Spring Breakers: Blu-ray
At the ripe old age of 40, Harmony Korine no longer is the enfant terrible of indie cinema. He does, however, continue to defy the expectations of critics and test the limits of his fan base. Upon learning that the creator of such provocations as “Gummo,” “Julien Donkey-Boy” and “Trash Humpers” would target America’s annual spring-break ritual as his next project, they knew to expect everything from a hipster “Girls Gone Wild” to a twisted “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Whatever “Spring Breakers” was going to become, it was going to be extreme. While stylistically aggressive, “Spring Breakers” could easily pass for a traditional crime story, in that it begins and ends with a felony, introduces us to identifiable characters and places them at the intersection of right and wrong. Here, four young women from a northern college desperately want to check out spring break in Florida, but are short the money to get there. Although their closest brush with the law probably had involved fake IDs, the girls reluctantly agree to rob a local bar/restaurant at gunpoint. Once that obstacle is cleared, it’s a short step to indulging in the sacraments of drinking, drugging, forsaking their tops and puking to make room for more poison. It doesn’t take long before they’re busted for any number of minor and major offenses and arraigned in the only clothes – bikinis and flip-flops – they thought they’d need for the vacation. Smelling an opportunity, “whigger” hoodlum Alien (James Franco) agrees to go their bail. Once they’re free, Alien impresses the hell out of the pretty little gangstas with his gold orthodontia, tattoos, convertible, drugs, money, guns and hip-hopper buddies.
The rest of “Spring Breakers” bounces between the beach scene and lairs of predators who feed on such naïve snowbirds as Faith, Candy, Brit and Cotty (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine). Alien coddles the girls to the point where they can barely distinguish the distance between misdemeanors and felonies. Only one of them is so disturbed by her behavior that she grabs the next Greyhound heading north. That Alien allows her to escape only serves to endear him to his new gang. Korine perfectly captures the hedonistic atmosphere surrounding spring break not only in Florida, but also Padre Island, Cancun and other warm-weather destinations. He does so by combining bombastic hip-hop, trance and heavy-metal music with frenetically edited visuals that pulsate with bright colors, points-of-view and framing devices. And, while it’s easy to see what draws to young people to such debauched destinations, Korine also makes palpable the sinister appeal of life lived in the fast lane. Needless to say, younger viewers will be able to follow the action easier than folks who once sang along with Connie Francis on “Where the Boys Are.” Parents of teenagers may want to take a sedative before sampling “Spring Breakers.” Franco’s impressively realized Alien is every dad’s worst nightmare of his daughter’s new boyfriend and/or father figure. The Blu-ray bonus material adds several lengthy making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, Korine’s commentary and, from “VICE,” a truly bizarre interview with the “ATL Twins” and an informative pro-and-con look at spring break in Panama Beach. – Gary Dretzka
Dead Man Down: Blu-ray
Cohen & Tate: Blu-ray
The two best reasons to sample the murky, New York-based crime thriller “Dead Man Down”are Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, whose slow-to-boil romance is almost as suspenseful as any of the film’s gangland elements. Farrell plays Victor, a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. who’s forced into the revenge game after his wife and daughter are murdered by a stylish mobster, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). A couple of years later, Victor has somehow managed to infiltrate Alphonse’s gang – don’t ask – as a trusted courier. Victor’s next-apartment neighbor, Beatrice, is played with equal degrees of compassion and menace by Rapace (“Girl With the Golden Tattoo”). She witnesses a crime that takes place in Victor’s apartment and blackmails him into helping her punish the alcoholic who left her disfigured in a car accident. Because another gang, led by Armond Assante (see below), has plans of its own for Alphonse, and Victor’s former father-in-law (F. Murray Abraham) is in a hurry to avenge his daughter’s death, it nearly becomes impossible to identify the players without a scorecard. (Victor’s able to operate freely among the gangsters because they assume incorrectly that he was killed along with his family and, apparently, no one remembers what he looked like.)
As if the international cast wasn’t already attractive enough to inspire ticket sales overseas, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev decided to throw the great French actress Isabelle Huppert into the mix as Beatrice’s hard-of-hearing, cookie-baking mother. The weird chemistry between Victor and Beatrice, then, is the only thing likely to keep casual fans of the genre around for the fiery ending, in which a bomb-laden pickup truck crashes into Alphonse’s mansion, setting off one on the wildest shootouts I’ve seen in a while. Oplev directed the original, Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which many critics and readers preferred to the American adaptation. He claims that his version “Dead Man Down” became a victim of budget restraints and poor editing decisions by the producers. Maybe, so, but enough good things are left in the thriller to recommend it to patient viewers and fans of the actors.
If nothing else, Colin Campbell’s deceptively dark comedy/thriller, “Guido,” gives us a great excuse to do “The Time Warp,” again. Check out this motley crew of actors: Gary Busey, Armond Assante, Billy Zane, Ron Jeremy (credited as Ron Jeremy Hyatt), Lupe Ontiveros and journeyman hard guys Dwayne Adway and Jack Conley (named Detective Malakas, for the amusement of those fluent in Greek). For spice, the cast also includes porn star Sunny Lane and glamour models Victoria Bond, Shelby Stingley and Heather Smith. Writer/protagonist Alki David, once voted “sexiest man alive” by a Greek gossip rag, plays an Iraqi Kurd refugee in the employ of a New Jersey mobster, played by Busey. He turned to killing after watching Saddam Hussen’s soldiers massacre Kurds with guns and poison gas. Once Guido’s dispatched with a gang of misfits, including a guy he was hired to protect, Busey orders Guido to drive the corpse cross-country, to Beverly Hills. The vehicle has a GPS system, so it’s easily traceable for several vicious Albanian white-slavers, a mob assassin (Zane) and an FBI agent (Assante). Moreover, his terminally ill landlady (Ontiveros) has blackmailed him into taking her along with him in his limousine to L.A. and, then, to her home town in Mexico to die. Now, I know what you’re thinking: train wreck, right? Not really. “Guido” is the rare straight-to-DVD action picture that works either because everyone’s in on the gag and the comedy and crime are brilliantly balanced or there is no gag and everyone involved somehow manages to stumble their way in the right direction for 90 minutes. In addition to offering plenty of action and funny dialogue, “Guido” succeeds as a road movie and buddy film, with Guido and his landlady as the buddies.
At 45, David may be a bit too long in the tooth to emerge as bona-fide action hero, even in the DVD-original arena. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, to a Greek trading and shipping family, he worked in several interesting professions before turning to film in 1997 with something called “Farticus.” Laugh as much as you want – I did – but the micro-budgeted cast included Nick Cassavetes, Tony Burton, Richard Moll and Abe Vigoda, as Zeus. His most noteworthy acting credit has come in “The Bodyguard,” alongside Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows. OK, neither David nor “Guido” is perfect or close to it, but the movie is several hundred times more entertaining than it has any right to be. (BTW: Ontiveros died last July. As usual, she would have had no reason to be embarrassed by her performance here.)
I can’t recall seeing “Cohen and Tate” upon its release in 1988 or in its VHS incarnation. That’s probably because Roy Scheider (“Jaws”) and Adam Baldwin (“My Bodyguard”) were just emerging from career doldrums and the marketing campaign was practically non-existent. In fact, Scheider had just turned in a terrific performance in John Frankenheimer’s vastly underrated and largely unseen “52 Pick-Up” and Baldwin had impressed everyone with his interpretation of Animal Mother, in “Full Metal Jacket.” No one else of any consequence was in the directorial debut of writer Eric Red (“The Hitcher,” “Near Dark”). “Cohen and Tate” is a white-knuckle thriller about a pair of mob assassins, who have been hired to kill a man and woman in the protective custody of federal marshals and bring their son to Houston, to be debriefed about things he witnessed in a major crime. We’re led to believe that the kid (Harley Cross) will then be bumped off, as well. When one of the adults survives the attack, it puts added pressure on C&T to get Travis to their destination. Scheider’s character is built from the mold of a Japanese samurai – loyal, focused and deadly – while Baldwin’s hitman could very well be the person Animal Mother turned out to be after Vietnam. Harley is straight out of O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Even at 10, the boy is smart enough to realize that the only way to prevent getting killed is to pit the assassins against each other, while taking every opportunity to make their trip miserable. And, of course, his strategy works. Even after 25 years, “Cohen and Tate” is an extremely effective thriller, with very little wasted movements and plenty of claustrophobia-inducing scenes shot at night in the moving car. It’s violent, but, by today’s standards, not excessively so. In fact, the deleted scenes reveal the potential for a movie that could easily warrant a R-rating even in 2013. There’s also a making-of featurette included in the Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka
The Host: Blu-ray
What the “Twilight” franchise did for vampires and werewolves, “The Host” was expected to do for sci-fi and alien-invasion flicks. That’s because Stephenie Meyer wrote the books upon which all of these movies were adapted and the target audience of teenage fans of romantic genre fare is the same. That “The Host” didn’t measure up to the box-office success of any of the “Twilight” installments says more about the complexities of sci-fi stories than the ability of Kiwi writer/director Andrew Niccol (“In Time,” “Gattaca”) to mount an appealing adaptation of Meyer’s work. You’d think that locating the humanity in an alien would require of viewers the same degree of compassion as finding it in a teenage vampire or werewolf. In horror films, however romantic they might be, survival is the only thing that matters at the end of the day. In sci-fi, there could be dozens of reasons for the sudden appearance of look-alike aliens on Earth and what they might resemble when their metamorphosis is finished. If nothing else, vampire lineages can be traced to places where one can journey by commercial airliner, not flying saucers.
In “Host,” Saoirse Ronan plays Melanie, the rare Earthling who’s been able to retain, however subconsciously, of her former self after her body is inhabited by an alien, Wanderer. After escaping the clutches of her captors, Melanie/Wanderer is drawn to a mountain in the vicinity of Monument Valley, the interior of which is inhabited by human survivors, including her brother, Jamie (Chandler Canterbury), and Louisiana boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons). Most of the humans mistrust the newcomer, but their leader, Jeb (William Hurt) senses that her intentions are pure and argues to spare her life. In dogged pursuit of Melanie/Wanderer is the alien Seeker (Diane Kruger), who gets to zip around the desert in cool, streamlined cars and helicopters. Most of the well-choreographed action takes place when the humans drive into town to steal supplies and are chased into the scenic wilds of New Mexico. The less familiar viewers are with sci-fi tropes and conventions, the more appealing “Host” will be. Otherwise, its primary appeal is to Meyer’s fans. The good-looking Blu-ray includes commentary with Meyer, Niccol and producer Nick Wechsler; deleted scenes; “Seeker” PSA; and making-of EPK. – Gary Dretzka
Would You Rather: Blu-ray
Every now and then, a horror/slasher flick rolls into town, in which a group of men and women are invited to sit around a large table and partake in a deadly parlor game. While they all start out with the promise of juicy secrets being revealed and attractive people being humiliated, their real purpose is to dramatize the morbid death dreams of the filmmaker. The marketing blurbs for David Guy Levy and Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s “Would You Rather” promise quite a few more shocks than they actually deliver. A group of cash-starved individuals is invited to attend an event during which they’ll be asked to make a series of choices that, when accomplished, will be rewarded with a large sum of money. What the rich sadist, Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), fails to mention is that there will only be one winner and no other survivors. To ensure that the participants won’t flake out during the competition, Lambrick has imported an assassin from some foreign police agency to shoot any potential defectors. While grisly, only one of the tortuous challenges borders on the unwatchable and it’s telegraphed on the DVD jacket. Among the players are Brittany Snow, Sasha Grey, John Heard, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Eddie Steeples and Charlie Hofheimer. And, no, Grey’s presence doesn’t mean that anyone takes off their clothes in the movie. – Gary Dretzka
The Vixens of Kung Fu/Oriental Blue
Punk Vacation: Blu-ray
Sex Stories 3: Sexual Freedom
As recently as last week, in a Forbes article, industry observers have voiced concern over the future of DVD and Blu-ray sales in a market being increasing splintered by VOD, streaming and digital downloads. I’d argue, however, that things have never been rosier for collectors of vintage, foreign and niche-market titles. Working in the favor of disc sales and rentals, versus other delivery systems, are bonus features that add greatly to the enjoyment of movies that otherwise would have disappeared in the mists of time. Last year, Vinegar Syndrome added its name to the growing list of companies – Grindhouse, Synapse, Impulse, Troma, Severin, MVD, Image, Artsploitation, MPI, Uncork’d, Icarus – that believe exploitation, erotica and other genre films deserve the same kind of respect as those typically sent out by Criterion Collection, Facets, Milestone and Shout! Factory. Add to these companies such purveyors of arthouse and indie fare as IFC, Sony Classics, Entertainment One and Virgil and serious admirers of non-mainstream entertainment need never complain about having nothing to watch.
The latest double-feature from Vinegar Syndrome’s racy “Drive-In Collection” includes a pair of pictures from the dawn of the post-“Deep Throat” porn revolution. I doubt very much that “The Vixens of Kung Fu” and “Oriental Blue” fit into the category generally reserved for drive-in flicks. If nothing else, the hard-core sex would have prohibited them from being shown in view of a highway or residential areas. Nonetheless, the 1975 releases are exactly the kind of movies that were shown in Times Square mini-theaters and urban grindhouses before VHS cassettes changed the way XXX films were distributed. “Vixens” served as a three-fer, as it exploited cheesy martial-arts entertainment, woman-entitlement tracts and hard-core sex. After being gang-raped by hillbilly thugs, a young prostitute finds refuge among a “secret sect of beautiful female kung-fu masters, who teach her about the erotic side of martial arts.” Unlike movies starring Bruce Lee, the training sessions and fights tended to inspire unbridled sex, which, I suppose, is a good thing. “Oriental Blue” could easily have been shot on the same weekend, as it stars many of the same actors and a producer. Here, Madam Blue runs an underground white-slave-trade operation in an apartment hidden beneath a Chinese restaurant in Times Square. Before turning the women out, their kidnappers subject them to “the most unspeakable acts of pleasure.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but these were exactly the kind of scum Travis Bickle would target a year later in “Taxi Driver.” Exterior shots in both films traced some of the same mean streets. If the “Oriental Blue” plot is incomprehensible, the sex remains pretty hot. Both titles were scanned in 2K and sourced from the original 35mm camera negative or, in the case of “OB,” the 35mm answer print. The transfers aren’t perfect but definitely steps up from VHS. Hard-core buffs will recognize such future stars as Jamie Gillis, Bree Anthony, C.J. Laing and Bobby Astyr, as well as several actors, including Peonies Jong, whose careers would be far more short-lived.
Released somewhere in the United States in 1990, “Punk Vacation” is the kind of exploitation flick that would have been booked to open a triple-feature at the local drive-in, if any were left by then. There isn’t much, if any nudity in the one-and-gone movie for the director, screenwriters and most of the actors … and, yes, I use those terms advisedly here. In a plot at least as old as “The Wild One,” a group of “punks” attempts to terrorize a rural California town after one of them loses 40 cents to a vending machine. Rather than cough up the coins or give the young man a cold bottle of pop, the owner of the truck stop decides to threaten the paint-by-number punks with a shotgun. At a time when international communism was disappearing from the map, the redneck community decides that the invaders were threats to their freedom. As if to prove their point, the punks return to kill the old man and rape his daughters. The girl’s sister and her cop boyfriend vow revenge, along with the local militia. None of this is remotely credible, of course. The amazing thing is that the rookie filmmakers were able to recruit Second City alumna Sandra Bogan and Andy Warhol veteran Louis Waldon. The bonus material includes a commentary track, interviews and a bonus film, “Nomad Riders.”
Breaking Glass Pictures has also proved its importance as a distributor of cutting-edge straight-and-gay erotica, horror, arthouse and foreign pictures. The popular French television trilogy “Sex Stories,” directed by feminist porn star Ovidie, concludes its run with “Sexual Freedom.” The first two entries explored issues relating to middle-class singles and married couples, looking for something to jump-start their relationships. The actors were extremely attractive and expensively dressed, as well as sexually curious. If the solutions were as familiar as last month’s Cosmopolitan magazine, the acting and technical credits were several notches higher than the average made-for-cable sex flick in the U.S. “Sex Stories 3” is a departure in that the story is bookended by the personal dilemma of a director of sleazy reality-TV shows, a la HBO’s “Real Sex.” Her boyfriend has come to the end of his rope with her pathetic portrayals of desperate lovers and encourages her to find a different way to express herself. After defending her films to him, Léonie-Marie (Ovidie) takes off on an assignment to document the lives of a group of post-hippie libertines, living on a farm outside Paris. The residents all have partners, but the alliances don’t preclude frequent sexual encounters with everyone else in the commune. Somehow, the arrangement disturbs the director’s sense of romantic equilibrium and she finds herself longing for her monogamous home life, if her lover hasn’t already flown the coop. As usual, the sex is graphically documented and artfully photographed. The actors are attractive, as well, but only to the extent that one can handle knowing that sheets in the dormitory-style bedrooms are changed only once a week, if then, and the potential for the transfer of cooties is pretty high. The DVD adds “Eye of Liza,” a 90-minute behind-the-scenes documentary featuring star Liza Del Sierra. – Gary Dretzka
The Life of Oharu: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
A few months before he died, Roger Ebert revisited Kenji Mizoguchi 1952 masterpiece “The Life of Oharu,” calling it “the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman.” It is one of three Mizoguchi titles – alongside “Ugetsu” and “Shasho the Bailiff” – on his list of more than 300 “great movies.” It is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion Collection in a new high-definition restoration that should leave no doubt at why it was included on Ebert’s list. Not only is “Oharu” an exquisitely made period drama, but the message it delivers is as meaningful today as it was in the post-WWII recovery period and in all of the 400 years since the events it describes. Mizoguchi has enjoyed the reputation of being a director acutely attuned to the plight of women in Japan’s historically patriarchal societies. The acclaimed Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka (“The Ballad of Narayama”), a fixture in Mizoguchi’s pictures, plays a woman who in her lifetime experienced both the pleasures associated with being an imperial lady-in-waiting and the disgrace of being an over-the-hill streetwalker. Through no fault of her own, Oharu suffered some of the worst possible luck in dealing with the men in her life, both good and bad. Her first mistake came as a promising young woman, who, while serving the imperial court of Kyoto, decided to fall in love with a page (Toshiro Mifune) well below her station. After being caught in flagrante delicto, the man was beheaded and Oharu and her parents were banished from the city. Outraged and running out of money, her father sells her into prostitution. Fate intervenes when a representative of the Madsudaira shogunate picks her out from dozens of other women as the perfect candidate to bear his master’s child and heir. Once accomplished, Oharu is unceremoniously shipped back to her parents and admonished against attempting to make contact with her child. Once again, Daddy Dearest attempts to profit from her misery by selling her for work as a courtesan and, then, in the service of a woman who is in desperate need of a permanent hair stylist. Sadly, her reputation catches up to her everywhere she lands.
Even when Oharu is able to leave the brothels behind and marry a simple designer of fans, fate intervenes. The cycle continues until she’s nearly 50 and only of interest to the most desperate of johns. Knowing that her misery could have ended before it began, if it weren’t for laws that were antiquated even in the 17th Century, only makes the heartbreak that much more intense when Oharu is dealt a hand that looks like a sure winner, but turns out to be anything but that. If none of this sounds particularly entertaining, you should know that Mizoguchi keeps us guessing throughout the film’s 133-minute length and Tanaka’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. The images are composed with great artistry and attention to specific period detail. Among the bonus features are an introductory commentary by scholar Dudley Andrew; the illustrated audio essay, “Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde”; a recently reconstructed film about Kinuyo Tanaka’s post-war journey to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland as a cultural representative for Japan; and a booklet with an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez. One of the interesting things to be learned in the interview sessions is the process of getting a movie cleared by American censors during the Occupation. “Oharu” cleared the first hurdle because it fit the U.S. agenda of advancing women’s rights in post-imperial Japan. It would have trouble clearing the second one for other reasons, but, by that time, the Americans were more interested in getting out of Dodge than being movie critics. – Gary Dretzka
The rise of neo-Nazi movements in Europe and some parts of the United States has been widely chronicled and chillingly portrayed in the media. The visibility of such groups is greatest when western economies are at their weakest and corporations begin to turn to the hiring of immigrants to save expenses or moving their entire operations abroad. During the post-WWII German and British recoveries, there were plenty of well-paying jobs available to native-born citizens and immigrants, alike. Although prejudices against southern Europeans were no secret, even the most ardent racists tended to keep their opinions to themselves. When jobs started to become scarce again, however, the displaced worked needed someone to blame and it fell to an even more recent group of economic refugees, from the Mideast, Africa and the Caribbean. In the United States, of course, undocumented workers from Mexico and Central American continue to be ostracized for taking jobs too menial for Americans to accept. Meanwhile, no one seems to mind the influx of medical professionals from Pakistan and India, for example, and the many Asians with money who arrive with no apparent obstructions. “Combat Girls” describes the appeal of neo-Nazism to a group of Germans, ranging in age from 14 to 40-something. David Wnendt’s harrowing drama is immediately remindful of such skinhead-related titles as “American History X,” “Made in Britain,” “This Is England,” “The Believer,” “Steel Toes” and “Romper Stomper.” Because it’s set in Germany and populated with male characters who look as if they just stepped out of a recruiting poster for the Waffen- SS, the violence and venom seems that much more exaggerated.
At the heart of the story are 20-year-old Marisa, a hardcore neo-Nazi believer, who walks the walk, talks the talk and has the tattoos to show for it, and 14-year-old Svenja, who’s looking for love in all the wrong places. After an ugly attack on tourists in a train, Marisa’s boyfriend is sent to prison for a remedial course in fascist doctrine. Not to be undone, she commits a hate crime of her own against two Afghani boys who dare share the same beach as a drunken bunch of Aryan youth. During the rest of the movie, Marisa is required to test her allegiance to the wolfpack against the faint hint of a conscience that suddenly comes to the surface of her being. Knowing the brutish nature of romantic entanglements among neo-Nazis, Marissa attempts to take Svenja under her wing to prevent permanent damage being done to her. The return of her boyfriend, newly determined to incite a race war, puts the kettle on the front burner for everyone involved. Clearly, “Combat Girls” isn’t for the faint of heart. Indeed, most of the verbal and physical violence is intentionally designed to raise the hackles of audience members. Beyond that, however, Wnendt presents us with several intriguing questions about the roots of hatred and the possibility for redemption in even the most poisoned of young minds. Alina Levshin is nothing short of brilliant as the conflicted Marissa, while Jella Haase is similarly compelling as the good-girl-gone-bad, Svenja. The set arrives with a 12-page collector’s booklet, reversible cover and interview with Levshin. – Gary Dretzka
The Gatekeepers: Blu-ray
Frontline: Never Forget to Lie
PBS: Defiant Requiem
PBS: After Newton: Guns in America
Among the candidates for the 2013 Best Documentary Oscar were two very different films about Israel and the Palestinian resistance. “5 Broken Cameras” told the heart-wrenching story of a non-violent Palestinian farmer and amateur photographer, who, in chronicling the treatment of his neighbors by Israeli soldiers and illegal settlers, became a target for their bullets. The other title, “The Gatekeepers,” describes how Israel’s ongoing war against “terrorists” – a widely accepted euphemism for armed Palestinian insurgents – has devolved into a conflict in which the country’s security agency, Shin Bet, can barely keep track of the threats to peace. What’s remarkable about Dror Moreh’s documentary is that, for the first time, it includes on-camera recollections and opinions of six former leaders of Shin Bet, perhaps the most influential and highly regarded agency in Israel. Collectively, they carry within their brains nearly 50 years’ worth of secrets and intelligence. As successful as the agency has been since the country’s 1967 defeat of the Arab invasion, its leaders have come to the conclusion that Israel currently is at its most precarious point in its history. Not only is the agency required to deal with increasingly more desperate Islamic insurgents, but also ramifications of its own government’s unwillingness to block the spread of settlements and creation of a wall to maintain the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. In a Q&A included in the DVD/Blu-ray, Moreh says, “Both sides have missed every opportunity to miss an opportunity. … Now, extremists on both sides are in control.”
Apropos of revelations of NSA spying operations, exposed by Edward Snowden, “The Gatekeepers” demonstrates how insidious such programs can become. Aerial maps of the occupied territories, created after the 1967 war, allowed Shin Bet to attach faces and names on photographs of all of the houses, adding links to other persons of interest in the neighborhood and PLO. This occurred during the days before Americans and Israelis began “targeted assassinations” and drone attacks against terrorists. President Obama and other politicians may argue that the spying apparatus wouldn’t be used against Americans of all political and cultural backgrounds, but, once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult to keep police agencies from rubbing it. If “The Gatekeepers” isn’t at all reluctant to push a pro-peace agenda, it balances the benefits of direct action and intelligence-gathering with the potential for abuse. One of the most compelling segments of the documentary involves the aftermath of a bus hijacking in Lebanon, when one of the Shin Bet leaders was held accountable for the beating deaths of two surviving terrorists by soldiers. Even as the backlash to the seemingly authorized murders caused a huge scandal in Israel, the greater crime was deemed to be allowing a reporter access to event. As the Shin Bet official relates his role in the incident and his reaction to being scapegoated for it – likely, for the first time publically – the weight of the job on his former job was palpable.
Certain questions always precede the airing of new documentaries by and/or about Holocaust survivors. “How can the filmmaker bear to relive the pain of such a horrific event?” “Is it still possible to add a fresh perspective on the Holocaust, which may be one of the most closely analyzed tragedies in modern history?” “Is there a point where viewers can overdose from empathy and the stories begin to lose their ability to impress us?” Marian Marzynski admits to asking himself similar questions to these before embarking on his “Frontline” presentation, “Never Forget to Lie,” in which he revisits the Warsaw Ghetto he escaped as a child. Marzynski’s mother, who also survived the war, helped him find refuge in the Christian neighborhoods, among friends, priests, nuns and other good Samaritans. At a Catholic orphanage outside the city, he was able to blend in among the other children so well that he began to enjoy serving as an altar boy. It was the perfect disguise, even though he would harbor youthful dreams of becoming a priest. Marzynski was able to find other survivors among friends and relatives and relive their stories. One woman visits the home in which she was born and her parents were identified by the Nazis. Another man recalls being passed over by the Germans because his father had a premonition of disaster and decided against circumcising the boy. The end of the war didn’t mean that Marzynski could avoid bigotry, however. In the 1960s, after becoming a television personality of some repute, the country’s Communist Party decided that he wasn’t sufficiently Polish to represent his network. He would find work in Denmark and the United States, frequently returning to stories of the Holocaust and European Jewry.
One of the lessons to be learned from “Defiant Requiem” is the power of art to transcend horror and serve as an instrument of resistance against demagoguery. Doug Schultz’s amazing documentary recalls how Rafael Schachter, a passionate Czech opera-choral conductor, convinced Nazi officials at the Terezin concentration camp to allow him to perform Verdi’s Requiem for their pleasure. To accomplish this, Schachter was required to recruit 150 prisoners and conduct rehearsals, even after they had perform a full day’s worth of forced labor. Up against a tight deadline and fearing shipments of Jews to other death camps would resume before the first concert, Schachter push his musicians and chorus mercilessly. In doing so, he was able to take his artists out of their day-to-day existence and give them hope for something much greater. Even so, the day after their first performance, he would lose half of his orchestra and chorus to Auschwitz. Somehow, Schachter was able to stage 15 more performances, including one on June 23, 1944, in front of high-ranking SS officers from Berlin and the International Red Cross. Terezin prisoners were ordered to spruce up the camp and make it look as if it were a model German city for Jews. A Jewish actor would be ordered to make a propaganda film based on what was presented to the outsiders. Schachter had specifically chosen to perform the Requiem in Latin to get across the work’s promise of redemption for the innocent and damnation for the oppressors. The Nazi officers probably had dozed through their Latin lessons, because they didn’t catch on to the music’s message. Sadly, the Red Cross bought the Nazis’ ruse, as well. Conductor Murry Sidlin re-created the rehearsals and performance in the same spaces in which they occurred 60 years earlier. Instead of Nazis, however, this audience would include some of the very few survivors of both Terezin and Auschwitz.
As understood by several generations of Supreme Court justices, the Constitutional is blind to any legal difference between the muskets and flintlock pistols carried by Revolutionary War militias and the assault rifles and Uzis wielded today by urban street gangs and white supremacists. I know a lot of liberal Democrats and, despite accusations to the contrary, have never heard any of them argue against the ownership of firearms by hunters, skeet shooters or antique collectors. The same applies to archers, who could kill a man from a distance and not leave an echo from the attack. Maybe, that’s because I’m from Wisconsin, where gun ownership is taken for granted and the vast majority of owners would have no need for an automatic or semi-automatic weapon. And, yet, the argument over gun ethics and the necessity for controls continues. So far, the rhetorical war is being won by those against any restrictions. Gun manufacturers have the money it takes for their lobbyists to buy legislators, while advocates only can point to the use of guns by spree killers and gang-bangers as a sound reason to ban anything more than a single-shot rifle or shotgun. PBS appears to have committed itself to providing a forum for debate over questions surrounding gun violence and ownership. In “After Newton: Guns in America,” arguments on both sides of the issue are forwarded with the perspective provided by American history. It’s interesting that the current debate has its roots directly in the legal case presented by the Black Panther Party, which, in the late 1960s, argued that its members’ right to own and carry weapons was protected by the Second Amendment. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan and the California legislature interpreted the amendment differently and passed laws that would have no chance of clearing the U.S. House and Senate in 2013. The NRA was in no hurry to back the Panthers’ right to bear arms. That would come a few years later when white gun owners began to decry federal raids on their property. Now, it’s become impossible to debate the issue without being shouted down by advocates of one side or the other, and to be ignored by politicians whose wallets dictate how they’ll vote. “After Newton: Guns in America” is as up to date as the 3D- and plastic-gun controversy and as balanced as anything we’re likely to see any time soon. – Gary Dretzka
How the West Was Won: The Complete First Season
Orphan Black: Season One: Blu-ray
Portlandia: Season Three
Nature: Big Cats
In Hollywood, it’s a crime to waste a good title. The best, including “How the West Was Won,” serve several masters in their lifetime. The most famous deployment of “How the West Was Won” is still the Cinerama epic, which featured an A-list cast and the direction of such Westerns specialists as John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. It would be followed by a made-for-TV movie, a series and several such non-related variations as “How the West Was Lost” and “How the West Was Fun,” with the Olsen twins. The 1962 blockbuster was both the first non-documentary Cinerama film to be made and the last of the super-widescreen format’s projects to carry the distinctive vertical lines, designating where the middle camera’s frame runs out and those of the other two begin. It worked best when demonstrating the thrills of roller-coasters and sailing ships and exhibiting such nature wonders as Niagara Falls and Monument Valley. Fifteen years later, at the height of television’s mini-series mania, the title was resurrected for the ABC mini-series “How the West Was Won,” starring James Arness, Eva Marie Saint and Bruce Boxleitner, and subsequent series. Narrower in geographic scope than the original movie, the television project chronicles the trials, travails and tragedies of the Macahan family as they make their way west, from Virginia to Oregon, in the 1860s. Each episode also featured interlocking stories about Native Americans, mountain men, bounty hunters, desperadoes and refugees from the Civil War. Although the writers couldn’t avoid all Western clichés and stereotypes, there was a conscious effort to frame the Indian wars/genocide in the proper historical context and add storylines that tackled racism, religious freedom and intolerance, and the limits of pacifism. (In this regard, the NRA would have put its stamp of approval of the series.) Arness’ interpretation of Zebulon Macahan is about as different from his Matt Dillon as would be possible and still be in the same American west. The western locations – Coronado and Deschutes National Forests, Old Tucson, Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch – are splendid. The set includes the made-for-TV movie, “The Macahans,” which introduced the new characters and served as the pilot.
Even without the usual fanfare that attends a BBC America series, the Canadian sci-fi export “Orphan Black” scored a direct hit for the cable network on March 30, when it debuted as part of its Supernatural Saturday bloc. It did so by borrowing a familiar theme in mysteries and upgrading the story with high-tech twists and an attractive young cast. Tatiana Maslany stars as street hustler Sarah Manning, who witnesses a suicide-by-subway and steals the purse and clothes of the victim. As it turns out, the woman looked exactly like Manning before her body made contact with the train. Things get complicated when Manning discovers that she’s a dead-ringer for several other women in the vicinity and they all are being chased by someone who wants them dead. The fact that all of the women appear to have been born in 1984 only confuses things that much more for Manning. If you’ve already guessed that they’re all clones, born through in vitro fertilization, you can pick up your prize in the lobby. Among the women are a cop, soccer mom, a graduate student in biology and a European assassin. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Manning has a daughter, who’s being raised by her mother, and a stoner half-brother who will need her help if they’re going to survive to see Season Two. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, character profiles and a set tour.
The city of Portland has seen a lot of change since its incorporation in 1851 by survivors of the trek west along the Oregon Trail and the businessmen, who, with the help of the Oregon Donation Land Act, displaced the entire native population from its homes and hunting grounds. It’s always been a swell place to live, especially for lumberjacks, ducks and horticulturists, so the population has rarely stopped rising. For the last 50 years, Portland has developed a reputation as being a hospitable destination for hippies and assorted other flower children, outdoors enthusiasts, environmental extremists, bongo thumpers, militant vegans, hipsters, cyclists and green snobs. All relish the same freedoms and positive energy that once attracted the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and other nations to the shores of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The new tribes have become so aggressive in their pursuit of personal freedom, however, it borders on the absurd. In the IFC sketch comedy, “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein appear to be having way too much fun tweaking the city’s many archetypal residents and their passions. In Season Three, Fred and Carrie not only find fresh meat to skewer, but they also extend gags that began in previous seasons. Kyle MacLachlan, who returns as the city’s increasingly conflicted mayor, is joined by guest stars Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Aimee Man, Jason Sudeikis, Martina Navratilova, Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne and musicians I couldn’t possibly have recognized. The Blu-ray adds a 25-minute “Portland Tours,” conducted by Kumail Najiani, and a pair of deleted scenes. One needn’t have ever visited Portland to enjoy “Portlandia” immensely, but it’s more entertaining if you have.
“Big Cats,” the latest collection of “Nature” episodes, should prove to be a real crowd pleaser, as it explores the “hidden lives” of three of the most dangerous, beautiful and endangered predators on the planet: lions, leopards and tigers. The episodes include “Elsa’s Legacy: The ‘Born Free’ Story,” which updates us on the legacy of George and Joy Adamson’s pride; “Revealing the Leopard,” about the beast described as “the ultimate cat”; “Siberian Tiger Quest,” documenting one man’s dream of finding and filming a Siberian tiger living wild and free in the forest; and “The White Lions,” which describes the blessings and curse of growing up white on the savannas of South Africa. “Big Cats” cries out to be viewed in Blu-ray, but, as one of the selections is only available in DVD, so, too, is this compilation. – Gary Dretzka
Marvel Knights: Wolverine Origins: Blu-ray
The Legend of Korra: Book One: Air: Blu-ray
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Enter Shredder
Ben 10 Omniverse: Heroes Rise 2
With the new live-action “Wolverine” epic set to launch later this month, fans of the “X-Men” character can relive his early days in the motion comic, “Wolverine: Origins.” Because of the “Marvel Knights” series’ comic-book beginnings, many readers have come to enjoy the motion-comic adaptations more than the cartoons and studio products, which frequently dull the character’s darker edges and panel-by-panel pace of graphic storytelling. “Wolverine: Origins” was written by Eisner Award-winner Paul Jenkins, from a story by Joe Quesada, Paul Jenkins and Bill Jemas, with artwork by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove. The Blu-ray tale follows Wolverine from his Canadian-wilderness roots, as James Howlett (a.k.a., Logan), through his years trying to figure out what to do with his mutant powers, and on to Japan and his alliance with Captain America, Team X and X-Men. The disc adds a retrospective with the film’s creative team.
From Nickelodeon, “The Legend of Korra” is the successor series to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which ran on the network from 2005 to 2008. “Book One: Air” follows Korra, the reincarnated successor of Avatar Ang from the original series, which ended 70 years earlier in comic-book time. The 17-year-old protagonist is from the Southern Water Tribe, but her decision to finally master air-bending serves to anchor the new series in the metropolis of Republic City. As it turns out, an anti-bending revolt by the Chi-blockers is about to break out in her new home. Led by the masked Amon, the Equalists want to even the playing field against the “impurity” of bending.
While short of a full-season collection, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Enter Shredder” extends the material from the 2012 CGI iteration already collected in “Rise of the Turtles.” Here, it’s by seven more episodes from the Nickelodeon series. “Enter Shredder” makes the gang look far more contemporary than in previous “TMNT” incarnations, while the story looks as far back as the original 1987 series. It focuses more on continuing storylines than the villain-of-the-week approach favored earlier. The bonus material is limited to a storyboard comparison for the “New Girl in Town” episode and two-part digital comic book.
Cartoon Network’s “Ben 10 Omniverse: Heroes Rise 2” includes 10 new episodes from the series’ first season on two discs, along with the “Alien Reveals” and “Alien Database.” In addition to a new Omnitrix, with a new set of aliens, Ben must contend with another partner – Gwen and Kevin are off to college — and an underground world filled with intergalactic life. He’s also being targeted by an intergalactic bounty hunter. – Gary Dretzka
Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams
Mindless Behavior: All Around the World: Blu-Ray
One day, I found myself in the Las Vegas airport surrounded by dozens, maybe hundreds of young to middle-age women, all wearing souvenir T-shirts from the previous weekend’s Stevie Nicks concert and/or one of her trademark capes, frilly shawls, top hats, moon jewelry and other fantasy attire. Quite a few of them had their hair done in the fashion of their favorite singer, but few could pull off the kind of impeccably fresh, aggressively curly and seriously blond look that must cost her a fortune in maintenance. Because of her battles with cocaine abuse, tranqs and weight gain, in combination with a vague love life, her fans cling to her in the same way as Judy Garland obsessives clung to that iconic performer. I like Nicks, too, but a little bit goes a long way in the fully authorized rockumentary, “In Your Dreams.” Indeed, she co-directed the semi-autobiographical film with former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, who, in 2010, co-produced the “In Your Dreams” album with Glen Ballard. Also important to the creation of the album were Lindsey Buckingham, Mike Campbell (T.P. and the Heartbreakers), Mick Fleetwood and Waddy Wachtel. Also appearing are Reese Witherspoon and various relatives and friends playing “vampires” in a video. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nicks identifies closely with the “Twilight” saga.) Lest one think that Nicks’ fan base is limited to women, the documentary disavows us of that notion with footage of the singer providing support and music to wounded veterans of both genders at Walter Reed Hospital and in Europe. The best reason for casual fans to catch “In Your Dreams” is to observe the process of developing songs from fragments of ideas and making a high-profile album when time and money aren’t much of an impediment. Diehard fans, of course, won’t need a good reason to watch the movie. Her face, voice and fingerprints are all over it. As far as I can tell, it’s currently only available on VOD and streaming services.
In 2013, of course, pop stars need little more than a hit single to command a rockumentary of their own. The pre-fabricated R&B/hip-hop boy band ”Mindless Behavior” has joined Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Britney Spears as a teeny-bopper attraction with a concert film of its own. A bunch of important people in the hip-hop industry invested lots of time and effort to create an act that can fill arenas and boost music sales. Their story is as crucial to the band’s success as that of Mindless Behavior. If they last half as long as Nicks, Mindless Behavior will be fortunate, indeed. The Blu-ray adds commentary and bonus footage. – Gary Dretzka