of free slaves exists under British rule. As the Revolutionary War heats up, Chekura and other former slaves are given an opportunity to clean their slates by agreeing to fight with the Redcoats. Knowing that American rebels, if successful, weren’t likely to accept their status as freed men, thousands accepted the offer. One of the conditions for surrender gave blacks who fought on the side of the British the right to be shipped to Nova Scotia, where they would be able to live freely and attempt to carve out a living from the frozen tundra. There was a catch, however, and it becomes the dramatic turning point in the mini-series. No former slave would be allowed to join the Canadian colony, if his or her former owner demands their return. Even slave-owner George Washington went along with this horrifying caveat. To make sure that as few of the former slaves were shipped back South as possible, Aminata agrees to organize a register of the New York blacks and turn it over to the British commander (Ben Chaplin) in negotiations with the Americans. And, yes, it became known as “The Book of Negroes.” Without giving away too much more of the increasingly compelling plot, I’ll only allow that the story carries us to Nova Scotia, where the locals prove to be nearly as racist as any plantation owner, and on to Sierra Leone and London, where abolitionists have launched a crusade to outlaw slavery and re-patriate blacks in another tribe’s backyard. Even though “The Book of Negroes” is technically a novel, it is largely based on the type of factual material that makes our Founding Fathers look like the short-sighted hypocrites many of them were. This country’s “original sin” still tarnishes our society. Much of the mini-series was shot on location, including the part of Nova Scotia where the black colony was originally established. The deleted scenes and short featurettes are good, too.

Leave it to the Brits to come up not only with another terrific “Masterpiece Mystery” series featuring an unusual protagonist, but also a nifty odd-couple pairing of crime fighters. The setting for the ITV/PBS production “Grantchester” is post-war England, where Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is vicar of the titular village, just outside Cambridge. He is frequently joined by Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who, despite being an embittered alcoholic, is able to see through the boozy fog long enough to find evidence overlooked by other cops. While you’d think Grantchester would be an unlikely place to sustain yet another series about heinous criminality, there’s seemingly no end to a cop’s work in rural England. Keating may be a bit of an archetype when it comes to world-weary police detectives, but Chambers is a real piece of work. As conceived by novelist James Runcie, the sexy vicar smokes, drinks, loves jazz, lies, steals and struggles with memories of a murder he witnessed while serving in World War II. Moreover, while he’s juggling relationships with two women (Morven Christie, Pheline Roggan) who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, physically and emotionally, he allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous torch singer.  Tessa Peake-Jones and Al Weaver provide comic relief as the vicar’s bossy housekeeper and his naïve curate. The Blu-ray package adds interviews and making-of material.

The DVD Wrapup: Imitation Game, The Circle, Roommates, Putin, MST3K and more

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

The Imitation Game: Blu-ray
The Circle
Two amazing stories play out in The Imitation Game, one heroic and the other tragic. The struggle to break the Nazi’s World War II Enigma Code has been told enough times on film and television that most viewers will have sufficient awareness of the discovery made at Bletchley Park to wade through the mathematical and technological jargon in Graham Moore’s Oscar-winning script. What separates Morten Tyldum’s take on the story from the others is the magnetic presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, as the almost madly single-minded computer scientist, Alan Turing, and the level of tension sustained throughout The Imitation Game’s 114-minute length. The less-told story describes how British authorities later would go so far out of their way to tarnish the legacy of the brilliant cryptanalyst and mathematician, who, according to Winston Churchill, made the single greatest contribution in England’s war effort. Despite having played an essential role in the Allies’ victory over fascism, police used his homosexuality as an excuse to harass, humiliate and prosecute Turing, even after he had agreed to be chemically castrated. His suicide, in 1954, immediately recalls the treatment accorded Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest English-language writers of all time, after he was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Three years later, Wilde, a man who probably hadn’t performed two hours of hard labor in his life, would die penniless and in disgrace from an injury possibly sustained while in jail. (That, or syphilis, depending on who one chooses to believe.) More than a century later, lovers of Wilde’s plays and writings have erased any trace of the scandal once associated with his name.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, Turing was accorded an official public apology by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth II would grant him a posthumous pardon. It would be nice to think that we’ve turned a chapter on such hideous behavior. Based on current Indiana law and pending Arkansas legislation, however, merchants would be free to deny services to any contemporary Turing or Wilde, as well as such LGBT celebrities and athletes as Bruce Jenner, who’s being pilloried in the media for daring to live the rest of his life as a woman. In that regard, anyway, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It comes as good news, then, to learn how well the picture’s done at both the domestic and foreign box office. Everything from the acting to the re-creation of the Bletchley Park laboratory is at the highest possible level. Yes, The Imitation Game suffers by comparison to some of the known facts of the story, but there’s no questioning how well the filmmakers were able to capture its spirit and urgency. Oscar nominee Keira Knightley does a fine job as Turing’s fellow code breaker and closest friend, Joan Clarke, as do the other A-list Brits in key roles (Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Victoria Wicks, among them). Alexandre Desplat imaginative musical score deserves notice, too. The excellent Blu-ray edition adds commentary by Tyldum and Moore; the 23-minute “The Making of ‘The Imitation Game’”; a pair of deleted scenes; and portions of three different Q&A sessions, all of which took place after festival and pre-awards screenings.

Stefan Haupt’s compelling docu-drama, The Circle, has absolutely nothing to do with wartime intelligence gathering. It does, however, provide another sterling reminder of how much and how little things have changed in the LGBT community since World War II and the passing of Turing. Although The Circle doesn’t dwell on the Nazis’ deadly persecution of homosexuals – as described in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s harrowing documentary, Paragraph 175 – it’s as impossible to ignore now as it was  then for gays and lesbians living next-door just across the invisible border from Germany. Had Turing been born in Switzerland, studied in England, stayed there to work for MI6, and then returned home in 1951, when he began to be harassed by British police, he probably would have lived well beyond the age of 41. Tragically, that wasn’t the case. Switzerland not only was officially neutral in World War II, but it also was historically indifferent to homosexuality and sodomy. When Berlin authorities no longer tolerated the “divine decadence” described in “Cabaret,” private dance clubs in Zurich and Basel were there to pick up the slack. In 1942, Article 194 of the new penal code decriminalized sexual acts between gays and lesbians 21 and older. This did not mean, however, that they felt sufficiently protected by law to step completely out of the closet. Because of the influx of LGBT ex-pats, including violent “rent boys,” police felt it necessary to maintain lists of names of people caught in compromising situations. Keeping it on the down-low often made the difference between maintaining job security and being unemployed.  The Circle’s focus is on the magazine Der Kreis/Le Cercle/The Circle, which began in the 1930s as an activist publication, primarily for lesbians. By 1942, it became a cultural and lifestyle publication with an almost exclusively male readership and mostly surreptitious circulation throughout Europe, as it contained pornographic text and art and beefcake photography. Until its demise in the 1960s, the affiliated club also sponsored well-attended parties, balls and performances. Finally, though, The Circle tells the story of Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, a schoolteacher and a drag entertainer, who enter a lifelong romantic relationship through their involvement in Circle activities. The surprise ending is far too good to spoil here.

Harlock: Space Pirate: Blu-ray
Fat Planet
The venerable Japanese manga and anime franchise — spawned from Leiji Matsumoto’s 1977 “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” — is set in and around 2977, when 500 billion exiled humans have decided it’s time to return home. Earth has finally recovered from the devastating war that ravaged the planet, causing a mass evacuation. The speed of light no longer a barrier, space travel has permitted humans to colonize planets in the far corners of the universe. Never having learned how to conserve resources or conquer boredom, all 500 billion of them have decided to return home simultaneously. Knowing exactly what could happen if this many people were to descend on the Earth’s fragile environment, the ruling Gaia Coalition committed to a war to prevent the homecoming from happening. Operating from a huge spacecraft that emits inky-black plumes of smoke, Captain Harlock and his rogue crew of space pirates present the greatest threat to the coalition. Beyond that, I’m not at all sure what the hell is happening in Harlock: Space Pirate, the latest iteration of the epic series. That’s mostly because three of the primary male characters look as if they were drawn from the same template and one of them, at least, is a coalition plant. The good news for fans and newcomers, alike, however, is that director Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) was allowed a budget of $30 million to create a movie that would cost a Hollywood studio $100 million to duplicate. The CG animation is a joy to watch and the action rarely stops long enough to allow fans to catch a breath.

Also set in the far reaches of the universe, Fat Planet is a very silly cautionary comedy that might have been recommendable if it weren’t such a bargain-basement production. On a planet far, far away, a population of obese aliens has decided that the only way to prevent extinction is to lose weight. Sound familiar? In the course of monitoring video signals from Earth, the elders have discovered an exercise show that delivers on its promise to make people thinner and healthier. Health guru Jack Strong and some of his students are teleported to the planet of fatties to work their magic. Co-writer/director Dennis Devine would have been better served if they had abducted Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons. Mr. Skin Hall of Famer Priscilla Barnes is, by far, the most recognizable cast member. I hope she got paid up-front.

Outcast: Blu-ray
Every week, it seems, I’m sent at least one new historical drama from China, Korea or Japan to review. Fifteen years ago, that might have caused me to consider a future in the barista business, instead of reviewing DVDs. Since then, however, Chinese and Korean filmmakers have done for dynastic action-adventures what John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh did for American Westerns. (Decades earlier, of course, Akira Kurosawa accomplished the same thing with Japanese samurai epics, leaving the job now to creators of anime and manga.) It wasn’t until recently that Chinese and Korean were given the money, resources and manpower to venture into the country’s vast and often spectacularly scenic hinterlands to make movies that didn’t rely solely on swordplay and pyrotechnics. Moreover, the studios also figured out how to exploit the appeal of young and attractive pop stars without sacrificing action. For the most part, Outcast looks like any one of a dozen Asian exports that pass my way every month. The difference comes in the casting of Hayden Christensen and Nicolas Cage, as war-weary veterans of the 12th Century Crusades. After slaughtering a staunchly defended compound full of unfortunate Islamists, the crusaders inexplicably decide to travel east, instead of northwest. Christensen’s opium-starved crusader, Jacob, stumbles into the imperial kingdom at approximately the same time as the dying emperor hands the keys to his teenage son and daughter, instead of their older war-hero sibling. When the emperor is assassinated by the passed-over son, he decides to use every means at his disposal to kill his younger, more helpless rivals. Jacob’s presence levels the playing field, somewhat. As the legendary White Ghost, Cage is given free rein to freak out whenever he feels like it. Many potential viewers will see his inclusion as sufficient cause for a rental … others, not so much. If the producers thought the unusual casting would sell tickets outside China, they misjudged the American marketplace. Cage is nothing, if not over-exposed at the moment, and Christensen hasn’t had a hit since Star Wars: Episode III. For A-list stunt coordinator Nick Powell, Outcast represents his first foray as a director. As such, the action and fight scenes are excellent, while everything else – except the set and costume design and Yunnan scenery – is underwhelming.

3 Nights in the Desert
In this exceedingly unconvincing rom-dram, three thoroughly estranged members of a long-dead band get together for a 30th-birthday weekend and, ostensibly, an excuse for freshman screenwriter Adam Chanzit to contrive a reunion album. Since splitting up, the lead singer (Amber Tamblyn) has made a name for herself on the cruise-ship circuit and nightclubs along the Pacific Rim; the drummer (Vincent Piazza) has gotten a business degree and moved to Squaresville; and the guitar player (Wes Bentley) has tuned in, turned on and dropped out to a sweet pad in the desert. Early on, chances look good for a rapprochement and possible re-entry into the ranks of folk-rock attractions. It isn’t until the guitarist dares his pals to enter an enchanted cave on the property that things begin to go sideways. They all recognize something different in themselves, while spending approximately 30 seconds in the shallow cave, but it mostly translates into faulty logic. 3 Nights in the Desert benefits from the Agua Dolce locations – on the far fringes of Los Angeles County – and some not-bad songs performed by Tamblyn. Nothing else works, though, including the dweebish costume and glasses assigned Piazza.

Day of Anger: Blu-Ray
I don’t know how much exposure Day of Anger (a.k.a., Gunlaw or I giorni dell’ira) received off the American drive-in circuit. It took a while for genre buffs to embrace Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-Westerns as something other than curiosities, so, in 1967, a picture by one of the master’s assistant directors might have gone unnoticed entirely. Not only does Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray edition of Tonino Valerii’s shoot-‘em-up look excellent in hi-def, but it also marks a big step forward for Italian-made Westerns. Lee Van Cleef plays gunslinger Frank Talby, who, one day, arrives in a dusty high-desert town whose residents don’t take kindly to strangers messing with the status quo. Here, that includes the local pooper scooper and street sweeper, Scott Mary, portrayed by Giuliano Gemma. Scott Mary is made to feel unwelcome by everyone who employs his services, so, when Talby invites him to share a bottle of hooch, some of the bar’s patrons decide to teach him a lesson. Instead, the gunslinger demonstrates his willingness to outdraw anyone who tests his skill. Scott Mary convinces Talby to take him under his wing as he rides to another town, hoping to collect a long-held $50,000 debt. When he’s told that the money was stolen by leaders of the last town he visited and it was reinvested in projects of their own, Talby begins his scorched-earth mission to exact revenge. By now, Scott Mary has absorbed all of the lessons administered by his mentor and become a heck of a sharpshooter, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out early on that there will come a time when the student will have to stand up to his teacher and demonstrate, one way or another, that he’s ready to step out on his own. Without having to resort to trademark Leone conceits, Valerii crafted a Western that bears comparison to many of the best oaters churned out by Hollywood studios. The Blu-ray package contains the original version, in English and Italian, and the edition edited for export; interviews with Valerii, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and critic Roberto Curti; a deleted scene; an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by historian Howard Hughes; original archive stills; and new cover art.

The Roommates/A Woman for All Men: Blu-ray
Once upon a time, attending a double- or triple-feature at a drive-in theater was both an entertaining way for dad, mom and the kids to kill a few hours on a hot summer night and a rite of passage for teenagers experiencing the first pangs of sexual freedom. For one thing, agreeing to a drive-in date – even the safer option, a double-date — was a giant leap of faith for teen couples, too many of whom had yet to get to the chapter in their hygiene textbooks dealing with the hazards of unprotected sex. Drinking presented other potential dangers, especially at a time when designated drivers weren’t added into the equation. Other variables included crappy speakers, fogged-up windshields, mosquitoes and voyeuristic neighbors. Then, there were the movies.  Unless the bill of fare that night was a collection of movies starring Elvis Presley, John Wayne or Vincent Price, a first-run attraction generally was followed or sandwiched between a B-lister and C-list picture of wildly varying interest and quality. By the mid-1970s, some exhibitors had given up on showing A-list movies entirely, preferring, instead, to program inexpensive grindhouse films. We’ll never know how many accidents were caused by gawkers distracted by a pair of 38-DDs reflected on a giant white-painted screen clearly visible from the highway.  Much of the blame for these fender-benders could be laid at the feet of such soft-core auteurs as Arthur Marks, who, not unlike Eloise at the Plaza, spent most of his life absorbing the facts of movie-making life on various studio backlots, soundstages and locations. Before turning to T&A and Blaxploitation movies, Marx cut his filmmaking teeth directing and producing such television series as “Perry Mason” and “Gunsmoke.” MPI Media Group’s hi-def double-feature of Marx’s The Roommates and A Woman for All Men offers a delicious look back to the Wild West of exploitation pictures.

The Roommates is set in Lake Arrowhead, a little slice of heaven in the San Bernardino National Forest, 90 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Four drop-dead gorgeous “coeds” and a “sexy stewardess” are enjoying a summer getaway in sylvan splendor when a splatter movie breaks out. Actually, the horror aspects of the movie play second fiddle to the T&A, which, while ample, is no more graphic than a 1973 Playboy pictorial. By contrast, A Woman for All Men can be enjoyed as a crime thriller or grindhouse hybrid. If it feels a lot like a better-than-most made-for-TV movie – a relatively new genre – at least it features recognizable stars, a legitimate femme fatale and a logical narrative. Judith Brown (The Big Dollhouse) is perfect as a Las Vegas working girl who strikes it rich by marrying a ego-maniacal tycoon (Keenan Wynn), thus pissing off the man’s children who were counting off the days until he died. As a dead-ringer for Ginger McKenna, in Casino, Brown could easily have been mistaken for Sharon Stone’s mother. The only question becomes how long Karen can pull off her scheme before being busted by her husband or his heirs. We’ve seen this exact same plot played out in dozens of movies and TV shows, but Brown’s steamy portrayal of a woman without scruples kicks it up several notches. Brown and Wynn are accompanied here by such veteran character actors as Alma Beltran, Alex Rocco, Lois Hall, Don Porter and Andrew Robinson, who had just portrayed the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. The package includes interviews with Marx, Brown and other participants.

Turkish writer/director Elif Refig’s debut feature is a coming-of-age story that could have been set anywhere in the world that working-class parents scratch out a modest income and one or more of their children dream of escaping to a life of their own choosing. That it’s set in the roiling melting pot of Istanbul only makes it that much better. Ali works for his father, servicing ships anchored in the harbor with goods ranging from blow-up dolls to lambs intended for religious sacrifice. When he isn’t doing that, Ali wanders the waterfront minding his pigeons and searching for a ghost ship that’s haunted his dreams. On one of his walkabouts, Ali is attracted by a wall painting depicting a seascape that could only have been conjured by a kindred spirit. Eda’s life has just been turned upside-down by the return of the father who abandoned the family years earlier. Consequently, she’s suspicious of all men. Once Eda and Ali recognize the point where their imaginations intersect, they are forced to make the kinds of drastic decisions required of all dreamers and drifters. Where Ships differs from other coming-of-age stories is the setting, which couldn’t be any more intriguing. Istanbul is a crossroads city that’s always provided fertile ground for the fantasies of people seeking something completely different and the horns of the ships in the harbor seem to call out specifically to kids like Ali and Eda, whose next few steps could determine their fates forever. The DVD is accompanied by Refig’s short film, “Man to Be,” another gritty tale of a boy forced to grow up too soon. The disc I received was plagued with unsynched dialogue on the original Turkish soundtrack, so I would recommend renting a copy of Ships before investing in a purchase. Other than that, the movie is a delight.

Diamond Heist
Here’s one of those pictures that look as if the reels were misplaced in the shipping process and confused with material from other movies or television shows. Diamond Heist (a.k.a., “Magic Boys”) appears to borrow liberally from Guy Ritchie’s criminal milieu, Magic Mike and the two wild-and-crazy Czech brothers on “Saturday Night Life.” If that sounds appealing to you, Róbert Koltai and Éva Gárdos’ cock-eyed dramedy might provide a few hours of pleasure on a rainy night. Straight-to-DVD mainstays Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones play key figures in a diamond heist gone wrong. Caught in the middle are a pair of misfit Hungarians recruited to replace dancers in a male review. Adding a bit of flash to this mess are Hungarian hottie Nikolett Barabas – once known best as Russell Brand’s new girlfriend – pop singer Jamelia and newcomer Nansi Nsue.

The Shift
Less a feature film than an episode in a hospital-based television series, The Shift tells the unpleasant story of a drug-addicted emergency-room nurse who makes Nurse Jackie look like Florence Nightingale. Things begin to unravel for Kayle (writer Leo Oliva) when his boss (Danny Glover) asks him to mentor a fledgling nurse over the course of a 12-hour hospital shift. He objects, but not strenuously enough to have Dr. Floyd (Danny Glover) kick him out the door on his ass. The poor young thing (Casey Fitzgerald) makes the mistake of taking his abuse personally, but, once she figures out his game, realizes that the last place Kayle should be working is in a hospital, where play God should be left to real doctors. Oliva trained as a nurse, before turning to filmmaking, so it’s safe to assume that The Shift was a project near and dear to his heart. Unfortunately, he decided to make Kayle one of the most disagreeable characters I’ve experienced in a long time.

A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story
Films about athletes who have survived serious injuries and gone on to compete again have become so prevalent lately that they have become something of a dime-a-dozen commodity. At 31 and on her way to becoming a fully certified teacher, Janelle Morrison decided to pursue a career as a professional tri-athlete. No, I didn’t know that was a career option, either. Morrison had just won her first Ironman event, as an amateur, and would go on to place third in her first professional competition. A year later, after her car was struck by a truck on the Trans-Canada Highway, she was left clinging to life in a hospital. Her doctors were more concerned with keeping her alive than getting her in shape for her next triathlon, but, once out of her coma, that’s all Morrison could think about doing. And, of course, she did beat expectations by defying her doctors’ recommendations and getting back on track. For their first non-fiction film, Dave Kelly and Rob Kelly were just as determined to record her recovery in A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story. My problem with the movie probably wouldn’t be shared with anyone who’s competed in an extreme sport or decided to tempt fate by going against the wisdom of doctors, trainers, coaches and relatives, simply to prove a point that’s already been established. Or, perhaps, I’m prejudiced against activities, like the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlete, which began as a novel test of extreme physicality but have since allowed themselves to be corrupted by companies pitching overpriced products to easily manipulated wannabes. I wonder how far the Kellys would have gone with the project if Morrison had simply been able to finish one leg of the triathlon, which would have been sufficient cause for rejoicing for most people, but a severe disappointment to an adrenaline junky. Or, if something happened to reverse all of the hard work put into Morrison’s recovery. Those are the movies we don’t see.

Liars, Fires and Bears
Memory Lane
One of the things producers and agents look for at film festivals is the spark of creativity that shines through a movie passed over by the judges or left unembraced by audiences. While the offbeat buddy picture Liars, Fires and Bears clearly is the product of first-timers, burdened with a barely there budget, festival-goers stayed in their seats long enough to find the promise in its creative team. Charming newcomer Megli Micek plays Eve, a criminally precocious 9-year-old desperate to escape her foster parents and locate the successful brother she believes is being kept away from her. A habitual runaway, Eve sneaks around parking lots at night in search of unlocked cars and drunks willing to drive her to Denver. She hits pay dirt when she breaks into the car belonging to an alcoholic doofus, Dave (co-writer Lundon Boyd), who is sober enough to realize he shouldn’t be driving, but too drunk to appreciate the downside of putting a wee lassie behind the wheel. Naturally, his plan falls apart almost as soon as it begins leaving Dave in the hoosegow and in need of money to pay his fine. In the film’s most unlikely scenario, Dave hooks up with an unscrupulous pawn-shop operator who agrees to take him on as an accomplice. He screws up his first break-in so badly that he becomes Public Enemy No. 1, with his surveillance-camera photograph flashed on newscasts far and wide. Conveniently, Eve has just torched her foster parents’ home and Dave’s too dim-witted to see the hole in her pipedream about having a brother who’s a lawyer. As far-fetched as this scenario sounds, it provides plenty of time for the odd couple to form a convincing bond between them on their trip to Colorado.

Word on the street is that one-man-band Shawn Holmes made Memory Lane on budget limited to $300. Whenever I’m asked to believe something as patently absurd as that, I’m tempted to point out, “… and it looks like it.” Fact is, though, Memory Lane could easily pass for a genre flick that cost 20 or 30 times that amount to make … which isn’t saying all that much, either. Michael Guy Allen plays a despondent veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who, when he finally finds a woman to love (Meg Braden), finds her dead in his bathtub, wrists slashed. In a failed attempt to electrocute himself, Nick flashes on the possibility that Kayla may have been murdered. The only way he’s likely to confirm his suspicion, one way or the other, is to repeatedly push the envelope on death. It’s not the genre’s most unlikely premise and on a penny-for-penny basis, anyway, succeeds surprisingly well.

PBS: Language Matters With Bob Hollman
PBS: Nature: Owl Power: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Building Wonders
PBS: Frontline: Putin’s Way
I Am Not Giordano Bruno/Judge Not
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXII
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season/Quincy, M.E.: The Final Season
One of the most diabolical things a conquering force can do to the vanquished is take away the roots of their culture, including native languages and dialects. American and Canadian authorities demanded of Indian children that they endure severe haircuts and ignore their native languages. Missionaries required the same of native Hawaiians. Australia did even worse by its Aboriginal population by forcibly diluting their bloodlines and restricting the purebreds to the Outback. When the British annexed Wales, they attempted to eliminate all traces of the language, probably because they’d never be able to understand what was being said about them. PBS’ Language Matters With Bob Hollman” explains how frightfully successful these imperialist forces were in extinguishing traditional cultures, while describing how descendants have struggled, mostly since the 1960s, to rekindle pride and interest in nearly lost languages and the customs attached to them. Scholar and poet Bob Holman takes viewers to a remote island off the coast of Australia, where 400 Aboriginal people speak 10 different languages, all at risk, and introduces us to a 73-year-old man who’s the only living link to his tribe. In Wales, Holman joins in a poetry competition and finds a young man who raps in Welsh. In Hawaii, we learn how the oft-maligned hula is a language in dance. “Language Matters” is a documentary that parents can share with their children and discuss at length afterwards.

I wonder how many people under the age of 40 or 50 have seen an owl in its natural habitat and not in a zoo or aviary. It’s truly a unique experience. In the “Nature” presentation, “Owl Power,” bird trainers Lloyd and Rose Buck enlist cutting-edge technology – digital cameras, computer graphics, X-rays and super-sensitive microphones — in their search for answers to the mysteries surrounding the owls’ hunting techniques and ability to sustain themselves in a sometimes cruel environment. In doing so, the Bucks make scientific comparisons between their very own family of owls, eagles, falcons, geese and pigeons. We’re also able to follow the progress of two newly-hatched barn owls. Much of the material on display is nothing short of mesmerizing.

The fascinating “Nova” DVD package, “Building Wonders,” is a compilation of three recent episodes, “Colosseum: Roman Death Trap,” “Petra: Lost City of Stone” and “Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery.” In each, modern engineering techniques and cutting-edge instruments are used to understand how buildings made millennia ago have been able to withstand the ravages of time and natural disaster, allowing us to marvel at them today. Modern architects use medieval tools to figure out how Turkey’s massive 1,500-year-old cathedral dome has been able to survive countless quakes in one of the world’s most violent seismic zones.  In the middle of Jordan’s parched desert, a “Nova” team investigates how Petra s architects were able to create a thriving metropolis of temples, markets, spectacular tombs carved into cliffs, bathhouses, fountains and pools? Also curious is how builders of the Colosseum were able to create water-tight tanks for mock sea battles and control the movement of men and animals throughout the bowels of the monumental structure.

The producers of the “Frontline” presentation “Putin’s Way” go the distance to describe how the Russian leader has destroyed the hopes of tens of millions of Russians anticipating post-Soviet peace and prosperity, by turning the country over to greedy plutocrats and hoodlums. At the same time, the Russian leader schemed to make himself a very wealthy and powerful man. The investigation also revisits the horrific 1999 Moscow apartment bombings and failed attempts to uncover corruption at the Kremlin. At a time when Putin could have exploited the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, he began stoking nationalism, conflict, authoritarianism and a bloody war in the Ukraine, during which Russian-backed insurgents decided it would be a keen idea to shot down a Malaysian jetliner. The episode includes firsthand interviews with exiled Russian business tycoons, writers and politicians, in addition to archival material and evidence of his abuses of powers.

The documentaries “I Am Not Giordano Bruno” and “Judge Not” attempt to answer the questions surrounding how Russian political cartoonist Boris Efimov and Tikhon Khrennikov, the one and only head of the Composers Union of the USSR, managed to survive under the bloodthirsty leadership of Joseph Stalin and several subsequent Soviet leaders. Efimov, whose brother was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, spent most of his 108 years on Earth drawing sharp observations about leaders and policies of the USSR’s enemies, while following the company line at home. Khrennikov took over the musicians’ union in 1948 and stayed on the job until 1991. At the same time as he worked to protect Soviet artists from prison and death, he also made sure that music was written in accordance with Communist ideology. The documentaries are extremely dry, but nonetheless intriguing.

Historically, we’ve come to expect the best of the worst from the hyper-critical crew of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” spacecraft and, in Volume XXXII, three of the four features are inarguably cheesy:  Hercules, Radar Secret Service and San Francisco International. What’s unusual is the inclusion of John Sturges’ Space Travelers (a.k.a., Marooned), a well-reviewed stranded-astronaut thriller that anticipated Apollo 13 by 25 years and Gravity by 44 years, and can still grip viewers’ attention. Besides the presence of Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman, Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley and Nancy Kovack, Space Travelers is reputed to be the only “MST3K” selection to have won an Oscar. In a new introduction, Frank Conniff attempts to explain how such a prestigious production ended up on the Satellite of Love’s viewing menu. The irony of the crew of the SOT watching a movie about astronauts stranded in space wasn’t lost on Joel Robinson, the only character who actually would require oxygen to survive a similar mishap. Other featurettes include “Marooned: A Forgotten Odyssey,” “Barnum of Baltimore: The Early Films of Joseph E. Levine,” “A Brief History of Satellite News,” “MST-UK, With Trace and Frank” and mini-posters by Artist Steve Vance.

Shout Factory’s latest additions to its a la carte menu of full-season compilations are represented by “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season” and “Quincy, M.E.: The Final Season.” Both benefit from facelifts accorded the series in last year’s boxed sets and bonus material.