Mood Indigo: Blu-ray
The One I Love: Blu-ray
Even if Mark Duplass has finally managed to escape the mumblecore pigeonhole, I’ve lumped The One I Love together with Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas because they probably share a fan base interested in all of the films and TV shows in which they’re involved. While very different, both of these dramedies are typically offbeat and feature excellent performances by familiar actors. In director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader’s feature debut, The One I Love, Duplass plays Ethan, whose marriage to Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) has pretty much run its course and all that’s left is the bickering. Even so, they agree to meet with a therapist whose methodology is unconventional, as best. (McDowell’s stepfather, Ted Danson, lent his name and body to the project as the couple’s therapist.) Ethan and Sophie agree to take him up on his offer of a free weekend at his country cottage, in exchange for their best efforts to solve their festering antagonism. And, thanks to some fine wine and pot, things do work out well on their first night away from home. No sooner does the sun come up on Day 2, however, than the couple is thrust into a scenario one can only get to by taking the off-ramp to “The Twilight Zone.” It takes us by surprise as much as it does Ethan and Sophie. I won’t spoil the surprise any more than I already have, except to say that Duplass and Moss pull it off with aplomb and viewers are advised to pay close attention to their every move.
By contrast, Happy Christmas rips an entire chapter from the mumblecore playbook and it, too, should make Swanberg’s followers happy. As usual, the actors appear to be working more from an outline than a script and their motivation derives from shared memories of hanging out with close friends before they were kind of rich and almost famous. Anna Kendrick, the Millennial Generation’s Sandra Bullock, plays Swanberg’s younger sister, Jenny, who, after ending a relationship, comes to Chicago to live with Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg) to help take care of their child, Jude. It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that Jenny and her best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), need a babysitter as much as Jude. One of the distinguishing characteristics of mumblecore is dialogue that takes us in different directions than we think things are headed. Jenny is irresponsible to the point of being a potential hazard to the family’s well-being and Kelly always seems on the verge of throwing her out on her ear. Jenny, though, is able to endear herself to Kelly by insisting that she join the girls in a toke or sip … ditto, with brother Jeff, who’s even more malleable than his wife. With the incredibly cute and animated Jude already walking, Kelly has begun to feel uneasy about staying home and “only” being a mom. Apparently, before becoming pregnant, she had written a best-selling book and it is about to be made into a movie. Jenny and Carson convince Kelly of therapeutic value of writing a romance novel at the film’s unoccupied production office and getting back in the saddle. To save time, everyone will contribute story ideas and share in the writing process. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this gives the gals a legitimate reason to get wasted in the afternoon, a condition that also leads to complications. It’s all very loosey-goosey. My biggest problem with Happy Christmas came in Kendrick’s seeming inability to improvise without adding one “like” and “you know,” at least, to virtually every sentence of dialogue. Even if it was intentional, it’s annoying as hell. Otherwise, fans of the subgenre will want to add it to their collection.
Although there’s plenty enough going on between the three troubled women at the center of Kate Johnston and Shauna MacDonald’s romantic drama, Tru Love, the city of Toronto and its bitter winter cold nearly steal the show from them. Normally, movies set in big American cities during January and February are shot somewhere else, using snow-making machines and CGI “breath fog” to create the illusion of discomfort. Canadian filmmakers, though, don’t seem to mind shooting during the harsh winters in the Great White North. The Sweet Hereafter, Away From Her and Affliction all benefited by conditions that tested the actors as much as the characters they portrayed. If Tru Love isn’t in the same league as those fine movies, its wintery setting accurately conveys the chilly vibes shared by the women at the corners of the film’s stormy triangle. Co-writer/co-director MacDonald plays Tru, a 37-year-old lesbian who’s notorious for her flighty approach to relationships and can’t seem to keep a job, either. She has plenty of time on her hands, then, when her busy friend Suzanne (Christine Horne) asks her to entertain her 60-year-old mother, Alice (Kate Trotter), while she’s in town. Given only that much information and a screen capture of the still-vivacious Trotter, most people familiar with queer cinema should be able to figure out what’s going to happen during the picture’s 94-minute length and why. And, yes, that familiarity is Tru Love’s greatest flaw. The whole MILF, FILF and gender-neutral cougar thing has nearly eliminated the whole May-December stigma. What is surprising is the filmmaker’s decision to keep almost all of the sex – graphic and implied — behind closed doors. The screenwriters and actors have no trouble convincing us that none of the characters are celibate, however, and the visual abstinence saves Tru Love from overstaying its welcome. As Tru and Alice’s friendship evolves, they’re also required to deal with Suzanne’s toxic attitude toward their friendship. And, of course, many of the movie’s happiest and most emotionally draining moments play out in sub-freezing conditions outdoors. The abrupt ending may not sit well with all viewers, but it’s probably the only way the filmmakers could go without turning Tru Love into a mini-series on the Logo TV network.
Land Ho!: Blu-ray
The performances in this quirky buddy/road picture are so naturalistic that there were times when I thought Land Ho! might be some sort of docu-drama or parody of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s “Trip” movies … not that they were sufficiently popular in the U.S. to spoof. Aussie transplant Paul Eenhoorn plays the low-key Colin, who’s living the suddenly-single life in rural Kentucky. His traveling companion, Mitch, is portrayed with bombastic good-ol’-boy charm by Earl Lynn Nelson, an actual oculoplastic surgeon who’s only appeared in two movies, both directed by his cousin Martha Stephens. Eenhoorn has the kind of face that could belong to a friendly neighbor or the star of an indie film you might have seen at a festival, but can’t remember where or when. (He was terrific as a Christian social worker in This Is Martin Bonner, by the way.) Judging from interviews included in the Blu-ray, it’s possible that Nelson simply was encouraged to stand in front of a camera and act as if it wasn’t there. As such, his Mitch is a loud, profane and unreconstructed male chauvinist, who’s never encountered a woman he hasn’t mentally undressed and graded on a 1-to-10 scale. It takes a while to get used to such old-school sexism, but Mitch is pretty harmless.
Colin and Mitch, who, in real life, might only have met in line at the DMV, were married to sisters who’ve long since have gone their separate ways from them. One day, Mitch shows up on Colin’s doorstep, demanding that he accept his offer of a free ticket to Iceland for an excellent adventure. Iceland is a country of great natural beauty and they can only be fully appreciated four or five months of the year. Otherwise, the country’s residents mostly spend their time canning fish, lounging in the thermal baths and getting drunk. (I spent a couple of days there in February and didn’t see the sun, let alone a dormant volcano.) Mitch and Colin must have been real rascals when they were young, because they still enjoy the occasional joint, wallowing in hot springs and hitting on women old enough to be their granddaughters. They must represent a rare species in Iceland, because no one seems to mind their mid-20th Century manners and leering eyes. After exhausting the tourist attractions in Reykjavik, Mitch rents a tricked-out SUV for a road trip along Iceland’s scenic Golden Circle Route. It provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on their lives, but even more to flake off and have a good time. Co-written and co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, Land Ho! is the perfect movie to show anyone who believes that life as they know it will end when their first Social Security check is electronically deposited in their bank account. The Reykjavik Tourist Bureau owes them a debt of gratitude, as well.
I Am Yours
At 5-foot-2, Amrita Acharia seems too delicate to carry the burdens placed on her character’s shoulders in the emotionally draining Norwegian export, I Am Yours. And, yes, that’s exactly what she’s required to do in actor-turned-writer/director Iram Haq’s debut feature, which was Norway’s official entry in the 2014 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language category. She plays Mina, the single mother of 6-year-old Felix, an extremely affectionate boy who shares time with his father and mother, both of whom are on cordial terms and deeply love him. The product of a traditional Pakistani immigrant family, Mina is an aspiring actress who enjoys a good time and is no rush to get re-married simply to please her parents and their conservative friends. It isn’t until she meets Jesper, a seemingly together Swedish film director, that she begins to think that she might be ready to settle down again. Jesper invites Mina to join him for an extended stay in Stockholm, during which Felix manages to inadvertently extinguish all of the flames of desire that spontaneously erupt between them. He’s a nice guy, but not nearly as ready to balance his burgeoning career with a passionate girlfriend and her love-starved child as he thought. No sooner does Jesper distance himself from their long-distance relationship than Mina’s parents accuse of her prostituting herself in the eyes the Pakistani community and causing them to be shunned. More a character portrait than narrative drama, I Am Yours compels us to invest our sympathies with a woman who could easily be dismissed as someone who made her bed and now must sleep in it. Acharia demands that we consider Mina on her own terms, as a free-spirited woman trapped between disparate cultures, yet willing to sacrifice everything for Felix. Forceful, yet completely realistic, her performance is as powerful as any I’ve seen in a long time. (If the producers of “The Good Wife” need a replacement for Archie Panjabi next season, they need look no further than Acharia.) As usual, the Film Movement package includes a bonus short film, “The Amber Amulet.”
S.O.B.: Summer of Blood
Neither parody nor thriller, S.O.B.: Summer of Blood is a frequently hilarious comedy in which the primary characters just happen to be vampires. Chief among them is Erik Sparrow, a slovenly 40-year-old windbag who is every woman’s worst fear when set up on a blind date. Self-centered, misogynistic, racist, commitment-phobic and inarguably stupid, Erik is played with extraordinary self-restraint by writer/director/editor/producer Onur Tukel (Ding-a-ling-Less), who looks as if he came in last place in a Jerry Garcia look-alike contest. In Tukel’s most outlandish conceit, Erik turns down a proposal of marriage from his girlfriend, Jody (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a perfectly normal young woman who’s inexplicably put up with his baloney for several years. His response to her offer is so thoughtlessly distasteful that it breaks whatever spell she’s been under since meeting him. Erik’s luck finally runs out at work, as well. Here, at least, his boorish behavior probably would have been tolerated by his superiors, if he wasn’t also the company’s worst sales rep. You get the picture. He tries to get back on track by joining a dating service, but his mojo only goes so far with the potential candidates. One night, while walking around Brooklyn’s desolate warehouse district a handsome young man, Gavin (Dustin Guy Defa), comes out of nowhere to strike up a conversation with him. Instead of being solicited for a blow job, Erik is bitten on the neck and turned into a vampire. Not everyone is cut out to be a member of the undead fraternity, but Eric takes to it like a duck to water.
All of a sudden, the same women who ridiculed Erik’s lack of sexual prowess – not to mention his stupid observations about life — can’t get enough of his ferocious libido. He’s still full of b.s. and deficient in penile department, but somehow it no longer matters. The only problem for Erik is the intense pain he feels when he’s in need of fresh human blood. Eventually, though, even Jody comes around. On another one of his midnight creeps, Erik encounters Gavin while he’s draining the blood from some other unsuspecting guy. After taking up Gavin’s offer to share his meal, Erik gets to ask him some questions about the vampire life. Tukel takes a bit of risk here by introducing discussions about God and the power of prayer. It comes up again later, when Jody decides that she doesn’t want Erik catting around after she dies and demands he give her eternal life. If that qualifies as too much information, it’s worth noting that a dozen spoilers wouldn’t ruin this surprise indie comedy. Genre buffs won’t be disappointed by any lack of blood and gore, as there’s plenty of that, too. The DVD adds a few deleted scenes, commentary and a short making-of featurette.
Demons/Demons 2: Blu-ray
Dolls: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Nekromantik: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Crimson Winter: Blu-ray
The Doctor and the Devils: Blu-ray
The House at the End of Time
Like fine wine, Italian genre flicks, tend to get better with age. It took a while for American audiences to warm to what were then considered to be cheesy odes to classic Hollywood drive-in and matinee fare. Even after the cognoscenti put their seal of approval on “spaghetti” Westerns, however, there was no guarantee anyone would take a shine to Italy’s horror, crime and splatter thrillers. Indeed, in the 1990s, Italians gave up on them completely. VHS and, later, DVD and Blu-ray allowed us to take a closer look at what made them special to such advocates as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and the editors of niche magazines – now, websites – targeted at buffs. In Synapse’s welcome re-introduction of Demons and Demons 2, we’re given an opportunity to see what maestros Dario Argento, Dardano Sacchetti and third-generation director Lamberto Bava could do when provided access to some of most popular heavy-metal music and special-effects wizardry on the planet. The only real difference between the two films is the setting. The former takes place almost entirely in a cursed movie theater in then-West Berlin, while the latter was filmed largely in a cursed apartment building in Hamburg and Rome. Playing somewhere in the background of both pictures is a black-and-white horror movie, in which a group of juvenile delinquents raid Nostradamus’s long-sealed tomb, thereby opening the gates of hell for demons to escape. One of the people invited to the Metropole screening in Demons is infected with the same plague when she brushes against a prop used in the movie being shown. In Demons 2, the curse is passed along to guests at a birthday party through a television showing the same picture. One bite leads to another and, before long, panic ensues within the closed spaces, as the uninfected rush to escape. If Luis Bunuel had remade The Exterminating Angel as a giallo, it might look something like Demons and Demons 2. If neither movie is considered to be among Bava, Argento and Sacchetti’s best, they both remain fun to watch. The soundtracks include songs by Billy Idol, Scorpions, Motley Crue, Accept, Saxon, the Smiths, The Cult, Dead Can Dance, Art of Noise and Peter Murphy, as well as music composed by Brazilian composer and Argento favorite Claudio Simonetti. The sequel also boasts 11-year-old Asia Argento in her first film appearance.
Two years before Child’s Play would do for dolls what Magic did for ventriloquist dummies, Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) had already created his nightmare version of “The Nutcracker,” in which dozens of dolls and puppets run amok on unsuspecting houseguests. Scream Factory has released Dolls in a “Collector’s Edition,” which possibly is more entertaining to watch today than it was in 1986. The story itself is almost as old as time. One stormy night in the moors of England, the car rented by three American tourists breaks down outside a house that, in another tale, might have been built from gingerbread. A cute little girl is trapped in the vehicle along with her neglectful father and evil stepmother, when a giant toy bear makes a hallucinatory appearance before her eyes. The trio and three other stranded Americans are offered shelter in the house, which is owned by an outwardly friendly toymaker and his wife. The girl takes an immediate liking to the man and woman, who give her a jester doll to carry around with her. Her parents and two of the other American girls aren’t nearly as congenial. Sure enough, at the appointed hour, their lack of proper gratitude is met with the enmity of dozens of creatively murderous toys. Gordon probably could have done a lot more interesting things with Dolls, had he been accorded a larger budget and more time. As it is, however, the attack of the killer dolls is worth the price of a rental, alone. The nicely re-mastered Blu-ray adds commentary tracks Gordon and writer Ed Maha, and cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine and Ian Patrick Williams; the excellent 38-minute “Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls”; a film-to-storyboard comparison; and a stills gallery.
Even 27 years after it was banned in its home country of Germany, Jorg Buttgereit’s scabrous Nekromantik retains its ability to shock and offend. Look up “not for the faint of heart” in certain dictionaries and you might find a link to the page on Amazon on which the Blu-ray edition is being hawked. Bernd Daktari Lorenz (Bikes & Bras) plays a street-cleaner working with a team that goes around mopping up scenes of vehicular carnage. Occasionally, Robert will bring home souvenirs from his day on the job to share with his girlfriend, Betty (Beatrice Manowski). She’s one person who isn’t afraid to demonstrate her necrophilic proclivities on a partially eroded corpse. And, yes, you have to see it to believe it. After Betty leaves Robert for greener graveyards, the poor sap’s condition deteriorates to the point where he’ll shtup anything that once possessed a pulse. For her part, Betty can’t help but wonder how she’ll satisfy her perverse desires after she wears out her current skeletal flame. Along with the visual atrocities, Nekromantik also provides several good laughs. I doubt very much that Buttgereit could ever have imagined seeing his bad-taste epic transferred from its original Super 8mm to high definition and accompanied by a half-dozen bonus features, including his debut short film, “Hot Love.” Other material includes a 2013 Q&A with Buttgereit at the American Cinematheque; commentary with co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; a making-of featurette; stills gallery; and original trailers.
Bryan Ferriter’s very curious vampire adventure/romance, Crimson Winter, appears to have borrowed liberally from “Romeo & Juliet,” LARP and cosplay re-creations. Ferriter serves double-duty as Elric, a centuries-old British vampire who falls in love with a human (Kailey Michael Portsmouth), thereby turning against his own family and causing him to be banished to a cave in Montana or thereabouts. A couple of centuries later, Elric and his loyalists have raised an undead army capable of taking on the ruling family. To sustain themselves, the vampires drain the blood of animals inhabiting the northern Rockies. A research team of students goes into the mountains to evaluate the complaints of local sportsmen, discovering evidence of an ancient curse and putting themselves between the hunters and the feuding vampires. Except for a few instances of medieval combat, hardly anyone in the movie seems to be in any hurry to accomplish anything. William Piotrowski’s symphonic orchestrations and ambient soundscapes add a touch of class to the proceedings.
Despite its all-star roster, The Doctor and the Devils takes a tantalizing story of Gothic madness and turns it into a series of character sketches, none of which are as horrifying as the historical figures who perpetrated the crimes on which the movie is based. Notorious throughout the UK, the Burke and Hare murders (a.k.a., West Port murders) took place in Edinburgh, in 1828. When anatomy professor Doctor Robert Knox ran out of fresh bodies for dissection during his lectures – it was a bad year for hangings, apparently — Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare decided to dig up already buried corpses to see if they could make a living wage off them. Knox’s rejection prompted the sots to bring in the freshest possible cadavers the only way they could … killing specimens, themselves. Historians put the actual toll at 17, before they were arrested and one of four co-conspirators was convicted, hung and handed over to the college for dissection. Knox wasn’t put on trial, except in the form of an official inquiry by his peers. The crimes, first described in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Body Snatcher,” have been dramatized in a couple dozen movies, including The Body Snatcher, Mystery and Imagination: The Body Snatcher, El quinto jinete: El ladrón de cadavers, the 2004 “Doctor Who” audio drama “Medicinal Purposes” and John Landis’ Burke and Hare. Ronald Harwood re-wrote Dylan Thomas’ 1953 screenplay for The Doctor and the Devils, which would star Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Julian Sands, Stephen Rea and Patrick Stewart. The Blu-ray adds commentary with author and film historian Steve Haberman and interviews with executive producer Mel Brooks, producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach.
When it comes to tailoring a punishment to fit the crime, Alejandro Hidalgo’s The House at the End of Time may have just set a new standard. As the story goes, Venezuelan mom Dulce is accused of murdering her husband and two children in their home. We already know that she’s probably innocent of any crime, but the evidence pointed in her direction, nonetheless. Thirty years later, a condition of her parole demands she return to the scene of the murders and confront the demons that almost surely remain in residence therein. Hidalgo flashes backward and forward to establish the circumstances that led to broader horrors of the day, focusing on the children and their playmates. By taking us out of the house, the Venezuelan filmmaker risks distracting us from what’s happened there in the past or soon will happen. It doesn’t always work, but film’s foundation, like that of the house, is solid.
Nothing Bad Can Happen: Blu-ray
Katrin Gebbe’s extremely disturbing and excruciatingly brutal Nothing Bad Can Happen would be unbearable to sit through if it weren’t for the fact that it’s supposedly based on an actual event and less directly inspired by Dostoyefsky’s “The Idiot.” In a very real sense, it describes what might happen when New Testament beliefs clash with traditional psycho-sexual German fascism. A cherubic blond stranger, Tore (Julius Feldmeier), arrives in Hamburg with a desire to become part of a family of committed Christian youths, the Jesus Freaks. They celebrate Christ not only in words and deeds, but also aggressive faith-based rock ’n’ roll. During one of the group’s raves, Tore falls to the floor writhing either from the Holy Ghost or epilepsy, depending on where one stands on Christian phenomenon. After “healing” a stalled pickup truck belonging to a local family, Tore is invited to join them as a permanent guest. It doesn’t take long for the father, Benno, to show his true colors and those of his equally cruel wife. Once they realize that Tore actually subscribes to Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek philosophy they test the young man’s faith with alarming resolve. In turn, Tore has committed himself to the belief that his mission on Earth is to save this family from itself, employing Christian values. If it weren’t for his close relationship with teenage Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof), Tore probably wouldn’t have survived past the second reel. It would be difficult to come up with a more unrelievedly forceful feature debut than Nothing Bad Can Happen. Gebbe elicits amazing performances from actors who probably weren’t completely comfortable in their portrayals of extreme behavior and injects mercifully kind and gentle moments amongst the horror. The DVD adds a pair of interesting background featurettes.
Ornette: Made in America: Project Shirley, Volume Three: Blu-ray
Portrait of Jason: Project Shirley, Volume Two: Blu Ray
Part of what made the 1960s so special, even before the tumult of the anti-war movement and countercultural revolution, was the experimental imperative that informed the arts in the first half of the decade. No two artists were more representative of the period than avant-garde jazz musician and composer Ornette Coleman and independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Ornette: Made in America represents a collaboration that took nearly 20 years to finish and waited another 30 years for it to be properly revived and appreciated. Clarke’s background as a modern dancer has served her well in projects involving jazz musicians, the drug subculture, beat writers and outsiders of various stripes. It comes in especially handy in the bio-doc of a musician who literally threw out the rulebook in composition and free musical expression. When the filming began, in the late 1960s, it featured Ornette, his then-young son, Denardo, and frequent collaborator, Charlie Haden. It was picked up, again, years later, with Coleman’s performance of “Skies of America,” with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at his hometown’s Convention Center. It’s an unlikely partnership, but one that works wonderfully for both the artist and the orchestra. In between, Clarke emulates his freeform style by mixing excerpts from performances, interviews, experimental music videos and re-enactments of Coleman’s childhood. The witness list includes original footage of William S. Burroughs, Buckminster Fuller, Ed Blackwell, Robert Palmer, George Russell, John Rockwell, Don Cherry and a much older Denardo Coleman. It’s worth noting that, while Clarke and most of Coleman’s contemporaries are no longer with us, the 84-year-old multi-instrumentalist is still making music … fully 45 years after he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. The Blu-ray adds two lengthy interviews with Clarke and a chat with Denardo.
Also from Milestone’s Project Shirley series is Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s interview with a black homosexual hepcat and “stone whore” in pre-Stonewall America, when everything and everyone was on the down-low. Filmed in one 12-hour stretch in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, it’s a 90-minute monologue fueled by alcohol and marijuana by Jason Holliday (né Aron Payne), who appears to be rehearsing for the one-man cabaret show he’s always intended to do. He’s hip, funny, a natural raconteur and not remotely modest or reserved. The longer the film shoot extends, however, the drunker he gets. The inebriants allow Holliday to cut through the layers of his outwardly tough hide, revealing emotions that aren’t always that amusing. Clarke and her then-boyfriend Carl Lee prod their subject with questions about race, hustling and family background they know will elicit such raw responses. They also call him on some of his exaggerations and inconsistencies. By this time in her career, Clarke had cultivated a self-image of being an outsider to mainstream culture, but an insider to the underground subculture. Here, though, she sometimes doesn’t fight fair. The problem is, no one born into vast wealth in New York is a complete outsider. As long as the silver spoon with which they born remains handy, it doesn’t matter how many drugs one has done, the number of jazz musicians they know and protest rallies they attend. The stench of entitlement is always palpable. (This aspect of Clarke’s personality is far more evident in the bonus films, interviews and featurettes, and doesn’t make her docs any less worthwhile.) Nonetheless, anyone willing to share anecdotes about his friendships with Miles Davis, Carmen McRae and other artists, as does Jason, is someone worth watching on film. Among the bonus features are discussions of the discovery and restoration process undertaken by Milestone. It’s truly remarkable.
In 2012, Dustin Hoffman directed Quartet, a comedy adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own stageplay. It was set in a retirement home for retired opera singers and musicians. Every year, they celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday by performing a concert to raise funds for their home. This year’s concert is threatened, however, by the arrival of a diva (Maggie Smith) who plays the diva card when asked to reprise her role in a once-popular quartet. It’s a cool premise and modestly budgeted movies aimed at the oldest and most intellectually curious demographic, such as Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Calendar Girls and Saving Grace, tend to make lots of money when worldwide revenues are combined. Based on the similarities between Quartet and the 1984 documentary Tosca’s Kiss, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Harwood borrowed the idea from Daniel Schmid’s film, especially since the DVD re-release from Icarus is being “presented” by Hoffman. For those keeping score at home, both are wonderful films. In 1896, the great Italian composer founded Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, saying, “Of all my works, that which pleases me the most is the Casa that I had built in Milan to shelter elderly singers who have not been favored by fortune or who, when they were young, did not have the virtue of saving their money.” I don’t know exactly how many people were living there when Schmid was shooting there, but the ones we meet are in pretty good shape, considering; impeccably dressed; feisty, especially when upstaged; frequently playful; blessed with surprisingly sound memories; and immensely appreciative of the man whose music they once made a living performing. It’s a treat watching Sara Scuderi re-enact Tosca’s deadly kiss-off of Scarpia on a chance meeting with heroic tenor Leonida Bellon outside a phone booth in the hotel, then perform “’O sole mio” with the same world-class ham. Likewise, when we eavesdrop on 80-year-old Giuseppe Manacchini as he reminisces with his wife, who played opposite him a half-century ago in ”La Traviata” and ”La Forza del Destino,” over a trunk full of costumes he once took to Rio de Janeiro, where he sang “Rigoletto.” Verdi’s copyrights expired in the early 1960s, but the passion for beautiful on display in Tosca’s Kiss is eternal.
The Magic of Heineken
As authorized corporate biographies go, The Magic of Heineken is better than most. It helps, of course, that the subject matter – the last 150 years in the life of one the world’s great brands – is familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the product or pondered which imported beer to buy at a fancy bar or restaurant. The Heineken story is told in fresh and vintage film clips, interviews, tours of family breweries in 13 different countries and visualizations staged with stop-action puppetry. And, while it doesn’t appear to whitewash any corporate blemishes, the film clearly is friendly to family members and current executives. Especially interesting is the material regarding Freddy Heineken, who, apart from being kidnapped by amateur criminals, managed to regain family ownership of the company after it was sold in the wake of World War II. He also engineered the company’s international expansion. It currently owns a worldwide portfolio of over 170 beer brands, mainly pale lager, and is the third largest brewing conglomerate.
Scarred But Smarter: The Life ’N’ Times of Drivin’’N’ Cryin’
By now, documentaries about rock bands are about as unusual as flies at a picnic and some have been every bit as annoying. Lately, though, I’ve come across dozens of films – most from England, for some reason – that expand upon everything we’ve come to know about our favorite bands and contextualize their importance within various trends and genres. For the most part, they’re of the unauthorized variety. This means that the primary musicians don’t participate in interviews and the musical clips are limited to public-record and fair-use performances and music videos. Scarred But Smarter: The Life ’N’ Times of Drivin’’N’ Cryin’ is different in that the individual band members have been making music for 30 years, under one banner or another, and aren’t reluctant to dish. Since emerging from Georgia’s rich musical soil, D’N’C has entertained tens of thousands of fans drawn to its unvarnished hard-rocking Southern sound. Director Eric Von Haessler has been one of those who’s occasionally wondered why the band hasn’t been able to parlay that loyalty into stadium tours and villas in France. The answer hardly qualifies as a mystery. Like too many other groups, their road was littered with bad business decisions, studio weasels, personal squabbles and, of course, drugs and booze. Among the musicians who contribute their opinions are fellow fans Peter Buck, Darius Rucker, Ed Roland, Ty Pennington and Jason Isbell, alongside those of past and present band members. Besides serving as cautionary tale, the documentary is informed by music that’s loud, kickin’, has stood the test of time and, in my opinion, sounds better in bars than large venues.
James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge: Special Collector’s Edition: 3D Blu-ray
In the 19th Century, the huge disparity in wealth and poverty allowed for the privileged members of society to explore unknown – to western interests, of course – parts of our world, usually under the auspices of geographic organizations, commercial interests and governments interests. It led to the accumulation of colonies and creation of highly accurate maps for navigation, exploitation and war. Blessedly, men of science and academia were encouraged to tag alone to record natural phenomena and collect specimens of animals and plants. If the explorers also plundered the occasional archeological or geological treasure, well, so be it. How else to convince the public to purchase newspapers, fund museums and beg for more adventures that ultimately would benefit the captains of industry? After World War II, such explorations became too expensive to mount. Instead, the U.S. and Soviet Union took up the slack by competing against each other for military supremacy on Earth and in space. As far as I know, NASA was the only entity to also be interested in supporting commercial and academic research. Today, we may have come full circle on the question of who should support costly scientific expeditions once deemed essential for national pride, if nothing else. Last week’s crash of the Virgin Galactic may have pushed back the deadline for Richard Branson’s first attempt at space tourism another couple of years, at least. This week’s release of James Cameron Deepsea Challenge on Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD offers another example of how rich people can do things our government no longer is capable of supporting, without offending taxpayers and contrarian legislators. If Branson, Cameron and Oprah Winfrey were ever to pool their money to finance a personal excursion to Mars, they’d be there in time for next November’s sweeps period. Subscribers to National Geographic and the OWN network probably wouldn’t mind throwing in a few bucks or contribute to a Kickstarter campaign. In a very real sense, the huge international success enjoyed by Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar has allowed him to visit the actual site of the Titanic’s final resting place, as well as that of the German battleship Bismarck and, now, the deepest point on Earth. The documentary chronicles Cameron’s solo dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench, nearly seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface, piloting a submersible he designed in collaboration with his team of technicians and scientists. Built in Sydney by the research and design company Acheron Project, the Deepsea Challenger carried scientific sampling equipment and high-definition 3-D cameras. Remarkably, such an expedition hasn’t been attempted since 1960, when the Bathyscaphe Trieste accomplished the same feat, but without the advanced technology available to Cameron. (Don Walsh, who co-piloted the Trieste, was on board the support vessel when the dive occurred.) The equipment trove includes the Rolex watch, “worn” on the submersible’s robotic arm, which measured the length of the dive and is given a prominent cameo in the film. What Cameron was able to photograph on the ocean’s floor might remind viewers of the desolate moonscape that greeted our astronauts on their missions. He did bring back images of a new species of sea cucumber, squid worm and giant single-celled amoeba, as well as some shrimp-like critters caught in a trip while devouring a baited chicken. Cameron is a gracious host throughout James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, even as he approaches what unquestionably is an incredibly dangerous series of dives in the unproven submersible. I can’t imagine what the movie looks like in high-def 3D, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Cameron. The set includes a couple of short featurettes.
Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story
One of the things we learn in Lady Valor is that 13 nations not named the United States of America allow transgender women or men serve their country in their armed forces. Not knowingly, anyway. Although the documentary maintains a tight focus on former U.S. Navy SEAL Christopher Beck – or as Beck currently prefers, Kristin – Lady Valor also introduces us to a couple dozen other trans-women who’ve worn the uniform of their chosen branch of the military as men. Beck served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy SEALs before her transition, and took part in 13 deployments, including seven involving combat. Beck was a member of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), a special counter-terrorism unit popularly called SEAL Team Six. You know, the same guys who took out Osama Bin Laden. He received multiple military awards and decorations, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. A year and a half after retirement, in 2011, Beck came out publicly through LinkedIn and confirmed her true identity on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” In what she now considers to be an ill-advised decision, Beck once wore a dress to her job at the Pentagon. She desperately wanted to be recognized not only as a trans-woman, but as a warrior who could hold her own in combat with anyone else on Earth. Regretfully, her decision caught many friends and family member by surprise. As the documentary demonstrates, not everyone took the news as graciously as other people, including his former wife and two sons. Still, Beck is no shrinking violet in her private or professional life. She’s still a crack shot, even in modest heels, and enjoys killing clay pigeons with his dad and siblings. She’s still called upon to train security personnel and shows up at reunions. Beck says that she was able to camouflage her true sexual identity in the service, primarily because she was stationed half a world away from home and was preoccupied with other matters. Once home, Beck was stunned by the ferocity of the anti-LGBT vitriol being spewed in the debate over same-sex marriage, as well as the lack of follow-through on hate crimes and bullying. Beck’s CNN appearance received plenty of attention throughout the media and LGBT community – as did the release of his book, “Warrior Princess,” co-written with Anne Speckhard, a psychologist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. It arrived at a time, we’re told, that some people in the Pentagon are re-considering its policy toward trans-gender men and women willing to die for a country, which, in large part, despises them.
I Am Santa Claus
The photo of wild-man pro wrestler Mick Foley that dominates the cover of I Am Santa Claus would lead one to believe that the movie contained inside the box is strictly of the horror persuasion. Although there are moments when Tommy Avallone’s documentary on the nation’s “Christmas community” that qualify as cringe-worthy, most of it is strangely uplifting. The original one-sheet poster that accompanied I Am Santa Claus featured a white-haired and -bearded geezer with a pot belly looking into a mirror and the image of a proper Saint Nick reflecting back at him. That is what the film is all about, really. In it, five men who live their lives as if every day were Christmas are profiled both as Santas and seemingly normal human beings. Besides co-producer Foley, there’s a gay “bear” Santa, BBQ-king Santa, trailer-park Santa and a full-time, mall-hopping Santa. As members of Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, Fraternal Order of Real-Bearded Santas or International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, they believe themselves to be trustees of the Christmas spirit year-round and preservation of the character’s traditional image. A sidebar featurette displays a different side of the bearded brotherhood, however, showing the organized Santas to be every bit as petty and power-crazed as anyone else. Morgan Spurlock’s imprimatur on the DVD as presenter serves the same purpose as the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Disney Channel: Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Lost Missions: Blu-ray
Disney Channel/XD: Phineas & Ferb: Star Wars
PBS: Mystery of Agatha Christie With David Suchet
PBS: Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey
PBS: Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 7
ION: A Star for Christmas
Two years ago, when Walt Disney Co. purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, it didn’t take an MBA to understand what synergies and efficiencies could be expected from the new enterprise or its kinship to the earlier $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. If anything, the nearly endless possibilities for crossover projects and merchandising scared the crap out of fundamentalist fans of all three entities. Those not nearly as concerned by the partnerships can now point to two new DVD/Blu-rays as proof that nothing truly awful will come of them. All eyes will be on next year’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first entry in a new trilogy. The made-for-cable “Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Lost Missions” is the by-product of the Lucasfilm acquisition, in that the titles pick up where previous Cartoon Network installments ended. Although I’m no expert on the subject, the 13 new episodes – already shown on Netflix — amplify on events that occurred between “Episode II” and “Episode III.” The biggest plus, perhaps, is the clarity and pop of the Blu-ray presentation in 1080p HD with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Also fresh is a 16-minute documentary celebrating the entire “Clone Wars” series.
The hour-long crossover episode, “Phineas & Ferb: Star Wars,” was shown on Disney Channel and sister network Disney XD in July and represents a clearer vision of the company’s synergistic future, as did last summer’s “Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel.” What some might consider to be sacrilege, others will see as harmless fun. While playing fast and loose with some “Star Wars” iconography – “A couple of summers ago in a galaxy far, far away, Phineas and Ferb are happily basking in the glow of Tatooine’s twin suns …” – the themes and characterizations remain faithful to Lucasfilm mythology. Gags have been written to entertain both P&F fans and longtime “Star Wars” addicts. Here, plans for the Death Star accidentally fall into their hands, thrusting them (and Agent P) into a galactic rebellion and an epic struggle of good vs. evil. The rest of the package is taken up with episodes from Season 4.
In the 1985 made-for-TV movie, “Thirteen at Dinner,” David Suchet played Inspector Japp to Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot. Four years later, Suchet would be handed the keys to Agatha Christie’s first and, perhaps, most enduring protagonist, for the next 25 years on ITV and PBS’ “Mystery!” The first thing he did was dismiss any thought of portraying the Belgian detective as being anything different than what’s described in her novels and short stories. “All I did was to start to read Agatha Christie’s novels,” Suchet has explained. “I wanted to be the Poirot that she would be proud of. So, out went the funny costume designs and the huge moustaches, and in went everything that she had written: the morning suits, the little gifts of vases of flowers … the perfect moustache.” In “Mystery of Agatha Christie With David Suchet,” the 68-year-old Londoner returns the favor by setting the record straight on the author’s fascinating personal and literary history. Instead of simply serving as narrator, he travels throughout England and on to Istanbul touring her home; interviewing descendants, scholars and historians; and reading from original source material not available to the public. The bio-doc also recalls how the death of her beloved mother, when combined with fatigue and her husband’s infidelity, may have led to her greatest work of non-fiction: the mystery of her staged disappearance in 1926. A visit to a garden dedicated to toxic plants and flowers leads to a discussion of how she turned a WWI stint as an apothecary’s assistant into as passion for poison as a literary device.
I’ve seen plenty of documentaries about the inspirational struggles of athletes with physical and mental disabilities. In 2005, Murderball opened my eyes to the ferocity of sports played by wheelchair-borne rugby players. PBS’ “Team Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey” chronicles the journey taken by the U.S. Paralympic sled-hockey team in their pursuit of gold at the Sochi Paralympics. The sport actually has been referred to as “Murderball on blades.” The participants sit low on sharp metal runners and small saddle-like seats. Their balance is further tested by having to move the puck with their sticks and propel themselves with serrated ice picks. Military veterans play alongside teenagers, with experienced players guiding the rookies. Also showcased are their emotional stories of injury and resilience, their hard work in training camps and elite international competitions, and their personal challenges on the ice and at home. The game, itself, isn’t for the faint of heart. Close relatives and friends, especially, cringe every time they hear the sound of metal hitting metal, knowing that another injury could cost them another limb or cause a concussion.
In the seventh season of PBS’ Peabody Award-winning series “Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” we’re once again taken behind the scenes of 12 artists’ studios, homes and communities to provide intimate access to their lives, creative processes and sources of inspiration. As such, we follow the international roster of artists to such locations as diverse as a New York City public housing development, a military testing facility in the Nevada desert, a jazz festival in Sweden, a ceramics factory in Germany and an activist neighborhood in Mexico. Among other things, the provocative discussions demand we consider the profound relevance of art to our everyday lives and role of museums in society, besides as places with walls upon which paintings are hung. The featured artists are Thomas Hirschhorn, Graciela Iturbide, Leonardo Drew, Elliott Hundley, Arlene Shechet, Trevor Paglen, Wolfgang Laib, Tania Bruguera, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Katharina Grosse, Joan Jonas and Omer Fast.
A couple of weeks ago, we watched “A Belle for Christmas,” in which the title character is a fluffy white puppy, In the 2012 made-for-cable holiday movie, “A Star for Christmas,” that person literally is a star of the Hollywood variety. Alex (Corey Sevier) is in a small town prepping for an “action” version of “The Christmas Carol,” when he meets and falls in love with the owner of a cupcake shop, Cassie (Briana Evigan), who’s oblivious to his fame. Chaos ensues when their respective exes get wind of their budding relationship. They must be running out of ideas for seasonal movies.
The Compleat Al
UHF: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
It says a lot about the nature of pop and rock music that in the nearly 40 years Weird Al Yankovic has been recording song parodies, he’s never run out of source material or inspiration. It says a lot about Yankovic that every five years, or so, his act attracts a new sub-generation of fans, without losing their parents’ loyalty in the process. The songs may not remain the same, but the laughter does. Weird Al’s every bit as busy today as he’s been since making his presence known via “The Dr. Demento’s Radio Show” in 1976 and, unlike his heroes Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Shel Silverstein, Frank Zappa and Frankie Yankovic (no relation), he even has a bobble-head doll. The good news this week is the first release into DVD of The Compleat Al, a semi-autobiographical mockumentary that follows Yankovic’s roots back from childhood to 1985, and the arrival on Blu-ray of the feature-length video, UHF: 25th Anniversary Edition. The former contains bits from “AL-TV,” footage from his trip to Japan and a funny take on his mission to receive permission from Michael Jackson for “Eat It.” And, what Weird Al collection would be “compleat” without such music videos as “Ricky,” “I Love Rocky Road,” “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “This Is the Life,” “Like a Surgeon,” “One More Minute” and “Dare to Be Stupid.” The very goofy 1989 comedy UHF holds up pretty well, considering how many of the topical references border on the prehistoric. Among the movies and TV shows that might have inspired Yankovic here are Network, FM, WKRP in Cincinnati and NewsRadio, even though the influence of Mad magazine, Monty Python and the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker parodies is traceable, as well. Yankovic plays George Newman, a daydreaming doofus who stumbles into a job as manager of a small TV station that’s losing money and routinely posts negative ratings numbers. Much to the irritation of a rival programmers, such shows as “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse,” “The Wonderful World of Phlegm,” “Wheel of Fish” and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” put Channel 62 back on the map. Ample support is provided by Michael Richards, Kevin McCarthy, Fran Drescher, Gedde Watanabe, Victoria Jackson, Billy Barty, David Proval, Anthony Geary, Trinidad Silva and Emo Philips.
The Slave: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 5
With the film adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey lurking just around the corner – Valentine’s Day, indeed! – it’s no wonder that specialty distributor Mondo Macabro decided to get out ahead of the bondage craze with its re-release of the Pasquale Festa Campanile’s 1969 soft-core semi-classic, The Slave (a.k.a., “Check to the Queen”). Not having read the novel, I can’t imagine “Fifty Shades” turning out any more prurient than “9½,” which promised a lot more S&M than it actually delivered. A stroll down mammary lane, as gossip columnist Earl Wilson once referred to these sorts of teasers, might be in order. Among the off-mainstream places to stop would be Just Jaeckin’s Story of O, Radley Metzger’s The Image, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Takashi Ishii’s Flower & Snake, Louis Buneul’s Belle de Jour, various adaptations of the novel “Venus in Furs,” Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. They feature beautiful women, handsome men, grand homes and lots of leather accessories. The Slave pre-dates all of these, except “Belle de Jour.” It stars the Gina Lollobrigida look-alike Rosanna Schiaffino and lovely French actress Haydee Politoff, whose career swiftly went from starring in Eric Rohmer’s The Collector to key roles in such exploitation flicks as Count Dracula’s Great Love and The Virgin of Bali. Here, Politoff is the rich, young countess, Silvia, who’s so bored with her life that she agrees to become a human house pet for the star actress, Margaret, played by Schiaffino. As such, Silvia is required to call the older woman, Mistress, and obey her every whim without question. Except for the countess’ lurid daydreams, the sex is tame even by the standards of the day. Typically, though, the Italian crew invested the film in a delicious array of high-fashion costumes, expensive sets and a then-groovy score by Piero Piccioni. The Blu-ray features a shiny new transfer from the original negative, interviews with critic Roberto Curti and Justin Harries, interactive filmographies, deleted scenes and the always wonderful Mondo Macabro previews.
There’s more than a little bit of S&M in Red Nights, an erotic thriller that will remind buffs of Italian giallo, with its eye-piercing color scheme and assortment of femme fatales and damsels in distress. Set in Hong Kong, it opens with a startling display of shrink-wrap asphyxiation that is, at once, hyper-sexy and all too realistic. Carrie Ng returned from a layoff of seven years to play Carrie Chan, who, when she isn’t suffocating her girlfriends, is a death-dealing collector of ancient Chinese art. Here, she has her eye on a jade skull that once belonged to an emperor reputed to be a master of torture. An elixir contained in the skull is said to paralyze its victim’s limbs, while increasing the sensitivity of their nerve endings tenfold. In the right hands, it can heighten sexual arousal to a fever pitch. An overdose can result in an unbearably slow and painful death. And, yes, whoever possesses the elixir – now hidden within a large imperial seal – also is in possession of the curse that comes with it. Here, that would be a lethal French courier, Catherine (Frédérique Bel), who constantly is being tested by Chan and emissaries of other collectors, perhaps because she’s blond. All of this death and deception plays out against a backdrop provided by the always photogenic Hong Kong streets and skyline. The DVD includes the featurette, “The Making of Red Nights: Carrie’s Story”; co-writers/directors Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s short film, “Betrayal: The Prequel to Red Nights”; and a photo gallery.
The fifth entry in Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” brings the series closer to day when feature-length porn flicks would render quick-and-dirty loops superfluous. They contain a tad more narrative than previous specimens and the actors are becoming more familiar. Among the stars of these 15 loops are Susan Nero, Lili Marlene, Lisa DeLeeuw, and Annie Sprinkle. It adds liner notes by Robin Bougie.