Those fans of the movie “Battleship” born after Nintendo and Sega were introduced to American consumers might find it difficult to believe that one of Hollywood’s most expensive movies was inspired by one of the least costly pastimes of all. Back in the day, all it took to play the Battleship guessing game was a pencil; illegally mimeographed sheets of papers replicating the grids on the Milton Bradley board; and a folded-over checker board to prevent cheating. Players used their pencil to indicate where various sized warships are located and guess the location of their opponent’s fleet, using a bingo-like alphanumeric system. It provided simple, time-consuming and free fun on a rainy day. Today, of course, the game is a staple of computer gaming and anything but free. Even without a certifiably marketable star at the helm of Universal’s “Battleship” – unless Liam Neeson now qualifies as one –the sci-fi military epic cost at least $209 million to make and probably another $50 million to market. Despite the fact that it brought in $303 million worldwide, it barely topped $65 million domestically. That didn’t cut it for exhibitors who were anticipating the summer’s first big popcorn movie. “Blockbuster” should do just fine in DVD and Blu-ray, but the damage done to Universal’s summer flagship might not be repairable. Considering that star-to-be Taylor Kitsch also headlined Disney’s “John Carter” — one of the biggest financial bombs of all time – the harm inflicted on the young man’s career may prove to be even worse.
Adding seemingly invincible alien warships to what essentially was a WWII-era activity doesn’t fundamentally alter the way the game is played: sunken vessels are exchanged until one of the competitors takes a strategic advantage and slaughters the opponent. In Hollywood, the good guys always win, but not without a struggle. Here, screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber were required to invent a fatal chink in the alien opponent’s armor – a lack of resistance to bacteria, sensitivity to light, cooties, whatever – that allowed director Peter Berg to pull our fat out of the fire in the final reel. Indeed, the most surprising and satisfying scene in “Battleship” comes precisely in the nick of time and by comparison to all of the CGI firepower, it’s practically analog. There’s also a mandatory romantic subplot that mostly serves to draw attention to Brooklyn Decker’s curves and the predictable showdown between a rebellious young officer (Kitsch) and the hard-nosed admiral (Neeson), who, conveniently, is Decker’s father. It works, if only fitfully. The closer you are to 15, the better “Battleship” will look.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation, which sparkles and bellows at all the right times and takes full advantage of CGI technology. (Is it a coincidence that the inner workings of the alien battleship so closely resemble the start-up screen on an Android phone?) The bonus package adds Berg’s picture-in-picture video commentary; a Second Screen interactive experience; a pre-visualized version of an alternate ending; a “VIP tour” of the USS Missouri memorial; a short piece on adapting the board game for the screen; several making-of featurettes; and My Scenes Bookmarking. I can’t help but wonder, though, which genius selected CCR’s angry antiwar anthem, “Fortunate Son,” to play over the final credits? The only way it could have been less appropriate is if co-star Rhianna had been asked to sing it, instead of using the original John Fogerty version. – Gary Dretzka
Lonesome: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time since silent movies made as big a splash as they already have in 2012. First, “The Artist” surprised everyone by becoming a true crowd-pleaser, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. Then, two weeks ago, Dziga Vertov’s brilliantly inventive “Man With a Movie Camera,” from 1929, joined the list of movies honored by critics in Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the top-10 films ever made. The critics have always favored silent classics, but this one came straight out of left field. Why stop there, though? Just as “Man With a Movie Camera” chronicled a typical day in the life of Muscovites, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 “Berlin: Symphony of Great City” surveyed 24 hours of activity in the German capital between the wars. Both provide a captivating cinematic experience and are now readily available in DVD. Likewise, the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray edition of Paul Fejos’ 1928 “Lonesome” is full of fascinating images from New York City over the course of a single day of work in Manhattan and a night of play at Coney Island.
Mann Page and Edward T. Lowe Jr.’s story describes what it’s like for a young man and woman to feel alone in a metropolis overflowing with people just like them and bustling with all sorts of activity. That they live next-door to each other in a residence hotel, but have never met, has become one of the enduring ironies in romances set in Manhattan. Fejos’ fingerprints may not be the screenplay, but few filmmakers have captured the hustle-bustle of the city nearly as well as the Austrian-born filmmaker. From dawn to midnight, Fejos’ New York is a veritable beehive of activity and a cauldron for endless possibilities. That two characters so desperate for companionship would finally meet on a beach teeming with overheated people, on the 4th of July, borders on the miraculous. They go on to sample nearly every attraction Coney Island has to offer, dance up a storm and fall hopelessly in love. Fate steps in when an accident and human stampede separates them before they’re able to exchange last names and addresses. He attempts to rescue her, but a boneheaded NYPD officer intercedes. Another unexpected coincidence allows them to reunite as the picture nears the 69-minute mark. Curiously, the weakest parts of “Lonesome” come in the short segments that contain spoken dialogue, instead of explanatory panels. “The Jazz Singer” had been released only a few months earlier, so, as was observed in “The Artist,” studio executives were anxious to hop on the “talkie” bandwagon.
Also entertaining are two rarely seen films included in the Blu-ray package, “The Last Performance” (1927) and “Broadway” (1929). The former tells a Mamet-esque story about a famous entertainer, Erik the Great, who must resort to magic when an act of kindness toward a stranger threatens to deny him the love of his assistant and freedom. “Broadway” is a wonderfully melodramatic jazz-age gangster musical, partially staged on one of the most elaborate nightclub sets ever created. The music and dancing are a joy to watch, even when the story lags. The nearly lost movie has been cobbled together from pieces of found film and reconstructions of still-missing audio tracks. The history of the production numbers, as recalled by cinematographer Hal Mohr, also is fascinating. Fejos’ own life story borders on the epic. Not satisfied with mastering one demanding discipline, Fejos excelled as a theater and opera designer, medical researcher, explorer, anthropologist and documentary maker. The booklet, which contains essays by critic Phil Lopatae and historian Graham Petrie, as well as material from interviews with the artist, should be considered must-reading. – Gary Dretzka
The Lucky One: Blu-ray
Darling Companion: Blu-ray
I Heart Shakey
Even if the dog days of summer — as defined by the Farmer’s Almanac, anyway — no longer are with us, movies of interest to canine lovers continue to be released as if they’ve never ended.
Like Harlequin Romance novels and Lifetime Original movies, the films adapted from books written by Nicolas Sparks are constructed from a time-tested template. Achingly romantic, emotionally draining, archetypally cast and beautifully shot, such movies as “The Notebook,” “Dear John” and “The Lucky One” are shot with the greatest possible economy, usually in and around the Carolinas, and return a healthy profit for investors. The young-adult characters are almost freakishly attractive, while the older ones carry the wisdom of the ages in their back pockets and purses. The romantic interludes can be sexy, but only in a wholesome kind of way. Too often, the song selections tell us how to feel, even when no additional prompting is necessary. “The Lucky One” fits that mold with almost no room to spare for spontaneity. The only curve thrown at Sparks’ fans here, and it’s barely noticeable, is that the story’s location has been moved from North Carolina to Louisiana, probably to take advantage of a tax incentive.
Zac Efron plays a veteran of intense action in Iraq who credits the discovery of a photograph of a pretty blond for saving his life. He knows that it once belonged to an American soldier or Marine, but little beyond that. Once home, Logan manages to track down the likely whereabouts of the woman, who remains nameless. Curiously, he decides to hike from Colorado to Louisiana with his German shepherd. Once in the woman’s company, however, he freezes. Unable to articulate the reason for his crusade, Logan allows Beth (Taylor Schilling) to believe he’s simply answering a help-wanted ad for work at her kennel. If Beth is reluctant to hire a drifter, her mother (Blythe Danner) takes a shine to him and puts him on the payroll. Things would be fine, if it weren’t for the presence of Beth’s pinhead ex-husband, a cop whose neck is so red he treats the soft-spoken Logan as if he were a member of an Al Qaeda cell and attempts to provoke a fight with him. Jealous and afraid of losing the ability to control his son’s destiny – the boy plays the violin, instead of football, like his dad — the cop makes Beth and Logan’s life miserable. If the ending feels a bit too pat, it won’t bother Sparks’ many admirers. Director Scott Hick’s direction benefits mightily from Alar Kivilo’s splendid cinematography, which looks terrific on Blu-ray. The bonus package adds featurettes on the transformation of Efron from teen heartthrob to gung-ho Marine, capturing the sparks in Sparksian romances and “gauging the chemistry” between Efron and Schilling.
It would be easy to dismiss “Darling Companion” as just another movie in which the canine actor upstages the humans at every turn. Alas, the mixed-collie in Lawrence Kasdan’s first film in almost a decade isn’t on-screen long enough to do anything heroic or, even, particularly clever here. Freeway’s primary role here is to warm our hearts – as well as those of the key players – and take a powder for almost an hour while the adults work out their problems. His absence creates a void even such fine actors as Diana Keaton, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Moss, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, Sam Shepard and Ayelet Zurer can’t fill. Co-written with Kasdan’s wife, Meg, “Darling Companion” not only fails to take full advantage of its all-star cast, but the Utah mountain setting too often looks like a photographic backdrop. If the name, Freeway, doesn’t sound as if it belongs on the collar of a dog, it’s explained by an incident that happens early in the film. One day, after bidding a tearful farewell to one of her daughters and her grandchild at the airport, Keaton’s character, Beth, spots a wounded dog along the side of the highway. Beth and her other daughter, Grace (Moss), take it to a handsome young veterinarian, who, when he isn’t patching Freeway up, makes googly eyes at Grace. At first, Beth’s husband, Joseph (Kline), demands that Beth find a new owner for Freeway, which, of course, doesn’t happen. She’s already lost one daughter to marriage and, in another year, Grace will marry the veterinarian in a ceremony to be held at a lovely mountain lodge, leaving her an empty-nester.
Devastated by Freeway’s disappearance, Beth chastises Joseph for ignoring her demand that he always carry a dog whistle with him on their walks. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the Kasdans are about to use the loss of Freeway as a metaphor for the sorry state of Beth and Joseph’s marriage. Far less understandable is their decision to turn the next hour of the movie into a dull-as-dishwater search for the dog, with a half-dozen award-winning actors running through the mountains, fruitlessly shouting, “Freeway, Freeway” and blowing whistles. When they aren’t doing that, they’re falling down hillsides, battling kidney stones and blindly following the instructions of a Gypsy wedding planner (Zurer), whose tips are dubious, at best. It gets worse, but why spoil the disappointment? I would have preferred knowing, if only sporadically, what Freeway is doing while the family of the bride searches for him in vain. In an interview included in the bonus package, Kasdan said that he wanted to make a movie with cross-generational appeal, using actors recognizable to older and younger audiences, alike. Sadly, “Darling Companion” isn’t likely to leave anyone except dog obsessives and unconditional fans of the actors with any degree of satisfaction.
The Dove Family-Approved comedy, “I Heart Shakey,” addresses one of the most traumatic situations any family can face when relocating from one city to another. After single father J.T. decides to move from Toledo to Chicago, he makes the mistake of not reading the fine print in a rental agreement that prohibits tenants from owning pets. For his daughter, Chandler, and their mutt, Shakey, this blunder is tantamount to boarding a plane for a European vacation without first applying for a passport. Because their new home is a snooty Gold Coast hi-rise, the lease is iron-clad. What to do? What to do? Because dad (Steve Lemme) is kind of a middle-age doofus, Chandler (Rylie Behr) takes it upon herself to devise a plan that keeps the family intact, but doesn’t compromise J.T.’s job prospects. Old hands Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D’Angelo add a bit of sparkle to the proceedings, playing two of several oddball characters in the film. The easiest way to tell “I Heart Shakey” is fiction is the fact most renters would sign away the rights to their children before being separated from their cat or dog. No fine print would be small enough for a dog owner to miss the humans-only clause in a lease. Apart from that, “I Heart Shakey” should keep family audiences amused for most of its 90-minute length. Although originally released in 3D, it’s only available in DVD. — Gary Dretzka
The Heineken Kidnapping: Blu-ray
Considering that neither the Heineken brand nor Rutger Hauer is an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world, it’s odd that Maarten Treurniet’s genuinely exciting film depicting the 1983 abduction of the world’s wealthiest brewer couldn’t find any traction here. Certainly, all of the elements of a hit movie can be found somewhere in “The Heineken Kidnapping.” In exchange for Alfred Heineken’s safety a huge amount of ransom money was paid – some of which is still missing – to a gang of amateur kidnapers. What the perpetrators lacked in experience, though, they made up for with chutzpah and beginners’ luck. Although it isn’t clear if they would hold up their end of the bargain, Heineken and his chauffeur narrowly avoided freezing to death and most of the kidnapers managed to avoid justice, one way or another, for years. As usual, Hauer is excellent as the dour industrialist, for whom the ordeal inspired a dramatic change in his lifestyle, personality and relationship with a long-suffering wife. “The Heineken Kidnapping” is split into four equal parts: the planning of the crime, the victims’ 21-day ordeal, the police investigation and rescue, and extradition standoffs between France and Holland, and Paraguay and Holland, which went on for years. The re-creation of Heineken’s imprisonment – chained to the wall of a cramped cell in an abandoned warehouse – is extremely well done, as is the shocking near-miscarriage of justice in the courts.
In similarly plotted crime stories made in the U.S., filmmakers typically will reserve at least some small measure of sympathy for the criminals, whose misguided decisions can be attributed to societal, cultural or parental malfunctions. Treurniet doesn’t ignore Heineken’s cold personality and philandering – neither of which had anything to do with the crime – and, with one exception, the kidnapers are portrayed as young punks willing to test Holland’s lenient judicial system. The only wild card here is the gang’s ringleader, who had an ax to grind with Heineken. His father had earlier lost a suit against the brewery, his former employer, whose encouragement of excessive drinking not only made him an alcoholic, but also led to his emphysema from too much smoking while socializing. Even though Treurniet freely admits to taking certain liberties with the facts surrounding the case, it didn’t prevent three of the convicted kidnapers from suing him for misrepresenting them and opening them up to public disdain. Not surprisingly, they didn’t prevail. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette with interviews and a visit to a warehouse that virtually serves as a museum to the kidnapping. – Gary Dretzka
Looking back at our experiences in grade school, we can still see the faces of most our friends and teachers and recall certain key milestones in our educational development. Victims of bullying by fellow students or ridicule at the hands of a teacher or principal may recall horrors others don’t, but, by and large, things happened at too great a velocity to stay in the mind of a child for a very long time. With rare exceptions, it also would be impossible to know how our teachers interacted with each other behind the doors of their lounges and, after school, with their friends. I suspect that the sixth-graders we meet in “Monsieur Lazhar” never will forget Martine, the teacher who committed suicide one morning before class, and Bachir Lazhar, the teacher who replaced her. In addition to having to stand in for a popular teacher, Lazhar is struggling to deal with a tragedy of his own. He had found refuge in Quebec after Algerian extremists threatened to murder his wife as a result of a book she had written. Lazhar was in the process of preparing for her arrival in Montreal when he learned that she and their children had died in a suspicious fire back home. Although this was mostly kept hidden to fellow teachers and the students, his fragility is clearly visible to viewers.
As the school year progresses, it also becomes obvious that Martine’s suicide has had a deeper impact on the children than first observed by the psychologist brought in by the district. Because Lazhar is the adult who spends more time with the students than even some of their parents, he feels obliged to address their concerns when tensions in the classroom mount. He doesn’t want to intercede, but is left little choice when it becomes obvious that the parents have abdicated their duty in addressing the suicide and Martine’s sudden departure from the kids’ lives. For his troubles, this gentle and caring 55-year-old immigrant has his background probed by the self-absorbed parents of the bossiest student. They take their findings to the school board and, well, why spoil the story? Mohamed Fellaq is splendid as Lazhar, as are the child actors who represent a cross-section of middle-class Montreal. Aside from anything that happens in the story, “Monsieur Lazhar” should serve as a reminder to tax-weary Americans that education budgets should preserved, even as changes in pensions and benefits are negotiated. If parents don’t fight back against pound-foolish tax reformers, the negative impact on our society could prove irreversible. Phillippe Falardeau’s heart-breaking film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. – Gary Dretzka
Screaming in High Heels
In the entertaining new documentary, “Screaming in High Heels,” scream queen extraordinaire Linnea Quigley describes her appeal thusly, “I guess I stood out because I was pretty and people liked to see me get chopped up.” That Quigley and her fellow scream queens were naked or topless when they were being attacked by grotesque sociopaths or mutants from outer space was the icing on the cake. The rise, fall and resurrection of horror movies once relegated to drive-in theaters are chronicled here by several veteran filmmakers and participants. The doc really belongs to Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, whose presence in any such movie assured fans there would be enough boobs, blood and mayhem to make their investment in a ticket worthwhile. Most such documentaries, and there have been plenty, have focused on the careers and films of the acting talent. I probably knew as much about Quigley going into “Screaming in High Heels” as I did when it ended. Still it would be tough not to be enchanted by these veteran stars, who, while well into their 50s, still make the rounds of fanboy conventions and frequently are cast in genre flicks.
The arc of the industry begins in the 1950s, with the boom in drive-in movies. It got a boost with the introduction of the MPAA ratings code, which, ironically, opened the door for nudity and simulated sex in movies with large and minute budgets, alike. Just as drive-in movies began to disappear from the American landscape, mom-and-pop video stores emerged as the place to find outrageously titled genre fare. All three women could be seen in “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama” and “Nightmare Sisters.” Premium cable channels also helped pick up the slack in sales. Just as the direct-to-VHS movie trend was reaching warp speed, however, the mom-and-pop stores were forced to make way for Blockbuster and Hollywood Video outlets in every strip mall from Seattle to Key West. Instead of three reigning scream queens, there were now 300 women who divided their time between porn and slasher films claiming the title. The distribution channel narrowed significantly – the major chains weren’t keen on the whole sex-and-violence thing – and the expense of making movies on film became prohibitive. Today, of course, any 13-year-old with a cellphone can make and distribute a movie of their own and, if they can afford it, hire Stevens, Quigley or Bauer to make a cameo. When it comes to screaming, the ladies can still bring it.
No matter what anyone thinks about the movies they distribute, no one can accuse the folks at Cheezy Flicks of misrepresenting their products. On the DVD package of “Trucker’s Woman,” for example, it clearly states, “One of America’s hilariously cheesy low-budget drive-in wonders.” The only way “Trucker’s Woman” (a.k.a., “Truckin’ Man”) could be any cheesier – cheezier? – is if it came with nachos and jalapenos attached to the box. But, seriously, folks … I wonder if the May1975 release of this would-be expose of mob ties to corrupt shipping companies somehow might have had anything to do with the disappearance, two months later, of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Christian Slater’s dad, Michael Hawkins, plays a young man who becomes an over-the-road trucker after his father is killed in a suspicious accident. He was attempting to organize independent drivers unhappy about having to transport stolen merchandise for the syndicate. In a scene that would be ripped off eight years later for “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” driver Mike is distracted by a hot blond (Mary Cannon) in a convertible who, he’s convinced, wants him to stalk her from roadhouse to roadhouse for the entire length of South Carolina. When he finally shows up at the door of her fleabag motel room, unannounced, we notice that her blond tresses were donated to the production by Wigs ‘R’ Us and she favors granny panties. Turns out, as well, the blond is the daughter of one of the mobsters Mike blames for the death of his father.
Contrary to the DVD’s cover art, “Trucker’s Woman” isn’t remotely sexy and the action is far less than riveting. The acting is laughable, as well. “Trucker’s Woman” is exactly the kind of bargain-basement flick that filled the bill at drive-in theaters throughout the South and rarely could be found north of the Mason-Dixon Line, like the infinitely better “Thunder Road.” The peek-a-boo nudity likely pushed the limits of what Bible Belt audiences were allowed to experience in the mid-1970s. The only other interesting things in the movie are the presence of future Emmy winner, Larry Drake and Doodles Weaver, uncle of Sigourney Weaver and former member of Spike Jones’ band. Puffing on a pipe and wearing a tweed suit, Weaver looks as if he wandered over from a completely different movie shoot and no one told him to leave. The DVD arrives with vintage intermission shorts and Cheezy trailers. – Gary Dretzka
A Day of Violence
The Scar Crow
If there’s anything we’ve learned from Guy Ritchie and Bob Hoskins it’s that British gangsters are the equal of any organized-crime entity – or the CIA, KGB and Al Qaeda, for that matter – when it comes to inflicting pain on informers, cheats and turncoats. The Cockney slang and Savile Row suits only add to the fun. Darren Ward’s stylishly made, if extremely gory “A Day of Violence” adds large dollops of giallo, splatter and torture-porn to what already was an extremely violent offshoot of the gangster genre. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest it represents a subgenre of its own, gangster-horror. Mitchell Parker is a freelance debt collector for several crime families in the port city of Southampton. On one particularly shabby assignment, he stupidly elects to steal the 100,000-pounds he discovers, instead of turning it in to his boss. Unbeknownst to boneheaded behemoth, his victim managed to record the act on his cellphone, before succumbing to a slashed throat. Sadly, for the men and women the boss wrongly believes stole the money, Mitchell refuses to cop to the truth, even while he’s watching them being tortured. And, really, who can blame him? Once the cellphone is discovered and the true culprit is reveal, Mitchell finds himself on the receiving end of the abuse. Just when it looks to be curtains for the low-life criminal, he manages to escape the warehouse torture chamber, leading the gangsters on a merry chase through the city, killing anyone who crosses his path. Because Mitchell’s fate is revealed in the first few minutes of a “A Day of Violence,” we already know the proper degree of sympathy and pity to expend on the protagonist. In fact, Mitchell has one redeeming quality, at least, and it surfaces very near the movie’s final credit roll, which, otherwise, would have been anti-climactic. Needless to say, “A Day of Violence” isn’t for the faint of heart or viewers looking for a jolly good time. For adventurous fans of gangster movies, though, it should prove sufficiently off-the-beaten-path to justify the investment in a rental. The bonus material includes an entertaining dissection of a key scene, with special attention paid to the special makeup effects and interviews with cult-favorite actor, Giovanni Lombardo Radice.
Despite a sound mix so unbalanced it requires almost constant adjustment via remote-control, “The Scar Crow” is the kind of excessively violent indie that grows on you. It begins in 1709, somewhere in the English countryside, where a woman is being executed for practicing the dark arts. Historians have convinced us that the self-righteous zealots who believed they were defending God-fearing Christians from eternal damnation often mistook epilepsy for possession and even mildly overt sexual behavior as a recruitment strategy for Satan’s legions. The woman’s absence opens the door for her husband to molest her three daughters, whenever he feels like it. After they overpower the lecher and turn him into a human scarecrow, the movie flashes forward 300 years. Apparently, a curse has condemned the Tanner women to eternal life on the same homestead, where they torture and kill men who cross their path. If “The Scar Crow” is often difficult to follow, the ferocious bloodlust of the sisters adequately fills the gaps in logic.
Made on a budget estimated to be $3,000, “Zombie A-Hole” is a movie that’s so unrelievedly outrageous that it simply defies description. An abnormally mobile and determined zombie by the name of Pollux is on a mission to kill twin girls – preferably those who are a bit out of shape and naked – for reasons too complicated to mention … trust me on that. As Pollux’s legend grows, he becomes the subject of a manhunt (zombiehunt?) led by a cowboy-inspired gunman, the ghoul’s surviving twin and the one-eyed sister of one of the victims. Adding to insanity is a shrunken puppet-man who lives in a box. Apart from some slow-motion effects, the pace is relentless and the gore flows like water. Horror fans, I think, will be impressed with how much action, however ridiculous, Dustin Mills (“The Puppet Monster Massacre”) was able to wring from his micro-budget. He gives aspiring DIY filmmakers everywhere a reason to get out of bed each morning and go back to work. The DVD adds his commentary, a trailer and a deleted scene and character. – Gary Dretzka
The Viral Factor: Blu-ray
Another week, another movie titled “Breathless,” this one from the mean streets of Seoul, South Korea. Disguised as a disturbingly violent and unabashedly profane action picture, Yang Ik-june’s debut as writer/director delivers the kind of punch that made “City of God” and mid-century domestic dramas from England so powerful. Yang also plays the protagonist, Sang-hoon, who, as a child, was abused physically by his brutal father and carried his sister to the hospital after the old man stuck her with a knife for interceding in a fight with his wife, who also was killed. Not surprisingly, Sang-hoon has grown into a much-feared enforcer for a gang bankrolled by a loan-shark relative. When he isn’t kicking the crap out of deadbeats, he’s picking fights with strangers and bullying his young nephew. If Sang-hoon is harboring a conscience under his cast-iron shell, it’s impossible to discern. That is, until he confronts a hard-bitten teenage girl, Yeon-Hue (Kim Kkobbi), who gives as well as she takes. At first, he’s disturbed by the girl’s behavior. Soon, however, Sang-hoon sees a kindred spirit in her – she’s been abused by her father and brother, as well – and becomes her friend and confidante. “Breathless” is staged in what appears to be Seoul’s shantytown district, where violence, debt and alcoholism are as common as fleas. Naturally, it’s the gangsters and loudmouths who stand out from the mass of working-class and unemployed residents. Yang describes in telling detail the cycle of violence that holds succeeding generations of poor people hostage, leaving room only for the slimmest rays of hope for the future. “Breathless” is an exceedingly difficult movie to watch, but not because it’s been carelessly orchestrated or is exploitative. It’s just plain rough. Anyone allergic to the c-word probably would be wise to avoid “Breathless,” as it is used to punctuate nearly every other sentence of dialogue.
Set in contemporary Hong Kong, “Murderer” stars Aaron Kwok as the ambitious 40-year-old Chief Inspector Ling, whose promotion to Superintendent of Police already has been scheduled. If his competency has never been questioned, it’s possible that his rise to the top has ruffled some older feathers. The movie opens with a real bang, when his partner lands on the concrete floor of a high-rise apartment building. Ling was the only other person in the vicinity, but can’t remember a thing after being ambushed. The attacks are linked to a series of grisly unsolved murders that, upon further examination, all are tentatively linked to Ling. So far, so Hitchcockian. It isn’t until nearly three-quarters of the 120-minute movie have passed that something so strange occurs that it takes the suspenseful procedural into David Lynch territory. I won’t spoil your fun, but it isn’t likely you’d be able to guess what it is, even with 100 chances. The denouement may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly different. “Breathless” is co-writer/director Roy Chow Hin Yeung’s first feature film after assisting Ang Lee on “Lust, Caution.” (He shares writing credit with Christine To.) I suspect that he has a bright future ahead of him.
There’s so much action in Dante Lam’s two-hour-long “The Viral Infection” you’ll likely want to take a nap after watching it. (I took one in the middle, but rallied for the slam-bang ending.) I suspect you’ll also lose track of who’s fighting whom and which side of the ideological fence they’re on. It opens with a firefight in the streets of Jordan, between terrorists and International Security Affairs agents attempting to transport a scientist who specializes in viral diseases out of the country. Because a member of the ISA has conspired with the terrorists to kidnap the man and use his knowledge for profits and power – and everyone seems to be wearing the same color uniform — the confusion over who’s who begins early in the picture. When the smoke clears, it becomes clear that a cop, Jon (Jay Chou), has survived the ambush, but with a bullet lodged precariously in his brain. During a visit to his Beijing home to see his mother, quite possibly for the last time, she tells Jon that not only is his father not dead, but he has an older brother. They live in Malaysia, where his father made a living gambling. No sooner does he collect his baggage at the airport than the van in which he’s travelling is attacked by a gang of criminals, also looking for the evil scientist, led by his estranged brother. Coincidence? I think not. The young men somehow recognize each other and immediately bond. When the terrorists discover that Yeong (Nicolas Tse) has changed sides, they decide to kidnap his daughter and infect her with the time-release virus. If he wants to save her, Yeong must take sides against his Jon, once again, which he only pretends to do. The chases and gun battles in the final third of the movie involve helicopters – slicing through the skyscrapers of Kuala Lampur – and a shootout on a container freighter. The sentimental ending, while predictable, fits perfectly within the context of Lam’s family-first subplot, and doesn’t require more than one miraculous medical cure. If the action scenes and melodramatic throughline feel as western as anything on Cinemax or Starz, the scenes shot in Jordan and Malaysia add interesting backgrounds for Lam’s breakneck action. The making-of featurette and interviews are almost as exhausting as the movie, itself, but verbosity and hyperbole are traits all Chinese filmmakers and actors appear to share. In their eyes, it seems, every movie they do is as meaningful as “Battleship Potemkin.” — Gary Dretzka
Of all the self-ordained celebrities and superstars to emerge from Andy Warhol’s Factory, Joe Dallesandro was the only one with the star quality it would take to move from the underground to mainstream and indie films. Undeniably handsome, some would even describe him as “beautiful” – think Denis Leary crossed with Jean-Paul Belmondo — “Little Joe” appealed as much to gay men as straight women, and didn’t care who knew it. Because of his various bad habits, however, any fame from such movies as “Flesh” and “Trash” would be squandered. Like Mary Woronov, another Factory graduate, he would have to settle for elevated cult status. After shooting “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” and “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” – both directed by Paul Morrissey – he decided to stay in Europe and attempt the same career makeover as Clint Eastwood. Among the 18 films he made there is the Fernando Di Leo giallo “Madness” (a.k.a., “Vacanze per un massacre”), in which everyone, except Dallesandro, was required to disrobe. Here, he plays Joe Brezzi, a thief who breaks out of prison all too easily and murders two farmers while attempting to steal their car. It soon becomes clear that the villa, in which he plans to lay low for a while, also was used by Brezzi to hide the loot he stole before going to prison. Just as he’s about to begin breaking bricks, the owner of the villa unexpectedly arrives with his wife and her sister, who’s also his lover. Being an Italian movie, the women are drop-dead gorgeous.
Unlike the owner’s wife, Brezzi has no trouble figuring out what’s going on behind her back and he uses the knowledge to torture his hostages, if only in a way most people wouldn’t particularly mind. No matter how good looking the actors are, the sex isn’t all that exciting. Neither is the criminality as interesting as it is in Di Leo’s Italo-crime trilogy, “Caliber 9,” “Manhunt” and “The Boss.” “Madness” serves mostly as a mildly tasty pop-cultural hors d’oeuvre. A few years later, Francis Ford Coppola cast Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano in “Cotton Club” and he also made a memorable appearance in an episode of “Miami Vice.” He still can be seen occasionally in movies and documentaries about the Factory and the Eurocrime genre. Unlike most other RaroVideo releases, there are no bonus features worth mentioning. – Gary Dretzka
Death Watch: Blu-ray
A Beginner’s Guide to Endings
When it was released, in 1980, Bertrand Tavernier’s “Death Watch” easily fell under the generic umbrella of science fiction. Three decades later, though, the intense spy-in-the-eye drama looks far more prescient than speculative. The reality-television concept, as we know it today, had already been advanced in PBS’ “An American Family” when David Compton’s source novel, “The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe” (a.k.a., “The Unsleeping Eye”) was published in 1974. Albert Brook’s parody, “Real Life,” would be released five years later. I have no way of knowing if the great French director, working in English for the first time, was influenced by “The American Family,” or had ever seen the widely watched and highly controversial series. In “Death Watch,” Harvey Keitel plays a risk-taking reporter, Roddy, who volunteers to have a camera lens implanted in his eye and a transmitter embedded in his brain. The producers, including Harry Dean Stanton, assign him to make friends with a terminally ill woman, Katherine (Romy Schneider), and record the last months of her life for the titillation of English viewers. Adding to the drama is the fact that Katherine is unaware that Roddy is filming her or of the existence of the show. Today, of course, cameras smaller than the human eye are being used to record the behavior of people, most of whom have volunteered to share their lives with complete strangers. Moreover, several recent movies I’ve reviewed anticipate the day when terminally ill people will agree to be executed in front of a camera in exchange for money. For better or worse, we live in a world and at a time, where there is an audience for everything.
Like Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and other brilliant interpreters of science-fiction, Tavernier isn’t as interested in robots, space ships and extraterrestrials as he is in understanding how our descendants might co-exist with the advanced technology and retain their humanity. In “Death Wish,” the future looks very much like the present and an insane drive for profits continues to push the boundaries of medicine and technology. Once Roddy fully comes to grips with his mission, it literally tears him apart. It’s interesting how Tavernier’s color scheme changes as Roddy begins to comprehend the impact of the show on his audience, which, as we’ve learned, eventually will accept as entertainment even the most atrocious conceit. What begins bleakly in the industrial wastelands of Glasgow ends in the verdant Scottish countryside, with a modern work by Antoine Duhamel providing the musical backdrop for a soliloquy by Max von Sydow about the medieval French composer, Robert De Bauleac. The speech was so realistic sounding, classical-music buffs subsequently confounded sales people at record stores by asking to purchase works by the non-existent artist. Sadly, the only bonus feature is a photo gallery. The movie, itself, has been nicely polished for its Blu-ray debut.
Of all the fine actors who came to prominence from their work in Martin Scorsese’s still-electrifying breakthrough film, “Mean Streets,” I think it can be fairly argued that Harvey Keitel’s career has followed the more challenging path and remained relevant longer than Robert De Niro. From “Bang the Drum Slowly” through “Casino” and “Heat,” De Niro was a force of nature who made few mistakes in the projects he chose to take on and mostly avoided the limelight. Keitel excelled in key supporting roles in big-budget movies and the occasional male lead in such interesting indies as “Smoke,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “Fingers,” “The Piano,” “Ulysses’ Gaze,” “Holy Smoke” and the aforementioned “Death Watch.” No less unforgettable were his lower-profile performances in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Blue Collar,” “Welcome to L.A.” and “Bugsy,” for which he received his only Oscar nomination. De Niro’s had a few noteworthy assignments since “Heat” – surprisingly, in comedic roles — but he mostly seems preoccupied with other activities, such as his restaurants and the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s far more difficult to predict where Keitel will pop up next. Even his performances in ABC’s short-loved cop series, “Life on Mars,” were fun to watch.
In Jonathan Sobol’s mostly inconsequential dark comedy, “A Beginner’s Guide to Endings,” Keitel plays a Niagara Falls gambler and con artist whose relationship with his five sons has ranged from neglectful to toxic. Although he clearly loves the boys, who range in age from about 7 to 40, Duke White probably should have been sterilized when he took out his first wedding license. His greatest ethical lapse, perhaps, was enrolling the three older sons in a risky drug test, for which they would have received $2,000 each, if Duke hadn’t pocketed half of it for himself. Years later, when the pills were determined to be nothing more than slow-acting poison, he stole the $300,000 in blood money they received and blew it at the race track. Too embarrassed to reveal the bad news to them himself, he commits suicide – the body wasn’t found, of course – and gives it to them in his last will and testament, along with their paltry inheritance. Apparently, they have only a few days to live. In the brief period of time allotted to them, they’ll attempt to tie up all of their loose ends and salvage what they can of their father’s dubious legacy. Their uncle, well-played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, is on hand to provide guidance, but he gives up trying to keep the ever-contentious young men from killing themselves before the pills take their toll. As usual, there’s more to the story than needs to be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Sobol neatly ties up some very loose ends of his own. If “Beginner’s Guide” often feels less than hefty, it isn’t because the cast, which also includes Scott Caan, Paulo Costanzo, Jared Keeso, young Siam Yu and Tricia Helfer, doesn’t give it their all. Maybe having Keitel in their presence helped them dial things up a notch or two. – Gary Dretzka
Lovely Molly: Blu-ray
The Moth Diaries
There is a point in every movie involving ghosts and haunted houses at which viewers will demand to know why, in God’s name, one or more of the characters doesn’t simply leave the premises and split to somewhere safer. But, God rarely has anything to do with it. Budding genre specialists probably were taught in film school that demons rarely travel far from the gates of hell – unless, of course, the portal is a car, boat or airplane – and human DNA doesn’t allow for rational behavior when ghosts are involved. Selling those theories in a market saturated with horror stories of all varieties and points of origination is another trial altogether. Most stories fail simply because we begin to hate the protagonists for their unwillingness to do what’s good for them. In “Lovely Molly,” we stop asking those questions when we buy into the conceit that the lovely blond newlywed has no choice but to remain in the house, whose sordid history began in the 1700s, and she belongs there as much as the evil force itself. It is to the great credit of co-writer/director Eduard Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”) and rookie star Gretchen Lodge that we’re willing to suspend our disbelief long enough for “Lovely Molly” to work as intended. In fact, the demon doesn’t make an appearance until nearly the very end of the picture.
I don’t intend on spoiling anything else about the story, except to point out that Sanchez remains fixated on the storytelling powers of hand-held cameras. Here, though, Molly’s is only used sporadically and to good effect. He also retains his eye for appropriately spooky lighting, creepy music and efficient storytelling. Indeed, the budget for “Lovely Molly” is estimated to be a mere $1 million. I’m not at all sure that another million dollars or so would have made the picture any more profitable in its limited theatrical release, because too many festival goers might have considered it to be a one-trick pony and distributers were too scared off by it to invest in an effective marketing campaign. DVD and Blu-ray viewers benefit from a four-part background featurette, presented as if it were an episode of a show like “Ghost Hunters,” during which Sanchez fills in many of the holes and Satanic mythology. Is that cheating? I suppose, but adding the explanations and history certainly would have overburdened the spare narrative and broken some of the tension. Already 99 minutes, “Lovely Molly” didn’t need to be another minute longer. I also suspect that Ms. Lodge is on her way to a bright career.
By all rights, Mary Harron should have become a household name in Hollywood after the positive critical response and moderate commercial success of “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” movies that play as well today on DVD as they did in 1996 and 2000. Instead, Harron’s name would appear only sporadically as director on such very good TV series as “The L Word,” “Six Feet Under,” “Oz” and “Big Love” before scoring another artistic success with “The Notorious Bettie Page.” I can’t explain why this is so and won’t bother to speculate. What I do know is that Harron has coaxed terrific performances from such actors as Christian Bale, Lili Taylor, Gretchen Mol and Jared Harris at key points in their careers. Only her fourth feature, “The Moth Diaries” was accorded a shamefully limited release here, especially considering that it was adapted from Rachel Klein’s best-seller. Not being a post-pubescent girl, I can’t say how well Harron captured the angst, neuroses, anxieties and rivalries associated with being trapped in a boarding school while blossoming into womanhood. It seems to be me, however, that it would be embraced by the same audience drawn to the “Twilight” and “Hunger Game” sagas.
So few of us have attended boarding schools that they seem from afar, at least, to be breeding grounds for all manner of bad behavior among sons and daughters of the ruling class, here and in England. In “Moth Diaries,” three friends not only are required to experience all of the growing pangs associated with being a teenager in western society, but also a domineering newcomer (think, a slightly older Wednesday Addams) who could very well be a vampire. In any case, her arrival coincides with a series of tragic accidents and the central diarist losing her place of power in the social hierarchy. Because of the school’s formal architecture, the film’s many night shoots and the pervasive aroma of forbidden romance, “Moth Diaries” easily slips into the category of gothic horror. The nocturnal creatures referenced in the movie’s title account for the occasional flashes of magical realism, which really benefit from the Blu-ray presentation. Typically, Harron has elicited excellent, often haunting performances from Lily Cole, Sarah Gadon, Sarah Bolger, Laurence Hamelin and Scott Speedman as the requisite hunky poetry teacher who assigns them the sexy vampire novel, “Carilla.” The Blu-ray features don’t add much you couldn’t already glean from the movie itself. I can’t imagine any teenage girl being able to resist it. – Gary Dretzka
Home Run Showdown
Although he’s remained busy in the world of episodic television over the past 31 years, Oz Scott has directed only one feature film (the virtually unseen, “Spanish Judges”) since his debut effort, “Bustin’ Loose.” Talk about bad luck, it was the movie Richard Pryor was working on when he accidentally set himself on fire, smoking free-base cocaine and drinking 151 rum. I’m reluctant to blame Scott for concocting the dopey competition that informs the title, “Home Run Showdown,” but he apparently wasn’t forceful enough to talk first-time screenwriters John Bella and Tim Cavanaugh out of insisting on it. The sheer implausibility of a high-stakes contest without rules ruins what might have been a perfectly acceptable family entertainment. Clearly influenced by “The Bad News Bears” and other such David-vs.-Goliath fables, “Home Run Showdown” describes the efforts of a motley crew of wannabe Little Leaguers to convince the powers-that-be that they should be allowed to compete with the established teams. To accomplish this, the kids convince a local bartender and onetime minor-leaguer, Joey (Matthew Lillard), to coach them. He prefers chasing around the Little League moms, but is talked into accepting the job when the brother he hates dares him to place a wager on the game. Dean Cain plays the brother, a former Major League player, BMOC and lifelong irritant to Joey. He, of course, coaches the long-established league powerhouse. Instead of a championship game, the fate of the wager comes down to a contest staged during a professional high-profile Home Run Derby, during which the Little Leaguers are entrusted with shagging balls. The team with the most balls caught on a fly is the champion. Is this actually a sport in Detroit, where the movie was filmed, or anywhere else? Like I said, if it weren’t for this nonsense, the other problems with “Home Run Showdown” could easily be excused. The kids certainly aren’t lacking in enthusiasm and chutzpah, while the veteran adult actors – Annabelle Gish, Barry Bostwick, Wayne Duvall — do their best not to embarrass themselves. – Gary Dretzka
In a story that could have been written by Rod Serling for a special Halloween edition of “Twilight Zone,” an arrogant Spanish businesswoman, Marga, is experiencing a day from hell. While in Buenos Aires, she takes time off from her duties to the branch office to show and lease a rundown apartment. Compounding her discomfort is her belief that South Americans are nothing more than low-caste Spaniards living in exile from the motherland. Although fashionable, attractive and privileged, Marga is about to discover just how weird things can get when instant karma hits you right between the eyes. After waiting 40 minutes outside the apartment building, she discovers to her relief a man cooling his heels outside the door of the unit. Guessing that Jorge’s there representing the client, she begins asking him the kinds of questions that have the answers built into them. He says that his client will arrive momentarily with the proper papers and is willing to pay far more than she’s asking for the monthly rent. That should have provided Marga with a clue as to what to expect in the hours to come.
The real craziness in “Penumbra” begins when she steps outside to buy some coffee from a market across the street and is confronted by a belligerent street person, who, when he isn’t calling her a whore, is demanding her opinion of an eclipse set to occur later that day. When he gets too close to her, she zaps him with a Taser. Pedestrians, shopkeepers and a security guard defend the panhandler as being someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. We know better, but are in no position to defend her. When she finally is able to return to the apartment, she’s a bit surprised to see that Jorge has been joined by a woman, claiming to be his partner. They assure her that their boss is about to arrive, but Marga is starting to get nervous. Her anxiety intensifies when she begins hearing noises from behind locked doors and loses the keys she knows she had with her earlier in the morning. Apparently, Jorge has also exhausted all the minutes she had left on her cellphone. Margo seeks the assistance of a downstairs neighbor, whose offer of strawberry tea ultimately results in the death of her beloved goldfish. Once she gets back to the flat, even more people have joined Jorge and his presumptive assistant.
It’s at this point that “Penumbra” spirals rapidly in the direction of the Twilight Zone and a minefield of potential spoilers. Suffice it to say that things continue to get stranger and stranger as the hour of the eclipse approaches and Marga begins to fear for her safety. It’s a pretty sure bet from the get-go that she will be emotionally scarred from her ordeal, but the path to madness doesn’t reveal itself until it’s too late for her. At 90 minutes, Adrian and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano’s film feels more like a creepy chamber piece than a claustrophobic thriller. Christina Brondo does a nice job measuring Marga’s psychological ordeal and keeping her at arm’s length from viewers with her elitist attitude toward every other character. It isn’t that we don’t care what could happen to her when the sun’s fully blocked out. Our only concern is that the climax won’t live up to the promise of the events that precede it. It does. – Gary Dretzka
For his feature debut, “Citizen Gangster,” writer/director Nathan Morlando was dealt an almost unbeatable poker hand in the person of notorious 1940s bank robber Edwin Boyd and his former wife, who he befriended and allowed him to tell their story. Unfortunately for everyone involved, however, while Boyd’s story resonates across the length and breadth of Canada, the exploits of his gang pale in comparison to what we’ve seen in 80 years of Hollywood genre exploitation. Gangster buffs also have been introduced recently to similarly interesting bank robbers who plied their trade in France, Italy, England and Australia. Like a goodly number of veterans who’ve gone to war and returned home in no shape to conform to the norms of American and Canadian society, Boyd took a job that had no meaning to him – except as a way to support his family – and was shut out of his true love, acting. Something in his brain said, “Rob a bank,” which he did. The flush of success compared favorably to the adrenaline rushes he experienced in combat, thus sealing his fate as a gangster. Meanwhile, the media exploited his bravado – and that of fellow gang members after his first escape from prison – and that only served to get him higher. By adding some rockabilly tunes to the soundtrack, Morlando sets Boyd up to be Canada’s first rock-’n’-roll criminal, which may be wishful thinking on his part.
The so-called existential angst Boyd was experiencing – combined with survivor’s guilt – was a common malady among WWII veterans and maybe always has been. It’s been attributed to the genesis of the Hell’s Angels and similarly rowdy gangs in the UK. In Jean-Francois Richet’s “Mesrine” couplet, the protagonist had returned from the Algerian war for independence damaged from what he saw. The robber we met in Michele Placido’s “Angel of Evil” had no such excuse, but likely was motivated by boredom and his status as the bastard child of a Milanese businessman. His first known job was freeing a tiger from a circus at age 8. By comparison to these guys and John Dillinger, Boyd’s a saint. This fact doesn’t diminish the quality of “Citizen Gangster,” which is a perfectly acceptable freshman effort. Scott Speedman is good as the bank robber, as are Jessica Chastain look-alike Kelly Reilly as his beleaguered wife; Brian Cox, as his self-righteous policeman father; and Kevin Durand and Brendan Fletcher as his mates. Lorne Greene (a.k.a., Ben Cartwright) makes a posthumous cameo as narrator on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s first newscast. The DVD adds interviews and background material.
Bank robbers and PTSS also figure in Neil Mackay’s first psycho-horror feature, “Battleground” (a.k.a., “Skeleton Lake”). Here, a half-dozen gang members are forced to lay low for 24 hours after stealing $3.2 million from a bank in northern Michigan. If successful, a plane will arrive to whisk them to Canada. Their first mistake is to pick as their hideout a forest that a deranged Vietnam vet, the Hunter (Hugh Lambe), has staked out for his own purposes. Having learned a thing or two from the VC, the Hunter uses guerrilla tactics to pick off the crooks one by one. Apparently, he also is a fan of Buffalo Bill, in “Silence of the Lambs,” because he also enjoys skinning his victims. Rather than sit back and wait to be exterminated, the heavily armed robbers decide to play the Hunter’s game as long as possible. Considering its indie budget, “Battleground” succeeds pretty well as a then-there-were-none thriller. The weakest link is a buxom blond, whose boyfriend was killed a day earlier and expends a lot of energy screaming. – Gary Dretzka
This light-as-feathers dramedy from freshman writer/director/producer Brian Jett tells the stories of three recent parolees, struggling to make it in a world that has no room for them. They share the same parole officer, Walter Dishman (David Denman), whose melancholy mood fits the job to a tee. “Let Go” is weighted down by all of the faults associated with one-man-band filmmakers, including an only sporadically humorous or meaningful script and wildly uneven pacing. Ed Asner plays a grumpy geezer, who’s trying to get the old, really old gang together for some heists; blond beauty Gillian Jacobs (Britta, on “Community”) uses her wiles to get her things she hasn’t earned; and comedian Kevin Hart, who’s required to take part-time jobs that would drive lesser men to suicide. They do their best to keep “Let Go” afloat, but Walter is too maudlin a character to hold things together. – Gary Dretzka
Nate & Margaret
On paper, at least, people in Cuba’s LGBT community have enjoyed greater personal liberties and acceptance since laws restricting homosexual activity began to be relaxed in the 1970s. The changes, which have taken hold gradually, seemingly can be overridden on whim, however, especially those pertaining to transsexuals and effeminate men. Like their Republican counterparts in the United States, Cuban officials have historically and adamantly been opposed to legalizing marriage between same-sex couples. In Eliezar Perez Angueira’s poignant documentary, “Free Havana,” six Havana residents describe what it’s been like to be gay and Cuban during the bad and not-so-bad days. Before laws were liberalized in 1979, males recognized as being homosexual could be sent to work camps, hospitalized, imprisoned and barred from certain jobs. Many were forcibly deported in the Mariel boatlift. It wasn’t until recently that straight Cubans began to change their basically hostile attitude towards gays and lesbians. It’s also worth noting that sexual-reassignment surgery is covered under universal health care and transsexuals can marry.
In 2010, Fidel Castro apologized for the mistreatment and injustices directed at LGBT Cubans during his regime, blaming it on negative attitudes cultivated during the previous government. Still, the stories are undeniably sad and some of the people interviewed insisted on having their faces shaded, because they weren’t certain things wouldn’t change again, overnight. Apart from the work camps, though, Angueira could have found thousands of American gays, lesbians and transsexuals from the pre-Stonewall era who could relate stories as bad or worse than these six subjects. And, in many places here, attitudes towards homosexuals have gotten progressively more hostile in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that could legalize same-sex marriage. The DVD adds an interview with the director.
The title characters in Nathan Adloff’s observant indie dramedy “Nate & Margaret” are best pals, despite the fact they’re three decades in age removed from each other. When we’re introduced to them, they’re at very different places in their cycle of life, although one of them won’t admit it. Nate (Tyler Ross) is a 19-year-film student, who, for the first time in his life, is experiencing something resembling love. That it’s with another young man is almost incidental to the movie’s plot. Margaret (Natalie West) is a waitress at a Chicago restaurant and, at 52, an aspiring standup comedian. She isn’t very funny, but she’s real … almost too real. Just when James (Conor McCahill) has turned on Nate’s love light, Margaret begins to wonder if she can muster amorous feelings for any man, especially the one who’s begun to take an interest in her career. When Nate begins behaving inconsiderately toward his best pal, as anyone might in the first blush of love, their friendship unravels and she begins to grow older before our eyes. Former child star Gaby Hoffman (“Uncle Buck,” “Field of Dreams”) also has a prominent role in the story, but her character is poorly defined. “Nate & Margaret” clearly is a first effort, with all that implies, but Adloff’s got a good eye for people and isn’t afraid to put them in awkward situations. If only he’d given Margaret better material and a makeover, her transformation would be a lot easier to buy. – Gary Dretzka
Mitch Ryder: Live at Rockpalast
Graham Parker: Live at Rockpalast
I think it’s safe to say Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels influenced more garage-band musicians in the 1960s than any other act. Here was a white singer who could hold his own with the black R&B artists who were first responsible for the songs in his playlist and a band that compared favorably to those backing the soul superstars in Memphis, Philadelphia and the Motor City. Unlike other rock ensembles of the period, the music they made was intended to be danced to, not merely admired from afar while screaming your lungs out or tripping on acid. A staple of AM rock stations, even during the British invasion, Ryder sold a lot of 45s and albums, but made too many enemies in the industry to be allotted his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. After taking some time off to nurse an aching throat and sit out various trends, Ryder hit the road again in the ’90, when everything old began to sound good again. The concerts included in the “Rockpalast” two-disc DVD find Ryder in near-top form, both in 1979 and 2004. In addition to his greatest hits, Ryder covers songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Edwin Starr.
Graham Parker and the Rumour had the great misfortune to launch his career at a time when several different trends began to converge on each other, none of them being blue-eyed soul. In hindsight, though, the band’s first two albums hold up as well as any music from the late-1970s. Like the Detroit Wheels, the Rumour was powered by a dynamic horn section and some of England’s top session musicians. The concerts, from 1978 and 1980, represent the band at its prime. Among the songs included in the two-disc DVD are “White Honey,” “Back to Schooldays,” “Don’t Ask Me Questions,” “Soul Shoes” and “Howlin’ Wind.” Look for an appearance on piano by the legendary sideman Nicky Hopkins at the 1980 gig. There’s no need to point out that Ryder and Parker gave the “Rockpalast” audiences what they paid to see and hear. – Gary Dretzka
Starship Troopers: Invasion
Newcomers to the “Starship Troopers” franchise probably aren’t aware of its literary roots and influence on at least two generations of American military officers. Based on a still controversial 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, the first film adaptation of the military sci-fi adventure didn’t surface until 1997. Paul Voerhoeven’s live-action extravaganza starred Casper Van Dien, as protagonist Johnny Rico, and a bunch of attractive up-and-coming actors whose characters were recruited to fight giant alien bugs in space. Fifteen years later, Rico and other veterans of that campaign are back to inspire new recruits to the armored thrill-kill cult. This time, however, the characters have been generated in a computer, with that semi-creepy hyper-realistic sheen that distinguishes sophisticated video games from the bargain-basement stuff. Some viewers might find the female nudity more disturbing than titillating, but only if they’re parents and their kids are holding the remote-control as if it were a Fleshlight. The fearless troopers have been assigned to look for survivors in an intelligence-gathering vessel attacked by bugs. “Invasion” recalls the early live-action installments in the series more than any of the direct-to-video and animated entries. There’s nothing really new or special in “Invasion,” so my advice is for young fans to tackle Heinlein’s novel first. They can thank me, later. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director ShinjiAramaki; a conceptual art gallery; deleted scenes and a voice-over gag reel; and a feature-length making of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Pirates: Band of Misfits: 3D Blu-ray
Mia and the Migoo
The Jungle Bunch: The Movie
Everyone loves pirates these days and the ones created by the folks at Britain’s Aardman Animations are lovable in the extreme. Known foremost for such stop-action delights as “Wallace & Gromit” and “Chicken Run,” Aardman ventures into the worlds of Darwinian science, Victorian history and salty adventure in “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe. Young viewers might not be able to grasp the historical references, but most of the comedy is of the slapstick variety and the characters are largely archetypal. That description would not, however, cover Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin, who might require a tiny bit of explanation. The idea here is that a borderline inept Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) wants desperately to fit in with such recognized buccaneers as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry) and the Pirate Who Loves Sunsets and Kittens (Al Roker), so he enters the annual Pirate of the Year competition to prove his mettle. Working in his favor is the ship’s mascot, Polly, which Charles Darwin (David Tennant) recognizes as the world’s only surviving dodo, not the parrot Captain assumes the bird to be. Because the discovery could make him front-runner as Scientist of the Year, he convinces Captain to make a beeline from the tropics to London forthwith. Once they arrive, Captain learns that Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) hates pirates. Everything’s played for maximum fun, of course, and co-director Peter Lord has taken off his producer’s hat to assure “A Band of Misfits” looks great and appeals to the broadest audience. A soundtrack that includes songs by the Pogues, Jimmy Cliff and the Clash goes a long to assuring parents their interests aren’t being ignored. The Blu-ray 3D package also adds 2D Blu-ray and DVD discs. All look great. There’s also commentary by Lord, co-director Jeff Newitt and editor Justin Krish; the entertaining 18-minute animated short, “So You Want To Be a Pirate!”; an interactive “Pirate Disguise Dress-Up Game”; the informative, “From Stop to Motion” and “Creating the Bath Chase Sequence”; Lord’s short films, “Wat’s Pig” and “War Story.”
Jacques-Rémy Girerd’s colorfully drawn “Mia and the Migoo” didn’t get a lot of exposure here, in 2011, when it played the festival circuit and maybe one other theater in New York. With its hand-drawn art and environmental message, it should remind animation buffs of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, even if the story can’t sustain close scrutiny. In it, a frizzy-haired young girl, Mia, has a premonition that her father’s life is in danger at the construction of a resort being built near a remote tropical lake. Not only are the construction workers lives in danger, but the desecration of the site is pissing off the forest spirits protecting the Tree of Life, which is situated in the middle of the lake. The extras add a making-of featurette and “Jacques-Remy Girerd: Maker of Dreams.”
“The Jungle Bunch” is an extremely fanciful animated movie about a penguin chick, Maurice (John Lithgow), who fell off an ice floe and was raised in the jungle by a tiger. By the time Maurice is old enough to think about such things, he’s convinced himself that, in fact, he is a tiger and in need of stripes. Naturally, he’s also learned to take care of himself in the hostile environment and make the right kinds of friends. Somehow, his reputation grows to the point where it reaches his fellow penguins in Antarctica. They need protection from an aggressive pack of walruses and Maurice and posse are up to the task of protecting them. – Gary Dretzka