Deux ex machine is the plot device that came to mind about halfway through Spike Jonze’s wildly inventive and quite possibly prescient romance, “Her.” Instead of “god from the machine,” however, deux ex machine translates here as “goddess from the machine.” In the not-so-distant future, Jonze speculates, some otherwise stable human beings will be so overwhelmed by feelings of alienation, despair and loneliness that they’ll turn to artificially intelligent operating systems to ease their misery. Here, voices attached to the highly efficient OS1s are soothing and, if anything, overly empathetic. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a professional letter-writer in the final stages of an extremely painful divorce. He’s not without friends, but they are overmatched when it comes to making him feel better. Like any good personal assistant, the deux ex machina – lovingly voiced by Scarlett Johansson – not only services his every need, but also anticipates them. Samantha appears to have been programmed by code jockeys proficient in psychology and advice to the lovelorn. It doesn’t take long for Theodore to fall head over heels with Samantha and vice-versa. She guides him through his masturbatory fantasies, seemingly getting herself off by making him happy.
If he grows into someone who’s astonishingly happy, Theodore still retains a distinctly human measure of shame over having to admit to friends that he’s in love with an operating system. His friends, however, aren’t particularly judgmental when it comes to Theodore’s newfound bliss. After all, his letters are only slightly any less synthetic than the words emanating from the OS1. They seem to understand his attraction to Samantha and prefer it to the blow-up sex dolls of yesteryear. Indeed, Theodore has changed his demeanor to the point where his soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) almost doesn’t recognize him. It’s at this point in the story that Jonze demands of his protagonist that he question his good luck and put artificial obstacles between himself and Samantha. The atmosphere gets pretty thick with existential debate between the star-crossed lovers, but it’s of a piece with everything that’s transpired in the previous 110 minutes, or so. “Her” may take place in the foreseeable future, but, thematically, it could have been co-written by Shakespeare. If a guy can fall in love with a blow-up doll today, why not the voice of Johannson, tomorrow. The Blu-ray package adds a trio of typically vague Jonzean featurettes: “The Untitled Rick Howard Project,” “How Do You Share Your Life With Somebody” and “Her: Love in the Modern Age.” “Her” may be a tad far out to suit everyone’s tastes, but the pursuit of love often makes strange bedfellows. – Gary Dretzka
Overlord: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Big Red One: Blu-ray
The First World War: Complete Series
Home of the Brave: Blu-ray
Flying Tigers: Blu-ray
Memphis Belle: Blu-ray
PBS: Coming Back With Wes Moore
With Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of D-Day coming up, several excellent films have been re-released into Blu-ray. Other, previously uncirculated pictures have been introduced for consideration by history buffs, as well. Made in Britain by American director Stuart Cooper, “Overlord” describes one 18-year-old conscript’s terrifying introduction to war on D-Day, but not before recalling the intense – if occasionally humorous – training he received at boot camp and jn preparation specifically for the invasion. When it isn’t dealing with the matter-of-factness of life for the private, Tom (Brian Stirner), “Overlord” offers dreamlike meditations on death and loss. Tom’s private thoughts probably aren’t strikingly different than those of any other soldier pondering the uncertainties of war, but Cooper renders them as dreamlike premonitions. And, on D-Day, the men on the landing crafts had to know that the odds of never coming home again were not in their favor. Knowing that “Overlord” was shot by Stanley Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer, John Alcott, I conjured textual parallels between it and “Full Metal Jacket.” Alcott didn’t work with Kubrick on “Full Metal Jacket,” but Tom’s journey through the training camps presaged some of Private Joker’s experiences 12 years later, when he prepared for Vietnam. What’s truly special about “Overload,” however, is the marriage of rarely scene archival footage – much of it truly amazing — and material newly shot with actors. Most Americans have been led to believe that U.S. troops shouldered most of the load on June 6, 1944, even though Brits and Canadians suffered huge losses and scored similar victories. I doubt that the American writer/director, Cooper, intended “Overlord” to be corrective in this regard. It’s likely that he saw a different way of telling a monumental, if familiar story, using background material that had previously been deemed classified or was buried in the Imperial War Museum. As far as I know, it wasn’t seen here until being screened at the 2004 Telluride Film Festival. It’s definitely worth the effort to find.
In Samuel Fuller’s now-epic war story, “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction,” the truly legendary writer/director recalls his own experiences in the celebrated fighting unit during World War II. It participated in D-Days in northern Africa and Italy, before joining the crowd in the invasion of France. Landing on beaches is only part of what the Red One was required to do in the war, though, even if Normandy proved the deadliest. This undoubtedly made “The Big Red One” the most personal of all of Fuller’s movies and, in it, he’s represented by the cigar-chomping Private Zab (Robert Carradine). The 1980 version of “TBRO” was butchered to fit a running time of less than two hours. It was watchable, but special only because it bore Fuller’s name, “The Reconstruction” weighs in at 163 minutes, and it’s terrific. Besides improving the continuity, the added length adds depth to the characters and their relationships on and off the battlefields. As “The Sergeant,” Lee Marvin is the thread that runs through “TBRO:TR.” It opens in France on the Armistice Day that brought World War I to a close. The battle-weary Sergeant wasn’t aware that the war had ended and it caused him to kill a mud-covered German soldier moving toward him in a way he judged to be menacing. Flash ahead some 25 years later and the professional soldier is preparing his wet-behind-the-ears underlings to land on an African beach held by French soldiers led by a Vichy loyalist. The movie will end 2½ hours later in Czechoslovakia, with the liberation of a concentration camp and a parallel encounter with a post-Armistice German “professional.” At the extended length, Fuller fully captures the plodding pace of war as experienced by infantrymen, along with the outbursts of terrifying action that come out of nowhere and without warning. The “Reconstruction” is enhanced by the commentary of restorer/critic Richard Schickel, even more deleted scenes and background featurettes. Anyone who purchased “TBRO:TR” in 2004 should be careful to examine the specifications listed on the box, to avoid purchasing something they already own.
Even 70 years after its defeat in World War II, Germany has yet to get a handle on how to deal with its role in the conflagration. Images of Adolph Hitler are banned, as are displays of Nazi iconography and collectibles. With few exceptions – “Das Boot” and, now, “Generation War,” among them – movies and television have avoided depicting German soldiers in a natural light. In its scope and ambition, “GW” compares favorably to the best mini-series made in the U.S. during the 1970-80s. By tightening the focus on a vow made by five 20-year-old friends on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, it keeps the narrative from having to serve as a history lesson on the length and breadth of German domination. The characters include a young Wehrmacht officer and his younger brother, who serve in the same platoon on the Eastern Front; a woman who volunteers as a nurse and is sent east; another woman, an aspiring chanteuse, who sleeps with a Gestapo officer to advance her career; and the singer’s actual boyfriend, a Jew, who is denounced by his father for lecturing them about the country’s growing threat to even the most loyal of Jewish citizens. No one is opposed to the war, itself, just the possibility that extremists will take Hitler’s condemnations too literally. They were particularly confused about the ban on American swing music that was sweeping through Europe. They vow to reunite seven or eight months later, for a Christmas party. It was a promise that would never be kept, although their paths would briefly cross throughout the 4½-hour mini-series. Little effort was spared in replicating the settings in which the real action took place and the country’s role in atrocities, anti-Semitism and causing widespread pain throughout Europe isn’t ignored, either. Critics have pointed out that the story paints Poles in an unfairly ugly light, possibly in an attempt to distance average German citizens and soldiers from the horrors visited by Nazi Party members and the Gestapo. There were many anti-Semites in Poland, sure, but little mercy was spared on them by Germany or the Red Army. More importantly, “GW” accomplished its primary mission of getting Germans to confront their past, by encouraging younger viewers to openly discuss the period with their parents and grandparents. Such a dialogue is something that has been avoided since the war ended and the death camps were liberated. The series, which was well-received throughout Europe and Israel, should be easily relatable to American audiences, too.
Lest we forget, 2014 marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I, at least for the countries that didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. As far as most Americans know, it didn’t begin in earnest until 1917, when Congress declared war and we swooped in to save the day, like Mighty Mouse. I, for one, didn’t fully understand how WWI qualified as a worldwide conflagration until watching “The First World War,” and I’m no spring chicken. Based on the book by Hew Strachan and clocking in at 500 minutes, the BBC series is able to go beyond what most of us already know about the origins and disposition of the war, by adding a global dimension that carries us to China and Japan, colonial Africa and North America. I, for one, wasn’t aware of Germany’s plans to attack New York from the sea and its overtures to Mexico to shape an anti-U.S. offensive. Likewise, it traces the formation of formal and informal alliances around the world, pitting neighboring countries against each other for reasons that border on the inexplicable. Much time, of course, is devoted to the execution of the absurd war fought on both sides of No Man’s Land, which nearly chewed up an entire generation of young men. Neither was I aware of how fed up the soldiers would become over risking their lives in the name of imperialism, capitalism and monarchy, instead of national security, individual liberty and patriotism. Also discussed at length is how everything that happened in World War I would be revisited 20 years later in the Second World War, including genocide and the pursuit of ultimate weapons. The sheer volume of archival material and visual evidence used to amplify the points being made is staggering.
Based on a 1946 Broadway play by Arthur Laurents, “Home of the Brave” deals with racial prejudice among U.S. soldiers in World War II. While the protagonist of the play was Jewish, the movie presents a scenario in which an accomplished African-American topography specialist, Peter Moss (James Edwards), is ordered to accompany a group of white marines to a Japanese-held island in advance of an invasion. Somehow, studio executives felt as if the subject of anti-Semitism had already been exhausted on film and decided to make a “Negro problem picture,” instead. Prejudice in the ranks of the military was accepted as a necessary evil by many Americans – including those in the military and political establishment — so the message of the play remained intact. Once on the island, the reconnaissance team performs its duties as assigned, while also engaging in informal discussions about the black man’s experiences in life. Only one of them is overtly, almost cartoonishly racist, but everyone is aware of the potential for trouble. Nonetheless, when the Japanese finally discover the intruders, a cartographer played by Lloyd Bridges is seriously wounded. This causes Moss to choose between attempting to rescue his longtime friend – the pairing was coincidental – or simply assuming that he’s goner and ensuring the maps’ safety by immediately heading back to a rendezvous with a waiting PT boat. The total experience traumatizes Moss to the point where he can’t wait walk or respond to the questions of a military psychiatrist (Jeff Corey). After administering some kind of truth potion, the doctor engages Moss in a forced confrontation over the mission and race. Although “Home of the Brave” feels more than a little bit stage-bound, director Mark Robson makes us forget that the team landed on a beach in Malibu and the jungle was created on a soundstage, with a voice actor filling in for the annoying tropical birds. Apparently, the movie did well at the box office, including in the South. Even so, Hollywood executives were in no hurry to revisit the question of race in the military, government or corporate America.
Other worthwhile films being released in advance of the anniversary of D-Day are “Flying Tigers” and “Memphis Belle.” In the former, John Wayne plays the leader of a unit of ace mercenary fliers who are paid by the Chinese to bring down Japanese fighters patrolling the skies of their occupied nation. Plans for Pearl Harbor were already on the drawing boards, in Tokyo, but very few people in the U.S. concerned themselves with the terrible things happening in China. The movies format is similar to other war movies of the period, in which a diverse group of American fighters put aside their personal disagreements and prejudices to vanquish a common enemy. Of course, the men squabble over who’s the top gun and there’s a competition for the hand of a pretty blond nurse (Anna Lee) between Wayne’s no-nonsense pilot and a slick newcomer (John Carroll). Released only weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany, “Flying Tigers” was used to promote the war effort and raise spirits of Americans still stunned by Pearl Harbor. Fifty years later, “Memphis Belle” not only demonstrated just how far movies about wartime aviation had come since “Flying Tigers,” technically, but also how certain clichés have endured. It describes how the various members of the Memphis Belle flight crew react to the arrival of public-relations specialist (John Lithgow), assigned to publicize the 25th successful mission flown by the bomber crew. Unlike the airmen we met in “Catch 22,” those on the Memphis Belle will be able to return home after the promised 25 missions. The rub, of course, is this could possibly be their last, given the fortifications of the target and the Germans’ determination to protect it. Sure enough, director Michael Caton-Jones is required to juice the action to raise the question as to the mission’s fate. He also creates an atmosphere of tension in the relationship between the writer and the base commander (David Straithairn). The Blu-ray includes “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” the William Wyler documentary that inspired the 1990 movie.
As prepared as this country is when it comes to waging war, that’s as unprepared it is to deal with problems that bedevil our veterans when they return and find it difficult to fit back into society. It’s nothing new, of course. What’s different today, perhaps, is the sheer number of troubled veterans who need help – VA hospitals are still treating WWII and Korean vets, after all — and the complexity of the diagnoses. Neither is the government holding up its end by continuing to trim budgets and veto programs designed to get patients healthy and put them back to work at a living wage. The PBS documentary, “Coming Back With Wes Moore,” follows several veterans and family members as they attempt to ease the transition from war zone to home, sometimes within a few hours of each other. It is broken into three parts: “Coming Back,” “Fitting In” and “Moving Forward.” Moore is an author, combat veteran and host of “Beyond Belief” on the Oprah Winfrey Network. – Gary Dretzka
A few months before Arnold Schwarzenegger made a name for himself in the body-building documentary “Pumping Iron,” the future “Governator” made his dramatic debut in a terrifically entertaining hybrid from Bob Rafelson, “Stay Hungry.” Both pictures served to enhance the image of competitive body builders, who, up until then, were known mostly for amusing tourists drawn to the daily freak show that is Venice Beach. Both films portrayed the weight lifters as having more on their minds than chiseling their abs and preparing for pose-offs. Nearly 40 years later, Vlad Yudin decided to remake “Pumping Iron” for an audience that no longer considers body-building to be a freakish waste of time and cry for attention. Two of the key participants in “Pumping Iron” and “Generation Iron” are better known today as actors than body builders. No one has been able to pigeon-hole Lou Ferrigno as a single-character actor and Schwarzenegger was elected governor without once dismissing his pursuit of seven Mr. Olympia titles. Narrated by Mickey Rourke, “GI” follows the seven top competitors in the 2012 contest, which came down to a one-point decision between rivals Phil Heath and Kai Greene. While the film is short on details of the daily regimen of bodybuilders, it fully exploits the excitement of fans and drama of competition. As such, it’s a worthy successor to “Pumping Iron.” I also encourage people who haven’t seen “Stay Hungry,” which also stars Jeff Bridges and Sally Field, to make the effort to find copy of the DVD. – Gary Dretzka
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
The idea is simple enough: put two very smart and inventive men in the same room and record what they have to say to each other. The concept worked so well in “My Dinner With Andre” that, even today, a goodly number of viewers still aren’t aware that it was scripted. “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” works on the same principle, minus the food and tableware. Director, animator, musician and video artiste Michel Gondry sits down here with the brilliant MIT professor emeritus, philosopher, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky to discuss issues of interest to both men. Although the conversation could easily have been weighted on the side of Chomsky’s views on human rights, war or his support of the Occupy movement, Gondry was more interested in drawing out his subject on less controversial issues. The first question he asks of the so-called father of modern linguistics is about his earliest memory. This extends into an exploration of his theories on the emergence of language and how our perceptions of objects are formed. All the while, Gondry sketches his impressions of Chomsky’s points of view, which are later brilliantly colored and animated. They tell us as much about Gondry as Chomsky’s theories do about him. The professor doesn’t hesitate to bluntly reject the much younger filmmaker’s opinions on what’s being discussed, but the brush-offs are almost amusing in their absence of elitism. The marriage of art and thought makes “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” a treat for fans of the creator of such offbeat fare as “The Science of Sleep” and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Those who aren’t the least bit curious about the title probably will want to take a pass on it.
The art that Gondry creates to illustrate points made by Chomsky in “ITMWITH?” could be described in many ways: explosive, cartoonish, child-like, psychedelic and impressionistic. It would never be considered “outsider,” if only because of his economic background and education. Nonetheless, if the same sketches could only be found leaning against a picket fence, outside a gas station in a rural community, “outsider” probably would be among the kinder things they were labeled. They would be sold, if at all, at a huge discount to what they could receive in a gallery in New York or Paris with Gondry’s name attached to them.
The same scenario plays out in Michael Canzoniero’s compelling documentary, “Shelter Island,” which focuses on abstract-expressionist Harald Olson, whose work was, in fact, sold from a roadside picket fence and tiny gas-station gallery, on an island off the eastern tip of Long Island. Olson only uses found materials, gathered from a local recycling yard or the side of a highway. “Shelter Island” describes how Olson and his friend and patron Jimmy Olinkiewicz — a onetime developer and single parent of a functionally autistic son — made the journey from his gas station to a prestigious Manhattan gallery. It occurred shortly after David Rankin, a sculptor who also resides on Shelter Island, noticed Olson’s art and helped to secure a showing for him. Potential buyers already were well versed in the nuances of “outsider” and abstract art, so no one needed much convincing as to its genuineness. At one point a collector describes to Olson how and why his work measures up to that of other better-known abstract expressionists, although I’m not sure it mattered much to the artist. With the paintings framed and hung on white walls, under direct lighting, they looked significantly more impressive than at the Shelter Island garage. Canzoniero divides the focus on the wonderfully open-hearted Olinkiewicz and his engaging son, who, in a short film included in the package, describes himself as being half-autistic, half-Asperger and 100 percent satisfied with his station in life. We’re never fully enlightened on the artist’s background, except that he isn’t comfortable around people other than the Olinkiewiczs and prefers to live alone and paint to the accompaniment of the Doors and other classic rockers. Olson has quirks, but nothing particularly strange or off-putting. In context or without any, his amazing work speaks for itself. – Gary Dretzka
At first glance, the image on the cover of “American Jesus” made me think that the movie was just another straight-to-DVD slasher picture. In fact, it’s the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin juxtaposed on a black, red and blue American flag. It’s downright scary and not at all representative of the documentary contained therein. A more accurate title would have been “Christianity: American Style,” but who would pay to see that? Aram Garriga’s film is informed by the curious belief held by American fundamentalists that one isn’t truly a Christian, unless a cornpone reverend dips them in a vat of water behind a rural church. This misreading of scripture would be harmless, if it weren’t for the fact that the Evangelical movement wasn’t so intolerant of anyone who doesn’t practice the same brand of Christianity as they do. It became offensive when, during the Reagan administration, the born-again lobby openly bullied American politicians who didn’t toe their line and reward those who buckled to their demands. The holier-than-thou contingent doesn’t have a major presence in “American Jesus.” Garriga doesn’t seem to think that the many off-brand ministries he’s encountered in his travels in the U.S. present a threat to our democracy or might be planted on foreign soil. Instead, he gives the ordained snake handlers, cowboys, bikers, musicians, comedians, ex-cons, surfers and cage-fighters he meet the benefit of a very large doubt. They’re kooky, sure, but as dedicated to the Lord’s work as any other clergy. In fact, they’re downright American in their ability to work the system to their favor and score the same tax benefits accorded priests, rabbis and televangelists. If “American Jesus” doesn’t take on such powerful frauds as Pat Robertson, Rick Warren and James Dobson, it still makes for an interesting look at Christianity: American Style. – Gary Dretzka
What Clarence Fok Yiu-leung’s hyper-active “Special ID” lacks in logic and comprehensibility, it more than makes up for in brilliantly choreographed fighting action. Donnie Yen plays police detective Chen Zilong, whose undercover alias in the criminal underground is Dragon Chen. Borrowing a cliché from a hundred other movies, Chen gets in so deep with the mob that he develops too close a friendship with his primary target, for whom he serves as chief negotiator and enforcer. After a series of failed negotiations, the boss begins to doubt his loyalty and effectiveness. When an old enemy arrives on the scene, threatening to blow his cover, things begin to get very dangerous for the cop. Instead of being pulled out, his police supervisor simply assigns him a new partner, played by the pretty and formidable Jing Tian. Together, they are required to deal with several different weapons and fighting styles, including MMA. One major plus is the integration of Chen’s precious mother (Hee Ching Paw) into the plot. In what some women would perceive to be torture, the woman is ordered by a mob boss to sit still for a haircut, while her son is being berated and threatened. The Blu-ray adds a typically extensive making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Final Exam: Blu-ray
Daddy’s Little Girl
Clint Howard’s been in more movies and television shows than anyone in Hollywood, besides Mickey Mouse and the MGM lion. Although he rarely plays the protagonist or antagonist, Howard’s appearance in a genre picture is always cause for appreciative murmuring and celebration in the audience, and not for his kinship to his older brother, Ron. If anyone deserves a star on the Walk of Fame or AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s him. In Eric Weston’s 1981 gore-fest “Evilspeak,” Howard was given the rare opportunity to be the leading man. He plays a continually harassed cadet, Stanley Coppersmith, at a military school over-populated with bullies, and that includes teachers and administrators. He isn’t so pathetic that he doesn’t have friends, but everything he touches tends to turn to shit. It’s no secret that “Evilspeak” will have a pronounced Satanic element to it, but it doesn’t reveal itself until Coppersmith is assigned to clean out the basement of the school’s chapel. While snooping around, he discovers the crypt of a 16th Century Satanist priest and a book of potions and incantations. Although 1981 was still at the dawn of the computer age, Coppersmith manages to program a Black Mass that unleashes a series of very grim reprisals from the Satanist (Richard Moll). What makes “Evilspeak” stand out from the crowd is its status as one of the movies included in Britain’s list of “video nasties,” along with the heavy editing it endured to gain distribution and avoid an X-rating from the MPAA. Among the affected scenes was one in which a naked secretary in possession of the book (Lynn Hancock) is attacked by feral pigs while in the shower. It isn’t clear if the pigs are raping her or merely trying to feast on her innards, which happens anyway. That scene and others have been restored in the Blu-ray edition, which includes new commentary and interviews with cast and crew, including Howard. Did I mention that Luca Brasi (a.k.a., Lenny Montana) also plays a key supporting role?
Also from Shout!Factory and 1981 comes the far less interesting – and substantially less gory – slasher flick, “Final Exam.” Jimmy Huston’s college-set picture takes place during final exams, duh, when most students have other things on their mind than death. When one frat boy needs help cheating on his test, his brothers stage a terror attack to divert the proctor’s attention. It would be funny if it didn’t recall so many such attacks by armed morons since Columbine. What the fake terrorists can’t know is that a real serial killer is tracing the footsteps of the frat boys and doing the dirty deed for real. “Final Exam” is surprisingly bloodless as these things went in the 1980s. There’s a flurry of legitimate action in its last half-hour, but too little, too late, for most genre freaks. The restored Blu-ray adds commentary and interviews.
“Daddy’s Little Girl” is what happens Ozploitation meets torture porn. If that makes your mouth water … find help, immediately. If you’re simply a sub-genre completest or curious, it’s probably a good idea to steel one’s self, anyway. Here, the precious blond daughter of divorced parents is kidnaped, tortured, raped and murdered on a beach in a tight-knit community on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Blessedly, we’re spared this nasty piece of business by writer/director Chris Sun. It isn’t until five or six frustrating months later that the girl’s father locates a piece of evidence that the police overlooked and decides to takes justice into his own hands and, by justice, I mean torturing the guy to the point where he couldn’t confess if he wanted to do so. What Sun has done here is conjure the kind of punishment that arguably fits the crime and demands of us that we either sit still for it or hit the stop button early. The same thing could have been accomplished, I suppose, by re-creating the botched execution in Oklahoma and asking viewers if they thought that the Founding Fathers had this kind of justice in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights. No matter what one thinks of the graphic depiction of torture and the mechanics of death, it’s possible that scales will be tipped when the murdered child appears and gives her father a sign of approval. If that constitutes a spoiler, it was intentional. – Gary Dretzka
Marvel Knights: Wolverine Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today
One of the cool things about superheroes and supervillains in comic books is that they can be revived in different forms and aliases whenever a story arc needs to be revived. Indeed, the recurring character can be a superhero in one iteration and a supervillain the next. Marvel keeps the cyborg Deathlok on the shelf for such occasions. Deathlok the Destroyer first appeared in 1974 and has been resurrected in different forms several times since then. The new Marvel Knights action comic, “Wolverine Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today,” debuts an “all-new, all-different” Deathlok on the occasion of killer cyborgs returning to Earth from the future to kill the heroes of today. Among them are Wolverine and Captain America, who are coming off a bender. Eventually, they will be joined by characters from Agents of SHIELD, Avengers and X-Men. I prefer the action-comic format to the blockbuster format, especially because each one costs 100 million fewer dollars to produce than a summer tent-pole movie. The comics tend to be grittier than the film adaptations and the characterizations ring truer. This one adds the featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Tomorrow Dies Today,’” with illustrator Ron Garney. – Gary Dretzka
Very few movies make their way north from South American theaters, anymore. In the 1970-80s, there was a brief flurry of attention paid to sexy romantic comedies from Brazil and then came several intense dramas from Argentina, Brazil and Chile, concerning the “disappeared” students and leftists under the right-wing regimes. Twenty years later, a few good crime thrillers have arrived, but mostly at niche festivals. There’s simply no place to put them, except art houses, and art houses are overstocked with English-language indies. It took the general acceptance of DVDs, with multiple dialogue tracks, and such outlets as Facets, Netflix and Movies Unlimited, to service this niche audience. Movies from Paraguay were practically invisible, unless at least one of the characters was Joseph Mengele. Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori’s nifty thriller, “7 Boxes,” is devoid of ex-Nazis, but definitely worth a close look by fans of caper flicks with wild chases.
Victor (Celso Franco) is a 17-year-old street hustler, who delivers packages to customers of a teeming Asunción market. Given the lack of opportunities available to teenagers his age, Victor values the work and takes the responsibility seriously. One day, he’s entrusted with the delivery of seven wooden boxes only to a warehouse only eight blocks away. If he is successful, he’ll received the half of a $100 bill retained by his employer. The one condition is that he not open any of the boxes and look inside of them. This would be a simple enough task if the boy usually entrusted with such missions wasn’t so miffed over blowing the gig that he took his anger out on him. One thing leads to another and “7 Boxes” quickly evolves into one long chase through the marketplace, mostly with wheelbarrow-toting street urchins, sleazy criminals and overweight cops. When we find out what’s in the boxes, it’s easy to see why the criminals are so anxious to get their hands on them. The characters chasing each other around the marketplace with wheelbarrows are desperately trying to make ends meet by selling stolen cellphones, laboring thanklessly in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants and working cheap hustles. The filmmakers even give Victor’s worst nemesis a sound reason – medicine for his sick children – for being a jerk. More than anything else, though, “7 Boxes” is a great deal of fun to watch. It moves like a well-oiled machine and shortcuts aren’t used to advance. – Gary Dretzka
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection: Blu-ray
Fox Cinema Archives
Notes on a Scandal: Blu-ray
Twentieth Century Fox’s lavish “The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” was released in time for Mother’s Day, but could just as easily please dads and granddads of a certain age. Put the discs on the Blu-ray player usually reserved for kids’ stuff and you might be surprised to see who sits down to watch them with the old folks. At a time when a trip to New York was prohibitively expensive for most folks, fans of Broadway musicals had to wait impatiently for traveling productions to arrive, and that usually took years. Extravagant song-and-dance productions, displayed on wide screens in old-fashioned movies palaces, would begin to fill the gap almost as soon as talkies were introduced. What was lost in personal intimacy was replaced by appearances by the biggest stars of the day and cinematography that couldn’t be reproduced on stage. The lyrics, books and music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ruled the box offices in the period covered by this fine collection, which spans 1945-65. The festivities kick off with “State Fair” (1945), their only collaboration made specifically for a movie. It was adapted as a musical from 1933 movie, starring Will Rogers, of the same title. It’s a cornpone romance, to be sure, but studio executives figured that the country would enjoy something light as the war was coming to an end. The fantasies of the Fracke family, as they prepared for the annual Iowa State Fair, would fill the bill nicely. While Mom and Pop (Charles Winninger, Fay Bainter) put the finishing touches on their pies, pickles and pig in competition, daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) and son Wayne (Dick Haymes) are trying to deal with the prospect of getting married and stuck in Iowa forever. They’ll get their first taste of what life might be like outside Iowa at the fair, when she meets a big-city reporter and he falls for a big-band singer. Even if there’s reason to doubt that R&H had ever attended a state fair before collaborating on the movie, or driven cross-country to get from New York to L.A., the songs speak of old-fashioned values and the optimism bred in the bone of hard-working Americans. Like the other movies in the package, “State Fair” contains commentary, sing-alongs, a video jukebox, making-of featurettes, original marketing material and stills galleries, all of which greatly enhance the experience. The other titles new to Blu-ray are “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “Oklahoma!” (in Todd-AO and Cinemascope versions). “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” have already appeared in hi-def, with the former arriving in its theatrical and extended roadshow versions. Sticklers for Blu-ray perfection may have room to quibble about the video and audio transfers – the vibrancy and intensity of the colors, for example – but the average viewer is only likely to see the palpable improvement over previous platforms. At the moment, the eight-disc “Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” is available only through Amazon. That should change soon enough, however.
Meanwhile, the latest selection of manufactured-on-demand DVDs from Fox Cinema Archives has arrived with 18 fresh titles. Not all, or even most of the movies would easily pass the sniff test as a true “classic,” but each has a good reason for being included here. Among them are “Esther and the King” (1960), “Dante’s Inferno” (1935), “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” (1951), “The Gay Deception” (1935), “Bachelor Flat” (1961), “The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker” (1971), “Footlight Serenade” (1942), “Marry the Boss’s Daughter” (1941), “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” (1948), “That Other Woman” (1942) “Star Dust” (1940), “Good Morning, Miss Dove” (1955) and “Kentucky” (1938). The pictures I requested for a closer look are “Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher” (1968), a very British comedy based on Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel; “Forever Amber” (1947), a period drama deemed “objectionable” by the Legion of Decency; the elaborately staged period melodrama, “Cardinal Richelieu” (1935); the sword-and-sandal epic, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962); and “The Pleasure Seekers” (1964), in which Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin are overshadowed by the scenic wonders of Spain … even in bikinis.
Twenty years ago, Fox Searchlight Pictures was launched by the venerable studio to handle prestige indies and foreign-language titles that benefitted from the kind of TLC generally reserved for potential awards candidates. Miramax had just taken the arthouse world by storm and all of the studios scrambled to catch the same lightning in a bottle. In celebration of its success, the company is sending out some of its most popular releases in Blu-ray and planning events for those already in hi-def. Among those making their Blu-ray debut are “Johnson Family Vacation,” “Garden State,” “Once,” “The Deep End” and “Notes on a Scandal” already out and “The Ringer,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “The Full Monty” coming in the summer. “Notes on a Scandal” is an extremely well-cast psychodrama about an aging teacher, Barbara (Judi Dench), at a state-run high school, who becomes dangerously obsessed with a younger art instructor. Sheba (Cate Blanchett), it turns out, is simultaneously enjoying an affair with her most-gifted student. When Barbara witnesses Sheba and the boy in flagrante delicto, the delusional crone sees a way to insinuate herself into the younger woman’s personal life. The whole thing turns sordid very quickly, as the toxins written into Zoe Heller’s 2003 novel begin to spread through the body of the story, which is told through notations in Barbara’s diary. Those wacky boys and girls at the MPAA ratings board gave Richard Eyre’s movie an “R” for language and “some aberrant sexual content.” That’s right, “aberrant.” Actually, I’m surprised Dench and Blanchett’s ferocious performance hasn’t already inspired some clever playwright to adapt “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” using gays or lesbians as the feuding couples. Although both women were nominated for Oscars and other important awards, it’s Dench who created a monster for the ages. Also excellent in this Amazon exclusive are Bill Nighy, Juno Temple, Philip Davis and Andrew Simpson. The score was composed by Philip Glass. – Gary Dretzka
Countess Dracula: Blu-ray
As near as I can tell, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Elizabeth Bathory legend found a foothold in the movies. Count Dracula had been around, in one form or another, for decades before the countess made her debut. This, despite the fact that she’s arguably as compelling a character. Released in 1971, Hammer Films’ “Countess Dracula” was only the second movie in which she represents both the protagonist and antagonist. It is based on an actual Hungarian aristocrat, who preserved her youth by washing in the blood of murdered virgins … hundreds of them. Here Bathory goes by her maiden name, Elisabeth Nádasdy, which is only one of several aliases. She is played by Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt, an impressive actor by anyone’s standards and a Holocaust survivor. A very good movie could still be made about her life. Peter Sasdy’s film gives a pretty account of the legend, adding a touch of horror when Nadasdy sheds her youthful visage and devolves into an old hag. After being washed in the blood of the lambs gathered by her younger suitors, Nadasdy easily passes for a daughter. Otherwise, the movie is representative of its time and limitations posed by budget constraints and the modest expectations of its audience. The re-mastered Blu-ray arrives with commentary from Pitt, Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott; “Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt” featurette; an audio interview with Pitt, a still gallery and reversible cover artwork.
Also from the early 1970s, the XXX-rated “The Chambermaids” and “Honey Buns” – both from the archivists at Impulse Pictures – are quite a bit worse for the wear. There are only so many things a company can do to eliminate 40 years’ worth of scratches, scars and artifacts. As such, they’re pretty much of interest only to collectors and nostalgia freaks. Both reveal an effort to tell stories, albeit mundane fantasies, and experiment with cinematography that a couple of stages evolved from what’s expected in loops. Basically, this mean tight close-ups on everything … everything. “The Chambermaids” is an exaggerated description for a couple of maids at a hotel, who are so bored with their jobs that provides guests with service above and beyond the call of duty. Other folks come and go before the maids head home.
The best reasons to pick up “Honey Buns” (a.k.a., “Heads or Tails”) are the semi-legendary Uschi Digard and Rene Bond. The Swedish-born Digard wasn’t exactly discovered by Russ Meyer, but he helped make her famous in the U.S. From there, she took off on her own in soft- and hard-corn porn. Bond was one of the early stars of the L.A. adult scene, when cast in this story about a schlub whose dreams come true, for a while, anyway. – Gary Dretzka
TV to DVD
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season One: Blu-ray
BBC: Afterlife: Series One`
A&E: Longmire: The Complete Second Season
WE: Kendra on Top: Season 2
Nearly lost in all the hubbub surrounding Netflix’s emergence as a producer of such noteworthy original programming as “House of Cards” and the fourth season of “Arrested Development” were several other excellent series, including “Orange Is the New Black” and “Lilyhammer.” The latter imagined a mobster very much like Silvio Dante of “The Sopranos” being voluntarily sent to rural Norway, as part of the feds’ witness-protection program. It took the fish-out-of-water conceit to another level entirely. “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan used Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” as the basis for the rough-and-ready series. It was immediately compared to a female version of the HBO series “Oz,” with a splash of Fox’s “Prison Break” added for additional color. Even so, it would be difficult not to recognize the genetic code of dozens of other women-in-prison exploitation flicks in “Orange Is the New Black.” Ten years after she was involved in an elaborate drug-smuggling scheme, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is living a relatively normal middle-class life, with a straight-arrow fiancé and fading memories of her lesbian relationship with her partner-in-crime, Alex (Laura Pepron). Despite the lapse in time, Piper is convicted and sent to prison for her crime. It’s a transition that she will find difficult to accommodate. Naturally, the hardened cons take advantage of her naiveté by bullying her and playing drop-the-soap in the showers. Before long, Piper’s life is further complicated by the arrival of Alex, who sees no reason why they can’t pick up where they left off. The other inmates have stories to tell, as well, and they play out in flashbacks. Meanwhile, the fiancé finds a way to turn Piper’s agony into his ticket to journalistic fame. As is usually the case with shows of this caliber, I heartily recommend beginning at the beginning, before jumping into the story in Season 2, which begins very soon. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background featurettes “New Kid on the Cell Block,” “Mother Hen: Red Runs the Coup,” “It’s Tribal” and “Prison Rules,” as well as commentary on two episodes.
TV shows in which one of the key characters is a psychic, medium or clairvoyant have been a longtime staple of the industry. For them to work, the protagonists must be charismatic, persuasive and correct. Too often, though, episodes are interchangeable with countless other crime-fighter series, in which the lead characters are blessed simply with uncanny intelligence. The British shows that make their way to the U.S. tend to require a bit more than pat answers to satisfy viewers. In “Afterlife,” Lesley Sharp plays the character who sees dead people, while Andrew Lincoln was given the obligatory role of the learned skeptic. In addition to having to solve crimes, both remain haunted by ghosts of their own. Lincoln has been a mainstay of British mini-series for many years and does anguish as well as anyone. Sharp has starred in her share of mini-series, but also is familiar from “Vera Drake,” “From Hell,” “Naked” and “The Full Monty.” Anyone who enjoys “The Mentalist,” “Criminal Minds” and “Lie to Me” should love “Afterlife.”
Soon to enter its third stanza, “Longmire” is a crime-solving series in the Western tradition. Apart from the sports-utility-vehicles and cellphones, it could sit very easily alongside “Gunsmoke” and other genre series. That’s because the show takes full advantage of locations in northern New Mexico, where things haven’t changed much over the last 100 years and the scenery recalls the Wyoming setting favored by the author of “Walt Longmire” mysteries, Craig Johnson. In Season 2, the sheriff continues to fight a four-front war against unscrupulous developers, their puppet candidate to replace him, common riff-raff and the as-yet-unpunished killer of his wife. His grown daughter is also obsessed with discovering the truth about the circumstances of her mother’s death. The three-disc set includes an extended director’s-cut version of the seventh episode, “Sound and Fury,” and season finale, “Bad Medicine.” There will also be a bonus featurette, “Testing Courage: The Storm Defines the Man.”
As difficult as it is to understand the appeal of “The Girls Next Door,” it’s just that baffling to get a handle on Kendra Wilkinson’s follow-up series, “Kendra,” and the sequel to that mess, “Kendra on Top.” Although it continued to be one of those reality shows about nothing, Season 2, at least, captured enough unexpected moments to justify its existence on the obscure WE tv network (formerly Romance Classics and WE: Women’s Entertainment). Among the unscripted things that happen to Kendra and Hank are a nearly disastrous stint on the show “Splash,” a serious car accident, early warning about a stroke, a family trip to Big Bear, the removal of her IUD and hosting the World’s Largest Bachelorette Party. – Gary Dretzka
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron: Blu-ray
From DreamWorks Animation, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002) attempted to swim against the cartoon current with its emphasis on naturalism and western grandeur over talking horses and other anthropomorphic gimmicks. Spirit is a young Kiger mustang stallion slowly learning that the West his ancestors knew is being threatened by a parade of expansionist settlers, soldiers and unscrupulous invaders willing to destroy the land to make a buck. It’s fitting, then, that his best friend is a Lakota brave, whose people are threatened by the same forces. As all animated animals must in such features, Spirit is given something else for which to fight when he falls for a beautiful paint mare named Rain. To assure accuracy in the depictions of horses and territory, a Kiger stallion was purchased and brought to the studio to pose for the DreamWorks artists. The team also was invited to a tour of the national parks and natural landmarks of the West, which would be incorporated and merged into the scenic backgrounds. Instead of words, the horses communicated through gestures and whinnies. Prominent in the voicing cast are Matt Damon as the narrator and James Cromwell as the Colonel. The Blu-ray extras add commentary, a drawing tutorial and multiple behind-the-scenes featurettes. Arriving on the heels of “Shrek,” “Spirit” probably was considered to be something of an under-achiever, even though it nearly broke even at the box office. For what it attempted, it probably did OK for itself.
Among the other titles geared toward younger audiences, there are collections of episodes from “Poppy Cat: Birthday Treasure,” “Dinosaur Train: Big City/Dinosaurs A to Z,” “Arthur Makes a Movie,” “Dora the Explorer: Dora & Boots Best Friends” and “PAW Patrol.” Here, though, animals are encouraged to talk, tantalize and teach. – Gary Dretzka