Ride Along: Blu-ray
In 1965, “I Spy” broke television’s color line for buddy teams, by pairing Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in co-equal lead roles. Three years later, however, in “Salt and Pepper,” Richard Donner paired Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. in a London-based buddy film that did nothing to advance the conceit. Donner would hit pay dirt two decades later with the first of several “Lethal Weapon” movies, but not before “48 HRS.,” “Silver Streak” and “Miami Vice” successfully re-introduced the salt-and-pepper concept. Ironically, perhaps, Betty Thomas’ 2002 re-imagining of “I Spy” and Michael Mann’s updating of his hit TV series, “Miami Vice,” would very publicly underperform, as would “MIB III,” whose revenues have always depended on overseas revenues. This year’s hit buddy movie, “Ride Along,” originally was intended for the salt-and-pepper pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, and the final pairing of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart only afforded director Tim Story a budget of $25 million. “Ride Along” would return $150 million, only 10.2 percent of which came from the foreign market. A pepper/pepper sequel is already in the works. (I wonder how Story’s 2004 pairing of Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon is doing in DVD/Blu-ray, considering their raised profiles on television.)
What’s changed in the last decade or so, I think, is the emergence of hip-hop as a crossover medium and a newfound willingness by young adults and teenagers to ignore casting decisions based strictly on demographics. When Ice Cube took the leap from rapping to acting, he was known primarily for his participation in one of the most hard-core hip-hop groups of all time. It was almost to be expected, then, that he would be pigeon-holed in the slot reserved for “gangsta” title. No matter the quality or message, these down-and-dirty pictures were targeted at urban-male audiences who’d been underserved since the Blaxploitation era. The media had a field day after gang-related violence broke out sporadically on opening weekends, causing theater owners to demand added security. A funny thing happened to Ice Cube’s career in 1997, however, when he accepted a key role in “Anaconda,” a silly creature-feature that also starred Jennifer Lopez, and it outperformed its expectations. His crossover bona fides were solidified with “Three Kings,” “Barbershop” and “Are We There Yet?” At about the same time, the public image of firebrand rapper, Ice-T – whose song, “Cop Killer,” became a cause célèbre among conservative politicians and talk-show hosts — evolved from provocateur to unlikely hero, playing NYPD detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Today, dozens of hip-hop artists work alongside classically trained actors in films and on television. If Johnson and Reynolds had remained with the project, “Ride Along” probably would have ended up being just another so-so salt-and-pepper flick.
The story doesn’t break any new ground and the action sequences are standard-issue. It’s the chemistry between the two actors – one established, the other red hot — that sells the movie. Without compromising his public image, Ice Cube’s presence in a cops-and-robbers picture no longer automatically narrows its crossover potential. The profile of journeyman comedian Hart benefitted mightily from being named host of the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, Hart has appeared “Think Like a Man,” “Grudge Match,” “This Is the End” and “About Last Night,” as well as the performance film, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain.” His character in “Ride Along,” Ben, is a self-assured security guard at an Atlanta high school, waiting for an opportunity to impress his fiance (Tika Sumpter) and her skeptical brother, James (Ice Cube), an undercover cop. James is far less than thrilled when Ben wins the equivalent of the lottery, by being accepted into police academy. He considers his future brother-in-law to be little more than a brash motor-mouth and video-game junkie. He invites Ben on a potentially dangerous ride-along, designed to scare the bejeezus out of him. Instead, the action emboldens Ben by allowing him to use the skills he mastered as video-game nut. That mild spoiler may reveal the movie’s most appealing narrative conceit, but it wouldn’t surprise any viewer under 30, anyway. In fact, it adds a “48 HRS.” touch to the proceedings. As formulaic as it is, “Ride Along” should please fans of the cast members, who also include John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Callen and Bruce McGill. The Blu-ray adds feature commentary with director Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Taxi”), an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel and several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Blu-ray
Very casually adapted from the influential 1939 James Thurber short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been made into a feature film twice and part of a Broadway musical inspired by the author’s work. So popular was Thurber’s story that its protagonist’s name became part of the vernacular, describing job-trapped white-collar workers who daydream about performing heroic acts. In a more symbolic sense, Mitty continues to represent that part of the American Dream imprisoned by dullard bureaucrats and dim-witted company men. The 1947 version of “Walter Mitty,” newly available in DVD, was overhauled to take advantage of Danny Kaye’s physical and facial dexterity. Director/star Ben Stiller has taken even more liberties with Thurber’s story, adding such contemporary elements as online dating sites and product placement. (Papa John’s pizza, which threatened to fire employees rather than accept provisions of the Affordable Care Act, being the most prominent.) Stiller’s film has many nice things going for it – Kristen Wiig and some spectacular wilderness photography – but seems to rely too much on the viewers’ perceived nostalgia for days gone-by, when plane travel, itself, was an adventure and Life magazine’s photographers frequently provided the stuff of which dreams are made. Here, Mitty doesn’t so much daydream at his desk, than space-out whenever he’s confronted with situations beyond his control. In his capacity as photo manager at the doomed magazine, Mitty is required to guard the safety of a photo negative sent to it by an eccentric photographer (Sean Penn) for the cover of its final edition. (Digital tracking, anyone?) When a search reveals that the negative is missing, Mitty takes it upon himself to find its creator. An extended daydream (or is it?) leads him from Greenland and Iceland, to the Himalayas, where the photographer is hunting the elusive “ghost leopard.” The addition of romantic storylines involving the dating site and Wiig’s little boy only add clutter to the adventure. At a time when so many middle-class people can rely on their wherewithal to realize their dreams, “Walter Mitty” feels more than a tad anachronistic. The Blu-ray adds several deleted/extended/alternate scenes; a dozen making-of vignettes; a photo gallery; and the music video, “Stay Alive,” by Jose Gonzales. – Gary Dretzka
Labor Day: Blu-ray
Joyce Maynard’s 2009 coming-of-age novel “Labor Day,” was described by reviewers as a story about a lonely 13-year-old boy whose world is changed forever over the course of a summer-ending holiday weekend. An escaped prisoner, desperate for freedom, insinuates himself into the lives of the young New Englander, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and his divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), a victim of agoraphobia, until the dust of his flight settles around them. Although Henry does, indeed, mature dramatically during those few days in the company of the almost freakishly handy fugitive, Frank (James Brolin), Jason Reitman’s adaptation emphasizes the curative powers of love and redemption. Reitman uses the memories of a grown-up Henry as a touchstone for the narrative, but doesn’t let them intrude on its momentum. In this way, “Labor Day” might have more in common with adult romances by Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks than any of Maynard’s books or newspaper work. Winslet, who can do frumpy as well as anyone, looks as if she hasn’t read a fashion magazine since she discovered her husband’s affair with his secretary. Henry’s bond with his father and his new family is tenuous, at best. For fun, Adele teaches her son to appreciate ballroom dance, an activity that concerns her ex-husband for all of the usual homophobic reasons.
It is during one of their rare shopping excursions that Frank approaches Henry and Adele, quietly demanding that he be given salve for his wound and a night’s refuge, at least. Once home, Frank asks Adele and Henry to ignore the negative reports they’ll soon hear on the local news outlets. “There are two sides to every story,” he argues, and his is the side not being told. Frank isn’t armed, but he’s a big boy and can take care of himself. While protective of her son’s well-being, Adele almost immediately feels comfortable in the intruder’s presence. Their sympatico vibes work to comfort Henry, too. Their positivity grows when Frank begins to perform household chores, unasked, and he plays catch with the boy in the backyard. As time passes and Henry’s first day of school approaches, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep friends and neighbors from learning the truth. The solution to the problem, while not entirely unpredictable, should satisfy most fans of the genre. Most importantly, we don’t doubt the chemistry between the characters or ascribe Adele and Henry’s feelings to Stockholm syndrome. The commentary is provided by Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director/co-producer Jason Blumenfeld, while Maynard appears in the featurette, “End of Summer: Making Labor Day,” and there are some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
The Invisible Woman: Blu-ray
From a distance of 160 years, it’s possible to ignore the less charming aspects of a famous man’s life and reduce his sins to peccadillos. If Charles Dickens were alive today, however, he’d probably be deflecting the same slings and arrows currently being directed at Woody Allen. Their individual cases are different, but, until it can be proven that the filmmaker actually sexually abused his children, not by much. The title, “The Invisible Woman,” refers to Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, his much-younger mistress. For reasons of his own, Dickens was obsessed with keeping Ternan’s longtime role in his life secret. Even in the aftermath of a terrible train accident, Dickens would disavow any relationship with his 27-years-younger traveling companion, who he met when she was appearing in the play “The Frozen Deep” with her mother and sister. (According to legend, Ternan was the least blessed actor in the family.) Without diminishing Dickens’ literary and charitable legacy, “The Invisible Woman” paints an extremely ugly portrait of a man who let one marriage collapse, while not allowing the woman he does love to acknowledge their partnership publically. Rumors of the affair had already been published and denied, so, one wonders, how much his reputation would have been damaged by admitting the truth, anyway. Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn survived an avalanche of bad press, barely, but, if proven, the latest rumors probably would had proven too devastating to overcome.
The whole sordid tale is told through the sad flashbacks of the 44-year-old Ternan, who, still wearing widow’s weeds, is staging one of her ex-lover’s plays, “No Thoroughfare.” (Dickens had died 13 years earlier, in 1870, at 58.) In this way, the movie is framed by theatrical devices. Ralph Fiennes directs “The Invisible Woman,” as well as playing Dickens, and he does a terrific job on both counts. “Nelly,” as she was known, is played by the lovely and talented Felicity Jones. At 30, the Birmingham native is credible playing 18, 30 and 44. We’re allowed to reserve most of our pity, however, for Catherine Thomson Hogarth Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), a decidedly portly woman who was blamed by her husband for every wifely misdemeanor possible. She ended their 22-year marriage after intercepting a gift of jewelry intended for Nelly. So, what makes “The Invisible Woman” even remotely appetizing? Well, like Allen, Dickens is an important artist whose contradictions are as enlightening about the human condition as his work. More to the point, though, it’s real. Few liberties were taken with history and the craftsmanship on display is impeccable. Watch the bonus features and you’ll be impressed with just how much was accomplished with so little money. – Gary Dretzka
French writer/director Claire Denis doesn’t make it easy for us to love her movies, which are challenging even by the standards usually reserved for arthouse titles. Viewers willing to go along with Denis’ conceits, however, are rewarded with stories influenced by her experiences in Africa and directing alongside such talents as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras and Jacques Rivette. She’s never shied away from revealing the dark side of human relationships in her films or mapping the scarred intersection of wealth, power and decadence. “Bastards” is no different. Viewers are encouraged to pay attention to what’s said and done in the film’s early moments, because things do tend to get complicated later on. So much of what happens in “Bastards” takes place in the shadows that it easily qualifies as an exercise in film noir. The central mystery is posed by a pretty young woman – or girl in her late teens – who we meet wandering through the streets of Paris, naked except for high heels. We’ll learn soon enough that she’s been severely abused sexually and is seriously traumatized by the experience. Ruggedly handsome Vincent Lindon plays the girl’s uncle, Marco, a sea captain who abandoned his tanker to investigate his brother-in-law’s suicide and calm his disconsolate sister. He immediately senses that the suicide somehow involves his brother-in-law’s smarmy partner, Edouard (Michel Subor). By coincidence, Marco takes an apartment in a building where Edouard has stashed his lover, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their son. After Marco helps the boy fix his bicycle, it isn’t long before Raphaelle returns the favors by cuddling up to her friendly neighbor. Marco has other problems on his plate, besides bedding the wealthy man’s mistress, but nothing compares to the horrors that put his niece (Lola Creton) in the hospital. This is some sick shit we’re dealing with here, folks. Apparently, Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau were inspired by recent sex-ring scandals involving influential men and young prostitutes. Denis is known for her meticulous post-production routine, which might have rubbed a couple of the connections right off the finished product. Agnès Godard, another longtime associate, helps fill in the holes with cinematography that takes full advantage of the inky dark environment. (The City of Lights has never looked as dark and sinister.) Needless to say, perhaps, “Bastards” isn’t for the easily shocked. – Gary Dretzka
Ask an adult how their day went and, more often than not, the reply will be something resembling a grunted, “Nothing.” Ask a child the same question, and you might get more than you bargained for … lots more. To a grown-up, the daily routine of life and work may have become so repetitive as to be meaningless. For some children, everything is new and every new thing carries with it the possibility of being scary, dangerous, fun or enlightening. The uncertainty is what gives kids an edge when it comes to savoring every opportunity given them. As long as someone older is watching over them, kids will occasionally test the limits of safety nets stretched around them. Michael Winterbottom’s exquisite family drama, “Everyday,” is all about feeling secure in life and coping with the anomalies of distance. In some ways, it resembles the documentaries in Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, which has followed the development of the same children we met in 1963, in seven-year intervals. Besides being a work of fiction, “Everyday” is far less chronologically ambitious in scope. It loosely chronicles five years in the life of a working-class family, living in rural Norfolk on the eastern coast of England. Wee Shirley Henderson is terrific as the mother of four small children – apparently conceived within 9 months and 9 minutes of each other – and wife of an unassuming bloke (John Simm) in prison for drug trafficking. All of the child actors are members of the same family, which explains their nearly identical looks and easy rapport with each other. To maintain a naturalistic look, Winterbottom would revisit the Kirks intermittently during the five-year production schedule.
We have come to expect the unexpected from Winterbottom, whose films run the full gamut from comedies (“Tristram Shandy,” “The Trip”) and pop-cultural portraits (“24 Hour Party People”), to current events (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Road to Guantanamo”) and edgier stuff (“9 Songs,” “Code 46,” “The Killer Inside Me”). If his experiments rarely pay off at the box office, they’re widely admired for the courage and ability to keep other filmmakers honest. “Everyday” simply describes how a closely knit family manages its affairs when one of its key elements is removed and the rest of them are required to muddle through without him. It’s divided into loosely defined chapters, bracketed by visits to and away from the prison. At first, mom and the kids visit dad in jail. Then, dad is allowed to come home on a day pass. Later, dad comes home for a longer stretch and blows it by smuggling “just a tiny piece of hashish” into prison. The longer he’s away from home, the more independent must the family become. Seeing how well they meet the challenges is what “Everyday” is all about. For the mother, a year apart from her husband means having to provide for the family, keep the home from falling apart and providing the occasional escape for the children. She’s kept busy, but unfulfilled. For the kids, however, a year might as well be an eternity. Winterbottom neatly captures the family’s uncertainty and sense of relief from small victories, while also maintaining narrative consistency throughout the five-year production. As usual, Henderson can do no wrong here. Simm is good, as well, as a guy who squandered the freedom he enjoyed as a young man and, when he’s most needed at home, has no freedom left to waste. – Gary Dretzka
Black Nativity: Blu-ray
Most people would need a magnifying glass to find the name, Langston Hughes, on the jacket of the DVD/Blu-ray of Kasi Lemmons’ rousing adaptation of the playwright’s “Black Nativity.” First mounted off-Broadway in 1961, productions of Hughes’ “gospel-song-play” have become a traditional holiday treat, not unlike “A Christmas Carol.” Here, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett) are about to stage their Harlem church’s annual presentation, when the grandson they’ve never met literally shows up at their doorstep. The teenage boy’s mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is estranged from her parents, but needs to find a temporary home for Langston (Jacob Latimore) while she deals with being evicted from their Baltimore row house. No sooner does Langston reach the Port Authority than he’s robbed of his backpack and left to his own devices. He’s arrested in a misunderstanding about a misplaced wallet, but is rescued after being recognized as the minister’s relative. Nonetheless, Langston not only is bitter over being sent away from home, but also because Naima appears to be getting a raw deal. Almost immediately, Langston takes advantage of his grandfather’s kindness by attempting to pawn a family heirloom. Before he can get into any real trouble, though, he’s seized by the power of the Lord and rescued by gospel music. On paper, the story behind “Black Nativity” sounds far too pat and borderline corny. Dropping the weight of the message on the shoulders of a 17-year-old actors seems, at first, to be a miscalculation of Lemmons’ part. On film, however, the blend of original and traditional music, the pastor’s redemptive words and the good intentions of everyone involved in the project is infectious. Raphael Saadiq, Taura Stinson and Laura Karpman are primarily responsible for arranging music, which complements the choreography of Otis Sallid. For me, though, watching the full cast and chorus performing Stevie Wonder’s “As” was the musical highlight. Also contributing to the fun are Mary J. Blige, Nas, Tyrese Gibson, Grace Gibson, Luke James, Blondelle and the Gospeldelic Choir. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and short making-of segments. – Gary Dretzka
Death Do Us Part
The fingerprints of Julia and Peter Benson are all over this problematic pairing of 1980s splatter and Canuxploitation. Besides playing the soon-to-be-married/dead couple at the core of the story, they co-wrote and co-produced “Death Do Us Part,” which was directed by Nicholas Humphries. Apparently, all of the actors had worked together previously in the Great White North and thought the project would be a blast. Personally, I think they had a bit too much fun stabbing each other and screaming at the top of their lungs into the B.C. night to see the holes in the clichés. Set in and around an oceanfront cabin, deep in the woods, “Death Do Us Part” opens promisingly with a woman – or is it? – wandering along a rural road, wearing a bloodied wedding dress. As the woman relates to a sheriff what brought her to this cruel juncture in life, the film’s clock is turned back about 24 hours. Instead of following the crowds to Las Vegas for a “Jack and Jill” bachelor/bachelorette party, a half-dozen friends and relatives of the lucky couple decided to rent the cabin for a weekend of games, booze and skull-bashing, intended to bring them all together before the blessed event. Even before the SUV reaches the rusting gate of the cabin’s driveway, however, it’s clear that the guys are jackasses and the women probably will spend the next 48 hours trying to avoid their groping fingers, including those of the swinish groom-to-be. And, yes, the property’s janitor could very well have escaped from the local loony bin that morning. By the time the killing starts, it’s difficult to figure out if “Death Do Us Part” is intended to be a parody or thriller. Worse news for anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of Julia Benson’s truly amazing body, everyone in the movie remains clothed. On the plus side, the cast members all look as if they actually were having fun. Too bad, it isn’t contagious. The DVD includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Confession of Murder
In South Korea, unlike the United States, murder carries with it a statute of limitations. It sounds crazy, but affords filmmakers an opportunity unavailable to their counterparts here. If Korean cops were allowed to investigate crimes involving murders, a smart and nasty thriller like “Confession of Murder” never could have been made. Fifteen years after 10 women were killed in series of attacks that shocked the nation, the perpetrator has decided to profit from his infamous acts by writing a book. Among those sickened by this affront, is Detective Choi (Jae-yeong Jeong), who lost his wife to the killer and had his face slashed by him as he was about to make an arrest. With no small amount of fanfare, Lee Du-seok (Park Si-hoo) appears on television, claiming that he was the killer and is seeking forgiveness, as well as attention. Naturally, Lee’s confession results in a media circus, even over the loud protestations of the victims’ relatives. As if to deflect the spotlight from Lee, another person confesses to the crimes. The media insist that Choi confront the two men in a public hearing, but, to what end, we won’t know until near the movie’s climax. Writer/director Jeong Byeong-gil deftly keeps the action flowing throughout
“Confession of Murder,” with chases and bursts of violence. We should be able to predict the twist he adds near the end, but are distracted by other things happening on-screen. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka
Trap for Cinderella
By far the most compelling thing about Iain Softley’s erotic thriller, “Trap for Cinderella,” is the exotic cover photo, in which the British seductress Tuppence Middleton strikes an enticingly languid pose reminiscent of Louise Brooks at her most incendiary. It’s the kind of photograph that demands a browser’s attention, even if nothing else is known about the movie it begs us to consider. If only the movie, itself, lived up to the promise of Middleton’s gaze. Adapted from a novel by the French author Sébastien Japrisot (“A Very Long Engagement”), “Trap for Cinderella” opens with an explosion that sets the stage for everything else to come. We watch as Middleton’s party-girl heiress, Mickey, is slowly nursed back to health, her memory of what came before the fire still a work in progress. It isn’t long before Softley shifts into flashback mode, first taking viewers back to a traumatic event in Mickey’s childhood and, then, 10 years later, to the reunion with a near-lookalike friend, Do (Alexandra Roach). The reunion escalates very quickly into a relationship that could be bi-, straight or gay, depending on the drugs being consumed on any given night. It gets even more complicated when money from a generous inheritance is thrown into the equation, along with Mickey’s jealous boyfriend (Aneurin Barnard), her dead aunt’s overly protective assistant (Kerry Fox) and a sleazy bartender (Stanley Weber).
After some loud arguments, backstabbing and a fair amount of topless sunbathing, we’re back at the scene of the original crime. Softley’s screenplay makes better use of its primary settings — London and the south of France, where Mickey and Do spent their summers – than the intricacies of Japrisot’s novel. Miss a key detail and you’ll find yourself in the same quandary as Mickey, trying to piece back her memory on a hospital bed. – Gary Dretzka
These days, if a group of friends or classmates wants to get together to make a movie, there’s almost nothing stopping them from doing so. The same is true for actors who enjoy each other’s company so much that they get together in their spare time to take advantage of the Internet and other platforms. The better ones complete the circle by winding up on television or the big screen. It helps greatly, of course, if the actors and comedians work for fair less than scale and don’t demand star billing. Graduates of such improv troupes as the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City are fixtures on network and cable television, where they can’t spread their improvisational wings. You can find them, as well, on YouTube, Adult Swim, HBO and Showtime. They populate such off-the-wall shows as “Reno 911!,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” “Children’s Hospital” and “Funny or Die Presents.” There are plenty of familiar faces in Quentin Dupieux’s thoroughly undisciplined “Wrong Cops,” a nutty-cops comedy that makes “Reno 911!” and “Police Squad!” look like “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The few legit critics who commented on it weren’t kind to “Wrong Cops,” but the further off the mainstream one got, the better it looked. Burly Mark Burnham plays Officer Duke, a cop so dirty he sees nothing wrong with selling bags of marijuana stuffed in rat carcasses to kids. Another one is obsessed with creating electronic music that borders on the unlistenable. Then, there’s the patrolman whose past comes back to haunt him when an incriminating photo shows up in an ancient gay-porn magazine. “Wrong Cops” plays out in a loosely strung series of vignettes, starring, among others, Eric Judor, Steve Little, Grace Zabriskie, Arden Myrin, Eric Roberts, Eric Wareheim, Ray Wise and, best of all, Marilyn Manson. This isn’t a movie one recommends to the easily offended, but those so inclined should find plenty here to enjoy. The higher one gets, the funnier it is. – Gary Dretzka
Until I heard red-haired Austalian singer/comedian Tim Minchin perform “Taboo” on his Showtime special, I had no idea that being labeled “ginger” could be as traumatic for a young man as being born with a clubfoot, webbed toes or cleft palette. In some parts of northern Europe, especially, gingers frequently are taunted, bullied and ridiculed. Why, I don’t know. Like Minchin, who plays a debauched rock star on “Californication,” filmmaker Scott P. Harris decided that the best way to attack the prejudice was with humor. “Being Ginger” is an extension of a school project undertaken by the red-headed Texan while at the University of Edinburgh. Through interviews and anecdotes, Harris describes what it’s like to be treated as a freak, simply for the color of his hair, especially in delicate matters of the heart. Backed by a Kickstarter campaign, “Being Ginger” works best as a teaching tool. Any kid capable of putting himself in the shoes of a persecuted redhead, should be able to figure out what makes other forms of bigotry so terrible. – Gary Dretzka
If we’ve learned anything from the ongoing NSA scandal, it’s that paranoia not only is a reasonable response to the revelations, but it also may be the one that makes the most practical sense. How else to react to a system that’s paid to break the law with both impunity and immunity, and about which the truth likely will never be revealed. We’ve been asked to trust that government safeguards put into effect since the beans were spilled can protect us from rogue spies and professional eavesdroppers who presumably are being paid to prevent the next terrorist attack, but probably are too busy checking on their credit scores and monitoring their girlfriend’s Facebook account to make that call. When the producers of “Tentacle 8” attempted to find distributors for the film, it probably sounded far too far-fetched, even to Americans born in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. After striking out in their attempts to court film festivals, John Chi’s failed thriller now looks more prescient than paranoid. Does that make “Tentacle 8” worth the cost of a rental or download, though? For fans of “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and “The X-Files,” the answer is probably, yes. In it, career character actor Brett Rickaby plays a NSA analyst who’s being framed for a massive computer virus that’s wiped out classified personnel files at the agency. He’s smart, though, and the things he knows about the computer system are of great value to the men and women on his trail. They’re all contained in codes indecipherable to everyone but him. Oh, yeah, one of the people he hopes to protect is his girlfriend (Amy Motta), who’s in cahoots with the CIA.
Chi doesn’t hesitate to telegraph the aura of fear and mass confusion running throughout “Tentacle 8.” The musical soundtrack, which alternates between ominous rumble and funereal, tell us all we need to know about what’s happening on screen. I’m not at all sure that I was left with a firm grasp of what’s at stake in the movie. Part of what makes this sort of thriller paranoid is the protagonist’s inability to completely separate facts from fiction and identify friends from foes. Even so, the picture’s relevance has risen several notches in the last six months, without its creators moving a finger to help it. “Tentacle 8” may have micro-budget feel to it, but someone invested the money necessary to film a few scenes away from L.A., in Mumbai. The technical credits are pretty solid, as well, despite the limitations. The DVD offers no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka
Although Ronald F. Maxwell’s career has spanned nearly 40 years, his list of credits is limited to about a dozen films, ranging from such teen favorites as “Little Darlings and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” to his Civil War trilogy of “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals” and, now, “Copperhead.” The first two historical epics were financed in large part by Ted Turner’s production company – he made cameo appearances in both – and featured A-list actors in elaborate battle scenes. While Turner is physically and financially missing from the far more modest “Copperhead,” his former brother-in-law, Peter Fonda, does play a supporting role. Based on an 1893 novel by Harold Frederic, the title refers to a slur aimed at northern Democrats opposed to the Civil War. Here, a community in rural Upstate New York is forced to consider the objections of a prominent citizen, dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), based on moral and political beliefs. The man’s family also is divided on the issue, which doesn’t sway on the question of slavery as much as how life-and-death decisions were made in the run-up to the war. (He believes, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation, one of Lincoln’s bravest actions, should have been decided by Congress or voters.) It’s an interesting story, largely ignored in previous films on the subject. The beautiful New Brunswick location allows for an accurate replication of the close-knit community and its daily routines. Maxwell also does a nice job setting up the climatic confrontation between the mostly pro-war community, led by a holier-than-thou abolitionist (Angus Macfadyen), and the Copperhead in its midst. The story’s melodramatic through-line derives from the decision by Beech’s son (Casey Thomas Brown) to join the union army, seemingly influenced by his love for the abolitionist’s daughter. Although no battle scenes were shot for “Copperhead,” the ugliness of the conflagration is addressed in first-hand reports from the front. It doesn’t quite make up for the limitations posed by a limited budget, but Civil War buffs should applaud the attention paid to this little-known aspect of the war at home. – Gary Dretzka
Lifetime: The Gabby Douglas Story
Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer
One of the great stories to emerge from the Summer Olympics, in London, was that of gymnast Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas. It also produced one of the most memorable photographs of 2012, as it was taken of the future champion in mid-leap, legs parallel to the balance beam and her torso at a 90-degree angle, allowing her head to face the heavens. Much was made, of course, of Gabby being the first African-American to win an individual all-around event and being a member of our gold-medal gymnastics team. That she overcame an illness at an early age and a humble financial background to get to London would have provided enough grist for reporters. Being African-American in a sport dominated by tiny Americans, Eastern Europeans and Asians made her an instant star and role model. The Lifetime movie, “The Gabby Douglas Story,” follows her from her Virginia Beach home, where her cheerleader sister funneled the girl’s energy into perfecting cartwheels and flips, to coach Liang Chow’s training facility in Iowa. The movie adds homesickness and a serious training injury to the list obstacles laid in her path. How much of her story is exaggerated for dramatic impact, I couldn’t say. Gabby’s accomplishments, of course, are indisputable. So, too, is the appeal of “The Gabby Douglas Story” to young athletes and their parents.
Fox’s “Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer” targets almost exactly the same demographic as the made-for-Lifetime picture, but it takes place in a very different arena. It describes the transformation of an angry teenager from hellion to model daughter. Seventeen-year-old Dakota Rose lives in a part of the country where routinely girls participate in competitive trick riding and barrel racing, while their male counterparts accept the rougher challenges of the rodeo game. One day, when her parents admit to her that she was adopted, she comes apart at the seams. She condemns them for hiding the truth and preventing her from finding her true parents. Uncontrollable, Dakota agrees to spend the summer with her rodeo-legend grandfather (Keith Carradine), who, she quickly discovers, will only put up with so much of her crap before going all cowboy on her. It happens when the girl stumbles upon the identity of her birth mother and sneaks around to make her acquaintance. What happens next in “Dakota’s Summer” has already played out in dozens of other movies about adopted kids seeking out their birth parents, so no spoiler alerts are necessary. Even so, writer/director Timothy Armstrong keeps the pace lively and the moralizing to a minimum, when a couple of buff guys enter the picture. – Gary Dretzka
BBC: Ripper Street: Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS/BBC: The Bletchley Circle: Season 2
PBS: The Making of a Lady
PBS: Murder on the Home Front
PBS: Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin
PBS: The Hidden Art of Islam
ToonsTV: Angry Birds Toons: Season 01 Volume 02
PBS Kids: Between the Lions: Vowel Power
Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Up
When referring to depictions of the lives, crimes and accomplishments of larger-than-life human beings, two adages come immediately to mind: “Truth is stranger than fiction” and “If so-and-so didn’t exist, Hollywood would have had to invent him.” Of course, Hollywood has never been satisfied merely stating the facts about history’s larger-than-life figures. Embellishing fact with fiction has always been standard operating procedure, especially when a handsomer leading man, prettier leading lady and more exciting acts of heroism can be conjured. The only people who seem to mind are historians, a handful of critics and those who’ve lived long enough to know the truth. In the U.S., Hollywood will continue to churn out fantasies about Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charles Manson, as long as there’s an audience for such entertainments. In England, the same holds true when considering King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood and, of course, Jack the Ripper. One need look no further than BBC America for proof that the search for the identity of the man also known as the Whitechapel Murderer and Leather Apron still fascinates viewers. Richard Warlow’s mini-series for the BBC, “Ripper Street,” is set in the crime- and poverty-ridden district of Whitechapel in the wake of the Ripper’s last-known murder. The villain’s crimes previously informed “Whitechapel,” a contemporary BBC series in which a special police unit investigates look-alike murders; the Johnny Depp vehicle, “From Hell”; and a couple dozen true-crime documentaries made for cable television. Throw in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, the BBC’s 2007 mini-series “Jekyll” and Syfy’s “Sanctuary,” and it’s clear Victorian-era depravity has been well-represented lately. In the second season of “Ripper Street,” the direct memory of the show’s namesake has faded, but other epidemics have kept Whitechapel H Division investigators busy. Among the issues covered are Chinese immigration and the importation of opium, the London match-girls strike of 1888, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s War of Currents, occultists’ Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Baring economic crisis. The period-perfect UK-version of the series oozes with atmosphere, especially the stench of corruption and exploitation of women and children.
Currently airing on American PBS outlets is the most unlikely of hit shows, “The Bletchley Circle,” whose heroines are former World War II code-breakers, now serving England as voluntary crime-fighters. A valuable cog in the Allies’ war machine, seven years later they’ve effectively been put out to pasture to make room for male veterans. Given the women’s innate ability to discover clues where none appear to exist, they are able to remain one step ahead of Scotland Yard and military police who no longer feel it necessary to pay any attention to the whims of their womenfolk. In the first season, our heroines patched together seemingly random clues left behind by a murderer. Series Two is comprised of a pair of two-episode stories, loosely connected by a new character and different circumstances. In the first, a top-secret military experiment causes great harm to British soldiers who were misled by their superiors. When a scientist involved in the experiment is murdered, one of the Bletchley ladies is framed for his death. A greater mystery involves her refusal to defend her innocence in court, even though she faces the gallows. In the second chapter, one of the women’s involvement in a Black Market scheme leads to another killing and the revelation of a ring of foreigners smuggling Eastern bloc refugees into England and forcing them into prostitution. “The Bletchley Circle” is an impeccably constructed mystery that captures the aura of Cold War intrigue and paranoia. The acting is excellent and there’s plenty of humor to keep the pace moving forwardly.
“The Making of a Lady” is another wonderfully compelling Victorian thriller from Britain. Adapted from a 1901 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it begins as a romantic drama, but grows gradually darker as time passes. Lydia Wilson plays Emily, a hard-working domestic who lives in a decrepit boarding house, but aspires to become the secretary for her boss, Lady Maria (Joanne Lumley). Smart, pretty and outgoing, Emily catches the eye of Lady Maria’s widowed nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache, of “Law & Order”), who, he’s told, is in desperate need of a wife and heir. So far, the women trotted out for his approval have disappointed him. Almost by accident, he recognizes Emily’s well-sublimated charms and admits his intentions to his aunt, who immediately fires the girl. Lord James retrieves her from the boarding house and marries her. She agrees, but primarily to suit his practical needs. Just as they begin to come together as partners and lovers, however, he’s called to India to join his regiment. It opens the door for Lord James’ cousin (James D’Arcy), his Anglo-Indian wife and sorcerer mother-in-law to conspire against Emily and claim the estate as his by birthright. The longer Emily is left alone, the easier it is for the cousin to plot her doom. Once we know how deep the conspiracy goes, the suspense comes from waiting for James to return home, on time or too late. “Making of a Lady” is really quite exciting. It helps that the action could just as well be happening down the road a bit, at Downton Abbey.
“Murder on the Home Front” represents another ITV/PBS-exchange project. If this stylish wartime mystery seems slightly more confusing than most other British imports, it’s because it so willingly crosses lines separating sub-genres. Among other things, there’s the unreasonably vivacious cub reporter who desperately wants to be a crime writer. This not-unreasonable dream leads, however, to Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) accepting a position as assistant to the handsome pathologist Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) she meets at a crime scene. A dogged sort, Molly begins to help Lennox with a case involving a woman found strangled with a swastika carved on her tongue. Their search for more substantial clues is complicated by the devastation caused in the blitz and discovery of more bodies. Taken from the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, director Geoffrey Sax drops more red herrings here than there are silver ones in the Baltic Seas. Plus, no one in the government seems worried that the prime suspect may be convicted and hung before the crime is even solved.
“Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin” is an intriguing investigation into the question of whether Russia’s great literary legacy of the 19th and 20th centuries is as dead as freedom in Crimea or the seeds for 21st Century masterpieces have yet to germinate. Comparing the translated works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Solzhenitsyn, and their counterparts in other countries or languages, seems to me to be an excuse merely to introduce to us to the cream of Russia’s contemporary writing crop. Given the interruption of intellectual curiosity caused by the failed Soviet experiment, gulags and three wars, at least, served to destroy the will of many potential authors. It’s also likely that two or three generations of aspiring novelists simply disappeared, with their songs unsung. How many of today’s American authors can be considered to be the equal of their forebears and how much of that is to blame for forays into rock ’n’ roll and screenplays? Still, hosts Stephen Fry and Juliet Stephenson do a commendable job introducing us to such formidable modern writers as Dmitry Bykov, Mariam Petrosyan, Zakhar Prilepin, Anna Starobinets, Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmila Ultiskaya through their words and those of their characters. They are supplemented by animated sequences and interviews with critics, publishers and other tastemakers. Something tells me that Mr. Putin wouldn’t be unhappy if all of them were arrested and put in cells next to members of Pussy Riot.
For the occasion of an exhibition of Islamic art and calligraphy at the British Museum, the BBC produced “The Hidden Art of Islam.” It is an illuminating documentary on the fissures within the religion which have confused scholars and stifled the creativity of untold thousands of artists, since the first mullah prohibited depictions of humans, religious figures and images of religious rites. At the same time, other interpreters of the Koran have taken a more accommodating stand on the subject. We’re shown examples of both, along with competing interpretations of the Book. The discussion is entirely mindful of the sometimes violent divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and other sects. Instead of arguing one point over the other, the producers provide us examples of commonly accepted works of great value. The most common combine some of civilization’s most beautiful calligraphy with borders comprised of geometrically precise and painstakingly drawn patterns. They’re nothing short of spectacular. Host Rageh Omaar also attempts to determine what forms of art are acceptable for a Muslim and how this artistic tradition has thrived in the hidden art of the Muslim world.
In their brevity, anarchic spirit and debts owed to pioneers of the animation art, the “Angry Birds Toons” remind me of the Steven Spielberg-produced “Animaniacs” and Klasky-Csupo’s “Rugrats.” Although I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in them, the individual three-minute cartoons harken back to a time when no double-feature was complete with a cartoon featuring the Looney Tune gang, Mickey or Donald, or Tom Jerry. They’re fun, if completely meaningless. “Angry Birds Toons” was spun off of the Finnish animated TV series, which, itself, was spun off Rovio’s video-game sensation. This series provides explanations for the rivalry between the birds and the pigs.
“Between the Lions: Vowel Power” is another fine example of the growing edu-tainment subgenre of children’s DVDs. From PBS Kids, “Vowel Power” targets children 3-7 who want to have a bit of fun while mastering their vowels. The puppet, animated and live-action show is curriculum based, “a lively, educational blend of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and other teaching methods for preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students.
Much of the material contained in “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Ups” and other recent compilations derives from the mega-collection. As most shrewd collectors know by now, though, the producers hold back certain treasures for later boxes, no matter how complete the marketing drones say it is. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” is so-titled because each of the episode contains a bit that made the participant break down in laughter. Instead of editing out the imperfections, Burnett made sure they stayed in the shows as something of a brand-identifier. Such was the case on Dean Martin’s shows, as well. Unlike most bloopers, these were treats shared with the audience. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” includes 17 uncut episodes on six discs; specially-produced featurettes, “Almost Live,” “Breaking Up Is Hard … Not to Do,” “We Love You, Harvey,” “Tim Conway: Chief Cracker-Upper” and “Tim on the Street”; bonus sketches, “As the Stomach Turns,” “Two-Man Sub,” “The Interrogator” and “The Oldest Man: Fireman”; and an exclusive interview with Tim Conway. Some of the guest stars are Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Gloria Swanson, Helen Reddy, John Byner, Petula Clark, Richard Crenna, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Buzzi, and Steve Lawrence. – Gary Dretzka
Black Water Creek Sasquatch
Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast
Alien Encounter at Loch Ness
Anna: Scream Queen Killer
The next time you’re in desperate need of a low-budget movie that combines horror, gore, violence and tits into one scalding package of perversity, don’t look any further than the website for Chemical Entertainment. The same is true for the documentaries that erupt from the depths of the Reality Entertainment, where one can expect to find images of Jesus Christ sandwiched between the Loch Ness Monster and the monster from “13th China: Jersey Devil.” Because I’m on the mailing lists of such companies, finding grindhouse and other exploitation films is a breeze. Niche blogs, some with names too juvenile to mention, also provide clearinghouses for upcoming products. Impulse buying is one area where streaming has a decided edge on the old-fashioned methods of delivery. When one gets a craving for “Black Water Creek Sasquatch” or “Anna: Scream Queen Killer,” having to wait more than two minutes could mean the difference between satisfaction and starvation. These are only two of the companies’ top-shelf movies I found haunting my mail box this month. The others are “Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast,” “Alien Encounter at Loch Ness,” “The Ghostkeepers” and “Sinister Visions.” Instead of measuring the ethnic breakdown and median age of Americans, I’d like for the Census Department to ask questions about how many of us believe in the existence of Nessie and Bigfoot. Ditto, the number of verified ghost sightings it would take for the average American to flee his or her home in terror. Knowing ahead of time what gives us the heebie-jeebies could provide a great service for filmmakers and film schools that need to anticipate trends. Why waste good money on zombie flicks, if the public already is losing interest in them? – Gary Dretzka