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The DVD Wrapup: Salt of the Earth, Ex Machina, It Follows, Goodbye to All That, Black Stallion and more

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Salt of the Earth: Blug-ray
Dozens of compelling stories are told in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth, which chronicles the life and career of “social photographer” and environmentalist Sebastiao Salgado. Arguably, his most famous photo was taken at the site of Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold rush, which occurred in the early-1980s and petered out pretty quickly after that. From a distance, the open-pit mine resembles a giant toy ant farm carved into a hillside, revealing terraces, tunnels and precarious paths crawling with activity. Look closer and you’ll see that, instead of ants, tens of thousands of mud-covered human beings are clinging to hundreds of crudely made wooden ladders, carrying packs on their backs filled with what they hope and pray to be paydirt. Anyone unfamiliar with the Serra Pelada lode might assume that the photograph had been taken in the late 1800s and the men with packs on their backs were slaves. In fact, they were prospectors from all walks of life, driven by news that gold-yielding ore was being extracted from the pit without the benefit of tools or heavy equipment. If the gravel in any of those backpacks contained gold, a percentage of its value would go to the miner who carried it all the way to the surface. If the California and Klondike gold rushes could have been reduced to a single hole in the ground, it might have resembled the chaos generated by the discovery of a 6-gram nugget on the banks of the river on Genésio Ferreira da Silva’s remote farm, 270 miles south of the mouth of the Amazon River. Once seen, these photographs can never be forgotten. The same can be said of the hundreds of black-and-white images Salgado brought back from forced migrations of refugees in war zones around the world. These displaced men, women and children knew the closest thing to a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow would be relief from carnage, drought, hunger, cholera, brutality and despair.

For more than two decades, Salgado found subjects for his photojournalism all over South and Central America; Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mali, Congo and the Sudan; the Krajina region of Croatia and into Bosnia; among the impoverished ship dissemblers in India and Bangladesh; the victims of land mines in Cambodia; the sabotaged oil fields of Kuwait; and Third World nations supplying tea leaves and other commodities to First World consumers. After witnessing the horrors perpetrated on non-combatants in central Africa by machete-wielding tribesmen and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, Salgado arrived at his breaking point. He returned to his homes in Paris and Brazil, determined to devote a far greater amount of his personal time to wife/editor Laila and his sons, to whom he was a stranger. By this time, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was old enough to accompany his father on his journeys to record the lives of lost tribes in New Guinea and deeper into the Brazilian rain forest than the gold mine. Juliano and Wenders had planned to make separate documentaries on Salgado’s career, but, after much disagreement and rancor, settled on a single format in which both men provided narration. In addition to the dozens of black-and-white photographs, Salt of the Earth contains color film footage taken during Salgado’s shoots.

The color cinematography is especially effective in the final third of the film, which documents the family’s remarkable success in breathing no life into the blighted farm of his grandfather where Salgado spent much of his childhood. The farm had once been a part of the Atlantic rain-forest system, but, after the trees were cut and sold, erosion turned the property into a death zone. Laila suggested they attempt to reclaim the land by planting indigenous trees and finding ways to conserve what little water found there. After several re-plantings, the roots took hold and a thriving forest was reborn. Thus began the Instituto Terra, which is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education. The Blu-ray presentation often borders on the spectacular, with every shade of black, white, silver and gray strikingly represented in hi-def. Also included are commentary with Wenders and Julian Ribeiro Salgado; a recollection of the highs and lows of their collaboration; and deleted scenes. A similar pose is struck in Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1954 dramatization of the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County, New Mexico. In docu-drama fashion, it deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. It also emphasized the strength of the women in the community, who may have been even more committed to the strike than their husbands, brothers and fathers. Salt of the Earth was made by filmmakers blacklisted in Hollywood – the director served six months in prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC inquisitors – and predictably condemned as left-wing propaganda by right-wing politicians and commentators, and many weak-kneed liberals, as well. It wasn’t made by Salgado, but the depictions of mistreatment, manipulation and racial prejudice would have been in his strike zone. It’s well worth finding.

Ex Machina: Blu-ray
It is a function of the male computer geek’s discomfort in the company of strong and sexually affirmative women that so many sci-fi movies depict the search for a sexually compliant, anatomically correct and subtlely subservient female android, instead of a more gender-neutral robot design. Male screenwriters are fond of fembots, as well, but most would settle for a life-size sex doll or Fleshlight that was cast from the naughty bits of their favorite porn star. The theme can be traced at least as far back as the “Twilight Zone” episodes “I Sing the Body Electric” and “The Lonely”; the “Star Trek” episode, “Requiem for Methuselah”; TV’s “Bionic Woman”; the replicant babes in Blade Runner; the cyber-actress protagonist of S1m0ne; and the Japanese porn anime, Imma Youjo: The Erotic Temptress 2: The Perfect Love Doll. There are others, but you get the picture. There isn’t a less-than-gorgeous female character in any of them. The same holds true for Alex Garland’s highly ambitious digital wet dream, Ex Machina, which advances the sub-genre by setting it in an idyllic retreat, owned by a reclusive cyber-billionaire, and infusing his megalomaniacal vision with ideas inspired by Greek and Roman tragedies and mythology, the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Titian, Mary Shelly, crappy 1970s disco and Depeche Mode. Ex Machina is the kind of super-smart movie that should carry footnotes at the bottom of the screen. In it, a 26-year-old coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a competition to spend a week with his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who spends his free time punching a heavy bag, drinking vodka and harassing his super-sexy cyber-maid. It’s the kind of macho activity one has come to expect from the Silicon Valley billionaires who’ve overcome years of bullying by purchasing sports franchises and raising the price of beer and nachos to unconscionable levels. It doesn’t take Caleb very long to realize that he could have left the sun screen at home, because his room is a concrete-and-glass cell monitored by cameras and absent windows to enjoy the scenery.

Although it’s never made precisely clear as to what Caleb has been brought to the compound to do, in lieu of enjoying the scenery and stroke his boss’ ego. If the earlier model cyborg, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), resembles every yuppie male’s idea of how an Asian girlfriend should look and behave, the more fully evolved fembot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is such a dish that she looks great, even with her mechanical skeleton in full view. Vikander is 26, but, in a pinch, could pass for 14. It begs the question as to whether Nathan might be considered flaunting the laws governing sex with minors, simply by making Ava an android. Ava and Caleb hit it off immediately, despite being separated by a wall of glass. She becomes his sole confidante when he begins to doubt Nathan’s motivations and sanity. Her reasoned responses reveal evidence of artificial intelligence and a desire for independence. So far, at least, Nathan has been cunning enough to keep his guests under permanent lockdown. Part of his reason for bringing Caleb to the compound, I suspect, is to see if his programming expertise can detect holes in the system. His endgame remains murky throughout most of Ex Machina, though. Garland’s philosophical conceits should play better with hard-core sci-fi fans than those attracted to shape-shifting aliens and Nazis from outer space. There’s some relatively artistic nudity, but nothing that can’t be enjoyed out of context at Mr. Skin. More compelling, I think, is the Norwegian setting, which comes complete with cascading waterfalls, placid meadows and plush valleys. The Blu-ray package adds a 40-minute making-of featurette, post-screening Q&A and background vignettes.

Goodbye to All That
Anyone attracted to the offbeat relationship drama, Goodbye to All That, by Paul Schneider’s name on the DVD jacket probably won’t be surprised when the “Parks and Recreation” semi-regular steals their hearts. What’s unusual is how far first-time director Angus MacLachlan requires Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) to play against type in her portrayal of a stone-cold bitch, who demands a divorce but refuses to tell her perplexed husband, Otto, what he did wrong or what she wants, instead of him. Lynskey has previously portrayed women who’ve begun to question their marriages – most recently, “Together” – but we have a pretty good idea of makes them tick. Here, she’s a real shrew, whose screen time is pretty much limited to chilly handoffs of their daughter, Edie (Audrey P. Scott), on the custody shifts. Otto is a perfectly average suburban guy, who loves to jog and occasionally pushes the limits of personal safety in his outdoors activities. After he breaks his leg in an accident while speeding through the woods in an ATV, Otto also is required to find a new home for himself and enough space for Edie to pretend she’s a queen of the realm. One Sunday, out of the blue, Edie demands that her still-despondent dad take her to church. It marks a turning point in the narrative that changes almost everything that’s come before and gives meaning to the title, Goodbye to All That, if not in the way some church visits change people. Almost immediately, divorced women in the congregation begin contacting him to see if he’s ready to start dating again. What they’re really asking is if he’s willing to sate their appetites for sex. Thus inspired, Otto also tries his luck with an Internet dating service and an invitation to a reunion of summer-camp pals. Everywhere he turns, he’s greeted by women with minds of their own when it comes to sex and personal fulfilment. They know what they want from him and aren’t afraid to take it in ways that range from romantic to hilarious. In this area, Lynskey’s sour personality is easily compensated for by the lively performances of Anna Camp, Heather Graham, Heather Lawless, Ashley Hinshaw and Amy Sedaris. This entirely satisfying turn of events is in line with what we liked in MacLachlan’s 20005 Junebug, a fish-out-of-water comedy that opened many academy members’ eyes to the emerging talent that was Amy Adams. Goodbye to All That was launched on the festival circuit and VOD outlets, but deserves a better shot on DVD.

It Follows: Blu-ray
If you want to know what gets the juices of horror buffs flowing, check out David Robert Mitchell’s demonic-possession thriller, It Follows, which arrives on Blu-ray in the wake of his previous well-respected indie, The Myth of the American Sleepover. These days, it’s rare to find a low-budget picture that’s capable of breaking through the pack and impressing critics who can be brutal to newcomers. Besides the almost universally laudatory reviews, It Follows may be the only DVD/Blu-ray whose commentary track is supplied entirely by Internet opinion-makers capable of making or breaking a new release. For 100 minutes, these bloggers mostly geek out on a movie that satisfies their passion for a picture that offers substantially more than one-dimensional monsters, serial slashers, special makeup effects and gratuitous gore. (Gratuitous nudity is always welcome, though.) Mitchell also provides plenty of references to past genre classics, without beating audiences over the head with stale tropes, clichés and stereotypes. In fact, the demon in It Follows is more of a specter than a tangible threat to the residents of a quiet town in suburban Detroit. Mitchell took a chance by basing the picture’s central conceit – when teenagers lose their virginity, it opens the door for all sorts of monstrous possibilities, even death – that was put on the shelf after the Scream and Scary Movie franchises batted it around like a ping-pong ball. Here, the punishment for taking advantage of free love is less tangible than a masked fiend with a butcher knife in Lovers Lane. While 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is home from college, she caps a date by having sex with a young man who passes along a STD that can’t be cured with a shot of penicillin. It is a hand-me-down curse that unleashes a shape-shifting stalker on whoever is the current carrier. The demon is invisible to all of Jay’s friends, even as it brushes against them on its way to the pretty blond. Jay knows what has to be done to get rid of the curse, but doesn’t want to put any of her male friends in harm’s way. Things get really weird when the demon takes the form of her late father, who throws electric appliances at her when she’s in a public swimming pool … and, no, he isn’t trying to electrocute her. It was at this point that things stopped making sense to me. Even so, Mitchell’s patience keeps the pacing tight throughout the story and a palpable degree of tension is added by the eccentric musical soundtrack provided by the composer Disasterpeace, who is interviewed in the bonus package.

An Honest Liar
In the 1990s, after over-exposure on cable television killed the comedy-club boom, magicians, escape artists and illusionists picked up the baton and ran with it for a while. Soon, nearly resort in Las Vegas featured an in-house magician and magic shop. Entire multimillion-dollar shows – EFX at the MGM Grand, for example – combined magic, music and dance. It was a heady time for the artists, but, again, television helped kill the goose that laid the golden egg. One controversial Fox show even went so far as to hire the Masked Magician to reveal the secrets behind the classic tricks and illusions. Again, however, it was over-exposure that spoiled the game for everyone else. If one magician was going to make an elephant/helicopter/truck disappear into thin air, someone else was going to upstage him the next week by making the Statue of Liberty vanish or by appearing to be cut in half by a “death saw.” Today, about a dozen magicians, illusionists and mentalists are capable of headlining their own shows in Las Vegas, with Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Mac King and Criss Angel being the most prominent. In the fascinating documentary, An Honest Liar, we’re re-introduced to Randall James Hamilton Zwinge (a.k.a., The Amazing Randi), who’s spent most of his retirement challenging psychics, faith healers and occultists to come clean or be revealed as frauds out to extract donations from gullible believers. By portraying themselves as the real deal, instead of as fellow magicians or illusionists, Randi deemed them worthy of exposure. Offended by the popularity and public effrontery of Uri Geller, he even went so far as to arrange for one of his mind-bending gags to be debunked before millions of viewers on “The Tonight Show.” Geller was baffled when the objects that typically moved at his command didn’t behave as planned. Amateur magician Johnny Carson was so impressed that he made Randi a frequent guest. In the 1980s, Randi took on such faith healers as Peter Popoff and João Teixeira de Faria (a.k.a., João de Deus). At the ripe old age of 86, Randi isn’t at all reluctant to open up the books on his own accomplishments and reveal such personal details as his marriage to ex-con painter Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (a.k.a., José Alvarez), after exiting the closet in 2010. An Honest Liar includes testimonials by Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Alice Cooper, Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss. The DVD adds deleted scenes and extended interviews.

Dawn Patrol
Watching Rita Wilson guzzle beer, chain-smoke marijuana and slander Mexican immigrants in Dawn Patrol, I experienced the same hollow feeling as when I first saw Katey Sagal play the white-trash biker moll in “Sons of Anarchy.” After a couple of episodes of the long-running series, though, Sagal’s presence made sense within the context of the narrative and her anti-heroic character. As matriarch of a clan of SoCal surf Nazis, Wilson simply looks as if she stepped into the wrong movie and wasn’t about to turn down a payday. Surf movies come and go, of course, but only a few have stuck to the wall. Big Wednesday, Break Point, Blue Crush and Chasing Mavericks extended the Endless Summer mythos to include coming-of-age dramas, existentialist quandaries, serious criminality and romantic melodramas. Working from a screenplay by Rachel Long and Brian Pittman (A Haunting at Silver Falls), Daniel Petrie Jr. has crafted a story of revenge, misplaced clan loyalties and good-old-fashioned bigotry from an ugly incident in which a sun-bathing beach bimbo deliberately sets off a race war that’s supposed to link metaphorically to the war in Afghanistan, but doesn’t. The story is told from the point of view of John (Scott Eastwood), a surfer who comes unglued after his headstrong brother is killed by someone everyone assumes to be the Mexican who diddled his slutty girlfriend … and, no, there’s really not a better way to describe the character played by Kim Matula (“The Bold and the Beautiful”). Tensions between various ethnic groups began to rise when speculators and developers deemed the Ventura County beach communities to be ripe for exploitation. Until then, they had provided the foundation for working-class homeowners to feel as good about themselves as the millionaires who call Malibu home. But, contractors looking to boost profit margins by hiring undocumented workers and laid-off residents found it impossible to maintain their way of life. Property values skyrocketed, even as some neighborhoods began to look like beach-adjacent slums. About to have their home foreclosed on, John is taunted into retaliating against the Mexican interlopers by his embittered parents, played with no degree of subtlety of finesse by Wilson and Jeff Fahey. Assumptions that seemed sound one minute were turned inside-out the next by the facts. It’s all supposed to remind us of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, but it’s buried so deep in the sand that it gets bogged down in melodrama. Petrie’s first two writing credits were The Big Easy and Beverly Hills Cop, both home runs. Dawn Patrol is his first feature as a director since 1994, when he gave us In the Army Now, with Pauly Shore and Andy Dick. Hollywood’s a bitch.

Here Is Your Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Black Stallion Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Anyone as impressed by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the folks who helped it secure six Academy Award nominations and a Supporting Actress statuette for Patricia Arquette might consider extending the experience by picking up Jan Troell’s debut feature, Here Is Your Life. Based on a series of semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winner Eyvind Johnson, it describes a teenager’s coming-of-age at a pivotal time in the history of Sweden and Europe. While the rest of the continent was engaged in a horrific conflagration, Sweden remained neutral. It explains how 14-year-old Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) wasn’t sent to the front after being forced to leave his impoverished foster family and fend for himself. He could have returned home to his natural parents, but the burden of having another mouth to feed would have made things tougher for his siblings. Unlike Mason, the young protagonist of Boyhood, Olof can’t afford the luxury of attending school or partaking in extracurricular activities. He understands his lot in life and, for now, anyway, it means taking jobs intended for grown men and learning by doing. He finds one in the remote northern part of the country as a logger, risking his life as part of a gang whose duties include breaking up logjams on a roiling river. Because the men share a secluded shack, Olof is privy to the stories laborers swap after a hard day of work and several shots of vodka. Not at all cocky, Olof is as attentive to his co-workers’ eccentricities as he is to the rigors of logging. Next, he finds slightly less dangerous work in a sawmill and brick kiln.

His first job in a community setting comes when he’s hired by the owner of a primitive theater that offers silent movies and concert recitals. When he isn’t posting announcements on the sides of buildings, selling tickets and hawking candy, Olof uses the time left over to flirt with local girls and read books. It is here, as well, that he’s introduced to the differences between working stiffs and white-collar businessmen and entrepreneurs. The disparities are such that he’s inspired to consider joining the burgeoning international worker’s movement. When Olof gets hired away from the theater by a traveling projectionist, who works the carnival circuit, he is introduced to entirely different class of people. Better yet, he’s introduced to the joys of sex by a fortune-teller, who treats him like a boy toy. At 169 minutes, Here Is Your Life is only slightly longer than Boyhood. It provides plenty of space for the vignettes to play out naturally and take full advantage of the film’s historically accurate settings and Sweden’s natural beauty, very little of which is lost in Troell’s evocative cinematography. Given that this was his first theatrical venture, it isn’t surprising to discern the influence of Ingmar Bergman. By the end of the first half of the film, however, what we’re watching is all Troell.  He would go on to make such period gems as Everlasting Moments, Hamsun, Zandy’s Bride, The New Land and The Emigrants. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an introduction by filmmaker Mike Leigh; a new conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie; interviews with actor Eddie Axberg and producer/screenwriter Bengt Forslund; the short film, “Interlude in Marshland,” which preceded Here Is Your Life, starring Max von Sydow; and an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Carroll Ballard’s wonderful family adventure, The Black Stallion, is often included in lists of the most beautifully photographed movies ever made. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to learn that Caleb Deschanel’s work was ignored when the Oscar nominations were announced in the Best Cinematography category, ahead of the 1980 awards ceremony. Back then, being snubbed by your peers was part of the hazing ritual for freshmen in the tech categories. The Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital transfer, supervised by Deschanel, attests to the film’s rich cinematic legacy. (In 2002, The Black Stallion was accorded the honor of being named to the National Film Registry.) In Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel, a determined American boy and magnificent Arabian horse survive a disaster at sea, only to be tested once again after washing ashore a deserted island off North Africa. The only way to get through their mutual ordeal is by learning to trust each other. Once they’re rescued and returned to Alec’s hometown, a dilemma arises as to where one puts a magnificent steed accustomed to roaming freely and answering only to single voice. It comes to a head after the Black stallion bolts from the house’s backyard and is almost killed in a frantic tour of the city. It ends at farm owned by a former jockey, expertly played by Mickey Rooney. The film’s basic color scheme and visual context has changed dramatically by now, allowing for a dramatic test of equine heroism and stamina in a championship race. Hollywood legend has it that, upon viewing The Black Stallion for the first time, a studio executive asked rhetorically, “What is this, some kind of an art film for kids?” The easy answer to that question was then and still is, “Yes.” Ballard’s masterpiece would go unreleased for two years, until executive producer Francis Ford Coppola made sure that justice was served. Sadly, it’s a common tale, oft told. The Blu-ray adds a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; five career-making short films by Ballard, with introductions by the director; a conversation between Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas; a new interview with Deschanel; a piece featuring photographer Mary Ellen Mark, discussing her images from the film’s set; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Some Call It Loving: Blu-ray
Scratch the surface of an interesting, if long-neglected picture newly re-released on Blu-ray/DVD and you’re likely to uncover a story that puts a completely new spin on what you’ve just seen. Such is the case with the Vinegar Syndrome/Etiquette Pictures’ oddity, Some Call It Loving, a kinky soft-core fantasy made a year before Emmanuelle tested the limits of the old X-rating. In an unusual twist of fate, the actor who played the protagonist of James B. Harris’ film – Zalman King – would, 20 years later, successfully test the limits of cable television, with Showtime’s couples-friendly, “Red Shoes Diary.” He also collaborated with director Adrian Lyne on the S&M-lite feature, 9½ Weeks. Here, King plays a handsome jazz musician, who impulsively decides to buy the Sleeping Beauty attraction from a traveling carnival. Somehow, Robert senses correctly that the beautiful young woman, Jennifer (Tisa Farrow), really is in a deep trance and isn’t faking it for the rubes. He brings her comatose body to the secluded mansion he shares with a pair of women (Carol White, Veronica Anderson), who, likewise, get their kicks from role-playing games and other fetishes. Robert is able to awaken his new playmate with a kiss and taste of the potion given him by the sideshow barker. At first, he attempts to isolate Jennifer from the sex play, but, like the perfect fembot in Ex Machina, she develops a mind of her own.

In a completely detached sidebar, Richard performs at a nearly empty jazz club with his band. One of the habitués is a strung-out junkie and alcoholic played by Richard Pryor, who was nearly penniless at the time, but would soon emerge as an A-list actor, as well as a star comedian. The character presages the introduction of Mudbone in his albums and standup routines, a year later. Although the story, inspired by John Collier’s short story “Sleeping Beauty,” is more of a curiosity than anything else, the movie is enhanced by Mario Tosi’s gorgeous cinematography, sumptuous art direction of Rodger Maus and Ray Storey, and eerie score by Richard Hazard. Because Harris produced Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” “Lolita” and “The Killing,” some critics have suggested that Some Call It Loving may have influenced the look of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s more likely that Harris borrowed ideas generated by Radley Metzger in such arthouse erotica as The Lickerish Quartet and Camille 2000. The dandy Etiquette Pictures Blu-ray benefits from a 2K restoration from the 35mm camera negative; a six-page booklet, with an essay by Kevin John Bozelka; commentary by Harris and Sam Prime; “Some Call It History,” in which Harris recounts his early years in the Korean War, where he met Kubrick; “A Dream So Real,” a conversation with Tosi, who shares his thoughts on career choices; and outtakes, with commentary.

Singularity Principle
Of all the fascinating ideas put forward in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar, the most complex and compelling was the concept of a parallel universe, accessible through wormholes discovered in our solar system. Not having a degree in the sciences, that’s as far as I’m willing to go when attempting to synopsize movies whose plots are based on astrophysics. If anything, the pure science and mathematics that inform the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Singularity Principle, are even more intricate and, therefore, far more baffling than anything in most genre titles. This likely is because it was co-written, co-produced and co-directed (all with Austin Hines) by physicist Dr. David Robert Deranian and no one falls more in love with their chalk work than an academic. As such, Deranian boasts of “paying particular attention to accurate scientific detail and using the fascinating science of parallel universes to bring audiences a story that will both illuminate and entertain.” Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Singularity Principle opens with the disappearance of a noted scientist, Professor Jack Brenner (John Diehl), during an unauthorized parallel-universe experiment. It sets off all sorts of bells and whistles at a “clandestine black-ops agency,” which, of course, is anxious to learn how it might be able to exploit the data or fears that Brenner’s parallel universe might be found in Russia or China. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with emphasizing science over fiction in these sorts of movies, there’s something to be said for fudging the details to expand the audience. Science nerds should be able to find something in Singularity Principle to stimulate their intellects and imagination, though.

The Stray Cat Rock Collection: Blu-ray
The Outing/The Godsend: Blu-ray
Cellar Dweller/Catacombs: Blu-ray
Japanese exploitation movies of the 1950-70s frequently borrowed from conventions and tropes established by filmmakers toiling in the fields that belonged to Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Pick a subgenre that drew crowds here and Japanese filmmakers paid homage to it by copying its conceits and putting them through a blender of home-grown eccentricities. The five films in the Stray Cat Rock series, newly collected by Arrow Films, merge several themes crucial to post-war B-movies in the United States, along with stylized violence, gratuitous nudity, psychedelic rock music and fetishized vehicles, ranging from rice-burner motorcycles (no Harleys to be seen) and Jeeps leftover from the occupation, to gas-guzzling Detroit products, dune buggies and the occasional bicycle. The Japanese were especially fixated on juvenile delinquents, most of whom appear to have taken their cues from Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and West Side Story. In the Stray Cat Rock pictures, though, most of the girls look as if they were just as influenced sartorially by Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, even when waving knives at each other. There’s also room for a butch gang-banger to kick ass and take names when the boys join the fray. Among the constants are the lovely-but-deadly Meiko Kaji, Tatsuya Fuji and Bunjaku Han. The limited Blu-ray set from Arrow contains upgraded versions of Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71; new English subtitle translations; interviews with director Yasuharu Hasebe and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, star of Beat ’71; original trailers; a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; and original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays).

Unlike other double-features released by Scream Factory, this week’s offerings likely will be of interest specifically to 1980s completists and other people with niche tastes. Otherwise, the only things they have in common are a few momentary thrills and short titles. The Outing combines two time-honored tropes: the evil genie released from his lamp and the frightful night spent in a haunted museum. Even Ben Stiller wouldn’t have been able to save this one, though. In The Godsend, a very strange woman with alabaster skin leaves her newborn baby with an unsuspecting family that’s kind enough to take the wee lass in. Before long, she’s proven herself to be quite the little vixen.

Cellar Dweller’s crime is that it takes a perfectly good idea for a short film and almost ruins it by stretching it to a turgid 77 minutes. Twenty-five years after a comic-book artist is killed by one of the monsters he’s created on paper, a fan (Debrah Farantino) returns to the scene of the crime to investigate what happened and what can be salvaged from the panels he left behind in the basement. With the punchline revealed in the first five minutes, all that’s left is the blood-letting. There are two things to recommend Catacombs to horror fans, 1) the exterior scenes were shot at a historic monastery in the mountains surrounding Terni, Umbria, and 2) a scene in which a life-size Christ literally comes down from a cross, pulls a stake from his foot and attacks a priest. Actually, it’s the work of a satanic spirit imprisoned in the catacombs of the church since the Inquisition.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
All Quiet on the Western Front: The Uncut Edition: Blu-ray
Released 35 years before Donald Trump and other Republican nitwits declared illegal immigration to be the greatest threat to our democracy since the War of 1812, Hollywood tackled the problem with compassion, without also minimizing of the scale of the situation. Sadly, though, we no longer can count on the services of Charles Bronson (Borderline) and Telly Savalas (Border Cop) to jump in and solve the current quagmire. The latter was committed to DVD in 2003, while the former is new to disc this week. Bronson stars as Jeb Maynard, a steely U.S. Border Patrol officer stationed between San Diego and Calexico. Things heat up fast after his friend and partner (Wilford Brimley) is murdered by a vicious “coyote” – a white one, this time, played by Ed Harris, in his first credited role in a feature – along with a child who’s just made the crossing. An investigation takes Maynard to Tijuana, with the mother of the dead boy, so he can make the trek through the border as if he were sneaking into the country. The trail leads to a major grower in the Imperial Valley and a corrupt businessman in San Diego. I doubt that a border agent would be allowed to show as much compassion as Maynard, today, because of the political ramifications of being such behavior. Borderline may have its limitations as a product of its time and a rather obvious vehicle for Bronson, who was a huge star in 1980, but it’s well made and the based-on-fact story is reasonably entertaining.

After watching the 1981 box-office bomb The Legend of the Lone Ranger, it was only natural that I would compare it not only to the original TV show, but also to the 2013 box-office bomb, which starred Johnny Depp and someone named Armie Hammer. While neither measures up to the hit Western series, I enjoyed the earlier adaptation quite a bit more than the $216-million The Lone Ranger, which took huge liberties with the mythology. The biggest problem with “The Legend” wasn’t what ended up on the screen, but how it got there. For one thing, Klinton Spilsbury apparently was chosen to appeal to the teenage-girl demographic, not fans of classic oaters. Besides looking like a refugee from a boy band, Spilsbury wasn’t much of an actor. Compounding the problem was the treatment shown to Clayton Moore – the much-loved creator of the character on television – by one of the producers, who also owned the rights to the Lone Ranger brand. Moore was prohibited from appearing in public in costume, so he elected, instead, to wear oversized sunglasses. All that aside, “The Legend” stuck far closer to the origin story, with a surprisingly dapper Christopher Lloyd as the head of the treasonous Cavendish Gang and Jason Robards having a whale of a time as Ulysses S. Grant. Plus, Merle Haggard provides the original songs.

Forty-nine years and three major wars passed between Louis Milestone’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1979 made-for-television remake, starring Richard Thomas, Ian Holm and Ernest Borgnine. The new Blu-ray iteration of the latter adds nearly a half-hour to the original running time. There’s no need to compare the two versions too closely, as they’re both products of their time and medium of choice. The Delbert Mann-directed production had to accommodate commercial breaks and more expository narration than was required in the early talkie. There’s also the matter of the flat American and English accents of the German soldiers. It’s difficult to ignore completely, but, given time, other things vie for our attention, including the emphatic anti-war message. The timing is interesting, though, as it arrives on the heels of the Criterion Collection edition of The Bridge, Bernhard Wicki’s semi-autobiographical drama about a close-knit group of German teenagers drafted into the German army in the closing weeks of World War II. The young men in both movies are, at first, buoyed by patriotism sparked by misleading government propaganda and love of the Fatherland. No sooner do they leave basic training than they’re thrown into the hellfire of a conflagration for which there’s no chance for victory and leaders who should have been sent to the frontlines before anyone else.

BBC/PBS: The Crimson Field: Blu-ray
PlayStation: Powers: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History
BBC/PBS: Tales From the Royal Wardrobe
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC
It’s probably unfair to compare the compelling BBC/PBS mini-series “The Crimson Field” to a “M*A*S*H” without the laughs, but, then, how better to describe a wartime drama that combines testy nurse/doctor relationships with realistic portrayals of operating-theater horrors and triumphs. If World War I failed miserably as a “war to end all wars,” it helped improve the care and treatment of wounded and traumatized soldiers in future wars. The unprecedented volume of incoming patients and increased degree of difficulty in treating wounds, toxic gases and emotional disorders forced caregivers to rethink their approaches to healing. The International Red Cross had been founded only 50 years before the start of the war and nothing that had come before had prepared Red Cross workers and volunteers for the sheer enormity of their mission. In previous wars, the same wounds might have gone untreated except for the application of a surgical saw and unsanitary rags. In the “crimson fields” of France, the agency also was responsible for POWs and mail delivery, as well as other services. The mini-series’ soap-opera through-lines emerged from the close proximity of doctors, nurses and patients and intensity of the shared experience in a post-Victorian environment. In the absence of a steady rain of bullets and mortars, hospital personnel face were required to navigate divisions related to class distinctions, religious conventions and reservations concerning advanced treatments. Because the tented field hospital in “The Crimson Field” serves as a buffer between the battlefield and homefront, relatives of the wounded men were allowed to visit them. For those unprepared to deal with the severity of the wounds suffered by their loved ones, the shock of recognition could be frightening. Just as the unlikely hit series “Call the Midwife” took a while for Americans to embrace, “The Crimson Field” grows on you. That can be credited to the excellent writing and such familiar actors as Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kevin Doyle, Kerry Fox, Jeremy Swift and Alex Wyndham. The BBC cut of the series allows for a bit more realistic approach to the material than that allowed by PBS censors.

Even those viewers who can’t get enough of shows about superheroes and other supernatural shenanigans may be unaware of “Powers,” an original series available only via PlayStation platforms. Based on the graphic novel by Michael Avon Oeming and Brian Michael Bendis, it demands that we consider the ramifications of a world in which superheroes, supervillains and uniquely gifted mutants are as prevalent as, say, Starbucks. Powers-deficient humans would be defenseless against the bad apples, if it weren’t for the brave men and women of the Powers Division. It is represented primarily by homicide detectives Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Not being an aficionado, much of the mythology flew right over my head. Still, it’s the gamers who subscribe to the PlayStation Network who will make the final determination on “Powers” when it comes to ratings and renewals. There’s no reason to think it won’t have a bright future in the niche market.

Except for the occasional defection, hit movie revealing backstage intrigue or Kirov sighting, news from the world of ballet is practically non-existent in the mainstream media. That changed recently when Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history. Her personal story is so compelling that “60 Minutes” devoted an entire segment to it. While she’s a prominent dancer in Ric Burns’ “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History,” her appearances and opinions are threads in a tapestry whose creation began in pre-Soviet Russia and is still being woven. Anyone who thinks that Burns’ documentaries begin to look the same after a while should be surprised by what they see here. In addition to the archival material and talking heads, the show features some of the most elegantly photographed dance scenes and intimate interactions between performers I’ve ever seen. Burns was accorded unprecedented access to the company, including dramatic live performances, grueling rehearsals and tight focuses on Copeland, Gillian Murphy and other young stars following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In BBC/PBS’ “Tales From the Royal Wardrobe,” the affable British historian and TV host, Dr. Lucy Worsley, is in fine form as she explores the sartorial tastes of kings and queens from Elizabeth I to the present Queen Elizabeth II. Rather than simply precede over a series of photographs, sketches and newsreel footage, Worsley explains how the royal wardrobe is a carefully orchestrated piece of theater, managed by the royals themselves to control the right image and project the right message to their subjects. This extends to a time when wealth dictated what courtiers could and couldn’t wear to events and actual documents that laid out the guideline. She also models the extravagant fashions worn by queens and princesses, with special attention paid to the impracticality of their architecture. Fans of period programming on the BBC will find the show to be particularly entertaining and informative.

Also available from the same source are “Doctor Who: The Daleks,” which recalls the many the confrontations between the mutant creatures and the Doctor and his companions. The three-part documentary series, “BBC’s Shark,” goes up-close-and-personal with 30 species of the legendary predator, with footage from dozens of habitats worldwide, There is even a shark that walks on land.

From Shout comes “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season,” a compilation of all 22 episodes from the show’s penultimate season. It was at this point of its run that CBS began to treat the series like a pawn on its chessboard, by moving it around the schedule without concern for viewers or narrative continuity. Even the actors were at a loss as to when it would air. Most of original musical licenses have been renewed for DVD, but not all of them.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC” is a single–disc release from Nickelodeon, comprised of seven “central” episodes from Season Three. The Turtles’ mission is to retake New York, save their Sensei, search for Karai and team–up with the Mighty Mutanimals for a rescue mission into Dimension X.

The DVD Wrapup: Woman in Gold, Clouds of Sils Maria, Human Capital, House of Cards and more

Friday, July 10th, 2015

Woman in Gold: Blu-ray
Shortly after Iraqi troops were driven from Kuwait in 1991, then-Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz announced that hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of looted property would be returned to the emirate. The plunder included civilian jetliners, gold and currency taken from a Central Bank vault, computers, furniture and priceless museum pieces. Restitution for property stolen from private citizens and businesses, including dealers of luxury cars, wasn’t directly addressed in announcement, but several billion dollars in reparations have reportedly been paid. Although required to pay reparations for the destruction it caused in World War II, Germany has largely been allowed to weasel out of repaying its debts to countries it once occupied. That includes Greece, whose crippled economy could benefit from having its IOU honored by the same country that’s demanding it now repay money owed to the European Union. Germany paid considerable reparations to Israel and World Jewish Congress in the name of the millions of Jews murdered, displaced, plundered and forced into slave labor before and during the war. Decades would pass, however, before life-insurance companies agreed that policies written for people who would die in the death camp were valid and payments should be made to their heirs. Whether it’s great works of art extorted as part of the early immigration process or gold teeth yanked from the mouths of doomed prisoners, the Gestapo and its minions were crooks before they became war criminals. And, while it’s impossible to precisely identify the owners of the silver and gold items melted down to support the war effort, determining the provenance of paintings, sculptures and other object art would seem to be a far easier task. It came down to a question of how one lawyer defined theft and what his opponent described as barter.

The David vs. Goliath legal struggle dramatized in Woman in Gold should disabuse viewers of any notion that the war in Europe ended with Adolph and Eva’s suicide in the bunker. The bloodletting may have stopped, but some parties refuse to admit defeat. When it comes to reuniting survivors with treasures stolen or extorted from family members, the battles being fought are deeply personal and the good guys don’t always win. Fifty years after VE day, the full scope of this particular debate was revealed in Lynn H. Nicholas’s “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” and revisited a dozen years later in Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham’s documentary adaptation, The Rape of Europa. In Woman in Gold, director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and freshman writer Alexi Kaye Campbell move from the general to the specific, focusing on one elderly woman’s effort to recover what everyone outside Austria felt she was owed. Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) had convinced L.A. shopkeeper Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany/Helen Mirren) to stake her claim to one of the most celebrated paintings of all time, the famously gold-leafed portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. It was the more famous of Gustav Klimt’s two portraits of the Viennese heiress and patron of the arts that had been hanging in the state-owned Belvedere Palace gallery since the end of the war. It and other family treasures had been confiscated when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. No fan of what he termed “degenerate art,” Hitler allowed Austrian Gallery officials to take possession of the family’s Klimt paintings, which, otherwise, might have become kindling in a Nazi bonfire. As a concession to home-grown anti-Semitism, the curators changed “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) to “Woman in Gold,” in order to disguise its provenance and mask the fact that the model was a prominent Viennese Jew.

Curtis uses flashbacks to depict Altmann’s vivid recollections of family life before and directly after the Anschluss, and the difference couldn’t be more striking. Even 50 years later, when Altmann reluctantly returns to Vienna with Schoenberg for court hearing, it’s clear that modern Austrian officials are far more willing to fight attempts to surrender the paintings than their ancestors were in protecting their borders and Jewish residents from the Gestapo and Wehrmacht. Indeed, as the legal process evolves, Altmann’s tentative resolve in pursuing Schoenberg’s faltering case – inspired by the investigative reporting of Viennese journalist and editor Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) — is continually renewed by the dismissive attitude displayed by the museum officials and the lack of remorse or guilt feelings shown her by almost everybody she meets in Vienna. For his part, Schoenberg’s determination is re-enforced by what he learns about his composer grandfather’s close relationship with his client’s parents and aunt, and how his own life was changed by the Holocaust. (In fact, he is the grandson of two Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, both of whom successfully immigrated to the United States, escaping almost certain death.) Mirren, as usual, is spell-binding as Altmann. If there are times when Reynolds comes across as being too young for the part of Schoenberg, the facts validate his characterization. Campbell’s screenplay could be nitpicked for certain concessions to poetic license, but, if anything, the larger story could never fit within a 109-minute format. For example, Altmann’s status as a simple Los Angeles shopkeeper doesn’t begin to describe her post-war life in America. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘Woman in Gold’”; feature commentary with Curtis and producer David M. Thompson; a trailer for the documentary, “Stealing Klimt”; and press conference at New York’s Neue Galerie, after the painting was purchased by Ronald Lauder and put on display there.

Clouds of Sils Maria
I wonder if Meryl Streep gets depressed when she isn’t nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Maybe she feels relieved, knowing that she can avoid the annual crush of parties, press conferences and all of the ass kissing that comes with each and every nomination. Maybe, someday, Streep will be allowed the privilege of being chosen alongside one or both of her acting daughters, Grace and Mamie Gummer, or simply cheer them on from the sidelines. Streep doesn’t appear in Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’ brilliant drama about actors and acting. If any actress deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Streep, it’s Juliet Binoche, who not only stars in Clouds of Sils Maria, but also delivers one of the great performances of her career. It’s entirely possible that more people witnessed her work in last year’s international blockbuster, Godzilla, than in all of the nine films for which she received Cesar nominations, combined. You can probably add the box-office tallies from her English-language successes, Chocolat and The English Patient. In an interview, Binoche said that she agreed to co-star alongside the giant fire-breathing dragon to believably deliver a line from the Clouds of Sils Maria about acting in blockbusters. Binoche was the perfect choice to play an English-speaking actress, Maria Enders, who, almost by chance, finds herself in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier. It was written by a famously elusive playwright, for whom she’s traveling to Zurich to accept an award as the movie opens. Not at all sure that she wants to perform a task even the playwright has refused to do, Maria finds herself enmeshed in an even greater drama when she’s told on the train that he’s died. Naturally, the news causes a flood of memories to come crushing down on her.

At the ceremony, Maria is paired with the same pompous actor (Hanns Zischler) who had sweet-talked her into bed during run of the play and would love to stage a romantic encore in Zurich. Maria knows that if she accepts the role of the older woman in the play, it will mean acknowledging that, henceforth, her characters will always be women of a certain age. Stepping into her previous role in the play is a young American actress (Chloë Grace Moretz), possibly modeled after Britney Spears at her most reckless. In a shattering scene near the end of the film, Maria suggests a slight change in the brat’s portrayal of her character, but is rebuffed. You can almost feel the air escaping from the hole in Maria’s ego as she realizes that she’s about to pass the torch to a younger and, perhaps, less capable generation of actors. In a very real sense, she represents every living actor who has or is about to pass the same threshold, feeling they still can get away with playing Hamlet and Ophelia, instead of Claudius and Gertrude. Also very good here is Kristen Stewart, as Maria’s loyal personal assistant and trusted confidante. The generation-gap isn’t nearly as noticeable in their relationship, until she begins revealing personal tastes that are more pop-cultural than sophisticated. Stewart renders the ambiguity stamped on her character’s personality so well that she was honored with a César, making her the first American actress to win one. (Adrien Brody is still the only American male to win one, for his work in The Pianist.) Sadly, the DVD doesn’t contain any bonus features.

Human Capital  
Although there’s nothing insignificant about the accident that kicks things off in Paolo Virzì’s constantly evolving drama, Human Capital, it mostly serves as the point around which more interesting things revolve. In fact, viewers are encouraged to hold the collision between a bicycle and SUV, on a winding downhill road on an inclement Christmas Eve, in abeyance until we get a better handle on the kind of people we’re dealing with here. The family that lives on the top of the hill, overlooking the Lombardy countryside, imaginations itself to be above the laws of man and economics. Already wealthy by anyone’s standards, hedge-fund magnate Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) can’t pass up a dishonest deal when it presents itself to him. In a boastful mood, Bernaschi might even tip a less fortunate tennis partner to a deal from which he could benefit … or not, depending on how the cards fall. The one thing the two men have in common, besides tennis, are a son and daughter who are dating each other. Massimiliano Bernaschi (Guglielmo Pinelli) is a bright and handsome young man who appears ready to step into his father’s shoes as a world-class prick, but uses alcohol as a crutch to get there. Massimiliano’s girlfriend, Serena (Matilde Gioli) has been severely damaged by the loss of her mother and what she inaccurately perceives to be the encroachment of her pregnant stepmother, a genuinely nice doctor (Valeria Golino). Her father, Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), is the poor sap who believes he can buy a ticket to financial independence by playing tennis with his filthy-rich friend. Clouding Serena’s crystal ball is the sudden arrival of a bad-boy classmate, Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), who attracts her attention with his sketches and hard-luck story.

By far the most interesting character here is Giovanni’s wife and Massimiliano’s mother, Carla, played by the always watchable Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, whose sister, Carla Bruni, is married to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once an aspiring actor, she sold her creative soul for a luxurious, if totally compromised life in the mansion on the hill. With Massimiliano ready to leave home for college and Giovanni willing to reward her for 18 years of never appearing or acting less than the perfect upper-class wife, she asks him to buy her an abandoned entertainment complex that would otherwise be turned into a shopping mall. It isn’t until she discovers that the other man she needs to complete her dream of owning a theater is as big a piece of crap as every other male who’s feigned interest in her ambitions, but only to get into her knickers. It’s at this point that Virzi decides to deploy a dogged cop to re-emphasize the bicycle accident and challenge his characters to rise above the messes in which he’s put them. Or, rather, the dilemmas to which they were led in the Connecticut-set novel by Stephen Amidon. The adaptation by Virzì, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo (The First Beautiful Thing) makes it feel if Amidon intended for his story to be transplanted to Italy in the first place. Human Capital should appeal to arthouse audiences who don’t mind a little class-conscious intrigue with their whodunit. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a music video.

Deli Man: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Erik Anjou’s mouth-watering documentary Deli Man and feels inclined to board the next plane to New York City, just to savor a mountainous pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, probably ought to check out the restaurant’s website before booking a flight. Tempted thusly, I was disheartened to learn that the Midtown landmark is, as of this writing, closed temporarily for repairs, possibly related to legal problems caused by the discovery of a tapped gas line. The Carnegie is far from the only deli worth sampling while in New York, but, as is emphasized in the film, it represents a dying breed of restaurants that reflect nearly 130 years of Jewish culture in America. By the time this culinary theme park opened in 1937 – a half-century after Katz’s Delicatessen was founded on the Lower East Side – there were more than 1,500 kosher delis in New York, alone. Competition from supermarkets, specialty shops and changing urban tastes have reduced that number significantly, even as the search for the perfect pastrami sandwich has expanded to include Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and Houston, of all places. Among the restaurateurs we meet in Deli Man is Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation New York “deliman,” who began learning the business as a boy from his Hungarian-immigrant grandfather and brought authentic New York deli to Texas, across the street from Houston’s Galleria, in 1999. Consistently rated one of the top dining destinations in the city, Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen, resembles a museum exhibit as much as it does a restaurant. According to Gruber, the number of delis has plummeted from a high of 2,000 in New York, alone, to 120 in North America, although that figure may not include all of the deli food trucks that have begun to attract customers in urban areas. Among the other people Anjou calls as witnesses are entertainers and lifelong deli habitués as Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Freddie Roman and Alan Dershowitz, who add some spice to the testimony. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews.

Goldberg & Eisenberg
Holocaust Genocide & Survival
Stories of a Young Nation
Israeli writer/director Oren Carmi’s debut feature, Goldberg & Eisenberg, may sound like a sequel to Deli Man, but the only thing the two films share are kosher roots. It is, in fact, the rare Israeli export: a horror film … and a good one, at that. Set in Tel Aviv, “G&E” is built around an antagonist who should be as familiar to American audiences as the dangerously loud and angry guy next-door, who can’t be bothered with shushing his incessantly barking dog or the crazy panhandler who decides that you’re his new best friend and imminently worth stalking. Most of us would consider such plagues to be part and parcel of living in a big city and dismiss them as a momentary nuisance. When condensed into 90 minutes of paranoid psychodrama, however, these annoyances open the door to a Son of Sam scenario. Goldberg (Yitzhak Laor) is a desperately lonely computer programmer, who spends his free time scouring the Internet for potential girlfriends. One night, while walking his dog in the park, the harmless nebbish encounters the slovenly piece of human garbage, Eisenberg (Yahav Gal), who insinuates himself into Goldberg’s life with dirty jokes and feeble attempts at conversation. Naturally, what begins as an uncomfortable encounter in a dark and largely unpopulated park, evolves into a serious introduction to pure evil. It spills over into Goldberg’s private life, to the point where Eisenberg demands to be included in his dates as a spectator and is willing to torture animals to demonstrate how far he’ll go to maintain his enemy’s attention. As if Eisenberg weren’t sufficiently grating, Carmi allows unseen dogs to bark continually through the Tel Aviv night and give one of his characters a cellphone with barking ringtone. Neither does Carmi feel it necessary to explain the presence of Eisenberg’s occasional neo-Nazi companions and police completely unsympathetic to Goldberg’s plight. Far from perfect, “G&E” takes a while to catch hold, but, once it does, you’re hooked. Israelis generally have more horrifying things to consider than things that go bump in the night on the big screen, but, “G&E” and such genre pieces as Big Bad Wolves, Rabies and the first Israeli zombie flick, Cannon Fodder, have added something new to the menu.

Horror may have taken a while to reach Israel, but the national cinema began in Palestine during the silent era and got a boost in 1954 when the Knesset passed the Law for the Encouragement of Israeli Films. Since then, Israel has been nominated for more Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category than any other country in the Middle East, which may or may not constitute a big deal. Sisu Home Entertainment offers an expanding catalog of features, documentaries and cultural films that speak to the Jewish experience in Israeli and abroad. The first new compilation, “Stories of a Young Nation,” includes four surprisingly entertaining films – Newland, Over the Ocean, There Was No War in ’72 and The Flying Camel – that tell the personal stories of individuals and families sharing the growth pangs of a country that had yet to come of age. Made in the 1990s, all of these films have a distinct period feel and merge drama, comedy and romance. The second collection, “Holocaust: Genocide & Survival,” offers three very different documentaries about pretty much the same thing. Produced by MTV, I’m Still Here employs an emotional montage of sound and images, with music by Moby and readings by celebrities, from the diaries of young people who lived during the holocaust. Out of Europe: Escaping The Holocaust follows one fortunate family’s survival route from Belgium to America. Last Stop Kew Gardens: You Can Go Home Again tells the story of a post-Holocaust “immigrant village” in New York that gave birth to stars of film, TV, and comedy, as well as prominent members of the philanthropic, business and literary communities.

The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe: Blu-ray
In 1973, the notion of Americans embracing a French comedy was pretty far-fetched. That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears had already revealed the funny side of Jean-Paul Belmondo, while King of Hearts demonstrated that college audiences could fall just as much in love with a quietly subversive Gallic comedy as more intellectual works by Godard, Truffaut and Resnais. The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe’s arrival on these shores signaled a couple of positive things: 1) That French filmmakers had actually learned something about story telling from watching all of those Jerry Lewis movies, and 2) someone other than Philippe de Broca could make Americans laugh. Yves Robert earned the director’s credit on “Tall Blond Man,” sharing the writing honors with Francis Veber, whose influence on Hollywood was a story yet to be written. In it, Pierre Richard plays a gawky concert violinist, randomly selected by a French secret-service agent to play the decoy in a plot to expose a double-crosser within the agency. When he’s “tagged” by the agent at Orly Airport, François Perrin is inexplicably wearing one black shoe and one brown one. If it isn’t terribly relevant to the narrative, the gag makes a terrific title. What Francois doesn’t know is that the duped agents will be following his every step, bugging his apartment, listening to his phone calls and attempting to steal what they believe to be foreign intelligence. In his case, at least, ignorance is bliss, especially when a blond bombshell (Mireille Darc) hired by Francois’ pursuers pretends to fall in love with him.  As silly as the setup is, the Cohen Media Blu-ray edition of “Tall Blond Man” also serves as an easy way to kill a couple of hours in front of the tube. Two years later, Robert and Veber would reteam on The Return of the Tall Blond Man. In 1985, Tom Hanks starred as the peculiarly shoed violinist in the Americanized, The Man with One Red Shoe. Veber’s work would further inspire Hollywood remakes in the form of The Toy, with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor; The Birdcage, from La Cage aux Folles; Billy Wilder’s final picture, Buddy, Buddy, from A Pain in the Ass; Three Fugitives, from The Fugitives; Pure Luck, from La Chevre; Father’s Day, with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, from Les Compères; and Dinner for Schmucks, from Le Diner de Cons. His other, strictly American titles include My Father the Hero, The Valet and Partners, a gay buddy-cop film starring Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt. If very few of these Hollywood remakes – some re-written and directed by Veber, himself – could hold a candle to the originals, the filmmaker cashed the studio checks, anyway. By the way, the stunning Guy Laroche “ass-crack” dress in “Tall Blond Man” was re-worn by Lori Singer in the remake and, since then, dozens of actresses – including Hilary Swank at the 2005 Academy Awards — hoping to make a lasting impression on the red carpet. Now, that’s entertainment.

Belle and Sebastian
Underdog Kids
As long as someone, somewhere is producing movies as spectacularly beautiful and terrifically entertaining as Belle & Sebastian, no one can say that the family audience is being ignored. And, by family, I mean everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents. Kids can enjoy it as a boy-and-his-dog buddy adventure, while older viewers will recognize elements of “Heidi” and Jack London’s “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild.” If Lassie were a Great Pyrenees, instead of a collie, her adventures could be factored into the equation, as well. Based on characters from a French TV series in the late 1960s, created by Cecile Aubry, “B&S” is set high the French Alps, on the border of Switzerland, in World War II. The landscape is foreboding enough to discourage the Nazi occupation force from drifting too far from the villages below. If nothing else, it gives hope to Jewish refugees and French resistance fighters that they might be able to avoid capture, if and when they decide to risk their lives on a perpetually snow-covered pass. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. When we meet him, Sebastian (Félix Bossuetis) is a 6-year-old on a mission. Hunters and herders have determined that Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Belle, is a demon determined to deny them of their livelihoods. Sebastian knows that the gigantic white dog is innocent of the crimes attributed to it, but can’t prove that wolves or poachers are responsible for killing the sheep and goats. Sebastian has convinced himself that America lies over the highest pass, because that’s where his mother was heading when she left the village. As unlikely as that may be, it gives the boy hope for his own future, away from his aged grandfather. He knows, however, that, before he can escape to America, he has to clear Belle’s name and prevent the Germans from learning their plans. This, of course, is easier said than done. Writer/director Nicolas Vanier has worked the terrain previously, in the documentaries The Last Trapper, L’enfant des neiges and Siberian Odyssey, and the wolf vs. reindeer drama, Loup. Clearly, French cinematographer Eric Guichard is comfortable at high altitudes, as well. The DVD adds an interesting, if chilly making-of featurette.

Phillip Rhee’s awkwardly titled Underdog Kids may not be able to boast of having the same universal appeal as “B&S,” but, considering the growing number of young Americans enrolled in karate classes at the local strip mall, there’s no reason it shouldn’t find an enthusiastic audience. Writer/director/producer Rhee plays Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee, a former MMA champion whose career suddenly ended when a car crash caused serious damage to his body. Still widely respected in the sport and his old stomping grounds, Lee reluctantly agrees to do a favor for his mentor (Max Gail), whose inner-city dojo is populated with youngsters who make the Little Rascals look like model citizens. They’ve already driven off several less patient teachers, but are won over by Lee’s reputation, patience and willingness to meet them half-way. Lee’s goal is to have the kids ready in time for a citywide competition against far more experienced and sartorially advantaged teams. The group from Beverly Hills, of course, takes Lee’s team the least seriously of all the competitors. It’s led by an old rival
(Patrick Fabian), anxious to humiliate Lee. Rhee is well-known in martial-arts circles as the producer/director/star of Best of the Best franchise and, although his resume has a 17-year hole in it, adds an air of authority to the over-familiar proceedings. His screenplay contains more than enough humor to keep young viewers interested between the fight segments. I wonder, though, if Rhee might be working towards a black belt in fart jokes. If so, he’s got a ways to go.

Merchants of Doubt: Blu-ray
The Drop Box
As Abraham Lincoln reputedly once opined, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” And, yet, that’s exactly what every one of the 717 Republican candidates for the presidency are attempting to do as the primary season kicks into high gear. Democrats aren’t immune to exaggerating the truth, but there aren’t nearly as many liberal candidates to fact-check the things that come out of their mouths. Neither, can they afford to hire the same professional liars, think-tank charlatans and right-wing flunkies (a.k.a., spin-doctors) provided the GOP by the Koch brothers and special-interest groups financed by major conglomerates and their lobbyists. Robert Kenner’s depressingly astute documentary, Merchants of Doubt, based on Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title, describes just how easy it’s become to hijack the facts behind such scientifically verified threats as toxic waste, pollution, genetically modified food products, climate change and second-hand smoke from cigarettes. Essentially, their job is to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of chronically skeptical Americans every time a piece of progressive legislation is proposed in Congress or state legislatures.  They, then, are able to offer the services of well-coached “experts” to Fox News, talk-show hosts and assemblages of paranoid citizens, willing accuse everyone not in favor of poisoning our planet in the name of predatory capitalism of being a communist or un-American. These personable conmen, whose credentials are easily impeachable, also delight in ridiculing high-profile environmental advocates — including Al Gore and, now, Pope Francis – and shifting the argument away from the facts. Wisconsin, once one of the most environmentally secure states in the union, currently is being sold piecemeal to corporate interests aligned with the Kochs, who invested mightily in Governor Scott Walker’s recall and re-election races. His entire presidential campaign strategy has been built around lies, half-truths and demonstrable inaccuracies. The rest of the field isn’t much better. But, if you don’t believe me, lesson to the testimony of such conservative free thinkers as Matthew Crawford, Michael Shermer and former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, who put their careers at risk when they questioned right-wing doctrine. Kenner is able to keep the discussion lively by comparing the doubt-meisters to magicians and other purveyors of hocus-pocus. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kenner; a post-screening Q&A at the TIFF; and the featurette, “Unlikely Voices,” in which conservative leaders, Debbie Dooley, George Shultz and Swiss Re, promote environmental causes.

Images of newborn babies being abandoned in the dead of night at the doorsteps of convents, churches, nursing homes, orphanages and, perhaps, even the odd brothel, have been repeated countless times over the last 100-plus years of movie making. For a while there in the 1980-90s, depictions of high school girls leaving unwanted or already dead babies in dumpsters became prevalent in the media. It’s nothing new … Moses was a foundling, too. Brian Ivie’s inspirational documentary, The Drop Box, describes how South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak became a guardian and surrogate father to hundreds of disabled, discarded and unloved children left at his residence by a parent who had run out of the time, money or ability to care for them. Women who had babies out of wedlock faced social stigmas, as well. After word spread about Lee and his wife’s acts of Christian generosity — “every human life is sacred and worthy of love,” he explains – they were flooded with children left at Seoul’s Joosarang church, sometimes without the protection necessary to survive the night. To prevent such tragedies, Lee devised a sturdy “baby box,” with a light, padding and a doorbell to announce the arrival of another wee newcomer. Without making the Lees look like saints or zealots, The Drop Box explains how they have been able to accommodate the influx of babies, which increased significantly after South Korea instituted its new Special Adoption Law, in 2012. It stipulates that infants can’t be put up for adoption without their births being registered with the government. It also requires that mothers remain with their newborns for a minimum of seven days before putting them up for adoption. This was done, in large part, to stem the flow of newborns to adoptive parents overseas. (Abortions are illegal in South Korea, but readily available if certain conditions are met.) I should be noted that The Drop Box is being distributed by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, which has never been reluctant to solicit donations to support its ultra-conservative agenda, which doesn’t include non-traditional families and adoptions by opposite-sex couples. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, post-screening interviews and some faith-based promotional material.

The Lovers: Blu-ray
In 1985 and 1987, Roland Joffé was justifiably nominated for Academy Awards as Best Director for The Killing Fields and still vastly underseen The Mission. Depending on one’s point of view, the native Londoner has either been paying for that temerity ever since or has been waiting for an equivalent screenplay to prove the nominations weren’t flukes. Every subsequent Joffe production has been measured against those two fine films and, for a hundred different reasons, has failed to meet the test. The Lovers, a time-traveler romance, was greeted by critics with sharpened knives and practically no expectations of brilliance. And, it didn’t disappoint. Josh Hartnett (“Penny Dreadful”) stars as present-day marine archaeologist Jay Fennel, who, following a diving accident while rescuing his wife, is left in a deep coma. While unconscious, his imagination takes him back to colonial India, where he’s a Scotsman fighting to preserve British rule. In this previous incarnation, James Stewart is a Scotsman in the British army, assigned to protect a local warrior queen, Tulaja (Bipasha Basu). The object that connects Jay to James is an enchanted ring, created centuries earlier in India and discovered in the wreck of the ship that trapped his wife, Laura (Tamsin Egerton). So, the question we’re left to ponder is whether Jay/James will return to the present and return to the sea or remain hooked to a breathing apparatus and live in the past. The other option, of course, is that Laura pulls the plug and Jay gets a one-way ticket to purgatory. Apart from some lovely cinematography, the time spent in India mostly serves to bog down the narrative, which possibly could have benefited from the erotic vision of Mira Nair (Kama Sutra). It was an R-rated picture already, so a little skin wouldn’t have hurt anything. As it is, Basu’s Bollywood roots too clearly show through the beautiful costumes and gold jewelry. Nonetheless, fans of epic romances may find something here to like.

All American Bully
Tiger Orange
The change in title from “The Innocent,” back in 2011, to the more topical, All American Bully, tells me that this indie message film went through some serious changes from inception to its straight-to-DVD release. So do the cast members in the dust-covered interviews contained in the bonus package and misleading image on the cover. It suggests that the movie contained therein is about an attack on a school by a pistol-packing mass murderer, instead of the bullying of three geeky teenagers by the same armed assailant. I only mention this because bullies are more often the targets of crazed mass-murders than the perpetrators, who prefer to pick on people half their size and unable to defend themselves. The point lost in the cover and change in title is that the damage done by bullies can sometimes by negated by the same geeks, who can turn the tables on their tormentors by deploying social media and other computer-generated weaponry from the comfort of their laptops. It’s a risky business, to be sure, but revenge movies are all about taking chances. Here a gang of bullies, led by a Fonzie clone (Daren Ackerman), delight in torturing three students who couldn’t do any harm to them if they were armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs. For kicks, they force one on the teens to admit to being a “fag” before they kick the crap out of him, for reasons known only to bullies. A film of the so-called confession is uploaded to social media, giving the other students something to giggle over the next day in school. The humiliated boy, who can barely walk from bruises inflicted on him during the beating, has no choice but to consider suicide. Or, does he? What happens next will make fans of such things feel sorry for the bully and reconsider their attitude toward cyber-revenge. It doesn’t take long for writer/director Jason Hawkins to redirect or sympathies, again, in a narrative meltdown that defines the word, “overwrought,” and really only serves to put an end to the madness. There’s a rather extensive interview session included in the bonus, in which cast members are asked to relate their experiences with bullying (mostly, none) and what lessons are to be taken from All American Bully. Sadly, they aren’t asked about the most interesting questions raised by Hawkins in his screenplay: What happens when the bullied become the bullies? Is turn-about fair play or just another moral quagmire? Can the people who monitor social networks be charged with aiding and abetting criminal acts if they don’t treat bullying in the same way as ludicrously banned images of mothers nursing their babies?

Reunions of estranged siblings rarely fail to produce emotional fireworks, especially when one of them was left behind to mind the store or care for a loved one. Once the hugging ends, the recriminations begin … that sort of thing. In Wade Gasque’s debut feature, Tiger Orange, that scenario is complicated by the fact that brothers Chet (Mark Strano) and Todd (Frankie Valenti, a.k.a. Johnny Hazzard) are gay, one overtly so and the other still with one leg in the closet. Todd decided to escape small-town boredom and bullies by splitting for L.A. the minute he turned 18, while Chet stayed behind to run the family store and savor the simple pleasures rejected by his brother. The fact that Todd didn’t bother to attend their dad’s funeral becomes a sticking point when he comes home from Los Angeles with no job, no money and his bad-boy attitude intact. The rest of Tiger Orange plays out according to mainstream form and with more talk about sex than depictions of it. Despite its familiarity, the film is easy to enjoy and the production values are well above average.

All the Wrong Reasons
There are a couple of good reasons to pick up All the Wrong Reasons, but fans of “Glee” won’t be required to look for anything beyond the presence of Cory Montieth, who died of a drug overdose before the film could find distribution in the U.S. While it found some traction in the Great White North, most stateside companies are reluctant to send out a marginal product starring a recently deceased star, lest they be accused of exploiting that actor’s fame. Montieth’s name did nothing to boast sales of McCanick, a police drama that debuted at the same 2013 Toronto International Film Festival before a limited release into theaters here six months later and unceremonious dumping into the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace two months after that. Montieth doesn’t enjoy the support of David Morse and Ciaran Hinds in Gia Milani’s debut feature, All the Wrong Reasons, but, at least, he is far more visible in it. His character, James Ascher, manages a discount department store well enough to qualify for a transfer to the company’s Toronto headquarters. His wife, Kate (Karine Vanasse), plays close attention to the security cameras, albeit primarily as a form of therapy to take her mind off her sister’s suicide and her near-paralyzing battle with PTSD. Unfortunately, for James, her ailment prevents her from engaging in physical contact with other human beings, including sexual contact with him. After a year, Kate’s condition has finally touched his last nerve, leaving him vulnerable to the advances of an opportunistic single mother, Nicole (Emily Hampshire), who sees in her boss an answer to her financial problems. Also thrown into the mix is a disabled firefighter, Simon (Kevin Zegers), who takes a security job at the store while waiting to be re-qualified for work in the department.  Like Kate, Simon has become dependent on prescription drugs. Given just that much information, most viewers could correctly predict what transpires in the ensuing 118 minutes of screen time. Of these characters, Montieth’s probably is the most underwritten and, as such, least credible. The others are much more interesting, if only because they’re able to pull off the comic elements with less visible sweat.

Der Todesking (The Death King): Blu-ray
The Pact 2: Blu-ray
Alien Outpost: Blu-ray
Dark Summer: Blu-ray
When critics conclude their review of a particularly offensive or disturbing movie by pointing out that it isn’t for everyone, it’s something like saying, “enter at your own risk.” Let’s skip the niceties by cautioning, up-front, that Jorg Buttgereit’s Der Todesking (“The Death King”) may not be for anyone, let alone everyone, not even those hard-core horror buffs who made it through Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 and, yes, even Cannibal Holocaust unscathed. Cult Epics is presenting Der Todesking as the third release in its Corpse Fucking Art series. Sandwiched between the Nekromantik duo, it is a seven-story anthology in which all of the stories are connected by a chain letter sent to unrelated people who either are contemplating suicide or have become obsessed with death. The letter serves as a catalyst for whatever atrocity is likely to follow and the interstitial image separating the chapters is a gradually decaying corpse. Buttgereit doesn’t take the gag so far as to insinuate that the body is real, but try telling that to your stomach. That said, however, anyone who did make it through the Nekromantiks without serious brain damage probably won’t be able to resist picking up this almost ridiculously complete Blu-ray package. If Germany had the won the war, films like these would be packaged in double features with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will. Available for the first time in hi-def, Der Todesking goes out uncut and uncensored in a new HD transfer (taken from the original 16mm negative) and with the filmmaker’s making-of “shockumentary,” “Corpse Fucking Art”; a new introduction by Jorg Buttgereit; audio commentary by Buttgereit and co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; another making-of featurette; a still photo gallery; the original musical soundtrack; trailers; and a silver-embossed 25th Anniversary slipcover and “Corpse Fucking Art” postcard.

Just because a no-budget genre flick makes a ton of money on its own merits doesn’t mean that its sequel will work as well, given a similar budget, creative team and largely new cast. All it really means is that you might be able to fool enough fans of the earlier picture in its first week of release to turn a profit, before genre completists spread the word of the sequels’ inadequacies. That used to work better when distributors were able to hide a movie from critics until opening weekend, knowing that few people bothered to pick up the Monday papers. Today, of course, it’s impossible to hide a movie for more than a few hours, even if it’s released straight into video, thanks to the immediacy of the blogosphere and irrelevancy of mainstream critics when it comes to genre pictures. In the case of The Pact 2, returnees include Caity Lotz, Haley Hudson and Mark Steger. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy is gone entirely, replaced by the unheralded tag team of Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath serving in both capacities. New to the cast are Camilla Luddington (“Grey’s Anatomy”), who cleans up crime scenes for a living; Scott Michael Foster, as her cop boyfriend; Patrick Fischler (“Once Upon a Time”), as an FBI profiler; and Amy Pietz (“Caroline in the City”). The primary question to be answered is whether the Judas Killer has returned or a copycat is following in his bloody footsteps. After a few early scares, Pact 2 resorts to being a slasher flick, which completely defeats the purpose of a sequel to a movie that worked so well as a supernatural thriller.

Alien Outpost (a.k.a., “Outpost 37”) is a very bizarre, if not particularly successful attempt to merge such modern war documentaries as Restrepo and Occupation: Dreamland with Transformers: Dark of the Moon and War of the Worlds. Ten years after an alien invasion is thwarted, robotic survivors join Taliban fighters in an attack on the remote Outpost 37, where an international team of elite warriors may be the only thing keeping Earth from being recaptured by the aliens. We witness the action and casual interplay between the soldiers through the lens of a camera wielded by embedded documentarians. It’s not the worst idea in the world, but the presence of Islamic insurgents within the context of a nearly inexplicable alien attack is jarring.  Alien Outpost was co-written and directed by Jabbar Raisani, whose list of credits is topped by “Game of Thrones,” for which he toiled as visual-effects supervisor.

It would be difficult for anyone who’s seen Disturbia not to flash back to that suburban thriller while watching Dark Summer, if only because teenage protagonist Daniel Williamson (Keir Gilchrist) is under house arrest for cyber-stalking a classmate, Mona (Grace Phipps), but can’t resist the temptation to cause further mischief. The always wonderful Peter Stormare plays the probation officer who warns the boy against using his computer, inviting friends to the house and testing the limits of his ankle bracelet. Naturally, Daniel ignores all three orders. Long story short, he’s contacted by Mona through some kind of haunted social medium and the house becomes a cage, allowing ghosts and other demons to terrorize the kids, who, by now, include Maestro Harrell (“Suburgatory”) and Stella Maeve (“Chicago P.D.”). Things get pretty messy.  The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Paul Solet; several making-of featurettes; interviews; and a long and entertaining conversation with Stormare. Among the things I learned was that the native Swede was discovered by Ingmar Bergman and has a list of stage, TV and theater credits longer than most actors’ right arms.

PBS: Poldark: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards: Volume Three: Blu-ray
Syfy: Bitten: The Complete Second Season
Disney Channel: Teen Beach 2
Barney Miller: The Final Season
Nature: Animal Childhood
Nickelodeon: Bunch of Playdates
Given the need for the BBC and “Masterpiece Theater” to have a ready alternative for “Downton Abbey” when it finishes its next and final season – and something for its mammoth fan base to savor until then, as well – it probably was inevitable that comparisons to “Poldark” would be encouraged, if only as a marketing gimmick. The 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s 12 novels had provided a huge boost for public television at a time when it was emerging from its “educational TV” pigeonhole, so it wouldn’t require much of a learning curve on the audience’s part. Instead of the more than 25 hours of precious airtime required to absorb the original series, the new one would only take eight hours to cover the first two books. “Poldark” must have done well enough in its British run, at least, because it’s already been renewed for a second stanza. Not having seen the original adaptation or particularly interested in making comparisons to “Downton Abbey,” I went into Season One without prejudice. Being a sucker for spectacular hi-def cinematography, “Poldark” made a quick positive impression with its sparkling shots of the Cornwall coastline and the lush green blanket of grass and crops that extends from its majestic cliffs to the terraced hills. The series’ titular protagonist (hunky Aidan Turner) returns to Cornwell after being wounded in a guerrilla ambush in the American Revolution. A nobleman before leaving for the war, Poldark became increasingly dubious of his country’s colonial policy while being shot at by the highly motivated Yanks. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he’s come back to a changed country. His father died in the interim, penniless, and his stingy uncle, Charles (the late Warren Clarke), has no interest in releasing Poldark from debts left behind in his wake. The family home has nearly been destroyed by neglect and their mine presumably has been played out. The servants are surly and the mineworkers are famished. Worse, considering the story’s soapy foundation, his onetime lover Elizabeth (Heida Reed) accepted rumors of his death as fact and agreed to marry his twit cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller). Elizabeth claims to be happy with Francis, but has reserved her right to flirt with her devilishly handsome old flame. Into this emotional quagmire arrives the redheaded runaway Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), who he accepts as a servant and his personal Eliza Doolittle reclamation project. And, that’s only in the first episode. There’s plenty more intrigue, back-stabbing and scurrilous gossip to come. I don’t think many fans of “Masterpiece” will be disappointed by “Poldark,” which is related to “Downton Abbey” only by English blood. The Blu-ray adds three featurettes of varying value.

When Emmy nominations are announced next week, Netflix’s superb political thriller “House of Cards” is lead-pipe cinch to walk away with a whole bunch of them. Predicting whether any of the finalists will come out on top on September 20 is a far more difficult assignment, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright weren’t nominated, at least.  Frankly, I’m not sure if episodes representing Season Two or Season Three were eligible for consideration – Emmy guidelines are only slightly less Byzantine than those governing induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame – and it probably wouldn’t matter either way. The Blu-ray/DVD release of “House of Cards: Volume Three” should provide all the evidence anyone needs to how far the producers and writers are willing to push the dramatic envelope. Unlike the original British series from which it was adapted, the Netflix series threw in some subplots this year that are on a par with Joseph Kennedy conspiring with the Mafia to get his son elected president or candidates Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan collaborating with the governments of North Vietnam and Iran to defeat Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, respectively. Strange, but true. Season Three picks up with President Francis Underwood’s loyal aide Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) awakening from the coma into which he slipped after being hit over the head by a rock wielded by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the sex worker who could bring down Underwood’s fledgling administration. Meanwhile, Francis’ plummeting popularity is threatening his first official run for the office and his enemies are taking their animus out on the world’s sexiest First Lady, who is anxious to become our ambassador to the UN. Also threatening to upend the president are a truly evil Putin clone (Lars Mikkelsen) and computer hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), who is beginning to resemble fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden. And, that’s just for starters. The Blu-ray adds a comprehensive behind-the-scenes featurette and a closer look at the shocking goings-on later in the season in New Mexico. This is can’t-miss stuff, folks.

Syfy has gained a great deal of notoriety lately for its roster of original sci-fi/horror flicks, which range from cultishly laughable to just plain laughable. If they’re the public face of the cable network, it’s the company’s ability to cherry-pick highly entertaining, millennial-skewing co-productions from Canada and England that is getting serious attention from adult viewers and critics. Based on Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series of novels, “Bitten” straddles a line that roughly divides “Twilight” and “True Blood.” Filmed in the lush Ontario countryside, “Bitten” isn’t solely targeted at teenagers with a taste for forbidden love. The witches and werewolves are slightly older, just as beautiful, but reveal a tad more skin and skivvies by Victoria’s Secret. Not being a premium cable network, however, Syfy is unable to go toe-to-toe with HBO’s “True Blood,” when it comes to nudity and supernatural sex. Still, “Bitten” is extremely well made and there’s no scrimping on the story-telling. Laura Vandervoort plays the ass-kicking Elena Michaels, presumably the world’s only female werewolf, She/it has a human boyfriend, but can’t resist the pull of the “pack” and her ex-finance, who is responsible for sharpening her fangs. A third season of episodes begins shooting this summer.

The Disney Channel’s original movies Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach 2 are a throwback to the beach-blanket movies that practically defined 1960s youth culture before Brian Wilson discovered acid and hot rods gave way to VW vans with “Flower Power” decals. Sad to say, however, they made me wonder how many of these kids are going to end up scandalized by their own inability to handle success. The mere thought of Annette Funicello sending out a nude selfie of herself on the Internet – however appealing that might be to a generation of Boomer males – made me consider going to confession. The fact is, however, Annette was 21 when Beach Party was released, and Frankie Avalon was 24. Sandra Dee was 17 when she became Moondoggy’s groupie, four years earlier, in the first Gidget. I don’t remember much singing and dancing in the fact-based story. ”Teen Beach 2” is set at the end of summer, just in time for one more beach bash before school starts and some of the kids, at least, have to start thinking about college. The producers must have really loved the “West Side Story” time-warp theme in the first movie, because the process is reversed in the sequel. The music and dancing infinitely more polished than in the days of Beach Blanket Bingo, when a bunch of guys with bushy blond hairdos played songs that made the dudes and dudettes twist the night away.

The Shout! Factory compilation, “Barney Miller: The Final Season,” wraps up eight seasons in the sitcom-y lives and exploits of everyone’s favorite Greenwich Village police squad. Characters played by  Hal Linden, Max Gail, Ron Glass, Steve Landesberg, Ron Carey, and James Gregory made it all the way to the 22nd episode finale, along with several of the more popular miscreants who shared space in the decrepit squad room. (Jack Soo died after the fifth season, while Abe Vigoda’s “Fish” retired as of the fourth season.) Naturally, the final episodes played to the tear ducts of loyal viewers. The show’s serio-comic approach to police work and insistence on character diversity would be emulated in such influential shows as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue,” which advanced the genre by leaving the squad rooms for location shoots.

For parents who worry about the entertainment choices they make for their toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, and don’t use DVDs solely as unpaid babysitters, it’s never easy to determine precisely when a child is ready to leave behind such compilations as Nickelodeon’s animated “Bunch of Playdates” and pick up a live-action title like Nature’s “Animal Childhood.” Nickelodeon’s three-disc collection offers seven hours of educational and musical fun, in 18 hours of material from “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Go, Diego, Go!,” “The Wonder Pets!,” “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” “The Fresh Beat Band” and “Blue’s Room.” The cover of the “Nature” presentation promises all sorts of cute-and-cuddly stories about how baby animals make their presences known in the world for the first time and either learn from their parents how to survive in the cold, cruel world or evolve in non-nuclear arrangements. It’s a wonderfully conceived and produced show that parents can enjoy with their kids. As is the case in such cherished Disney movies as Bambi and Old Yeller, however, there are moments when baby animals are shown struggling for their lives in what might otherwise be considered to be learning situations. Here, in addition to the usual stragglers targeted by predatory lions, hyenas and wolves, there’s a wee elephant whose mother can’t prevent him from being swept away in a rain-swollen river. It might be too much for a sensitive child to bear … or parent.

The DVD Wrapup: Danny Collins, Get Hard, Decline of Western Civilization, Downtown 81 and more

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Danny Collins: Blu-ray
There are moments in Dan Fogelman’s wildly uneven rock-‘n’-roll fantasy, Danny Collins, that suggest the author was raised on classic-rock radio and his titular protagonist (Al Pacino) was modeled less after Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or Rod Steward, than Neil Diamond, Billy Joel or a post-Wings Paul McCartney. That much is clear when Collins arrives on stage for the first time, looking as if he might rip into “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Katmandu” or “Maggie May,” but, instead, delivers what amounts to Diamond’s between-innings anthem, “Sweet Caroline.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the Fenway Park favorite. It just sounds out of place when sung by a wrung-out, blurry-eyed geezer, whose “Elvis scarves” are older than everyone in his band. Collins has been so strung out for so long that he hasn’t written a new song in 30 years and can’t readily recall the details of two of his marriages. As the inspired-by-a-true-story story goes, Collins’ longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old letter written to his client by John Lennon, but intercepted by the Rolling Stone reporter who conducted the interview that caught the Beatle’s eye. In it, Collins was given some positive career advice and invited to visit him and Yoko when he was in the neighborhood. Being a huge fan of Lennon, there’s no telling how Collins’ career path might have changed had he been aware of the letter. (In fact, throughout much of the 1970s, the drunk-and-disorderly Lennon was in no shape to offer advice – solid or otherwise – to any up-and-coming musician.) Like Scrooge, after his cathartic journey into the future with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Collins is inspired by the letter not only to clean up his act, but also make a pilgrimage to New Jersey to make nice with his bitterly estranged son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), incredulous daughter-in-law, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and super-cute granddaughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).

Even if Tom and Samantha want nothing to do with the genuinely repentant Collins, he eventually weasels his way into the family’s good graces by enlisting Hope in his campaign. Not surprisingly, the toddler reacts favorably to a tour bus full of toys and some playful piano tickling. At the same time, Collins is wooing the manager of the mid-range motel in which he’s staying. Annette Bening is uncharacteristically schoolmarish as the no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone Mary Sinclair, who, at first, easily resists the Pacino-ish charms of the reformed musician, but eventually succumbs to his charms. As the author of Last Vegas, The Guilt Trip and Tangled, Fogelman knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the emotional roller-coaster rolling for 106 minutes. All of the actors, especially Pacino, deliver performances sufficiently likeable to bridge the gaps between fantasy, reality and schmaltz. His appearances in such largely unseen indies as Manglehorn, The Humbling, Salome, Stand Up Guys and The Son of No One Pacino have given DVD renters a great return on their investment. But, they mostly reminded us of earlier work and such memorable characters as Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), John Milton (The Devil’s Advocate) and Lefty (Donnie Brasco). As long as his hair doesn’t fall out completely, he’ll always look younger than his 75 years and still make a credible date for female characters a decade or two younger than him. Bening may even remind some viewers here of Diane Keaton’s Kay, in the Godfather trilogy. A couple other things should be mentioned in any discussion of Danny Collins: 1) The Lennon-dominated soundtrack is so appealing that it completely overshadows the original music by Ryan Adam and Theodore Shapiro, and 2) onerously obtrusive product placement disturbs the rhythm of nearly every scene in which a name brand is dropped or logo added in the background. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and gallery of faux “Danny Collins album covers” through the years.

Get Hard: Unrated: Blu-ray
Far be it from me to recommend marketing strategy to a major studio, but the next time Will Ferrell is cast in an odd-couple, Mutt-and-Jeff or fish-out-of-water comedy, some thought should be given to the less-is-more theory as it pertains to publicity. Whether he’s promoting a Major League Baseball tie-in or sequel to an earlier blockbuster, Ferrell defines the word, “overexposed,” and like Sasha Baron Cohen, he tends to appear in character. Talk-show hosts and their audiences eat it up, as do the entertainment “news” shows, but it’s only fun in small does. More problematic, however, is the over-familiarity that comes with oft-repeated production anecdotes, video clips and character sketches, leaving practically nothing to the imagination. His many cameo appearances in the movies, television shows and websites of fellow comedians – along with such vanity projects as the Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption,” with Kristen Wiig – have made him a ubiquitous media personality. Like a good soldier, Ferrell pulled out all of the stops for Get Hard, as did his nearly inescapable co-star Kevin Hart. Considering his long and arduous trek to the A-list, no one can blame Hart for milking his 15 minutes of fame. By contrast, Ferrell has been in the spotlight for so long, he’d probably go through withdrawal if denied it.

Because Hart and Ferrell are two of the most popular actors on the planet right now, I would think that Warner Bros. expected more than $105 million in worldwide box-office revenues. (The marketing campaign, alone, probably cost WB more than the estimated production budget of $40 million.) Get Hard was funny enough to please fans of both actors, but not nearly enough to ignite the same kind of cross-over business as such kindred comedies as Trading Places and Stir Crazy, which it resembles. Outside of England and Canada, however, I doubt that many overseas viewers fully grasped the central gag. Here, Ferrell plays a successful hedge-fund manager, James King, who’s been set up as the patsy by his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) to take the fall for a highly lucrative, if thoroughly illegal investment scheme. In a true stretch of current reality, James is put on trial and convicted of fraud. Sentenced to several years at San Quentin, James has been allowed 30 days to get his affairs in order before surrendering to prison officials. This scenario is so preposterous as to beg unintentional laughter. After all, how many financiers have been found guilty of anything since 2008 and, of that handful, how many were required to do hard time? For all of his crimes, Bernie Madoff is being allowed to spend the rest of days in a medium-security prison.

James’ fear of being beaten, killed or raped by hardened San Quentin cons, who can smell a fresh fish from across the San Francisco Bay, isn’t really all that preposterous. In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a convicted coke dealer played by Ed Norton voluntarily takes a beating from a pal, so as to make himself less susceptible to rape in prison. Unwilling to take such drastic measures, James recruits the only African-American he knows, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to prepare him for the experience. What he doesn’t know is that Darnell has always been an upstanding, law-abiding citizen and doesn’t know any more about how to survive prison than Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. Not wishing to disappoint a valuable customer in his car-wash customer, Darnell makes a futile attempt to toughen James up by enlisting some local hoodlums to give James a tutorial in survival. In an effort to play to the cheap seats, co-writer/director Etan Cohen has Darnell take James to a restaurant popular with gay men for brunch. He reacts accordingly, even if the paying customers don’t. This may be Cohen’s first directorial credit, but he’s collaborated on such features as Men in Black 3, Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, so he knows how to use broad material to make people laugh. Ferrell and Hart’s fans should enjoy the seven minutes of fresh material added to what already was a R-rated picture. The Blu-ray package includes both versions of Get Hard; deleted scenes and gag reel; and several comic featurettes, including “The Kevin Hart Workout,” “A Date with John Mayer,” “Will Ferrell, Gangsta” and “Twerking 101.”

The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection: Blu-ray
Downtown 81
At a time when punk and heavy metal were being dismissed as the bastard stepchildren of rock ’n’ roll, Penelope Spheeris took the music seriously enough to showcase them as evolving art forms and accord the musicians the same respect shown any other chart-topping performer. The rock-media mainstream had yet to embrace the artists and record labels weren’t anxious to back unproven commodities whose uncouth manners and angry lyrics could backfire on them. Released in 1981, The Decline of Western Civilization focused on the burgeoning punk-rock scene in Los Angeles, especially as it migrated from temporary homes on the Sunset Strip, Chinatown and concrete bunkers in the beach communities. The American punk crowd had never been beholden on British acts, except for fashion tips, so it didn’t miss a beat when Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February, 1979.  Spheeris’ ability to locate its beating heart was, perhaps, its greatest accomplishment. A minimalist affair from Day One, she captured the organic, if frequently mock-violent relationship between the musicians and fans, for whom safety pin jewelry and Mohawk hairdos weren’t reserved for special occasions. Like punk, heavy metal music existed as an identifiable subgenre for nearly 20 years before Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and hundreds of garage-rock aficionados had opened the door for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, T-Rex and, by extension, the Sex Pistols. They’ve never really gone away, either.

One thing that Spheeris was able to discern rather quickly was how punks and metal musicians defined success and accepted their place as outsiders and provocateurs. By this time, of course, most mainstream bands and performers had been seduced by gigantic contracts and the mountains of cocaine that were delivered to their homes whenever they were running low. The desperation voiced by X in early songs “The Unheard Music,” “The New World” and “I Must Think Bad Thoughts” lamented the status of L.A. punk bands, while refusing to give an inch to convention or cooptation. You could ride skateboards or mosh to punk and metal, but the likelihood of Michelob or Coors licensing a song for a commercial was nil. This, of course, made it easy to spit on the trappings of lifestyle conformity and adopt a nihilistic stance. By contrast, the heavy-metal musicians we meet in the sequel are direct descendants of the glam-rock pioneers, right down to the high-heel boots, makeup and bouffant hair styles for men. That much would disappear, at least, as the Beavis and Butt-heads of the world embraced a decidedly more proletarian vibe to the movement. In 1987, though, the androgynous look still appealed to groupies – it even survived the satirical lashing administered by This Is Spinal Tap – and, without them, the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll would be meaningless. A few years later, “The Osbournes” and Ozzfest would bring heavy metal into the mainstream, but not nearly to the same extent as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. Among the still-popular musicians we meet as hairy young adults in “The Metal Years” are Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy, Bret Michaels and several other unabashedly hedonistic musicians and groupies.

Judged solely as documentaries, the first two segments of The Decline of Western Civilization hold up very well as windows into a world that was far more shocking three decades ago than it is now. They have inspired scores of filmmakers to follow suit. That isn’t the case with The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, a disturbing film in which you can actually watch the chickens of a crippled society come home to roost. It is much less about the evolution of hard-corps music and rabid fan base, circa 1998, than a delayed sequel to Spheeris’ 1983 culture-clash drama, Suburbia. In 1998, the streets, alleys and abandoned houses of Hollywood were home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless youth commonly dismissed as “gutter punks.” Their self-destructive nihilism echoes the nearly indecipherable lyrics hurled at us in “Part I” by the Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear and Circle Jerks. In 1998 and, maybe, still today, these kids had to panhandle, steal or sell their blood to purchase tickets to see their favorite bands in a club. Mostly, though, if they couldn’t sneak into a club, why bother? In the absence of their parents and siblings, the teenagers we meet have formed families of their own, but without any of the safety nets provided by society or relatives. Just as Hollywood has changed in the interim, we’re left to wonder how these young people have fared since then. All three films are collected in this long-awaited Shout Factory box, which is enhanced by new 2K scans supervised by Spheeris; commentary by Dave Grohl; vintage interviews with the director; never-before-seen original footage of performances and interviews; theatrical trailers; and a 40-page booklet, featuring rare stills and text by Domenic Priore.

At the exact same time as Spheeris was surveying the L.A. punk scene for the first installment of “TDOWC,” Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien collected snapshots of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side for Downtown 81 (originally, “New York Beat Movie”). Although these neighborhoods resembled “Dresden after the war,” a closer examination of the shaded corners, blank walls, basements, studios and dive bars revealed a veritable ant hill of cultural activity by artists and musicians of all stripe. O’Brien recalls how Downtown 81 was first envisioned as a New Wave fairytale, but exists today more as a documentary about a city and scene that no longer exist. In it, the camera follows then-undiscovered street-artist Jean Michel Basquiat from a hospital bed, to his locked apartment, to underground recording studios and fashion fittings, CBGB and the Mudd Club and other landmarks of the hipster diaspora. He’s in a desperate search for the $500 required to reclaim access to his studio/home. Although Basquiat had yet to become a cause célèbre in the art world, he was already known in some quarters as a graffiti artist and scenester. O’Brien had served as the first editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before launching the public-access sensation, “TV Party,” which was to the New York underground scene what “Soul Train” was to R&B and hip-hop.

Among the people who make cameos or perform here are Debbie Harry, Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Plastics, Fab 5 Freddy, Vincent Gallo, Maripol, Debi Mazar, Coati Mundi, Chris Stein and Elliott Murphy. They all fit into the underground scene organically, but aren’t asked to impersonate themselves. Basquiat’s desperate search for bread adds an urgent pace and tempo that would have been missing in a documentary. Today, however, Downtown 81 can be viewed as a funky travelogue of a section of New York absent AIDS, gentrification, drug rehab, crack, media vultures and inflated egos spawned by fame. That’s all gone now. By contrast, Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard have remained pretty much the same, although noticeably cleaner and safer. Production hassles resulted in Downtown 81 being held captive in an Italian warehouse for 20 years before its limited debut in 2001. Despite the fact that the dialogue track was lost, the restored edition looks and sounds better than ever. A second disc adds fresh interviews and the recollections of O’Brien, Maripol and Fab Five Freddy; vintage video clips; and a gallery.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter: Blu-ray
If the Coen Brothers had made a feature-length sequel to Fargo, instead of merely lending their names and suggestions to the creators of the FX series, “Fargo,” as executive-producers, it might have looked a lot like Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Just as Fargo had convinced viewers that the inspiration for the movie came from an actual event in the criminal history of Nordic Minnesota, David and Nathan Zellner based their film on an urban legend – or, in this case, a North Woods legend – that proved too good to be completely accurate. In it, a young Japanese office worker, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), discovers a VHS cassette of Fargo hidden under a rock, while on dreamlike stroll on a misty beach. The tape has been degraded to the point where the video images appear scrambled and barely intelligible. The one thing Kumiko is able to discern is the scene in which a battered and bloody Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buries a suitcase full of money in the snow, along a long fence line that parallels the wind-swept highway. Already emotionally damaged by the barely veiled threats of her horny boss, Kumiko imagines the video images to be gifts from God, directing her to an actual hidden treasure. After measuring the distances between the fence posts that lead invariably to Fargo, North Dakota – actually, Bemidji, Minnesota, home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – she hops on a plane to the Twin Cities, absent any of the provisions one would need to spend more than 10 minutes outside in the middle of winter.  And, that includes enough money to afford lunch, a motel room, parka or translation app for a cellphone.

Despite looking like a discarded piece of Kleenex on the side of the road, Kumiko gets rides, food and unheeded advice from cops and other strangers. In an effort to convince her that Fargo is a work of fiction, a policeman who shares several Minnesota-nice traits with Marge Gunderson, searches high and wide for a sushi restaurant, where the owners might be able to serve as interpreters. The closest they come is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. After mistaking the cop’s kindness for love, Kumiko begins to lose hope of locating her treasure. The Zellners are content here to follow the same roadmap laid by north-country mythologists intent on expanding the tourist trade already generated by the many quirky events described in Coens’ fish story. Since the ending is essentially the same, viewers should resist the temptation to conduct an Internet search for the woman who inspired the story, Takako Konishi. It can wait. Kikuchi’s portrayal of the painfully withdrawn and utterly colorless Kumiko stands out from everything else in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, except an evocative score by the Octopus Project and the brilliant cinematography by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love), which makes the forbidding Minnesota winter look every bit as cold as it is, but more beautiful than anyone living south of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport could ever imagine. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director David Zellner, writer/producer Nathan Zellner and producer Chris Ohlson, as well as deleted and alternate scenes.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Of Girls and Horses
If the name of Czech filmmaker Jaromil Jireš doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he elected to continue working in the nation of his birth after the Warsaw Pact nations crushed the reforms brought about by Prague Spring, as well as the spirit of filmmakers associated with the Czechoslovak New Wave. He wasn’t soft on communism, by any means, but, by choosing not to follow Miloš Forman, Ján Kadár, Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec into self-exile in the West, he was required to abide by government censorship and soften his political edge. It’s difficult to imagine how the delightfully surrealistic and overtly erotic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders slipped past the eyes of humorless censors long enough to be shown in a handful of foreign venues. Between the late 1970s and its release on DVD in 2004, however, the movie mostly disappeared from view anywhere. And, yet, its influence likely extended to English writer Angela Carter, whose screenplay for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) echoed similar themes. It’s also possible that “Valerie” caught the eye of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose surrealistic The Holy Mountain and El Topo captured the imagination of arthouse audiences and acid heads in the 1970s. “Valerie” is a period piece based on a Gothic fantasy by Vítezslav Nezval. In it, the first period of a charming 13-year-old (Jaroslava Schallerova) triggers a series of hallucinatory events that mirror the sexual confusion and disturbing urges that are synonymous with the arrival of puberty in many unsuspecting girls and boys. In Valerie’s case, the passage is tipped when earrings left to her by her mother are stolen while she’s sleeping in a gazebo — either by the malevolent Weasel or benevolent Eagle — and replaced the next morning while lounging in a pool with three giddy blonds. The arrival of a carnival only serves to confuse an already bewildering situation, complicated by the appearance of vampires, witches, wicked priests and twisted relatives. As perplexing as these daydreams and nightmares may be, Jireš (The Joke) cloaks them in a phantasmagoria of colors and distinct cinematic textures. At a brisk 73 minutes, “Valerie” comes and goes like a fractured dream on a restless night. Anyone in the mood for more New Wave challenges ought to check out Vera Chytilová’s Daisies “Criterion’s Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The Blu-ray features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; three of JIres’ early shorts, “Uncle,” “Footprints” and “The Hall of Lost Steps”; a new interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames; earlier interviews with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák; an alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack by the Valerie Project; and an essay by critic Jana Prikryl.

With a title that will come dangerously close to being misunderstood by people with porn on their brains, Monika Treut’s Of Girls and Horses reminds me more of a Germanic The Horse Whisperer than the lesbian coming-of-age drama it also resembles. In fact, the attachment between girls and horses here closely corresponds to the opinion shared by Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” that women “identify with their strength … and are a source of power and motion and transformation.” I wouldn’t know, but it makes sense within the context of the movie. Alex (Ceci Chuh) is a self-destructive 16-year-old, who has finally gotten on the last nerve of her adoptive mother and is sent to a farm in northern Germany to work with horses as an intern. Given her pissy moods and generally downbeat attitude toward life, we aren’t given much reason to hope for Alex’s reform. If she rebels against the entry-level chores she’s assigned, her next step is reform school or prison. Like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, the farm’s resident trainer, Tina (Vanida Karun), senses an immediate attraction between the city girl and horses. Even so, Alex is always one step away from messing up. Her biggest challenge comes when an upper-class girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), arrives with her magnificent Thoroughbred and practically lives in the same stall with him. In a departure from form, Treut doesn’t require her characters to become mortal enemies, whose differences suddenly narrow after a cathartic event. Their differences do narrow, but naturally and over time. Most of the tension comes when Tina’s relationship with her lover in Hamburg (Ellen Grell) becomes complicated and she begins to take it out on Alex. Instead, that tension brings the teenagers together amid the gorgeous rolling hills of northern Germany.

Soldate Jeanette
Chantal Akerman, From Here
Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais
It isn’t often these days that one comes across such an unrepentant art film as Austrian writer/director Daniel Hoesl’s debut feature, Soldate Jeannette (“Soldier Jane”). Appealing primarily to the nichiest of niche audiences, it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Palm Spring for distribution outside the festival circuit or feminist film clubs. That it is the product of something called the European Film Conspiracy recalls a time when radicalism in film mirrored the rebellions in the streets. Jean-Luc Godard led the way in Europe, making movies that no longer told stories but embraced political movements for which creative freedom was anathema. In the U.S., John Cassavetes experimented with form and function, limiting politics to the diplomacy practiced by men and women over the kitchen table and in bed. These films weren’t made for those people who frequented the local Bijou to be entertained or relieved of their cares for 90-plus minutes. They were intended to challenge, provoke and enflame us. The best were puzzles for the mind, while the worst were masturbatory wastes of our times. Soldate Jeannette seems to combine elements of Godard’s work with the spirit Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands. Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg is the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown here, a middle-age Viennese resident of haute-bourgeois persuasion. Jane’s boredom with her lifestyle is manifested by her refusal to pay rent, embezzle money from her family’s trust fund and discard expensive clothing she’d purchased only moments earlier. When she finally decides to forgo her yoga and self-defense classes, Jane buys fancy boots and camping equipment and heads for the Alps. To keep her warm the first night, Jane burns thousands of dollars’ worth of Euros. After sharing her body with strangers for a place to sleep, she takes up residence in a communal farm and slaughter house that might have seemed ideal in the 1960s, but, today, remains a bastion for male entitlement. Newly emboldened by her own quest for freedom, Jane takes it upon herself to rescue a younger woman of less privileged background. Nothing is resolved, but, as a character study, it held my attention. The DVD adds interviews with Orsini-Rosenberg and Hoesl, as well as a couple of shorts.

In a bit of a coincidence, Godard and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman are referenced in Soldate Jeanette in the same week as films about them are being released by Icarus. Both will be of interest almost exclusively to arthouse buffs and Francophiles. Chantal Akerman, From Here is a wide-ranging interview rendered almost useless by a gimmick employed by the filmmaker to re-create one of Akerman’s artistic conceits. A stationary camera points into a boardroom or dining room, from outside a door in the hallway, allowing for a view of a seated Ackerman and whoever else might pass before the lens. The anonymous interviewer is hidden behind a wall thick enough to muffle his questions and push some of her answers well out of context. It helps, somewhat, that the discussion is primarily in English.

The title, Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, makes the event related here sound as if it might have been a championship fight promoted by Don King. Instead, this too-brief meeting of the minds, recorded in 2009, only skims the surface of careers that literally changed the face of the international cinema. Neither Godard, 79, nor Ophuls, 82, was ready to retire, even if both men would have been put out to pasture long ago in Hollywood. The conversation, which took place before a small audience of admirers, is lively and the recollections are frequently profound. Especially compelling are the directors’ recollections of growing up under the cloud of World War II.

The best reason for picking up Simon Blake’s slow-burn thriller, Still, is an electrifying performance by Aiden Gillen, a Dublin-born actor who specializes in mesmerizing performances. If his face is familiar, it’s because he played an ambitious Baltimore politician in “The Wire” and Lord Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones.” No one does intense with more intensity than Gillen. Here, he plays a London photographer who’s yet to recover from the death of his teenage son in a hit-and-run accident a year earlier and divorce from a wife who once properly fit him like a glove. For no good reason, Tom Carver has become the target of teenage punks, who object to his kindness to a boy too weak to protect himself against the bullies. It takes a long time for Carver to turn into Charles Bronson in Death Wish, but, once he’s pushed beyond his limit, the explosion can be heard from miles away. Anyone anticipating a clichéd ending, though, will be pleasantly surprised. Gillen gets more than ample support from tough-as-nails Sonny Green, Jonathan Slinger, Elodie Yung and Amanda Mealing.

Charlie Levi’s first and only feature, Childless, deals with the grief associated with the unexpected loss of a child, as well, but in very different ways. Having sat on a shelf gathering dust since at least 2009, the intense drama practically dares us to empathize with the four adults closest to the teenage girl, who’s probably getting far more attention in death than she ever did while alive. As played very well by Barbara Hershey, Joe Mantegna, Diane Venora and James Naughton, the middle-class Angelinos prepare for the funeral by wallowing in self-pity and hurling accusations and recriminations at each other and the camera, not only for the conditions that prompted Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss) to take her life, but also the fissures in their own marriages and those of peripheral relations. If Levi leaves the door open for reconciliation, it’s only over Katherine’s cold dead body. Edward Albee might have been able to make these people interesting, if not exactly sympathetic, but Childless could never be mistaken for a sequel to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Even so, it’s always fun to watch actors of this stature at work in something other than TV crime series and horror flicks. The DVD adds a not particularly enlightening making-of featurette.

I Am Evel Knievel: Blu-ray
As difficult as it is to believe in 2015, there was a time not so long ago when a daredevil with the unlikely name of Evel Knievel held the world in the palm in his hand, simply for his willingness to risk life and limb by jumping his Harley-Davidson over several dozen automobiles, buses, tanks filled with shark and crates containing snakes. Mostly, though, Kneivel is remembered for crashing his bike in ways that can be only described as spectacular. It begged the question as to whether fans paid to see him complete the jumps or die trying. Knievel was a master showman in an era when simply showing up wasn’t enough to please an audience. By the time he announced his intentions to jump the Grand Canyon, but had to settle for a failed attempt to bridge the Snake River, there was nowhere to go but Hollywood. That proved to be as big a flop as the Snake River debacle. Among those testifying in Knievel’s defense are celebrities Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Rock, Guy Fieri, Robbie Maddison; daredevils Spanky Spangler and Mike Vallely; Willie G. Davidson, of Harley-Davidson; comedian Bob Einstein (a.k.a., Super Dave Osborne); racing promoters Chris and J.C. Agajanian; and family members, including sons Kelly and Robbie, and former wives Linda Knievel and Krystal Kennedy-Knievel. Not surprisingly, footage of his successful jumps isn’t nearly as captivating as the film taken of Kneivel hideously rolling head over heels on the forgiving concrete, breaking a new bone with each bounce. Derik Murray and David Ray’s I Am Evel Knievel exceeded my meager expectations, at least, reminding me of a time when a man could become a hero simply by putting on a red, white and blue jump suit and putting his reputation on the line for a few thousand paying customers. Or, was that Elvis? The Blu-ray adds plenty of like-minded bonus features.

Contamination: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Jester’s Supper
Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back
Ghosthouse/Witchery: Blu-ray
If genre buffs have learned anything from the ongoing digital revolution, it’s that you can’t keep a good “video nasty” down … or any other long-buried exploitation flick, for that matter. Contamination, newly re-released into Blu-ray by Arrow Films, is a perfect example of the zombie-fication of sleazeball cinema. The video-nasty designation was applied to DVDs of questionable taste by Britain’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association and endorsed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. For it to be enforceable, the legislation needed to be updated to take into account then-current technology. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 didn’t prevent these films from being shown elsewhere or to re-edited and re-submitted. It did, however, serve to elevate the value of bootleg copies in Britain and raise the profile of movies otherwise destined for drive-ins and grindhouses. Noteworthy primarily as a late example of Euro-horror, Contamination borrows key elements from Alien — football-sized eggs and alien “chest bursters” — and relocates them to a ghost steamer speeding toward the docks of New York. No stranger to the international exploitation game, Luigi Cozzi (a.k.a., Lewis Coates) decided that the easiest way to distinguish his film from Ridley Scott’s landmark thriller was to raise the ante on gore, while the cheapest way was to eliminate the spaceship and hire a lower-profile star than Sigourney Weaver. Here, police investigators led by Lieutenant Tony Aris (Marino Mase) are startled to find a cargo containing strange, oversized eggs and the bloody remains of the humans on board. It doesn’t take long before some of the government inspectors to become infected and, when the eggs explode inside the victims’ Hazmat gear, it approximates what might happen if a turtle was cooked in a microwave oven. The investigation leads military personnel headed by Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) and former astronaut Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) to a Colombian coffee farm, where the eggs are being manufactured by a one-eyed Martian brought back by a space mission. I kid you, not. If Contamination isn’t a world-beater cinematically, Arrow’s hi-def restoration makes the 95 minutes pass by quickly. It includes an amusing Q&A session with Cozzi and McCulloch and separate interview with the director; an archive making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film, illustrations and original stills and posters; “Sound of the Cyclops,” in which Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini discusses the creation of the score; and commentary with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.

It’s impossible to predict what a package from One 7 Movies might contain when it arrives in the mail, as the films in its catalog range from vintage porn to obscure foreign horror titles. Made in 1942, in Mussolini-controlled Italy, The Jester’s Supper (a.k.a., “The Dinner of Practical Jokes”) is a rather primitive period piece set in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de Medici. The city is run by a ruthless pair of aristocrat brothers who specialize in playing cruel pranks on their enemies. When one of the victims decides to retaliate, things escalate in unexpected ways. One of them involves the sexual attack on a young woman favored in the Chiaramantesi household by street rabble. None of this would be of current interest if it weren’t for the fact that leading lady Clara Calamai made history by allowing her blouse to be ripped off, revealing the first naked breasts in the Italian sound cinema. The Jester’s Supper isn’t likely to be shown on TMC, but it’s readily available on the Internet.

It isn’t likely that Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back will log much air time here, either, but, as curiosities go, it isn’t bad. The conceit, which begins on the jacket of the DVD, requires horror fans to buy into a movie made in 2008 to look and sound like Nosferatu, Vampyr or Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. And, that it does. The difference between “Lilith” and Shadow of the Vampire, the 2000 John Malkovich vehicle, is that its historically based story is far more interesting. Gianni Virgadaula’s original intention with “Lilith “was to make a 17-minute short that combined elements of the vampire, werewolf and haunted castle subgenres. At 81 minutes, the only thing missing is a compelling story.

The latest double-feature from Scream Factory would be noteworthy mostly for the pairing of David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair in Witchery, virtually guaranteeing a celebration of cheesy cinema. Ghosthouse, which offers no such star power, was made specifically to fool Italian audiences into thinking they were watching a Sam Raimi movie. Doesn’t sound promising, but, guess what, they’re both pretty good. The credit belongs to directors Fabrizio Laurenti and Umberto Lenzi, respectively, embellishing American drive-in tropes with the garish gore-for-gore’s-sake excesses of Euro-horror. There’s isn’t much more to say about movies, except that one features an evil clown doll and the other … well, when you say, Hasseloff and Blair, you’ve said it all.

Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline
Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9
BBC: Planet Ant
1913: Seeds of Conflict
If the only thing aspiring mystery buffs know about Scandinavian writers is Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy,” which opened with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they owe it to themselves to widen their horizons with the many fine crime novels exported to the U.S. before and after that media sensation crashed upon our shores. For those of us allergic to ink and paper, however, the good news is that many of the best series have been translated into movies and television shows, now available here on Blu-ray and DVD. And, yes, they’re imminently binge-worthy. They include, of course, the Swedish/Danish- and English-language translation of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series; Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Pusher Trilogy”; “The Bridge,” which made the transition from Copenhagen/Malmo to Juarez/El Paso; the Martin Beck mystery series, adapted from the novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; the “Easy Money Trilogy,” inspired by the novels of Jens Lapidus; and, from Norway, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” with Stellan Skarsgård. The unsinkable Netflix/AMC series, “The Killing,” is a direct translation of the popular Scandinavian series “Forbrydelsen” (a.k.a., “The Crime”).

American crime series require of their women protagonists that they be drop-dead gorgeous, sexually active or sexually ambiguous, sharpshooters, feisty and either constantly worried about their children or worried that the expiration date on their eggs is drawing near. As compelling as some of the characters have become, it’s the rare female cop, medical examiner, judge or legislator who isn’t required to defer to a male superior. In the episodic Danish political drama, “Borgen,” currently shown on PBS outlets, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) unexpectedly becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. The job comes with a target on her back for all manner of corrupt politicians, business executives and special interests to take aim, while also worrying about a distressed daughter and failed marriage.  Newly available through MHz Newtorks are chapters from the excellent Swedish series, “Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline” and “Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9,” neither of which, as far as I can tell, have appeared on America television. Helena Bergström stars as crime reporter Bengtzon in two feature-length films, adapted from Liza Marklund’s best-selling literary series. The abrasive Bengtzon not only is required to investigate crimes, but combat virulent strains of male chauvinism rarely seen any more in films. In “Paradise,” a murder in Stockholm’s harbor leads her to widespread conspiracy involving a government-funded women’s shelter. In “Deadline,” she leads her paper’s investigation into a series of bombings, apparently targeting organizers of the country’s Olympics committee. Eva Röse returns as police inspector Maria Wern in two new movies based on the crime novels by Swedish author Anna Jansson. After the death of her husband, Maria moves to the picturesque Swedish island of Gotland with her two children. Wern is more agreeable than Bengtzon, but no less dedicated to solving crimes, especially the kind of murders one wouldn’t think possible in such an ideal location.

Perhaps you’ve heard a variation of the time-honored riddle, “What are the only things that would survive a nuclear bomb?” One answer suggests, “Cockroaches and a fruit cake. And the cockroaches would starve.” After watching the BBC’s amazing scientific report, “Planet Ant,” I’d be willing to wager that ants not only would be able to survive the blast, but they’d also figure out what to do with the leftover fruit cakes. We’ve all owned an Ant Farm, accidentally disturbed a colony of red ants or been tested on the information gleaned from an educational documentary in school. “Planet Ant” uses state-of-the-art technology to delve even deeper into the miracles of the ant realm, including how they appear to solve mathematical problems that defeat modern computers.

Given the likelihood that war is a more likely prospect in the Middle East than peace and cooler heads will never prevail, now would be a good time to take a step backward, back to a time when a palpable degree of harmony did exist in the region. PBS’ eye-opening “1913: Seeds of Conflict” examines a critical yet overlooked moment of transformation in Palestine, long before the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate, which was never going to work as intended. That’s because no one anticipated how events in other parts of the world, as well as intra-faith divisions, would impact the Jews, Arabs and Christians already co-existing at the fragile crossroads of three of the world’s great religions.

The DVD Wrapup: Timbuktu, The Bridge, Pit Stop, Dog Soldiers and more

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Timbuktu: Blu-ray
Any religion that allows itself to be shanghaied by criminals, thugs or perverts probably ought to think about making its core beliefs more specific and membership requirements more rigid. If a faith’s most sacred texts can be so easily misinterpreted that co-religionists can’t even agree on its position on murder in the name of God, it will take something more powerful than assault rifles to open the gates of heaven to them. Or, maybe the priests, rabbis and mullahs entrusted with interpreting scripture are too personally invested in conflict to come together for the sake of peace. Bob Dylan probably could have written a dozen more verses to “With God on Our Side” and still not captured the insanity that began with Cain and Abel and continues today. This terrible reality was all I could think about while watching Abderrahmane Sissako’s extraordinary depiction of life at the crossroads of sanity and madness, Timbuktu. Islam was introduced to West Africa in the 11th Century and, since then, it has been the predominant religion of Mali, of which Timbuktu remains a regional capital. Mali’s been down on its luck economically for a long time, thanks, in large part, to a lingering drought, severe heat and uncertain political leadership. At one time, though, Timbuktu was a crossroads trading center, as well as a magnet for Islamic scholars and repository for religious texts and manuscripts. Despite its multiethnic population, religion wasn’t a divisive force in the region until recently. Sissako’s Oscar-nominated film depicts the relatively brief period when jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda (and/or ISIS) were able to take advantage of a split between Tuareg secessionists and Islamic radicals to take control of Timbuktu from the fractured Malian military. Among the first things they did was impose Sharia law and destroy libraries containing centuries-old religious texts, including cherished editions of the Koran.

Timbuktu puts a tight focus on Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) a cattle herder; his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki); his pre-pubescent daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed); and Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed), a shepherd boy, who is like their own son in the shrinking tent community outside Timbuktu. Their lifestyle is as uncluttered and traditional as the Bedouin, who once crisscrossed the southern Sahara. Kidane shares the waters of a nearby lake with a fisherman from a different ethnic background, but also living in the dunes. One day, a cow breaks away from the herd, destroying a section of the fisherman’s nets. He retaliates by immediately killing the cow — Issan’s favorite – and cursing the boy. When Kidane confronts the belligerent fisherman, the pistol he’s carrying to intimidate the man accidentally discharges, killing him. This sets off a series of events that puts Kidane in direct contact with the jihadists and their alternately severe and absurd interpretations of Sharia law. It outlaws music, dance, laughter, cigarettes and, even, the bare hands of women selling messy products in the market, while authorizing stoning adulterers to death, lashing outlawed musicians and accepting bribes and granting favors. Kidane’s biggest problem is his inability to come up with the compensation – 40 cows – ordered by the court, which includes a man who’s itching to steal the herdsman’s wife. If this was all Sissako gave us to ponder in Timbuktu, it would be an unbearable experience. Instead, he lightens the overall tone by demonstrating the determination of residents to get around the rules, even under the watchful eyes of the fanatics. After soccer balls are banned, for example, kids make do by staging realistic games, albeit with an imaginary ball. At the same time, bored jihadists are shown killing time by discussing the stars of European soccer leagues and their favorite teams. There are other amusing examples of resistance, but they’re far outweighed by the cruelty of the Sharia jurists, especially to women. Timbuktu benefits greatly from the wonderfully evocative cinematography of Sofian El Fani (Blue Is the Warmest Color), which shifts nimbly from the sunbaked dunes and courtyards at high noon, to the velvety-black sky that shrouds the desert at night. The Blu-ray adds thought-provoking interviews with the filmmaker.

Stop the Pounding Heart
As difficult as it may be for liberals to believe that the Republican presidential candidates actually believe the outrageous crap they spew everywhere they go on the campaign trail, it’s just that easy to believe that Democrats have never gone very far out of their way to understand what makes so many voters buy into the button-pushing rhetoric of Tea Party-approved politicians. Considering that Texas is ground zero for the lunatic fringe of the GOP, along with Florida, it might be enlightening for supporters of Hillary and Bernie to pay a visit to territory claimed by Ted Cruz and Rick Perry. Or, they could start by watching the engrossing docu-drama Stop the Pounding Heart, which constitutes the third chapter in Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini’s “Texas Trilogy,” along with The Passage and Low Tide. In it, we’re introduced to the Carlsons, a large family living on a goat farm in East Texas according to precepts set down in the bible. While their faith is grounded on fundamentalist beliefs, they appear to have formed their own opinions on what’s important in life, based on personal experience … good and bad. While the Carlsons don’t seem to be particularly interested in what’s going in Washington, they’re exactly the kind of people Cruz and Perry claim to represent.

Leeanne and Tim Carlson have decided that their 12 children will be sheltered from the world in which they grew up through home-schooling and strict interpretations of scripture. The central focus of Minervini’s no-frills film is Sara, an intentionally plain teenager who has only recently begun to doubt her mother’s daily testimonials to chastity, devotion to God and subservience to the man in her life. Sara’s closest male friend, Colby, is an aspiring rodeo rider who appears to have divided most of his formative years falling off mechanical bulls and getting tattooed. His father found religion after succumbing to hard drugs and, like the Carlsons, has retreated from the world at large to protect his family from the same fate. Through Colby, we’re also introduced to Texas gun culture, which is as much a part of growing up in the Big Thicket as, well, falling off mechanical bulls and getting tattooed. Watching Colby’s very pregnant sister taking target practice may be unnerving for some viewers, but she appears to be having a lot more fun on the firing range than she will be a couple weeks later delivering her baby in the living room of her home. Minervini’s presence doesn’t appear to have unnerved his subjects, although you never know how things actually went down off-screen. We’re aren’t encouraged to draw conclusions, one way or the other, besides those that arise naturally from witnessing the quality of Sara’s homeschooling, whose curriculum appears to include milking the goats and cows. It’s also possible to wonder how she’ll find an appropriate life partner when she isn’t allowed to date or mingle with infidels. In some way, Stop the Pounding Heart is the antithesis of such redneck reality shows as “Duck Dynasty” and the one with Honey Boo-Boo. As unfamiliar as the Carlsons may be to those of us who live in Blue State America, in the rural South they’re as common as kudzu, if far less insidious. Their faith is in a God who speaks to them in mysterious ways, not the Republican Party.

The Bridge: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Along with the hellish images collected from World War II death camps, some of the most penetrating photographs sent back to America in 1945 were of the German boys and elderly POW’s captured as the Allies began their final drive to Berlin. These weren’t the faces of heroes or battle-hardened soldiers. These were the victims of Adolph Hitler’s refusal to end the madness and save Europe from further carnage. Many of the raw recruits – the youngest ones, especially — were so brainwashed by Nazi propaganda they actually believed their participation could turn the tide, bringing about the final victory promised them since the invasion of Poland. Bernhard Wicki’s remarkable anti-war drama, The Bridge, was based on Gregor Dorfmeister’s autobiographical novel, published in 1959 under a pseudonym. Dorfmeister was one of several high school buddies drafted into the Wehrmacht and, days later, assigned to defend a bridge over a river near their homes. It was of almost no strategic value – except to facilitate the desertion of veteran officers and escape of wounded troops – but their lack of adequate training caused one of their more realistic superiors to place them as far out of harm’s way as possible. What the officer didn’t take into account, however, was the boys’ faith in Der Fuhrer evolved from their participation in Hitler Youth programs that promoted devotion to the Fatherland as much as physical strength and stamina. What their elders saw as lost cause, the boys assumed was a path to glory. Wicki gives viewers plenty of time to get to know them as everyday teenagers, preoccupied with their studies, girlfriends, causing mischief and performing chores for their families, many of which were missing an adult male authority figure. Each is allowed individual character traits and dreams of a productive future in Third Reich. Roughly halfway through the 103-minute film, they are sent to the bridge and ordered to dig in and hold the position. A flyover by P-51 Mustang provided the first hard evidence that Hitler hadn’t levelled with them.

Their fate is sealed when their commanding officer is attacked in the streets of town by a pair of marauding SS troopers and killed before he can order his charges to surrender in the face of superior fire power. Before the American tanks arrive, the boys kill a couple of hours horsing around on the bridge, as if they were in a pretend war. It doesn’t take long after Mustang strike for the distant rumble of advancing tanks can be discerned in the near distance. Still, armed with grenade launchers and machine guns, they stand their ground. Instead of taking flight, the boys give the advancing patrol all they can handle. At first, this inspires a palpable sense of pride, even the occasional smile after killing a GI. Stunned by the presence of boys in Wehrmacht uniforms, one of the Americans actually pleads with them to surrender. Instead, he’s cut down by a sniper. The resulting firefight eventually separates the boys from the men, leaving only one of them to relate this story of quixotic patriotism to Germans still reluctant to admit their culpability in the war. (The skirmish turned out to be such an insignificant event, it didn’t even rate a footnote in official records or, until the book became a best-seller, a plaque at the bridge.) Based on facts and unsparingly honest in its depiction of war, The Bridge is a powerful drama no matter on which side of the Siegfried Line one sits. According to director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), it directly influenced members of the New German Cinema, who grew up watching movies that ignored the Nazis’ culpability in the war and atrocities that no one wanted to admit happened. The Criterion Collection 2K digital restoration makes the black-and-white film feel as if it were made yesterday and includes a remarkable bonus package distinguished by refreshingly candid new interviews with Dorfmeister and Schlondorff; a 1989 television profile of Wicki, who had spent 10 months in a concentration camp; an excerpt from a 2007 documentary by his wife, Elisabeth Wicki-Endriss, featuring test-reel footage from the shoot; and an by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Survivor: Blu-ray
You know that things have changed when three of the top action stars in the world are a former supermodel, a late-blooming Irish thespian and a graduate of the WWE acting academy. Had Liam Neeson and Dwayne Johnson appeared alongside Milla Jovovich in James McTeigue’s tick-tock, cat-and-mouse thriller, Survivor, it’s still conceivable that it would have sunk like a stone at the box office. At least, it would have enjoyed something better than a kiss-off VOD release. As it is, Jovovich is accompanied by such capable actors as Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett and Robert Forster, none of whom can be accused of phoning in their performances. No, the blame here falls directly on an incoherent screenplay by freshman scripter Philip Shelby and the quizzically haphazard direction by McTeigue (V for Vendetta). The picture opens in Afghanistan, where two members of an American helicopter crew have been shot down and captured by Taliban insurgents, hoping to trade one of them for a lucrative ransom. The other survivor, who’s black, is summarily executed, ostensibly because he wouldn’t be worth as much money to the kidnapers. Really? Just as quickly as this scenario is introduced, it’s put aside and ignored by McTeigue and Shelby. Flash forward and geographically sideways, to London, where the hunt for terrorists continues apace. Jovovich plays an American Foreign Service Officer, Kate Abbott, working with British security officials to ferret out potential troublemakers employing ever-more-sophisticated techniques to bypass airport checkpoints. As someone who lost several close friends in the 9/11 attacks, Kate is determined to find the terrorists before they get to the U.S. Shockingly, the first person (Roger Rees) who raises a red flag at Heathrow is allowed to pass through a checkpoint by a seemingly jaded U.S. official, Bill Talbot (Forster). What an American is doing at Heathrow, determining who’s allowed into England, is anyone’s guess.

Naturally, the first thing the mad scientist does is hook up with a crazed watchmaker (Moore), who’s considered to be the most notorious mercenary assassin on the planet. The scientist delivers a gaseous weapon of mass destruction to the watchmaker – a sharpshooter – who’s created a delivery system to be tested in London, but activated in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Conveniently, Kate recognizes a criminal conspiracy when she sees one and, after doing a Google search on the scientist, becomes the target of turncoat American agents, British cops and whoever it was who hired Nash, the watchmaker. Instead of eliminating Kate in a restaurant explosion, Nash succeeds in blowing up all of her co-workers. No one at the embassy believes her story, so, when she’s photographed fleeing the scene of Talbot’s accidental killing – shades of North by Northwest – an hour-long chase ensues. It ends, of course, on a tall building overlooking Times Square at its most crowded. At a brisk 96 minutes, Survivor appears to have jettisoned logic and common sense in the service of the Kate’s one-woman crusade to halt an attack designed to kill more innocent Americans than those murdered on 9/11. Viewers shouldn’t be forced to accept such lapses in logic, simply to get through to what promises to be an explosive climax. Nu Image Films decided to cut its losses by opening it in only a handful of theaters, simultaneously with a VOD release on iTunes, On Demand and, for free, via the new Hoopla app, which is supported by public libraries in a way I don’t quite understand. (The same teaser approach was employed with Kristin Wiig’s Welcome to Me.) The Blu-ray arrives with deleted scenes and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Dog Soldiers: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Meet Me There
Crypt of the Living Dead/House of the Living Dead:  Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In 2002, when Dog Soldiers was first released in England, the werewolf subgenre was experiencing a bit of a resurgence, thanks mostly to the Canadian teen-exploitation flick, Ginger Snaps, which overcame a slow start by building buzz in the VHS, DVD and cable after-markets. Werewolves would resurface once again, thanks to such TV and movie franchises as “True Blood,” “The Twilight Saga,” “Underworld,” “Being Human,” “Teen Wolf” and “Supernatural.” All of these titles owe more to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling – both released in 1981 – than any of the Universal horror classics, with the possible exception of Werewolf of London, which inspired a great song by Warren Zevon. Credit is due, as well, to Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, whose innovations in the creation of special makeup effects allowed for more frightening transformations and sexier monsters. Virtually ignored here on its release, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers should be must-viewing for those who consider themselves aficionados of modern horror. Being of British persuasion, its closest relative probably is Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which combined gory effects and smart humor in the service of movie that could be enjoyed as a thriller and/or parody of genre tropes and clichés. If the gags and references in Dog Soldiers are harder for non-buffs to recognize, it’s compensated for by the imaginative deployment of special effects. As was the case with Ginger Snaps, the filmmakers chose not use to rely on CGI effects, preferring prosthetics and makeup for the action sequences. By comparison, the story is simplicity, itself. Members of an elite unit of the British army’s Special Forces is transported by helicopter into a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands. All they are told is that it’s a survival-training assignment and the idea is to avoid detection by other units. When the soldiers come across the gruesome remains of a platoon previously inserted into the area, it becomes abundantly clear that other forces are at work here and their behavior is lycanthropic. Thanks to the well-timed appearance of an animal-behavior expert (Emma Cleasby), the soldiers are able to find shelter in the nearest cottage, which is 50 miles from anywhere else and beyond the reach of cellphone signals. What happens next could very well be taken as a supernatural homage to Assault on Precinct 13. Also along for the ride are Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer and Darren Morfitt. The new 2K-scan HD transfer was supervised and approved by Marshall, who also provides commentary. The bonus package includes a new making-of featurette, with cast members, producers, special-effects artist Bob Keen, special effects supervisor/creature designer Dave Bonneywell, production designer Simon Bowles and director of photography Sam McCurdy; a fresh look at the model of the sets created by Bowles; a pair of still galleries; and Marshall’s short film, “Combat.”

Austin-based director Lex Lybrand opens the smart and creepy Meet Me There with a death scene so poetic that it makes you wonder how he’s going to top it over the course of the next 90 minutes or if he’s even going to try. His patience — and our’s — will be rewarded in this regard, but not before we’re introduced to a backwoods community of in-bred characters who make every day seem like Halloween.   Hipster-chick Ada (Lisa Friedrich) has been seeing a shrink to make sense of her inability to relate sexually to her boyfriend, Calvin (Micheal Foulk). On her recommendation, they embark on a journey of discovery to her tiny hometown in the middle of Nowhere U.S.A. Ada’s sure that her aunt will give them a place to stay, but it’s the only indication that something resembling rural hospitality exists here. Indeed, once Ada realizes what caused her to leave the town in the first place – blotting out all memories of it – Lybrand kicks the real gothic horror show into gear, finally ending in the same place as it began. Filmed on a budget that probably was close to non-existent, Meet Me There had me on the edge of my seat for most of its run-time. But, then, I’m of the opinion that the true monsters among us don’t telegraph their bloodlust with sharpened teeth, skull tattoos and stormtrooper boots. That’s for amateurs. One look at Preacher – created by Dustin Runnels (WWE’s Goldust) – and you know that God has abandoned his church. Bonus features include interview with Runnels and Jill Thompson (“Scary Godmother”), who plays Aunt Lindsay.

In Cross, Daniel Yee Heng Chan Leung (Trilogy) takes a slightly different approach to the Angel of Mercy trope, which typically demands that a sociopathic nurse or doctor play God in determining how long a terminally ill patient should live. Simon Yam (Ip Man) plays a man so traumatized by the suicide of his wife that he decides to provide his lethal services to anyone contemplating taking their own life at the risk of eliminating any chance they’ll go to heaven. To provide such a service, Leonard contracts with people he encounters on a website dedicated to assisting people on suicide watch. He has a plan for the disposition of the money, as well, but it’s too far-fetched to mention. With the death toll mounting to alarming heights in Hong Kong, police psychologist Cheung (Kenny Wong) is assigned to the case, whose trail leads him to the same online web forum. Unlike Leonard, Cheung is less interested in saving eternal souls than closing the loophole he provides them. It’s up to viewers to decide who stands on higher ground.

Vinegar Syndrome is a Bridgeport-based distribution company and film archive dedicated to the preservation, restoration and release of the exploitation titles in its library. It’s one of several such businesses that have kept the DVD/Blu-ray trade from stagnating in recent years. This week’s double-feature is pretty representative of VS’ stated mission. A strictly limited edition of Crypt of the Living Dead and House of the Living Dead takes buffs back to the early 1970s, when such drive-in fare was ignored by teenage lovers and beer-swilling jocks. Made in Spain and shipped to the U.S. as “Hannah, Queen of the Vampires,” Crypt of the Living Dead stars Andrew Prine as a young American engineer who travels to the spooky island where his scientist father was crushed by the crypt of a vampire queen. In investigating the incident, the engineers inadvertently opens the door to the undead beauty’s savage soul. The bonus film, House of the Living Dead, has been shown here as “Curse of the Dead,” “Doctor Maniac” and “Kill, Baby, Kill.” It takes place on a colonial vineyard outside Capetown, South Africa, where a mad scientist plots to steal people’s souls and place them into jars for eternity. The only person standing in his way is buxom blond Shirley Anne Field, who previously had appeared in such fine British films as Peeping Tom, Alfie, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Entertainer and could later be seen in My Beautiful Laundrette and Shag. It’s kind of like discovering Jayne Mansfield in a crowd scene in Citizen Kane. The films have been restored in 2k from 35mm negatives.

Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical
About 10 years ago, semi-retired porn superstar Veronica Hart directed Misty Beethoven: The Musical!, a XXX feature adapted from one of the most popular adult titles of all time, The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Like the 1976 Radley Metzger (as Henry Paris) original, “MB:TM” was informed by the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” and Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” As conceits go, Hart’s hard-core musical comedy was right up there with turning John Waters’ edgy comedy about sex and race in 1960s Baltimore, “Hairspray,” into a rather tame Broadway musical. Still, it gave actors an opportunity to show off other assets than those best savored in the boudoir. It also produced a soundtrack album. Rolfe Kanefsky’s much softer Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical contains 12 original songs performed by actors known mostly to late-night viewers of Cinemax. I suspect that Kanefsky originally intended for Adventures Into the Woods to be an extension of the “Emmanuelle” franchise, as he had previously directed and written a half-dozen movies exploiting the classic character.

Once again, Kanefsky enlists Allie Haze, the prolific star of soft- and hard-core vehicles – including parodies of movies and TV shows — to portray Emmanuelle. During a science experiment, Emmanuelle falls through a wormhole and winds up in a forest not unlike the one Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep traversed in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical, “Into the Woods.” Apparently, the forest falls within the boundaries of Wonderland and, during Emmanuelle’s journey home, she’ll encounter Alice, the Big Bad Wolf, Humpty Dumpty, Snow White, the Evil Queen, Little Bo Peep, Little Miss Muffett, the Mad Hatter and characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” all played by porn actors and scream queens. Apart from the fact that nothing particularly remarkable occurs during the 100-minute length of Adventures Into the Woods: The Sexy Musical, it strains credulity to think that anyone attracted to “Into the Woods” would make a beeline for “The Sexy Musical.” Adding “Emmanuelle” to the title might have encouraged fans of that franchise to take a chance on something very different in the genre. And, there is plenty of full-frontal, if not particularly gynecological nudity to distract viewers not interested in the songs. The DVD adds extended musical numbers and deleted scenes.

Spike Island
Few regional music scenes have been captured as intimately and with as much passion as the one associated with Manchester, England. Among the groups that emerged from the industrial center in the 1960s were the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, Freddie and the Dreamers and an early incarnation of the Bee Gees. They would be followed in the 1970-80s by the Smiths, the Buzzcocks, 10cc, the Fall, Joy Division and its successor group New Order, Oasis, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, James and the Stone Roses. In 2002, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People chronicled the city’s music scene from the now-legendary June 4, 1976, Sex Pistol concert at Lesser Free Trade Hall, to the juncture of post-punk, electronic dance music, Factory Records, the Hacienda nightclub and emergence of ecstasy in the late 1980s. Five years later, Anton Corbijn’s Control dramatized the tortuous rise and tragic fall of Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis. In Spike Island, director Mat Whitecross (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) and writer/co-star Chris Coghill use the occasion of a 1990 Stone Roses’ outdoor concert at Manchester’s Spike Island to tell a coming-of-age story about a group of five aspiring musicians determined to deliver a demo tape to the headliners. The concert has been described as a “Woodstock for the baggy movement” – neo-psychedelia and acid house-influenced guitar music – that attracted most of its 27,000 paid attendees from Manchester. The guys aren’t able to purchase tickets or sneak over a tall fence, but the music can be heard well enough on the lawn behind the barrier, where hundreds more young men and women are holding their own party. The event serves as a watershed moment for the lads, who, almost overnight, will be required to leave high school behind and assume responsibilities associated with adulthood. Who knows, they might yet become pop stars. Besides some petty linguistic and cultural differences, there’s no reason why Spike Island shouldn’t appeal to American audiences. Included in the cast are Elliott Tittensor, Nico Mirallegro, Jordan Murphy, Adam Long, Oliver Heald, Emilia Clarke, Lesley Manville and Matthew McNulty, who might be familiar to fans of BBC America and “Masterpiece Theater.”

Pit Stop: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Looking back through the fog of pop-cultural history, it’s easy to think that California car culture was fairly represented by such music groups as the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, and in movies like American Graffiti, Eat My Dust, Gone In 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Gumball Rally and, to some extent, Bullitt. Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road focused on moonshine running and rarely played north of the Mason-Dixon Line, while White Lightning and other high-octane Burt Reynolds’ epics also represented the South. I can’t recall a movie in which demolition derbies played a central role and, until very recently, I hadn’t seen a movie set in the world of Figure-8 racing. It was the kind of roughhouse activity reserved mostly for fairs and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” In 1969, the erroneously titled “Pit Stop” introduced Figure-8 racing to drive-in audiences around the country, before disappearing for 30-40 years. Made in black-and-white on a budget that even impressed the famously frugal Roger Corman, Jack Hill’s follow-up to Spider Baby and Mondo Keyhole easily qualifies as one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. And, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Arrow Video’s “2-Disc Director Approved Authorized Special Edition” clearly belongs to a period of time when the price of a gallon a gas was about the same as that for a gallon of Coca-Cola. There were enough pre-WWII cars still around to turn into hot rods and any decent mechanic could spend an afternoon in a junk yard and leave with everything he needs to make a serviceable stock car. In the interviews included in the sterling Blu-ray package, Hill says that he intended to make “an arthouse movie about stock-car racing.” If it doesn’t quite reach that pinnacle, at least it’s supremely entertaining. Richard Davalos plays street racer Rick Bowman, who, after getting in trouble with the law, is challenged by a local promoter (Brian Donlevy) to become a champion Figure-8 racer. At first, he considers the sport to be too crazy even for his low-brow tastes. When the region’s top driver (Sid Haig) disses him in front of a crowd of gearheads that he takes the bait and, by the way, his girlfriend (Beverly Washburn). Eventually, their rivalry will take them to an oval racetrack, but not before Hill takes us to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area for a bit of dune-buggy racing. The real topper, though, is watching Ellen Burstyn playing a red-hot grease monkey. Two years later, she would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in The Last Picture Show. The Blu-ray arrives with an original trailer; commentary with Hill; interview with Corman and Haig; a restoration demonstration; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Glenn Kenny and musicologist and writer Gray Newell on the film’s soundtrack.

BBC America: Ripper Street: Season Three: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Workaholics: Season Five: Blu-ray
PBS: Caring for Mom and Dad
It’s interesting how things work on television these days. Take the terrific period crime series, “Ripper Street,” for example. Filmed in Dublin and set in post-Jack the Ripper London, the show’s first two seasons aired on the BBC and BBC America. When the BBC decided to stop funding it, 40,000 fans signed an online petition to bring it back for a third stanza. The production company cut a deal with Amazon UK to stream “Ripper Street,” beginning last November. Those same episodes, give or take a trim for commercials or occasional nudity, were shown here on BBC America. Its third-season run ended last week. The really good news is that Amazon UK has renewed the series for a fourth and fifth season. Creator and lead writer Richard Warlow said he has plans to follow Whitechapel’s H Division “right through to the end of the Victorian age itself,” while star Matthew Macfadyen, responded to the news by saying that he’s looking forward to “embarking on another dose of ‘Ripper Street’: blood and guts, pocket watches and Victorian head-gear, wonderfully dark, moving and mysterious story lines.” The eight-episode third season picks up in 1894, with a train accident in Whitechapel that kills 55 civilians. An investigation reveals that the derailment was initiated by Long Susan and her attorney as part of a scheme to access bearer bonds to finance the gentrification of Whitechapel. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid also learns that his long-lost daughter, Matilda, is alive and not a drowning victim.

Back in April, 2011, the odds against the protagonists of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” holding any job for five years were prohibitive, against. The same probably could be said about the show, in which slacker best friends and roommates Anders Holmvik, Adam DeMamp and Blake Henderson – Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Blake Anderson, respectively — try their level best to keep their jobs while avoiding work. It’s a conceit that can get old pretty fast on television, especially as it deals with individuals no one would want to count on at work or date your daughter. It also requires great patience and better timing from the actors playing opposite the stars. I don’t know how much the series’ creators owe to Mike Judge, but the easiest way to describe “Workaholics” is to call it a hybrid of his “Office Space” and “Beavis and Butt-Head,” if those two wonderful characters ever got it together long enough to find a job. The fifth-season Blu-ray adds bloopers, deleted and expanded scenes, a Season Five “trailer” and a few other short featurettes.

With Obamacare surviving another challenge in the Supreme Court and Republican politicians still pledging to kill it, without having a backup plan of their own, PBS’ one-hour special report, “Caring for Mom and Dad,” couldn’t be more topical. According to narrator Meryl Streep, 75 million baby boomers are entering their retirement years at a rate of 10,000 a day. The question then becomes, who will care for this aging population when they can no longer care for themselves? The easy answer would be the children of the baby boomers, but there’s no assurance they’ll have enough money to handle the load, either. No one in Washington appears ready to deal with the loss of jobs by middle-age, middle-class Americans, either. Because much of the information shared in “Caring for Mom and Dad” is anecdotal, the show poses more questions than it answers. Maybe Streep could be asked to moderate one of the presidential debates and attempt to get solid responses from candidates, who, thanks to their government sponsored benefits package, will never be required to face the same health-care dilemmas as their constituents.

The DVD Wrapup: Welcome to Me, Wild Tales, Gett, Bob Hope and more

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Welcome to Me: Blu-ray
Since leaving “Saturday Night Live” and starring in the barely seen Hateship Loveship, Kristen Wiig has appeared in movies that, had they made it that far, might have found an audience among arthouse regulars, if not fans of the show, her 2011 breakout hit Bridesmaids or any of the animated features to which she’s lent her voice. That’s not a knock on the wonderfully gifted actor, merely an observation based on box-office data. On “SNL,” Wiig never hesitated to take her characters into places that were equal parts funny and disturbing, and she was rarely less than brilliant. For all sorts of reasons, that same vibe has yet to translate to theatrical audiences, accustomed to more fully fleshed out characters, perhaps, or a more precise seriocomic blend sustained over time. With “Ghostbusters” and “Zoolander 2” on tap for 2016, however, Wiig may very well realize her destiny as a major player on the big screen. In Shira Piven and writer Eliot Laurence’s Welcome to Me, it can be argued that her seriously bipolar Alice Klieg might have worked better as a recurring character on “SNL” or “Funny or Die” than as the protagonist of a feature-length film that may best be described as a comic psychodrama. Kleig has been “off her meds” for quite some time when she wins the Powerball lottery, making her filthy rich, if not an iota less mentally troubled. We know this because, when interviewed on local television about winning the grand prize, she takes the opportunity to suggest how it might affect her masturbatory habits. When she learns that this was trimmed from the news reports, Kleig takes it as a personal affront.

In response, she pays a visit to a Palm Desert studio that produces the kind of infomercials that over-populate late-night television, but somehow find viewers with money to burn. It’s one of the channels she watches when Oprah Winfrey isn’t on the air or she’s tired of reruns on OWN. Now blessed with F-U money, Kleigh asks station executives how much it would cost to have her own show. As nutty as the proposal sounds, the executives are just that desperate for bread and can’t wait to take her money. She uses the show, “Welcome to Me,” to realize personal fantasies – being wheeled onto the set on swan chairs – and settling scores with people who done her wrong in childhood. She also offers cooking tips – meatloaf cake, for example – and other lifestyle suggestions. There’s no way that Wiig and a cast that includes James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Cardellini and Wes Bentley could make such a setup anything but funny … for a while. It’s when Kleig, a onetime veterinary assistant, becomes an advocate for neutering dogs and, then, begins demonstrating the procedure for her viewers, the producers begin to sense her financial contributions may not be worth the hassle of lawsuits or the disgust of other paying customers. Any doubts that Wiig might not be able to accurately depict her character’s tortured mental state disappeared when leaked photos of a stark-naked Wiig, walking through a crowded Palms Spring casino, began to appear on celebrity-skin websites. It’s a brave performance and Wiig is excellent throughout Welcome to Me. How far her fans are willing to accompany Kleig into her journey into madness is open to question. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette.

Wild Tales: Blu-ray
Anthology films rarely are accorded the respect they deserve by audiences and festival juries, if only because the vignettes tend not to be of equal quality and they frequently have different pedigrees. Critics weigh each segment as an independent entity, while viewers pick favorites. The stories of Raymond Carver have been interpreted in dozens of different ways – Short Cuts, Birdman, Jindabyne – but typically expanded to feature length. If the overriding theme of Damien Szifron’s Wild Tales may be revenge, each entry exists independently from the others. If it hadn’t been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, each of the stories could theoretically have been entered individually in the Best Live Action Short category and picked as a finalist. It’s entirely possible that voters were attracted to the film by Pedro Almodovar’s name on the list of producers and the presence of the great Argentinian actor, Ricardo Darín (The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens). Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s work probably didn’t hurt, either, although one now should take such endorsements advisedly. Unlike most anthologies, all six of the segments in Wild Tales were written and directed by the same person, Szifron, and none was genre-specific. The revenge is served cold and hot, comic and tragic. To explain them in any more detail risks spoiling the surprises, which are immediately remindful of really good episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s most apparent in In “Pasternak,” in which a casual conversation between a music critic and a model, eventually reveals a connection between all of the passengers in the cabin and a man named Gabriel Pasternak, who quietly arranged for their tickets. From just that much information, you might be able to guess what happens next, but why spoil the fun? In “Bombita,” Darin plays a demolitions expert, who innocently becomes trapped in a web woven by corrupt city officials and bureaucrats. After his career and personal life are nearly ruined, he becomes a people’s hero by sticking it to the “man” in the only way left to him. None of the short films overstays its welcome and each makes good on its promise of delivering poetic justice. The excellent Blu-ray presentation adds the 25-minute featurette, “Wild Shooting: Creating the Film” and short Q&A with Szifrón conducted after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Blu-ray
It may come as a surprise, even to daytime television junkies, that the longest running courtroom show of all time is the syndicated “Divorce Court.” With the show’s 35th season now completed, it leads the second-ranked “The People’s Court” by five years, although “Divorce Court” hasn’t been in constant distribution since its debut in 1957 and its format was changed to substitute real couples for actors. Because the litigants have already filed for divorce and must abide by the ruling of a former judge, the original soap-opera nature of the episodes was eliminated. I doubt very much that the Roman Catholic Church looks favorably on such desolations, but, thanks to Martin Luther and Henry VIII, “Divorce Court” never seems to have run out of cases. I don’t know if a version of the show can be found on Israeli or Iranian television, either. Anyone who’s seen Cyrus Nowrasteh’s shocking 2008 drama, The Stoning of Soraya M., Asghar Farhadi’s heartbreaking, A Separation (2011), or Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) already knows where a woman stands in the dissolution of her marriage under Islamic law. In “Soraya M.,” a husband uses false accusations of adultery to prevent his wife from getting in the way of his plans to take a 14-year-old bride. In the other two films, women are required to put their lives on hold, sometimes for years, while waiting for their husbands to agree to a divorce. As Israel’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem demonstrates, once again, how thin a line divides the laws of Islam and Judaism, at least when it pertains to keeping women from exercising their human rights. Essentially a courtroom drama, sibling filmmakers Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz chronicle the final stages of a marriage they began to follow in 2004, in To Take a Wife, and, four years later, in 7 Days, neither of which are readily available in the U.S. It isn’t necessary to have seen the previous two installments in the trilogy to appreciate “Gett,” however. It’s enough to know that child-bride Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) has regretted agreeing to marry the older, ultra-Orthodox Elisha Amsalem (Simon Abkarian), through all three installments of the saga.

A year before initiating divorce proceedings, Viviane left Elisha to live with her sister. Their adult children are on their own and Viviane had been chafing under her husband’s conservative yoke for many years. We will learn that neither party has committed adultery – his lawyer will imply she’s a slut for sitting in an outdoor café with her lawyer – and physical violence isn’t an issue. Elisha, though, is a ninja when it comes to passive-aggressive behavior and controls everything from who is allowed to visit their home to rejecting her request to have a family car. For every restriction he imposes on Viviane, Elisha is able to quote scripture to substantiate his objection. For a divorce to be considered legal under Jewish law, a man must grant his wife a religious divorce — a gett — of his own free will. She may receive a civil divorce, but cannot remarry within her religion and that’s some serious shit in Israel. Even if Elisha hasn’t initiated sex with Viviane in years and he doesn’t approve of her behavior, he has refused to appear before sessions of the rabbinical court, even after being so ordered. After three years of this nonsense, Elisha is forced to attend sessions and provide witnesses who will attest to his character and lie about what they know of their marriage. Viviane is also instructed to bring witnesses before the tribunal, but their testimony –and appearance — is put under much greater scrutiny than that of the male witnesses. This frustrating process continues for another two years, even as Elisha appears to acquiesce to the gett, before rescinding his approval moments later. Finally, it becomes clear that Elisha’s overriding demand is that Viviane not have sexual relations with another men, ever. It’s a maddening 115 minutes of drama –almost entirely shot in the cramped courtroom or the hallways where negotiations happen — relieved by some fabulous acting and evocative cinematography. The runtime allows for  the Elkabetz’ to give all parties, including the rabbis, ample time to state their cases, even if I think any TV judge worth his or her salt would have settled the litigation in a half-hour, including commercials. The Blu-ray adds an excellent making-of featurette.

Spirited Away: Blu-ray
The Cat Returns: Blu-ray
Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle
Now that Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki has retired and shows no sign of picking up his pen, again, every new Blu-ray of past classics deserves to be treated as an unexpected gift from a relative overseas … or Disney studios in Burbank, one. I don’t know how many more Studio Ghibli titles Disney has salted away in its vaults, but hi-def is definitely the ideal way to watch these fine movies. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns (2002) share several fantastical story points, including young female protagonists who find themselves trapped in fairytale land far away from their parents and must call on powers they didn’t know they had to get home. In Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new house, ending up at a tunnel leading to a failed theme park, which, at night, comes alive with a wild array of spirits. Instead of turning around and getting back on the right track, the intruders stick around long enough to sample some of the treats left out for the nightly bacchanal. The ethereal regulars don’t take kindly to the newcomers, turning mom and dad into pigs to be fattened for slaughter. Chihiro is left with the task of insinuating herself into the royal bathhouse – a thinly disguised brothel in the Japanese edition – and convince the sorceress (Suzanne Pleshette) to spare her parents. Fortunately, she’s able to convince a spirit boy (Jason Marsden) to be her guide to this realm of soiled demons, spirits, and evil gods.

In The Cat Returns, the precocious schoolgirl Haru saves the life of an unusual cat, unexpectedly setting off a series of events that could lead to her hand being awarded to the King of the Cats’ son, Prince Lune, in marriage. Most cats would consider this to be quite an honor, but, Haru has little interest in being turned into a kitten queen. In this fantasy world, dominated by all manner of felines, Haru (voiced by Anne Hathaway) will encounter political intrigue and a magical maze designed to test her ability to avoid danger. Once again, the female protagonist is supported by a gallant spirit, a.k.a., the Baron (Cary Elwes). Fifty minutes shorter than Spirited Away, The Cat Returns was originally intended for airing on television. It is, nonetheless, delightful. Much of the credit for that belongs to a voicing cast – added for the Blu-ray release — that also includes Judy Greer, Kristen Bell, Rene Auberjonois, Andy Richter, Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, Tim Curry and Erin Chambers. Blu-ray features includes an introduction by John Lasseter, original Japanese storyboards, voicing featurettes and other making-of material. As the Blu-ray offerings dwindle down to a precious few, it will be interesting to see if Disney changes its mind about releasing Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991). In it, a 27-year-old office worker travels to the countryside, while reminiscing about her childhood in Tokyo. Although Disney owns the rights to the coming-of-age movie, it has refused to release it on DVD/Blu-ray because it contains a reference to menstruation and Miyazaki won’t allow any editing or censorship. Maybe, Disney could release the film on its Buena Vista label, which isn’t afraid of adult material … even if it pertains to a naturally occurring physical transition experienced by roughly 51 percent of the world’s population.

Moving, now, from the sublime to the ridiculous – or merely very silly – we have Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle, the second sequel to the 2006 theatrical release that featured the voices of Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright and, of course, Clint Howard. The only carryover actor is Frank Welker, who’s voiced more animal characters than even his agent can count, by now. If anyone has earned the right to have a star purchased for him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – perhaps, alongside Mel Blanc – it is Welker. He deserves it far more than restaurateur to the stars Bobby Flay, who was so honored on June 2. All of this is a long way of saying that the new addition to the “Curious George” saga, which began in 1941 after his creators escaped the Nazis, it should appeal primarily to kids still unable to ride a bicycle without safety wheels. Here, the little rascal has been asked to take part in a space mission, which inadvertently ends in a crash-landing in Africa. In addition to Welker, guest voicers include Angela Bassett, John Goodman and franchise veteran Jeff Bennett, as the Man in the Yellow Hat. The DVD adds sing-along videos.

Tentacles/Reptilicus: Blu-ray
Anyone who cares enough about cinematic schlock to trace the roots of such upcoming Syfy creature features as “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” need not look any further than this twin-spin package of Tentacles and Reptilicus. Released in 1977, the former offers a rare example of a Eurotrash movie that was made in America, directed by a Greek and features a multinational cast of actors, some of whom actually qualify as stars. Besides Oscar-winners John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Henry Fonda, it includes Delia Boccardo, Cesare Danova, Claude Akins, Bo Hopkins, Marc Fiorini, Franco Diogene and Sherry Buchanan. Clearly intended to exploit whatever juice was left over from Jaws (1975), Ovidio G. Assonitis’ rubbery opus follows the same blueprint as the one drawn by Steven Spielberg. This time, however, the great white shark is a dopey giant octopus and the threatened beach community is on the left coast. Just when all SoCal life appears doomed, an employee of Marineland of the Pacific – now, a Donald Trump golf course – remembers that the killer whales he trains are the natural enemy of octopi and they might hold the key to salvation. Not before some Euro-babes are scared out of their bikinis, of course. Fonda spends most of his time on screen, standing in a booth barking orders into a phone. Huston, only three years removed from his great performance in Chinatown, plays a dogged reporter at a seaside rag. At this point in her career, Winters pretty much accepted any role thrown her way. If the movie made any money at all, it’s only because nothing, besides the actors, required more than credit card to create and one good weekend on the drive-in circuit would put it into the black.

Released in 1961, after the first tsunami of Japanese sci-fi/horror flicks hit our shores, Reptilicus is the real deal: a movie so bad that it borders on being a masterpiece of lame intentions. Besides being the first and only monster movie made in Denmark, it was the brainchild of the legendary schlockmeister Sidney W. Pink, who had already given the world Bwana Devil, I Was a Burlesque Queen, Flame Over Vietnam and The Angry Red Planet. While drilling for copper in a remote Danish location, the carcass of a prehistoric beast is hauled to the surface and delivered to a lab somewhere within shouting distance of Tivoli Gardens. When someone accidentally turns off the air-conditioning in the laboratory, the monster’s disparate parts are re-generated. After escaping from the lab, it grows to the size of Godzilla and demonstrates that it carries the same fire-breathing gene as the monster that terrorized Tokyo. Naturally, NATO troops are called in to eliminate the menace with weapons left over from World War II. M-1s and bazookas didn’t work against Godzilla in Japan and they don’t work in Denmark, either, but for a different reason. As the Scandinavian scientists and their buxom-blond assistants predict, every time an appendage is blown off the monster, it regenerates into an entirely new beast. The greatest minds in northern Europe are required to devise a plan to kill the monster and save the population, without damaging the herring and lutefisk industries. Supposedly shot in Pathécolor, it looks as if the negative spent too much time in the rinse cycle. Reptilicus is just that wonderful.

The Happiness of the Katakuris: Blu-ray
The prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike isn’t at all reluctant to put his loyal viewers through wringers, squeezing every ounce of sweat out of them and testing their ability to withstand outrageously graphic depictions of violence and perverse sexuality. Miike’s movies may not be for the faint of heart, but his fan base now extends around the world. Not all of the movies make it past national boards of censorship intact, however. A year before the release of the deceptively merry family musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris, the promoters of Ichi the Killer raised eyebrows by handing out branded barf bags to critics at the Toronto Film Festival. Judging simply from the cover art of The Happiness of the Katakuris, one might think the movie was a Japanese version of The Sound of Music. The alpine backdrop and happy faces of the multigenerational Katakuri family recall a romp through the edelweiss in pre-Anschluss Salzburg, far more than what we know of rural Japan. Based on Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim’s spooky feature debut, The Quiet Family, the dream of the Katakuris is to use the patriarch’s unemployment settlement to rehab an abandoned lodge situated on a former garbage dump near the base of Mount Fuji and turn it into a jolly B&B. The White Lover’s Inn is strategically located near the path of a road being built to the resort district. Their timing is a shade off, however, as the highway may not be finished before the Katakuris go bankrupt from lack of business. Still, the family is able to unite behind their dream and wait patiently for the first customers to check in and spread the word on the Japanese equivalent of Yelp.

The first guest, a television personality, uses his room to commit suicide. The next, a Sumo wrestler, suffers a fatal heart attack while humping his girlfriend, causing the wee thing to suffocate. The bodies are buried in a makeshift plot on the hillside, so as not to draw attention to what some might consider to be a curse. No sooner do relatives begin missing the now-dead tourists than the Katakuris are notified of the impending extension of the road, which is expected to run through the growing pile of corpses. It’s not an uncommon dilemma for murderous fiends to face in horror movies, but rarely to people who are simply are victims of circumstance. In Miike’s hands, the original solution to their problem naturally evolves into something far more ghastly. The result is a surreal horror-comedy, distinguished by claymation sequences, musical and dance numbers, a karaoke sing-along scene, and dream sequences. For good measure, Miike throws in the threat of a volcano erupting and literally melting the mountainside. The Happiness of the Katakuris was one of eight movies churned out by Miike in 2001, so he might fairly be accused here of overextending his reach creatively. There’s no question it divided critics and his fan base at the time. I enjoyed it as a warped, digital-age parody of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan. There are several spectacularly grotesque images, including the face of the poor girl crushed by the Sumo wrestler in flagrante delicto. Its farcical tone does make it seem more of novelty than the fully developed horror story we normally would expect from Miike. As usual, now, with Arrow Blu-ray releases, this one is backed by several entertaining making-of featurettes, interview sessions, commentary and booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Johnny Mains and a re-printed interview with Miike conducted by Sean Axmaker, illustrated with original stills. The hi-def cinematography enhances the presentation in all the right ways.

Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops
A more precise title for this trip down Memory Lane probably would have been “Hollywood Goes to War: Entertaining the Troops.” Bob Hope may be the first name that comes to mind in any discussion of morale-boosting missions overseas in times of war, but the 90-minute “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops” takes a far more expansive look at such activities in World War II. It opens with the newsreel footage of the Hollywood Canteen, bond rallies and the successful mobilization of nearly every A-, B- and C-list actor, radio star and musician who hadn’t already been drafted or volunteered two weeks after Pearl Harbor. It was ends with a wonderful 1987 reunion interview with Hope and the nucleus of his touring troupe, Frances Langford, dancer Patty Thomas and musician Tony Romano. (Jerry Colonna had died a year earlier.) Their anecdotes are pretty entertaining. Director Robert Mugge also includes footage of such familiar participants in the USO tours as Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour, the Andrews Sisters, Abbott and Costello, Lena Horne, Carole Landis, Dinah Shore, Danny Kaye, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Larry Adler, Kay Kaiser, Cass Daley, Irving Berlin and Mel Blanc. There’s a discussion of the role played by pin-up models and cartoon characters in the war effort, as well. Hope would continue to perform before our troops in and out of war zones until 1990. Although such tours hit a bump in the road during the Vietnam War, which a lot of our troops didn’t find particularly amusing, he would set an example for the current generation of entertainers, whose contributions often go unheralded. The bonus package adds extended footage of the reunion interview.

All Yours
As much as the queer cinema has matured, moving well beyond the tortured coming-out clichés that dominated earlier specimens, it’s still rare to come across a film that can compete on even terms with other indies in festival competitions not limited to LGBT themes. Although limited commercially by a few scenes of hard-core sex, All Yours is enhanced by the kind of production values expected of any other foreign export. The acting is terrific and the direction never calls undue attention to itself as a movie targeted at a niche audience. I think that writer/director David Lambert (Beyond the Walls) was gratified by the fact that his picture wasn’t ghettoized in festivals, even if it probably will be in video outlets, if only for the sake of easy categorization. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (“Epitafios”) plays the Argentine protagonist, Lucas, who supports himself by performing sex-on-demand for an international audience of gay men – presumably – through his website. One of those gentlemen, Henry (Jean-Michel Balthazar), a corpulent baker in a small Belgian town, pays for Lucas’ flight to Europe. He does so even though he knows almost nothing about the young man beyond what he can intuit from the website. Henry expects Lucas to service him sexually in return for the price of the ticket, but he also demands of the increasingly perplexed lad that he work in the bakery for his room and board. There was no disguising the unhappiness on Lucas’ face when he’s greeted by Henry at the airport. Neither does the language divide do them any favors or the lack of a separate bedroom in Henry’s apartment. Imagine Laurel and Hardy trying to sleep comfortably in a double bed.

On the plus side, Henry can be a jolly fellow when things are going right and no one in town appears to view their relationship with distain, open or otherwise. Already working in the bakery is a pretty single mother, Audrey (Monia Chokri), who makes fast friends with Lucas. She doesn’t have to steal money from the till to afford a glass of beer at the local pub, however, or a jacket for the cold fall air. Their friendship is largely based on the fact that they’re two lonely people, living in a small town and working for a man who needs them more than they need him. Even after making her acutely aware of the nature of his former job, they get close enough to each other one night to have sex. It doesn’t preclude Lucas from servicing Henry or making a few bucks on the side at a gay dungeon in a nearby town, but the atmosphere inside the bakery becomes decidedly lighter. It’s when Lucas begins showing signs of a flu-like condition that things get complicated in the triangle. Once again, Lambert, manages to steer the narrative away from the maudlin and toward something reasonably unexpected and uncompromised. The DVD package adds the short film, “Live a Bit Longer,” that inspired the feature, All Yours.

PBS: Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist
PBS: Inside the Court of Henry VIII
PBS: Nature: Animal Homes
Before Lance Armstrong broke the hearts of millions of Americans by finally admitting to something everyone in competitive cycling already took for granted, the charismatic Italian racer Marco Pantani carried the cross for athletes whose integrity was being tarnished by sketchy accusations of doping and using performance-enhancement drugs. A likeable young man from a humble background, he was nicknamed “The Pirate” for wearing a scarf over his bald head, sporting an earring and boldly attacking the leaders on hill climbs. In 1998, three years after colliding with a car head-on during the Milano–Torino race, Pantani became the first Italian since Felice Gimondi, in 1965, to win the Tour de France. He would go on to become only the seventh rider in history to achieve the Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double. Seventeen years later, he remains the last rider to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Naturally, as had always been the case with competitive cycling, such success caused him to be accused of cheating. (The same thing happened to sluggers Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark Maguire as they broke records once considered to be unreachable.) In the late 1990s, testing wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it would become in the Armstrong era and the specifications for doping were vague. Even though Pantani had never tested positive during his career, he would be yanked from the 1999 Giro for a slightly elevated haematocrit reading. He would be exonerated three years later, but, by then, the damage was done. Pantani had gone into a deep depression and self-medicated himself with cocaine. In February, 2004, at the age of 34, he was discovered dead in a seedy Rimini hotel, from acute cocaine poisoning. First released into theaters, then shown on PBS outlets, “Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist” is a powerful documentary about a sport that may not recover quickly from the Armstrong travesty. More than anything else, however, James Erskine’s film demonstrates why Europeans are nuts for cycling and why the people in charge of the sport should have done something definitive about such serious issues decades earlier. It’s also a beautiful film from a scenic perspective. (Imagine holding the World Series in Aspen every year or the Super Bowl overlooking the ocean in Big Sur.) The DVD adds lots more material, including footage of a downhill run at speed.

Of all of the recent TV mini-series and movies based on King Henry VIII, PBS’ 60-minute-long documentary “Inside the Court of Henry VIII” may be the most informative and historically valid of them all … unless, of course, one requires the presence of naked royals in their history lessons. Among other things, it benefits from expert testimony from scholars and settings that may actually have Tudor ghosts residing in them. It doesn’t ignore any of the wives or conspiracy theories that haunted Henry throughout his reign, but adds context and perspective that got lost in more exaggerated accounts. Moreover, the scholars are perfectly willing to point out the man’s positive points. A little nudity wouldn’t have hurt, however.

Sometimes, the simplest ideas make for the most interesting documentaries. The PBS series “Nature” proves this point on an almost monthly basis. How much more basic could a film titled “Animal Homes” possibly be? Didn’t we all learn everything we need to know about bird nests, beaver dams and other animal habitats in 3rd Grade? Basically, yes, but elementary school teachers didn’t have the same access we all do now to reference material that allows interior shots of these habitats and computer representations of the architecture. It’s truly amazing and an important reminder of what gets lost when habitats are destroyed and species are threatened by pollution and reckless exploitation of the land. Ecologist Chris Morgan serves as guide and “real estate agent,” evaluating and deconstructing animal homes, their material, location, neighborhoods and aesthetics.

The DVD Wrapup: Camp X-Ray, Free the Nipple, Giuseppe Andrews, Pillow Book and more

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

Camp X-Ray: Blu-ray
If only for laughs, I would love to see all 9,000-and-counting Republican presidential candidates, as well as the handful of Democratic hopefuls, debate their nonexistent plans for Guantanamo Bay and the prisoners – a.k.a., detainees – still being held on our Cuban base. Despite a campaign pledge to close the detention center, President Obama has had no better luck dealing with the controversial facility than his predecessor, George W. Bush. If nothing else, the population has dwindled from 800, at its height, to the current number, 122. Fifty-seven detainees have been approved for overseas transfer, most nearly five years ago, but the impossible dream of bipartisan support for anything in Washington has stymied all progress on the issue. If the candidates say anything except, “I don’t know,” feel free not to believe anything else they might propose, because none has a single clue. After all, where would we stash any or all of the ISIS leaders we might capture? That Peter Sattler’s provocative drama, Camp X-Ray, was greeted with a collective yawn by most mainstream distributors, as well by potential viewers in the very few markets in which it opened, testifies to how little Americans care about their country’s indefensible stance on holding enemy combatants indefinitely, without charges or trials. (By contrast, American Sniper, which did offer an alternative to taking prisoners, became a huge hit. In April, reports of the cancellation of screenings at a couple major universities got the folks at Fox News all riled up.) After more than a decade of obfuscation, we’re still stuck in the “Out of sight, out of mind” and “Not in my back yard” stage of the debate. If Camp X-Ray doesn’t really attempt to answer any of these questions, it convincingly demonstrates how the presumed terrorists aren’t the only people trapped behind overlapping coils of razor wire, inside cages and forsaken of all hope for reform. In a very real sense, too, American taxpayers are being held hostage by the muddled intentions and political shenanigans of representatives who prefer inaction to compromise.

Kristen Stewart is very good here as Cole, a fledgling MP who volunteered to serve her country by “doing something important,” instead of sitting around after her high school graduation and waiting for someone to offer her a job that might pay more than minimum wage. Her first yearlong posting is Guantanamo Bay, where, as her commanding officer insinuates, once-gung-ho soldiers, marines and sailors are left to stagnate and no one, including the bad guys, wants to be. (At least, the guards get to go home when their year is over and enjoy the weekly barbecue and boat ride.) Cole’s assignment is to walk up and down the hallway of her unit – about 10 cells — peeking through the thin vertical windows on the doors every five minutes, mostly to make sure the men aren’t doing anything to harm themselves or are planting booby traps. The monitoring process recalls the non-stop pacing of animals driven insane inside their impossibly cramped cages at ancient zoos. Mostly, the detainees stare back at the MPs and, when motivated, taunt them with insults, tirades and declarations of their innocense. The guards retaliate by pulling the offender out of his cell, strapping him to wheelchair, putting a mask over his head and finding an out-of-the way place to stick them. The punishment extends to sleep-deprivation and moving him from cell to cell without warning. This is what happens to Ali (Payman Maadi), a non-fundamentalist detainee who was arrested in Germany and may or may not be guilty of plotting against the U.S. To break the tedium after eight years, Ali tests each new MP with personalized tirades and insults. The guards are warned not to engage the prisoners or reveal any personal information to them, but Cole can’t help herself from responding to his chatter. Ali rewards her naiveté with a dreaded “shit cocktail after she makes the mistake of extending her arm through the small opening used to exchange plates and books. As part of the extraction team, Cole is further punished for her good intentions with an elbow to the jaw. Because this is a movie and not real life, Ali and Cole ultimately will come to the conclusion that, given the alternatives, it’s better to find some common ground and it’s in the books she delivers to the cells of those who request one. The upside for Cole is having someone to converse with who’s more interesting and thoughtful than her fellow MPs, who are portrayed as unabashed patriots, good ol’ guys and gals, and potential rapists, when overserved at the weekly rave-ups. How this squares with reality is anyone’s guess. Ali, at least, supplements his reading of the Quran with “Harry Potter” –the most popular book in the facility, according to Sattler’s research – and other books and periodicals. He considers it to be another form of torture that only the first two of the seven fantasy novels are available to him and it’s difficult to argue the point, considering he may not actually be guilty of any crime. Camp X-Ray doesn’t take the prisoner/guard relationship, however constricted, into places most of us would find uncomfortable, not to mention unrealistic. Sattler prefers to demonstrate how ignoring the dictates of the Geneva Convention might not be in the best interests of the United States and one or two of the detainees, at least, might benefit from being treated as something other than guilty. The Blu-ray adds an informative and thoughtful making-of featurette.

Free the Nipple
More a mockumentary or work of reality-based fiction than a pure documentary, Lina Esco’s provocatively titled Free the Nipple tells the story of an actual socio-political movement that could easily be mistaken for a publicity stunt. Last summer, when such celebrities as Miley Cyrus, Rumer Willis, Nico Tortorella, Lydia Hearst, Cara Delevingne and Chelsea Handler were dropping their tops for the paparazzi, it seemed to be a little bit of both. These attractive people and other, less-known activists, volunteered their bosoms to promote the logic of according women the same right to go topless in public places as men. This would apply as much to exhibitionists as breast-feeding moms, and in Times Square as much as the beach at Coney Island. If religious hang-ups and aesthetics considerations – blubbery bellies being as offensive to some of us, as naked sunbathers are to bible-bangers – a goodly percentage of Americans probably could agree that nipples should be as legal as marijuana, at least. Esco’s film, in which actors play characters based on real people, does a nice job describing how such movements can sprout from grass roots, but only if liberally sprinkled with tax-free donations and graced with the bright rays of media attention. As anyone who’s ever attempted to raise money for such causes can attest, the task is easier to promote than to accomplish. Begging for money from friends, relatives and corporations is a humbling experience. Conducting bake sales and peddling magazines are far easier. Conveniently, engaging the mainstream and social media something of a cake walk for Free the Nipple proponents. All they had to do was position protesters within 100 yards of a phalanx of armor-plated cops and cartoonish images of New York City cops struggling to arrest topless young women would travel around the world in a relative heartbeat. (If Pussy Riot had been named the Russian Bangles, instead, how much news coverage would their arrests have garnered?) The more persuasive point being made by Esco is how hypocritical it is to treat partial nudity as somehow more harmful than America’s fetishistic obsession with graphic violence. This hypocrisy has been debated feverishly for decades, already, by critics of the MPAA ratings system. Then, too, women have been attempting to de-stigmatize breast-feeding in public and de-criminalize semi-nude sun-bathing for several decades. What’s new is the attention-grabbing name, Free the Nipple, and willingness of celebrities to put their breasts where their mouth is. They’re aren’t advocating for an end to war, but who cares? Putting an end to hypocrisy would be a grand achievement, too. I do think, however, that within two weeks of freeing women’s nipples, an equal number of activists would come out of the woodwork to demand that men not be allowed to ogle them on street corners or at the beach. The First Amendment is funny that way. Among the actors who portray activists here are Casey LaBow, Monique Coleman, Zach Grenier, Griffin Newman and Lola Kirke. [

Project Almanac: Blu-ray
Back to the Jurassic: Blu-ray
Aspiring novelists are routinely encouraged to “write what you know” and, I suppose, the same advice applies for first-time screenwriters. Although no one has actually experienced time-travel, enough movies have employed it as a central conceit to make one think it’s as common as catching a bus in Chicago. The 1914 short, “A Christmas Carol,” likely was the first to demonstrate the adaptability of the concept. Remarkably, it would take another 35 years for H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” to be adapted for the screen, in a BBC teleplay. For his first feature, the clever teen adventure Project Almanac, Dean Israelite elected to add found-footage to the mix. It’s appropriate that Israelite and screenwriters Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, also freshmen, consciously acknowledge such predecessors as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future, Back to the Future: Part II, Chronicle, Time Cop and, in a cute classroom riff, Groundhog Day. Non-nerd David (Jonny Weston) has just fulfilled a lifetime dream, by getting accepted into M.I.T. The bad news is that he won’t be able to attend the premier college, unless he can come up with a sufficiently impressive science project to change the minds of the scholarship committee. A possible solution might lie hidden among the papers of David’s father, a brilliant scientist who died after a party for his son’s seventh birthday. In the attic, his sister discovers an old camcorder with footage shot at the very same event. On close examination, David and his geek posse are stunned to discover David’s current likeness reflected in a mirror. The anomaly ultimately leads them to a long-ignored workshop in the basement of the house, where plans for a “temporal displacement device,” batteries and other gadgets and gizmos have been gathering dust for a decade. It sets off a chain of events that includes all of the usual time-travel hijinks, while adding the geek pipedream of having the school’s superhot queen bee, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), fall for him. (In a concession to reality, David’s actually handsome and athletic.) Ultimately, the fun stuff that can be accomplished through knowing the future – lottery numbers, test questions – turns ugly. Rod Serling cautioned us against toying with past events in at least three separate “Twilight Zone” episodes. Without such deterrents as someone worse than Hitler taking power in Germany after he’s assassinated by a time-traveler, we’d all have a time machine in our garage … right? It’s likely that teens will warm to Project Almanac (a.k.a., “Welcome to Yesterday”) more readily than adults, even on Blu-ray, if only because it isn’t in the same league as Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future. Sharp viewers might notice producer Michael Bay’s fingerprints on the film, as executive producer. The Blu-ray adds an alternate opening; deleted scenes; and a pair of alternate endings.

The animated feature, Back to the Jurassic, is based on very similar premise. First a caveat, however: it is a retitled, repackaged and re-released version of the 2012 Dino Time (a.k.a., “Dino Mom”), with the sole addition being an upgrade to Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D. Why the distributors felt it necessary to pull the wool over the eyes of parents looking for an innocuous time-killer is beyond me, but it’s become increasingly prevalent gimmick in the children’s market. Of course, there’s nothing mysterious about the timing of the release. With the PG-13 Jurassic World opening on Friday, Back to the Jurassic offers a PG option – inflated, considering the harmless family-friendly material – for parents being badgered by their children captivated Universal’s ubiquitous marketing campaign. Just for the record, then, three children accidentally get a time-machine to work, while playing in the workshop of a scientific-minded parent. It transports them from a futuristic Jurassic theme park, 65 million years back in time, to the real deal. Once there, the kids are adopted by a doting dinosaur mom Tyra (Melanie Griffith) and a rambunctious dinosaur named Dodger (Rob Schneider). Rival predators (William and Stephen Baldwin) stand between the time-travelers and home.

Comeback Dad
Some movies about personal redemption pile up the melodrama so high that viewers hagve tough time waiting for the protagonist to be cut the slack he needs to escape his dilemma and maintain our interest. Comeback Dad is just such a movie.  In it, the always excellent Charles S. Dutton plays a broken-down piano player who’s trying to re-connect with the daughter he lost when he decided to entrust his future to several thousand bottles of booze.  When we meet Othell, he looks like just another down-and-out guy desperately seeking a soft touch to finance his next meal. In fact, he’s stalking the young man he thinks holds the key for a reunion with, Nima (Tatyana Ali), whose hate for the old man knows no boundaries. If Othell can somehow convince her fiancé of his sobriety and willingness to repent, maybe he’ll carry the message to Nima, who’s inherited his musical genes. Not knowing the whole story, Spence (Brad James), misjudges Nima’s deep disgust for her father, who complicates matters by showing up out of the blue at a restaurant and the home of his ex-wife. Even if we’re convinced of Othell’s determination to stay clean, director Russ Parr (Hear No Evil) and debuting screenwriter Kimberly Walker continue to dig new potholes for him to escape and us to endure. Things don’t get any easier for him when Nima agrees to attend a reunion celebrating the 80th birthday of the family matriarch. No sooner have his siblings gathered for dinner than it takes on the appearance of an encounter group at a rehab clinic. In between verbal exchanges, it’s clear to see that Othell’s problem began with his father’s discouragement of his career in jazz. Everyone else in the family followed the party line by going into the law or medicine, but, by following his heart, Othell actually accomplished what his siblings were afraid to do. So, by succumbing to alcohol to ease the pain, he had confirmed his family’s worst expectations and given them reason to gloat. In effect, Nima would become collateral damage in a war they couldn’t control. One what think that the filmmakers could have eased up on the clutch at this point, but there are a few more secrets and missed opportunities to reveal before Comeback Dad hits the 90-minute mark. And, while Dutton is up for the task, only a student of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson could keep things on the right track dramatically. I doubt very much if this is what the producers had in mind, however.

The Australian prison drama, Healing, also chronicles the redemption process through time, trials and self-discovery. Here, however, co-writer/director Craig Monahan gives the protagonist more opportunities to succeed than fail. After 18 years in prison, convicted murderer Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) is transferred to a low-security facility for short-timers. Khadem is fortunate that penal authorities in Victoria have established a program dedicated to rehabilitation over lifelong isolation and punishment. In an American prison, especially one of those for-profit deals, he’d still be cooling his heels. The conceit that drives Healing is that these are broken men, whose only chance of becoming fully rehabilitated is by finding something other than their tarnished souls to save. Here, a program has been instituted for select inmates to work with seriously injured eagles, falcons and owls, so they can be re-introduced to the wild. Not all of the prisoners take advantage of the program and a few even work out their frustrations by trying to sabotage it. Khadem’s crew has its ups and downs, but the time spent with the birds – in the aviary and in the field – is impossible not to admire and enjoy. The men’s personal trials – not unlike those of Othell in Comeback Dad — are also depicted with honesty and compassion. If the denouement borders on the sappy, the movie’s already earned the right to pull at the heartstrings one last time. Sadly, American prisons haven’t been in the rehabilitation business for a long time. It costs too much money to implement and maintain, and the public hasn’t demonstrated any passion for anything expect punishing and isolating convicted criminals. Lately, though, some American prisons have adopted programs in which hard-core prisoners endeavor to turn traumatized pit bulls and military dogs into service animals. My guess is that the dogs have a far better chance of earning their freedom than their trainers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. As usual, anyone who only knows Australia from its lovely coast and brutal Outback might be surprised by the visual splendor of Victoria’s interior.

Giuseppe Makes A Movie: Blu-ray
The DIY movement probably can be traced back to the earliest shorts of Kenneth Anger and John Waters, who then were considered to be underground filmmakers. With such seriously weird titles as “Senators in Bondage,”  “Kustom Kar Kommandos,” “Invocation of My Demon Brother” and, by way of Baltimore, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” “Eat Your Makeup” and “The Diane Linkletter Story,” there was no mistaking their budgetary restraints or target audiences. The introduction of Super 8 technology in the mid-1960s gave impetus to a movement that would facilitate the production of experimental and underground productions, while also encouraging thousands of Baby Boomers to try their luck at film school. Ultimately Super 8 and 16mm cameras would give way to hand-held camcorders, palm-corders, handy-cams and cell-phones. The success of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Richard Linklater’s Slackers and Harmony Korine’s Gummo laid the groundwork for the guys we met in the 1999 documentary, American Movie, which chronicled the tortuous creation of “Coven,” a horror short that was as home-made as a movie could be at the time. Milwaukee native Mark Borchardt hoped that the proceeds from “Coven” would help finance a longer project, “Northwestern.” That didn’t work out as planned, but Borchardt is still active in the industry – more or less, anyway – and the doc’s director, Chris Smith, has gone on to make Home Movie, The Yes Men and terrific coming-of-age drama, The Pool. Thanks to YouTube, shorts and music videos that were dying on the vine suddenly were being seen and critiqued by like-minded viewers. Today, distributers of truly niche programming are risking the few bucks they have on quick-and-dirty DVDs and POV opportunities. The trickle of do-it-yourself titles as grown to a something resembling a stream, if not yet a river. I was immediately reminded of American Movie while watching Adam Rifkin’s documentary/profile, “Giuseppe Makes a Movie.”

At 36, Giuseppe Andrews has already experienced the kind of roller-coaster career few people in Hollywood could easily endure. It didn’t really kick in until he and his father had traded down from a trailer park to a van and were cast in an infomercial. His first credit was earned at 10, as Joey Andrews, in Randal Kleiser’s Getting It Right. He would go on to such entertainments as “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” Detroit Rock City, Independence Day and music videos backing the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” and “Perfect.” In 1999, Andrews decided to become his own boss by making more than 30 long-form and short movies that easily fit the DIY mold. Rifkin’s doc chronicles the making of the nano-budget “Garbanzo Gas” and “Shlong Oysters,” whose casts include alcoholics and drug addicts, trash-talking senior citizens, ex-strippers, dumpster divers, skate-punks, a former backup guitarist for the Bee Gees and some characters Diane Arbus might have approached with caution. The funny thing is that Andrews somehow manages to elicit half-way decent performances from his motley repertory company and his direction is equal to a lot of things I see on DVD each week. The stories, which most other filmmakers wouldn’t pick up with tweezers, should appeal to fans of Waters, Korine, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and early Werner Herzog. In some ways, they resemble bargain-basement adaptations of Marat/Sade, M and The Beggar’s Opera. That Andrews is able to maintain a straight face and deliver his own lines amid the chaos demonstrates how good an actor he still is. The second disc adds commentary, deleted scenes, the full “Garbanzo Gas,” interviews with the now-Austin-based auteur and “Trailer Town” star Bill Nowlin, and the proposed pilot of a delightfully demented TV sitcom, “5TH Wheel.”

Society: Blu-ray
Spider Baby: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Not having been much of a horror aficionado in the glory days of the 1980s, I missed a lot of entertaining movies that only now are being in resurrected in Blu-ray and given the kind of attention once reserved for bona-fide classics in disrepair. Released in 1989, Society is unlike any horror flick I’ve ever seen, before or since. Tangentially related to the Re-Animator franchise, Society isn’t so much scary as it is a nightmare come to life through the magic  of special effects. Greeted with enthusiasm overseas, but devastated by the mainstream American critics who previewed it at the Cannes market, Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut pretty much got lost in the pack of genre titles that flooded the theatrical and VHS arena at the time. Thanks to a marvelous restoration and repackaging by Arrow Film & Video, Society is finally being made available to the ever-expanding audience for quality horror. It does take its time setting us for the truly stunning ending, however. Soap-opera heartthrob Billy Warlock stars as the handsome and socially active Bill Whitney. Despite his family’s wealth, Bill is made to feel like a second-class citizen at his Beverly Hills private school by the ruling clique. (In the interviews included here, Yuzna freely acknowledges his desire to make a quasi-political statement about life in Reagan-era America, when simply being rich was never enough.) As the story evolves, Bill becomes convinced not only that his life is in danger, but also that his parents and sister may be holding back family secrets from him. And, of course, he’s right. When he finally catches the eye of the clique’s resident seductress, Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), things get even more confusing for the poor lad. It doesn’t help that someone appears to be playing mind games with his fragile psyche, by faking the deaths of classmates. An unexpected invitation to the home of one of Beverly Hills’ most prominent families gives Bill some pause, but not enough to stand up Clarissa. No sooner does Bill get two feet inside the door than Society turns into an extended orgy of special-effects-driven perversity. It’s here that Japanese “surrealistic makeup designer and creator” Screaming Mad George (Bride of Re-Animator) jumps into the driver’s seat, deploying a “shunt” effect that allows for the liquefaction and reshaping of the characters’ skin. It truly has to be seen to be believed. In his interview, Mad George describes how was able to re-create surrealistic images from the work of Salvador Dali and apply them to the makeup effects in Society. Anyone who’s gotten this far into the Blu-ray package likely will want to re-watch the orgy scene, at least one more time. Besides Yuzna’s commentary, there are several other interviews and Q&A’s, a Mad George music video and collectors’ booklet.

Also from Arrow comes Spider Baby, a rare example of a creature feature that works both as comedy and horror. Finished in 1964, but not released until 1967, the black-and-white thriller looks as if it might have been shot as an episode of “Thriller,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” or “Night Gallery.” It could also be mistaken for a very special episode of “The Addams Family,” with Morticia, Gomez and the clan housesitting for their country cousins in the “Psycho” mansion on the Universal backlot. It really is that kind of movie. In fact, the mansion is inhabited by a mentally regressive family of deviants whose eating habits were more influenced by rats, arachnids and other killer insects than Emily Post. Retired Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. plays the loyal chauffeur and conscientious baby-sitter to the seriously in-bred man-child, Ralph (Sid Haig), and a pair of Lolita-wannabes, Elizabeth and Virginia Merrye (Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner). Chaney also sings the movie’s theme song, which plays over the “Pink Panther”-inspired opening credits. Into this toxic environment arrives distant relatives and their lawyer (Carol Ohmart, Mary Mitchel, Quinn K. Redeker ), who hope to dispossess the family of its home. Needless to say, the interlopers weren’t prepared for what they found. None of this would have worked as well as it does if the actors hadn’t taken the tongue-in-cheek material as professionally as they did and first-time director Jack Hill (Switchblade  Sisters, The Big Bird Cage) wasn’t a natural in the exploitation game. The great African-American comic actor, Mantan Moreland, makes a wonderful addition as the first victim. The other crazy thing to know about Spider Baby is how it was handled once it made it to the screen. Its working title, “Cannibal Orgy or the Maddest Story Ever Told,” is alluded to in the clever theme song to Spider Baby, which also was sent to drive-in theaters as The Liver Eaters. It was the same movie, but held two places on the marquee, as if to prove that patrons don’t pay attention to the second-half of a double feature. The sterling Blu-ray upgrade adds enjoyable audio commentary, with Hill and Haig; a panel discussion with cast and crew members, recorded in September 2012; the featurettes, “The Hatching of Spider Baby,” “Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein” and “The Merrye House Revisited”; an alternate opening title sequence; an extended scene; original trailer; gallery of behind-the-scenes images; “The Host,” Jack Hill’s 1960 short film featuring Haig in his first starring role; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a booklet, with essays by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax magazine.

Who knows how many of today’s straight-to-DVD movies will stand the test of time and find new audiences decades after their initial release? Some of today’s crop of genre filmmakers almost surely will be asked to look back on their early films in featurettes recorded 20 years from now for Blu-ray or whatever new format is being foisted on consumers. If Jared Black hits the jackpot somewhere down the road, I have no idea what he’ll have to say about Delirium, a psycho-thriller about a young girl who returns home after a year away from her family. No one knows what happened to Emily or who might have been responsible for her disappearance, but her biological father has decided to launch a messy custody war against the girl’s mother and stepfather. Since returning home, Emily has had a difficult time sleeping, because of something she suspects is living in the attic. There’s evil afoot here, but’s so ill-defined as to be more peculiar than frightening. My problems with Delirium include not being able to keep track of the shifts in time or quickly determine the motivations of any of the key characters. Some of the atmospherics are pretty good, however.

The Pillow Book: Blu-ray
Has anyone in the DVD/Blu-ray/LaserDisc industry endeavored to determine how the bonus features included on most discs today are used by consumers? Deleted, extended and alternative scenes are the easiest to sample, of course, and probably widely viewed. Too often, though, the interviews and background featurettes are nothing more than Electronic Press Kits, as intellectually compelling as a promotional appearance on a late-night talk show by a film’s most attractive star. Original trailers attached to classic movies can be amusing, whereas the inclusion of trailers on discs of recently released titles qualifies only as filler. But, what about the commentaries, which require one repeated viewing, at least, and, as such, may be too daunting for casual fans? Too often, a certain lack of enthusiasm can be detected in the voices of the participants. The laws dictating hubris also apply for directors, producers and stars who want us to believe that the bomb we’ve just witnessed is far more worthy of praise than the opinions already proffered by critics and lack of box-office interest. On some soundtracks, too, it’s only too clear that the participants aren’t sharing the same viewing experience or are reading from a prepared text. Some of these are useful, while others are complete waste of time. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. If any movie I’ve seen lately demands a second viewing, with accompanying commentary, it is Film Movement’s Blu-ray re-release of Peter Greenaway’s mesmerizing The Pillow Book. Greenaway has consistently proven to be one of the modern cinema’s most intellectually challenging practitioners and I simply couldn’t wait to check out the commentary track to check if my observations jibbed with his intentions. I found the experience to be extremely enlightening.  (I also recommend checking out Ray Pride’s vintage interview with the Wales native elsewhere on the MCN website.) Although the 73-year-old painter-turned-filmmaker clearly is reading from text or speaking extemporaneously – he doesn’t comment on the scenes in front of us and the track ends halfway through the movie – his passion for the medium is never less than palpable. For those of us who hadn’t revisited The Pillow Book since its initial release, the discussion of his influences and intentions is must-viewing.

Greenaway’s Pillow Book is adapted from an ancient Japanese diary – observations, advice and, perhaps, the first “listicles” — by royal courtesan Sei Shōnagon around the year 1000 during the middle Heian period. Here, the female protagonist, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), writes her musings on her skin and that of acquaintances, including the western translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor). Because she uses the entire body as parchment, Pillow Book caused a sensation upon its release in 1996 for its graphic male and female nudity and other visual conceits. Nagiko is the daughter of a master calligrapher, who would write poetry on her face on each new birthday. By the time she reached adulthood, her attention was divided between calligraphy, fashion and modeling. Her skin-texts are exquisitely rendered and, then, photographed by a close friend for inclusion in a book. The most likely publisher, an old family nemesis, refuses to endorse the concept until Jerome allows himself to be sexually compromised, as had Nagiko’s father, years earlier. It isn’t long before the publisher recognizes his place in the through-line and becomes obsessed with seeing how the story plays out on the various skin-palettes sent to him. But, again, therein lies a peculiarly Greenaway-esque twist.

Like the European Impressionists and artisans so influenced by cultural exchanges with Japanese artists in the 19th Century, Greenaway sees calligraphy as “illustrated text” and as much a part of a Japanese painter’s vision as the image, itself. This speaks not only to the differences in the way art is considered by Eastern and Western observers, but also in what the writer/director says is the text-vs.-image conundrum that’s challenged filmmakers for more than a century. The cinema may, indeed, by a visual medium, but, he argues, the overwhelming majority of stories told are adapted from books, magazine, newspapers and other print media. In this way, movies have been required to abide by rules established in 18th- and 19th-century literature. Historically, Eastern artists have intended for their art to be read and seen, simultaneously. As one student is advised here, “The word for rain should fall like rain … the word for smoke should drift like smoke.” When exposed to traditional paintings and scrolls, westerners, myself included, absorbed the calligraphy as we might a caption on a photograph in a newspaper. Our unfamiliarity with the language prevents us from celebrating the organic marriage of text and image. In his commentary, Greenaway allows that digital and green-screen technology now allows for just artistry and understanding. In 1996, he exploited the technology available to him to stimulate and engage viewers from several points of view and entry points. Today, those same techniques border on the primitive. Even so, Greenaway’s painterly eye and keen sense of composition turned The Picture Book into something that addressed the future, as much as it embraced the present and past. As such, it’s the rare movie that can be savored on a frame-by-frame basis or enjoyed without distractions as a testament to Blu-ray technology.

Starz: Survivor’s Remorse: The Complete First Season
Thunderbirds: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hart to Hart: The Final Season
The Facts of Life: Season Six
BBC: Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2004
The Beginner’s Bible: Volume 2
The Starz mini-series “Survivor’s Remorse” is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) it attempts to do for a basketball superstar and his posse what “Entourage” did for a bunch of contemporary Hollywood brat packers, and 2) contains no actual footage of basketball being played other than on a playground, once. In the six-episode half-hour sitcom, Jessie T. Usher (When the Game Stands Tall) portrays Boston-raised phenom Cam Calloway, who’s just been signed to his first huge free-agent contract by the Atlanta Hawks. Calloway was raised in the ghetto, where he partook in all the usual temptations presented to a teenager, and he’s constantly reminded of his questionable behavior by old cronies perfectly willing to blackmail him. As an adult, however, Cam’s evolved into something of an innocent in a world perfectly willing to exploit his talent and charisma for personal gain, while he still has some exploitable talent left in him. His posse is comprised of family members who range from his ghetto-fabulous mom to a lesbian sister who hits on every woman within six feet of her. They probably could have used a remedial course in real-world etiquette and tact before following Cam to Atlanta, but where would be the fun in that? The first season concerned itself with Cam and his posse’s introduction to Atlanta society, as well as near-misses with reporters anxious to tear his still-developing reputation to shreds. Not being of the African-American persuasion, I couldn’t say with any authority if the humor might be considered racist by black viewers. Things have changed since “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times,” after all. A white guy, Mike O’Malley (“Glee”), created the series, but, with LeBron James listed as one of several exec-producers, my bet would be that the scripts are closely perused before they’re aired. And, much of the writing is quite good. It will be interesting to see the direction “Survivor’s Remorse” takes in its 10-episode second-season run, which begins in the fall. The supporting cast includes Mike Epps, RonReaco Lee, Erica Ash, Teyonah Parris and Tichina Arnold.

The folks at Shout! Factory/Timeless Media have finally come to the point in the release of vintage titles from “The Gerry Anderson Collection” that Blu-ray has become a desirable option. The upgrade may have been prompted, though, by last year’s release of the feature-length Thunderbirds Are Go/Thunderbird 6 combo in hi-def by Twilight Time. Aired in 1965-66, “Thunderbirds” fits in the canon between “Stingray” and “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” already available in DVD. The stars of this Supermarionation interplanetary adventure belong to the wealthy Tracy family, circa 2065, whose base is a high-tech paradise that includes a space station to monitor the problems of Earth and its inhabitants. Available to them is a fleet of flying and “swimming” vessels, knowns as Thunderbirds. The exploits of the International Rescue team are collected in “Thunderbirds: The Complete Series,” which also arrives with the “Launching Thunderbirds” documentary and a vintage publicity brochure available in PDF format, accessible from a Blu-ray drive.

Nickelodeon has given fans of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise something more to live for, in three new compilations from 2013 story arcs: “NYC Showdown,” “The Search for Splinter” and “Pulverizer Power.” As usual, with these kids-oriented collections, check the episode titles before ordering, as some are repeats.

Among other new golden-oldie collections this week are “Hart To Hart: The Final Season” and “The Facts of Life: Season Six,” both from Shout! Factory. BBC Home Entertainment’s “Last of the Summer Wine: Vintage 2004” represents the 26th season of the world’s longest running sitcom. Meanwhile, the second chapter in StarVista’s “Beginner’s Bible” kiddies’ series adds animated interpretations of “Noah’s Ark,” “David & Goliath” and “The Creation.”

The DVD Wrapup: McFarland USA, Scarecrows, Mickey Rourke, Justified, Rectify and more

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

McFarland, USA Blu-ray
There is a subgenre of sports movies in which hard-scrabble groups of young athletes defeat immense odds by becoming champions. Typically, they represent one ethnic-minority group or another, but it can be stretched to include a movie like Miracle, the dramatic story of the 1980 U.S. ice-hockey team’s amazing triumph over the dominant Soviet team or, even, Stand and Deliver, about Jaime Escalante’s determination to turn potential dropouts into competitive math wizards. Recently, too, we’ve seen inspirational stories about the first group of poor Mexican kids to win the Little League World Series (The Perfect Game) and Hispanic students from Texas who pit their robotic creations against those from a team from MIT. In basketball, there’s Hoosiers, in which a group of farm kids from a tiny Indiana school, conquered an Indianapolis team led by Oscar Robertson and perennial powerhouse Muncie Central, and Glory Road, in which five African-American players started for the first time in a NCAA championship game upset Kentucky’s all-white squad, coached by the “legendary” Adolph Rupp. All such films take liberties with the facts, if simply to boost dramatic effect or condense the disparate elements, but the climaxes can hardly be fudged.

Kiwi filmmaker Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA is the latest entry in the subgenre. Kevin Costner is typically effective as the high school football coach who’s fired for throwing a shoe at the starting quarterback – the wiseass deserved worse – and forced to look for work elsewhere. He finds it in a predominantly Mexican-American school in the Central Valley of California. As beneficiaries of the unionization of farm workers, led by Cesar Chavez, the families no longer are migratory and some have found ways to control their own livelihoods.  They are still poor, however, and many of their kids are required to split their days between work in the fields and school, with little or no hope of going on to college. As depicted here, Jim White (a.k.a., Coach Blanco) and his family are dismayed by their first impressions of McFarland, which they find to be as boring as it is impoverished. As an assistant to the school’s bone-headed football coach, White witnesses abuses that appear to be taken for granted by the principal. Long story short, White volunteers to create the school’s first cross-country team, based simply on watching a few of the boys running around during gym class or in the fields. Conveniently, California had just agreed to fund off-brand sports in minority-heavy schools and organize an inaugural statewide meet in cross-country. You can probably guess the outcome of McFarland, USA from that much information, alone.

What wouldn’t be obvious, though, are the many fresh twists added by Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, A Heavenly Vintage) to avoid clichés and invent dramatic confrontations where none actually existed. The rapport between White, his wife (Maria Bello) and daughters, and the students and their parents isn’t always ideal, but it feels genuine and the bad times are frequently relieved with humor. Moreover, Mexican-American family life is depicted in a straight-forward fashion that doesn’t ignore the strains caused by living with belts constantly tightened, while accentuating the positive aspects of life in a close-knit ethnic community. Being 1987, the inexperienced and poorly equipped Cougars are easy targets for the racist taunts of runners from Palo Alto and other all-white teams. Once the meets start, however, the cheap shots end. As anyone who’s driven north or south on I-5 can attest, the terrain in around McFarland doesn’t lend itself to picture-postcard sentimentality, but what beauty does exist is nicely captured by Terry Stacey and Adam Arkapaw. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Juntos,” by Juanes; and featurettes “McFarland Reflections” and “Inspiring McFarland,” which describes how the miracle continues, today.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water: Blu-ray
I wonder if sales of marijuana – medical and otherwise – were up in the week preceding the theatrical release of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. I’m old enough to remember when the Beatles’ animated musical, The Yellow Submarine, opened to audiences of older teens and young adults, who were stewed to the gills on pot and psychedelics. It wasn’t the kind of movie intended specifically to blow the minds of its audience, but its animators probably weren’t discouraged from paying special attention to themes, shapes and colors that catered to altered states. Launched in 1999, “SpongeBob SquarePants” is an animated television series created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg for Nickelodeon. The series chronicles the adventures of the title charac6ter and his various friends in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom. While there isn’t an obvious link between “SpongeBob” and “Yellow Submarine,” they’d make a dandy double feature at Sea World or on the flat-screen TV of your local dispensary of legal marijuana. Perhaps, it’s worth noting here that the ticket-counters at Box Office Mojo estimate that the audience for “Sponge Out of Water,” which combines live-action segments and animation, was 53 percent male and 60 percent under the age of 25. My guess is that most of those viewers under 25 grew up watching “SpongeBob SquarePants,” first as wide-eyed kids, but, then, as teens and young adults able to parse the hip double-entendres and cross-generational sight gags. Consequently, the movie outperformed estimates by posting $53.3 million in revenues over its opening weekend, on its way to a pre-video haul of $163 million at the domestic box office and another $148.6 million overseas.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s central conflict involves the theft of the secret Krabby Patty formula, not by Plankton, as could be expected, but a real-life pirate, Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas), who wants to convert his amphibious vessel into a food truck. Absent the recipe, Bikini Bottom is threatened with becoming a ghost town. It causes SpongeBob and Plankton to put aside their differences long enough to recover the recipe and put Bikini Bottom back on the underwater map. This brief synapsis in no way does justice to the crazy stuff that happens between the theft and recovery of the recipe or of the delightfully drawn characters and backdrops and zippy musical interludes. The retention of original cast members Tom Kenny, Clancy Brown, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Doug Lawrence, Carolyn Lawrence and Paul Harrison Tibbitt ensured, as well, that 16 years of fandom wouldn’t be disappointed by a possible introduction of promotable guest voices and cameos. The Blu-ray looks terrific, in or out of 3D, and the bonus features go a long way toward explaining how the movie and TV episodes come together, especially the voicing of characters. The featurettes are divided into four segments, “On the Surface,” “Underwater Awesomeness,” “Bikini Bottom Boogie” and “Deleted/Extended/Alternate/Test Scenes.” All add value to the total package, without spoiling any of the fun.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain: Blu-ray
In 1966, any progress China was making in the creation of the ideal socialist state, whose leaders were answerable only to “the people,” was thwarted by the paranoid delusions of 72-year-old Chairman Mao Zedong and the so-called Gang of Four. The intended goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of what a handful of Communist Party zealots considered to be revisionist elements determined to restore capitalism and bourgeois values to the Peoples Republic. They established the militant Red Guards to root out individuals hey determined to be less than committed to armed struggle and the elevation of what party leaders determined to be proletarian values. Anyone whose job required a modicum of intellectual thought or clean hands, even, could be sent to the boonies to work on communal farms, quarries or re-education camps. One byproduct of the Cultural Revolution was the banning of all plays and ballets that didn’t glorify the accomplishments of the Peoples Liberation Army or promote revolutionary change. When all was said and done, Mao’s widely despised wife, Jiang Qing, approved the creation of six model operas and two ballets, including Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, based on a novel by Qu Bo. It chronicled an actual battle in the Chinese Civil War, between a squadron of Peoples Liberation Army soldiers and a gang of bandits and brigands terrorizing villages in the mountains of northeastern China. The play was adapted into a rousingly patriotic movie in 1970 and, again, last year, as an action adventure by the estimable Tsui Hark. Shot in winter in the same mountains, “Tiger Mountain” stars Tony Ka Fai Leung as a ruthless bandit whose fortress sits beneath the summit of Tiger Mountain. Zhang Hanyu plays the spy sent to destroy the gang from the inside. To divert the warlord, Lord Hawk, a map to a treasure left behind by Japanese troops is fabricated. The Vietnamese native, Hark, is renowned for his Hong Kong action pictures and his brilliantly staged fight scenes are wonderfully entertaining. While the PLA soldiers, including a gung-ho woman warrior, wear drab standard-issue military uniforms and winter gear, Lord Hawk and his officers are decked out in all manner of fashionable furs and trinkets. (“Game of Thrones” appears to be referenced in the costumes.)  The mountainous backdrops couldn’t be any more formidable, either. Viewers may require a scorecard to keep track of the many different characters and storylines. There’s also a contemporary framing device, intended, I suppose, to appeal to viewers who may never have been required to memorize the Little Red Book of quotations from Chairman Mao. Western audiences may not grasp the conceit, but fans of modern Chinese epics won’t have any trouble getting past it. The Blu-ray captures the grandeur of the setting, as well as the winter chill, while adding interviews with cast and crew.

Scarecrows: Blu-ray
I wonder how many farmers still use scarecrows to ward off birds and other critters anxious to ravage their fields before crops have had an opportunity to take hold. While watching McFarland, USA, which is set in California’s agricultural belt, I didn’t notice a single burlap sack, stuffed with hay to resemble a ragamuffin’s torso. Of course, I didn’t see any hot-air balloons, tin men or yellow-brick roads, either. Neither, does William Wesley’s 1988 chiller, Scarecrows, take place near Kansas, Oz or anywhere else corn is grown in large quantities. Those geographical lapses aside, the movie makes the most of what little the filmmakers were given and the ability of cinematographer of Peter Deming (My Cousin Vinny, Mulholland Dr.) to allow us to make sense of a movie that takes place almost entirely in the dark, hundreds of miles from the nearest scarecrow. In it, a group of five former commandoes steals $3 million from Camp Pendleton, the sprawling Marine base between San Diego and Los Angeles. To make their escape, the heavily armed men and a woman force the pilot of a small propeller plane to take them to Mexico, which isn’t more than 50 miles south, as the crow flies. To ensure the pilot’s cooperation, the crooks also take his teenage daughter hostage.

Somewhere along the way, one of the commandoes grabs the money and parachutes from the plane, landing in a cornfield. Now, unless the pilot decided make a detour over the Imperial Valley, a hundred miles east of Camp Pendleton, it isn’t likely that much in the way of corn was being grown in the desert south of Mexicali. It’s where the Colorado River goes to die, after all.  In fact, Scarecrows was filmed in Florida, where there probably are several large fields of corn. Nonetheless, the commandos are able to use their search-and-destroy skills to locate the cornfield and abandoned farmhouse, around which a fierce firefight will take place. The scarecrows may not be armed with automatic weapons, but, with Satan on their side, aren’t about to let the invaders have free access to their cursed cornfield. Given the movie’s age and limited resources, Scarecrows offers a decent viewing experience for genre buffs with Blu-ray equipment. The set adds commentaries with Wesley and producer Cami Winikoff, and with Deming, co-screenwriter Richard Jefferies and composer Terry Plumeri; the featurettes, “The Last Straw,” – an interview with special makeup-effects creator Norman Cabrera, and “Cornfield Commando,” an interview with actor Ted Vernon; original storyboards; and a still gallery.

In the curiously titled Asmodexia, an itinerant exorcist pastor, Eloy (Lluís Marco), roams around the outskirts of Barcelona with his supernaturally blessed/cursed granddaughter, Alba (Clàudia Pons), curing souls possessed by the Evil One. Unlike most exorcist-themed movies, Marc Carreté’s first feature treats demonic possession as if it were a plague that attacks the soul and makes its victims resemble zombies. They exist in catacomb-like basements, some of which recall Mayan tombs with their scattered iconography and foreboding architecture. We know that there’s something special about Alba because we were there at her birth and observed the spiritual cleansing that followed her untidy delivery. At the time, Eloy was involved with a quasi-hippy religious sect. Being in a pretty bad place, the survivors welcome the return of Eloy and the girl, who might turn out to be a reasonable facsimile of the messiah. Another hint that things aren’t quite right in Catalonia is a December heat wave that has residents turning on their air conditioners and heading for the beach. Most of what’s scary in Asmodexia derives from the special makeup-effects work done by Monica Murguia and bleached-out cinematography of Xavi Garriga, in his feature debut. “Asmodexia” is a word invented by the director to make viewers think of diseases as yet unnamed. While not particularly gory or frightening, at 81 minutes, it never wears out its welcome.

The Legend of Longwood
This charming Dove-approved fantasy/adventure describes what happens when a 12-year-old American girl, Mickey (Lucy Morton), is forced to leave everything and everyone she knows in New York and adjust to life in rural Ireland. Her mother’s dragged Mickey and her little brother to the Emerald Isle to start a new life in a run-down mill she’s inherited in the tiny town of Longwood. It doesn’t take Mickey long to figure out that destiny has summoned her back to Ireland to fulfill a role in The Legend of Longwood. The village is haunted by the specter of the Black Knight, whose sad story involves having his baby daughter taken from him 300 years in the past. Mickey loves horses, so her attitude brightens when she discovers a castle with a small stable of magnificent white horses. If she can harness the most stubborn of the steeds, Mickey and a newfound friend might be able to lift the Black Knight’s curse. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lisa Mulcahy, my enjoyment of The Legend of Longwood was enhanced greatly by the beautiful scenery.

Eat With Me
Low-budget indie films tend to need all the help they can get when it comes to finding financing, distribution and an audience. It’s with that reality in mind that I tend to forgive niche distributors from putting pictures of well-known actors on the cover of movies in which they may only appear for a few minutes. Danny Trejo and Michael Madsen are famous for lending their brands to action flicks that might not find viewers, otherwise. Robert Englund provides the same service for producers of horror movies. George Takei may, indeed, be the most prominent actor in freshman writer/director David Au’s appealing fairytale romance, Eat With Me, but his photo on the DVD’s cover makes it look as if he plays a more prominent role than almost anyone else. Takei’s cameos come at pivotal points in the narrative, but anyone who chose that time to get a free refill of popcorn wouldn’t know he’d come and gone. On DVD, at least, hitting the pause button is a far better option. Eat With Me opens with Emma (Sharon Omi) realizing that her marriage to the inconsiderate Ray (Ken Narasaki) has run its course and she’s in desperate need of R&R. The closest escape route takes her to her son’s loft apartment in Los Angeles. Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who’s taken over the lease at his late uncle’s failing restaurant, isn’t exactly sure what to make of his mother’s arrival, which has come straight out of the blue. In the past, Emma has shown herself to be uncomfortable with the possibility of Elliot being gay, but it’s more of a hang-up for her than it is for him. Coincidental to mom’s arrival, Elliot is dealing with commitment issues with the men in his life, as well as eviction notices at the restaurant. The inconvenience of his mother’s presence is greatly alleviated by a neighbor (Nicole Sullivan) who practically adopts Emma, allowing her to hang out in her spacious apartment during a dance class and sharing a dose of Ecstasy after she mistakes it for aspirin. Still, when mom catches junior asleep in bed with his hunky musician boyfriend, she realizes that she’s still not ready to accept reality. Enter George Takei, as George, the wise gay stranger she meets in the park. You can probably already guess what happens from here, but the focus on food as the great equalizer keeps thing from bogging down in clichés.

The Pope of Greenwich Village/Desperate Hours: Blu-ray
The crime dramas that comprise this bi-polar double feature from Shout!Factory are notable primarily for the presence of future Best Actor-nominee Mickey Rourke, as well as the direct and indirect influence of Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter). Ever since his breakout performances in Diner and Body Heat, Rourke has confounded critics and viewers with his determination to play different variations of his eccentric self, instead of fully rounded and imaginatively realized characters. He looked and feIt right at home in the lead roles of Barfly and The Wrestler, and, in between, was extremely well utilized in brief supporting roles. As a romantic lead, however, Rourke was pushing his luck. His stylish wiseguy, Charlie, in The Pope of Greenwich Village simultaneously recalls Harvey Keitel’s similarly anal Charlie, in Mean Streets, and the greaseball arbitrager, John, in 9½ Weeks. They all dress as if they were about to attend a mafia funeral and care more about ruining the polish on their shoes than being punched in the face. Based on an excellent first novel and screenplay by Vincent Patrick, The Pope of Greenwich Village leads the protagonists into “Of Mice and Men” territory, this time in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Eric Roberts, already a known quantity from Star 80, plays Charlie’s borderline-moronic cousin, Paulie, whose criminal pipedreams always come back to haunt him.

After Paulie gets Charlie fired from his job as maître d’ of a mob-owned restaurant, Paulie lets him in on his plans for a $15,000 racehorse and a break-in at a warehouse, where a safe is stuffed with money. Paulie’s already enlisted a veteran safecracker (Kenneth McMillan), who’s always one eggroll away from a heart attack.  The problem is that the money belongs to a mobster known throughout Greenwich Village as Bed Bug Eddie (Burt Young) and a crooked cop is accidentally killed during the commission of the crime. It only takes about 10 seconds for Eddie’s men to narrow down the list of usual suspects to Paulie, who can’t wait to turn on the safecracker, but keeps his cousin’s name out of it for as long as he can. In another conceit that would carry over to 9½ Weeks, Rourke’s chain-smoking hustler has been awarded a beautiful blond girlfriend, this time in the form of a dance teacher played by Daryl Hannah. As 31-year-old mobster-themed movies go, The Pope of Greenwich Village remains surprisingly entertaining, thanks, in large part, to its New York locations. The Cimino connection can made from reports that the Deer Hunter director had been approached to direct the movie, but declined, only to agree to fill in for Stuart Rosenberg (Brubaker) on a few scenes when he fell ill. Geraldine Page delivered a splendid blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance as a nicotine-addicted mother of the corrupt cop, who’s confronted by his cronies looking for incriminating tapes. The Blu-ray arrives with some EPK interviews.

In 1990, Cimino directed Rourke in the risible hostage drama, Desperate Hours. Joseph Hayes’ hit play and novel had been re-adapted several times since 1995, when “The Desperate Hours” won a Tony as Best Play. I haven’t seen any of the other film re-makes, but I can’t imagine them being as ridiculous as the one crafted from a screenplay by Hayes, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (The Jewel of the Nile). By opening Desperate Hours up from its stage iteration, the filmmakers were given far too much freedom to mess up what basically was a pretty intimate drama. The nonsense starts early, as Kelly Lynch is speeding through the Utah desert in a Ferrari, before stopping at a rest stop alongside a gorgeous mountain lake. Nancy is dressed to kill in a slinky business suit, black thigh-high stockings and spikey heels. The next thing we know, she’s climbed a steep rocky hill – in her heels – and arrived at the exact spot on the highway, where, inexplicably, there’s a bus stop. The bus must have been prompt, because Nancy – a lawyer – gets to the courthouse in time to argue for the early parole of Michael Bosworth (Rourke), who pretends not to want her help, but gets it anyway in the form of a dainty little handgun attached to her garter, which is within easy reach of Mickey’s shackled hands. As intricately choreographed as his delivery to the courtroom was by sheriff’s deputies, it’s just that easy for Mickey to escape. From there, Mickey’s hustled to the Ferrari by his brother (Elias Koteas) and a nutcase played by David Morse. Almost all of the rest of the picture takes place inside a suburban house near Salt Lake City, inhabited by Mimi Rogers, Anthony Hopkins and their two children. If there’s a connection between that family and Mickey or Nancy, I missed it. Meanwhile, a FBI unit led by a strangely coiffed Lindsay Crouse has taken over the hostage siege, again, for no clear reason. Things don’t get any more logical or coherent as Desperate Hours unspools. What makes it watchable, though, are nearly over-the-top performances by Hopkins and Rourke, who appears to have been channeling Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (High Sierra), Cody Jarret (White Heat) and Sonny, in Mad Dog Afternoon. In Cimino’s hands, Desperate Hours is never less than so bad, it’s good.

FX: Justified: The Final Season: Blu-ray
Sundance: Rectify: The Complete Second Season
Lifetime: With This Ring
Nickelodeon: Dora the Explorer
“Mad Men” and “Late Show with David Letterman” weren’t the only noteworthy television series that ended their natural lives in 2015. Also saying goodbye were “Parks and Recreation,” “Parenthood,” “Glee,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Cougar Town” and, soon, “Nurse Jackie” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Among the shows I will miss the most is FX’s “Justified,” which was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” and never wavered from the master’s ability to create sleazeball villains, conflicted heroes and memorable dialogue. Leonard must have really cherished his creation, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant), as he also made the Stetson-wearing, Glock-toting lawman the protagonist of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” In those books, Givens is assigned to Miami Beach, where he set some kind of record for the justified shootings of dangerous criminals. In “Fire in the Hole,” Leonard had Givens transferred to his boyhood home of Harlan County, Kentucky, as a round-about punishment for provoking a Western-style shootout with an enemy on a hotel deck in Miami. It effectively reunites Givens with his old mining buddy, Boyd Crowder, now the leader of a white supremacist group, his ex-wife, Winona, and Boyd’s sister-in-law, Ava Crowder. In a dandy bit of narrative symmetry, all four of those characters also play crucial roles in the powerful and violent sixth season. It opens with the remaining members of the Crowe and Crowder clans up to their old tricks and Raylan attempting to talk Ava into testifying against the duplicitous Boyd.  For her part, Winona has split for Florida with baby, Wila, awaiting Raylan’s final decision about hanging up his holster and coming to live with them. It remains an open question for the next 13 episodes. Among the actors making their first appearances here are Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Garret Dillahunt, Jeff Fahey and Jake Busey. Jamie Davies returns as the incarcerated Dickie Bennett, as does Patton Oswald as the hapless Constable Bob Sweeney. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and featurettes, “Hollywood to Harlan,” “Directing the Show: Adam Arkin” and “Dutch Speaks,” a vintage interview with Elmore Leonard about his thoughts on “Justified.”

In its first two years on Sundance, critics have made “Rectify” one of the most honored shows on television. Besides being named to 10 different top-10 lists, twice, the series was awarded with a 2014 Peabody Award. The committee called it, “A powerful, subtle dramatic series about a death-row inmate released after nearly two decades thanks to new DNA evidence, it ponders whether what’s been lost can ever be repaid, not just to him but to everyone he and his alleged crimes touched.” At a time when more and more prisoners are being vindicated for crimes they never committed and another state, Nebraska, has decided that no more possibly innocent inmates should die, it’s no small issue. While the media is always at the prison gates to document their release, next to nothing is said concerning the officially guiltless ex-cons’ re-entry into society. No matter how much microscopic DNA is collected, some folks will refuse to accept the fact that our system of justice is imperfect. Indeed, the second season picks up with Daniel (Aden Young) in the hospital, comatose, after taking a beating from hooded thugs seeking to avenge something he didn’t do. In his dream state, Daniel imagines being back on death row with his best friend – executed before he was freed – and a convict who tormented them. Finally out of his coma and released to the care of his family in Paulie, Georgia, Daniel is far from normal. The search for his attackers intensifies, with the most obvious suspect being the slain teenager’s brother.  Seemingly with plans of his own for the man, Daniel refuses to bring charges against him. And, of course, things get stranger and more complex until season’s end. The third stanza begins on July 9.

Halfway through Nzingha Stewart’s romantic fantasy, “With This Ring,” I began to wonder why it looked so much like a Liftetime original movie. If anything, with its entirely African-American cast and “Real Housewives of Atlanta” attitude, I thought it might be a movie that ends up on BET or Starz, between “Power” and “Survivor’s Remorse.” First instincts almost always being right, however, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that “With This Ring” was, in fact, a Lifetime movie, one of only a few made to attract so-called middle-class urban audiences. While attending a friend’s New Year’s Eve wedding, three thirtysomething women make a vow not to be single by the time the bride’s first anniversary rolls around. Besides being attractive and sufficiently wealthy to afford homes that wouldn’t be out of place on any of the “Housewives” series, the women have jobs on the upper-rung of the entertainment industry. And, yet, they’re desperate enough to land husbands they’d settle for second- or third-best, simply to make good on a silly vow. Regina Hall, Jill Scott and Eve portray an up-and-coming talent agent, popular gossip columnist and between-gigs actress, respectively, all facing challenges common to single African-American women of a certain age. The gossip columnist enjoys a friendly relationship with the father of her young son, but, until she took the vow, treated him as if he were a business associate. Just as is the case in most afternoon and prime-time soap operas, there are few allowances for reality when it comes to fashions, décor, nightclubs and parties. All of the characters, including the extras, look as if they could star in their own series, as well. This includes Brooklyn Sudano, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, Stephen Bishop, Jason George and Brian White. “With This Ring” was adapted from
“The Vow” by Denene Millner, Angela Burt-Murray and Mitzi Miller, and should appeal to women –mostly – who enjoyed “Waiting to Exhale,” “Jumping the Broom,” “Think Like A Man” and “Baggage Claim.”

Like the above-mentioned series, Nickelodeon’s formidable “Dora the Explorer” has slipped off into the sunset to make room for the spin-off series “Dora and Friends: Into the City!” and a slightly more mature female protagonist. New friends have been introduced and the destinations are more urban in nature. In fact, though, the change was initiated in 2011, with “Dora’s Explorer Girls: Our First Concert,” in which Dora and her friends get five tickets to see Shakira in concert but lose them among the charitable donations to the show. It forces them to go on a desperate search through Puerto Verde for the valuable ducats. The “Big Little Movies” collection adds “Dora the Explorer: Dora Saves Fairytale Land,” which debuts on DVD before its TV premiere. In this extended adventure, Dora and Boots must travel deep into the Never-to-be-Seen-Again Forest to the Sparkling Lake in order to bring magic back to Fairytale Land. In this offering, the younger iteration of the extremely popular character prevails. In “Big Little Movies: Umi Space Heroes,” the Team Umizoomi crew goes into action to save the moon after the Trouble Makers blow it into four pieces. Their intergalactic adventure requires them to use their math and problem-solving skills. They’re joined by the compilations, “Max & Ruby: Sharing & Caring” and “Bubble Guppies: The Puppy & the Ring.”

The DVD Wrapup: Magician: Orson Welles, The Confession and more

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles: Blu-ray
I think that it can be argued persuasively that a week in the life of Orson Welles, whose centennial we celebrate this month, was more intrinsically interesting than two years in the lives of everyone who’s made the cover of People, US Weekly, the Enquirer, Life & Style, OK!, In Touch and Star, at least since Kim met Kanye. I was reminded of this while watching Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, Chuck Workman’s glowing biopic of one of the greatest artists and celebrities at a time when simply being young, attractive and rich wasn’t sufficient cause for worship by the media. If Workman’s film doesn’t add much to what most of us already know about Welles, or have gleaned from his still fascinating films, “Magician” is worth it for the archival material chronicling his rise to prominence with the Mercury Theater. It’s also informed by the testimony of filmmakers, actors, critics, relatives, lovers and, even, restaurateur-to-the-stars Wolfgang Puck, who’s probably still holding Welles’ IOUs from their days at Ma Maison. And, what would any Welles documentary be without the recollections of Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom? Ironically, for at least one generation of TV viewers, the man who gave us “Citizen Kane” will still be remembered most vividly as a talk-show raconteur, pitchman for Paul Masson, golden throated narrator of cartoons and documentary series, and occasional guest roaster on “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.” As someone who actually could read the names and address off a phone book and make them sound like Shakespeare, Welles was as much fun to watch as anyone else who sat beside Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, back in the glory years. And, yes, he also was a heck of a magician. Typically, Welles was able to convince Bogdanovich that no less an illusionist than Harry Houdini taught him his first tricks, in the 1920s. Whether or not this qualifies as one of his whoppers, it’s a great story and usually that’s enough for a genuine celebrity. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an interview with Workman.

The Confession: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Merchant of Four Seasons: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I wonder how the work of the Greek director Costa-Gavras would have been judged in the late-1960s and ’70s if The Confession had preceded Z into theaters around the world, instead of the other way around. As powerful a statement against fascism and right-wing barbarism as Z was, it also was criticized in some quarters for being anti-American and promoting political division in Greece. That’s because the film’s co-protagonist (Yves Montand) – patterned after anti-war activist Grigoris Lambrakis — was a prominent spokesman for a pacifist group opposed to the government of an unnamed European country, unmistakably Hellenic. After speaking at a rally, Deputy Z is killed in an attack by thugs hanging off the back of a small truck. Responding to the protests of enraged pro-democratic crowds, the government covered up the attack by saying the he died from wounds suffered in a collision with drunk driver. A typically routine investigation, led by an uncharacteristically skeptical magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), determines that the deputy’s death had been orchestrated and carried out by security forces employed by the conservative government. By the time Z opened theatrically, in 1969, people already protesting the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, racism and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were able to embrace an anti-Hollywood movie that appeared to confirm their views about America’s role in propping up totalitarian regimes in the Third World countries. Z ends by reminding viewers that democracy and civil liberties were casualties in the struggle for peace and the men responsible for Deputy Z’s death received slaps on the wrists. Of course, this mirrored events in Greece after a repressive military junta replaced the conservative government. Costa-Gavras would return to similar themes, only this time from a South American perspective, in Missing and State of Siege.

Released in 1970, The Confession attacks oppression and treachery from a completely different ideological direction. This time, however, Montand portrays the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Czechoslovakia at a time when the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on all of the Iron Curtain countries. One day, after work, Gerard (London) notices that he’s being followed by carloads of brutes who look as if their other job was breaking bones for the Teamsters Union. Normally, given their standing in the Czech Communist Party, Gerard and his wife, Lise (Simone Signoret), would be among the last people in line to be purged for their political activities. In fact, their credentials could be considered to be little short of impeccable. Even so, in the early ’50s, an increasingly paranoid Stalin demanded action against potential advocate for reform and the first place his puppets looked was in the direction of high-ranking Jews, or anyone who might have spent time in the West fighting with the International Brigades on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and had joined the French Resistance after escaping the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As an enthusiastic party member in his early 20s, London had the distinction of being sent from Moscow to Spain to spy for the Soviet Union and, after retreating to France, being arrested with his pregnant wife and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Having managed to somehow escape death in the camps, the Londons took up residence in Switzerland, until being lured back to Czechoslovakia, where he quickly moved up the political ladder. In 1951, he was arrested but not charged for unnamed abuses of power and party privileges. For almost a year, London was kept in isolation and tortured to within an inch of his sanity, through sleep deprivation, constant harassment and cruel prison conditions. His inquisitors demanded that he confess to participating in a Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy, as well as numerous anti-Soviet crimes, along with 13 other party leaders. Tellingly, 11 of the 14 co-defendants in the Slánský show trial were Jewish and 11 would be executed after admitting to trumped-up offenses. (Surviving the death camp as communist and a Jew had already raised bushy eyebrows in Moscow and Prague.) Like Gerard, London would escape the hangman’s noose, but be sentenced to several years of hard labor. To avoid harsher punishment and confirm he had been “re-habilitated,” London would testify in the show trials of other Czech and Slovak officials. By the time he was released, Stalin was dead and his iron grip relaxed. It wasn’t until the violent Soviet quashing of Hungarian revolt, in 1956, and Prague Spring, of 1968, that the Londons fully acknowledged the rotten odor emanating from the Kremlin and he decided to write his memoirs, “On Trial.”

Based on a screenplay by Jorge Semprún Maura, whose own story mirrored that of London, Costa-Gavras’ depiction of the months-long torture experienced by Gerard not only is extremely difficult to watch, but also eerily reminiscent of what we’ve learned about the treatment accorded Islamic prisoners by CIA officials and untrained National Guard sadists. For some viewers, the show trial accorded the doomed Czech officials resembled the show trial of the Chicago 8, before it was reduced to a Yippie carnival and repudiation of Chicago Machine politics. Before his death, in 1986, London continued to say that his memoirs shouldn’t be construed as being anti-communist, just anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist. Costa-Gavras makes the same point about The Confession. If Z hadn’t preceded it, however, the Young Republicans of 1969 might have trashed his reputation by using it as a recruiting tool for the Nixon Youth. The new 2K digital transfer, supervised by Costa-Gavras, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds several featurettes that add perspective to London’s thrilling story and the difficulty of maintaining one’s belief system in the early years of the Cold War, never knowing who to trust or believe. Other featurettes include “You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London,” a 21-minute documentary by Chris Marker, shot on the set of The Confession; a new interview with the film’s editor, Françoise Bonnot; a conversation between director Costa-Gavras and programmer and scholar Peter von Bagh, from the 1988 Midnight Sun Film Festival; “Portrait London,” a 1981 interview with Artur and Lise London; an interview with actor Yves Montand, from 1970; a new interview with John Michalczyk, author of “Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film”; and an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova.

In the stage and cinema works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it wasn’t always easy for postwar German audiences to differentiate between social satire, parody and provocation. The same holds true for his legacy on film, outside Germany. In a career that lasted 16 years, he was responsible for writing, directing and acting in nearly 50 movies, shorts and TV mini-series, as well as continuing to create Brechtian theater pieces. After beginning his career in the late 1960s making films that ranged from experimental to difficult, Fassbinder would turn to the Hollywood melodramas of German émigré Douglas Sirk for creative inspiration. While he continued to explore the role of the outsider in society, as well as the interplay of racism, sexual orientation, politics, class and family dynamics, his movies became noticeably more accessible to mainstream audiences on the international stage. The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first movie to benefit from his exposure to Sirk’s themes, which, of course, had been muted by Production Code restrictions. Set in the late-1950s, before Germany’s economic miracle, it tells the story of a lumpen loser, Hans (Hans Hirschmüller), whose every attempt to improve his lot in life is thwarted by acts of sheer stupidity, the bullying of his impossible-to-satisfy mother, alcohol abuse and post-war malaise. After being kicked off the police force and leaving the foreign legion, Hans humiliates his family by settling for a job peddling produce from a pushcart in the courtyards of tenement buildings. His wife Irm (Irm Hermann) sometimes tags along, but that ends when Hans reacts to her interrupting him at a tavern with a beating in front of their daughter. When she leaves and threatens divorces, Hans is stricken with a heart attack. It prevents him from engaging in the physical aspects of the job, but triggers an impulse in the reunited couple to expand the business by hiring others to do the heavy lifting. With Irm’s assistance and support, the business begins to thrive. And, while it raises his family’s opinion of him, the idle time also causes his mind to wander back to the real turning point in his life. He saw a bright future for himself, which wasn’t shared by his beautiful girlfriend’s father, who couldn’t allow his daughter to accept life with a peddler. Sensing that things aren’t likely to get any better for him, Hans decides to share his misery with as many friends and family members as possible. The Merchant of Four Seasons has been given a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary with filmmaker Wim Wenders; new interviews with actors Hermann and Hirschmüller, and film scholar Eric Rentschler; and an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.

So Bright Is the View
In the long wake of the collapse of the Ceauçescu regime, a new Romanian cinema emerged from the rubble, marked by sardonic humor and bleak recollections of life in a land that time and the faint promise of Marxism forgot. It took a while for the concept of creative freedom to catch hold, especially among older citizens conditioned to mistrust Western philosophies and bourgeois intellectuals. Several Romanian films screened at Cannes in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that the world stood up and took notice of such pictures as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, California Dreamin’, Tales from the Golden Age, Police, Adjective, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu and Tuesday, After Christmas. If these titles rarely played outside art houses and festivals – beyond Bucharest, anyway – commercial filmmakers from outside Eastern Europe beat a path to Romania for its diverse locations, historical architecture, crack crews and inexpensive overhead, as well as its symbolic relation to the Draculian legend. In Joël and Michaël Florescu’s downbeat contemporary drama, So Bright Is the View, Estera (Bianca Valea) is a middle-class resident of the capital, caught between the prospect of moving to one of two New Jerusalems – a promised job in America or Israel, where her mother pretends to be thriving – or by maintaining a lackluster career as a drone in a tech company. As those options effectively dwindle from three to none, Estera can’t help but feel as if her strings are being pulled by a God who disapproves of hubris, however humble. As difficult as it is to watch this appealing young woman’s bubbles being burst before our eyes, it’s worth remembering that Estera’s fate is being by shared hundreds of thousands of recent university graduates here, who’ve learned the hard way that the mortgage on their American Dream is held by insanely greedy bankers and politicians too compromised to approve the reforms that would lift the burden of college loans off their shoulders. The Florescus allow the pregnant Estera’s more down-to-earth boyfriend to assure her that, no matter what happens to them, their child will participate in the  rebuilding a country that has natural beauty and seasonal change going for it, at least. That’s if Estera doesn’t go ahead with her plans to abort the baby, of course. In a country with as many qualified actors and as much behind-the-camera talent as Romania, it’s interesting that only one actor, Ovidiu Niculescu, has more than one feature credit on their resume. If nothing else, this seems to indicate that the fledgling Romanian Independent Film Collective is off to a bright start of its own. The group’s mission statement asserts that the organization is “comprised of young writers, photographers, actors, editors and film technicians who join together for the advancement and enrichment of cinema and cinematic media as art and expression in Romania. It is an anti-bureaucratic, anti-exploitative, democratic and free association of members.” Good luck, on that.

The True Cost
When it comes to decrying the terrible injustices endured by the world’s poorest and least protected workers – too many of whom are paid pennies to manufacture clothes that range in price from expensive to bargain-basement — there are several ways to grab the attention of consumers, corporate executives and lawmakers. One way is to sneak hidden cameras into sweatshops as a direct challenge to the lies advanced by industry spokespersons every time a building occupied by hundreds of sewing-machine operators collapses, trapping them in the rubble or killing them outright. Instead of accepting the blame and facing the consequences, company executives claim they weren’t aware that their legitimate Asian sub-contractors would then sub-contract the work to disreputable interests so far removed from the chain of accountability they probably can’t imagine why anyone would care. By now, too, consumers have grown so tired of being told that the problem wouldn’t exist if there were no demand for inexpensive clothes, they’ve stopped listening. Last month, the wonderfully caustic HBO satirist John Oliver trashed the fashion industry and its media lapdogs for blindly encouraging consumers to participate in Black Friday madness and buy clothes on sale at prices that they must have been sewn by children or indentured servants. The True Cost is a 92-minute documentary that takes us from the shaming of Nike in the early 1990s for subcontracting with sweatshop operators, to the devastating building collapse in Bangladesh and fires at factories in Pakistan, killing a combined total of 1,386 people and injuring 3,115 others. It also shoves our noses into even less-accountable operations in India, where freelancers dump chemicals used in the treatment of leather directly into ditches and tributaries of great rivers in which children play, animals feed and water for all sorts of other purposes is taken. Blessedly, director Andrew Morgan and producer Michael Ross have been able to identify enough forces for good in the overall garment industry — Stella McCartney, Livia Firth, Vandana Shiva, among them — to suggest that someone, somewhere is aware of the problem and is taking steps toward reform. All of the documentaries in the world wouldn’t provide enough impetus for change, however, if consumers weren’t as anxious as they are to seize on bargains promoted on television shows like “The View” and “Today”; in glossy magazines and red-carpet shout-outs; on billboards looming over such high-traffic thoroughfares as Times Square and the Sunset Strip; and local TV newscasts that count down the seconds to the opening of Walmart stores on the day after Thanksgiving.

Smoking Laws
First released in the UK in 2011, but reportedly made three years earlier, Matthew Ehlers’ once-observant indie dramedy Smoking Laws recalls a time, not so long ago, when office workers addicted to nicotine would cluster outside the doors of their buildings puffing away as if they were outlaws waiting for a train. In Chicago, at least, that meant braving temperatures that ranged from a dry 20-below-zero to 95-above, with an equal percentage of humidity in the air. I don’t know if these informal gatherings of like-minded smokers still exist, especially since many building owners, insurance companies, middle-management executives and chronic whiners now insist on enforcing a 30-foot perimeter around each entrance for such activities. For a time, this left taverns, restaurant patios and casinos as the only areas open to smokers accustomed to engaging friends and new acquaintances over drinks and snacks. Predictably, anti-smoking activists then were able to convince regulators to prohibit smoking in bars and some non-Indian casinos. It didn’t break my heart, but, occasionally, more customers could be found outside the tavern than inside, spending money. Smoking Laws depicts how the patrons of one fictional establishment adjusted to such a ban – a half-dozen years ago, anyway — by taking their kibitzing, bickering, cell calling and hooking up just outside the doors to the bar or kitchen. The story is told from the point of view of the bar’s manager, who not only has to focus on all of his customers’ satisfaction, but also the workplace dramas of his employees. Smoking Laws probably could have been funnier and more trenchant, given more money and talent. More to the point, how interesting are the people around you who still smoke?

Gun Woman: Blu-ray
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf: Blu-ray
Cannibal Ferox: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Island of Death: Blu-ray
From Asia With Lust Volume 2: Lipstick/Weekend
Just when you think you’ve seen it all and nothing new can sneak up on you, the mailman drops off a few packages containing movies so bizarre they restore your faith in the medium to shock, disturb and entertain in almost equal measure. This week, already, I’ve watched four such films on Blu-ray, all from different distributors and three different countries. Two are the product of the same fertile mind. Born in Tokyo and educated in Fresno, Kurando Mitsutake brings a distinct Pacific Rim sensibility to Gun Woman and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, a pair of bloody soft-core Eastern Westerns shot in and around Agua Dolce, Lone Pine and Death Valley, California. In both, too, blind or half-blind Japanese protagonists dedicate themselves to avenging the rape and murder of a spouse to a crazed pervert. I don’t know if Mitsutake was more influenced by Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, Sergio Leone or Beat Takeshi, but their fingerprints are all over his movies. (He directly credits Tomisabura Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu, Kihachi Okamoto and Sergio Corbucci in final roll.) The almost entirely gratuitous nudity harkens to the “pink” era in Japanese cinema and possibly Russ Meyer. In Samurai Avenger, released in 2009, Mitsutake assumed the lead role of Blind Wolf, a master swordsman required to run a gauntlet of seven assassins before he can get to the monster who killed his wife and daughter and forced him to blind himself with a dull stick. That’s all the information most potential viewers would need before taking a shot on “Samurai Avenger” on disc. Everything else can be learned in the 90-minute making-of featurette.

By contrast to the almost primitive special makeup effects in Samurai Avenger, Gun Woman looks as if Mitsutake was handed a hundred-million-dollars and told to make sure every cent of it finds its way to the screen.  While it’s more likely that he was allotted only a small fraction of that amount, Gun Woman looks that much more accomplished a picture. It, too, opens with a violent rape, murder and disfigurement, this time inside the home of a prominent Japanese doctor. To avenge the crime, the ruthless half-blind Mastermind (Kairi Narita) recruits a destitute street urchin (Asami) with nothing to lose – except, perhaps, her life – if the mission fails. After extensive training with guns, swords, knives and kung fu, Mayumi is ready to infiltrate the previously impenetrable desert bunker of the necrophilic fiend who murdered her mentor’s wife. Knowing that Mayumi will have to be naked and in a trance-like state to gain entry into the killer’s lair, the Mastermind stuffs parts of her handgun just under the skin of her chest and shows her how to rip out the sutures when she awakens from her trance. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the necessity of her being completely nude on her mission and, bless her, during the long and arduous training sessions. It’s amazing, really, and, after about 15 minutes, as erotic as separating recyclable items. At 5-foot-3, the plucky Asami is well known in Japan as a star in adult-video industry. By now, though, she’s probably a better fighter naked than the WWE Divas are in tights and sports bras. The only question that lingers throughout Gun Woman is how Mayumi is going to be able to rip the parts of the pistol from her surgically altered body, re-assemble them, take out the target’s well-armed bodyguards, execute the killer and get to a waiting ambulance, before all of her blood drains from her wounds. The Mastermind calculates his student will have 23 minutes, on the outside, to do it. If this scenario sounds too ridiculous to be taken even remotely seriously, you haven’t seen enough Japanese genre flicks. Admittedly, Gun Woman frequently goes beyond the pale, but Mitsutake pulls off the crazy stuff with aplomb. As is made clear in the making-of featurettes and commentaries included in both Blu-ray packages, working alongside Mitsutake is truly a singular sensation.

Moving a bit further back in time, Cannibal Ferox asks us to take at face value the boast made on its cover: “The most violent film ever made.” It inspired me to look up the definition of “Ferox,” as a way of anticipating what could possibly make Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox more violent than Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, which I’d just reviewed on Blu-ray. As the Latin word for “fierce,” “ferox” already had been affixed to the scientific names of several nasty species: a ferocious line of brown trout, long-snouted lancefish, lizardfish, sand shark, a soft-shelled turtle, the carnivorous fossa of Madagascar and several notoriously hazardous plants and trees. At first glance, the title, Cannibal Ferox, would appear to be needlessly redundant — cannibalism, by its very nature, being an act of violence — but the original title, Make Them Die Slowly, probably could have been confused with any number of torture-porn specimens and more than a few Westerns. Lenzi had gotten the cannibal craze rolling in 1972 with Man From the Deep River (a.k.a., “Sacrifice!”), which cross-pollinated Elliot Silverstein’s controversial Western, A Man Called Horse, with Mondo Cane. In 1980, he moved the flesh-eating scenario from Thailand to New Guinea in Eaten Alive! (a.k.a., “Doomed to Die”). Like “Holocaust,” “Ferox” opened in Manhattan but quickly found itself in a remote port on the Colombian side of the Amazon River. In the picture, as in real life, Leticia is used as stepping-off point for traders, hunters, explorers and drug traffickers. Here, a group of gringos from New York – one of whom appears to be hiding out from mobsters – is on a dual mission, involving research into the possibility of cannibalism in deep-forest tribes and the black market for precious gems. The subtext, of course, is that so-called civilized people will instinctively revert to crude primal instincts as soon as the safety nets and security blankets of contemporary society are removed. In doing so, the camera is attentive to tribal customs guaranteed to shock first-world viewers, including the on-screen butchering of decidedly non-animatronic creatures, rape, primitive torture practices and prevalent nudity. While Cannibal Holocaust’s most lasting gift to the international cinema was introducing the found-footage conceit, “Ferox” doesn’t break any new ground, beyond adding a few new torture methods to the repertoire. Grindhouse’s 2K, restoration is accompanied by deleted and banned scenes; a re-mix of the musical score; a surprisingly candid commentary with Lenzi and star John Morghen; interviews with Lenzi, stars Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Danilo Mattei and Zora Kerowa, and special effects master Gino DeRossi; original Italian, German and U.S. theatrical trailers; a gallery of stills and poster art; a booklet containing liner notes by 42nd Street historian Bill Landis and director Eli Roth; and a bonus CD with an original soundtrack album by Budy-Maglione, newly re-mastered in 24 bit/96khz sound from the original studio master tapes.

Like Grindhouse, Arrow Video delights in breathing new life into exploitation flicks that long ago were given up for dead. Cannibal Ferox and Nico Mastorakis’ similarly unappetizing Island of Death have plenty of things in common, including material their creators’ refuse to defend in newly recorded interviews. Nearly 40 years after it debuted in Greece, Mastorakis admits to having been inspired to make Island of Death (one of its many different aliases) by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s performance at the international box office. The Athens TV personality vowed to make a movie even more violent and sexually perverse than Tobe Hooper’s splatter classic for the same reason as Hollywood hacks churn out crappy sequels to crappy movies: drachmas. That said, it’s not for nothing that Island of Death and Cannibal Ferox became hot properties on the underground cassette exchange. Here, the carnage occurs on the famously sunny Greek island of Mykonos, known for its party-hearty nightlife and quaint laid-back village vibes. At first glance, Christopher and Celia (Robert Behling, Jane Lyle) seem no different than tens of thousands of other tourists who arrive by boat every day, between May and September. Within hours, though, they’re back to committing the crimes that put them on the lam in the first place. In addition to the hyper-violent murders he commits, Christopher finds plenty of opportunities to spice his sex life with bestiality, water sports and incest. Blond bombshell Celia isn’t averse to using her charms to arrange hookups for Christopher, photograph his crimes and fake an interest in girl-girl action when its suits him. Inconveniently, they aren’t alone on the island when it comes to acting out their worst instincts. Among the writer/director’s more interesting artistic conceits was setting some of the bloodiest violence in broad daylight and in direct contrast to the vividly white buildings and turquoise sea. The other thing the Arrow package shares with the Grindhouse title is a bonus package that vastly overcompensates for the bad taste left by the movies. Mastorakis doesn’t hesitate to remind us of grindhouse credits that include Death Has Blue Eyes, Terminal Exposure and Death Street USA, along with such quasi-mainstream efforts as Blind Date (Kirstie Alley, Joseph Bottoms), Hired to Kill (Oliver Reed, George Kennedy) and the Next One (Keir Dullea, Adrienne Barbeau). In addition to a lengthy interview and verbal self-portrait, Mastorakis returns to the island to show us how little things have changed since the mid-1970s.

Rape/revenge fantasies have been a staple of Japanese exploitation fare for most of the last 50 years. Sexual violence also was exploited in such Western hits as Death Wish, Billy Jack, Straw Dogs, Mad Max and, yes, Deliverance. In these films, the rapes of female characters (and one hapless male) are avenged by men who take the law into their own hands. In Japan, however, it’s generally left to the women and her friends to exact revenge. That’s because, until recently, women had more to lose by admitting to being raped – and, effectively, devalued in a male-dominated society — than the men who forced themselves on them. (Murder was, of course, a far rarer occurrence in Japan.) According to UK film historian Colette Balmain, in the Introduction to her book, “Japanese Horror Film,” “Rape in Japanese society has not been considered a crime until recently. This attitude lies in the Japanese ideal of female obedience and submission that sees the woman as to be blamed for the violent expression of male desire. … Rape becomes a sexless act of cruelty committed on the woman’s body, whose main role is to re-establish the power relationship (domination-submission) between men and women.” It explains why police and the courts aren’t key forces for justice in such films as Lipstick and Weekend from Troma Entertainment’s tellingly titled From Asia With Lust series. Here, however, female protagonists are allowed not only to resist violent advances and groping by men, but also to feel newly empowered by exacting their own justice. The presence in both movies of “adult superstar” Miyuki Yokoyama adds a level of titillation that helps viewers overlook the criminal nature of vigilantism and suggests that it takes a more hardened or even more worldly sort of female protagonist than those women who have had to accept being groped on crowded subway trains and buses as just another manifestation of the male prerogative. It shines a different light on how we, in the West, view exploitation films from other cultures.

Sword of Vengeance: Blu-ray
First-time director Jim Weedon’s Sword of Vengeance may be set in the north of England in the 11th Century, but, if you alter the accents and re-conceptualize the clothing worn by the Saxon and Norman warriors, what’s left is a samurai revenge flick. That the mysterious warrior who rides in to save the peasants also resembles Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “man with no name” trilogy gives Sword of Vengeance another handle for American audiences to grasp. Hunky Stanley Weber (“Borgia”) plays Shadow Walker, a freedman with a grudge against the Norman family exploiting local farmers in the name of power, greed and a reign of terror referred to as the Harrowing. The Saxon peasants won’t learn until much later what exactly the stranger has against the powerful warlord, but it’s enough to know that he’s on their side. It’s fun to watch Shadow Walker shape the farmers – men, women and children — into a formidable fighting force, capable of using military and guerrilla tactics that might still work today. As a member of the creative team responsible for the Viking actioners, Hammer of the Gods and Valhalla Rising, writer/producer Matthew Read probably could craft a terrific period video game out of expertise on the subject. As it is, Sword of Vengeance is less interested in creating a historical drama than a royal rumble in the mud, with pissed-off peasants dressed to kill and seemingly invincible Norman soldiers in uniforms from the Darth Vader Collection. Visually, the foreboding skies and murky surfaces give Weedon’s film a graphic-novel texture that should delight young men and boys addicted to heavy-metal action. Those looking for a lesson in ancient British history, however, may want to stick to PBS and the BBC. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Weedon and producers Rupert Preston and Huberta Von Liel, and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

Let Us Prey: Blu-ray
I have to assume that Irish director Brian O’Malley and co-writer David Cairns intentionally chose “p-r-e-y,” instead of “p-r-a-y,” for the title of their first feature. Book publishers play fast and loose with homonyms and homophones all the time, if only to catch the eye of grammarians, copy editors and English teachers, all of whom are considered to be primary consumers of mysteries. With thousands of virtually indistinguishable thrillers, chillers and whodunits released each years, anything that draws attention to a title can help boost sales. The same applies in the DVD arena. Let Us Prey needs all the help it can get to reach an audience of paying customers, not because it isn’t very good, but because it’s just one more tree in a large and dense forest. O’Malley admits to owing a debt of gratitude to John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 is indirectly referenced in Let Us Prey. Steve Lynch’s evocative musical soundtrack also reflects Carpenter’s style. Here, Pollyanna McIntosh is convincing as a rookie cop, Rachel Heggie, whose first assignment is in a small town jail staffed by police jaded by time and experience. Rachel’s determination to play by the rules is tested on the night shift by both her fellow cops and the prisoners. In fact, the prisoner named Six (Liam Cunningham) is holding everyone in the building hostage. He had been arrested earlier in the evening, less as a suspect in a killing than for a being a mysterious stranger in a small town and somehow surviving a head-on collision with a speeding automobile. The driver of the car is cooling his heels in a cell next to Six and a couple of men booked on serious charges. In addition to being able to make wooden matches levitate, Six is able to get inside the heads of everyone in the building and torture them with memories of their misdeeds and wicked fantasies. Rachel, alone, appears to be without blemish, but her connection with Six is even more profound. The resulting mayhem is predictably gory and explosive, but not without a certain visual aesthetic.

Madman: Blu-ray
The Food of the Gods/Frogs: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Empire of the Ants/Jaws of Satan: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Urban legends, hazing rituals and campfire stories are to the horror genre what Grimm’s Fairy Tales are to Disney and other purveyors of family entertainment: time-honored and completely free sources of exploitable material. The Burning and Madman, made almost simultaneously in the Golden Age of Slasher Flicks, both were inspired by the reliably scary “Tale of the Cropsey Maniac,” whose retelling became an annual ritual at summer camps in and around New Jersey and upstate New York. Only The Burning was able to directly refer to the camp caretaker, Cropsy (no “e”), whose face was badly disfigured in a prank and has vowed to punish those responsible, as well as naughty boys and girls who wander too far away from the nightly campfires. In Joe Giannone and Gary Sales’ cult-favorite, Cropsey has mutated into Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers), who resembles the late, great wrestler Haystacks Calhoun, but whose name recalls the mid-century TV pitchman, Earl William “Madman” Muntz. Otherwise, it relies on the same slasher formula that wore out its welcome by 1986. The remarkable thing about Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray re-release is a bonus package that would put most Criterion Collection offerings to shame. Besides a short introduction by co-writer/producer Gary Sales, there are a pair of commentary tracks, one with Sales, Ehlers and the late Joe Giannone and actor Tony Fish, and the other with the podcasters known collectively as The Hysteria Continues; featurettes “Madman: Alive at 35,” “The Early Career of Gary Sales” and the 92-minute “The Legend Still Lives,” made in 2011; a stills and artwork gallery; “Music Inspired by ‘Madman’,” which highlights fan submissions that utilize the picture’s atmosphere to fuel grim lyrics; “In Memoriam,” during which Sales  discusses the work of Giannone, Tony Fish and actor Carl Fredericks, who died in 2012; a couple of Dead Pit interviews from a 2008 horror convention; and promotional clips.

Just before the tidal wave of slasher and splatter flicks came to dominate the drive-in scene in 1980, the kind of sci-fi/horror movies that Japanese filmmakers stopped making in the 1950s suddenly began popping up on screens across the U.S. Just as Rodan and Mothra spoke to the residual effects of radioactive fallout from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American filmmakers created creatures mutated from carelessly discarded toxic and nuclear waste and chemicals that found their way into the food chain or ground water. Released in 1972, Frogs did for amphibians and reptiles what Birds did for birds, a decade earlier. It also reflected the success of Willard, in which a social misfit deploys an army of rats on his tormentors. The casting of Ray Milland as a millionaire who poisons wildlife on his private island lent an air of credibility to a story that could easily have been dismissed as a mere novelty. The geezer invites his family to his estate for a birthday celebration, not anticipating that the island’s frogs, snakes, bugs, Gila monsters and other creepy crawlers have picked the same occasion to exact revenge on him. Look for very early appearances by Sam Elliott and Joan Van Ark, who adds her recollections to the bonus featurette. The other half of the double-bill is the H.G. Wells-inspired The Food of the Gods, from 1976, in which a group of football players who use their week off to go hunting on an island in the Pacific Northwest – or, if you’re Canadian, the Pacific Southwest – where they become the prey for giant wasps, chickens, worms and rats. The mutations are caused by a mysterious substance that is oozing from the ground and is too tempting for the critters to avoid. Besides the backsliding evangelist, Marjoe Gortner, it stars Ida Lupino, Ralph Meeker, Pamela Franklin and Jon Cypher.

Empire of the Ants would be worth the price of admission, if only to watch a sleazy land developer played by Joan Collins – just slightly past her prime, but still a babe – being attacked by giant ants. Like The Food of the Gods, the low-budget sci-fi/horror hybrid was adapted from an H.G. Wells story by genre specialist Bert I. Gordon. The Wisconsin native holds the distinction of having the most movies shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Here, a group of investors has been lured to south Florida by one of those all-expenses-paid come-ons that are never worth the price of a free ticket. As it turns out, the development has been polluted by radioactive waste that’s been leaking from barrels that have been dropped into the waters off of the Everglades. Voila, the island’s ants have grown to the size of bugs of the Volkswagen variety. After a harrowing escape through the swamps, the investors discover an even more sinister scheme than Collins’ land deal. None of Empire of the Ants is terribly convincing or compelling, but it is of a piece with other AIP drive-in fare of the period. The second half of this double-feature is Bob Claver’s 1981 thriller, Jaws of Satan (a.k.a., “King Cobra”), a title, at least, that combines two of the most prominent themes of the past decade. Here, a Southern town is being plagued by unusually aggressive snakes, which display traits associated with cobras, rattlesnakes and copperheads. Satan has mobilized the local serpent population against a priest who’s inherited an ancient Druid curse and it’s up to Fritz Weaver, Gretchen Corbett, Jon Korkes and a 10-year-old Christina Applegate to stop the plague before a new dog-racing facility opens or the Apocalypse. The Scream Factory upgrade makes the movies easier to watch than they might have been on “MSTK3” or matinee revivals.

Blood Slaughter Massacre
#EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe
Valley of the Cycle Sluts
Camp Massacre
Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan
Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead
Smokey and the Hotwire Gang
At a time when even the most familiar names in Hollywood are forced to watch their movies going straight to DVD/VOD/Blu-ray, the path to distribution has grown even narrower for filmmakers trying to catch a break with an off-brand company willing to take a chance on something new. Even then, if it weren’t for the niche websites that focus on genre products, cash-strapped artists and executives would find it next to impossible to find the right audiences for their films. Last week, the New York Times announced that it no longer would feel obligated to review every movie that opens in a theater between New Jersey and Connecticut. The problem comes down to the limited amount of money budgeted for freelance critics and reductions in the space allotted for reviews each Friday. I can see the Times’ point, considering the number of movies given limited runs in one city or two, before being shipped to the after-market, preferably with a few kind words lifted from an otherwise lukewarm review. The other issue brought up by critics of the new policy is the likelihood that faith-based and family-friendly titles, exhibited in theaters leased by backers for a week or more, can be even easier to ignore than in the past. Technically, God’s Not Dead wouldn’t qualify for inclusion, even though it grossed more than six times its $9.2-million production budget in leased runs. On the other hand, the benefits of a New York Times review for certain niche titles – especially one likely to be negative – probably aren’t what they once were.

The retro splatter thriller Blood Slaughter Massacre was screened in the Big Apple last week, ahead of its release on DVD. I couldn’t find a review in any mainstream outlet, despite the interesting story behind it … just as well. Manny Serrano and co-writer Louie Cortes’ movie originated as a series of faux trailers for 1980s-vintage horror flicks. When combined, the trailers practically tell the entire story of a movie that’s waiting to be made. After screening the series at a short-film competition at the Saturday Nightmares Convention, in New Jersey, Serrano and Cortes were approached by the founder of the New York City Horror Film Festival, the late Michael J. Hein, who encouraged them to expand the idea into a feature and put them together with the production company, Mass Grave Pictures. It has since been released by Wild Eye. “BSM” adheres to all the basic rules governing slasher films in the Golden Age, especially the one about having no pity for girls who show their titties. The opening flashes us back to a party, 10 years earlier, during which several teenagers were brutally murdered by a fiend in an ill-fitting mask. The killer escaped justice and the incident was covered up by local authorities. Flash forward to the present and the same two cops who were called to investigate a noise complaint at the house where the party was being held recognize signs that the same killer is back. No genre troupe is ignored or cliché avoided in advancing a story that wallows in blood and gore. Clearly, the filmmakers are big fans of the classics and expect viewers to be similarly inclined. The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and the original short films.

Jokes Yanes’ fast and sexy #EM3: Eenie Meenie Miney Moe is another movie that’s destined to get lost in the shuffle of straight-to-DVD releases that kinda-sorta resemble each other and whose stars wouldn’t be recognized by anyone outside their hometowns. That would be too bad, because it captures the sounds, rhythm and color palette of Miami in ways rarely achieved by filmmakers who parachute into southern Florida every now and again, and split back for Cali a half-hour after the Martini Shot is slated. And, yes, all of the usual touchstones of Miami nightlife are covered: drugs, discos, guns and insanely hot guys and gals. The common denominator is the hustle … and the horror of watching young lives destroyed by things they couldn’t have seen coming. One of the protagonists’ hustle is using his company’s tow truck at night to hook up expensive cars and take them to chop shops, but not before he strips it of everything that’s loose and valuable; an underage teenage girl is living the fast life with a dealer; her brother would take the guy out in a second, if he wasn’t working on a hustle with the Russian mob and didn’t need the aggravation; and they’re not alone. Everything begins to congeal when the truck driver steals a bag of pills from a sports car and, assuming they’re Ecstasy, begin peddling them around town. The results couldn’t be more devastating if Jack the Ripper had moved into the same South Beach apartment building as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The EDM soundtrack keeps things from slowing down even a little bit.

Most of the actors in Valley of the Cycle Sluts (a.k.a., “Death Riders,” “The Bandits”) look as if they had been recruited from prisons, biker bars and strip clubs and were being paid in beer, gasoline and free tickets to a David Allan Coe concert, in lieu of cash. Instead of having to depend on early morning wake-up calls to round up cast and crew, the PA’s simply waited for taverns to close and taunted the bikers into chasing him to the location of the shoot. They didn’t even have to change clothes. Sleaze veteran Jason Williams plays Wade Olson, an undercover cop, who, after humiliating a couple of street-level smack peddlers, is kidnapped by a gang of biker babes. Once in the desert, they stake him to the ground and force him to watch them strip to down to their Frederick’s of Hollywood Outlet Store skivvies and pierced nipples. The first woman who gives him a hard-on, without using her hands, gets to kill him. Most men are capable of getting aroused looking at a nurse’s ankles, while on a metal table waiting for a colonoscopy, but not this guy. Later, after Olson is allowed to escape, we’re treated to the sight of women in garter belts, stockings and teddies running after him in the desert. It’s a tiny bit sexy, but only in the most perverse sort of way possible.

Someone had to make a horror movie in which contestants in television weight-loss competition are killed off one-by-one, possibly to improve the odds of one or more of them winning the million-dollar first prize. Most of them would have died in the course of the competition, anyway, but where’s the fun in merely watching nature takes its course? In John Waters’ hands, Camp Massacre (“Fat Chance”) could have been a real hoot. Even the momentary presence of adult-star Bree Olson, wrestler Al Snow and “ghost hunter” Scott Tepperman could save this big glob of fat.

In Captain Z & the Terror of Leviathan, pirate Captain Zachariah Zicari somehow finds himself on the banks of the Ohio River, circa 1714, where he saved settlers on the American frontier from unleashing the forces of hell. Captain Z accomplished this by preventing a group of she-demons from unleashing the force of a powerful amulet that would have released something called the Leviathan. Three hundred years later, the amulet is discovered in the river by a bunch of hillbillies who believe that it could fetch a fortune on e-bay or “Antiques Roadshow,” simply for its gold content. Instead, they’ve summoned the spirit of Captain Z, who resembles a cross between Captain Morgan and Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the staff of the local after-work hangout begins to act as if it’s being taken over by Red Lobster. The whole thing smacks of “Amateur Night in Dixie,” but, then, that much is clear from the cover art.

If you don’t dig writer/co-director Richard Griffin’s latest low-budget horror chiller, it’s not because Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (a.k.a., “Dr. Frankenstein’s Wax Museum of the Hungry Dead”) is the work of an amateur intending to go pro. He’s already made a dozen-plus features of varying quality, including Pretty Dead Things, The Sins of Dracula. The Disco Exorcist and a few other titles I may or may not have reviewed. I’m guessing that “Hungry Dead” is the closest Griffin’s come to a traditional horror in a long while. A group of wise-ass students pay a visit to a wax museum one afternoon as part of a class outing. Some decide to come back at night for a wee bit of hanky-panky, not knowing that the museum’s owner is related to the original Dr. Victor Frankenstein had he’s inherited some of the family DNA. Just when the kids think they’re alone, safe and ready to party, the monsters come out to play. No one could mistake it for a Universal or Hammer classic, but it’s a movie and, in the end, that’s all that counts.

Anthony Cardoza’s Smokey and the Hotwire Gang is so old it should come with a razor to cut the gray hairs from the beards of the car nuts who can remember the last time a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar and CB radios were flying off the shelves of Radio Shack … soon to be a memory, itself. I’d be lying if I said that I was able to follow the narrative of this Smokey and the Bandit wannabe, beyond the presence of big rigs, truck stops, citizens-band radio and busty waitresses. At one point, I mistook legendary car customizer George Barris for porn star Ron Jeremy, who also was active in 1979. He plays a supporting role as a car buff whose van is stolen and used in an armored car robbery. Like Bert I. Gordon (Food of the Gods), Cardoza was a frequent contributor to “MST3K,” as an actor in Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls and Coleman Francis’ The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), The Skydivers (1963), Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) and The Hellcats (1968).

The Saint: The Complete Series
The Nanny: The Complete Series
The Wonder Years: Season Three
The big news on the TV front this week is Timeless Media Group’s release of all 118 episodes of “The Saint” for the first time on DVD. For those keeping score at home, that translates to 5,660 minutes of material on 33 discs. The ITC series starred Roger Moore, whose debonair and practically unflappable screen persona had already been cemented in such series as “Ivanhoe,” “The Alaskans” and “Maverick,” as cousin Beauregarde Maverick, before the British launch of “The Saint,” in 1962. The first two black-and-white seasons were shown here in syndication, before the show was picked up by NBC for its prime-time schedule. The show’s protagonist, Simon Templar, was created in 1928 by British-American author Leslie Charteris, who also deployed the character in novellas, short stories, a long-running comic strip and movies, tackling television. Although “The Saint” was listed alongside such spy series as “The Avengers,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Danger Man,” “I Spy” and “Get Smart,” Templar was considered to be more in line with Robin Hood, in that he preferred returning stolen money to its rightful owners than toppling evil regimes. Like Richard Boone’s Palidin, in “Have Gun – Will Travel,” Templar was a ladies’ man conversant in politics, current events and the arts. He was no more required to remain in London than Paladin was limited to taking job in the Bay Area. Look for guest star appearances by Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Edward Woodward (“The Equalizer”) and such Bondian beauties as Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell). Moore’s decision to remain active in the production of “The Saint” and other TV projects, effectively pushed his move to the James Bond series until 1973.

To describe Fran Drescher’s voice as merely being nasal is to completely miss the point of what made the Queens native one of the most popular of all 1990s sitcom stars. Neither does it explain why so many aurally sensitive viewers, like me, would no more tune into “The Nanny” than they would entice a flock of magpies to nest in that big shade tree in their back yards. I was reminded of this phobia while sampling select episodes of the show in Shout! Factory’s “The Nanny: The Complete Series.” Nevertheless, there’s no arguing with success and that exactly what “The Nanny” was for CBS from 1993 to 1999. The show was the brainchild of Drescher and her then-husband Peter Jacobson. While on a trans-Atlantic flight between New York and London, Drescher sat alongside top network executive Jeff Sagansky, for whom she had starred in the short-lived “Princesses.” After some gentle nasal persuasion, he agreed to let her and Jacobson pitch to an idea for a sitcom to CBS. While in London, visiting Twiggy Lawson, Drescher refined her pitch to a spin on “The Sound of Music,” but, “Instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door as Fran Fine.” The doorstep belonged to Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), who was looking for a nanny for his daughter. The contrast between the WASP-y Brit and the loud and impulsive Jewish gal from Queens proved irresistible to viewers, who already anticipated that the friction between them someday would soften and turn to love. The DVD set includes the pilot episode, with commentary my Fran Drescher, along with commentaries on “Imaginary Friend” and “I Don’t Remember”; a background featurette, “The Making of the Nanny”; and reunion special.

Also new from Shout! Factory is “The Wonder Years: Season Three.” The four-disc DVD set contains all 23 episodes of the show’s third season and features songs from the original broadcasts by the Jackson 5, Paul Simon, The Who, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Diana Ross, The Righteous Brothers, James Taylor, The Byrds, Jackie Wilson and James Brown.Bonus extras include a roundtable discussion with Danica McKellar, Fred Savage and Josh Saviano; the featurette “A Family Affair: At Home With the Arnolds”; and interviews with several cast members.

The DVD Wrapup: Leviathan, Lovesick, Before I Disappear, Blue Room and more

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Leviathan: Blu-ray
If any modern country exemplified the nearly ancient epigram, “The more things changes, the more they stay the same,” it’s Russia. A quarter-century after the Iron Curtain was lifted and Soviet repression gave way to the hope of freedom and democracy, Russia is led by a paranoid thug who makes Nikita Khrushchev look like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of being iron-fisted by Communist Party functionaries, however, the populace is ruled by an increasingly militaristic government and bullied by plutocrats, gangsters, small-minded politicians and conservative leaders of the ascendant Russian Orthodox Church. That much, at least, can be inferred in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s overtly allegorical drama, Leviathan, which ironically was inspired by the story of a Colorado man whose beef with city officials eventually led him to armor-plate a bulldozer and use it as a battering ram against bureaucratic intransigence. Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin also admit to have borrowed from the biblical stories of Job and Naboth’s Vineyard. The creature alluded to in their film’s title at one time thrived in the fertile waters of the Barents Sea. Today, however, the whale’s sun-bleached skeleton lies on a lonely stretch of sand and rocks outside the fictional town of Pribrezhny, as drained of promise as the peoples’ dreams for a new Russian state. The aggrieved party in Leviathan is an auto mechanic and army veteran, Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), whose simple ancestral home is situated on a lovely parcel of land overlooking the sea. Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the corrupt mayor of Pribrezhny, covets the site for purposes of his own self-aggrandizement. He’s able to have the property expropriated for a sum well below its compensatory value and not even close to its sentimental worth. After nearly exhausting every legal appeal available to him, Kolya convinces an old army buddy and well-connected lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to travel to the coastal community to represent him in his last stand against injustice. The cocky Muscovite carries with him a dossier that, if necessary, could be used against the mayor as blackmail.
Also factoring into Kolya’s dilemma is a problem with alcohol shared by almost everyone else to whom we’re introduced in Leviathan and, by inference, the nation. His wife’s frustration with his alcoholism is further compounded by the hostility directed at her by Kolya’s teenage son from his first marriage. Depressed by the likelihood of having to trade her home for a crappy apartment in the town, the love-starved Lilia (Elena Lyadova) sees in the handsome and self-assured lawyer an opportunity to escape to a better life in the capital. When all of the individual ingredients begin to combust, the explosion can be heard as far away as the whale’s empty carcass. If you’re wondering how any movie as obviously critical of the country’s fragile democracy and religious establishment managed to be submitted as Russia’s official candidate for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, you wouldn’t be alone. (After winning a Golden Globe and being chosen as a finalist for an Oscar, it lost to Poland’s superb Ida.) According to several observers, it isn’t likely any future depictions of “ordinary” Russians as drunkards and slaves to an inherently corrupt system will so easily avoid the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture. In an interview with the New York Times, Russian journalist Vladimir Posner observed, “Anything seen as being critical of Russia in any way is automatically seen as either another Western attempt to denigrate Russia and the Orthodox Church, or it’s the work of some kind of fifth column of Russia-phobes who are paid by the West to do their anti-Russian work or are simply themselves profoundly anti-Russian.” Apart from any political considerations, part of what makes Leviathan so extraordinary is the actors’ ability to convince us of their characters’ ordinariness, if you will. We’re able to feel every ounce of their pain and frustration with every ounce of vodka poured down their gullets from an ever-present shot glass. I’ve never seen drunkenness depicted so realistically on stage or in a movie. The starkly beautiful cinematography holds up well in the Blu-ray edition, which also contains commentary with Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky; an informative making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and introductions and a Q&A from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Jealousy, possibly the most toxic of all human emotions, has provided fodder for artists and storytellers practically since the beginning of biblical time. Among the most powerful depictions of the effects of jealousy on the heart and mind, of course, remains William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” The presence of the green-eyed monster has been chronicled in scripture, mythology, literature and such films as Mildred Pierce (also an excellent HBO mini-series) and Fatal Attraction. Turning jealousy into comedy has long proven to be more problematic, for the simple reason that its victims tend to look more pathetic than aggrieved. Sadly, “pathetic” is the first word that comes to mind when attempting to describe Luke Matheny’s fatally undernourished rom-com Lovesick. Matt LeBlanc plays Charlie Darby, a well-liked elementary school principal whose relationships with women habitually end when he begins to display to the symptoms of chronic jealousy. It manifests itself in ways that make him look desperately obsessive and possibly dangerous. Although Charlie recognizes his shortcoming, scripter Dean Young finds ever-more embarrassing ways for him to blow every prospect of love. And, while he gets solid advice from Adam Rodriguez (“C.S.I. Miami”), he seems to prefer the misguided observations of a buttinsky neighbor played Chevy Chase. Naturally, when Charlie is this-close to a nearly perfect blond, Molly (Ali Larter), he does everything in his power to make her disappear. Its neither funny nor credible. LeBlanc is so much more interesting in “Episodes,” as an actor with similar personality defects, it’s possible to wonder if he accepted the role as a favor for someone related to the filmmakers. Larter (“Heroes) brightens up everything she’s been assigned and her fans might enjoy seeing her here, alongside the former co-star of “Friends.”

Just Before I Go: Blu-ray
Before I Disappear
Romanticists typically have portrayed suicide as an act of courage or despair, precipitated by a series of emotional crises that trigger a response validated by the dictates of personal freedom. Artistic dramatizations have added an air of nobility to deaths that might easily been averted if logic and patience had prevailed. Moreover, there’s a huge difference between romanticized descriptions of suicide in literature and the objective language found in coroner’s reports or chilling photographic evidence of distended tongues, brain-spattered walls and slit wrists. As long as the Production Code prohibited graphic depictions of death on screen, the ugly reality of suicide was shrouded in avoidance and euphemism. Once that passed, realistic depictions of violent death evolved with every new advance in special makeup effects and squib engineering. The quickest and most startling way to end any crime drama in a movie or television show merely requires of a doomed antagonist, usually of the male persuasion, to place the barrel of a handgun on his head and pull the trigger. Far from Shakespearian, it brings the final curtain down on time. The uneven suicide dramedy Just Before I Go represents the feature debuts of director Courteney Cox and writer David Flebotte, both of whom previously collaborated on the dark takedown of celebrity journalism, “Dirt.” Seann William Scott, who created and finally humanized the scene-stealing Stifler in the American Pie series, here portrays the suicidal loser Ted Morgan. At 41, the divorced L.A. pet-shop owner decides to return to his hometown to confront the school bullies, snotty debutantes, sadistic teachers and cruel family members who made his adolescence a living hell. As is typical in such you-actually-can-go-home-again exercises, Ted eventually comes to the realization that his old nemeses had already committed a form of suicide by accepting suburban rot as a way of life. Out of the blue, he meets a pretty young woman (Olivia Thirlby) hoping to capture his last few days on film. That’s a show-stopper if there ever was one. Forced, instead, to intercede in the serious problems of other characters in the movie, Ted discovers things inside himself he didn’t know existed. If there’s nothing particularly enlightening in Just Before I Go, it’s only because Cox and Flebotte decided at one point to throw the protagonist into a kitchen sink full of sexually dysfunctional supporting characters and slapstick scenarios. (Kate Walsh’s somnambulistic onanist is something to behold.) I suspect that the same people drawn to every new American Pie sequel – nor a petty sum — will find something to enjoy in Cox’s freshman film.

Expanded from Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short film, “Curfew,” Before I Disappear takes a far more realistic approach to suicide brought on by despair, while also introducing a determinedly optimistic tyke who could have been played by a 12-year-old Shirley Temple. Besides writing and directing, Christensen plays a young man seriously addicted to pills and various white powders. Richie is working off his debt to a sadistic dealer and a nightclub owner (Ron Perlman) by cleaning toilets in bathrooms no sober human being would consider using, except in the most dire of digestive emergencies. After he discovers the lifeless body of an overdosed girlfriend in one of the stalls, Richie decides to pull the plug on his own worthless existence. While lying in a tub full of seriously polluted bathwater – his own blood trickling from his wrists — Richie answers a call from his estranged sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), demanding that he pick up his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), from school. Maggie makes it clear that she wouldn’t ask him for help if anyone else in her orbit had been available. In something of a surprise decision, Richie wraps his wounds with cloth once probably used as a hankie and heads off to the girl’s school with a code word and instructions not to screw up the assignment. Almost immediately, Sophia pointedly reveals her mistrust of her uncle’s ability to accommodate her after-school activities and preparations for an important test in the morning. In this, she’s as prescient as she precocious. Because of his obligations to various dealers and thugs, Richie is unable to escort his charge from school to acrobatics and back home without several ill-advised pit stops in between. Concerned more with not being prepared for her test than fearful for her physical well-being, Sophia ends up playing cards and sharing Chinese food with his dealers’ bodyguards, who also create a safe space for her to study. As it turns out, Maggie has been arrested in a violent altercation with her married lover and is cooling her heels in jail. The guy’s wife is anxious to confront Maggie, but is willing to use Richie as a punching bag in her absence. At some point in the proceedings, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, if only because most of Before I Disappear takes place in several different locations in the wee hours. It isn’t as accomplished as those two films, but audiences drawn to bleak urban drama should find Christensen’s conceits interesting, alongside Ptacek’s spunky performance.

The Blue Room
In this most French of erotic thrillers, co-writer/director/star Mathieu Amalric plays a handsome, if otherwise non-descript adulterer, who risks everything for a few satisfying assignations with the extremely sultry and unmistakably married Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau). As drawn to Esther’s raw sexuality as he is, Julien Gahyde doesn’t appear to be particularly unhappy at his rural home, with a still-alluring wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker) and charming daughter. As interpreted by the immensely prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon, one man’s seven-year-itch is his lover’s perfect excuse for murdering her husband. The larger question here, though, is whether Julien’s itch is so great that he’d enter into a conspiracy with Esther to broaden her felonious intentions and somehow get away with it. Amalric does a really nice job keeping us guessing as to the non-carnal motivations of Julien and Esther – their chemistry in bed speaks for itself — while also leaving the door open to the possibility that one, both or neither of them might be culpable in the unseen deaths. Even under the intense interrogation of the local prosecutor and police officials, it’s difficult for us to piece together any more of the details of the case than are allowed the courtroom audience. We think that we know more than the spectators because of the elliptical nature of the narrative, but we don’t. The title refers to the color motif of the rooms in which most of the most telling activity takes place. Admirers of the mysteries of Claude Chabrol and previous Simenon adaptations shouldn’t hesitate picking up The Blue Room.

The Living
Jack Bryan’s unexpectedly satisfying sophomore feature, The Living, is the kind of low-profile picture that gives the straight-to-DVD business a good name. If the industry sidebar didn’t exist, after all, how many of the admirable low-budget indies would have an ice cube’s chance in Miami of being seen outside the festival circuit? The Living describes what can happen when ill-considered decisions are put into motion for reasons that seemed good at the time they are made, but in the clear light of day might have been re-thought. Here, a mousy young Pennsylvania man, Gordon (Kenny Wormald), is pressured by his mother and friends to avenge the beatings given his sister, Molly (Jocelin Donahue), by her worthless husband and blackout drunk, Teddy (Fran Kranz).. Joelle Carter, who rode an emotional roller-coaster as Ava Crowder in “Justified,” is the kind of mother who isn’t reluctant to pick the scabs off her less-than-perfect children and instigate trouble when they don’t behave according to her dubious ethical code. Although Teddy deserves a good ass-kicking – or jail, one – Molly prefers to punish him her way. She’s the kind of victim who is willing to forgive her abuser if he displays the proper degree of remorse and promises not to drink to excess, again. We know this is baloney, but Molly would rather live with someone she still is capable of loving to being tormented by her know-it-all mother. As a favor from a friend, brother Gordon has been given the phone number of a destitute ex-con willing to kill Teddy for $2,000. The only caveat comes in having to travel to the Mississippi home of the hitman, Howard (Chris Mulkey), and listen to his menacing b.s. all the way to Pennsylvania. When Gordon witnesses the kind of mayhem Howard is capable of causing if provoked, he begins to wonder if the price of his manhood is worth the risk of ending up in prison. It’s from this point on that The Living begins to demonstrate why it deserves a solid shot in the DVD and VOD marketplace.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
The best reason for picking up a copy of Two Men in Town isn’t the participation of such high-profile actors as Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzmán, Ellen Burstyn and Mexican star Dolores Heredia, although that normally would be sufficient cause for celebration. Instead, it’s the welcome return of writer/director/producer Rachid Bouchareb – London River, Days of Glory, Outside the Law — to these shores as an interpreter of the American Dream. It also marks his return visit to New Mexico, where much of his previous project – Just Like a Woman, which paired Golshifteh Farahani and Sienna Miller as a pair of on-the-lam belly dancers – was shot in 2011.  Two Men in Town is set along the border separating New Mexico and old Mexico, where as many dreams are destroyed as left to blossum. Although the movie doesn’t avoid the subject of illegal immigration, it’s secondary to the dramatic interplay between the newly paroled convicted murderer, William Garnett (Whitaker); his by-the-book parole officer, Emily Smith (Blethyn); and Sheriff Bill Agati, whose deputy was killed by Garnett 18 years earlier. Garnett converted to Islam while incarcerated and it appears to have made him a better man. The sheriff is itching for an opportunity to send the ex-con back to prison, while Smith is doing her level best to keep that from happening. Condemned to spend the next three years of his parole period in a dusty border town, Garnett is required to choose between a minimum-pay, maximum-work job at a cow-milking mill or accepting a job with the local crime kingpin, Terence (Guzman), with whom he has a checkered past. His decision to stick with the cows angers Terence to the point where he even threatens Garnett’s bank-teller girlfriend (Heredia), a lovely woman who deserves none of the shit about to rain on her head. Even though he recites his prayers at the appointed times – at work and in his flophouse apartment – the Koran provides only minimal protection against rage issues that were merely patched over in prison. Two Men in Town is a loose adaptation of the 1973 crime drama of the same title by Jose Giovanni, whose work was informed by the years he spent on Death Row in a French prison. Restaging the story on the border adds an extra layer of intrigue to the story that occasionally gets in the way of Garnett’s redemption. It partially explains why Cohen Media decided to add Rory Kennedy’s insightful 2010 documentary, The Fence, which documents the impact of the manmade 700-mile barrier on communities on either side of the same border with Mexico. Also enhancing the Blu-ray presentation is Yves Cape’s brilliant cinematography, which finds beauty in places to many Americans are quick to dismiss as wastelands.

Bordering on Bad Behavior
The South African director/writer team of Jac Mulder and Ziggy Darwish accomplish in Bordering on Bad Behavior what tens of millions of peace-loving citizens of the world have wanted to do for more than 60 years: lock representatives of all warring parties in the Middle East into an inescapable space and demand they arrive at solution to their mutual issues before being allowed to leave. Then, when they reach each inevitable impasse, pump high-grade marijuana into the chamber and substitute the drinking water with booze. It might take a while for the inebriants to take effect, but, once they do, something resembling agreement might be secured. That, I think, is a reasonable summation of what happens in the outlandish military dramedy Bordering on Bad Behavior, whose first half is dominated by vitriol and second half actually resembles a stoner comedy. The story opens with an Australian special-forces commando of Lebanese Arab background getting lost during a stroll with his soldier cousin along the border with Israel. Although Baz (Bernard Curry) has managed to survive for several years in some of the hairiest war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t until he’s on leave, visiting his relatives, that he makes the greatest mistake of his military career by accidentally strolling into a top-secret Israeli communications base. It’s here that he’s confronted by Bob, an American officer and full-time Texan in Israeli garb (Tom Sizemore) and a bitter Israeli commando assigned to take over the post in the morning. Don’t ask. In the time it takes Baz to pull back the hammer on his service revolver, the door to the facility slams shut with a loud click. Because he was able to get the drop on the laid-back short-timer, Bob, and the seriously pissed-off Israeli patriot, Avi (Oz Zehavi), Baz succeeds in keeping things from getting out of hand. Even though he’s there to provide the movie’s Arab point of view in the angry exchanges with Avi, Baz has also been assigned a Jewish wife (Liv Jackson) and flashbacks from the day he saved the life of an Israeli seriously wounded in a suicide bombing. Again, don’t ask. The reward for his selfless actions came in the form of being berated by a relative of another victim and hassled by cops for presumably being of the same faith as the suicide bomber. For his part, Ari’s deep bitterness derives from having lost a sister in a suicide bombing – perhaps the same one – and being fed a load of anti-Arab propaganda in school. Knowing that these three outwardly very different men will be forced to co-habit the facility for the next six hours, Bob talks Baz and Avi into observing a ceasefire. Fortunately for everyone involved, their temporary man-cave is well supplied with drugs, booze, steaks, porn and ammo. The soldiers’ willingness to partake in such timely diversions ensures that the second half of Bordering on Bad Behavior will overflow with politically incorrect laughs, good-natured ribbing and other bro-mantic behavior. As absurd as this scenario might sound on paper, it would be nice to think that such rapprochements — however unlikely — were possible in the real world.

Strange Magic
Maya the Bee Movie
Nickelodeon: Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car
Rarely have “George Lucas,” “Lucasfilm” and “Disney” appeared in the same sentence as “bomb,” but that’s exactly what happened in box-office summaries of the weekend Strange Magic opened on 3,020 screens across the U.S. As executive producer and story creator, Lucas probably hadn’t experienced this much negative press since the bumbling Jar Jar Binks was introduced in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Not only did the animated fairy tale tank at the box office, but it was trashed by critics, who, as a group, have yet to forgive Lucas for creating the aforementioned Binks and fear the Naboo native will make a cameo in Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Primarily influenced by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and two other Shakespearean comedies, Strange Magic deploys 60 years’ worth of Top 40 hits “to tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with the imaginative settings and characters, as drawn, and an excellent voicing/singing cast that includes Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Anne Bull, Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph and Peter Stormare. What I found awkward was the juxtaposition of cutting-edge technology and a soundtrack loaded with songs lifted from an era when vinyl was king and analog was the sound. (A few of the songs were of more current vintage, but none that stood out as much as the golden oldies.) Youngsters attracted to the fantasy and fairies likely were intimidated by the Shakespearian conceit and unimpressed by a libretto enhanced by songs made famous long before they were born. Without the kids’ insistence, parents weren’t likely to drag them to the multiplex just to hear a few songs from their teen years. And, even in its third week, Paddington was still able to finish third that weekend. That said, Strange Magic is far easier to endure on DVD and less expensive, to boot. I kind of enjoyed hearing the tunes again, this time sung in the wee voices of enchanted forest creatures. The animation looks terrific on my 4K screen, too. Strange Magic could end up doing well on DVD, but only if parents and Boomer grandparents can find a way to convince the kiddies that they’ll dig songs made famous by Freddie Mercury, Robert Palmer, Bob Marley, Mickey & Sylvia, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Heart, the Doors and ELO as much as they do. The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes.

Shout! Factory didn’t bother to invest a great deal of time and money in an effort to attract kids to an animated tale of German-Australian origin, based on a Teutonic fable written in 1912 by Waldemar Bonsels, about a newborn bee possibly afflicted with ADHD. There was nothing to gain by releasing Maya the Bee Movie in theaters and plenty of good reasons to focus on a DVD strategy, instead. Alexs Stadermann (The Woodlies Movie) wasn’t blessed with an easily marketable voicing cast and the story was more familiar to European and Japanese families. In fact, Maya the Bee Movie represents the latest in a long line of adaptations of Bonsels’ “The Adventures of Maya the Bee,” a book that appeared to espouse militarism, naturalism and racism in defense of the common good of the hive. Sound familiar? These “-isms” have lost most of their sting over the course of a century, in which the book was adapted for a 1924 live-action feature film (starring bugs), comic books, an anime, a pair of television series, video games, a children’s opera and merchandise. In the latest iteration of the story, Maya isn’t at all keen about being born into a world of rules and group-think. She prefers flitting around the meadow, making friends with a violin-playing grasshopper, a dung beetle and a young member of the much-maligned hornet tribe. When the Queen’s royal Jelly is stolen, the hornets are the prime suspects and Maya is thought to be their accomplice. Maya may have been banished from the hive, but she and her friends understand the value in finding the missing jelly and preventing a potentially disastrous war between the bees and hornets.

Preschoolers who may be a year or two away from Maya the Bee Movie can get their animated kicks from the latest Nickelodeon compilation, “Team Umizoomi: Meet Shark Car.” In it, Milli, Geo and Bot use their math powers to find Shark Car and return it to their friend, Jose, before the ferry leaves. Other episodes include “Umi Toy Store,” “Stompasaurus” and “Lost and Found Toys.”

Stigmata: Blu-ray
If the Vatican ever wanted to extend its franchise, what better way than to open its archives to screenwriters and take a cut of the action. The Inquisition, alone, would provide fodder for dozens of factually informed mini-series and torture-porn flicks. The statute of limitations has run out on most of the Church’s crimes, so its army of lawyers probably wouldn’t have to worry about lawsuits, except, perhaps, from the descendants of the Jewish babies who were kidnapped and handed over to childless Catholic families or sent to convents and seminaries. With every new mini-series and movie based on the Crusades, Henry VIII, the Borgias, the House of Medici, the Gnostic Gospels, the post-WWII “ratlines,” exorcism and other manifestations of Christian mysticism, Vatican copyright specialists are practically giving away money. If nothing else, we might be spared such half-baked entertainments as Stigmata, a 1999 suspense vehicle newly re-launched in Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with basing a thriller on the bewildering phenomenon, in which an ordinary person mysteriously displays the marks of the wounds of Christ. No less a writer than Elmore Leonard found a way to work the stigmata into a novel – albeit, his most obscure title – later adapted into a decent thriller, Touch, by Paul Schrader. In Stigmata, Rupert Wainwright’s very loud, if stylish thriller, the question isn’t whether a young blond hairdresser’s wounds are legitimate or not, the writers also demanded that Frankie (Patricia Arquette) undergo the full Exorcist experience, babbling in ancient tongues and scribbling Coptic text on a wall in her loft. (Actually, Hebraic lettering was substituted for Coptic or Aramaic.) As a self-described atheist, Frankie hasn’t the vaguest clue as to what’s happening to her or why the hallucinations appear to be triggered by strobe lights or flashbulbs. (Would St. Francis Assisi’s stigmata react to the same stimuli if he were to reappear today and go clubbing?) Gabriel Byrne plays the Vatican-based priest who travels the world investigating the validity of such miracles, but is snubbed by his superiors when he has the temerity to take his job seriously. When a priest knowledgeable in Christian mysticism chances on one of Frankie’s stigmatic freak-outs on a subway train, his report raises Byrne’s eyebrows and causes panic within the heeby-jeeby crowd in Rome. Suddenly, we’ve gone from Linda Blair’s bedroom and into territory Dan Brown would mine in “The Da Vinci Code.” The set designs are far more compelling than the narrative, while a Billy Corgan/Mike Garson should still be of interested to younger viewers. Also notable are appearances by Jonathan Pryce, Portia de Rossi, Nia Long and the ever-ominous Rade Sherbedgia. Arquette, who won an Oscar this year for her key role in Boyhood, later would play a housewife who communicates with the dead in CBS’ paranormal drama, “Medium.” Scream Factory adds commentary with Wainwright; deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Divine Rites” and “Incredible But True,” taken from a History Channel special about stigmata; and a Natalie Imbruglia music video from the film’s soundtrack.

Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing
Neil Young: The Road Goes On Forever
On Tender Hooks
All This Mayhem: Blu-ray
With the possible exception of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, there probably aren’t two American musicians more thoroughly analyzed than Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who, unlike most singers before them, also composed the lyrics to their songs. It’s difficult to imagine anything more to add to Dylan’s back pages since the publication of his memoirs, “Chronicles,” and airing of Martin Scorsese’s authorized profile for PBS, “No Direction Home.” Young bared his roots and inspirations for Jonathan Demme in “Journeys” and “Heart of Gold.” Once famously enigmatic, both of these amazing musicians have become as elusive as robins in May. More than a few Dylan/Young-centric bio-docs of European origin have already been released by MVD Visual, which distributes titles from such niche companies as Sexy Intellectual, Chrome Dreams, Pride, Jinga, IMV/BLUELINE, Iconic and Gonzo. These labels also have direct access to concerts televised in Europe and previously unavailable here. Even so, you’d think that the appeal for Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing and Neil Young: The Road Goes on Forever would be drastically limited by their complete dependence on public-domain resources, promotional videos, news clips, second- and third-hand witnessing, and other archival material. It’s made perfectly clear on the DVD jackets that the subjects didn’t participate in the creation of the film or agree to lift licensing considerations. It hardly matters, because the lack of access to these famously guarded celebrities – in some cases, not always – allows for an open discussion from critics, musical and business associates, and artists with unique points of view on the subject. Here, the absence of authorized concert and studio footage allows for thorough discussions of the historical context in which Dylan and Young emerged and triumphed. Snippets of songs are all one usually needs to recall them in total, anyway.

At 121 minutes, Roads Rapidly Changing leaves plenty of time to expand on Dylan’s place in a folk scene that was already thriving when he arrived in Greenwich Village, from Minnesota, in the early 1960s, but was on the verge of a complete re-invention of itself by the time he “went electric.” By way of introduction, director Tom O’Dell focuses on the roles played by Lead Belly, Josh White, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the genesis of the folk movement and its relation to left-wing activism in the 1930s-’40s and near destruction in the communist witch hunts of the ’50s. By the time Dylan had become a media darling and commercial commodity, dozens of singer-songwriters were finding homes on niche record labels and folk-rockers were bridging the gap separating Laurel Canyon and Nashville. We also learn how Dylan chose to bypass the Woodstock festival, practically within shouting distance of Big Pink, and use a hitherto obscure musical gathering on the Isle of Wight to announce his recovery from a serious motorcycle accident. In addition to the input provided by British authors and critics, Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, we also here from contemporaries Maria Muldaur, Eric Andersen, Martin Carthy, former Fug Peter Stampfel, Tom Paxton and Izzy Young, founder of the Folklore Center and producer of Dylan’s first major concert.

Exactly twice as long as the Dylan bio-doc, The Road Goes on Forever isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might seem. While the alternately candid and repetitive second disc is comprised of broadcast and promotional interviews conducted over the course of the last 40 years, the more entertaining first half of the DVD package traces Young’s rock and folk roots from deepest, darkest Winnipeg, and early bands the Squires and Mynah Birds; past the folk clubs of Toronto; to the Sunset Strip, where Buffalo Springfield would begat a solo career and CSN&Y, which would begat Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, the Stills-Young Band and a collaboration with Pearl Jam; and more baffling genre experimentation than Dylan ever dared. All along, there’s no question that Young continues to follow his own drummer and stick to principles that inspired his co-founding of Farm Aid and the acoustic Bridge School Benefit concerts, as well as political and environmental activism. Fans will find The Road Goes on Forever to be two-plus hours well spent.

One doesn’t enter a viewing of Kate Shenton’s tortuous documentary On Tender Hooks lightly. Shining any light on the “body modification and suspension community” necessarily requires graphic demonstrations of the piercings and other procedures that most people consider too painful to endure, but the fetishists we meet here anticipate in the same way as some chronic-pain suffers welcome sessions with their chiropractor. Anyone who’s seen images of a Plains Indian enduring the Sun Dance ceremony – tethered to a pole by a rope attached to rawhide thongs affixed to the skin of his chest – already has a pretty good idea what to expect here. Outlawed in the U.S. and Canada for nearly 100 years, the ritual employed pain and personal sacrifice as both a cleansing mechanism and as a prayer to benefit family and community. In On Tender Hooks, the practitioners find something resembling bliss through being suspended on metal hooks pushed through the skin on their backs. Why stop with piercing one’s earlobes or genitals, when so much other epidermal landscape awaits exploitation?) To help her audience understand what’s required of novice fetishists, Shenton undergoes the painful procedure so we don’t have to do it ourselves. It’s pretty horrifying and, yes, it’s almost possible to feel some of her pain. But, hey, whatever floats your boat. Also included in the DVD are several of Shenton’s short films, for which she duly acclaimed.

All This Mayhem tells the all-too-familiar story of niche athletes who didn’t see the price tag that comes with fame and allowing themselves to be exploited by purveyors of T-shirts and sporting goods. The cautionary tale of Australian brothers, Tas and Ben Pappas, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi and Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator in that the subjects spend so much time honing their skateboarding skills and partying their brains out, they are unable to recognize the point where the cocaine and booze turned them into monsters. What differentiates All This Mayhem from a dozen other rags-to-riches-to-rehab docs is the brotherly bond and high-octane personalities that connected the skateboarding standouts on the way up and down that same ladder. Because Eddie Martin’s film ends on a marginally optimistic note, the dark parts probably aren’t sufficiently bleak to keep aspiring superstars from desiring the same wealth and fame that allowed the Pappas bros to skate on the edge of oblivion for as long as they did. The DVD adds lots of deleted scenes and other skateboarding stuff.

3 Holes and a Smoking Gun
Of all the mysteries of the cinema, the art of coming up with a saleable title is one of the most difficult aspects to master. Some, like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, come easy. Others demand far too much familiarity with the source material or presence of a mega-star – Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, The Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (Eddie Murphy) – to support the weight of leaden content. While it’s unlikely that the backers of “Three Holes, Two Brads and a Smoking Gun” had the money to afford test marketing, at some point in the post-production process the title was pared down to the only slightly less unwieldy, 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun. Either way, when combined with the ominous cover art, I was instantly reminded of Guy Ritchie’s much copied, rarely matched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If anything, though, Hilarion Banks and Scott Fivelson’s inside-Hollywood conceit more closely resembles Robert Altman’s The Player, in that the theft of a screenplay is the catalyst for all of the intrigue, mayhem and hubris that follows. Newcomer Zuher Kahn plays Jack Ariamehr, an aspiring filmmaker and student of a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter, Bobby Blue Day, who split for New York with his tail between his legs. It isn’t until he writes Ariamehr’s assignment script that Day begins to think he might have found his return ticket to the Big Show. What neither teacher nor student see, however, is the toxicity that radiates from the pages of the screenplay. It leaves everyone who touches it under the sad misapprehension that the story belongs to them and they actually deserve to claim all royalties it meet accrue. It isn’t a bad premise, but Banks and Scott Fivelson add so much baggage to the load 3 Holes and a Smoking Gun already was carrying that it began to sink before it could swim. On the plus side, anyone who’s wondered whatever happened to Richard Edson —Desperately Seeking Susan, Stranger Than Paradise, Do the Right Thing – will find the answer here.

C.P.O. Sharkey: The Complete Season 1
DirecTV: Rogue: The Complete Second Season
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season Two: Blu-ray
Spike: Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues
UP: My Dad’s a Soccer Mom
Known far and wide as the insult comic with a heart as big as the great outdoors, Don Rickles has enjoyed a career that has spanned nearly 65 years and continues as a popular guest on talk shows and occasional live stage appearances. He’s found success, as well, in such movies as Casino, Kelly’s Heroes, a series of ’60s beach-party movies and as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story series. After risking his fledgling show-business career and possibly his kneecaps taking potshots at Frank Sinatra while on stage in a Miami Beach nightclub, “Mr. Warmth” found a home in Las Vegas as the king of late-night lounge comedians, attracting audiences filled with post-show performers and camp followers of the Rat Pack. On television, he became a popular guest star on talk shows, sitcoms and the “Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast” specials. His shtick became so familiar by the late-‘70s, his fans couldn’t go to a hockey game without recalling Rickles’ trademark “hockey puck” gags. Before landing the starring role in “C.P.O. Sharkey,” he hosted a short-lived variety show on ABC. In 1995, he gave the sitcom racket another shot, co-starring with Richard Lewis in the doomed “Daddy Dearest.”  Time Life’s new collection of first-year episodes of “C.P.O. Sharkey” is newly available on DVD. Besides the politically incorrect material, the show is best remembered for the times when 6-foot-7 Seaman Lester Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) would stand alongside the 5-foot-6 Sharkey, exchanging homilies and barbs. Having served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Cyrene in World War II, Rickles frequently looked more comfortable in his role than the calculatedly diverse cast of targets, er, characters. John Landis’ 2007 documentary for HBO, “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” re-introduced him to another generation of comedy lovers. When Rickles passes, knock on wood, he’s certain to match the same volume of praise from peers of all ages accorded Joan Rivers on her demise last September.

At a lithe 5-foot-3, Thandie Newton probably would have a tough time meeting the physical requirements of an undercover detective in most big city police departments. Fortunately, besides being a terrific actor, the native Brit of Zimbabwean descent is just game enough to convince Bay Area hoodlums that she’s a drug queenpin, gangster’s moll, revenge killer, prostitute (of course), mother of a sexually precocious teenager and, yes, emotionally troubled rogue cop. Produced by DirecTV, “Rogue” feels very much like a European mini-series, in that the protagonist walks a thin line between heroism and anti-heroism and occasionally puts people she loves in precarious positions. Being a premium offering, there’s rarely a scarcity of nudity and graphic bloodshed. At the start of Season Two, detective Grace Travis is still struggling with painful issues left over from the first go-round, when a sexual relationship with a prominent gangster went way beyond the call of duty. After convincing a fellow agent to go undercover as a sexual plaything for the target in an even more complex and dangerous sting, Grace is devastated when it goes sideways. The investigation’s tentacles eventually reach from Oakland to the Pentagon, Vancouver and Pakistan. Several peoples’ jobs are put on the line, as is Grace’s relationship with her conspiratorial mother and vulnerable daughter.

The fact that Netflix’s terrifying prison drama “Orange Is the New Black” is required to compete among comedies and musicals in Golden Globe and Emmy voting is a mystery to me. There are more laughs in a single episode of “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men” than an entire season of “Orange Is the New Black.” Maybe, it’s just me, because I don’t find Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” particularly comedic, either. In Season Two, Taylor Schilling’s “suburban white girl” character isn’t required to carry most of the narrative load. While remaining a key story thread, Piper’s ordeal is subordinate to the battles of will being waged in other racial, sexual and power cliques. The addition of Lorraine Toussaint’s sociopathic Yvonne “Vee” Parker to the cast of character raised the level of tension to alarming heights. At the same time, prison officials were required to pay the toll for their avarice and greed. There’s no better show on television right now, but it’s definitely not for the skittish … or anyone looking for laughs or music. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and commentary on a couple of episodes.

Growing up in a suburb of Milwaukee reputed to have more taverns per capita than any other city in the country, I took for granted that the corner bar served as a home away from home for almost everyone I knew. Some even curried a quasi-family appeal with bar food and fish fries. Trick-or-treating the boozehounds would become half the fun of Halloween. As an adult, it wasn’t difficult for me to understand why, all things being equal, one bar made money and another went broke. By the time Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” came around, I was too old to realize the childhood dream of everyone raised in Milwaukee, by opening a tavern to call one’s home. It’s just as well, because the responsibility of maintaining my friends’ addiction to alcohol would probably have landed me in the poorhouse. And, that was before the competition for customers required tavern owners to emphasize aspects of the business beyond bar food, happy hours and the occasional free round. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when loyal patronage was rewarded by the occasional free round.) “Bar Rescue” isn’t any different than other reality-rescue shows in which an expert tears employees of a troubled restaurant, beauty salon or country inn a new asshole, before putting them on the right road to profitability. Here, Nightclub Hall of Fame inductee and bar-management specialist Jon Taffer is commissioned to save dying businesses from themselves by scaring the crap out of owners and employees, first, and, then, providing them with the wherewithal to correct mistakes and woo new customers. He accomplishes this in collaboration with a rotating team of specialists with expertise in drink and food preparation, customer service, economics and interior design. Not all of the owners are ready to admit their mistakes when Taffer unloads on them, but the smart ones eventually get with the program. “Bar Rescue: Toughest Rescues” adds the featurette “Taffer’s Top 10: Most Disgusting Bars” to the four featured episodes.

Anyone old enough to remember Rodney Dangerfield’s 1992 sports comedy, Ladybugs, is 1) already familiar with what happens in My Dad’s a Soccer Mom and 2) probably has kids or grandchildren young enough to enjoy it.  The gist of the story is that “Marion “Mad Dog” Casey (Lester Speight) has run out of NFL teams that are willing to employ him and is stuck performing the chores associated with being an archetypal “soccer mom.” It requires chauffeuring his 10-year-old daughter, Lacy, from school to ballet and theatre class activities – neither of which she really enjoys – and, then, to soccer practice, which she loves. Much of the humor derives from the fact that Marion is a very large man and something of a bull in a china shop on the soccer pitch. Because Up TV is short for “Uplifting Entertainment” and began as the Gospel Music Channel, the fun is family oriented and important lessons are learned.

The DVD Wrapup: Dr. Jekyll & Miss Osbourne, Retaliation, Beloved Sisters, Mad Max, Jamaica Inn, Make Way for Tomorrow, Power, Welcome to Sweden … More

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne: Blu-ray
Retaliation: Blu-ray
It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and a few other influential directors began championing movies previously dismissed as “too foreign” or mere genre specimens that it became possible for us to see how small distance between grindhouse and arthouse really was. The time had finally arrived when the restorer’s art and modern technology could be combined to reverse the clock on movies ravaged by time, indifference and neglect. As the DVD and Blu-ray revolution took hold, distribution companies, almost certainly inspired by the high-end success of Criterion Collection, formed to feed the demand for obscure cult, experimental and genre classics. Digital software and old-fashioned TLC eliminated the scratches, artifacts and careless edits that helped contribute to the near demise of VHS cassettes, even as long-lost reels and snippets of valuable footage were being discovered in basements and lockers around the planet. Once a market for such arcana was established on DVD, it became possible for the addition of more learned commentary, background featurettes, deleted scenes and interviews than was possible with laserdiscs. The corporate pioneers of DVD only foresaw bonus packages comprised of original trailers and foreign language tracks. It wasn’t until the filmmakers themselves embraced DVD and Blu-ray that everything else came to pass.

Arrow Video’s truly revelatory reclamation of Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is representative of the British company’s dedication to restoration, education and collaborations with the growing number of academic institutions tilling the same gardens. Born and educated in Poland, Borowczyk would immigrate to France in 1959 and settle in Paris, where he was free to focus on painting, lithography, cinema posters and various schools of animation. Ten years later, he would become a leading figure in the re-invention of pornography as a vehicle for artistic and social expression. Not surprisingly, his surrealistic ideas and hard-core visions didn’t always correspond to the demands of the marketplace. It explains why Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, under one of its many different titles and edits, failed to find an appropriate audience for its outrageous blend of horror and eroticism. Despite earning Borowczyk the Best Feature Film Director distinction at the 1981 Sitges Film Festival, mainstream exhibitors weren’t anxious to promote controversy that comes with such borderline material, thus consigning it to theaters on the fringes of respectability. Not surprisingly, the raincoat-wearing crowd displayed little patience for the narrative and artistic interludes between sex scenes, which, themselves, were more perverse than titillating. After being chopped, channeled, censored and renamed, Borowczyk’s adventurous adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s time-honored novella was shelved and largely forgotten. In it, Udo Kier plays the infamous London doctor with a decidedly split personality as a considerably younger man, about to be married to the lovely Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a name inspired by Stevenson’s own wife. The couple has invited several guests to a party at Jekyll’s intricately designed mansion to announce their betrothal. Meanwhile, Hyde makes his presence known in a series of rapes and murders in and around the house. Obsessed with “transcendental medicine” and its relationship to the current fascination with empiricism, Jekyll is experimenting with a substance that, when added to water, allows Mr. Hyde to take control of his personality, turning him into a sexually insatiable sadist. The kicker here is his fiancé’s mad desire to experience the same urges.

Unlike Stevenson and previous adapters, Borowczykq refused to introduce women simply as victims. Fanny’s willingness to experience the same pains and pleasures of her lover’s curse – harkening to the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and her taste for blood baths – didn’t feel out of place in the nascent post-feminist ‘80s. There’s more to the story, of course, but the beautifully shot movie defies easy summarization. For that, viewers are invited to stay tuned for the several informative featurettes analyzing the director’s visual influences (including Vermeer), Bernard Parmegiani’s avant-garde musical soundtrack and evolution as a filmmaker who some would dismiss as a pornographer with pretentions of glory. The Blu-ray and DVD presentation is impeccable, adding English and French soundtracks and optional English SDH subtitles; a somewhat dry, but informative introduction by critic Michael Brooke; audio commentary, featuring archival interviews with Borowczyk, Kier, Pierro and producer Robert Kuperberg, and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo; more interviews and visual essays; Marina and Alessio Pierro’s short, “Himorogi,” and the recently re-discovered “Happy Toy,” inspired by Borowczyk’s interest in Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope; a reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design; and a booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive materials, illustrated with rare stills.

Last month, Arrow released the terrific 1967 Japanese film noir, Massacre Gun, as part of its first wave of restored Blu-ray titles for American consumption. Its director, Yasuharu Hasebe (Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter), and popular action star, Jo Shishido (Gate of Flesh), would re-teamed a year later in Nikkatsu’s color classic, Retaliation. It harkens to a time in the 1960s when Japanese farmers were pitted against corporate, federal and gangland interests for the control of their lush fields just outside Tokyo. The country’s post-war recovery didn’t make allowances for farmers whose crops were being grown the same way and in the same places for countless generations. Planes now carrying American tourists and business executives to Japan are landing and departing over those same fields, now covered by concrete. Here, three different gangs are battling not only for the negotiating rights to the farmland, but also control of vice in a nearby industrial district. Major star Akira Kobayashi (Black Tight Killers) plays a yakuza lieutenant, who, after serving an eight-year bit in stir, returns home to find his godfather’s power completely compromised and no one immune from back-stabbing, deceit and less-than-honorable behavior. Shishido plays the rival gangster waiting to kill him in retaliation for the death of his brother and the similarly popular Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) is the farmer’s daughter who gets caught in the crossfire.

Hasebe pulled out all of the stops for Retaliation and keeping track of the gangsters in this operatic drama requires a sharp eye, if not a scorecard. His roving, handheld camera offers a different perspective on yakuza action, preferring a raw and intimate examination of the costs of violence, including rape. (A home-erotic bromance is suggested, as well.) Although a genre film from a studio that embraced both traditional exploitation themes and overt sexploitation, Retaliation never looks as if it had produced on an assembly line or could be accused of taking shortcuts to save money. Arrow’s limited-edition Blu-ray (3000 copies) includes the restored high-definition edition and standard-definition DVD presentation; the original uncompressed mono audio, newly translated English subtitles, fresh interviews with Jô Shishido and critic/historian Tony Rayns, the original theatrical trailer, a gallery with rare promotional images, a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp.

Make Way for Tomorrow: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
And, while we’re on the subject of film restoration, it’s easy to believe that the absence of movies in which elderly people are allowed authentically romantic feelings for each other is something new. The pristine classics we enjoy on TMC may play to an older demographic, but the characters are often cross-generational. (Bogie and Bacall, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, among them.) If On Golden Pond became a sensation in large part by pairing Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in a December-December relationship, it would take another 31 years for festival audiences and jurors to raise the profile of the aching French drama, Amour, for mainstream consumption. By comparison to the actors in those films, the romantic leads of 2014’s Love Is Strange — Alfred Molina and John Lithgow – are spring chickens. Leo McCarey’s rarely seen 1937 jewel, Make Way for Tomorrow, was far more admired by the director’s peers than studio heads and audiences, who much preferred such crowd-pleasers as Duck Soup, An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way. (According to Hollywood legend, when McCarey received his 1937 Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, he alluded to Make Way for Tomorrow by saying he got it for the wrong film.) Made at the height of the Great Depression, Make Way for Tomorrow tells the all too real story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore) separated after the old man is released from his longtime job as a bookkeeper and their home is repossessed by their bank. They reluctantly agree to live apart in the homes of two of their four children, where, at least, they’ll have company and some comfort for their ills. Unlike Ma and Pa Joad, Barkley and Beulah aren’t trading one economic disaster for another, though. Their children are surviving the Depression very well, thank you, and in comfortable surroundings. The greatest inconvenience comes when a teenage daughter is required to share her room with Grannie and an illness causes Gramps to take over the master bedroom. Long-distance phone calls are still a luxury, however, and the postal service takes its merry time delivering correspondence. Although things remain civil in their adopted homes, it soon becomes clear that the situation is too far from ideal to please anyone.

When Gramps is instructed to move to California for his health, the daughter we haven’t met on screen tells him that she only has room for him. His wife, meanwhile, has agreed to move into a pleasant senior residence. Before parting again at the train station, possibly forever, they are allowed nearly a full day together in the city, during which they relive memories of their honeymoon. Instead of cluttering their time with madcap Manhattan misadventures or cheap melodrama, McCarey permits them as satisfying an interlude as anyone could hope to experience in Gotham. The small surprises not only delight the couple, but also leave the door open for a happy ending … or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The film’s emotional pulse is so different from movies of the period – today, too – that it catches us off-guard … like a German comedy or Chinese Western. Indeed, it’s said that Yasujirô Ozu’s universally admired Tokyo Story was inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow, in that it recognized the cusp separating time-honored Japanese family structure and post-war indifference to traditions. Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that the film “would make a stone cry” and I have no reason to challenge that observation. The Blu-ray upgrade adds “Tomorrow, Yesterday and Today,” a worthwhile 2009 interview with Bogdanovich; another with critic Gary Giddins, in which he discusses McCarey’s artistry within the political and social context of the film; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from Robin Wood’s 1998 “Leo McCarey and Family Values.”

In his review for the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent predicted that Jamaica Inn “will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture.” Immediately after completing his adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier drama – the first of three – Hitch moved his tack from England to America, where he already was a known quantity. Nugent wasn’t attempting to dissuade readers from checking out the picture, only cautioning against expecting “those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor (and) the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures.” That review may have run in 1939, but his opinions still hold true today. Because Laughton owned half of the production company, he was going to portray the wicked and oily squire who benefitted most from the plunder of shipwrecks off the rocky Cornwall coast, circa 1800. The pirates who did the dirty work didn’t resemble those working the Caribbean, but having distressed ships come to them was generally a safer proposition. Laughton discovery Maureen O’Hara plays the naïve young woman, who, after losing her parents, travels to Cornwell to live with her aunt.  No sooner is her trunk thrown up the staircase of the Jamaica Inn to her room than she is drooled upon by the lascivious squire – a naughty vicar in the novel, but changed to pass Hollywood censors — and finds herself stuck in the web of violence and deceit that made the place notorious. It doesn’t take long for the spunky country girl to adjust to her new environment and discover an ally, but Laughton wasn’t about to be overshadowed by the ingénue, her rescuer or Hitchcock, for that matter. The result is a movie that can be relished in the same way that we enjoy other period classics in which the star is allowed free reign. Cohen Media’s splendid 4K restoration adds commentary with historian Jeremy Arnold and the essential featurette, “Shipwrecked in a Studio: A Video Essay With Donald Spoto.”

Mad Max: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
These Final Hours: Blu-ray
When Mad Max: Fury Road opens around the world this week, it will benefit from a marketing campaign several dozen times greater than the entire cost of making, advertising and distributing the Oz-ploitation classic, more than 35 years ago. Actual production costs for the fourth installment in the hugely popular and influential franchise are so much greater than what was available to co-writer/director George Miller that it’s permissible now for older fans to wonder if success might spoil “Fury Road.” Some mainstream pundits rated the far more lavish Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome higher than the original Mad Max and its immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, while others found that extra dollars and its “Lord of the Flies” conceit more than a little bit off point. Still, as the trilogies go, Miller’s holds up better critically than “The Godather” trio. I know that the primary audience for “Fury Road” is likely not to be the Boomers who found something fresh and exciting in the post-apocalyptic asphalt-burner – one of the first – but the Boomlets who launched the “Fast & Furious” franchise into the stratosphere and might relish seeing it in 3D. It’s unlikely that the “Furious” soon-to-be octet would exist without Mad Max or H.B. Halicki’s even earlier high-octane/low-budget actioner, Gone in 60 Seconds, so I strongly recommend to  newcomers that they pick up the hi-def Scream Factory edition asap. (Try Roger Donaldson’s kiwi follow-up, Smash Palace, too.) What I think they’ll be surprised to see is a cinematic vision this is so spare and unpretentious that it might have been churned out by Roger Corman’s exploitation mill. Indeed, it practically looks pre-apocalyptic. It might also be interesting for them to watch Mel Gibson, before he achieved A-list status and, later, destroyed his career by allowing alcohol to reveal his barely submerged inner demons. There simply was no way Gibson, in only his second feature, wasn’t going to become a superstar. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Gibson, co-star Joanne Samuel and DP David Eggby; vintage featurettes “Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar” and “Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon”; a photo gallery; and commentary with Eggby, art director Jon Dowding and special-effects artists Chris Murray and David Ridge. And, no, this isn’t the version of Mad Max for which perfectly intelligible Australian English was dubbed over by the voices of American actors. That bonehead decision nearly killed the appeal of the movie in its first U.S. release.

When viewed from certain angles, Zak Hildtich’s latter-days thriller, These Final Hours resembles a prequel to Mad Max. A giant comet is seen streaking across the sky, heading for points unknown. Minutes later, we hear that the resultant fire storm is destroying the planet one time zone at a time. Perth, being the “most remote city on Earth,” is likely to be the setting for mankind’s last roundup. Already, residents are settling old scores, committing ritual suicide, praying on street corners and having sex … lots of it. The highways aren’t yet flooded with cars carrying desperate souls attempting to escape the final holocaust. Where would they go? James (Nathan Phillips) faces the dilemma of choosing to die with his pregnant lover, Rose (Angourie Rice), in her oceanfront pad, or making his way cross-town to a friend’s “epic” party, where his fiancé Vicky (Kathryn Beck) and several dozen other hard-core Aussie hedonists are snorting, smoking, screwing, swimming, chugging and playing Russian roulette to while away their final hours. Naturally, James picks the latter. Before he gets there, however, James saves a pre-teen girl from being raped by thugs who resemble members of the motorcycle gang in Mad Max. Uncharacteristically, he commits himself to helping Rose (Angourie Rice) locate her father at a designated meeting place. When that doesn’t happen, James brings Rose to the party, where an ancient hippie chick plies her with a mind-altering substance. The message being delivered here is that even facing imminent death, seriously debauched individuals, like James, can achieve something resembling redemption … or not. These Final Hours benefits from cinematographer Bonnie Elliott’s overriding hazy yellow light and Hildtich’s ability to pull emotional strings most other low-budget dystopian thrillers ignore, preferring instead to add more zombies to the mix. Neither does he cop out at the film’s end.

Beloved Sisters: Blu-ray
At 171 minutes, Dominik Graf’s speculative biopic of Weimar writer/historian Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller would test the endurance of most graduate students in German cultural history, especially those living outside the borders of whatever Reich it is that country is currently enjoying. Fortunately for everyone involved, Beloved Sisters isn’t intended for scholarly analysis or strict adherence to known truths. Instead, it is an epic romance that demands little more than our attention. When Schiller first met Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld, they were living a relatively frugal life as lower aristocrats in Rudolstadt, an artistic mecca in the central state of Thuringia. Already a controversial playwright and accomplished poet, Schiller affects the garb and genial demeanor of a carefree rover who thrives as much on romance as air and water. Although Charlotte is already committed in an unhappy marriage to a local courtier, both sisters dote on Schiller to the point where he rarely lacked for love … or, as is implied by Graf, intimacy. He had a wealthy lover on the side, as well, but the sisters’ irresistibility radiates from the screen. Once Schiller settles into a professorship at the University of Jena, and Christine delivers their first of four children, things take a sharp turn in the direction of melodrama and strident conflict. What really sells Beloved Sisters, however, is Graf’s good fortune in being able to stage his story in urban and natural settings that haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last 225 years. Many of the locations are quite beautiful, too. Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung are quite convincing as the three sides of a literary love triangle. (Surprisingly, for all the ripping, only a single pair of nipples manages to escape a bodice and neither aureole belongs to the sisters.) The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the region’s natural beauty and arrives with a decent making-of featurette.

Little Sister
Back in 1995, when Robert Jan Westdijk’s Little Sister became a sensation on the international festival circuit, the idea of shooting a movie simply from the point of view of a subjective camera operator was fresh and daring. The Blair Witch Project was still four years away from taking the video world by storm and very few people remembered that Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust had been the first out of the gate, in 1980, purportedly comprised of found video footage left behind by a news team that disappeared in the Amazonian rain forest. Today, of course, it’s the rare POV or found-footage film that is capable of holding our interest for more than 10 minutes. Once we know how the trick is done, after all, it’s no longer capable of surprising us.  Here, on the occasion of her 20th birthday, Martin pays a visit to his sister Daantje’s Amsterdam apartment. At first, she reacts to the camcorder in her face as if it’s a weasel awaiting the first opportunity to rip her flesh. After much prodding, Daantje begins accept Martin’s constant presence and annoying personality. He follows her to a class at fashion school and a party that only ends when everyone has passed out. It’s also used to collect evidence against Daantje’s boyfriend. Finally, the real moment of horror arrives when the point of view is reversed and Daantje takes control of the camera. We’ve already been tipped as to what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. In the case of Little Sister, anyway, being first does have its advantages.

Now that this year’s fight of the century is fading from memory – except for the unhappy punters and PPV viewers unaware of the loser’s bum shoulder – it’s probably a good time for fans of the “sweet science” to remind themselves why they cared about the match, in the first place. Bert Marcus’ compelling, if celebrity-burdened documentary, Champs, goes a long way toward answering their questions, without also addressing one of the sport’s most pressing concerns. And, no, it has nothing to do with concussions, dubious judging or Don King, none of which are ignored by the filmmaker. By focusing so much attention on Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and the fighters who challenged them in their prime, I was left wondering why the heavyweight division is so much less interesting today than the one unified two weeks ago by Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s victory over Manny Pacquaio. Both welterweights weighed in at roughly 145 pounds, practically guaranteeing a more entertaining fight than any heavyweight skirmish in recent memory. Middleweight Bernard Hopkins, the other great boxer featured in Champs, normally carried between 155-160 pounds, even as a light heavyweight. A popular champion, Hopkins debuted as a pro on November 10, 1988 and was still drawing a paycheck in the ring last November 8, when he was defeated by the Russian light heavyweight champ, Sergey Kovalev. With the money potentially available to a serious American heavyweight contender, it remains curious as to why so few currently exist. By recalling the careers and travails of Tyson and Holyfield – as well as the excitement that surrounded their fights – Marcus pretty much repeats everything we already know about their careers. Hearing the former champs tell their own stories so candidly adds a great deal to the presentation. Hopkins’ escape from a life cursed by poverty and crime echoes the stories of hundreds of other American fighters — from a dozen different ethnic backgrounds — since Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Champs features clips from classic bouts, as well as the colorful observations of journalists, educators and such high-profile fans as Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Spike Lee and Mary J. Blige.

Stay As You Are
Frequently, in Italian films of the 1970s, the line separating exploitation and more artistic endeavor was blurred to the point of non-existence. That’s partly because of the commercial appeal of movies featuring women who were as beautiful fully clothed as they were naked, and directors whose talent exceeded the demands of genre work. There are times in the beginning of Alberto Lattuada’s 1979 erotic drama, Stay As You Are, when the music and seemingly gratuitous nudity recall giallo pictures from earlier in the decade. On closer inspection, however, it doesn’t seem likely that Marcello Mastroianni and composer Ennio Morricone would, at this point in their careers, lend their considerable talents to a project designed simply to titillate arthouse audiences. The presence of a barely 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski is easily explained by the fact that she already was a celebrity in Europe for following in the footsteps of her father Klaus. She already was in Rome during the casting process and on the fast track to international success in Tess, Cat People, One From the Heart, The Moon in the Gutter, Unfaithfully Yours and Paris, Texas. And, of course, she wasn’t at all shy about disrobing on screen. Here, Kinski’s perfectly suited for the role of a college student who either truly prefers dating way-older men or simply gets off on toying with their neuroses about growing old. Mastroianni, plays Giulio Marengo, a landscape architect who reluctantly allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Francesca after meeting slightly cute at a Florentine historical site. Still extremely handsome at 55, Giulio is estranged from his wife and vulnerable to temptation, if not from Francesca then from her equally game roommate. What begins as a setup for a randy erotic comedy takes a sudden turn for the perverse when Giulio learns from a friend that his new girlfriend might be the lovechild of an old girlfriend and, by extension, his daughter. When he informs Francesca of this possibility, she doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it … or, at least, not as bothered as we are. Lattuada, whose credits by now included Mafioso, Variety Lights (with Federico Fellini), La steppa and Oh, Serafina!, was able to leave viewers with an ending that didn’t require taking a shower after seeing it. Besides the joy of watching Mastroianni in a meaty role, accompanied by Morricone’s music, we’re also treated with location shots of Florence’s Piazza San Giovanni, Piazza San Marco, Villa La Pietra and Boboli Gardens. The Blu-ray extras include the “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” and an optional English-language or Italian-language track with English subtitles. I suggest the latter.

The Sleepwalker
There aren’t many decisions that viewers anticipate with greater anxiety than when a movie’s bipolar antagonist decides it’s OK to discontinue taking his or her meds. That’s what happens in Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, The Sleepover, a four-character psychosexual drama that keeps getting creepier as it goes on … until, at the end, it doesn’t. Newlyweds Kaia and Andrew are restoring her family’s sprawling and secluded rural home when their routine is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kaia’s emotionally disturbed sister, Christine, and her boyfriend Ira. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that the sisters share a bizarre, possibly violent history and it’s possible that the worst is yet to come. For one thing, Christine is a somnambulist who doesn’t seem to have any control over what happens when she’s on her late-night prowls. The more we get to know about the sisters, the likelihood grows that something truly messed up is going to happen within the handsomely mounted film’s 91-minute duration. The tension between the women brings out the worst in Andrew, whose hair-trigger temper doesn’t allow much room for behavior he can’t predict or control. Ira doesn’t appear to understand what’s going on with his pregnant girlfriend, let alone be able to prevent her disappearances.  All we know for sure is that whatever happened in that same house when they were kids is on the verge of happening again. The spooky mood is enhanced by the many scenes that take place at night and Sondre Lerche’s atmospheric score. Without revealing anything that happens in the final half-hour, I can safely predict that as many viewers will be disappointed by the ending as are satisfied. I’d also be willing to bet that Fastvold’s next effort will be something that finds wider release and be greeted with anticipation by critics. The DVD adds a Q&A conducted at Sundance, where the movie debuted in 2014.

The Drownsman: Blu-ray
Extraterrestrial: Blu-ray
Syfy: Icetastrophe
Chad Archibald, director of the surprisingly chilling straight-to-DVD thriller, The Drownsman, includes in his helming credits the CTV documentary series, “Creepy Canada,” which took viewers to places even the Mounties fear to dread. Writer Cody Calahan is listed as art director for a bizarre reality-based series, “Canada’s Worst Driver,” that ran on Discovery Channel Canada. I don’t know when low-budget horror films officially overtook improv comedians as Canada’s leading export to the U.S., but what began as a trickle has become a deluge. At one time, these tax-incentive projects betrayed their origins as clearly as a maple-leaf patch on the backpack of a Canadian hoping not to be mistaken for an American while hitchhiking through Europe. Today, the actors are as self-assured as their contemporaries in Hollywood and much more care is given to eliminating such obvious production “tells” as the unique sound of police sirens and look of their uniforms; clearly foreign street signs; and the tell-tale pronunciation of certain vowel combinations. Streets still look cleaner there, I suppose. The Drownsman is about a young woman, Madison (Michelle Mylett), who, after falling into a lake, comes face to face with a dreadlocked monster that resembles a cross between the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Swamp Thing. She is so freaked out by this encounter that she locks herself in her room for a year and avoids all water. When Madison even goes so far as to ignore her best friend’s wedding, she is forced to undergo something resembling an “intervention.” During it, something is triggered within the humanoid beast that causes him to target all of the women, not just Madison. The Drownsman is shot in exceedingly dark tones, with light supplied by candles and the light from drowning tanks in the creature’s lair. There is a backstory to this madness, but it’s so unlikely that it can be easily ignored. Genre buffs have been quick to point out the similarities (a.k.a., homages) here to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, while also praising Archibald’s fresh approach to the material. As the serial killer turned supernatural psychopath, Ry Barrett is plenty scary.

Inspired, perhaps, by the Butcher Brothers (The Violent Kind), Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz adopted the nom de plume, The Vicious Brothers, for Grave Encounters (I & II) and Extraterrestrial. The difference between these filmmakers and, say, the Coens, the Hughes, Wachowskis and Polishes, is that they aren’t siblings or particularly evil. Extraterrestrial begins as a cabin-in-the-woods thriller, but ends up in a UFO, piloted by creatures that fit the accepted profile of the Roswell and “ET” aliens. Just as viewers are getting used to the likelihood that most or all of the archetypal cabin-dwellers are going to perish in the woods during the course of the weekend, a fireball streaks across the night sky. Now, for all we know, the flaming starship could be carrying the entire stable of Universal monsters, a shitload of alien zombies or a collection of slasher killers from the 1980s. Unable to contain their curiosity, the campers discover an alien spacecraft and indications that the passengers are still out there, somewhere.  The ending may not surprise everyone, but those new to one or both of the subgenres will have better luck getting off on it. Michael Ironside is the most prominent cast member, although Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, Melanie Papalia, Jesse Moss and Emily Perkins probably have fans of their own, especially those of the Canadian persuasion. The Blu-ray adds a reversible wrap with alternative artwork, commentary tracks by the Vicious Brothers and actors Brittany Allen and Melanie Papalia, the featurette “The Making of Extraterrestrial” and deleted scenes.

A meteor also figures prominently into the truly goofy made-for-cable thriller, Icetastrophe (a.k.a., “Christmas Icetastrophe”), which borrows effects, characters and stereotypes from nearly every Syfy disaster movie ever made. At the very least, this means that residents of a small town in a picturesque corner of British Columbia are subjected to dangerous objects falling from the sky, other mysterious objects breaking through fissures in the streets and pretty young scientists from a nearby university joining forces with buff local lawmen and/or park rangers to save humanity. Veteran director Jonathan Winfrey (Carnosaur 3: Primal Species) and writer David Sanderson (Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse) only required one unique conceit to differentiate Icetastrophe from dozens of other Syfy titles. Here, the meteor splits in two above a small town in the shadow of a mountain, putting the town and its lake into a deep freeze. It mimics the effects of Ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and the superpower of Mr. Freeze, in various Bat-man and DC titles. The crystallization of buildings, streets and humans can be immediate or take its merry time, as when a motorboat carrying two of the protagonists are attempting to outrun the ice on the lake. As also tends to occur in these movies, two young lovers separated by circumstances or parental interference must come together to save themselves and the town.  The effects here are low-budget even by cable-television standards, but that probably won’t prevent younger teens from enjoying it.

The Vatican Exorcisms
An Irish Exorcism
At a time when Pope Francis is making new friends for the Church around the world with his progressive views on human rights and other social issues, he’s also been surprisingly candid on the iffy subject of exorcism. Now, while I think there’s sufficient evidence to argue that Satan possesses several world leaders, Wall Street financiers, hardened criminals, studio executives and pedophiliac clergy, rarely are they the subject of movies and documentaries about exorcism. Typically, it’s the domain of unruly children, disobedient wives and incessantly barking dogs. Earlier this month, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 25 years, suggested that practitioners of yoga and fans of such fantasy novels and TV shows as “Harry Potter,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries,” might be opening themselves to possession. He’s previously cautioned against satanic sects within the Diocese of Rome and cabals of Freemasons. Somebody has to do it. This week, a pair of unrelated DVDs, The Vatican Exorcisms and An Irish Exorcism, have arrived in my mail, purporting to tell the truth about the current state of the practice. While neither is particularly convincing, they are harbingers of a tsunami of new straight-to-DVD faux-cumentaries on the subject. I’d have preferred seeing a mass exorcism of priests accused of crimes against parishioners and only recently acknowledged by the Vatican.

I’d have given more credence to The Vatican Exorcisms if the Italian-American filmmaker, Joe Marino, didn’t remind me so much of Father Guido Sartucci. Fans of “The Smothers Brothers Show” and earlier editions of “SNL” will remember Sarducci as comedian Don Novello’s chain-smoking gossip columnist and rock critic for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Sarducci is more credible than any of the priests interviewed in these movies. Nonetheless, Marino traveled to Rome accompanied by Padre Luigi, “a true exorcist,” and the south of Italy, described as a place where “Christian rituals are inextricably linked to the pagan ones.” I’m all for legitimate exorcisms, but suspect that Satan would notice a full camera and audio crew documenting one of his earthly manifestations. By watching a couple of episodes of “60 Minutes,” Marino would have realized that a hidden camera is more likely to produce results than a hand-held camera and sound boom.

An Irish Exorcism is less about the attempt to rid a tormented child of demonic possession than it is about anthropology student Lorraine (Aislinn Ní Uallacháin) and her half-assed approach to recording an exorcism for her final paper. A comely lass, Lorraine convinces a pair of local priests to sit for interviews about an exorcism they’ll perform soon on a local girl, Lisa, who’s either truly possessed or has watch The Exorcism too many times. Naturally, we’re required to endure watching the negotiations and interviews from the point of view of the production crew. If Dante Alighieri were to return to Earth today, he’d devise a way for sinners to be further punished by forcing them to watch an endless loop of POV shows and found-footage movies, such as An Irish Exorcism, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Duck Dynasty.” A special place would be reserved for horror flicks that aren’t scary. Somewhere, Linda Blair is spinning in her split-pie soup.

Magical Universe
How come I wasn’t surprised to learn that the co-director of Who Is Henry Jaglom? also has given us Magical Universe, the strangely compelling bio-doc of an elderly artist in Maine who’s spent most of his life creating elaborate dioramas featuring Barbie dolls in a staggering number of poses, outfits and situations. It took 10 years for Jeremy Workman and his girlfriend, Astrid, to capture the essence of Al Carbee, an 88-year-old outsider artist, who, when he isn’t in the company of Barbie, writes fancifully drawn screeds about  himself and whatever else is on his mind. Carbee’s work has been exhibited in a gallery in Portland, but I can’t recall any mention of sales. (He died owing several credit-card companies a small fortune in unpaid debts.) There’s no questioning the artist’s sincerity or talent, however singular, or Workman’s personal affection for Carbee and his eccentricities. Viewers, though, may get the feeling that he’s spent way too much time alone, tending his thousands of guppies in his spare moments. After so many years as a recluse, Carbee clearly fell in love with Workman’s camera. Another fascinating aspect of the artist’s life is his seemingly ramshackle home, which has hidden caverns and makes Pee-wee’s playhouse look like Romper Room. The DVD adds background material and outtakes.

Dinosaur Island
It seems like a hundred years have passed since the original Jurassic Park captured the world’s attention with its wonderfully imaginative and strangely lifelike depictions of dinosaurs specifically cloned to populate a theme park for the enjoyment of kids of all ages. Steven Spielberg made anxious viewers wait a while before revealing the first breathtaking panorama of the park, with its many different dinosaurs peaceably assembled in the kind of idyllic setting only Hawaii could provide. He would make us hold our breaths even longer for the pivotal scene in which the park’s alpha T-Rex arrives, adding a palpable taste of horror to the speculative fiction first imagined by Michael Crichton in novel. Scientists have learned so many more things about dinosaurs in the ensuing 22 years that one can hardly wait to see if the Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World team has been able to make the same exponential leap forward in the art of creating cinematic dinosaurs. Dinosaur Island is a smallish, low-budget adventure for kids that features CGI dinosaurs that would have stunned audiences in advance of Jurassic Park. Compared to Avatar and other such visual extravaganzas, though, Matt Drummond’s film is the cinematic equivalent of small potatoes. As far as I can tell, it went straight-to-DVD overseas and wasn’t even accorded the decency of a limited theatrical release in the U.S. The fact is, Dinosaur Island is small potatoes. It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, who, on his way to visit his father, finds himself stranded on an island in the South Pacific that’s populated with dinosaurs and other creatures, amazing vegetation, aboriginal tribes, a graveyard for 707s and a girl who’s been stranded there for several years. Parents who watched adults being attacked by velociraptors and a T-rex in the original “Jurassic” series might not be impressed by the velociraptors and giant “millipedes” in Dinosaur Island, but it could whet the appetites of kids already anticipating the as-yet-unrated Jurassic World.

Power: The Complete Season One: Blu-ray
Welcome to Sweden: Season 1
Masters of Sex: Season Two
The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show
The Midnight Special
It would be unfair to credit the popularity of Starz’ urban crime drama “Power” to the stunning success of Fox’s “Empire,” which, at first glance, would appear to be drawingfrom the same demographic pool. Exec-produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and show creator Courtney Kemp Agboh (“The Good Wife”), the series began more than six months before “Empire” hit the ground running. Neither was anyone at the premium-cable network positive if it could compete on the same turf that produced “Spartacus,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons” and, now, “Turn.” It did well enough, at least, to warrant a second season, which begins in early June. If it hadn’t been re-upped, the writers would have left nearly a half-dozen cliffhangers in its wake and thousands of followers unhappy. It took me a couple of episodes to get hooked, but, once I was, it was easy to come back for more “Power.” The story revolves around James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a street-level punk who parlayed his profits into a chain of laundromats – literally, to launder money – and, finally, a glamorous nightclub where New York’s elite meet to drink, network and snort blow in the washrooms. It’s a slick operation and the uber-slick St. Patrick rules the roost, while his longtime partner-in-crime, Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), oversees their subsidiary drug empire. St. Patrick and his wife and confidante, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), live the kind of penthouse life that typically would be out of reach for a mere laundromat magnate. The family lacks for nothing, except, perhaps, the security that comes with not being in cahoots with a Mexican cartel. Everything is going swimmingly for Ghost and Tommy, until a female assassin in pink boots begins to intercept shipments and kill their couriers. Then, too, there’s St. Patrick’s chance meeting in the club with an old Nuyorican flame, FBI agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), which is witnessed by Tasha. Certain to cause problems during the show’s initial eight-episode run is Angela’s ignorance of how Ghost makes his money and vice-versa. The only thing that truly distinguishes “Power” from “Empire” — from the male viewers’ point-of-view, anyway – is the proliferation of gratuitous female nudity, as is the custom of premium-cable programming. Fortunately, Kemp Agboh’s experience as writer/producer for such series as “The Good Wife,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hawaii Five-0” keeps the story’s disparate threads from fraying, altogether. The flashy Blu-ray adds a few undernourished background featurettes.

Some cynics, myself included, may suspect that NBC’s “Welcome to Sweden” owes its existence on the network to Amy Poehler’s role as executive producer and presence of her brother, Bruce, as the male lead and a staff writer. The premise of the sitcom supposedly derives from Bruce Poehler’s own experience as a New Yorker who moves to Sweden to live with his girlfriend. Besides the fact that a nebbish like Bruce (the character) wouldn’t last two weeks with a world-class babe, like Emma (Josephine Bornebusch), no one as socially inept could last one tax year as a CPA for celebrities in his sister’s orbit. It’s the job he gives up upon leaving New York, but, for some reason, won’t return to in Sweden, despite his inability to handle menial tasks in the tourism industry. On a more positive note, almost everything else in the sitcom is worth a look, starting with Emma’s very Swedish family, the beautiful setting and nutty recurring characters. It also is enhanced by an international crew of writers, who keep the culture-clash conceit from tilting too far on the side of American sensibilities.  Their influence is detectable more in later episodes than those earlier in the season. Bruce’s former job ensures the regular inclusion of celebrity guests, such as Aubrey Plaza, Illeana Douglas, Malin Akerman, Will Ferrell, Gene Simmons, Neve Campbell, sister Amy and such Scandinavian celebs as ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, Claes Månsson, Christopher Wagelin and Per Svensson. The always welcome Lena Olin plays Emma’s delightfully cold-hearted mother.

Masters of Sex” has become such a complex and surprising series that, when I received the “Season Two” package, I actually thought it’s been on Showtime for three, at least. Maybe that’s because it usually takes more than two years for other series to pack the same amount of drama into their storylines. On closer inspection, I realized that its season, like that of “Shameless,” is 12 episodes long, compared to the 8 or 10 received for other important series. In “Season Two,” the writers expanded the narrative beyond Masters, Johnson and their human guinea pigs. Such then-timely taboos as interracial love and substance abuse were introduced, as well as the potential for television to educate viewers and make celebrities out of people otherwise toiled in anonymity. Moreover, there was so much nudity in Season One that it practically became a non-issue in Season Two, except for the hospital administrators and mid-century prudes for whom Hugh Hefner had yet to become a household name. Masters and Johnson, separately and together, also are faced with losing control of their research and loved ones. The season’s must-watch episode is “Fight,” during which we learn more about Masters (Michael Sheen) than in the entirety of the first stanza. We’re also introduced to gender issues as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. The Blu-ray adds the lengthy featurettes, “The History of Sex,” “The Women of Sex” and “The Men of Sex,” as well as episode-specific deleted and extended scenes.

I don’t know how many times that highlights of “The Ed Sullivan Show” have been packaged, re-packaged and subdivided, as VHS and DVD collections exclusively available through television advertorials, at Amazon or other retail outlets. This time around, under the auspices of Time Life Entertainment, the performances included in the six-disc “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” package look better than ever. Given the crappy speakers built into mid-century television sets, the classic acts on display here can be considered as good as these things get, as well. From 1950 until 1971, the Sullivan show the owned 8 p.m. timeslot (Eastern and Pacific) on Sunday nights, at least on CBS, before cable and satellites began to eat the broadcast networks’ lunch. Sullivan, known first as a newspaper columnist, promised audiences something for everyone and delivered it. The word, “variety,” meant that a plate-spinner might be sandwiched between an opera diva and a scene from a Broadway drama. Sullivan showcased Elvis Presley, the Beatles and James Brown at times when they were being lambasted in the mainstream media, but screaming teenagers were making them millionaires. “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” doesn’t ignore the occasional controversy, but there were so few as to be deemed laughable over the course of a few months. The package is divided into six categories: “Unforgettable Performances,” “The 50th Anniversary Special,” “The All-Star Comedy Special,” “World’s Greatest Novelty Acts,” “Amazing Animal Acts” and “Bonus Interviews.” Among the rarities isthe only known film of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, the Muppets’ first TV appearance, comic impressions of Sullivan, Broadway appearances from “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story,” appearances by Barbra Streisand, Humphrey Bogart, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett and thousands more performers and audience guests.

Another television classic that’s been sliced and diced over the years is “The Midnight Special,” a late-night show that took rock, pop, R&B and country acts as seriously as the producers of the Sullivan show.  The latest permutation of last fall’s comprehensive gift box is a three-disc set that includes such timeless acts as Glen Campbell, Earth, Wind & Fire, ELO, Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Etta James & Dr. John, Heart, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, and Van Morrison, and such barely remembered performers as the Bay City Rollers, Captain & Tennille, Eddie Rabbit, Mac Davis, Albert Hammond, Peaches & Herb and Chic. Among the comedians represented are Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Steve Martin. Bonus features include an interview with guitarist George Benson and a featurette with series creator and producer Burt Sugarman.

The DVD Wrapup: 50 Shades, Selma, Mr. Turner, The Nun, Snuff and more

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
My Mistress
Not having watched Fifty Shades of Grey in a theater, surrounded by rabid fans who’ve memorized the naughty bits of E.L. James’ runaway best-seller, I committed myself to approach the unrated Blu-ray edition with an open mind. I was pretty sure that Jamie Dornan’s contractually proscribed penis wouldn’t make a cameo appearance, but, otherwise, would be at a loss as to what was added to the original for it suddenly to be considered too hot for an R or NC-17 designation. If I were to guess, I’d say that several seconds of the extra three minutes, at least, can be found in the seriocomic contract-negotiations – my favorite scene in the movie – when a couple of the line-item vetoes might have disturbed MPAA screeners. As everyone else in the free world knew before checking out Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation – except moi – Anastasia Steele is an innocent in a world filled with attractive sexually active white folks, some of whom are exceedingly wealthy and twisted. The first man Ana meets with whom she’s willing to do the deed is an emotionally retarded young fellow who’s made a shitload of money doing God knows what and, after having his cherry broken as a submissive by a friend of his mother, now insists on playing the dominant role. For a virgin in her early 20s, Ana seems a bit too anxious to cross the final threshold into full womanhood and simultaneously engage in BDSM horseplay as dictated by someone who could be considered insane. A mutual interest in the novels of Jane Austen normally wouldn’t open the door to romance and pain on the same night. But, then, how could any modern gal resist such material pleasures as having a helicopter at your beck and call, gifted sports cars and state-of-the-art computers, and a glider ride straight out of The Thomas Crown Affair. Where “50 Shades” most differs from 9½ Weeks, its predecessor in R-rated BDSM, is in the lack of worldliness displayed by the two lead characters – one a recent college graduate and the other a tycoon — and Christian’s deeply submerged vulnerability, which rises to the surface at the strangest times. (He only reveals the source of his anxiety and pain while she’s fast asleep beside him.) Even if Ana is as cute as a button on Shirley Temple’s faux military garb in Wee Willie Winkie, as drawn, she couldn’t last five minutes in a sex-play dungeon against Kim Basinger’s novice submissive. The same holds true for Grey’s rough-tough creampuff vs. Mickey Rourke’s nicotine-stained arbitrageur. Although some of the lovemaking is inarguably sensual, the contract-negotiating scene is the only one that rivals the best passages choreographed by Adrian Lyne in 9½ Weeks or such classics of the sub-genre as Belle du Jour, Secretary, Crash, The Story of O or The Image. As difficult as it is to take potshots at a picture that’s made more than a half-billion dollars in worldwide distribution or might match that in DVD/VOD/Blu-ray revenues, I still think we have a long way to go before mainstream audiences are allowed a real taste of non-generic eroticism, unless it’s in sex-umentaries on HBO and Showtime. For those who like their BDSM Lite, however, three more minutes of “50 Shades” should prove three minutes well spent. The Blu-ray offers both versions, as well as several short making-of featurettes; interviews with cast, crew, author and BDSM consultant; a 360-degree set tour of Christian’s apartment; and music videos. And, yes, two more segments of the trilogy already on the drawing board.

Anyone who wants to extend their personal Fifty Shades of Grey experience really ought to consider picking up the kinkier Australian coming-of-sexual-age export, My Mistress. Unlike such early-‘80s adolescent fantasies as My Tutor and Private Lessons — during which teenage boys gain a first-hand appreciation of the Playboy Philosophy from women who easily could grace a magazine centerfold — co-writer/director Stephan Lance appears to have crafted his 16-year-old protagonist here, Charlie Boyd (Harrison Gilbertson), from a second or third re-reading of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Upon arriving home one day, Charlie is greeted by the corpse of his father hanging from a beam in the garage. For this, he blames his mother (Rachael Blake), who he believes is having an affair with his dad’s best friend. Charlie is so convinced of her culpability that he insists on treating the garage as a crime scene and spray-paints an indictment on the garage door. On his way off the deep end, he pays a visit to the mysterious MILF (Emmanuelle Beart) who lives down the lane. After offering his services as a gardener, Charlie sneaks a peek of Maggie servicing a client’s masochistic desires as a fully outfitted mistress. The sight transfixes the boy, who has a hard time processing the visual data assaulting his senses inside the suburban estate. Watching an outwardly normal fellow enduring pain for pleasure taps into something raw and unguarded in Charlie’s already fragile psyche. What he senses intuitively is that he’s in the presence of the Anti-Mom and she’s the only one capable of guiding him into manhood. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not really how S&M works. As it turns out, Maggie has been a bit out of sorts lately, herself, and sees in her gardener’s obsession something perversely therapeutic. None of this would be remotely credible if Maggie weren’t played by the sensational French actress, Beart, who’s been down this road in previous movies. At 51, she has grown comfortable playing all sorts of characters, from straight to twisted, and filmmakers no longer require that she appear naked in all of her roles. Even so, no amount of stage makeup or airbrushing could make her look any hotter or more appropriate for the part of Maggie as she does in Gerard Lee’s offbeat drama. Naturally, this sort of mentoring affair can’t be allowed to go on forever and someone’s going to get hurt. Blessedly, the longtime Jane Campion collaborator has provided an escape hatch that doesn’t pander to anyone’s expectations or insult either the viewers or characters. I’m pretty sure that American distributors were scared off by the fact that the protagonist is 16 and Maggie isn’t cut down by a bolt of lightning at any time during the proceedings. The DVD adds a few short, but informative interviews.

Selma: Blu-ray
Even if director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s fine historical drama, Selma, didn’t do quit as well during awards season as many observers thought it should, they were far from alone in that distinction Most of the clamor was directed at members of the Motion Picture Academy – despite an Oscar for Best Original Song and Best Picture nomination – and its historic lack of minority representation. Maybe so, but the media’s obsession with the non-scandal tells me three things: 1) the only nominations that really count in Hollywood are those for Academy Awards, 2) perceived snubs against Oprah Winfrey ring louder than perceived snubs against everyone else, and 3) members won’t vote for something they’re too lazy to see in an actual theater or screening room. Selma is a very good movie about an important event in American history. It also made a bit of money at the box office. The only real rap against it is the depiction of President Johnson as a man willing to put personal honor – his well-intentioned and entirely essential War on Poverty – above the strategic demands of Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). In fact, LBJ did more heavy lifting for civil rights than all of the Kennedy brothers combined. It goes unsaid in Selma how much credence JFK, RFK and even Jackie O gave the toxic reports of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, at the time, was wiretapping and blackmailing King and the Kennedys. It’s also telling that DuVernay was required by King’s absurdly litigious estate to rewrite some of the speeches delivered by MLK in the film, because the family had already sold the rights to another studio. None of that should have negatively impacted the campaigns behind DuVernay and Oyelowo, because nominations in their categories would have come from members of the respective branches, not the entire academy. It’s more likely that voters reacted negatively to the decision not to send out screeners of Selma, seeing it as a ploy designed to force them to get off their asses and attend one of many free screenings arranged especially for them.

Last week, Paramount Home Media Distribution took the higher road by announcing its intention to donate a copy of the DVD free of charge to every high school in the U.S., along with companion study guides to help initiate classroom discussions. It would be interesting to know if the guides mention Governor Wallace’s later renunciation of his position on segregation and made a record number of African-American appointments to positions in Alabama. Or, for that matter, how to handle any discussion of MLK’s infidelity to his wife, Coretta Scott King, a hot potato that’s dropped almost as soon as its raised in the movie. The Blu-ray adds commentaries with DuVernay and Oyelowo, who’s terrific in the lead role; DuVernay, director of photography Bradford Young, and editor Spencer Averick; featurettes, “The Road to Selma” and “Recreating Selma”; several deleted and extended scenes; the music video, “Glory”; a collection of vintage newsreels and still images; short pieces that name the supporters of the Selma Student Ticket Initiative and introduce the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute; and a discussion guide. The important thing about getting Selma in front of students is the necessity for encouraging them to register to vote and, then, show up at the polls. Many of the same techniques used to deny minorities the right to vote in the 1960s are being used today by Republican and Tea Party officials to keep blacks and Hispanics, especially, from exercising their rights. The only way they’re able to get away with such an abuse of power is through the pitifully small turnout of minority, student and working-poor voters. That, I think, is the message that Dr. King would want viewers to take away from Selma.

Mr. Turner Blu-Ray
Last May, Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his delightfully crusty portrayal of British painter J.M.W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s spectacularly photographed Mr. Turner. In it, Spall is required to re-create the final two decades of Turner’s life, which ended in 1851, at the ripe old age of 76. Unlike so many of the Impressionists who would be influenced by his use of color, texture and light, Turner was successful in his time and his paintings were being sold outside Europe. If his fame would be eclipsed less than a century later by Van Gogh, Gaugin and Monet, recent gallery and museum installations prove that his work is more popular than ever. Like the eccentric Leigh, Turner was quite a character. Several critics have suggested that the Palme d’Or-nominated film is the closest Leigh has come to a self-portrait. If so, he’s sullen, communicates largely in grunts and is more than a little bit dyspeptic. An entirely original filmmaker, Leigh doesn’t make movies like anyone else does. Most of his work in theatre and film is done without any initial script and the air of improvised spontaneity has endeared him to arthouse audiences. Although Turner is known primarily for landscapes, sky-scapes and maritime paintings, his paintings also reflect the gritty dynamics of the Industrial Age. Through Spall, who was asked to study painting for two years before production began, Leigh’s great accomplishment here is capturing Turner’s reverence for natural light and ability to anticipate exemplary outbursts of what he considered to be manifestations of God’s glory. To this end, cinematographer Dick Pope was awarded a special jury prize at Cannes, as well as an Oscar nomination, for his ability to re-create images almost exactly like those painted more than 150 years earlier. Spall, who isn’t a small man, is especially appealing when he’s portraying Turner’s physically awkward dalliances with his lovers and mistresses. The masterful Blu-ray presentation adds comprehensive commentary with Leigh; the featurettes “The Cinematic Palette: The Cinematography of Mr. Turner” and “The Many Colours of Mr. Turner”; and an additional scene.

The Last Five Years: Blu-ray
If any actress is busier these days than Anna Kendrick, I can’t imagine who she might be. Ever since being nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar in 2010 for her irresistible performance in Up in the Air, the petite brunette has been churning out four or five movies a year, including those in the Twilight series. We’ve also learned that she can sing a lick or two. There are moments in The Last Five Years when it looks as if all of the hard work has begun to catch up with Kendrick. That might have as much to do with makeup or lack, thereof, intended to reflect the problems her character is experiencing than fatigue, however. Unlike Into the Woods and the Pitch Perfect franchise, Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical doesn’t require its two stars to do anything but sing. The lyrics of Brown’s 14 songs tell the entire story of a love affair and marriage between rising New York novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling singer/actress Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick). There are other contrasts, but the only one that really matters is Cathy’s growing anxiety over not becoming successful as quickly as Jamie. Their story is told almost entirely through songs, using an intercutting time-line device. All of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backward in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. The stories meet in the middle, during their wedding. Once one gets used to the back-and-forth, The Last Five Years makes sense as something that might actually have happened to Brown and his ex-wife, Terri O’Neill. The songs are interesting enough on their own, but anyone expecting anything resembling those in Kendrick’s previous movie musicals might need a few moments to adjust to narrative style. I doubt that anyone knew how to market The Last Five Years before dumping it into a couple dozen theaters and the VOD marketplace. Kendricks’ fans may not have been aware that it even existed. For them, The Last Five Years could make an irresistible virtual double-feature with Pitch Perfect 2, which arrives on May 15. The Blu-ray adds sing-along subtitles and a short “Conversation with Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown.”

God’s Slave
When the absorbing South American terrorist drama, God’s Slave, began making the festival rounds in 2013, director Joel Novoa and writer Fernando Butazzoni couldn’t possibly have known how the horrifying events it describes would be eclipsed by the death in January of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman and assertions of a cover-up against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman. In both cases, the focus is on the 1994 terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building, in which 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured. The car-bombing, which has gone unsolved for more than 20 years, is virtually identical to the pivotal event in God’s Slave. In the movie, which is equal parts procedural and human drama, two deeply religious men on opposite sides of the Mideast struggle are brought together in the hours before another planned attack in Buenos Aires. Each was shaped by killings witnessed as children and beliefs re-enforced by decades of acrimony, mistrust and violence. After Admed Al Hassamah (Mohammed Alkhaldi) witnesses the murder of his parents by a masked man with a gold Rolex on his wrist, he was adopted into a radical Islamic sect and trained to become a deep-cover terrorist. Years later, he’s embedded into a sleeper cell based in Caracas, where’s he’s given a cover job, assumed name and doctored passport, is encouraged to marry and soon commits to family life. Eventually, Admed will get the call from his handlers, directing him to fly to Buenos Aires and get fitted for a suicide vest. Meanwhile, Mossad agent David Goldberg (Vando Villamil) is on the verge of being sent back to Israel as the scapegoat for not stopping a deadly synagogue bombing. He’s memorized the names, aliases and faces of dozens of terrorists operating outside the Mideast. He recognizes Admed as he crosses the street in front of him on a final visit to the mosque closest the cell’s safehouse. What happens next will be heavily influenced by both men’s feelings for their own families and consciences.  Although several deadly attacks happened in the direct wake of the actual AIMA bombing, God’s Slave is only interested in pursuing the human story. In the not-too-distant future, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an epic drama, similar to Munich, on the AIMA attack, reports of Argentine police complicity, investigative incompetence, corruption, cover-ups and murders that continue today not only in Argentina, but also Iran, Lebanon, Israel and several other countries. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, director’s statement and the shattering short-film, “Machsom,” which is largely set at a volatile security crossing between the West Bank and Israel.

The Nun
Uplifting stories about nuns and priests once were a staple of Hollywood. They’re still being made, but there’s no longer any guarantee the characters will be portrayed with the same reverence as they were when the Legion of Decency was nearly as powerful as the Hays Office. Today, there might as well be a target painted on the backs of clergy … sometimes for good reason, but other times not. One of the best films released in 2014 was Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s, Ida. It tells the story of a young woman on the verge of taking vows as a Catholic nun, circa 1962, when she learns that she’s Jewish and her parents were killed shortly after the Nazi takeover of Poland. It’s a beautiful film, full of small surprises and revelations. Leaders of the Polish Catholic Church objected to some parts of it, but not with enough factual authority to influence critics or prevent it from winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Guillaume Nicloux’s adaptation of Denis Diderot’s Enlightenment novel “La Religieuse” describes the ordeal of another novitiate, albeit with a very different revelation about her parentage. Diderot was inspired by the death of his sister, a nun, who he believed to have been overworked by her superiors at the convent. He constructed “La Religieuse” around a series of letters he had actually written to the Marquis de Croismare to lure him back to Paris in support of his sister. The scheme may have worked, but its public exposure caused the all-powerful Church launch a censorial campaign against Diderot than lasted past his death. Completed in about 1780, the work was posthumously published in 1796.

In The Nun, the correspondence from Suzanne Simonin (Pauline Etienne) to her lawyer actually finds its way to the marquise, who’s appalled to learn that her parents banished her to the nunnery to afford dowries for her sisters. Apparently, it was a common practice for financially burdened families to relinquish a daughter, who could then be exploited as a beast of burden, sex slave or handmaiden to the Mother Superior. Suzanne’s refusing to play along with the charade of volunteering to commit her life to Christ shocks the priest officiating at the initiation service. He orders her sent home, even if they still claim to be unable to support her. Desperate to “expatiate” the sins of her family, instead, Suzanne’s mother (Martina Gedeck) reveals to her bright and creative 16-year-old daughter that she’s the bastard product of a short-lived love affair after her marriage. Suzanne agrees to return to the convent, only to learn that a new, much younger and far more sadistic Mother Superior (Louise Bourgoin) is now in control of the place. It’s as if she has stepped into a production of “Cinderella,” complete with a Wicked Stepmother and several Sisty Uglers. This time, Suzanne’s letters find their way to an aide to the now-fictional Marquis de Croismare, who arranges for her to be transferred to a convent supervised by a much nicer Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert). This time, the abbess openly encourages the young woman to refine her singing and piano playing talents. In return for favored treatment, however, Mother expects some sexual favors of her own. Nicloux’s solution to this horrifying situation doesn’t come as a complete shock to us, but it is satisfying. The splendid scenery, set design and acting allow us to endure Suzanne’s painful treatment, even if we don’t yet know where he’s taking us.

Amira & Sam: Blu-ray
Written and directed by Sean Mullin, a comedian and onetime U.S. Army officer, Amira & Sam is a debut feature that borrows just enough from real life to turn the familiar odd-couple conceit into something fresh and surprising. Just back from Afghanistan, where he served as a Green Beret, Sam Seneca (Martin Starr) is experiencing problems fitting back into American society. Their differences aren’t serious, as these things go, but Sam hasn’t been back in the U.S. long enough to realize that the people saying, “Thank you, for your service,” are only trying to make themselves feel comfortable about not enlisting after 9/11. While they’re happy you made it home, they don’t give a good crap about what’s happening over there and aren’t likely to help the veteran find meaningful work or treatment for your PTSD. After he’s fired from his job as a security guard at a high-rise apartment building – a funny scene, actually – Sam is encouraged by his financier brother to use his military background as a lure to attract wealthy investors, who also served in one of this country’s many recent foreign wars. He doesn’t snap to what his brother is up to until he’s asked to pull his dress uniform from the closet to wear to his engagement party. Several prominent ex-military clients have been invited to the affair and he’s expected to glad-hand them.

By this time, Sam has befriended Amira, the niece of an interpreter on his team in Iraq. She’s bitter over the fact that her father, also an interpreter, was killed in action and her uncle felt it necessary to bring her to New York to avoid being murdered. Amira makes a feeble living selling pirated DVDs on street corners, which, even in New York, is illegal. After escaping from a cop who could uncover her lapses in reporting to immigration officials, her Uncle Bassam (Laith Naklil) asks Sam to give her safe harbor until he can find her a more permanent home with relatives in Michigan. Naturally, after some rocky moments, they discover things they like about each other. It’s at the reception for Sam and his pregnant fiancé that Amira – who’s wearing a spectacular red sari and hajib – learns just how uncomfortable Americans are in the company of people who remind them of their government’s misadventures. The party ends when Sam gets in a fight with his brother – who reluctantly admits that he might be in a wee spot of bother with the SEC – and Amira accidentally elbows the condescending fiancé, causing her to file charges that could result in deportation. If this scenario stretches credulity, at least it requires Sam to take positive action on their future. This includes acting on Amira’s encouragement to realize his dream of performing at a comedy club. By comparison, the Taliban were pussycats. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

The Frontier
Matt Rabinowitz’ intense father-son drama, The Frontier, probably would fit more comfortably in a small theater than on a large screen, if only because so little of it takes places outside the wooden-fence barrier of a smallish home in the country. Indeed, most of the dialogue is exchanged over tables in the kitchen and living room. Max Gail (“Barney Miller”) is extremely credible as the retired literature professor, Sean, who’s seemingly spent his entire life lecturing his students, children and lovers, quoting Walt Whitman and rejecting their opinions. In some college towns, such a tireless blowhard would be only too archetypal a character. Coleman Kelly plays Tennessee, the son who needed to put some space between himself and his father after his mother died. We’re led to believe that Sean kept a weather eye open for vulnerable female students and rarely turned down the lubricant of a free drink. Not surprisingly, Tennessee decided that working with horses and cows was preferable to academia, where he might have been surrounded by men exactly like his father. When he receives a letter from his dad asking him to return home before he goes to the big library in the sky, Tennessee cautiously agrees to do so.

Upon his arrival, Tennessee is greeted first by a drop-dead blond beauty who has moved into the house as the old man’s personal assistant and editor of his memoirs. Even if Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) is allowed to escape the chains surrounding “the young woman” in such stories, until Tennessee’s arrival, she’s required to play Sean’s audience of one. To avoid succumbing to such treatment, Tennessee commits his time to fixing things around the home, including the fences, which are badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Finally, though, Nina rightly susses that the two men need some alone time, during which they can work out their differences over a bottle of whisky. The unusual thing about The Frontier is that three of the five listed actors are first-timers and one of them is a former “production driver” who’s appeared in a couple of features that no one has seen. Ditto writer Carlos Colunga and co-writer/director Rabinowitz. If I were forced to guess, I’d say that The Frontier began its journey to the screen as a script work-shopped by aspiring actors in a class taught by Gail or someone he owed a favor. It explains the intimacy of the story, which frequently gets lost as a full-blown movie. People who’ve enjoyed Gail’s work, largely on television, over the course of his 40-plus-year career, are the likely audience for The Frontier.

Murder of a Cat
Judging solely from the Saul Bass-inspired poster art, Gillian Greene’s comedy whodunit Murder of a Cat should be the kind of DVD or VOD that might fill a couple of hours of time on a quiet weekend night. Horror master Sam Raimi’s name is the first one mentioned, as producer, higher even than those of his wife Greene and actors J.K. Simmons (Oscar-winner, for Whiplash), Blythe Danner (Emmy-winner for “Huff”), Greg Kinnear (Oscar-nominee, for As Good As It Gets) and lead actors Fran Kranz (“JourneyQuest”) and Nikki Reed (Twilight). The trouble is, the poster is so much more appealing than anything in the first feature screenplay by Christian Magalhaes and Robert Snow (“New Girl”) that there’s almost nothing that Raimi and the A-list actors could have done to save it. Kranz plays Clinton Moisey, a small-town man-child who sells knick-knacks and handmade action figures from a table set up on the front lawn of his mom’s house. One morning, he wakes up to discover that his beloved cat has been killed and presumably murdered by an arrow shot by an unknown archer. Disturbed that the local sheriff (Simmons) isn’t treating the case as if it were the assassination of a public figure, Moisey decides to take the investigation into his own clumsy hands. It doesn’t take him long to discover that his cat divided its time between him and an eccentric young woman (Reed) who somehow has been able to rent an apartment in a facility for senior citizens. The trail then leads him to the mega-store, at which the arrow was sold and is owned by a man (Kinnear) that Moisey blames for ruining his “business.” His amateur sleuthing does turn up a couple of underwritten, kooky suspects, but he can’t get anyone to take them seriously, either. This complicates things for his mom (Danner), who has recently started dating the sheriff. It’s the kind of movie in which everything feels calculated to spark laughter among people who fill their idle hours on Facebook, exchanging pictures of their pets.

Love, Rosie
Fans of the subgenre of British rom-coms practically invented by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) should embrace Christian Ditter’s modern fairytale, Love, Rosie, which argues in favor of the proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.” In this case, anyway, it’s possible to substitute, “Love deferred …,” for “Hope deferred …,” and come up with a more appropriate synapsis. As children, Rosie (Phil Collin’s daughter, Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Claflin) are inseparable friends and confidantes. We know that Ditter and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi will require us to sit through nearly 100 minutes of false starts, missteps and blunders before the inevitable conclusion. The only question is how long we’ll remain interested in following their journey. Based on a 2004 novel by Cecelia Ahern, “Where Rainbows End,” Love, Rosie is propelled by another terrific performance by Collins (Mirror Mirror, Stuck in Love), who, compared to everyone else in the story, looks small enough to take up residence under a banana leaf at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The turning point for the two friends here comes when they attend their prom with separate dates and Rosie is impregnated in one of the most embarrassing ways possible. Rosie and Alex were anticipating to traveling to Boston together for college, but, after refusing to get an abortion, she remains in Ireland to raise her daughter in her parents’ home. (She also postpones introducing the girl to her birth father until much later.) Picky viewers could drive a truck the holes in the plot, but, sometimes, logic in rom-coms is overrated.

Against the Sun
Brian Falk’s debut feature tells the harrowing true story of three U.S. Navy airmen forced to survive for 34 days on an inflatable raft after crash landing their World War II torpedo bomber in the South Pacific. If that synopsis sounds familiar, it’s only because Against the Sun was released almost simultaneously with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which benefited from a larger budget, greater marketing reach and an equally dramatic second half that takes place on land. Also fresh in viewers’ memories were Robert Redford’s All Is Lost and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, both of which involved characters stranded at sea. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea and any number of movies based on the Titanic disaster immediately come to mind when recalling movies about men stranded at sea. The marketplace can only support so many of these dramas. Here, Tom Felton, Garret Dillahunt and Jake Abel portray the three men stuck on a raft half as large as the ones available in Unbroken to Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips in their 47-day ordeal at sea. (Francis McNarma died 33 days after their plane crashed.) Otherwise, the men endured essentially the same punishing circumstances, relying on their wiles to catch the occasional fish or sea bird, avoid being eaten by sharks or capsized by giant waves, and survive on virtually no potable water or protection from the sun. Falk’s makeup department couldn’t possibly have made extreme sunburn look any more ugly and painful as it does in Against the Sun. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Mahogany: The Couture Edition
After scoring a Best Actress nomination in her first time at bat in Hollywood — her star turn in the Billie Holliday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues – Diana Ross probably could have had her pick of roles, regardless of race, for her follow-up feature. Like Barbra Streisand, the former lead singer of the Supremes was at the height of her diva-hood and looked invincible. Too bad, no one thought of pairing these two superstars in a feminist remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even 15 years later, they probably could have pulled off Thelma and Louise, but Ross couldn’t resist the temptation to chew the scenery in the diva-ready Mahogany. While the part didn’t require her to sing, it allowed her sole credit for costume design, which must have seemed equally cool. You knew that the production was in trouble, however, when Motown boss Barry Gordy decided to take over the director’s chair originally manned by two-time Oscar-winner Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). Today, if Mahogany is remembered at all, it’s as the movie that launched a thousand drag impersonations.

Borrowing a classic mid-century template, Ross plays a fashionable young woman who grew up poor on the South Side of Chicago, but aspires to greatness as a designer of the kind of clothes not favored by the women who shop at Marshall Field’s. Instead a magazine photographer (Tony Perkins) discovers her at a shoot, mistaking her for a potentially in-demand “clothes hanger.” Instead of staying in Chicago and nurturing her relationship with a street-level politician (Billy Dee Williams, also from “LSTB”), she decides to take the photographer up on his offer of a big modeling assignment in Rome. Even though he insists that Mahogany is only there to model, she decides to wear one of her more adventurous creations for the shoot. This goes over like a lead brassiere, of course, and sparks begin to fly between them. Mahogany then decides to showcase her own orange-kimono creation at an important fashion auction, instead of the more subtle white number assigned to her. The photographer attempts to embarrass her on the runway, but is trumped by an Italian aristocrat (Jean-Pierre Aumont) with lots of money, but limited patience for bad behavior. As if to convince us of how much of a diva she’s become – yes, a diva playing a diva — Mahogany even manages to alienate her Chicago boyfriend when he comes to Rome for a visit. Things get even more retrograde from there. Rumor had it at the time that Gordy personally lobbied the academy to make sure the original Michael Masser/Gerry Goffin composition “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” was nominated. All things being equal, the peppy chart-topper probably should have beaten “I’m Easy,” from Nashville. Judged solely on its value as a low-octane camp distraction, Mahogany delivers the goods. The only new addition to this DVD package are “collectible” prints of fashions worn by Ross in the film. There’s also a stills gallery.

Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera: Special Edition
There are two, maybe three very different things going on in Paul von Stoetzel’s provocative Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera. It opens with a lengthy discussion of the snuff-film phenomenon, which the director describes as pertaining to “movies that are sold for profit in which a person is murdered.” The notion that such things exist on the underground market became popular in the 1970s, following the Manson Family killings and the emergence of ultra-graphic horror films, here and abroad. Hollywood has tackled the subject in such pictures as Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Joel Schumacher’s 8MM. John Alan Schwartz’ Faces of Death and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust set the table for the torture-porn sub-genre to come. Russian, Mexican and Philippine mobsters have attempted to sell products that purport to be snuff films, but proof of the real things existing is lacking. Among the legitimate experts interviewed here are longtime observers of the video/DVD industry, filmmakers, law-enforcement officials and academics. The documentary is informed, as well, by a couple dozen clips from representative films. What distinguishes Von Stoetzel’s take on the subject is the truly disturbing and controversial material that falls under the sub-headline, A Documentary About Killing on Camera. Using this distinction, Von Stoetzel is able to argue that Edison Studios’ infamous 1903 “actuality” film, “Electrocuting an Elephant,” was little more than the staged execution of a troublesome carnival attraction for amusement of Coney Island patrons and use in Edison kinetoscope arcades, as well as promotion of Edison’s campaign for AC electricity. By definition, it can be considered the first true snuff film and, today, it creation and distribution would be as illegal as kiddie porn. Less easy to define are sickeningly graphic films recovered from actual serial killers by police and shown here alongside heavily censored films collected by war cinematographers, but only available through underground sources. As appalled as most Americans are at even the possibility that an animal might have been harmed in the making of a movie, it’s become necessary for producers to allow Humane Society observers to monitor scenes involving creatures as large as Topsy and as insignificant as cockroaches. If a fish is to be caught, viewers are relieved to learn it was with a barb-less hook.

How, then, to explain the continued marketability of movies that graphically dramatize the commission of such heinous crimes as torture, rape and murder? It’s simple, really. Just as free-market economists defend the manufacture and sale of potentially harmful or unhealthy consumer products by asserting the principles of supply-and-demand, filmmakers justify pandering to audiences’ appetite for violence and mayhem by falling back on the First Amendment, adding a cautionary PG-13 or R rating and, yes, citing supply-and-demand or demand-and-supply. Since the advent of the ratings system, though, sexuality and the frequency of f-bombs have been judged far more harshly than violence. Two of the most significant images to emerge from the Vietnam War were those involving a little girl escaping a napalm cloud, naked and scarred with serious burns, and the summary execution of a Viet Cong combatant, with his hands tied behind his back, by Saigon’s chief of police. Re-creating those terrible incidents on film today, using special-effects magic, would be child’s play. How many of the same people who paid to watch the killing of Islamic insurgents by a Navy SEAL in American Sniper have also combed the Internet for actual combat footage and propaganda showing Americans, British and Arab combatants at the instant of their deaths? Our government makes every attempt to suppress these images, while filmmakers study them for accuracy and impact. Photos and films of Iraqis being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison were Internet favorites, as were videos of people leaping, sometimes hand in hand, from the highest floors of the World Trade Center, sometimes set to music. The beheadings of captives held by Islamic insurgents are routinely filtered by most legitimate news outlets, but easy to find on the Internet. I wonder how these “hits” would translate into Nielsen ratings. At the same time as our government refused to allow the circulation of photographs of flag-draped coffins at a Delaware airport, it was circulating titillating videos of Iraqis being vaporized by American missiles, as if to ensure taxpayers that their dollars were being used wisely. (The happy chatter of the people pushing the buttons in helicopters or from drone-control headquarters half a world away was, in many cases, censored.) So, today, can it rightfully be argued that one man’s snuff film is the ethical equivalent of another man’s propaganda footage? In a thoughtful interview, Von Stoetzel poses this and other tough questions, while also admitting to having had qualms about where the lines might have been drawn in this deeply upsetting documentary. As it is, “Snuff” should be made mandatory viewing for decision makers in government and Hollywood. The DVD includes the Q&A and Danny Cotton’s grisly short, “Dinner Date.”

Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned
Some exploitation titles are simply too tantalizing to pass up. Daisy Derkins: Dog Sitter of the Damned is one of them. Like Mark Mackner’s companion piece, Daisy Derkins vs. The Bloodthirsty Beast of Barren Pines, it would have no artistic reason to exist, except to keep a half-dozen buxom babes off the unemployment lines. Here, Daisy has just gotten a part-time job as a dog sitter for a very strange dude in a black robe. Instead of paying strict attention to the beast from hell, she invites a couple of even more skanky friends over to drink, consult a Ouija board and discuss their hideous boyfriends and stalkers, who seem to either play in death-metal bands or moonlight as wrestlers in Mexico. When things get too weird, Daisy summons paranormal specialist and pin-up girl Delia Anguish to film the proceedings for her cable-access show. Other freaks of nature making cameos are a witch, serial killer and wendigo with a crush on Delia. The amazing thing about this black-and-white atrocity is the lack of nudity, which normally is a given in these sorts of things. As such, it practically qualifies as family-friendly exploitation … almost, but not quite. The DVD adds two shorts, including the one that inspired the feature and some truly unappetizing previews.

Lost Rivers
Great Figures of the Bible
If a river no longer can be found on a map, does it still exist? When it rains on our big cities, the water has to go somewhere and, usually, it finds the same paths laid when the first great storms carved the canyons, valleys, hollers, ditches and gullies that led to marshes, swamps, lakes, seas and oceans. Compare maps of New York City from the 1600s, 1700s and today and it’s easy to see how city planners’ efforts to fool Mother Nature worked, almost each and every time. Consider, though, the history of the Collect Pond, which, for hundreds of years, supplied the native and European residents of Lower Manhattan with their water. Fed by an underground spring, Canal Pond has resisted every effort to make it disappear by devouring the landfill dumped into it and destabilizing everything constructed on it. Today, it serves city residents as a park with a manmade water fixture. Collect Pond isn’t included in Caroline Bacle’s fascinating documentary Lost Rivers, but its partial reclamation, which began in 1960, may have influenced some of the environmentalists we meet in it. She takes us to the Cheonggyecheon Stream, in Seoul; the Saw Mill River, in Yonkers, N.Y.; the Bova-Celato River, in Italy; the River Tyburn, in London; the Petite rivière St-Pierre, in Montreal; and the Garrison Creek, in Toronto. The reclamation projects, sometimes called “daylighting,” are intended to improve the riparian environment for a stream by tearing off the tops of culverts, pipe and drainage systems to which they were confined to protect residents for water-borne diseases and pollution. Where only garbage once bloomed, fish now grow and children play.

Originally released in a four-disc set, in 2004, Great Figures of the Bible is comprised of stories from the bible, as interpreted by Elie Wiesel while sitting on a stiff wooden chair in front of an unseen audience, presumably of young people. Knowing that parents and other adults might be eavesdropping on the discussions, the Nobel Prize-winning author and human-rights activist seems to go out of his way not to dumb-down the lessons, as is the case in so many other such collections. Neither do the producers rely on animation to illustrate the stories. That aspect is taken care of through the use of classic paintings, sketches, tableaux and brief live-action dramatizations filmed on location in Israel. The subjects of Weisel’s faith-neutral insights include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Job, Moses and David. As is the case with the ink-and-paper bible, especially the Old Testament, every answer raises a half-dozen more questions.

AMC: Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
BBC/Starz: Dancing on the Edge: Blu-ray
ITV/BBC America: Broadchurch: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: Season 3: Blu-ray
PBS: Baby Genius: Favorite Children’s Songs
Who knew how much fun it could be watching computer geeks do battle over who did what, when, and to what financial gain, in the development of the PC, Apple Mac and evolution of social media? Although the lineage can be traced directly to the 1984 frat-boy comedy Revenge of the Nerds, that picture wasn’t so much about socially inept techies as the outcasts who routinely were denied access to the fraternities associated with the jock elite and the sorority girls who snubbed them. The phrase, itself, proved so elastic that it was paraphrased for use in the 1996 documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” which included interviews with such Silicon Valley pioneers as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, Ed Roberts and Larry Ellison. The strangely entertaining AMC mini-series, “Halt and Catch Fire,” took a real chance by dramatizing the frequently byzantine technical and financial machinations that occurred back in the day, when IBM and Apple were battling for dominance of the PC market. (The title refers to computer-code instruction HCF, whose execution would cause the computer’s central processing unit to stop working.) Before this could happen, however, the hardware had to be made accessible to consumers who simply wanted one to send e-mails, write essays or play solitaire. The 10-episode first season, set in the Silicon Prairie of Texas, circa 1983, benefitted from the intense interaction between Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a key player in the debut of the IBM Personal Computer; Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a brilliant cyber-punk recruited by MacMillan’s new employer, Cardiff Electric; and the pragmatic Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a former system builder turned sales engineer, who represents the early geek community. The Blu-ray edition adds a third disc containing supplemental material, including episode-by episode summaries and discussions and the featurettes, “Re-Making the 1980s,” “Rise of the Digital Cowboys” and “Setting the Fire: Research and Technology.”

Although the proper pronunciation of his name still may present a bit of a hurdle for American tongues, Chiwetel Ejiofor has become one of the brightest stars in the entertainment firmament. A native Londoner of Nigerian Igbo lineage, Ejiofor came to the attention of most of us with his Oscar-winning performance in “12 Years a Slave.” Released on BBC Two a few months before Steve McQueen’s searing antebellum drama debuted at Telluride, “Dancing on the Edge” is set in post-crash London, among a group of swells who didn’t lose nearly enough money to curb their greed. Just as America’s Jazz Age had faded from views, New Orleans’ gift to the world was finding its way across the pond and into underground clubs and fancy ballrooms. The Louis Lester Band is being championed by a young journalist (Matthew Goode), who helps the Duke Ellington-inspired leader arrange a four-month stand at the grand Imperial Hotel. After a brisk start and publicity sparked by the attendance of the Duke of Kent and his brother, the Prince of Wales, the band is getting restless for the fame that comes with a recording contract and radio spots. It isn’t until the band is asked to play at a New Orleans-style funeral for the manager of an estate owned by the reclusive Lady Lavinia Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset) that things begin to take off for Lester and story being told. She loves “new” music and is especially partial to Lester (Ejiofor), whose career would hugely benefit from Lady Cremone’s intercession with stodgy BBC executives. Writer/director Stephen Poliakoff warns viewers ahead of time not to expect smooth sailing for Lester and he delivers on his promise by putting the band in direct contact with key movers and shakers in the pre-World War II period, not all of whom are enlightened on racial issues. John Goodman is typically good as an enigmatic American billionaire who has enough money to manipulate all of the other characters, even those only slightly less rich. The clash of old and new is fun to watch, and nothing at all like what was happening at the same time in the U.S., where jazz, R&B and blues musicians were being ripped off by record company and radio executives. The final episode is quite remarkable, really, in that it falls somewhere between a series of outtakes and the discussions in My Dinner With Andre.

The second season of BBCA’s “Broadchurch” is a two-pronged continuation of events that everyone thought were sewed up at the end of Season One. Rather than concentrating exclusively on murder most foul, creator Chris Chibnall split the spotlight between the crime and the habitués of coastal Dorset. This was no problem for American viewers, weary of mysteries shot in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto. In Season Two, we’re asked to follow the courtroom drama ensured by Joe Miller’s not-guilty plea, as well as the reopening of the Sandbrook case by detective-inspectors Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller (David Tennant, Olivia Colman). Joining the show this time around are Charlotte Rampling, Eve Myles, James D’Arcy and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Chibnall’s connection to “Torchwood,” “Doctor Who” and “Life on Mars” ensured the presence of familiar actors in starring and guest roles. I haven’t heard if Chibnall’s superfluous American copy, “Gracepoint,” has been picked up for a second season, but I doubt it. A third season of “Broadchurch” has been announced. The DVD adds making-of and background featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

In the third stanza of the surprisingly successful ITV/PBS series, “Mr. Selfridge,” we bid a sad farewell to Rose Selfridge and a bittersweet “welcome home” to the men and women returning home from World War I. To no one’s pleasure, Lord Loxley is also back in London causing trouble for the American department-store magnet. To take his mind off his wife’s death, Harry has been given almost more than he can handle with a pet project to build affordable housing for returning vets. Compared to Season One, when he was portrayed as a playboy and scoundrel, Harry now appears as if he might be auditioning for sainthood. It’s his children who are carrying on the Selfridge tradition by getting arrested in nightclubs, making enemies at work and getting fleeced by hucksters … and that’s only in the first three episodes. Harry’s also caught in a pickle involving unemployed veterans and the women who filled their jobs when they volunteered for the war. It hasn’t been easy for me to accept Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, but I’m in the minority on this one. All of the actors seem to fit just fine, including those who’ve left the store behind and are still being followed by the show’s writers. The UK Edition Blu-ray adds a 35-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, focusing on new characters and story arcs.

The latest installment in PBS’ “Baby Genius” franchise, “Favorite Children’s Songs,” extends to its youngest fans – their parents, too — a personal invitation from Vinko, DJ, Tempo, Oboe and Frankie, as they introduce babies and toddlers to colors, shapes, letters and numbers through classical music, childhood sing-along favorites and engaging videos. The songs include, “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Do You Know the Muffin Man,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and several “Baby Genius” originals. Special features add ”Baby Animals Favorite Sing-A-Longs,” “DJ’s My Name,” “Sing-A-Longs” and a bonus song; subtitles in English and Spanish; and a Spanish audio track.

The DVD Wrapup: The Gambler, Wedding Ringer, Boy Next Door, Paddington, Eddie Coyle, Wolf Hall and more

Friday, May 1st, 2015

The Gambler: Blu-ray
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s exceedingly flexible short novel, “The Gambler,” has been strictly and loosely adapted many times since its publication in 1867. I doubt that country-music songwriter Don Schlitz was thinking of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera, “The Gambler,” when he wrote the song that became Kenny Rogers’ signature hit, but, in a sense, all such entertainments lead back to the Russian novelist. The song’s core message – “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away/know when to run …” – applies as much to the protagonist of the novel as it does to Mark Wahlberg’s character in Rupert Wyatt’s 2014 adaptation, The Gambler. In it, gambler Jim Bennett can’t push himself away from any table long enough to walk away with his temporary winnings. Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) borrowed rather freely from Karel Reisz’ 1974 adaptation, which starred James Caan and provided James Toback with his first screenwriting credit. Like Dostoevsky, Toback suffered from a severe addicti1on to gambling. Like Caan’s character, Axel Freed, Toback was born into a wealthy New York family and taught aspiring writes at a college in New York. Not to be flip or dismissive of Wyatt’s The Gambler, but in some ways it reminds me of a Bizarro World version of Reisz’ take on the novel. Bennett is the quintessential SoCal bad boy, who wears shades in the dark and somehow manages to look cool in rumpled designer suits. He teaches literature at a school that resembles USC and he lives in a modern hillside dwelling that some real-estate agents might list as a treehouse. He tools around L.A., from Koreatown to Bel-Air, in red BMW 1M convertible that’s always five minutes from being used as collateral for a gambling. Axel Freed settled for a Mustang ragtop. One is Jewish, while the other is a back-sliding WASP. Bennett owes the most money to an enigmatic Korean financier, whose henchmen are proficient in the martial arts. He also has borrowed large sums from an African-American bone-breaker (Michael Kenneth Williams), who lurks in the shadows of the illegal downtown casino here, waiting to for gamblers to require his services, and a sports bettor (John Goodman) who could have been Marlon Brando’s stunt-double in Apocalypse Now. All of them recognize the symptoms of Bennett’s disease and advise him to seek help.

Bennett isn’t as much a degenerate gambler as one who refuses to win, even when he’s holding a pat hand. No matter how much he’s up, everyone from the pit bosses to viewers knows he’s going to give it all back and borrow even more money to keep losing. When he convinces his beleaguered mother (Jessica Lange) to give him a small fortune in cash to pay off the debts, everyone, including Mom, knows he’s going to piss it away. Brie Larson is the pretty student who succumbs to his classroom bullshit and devil-may-care attitude, while Anthony Kelley is the athlete whose cynicism about his future in the pros figures into The Gambler’s fairytale ending. I say that because screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) has elected to tweak Toback’s original conclusion to fit the Bizarro nature of the remake. After failing to rouse any interest from awards-voters in its limited early release, the movie would open in a few dozen theaters at the end of January. I can’t imagine that much money was invested in a marketing campaign, so it came as no surprise when it stiffed. There’s much to recommend The Gambler to renters, however, including much slick cinematography and atmospheric set dressing. Of all the cast members, it’s most fun to watch Goodman play a green-felt Buddha. There’s nothing wrong with Wahlberg’s performance, but we’re never given any reason – except for a death-bed dismissal by his filthy-rich father – to identify with his character. If we sympathize with Bennett, it’s only because he’s being played by someone we’re pre-disposed to like. The fine-looking Blu-ray adds several decent making-of featurettes and backgrounders, along with deleted and extended scenes. Anyone who enjoys this edition of The Gambler really ought to check out the original, along with both of The Hustlers, Robert Altman’s California Split, Joe Pytka’s overlooked comedy Let It Ride and Toback’s Fingers, which was remade in 2005 by Jacques Audiardas as The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

The Wedding Ringer: Blu-ray
It’s called “development hell” and that’s where The Wedding Ringer – a.k.a., The Golden Tux – languished from 2002 to 2013, when the relatively unknown comedic actor Josh Gad and soon-to-be superstar Kevin Hart were assigned roles that may have been written to attract the attention of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. The duo was responsible for Wedding Crashers, after all, the anarchic comedy that ultimately led to such send-ups of modern love and romance as The Break-Up, Knocked-Up, You, Me and Dupre, The Hangover, Hall Pass, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bachelorette, Bridesmaids, Couples Retreat, Date Night and I Love You, Man. Of all these titles, the one that appears to have benefitted most from Wedding Ringer being stuck in development hell was “I Love You, Man.” Both share a common conceit: a young man has popped the question, but, unlike his bride-to-be, hasn’t enough friends to pull together his half of a wedding party. In “I Love You, Man,” Paul Rudd’s search for a best man ends when he meets millionaire investor Jason Siegel at a business function and they develop bro-mantic feelings for each other. In The Wedding Ringer, Gad plays a friendless nebbish, Doug, who hires Hart’s Jimmy Callahan to be his best man and recruit a motley crew of groomsmen for the bachelor party, ceremony and reception. Doug complicates things for Jimmy by telling his fiancé (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) – who’s a million miles out of his league – that he’s never been able to introduce her to “Bic” because he’s been serving overseas as a military chaplain. This, of course, opens the door for Jimmy not only to impersonate Doug’s best man, but also serve as a last-minute substitute for the minister. Co-writers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender provide the oratory that Hart delivers with the same gusto he brings to his standup routines, minus the n-words. It’s an extremely polished performance. The script doesn’t demand much more of Gad than he’s delivered in previous performances as the unfortunate overweight dweeb, a modern archetype he has mastered. (To see Gad at his best, check out the FX Network’s “The Comedians,” in which he plays Billy Crystal’s comic nemesis.) The Blu-ray adds Gad and Garelick’s commentary on select scenes; quite a few deleted scenes and outtakes; “Going to the Chapel of Love,” in which cast and crew share their own wedding memories; and the music video, “Can You Do This,” by Aloe Blacc.

The Boy Next Door: Blu-ray
The best thing to be said about The Boy Next Door is that, while it reportedly cost a mere $4 million to make, it look as if 10 times that amount was spent on it. With a worldwide gross approaching $50 million, Rob Cohen’s sexy thriller easily qualifies as one of the surprise successes of the year. For one thing, the entire story was given away in the extensive television-marketing campaign and, despite an R-rating, it wasn’t likely that leading-lady Jennifer Lopez was going to make her first skin-tastic appearance in nearly 20 years. (Newcomer Lexi Atkins assumes that responsibility.) For those who can’t recall seeing the commercials, Lopez plays the recently separated MILF who succumbs to the temptation posed by the ab-tastic teenager, Noah (Ryan Guzman), an accomplished handyman who’s insinuated himself into the life of her oft-bullied son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). Misgivings give way to terror after Mrs. Peterson realizes that the stud next door is morphing into the psycho next door. For one thing, Noah seems determined to save her from the man who done her wrong (John Corbett), as well as the perceived meddling of her best friend and fellow teacher (Kristin Chenoweth). Cohen is too good a director of action sequences to blow a no-brainer ending, so things end on a high note. What I would have preferred to see is an R-rated adaptation of “Leave It to Beaver,” with Lopez and Corbett playing June and Ward Cleaver, Guzman as Eddie Haskell, Nelson as Wally and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver. In hindsight, the sexual tension between June and Eddie should have been obvious, even in 1957. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘The Boy Next Door’”; deleted scenes; and Cohen’s commentary.

Paddington: Blu-ray
No matter the whims of Wall Street, this week’s release of Paddington into DVD/Blu-ray and imminent arrival of Ted 2 in theaters ensure that the anthropomorphic bear market will continue into July, at least. With global box-office receipts of $219.1 million, Paddington now stands as the industry’s highest grossing non-Hollywood, non-animated family film. If Ted 2 takes off at the box office the way its predecessor did on its way to worldwide revenues of $549.3 million, the movie gods may find a way to forgive Seth MacFarlane the hideous ego-trip that was A Million Ways to Die in the West. Paul King’s irresistible adaptation of Michael Bond’s internationally beloved series of children’s books borrows from several different storylines, while featuring a computer-animated Paddington Bear – voiced by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) — interacting with human characters in a live-action environment. Such is the respect accorded the world’s most celebrated and, perhaps, only Peruvian bear that a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins,, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi and Julie Walters lined up to bask in the reflected glare of his computer-animated shadow. The movie opens in the dense rain forest, where a British geographer has discovered a family of highly intelligent, marmalade-addicted bears and invites them to visit him in London if they so desire. Years later, circumstances arise that cause Paddington to take the geographer up on his offer. The problem is that Montgomery Clyde is nowhere to be found and the patience of the family that offers him temporary shelter isn’t limitless. When an evil museum taxidermist (Kidman) discovers that a talking bear is within her grasp, she decides that Paddington belongs in her collection. (Her logic escapes me, but it serves the plot.) To avoid such a fate, the bumptious bruin sets out to find Clyde or die trying. His search takes him from one crazy character to another and misadventures sure to please family audiences. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, except for a features package that isn’t up to par. It includes three short backgrounders, a sing-along feature and “The Making of ‘Shine’” with Gwen Stefani & Pharrell Williams.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Blu-ray
I’d be willing to wager the full retail price of the Criterion Collection edition of The Friends of Eddie Coyle that George V. Higgins’ 1970 source novel and Peter Yates’ 1973 no-frills adaptation have influenced more genre specialists than any other kindred entertainments produced in the last 40 years. Once enjoyed, buffs have hardly been able to wait to recommend them to friends. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is the rare novel that can be savored in a single day. Yates’ film has influenced countless writers and directors, but no one has dared remake it. Here’s what Elmore Leonard said in his introduction to a later printing of the novel, “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free.  So, this is how you do it.” Then, there’s Roger Ebert’s original four-star review of the movie, in which he observed, “Eddie is played by Robert Mitchum, and Mitchum has perhaps never been better.” Personally, since becoming addicted to crime fiction, I’ve recommended both titles to friends, genre enthusiasts and aspiring writers countless times. The only thing I suggest ahead of time is reading the book before watching the movie. The Higgins influence can be seen most in such early Leonard novels as “52 Pick-Up,” which inspired an excellent adaptation by John Frankenheimer; “Switch,” released in 2013 as Life of Crime; and the underappreciated “Unknown Man No. 89” and “City Primeval.” If Leonard gets most of the credit for capturing the unique dialogue shared by cops and criminals, it’s only because Higgins’ best work came early in his second career and only two of his novels were converted to film. Although their literary output was comparable, “Dutch” outlived “George V” by 28 years, dying 14 years and probably several million dollars apart from each other.

Mitchum famously plays the mid-level mob functionary, Eddie Coyle, who, because he is facing a long stretch in the joint, agrees to cut a deal with a federal agent. Unbeknownst to the gun-running hoodlum, several of Coyle’s “friends” have simultaneously decided to curry favor with various other law-enforcement agencies by dropping his name as a potential bargaining chip. Besides the mob, Higgins anticipated the increasing militancy of the radical left and intersecting interests of the political and criminal underground. The SLA might fairly well have studied “Eddie Coyle” before taking their act on the road. It would take another three decades for other writers and directors to capture the unique flavor and texture of inbred Boston criminality and corruption. Such films as The Boondock Saints, The Departed, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, as well as the neighborhood-specific novels of Dennis Lehane, turned the city into a hotbed for location shoots. Again, though, Yates laid the foundation by electing to not to shoot The Friends of Eddie Coyle on a soundstage. It’s all Boston, all the time. In its infinite wisdom, the motion-picture academy neglected to nominate, Mitchum, Yates or co-star Peter Boyle for top honors. The Criterion Collection’s restored high-definition digital transfer and uncompressed monaural soundtrack has been approved by Yates. It includes his commentary from 2009, a stills gallery, an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 1973 on-set profile of Mitchum from Rolling Stone.

Accidental Love: Blu-ray
Frame for frame, dollar for dollar, no potentially mainstream production has wasted as much top-shelf talent as Accidental Love (a.k.a., “Nailed”). Shot and shelved in 2008, it had “troubled production” written all over it front Day One. Developed as a broad political satire by David O. Russell (American Hustle), Accidental Love was finally given a tentative pre-DVD release this spring with Russell’s name removed in favor of Stephen Greene, a close relation to Alan Smithee. Serious financial troubles, including the repeated stiffing of union cast and crew, caused numerous walk-offs and an abbreviated shooting schedule. The result is a comedy that rightly anticipated the freak-show atmosphere surrounding the debate over Obamacare in Congress, but wasted all of Russell’s good instincts. As it is, several transitional segments appear to be missing and almost none of what’s left warrants the appearance of such fine actors as Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Kurt Fuller, Beverly D’Angelo, Bill Hader, Kirstie Alley, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens, James Brolin, Malinda Williams and a half-dozen other familiar faces. Not privy to the fragile financial situation, the actors must have relished the opportunity to work with Russell, who was between the box-office disappoint I Heart Huckabees and game-changing The Fighter. As written by Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser, Biel plays a small-town roller-waitress who accidentally gets a nail driven into her skull while at her restaurant. Because Alice isn’t insured and the Burger Hop manager denies liability, she seeks the help of her congressman (Gyllenhaal) to pass a bill that would cover such accidents. Besides her boyfriend, a local cop (Marsden), Alice is supported in her crusade by the local Squaw Girl troop. Once in the nation’s capital, the petitioners discover that the freshman representative isn’t likely to rock the boat by supporting the lost cause of health-care reform. Improbably, whenever the waitress accidently jostles the nail embedded in her head, it sets off a reaction closely resembling nymphomania. Unable to resist a pretty woman willing to trade her body for a favorable vote, the congressman pretends, at least, to support her cause. Accidental Love is occasionally funny, but, like the premise, more often stupid than darkly comic.

The Barber: Blu-ray
Despite the presence of two razor-toting protagonists, director Basel Owies’ feature debut, The Barber, is surprisingly light on genuinely frightening encounters between psycho-killers and helpless victims. The movie opens with the release from police custody of the likely suspect in a series of 17 murders of young women in the Chicago area. Flash-forward 20 years and the same man, Francis Alan Visser (Scott Glenn), is a model-citizen barber in a small town relatively free of abhorrent crime. Visser looks harmless, but there’s something in his closely guarded demeanor that make us suspect that he’s constantly holding something back. We’re also introduced to the son of the police investigator who committed suicide after Visser was let go due to tampered evidence. It takes us a while to figure out which side of the law the cop’s son, John McCormack (Chris Coy), is working when he arrives in town and confronts Visser – now living under an assumed name – outside a local diner with a knife. For one thing, while waiting for the barber to finish his dessert, McCormack looks as if he’s setting up the restaurant’s outwardly promiscuous waitress for a journey to the dark side. Then, after being grilled by the local chief of police, Visser goes out of his way to befriend the young man, who demonstrates his knowledge of the barber’s true identity. It’s as if two spiders are weaving webs on separate branches of the same tree, hoping that the other will eventually make the mistake of trespassing and getting stuck on his adversary’s silk. The added degree of danger here, of course, comes in knowing that both men are carrying straight-edge razors and the potential for violence fills the air. Beyond that, lie spoilers. Glenn is his usual cool, calm and collected self, playing a fiend who’s remained free for nearly a quarter-century and has no intention of being tripped up now. Coy’s good, as well, as the avenging angel. You can also throw into the mix a cocky female cop (Kristen Hager) who’s followed the same evidence that led McCormack to Visser’s barbershop and fits the description of many of the women he was accused of killing. Unfortunately, this promising scenario doesn’t produce anything particularly scary, except, perhaps, for the serial killer’s next victim. The DVD adds an alternate ending and deleted scenes.

Little Acccidents
Sara Colangelo’s heart-breaking debut, Little Accidents, effectively dramatizes how the dynamics of life in a small American town change in the wake of a tragic event. Here, as the title implies, the tight-knit community is required to deal with more than one catastrophe simultaneously.  Shot in the actual coal town of Beckley, West Virginia, Little Accidents opens several weeks after a mining accident claimed the lives of 10 men. After recuperating from his injuries in an out-of-town hospital, lone survivor Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook) is further traumatized by people who expect him to testify one way or the other before an investigatory board, even though he has little recollection of the accident. Meanwhile, a mining company executive and his wife (Josh Lucas, Elizabeth Banks) are desperately searching for clues in the disappearance of their teenage son. We’ve already been made privy to the terrible secret behind his fate and have developed mixed feelings for the only two people who know it, too, was an accident. Some people think that the disappearance may be connected to a grudge against the executive, who almost certainly required his employees to ignore safety violations. Colangelo adds another layer of melodrama by connecting the emotionally wrought wife of the mining executive with the guilt-ridden son of one of the dead miners and the surviving victim of the explosion. When something as devastating as a mining disaster occurs in small town, already cut off from the world by mountains and rivers, its residents tend to band together as friends and neighbors or be divided by outside interests and ancient passions. Jacob Lofland, who was so good in his first film, Mud, delivers a devastating performance here, as do Holbrook and Banks.

50 to 1
With the 141st renewal of the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” right around the corner, what better time than the present to recall one of the most unlikely victories in the history of the Kentucky Derby.  Jim Wilson’s 50 to 1 may not be the crowd-pleaser that longshot 3-year-old gelding Mine the Bird turned out to be on the first Saturday in May, 2009, at Churchill Downs, but the gelding’s story is entertaining enough to stand on its own four legs. Besides the masterly ride by daredevil jockey Calvin Borel, who plays himself in the film, the primary focus of 50 to 1 is the team of New Mexico yahoos who believed in Mine the Bird, despite its spotty record and goofy stance. Just as Thoroughbreds from New Mexico aren’t supposed to make it to Kentucky, even if they took their first steps on the blue grass, dudes wearing cowboy clothes tend not to mingle with the swells, socialites and sheiks who gather there on Derby Day. If the movie isn’t as technically proficient as, say, the studio-produced Seabiscuit or Secretariat, its charm derives from the same sport that produces unlikely heroes with uncanny regularity. It explains why so many people who’ve never bet on a race pay attention to the Triple Crown series. That wasn’t in the cards for Mine the Bird, but its second- and third-place finishes in the Preakness and Belmont proved the Kentucky Derby victory was no fluke. The DVD adds a comprehensive making-of featurette.

Boy Meets Girl
First Period
The fact that Diane Sawyer’s “20/20” interview with Bruce Jenner attracted an audience of 17.1 million viewers – not counting those tuning in and tweeting via the social media – demonstrates just how far Americans have evolved in matters pertaining to the LGBT community. In households representing the key 18-49 demographic, 17 percent of all active televisions were tuned to the newsmagazine’s two-hour report on the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion’s sexual transition. How many of those viewers are only familiar with Jenner because of his Kardashian connection isn’t broken down in the Nielsen ratings’ data. By comparison, Sawyer’s March 18 “20/20” special “The Untold Story of ‘The Sound of Music’” – which included a chat with Julie Andrews – lagged behind the Jenner interview by a 271 percent margin in the same demographic. As if to prove that the audience – 68 percent of which was female – wasn’t solely interested in seeing how Jenner looked at this point in the process, ratings actually increased in the second and third half-hour segments, before dipping slightly in the final 30 minutes. If “Bruce Jenner: The Interview” had aired on a Sunday night, instead of Friday, those numbers almost certainly would have jumped considerably … or kept DVRs working overtime. I only mention this because, no matter how the geezers on the Supreme Court rule on same-sex marriages in the next two months, the LGBT cat is already out of the bag. But, then, anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of the so-called Queer Cinema already is aware of this trend.

Not to put too fine a point on an arguable proposition, but, Eric Schaeffer’s genuinely heartfelt coming-of-age rom-dram-com, Boy Meets Girl, could very well mark a coming-of-age moment for independent films in the LGBT niche. For years, genre specialists have been searching for ways to tell stories that cross over to mainstream audiences, without compromising emotional sincerity, sexual integrity and honest portrayals of complex characters. In other words, is there a way to get the same viewers who flocked to see Tootsie, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Crying Game to embrace a low-budget film that stars a transgender actor? In Boy Meets Girl, newcomer Michelle Hendley is remarkable as the girl hoping to make her mark on the world outside rural Kentucky, where the fashion industry exists only on cable television. Thanks to the unforced understanding of her father and longtime best friend, Robby (Michael Welch), Ricky has managed to find a niche for herself after overcoming serious identity issues and the early death of her mother. While waiting to learn if she’s been accepted in a fashion school in New York, Ricky and Robby become friends with the pretty daughter of locally prominent parents. Unaware of Ricky’s current state of transition, Francesca (Alexandra Turshenra) is impressed by her senses of style and humor. Francesca, who’s engaged to a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, takes the news of Ricky’s sexual identity in stride, even to the point where she commissions a party dress from her and invites her new friends to a swank party at her parents’ home. Francesca’s curiosity will soon get the better of her, leading to a tastefully handled romantic interlude in which Ricky is every bit as nervous about making out with a woman as she is. Everything that transpires from this point on is blessedly free of clichés and enhanced by some genuinely surprising occurrences. Anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by the media circus surrounding Bruce Jenner – or teenagers facing identity issues of their own – ought to pick up a copy of Boy Meets Girl, which also benefits from some lovely scenery and cinematography.

The gentle spirit of Harris Glen Milstead (a.k.a., Devine) hovers cherubically over the broad teen farce, First Period, which could serve as the missing link between John Waters and John Hughes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and “Freaks and Geeks,” “Hairspray” and “Grease.” Limited to a “dental-floss budget,” Charlie Vaughn and Brandon Alexander III successfully avoid the many pitfalls that have tripped up other filmmakers attempting to emulate the work of such past masters as Waters, Hughes, Amy Heckerling, Alexander Payne, Cameron Crowe and the many graduates of the Roger Corman Film School. Comedy isn’t nearly as easy to pull off as these guys make it look and it’s rarely pretty. Anyone who’s enjoyed Chris Lilley’s delightfully off-kilter “Summer Heights High,” “Ja’mie: Private School Girl” and “Jonah from Tonga” – exported from Australia to HBO – will have a pretty good idea what to expect in First Period. Alexander plays Cassie, the new girl in school whose unsavory habits and obesity turn off everyone, except Maggie (Dudley Beene), who’s even more off-putting than Cassie. Together, they decide the quickest way to impress the ruling clique of cute boys and popular girls is to come in first at the school’s talent show. Their lack of talent doesn’t matter, because none of the other students are remotely talented, either. Their nemeses, the Heather and Other Heather, expect to win the contest as models. The Heathers hope to further humiliate the “girls” – who are anticipating their “first period” – by instructing their boyfriends Brett and Dirk to go on a date and check out what’s under their hoods. Naturally, their scheme backfires when the boys develop a taste for plus-size girls. It helps that Alexander and Beene aren’t required to carry the entire weight of the 1980s-era comedy on their ample shoulders or rely on sight gags for laughs. They get plenty of help from Jack Plotnik (“Reno 911!”), Judy Tenuta (“Chant Mania”), Cassandra Peterson (“Elivra: Mistress of the Dark”), Tara Karsian (“ER”) and Diane Salinger (“Carnivàle”).

Always Woodstock
Debut features don’t have to imitate the ever-changing rhythms of life to be credible, but too many plot twists based solely on coincidence can ruin a picture before the first reel has unspooled. No matter how much good will is invested in a film by its cast and crew, nothing can keep viewers interested once they’ve been asked to buy into one too many convenient contrivance. How many movies and television shows have we seen in which the lead character, who’s already having a bad day, arrives home early and unannounced, only to capture their lover or spouse in delicto flagrante. In Always Woodstock, aspiring record-label executive Catherine Brown (Allison Miller) is fired for failing to kiss the ass of a punk singer (Brittany Snow), whose bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in the monkey house of any zoo in the country. Upon her arrival home, Catherine discovers her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) in the shower with a friendly blond bimbo. Distraught, she decides to drive up to Woodstock, New York, the rural musicians’ ghetto where her parents still own, but don’t inhabit, a cabin. The disgusting condition of the place, gives Allison an excuse to postpone her new career as a songwriter, by making a beeline to a local honky-tonk. It’s here that she’ll meet everyone she needs to know for the remainder of the movie, including a local legend singer and family friend, Lee Ann (Katey Sagal); a bartender (Rumer Willis) who happily overserves the newcomer; and the town’s handsome young doctor, (James Wolk), who’s in the right place at the right time to rescue her from alcohol poisoning. Before drinking herself into oblivion, however, Allison is able to demonstrate her karaoke skills. To fill the next 80 minutes, or so, Merson demands of her protagonist that she piss off everyone already in her corner with unnecessary temper tantrums and false accusations. Anyone who can’t guess what happens from here has never watched a Lifetime movie. Always Woodstock probably could have been saved if Merson had focused less on her boring protagonist and more on the redemptive power of a location only a hop, skip and a jump from Big Pink, a shrine to the singer-songwriter’s art if there ever was one.

Motivational Growth: Blu-ray
Class Of Nuke ‘Em High II: Subhumanoid Meltdown
The Toxic Avenger Part II: Blu-ray
From a Whisper to a Scream: Blu-ray
Jonah Lives
In the 1990s, homeowners lived in mortal dread of discovering toxic black mold growing on the walls of their basement or hidden behind the drywall upstairs. Besides the real and imagined health fears associated with the mycotoxins present in Stachybotrys chartarum, hurriedly passed legislation prevented owners from selling their homes without full disclosure or proof of eradication. Forget the Blob, black mold was a real-life horror whose progress could be followed as it spread through one’s home. In Don Thacker’s wildly imaginative first feature, Motivational Growth, a clinically depressed young man survives a suicide attempt, only to awake in a fever dream in which his one-room apartment has been overtaken by a clump of black mold growing from the filth in his bathroom. The reclusive Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) is so far off the deep end that he’s named his ancient television set Kent and exchanges dialogue with “The Mold,” whose voice is supplied by horror-genre veteran Jeffrey Combs. (Imagine Darth Vader impersonating the carnivorous Audrey II in Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors.) Occasionally, a stranger will be appear at the door, like an unexpected visitor to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, bearing gifts or conversation designed to further mess with his mind. Between the Mold’s stentorian advice and Kent’s bizarre selection of vintage infomercials and video games, Motivational Growth occasionally drifts into freakazoid territory previously surveyed by David Cronenberg in Naked Lunch and TerrorVision. The longer it goes on, the more surrealistic things get. Fans of more conventional horror film might tire of Thacker’s hallucinatory dissection of one man’s descent into madness. As far as I’m concerned, however, Motivational Growth really hit the spot. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Combs, DiGiovanni and Thacker.

While we’re on the subject of fever dreams committed to film, the good folks at Troma Entertainment would like you to revisit the madness of Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown and The Toxic Avenger Part II on Blu-ray. I can hear some of you saying, “Releasing these low-tech franchises on hi-def is like putting lipstick on a pig.” Part of the fun of watching Troma films is the groddy audio-visual presentation, which masks the endearingly cheeseball special effects and famously illogical narratives. Those of you who’ve worn out their VHS copies of the originals, however, might as well upgrade to the advanced technology, if only to catch up on the featurettes already added to the DVD and handful of new ones. Class of Nuke ’Em High 2 takes place six years after the extraordinarily messy events chronicled in the original. Out of the ashes of Tromaville High has risen Tromaville Institute for Technology (TIT), now located inside the Tromaville Power Plant. The school’s foxy genetic scientist, Professor Holt (Lisa Gaye), has developed a human life form that matures within nine months and performs tasks no one else wants to do. These Subhumanoids are identified by belly buttons that function as mouths. It’s almost impossible to condense what happens next into words, except to say that, yes, a giant squirrel is involved in the mayhem. In The Toxic Avenger Part II, the former Melvin Junko is lured to Japan to look for his father, but not until he deals with the fiends who blew up the Tromaville Centre for the Blind. While Toxie’s away, the bad guys at Apocalypse Inc. return to Tromaville to play their evil games. Here, too, what follows defies logic and easy explanation. The sequels won’t make anyone forget the originals, but, given enough killer weed, viewers won’t know the difference.

Jeff Burr’s surprisingly good horror anthology, From a Whisper to a Scream, didn’t even register a blip on my radar screen when it was released in 1987 as “The Offspring.” I’m glad that I caught up with it now in its new Scream Factory Blu-ray edition. The quartet of short horror films are set in a rural Tennessee town over the course of four different historical periods. Wrap-around segments hosted by Vincent Price and Susan Tyrrell set up each individual chapter, while explaining the connection to the town of Oldfield. In the first, Clu Gulager plays an elderly man pursues a romance with a younger woman to the grave and beyond. It’s followed by a story in which a wounded man on the run from creditors is rescued by a backwoods hermit with the secret to eternal life. My favorites involve the freakish events that occur when a glass-eater in a travelling carnival attraction develops a bad case of indigestion and a platoon of Civil War soldiers is treated to a dose of their own medicine by a household of malevolent orphans. The story behind the creation of these stories is nearly as entertaining as anything else in the package.  It’s covered in a full-length making-of featurette, with Burr and his creative team, and another documentary about how a group kids growing up in Dalton, Georgia, fell in love with filmmaking by making pictures on now-primitive, then-sophisticated Super 8 equipment. Also included are commentaries with Burr, writer/producer Darin Scott and writer C. Courtney Joyner; a stills gallery; and original “Offspring” TV spots.

There’s a special place in hell reserved for movies by first-time filmmakers in which a group of bored teens attempt to establish contact with the dead, using a Ouija board. This week’s attraction at the 666 Multiplex is Luis Carvalho’s schizophrenic thriller, Jonah Lives. While their parents and other adults frolic upstairs, at an alcohol-fueled “key party,” a bunch of unremarkable teens in the basement hopes to allay their boredom with a Ouija Board. After some false starts, they decide to conjure the spirit of Jonah, a murdered gent whose widow (scream queen Brinke Stevens) is upstairs putting her body up for grabs. Indeed, Jonah does show up at the appointed hour, but with an appetite for blood that’s practically insatiable. Again, while the slaughter continues only a few feet below them, the grown-ups anxiously await the draw of keys belonging to that night’s booty call. It isn’t until the very last moment of Jonah Lives that a connection between the two halves of the movies are linked to one another. Apparently, Carvalho couldn’t come up with a way for the horror and frivolity to overlap, as is sometimes done in more accomplished films. Even so, younger genre buffs might find it amusing to watch fellow teens attempt to run away from a slowly plodding zombie.

Any new horror movie made by the son of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) is going to attract a modicum of interest, at least, in the genre press. Because G. Cameron Romero has already weighed in with such titles as Staunton Hill, The Auctioneers and Repressed, however, the pressure is on to finally produce a breakthrough film worthy of the name. Auteur isn’t it … not by a long shot. It probably not fair to lay all of the blame at Romero’s feet, however, since the very capable and prolific James Cullen Bressack shares the writers’ credit with two newcomers and a director lives and dies on the strength of his source material. Here, a dimwitted documentarian is promised an opportunity to break into Hollywood, but only if he can locate his employer’s semi-legendary son and bring back the film he directed, before walking off the set with it. To locate the burn-out filmmaker, Jack Humphreys (B.J. Hendricks) rounds up cast and crew members – including the hyper-prolific Tom Sizemore — and uses the ruse of making a documentary on the production of “Demented” to trace his tracks. In fact, Charlie Buckwald (Ian Hutton) is about as difficult to find as a Starbucks on Wilshire Boulevard. Apparently, Buckwald went crazy attempting to add some real demonic hocus-pocus to his movie about faux satanic hocus-pocus. Like most alcoholics, he’s only lucid in fits and starts. The same can be said about Auteur.

PBS: Masterpiece: Wolf Hall: Blu-ray
PBS: Ken Burns: Story of Cancer/Emperor of All Maladies: Blu-ray
PBS: Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit
PBS: The Physics of Light
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 5
Nickelodeon: Wallykazam!/Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.
PBS: Mia & Me: Discover Centopia
Through history books and works of fiction across all media platforms, the life and legend of King Henry VIII has been well-documented. We’re similarly familiar with his wives and challenge to the supremacy of the Roman church. I think it’s safe to say that we know more about the larger-than-life English monarch than most of American presidents. Apart from being dullards, our leaders have been required to govern within boundaries the crowned heads of Europe couldn’t imagine. Only a relative handful of them were allowed the freedom and opportunities to shine as individuals. Given what we’ve learned about Henry VIII and other prominent royals, that’s probably a good thing. The engrossing BBC/PBS production “Wolf Hall” reminds us that behind these powerful men and women stood largely anonymous counselors and advisers with agendas of their own. It’s through that prism that Hilary Mantel’s wrote her Booker Prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The best-selling historical novels describe the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII, with an eye toward changing the generally accepted perception of him being a manipulative power-broker to one that shows him to be a multidimensional man of the world, brilliantly pragmatic strategist and loyal servant to his masters: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and King Henry. As powerful as he became, however, the lords and ladies of the court continually dismissed Cromwell as the lowly son of a blacksmith and, as such, less than a gentleman. Because of his extensive travels throughout Europe and ability to speak several languages, Wolsey and Henry both paid attention to his advice on matters of state, religion and backroom politics. Here, he’s played by Mark Rylance (“The Government Inspector”), a cunning actor who looks as if he’d just stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. As was the case in Showtime’s “The Tudors,” where Henry VIII was played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) portrays the king as being handsome and in athletic shape, rather than robustly built and plain-looking. In a steely performance by Oxford-trained Claire Foy (“Little Dorrit”), Anne Boleyn is a formidable suitor and queen, willing and able to preserve her place in history, although she couldn’t possibly imagine how their marriage would impact the future of England and the world. Not at all surprising is the visual appeal of the six-part series, which begins with the impeccable costume designs and continues through the choice of medieval and Tudor structures at which it was shot. “Wolf Hall” caused me to wonder if Henry Kissinger – Cromwell’s equal in American political affairs – might someday well into the future get similarly sympathetic treatment in mini-series form. The Blu-ray adds several background and making-of featurettes, as well as cast and crew interviews.

How many thousands of doctors, surgeons, researchers and scientists have spent their entire careers searching for a cure for cancer, only to retire knowing that they hadn’t made a dent in controlling, let alone conquering the terrible disease? As far back as 4,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians studied cancer, finally concluding there was no cure for it. The only thing subsequent generations of doctors knew for sure was that cancer honored no borders and struck, as If at will, people of all ages, racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. The more we learned about it, the scarier it became. Even saying its name out loud was discouraged, as if it carried the same stigma as a sexually transmitted disease. The Ken Burns-produced documentary series, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It not only attempts to demystify cancer by explaining everything we know to be true about the disease, but it also serves as a reminder of the fact that tens of thousands of highly trained men and women have refused to surrender to the many threats made by cancer. It’s the nature of the disease that every forward step is rewarded with two steps backward. Therapies and drugs hailed in newspaper headlines one day more often than not outlive their promise over the course of field trials. And, yes, the experimental remedies frequently have proven more deadly than the disease. Still, the fight continues on more fronts than most people know exist. Despite the cautiously optimistic note struck at the end of the three-part series, no punches are pulled or false hopes for a cures offered. It does so by presenting the data and anecdotal evidence as matter-of-factly and dispassionately as possible. Even so, the human factor is never far from view. While it’s impossible not to feel helpless as we watch children suffer, we’re also impressed by the specialists who comfort patients and families through the emerging palliative-care discipline. The series interweaves a sweeping historical perspective with intimate profiles of current patients and investigations that take us to the cutting edge of science. The three segments are titled: “Magic Bullets,” “The Blind Men and the Elephant” and “Finding an Achilles Heel.” The question that remains, of course, is why the governments of the world continue to waste billions of dollars each year fighting killing each other’s patriots, when the money saved in a ceasefire could be used to mount an international crusade against cancer. Even if took years to make progress on a cure, think of all the people who wouldn’t die from bullets and bombs.

Better news is reported in PBS’ “Twice Born: Stories From the Special Delivery Unit,” which relates heartbreaking and life-affirming stories from inside the world’s leading fetal surgery center, the Special Delivery Unit at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The mini-series invites us to step into operating rooms, where state-of-the-art technology allows surgeons to enter the womb and operate on babies before they’re even born. Unlike the war on cancer, the battle to save children from being delivered with terrible maladies likely to kill them, anyway, appears winnable. Viewers are left to decide for themselves if fetal surgery is just another way to take God out of the equation or it’s our obligation as God’s children to keep hope alive as long as possible for all parents.

I really can’t say whether or not the six-part PBS series “The Physics of Light” answers any more questions about how our universe was formed and continues to grow than such deep-science books and films as “A Brief History of Time,” “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” and “The Theory of Everything,” or, for that matter, “The Big Bang Theory,” “Monty Python: The Meaning of Life” and “Futurama.” Growing up, I probably enjoyed math and science more than the next student, but hit a wall at physics and trigonometry. No amount of studying — or prayer – helped me understand anything beyond the most basic concepts. Fortunately, my teachers understood how unlikely it was for some of us to grasp the subtleties of math and science and rewarded us with bonus points for simply showing up and staring blankly at the blackboard. That’s kind of how I feel about such productions as “The Physics of Light,” which use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a starting point for explorations into the nature of light, the intricacies of the atom and cutting-edge theories in physics. It’s divided into the chapters, “Light and Time,” “Light and Space,” “In Pursuit of Light,” “Light and Atoms,” “Light and Quantum Physics” and “Light and Strings.” By connecting available research to the miracle of light, “we can gain a deeper understanding not only of our immediate reality, but of the unseen realities that are hidden beyond our perception.”

StarVista/Time-Life’s subdivision of its comprehensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Series” continues apace with the latest “Mama’s Favorites” package, covering the show’s penultimate fifth season. The episodes included here are: “The Really Loud Family,” “Naomi’s New Position,” “Found Money,” “Mama’s Layaway Plan,” “Mama in One” and “Dependence Day.”   I’m not sure how much thinner this pie can be sliced.

In Nickelodeon’s “Wallykazam!,” a boy named Wally Trollman and his pet dragon, Norville, live in a forest among giants, goblins and other fantastic creatures. Wally has a magic stick that makes words come to life on the screen, playfully transforming the world around him. It the network’s first preschool series that embeds a literacy curriculum into a full-length story, introducing skills such as letter and sound identification, rhyming, vocabulary development and comprehension strategies. “Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.” introduces kids to join their favorite Nick characters in an exploration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.) curriculum. “Mia & Me: Discover Centopia”: On her first day at a new school, Mia is given a book and bracelet that are more than they appear. The items have the power to transport Mia to a magical storybook world, Centopia, where she becomes a flying elf who has the ability to talk to unicorns.

The DVD Wrapup; Curling, God Help the Girl, Like Sunday Like Rain, Escape From New York and more

Friday, April 24th, 2015

While traveling through Southeast Asia, Noel Coward observed that no one except, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” If he had visited Quebec in January or February, I wonder what he mighthave said about the folks who insist on going about their business as normal, even in temperatures verging on ridiculously cold. We meet one such person in Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau), who performs menial maintenance tasks at a 5-pin bowling alley and a no-tell motel, while his daughter, Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau, and, yes, they’re related), is condemned to home-schooling in a house too remote to be accessible to anyone in the town. Jean-Francois is afraid that exposure to negative elements could result in her ending up in prison, just like her mother. The problem is, he’s exactly the kind of paranoid numbskull who shouldn’t be allowed to home-school his or any other child. Even his boss, who’s sympathetic to his limitations, describes him as “the kind of fool who jumps in the lake to get out of the rain.” Julyvonne’s lack of exposure to the rest of world has caused some people to believe she’s retarded, which she’s not.

Like Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, New Brunswick native Denis Côté (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Bestiaire) is an emerging force in the international cinema and his work deserves to be seen well beyond the French-speaking marketplace. Curling may be a prime example of minimalist filmmaking, but watching father and daughter emerge from their respective cocoons can be extremely fulfilling. What little comedy exists in Curling is dark, mysterious and handled capably by writer/director Cote. The sport of curling does figure in the narrative, but not as much as in Paul Gross’ kooky 2002 comedy, Men With Brooms, co-starring fellow Canadians Molly Parker and Leslie Nielsen. Anyone who can make curling entertaining to folks living north of, say, Duluth is either very imaginative or is a big fan of the Winter Olympics. Here it’s simply an activity, like bowling, that keeps residents occupied during the long winter nights. Thanks to Josée Deshaies’ empathetic cinematography, this corner of Quebec does look like a forbidding place to spend winter. If this makes Curling sound hopelessly dreary, it’s enigmatic ending should lift viewers’ spirits.

God Help the Girl
Life Inside Out
Something tells me that Stuart Murdoch’s underappreciated musical fantasy, God Help the Girl, might have found its rightful audience if the title were a bit more precise in targeting its intended audience. Something like, “MTV Presents ‘God Help the Girl’” or “Belle and Sebastian Want You to See This Movie” or “Love in the Time of Retro Rock.’” Inspired by B&S’ 2009 album of the same title, the mix of catchy pop tunes and teen angst immediately recalls John Carney’s irresistible Once, and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. If you hated those pictures, there isn’t much chance you’ll like this one. Indeed, several mainstream critics seemed to enjoy slamming it. There’s no denying the appeal of the actors, who wouldn’t be out of place in a movie about Carnaby Street in London’s Swinging ’60s. Australian pixie Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays Eve, a college-age Glaswegian who starts writing songs during a stay in a mental-health clinic for anorexia. Against the wishes of her therapists, Eve one day decides to fly the coop and find kindred musical spirits who might consider recording her songs. They impress singer-guitarist James (Olly Alexander, of Years and Years) and his music student, Cassie (Hannah Murray, of “Skins”) enough to start the band, God Help the Girl. As it turns out, Eve’s doctors probably were correct in surmising that she wasn’t quite ready for life in the rock-‘n’-roll lane. There’s a thread of melancholy that runs through the entire score, but is relieved by some genuinely peppy material that accompanies dance routines in the film. I may be a long way from the target demographic for God Help the Girl, but I think that word-of-mouth from the DVD could turn it into a cult attraction. Special features include deleted scenes, “Origin” and a music video.

The redemptive power of music isn’t a rare or unusual subject in the family-friendly flicks that carry the Dove seal of approval. Typically, though, the songs contained therein are of faith-based persuasion. When hard-core musicians hit rock bottom, for example, they tend to find relief in the arms of the church choir. This is OK, as far as it goes, but hardly original. Jill D’Agnenica’s Life Inside Out takes a different approach to reach the same destination. The musician in question, Laura (actress/co-writer Maggie Baird), is a “woman of a certain age,” who fulfills a popular fantasy by returning to her song-writing roots when her husband’s career blows up in his face. Instead of attempting to pursue a career in “scrapbooking,” with her sister and friends, Laura pulls her guitar case out of the closet and fights to return to the place she left when she got married and dedicated herself to raising three now-teenage boys. One of them, Shane (Finneas O’Connell, of “Glee”), has lost his will to participate in school activities and has become a pain in the ass at home. It doesn’t help that his brothers and his friends are pricks. In the most accidental way possible, Shane feeds off his mother’s renewed passion for music by discovering an innate talent of his own. Although some of the plot elements here might seem a tad contrived and predictable, more than a few surprises will reward viewers’ patience.  The DVD adds commentary, deleted scenes and additional performances. The music is quite good, as well.

Like Sunday, Like Rain
In 1994, Frank Whaley starred alongside Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, one of the best movies ever made about working one’s way up the corporate ladder in Hollywood. He’d also impressed critics with key roles in The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, Field of Dreams, Swing Kids and Pulp Fiction. If, in 2015, he’s better known as “that guy in …,” it’s not because his career tanked or good roles fell into other people’s laps. Instead, Whaley’s dedication to indie films and the stage offered opportunities he found more appealing. He’s written and directed several indie features, Joe the King, New York City Serenade, The Jimmy Show and, most recently, Like Sunday, Like Rain, and found work on television, playing meaty parts on “Buddy Faro,” “The Dead Zone” and “Ray Donovan.” If his features found surer traction on the festival circuit than in theaters. Like Sunday, Like Rain, at least, deserves a big shot on DVD. Far from perfect, it can be recommended simply for the performances turned in by Leighton Meester and newcomer Julian Shatkin. The “Gossip Girl” alum portrays a hard-luck beauty from Upstate New York, Eleanor, who, after moving to the city, compounds the mistake of falling in love with a punk-rock musician (Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day), with expecting him not to turn Neanderthal when she throws his guitar out of the window during a squabble.  (Clean-cut Eleanor doesn’t look as if she’s ever been in the middle of a mosh pit, let slept alone with a band member.)

After Dennis throws a tantrum in the restaurant in which she works, the penniless Eleanor is fired and forced to scrounge around for work. Conveniently, she scores a live-in assignment as a nanny for a 12-year-old cello prodigy, Reggie, who makes no attempt to endear himself with Eleanor or viewers.  Depressed, jaded and world weary, Reggie is well on his way to becoming the next Oscar Levant. His filthy-rich mother (Debra Messing) thinks the hardest part of mothering is a hiring people to perform the tasks she isn’t remotely interested in doing. For his part, Reggie pays his chauffeur, maid and camp counselor to ignore his mother’s directions and allow him to do his own thing when she’s out of town. Eleanor is, at first, put off by the boy’s impatience with her lack of experience as nanny and what he perceives to be an inferior IQ and intellectual growth. Because she needs the job every bit as much as he needs a good spanking, Whaley finds a way to put them on equal footing. The surprising part is how natural their relationship becomes after an understanding is reached and their strengths become complementary. If Like Sunday, Like Rain is short on belly laughs, its big heart and quiet surprises make up for them. The only DVD extra is an interview with Whaley, during which he answers the softball questions with wiseass replies.

Supremacy: Blu-ray
The true incident upon which Supremacy is based was so disturbing that the psycho-sociological embellishments employed by the filmmakers to score points about racism with viewers not only feels manipulative, but completely unnecessary, as well. Blatant racism is never pleasant to encounter, in real life and on the screen, but to have one’s face rubbed in it for the entire length of a 106-minute movie borders on cruel and unusual punishment. In 1996, a just-paroled Garrett Tully (Joe Anderson) is being chauffeured home to Bakersfield by the girlfriend, Doreen (Dawn Olivieri), of a fellow Aryan Brother inmate at the “supermax” Pelican Bay State Prison. After Garrett turns down a welcome-back blow job on the side of the highway, Doreen hands him a loaded handgun as a consolation prize. Tully grasps the weapon as if it were the lover he’d waited 13 years to embrace, leading us to believe that it won’t be long before he does something to earn a return trip to the northern California stockade. When he uses it to murder a sheriff’s deputy on a routine traffic stop – they’re actually casing a store to rob — it provides the orgasmic release Doreen failed to accomplish. Not even 24 hours from his release, Tully and Doreen are the subject of an intense manhunt. Before being captured, they invaded a nearby home and took the family hostage. That much of the story is portrayed with reasonable accuracy. Of all the NoCal homes in which director Deon Taylor and writer Eric J. Adams could have elected for them to take refuge, however, wouldn’t you know that it would probably be the only one within miles inhabited by an African-American family (Danny Glover, Lela Rochon, Evan Ross, Robin Bobeau). They also chose to make the slain cop black.

Sadly, the coincidence allows the filmmakers carte blanche to pepper Tully’s dialogue with language that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the heat of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. None of the members of the multigenerational Walker family is spared his racist venom, which is so toxic even Doreen feels compelled at one point to apologize for it. Instead of merely stealing the keys to the family car, Tully spends most of the night waving his gun around the kitchen and threatening to shoot the “niglet” infant if their demands aren’t met. By allowing them to waste precious time venting their rage, however, the filmmakers have dug Garrett and Doreen a hole from which there’s no hope of escape. It’s the kind of claustrophobic scenario that might have worked better on stage, where all of our attention is focused tightly on the credibility of the characters and machinations of the standoff. On film, however, the intensity of the mindless vitriol constantly distracts us from Tully’s attempts to play one family member against the other. Because we’ve already been told that he’s No. 3 in the hierarchy of the Aryan Brotherhood, there’s really no use to bang us over the head with the n-word and its derivatives. In real life, Robert Walter Scully Jr. and Elaine Watters did murder Deputy Sheriff Frank Trejo and were captured under similar circumstances. I couldn’t, however, determine if the residents were African-American. Too bad the language gets in the way of the message.

Hit By Lightning
Despite his 12-year run as lovable nebbish Alan Harper, on “Two and a Half Men,” baby-boomers will forever recall Jon Cryer as Molly Ringwald’s hovering best friend, Duckie, in Pretty in Pink. Unlike Duckie, whose rockabilly hairdo has probably been immortalized in a Hollywood hair museum, Cryer no longer hides the fact that he’s nearly completely bald and, last week, turned the big 5-0. In Ricky Blitt’s dark and unconvincing rom-com, Hit by Lightning, he plays a loveless loser who gets the kind of good-news/bad-news wakeup call all such jinxed characters expect when something nice happens to them. At 40, Ricky and his accountant pal, Seth (Will Sasso), have come to sad realization that they are the only unattached men left in their high school class. To remedy this, Ricky has reluctantly joined to find a proper mate. The good news arrives in the heavenly form of Danita (Stephanie Szostak), a suspiciously vivacious woman who wastes no time jumping into the sack with him. In classic film noir twist, Danita then reveals she’s already married to a crime novelist and former rabbi, Ben (Jed Rees), and she needs Ricky’s assistance in killing him. Before Seth can spit out, “cherchez la femme,” viewers will have sized up the ramifications of such a collaboration. Has Ricky watched the same movies and learned the same lessons as Fred MacMurray’s poor sap insurance salesman in Double Indemnity or is he destined to repeat them? Cryer’s fans may be willing to overlook Blitt’s ham-handed direction here, but others probably will regret not having picked up a copy of the original, instead.

Everly: Blu-ray
Perhaps to demonstrate that she can be every bit the action star as Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman, Michelle Rodriguez, Michelle Yeoh and Kate Beckinsale – while also looking insanely hot in a torn white blood-splattered slip — it’s difficult to understand what Salma Hayek is doing in this video game of a movie. She’s done the bad-ass things several times already and, on the cusp of 50, certainly has nothing to prove in that department. Because Everly’s finer points are lost in the muddle of a minimalist narrative, it’s never precisely clear why a Yakuza militia has been assigned the task of over-killing her. It’s pretty safe to assume that Everly’s considered to be the property of a tyrannical Japanese gangster, Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), against whom she’s turned state’s evidence or betrayed in a less formal way. In return, Taiko uses the occasion of Christmas to make her a present of the severed head of a police detective. Wave after wave of assassins are then sent into her apartment building – including bounty-hunting prostitutes — to fill her full of bullets, slice-and-dice her with finely honed blades, or tear her to pieces with explosive devices. Co-writer/director Joe Lynch has designed Everly’s apartment in such a way that she can dodge most of the metal projectiles and samurai swords, while licking the wounds caused by the ones that make contact. Her drive to remain alive is as strong as it is because her mother and child also are targeted in the assault. An actor of Hayek’s status brings high expectations to any role she accepts, and that’s Everly’s biggest problem. We’re always aware of the fact that it’s Hayek we’re watching, instead of a stone-cold warrior played by an up-and-coming actor hoping to use the role as a springboard to superstardom. Otherwise, action junkies will find plenty to savor here, especially the frenetic pace of the attack; imaginative array of assailants; and mega-decibel soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Lynch, co-producer Brett Hedblom and editor Evan Schiff and second track with Lynch and cinematographer Steve Gainer. A music video of “Silent Night,” directed by Lynch, is performed by Raya Yarborough and Bear McCreary.

Blind Woman’s Curse: Blu-Ray
When I first became aware of martial-arts movies, Bruce Lee was so far above the rest of the pack that everything else paled by comparison. In his wake, most of the genre flicks available to American grindhouse and drive-in audiences felt stupid and irrelevant. Released at about the same time as Lee was becoming a household name in this country — and newly made available in Blu-ray by Arrow Video — Blind Woman’s Curse is representative of a period in Japanese cinema when practically anything was fair game, except pubic hair. In it, notorious writer/director Teruo Ishii combines martial arts with Yakuza, horror, gore, sexploitation and slapstick comedy in a way that is as fun to watch, today, as it must have been for buffs in its day. Also known as “Black Cat’s Revenge,” “Strange Tales of Dragon Tattoo,” “The Haunted Life of a Dragon-Tattooed Lass” and “The Tattooed Swordswoman,” Blind Woman’s Curse tells the story of Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), the young heir apparent of the Tachibana gang. In a showdown between Akemi and the rival gang leader responsible for her father’s death, she accidentally blinds his sister Aiko (Hoki Tokuda, who, in 1999, would marry author Henry Miller). Ever since, Akemi has suffered from nightmares and come to believe that she is cursed by a cat that means to suck her blood. Three years after being sentenced to a prison with other bad-ass women, Akemi returns to her gang absent much of her old bravado. Not to worry, though, because the sightless Aiko has used the same three-year period to recuperate from her calamitous wound and is itching to get her revenge. (She wouldn’t by the only blind swordsman in the genre.) Akemi, too, is forced to get herself back in fighting trim. This is some extremely wild stuff, complete with some of the coolest tattoos in movie history and other abhorrent behavior. Arrow Video did a nice job with Ishii’s color scheme and traditional music. It adds commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; the original trailers for four of the films in the Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series, made at the same studio as Blind Woman’s Curse; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; and collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, illustrated with original archive stills.

Sweet Lorraine
It isn’t often that a movie with as much star power as Sweet Lorraine comes around to rival the travesties perpetrated on the American movie-going public by Edward D. Wood Jr., the fellow who inspired the time-honored kiss-off, “so bad, it’s good.” With a cast that includes Tatum O’Neal in the lead role, Steven Bauer, Julianne Michelle, Peter Greene, Jimmie Walker, Scott William Winters and Robyn Peterson, the dubious political satire Sweet Lorraine would be unwatchable if it weren’t so hysterically ludicrous. Academy Award-winner O’Neal plays the wife of a New Jersey minister on the same mayoral ticket as a mob-connected bozo (Bauer) who’s schtupping their randy teenage daughter (Michelle). Their opponent (Winters) is on the down-low as a cross-dresser, who frequents the same nightclub where Lorraine (Tatum) secretly participates in women’s boxing matches and J.J. performs magic tricks. And, that’s just for starters. The man responsible for this mess, Christopher C. Frieri, whose resume includes I Was a Teenage Mummy, The Orbitrons and The Stranger (“A cynical tattooed loser first loses his job as a janitor in a bar run by a dwarf, then loses his mind.”), hasn’t made a movie in more than 20 years and none of them featured a recognizable actor. How he lured such name actors to Sweet Lorraine is a mystery, indeed. I hope they got paid ahead of time. Needless to say, the DVD includes no extras.

Escape From New York: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Breakin’/Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo: Blu-ray
Ghoulies / Ghoulies II: Blu-ray
Like Walter Hill’s The Warriors, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York stands today as an artifact of a period in time when the Big Apple was circling the drain and the Disneyfication of Times Square was so far from the realm of possibility that only the most Pollyannish of visionaries would risk humiliation by even mentioning it. The city was bankrupt, crime-ridden and filthy. If a great seismic event had caused the five boroughs to separate themselves from the rest of the state, the legislature probably wouldn’t have freed the funds necessary to pay for a fleet of tugboats to repatriate them. The prevailing attitude on New York’s future allowed Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle the luxury of setting their dystopian vision in 1997, only 16 years in the future. By this time, Manhattan and Liberty Island have, indeed, been cut off from the rest of New York, as they’ve become a dumping ground for hoodlums, parasites and assorted other miscreants. The bridges have been mined and tunnels bricked up to prevent them access to the rest of the world. When Air Force One crash lands inside the perimeter, the notorious outlaw and former Special Forces war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is coerced into agreeing to rescue the president (Donald Pleasence) before the bad guys can locate his hiding place and use him as a bargaining chip. To discourage Snake from skipping out on the assignment, an explosive device with a 24-hour electronic fuse is implanted in his neck. The rest, of course, is cult-classic history. Russell’s gritty portrayal of the one-eyed Plissken freed him from the chains he’d carried with him since his days as a Disney regular, while the movie, itself, served as a template for dozens of action fantasies to come. The Blu-ray upgrade from Shout! Factory includes commentaries with actress Adrienne Barbeau and director of photographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter and Russell, and producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves; a separate disc adds several good making-of featurettes in hi-def; interviews; a deleted opening bank-robbery sequence; and photo galleries.

Like so many skeletons in Hollywood’s closet, Shout! Factory is also resurrecting double-features of movies that probably should have remained buried and forgotten. Ghoulies and Ghoulies II borrow liberally from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, with hand-puppet critters who emerge from the toilets of hell to torment a group of college kids who dare to summon the devil in a bargain-basement ritual. In the sequel, the surviving gremlins hitch a ride in Satan’s Den, a traveling House of Horror operated by carnival workers who are facing foreclosure on their truck and trailer. Not at all scary, Ghoulies is best suited to kids who are beginning to embrace horror. The package arrives with commentary, new interviews and deleted scenes.

No 1980s retrospective would be complete without Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo!, which does for break dancing what Roller Boogie did for inline skating and Perfect did for hot babes in leotards, headbands and ankle warmers. In the former, Lucinda Dickey plays a rich girl who avoids the advances of her dance instructor by teaming up with street dancers Ozone and Turbo to become “a poppin’ and lockin’ princess.” In the follow-up, the dancers take on a greedy real-estate developer seeking to close their studio space.

Mysteries of the Unseen World 3D: Blu-ray
We’ve all seen the frightening photographs taken of mites and other minute creatures by scientists using electron microscopes. If possible, imagine a horror movie in which species exponentially smaller, hairier and creepier than the critters in Antz, A Bug’s Life and Bee Movie, combined, are digitally captured and inserted into stories not dissimilar to Fantastic Voyage, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Journey to the Center of the Earth. The National Geographic presentation Mysteries of the Unseen World employs advanced high-speed and time-lapse photography, electron microscopy and nanotechnology in the service of a documentary that is designed to alert us to phenomena that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Everything from skin follicles to particles of outer-space waste are as common and prevalent as the air we breathe and water we drink. Most of us have also seen super-slo-mo images of bullets blasting through pieces of fruit or watermelons being dropped on concrete. Here, these images are slowed down to the point where it might take several seconds for that same bullet to pass through an apple or we can observe how individual drops of rain repeatedly break down into ever-smaller beads of water. Mysteries of the Unseen World also benefits mightily from being shot in color and 3D, giving it an otherworldly texture. Included is a featurette that explains in layman’s terms how the technology works and the movie was made.

Pivot: Fortitude: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Being Mortal
PBS: Nature: The Last Orangutan Eden
Chiller: Deep in the Darkness: Blu-ray
Considering all of the time I’ve spent lately watching TV shows and movies set at or near the South and North Poles, almost the last thing I wanted to add to my must-watch list was the 12-part police-procedural series from Europe, “Fortitude.” Set in a tiny town north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, but shot in Reyðafjörður, Iceland, the story is as dense and disturbing as most mini-series get. It opens with the accidental shooting of a man by an elderly photographer (Michael Gambon), who’s scouting the icy seacoast for wildlife. In fact, the photographer was aiming at a polar bear that was mauling the poor guy, when Sheriff Dan Anderssen was taking aim at the predatory beast. Anderssen tells the frightened old man to go away and not worry about any investigation. Meanwhile, Governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) is attempting to assure investors in a hotel to be built inside a nearby glacier – think Club Med on the rocks — that the absence of crime makes Fortitude an ideal destination for eco-tourists. Halfway through her presentation, the governor is informed of the murder of the professor who had reversed his opinion on the project, citing the recent discovery of woolly mammoth carcasses on the glacier. If that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, the discovery of mumps in a local boy not only stirs fear that his father might have carried the disease with him after serving in Afghanistan, but also that mumps could lead to polio in unvaccinated residents. Two more residents simply disappear into thin air and a half-dozen secret sexual liaisons have been exposed as collateral damage in the investigation. And, that’s simply the first episode. A British forensics officer played by Stanley Tucci is enlisted to get to the bottom of this mess, but almost no one in Fortitude wants to cooperate with him. All of that established, mini-series creator Simon Donald (“Low Winter Sun”) slows the pace considerably to focus on the interaction of between impacted townsfolk and let his cast do the heavy lifting as each new plot twist is revealed and genre lines are crossed, a la David Lynch. The series has been renewed for a second season, so any investment in time won’t go to waste. The Blu-ray adds 30 minutes of bonus material, including interviews.

If fatally ill patients and their doctors have one thing in common, it’s that neither of them are comfortable coming to grips with the reality of death and dying. How could they be? “Hope is not a plan,” argues renowned surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande in the PBS/”Frontline” documentary “Being Mortal.” “We find from our trials that we are literally inflicting therapies on people that shorten their lives and increase their suffering, due to an inability to come to good decisions.” The film also explores the burgeoning art and science of palliative care and the ways in which having a conversation around the question “What are your priorities if your time is limited?” can empower patients to live their lives fully, all the way to the very end. The subject may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but being prepared for the inevitable shouldn’t be limited to the purchase of life insurance and burial plots.

The PBS/”Nature” documentary “The Last Orangutan Eden” takes us to the Leuser Ecosystem on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s where an orphaned orangutan named Udin was raised in captivity by the not-for-profit Orangutan Project. Now deemed ready to be released into the wild, Udin’s progress will be followed by researchers who are comfortable working in the extreme conditions presented by the remote rainforest. It’s here that orangutans are sheltered by poachers and developers burning down the trees to facilitate the production of palm oil. In the film, getting is half the fun.

Based on a novel by Michael Laimo, the Chiller Network’s Deep in the Darkness borrows from a half-dozen better movies in the service of a story that is roughly divided in half between setup and execution. Sean Patrick Thomas plays Dr. Michael Cayle, a New York City physician anxious to trade the hustle-and-bustle of the big city for pastoral joys of life in puny Ashborough, New Hampshire. It takes a while before the family starts to notice that Ashborough might have been horror-master Ira Levin’s home away from home. What’s hiding just below the surface of this Stepford look-alike is an ancient tribe of hairy cave-dwelling savages, who have the locals scared shitless. Clearly, Cayle neglected to ask the right questions of the real-estate agent who negotiated the sale of the house. Although hardly the scariest movie available to renters, Deep in the Darkness represents above-average made-for-cable fare. Dean Stockwell is along for the ride as a town elder.

The DVD Wrapup: Babadook, Big Eyes, Happy Valley, Tale of Winter, Odd Man Out, The Missing and more

Friday, April 17th, 2015

The Babadook: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Despite the warm welcome accorded The Babadook by festival audiences and critics of both the mainstream and genre persuasion, this nifty Australian export about things that go bump in the night received an unfairly puny release upon its arrival here. I can’t explain why that might be so, except to point out that someone in the distribution game really missed the boat. I’d be interested to know how Jennifer Kent’s debut performed on VOD platforms, as horror tends to do very well on the highly convenient platform. Shout! Factory not only picked up The Babadook up for its genre-specific Scream Factory label, but also packaged it in a style that approximates the nerve-tingling storybook at the movie’s heart. Seven years after the violent death of Amelia’s husband, as they raced to the hospital for the birth of their son, she remains an emotional basket case, barely able to function in the real world. The boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is troubled in a very different way. If ever a child could be expected to grow up to be a sociopath, it’s him. Samuel acts out his pain at school and with unsuspecting playmates. The one thing the boy can’t seem to handle, however, is the possibility that he might be the target of a monster – or actual bogeyman – who stands up to him in the netherworld where nightmares bleed into reality. One night, Amelia allows Samuel to pick out a book for them to share at bedtime. He selects “Mister Babadook,” a slim illustrated volume that one day mysteriously appeared in his bedroom and features sinister poetry and spooky pop-out characters. It’s at this point that things really begin to bump in the night for the haunted child and mother, who forces herself to return to the narrative to see if this gift from hell might have been delivered by her late husband. After some slicing and dicing, Amelia is able to discern a message that could bring them some temporary peace, at least. It isn’t often that a horror movie reveals as many maternal characteristics as The Babadook, in which mother and son share a bond that extends back to the womb. The Blu-ray adds Kent’s “Monster,” the short film that inspired the feature; deleted scenes; featurettes on the set, stunts and special effects; interviews with cast and crew; and a piece on illustrator Alex Juhasz, who created the book that plays such an integral part of the film and its packaging in Blu-ray/DVD. You definitely don’t want to watch The Babadook alone.

Big Eyes: Blu-ray
If Hollywood played by the same rules that govern journalism, an argument could be made that Tim Burton possibly agreed to produce and direct Big Eyes because he owned paintings made by the protagonist, including portraits of Lisa Marie, Helena Bonham Carter and his late pet Chihuahua. While undeniably compelling, Margaret Keane’s story feels a tad too slight for his enormous imagination to embrace. Still, when word got out that Keane’s almost unbelievable tale was being told by Burton, sales of her paintings hit new highs. Even if true, as current scandals go, any such controversy would be small potatoes compared to the ones that have tarred Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Dan Rather, whose profession does demand adherence to certain ethical standards. And, truth be told, in Hollywood, ethics are measured by the number of zeros and commas in a film’s box-office tally. In a move that probably enhanced the box-office potential for Big Eyes, producer Burton took over the directorial reins once held by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had developed the project with the intent of writing and directing it. The former USC roommates had collaborated with Burton on Ed Wood and, back in 2010, entertainment reporters salivated over rumors that they would be working with him, again, on an animated feature inspired by “Addams Family” cartoons in the New Yorker. Like most such pre-production rumors reported as fact in the trades and blogs, this one never made it to the launch pad.

If the hero of Big Eyes is Margaret Keane, she’s frequently overshadowed by the egomaniacal antics of former husband, Walter Keane, who she met at a vulnerable point in her life and to whom she foolishly relinquished authorship of her art. The roles fit Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz to a T. Margaret’s singular portraits of waifs with large round eyes became a sensation in the 1960s, perhaps as a backlash to the rise in Modern, Abstract and Post-Impressionist painting that had come into vogue in the post-war period. This was the art embraced by the same critics – represented here by Terence Stamp — who lambasted the big-eye paintings as being blatantly commercial and overly repetitive. Waltz’ portrayal of Walter veers from the buffoonish to being a textbook case in defining psychological and physical spousal abuse. While probably correct in assuming that patrons of the arts were too set in their ways to invest in paintings that carried a woman’s signature, Keane appears to have convinced himself that promoting her work for fame and fortune was the same thing as creating it. It took Margaret Keane a long time to stand up to her husband’s identity theft and bullying tactics. Even Hawaii proved to be too short a distance from him to prevent meddling and counter demands that she maintain the ruse. When Margaret finally did demand recognition, in an interview with a local radio host, Walter sued her for slander. This led to a courtroom confrontation that would be hilarious if Walter’s behavior weren’t so demonstrably sociopathic. While Big Eyes may lack the cutting-edge heft usually associated with Burton’s films, he does inject the occasional surrealistic touch and it’s inarguably entertaining. Moreover, the performances are worth the price of admission, alone. The Blu-ray adds post-screening Q&As and making-of featurette.

Happy Valley
Antarctica: A Year on Ice: Blu-ray
The irony that drips from the title of Amir Bar-Lev’s latest documentary, would be too much to bear, if, as the home of Penn State University, Happy Valley weren’t so isolated from the world that exists beyond the shadow of academia’s ivory tower and the economic safety net it provides the greater community of 105,000 shining, happy and largely overweight residents. Outside of the classrooms and fields of play at PSU, status quo appears to something people have determined to be well worth fighting to maintain. As such, they tend to take everything that happens there as personally as the crew and passengers of the SS Minnow, on “Gilligan’s Island.” The folks we meet in Happy Valley, the movie, have determined that, as long as their blood runs blue, their precious Nittany Lions football team will be protected as if the mascot represented an endangered species. For the most of the 61 years, Joe Paterno stood on the sidelines as an assistant or head coach of the team. He was as loyal to the community, university and student body as they were to him. He was as close to being a living god in central Pennsylvania as any one person could be and, while far from being a tyrant, Paterno was able to avoid sticky situations by basking in the glare of their love. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant achieved similar status in Alabama, as did Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in Wisconsin, if for much shorter periods of time. Nearly 50 years after his final victory on the frozen tundra, Lombardi is still referred to as “Saint Vince.” Before his death to cancer, at 85, JoePa logged more victories than any other college coach and saw to it that most of his players leave school with a diploma.

Although Paterno had nothing to do with the allegations, his achievements and reputation sustained collateral damage when the child-sex-abuse scandal involving his longtime defensive coordinator began making Page 1 headlines around the country. In November, 2011, Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. Most of the molestation victims were introduced to Sandusky as participants in his non-profit charity camp for underprivileged children. Because Sandusky stood beside Paterno for 30 successful years and probably turned down dozens of job offers from schools in need of a head coach, he was treated like a demi-god in Happy Valley. When the national media caught wind of a three-year grand jury investigation of Sandusky, impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, reporters descended on Happy Valley like a plague of locusts. When they got tired of reporting virtually the same rumors about potential witnesses and indictments, day-after-day, they turned their attention to how much the coach knew about his assistant’s behavior, when he first heard about it and what he did with the information. With the previously secure borders of Happy Valley already breached, Paterno became the next giant to fall. Yes, he had reported two previous accusations of abuse to his superiors in the university’s food chain, but a separate investigation found that he failed to follow-up on them and may have been involved in a cover-up to protect the image of the athletics program. Worse, he continued to allow access to PSU sports facilities to Sandusky, who used them for nefarious encounters with underage boys. In a move that many people saw as being premature, pre-emptive and unnecessarily cruel, the Penn State Board of Trustees rejected Paterno’s offer to retire at the end of the season and fired him with a couple of games left on the schedule. In two months, Paterno would die of cancer. In another six months, the NCAA vacated all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 through 2011, adding sanction that would have negative effect on recruiting players and remaining competitive in the Big 10.

Happy Valley doesn’t re-argue the cases against Sandusky, Paterno or the university officials who covered their heads in sand. Neither is it particularly unkind to the media horde that follows such stories from one place to another, like so many Kardashians to a red carpet. Instead it describes how the controversy turned University Park into a laboratory for gauging the effects of moral equivalency and the deification of sports figures in whose reflected glory fans are allowed to bask. Bar-Lev gives all sides in the debate ample time to state their cases and demonstrate where their loyalties lie … and, yes, make fools of themselves. Among those who agreed to be interviewed are die-hard PSU loyalists, conflicted students and townsfolk, child advocates, a muralist who removed Sandusky’s likeness from his wall painting of the PSU Pantheon, the Paterno’s naturally protective sons and Sandusky’s adopted son, who wasn’t even aware he had been molested until hearing the testimony of other victims.

In an interview conducted for the DVD package, Bar-Lev makes a direct correlation between the Penn State scandal and the on-going Bill Cosby controversy. As long as the beloved comedian can avoid being indicted for rape, his legion of fans and allies will defend his right to continue performing. Like the young who risked everything to testify about what Sandusky did to them, the women who allegedly were drugged and raped by Cosby may never be able to crack the thick veneer of respectability surrounding their attacker. To that end, the NCAA has already buckled under pressure from a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania state representatives against the organization. It restored Paterno’s record and other sanctions on the program in return for an agreement by university officials to free up $60 million for programs serving victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

I seem to recall a cartoon in which every bird in a “waddle” of Antarctic penguins is being stalked by a “waddle” of videographers. Because of all the documentaries, features and TV shows that have followed in the wake of March of the Penguins, no caption was required. Anthony Powell’s frequently stunning Antarctica: A Year on Ice is the latest in a long list of documentaries – animated features have become every bit as prevalent – set on our southernmost continent and showcasing one species of penguin or another. (The only things that separate these films from those shot in the Arctic are the penguins and the lack of wild game and an indigenous population.) As a study of isolated populations, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is kindred to Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga – also from Music Box – Herzog’s similarly placed Encounters at the End of the World, the BBC series “Frozen Planet” and the tense Russian drama, How I Ended This Summer, set at a meteorological station on a desolate island in the Arctic. Powell and wife, Christine, have lived and worked in Antarctica for many years. After more than 10 years of filming, his documentary is divided roughly in half by spectacular images of the rugged terrain and brilliant skies – day and night — and home movies in which the scientific bases’ yearlong residents describe their experiences and feelings about virtually being cut off from the world for six months at a time. If you’ve ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated on the South Pole or how people remain sane in such extreme circumstances, Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a good place to start. The Blu-ray easily met the challenge of my new 4K monitor, somewhat justifying the expenditure. Special features include behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, Powell’s commentary, an interview on New Zealand radio, a short excerpt in which a penguin attacks an invasive camera and visits to the newly preserved huts of explores Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

A Tale of Winter
Odd Man Out: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
That Man From Rio/Up to His Ears: Blu-ray
If the machinations of love and romance weren’t so complicated, it would be easy to categorize Eric Rohmer’s films as fairy tales for adults. The characters are easily recognizable and their hang-ups as familiar as looking in a mirror. If they talk more than people in most other movies, their dialogue, at least, is intelligent and frequently stimulating. More than any other thing, though, Rohmer’s stories serve as reminders that love isn’t easy and romance is worth the pain and shame that sometimes accompany it.  A Tale of Winter (“Conte d’hiver”), the second in the master’s “Tales of the Four Seasons,” may have a predictable ending, but everything that precedes it is unexpected.  The willowy beauty Charlotte Véry plays Félicie, a flakey young Parisian who commits an almost unbelievable blunder after falling in love with the handsome restaurateur, Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche). It happens during a vacation on the shore, where other of Rohmer’s romances have blossomed. Felicie is so sure of her love for Charles that she neglects to insist on a condom. In the act of saying goodbye, she makes the mistake of giving him an address to her residence that places it in a different suburb altogether. Because he was on the road scouting restaurants, Charles was unable to reciprocate with an address of his own. Fast-forward five years and we know without being told that Felicie is the single mother of a beautiful daughter, Elise, while a photograph on her dresser confirms that Charles is the father. She is so confident that he will come to rescue them on a white horse that she allows Elise to share her dream of reunion with the father she only knows by name. Meanwhile, though, Felicie has left herself an escape route by falling into something resembling love with two other men and stringing them along as to the likelihood of Charles miraculously re-entering her life. It’s a cruel game, but each of the men is willing to cut the fairy princess some slack, as long as she continues to spend her nights with them. Although A Tale of Winter mostly unspools in Paris, Rohmer also treats us to some sunny days at the shore and a short visit to the quaint and scenic town of Nevers, which, situated on a hillside along the banks of the Loire River, adds to the film’s fairytale vibe. The moral of the story, I suppose, is to follow one’s heart and never give up on a dream. Even if that Disney-worthy advice works to the advantage of the protagonists in Rohmer’s romances, it’s not something that young lovers in the real world should take to heart.

If all anyone knows about Carol Reed’s movies derives from one or more screenings of his mesmerizing post-war thriller, The Third Man – yup, the one in which Orson Wells plays second fiddle to Anton Karas’ zither – they owe it to themselves to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Odd Man Out. Released two years before Reed’s adaptation of the Graham Greene story, Odd Man Out likewise benefited greatly from Robert Krasker’s amazing black-and-white photography, which merged American film noir with German Expressionism. The shadows may not be as dramatically pronounced as they are in The Third Man, but the same overall sense of dread prevails throughout Odd Man Out. James Mason is terrific as Johnny McQueen, the leader of a clandestine Irish organization – not very unlike the IRA – hiding out in an unnamed city in Northern Ireland after escaping from prison. The organization is getting short on cash, so a cell decides to hit a factory on payday. Fearing that McQueen might not be up for such strenuous work, so soon after being in stir, his followers urge him not join them on the heist. And, sure enough, a momentary lapse in judgment causes McQueen to be seriously wounded in the escape, setting off a chain of events that exposes the organization’s top operatives and their supporters to extreme danger. After losing his grip on the getaway car, McQueen ended up on the concrete, with the police hot on his trail and a bullet in his crushed shoulder. After allowing him temporary shelter in a backyard shed, Reed turns his attention to choreographing a chase between the well-organized constabulary and the men and woman attempting to rescue McQueen before he’s arrested or bleeds out. In between, Reed introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of local residents and various landmarks along the way. Then, there are the turncoats willing to sell out their neighbors in exchange for a quid pro quo from police. We’re never sure how the chase will end and who survives it. Given everything’s that’s happened in Northern Ireland in the ensuing half-century, we have the benefit of understanding how such crimes and chases will finally add up to one bloody mess, unrelieved by reason or compromise. Criterion’s superb high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds greatly to our enjoyment of this 65-year-old classic. The featurettes include “Postwar Poetry,” a new documentary about the film; fresh interviews with British cinema scholar John Hill, musicologist Jeff Smith and composer William Alwyn; a 1952 radio adaptation of the film, starring Mason and Dan O’Herlihy; an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith; and, best of all, “Home, James,” a 1972 documentary in which Mason revisits his hometown of Huddersfield, Yorkshire.

After a series of hard-guy roles that established Jean-Paul Belmondo as an international star, it must have bordered on sacrilege to find him in the extremely broad James Bond spoofs, That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears. If Jerry Lewis, himself, had donned the same white dinner jacket as Belmondo and traveled halfway around the globe – twice – in pursuit of a combined 212 minutes of slapstick humor, it would have made more sense than finding the star of Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, Le Doulos and Pierrot le Fou in such blatant crowd-pleasers. Nonetheless, both of the Philippe de Broca-directed comedies turned in big numbers at the box office, with That Man From Rio even performing well here. Although the Belgian cartoonist, Hergé, wasn’t accorded official recognition for Tintin’s influence on what transpires in That Man From Rio, there’s no escaping the resemblance in plot points, pacing and visuals. In Up to His Ears, at least, Jules Verne’s “Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine” was credited as the movie’s inspiration. In the former, Belmondo’s character chases the kidnapers of the ravishing daughter (Françoise Dorléac) of a famous anthropologist, from Paris to such Brazilian destinations as Rio de Janeiro, a then-nascent Brasilia and Amazonas. They believe she holds the key to an ancient horde of diamonds hidden in a cave in the rainforest. In the latter title, whose plot borders on the ludicrous, Belmondo is a millionaire playboy, who believes he’s being chased by assassins. After sailing into Hong Kong on his yacht, Belmondo’s character is told that he’s lost his fortune – presumably in the stock market – and must scramble to recoup the money needed to maintain his lavish lifestyle. This time, the female lead is none other than Ursula Andress, who was coming off eye-popping performances in Dr. No, Fun in Acapulco, What’s New Pussycat, 4 for Texas and She. In addition to Hong Kong, the spectacular locations include Langkawi Island, Malaysia; Kathmandu and Patan, Nepal; and Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. The Blu-ray features add several lengthy and revealing backgrounder interviews, including a humorous reminiscence by co-star Jean Rochefort.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken: Blu-ray
I can’t recall the amount of media attention here accorded the 1983 kidnaping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken in Holland. It was certainly big news in Europe, especially as it suggested that the lull in abductions of high-profile industrialists and politicians by leftist groups was over. In fact, the Heineken snatching was successful, despite the near-amateur execution of the snatch. Arrogant to the point of refusing the protection of bodyguards, Heineken was an easy target for the five-man gang. Because they weren’t affiliated with organized crime and known political factions, they were able to keep their victim and his driver hidden from police for three weeks, before a 35-million-guilder ransom was paid. The story of the eventual capture of the kidnapers and their trials is nearly as exciting as the crime, itself. It’s so compelling that two movies dramatized it. Daniel Alfredson’s Kidnapping Mr. Heineken  arrives on Blu-ray after brief and extremely limited theatrical run, three years after Maarten Treurniet’s excellent The Heineken Kidnapping. Both take slightly different approaches to the same material, with Alfredson’s version being more accessible to non-Dutch audiences. It features a delicious performance by Anthony Hopkins, as the increasingly perturbed victim, and kidnappers played by Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanteen, Mark van Eeuwen and Thomas Cocquerel. In a return to Holland after some 30 years, Rutger Hauer did an equally nice job as Heineken. You can’t go wrong with either version.

With this year’s fight of the century just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to learn as much about the combatants as possible. For all of his success in the ring, undefeated welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. isn’t the most charismatic or likeable representative for the sweet science.  Very few observers would be unhappy if Mayweather were to be beaten by the scrappy 36-year-old Filipino, Manny Pacquiao, who may be on his last legs, but remains a fierce competitor. Mayweather’s rise from the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, rivals that of Pacquiao’s struggle to escape rural poverty in the strife-torn province of Sarangani. The difference is that Pacquiao, who now represents his home district in the Philippine House of Representatives, used boxing as a means to keep his family from going hungry, while Mayweather, having been born into a family of boxers, drug addicts and criminals, chose the only straight road left to him and he never looked back. Even so, he lost any chance of becoming a people’s champion after serving a two-month sentence for spousal abuse and his flamboyant Las Vegas lifestyle began making headlines in the tabloids. Although Pacquiao would prove not to be a saint, his worldwide status became a source of great pride to the Philippines and he reciprocated by contributing his time and money to charitable projects.  Leon Gast and Ryan Moore’s bio-doc, Manny, doesn’t dwell on the significance of the upcoming fight, choosing, instead, to focus on Pacquiao’s personal story and professional evolution. It also shows how a young fighter who could barely speak English when he began winning championships – and was an easy mark for corrupt managers and promoters — has become something of a talk-show darling, as well as a singer, preacher and politician. And, what Manny lacks in cinematic flair is made up for in information and fight footage. The DVD adds several background featurettes.

Vengeance of an Assassin: Blu-ray
If Sam Peckinpah had ever traveled to Thailand and left behind a son or a daughter, they might have grown up to make a movie as inventively violent as Vengeance of an Assassin, which opens with a brutal game of kung-fu soccer and ends with a body count at least as high as that in The Wild Bunch. Fans of Thai action films probably already are aware of the fact that it represents the final directorial effort by Panna Rittikrai (Ong-Bak), who died last July at the too-young age of 53. Rittikrai is responsible for some of the most amazing stunt work in the martial-arts genre and found success after branching out into directing, acting, writing and producing. Perhaps because Vengeance of an Assassin was being filmed at the same time as Rittikrai was battling complications from multiple organ failure, it is long on action and short on plot development and logic. Natee (Dan Chupong) became a killer for one reason- to discover who killed his parents and reciprocate. As he gets closer to uncovering the secret network of powerful men he believes are responsible, Natee becomes the target of a double-cross that threatens everything he loves. As usual, one of the side benefits of Thai products is scenery and locations not common to other genre products.

Echoes: Blu-ray
From the Dark: Blu-ray
Long Weekend: Blu-ray
Enter the Dangerous Mind: Blu-ray
If I were struggling with insomnia and night terrors, the last place I’d want to spend a weekend alone is in a glass-walled home, sans curtains, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Apart from the occasional garbage-robbing coyote and night-crawling rattlesnake, there are the tormented ghosts of long-dead Indians and undiscovered Manson Family victims. That’s pretty much the setup for Echoes, a very decent first feature by newcomer Nils Timm. A troubled screenwriter (Kate French) accepts just such an invitation from her agent (Steven Brand), who keeps asking her to rewrite the same script, while neglecting to offer her any advice. It’s a wonderful house, though, designed with spectacular panoramic views, and no fences to keep out the boogeymen. When the agent is called back to his office, he encourages the writer to enjoy the weekend and try to get some work done. That’s easier said than done, especially when a light in the backyard turns it into a theater for the macabre. It’s up to viewers to determine if the writer is hallucinating or the house really is haunted by evil spirits lurking among the boulders and sagebrush. This may not be the most original premise for a horror whodunit, but Timm takes full advantage of the setting to raise the ante on fright.

The clever Irish director Conor McMahon, who’s already given us Dead Meat and Stitches, adopts a more minimalist approach in From the Dark. It opens with a farmer methodically digging out brick-shaped clods of peat, until he discovers the mummified remains of a human being … or, perhaps, the corpse was simply biding its time for the old man to find it. Flash ahead a few hours and cut to a young couple experiencing car trouble while on a road trip through the Irish countryside, which, of course, is beautiful on a moonless night. The driver does what anyone would do in the same situation: leave his girlfriend in the car while he seeks help at a home we’re pretty sure was owned by the peat farmer. When no one responds to his knocking, naturally the young man lets himself into the house, where he’s confronted by the 1,000-year-old spirit inhabiting the geezer. Tired of waiting, the perturbed companion follows her boyfriend’s tracks to the home, where, she, too, is confronted by the fiend. Once the couple determines that the creature can’t stand being illuminated, From the Dark becomes a claustrophobic game of tag between the light-seeking couple and a monster intent on keeping them inside a darkened house. Somehow, it works. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The truly classic Ozploitation flick, Long Weekend, makes the most of a nature-strikes-back premise that might have been written and shot during a holiday trip to the beach. It’s this simple. A pair of squabbling Aussies sets out on a camping trip to the bush, hoping to save a marriage hobbled by the wife’s regret over an abortion demanded by her husband. Because they’re shown littering and driving away from a collision with a kangaroo, we’re pre-disposed to dislike them. Once they get to the beach, however, the rifle-toting husband becomes exponentially more onerous than she is. It explains why we side with the native wildlife – including the bloated corpse of a “sea cow” and a transplanted Tasmanian devil – as the critters begin to run roughshod on the campsite and unseen demons launch their strategic attacks. Our natural response is to ask why Peter and Marcia don’t simply pick up their stakes and split back for civilization. Sadly for the couple, the vegetation conspires with the animals and birds to prevent this from happening. Twenty years after Birds, the avian attacks in Long Weekend retain their ability to shock us, but these are considerably more credible. Horror and exploitation buffs should find a lot to like in this Synapse Films reclamation project. The Blu-ray adds commentary from producer Richard Brennan and cinematographer Vincent Monton, as well as an audio interview with Hargreaves.

Enter the Dangerous Mind (a.k.a., “Snap”) received some of the most scathing reviews I’ve seen in a quite a while and I think I know the real reason why it pissed off so many critics. In it, Jim (Jake Hoffman) is a painfully shy young man who’s only able to drown out memories of a traumatic youth by sitting in his room and mixing electronic dance music, heavy on dubstep beats. The music could hardly be more loud and disturbing. I spent most of the movie adjusting the volume, via remote control, so as to avoid being thrown out of my apartment unit. Perhaps, in a nod to “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Jim is tormented by a sociopathic voice in his head instructing him how to approach women, specifically the abnormally beautiful Wendy (Nikki Reed), who he meets on a visit to his social worker (Scott Bakula). It’s all kind of messy, but a decent twist at the end works in the movie’s favor. The problem, of course, is that filmmakers Youssef Delara and Victor Teran will have lost most their audience by this time, fearing their hearing is endangered.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine
The Way Things Go: Blu-ray
In Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s thoroughly enigmatic quasi-documentary, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a mysterious African-American hipster, who some viewers will recognize as avant-garde musician Robert A.A. Lowe, serves as our guide on a somewhat anachronistic journey through far northern Europe. It begins with a visit to either the first or last surviving hippie commune on a small Estonian island and ends at a discomfiting “black metal” concert in Oslo. These sequences serve as bookends to the contemplative middle chapter, during which Lowe fishes, alone, in a rowboat on a serene lake in the Finnish wilderness. On shore, he directly communes with nature via a mushroom with a bright red cap. I’m not sure what any of it means, except, possibly, the Chicago-based musician is a cool guy whose influences are many and varied. If, as I suspect, we’re expected to glean some philosophical, religious or metaphysical significance from the 98-minute A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, the first and third parts tend to neutralize the sublime meditations they surround. It’s also true that 30 minutes of in-your-face black metal would be enough to fill most uninitiated viewers with, at best, a great deal of anxiety. Even so, fans of Lowe and the filmmakers will be ecstatic to learn that it’s available in DVD.

John Aes-Nihil, whose greatest gift to American culture may be the transgressive Manson Family Movies, does for William S. Burroughs what, at one time, must have seemed to be impossible: turn the truly iconic beat writer into someone frightfully old and inconsequential. Ostensibly, William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine is a documentary about the flickering gizmo created in the early 1960s by artist Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville to simulate brain waves. Aes-Nihil uses Burroughs marquee value to stretch about 10 minute of solid material into 70 minutes of vacuous content. His presence basically serves as window dressing, along with irrelevant appearances by Allen Ginsberg and Leo DiCaprio. While it’s true that Burroughs and other influential mid-century artists embraced the apparatus, Aes-Nihil wouldn’t be the first person to exploit a famous author’s name to sell material previously available to the public. Nik Sheehan’s 2008 documentary FLicKeR was a far more persuasive vehicle for a discussion on the subject of the Dreamachine and it features even more celebrity witnesses. The machine has at its core a 100-watt bulb, which is surrounded by a spinning open column with tiny curved windows to allow the light to shine through. Oddly, it is to be experienced with one’s eyes closed. The hypnotic or hallucinogenic effect is supposed to simulate a drug-less high. In the Dreamachine represents Cult Epics’ contribution to the centennial of Burroughs’ birth. Sadly, the footage shot at a 1966 reception at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art and subsequent material taken from a Nova Convention tribute and at Burroughs’ farmhouse, shortly before his death, wouldn’t get a passing grade in most high school AV classes.  The camera is static and the voices are mostly unintelligible. The DVD also includes a photo gallery and David Woodward’s 2007 Dreamachine Installation at the Freud Museum of Dreams, in St Petersburg, Russia. An interesting discussion is neutralized by a lack of subtitles or editing out of long-winded translations.

Of these three largely experimental films, by far the most accessible and entertaining is The Way Things Go (“Der Lauf der Dinge”), which documents an art installation that might have been created by the combined talents of Rube Goldberg and Redd Foxx’s junk-yard genius, Fred G. Sanford. The 100-foot chain-reaction structure is comprised of such commonplace objects as tires, ladders, boards, ramps, aerosol cans, flammable liquids and other discarded household objects. Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss document the 30-minute dissembling on a slow-moving camera, without embellishment or commentary. The best way to experience it is with kids, who should begin to howl with laughter and delight after five minutes. Who knows what they might be inspired to create, themselves, by watching the magic unfold.

Class of 1984: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Eddie and the Cruisers/Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives: Blu-ray
Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2: Blu-ray
In his comments for the Blu-ray edition of Class of 1984, co-writer/director Mark Lester makes it sound as if the exploitation classic possesses the greatest gift of prophesy since 2001: A Space Odyssey, primarily for its inclusion of metal detectors at the doors of his anarchic “inner city” Lincoln High. He recalls the rave reception the movie received at Cannes and Roger Ebert’s supportive review, while also citing such influences as Blackboard Jungle, High School Confidential and A Clockwork Orange. He might just as well have mentioned Zero de Conduite, If … and The 400 Blows. The movie he didn’t  point to, unless I missed it, is the one I thought of first: New World Pictures’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, a film that, like Class of 1984, spawned Troma’s immortal, Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Lester also deserves demerits for a scene in which a gang of white hoodlums, led by Timothy Van Patten, beats the crap out of a gang of black thugs in a rumble staged in the heart of the ghetto. It’s a small point, perhaps, but even on “Welcome Back Kotter,” Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs was allowed to represent African-Americans as a fellow Sweathog. That’s all academic, however, because for better or worse exploitation flicks play by their own rules. The Shout! Factory edition presents enough solid evidence of the Class of 1984’s place in the Pantheon of Exploitation to discourage any further delusions of grandeur. Perry King plays the naïve music teacher who is hired by Lincoln High to replace an instructor who was driven nuts by the punks who turned his class into their own personal playground. The first thing he notices in the parking lot is the gun carried by a jaded fellow teacher (Roddy McDowell) who can’t wait to retire. The second is that four of the five chief troublemakers aren’t even enrolled in the music program. Timothy Van Patten’s spoiled rich kid plays a mean piano, but prefers to torment his teachers and the school’s geek population, which includes a puny musician played by Michael “No J” Fox. If the first half of Class of 1984 is riddled with holes and clichés, the exciting second half more than makes up for it. It’s violent, but in a way that would satisfy fans of Death Wish and Dirty Harry. A fascinating interview with King more than makes up for the less down-to-earth moments in chats with Lester, Lalo Schifrin, Lisa Langlois and Erin Noble.

In other news from Shout! Factory, similarly restored double-feature packages of Eddie and the Cruisers/Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives and Carrie/The Rage: Carrie 2 are newly available on Blu-ray. In the former, 20 years after the car of a New Jersey rock legend (Michael Pare) careens off a bridge, a TV reporter (Ellen Barkin) begins to suspect that the singer might have survived the crash. The original film didn’t become a hit until it was shown on cable and was embraced by teenage viewers.  In the sequel, Eddie comes out of hiding to front a different band. Some featurettes have been picked up for the re-release.

Despite the title, the Carrie double-bill is comprised of the 2002 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tale of horror and retribution, which aired on NBC and starred Angela Bettis, Patricia Clarkson and Rena Sofer. Released theatrically in 1999, The Rage: Carrie 2 is the kind of unnecessary sequel that is made whether anyone wants to see it or not. Neither of these titles should be confused with Brian De Palma’s original Carrie or Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 remake, which received a handful of good reviews and may have turned a profit in the international market. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary by directors David Carson and Katt Shea, deleted scenes, an alternate ending and special-effects sequences.

Starz: The Missing: Blu-ray
Syfy: Metal Hurlant Chronicles: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Joe 90: The Complete Series
PBS: Wild Kratts: Shark-Tastic
PBS: Lights Out!
Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Hall of Famers/Stingers and Zingers
When a child disappears or is found dead, the loss is felt far beyond members of the immediate family. It’s as if we all have a stake in the outcome. Our compassion explains the widespread acceptance of Amber Alerts and the ability of bottom-feeding cable-news personalities to exploit such crimes for their own benefit. While we all want happy endings, too often all we’re left with are prayer vigils, live courtroom coverage and relief that it wasn’t our children who fell victim to the monsters around us. The international co-production “The Missing” – shown here on Starz and, in England, on BBC 1 – is an intricately drawn and imminently binge-worthy mini-series that examines one such disappearance as both a police procedural and heart-wrenching human drama. Fans of BBC America and PBS’ “Masterpiece” collection will recognize several of the key players as the cream of England’s acting crop, with some top French and Belgian actors lending their talent to the cross-Channel investigation. Brits Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor), along with their young son, Olly, are vacationing in a town near Paris when car trouble forces them to spend the night in a B&B. An important soccer match has the entire town transfixed and, being a pleasant summer night, most are watching it in the plaza. At a critical moment, Tony loses hold of Olly’s hand for a precious few seconds. It’s in that wink of an eye, that the boy slips off into the night, perhaps forever, opening the floodgates of fear, recriminations and fevered speculation. Unwilling to lose track of even the memory of their son, the Hughes take up residence in the hotel for long periods of time over the course of the next eight years. European superstar Tchéky Karyo plays the dogged police detective for whom the investigation becomes an obsession shared with Olly’s hugely impatient father. Over time, the two men’s relationship grows from tepid acceptance born of necessity to a true friendship. Not surprisingly, Tony and Emily’s marriage is stretched to the breaking point and back. “The Missing” is so full of twists, turns, false leads, red herrings and cliffhangers that any synapsis would be too laden with spoilers to do justice to the complexity of the narrative. Let’s just say that, at various times, the suspects include everyone from the town’s politically expedient mayor to the town’s resident pedophile. None of them are given short-shrift by director Tom Shankland (“Ripper Street”) and writers Harry and Jack Williams (“Full English”). The package’s three short featurettes add almost nothing to our enjoyment of the mini-series or anticipation of a second season.

Distinguished by a hyper-realistic visual texture and intense heavy-metal audio presentation Syfy’s “Metal Hurlant Chronicles” offers fans of dystopian sci-fi a distinctly adult vision of the distant future. The self-contained stories in this noisy English-language Franco-Belgian anthology series are based on material already published in Métal Hurlant/ Heavy Metal magazine. Co-writer/creator Guillaume Lubrano’s unifying force is the titular asteroid – the last remnant of a once thriving planet – destined to search the cosmos for individuals struggling to survive amid the ruins, while retaining a semblance of humanity in a universe that couldn’t give a shit less. The episodes, patterned after “The Twilight Zone” and other sci-fi anthology series, feature some very decent CG animation, but, generally speaking, are too short be of much intellectual value to viewers. Still, for a couple of seasons, anyway, it filled a niche on Syfy. The cast includes Rutger Hauer, Michael Biehn, John Rhys-Davies, James Marsters, Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Kelly Brook, Joe Flanigan, Michelle Ryan and Dominique Pinon. Some viewers will be happy to learn that titty bars serve oxygen cocktails in deep space.

From Shout! Factory/Timeless Media, “Joe 90” is the latest compilation of Supermarionation television adventures, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” “Thunderbirds”) in the 1960s. After the brilliant Professor Ian McClaine develops a machine called BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer) he decides to use his adopted son, Joe, as his guinea pig.  Having been imbued with the ability to become an expert in any field, the 9-year-old boy is recruited by the World Intelligence Network to join their quest to stop evildoers wherever they may arise.  “Joe 90: The Complete Series” contains 30 episodes of entertaining kids/geek programming, as well as commentaries with designer Mike Trim and director Ken Turner, and an interview with Gerry Anderson.

In the new PBS compilation, “Wild Kratts: Shark-Tastic!,” the environmental crusaders are researching ways to prevent the extinction of aquatic life around the planet, starting with the decimation of great white sharks by fishermen in pursuit of fins required to satisfy the expensive tastes of thoughtless diners. Next, when Martin knocks the Creature Power Suits into a deep Arctic trench, the brothers use the new Octopod submarine to search for them. Then, Aviva takes the lead when she wants to upgrade the Tortuga with swimming capabilities and the team attempts to decode the secret language of dolphins using a new invention.

Occasionally, one of the fine scientific investigations provided us by PBS raise questions about subjects most of us take completely for granted and only question when something goes wrong. The one posed in “Lights Out!” is new to me, however: Is too much artificial light a bad thing? Apparently, some scientists now believe that exposure to artificial light at night, even the glow of a cell phone or computer screen, can throw our internal body clock out of sync with the planet and may even be leading to serious illnesses. The producers visit nightshift workers at the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant, go for a ride-along with truckers on a cross-continental run and meet a New Orleans scientist who fights cancer by day and plays trumpet with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band by night. Among other things, they discover that hot spots are everywhere, from the illumination in the hospital ICU to the tiny screens of our mobile devices. I wonder of this Canadian export got much play on the Las Vegas PBS affiliate.

When Justin Bieber was cut to pieces by a jury of his peers on the latest Comedy Central roast, the jokes were passed through social media for days to come. The insults were largely R-rated and not all them were hurled in the direction of the bad-boy singer. There’s a lot of collateral damage in these affairs. While pretty hot in their day, the bon mots exchanged in Dean Martin Roasts: Stingers & Zingers and Dean Martin Roasts: Hall of Famers now seem as tame as the kittens and puppies in a pet-shop window. This isn’t to say, however, that they no longer are able to raise a smile or two, especially when the barbs are aimed at some of the biggest names in mid-century entertainment, politics and sports. “Stingers & Zingers” is an eight-DVD set that includes 24 complete “Celebrity Roasts “ and features a wide variety of guest roasters. “Hall of Famers” puts a tight focus on some sports figures as Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. The Aaron segment was taped only 10 days before he broke Babe Ruth s longstanding career home-run record. The distinction provided no shield against the pointed gags.

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 9
Impulse Pictures’ series of vintage-loop collections continues apace with 15 short films made in the period just before pornography went mainstream. Although the credits didn’t carry any credits, within a couple of years some the actors’ names would appear on Times Square marquees and the covers of VHS packages around the world. Some of the actors would simply disappear into the ether, of course, probably hoping and praying these nine-minute flicks would disappear forever. The digital revolution ensures they’ll live forever, instead. Among the more familiar names assembled here are Kandi Barbour, Aunt Peg, CJ Laing, and Vanessa Del Rio. As usual, liner notes are provided by Cinema Sewer editor, Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Immigrant and more

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

A Most Violent Year: Blu-ray
For many years, the 105-year-old National Board of Review has prided itself in being the first critical organization to reveal its list of the year’s best films, as well as handing out awards in several awards categories. As such, it not only has avoided getting lost in the avalanche of similar announcements, but also assured that no one in the greater cinematic community could forget its very existence. By comparison, the membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is an open book. Because of the attention given the board’s announcement by celebrity-obsessed media, publicists for the movies and artists so honored are accorded a head start in the increasingly competitive and absurdly expensive race for Oscars. (Never mind that most of the films named won’t reach audiences beyond New York and L.A. until mid-January, if at all.) When the NBR anointed J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year 2014’s Best Film, along with bestowing top honors on stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac – who shared the prize with Birdman’s Michael Keaton — it raised expectations for Academy Award nominations that never came. (The academy would also largely overlook the NBR’s other season-bests, Fury, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, The LEGO Movie and Nightcrawler, all of which were undeservedly snubbed.) Even if it had made the finals, though, A Most Violent Year wasn’t likely to beat Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel for Best Picture. Still, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it nominated for the unfilled ninth or tenth slots in the category. Alas, it wasn’t to be … such is life in the mean streets of Hollywood.

It’s worth noting that the title of Chandor’s easily recommendable thriller derives from the fact that 1981 – the temporal setting of A Most Violent Year — was one of the most violent, perhaps the most violent year in New York City history. No single industry, ethnic group or social stratum was immune to the madness. In a scenario that might have attracted Sidney Lumet, Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of one of the city’s leading suppliers of heating oil. Just as his business is about to expand, someone begins hijacking Morales’ trucks and selling the valuable contents on the black market. Like Morales, viewers are kept in the dark as to who’s responsible for the sometimes violent attacks, except that the likely suspects include competitors, a Teamster rep, loan sharks and organized crime. Chastain is typically excellent as Morales’ wife, a mobster’s daughter with a taste for Armani and protecting the company she helped prosper. Also terrific are Albert Brooks as Morales’ ethically conflicted lawyer and David Oyelowo, an ambitious district attorney, desperate to announce indictments. The interesting thing about Morales is that, for all of his gangster swagger and slick attire, he may be the one character in A Most Violent Year whose integrity is the least questionable, and that includes his wife. Even if I found myself tying up loose threads in the narrative, none interfered with my enjoyment of the picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb; the 44-minute background featurette, “Behind the Violence”; four “conversations” between longtime friends, Chastain and Isaac; deleted scenes; and other tidbits.

Interstellar: Blu-ray
If A Most Violent Year appeared to come out of nowhere to capture three top National Board of Review honors, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar began generating audible buzz even before debuting in early October. Here’s what Variety’s chief film critic, Scott Foundas, had to say about it, “Interstellar reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Gravity in the canon of Hollywood’s visionary sci-fi head trips. Global box office returns should prove suitably rocket-powered.” And that’s just what happened. To date, it has earned more than $672.6 million in the international marketplace, of which $188 million can be attributed to domestic revenues. As was the case with A Most Violent Year, however, early buzz failed to translate into high-profile nominations. It received four nominations in technical categories and one for Hans Zimmer’s original score, resulting in a single Oscar for visual effects. Typically, I don’t like to paraphrase other critics’ observations, but, as comparisons go, it would be difficult to find any more apt than the four classics mentioned in the Variety review. If you think The Wizard of Oz might be a stretch, well, judge for yourselves. Authors Jonathan and Christopher Nolan conjure a time in the foreseeable future when the planet has exhausted its ability to replenish its resources and a mass evacuation, as unfeasible as it sounds, is seen as a possible way to save humanity. The problem of finding a suitable planet to relocate the masses, however, remains unsolved. To this end, NASA has embarked on a highly classified mission – under the guidance of Nolan mainstay, Michael Caine — to send a select group of astrophysicists and a biotechnologist to a location somewhere in the direction of Saturn, where a newly identified wormhole might provide a superhighway to inhabitable worlds orbiting the massive black hole Gargantua.

As if to provide a more identifiably human protagonist for Interstellar’s audience to embrace – other than the data jockeys, engineers and conceptual cosmologists at NASA and Cal Tech — we’re given veteran military pilot and astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  A quintessentially down-to-Earth heartlander, Cooper retired to his vast family farm after NASA lost its funding. Evidence already visible on the horizon suggests, however, that a second Dust Bowl is imminent and, this time, nothing of lasting value will be spared. Cooper shares the farm with his crusty father-in-law (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and precocious 10-year-old daughter “Murph” (Mackenzie Foy), who believes her bedroom is haunted. If so, the poltergeist is sufficiently well-versed in the properties of gravitational waves to leave binary-coded coordinates that lead Cooper to the hidden NASA facility supervised by Caine’s Professor Brand. During a final visit to the farm, Murph demands that Cooper not join the mission and throws a heart-breaking tantrum when he insists that he has no recourse but to at least attempt to save mankind. If he makes it back to Earth, which seems unlikely, Cooper knows that his children will have aged by as many as 50 years, while he’ll still be handsome and spry. (It’s complicated.) In the meantime, however, Murph (now, Jessica Chastain) will have joined Brand at NASA headquarters and Tom (Topher Grace) will have taken over the farm.

Once the space probe has left the Earth’s atmosphere, Interstellar moves swiftly into territory previously explored by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Cooper’s crew consists of Brand’s biotech daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a pair of intricately programmed robots. There’s no way I could do justice to what happens when they enter the wormhole, accept to say that it isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before on film. Instead of merely providing a visual treat for acid heads – as 2001 would become — the Nolans combine aspects of traditional sci-fi with survival drama, metaphysics, advanced cosmology and theology. McConaughey’s good-ol’-boy demeanor ensures that the mission won’t sail completely over the heads of viewers without PhDs. This isn’t to say, however, that amateur astronomers, Trekkies and other card-carrying space nerds will be disappointed by concessions made for those of us who are tested by the jargon in “The Big Bang Theory.” The science is sound, if theoretical, and expertly rendered by CGI wizards right here on Earth. To this end, an entire disc in the Blu-ray package is dedicated to interviews, making-of material, explainers and a 55-minute featurette in which the Nolans introduce us to theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne, upon whose research Interstellar is based. Besides helping a generation of filmmakers make “the most exotic events in the universe … accessible to humans,” Thorne’s reputation recently was enhanced by an event depicted in The Theory of Everything. As portrayed by Enzo Cilenti, Thorne wins a bet with Stephen Hawking – based on theory that underlies Interstellar – who was then required to subscribe to Penthouse magazine for a year. He also was involved in the creation of Errol Morris’ “A Brief History of Time,” the PBS mini-series “The Astronauts,” Carl Sagan’s novel, “Contact,” and the “Interstellar” video game and tie-in novel.

The Immigrant: Blu-ray
Several excellent films have been made about the American immigrant experience and sometimes perilous passage from Ellis Island to the Promised Land, just a short ferry ride in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. As such James Gray’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Immigrant shares elements of period pictures that include The Godfather II, Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America, the CBS mini-series “Ellis Island,” the 3D IMAX Across the Sea of Time, John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet and Emanuele Crialese’s sadly underseen, Golden Door. Likewise, images from Stephen Wilke’s “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom,” JR’s “Unframed: Ellis Island” and Lewis Wickes Hine’s “social photography” consciously and subliminally have provided countless art, set and fashion directors with an accurate look at how millions of immigrants spent their first few days in the United States. Extremely well-crafted and emotionally taxing, The Immigrant depicts one Polish immigrant’s introduction to the dark side of the American Dream, circa 1921. Ironically, if it suffers at all, it’s from the familiarity we have with all of the movies and documentaries that were informed by the same photographs and newsreel footage. Practically every scene harkens to images already etched into our collective consciousness. It couldn’t help but distract me, even momentarily, from the personal drama of Ewa Cybulska. As portrayed by Marion Cotillard, Ewa is an impoverished refugee from war-torn Eastern Europe. As if the trip from Poland weren’t taxing enough, her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), is quarantined in the island’s hospital after showing possible symptoms of TB. Meanwhile, rumors that Ewa turned tricks on the voyage west cause immigration authorities to separate her from the pack, as well. Like a turkey vulture attracted to roadkill, showman/pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) just happens to be in the cavernous waiting room as Ewa is led to a holding area.

In a scenario that I can’t recall seeing previously in movies set on Ellis Island, Weiss is able to bribe a guard into allowing Ewa to do an end run around the validation process. Ewa speaks enough English to be wary of Weiss’ intentions, but not enough to feel secure in the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, where, she’s been led to believe, her aunt and uncle have abandoned her. Before being introduced to prostitution, Ewa works in the costume department of Weiss’ burlesque house and occasionally appears on stage as Lady Liberty. Still committed to getting Magda off the island, she has pretty much indentured herself to the miracle-worker, Weiss. She also has made a friend in his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), who’s better known around town as Orlando the Magician. Emil is no more trustworthy than Bruno, but, at least, he isn’t a procurer of destitute young women. As the tension between them nears the volcanic level, all three characters find themselves running out of time to accomplish their respective goals. Things get especially dire for Ewa as the full weight of New York corruption and the debilitating exploitation of immigrants causes her to despair of ever freeing her sister. Can Bruno or Emil work their devious wiles before they’re either killed or run out of money? Stay tuned. If there’s something strangely off-putting about Cotillard’s portrayal – her ability to speak English goes largely unexplained – it doesn’t keep us from sympathizing with her plight or that of the other women helped by Weiss’ crooked connections. Because Gray and Phoenix had already collaborated on The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, it isn’t surprising that Weiss is the most fully realized character in The Immigrant. The Blu-ray adds Gray’s commentary and featurette, “The Visual Inspiration of ‘The Immigrant’,” which describes how the filmmakers were able to nail the period look, using Hines’ photographs and period paintings as primary source material.

Three Night Stand
If You Don’t, I Will
There are so many things wrong with the straight-outta-Canada rom-com Three Night Stand that it begs the question as to how it got green-lit in the first place. If I were to guess, I’d say that it was sold on the promise that teenagers and young adults would find it difficult to stay away from a sexual farce set in the gorgeous Laurentian Mountains, not far from Montreal, and starring such familiar hotties as Sam Huntington, James A. Woods and Meaghan Rath – all three from the North American iteration of the BBC’s “Being Human” — Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”), Reagan Pasternak (“Being Erica”), Aliocha Schneider (“Les Jeunes Loups”) and Dan Beirne (“Flashpoint”). Writer/director Pat Kiely had enjoyed a few moments in the spotlight as a key collaborator on Who Is KK Downey?, a publishing-industry satire that found some fans on the 2008 festival circuit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kiely also played a recurring character on “Being Human.” Instead of attempting to cobble together a successful rom-com from these inarguably attractive parts, Kiely might have been better served if he’d made a feature version of the supernatural crime series. As it is, Huntington and Rath play a yuppie couple, Carl and Sue, whose marriage is failing for a dozen different reasons. Carl hopes to re-kindle the last remaining spark of their relationship during a weekend getaway in the snow-covered mountains. In one of those coincidences that only occur in movies held together by star power and duct tape, the lovely chateau is owned and managed by Carl’s old girlfriend, Robyn. When Sue learns that it once served as a love shack for Carl and Robyn, the exotic beauty begins to suspect she’s being played. Also staying at the resort are a French-language pop star, Anatolii, and his bi-cougar mom, Lise, and two of Carl’s friends from work, who responded to his distress call. Complicating matters even further is the arrival of Robyn’s estranged husband, Aaron, a pugnacious asshole from B.C., who can’t accept the fact that she left him for anything or anyone else. Somewhere in this mess is the framework for a decent farce, I think, but Kiely simply was incapable of pulling one out of the fire. The dialogue bounces awkwardly between French and English; the women are incalculably more attractive and sympathetic than the men; the sexuality is closer to PG than R; and Anatolii’s relationship with his mother is inexplicably perverse. The only thing wrong with the gorgeous wintertime setting is Kiely’s attempt to wring humor from a sex scene that requires of the characters that they wear cold-weather gear and remain on their snowmobile. It’s about as romantic as a tortoise humping an old shoe.

Sophie Fillières’ strangely compelling French dramedy, If You Don’t, I Will, deals with several of the same issues addressed in Three Night Stand, but vive la difference. Where Kiely attempted to mine humor from a played-out vein, Fillieres allows it to emerge organically from situations most viewers wouldn’t necessarily consider to be fertile ground for laughs. Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, who are as simpatico as any two actors can be, play a middle-class couple from Lyon whose 15-year marriage has run its course. Things Pomme and Pierre once happily shared now provide excuses for corrosive bickering and strategic indifference. At first, it’s easy to believe that Pomme deserves the bulk of our sympathy, but the more we learn about their personal history together, the less we’re inclined to solely blame Pierre for their mutual distress. Pomme has a son from a previous marriage, but he’s old enough to get along on his own, and she’s recovering from surgery for a brain tumor that happily was benign. He’s supportive, but has a girlfriend on the side. They probably are capable of maintaining a semblance of marriage for many more years or they could wake up one morning and pull the plug on the charade. On a hike through the mountainous Chamoiselle Forest, Pomme abruptly decides to take off on her own, while Pierre heads for the parking lot. Days pass in this gorgeous setting, allowing her plenty of time and opportunity to contemplate her present and future. Increasingly more concerned about his wife’s well-being, Pierre returns to the forest, where Pomme’s already plotting her exit. Without revealing what happens from this point in If You Don’t, I Will, I can say that it’s nothing most viewers will be able to predict. It’s also here that the dark comedy really kicks in. Like so many other French entertainments, If You Don’t, I Will wouldn’t last 20 minutes on the DVD players of most mainstream American viewers. For the art-house crowd, however, the joy of watching Devos and Amalric play off of each other should be reason enough to invest in a rental. The Film Movement release adds interviews with the stars and writer/director, as well as the funny Belgian short film, “Driving Lessons.”

Massacre Gun: Blu-ray
In an enjoyable interview included in Arrow Video’s lovingly restored Japanese crime thriller, Massacre Gun, the formidable genre star Jô Shishido allows that such films essentially attempted to do little more than slavishly re-create the noir conceits of B-movies cranked out of Hollywood in the 1940-50s. In time, the industry would develop a genre style of its own – combining noir conceits, with violent crime, sexual exploitation and rock music – but that would come later in the ’60s. At the beginning of the decade, though, filmmakers used their medium to depict the anti-social by-products of the American occupation. As was the case with American noir, the reliance on monochromatic was less a stylistic choice than one based on studio economics. Japanese filmmakers developed a keen eye for the nuances of black-and-white cinematography and, while largely derivative, churned out a steady supply of yakuza and samurai hits. Some, of course, were better than others. By 1967, Yasuharu Hasebe (Black Tight Killers), Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) and Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships) had emerged from the pack as directors to take seriously. In between historical epics, Akira Kurusawa had contributed High and Low (1963) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) to the upper shelf of gangster-genre flicks. If movies such as Hasebe’s Massacre Gun failed to impress western audiences, it’s probably because the action sequences lacked the visual credibility even of TV’s “The Untouchables” and we had more than enough hoodlums with which to contend on our shores.  Viewed from a distance of 50 years, however, they can be enjoyed for their sheer entertainment value and technical flare. Here, Shishido plays an obedient a mob hitman, Kuroda, who, after being forced to execute his lover, decides to go straight. This, of course, isn’t looked upon with approval by his bosses or the gangsters who depend on him for their income and protection. After they tear apart the nightclub and boxing gym belonging to Kuroda and his brothers, a full-blown mob war becomes impossible to avoid, with heavy casualties on both sides. The shootouts are stylishly shot, but it’s the nightclub scenes that are most memorable. That’s primarily because of the cool-jazz soundtrack by Naozumi Yamamoto and atmospheric art direction of Takeo Kimura. Besides the interview with Shishido, the Blu-ray adds a fresh one with writer and film historian Tony Rayns; a gallery of rare promotional materials; an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and illustrations by Ian MacEwan; and original archive stills.

Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn
Invaders From Mars: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly 100 years since the first film adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Since then, it’s been remounted for screen and television more the 50 times, including here in first-time director Jo Kastner’s Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. If one can get past the fact that this adaptation was filmed in Bulgaria, instead of Missouri, the Danube makes a reasonable facsimile of the Mississippi and only a few of the European actors retain a discernible accent. Kastner’s screenplay follows the trajectory of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” finishing with a hint of what’s to come with Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they drift down the river on a raft. American stars Jake T. Austin, Joel Courtney and Katherine McNamara should be familiar to pre-teens and teens who follow such shows as “The Fosters,” “R.L. Stine’s ‘The Haunting Hour,” “Happyland” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” if not their parents. Val Kilmer, who’s impersonated Twain on stage, plays the author as a very old man, recalling the events of his stories for a pair of young admirers. Parents could certainly use Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn as a starter set for kids they want to introduce to the classics of American literature.

No matter how much time kids spend grousing about their parents, doing chores and homework, one of the primal fears shared by all children is that they’ll wake up one morning and find them gone completely or so changed that they might as well be robots. It’s just that feeling of abandonment and uncertainty that informs Invaders From Mars, more so in Toby Hooper’s 1986 remake than in William Cameron Menzies’ original 1953 version. Although both films are built on the same foundation – Richard Blake’s timeless screenplay – Dante’s mission appears to have been engaging teens and pre-teens, who, unlike their parents, already were conversant with most sci-fi conventions and archetypes. After all, by 1986, how kids hadn’t already fallen in love with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the first Star Wars trilogy? When the original was released, Martians were as likely to invade the U.S. as hordes of Chinese communists. Hooper knew it would have taken more to frighten American kids than the thought of E.T. returning to Earth with all of his friends and relatives on a giant spacecraft. The critics lambasted his remake, but, once again, treated it as if it were made specifically to please them and people old enough to remember Menzies’ picture. Instead, the collaborative team of Hooper, writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, and creature-effects masters Stan Winston and John Dykstra, decided that kids in 1986 probably could use a few laughs to lighten the thought of losing control to Martian invaders. Grown-ups will appreciate the filmmakers’ efforts to engage older viewers with trick casting and other homages to the original. For example, Jimmy Hunt, who played young David MacLean in the original, was cast as the police chief in the remake.  Hunter Carson, fresh off his stellar debut in Paris, Texas, is frequently joined on screen here by his mother, Karen Black, cast as the school nurse who becomes convinced David is telling the truth. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds Hooper’s entertaining commentary; the excellent 36-minute backgrounder, “Martians are Coming: The Making of Invaders From Mars”; a production illustration gallery from artist William Stout; storyboards; and a stills gallery.

Breathless: Blu-ray
By reversing the physical settings, as well as the nationalities of the lead characters from Jean-Luc Godard’s epochal Breathless (“A Bout De Souffle”), the ever-provocative American writer/director Jim McBride risked offending tens of millions of film buffs who regard the nouvelle vague classic as one of the most important films in the international repertory. Richard Gere’s career was still very much on the ascendency, but almost everything else about McBride’s Breathless was a risk most observers didn’t think was worth taking. Mainstream reviews of the finished products appeared to concur with that observation. In a very real sense, however, the filmmaker probably was inspired as much by the irresistible Otis Blackwell/Jerry Lee Lewis song of the same title, which preceded even the release of Godard’s movie. It’s heard throughout the 100-minute Breathless, sung by Lewis, Gere and X. There’s nothing wrong with Gere’s frenetic portrayal of Las Vegas gigolo, who steals a Porsche to get to L.A. to cash an IOU from a fellow hoodlum. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, he foolishly gets into a chase with a highway patrolman. The movie could have ended there and then, if Jesse hadn’t found a handgun in the glove box and left it on the front seat, where the temptation to use the damn thing was too great resist. The violent act certainly doesn’t help his chances of getting to L.A., locating his banker and hightailing it to Mexico with the girl of his dreams. Twenty-year-old Valerie Kaprisky, whose experience was largely in soft-core sexploitation flicks, couldn’t have been a less likely candidate for the job of being the UCLA architecture student with which Jesse becomes obsessed after a tryst in Las Vegas. If Gere offers a reasonable alternative to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Kaprisky could never be mistaken for Jean Seberg. She looked too much like a teenager and her English was almost laughable. What she did have going for her, though, was a body that must have defied the urge for her to get dressed every morning. And that was perfectly alright with Jesse, who, of course, was doomed from the point of his altercation with the cop. If there was one Blu-ray re-release that warrants commentary or backgrounder it would be McBride’s Breathless, but, alas, all we get is a trailer.

BET: The Book of Negroes
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Grantchester: Blu-ray
If Black History Month had existed when I was in school, I might not have been so taken aback by the off-putting title of its mini-series, “The Book of Negroes.” After all, the word, “negro,” exists mostly as the n-word that spawned the more onerous n-word, whose usage today is condoned as street slang in some circles and condemned as a racial epithet when thrown around by others. Indeed, when American publishers decided to pick up Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill’s historical novel for distribution here, its title was changed to “Someone Knows My Name.” Although, it refers to a notion at the heart of the book and mini-series, it hardly packed the same intellectual and emotional punch as “The Book of Negroes.” Frankly, though, throughout much of the mini-series’ first three episodes, I wondered if I wasn’t watching an attempt to bridge ABC’s landmark “Roots” with last year’s tentatively linked “12 Years a Slave” and “Belle.” It opens in West Africa, in 1750, when native slave traders murder the parents of young Aminata Diallo (Aunjunae Ellis) and put her on a boat leaving for South Carolina. Naturally traumatized, Aminata befriends a boy from a nearby tribe, Chekura Tiano (Lyriq Bent), who was in the company of the slave traders, but took pity on her because she could speak his language … and she was pretty. At the end of the trek, however, Chekura, too, was put in chains and loaded on the boat to America. Their oft-interrupted friendship/romance exists as the primary subplot throughout all six episodes, beginning with their separation at the slave market in Charleston and, a few years later, a reunion in the forest behind the plantation that’s become her home. Aminata has a couple of things going for her that the other female slaves, at least, don’t. She is conversant in several tribal languages and English; she can read, write and engage in the art of storytelling; maintains Islam as a moral and ethical foundation; and, from her mother, has learned how to “catch” babies as a midwife. Each of these attributes evolves, later on, into a survival skill.

The melodramatic elements of the mini-series begin to disappear, when, Aminata is able to escape the clutches of both a sadistic owner and one who treats her well, but sells her infant daughter into slavery. The series then moves to New York, where a flourishing colony of free slaves exists under British rule. As the Revolutionary War heats up, Chekura and other former slaves are given an opportunity to clean their slates by agreeing to fight with the Redcoats. Knowing that American rebels, if successful, weren’t likely to accept their status as freed men, thousands accepted the offer. One of the conditions for surrender gave blacks who fought on the side of the British the right to be shipped to Nova Scotia, where they would be able to live freely and attempt to carve out a living from the frozen tundra. There was a catch, however, and it becomes the dramatic turning point in the mini-series. No former slave would be allowed to join the Canadian colony, if his or her former owner demands their return. Even slave-owner George Washington went along with this horrifying caveat. To make sure that as few of the former slaves were shipped back South as possible, Aminata agrees to organize a register of the New York blacks and turn it over to the British commander (Ben Chaplin) in negotiations with the Americans. And, yes, it became known as “The Book of Negroes.” Without giving away too much more of the increasingly compelling plot, I’ll only allow that the story carries us to Nova Scotia, where the locals prove to be nearly as racist as any plantation owner, and on to Sierra Leone and London, where abolitionists have launched a crusade to outlaw slavery and re-patriate blacks in another tribe’s backyard. Even though “The Book of Negroes” is technically a novel, it is largely based on the type of factual material that makes our Founding Fathers look like the short-sighted hypocrites many of them were. This country’s “original sin” still tarnishes our society. Much of the mini-series was shot on location, including the part of Nova Scotia where the black colony was originally established. The deleted scenes and short featurettes are good, too.

Leave it to the Brits to come up not only with another terrific “Masterpiece Mystery” series featuring an unusual protagonist, but also a nifty odd-couple pairing of crime fighters. The setting for the ITV/PBS production “Grantchester” is post-war England, where Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is vicar of the titular village, just outside Cambridge. He is frequently joined by Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who, despite being an embittered alcoholic, is able to see through the boozy fog long enough to find evidence overlooked by other cops. While you’d think Grantchester would be an unlikely place to sustain yet another series about heinous criminality, there’s seemingly no end to a cop’s work in rural England. Keating may be a bit of an archetype when it comes to world-weary police detectives, but Chambers is a real piece of work. As conceived by novelist James Runcie, the sexy vicar smokes, drinks, loves jazz, lies, steals and struggles with memories of a murder he witnessed while serving in World War II. Moreover, while he’s juggling relationships with two women (Morven Christie, Pheline Roggan) who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, physically and emotionally, he allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous torch singer.  Tessa Peake-Jones and Al Weaver provide comic relief as the vicar’s bossy housekeeper and his naïve curate. The Blu-ray package adds interviews and making-of material.

The DVD Wrapup: Imitation Game, The Circle, Roommates, Putin, MST3K and more

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

The Imitation Game: Blu-ray
The Circle
Two amazing stories play out in The Imitation Game, one heroic and the other tragic. The struggle to break the Nazi’s World War II Enigma Code has been told enough times on film and television that most viewers will have sufficient awareness of the discovery made at Bletchley Park to wade through the mathematical and technological jargon in Graham Moore’s Oscar-winning script. What separates Morten Tyldum’s take on the story from the others is the magnetic presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, as the almost madly single-minded computer scientist, Alan Turing, and the level of tension sustained throughout The Imitation Game’s 114-minute length. The less-told story describes how British authorities later would go so far out of their way to tarnish the legacy of the brilliant cryptanalyst and mathematician, who, according to Winston Churchill, made the single greatest contribution in England’s war effort. Despite having played an essential role in the Allies’ victory over fascism, police used his homosexuality as an excuse to harass, humiliate and prosecute Turing, even after he had agreed to be chemically castrated. His suicide, in 1954, immediately recalls the treatment accorded Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest English-language writers of all time, after he was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Three years later, Wilde, a man who probably hadn’t performed two hours of hard labor in his life, would die penniless and in disgrace from an injury possibly sustained while in jail. (That, or syphilis, depending on who one chooses to believe.) More than a century later, lovers of Wilde’s plays and writings have erased any trace of the scandal once associated with his name.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, Turing was accorded an official public apology by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth II would grant him a posthumous pardon. It would be nice to think that we’ve turned a chapter on such hideous behavior. Based on current Indiana law and pending Arkansas legislation, however, merchants would be free to deny services to any contemporary Turing or Wilde, as well as such LGBT celebrities and athletes as Bruce Jenner, who’s being pilloried in the media for daring to live the rest of his life as a woman. In that regard, anyway, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It comes as good news, then, to learn how well the picture’s done at both the domestic and foreign box office. Everything from the acting to the re-creation of the Bletchley Park laboratory is at the highest possible level. Yes, The Imitation Game suffers by comparison to some of the known facts of the story, but there’s no questioning how well the filmmakers were able to capture its spirit and urgency. Oscar nominee Keira Knightley does a fine job as Turing’s fellow code breaker and closest friend, Joan Clarke, as do the other A-list Brits in key roles (Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Victoria Wicks, among them). Alexandre Desplat imaginative musical score deserves notice, too. The excellent Blu-ray edition adds commentary by Tyldum and Moore; the 23-minute “The Making of ‘The Imitation Game’”; a pair of deleted scenes; and portions of three different Q&A sessions, all of which took place after festival and pre-awards screenings.

Stefan Haupt’s compelling docu-drama, The Circle, has absolutely nothing to do with wartime intelligence gathering. It does, however, provide another sterling reminder of how much and how little things have changed in the LGBT community since World War II and the passing of Turing. Although The Circle doesn’t dwell on the Nazis’ deadly persecution of homosexuals – as described in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s harrowing documentary, Paragraph 175 – it’s as impossible to ignore now as it was  then for gays and lesbians living next-door just across the invisible border from Germany. Had Turing been born in Switzerland, studied in England, stayed there to work for MI6, and then returned home in 1951, when he began to be harassed by British police, he probably would have lived well beyond the age of 41. Tragically, that wasn’t the case. Switzerland not only was officially neutral in World War II, but it also was historically indifferent to homosexuality and sodomy. When Berlin authorities no longer tolerated the “divine decadence” described in “Cabaret,” private dance clubs in Zurich and Basel were there to pick up the slack. In 1942, Article 194 of the new penal code decriminalized sexual acts between gays and lesbians 21 and older. This did not mean, however, that they felt sufficiently protected by law to step completely out of the closet. Because of the influx of LGBT ex-pats, including violent “rent boys,” police felt it necessary to maintain lists of names of people caught in compromising situations. Keeping it on the down-low often made the difference between maintaining job security and being unemployed.  The Circle’s focus is on the magazine Der Kreis/Le Cercle/The Circle, which began in the 1930s as an activist publication, primarily for lesbians. By 1942, it became a cultural and lifestyle publication with an almost exclusively male readership and mostly surreptitious circulation throughout Europe, as it contained pornographic text and art and beefcake photography. Until its demise in the 1960s, the affiliated club also sponsored well-attended parties, balls and performances. Finally, though, The Circle tells the story of Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, a schoolteacher and a drag entertainer, who enter a lifelong romantic relationship through their involvement in Circle activities. The surprise ending is far too good to spoil here.

Harlock: Space Pirate: Blu-ray
Fat Planet
The venerable Japanese manga and anime franchise — spawned from Leiji Matsumoto’s 1977 “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” — is set in and around 2977, when 500 billion exiled humans have decided it’s time to return home. Earth has finally recovered from the devastating war that ravaged the planet, causing a mass evacuation. The speed of light no longer a barrier, space travel has permitted humans to colonize planets in the far corners of the universe. Never having learned how to conserve resources or conquer boredom, all 500 billion of them have decided to return home simultaneously. Knowing exactly what could happen if this many people were to descend on the Earth’s fragile environment, the ruling Gaia Coalition committed to a war to prevent the homecoming from happening. Operating from a huge spacecraft that emits inky-black plumes of smoke, Captain Harlock and his rogue crew of space pirates present the greatest threat to the coalition. Beyond that, I’m not at all sure what the hell is happening in Harlock: Space Pirate, the latest iteration of the epic series. That’s mostly because three of the primary male characters look as if they were drawn from the same template and one of them, at least, is a coalition plant. The good news for fans and newcomers, alike, however, is that director Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed) was allowed a budget of $30 million to create a movie that would cost a Hollywood studio $100 million to duplicate. The CG animation is a joy to watch and the action rarely stops long enough to allow fans to catch a breath.

Also set in the far reaches of the universe, Fat Planet is a very silly cautionary comedy that might have been recommendable if it weren’t such a bargain-basement production. On a planet far, far away, a population of obese aliens has decided that the only way to prevent extinction is to lose weight. Sound familiar? In the course of monitoring video signals from Earth, the elders have discovered an exercise show that delivers on its promise to make people thinner and healthier. Health guru Jack Strong and some of his students are teleported to the planet of fatties to work their magic. Co-writer/director Dennis Devine would have been better served if they had abducted Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons. Mr. Skin Hall of Famer Priscilla Barnes is, by far, the most recognizable cast member. I hope she got paid up-front.

Outcast: Blu-ray
Every week, it seems, I’m sent at least one new historical drama from China, Korea or Japan to review. Fifteen years ago, that might have caused me to consider a future in the barista business, instead of reviewing DVDs. Since then, however, Chinese and Korean filmmakers have done for dynastic action-adventures what John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh did for American Westerns. (Decades earlier, of course, Akira Kurosawa accomplished the same thing with Japanese samurai epics, leaving the job now to creators of anime and manga.) It wasn’t until recently that Chinese and Korean were given the money, resources and manpower to venture into the country’s vast and often spectacularly scenic hinterlands to make movies that didn’t rely solely on swordplay and pyrotechnics. Moreover, the studios also figured out how to exploit the appeal of young and attractive pop stars without sacrificing action. For the most part, Outcast looks like any one of a dozen Asian exports that pass my way every month. The difference comes in the casting of Hayden Christensen and Nicolas Cage, as war-weary veterans of the 12th Century Crusades. After slaughtering a staunchly defended compound full of unfortunate Islamists, the crusaders inexplicably decide to travel east, instead of northwest. Christensen’s opium-starved crusader, Jacob, stumbles into the imperial kingdom at approximately the same time as the dying emperor hands the keys to his teenage son and daughter, instead of their older war-hero sibling. When the emperor is assassinated by the passed-over son, he decides to use every means at his disposal to kill his younger, more helpless rivals. Jacob’s presence levels the playing field, somewhat. As the legendary White Ghost, Cage is given free rein to freak out whenever he feels like it. Many potential viewers will see his inclusion as sufficient cause for a rental … others, not so much. If the producers thought the unusual casting would sell tickets outside China, they misjudged the American marketplace. Cage is nothing, if not over-exposed at the moment, and Christensen hasn’t had a hit since Star Wars: Episode III. For A-list stunt coordinator Nick Powell, Outcast represents his first foray as a director. As such, the action and fight scenes are excellent, while everything else – except the set and costume design and Yunnan scenery – is underwhelming.

3 Nights in the Desert
In this exceedingly unconvincing rom-dram, three thoroughly estranged members of a long-dead band get together for a 30th-birthday weekend and, ostensibly, an excuse for freshman screenwriter Adam Chanzit to contrive a reunion album. Since splitting up, the lead singer (Amber Tamblyn) has made a name for herself on the cruise-ship circuit and nightclubs along the Pacific Rim; the drummer (Vincent Piazza) has gotten a business degree and moved to Squaresville; and the guitar player (Wes Bentley) has tuned in, turned on and dropped out to a sweet pad in the desert. Early on, chances look good for a rapprochement and possible re-entry into the ranks of folk-rock attractions. It isn’t until the guitarist dares his pals to enter an enchanted cave on the property that things begin to go sideways. They all recognize something different in themselves, while spending approximately 30 seconds in the shallow cave, but it mostly translates into faulty logic. 3 Nights in the Desert benefits from the Agua Dolce locations – on the far fringes of Los Angeles County – and some not-bad songs performed by Tamblyn. Nothing else works, though, including the dweebish costume and glasses assigned Piazza.

Day of Anger: Blu-Ray
I don’t know how much exposure Day of Anger (a.k.a., Gunlaw or I giorni dell’ira) received off the American drive-in circuit. It took a while for genre buffs to embrace Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-Westerns as something other than curiosities, so, in 1967, a picture by one of the master’s assistant directors might have gone unnoticed entirely. Not only does Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray edition of Tonino Valerii’s shoot-‘em-up look excellent in hi-def, but it also marks a big step forward for Italian-made Westerns. Lee Van Cleef plays gunslinger Frank Talby, who, one day, arrives in a dusty high-desert town whose residents don’t take kindly to strangers messing with the status quo. Here, that includes the local pooper scooper and street sweeper, Scott Mary, portrayed by Giuliano Gemma. Scott Mary is made to feel unwelcome by everyone who employs his services, so, when Talby invites him to share a bottle of hooch, some of the bar’s patrons decide to teach him a lesson. Instead, the gunslinger demonstrates his willingness to outdraw anyone who tests his skill. Scott Mary convinces Talby to take him under his wing as he rides to another town, hoping to collect a long-held $50,000 debt. When he’s told that the money was stolen by leaders of the last town he visited and it was reinvested in projects of their own, Talby begins his scorched-earth mission to exact revenge. By now, Scott Mary has absorbed all of the lessons administered by his mentor and become a heck of a sharpshooter, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out early on that there will come a time when the student will have to stand up to his teacher and demonstrate, one way or another, that he’s ready to step out on his own. Without having to resort to trademark Leone conceits, Valerii crafted a Western that bears comparison to many of the best oaters churned out by Hollywood studios. The Blu-ray package contains the original version, in English and Italian, and the edition edited for export; interviews with Valerii, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and critic Roberto Curti; a deleted scene; an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by historian Howard Hughes; original archive stills; and new cover art.

The Roommates/A Woman for All Men: Blu-ray
Once upon a time, attending a double- or triple-feature at a drive-in theater was both an entertaining way for dad, mom and the kids to kill a few hours on a hot summer night and a rite of passage for teenagers experiencing the first pangs of sexual freedom. For one thing, agreeing to a drive-in date – even the safer option, a double-date — was a giant leap of faith for teen couples, too many of whom had yet to get to the chapter in their hygiene textbooks dealing with the hazards of unprotected sex. Drinking presented other potential dangers, especially at a time when designated drivers weren’t added into the equation. Other variables included crappy speakers, fogged-up windshields, mosquitoes and voyeuristic neighbors. Then, there were the movies.  Unless the bill of fare that night was a collection of movies starring Elvis Presley, John Wayne or Vincent Price, a first-run attraction generally was followed or sandwiched between a B-lister and C-list picture of wildly varying interest and quality. By the mid-1970s, some exhibitors had given up on showing A-list movies entirely, preferring, instead, to program inexpensive grindhouse films. We’ll never know how many accidents were caused by gawkers distracted by a pair of 38-DDs reflected on a giant white-painted screen clearly visible from the highway.  Much of the blame for these fender-benders could be laid at the feet of such soft-core auteurs as Arthur Marks, who, not unlike Eloise at the Plaza, spent most of his life absorbing the facts of movie-making life on various studio backlots, soundstages and locations. Before turning to T&A and Blaxploitation movies, Marx cut his filmmaking teeth directing and producing such television series as “Perry Mason” and “Gunsmoke.” MPI Media Group’s hi-def double-feature of Marx’s The Roommates and A Woman for All Men offers a delicious look back to the Wild West of exploitation pictures.

The Roommates is set in Lake Arrowhead, a little slice of heaven in the San Bernardino National Forest, 90 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Four drop-dead gorgeous “coeds” and a “sexy stewardess” are enjoying a summer getaway in sylvan splendor when a splatter movie breaks out. Actually, the horror aspects of the movie play second fiddle to the T&A, which, while ample, is no more graphic than a 1973 Playboy pictorial. By contrast, A Woman for All Men can be enjoyed as a crime thriller or grindhouse hybrid. If it feels a lot like a better-than-most made-for-TV movie – a relatively new genre – at least it features recognizable stars, a legitimate femme fatale and a logical narrative. Judith Brown (The Big Dollhouse) is perfect as a Las Vegas working girl who strikes it rich by marrying a ego-maniacal tycoon (Keenan Wynn), thus pissing off the man’s children who were counting off the days until he died. As a dead-ringer for Ginger McKenna, in Casino, Brown could easily have been mistaken for Sharon Stone’s mother. The only question becomes how long Karen can pull off her scheme before being busted by her husband or his heirs. We’ve seen this exact same plot played out in dozens of movies and TV shows, but Brown’s steamy portrayal of a woman without scruples kicks it up several notches. Brown and Wynn are accompanied here by such veteran character actors as Alma Beltran, Alex Rocco, Lois Hall, Don Porter and Andrew Robinson, who had just portrayed the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry. The package includes interviews with Marx, Brown and other participants.

Turkish writer/director Elif Refig’s debut feature is a coming-of-age story that could have been set anywhere in the world that working-class parents scratch out a modest income and one or more of their children dream of escaping to a life of their own choosing. That it’s set in the roiling melting pot of Istanbul only makes it that much better. Ali works for his father, servicing ships anchored in the harbor with goods ranging from blow-up dolls to lambs intended for religious sacrifice. When he isn’t doing that, Ali wanders the waterfront minding his pigeons and searching for a ghost ship that’s haunted his dreams. On one of his walkabouts, Ali is attracted by a wall painting depicting a seascape that could only have been conjured by a kindred spirit. Eda’s life has just been turned upside-down by the return of the father who abandoned the family years earlier. Consequently, she’s suspicious of all men. Once Eda and Ali recognize the point where their imaginations intersect, they are forced to make the kinds of drastic decisions required of all dreamers and drifters. Where Ships differs from other coming-of-age stories is the setting, which couldn’t be any more intriguing. Istanbul is a crossroads city that’s always provided fertile ground for the fantasies of people seeking something completely different and the horns of the ships in the harbor seem to call out specifically to kids like Ali and Eda, whose next few steps could determine their fates forever. The DVD is accompanied by Refig’s short film, “Man to Be,” another gritty tale of a boy forced to grow up too soon. The disc I received was plagued with unsynched dialogue on the original Turkish soundtrack, so I would recommend renting a copy of Ships before investing in a purchase. Other than that, the movie is a delight.

Diamond Heist
Here’s one of those pictures that look as if the reels were misplaced in the shipping process and confused with material from other movies or television shows. Diamond Heist (a.k.a., “Magic Boys”) appears to borrow liberally from Guy Ritchie’s criminal milieu, Magic Mike and the two wild-and-crazy Czech brothers on “Saturday Night Life.” If that sounds appealing to you, Róbert Koltai and Éva Gárdos’ cock-eyed dramedy might provide a few hours of pleasure on a rainy night. Straight-to-DVD mainstays Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones play key figures in a diamond heist gone wrong. Caught in the middle are a pair of misfit Hungarians recruited to replace dancers in a male review. Adding a bit of flash to this mess are Hungarian hottie Nikolett Barabas – once known best as Russell Brand’s new girlfriend – pop singer Jamelia and newcomer Nansi Nsue.

The Shift
Less a feature film than an episode in a hospital-based television series, The Shift tells the unpleasant story of a drug-addicted emergency-room nurse who makes Nurse Jackie look like Florence Nightingale. Things begin to unravel for Kayle (writer Leo Oliva) when his boss (Danny Glover) asks him to mentor a fledgling nurse over the course of a 12-hour hospital shift. He objects, but not strenuously enough to have Dr. Floyd (Danny Glover) kick him out the door on his ass. The poor young thing (Casey Fitzgerald) makes the mistake of taking his abuse personally, but, once she figures out his game, realizes that the last place Kayle should be working is in a hospital, where play God should be left to real doctors. Oliva trained as a nurse, before turning to filmmaking, so it’s safe to assume that The Shift was a project near and dear to his heart. Unfortunately, he decided to make Kayle one of the most disagreeable characters I’ve experienced in a long time.

A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story
Films about athletes who have survived serious injuries and gone on to compete again have become so prevalent lately that they have become something of a dime-a-dozen commodity. At 31 and on her way to becoming a fully certified teacher, Janelle Morrison decided to pursue a career as a professional tri-athlete. No, I didn’t know that was a career option, either. Morrison had just won her first Ironman event, as an amateur, and would go on to place third in her first professional competition. A year later, after her car was struck by a truck on the Trans-Canada Highway, she was left clinging to life in a hospital. Her doctors were more concerned with keeping her alive than getting her in shape for her next triathlon, but, once out of her coma, that’s all Morrison could think about doing. And, of course, she did beat expectations by defying her doctors’ recommendations and getting back on track. For their first non-fiction film, Dave Kelly and Rob Kelly were just as determined to record her recovery in A Second Chance: The Janelle Morrison Story. My problem with the movie probably wouldn’t be shared with anyone who’s competed in an extreme sport or decided to tempt fate by going against the wisdom of doctors, trainers, coaches and relatives, simply to prove a point that’s already been established. Or, perhaps, I’m prejudiced against activities, like the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlete, which began as a novel test of extreme physicality but have since allowed themselves to be corrupted by companies pitching overpriced products to easily manipulated wannabes. I wonder how far the Kellys would have gone with the project if Morrison had simply been able to finish one leg of the triathlon, which would have been sufficient cause for rejoicing for most people, but a severe disappointment to an adrenaline junky. Or, if something happened to reverse all of the hard work put into Morrison’s recovery. Those are the movies we don’t see.

Liars, Fires and Bears
Memory Lane
One of the things producers and agents look for at film festivals is the spark of creativity that shines through a movie passed over by the judges or left unembraced by audiences. While the offbeat buddy picture Liars, Fires and Bears clearly is the product of first-timers, burdened with a barely there budget, festival-goers stayed in their seats long enough to find the promise in its creative team. Charming newcomer Megli Micek plays Eve, a criminally precocious 9-year-old desperate to escape her foster parents and locate the successful brother she believes is being kept away from her. A habitual runaway, Eve sneaks around parking lots at night in search of unlocked cars and drunks willing to drive her to Denver. She hits pay dirt when she breaks into the car belonging to an alcoholic doofus, Dave (co-writer Lundon Boyd), who is sober enough to realize he shouldn’t be driving, but too drunk to appreciate the downside of putting a wee lassie behind the wheel. Naturally, his plan falls apart almost as soon as it begins leaving Dave in the hoosegow and in need of money to pay his fine. In the film’s most unlikely scenario, Dave hooks up with an unscrupulous pawn-shop operator who agrees to take him on as an accomplice. He screws up his first break-in so badly that he becomes Public Enemy No. 1, with his surveillance-camera photograph flashed on newscasts far and wide. Conveniently, Eve has just torched her foster parents’ home and Dave’s too dim-witted to see the hole in her pipedream about having a brother who’s a lawyer. As far-fetched as this scenario sounds, it provides plenty of time for the odd couple to form a convincing bond between them on their trip to Colorado.

Word on the street is that one-man-band Shawn Holmes made Memory Lane on budget limited to $300. Whenever I’m asked to believe something as patently absurd as that, I’m tempted to point out, “… and it looks like it.” Fact is, though, Memory Lane could easily pass for a genre flick that cost 20 or 30 times that amount to make … which isn’t saying all that much, either. Michael Guy Allen plays a despondent veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who, when he finally finds a woman to love (Meg Braden), finds her dead in his bathtub, wrists slashed. In a failed attempt to electrocute himself, Nick flashes on the possibility that Kayla may have been murdered. The only way he’s likely to confirm his suspicion, one way or the other, is to repeatedly push the envelope on death. It’s not the genre’s most unlikely premise and on a penny-for-penny basis, anyway, succeeds surprisingly well.

PBS: Language Matters With Bob Hollman
PBS: Nature: Owl Power: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Building Wonders
PBS: Frontline: Putin’s Way
I Am Not Giordano Bruno/Judge Not
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXII
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season/Quincy, M.E.: The Final Season
One of the most diabolical things a conquering force can do to the vanquished is take away the roots of their culture, including native languages and dialects. American and Canadian authorities demanded of Indian children that they endure severe haircuts and ignore their native languages. Missionaries required the same of native Hawaiians. Australia did even worse by its Aboriginal population by forcibly diluting their bloodlines and restricting the purebreds to the Outback. When the British annexed Wales, they attempted to eliminate all traces of the language, probably because they’d never be able to understand what was being said about them. PBS’ Language Matters With Bob Hollman” explains how frightfully successful these imperialist forces were in extinguishing traditional cultures, while describing how descendants have struggled, mostly since the 1960s, to rekindle pride and interest in nearly lost languages and the customs attached to them. Scholar and poet Bob Holman takes viewers to a remote island off the coast of Australia, where 400 Aboriginal people speak 10 different languages, all at risk, and introduces us to a 73-year-old man who’s the only living link to his tribe. In Wales, Holman joins in a poetry competition and finds a young man who raps in Welsh. In Hawaii, we learn how the oft-maligned hula is a language in dance. “Language Matters” is a documentary that parents can share with their children and discuss at length afterwards.

I wonder how many people under the age of 40 or 50 have seen an owl in its natural habitat and not in a zoo or aviary. It’s truly a unique experience. In the “Nature” presentation, “Owl Power,” bird trainers Lloyd and Rose Buck enlist cutting-edge technology – digital cameras, computer graphics, X-rays and super-sensitive microphones — in their search for answers to the mysteries surrounding the owls’ hunting techniques and ability to sustain themselves in a sometimes cruel environment. In doing so, the Bucks make scientific comparisons between their very own family of owls, eagles, falcons, geese and pigeons. We’re also able to follow the progress of two newly-hatched barn owls. Much of the material on display is nothing short of mesmerizing.

The fascinating “Nova” DVD package, “Building Wonders,” is a compilation of three recent episodes, “Colosseum: Roman Death Trap,” “Petra: Lost City of Stone” and “Hagia Sophia: Istanbul’s Ancient Mystery.” In each, modern engineering techniques and cutting-edge instruments are used to understand how buildings made millennia ago have been able to withstand the ravages of time and natural disaster, allowing us to marvel at them today. Modern architects use medieval tools to figure out how Turkey’s massive 1,500-year-old cathedral dome has been able to survive countless quakes in one of the world’s most violent seismic zones.  In the middle of Jordan’s parched desert, a “Nova” team investigates how Petra s architects were able to create a thriving metropolis of temples, markets, spectacular tombs carved into cliffs, bathhouses, fountains and pools? Also curious is how builders of the Colosseum were able to create water-tight tanks for mock sea battles and control the movement of men and animals throughout the bowels of the monumental structure.

The producers of the “Frontline” presentation “Putin’s Way” go the distance to describe how the Russian leader has destroyed the hopes of tens of millions of Russians anticipating post-Soviet peace and prosperity, by turning the country over to greedy plutocrats and hoodlums. At the same time, the Russian leader schemed to make himself a very wealthy and powerful man. The investigation also revisits the horrific 1999 Moscow apartment bombings and failed attempts to uncover corruption at the Kremlin. At a time when Putin could have exploited the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, he began stoking nationalism, conflict, authoritarianism and a bloody war in the Ukraine, during which Russian-backed insurgents decided it would be a keen idea to shot down a Malaysian jetliner. The episode includes firsthand interviews with exiled Russian business tycoons, writers and politicians, in addition to archival material and evidence of his abuses of powers.

The documentaries “I Am Not Giordano Bruno” and “Judge Not” attempt to answer the questions surrounding how Russian political cartoonist Boris Efimov and Tikhon Khrennikov, the one and only head of the Composers Union of the USSR, managed to survive under the bloodthirsty leadership of Joseph Stalin and several subsequent Soviet leaders. Efimov, whose brother was assassinated on Stalin’s orders, spent most of his 108 years on Earth drawing sharp observations about leaders and policies of the USSR’s enemies, while following the company line at home. Khrennikov took over the musicians’ union in 1948 and stayed on the job until 1991. At the same time as he worked to protect Soviet artists from prison and death, he also made sure that music was written in accordance with Communist ideology. The documentaries are extremely dry, but nonetheless intriguing.

Historically, we’ve come to expect the best of the worst from the hyper-critical crew of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” spacecraft and, in Volume XXXII, three of the four features are inarguably cheesy:  Hercules, Radar Secret Service and San Francisco International. What’s unusual is the inclusion of John Sturges’ Space Travelers (a.k.a., Marooned), a well-reviewed stranded-astronaut thriller that anticipated Apollo 13 by 25 years and Gravity by 44 years, and can still grip viewers’ attention. Besides the presence of Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman, Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley and Nancy Kovack, Space Travelers is reputed to be the only “MST3K” selection to have won an Oscar. In a new introduction, Frank Conniff attempts to explain how such a prestigious production ended up on the Satellite of Love’s viewing menu. The irony of the crew of the SOT watching a movie about astronauts stranded in space wasn’t lost on Joel Robinson, the only character who actually would require oxygen to survive a similar mishap. Other featurettes include “Marooned: A Forgotten Odyssey,” “Barnum of Baltimore: The Early Films of Joseph E. Levine,” “A Brief History of Satellite News,” “MST-UK, With Trace and Frank” and mini-posters by Artist Steve Vance.

Shout Factory’s latest additions to its a la carte menu of full-season compilations are represented by “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete First Season” and “Quincy, M.E.: The Final Season.” Both benefit from facelifts accorded the series in last year’s boxed sets and bonus material.

The DVD Wrapup: Into the Woods, Unbroken, Errol Morris, Michael Almereyda, Mr. Bean and More

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Into the Woods: Blu-ray
It’s no secret that the Disney empire owes a great debt of gratitude — if not any licensing fees or screen credits – to the Brothers Grimm, whose many wonderful stories the company has cherry-picked for movies, television shows, Broadway, amusement parks, plush  toys and costumes. If proceeds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs allowed Uncle Walt to create Disney Studios in Burbank, the success of Cinderella, 13 years later, probably saved it from financial ruin. Any concern that Disney’s new, live-action Cinderella would fail to maintain the worldwide momentum generated by Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland and, yes, even, Oz the Great and Powerful was quashed 24 hours into its huge opening weekend. And, while both of Disney’s adaptations owe more to Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Cendrillon” than to the Grimms’ 1812 “Aschenputtel,” the latter’s version is the one that informs Anna Kendrick’s performance in Into the Woods. Just as Walt Disney felt it necessary to brighten the darkness that informed the source material, so as to appeal to family audiences and not scare the crap out of the kiddies, the studio worked closely with director Rob Marshall, writer James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim to modify the stage musical to fit MPAA guidelines for a PG rating and lop off a half-hour in the process. The excisions didn’t please all critics, but the author and composer haven’t wasted their time whining about the trims or bemoaning the elimination of several new and old songs. Even so, I do think that some parents will find the PG to be a tad on the generous side for young viewers and anyone still inclined to sneak out of the family room in anticipation of the flying-monkey scene in The Wizard of Oz.

In this allegorical mashup of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Rapunzel,” the woods truly are something to dread. Colleen Atwood’s Oscar-nominated production design adds an aura of menace that nicely complements Meryl Streep’s in-your-face approach to the Witch. At a sometimes complex and challenging 125 minutes – the musical was, after all, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” — I suspect that most pre-teens will find Into the Woods to be too long a slog, anyway. Nor will the young’uns benefit much by being made aware of the dangers that lurk in the woods or that facing them is a rite of passage they’ll eventually have to pass or fail. In this regard, the PG rating may actually have caused older teens and young adults to bypass the movie, assuming it to be too diluted, which it’s not. Besides Streep, the terrific ensemble cast includes Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen and Johnny Depp. Their voices may not be equal, but the acting is well up to par. Commentary is provided by Marshall and producer John DeLuca. Featurettes add “Streep Sings Sondheim,” with the deleted song “She’ll Be Back”; “There’s Something About the Woods,” in which cast and crew discuss the role of the forest in the musical; “The Cast as Good as Gold,” in which Marshall and the cast provide an overview of the casting process, embracing rehearsals, creating a company of actors and developing chemistry between the players; the four-part making-of documentary, “Deeper Into the Woods”; and 54-minute “Music & Lyrics,” with interactive features.

Unbroken: Blu-ray
It’s taken nearly 70 years for Hollywood to finally make a movie about Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a record-setting distance runner, who, during World War II, survived two near-fatal plane crashes, 47 harrowing days on a life raft and more than two tortuous years in Japanese POW camps. Before making good on promise he made to God while battling hunger, thirst, sunstroke, dive bombers and sharks on the raft, Zamperini also would be required to defeat alcoholism, PTSD and dreadful nightmares that usually ended with him strangling his Japanese captors. With the encouragement of his wife and assistance of evangelical crusader Billy Graham, the onetime Torrance juvenile delinquent learned to forgive the men who resented his modicum of fame and punished him with incessant beatings in front of his fellow POWs. Once he defeated his own demons, Zamperini was finally in a position to help teens desperate for the kind of break he received when he was in danger of becoming a ward of the state. Zamperini would stay physically active until his death last year, at 97, and even ran a leg in the Olympic Torch Relay for the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, not far from the POW camp in which he fully expected to be murdered in the immediate wake of the armistice. That’s not a movie … that’s a mini-series. Maybe so, but it would take Universal another half-century to find someone able to figure out a way to turn the second half of this exemplary life story – the rights to which it had purchased in the late-1950s – into something someone would pay to see. In fact, it was director/producer Angelina Jolie who convinced the studio to invest in what many people, at various times, considered to be a no-brainer.

It wasn’t until the release of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” that a workable framework for the picture revealed itself. Once that happened, Jolie was able to benefit from a screenplay credited to the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, Roger Deakins’s Oscar-nominated cinematography and a physically taxing performance by Brit newcomer Jack O’Connell. Considering how much of the action in Unbroken is confined to smallish spaces and close-up renditions of beatings, Jolie does a nice job keeping the 137-minute movie from feeling oppressively claustrophobic or voyeuristic. She also asks us to consider the nature of heroism in war. After all, the most heroic thing Zamperini did in the war was survive. He defied his captors simply by being able to endure the punishment and refusing to participate in Japanese propaganda broadcasts. He agreed to make one benign broadcast, primarily as a way to inform family members that he wasn’t dead. Unbeknownst to Zamperini, his status had been downgraded from MIA to KIA and the Japanese wanted to embarrass the U.S. for the unintended mistake. Once that became clear, he was sent back to prison and punished even more for his effrontery. The most curious decision made by the creative team was to end the story with the prisoners’ return home, compacting the rest of the history lesson into several provocative postscripts. In an act of Christian charity that almost defies explanation, Zamperini would return to Japan twice to personally forgive his captors, the most vile of whom escaped prosecution. That wretched man, known to the prisoners as “The Bird,” refused to meet with his onetime punching bag or express remorse he didn’t feel was warranted.  The Blu-ray/DVD bonus package corrects the problem by adding such informative featurettes as “Inside Unbroken: Fifty Years in the Making,” “Inside Unbroken: The Fight of a Storyteller–Director Angelina Jolie,” “Inside Unbroken: The Hardiest Generation,” “The Real Louis Zamperini,” “Louis’ Path to Forgiveness,” a cast-and-crew concert, “Prison Camp Theater: Cinderella” and deleted scenes.

Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Another Girl Another Planet + 3 Others
Long before Errol Morris became recognized internationally for plumbing the dark depths of sociopathic secretaries of defense and a prominent Holocaust denier, he was best known for his unconventional profiles of unsung Americans and being denied an Oscar nomination for The Thin Blue Line. In that exhaustively researched documentary, Morris not only was able to get a man falsely convicted of capital murder released from prison, but he also convinced the actual perpetrator to recant his previous testimony at a hearing prompted by new evidence uncovered in the film. In the suspect wisdom of the academy’s documentary committee, The Thin Blue Line was deemed to be a work of fiction because some of its content was scripted. Twenty-four years before The Theory of Everything, Morris had introduced Stephen Hawkings and his struggle with ALS to the world in A Brief History of Time. It wasn’t until Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld agreed to sit before Morris’ Interrotron and be interviewed for The Fog of War and The Unknown Known that he received the credit he had long been due. Newly restored by Criterion Collection, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are the films that established Morris’ reputation as a chronicler of the weird side of the American dream. So atypical were these documentaries that, at first glance, they could be seen as ridiculing the people being interviewed for their presumed eccentricities. After a short while, however, it became abundantly clear that Morris was far more interested in learning what made these largely unchampioned Americans tick, before the homogenization of the country was complete.

Morris made Gates of Heaven after noticing an article in a newspaper about how the owner of a northern California pet cemetery was being forced to relocate his business to a place where encroaching suburbanization wasn’t so dramatic and his neighbors weren’t so squeamish. He rushed to the San Jose area to capture the forced exhumation on film, not yet aware of the fact that the real story belonged to the people who saw a future in this business – inspired by their love for a lost pet – and those who found necessary closure in their cemeteries. As is so often the case, subjects that seemed freakish in the not-so-distant past now are commonplace. In the mid-1970s, however, anyone willing to spend hard-earned money on a final resting place for their pets left themselves open to derision by wise-ass elitists and talk-show hosts. By finding the humanity in these sometimes desperate people, Morris practically created a new subgenre of documentary making. The genesis of Vernon, Florida came from a failed effort to verify an urban legend, spread through the insurance industry, about a patch of rural Florida, dubbed “Nub City,” where an extraordinary number of residents maimed themselves to collect settlements. After learning how violently opposed these folks would be to appearing on screen, Morris broadened his approach to the citizenry of Vernon, where an ability to tell goofy stories appeared to come with the territory. Once again, he was able to make something very special out of what most people would consider to be practically nothing. He accomplished this by recording their stories without prejudice or clever camera tricks. The Blu-ray adds new interviews with Morris, an essay by critic Eric Hynes and “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” a delightful 20-minute film by Les Blank, featuring Herzog fulfilling a bet intended to inspire Morris to complete his first feature.

It’s always fun to discover the roots of an exceptional artist and follow them to see where they led. Michael Almereyda has been one of the mainstays of the independent-film scene since the early 1990s, with the kooky family/disaster dramedy, Twister. His later credits would include Nadja (1994), Hamlet (2000), Happy Here and Now (2002) and Cymbeline (2014). The release of Another Girl Another Planet + 3 Others is a reflection of a more experimental period, when he employed a process called Pixelvision in a series of short films. When blown up to 16mm, the visual effect is akin to watching a 1950s anthology series on a crappy old Philco or surveying a Pointillist painting through fogged-up glasses. In the 56-minute Another Girl Another Planet (1992), the process is used as a tribute to French New Wave romanticism, albeit one set in a pre-gentrification East Village pad. Two hipsters compete for the affections of some of the same women, but, mostly, it’s their bromance that informs the story. One common theme is an affection for an ancient Dave Fleischer cartoon, “Dancing on the Moon,” which adds an air of fantasy to the drama. It isn’t the easiest film to watch, however, considering the Pixelvision conceit. The other three films are “Aliens,” in which two boys discuss their favorite movies and the nature of passive resistance, while playing a video game; “At Sundance,” a group portrait of then-aspiring filmmakers attending the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, among them Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Todd Haynes, Greg Araki, Abel Ferrara, Atom Egoyan, James Gray, Robert Redford and Haskell Wexler; and “The Rocking Horse Winner,” a Los Angeles-based adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence story about luck, loss and the need for more money.

Wolfy: The Incredible Secret
Considering how many UK films are nominated annually for Academy Awards, it should come as no surprise to learn how much weight BAFTA nominations carry among Oscar voters. The awards ceremony is shown here on a same-day basis on BBC America. Like the BAFTA gala, the awarding of France’s Cesar trophies can be accessed live over the Internet, but they carry far less weight. Typically, it takes a lot longer time for the winning films, if not the internationally popular actors, to find traction on our shores. Even when dubbed into English, most Cesar-winning animated features can only be seen here on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. Apart from a couple of festival appearances, that’s what happened with the 2013 Cesar winner and Oscar nominee, Ernest & Celestine, and 2014 topper, Wolfy: The Incredible Secret. This year’s champ, Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants, enters the same marketplace on May 26, with Richard Dreyfuss providing the English narration. Once again, better late than never. Wolfy: The Incredible Secret (a.k.a., “Loulou, l’incroyable secret”) overflows with anthropomorphic animals that the kids should love, while also delivering a more pointed message about totalitarianism for adults to savor. Now in their teens, a wolf and a rabbit who’ve been lifelong friends, decide that it’s time to venture forth from the Land of the Rabbits to find Loulou’s birth mother, somewhere in Wolfenberg.  Once there, Tom’s long ears make him an easy target for the carnivores gathered in the principality for the Meat-Eater’s Festival. If the herbivores are able to avoid being eaten by the celebrants, Loulou might learn the “incredible secret” behind how he came to be raised as an orphan in a distinctly foreign land. Eric Omond’s story has been described as an anti-fascist allegory, reflecting much of the sad history of Europe in the 20th Century. There’s no reason to think, however, that young viewers will be traumatized by the message or archetypal characters.

Gone With the Pope: Blu-ray
Rabid Grannies: Blu-ray
From Asia With Lust, Volume 1: Camp/Hitch-Hike
The Clones
The Sins of Dracula
This is an especially good week for those of us who enjoy combing the sands of cinematic time for discarded treasures. Can two weeks have passed since re-introducing Duke Mitchell’s gangland epic, Massacre Mafia Style, to aficionados of movies that are so bad, they’re good? Curiously, yes. Uncompleted in Mitchell’s cigarette-shortened lifetime, Gone With the Pope, truly has to be seen to be believed. Here, Mitchell plays a just-paroled gangster, Paul, with a ridiculous scheme to kidnap the pope and hold him for ransom, to be paid by hundreds of millions of Catholics willing to cough up $1 each for his release. Paul and a few other ex-cons have traveled to Italy from L.A. on a yacht borrowed from his recently widowed girlfriend. Without a Swiss Guardsman in sight, the pontiff is forced to change places with a look-alike kidnaper and return to the boat in a borrowed Maserati. While rolling along on the high seas, the pope demonstrates why crime is no match for the cross. The clever ending more than makes up for the bizarre shenanigans that led up to it. Shot in 1975, Gone With the Pope sat on a shelf gathering dust until 1995, when it was discovered by Mitchell’s son, Jeffrey. Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski, of Grindhouse Releasing, vowed to take over the project, which wasn’t completed until 2010. It took that long because Mitchell preferred writing out scenes in a notebook, on cocktail napkins, envelopes and other scraps of paper, instead of a script. Because five reels of the rough-cut film were missing and never found, restorers were required to go through the negatives to find missing material. In one of the interviews conducted for the Blu-ray release, cinematographer Peter Santoro admits to being shocked by the erratic quality of his work. In addition to the almost miraculous 2K restoration, the bonus material includes three audio options mixed by Emmy Award-winner Marti Humphrey; interviews with co-stars Jim LoBianco and John Murgia, editors Bob Leighton and Robert Florio, and legendary exploitation producer/director Matt Cimber; footage from the 2010 Hollywood world premiere; deleted scenes and bloopers; liner notes by horror novelist John Skipp; still galleries; and the theatrical trailer. Also interesting is a long clip with the vintage Las Vegas lounge act featured in the movie. Today, the same kind of act can only be found in Branson.

Even though it carries the Troma banner, the aggressively toxic Rabid Grannies is a 1988 Belgian horror film directed by one-timer Emmanuel Kervyn. When it was acquired for VHS release by Troma, it bore the more accurate title, “Les mémés cannibals,” as none of the characters actually carry rabies. Since nothing else in the movie makes logical sense, either, the inconsistent title is easily ignored. As the story goes, two ancient sisters – more likely spinsters, than grannies — have invited family members to what could be their last birthday celebration. The single uninvited nephew counters their slight by sending a gift that reflects his satanic leanings. It doesn’t take long before the old crones are overcome by the demonic spell and begin to turn on their younger relatives. It may not be pretty, but it’s not supposed to be.  Strangely, the Blu-ray presentation isn’t any better. The “producer’s cut” edition restores much of the gore deleted for the original VHS and DVD releases. They’re repeated in the deleted scenes.  Another discrepancy involves the run time of Rabid Grannies. If you believe the package, it’s 90 minutes. Your watch will disagree by roughly 22 minutes. In this case, at least, horror completists probably will agree that shorter is better. The combo DVD/BD package adds deleted scenes, an interview with the producer, the featurette, “What the Hell Happened to You?” and the usual array of tantalizing Troma trailers.

The company’s also represented by the first two selections in Troma Team’s From Asia With Lust series. Camp and Hitch-Hike are rape-revenge thrillers – something of a Japanese specialty – with a hearty helping of psychological torture thrown in for good measure. And, while the violence and nudity isn’t nearly as gratuitous as that found in the films in Impulse Pictures’ Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection, rape is never easy to watch … or shouldn’t be. In Camp, estranged sisters Akane and Kozue find themselves trapped in a vacant dormitory after their car is disabled in an accident. A Good Samaritan’s promise of shelter turns into a nightmare when confronted by five sadists, who torture one of them to death. Out of nowhere a mysterious female vigilante arrives to level the playing field.

In Hitch-Hike, a pretty young woman is driving around the Japanese countryside with her beer-swilling brute of a husband, when she’s forced to stop by a hitch-hiker lying in the middle of the road. The husband takes pity on the young man, who he believes to be an angler, but realizes his mistake when the punk asks if he can share his wife, as well as his beer. When a serious rift between her two passengers erupts, Saeko is given the choice of cheering for her tormentor or a criminal on the lam. Both titles represent a departure from Troma tradition.

With such inviting micro-budget films as Creature From the Hillbilly Lagoon, Splatter Disco, Atomic Brain Invasion and Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead to his credit, exploitation auteur Richard Griffin is a writer/director horror buffs count on to deliver the goods. One way to save precious time and money is to spoof recognizable genre and subgenre conventions, while continuing to exploit violence, gore and nudity. Then, all one has to do is make the concoction entertaining. The Sins of Dracula will be familiar to Christians who came of age during the 1970-80s and were required to watch cheaply made movies intended to scare the devil out of them. If such studio chillers as The Omen and The Exorcist weren’t sufficiently scary to convince evangelical youth not to stray from the path of righteousness, I don’t know how such humorless, do-it-yourself morality plays could be expected to save souls. Working from a screenplay by Michael Varrati, Griffin describes what happens when Billy (Jamie Dufault), the star of his church choir, decides to expand his audience by joining a local theater company. Little does he know that the secular troupe is actually a front for a saatanic cult and he’ll be exposed to every delicious temptation the devil has to offer a young virgin. The DVD adds two audio commentaries and the bonus short films “They Stole the Pope’s Blood!” and “Los Pantalones Contra Dracula.”

In 1973, 23 years before Dolly the Sheep was born in Scotland, American audiences were introduced to some of the ethical dilemmas surrounding the relatively unknown scientific process that would become known as cloning. The Clones, a paranoid sci-fi thriller by Lamar Card, Paul Hunt and co-writer Steve Fisher, is credited with adding the word “clone” to the cinematic lexicon. It has since come to represent an entire sub-genre of horror and science-fiction flicks. The Clones caused a ripple of excitement, by demonstrating how the process could be used by the forces of evil to create a parallel scientific brain trust, which could be manipulated to perform tasks repugnant to those with ethical qualms over certain military and corporate research. Here, a scientist (Michael Greene) discovers that he’s been cloned as part of a government plot to wage meteorological warfare on its enemies. On a more personal level, the scientist discovers that his clone has begun to insinuate himself into the life of his girlfriend. It isn’t until the two men decide to work together that The Clones dissolves into a standard chase-and-escape flick.

A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney: BluRay
There was a time, not so long ago, when it was said that more teens and young adults knew Paul McCartney as a member of Wings than as a Beatle. Now that Wings is little more than a mainstay of classic-rock radio, Sir Paul’s association with the Fab Four has been cemented more by Cirque du Soleil’s tribute show, “Love,” than any wide-scale re-release of the group’s albums. The Beatles’ great music isn’t likely to go away any time soon, of course, but every new generation of listeners is entitled to worship their own heroes and enjoy something that reflects their collective mindset. It explains why the audience gathered at the ceremony honoring McCartney as the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year looked as if they’d escaped from a Cialis commercial. The fact is, however, the Blu-ray edition of “A MusiCares Tribute to Paul McCartney” really rocks and the geezers who donated a couple hundred bucks, at least, to attend the concert lip-synch to the music and dance as if they were kids, again. Fittingly, perhaps, the show opens with an energetic performance of “Get Back”/“Hello Goodbye”/“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the cast of “Love.” Besides McCartney, himself, the lineup includes Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Duane Eddy, Norah Jones, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Sergio Mendes, Coldplay, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh.

The Sure Thing: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Between This Is Spinal Tap and a string of hits that began with Stand by Me, Rob Reiner directed the appealing coming-of-sexual-age rom-com, A Sure Thing, which several critics described as an updated teen version of It Happened One Night. In the roles originated by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert stood John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in their first lead roles. Students at the same northeastern college, “Gib” and Alison are a mismatched pair from the word, “Go.” Over Christmas break, they’re inadvertently paired in the same share-a-ride to Los Angeles, along with a pair of show-tune-singing squares. When they’re forced to get out of the car and hitch their way west, the Colbert and Gable comparisons become unavoidable. Turns out, Gib is on his way to Malibu, where an old high school buddy has arranged a blind date with a “sure thing” played by Nicollette Sheridan, who, physically and intellectually, is the polar opposite of Alison. For her part, Alison plans to spend the break with her longtime boyfriend, who, likewise, is the polar opposite of Gib. You can guess the rest. The Sure Thing did pretty good business upon its release, but, 30 years later, it really shows its age. Nonetheless, seeing such now-famous actors as Tim Robbins and Anthony Edwards in their early roles is always fun. (There’s also a reminder of how much we miss Lisa Jane Persky, who’s busy doing other things.) The Blu-ray package repurposes the featurettes, “Road to The Sure Thing,” “Casting The Sure Thing,” “Reading The Sure Thing” and “Dressing The Sure Thing,” as well  as commentary with Reiner.

Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean: The Re-mastered 25th Anniversary Edition
PBS: A Path Appears
PBS: Nova: Sunken Ship Rescue
PBS: Frontline: Gunned Down
Twelve years ago, “Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean” was released into DVD at a price north of $150, but missing such popular sketches as “Turkey Weight,” “Armchair Sale,” “Marching” and “Playing With Matches.” Neither was the audio/video presentation up to then-current standards. The good news is that Shout Factory has given all 14 episodes of the beyond-quirky series, which aired here on PBS and HBO, a dandy facelift; added the missing scenes; and sent it out at the very reasonable price of about $20. It also picks up the bonus features from the 2003 release. For those new to the indefatigable character, invented by Rowan Atkinson while studying for his master’s degree, Mr. Bean combines elements of Jacques Tati with the great slapstick comedians from the silent era. He also reminds me a bit of Pee-wee Herman, “Monty Python” and Mr. Magoo. As silly as it is, the material holds up pretty well after 25 years, especially such recurring gags as run-ins between Mr. Bean’s 1976 British Leyland Mini 1000 and the unseen driver of a light blue Reliant Regal Supervan III. (Yes, it’s a real car.) It’s the kind of timeless entertainment that kids can watch with their parents – dads, especially – as a double-feature with the Three Stooges.

Anyone moved by the book or television series based on Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” will want to catch, if they haven’t already, the companion piece, “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity.” The special presentation of PBS’ “Independent Lens” supplements research gleaned from the book with contributions by actor/advocates who traveled with the authors to Colombia, Haiti, Kenya and places throughout the United States where women and children suffer the greatest need. They include Malin Akerman, Mia Farrow, Ronan Farrow, Jennifer Garner, Regina Hall, Ashley Judd, Blake Lively, Eva Longoria, and Alfre Woodard. None of the celebrities appear to be slumming – literally – or just along for the p.r. value. Their presence truly does appear to make a positive impression on the people we meet. The series is broken into three chapters: “Sex Trafficking in the USA,” “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty” and “Violence and Solutions.” They explore the roots of gender inequality, the devastating impact of poverty and the ripple effects that follow, including prostitution, teen pregnancy, gender-based violence and child slavery.

The “Nova” presentation “Sunken Ship Rescue” takes us back to the scene of the Costa Concordia disaster, off Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, on January 13, 2012. The giant cruise ship, which was twice as large as the Titanic, capsized after hitting an obstruction in the water just off the coast. Thirty-two lives were lost, not including the diver killed during the salvage mission. The half-sunken ship posed a grave danger to the fragile underwater environment, as well as the waters that could be polluted by toxins if it split apart or fell to a greater depth. “Nova” producers joined the team of more than 500 divers and engineers, working around the clock, as part of the biggest and likely most expensive ship recovery project in history. “Sunken Ship Rescue” is a truly fascinating report and you don’t have to be an engineer to understand it.

The “Frontline” investigation, “Gunned Down,” provides a necessary reminder of how powerless our congressional leaders become whenever lobbyists for the National Rifle Association – or anyone else with deep pockets — begin to wave hundred-dollar bills under their snouts. Its producers examine how the NRA has expanded its clout on Capitol Hill, even after the first President Bush was moved to renounce his membership in the organization and the death toll of innocent bystanders began to go through the roof. It didn’t matter to these bought-and-sold greed-heads that children were being murdered in schools and polls showed public support for some form of gun control or protection from depraved owners of assault rifles. It’s as depressing and hopeless a show as we’re likely to see on PBS in a long time. It would be interesting to see what might happen if the Koch Brothers suddenly began supporting gun-control activists. Republican lawmakers and many Democrats would spin themselves into butter figuring out whose money carries the most weight.

The DVD Wrapup: Top Five, Soft Skin, Disorder, Mondovino, Troop Beverly Hills and more

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Top Five: Blu-ray
If Chris Rock’s film career isn’t nearly as celebrated as those of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy – standup giants before turning to feature films – it isn’t because the movies he’s in don’t make money. Most of them, especially the animated features to which he adds his distinctive voice, do well enough at the box-office to think that they probably did even better on DVD.  It’s likely that Rock was responsible for selling as many tickets as Adam Sandler to the critically reviled, yet financially successful Grown Ups and Grown Ups 2. Nothing could have saved Pootie Tang, but no remembers that it was written and directed by pre-fame Louis C.K. It’s also likely that Down to Earth, the Weitz’ inexplicably unfunny adaptation of Heaven Can Wait, would have gone straight down the toilet if it weren’t Rock. As a leading man in movies, unlike the comedy circuit, Rock has found it more difficult asserting himself physically than Pryor and Murphy ever did. Such a thing shouldn’t matter, of course, but it does. As a standup, he stalks the stage like a cheetah waiting for his prey to separate itself from the pack. On film, that predatory instinct has been largely diluted.  At a thin 5-foot-10, he looks small. Size didn’t matter in 2 Days in New York, Juliet Delpy’s sequel to 2 Days in Paris, in which he played a mild-mannered radio host whose home is invaded by family of French loonies. It was a very different role for him, but he looked comfortable in his character’s skin.

As writer/director/star of Top Five, Rock appears to have distilled all of his experiences as an entertainer into a character, Andre Allen, who has lost touch with the people who influenced him on the way to stardom. Growing up in the projects, Allen was surrounded by people whose attitudes and idiosyncrasies served him well in the standup arena, but weren’t going to follow him to Hollywood, where he starred in a series of Hammy the Bear action comedies. Fearing that he might become too identified with the crime-fighting bear to be considered in other roles, Allen decided to do something completely different. It’s during the course of promoting, “Uprize!,” a biopic about a leader of the Haitian slave revolt, that he makes time to reconnect not only with family and friends, but also his bedrock sense of humor. The press-tour ordeal has already provided fertile ground for, among others, Woody Allen and British screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill). The roundtable interviews, talk-show appearances and other mind-numbing demands are enough to make a stage actor or comic consider returning to something more rewarding, even if the money isn’t as good. One of the things star do when they want to alter their public persona is agree to spend several hours in the company of a reporter for the New York Times Magazine. At first, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) seems a bit star-struck by Allen, who points her in the direction of the kinds of questions she should be asking. But, being beautiful and down-to-earth, she eventually makes Allen reconsider his commitment to his materialistic fiancé (Gabrielle Union), who’s planning a wedding to rival Kanye and what’s-her-name. What eases the character’s transition from self-pity to self-revelation most, however, are the musicians and comedians – Jerry Seinfeld, Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, DMX, Whoopie Goldberg and Adam Sandler, prominent among them – who provide a mirror and needed perspective for Allen. His reunion with hard-to-impress folks back in the ’hood is, at once, hilarious and heartwarming. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Rock and actor JB Smoove; the backgrounder, “It’s Never Just a Movie: Chris Rock and ‘Top Five’”; behind-the-scenes footage, combined with interviews; “Top Five Andre Allen Standup Outtakes”; “Top Five Moments You Didn’t See in the Film” and more deleted scenes; “Andre Raps”; “First Day Your Movie Comes Out”; and “These Shoes.”

The Soft Skin: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Viewed from a distance of 50 years, it seems inconceivable that François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin — newly restored by Criterion Collection — might have been booed at a Cannes screening or that it might have been one of the films close friend Jean-Luc Godard later would condemn as being irrelevant bourgeois distractions. Such were the passions of French intellectuals and cineastes in the latter half of the 1960s, when revolution was in the air and filmmakers were expected to toe one political line or another. Instead of addressing the concerns of workers and students, as Godard felt he should be doing, Truffaut made films that addressed the moral and ethical inconsistencies of people whose sins were more counter-revolutionary in nature and occasionally needed a good spanking, too. In 1964, Truffaut was consumed with researching and conducting interviews for “Hitchcock,” which would be published three years later. The Soft Skin may not have been the direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock that was The Bride Wore Black, but it quietly reflected things he learned at the foot of the master during their sessions. Viewers already vaguely familiar with The Soft Skin might consider skipping ahead to the bonus package and checking out the featurettes “Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock” and “The Complexity of Influence” before watching the main attraction. The Soft Skin is a romantic drama that’s anything but benign. After all, even in mid-‘60s France, cheating on one’s spouse must have been viewed as being, if not criminal, then, at least, sinful. And, as we’ve witnessed in any number of Hitchcock thrillers, crimes big and small can have ramifications well beyond the intention or execution of the deceit.

Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a well-known writer, whose income largely depends on traveling to far-flung locales to lecture on Balzac and other novelists. He’s been married to the still-stunning Franca (Nelly Benedetti) for many years, without noticeable complications, and they have a delightful daughter, Sabine, around 10. On a trip to Lisbon, Pierre encounters the gorgeous air hostess, Nicole (Catherine Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac), who flatters him with her knowledge of his work and willingness to ignore his drab appearance and inflated vanity. After some unconsummated flirtations, Pierre and Nicole begin what they anticipate will be a long-term love affair.  He isn’t anxious to inform Franca about his plans and Nicole is so self-conscious about the illicitness of the affair that she’s even reluctant to give her security guard permission to let him upstairs. It’s on a business trip to Reims, with Nicole, that things really get complicated for Pierre, and his disregard for his lover’s feelings reveals him to be just another frightened middle-class adulterer. Even though he remains blissfully unaware of the ripples emanating from the stone he’s thrown into calm surface of his life, it isn’t difficult to see the advancing storm clouds. The Soft Skin may not be on top of many critics’ lists of Truffaut must-sees, but, 50 years later, it’s a movie that deserves to be re-considered and relished, if only for its ability to tell an old story in a relatively new way. The new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, is enhanced by commentary with screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and scholar Serge Toubiana; a fresh video essay by filmmaker and critic Kent Jones; the documentary by film historian Robert Fischer and 1965 interview with Truffaut; and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Nothing screams disorder and chaos quite as loudly as a truckload of pigs accidentally discharged onto a major thoroughfare in rush hour. What makes such madness unbearable, apart from the horrendous squealing that comes whenever one of the pigs is trapped, is watching as some of the beasts pass out from heatstroke and die in plain sight of passersby. As horrendous as this seemingly not-unusual event appears to be, it’s only one of several such disturbances documented in Huang Weikai’s alarming guerrilla documentary, Disorder. Imagine if dozens of amateur filmmakers were encouraged to forgo taking selfies for a few days and, instead, use their cellphone cameras to capture examples of social dysfunction in Los Angeles or New York and upload them to a common website, available to anyone with a computer. While the footage might look similar to that on display in Disorder, it couldn’t possibly be more disheartening. Disorder is the product of a widespread project conducted by underground videographers to demonstrate what really happens in the streets of major Chinese cities when the whole world isn’t paying attention to the Olympics, mating pandas and martial-arts epics. Naturally, the unauthorized shooting and exhibition of such films is banned by the government

A pedestrian stages an accident in the middle of a busy street, then attempts to negotiate a deal with the nearly helpless motorist, before being dragged – literally – to a waiting ambulance, more than 50 feet away. A businessman who’s been waiting for an insurance settlement for three years – during which he’s lost the business – threatens to jump off a high bridge into the Pearl River if he isn’t allowed to speak with the police captain who assured him everything will work out fine. A group of politicians make a statement about the strength of their dedication to Chinese citizenry, by mimicking 73-year-old Chairman Mao’s hour-long swim in the Yangtze. Meanwhile, under a bridge over the same sickeningly polluted river, a desperate man sloshes around a garbage-strewn backwater to net fish. Others wade through flooded streets in sandals, courting disease and typhus from rusty nails. A grocery store is looted after being abandoned by its owner, when police find severed bear paws in a freezer and endangered anteaters in a cage. Laundry is hung on electrical and telephone wires. Laborers are ordered to continue construction even after finding cultural assets at a work site. Policemen beat people and lock them up in squad cars, awaiting paramedics, and a crowd gathers around a baby found deserted in an empty lot. In fact, crowds gather everywhere something unusual happens in Disorder.

Also included in the package is Huang’s earlier documentary on a group of Guangzhou buskers, who attempt to make a living playing music under an acoustically advantageous underpass. The focus is on a long-haired singer-songwriter, whose music wouldn’t be out of place in any college-town café in the west, but we also see musicians on traditional instruments, as well. Such harmless activity is outlawed and anyone caught without a recognized ID will be jailed or ordered to leave the city, where economic opportunity is practically non-existent. The outrages on display aren’t exclusive to the People’s Republic, of course. The things we witness in Disorder probably happen routinely around the world, in one form or another. What is different in China, perhaps, is the potential for revolt and anarchy, which can only grow greater as the disparity in incomes becomes more obvious and corruption escalates. Today’s digital technology assures that the cameras capturing the next Tiananmen Square won’t be those solely belonging to CNN and the BBC.

Muck: Blu-ray
Mark of the Devil: Blu-Ray
A Cry From Within
Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf: Blu-ray
It takes chutzpah for a first-time writer/director/producer to begin preparations for a prequel and sequel before critics and genre buffs have even had a chance to go ape over the original … or not. After all, the only two things to recommend Muck ahead of its release on DVD are the presence of genuine genre legend Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Hatchet) and 2012 Playboy Playmate of the Year Jaclyn Swedberg. Without knowing anything else about Muck, buffs who live to discover the next great horror franchise know intuitively that the gigantic Hodder will be responsible for the untimely deaths of several yuppies in the wrong place at the wrong time and Swedberg’s surgically enhanced boobs will be put on display, at least once.  Even though filmmaker Steve Wolsh absolutely delivers on the promise of mucho splatter and T&A, it’s the complete lack of a discernible storyline that has kept website pundits from singing its praises. As the picture opens, we watch a group of college-age tourists – one in her skivvies – splashing their way through a muddy Cape Cod marsh, attempting to escape a bunch of albino zombies whose graves they’ve disturbed. They may think they’re home free when a vacant summer home peeks through the evening fog, but their terror has only just begun. One of the guys volunteers to drive into town to summon help. When he pulls into the nearest bar, however, he’s distracted by several actual Miss Cape Cod winners – no kidding – who spend an inordinate amount of time exchanging lingerie in the ladies room.  When the doofus finally remembers why he drove into town in the first place, he packs a couple of the beauties into his SUV, along with several bottles of booze, and returns to the house, where his friends are waging a bloody battle with the less-than-invincible attackers. That’s about it, really. What makes Muck interesting for cognoscenti, however, are the setting – rural Cape Cod, entirely at night – and the fact that it’s the first horror film ever shot and released in 4K/Ultra HD. As someone who recently purchased a 4K/HD television set, I can attest to the unique texture of the visual presentation.

For some buffs, simply reading the names Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder, Herbert Fux and Udo Kier in the same sentence is sufficient cause for celebration. When they appeared together in Mark of the Devil, Lom was between installments in the Pink Panther series, as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, while Kier was a strikingly handsome 25-year-old newcomer. The other two actors had faces that could stop a clock. In this nicely restored Blu-ray edition from Arrow/MVD, they are witch finders in early 18th Century Austria. Despite its connection to the Vatican, the profession lends itself to the easy framing of buxom barmaids who refuse to go along with older men’s advances. When this happens, the women are tortured until they admit their heresy or burned at the stake for the amusement of the locals. Unlike Lom’s hypocritical arbiter of demonic possession, Kier’s apprentice doesn’t buy into the ritual sadism that is part of parcel of the job. The lunacy of religious fanaticism is effectively depicted by co-writer/directors Michael Armstrong and Adrian Hoven and the cruelty on display made Mark of the Devil a prime example of British exploitation films of the period. The torture and rape sequences still pack a punch, while the gorgeous Austrian setting serves as a counterbalance to the man-made ugliness. Upon the movie’s release, promotional barf bags were handed out to paying customers.

Anyone looking for an old-school haunted-house thriller – one not dependent on CGI and special-makeup effects – could do a lot worse than Deborah Twiss’ A Cry From Within (a.k.a., “Sebastien”). After experiencing a miscarriage, Cecile (Twill) and her therapist husband Jonathan (Eric Roberts), decide that the time is right for a change of scenery. So, along with their two young kids, they load up their station wagon and head for rural Upstate New York. Conveniently, the car breaks down just down the road from a large brick home soon to be vacated by a nasty invalid and her fed-up daughter (Pat Patterson, Cathy Moriarty). No sooner do the newcomers move into the house than it becomes abundantly clear the owners forgot to mention the abused souls and ghosts with whom they shared the residence. At first, it’s the kids who are confronted by something resembling a deformed child or large doll. It, then, makes its presence known to the grown-ups. Fortunately, a priest who grew up in the same house arrives to make sense of the haunting. Dealing with the ramifications is something else, entirely. Nothing terribly complicated occurs in A Cry From Within, but Twiss and co-director Zach Miller do a nice job using the house’s architecture to build suspense and accelerate movement.

If you can imagine a cross between Wait Until Dark, An American Werewolf in London and Taxi Driver, you’ll have a head-start on what happens in Adrián García Bogliano’s first English-language thriller, Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf. Nick Damici (Stakeland) plays Ambrose, a blind Vietnam vet who’s been given one final mission in life. At the behest of his son, Ambrose reluctantly agrees to move into a suburban retirement community, populated by seniors who fail to recognize the connection between full moons and the mutilation of pets and other violent crimes. Bogliano wastes no time introducing viewers to the hairy antagonists, which might as well have been branded RB, for effects master Rick Baker. In the 30 days between full moons, the blind vet insinuates himself into the lives of his neighbors, while also single-handedly digging a grave his service dog, which was killed trying to protect him from the beast. In one of several inside gags and winks at genre tropes, the locals are played by such venerable character actors as Tina Louise, Rutanya Alda, Tom Noonan, Larry Fessenden, Karen Lynn Gorney and Al Sapienza. If Eric Stolze’s screenplay doesn’t always find the right connection between traditional horror and inky black comedy, there are enough surprises to warrant a recommendation. The Blu-ray featurettes do a nice job explaining how the prosthetics and makeup effects were rendered.

Don’t Go in the Woods: Blu-ray
The Muthers
Even at 82 minutes, Don’t Go in the Woods is one of those movies that feel as if they’re never going to end. Ineptly made and amateurishly acted, the 1982 non-thriller nonetheless has one very good thing going for it and it isn’t copious nudity. That’s noteworthy only because director James Bryan (a.k.a., Morris Deal) began his career making soft-core flicks and ended it in the hard-core arena. Instead of some much-needed T&A, Bryan does a real nice job capturing the summertime beauty of the mountains above Salt Lake City. Even though he used leftover scraps of other people’s film stock, the cinematography holds up really well after being restored in 2k from the original 35mm negative. Sadly, the same can’t be said about Garth Eliassen’s screenplay, whose many potholes are filled in with gallons of blood that looks even more fake in Blu-ray. On this particular weekend in the woods, several different groups of campers have their vacations spoiled by a psycho mountain man (Tom Drury), who looks as if he might have been raised by feral pigs. Don’t Go in the Woods is one of the few splatter/slasher films in which most of the victims are executed using pointed sticks, machetes and a club that wouldn’t have been out of place in a “B.C.” cartoon. Do I need to continue? Suffice it to say that the movie has attained something of a cult following and easily qualifies as a movie that’s so bad it demands to be seen. The Vinegar Syndrome package is almost three times longer than the movie itself, consisting of three – count ’em, three – commentary tracks; a reunion featurette that doubles as a backgrounder; clips from the promotional tour; a half-hour piece shot at a 2006 autograph-signing party; production stills; press artwork; and a copy of the script.

The name, Cirio H. Santiago, will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Mark Hartley’s hilarious documentary on the joys of making exploitation movies in the Philippines, Machete Maidens Unleashed!, or is otherwise conversant with the history of Roger Corman’s more far-flung partnerships. Back in the 1970s, Santiago’s operation was the go-to place for quick-and-dirty genre flicks that promised skin, sadism, violence, corruption and poorly dubbed dialogue. Santiago had easy access to U.S. and Philippines Army military equipment, minimum-wage actors and production assistants. When in doubt, Corman would put one of his film-school hotshots on a plane to Manila, where they’d pick up all the bargain-basement tricks they’d need for the rest of their careers. The Muthers combines Blaxploitation and kick-ass action with key elements of the pirate and women-in-prison subgenres. Among the familiar American stars are former beauty queen and future sportscaster Jayne Kennedy, Rosanne Katon (“She Devils in Chains”), Jeannie Bell (“Mean Streets”) and Trina Parks (“Darktown Strutters”). They take time off from being pirates to save a “soul sistah” from the clutches of vicious white slavers. It has been restored in 2k from the 35mm negative. In Santiago’s even more twisted Hellhole, virgins from around the Philippines are kidnaped and shipped to a plantation belonging to a slick gangster. If the virgins don’t cooperate, or the boss gets tired of them, he throws them into a dungeon.

Troop Beverly Hills: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 1989, Troop Beverly Hills probably was perceived as being an ironic early-teen comedy, not unlike Paul Mazursky’s far more grown-up Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Paul Bartel’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, and in the same satiric spirit as TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Aaron Spelling’s epochal “Beverly Hills, 90210” was still a year away, with “Melrose Place,” “The O.C.,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Gossip Girl” still years away.  If one were able to stretch their imaginations to fit the absurdities of life in and adjacent to the 90210 zip code, it’s even possible to see Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring as an unlikely sequel to Troop Beverly Hills. Based on a semi-autobiographical story by producer Ava Ostern Fries, the comedy broadly imagines what would constitute a troop of Wilderness Girls, whose personalities would mirror the neuroses and egos of their rich parents and whose idea of roughing it would be having to share a bathroom on a campout at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Shelley Long, who was a hot commodity at the time, was an excellent choice to play the spoiled Beverly Hills housewife, Phyllis, roped into taking over her daughter Hannah’s troop of spoiled pre-pubescent brats. The thoroughly frivolous Phyllis has something to prove to her husband (Craig T. Nelson) and it arrives in the form of the girl’s annual cookie drive. You can guess the rest. What’s most fun about the movie are the young actors cast as the scouts — Carla Gugino, Kellie Martin, Jenny Lewis, Tori Spelling – and cameo appearances by Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Cheech Marin and Pia  Zadora. Betty Thomas, Mary Gross and Stephanie Beacham played key adult roles. If the sum of the individual parts don’t equal a great comedy, it remains sufficiently entertaining for the original target demographic. The nicely transferred Blu-ray edition adds fresh interviews with Shelley Long and Ava Ostern Fries; and deleted scenes.

Mondovino: The Complete Series
Maude: The Complete Series
PBS: American Experience: The Forgotten Plague
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Ben Franklin’s Bones
PBS: Nova: Big Bang Machine
If I had known that a 135-minute theatrical version of the newly released 600-minute “Mondovino: The Complete Series” already exists, I might have been able to prevent nearly eight hours of my life from disappearing before my eyes. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t fascinated by much of the information collected by writer, director, documentarian, sommelier, polyglot and bon vivant Jonathan Nossiter, only that my interest in fine wine is limited to what’s actually contained inside bottles shared by wealthier friends over dinner and what can be gleaned from routine visits to Napa/Sonoma. I’ve learned the difference between very good wines and those of lesser status and occasionally can discern the various flavors, textures and tastes. What I’m fare less interested in are the lifestyles of fabulously wealthy producers and their almost incestuous relationship to each other. I suspect I’m not alone in that regard – some critics felt the theatrical version was a tad long, as well – but, for those who can’t get enough of all thing oenophilic, the series should be a 10-hour slice of heaven on Earth. While the opening chapters of the documentary lack context, “Mondovino” can be appreciated for chronicling the growing impact of globalization on the world’s most important wine regions in the early 2000s. In that sense, it can be seen as an elaborate game of “Five Degrees of Robert Modavi.” Although comparatively new to the game, Mondavi brought his distinctly American economic and marketing genius to an industry that was dominated by Europeans able to trace the pedigree of their soil and vines through hundreds of years of production. At the same time as the Mondovis’ nouveau-riche neighbors were exalting in their ability to spread the gospel of boutique vineyards to nouveau-riche consumers, the company was buying up ancient patches in France and Italy, while also cultivating relationships with the moguls of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Florence and Tuscany. Nossiter also discusses at length the immense role played by such influential consultants as Michel Rolland; critic Robert Parker and Wine Spectator magazine; and proponents of New Oak casks and microbiology. In the final chapter, we meet growers in places no one could have guessed would support vineyards.

Based solely on the evidence presented in Shout Factory’s “Maude: The Complete Series,” I’d have to think that the ground-breaking series today would face an uphill battle finding a slot on the prime-time schedules of the broadcast networks. What was merely deemed controversial in the early 1970s, today is both controversial and politically incorrect. I don’t think that series creator Norman Lear ceased being funny or prescient when the clock turned 12 on the Reagan era, but something changed in America that would discourage networks from adding topicality to sitcoms and challenging their audiences’ preconceptions and prejudices. As leftover radicals, hippies and liberals from the early 1970s began to understand how much fun it can be to be rich and reactionary – or, at least, addicted to cocaine – Lear’s progressive attitude no longer attracted viewers to the commercials that interrupted entertainment programing. HBO, Showtime and other cable services eventually would fill the void, but the broadcast networks decided that it was easier to take the low road than create sitcoms that might step on someone’s toe. “Maude,” of course, began as a spinoff from “All in the Family,” itself an adaptation of the British sitcom, “Till Death Us Do Part.” As portrayed with enormous gusto by Bea Arthur, Maude was a cousin to Edith Bunker and constant burr under the saddle of Archie. Her performances in the episodes included in the new DVD package were far too dynamic for Lear to ignore, so he built a family around Maude and gave her a soapbox for her not always consistent liberality. (In one early episode, the thought of allowing her adult daughter, Carol, to sleep in the same room as her visiting boyfriend causes an emotional, intellectual and feminist conundrum for Maude.) The addition of Bill Macy, Adrienne Barbeau, Conrad Bain and Rue McClanahan to the lineup helped dial down some of the stridency of Maude’s views and voice. Besides clearing a path for “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown,” “Maude” also allowed the protagonists of “30 Rock” and “Veep” to be less aggressively feminist, but no less caustic or attentive to issues of importance to women.

Although the current debate over vaccinating children against killer diseases isn’t mentioned in PBS’ timely “American Experience: The Forgotten Plague,” it can hardly be ignored. By the dawn of the 19th Century, tuberculosis was blamed for killing one in seven of all the people who had ever lived. It took a while for the infectious disease to strike Americans in great numbers, but, once it did, it ignored all socio-economic boundaries and ravaged entire communities without mercy. It’s still with us, but the exhaustive search for a cure and means of detection finally paid off in 1946, when the development of the antibiotic streptomycin began being used to curtail TB’s insidious spread. “The Forgotten Plague” provides a valuable reminder as to how swiftly such a disease can spread through a population unprepared to put up defenses against it. It also uses archival photos to show how  some victims were able to find relief in the mountains and rural areas that then included pre-smog L.A. Based, in part, on Sheila Rothman’s “Living in the Shadow of Death,” the show is narrated by Michael Murphy.

Fans of “CSI,” “NCIS” and the many forensics shows currently dominating various cable networks, are missing a sure bet if they’re not watching PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead,” of which “Ben Franklin’s Bones” is merely the latest offering. Two centuries after American diplomat and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin gave up his London home, at 36 Craven Street, construction workers were shocked by the discovery of more than 1,200 bones, from at least 10 bodies, buried in the basement. Police were called in to determinate what might have occurred at the four-story Georgian townhouse, where Franklin lived and worked for nearly 20 years. Modern forensics techniques were able to clear Franklin of anything more felonious than facilitating the unauthorized medical studies of a close friend, whose illegal activities probably grave-robbing and soliciting the purchase of fresh cadavers. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders, the show also offers the insight of Her Majesty’s Coroner for the central London Borough of Westminster, Dr. Paul Knapman; archaeologist Dr. Simon Hillson, of University College London; and Dr. Marcia Balisciano, director of Benjamin Franklin House.

Even after watching the articulately rendered “Nova” episode “Big Bang Machine,” I probably don’t understand anything more about the Higgs boson — an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics – than causal viewers of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” I do, however, know now that both “boson” and a “bosun” can safely be used in Scrabble, if not on the high seas or a gathering of physicists. The show’s producers take us to the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s truly amazing underground laboratory, where the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider is located. Located 100 metres underground, it also is considered to be the world’s largest and likely most expensive machine. I’m still not sure what the many scientists stationed there will do when they’ve made sense of the God Particle – create a parallel universe, perhaps – but anyone interested in such things should find the show exciting to watch.

Hollywood Chaos
An impressively attractive cast of young African-American actors is wasted in Hollywood Chaos, a movie whose only groundings in reality are provided by the fashion design and musical soundtracks. It isn’t their fault that director Abel Vang and writer Angela Marie Hutchinson have created a movie about contemporary Hollywood that bears no relationship to anyone or anything in contemporary Hollywood. When a naïve entertainment reporter (Vanessa Simmons) is assigned to produce a special segment, exposing the decadent lifestyles of her celebrity friends, she is torn between accelerating her career and preserving their images. While the television newsmagazine appears to be modeled after “60 Minutes,” the reporter displays none of the ethical standards demanded of a serious journalist. If she worked on “ET” or “Extra,” she’d be encouraged, instead, to fawn over her subjects and ignore all of their peccadillos. Too many of these urban melodramas treat their audiences as if they were too unsophisticated to handle actual stories about blacks in show business – Top Five, for example – and they prefer to be represented by archetypes and clichés.

The DVD Wrapup: Liberator, Watchers of the Sky, R100, Code Black, Red Road, Red Tent and more

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

The Liberator: Blu-ray
Turn: The Complete First Series: Blu-ray
Because American students have never been required to be proficient in the history of the Americas south of the Alamo, the vast region continues to be something of a mystery to us. After learning how the conquistadors demolished and/or converted the indigenous population and sent their treasures back to Spain to fill the depleted coffers of the monarchy, we were left only with misconceptions. It took the martyrdom of Che Guevara, fear of communism and outrages of fascism to rekindle our interest in the affairs of South and Central America. The scourge of cocaine, black-tar heroin and illegal immigrants added a sense of urgency heretofore unwarranted. Affordable airfares and improved tourist accommodations have done more to educate Americans about the new realities of life in the western hemisphere than all of the textbooks that ignored imperialism and CIA meddling in national politics. Among the handful of things we think are true about Spain’s legacy in the New World are legends surrounding the spread of syphilis and deification of Simon Bolivar. Contrary to popular belief, yet confirmed by considerable scientific research, Spanish soldiers weren’t responsible for bringing the STDs with them on the Niña, Pinta and the Santa Maria. Apparently, syphilis was here all along and the natives used herbal remedies to combat it, if such a thing was even possible. Also left largely unchallenged is the notion that Simon Bolivar was “the George Washington of South America.” While it’s true that Bolivar was a great military leader and crusader for personal freedom, he left the door open for despotic rule by home-grown dictators. And, while director Alberto Arvelo and writer Timothy J. Sexton’s soaring historical epic, The Liberator, introduces us to a flesh-and-blood Bolivar distinctly more realistically drawn that the man found in our textbooks, it still leaves plenty of questions about his vision for a unified South America unanswered.

Even so, The Liberator is as entertaining as any recent movie in which most of the male characters wear impractical uniforms and brandish swords. As the man known far and wide as El Libertador, Edgar Ramirez’ portrayal is spot-on. After revealing Bolivar’s aristocratic Creole roots and European education, Arvelo demonstrates how he was able to use the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson to inspire a popular uprising would spread from Venezuela to Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, northern Peru (Bolivia) and northwest Brazil. The Caracas-born director avoids the common trap of relying on polemics to advance the narrative, leaving ample time to remind viewers of Venezuela’s natural beauty and other sources of pride for its citizens. Especially well dramatized is Bolivar’s long march through the frozen Andes, into Colombia, where his outnumbered army could regroup and find inspiration from other entrenched freedom fighters. Things do get complicated, however, when the war for independence ends and the liberated states are asked to accept Bolivar as a president for life and, in 1830, a hand-picked successor. By contrast, George Washington only reluctantly served a second term as president of the United States and it was left to the American citizenry – white property owners, at least – to decide the length of his incumbency and successor. The Liberator doesn’t ignore Bolivar’s divisive positions, which included freedom for all races, but, by the time they’re advanced, viewers will have come to regard his detractors as counter-revolutionaries. (The movie opens with a failed 1828 assassination attempt, thwarted only by the quick thinking of his mistress.) Finally, Arvelo and Sexton advance the theory that Bolivar wasn’t a victim of tuberculosis, as recorded, but was kidnaped and murdered before he could return to Venezuela from Gran Colombia (or, perhaps, to exile in Europe). It isn’t a new theory, but one discredited in a recent investigation by the Venezuelan government and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ speculative novel, “The General in His Labyrinth.” The conceit is explained in interviews included in the lengthy making-of featurette, which also includes an introduction by Venezuelan composer Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His score for The Liberator adds greatly to its significance and power.

It can be persuasively argued, I think, that Hollywood has had better luck dramatizing the Crusades and extinction of the dinosaurs than anything particularly enlightening about the Revolutionary War. The 2008 HBO mini-series, “John Adams,” stands out from a small crowd of competitors that typically includes The Patriot, 1776, The Devil’s Disciple, Revolution, Drums Along the Mohawk, a couple of obscure TV movies and Disney’s fondly recalled Johnny Tremain and The Swamp Fox.” Curiously, George Washington has rarely been portrayed as anything more than a caricature, based on famous paintings, or a secular saint. Although he only appears in half of the 10 episodes of the thrilling AMC mini-series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” the general is shown to be a flesh-and-blood leader of men and a brilliant strategist. Despite its title, the first season of the mini-series doesn’t begin and end with Washington inventing the nation’s first espionage network. It opens on a failing cabbage farm on Long Island, not far from a fishing and trading village controlled by the British. The citizens of Setauket haven’t been especially mistreated by the Redcoats, who see it as a relatively comfortable place to sit out what they expect to be a short war. Nonetheless, a couple of the more brutish officers spark an incident that reverberates throughout the inaugural season. Jamie Bell stars as Abe Woodhull, the apolitical farmer, who, in smuggling vegetables to the rebels across Long Island Sound, reluctantly is enlisted into a silent conspiracy for which he’s uniquely suited. His loyalist father is the town magistrate and a businessman who regularly travels to New York to sell goods to the British. Once enlisted by the rebels into the Culper Ring, Abe delivers information so valuable that it can’t help but impress Washington, then headquartered in New Jersey. That may oversimplify the narrative, but it’s all one really needs to know before getting hooked. In addition to the brave farmer, there are numerous heroes and villains for viewers to admire or despise. The history is sound and the soap-opera elements are compelling. The Blu-ray package adds, “The History of Turn: Washington’s Spies,” “From Art to Image” and 25 minutes of deleted scenes.

Watchers of the Sky
Sadly, “genocide,” a word only coined 70 years ago, has become so much a part of our vocabulary that it might as well belong to the ages. Certainly, the crime it describes is nothing new. As chronicled in Edet Belzberg’s haunting documentary Watchers of the Sky, it was the Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist Raphael Lemkin, who, saw the need for a legally recognized term to describe the mass atrocities committed against races of people – based on religion, traditions, color or caste — in the minority of a country. His concern was prompted by the simple question, posed by the slaughter of Turkey’s Armenian population and prosecution of a survivor who assassinated an Ottoman pasha-in-exile responsible for it, “Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” In minimalizing the Nazi invasion of Poland and the mass murder of its people, Adolph Hitler said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Among the issues facing prosecutors at the Nuremberg tribunals was the lack of international law even describing what specifically constituted genocide, other than the catch-all “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “crimes against peace.” It exists today primarily through Lemkin’s determination to push through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1948, as General Assembly Resolution 260.  It wasn’t until 1988 that the United States would finally agree to ratify the convention. Fifty years passed, as well, before anyone would be convicted of genocide (Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu) and another nine before a state (Serbia) was to be found in breach of the convention. The fact that the president of oil-rich Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, one of the premier monsters of our time, has been able to escape prosecution at International Criminal Court, attests to the difficulty in getting co-religionist leaders and trading partners to cooperate in the interest of world peace and ethical unity. Also prominent in Watchers of the Sky are, Benjamin Ferencz, chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg; Luis Moreno Ocampo, first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of operations for UN refugee camps in Chad; and Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell,” was the film’s prime source of information.

Massacre Mafia Style: Blu-ray
Based solely on the evidence presented in the bonus material contained in Grindhouse Releasing’s Massacre Mafia Style package, the life of Italian-American actor and nightclub singer Duke Mitchell (, Dominic Miceli) is a biopic waiting to happen. Because he died in 1981, at 55, Millennials and Boomers can be excused for never having heard of him. Before and during the Rat Pack era, Mitchell was a popular enough entertainer to be accorded the nickname, Mr. Palm Springs and Unofficial Mayor of Palm Springs. Before going solo and eventually providing the singing voice of Fred Flintstone, he was best known for impersonating Dean Martin opposite Sammy Petrillo’s Jerry Lewis in a popular nightclub act. It was on that mob-controlled circuit that Mitchell encountered the underworld characters who would influence Massacre Mafia Style and whose stories informed “The most violent movie ever made.” Nearly 40 years later, it remains as pure an example of grindhouse exploitation as any of the Italian poliziotteschi gangster films it resembles.  Working with a budget that may have equaled the proceeds from a tip jar on a piano in a Palms Springs lounge, he made Massacre Mafia Style (a.k.a., “The Executioner” or “Like Father, Like Son”) at the twilight of the Blaxploitation era. In it, Mitchell plays Mimi Miceli, the son of a powerful mob boss, who, after being expelled to Sicily from the U.S., loses control of his “family.” After learning the ropes, Mimi returns to America with a plan to make Hollywood the center of the underworld, from racketeering and prostitution to controlling how movies are made. Naturally, Mimi and his old partner in crime, Jolly (Vic Caesar), meet resistance from the incumbent gangsters. In scenes reminiscent of the bloody day of reckoning at the end of The Godfather, they almost manage to eliminate the opposition … “almost,” being the key word.

Even if the hi-def resolution of the Blu-ray restoration makes it extremely clear that the blood and special makeup effects are fake as all get-out, viewers with a low tolerance for screen violence may have a difficult time stomaching Massacre Mafia Style. What’s also great about the GR package is the extensive bonus package, which overflows with Mitchell’s excellent singing and name-dropping interviews with friends, relatives and admirers. Among those providing testimony here are “exploitation king” Matt Cimber and son Jeffrey Mitchell, a fine singer and guitar player, who, as a boy, became a key part of the act and commuted from southern California to wherever his dad was crooning on weekends. Besides the documentary, “Like Father, Like Son” and more than an hour of home movies –accompanied by songs performed by the Mitchells — the two-disc set contains film- and discographies, photo galleries, a bunch of truly wild Grindhouse previews, the full-length, “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla,” a 1952 film that introduced the comedy team of Mitchell and Petrillo; “An Impressionistic Tribute to Jimmy Durante,” a television special featuring Mitchell, made up as the great entertainer, sharing songs and thoughts with an audience; and a 12-page booklet containing liner notes by cult-movie specialist David Szulkin. Mitchell’s only other directorial effort, Gone With the Pope, which he finished shooting in 1976, but wasn’t fully assembled and restored until 2010. It arrives on Blu-ray on March 24.

The Pet: Special Director’s Cut
Both of these films have their roots in the BDSM underworld, if only at the margins of genre fantasy. Neither owes anything to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey or 9½ Weeks. Before R100, Hitoshi Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu collaborated on such strange Japanese films as Saya-zamurai, Symbol and Big Man Japan. Their latest provocation is a transgressive satire on the emptiness of life as a Japanese salaryman. In it, a sales clerk in the bedding department of a large store decides that the only way to add some meaning or excitement to his mundane life is to sign a year-long contract with a company that supplies dominatrices to its clients. Instead of meeting the leather-clad women in hotel rooms, they appear at unexpected times and in places the client can’t predict. For instance, he might be in a restaurant enjoying some sushi and sashimi, when, out of nowhere, a black patent-leather shoe, with a 6-inch heel, stomps his food and moshes it to the consistency of a pancake. Or, he’ll be walking home after work when the same woman – or one very much like her – kicks him down a flight of stairs. He digs it, but it definitely leaves bruises. It’s only until he’s unexpectedly confronted at work, home or at the hospital, where his wife lies comatose in a bed, that he tries to get out of his contract. First, though, he must deal with “CEO,” a blond westerner (Lindsay Kay Hayward) who stands 6-foot-8 in her fishnets and could play Brünnhilde in anyone’s “Ring” cycle. Even for fans of unusual Asian fare, R100 will require some time to digest. They’ll probably find the inky black comedy, as well as the uneasy laughter it prompts, well worth the effort.

The Pet is another story, altogether. First released in 2006, D. Stevens’ BDSM fantasy depicts consensual relationships between young women in desperate need of money and middle-aged men of means, looking for something, well, different. The women agree to behave exactly like house pets might, sans clothing, and for long periods of time. The protagonist here, Mary/GG (Andrea Edmondson), sleeps in a triangular cage, eats from a bowl, defecates on the floor or outdoors, and fetches sticks for exercise. She isn’t beaten or mistreated any more than the average house pet and, generally speaking, live in the lap of luxury. The conceit here is that money, when combined with extreme need, will make people agree to do strange things, even push aside the humiliation that comes with such sport. What separates a true professional from a part-timer, however, is the love for the game that comes with real submission. The drama escalates when the dapper owner of Mary/GG realizes that he’s being played by a higher force, who’s less interested in her as a companion than a commodity. We’re told that such relationships occur in real life and maybe they do. (The Master, here, can’t bear to replace his longtime pet with another canine, and occasionally beds women who don’t wear a leash.) That doesn’t make the movie any easier to stomach, let alone enjoy. If it weren’t for the release of “Fifty Shades,” it might not have been re-released in a “special edition.”

The Breakfast Club: 30th Anniversary Edition
My Girl: Blu-ray
My goodness, it only feels as if 4½ years have passed since Universal released the 25th anniversary edition of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club. Time certainly flies by in this crazy business. I suppose that there will come a time when Hughes’ depictions of teen life in the 1980s don’t resonate with any current generation of teenagers, but, really, how much has changed in the suburban landscape in the past 30 years? Will naughty boys and girls not be assigned to detention periods? Will the caste system and archetypes of high school life disappear? Will teachers not be burdened with such bureaucratic obligations as baby-sitting miscreants on their hours or days off? Probably not, but, even if they did, you’d have another 30-40 years of the same shenanigans that inform The Breakfast Club. Hughes’ best films – and this is right up there with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 16 Candles – began to appear just as Hollywood only suspected the future of the industry lay in teens and young adults comfortable in the multiplex setting. His movies never pandered to the growing suburban-teen demographic or neutralized the off-campus fun simply to mollify parents or studio executives. I don’t remember any furor caused by the scene in which the students shared a joint in the library, but, at the time, I’m sure it raised more than a few eyebrows. The MPAA hasn’t changed its outdated standards much in 30 years, either, so it’s likely that the movie would still go out with an “R” rating. If ever a PG-16 or PG-17 status would have been warranted, it would have been for Breakfast Club. The “30th Anniversary Edition” is enhanced by a fresh digital face peel and a new trivia track. It retains bonus features from the “25th Anniversary” package.

More than a few parents in 1991 misidentified My Girl as being a product of Hughes’ movie factory in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It was widely reported that Macaulay Culkin, who’d just busted out in Home Alone, would share his first on-screen kiss with newcomer Anna Chlumsky (“Veep”) and the movie would be rated PG-13, which differentiated it from Disney pre-teen fodder. Chlumsky plays the precocious 11-year-old, Vada Margaret Sultenfuss, who grows up in an apartment above her father’s funeral parlor and blames herself for mother’s death. Culkin plays the allergy-ridden Thomas J. Sennett, who digs her despite her sometimes off-putting behavior. In time, Vada will have to deal with the cruelest form of tragedy, as well as the sense of loss that comes when her father (Dan Aykroyd) puts aside his grief long enough to fall for his new makeup artist (Jamie Lee Curtis). If that makes My Girl sound too heavy for adolescents, know that Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) and Laurice Elehwany (The Amazing Panda Adventure) maintain a firm balance between drama and comedy. Besides, the movie represented one of the rare coming-of-age pictures targeted at girls. The Blu-ray adds Elehwany’s commentary, “A Day on the Set” and original behind-the-scenes featurette.

White Haired Witch: Blu-ray
Not all historical epics from China require a working knowledge of the country’s long history and transitions from one dynasty to another. Some, however, do benefit from a quick perusal of reviews from knowledgeable Pacific Rim critics – try’s external reviews listings – while others can be enjoyed with the same suspension of historical disbelief required of Hollywood Westerns. Zhang Zhiliang’s White Haired Witch (a.k.a., “The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom”) is the latest adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel, which was serialized in a Hong Kong newspaper between August, 1957, and December, 1958. Each time it’s been reborn, the story’s been modified to accentuate different aspects of the mythology. From what I can gather, White Haired Witch was widely criticized for attempting to do too much in one adaptation and, as such, was compared unfavorably, to Ronny Yu’s 1993 epic The Bride With White Hair. Set in the twilight of the Ming Dynasty, the Imperial court is plagued by corruption and tyranny.  Machiavellian plotters conspire to unseat the Emperor, who would be succeeded by an easily manipulated child. In star-crossed lovers Lian Nishang (Fan Bingbing) and Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming), they have ready-made dupes to serve to those wondering who is responsible for this crime and the subsequent murder of a popular general. Bingbing also plays the titular protagonist, Jade Rackshasa, whose memory will be corrupted to pit her against Zhou. There’s plenty enough action here to satisfy martial-arts enthusiasts, as well as some wonderful production-design work. Sometimes, it’s all too obvious that White Haired Witch was shot to be exhibited in 3D IMAX, which required choices that don’t translate naturally into 2D. Sharp-eyed viewers might also be able to pick up on the scenes shot after Xiaoming broke his foot in a wire stunt. It also required taking certain shortcuts to avoid expensive production delays. The Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette, during which a producer explains how a financial backed asked him to use the accident to justify making a “B”-quality movie from an “A”-level budget, perhaps to sock away a little extra on the side. It’s easy to read the frustration on his face.

Code Black
There are times when the number of hospital shows on television is so great that it’s impossible to separate the fictional stories from the documentary series. “ER” wasn’t the first series that depicted what happens in big-city emergency rooms, but it was among the first to use advanced technology to capture the often frenetic pace of treatment and range of emotions registered by doctors, nurses, patients, loved ones and paramedics. The chaos was necessarily balanced by soap-opera throughlines, involving romance, addictions, career advancement and extreme behavior. It became, of course, one of the most popular and honored shows on network television. Code Black borrows several of the story-telling and production techniques that made “ER” so entertaining, but in the service of non-fiction. Because it was shot by intern Ryan McGarry, while he was interning, the documentary is several degrees more intimate than almost every other hospital show. The term, “code black,” refers to the periods when nurses, doctors, receptions and janitors are completely slammed by the number of patients being treated and waiting for treatment at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center. The craziness is compounded by hospital, city and state regulators and bean-counters, who require mountains of paperwork. Code Black is an amazing production, which, of course, already has been picked up by CBS. How they’ll be able to improve on reality is anyone’s guess.

If the subject of substance abuse and recovery weren’t already so familiar, Heath Jones and Cindy Joy Coggins’ extremely compelling drama, Grace, might have found a lot more traction than it did in the pre-DVD marketplace. Set and shot in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Grace looks good and is populated by characters and actors with whom we don’t mind sharing 95 minutes of our time. It’s no fault of the filmmakers that the narrative’s flow could be predicted after being introduced to Gracie Turner (Annika Marks), lying face down in the sand with no memory of how she got there or that she’s demolished her car in the process. After resisting arrest in barroom scuffle, Gracie is given a choice of spending several months in jail for repeated offenses or agreeing to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Among the fellow alcoholics who will figure in her life for at least the next three months are a kind café owner (Sharon Lawrence), who gives her a job, clothes and shelter; a handsome surfer dude (Chase Mowen) and his closest friends; and several women who used alcohol to soften the blows of abusive relationships. As played by Marks, Grace is an especially hard nut to crack. She refuses to admit that she’s lost control of her life and continues to blame her father for the death of her alcoholic mother. She was subconsciously drawn to New Smyrna Beach — 1,600 miles from her New York home — because of a photograph she carries of a family vacation there when she was a child. Although Grace remembers it as being the last happy time she spent with her mother, it isn’t until she completely gives in to sobriety that the fog begins to clear around recollections of the woman’s suicidal behavior and misdirected outbursts of anger. The more we get to know about the other characters, of course, the thicker the plot becomes. Even with the large number of things working in Grace’s favor, I suspect that it will have a difficult time finding its intended demographic target: teens and young adults – women, especially – who have been led to believe that substance abuse is a problem limited to men and women who share their parents’ age and social brackets. The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes, as well as alternate openings and closings.

Stop Pepper Palmer
Beyond a plot that defies logic, Stop Pepper Palmer is a comedy with no more than a couple of cheap laughs and acting that gives lackluster new meaning. As for the story, co-directors Lonzo Liggins and Danny James demand that we forget for a minute that Salt Lake City has a NBA team and Utah is home to several fine universities. Apparently, there are only three black men living in the state and even fewer African-American women of dating age. When a “new” woman arrives in town from a city with a bona-fide ghetto, the slackers come to believe they might be “too white” to capture her fancy. To rectify that sad situation, the guys hire a world-famous lothario named Pepper Palmer, who presumably is from Cleveland and looks and talks as if he’s studied ancient VCR copies of “Soul Train” and Jimmie Walker on “Good Times.” If filmmakers were fined every time they used a racial stereotype or clichéd depiction of a minority character, Stop Pepper Palmer’s budget would be right up there with most other Hollywood comedies, instead of looking as if it were financed with the proceeds of recycled bottles and aluminum. There’s a decently handled plot twist near the end of the film, but nothing that couldn’t be seen coming when Pepper Palmer enters the narrative.

Syfy: Dark Haul: Blu-ray
While there’s some debate over whether the seventh son of a seventh son is likely to grow up to become an angel or devil, it’s almost certain that no good can come from being the 13th child of a 13th child. Or, so we’re led to believe in the Syfy-original movie Dark Haul (a.k.a., “Monster Truck”), during which just such a creature is born half-human and half-beast. The only thing worse for the unfortunate parents would be for the fruits of their loins to be twins … in this case, a half-human girl with a tail and a winged beast with the power to induce hallucinatory visions. Born in 1735, the offspring have been kept under wraps all this time by a cabal of devil-worshippers known as “Keepers.” When their secret threatens to unravel, the Keepers lease a semi-trailer to carry the beasts to a safer harbor. Traffic conditions being what they are off the Interstate highways, it isn’t long before they break out of their cages and threaten to fulfill their apocalyptic prophesy. As Syfy movies go, Dark Haul isn’t as conspicuously ridiculous as most of the network’s hybrid-monster thrillers or meteorological disasters. The special-effects are adequate and the actors don’t embarrass themselves. They include Tom Sizemore, Evalena Marie, Rick Ravanello, Kevin Shea, Anthony Del Negro and Adrienne LaValley. First-timers Daniel Wise and Ben Crane are responsible for the direction and screenplay.

Sundance: The Red Road
Lifetime: The Red Tent
Nickelodeon: Hey Dude: The Complete SeriesFireball XL5: The Complete Series
Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5: Special Edition
PBS: Nature: Penguin Post Office
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: Book Four: Balance: Blu-ray
The Sundance mini-series, “The Red Road,” looks as if it could have been set anywhere in the U.S. or Canada where a community of indigenous Americans abuts a town primarily populated with residents of a more European persuasion. While life is, for the most part, peaceful and absent controversy, there are times when long-held prejudices and rivalries collide with the implications of newly signed treaties and cold economic realities. European-Americans will always resent efforts to restore land they argue was stolen fairly and squarely from the original inhabiitants. The Lenape of Pennsylvania, western Connecticut and northern New Jersey were among the first tribes displaced by English and Dutch settlers. Unlike other tribes, the primary governing group of remaining Lenapes have refused to square the raw deal they received by opening a casino within spitting distance of New York City and northern New Jersey. The scenic rural location, when viewed alongside the economic disparity between Indians and Anglo residents, provides a compelling setting for mystery, violence and intrigue.  The protagonists are a local cop, Harold (Martin Henderson), who grew up in the area and is familiar with most of Lenapes living just outside the town, and a charismatic hell-raiser of multiracial background, Phillip (Jason Momoa), newly paroled from prison.  In addition to his official duties, Harold’s mind is consumed with problems relating to his mentally fragile wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), and two rapidly maturing daughters. Phillip appears to have resumed control of tribal vice and rackets, but, in the interim, outside criminal elements have entered the picture. There are other complications, of course, some of which involve secrets in Jean and Phillip’s past. “The Red Road” takes a bit more time to get rolling than other modern-crime mini-series on cable, but, by the fourth episode, most viewers will be hooked.

Not being a biblical scholar, I went into Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” as blind as anyone unfamiliar with the nuances and subtexts of Old Testament drama. It didn’t take me long, however, to begin to wonder how kosher this adaptation of Anita Diamant’s 1997 best-seller might be. In the novel, the red tent is a place in the family compound where menstruating women are quartered for seven days, or until they’re no longer “unclean.” Women also gave birth in the tent, surrounded by other female members of the tribe. Scholars appear to be undecided as to whether this segregation was punishment ordained by God, via tribal elders, or an opportunity for kindred women and girls to chill out for week and free themselves from the men in their lives and their superstitions. Here, Diamant favors the latter explanation. It is from the wisdom exchanged under the red tent that Dinah — daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph – learned the skills of midwifery, for which she would become known throughout the course of the two-part mini-series. Upon closer examination, I learned that Dinah is considered to be a relatively insignificant figure in bible history, but one whose presence caused significant things to happen. Instead of being raped by a Shalem, the prince of Shechem, as the bible argues, here Dinah and the prince experience love at the first sight and, on second sight, sexual bliss. When the king goes to Jacob to seal the deal with a “bride price,” the sons misinterpret the sexual liaison and demand that all of the men in Shechem be circumcised. If it appears, even today, to be a drastic price to pay for forgiving the consummation of an unofficial marriage, consider that Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi use the men’s extreme pain to advance their murderous plan for revenge. Jacob berates his sons for their unapproved act, but is willing to sacrifice Dinah’s love for the sake of his sons’ lives. For attempting to stop the massacre, Joseph (of amazing Technicolor dream coat fame) is beaten, buggered and sold into slavery in Egypt.  The second half of the four-hour production involves Dinah’s life after giving birth to the prince’s son and subsequently being banished from the palace by her mother-in-law. Joseph, too, will make an encore appearance. Allowing Dinah tell her own story not only opens up the biblical narrative to include a woman’s point of view, but it also plays right into the wheelhouse of the Lifetime audience. Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen”) does a nice job as Dinah, who is required to age more than 20 years during the course of the mini-series. Minnie Driver and Debra Winger play Leah and Rebecca, respectively. The set arrives with bonus making-of material.

Nickelodeon’s second original live-action television series, “Hey Dude” was, by definition, one of the very few cable shows aimed directly at ‘tween audiences. Watching it 25 years later isn’t nearly as painful an experience as other such targeted fare, if only because it was shot near Tucson, on a dude ranch that’s still in business. Even better, there’s no laugh track. Populated with youthful characters who one might expect to grow up have sitcoms of their own, “Hey Dude” sometimes feels as if it’s an entry point for kids who soon will grow into avid fans of utterly predictable prime-time network shows. Typically, though, its diverse cast and non-stereotypical plots hold up pretty well. Apparently, the primary reason for the show’s cancellation was the network’s decision to move its productions to Florida, and there’s no way Orlando can approximate the Sonoran Desert.

Fireball XL5: The Complete Series” is the latest installment in Shout Factory’s wonderfully nostalgic “The Gerry Anderson Collection.” As only the third Anderson project to employ Supermarionation puppetry, “Fireball XL5” looks primitive even by the standards established two years later in “Stingray.” It was the last of the series to be filmed in black-and-white – making the wires even more visible – as well as the last in which the marionette characters didn’t have interchangeable heads, allowing a variety of expressions. Under the command of the rugged Captain Steve Zodiac, the fleet’s flagship Fireball XL5 investigates the deepest corners of Galactic Sector 25 in search of faraway planets, alien life and adventure. His crew includes the glamorous Venus, a doctor of space medicine and dead-ringer for Zsa Zsa Gabor; middle-aged navigator and engineer, Professor Matthew Matic; and co-pilot Robert, a transparent anthropomorphic robot. Among the new extras are commentary with director Alan Patillo and voice artist David Graham, and the documentary, “The Noble Art of Fireball XL5.”

The only problem with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Seasons 3, 4 & 5: Special Edition” is that, unlike Shout Factory’s “Complete Series” collection, it only arrives on DVD. That won’t matter much to viewers unaccustomed to hi-def playback, as the production values and color are both fine. The episodes have been re-mastered from the original film elements, as well. Besides the final 23 shows, the package includes “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special” and new interviews with members of the cast and crew. Jasper: Journey to the End of the World

If there’s any unwritten of wildlife programming, it would appear to be: when in doubt, play the penguin card. With its variety of flightless birds, crystalline waters and extreme weather, Antarctica is a one-stop destination for the production of such appealing, cross-demographic shows as PBS’ “Nature: Penguin Post Office.” It tells the story of the 3,000-strong Gentoo colony that lives in the shadow of the British post office on the peninsula, 700 miles south of Argentina and Chile. Unlike other feathered species, the Gentoo display a rather sophisticated approach to mating. It includes building rock nests, stone theft, promiscuity, punishment for cheating and a breeding ritual right out of the “Kama Sutra.” The producer have some fun with the tourists, who also arrive in the summer, sometimes at a rate of two shiploads a day. Given the lack of accommodations available to visitors, it’s almost as they’re accorded a couple of hours on shore, a period roughly divided between staring at the Gentoo, from a distance of no less than 15 feet; kayaking among the ice floes; and writing wish-you-were here postcards to friends back home. The post office handles between 50,000-80,000 of them each year. On a cautionary note: parents should know ahead of time that breeding scenes might be too explicit for younger children, as might examples of the attacks on eggs and chicks by predatory birds and excremental habits the producers found interesting. More suitable for the youngest viewers, if decidedly more fanciful, is the animated German export, Jasper: Journey to the End of the World. In it, a pair of penguin brothers team up with a 9-year-old girl to upend a scheme by an evil doctor to steal some rare parrot eggs.

The fourth season of Nickelodeon’s hit animated season, “The Legend of Korra,” wraps up the 52-episode cycle that began after “Avatar: The Last Airbender” ended its three-year run on the network. It’s the kind of show that geeks take very seriously for its artistic value, complex characters and addressing all sorts of sociopolitical issues, while being appreciated by parents and kids for its sheer entertainment value. “Balance” picks up three years after the events of the third season, “Change,” as Korra slowly recovers from the injuries incurred in the fight with Zaheer. Meanwhile, things are getting nasty at the new, totalitarian Earth Empire, where loyalties have been severely tested and unrest reigns. I can’t imagine how difficult it might be to jump into the series in mid-run, but I’d advise against it. The color palette is brilliant, especially in Blu-ray, and the it adds commentary for all 13 episodes; a poster by co-creator Bryan Konietzko; “Kuvira vs. Prince Wu”; “Republic City Hustle: Part 1, 2, and 3”; a New York Comic-Con featurette; and “The Making of a Legend: The Untold Story: Part II.” Also new from Nickelodeon this week are new compilations of episodes from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Retreat” and “Blue’s Clues: Get Clued Into School Pack.”

The DVD Wrapup: Better Angels, Humbling, Tinker Bell, Blacula, Outlander and more

Friday, March 6th, 2015

The Better Angels
Growing up in the Midwest, one of the things I enjoyed doing on a summer weekend was hopping in a bus with other Boy Scouts for the sole purpose of hiking 10-25 miles over uneven terrain to claim a medallion commemorating one historic site or another. One of destinations was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, on what was then the 348-acre Sinking Spring Farm, nearly equidistant between Louisville and Bowling, Green. The log cabin replicated there couldn’t possibly have been more modest or representative of a farming family’s life in the early 1800s. The Lincolns would move to southern Indiana, where the future president lived and toiled from ages 7 to 21. Despite writer-director A.J. Edwards’ decision to shot his debut feature, The Better Angels, on location in Upstate New York’s wonderfully scenic Mohonk Preserve and Ashokan outdoor education center, it’s easy to believe it was shot in the forested hills and valleys along the Ohio River Valley. At first glance of the trailer, I wondered when Terrence Malick had the time to squeeze in another project between To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. As if anticipating such a question, his participation as producer/presenter is prominently mentioned on the trailer and poster for the movie. That Edwards has worked almost exclusively with Malick in his brief career explains why The Better Angels looks like a kid brother to The New Land. The story of Lincoln’s early formative years is told through vignettes, poetically shot in ethereal black-and-white by relative newcomer Matthew J. Lloyd. Young Abe is played by first-timer Braydon Denney, who wasn’t given much dialogue to memorize but makes up for the lack of oratory by closely resembling rocker Jacob Dylan. Neither was square-jawed Jacob Clarke given much to say as the stern and unforgiving Tom Lincoln. One suspects, however, that few words were wasted between pioneer sons and fathers exhausted from hard days in the fields.

Instead, by all historic accounts, it was Tom Lincoln’s two wives, Nancy (Brit Marling) and Sarah (Diane Kruger), who made sure that the boy would largely be spared the rod after doing something, however minor, to earn his dad’s anger. Likewise, they both encouraged Abraham’s interest in reading and early desire to become something other than an inheritor of the family farm. Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s sad demise comes fairly early, after an outbreak of a sickness caused by drinking the milk of cows that had ingested a toxic weed. Tom soon would return to Kentucky for the sole purpose of proposing to Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three children, whose family he had known for many years. He brought them all to his farm in Indiana, where Sarah became a welcome stepmother to his two children. In The Better Angels, Kruger portrays her as being more free-spirited and inquisitive than either Nancy or Tom, as well as someone willing to go behind her husband’s back to provide her stepson with educational material. The movie ends almost at the point where other biopics of the 16th President might begin. That Edwards doesn’t embellish Lincoln’s story with miraculous moments of inspiration or a convenient encounter with an influential pedagogue. The closest we come to such an occurrence is when Abraham is passed in the woods by a bounty hunter escorting a chain gang of escaped slaves south to their owners. No lightbulbs go off over his head, but it’s obvious an impression was left on him. Fans of Malick’s movies should find a lot to enjoy here.

The Humbling: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagination that any film starring Al Pacino, directed by Barry Levinson and adapted by Buck Henry, from a novel by Philip Roth, couldn’t find distribution outside the festival circuit and a couple of big-city art houses. Thirty years ago, such a thing would be unthinkable. Pacino was coming off Scarface; Levinson had just hit a home run with The Natural; Henry had adapted his screenplay for Protocol from a story by Charles Shyer, Nancy Meyers and Harvey Miller; and Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson” was vying for year-end literary awards. Also working in favor of The Humbling are co-stars Greta Gerwig, Kyra Sedgwick, Charles Grodin, Dianne Wiest and Nina Arianda. Pacino plays Simon Axler, a major Broadway star whose diminishing physical and mental health has prompted him to question if there’s any reason left for him to live. At the height of his doldrums, Axler is paid a visit by the daughter of longtime close friends. Gerwig is almost unrecognizable as professor Pegeen Stapleford, a lesbian willing to backslide for the sake of hooking up with a man she’s fancied since childhood. Their affair becomes seriously complicated when her parents accuse Axler of betraying their trust – and worse — and Pegeen’s previous lovers test her newfound bi-sexuality. Actually, for all of Pegeen’s neuroses, she feels no compunction to be confined by a label. More a product of the 20th Century sexual conventions, Axler isn’t interested in sharing her with others, unless it’s in a fantasy three-way with an Asian-American woman attracted to Pegeen. A few of Roth’s other subplots are compacted into the flow of the film’s 112-length, along with some genuine surprises. The Blu-ray adds a short background featurette.

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast: Blu-ray
It took Disney more than 50 years to give Tinker Belle, one of the company’s greatest assets, a feature-film franchise of her own and, even then, the DVD-original “Tinker Bell” almost didn’t get made. When Pixar executives John Lasseter and Ed Catmull assumed control of Walt Disney Feature Animation, in 2006, they demanded wholesale changes in the project, which was considered to be 80 percent completed. It would be the fairy’s first speaking role in a Disney adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and, although company fortunes weren’t riding on it, the straight-to-video market had become an important source of revenue. As if propelled by pixie dust, the series took off immediately. Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast is the sixth feature-length film, with Mae Whitman voicing the character in all of them. In it, Tinker Bell and the “animal fairy,” Fawn, come across a strange and ferocious animal believed to be mythical. Co-writer/director Steve Loder tore the page out of “Aesop’s Fables,” upon which “Androcles and the Lion” was printed, by having Fawn pull a thorn from the Neverbeast’s paw. Nevertheless, the other residents of Pixie Hollow believe that it still is a threat to their gentle community, not unlike the one posed by local birds of prey and various supernatural phenomena. There’s no reason to think this entry in the series won’t be as successful as previous installments, especially with the younger set. The Blu-ray adds deleted and unfinished scenes, as well as several background and making-of featurettes.

Big Muddy
Here’s yet another very deserving film, whose only real flaw appears to be that it was made in Canada, by Canadians, if not exclusively for Canadians. At a time when festival favorites produced in the United States aren’t even ensured theatrical distribution, despite the presence of familiar Hollywood actors, Jefferson Moneo’s excellent “prairie noir,” Big Muddy, was going to face an uphill climb from the get-go. Filmed in Moneo’s native Saskatchewan, it bears comparison in some ways to Badlands and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. In it, Nadia Litz plays a woman, Martha, who became estranged from her father (Stephen McHattie) when she left the family farm in search of the fast lane in a slow town. Her taste for outlaws left her with a husband in prison and a bun in the oven. Nearly two decades later, Martha has retained enough of her youthful good looks to set up drunks for her new boyfriend to roll outside bars. Somehow, though, she was able to raise a son, Andy (Justin Kelly), who’s led what passes for a normal life, despite her. Things will change when the father he believes to be dead escapes from prison and his mother and her boyfriend inadvertently involve him in a scheme to rip off the region’s leading crime boss. When it goes terribly wrong, mother and son retreat to the home in which she grew up and is no longer welcome. With the escaped murderer and enraged gangster making a beeline to the farm, Andy’s transition from boyhood to manhood will be reduced from years to hours. It may not be the most complicated of scenarios, but the high-lonesome setting adds something distinctly different to the drama. McHattie, who will forever be confused with Lance Henriksen, is the rock around which all of the film’s turmoil flows.

Believe Me: Blu-ray
To Write Love on Her Arms
As I’ve noted previously, faith-based films have begun to arrive in all shapes and sizes. And, while certain themes prevail, faith and redemption remain high on the list of priorities. Equal parts satire and cautionary tale, Will Bakke’s Believe Me is the rare Christian title that encourages laughter, contemplation and curiosity. His protagonist, Sam (Alex Russell), is a modern-day Elmer Gantry who preys on college-age students who accept as fact that Jesus is the answer to all of their questions, however mundane. He takes advantage of the fact that the only thing that separates Christian rock from AC/DC is the emphasis on Christ and God in the lyrics and absence of marijuana smoke in the air. When Sam learns from his adviser (Nick Offerman) that he’s $9,000 short on his senior-year tuition bill, he enlists three of his frat buddies in a scheme to convince church-goers that God has called on him to dig wells in drought-plagued villages in Africa. Naturally, while he’s at it, Sam would be spreading the gospel to the spiritually deprived natives. Even people who haven’t been washed in the blood of the lamb understand that bringing clean water to impoverished villages is a worthwhile cause to support. Corporations are digging wells in Africa, as well, but only so they can measure usage and charge by the gallon. What Sam and his pals lack in the predatory polish of the talk-show preachers on the Trinity Broadcasting Network – or, in their day, fire-breathing Pentecostals Marjoe Gortner and Sam Kinison — they more than make up for in mock sincerity and youthful pizazz. It catches the eye of a promotor of arena-size revival meetings (Christopher McDonald), which combine witnessing, prayer and rock music. The tour manager is a cute and chronically upbeat blond, Callie (Johanna Braddy), who falls for Sam and his message. For a change, the only member of the tent show who smells a rat is the comparatively unkempt band leader and Callie’s former paramour (Zachary Knighton). Slowly, too, Sam’s partners begin to get queasy over making promises to audiences they have no intention of fulfilling. Will the Holy Ghost reveal itself in time to rescue the sinners? Stay tuned.

Strictly speaking, To Write Love on Her Arms isn’t a movie that fits neatly alongside such niche titles as Believe Me or God Is Not Dead! But, since most 12-step recovery programs are faith-based in one way or another, it delivers a similar message. It dramatizes the true-life story that inspired the non-profit organization of the same title and the Internet- and concert-based movement designed to present hope for young people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide. Kat Dennings plays Renee Yohe, who, as a girl growing up in the danker quarters of Orlando, used alcohol, drugs and “cutting” to deal with her demons. Fortunately, when she hit rock bottom, a small group of much-abused friends was there to point her in the direction of recovery. Before Renee could enter the preferred rehab center, however, she was required to abstain from cocaine and booze for five days. It was during this period that she met Jamie Tworkowski (Chad Michael Murray), who became Renee’s confidante and related her struggle to thousands of other young people via his blog. By the time she leaves the residential program, To Write Love on Her Arms has grown into a movement of evangelical proportions, funded by T-shirt sales and concerts. The newfound attention may have thrown Renee for a loop, but, eventually, she would be able to take charge of her own life. Dennings is extremely convincing as Renee, who shares most of the self-destructive traits as movie addicts from Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, in Days of Wine and Roses, to Maggie Gyllenhaal, in Sherrybaby, among any  other characters.  The DVD adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and material on the organization.

Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife: Blu-ray
Here’s a black comedy for those still waiting for a sequel to Throw Momma from the Train and triquel to Weekend at Bernie’s. You know who you are. Writer/director/producer/co-star Scott Foley’s Let’s Kill Ward’s Wife has fun with the idea that one of the wives in a group of four yuppie couples is so obnoxious — especially to her overmatched husband, Ward (Donald Faison) – that they’ve begun to toy with the idea of getting rid of her, entirely. Just when it appears as if they’ve come to their senses, Ward’s wife does something so mean to him that they decide to go ahead with their plans. In fact, she makes it easy for them. As we’ve seen in dozens of other such “comedies,” however, murder is easy … getting rid of the body parts is hard. Even more difficult is squeezing laughs from the process. Foley gets some decent support from Patrick Wilson, Amy Acker, Nicolette Sheridan, Ava Carpinello, James Carpinello and Dagmara Dominczyk. The Blu-ray comes with outtakes.

Day of the Gun
Whether or not Westerns are an endangered genre – or simply in danger of being usurped by revisionist ideas – is a question that’s been open to debate for decades, now. Certainly, the traditional Hollywood concept of the Western has been relegated to the niches of cable television and straight-to-video services. More often than not, these films promote the idea that the western expansion was undertaken solely for the benefit of families and WASP ideals. And, maybe it was. White-hatted cowboys, lawmen and preachers were pitted against black-hatted outlaws, hired guns and gamblers. In a nod to the populist instincts of screenwriters and directors, it was the greed of mine owners, land barons and railroad moguls that often served as a catalyst for violence. Westerns made in the second half of the 20th Century described a moral landscape constructed of shades of gray and bright red blood. Day of the Gun is targeted at that most elusive of demographics, the family audience once owned by prime-time network television series, such as “Bonanza” or “The Big Valley.” It’s the latest release by writer/director Wayne Shipley, who specializes in tales of the Old West, especially those presumably still told in Montana.

Day of the Gun is an extreme example of the do-it-yourself Western, shot on the cheap but conforming to themes as old as the movies themselves. Set in 1890s Montana, it chronicles a conflict between the widowed rancher Maggie Carter and cattle baron Cyrus McCall, enflamed by the drip-drip-drip loss of cattle to rustlers. Because some of the missing cattle end up on Carter land, McCall decides to put up a barbed-wire fence. As any genre buff worth his snuff knows, separating ranches of the time with barbed wire was anathema to the notion of open ranges and unimpeded grazing. Maggie considers this to be an affront to the memory of her late husband and a challenge to her position as a woman in a man’s world. One thing leads to another and the range war devolves into a personal vendetta, complicated by a romance that can’t be contained by a fence, the death of son and arrival of a shady gunman played by Eric Roberts. Sadly, because Roberts is the closest thing to a well-rounded actor in Day of the Gun, it frequently resembles the musical production in Waiting for Guffman. Neither does it help matters when footage shot in the mountains is combined with material shot at Shipley’s Maryland farm, representing the village of Singletree. The DVD adds “Tales of the Wild West: Gunfight at Osage Station” and “Tales of the Wild West: The Day the Aces Got Trumped.”

Exterminators of the Year 3000: Blu-ray
Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream: Blu-ray
In anticipation of the release, this May, of Mad Max: Fury Road and Shout Factory’s nearly simultaneous Blu-ray upgrade of the original Mad Max, it’s perhaps worth noting S!F’s re-release of Exterminators of the Year 3000. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action-adventures Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior had already taken the world by storm, adding “dystopian” to the lexicon of film buffs barely able to spell it correctly. Giuliano Carnimeo’s Exterminators of the Year 3000 is so closely matched to Mad Max that a co-scripting crediting for Miller would have been an appropriate tip of the hat to the source material. Once again, humanity’s post-apocalyptic future is threatened by nuclear waste, shortages of gas and water, and an overabundance of leather-clad hooligans. While Exterminators of the Year 3000 won’t make anyone forget Mad Max and the many films that have followed in its trash-strewn wake, it could whet fans’ appetites for a bountiful month of May. The Blu-ray adds commentary and an interview with actor Robert Iannucci.

By the time Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream were released in the early 1970s, such Blaxploitation classics as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft, Super Fly, Across 110th Street, Black Mama White Mama and The Legend of Nigger Charley already had made a big impact in the urban marketplace. Blacula may have performed well at the box office, but it remains far too tame and unoriginal to be remembered with any great fondness. Neither does it help all that much that Pam Grier was talked into joining William Marshall’s ageless African Prince Mamuwalde in the sequel as the successor to voodoo queen, Mama Loa. Why waste such formidable talent on PG horror flicks? The new Shout!Factory upgrades are more interesting for their curiosity value than anything else, even the period costume designs and music. Two decades later, Wes Craven and Eddie Murphy would attempt to revive the subgenre with Vampire in Brooklyn, neither audiences nor critics embraced what should have been a no-brainer.

A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set
Now that Fifty Shades of Grey has begun to show signs of drifting into the ancillary sunset, its success is likely to spawn a few more rip-offs before plans for the second and third chapters in the trilogy are finalized. A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set began its cinematic life simply as “The Fetish Set,” with its primary attraction being cult favorite Bill Oberst Jr. (Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies) in the role, of course, of a sadistic serial killer. Scream queen Sarah Nicklin (The Disco Exorcist) would also have been expected to attract fans to Shane Wheeler’s debut picture. While several non-trendy fetishes are briefly explored here, the emphasis is on what happens when things veer wildly off-course. Oberst doesn’t show up until A Darker Fifty Shades is already halfway through its frequently ponderous 81-minute length. By then, the four women invited to attend a fetish convention in south Texas – or Las Vegas, it’s hard to tell – have killed a man they believe to have raped one of them, but, in fact, didn’t.  Oberst’s badly disfigured character, The Wolf, then decides to demonstrate for them the difference between pretend fetishes and sociopathic behavior. A not terribly illuminating commentary track is provided by Nicklin, along with four incomprehensible shorts.

Chris Soth’s first directorial effort, SafeWord, also deals with S&M, fetishes and obsessive behavior, but in a way more closely related to films in the torture-porn genre. Tall and willowy, Stephanie Edmonds (“Greek”) plays a young woman haunted by no small degree of psycho-sexual trauma in her past. Compounding that misery, Sabina is drugged by tennis companion and delivered to the dungeon of a man who most assuredly is a sadist. Somehow, half-naked, she manages to escape her captor, only to be picked up by a trio of people who take her to a fetish party where the guests are only slightly less crazy than the first guy. There’s a method to Soth’s madness here, but it only will become clear toward the tail end of the movie. For that happen, viewers will be required to endure some fairly blood-curdling stuff.

Outlander: Season One: Volume One: Blu-ray
Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Doctor Who: Last Christmas: Blu-ray
PBS: Nazi Megaweapons: Series Two
PBS: Tales From the Royal Bedchamber
PBS: The Queen’s Garden
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Fin-Tastic Collection
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case
The Beginner’s Bible
Despite the fact that I can access the Starz channel on my cable system, I was taken completely by surprise by the British-American mini-series, “Outlander.” Based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, it is a historical drama that combines bodice-ripping romance, time-travel, fantasy, spectacular scenery and period violence, all in the service of an increasingly enthralling eight-episode whole. The hypnotically beautiful Irish actress and model Caitriona Balfe plays Claire Randall, a World War II combat nurse, who hopes to reconnect emotionally with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), on a long-delayed honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. While in Inverness, Frank spends some time researching his family history, in particular his ancestor Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. Inspired by a local legend, they eavesdrop on a re-enactment of Druid ritual, which takes place among a set of standing stones on the hill of Craigh na Dun. The next morning, Claire returns to the ancient site, only to be transported back 250 years back in time, just before the calamitous Battle of Culloden. Still dressed in modern clothes, Claire is rescued from the grips of a Redcoat officer – who looks suspiciously like her husband – by a Scotsman of the Mackenzie clan. Still confused, Claire is transported to the Highlander camp and later to the clan’s ancestral home at Castle Leoch. By this time, however, she’d endeared herself to the rebels by re-setting the dislocated elbow of the handsome warrior, Jamie Fraser, and treating his bullet wound. The laird of the castle immediately suspects their guest of being an English spy, but is impressed by medical skills some people mistake as sorcery. Meanwhile, Frank is concerned that his wife might have met with foul play and demands action of the local police force. Although such disappearances have happened in the past, the locals are reluctant to inform Frank of them. As the mini-series unspools, Claire can’t help but get more deeply involved in the hostilities between the clansmen and Redcoats, only occasionally hinting that she might be able to warn them of their fate. What distinguishes “Outlander” is its attention to period detail, historical settings and soap-opera intrigue. As is the case in other premium-cable offerings, it’s also pretty sexy. “Volume 2” of the series’ first season will launch in April, so there’s plenty of time to catch up with it, without binging, like I did. The making-of featurettes add a great deal to the enjoyment of “Outlander.”

Much of the same applies to the Starz/BBC Worldwide collaboration, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” another historical fantasy series, this time set largely, but not exclusively in Renaissance Florence and Rome. In the second season, Leonardo is detoured from his search for the Book of Leaves by an unplanned journey to the New World. It’s just as well, because Florence has been tossed upside down by the usual political, religious and financial turmoil. For her part, Lucrezia ventures to Constantinople, where the Ottoman aggressors and possibly the truth behind the Book of Leaves may lurk. The series’ third season also returns this spring.

Nobody does Christmas like the “Doctor Who” crew and the 2014 presentation, “Doctor Who: Last Christmas” only adds more of the same sci-fi action. As befits the end of Peter Capaldi’s highly successful first season as the Doctor, the special offers an entertaining blend of humor, suspense, horror and intrigue. Lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat summed up the story: “Well obviously, as everyone knows from the end of Death in Heaven (season finale), it’s the ultimate meeting of Christmas heroes: Santa Claus meets Doctor Who. The buddy movie you’ve always wanted. The Christmas element is covered in the fairly notable form of Santa Claus and the elves and their sleigh. But the rest of it is very much Doctor Who: scary, in a polar ice cap base, scientists under threat. I keep describing it as Miracle on 34th Street meets Alien.” Nick Frost stars as Santa Claus. The Blu-ray adds commentary from director Paul Wilmhurst and producer Paul Frift, as well as a 10-minute behind-the-scenes making of featurette that includes interviews with Capaldi, Frost, Moffat and Jenna Coleman.

Just when you think you’ve learned all there is to know – or care to know – about a terrible conflagration that ended 70 years ago, it seems as if PBS comes up with a documentary series that sheds new light on the struggle to free Europe from fascism. Nazi Megaweapons describes just what the Allied forces were up against, besides hundreds of thousands of soldiers and officers dedicated to serving Adolph Hitler. Not only had the Fuhrer convinced average citizens to embrace his mad dream, but he also was able to draw on the collective knowledge of a body of scientists, architects, academics, physicians and sociopaths perhaps unparalleled in world history. That the U.S. was willing to spare the lives and exploit the unique talents of Nazi masterminds in the new war against communism attests to their proficiency in developing the machinery of death. In the second season of “Nazi Megaweapons,” we not only meet the engineers who designed Germany’s fortifications and infrastructure, but also learn how they sparked a technological revolution that changed warfare forever. If there is one word to sum up all six episodes, it would be “concrete.” From the construction of the Siegfried Line to the building of launching pads for V1 rockets – “the world’s first Cruise missiles” – the tonnage, alone, is almost beyond comprehension. And, because concrete is so difficult to destroy, the show’s producers were able to locate some of the most noteworthy structures, many of which remain hidden from the public, throughout Europe. The topics include, the role architecture played in the formation of the SS; Hitler’s secret headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair; the development of gigantic warships; and science behind Japan’s kamikaze strategy and Germany’s aborted suicide attacks.

Near the end of The Theory of Everything, after Stephen Hawking is honored by Queen Elizabeth, the family is invited to spend some time in the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Unlike the White House’s Rose Garden, the private garden at Buckingham Palace covers more than 40 acres, and includes a helicopter landing area, a lake, a tennis court and 2½ miles of gravel pathways. The producers of PBS’ “The Queen’s Garden” were accorded unprecedented access to the urban oasis, which has been part of British history for five years. The show follows the garden’s transformation across all four seasons, uncovering rare flowers specially bred for the queen, wildlife captured using hidden cameras, a vast lake with an island in the middle where the royal bees make honey and a huge marble urn that once belonged to Napoleon.

Likewise, “Tales From the Royal Bedchamber” pulls back the curtains on an aspect of history previously dramatized only in movies and literature. The bedchamber once was a place where courtiers and dignitaries would attend royal marriage ceremonies and observe royal births, in order to verify the baby’s gender. Even the process of creating royal babies often took place in a semi-public context to prove an heir’s legitimacy. Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, is our guide, explaining the increasingly lavish design of Royal State beds and the huge expense which went into them. In fact, she observes, the rise and fall of their magnificent beds reflect the changing fortunes of the monarchy, itself.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilations of episodes from its popular kids’ menu include “Bubble Guppies: Fin-Tastic Collection” and “Paw Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case.” In addition to the select episodes, the sets offer special activities for pre-schoolers.

The Beginners Bible” may not advance the state of the art of animation, but parents looking for a simple way to introduce the pre-schoolers to lessons from the bible, without scaring the bejeezus out of the wee lads and lassies. The three 25-30-minute chapters cover “The Nativity,” “The Story of Easter” and “The Story of Moses.”

Forty Years From Yesterday
In movies, scenes of death and grieving are most frequently used to tear at the guts of viewers and provide them with a reason for investing in what’s happening to fictional characters. Just as the movies mimic life, however, audiences adopt the exaggerated dramatizations of rituals of everyday life, including the weeping and wailing associated with wakes, funerals and burials. Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s Forty Years From Yesterday could hardly be more different in tone and scale. Quiet as a funeral director’s condolences to a loved one, it follows one man’s excruciating discovery of his longtime wife’s unexpected death and the ordeal of having to cope with it in the days and hours leading up to and immediately following her funeral. This is accomplished without mournful orchestral music, melodramatic outbursts from friends and next of kin or the platitudes of clergy. It’s as if a documentary crew had been standing at the ready outside the bedroom of the woman who died and had planted unobtrusive cameras in strategic locations around the house. The film opens as the husband prepares for his morning jog and picks up when he returns, only to discover the passing of his wife. No longer spree and ready to tackle the day, he can barely put one foot ahead of the other or acknowledge the presence of visitors. It’s a remarkable performance. The DVD adds the short film that inspired the feature and a piece left on the cutting-room floor, featuring only the two cemetery workers who prepare the grave.

The Eternal Return of Antonis
Very few Greek films find their way to American art houses and the ones that do are as different from other European exports as feta is to cheddar. Elina Psykou’s debut feature, The Eternal Return of Antonis, is no exception to the rule. Antonis Paraskevas is a well-known television personality, who maintains his popularity by acting the clown on screen or personal appearances at beauty shows. In a bizarre exercise in hubris, Antonis stages his own kidnapping to gain sympathy and attention from an audience that may no longer exist. By hiding in an abandoned seaside hotel, outside a tiny village, he’s able to monitor television reports and newspaper coverage. In solitude, Antonis is left with his hallucinations, paranoia and delusions of grandeur. Imagine Al Rocker in the same situation and you’ll get the picture. The DVD includes an interview with Psykou, who explains how difficult it is to find financing in a country that is an economic basket case.

Victori: The Truth Just Can’t Be One Thing
The lives and works of history’s greatest artists have provided the fodder for countless movies and documentaries. In the last half-century, alone, the titles have ranged from The Agony and the Ecstasy to Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. Forgers have also been the subject of fine films, most recently, The Best Offer. Stories about unconventional, controversial and oppressively commercial artists are left to “60 Minutes” and such niche documentaries as Cutie and the Boxer, Banksy Does New York, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Waste Land. Michael Melamedoff’s Victori: The Truth Just Can’t Be One Thing profiles Victor Victori, a Korean-America whose “multiplist” style has inspired U.S. presidents and countless patrons of galleries in shopping malls and starving-artist sales. The documentary also spends a great deal of time with Victori’s son, who quit his job as a financial adviser to manage his father’s career.