To the Wonder: Blu-ray
There was a time in Bob Dylan’s career when he required of his fans that they wait years between his new live performances and albums. Since June 7, 1988, however, his Never Ending Tour has made him as familiar on the stages of the world as “Cats.” Likewise, the brilliant, if reclusive Terrence Malick gained a reputation for spacing his movies with nearly the same frequency as Democratic administrations in Washington. Since the 2011 release of “The Tree of Life,” though, he’s put four titles on his to-do list, including “To the Wonder” and the delayed IMAX documentary project, “Voyage of Time.” Judging by the critical and commercial response to “To the Wonder,” many longtime admirers wish he’d skipped it altogether and gone straight to his cycle-of-the-universe’s trilogy. Many Dylan obsessives wished that His Holiness had kept his romance with evangelical Christianity to himself, as well, but that would have required ignoring the excellent songs inspired by his conversion, however brief. The same reserve of final judgment, I believe, should apply to “To the Wonder.” Like “The Tree of Life,” it is informed by events in Malick’s personal life and their impact on him. Fair enough. He wouldn’t be the first artist to overestimate the intrigue of past romances. Clearly, they didn’t resonate with viewers who prefer to watch movies that tell a story, introduce us to compelling characters and offer something resembling action, drama, fright or humor. Instead, “To the Wonder” was replete with museum-quality abstractions.
“To the Wonder” recalls two oft-quoted observations about the kind of people we find around us every day, but don’t often meet in the movies: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” (Henry David Thoreau) and “There are no second acts in American lives” (F. Scott Fitzgerald). Malick challenges us to find the song buried deep within Neil, Marina, Jane and Father Quintana (Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem) and imagine what the second acts in their lives might turn out to be, if any. Many viewers will find the investment of 112 minutes of their precious time to be rewarding … others, not so. As the movie opens, Oklahoma real-estate developer Neil and French single-mother Marina are enjoying a fairytale romance, scampering along the boulevards in Paris and kicking at the tide water lapping the barricades of Mont Saint-Michel. As Cupid’s arrow would dictate, the world-class beauty inexplicably agrees to follow him to his hometown, which is to Paris what a Kellogg’s Pop-Tart is to a delicate French soufflé. It’s the kind of Midwestern burg whose most prominent landmark is its water tower and high school sports rival revival meetings as magnets for thrill-seekers. There are no fairytales to be found in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, romantic or otherwise. When Marina’s visa expires and she returns to Europe to weigh her options, the increasingly stand-offish Neil reconnects temporarily with an old friend, Jane. She’s also a gem, but more of the prom-queen or head-cheerleader variety. Meanwhile, as eloquently portrayed by Bardem, the good padre is desperately attempting to summon the wisdom of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost in one last effort to find meaning in such everyday duties as counseling troubled couples, most of whom shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place; comforting elderly and critically ill parishioners; calming the occasional meth abuser; and listening to the echoes of unanswered prayers in the cavernous nave of his church. Father Quintana also seeks Christ in his regular visits to the nearby prison, where he chats with hardened criminals and passes Communion hosts through the slats of cell doors. A good man who exudes actual Christian values, he frequently looks like someone plagued by the possibility that bad karma played more of a roll than a direct calling from the Lord in his being posted in the middle of America’s Protestant ghetto.
Likewise, we can’t help but wonder how long a woman as graceful, free-spirited and cosmopolitan as Marina is going to last in Pawhuska – imagine Secretariat as a cavalry steed in a bad Western — in the company of a man whose job requires him to slosh around polluted streams and convince potential buyers their homes won’t be polluted by the byproducts of fracking. He’s not unlikeable, merely average. As for the potential of second acts in the lives of the people we meet, they likely would come to the fore if a tornado demolished the town and their acts of bravery, sacrifice and charity were revealed by reporters for 24-hour news networks. Theroux and Fitzgerald captured this trait in Americans, who, then and now, aren’t at all troubled by the fact that their songs aren’t routinely interrupted by war, genocide, fascist bullies, in-bred royalty and ancient blood feuds. It makes us who we are, after all, and, by not relying entirely on professional actors, Malick honors his characters. Oklahoma may not be the most scenic of locations, either, but his regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki captures the painterly beauty to be found in the clouds, sunsets, tortured landscapes and amber waves of grain of mid-America. An amber-tinged scene in which Neil and Jane stroll among a herd of bison in Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie Reserve is worth the price of a rental, itself, as are magic-hour sequences that recall “Days of Heaven” and its references to Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World.” It was OK by me, as well, that Hanan Townshend’s elegant score completely ignores the likelihood that country music is the preferred soundtrack to the lives of the town’s residents. In another familiar Malick conceit, most of the characters’ thoughts are conveyed in whispers and inner dialogues, promoting the pre-credits suggestion that we turn up the volume on our system’s speakers. The Blu-ray edition, which is absolutely gorgeous, adds four decent, if not revelatory making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
Frequently, Joseph Kosinski’s bleak sci-fi romance, “Oblivion,” reads like a live-action version of “WALL-E,” with Tom Cruise in the role of the charismatic robot. That isn’t to imply that Cruise’s portrayal is robotic, only that both characters spend a great deal of time on a desecrated Earth, alone, except for their thoughts and encrypted sense of mission. In “WALL-E,” the scavenger robot inspects and collects objects of a civilization instantly recognizable to viewers, but a constant source of wonder and astonishment for him. Cruise’s intrepid astronaut and mechanic, Jack Harper, surveys a landscape that’s empty, except for occasional architectural reminders of what existed here. If “Oblivion” also seems to have been informed by “The Planet of the Apes” and a half-dozen other sci-fi classics, well, that’s probably no accident, either. As the story goes, sometime in the next 60-plus years, Scav aliens attack Earth in an effort to extract any resources deemed necessary to their survival. In the ensuing conflagration, the Scavs are largely repulsed, but what’s left of humanity has relocated to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Harper is part of team responsible for repairing damaged fighting and recon vehicles and, if necessary, eradicating any Scavs left behind to destroy remaining resources, including water, valuable to the displaced Earthlings. As such, he’s able to flit around the planet in a cool pod-like spacecraft, with drones protecting him from above. He takes orders from his girlfriend/dispatcher Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who remains behind in a wonderfully conceived module built mostly of glass. Victoria, in turn, takes her directives from a video overlord, Sally (Melissa Leo), who may or may not be what she/it appears to be. Anyway, the movie’s moment of existential truth arrives when Harper discovers the survivor of an accident involving a transporter, seemingly from years past. We recognize her as Julia, the woman of his dreams (Olga Kurylenko), which contain hints of a previous lifetime he’s told he couldn’t have experienced. Julia recognizes him, as well, but not the warrior living just below the surface of his skin. Flashbacks begin to haunt Jack, as he begins to understand how such artifacts as a baseball hat and Elvis statuette fit into his genetic code.
The revelations not only threaten the overlord, but also Jack’s fragile relationship with Victoria. We sympathize with her as we would any victim of an author’s fickle finger of fate. Then, when he comes across a community of surviving Earthlings — led by the coolly bespectacled Morgan Freeman — things really begin to get perplexing for Jack. He had, after all, managed to locate a small, green corner of the ravaged Earth and carved out what he imagines to be a retirement home. Comparisons to the Book of Genesis, here, probably wouldn’t be discouraged by Kosinski. How interesting viewers will find “Oblivion” to be, in total, depends entirely by one’s taste in sci-fi. Some genre fans may not find their appetite for video-game action satisfied, while those who favor more cerebral stories could find the plot twists to be less than revelatory. The producers of “Oblivion” appear to have preferred taking the middle-of-the-road approach, a strategy that failed to spark much of fire at the box office. As visually appealing as the movie is, it’s likely that Tom Cruise’s name on the marquee meant more than any familiarity with the material on which it’s based. His fans trust him to deliver the goods and he rarely, if ever disappoints them. Kosinski, best known for “TRON: Legacy,” adapted “Oblivion” from his own graphic novel, along with writers Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and Karl Gajdusek (“Last Resort”), so there was no confusion about the author’s intentions, at least. Neither should there be any question about the quality of the Blu-ray release, which is of such high audio/visual quality that the high-def presentation easily recommends itself for purchase or rental. Kosinski and Cruise’s presence enhance the commentary, as well as the disc’s extensive 48-minute making-of featurette. There are a few deleted scenes and the film’s isolated score, by M83, presented in 24-bit/96kHz Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround. – Gary Dretzka
Magic Magic: Blu-ray
For those of you keeping score at home, “Magic Magic” is the movie Michael Cera made with rising Chilean director Sebastian Silva (“The Maid”) while they were waiting for financing to come through on “Crystal Fairy.” Shot in completely different corners of Silva’s beautiful homeland, both not only debuted at the 2013 Sundance soiree, but they also feature characters who demonstrate what can happen when the wrong people take drugs. Here, Cera plays an annoying American nitwit/nerd, who decided to stay in Chile after his semester-abroad program expired. He’s made friends with several college-age locals, who treat him like a combination idiot savant and court jester, and enjoy mocking his Spanish. Into this congenial group of amigos and amigas arrives an emotionally fragile American girl, Alicia, played by Juno Temple. Alicia expects to be spending most of her time away from California in Santiago, with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning), not on an adventure with people she’s never met. After Sarah is called back to the capital on some unfinished school business, Alicia is shanghaied into traveling with the group to an isolated island off the southern coast. Cera’s character, Brink, thinks it might be fun to play games with Alicia’s head by getting her drunk or stoned on substances that tend to put her into a comatose state.
Having seen dozens of movies in which young people stranded in out-of-the-way locations are threatened by serial killers or go psycho on each other, I couldn’t help but anticipate the moment when Brink or Alicia picks up a butcher knife and “Magic Magic” becomes just another slasher flick. Silva, working off his own screenplay, is too sharp a filmmaker to settle for just another anything. He finds terror in unexpected places, including inside Alicia’s head and in the pathetic reactions to her condition by the others. The only people who ultimately know what they’re doing, not surprisingly, are some native islanders whose experiences with bad-craziness reach back generations and generally can be cured with herbs and incantations. Cera and Temple are entirely credible as dweebs in distress, while Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustin Silva are fine as bourgeois Chilean students. Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan’s cinematography looks great on Blu-ray, as it emphasizes both the area’s natural beauty and the spooky all-encompassing darkness that prevails after the sun retreats. Also included is a short making-featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal: Blu-ray
If the title of this decidedly goofy Canadian/Danish co-production doesn’t tip viewers off to what’s in store for them in the next 90 minutes, writer/director Boris Rodriguez’ darkly comic screenplay wastes little time laying out the rest of its cards. A once prominent painter, Lars (Thure Lindhardt), has decided to work out his artist’s block by accepting a teaching position in the snowy wilds of Ontario (the actors speak English). The tiny school’s late benefactor has endowed it generously, but on the condition that her unbalanced nephew – the title character (Dylan Smith) – be treated with the same respect due any student. Being a handful to control, especially when he’s sleepwalking, Eddie’s care and artistic welfare is placed in the hands of the newcomer. It doesn’t take more than a matter of minutes before we understand precisely how one man’s obsession could benefit the other, as well as the school’s financial status. “Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal” is balanced precariously on the premise that, while art can sooth the savage breast, the business of art is rarely pretty. In fact, when large amounts of money are at stake, it can be downright ugly. And, while Lars doesn’t feel particularly good about exploiting Eddie’s cravings, an artist knows that any muse is better than none. For the most part, Rodriguez’ humor runs exceedingly dark and martini dry. It’s broad enough to include an SCTV-variety cop who can’t abide outsiders and vows to make Lars’ stay in the Great White North miserable. At its best, “Eddie” recalls such similarly offbeat horror flicks as “Shaun of the Dead,” “Dead Snow” and “Rare Exports.” The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and an earlier Rodriguez short. – Gary Dretzka
Swamp Thing: Blu-ray
Zombie Massacre: Blu-ray
I’ve yet to watch “Sharknado,” but I’ve reviewed enough made-for-Syfy epics to know why it appealed to people who normally wouldn’t be found, dead or alive, on the network. Only H.G. Wells’ infamous creation, Doctor Moreau, has done more for dubious science of vivisection than the producers of original movies for the cable network and he didn’t enjoy the advantage of genetic engineering. Typically, a scientific accident or natural disaster somehow causes famously predatory animals to mutate hideously and attack B- and C-list actors, impersonating government-funded researchers, overmatched law-enforcement officials and unsuspecting tourists. Roger Corman advanced the formula for the amusement of drive-in audiences and, minus the occasional topless ingénue, gave Syfy its first audience-pleasing releases. A production company known as the Asylum is responsible for “Sharknado,” but it fits neatly alongside such campy Corman-esque titles as “Arachnoquake,” “Piranhaconda,” “Jersey Shore Shark Attack,” “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid” and “Sharktopus.” Instead of drive-in habitués, such movies are made to be enjoyed by adolescents whose parents refuse to accompany them to see R-rated fare at the local megaplex and hard-core stoners on the same wavelength as the screenwriters and directors. Thirty-one years ago, “Swamp Thing” received several decent reviews from important mainstream critics, who hailed it as a surprisingly entertaining and reasonably well made diversion. To justify their amusement, the pundits described it as a guilty pleasure. More importantly than any critic’s opinion of a grindhouse feature, Wes Craven’s first feature after 1977’s “The Hills Have Eyes” was also deemed buzz-worthy by the great unwashed. Remarkably, audiences fell in love with the 91-minute, PG-rated “American version” of “Swamp Thing,” which only hinted at the reason Adrienne Barbeau would henceforth be nicknamed, Adrienne Barboob, by sophomore humorists.
Footage of the actress emerging from the murky waters of a bayou, a la Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell, was restored for the international marketplace, where, presumably, audience members had seen breasts and weren’t likely to commit abhorrent acts after seeing those belonging to Carol, on “Maude.” Americans, of course, couldn’t be trusted with such a tantalizing vision. They reappeared on the still-PG-rated, 93-minute DVD edition, released in 2000, but were pulled from video-store shelves after a dimwitted Dallas housewife rented it at her local Blockbuster and, completely ignoring the parental-guidance admonishment, used it as a babysitter for her children. Much to the dismay of teenage boys everywhere, the American version was re-issued by MGM in 2005 video release. (A perusal of Mr. Skin’s website would have satisfied their curiosity.) Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray edition not only contains the missing two minutes, but also Barbeau’s amusing recollections of the controversy, which, in fact, caught her by surprise.
Barbeau plays a government agent, Alice Cable, sent to the swamps of Louisiana (Charleston, S.C., actually) to protect scientists working on project using recombinant DNA to create “a plant with an animal’s aggressive power for survival.” While attempting to keep a gang of guerrillas straight out of Woody Allen’s “Bananas” from stealing the substance, one of the researchers infects himself with the chemical cocktail. The rebels use Alice as bait to attract Swamp Thing, but, instead, he becomes Alice’s guardian angel, using his superpowers to overwhelm their every advance. It takes a while for her to recognize the creature from the brackish lagoon as the scientist she was assigned to protect, but, when she does, “Swamp Thing” becomes a cult-friendly version of “Beauty and the Beast.” The creature’s costume is laughable, even by 1980s’ standards, but the story, which was rooted in DC Comics mythology, had enough heart and action to keep viewers interested. Those qualities, when combined with the hypnotic topless scene, allow “Swamp Thing” to maintain its guilty-pleasure status. In the interviews newly attached to the Blu-ray release it is convincingly argued that Craven’s original concept was far less contrived and silly looking than the finished product. He was nickeled-and-dimed by Embassy Pictures, during and after production, to the point where, according to Barbeau, the movie barely resembled the script she read when she signed on to the project. Even so, its popularity prompted a 1989 sequel, a live-action and animated TV series, and the possibility of Swamp Thing being resurrected for a contemporary superhero movie. Apart from Barbeau’s boobs, the version of Craven’s movie now available would find itself right at home on Syfy. The Blu-ray includes three fresh making-of featurettes, which are well worth watching.
Any movie in which Uwe Boll plays the President of the United States, his German accent notwithstanding, is an entertainment that can’t be taken seriously as anything except a very cruel joke on audiences. Boll, who may be the most critically reviled filmmaker on the planet, appears only in a cameo, but it’s enough to put the whole project in question. While it’s likely that the writing/directing team of Luca Boni and Marco Ristori didn’t stray very far from Boll’s genre formula, “Zombie Massacre” (a.k.a., “Apocalypse Z”) demonstrates that the Italians can hold their own with the maestro in illogical plot twists and hyper-gratuitous violence. And, yes, I’m aware that we’re talking about a zombie movie here, not a romantic comedy. What distinguishes “Zombie Massacre” from other undead titles – if only marginally – are the special makeup effects, which are of state-of-the-genre quality. Here, the zombie apocalypse begins on a Romanian military base, where a chemical-weapons experiment goes terribly wrong. A special-forces team is organized to infiltrate the camp to plant a nuclear device, designed to wipe out the threat, but they make plenty of time for kicking the crap out of the ghouls. In the movies, as in real life, going mano-a-mano with decomposing bodies almost never works. The creatures here look, move and growl like most of other movie ghouls, except for the fact that they’re faster and, if anything, more hideous. Typically, too, there’s a point where audiences must decide whether to cheer for the humans or root on the undead. The Boll cameo also demands that we considerable the possibility that it’s an unrealized comedy. The Blu-ray edition adds enough interesting background material to make such questions easier to field. – Gary Dretzka
My Awkward Sexual Adventure
The curious premise of this amiable, if undernourished Hollywood fairytale is that any actress still struggling by the time she reaches her 25th birthday might as well be dead. Not dead dead, of course, but career dead, which, for citizens of Tinseltown may as be well be dead dead. It’s not true, of course, because every so often a part is written for a woman in her 30s or 40s. What works in the favor of actors of ambiguous age is the odd tendency of producers to cast men and women in their 20s in shows and movies targeted at high school audiences. In the slightly undernourished comedy, “Amelia’s 25th,” the exceedingly cute Electra Avellan – herself, 27 — plays the birthday girl. Amelia has the kind of girlish good looks and unfinished curves that could win her a job as a sophomore, junior or senior on “Glee,” or, with a few splashes of makeup, a woman who must soon decide between a pursuing her career and devoting herself to motherhood. Still, her agent practically declares her career to be dead in the same call as he wishes her a happy birthday. On this day, as well, she’ll have a serious fight with her boyfriend, get an ultimatum from her landlord, botch a couple of auditions and lose a job to a cross-dresser, all the while being forced to absorb all sorts of flaky advice from a photographer pal, an over-the-hill star, the proprietor of a sex shop for plus-size women and a hippy-dippy psychic. In fact, though, if it weren’t for the cameos by such established performers as Danny Trejo, Robert Rodriguez, Jennifer Tilly and Margaret Cho, “Amelia’s 25th” probably would have become just another more movie that couldn’t find financing. As it is, though, Martin Yernazian’s VOD original – from a screenplay by Mark Whittington and Nicholes Cole – does offer some charming moments, not the least of them is a visitation by an exterminator angel who comes to her rescue late in the day with a very special birthday present. The DVD adds some deleted scenes.
“My Awkward Sexual Adventure” is an unpretentious romantic comedy from Winnipeg, of all places, that benefits from the strategic use of explicit, if not terribly graphic sexual imagery. The tendency in Hollywood movies is to talk around and about sex, without risking the loss of a PG rating. Network censors are even more protective of the sensitivities of the 1 percent of their audience that’s never considered anything more acrobatic than the missionary position. This is especially true when it comes to oral sex. It is an act of indescribable pleasure that almost everyone on prime-time sitcoms and rom-coms finds hilarious, but no one ever seems to perform. Things are so much more advanced in Winnipeg, wherever it is. Trouble suddenly erupts in the relationship between a nebbishy accountant, Jordan (writer/producer Jonas Chernick), and his girlfriend, Rachel (Sarah Manninen), who, one morning, realizes that he’s a piss-poor lover. In love for as long as either of them can remember, they’ve been in love and on a one-way street leading to marriage. Rachel’s abrupt decision to seek something more satisfying than Jordan’s sleep-inducing foreplay and tragically rapid ejaculations takes him completely by surprises. In fact, Jordan can’t bring himself to believe she isn’t imagining her discontent. Nonetheless, he decides to visit a more experienced friend in Toronto and allow him to work his magic on him. Instead, he finds a willing teacher in a pretty pole dancer, Julia (Emily Hampshire), who trades lessons in cunnilingus for desperately needed financial advice. Evan while acing Julia’s exams, Jordan hopes against hope that Rachel will come to her senses and welcome him back with open arms. After some “awkward” maneuvering, that’s exactly what happens. By the time she does, however, our allegiances have shifted in Julia’s direction. Director Sean Garrity does a nice job holding the audience’s interest, even though the conclusion is of the foregone persuasion. He also saves the nudity for the scenes in which it’s warranted, which is a smart move. As familiar as this outline sounds, “My Awkward Sexual Adventure” feels fresher than it has any right to be. The DVD adds interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka
King of the Streets: Blu-ray
What may be the most noteworthy thing about “King of the Streets” is the distinction, if true, of it being the first Chinese street-fighting movie not made in Hong Kong. Although the story isn’t all that unusual for the martial-arts genre, there’s plenty of action and it isn’t limited to one martial-arts discipline. It also takes place in a hard-scrabble section of Beijing not often featured in Chinese exports. Professional fighter Yue Song plays the protagonist, Fang, a young man who was sent to prison for avenging the death of his family. Eight year later, he’s released into a society still controlled by mercenary gangs and ruthless capitalists, one of whom, at least, is determined to evict an orphanage from property on which they want to build high-rise building. The more money the developer loses at a Macau casino, the more desperate he becomes to kick the orphans into the streets of the capital. After vowing to reject violence, Fang once again is forced to resort to extreme action to save people he considers to be part of his family. The actors enlisted to engage in mortal combat with Fang were recruited from the ranks of MMA, Jiu-jitsu, Jeet Kune Do, Sanda, and Muay Thai veterans. The diverse array of styles goes a long way to keeping the action from becoming repetitive and predictable, and Song is very good at all of them. He also served as writer, producer and director. – Gary Dretzka
BBC: The Thick of It: Seasons 1-4
History: Top Gear: USA: The Complete Season 3
Showtime: Women Who Kill
The thing that makes the release of all four seasons of the super-smart British political satire, “The Thick of It,” especially relevant is the news that one of its primary players, Peter Capaldi, will become the 12th Doctor Who, and its American cousin, “Veep,” is a candidate in six Emmy categories. As sharp, smart and funny the HBO adaptation is, “The Thick of It” trumps it with universally brilliant acting, spitfire-quick dialogue and a view of democratic politics that borders on the toxic. To ensure that the language stings with the same intensity as the cynicism of the bureaucrats and strategists, the show even has a profanity consultant, Ian Martin, on its staff. The withering insults and retorts are works of art in themselves. Not at all coincidentally, both series were created by Armando Iannucci, as was the brilliant “In the Loop,” which skewered politicians and political operatives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In “The Thick of It,” most of the action takes place in the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, an agency that’s nearly as irrelevant as it is ineptly managed. Capaldi plays the prime minister’s policy enforcer, whose mastery of scathing impromptu diatribes is truly impressive. The new BBC set includes all four seasons and the specials, “The Rise of the Nutters” and “Spinners and Losers”; commentary by Iannucci; deleted scenes and outtakes; behind-the-scenes featurettes; and photo galleries with commentary.
Shown here on the History Channel, “Top Gear: USA” follows closely the pattern laid out by the BBC for its extremely popular “Top Gear,” now entering its 356th season … or thereabouts. The hosts/participants are racing driver Tanner Foust, analyst Rutledge Wood and comic Adam Ferrara. It would be next to impossible to improve on the original series, with its crazy patchwork of celebrity events, daredevil driving and oddball contests. “Top Gear: USA” didn’t take hold immediately with American audiences, who’ve fallen out of love with performance vehicles, manual shifting, distinctive styling and races that involve something more than turning left. It’s nice to know that it’s been renewed for a fourth season, beginning in September. Among the episodes in the Season Three package are “Viking Trucks,” “Minnesota Ice Driving” “Mammoth Mountain,” “Doomsday Drive,” “Taxis,” “The 150 MPH Challenge,” “RVs,” “Police Cars” and “The Tractor Challenge.” The bonus material adds new scenes, background material, host interviews and commentaries.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the comedy racket that, when it comes to joking about sex and gender politics, women can be every bit as profane as male comics. Such ribald women as Rusty Warren and Moms Mabley cut a path for Joan Rivers, Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller to walk through in the 1960s, while widening it for Roseanne Barr, Lily Tomlin and other “liberated” comics of the 1970s and beyond. The only difference between the women represented in the Showtime special, “Women Who Kill” – Amy Schumer, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin and Nikki Glaser — and such established blue comics as Lisa Lampanelli, Kathy Griffin, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Mo’Nique is that they all look as if they might have belonged to the same college sorority before joining the standup ranks. The hour-long special is hilarious, but definitely not for the timid. The set is enhanced by the bonus features “The Slumber Party,” “Photo Shoot,” “Gossip in the Makeup Room” and “The Jist of Rachel.” – Gary Dretzka
West of Memphis: Blu-ray
Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha
Frontline: Outlawed in Pakistan
PBS: The Path to Violence
Anyone interested in how Amy Berg’s startling documentary “West of Memphis” squares with the exhaustive “Paradise Lost” trilogy on the same subject shouldn’t feel alone or uninformed about one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent American history. All four films chronicle the original investigation, arrests, trial, convictions and post-verdict maneuverings surrounding the so-called West Memphis Three child murders, which, in the mid-1990s, rocked West Memphis, Arkansas. The HBO project, made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, was released first in 1996, and, as new evidence warranted, added to in 2000 and 2011. At 147 minutes, “West of Memphis” is able to present a nearly seamless overview of the travesty, by streamlining the historical narrative and revisiting key events, witnesses and evidence. Beyond that, Berg was able to come to a different conclusion as to the person most likely to have committed the crime. “West of Memphis” doesn’t attempt to knock down any of the findings of “Paradise Lost.” In fact, the HBO films are referenced fairly in Berg’s documentary. Neither will viewers of all four films be any less disgusted by the rush to judgment by residents of West Memphis, its police, district attorney and local and national media obsessed with rumors of Satanism and the influence of heavy-metal music. The State of Arkansas still comes off as being far too interested in protecting a corrupt and lazy judiciary than accepting the truth and acting on it. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley may have been released in a plea deal after 17 years in prison – thanks, in large part, to the financial participation of celebrities in the defense campaign – but their names have never been officially cleared. Because of the lack of exoneration, it isn’t likely that anyone in a position of power will actively seek the more likely subject for prosecution. It should be noted that “West of Memphis” contains visual evidence that’s far more graphic than anything in the trilogy, as are some of the first-person recollections. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Berg, Echols and producer Lorri Davis; 88 minutes of deleted scenes; more than an hour’s worth of material from the Toronto Film Festival; and a few additional stories from Echols’ past. Among the celebrities who pushed the defense efforts and appear here are director Peter Jackson, Eddie Vetter, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Natalie Maine, Henry Rollins, Barry Scheck, New music is provided Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Christians have questioned the authenticity of the shroud of Turin for as long as it’s been known to exist. Last week, archeologists on a dig in Turkey revealed that they’d found an urn containing wood they believed to be from the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. It, too, will be scrutinized with the same degree of exactitude reserved for the minerals found on the lunar surface and Mars. In the PBS program, “Secrets of the Dead: Bones of the Buddha,” archeologists were asked to determine if the gold, jewels and the charred bones found by a British landowner buried in a mound in rural India marked the final resting place of the Lord Buddha at the legendary lost city of Kapilavastu. The gold and jewels now belong to the planter’s grandson, who lives in a suburban bungalow in England. According to a leading expert on ancient Indian languages, the markings on some of the artifacts match those of other objects from the period he’s seen. The only problem is that there’s a difference of 150-200 years between the assumed burial date and the earliest known use of the alphabet identifying an urn as the one that carried Buddha’s ashes. The researchers are given that mystery to solve, as well. Like most other episodes of the “Secrets of the Dead” I’ve seen, “Bones of the Buddha” is absolutely fascinating and credible.
A new “Frontline” presentation, “Outlawed in Pakistan,” throws one huge curve at viewers during what we assume is yet another justified indictment of injustice for women in the Muslim world. It’s an inarguable fact that men literally are allowed to get away with murder and rape, under the protections granted them through Sharia Law. The U.S. deplores such abuses when they occur in Pakistan and Iran, but ignore them in Saudi Arabia. Here, filmmakers Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann spent several years following the case of 13-year-old Kainat Soomro, who claims to have been drugged and raped by several men on her way home from school. Because of the men’s ties to the local tribal leader, however, her complaint wouldn’t have reached a higher court if her family didn’t openly protest the injustice and national women’s groups didn’t support her challenge. Although the men claimed their innocence, the negative publicity prompted a judge to imprison them for two years in advance of a trial. (This, itself, might have been a miscarriage of justice.) The biggest stumbling block for Kainat all along was a lack of evidence against the men she accused of the crime. Local police assumed she was lying, so neglected to collect material from the crime scene. Advanced DNA technology wasn’t available, either. Because of this, it was a girl’s word against those of four men and a gaggle of Koran-thumping loudmouths. It’s interesting that the case attracted two of the top lawyers in Pakistan and their insight is crucial to understanding how things might play out, including the murder of Kainat’s brother and a possible attempt on her life and that of her mother. What I wasn’t prepared to see, however, was evidence presented by the defense, in mid-trial, that practically destroyed the girl’s case and our belief in what happened to her. In the western world, a prosecutor may have had the wherewithal to refute all of it. In Pakistan, however, it opened the door to an injustice potentially as great as the rape. If my view of justice for women in Pakistan and other Islamic Republics wasn’t shaken by the verdict or its aftermath, the documentary tested my assumptions about “Frontline” and its willingness to go out on an increasingly slim limb in support of an inarguably fascinating subject.
In PBS’s continuing effort to make sense of mass murders in our schools, “The Path to Violence” examines how educators, police and parents have combined their efforts to prevent future horrors. Because more than 120 school assaults have been thwarted in the past 10 years, there’s a ready body of evidence upon which to draw conclusions, even if the potential perpetrators don’t fit any firm stereotype. Among the remarkable discoveries is how often the troubled teens share their plans with others and the reasons classmates frequently honor some twisted code of silence. Communication between teenagers, parents, school psychologists and teachers has proven to be a more efficient deterrent than any boost in security systems or, as the NRA argues, adding dozens of armed guards to already stretched school budgets. “Path to Violence” promotes the Safe School Initiative, which, in the wake of Sandy Hook, has become an important tool in detecting problem behavior and putting systems in place to deter worst-case scenarios. – Gary Dretzka
Wheels on the Bus: Animal Adventure/All Around the Town
Forty years ago, it would have been as difficult to imagine Roger Daltry voicing a dragon named Argon on a popular children’s series as it would be to foresee a time when angry Who anthems would become the theme songs for several hit crime-detection shows. If Keith Moon were still alive, he might be hosting a late-night talk show. Argon the Dragon is among the animal characters featured in “Wheels on the Bus: Animal Adventure” and “All Around the Town,” the latest collections of episodes from the series of educational DVDs, TV shows, music CDs and downloadable videos created by One Happy Child Productions. They’re intended to teach such early skills as sharing, helping, cooperation and nutrition to young children. “Animal Adventure” and “All Around the Town” combine live-action and animation with old and new “Wheels on the Bus” verses and music. The episodes included here are: “The Reptile Show,” “The Aquarium,” “The Zoo” and “Dolphins and Bugs,” as well as “Life Lessons: Making Friends and Helping Out.” On “All Around the Town,” they’re “Mango Takes His Turn,” “Everyone Has a Job” and “Fairie s Golden Rule,” with more “Life Lessons.” – Gary Dretzka