This Must Be the Place: Blu-ray
Resembling a cross between Phil Specter, Ozzy Osbourne and everyone’s dizzy Aunt Lizzy, Sean Penn completely dominates Paolo Sorrentino’s decidedly offbeat drama, “This Must Be the Place.” After many years of self-imposed exile in Ireland, Penn’s over-the-hill Goth-rocker, Cheyenne, somehow manages to get himself sufficiently together either to reunite with his estranged father on his death bed or sit Shiva for him. After learning more about the man’s history from his friends, including a Nazi hunter played by Judd Hirsch, Cheyenne decides to avenge the torture suffered by his late father in one of Hitler’s death camps. A heroin addict even before he became a rock star, he doesn’t know much about the Holocaust beyond what customarily is taught in high school. In fact, his memory doesn’t extend much further back than when he learned that two young fans committed suicide to the theatrically dark music of his band. (David Byrne makes a guest appearance as a former mate.) As comatose as Cheyenne occasionally seems to be here, he has moments of lucidity during which he demonstrates empathy for the problems of people in the town nearest his estate. One day, he even surprises a young musician acquaintance by agreeing to produce his group’s first album. It would take a GPS to find his sense of humor, but it’s there.
Sorrentino demonstrates a keen sense of humor, himself, by putting Cheyenne on a journey through the United States on much the same two-lane highways that journalist Charles Kurwalt traveled for his “On the Road” segments. With his European eye for weird juxtapositions and abstract concepts, Sorrentino paints rural America in colors and textures few domestic travelers would ascribe to it, especially in the desert Southwest. The people who take refuge on the fringes of Red State America may barely register on the Richter scale of life, but, like everyone else here, they have stories to tell. One of them belongs to the Nazi fugitive, who Cheyenne finds living in a trailer on a snow-covered mountain top. Hannah Arendt could have had SS Officer Aloise Muller in mind in her writings about what makes ordinary men into tools of totalitarianism and the banality of evil. Finally, Cheyenne has to decide what’s more important, revenge or making himself whole. Despite winning a flock of awards in Europe, “This Must Be the Place” died a sadly premature death in America. If anyone in Hollywood had seen it, Penn might have been nominated for the sixth time as Best Actor, as would Byrne’s original music. Also appearing are Frances McDormand, Eve Hewson, Harry Dean Stanton, Kerry Condon and Olwen Fouere. – Gary Dretzka
No matter how well-intentioned, it’s tough to love movies in which the ravages of alcoholism are put on full display early on and repeated throughout most of the next 90 minutes. After a certain point, the testimonies at AA meetings all begin to sound alike and their emotional tug weakens with every new anecdote. Director James Ponsoldt, who co-wrote “Smashed” with Susan Burke, seems to be wedded to the subject. In his excellent first feature, “Off the Black,” Nick Nolte played a baseball umpire and notorious local drunk, who bonds with an athlete after the kid gets in trouble for vandalizing the older man’s home. In “The Spectacular Now,” which is currently on display at SXSW, a teenager with a serious drinking problem finds salvation with the help of a girl who’s his polar opposite. “Smashed” is about a married couple, likely in their late 20s, who have come to a crossroads because of the importance of inebriants in their lives. If he follows form, Ponsoldt’s fourth feature could focus on fetal-alcohol syndrome. The good news is that the 35-year-old filmmaker has yet to wear out his welcome with film critics who have seen no reason to dismiss him as a one-trick pony.
The best thing about “Smashed” is how seriously the actors take their assignments, even knowing that they’re exploring well-trod territory here. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, an elementary-school teacher whose nightly binges – a.k.a., partying – have begun to cause problems on the job. After getting sick in front of her stunned students, Kate explains to them that she’s pregnant and vomiting comes with the territory. It’s a lie that will come back to haunt her. As is so often the case, Kate and her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), are never so in love as when they are bombed. Neither is willing to admit to having a problem, but Kate agrees to accompany a fellow teacher (Nick Offerman) to an AA meeting. Her testimony isn’t all that different from others we’ve heard during meetings staged for the camera. When we meet her mother (Mary Kay Place), though, it becomes clear that casual drinking was as much a part of their household as the photos on the fireplace mantel.
By the time the third act rolls in, of course, there will be a serious test of the characters’ dedication to sobriety and matrimony. That’s what third acts are for, right? This one plays out honestly, I think. Not surprisingly, “Smashed” didn’t set anyone’s turnstiles on fire in limited release. It would be a shame, however, if Winstead’s performance went unnoticed by the top casting directors in Hollywood. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Ponsoldt and Winstead; deleted scenes; a making-of featurette; and interviews and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival. – Gary Dretzka
If there’s anyone more insufferable than a non-smoker lecturing a smoker about the evils of tobacco, it’s a deeply unhappy libertine trying to convince a pair of committed virgins that abstaining from sex is neither healthy nor logical. Normally, virgins are the butt of derisive jokes in movies. In “Hemel,” though, the title character has been corroded by sex to the point that her point of view on the subject comes off as ludicrous, not sensible. Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra) is a 23-year-old Dutch woman who drifts through a series of anonymous one-night stands – none of which are completely satisfying to her – looking for something desperately missing in her life. She lost her mother early and quickly developed an unhealthy dependence on her father, who’s only slightly less promiscuous than Hemel (a.k.a., Heaven). When her father falls in love with a woman closer to his age, Hemel can’t contain her jealousy and cynicism.
This is Sacha Polak’s first feature film and she captures her protagonist’s pain so precisely that it can be felt pulsing through the screen. As much as we want to sympathize with this damaged young woman, though, it’s difficult to have positive feelings about an adult daughter who isn’t embarrassed about being in the same shower room as her father, naked as the day they both were born. It’s a moment that a mother and daughter might occasionally share, or a father and son, but never a father and his grown daughter. Even if we’ve already written off the old man as a pervert, the casual exchange on Hemel’s part, especially, is terribly discomforting. Such intimacy may have added another important piece to the puzzle, but it gave me the creeps.
Working off of an eight-chapter script by Helena van der Muelen, Polak offers few concessions, even to a decidedly arthouse audience. She portrays Hemel as written and expects us to believe that such women exist. The camera’s eye records what it sees without sympathy or prejudice. Polak doesn’t seem to care if we feel Hemel’s pain — if such a thing were possible – but she demands that we look into her eyes before passing judgment. More than anything else, we’re looking for a cure to the protagonist’s deep-seated unhappiness that doesn’t include surviving a fall from a tall building or a razor slash. I’ll leave it to you to discover if such an unsettling thing happens in “Hemel.” The DVD adds short, but informative interviews with Polak and Hoekstra. – Gary Dretzka
Ministry of Fear: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Made in 1970, when Luis Buñuel was entering his eighth decade on Earth, “Tristana” excited buffs, critics and scholars who already were feasting on the Spanish surrealist’s last great burst of creativity. Bunuel seemed equally happy to finally have budgets large enough to sustain his visions and reach. Sadly, “Tristana” also is the film from that period that has suffered the most from neglect. The Cohen Film Collection’s 2K restoration, for theatrical release and Blu-ray, goes a long way toward rectifying that situation. Because he lived several decades in self-imposed exile, mostly in Hollywood, New York and Mexico City, “Tristana” was only the second film Bunuel made in his native country in 34 years. He had been encouraged by Franco’s government to make “Viridiana” there 10 years earlier, but it would be banned by Spain and the Vatican immediately after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. If “Tristana” seems to be less overtly political and blasphemous – or surrealistic, for that matter – it’s only because the filmmaker made it more difficult to discern the anti-establishment seams. Tristana’s dream sequence contains one of the most memorably surrealistic moments in cinema history.
Three years removed from her stunning performance in “Belle du Jour,” Catherine Deneuve plays the title character, whose evolution from innocent orphan to manipulative monster is masterfully executed. After Tristana’s mother dies, she is encouraged to stay in the Toledo home of the aristocratic Don Lupe (Fernando Rey), who employed them. Don Lupe may be a man of Republican beliefs in pre-Civil War Spain, but his treatment of attractive young women borders on prehistoric. As her guardian, he refuses to let her spend any time in the city streets, unless she’s accompanied by him or the maid. While he insists that this is for her protection, we know that he wants to make her dependent on his care and freely give up her virginity to him, which she does. It doesn’t take long for Tristana to bristle under Don Lupe’s yoke and a local artist, Horacio (Franco Nero), is ripe for the picking. They marry, but, several years later, after she loses a leg to cancer, Tristana convinces Horacio to deliver her back to Don Lupe’s abode. In doing so, she has consciously broken the painter’s heart and set up her older and noticeably weaker “guardian” for his comeuppance.
Although all of Bunuel’s grand obsessions and themes are on full display in “Tristana,” viewers new to his work may enjoy returning to Chapter 1 and watch it again, this time overlaid with commentary provided by Deneuve and critic Kent Jones. Also recommended is a 30-minute visual essay with Bunuel scholar Peter William Evans. The set is enhanced with a slightly different alternate ending, a chapter excerpt from scholar Raymond Durgnat’s out-of-print book on Bunuel; and English and Spanish dub tracks.
Bunuel openly credited such Fritz Lang films as “Destiny” and “M” for convincing him to pursue filmmaking as a career. It would be difficult, though, to find any serious director over the course of the last 90 years who hasn’t been influenced by the Austrian master of suspense. Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene, “Ministry of Fear” was informed by Lang’s experiences in the early days of the Third Reich, which he left immediately after Josef Goebbels offered him the job of head of the German Cinema Institute. Once in power, the Nazis maintained their hold on the country through fear and intimidation. Across the English Channel, Hitler’s nightly bombing runs and dogfights with crack British pilots – combined with blackouts and rumors of Nazi spy networks – kept the country on edge. Although the impact of intelligence gathered by German spies has since been discounted, cracking spy rings became a staple of wartime thrillers for years to come.
Such is the case with “Ministry of Fear,” in which an innocent man (Ray Milland) literally stumbles upon on a spy network operating near a munitions factory in the countryside not far from London. Stephen Neale has just been released from a sanitarium and is enjoying a night out at a local carnival when something very strange occurs. He mistakenly is awarded a cake that was intended for a Nazi courier, played by Dan Duryea, because it contains top-secret microfilm with invasion plans. The blunder makes him a target both for the embedded spies seeking the data and by police, as a suspect in a murder during a séance. Before long, it becomes impossible for Neale to trust anyone in his pursuit of the truth. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia is enhanced by Lang’s strategic use of noir lighting techniques, which he practically invented 20 years earlier in Berlin. The Criterion Collection release is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition; a new interview with Lang scholar Joe McElhaney; and an essay by critic Glenn Kenny – Gary Dretzka
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: Blu-ray
The title of the Montreal-based troupe’s latest feature film is a tad misleading. “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” may be infinitely different from any circus or acrobatic movie you’ve ever seen, but the source material can be found in Las Vegas, where Cirque shows are as uncommon as neon signs. In fact, “Worlds Away” more closely resembles a hearty buffet than, say, the entrée course at Picasso or Joel Robuchon. For 90 minutes, viewers are invited to sample tasty, interwoven bits of the company’s seven shows on the Strip, circa 2011: “O,” “Mystère,” “Kà,” “Love,” “Zumanity,” “Viva Elvis” and “Criss Angel Believe.” With the exception of “Viva Elvis,” all are still up and running. (“Zarkana” has been added to the lineup, with the traveling Michael Jackson salute coming soon.) Anyone whose only familiarity with Cirque du Soleil has been through the big-top shows should know that all of the shows in Las Vegas take place on a permanent stage, under a hard roof. Most are staged in venues that are three or four times the size of the landmark blue-and-yellow tent.
Unlike what happens in the Strip venues, “Worlds Away” adds a throughline that connects the seven shows. It isn’t much, but it’s more narrative than fans usually get. Erica Linz plays a young woman who falls in loves with an aerialist she’s only seen perform in one of the tent shows. Obsessed, she travels to the World of Cirque to reconnect, only to become a flier herself. Although it can be argued that “Worlds Away” is merely a sampler from the Vegas menu, the Blu-ray 2D/3D presentation is truly spectacular and enjoyable on its own merits. The already-brilliant colors, costumes and sets really pop in hi-def and the cameras, under the guidance of producer James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron), take us to places inaccessible to everyday audience members. That means going under water with the performers in “O,” to the rafters with the trapeze acts and alongside the dancers, clowns and acrobats on the various stages. The Blu-ray arrives with a short Cirque du Soleil visual primer and a nice piece in which Linz describes the creation of an acrobatic dance routine. Oh, yeah, there’s a commercial for the Vegas productions. – Gary Dretzka
One sure way of telling if you’re addicted to cigarettes is if you light one up while trying to escape from a scythe-wielding lunatic in an orange jump suit. Troma out-Tromas itself in “The Taint,” a movie that practically dares viewers to make it through the first 10 minutes without puking. Apparently, someone or something has tainted the drinking water of East Jeezus, Nowhere, and the poison has turned the male population into slobbering misogynistic killers. Not to put too fine a point on what happens next, but it involves crushed skulls and a toxic substance propelled from the diseased penises of the infected men. If society, such as it is, is to survive the plague it will be up to white-wigged Phil O’Ginny and his shotgun-toting companion, Misandra, to eliminate all of the serial castrators, gang-rapists and stone killers. Freud probably would have had a field day with the Virginia-based first-time filmmakers Drew Bolduc and Dan Nelson, whose every notion of bad taste involves the male organ in one perverse way or another. All of that said, “Taint” looks surprisingly good technically and the special-effects, while crude, do the trick in the gore department. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the acting and dialogue are amateurish, even by Troma’s normally low standards. The DVD adds commentaries by the directors and cast; deleted scenes; a behind-the-scenes slideshow; and an introduction by Lloyd Kaufman. Don’t say you weren’t warned. – Gary Dretzka
Storage 24: Blu-ray
In Their Skin
Grave Encounters 2
Wouldn’t it be great if, when the contents of a locker are revealed on “Storage Wars,” an extraterrestrial being jumped out of a crate like a jack-in-the-box? Only the withered corpse Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater could compare to such a shocking discovery. That essentially is what happens in “Storage 24,” a London-based sci-fi thriller that unspools after a military cargo plane crashes, leaving its highly classified contents strewn across the city. At the same time, several attractive young people, of course, are trapped within the maze of a very large storage facility. While they’re attempting to work out their respective interpersonal issues, a grotesque creature is stalking them. It makes lots of unpleasant noises that resonate throughout the multi-floor structure. Maybe, it’s just me, but I think I’d be more concerned with the monster than who was cheating on whom in the world above. If things weren’t complicated enough, an air-conditioning duct leads would-be heroes to a locker filled with lifelike mannequins, any one of which could be a creature in disguise, and one with weapons-grade dildos. Beyond that, “Storage 24” is pretty standard stuff. It adds a making-of featurette, interviews and deleted scenes.
As difficult as it is to paint a portrait of the typical American family, it’s just that hard to agree on what constitutes the quintessential American neighborhood. As we observed in “Desperate Housewives,” among other popular entertainments, neighborhoods can be every bit as dysfunctional and potentially dangerous as the families that populate them. Nonetheless, a Welcome Wagon visit remains as ritualistic as bringing a casserole to the home of a neighbor whose spouse has just died. “In Their Skin” demonstrates what can happen when someone moves into the wrong neighborhood and opens their home to the wrong family. After suffering the tragic loss of their daughter, the Hughes family decides to spend some time in their well-appointed vacation home. Early the first morning, Mark (Joshua Close) and Mary (Selma Blair) are awakened by the sound of someone piling firewood outside their home. The Sakowskis (James D’Arcy, Rachel Miner) are something of a parallel family to the Hughes, only a million times creepier. Even though Mark can barely contain his hostility toward the sleep-defeating Sakowskis, Mary invites them to dinner. It is, of course, not a very smart move. If such recent home-invasion movies as “The Strangers,” “The Perfect Host” and two “Funny Games” have doubt us anything, it’s to be wary of anyone who unexpectedly shows up at our doorstep and isn’t wearing a UPS or Fedex uniform. “In Their Skin” resembles all of them in one way or another. By adding sexual and psycho-dramatic elements to the usual motivational forces of envy and sadism, freshmen director Jeremy Power Regimbal and co-writer Close have kept their drama from being a copy-cat thriller tailored for the festival and DVD-original market. The actors are all quite good, especially Alex Ferris as the bad-seed Sakowski.
In 2011, the Vicious Brothers’ “Grave Encounters” had some fun with the found-footage subgenre, by having the cast of a “Ghost Hunters”-type reality show pay a visit to an abandoned mental hospital and discover to their dismay that it actually is haunted. Enough people liked it that the creators wrote a sequel and handed it off to a new director, John Poliquin. Although “Grave Encounters 2” sometimes borders on being too cute by half, it should satisfy fans of the original and other, lesser found-film efforts. Its primary conceit involves acknowledging the existence of the film, “Grave Encounters,” and having fanboys offer video reviews of it as the sequel opens. One of them decides that he’d like to find out what happened to original fictional team of paranormal investigators and return to the asylum with a film crew of his own. He even receives an e-mail with an irresistible clue to their fates. As you might already have guessed, many of the same demons who populated the first “GE” return in “GE2,” plus some new tormented souls. The nice thing about both movies is that they don’t waste a lot of time building tension or teasing viewers. The nasty stuff arrives early and keeps coming throughout the 95-minute flick, when another set of mysteries presents itself. There’s an interview with filmmakers included in the DVD. – Gary Dretzka
Death Penalty.com/Death Penalty.com: A New Beginning
Nikattsu: Fairy in a Cage
Nikattsu: Female Teacher: In Front of the Students
Absent an interview or making-of featurette, I have no way of knowing if Danger After Dark’s “Death Penalty.com” and “Death Penalty.com: A New Beginning” were directly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” If not, director Ryota Sakamaki probably snoozed through an airing of the classic thriller on TV and woke up thinking that the dream he just had about two guys conspiring on train was less Freudian than Hollywoodian. Instead of having two complete strangers with foolproof alibis agree to dispose of each other’s nemesis, a young brothel employee with a similar problem simply goes to the DeathPenalty.com website. Here, he’s introduced to a rogues’ gallery of desperate characters who’ve agreed to a quid-pro-quo arrangement like the one in the Hitchcock movie. All new petitioners are required to present their case before the panel. If they agree to accept the assignment, all will be involved in the murder to one degree or another. The person who ostensibly stands to gain from the arrangement then is required to participate in future hits. If that person reneges, he or she becomes the next victim. Although there are real consequences to every request, DeathPenalty.com could easily pass for an elaborate Internet prank. Fans of J-horror and bloody video games are more likely to dig the premise than those viewers who never miss a Hitchcock movie on TMC. The gore and punk sensibilities on display trend two generations younger.
World War II sexploitation movies reached their peak in the mid-1970s, with the release of such titles as “The Night Porter,” “Salo,” “Salon Kitty,” “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS” and “Nazi Love Camp 27.” Blessedly, it wasn’t a genre that flourished at drive-ins or, in the case of “The Night Porter” and “Salo,” before arthouse audiences. Nazi fashions and other fascist iconography had been absorbed into the S&M and leather-fetishist subcultures by this time and swastikas were becoming a fixture in rape and torture fantasies. Mimicking the atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the war had much less resonance with moviegoers along the Pacific Rim. When it came to sexual enslavement, torture and random carnage, however, the Japanese were second to none. “Fairy in a Cage” is the rare movie that depicted the terrible activities of the much-feared kompeitsai, the military police force that had been in place for several decades before the war and served the same purpose as Hitler’s SS. (Koji Wakamatsu’s 1975 pinku film, “100 Years of Torture: The History,” took a longer view of kompeitsai atrocities.) As is generally the case with Porno Roman entries, “Fairy in a Cage” delivers far less commentary than sexual titillation. If such movies were restricted from showing genitalia and public hair, there were no limits to how crazy they could be. In “Fairy in a Cage,” a tyrannical judge uses his military power to imprison and torture people suspected of helping an anti-government movement. An unabashed pervert, war or no war, the judge hits the jackpot when the wife of a successful businessman is linked to a local kabuki actor, who might be supporting the protesters. It gave him a legal pretense for abusing a beautiful and sophisticated woman who’s closer to his age than the young actresses generally seen in torture porn. The victim was played by Naomi Tani, who was already well known as the Rope Queen for her dexterity at playing parts requiring bondage and S&M. When the kompeitsai officials in “Fairy in a Cage” are told they’re being shipped off to other occupied countries, their shock allows time for a sympathetic policeman to help the prisoners escape. The controversial and infrequently screened movie benefits from a high-definition transfer, taken from the original 35mm camera negative.
In American movies, rape is no longer a subject for easy exploitation or cheap thrills, as it was in the latter days of the drive-in era. The furor raised by graphically violent attacks on women in such disparate movies as “Jackson County Jail,” “Straw Dogs,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Death Wish” rightly forced studios and filmmakers to reconsider how and when to use rape as a story element. Rape subplots and fantasies even fell out of favor in porn movies that were intended for viewing on VCRs. Seemingly, the debate didn’t have much impact in Japan, where makers of “pink” and Roman Porno weren’t at all reluctant to use rape as a recurring theme in dramas and occasionally even humor. Such is the case with “Female Teacher: In Front of the Students” (1982), which is combines the “Female Teacher” series with the “roughie” subgenre. At a time when the home-video invasion was taking its toll on the production of studio movies and television, genre producers decided they needed to raise the ante on sex and violence to maintain their viewers’ interest. Here, shortly after a demure English teacher from another district takes a job in a crumbling high school, she is raped while taking a shower after tennis practice. It’s nasty business, even if not particularly graphic from a gynecological point of view. Reiko (Rushia Santo) suspects that her attacker is one of the cool kids in class, angry for her role in getting him booted off the tennis team for bullying another student.
The only clue left behind is a piece from a jigsaw puzzle. Rather than entrusting police with the investigation, Reiko decides she’ll track down the rapist herself and use humiliation as a form of punishment. (Remember that we’re in Japan and honor still counts for something.) Instead, no matter where she turns, she rewarded for her folly by being raped by someone new. It isn’t that difficult to guess the culprit, but the unmasking leads to a conclusion that would be comical, if it weren’t so wrong-headed. That said, though, “Female Teacher” is competently made and not without some wacky surprises. In another couple of years, protests by Japanese parents and school groups would be heard and the subgenre would pretty much disappear. Rape hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it’s primarily used now as a catalyst for revenge. The DVDs from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection come with a brief essay and trailers. – Gary Dretzka
The First Time
Dylan O’Brien and Britt Robertson make a very cute couple in the talky teen rom-com, “The First Time.” Dave and Aubrey meet outside a party and, for all intents and purposes, fall in love before even getting past the front door. Because nothing comes easy in teen rom-coms, they both admit to having significant others before talking the night away and realizing that they’re perfect for each other. A few obstacles pop up in between their first meeting and the first time they, well, you know. The nice thing here is that no one is in any great hurry to do … you know. In their very early 20s, O’Brien and Robertson still look young enough to break out in zits at inappropriate times and listen, really listen to each other’s end of conversations. In his second feature, Jon Kasdan seems to have a grasp on the crazy rhythms and awkward moments that make a kid’s first true love so stupid, scary and wonderful. I haven’t been a teenager for a long time, but somehow what happens in “The First Time” feels real. – Gary Dretzka
Zulu Dawn: Blu-ray
Released during the centennial year of the Battle of Isandhlwana – the Zulu answer to the Sioux’s triumph at the Little Big Horn, three years earlier – Douglas Hickox’s 1979 war epic, “Zulu Dawn,” could just as easily have been intended as a critique of our disastrous adventure in Vietnam. The same arrogance shown by our military brass and political leaders in Southeast Asia is engrained in every frame of “Zulu Dawn.” For no good reason, besides vanity and imperialistic greed, British troops stationed in the colony of Nadal decided that 1879 would be a good year to invent a provocation with King Cetshwayo, nephew to the great Zulu warrior Shaka. The Zulu kingdom was preparing for the fall harvest when Cetshwayo was given the ultimatum to disband his army or face annihilation. The king admitted to no wrong doing, but reiterated his pledge not to cross the established Buffalo River border. Expecting a turkey shoot, the Brits assumed incorrectly that modern weaponry would prove superior to the Zulus’ cowhide shields, swords, spears, clubs and warrior mentality.
What the British failed to take into account was the Zulus’ ability to mass individual militias so quickly, finally outnumbering them 16-to-1. The Brits’ arrogance caused them to take risks that they wouldn’t have attempted if facing a European army using similar weapons. As the redcoats ran out of bullets, the Zulus kept coming. “Zulu Dawn” is as good a war picture as one is likely to find, if only because Hickox could call on 11,000 native extras and background artists to re-create the horror staring the Brits in the face. The battle sequences were staged, as well, in the shadow of the same mountain, Isandhlwana. Because it was made in the almost immediate aftermath of Vietnam, writer Cy Endfield wasn’t required to summon pity and sympathy for the aggressors, as early American westerns had for General George Armstrong Custer. In fact, “Zulu Dawn” served as a prequel to the events dramatized in Endfield’s “Zulu,” which described the ensuing Battle of Rorke’s Drift. That movie ended far differently than “Zulu Dawn,” in that a smaller group of British troops held off a larger formation of Zulus. The cast includes Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Bob Hoskins, John Mills, Simon Ward, Denholm Elliott and Nigel Davenport. The restored Blu-ray edition looks and sounds quite good and includes an excellent historical recounting of the entire Anglo-Zulu War. – Gary Dretzka
The Devil’s in the Details: Blu-ray
In his first feature film, former Splender frontman Waymon Boone has created a hostage thriller whose dependence on coincidences and last-second reprieves nearly proves fatal to the narrative. “The Devil’s in the Details” describes how one troubled veteran of the Middle East wars is set up by a Mexican cartel to facilitate a scheme so complicated that it appears as if they’re smuggling drugs across the border in the wrong direction. Thomas Conrad (Joel Mathews) is recovering from an addiction to prescription pills, but still has a way to go with PTSD. One afternoon, while driving around Nogales, Arizona, he’s involved in an accident with a dapper fellow, who, instead of exchanging insurance data, invites Thomas for a drink at his favorite watering hole. After passing out from too much tequila, he awakens from his stupor tied to a metal operating table. His drinking companion (Emilio Rivera) is also in the dark concrete banner, but stone sober and holding a pistol. After some preliminary torture, Thomas is told that his estranged wife and daughter are being held hostage, as well, and will be killed if he doesn’t cooperate. Here’s where the coincidences begin to pile up: Thomas must convince his father, a judge, to draw up a search warrant for a home in the border city; convince his sister, a much-admired cop, to serve the warrant and steal the stash hidden there; and convince his brother, a tough Border Patrol officer, to let a blue van pass loaded with the drugs and money through his checkpoint. Thomas is given only a few minutes to assure them that he hasn’t pulled this scam out of his ass to get money to buy more pills. When they hesitate, Thomas is given a jolt of electricity or knife prick to make his demeanor seem more authentic. Finally, after they agree to help, the whole operation begins to go sideways. Fortunately, his military psychiatrist (Ray Liotta) is a former Navy SEAL and someone who believes that his patient deserves the benefit of a doubt. Like I said, that’s a lot of coincidences. For a debut film, “The Devil’s in the Details” is reasonably exciting and the characters are well drawn. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Rise of the Guardians: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In a curious example of cross-market appeal, the timing of the theatrical and Blu-ray release of the seasonal adventure, “Rise of the Guardians,” dovetails nicely with both Christmas and Easter. That’s because two of the key characters in DreamWorks’ adaptation of William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” happen to be Santa Claus (a.k.a., North) and E. Aster Bunnymund. They are two of the four Guardians, who’ve been charged with protecting the children of the world from darkness and fear, in the form of the evil Pitch (a.k.a., Bogeyman). The Man in the Moon wants to make Jack Frost a Guardian, but, first, he’s required to stop Pitch from capturing the fairies who deliver missing baby teeth from under kids’ pillows and turning them into Easter eggs. Jack, who’s used to bringing the gift of ice to knuckleheaded hockey fanatics, has his work cut out for him. Children have begun to despair of ever again enjoying their holidays and are giving in to the scary things that lurk in closets and under beds. Suddenly it’s as if the Guardians have abandoned them. If only Jack can summon the courage to stand up to the Bogeyman, the forces of evil might be forced to retreat or surrender. Peter Ramsey’s only other directorial credit is the short TV movie, “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space,” but he’s worked in the animation, special effects and art departments of a couple dozen larger projects. In any case, he seems to have had firm grip on the wheel in the quickly paced and alternately dark and colorful “Rise of the Guardians.” The Blu-ray bonus features include interactive games, commentary and behind-the-scenes pieces. The limited-edition set adds two full-size “hopping eggs.” – Gary Dretzka
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
If Sholem Aleichem is known at all outside the greater Jewish community, it’s as the writer of the stories from which the Broadway musical “A Fiddler on the Roof” was adapted. Joseph Dorman’s revelatory bio-doc, “Laughing in the Darkness,” is much more than a primer on the works of an important writer. It also describes how Aleichem’s stories grew organically from the folk traditions, Yiddish language and dramatic events that would change the way Russian Jews had lived for the past 1,000 years. If a hundred fans of “Fiddler on the Roof” were asked to sketch a portrait of the author, most of the drawings would resemble the actor, Topol, who played Teyve the Milkman on stage and in the movie. Some would bear traces of Mark Twain, the writer most frequently compared to the author and playwright formerly known as Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. In fact, he was a strikingly handsome man, with a bushy mustache, soul patch, long hair and the kind of eyeglasses favored by leftist intellectuals in the 1960s. As a young man, he dressed with a dandyish flair that belied his shtetl roots.
Dorman is quick to point out that Aleichem’s stories were written at a time when, whether they knew it or not, international Jewry was about to undergo an epochal change. Pogroms and the Russia Revolution would combine to destroy the shtetl way of life and send millions of Jews packing to Palestine and urban centers in western Europe and the United States. Aleichem’s work not only was drawn from memories of the places in which Jews lived and would soon leave, but it also asked how they could adapt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of their culture. For example, in the book “Teyve and His Daughters,” the milkman’s dilemma over Chava’s falling in love with a Gentile foreshadowed a century-long debate over the impact of assimilation, intermarriage and religious liberality. The documentary also follows Aleichem’s own search for a new home, in Kiev, Switzerland and New York, where his plays bombed and he found very little to like about American Jews. (Ironically, his funeral would attract 200,000 New Yorkers and be credited as the first event to demonstrate how powerful Jews could be as a unified political and cultural force.) Among the scholars, critics and historians interviewed here are granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who wrote the book “Up the Down Staircase,” which also was adapted into a Hollywood film. The DVDs adds a couple of interviews with the filmmaker. – Gary Dretzka
You’ve Been Trumped
Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green
The maddening documentary “You’ve Been Trumped” provides yet another exquisite example of life imitating art, with completely different results. Twenty-four years after a filthy-rich oil tycoon played by Burt Lancaster reversed his decision to purchase a pristine chunk of Scottish coastline in “Local Hero,” that notorious American dickhead Donald Trump committed his resources to doing the same thing. In Bill Forsythe’s wonderfully quirky comedy, the tiny town of Aberdeenshire serves as a backdrop for a David-vs.-Goliath story, in which the Houston-based based industrialist faces a challenge by an old-school beachcomber who lives in a driftwood shack. Instead of bullying the locals, lying to the press, bribing Scottish politicians, corrupting the police force and insulting landowners, as was the case with Trump, Lancaster spent several quiet hours drinking whiskey, swapping stories and picking the brain of the last man standing between him and an expected oil bonanza. (The other locals are tired of their hard-working lives and would welcome being bought out.) What finally dissuades Lancaster’s amateur astronomer are the unspoiled nighttime skies, whose clarity allows him to study the heavens unabated. A compromise is reached and everyone lives happily ever after … amen.
Trump wasn’t interested in oil when he bought the windswept dunes and unspoiled wildlife habitat. He simply wanted to build the “world’s greatest golf course” and put up some multistory buildings on his property … that and tear up the fragile landscape so that rich duffers could pay exorbitant fees to hit tiny white balls into the sea. In an effort to crush dissent, Trump demonized local residents in the media and made every effort to crush a neighboring farmer because he considered the man’s property to be an eyesore. Trump knows that the media can’t resist quoting him and insisted to their cameras that the local residents were “pigs” and “living in squalor.” It’s as clear a case of corporate bullying as has risen in the last several decades. “You’ve Been Trumped” lays out the case of the locals and environmentalists succinctly and as balanced as it could be, considering that virtually everyone supporting his position declined to be interviewed. Two years later, Trump threatened the Scottish government with abandonment of the project if plans for an offshore wind farm weren’t approved. Meanwhile, NBC was doing its part for mankind by lionizing Trump on the insipid reality show, “The Apprentice.” The DVD package includes footage of the opening of course, Trump in Scottish Parliament, Occupy Wall Street projects and filmmaker Anthony Baxter on “Moyers & Company.”
Talk about triumphs of American diplomacy: Scotland gets Donald Trump and the Irish get Jay and Silent Bob. Somewhere, the Chinese are laughing their asses off. You really have to hand it to the stars of “Clerks” and “Mallrats.” No comedy team has gotten away with doing less with less than Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes. “Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green” is the eighth title in a series of performance movies, during which two dudes sit behind a desk on stage and discuss things that must be interesting to someone, because they tend to sell out the venues they play. Mostly they discuss blow jobs, screwing in tiny cars, taking dumps, getting high and/or getting straight, pederast priests, chocolate milk and buying stuff in local stores. They punctuate each and every sentence with “fuck” or “shit” and occasionally perform skits with audience members, approximating fornication. “Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish” follows by only a few months “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old: Tea Bagging in the UK.” Many of the gags are the same or close enough for government work. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a bonus disc with material from a Las Vegas engagement. – Gary Dretzka
Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology
Shaman Healer Sage
Harley’s 5-Factor Workout
Typically, the biographies found on the IMDB.com website are written by publicists or semi-anonymous fans. The best ones are short and to the point, with plenty of room left over for trivia and quotations. Most are infrequently updated and littered with grammatical mistakes and misspellings. Perhaps the longest bio I’ve ever encountered there was written by Tiffany Shlain, the director and co-writer of “Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology,” about herself. It is almost twice as long as the one written about Charlie Chaplin and contains several more superlatives. On other sites, Shlain’s bio has been condensed to “Filmmaker, artist and Webby Award founder.” Her first feature-length documentary is a flashy rehashing of facts and theories almost everyone with a mouse pad already assumes to be true or has considered and discarded. It isn’t inaccurate, just redundant. An 11-year-old with a Facebook and Twitter account already has a pretty good idea about how cool and amazing it is that she can trade gossip about Justin Bieber with hundreds of other 11-year-olds around the world, as soon as it breaks on TMZ. There surely are better examples of the Internet’s importance, but, let’s face it, 90 percent of what’s communicated is garbage. As such, “Connected” is about as fascinating as a taped lecture from 1998 about the information superhighway by Al Gore.
Another obvious point she makes is the crucial role played by bees in the well-being of our planet’s ecosystem. Indeed, Einstein made the same point about bees and interconnectivity decades ago: if the bees disappear, so do we. The most poignant moments in the film come when Shlain pays homage to her late father, a prominent surgeon, and his many courageous battles with serious illnesses throughout his life. Her work has clearly been influenced by his theories on interconnectedness and the miracles that occur routinely in our brains. That part is fine, but Shlain also felt it necessary to include home movies that span her childhood and appearance at her dad’s funeral. The film arrives with two of her short films, “Yelp” and a “cloud”-created Independence Day salute.
In “Shaman Healer Sage,” we’re introduced once again to Alberto Villoldo Ph.D., a Cuban-born psychologist, medical scientist, anthropologist and author who believes that traditional folk medicine could do wonders for people who don’t live in Amazonian jungles and on Andean peaks. He calls it “ancient energy medicine.” For the last quarter-century, Villoldo has worked alongside shamans and South American medical practitioners to explore the mysteries of the natural and supernatural worlds. The documentary has been adapted from Villoldo’s book of the same title.
If “Harley’s 5-Factor Workout” is to be believed, others look to Hollywood stars for their physical well-being. Apparently, Harley Pasternak is a big deal among “Hollywood’s A-list.” It’s a boast, “plumber to the stars,” that always begs the question about what constitutes celebrity in Tinseltown. In any case, Pasternak’s regimen involves a “scientifically proven 5-Factor approach (which) balances fitness and diet in one easy-to-manage program.” The claim here is that it takes only 25 minutes of work for 5 weeks, or so, to show positive results. – Gary Dretzka
The Mob Doctor: The Complete Series
PBS: Saving the Ocean: Season 1
American Experience: Silicon Valley: Where the Future Was Born
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 3
Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes
PBS: The Mind of a Chef
In the annals of bad programming decisions, Fox’s “The Mob Doctor” takes the cake for unappetizing concepts. You can almost hear the high-concept pitch over lunch at Spago, “Two words … ‘mob doctor.’ You pay for the meal.” If any pitch cried out for reality-show status, it’s “The Mob Doctor.” Any writer who is able to squeeze a season’s worth of stories from that questionable concept should also be able to find a real doctor who specializes in treating gangsters or was convicted of same. I, for one, find it difficult to imagine a high-ranking member of the Chicago Outfit waiting more than 30 seconds for treatment, even for an ingrown toenail. Then, too, almost every gangster movie worth its salt has introduced a doctor, nurse or veterinarian who could be counted on to extract bullets and resist the temptation to inform the proper authorities of an accident involving gunplay, as is required in real life. Instead, “The Mob Doctor” borrows bits and pieces from every network medical series since “ER” and mixes in the gangland elements as if they were ingredients in a tossed salad.
Pretty blond Jordana Spiro plays Grace Devlin, a surgeon in a prominent Chicago hospital. To save her brother from a massive debt owed to a gangster Devlin agrees to do odd medical jobs off the books. In Chapter 1, she’s required to extract a screwdriver from some mook’s head and kill an informer who is wheeled into the hospital after eating too much pasta or something equally lethal. She’s constantly getting calls from the mob boss to race to the suburbs during her lunch break to treat one ailment or another. Then, she has to fight midday traffic on the Eisenhower Freeway to return in time for a crucial surgery on a non-Mafia patient. By television standards, “The Mob Doctor” features a top-shelf cast of recognizable actors. Besides Spiro, there’s William Forsythe, Michael Rapaport, David Pasquesi, Zeljko Ivanek, Kevin Corrigan, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Terry Kinney, Timothy Busfield and Michael Madsen. I hope they all got pay-or-play contracts for a full-season run, even though Fox pulled the show after 13 episodes.
In “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina,” the founder of the Blue Ocean Institute identifies such well-known threats to aquatic habitats as overfishing, pollution and the destruction of reefs, then finds scientists, conservationists and local communities that are doing positive things to cure the ills. The subjects covered in the first season include swordfish, shark sanctuaries, sea turtles, endangered cod, Chinook salmon and lionfish, with stops in Baja, Trinidad, Washington state, Belize and Zanzibar.
The “American Experience” episode “Silicon Valley: Where the Future Was Born” goes all the way back to 1957, when 29-year-old physicist Robert Noyce co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and put rural Santa Clara County on the scientific map. Among other things, advances in transistor and semiconductor technology opened the door for space exploration and the personal computer. Eleven years later, Noyce co-founded Intel, where he supervised the invention of the microprocessor. It’s through his eyes that “Silicon Valley” charts the growth of the region as the world’s foremost catalyst for the marriage of computer science and venture capitalism.
Now into its third season on PBS, “Pioneers of Television” offers an entertaining survey of the history of the medium through the testimony of creators, stars, historians and vintage clips from most important shows. It’s done so by focusing on specific genres and time-honored character types. This collection is broken up into the genres, “Funny Ladies,” “Primetime Soaps,” “Superheroes” and “Miniseries.” Each of the shows features new interviews with the great stars and rarely seen footage. Not surprisingly, perhaps, what’s on display here is often more entertaining than the competition on competing networks.
Nothing makes television news producers pee in their pants with delight as much as the eruption of a volcano. It doesn’t matter where the top of a mountain is exploding or spitting lava, it will be used to kill at least a minute’s worth of attention on the 11 p.m. newscast. The popularity of high-definition television has only increased the desire for all things volcanic. Nothing looks better on HDTV and Blu-ray than exposed magma and lava flows. Sadly, the only place volcano junkies will find “Nova: Doomsday Volcanoes” in HD is through PPV outlets. The episode uses the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which, in 2010, crippled trans-Atlantic travel for weeks, as an example of what could happen if something more catastrophic occurs. As CGI takes viewers inside these geological wonders, scientists offer opinions as to how a super-eruption could affect the global food supply and the Earth’s climate.
If you can get past the cheesy cover art for “The Mind of the Chef,” the names David Chang and Anthony Bourdain should draw your attention. Only 35, Chang is a much-celebrated New York chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer, whose reputation and skills force fickle diners to bow to his whims and demands. As executive producer and narrator, Bourdain basically is only along for the ride here. Still, the show reflects his occasionally iconoclastic attitudes and willingness to travel long distances for a great and often ridiculously inexpensive meal. The 16 episodes of “Mind of a Chef” included in the Season 1 DVD combine travel, cooking, history, science and humor into delicious entertainments. – Gary Dretzka
NFL Super Bowl XLVII Champions: 2012 Baltimore Ravens: Blu-ray
With another exciting Super Bowl in the books, it’s time for Ravens fans to relive the thrills and 49ers loyalists pretend it never happened. “NFL Super Bowl XLVII Champions” may not contain the game in its entirety, but it is built around a full season’s worth of highlights that include those in the championship game. Naturally, it’s divided roughly in half by the electrical blackout, during which the 49ers must have eaten a ton of Wheaties and remembered how they got to the Super Bowl in the first place. Instead of being a blowout, the game turned into an extremely competitive and wildly exciting affair, decided finally on a controversial non-call. No one dwells on that blunder here, so 49ers fans have almost no reason to get excited about this souvenir Blu-ray. As usual, NFL Films puts viewers on the sidelines, within eavesdropping distance of the players and coaches. The Blu-ray looks and sounds exceptionally good, as well. Not surprisingly, the bonus material is heavy on features about the brothers Harbaugh coaching on opposite sides of the field and how their parents split their allegiances. Other pieces include film from Super Bowl Media Day, post-game ceremonies, Courtney Upshaw’s “journey” and exclusive BD-Live Internet-connected features. – Gary Dretzka