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The DVD Wrapup: Venus in Fur, Witching & Bitching, Chinese Puzzle, Persecuted, Bill Morrison, Kingpin, Courage the Cowardly Dog … More

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Venus in Fur
Say what you will about Roman Polanski–now 81, believe it or not–the man still knows how to make a movie. Even if Venus in Fur may never be confused with Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby, it’s an entirely satisfying adaptation of David Ives’ Tony-nominated play-within-a-play, which, itself, is based on the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs,” by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The Velvet Underground’s song of the same title is referenced in the movie, but, sad to report, isn’t included in the soundtrack. That honor belongs to the French composer, Alexandre Desplat, who, last year, added the diametrically opposed Grand Budapest Hotel and Godzilla to his resume. Set in a nearly empty theater, Venus in Fur opens with playwright/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) on the phone with his fiancé, bemoaning the lack of talent on display during the day’s auditions. Just as he’s about to hit the road, an extremely tardy Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives, begging for a chance to impress him. Although Vanda is dressed to impress in black leather, whip and silk hose, Thomas is able to resist her pleading … for about three minutes. There’s something about her rather transparent dumb-blond routine that attracts the woman to him. As the audition continues, it’s clear that Vanda’s not only done her homework on the script, but also on Thomas and Sacher-Masoch’s enchanting dominatrix, Wanda von Dunajew. By convincing him to read the part of Severin von Kusiemski opposite her, she’s already begun the process of trapping him in her web. And, that is what makes Venus in Fur so much fun. Thomas may be a celebrated writer, but he’s less sure of his footing as a director. Vanda may come across as a ditz, but, in Seigner’s hands, she’s able to seduce Thomas and viewers in equal measure. By reversing the balance of power in her favor, she freed the character from the restraints of the stage. People familiar with the play might be concerned that Seigner and Amalric are noticeably older than the off-Broadway and Broadway stars Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley/Hugh Dancy. They needn’t worry, though. As interesting as it might have been to see how Polanski would have directed the rising superstar, Arianda, he really dials it up for two of France’s great performers, one of whom happens to be his wife. Incidentally, Venus in Fur is Polanski’s first non-English-language feature in 51 years. The DVD adds interviews with the director and his stars.

Witching & Bitching
Álex de la Iglesia’s latest exercise in surrealistic fantasy, Witching & Bitching, opens in one genre and crosses at least two other thematic boundaries before settling on something that might have been concocted over drinks with John Landis, Terry Gilliam and the creators of Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. While easily qualifying as horror, it’s balanced with heavy doses of dark humor, slapstick and car chases. Based simply on the evidence provided in Witching & Bitching, I’d love to see what De la Iglesia could do with a remake of Disney’s scary-funny Darby O’Gill & the Little People. Witching & Bitching opens with the comically botched holdup of a gold exchange in the town of Zugarramurdi, which is to northern Spain what Salem is to Massachusetts. To blend in with the holiday crowd of tourists, the robbers are dressed like the costumed characters who hustle tourists on Hollywood Boulevard and Times Square. Incredibly, the one who’s impersonating Jesus Christ on his forced march to Golgotha decided to bring his precocious 8-year-old son along for the fun. Before the alarm sounds, the robbers are able to grab a bag full of gold rings that might otherwise be destined for the smelter. Unfortunately, their getaway car is snatched by the girlfriend of one of the crooks, who has an extra set of keys and doesn’t want to wait for a bus. Left to their own devices, they hijack an occupied cab and order the driver engage in a wild chase with police. After shaking the cops, they make a beeline for the French border, but not before making a stop at an inn owned and operated by a coven of witches and warlocks. Before the day is over, they will be offered for sacrifice during the annual gathering of witches at La Cuevas de las Brujas. Just for kicks, De la Iglesia (The Last Circus) also enlists the boy’s crazed mother, a pair of very determined detectives, a loose-cannon warlock imprisoned under the hole in the tavern’s squat toilet and a S&M witch who develops a crush for the boy’s father. Co-written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría (Live Flesh, Cell 211), Witching & Bitching is in constant danger of bursting apart at the seams with crazy notions. That it hangs together as well as it does is nearly miraculous … and hilarious. This would be my first-choice recommendation to anyone looking for a pre-Halloween diversion. The DVD includes background and making-of featurettes.

Chinese Puzzle: Blu-ray
Unlike their counterparts in Hollywood, some French filmmakers still know how to make romantic comedies that don’t insult their audience with one-size-fits-all storylines or Motown sing-alongs in lieu of compelling dialogue. Some may come off as being too, well, French, for American tastes, but, at least, the directors aren’t limited to actors that appeal to a single demographic group or forced to conform to the MPAA’s idea of how lovers can show their appreciation of each other’s bodies and maintain a PG-13 rating. Cedric Klapisch’s sweetly appealing rom-com, Chinese Puzzle, doesn’t require artificial sweeteners to get laughs. Nor, is a working knowledge of the filmmaker’s first two episodes in the trilogy, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls, necessary to enjoy the third installment. (In this way, it resembles Richard Linklater’s “Before …” trilogy.) Characters played by Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France and Kelly Reilly – Xavier, Martine, Isabelle and Wendy – are reunited here, 12 years older, but not much wiser than they were in that crowded Barcelona apartment in 2002. This time around, the action moves rather quickly from Paris to Lower Manhattan, where Wendy has decided to move with the children she had with Xavier. She’s tired of waiting for him to ask for her hand in marriage and has found an American man who’s quite a bit more rooted than the frequently blocked novelist. Conveniently, Xavier’s lesbian best friend, Isabelle (Cecile de France), is living there, as well, with a beautiful American woman (Sandrine Holt) and, soon, the child for whom Xavier agreed to supply sperm. Things start to get crazy when the writer decides that he can’t live with an ocean separating him from his kids. To remain in the United States, Klapisch contrives an outlandish coincidence that provides Xavier with a green-card bride, the thoroughly assimilated Nancy (Li Jun Li). When Martine shows up in the Apple, as well, for a business meeting with Chinese tea executives, Xavier’s show of support inevitably leads back to his squalid Chinatown apartment. As complicated as all of this sounds, Klapisch isn’t required to create additional problems, where none exist, or force characters to become uncharacteristically nasty, simply so Xavier can look good, by comparison. Teeming Lower Manhattan may come off at its multicultural best, as well, but nothing is added to make New York look better or worse than it already is. We’re left wondering if we’ll ever see these characters again or, like Linklater’s Jesse and Celine, they’ll disappear forever at midnight.

Persecuted: Blu-ray
While I believe that Christians are being persecuted in parts of the world where religious tolerance and ethnic diversity aren’t protected by a constitution or traditional philosophical beliefs – and it’s underreported in the U.S. media — I don’t think Daniel Lusko’s paranoid thriller makes a case for the same thing happening here. At a time when the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have souls that need protecting from heathen liberals, and the Christian right continues to bog down the nation’s judiciary with lawsuits based on fundamentalist dogma, the United States is in no danger of embracing atheism as the national religion. And, yet, that’s the hogwash being promulgated in Persecuted, a movie specifically targeted to, if not commercially embraced by the same audience that made God’s Not Dead a surprise hit. In it, the powerful evangelical leader John Luther (James Remar) has refused to endorse a piece of legislation that would assure equal standing under the law for all people of faith and favoritism toward none. While this basic right already is built into the Constitution, Luther stands by the word of God as asserted in the both testaments of the bible. Luther isn’t portrayed as a fire-breathing orator or someone who automatically dismisses anyone hasn’t been washed in the blood of the lamb. He’s cut from the same cloth as the Rev. Billy Graham, not a preacher who believes that Christian theme parks and pay-to-pray televangelists hold the key to heaven. For some reason, this stance has pissed off the President of the United States, a Jimmy Swaggart clone (James R. Higgins); his Machiavellian right-hand man in the Senate (Bruce Davison); and several of Luther’s easily bought-off staffers. To silence him, a team of covert agents is assigned to kidnap Luther, drug him, take photographs of him in compromising photos and frame him in the prostitute’s murder. Can he survive in the wilderness as a desperately wanted fugitive and not lose his grip on the Good Book?  Does the Pope poop on the Pampas? By the end of the movie, it’s impossible to discern who’s shooting at whom and for what reason. Made for what I imagine was a tight budget, the production values aren’t bad and Lusko was able to fill out the cast with such recognizable names as Dean Stockwell, Fred Dalton Thompson, David House, “clean comic” Brad Stine and Fox News-blond Gretchen Carlson. The Blu-ray adds interviews, commentary and a featurette.

Bill Morrison: Collected Works: 1996 – 2013
The psychic distance between the multiplex and arthouse once was a great smaller than it is today. It even left enough room for the occasional exhibition of avant-garde or experimental film outside Lower Manhattan and college film societies. Certainly, no one prospered from the creation of films that challenged patience as much as they did the intellect. Andy Warhol might have come the closest to breaking even, at least, but that’s only because they cost so little make and the actors would have paid him for their 15 minutes of fame. Indeed, even today, funding is the one sure way of parsing the difference between the works of experimental filmmakers and those capable of testing the limits of even the most open-minded of indie lovers. The films collected in Bill Morrison: Collected Works: 1996-2013 have been commissioned, supported by foundations and fellowships, or shot in collaboration with artists in other disciplines. They’re screened at festivals, museums, universities and concert halls, where tickets sales go mostly to keep the electricity flowing. But, then, making money or catching the eye of Hollywood producers was never really the point. Most of the films in “Collected Works” fall into the category of “found footage,” although any similarities between the feature-length Decasia and The Blair Witch Project is … well, there aren’t any. Morrison’s ideas are informed by material found, re-discovered, saved or salvaged in exhaustive searches of archives, libraries and estate collections. In fact, the film clips repurposed for Decasia (Decay + Fantasia = Decasia), and accompanied by Michael Gordon’s hauntingly minimalist score — are literally in a state of decomposition. Like thousands of movies made before 1950, the footage had been damaged due to poor storage and neglect or ravaged by time and instability of nitrate stock. In Morrison’s hands, the juxtaposition of ravaged images, evocative music and once-vibrant subject matter is nothing short of symphonic. Decasia is his masterpiece, but the other, lesser-known titles here are noteworthy for reasons of their own. Vintage documentary footage shot during and after the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 play against a free-jazz soundtrack provided by Bill Frisell. Other artists with whom Morrison has collaborated are John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Gavin Bryars, Dave Douglas, Richard Einhorn, Henryk Gorecki, Vijay Iyer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, David Lang, Harry Partch, Steve Reich and Julia Wolfe. If images of decay aren’t your cup of tea, it’s worth noting that the people and places we see behind the scratches, burns and blotches once were as healthy and vibrant as most of us. The point I think Morrison is making is that in film, as in life, things change right before our eyes and, if we look close enough, we can measure the distance between beauty and ruin and appreciate them for what they are.

Victim: Blu-ray
The cover art for Victim isn’t as much deceptive as it is misleading. Posing in front of a Union Jack is a young black hoodlum wearing a black balaclava and black jacket, showing off a black semi-automatic handgun. So far, so cliché. What the photograph doesn’t convey is the movie’s redemptive subtext, which could be mistaken for the plot of an old “ABC Afterschool Special.” Ashley Chin plays Tyson, a tough East Londoner required to look after his teenage sister after they were abandoned by their worthless parents. Tyson uses the proceeds of crime to pay off their debt to a local shylock and afford the girl’s education at a quality school. His mixed-race crew includes several sexy girlfriends, who troll the nightclubs for rich yuppies who make easy marks for armed break-ins. The robberies are followed by wild parties, fueled by Jamaican weed, mountains of cocaine and expensive champagne. Not long after the first violent heist, the cousin of Tyson’s closest playmate arrives in town to attend college. Tia (Ashley Madekwe) is from a wealthy background, but, like her relative, enjoys the fast life. When she discovers Tyson’s suppressed artistic talent, however, Tia encourages him to quit the thug life and join her at school. After carrying out “one last job,” that’s exactly what Tyson plans to do. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, his sister’s hormones are leading her in the direction of becoming a hoochie-momma. It isn’t until a motivational teacher (Dave Harwood) encourages her to join a citywide poetry contest that she finds an emotional outlet for her frustrations and rage. Needless to say, Tyson’s “one last job” – which is telegraphed early in the story — doesn’t quite work out as planned. Working off of Chin’s semi-autobiographical screenplay, director Alex Pillai nicely captures the dead-end existence for the children of immigrant youths in the projects, as well as the lure of easy money and good times. Victim’s message may be too moralistic for viewers looking purely for action and violence – although there’s plenty of that – but teens may find it inspirational. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the actors, whose enthusiasm is contagious.

The Last Supper: Blu-ray
From a strictly western point of view, Lu Chuan’s The Last Supper is just another entry in the growing list of terrifically entertaining historical epics from China. Our Westerns might resemble them, too, if our history stretched millennia, instead of a few centuries. Perhaps, if Native Americans hadn’t relied solely on their oral tradition, true Westerns might not be limited to the karmic damage done to our country’s heritage by mad-dog cavalry officers, robber barons and prospectors.  Scratch the surface of The Last Supper a bit and you’ll find a story that borrows a page or two from William Shakespeare’s playbook. Set in the last days of the Qin Dynasty, roughly 2,300 years ago, it employs flashbacks, flash-forwards and dramatic set pieces to tell the story of Liu Bang’s rise from peasant warrior to leader of great armies, to becoming founder and first emperor of the Han dynasty. The Last Supper opens with Liu on his death bed, haunted in his dreams by his two mortal enemies, Han Xia and Xiang Yu. The Emperor may look harmless lying there, but the potential for instigating great strife surrounds him. The flashbacks take us back to Liu’s beginnings as a much-feared fighter and outlaw, with a hunger for deposing the despotic Qin government and replacing it with one more in touch with the common people. The quest for power, itself, turns onetime allies into foes and idealism into paranoid delusions. Such was the background for the famous Hong Gate banquet, where Liu would be tested by fellow warlords and their assassins. By all accounts, Liu was a ruthless fellow who prided himself in being able to become a great leader with no more than a sword at his disposable. As such, anyone hoping to take him on, at any age, would have to be nearly as powerful. Although Lu Chuan’s esteem has grown in and outside of China, censors decided that his portrayal of Liu’s rise to absolute power too closely matched that of Mao Zedong and demanded changes. As usual, the set and costume design, along with the elaborately choreographed battle scenes, are worth the price of a rental, alone.

Kingpin: Blu-ray
Raw Force: Blu-ray
With next month’s release of Dumb and Dumber To, we’ll learn, once and for all, if Bobby and Peter Farrelly can suck it up one more time and make people laugh out loud, as they did two decades ago with Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and the new-to-Blu-ray Kingpin. With Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels once again at the wheel of Lloyd and Harry’s 1984 Sheepdog van, the triquel has a better-than-average shot at succeeding. But, then, there’s no such thing as a sure bet in Hollywood, anywhere. Thanks to Paramount’s excellent hi-def transfer, we’ll always have Kingpin, which did for bowling what The Hustler did for pocket billiards. (It also references Indecent Proposal, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Witness, The Seven Year Itch, Psycho and a half-dozen other pop-cultural touchstones.) Woody Harrelson is hilarious as the Pennsylvania lad, Roy Munson, who would grow up to become one of the fastest-rising stars in bowling. His career would be put on ice, however, after hooking up with the delightfully duplicitous hustler Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), who sets up a high-stakes match with some unsuspecting hotshots, but leaves Roy behind to pay the consequences for swindling the locals. Twenty years after having his mangled hand replaced with a rubber prosthetic device, Roy discovers Amish prodigy, Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who needs a quick million dollars to save the farm from being repossessed. Almost the only way to come up with that much money in a hurry – a rich dude played by Chris Elliott does offer them a fortune, if only he can watch them have sex – is to participate in a winner-takes-all showdown at Reno’s National Bowling Stadium. They are joined in their endeavor, which ends in a showdown with McCracken, by a beautiful blond con artist and bowling groupie, Claudia (Vanessa Angel, not to be confused with Vanessa Paradis). Those not easily offended by scatological and other gross-out humor should find Kingpin to be almost as laugh-out-loud crazy as it was upon its release in 1996. Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan were given sole credit for writing honors, but, as we learn in the new commentary and featurette, Murray improvised most, if not all of his dialogue, while the Farrelly stamp can be seen on all of the broader gags and set pieces. Bowlers aren’t widely known for their senses of humor, but there’s no question that Kingpin and The Big Lebowski gave the sport a much needed shot in the arm. Indeed, the rise in popularity of “cosmic bowling” and the Lucky Strike disco/bowling chain among urban hipsters can probably be traced directly to McCracken’s Lucite “Rose Red” ball. The Blu-ray adds 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, both the theatrical and R-Rated versions in hi-def, the Farrelly’s commentary and “Kingpins: Extra Frames With the Farrelly Brothers.”

Mere words can’t do justice to the depravity on display in Edward D. Murphy’s freshman exploitation mini-epic, Raw Force (a.k.a., “Kung Fu Cannibals”). It has everything one could hope for in a cheesy grindhouse flick, including topless women in bamboo cages; gratuitous sex and mindless violence; a mysterious island inhabited by corrupt monks, their naked slaves and ninja zombies; kick-ass babes; a rusting freighter; a fortune in contraband jade; strippers and go-go dancers; a crossed-eyed Hitler wannabe; dislocated piranha; evil hippies; a freshman writer/director; and Cameron Mitchell and Vic Diaz. Not for nothing, it also was filmed in the Philippines. The plot is almost impossible to synthesize here, except to say that it pits a group of martial-arts students from Burbank against jade smugglers, white slavers and the aforementioned ninja zombies, who are controlled by the madly sinister monks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the acting is borderline abysmal, the fighting scenes couldn’t be less convincing, the special effects are lousy and the sets flimsy. On the plus side, Raw Force is the rare film that delivers on the promise of being “so bad, it’s good.” At a brisk 86 minutes, it won’t seem as if you’ve wasted much time, at all. I think it’s safe to say that the Vinegar Syndrome 2K restoration had a larger amount of money allotted to it, than Murphy had in his production budget. It looks far better than it has any right to be 32 years after it was first released. The package also includes the featurette, “Destination: Warriors Island (The Making of Raw Force)” and an audio interview with finishing editor Jim Wynorski.

The Equation of Life
Ballin’ at the Graveyard
Unlike the FDA, which is often criticized for delaying the release of drugs already available to patients elsewhere, some federal regulatory agencies are all too anxious to push untested products unto the marketplace. Once there, it’s exceedingly difficult – and wildly expensive – to remove the unsafe ones from the shelves. Through their lobbyists and umbrella organizations, corporations have become proficient in knocking down the arguments of consumer groups and scientific entities, even those simply attempting to add warning labels to packaging or minimum sales requirements. Kevin Kunze’s disturbing documentary, Mobilize, describes how the cellphone industry not only has ignored research that links radiation to brain cancer and infertility, but it uses the chilling effects of lawsuits to curb debate in cities and states where the concern is highest. Even as the data is still being collected, circumstantial evidence seems to warrant the inclusion of a prominent warning on all devices, cautioning against holding a phone against one’s ear or carrying it in a pants pockets or tucked in a bra. The locations of tumors found in people with no other genetic or physical markers tend to correspondent with the places where cellphones are most frequently found. Statistics show, as well, that the further away a phone is held or placed from the ear canal– using headphones, for example – the less likely it is for certain tumors to form. Industry groups and lobbyists have fought against the prominent inclusion of warning labels, simply because they might impact sales. The most troubling case being made in the film is the one lacking the most evidence, one way or the other. Cellphone use among children has evolved from simply being “cute” to its current status as a rite of passage. If, God forbid, the negative data proves accurate, an entire generation of kids could already be doomed to spend their lives thinking that every headache is being caused by tumor. Mobilize isn’t particularly alarmist in its presentation of data and statistics, but it leaves plenty of room for concern.

Technically, The Equation of Life isn’t a documentary. It might as well be, though. Its release timed to coincide with National Bullying Prevention Month, Gerry Orz’s film is sandwiches a short anti-bullying film, shown on YouTube, within a slightly longer short film about the need for victims to speak out and parents and school administrators to listen. Anyone who doesn’t believe that bullying (a.k.a., hazing and taunting) has reached epidemic status in the U.S. simply isn’t paying attention. Horrifying incidents no longer are limited to fraternity initiation ceremonies. They have found their way into a mass culture that takes its cues from gross-out movies and parents who consider bullying to be a natural part of growing up, mostly because they were bullies or survived it largely intact. Equation of Life is unique in that it was made by a boy, now 12, who was bullied and wanted to bring the plague to the attention of legislators. Here, a new boy in school becomes the punching bag for an older boy, who, himself, is being bullied at home by his harridan mother. His depression leads him to berate the younger boy, Adam, who’s small for his age, for having two “moms” and, by extension, being a “fag.” If Adam’s moms weren’t having problems of their, he might take his sister’s advice and reveal why his grades are bad and he’s unhappy. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands and pays the price. It’s not the most elegant of productions, but, hey, what did you accomplish at 12? Also included in the package are pieces shot at the California statehouse, where he successfully lobbied for an awareness campaign and anti-bullying initiatives.

Documentaries about the breast-augmentation process and the women who undergo such procedures are a staple of reality shows on cable television. The various housewives of Orange County, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Miami appear to undergo cosmetic surgery before and, sometimes, during every new season and don’t look any more appealing than they did when we met them. Segments of some shows are dedicated to the Top 10 worst makeovers. Boobs doesn’t reveal anything new, except the ambitions of one Precious Muir, a British-born model of Jamaican and Portuguese background. Precious, whose mother encouraged her daughter in this area, made a face for herself as a child model. As she grew into adulthood, she decided that her breasts simply weren’t adequate for procuring work in the today’s world of high and low fashion. Indeed, no sooner did Precious endure the painful process of breast-augmentation than she hired a photographer to take pictures of her new boobs and sent them off to Playboy. To this end, she won a contest that brought her to Los Angeles and a gig as hostess of a Playboy-sponsored golf tournament. She also attended a party at the mansion, but nothing Hefner-related since then. The problem with the subject of the documentary is that she, herself, is no prize. She insults everyone in her surgeon’s office and treats her soon-to-be husband – now, ex-spouse – like a lapdog. The surgery is suitably graphic to make women considering such work think twice about the procedure and, I suppose, that’s a good thing.

Ballin’ at the Graveyard may be a bit too far on the do-it-yourself side to find wide distribution in theaters and TV, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t gain an audience among sports lovers, especially those who retain fond memories of Hoop Dreams. Set in Albany, N.Y., Basil Anastassiou and Paul Kentoffio’s labor of love describes a weekly game of pickup basketball at a park that once was used as a graveyard for the city’s African-American population. It’s a wonder that none of the participants have died, themselves, from bumps and bruises sustained during the rough-and-tumble gathering of old-school ballers. Some of the guys played college and semi-pro ball, while others found other pursuits after high school. The filmmakers would like us to believe that the game is a ritualistic experience unique to Albany, I think. I’d be surprised if it were. What Ballin’ at the Graveyard does nicely, though, is show how basketball has affected the men’s lives and continues to do so. Off the court, they hold positions that wouldn’t tolerate the kind of behavior on exhibit at the Graveyard. As such, the game offers them an opportunity to be themselves, within a community of their own choosing. Nothing they do at work can compare to the intensity and camaraderie required each week on the court.

Floating Skyscrapers
What differentiates Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers from the many other LGBT dramas in circulation through such outlets as TLA Releasing, Film Movement and Wolfe Video is its country of origin, Poland. That it was released nearly simultaneously there last year with In the Name Of was a big enough deal to have been mentioned in several of the reviews I read from its theatrical and festival release. I don’t know if the shortage of such titles has something to do with the influence of the country’s powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy or if the doors to the closet are stickier in Eastern Europe than elsewhere. It explains, at least, why Floating Skyscrapers and other gay films I’ve seen lately are more angst-ridden than similar material here. Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk) is a handsome competitive swimmer, who lives with his slightly overbearing mother and devoted girlfriend. It doesn’t seem to matter to him much that the reason he’s too tuckered to satisfy the pretty blond Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is that he’s already exhausted from the hummers he gets in the shower room at the swimming club. It’s a conflict, but one with which he can live. It isn’t until Kuba meets and falls head-over-heels with the far more outgoing Michael (Bartosz Gelner) that things get complicated for him and Slywia, who he keeps around like a spare tire. The first manifestation comes when he loses interest in training for meets he normally would be anxious to win. The movie ends in a way that doesn’t require Kuba to make any hard-and-fast decisions on his sexuality, but likely will disappoint American viewers.

Courage the Cowardly Dog: Season 2
2 Broke Girls: The Complete Third Season
Created by John R. Dilworth in 1999, “Courage the Cowardly Dog” was the sixth series to fall under the Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera’s Cartoon Cartoons label, which also spawned “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Johnny Bravo,” “Cow and Chicken,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Sheep in the Big City” and other wacky shows. The series was inspired by the Oscar-nominated animated short, “The Chicken from Outer Space.” The titular protagonist is an anthropomorphic dog, Courage, who lives in Nowhere, Kansas, with his owners, the kind and ditzy Muriel and the cranky tightwad farmer, Eustace Bagge. If things weren’t sufficiently nutty in the Bagge residence, their lives are routinely turned upside-down by the regular visits from monsters, aliens, demons, mad scientists, zombies and other supernatural perils. Normally, it takes more than a 15-year-old cartoon to make me laugh out loud, but I’ll admit to doing so while watching the “Season 2” collection. In addition to being funny, however, “Courage the Cowardly Dog” is hip, smart, surreal and just a wee bit old-fashioned. Previous entries in CN’s “Hall of Fame” series are “Johnny Bravo,” “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Ed, Edd n Eddy.”

Co-written by former “Sex and the City” show-runner Michael Patrick King and raunchy comedian Whitney Cummings, “2 Broke Girls” could just as accurately been titled, “2 Broke Sluts.” The sitcom describes how two seemingly penniless waitresses are able to survive in Brooklyn on the tips they earn at a diner populated with zany characters and even wackier drop-ins. The Mutt & Jeff pairing of Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs extends to their characters’ backgrounds and personalities. Max Black is a short and buxom brunette, raised by her mother and no stranger to working hard. Long, lean and blond, Caroline comes from a wealthy family that was devastated financially by the imprisonment of the father in a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. Their shared dream is to open a bakery that specializes in cupcakes. That’s not an unusual setup for a sitcom, but they also share a penchant for sexually leading double-entendres (followed by burst of recorded laughter) and thoughts the Roman Catholic catechism would describe as “impure.” I’m assuming that most of the naughty dialogue is written by Cummings, who may be best known for hurling smutty insults at celebrities on the Comedy Central “Roasts” and appearances on “Chelsea Lately.” The Third Season of “2 Broke Girls” is noteworthy primarily for the addition of several new characters and more scenes outside the restaurant. Anyone allergic to dopey ethnic jokes and horndog dialogue may want to give this show a pass. Judging from the fact that “2 Broke Girls” has just entered its fourth season, however, you’d probably be in the minority.

It’s easy for me to tell when the holiday season has begun, because the rumble of the annual avalanche of stocking-stuffer cartoon collections can be heard whenever the mail deliverer arrives at my front door. Already, I’ve received Tickety Toc: Christmas Present Time, Chuggington: Chuggineers Ready to Build, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Tiger’s Happy Holidays, Paw Patrol: Winter Rescues and When Santa Fell to Earth. All are appropriate for very young video enthusiasts. Older kids, especially those who’ve followed the extensive “Dragon Ball Z” series of Japanimanga titles, once shown on Cartoon Network. Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods is a feature-length edition that is also available in Blu-ray. Here, Goku is humanity’s last hope to ascend to the level of a legendary Super Saiyan God and stop Beerus from destroying Earth.

The DVD Wrapup: Million Dollar Arm, Edge of Tomorrow, Million Ways to Die, Sleeping Beauty, To Be Takei, Zappa, Dusk Till Dawn, Hemlock Grove, Houdini … More

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Million Dollar Arm: Blu-ray
With the playoffs in full swing and the World Series right around the corner, there’s probably no better time than October to launch a feel-good movie about America’s pastime. Even more than spring training and Opening Day, autumn is the time when the eyes of the world truly are on baseball. Instead, Disney, which has knocked several sports movies out of the park, decided to send out Million Dollar Arm in mid-May against the reptilian juggernaut, Godzilla, and the still potent Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Neighbors. Although Million Dollar Arm didn’t do all that well in competition with the Babe Ruth of movie monsters, it would show its legs in the next few weeks, posting box-office grosses that finally topped the studio’s production costs. Disney poured a lot of money into marketing the movie to family audiences, so it’s conceivable that director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy’s very likable picture could benefit from delayed word-of-mouth. In it, the similarly likable Jon Hamm plays real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who staged a contest to determine if India could produce Major League-caliber athletes, like Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Korea and at least a dozen other countries have done. With a potential market in the hundreds of millions of sports fans, India would be great place for the marketing geniuses at MLB to exploit. The commercial aspect of the creation of the first the Million Dollar Arm competition in India isn’t ignored in the movie, but it does play second fiddle to the discovery of two young men — Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) – who would beat the odds by signing sports contracts with U.S. pro teams. They became the first Indian athletes to do so in any sport.

Because of baseball’s unique learning curve, Million Dollar Arm probably could have been set in any country where cricket, soccer or, even, camel racing are king. The only thing known about baseball by the boys who participated in the contest is that it requires a player to throw an orb covered in horsehide toward an opponent with a bat in his hand, pretty much like cricket. In that game, however, the leather-clad ball is of a similar consistency as the one used in baseball, but the pitcher is referred to as a “bowler.” A batsman’s job is to protect the wickets behind him with his flat-bladed bat and/or strike the ball, run between the wickets and score points. From here, most of the rules and fine points of cricket would be incomprehensible to most Americans. India, once part of the British Commonwealth, has consistently produced some of the best players in the game. While the bowling motion isn’t the same as that of a baseball pitcher – there’s a run-up, bounce and follow-through, but no mound – it is close enough to have convinced Bernstein that a 90-miles-per-hour fastball could be achieved by a champion “spinner” with accuracy. (Speeds of more than 160kmph have been registered among the top bowlers.) As is the case in most sports movies, much dramatic license has been taken in Million Dollar Arm.  For one thing, Bernstein’s firm was in no danger of collapsing if the Indian experiment failed. He’s handled some of the biggest names in the business, from athletes to brands. Still, the factual foundation is solid. The movie also benefits from the exotic Indian locations, including a decidedly different physical view of the Taj Mahal; the excellent support of Alan Arkin, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi and Bill Paxton; and an upbeat ending that also happens to be factual. The Blu-ray introduces us to the actual Rinku, Dinesh and Bernstein, while adding a humorous piece on training the actors to play baseball; a featurette on the east-meets-west soundtrack by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire); deleted scenes; and an alternate ending.

Edge of Tomorrow: Blu-ray
Dwarfed on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray by the words “Live/Die/Repeat” is the actual title of Doug Liman’s non-stop sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow. The words appear on the movie poster, as well, but smaller. It’s as if studio executives gave the green light to the marketing and publicity material without paying much attention to what the title suggested: soap-opera melodrama. “Live/Die/Repeat” far more accurately anticipates the Groundhog Day through-line. Several feature films have exploited the time-loop theme since 1993, when Bill Murray was put through the wringer every morning. If one can get beyond that fondly that recalled rom-com, however, Edge of Tomorrow can easily exist as a stand-alone vehicle for entertainment, especially suited for diehard fans of Tom Cruise. In it, he plays Major William Cage, a public-relations specialist who is bushwhacked into taking part of a D-Day-like invasion of Europe, where robotic alien warriors have replicated Adolph Hitler’s advances in World War II. Cage is sent to the staging area, where he’s treated as if he were a traitor, and put in a helicopter landing craft without even knowing how to release the safety on the gun embedded in his body harness. Not surprisingly, he only is able to survive a few minutes before being “killed.” After a few moments, however, he awakens at the same base from which the helicopter took off, suffering the same treatment from officers and soldiers who pummel him with verbal abuse.

With every new awakening, though, he’s able to put his memory of what’s just transpired to better use, eventually winning over some of his fellow soldiers. One of them is a killer queen played with great relish by Emily Blunt, whose Rita Vrataski quickly realizes that she shares a time-loop pattern with Cage and this familiarity can be used to strategize against the alien hordes. Once this happens, Liman ratchets up the action to a fever pitch. With the beachhead finally taken, Cage and Vrataski are able to live, die and repeat their way toward Paris and a final confrontation with the invaders. Because every penny of the $180-million production budget appears on the screen in one form or the other, the meager domestic return of $100.2 million must have sent Warners Bros. executives into crisis mode. It would add another $269 million at the foreign box office, but that, too, was a disappointment when compared to other action pictures. Monday-morning quarterbacks wanted to blame Cruise’s public-relations woes for Edge of Tomorrow’s poor showing, but several other variables were at play, including its outward resemblance to the actor’s 2013 sci-fi adventure Oblivion; audience fatigue for alien-invasion and superhero flicks; the crowded June lineup of potential blockbusters; and unexpected competition for the hearts of young-adult women from The Fault in our Stars. It should do well in WBHE’s excellent Blu-ray presentation, which adds the comprehensive making-of featurettes “Storming the Beach,” “Weapons of the Future,” “Creatures Not of This World” and “On the Edge With Doug Liman,” as well as seven deleted scenes.

A Million Ways to Die in the West: Unrated: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s self-aggrandizing and largely unfunny parody of Hollywood Westerns, and Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ truly hilarious sendup of genre tropes, begins and ends with the first few fart jokes. In fact, MacFarlane’s second feature is little more than two-hour exercise in scatological humor, which would have been fine if it were animated and starred Beavis, Butt-head or any one of a dozen of MacFarlane’s cartoon characters. How he managed to talk Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris and Wes Studi into going along with the gag can be attributed to a desire to put on costumes and get paid to pretend it is Halloween. (Cameos by Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, Bill Maher, Ryan Reynolds and Patrick Stewart’s disembodied voice are easier explained.)  Besides performing almost every other behind-the-camera task in the movie, MacFarlane stars as a sheep rancher whose jokey approach to self-defense only makes local cowboys hate him more. After Albert backs out of a gunfight, his fickle girlfriend (Seyfried) leaves him for another man. It isn’t until an outlaw’s disenchanted moll (Theron) rides into town and takes Albert under his wing that he begins to grow a pair of his own. That newfound courage will be sorely tested when the gunslinger (Neeson) arrives to terrorize the frontier outpost.

MacFarlane fills in the narrative blanks with a series of gags that range from funny – Silverman and Ribisi play a wildly mismatched pair of lovers – to downright unappetizing (Harris shitting in his hat). The movie’s greatest obstacle is MacFarlane, himself. He’s so in love with his character and script that he’s unable to step back and remember that Brooks gave his Blazing Saddles co-stars the funniest lines, while limiting his presence to Governor William J. Lepetomane and a Jewish Indian chief. In his blockbuster debut, Ted, MacFarlane left the heavy lifting to Mark Wahlberg, while supplying the voice for the animated teddy bear. He’s a very talented fellow, but can’t act his way out of a 10-gallon hat. Even worse, most of the sight gags are telegraphed in the dialogue that immediately precedes them. Consequently, perhaps, A Million Ways to Die in the West underperformed Ted by more than $450 million in worldwide box-office returns. Teenage boys may be happy to know that the unrated version contains even more fart and diarrhea jokes. On the plus side, the scenic homages paid to John Ford and Howard Hawks by cinematographer Michael Barrett are nothing short of splendid in the Blu-ray presentation. It adds an alternate opening and ending; deleted, extended and alternate scenes; a gag reel; the making-of featurette, “Once Upon a Time, in a Different West”; and commentary with MacFarlane, Theron and co-writers and executive producers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.

Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart: Blu-ray
As is the case with all of the Blu-ray products accorded “Diamond Edition” status by the folks at Walt Disney Home Entertainment, Sleeping Beauty needs no formal introduction or hyperbolic raves for product’s audio/visual properties. Simply put, these animated gems are as good as Blu-ray gets. Disney’s adaptation can be traced back to Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” one of the tales published in his 1697 book “Les Contes de ma mère l’Oie,” (“The Tales of My Mother Goose”). His fairy tales would pre-date by more than a century Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collected stories, which, of course, would provide the inspiration for the bulk of Disney’s library of animated features (conveniently consigned to the public domain). According to the techno-critics who study these things, “Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition” doesn’t advance by much the Blu-ray presentation already provided by the 2008 upgrade. Both are excellent, of course, but collectors should be aware of the absence of 18 bonus features from the two-disc “50th Anniversary Platinum Edition.” Its timing anticipates the studio’s Blu-ray/DVD release of the live-action Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, by a month.  The carry-over bonus material includes commentary with critic Leonard Maltin, supervising animator Andreas Deja and Pixar/Disney big-shot John Lasseter; the featurettes “The Sound of Beauty: Restoring a Classic,” “Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty” and “Eyvind Earle: A Man and His Art.” The new “Diamond” extras add three storyboarded scenes that were deleted from the original; the sing-along, “Beauty-Oke: Once Upon a Dream”; featurettes “DisneyAnimation: Artists in Motion” and “The Art of Evil: Generations of Disney Villains”; and promotional fairytale “Once Upon a Parade,” with Sarah Hyland of ABC/Disney’s “Modern Family.”

The AMPAS members who nominate films in Oscar’s animation categories occasionally throw in a surprise candidate, often from France or Japan. Earlier this year, Ernest & Celestine and Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises, made the final cut over several excellent American entries. It leads me to believe that Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart might be just quirky enough to attract the attention of voters later this year. Animation lovers here can get an early look at it in a sterling Blu-ray edition from Shout!Factory. It might take them a few minutes to adjust to the decidedly French approach to the CGI characterizations and visuals, but patience will be rewarded in the form of a charming story that integrates pathos, tragedy and romance in a rock-opera format. (Anyone familiar with Gallic rock-’n’-roll already knows how weird it can sound to American ears.) The story opens in Edinburgh, in 1874, on the coldest day in the history of the world, when boy named Jack is born with his heart frozen solid. A quick-thinking midwife saves his life by inserting a cuckoo-clock in his chest as a makeshift pacemaker. It requires Jack to diligently observe three iron-clad rules: he must never touch the hands of the clock; he must master his anger; and he must never fall in love. As cautious as he is, Jack will develop feelings for a be-spectacled street performer, Miss Acacia, whose haunting voice causes him to risk a stoppage of the clock and sudden death. Once again, however, his guardians manage to save him from disaster. Not surprisingly, Jack will tempt fate once again by tracking Miss Acacia from Edinburgh and Paris to her home in Andalusia, where love’s ability to conquer all is sorely challenged. As he did in Hugo, a character based on pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès plays a supporting role in Jack’s journey, which is further supported by the heavy-metal soundtrack of Malzieu’s band, Dionysos. Malzieu also wrote the book from which the movie was adapted. The Blu-ray presentation is sharp and colorful. The bonus features include “From Book to Screen,” which documents the adaptation process, with glimpses of the 3D rendering process and concert footage with Dionysos; and character studies with the actors who play them.

Cold in July: Blu-ray
Based simply on the previews included on other MPI Media Group releases, I went into Cold in July anticipating to see one of those revenge pictures in which a family is emotionally and physically tormented by a sadist with a chip on his shoulder. It was clear from the trailers that the no-count son of a hardened ex-con is killed trying to rob the house of a typical American family in a typical America suburb. Not caring to take self-defense into account, the old man decides to avenge the young man’s death in ways designed to scare the crap out of viewers. A cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Dan Johnson did suggest that Jim Mickle’s thriller would be about something more entertaining than menace, torture and gun porn, but that’s all we get in the tease. And, in fact, that’s exactly what viewers are given in the first third of Cold in July. It is at this point, however, that something unexpected happens. The movie described in the trailer turns into something far more satisfying. Mickle and his frequent writing partner, Nick Damici (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), turn the tables on their audience by veering completely away from psycho-horror to something more closely resembling the work of the wildly prolific Joe R. Lansdale, from whose novel the movie was adapted. Although his books can usually be found in the library among mysteries and thrillers, the native Texan crosses genres as often as some people cross the street to get the nearest Starbuck’s. Readers have grown accustomed to his ability to quickly shift narrative gears, moving smoothly from action, thrills, drama and humor, while introducing characters with whom we want to spend time. That’s certainly the case in Cold in July, whose tone and rhythm literally do an about-face when its protagonist, Richard Dane (Hall), is forced to choose between doing the right thing and eliminating the threat against his family once and for all.

After Dane shoots the intruder, he goes through all of the emotional changes one would expect of a normally peaceful person forced to use violence to solve a problem. He rejects the praise of the good-ol’-boys who’ve previously treated the frame-store owner as if he were a harmless pansy. Shepard plays Russel, an ex-con who lives by the Old West code of revenge for revenge’s sake. He has no trouble accessing the Danes’ well-guarded home, just to demonstrate how easy it would be to strike them at will, and, after hiding in a crawl space, frightening viewers by sneaking into the bedroom of their toddler son. The movie’s central conceit requires Dane not to take things at face value, including the identity of the man he’s shot. It allows the unlikely alliance that develops between the two men and, not long thereafter, a colorful P.I./pig farmer from Houston, Jim Bob (Johnson), who tools around in a red Cadillac convertible with a longhorn rack mounted on the hood. Did I mention that the book and movie are set in the 1980s? Together, they ride into East Texas’ heart of darkness, where the Dixie Mafia controls the underworld and it’s impossible to distinguish the good and bad guys from the color of their hats. Cold in July should remind some viewers of another terrific Texas noir in which Johnson starred, The Hot Spot. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes, pre-visualization tests and a post-screening Q&A with Mickle and Lansdale.

The List
For many years, the Village Voice routinely published the names of New York’s 10 Worst Landlords, along with detailed reports on the housing atrocities they were committing against largely defenseless tenants. Besides being a popular annual feature, the articles served to alert city officials to the worst offenders and push them toward attacking the problem. They also served to shame those rich bastards still capable of being embarrassment by the public tarring. I wonder if writer/director Klaus Hüttmann was inspired by the Village Voice in the creation of The List. In it, a small-time businessman is soundly defeated when he dares take on an advertising conglomerate, which he had little chance of beating, in court. Hugely disappointed by the injustices perpetrated against him, Christopher Corwin (Anthony Flanagan) turns to the World Wide Web, where, theoretically, everyone can get a fair hearing on a grievance. This wouldn’t be the same thing as having a guilty judgment rendered against a crooked company or corrupt politician, of course, but a whiff of justice is all most people get for their troubles. Corwin decides to create a whistle-blower website, the List, where citizens can add the names and crimes of evil business executives and other public figures to those of his nemesis. Then, participants vote on which of the perpetrators deserve to climb in the rankings or fall. Corwin hoped that the exposure would inspire a change of heart in the bastards … fat chance of that happening. Just as the List is getting noticed outside the parameters of the Internet, someone kidnaps the No. 1 offender and offs him in a live video stream. Being a solid citizen and family man, Corwin is stunned by this distortion of his goals. The killer’s identity isn’t immediately known, of course, so his motives could be strictly extralegal or designed to turn public opinion against the List. And, in fact, it doesn’t take long for Corwin to be considered a prime suspect by police and a fraud by visitors to the website. The frame-up works so well that his name is added to the List, where it inevitably rises to the top position and his assassination is virtually assured. At the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Huttmann’s “Der Schwimmer” was nominated for a Palme d’Or as Best Short Film. It’s taken most of the last 10 years for The List to find enough money to be produced, probably with the assistance of a crowd-funding service. While sufficiently dark and moody to qualify as a paranoid thriller, the movie occasionally feels undernourished and forced to take shortcuts. Still, not a bad idea.

See You Next Tuesday
When a filmmaker doesn’t give his audience someone with whom it can identify, viewers will seek out a character to pity. In his debut feature, See You Next Tuesday, Drew Tobia doesn’t even give us that much comfort. The small collection of Brooklyn misfits to whom we’re introduced is so aggressively abrasive that the only person left to pity is the protagonist’s as-yet-unborn child, who, baring a tragedy, would be required to live amongst these penniless freaks. As portrayed by fellow newcomer Eleanore Pienta, Mona is fully nine months pregnant and almost certainly suffering from bi-polar disorder. For all we know, her problems began while she was still waiting to pop out of her alcoholic mother’s womb. Mona is the kind of person who, while seeming normal, will go off at a moment’s notice and begin verbally abusing everyone within the sound of her voice. Or, she may begin spouting off opinions that sound eloquent in her head, but tend to frighten those few people who care about her. When she almost simultaneously loses her job and tenement apartment, Mona decides to move in with her “artistic” sister, Jordan (Molly Plunk), who’s already mooching off of her lesbian lover, Sylve (Keisha Zollar). Jordan attempts to get their self-absorbed mother to come to her rescue, but May (Dana Eskelson) is too busy courting men on an Internet dating site to be of much help. Indeed, when push comes to shove in this extended family of troubled women, their collective response is, “Suck my dick.” Out of context, none of this sounds very appetizing, but Tobia is able to mine a surprising amount of inky black humor from the scenario before Mona’s water breaks and all we’re left with is the thin hope the baby will be put up for adoption. After watching the movie a second time with the borderline-frivolous commentary turned on, I got the distinct impression that the filmmaker and actors were familiar with people exactly like the ones we meet in See You Next Tuesday and aren’t at all out of place in some parts of New York City.

To Be Takei
Rude Dude
Kehinde Wiley: Economy of Space
Roger & Me: Blu-ray
PBS: Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall & the NAACP
PBS: Frontline: Losing Iraq
PBS: Operation Maneater
I don’t know if anyone’s had an unkind word to say about Japanese/American actor George Takei, but you won’t hear any in To Be Takei. Jennifer M. Kroot’s adoring bio-doc draws a complete portrait of a man who’s never stopped growing or pursuing his passions. Besides playing Hikaru Sulu in the elongated “Star Trek” series, he’s stayed busy teaching children about the internment of his family during World War II and the reaping the rewards of his human-rights activism, by finally being allowed to legally marry his longtime lover, Brad Takei (née, Altman). Kroot didn’t have to put much pressure on her subject to expound on the highlights his own life story or share his disappointments, even if we’re given the impression that he’s done it hundreds, maybe thousands of times in the past. At 77, he retains his broad trademark smile and deep bass voice. What sets To Be Takei apart from other celebrity bio-docs is the access Kroot was allowed in recording the personal time shared by George and Brad. If the actor carries the Energizer Bunny gene, Brad spends most of his time making sure that George doesn’t overextend or overcommit himself at home and on the road. We’re allowed to eavesdrop on their minor bickering, as well as share their expressions of love and devotion. While George plays to the crowds and fans who line up for autographs, Brad counts the cash and hovers in the background as he speaks. Outside the marriage, we meet cast members of the USS Enterprise, including a prickly William Shatner; young Asian/American actors whose careers he influenced; legislators who shared desire to pay reparations to people who lost everything when they were unjustly sent to internment camps; and various friends and relatives. The DVD includes extended interviews and footage.

It’s the rare comic-book artist who can use himself as a model for a new superhero. Most of them more closely resemble Popeye’s straightman, J. Wellington Wimpy, than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. At an athletic 6-foot-6, Steve “The Dude” Rude already knew how the world looks from a position of strength and power. Ian Fischer’s compelling bio-doc, Rude Dude, chronicles the Wisconsin native’s lifelong passion for comics and storytelling. With a great deal of luck, perseverance and chutzpah working in his favor, Rude quickly put himself on the fast track to fame in the competitive world of comics and superheroes. After reaching a professional pinnacle at Marvel, Rude’s inability/refusal to meet deadlines led him to the self-publishing segment of the marketplace with his longtime pet project, Nexus, which didn’t work out, either. In a chapter of his own story that could have been titled, “Even Superheroes Get the Blues,” Rude ran into a brick wall of clinical depression and melancholy. It was an obstacle that he couldn’t get past until he conquered or, at least, learned to cope with his inner demons. He’s attempting to get over by accepting commissions on comic-book arts and attempting to break into the fine-art game, which is even tougher if your vision isn’t in vogue. Meanwhile, as is always the case in such situations, friends and loved ones are left to wait patiently for a light bulb to go off over the depression sufferer’s head or even take his meds as directed. The film’s post script leaves room for optimism and sometimes that’s all we can hope in cases of bi-polar disease.

Economy of Space introduces us to an artist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Steve Rude. Kehinde Wiley has become a sensation inside and outside the African-American community, employing a technique that, if it weren’t so appealing, might raise the hackles of critics and purists. Working directly off of photographs taken of young men and women he encounters in the streets of Harlem and other cities, Wiley uses them to replicate paintings hanging in the world’s great museums. They stand in stark contrast to the brilliantly colored and intricately patterned backgrounds that have become the artist’s trademark. The immediate impression is that the large-format canvases are backlit and his subjects are synthetically reproduced. We’re disabused of that notion while watching Wiley work his photo-realistic magic on canvases so large that the subjects can be perceived as gods and goddesses. When told of the prices big-name celebrities will pay for the paintings, the subjects could be forgiven for feeling a bit god-like, themselves. In the world of galleries and museums, where blacks and other minorities are rarely represented, this is an uncommonly big deal. While the men in his paintings tend to be reproduced in street garb, the women featured in his current project were fitted by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci for couture gowns befitting the paintings that inspired Wiley and wigs created by one of Manhattan’s foremost stylists.

Even from a distance of a quarter-century, Michael Moore’s freshman documentary Roger & Me holds up pretty well. In fact, in describing the economic devastation that crippled his hometown of Flint, Michigan, after GM began laying off tens of thousands of autoworkers, the film is downright prophetic. Thanks to the shortsightedness of Ronald Reagan and subsequent inhabitants of the White House, hundreds of Rust Belt cities have suffered the same cruel fate and millions of Americans have seen their hope of joining the country’s once-vast middle class crushed. At the time Roger & Me was made, Moore had no training as a documentarian and this allowed him to break almost every rule that traditional filmmakers observed. His approach has been criticized by critics and old-school types who aren’t impressed by tendency to interject so much of himself into the flow of his docs, but the amazing popular and financial success they’ve enjoyed has inspired an entire generation of do-it-yourself documentary makers. The Blu-ray has been given a nice hi-def facelift and fresh commentary by Moore, who points out that almost everything he shot ended up in the film, thus precluding the possibility a sequence of deleted scenes.

Too often, the men and women who shaped America through their deeds and words are recalled on film as museum pieces, best observed through a plate-glass scrim. As the decades pass since their deaths, the dust that gathers on their memories covers the path they took to greatness. Like Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall is hardly an unknown quantity in the history of the struggle for civil rights. Both are known best, however, by headline-making events in the second-half of their personal journeys. It took Idris Elba’s unforgettable portrayal of Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom to flesh out the great man’s story. Judging from the PBS bio-doc, Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall & the NAACP, any dramatization of the longtime Supreme Court justice’s biography could be every bit as compelling. In his tireless campaign to eradicate Jim Crow practices, he logged hundreds of thousands of miles of travel through hostile territory, fighting segregation case by case, building the foundation that would lead to monumental courtroom decisions of the 1950-60s. In doing so, he avoided being shot by a Dallas sheriff, was pursued by the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island, hid in bushes from a violent mob in Detroit, and even survived his own lynching. Before joining the boy’s club in 1967, Marshall won more Supreme Court cases than any lawyer in American history. The DVD adds conversations with Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and John Paul Stevens.

In PBS’ Losing Iraq, “Frontline” producers explain what went wrong in the early stages of America’s occupation of Iraq and how those mistakes inevitably created the on-going quagmire playing out today with Isis. Much of the territory here already has been covered in theatrical documentaries, but this one puts the bow on the box. PBS’ Operation Maneater describes how naturalists are using modern technology to maintain a balance between sharks, polar bears and crocodiles and the humans with whom they’re required to share traditional habitats. The easy answer is, of course, to eliminate the predators before they strike. The sensible answer, we learn, is create a balance – as well as an early-warning system – to restore the balance between man and nature.

Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video
Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Freak Mothers: Frank Zappa 1969-1973
Contrary to popular perception, music videos didn’t begin with the launch of MTV on August 1, 1981, and they didn’t stop being made when the network decided to focus on revenue-producing reality-based shows. Short performance films had been a staple of the record-promotion business for decades, sometimes excised from longer movies and occasionally inserted into them. In the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester was able to capture the group’s personality and music in equal, complementary measure. The visual set pieces that accompanied the Beatles’ songs could be extracted as if they were mini-movies. When Bob Dylan discarded cue cards with phrases from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the opening scene of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, it built a foundation upon which all future music videos would be constructed. By the late 1960s, some of Frank Zappa’s music was conceived as a soundtrack to movies in his head. Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees, picked up the video gauntlet, as well. MTV didn’t burst out of the gate in a big hurry, if only because less visual oriented artists weren’t convinced that money could be made from the new network. Adapted from a book written and updated by Saul Austerlitz, Music for Nothing: A History of the Music Video takes an almost academic approach to the subject, with Michael Charles Roman’s bone-dry narration over snippets from dozens of familiar music video. First-time director Jamin Bricker takes time to focus on the network’s early reluctance to feature black artists and women. That would change when hip-hop crossed over to white middle-class audiences and the number of women viewers reached the point where sponsors took notice. Today, MTV no longer serves the exclusive interests of artists and very few bands are spending lots of money on music videos, anymore, and YouTube has become a more economical and efficient way of promoting bands. But, you already know that.

Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Freak Mothers: Frank Zappa 1969-1973 provides a far more comprehensive, informative and entertaining examination of a time when the first Mothers of Invention was disbanded and Zappa was free to focus on his own brand of rock, fusion, funk and free jazz, as well as ventures into film and video. The move split early fans drawn to the Mothers’ ability to blend rock with social commentary, while finding fresh ears in Europe and places where listeners didn’t know that Flo & Eddie had a hugely successful career with the Turtles before lending their harmonies to Zappa. The musicians assembled for the Hot Rats albums and tours impressed critics and paying customers, but were unrecognizable from the Mothers of yore. The Sexy Intellectual presentation truly is a warts-and-all documentary, with the ratio between them almost 50/50. At 157 minutes, it’s as much a portrait of an unpredictable and uncompromising genius at work as it is a celebration of music produced by a group of musicians assembled for their virtuosity. Although unauthorized by the Zappa estate, there’s more than enough vintage concert footage, archival photos and clips, and interviews to fill the entire package. Among the assembled witnesses are band members George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Don Preston, Jeff Simmons, Mark Volman, Max Bennett, Sal Marquez and Ian Underwood; 200 Motels director Tony Palmer; biographers Ben Watson and Billy James; and Mojo Magazine’s Mark Paytress.

Netflix: Hemlock Grove: Season 1
Syfy: The Almighty Johnsons: Unedited Version: Season 1
From Dusk Till Dawn: Season One: Blu-ray
History Channel: Houdini: Blu-Ray
The Best of the Danny Kaye Show
The Wonder Years: Season One
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete 1st Season: The Beginning
In one of those unlikely coincidences that occur every so often in the entertainment dodge, the release of Scream Factory’s compilation of episodes from the first season of Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove” coincides with David Lynch’s Twitter confirmation that he will collaborate on a nine-episode return to “Twin Peaks” with Mark Frost, this time for Showtime. For those of us who lived through the “Twin Peaks” craze, it would be impossible not to recall that groundbreaking series while watching Eli Roth’s adaptation of Brian McGreevy’s novel. That’s not a knock against the show, just a way to describe it in TV shorthand for those non-subscribers to Netflix. Once again, the body of a brutally slain teenage girl is discovered on the fringes of rural community. When local law-enforcement proves inadequate in the pursuit of the killer, an expert is brought in to add her expertise, whether it’s wanted or not. As other victims are found, the possibility that a supernatural beast is involved increases with each new clue. The fine cast includes Famke Janssen (X-Men) Bill Skarsgård (Anna Karenina), Landon Liboiron (Altitude), Penelope Mitchell (The Vampire Diaries), Lily Taylor (“Six Feet Under”), Madeleine Martin (“Californication”) and Dougray Scott (“Desperate Housewives”). The bonus features include new vignettes and Roth’s commentary. Despite the show’s relatively short reach, it was nominated for two Emmys. Netflix has already renewed “Hemlock Grove” for a third and final season.

I haven’t seen the version of “The Almighty Johnsons” mini-series that was picked up by Syfy from New Zealand’s South Pacific Pictures. The unedited edition of Season One episodes contains nudity and language that likely is blurred and bleeped to meet the basic-cable standards, but shouldn’t bother teens and young-adult viewers already accustomed to such mild censorship. Billed as a dramedy, “The Almighty Johnsons” plays like a supernatural soap opera. The titular family is comprised of four seemingly mortal brothers, who, on their 21st birthday, are ushered into the Pantheon of Norse immortals by their eternally youthful grandfather, the oracle Olaf. The youngest, Axl, is the reincarnation of Odin and, as such, is required to ensure the family’s survival by hooking up with the reincarnation of Odin’s wife, Frigg. Conspiring to prevent such a wedding is a cabal of Norse goddesses, who would see their power diminished if it would come to pass. Now, as silly as all of this sounds, “The Almighty Johnsons” works. Because the mortals who mingle among the gods and goddess are obsessed with role-playing fantasies, there’s virtually no disconnect between the disparate constituencies. Everyone looks as if they just stepped out of a prime-time soap on the WB. The show’s meager budget is reflected in a decided scarcity of action sequences and special effects. It relies, instead, on clever writing and appealing actors. The new season begins on Syfy in November.

Not being a subscriber to DirecTV, Comcast or Time Warner, I had no idea that Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network even exists, let alone carries a mini-series adaptation of his 1996 cult favorite, From Dusk Till Dawn. I’d be very surprised if many other fans of grindhouse horror and action are aware of its existence, either, but that’s the genre to which the network is committed. So, for those who missed it, Entertainment One has released a collection of first-season episodes. Rodriguez doesn’t deviate all that much from the basic storyline established in the theatrical version of From Dusk Till Dawn, preferring to flesh out the characters drawn by Quentin Tarantino in the movie and fill in the gaps in their storylines. After an aborted bank heist and bloody convenience-store robbery, Seth and Richie Gecko (D.J. Cotrona, Zane Holtz) need to split for Mexico, pronto. After wandering around South Texas for several episodes, looking for an escape route, the desperados steal an RV from a defrocked pastor and his family. After a wild standoff on the border, the brothers make a beeline for the world’s coolest strip club. Filled to overflowing with bikers, Mayan vampires and spectacularly beautiful dancers — Eiza González’s lithe and toxic Santanico Pandemonium rivals Salma Hayek’s interpretation — are forced to fight until sunrise for survival. The Mayan temple set has also been expanded, so as to take advantage of its maze of tunnels and secret rooms. Because of the attention paid to detail, macabre humor and precisely choreographed ultra-violence, “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” could easily have found a home on other premium-cable network and lured a substantial weekly audience. It remains to be seen if the El Rey Network will survive, but it’s off to a good start.The Blu-ray adds commentaries on several episodes, a “best kills” clip and several short background pieces. Longer and better are a Q&A recorded after its Alamo Drafthouse premiere in Austin, with Robert Rodriguez and cast, and “On Set: The Making of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn.’”

In telling the life story of Harry Houdini for the broadest possible cable audience, director Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex) and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) attempt to juggle two nearly contradictory conceits simultaneously. The History Channel mini-series Houdini is first a chapter-and-verse recounting of the great illusionist’s biography, absent the flourishes that might have been added to a theatrical film with a larger budget. Instead, the movie uses Freudian theory to shrink Houdini’s head, while diminishing the seemingly magical allure of his art. Even when Houdini’s devotion to his mother is fully demonstrated and acknowledged by viewers, her physical and spectral presence haunts him (and his wife, Bess) throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, the filmmakers reveal the secrets behind all but one of his amazing escapes and illusions. I suppose that solutions to all of the tricks, including the disappearing-elephant gag, can be found in any library or magic shop. Still, it borders on the sacrilegious to so coldly dilute the mystery. Adrien Brody, himself an amateur magician, does a nice job as the enigmatic Houdini. The divertingly cute showgirl, Bess, who was disowned by her family for marrying a Jew, is played by the divertingly cute Kristen Connolly. Houdini benefits, as well, from being shot in and around Budapest, where the illusionist came into the world as Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874. Meyer based the more clinical aspects of his script on “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” written by his father, Dr. Bernard C. Meyer. The Blu-ray arrives in the original 107-minute version and a theatrical cut at 127 minutes. Four short featurettes don’t add much to the package.

Danny Kaye’s reputation as a consummate showman and tireless entertainer is backed up in MVD Visual’s wonderfully entertaining, “The Best of the Danny Kaye Show.” The variety series aired on CBS for 1963 to 1967, as the transition from black-and-white to color was accelerating and the old-fashioned formula of combing song, dance and comedic skits was about to give way to more topical stuff, including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Johnny Cash Show.” In hindsight, the show may have been square, but the same could be said about almost everything else on TV in 1964. In the shows collected here, Kaye mugs, clowns, sings and dances with such legendary stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Belafonte, Liza Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Art Carney, Rod Serling, Jackie Cooper, Michelle Lee, Buddy Greco, John Gary, Joe & Eddie, Lovelady Powell and Alan Young. Series regulars Harvey Korman, Jamie Farr, Joyce Van Patten and orchestra leader Paul Weston also participate in the fun. Neither did Kaye hesitate when it came time for a dramatic reading or schmaltzy solo ballad.

For all of the progressive work turned in by such producers as Norman Lear, Steven Bochco, Stephen J. Cannell, James L. Brooks and other forward-thinking show-runners, television remained a wasteland for teenagers and their younger siblings until the late 1980s, when ABC’s “The Wonder Years” began its six-year run. Originally intended for Boomer audiences nostalgic for their suburban upbringing in the 1960s, the dramedy struck a chord with Boomer babies, as well. It would open the door for “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “My So-Called Life” and other shows in which the younger characters don’t talk as if they were expecting a response from a laugh track. Along with joy and elation, the kids were allowed to experience pain in grief. The second episode of Season One opens at a cemetery, where Winnie Cooper’s brother is being buried after his death in Vietnam. As Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) offers his shoulder for his pretty neighbor (Danica McKellar) to cry on, they experience the first symptoms of something stronger than puppy love. Moments later, the tension is broken by a study session Kevin shares with his brother, Wayne (Jason Hervey), and friend, Paul (Josh Saviano), for a sex-education class. The Season One package is being offered separately from the super-duper complete-series edition, packaged in a miniature school locker and containing a treasure trove of memorabilia. It also includes most of the original songs missing from episodes streamed over the Internet. The Season One set adds highlights from the cast reunion, May 28, 2014; the featurette, “With a Little Help from My Friends: The Early Days of The Wonder Years”; and interviews with creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, Savage, McKellar and Saviano.

Season Four of the Comedy Network’s “Adventure Time” picks up where the third stanza left off, with the introduction of Flame Princess. Refusing to believe that she is evil, Finn tries to win over his new crush. The rest of the series plays out according to form with plotlines almost too crazy to encapsulate. For fans keeping score at home, “AT” has just completed its sixth season and is prepping for a seventh. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries on all 26 episodes and the featurette, “Distant Bands: The Music of Adventure Time.”

Although the entire freshman season of the 2012 Nickelodeon show is already on DVD in separate volumes, fans pushed Nickelodeon to skip the a la carte and give them something more comprehensive and cost-efficient. The result is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete 1st Season: The Beginning, which contains all 26 episodes and bonus content from” Rise of the Turtles,” “Enter Shredder” and “Ultimate Showdown”; six making-of animatics, “Theme Song: Karaoke Music Video” and Baxter’s Gambit Gift Set with a sample of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History” coffee table book and 10 min of additional bonus content accessed online.

The DVD Wrapup: Transformers, Are You Here, Sordid Lives, American Muscle, Last of the Unjust, Ida, Lucky Them, Hellion, Wolf, Ivory Tower … More

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction: Blu-ray
I’ll admit to being one of those fair-weather fans of the extended “Transformers” franchise – theatrical and animated – who doesn’t rush to see them on IMAX or 3D, but routinely catches the latest installments on DVD/Blu-ray. My adult son, who once collected the toys, probably remains conversant in the mythology, but I still can’t tell the difference, if any, between the Autobots and Decepticons. Just as Michael Bay’s true-blue fans don’t wait to read a reviewer’s opinion before laying down their money for a ticket, mainstream critics get paid whether audiences agree with them or not. Most wouldn’t invest five minutes of their precious time researching ’Bot history before watching a new episode. It’s what makes to the screen that matters, not the health of the franchise. That said, however, the fourth installment of the theatrical series, Transformers: Age of Extinction, represents a much needed changing of the guard, Shia LaBeouf had finally worn out his welcome and was replaced by Hollywood’s always-welcome Excitable Boy, Mark Wahlberg. Most of the series’ other human regulars were jettisoned, along with Autobots and Decepticons destroyed in the Battle for Chicago. In several obvious ways, however, “Age of Extinction” serves mostly as a longer, louder and more conclusive sequel to Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Despite their heroics in the Windy City, Optimus Prime and the remaining Autobots have been forced into hiding to avoid being destroyed by a special-forces team comprised of anti-robot bigots. Wahlberg discovers Optimus Prime in an abandoned Texas theater, disguised as a rusty White Freightliner. A tinkerer and robotics nut, his Cade Yeager tows the truck to his farm, where he lovingly restores it for Prime-time. When Yeager’s goofball partner, T.J. (Lucas Flannery), discovers that there’s a reward on the heads of the hidden robots, he tries to make some quick cash by ratting them out.

The arrival of a heavily armed team of government eradicators signals the beginning of an orgy of mechanized death and destruction that dominates most of the movie’s 260-minute length. If that sounds like an inordinately long period of time for any movie not based on a Russian novel, you should know by now that Bay’s international legion of fans would hardly settle for anything less. He rewards their loyalty here with a titanic display of non-stop CGI magic and in-your-face effects. Heavy objects fall from the sky, not unlike the frogs in the rainstorm scene in Magnolia. In this way, Age of Extinction is the cinematic equivalent of a really explosive fireworks display on the 4th of July. Lots of things sparkle and go “boom,” but nothing lingers for very long. In addition to returning to Chicago for a while, Bay takes us to Hong Kong, Beijing, Monument Valley, Iceland and Detroit, which was redressed to fill in for other locations. China’s willingness to accommodate Michael Bay’s Flying Circus has paid off in record box-office receipts there. Also new to “Age of Extinction” are Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Thomas Lennon, Nicola Peltz, Sophia Myles and the radiant Chinese superstar Li Bingbing. The Blu-ray bonus package includes a separate disc, containing several Bay-heavy featurettes. Among them are an eight-part making-of supplement, a piece showcasing on-sets antics, a visit to the Rhode Island Hasbro headquarters and “T.J. Miller: Farm Hippie,” in which the actor pays humorous home visits to his co-stars. In case you’re wondering, yes, three-time writer Ehren Kruger is already at work on “Transformers 5.”

Are You Here: Blu-ray
It’s only natural that admirers of AMC’s brilliant drama series, “Mad Men,” would want to check out Matthew Weiner’s first feature film, Are You Here. After a brief flurry of advance publicity, however, it crashed and burned without anyone noticing it had been let out of the barn. Take a look at the cover of the newly released DVD/Blu-ray package and you’ll wonder how any movie starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler could be kept from view, with or without Weiner’s name on the jacket. Judging simply by the presence of those fine actors, most people would assume that the film contained therein would be a comedy. The two men are sitting on a scruffy couch that’s been placed on a grassy hillside, overlooking a neighboring farm. A free-ranging chicken stands like a sentry on one side of the couch, while Poehler stares into the middle-distance from behind it. It may not be “American Gothic,” but some room is left there for a chuckle, or two. In fact, while the characters played by Wilson and Galifianakis, if not by Poehler, exactly, look as if they might have been borrowed from the set of Wedding Crashers or The Hangover, they occupy very different roles. Wilson plays a womanizing TV weatherman, Steve Dallas, whose idea of a good time is going on date (or hiring a prostitute) and convincing her that he’s destitute and can’t pay the bill. His best friend from childhood, Ben Baker (Galifianakis), is, of course, a stoner who somewhere along the way lost a few of his marbles. When his estranged father dies, Ben is stunned to learn that he’s inherited the bulk of his old man’s estate. Even more surprised is his sister, Terri (Poehler), who expected far more consideration from him. Left with even less inheritance is their father’s flower-child wife, Angela (Laura Ramsey), who doesn’t appear to be flustered about anything, despite the real possibility she’ll be evicted from her own home. Believing that Ben can’t possibly handle the responsibility that comes with running a farm, his humorless sister naturally attempts to invalidate the will. Nothing that happens from this point forward should surprise anyone, except possibly the lack of humor Weiner is able to wring from the situation. Finally, even at 112 minutes, we’re left with characters with whom we have no emotional ties and no questions that we care to see answered. Are You Here has a few good moments, but not enough to please fans of the actors or “Mad Men.”

Sordid Lives: Blu-ray
Like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Del Shores’ wildly eccentric Sordid Lives began its life on stage as a campy crowd-pleaser. Both enjoyed an afterlife on screen, attracting fans who frequently dressed like their favorite characters and memorized their every line. Unlike “Rocky Horror,” however, Sordid Lives’ greatest success was pretty much limited to Palm Springs, where it played for 96 weeks, and LGBT audiences in the South, which is where the play and movie are set. Shores’ semi-autobiographical story follows two basic storylines. The titular narrative describes an extended family of archetypal Southern gargoyles, who spend most of their time gossiping, drinking and either ignoring or wallowing in their prejudices. The second features a closeted gay actor, Ty, who left Texas as soon as he could afford a ticket on the Greyhound and may still be too traumatized to return home for his grandmother’s funeral. Peggy died after she tripped over the unattached wooden legs of her much younger lover, G.W. (Beau Bridges), and cracked her head on a piece of furniture in a no-tell motel. Peggy’s low-rent rendezvous with the husband of her daughter’s best friend would be the talk of the town, if it weren’t for all of the other crazy stuff happening in advance of the funeral. By far the nuttiest character is Ty’s uncle, “Brother Boy” (Leslie Jordan), who has been institutionalized for 23 years for being a cross-dressing homosexual and Tammy Wynette impersonator. Not everything said by the other cast members is as hysterical as the material the impish Jordan was handed, but all of the characters have their moments. Best known for writing Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will?, as well as several episodes of “Queer as Folk” and “Dharma & Greg,” Shores was able to recruit former cast members of the play and other friends, including Bridges, Bonnie Bedelia, Delta Burke and Olivia Newton-John, who sings a few songs. Eight years later, in 2008, the Logo Network would spin off “Sordid Lives: The Series,” but it lasted only one season. The DVD adds new interviews with Shores, Bedelia, Jordan, Bridges, Kirk Geiger, Sarah Hunley, Ann Walker, Newell Alexander, Rosemary Alexander and Beth Grant, along with vintage audio commentary

American Muscle: Blu-ray
Sniper: Legacy
Too often, revenge movies get caught up in sentimentality, a protagonist’s pursuit of redemption or the sapping of strength that comes with finding love at a most inconvenient time. They sometimes get tripped up, as well, by making the kind of factual mistakes that are caused by cutting corners and distract viewers from the narrative flow. Ravi Dahr’s unrelenting American Muscle wastes no time whatsoever getting to the point and staying there for its entire 90-minute length. The movie opens with a flashback to a violent crime that occurred 10 years earlier, then quickly takes us inside a prison where, presumably, one of the participants is about to be released. As played by veteran hard guy Nick Principe, John Falcon resembles a walking tattoo parlor. His muscular frame attests to a decade spent in the prison yard lifting weights and consuming steroids smuggled into the facility with marijuana, heroin and cellphones by guards and guests. It doesn’t take long to realize that Falcon is a man on a violent mission. After catching a ride with a woman who happily quenches all 10 years’ worth of his sublimated lust, Falcon is asked if he’d like to have her phone number. No, he replies, “I’ll probably be dead in 24 hours.” Indeed, every hour of the next 24 is spent tracking down his brother, who betrayed him, and the wife he left behind when he was captured and went to prison. Falcon’s also vowed to kill the other gang members who avoided arrest and split up his spoils. He wastes no time doing just that. Writer John Fallon adds several more expository flashbacks and a few scenes in which crank whores are required to go topless, but, again, they don’t impede the forward trajectory of the story or keep Falcon from a final reunion with his brother. I’m usually not overly impressed by revenge pictures, especially those so obviously made on a limited budget. American Muscle managed to hold my interest, however, despite a deluge of wholly gratuitous bloodshed. (Gratuitous nudity is something else entirely.) It helps greatly that Dahr took advantage of the beauty and desolation of the desert near 29 Palms. Nothing says “meth labs” and “psycho-bikers” quite as eloquently as a drive through the giant “wind farms” outside Palm Springs.

Unlike American Muscle, Sniper: Legacy combines revenge with several other excuses for the exploitation of extreme military-grade violence. Here, they include unbounded patriotism, PTSD, devotion to military tradition, the seduction of sacrificing one’s life for his country and outright bloodlust. For the past 20-plus years, viewers have been attracted to the direct-to-video series for the vicarious thrill that comes with watching the head of a perceived enemy explode like a watermelon in a microwave oven and no actor does it better than Tom Berenger. (Fellow video Hall of Famer Billy Zane has also played prominent roles in the series.) Throw in the occasional a hot babe with a big gun and some splendid scenery and it becomes irresistible. In one of the worst-kept spoilers of all time, the cover photograph of legendary Marine sharpshooter Thomas Beckett (Berenger) alerts viewers to the fact that the character is not, in fact, killed in the opening sequence by a disillusioned American sniper, as suggested. The cover art also hints at a father/son with ace marksman Brendan Beckett (Chad Michael Collins), who was introduced in the fourth installment, Sniper: Reloaded, in which Berenger was AWOL. The Becketts’ genetic code dictates that their devotion to duty can’t be shaken by mere terrorists and other enemies of the United States. They are not at all reluctant, though, to make an end run around a commanding officer who orders them to do something with which they disagree. Here, Brendan disobeys a direct order to stay put in the sniper squad’s base camp, while his fellow Marine assassins set a trap for the man who purportedly killed Thomas Beckett and other officers who ordered his team to participate in a suicide mission.

To no one’s surprise, however, Brendan makes his way to the scene of a firefight between terrorists and two squadrons of Marines. One is targeting a heroin transaction between terrorists, while the other expects the rogue assassin to claim another victim at the drop-off point. All too conveniently, perhaps, the reunion takes place at precisely the moment Brendan is in the most danger of being killed by the rouge sniper. (Anyone allergic to plot twists based solely on coincidence may want to avoid “Legacy.”) The trail now leads to the spectacularly beautiful Greek island of Santorini, where their shady Colonel (Dennis Haysbert) has set up shop in a cliff-top villa. As illogical and contradictory as much of the storyline is, director Don Michael Paul keeps things moving in a forwardly direction throughout, frequently adding victims of head-shots to the body count. Although the interaction between the Becketts doesn’t always ring true, I doubt very much that fans of the series will complain about the sentimentality. They might also be happy to learn that a shapely sniper played by Mercedes Mason goes mano-a-mano with a similarly stunning look-alike terrorism, who, for some reason, goes unnamed in the list of credits.

The Last of the Unjust: Blu-ray
Ida: Blu-ray
Sundays and Cybèle: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Nightcap (Merci Pour le Chocolat): Blu-ray
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
September was a very good month for classy European imports from Criterion, Cohen Media and Music Box. Although nowhere near as emotionally draining as Sophie’s Choice, Claude Lanzmann’ virtual postscript to his definitive Holocaust documentary, Shoah, introduces us to a prominent Holocaust survivor who also was required to make the kind of decisions no human should be forced to do. Benjamin Murmelstein was the last president of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia, a showcase ghetto used to masquerade the reality of Nazi policy. By the war’s end, he was the only Elder of the Jews not to have been murdered for doing something that upset the wrong people. The ghetto was initially populated with older, high-profile Jews from Eastern Europe and marketed as a place where influential co-religionists could sit out the war. Later, its mission would change drastically for the worst. Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein in 1975, 10 years before the release of Shoah, but held on to the tapes until well after the rabbi’s death, in 1989. Like all Jews who were required to work with Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann, he would be accused of collaboration with the Nazi government. Because of this, he lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life. He wrote a book about Eichmann and Theresienstadt, and says he was willing to testify at the monster’s trial, but was never subpoenaed. Israeli prosecutors likely determined that his presence would have resulted in a sideshow of recriminations that could distract from the serious business of making an iron-clad legal case against Eichmann. Lanzmann doesn’t doubt Murmelstein was able to save thousands of Jews from death and gave up several opportunities to emigrate before the war, choosing, instead, to hand his emigration papers over to other people. That he was used by the Germans, one way or another, to push their agenda also is acknowledged. Instead of being constructed as a debate or apologia, however, Lanzmann edited the 3½-hour Last of the Unjust to allow his subject ample space to describe life in the ghetto, the masking of Nazi policy and how it devolved from deportation to extermination. The rabbi’s rhetorical gift is amply demonstrated in the interviews. At this time in his life he was as interested in shining light into the shadows of history as simply recording his place in it. It’s at once fascinating and horrifying. The Blu-ray adds a stills gallery and interview with the director.

Shooting in his native Poland for the first time, Pawel Pawlikowski explores one of the many untold stories of World War II’s lingering effect on survivors and descendants of victims. Ida describes what happens when a young woman learns, just as she’s about to take her final vows to be a nun, that she was born to Jewish parents who were killed in the Nazi occupation of Poland. She is informed of this by her aunt Wanda, who one day shows up at the convent in which she was raised and asks her to share a visit to the village in which they were raised. At this point in the 1960s, Poland is hopelessly frozen in a Cold War glacier and memories of the atrocities committed by the Gestapo and citizenry, alike, sit painfully close to the surface. The prospect of Poles being required to relinquish property confiscated from Jewish farmers hangs over the people to whom she’ll be introduced, as well. Wanda was able to survive the war by aligning herself with the Red Army and, as a hard-core Communist Party member, was eventually elevated to a judgeship. As such, she was responsible for the incarcerations and deaths of many people deemed enemies of the state. Neither has she any use for the Catholic Church or its rituals. If she ever smiled, it might have cracked the lines in her face. Wanda doesn’t attempt to brainwash her niece, but she does offer advice as to what she can do with her life and vocation. What Ida does with the advice is what makes this austere black-and-white drama so fascinating. Pawlikowski’s study in post-war guilt and paranoia among Poles who benefitted from the disappearance of Jewish neighbors – even as they risked death, themselves, by protecting them — raises the tension level to the boiling point. Ultimately, though, Ida poignantly demonstrates how one virtual innocent responds to an unexpected test of faith versus facts. Almost as a bonus, Pawlikowski paints an engrossing portrait of an imprisoned society and how some young Poles searched for freedom through music, dance and sex. The package includes an interesting background featurette and post-screening Q&A.

Sundays and Cybèle is Serge Bourguignon’s haunting story – based on a novel by Bernard Eschassériaux — of how a psychologically damaged war veteran and a deserted child form an almost shockingly intimate friendship, again, in a post-war environment. As the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture of 1960, it is graced by brilliantly evocative performances by Hardy Krüger, as the pilot traumatized by the death of an innocent child in the Indochinese campaign, and Patricia Gozzi, as the girl who takes her place in the man’s subconscious. After briefly meeting the girl at a railroad depot and witnessing her abandonment at the gates of a convent, Pierre takes it upon himself to rescue her from further pain as a combination surrogate father, guardian angel and, in her mind, at least, a future husband. Their weekly visits to a beautifully landscaped park in the suburbs of Paris are interpreted in different ways by everyone who witness the pair, including viewers. They’re handled with great sensitivity, as well as a palpable undercurrent of mystery, by co-writer/director Bourguignon, cinematographer Henri Decaë and composer Maurice Jarre. Anyone without a tear in their eyes at the picture’s end simply is missing a heart. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with Bourguignon and Gozzi; Bourguignon’s amazing Palme d’Or–winning short documentary, Le sourire; and an essay by critic Ginette Vincendeau.

No one plays inscrutable French women quite as convincingly as Isabelle Huppert and, in Claude Chabrol’s Nightcap (Merci pour le Chocolat), she’s been assigned a real doozy. Her character, Mika, is chief heir to a famous Swiss chocolate maker and a respected member of Lausanne society. Her husband, Andre (Jacques Dutronc), is a celebrated concert pianist, with a son from his second marriage and a performance block caused by depression. Technically, Mika is both the first and third wife of Andre, whose second wife died under mysterious circumstances in a suspicious car accident. One day, out of the blue, a pretty young woman, Jeanne, appears at their doorstep, reminding Pierre that she and his son were born on the same day and in the same hospital. A confused nurse had introduced Jeanne to Andre as his natural offspring and, for a moment, at least, he thought he might be the father of a girl, instead of boy. Jeanne, who’s grown up to be a talented piano student, had only recently heard the story from her mother and decided to check out the man who, she would like to believe, handed down his musical genes to her. Having a competitor for his father’s already limited attention bothers Andre’s son, Guillaume, more than it does Mika, who we suspect isn’t anxious to share the time she reserves for her adopted family, either. Nevertheless, Mika is pleased that Jeanne’s presence has renewed his interest in teaching and playing the piano. Even before Chabrol reveals details of the accident that claimed Andre’s second wife, viewers will have begun to assume that things won’t end well in Nightcap. They don’t, of course, but that’s not really the point here. As usual, Chabrol is far more interested in dissecting the curious habits of France’s haute bourgeois than exposing a beguiling serial killer.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unusually accessible 1974 melodrama, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, takes Douglas Sirk’s indictment of middle-class conformity and intolerance, All That Heaven Allows, and turns it inside out for followers of the German New Wave cinema. Instead of setting his film in a well-off American suburb, Fassbinder arranges a forbidden romance between a handsome Moroccan immigrant laborer in his mid-30s and a frumpy, 60-something German cleaning lady in a blue-collar neighborhood in Munich. Of course, their decision to marry isn’t greeted with good will from her family members, neighbors and co-workers, whose prejudices aren’t reserved solely for people of color. By the time the couple returns home from their honeymoon, however, opinions have changed drastically in both camps. It sets up a dilemma unforeseen in Sirk’s movie. The Criterion edition offers a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; vintage interviews with actor Brigitte Mira, editor Thea Eymesz and American filmmaker Todd Haynes, whose much lauded Far From Heaven was built on the same Sirkian foundation; Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short, “Angst isst Seele auf,” which reunites Mira, Eymèsz, and cinematographer Jürgen Jürges to tell the story, based on real events, of an attack by neo-Nazis on a foreign actor while on his way to a stage performance of Fassbinder’s screenplay; “Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema,” a 1976 BBC program about the national film movement of which Fassbinder was a part; a scene from Fassbinder’s 1970 film, The American Soldier that inspired Ali; and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.

Lucky Them
With a cast that includes such actors of a certain age as Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp, there was no way Lucky Them was going to be a bust. Even if the appeal of Megan Griffith’s low-key dramedy involving a middle-age rock critic would appear to be limited to people old enough to remember when Rolling Stone magazine was still relevant, you’d think it warranted something larger than a nine-screen opening. If Depp’s name had appeared on the publicity material for the theatrical release – essentially a cameo role – it probably would have enhanced the chances for a wider release. It would have spoiled any chance for a surprise, however. Considering that he’s only on screen for a few minutes, this is one example of truth-in-marketing working against the filmmakers. Collette is close to perfect as the veteran journalist, Ellie Klug, who might have covered the same tours as Patrick Fugit’s character in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical Almost Famous. Unlike Crowe, however, Ellie continues to churn out articles on musicians half her age and sleep with a goodly number of them. Platt plays her editor, Giles, who understands only too well that his magazine’s days are numbered, but can’t quite bring himself to admit that rock-’n-roll has passed him by, along with the print medium. In a final futile effort to win back some of the Boomers who’ve deserted the publication, he assigns Ellie to track down her long-lost ex-boyfriend, Matthew Smith, and determine once and for all if he truly did commit suicide or he’s been laying low in anticipation of a comeback album. The article would commemorate the release 10 years earlier of a collection of songs admired in equal measure by fans, critics and fellow musicians. Not surprisingly, Ellie resists accepting the assignment, knowing that either version of the truth she uncovers could break her heart … again.

After losing an envelope full of expense money during a chat with her busker boy-toy, Ellie reluctantly accepts the help of a directionless multimillionaire – yet another person she can barely recall dating – who lends her the money, but only if he can come along and document the experience with his old-fashioned camcorder. To demonstrate his sincerity and largess, Charlie (Church) rents a motorhome for their travels through the Pacific Northwest. Church is as likeable here as he was in Sideways, in which he played a reluctant groom-to-be and best friend of a Merlot-hating wine snob immortalized by Paul Giamatti. As was the case in that film, Church’s performance here nicely complements the one turned in by Collette. It wouldn’t be fair to disclose what they discover as the movie draws to a close, but it will strike a chord with anyone who’s turned to Facebook or Google to reconnect with “the one who got away.” Apparently, Lucky Them was inspired by the real-world experiences of co-screenwriter Emily Wachtel, one of those self-absorbed overachievers one finds in the indie game. In Griffith, the producers found a late-blooming director (The Off Hours, Eden) able to build stories around offbeat characters with over-sized personalities, without allowing them to blow everyone else off the screen. Movies, such as Lucky Them, that appeal primarily to middle-age adults, are few and far between these days. Increasingly, after being introduced on the festival circuit, they’re required to find their audience in DVD/Blu-ray. This one deserves to be discovered. The DVD package includes a decent making-of featurette.

Fueled by testosterone and heavy-metal music, Hellion, describes what can happen to boys left to their own devices by a single parent who has lost control of his own life. Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) is terrific as Hollis, the father of a teenager, Jacob, who may already be too damaged to save, and a younger boy, Wes, who, for lack of proper supervision, appears to be following in his brother’s footsteps. The situation at home was forever complicated by the death of the wife/mother who provided the glue that kept the family together. It resulted directly in Hollis’ three-week drinking binge, during which the boys were abandoned; a court’s decision to put Wes in the care of his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), who sees in the boy an excuse for accepting adulthood; and Jacob’s obsessive approach to motocross racing, arson and “rescuing” Wes from a conventional lifestyle. When Hollis isn’t working long hours at an oil refinery, he’s rushing to finish construction of his family’s unfinished dream house before it’s foreclosed upon a bank. Likewise, when Jacob’s antics don’t require his attention, Hollis is fighting to retain custody of Wes. Unlike viewers, Hollis and Jacob are convinced that maintaining the family unit is more important than giving the boy a fair shot at normalcy with Pam. It’s an impossible situation for everyone involved, but one that’s become far less uncommon in today’s bankrupt economy. It only seems that much uglier when set against the hard-scrabble background of blue-collar life in southeast Texas. Kat Candler’s film doesn’t pretend to have any answers for the family’s dilemma, but it’s finally made clear that the only way Jacob is likely to avoid ending up in prison is to be scared straight. As writer/director, she puts him smack-dab in a situation that will test his will to make something of himself. The DVD includes the short film, Hellion, from which the feature was adapted. The effect is the same, even if some of the emphasis on Wes is somewhat more comical. It also adds a making-of piece and material from Sundance 2013.

Leprechaun Origins: Blu-ray
Grave Halloween
Any resemblance between the titular boogeyman in Leprechaun Origins and any other such character you’ve seen in a book, TV show, Disney movie, cereal box, St. Patrick’s Day parade or Notre Dame football game is purely coincidental. It also might be cause for having your eyesight examined. Neither does the antagonist her look like the vindictive villain immortalized by the British dwarf superstar Warwick Davis (Star Wars, Willow) in the 1993 original (with Jennifer Aniston) and subsequent straight-to-video franchise. The leprechaun in “Origins” resembles one of those slimy, hairless beasts introduced in the 1980s by visual-effects wizards Stan Winston and Rick Baker. This time, the creature is physically animated by the American dwarf actor/wrestler Dylan Postl (a.k.a., Hornswoggle), who’s mostly invisible in his icky prosthetic disguise. If anything, the WWE-produced “Origins” resembles the revisionist Irish critter in the 2012 made-for-Syfy movie, “Leprechaun’s Revenge.” Apart from not being very scary, Zach Lipovsky and Harris Wilkinson’s movie repeats one of the most conventional of all horror tropes. After stopping in a remote pub, four Americans are offered a cabin in which they can spend a night or two in the lovely Irish countryside. What’s left unsaid is that a “leprechaun” also uses the cabin occasionally, stashing the artifacts of slain tourists in the basement. To avoid being slaughtered themselves, the locals offer up outsiders to the demon as sacrificial lambs, locking the cabin behind them and stealing their gold to further appease it. Can these fresh-faced collegians end the leprechaun’s lucky streak, by escaping from his clutches? Stay tuned. Ultimately, though, it hardly matters. The Blu-ray adds a making-of piece and interviews, in which even the filmmakers are unable to justify desecrating a venerable franchise.

Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, on the northwest base of Mount Fuji, is well-known as the final resting place for people who decide that committing suicide in such a hallowed environment is a better option than living in pain at home or becoming a burden on loved ones. Halloween isn’t traditionally celebrated in Japan – except at Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan – but the Aokigahara Forest is an inarguably cool place to stage a horror movie, such as the weirdly titled Grave Halloween, which actually was shot in the rain forests of British Columbia. A documentary crew from an international university in Tokyo decides to visit the Suicide Forest after being told that a classmate, Maiko (Kaitlyn Leeb), was orphaned after her mother died there. Raised in America, Maiko feels as if she’s being drawn to the Sea of Trees by a supernatural force, possibly related to her mother. And, sure enough, no sooner do the filmmakers begin to explore the woods than they start seeing the ghosts of fitfully dead suicide victims. Naturally, when confronted by a seemingly human stranger and park police, the students are ordered not to disrespect the dead by filming in the forest and cautioned to be very careful where they stepped. A separate group of knuckleheads from the college arrives after the admonishments are rendered and commits every possible discretion possible, including stealing a Rolex from a corpse. The spirits aren’t remotely pleased by the intrusion. As made-for-cable movies go, Grave Halloween is very good, indeed. Considering that it debuted on Syfy makes it even that much more of a surprise. Steven R. Monroe (I Spit on Your Grave) and writer Ryan W. Smith (“Untold Stories of the ER”) probably were asked to pull a few punches, given the number of Syfy viewers still in their teens, so it’s fair to wonder how Grave Halloween might have looked if tackled first by a master of J-horror or someone not limited by the standards of basic-cable. Shot largely in heavily shrouded daylight, Canada’s Suicide Forest is plenty scary. I wonder how much more frightening it would be if shot in the real Aokigahara, which is treated with considerably more respect by Japanese officials.

When this unrelenting Dutch crime drama was shown at handful of festivals here, critics were quick to point out its debt to Raging Bull and dismiss it for being derivative. Yes, the protagonist of this eloquently shot black-and-white film is a prize fighter and brawler, with a hair-trigger temper. Stylistically, too, the mixed-martial-arts scenes probably were influenced by Martin Scorsese’s powerful profile of boxer Jake LaMotta. Writer/director Jim Taihuttu (Rabat) wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to borrow from that masterpiece, and he certainly won’t be the last. I would argue, though, that Wolf owes less to any film about a troubled soul seeking glory and redemption in the ring than it does to the deeply entrenched criminal elements terrorizing the immigrant ghettos of northern Europe. In this way, it’s thematically related to Nicolas Winding Refn’s grueling Pusher trilogy, Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money and the Dardenne Brothers’ The Silence of Lorna. In his depiction of Marwen Kenzari’s rage-filled Moroccan fighter, Majid, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Taihuttu was directly influenced by Tom Hardy, in Bronson; Matthias Schoenaerts, in Bullhead; and Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. The desperation of legal and illegal immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa has created a surge in criminality and violence unequaled, even in the days when the Sicilian and Corsican Mafia controlled the drug trade there. The gangs recognize no borders and are every bit a vicious as the Mexican cartels and American street gangs that sell their products. Drawing from the surpluses of civil wars and black-market profiteers from the former Soviet Union, the immigrant gangsters’ access to automatic weapons and explosives has never been greater. The burgeoning subgenre of European gangster movies might also remind American audiences of Hollywood’s fascination with Prohibition-era hoodlums. Today, of course, there’s no Hays Office to tell filmmakers to tone down the graphic violence.

Kenzari’s performance in Wolf is downright frightening. His character, Majid, has recently been paroled from prison and isn’t looking forward to working in the same factory at which his father labored obediently for some 30 years. Blessed with natural fighting skills, Majid is given an opportunity to be handled professionally by Turkish gangsters, who also want him to provide muscle for their dealers, rob the occasional armored truck and fix fights. Unfortunately, his allegiances are split between his new benefactors and Dutch-Moroccan pals who also want a piece of his action. Like LaMotta, Majid’s fatal flaw is his inability to control his pent-up rage and jealousy issues. If his temper serves him well in the ring, it’s a hindrance in a world that demands a modicum of discipline, at least. As such, Wolf isn’t for the squeamish. The DVD package adds an amusing making-of featurette, a piece on Kenzari’s training regimen, a music video and discussion of eardrum-pounding soundtrack.

Thunder and the House of Magic Blu-ray
Just as the overseas markets have exploded for big-budget Hollywood exports, audiences there apparently have begun to embrace modestly produced animated features for youngsters. Shout!Factory’s adorable, if thin 3D release Thunder and the House of Magic was barely released in the U.S., before being shuttled into the theatrical aftermarket. The story of an abandoned kitten, who finds shelter in an old mansion owned by an eccentric magician/inventor, reaped a respectable $33 million in foreign sales. In France, South Korea, Belgium, Singapore and Ukraine, it was released in time for Christmas, before receiving a wider rollout throughout 2014. Although the frightened cat seems helpless, Thunder isn’t welcomed by everyone. A devious rabbit and mouse don’t care to share the magician’s attention, which is already sorely tested by a raucous “family” of toys, animals, music makers and gizmos. A greater threat is posed by the old man’s nephew, who wants to put him in a nursing home and sell the mansion.  Thunder must figure out a way to prevent that from happening. The movie’s production values are surprisingly high and it features a soundtrack that includes “the music of Selena Gomez,” as well as a making-of featurette.

Ivory Tower
Andrew Rossi’s documentary, Ivory Tower, asks viewers a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds lately, “Is a college education today worth the amount of time and money invested in it by students, parents and high school guidance teachers.” Things have changed greatly since the 1960s, when, in some social strata, at least, colleges were viewed as a necessary extension of high school and, if necessary, a way to postpone being drafted. This was a time when jobs were plentiful for college graduates and a degree opened doors closed to those who decided to skip that stage in their development. The student rebellions of the time would caution employers against hiring longhairs and potential rabble-rousers, but, still, the collegiate experience, itself, was deemed valuable enough to encourage for most high school graduates, minorities and returning veterans. Then, a couple decades later, the roof of academia caved in on the student body. Rising costs and short-sighted legislators forced tuitions to soar, while the job pool, even for people with post-graduate degrees, evaporated before our eyes. Evens so, student loans became as accessible as low-interest loans would become for first-time homebuyers with no collateral. Thanks to Congress’ IOU to banking lobbyists, these loans were as iron-clad as tax liens and as difficult to erase. Moreover, questions began to be raised about the quality of the education, including why professors are allowed to hand off their duties to teaching assistants and whether extracurricular activities are given priority over scholastics. Rossi found other holes in the system – all legitimate – but few concrete answers. That’s probably because there aren’t any good ones. Social Darwinism is threatening to put college educations out of reach for low income families, while such alternatives as online degrees and for-profit programs have revealed themselves to be even riskier investments. Ivory Tower delivers an important message none of us should ignore.

In short, the latest additions to the TV-to-DVD shelves include, from CBS’ hot crime-drama lineup, “The Mentalist: The Complete Sixth Season,” in which the saga of Patrick Jane’s nemesis, Red John, is concluded,  and from the PBS vaults, “Vaccines: Calling the Shots,” which points out the risks of following the anti-vaccination trend; Al Capone: Icon,” yet another recounting of the mobster’s rise and fall; the archeological game show,  Time Team America: Seasons 1 & 2,”;  “Mind of a Chef: Ed Lee: Season 3,” which takes a look behind the menus of celebrated chef and contextualizes their creations; and another little-known story from the annals of WWII British intelligence agencies, “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.”

The DVD Wrapup: Godzilla, Girl in Yellow Boots, Last Passenger, My Name Is A, Calling, Come Morning, Reign, Hillbilly Butcher … More

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Godzilla: Blu-ray
To paraphrase a much tortured aphorism from the Savoyard intellectual Joseph de Maistre, “Every generation has the Godzilla it deserves.” In fact, every new generation since 1954 has gotten several new fire-breathing lizards, however, whether we deserved one or not. First introduced in post-WWII Japan as the King of the Monsters, the daikaiju and other giant monsters were Japan’s metaphorical response to America’s war-ending bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even then, the gargantuan creature looked as if it had escaped from a toy factory. And, yet, Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and other irradiated critters captured the fancy of movie audiences around the world. Not all iterations of Godzilla have gone on to make a lot of money, but there’s always been a few geniuses in Hollywood and Tokyo who think they can milk a few more dollars from the franchise. The last version I reviewed was the 1998 Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin turkey, which laid a giant egg with critics and underperformed on the world stage. It was easy to believe that everyone involved in the enterprise had phoned in their assignment and relied on the special-effects wizards to carry the load. Sixteen years later, this generation’s Godzilla is a marked improvement on that movie and everybody involved appears to have earned their pay. Even though it cost a bloody fortune to make and market, Gareth Edwards and Max Borenstein’s reptilian thriller probably made someone some money, somewhere. Most critics gave it a passing grade, as well. If the special effects occasionally overshadowed the acting and dialogue, they never made the characters look superfluous or out of scale to the monsters. It helped that this Godzilla reserved an ounce or two of compassion for those wee humans, as well at its feet. When confronted with an equally dangerous threat from another mutated killer, the King is forced to choose between saving mankind or his own substantial backside. Or, perhaps, he just dug San Francisco too much to watch it be destroyed by giant bat creatures.

I was surprised to find Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) and Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) among the cast members, alongside Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), who becomes the lead human by default. Neither of these esteemed actresses were given much more to do than look as if they had stepped on a landmine and knew they were going to die. Still, who knows, their presence may have added a few more Euros to the box-office total. Obviously, the last several Godzillas were designed to be seen on very large screens, with dangerously loud sound systems … in 3D, too, when possible. Warner’s Blu-ray edition does a nice job replicating the experience, sonically and visually. Much of the movie was shot at night, with flashes of brilliant colors from explosives, industrial lighting and the monster’s fiery breath. The contrasts hold true throughout, as do the dark edges of machinery, infrastructure and vegetation. I can’t vouch for the 3D presentation, but, I imagine, it provides a fair test for anyone’s expensive home-theater system. The Blu-ray bonus package isn’t all that extensive, with two sections of making-of and background featurettes, representing less than an hour’s worth of material.

That Girl in Yellow Boots
So much attention is paid to the romantic musicals churned out by Bollywood that India’s regional and independent cinemas are almost completely ignored outside the subcontinent. That hasn’t always been the case and, so long as TMC shows the occasional masterpiece by Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor, there’s always the hope that American viewers will grow to love something other than Bollywood’s elaborately choreographed dance scenes, irresistible music and almost comically chaste love scenes. Lately, though, we’ve been introduced to some exciting independent titles, representing various regions, genres and economic classes, primarily on DVD. Most of them are very good, indeed. Even better than very good is Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots, which debuted at the 2010 TIFF, but only now is getting a wide release in home video. It chronicles a harrowing journey of discovery undertaken by an emotionally fragile, mixed-race Brit, Ruth Edscer (Kalki Koechlin). The recent passing of her British mother and earlier death by suicide of her 15-year-old sister has left her alone in the world. She was raised to believe that her father, Arjun Patel, deserted the family after her sister’s death and returned to India, where he simply disappeared. One day, out of the blue, Ruth receives a letter from her father, inviting her to drop by if she’s ever passing through India. That’s it … no address, no phone, no update on his life away from England. Sensing that he may have gotten a raw deal back home, Ruth wants nothing more than to be reunited with him.

The only thing Ruth has going for her, though, is the belief that he’s still working as a photographer and is likely to be living in Mumbai. It’s the Indian equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack. Spunky to the point of being foolhardy, Ruth decides to move to teeming Mumbai to begin her desperate search. Although she’s not legally allowed to work, the morally vague young woman – perfectly described as “Bugs Bunny crossed with Julia Roberts” – takes a job at a massage joint, where a “happy ending” only costs an additional 1,000 rupees. Ruth’s investigation exposes her to a seedy cross-section of Mumbai’s male population, including corrupt bureaucrats, extortionist landlords, a junkie boyfriend and his thieving cronies. Her loyal customers run the gamut from helpful older men, who welcome the opportunity to spend a few minutes with a much younger woman, to those who simply want to enjoy their “handshake” in silence. It isn’t made clear how Ruth hooked up with her useless, cocaine-addicted boyfriend, Prashant (Prashant Prakash), but he helps open our eyes to how a country dominated by men literally allows the worst of them to get away with rape and murder in their dealings with women. There’s no way to explain what happens in the final reel without revealing the story’s soul-crushing ending. Koechlin, who co-wrote That Girl in Yellow Boots with her husband, Kashyup, grew up in an Indian ashram with her French hippy parents, and understands the rhythms of Mumbai street life. Her character shouldn’t last a minute in Mumbai – not to be confused with the glitter and glamour of Bollywood – but she possesses an inner strength that trumps her vulnerability at almost every turn. The DVD adds a Q&A from a festival panel discussion.

Last Passenger: Blu-ray
Not all movies about runaway or otherwise doomed trains are exactly the same, but they share enough qualities to justify a stand-alone sub-genre of their own. Typically, the only question that requires an answer at the end of the day concerns the number of people left alive by the time the tick-tock clock hits strikes midnight. If our favorite characters are very lucky, they’ll get off the speeding train before it crashes through an unstable bridge or hits a dead-end. Agatha Christie’s many fans might not approve of such blunt story-telling, but not everyone can afford a ticket on the Orient Express. Last Passenger is a surprisingly good thriller about a runaway train, despite the absence of a known antagonist or payload of inestimable value. Not that it matters all that much where the movie is set, but almost all of the key actors are from the UK, as is co-writer/director Omid Nooshin. Nothing seems out of the ordinary when a doctor (Dougray Scott) and his young son hop a late-night commuter train, along with a stunningly beautiful blond (Kara Tointon); pain-in-the-ass Polish immigrant (Iddo Goldberg); a standoffish businessman (David Schofield); and angelic grandmother (Lindsay Duncan). There’s also an unseen engineer and ticket-taker, whose disappearance signals the first indication that something is out of whack. The second is the driver’s refusal to slow down at terminals to allow passengers to disembark. When the emergency brake fails to stop the train and calls to the engineer go unanswered, drastic action needs to be taken before it crashes. This, of course, requires one or more of the characters to risk death by separating the passenger cars from the engine. The last-ditch suicide mission never grows old. Without relying too heavily on CGI, Nooshin somehow manages to convince us of two things, 1) that the passengers are, indeed, in serious danger, and 2) that we’ll enjoy coming along for the ride. For any director, let alone a first-timer, that’s no small trick. Featurettes in the Blu-ray bonus package help explain how he pulls it off.

Hangmen Also Die: Blu-ray
Made at a time when the future of Europe was still very much in doubt, Hangmen Also Die is a broad dramatization of the manhunt that followed the assassination of SS second-in-command Reinhard Heydrich in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. The bombing of the black-hearted fiend’s open-top Mercedes was executed in May, 1942, by Czech guerrilla fighters trained in Britain. Because it took another two weeks for Heydrich to succumb to injuries and other complications, the brazen attack wasn’t widely publicized outside Czechoslovakia. That would change in 1943, when three movies were made on the subject. Among other things, the movies demonstrated that resistance fighters were in place throughout occupied Europe and no one was too powerful to be targeted for extinction. The cold reality, also exposed in the movie, was that Hitler’s Gestapo was perfectly willing to eliminate exponentially more Czechs in response to Heydrich’s assassination and their lack of cooperation in the investigation. Hundreds of men, women and children were executed on the spot or sent to death camps, in lieu of prison. Such reprisals caused Allied plotters and governments-in-exile to reconsider plans for future actions of the sort. Co-writer/director Fritz Lang and playwright Bertolt Brecht, both living in Hollywood to escape the war, combined their considerable talents on the story of assassin Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) and people of Czechoslovakia who risked their lives to support the resistance. They also devised a crowd-pleasing twist at the end, which is pure Hollywood. Among the other stars of the noir-tinged drama are Anna Lee, Gene Lockhart, Lionel Stander and an almost unrecognizable Walter Brennan. Hollywood executives were so buffaloed by Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC witch hunt that they agreed to blacklist Hangmen Also Die, because of Brecht’s participation and some dialogue believed to be pro-communist. It wouldn’t be seen again in the United States until the mid-1970s. The Cohen Media presentation restores the last few minutes of a closing montage, which was crudely deleted in some theatrical prints and many previous home video releases. The Blu-ray also adds the half-hour doc, “Story of a Hangman: Robert Gerwath on Reinhard Heydrich”; a 1942 German newsreel; a comparison of scenes before-and-after restoration; the 2014 theatrical re-release trailer; and commentary by Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival.

My Name Is A By Anonymous
One of the most frightening films of the 1980s was River’s Edge, a true-life horror story starring Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, Ione Skye and Dennis Hopper. In it, the body of a girl is killed by her dimwitted boyfriend is left to decay near the spot local misfits gather to smoke pot and drink beer. None of the teens considers it their duty to report the death, or even the location of the corpse, which is an open secret among a growing number of their friends. Once seen, it’s impossible not to recall River’s Edge whenever one reads a news article about a particularly grisly crime committed by kids willing to trade their freedom for whatever thrill derives from murder. Shane Ryan’s similarly disturbing My Name Is A By Anonymous likewise is based on shockingly mindless murder, this one being the Alyssa Bustamante case, which took place in 2009, in Cole County, Missouri. Apparently, the 17-year-old killer took the life of her much younger neighbor, simply to experience what if felt like to watch someone die. Ryan takes a slightly different tack, by examining the killing of a cheerful 9-year-old girl through the eyes and backgrounds of four California girls trapped in a teenage wasteland of their own device. Outside of their homes, the girls don’t look any more alienated or depressed than the average SoCal Goth wannabe. The biggest negative influence in their lives could be the cold reality of having next to nothing to do in dusty Saugus, except throw rocks in a dry river bed and use the cameras on their cellphones to document their every move. Positive role models are nowhere to be seen and any aspirations they might have for the future don’t extend much further than the restaurant franchises and discount outlets that line the Interstate. That could all change if one of their videos went viral on YouTube, but even the least of them knows the odds against that happening.

It’s inside their threadbare homes, however, where the girls encourage their inner demons to come out to play. When they look in the mirror, all they see is their pain and emotional insecurity staring back at them. All of the teens are self-destructive in one way or another. They cut themselves and feign suicide by putting their fingers to their head and cocking their thumbs. Two, at least, have been abused sexually by the men to whom their mothers are currently married. One is so severely bulimic that she has begun to enjoy the pain that comes from regurgitating what little food she eats. They distort their pretty young faces with grotesque makeup, which becomes smeared when their tears begin to flow. Nothing suggests to viewers that any of them would find relief, catharsis or anything else in the murder of a beautiful and trusting child. It could be that they resent her as-yet-unspoiled happiness or, knowing she’ll probably end up like them, want to spare her their agony. Ryan doesn’t attempt to make excuses for the girls’ actions or suggest they might have turned out differently if they’d grown up in Boulder or Milwaukee. The only real hint comes in the title of one of two full-length re-edits included in the DVD package — “The Columbine Effect” – and, even then, there is no stockpiling of weapons or conspiratorial activities. As was the case in the actual Bustamante killing, the older girls didn’t look ahead to weigh their options or consider what life might be like for as a child in a prison built to house adults. Ryan leaves those questions for us to answer. In a very real sense, My Name Is A By Anonymous is about the horror of everyday life in a America that no longer works and rewards corruption as much as it punishes unfounded optimism. Stylistically, everything from co-star Teona Dolnikova’s atonal musical score and Arturo Guerrero’s ominously bleak cinematography, to Ryan’s razor-sharp editing, contribute to the palpable sense of dread that covers the movie like a sheet. The fact that the movie is going out straight-to-DVD has nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with its bleak subject matter. The set includes the alternate version, a deleted scene and a pair of interesting shorts.

If a student in a screenwriting class were asked to graft elements of Eugene O’Neill’s harrowing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” onto a network family drama, such as “Brothers & Sisters,” the result might approximate what happens in After. I’d be very surprised to learn that director Pieter Gaspersz and writer Sabrina Gennarino had O’Neill in mind when they embarked on their story of an abjectly dysfunctional family in Upstate New York, let alone a series starring Sally Field, but there’s no ignoring the common elements, however tangential. At the core of After is the working-class Valentino family, which, when we meet them, is coming apart at its emotional seams. The patriarch, Mitch (John Doman), is a grumpy old shit who barks out orders and insults his children every time he opens his mouth. Matriarch Nora (Kathleen Quinlan) is a fragile flower to whom everyone defers and could very well have been modeled after one of Field’s many characters. The adult siblings don’t resemble each other one bit, except in their unwillingness to upset the delicate balance of their parents’ relationship. The oldest son, Christian (Pablo Schreiber), has been put in charge of the family stone-cutting business, but is paralyzed to act on its impending bankruptcy by Mitch’s refusal to answer his son’s questions. A younger son, Nicky (Adam Scarimbolo), is persona non grata in his father’s eyes for his unwillingness to play along with the family charade or aspire to anything more than being a tattoo artist and barroom brawler. Daughter Maxine (Gennarino) hopes to marry her African-American boyfriend (Darrin Dewitt Henson), but, likewise, is afraid how her father might react. While the young man is welcome to join the family at dinner, his still unsettled career path somehow brings out dad’s racism. Diane Neal plays a woman of undetermined relationship to the Valentinos – Nora’s sister, perhaps – who tends bar with Maxine, but, otherwise, serves as window dressing. I hesitate to add anything more to the synopsis, because it would necessarily add information that could spoil the next few unexpected twists, as well as a spectacularly contrived ending. It’s true, of course, that many people don’t object a whit to contrived climaxes, so far be it for me to discourage from enjoying this one, which also is loaded with more than a few ounces of familial redemption.

The Calling
As Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, Susan Sarandon rescues this reasonably chilling, if predictable serial-killer drama from being just another hecho-en-Canada thriller with quasi-religious overtones. Micalleff is a recovering alcoholic and pill-popper, who seems perfectly placed in a small town where almost nothing of any consequence happens. Nothing, that is, until an elderly woman is found nearly behead in her home and, not far away, a wealthy horse trainer has been disemboweled in his stable. The department isn’t blessed with the latest in forensics technology, but, along a fellow detective (Gil Bellows) and a transfer cop (Topher Grace), the team’s able to connect the dots to a series of similar killings across the country. One set of clues leads them to a country priest (Donald Sutherland), who gives them a crash course in pre-Vatican mysticism and other things the Church generally keeps hidden from parishioners. Without spoiling too much of the fun in The Calling, however, let’s just say that the plot owes as much to Dr. Kevorkian as it does to the apostles of Christ. Because of this, we occasionally feel nearly as sympathetic to the killer as his victims, who aren’t innocent bystanders, exactly. In his first feature, director Jason Stone maintains a steady pace and only occasionally relies on a jump-scare to keep viewers interested. By bouncing between town and country, he’s also able to prevent our eyes from getting fixated on one or two shades of gray in the Ontario winter. Without the sterling cast – Ellen Burstyn adds her calming presence as Micallef’s mom, a retired judge – The Calling might have been forced to rely on it popularity as a mystery novel by Inger Ash Wolfe (a.k.a., Michael Redhill). The DVD adds interviews and making-of material.

Julius Caesar Against the Pirates
Heavily influenced by Hollywood’s sword-and-sandal and biblical epics of the 1950s, the ever-inventive Italian film industry churned out dozens of similarly themed action pictures that honored the the heroics of its own historical and mythological figures. The movies were made at a fraction of the cost of the American productions and sometimes on sets repurposed from earlier designs. Today, the best remembered of these redubbed Saturday-matinee flicks are those in which Steve Reeves’ Hercules met the challenges posed by men and monsters. The inclusion of prominent American, British and French actors in these costume dramas, spaghetti Westerns and gialllos looked good on the posters and added some credibility to the low-budget projects. Although a knowledge of Roman history wasn’t required to enjoy S&S movies (a.k.a., pepla), a cursory interest in the period works to the benefit of viewers. This isn’t to suggest that such whoppers as Sergio Grieco’s 1962 Julius Caesar Against the Pirates were particularly accurate, only that the characters were based on real people and events. Julius Caesar did, indeed, cross paths with the esteemed Roman general and dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and a gaggle of Cilician pirates, led here by Gordon Mitchell, had the temerity to kidnap him. His task here, though, requires J.C. mostly to save a few damsels in distress, including Abbe Lane and Franca Paris, not all of Rome. Neither is the time frame remotely accurate. All things considered, Julius Caesar Against the Pirates is primarily for hard-core fans of pepla, sword fights and busty, if thoroughly clothed dancing girls. Anyone expecting the sex and violence of “Rome” and “Spartacus” will be disappointed. Given the movie’s age and humble budget, the Cheezy Flicks DVD is remarkably free of gunk and scratches.

The Perfect Wave: Blu-ray
Rise Up Black Man
Bruce Macdonald’s faith-based drama The Perfect Wave recounts the true story of an adventurous New Zealand surfer who left home an atheist and came home a born-again Christian … literally. Unlike most other films that deliver an evangelical message, the blurbs on the DVD/Blu-ray only hint at the film’s spiritual payoff: “A surfer’s glimpse into eternity.” There are several seals of approval on the jacket, including one from the Dove Foundation, but you practically need a magnifying glass to identify them. It would be a mistake, however, to accuse The Perfect Wave’s backers of attempting to pull off a bait-and-switch scam. Imagine, if you can, a hybrid of Endless Summer and 127 Hours, with a late cameo by Jesus Christ, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in the 94 minutes it’s is on the screen. Like many other Kiwis, McCormack (Scott Eastwood) decides to see the world before settling down and raising a family. He and a buddy had grown up on tales told by older surfers of the perpetual search for the perfect wave and decide to try their luck. Their excursion takes them to Australia, Southeast Asia, Africa and several exotic islands in between. The waves are spectacular, the wahines are beautiful and the good times go round-the-clock. McCormack was turned off by religion at an early age and has no moral qualms about partying hardy. In any case, his mother (Cheryl Ladd) would do enough praying for both of them. He falls in love with a mysterious young woman (Rachel Hendrix), whose list of former boyfriends is as long as the board that is never far from his reach. McCormack is on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, when he agrees to join an acquaintance on a nighttime lobster dive. After being stung five times by a box jellyfish, he’s dragged to a hospital and pronounced dead. In the 15 minutes it takes to wheel him to the morgue, McCormack is invited to a come-to-Jesus meeting, at which he’s given the choice of coming clean or extending his big sleep. As incredible as this sounds, McCormack firmly insists it’s the gospel truth and the basis for a ministry of his own. Somehow, Macdonald manages to keep the character’s rebirth as low-key as possible. Those of us who believe that miracles do occasionally occur – Johnny Cash recounted a similar visitation — will appreciate the straight-forward approach, just as it is. The bonus package adds several decent featurettes, some of which more directly address the 800-pound Christian in the movie’s living room.

Whoever talked freshman writer/director Kendall Irvin out of cutting at least 46 minutes from the 2½-hour Rise Up Black Man shouldn’t be allowed to offer advice to any aspiring filmmaker ever again. The trims might not have been enough to rescue Irvin’s bloated salt-and-pepper story of two recent college graduates, who independently struggle to find the path to righteousness, but it would have saved viewers the agony of watching his worst instincts play out on the screen. Ostensibly a faith-based drama with a sharp urban edge, Rise Up Black Man, delivers its inspirational messages with a sledge hammer and telegraphs the blows with an airhorn. Will and Gary have spent most of their post-college years killing time in bars and chasing women. This ends when Will decides to hitch his star to a slick-talking African-American minister, who extorts money from white-owned businesses and outright steals it from his inner-city parishioners. Nonetheless, he talks a good game and convinces Will that he’s traveling with God. For his part, Gary is pushing his luck on every front. He’s a borderline alcoholic and world-class slacker. His soul finally opens up to a boy in desperate need of a father figure, big brother and mentor rolled into one jumbo-sized package. If Will is able to see the error in his ways and accept that discarded friends are more valuable than phony ministers, Gary is required to accept the reality that shit happens and no one should expect God to intervene. I doubt that this is the message Irvin wants to impart to Christian audiences, but I couldn’t find anything else to take from it.

Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher
Sanctuary: Quite a Conundrum
Hellinger/Holy Terror: Drive-In Double Feature
Telephone World
Released in 2012, Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher looks as if it could have been made any time in the last 50 years and shown as the third attraction on a triple-bill at the local drive-in. The grainy texture of the film stock suggests that it might have been shot on Super 8 and blown up to 35mm, while the actors appear to have been chosen from a Hell’s Angels yearbook. And, for once, the five-word title leaves no question as to what to expect from the DVD’s contents. A pissed-off hillbilly, Carl, kills anyone who dares trespass, take a dump or fornicate on his land and turns them into sausages. You simply can’t get any more succinct than that and have a movie that still begs to be watched. A separate narrative thread involves Carl’s blood pact with a demon, Sam Bakoo, in which he offers his soul in exchange for the full-fledged reanimation of his parents’ rotting corpses. Joaquin Montalvan’s film may be a throwback to such classics as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance, but it blends the elements into something that feels fresh and almost contemporary. Cannibal hillbillies are as timeless as zombies and vampires, after all. Almost as interesting as the movie, itself, is the making-up featurette in which Montalvan and other participants describe the movie was made on a shoestring, substituting Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco parkway for Appalachia. (The early Tarzan movies were shot in the same area.) Also included in the DVD are the short film, “The Razor,” and interviews.

From its incomprehensible title to an inexplicable suicide that triggers the horror, Sanctuary: Quite a Conundrum is as confounding a genre picture as I’ve seen in a long time. Even after re-watching it with the commentary track engaged, I was unable to tell with any certainty what writer/director Thomas L. Phillips was attempting to accomplish here. It opens with an overweight biker-type geezer having sex with a thoroughly bored young woman barely out of her teens. She disses his performance and, in return, he throws his used condom in her face. (That’s entertainment, folks.) I’m guessing that this is what Phillips consideres to a comic turn in comedy/horror/thriller, as described in his commentary. It doesn’t take long for Mimi (Sasha Ramos) to shake off the insult and enlist her equally frivolous best friend, Tabitha (Erin Cline), in her plan to throw a party, during which her 18-year-old sister, Kylene (Emily Rogers), can finally hook up with one of their male friends. There’s a good reason Kylene has maintained a virginal visage throughout her teen years and, alas, it resides in spoiler territory. It doesn’t make much sense, either, though. No sooner does the party begin to get going than the offended old fart returns, with a gun, and shoots himself in the head. His bloody corpse will remain floating in the swimming pool for the rest of the picture, but he’ll have company soon enough.

The “Drive-In Double Feature” of Hellinger and Holy Terror – both from the twisted mind of cult favorite, Massimiliano Cerchis — provides an intentional reminder of the days when movies that went straight-to-video were the ugly stepchildren of the home-entertainment industry. The economics of digital filmmaking had yet to work in the favor of aspiring filmmakers, with big ideas and very little money. To make any money at all, these genre flicks had to be made cheap and dirty, with the emphasis on cheap. These two bargain-basement thrillers share Roman Catholic antagonists – a priest and a nun — who gave up their souls to Satan, only to return to this mortal coil to torment evil doers and horny yuppies. The unholy creatures look as if they were made from sock puppets and leftover Halloween costumes. To keep things interesting for male viewers – do women ever watch these things? – some of the female characters pull off their tops and simulate sex with a guy whose face no one will recognize the next day. In this case, the movies are just goofy enough to be fun to watch stoned.

Ramzi Abed’s Telephone World is a gimmicky thriller whose horror comes in the dramatization of one young actress’ best and worst experiences, all of which occur in the same afternoon. After Rachel Plasky (Elissa Dowling) learns that she’s scored the lead part in a new TV show called “Fairfax Girls,” she returns to her apartment and hears from a voice message on the phone that her boyfriend is breaking up with her. We know this because Abed has planted a camera in her home and it follows her for the next 80 minutes as she responds to both revelations, in a single continuous shot. I may have missed something, but the unassuming Rachel devolves from typical Hollywood wannabe to Sara Goldfarb, at her most self-destructive, in Requiem for a Dream. Dowling does a terrific job, even if it’s difficult to understand what motivates her character.

Come Morning
On its surface, Derrick Sims’ impressive debut feature, Come Morning, describes a country boy’s coming-of-age in the most punishing way possible. Scratch the surface and you’ll discover a story that’s almost as old as time and shows no sign of losing its relevance. In it, an old man and his grandson wander into the woods one afternoon to repeat a ritual some people consider to be a passing of the torch, while others treat as a crime against nature. After spending a number of hours in the family stand, the pre-teen boy, D (Thor Wahlestedt), takes aims at what he believes to be a deer, but is, in fact, a neighbor trespassing on their land. He isn’t wearing an orange vest and, in the late-afternoon haze, could understandably be mistaken for a four-legged meal ticket. Even though D already knows that such things happen in the woods, the man’s death shakes him to his core. He wants to report the accident to the police, but Frank convinces him that doing the right thing could turn out worse than putting the body in a wheelbarrow and finding a place to bury it. By doing so, Frank has introduced D to a cycle of violence that has gone on for a couple of generations, at least, and whose list of victims includes the boy’s father. Unlike the gentle Frank and D’s pensive mother, the family’s next-door neighbors are hillbilly trash hell-bent on continuing the feud, choosing their spots to provoke Frank and D’s Uncle Charlie into a confrontation. They do this mostly by poaching deer on Frank’s land and leaving behind the innards after stripping the deer of their hides and meat.

During the nighttime trek to dispose of the trespasser’s body, the angel of vengeance comes to claim Frank and provide D with an excuse for continuing the feud or ending it, once and for all. Or, like I said, it’s also possible that Sims simply intended Come Morning to be an achingly poignant coming-of-story, set in a corner of Bill Clinton’s Arkansas he still recognizes and loves. Although set in the 1970s, there’s a timeless quality to it that is only disrupted by noticing the ages of the pickup trucks. What I saw, as well, were parallels to the tragic tale chronicled in the documentary Kanun: The Law of Honour, which describes how families in mountainous northern Albania have come to be haunted by a strictly enforced code of vendetta that’s existed since the 15th Century. Fearful of revenge attacks, thousands of men, women and children dare not leave their homes, because, once they do, the code allows for them to be murdered. Kanun introduces us to a nun attempting to end this hideous practice. By extension, the vendetta mentality explains why Frank forbids D from calling police – thus abiding by an unwritten code of hill-country justice – and leads us to wonder if the bullet that killed the man might not have come from the boy’s rifle, after all. Either way, during the course of single night, D’s life is forever changed, while those of Frank, Charlie and the neighbors have simply added another tragic chapter to the legacy of hate. The DVD adds several deleted scenes and an excellent making-of featurette, during which Sims explains his one-man-band production methodology, the Kickstarter campaign and his desire to slow down the action, so as to reflect a feel for the South he knows but hasn’t seen in other movies.

Fort McCoy
Even 70 years after the end of World War II, it still might surprise some Americans to learn that 425,000 German POWs lived in 700 camps throughout the United States during World War II. Early in the conflict, Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy first was used as a detention center for approximately 170 Japanese- and 120 German- and Italian-American civilians arrested as potentially dangerous “enemy aliens.” It later would hold 4,000 Japanese and German POWs. Fort McCoy is situated in the rolling farmlands of central Wisconsin, where cows probably still outnumber people and prisoners once tilled the fertile soil for corn and other crops. Despite the brutal winters, serving time in America’s heartland was a million times easier for the POWs than an uncertain future in a Red Army camp. That’s the historical backdrop for Fort McCoy, a labor of love for multi-hyphenate filmmaker and actress Kate Connor, who based her story on the experiences of her family during the war. Connor not only was inspired to play her grandmother, Ruby Stirn, but also produce, direct and write the movie. In it, the family of Frank and Ruby Stirn moves to a cozy cottage situated between camps populated with soldiers and POWs. The German-American barber (Eric Stoltz) had been rejected from serving his country and, in 1944, volunteered to cut the hair of men from both sectors. His wife and sister-in-law (Lyndsy Fonseca) would find work at the camp, as well, while the children enjoyed the Wisconsin summer and asked their parents difficult questions about man’s inhumanity to man.

Besides the drama inherent in such a scenario, Connor adds subplots involving Frank’s feelings of guilt over being rejected and jealousy over a GI’s perceived overture to Ruby; her uneasiness with living so close to laxly policed prisoners; their daughter’s befriending of a prisoner young enough to be in 4th Grade; a perverted SS officer who preys on the weakest of POWs; and the Catholic sister-in-law’s decision to marry a wounded Jewish soldier. The irony there being that the soldier had been wounded in the service of a country that assured religious freedom, but allowed church leaders to push their prejudicial rules and beliefs on worshippers. The soldier also voiced his disappointment with the U.S. for virtually ignoring reports of the mass slaughter of European Jews. That’s a lot of baggage for a 100-minute movie to carry and not all of the storylines are neatly exploited. Still, Fort McCoy benefits greatly from a solid narrative, heartfelt acting, the Wisconsin landscape and the camp’s little-known wartime history.

The CW: Reign: The Complete First Season
LA Law: Season 3
PBS: Secrets of Westminster/Her Majesty’s Secret Service
PBS: James Mcneill Whistler & the Case for Beauty
PBS: Royal Paintbox
While it’s highly unlikely that The CW conspired with Scottish separatists to stage the recent referendum to decide whether or not Scotland should declare its independence from the UK, the timing couldn’t be better for the second-second season debut of its royal soap-opera, “Reign.” The historical fantasy finds 15-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots in France, where she’s been awaiting her long-planned marriage to the future Francis II of France for nine years. The wedding would theoretically align predominantly France and Scotland against the Protestant British monarchy. Not everyone is awaiting Mary Stuart’s return to her homeland with optimism, but “Reign” is most interested in establishing Mary and her handmaidens as hotties ready to be plucked by the most eligible of bachelors at court. Not everything was smooth-sailing for Mary in France, either. Palace intrigue and family rivalries threatened to disrupt her wedding to the dauphin, while Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici, secretly schemes to prevent the marriage following Nostradamus’ confidential prediction that the marriage will lead to Francis’ death. Hey, and that’s just Season One. The temptation, of course, is to compare “Reign” to HBO’s “The Tudors,” Showtime’s “The Borgias” and Starz’ “The White Queen.” The CW’s target market, though, is teenagers and young adults who might not miss the nudity, sex and violence allowed on premium-cable outlets. It’s here, but packaged to fit the demands of network censors and, presumably, parents. Otherwise, the production values are comparable and settings lovely. Once again, students are cautioned against using anything gleaned from “Reign” as fact when preparing essays or taking tests. My guess is, however, that American kids aren’t taught anything about British history that comes before World War II and the births of the Fab Four. Almost no one from the primary cast will be recognizable to CW audiences, except for Aussie Adelaide Kane, who once had a role on “Teen Wolf” and hasn’t been a teenager for seven years, at least. The DVD set adds a pair of making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

Season Three of the groundbreaking legal series “L.A. Law” found the relay team of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak running at full speed, with a mix of cases that ran the gamut from ludicrous to deadly serious and internecine warfare that ranged from trivial to treasonous. The strike-shortened season introduced such defendants as a mentally disturbed ventriloquist, a cop-killing gang member, ear-lickers, the leader of a nudist colony and a gay Olympian from an endorsement deal after exiting the closet. Meanwhile, Stuart and Ann continue their struggle to have children; Abby leaves the firm; Kuzak endures a losing strike; Grace shoots an attacker; and Becker dates a judge. The 1988-89 go-round saw nine members of the show’s cast nominated for Emmy awards and its second of four victories as Outstanding Drama Series.

PBS’ entertaining and informative “Secrets of …” series provides viewers with the kind of guided tours usually only available to VIPs and historians. This month’s offerings on DVD include visits to Westminster and the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the former, we’re taken behind the velvet ropes of London’s House of Commons, House of Lords and Westminster Abbey that separate the tourists from the treasures. There’s probably enough history here for a year’s worth of episodes, but some secrets will have to keep until the next time around. The same is true for the spy agency known as

MI6, whose headquarters is hidden in plain sight in the center of London on the River Thames. Among other things, we learn what it takes to become a British secret agent – besides a tuxedo and taste for martinis – and the truth behind the fiction in the James Bond books and movies.

PBS’s “James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty” introduces us to a painter whose mother is almost as famous a model as Lisa del Giocondo, whose face is believed to have inspired Leonardo da Vinci and the “Mona Lisa.” The American-born Whistler is portrayed as a world-class dandy, whose artistic talent was equaled only by his showmanship. Although he followed in his father’s footsteps at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Whistler was more at home in St. Petersburg, Paris and London. The producers take us beyond “Whistler’s Mother,” to a gallery’s worth of paintings, etching and sketches with which many viewers won’t be familiar. In a similar vein, the network’s “Royal Paintbox” provides a platform for HRH: The Prince of Wales to reveal a trove of rarely seen art by members of the Royal Family, past and present. It was filmed at Balmoral, Highgrove, Windsor Castle, Frogmore, and Osborne House and includes some of Prince Charles’ own watercolors.

Ghost in the Shell: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Cartoon Network: Ben 10 Omniverse: Volume 5: Galactic Monsters
Slugterra: Return of the Elementals
Fans of Japanese anime will already know how a movie first released in 1995 can be celebrating its 25th anniversary in a special Blu-ray edition. In fact, the landmark date being referenced is the 25th anniversary of the publication of Masamune Shirow’s original manga, “Ghost in the Shell.” Anchor Bay Entertainment has taken the same opportunity to release Mamoru Oshii’s theatrical adaptation, Ghost in the Shell, almost as an early apology for the much-reviled “2.0” edition released five years ago in hi-def. That iteration of the story took the liberty of eliminating key scenes, revising others and messing with the color scheme and soundtrack. The “25th Anniversary” version replicates the 1995 original, only in Blu-ray, and the freshly re-mastered film looks terrific. Upon its international theatrical release, manga and anime had yet to catch fire beyond Japan. The formats had yet to prove themselves at feature length or as vehicles for sophisticated sci-fi concepts. Ghost in the Shell demonstrated just how sophisticated anime had become and that adult tastes – an anatomically correct and frequently unclothed female cyber agent as protagonist – could be served. In Oshii’s noir-ish universe, cyborgs and humans exist on an equal basis and occasionally are stymied by existential quandaries. Here, government agents are hot on the trail of the Puppet Master: a computer virus capable of invading cybernetic brains and altering its victim’s memory. Created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and codenamed Project 2501, this hacker is actually a prototype virtual agent which has now defied its makers by seeking asylum within a new host body outside of the omnipotent electronic net. As much as Ghost in the Shell likely was influenced by Blade Runner, Oshii’s vision would impress James Cameron and the Wachowskis. The so-called cyberpunk thriller enjoyed both critical and popular success at the U.S. box office and was the first Japanese animated film to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Top Video Sales Chart. Its success would spawn several sequels, spinoffs, novelizations, games and toys.

The same degree of commercialization has followed in the wake of Ben 10 Omniverse’s success. This time around, Ben is required to fight fire with fire, by transforming into monster heroes — Frankenstrike and Whampire, among them — capable of turning back such evil forces as Zs’Skayr and Lord Transyl of Monster Planet. Bonus episodes include “Something Zombozo This Way Comes” and “Mystery, Incorporeal.”

Slugterra: Return of the Elementals is the second feature-length spinoff of the DisneyXD series, which is set in an underground world overrun by slugs. Some of them can be used for good, while others are bad. Eli Shane is a teenager determined to be the greatest slug-slinging hero of them all. He can do this only by collecting, training, and dueling the little creatures. In the movie, a new member joins the Shane Gang. Junjie is a master of the mysterious slug-slinging art of Slug Fu. But even with the power of five slug-slingers working together, the Shane Gang finds itself in over their heads as they race to protect the ancient Elemental Slugs from an evil alliance set on using them to destroy the 99 caverns. A bonus slugisode, “Noodle Strikes Back,” is included.

I’m a Porn Star
Fall Away
1 Last Chance at Paradise
Charlie David’s breezy primer on the gay-porn industry is broken into two parts. The first is a history lesson, beginning with the gift of projection that the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison’s gave to the movie industry. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much lag time recorded between the advent of gender-specific eroticism on film. At one point, David recalls the point in time – before the popularization of Playboy and body-building mags – when straight and gay men turned to the underwear pages of the Sears catalogue for their masturbatory stimuli. Next would come the 8mm and 16mm loops, video and digital formats. The parallels continue from there, with stops at the AIDS crisis, the transition from film to tape, the burgeoning fetish market, the Internet and legislation to prevent bare-backing. In the second and longer section of the frequently explicit I’m a Porn Star, we’re introduced to a half-dozen of the today’s more prominent actors, who discuss these issues and how it is that so many of the stars are bisexual or gay-for-pay. David contends that the industry has grown so large and lucrative, with millions of pro and amateur websites, fans shouldn’t be surprised if a friend, relative or neighbor pops up. With the porn stigma still prevalent in most parts of the U.S., such a theory would only hold water in the San Fernando Valley, the Castro or Lower Manhattan.

Julian Grant’s wildly uneven story about the painfully conflicted singer/songwriter of a dysfunctional Americana band has its moments, but most of them come when the musicians are singing instead of exchanging dialogue. In Fall Away, Grant Stokes gives an annoyingly stylized portrayal of “Handsome Jake,” another one of those archetypal rock/country fuck-ups who represent Nashville in the movies. No sooner does the band 65 Home catch the break it’s been struggling to get than Jake’s prima donna side come to the fore. A male lover re-enters his life, while a recently thrown-aside girlfriend breaks the news that she’s pregnant. Other members of the band question his authority and sudden decisions about writer’s credit and personnel. It’s enough to drive an artiste to drink, which he does. His comeuppance comes in the ugliest way possible, but not before he sings some very decent songs. Grant’s moody cinematography nicely captures the grime and grit of Chicago and Nashville’s smoke-filled clubs and dank alleyways.

In Jason Impey’s exceedingly talky 1 Last Chance at Paradise, two young lovers, Kai and Tobi, share intimate memories of a wonderful weekend away from Tobi’s aggressively homophobic mother, before their world crashes in on them. The overall tone shifts from romantic to sad, poignant to confrontational. The narrative experiment is based on an original concept by co-star Wade Radford. It was filmed in one day, live, ad lib and with no script. It repeats the same style employed by Radford and Impey for Boys Behind Bars. 1980s’ punk goddess, Honey Bane, plays the mother as if she were medieval gargoyle.

Prisoner of Paradise
I’m not sure when exactly Nazisploitation established itself as viable subgenre in arthouse, grindhouse and drive-in fare. It was clearly in vogue by the mid-1970s, after Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned washed up on these shores, to be joined in short order by Hitler’s Harlot, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell and other such Italian-made atrocities. Bob Chinn and Gail Palmer’s hard-core Prisoner of Paradise simultaneously parodies Naziploitation and wallows in its tropes. In it, John C. Holmes plays an American sailor marooned on a seemingly deserted tropical isle. After surveying the island for food and shelter, the sailor comes across a Nazi compound in which an American nurse is being held as a sexual plaything for the fat kraut and his henchwomen Ilsa (Seka), Greta (Sue Carol) and Suke (Jade Wong). Ever the gallant gentleman, Holmes attempts to rescue the nurse (Nikki Anderson), but fails. Instead, his tool is used as an implement of torture/pleasure when captured. Future hall-of-famer Mai Lai makes an early appearance as one of Holmes’ conquests. It’s a very goofy picture, but hotter than 90 percent of the gonzo stuff out there. It’s been newly restored in 2K from Caribbean Films’ 35mm negative.

Also from the Vinegar Syndrome stable comes the Carlos Tobalina’s double-feature, Mai Lin vs. Serena/Oriental Hawaii, once again featuring Mai and Jade, and the Anthony Spinelli triple-bill, Cry for Cindy, Touch Me and the nunsploitation rarity, Act of Confession. All have been restored to the extent that it’s possible to do so.

The DVD Wrapup: Think Like a Man Too, Richard Lewis, Battery, Eraserhead, Chain Saw, Spartacus, Roosevelts, POWs … More

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Think Like a Man Too
Not having seen the original, I’m not qualified to draw comparisons to the two Think Like a Man comedies directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four) and adapted by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman from the Steve Harvey book, “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” Many of the critics who liked the first movie attacked Think Like a Man Too for drifting too far from the mothership and borrowing more from The Hangover and Bridesmaids than anything by Harvey. I didn’t recognize anything particularly Harvey-esque in the sequel either, but enjoyed it more than The Hangover, Part III, which may be one of the laziest big-budget efforts in modern cinema history. In “TLAM2,” the almost identical cast of characters is reunited in Las Vegas for the wedding of Michael (Terrence Jenkins) and Candace (Regina Hall). Just as in The Hangover, Caesars Palace serves as the headquarters for the wedding and the guests. The story mines all of the usual Vegas touchstones – reckless gambling, male and female strippers, a night in jail, a party van, a crowded swimming pool, a token pugilist – but is driven by a simple challenge: who will have a wilder night, the bachelors or bachelorettes? You can probably imagine 90 percent of what’s going to happen in the ensuing 90 minutes, but so what? Two things keep “TLAM2” from sequel-itis: the parallel storylines, which take full advantage of the attractive mixed-race cast, and Kevin Hart’s over-the-top performance as Michael’s best man. His frenetic approach to the material elevates every scene in which he appears, without dominating or overwhelming the other cast members. Without him, there’d be no movie. It’s tough for Las Vegas to look anything but glorious in hi-def and that’s another major selling point here. The package adds a gag reel, deleted scenes and four uninspired making-of featurettes,

Out of the Clear Blue Sky
Every September, it is demanded by the mass media that Americans relive the tragedy of 9/11 in agonizing detail, even though there’s next to nothing new to report or answers forthcoming to questions that have lingered since the attacks. The same could be said about annual commemorations of Pearl Harbor. The difference, of course, is the concept of closure provided by the complete and utter defeat of Japan in World War II and Americanization of its ancient culture. Conspiracy theorists will continue to debate the root causes of these events, even as they ignore the government-sanctioned genocide of Native Americans in the “taming” of the West. (Would a Native American History Month commemoration be too much to ask?) In the case of 9/11, however, the media insist that we remember something we’ll never forget and recall people who will forever live in our hearts. How many more times do we have to watch those airplanes crash into the Twin Towers before we can erase those terrible images from our minds? (We’ve been protected from the worst of them.) Closure didn’t come with the capture of Saddam Hussein – someone who may have learned about the attacks at the same moment we did – or death of Osama Bin Laden … or, for that matter, the much-delayed completion of the 9/11Memorial Museum in Lower Manhattan. If Congress and White House can’t even agree on where and how to try the unindicted prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or a timetable for our armed forces to exit Iraq and Afghanistan, how can the victims and survivors possibly complete the healing process? The media can’t help themselves, of course. Commemorating important events is the easiest and least expensive way to fill news holes and attract attention to news divisions that have given up covering anything but car chases, fires, celebrities and royal births.

Occasionally, though, a documentary will be released that advances the story in a way that honors the victims and treats survivors and next of kin as something other than fodder for sound bites and tear-jerking video. Out of the Clear Blue Sky is interesting because of its tight focus on a single corporate entity devastated in the attacks on the Twin Towers and its ability to survive and fulfill its promise to families of “missing” employees. Cantor Fitzgerald, a powerful financial-services company, occupied five floors directly above the impact zone of one of the hijacked airplanes. Within seconds, the firm lost 658 members of its New York-based staff – two-thirds of its total work force – and, possibly, its ability to continue operating on Wall Street. In the immediate wake of the disaster, television outlets made CEO Howard Lutnick the go-to executive for tearful interviews and bold promises for supporting family members of the missing. Known for his ruthless business tactics, Lutnick’s first challenge was convincing a seemingly heartless Wall Street bank that the company could honor its financial commitments in the few days allowed them by the shutdown of market activity. Otherwise, it would foreclose on the company and conceivably ignore Lutnick’s commitments to the families. His makeshift team met that goal, but, a few weeks later, the media would join some family members in questioning whether the CEO was doing enough to make them whole. Once again, the company’s honor was at stack, even to the point that donors to a relief fund were demanding explanations or reimbursement. Director Danielle Gardner, who lost a brother in the attacks, is most interested here in documenting the healing process over the next 10 years than taking on government miscues, the health concerns of first-responders, the effects of the economic collapse on relief efforts or anything to do with the terrorists. As such, Out of the Clear Blue Sky occasionally feels as if its release might have been financed by Cantor Fitzgerald. The overriding story of how one company fought back through the tears to create an extended family of survivors and employees is compelling on the face of it, though. Subsequent news reports on the company’s progress and its considerable charitable commitments reflect that reality, as well.

Richard Lewis: Bundle of Nerves
Watching comedian Richard Lewis in Bundle of Nerves, I naturally flashed back to a night, more than 25 years ago, when I first saw him perform live. It was in an intimate room in a Chicago hotel famous for the many legendary comics and musicians who had previously stayed there and whose ghosts may still be haunting the stage and lobby. What I remember most was laughing non-stop throughout the show and, at one point, almost falling on the floor. I’d seen Lewis on the late-night talk shows and he was even funnier in person. The only one of four segments that’s intended to be drop-dead funny on Bundle of Nerves is the HBO “Magical Misery Tour” special recorded in 1997, at New York’s Bottom Line. While Lewis didn’t dwell on the subject of his recent efforts to clean up from a dependency on drugs and alcohol, he clearly was testing his ability to work straight. He needn’t have worried. Lewis was able to fall back into a familiar groove, reciting his litany of neuroses and exploiting chronic hypochondria and overbearing Jewish relatives. In this way, he recalled the famously neurotic musician and wit, Oscar Levant, as well as Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Sarah Bernhardt and, by extension, Jonathan Winters, with whom Lewis shared an alcohol addiction. Their standup routines could be so revealing that we sometimes felt as if we were in the same room with them during a therapy session. On stage and in talk-show appearances Lewis wore black from wing-tipped tuxedo collar to trademark Converse sneakers. He paced the stage like Groucho Marx on speed or Chuck Berry in full duck-walk. He once described his long dark hair, which he constantly combed with his hands, as “like two beavers standing up and having a fistfight.” The other three sections of Bundle of Nerves reveal very different sides of the comedian.

First shown in 1977, as a summer fill-in for “Saturday Night Life,” Diary of a Young Comic describes how an aspiring standup comedian, very much like himself, unsuccessfully experimented with a dozen different formats before latching on to one that worked. The credit actually goes to his girlfriend, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who simply advises him to repeat for audiences his nightly harangues about himself and his family. The most interesting part of the movie, today, is being reminded of how the world looked to struggling comedians in the period immediately before the club and sitcom boom of the 1980s. In 1995, the freshly sober Lewis appeared in two very good movies about alcoholics, Leaving Las Vegas and the barely released Drunks, which is included here. In it, Lewis plays an AA regular who’s about to break his sobriety streak by going on a bender. During the course of a long night, we listen to harrowing stories told in his absence by other people in recovery. House of a Lifetime is a new documentary, in which Lewis leads us on a tour of his Hollywood Hills home, then overflowing with paintings, photographs, posters, objects d’art and tchotckes collected by Lewis over the course of his career. Many of the names and faces will be familiar to fellow Boomers and someday will be of substantial value to other collectors and fans. The collection includes gifts from fellow comedians, famous rock stars, actors and photographers. When, after a long and angst-filled gestation period, Lewis and Joyce Lapinsky decided that the time was right to get married – and his shrink gave his blessing – she ordered him to cull through his “museum” and make some hard decisions about what stays and what goes. His loss is our gain.

The Battery: Blu-ray
The Dead 2: Blu-ray
In baseball parlance, the “battery” commonly refers to the pitcher and the catcher of a specific game. Apparently, the term harkens back to the Civil War, when the firepower of a team’s pitching staff reminded one wag of artillery batteries. It would evolve to denote game-day pitchers and catchers. In Jeremy Gardner’s strangely affecting The Battery, two former baseball players, catcher Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and pitcher Mickey (Adam Cronheim), escape the zombie apocalypse by setting out for the New England countryside, where, they suspect, only the least aggressive of undead fiends might reside. Just in case, however, Ben carries a handgun and baseball bat, neither of which he isn’t at all reluctant to use on the occasional zombie in their path. Mickey’s the opposite of Ben. He tunes out the horror by wearing headphones and listening to music, while also recalling when life wasn’t an endless struggle. One day, Mickey intercepts a radio signal from the Orchard, an anonymous group of survivors who could be 100 miles away or right around the corner. He falls in love with the ethereal voice of the woman on the other end of the transmission, but is cautioned against attempting to find the group’s camp. By this time, though, Mickey is already hooked. Because comparatively few zombies are killed in The Battery, genre purists may not be happy with the return on their investment of time and money. Fans of “The Walking Dead,” however, should appreciate the break from tradition and cliché provided by Mickey and Ben’s bromance and road-trip elements. Reportedly made for $6,000, the only real zombie trope missing from The Battery is a post-apocalyptic cityscape, which would have cost too much to replicate and no one would miss, anyway. The actors’ lack of polish works to the film’s advantage, as do the folk-rocky songs that comment on what’s happening on the screen. The movie made the rounds of the international film-festival circuit, winning several awards before debuting on the Internet. The DVD/Blu-ray adds commentary with Gardner, Cronheim and producer/DP Christian Stella; the surprisingly entertaining 90-minute making-of documentary “Tools of Ignorance” (another baseball reference); “Rock Plaza Central at the Parlor: The Music of ‘The Battery’”; and an outtake reel.

For those who absolutely, positively require massive doses of blood-drenched action to enjoy a zombie movies, there’s Howard and Jonathan Ford’s The Dead II. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of zombies are blown to smithereens in their sequel to The Dead, while more than a few humans have chunks of skin and musculature torn from their bodies. Essentially, both movies are the same. Here, an infectious epidemic spreads from Africa to an arid region of India, where an American engineer (Joseph Millson) just happens to be working. When Nicholas learns that his pregnant girlfriend, Ishani (Meenu Mishra), is trapped near the slums of Mumbai, he must battle his way across a 300-mile desert wasteland, mostly populated with tall, gaunt and ravenous undead natives. During the course of this odyssey, Nicholas picks up a precocious 9-year-old boy with the intention of carrying him to safety. Both films were shot on location and take advantage of scenery and architecture unique to the rural countryside. Local zombie mythology also is integrated into the story. The Ford Brothers really know what they’re doing, zombie-wise, and both pictures are genre-toppers. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a half-hour interview with the filmmakers, conducted by genre critic Billy Chainsaw. In it, they discuss the film’s unique setting, the underlying themes, process of making the new film, role of fan support, and several of the more unusual challenges of working with locals. Throughout the movie and interview, it’s almost impossible not to flash on Liberia’s current ebola apocalypse and how it could play out, if ignored by international health and medical authorities.

Friend 2: The Legacy
Fans of Asian gangster films will want to check out Friend 2: The Legacy, if only because they’ve already seen its 2001 predecessor, Friend, and want to complete the experience. I haven’t had the pleasure, but gather from critics on genre websites that Friend 2’s a worthy, if noticeably different successor to the monster hit. Kwak Kyung-taek’s sequel picks up 16 years after the events of the operation, only months before the jailed gangster Joon-seak is to be discharged from prison in the killing of his childhood friend and adult rival Dong-soo. Now, the murdered gangster’s hoodlum son, Sung-hoon, is residing in the same prison and his mother begs Joon-seak to keep an eye on him. (In this regard, it helps to have seen Friend.) They hit it off to the point where the elder man asks the younger one to join forces when both are released from stir. Of course, Joon-seak neglects to inform Sung-hoon of their connection by spilled blood. In Joon-seak’s absence, his gang has grown in his size and dominance of the Busan underworld. The aging chairman is on his last legs, however, and Joon-seak’s former underling is clearly in charge. He offers Joon-seak a small fortune to take a permanent vacation in Thailand, or some other pleasant outpost far from Busan, but Joon-seak’s honor and pride are too invested in the gang to surrender. While Sung-hoon agrees to enlist younger troops for Joon-seak’s gangster army, the secret relationship threatens to burst wide open at inopportune times. In bonus interviews, Kyung-seak credits Godfather II as the inspiration for Friend II, but his explanation only amounts to something ridiculously macho like, “to be a man, one must fulfill his destiny by acting manly at all times.” In Friend II, that pretty much translates to, “some men are destined to be gangsters and, therefore, the right thing to do is be an honorable one.” The extras add making-of material and character profiles.

Eraserhead: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Graduation Day: Blu-ray
Prom Night: Blu-ray
If all one remembers about their initial encounter with David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, is being thoroughly grossed out and more than a little bit frightened, it might be time to revisit the experience. The movie may not be any less punishing to watch after nearly 40 years — when it became a staple on the fledgling midnight-movie circuit – the sparkling Criterion edition reveals facets that have long been relegated to the film’s shadows. The temporal distance not only allows us to watch the startlingly ambitious movie with fresh eyes, but also recall how much of an unknown quantity Lynch was in 1977.  He wouldn’t get another opportunity to work his magic until 1980, when, as producer of Elephant Man, Mel Brooks hired him to direct and co-write the story of the grotesquely deformed John Merrick. In 1984, Lynch was handed the reins to the oft-delayed and ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Finally, two years later, the overwhelmingly positive response to Blue Velvet would cause critics to add “Lynchian” to their lexicon. If anything, it gave mainstream and arthouse audiences a reason to seek out a VHS copy of Eraserhead, so as to determine if Blue Velvet was just a fluke or the true artist had re-emerged in the kinky mystery. Other filmmakers would attempt to tap into Lynch’s imagination, but, finally, they gave up. The filmmaker is here to offer a hints, at least, as to what was going on in his mind when he committed Eraserhead to film. True, he doesn’t reveal any deep, dark secrets in the bonus package. What he does allow, though, is a glimpse into how the excruciatingly long and difficult gestation period might have influenced certain decisions, including the maintenance of Jack Nance’s hairdo. Nance, of course, plays Henry Spencer, the Lynch surrogate whose living nightmare involves the care and feeding of a freakishly demanding infant, who bears a resemblance to the monster in Alien. As is the case with most dreams and nightmares, the story progresses erratically with sharp, unexpected turns into the horror that is the Spencer/Lynch’s subconscious. (And, yes, fans will recognize tropes and behaviors that will be repeated in Lynch’s subsequent work.)

What’s especially noteworthy in this exquisitely upgraded Criterion edition is the black-and-white cinematography, which, along with the hauntingly atmospheric music, was meticulously choreographed by Lynch, Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Today, the set design might be described as post-industrial or dystopian. Thirty-seven years ago, though, it was simply off-putting and creepy, as were most of the peripheral characters. In addition to vintage and fresh interviews with director’s assistant Catherine Coulson, actors Charlotte Stewart and Judith Anna Roberts, and Elmes, the bonus package includes TV-calibration instructions by Lynch; six newly restored short films, from 1967 to 1995, with introductions by the filmmaker; featurettes and trailers from 1977, 1979, 1982, 1988, 1997, 2001 and 2014; and an illustrated booklet, featuring an interview with Lynch from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s 1997 book “Lynch on Lynch.” If some of the material is repetitive, all of it is fascinating.

Like Eraserhead, Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a bona-fide game-changer in the horror genre and is nearly as disturbing today as it was 40 years ago, when it was banned outright and condemned by church leaders in several countries. Clearly influenced by Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left, it would go on to inspire at least two generations of masked freaks, toolbox killers, backwoods psychopaths and talisman worshippers, including those in HBO’s genuinely frightening “True Detective.” Loosely based on the saga of Wisconsin serial killer and ghoul Ed Gein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre describes what happens when a van full of college students confronts the reality of true evil after paying a visit to a graveyard vandalized by body snatchers. On the way, they pick up a seemingly demented hitchhiker, who, feeling dissed, puts a curse on them. After stopping at a gas station with no fuel to sell, only worms, the students find a desolate-looking farmhouse that could easily serve as the gateway to hell. Eventually, three generations of very sick men – The Cook, Leatherface, Grandfather, the Hitchhiker – reveal themselves to the audience, along with a basement full of meat hooks, saws and power tools. The rest, of course, is history. Now, 40 years later, MPI Media Group has released Texas Chain Saw Massacre into Blu-ray in a four-disc anniversary set. Originally shot on 16mm film stock, it has been re-mastered in 4K and presented in 1080p with an all-new 7.1 channel lossless soundtrack. (The necessary lack of technical polish is retained.) It arrives with four audio commentaries on disc one and a separate disc dedicated to bonus features, most of which are carry-overs in 480i. New deleted scenes and outtakes are presented silently, due to missing production audio. Also new are “Grandpa’s Tales: An Interview with John Dugan” and “Cutting Chain Saw: An Interview with Editor J. Larry Carroll.” The cast and crew’s harrowing recollections of the shoot, which took place at the height of a brutal Texas summer, compare with those in Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Made in 1981, in the first wave of truly cheesy rip-offs of Halloween, Prom Night, Friday the 13th and other early slasher hits, Graduation Day is unremarkable except for the presence of a pre-“Wheel of Fortune” Vanna White. Spoiler alert: her most memorable scene merely requires her to lean on a piano with two other high school girls, admiring the music of a horny Marvin Hamlisch look-alike. Some might consider the appearance of scream-queen Linnea Quigley to be a plus, as well, except for the fact she was hired in mid-picture after another actress decided that she didn’t want to fulfill the nudity clause in her contract. She hardly makes any impression, at all. The story opens as a track coach pushes his star runner to the point where she has a heart attack after crossing the finish line. Needless to say, this causes the girl’s team members, boyfriend, school administrators and relatives to want to pay him back in kind. The girl’s sister (Patch Mackenzie), an ensign in the navy, returns to their hometown to stand in for her during the school’s honors’ presentation. This, of course, makes her one of a half-dozen suspects in an inexplicable series of murders also involving her teammates and friends. Graduation Day suffers most for the long stretches of time in which nothing that happens makes any sense – logically or otherwise – and the killer literally appears out of nowhere to perform his/her evil deeds. It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would spend the kind of money it takes to restore such a turkey, but that’s never stopped the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome from attempting to make cultists happy. Its Blu-ray edition is newly restored from the camera negative in 4K and, for the first time, presented in its original aspect ratio. It adds fresh interviews with Mackenzie, producer David Baughn, editor Martin Sadoff and director Herb Freed.

No sooner had I typed the title, Prom Night, on the previous item, than a copy of the newly released Blu-ray edition was delivered to our doorstep. It describes how a traumatic incident comes back to haunt a group of high school girls, who mistakenly believe the misadventure is well behind them. Six years earlier, a younger girl, Robin, had died in an accidental fall while playing hide-and-seek in an abandoned building. Deciding she wasn’t sufficiently cool the older girls and taunted her, until she was backed into a precarious window ledge. The girls vow never to reveal the true circumstances of the accident, which was attributed to an unidentified prowler. The chicken comes home to roost six years later, on the occasion of the now-teenagers’ disco-themed prom night, which also coincides with the anniversary of the incident. The central mystery not only involves the identity of the soon-to-be slasher, but also whether the killings will be gory enough to satisfy teen audiences who presumably had already survived Halloween and Friday the 13th. Despite the estimable presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was just emerging as a bona-fide scream queen and sex goddess, Prom Night failed to go down in genre annals as a classic. It did well enough at the box office, especially in Canada, to inspire three sequels, though. Synapse Films is sending the movie out in a new 2K high-definition transfer from the original 35mm camera negative and a 5.1 Surround remix specifically created for this release. (The original 2.0 Mono track is included, as well.) The package adds a bunch of bonus features, but only a stills gallery and outtakes are new to the Blu-ray.

Willow Creek
What two genre clichés could possibly be more tiresome right now than movies involving found-footage and Bigfoot? They thrill is gone and has been for a long time. By combining the two elements, writer/director Bob Goldthwait risked alienating those adventurous viewers who’ve stuck with him since 1991, when Shakes the Clown was released, and through Sleeping Dogs Lie, God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad, none of which could be accused of being conventional. If I didn’t already know Goldthwait’s role in the production of Willow Creek, I wouldn’t have guessed that he had anything to do with it. I’ve seen other movies in which found-footage was employed strategically in the pursuit of one elusive critter or another. The last one, I think, was set in the jungles of Indonesia and involved a killer monkey demon, or some such thing. Because it only struck at night, the whole point of the movie was to build the viewers’ anticipation and fear of the unseen to a point where it’s practically intolerable and spring the trap as the final credit roll is about to unwind. Another such thriller may have involved a tiger hunt in India, but that memory could have been derived from watching a National Geographic adventure after a few drinks. Here, Goldthwait takes us to the mountains surrounding Willow Creek, California, a small town that prides itself as being the Bigfoot Capital of the World, because it’s near the river bed where the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was shot in 1967. It’s also a headquarters for Humboldt County’s marijuana-growing community, but that’s only hinted at in the movie. Willow Creek is far better made than most of the found-footage flicks I’ve seen … the nights are darker, the silence more profound and noises more ominous. Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), have committed their resources to making a film about the Bigfoot legend, how local residents deal with the phenomenon and their own pursuit of the truth. Instead of commuting 17 miles to the Bluff Creek site on a rugged logging road, the researchers chose to pitch their tent in the woods. Instead of turning off the camera’s light to sleep, Jim insists on documenting the escalation of their anxiety. Goldthwait makes it easy for us to buy into the conceit and rewards our patience with a pretty cool reveal. You may need to hit the rewind button a couple of times before you realize what you’ve just seen, however. Spoiler: it’s not zombie Bigfoot. The Blu-ray adds commentary, a deleted scene and making-of featurette from Bryce’s perspective.

Spartacus: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Prisoners of War: Season 2
Arrow: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Hannibal: Season 2: Blu-ray
Awkward: Season 3
South Park: Season 17: Blu-ray
One way to tell that the holiday gift-giving season is upon us is the sudden availability of elaborately conceived and ghastly expensive DVD/Blu-ray collections. Movies and TV shows previously released on a seasonal or a la carte basis are re-packaged with a mix of old and new bonus features and the occasional high-gloss finish. Some, including Spartacus: The Complete Series, are tweaked even further with “collectible” toys, booklets and packages. The pricing seems extreme, until one realizes that only chumps pay MSRP rates and deep discounting has become the industry norm. Even the websites operated by individual studios, networks and producers, where MSRP is the norm, have gotten into the game. “Spartacus” arrives in two complete-series sets: the one listed at $150 is thick enough to contain 13 discs and 2,136 minutes of content; and the second, priced at a hair south of $200, comes in a box more suited to table games, so as to accommodate a souvenir Spartacus figurine and display case. Beyond that, they’re virtually the same. The convenience of having all four seasons of the hit Starz series in one handy package – one truncated as a prequel, after the death of Andy Whitfield – is the drawing card here, after all. (Apart from the buff slave warriors, naked Roman damsels and bloody battles in the arena, anyway.) The supplemental material new to “Complete Series” includes three new commentaries for “Blood and Sand”; “Fan Favorites With Liam McIntyre,” in which the actor counts down the top-10 fan-favorite moments from the series; “Scoring a Hit,” with composer Joseph LoDuca discussing the details of his work on the show; “An Eye Full,” with prosthetic and prop supervisor Roger Murray; a short interview with second-unit director Paul Grinder; and “The Last Word,” with John Hannah, who played the loathsome Quintus Lentulus Batiatus. Those unfamiliar with Spartacus should know that it employed the stylized visual look of “300,” in the service of a story set largely at House of Batiatus. It is where gladiators are trained to win or die, their owners partake in orgies and a slave revolt is led by the Thracian slave called Spartacus. The action is never short of exciting and the blood-letting can be shocking. The routine nudity, sexual liaisons, rapes and fertilization rituals raised the bar on depravity set decades earlier by “Caligula” … all in the name of historical accuracy, we’re assured.

Season two of the penetrating Israeli mini-series, “Prisoners of War” – the inspiration for Showtime’s “Homefront” – picks up at the cliffhanger left behind after the first stanza, but takes its time solving the mystery left behind. The story focuses on two of three POWs captured in Lebanon and held in Syria for 17 years. They’re released after a lopsided prisoner exchange, but not before a third Israeli was beaten and left for dead in the terrorist stronghold. In addition to the trauma they experienced as hostages, the two men would find their return home to be anything but a picnic. Their families had changed dramatically in the men’s absence and they couldn’t get over the feeling that their friend had died for something they’d done. The cliffhanger disabused us of that notion, at least, but left us with the greater mysteries of why he had been spared and his apparent conversion to Islam. It will take all of Season Two to answer those questions and tie up loose ends from Season One. In addition, Israeli intelligence agencies compete against each other to complete a top-secret mission that, if successful, could only raise more troubling questions for everyone involved. It’s a terrific series, well worth the effort of finding and binging on.

It’s gotten to the point where you can’t tell the television superheroes and their superpowers without a scorecard. For the last two years, I’ve been blissfully unaware of the existence of a CW show, “Arrow,” based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. Now, I’ve learned, that the hit show has spun off yet another character from same universe, “The Flash,” to debut next month on the same network. Today’s generation of superheroes, starting, perhaps, with “Smallville,” features impossibly good-looking young people who look as if they just stepped out of Michelob commercial. Stephen Amell portrays Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy turned hooded vigilante, who is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. After surviving a ship wreck on an isolated island for five years, Oliver returns to his home city with a mission to right the wrongs of his father and save the city from the crime that has grown in his absence. If Season One was dedicated to establishing Queen’s backstory and Arrow’s return from the island, Season Two allowed the show’s writer’s to expand the mythology beyond the pages of the comic book. Among the Blu-ray extras are commentaries on select episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and the featurettes, “From Vigilante to Green Arrow,” “How Did They Do That?!” and “Wirework: The Impossible Moves of Arrow.”

If television is overstocked with comic-book superheroes and glamour-puss protagonists, it isn’t often that a bona-fide psychopath and serial killer gets his props. The idea is so far-fetched, it’s difficult to imagine anyone less fiendishly charismatic than Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) and his arch-enemy FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who could pull off such a conceit. Fortunately, author Thomas Harris created a character sufficiently flexible that he can be a monster one moment and anti-hero the next. Lecter, himself, was in no need of reinvention, but it would take someone else’s imagination to keep the series fresh and surprising for more than a season, and that required a closer look at secondary characters. The show’s production values helped keep it afloat, as well. They’re on full display in the Blu-ray edition of “Hannibal: Season 2.” It adds a season overview, with spoilers; eight commentaries, with creator Bryan Fuller and cast members; the making-of featurettes, “The Style of a Killer,” “Bodies of Lies” and the feature-length “This Is My Design”; after-show post-mortems; a gag reel; and deleted scenes.

The third season of the teen soap opera, “Awkward,” continued to remind us of how much fun high school could have been if it had been scripted by MTV writers and populated by highly attractive twenty-somethings. Jenna “The Invisible Girl” Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) still controls the spotlight, with a love life that would be the envy of most prom queens, despite the occasional, er, awkward moment. The new DVD includes webisodes, cast interviews, a photo shoot, after-show material, casting tips, “Tegan and Sara: Guest Music Supervision,” campaign videos, “Most Awkward Moments” and “Who Do I Want to Be?”

Alongside such topical comedians as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher and the occasional Morgan Spurlock documentary, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone represent the voice of America’s political left in the media. Unlike the namby-pamby liberals found on the op-ed pages of newspapers and Sunday-morning news shows, they’ve shown an ability to stand up for their beliefs without being buffaloed by the Fox News rabble, Republicans who’ve caved in to the Tea Party and would-be censors at their own networks. Instead of being fed a steady diet of gutless politicians on the news programs, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear Parker and Stone et al. comment on social and political issues, instead of Joe Biden, John McCain and Dianne Feinstein? Or, include Stewart, Colbert, Oliver or Maher on a panel of journalists asked to question candidates in a debate? It usually doesn’t take long for hot-button issues to find their way into the storylines on “South Park,” where Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny can take a whack at them. In the Season 17 opener, Cartman infiltrates the National Security Agency, which had angered him by spying on social-media accounts. Before the uncharacteristically short 10-episode season was over, the lads would take on true-crime shows on TV, Minecraft, emo and Goth kids, the Trayvon Martin trial, biblical prophecy, “Game of Thrones,” Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The coup de grâce, however, came with the three-part “Black Friday” trilogy, in which world peace is threatened by a fissure splitting South Park kids over the collective purchase of online gaming platforms. Among the new writers added in Season 17 is former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader, The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes; “#SocialCommentry,” a “trivia track”  with pop-up comments in the form of tweets; and mini-commentaries.

PBS: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History: Blu-ray
History Channel: The World Wars: Blu-ray
BBC: 14 War Stories
BBC: Churchill’s First World War
Some of us are old enough to remember how long it took for Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” to arrive on VHS after it aired on PBS in 1990? A limited-edition set was promptly rolled out at a cool $299, but it would take a couple more years before more-affordable packages to arrive. Followers who missed an episode were required to wait for the re-broadcast or borrow a cassette tape recorded by a friend. After more than 20 years, I’m still waiting for my VHS copies of “Lonesome Dove” to be returned. By contrast, anyone lacking the time to watch or space on their DVR to record PBS’ riveting14-hour “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” needn’t lift more than a finger to catch up with it via, iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, Roku, Blu-ray or DVD. Buy a copy of the boxed set from PBS, with or without the companion book by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, and, in addition to a sizeable discount, it will throw in a free tote. While on the site, you might consider picking up Teddy Roosevelt or FDR bobble-head figurines, 500-piece puzzles or copies of the “American Experience” profiles. I mention this for no other reason than to marvel at how much faster the world is turning than in the Pleistocene Era of home electronics.

Fact is, “The Roosevelts” can stand alongside Burns’ “Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The West,” “Jazz,” “The War,” “The National Parks” and “The Dust Bowl” as essential viewing for history buffs or anyone desirous of some brain candy after dinner. They’ll be treated with many delicious surprises about these three remarkable Americans and their families. In this case, what we don’t know about the Roosevelts fills a boxed set the size of a doorstop. Obviously, most of us were taught to associate FDR with the economic recovery after the Depression and shepherding us through World War II. Teddy is remembered as great outdoorsman who advised us to walk softly, but carry a big stick, and Eleanor as a standard-bearer for liberal principles. Fewer of us learned exactly how closely knits the Roosevelts were. Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have been related by blood, but their roots anchored them in separate wings of the family. Teddy’s niece and FDR’s wife and fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, bridged the two camps while maintaining a distance caused by her early separation from a misfit father and by becoming the butt of jokes by her patrician aunts and cousins. Simply knowing how these three fascinating people are related is one thing. Understanding the significance of such an unusual relationship, especially within the context of a much greater family drama, is quite another. All three were to the manor born and great things were expected of them by their parents, siblings, cousins and the political establishment of New York. As American royalty goes, the primary difference between the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, whose paths began to cross during FDR’s stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was that one family’s blood ran blue and the other’s was tainted by bootleg whiskey. (The Kennedy patriarch was introduced on this week’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire.”) The similarities, though, are uncanny.

Technically, the documentary starts at Theodore’s birth in 1858 and ends with the 1962 death of Eleanor. It would be impossible, though, to tell any of the Roosevelts’ stories without digging a bit further back into family history, which is exactly what Burns does. In a very real sense, as well, the Roosevelt legacy extends as far forward as the current political aspirations of Hillary Clinton, who, like Eleanor, pragmatically stood by her man when he was cheating on her. “All of the Roosevelts were wounded people with something to overcome,” explains historian Geoffrey C. Ward at one point in this warts-and-all presentation. For his part, Teddy was obsessed with meeting his father’s expectation or attempting to compensate for a single act of perceived cowardice in the Civil War. “The Roosevelts” could never be mistaken for anyone else’s film, besides Burns. The archival photographs and period music are interwoven with the observations of such Burns regulars as David McCullough, George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin and narration of Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrmann. The years-long research pays off in some remarkable revelations and photographic finds, including one of Teddy’s son, Quentin, immediately after he was killed in an aerial dogfight over France and film from a harrowing expedition in Brazil, with son Kermit. Pictures of FDR, before and after he was stricken with polio, also add to what we know about the man’s courage and stamina. The Blu-ray includes bonus segments, including a peek at the interior of Sagamore Hill, a look at Roosevelt home movies and an overview of the musical efforts provided by composer David Cieri; a making-of featurette on Burns’ determination to create a documentary solely about the Roosevelts after touching on their accomplishments in previous productions; and deleted scenes from all episodes, including a deeper understanding of Theodore’s childhood, the creation of John Singer Sargent’s White House portrait of Theodore, and Eleanor’s interaction with the Tuskegee Airmen.

History Channel’s “The World Wars” uses dramatizations to explain how, in reality, the global conflagrations of the 20th Century were inextricably bound together and not separate events, as we’ve been taught. Actors looking very much like FDR, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler take us from the closing days of World War I through the negotiations that divvied up the world at Yalta. If the producers had pushed the argument, they would have been able to argue that today’s geo-political world is shaping up a great deal like it was before 1914. Not a great deal of new information is shared in “World Wars,” but the actors do a decent job impersonating these formidable figures and adding a different dimension to the historical discussion.

The BBC’s “14 War Stories” offers a tremendously compelling view of World War I, from the direct point of view of average people through their observations in letters, postcards, telegrams and diaries. The producers assume we already know enough about the war to override any need to delve too deeply into the common wisdom. What’s important here is how the fighting impacted people from several different countries, economic backgrounds and ages. Among those we meet are soldiers from both sides of the lines that divided Europe; children caught in the middle of the fray; a teenage girl who can’t bear to live apart from her Cossack father, so she follows him into the war; a German mother who encourages her son to enlist, but is devastated by his death after only four days on the front; soldiers condemned to man the trenches for four awful years, most without advancing more than a few feet; victims of severe battle fatigue and poison gas; and nurses as damaged by the war as their patients. In all storylines, the dramatizations are interlaced with actual newsreel footage and photographs. (A character in a train might look out a window and see archived images taken a century ago.) The one thing I didn’t expect was the amount of time devoted to the political and social turmoil that dominated the closing days and weeks of the war. Frustrated, disillusioned, exhausted and angry, Allied and Axis soldiers universally were inspired by the overthrow of Russia’s royal family and the Bolsheviks’ declaration of peace to stage mutinies of their own. By the time soldiers and citizens realized that their patriotism was being exploited to maintain the obscenely lavish lifestyles of crowned heads and war profiteers, though, millions of them had already been slaughtered or starved to death. The very real fear of western Europeans joining the Bolshevik tide nearly paralyzed Allied leaders and, 20 years later, would make decisions that led to the Cold War.

Churchill’s First World War” demonstrates how decisions made as Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty shaped Winston Churchill when he was required to lead his country into war. The disastrous Battle of Gallipoli weighed heavy on him for the next 20 years and influenced how he would direct forces in the early years of World War II. Part of what we learn here is revealed through Churchill’s intimate letters to Clementine.

Also from BBC Home Entertainment are several other titles related to the centennial of the start of World War I. Among them are “Royal Cousins at War,” which tells the story of the three monarchs who reigned over Europe’s greatest powers at the outbreak of the war –Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V – and the public’s revulsion with the monarchies at its end. In “37 Days,” a cast led by Ian McDiarmid and Tim Piggott-Smith chronicles the chain of events that led from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, to the declaration of war between Britain and Germany 37 days later. In “My Boy Jack,” Rudyard Kipling’s son is swept up in the enthusiasm to fight the Germans, a mood stoked vigorously by his father. He has, however, been rejected twice for being terribly short-sighted. Even so, Rudyard is determined that his son should go to the front and finds a way to get him accepted by the Irish guards, where he was made an officer. Carey Mulligan, Daniel Radcliffe, David Haig and Kim Cattrall star in this story about a famous father’s misplaced loyalties.

The DVD Wrapup: God’s Pocket, Captain America, For No Good Reason, Pumpkinhead, Fed Up, Midnight Special, Goldbergs, New Who … More

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

God’s Pocket: Blu-ray
Anyone who may have wondered what was lost with the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman – last February, at 46, to a drug overdose – shouldn’t have to look very far to study his impressive body of work. Once a prince of the indie realm, Hoffman more recently balanced his schedule with key supporting roles in such studio blockbusters as Mission:Impossible III and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as well as dramatic turns on Broadway. Never someone who could be mistaken for a classic Hollywood leading man, Hoffman’s presence was felt in every scene in which he appeared. In the almost-unseen God’s Pocket, which debuted at Sundance 2014, he plays small-time crook and mob-sanctioned truck driver Mickey Scarpato, who delivers hot meat to Philadelphia butchers. Mickey’s been blessed with a gorgeous wife, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), but cursed to live in her low-end God’s Pocket neighborhood with a ne’er-do-well stepson, Leon, and shrewish sisters-in-law. As described by journalist-novelist-screenwriter Pete Dexter (Paris Trout), the Pocket is the kind of big-city neighborhood populated by poor white trash who’ve always taken their lowly place in life for granted and reject any helping hand that reaches out to them. Teenage boys settle for lives of crime, while teenage girls brace themselves for marriages filled with verbal and physical abuse. Adults of both genders can generally be found in the corner tavern, blowing their unemployment and disability checks pickling their livers and preying their lottery tickets pay off. The same uninviting neighborhoods can be found in Dennis Lehane’s Boston-set novels and the Hell’s Kitchen of State of Grace.  God’s Pocket chronicles the four days leading up to the funeral of Mickey’s stepson, who was killed at work in what police describe as an industrial accident, but we know to be justifiable homicide. Jeanie and her sisters order Mickey to investigate the young punk’s death, even though he assumes, like everyone else, that Leon probably had only himself to blame for his violent demise. For Mickey, the timing couldn’t be worse. His truck is loaded with stolen meat that no one is willing to buy and his pockets are filled with IOUs. Meanwhile, the Pocket’s resident undertaker, Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), is pressuring Mickey to waste money he doesn’t have on the first-class funeral Jeanie demands of him.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman God's PocketIt’s at this point, that Jeanie convinces a washed-up, if still respected newspaper columnist to enter the fray. Like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and Dexter, himself, Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) has committed his career to giving a voice to the hard-working, blue-collar residents of a city that only pretends to care about them. That, however, was before he devoted most of his waking hours to the pursuit of cirrhosis of the liver. Once he puts his eyes on the angelic Jeanie, however, he dedicates himself to wooing her away from her husband, who’s busy coming up with the dough to pay Smilin’ Jack’s ransom. If they make an odd couple, it’s only because they’re both looking for redemption on a dead-end street. Everyone in the Pocket, it seems, owes money to someone else, more often than not a bartender, bookie, shylock or Smilin’ Jack. As depressing as this scenario might sound, first-time feature director and co-writer John Slattery (“Mad Men”) relieves the blues with some inky-black comedy, frequently provided by Mickey’s best friend and partner-in-crime, Arthur “Bird” Capezio (John Turturro).  God’s Pocket doesn’t always work as designed, but fans of such gritty urban dramedies shouldn’t mind the out-of-balance moments. More to the point, the acting is so uniformly outstanding that it begs to be seen by anyone who appreciates watching actors cut loose and take chances. The Blu-ray adds commentary and deleted scenes.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Blu-ray
I’m not remotely qualified to say whether the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is true to its comic-book roots or plays fast-and-loose with the established mythology. From where I sit, however, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels substantially more cohesive and evolved than most other films in the canon. There’s more than enough over-the-top fights, exciting chases and explosions to satisfy action nerds, but they’re there to support the story, rather than the other way around. The appearance of ancillary superhero characters – Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) – advances previous storylines, while anticipating future adventures. I wasn’t overly impressed with the protagonist’s 2011 re-introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger. In my opinion, it didn’t add anything to what was accomplished in the 1990 Captain America, which didn’t even enjoy the benefits of CGI or an obscenely large budget. Here, Captain America (Chris Evans) is required to deal with threats and dangers unimaginable when he entered an icy state of suspended animation in World War II. SHIELD has been subverted by fascists — led by Robert Redford, of all people — and his former running mate, Bucky, has returned as the amnesiac super-villain, Winter Soldier. I wonder what television-sitcom veterans and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Community,” “Up All Night”) thought when they were handed $170 million and a franchise that didn’t do particularly well at the worldwide box office in its first iteration. To their great credit, the Russos’ efforts more than doubled the take from The First Avenger, here and abroad. Keeping the action at a human scale, while maintaining a real sense of narrative drama, might have been their greatest accomplishment. The Russos discuss their strategies and intentions on the Blu-ray’s excellent commentary track, with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The rest of the making-of and background featurettes, deleted scenes and gag reel are pretty routine, however. There’s a 3D edition, but I don’t know what it adds, if anything to the experience.

For No Good Reason: Blu-ray
If there’s ever been an artist whose work is so unmistakably his own that no one even bothers to attempt copying it, it’s the uniquely blotchy and undeniably disturbing portraits of madmen and fools created by Ralph Steadman. Renowned for his “gonzo” contributions to the hallucinatory ramblings of Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and other essays, the British cartoonist and illustrator we meet in For No Good Reason truly is a nonpareil. The rare person who could match Thompson in the consumption of inebriants and anti-social behavior, Steadman’s work was equally fueled by a lifelong commitment to “change the world” and show no mercy to oppressors, crooked politicians and greed-mongers. First-time documentarian Charlie Paul deserves kudos for giving the Thompson/Steadman collaboration its due, but not ignoring the artist’s similarly impressive stand-alone projects, including “Treasure Island,” Withnail and I, “I, Leonardo,” “Animal Farm,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “America,”  “Sigmund Freud,” “The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary”; illustrated books on dogs, cats, wine, extinct “boids” and whisky; and experiments with Polaroid photographs. Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is our guide through Steadman’s admittedly twisted mind. Much of the time they spend together is in the artist’s studio, where, among other things, he demonstrates how easy it is for him to paint while being interviewed. Besides his sometimes rocky relationship with Thompson, Steadman opens up on his artistic methodology and such inspirations as Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Picasso and Francis Bacon. Among those testifying in his defense are Terry Gilliam, Jann Wenner, Richard E. Grant, Tim Robbins, Bruce Robinson and Hal Willner. The musical accompaniment is supplied by Slash, All American Rejects, Jason Mraz, James Blake, Ed Harcourt and Crystal Castles. The Blu-ray presentation enhances the animated material and painting, while also offering commentary with director Charlie Paul and producer Lucy Paul; a panel discussion from last year’s Toronto Film Festival with Paul and Steadman; a reading of “Cherrywood Cannon,” accompanied by animation; extended interviews; and some very worthwhile deleted scenes.

Born to Race: Fast Track: Blu-ray
As developed by racing enthusiasts Steve Sarno, Ali Afshar and director Alex Ranarivelo, the Born to Race franchise is intended to be a corrective to the high-octane films in the Fast & Furious series. Afshar is the founder and president of a racing team and has driven for Subaru. A street racer as a kid, Ranarivelo had collaborated with Sarno on a short film partly based on his experiences. Together, the trio expressly wanted to make a racing movie featuring real machines performing actual feats of precision driving, but Hollywood wasn’t buying. It took them eight years to find the money to finance, film and release the original Born to Race (a.k.a., “Born 2 Race”) into the straight-to-DVD marketplace. It borrowed the evergreen theme of a new kid in school having to prove himself to the in crowd, this time as a drag racer. The boy, Danny Krueger, had gotten in trouble for illegal street racing and was transferred to the small-town high school to learn how to cool his jets. To prove himself to his fellow students and estranged father, Danny decided to enter the completely legitimate NHRA High School Drags. That movie did well enough in the secondary market to encourage its producers to risk a sequel, whose gestation period was a mere three years. Born to Race: Fast Track tweaks the original to the point where Danny (Brett Davern) has graduated from the quarter-mile straightaway to a school for wannabe road-course drivers. Once again, he’s required to prove himself to a bunch of hotshots, all of whom believe they know everything there is to know about racing and have only enrolled in the school to win a place on a sponsored team. Needless to say, the young men and women drive their instructors nuts with their oversized egos and reckless behavior. The fevered competition adds a must-needed edge to a story that has been rated PG, even with an extremely tame shower scene. Besides some flashy racing and dangerous stunts, Fast Track is a testament to teamwork and absorbing the wisdom of one’s mentors. If that makes the movie sound namby-pamby, potential viewers should know that the racing is fun to watch and the rivalries feel legitimate. Fans of MTV will recognize Davern and Beau Mirchoff from “Awkward” and Tiffany Dupont from ABC Family’s “Greek.” Their parents might still recognize Corbin Bernsen (“L.A. Law”), Grant Show (“Devious Maids”) and Sharon Lawrence (“NYPD Blue”). The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Pumpkinhead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Within
Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
A Clown’s Recovery
Monkey Boy
Makeup effects pioneer Stan Winston must not have enjoyed the experience of directing Pumpkinhead, because he would only sit at the helm of one more movie before returning to the shop where all the magic is created. I’ve seen a lot worse pictures than Pumpkinhead, by directors who should have quit when they were ahead as DPs, ADs or writers. Winston was fortunate in that he had something more important to contribute to the cinematic world than shouting “action” and “cut,” every so often. Winston’s talent was creating monsters that looked as if they could be real. There was nothing cheap or cheesy about them. In Pumpkinhead, a group of insensitive city slickers seal their doom by accidentally killing the son of the owner of a country store. Instead of sticking around to comfort the boy or calling for an ambulance, the careless motorcycle driver splits the scene, hoping to avoid triggering a probation violation. Lance Henriksen plays Ed Harley, the dead boy’s distraught father and generally a nice guy. Here, though, he visits the widow Haggis, a woman with a direct psychic link to the netherworld. Unable to bring the boy back from the dead, Haggis beckons the skeletal beast Pumpkinhead from its grave and sics him on the interlopers. By the time Harley realizes what his desire for revenge has wrought, however, he attempts to clear his conscience by neutralizing the creature. Sadly, having let the genie out of the bottle, there is nothing he can do to stop the slaughter. It’s a pretty basic story, really, and, once the monster is revealed, Winston’s options were limited considerably. If the jumps-scares don’t work so well, though, the creepy backwoods atmosphere and portentous lighting schemes do. The Blu-ray does a nice job capturing the mood changes, eerie mountain fog and the interior of Haggis’ fire-lit cabin. Pumpkinhead, itself, stops being scary after its fourth or fifth appearance. Also included are Scream Factory’s fine hour-long featurette, “Pumpkinhead Unearthed”; 50-minute “Remembering the Monster Kid: A Tribute to Stan Winston,” with new interviews with actors Lance Henriksen and Brian Bremer, special effects artists Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Shannon Shea; commentary by co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and Creature & FX Creators Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis; and other behind-the-scenes material.

Among the existential questions that have arisen since the onslaught of movies about the zombie apocalypse is the one that demands we speculate on whether suicide would be a smarter way to die than being bitten by an undead assailant and resurrected as a monster. If survival requires engaging in non-stop war against an ever-growing army of shuffling ghouls, what’s the point of delaying the inevitable? Most of the unaffected people we meet in zombie movies prefer to “rage against the dying of the light,” refusing to “go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas demanded of his gravely ill father. Why bother? The question is raised once again in Ben Wagner’s claustrophobic thriller, Dead Within, which opens in the happy hours before an unanticipated calamity occurs, but quickly leaps forward to a period six months later when nearly all hope for survival is lost. When disaster struck, Mike (Dean Chekvala) and Kim (Amy Cale Peterson) were enjoying a weekend visit to a secluded cabin, where they’ve been joined by a pair of friends and their newborn baby. A voice on the radio advises them of an impending disaster and cautions listeners about engaging with strangers displaying symptoms of infection. Somewhere along the way, the other couple and their child are killed off, but what we know of their demise is transmitted mostly through Kim’s fever dreams. Her paranoia is increased by Mike’s insistence that she never leave the cabin, even to join him on his forays to replenish their stock of food staples and batteries for the radio. As such, Kim can only guess at the shape, size and ferocity of the monsters waiting to break into the cabin. With no food left to eat and her only contact with the outside world the disembodied voice of an increasingly perverted “Ranger Mark,” however, Kim’s paranoia leads her to believe that Mike has been infected and needs to be destroyed. Dead Within tests our resolve by refusing to leave the confines of the cabin and demanding of the actors that they improvise their lines. Somehow, though, Peterson and Chekvala manage to rivet our attention for most of the film’s 91 minutes without the assistance of other actors or visible tormenters. The DVD adds some deleted scenes.

Fans of the rambunctious Internet series, “Angry Video Game Nerd,” will be happy to learn that Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie has begun airing on various VOD outlets. In the crowd-funded adventure, psycho-critic James Rolfe goes in search of the Holy Grail of video games: Atari’s infamous 1982 “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” With all copies extant believed to be buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Rolling Rock-swilling Nerd attempts to bring a copy back alive for review. (The actual landfill was located earlier this year and excavation reportedly began shortly thereafter.) Not having seen the bonus features, I’ll review the Blu-ray when it’s released in November.

One never knows what to expect when a package of screeners from Chemical Burn Entertainment arrives in the mail. It’s one of the leading purveyors of extreme exploitation, practically guaranteed to induce nightmares and the occasional case of projectile vomiting. The titles originated in a myriad of countries and tend to reflect prevailing cultural superstitions and themes. Some are better than others, but most contain the germ of an idea, anyway. Among this month’s pile:

I can’t do any better than this CBE description of the truly bizarre Italian export, Monkey Boy, “Once upon a time, a freak was born and then hidden for decades in a lonely cellar, deep within the countryside of rural Italy. The freak had a ‘keeper’ for most of his life; she was a lonely old woman who cared for Monkey Boy even though she herself was a troubled individual. One day, the old lady died and Monkey Boy was forced to explore the world outside … alone. In the span of one night, he learns much about life and finds Agata, an autistic girl who appears to be the only person who Monkey Boy can communicate with and understand. In the darkness of the night, they share an adventure filled with strange discoveries and unhappy creatures called human beings.” It’s all of that and a box of popcorn.

A Clown’s Recovery is a documentary that chronicles the remarkable struggle waged by sword-swallower and sideshow entertainer Jelly Boy the Clown, who, in 2011, was rescued by firefighters in a devastating apartment fire unrelated to his act. Images from the uninsured entertainer’s long and painful recovery were captured daily by Matthew Broomfield, who had directed Jelly Boy in Freakshow Apocalypse: The Unholy Sideshow (also available from CBE). Jelly Boy is a founding partner, with his brother Matterz Squidling, of the Squidling Bros. Circus Sideshow, a troupe of modern sideshow freaks who perform in New York venues, including a Coney Island bar, and tour the world. Not surprisingly, his recovery was eased through the support of his natural and circus families.

In the giallo-influenced Slasher House, a young woman with shockingly red hair awakens in a green-tinged cell, naked and absent any recollection of how she got there. Prodded by post-it notes to wander away from her cell, Red quickly determines that her neighbors in the ancient facility are criminally insane serial killers and she’s being used as bait in someone’s deadly game of tag. Naturally, one of the most notorious inmates is a child-murdering clown, Cleaver. What stands out here, besides British scream queen Eleanor James, is the garish lighting scheme, which changes depending on Red’s location in the prison. For horror/splatter buffs, “Slasher House” is worth the effort of finding.

Fed Up
Bee People
A Doula Story
Do No Harm
The sad thing about documentaries like Fed Up is knowing that, no matter how well-intended and factual, the only people likely to watch them are those already committed to the cause being espoused. If true, though, what possible use are they to anyone, except fans of Doctor Oz, Oprah or, in this case, Katie Couric. Any high school teacher who dared show a film with such an anti-corporate message to a classroom full of impressionable teens, almost certainly would be run out of town by the local Tea Party cabal. Fed Up explains once again why the food most of us eat is either killing us or turning our kids into blimps, sloths and diabetics. But, we know that already, don’t we? We also know all too well that it’s the right of every American to ignore the research of distinguished scientists and eat whatever we damn well please, no matter how harmful it is to us and how much it will someday cost taxpayers. As presented by producer Laurie David and (An Inconvenient Truth) and director Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped), Fed Up convincingly argues that government warnings about sugar and fat intake and lack of exercise address only part of the problem. It does so by interviewing kids who have attempted to lose weight by strictly following the guidelines, but can’t seem to lose weight. Their parents, too, are stymied. Neither can they figure out why drinking diet beverages and fat-free food doesn’t help shed pounds. In fact, while the food industry pays lip service to such warnings, it also keeps busy finding ways to circumvent them. Meanwhile, its lobbyists hand out bushel baskets full of money to legislators willing to be compromised by special interests. Much is made of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fix school-lunch menus, which were larded with processed foods and selections artificially sweetened by high fructose corn syrup, in lieu of sugar. Couric explains how food manufacturers gave their support in public, while, behind the scenes, worked to subvert it. Any chance that it would succeed have been reduced, as well, by parents who kowtow to their kids’ whining about the tastelessness of healthy food and the elimination of school kitchens due to budget cuts. There’s much good advice here, but, again, none of it will do any good if parents and educators don’t buy into it and our congressional leaders ignore it. The Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes and a one-year subscription to Eating Well magazine.

That honey bees are disappearing from places in which they once thrived has been demonstrated incontrovertibly in several disturbing documentaries. Because only a true fiend would speak ill of bees, it is a crisis we can all agree is worth fixing. David G. Knappe’s doc debut, Bee People, is different in that it offers hope in the form of beekeepers and rescuers who have found ways to replenish the population, even as researchers study the invisible plague’s root cause. Through Gregg “The Bee Guru” McMahan, we meet several men and women with sweet-and-gooey nicknames — Bee Medic, Tony “Bees” Planakis, Bee Mistress, Johnny Bee Good, Beeliever, Beedazzled and Beeatrice – who have taken their campaign to the bees we can find in abundance, including dilapidated barns whose wooden skeletons are dripping with honey. One suggestion encourages average homeowners to add hives to their backyards, patios and rooftops, while another offers compelling reasons to “marry” bees of one hive to those in another and relocate them to place where they might flourish.

Like midwives, doulas have been around almost as long as women have been having babies. Just as the American medical establishment nearly legislated midwives out of existence, the use of doulas fell out of fashion and its practitioners became too expensive for low-income women too afford. A Doula Story documents the efforts of one Chicago woman to help pregnant teens prepare for the delivery of their babies and teach them how to nurture those children as they grow. A doula will stay with the woman during delivery, but not participate in the birthing process. She may also counsel the young women as to the efficacy of breast feeding and ways to deal with baby daddies who need attitude adjustments. The subject of Daniel Alpert’s inspirational documentary, Loretha Weisinger, had her first baby as a teenager and struggle with many of the same issues as the women she mentors. In 2005, when the documentary was made, her unpaid mission was included in a teenage parenting program at Marrillac House, a community center in Chicago’s largely African-American neighborhood of East Garfield Park. Eventually, Weisinger would be accorded a salary of $20,000 a year. Similar Doula programs have since been adopted by hospitals and community centers around the country.

Alpert also executive produced Rebecca Schanberg’s Do No Harm, a film that effectively argues that there’s no such thing as a non-profit hospital. Somewhere, someone is making a lot of money and someone else is getting screwed. In this case, the former is represented by executives of and investors in the Phoebe Putney Hospital of Albany, Ga., while the latter category holds the facility’s uninsured and under-insured patients, many of whose lives were ruined by excessive billing practices. Taxpayers also have been stuck with millions of dollars in doctored fees and exorbitant costs. To make Albany citizens and decision-makers aware of what they considered to be unethical behavior on the southwest Georgia health system, accountant Charles Rehberg and surgeon John Bagnato began to send out anonymous newsletters, Phoebe Factoids, that described the hospital system’s generous executive salary structure, extensive political and business connections, and its financial holdings, which included a Cayman Islands account. The publishers argued that the factoids were intended to expose a hospital system that wasn’t fulfilling its charitable obligations as a tax-exempt entity. Phoebe Putney fought back by hiring former FBI agents to intimidate and threaten the whistle-blowers and filing a civil suit alleging defamation, fraud and racketeering. A sleazy local district attorney fed the company with information that led to indictments and criminal charges of harassment, aggravated assault and burglary, along with a $66-million lawsuit, all of which were later dismissed. Do No Harm recalls the theatrical film, The Informer, in several key ways, including the participation of lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who had previously represented the state of Mississippi in the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

The Midnight Special
In early 1973, the co-option of rock-’n’-roll by the mass media had yet to become a fait accompli. Evidence of that was provided by two late-night variety shows, during which the most popular top-40 and album-rock artists performed live – as opposed to lip-synching to recorded versions of their hits – in front of an audience of enthusiastic fans. The acts played for scale and the labels were, at first, were reluctant to provide their talent, not sure they’d remember to show up at all  “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” competed with Burt Sugarman’s “The Midnight Special” for the eyes and ears of record buyers long before the invention of VCRs, MTV and YouTube, sometimes simultaneously on weekend nights. “Rock Concert” may be best remembered for Kirshner’s tone-deaf introductions to performances, famously parodied by band leader Paul Schaffer on “Saturday Night Live.” Both shows were recorded in stereophonic sound and simulcast over FM Stereo radio stations and early Cable TV. Even if the selections only scratched the surface of an artist’s repertoire, it was fun to put a face to the music and watch as they re-created their in-concert routines. The list of individual performances is too long to repeat here, except to say they ranged from Ted Nugent to Helen Reddy, Joan Baez to KC and the Sunshine Band. Among the things that separated the shows were the introductions provided by the truly legendary disc jockey, Wolfman Jack, on “Midnight Special,” alongside a rotation of celebrity hosts. Nothing good lasted forever in the 1970s and “Midnight Special,” at least, began gearing down when disco and middle-of-the-road radio began calling the tunes. Artists were required to lip-synch their songs and Wolfman Jack’s beloved shtick was reduced to hucksterism. Nevertheless, this six-disc retail DVD set from StarVista/Time Life – not to be confused with the nine-disc direct-response “Collector’s Edition” or single-disc set – is great fun to watch, if only for the fashions, hairstyles and then-wrinkle-free faces of the artists. For that reason, easily humiliated Boomers may want to avoid watching “Midnight Special” with their kids and grandkids. It includes fresh interviews and tributes.

ABC: The Goldbergs: The Complete First Season
BBC: Doctor Who: Deep Breath
Showtime: Years of Living Dangerously: The Complete Showtime Series
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Rigby Pack
Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: Patterns & Shapes
After learning that ABC green-lit a series titled “The Goldbergs,” I wondered how much it might resemble the original “Goldbergs,” which starred Gertrude Berg and was a staple of the American entertainment scene, on and off, from 1929 to 1956. Berg defined what it meant to be a Jewish mother for a generation of Gentiles, although she shared many of the same characteristics as mothers who were immigrant Irish, Greek, Pakistani, Chinese or Indian. The ABC sitcom, going into its second season, carries the Goldberg name because the show’s creator, Adam F. Goldberg, based it on his experiences growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia. Jeff Garlin’s character is modeled after Goldberg’s own father, Murray, who apparently had a hair-trigger temper and routinely referred to his kids as “morons,” because that’s how Sitcom Murray acts in the show. Goldberg’s pre-teen alter ego, Adam Goldberg, walks around the house with a camcorder affixed to his hand, just as Producer Adam did when he was a wee tadpole. (Clips from actual home movies are scattered throughout the show.) The way we know the family is Jewish, besides the title, are occasional references to tushes “like two scoops of ice cream,” shiksas and a smothering mom (Wendi McLendon-Covey) known far and wide for her match-making skills. Otherwise, “The Goldbergs” might as well be entitled, “That ’80s Show,” “The Wonder Years II” or “The O’Briens.” The family is supplemented by smarty-pants sister Erica (Hayley Orrantia), horndog brother Barry (Troy Gentile) and randy grandfather Albert “Pops” Solomon (George Segal), who imparts useless dating advice to Barry and Adam when he isn’t hitting on girls their age. All of that said, “The Goldbergs” is elevated by the high quality of acting on display, its clever writing, several non-cliché storylines and recognizable characters. My guess is that the Goldbergs will be freed from assimilation prison sometime in its second or third seasons, as Adam approaches his bar mitzvah deadline or Barry is forced to choose between playing basketball at Villanova or Brandeis universities.

When the accomplished Scottish character actor Peter Capaldi was announced as the 12th Doctor in the 51-year history of “Doctor Who,” his picture graced the cover of every newspaper in London. The media anticipation leading to the season opener has been palpable, as well. There are so many things to keep in mind when considering every new Doctor, sidekick, threat and story arc that covering the show in newspapers, magazines and blogs has practically has become an industry in its own right. As befits the attention paid to last year’s regeneration episodes, golden anniversary hoopla and 3D holiday presentation, the producers decided to showcase the first episode of the eighth season, “Deep Breath,” in theaters, accompanied by the same special featurettes included in the new Blu-ray edition. It opens in Victorian London, where a really huge tyrannosaurus rex seems as out-of-place as the Tardis. (There’s a very good reason for the timing of its arrival.) The city is also being plagued by spontaneous combustions and clockwork robots. Capaldi adds an abrasive edge to the character, as well as a thick brogue and significant acting chops. Jenna Coleman, who returns as the Doctor’s intrepid companion, Clara, remains as cute as a button, but wary of the changes imposed on her. Like viewers, it takes a cameo appearance by a former Doctor for Clara to warm to Capaldi. The transition is likewise facilitated by Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and their trusty butler, the squat Sontaran warrior Strax (Dan Starkey). From the point-of-view of this relative newcomer to the franchise, “Deep Breath” seemed an appropriate way to kick off a new series and decidedly different protagonist. Technically, too, it looked a bit more cinematic than usual. The featurettes include a prequel scene introduced by Strax; a behind-the-scenes piece shown only in theaters; “Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor,” the television special in which Capaldi was revealed as Matt Smith’s successor; and the episode of “The Real History of Science Fiction” that focuses on time travel. There’s also a tease to this season’s second episode, “Into the Dalek.”

Showtime’s Emmy-winning nine-part documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” approaches the divisive debate over climate change by giving in to the hideous reality that Americans won’t take a scientific or medical issue seriously unless a celebrity is attached to it in one way or another … the more, the better. Of the 24 executive/associate/co-/supervising/senior producers named in the list of credits, the only ones who seemed to matter in the marketing buildup were James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The celebrity hosts and interviewers include Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, America Ferrera, Michael C. Hall, Olivia Munn and Schwarzenegger. Lesley Stahl and Thomas Friedman are among the superstar journalists. President Obama is interviewed by Friedman in the series’ final episode. Normally, such a lineup would cause my cynicism meter to register off the charts. This time, however, the celebrity presence almost certainly pushed ratings to a level that could be measured by the folks at the Nielsen Corporation. As it is, once viewers figured out that “Years of Living Dangerously” wasn’t a companion piece to “Homeland” or “Masters of Sex,” what ratings it was accorded for Sunday-evening airings took a nose dive. (It also could be accessed on-demand, YouTube and ancillary Showtime outlets.) None of this should detract from the importance and high production values associated with the series. The presentations are anything but dry and the celebrities’ roles aren’t limited to reading Teleprompters or standing in front of melting glaciers.

As is its custom, Cartoon Network has released its newest installment of cartoons in the “The Regular Show” in a themed DVD package. The “Rigby Pack” features 16 raccoon-centric episodes, handpicked by show creator J.G. Quintel. The running time is 176 minutes.

Included in Nickelodeon’s latest DVD collection, “Let’s Learn: Patterns and Shapes,” are the edu-cartoons “Team Umizoomi: Team Umizoomi vs. the Shape Bandit,” “Dora the Explorer: Catch the Shape Train!,” “Ni Hao Kai-lan: The Dinosaur Balloon,” “Blue’s Clues: Shape Searchers” and “Blue’s Room: Shape Detectives.”

Children Without a Shadow
I Was There in Color
Jews of Iran
Fringes: New Adventures in Jewish Living
Who Killed Walter Benjamin
My Herzl
Eyes Wide Open
It’s been a couple of months since we checked in with SISU Home Entertainment/Kol Ami and, in the meantime, a bunch of titles documenting the Jewish/Israeli experience have been released on DVD. Some of them are so obscure, they’ve yet to register on A quick roundup is in order:

Bernard Balteau’s 2009 Holocaust documentary, Children Without a Shadow, is a “story of the resilience of the spirit” of Belgian Jews, as recalled by Shaul Harel, one of the “hidden children” protected from the Nazis by Mademoiselle Andrée Geulen. … I Was There in Color is comprised of rare color footage of events shot at the “birth of Israel” by Fred Monosson, a Jewish-American businessman who left the treasure trove behind when he died in 1972. … Although Jewish roots run deep throughout the history Persia/Iran, it’s difficult to imagine what life might be like for those who still call it home. Ramin Farahani’s Jews of Iran describes their support system and respose to a painful espionage case against a Jewish community there.

In Fringes: New Adventures in Jewish Living, Paula Weiman-Kelman visits  Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the Ghetto Shul in Montreal and Stony Lonesome Organic Farm in Virginia, where “cutting-edge Judaism” is being taught and put into practice. … The death of a prominent German-Jewish intellectual in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi takeover of France is the subject of David Mauas’ Who Killed Walter Benjamin …, a documentary that challenges the common wisdom on what long has been accepted as a suicide to escape capture by German sympathizers in Spain. … In the intimate bio-doc, My Herzl, two brothers-in-law explore the legacy of Theodor Herzl, an early proponent of the Jewish state of Israel. ‘s life and career. … In Eyes Wide Open, Paula Weiman-Kelman uses the slogan, “Once you visit Israel, everything looks different,” as a stepping-off point for a discussion of what the country and its politics mean to American Jews in Israel for the first time.

Tennessee Queer
Getting Go: The Go Doc Project
Man at Bath
Love or Whatever
In Tennessee Queer, Jason Potts is summoned back to his conservative hometown from New York for an intervention, ostensibly to save his brother from demon rum. Instead, it’s to cure him of his homosexuality. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise him that they would try something so lame. While in Smyth, Jason is bullied by the same homophobes who tormented him in high school and stymied by the stupidity of classmates now in control of the town. Knowing that conditions haven’t improved for today’s LGBT kids, Jason agrees to put together a gay-pride parade to smooth the road for a stroll out of the closet. To pull it off, however, he’ll need some help from the gay community of Memphis, Nashville and beyond. Almost everything in Tennessee Queer is predictable, but in a perfectly harmless and occasionally quite funny way.

For his directorial debut, screenwriter Cory Krueckeberg (Mariachi Gringo) conjured a title with a built-in redundancy and a premise that is more than a little bit contrived. If the actors playing Doc and Go weren’t so proficient, Getting Go: The Go Doc Project may have been required to add a couple more steamy sex scenes and go for the porn crowd. Tanner Cohen (Were The World Mine) plays Doc, a Columbia student who has yet to acknowledge the obvious fact that he’s gay, but is sufficiently attracted to an Internet stud, Go (Matthew Camp), that he conjures an elaborate scheme to meet him. Doc has convinced himself that Go’s dance card is so full that he won’t get close enough to him to test his own sexuality. Instead, the bar dancer agrees not only to allow a camera to follow him on his daily rounds, but also to demonstrate that buff guys aren’t just sexual playthings. This isn’t to say that the sex isn’t hot, just that it’s integrated organically into the story. Krueckeberg’s directorial skills may not be on a par with his writing chops, yet, but Getting Go shows promise for the future.

Apart from the estimable presence of a frequently nude Lindsay Lohan, the most noteworthy thing about The Canyons was the casting of porn superstar James Deen in a more-or-less commercial picture. The quality of his performance didn’t matter as much as his ability to attract attention to the movie. Still, he wasn’t bad. Despite taking prominent roles in Saw VI and L.A. Zombie, the muscular French gay-porn star François Sagat proves in Man at Bath that he can handle something more than genre fare. While cast according to type as a gay hustler in the sexual melodrama by director Christophe Honoré (Ma Mère, Love Songs), Sagat can be proud of his performance in a film intended for arthouse audiences.  After a quarrel between Emmanuel (Sagat) and his lover, Omar (Omar Ben Sellem), the brokenhearted hunk is left to his own devices in the streets of Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris. Meanwhile, Omar is off to New York, where the filmmaker will attend a festival with the real-life actress, Chiara Mastroianni, playing herself. The only question remaining is what will happen when Omar gets to Paris.

Love or Whatever is a romantic comedy in which the partner of a guy who seems to have it all reacts to the possibility of getting married by cheating on him with a woman, who also happens to be his soon-to-be ex-lover’s client. One way to tell it’s a comedy is the presence of a lesbian sister who gets the best lines.

Steven Vasquez’ Eroddity(s) is an anthology comprised of four stories in which 10 gay youths straddle the border between the erotic, the supernatural and the merely odd. In this way, it serves two genre constituencies.

The DVD Wrapup: Draft Day, Jackpot, Queen Margot, Tinto Brass, Love Streams and more

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Draft Day: Blu-ray
Once upon a time, the NFL draft was treated by most Americans as if it were just another day or two on the nation’s sports calendar. Interesting from a fans’ point of view, but nothing over which to lose any sleep. Likewise, the first two Super Bowls were more of a novelty for fans of the National Football League than the national holiday it’s become. By guaranteeing a victory for the old American Football League, superstar QB Joe Namath almost single-handedly turned the almost superfluous post-season game into an event. Pro football wouldn’t become a commercial behemoth, however, until the arrival and convergence of the 24-hour sports-news cycle on TV, all-sports talk radio, the ready availability of parley wagering, fantasy football leagues and prime-time coverage of regular-season games. It wasn’t an overnight process, to be sure. Finally, when the media caught wind of the NFL Scouting Combine and its importance to the annual collegiate draft – newly open to underclassman, in 1989 – the football season was extended an additional four months. Among other things, the frenzy allowed teams to charge season-ticket holders full price for lousy pre-season games, corner the market on sports memorabilia and break the million-dollar barrier for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. The Internet added several additional wrinkles, including easy access to the opinions of thousands of Monday-morning quarterbacks, many of whom blog mostly to have something to do between cashing unemployment checks.

And, so, the DVD/Blu-ray editions of Draft Day arrive two days before the start of the regular season – Thursday night, for some ungodly reason – and the usual attention it commands. As dramatic as the draft can be on TV, the excitement has been difficult to replicate in theaters. High grades at the Combine don’t always translate to performance on the field, certainly, but it isn’t difficult to predict which college standouts are likely to be picked in the first round. Director Ivan Reitman and Kevin Costner combined their considerable talents to make Draft Day something greater than the sum of its individual parts, which include an unlikely last-minute battle of wits and an even more improbable romance between its 59-year-old protagonist and the still hot and youthful Jennifer Garner. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., who’s recently taken over the reins of the Cleveland Browns as general manager. Sonny knows that the ghost of his late father has yet to exit the building and he’s expected to immediately produce draft-day miracles by rapid Dog Pound fans, a skeptical head coach (Dennis Leary), an egomaniacal owner (Frank Langella) and his despotic mother, Mrs. Sonny Sr. (Ellen Burstyn). With the Browns on the clock, Sonny decides to make a trade for the No. 1 pick in the draft, presumably a “can’t miss” quarterback from Wisconsin. Although, under normal circumstances, the choice would be considered to be a no-brainer, Sonny develops a severe case of buyer’s remorse almost immediately after closing the deal. He allows himself to be talked into believing the QB may have a chink in his armor and decides to make the choice based on what his heart tells him to do, not common wisdom. Wisely, Reitman decided to make the decision as unpopular as it could possibly be with the greatest number of people, forcing Sonny to come up with a strategy that would make his detractors eat crow.

The tick-tock nature of the draft-day drama helps drive the story’s momentum, even as it’s being bogged down by clichés. When the Hail Mary solution to his problem arrives from left field, it really doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility, at all. Indeed, after Mike Ditka gave up all of New Orleans’ 1999 picks, as well as a first- and third-rounder in 2000, just for the rights to draft Ricky Williams, nothing would be out of the realm of possibility ever again. Costner’s ability to make Sonny’s maneuvering credible once again demonstrates how well he fits any sports-oriented role he’s given, while, I suppose, helping attract women who might otherwise be bored by the inside-football stuff.  (Jerry Maguire’s box-office momentum was sustained by women impressed by the romance … and bromance.) Those interested in inside-Hollywood gossip probably already know that Draft Day has the distinction of being rescued from the industry’s “black list” of unproduced scripts. It’s explained in the Blu-ray package, which adds the hour-long “On the Clock: The Making of Draft Day”; “Welcome to Primetime,” with some background on the draft; commentary with writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, who really got lucky when Reitman and Costner came aboard; and deleted scenes.

Jackpot: Blu-ray
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
Queen Margot: Blu-ray
Just as fans of crime fiction have enjoyed discovering the works of such Scandinavian authors as Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Peter Hoeg, Anne Holt and Stieg Larsson, lovers of screen mysteries are benefitting from the rising number of adaptations by highly qualified American directors. Jackpot is based on a story by Norway’s Jo Nesbø, whose Headhunters was turned into a dandy thriller in 2011. Clearly influenced by the The Big Lebowski, Jackpot describes what can happen when too much money falls into the laps of people incapable of harnessing their greed. The film opens with the slaughter of customers, owners and employees of a strip joint near a border crossing separating Sweden and southeastern Norway. Oscar, the only survivor of the attack, was left for dead after a rather large dancer, also attempting to escape the carnage, falls on him. While being interrogated by a wise-ass police detective, he re-creates in flashbacks the events that led to the last of several bloody crimes. Oscar is a supervisor at a small factory that recycles discarded plastics into miniature Christmas trees. The work force is comprised mostly of ex-cons, three of whom talk him into buying a ticket for the national soccer pool, which requires picking the winners of all 12 games. With the help of a great deal of luck, they are able to claim the $1.7 million first prize. True to their nature, they almost immediately begin plotting ways to increase their share of the pot by eliminating the competition. Viewers who may not have seen the humor in the wood-chipper scene in Fargo might want to skip Jackpot, which adds a Christmas twist to the Coens’ conceit. If that makes the movie sound too derivative, there are plenty of other entertaining touches here to satisfy American audiences. The solution to the mystery surrounding the attack at the strip club is especially difficult to predict. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Also from Music Box Films, which released Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” comes the very different historical drama, “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas.” It is based on Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella, which anticipated several twentieth-century literary conceits and influenced such writers as Franz Kafka and E.L. Doctorow (the character Coalhouse Walker, in “Ragtime”) and filmmakers Volker Schlöndorff and John Badham (“The Jack Bull”). In turn, co-writer/director Arnaud des Pallières has molded Kleist’s story to fit the traditional ethical parameters of an American Western. The titular protagonist, Michael Kohlhaas, as played by the perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen, could have emerged from the same gene pool that produced Clint Eastwood. The gorgeous mountain settings – shot in France’s Cévennes region – add similar flavor to the narrative. Although re-set from 18th Century Saxony to 16th Century France, the parable opens the same way. Kohlhaas, a happy farmer and horse trader, is returning home through territory owned by the royal family, when he is stopped by a self-proclaimed toll taker and ordered to hand over two recently purchased steeds. By the time he discovers that the baron had forbidden the collecting of tolls, the once-healthy horses have been worked nearly to death and his servant tortured at the palace’s stables. Kohlhaas hires a lawyer to plead his case, but the jurors’ allegiance to the royal family proves too much to overcome. His wife, too, is beaten to death when she attempts to plead their case to the Princess. Seeking justice and revenge, Kohlhaas mounts a peasant rebellion. It is successful to the point where the Princess agrees to have the case re-tried and the rebels given amnesty. Naturally, a cruel twist is added to the agreement, designed to satisfy both parties’ sense of justice and discourage anyone from thinking that it doesn’t come with a stiff price. Des Pallières stops well short of turning Age of Uprising into a celebration of Medieval bloodlust, preferring to accentuate Kohlhaas’ existential dilemma and relationship with his young daughter. (Eastwood’s anti-heroes have existential moments, too.)  In its defense, however, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and did well at other festivals. It also looks splendid in Blu-ray, which adds interviews with Mikkelsen and Des Pallieres.

Anyone looking for the graphic 16th Century violence missing from Age of Uprising can find it Cohen Media’s superb 4K restoration of co-writer/director Patrice Chéreau’s 159-minute version of Queen Margot. It also offers as much sex and nudity – gratuitous and otherwise — as “The Game of Thrones” and “Borgias.” Released in 1994, Queen Margot opens with the forced marriage of 18-year-old Catholic Princess Margot de Valois (Isabelle Adjani) to the Huguenot King Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). Ostensibly, the loveless wedding was staged to mark the end of fighting between France’s Catholics and Protestants, which had divided the country along religious lines. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), mother of the bride and ineffectual King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), had plans of her own for the wedding reception. They included the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, in which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered, including many of the invited wedding guests. Chereau’s depiction of the massacre was deemed to be too violent by its American distributor, Miramax, which trimmed 20 minutes from the picture. Restored, here, the scene demonstrates the director’s ability to orchestrate and sustain the horror of a holy war in miniature. It also paints a portrait of Margot as a woman with an insatiable appetite for sex with almost anyone, except her new husband. Even as the blood was flowing in the streets, Margot and the equally randy Henriette de Nevers sneak out of the palace to find a man to satisfy her carnal urges. It turns out to be La Môle (Vincent Perez), a handsome Huguenot stud who will shortly thereafter be attacked by Catholic thugs and seek refuge in the queen’s quarters. They will continue to see each other in secret, even as Catherine and her other sons devise ways to kill off Henri, Charles and anyone else who gets in their way. As historical costume dramas go, the only thing “Queen Margot” lacks is a scorecard to explain to those of us who didn’t major in French history what’s happening and why. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival.

L: Blu-ray
Attempting to describe an absurdist comedy – or absurdist anything — to someone whose tastes run toward the mainstream usually is an exercise in futility. Besides running the risk of misinterpreting the filmmaker’s intentions, it’s the cinematic equivalent of explaining baseball to a Martian. Directed by the Greek first-timer Babis Makridis, from a script co-written with Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth), L is the story of a 40-year-old Man (Aris Servetalis), whose life has spun so far out of control that he has chosen to live in his car. By all indications, Man once drove professionally and still delivers honey to an older gentleman obsessed with deadlines and the precise reading of code phrases. When he isn’t doing that, Man frequently will engage with family members in a vacant parking lot and teach the kids how to drive. He leaves his car only after losing his job delivering honey to someone a few seconds more prompt than he was. He finds kinship in a gang of motorcyclists, who despise and fear automobiles and never remove their helmets, and a fellow his age that thinks he’s a bear. My guess is that Man probably was a victim of Greece’s failed economy and is clinging to the one thing that he can control. When he becomes convinced of the motorcyclists’ position on cars, he adopts that form of transportation but parks on the same vacant chunk of concrete. Similar losses of identity must be affecting tens of thousands of other young and middle-age men in Greece. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Like most absurdist films, L requires a great deal of patience and fortitude to enjoy. Neither is the comedy of the ha-ha variety that American audiences appreciate most. If nothing else, movies like L force us to shift the gears of our brains out of “park” and “neutral,” every so often.

Trust Me
Judging simply by the cast assembled by Clark Gregg for his sophomore effort as director/writer/star — after Choke, a well-regarded dark comedy from 2008 – the veteran actor is either one of the best-liked men in Hollywood or he called in some serious I.O.U.’s for the project. Gregg will be instantly recognizable to anyone who tuned into “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or “The New Adventures of Old Christine” for more than one episode. He’s also played prominent roles in such pictures as The Avengers, State and Main and (500) Days of Summer. In Trust Me, he plays that most unlikely of Hollywood characters: an honest and honorable talent agent. A former child star, himself Howard Holloway represents kids whose talent makes them a target for unscrupulous 10-percenters. In fact, though, Holloway hasn’t had much success as an adult in Hollywood. He’s reminded of this when he “discovers” a 13-year-old acting prodigy (Saxon Sharbino) and attempts to rescue her from an overbearing “stage father.” Also vying for Lydia’s attention are a prototypically sleazy agent (Sam Rockwell) and a predatory producer (Felicity Huffman), both of whom know the right buttons to push with the girl’s greedy dad (Paul Sparks). The only person in Holloway’s corner is a neighborly single mother (Amanda Peet), who supports her child as an exotic dancer. As easy as it is to pull for Holloway, we continue to wonder how such a nebbish – we know that by the rust-ravaged car he drives – could last a week as an agent. We also wish that Gregg’s script might have spared us one or two unlikely plot twists. Otherwise, “Touch Me” is an entirely watchable dramedy – made on a shoestring – that’s also blessed with appearances by Allison Janney, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon and Niecy Nash. Or, it can be enjoyed simply for the presence of rising star, Sharbino.

Love Streams: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Vengeance Is Mine: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching John Cassavetes’ brilliant 1984 essay on extraordinary madness, Love Streams, is like opening a time capsule on a certain type of American male that doesn’t exist anymore. The character played by his real-life wife, Gena Rowlands, probably does, but, instead of being “crazy as a bedbug,” her malady would be recognized for what it is, bipolar disorder. Cassavetes’ Robert Harmon is a throwback to the days when the Rat Pack ruled the popular media; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy dictated behavior for a generation of men and post-pubescent teens; men wore tuxedoes for no apparent reason; cigarettes were peddled as if they were candy; and booze was the acceptable social lubricant. There weren’t many of these guys still around in 1984, but Cassavetes probably knew most several of the survivors. Harmon is a successful author of pulpy fiction, with a home in the Hollywood Hills that has more than enough bedrooms for his many live-in concubines, empty cigarette packs, unwashed dishes and liquor bottles. We’re introduced to Rowlands’ Sarah Lawson between breakdowns, as she’s about to lose custody of her pre-teen daughter to her philandering soon-to-be-ex-husband (Seymour Cassel). Their daughter is tired of being dragged around the country by Lawson, attending funerals for unknown relatives and acquaintances, so requests that she be allowed to stay with her dad. Stunned, Lawson decides to tour Europe, dragging behind her a wagonload of baggage and clutching an expensive coat made from the pelts of unfortunate animals. At the same time, Harmon is about to be re-introduced to the son he abandoned as an infant. The boy’s immediate discomfort around his father’s harem causes Harmon to pay off the women and send them off to their next sexual adventure. The boy is appreciative of the gesture, but less thrilled when he’s swept off to Las Vegas and plunked down in a hotel room, while dad drinks, gambles and chases tail for a night or two. Needless to say, the kid is so freaked out that he pretty much disappears from the film.

In his place arrives Lawson, who is ecstatic to be in the company of someone willing to accommodate her eccentricities and forgive her excesses. This is demonstrated after Lawson comes home from an outdoor pet menagerie with a pair of miniature horses, goats, ducks, chickens and a giant dog, presented to her brother as gifts to overcome his doldrums. A violent storm opens the doors to madness and/or catharsis for Harmon and Lawson. Love Streams was adapted from a play and screenplay by Ted Allan (Lies My Father Told Me), but what ended up on the screen is 100 percent Cassavetes and Rowlands. It is last film for which he served as director, co-writer and star – “Big Trouble” was a pick-up job – as he had already been diagnosed with the cirrhosis of the liver and given six months to live by his doctor. Instead, he stayed with us another five years. Ignored by an indie-phobic academy, Love Streams won the Golden Bear Award and FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film at the 1984 Berlin International Film Festival. The supplemental features on the Criterion disc include an original trailer for the film; exclusive new video interviews with executive producer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott; Michael Ventura’s documentary “I’m Almost Not Crazy … John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work”; an archival interview with Seymor Cassel; and a 30-page illustrated booklet, with “A Fitful Flow” by Denis Lim,” Cassavetes’ “How Love and Life Mingle on Film” and technical notes.

Also from Criterion comes Vengeance Is Mine, Shohei Imamura’s 1979 study of sociopathic serial killer told largely in flashback form, as he relates his crimes to the detectives interrogating him after his strangely anti-climatic capture. It is based on a murder spree perpetrated in the early 1960s by con artist Akira Nishiguchi. Ken Ogata is cold as ice as Iwao Enokizu, whose only apparent motivation is having watched his father being forced to hand over his fishing boats to the Imperial Navy in World War II. The incident caused him to lose all respect for his father, whose Roman Catholic faith comes between them in various ways for the next 20-plus years. After serving time in prison for fraud, Enokizu supports himself by taking money from the people he murders. He sets up shop in a Tokyo brothel, where everyone is led to believe that he’s a college professor and an extraordinarily generous one at that. Although Enokizu doesn’t appear to have been afflicted with a death wish, he makes very little effort to hide his identity from the prostitutes who surely would have seen the wanted posters in shop windows or on television. Simple carelessness eventually sealed his doom. If such portraits of serial killers aren’t all that rare in American movies – In Cold Blood preceded Vengeance Is Mine by 12 years – Imamura’s genius was turning one of only about 13 such cases in Japan into a masterpiece, absent any undo moralizing or rubbing our faces in gore. Without forgiving his antagonist a single drop of blood, Imamura also contextualizes Enokizu’s actions alongside other examples of double standards and corruption prevalent in pre-boom Japan. The sparkling hi-def restoration is accompanied by commentary with critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns; an excerpt from an archival interview with Imamura, conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan, with frequent collaborators Kenichi Benitani and Kunio Takeshige; and a 32-page illustrated booklet featuring Imamura’s “On Vengeance Is Mine,” Michael Atkinson’s “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “To and From Fiction: An Interview with Shohei Imamura” and “My Approach to Filmmaking.”

Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema
Peekarama: Tropic of Desire/Fantasy World
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 4
Drive-In Collection: Cry Wilderness/In Search of Bigfoot
Leading the list of erotic titles released on DVD/Blu-ray in the last couple of weeks is “Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica,” a collection of films made between 2000 and 2006. The selection includes Cheeky!, Black Angel, Private, Monamour and the feature-length documentary Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema, featuring an in-depth interview with Brass and rare footage. While it’s easy to compare the Milanese auteur to American soft-core pioneer Russ Meyer – one favored butts, the other, boobs – they came up through very different ranks. Meyer practically invented the nudie-cutie sub-genre, which provided a bridge between the “naturalist” films of the 1950s and soft-core arthouse fare of Radley Metzger and the first couple chapters in the Emmanuelle series. King Leer’s low-budget pictures pushed the limits on bras, raunchy humor and violence, but couldn’t compete with the explicit sexuality of Deep Throat and other XXX extravaganzas. Brass, who was born into an artistic family, cut his teeth by working with such giants as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini. Attraction and I Am What I Am came reasonably close to capturing the prevailing hippy-dippy zeitgeist of Swinging London and joys of the sexual revolution Salon Kitty, as perverse a film that has ever found its way to American arthouses, located the nexus connecting Nazi brutality and twisted sexuality. Unlike most other overtly provocative movies of the mid-1970s, its technical credits were impeccable and it delivered something resembling an anti-fascist message. In 1979, Bob Guccione hired Brass to direct Caligula — his big-budget adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel – but dropped out when the Penthouse publisher insisted on adding hard-core scenes to what already was a pretty hot picture. For the next 25 years, Brass focused his attention on elegantly produced and located erotica that straddled the line separating soft- and hard-core cinema. The actors who agreed to disrobe before Brass’ camera were uncommonly beautiful or handsome, with bodies that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo. The sex itself was far less memorable than the men and women hired to simulate it. More to the point of his popularity, Brass included the female characters in the decision-making, allowing them to exploit their fantasies and insist upon orgasmic equality. While hardly feminist tracts, such late-career titles as Cheeky, Black Angel, Monamour and the anthology, Private, almost certainly raised temperatures in bedrooms throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. The making-of featurette included with Private, is almost as entertaining as the vignettes themselves. Besides revealing the strategic uses of dildos and artificial phalluses, Brass comes across as a dirty old man in the same league with Meyer and Charles Bukowski. Despite the director’s groping, the actresses, too, appear to be enjoying every minute of the production process. All of the films have been accorded a brilliant hi-def transfer, which takes full advantage of the Blu-ray presentation. Also added are photo galleries and a 40-page booklet.

Vinegar Syndrome’s “Peekarama” series of double-features from the Essex catalogue continues apace with Bob Chinn’s Tropic of Desire/Fantasy World, both of which features sailors on the town and such future stars as Jesie St. James, Sharon Kane, Georgina Spelvin, Dorothy LeMay and Susan Nero; Purely Physical/Cathouse Fever, from mainstream actor Chris Warfield, who directed porn under the pseudonym, Billy Thornberg; and Carlos Tobalina’s offbeat Ultimate Pleasure/I Am Always Ready, in which John Holmes is the answer to every unsatisfied woman’s most vexing question.

Impulse Pictures is represented once again by 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection. It’s the fourth compilation of 8mm loops, re-mastered from original film prints. This collection appears to concentrate on close-up footage, with the balance tilted toward girl-girl action. Among the very young principles are Erica Boyer, Linda Shaw, Sharon Kane and Annie Sprinkle, with liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor, Robin Bougie.

The Bigfoot phenomenon, based primarily on Native American legend, didn’t really take off in earnest until the 1972 release of Bigfoot: Man or Beast? The same folks responsible for that quasi-documentary knocked on the same door four years later, with In Search of Bigfoot. That latter film is included in the latest entry into Vinegar Syndrome’s “Drive-In Collection,” with Cry Wilderness, a 1987 theatrical release in which a young boy befriends the Sasquatch, who instructs the boy to venture into the wilderness in order to save his father from impending danger. Both pictures look better than ever after being accorded new 2K scans from the 35mm camera negatives.

14 Blades: Blu-ray
The Eastern Western concept appears to have taken hold in China, with more and more historical dramas being set in the vast plains, deserts and mountain ranges of the western provinces. 14 Blades was shot in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in the far northwest corner of the PRC, where the ancient   Zhenbei Castle has served foreign filmmakers in search of exotic locations since the 1920s. It’s appropriate, then, that this story of Ming Dynasty intrigue and action would take place in and around a military fortress constructed in the same period (1368-1644). I don’t know when Islam took hold there, but the religion’s influence on the desert architecture is pretty hard to miss. That’s not what drives the action in 14 Blades, however. Here, Donnie Yen plays Qinglong, a prominent royal guard trained from childhood in a clandestine form of combat requiring prowess in swordplay and the creation of weapons – 14, to be precise – designed for specific occasions. When Qinglong is betrayed by an evil traitor, Jia (Law Kar-Ying), he’s required to assemble an army of resistance and restore the emperor to his rightful throne. If the story is overly familiar, the swordplay and scenery easily pick up the slack. It’s interesting that two of the most proficient warriors are women. Unusual outside China, Korea and Japan, the inclusion of female characters for non-romantic purposes has become commonplace in the wuxia genre.

Triad doesn’t break any new ground in its story of three childhood friends who join the Hong Kong triads after witnessing a rare act of kindness, bravery and generosity on the part of a local boss. Figuring that such things happen all the time and the marketplace Brother Patrick controls values his protection, the teenagers decide to follow in his violent footsteps. After clashing with one of Patrick’s rivals, however, one of them is sent away to Taiwan to lay low and concentrate on getting a law degree. Upon his return to Hong Kong, though, the young man finds other ways to serve the gang. Control of the island will soon revert back to the PRC and the triad bosses don’t want to be hung out to dry. While the Young Turks attack each other with knives and fists of fury, nary a single cop attempts to enforce the law. Not surprisingly, in the pursuit of power, the three friends come to loggerheads over priorities and tactics. In addition to re-introducing the gang movie to the repertoire of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, Triad’s primary reason for being appears to be adding fresh young faces to the mix, such as those belonging to William Chan, Edward Tsui, Derek Tsang and Michelle Wai.

The Legend of Hell House: Blu-ray
R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend?
When it comes to horror, the learning curve is very short. You either dig it, or you don’t. Some of us got hooked immediately upon being introduced to the great Universal characters of the 1930s. Others picked up on it during the 1950-60s, when the gap between sci-fi and horror narrowed to near invisibility. Teenagers flooded to the genre when the slasher/splatter films began to kill off their peers in staggering numbers. I paired the otherwise unrelated The Legend of Hell House and R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend? because, today, both can be seen as stepping stones to more frightening stuff down the road. If, for example, a child is turned on by Stine’s writings and adaptations of them on film, their next stop might be toward books and movies with Stephen King’s imprint on them, or Kevin Williamson’s teen thrillers. New to Blu-ray, Legend of Hell House may look a bit old-fashioned after 40 years in circulation, but it remains the quintessential haunted-house flick of the last 50 years. The tension builds naturally and the shocks aren’t artificially induced through use of CGI or special makeup effects. It pays homage to the Hammer Studio classics, while anticipating the movement toward recognizing parapsychology as something other than a hoax or hobby. Roddy McDowall plays one of four psychic investigators who descend upon an abandoned English manor known as the Mt. Everest of haunted houses. McDowell’s character is the sole survivor of a previous expedition and he’s convinced that the evil forces inhabiting Hell House are capable of murder. The hi-def restoration accentuates the scary color scheme of the original, which captured the estate’s dark shadows and dusty atmosphere. It adds a new interview with director John Hough and commentary with actress Pamela Franklin.

Teen favorites Bella Thorne, Madison Pettis and Ryan Ochoa star in Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend?, which takes a more family-friendly approach to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. Evil spirits are hell-bent on ruining Max’s big Halloween-night date with Cammy, the smart and popular redhead at school. To combat them, Max calls on his ghostly pals, Tara and Nicky, who’ve lost contact with their parents. Given Stine’s constituency, the story forgoes the religious aspects of parapsychology, which inform the Hell House investigation and debate. The only extras are a digital copy of the 91-minute movie and UltraViolet capability.

President Wolfman
Baby Blues: Blu-ray
Closed Circuit Extreme
Sonno Profondo: Limited Edition
After Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter produced a ripple of excitement in movie circles last year, the odds in favor of having a Wolfman as our next president became prohibitive. The first surprise comes in knowing that anyone with a digital editing bank and photographic memory of crappy B-movies could have made the same movie as Mike Davis, who splices-and-dices tape with the best of them. President Wolfman is comprised of a reported 112 different clips from movies in the public domain and stock footage, as well as some grainy government instructional shorts, classroom-education movies and vintage stag reels. It’s a bizarre amalgam of material, but the sum of its parts, when redubbed dialogue is added, sometimes is very funny, indeed. The second surprise arrives in the form of Dean Stockwell, whose visage was lifted from some long-forgotten movie and, through the art of voice acting, is President Wolfman. The werewolf-in-chief is required here to balance a schedule that includes preventing his congressional opponents from selling the U.S. to China; keeping his vice-president from killing his 8-year-old son; and investigating a series of gory murders in the nation’s capital. Because President Wolfman is every bit as nutso as it sounds, it’s definitely not for everyone. The special features add short films by Davis, outtakes, a music video and highlight reel.

As high concepts go, PMS Cop, could hardly be more succinct. In two words, the title not only tells viewers exactly what to expect from the movie, but it also baits a hook to tantalize tens of thousands of B-movie lovers. In a wonderful opening sequence, patrol officer Mary Collins (Heather Hall) subdues an evil clown with what her commanding officer decides is excessive force. Considering that the perp was caught in the act of raping a young woman in a home invasion and exhibited a willingness to use violence to avoid arrest, Collins’ response was entirely justified. Nevertheless, the department’s psychiatrist determines that she suffers from extreme PMS and ought to take part in a drug experiment designed to find a cure. Needless to say, the therapist stands to benefit financially if the drug proves to be marketable to women who seek relief from the problem. In the pharmaceutical company’s rush to complete the tests, however, they neglected to study the effects of the menstrual drug on women with rage issues unrelated to PMS or cops pushed to the boiling point by people they suspect of breaking the law. Despite the “progress” displayed by Collins, the drug has the opposite effect when memories of watching her partner die in the pursuit of a criminal come to the fore. When a traffic stop threatens to go sideways, Collins rips the jaw from the skull of a guy who questions her judgment and authority. The incident is captured by a video camera in the grill of her patrol car. Oops. It’s at this point that Mary’s character evolves into PMS Cop (now played by Cindy Means) and the question then becomes one of how to use the drug to create an army of super-powerful women warriors. Bryon Blakey only spent about $30,000 on PMS Cop, but the finished product is far more satisfying than movies whose budgets are 10 times that amount and are still considered to be shoestring projects.

Baby Blues strings together a half-dozen horror tropes — mostly to positive effect — to create a film that is genuinely creepy, if not particularly scary. Like clowns and ventriloquists’ dummies, the presence of dolls with lifelike eyes in the first reel almost always signals what’s going to happen in the next 90 minutes. Child’s Play, of course, is evil-doll movie against which all other such movies have been measured, at least during the course of the last 26 years. The dolls in Baby Blues possess telekinetic powers that reach out and touch everyone in the orbit of newlyweds Hao (Raymond Lam) and Tian Qing (Janelle Sing). Hao is a songwriter for several of the top pop acts in China, while his wife writes a blog about celebrities and the entertainment. (We don’t actually see Tian Qing at work, which is par for the course in these movies.) When they purchase a lovely new home, the couple can’t possibly imagine what the leftover doll might have in mind for them. Among other things, though, it will become for Tian Qing a surrogate sibling for the twin son she lost immediately after giving birth. Unbeknownst to the hugely depressed woman, her “son” Jimmy is making life miserable for her husband and his pop-star clients. The couple can’t say they weren’t warned, however. A homeless man who haunts their neighborhood had seen what happened to the previous owners and suggested that they, too, take a powder. Despite its Chinese roots, Baby Blues was designed to look as if it could be taking place in any suburban neighborhood in the world, a device that somehow makes it less scary.

Closed Circuit Extreme is a yet another found-footage thriller that is neither thrilling nor logically plotted. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to tell with any certainty if Giorgio Amato’s freshman feature takes place in Italy or the United States, as the characters speak broken English throughout the film and the antagonist’s home looks as if it belonged in Anywhere USA. It’s also possible that Amato borrowed the plot of Disturbia and, instead of binoculars, had his amateur sleuths use modern surveillance equipment to spy on suspected serial killer. After a female friend vanishes, a young man and woman sneak into the culprit’s home and plant cameras throughout the house. For most of the first half of Closed Circuit Extreme, the constant tinkering with the equipment and shots of the fat slob in his underwear are the cinematic equivalent of a root canal. When he finally does reveal his true colors, the spies aren’t even in position to watch the violence he perpetrates against the women he lures to his home under false pretenses. Nor do they review the day’s tapes to see how the creep might have spent his day. The attacks on the captive women border on the unwatchable, which is probably as they should be viewed. What’s missing is any reason to hope that they’ll be rescued before being killed or evidence that the spies know what to do with any incriminating video. As such, Closed Circuit Extreme is little more than a voyeuristic exercise.

One needn’t be addicted to Italian giallo films to enjoy Luciano Onetti’s visually disturbing thriller, Sonno Profondo (“Deep Sleep”), but a working familiarity with the subgenre’s conceits will make the neo-giallo experience that much more comprehensible. For beginners, Italian mysteries of the 1960-70s turned American film noir inside-out by adding garish color schemes, a disturbing musical soundtrack, hyper-violent crimes, various degrees of nudity and a playful approach to point-of-view. At the time, American audiences found them to be too far over the top to be taken seriously. That impression began to change when buffs acknowledged the legitimacy of the form and its many pleasures. Sonno Profondo uses modern technology to tinker with the subgenre’s many tropes and push the accelerator on the visual narrative. The film opens with the silhouette of woman – a prostitute, but we don’t know that yet – getting herself together, ostensibly for a night of hot sex. As she applies her makeup, a man with a very sharp knife approaches the woman and eliminates her from the cast of characters. Unbeknownst to the killer, though, he’s being followed by an anonymous stalkers, who will photograph the attack and slide the pictures under his door the next day. It triggers sublimated childhood memories in the fiend and raises the movie’s paranoia quotient to the breaking point. If the story eventually gets lost in Onetti’s stylistic experimentation, at least something different is being attempted here.

Judging from the surrealism at work in Seth Smith’s feature debut, Lowlife, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he feasted on the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch as a boy and, therefore, developed a very different concept of horror than his peers. In it, a musician becomes addicted to a substance secreted from a form of starfish he pulls out of puddles in the forests of Halifax. The psychotropic drug is accessed by chewing the starfish, which appears to be very much alive. He convinces a similarly disaffected young woman to join him on his trips and the experience proves to be enlightening for her. Before long, the drug takes them over, body and soul, causing ever more desperate foraging in the marshy wilderness. Lowlife is a very strange movie and definitely not one for the squeamish. Anyone who got through Naked Lunch or Dune shouldn’t have much problem with it, though.

Animal House of Blues
After surviving the Merry Prankster era, the green revolution and some of the most garish uniforms in collegiate sports, you’d think that Eugene, Oregon, would be blasé about its place in Hollywood history. You’d be wrong. If old hippies and drunken UofO fraternity boys can agree on one thing, it’s that hosting the production of Animal House sure was a super-cool, awesome-to-the-max, impossible-to-forget experience for everyone involved. Eugene was still mourning the untimely death of now-legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine when John Landis’ flying circus came to town in 1977. No one, let alone Universal Pictures executives, could have imagined just how popular Animal House would turn out to be at the box office or that it would spawn an entirely new subgenre: the gross-out comedy. The winsome do-it-yourself documentary, Animal House of Blues, not only describes how the production has continued to impact the community, but also credits local musicians for inspiring the Blues Brothers phenomenon and, by extension, the House of Blues franchise. Katherine Wilson, who served as a location scout for the project, is the driving force behind the documentary. The Klamath Falls native got the call after Animal House’s resident scouts were rejected by every eastern college they had contacted. (The movie’s Delta House was inspired by one writer’s experiences as an Alpha Delta at Dartmouth.) The university and its environs opened their arms to John Belushi & Co., and the rest is history. The most interesting thing about the documentary, besides Kim Plant’s recollection of disrobing in front of a leering Belushi in the sorority house scene, is the story of how local blues musicians Curtis Salgado and Robert Cray inspired Belushi to debut the Blues Brothers routine on “Saturday Night Live,” giving full credit to Salgado. (Landis’ next movie would be an extension of that short-lived sensation.) Animal House of Blues isn’t the most polished documentary you’re likely to see this year, but what it lacks in technical proficiency it makes up for in heart and the warm glow of nostalgia. If nothing else, it’s a must-see for Animal House fanatics.

Revelation Trail
The Walking Dead: Season 4
If all a critic reviews are previously released movies as they make the transition from multiplexes to DVD/Blu-ray, that person is bound to miss some hidden gems in the straight-to-DVD pile. Considering the largely pathetic state of Hollywood products for 11 months of the calendar year, it serves almost no one to ignore the low-budget indies in favor of already reviewed studio fare. It’s important, then, for genre enthusiasts to pay attention to bloggers and websites dedicated to horror, sci-fi, fantasy and, for all I know, Westerns and gangster flicks. Revelation Trail is a perfect example of a movie that could have been lost in the crowd, if it weren’t championed by writers who make it their job to separate the wheat from the chaff. As entertaining as it is, John P. Gibson’s merger of Western and horror tropes likely was deemed too bizarre for distribution or even much festival exposure. Certainly, the market for zombie-apocalypse movies is oversaturated and it’s impossible to predict how a Western might perform. After the expensive disaster that was Cowboys & Aliens, one could hardly imagine any studio taking a chance on another genre mosh-up. Unlike that movie, however, Revelation Trail plays things very much down the middle. Yes, it’s crazy to think zombies roamed the west like deer and antelopes at play. But, whoever thought they would show up in Pittsburgh, of all undead places, for George A. Romeo to exploit in Night of the Living Dead? The Civil War has finally ended and frontier families are attempting to get their lives back together. A man known only as the Preacher watches helplessly as his wife and son are infected by drifters who spent the night in his barn. Soon, the countryside is awash in the walking and running dead. Preacher and the Marshal Edwards know what they must do to impede the individual zombies, but they disagree on whether they deserve a proper Christian burial and a prayer for the dead. I’m serious. As the two men head further west, other challenges await them, including a shortage of bullets. Even though the producers had very little money to invest in props and other luxuries, Revelation Trail looks as authentic as any other Western I’ve seen in the past few years. Likewise, Daniel Van Thomas and Daniel Britt are completely credible as denizens of the Old West … and sharpshooters. The bonus featurette is well worth the effort of checking out, especially for aspiring filmmakers who want to learn how to make good movies without the benefit of a generous budget.

As if Rick Grimes and the rest of the prison dwellers didn’t have enough to worry about after three seasons of struggle against the walkers, Season Four of “The Walking Dead” added yet another dilemma to the survivors. The year opens with the introduction of a fast-moving virus that shows no mercy and leaves them to deal with the reality of new zombies. Moreover, the Governor is threatening to storm the prison and take what he wants from the survivors. All the while, the characters and loyal viewers are left to wonder if there’s any real point in struggling to stay alive, when the reward for survival is more struggle. Pick up the DVD/Blu-ray now and straggles will have plenty of time to catch up with the story, as well as wade through the copious bonus material, including commentaries, character studies, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Citizen Koch
A very different kind of horror is at play in the shocking political documentary Citizen Koch. It describes how two extremely wealthy businessmen – David and Charles Koch — have used their vast resources to convince American conservatives, traditionalists and brain-dead Tea Party fanatics that President Obama, trade unions and anyone to the left of Arnold Schwarzenegger are greater threats to our way of life than al Qaeda, the Taliban and Isis combined. They’ve already purchased the U.S. Supreme Court and a couple of dozen statehouses, but seem to have their sights set on eliminating every impediment to unbridled corporate greed voted into law since FDR. The Koch brothers don’t appear to have an opinion on issues related to anything other than reducing taxes, eliminating regulatory agencies and balancing budgets, but that doesn’t mean their followers aren’t obsessed with the ages-old Negro problem, unfettered gun ownership and undocumented communist immigrants from Guatemala. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) trace the Koch brothers’ cannibalization of democracy to the rise of the Tea Party and acceptance of Fox News as a beacon of truth; the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to remove limits on corporate political donations; and the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, after he successfully diluted the rights of union workers. The Kochs financed the Tea Party-aligned Americans for Prosperity, whose positions parrot those of the lobbying organizations that now set the Republican agenda and even write legislation sponsored by easily steered politicians. Citizen Koch isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the direction in which this country is headed, if only because debate and compromise no longer exist in this country and political opinions are etched in stone. If only carefully considered documentaries from the left or right could be spoon-fed to dedicated non-voters, there might be some hope for the future. It’s worth noting that Walker, who ran on a platform promising new jobs for state workers, has yet to create any in Wisconsin. Instead, he has funneled state funds to projects of interest to his out-of-state backers. The DVD adds interviews and a panel discussion hosted by Michael Moore.

Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series
Hey Arnold! The Complete Series Box Set
The CW: The Originals: The Complete First Season
PBS:Masterpiece Mystery!: Breathless: Season One
PBS: Nature: Fabulous Frog: Blu-ray
PBS: History Detectives: Special Investigations
Syfy: Haven: Complete Fourth Season [Blu-ray]
PBS KidsL: Arthur Goes Back to School
Available for the first time in DVD, the complete four-season run of “Welcome Back, Kotter” – one of the most fondly remembered sitcoms of the 1970s – has finally been released through Shout! Factory. Set in an urban high school, not unlike the one in Blackboard Jungle, the show described the antics of a group of unruly students, the Sweathogs, and one dedicated teachers efforts to prevent them from matriculating directly to Attica or Sing-Sing. Standup comedian Gabe Kaplan had attended just such a school and based his characters and their names on his own experiences and acquaintances. When it came to exchanging barbs with the kids, Kotter gave as good as he got, He also shared their attitude toward authority figures. (Like Major Major in “Catch-22,” the school’s principal was perpetually absent.) Compared to the hoodlums in Glenn Ford’s classroom in Blackboard Jungle, however, Kotter’s students were pushovers to his methodology. Kaplan made sure that audience members could identify with one or two of the characters, at least, and Kotter’s long-suffering wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman), wasn’t overwhelmed by his devotion to duty or the student’s impromptu visits to their apartment. Of course, a student body that included John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes (a Puerto Rican Jew) and Debralee Scott – all in their 20s – kept viewers coming back for more. They also kept Kaplan in poker chips for the next 30-plus years. The DVD package adds “Only a Few Degrees From a Sweathog “ and the actors’ original screen tests.

You’ll have to go to Wal-mart, at least for the time being, to pick up Shout!’s complete-series box of the delightful Nickelodeon series, “Hey Arnold!”  Ninety-nine episodes have been loaded onto 16 discs, totaling 38 hours of classic cartoon fun. The show, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1996-2001 and “Nick on CBS from 2002-04, was part of a wave of animated shows that toyed with cartoon conventions at the time, giving kids something other than clichés to savor. Arnold’s football-shaped head sat on the body of a normal body, which wasn’t at all strange on Nickelodeon. Arnold lives with his grandparents, who run the Sunset Arms boarding house, but spends most of his time hanging out on the roof with an unusual menagerie of pals. The voicing cast included Dan Castellaneta, Francesca Smith, Toran Caudell and Jamil Walker Smith.

The Originals” is a spin-off series from the CW’s supernatural prime-time soap opera, “The Vampire Diaries.” It centers around the Mikaelson siblings — Klaus, Elijah and Rebekah – and the werewolf, Hayley, who is pregnant with Klaus’ child. Of course, they all look as if they just stepped off the set of a MTV reality. As the series opens, the original siblings have returned to New Orleans for the first time since 1919, when their vengeful father sent them packing. In their absence, Klaus’ protégé, Marcel, took charge of the city, which always looks as if it has been taken over by over-served ghouls, vampires and witches. The Blu-ray package adds commentary on the pilot episode; panel discussions from ComicCon and PaleyFest; making-of and background pieces; and unaired scenes.

Breathless,” the latest “Masterpiece Mystery!” import from Britain’s ITV Studios, should appeal to fans of “Mad Men” and “Masters of Sex,” in that it captures moments in time from a male-dominated world on the brink of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, In 1961, doctors would soon be allowed to dispense birth-control pills, but were still prohibited from performing abortions. Surgeon Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) presides over a busy hospital gynecology ward, while also counseling women too ashamed, afraid or damaged to seek help in public facilities, Meanwhile, Powell’s own shadowy past is about to be brought into the light by a mysterious police investigator. It took me a longer time than usual to pick up the rhythm of the narrative of the “Masterpiece” presentation. After a couple of episodes, though, I was hooked, more by the acting and soap-opera aspects of the story than the mystery.

Left to their own devices, easily bored boys can be exceedingly cruel to small animals. Frogs make especially easy targets for their curiosity, restlessness and malevolent moods. It’s why I suggest that parents, camp counselors and Boy Scout leaders expose kids to PBS’ amazing “Nature” installment,

Fabulous Frog,” before being allowed to get anywhere near a lake, marsh or pond during summer vacation. Once again, host David Attenborough introduces us to animals – amphibians, in this case – we only know from pictures and might never encounter in their natural habitats. What we discover are frogs that come in a myriad of colors, shapes, sizes, mating habits, toxicity and carefully evolved behavior. Attenborough clearly is as astonished as viewers will be by what he sees, but once again is able to hold our attention without compromising the science. The frogs look spectacular in Blu-ray, as well.

The hosts of PBS’ “History Detective: Specials Investigations” tries his very best to turn already fascinating stories into something bordering on the mythical. Wes Cowan, Kaiama Glover and Tukufu Zuberi appear to have been mentored by Howard Cosell’s acting coach. In attempting to solve mysteries that have stumped historians for decades, they add a layer of breathless prose more suited to basic cable than PBS. The stories they tell sell themselves, however, and by the end of each episode the hosts let the facts speak for themselves. The new DVD compilation contains investigations into the disappearances of bandleader Glenn Miller, during World War II, and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa; the “Texas Servant Girl Murders”; and the cause of a steamboat disaster in which hundreds of furloughed Union soldiers were killed.

The Troubles returned to Haven, Maine, during the fourth season of Syfy Channel’s supernatural series, “Haven.” It stars Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour, whose characters struggle to help townspeople with bizarre ailments and protect the town from the effects of those afflictions. When FBI Agent Audrey Parker (Rose) arrives in Haven, she quickly realizes that this seemingly routine case is anything but. The series is based on Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid.” The Season Four collection includes over 2½ hours of bonus features and an exclusive 16-page comic book.

PBS Kids’ “Arthur Goes Back to School” finds the 8-year-old aardvark and friends preparing to return to classes .  The latest compilation of adventures  includes “To Eat or Not to Eat,” ”S.W.E.A.T”; “Baseball Blues” and “Brain’s Biggest Blunder.”

The DVD Wrapup: Only Lovers Left Alive, Spider-Man 2, Fading Gigolo and more

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive
If you plan to watch only one more vampire movie this year, make it Only Lovers Left Behind. Like Tomas Alfredson and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In and Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, Jim Jarmusch’s dreamy undead romance stands apart from the crowd of horror pictures whose sole intention is to make audiences cringe. (Teens probably would include the Twilight series among the aforementioned titles, but its freshness wore out quickly after Episode One. Let the Right One In did pretty well here, especially considering its characters only spoke Swedish, even spawning a very good English-language spinoff, Let Me In. As good as it is, the sexy and violent Byzantium only found an audience in the U.S. in its release on premium-cable outlets. After playing in festivals and arthouses around the globe, Only Lovers Left Behind suffered the same disappointing fate as most other Jarmusch films in their commercial release. It’s possible that potential viewers were scared off by the inscrutability of his last picture, The Limits of Control, but five years is a long time to hold a grudge. It would be too easy to describe Only Lovers Left Behind as a vampire movie for people who hate vampire movies, because, like Let the Right One In and Byzantium, it isn’t beyond any movie lover’s grasp. Even if Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are several times more sensitive and cultured than other movies vampires, they require the same quantities of human blood to survive as everyone else. (They also look as if they’ve lived in the shadows for several centuries.)

Already married three times in their long lives, Adam and Eve’s love has survived innumerable crises, cultural upheavals and witch hunts. Eve currently is living in Tangiers, near her longtime friend and confidante Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and his steady supply of super-pure plasma. Bored and lazy, Adam is wasting away among the ruins of Detroit, where he spends most of his time recording freaky electronic music on classic guitars. His manager, Ian (Anton Yelchin), services Adam’s every need, even going so far as to hire a craftsman to create a single mahogany bullet for his client, so, when the mood strokes, he can commit suicide. Sensing imminent danger, Eve flies by night to Detroit to comfort her lover, who lives in a landmark Victorian mansion that is surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned cars. The interior is cluttered with photographs of famous artists, musicians and writers; antique furniture and appliances (imagine Skyping via an ancient Philco TV set); and old-fashioned analog recording equipment. In a typically Jarmuschian touch, Adam invites Eve to take a moonlit tour of the city. Instead of stopping by the Motown museum, which she deems to be a ho-hum experience, both vampires welcome the opportunity to visit the house in which rocker Jack White was raised, as well as the graffiti-scarred ruins of a once-grand theater. Time passes elliptically until Eve’s little sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), drops by uninvited. In the course of a few short hours, the wild-child does something so unspeakable it forces Adam to flee Detroit. The sequence is the only thing that passes for action in Only Lovers Left Alive, whose technical and musical credits are so outstanding you don’t miss the gore and violence that mark other vampire movies. As such, it is a movie that demands to be seen in Blu-ray. Also included is “Traveling at Night With Jim Jarmusch,” a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and the Yasmine Hamdan music video, “Hal.” Only Lovers Left Behind

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Combo Pack
Batman: Assault on Arkham: Blu-ray
As cool and enduring a character as Spider-Man is, I’m willing to argue that he’s become something of a one-trick pony in the hands of Hollywood mythmakers. Other superheroes have been required to share the spotlight with ever-more spectacular set pieces, but, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the CGI tail really is wagging the dog. The story-telling legacy of such great comic-book pioneers as Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is being ignored, if favor of awe-inspiring acrobatics and destruction. In this regard, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has fared better than every other comic-book franchise series. The narrative is as crucial to our enjoyment of the movies as the circus tricks. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the second installment in the second Peter Parker trilogy of the 21st Century. In the James Bond pictures, at least, the signature set pieces open each episode, leaving the adventure, witty dialogue, exotic locations and Bond Girls to carry the load for the rest of the way. In “AS-M2,” the chases and street fights practically carry the whole movie, with the strong emotional climax squeezed between false endings. It’s already been suggested that the best part of the movie is hidden in the bonus features. We already know that Peter suffers a debilitating crisis in conscience and confidence near the end of the movie, which is resolved in satisfactory fashion. In a strange twist, however, director Marc Webb teases fans with an alternate ending that borders on the supernatural. Is it better than the one that made the cut? Until Part 3 arrives in a couple of years, the debate will take place in chatrooms. Among the other supplemental material are commentary with writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner and producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad; several other deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary from Webb; the six-part, 103-minute “The Wages of Heroism: Making the ‘Amazing Spider-Man 2’”; and a music video, “It’s On Again,” by Alicia Keys.

Speaking of the Caped Crusader, Batman: Assault on Arkham demonstrates once again that some of the best story-telling in the superhero genre is taking place right now in animated features and animated comics, where the stories have to stand or fall on their own merits. Typically, they offer a stage for ancillary characters who deserve more exposure and token appearances by the brand-name stars. Here, the government forces a group of supervillains with the code name Suicide Squad to break into Arkham Asylum – a spinoff from the video-game series — to bring back top-secret information the Riddler has stolen. Batman gets involved when one member of the Squad frees the Joker, whose desire for revenge is no joke.

Fading Gigolo
Just because Fading Gigolo walks like a duck and talks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s a Woody Allen movie. Even knowing going into it that the romantic comedy was written and directed by John Turturro may not be enough to convince some viewers that Allen isn’t behind the screen pulling the strings. Even if he contributed something more than his trademark alter-ego to the mix, what would be the harm? Can you think of a New York-based director or screenwriter – with the exception of Sidney Lumet — who hasn’t been influenced by the Woodman, one way or the other? Turturro has already written and directed several films that don’t carry Allen’s fingerprints, so there’s no reason for anyone to think he’s just another Woody wanna-be. Nevertheless, some people insist “Fading Gigolo” is the best movie Allen’s made in a good while. Here, he plays a third-generation New York bookseller, Murray, who’s just been forced to close his business. His longtime friend, Fioravante (John Turturro), is quite a bit younger, but still cut from the same cloth. After listening to his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), muse about her desire to engage in a three-way before she gets too old to enjoy it, Murray makes her a proposition too delicious for her to refuse. For a cool $1,000, including his commission, he’s willing to set Parker up with Fioravante, who he describes as being nothing short of a Renaissance man. (In Manhattan, that means he’s equal parts plumber, carpenter, floral arranger, gourmand and raconteur.) Almost simultaneously, Murray convinces a long-grieving Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis) to see Fioravante for some massage therapy, which brings her as close to orgasm as at any time since her marriage. Throw in Sofia Vergara, as the doctor’s dance-crazy Latin friend, and Liev Schreiber, as the custodian of the widow’s virtue, and you’ve got the makings of a sexual farce on the order of Mighty Aphrodite, only sweeter and less raunchy. Mature audiences don’t get many opportunities to see romantic comedies like Fading Gigolo anymore, so it’s a good idea to catch the good ones when they come along.

Live Nude Girls
I recognized the premise to the new, direct-to-DVD Live Nude Girls – not to be confused with the 1995 chick flick of the same titlefrom a venerable late-night Skinemax movie, in which a pair of buxom young women inherit a relative’s strip club and are required to keep it from going bankrupt. Standing in their way are all the usual suspects: corrupt cops, mobsters, jealous dancers and their own naiveté. Here, two bozos from Wisconsin inherit a club in L.A. – maybe the same one – from an uncle who invested his profits in the sexual favors provided by his own employees. As nice as the place is, the clientele resembles an AA meeting at the local Comedy Club. A bunch of unkempt and disreputable guys inhabit the place, in all likelihood driving away all of the paying customers. Like most strippers on cable TV, however, the dancers here are almost freakishly gorgeous. They could be making exponentially more bread dancing in any other club in southern California, but they prefer to work at the one where no one makes any money and the corrupt officials demand free blow jobs. Things begin to change when a naïve blond gymnast (Bree Olson) arrives at the club, looking for a job as a cocktail waitress. When she demonstrates what she can do on the pole, however, all of the employees begin seeing hope on the horizon. Olson is joined by several other soft- and hard-core actresses, including Tera Patrick, Annemarie Pazmino, Asa Akira, Mindy Robinson and Rachel Alig. Dave Foley is wasted as the drunken club manager and Andy Dick supposedly makes an appearance, somewhere. Live Nude Girls was co-written and directed by the late Jay Leggett (“In Living Color”), an actor and producer who died last year in his hometown of Tomahawk, Wisconsin.

Jarhead 2: Field of Fire: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
In the world of direct-to-DVD movies, it almost always pays to add a number after a familiar title, even if the newer movie has next to nothing in common with the original. Slap “Gone With the Wind II” and a Confederate flag on any movie set in the South and someone’s going to fall for the ruse. Jarhead 2: Field of Fire isn’t nearly as misleading as “Gone With the Wind II,” certainly. Like the 2005 “Jarhead,” it deals with marines in combat in a Middle Eastern shithole, where even a scorecard wouldn’t help distinguish friends from foes and the potential for a life-ending incident lies around every corner. With a cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black, Jarhead was directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and adapted for the screen from the best-selling book by former Marine Anthony Swafford by Oscar-nominee William Broyles Jr. (“Apollo 13”). The only names that might ring a bell in “J2” are veteran actors Cole Hauser, Stephen Lang and Esai Morales. The absence of familiar stars doesn’t hurt the movie one bit. It describes a routine supply operation that goes terribly wrong as it crosses through some of the most dangerous territory on the planet, the Taliban-controlled Helmond River Valley in Afghanistan. The unit is required to stop for hours in a canyon, while awaiting a team of explosives experts called in to defuse an IED. Instead, the Taliban arrive first, maintaining the high ground and killing several marines. The insurgents have been tracking a pair of Navy SEALs and their “package,” an Afghan woman famous for her defiance of the Taliban. The marines’ numbers diminished, radios and vehicles destroyed, the surviving SEAL leads the unit to a possibly friendly village several miles away. In advancing the narrative, “J2” plays things pretty straight down the middle. The marines are far more dedicated to each other than any policy dictated in Washington and the Taliban aren’t portrayed as being stupid or incompetent. The SEAL, on the other hand, is focused exclusively on getting the woman out of the danger zone. The action sequences are every bit as convincing as those in Lone Survivor. It might represent one mission in many, but it should be enough for most of us back home. The Blu-ray offers rated and unrated versions, as well as deleted scenes.

Leviathon: Blu-ray
P-51 Dragon Fighter
Although pretty rough around the edges, the low-budget Worm finds all sorts of amusing ways to stretch an 8-minute short into a 93-minute psycho-thriller. Doug Mallette’s freshman feature opens with a TV news reporter from Central Casting explaining to viewers that a cure has been found to a 30-year plague that deprives people of the ability to dream. Fantasites are genetically engineered parasites that look very much like earthworms and probably taste like Gummi worms. Instead, when the parasitic worms are dropped into the ear canal, they induce deep sleep and wonderfully stimulating dreams. The Fantasites can be purchased in different colors, representing the different levels of dream state. Mallette’s socially and mechanically inept protagonist, Charles (John Ferguson), is a maintenance man in a complex inhabited by renters who can afford the cream of the parasites. One of them introduces Charles to Fantasites, but only those from the bottom of the barrel. Soon enough, however, he figures out a way to switch packages with his new “best friend” and his girlfriend, keeping the most powerful for himself. As news of the miracle sleep aid spreads through the land, so, too, do reports of serious physical and mental problems. When the government bans the product, an underground industry blossoms, causing even greater problems with junkies and crime. A subplot involving Charles and his tenant’s worm-addicted girlfriend helps keep the largely improvised story moving forward. The DVD adds the short film, Worm, originally conceived as a short for Nashville’s 48-Hour Film Project; deleted scenes; and commentary.

1989 was a good year for sci-fi thrillers set thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean. Of George Cosmatos’ “Leviathan,” Sean S. Cunningham’s DeepStar Six and James Cameron’s The Abyss, guess which one nearly drowned the other two at the box office. That’s right. Even though The Abyss sold more tickets, though, the revenues only managed to match its production costs, which were amplified by the use of state-of-the-art computer software. Because Leviathan and DeepStar Six played as well at the drive-in as in theaters, their producers might even have been able to claim victory. Cosmatos’ picture doesn’t deviate much from the formula invented in 1951 by The Thing From Another World. In it, a diverse group of undersea miners can hardly wait to be relieved by another company crew. Before they can begin packing their duffel bags, however, one of the miners stumbles upon a sunken Soviet freighter. He manages to drag the ship’s safe to the base camp, where they make the mistake of divvying up the spoils. When the diver (Daniel Stern) who claimed a flask of vodka begins to display a serious rash, the team’s doctor (Richard Crenna) fears there might have been something in the safe, besides Stolichnaya. Even if he can’t identify the virus with any precision, Doc knows it’s not curable with aspirin. After the first two victims die, the corpses begin to metamorphose into creatures that might have been left behind when Alien wrapped.  Soon enough, others come up with the same symptoms and the threat of something much greater looms. The battle for survival is pretty exciting, as these things go, feverishly paced and well-conceived. Along for the ride are Peter Weller, Amanda Pays and Ernie Hudson. The Blu-ray features include “Leviathan: Monster Melting Pot,” with plenty of entertaining interviews about working under Cosmatos and special-makeup-effects wizard Stan Winston; “Dissecting Cobb With Hector Elizondo,” with his reminiscences about the shoot; and “Surviving Leviathan With Ernie Hudson.”

P-51 Dragon Fighter looks as if it might have been written and shot in the 1950s, instead of last year. Even the cover is a throwback to cheesier times. Just as the Allies are about to send the Germans packing from North Africa, the Nazis pull out their wild card. They’ve been cultivating the eggs of flying, fire-breathing dragons and now are ready to mobilize them. If the Allies’ P-51 pilots weren’t able to eliminate the menace, WWII could very well have ended differently. Maybe, like me, you’ve forgotten how that part of the war turned out.

Magnificent Doll
Although there’s nothing at all wrong with the performances of Burgess Meredith and David Niven in Frank Borzage’s almost completely bogus 1946 bio-pic of Dolley Madison, only a guess appearance by Fred Astaire would have prevented Ginger Rogers’ star turn from being relegated to the dust bin of cinematic history. Astaire could have made a cameo performance as Alexander Hamilton to Niven’s Aaron Burr and Meredith’s James Madison and another ballroom scene could have been written into the script, allowing Rogers and Astaire to perform a token minuet or reel. As it is, Magnificent Doll made no one happy and quickly disappeared in the post-WWII mist. Author Irving Stone’s original story and screenplay focuses largely on a non-existent love triangle between Madison, Hamilton and Burr, with Dolley baling on Aaron when he begins to explain his delusions of dynastic grandeur to her. It shows her cutting the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame, as the British advanced on Washington in the War of 1812, even though she probably ordered it done by servants, instead. Dolley’s contributions to the restoration of the nation’s capital and defense of her husband’s fragile presidency are overlooked in favor of her desire to warn President Jefferson about Burr’s mutinous plans and, later, travel to the site of his trial for treason to prevent a mob angry at his acquittal from lynching her former beau. Her service to presidents Jefferson and Madison as virtual First Lady and actual First Lady is minimized in favor of romantic folderol and a timeline that skews the order of historical events for as many as 10 years. Unless one is a student basing a paper on Dolley Madison, it’s pretty easy to dismiss “Magnificent Doll” as just another Hollywood costume drama. Madison’s own post-White House story, including her fall from financial grace after the death of her husband – not a particularly glamorous assignment given what we’ve already seen from a leading lady of Rogers’ stature — was as dramatic as anything cut from whole cloth by Stone. One interesting thing that went unpursued was the lively debate over women’s rights and the emancipation of slaves that began almost immediately began after the Revolutionary War. Despite his megalomaniacal plans to create a new American government, there was a time when Burr was as progressive a politician as Barak Obama once purported to be.

Swelter: Blu-ray
As much as one tries, it’s impossible not to invoke Quentin Tarantino’s name when reviewing movies that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction hadn’t preceded them. Keith Parmer’s sophomore feature, Swelter, is one of those pictures. Set in an imaginary patch of the Mojave Desert that we’re told is the border town of Baker, it offers all of the slam-bang action, brash dialogue, seedy locations and flashbacks favored by Tarantino and Richard Rodriguez, minus the narrative flow and interior logic. (And, yes, I’m aware that Baker isn’t a border town. Neither is there a Mad Greek restaurant or giant thermometer in the movie.) Swelter opens with a flashback to an inelegant $100-million heist at a Las Vegas casino. Much blood was shed; several of the crooks were arrested; and the loot seemingly vanished into thin air. When the gang is reunited 10 years later, the bad guys get wind of the fact that one of their own currently is serving as sheriff of the desert community. He prefers not to carry a gun and can’t remember participating in the holdup, let alone where he hid the money. It’s not the worst setup for a new-age Western, really. The trouble is that Parmer quickly makes it impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys and inconveniently forgets to draw a line between bloodlust and the common sense needed to recover the $100 million. On the other side of the coin, Parmer was able to wrangle Jean-Claude Van Damme and Alfred Molina into his stable of actors and their performances, alone, almost make us forgive him the holes in his story. The desert scenery looks pretty swell in hi-def, as well. It adds interviews with all of the key hombres.

If no mountains actually are climbed in Walter Stafford’s debut feature, Kilimanjaro, it’s not for lack of trying. Mostly, the millennial yuppies we meet here have come to a point in their lives where they’ve hit a wall and must decide if reaching the summit of their professions and relationships is worth the effort it will take to continue the climb. If that metaphor weren’t made sufficiently clear, however, there would still be all of those sleek Manhattan skyscrapers looming in the background, reminding them of the verticality of life in the corporate jungle. At 29, Doug (Brian Geraghty) has already passed several rungs on the ladder of success. Easy-going to a fault, he willingly plays the go-along/get-along game at a job that isn’t sufficiently onerous to quit before reaping some rewards. Doug’s even willing to the roll with the punch he receives from his live-in girlfriend, when she decides to try something or someone more exciting. In fact, it prompts him to make plans to reach a somewhat loftier summit … if only on a well-deserved vacation. The true breaking point comes when his boss (Jim Gaffigan) decides that his presence is needed in the office during the period he and a pal had made plans to travel to Africa. When the bozo refuses to budge on the dates, Doug gets up the courage to call his bluff and quit. Now, it would be nice to report that, henceforth, everything went swimmingly in Doug’s life. And, maybe it did. For the purposes of this interview, however, suffice it to say that things don’t quite work out as any of us thought they might. Kilimanjaro is too small and personal to have made the leap from the festival circuit to theaters. On home screens, however, it’s a pretty good fit. Co-stars Abigail Spencer, Alexia Rasmussen and Chris Marquette are perfectly cast as Geraghty’s similarly inclined pals.

Redemption Trail
In this uneven, but mostly laudable feminist drama, two women from completely different worlds attempt to find peace and redemption after suffering great traumas in their lives. The wealthy white liberal is happily married and engaged in an occupation that brings her great satisfaction. The middle-age black woman watched from under a bed while her Black Panther father was murdered by a racist cop. Her memory of his death caused her to commit crimes that led to a prison sentence. After being paroled, Tess landed a job managing the vineyards owned by a friend who lives in New York. Anna, a pediatrician, deals with the completely unexpected death of her daughter by splitting from her husband and attempting to commit suicide on the land worked by Tess. The last thing Tess wants to do is taken a needy person, who could threaten her life of splendid isolation. Anna (Lily Rabe), doesn’t want much to do with Tess (LisaGay Hamilton), either, but their shared interests result in an uneasy friendship. If the women had met under similar circumstances somewhere other than the mist-covered hills of Napa/Sonoma, it’s possible that their separate journeys along the Redemption Trail might have gotten sidetracked by other distractions. Writer/director Britta Sjogren decided, instead, to place them in one of the most serene and beautiful spots on Earth, ideal both for healing and growth. It’s about an hour’s drive north from the Bay Area, close enough for her husband (Hamish Linklater) to have finally located her after a six-month search. When Tess’ boss and sometime lover (Jake Weber) arrives with his young daughter, it sets up a dynamic that demands of the women that they come to grips with their feelings about men in positions of authority. That would be fine, if Sjogren had the time and inclination to tell us why Anna had cut her husband out of her life entirely and Tess hasn’t been able to move on from her ordeals. The director also adds a subplot that involves an immigrant family and the pot-growing cholos who terrorize them. It tells us that no one can avoid interaction with punks and hoodlums, even in paradise, and the price of redemption can sometimes be steep. Despite the holes in the story, “Redemption Trail” is very easy on the eyes and a reminder that not everyone has put the era of radical politics and women’s liberation behind them.

Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart
One of the most active sub-genres of documentary film is the one devoted to the punk and post-punk musical scene of the late-1970s and ’80s. I’ve reviewed at least a dozen such rock-docs in the last months, alone. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that video cameras and camcorders became far more accessible during this period and no band could succeed unless it had some documentation of its music and stage presence. An offshoot of the sub-genre is the nightclub profile, in which venues important to the punk scene – from New York’s Bowery to Spokane and Orange County – are saluted for providing a stage upon which incredibly loud and violent music kept the mosh pits roiling. The Twin Cities ensemble Hüsker Dü was particularly loud and aggressive. Famous in some quarters for being the “fastest band in the world,” it followed in the wake of the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop, while competing for exposure with such SoCal-based groups as Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., the Minneapolis-based Replacements and dozens of heavy-metal bands. By the time Husker Du began to experiment with melody and lyrics that demanded to be heard and understood, the musicians were hooked on drugs and uninterested in communicating with each other. (That part, of course, isn’t unique to punk groups.) Director Gorman Bechard, who’d profiled the Replacements in “Color Me Obsessed,” probably was never going to get guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart together in the same room at the same time, so he decided to focus on the one whose career has posted the most creative mileage. Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart us devoted entirely to the thoughts, music, memories and opinions of the musician referred to as the “wild one.” Now approaching his dotage, the famously red-booted drummer has no trouble filling the 97-minute film with stuff only an avid Husker Du fan could absorb in one sitting. Hart’s an interesting guy, alright, but too much of the material is repetitive and of interest to only a small circle of fans and friends. Neither is his personal history that much different than dozens of other rockers. Unlike “Color Me Obsessed,” which offered no musical soundtrack, “Every Everything” contains plenty of concert footage of the band, Hart’s solo projects and other ephemera.

William Shatner’s Get a Life!
If there’s one actor who doesn’t need another documentary made about him, it’s William Shatner. Still, they keep coming, almost with the same frequency as Star Trek conventions. Nevertheless, at 83, it’s hard to begrudge the old coot another opportunity to make nice with the same fans, he was once famously advised, Get a Life! The EPIX documentary is a follow-up to his revealing 2011 feature film, “The Captains,” during which he interviewed the various captains of the Enterprise in its many iterations. Here, he toured the floor of Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention, in Las Vegas, where he spoke with fans and official guests, alike, about their obsession with the multiplatform franchise. He also uses the occasion to come to grips with his past, his fans, their love and his own intergalactic legacy. As familiar as his shtick is by now, Shatner has no problem raising a smile and challenging viewers with his opinions.

The Marx Brothers TV Collection
As popular as the Marx Brothers continue to be, they’re still best known for a handful of timeless comedies and their unmistakable on-screen likenesses. Groucho extended his show-biz career by hosting game shows, hitting the lecture circuit, appearing as a guest on talk shows and writing books. When collected and published, his correspondence with such luminaries as T.S. Elliott proved to be a big hit. Shout!Factory’s The Marx Brothers TV Collection provides a wonderful introduction – for post-Boomers, anyway – to the brothers’ versatility, even in the autumn of their years. For most of the medium’s first dozen years, television was little more than radio with pictures and the entertainers who excelled on one broadcast platform simply exported their gags, skits and characters to the other. Anthology shows offered glimpses into TV’s future by telling dramatic and comedic stories in short form, hosted by familiar Hollywood stars and featuring a rotating roster of old pros and up-and-coming actors. Watching Groucho exchange lines with a young Dennis Hopper in a rare straight role is practically worth the entire price of the package, alone. Ditto, Harpo and Chico in a cops-and-robbers comedy, introduced by Ronald Reagan for “GE Theater.” When they weren’t playing cards and schmoozing at the Hillcrest Country Club, the brothers sometimes could be found on sitcoms, game shows and variety shows hosted by June Allyson, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton and Perry Como. Also represented are such oddities as “The Arthur Murray Party,” “Championship Bridge,” “Celebrity Golf,” “Celebrity Billiards” and Groucho’s London-based game show. Much of the material here was collected from family archives. The entries are in remarkably good shape, considering they probably were taken from old kinescope recordings and put on a shelf for eternity. And, yes, “The Marx Brothers TV Collection” would be a can’t-miss gift for the older folks on your list.

The Blacklist: The Complete First Season
Low Winter Sun: The Complete Series
It would be difficult to find two shows on television that are darker and more consciously amoral than NBC’s “The Blacklist” and AMC’s “Low Winter Sun,” unless you’re looking for them at HBO, Showtime  and other premium-cable services. Once again, James Spader (“Boston Legal”) turns a potentially onerous character into someone we can’t live without seeing each week. In “The Blacklist,” he’s perfectly cast as Raymond “Red” Reddington, a fugitive “fixer” who’s worked both sides of the legal fence for years. In Season One, the “concierge of crime” mysteriously surrendered to the FBI, offering them an opportunity to capture the world’s most elusive criminals with his assistance. Red insists, however, on speaking only to Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico. (Shades of Hannibal Lector’s relationship with Clarice Starling.) Some early proponents of the show recognized signs of fatigue as the season wore on, but not so much that it would deter them from anticipating the Year Two.

AMC’s “Low Winter Sun, which is based on a 2006 British mini-series of the same title, also is blessed with actors uniquely suited to the role of cops whose flirtation with dark side has come back to haunt them. The Detroit detectives, played with palpable menace by Mark Strong and Lennie James, don’t waste any time making us uneasy in their presence. One convinces the other to participate in a crime so heinous – even by Detroit standards – that their case load will play second fiddle to covering their tracks. It isn’t easy, especially with a rabid “rat squad” investigator (David Costabile) anxious to discover who would dare mess up their investigation of a dirty cop by eliminating him. As lead investigators in the case, they’re able to play both sides against the middle, by looking as if they’re working hard to crack the case, while also tampering with evidence and discouraging potential witnesses. In doing so, they join the CID’s list of prime suspects. Meanwhile, other DPD detectives set themselves up as drug kingpins by eliminating the competition. Amid all of the bad craziness, some excellent police work takes place and there are family dilemmas to solve, as well. Like “True Detective, “Low Winter Sun” never begs us to like the cops or see them in the same light as tragic heroes. It’s enough to appreciate that they’re human and, like the city of Detroit, itself, in a general state of physical and moral decay.

A Brony Tale
Circle The Wagen
When the documentary A Brony Tale arrived in the mail, I wondered if it might be old wine in a new bottle. I had recently reviewed Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of ‘My Little Pony’ and couldn’t imagine two such films being released on the same unusual topic. Six months from now, there could very well be two competing documentaries on the participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge, only one of which will be authorized by the ALS Association, Apart from some strictly technical considerations, both docs are essentially the same. After introducing viewers to the phenomenon, the filmmakers interview dozens of older boys and men who qualify as being obsessive fans of “My Little Pony.” Young girls comprised the first target audience for the series, but, today, it’s been embraced by men and boys who dig its message of overcoming trauma through friendship. As odd as the craze may be, the filmmakers go out of their way to assure viewers that Bronies aren’t dangerous. If some are, you won’t meet them here. Vancouver-based voice-over artist Ashleigh Ball (a.k.a., Applejack, Rainbow Dash) is star of A Brony Tale, while Toronto-native Tara Strong (Twilight Sparkle) is the centerpiece actor in “Bronies.” Both are attractive blonds, with voice-over work and interests outside the Equestrian World, as it’s known. The movies’ other key message, I think, is that none of the fans are begging for anyone’s acceptance. They’re happy the way they are and aren’t any more or less obsessive than the average, say, Cubs fan.

Just as “A Brony Tale followed Bronies into the DVD marketplace, Circle the Wagen is competing with Damon Ristau’s recently released and reviewed The Bus for the hearts and eyes of car nuts addicted to Volkswagen vans. This is, we’re invited to follow Dave and Charlie has they traverse the nation in a baby blue 1972 VW bus. Nowhere near prime condition, the vehicle becomes a magnet for vintage VW enthusiasts who seemingly live for the moments when they can help a fellow camper in need of assistance. Using the Internet and coconut telegraph, no part is too obscure for a cult-wide scavenger hunt. If The Bus was more universal in scope, Circle the Wagen defines a community that, despite its German roots, could hardly be more American.

The DVD Wrapup: Railway Man, Boredom, Cold Lands and more

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

The Railway Man: Blu-ray
In Washington, our so-called leaders have been debating how much of the Senate report on the interrogation methods used by the CIA after September 11, 2001, should be made public. Many believe that the secrets contained therein would, if declassified, shake the foundation of our democracy. The same resistance to news coverage already applies to conditions at Guantanamo Bay, where, we know, some unindicted terrorists have complained of being tortured. It’s not that Americans don’t already assume the worst about the CIA and mostly don’t care about the techniques used to glean useful intelligence, with much disinformation thrown in to save another beating. Fact is, our elected officials simply don’t want their constituents to know how little control they had over what happened in the execution of the war on terrorism. If folks inside the Beltway weren’t aware of the extent of the torture and degradation, it was only because they were playing the game of the three wise monkeys who saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil” I was reminded of this by Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, which graphically describes the application of torture on British P.O.W.s in World War II by Japanese soldiers and officers. In a very real sense, it serves as a companion piece to The Bridge on the River Kwai, because it explains what was happening to the men forced to construct the railroad leading to and away from the bridge. Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence also dealt vividly with conditions in a prisoner-of-war camp in Southeast Asia. Based on the memoirs of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man features heartwrenching performances by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, Magic In The Moonlight) and Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), portraying the protagonist as a young and old man. Even sixty years after Old Eric was liberated by Allied troops, he continues to suffer terrifying nightmares and hallucinatory flashbacks. At the core of his trauma are recurring visions of the Japanese translator who either participated in the beatings or was a silent witness.

A railroad buff, Eric meets the love of his life, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on one of his many journeys through the U.K. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that Eric is a deeply troubled man, as are the other survivors she meets. One day, an ex-POW friend shows Eric a newspaper clipping in which the translator, Takeshi (Tanroh Ishida), is shown giving tours at the site of the encampment. He had escaped being arrested and executed, like other officers, by insisting he was only used as an intermediary. It would perform the same task for British prosecutors of war crimes. Patti convinces Eric to travel to Thailand to confront his nemesis and, quite possibly, exact his own punishment. It would be perfectly understandable if Eric reciprocated in kind, but what kind of man would that make him and what would have been gained? Takeshi also is an old man, after all, and appears to be serving out a form of penance conducting tours and decrying Japan’s complicity in the process. Some Americans, at least, must be asking themselves similar questions, in regards the war on terror. The Japanese interrogators didn’t invent water-boarding and other techniques subsequently borrowed by their CIA counterparts, after all. Teplitzky effectively conveys the nature of the horror, both during the war and, afterwards, for survivors with PTSD. The acting is solid and the jungle settings reek of dread. The Blu-ray adds an excellent making-of featurette, which includes interviews with Eric and Patti; discussions with cast and crew; and commentary with Teplitzky and co-writer-producer Andy Paterson.

The Cold Lands
In only his second feature as a writer-director, veteran actor Tom Gilroy (whose first film was Spring Forward) wonders how a pre-teen boy might survive in the sudden absence of a self-reliant mother who preferred living deep in the woods to having anything to do with the outside world. In The Cold Lands, a perfectly cast Lili Taylor defines the type of person – an ex-hippie or survivalist – who would want her child to follow her lead and prepare for the day when city folk are threatened with extinction and the supermarkets run out of food. Atticus (Silas Yelich) doesn’t know that his mother is seriously ill and could die at any moment. Maybe, Nicole believes that she had given Atticus all the tools he needed to make it on his own and it was time to give up the ghost. Or, she was simply in a state of denial. Rather than become a ward of the state or be handed over to unfamiliar relatives, Atticus takes what he was given by Nicole and attempts to fend for himself in the woods. For a while, anyway, he does pretty well. After a while, though, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. After nearly getting his butt shot off by a pair of meth-cookers, the boy is rescued by an itinerant pot peddler and part-time jewelry maker, Carter (Peter Scanavino). They form an uneasy alliance, based as much on companionship as any father-son dynamic that might have kicked into gear. Gilroy gives Carter the choice of turning Atticus for reward money or treat him the way he would want to be treated, in the same circumstances. Given another five minutes’ worth of screen time, Gilroy might have answered his own question. As it is, we’re left with a perplexing mystery and memories of much spectacular Catskills scenery

Director Albert Nerenberg makes several interesting, if not earthshaking points in his latest offbeat documentary, Boredom. The most important, I think, is that chronic ennui among today’s kids has reached epidemic levels and it’s too often misdiagnosed by teachers who aren’t doing nearly as good a job as they think they are doing. Just as psychiatrists and educators underestimated the extent to which ADHD and depression impacted children in post-World War II America, boredom in the classroom generally is treated either as a disciplinary problem or a sign that kids are spending too much time outside of school doing things other than homework. Moreover, the film argues persuasively that we not only can be bored to tears, but also to death. Recent studies show that people who lead sedentary lives are more susceptible to cancer and other serious conditions. To counteract the effects of boredom, many sufferers turn to recreational pursuits that are far more dangerous than wasting an afternoon on the couch, watching TV. When the thrills derived from one such activity begin to dissipate, however, adrenaline junkies invariably will turn to even more exciting pastimes. Nerenberg’s team of experts also point to boredom among unemployed and politically disenfranchised youth as a root cause for turning peaceful protests in riots. Unlike ADHD and depression, which can be treated with pharmaceuticals and therapy, the easiest cures for boredom require finding a source for cocaine and speed, which make everything fun and interesting … for a while, anyway. The other way is to make school and work more stimulating for individuals, who, in some cases, feel as if they’re not being sufficiently challenged. Nerenberg argues that too much time spent sitting at a desk can induce boredom in students and white-collar employees, just as working on an assembly line can turn human beings into automatons. Because even the simplest solutions cost money, however, nothing is likely to improve any time soon. Indeed, even a documentary about boredom can prove debilitating after a while. Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Richard Linklater’s Slacker avoided that by being consistently entertaining and full of endearing characters. Documentarians don’t have the same luxury. “Boredom” at least attempts to balance stimulating material with scientific data. As the director of such nonfiction films as Laughology, Let’s All Hate Toronto, Stupidity” and Invasion of the Beer People, Nerenberg understands the importance of pacing, balance and humor in the creation of feature-length films. In Boredom, as founder of the Boredom Institute, he even appears to be channeling Orson Welles in one of those 1970s commercials for Paul Masson wine.

Favorites of the Moon: Blu-ray
Anyone in the mood for a silly French farce ought to consider picking up Otar Iosseliani’s 1984 comedy, Favorites of the Moon, which has been freshened up by the folks at Cohen Media and eOne. Rendered as a roundelay of familiar Gallic types from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it opens with the smashing of a piece of hand-painted Limoges china and the re-hanging of a wispy portrait of a French aristocrat on the wall of a grand chateau. The link between the two isn’t made clear until Iosseliani flash-forwards to present-day Paris, where they become the objects of attraction of an art dealer, thief, police inspector, gun dealer, inventor, beautician, a homeless man, anarchist, prostitutes and a couple of bourgeois families. As the antiques pass from one hand to another, more Limoges china is accidentally broken and the painting gets smaller every time it’s cut from its frame. In the meantime, the disparate characters whose lives intersect in the inner city arrondissement reference the experiences of men and women who may have admired the finery the first time around. Not everything comes together as the director planned, but, once you get into the movie’s offbeat rhythm, Favorites of the Moon is enjoyable. Look for a 19-year-old Mathieu Amalric among the gang of thieves. The Blu-ray adds commentary by critic Phillip Lopate and an essay.

Breathe In: Blu-ray
Hateship Loveship
Any film in which a teenage girl and an unrelated older man succumb to the temptations that derive from living in too close proximity to each other – however consensually — is a land mine waiting to explode. Such May-to-September romances probably happen more often than we care to imagine, but it’s the rare director who can turn them into something that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitive. Well before Woody Allen’s career became embroiled in scandal, he mined the taboo subject for all of the humor and humanity it was worth. In time, watching Woody cavort with much younger women, both on the big screen and in newspaper headlines, became indefensible. Notes on a Scandal, P.S. and A Teacher were able to strike an acceptable balance between crime and punishment, but, in those pictures, the teachers are women. In real life, if caught, they would be pilloried by the media before being found guilty by a jury that doesn’t allow for sentiment. In Breathe In, Drake Doremus (Crazy Love) benefits from some superb acting in telling a story of infidelity and seduction. And, he does it without appealing to the prurient interests of viewers who dig this sort of thing.

Felicity Jones fairly smolders as Sophie, a foreign-exchange student from England who moves into the Upstate New York home of a music teacher, Keith (Guy Pearce), his exceedingly normal wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and 18-year-old daughter, Lauren (MacKenzie Davis). Keith is an ex-rocker, now devoted to classical music. Teaching is a fine job, but, he wants to have his life’s work validated as a soloist in a respected orchestra. For all we know, Megan may have had similar ambitions of her own before settling down to raise Lauren and master the art of cookie-jar making. Sophie and MacKenzie appear to hit it off, but they operate on separate wavelengths. When it appears as if Sophie is attempting to steal her boyfriend, whose talents include date rape, Lauren becomes susceptible to the not particularly accurate gossip of classmates. She needn’t have worried. As a fellow musician, Sophie has found her kindred spirit in Keith. For his part, Keith sees in the teenager someone he can mentor and share deep thoughts on something other than cookie jars. In other words, he’s a sitting duck for a girl looking for a daddy figure and confidante. If things really get sloppy towards the end, it’s only because there are only a couple of ways these things can go and one of them involves weaponry. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interview with the director.

Pearce plays a very different variety of father in the little-seen Hateship Loveship, based on an even more awkwardly titled story by Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” He’s excellent, as usual, but the real story here is Kristen Wiig, for whom Liza Johnson’s drama represents a marked departure from the roles expected of her by fans from her “Saturday Night Live” days. I mention that only because Hateship Loveship enjoyed only the most limited of limited releases earlier this year, after its debut at the 2013 TIFF, as if its distributor accepted the futility of selling drama to comedy nuts. Fact is, though, Wiig’s chronically delusional Johanna Parry is only one or two shades removed from the borderline deranged characters she introduced on “SNL” (Dooneese, Gilly and Penelope, among them). Her great talent was making viewers squirm and laugh simultaneously. When we meet her, Johanna seems to be destined for a life of serving other people at the expense of her happiness. Mousy and sheltered, her career as care-giver tends to take her from one hospice situation to another, for indeterminate periods of time.

Her latest assignment turns out very differently, however. It requires her to supervise an unruly teenager, whose father, Ken (Pearce), is a ne’er-do-well drug addict and ex-con. Her elderly employer (Nick Nolte) has been burned too many times by Ken’s schemes, yet feels a responsibility toward his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfield). As formidable as he looks, however, he’s no match for a teenage girl in heat. Neither is Johanna. After receiving a short, innocuous note of gratitude from Ken, she begins to fantasize a scenario in which he’s a knight in shining armor and he’s Lancelot. Having intercepted the note, Sabitha and her demonic friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), think it might be fun to pull a prank on both Ken and Johanna, by writing a note inviting her to Chicago and fulfilling their destiny, together. Turns out, he lives in near-squalor with his junkie lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh). You’ll either have to guess what happens in the next half-hour or rent the movie, which I recommend. Christine Lahti also co-stars in Hateship Loveship, in a role that may be the most satisfying of them all. Johnson directed Linda Cardellini to great effect in Return, a drama about a National Guard soldier and mother attempting to readjust to life in the U.S., after a long deployment in Iraq.

Disneynature: Bears: Blu-ray
Disney Special Editions: Blu-ray
There’s nothing like a new Disneynature installment to make one feel good about purchasing an HDTV and Blu-ray player. They’re as close to being outdoors as is permitted while lounging around in your underwear. Bears is the latest in a series of movies that began in 1948 with True-Live Adventure: Seal Island. Walt Disney wasn’t interested in showing animals in nature simply to amuse viewers who may never to make it to Alaska or Africa. He wanted to build fanciful stories around the footage brought back by his intrepid team of cinematographers. The first such journey took them to Alaska’s Pribilof Islands. Almost 70 years later, the studio’s Disneynature team returned to Alaska – now, of course, a state – and its brown bear refuge at Katmai National Park. It goes without saying, by now, that this tale of a mother, Sky, and her two frisky cubs, Amber and Scout, is visually spectacular, educational and highly entertaining. Bears opens in Sky’s hibernation den, just as the cubs are making their presence known to mom. Once out of their cave, the hungry trio hightails it from a snowy mountain plateau to Kamishak Bay, seeking salmon. It helps that narrator John C. Reilly sounds like a bear might sound, if it understood English. He moves easily from the light-hearted moments, when the cubs are learning the ropes; to foreboding, as other adult bears mark their territory; and, finally, the life-and-death struggle for the salmon Sky would need to sustain the family through a second winter. The camerawork involved in capturing the salmon run is nothing short of amazing. The Blu-ray presentation is terrific. The bonus package adds several making-of featurettes, an environmental message and music video.

Looking and sounding no less gorgeous in hi-def are these vintage animated titles – some being more vintage than others — newly available on Blu-ray in “Special Edition” form. They include Tarzan and Hercules, from Disney’s heroic period of the late 1990s; a welcome double-feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947); the live-action Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in its original 117-minute version; and The Three Musketeers, in a “10th Anniversary Edition.” These titles may not qualify as classics, in the Disney tradition, anyway, but each has its particular charms. The bonus packages accentuate the bright and lively original songs, some of which are accorded the sing-along treatment. There also are plenty of deleted scenes and commentaries.

Elvis: That’s the Way It Is 2001: Blu-ray
Viva Las Vegas 50th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Anyone who was born after Elvis Presley’s tragic, if self-inflicted death, 37 years ago, in Memphis, might not understand what’s all the fuss about the universally acknowledged King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Images of the grotesquely bloated entertainer linger in the mind as much as the many great photographs of the young Prince of Rock ’n’ Roll, when he was undisputedly the coolest cat on Earth. After Elvis served his time in the U.S. Army, megalo-manager Colonel Tom Parker decided that his client should demonstrate his maturity by forsaking hard-core rock and churning out soundtrack albums from his cookie-cutter movies of the 1960s. Almost all of the movies he made during that period were successful, if entirely forgettable. They take place in exotic locations, such as Hawaii and Acapulco; feature plenty of inorganic singing, dancing and fist-fighting; and the protagonists was given such generic names as Rusty Wells, Charlie Rogers, Rick Richards and Mike Edwards. The closest they came to revealing an ethnic background were Mike McCoy and Joe Lightcloud. They resemble such pre-army movies as Jailhouse Rock and King Creole the way his homogenized version of “Hound Dog” resembled Big Mama Thornton’s far earthier version of the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller hit. Viva Las Vegas was, by far, the best of the “Elvis movies” made during his middle period, after the Don Siegel Western, Flaming Star. The difference can be summed up in one hyphenated word, Ann-Margret. Hired over the objections of the colonel, the stunning hoofer/singer was every bit the equal of Elvis in the charisma department and was given nearly equal screen time by George Sidney, who had directed her in Bye Bye Birdie. Moreover, songs other than the title cut were memorable beyond the opening weekend. And, although he had bombed in his first Las Vegas engagement, Elvis looked as if he owned the part of town not already claimed by the Rat Pack. It all adds up to brainless fun, which is all the public demanded of him at the time. The only new bonus featurette is the Digibook package, which adds more photos and marketing material to the commentary by Steve Pond and a 2007 making-of presentation.

Elvis: That’s the Way It Is documents the King’s preparations for his triumphant 1970 return to the Las Vegas stage, as well as the concert performance that demonstrated how ready he was to take care of business (with a lightning bolt medallion, of course) as a touring superstar. Elvis is in top form physically and vocally and in complete control of everything he surveys. He’s a blast to be around and wonderfully charming. The excitement in the audience was palpable, as well, with such stars as Sammy Davis Jr., Xavier Cugat and Charo, Juliet Prowse, Cary Grant and George Hamilton in attendance. The band was comprised of some of the best session musicians and backup singers in the business, with a playlist that included new and old material, including “All Shook Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Love Me Tender,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Suspicious Minds.” What’s interesting to recall is how bland most concerts were at the time. While the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd soon would change how stadium shows would look for the next 40 years, Elvis’ International Hotel visually stunning engagement influenced everyone from Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand to Beyoncé and Britney Spears. The Digibook contains both the original and re-edited 2001 versions of the documentary. Only the latter is offered in Blu-ray. The outtakes and restoration featurette have been shipped over from the 2007 double volume.

Turtle Power: Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
With the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles riding high atop the box-office charts for a second weekend, what better time could there be to recall the origins of the fantasy-adventure franchise and re-discover how it’s evolved from a black-and-white comic book to $125-million CGI-impacted extravaganza in just over 30 years. Randall Lobb’s self-financed Turtle Power is a 98-minute labor of love, in which many of the key players are represented. It shouldn’t be confused with the awful electronic press kit featurettes that accompany newly released DVDs or appear on HBO and Showtime between movies. Featured participants include co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird; animation producer Fred Wold; head writer-developer David Wise; Mirage Studio comic artists; the 1987 voice actors; and merchandising executives. It’s the kind of film that first-, second- and third-generation fans can enjoy and discuss with equal fervor.

God’s Not Dead
Mercy Rule, By Kirk and Chelsea Cameron
Anyone who still wonders why Hollywood continues to court Christian audiences, while routinely running afoul of theologians – Noah, serving as only the latest and most expensive example – should check out the performance of independently produced, God’s Not Dead. Made for a mere $2 million, the faith-based and university-set melodrama finished its domestic theatrical run $60 million in the black. Marketing costs were alleviated by focusing on niche outlets and word-of-mouth in the evangelical community. Even if box-office observers declared “God’s Not Dead” a “surprise hit,” other pundits might have considered its success to be pre-ordained. While most faith-based films are focused on “spreading the good news of Jesus Christ,” Harold Cronk’s story takes a decidedly different tack by pitting student believers against atheist educators in a generic campus setting. Several public universities have been sued recently by Christian students who believe their rights have been usurped by administrators going overboard to maintain a separation between church and state, science and scripture. God’s Not Dead stacks the deck by making the defender of the faith a game freshman against a tenured philosophy professor who insists that his students declare, “God is dead,” on Day One of classes. Otherwise, he claims, too much time is wasted in discussions about the teachings of the great atheist thinkers. When Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) refuses to comply, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) demands that he prove the existence of the deity in debate or leave the class. Although his girlfriend threatens to leave him if he continues to devote his time to such folly, Josh does what Christians have done for 2,000 years when challenged.

As preposterous as that premise might sound, the debate actually is well-conceived and entertaining. It’s when the story travels beyond the classroom, however, that the debate is diminished by evangelical overkill. Believers and non-believers, alike, are made to ponder how a just God could allow people to endure slow, painful deaths or simply turn their loved ones against them. Finally, everything and everyone come together at a packed-to-the-rafters Christian-rock show … or on the way to it, anyway. The scriptwriters’ foremost miscalculation, here, is playing to the cheap seats by adding subplots involving a Moslem student, whose father beats and disowns her when she turns to Christ, and a student from China so inspired by Josh’s argument that he denounces state-sponsored atheism in a text to his father. Even more insulting are the cameos made by one of the “Duck Dynasty” goofs and his slinky wife. It’s all kind of silly, but audiences in theaters full of believers probably ate it up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, music videos and a discussion about the legal struggles of Christian students.

In other God-is-alive news, “Growing Pains” star Kirk Cameron is all grown up now and making faith-based movies with his wife, Chelsea Noble. Their latest, “Mercy Rules,” uses baseball to teach and re-enforce Christian values. It’s not the most original idea, but baseball can represent all things to all people, even Satanic umpires.

Summer camps are a natural place for teaching life lessons, as well as learning all of the gross-out skills they’ll need when attending college. Jacob Roebuck’s Camp (2013) is set at Christian camp in the Sierra Nevada, where kids who’ve suffered years of neglect and abuse can get a second chance on childhood. Ten-year-old Eli has been scarred by his experiences as a foster child, but it’s his adult counselor, Ken, who may need the most help. The egocentric financial adviser has only taken the position to impress a potential client. Eli, on the other hand, needs to learn how to control his emotions, so he’ll be able to join a family that accepts him for who he is.

Proxy: Blu-ray
The Midnight Game
Agency of Vengeance: Dark Rising 
Motel Hell: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
People who prefer watching movies at home on DVD and Blu-ray have the benefit of reading dozens of reviews before having to choose a night’s entertainment. The Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes sites are reliable, unless one considers the subjectivity involved in giving numerical values to opinions, while those found on Amazon and IMDB’s fan sites are about as trustworthy as a car dealer’s opinions on the cars in his showroom. It’s almost impossible to parse fact from fiction, honest opinion from self-interested deception. On the front cover of the Blu-ray package containing Proxy, the quote, “A worthy successor to Rosemary’s Baby,” is prominently displayed. Supposedly, it’s taken from a review that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The piece I saw at the paper’s website made no mention of Roman Polanski’s 1968 thriller and, indeed, the devil’s spawn doesn’t make an appearance in Proxy. Being gullible, I spent the first half-hour of my time with Zack Parker’s film looking for it. Instead, the jolts in Proxy”derive from the terrible things that happen when tragedy strikes and a parent loses a child. Here, the mugging of a woman about to deliver leads to a miscarriage, which causes the victim to join a group populated with other grieving parents, one of whom is a phony. Any more information than that would spoil a series of surprises and plot twists which continue for the next 90-plus minutes. What Parker’s techniques lack in fluidity are largely overcome by the unpredictable narrative.

With the creepy campus ghost story House of Dust already in release, A.D. Calvo could be in the process of becoming one of the writer-directors that teens and young adults turn to for spooky fun. The Midnight Game manages to wring a few fresh twists to the subgenre in which clueless teenagers do dumb things in haunted houses. Here, instead of an Ouija board, the half-dozen teens use an incantation, a few drops of blood, candles and burned note cards to play a pagan game handed down after the first ghost took up residence in the first abandoned cave. Here, though, the house has been recently purchased by a single parent required to travel to the far corners of the Earth. It takes about five minutes for her daughter to break her promise about allowing boys and booze into the house and another five for things to start going sideways. Midnight Game works in fits and starts, but the ending is worth the wait, at least. Among the stars are Shelby Young (“American Horror Story”), Guy Wilson (“Days of Our Lives”), Valentina de Angelis (“Gossip Girl”) and Spencer Daniels (“Mom”).

There’s something to be said about sci-fi fantasies in which the most prominent characters are extremely well-endowed women in lingerie, carrying big guns. There are some male characters in Agency of Vengeance: Dark Rising, as well, but, for the life of me, I can’t remember who they were or what they did in the movie. If there’s any good reason for women to pick up a copy of the DVD, I couldn’t say with any certainty what it might be. The Rising Dark Agency is a black-ops division of the intergalactic government headed by Colonel Haggerd (Michael Ironside). When he suspects that a sudden surge of supernatural activity on Earth is the work of an evil Demon-God, he calls on Summer Vale (Brigitte Kingsley) to prevent the coming apocalypse. Yeah, and I’m the king of Spain. The Dark Rising franchise appears to be a Canadian sensation, targeted at viewers who spend most of their free time on the Internet or imagining extremely well-endowed women in lingerie, carrying big guns. They’ll find the nerd humor, fantasy violence and cosplay in Agency of Vengeance much to their liking. And, no, there isn’t any nudity or realistic violence.

There are many good reasons to pick up the collector’s edition of Motel Hell, but I’ll limit mine to just two: 1) ex-con and onetime leading man, Rory Calhoun, and 2) a pig-mask-wearing antagonist, wielding a chainsaw. Calhoun’s Farmer Vincent captures unsuspecting tourists, plants them in his garden heads-up and feeds them until they’re ready for butchering. Think of it as a hillbilly Sweeney Todd, and Motel Hell will begin to make sense. Made in 1980, at the dawn of the slasher/splatter era in Hollywood, it works equally well as a parody of the genre and over-the-top horror flick. The Scream Factory edition adds the irreverent “It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell; “Shooting Old School With Thomas Del Ruth,” in which the cinematographer discusses the differences between shooting a picture, then and now; “Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear,” on what constitutes a good female villain; “From Glamour to Gore: Roseanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell” with the former Playboy Playmate of the Month; “Another Head on the Chopping Block: An Interview With Paul Linke,” who played the film’s hapless cop; and commentary with director Kevin Connor.

The DVD Wrapup: Finding Vivian Maier, Around the Block, Ping Pong Summer, L’amore in Citta, Without Warning, Need for Speed, I’ll Follow You Down, Bitten … More

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier
In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter
More Than the Rainbow
In movies purporting to be made from “found” video footage, an unseen character is assigned the task of walking behind everyone else in the movie, filming everything they do and occasionally directing them. I’ve never encountered such a person in real life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Far more common are the many amateur and semi-pro photographers who wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their cameras. The world is their studio and everyone in it potentially is a model. It isn’t difficult to find things to shoot, of course. Anyone with a sharp eye can frame a scene, even accidentally, in a way that makes even the most mundane moments in life look interesting. The art of the street photographer is recognized in the museum-quality work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand and many other shooters. Although cellphone cameras are threatening to change the standard methodology of street photography, their use is still pretty much limited to recording the damage done in car accidents, for selfies and updating Facebook portraits. These three fine documentaries, released nearly simultaneously through different distributors, testify to the viability of the time-honored discipline.

Of the three, “Finding Vivian Maier” should appeal to the widest cross-section of viewers, whether or not they’ve picked up a camera since the industry went digital. That’s because the story behind the photographs is so doggone fascinating it practically demands to be seen. After spending her formative years in New York and her mother’s Alpine hometown of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur, she moved to Chicago and spent the next 40 years working as a nanny on the city’s tony North Shore. She spent her free time, as well as improvised field trips with her young charges, shooting tens of thousands of photographs on her medium-format Rolleiflex. It wasn’t until the 1970s, that Maier switched to a 35mm camera and Ektachrome film. Her passion, which she kept secret from employers, included home movies and audio tapes with people she photographed. Two years before her death in 2009, Maier’s entire trove was sold at auction to help the storage facility recover her debt. One of the three successful bidders posted some of the images on the Internet, but failed to attract much attention to them. Amateur historian John Maloof had far greater luck with the photos he posted, prompting something of a “viral” response to them. Before long, Maier’s status would grow from anonymous amateur to worldwide sensation. Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivan Maier” expands on this thumbnail biography, by adding dozens of photographs, movies, interviews with the grown-up children left to her attention, critics, fellow photographers and her remaining French relatives in Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur. The thing to remember about Maier is that, while something of a hoarder, she wasn’t a recluse. Not only was Chicago her oyster, but she also travelled internationally and recorded the habits and fashions of people representing all social classes.

The subject of Tomas Leach’s “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter” may have enjoyed far greater visibility in his lifetime than Maier, but he, too, felt no great urgency to share his work with outsiders. Leiter’s rarely left his Lower East Side apartment, which looks as if it might collapse at any given moment from the sheer weight of his chaotically preserved collections. Unlike Maier, though, Leiter accepted assignments from Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire and favored color photography throughout most of his career. The camera he received from his mother at age 12 pretty much ended his father’s plan for him to become a rabbi. After leaving theology school, he moved to New York to paint. Abstract Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart and photojournalist W. Eugene Smith both encouraged Leiter to pursue photography. Blessed with a painterly eye, he experimented with the way photographers composed their shots and distorted visual reality through the application of colors and textures.  Along with Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, he contributed to what became known as the New York School of photographers. Leiter didn’t exactly open his arms to Leach, insisting that his output wasn’t worthy of such regard and his personal story wasn’t that interesting. Everything in “In No Great Hurry” contradicts that opinion. He constantly warns the filmmaker about the possibility of pulling his consent from the project if the intrusion on his privacy offended him. That modesty, alone, made him a rare bird in Manhattan. Leiter died last November, a week before his 90th birthday, but in time to see a rough cut of the documentary. Before passing on, he also had given up his resolve not to spend time cataloguing and editing his “stuff,” by allowing assistant Margit Erb to ease the ordeal. The film is broken down into 13 chapters, or “lessons,” which could apply to life as much as photography.

I’m pretty sure that Dan Wechsler hadn’t intended on begging comparisons of his documentary, “More Than the Rainbow,” to “Taxi Driver.” Nonetheless, they’re inevitable. His subject, street photographer Matt Weber, once made his living driving a cab through the same mean streets as Travis Bickle, and both shared an eye for the sordid: prostitutes on the stroll, knife fights on the sidewalks and almost comically attired pedestrians everywhere from Times Square to Coney Island. At least one street scene does bear the unmistakable fingerprints of Martin Scorsese, as Weber’s hack is driven through a cloud of steam. When he saw something he wanted to shoot, Wells simply pointed his camera out of the cab from his seat or got out and framed the image. (It’s left unclear as to whether he made his passengers wait, while he fed his addiction. Seems a bit tricky, tip-wise). Like other street photographers, he might also stand and wait for hours for the pictures to come to him. The title, “More Than the Rainbow,” refers to one of his more well-known photos, in which lakeside cottages and a sign offering Depression-era rates, are practically eclipsed by a rainbow. Weber knew that the rainbow would immediately draw the attention of viewers, even though it was more of a lucky coincidence than anything else. It probably can be argued that street photography in New York City is the artistic equivalent of fishing with hand grenades. Point your camera in any direction and you’ll stumble upon something that looks remarkable after being cropped and edited. Still, serendipity is as necessary a component of the art as a light meter. “More Than the Rainbow” differs from the other two docs in that the participants are asked to weigh in on aesthetics, technology, ethics and the relative merits of color and black-and-white film. Not all street photography is intrusive, but, in New York, the temptation to invade a subject’s privacy often is too compelling to resist. Among the witnesses are Ralph Gibson, Zoe Strauss, Eric Kroll, Todd Oldham, Ben Lifson, Jeff Mermelstein and David Beckerman. All three films offer bonus gallery material. “More Than the Rainbow” also benefits from a soundtrack filled with the music of Thelonious Monk.

Around the Block
I don’t know if “Blackboard Jungle” is the first movie in which a dedicated outsider uses the arts to change the fortunes of disadvantaged teenagers and outright hoodlums, but the scenario has yet to wear out its welcome. From Australia, “Around the Block” finds guest-American Christina Ricci employs Shakespeare to reach Aboriginal students, living in one of Sydney’s tougher neighborhoods. The teacher, Dino Chalmers, had attended college in Australia a few years earlier and was returning to be with her boyfriend after having taught drama on the Navajo Nation. Already sensitive to the racism that subjugates native populations, Chalmers is shocked by insensitivity of her boyfriend and his cronies toward the plight of the Aboriginals, who they consider incapable of anything besides committing crimes and public inebriation. Chalmers’ students are surprisingly pleased by being given the opportunity to perform “Hamlet.” She takes on resident bad boy Liam Wood (Hunter Page-Lochard) as the titular character, even though he appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his back. Liam would love to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who, before being killed by police, had been a star of the world-renowned National Black Theater. His father, who was arrested and incarcerated in the same incident, prods both of the boys to kill the drug dealer who set them up. Instead, Liam desires to break the cycle of violence and hate by playing a slightly Aboriginal version of Hamlet. First-time writer/director Sarah Spillane appears to have anticipated all of the clichés attendant to such stories and has either found ways to avoid them or add clever local twists to the proceedings. Ricci does a nice job, as usual, as do the aspiring thespians. The only jarring element comes in the girl-girl subplot, during which Chalmers turns to female companionship immediately after giving her lunkhead boyfriend the heave-ho. We will soon enough learn that, while in college, she had broken the heart of her lesbian lover and was now back to mend it. Problem is, the change in direction comes completely out of left field and raises more questions than it answers. Otherwise, “Around the Block” is a refreshing take on an old story.

Ping Pong Summer: Blu-ray
Last week in this space, while reviewing a new DVD from France, I mentioned how comforting it is that Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon are still accepting roles in movies that don’t assure Oscar nominations or, even, a theatrical release. This, at a time when more and more actresses of a certain age are relegated to cable mini-series and sitcoms. Sarandon’s turn in “Ping Pong Summer” isn’t nearly as substantial as Deneuve’s in “On My Way,” but it’s by far the best thing in Michael Tully’s quaint coming-of-age comedy. I say “quaint” because almost everything seems out-of-place by 20 years, at least. In one of the hoariest of coming-of-age clichés, the Miracle family is returning to Ocean City, Maryland, for their annual summer vacation by the beach. This one promises to be a real hum-dinger, in that 13-year-old Rad (Marcello Conte) has finally reached puberty and is handsome enough to do something about it. Curiously, though, he has no idea how to respond to the things his body is telling him to do. By comparison, his older sister, Michelle (Helena May Seabrook), is a Goth nihilist with no desire to spend time shaking sand out of her shoes.

As Mrs. Miracle, Lea Thompson could very well be channeling the 1985 iteration of Lorraine Baines in “Back to the Future,” a casting decision that hardly seems coincidental. For no good reason, other than John Hannah is Scottish, Mr. Miracle is a cop with a thick brogue. No sooner does Rad unpack his suitcase than he’s in trouble with a couple of local bullies who seem to think it’s cool to beat up on out-of-town geeks unable to fight back when pushed. Rad shares this misfortune with his new best friend, Teddy (Myles Massey), who acts as if he may be related to Steve Urkel and is an easy target for the townies’ prehistoric attitudes toward race. They bond over ping-pong, hip-hop and breakdancing. Remarkably, the bullies also have a thing for ping-pong, as do the local bathing beauties. Naturally, Rad is challenged by one of the boys to a duel, designed to humiliate him in front of the girls. The problem for viewers old enough to remember President Nixon’s use of “ping-pong diplomacy” to build a bridge with then-Red China is that the quality of table tennis on display in the teen arcade here is abysmal. Anticipating being slaughtered at the local arcade’s green plywood table, Rad consults the one person who might help him avoid eternal humiliation in Ocean City. Sarandon plays the town’s foremost eccentric, Randi Jammer, who, among other skills, once was a champion swatter. Not having been a teenager in the mid-1980s, I couldn’t attest to the nostalgia value of “Ping Pong Summer.” I remember parents being more concerned over sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll than paddle-wielding thugs threatening their kids. The actors never give their performances less than their all, though, and the period look is realistically rendered. Commentary is provided by Tully and producer George Rush. The package also includes a humorous making-of feature.

Without Warning: Bluray
How this barely seen homage to 1950s’ sci-fi managed to avoid being skewered by the robotic critics of the Satellite of Love – the orbiting screening room on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — is anyone’s guess. It certainly is no less worthy than the 198 entries in the series. My guess is that its absence can be attributed to the same rights issues that kept it from being released on any video format, until Scream Factory picked it up and gave it a full digital makeover. As bad as it is, however, “Without Warning” has a few things going for it and all of them appear in the list of credits. How bad could a movie starring Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Neville Brand, Cameron Mitchell, Sue Ann Langdon, Ralph Meeker, Larry Storch and newcomer David Caruso be? As directed by schlockmeister Greydon Clark (“Black Shampoo,” “Satan’s Cheerleaders”), bad enough to qualify as must-see cinema. Filmed in the mountains around Los Angeles, “Without Warning” is the story of an alien whose thirst for human blood is quenched through the deployment of nasty little creatures that look and fly like Frisbees, but are lethal to humans. It resembles a deflated cow pie, from which the poisonous tentacles of a Portuguese man o’ war protrude. Not even a pack of Cub Scouts is safe from the damn things. Landau and Palance appear to hold the only keys to unlock the mystery and destroy the alien. Typically, though, they’re too busy drinking in a local pub to do anything but give lip-service to the solution. Frankly, I can’t blame them. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clark; new interviews with cinematographer Dean Cundey, co-writer/co-producer Daniel Grodnik; special make-up effects creator Greg Cannom; actors Christopher S. Nelson and Tarah Nutter; original theatrical trailer; and stills gallery.

Raro Video
L’amore in Citta: Blu-ray
I Vinti: Blu-ray
The Bankers of God: The Calvi Affair: Blu-ray
Blue Movie
Most of what Americans know about post-WWII Italian cinema can be summed up in one word, “Neorealism.” The movement was so dynamic a cinematic force that it influenced nearly all other films made in Italy in its immediate wake and impacted on how European and American directors approached dramatic projects. In Italy, these included movies made for the consumption of audiences tiring of reliving the horrors of the Nazi occupation and watching stories about heroic priests (for several years, a subgenre of its own). Italo-centric Raro Video is in the business of introducing Americans to impeccably restored movies that weren’t deemed sufficiently commercial to make the leap over the pond in the early 1950s, as well as genre classics and exploitation pictures by artists both well-known and obscure. One of the most striking visual aspects common to post-war movies from Europe and Japan are the many artifacts of WWII seen in location shoots. Shantytowns, bombed-out structures and piles of bricks continue to haunt the horizons, alongside newly constructed housing projects or the odd modern building. The so-called economic miracles were years away from pushing back the rising tide of poverty and unemployment. Women, especially, bore the burden of the post-war Baby Boom. (Many of southern European men and teenage boys sought work in places where the economy had slowly begun to improve.) In America, by contrast, blue- and white-collar workers had already found meaningful work and were banking their salaries in hopes of buying into the American Dream … with some help from the G.I. Bill.

Made in 1953, “L’amore in Citta” is something of a revelation. Borrowing Neorealist conceits, the anthology explores some of the ways contemporary citizens of Rome were dealing with the vagaries of love, romance, sex, divorce, despair, abandonment and parenthood. If that sounds unwieldy, the contributors weren’t yet required to include radical departures from tradition, brought about by the Pill and the freedoms allowed owners of motorized beds … er, cars. Most young men and women lived with their parents until marriage, chaperons and curfews had yet to disappear, and the long shadow of the Catholic Church kept teenagers in the dark about sex. Even so, by 1953, people too young to have fought in the war were bursting at the seams to enjoy freedom before it was taken away from them again. The “60 Minutes”-like omnibus opens with Carlo Lizzani’s “L’Amore che si paga” (“Paid Love), which shines an unbiased light into the shadows of the buyer’s market that was prostitution in Rome; Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Attempted Suicide,” provides an open mike for men and women who had attempted or seriously considered suicide as a cure for despair; Dino Risi’s absolutely delightful “Paradise for Four Hours” spends an evening in a dance hall, where jazz, R&B and rock bring men and women together, if only for a few minutes at a time; Federico Fellini’s “Marriage Agency” enlists a reporter to pose as a perspective husband to investigate the match-making business; Cesara Zavattini and Umberto Maselli’s “Story of Caterina” dramatizes the true story of an impoverished unwed mother who agonizes between doing what’s best for her child and what’s best for her; and Alberto Lattuada’s “Italians Stare,” in which large-breasted women in radically aerodynamic bras pretend not to notice the reactions – only some of them cautiously disguised — of men already predisposed to act like swine in their midst. Among the actors are Ugo Tognazzi, Maressa Gallo, and Caterina Riogoglioso, but, I swear, I saw someone who could have been Roberto Benigni’s father. The Blu-ray is accompanied by commentaries and interviews with learned scholars and filmmakers, as well as a booklet with 20 pages devoted to essays, appreciations and restoration notes.

Two years before “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Rock Around the Clock,” Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) tapped squarely into the international youthquake about to rattle to walls of polite society. In an interesting coincidence, “The Wild One” forced American audiences to recognize how post-war anxiety and non-conformist behavior were combining organically into a cocktail of violence and hate. I don’t know when the term, “juvenile delinquency,” came into vogue in the U.S., but Antonioni identified the same symptoms spreading throughout the major population centers in Italy. “I Vinti” is divided into three parts, each one dramatizing the events surrounding a murder perpetrated by middle-class or affluent youths in Italy, France and England. Antonioni isn’t so much interested in creating a mystery and solving it, then to survey the cultural landscape and get inside the heads of the killers before and after the crime. To accomplish this, he fell back on his experience as documentary maker and disciple of Neorealism. Look closely and you’ll find moments that anticipate themes he would return to in “Blow-Up” and “Zabriskie Point.” The Blu-ray adds an eight-page booklet featuring an essay by Stefania Parigi; an interview with actor Franco Interlenghi (star of “Italy”); an interview with writer/producer Turi Vasile, on post-war Italian cinema and his assertion that “The Vanquished” was a turning point for the industry; “Tentato Suicidio,” Antonioni’s segment from “Love in the City”; and the original, uncut version of the “Italy,” which created a controversy because of its political undertones.

Remember the scenes in “Godfather III” that described how Michael Corleone had invested his crime family’s revenues in Vatican interests, only to be stabbed in the back by priests and bankers who treated him like a rube from the New Country? I found most of the wheeling and dealing lacking in logic and too fantastic to waste much time deciphering. Giuseppe Ferrara’s 2002 true-crime melodrama, “The Bankers of God: The Calvi Affair,” goes a long way toward explaining how Francis Ford Coppola might have, if anything, under-estimated the complexity of the scandal. Al Pacino doesn’t appear in “The Bankers of God,” but I would have loved to see what Coppola or Costa-Gavras could have done with the raw material here. While Michael Corleone was interested in global power and immense profits, the Vatican was using its banks treasury to finance the Solidarity movement in Poland and fascists in Central America. Roberto Calvi was one of several influential bankers who greased the wheels for such investments, while also finding new suckers anxious to launder their ill-gotten gains through God’s network of banks and sham companies. Among the more tasty things in “Bankers of God” are the sight of a frail Pope John Paul II in sweats on an exercise bike; a spooky gathering of Freemasons in velvet robes and pointed hoods; and Cardinal Marcinkus (Rutger Hauer) in civilian drag, golfing with his “nieces” in tow. As scandals go, this one makes Watergate look like a convenience-store stickup.

Blue Movie,” Alberto Cavallone’s 1978 exercise in stomach-churning sexploitation opens auspiciously with a chase and attempted rape in the woods. The good news is that the victim escapes the violent attack; the bad news is that she’s picked up at the side of a rural road by a sado-masochistic photographer, Claudio. Before she succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, Silvia (Dirce Funari) is fed a steady diet of war images that tell of death, devastation and pain. Another supermodel is asked to join in the sado-masochistic fun, as well. There’s enough nudity and perversion here to keep things moving, if not much of a story.

Need for Speed: Blu-ray
Are muscle cars making a comeback? In the fiscally indefensible, if occasionally quite entertaining “Need for Speed,” stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh gives us some reason to hope that such a blast from America’s technological past is theoretically possible, at least. Fans of the “The Fast and the Furious” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” already know that street racing and high-octane chases have never gone out of style. The refreshing difference between those hit pictures and “Need for Speed” is Waugh’s and writers George and John Gatins’ nostalgia for the days of yesteryear, when gasoline cost no more than 30-40 cents a gallon, V-8 engines churned out in excess of 500 horsepower, no two automakers wanted their products to look the same, the Beach Boys dedicated entire albums to hot rods and street racing took place in a straight quarter-mile-long line. The oil crises of the 1970s effectively ended the production of muscle cars in Detroit and, by extension, the world. While “Need for Speed” borrows certain stylistic conceits from “F&F” and the popular “Need for Speed” video-game series, the movie’s spirit can be traced to such movies as “The Gumball Rally,” “Cannonball,” “Cannonball Run” and “Two-Lane Blacktop.” All except the latter title owe their existence to the highly illegal Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, created by automotive journalist Brock Yates. Two-time Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) fills the lead role of Tobey Marshall, an ace mechanic newly released from prison for crime he didn’t commit in a previous year’s running of the marathon event. Therefore, he has a rather large ax to grind on the head of one of this year’s participants. This time, he’s teamed with a pretty blond Brit (Imogen Poots), on whose Ford Shelby Mustang he worked. “Need for Speed” won’t make anyone forget any of the aforementioned movies, or throw away their video-game platform, but the racing scenes are well-imagined and the cars look great. The stunning Blu-ray presentation adds commentary with Waugh and Paul; deleted scenes; outtakes; a promo for the “Need for Speed: Rivals” games; and a couple of background featurettes.

I’ll Follow You Down
Not so long ago, the pairing of Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) and Haley Joel Osment (“The Sixth Sense”) would have caused significantly more hubbub than the brief ripple of excitement raised in anticipation of “I’ll Follow You Down.” Although neither actor has completely disappeared from sight in the last dozen years, or so, the world doesn’t seem to have missed them in the interim. Anderson’s kept busy working in films, on stage and television, primarily in England. Osment’s dramatic descent from Hollywood’s A-list began after his terrific performance as a little robot boy in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” In a very real sense, Osment put his career on hold after “A.I.,” to attend a local high school and become a real boy. If he hasn’t be accorded much respect as an adult actor, it’s probably because, at 26, he doesn’t look a day over 17. His only concession to aging are the extra pounds of flesh on his face. None of this has anything to do with the issue at hand, of course, which is Richie Mehta’s movie. The central characters, Marika and Erol, are left behind at home when physicist Gabe Whyte (Rufus Sewell) ostensibly disappears while attending a scientific conference in New Jersey. His absence remains a perplexing mystery to the boy, even as he’s demonstrating his own proficiency in astrophysics. Ultimately, it drives Marika to commit suicide. In the wake of this tragedy, Erol’s grandfather (Victor Garber) pulls out Gabe’s sketches and notes, on the off-chance that the young man will see something in them that no one else has. From the research, Grandpa Sal has come to believe that Gabe had built a stable wormhole, which allowed him to travel back in time to 1947. Traumatized by his mother’s death and still wounded by his father’s disappearance, Erol picks up the challenge laid down by Sal. At the same time, he finds a photographic clue that suggests to him that his father rode his wormhole to Albert Einstein’s adoptive home in Princeton, N.J. This means, of course, that Erol will attempt to return to a place he’d never been, at a time 40 years before his birth. Before he leaves, Sal lectures his grandson on the possible ramifications of a successful journey. For viewers, “I’ll Follow You Down” is two-thirds setup and exposition and one-third “Twilight Zone” homage. On the plus side, the actors do a nice job keeping the weight of the narrative from dragging down the entire picture and Rod Serling’s legacy includes dozens of adaptations of individual episodes, done right the first time.

The Phantom of the Paradise: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Sex Pistols on TV
Devo: Men Who Make the Music/Butch Devo & the Sundance Gig
In the mid-1970s, even mainstream lovers of rock ’n’ roll still refused to give in entirely to the demands of record-label weasels, programmers of classic-rock radio and the extortionist policies of Ticketmaster. Fans went to great lengths to convince themselves of the purity of rock music and musicians, but only the Grateful Dead could be said to have held the line against promoters of stadium tours and wildly escalating ticket prices. The Dead refused to ban its followers from recording the concerts, even with sophisticated equipment. Ken Russell’s over-the-top visualization of the Who’s already 6-year-old “rock opera” “Tommy” benefitted greatly from the familiarity of the music and presence of genuine movie stars. At about the same time, “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” would struggle to find their audience and bridge the worlds of pop music and musical theater. “Rocky Horror” succeeded almost by accident, while “Phantom” only became a bona-fide hit in Winnipeg. Everything looks and sounds swell on this excellent Scream Factory Blu-ray release, but, in 1974, writer/director Brian de Palma had yet to prove himself as an interpreter of countercultural tropes and the marketing campaign behind “Phantom” reeked of being too slick by half. At the time, Alice Cooper and Kiss likewise were viewed with suspicion by the “Woodstock über alles” crowd. As gimmicks go, however, both “Phantom” and “Rocky Horror” can still stand on their own merits. Credit for that belongs to De Palma’s great cinematic eye, Paul Williams’ catchy songs and the enduring validity of the “Phantom of the Opera” legend. Instead of being required to deliver a message about the perils of celebrity and Satanic influences in the music industry, it can be watched or re-watched strictly for fun, of which there’s plenty. When the impish Williams makes his presence known, as the corrupt promoter, it almost feels like a Muppet movie.  The Blu-ray package adds new commentaries and interviews with Jessica Harper and Gerrit Graham and the Juicy Fruits band, and production designer Jack Fisk; new interviews with DePalma, Williams and make-up effects wizard Tom Burman; and making-of material. Vintage bonus features on a second disc include a documentary on the making of the film; an interview with Williamsm, moderated by Guillermo Del Toro; an interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton; and a gallery of neon art created for the picture. The featurettes are unusually long and informative.

Britain’s Sex Pistols was formed in reaction to such things as rock operas, parody musicals, stadium tours and the excesses of glam rock. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten cried “Bollocks” to the whole notion that rock music could be mainstreamed or cynically manipulated by new iterations of old-school shysters. In their own anti-social way, they took what began with Britain’s fixation with rockabilly and routed it through such punk pioneers as Iggy Pop, the MC5 and Ramones. Under the tutelage of trend-setters Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the Pistols not only turned the music industry on its ear, but also created a fashion look that endures 40 years later … safety pins and Mohawk hairdos, who knew? “Sex Pistols on TV” tells the story of the lads, from 1976 to the present day — including the death of Sid Vicious, the split and recent reforming of the band — pretty much in their own words and on their own terms. What looked and sounded so outrageous 40 years ago in the rare and forgotten archive footage included here, today almost seems original and refreshing.

Also born in the mid-1970s, Devo found success defying conventions and adding the word “ironic” to the rock lexicon. A cross between the Cars and Kraftwerk, Devo’s music reworked basic rock and pop rhythms into something both robotic and self-consciously hip. Undeniably catchy, the songs gave nerds a reason to turn on their car radios. “Men Who Make the Music” and “Butch Devo & the Sundance Gig” find Devo nearly at opposite ends of their active career. The former combines concert footage from Devo’s 1978 tour with music videos and interstitials featuring a vague story about the group’s “rocky relationship with Big Entertainment.” Jerry Casale describes the latter film thusly, “In January of ’96, we closed Sundance Film Festival. We wore ’20s’ style prison suits and dished out classic Devo songs to an unsuspecting audience of Hollywood elite.” I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the results.

Pot Zombies 2
As a slightly more expensive sequel to the 2006 underground hit, “Pot Zombies,” couldn’t be better timed. Eight years ago, even the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes seemed too much to ask of American voters and lawmakers. Today, it’s a reality in many states. Even if more than the original $900 was spent on “Pot Zombies 2,” it retains the same super-cheap, do-it-yourself texture. The synopsis is the same, as well: “Pot smokers turn into zombies with the ‘munchies’ for human flesh, when a strain of radioactive pot infects the stoners of America.” Hey, it could happen. The only thing that’s markedly different here, then, is the sequel’s subtitle – “More pot, less plot” – which is better than anything in the screenplay.

Syfy: Bitten: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
IFC: The Birthday Boys: The Complete First Season
NBC: Community: The Complete Fifth Season
PBS: American Experience: The Wild West
PBS: Italy’s Mystery Mountains
If there’s anything the western world doesn’t need any more of these days, it’s another teen-oriented TV series populated with werewolves and other fashionable creatures of the night. Thanks to “True Blood” and the “Twilight” series, we may never see another actor – male or female – who’s old enough to remember the debut of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” That won’t prevent the pretend undead from playing a doctor, lawyer or anything else that requires a post-graduate degree, however. Based on Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” novels, “Bitten” tells the story of blond bombshell Elena (Laura Vandervoort), who’s attempting to lead a normal life in Toronto after being bitten and turned into werewolf by her studly ex-fiance, Clayton (Greyston Holt). Elena’s human boyfriend, Philip (Paul Greene) is clueless to her alter ego, even when she scurries from their bed to quench her insatiable sexual appetite in city’s forested parkways. When she’s summoned to her pack’s Upstate New York mansion to combat a threat from a rival werewolf family, she reluctantly agrees to return to the site of her “de-flowering.” Once there, it’s tough for viewers to determine if the greatest threat to her well-being is from the rival wolfpack or Clayton. After 13 episodes, we’ll learn her decision. As cliché as that description makes “Bitten” sound, its production values are well above-par as these things go and the many fight scenes are quite good, as well. The Blu-ray package includes episodes from the Canadian edition, which appears to have been more than a little bit racier than the one shown here on Syfy. It adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, split-screen examples of stunt choreography and commentary with the producers and Vandervoort.

Bob Odenkirk may or may not be the hardest-working man on television right now, but he’s certainly among the funniest. Between finishing off his stint on “Breaking Bad” and reprising his character in the upcoming prequel, “Better Call Saul,” Odenkirk teamed with the Los Angeles comedy group, the Birthday Boys, for a sketch show exec-produced by Ben Stiller. IFC’s “The Birthday Boys’” approach to comedy basically ranges from stupid and juvenile, to smart and savagely anarchic. In this way, it resembles “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” “The Kids in the Hall,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and, going back a few years, “SCTV” and “Monty Python.” There are short bits and others that run through an episode like a thread. Odenkirk’s contributions frequently border on the surrealistic. The Season One package adds audio commentaries, “The Making of Season One,” “From Stage to Screen,” bonus Videos and promos.

There’s nothing more to say about the wildly eccentric NBC sitcom “Community” that hasn’t already been written by the nation’s corps of critics. As a series that actively set out to break the rules and stretch the established limits of network programming – without using the twin crutches of sex and language – it clearly succeeded, remaining on the air for five tortured seasons. If it never found the audience it deserved, well, I suspect that very few people realistically thought it would. Now, given an opportunity to push the envelope even further on Netflix, the real test begins in the eternal struggle between “smart” and “commercial.” The episodes in the final-season package are representative of those from the last three, at least, in that they are altogether inventive, kooky and demanding of one’s complete attention. It can be argued, as well, that the themes and gags frequently give off an air of being exhaustively hipper-than-thou, but so what? The set adds a few entertaining bonus features.

For most of the 20th Century, kids addicted to stories about cowboys, Indians, outlaws and lawmen were required to rely on myths, legends and lies perpetrated by writers who knew that the truth rarely sold as well as cleverly crafted exaggerations. It’s as if the working principle in Hollywood, all along, has been, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Today, audiences have an opportunity to choose between buying into the legend, learning the truth or picking and choosing between the two. And, yes, the truth is frequently more entertaining than the fiction. As proof, PBS’ “American Experience” offers “The Wild West,” which does the scud work that screenwriters were rarely required to do in the 100 years since “The Great Train Robbery.” The hour-long episodes collected here included biographies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, General George Custer, Geronimo, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Kit Carson.  They aren’t intended to burst anyone’s bubbles about the American West, just explain how the legends came to be.

The title of PBS’ “Italy’s Mystery Mountains” probably overstates its case for being of interest to a wide spectrum of viewers. So, too, does the cover, which suggests that an encounter with Vlad Tepes might not be out of the questions. A closer examination reveals the sub-title, “The Fascinating Geologic Story of Italy.” Well, that certainly applies to the destruction of Pompeii, about which movies are still being made, but what about everything that’s gone on below eye level at speeds measured in millennia? Two teams of scientists have been studying just that in an attempt to determine if the great mountain ranges are still “alive” and growing, or have stabilized. Besides a discussion of volcanoes, the most accessible part of the documentary describes how the mountains that produced Michelangelo’s famous marbles were created. Most the material presented in “Mystery Mountains” is in a form of English we can all understand.

The DVD Wrapup

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Noah: Blu-ray
Cross a few short chapters from Genesis with Classics Illustrated, Marvel and DC comics and it’s likely that it will look something like Darren Aronofsky’s epic biblical adventure, “Noah.” The Old Testament is full of whopping yarns written to explain how God came to favor one ethnic group over another. Was the sea artificially parted by the deity to allow for Jewish slaves to escape tyranny in Egypt or did Exodus coincide with the eruption of a giant volcano in the Mediterranean Sea, which caused a tsunami that not only opened a temporary path to Israel, but also drowned the Egyptian pursuers when it closed? If nothing else, Aronofsky’s version of the story explains, however fancifully, how all of those animals managed to coexist on the Ark without becoming part of the food chain. Even so, Paramount was so afraid of a fundamentalist backlash that it agreed to add a disclaimer to the marketing material for the $125-million picture, ensuring them that the great flood could have happened exactly as they were taught. It also test-marketed different endings, without the approval of Aronofsky, so as to avoid protests. (Paramount ended up going with the original ending, anyway.) The bible-bangers’ time may have been put to greater use attempting to figure out how the three sons of Noah and Naameh were able to repopulate the Earth after the waters receded. And, where did all of that water go? And, for that matter, how was Noah able to live for more 900 years and only father three sons? Given these and other difficult questions raised in the bible, why begrudge Aronofsky – as imaginative a filmmaker as labors in Hollywood – the occasional leap of faith or fancy, especially if it encourages young people to pick up the Good Book. Frankly, I don’t know which of the filmmaker’s conceits put a bee in the fundamentalists’ bonnets, unless it was the depiction of the fallen angels as craggy construction workers; the evil Tubal-cain’s ability to hitch a ride on the Ark; or Noah’s willingness to kill his granddaughters in the name of the Lord. Absent such embellishments, however, “Noah” may have lasted all of about 25 minutes. There’s probably a good reason the bible left unclear the details of Noah’s excellent adventure. Perhaps, it was left for Hollywood to fill in the blanks.

The truth remains, God’s fingerprints are all over “Noah.” If anyone has reason to question motives here, it’s the atheists. Filmed largely amidst the volcanic wastelands of Iceland, it isn’t difficult to imagine that He/She might have been appalled by humankind’s tendency to violence and blasphemy. Unlike Steve Carell’s impersonation of Noah as a white-bearded Mr. Natural, Russell Crowe’s creation looks 50 years old, instead of 600, and could assume command of the H.M.S. Bounty after the Ark landed on Mount Ararat. Moreover, his Noah is absolutely ferocious in his literal translation of God’s words, and, if Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) doesn’t like his stance on their granddaughters’ fate, she can take a long walk off of a short plank. I don’t think that part was in the bible, either. According to the book, though, Noah finally was no more infallible than anyone else in his family. He became addicted to the fruit of the vine and made a fool of himself. One thing “Noah” doesn’t do is cheat audiences out of their hard-earned dollars. Technically, it’s as impeccable an entertainment as one is going to find. The construction of the Ark, enactment of battle scenes and CGI-enhanced flooding would be worth the price of a rental, no matter one’s religious beliefs … or suspended disbeliefs. Fundamentalists typically don’t relish the idea of debating anything they consider to be the direct word of God, written in the blood of the lamb and sanctioned by the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently, though, I’ve read the opinions of several distinguished theologians and pundits, who’ve looked beyond the hype and venom and found ways to use “Noah” as a teaching tool and entry point for debate about Old Testament themes and phenomenology. As such, it’s easy to recommend. The Blu-ray adds three worthwhile featurettes, “Iceland: Extreme Beauty,” a discussion of the benefits to the story of shooting in Iceland, the land’s natural beauty, difficult terrain access, meteorological challenges and working in the cave, where Anthony Hopkins’ cagey portrayal of Methuselah begins. – Gary Dretzka

Herzog: The Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Of all the filmmakers who’ve had the word, “genius,” attached to the names, Werner Herzog is only one of a precious few who actually deserve the honor. The titles included in Shout! Factory’s “Herzog: The Collection,” represent work from 1970 to 1999, or, to be precise, from “Even Dwarfs Started Small” to “My Best Friend,” on his relationship with the brilliant, if wildly tempestuous Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s output since 1999 is arguably even more remarkable. As one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema, the now 71-year-old Herzog continues to make documentaries that feel like dramas and dramas that could easily be mistaken for documentaries. As if to demonstrate just how thin the line between fact and fiction can in his work, Herzog remade his 1997 documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” into the exciting 2007 action-adventure, “Rescue Dawn.” In it, Christian Bale plays the German-born fighter pilot, who, after joining the U.S. Navy, was shot down by the Pathet Lao and escaped from captivity in a bamboo cage. Les Blank’s BAFTA-winning documentary, “Burden of Dreams” not only chronicles the difficulties faced by Herzog while making “Fitzcarraldo,” but it also makes the argument for obsessive behavior being an asset for any aspiring filmmaker. The proof can be found in this essential collection of Herzog’s movies. In addition to the four aforementioned titles, the set includes “Fata Morgana,” “Land of Silence and Darkness,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” “Where the Green Ants Dream,” “Ballad of the Little Soldier,” “Lessons of Darkness,” “Heart of Glass,” “Strozek,” “Woyzeck” and “Cobra Verde.” The quality of the AV presentation varies according to the age and original source of the films, some of which were made for European television. Footage shot after the battle for Kuwait offers a vision of earthly hell that’s accentuated by the Blu-ray presentation and brilliant choice of music. For Herzog, all life on Earth is accompanied by an operatic soundtrack. Seven of the films arrive with English commentaries, while three others have German tracks. The featurettes include “In Conversation: Werner Herzog and (his distributor) Laurens Straub,” “The Making of ‘Nosferatu the Vampyre,’” “Portrait: Werner Herzog,” “Herzog in Africa” and theatrical trailers. Herzog is also a terrific raconteur, as is evident especially in the anecdotes he shares about his personal and professional relationship with Kinski, whose reputation as a loose cannon is amply demonstrated here. The limited-edition “Herzog: The Collection” also features a 40-page booklet, which includes photos, an essay by award-winning author Stephen J. Smith and in-depth film synopses by Herzog scholars Brad Prager and Chris Wahl. – Gary Dretzka

Grace Kelly Collection
Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Revisited: The Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If aspiring actors were required to pass a test before being allowed to appear in movies budgeted at something north of $10 million, they could use the movies in “Grace Kelly Collection” as study guides. Although she only starred in 10 feature films and a bunch of TV anthologies before ascending to royalty, Kelly exuded class, integrity and classic feminine beauty in ways few women would again in Hollywood. If she spent any of her remaining 26 years on Earth pretending to enjoy being married to Prince Rainier of Monaco, Kelly never revealed it in public. Neither does she suggest as much in her final television interview, with journalist Pierre Salinger (and included here), less than two months before her death. If little girls still dream of growing up to become a princess and/or an Academy Award-winning actress, it’s because of Grace Kelly, not Madonna or Beyoncé. Although the Warner Home Video release doesn’t include “Rear Window” or “High Noon,” both readily available in DVD/Blu-ray, what’s here represents the “American princess” in all her regal glory. It is comprised of John Ford’s Kenya-set rom-dram, “Mogambo” (1953), which also starred Clark Gable and Ava Gardner; Alfred Hitchcock’s very British murder mystery, “Dial M for Murder” (1954), with Robert Cummings and Ray Milland; “The Country Girl” (1954), for which she was awarded a Best Picture Oscar;  the wartime drama, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954), with William Holden and Mickey Rooney; Hitchcock’s suspenseful “To Catch a Thief” (1995), during which Kelly and Cary Grant play a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse in the French Riviera; and her swan song, “High Society” (1956), featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and the songs of Cole Porter. Among the entertaining featurettes are “Hitchcock and Dial M and 3D: A Brief History,” about the filmmaker’s flirtation with stereoscopic technology; several pieces and commentary on the making of “Thief”; “Cole Porter in Hollywood: True Love”; the 1956 MGM cartoon, “Millionaire Droopy”; newsreel from the gala premiere for “High Society”; vintage marketing material; and Salinger’s interview.

As far as I can tell, there have been nearly as many video, DVD and Blu-ray iterations of Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music” as there now are people claiming to have been at the epochal event. Far more former hippies now insist they made the trek to rural Bethel that weekend than could fit in all of the town’s cow pastures put together. Sometimes, hallucinating does make it so. Fortunately for consumers, new advances in AV technology continually add something new to the experience. Given the primitive nature of portable cameras and recording equipment 45 years ago, it’s interesting to see how much better the presentation is in hi-def. In addition to the 224-minute “Director’s Cut,” the new three-disc release offers such “collectibles” as an iron-on patch, three single-day ticket reproductions, a Life magazine excerpt reproduction and reproductions of 1969 newspaper clippings. The items are housed in a small paper box that slides into an outer slip-box, alongside a standard Blu-ray case. Not all of the bonus material from previous additions has been transferred over to the “Revised Edition,” but they’re easy enough to find elsewhere. The 77-minute making-of doc, “Woodstock: From Festival to Feature,” has been upgraded to high def. It is joined here by “Woodstock: From Festival to Feature Revisited,” representing 32 minutes of additional behind-the-scenes on the festival’s legacy, documentary restoration and historical material. Better yet, 73 more minutes of “Untold Stories” – a.k.a., musical performances – have been added to the previously offered 142 minutes of bonus concert material. “The Museum at Bethel Woods” is here to remind us of the one or two opportunities for tourism near the hallowed ground of Woodstock. – Gary Dretzka

Cuban Fury: Blu-ray
1 Chance 2 Dance
Anytime you put Cuban heels on a fat guy, someone is going to laugh. That’s basically the idea behind “Cuban Fury,” a quintessentially British rom-com about a one-time salsa protégé who’s gone to seed, but retains just enough muscle memory to shoot for the stars one more time. In accentuating the redemptive qualities of dance, it should appeal to the same viewers who enjoyed “Strictly Ballroom,” “The Full Monty,” “Billy Elliot” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Here, Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead”) stars as the older, heavier iteration of Bruce, the boy who hung up his heels after bullies made him eat sequins off of his shirt. Not anxious to relive the experience, Bruce has steadfastly refused to get back on anyone’s dance floor. That is, until he develops a crush on the new American supervisor at work, Julia (Rashida Jones), who just happens to love salsa. Bruce’s best pal, Drew (Chris O’Dowd), shares an interest in Julia, but for reasons that are entirely different and far more predictable. The movie’s true saving grace is Ian McShane, the dark force behind Bruce’s rise to near teen stardom. Apparently, he’s never recovered from Bruce’s desertion, either, and is reluctant to invest any more of his own Cuban fury into him. For my money, too much attention is paid to the office romance and not enough to the dancing. That fat jokes also get tiresome after a while. Still, when “Cuban Fire” gets down to the business at hand, it can be quite charming. The Blu-ray offers four behind-the-scenes featurettes and “How to Dance Salsa With Nick Frost.”

Launched first on the Internet, “1 Chance 2 Dance” tells the even more familiar story of a 17-year-old aspiring dancer, who suffers one of the cruelest fates any teenager can endure when she’s sent to a new high school at mid-semester of her senior year. Children have sued their parents for less … and won. Anyway, it doesn’t take long for young Gabby Colussi (Lexi Giovagnoli) to go all “Glee” on us. She must balance her new-found love life with her last shot at making her dream of becoming a dancer a reality. – Gary Dretzka

On My Way: Blu-ray
The French Minister
It’s impossible to miss awards season in Hollywood. It’s when actresses of a certain age and beyond are allowed to demonstrate what’s missing throughout the rest of the year in American movies: themselves, in lead roles. Who knew, when “The Hunger” was released in 1983, that 30 years later, its already middle-age stars, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, would be among the very few actresses of their generation still routinely being handed key roles in movies great, small and indifferent? At 67, Sarandon remains as active and alluring as most of the ingénues being mass-produced for media exploitation. The same can be said of Deneuve, who, despite adding a few pounds over the last several years, looks as fabulous as when her image was used to represent Marianne, the national symbol of France. Of course, both women are exceptional talents, on and off the screen, and the roles they accept are anything but generic. Yes, in “On My Way,” Deneuve plays a grandmother, but, ooh-la-la, what a grandmother. As we meet the struggling Breton restaurateur and onetime beauty queen, Bettie, she’s just learned that her married lover has ditched her for a much-younger beautician’s assistant. Fed up with the whole deal, Bettie leaves her still spry mother behind to take care of the business and heads out for a weekend reunion of Miss France candidates, circa 1969. On her way to the swank Hotel Palace de Menthon, in Annecy, she allows herself to be picked up by a flirtatious doofus in a bar that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Thelma & Louise.” Before she can get very far, however, Bettie also agrees to mind her gratingly disrespectful grandson, Charly, for her estranged daughter. For most of the rest of the picture, it’s “Thelma & Charly.” After some early fireworks, co-writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot (“Jailbait”) surrounds them with fellow contestants from the Class of 1969, most of whom aren’t very much worse for the wear and retain the same positive and negative personality traits they demonstrated in competition. There’s no use spoiling what happens during the rest of “On My Way,” except to say that most of it is unpredictable. Bercot’s rom-dram-com hits a couple of sizable potholes on its way to a resolution, but none so large that it spoils the fun of a multi-generational entertainment that hardly ever resorts to clichés, when something fresh will do just as well.

It’s been almost 20 years since Bertrand Tavernier made a film, “’Round Midnight,” that demanded the attention of anyone outside of the arthouse circuit. They play at festivals or in New York, before disappearing in the ancillary market, primarily in Europe. Blessedly, it’s become far easier to find Tavernier’s titles in DVD and Blu-ray than it ever was in VHS, so fans haven’t had to miss any of his more recent releases. Anyone’s who’s watched and enjoyed the satires “Veep,” “In the Loop” and “The Thick of It,” will wonder why Tavernier’s comedy of political manners, “The French Minister,” so rarely goes for the jugular. Indeed, it’s more of farce than a takedown of a system that apparently is no more efficient than governments in the U.S. and U.K. Based on a graphic novel by former government speechwriter Abel Lanzac, the primary focus is on Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry Lhermitte), who’s something of a space cadet. He’s expected to comment and speechify on world events, as if anyone outside France actually considers it to be a player on the world stage. The problem is, the minister is so scatter-brained that his instructions routinely baffle the staffers assigned to write his speeches. One new hire, Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) is thrown into the deep end on his first day and spends most of his time trying not to drown. He gets conflicting advice from his fellow staffers, who’ve become accustomed to their boss’ many idiosyncracies and want Arthur to learn from the mistakes he’s bound to make. The only person who plays it straight with the lad is veteran diplomat Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup), who doesn’t let his jaded demeanor get in the way of being an effective statesman. Freshmen writers Christophe Blain and Abel Lanzac allow Maupas to save De Vorms’ ass too many times to generate any real satirical heat. In this way, “The French Minister” borders on the patriotic. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Den
As a higher-tech corollary of the found-footage subgenre, chat-room horror is a tougher act to pull off on the big screen. That’s the perspective to which we’ve become accustomed and we know that almost everything of consequence happens behind the protagonist’s back. When he or she turns away from the screen, however, the threat has disappeared or already is hiding in the wings. Normally, being in a chat room allows warnings to be exchanged in real time, but only if someone remembers to turn on the sound.  In “The Den,” aspiring sociologist Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is required to spend all of her waking hours on a Chatroulette-style social network. Recording her interactions with all manner of Internet habitués may not sound scientifically enlightening, but Elizabeth manages to find several users who aren’t perverts or otherwise damaged. One night, she makes the mistake of not logging off the site and allowing hackers to record her having sex with her part-time boyfriend. Once that door is opened, it isn’t difficult for the hackers to torture Elizabeth in ways she hadn’t anticipated, going into project. Besides having to be reminded of her mistake with repeat showings of her sexual prowess, she must deal with images of chat-buddies being slaughtered before her helpless eyes. Naturally, the police are skeptical when asked to investigate the cyber-murders. They get downright hostile with every new false alarm. For a while, viewers feel as if they’re being duped, as well. Director Zachary Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson do a nice job fixing the action within the digital realm of the film’s computerized context. It’s likely that they understood going into the project that the intended audience for such a picture is tech-savvy and is conversant with social-network protocols. Papalia does seem a bit too pretty and self-confident to get caught up in the hackers’ game, but stranger things probably happen on the Internet every millisecond or two. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Curtains: Blu-ray
Aloha, Bobby and Rose
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX
The most overused word in the jargon of marketing mavens is “classic.” Simply being older than the buyers and renters staring at a cover blurb does not automatically make a movie a classic. And, just because a reviewer on an obscure website or weekly suburban newspaper uses the term to describe a movie, it should be illegal to lift the word and slap it on an ad. I don’t mind a particularly interesting or imaginative genre being labeled a “cult classic,” but certain guidelines and standards should be met before calling every financially successful movie a classic. While almost completely unknown south of the Great White North, Richard Ciupka’s “Curtains” can easily carry the weight of being designated a classic of Canuxploitation, a legitimate sub-sub-genre of mainstream horror. Besides being a memorably bloody slasher flick, it is both genuinely scary and far better made than it has any right to be, considering the budget. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare “Curtains” to the works of Jean Renoir, as did Dave Alexander at – OK, he had his reasons — but it’s as good as anything else that was released in 1983. At its icy core, “Curtains” is an Agatha Christie mystery with sharp tools and a guest appearance by body-double Shannon Tweed and her Newfoundlandian boobs. Ciupka’s gift here is being able to pull the rug out from under the feet of viewers, whenever they begin to feel comfortable. The switcheroo conceit doesn’t merely work once or twice, but throughout the course of the movie. As it opens, the celebrated director of film and theater Jonathan Stryker – played by veteran villain John Vernon, best known as Dean Vernon Wormer in “Animal House” – is rehearsing a scene in the psychodrama “Audra” with longtime collaborator, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Egger). Unsatisfied with her performance, Stryker insists she be committed to a mental-health facility to better understand her character. The way the scene is plays out, however, it isn’t clear whether Samantha truly freaked out during the rehearsal and actually did require a little R&R, or if it’s a gag that will pay off later. Either way, her absence frees Stryker to invite a half-dozen young actresses to a lodge on a frozen Ontario lake and audition them for the same role. The women not only are required to endure the slimy advances of the director, but also are murdered in “10 Little Indians” fashion by someone wearing the sea-hag mask. The culprit remains a mystery until the last few minutes of the movie. “Curtains” has been re-mastered in 2K resolution from original vault materials virtually untouched for over 30 years and accorded a 5.1 Surround remix. Synapse Films probably spent more on the process than the entire budget in 1983. Special features include “The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains,” an all-new retrospective featuring interviews with Ciupka, stars Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin, editor Michael MacLaverty, special makeup effects creator Greg Cannom and composer Paul Zaza; commentary with stars Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson; and interviews with producer Peter R. Simpson and Samantha Eggar.

Few actors have enjoyed as auspicious a beginning in the movie industry as Paul LeMat. As long as “American Graffiti” remains essential viewing for teenagers approaching their senior year in high school, LeMat will be recalled with great fondness as hot-rodder John Milner. As such, it also means that he’ll be able to make some spare cash signing autographs at car shows. He would reprise the role in “More American Graffiti,” which, despite its story outline from Lucas, fared far less well. LaMat survived that embarrassment by being cast in Johnathan Demme’s vastly underappreciated “Handle With Care” (a.k.a., “Citizens Band”) and in the critically acclaimed “Melvin and Howard,” as the hapless milkman denied his right to Howard Hughes’ fortune. After that, not so swell. In 1975, he pretty much played to type in Floyd Mutrux’s “Aloha, Bobby and Rose,” an appealing, if derivative action/romance that reminded everyone who saw it of “American Graffiti,” “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” It used popular rock songs to comment on and anticipate things happening on the screen. Visually, “Aloha, Bobby and Rose” adopted many of the action-first, skin-second, music-third techniques favored by the directors in Roger Corman’s stable. LeMat plays a ne’er-do-well San Diego greaser, who digs himself a hole from which he can’t escape a local gang-banger (Edward James Olmos) to whom he owes a great deal of money. While attempting to come to grips with that dilemma, Bobby picks up teen waif Rose and convinces her to share his criminal pipedream. After a clerk is accidentally killed during a fake holdup at a liquor store, Bobby and Rose join the same ranks of doomed lovers on the lam. They decide to make themselves scarce by hiding out in Mexico, where they meet another renegade couple, this one hell-bent for fun. “Aloha, Bobby and Rose” may never have been a great film, but, on any given weekend night, it would have been the best movie on a triple-bill at the local drive-in theater.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX” demonstrates once again just how thin the line between homage and ridicule can be, especially when adjudicated by beings whose intelligence is artificial at best. The running commentary provided by Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo and Gypsy is designed to make the best out of a bad interstellar situation and not destroy the reputations of the guilty parties, such as they may be. To suggest that their opinions are more entertaining than the movies themselves is only to state the obvious. There aren’t many surprises in “MST3K: XXX,” unless the appearances of Jack Palance and Oliver Reed in the 1987 sci-fi/fantasy dud “Gor” qualifies as one. (His career resurrection wouldn’t take full effect for another couple of years with appearances in “Batman,” “Tango and Cash” and “City Slickers.”) If you didn’t see it upon its original release, it’s probably because the movie, here referred to as “Outlaw of Gor,” was shot in South Africa when it wasn’t cool to do so. No great loss, there. The other titles are “The Black Scorpion” (1957), a hecho en Mexico thriller with giant bugs; “The Projected Man” (1966), about a deranged scientist; and “It Lives by Night” (1974), also known as “The Bat People.” The package includes “Stinger of Death: Making the Black Scorpion”; “Writer of Gor: The Novels of John Norman,” “Director of Gor: On Set With John Bud Cardos” and “Producer of Gor: Adventures With Harry Alan Towers”; “Shock to the System: Creating The Projected Man”; an extended trailer for “The Frank” music video; and four exclusive mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. – Gary Dretzka

Dragonwolf: Blu-ray
The Thai movie industry has been moving forward by fits and starts, mostly with high-energy martial-arts pictures and freaky-deaky thrillers based on traditional ghost stories. When Americans and Europeans dip their toes in Thai water, very little time or money is wasted on finesse and subtleties. If nothing else, the teeming streets and exotic locations, in and around Bangkok, provide foreign viewers with a pleasant change in scenery. Made by Raimund Huber (“Bangkok Adrenaline”), “Dragonwolf” is a non-stop action flick in which the solidarity of sibling assassins is tested by a conniving young woman, cognizant of the buttons that turn the brothers against each other. That accomplished, the hyper-violent town of Devil’s Cauldron goes up for grabs. The fighting sequences, as directed by star Kazu Patrick Tang (stuntman on “District B13”), are pretty entertaining, but two hours is a lot of time to kill with moves most genre buffs have already seen. – Gary Dretzka

Half of a Yellow Sun
As difficult as Europe’s colonial powers made it for Africans to taste freedom after centuries of exploitation and repression, stripping them of their control would prove to be the easiest part of Africa’s struggle for true freedom. If the United States and USSR had minded their own business and refused to take sides, the lack of state-of-the-war weaponry might have spared the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Africans. Instead, while the world’s superpowers obsessed over whether the newly independent states would go red or red, white and blue, the more corruptible militants played both sides against the middle. Why do your own fighting, after all, when you could farm it out to mercenaries and Cuban expeditionaries? Others used the chaos to push for re-drawn borders, according to pre-colonial guidelines. Colonial armies were able to keep the lid on for many years, simply by maintaining a greater arsenal. After the wars of liberation were won or lost, and everyone was armed, ancient prejudices and antagonism returned to the fore. Within artificial borders established by foreign interests, tribal minorities lived in constant fear of genocide. Unprecedented levels of corruption and repression became the legacy of colonial rule. The people we meet first in “Half of a Yellow Sun” are intellectuals and other Nigerians whose dreams of an independent country have finally been realized. Educated in England, some of them believe that ancient grievances could be solved through the use of logic, pan-African pride and expansion of economic opportunities for everyone. They were wrong. Nigeria, a country blessed with bountiful national resources, would be torn by economic imbalance, tribalism and Cold War politics. Today, it’s torn by corruption at every level of society, insane militia leaders, religious rancor and unbelievable poverty. (They do control the market on Internet scams, however.) The fire shown by the intellectuals in the first is doused in the lead-up to the Biafran War, which set a new standard for mindless brutality. “Half of a Yellow Sun” examines all if these disparate issues, but through the eyes of a family directly impacted by the evolution of conflict. Their roots extend back to the villages in which they were born and forward to the First World ideals espoused by John F. Kennedy and other world leaders. The film is based upon the novel by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and stars Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), BAFTA-winner Thandie Newton (“Crash”), Anika Noni Rose (“The Good Wife”) and John Boyega (“24: Live Another Day”). The delicate balance between the war, politics and individual love stories isn’t maintained throughout “Yellow Sun” and most Americans likely would go into it without a full working knowledge of the events that led to such a blood bath. There’s no denying the emotional punch delivered by the actors and many unknown faces employed as machete-wielding extras in the fighting scenes. What happened to Africa in the 1960s and continues to erupt today is horrible. The DVD arrives with making-of and background featurettes, as well as deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Frontline: United States of Secrets
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Princess Day
Geronimo Stilton: Going Down to Chinatown
Babar & the Adventures of Badou: Gone Wild
Bubble Guppies: Get Ready for School
Sesame Street: Learning Rocks
The alarming two-part “Frontline” documentary, “United States of Secrets,” details how the National Security Agency managed to squander most, if not all of the respect it was accorded in the wake of 9/11 and the intelligence community’s necessary search for terrorists in our midst. Hubris may be too literary a term for the motivation that led to a shocking international scandal, but, when accorded unprecedented license to break the law, the agency experienced an institutional orgasm that shook their worlds to the core. The “Frontline” crew used the trove of documents leaked by freelance analyst Edward Snowden as a jumping off point for a discussion of motivations, skewed mission statements and what happens when the borders we’ve drawn for each other are breeched. If terrorists were always the target, what could be gained by studying the private communications of average citizens? We know what was lost by the NSA operation – our leaders’ moral high-ground, for one thing – but we may never learn what was gained, if anything. It’s important to know, going into the documentary, don’t pile the blame for widespread snooping on former President Bush and his evil henchman, Vice President Cheney. True, they delivered the no-holds-barred mandate to the NSA, even before the dust settled on the site of the World Trade Center. By now, we expect such disregard for basic human rights from Republicans. It was President Obama, however, who decided to break his campaign pledge by allowing NSA snoops to maintain and expand the program. His inability to get a firm hold on the situation and force the issue on his terms made him look like a country bumpkin on his first trip to the big city. I think that most of us would agree that identifying patterns in communication between people suspected of being terrorists is a necessary step in defending our freedom. If the CIA hadn’t been feuding with the FBI and NSA before the attacks, they couldn’t have missed the connection between the terrorist cells and Al Qaeda. What caused Snowden to break the silence on his discoveries, however, was the agency’s decision to gather information on everyone who picked up a telephone or sent an e-mail over the Internet. He got especially peeved when Obama openly lied to citizens about the program and its reach and unloaded even more classified documents on the media. (Ironically, Snowden escaped from a worldwide dragnet designed America’s top spies to keep him from reaching a safe haven in Russia, where Vladimir Putin doesn’t even bother to deny the country’s disregard for privacy.) The second half of the documentary describes how the government bullied telecom executives into cooperating with the NSA. Afraid of coming out on the short end of regulatory debates, the cyber-honchos caved in to coercion. It took the open hostility of their customers to open their eyes to the hypocrisy of promoting iron-clad security in their advertising and the sieve-like practices demanded by federal agents. Truly frightening, the “Frontline” presentation also demonstrate how information could be sold to non-government interests, the IRS and police agencies searching for pot dealers.

Almost all of this week’s TV-to-DVD releases are limited to compilations of episodes from popular animated shows. “Adventure Time” with its new compilation DVD “Princess Day,” leads the way. Instead of the usual grab-bag approach to its collections, “Adventure Time: Princess Day” features 16 episodes primarily based on the princesses of the Land of Ooo, including Princess Bubblegum and Lumpy Space Princess. The box’s highlight is the “Princess Day,” which actually debuted in this collection ahead of its television run. Special features are limited to another “Little Did You Know” character gallery, focusing on five of the show’s princesses.

The animated series “Geronimo Stilton” chronicles the life and adventures of the famous Italian mouse and his nephew Benjamin Stilton. As a media mogul, Geronimo finds himself involved in crimes and capers in exotic locales around the world. It is based on the hit Scholastic book series. The compilation “Geronimo Stilton: Going Down to Chinatown” includes four episodes from the cartoon series, weighing in at 90 minutes.

In “Babar & the Adventures of Badou: Gone Wild,” we follow Babar’s energetic grandson, Badou, as he and his friends and family solve numerous mysteries and puzzles in Celesteville. King Babar is never far when his grandson needs guidance. The series is based on the classic characters created by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff. Also newly released are “Bubble Guppies: Get Ready for School” and “Sesame Street: Learning Rocks.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Report

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Transcendence: Blu-Ray
If any actors should have been able to interest audiences in the concept of artificial intelligence forwarded in “Transcendence,” it was Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. Depp has made us fall in love with some of the cinema’s most unlikely characters, while Freeman is on top of every casting director’s list when the role of God or president comes up. Truth is, though, even their estimable presence couldn’t save “Transcendence” from stinking up the box office. For a nation of people who still can’t understand why the government forced them to throw away their analog television sets, the notion of a movie about a scientist who has his consciousness uploaded to a supercomputer must have seemed unfathomable. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, the world’s foremost researcher in the field of AI. Before an anti-technology extremist leaves him critically wounded in an assassination attempt, Caster was working to create a sentient machine that would combine the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. The closer he comes to death, the more desperate Caster is to complete the transcendence experiment. Caster’s shocking digital re-emergence caused me to wonder if first-time director Wally Pfister and freshman writer Jack Paglen had been inspired by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), react in the same way as, we’re told, Christ’s apostles and Mary Magdalene did to their savior’s return. If only the filmmakers had stuck with the New Testament, instead of going all Syfy Channel on us, they might have hooked more viewers. Instead, when Caster’s hunger for knowledge begins to threaten the ability of the Internet’s broadband capabilities, the powers-that-be decide to eliminate the computer laboratory built by his disciples. (Wouldn’t want to choke the flow of porn and cute Facebook kittens.) It borders on the pathetic to watch soldiers armed with mortars and machine guns attempt to obliterate an entity that theoretically could program every computer at the Pentagon to protect it from destruction. If they didn’t work against Godzilla, there’s no reason to think they could kill off Caster. “Transcendence” isn’t without a few truly magical moments, though, especially as Caster’s plans for domination become apparent. For $100 million, you’d expect nothing less. The movie should find a more appreciative audience on DVD/Blu-ray than those drawn to theaters based on a marketing campaign that promised more than it could deliver. The feature package is limited to short featurettes of the EPK variety. – Gary Dretzka

Blue Ruin: Blu-ray
Although this crackling low-budget thriller received something resembling a limited release in U.S. theaters, it might as well have gone straight-to-DVD for all the attention it attracted. Those critics who were fortunate enough to catch “Blue Ruin” on the festival circuit gave Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore feature the kind of reviews that open doors in Hollywood. It opens as a disheveled bum, Dwight (Macon Blair), goes about his daily routine in an oceanside town in Virginia: dumpster diving, begging for food and money, and scaring kids. Early on, Dwight is stopped by a cop, who, we suspect, is about to take him to jail for one or more of his petty crimes. (His scraggly beard would turn a Taliban fighter green with envy.) Instead, she informs him that the man who killed his father is getting out of prison on parole and warns him against doing anything crazy. Dwight doesn’t look as if he has the strength to seek revenge, even if he wanted to, or the wherewithal to afford even a bus ticket. His passion for vengeance runs deep, however, and he makes it to the prison in time to see the punk climb into the limousine rented by his friends. So far, so routine, for a low-budget genre picture. What differentiates “Blue Ruin” from most other thrillers, though, is Saulnier’s willingness to tweak the genre convention that requires a protagonist to be sufficiently qualified to get the first killing done right, at least. But nooooo. His inability to execute a clean kill sets off a chain of events that would be darkly comic if they weren’t so darned sinister. An exceedingly violent movie, “Blue Ruin” walks the thin line between being credible and absurd. And, for the most part, it succeeds brilliantly. More than anything else, Saulnier’s film reminds me of recent Australian crime thrillers that refuse to pull punches, while taking full advantage of the foreboding natural settings and ugliest quirks of the characters. “Blue Ruin” is the kind of movie that will stick with you like a bad dream, and that’s a good thing. – Gary Dretzka

The Bus
Next Goal Wins
Anyone not yet conversant with YouTube and its one-thing-leads-to-another appeal probably hasn’t heard of “Propaganda,” a documentary that not only became an Internet sensation but also something of an international mystery. The less one knows about various conspiracy theories and speculation surrounding the film’s murky origins, the more you’re likely to enjoy and profit from it. So, first, here’s the company line. Two years ago, a group of New Zealand-based filmmakers distributed on YouTube a documentary purported to have been smuggled out of North Korea, where it was an integral part of the military government’s anti-capitalist propaganda machine. Most of what we know about North Korea comes either from the loony ravings of “supreme leader,” Kim Jong Un,” or hysterical speculation on WMDs filtered through the mainstream media. All we really know is that North Korea is not a country most Americans would consider for a retirement haven, unless one doesn’t mind the occasional famine. So, going into “Propaganda,” I had no idea what to expect from it. Using footage freely available to anyone with a television or cellphone camera, the documentary examines western society with a tight focus on consumer culture and dog-eat-dog capitalist imperatives. It would be difficult for any American or European citizen to have gone through life without being made aware of the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in all of the western democracies. Since the economic collapse of 2008, the discrepancy has only gotten more pronounced. Today, 1 percent of all Americans reaps the bounty once reserved for anyone able to work and expect annual raises. That’s no longer the case. And, yet, the media continues to paint a portrait of a country so blissfully unconcerned about their tenuous hold on financial security that it is united in its admiration for the Kardashians and the fate of Honey Boo Boo. “Propaganda” argues persuasively that we’re as enslaved by false expectations and corrupt legislators as the stagnating masses in North Korea are purported to be. Only, our chains are far more comfortable. Watch the movie and decide for yourself if the North Korean propaganda machine – known more for spitting out misinformation – could be capable of creating a film that so neatly sums up everything the Occupy movement tried and failed to sell to the American public a few years ago.

If the producers of “Propaganda” had lacked for ammunition, they could have added material on the enslavement of American consumers by the agribusiness moguls and the politicians who consider their lobbyists to be the next best thing to ATMs. No one knows for sure if genetically modified organisms someday could cause a plague of biblical proportions or if they merely will make the food we eat taste even duller than the chemically treated produce available today. Either way, the public isn’t likely to have much of a say in the future of what is served on tables around the world. As described in Jeremy Seifert’s alarming “GMO OMG,” such agribusiness conglomerates as Monsanto have spent tens of millions of dollars twisting the arguments of environmentalists and intimating legislators from passing laws limiting the spread of genetically engineered seeds. Monsanto has even threatened to sue states that allow truth-in-labelling referendums to be put in front of voters. Moreover, the companies insist that planters who do agree to use their products purchase new quantities annually, instead recycling seeds from the previous year, as usual. It explains why impoverished farmers in Haiti burned the seeds sent to them, rather than becoming economically addicted to them. So far, the Haitians have raised more of a stink over being treated like guinea pigs than almost anyone in America.

Damon Ristau’s delightful documentary, “The Bus,” tells the story of how a post-war German notion evolved into something that became as synonymous with the American counterculture as the Grateful Dead and hitchhiking. At first designed as a highly versatile and extremely practical utility vehicle for use in Europe’s economic recovery, it’s since come to symbolize the freedom of the open road and ability to have a roof over one’s head wherever they go. Here, Ristau goes to great lengths to introduce viewers to a cross-section of VW owners, many of whom began their love affair with the Bus in the 1960s and continue to drive them today. Of course, we visit full-time and part-times hippies whose lives have revolved around their vehicles for decades. We also meet owners who overhaul the vans for competition or commemorate past glories by turning rusted-out bodies into works of art or chicken coops. Not surprisingly, the doc ends at Burning Man, where radically customized vehicles compete for attention with all of the free-spirits and semi-pro nudists.

Next Goal Wins” tells the kind of uplifting, against-the-odds story that fans of “60 Minutes” eat up when the investigative reporting gets too heavy and celebrity interviews too soft. Almost two years after the television newsmagazine traveled to American Samoa to ask why so many of the island’s young men end up in the National Football League, documentarians Mike Brett and Steve Jamison went there to make a film about what might have been the worst soccer team vying a spot in the 2014 World Cup. Not only had they failed to win a match in recent memory, but they also had been shut out. The squad hit rock bottom in 2001, when it lost to Australia 31–0 in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match. Because Samoans have demonstrated time and again that there’s no quit in them, it should come as no surprise to learn that the team continues to dream. Here, even the occasion of scoring on an opponent would be considered a major accomplishment. Dutch-born coach Thomas Rongen was enlisted to see what a former professional player might be able to do with the team, which includes Jaiyah Saelua, possibly “the first transgender player to compete on a World Cup stage.” The players are far from inept and work extremely hard under the tutelage of Rongen. They may not have made it to Brazil, but everyone on the island was given a reason to be proud of the squad’s accomplishments. – Gary Dretzka

Remember the framing device in Woody Allen’s wonderfully evocative comedy, “Broadway Danny Rose”? A group of comedians regularly gets together at the Carnegie Deli to reminisce, gossip, swap stories and see which rising star is the latest to be honored with a sandwich in his name. Finally, someone asks about the hapless talent agent Danny Rose (Allen), whose client list could hardly be more pitifully eccentric. Donna Kanter’s documentary, “Lunch,” is a non-fiction version of the same thing, minus the Allen. Here, the alter kockers are represented by such comedians, writers, producers and directors as Sid Caesar, Hal Kanter, Carl Reiner, Monty Hall, Arthur Marx, Arthur Hiller, Matty Simmons, Rocky Kalish, Gary Owens, Ben Starr and John Rappaport. If some of those names are unfamiliar, a visit to or the Paley Center for Media might provide an enlightening addendum to the film. You’ll surely recognize the shows to which they contributed. The biweekly get-togethers over deli began decades ago at the L.A. branch of the Friars Club. When that landmark closed, the lunch bunch took its act to a more public establishment. Instead of allowing the gathering to become a victim of attrition, the participants occasionally approve the addition of another show-biz legend. The foremost qualification for entry is an ability to tell stories and jokes in a loud enough voice to be heard over the routine kibitzing. “Lunch” isn’t as uproariously funny as some potential viewers might expect, given the talent involved, but there are plenty of reasons to smile. – Gary Dretzka

The Suspect
Anyone who can’t wait for the next addition to the “Jason Bourne” or “Mission:Impossible” series really ought to check out recent espionage thrillers from South Korea. That’s where the action is these days. North Korea and South Korea are separated by a heavily guarded, if invisible line on a map, and surrounded by water that could very well double as a highway for spies. The antagonists share the same language and families separated by a long-ago war. The damage that could be done by a single agent is immense, so the effort it takes to neutralize him is commiserate with the threat. Won Shin-yeon’s “The Suspect” is typical in that it treats the North Korean infiltrator with the same respect it gives agents representing the south.  Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) had been the best field agent in North Korea, until he was abandoned during a mission and his wife and daughter were murdered. After defecting, he was required to take a job as a night driver for the CEO of a powerful corporation. The chairman is brutally murdered, but not before giving Dong-chul a pair of glasses that hold some significance to him. When South Korean agents, who still hold a grudge against Dong-chul over a botched mission in Hong Kong, learn about the glasses, they make every effort to confiscate them. This results in several long chases and exciting shootouts, and no one pulls these things off anymore quite like Korean filmmakers. Even when the plot gets bogged down in the agendas of too many secret agents, the action sequences make “The Suspect” a worthwhile experience. – Gary Dretzka

The Wind Will Carry Us: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Insomnia: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The movies of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami move at a pace that encourages quiet contemplation and rewards the observant eye. There’s so much to be seen, heard and understood in “The Wind Will Carry Us” that viewers of the arthouse persuasion will want re-watch the picture, simply to study what they might have missed while focusing on something else. Or, simply to have the experts on the commentary track point them out to them. “The Wind Will Carry Us” is a story about contrasts and the reliability of first impressions. It’s set entirely in an isolated village in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan, far from the teeming metropolis of Tehran. A team of engineers from city travel to Siah Dareh, where life goes on much in the same ways as it has for centuries. Apart from the occasional tractor and motor bike, no one there seems to be in any hurry to enter the 21st Century. The engineers, only one of whom we meet, have been assigned a task known only to them and of likely value only to people far away from Kurdistan. The residents endure an uneasy relationship with the Islamic Republic, but politics don’t play much of a role in “The Wind Will Carry Us.” Siah Dareh appears to be a self-sustaining entity in a region that only rewards hard work and perseverance. It reminded me of the Taos Pueblo, where newer adobe homes are built on top of existing structures and residents use ladders to make their way from rooftop to rooftop. The spectacular scenic beauty of the mountains also make the comparison apt. (I didn’t see a casino in Siah Dareh, however.) An elderly woman is dying in one of those homes and, yet, we aren’t informed of the significance her illness has to the engineer, who seems to care very much about her. He also is very much concerned with a young boy, who’s extremely curious about everything but is focused on an important test being conducted in the local school or madrasa. The women probably didn’t need modesty cop to tell them how to dress or behave, either. One of the more playful gags that Kiarostami uses to contrast the gap between the present and past is to show how the engineer reacts when he’s in the village and his cellphone rings. To get proper reception, he must hop into his SUV and rush to the highest point in the region. Even so, the calls invariably prove to be of no importance to anyone. While he’s on top of the mountain, however, he engages in conservations with a man digging a deep hole with a shovel. He’s never seen and we aren’t quite sure how the holes will be utilized, either. No matter, because life in Siah Dareh likely will go on as usual, even in the absence of the crew from Tehran. Something profound already has changed in the engineer. Like Kiarostami, he has a genuine love for poetry and Siah Dareh may be the only place he’s been where even the humblest of residents are conversant in the words of the Iran’s greatest poets. Moreover, the poems he recites speak to the region’s great physical beauty and emotional tug the land has on those who live there. The poetry rises organically from the screenplay, never feeling out of place within the context of the narrative. It’s a splendid movie, effortlessly beautiful and full of surprises. The Cohen Media Blu-ray essential commentary by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and scholar Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa; a new essay by critic Peter Tonguette; and a lengthy interview and Q&A with the director.

Even someone who’s never set foot in a classroom where film history or criticism is being taught can benefit from an intellectual exercise in which students frequently engage. Pick up the new Criterion Collection edition of Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius’ “Insomnia,” along with the American adaptation by Christopher Nolan. Then, explain what makes one film distinctly European and the other unmistakably American, if not precisely a product of the Hollywood dream machine. Both are excellent entertainments, accessible to mainstream and arthouse audiences, alike, and true to all the right crime-movie conventions. The differences, though, almost speak for themselves. In the 1997 original, Stellan Skarsgard plays a Swedish police detective called to a city on the Arctic Circle to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. The cop, Jonas Engström, drags his past with him like a ball and chain and his burden isn’t lightened any in Norway, where ghosts, real and imagined, still manage to find him. Summer has come to the region and Engstrom finds the endless light to be tortuous. Engstrom’s clearly an emotional wreck, but the hotel places him in a room without blackout curtains or duct tape to cover the holes that allow light to stream into the room. Sleep never comes and cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen expertly captures Engstrom’s feeling of being lost in a timeless fog. The landscapes are more clearly pronounced in Nolan’s version of the story, which was shot by Wally Pfister (“Transcendence”) in Alaska and B.C. Like Skarsgard, Al Pacino’s police detective finds the perpetual lightness to be completely disconcerting and irksome. They both carry lots of baggage, but of different shapes and weights. The biggest difference is the addition of a cat-and-mouse game between two high-profile Hollywood actors – Robin Williams plays the antagonist – who must maintain enough of their personal screen persona to put butts in the seats. Both movies scored equally high in the Rotten Tomatoes survey, as well. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition features a new 4K digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a fresh conversation between Skjoldbjærg and Skarsgård; and a booklet with an essay by critic Jonathan Romney. – Gary Dretzka

Appleseed: Alpha: Blu-ray
World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies
For lovers of manga and animated science-fiction from Japan, simply knowing that “Appleseed: Alpha” was created by the same man who gave them “Ghost in the Shell” and, in 1985, the original version of “Appleseed,” will mean more than the opinions of a thousand critics. What may even confuse them, however, is where the new addition fits within the canon of works by writer/illustrator Masamune Shirow (a.k.a., Masanori Ota) and writer Marianne Krawczyk (“God of War”). “Appleseed: Alpha” is a prequel to the 2004 “Appleseed” and 2007 “Appleseed Ex Machina,” which were based on Shirow’s original series, released between 1985 and 1989, and other cross-platform products. The “Ghost in the Shell” franchise was birthed not long thereafter. Fans of both series tend to be extremely loyal and highly protective of the conceits set forth in the source manga. Here, two mercenary soldiers, Deunan and her cyborg partner Briareos – survivors of a terrible war – leave the dystopian ruins of New York City, in search of the utopian city of Olympus. On the way, they meet two Olympian citizens, Iris and Olson, who let them in on a plan to save the world from the ruthless Talos and warlord Two Horns. Like nearly all post-apocalyptic visions that spring from the brow of ambitious young screenwriters, “Appleseed: Alpha” sounds pretty absurd, at least in the abstract. In the distance between one’s sofa and video monitor, though, such a world looks a lot more interesting. Credit for that belongs to a creative team that appears to have a personal affinity with the project and wants to heighten the story’s appeal with top-shelf CGI and hi-def polish. The Blu-ray bonus package adds commentary with director Shinji Aramaki, producer Joseph Chouand, and Sony Pictures’ Shigeki Ishizuka; and “The Making of Appleseed,” an 11-part featurette that covers every aspect of the film’s production. – Gary Dretzka

Unlike most other genres and sub-genres, the one encompassing apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies is only as old as such landmark titles as “The Road Warrior,” “Escape From New York” and “The Terminator.” Today, according to “World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies,” it’s grown to include over 800 movies and more than a few television series. David J. Moore’s encyclopedic overview of the species accounts for all but the newest of pictures. (It does include three of the “Appleseed” entries, but not “Alpha.”) Divided alphabetically by reviews, interviews, essays and marketing material, the 400-plus-page book is a hundred times more entertaining than the majority of films mentioned. With the amount of studio money being poured into such movies as “The Hunger Games,” “I Am Legend,” “Oblivion” and “World War Z,” however, “World Gone Wild” could hardly be more timely. I’m of the opinion that no zombie movie should cost more than $10 million or $20 million to make, but that threshold has been breached many times in the last few years. Why should I care, anyway? The best thing about Moore’s tome, perhaps, is that it contains many different entry points. It can perused front-to-back in the usual fashion or by jumping from title-to-title, regardless of alphabetical precision. Some of the material is best considered during lulls in the action in the movies being watched on DVD, while other chapters are better sampled when in a contemplative mood … in the privacy of one’s bathroom, perhaps. It’s an easy book to recommend to buffs and beginners, alike. (Schiffer Publishing, $34.99)– Gary Dretzka

Box of Rock ’n’ Roll: Triple Feature
The titles included in the “Box of Rock ’n’ Roll: Triple Feature” truly run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Released in 1956, when the music was in its infancy and Hollywood hadn’t the faintest clue how to make it look interesting as a plot device, “Rock, Rock, Rock” is distinguished by performances by such all-time greats as Chuck Berry, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, the Johnny Burnette Trio, La Vern Baker and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. On the flip side, “The Beatniks” is a no-budget pot-boiler that has absolutely nothing to do with beatniks, bongos, beards or berets, while “Wild Guitar” fails miserably as a parody of Elvis Presley’s relationship with Colonel Tom Parker … or, at least, that’s what I got out of it. None of the three qualifies as being completely unwatchable, but the latter two titles serve best as comic reminders of a time when teenagers and young adults were beginning to take over the country and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone over 30 could do about it. “Rock, Rock, Rock” attempts to build a narrative around a spoiled high school girl’s inability to afford a dress for the prom. Although first-timer Tuesday Weld exudes genuine star quality as the unfortunate teen, Connie Francis was asked to supply the voice for her songs. She does look great, however. The real stars of the movie are the musicians who were brought to the production by the legendary deejay Alan Freed and inorganically inserted into the narrative. (Freed attempts to sing, as well, but it’s a fool’s errand.)

That “The Beatniks” is more about juvenile delinquency than rock ’n’ roll shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who lived through the period. Why the producers decided on the title is a mystery, considering both the absence of hipsters in the movie and the fact that the only true beatnik left in the U.S. in 1960 was the fictional Maynard G. Krebs. After robbing a liquor store, a gang of hoodlums stops at a roadhouse, where they terrorize the owner and patrons. One of the punks is encouraged to sing along to a selection on the jukebox, which he does to great effect. It just so happens that one of the customers is an agent on his way back to Hollywood and he cares more about signing the kid to a record contract than turning him in to the police for busting up his car. The rest of the movie becomes a tug-of-war between the forces of evil (the juvenile delinquents) and the forces of good (the agent who stands by the singer and his buxom blond secretary). “Wild Guitar” tells the age-old story of a clueless, if talented rube who arrives in Hollywood with only 15 cents and a guitar. After he’s “discovered” in the most unlikely of circumstances, the white-haired rocker turns his back on the cute go-go dancer who paid for his meal and found him the gig on a variety show. Not possessing even an ounce of show-biz savvy, he allows himself to be seduced by the shadiest of show-business weasels and blocked from dating the dancer. The singer is played by Arch Hall Jr., a silly-looking chap whose father, Arch Sr., wrote the screenplay. This one has to be seen to be believed. Considering their age, though, the movies are in pretty good condition. – Gary Dretzka

Horror roundup:
Cell 213
Ginger Snaps: Collector’s Edition: Bluray
The Perfect House
100 Tears: Director’s Cut
Blood Suckers From Outer Space: 30th Anniversary Edition
Haunted Trailer
Made in 2010 and released briefly in Canada a year later, “Cell 213” is one of those genre flicks that demonstrate just how thin the line is between irredeemably bad and almost good. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but, in the overcrowded world of low-budget horror, such things matter. Stephen Kay and Maninder Chana’s prison thriller borrows freely from several obvious sources, including “The Devil’s Advocate,” but stops short of being a rip-off or genre cliché. That’s because of the performances turned in by Eric Balfour and Michael Rooker, who’ve made a career out of playing archetypal characters. Like Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” Balfour (“Haven”) plays a defense attorney whose many courtroom victories suggest that he’s made a bargain with Satan. While visiting his onerous client in prison, Gray involuntary contributes to his suicide by making the mistake of allowing his pen to come within his grasp. Inexplicably, the lawyer is convicted of the fiend’s murder and placed in the same cell as his former client. It means that Gray will be under the constant surveillance of a sadistic prison guard, Ray Clement, played with great intensity by Michael Rooker (“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”). Clement hates lawyers, especially those who find ways to free obvious criminals. The give-and-take between the two characters – one meek and afraid, the other brutish and vindictive – is sufficient reason to check out the “Cell 213.” (Clement even manages to get Gray assigned to the prison morgue, where the lawyer is forced to perform autopsies.) Bruce Greenwood plays the warden, who’d rather not know that his prison has been possessed by the devil, while Deborah Valente is a do-gooder assigned to check out the high number of injuries and suicides committed inside the facility. Neither role is fully developed, beyond certain expository necessities.

Another Canadian export, “Ginger Snaps,” fared much better than “Cell 213,” even if financial success had to wait until its video afterlife. As conceived by John Fawcett and Karen Walton, the 2000 gore-fest is a teenage-werewolf movie with a sharp feminist edge. By that, I mean that the action is driven by 15-year-old Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) and her sister Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), who’s nearly 16. The Goth girls enjoy a strong sisterly bond that allows them to get past the trite bullshit encountered by outcasts in suburban high schools. One night, Ginger is attacked by the same large beast that’s killing pet dogs in the neighborhood. When the wounds heal with unusual speed, Brigitte comes to believe that Ginger has become possessed with the curse of the lycanthrope. That it coincides with the older sister’s first period – an event their mother (Mimi Rogers) considers worthy of celebration – was thought by some critics to be too obvious a metaphor to be taken seriously. Given the amount of blood shed in “Ginger Snaps,” viewers with delicate stomachs can ignore that conceit and not miss anything important. It was the shocking nature of the murders, as well as much supernatural hocus-pocus, that would finally ensure its cult status. A hard sell from the get-go, “Ginger Snaps” also would be required to overcome by parallels made to massacres at Columbine and W. R. Myers High School, in Taber, Alberta. A pair of sequels, filmed back-to-back in 2003, wouldn’t do nearly as well in theaters and video. The Blu-ray package includes new interviews with Fawcett, Walton, Perkins, Moss, producer Steve Hoban, make-up-effects artist Paul Jones, composer Mike Shields and editor Brett Sullivan; commentary by the filmmakers; rehearsals and auditions; footage from a “Women in Horror” panel discussion; making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.

Kris Hulbert and Randy Kent’s horror anthology, “The Perfect House,” tells the story of a haunted domicile through the eyes of an unsuspecting family of potential buyers. The world’s sexiest real-estate agent (Monique Parent) struggles mightily to keep the home’s many ghosts from spoiling the deal, but even a cursory inspection reveals some troubling quirks. The film is divided into three segments – a la “The House That Dripped Blood,” which had four — all of them as gory as they are disturbing: “The Storm,” “Chic-ken” and “Dinner Guest.” Each is built on a familiar horror trope, with more than smidgen of torture-porn added for those sadists out there. Buffs will recognize Felissa Rose and Jonathan Thiersten, of “Sleepaway Camp”; John Philbin, from “The Return of the Living Dead”; and Parent, from a thousand Skinemax movies. The most noteworthy thing about “Perfect House,” perhaps, is its distinction of being the first independent feature film to be released and distributed on Facebook’s Flicklaunch, before moving to its permanent home on the Milyoni’s Social Theater and, now, DVD.

Movies with killer clowns and demented little people hold a special place in the hearts of horror fans. Joe Davison’s mostly pitiful “100 Tears” has both of those elements going for it, but precious little else. Here, the scuzzy Gurdy the Clown (Jack Amos) is accused of crimes he did not commit and, to prove he’s not a bad guy, goes on a killing spree with a giant meat cleaver. A pair of tabloid journalists on the trail of the Tear Drop Killer require the assistance of the porn-addicted Drago the Midget to find Gurdy, who knows the whole story. “100 Tears,” made in 2007, is a grisly piece of work and, therefore, not for the majority of viewers, even those who consider themselves to be connoisseurs of micro-budget trash. Only eye-candy Georgia Chris and Raine Brown stand out from the crowd and that’s because they not only know how to act but also how to play the genre game.

If Helen of Troy possessed a face capable of launching a thousand ships, “Blood Suckers From Outer Space” single-handedly launched a thousand jokes about sci-fi exploitation flick. Ed Wood started the trend with the enigmatic “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Besides, “Blood Sucker” the “outer space” visitors now include “Morons From Outer Space,” “Grave Robbers …,” “Killer Klowns …,” “Teenagers …,” “Night Caller” and “Blood Beasts.” Potentially, the list could be endless. Even 30 years removed from its last billing at the tail end of a drive-in triple feature, the mere thought of watching “Blood Suckers From Outer Space” raises a smile. As a parody of its namesake “Plan 9,” as well as such venerable thrillers as “Psycho,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Night of the Living Dead” and one scene, at least, from “Dr. Strangelove,” Glen Coburn’s send-up was released at exactly the right time to exploit the excesses of the emerging slasher and splatter sub-genres, as well. It also appears to have been inspired by then-current tabloid reports of alien attacks on the dairy industry. The DVD adds a cast-reunion featurette.

If Ron Jeremy ever were to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to go with the stars on the various Porn Walks of Fame, it won’t be for his work in “Haunted Trailer.” Like everything and everyone else in Chuck Norfolk’s debut feature, Jeremy’s performance stinks … literally. He plays a demonic genie – or, perhaps, the corporeal spirit of Montezuma’s Revenge – whose magic lantern just happens to be in the toilet of a trailer home, occupied by a no-count family of hicks. Unless brothers Elvis and Aaron, sister Prissy and their Momma can exorcise the demon from their shit-stained trailer, the Mayan prediction of global disaster will soon come true. A comically drawn TV evangelist named Reverend Wiggems stands between them and the devil. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: My Wild Affair
The titles of family-oriented shows on PBS tend to avoid titillation whenever possible, so I was a bit taken aback by “My Wild Affair,” which has pictures of humans and animal babies on the jacket. Talk about forbidden fruit. Once I got my mind out of the gutter, I discovered that the network’s new mini-series describes what happens when wild animals join the households of otherwise normal adults. Celebrities, drug kingpins, publishing magnates and other potentates have been known to keep the occasional lion, monkey, zebra or peacock around the mansion to remind visitors of their financial standing in the world. What’s far less common are stories about people who raise wounded or abandoned animals in their homes and develop a bond that ultimately isn’t very healthy for either party. The four hour-long episodes included in the DVD are, “The Elephant Who Found a Mom,” “The Ape Who Went to College,” “The Rhino Who Joined the Family” and “The Seal Who Came Home.” The filmmakers, who worked from home movies and interviews with family members, naturally emphasize how cool it is to have baby around the house. What they don’t do is sugarcoat the hazards of becoming so close to an animal that the borders separating the natural tendencies of wildlife and human beings vanish. For every triumph in “My Wild Affair,” there’s a tragedy waiting to happen. Still, these are important lessons to learn. – Gary Dretzka

Within the first 10 or 15 minutes of the execrable comedy “Pawnz,” a homeless man denied the use of a pawn shop’s facilities takes an on-screen dump outside the store. Although clearly not the highlight of Nicholas Naylor’s film, sadly it’s the sole image that viewers will take away from it. As we’ve learned from “Tosh 1.0,” some sights simply are impossible to un-see. There are so many things wrong with this story about a dysfunctional pawn shop and its romantically challenged owner that it seems only fair to begin this review with the deal-breaker up-front. Just for the record, though, most of “Pawnz” is set in a pawn shop that looks more like a Radio Shack store preparing for a going-out-of-business sale. The salesmen openly insult potential customers, some of whom bring in items so filthy they might be toxic. Lido Capogrosso plays the shop’s owner, Will, a hapless young man obsessed with maintaining a relationship with his skank girlfriend, Vanessa (Gabriela Ortiz), even after catching her in bed with another man. This would make some narrative sense if Vanessa had something to offer him that was nearly as good as the smart and pretty Melissa (Lauren Leech) who visits him at the shop and communicates in body language a blind person could read. Besides Leech, “Pawnz” displays no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The DVD adds deleted scenes, interviews and a making-of piece.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Like Father, Like Son
Among the many storylines designed to tug at the heartstrings of adult audiences, it’s tough to beat the old switched-at-birth gambit. It works as well on the big screen as on television and transcends all cultural barriers. Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Nobody Knows,” “Still Walking”) has taken the drama inherent in all switched-at-birth dramas and added a subplot specific to contemporary Japanese culture. In “Like Father, Like Son,” parents Ryota and Midori Nonomiya and Yukari and Yudai Saiki are stunned to learn that the boys they’ve been raising for the past six years, indeed, were switched while the mothers were recovering from giving birth. This, of course, sets up the classic dilemma over whether blood ties are stronger than emotional bonds. Because Japan remains a largely patriarchal society, Koreeda holds a tight focus on how the news directly impacts Ryota and Yukari. Without giving too much of the story away, the biggest differences between the two men come from their respective lifestyles and the things they’ve handed down to their sons, Nobuko and Ryusei, respectively. Ryota is as dedicated to his company and career as Yukari is committed to keeping his wife and son happy and upbeat. Nobuko has been raised to reflect his father’s obsession with money and material possessions. As expected, the boy excels at the piano and in school, even if their face-time is limited to what Ryota spares from work. Ryusei is a fun-loving boy, doted on by his parents, but not much of a student. Ryota’s immediate solution to the dilemma is simply to accept his birth-child and purchase or lease the one raised under his roof. Yukari feels insulted by the offer, even if, at first, he seemed more interested in pursuing a lawsuit against the hospital than getting his real son back. Instead, the families agree to slowly wean the boys from the lives they’ve known for so long and reduce the effects of traumatic withdrawal. Koreeda does a really nice job maintaining the suspense throughout “Like Father, Like Son,” without appearing to take sides. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it takes a bit longer while for the women to step out of the shadows, but, when they do, they shine. The surprises Koreeda plants along the way make the journey that much more enjoyable. – Gary Dretzka

The Face of Love
As great as it is to see Ed Harris and Annette Bening in the same movie, undisguised by layers of makeup and wrinkle tape, it’s every bit that depressing to see them in a rom-drama as criminally maudlin as “The Face of Love.” It’s almost as if co-writer/director Arie Posin (“The Chumscrubber”) set out to make the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, but neglected to do his homework on what made the classics gel and the characters memorable. None of the blame can be placed on the back of Harris and Bening, however. They exude copious amounts of “chemistry” and keep us interested, even when the characters they play stop making sense. Fonda plays an upscale SoCal widow, Nikki, whose husband, Garrett, died six years before she meets Harris’ Tom, who is 10 years removed from being jilted by his wife. Garrett drowned at a Mexican resort, while taking a midnight swim, and, even absent any extenuating circumstances or intrigue, Nikki’s never attempted to fill the void in the company of another man. Mind you, Nikki has an interesting job, a supportive daughter (Jess Weixler) and a close male friend and neighbor, Roger (Robin Williams), who’s been waiting five years for the right time to ask her out on a date.  One day, after a visit to an art museum, she encounters a man who’s a dead-ringer for her husband. After assuring herself that the man isn’t an apparition. Nikki even manages to joke about it with Roger. Once she picks up his scent, again, Nikki begins to act crazier than a whole flock of lonely loons. Learning that he’s an artist and teacher, she shows up in class one day and asks him to tutor her at home, which he does. As soon as Tom begins to show signs of falling in love with her, however, Nikki appears to change her mind about him. All along, she refuses to tell him the truth about his likeness to Garrett and that he drowned, creating a mystery where one needn’t exist. Neither does she reveal the source of her newfound happiness to her daughter and Roger, who might have conspired to have her committed.

It isn’t difficult to imagine what Alfred Hitchcock or, even, Brian DePalma, might have done with such a juicy setup and A-list cast. “The Face of Love” does gives off the occasional “Vertigo” vibe. It could even work as a comedy, playing off the idea that neither Garrett nor Tom knew he was a twin, and Nikki decides to turn the surviving brother into a virtual clone. Or, the “Heaven Can Wait” conceit could be pulled off the shelf and tweaked to fit Posin’s story. Instead, Posin does none of these things. The cop-out ending could actually have been borrowed from a tragic Harlequin romance. We want to like Bening/Nikki, but lose all sympathy for her as she continues to torture Tom with her neuroses. Posin simply skips the part when viewers are told why Garrett was worthy of a six-year mourning period – Jackie Kennedy only lasted five years before remarrying – and how a smart woman wouldn’t be able to see the problems in falling in love with a doppelganger. Our frustration with Nikki translates into something resembling anger and pity. To be fair, the movie has received some positive reviews in mainstream publications. Even so, the modestly budgeted movie only played in a few dozen theaters and didn’t come close to recovering its nut. That I can’t remember seeing a single ad for “Face of Love,” suggests to me that the distributors couldn’t wait to get the picture into the DVD and VOD pipeline, where the presence of big-name stars does help business. The DVD adds interviews, making-of material and deleted scenes. Sadly, “Face of Love” may be the last movie we see in which prominent actors – including Amy Brenneman, as Tom’s still supportive ex-wife – look and act their age. -– Gary Dretzka

Vinyl: Blu-ray
Over the past 60 years, rock ’n’ roll has lent itself so well to parody (“This Is Spinal Tap”), satire (“The Rutles”) and outright ridicule (“Bye, Bye Birdie”) that the line separating fact and fantasy has blurred to the point of non-existence. Now that Kiss has joined Alice Cooper in the Hall of Fame, it’s conceivable that the Insane Clown Posse could be only two or three gold records away from someday making the same leap. Knowing that Sara Sugarman’s entertaining, if lightweight British comedy, “Vinyl,” is based on an actual “rock-’n’-roll swindle,” perpetrated in 2004 by the Alarm’s Mike Peters, gives us hope that there’s still room for fun in the music industry. And, wouldn’t it be hilarious for a Juggalo festival to break out at the induction ceremony? You bet. Here, after a booze-fuelled post-funeral jam session, Johnny Jones (Phil Daniels) and his old band-mates from Weapons of Happiness roll tape on a pop-punk single. Considering the condition their conditions were in, the song’s surprisingly catchy. When Jones shops it around to A&R executives and radio DJs, however, he’s basically told that no one under 21 wants to watch old folks boogie. In a rare moment of lucidity, Jones erases “Weapons of Happiness” from the label of the cassette and replaces it with the name of an imaginary band, “The Single Shots.” When he’s contacted about the tape’s origin, Jones explains that it’s from a band comprised of Welsh newcomers, who had come to him for advice and tutelage. As was the case with Peters’ 2004 hit single “45 RPM,” performed under the pseudonym, the Poppy Fields, the Single Shots’ “Free Rock ’N’ Roll” climbs rapidly up the charts.

While Jones’ mates can’t understand why being over the hill is considered to be such a crime, they agree to help in the search for teenagers willing to go along with the ruse. Once assembled, the nascent musicians will be trained in the ancient art of conning gullible teenagers. The Shots’ lead singer and guitar player is a brash busker who goes by the name, Drainpipe (Jamie Blackley). He actually possesses some genuine musical chops, none of which he’s encouraged to demonstrate. As is all too common in the rock game, jealousy and egos rise to the surface just as the Shots are on the brink of stardom. In one clever sidebar, Jones comes to believe that Drainpipe is the son he can’t remember conceiving one night, after a concert, with a groupie, who, long ago, stopped keeping track of her conquests. “Vinyl” won’t make anyone forget “Spinal Tap” or, even, “The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch.” It does, however, provide 85 minutes of non-taxing entertainment. If only Sugarman had resisted the urge to play “Free Rock ’N’ Roll” ad nausea and added a couple of more songs to the soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds a short behind-the-scenes featurette, a music video of “Free Rock ‘n’ Roll” and photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Days
Deadly Eyes: Blu-ray
These days, you’ve got to hand it to any filmmaker willing to make a dystopian thriller without also adding zombies, vampires or virus-carrying werewolves to the mix. As used to the undead as we’ve become, it’s kind of nice to be threatened by something other than a shuffling freak. In “The Last Days,” we’re in Barcelona and the world has been plunged into chaos by an agoraphobia-inducing force, known as “The Panic.” Besides bouncing into an invisible psychological shield when venturing outdoors, those who dare go further afield soon have oxygen crushed from their lungs. Marc is in a high-rise office building when the Panic takes hold, presumably waiting to be laid off by a senior executive, Enrique, also known as the Terminator. Instead, they’re required to work together to rescue loved ones they have reason to believe might still be alive in other buildings or shelters. The trick, of course, is to accomplish this task without exposing themselves to the plague. All I’ll reveal here is that a tunnel in the office building parallels the city’s subway system, where thousands of people now live. A GPS app on Enrique’s phone could hold the key to survival, but, first, they are required to protect it from gangs of robbers. While brothers David and Alex Pastor (“Carriers”) were able to create a credibly impenetrable aura to the outdoors scenes, the limits of a $5-million budget are visible in the panoramic views of a wasted city as seen from the upper floors of the skyscraper. Everything else is fine.

Released in 1982, “Deadly Eyes” resembles dozens of other sci-fi and creature-feature flicks in which mammals, bugs and fish are mutated into monsters after being contaminated by pollutants, toxins or radiation. The modern era began in Japan, with such irradiated monsters as Rodan and Godzilla, and soon would flourish under the watchful eyes of Roger Corman. A half-century later his fingerprints can be found all over such modern Syfy hybrids as Sharktopus, Piranhaconda and Camel Spiders. Like “Willard,” “Ben” and “The Food of the Gods,” “Deadly Eyes” is infested with vermin. It was adapted from a James Herbert novel, “The Rats,” and directed by Robert Clouse, who also helmed the kung-fu classic “Enter the Dragon.” After a shipment of genetically enhanced corn is prevented from leaving a Toronto port, the local rat population feasts on it. The more they eat, the bigger and more vicious they become. Pretty soon, the rats’ hunger can’t be sated by the meager rations provided by other sewer dwellers. Humans become the next likely target. You know the rest. The creepiest scene by far takes place in a movie theater showing “Enter the Dragon,” also produced by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest. Just as Bruce Lee is getting the best of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, rats the size of small dogs begin attacking patrons reaching for popcorn boxes on the floor. “Deadly Eyes” is a million miles from being a masterpiece, but any movie with Scatman Crothers is automatically better than most others. The making-of featurette is a hoot, as well, especially the description of how dachshunds respond to having rat costumes put on them. – Gary Dretzka

Sx_Tape: Blu-ray
By now, it’s become axiomatic: add any variation of the word, “sex,” to the title of a movie or DVD and it’s going to capture someone’s attention, resulting, perhaps, in a few more ticket sales and rentals. Other than the coincidence of nearly simultaneous release dates, Bernard Rose’s occasionally steamy “sx_tape” and Jake Kasdan’s yet-to-be screened “Sex Tape” could hardly be more different. Rose’s thriller uses the implied promise of sex to lure horror buffs who’ve run out of patience with found-footage flicks, while, according to early reports, Kasdan hopes to attract viewers who’ve yet to see Cameron Diaz’ boobies on film. I have no way of knowing if Kasdan, Diaz and Jason Segel can repeat the commercial success they enjoyed with “Bad Teacher” – skin or no skin – but, having watched “sx_tape,” it’s easy to see why the producers felt as if they might have needed a crutch to sell their movie. Caitlyn Folley plays Jill, a free-spirited artist who favors micro-miniskirts and other aggressively slutty attire. Her videographer boyfriend, Adam (Ian Duncan), is one of those pathetic geeks who films his every move, if for no better reason than that he owns a camera. One day, while driving around a parched section of Los Angeles, they pass an abandoned building that once served as a hospital and residence for “wayward” girls. Jill talks Adam into joining her on a walking tour of the facility, which is only slightly less secure than your average highway rest station.

Although reluctant to invade the presumably haunted hospital, Adam does see how it might be used as a gallery for Jill’s next showing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the discovery of a mattress with leather bindings sets her libido racing. Unfortunately, her lust also manages to summon the ghost of a former resident, who sees in Jill an opportunity to settle some old scores. Rose employs some rapid-fire-editing tricks to raise goosebumps as the two women merge spirits and Jill begins to suffer the same nosebleeds a patient might have experienced after a lobotomy. Things really begin to go haywire, though, after the panicked couple escape the hospital, just as Jill’s car is being towed to a city lot. As freaked out as they are, Jill and Adam are hornswoggled into giving the friends who come to their rescue a guided tour of the joint. Why? Just because. This time, of course, even crazier things happen inside the facility. Some of it even passes for being logical. Genre buffs may remember Rose as the creator of the well-regard 1992 hit “Candyman,” which was partially set in the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Since then, he’s collaborated with Danny Huston on several interesting arthouse dramas adapted from the works of Leo Tolstoy. Although Folley shows some promise as a sexy scream queen, even fans of found-footage pictures probably would find something substantial lacking in “sx_tape.” It includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Southern Comfort: Blu-ray
Director Walter Hill contends that “Southern Comfort” wasn’t intended to be a metaphor or allegory for the American debacle in Vietnam. In 1981, however, that conflict still weighed on the American psyche like a yoke made of lead and metaphors were easier to market than outright indictments of U.S. policy. If the war had never occurred, it would have been much easier to see “Southern Comfort” as a Cajon-flavored sequel to Hill’s 1979 cult hit, “The Warriors.” In both pictures, an authority figure is killed early on in the proceedings and his underlings are required to fend for themselves as they make their way home. In “The Warriors,” the gang framed in the death of the charismatic leader is challenged by dozens of other New York street units, one more outrageously drawn than next. In “Southern Comfort,” Peter Coyote plays the leader of a squad of National Guardsman on a training mission in Louisiana’s bayou country. After the knuckleheads in his unit steal the pirogues belonging to a group of Cajun hunters, one of them fires off a clip of blanks at the men. It would have been impossible for the hunters to know that the shots were harmless, so they respond in kind. This time, however, a bullet takes out Coyote, leaving the soldiers without an experienced guide, compass, map or mediator for petty disputes. In retaliation, they kidnap another Cajun hunter and destroy his cabin. Knowing the swamp like the back of their hands, the hunters have no trouble picking off the weekend warriors. Powers Booth and Keith Carradine play the only two soldiers who survive the massacre, only to be trapped in a backwater village during a fais-do-do and pig slaughter. Filmed on location in the Louisiana backcountry, during winter, the actors’ ordeal was as arduous as it might have been for actual guardsmen. “Southern Comfort” holds up very well as an action-adventure and, yes, metaphor for Vietnam. The interviews shot for the Blu-ray release are entertaining and informative, as well. – Gary Dretzka

How the West Was Won: Season 2
The Big Valley: Season 3
AMC: Hell on Wheels: Season 3
PBS: America’s Test Kitchen: Season 14
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when elaborate family dramas challenged nomadic Western heroes, gunslingers and dedicated lawmen for the hearts and minds of television viewers. “Bonanza” had already demonstrated how a family’s worth of storylines could provide exponentially more variety and opportunities for action, melodrama, comedy and fan appeal. “Dallas” would pick up where such series as “The Big Valley” left off, less than a decade earlier, with oil barons overcoming the cattle barons of yore and adulterers replacing horse thieves as the scourges of the west. In several ways, the matriarchal character played by “Miss Barbara Stanwyck” was modeled after Ben Cartwright and a prototype for Miss Ellie in “Dallas.” As the first female lead in a TV Western, Stanwyck was only slightly less formidable a presence than she had been in such movies as “Double Indemnity” and “Stella Dallas.” After her husband’s death, Victoria Barkley assumed command of the sprawling Barkley Ranch in California’s Central Valley. It wasn’t a figurehead position and Victoria frequently dressed as if she were about to join her sons — Richard Long, Peter Breck, Lee Majors — and cowpokes branding cattle. Despite being noticeably more fashion conscious, her daughter, Audra (Linda Evans), didn’t mind getting her hands dirty, either. The series was set, if not filmed, near Stockton in late 1800s, so all mother and daughter had to do to find couture clothing was make the short haul to pre-earthquake San Francisco. (Fact is, though, Audra’s taste in hats and bonnets can only be described as laughable.) “The Big Valley” remained popular, even as ABC executives felt the urge to sell their souls for younger demographics. It remains a terrific entertainment.

How the West Was Won” borrowed its title from MGM’s 1963 Cinerama blockbuster, which told an epic story of conflict and conquest through the experiences of four generations of the Prescott family, circa 1839-89. The Macahans’ plans to make the cross-country trek to Oregon were interrupted by the Civil War and, in the interim, the clan is homesteading half-way between Virginia and the West Coast. Season Two begins with simultaneous crises involving widespread hostility toward the Mormon migration, a bounty hunter hot on the heels of Luke (Bruce Boxleitner) and the slaughter of buffalo on Sioux land by Russian royalty. The show’s greatest selling point, of course, is James Arness’ portrayal of mountain man Zebulon “Zeb” Macahan, who serves as the conscience of the plains. Not all of the scenarios are supported by actual logistics or historical records – the Russians did embark on a hunting party in the Dakotas, but with the approval of the Sioux and cavalry – but such details have rarely confounded Hollywood screenwriters. Fionnula Flanagan also has been recruited to substitute as family matriarch for Eva Marie Saint, who was unceremoniously killed off between seasons. The series nicely captured the grandeur of the American West, as well as such unsavory traits as bigotry, racism, corruption and a lust for vigilante justice.

Mormons also take it on the chin in Season Three of “Hell on Wheels.” Set primarily on the eastern portion of the first transcontinental railroad, its hero is a former Confederate soldier, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) still haunted by his past. The story, so far, has followed the portable town of Hell on Wheels as it makes its way west to Promontory Point, Utah. The greatest enemy to progress has been Colm Meaney’s hideously evil financier, Thomas “Doc” Durant. As the season opens, Bohannon is snowbound and nearly frozen in the ruins of the village destroyed in an Indian raid, last season. Durant has been ousted from his position with the railroad and imprisoned for his role in an embezzlement scheme. Needless to say, they both find their natural footing in due time. This stanza, Bohannon is control of the railroad’s progress, while Durant conspires to return to his position of financial power. The producers have done a terrific job integrating a half-dozen parallel storylines over 10 episodes, while maintaining the heated pace of the railroad construction itself. Filmed in Alberta, “Hell on Wheels” looks as good as it plays.

Years before the Food Channel was added to the cable-TV universe, PBS was the only network that foodies could turn to for lessons in French cooking and how to pronounce terms associated with haute cuisine. PBS has since dialed up its own food lineup to include niche shows and value-added traditional cooking. “America’s Test Kitchen” It offers quality information to pros and amateurs, alike, with advice on cookware, trends, quality issues and the dissection of recipes. Season 14’s offerings range from “grown-up grilled-cheese sandwiches” and chicken parmesan to an “updated” versions of Julia Child’s stuffed turkey and Florentine lace cookies. – Gary Dretzka

World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection
PBS: The Wipers Times
D-Day 360
Nova: D-Day’s Sunken Secrets
Day of Days: June 6 1944: American Soldiers Remember D-Day
This summer marks the centennial of the start of World War I and 60th anniversary of D-Day, two events that shaped our world at a time when it was threatening to come apart at its seams. The United States came late to the party that was WWI, so, too often, filmed representations are limited to airborne dogfights and trench warfare. Only a fool or documentarian with the gift of time on his side would attempt to make sense of the whys and wherefores of the fully global war, which ended with a treaty that lead directly to World War II. Even so, several of the movies that attempted to depict the horrors and heroism of WWI, without the benefit of sophisticated special effects, remain among the most compelling of all Hollywood pictures. Four of them are represented in Warner Bros.’ “World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection.” They are “The Big Parade,” “Wings,” “The Dawn Patrol” and “Sergeant York.” In 1927, King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” became the highest-grossing silent film of all time, as well as the first realistic war drama; also from 1927, “Wings” is the story of two men who have gone to war to become fighter pilot — one rich, and one poor — and are in love with the same woman; in 1938’s “The Dawn Patrol,” Errol Flynn and David Niven starred as roustabout French Corp fighter pilots, who come face-to-face with the harsh realities of war; and two-time Academy Award-winner “Sergeant York,” the story of a backwoods boy (Gary Cooper) who became one of WWI’s greatest heroes.

If any war would appear to be bereft of humor, it’s World War I. In WWII, at least, it was possible to poke fun at Hitler’s mustache, Mussolini’s ham-shaped chin and Hirohito’s circular glasses. All WWI had going for it was mud, trenches, mustard gas and officers who kept their distance from the front. The absurd command decisions made by absentee brass provided all the ammunition a group of British soldiers would need to create a satirical magazine, The Wipers Times, printed on a press left abandoned in a bombed-out building in Ypres, Belgium. The Brits pronounced the name of the hotly contested city in such a way that it rhymed with “wipers,” ostensibly providing the sanitized title of their publication. Of course, after it had been passed around the trenches, the paper also served a quite different purpose, also associated with the word “wipe.” And, yes, caricatures of officers and spoofs of their decisions filled the pages that served double-duty as toilet paper. Ben Chaplin is quite good as the amateur journalist who saw Wipers’ Times as a combination of Punch and the British Music Hall performances. Michael Palin keeps things light as a general who correctly saw the role of such gallows humor in war and refused to censure the editors when they were identified by twit subordinates. I don’t think that “The Wipers Times” was shown here, if only because the U.S. had yet to enter the war and television programmers are reluctant to test American viewers’ ability to grasp British humor. They needn’t have worried. The show translates well into our own peculiar notion of the English language.

With all due respect for the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who sacrificed their lives on D-Day, it’s possible that decisions made by top brass leading up to the invasion resulted in more needless deaths than we’ll ever know. Although no one comes right out and says it during the course of these fine 50th-anniversary documentaries, there are indications mistakes were made solely based on overinflated egos, nationalistic pride and incomplete intelligence. Blessed with a half-century’s worth of scientific hind-sight, of course, it’s now possible to come to conclusions that may, for all we know, already be stashed away in the Pentagon archives and unpublished memoirs of people who were there. The sheer enormity of the mission and huge toll paid by American, British and Canadian personnel – along with the significance of the victory — has led to a largely unquestioned acceptance of the official D-Day line. While there’s no question it was a magnificent effort on everyone’s part, these docs provide WWII buffs with some ammunition, at least, to play Monday-morning quarterback.

D-Day 360” uses data gathered though forensic laser scanning, 3D computer modeling, light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR) and eye-witness accounts to deconstruct the battle for Omaha Beach. Produced by Glenn Swift and directed by Ian Duncan for Windfall Films, “D-Day 360” locates all of the German positions – some buried in sand and vegetation – and demonstrates how miraculous it was that anyone survived the punishing cross-fire defense that left no inch of the beach unprotected and precisely targeted artillery fire from concrete bunkers that withstood the morning’s bombardment from above. The presentation begs the question as to how much stronger were the defenses at Calais, if the Allied leaders chose to attack Normandy, instead. What the show doesn’t do is describe what happened inside those bunkers that allowed the amphibious landing to succeed, against all true odds. We’ve been led to believe that these were elite troops dedicated to Nazi principles, when it’s possible that the soldiers manning the machine guns and cannons had replaced more-seasoned troops sent to the Eastern front. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Someday, I’d like to see a documentary in which modern military experts give their unbiased impressions, one way or the other, on the preparations for D-Day.

In a similar vein, “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets” combines highly sophisticated technology with the accounts of veterans to reveal the extent of the carnage perpetrated even before the landing craft reached Omaha Beach. In launching the largest armada in history to invade the Normandy beaches, Allied brass may or may not have anticipated the threat to ships from submerged mines and other obstacles designed to puncture landing craft. In less than 24 hours, more than 5,000 ships crossed the English Channel, along with thousands of tanks and nearly 200,000 men. When some of those tanks sank, instead of “swimming” to the beach, as planned, their absence made the soldiers that much more vulnerable to machine-gun fire. Small surveillance subs responsible for clearing a path through enemy minefields performed as designed, but, given the need for secrecy, it would have been impossible to get rid of them completely without alerting the Germans. “Nova” producers were given exclusive access to a unique collaboration between military historians, archaeologists and specialist divers to carry out the most extensive survey ever done of the seabed bordering the beachheads. Dive teams, submersibles, underwater robots and ships equipped with top-end sonar scanners were able to create a map, locating the final resting place for our ships and identifying many of them by number. The heart-wrenching testimony of survivors is further intensified when some of them are invited to board a submersible and survey the damage at close range. It’s only fitting that British engineers are given the credit due them for creating vehicles that took out mines and barbed wire, while also advancing the assault. (General Eisenhower and his associates decided to go it alone, without the benefit of advanced British armor.) “D-Day’s Sunken Secret” is a fascinating account of a largely forgotten aspect of the invasion and reminder of the unseen graveyard at the bottom of the ocean.

Day of Days: June 6, 1944” takes a more traditional approach to PBS’ commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy. It brings together American D-Day veterans, who comment on their experiences for the benefit of an audience whose knowledge of the fateful event may be limited to what they’ve seen in movies. As is generally the case with WWII veterans, these men have lived with the painful memories submerged within them for most of the last 70 years. They recount their transformations from boys to men, reveal their uneasiness with the term “hero” and grapple with why they survived when so many others did not. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Jodorowsky’s Dune: Blu-ray
Almost everything any young film buff needs to know about the last 40-plus years in the American film industry can be summed up in two books, both by Peter Biskind, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood” and “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film.” Some prominent filmmakers interviewed for the books have challenged Biskind’s methodology, but history has validated most of the author’s key points. Although Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky is 20 years younger than the Baby Boomers who emerged from USC, UCLA and NYU in the 1960s and spent most of his formative years in Paris and Mexico City, his influence on American filmmakers of the Golden Decade remains undeniable. If nothing else, he taught them how to make legitimately trippy movies that wouldn’t be laughed off the screen by anyone younger than 30 … or starred Peter Fonda. When Jodorowsky’s 1970 “acid Western,” El Topo,” failed to gain traction with mainstream distributors, the midnight-movie circuit was invented to accommodate underground movies by Kenneth Anger and John Waters, as well as such kindred flicks as “Freaks,” “Targets,” “The Harder They Come,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Reefer Madness,” “Alice’s Restaurant” and Disney’s 1951 “Alice in Wonderland.” They would pave the way for the grand success of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and, of course, the rest is history. John Lennon was so impressed by “El Topo” that he convinced Allen Klein, president of Apple Corps, to raise money for Jodorowsky’s subsequent, quasi-religious sensation, “The Holy Mountain.” Although its distribution, too, would be limited to the underground circuit, it made him the obvious candidate to direct the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi adventure, “Dune.” Written in 1965, the Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning novel transcended genre boundaries, giving readers a vision of the universe far more interesting than the geeks at NASA would come up with in the subsequent half-century. Alas, Jodorowsky’s vision was so great that it overwhelmed his backers’ ability to make the darn thing. Frank Pavich’s truly fascinating documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” chronicles the project’s rise and fall, but also teases us with what might have been, if “the greatest film never made” had actually been completed.

When a group of French investors purchased the rights to “Dune” and handed the reins to Jodorowsky, they probably saw an opportunity to merge the cult and college crowd with audiences newly turned on to the works of such brash young American filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese. And, it might have worked, too, if Jodorowsky hadn’t approached the project as if his backers wanted something that could be displayed in the Louvre, next to the “Mona Lisa.” As conceived by Herbert, “Dune” and its sequels would constitute a separate universe of its own. The settings and characters more closely resembled those found in the alternate worlds created for fans of fantasy role-playing games, from the tabletop-based “Dungeons & Dragons” to today’s interactive, multiplayer RPG games that are devouring bandwidth on the Internet. It was science-fiction for those whose imaginations weren’t limited to rocket ships, black holes and robots. While the narrative defies easy encapsulation, Jodorowsky’s head must have spun with ideas for turning spectacular locations into interplanetary empires, with creatures and costumes that would dazzle audiences in the same way as “Avatar” did, three decades later. To this end, he lured such wildly inventive illustrators and artists as Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud to create the film’s phantasmagorical look and costumes; Dan O’Bannon, fresh off “Dark Star,” was to head the special-effects department; and the cast would include Orson Welles, David Carradine, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, Geraldine Chaplin, Alain Delon, Hervé Villechaize and the director’s 12-year-old son, Brontis, to play Paul Atreides. Dalí agreed to participate only after being told that his salary would be $100,000 per hour, without knowing that Jodorowsky could only afford one hour of his time. Welles was lured with the promise of daily on-set meals prepared by one Paris’ elite chefs. Jodorowsky flew to London to personally woo Pink Floyd, which was recording “Wish You Were Here” at Abbey Road Studios. With only slightly more than $7.5 million left to actually make the picture and 14 hours’ worth of storyboards already drawn, Jodorowsky tried desperately to raise more money. Knowing that $5 million would only prove to be a drop in the bucket, the producers slammed the brakes on “Dune.” Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis would hand the project to David Lynch, whose adaptation of the novel – which he never read, apparently – would be released and largely forgotten in 1984.

At one point in “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” he concedes that the only way his vision of “Dune” could be made today would be as an animated epic. Modern CGI and digital technology could make the madness affordable and audiences have bought into the 3D and large-format conceit. In fact, half of the grunt work already has been done for anyone willing to share Jodorowsky’s vision. To lure studio support, Jodorowsky and his artistic team had created what essentially was a book of the movie, comprised of wonderfully drawn storyboards. Now collectors’ items, they were the size of the Los Angeles phone book and quite spectacular. Pavich’s film tells the story of this debacle in a lively and easily accessible manner, with a dozens of original illustrations and interviews with most of the key players. Jodorowsky is in top form, as well, especially considering the bitter feelings with which he was left in the aftermath of the collapse. The film can easily stand alongside “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” and “Down and Dirty Pictures” as examples of how movies are made and unmade, and the passions that drive the industry’s dare-devils. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Kid Cannabis: Blu-ray
Movies in which a drug dealer is the likeable protagonist tend follow a similar trajectory. Everyone’s having fun and making money, until any one of three things happens: a friend dies of an overdose, a sleazy rival puts a contract out on the dealer or he graduates from selling pot to pushing crack or heroin. The surprisingly benign “Kid Cannabis” is no different from the rest in this regard. Where it does differ, however, says a lot about how far audiences have come around on the subject of marijuana, at least. For more than 30 years, the patently dishonest and ludicrously inflammatory “Reefer Madness” provided the blueprint for how Hollywood would handle drugs in movies produced under the Production Code. Death was the price one paid for getting high and enjoying it. In “Easy Rider,” Wyatt and Billy were punished for financing their journey on the wages of sin, not unlike the teens in slasher movies who were slaughtered for having sex on Lovers Lane. Still, the characters were credibly drawn and smoking pot had nothing to do with their demise. Released in 1972, “Cisco Pike” and Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues” offered an even more contemporary look at the business, which sometimes did pit “righteous” dealers against corrupt cops, mobsters, pissed-off competitors and their own self-destructive habits. “Kid Cannabis” reflects the new reality of marijuana usage in North America. The growers are harmless and the traffickers don’t belong to a cartel. You can credit that to the setting, which is a remote town along the U.S./Canadian border, where smoking pot is no more controversial than choosing to put cheese curds or gravy on your French fries, instead of ketchup.

Jonathan Daniel Brown plays Nate, your standard-issue high school dweeb who is stunned to discover how porous our border with Canada really is and how easy it is to purchase high-quality bud from the local hippie farmers. John C. McGinley’s presence as one of the growers provides several delightfully ditzy moments, especially as he explains the economics of the trade. After smuggling his first bricks into the U.S., Nate and his friend, Topher (Kenny Wormald), set up a distribution network among a diverse group of friends deemed impeccably trustworthy. Even when Nate turns to an Israeli gangster (Ron Perlman) for money to invest in larger purchases, nothing goes significantly wrong in the business relationship. Neither does Nate’s mother, an innocent victim of America’s economic doldrums, try very hard to discover where he’s gotten the money to put her back on her feet. Because “Kid Cannabis” is based on a real story, writer/director John Stockwell (“Turistas,” “Blue Crush”) didn’t have to stretch too far to find the holes in Nate’s strategy and create a scenario in which hubris and gluttony takes him down. In doing so, he pits Nate and his pals against a fellow dealer, who supplies the locals with harder drugs and doesn’t cotton to competitors. Anyone who can easily recall Joe G.M. Chan’s portrayal of Alfred Molina’s firecracker-tossing “boy,” in “Boogie Nights,” will find something of him in Nate’s Asian-American nemesis.

Finally, though, the American side of the business is brought down by Nate’s decision to take his eyes off of the day-to-day details of the operation and fall in love with his own product. When the real deal comes down, his associates are so sick of his antics that they happily rat him out for more lenient treatment and we don’t blame them for doing so. Stockwell has a way of portraying the antics and aspirations of young people that rarely feels forced, even when he’s applying dramatic license or playing for laughs. He makes full use of the beautiful British Columbia locations, as well. According to the bean-counters at, “Kid Cannabis” was shown at a single festival and exactly one domestic theater. Once the stoner crowd discovers the movie on DVD or on cable, it should enjoy a successful afterlife. I would hate to think that mainstream distributors are still afraid of releasing a picture, however low-profile, that makes it appear as if marijuana may not be as diabolical as the DEA would have us believe. – Gary Dretzka

Le Week-End: Blu-ray
Watching Jim Broadbent (“Topsy-Turvy”) and Lindsay Duncan (“Rome”) impersonate an increasingly unmatched pair of 60-something academics, who are attempting to breathe some life into their marriage, renews hopes that the cinema hasn’t completely surrendered to the comic-book crowd. Targeted specifically at graying Baby Boomers, the Paris-set dramedy is a British import and technically doesn’t qualify as a game-changer. Still, discovering “Le Week-End” in this week’s pile of new releases was kind of like finding an abandoned Crystal Geyser delivery truck in the middle of Death Valley: nothing less than refreshing. The couple, Nick and Meg, are in Paris revisiting landmarks from their honeymoon 30 years earlier. Clearly, they’ve spent more than a few of those years bouncing between extended periods of marital bliss, pointless bickering and romanticizing the 1960s. In the three days they’ve allotted for this second honeymoon, Nick and Meg will condense all of those highs and lows into one package and see what’s left on Monday morning. Neither is entering the weekend under ideal circumstances. Nick has just been fired from his teaching post for committing some breach of politically correct etiquette, while Meg seems to have lost interest in any further intimate contact with him. In fact, before Nick broke his sad news, Meg was planning to burst his bubble by announcing that she was leaving him.

Things don’t always work out as planned, however. While exchanging a passionate kiss on a Paris sidewalk, they’re recognized by one of Nick’s ex-patriot friends, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who’s just published a book and is riding high in the saddle. Morgan believes that he owes a great debt of gratitude to Nick and invites them to a celebratory party, where long-hidden truths will be revealed and fissures in their relationship will become visible. Even so, director Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi, who previously collaborated on “Venus,” “The Mother” and “The Buddha of Suburbia,” convince us not to give up on them. The dialogue exchanged by Nick and Meg alternates between being bitterly acerbic and warmly nostalgic, with surprises scattered throughout the narrative. Goldblum, who seems to be spending more and more time on his music these days, delivers a highly caffeinated performance as the harmlessly verbose Yank.  Paris, as usual, is grand. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Michell and producer Kevin Loader; a behind-the-scenes featurette with Michell, Kureishi, Broadbent, Duncan and Goldblum; an illustration gallery; and tutorial video, “How to Dance ‘The Madison.’” – Gary Dretzka

Rigor Mortis: Blu-ray
Hong Kong multi-hyphenate Juno Mak’s directorial debut, “Rigor Mortis,” is set in a grimly austere tenement that appears to serve as a magnet for suicidal types, vampires, zombies and strange children. The building more closely resembles an abandoned warehouse, which someone converted to a cold-storage facility, than a place intended for habitation by humans. Given how few of them are in residence, though, it definitely fits the clientele’s needs. A displaced actor and onetime vampire hunter, Chin (Chin Siu-ho), moves into the building for the express purpose of killing himself. Before he takes his last breath, however, a wraith-like Taoist exorcist, Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan), slips into the room to spoil his plan. Although not normally pre-disposed to disapprove of unnatural death, Chin’s neighbors go out of their way to make him feel welcome. Not being creations of American filmmakers, the undead among them aren’t required to resemble fanged teenagers or shuffling ghouls. They’re considerably more imaginatively conceived and executed. Unlike Asian audiences already familiar with the odd rhythms, genre tropes and jarring subplots in J-, K- and HK-horror flicks, American viewers are urged to go with the slower, more deliberate narrative flow. Asian-American audiences may recognize some of the actors, some of whom were original cast members of the classic “Mr. Vampire” series. – Gary Dretzka

The Pretty One
The easiest, if not the most precise way to describe Zoe Kazan to anyone unfamiliar with her work is to compare her to a pre-sitcom Zooey Deschanel, with most of her rough edges still intact. Both women carry the DNA of Hollywood royalty in their blood, but only Deschanel has been able to land roles that make money and careers. Kazan’s breakthrough should have come in the self-penned rom-com “Ruby Sparks,” in which she played the kooky muse to a seriously blocked novelist (Paul Dano), who’s drowning in neuroses. Despite excellent reviews, it was never accorded the exposure it deserved. If it had, “Ruby Sparks” could have provided Kazan the same springboard as “(500) Days of Summer” gave Deschanel. Jenée LaMarque’s only occasionally compelling character study, “The Pretty One,” received even less respect than “Ruby Sparks.” I wonder, though, if Kazan hasn’t already decided to save her best work for the stage and page. In “The Pretty One,” she plays physically identical twins, Audrey and Laurel, who couldn’t have personalities that are more different. Laurel is an archetypal wallflower, who rarely leaves the house and has the fashion sense of a woman who hasn’t picked up a copy of Vogue since 1956. Audrey is a successful big-city business woman with an outgoing personality and no scarcity of suitors. When Audrey returns home for a visit, Audrey begins the process of pulling her sister out of her shell. It’s aborted, however, when she’s killed in an automobile accident and Laurel assumes her identity as “the pretty one.” What Laurel finds most disturbing is how little love and respect she’s accorded by those people, including her widowed father, who come to mourn her passing. Laurel also allows herself to consider the possibility of accepting love, in the form of Audrey’s married lover (Ron Livingston) and a free-spirited local (Jake Johnson). It’s in her lively exchanges with Johnson’s character that Kazan is at her best. Naturally, the truth will come out eventually and, with it, the heartache of learning that no one is happy that she’s the one who came back from the dead. The actors all work hard to sell LaMarque’s conceit, but “The Pretty One” simply can’t overcome the gimmickry of having a single actor play twins. That one hasn’t worked in a non-Disney movie since David Cronenberg’s truly creepy “Dead Ringers.” It is being released on a manufactured-on-demand basis, through and other retail outlets. – Gary Dretzka

Ragamuffin: Blu-Ray
Instead of “The True Story of Rich Mullins,” “Even Bible Bangers Get the Blues,” might be a more appropriate subtitle for the compelling faith-based bio-pic, “Ragamuffin.” At a time when right-wing evangelicals are attempting to rewrite the Constitution to fit their limited points-of-view, it comes as something of a surprise to meet an unabashedly Christian musician, who saw the rebel in Jesus Christ and whose mind isn’t shackled to Old Testament prohibitions. Rich Mullins was an extremely gifted singer-songwriter who recognized his calling early in life – his mother was a Quaker — and became his father’s punching bag because he focused more on his music than the proper way to care for a tractor. Instead of putting up with the abuse, he walked away from his family’s Indiana tree farm and headed directly for Cincinnati Bible College, where he found other people who loved music and God in equal measure. An iconoclast in a world over-populated with dyed-in-the-wool conformists, Mullins wore his hair and beard shaggy and favored jeans and white t-shirts. Instead of sticking to the music, Rich would deliver short sermons between songs, thus infuriating the preachers who resented him encroaching on their territory. Moreover, they rejected some of his notions of Christ’s teachings, which didn’t square with their fire-and-brimstone approach to homosexuality, alcohol and salvation. He was a sinner and wasn’t afraid to admit his shortcomings to his audiences. The title of this movie derives from a series of discussions he had with the controversial Christian speaker and adviser, Brennan Manning, who shared many of Rich’s same vices. He also believed that Jesus would have felt significantly more comfortable sitting at a table with a bunch of open-minded “ragamuffins” than trying to convince a lecture hall full of conservative pastors that the scriptures weren’t recipes for bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

In Michael Koch’s capable hands, Mullins is a man who wears his emotional turmoil on his sleeve and had little patience for self-righteous Christians who feel that the gates of heaven should be open to them, simply because they show up at church every Sunday. He never truly got over the pain of being dumped betrayed by the only woman he truly loved and it was reflected in the songs he wrote and performed. Amy Grant was the first Nashville star to give him a break by recording his words (“Sing Your Praise to the Lord”). Eventually, he would begin to feel hamstrung by uptight, hits-oriented producers who wanted to add a happy face to what they saw as odes to melancholy. His biggest solo hits, “Awesome God” and “”Sometimes by Step,” became anthems for the burgeoning Christian-music community of the 1980s, even as he was becoming increasingly influenced the Catholic liturgy and the lifestyle espoused by St. Francis of Assisi. As such, Mullins gave far more than his fair share of his earnings to charity – he never knew much he actually made – insisting to his managers that he keep only what the average American worker earned. He hopped off the concert circuit to teach music to kids living on the Navajo reservation and died in a car crash on his way to a charity event. Not having heard of Mullins before watching “Ragamuffin,” it’s difficult for me to say whether or not Koch and David Schultz’ interpretation of Mullins’ life and faith is accurate. That said, however, “Ragamuffin” isn’t a particularly easy movie to watch. The hard-core pastors are a drag and Mullins’ prickly personality sometimes is hard to buy. The bonus features add much background material on Mullins, the movie and his music. – Gary Dretzka

Watermark: Blu-ray
Here’s a documentary for folks who’ve ever questioned the wisdom in William Bell’s hit song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry).” Although “Watermark” isn’t specifically about global warming, it reminds us in the most persuasive way possible of the danger in messing with the world’s most accessible miracle. From the team behind the award-winning “Manufactured Landscapes” — Jennifer Baichwal, Nick de Pencier and cinematographer Edward Burtynsky – “Watermark” contrasts the immense grandeur of water in motion, with the vast emptiness of regions that have dried up and are in the process of being blown away. The emphasis here is on man’s relationship with water: how it shapes people’s lives, as well as how humanity affects this precious resource. In doing so, the filmmakers traveled to various locations around the world – from great rivers and deserts, to the biggest dams in the world and most toxic factories — to create a compelling global portrait of growth, restoration and destruction. The filmmakers take full advantage of 5K ultra-HD cinematography and highly portable cameras. Indeed, one of the film’s most striking images comes from a digital camera attached to a concrete hopper as it’s lowered from a crane, from hundreds of feet above the floor of a construction site. Special features include, “The Making of Watermark,” a discussion with Burtynsky and Baichwal, deleted scenes and a photo gallery narrated by Burtynsky. – Gary Dretzka

Prisoners of War: Season 1
Fans of Showtime’s acclaimed series, “Homeland,” can do themselves a favor by picking up a copy of the Israeli mini-series, “Prisoners of War,” upon which it’s based. Here, a pair of Israeli soldiers have finally been released from captivity after 17 years of mental and physical torture. A third is being shipped home from Syria in a box. As one might expect, the P.O.W.’s are totally discombobulated after their ordeal. Sadly, their return home is no picnic holds no escape from pain. The men’s families have changed in unexpected ways and their dreams are haunted by visions of what happened since their capture. Worse, perhaps, is the treatment they receive from representatives of their own government. After one night of less-than-blissful reunion, the men are hauled into a facility where they’re poked, prodded, debriefed and monitored by camera as they sleep. When one of the agents detects the prisoners using a crude form of Morse code, they assume that the men are hiding something sinister, not unlike Nicholas Brody in “Homeland.” Meanwhile, the ghost of the third soldier has found his way back to the home he shared with his sister, back in the day. If the adjustment period is painful for the men, it’s equally difficult for the families. While one of the wives is viewed as a hero for being out front in support of the P.O.W.’s for all those years, the other is widely condemned for falling in love, marrying and having a son with her brother-in-law. In neither case is the situation quite as cut-and-dried as it seems, for the wives, children and siblings. Things begin to get really interesting when a phone number handed to one of the men before leaving Syria is traced to a mechanic’s garage in the West Bank. Producer/director Gideon Raff has said that he was inspired by the lack of attention paid to former P.O.W.’s and their bouts with PTSD. As we see here, one is even made to feel guilty when a traded Palestinian prisoner commits a murderous crime. Just as “Prisoners of War” has been adapted to fit the demands of an American audience, different versions have been created for several other countries. The features include “An Open Wound: Making Prisoners of War,” including interviews with cast and crew, and episode commentaries with Raff and director of photography Itai Neeman. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Vicious
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Endeavour Series 2
PBS: Nature: The Gathering Swarms
PBS: Locked Up in America
PBS: Time Scanners: St Paul’s Cathedral/Egyptian Pyramids/Petra
PBS: Cool Spaces: The Best New Architecture
Rockers TV: Dennis Brown: Live
The latest British import on PBS features two of the world’s greatest dramatic actors — Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi – in a traditional sitcom about a pair of elderly queens, Freddie and Stuart, who have lived together in their Covent Garden flat for nearly 50 years. Freddie is a retired actor and Stuart once managed a swank bar. For all of their time together, the two men have argued about everything from who’s going to answer the doorbell, to their careers and long-ago boyfriends. The show’s other regular characters are a classy old dame, Violet (Frances de la Tour), who, like Freddie and Stuart, can’t keep her eyes off the dreamy young man, Ash (Iwan Rheon), who’s just moved in upstairs. As such, the only thing differentiating “Vicious” from dozens of other sitcoms driven by double-entendres and bitchy repartee are the stars. In this case, at least, it’s worth the effort it takes to sit through the show’s annoying laugh track to watch great actors hitting softballs out of the park. And, yes, McKellen and Jacobi are gay and haven’t cared who knows it for a long time.

Season Two of the “Inspector Morris” prequel, “Endeavour,” opens with the young detective of the same name (Shaun Evans) still feeling the effects of his father’s death and other traumatic events that occurred during the first go-round. DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) urges patience, but Endeavour is ready to jump back in the saddle on simultaneous investigations into a suspicious suicide, the disappearance of a teenage girl and missing artifacts from an Oxford museum. Thursday and Superintendent Bright don’t buy Morse’s conspiracy theory, arguing that he may have come back to work too soon. As the four episodes unwind, we learn a lot more about Thursday and just how corrupt even a classy college town, like Oxford, can be. Morse, in his own fractured way, even manages to blow a sure thing with his agreeably nice and pretty next-door neighbor. “Endeavour” has been a huge success, so far, and perfectly complements the on-going “Inspector Lewis” saga. The production values and setting are of the highest standards, as well.

A staple of most nature shows are the scenes in which large groups of fish, birds, bats and wildebeest come together in packs so thick they’re practically impenetrable. They move together as one fluid unit, never once stumbling of the heels of the beasts in front of them or leaving themselves open to invasion by predators, large and small. The closest humans come to mimicking such behavior is when they exit subway cars in Tokyo or attempt to avoid gunshots in Chicago. The “Nature” presentation, “The Gathering Swarms,” sees the sardines, starlings, bats and wildebeest and raises them with millions of cicadas, grunion, carp, locusts, ants, monarch butterflies, parakeets, penguins and mayflies. Frankly, I’m not sure I learned anything remotely scientific from the presentations, but they’re definitely fun to watch.

The two “Frontline” episodes included in “Locked Up in America” cover very different aspects of the prison system and the depressing lack of answers for serious problems. “Prison State” examines a relatively new Kentucky program designed to give youthful and elderly offenders, accused of “crimes” ranging from assault to truancy, every opportunity to avoid serious jail time. The kids we meet live in a housing project within a long stone’s throw of the local police lockup; the older men have been in and out prison dozens of times, mostly because they can’t resist yielding to bad habits. Too often, repeat offenders come to believe that they belong in jail and these rehabilitation periods are mere vacations from reality. It’s one thing to recognize that degree of resignation in an old man with few friends or relatives on the outside, but quite another to see it take hold in a teenager for whom recidivism might as well be her middle name. If the show is depressing, it comes as a relief to know that lots of people we don’t meet benefit from the program. “Solitary Nation” offers almost no room at all for hope. The residents of the solitary unit in a Maine prison to whom we’re introduced are angry they’ve been removed from the rest of the population, but do nothing at all to warrant being spared the punishment. Some of them register their displeasure by slitting their wrists and smearing the blood on the two windows available to them, or by stuffing up their toilets to flood the hallways with fetid water. Some also collect feces to smear on the walls. Muscle-bound and tattoo-laden, the inmates leave no doubt as to their anti-social tendencies, thus begging the question as to whether they ever can be released and, if not, what to do with them. Neither show is easy to watch, but both deal with important issues facing all Americans, especially those who advocate putting everyone from pot smokers to jaywalkers in jail.

The occasional PBS series, “Time Scanners,” explores another mystery frequently addressed in network shows: how is it that the pyramids and other ancient structures have held together so well, while the house we just built already has a leaky roof and a cracked driveway? Here, modern laser and CGI techniques are used to strip the structures to their bare bones and examine the skeleton, without removing a single stone. Host Dallas Campbell and structural engineer Steve Burrows take us to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Petra and Egyptian pyramids built before the ones at Luxor and Giza. It’s fun and viewers don’t require a graduate degree in architecture to understand most of it.

The PBS series “Cool Spaces!” also attempts to make architecture accessible to civilians. Here, though, architect/teacher/host Stephen Chung opens the doors to contemporary structures that look great today, but probably won’t be around in 50 years, let alone several millennia. That isn’t to suggest that Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center couldn’t last more than a century or two, only that their owners wouldn’t hesitate to tear them down to accommodate a larger scoreboard or higher-definition Jumbotron. Season One is divided into segments exploring performance spaces, healing spaces, libraries and art spaces.

For more than a quarter-century, New York deejay and TV host Earl “Rootsman” Chin has served as Jamaica’s musical ambassador to the U.S. His “Rocker TV” series, which mixes interviews and music, occasionally is shown on one of our local PBS affiliates. Among the many musicians who’ve appeared on the show was the prolific and highly popular Dennis Brown, who died in 1998 of pneumonia, possibly aggravated by crack and ganja. The interview and concert segments on this DVD were recorded shortly before that happened. – Gary Dretzka

Runaway Nightmare: Blu-ray
Lake Placid: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Usually, the rewards that derive from finding a DVD that’s so bad it’s good are so miniscule as to be invisible. Watch a 100 straight-to-video titles and only one or two might qualify for such a distinction, so, maybe you can see where a reviewer might go insane before a really good bad movie surfaces. “Runaway Nightmare” is being touted as just such a treasure by Vinegar Syndrome, a company that, like Shout!Factory, knows a bad movie when it sees one. Moreover, when it does finds one, VS tends to spend more money upgrading the product and adding bonus materials than the movie made in theaters the first time around. Here, two Death Valley worm farmers – worm farmers! Death Valley! – discover a woman being buried alive in a patch of ground usually reserved for tube-shaped invertebrates. The men are, then, kidnapped by an all-female cult of drug runners, who, after making them their slaves, force them to assist in a plan to steal a suitcase full of platinum from the mob. I kid you not. A sure sign that a movie is being held together with duct tape and staples is the number of times someone’s name shows up on the credit roll. Mike Cartel is listed as director, writer, producer, editor, stuntman, star and husband of one of the femme fatales, Mari Cartel. There’s violence aplenty, but most of the nudity is reserved for an alternate VHS segment, featuring topless women doing the boogaloo. The uncut and authorized edition of “Runaway Nightmare” has been fully restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative. It includes commentary with the Cartels.

Lake Placid” was released in 1999, two decades after “Piranha,” but minus a director as inventive as Joe Dante and screenwriter as hip as John Sayles. David E. Kelley may be responsible for some of the television medium’s best series, but, clearly, he was out of his element when it came to writing a creature feature. Instead of a man-eating fish from the Amazon, the killer residing in the body of Canadian water posing as Lake Placid is a crocodile capable of wholly digesting a live cow, donated for the purpose by a local nutcase played wonderfully by Bette White. The reason “Lake Placid” isn’t close to being in the so-bad-it’s-good category is because its stars are far too prominent and Kelley gave them a few too many good lines. Otherwise, while obviously fake, the monster isn’t nearly as cheesy as those in the average Syfy flick. The blood-letting is messy but not realistic enough to induce vomiting in queasy viewers. The toothy beast might as well be a hippopotamus for all of the stealth it displays while approaching its prey. If “Lake Placid” were a bicycle, it would come with training wheels. The scenery’s nice, but I can’t imagine anyone over 16 being particularly challenged by this one. The Blu-ray extras include new interviews with director Steve Miner, actor Bill Pullman, director of photography Daryn Okada, editor Marshall Harvey, production designer John Willett, effects supervisor Nick Marra and puppeteer Toby Lindala; a vintage featurette with Miner, White, Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt and Brendon Gleason; a behind-the-scenes still gallery; animatronic “Croc Test” footage; and original marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

How It All Began: Origins of Master Mantak Chia
Although this bio-doc too often feels like an infomercial for Grand Master Mantak Chia and his international chain of healing centers, there’s enough interest in yoga these days to mention it alongside movies about killer crocodiles and worm farmers in the desert. After all, just because I’ve never heard of Mantak Chia doesn’t mean others won’t value from his teachings. Born to Chinese parents in occupied Thailand, Chia climbed the ladder from Thai boxing, to Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, yoga and broader levels of Tai Chi. He would combine disciplines from various masters, forming his system that merged Thai boxing, Kung Fu, Taoist, Buddhist and Zen teachings. He brought the Universal Healing Tao System with him when he eventually moved to New York’s Chinatown and steadily built his business. He has since returned to Thailand, where he has created a posh Tao Garden Health Resort and Universal Tao Training Center for the benefit of his many New Age disciples and newbies. There’s no reason to think that his followers wouldn’t find “How It All Began: Origins of Master Mantak Chia” to be entertaining and enlightening. – Gary Dretzka

Erotic Adventures of Candy/Candy Goes to Hollywood
All Night Long/Tapestry of Passion
Vintage Erotica: Anno 1970
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 3
The latest double-features in Vinegar Syndrome’s “Peekarama” series harken back to a time when porn directors still thought in terms of narrative content and providing entertaining content for couples, in addition to vigorous hard-core sex. In the mid-1970s, Gail Palmer was one of only a very few women directors/writers/producers and very good one, at that. Her best-known titles, “Erotic Adventures of Candy” (1978) and “Candy Goes to Hollywood,” appear to have been based as much on Terry Southern’s “Candy” as Voltaire’s “Candide.” “Deep Throat” co-star Carol Connor plays the bubble-headed bleach blond who loses her virginity to the handsome young Mexican gardener her father warned her against befriending. The sex was disappointing, to say the least, so she tries to find love in places besides her back yard. In the second chapter of the saga, Candy finds a predatory talent agent, Johnny Dooropener (John Leslie), who introduces her to more celebrated sex fiends in Hollywood, including Johnny Carson and Chuck Barris look-alikes. In one of her attempts to find straight work after “Deep Throat,” Connors landed a gig on “The Gong Show” as a buxom introducer of “talent.” Palmer satirizes the experience in “Candy Goes to Hollywood.” There’s also a surprise appearance by the power-saw-wielding punk-rocker, Wendy O. Williams.

The second “Peekarama” collection is right out of “Boogie Nights.” “Tapestry of Passion” is a chapter in the series of hard-core adventures featuring John C. Holmes’ recurring Johnny Wadd character, immortalized by Mark Wahlberg in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Bob Chinn, who was portrayed by Burt Reynolds in the same movie, is credited as co-screenwriter with director Alan Colberg. Private detective Wadd is hot on the case of a woman known as “The Black Widow.” Colberg also directs Holmes in “All Night Long.” In it, characters played by Holmes and Rick Lutze embark on a competition to see who can sleep with the greatest number of women over the course of a night. It’s not as easy as they think it will be. All of these films have been restored in 2K from the 35mm camera negatives and add vintage trailers.

Vintage Erotica: Anno 1970” offers prime examples of how the ’70s’ “porno chic” phenomenon was interpreted in Europe, where anti-pornography laws were falling much faster than they were in the U.S. Here, court cases still awaited the stars of “Deep Throat” and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. For one thing, the 14 short films are more risqué than hard-core and not nearly as aggressively in-your-face as the loops that preceded “Deep Throat.” For examples of those nasty little boogers, check out Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 3.” It is the latest compilation of 8mm shorts from Impulse Pictures, re-mastered from original film prints. This collection features 15 classic loops, with such future stars as Annie Sprinkle, Susan Nero, Bobby Astyr and Jamie Gillis. Liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie also are included. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

The Unknown Known: Blu-ray
The timing of Errol Morris’s perversely revealing portrait of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could hardly be more appropriate. The documentarian couldn’t possibly have known that his film’s afterlife on DVD/Blu-ray would coincide with the takeover of northern Iraq by Sunni jihadists and likely collapse of the country’s government over issues left unresolved when American troops left the country on a timetable established by President George W. Bush. Arriving, as it does, three days before the Fourth of July only makes what Rumsfeld says in “The Unknown Known” that much more wrong-headed and cruelly arrogant. Any Iraq vet planning on marching in a parade or visiting a cemetery this weekend probably already is questioning what in Bush’s name we were doing there, anyway, considering what’s been happening throughout the blood-soaked north in the name of one sect’s interpretation of the Koran. In addition to being one of the architects of our response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he also was partially responsible, at least, for leaving a backdoor open for Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora and going to war in Iraq on almost zero evidence of WMDs. An even bigger question, asked rhetorically by Rumsfeld, is why he would agree to be interviewed by the same brilliant filmmaker who gave us “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Arrogance, chutzpah and belligerence are the only answers for that one. Rumsfeld was an obsessive writer of memos to those with whom he served during the course of five Republican administrations, sending out an estimated 20,000 “snowflakes,” as they became known. Their availability meant Morris wouldn’t have to rely on rumors, innuendo and other peoples’ memories for his research. Both men, then, approached the interview fully prepared for the task and aware of the other’s techniques. To me, anyway, Morris’ questions seemed fair, balanced and informed, and Rumsfeld appeared to enjoy the thrust and parry with him. Like Richard Nixon, after his first televised with John Kennedy, he probably walked away from the interview thinking that he scored at least as many points as Morris.

Too often, though, Rumsfeld falls back on such non-partisan Washington excuses as, “We based our decisions on the best evidence available to us at the time,” “We were acting to protect American interests in the region” and “We couldn’t have known what would happen after the government was toppled.” (That last point was fully explored in Charles Ferguson’s more relevant than ever, “No End in Sight.”) The film’s enigmatic title refers to Rumsfeld’s own response to reporters’ questions about the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein and the transfer of WMDs to terrorists: “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because, as we know, there are known knowns (and) there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns, which is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” That search for the “unknown unknown” resulted the deaths of nearly 5,000 men and women associated with the Iraq Coalition force. Israel is no safer today than it was 12 years ago; Iraq is far worse off; the Taliban is as strong as it ever was; unindicted prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo; and Barack Obama is lost at sea. “Would it have been better not to have gone there at all?” Morris asks. “I guess time will tell,” replies Rumsfeld. And, that’s exactly what’s happening today in Iraq. “Unkown Known” is a fascinating film, no matter on which side of the fence one stands. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a “conversation” with Morris; his four-part “op-ed,” “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld”; and a videotape of a panel discussion at the Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense conference, in 1989. In it, more than a half-dozen former secretaries were asked about the collapse of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall, as well as the future of the Soviet Union. For the most part, they were every bit as clueless about what it all meant as any half-soused knucklehead, spouting off in a tavern in Milwaukee. – Gary Dretzka

The Lunchbox: Blu-ray
The Mumbai we visit in freshman writer/director Ritesh Batra’s bittersweet romance exists somewhere between the slums of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the soundstages of Bollywood. The people we meet in its teeming streets work hard to make ends meet and are neither starving nor prospering. One or two of them might even aspire to a job answering questions from Americans who can’t get their computer to work or understand their credit-card bills. “The Lunchbox” describes what happens when serendipity calls on a lonely office worker, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), on the verge of retirement, and a younger woman, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), whose husband couldn’t be more distant if he lived in Calcutta. Neither of them would be aware of the other’s existence, if it weren’t for a mistake made in the otherwise efficient food-delivery system unique to Mumbai. Each mid-morning of the workweek, dabbawalas collect hot food in compactly stacked tiffin boxes (dabbas), prepared by restaurants and the residences of semi-pro chefs, for delivery to workplaces around the metropolitan area. The dabbawalas use bicycles and carts to get the boxes to the primary sorting areas, where they’re transferred to trains or other vehicles. At each stop, a new group of dabbas is waiting to relay the boxes to customers anticipating genuine home-cooked meals. After lunch, the process is reversed. As Batra’s story goes, a chink in the system results in Ila’s lunchbox landing on Saajan’s desk, instead of the one belong to her husband. The quality of Ila’s meals inspires him to leave a note in the box, suggesting various modifications to fit his personal tastes. Eventually, these notes escalate to something resembling mash notes. After proving, once and for all, that the shortest way to a Mumbai man’s heart is through his stomach, Batra was left with the decision of how to end the story: happy, sad or somewhere in between. Khan and Kaur don’t share much screen time, but, emotionally, the distance between them is very small. The larger presence, of course, is that of Mumbai. Within a metropolitan area populated by some 18 million people, the protagonists may as well be as removed from each other as the would-be lovers in “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” which, finally, are the movies that “The Lunchbox” reminds us of most. It’s accompanied by commentary with Batra. – Gary Dretzka

Cannibal Holocaust: Blu-ray
Afflicted: Blu-ray
The Jungle
A “listicle” published in Entertainment Weekly in June, 2006, credited “Cannibal Holocaust” with being only the 19th most controversial movie of all time. What the editors really meant to say is: here are the 25 most controversial movies that we could think of over lunch, minus titles that most of our lowbrow readers might not recognize. When EW decides to pull one of these meaningless lists out of their collective butts, all the reporters have to do is round up the usual suspects and concoct a paragraph that makes them sound witty. Any such list that doesn’t put “Cannibal Holocaust” in the top two or three positions, however, probably wasn’t conceived by writers who actually saw the movie, at least in its uncensored and unedited form. Yes, most the 25 titles included the EW list were controversial, but only for the news cycle of the average weekly magazine. Six months later, almost no one cared, except for the publicists promoting the DVD release. Of them, only “Freaks” (17), “Triumph of the Will” (15), “The Message” (11), “Baby Doll” (10), “Natural Born Killers” (8), “The Birth of a Nation” (7) and “Deep Throat” (4), resonated beyond the pages of Variety and the easily shocked New York Times. And, while advertised screenings of “Birth of a Nation” can still raise the hackles of civil-rights activists, few of the others would generate the heat today that “Cannibal Holocaust” still can. Anyone who’s ever wanted to clear a room full of vegans, PETA members and feminists would need only slip this baby onto the DVD player and let it run for about 10 minutes. If anyone saw you do it, though, you’d be hung from the rafters and your estate would be sued for emotional reparations.

Released in 1980, “Cannibal Holocaust” is an extension of “Mondo Cane” and other reality-based shockumentaries popular in the 1960s. As such, it relied far less on special effects scenes than the traditional practices and rituals of the native Amazonian tribes the filmmakers encountered. Italian director Ruggero Deodato learned his craft from working alongside neo-realist pioneer Roberto Rossellini (“Open City”) and spaghetti-western specialist Sergio Corbucci (“Dango”). Before “Cannibal Holocaust,” Deodato made a splash with the still-enjoyable Italian polizieschi “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man”; the officially designated “video nasty,” “House on the Edge of the Park”; and virtual prequel, “Last Cannibal World.”  As nasty as “Cannibal Holocaust” is, then, Deodato couldn’t be accused of being a genre hack. Indeed, frequent collaborator Gianfranco Clerici was better known for exploitation fare, with writer’s credit on “Nazi Love Camp 27,” “Confessions of Emanuelle” and “Murder-Rock: Dancing Death.” Together, they found an angle for “Cannibal Holocaust” that allegedly commented on the wave of terrorist kidnappings in Europe and reporters who poured gasoline on fiery situations to heat up a controversy. Consequently, more than a few critics argued that the merits of the story outweighed the horrors on display. The story opens with New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) returns from a rescue mission to the Amazon rainforest with footage shot by a lost team of filmmakers and evidence they were murdered. They were in the thoroughly untamed wilderness to make a documentary about tribes known to enhance their diets of monkeys, snakes, rodents and other critters with human flesh. When Monroe showed the footage to a network news producer, she became so excited by the first couple of reels that a special report was scheduled. It wasn’t until the rest of the footage was screened that the truth about the reporters’ methodology was revealed.

What was shocking then and remains disturbing today are scenes in which a coatimundi, large turtle, gigantic spider, snake, a squirrel monkey and wild pig are killed, slaughtered and devoured before our eyes. Although such things happen every day in the rainforest – none of the meat actually went to waste – the processing of the animals is almost unbearable to watch. (The animals didn’t appear to be enjoying their role in the film, either.) Moreover, the film also includes scenes of violent death and rape that were so realistic that Deodato was, in fact, put on trial for making a snuff film. (The charges were dropped when a couple of the “slain” actors testified in his defense, but he was still forced to pay fines for obscenity.) Prominent in the marketing material are images of a native woman impaled on a 10-foot stake and put on display on the shore of a river as a warning to adulterers. The controversy caused “Cannibal Holocaust” to be banned in several countries, censored and pulled from circulation for years. Abridged versions have surfaced occasionally on video, but not in such a masterfully restored and remixed Blu-ray edition as is now available from Grindhouse Releasing. The company has essentially added a Criterion Collection sheen to the movie, which arrives in three-disc (two in hi-def and a remixed CD of Riz Ortolani’s musical score); feature-length commentary tracks, with  with Deodato and actors Robert Kerman (a.k.a., then-porn star R. Bolla), Carl Yorke and Francesca Ciardi; new interviews with Deodato, Ciardi, assistant director/co-star Salvo Basile and cameraman Roberto Forges Davazati; vintage interviews with Kerman, Yorke and Ortolani; still galleries and theatrical trailers from around the world; a glossy 24-page booklet containing liner notes by director Eli Roth, horror journalist Chas. Balun, Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai and Italian exploitation film authority Martin Biene; a reversible cover with original art by illustrator Rick Melton; and nine Easter eggs, including the Grindhouse theatrical re-release premiere and Necrophagia music video directed by Jim VanBebber. The interviews are unusually candid, especially in discussions about the killing of animals and the actors’ passionately negative reactions to them. A cruelty-free version of the movie is available in the package, which also contains a separate version of the film-within-the-film, “Last Road to Hell.”

The three other found-footage films that arrived this week are nowhere near as well-made and horrific as “Last Road to Hell,” even if every bit as much blood and gore are on display. Jack Thomas Smith’s “Infliction” purports to use actual assembled footage taken during a murder spree three years ago in North Carolina. How much, if any, is hard to determine, since the credits list the usual number of actors next to the names of the characters. Smith’s conceit is to bear witness in excruciating detail to the series of seemingly inexplicable attacks perpetrated by brothers wielding sharp objects and a video camera. Just as one begins to entertain thoughts about hitting the “stop” button, however, the roots of the spree are revealed and we’re asked to decide who the real villains are here. In my opinion, it comes too late to erase the bad taste left by exceedingly graphic violence.

The found-footage material in “Afflicted” derives from a planned Internet travel show, in which a bunch of cool dudes visit traditional destinations and do the things that cool dudes do when confronted by great natural beauty, babes in bikinis and discos. (Much of the film appears to take place in and around Dubrovnik.) When one of the hosts is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, he decides to go on with the journey, anyway. On one of the stops, he meets a gorgeous local lady who appears to have put a curse on him … not that he needs another one. It manifests itself in the projectile vomiting of large volumes of blood and, yes, it’s every bit as sickening to watch after the first 10 times as it sounds. The poor schlub also develops an overwhelming taste for the blood of other people, pigs or anything else with a working heart. It’s when he discovers that he’s not alone that “Afflicted” begins to get interesting, but, at 85 minutes, it comes a tad on the late side.

Anyone who’s seen Andrew Traucki’s “Black Water” and “The Jungle” already knows that the writer/director enjoys finding his brand of horror in nature, rather than haunted houses and boarded up sanitariums. In “The Jungle,” conservationist Larry Black (Rupert Reid) travels to the jungle of Indonesia to see if he can find the endangered Javanese leopard in its natural habitat. Because this is a found-footage flick, we already know what happened to Larry and his cohorts and it ain’t pretty. By wading through the film left behind – mostly uneventful hikes through the jungles at night — we eventually get a short, belated peek at the critters that ended his expedition. Once again, great patience is need to get to that point. – Gary Dretzka

Scavenger Killers
Some straight-to-DVD movies are so strange that they defy description. “Scavenger Killers” tells us what happens when a perverted judge and a sex-addict defense attorney join forces to kill clients, defendants, plaintiffs and anyone else who makes the mistake of getting in their way. The judge is played by onetime “Guiding Light” regular Robert Bogue, while the role of blond-bombshell lawyer is filled by Rachel Robbins, whose immortal credits include “Bikini Bloodbath Christmas,” “Bikini Bloodbath Car Wash,” “Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers” and “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots.” “Scavenger Killers” might also be notable for having been written by prolific hack Ken Del Vecchio, himself a novelist, lawyer and onetime judge. On Del Vecchio’s Facebook page, he’s also credited as publisher of the New Jersey newspaper, Garden State Journal and chairman of the Hoboken International Film Festival. These are significant only because, according to, “Scavenger Killers” has only been shown publically at that event and Garden State’s movie critic described it thusly. “This is a movie that, if you have the stomach for it, you have to see. It will go down as one of the best in horror-movie history.” Most of the other critics represented on the site shared the opposite opinion. If all of these considerations weren’t sufficiently bizarre, however, it’s worth pondering how Del Vecchio managed to lure Eric Roberts, Charles Durning, Robert Loggia and Dustin Diamond to the project. True, Diamond probably would have paid Del Vecchio to be included in the cast and it’s likely that Roberts required his paycheck up front, but the presence of Loggia and Durning remains puzzling. On closer inspection, however, it appears as if both of those fine actors augmented their Social Security checks by accepting work in such cheesy projects. (Durning’s final two credits before his death last year, at 89, were in Del Vecchio movies.)  None of this is to suggest that “Scavenger Killers” is so bad it’s worth seeing, because it’s not. Only that bad movies sometimes make strange bedfellows. – Gary Dretzka

The Final Terror: Blu-ray
Unlike “Scavenger Killers,” a case can easily be made for “The Final Terror” being essential viewing for fans of movies lambasted in equal measure by critics, producers and fans. In fact, the monster-in-the-rainforest thriller was deemed so unwatchable after it was made, in 1981, that it sat forgotten on a shelf until someone recalled that its stars were becoming famous. They included Rachel Ward (“The Thorn Birds”), Daryl Hannah (“Blade Runner”), Adrian Zmed (“Grease 2”), Mark Metcalf (“Hill Street Blues”), Ernest Harden Jr. (“The Jeffersons”) and Joe Pantoliano (“Risky Business”). Director Andrew Davis had attracted a bit of attention in 1978 for “Stony Island,” his story about a group of young musicians coming of age simultaneously in the streets of Chicago, but was stymied by budget considerations and a tortured screenplay while surrounded by the Redwoods of southern Oregon. He would go on to make “Code of Silence,” “Above the Law” and “The Fugitive.” None the worse for the wear, producer Joe Roth eventually would become chairman of Walt Disney Studios and, last week, sold his long-dormant Revolution Studios for $250 million to Fortress Investment Group. That’s a remarkably impressive legacy for an inconsequential slasher flick, but such thing happen every day in Hollywood, or so we’ve been led to believe.

According to the folks at Scream Factory, “This release was a challenge for us to execute. All of the original film elements (negative and inter-positive) were lost and we searched for them for months. In order to create this new HD transfer, we sourced five film prints from collectors and used the best reels.” (Collectors?) “Final Terror” looks pretty good in Blu-ray, considering how neglected it’s been over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, the appearances of the boogeymen and women is pretty anticlimactic. Their makeup and costumes appear to have been something of an afterthought, as well, possibly victims of budget restraints. It adds new audio commentary with Davis and new interviews with actors Zmed and Lewis Smith, post- production supervisor Allan Holzman and composer Susan Justin. – Gary Dretzka

Operation Petticoat: Blu-ray
It wasn’t until “Operation Petticoat,” I’m guessing, that most of the elements of what would become known as a Blake Edwards’ film began to coalesce. By 1959, he’d already written and/or directed a few not-terribly-memorable features, but what he did best was create entertaining television series featuring manly-men protagonists and sexy babes. Even in DVD, “Peter Gunn” remains one of the great P.I. entertainments of our time. Everything seemed to come together for him, though, on this occasionally raucous, irreverent and frequently ribald wartime comedy. Edwards had already demonstrated a rapport with co-lead Tony Curtis and writer Stanley Shapiro, so having an old pro like Cary Grant aboard the pink submarine could only help smooth the road to theaters. Neither did it hurt the odds for success that sailors aboard the decrepit USS Sea Tiger would be surrounded by a half-dozen gorgeous army nurses, rescued from a precariously held island in the Pacific island. At a time in Hollywood history when actresses were valued as much for their figures as their ability to read dialogue, I can only imagine what the casting sessions for “Operation Petticoat” might have been like. By then, Dina Merrill may have had the clout to avoid the shenanigans, but there was never a shortage of bosomy beauties in a Blake Edwards comedy. Here, at least, large breasts were an integral part of the gag. Maneuvering the tight spaces on a WWII submarine was difficult enough, without also having to squeeze past a set of 38-double-Ds or dance the limbo under a clothes line with stockings and girdles hanging from it.

In 1959, the Production Code was still diligently enforced by blue-nosed censors. The lengths to which Edwards and Shapiro went to keep the dialogue from being completely diluted often are as hilariously ridiculous as anything that might have passed muster, even 10 years later. (Legend has it that Tina Louise turned down the role of Nurse Crandall, which went to Joan O’Brien, because she didn’t like the abundant boob jokes directed at the character.) The script also benefitted from the fact that some of the best bits were inspired by actual incidents that took place in WWII, including the pink paint job on the Sea Tiger and the torpedoing of a Japanese truck on the beach of an occupied island. TV junkies will enjoy seeing younger versions of Gavin MacLeod (“The Love Boat”), Marion Ross (“Happy Days”) and Dick Sargent (“Bewitched”). – Gary Dretzka

Syfy: Helix: Season 1: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Good, the Bad and Casey Jones
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: Book Two: Spirits: Blu-ray
Directly inspired by John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which, itself, was directly influenced by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ classic 1951 thriller, “The Thing From Another World,” the Syfy mini-series “Helix” takes 13 episodes to do what those two pictures did in a little more than three hours. It does so with all of the benefits of CGI and other digital chicanery unavailable, even in 1981, to the filmmakers. If Season One of “Helix” would have benefitted from being six or seven hours shorter, it can’t be said that it didn’t give the Syfy audience its money’s worth of entertainment. That isn’t always the case at Syfy. Here, once again, the overwhelming sense of isolation and dread among scientists stationed in an Arctic research facility becomes palpable early in the 90-minute pilot episode. A team of specialists from the Centers for Disease Control is called to the Army-backed station when terrible things begin to happen to a small core of researchers working on a virus-related project. Among them is the brother of the leader of the CDC unit. The immediate recommendation to quarantine the possibly infected researchers doesn’t sit well with the rambunctious assemblage of people who should know better than to risk spreading the disease in a closed environment. The mice and monkeys can be excused from understanding the ramifications, however, and pay the price when they attempt to escape into the frigid Arctic night … poor things. The six episodes’ worth of padding takes the form of exceedingly hyperbolic dialogue, useless squabbling, an ever-shifting gallery of suspects and, of course, romantic intrigue between the buff guys and uniformly stacked women. The nerd-to-fox ratio is completely out of whack for a sci-fi series. On the other hand, it’s always a good sign when Jeri Ryan is brought in from the bullpen to provide midseason relief for a series that needs a good jolt of fresh air. The DVD/Blu-ray contains commentaries, deleted scenes and four featurettes: “Dissecting the Characters,” “The Art of Isolation,” “The Future of Disease” and “Ronald D. Moore: The Outlier of Science Fiction.”

Pop quiz: which character doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, A) The Shredder, B) Dogpound, C) Fishface, D) Casey Jones, E) None of the above? Devout fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles need not bother to answer the question, which most of them would deem to be ridiculously easy. Here, “None of the above” not only is the safe answer, but the correct one, as well. Not being someone who follows “TMNT” as religiously as my favorite sports teams, I would have guessed Casey Jones. That was before I received the latest Paramount/Nickelodeon release, “The Good, the Bad and Casey Jones,” in which the titular teen vigilante plays a prominent role. The venerable human-vigilante character dates back to 1990, when, in the original live-action movies, he was portrayed by Elias Koteas. Today, in Nickelodeon’s animated version, the hockey-stick wielding character is voiced by Josh Peck (“Ice Age”). The new set is comprised of six episodes from the current season: “Slash and Destroy,” with Corey Feldman, the original voice of Donatello, returning as the voice of Slash; “The Kraang Conspiracy,” in which we finally discover what the aliens want with April (Mae Whitman); “The Good, the Bad and Casey Jones”; “Fungus Humungous,” during which hallucinogenic mushrooms begin growing in the sewers; “Metalhead Rewired,” featuring Donatello and his robotic creation; “Of Rats and Men,” with a newly fortified Rat King.”

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s critically singed “The Last Airbender,” “The Legend of Korra,” is a sequel to the popular animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which was shown on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. At the time, I had no idea what being an air-bender entailed and the overwhelming negative reviews discouraged me from pursuing the subject, until now. It did OK at the international box-office, anyway. Both TV series were created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, who discovered interesting ways to merge Japanimation and traditional American animation into a story heavily influenced by pan-Asian fantasy, mythology and martial arts, of which air-bending is a fictional discipline. Here, people can manipulate, or “bend,” the elements of water, earth, fire and air, but only one person, the “Avatar,” can bend all four elements. That person is responsible for maintaining balance in the world. In “Book Two: Spirits,” a young woman named Koora has been chosen to advance the tradition, which has begun to fray on the edges of society. She volunteers to travel to the home of the Southern Water Tribes, where she’ll be able to jump-start her spiritual quest. The Blu-ray captures the soft color palette very well, even if it doesn’t always look as sharp and persuasive as the “TMNT” DVD. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire: Blu-ray
When a picture grosses just north of $331 million in total revenues, it should at least be able to cover production and marketing costs, which probably were in the vicinity of $200 million. In the case of “300: Rise of an Empire,” Warners’ follow-up to “300,” though, any deals cut between exhibitors and distributors would determine where the extra shekels go, if any. As impressive as that number sounds in the abstract, it has to be weighed against a production budget that ballooned from $65 million to $110 million in seven years and, all-in, a reduction of ticket revenues of $125 million. The studio probably didn’t expect to inspire the same shock and awe in audiences that accompanied the release of Zack Snyder’s blockbuster account of King Leonidas’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. His hyper-realistic animation technique is no longer novel, after all, and there was exponentially greater risk in offering action junkies a substantially more complex history of ancient Greece. Given the positive response to mega-budget Hollywood movies in foreign markets lately, however, a return of $224.5 million from non-domestic theaters – down from $245.5, in 2007 – had to be more puzzling than the comparatively meager $106.6 million haul from U.S. megaplexes. Enough with the numbers, already. Was the movie any good and what does it look like in Blu-ray? In brief: pretty darn entertaining and terrific.

“300: Rise of an Empire” focuses on the Athenian general, Themistocles, and his confrontations at sea with the brilliant Greek-born naval commander Artemisia, widow of King Darius I and mother-in-law of Xerxes. (Here, anyway.) In a flashback, we are shown the retreat of Persian ships from the Greek victory at Marathon and death of Darius by Themistocles’ arrow. Years later, Xerxes would return to Greece and defeat the 300. By then, he had declared himself to be a god and rival for power with Artemisia. She would attempt to avenge her husband’s death at the Battle of Salamis, while Xerxes was stalled in his advance south at Thermopylae. Themistocles and Artemisia would engage in a series of mutually destructive battles and, in a brief love-hate hookup, fall into something resembling lust. Meanwhile, Xerxes had reached Athens and Leonidas’ distraught wife, Queen Gorgo of Sparta, agrees to contribute ships and men to Themistocles. The title, “300: Rise of an Empire” refers to the unification of Greek city-states into a single entity after the Persian army under Mardonius is repulsed. Once again, I caution students, who might someday be tested on these same historical events, against taking co-writer Snyder and director Noam Murro’s depiction of them as gospel. Although the characters are based on actual Greeks and Persians, it isn’t likely that much in the sequel happened in the way it’s presented here. Nor, is it likely that “Rise of an Empire” will resemble Frank Miller’s as-yet-unpublished graphic novel “Xerxes,” even though it’s noted in the writing credits.

Even so, there’s no reason that I can see that fans of “300” shouldn’t also get a kick out of “Rise of an Empire.” There’s plenty of blood and gore to savor and the sea battles resemble a nautical demolition derby, complete with Persian suicide bombers and tar-spewing warships. Anyone who really, really dug the “six-pack abs” digitally molded on the Spartans, should know that the “farmers, poets and craftsmen” of Athens are pretty fit, as well, and can kick major Persian ass. Something in the retsina, perhaps. If were to guess, however, more tickets sales could be attributed to the presence of the beyond-buff Eva Green, Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey in the lead roles. The technically excellent  Blu-ray adds the 30-minute “Behind the Scenes: The 300 Effect,” broken into “3 Days in Hell,” “Brutal Artistry,” “A New Breed of Hero” and “Taking the Battle to Sea.”; the 23-minute “Real Leaders & Legends,” which acknowledges the film’s loose representation of history and allows historians to add their opinions; “Women Warriors,” with Eva Green and Lena Headey discussing their characters’ reputation as empowered women, warriors and leaders; “Savage Warships,” on the ships and strategies of the Greek navy; and “Becoming a Warrior,” in which we watch cast members training for their roles. – Gary Dretzka

Winter’s Tale: Blu-ray
Not having read the best-selling novel from which “Winter’s Tale” was adapted, it would be impossible for me to explain why Mark Helprin’s novel was cherished and writer/director Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation barely put a dent in the Valentine’s Day box-office. I can’t remember seeing much in the way of pre-release publicity, which usually doesn’t bode well for a picture, or hear any buzz, one way or the other. It’s even more difficult to explain how any movie starring Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint and Will Smith couldn’t even score more than a weekend’s worth of good business. True, it wasn’t welcomed with much warmth from mainland critics, but how many young women trust mainstream critics for advice on romantic fantasies anymore, anyway? “Winter’s Tale” definitely qualifies as a chick flick, if not a sure-fire date movie. The presence of Crowe, Farrell and Smith, at least, should have suggested to guys that it wouldn’t be that much of a chore to sit through on a Saturday night, but my guess is that they’d rather play computer solitaire. I certainly didn’t hate the movie, which contains some legitimately magical moments. Still, I can see how a lot of young people might be scared off by its literary pretentions or confuse it with being yet another slick adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Then, too, there are times when the wonderfully delicate aspects of the story are overwhelmed by the roughness of the bad-boy elements, pitting Crowe against Farrell. Goldsman also waits too long for the star-crossed lovers to meet and start raising goosebumps on viewers’ arms.

Farrell plays a gang member, Peter Lake, who, as an infant, was given up by his parents when they were ordered to return to Ireland as possible carriers of TB. They placed him in a model sailboat, named “City of Justice,” and gave it a shove from Ellis Island toward the marshes of New Jersey. Later, he’s adopted into a crew of street urchins led by a Fagin-like demon posing as the gangster Pearly Soames (Crowe). Pearly’s boss, Judge (Smith), is none other than Lucifer, who has monitored Peter’s evolution from innocent to full-fledged criminal. As he nears adulthood, Peter decides to leave the gang and set out on his own. Judge, who measures the balance of good and evil on Earth, demands that Pearly get him back in the fold before a “miracle” happens. Surrounded by members of the gang, Peter climbs on the back of a white horse that just happens to be in the neighborhood. Just before they capture him, the Andalusian stallion displays its gossamer wings and speeds both of them away from danger. It isn’t long before the flying horse is revealed to be Peter’s guardian angel and partner in crime. Unbeknownst to Peter, it leads him to a mansion with a vulnerable safe and doomed young woman (Findley) waiting to die and become a star in the heavens. By this time, “Winter’s Tale” is less than halfway through and the magical realism and other fairytale conceits are only now beginning to kick into gear. It’s also becoming apparent that Academy Award-winning writer Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) is having trouble maintaining his directorial grip on the controls. The book contains 700-plus pages worth of fantastical ideas, and the two-hour movie only has room for a few of them. Once those threads are allowed to reveal themselves, patient viewers will be rewarded with some thoughtful storytelling, as well as the fine cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and music of co-composer Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and a pair of background featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Rob the Mob: Blu-ray
Here’s a prime example of an entertaining indie dramedy that would have gone straight-to-DVD, if it weren’t for a brief stop at the Miami International Film Festival and no more than 30 theaters at any one time. The protagonists of Raymond De Felitta’s “Rob the Mob” have been compared to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barker, in that the Queens couple who targeted Mafia social clubs is finally brought down by their own hubris and false sense of immortality. Their lightly fictionalized story is based on a real-life crime spree, perpetrated in 1992 by Thomas Uva and Rosemarie De Toma, that couldn’t possibly have ended happily for anyone involved. For sheer chutzpah, though, it would have been difficult to top. The brains of the outfit, as it were, is the ex-con underachiever Tommy (Michael Pitt). Rosie, almost a dead-ringer for Jennifer Lawrence’s ditzy Rosalyn Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” is Tommy’s willing moll and getaway driver. She’s delightfully portrayed by 29-year-old Tony-winner Nina Arianda, whose Queens’ accent rivals that of Fran Drescher. Rose gets Tommy a job at the same bill-collection agency she joined after her stint in stir.

He prefers, however, to attend the trial of mob boss John Gotti and listen to the testimony of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.” What Tommy hears convinces him that the social clubs, where the goombahs carry wads of cash instead of guns, would be an easy touch. He doubts that the victims would report the holdups to the police, especially the part where they were made to disrobe. What Tommy should have considered, though, was the fact that mobsters tend to do their own police work, with the incentive of cashing in on an “open contract.” When he stumbles on a list of contact names and numbers in one of the stolen wallets, Tommy foolishly comes to believe that it can be used as leverage against any bounty hunters. If Tommy is too stupid to inspire much sympathy in viewers, Jonathan Fernandez’ sharp script makes it easy for us to fully enjoy Arianda’s amazing performance. Also good in smaller parts are Andy Garcia, Ray Romano, Griffin Dunne, Burt Young, Frank Whaley and Cathy Moriarty. “Rob the Mob” won’t ever be confused with “The Godfather,” but it’s probably better than what’s on TV on any given night. – Gary Dretzka

Redwood Highway
The number of roles available to older actors has become so small that an age-discrimination lawsuit against the major studios probably would be greeted with a great deal of sympathy both by SAG and viewers. If an elderly character isn’t cranky, abusive, senile or bed-ridden, they simply don’t exist. Of course, as long as Meryl Streep (65), Susan Sarandon (67) and Harrison Ford (71) are still working, proving what constitutes being elderly in Hollywood might be problematic for plaintiffs. In “Redwood Highway,” 77-year-old Shirley Knight delivers the kind of performance for which she’s been known since the early 1960s, when she was Oscar-nominated for “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” and countless TV and stage appearances. It’s likely that Knight has been waiting for a long time to play a character as substantial as Marie, in Gary Lundgren’s prickly character study. At her son’s insistence, Marie is living in what appears to be a comfortable retirement facility in southern Oregon, from which she’s made a habit of escaping. Normally, such an assertion of personal liberty would be applauded by audience members. In Marie’s case, however, it’s clear that she’s probably better off under the supervision of caring staff and friendly residents, who aren’t taken aback by her occasional flashbacks to happier times. We’re not surprised by Marie’s hostility to her son (James Le Gros), but are taken aback by her aggressively adamant refusal to attend her granddaughter’s wedding. She doesn’t approve of Naomi’s decision to relinquish her freedom so early in her life and ignoring statistics that suggest modern marriage only causes pain. That Naomi and her fiancé are also living in a dome home, along a river, probably doesn’t please her, either. After Naomi leaves a stinging message on her phone, Marie decides to compromise. She’ll attend the ocean-side ceremony, but insists on making the 80-mile journey by foot. Oregon’s Redwood Highway is wonderfully scenic, but not always wide enough to accommodate trucks and hikers. Marie is too obstinate to accept rides from friendly strangers or succumb to the sores on her feet. It’s only when her ability to complete her mission on her own terms is put in severe jeopardy that she begrudgingly accepts some help. Among the kind souls are Tom Skerritt, a fine actor approximately the same age as Knight. He’s fared a bit better at getting substantial film roles, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when he pops up unannounced.  Although the film’s ending is predictable, there are moments that precede it when Marie’s sanity remains open to question. Cinematographer Patrick Neary takes full advantage of the spectacular Oregon scenery, as well. The0 DVD adds an interesting interview with Knight, in which she discusses her work on stage, screen and television. – Gary Dretzka

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Broadway legend Elaine Stritch has been entertaining people for even longer than Shirley Knight and is only now beginning to show signs of slowing down. Her toxic turns as Jack Donaghy’s mother, Colleen, on “30 Rock,” provided some of the show’s most memorable moments, as well as a prime-time Emmy. In 2004, the one-woman revue, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” scored two Primetime Emmys to go along with Tony and Drama Desk awards. There are only a couple of ways to take the woman we see in Chiemi Karasawa’s almost too intimate documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” The first is as a famously eccentric and frequently disagreeable artist whose best qualities are admired and worst tendencies are forgiven. The second is to watch about an hour of the film and decide that Stritch’s massive ego and savage outbursts are far too uncomfortable to put up with, even for another 20 minutes. Fortunately, none of it comes as a great surprise, as anecdotes about the great actresses’ professional and personal behavior are passed from one generation of actors to another. “Shoot Me” has been described as cinema vérité, but I doubt that Stritich has ever passed a camera with acknowledging it in some small way or another. She’s clearly a narcissist, prancing around Manhattan in her trademark black leggings, a man’s dress shirt, a top hat and Capezio heels, and someone who circles the spotlight like a moth. To her credit, though, she opens herself up to Karasawa’s camera in some extremely candid and uncomfortable situations, including a stay in the hospital and lying to herself about the effects on a recovering alcoholic from imbibing only one cocktail a day. Testifying in her favor are Stephen Sondheim, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, the late James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Tracy Morgan and George C. Wolfe. Karasawa also was given great access to rehearsals for her cabaret show. The DVD add making-of material, a deleted scene and interview outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

Two Lives
The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel: Blu-ray
Just when we begin to think that new revelations from World War II have begun to exhaust themselves, a book or movie will be released to disabuse us of that notion. Here are two films that, in very different ways, re-open the files on horrifying chapters in the disposition of the long cruel conflagration. Both describe events that aren’t generally known to Americans without a degree in 20th Century history. “Two Lives” explores how the consequences of Henrich Himmler’s Lebensborn pipedream reverberated throughout Germany and Norway throughout the rest of the century. The idea was to engineer an Aryan super-race by commandeering the offspring of blond, blue-eyed Germans and their counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries. If the war had ended differently, these children eventually would have been required to breed baby Aryans of their own. Inspired by a novel by Hannelore Hippe, Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann have constructed a historical thriller, complete with falling walls, deeply embedded spies, murder, intrigue and seriously blemished reputations. “Two Lives” opens in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain, when clandestine operations and facilities were being rapidly shuttered and abandoned throughout Eastern Europe. We watch as Katrine Evensen (Juliane Koehler) calmly enters the East German orphanage in which she was raised and is directed to the archives in Leipzig, which, too, are easily accessed. Katrine removes a section of a page with her name on it and returns to her Norwegian home. Not long thereafter, Katrine and her mother are approached by a lawyer who asks them to testify in a trial against the Norwegian state on behalf of the children kidnaped for Lebensborn and their parents who were never informed of their children’s post-war fate. Katrine is the illegitimate daughter of Ase Evensen (Liv Ullmann) and a German occupation soldier and, as such, was hustled out of Norway with her blond hair and blue eyes. As the story went, teenage Katrine had escaped from the now-East German orphanage and made the arduous journey back to Norway and her mother at the height of the Cold War. The intrigue kicks into high gear when Katrine adamantly refuses to participate in the reparation hearings, mystifying Ase, the lawyer and viewers. Maas and Kaufmann take their time getting to the truth, but, when they do, much room is left for additional shocks. Although adapted from the novel “Eiszeiten,” we’re told in the end credits that the story’s central conceit is based on actual events. The actors, especially Ullmann, make it easy for us to buy into the tautly bound narrative, as well. Fans of political thrillers ought not pass up “Two Lives.”

Americans know so little about WWII resistance movements in countries other than France and Italy that almost any fact-based story is going to be of interest not only to history buffs, but also martial-arts and action fans looking for something different. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” opened the door for such wartime movies, including “The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel” and recently reviewed “Eastern Bandits,” that successfully merge action, comedy and thrills. World War II was no laughing matter, of course, but such films as “Kelly’s Heroes,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Catch-22,” “How I Won the War”  and “Mr. Roberts” walked the thin lines separating comedy, drama and action. In China, where atrocities occurred on a daily basis, the truth is still too ghastly to be approached straight-on. Japanese occupying forces were no less cruel than the Nazis, whose Final Solution wasn’t limited to Jews. Hu Guan’s hybrid is set in 1941 Beijing, a city under quarantine by a cholera epidemic and with a 6 p.m. curfew imposed on it. It is insinuated that the epidemic was triggered by a botched experiment at the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. Located in Pinfang, it was created to develop biological and chemical weapons and test them on Chinese, Russian, Southeast Asian and Allied prisoners. (After the war, U.S. officials allowed leaders of the unit to go free, in return for information that might otherwise have been taken by the Soviets. Moscow chose to prosecute captured officers from such testing sites, while also developing weapons from information in confiscated documents.) How does one milk laughs from germ warfare and government subterfuge?

Here, a crack team of Chinese intelligence agents – one disguised as a cowboy – hijack a wagon carrying a Japanese general, biochemist and bodyguard, sending it careening into a Beijing restaurant/brothel. They discover a canister hidden on one of their prisoners, but don’t know how to extract information on what it contains. Sensing some kind of windfall, however, the owners and patrons of the restaurant hope to hold whatever it is they’re carrying for ransom. The humor derives from the crazy ways employed to get them to talk. They include staging a Chinese Opera and posing as fellow guests to trick their captives into revealing the truth before time runs out. It stars Liu Ye (“Curse of the Golden Flower”) as the Chef, Zhang Han Yu (“Special ID”) as the Actor and Huang Bo (“Lost in Thailand”) as the Scoundrel. The Blu-ray contains a blooper reel and making-of featurette, with interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Deadly Revenge
Watching this strangely transparent psycho-thriller, I began to wonder who in the world it was intended to impress. Because of the lack of nudity, I assumed “Deadly Revenge” was made for one of the off-brand cable channels dedicated to specific genres. Female lead Alicia Ziegler may look fab in a bikini, but her inability to figure out what’s happening to her pretty quickly neutralizes that virtue. The way things are set up by director Michael Feifer and writer Jenna Mattison, her character, Cate, is in L.A. to work on a project for a prominent architectural firm.  On her first day there, she’s paired with Harrison (Mark Hapka), a handsome lunk with whom she’d already had one brief encounter. On the night Cate’s booked on a flight to New York for a job interview, the couple find themselves locked in the office, which is in a hi-rise. After some squabbling, Cate and Harrison do exactly what we’ve been expecting them to do from Minute One. The PG-rated hookup quickly evolves into a full-blown romance, which only seems natural. When Harrison introduces Cate to his clinging mother, played by a still remarkably hot Donna Mills, the rest of the movie’s trajectory becomes only too obvious. It’s possible that newcomers to the psycho-thriller genre won’t be able to detect the movie’s key switchback moments, so, for them, I’ll refrain from revealing any more of the story … except to say that Harrison’s still traumatized by the death of his high-school sweetheart. The thing is, with just a little more imagination and effort, the filmmakers might have been able to save “Deadly Revenge” from irrelevance.  – Gary Dretzka

Fox Archives
The Cisco Kid
Girl Trouble
Woman’s World
Here Comes Trouble
Chad Hanna
The latest releases from Fox’s Cinema Archives represent a typically diverse and eclectic selection of 15 titles from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. If they aren’t what most scholars would consider to be classics, the films do offer something of value to buffs, collectors and nostalgists, alike. To save money on marketing and production, each film is manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. Hardly any extras are added and the technical quality, while greatly enhanced, varies considerably by title and choice of aspect ratio. The titles I chose to look at are “The Cisco Kid” (1931), the second talkie version of the saga, with Warner Baxter as O. Henry’s “romantic bad man”; “Girl Trouble” (1942), a screwball comedy with Don Ameche playing  a Venezuelan tycoon, with Joan Bennett, Billie Burke and, yes, Dale Evans; Chad Hanna” (1940), a period circus-based melodrama with Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamoure and Linda Darnell; “Woman’s World” (1954), tests the theory “behind every successful man is a great woman,” with Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Van Heflin and Lauren Bacall; and “Here Comes Trouble,” (1936) about a jewel heist on an cruise ship, starring Paul Kelly, Arline Judge, Mona Barrie and Gregory Ratoff. Also newly available through on-line retailers are “Springtime in the Rockies” (1942); “The Bottom of the Bottle” (1956); “Maryland” (1940); “Blood and Steel” (1959); “Hold That Co-Ed” (1938); “Crack-Up” (1936); “The Cowboy and the Blonde” (1941); “I Was an Adventuress” (1940); “Everybody’s Baby” (1939); and “The Escape” (1939). – Gary Dretzka

I Spy: The Complete Series
Any resemblance between the original NBC series “I Spy” and the 2002 theatrical re-imagining –starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson — begins and ends with the names of the protagonists, which, for some reason, were reversed. The only way the movie could have been a bigger bomb was if it were titled, “Little Boy and Fat Man Redux.” The original “I Spy” ran for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968, on the Peacock Network. Like the spy-vs.-spy comedy, “Get Smart,” “I Spy” attempted to ride the same wave into shore as Sean Connery, whose interpretation of Ian Fleming’s secret-agent, James Bond, was being copied and parodied by actors around the world. The TV show’s success could be attributed as much to the easy rapport and Rat Pack-inspired insouciance between Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as any residual popularity from the 007 craze. “I Spy” also benefited from being partially shot, at least, in some of the most exciting cities in the world. The locations allowed for a greater diversity in the scripts and an earnest attempt on the part of the producers to confront global issues. The then-revolutionary decision to cast an African-American as a co-equal character to the white protagonist was of concern primarily to journalists and executives at four recalcitrant NBC affiliates in the South. Cosby and Culp demanded that the color of their skin not be exploited in storylines and that tired racial stereotypes weren’t to be used as plot devices. It was OK for the writers to recognize the elephant in the room occasionally, but not to kick it to see what happens.

The spies, Alexander Scott (Cosby) and Kelly Robinson (Culp) are able to travel to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Las Vegas, Madrid and Morocco under the guise of Robinson being an international tennis hustler and Scott his trainer and translator. It doesn’t take their communist counterparts long to see through the disguises, however. Sadly, far less imagination was expended on the action scenes than in the witty dialogue and location scouting. It’s easy to predict when a bad guy is going to burst into a room uninvited, holding a pistol and acting tough. Fistfights settle old scores and eliminate enemies. With too few exceptions, the women characters are limited to damsels in distress, bikini models and “hostesses.” But, that’s how things went in the 1960s, before teens and young adults tired of being fed stereotypes and preposterous plot devices. “I Spy,” at least, offered something beyond its badly staged fights, breakaway, sudden distractions and thinly disguised prostitutes. The interesting backdrops for intrigue and hip dialogue – much of it improvised – more than make up for such lapses. The diversity in guest starsq also is unusual for the period: Eartha Kitt, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson, Philip Ahn, Jim Brown, James Hong, Ricardo Montalban, Gloria Foster, Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman, Gene Hackman, Carol O’Connor, Joey Heatherton, Jim Backus, Ron Howard, Peter Lawford, Norman Fell, Vincent Gardenia, Don Rickles, Wally Cox, Richard Kiel and Michael Rennie and future “Trekkers,” George Takei, Walter Koenig, Diana Muldaur and Roger Carmel. The new package from Shout!Factory and Timeless Media offers 4,100 minutes of entertainment and a booklet with essays and photos. What it doesn’t provide are bonus features, commentaries, re-mastered images and subtitles. Rights issues being what they are, this should come as no surprise to consumers, either. – Gary Dretzka

Showtime: Masters of Sex: Season One: Blu-ray
FX: The Bridge: The Complete First Season
Lifetime: Witches of East End: Complete First Season
IFC: Comedy Bang! Bang! The Complete Second Season
The Boondocks: Uncut and Uncensored: Season 4
Mama’s Family: Complete Fourth Season
NYPD Blue: Season 6
Nickelodeon:  Dora’s Magical Sleepover
Whenever Showtime and HBO announce the details of another new mini-series, subscribers to the premium cable services wonder how they’re going to pull this one off. That’s how wacky they sound in the abstract. It began in earnest in the early 1970s on cable, with some original programming beginning to show up in the 1980s and beyond. It wasn’t until the arrival of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “The Wire” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” however, that HBO began to put serious dents into the networks’ prime-time schedules and tarnish their prestige. Showtime, which launched in 1976, took a bit longer to commit to original programming, apart from comedy specials and T&A. Until the launch of “Soul Food,” “Queer as Folk” and “The Chris Isaak Show,” Showtime seemed content to play second fiddle. In 2004, “The L Word” demonstrated just how far a network could push the limits of premium cable and grab an audience that wasn’t limited to, well, lesbians. “Dexter” kicked off a run of unexpected success that continues today. Anyone who can predict what will become the next big show on HBO or Showtime has a clearer crystal ball than mine.

Last year, “Masters of Sex” came out of the gate fast and kept on getting better. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan could hardly have done better portraying the real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the charisma meter, Masters would barely register a 1. And, while Sheen milks Masters’ square approach to a hot topic for all it’s worth, it’s Caplan who forces him to develop a personality not dictated by the demands of Eisenhower-era conformity and university politics. Before joining Masters, Johnson was a twice-married single mother of two children. More to the point, she didn’t consider sex to be something reserved for those married people anticipating parenthood. She knew more about orgasms than the man entrusted with writing scholarly papers about how they’re achieved. There’s plenty of nudity, of course, but it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling and parallel storylines involving Caitlin FitzGerald, Nicholas D’Agosto, Beau Bridges, Julianne Nicholson and Allison Janney, all of whom could be in the running for Emmy noms in supporting categories. In addition to the sexual research and soap-opera sidebars, “Masters of Sex” takes a sharp knife to the hypocrisy of academia and its almighty pursuit of funding. This is one very binge-worthy series.

The same apples for “The Bridge,” a mini-series that I watched twice in extended bursts. The first time, it was the FX version of the story, which is set in the border towns of El Paso and Juarez, and the second time, the original version set in Malmo, Sweden, and Copenhagen. Although the mini-series mirror each other in the key story elements, the settings are polar opposites of each other. The titular structures couldn’t be more different, either. Anyone with a strong arm probably could fling a baseball across the bridge spanning the U.S. and Mexico. It’s heavily fortified to prevent unauthorized crossings – most take place below it – and make it a tad less difficult to smuggle drugs across it. In the original mini-series, the nearly 5-mile-long Öresund Bridge separates Denmark and Sweden, which, unlike Juarez, aren’t famous for their staggering murder rates, smugglers’ tunnels or unchecked illegal immigration. Both series open with an electrical outage on the bridge, followed by the disposing of a dead body at its center. In fact, the body belongs to two separate people, one recently killed and the other frozen and cut in half. Because the parts straddle the border, police from both sides are required to cooperate with other in the investigation. The male cops are hard-boiled, but willing to bend the rules when they feel it’s necessary. Danish actor Kim Bodnia is practically a dead-ringer for James Gandolfini, while Mexico City-native Demian Bichir is a bit more lean and wiry. (The latter was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his emotionally charged performance in “A Better Life.”) Carbon copies Diane Kruger and Sofia Helin play detectives Sonya Cross and Saga Norén, both of whom are obsessive, by-the-book cops and, in conversation, blunt to a fault. As different as the two investigations are, they follow the same trajectory. The Nordic and Southwestern backgrounds more than compensate for the repetitive elements that might otherwise discourage repeat viewers. The only problem I had with the FX version was the pacing, which forced what should have been the season-ending episode to arrive three shows too soon. That’s probably because the original was comprised of 10 episodes, while the re-make went into overtime to tie up the loose ends of the subplots. Interesting things happened in the longer series, but I felt drained by what happened in the 10th of 13 episodes. The second season of the Scandinavian iteration is already on Hulu Plus. The American “Bridge” returns on July 9.

The Witches of East End” is the other half of Lifetime’s current prime-time one-two punch, with “Devious Maids.” In the past two or three years, the network has come a long way toward erasing its reputation for airing laughably bland and easily predictable original movies, targeted at women who enjoy disease-of-the-week fare and true-crime stories about notorious housewives. That strategy worked very well in the beginning, raising the network’s profile in the cable world and reaping a harvest in tear-stained dollars. No, Lifetime executives haven’t decided to steal male viewers from “Duck Dynasty” or “Top Gear,” although they’d probably take welcome them in a pinch. They’re almost certainly aiming for the same audience attracted to “Real Housewives of Orange County,” whose stars are spookier than the Long Island brujas on display here, The witches originally created by novelist Melissa de la Cruz for her Beauchamp Family series are also far better dressed and less needy than the phony housewives. Capturing the young-adult readers drawn to the ridiculously prolific author’s Au Pairs, Blue Bloods, Ashleys and Angels on Sunset Boulevard series, before they pledge allegiance to other shows, would be a big plug for Lifetime. “East End” follows the adventures of a family of witches, mother Joanna Beauchamp  (Julia Ormond), her two adult daughters (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Rachel Boston), and their aunt (Madchen Amick), as they navigate the shoals of the Hamptons’ social scene. The girls have been raised blissfully unaware of their exalted status within the witch hierarchy. It isn’t until one of them becomes engaged to a wealthy newcomer that they’re made aware of their inheritance. Among those conspiring against the Beauchamps is the always sultry Virginia Madsen. The show returns for a second season on July 6.

IFC’s wacky talk-show parody, “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” began its life as a podcast on the Internet’s Earwolf network. It plays back-to-back with “Maron,” a similarly anarchic comedy that was inspired by a podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” “CBB” is far more deadpan and self-consciously hip than “Fernwood Tonight,” the 1977 talk-show parody against which all others would be measured. It starred Martin Mull and Fred Willard, as a pair of wise-cracking hosts whose guest list is pretty much limited to residents of the Ohio town, who somehow are convinced that they possess talent. Frank De Vol, in real life a composer and arranger of show music, parodied aspects of his own career as bandleader Happy Kyne. Scott Aukerman and his musical sidekick Reggie Watts perform similar duties on “CBB,” which, again, like “Maron,” looks as if it takes place in a garage or basement. Its guest list is largely comprised of comedians and actors who are friends of Aukerman. As the show picked up steam, appearing on “CBB” and going along with the skits and sendups was a sure way of gaining street cred within L.A.’s creative and hipster scene. Many of the same guests would appear on mainstream talk shows, whenever they had something to pimp, and seeing them perform without a leash on “CBB” could either be a jarring or refreshing experience for their fans. Among the guest stars represented in the Season Two package are

Zach Galifianakis, Jessica Alba, Aziz Ansari, David Cross, Jim Gaffigan, Bill Hader, Pee-wee Herman, Gillian Jacobs, Rashida Jones, Anna Kendrick, Andy Richter, Zoe Saldana, Andy Samberg, Jason Schwartzman and Sarah Silverman. That should tell you all you need to know about what “CBB” is all about. The DVD package adds full-episode commentaries; deleted/bonus scenes and interviews; “Reggie Makes Music” and “Reggie’s Season 2 Music Supercut”; VFX tests; “CBB Crew Dance Party” and “Meet the Crew”; and “An Acting Lesson with Herb Roost.”

Season Four of the adult animated sitcom, “The Boondocks,” is distinguished primarily for being the show’s final stanza and the departure as executive producer of creator Aaron McGruder. It debuted on Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block, Adult Swim, where McGruder was accorded more the freedom to spread his wings and make his frequently twisted views on contemporary American culture take flight. Like McGruder’s newspaper comic strip of the same name, the show focuses on the Freemans, a black family that’s moved into a mostly white suburb south of Chicago. The Freemans aren’t likely to be confused with the Huxtables or Banks of Bel-Aire. Huey Freeman isn’t at all shy about espousing his left-wing beliefs, while brother Riley is a troublemaker with a taste for gangsta rap. Granddad is an incorrigible coot who easily could have been modeled after Redd Foxx’s character in “Sanford and Son.” Their white neighbors have some bizarre idiosyncracies, as well. “Boondocks” has occasionally raised the hackles on special-interest groups who object to the blunt language and riffs on such noted figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and, even, Tyler Perry. Frankly, I don’t know how different Season Four would have been with McGruder’s participation. I do wonder, however, if “Boondocks” would have been better placed on one of the premium cable channels, where the censors don’t always show up for work.

Mama’s Family: Complete Fourth Season” represents shows produced for its second highly popular year in syndication. Regular cast members Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman and Allan Kayser stayed on the ship after it left NBC and experienced a brief hiatus, during which other cast members committed to other projects. Among the season highlights are Bubba’s dilemma over having two dates for the prom, a flashback episode to Mama and the family in their early years and Mama’s visit to Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!” The DVD adds “Mama’s Family Tree: The Neighbors,” an interview with Beverly Archer (Iola) and “Under One Roof: A ‘Mama’s Family’ Cast Reunion.”

The sixth season of “NYPD Blue” is distinguished by the addition of Ricky Schroder to the ever-changing ensemble cast. This year, it included Kim Delaney, Jimmy Smits, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp and Andrea Thompson, who would go on to become a CNN newscaster. By this time in the series, Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) had gone over to the light side and the behavior of Sorenson’s character even made his eyebrows rise. Among the guest stars are Terrence Howard, Daniel Benzali, Mos Def, Kevin Dillon and Emile Hirsch. The package contains 22 episodes on DVD for the first time.

Nickelodeon’s latest collection of Dora adventures, “Magical Sleepover,” invites your kids to a night of fun with Dora, Diego, and Boots at an art museum, where they’ll “journey into a painting to break the spell that turned Prince Miguel into a lion.” She also travels to Brazil to help Dora’s team win the Big Cup Soccer Tournament. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

The LEGO Movie: Everything Is Awesome Edition: Blu-ray/DVD/3D
When, in February, “The LEGO Movie” opened huge and kept right on growing, there must have been a lot of folks at Warner Bros. willing to take credit for its shocking commercial success, if not the nearly unanimous positive reviews. They’d taken a risk by launching an original animated movie in February, typically a weak month for family films, and it paid off big. It out-performed the month’s next four releases combined. As if to prove the numbers were no fluke, foreign markets followed a similar trajectory and produced similar numbers. A boffo marketing campaign, big stars, favorable reviews and brand recognition may be able to pull a picture through its first weekend, but only ecstatic word-of-mouth can keep the turnstiles spinning. That’s what happened here. The buzz not only spread among children, all of whom probably were given LEGOs at some time in their young lives, but also among grown-ups and, not incidentally, older teens attracted to the smart dialogue and clever action sequences. I won’t go as far as to say that liberalized marijuana laws had anything to do with its success among young adults, except to suggest “TLM” might eventually stand as this generation’s “Yellow Submarine.” Anyone who thinks I might be exaggerating the movie’s appeal need only rent a copy and sample it, stoned or straight, and see if you disagree. Better yet, it does so without banging viewers over the head with LEGO plugs and other product placement. I hope that the brothers Warner are already preparing for an award campaign in the Best Picture category, not just Best Animated Feature, which is the category into which animated pictures are usually discarded. If there are 10 better movies released in the next six months, 2014 will go down as an extraordinary year for the American cinema.

Somehow, the CGI animation team assembled by writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) was able to manipulate the basic LEGOs conceit – toys that are created using interlocking bricks of various geometric shapes, sizes and basic colors – to add fluidity, texture and non-robotic movement to the mix. Everything in the movie, including water, fire, laser bolts, explosions and smoke, was designed to look as if built out of LEGO pieces. Parents who’ve patiently helped their kids construct LEGO buildings and vehicles won’t believe how simple everything looks in 2D and 3D. In addition to the traditional LEGO characters, the cast is augmented by such guest stars as Johnny Thunder, Green Lantern, C-3PO, Han Solo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Shaquille O’Neal, Abraham Lincoln, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare and pieces from the Minifigures series. If it seems as if I’m avoiding the movie’s plot, well, I am. There are simply too many potential spoilers sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative and too few reasons to reveal them, except to suggest that Karl Marx’s estate could have petitioned the WGA for an “inspired by” credit. The class struggle has rarely been as concisely encapsulated as it is in “TLM,” although I’m guessing that the studio would prefer it to be seen as a struggle between good and evil or David and Goliath.

The bourgeois are represented here by the egomaniacal President Business (a.k.a., Lord Business) the despotic president of the conglomerate, Octan, which induces complacency in LEGO Land workers using generic pop-songs and rigid manuals for team-based LEGO construction. The proletariat is led by the completely unremarkable construction worker Emmet Brickowoski (they’re always Polish, aren’t they?), who discovers the fabled Pièce de résistance on a building site and is henceforth treated as the “Special one,” prophesized by Vitruvius. Emmet is brought before the Master Builders assemblage, which is comprised of toy superheroes and whose mission it is to prevent Lord Business from unleashing his grand weapon, the Kragle. Its strength resembles that of Batman nemesis Mr. Freeze. I was completely surprised and delighted by what happens in the climactic third act. I expect that other viewers will be as well. Besides Will Ferrell and Chris Pratt, the voicing cast includes such actors as Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman.

As wildly imaginative as “TLM” is, it wouldn’t be quite so spectacular if audio/visual presentation had under-performed. I wasn’t able to catch the 3D version, but, in Blu-ray 2D, it is nothing short of spectacular. The aptly titled “Everything Is Awesome Edition” combines 3D, 2D, DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD, adding a Vitruvius mini-figure and 3D photo of Emmet. The amusing and informative commentary is provided by Miller and Lord, as well as actors Pratt, Arnett, Day and Brie. Most of the featurettes are short and targeted primarily at those kids who may watch the movie surrounded by their own LEGO collection. – Gary Dretzka

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Blu-ray
While not exactly an example of shrewd cross-marketing strategizing and cooperation among major studios, it difficult not to think that Fox’s publicity team decided to piggyback on all of the attention being accorded “The LEGO Movie” with a stunt that could benefit everyone involved. As if to take full advantage of the same-day release into DVD/Blu-ray of “TLM” and Wes Anderson’s fanciful confection, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” by commissioning a replica of the movie’s centerpiece location, constructed entirely with LEGO pieces. A time-lapse video of the project was shot and offered to reporters, via YouTube video, as a link to incorporate in their reviews and stories. Normally, I have a low-tolerance for publicity stunts. This one, however, serves to honor the creative process, while harkening to a time when publicity wasn’t limited to press junkets and the oversaturation of stars on TV talk shows. (Check it out at Although “Grand Budapest Hotel” reaped a very respectful $58 million at the domestic box-office and another $104 million overseas in its theatrical run, it could probably use a little extra help on DVD/Blu-ray. Anderson’s films are acquired taste, after all, and this one seemed to benefit from a gradual rollout designed to build word-of-mouth. In selling a DVD/Blu-ray, however, it’s important to play off of the publicity and buzz generated in the film’s theatrical run, without spending another small fortune in marketing to people who may not have had an opportunity (or interest) to see it on the big screen.

“Grand Budapest Hotel” practically defines what it means for a movie to be “quirky,” “offbeat” and “wildly inventive,” hackneyed terms used by critics to describe films – indies, in particular – that don’t fall into the usual Hollywood pigeonholes. All of Anderson’s movies are like that. “GBH” harkens back to a time between the wars, when aristocrats and potentates of all stripe expected to be pampered, primped and slobbered over by the peons whose livelihoods depend on tips. I don’t know how many times Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Royal Tenenbaums”) has seen Edmund Goulding’s star-studded 1932 classic, “Grand Hotel,” but my guess would be more than two or three. His greatest inspiration came from the life and works of the popular Viennese writer and journalist Stefan Zweig (“Beware of Pity,” “The Post-Office Girl”), upon whom the characters played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson are based. Although constructed like frosting-covered layer cake, the story’s darker elements can be directly linked to Zweig’s experiences in pre-World War II Europe, as the fascist tide began washing into neighboring countries from Germany. (Zweig escaped the Nazis, but couldn’t outrun his demons. Depressed over intolerance and the spread of fascism, he and his wife committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil, in 1942.)

Otherwise, “Grand Budapest Hotel” chronicles the life of concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), famous near and far for his unimpeachable civility and ability to accommodate his guests’ most-difficult requests, including those of sex-starved dowagers. After one of the elderly women (Tilda Swinton) dies, her family is stunned to learn that she bequeathed a priceless Renaissance painting to him. The greediest among them successfully frame him for her murder. In prison, he endears himself to fellow prisoners by his ability to smuggle in delicious pastry and generally upgrade the facility’s food service. He’s rewarded by being invited to join a motley crew of convicts planning to break out of the ancient facility. Even in prison, Gustave has managed to remain in contact with his devoted “lobby boy” and confidant, Zero Moustafa – played wonderfully as a young man by Tony Revolori — whose devotion to duty goes well beyond what anyone, except the concierge would expect from him. No need to reveal anything more, except to mention that the settings, backdrops and Alpine locations often look as if they were created by pastry chefs or Santa’s elves. It’s also fun to anticipate the appearances by Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric and Harvey Keitel. The excellent Blu-ray presentation is a bit weak on bonus features. The best wisely exploit Murray’s popularity, especially the amusing, if far too short, “Bill Murray Tours the Town.” The eclectic musical soundtrack was composed by frequent collaborator, Alexandre Desplat, with an assist by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra.

Oh, yeah, if you suspect that your video monitor is playing tricks on you, the real culprit is Anderson. He deliberately changes aspect ratios for the years 1932, 1968 and 1985. – Gary Dretzka

Judex: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
L’eclisse: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Even film buffs who consider themselves to be experts in the post-nouvelle vague French cinema are unlikely to have seen Georges Franju’s “Judex.” As far as I can tell, it only was shown in New York, circa 1966, and its first video appearance here was in 2008. Known primarily as co-founder, with Henri Langlois, of the French Cinematheque and director of the 1960 plastic-surgery horror film, “Eyes Without a Face.” “Judex” is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 masked-avenger serial. That series of pulpy shorts was highly popular among pre-war audiences and a marked contrast to the spooky “I, Fantômas” and “Les Vampires,” which, while admired by the surrealists, were accused by French authorities of being anti-patriotic and demoralizing. By creating a charismatic vigilante hero, Feuillade bought some time with the censors. Franju admired Feuillade’s shadowy tone and incorporation of magic into the story. Unlike most of the movies making noise in France in the 1960s, “Judex” was a throwback to the days of cliffhangers and pushing cameras to see what they could do. His Judex would borrow from German expressionism, film noir and fantasies of Jean Cocteau. If the Zorro-like protagonist seemed out-of-place at time, “Judex” was a movie that required little more than the viewers’ attention.

In it, the fabulously wealthy and famously corrupt banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), receives a letter demanding that he return money stolen from poor and working-class investors. After Favraux rejects the command, signed by the mysterious Judex (Channing Pollock), he suffers a heart attack while giving a toast at a masked ball. In fact, though, his champagne was spiked with a drug that merely approximated the effects of a heart attack. The banker’s body is hustled out of the party and taken to an underground bunker, where he can be monitored by a TV camera. (Remarkably, the 1916 version of “Judex” used the same device.) The only people truly disturbed by Favraux’s disappearance are his naïve adult daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) and her cunning former governess, Diana (Francine Berge), to whom he recently proposed. Unaware that Jacqueline doesn’t intend to accept her father’s tarnished inheritance, Diana and her crew kidnap her. Impressed by Jacqueline’s ethical stand, Judex’s takes it upon himself to free Jacqueline and punish Diana. In addition to his team of black-draped ninjas, Judex requires the assistance of the owner of a traveling circus (Sylva Koscina) to do so. It adds yet another layer of magic to what already has been a delightfully enchanting tale. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, as well as a 2007 interview with co-writer and Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux; a 2012 interview with actor Francine Bergé; “Franju le visionnaire,” a 50-minute program from 1998 on Franju’s career and imagination; a new English subtitle translation; a DVD copy, with all content available in both formats; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Geoffrey O’Brien, along with reprinted writings by and excerpted interviews with Franju.

Unlike “Judex,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’eclisse” is a film that no self-professed cineaste would admit to not having seen. Simply put, it’s an essential work by a singular director, whose movies have been shown in U.S. theaters since the 1960s and are widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. “Blow-Up” was nominated for a pair of Oscars and, in 1995, the academy honored Antonioni with an award for the body of his work. As the final part of the “Alienation Trilogy,” with L’Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), “L’eclisse” (“Eclipse”) was a work of art-for-art’s sake that tested its audience’s willingness to go along with Antonioni’s modernist ideas and narrative conceits. Anyone who’s ever bragged that they “got” any one of these three films on first viewing didn’t get anything, at all. It’s worth the effort, then, to listen to the scholarly commentary here on the second or third time through it. The Blu-ray release may not add any features that weren’t already available on the 2005 DVD, but the newly restored high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, may be enough to recommend it to connoisseurs, as well as newcomers. The same could be said about the mere presence of Monica Vitti as the alienated female lead. The supplemental material retains commentary with Richard Pena, former program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and professor at Columbia University; Sandro Lai’s documentary, “The Eye That Changed Cinema”; “Elements of Landscape,” featuring Italian critic and film scholar Adriano Apra and longtime Antonioni friend, Carlo di Carlo; and an illustrated booklet featuring essays by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, as well as excerpts from Antonioni’s writing about his work. – Gary Dretzka

The Odd Way Home
As far as I can tell, former Miss Golden Globe Rumer Willis’ film career hasn’t profited all that much from being the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, although she’s certainly enjoyed access to casting directors and record producers that other women would pay to have. Contrary to common belief, the only times when a Golden Child is guaranteed a gig is when their name on a poster directly impacts tickets sales or a parent is doing the hiring. Otherwise, a familiar last name can only get one to the front of the line. Although I felt pity for her when mom Demi decided to marry her teenage crush object, Ashton Kutcher, I really hadn’t paid much attention to her career. (She was closer in age to her stepfather than her was mother was … poor girl.) I doubt that her road/message movie “The Odd Way Home” will get her any closer to whatever it is her ultimate acting goal may be, it certainly won’t hurt her chances, either. In it, she plays a woman, who, after one too many beatings, hops in her truck and heads due east to Middle of Nowhere, N.M. (It’s right around the corner to co-writer/director Rajeev Nirmalakhandan’s home town of Las Cruces.) Experiencing car trouble in L.A. can be a real bitch, but having one break down in Middle of Nowhere can spell disaster. Fortunately, she arrives at the home of an elderly woman, who, only minutes earlier, died while watching television. Once bad-ass Maya determines that the woman isn’t sleeping, she goes through her purse and medicine cabinet, before stealing the delivery van in the back-40.

What Maya doesn’t realize until later is that the van doubles as a bedroom on wheels for a young man, Duncan, who is autistic in the same way as Raymond Babbitt is in “Rain Man.” Duncan (Chris Marquette) has a job behind the counter at a local mini-mart, but uses flash cards to read the faces of the patrons. His gift appears to be drawing maps on sections of paper toweling from the rest rooms. He has a couple of other useful talents, but an obsession with time, cleanliness and diet work against him. Even so, Maya reluctantly decides to help him find the father who selfishly gave him up when he became a burden. Along the way, of course, Duncan teaches Maya a few much-needed lessons in tolerance, patience and sobriety. When she left L.A., Maya had a massive chip on shoulder toward everyone, including her own, differently estranged, mother (Veronica Cartwright), who has the personality of a wounded rattlesnake. “The Odd Way Home” benefits mostly from the chemistry between the lead actors and nicely photographed New Mexico locations, which range from the dunes at White Sands, to the state’s mountains, forests, gorges and high desert. Nirmalakhandan’s directorial ambitions aren’t quite ready for prime time, as he tends to rely on clichés and improbable narrative leaps to cover for lapses in the script. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and short film, in which stars Willis and cleverly makes sound points about autism. I’m pretty sure that Willis is performing songs of her own creation in the barroom scenes, and she’s not bad. – Gary Dretzka

BB King: The Life of Riley: Blu-ray
Too many years ago than I care to count, I attended a BB King concert at the University of Wisconsin. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as is recalled in this fine bio-doc, King was only then beginning to play auditoriums and other venues not limited to the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit. Playing before predominantly white audiences not only meant wider exposure and greater financial opportunities, but also that King and other top blues musicians were finally being recognized by a broad cross-section of U.S. audiences for their contributions to American culture and rock ’n’ roll, itself. Ironically, British bands had been paying homage to the artists in their music for years and it was only through such acts as the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds that white audiences here finally figured out what they were missing. After soaking in our welcoming applause that night, BB struck a single note on Lucille and held it for what seemed like an eternity, before exploding into “Every Day I Have the Blues.” A couple of dozen white musicians are interviewed in Jon Brewer’s comprehensive “BB King: The Life of Riley” and most of them recall experiencing the very same sensation listening to master for the first time in concert. Besides these musicians, Brewer was able to gather friends, relatives, business associates and fellow bluesmen to add their stories to those told by BB — then 85, now nearly 90 – about how a Mississippi sharecroppers’ son became King of the Blues. Unlike so many other Delta blues guitarists, King’s migration north ended in Memphis. It was from there that the name Riley B. King was changed to Beale Street Blues Boy, Blues Boy and, finally, BB, and his style solidified into something distinctly different than what was being heard in Chicago, New Orleans, Texas and Detroit. BB’s sound was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Bukka White and Sonny Boy Williamson, from whose West Memphis radio program King’s early fame would emerge. He would get a radio show of his own, before hitting the Chitlin’ Circuit and playing as many as 350 gigs a year.

His fame would grow as his records began being played in the South, but, as was so often the case in the 1960s for black entertainers, King wouldn’t realize anything resembling a sustainable income from music, alone, until it was validated by British invaders John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, all of whom repay the favor by appearing here in one form or another. King’s influence on more contemporary artists is reflected in interviews with Bono, Carlos Santana, Susan Tedeschi, Slash, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and several other blues-rockers. Even if the documentary overflows with adoration for King, it’s fairly candid about the hazards faced by wives of musicians who thrive on the road and the deal-making that too often ignores the people who helped an artist get to the point where it behooves him to turn to more powerful management. The challenges of trying to make a living – in the cotton fields or in nightclubs – under the dark clouds of segregation also are recounted. If it’s about 20 minutes too long, well, BB deserves our indulgence. Otherwise, the portrait painted of King in “Life of Riley,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is that of a genuinely nice guy, who’s universally admired by his peers, many of whom have benefited from his generosity and wisdom. Moreover, he can still bring it. The strikingly presented Blu-ray disc adds extended interviews and selections from a command performance at the Royal Albert Hall. – Gary Dretzka

Jimmy P.
European filmmakers have always looked at the American West through different eyes than their Hollywood counterparts. As colonialists, themselves, they understood how American writers and directors helped mask what had really happened in the American Indian Wars in the name of Manifest Destiny, corporate imperialism, Jesus Christ and racial segregation. By appropriating the ancestral lands of native tribesmen and profiting from the slave trade in Africa, while also exploiting nature’s bounty in countless other countries, Europeans had shown their American offspring how it’s done and justify it to their God. After World War II, it was only a matter of time before European leaders would have deal with the chickens that came home to roost in such places as Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam. Perhaps, if they had John Wayne on their side in the wars for liberation, instead of the French Foreign Legion, the colonial powers would have been able to prolong the agony for a couple more years. As much as foreign filmmakers admired the cowboy heroes and such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, they deplored the horrifying conditions Native American were required to endure in times of peace. As long as genocide sold tickets, there wasn’t a heck of a lot they could do about it, though.

While Arnaud Desplechin’s highly compelling drama, “Jimmy P.” – released theatrically as “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” – isn’t intended to stand as an indictment of American colonialism, it could easily have been sentimentalized or played as tragedy. After all, Jimmy Picard’s story does bear a certain resemblance to that of U.S. Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag over Iwo Jima, only to die drunk and alone outside an abandoned adobe hut in Arizona. Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot war veteran, who, after suffering severe headaches, hearing loss, dizzy spells and catatonia, is sent to a VA hospital in Kansas that specializes in psychiatric therapy. It wasn’t at all clear what caused Picard’s problems, but noted clinic director, Dr. Karl Menninger, sensed that they might be related to the patient’s cultural background, somehow, and exasperated by what once was called “shell shock.” He turns to the man, Georges Devereux, who would author the book on which this movie is based. The therapist is a Hungarian Jewish émigré to France, born Gyorgy Dobo, who converted there to Catholicism and spent two years among the Mojave tribe as ethno-psychiatrist. Combining the work of a therapist with that of an anthropologist wasn’t recognized by the analytical establishment, so he was between gigs at the time of the call. While not conversant in the languages of the Plains tribes, Devereux knew enough Mojave to understand the nuances and rhythms of Indian dialects, which, in the past, had sometimes been considered symptoms of mental retardation.

Deveraux’s first question to Picard — “In your dreams, do you speak English or Blackfoot” — immediately establishes a rapport between the two very different outsiders. They are played with great empathy by the always wonderful Mathieu Amalric and Benicio del Toro, an actor whose speech patterns have also been misconstrued. Not being the kind of Freudian disciple who requires a couch or one-sided discussions, Deveraux encourages an on-going dialogue between them. Eventually, Picard begins to remember things that happen in his dreams and flash back to incidents that shaped him as a youth. Deveraux asks him what the imagery might portend in the Native American tradition and how it might relate to the events that play out in the flashbacks. The question then becomes one of determining how much having a foot in two worlds, especially under wartime conditions, may have contributed to his current condition. In Devereux’s opinion, Pickard isn’t suffering from schizophrenia and such treatments as shock therapy and psychotropic drugs would do nothing but exasperate the symptoms. What’s wonderful, then, are interchanges between patient and therapist, most of which Desplechin captures in tight focus or two-shots. It’s a talky movie, then, but the excitement that comes with watching two first-rate actors working at the top of the game is palpable. Desplechin (“A Christmas Tale”) takes us out of the clinic often enough to understand how Picard’s roots were split between growing up poor and parentless on the reservation, the natural magnificence of the Montana landscape and perils of life in white America. The supporting cast includes Native American actors Misty Upham, Gary Farmer, Michelle Thrush, A Martinez and Michael Greyeyes, as well as Brit Lisa McKee and Larry Pine. – Gary Dretzka

No Clue
So many great Canadian comedians have taken their acts to Los Angeles, it’s a wonder that the country has any left to populate their own televisions and improv revues. There must something funny in the nation’s water, because, like last winter’s icy Alberta Clippers, the laughs just keep coming. Carl Bessai and Brent Butt’s sendup of film noir, “No Clue,” may rely on too thin a premise to be uproariously funny, but it should keep Canada-philes in the U.S. satisfied until “Trailer Park Boys: Don’t Legalize It” arrives, most likely in VOD and DVD. Some folks might recall Butt as the creator of the comedy series “Hiccups” and “Corner Gas,” as well as his standup routines. In “No Clue,” his character gives new meaning to the word, “nebbish.” As the picture opens, a beautiful blond dame (Amy Smart) mistakes a purveyor of key chains, matchbooks and other brand-ready trinkets for the PI down the hall. Butt’s Leo Falloon is well aware of the fact that he knows next to nothing about investigative work, but is intrigued by the per diem and possibility of scoring with the hot chick … a frequent reward in geek mythology. Smart’s femme fatale, Kyra, hires Falloon to find her brother, a software genius who appears to have vanished in advance of the launch of his new computer-gaming company. He turns to his best and seemingly only friend, Ernie (David Koechner), for help in finding the missing man. Being a gaming nerd, Ernie knows immediately what’s at stake, even if his advice is suspect. Hereafter, the laughs come from watching Falloon stumbling his way through the investigation and continuing to come out smelling like a rose. “No Clue” is set in Vancouver, although the locations are pretty generic. The DVD adds making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Attorney
From a distance, South Korea seems to be a country of uncommon financial stability and sanity, at least when compared to its neighbor to the north. It wasn’t until the late-1980s, however, that its repressive governments relaxed the iron fist it held over the populace and admitted to torturing students and human-rights advocates to the left of Attila the Hun. Yang Woo-seok’s “The Attorney” examines one of the most intense standoffs between activists and police officials, who, in the 1980s, did the dirty work for the authoritarian regime. Although only loosely based on actual events, it’s been a huge success at the South Korean box office. That’s because “The Attorney” appears to dramatize the rise to power of Roh Moo-Hyun, a reformist lawyer who would be elected president in 2002. Like Roh, Song Woo-seok becomes a lawyer without the benefit of a law degree. Unlike the reformer, Song uses loopholes in the tax and real-estate laws to cut through the bureaucracy and make lots of money from grateful clients. Jealous, his peers dismiss and ridicule for essentially for being an under-educated hack and ambulance chaser. Song doesn’t care, because his only loyalty is to his family. Fully aware of his limits, Song reluctantly agrees to defend the teenage son of the woman who runs his favorite restaurant. He’s been arrested for belonging to a book club accused of being a front for pro-communist activity, so the fix, as usual, is already in place. Song had once engaged in a debate with the young man, so it wouldn’t have surprised him if the club really was sympathetic to North Korean interests. After seeing for himself what the students looked like after being tortured, he began to rethink his position. He might have gone along with other defense attorneys, who were attempting to accept a plea deal, if the judge and prosecutors hadn’t denied his client basic rights guaranteed in the constitution. It was a document so poorly vetted by the militarist leaders that it provided Song the ammunition he needed to turn the courtroom into a battleground for human rights. Newly radicalized, Song, like Roh, would go on to become an advocate for Koreans who took to the streets to demand reforms and true democracy. Sang Kang-ho does a nice job portraying his character’s evolution from joke to hero. – Gary Dretzka

The Angela Mao Ying Collection
I don’t think that Hollywood has produced a female action star comparable to the Taiwan-born martial-arts “whirlwind” Angela Mao Ying, who rose to prominence in the 1970s and starred in several dozen martial-arts flicks made in Hong Kong. Michelle Rodriguez, Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Alba, Carrie-Anne Moss,  Lucy Lawless, Lucy Liu, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and, of course, Pam Grier spring immediately to mind. With the possible exception of Grier, they’d probably slit their wrists if forced to make a career out of being manipulated by wires and pulleys. Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano, former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot and onetime stuntwoman Zoë Bell appear to be ready for genre stardom, along with new faces from China. As a teenager, Mao Ying trained in ballet and enjoyed a successful career as an actress in the Chinese Opera. Her flexibility gave her an edge when she began learning hapkido, the discipline then in favor with Hong Kong producers. She later would adopt several other forms. In 1969, she was spotted by director Huang Feng and signed to a contract at Golden Harvest, the studio responsible for all of the titles in “The Angela Yao Mao Ying Collection,” from Shout!Factory. Her greatest international exposure came when the rising star was paid $100 for a guest appearance as Bruce Lee’s sister in “Enter the Dragon.” She left Golden Harvest in the late 1970s, worked in a few more Taiwanese productions, married and retired to raise a family. The compilation contains “When Taekwondo Strikes” (1973), “The Tournament” (1974), “Stoner” (1974), “The Himalayan” (1976), “A Queen’s Ransom” (1976) and “Broken Oath” (1977). None found wide release in the U.S. and Mao Ying’s reputation may be greater now, because of recent DVD/Blu-ray releases from Shout!, than during her heyday. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the movies themselves vary in quality from pretty good to goofy. Unlike most other kung fu exports to the U.S., most of these include some nudity to complement the violence. The cast lists also include such popular stars as Bolo Yueng, Jimmy Wang Yu, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Yuen Biao, Betty Ting Pei and Carter Huang. The most curious choice of actors was George Lazenby, who, in 1969, had starred in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as James Bond. In “A Queen’s Ransom” and “Stoner,” he bears an uncanny resemblance to porn star John Holmes. – Gary Dretzka

Once Upon a Time in Dublin
A Fighting Man
Even after watching this hyper-violent revenge picture, it isn’t clear to me why its name was changed to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” from “3 Crosses,” which, itself, was adapted from a graphic novel, “The Altar Boys.” The story has only a peripheral relationship to the Irish capital and parts of it were shot in London and Vermont. I wonder what James Joyce might have said if his publisher had suggested changing “Finnegans Wake” to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin.” Seemingly, though, every director since Sergio Leone has considered a variation of “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the title of their movie. Writer/director Jason Figgis, perhaps best known for the fitfully chilling dystopian thriller, “Children of a Darker Dawn,” has created what one Irish critic described as “future noir.” That’s because almost everything takes place in corners, basements, shadows and a disorienting variety of scrims, scratches and artifacts. It is the story of Jay (Karl Hayden) and Jonnie Linski (Emmett Scanlan), two Polish-Irish brothers who use violence to gain clues in the brutal murder of their youngest sibling, Danny (Stephen Wilson). Both men look as if they could take on the world by themselves, but, right now, they’ll settle for channeling their anger into personally punishing the people responsible for the crime. Not surprisingly, no one in Danny’s circle is forthcoming as to the identity of the culprit, dirty businessman Neville Jessoppe (Bill Fellows). Being a bare-knuckles fighter of some distinction, Jonnie uses his fists to get answers, while Jay prefers sharper-edged objects. Besides beatings, Figgis throws in some hallucinatory fragments of similarly rough sexual encounters and flashbacks to brighter days. “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” isn’t easy to watch, even for those of us who know how the makeup effects are created. The inventively frenetic cinematography isn’t a picnic, either.

If “A Fighting Man” had been released in 1994, instead of straight-to-DVD in 2014, a cast that includes James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Famke Jannsen and Michael Ironside might have attracted a bit more attention from viewers than it has, 20 years hence. The boxing clichés wouldn’t have been any fresher or less visible, but the actors would have been closer to their prime. Dramas in which boxing serves as a metaphor for one thing or another haven’t delivered the same punch since the first “Rocky” gave us all something to cheer. Occasionally, a really good one, such as “Million Dollar Baby,” sneaks through, but the sport has lost its sparkle in these days of $50 pay-per-view fees. “A Fighting Man” is a bit of a throwback, in that its protagonist is an over-the-hill palooka whose only claim to fame is not ever having tasted the canvas. Like the former heavyweight punching bag, Chuck Wepner, Sailor O’Connor (Dominic Purcell) has the remarkable ability to remain on his feet as the rest of his body is being beaten into a bloody pulp. Against everyone’s better judgment, he decides to come out of retirement for one last time to finance a trip to Ireland for his mother, before she dies of cancer. His opponent is a cocky up-and-comer with something to prove of his own, although it’s difficult to see how beating the crap out of an old man could work to his favor. Apparently, the prize money accumulated by a blood-thirsty promoter, played by Adam Beach, was enough to tempt the soon-to-be father. The beating Sailor endures in the ring truly is excruciating to watch. Because of this, I think that the only viewers who will find something worthwhile in low-budget specialist Damian Lee’s picture are boxing completests. A mysterious parallel storyline, involving Sailor and Janssen’s ex-con character, is left unresolved until the very end of “A Fighting Man.” By then, however, it feels superfluous to the central drama and hardly worth the effort necessary to guess what’s causing all the pain.  – Gary Dretzka

That Awkward Moment: Blu-ray
When the makers of big-screen rom-coms begin to take their cues from overworked sitcom tropes, it’s a sure sign that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Tom Gormican’s first film, “That Awkward Moment,” does borrow from several very good shows – “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “New Girl” – but ultimately falls back on conventions and clichés. At times, the only thing missing is a laugh track. I won’t argue that every action in the movie is predictable from minute-one, although most of them are. Instead, I can easily say that once a plot twist or conceit is revealed – even the clever ones — everything that follows is familiar, including the bloopers in the credit roll.  Here, we’re asked to watch a mixed group of Big Apple yuppies meet-up, hook-up, goof-up, break-up, wise-up, ’fess-up to their hang-ups and realize it’s time to grow-up before hooking-up again for the inevitable happy ending. Gormican’s stated aim here was to make a rom-com in which most of men are dumb as dirt and the one who isn’t is being is cuckolded. On the other hand, the women are drop-dead gorgeous, smart, vulnerable and patiently willingly to wait for these dopes to grow up. The movie’s central conceit, however, appears to have been lifted from the “Seinfeld” episode in which the gang wagers that he or she will be able to go the longest without masturbating. Here, after experiencing one relationship trauma or another, three best friends pledge to stay single for as long as is humanly possible. One-night stands are OK in this three-way bromance, but commitments are forbidden. If you’ve seen “The Contest,” you already know how long it will take for them to cease being master of their domains. Zach Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan display a decent rapport, but aren’t asked to extend themselves much in the acting department. Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas and Addison Timlin aren’t required to stretch much, either. Even so, they outclass the guys at every turn, which, I suppose, is one of the points Gormican is trying to make. The Gramercy Park locations are pretty easy on the eyes, though. The Blu-ray adds a second blooper reel, interviews and some idle chat. – Gary Dretzka

Joy Ride 3: Roadkill: Blu-ray
Blood Soaked
13 Sins: Blu-ray
The Monkey’s Paw: Blu-ray
You’d think that drivers of teeny-tiny automobiles would know by now how dangerous it can be to piss off an over-the-road trucker. Besides the possibility of startling a driver trying to take a cat nap between 48-hour shifts, they risk spoiling his view of a mini-skirt-wearing passenger in the next lane or, yes, tempt fate by cutting him off. Although we know that the vast majority of all truckers are law-abiding citizens, who everyday risk OD’ing on caffeine, country music and Preparation H, a few bad apples spoil the bunch. Like its predecessors, “Joy Ride 3” reminds us that there are sadistic bastards out there who enjoy nothing more than chaining bad boys and girls to various parts of their rig, just to see what happens when a link or two gets caught in the drive shaft or they can squeeze their bodies into the shape of a pancake to avoid being torn in half by low bridges. And, if you were hear the name “Rusty Nail” over the CB radio, don’t pass any trucks or stop … not even for gas or a flat tire. The original “Joy Ride,” directed by John Dahl (“Rounders”), received sensational reviews and did better in DVD than at the theatrical box office. “Joy Ride 2” went straight-to-DVD, while “Joy Ride 3” is nothing more than a splatter-fest. That would be OK, if there was a story to support the blood-letting. Instead, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the characters are driving east, west, south or north, and why their super-duper drag-racer can’t outrun an 18-wheeler. In any case, all the action takes place on a little-traveled highway, somewhere south of the Canadian border, where harvesting roadkill is a cottage industry. “Joy Ride 3” is very much what fans of the series might expect it to be, only less thrilling. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, interviews and special-effects explainer.

Blood Soaked” is a nasty piece of business about an incoming college freshman, who reluctantly allows herself to be seduced by a lesbian upper-classman at a campfire in the New Mexico desert. Still glowing from their encounter, they make the mistake of stopping their car in the vicinity of a pair of orphaned sisters, who kidnap strangers, torture them and turn them into zombies in their underground bunker. If that weren’t sufficiently sordid, the sisters foresee a time when they’ll have enough zombies to create a Fourth Reich. Can the young lovers escape before being fitted for a Gestapo uniform? Blessedly, perhaps, someone forgot to pay the electrical bill in the bunker, because most of the movie looks as if it were shot through a day-for-night filter and the color of blood is muted. The biggest selling point is the music by Eternal West Coast Killa Beez.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before … or the next one. In “13 Sins,” a pathetic salesman gets canned within days of being married. Elliot (Mark Webber) is desperate, so, when he receives a phone call offering a fortune if he passes 13 tests, he’s both suspicious and intrigued. Typically, they start out easy and get weirder as they go along, just like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Unlike the game show, though, no money is returned when the contestant decides to quit. The punchline arrives when Elliott discovers that he’s not the only participant and there’s only one winner. It’s pretty hard-core, but good old Ron Perlman plays a New Orleans cop, so maybe there’s hope for justice, after all. The Blu-ray adds making-of material, a deleted scene and short film of the writer going nuclear about it.

The Monkey’s Paw,” also set in New Orleans, offers a gory take on “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” Whoever is in possession of a dried-up monkey’s hand is given three wishes, if not a full explanation of how they’ll actually play out. After a stressed-out factory worker (C.J. Thomason) cashes in his first wish on a hot car, the even more messed-up guy sitting next to him on a test drive goes through the windshield when the vehicle dodges an alligator and hits a tree. Should he use the second wish to save his friend’s life? “Monkey’s Paw” may not be very original, but the bayous of southern Louisiana, as usual, make a terrific background for bizarro criminality. – Gary Dretzka

Invasion of the Scream Queens: 20th Anniversary Special Edition
In the 1980-90s, the standard-issue exploitation flick featured violence, nudity, black humor, a cool villain, a generic hero and a skeleton of a story that could accommodate all of these elements. The most popular of these movies – good or bad — featured one or more women who not only could supply the skin, but scream to high heaven. If these “scream queens” were good enough, the male heroes needed only to be handsome and slightly smarter than a box of rocks. Besides a variety of sharp cooking implements and a dark and remote kill zone, the story only required a beginning, middle and end. The breast moments were reserved for such women as Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Marya Gant, Katina Garner, Monique Gabrielle, Martine Beswick, Janus Blythe and Mary Woronov, all of whom were given an opportunity to speak in normal tones in “Invasion of the Scream Queens.” The 20-year-old documentary, which remains essential viewing for genre buffs and curious newcomers, combines interviews and film clips to very good effect. The DVD adds extended interviews and background from Donald Farmer, director of “Demon Queen” and “Savage Vengeance.” – Gary Dretzka

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?
I’ve never been able to understand dialectics well enough to take one side of a political or philosophical argument against the other. What I do know is that listening to Marxists debate anything is about as much fun as watching politicians use C-SPAN to speechify in front of an empty Congress. In the same way as Woody Allen turned a really bad Japanese pot-boiler into the hilariously dubbed, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” French filmmaker Rene Vienet chopped and channeled a Hong Kong martial-arts movie, “The Crush,” into the Marxist action-melodrama “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” In it, the combatants attack each other with fists of fury and political dogma. Only a small fraction of the people who loved Allen’s comedy could find 10 minutes of “Dialectics” entertaining or meaningful, though. Those who do understand the very smart exchange of political rhetoric, however, will find it to be a hoot. It looks even more comical after having being “aged” in film-to-video and color-to-black-and-white transfer. If movies like this had been shown in my political sciences courses, I might have been able to stay awake for the whole period. – Gary Dretzka

Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII: Blu-ray
The suspense should have been over for Seattle Seahawks’ fans at halftime, when the score of the Super Bowl was 22-0 against the favored Denver Broncos. Instead, while viewers outside the Pacific Northwest tuned to HBO to see what was on, it took Seahawk loyalists another quarter and the lone Broncos’ touchdown to pay more attention to the buffet counter than the TV. The two-point conversion made the score 36-8, but it hardly mattered to anyone who hadn’t placed a bet on the over/under. The newly released “Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII,” then, is primarily for Hawks fans who couldn’t believe their eyes and those who decided not to watch what might have been the dullest quarter in Super Bowl history. Like the Denver defense, the long-predicted frigid weather was a no-show for the game. SBXLVIII may have been the first NFL championship game to be held at an open-air stadium in a “cold-weather” city, but the temperature at kickoff was a boring 49 degrees. Can you spell A-N-T-I-C-L-I-M-A-C-T-I-C? Far more exciting were the playoff games versus the Saints and 49ers, which provided the stepping stones to the Super Bowl and are here, as well. And, while there’s plenty of room for nitpicking the fleeting moments NFL Films chose to excise, in addition to hours of ridiculously overproduced commercials, the high-definition video presentation is probably sharper than what was transmitted by Fox, and that’s not to suggest that the original broadcast was all that shabby. Now, however, people who invested in a Blu-ray player after the playoffs can watch the games with new eyes. – Gary Dretzka

BBC/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: The Escape Artist: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Why Sharks Attack
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: The Complete Third Season
MTV: Teen Wolf: Season 3 Part 2
Usually, mini-series under the “Masterpiece Mystery” banner are distinctly British in their mannered tone and deliberate pacing. Even when one resembles an elongated episode of “Law & Order” or “CSI,” the multi-dimensional portrayals of key characters and attention to detail distinguish them from American shows, in which, typically, cases are opened and closed within 60 minutes, including 15 minutes of commercials. That’s not a knock on the best hour-long dramas on network television here, just reality. The BBC’s fine three-part mini-series “The Escape Artist” possesses all of the best qualities of a typical “Masterpiece Mystery” presentation, while also adding plot points familiar from such movies as “The Devil’s Advocate.” David Tennant is, as usual, excellent as junior barrister Will Burton, who, like Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” has become well known in British legal circles for having never lost a criminal defense case. Al Pacino doesn’t appear here as Satan, but the point being made by director Brian Welsh and writer David Wolstencroft doesn’t require his presence: even in Her Majesty’s halls of justice, what goes around comes around. No sooner does Burton successfully defend suspected rapist and murderer Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) than the fiend inexplicably decides to torture his defender, by killing his wife and making it look as if the lawyer did it. Naturally, he denies it, pointing to his former client as the killer. By now, the prosecutor Burton had just humiliated on the previous case, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo), has gone over to the dark side of the law and been assigned by her new firm to defend Foyle. The real kicker to the mini-series, which I won’t reveal, comes after the disgraced Burton attempts to find a job away from the city and spots Foyle coming out of a pub, ostensibly on a hunting trip. Although the story might have been compressed into two unabridged episodes and still worked, I don’t think many fans of Brit legal dramas will mind the padding.

The “Nova” presentation, “Why Sharks Attack,” attempts to answer a question most of us would dismiss with, “because they’re hungry,” or by recalling the parable of the scorpion and the frog (“It’s my nature …”). Scientists rarely accept such pat answers, even though one needs only to look elsewhere in the Animal Kingdom to understand that humans represent the only species that has mastered the art of having food delivered to one’s home or driving to a restaurant for takeout. It’s our never-ending fascination with sharks that compels us to go beyond the obvious, however, and wonder what it means when great whites begin attacking swimmers, surfers and waders in increasing numbers. To “separate fact from fear,” “Nova” has teamed with leading experts in Australia and the United States to trace the great white’s movements and match them with possible changes in their habitats. GPS, satellite and other high-end technology allows scientists to widen their horizons when it comes to establishing migratory patterns and re-adaptation to meteorological conditions, including global warming.

The third and longest season of “Regular Show” rolled out between September 19, 2011, and September 3, 2012. It opened with Benson disposing of Mordecai and Rigby’s stick-hockey table and culminated with the heartbreak of halitosis, which resulted in Mordecai’s recent kiss-fail. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for the compilation to go on sale and only in DVD, but, I suspect, it has something to do with the show’s ready availability on PPV and streaming outlets, including episodes from Season 7. Bonus material adds episode commentaries, “Four Things You Didn’t Know About J.G.,” “J.G. Answers Why” and a live episode read.

If it seems odd that the third-season packages of “Teen Wolf” would be broken into two parts, it can be explained by the simple fact that the third stanza was comprised of 24 episodes instead of 12, as were the first two go-rounds. It arrives just in time for the start of Season 4, with Scott attempting to deal with the loss of two close friends in the desperate showdown that closed Season 3. The show’s roots extend all the way back to the AIP classic, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” in which a letter-jacket-wearing Michael Landon transformed into a hairy rage-oholic. Along with several cheapo “I Was a Teenage …” sequels, it would inspire a “Teen Wolf” featuring Michael J. Fox and two “Teen Wolf” series. The success of “Buffy” and “Twilight Trilogy” also influenced the latest iteration. The DVD, which has been “musically edited,” adds a fan art collection and fan video. — Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Blu-ray
Although I didn’t think much of “The Sum of All Fears,” the fourth film adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, my feelings couldn’t prevent me from anticipating the new “reboot” of the franchise, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Unlike the others, it was merely “inspired by characters” in a story created by the author before his untimely death last year. Clancy’s readers already were conditioned to expect occasional reboots in the series, just as movie audiences had to adjust to three, now four different actors in the lead role. What I couldn’t predict, however, was how viewers would react to a Jack Ryan who was born at approximately the same instant as the same Jack Ryan was saving the world in “The Hunt for Red October.” Neither prequel nor sequel, “Shadow Recruit” appears to exist outside of the Jack Ryan universe, altogether. It probably would have been easier to adapt the books in Clancy’s “Jack Ryan Jr.,” with Chris Pine at the helm, but that might have required paying steeper options fees or jumping through a different kind of hoop.  Instead, viewers were left jumping through hoops. The fourth Ryan, Pine, understood the dynamics of making such a midcourse correction. After all, he had already assumed the role of Kirk the Younger in the “Star Trek” movie franchise. He’s passed that test easy enough, but the jury remains out on Pine as Ryan. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Shadow Recruit” underperformed at the U.S. box office, it did OK overseas … and that’s where the action is for Hollywood studios, these days.

The story follows the basic Ryan blueprint previously laid out by Clancy. As in previous iterations, he is shot down and seriously injured in the crash of a marine helicopter. He uses the recuperation process to acquire the skills necessary to become a successful Wall Street trader and analyst. One of the things he discovers is a Kremlin-generated plot to crush the economies of the U.S. economies, triggered under the cover of a terrorist attack by a domestic sleeper cell. To prevent such a scenario from playing out, Ryan travels to Moscow as a representative for his brokerage firm and a covert CIA operative. What happens next could have been borrowed from the “Mission:Impossible” playbook. Inexplicably, Ryan is greeted at the airport by a very large thug posing as his security guard. He discovers the ruse after reaching his modern hotel suite, where the guy attempts to kill him. It results in an exciting, if messy fight to the finish. Sensing that the guy was on assignment for his company’s man in Moscow, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), Ryan nonetheless goes through the motions of feigning ignorance. Curiously, too, the plotter invites Jack and his jealous girlfriend, Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley) – thought to still be in New York — to dinner at Moscow’s trendiest restaurant. As predicted in his CIA dossier, Viktor becomes pre-occupied with romancing Cathy. It leaves time for Ryan to sneak out and perform a “M:I”-style miracle. Just in case the young analyst screws up, though, the lad’s CIA handler (Kevin Costner) is in Moscow, as well, riding around town in a van full of computers.

As unlikely as all of this nonsense may be, “Shadow Recruit” isn’t without its guilty pleasures. Branagh maintains a lively pace throughout and it is extremely well-shot by Haris Zambarloukos. The exterior shots of central Moscow, alongside some fab nighttime landmarks, make the movie look delicious in Blu-ray. Instead of seeming cold and foreboding, Zambarloukos makes it look like a little like Disneyland.  The feature package offers plenty to do for fans of the movie and series. Informative audio commentary is provided by director Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura; self-explanatory featurettes “Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room,” “Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit,” “Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action” and “Old Enemies Return,” a 20-minute-plus look at the use of Russians as enduring villains in the cinema; and deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary. If there’s a sequel, it will be interesting to see which direction in time and place the producers choose to take. At the moment, at least, Clancy’s legacy still appears to be most formidable in sales of video games and books. – Gary Dretzka

Non-Stop: Blu-ray
I stopped attempting to guess the identity of the murderous blackmailers in “Non-Stop,” – Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s mid-air thriller — after being slapped in the face with numerous red herrings. It’s pretty difficult to remain involved in a movie’s story flow when nearly everyone we meet could be the antagonist and even suspects who have been cleared are allowed to re-emerge as possible culprits, only to be cleared once again. An ability to suspend disbelief and ignore narrative blunders shouldn’t be made part of the movie-going experience, but, here, it’s imperative. Anyone who hasn’t flown since 9/11 certainly will have an advantage over those of us who experienced the changes initiated by the TSA. So, sit back and watch as 63-year-old Liam Neeson turns impossible plot devices into action gold. Here, he’s been allowed to maintain a noticeable trace of his native Irish accent, in his portrayal of alcoholic U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks. A litany of personal crises have turned the onetime New York cop into an emotional wreck and potential liability in the skies between New York and Europe. When sober, Marks probably is as good at his job as anyone else in law enforcement could be. Drunk, he’s only as competent as his tolerance to alcohol allows him to be. Fortunately, on this trip, Marks is only working on a good buzz. Still, Neeson does a good job convincing us that his flaws are exploitable by anyone who knows where they are.

No sooner does the flight to Paris take off than Marks begins to receive text messages warning that someone will be killed in 20 minutes if a ransom of $150 million isn’t delivered to an offshore account. Because the messages become increasingly taunting in nature, it’s safe to assume that the sender knows that Marks’ is an air marshal and vulnerable. When the pilot describes the threat to the authorities back home, the disembodied voice at the other end of the phone treats it as if the veteran lawman might be experiencing the first stages of the DTs, which, we know, he isn’t. Even so, writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach insist on planting a seed of doubt in captain, crew and passengers. Theoretically, all the pilot would need to do to confound the blackmailers would be to turn off the wireless-broadband service available to passengers and identify those who purchased it. Flights originating in the U.S. don’t offer the option of in-flight phone calls or text messages and, in any case, a passenger would be required to purchase access. The first red herring thrown at us comes in the form of a fellow air marshal and former friend of Marks, who appears to be monitoring his performance. Why, then, is he sweating profusely and carrying a bag full of cocaine? Thinking he’s solved the mystery. Marks is dismayed when he receives another test message and reports of his dismissal from the NYPD begin popping up on the TV monitors in the cabin. That’s pretty fast work for an eight-hour flight, even by CNN’s standards. As the implausibilities add up, the filmmakers attempt to divert our attention from them by spicing the script with dark humor. Very few actors could sell such nonsense to audiences – Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson come to mind — but audiences will forgive Neeson of almost anything today. Of the nearly $200 million that “Non-Stop” has collected worldwide (46.2 percent domestically) it’s likely that Neeson’s presence is responsible for 90 percent of it. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of the cast members, though. Adding to the movie’s credibility are co-stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and several actors familiar primarily to TV audiences. If the Blu-ray looks and sounds fine, the extras are pretty generic. – Gary Dretzka

Capital: Blu-ray
Amen: Blu-ray
There was a time when the Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras could do no wrong. Today, at 81, he’s easy pickings for critics who long for the days of “Z” and other films that took on the powers that be in countries where labor unions, intellectuals and students have been targeted for persecution. His first great success, “Z,” remains a tense political thriller about the rape of Greece’s democracy by a murderous military junta propped up by the U.S. government and outside corporate interests. Just as relevant, but less relatable to American audiences were “The Confession,” “State of Siege” and “Special Section.” His first Hollywood-backed movie was “Missing,” an indictment of this country’s role in the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government and murder of Salvador Allende. Even after being condemned by White House official Alexander Haig, one of the architects of the coup, the presence of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek helped “Missing” find an audience here. Among the actors who would appear in his next few movies were Jill Clayburgh (“Hannah K”), Debra Winger (“Betrayed”) and Jessica Lange (“Music Box”). Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta starred in “Mad City,” a critical and commercial disaster that combined elements “Ace in the Hole” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” without delivering anything close to a knockout punch. Money would get tight after that failure.

Five years went by before the release of his next, relatively low-profile film, “Amen.” Based on “The Deputy,” a controversial 1963 play by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, it tells the true story of chemist Kurt Gerstein, who, while employed at the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS, discovered to his dismay that the pesticide, Zyklon B, which he was testing as a potential cure for typhus, was being used, instead, for killing Jews and Poles. Until witnessing the deaths, himself, Gerstein and most other German citizens chose to believe the lie about where uprooted Jews were being taken in train cars and for what purpose. He attempted to use his position in the army to convince leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to take a public stand on the persecution of Jews, just as they had against the Nazis’ Euthanasia Program. A young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, whose father was influential within the highest circle of the Vatican hierarchy, was the only clergyman to agree to push the matter up the ladder. After finally reporting to Pope Pius XII, to no avail, Fontana boarded a freight car carrying dozens of Jews to the death camps. He was recognized at a transfer point and detained, but none of the other passengers was spared. The play caused a huge uproar in Germany, as well as public debate elsewhere about the Church’s role in the Holocaust. In the play, the pontiff appears content to support the Jews and German resistance in his own way, without a public denunciation of Hitler or openly providing sanctuary. Other clerics felt as if the Nazis provided a barrier against communism and atheism, and they shouldn’t be denounced publically. At the time, Pius’ role was defended by Catholic and Jewish authorities, alike, who claimed his actions saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I found “Amen” to be extremely well-produced, thought-provoking and often quite exciting. It’s no less provocative today than in 1963 and its arguments remain open to debate. Gurstein’s motives for cooperating with the Allies in the closing days of the war are still questioned, as well. Although, at 132 minutes, “Amen” overextends its welcome, there’s no question that Costa-Gavras hadn’t lost much of his ability to tell a story during his hiatus.

Also newly released into Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group is his most recent production, “Capital.” Ever since the international economic collapse, Costa-Gavras had wanted to say something about the absolute corruptibility of money and how our relationship to it has changed so hideously since the 1980s, at least. “Capital” straddles a very thin line separating drama and farce – he calls it a parable – although I doubt that comedy was what he had in mind. Popular French monologist Gad Elmaleh plays the brilliant assistant to the CEO of the large and profitable Phenix Bank. When the old man collapses on the golf course – from the pain of testicular cancer, of all things – he decides to hand over the reins to the Machiavellian Marc Tourneuil. The board of directors believe that this was done to ensure the boss’ ideas would be funneled through the younger executive. The most aggressive member of the cabal, hedge-fund manager Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), has other plans for the company’s and expects Tourneuil to do the dirty work for him. Tourneuil agrees to fire hundreds of the bank’s employees, if not as many as Rigule demands. Along with other reforms, the layoffs serve to boost the stock price and keep the cabal’s wolves from his door. Even so, Rigule continue to demand initiatives that would make the bank ripe for a takeover. It makes no sense to Tourneuil, until a sharp and idealistic British analyst (Céline Sallette) explains it to him. It’s at this point in the story that Tourneuil, who’s already been tempted to stray by a sizzling hot, if poorly drawn supermodel, that he finds himself at the proverbial fork in the road and Costa-Gavras asks us to guess which path he’ll take. Unfortunately, the verdict is based on facts not in evidence. Like “Amen,” “Capital” is technically proficient and well-acted. Released in 2012, four years after most Earthlings determined that bankers serve no useful purpose, except to propagate the ruling class, it seems a very minor and obvious effort. Both movies arrive with interesting interviews with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Adult World
You wouldn’t know it from the tactically misleading jacket photo, but “Adult World” is a surprisingly sweet and genuinely entertaining coming-of-age story, which deserves a better reception in DVD than it received in its too-limited theatrical run. I don’t blame the distributors for trying to attract customers with a titillating title and lurid neon highlights that suggest something naughty might be contained therein. The presence of John Cusack, who’s played some decidedly wicked characters lately, only seems to add to the potential for menace. Instead, everyone keeps their clothes on and the sexuality is implied. Bubbly Emma Roberts plays a recent college graduate who’s convinced herself that she’s on the brink of becoming the first poet since Rod McKuen to make money from her poetry. She successfully avoids finding paying work, until she’s forced to leave home by her parents. Needless to say, a degree in poetry doesn’t cut much ice with potential employers in a Rust Belt city devastated by factory closings and chronic unemployment. Finally, she finds a job at a local porn emporium, which looks as ragged as any other business in the struggling Upstate New York town. Although thankful for the pay check, Amy spends most of her time brushing up on her poetry and explaining to customers why porn is insulting to women. Neither is she much good at preventing shoplifting. Fortunately, the store’s young manager (Chris Riggi) takes a shine to Amy, as does the town’s resident transvestite (Armando Riesco), who provides her with a place to crash.

When Amy discovers that her all-time favorite poet, Rat Billings (Cusack), is in residence at the college, she decides to honor him by becoming his personal stalker. Billings is far too burned out to find the adoration flattering or reciprocate with helpful advice. The closest Amy comes to connecting with him is volunteering to serve as his much needed cleaning woman, in exchange for him critiquing her writing. Instead of giving her false hope, Billings is brutally honest about her poetry, which he finds shrill and hyperbolic. His being cruel to be kind only endears him to Amy, at least until he takes the one step too far that causes her to come to grips with her situation. Director Scott Coffey acted in several David Lynch pictures before taking the helm of the interesting indie character study, “Ellie Parker,” with Naomi Watts. Here, he capably massaged the script by freshman screenwriter Andy Cochran and coaxed a terrifically obsessive performance from 22-year-old Emma Roberts – son of Eric and niece of Julia, with whom she is extremely close – an actor who appears to be standing on the brink of stardom for her ability to move from drama to comedy with seemingly little effort. As geeky as Amy is, Roberts also is able to find the raw sexuality hidden deep within the aspiring poet. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the R-rating, even if it seems to mirror the context suggested on the cover art. The camera never lingers on the material being sold and Amy’s yearnings are strictly PG. I don’t see any reason why viewers in their middle- to late-teens, along with young adults, shouldn’t take a shot at “Adult World,” instead of the latest boys-will-be-boys or comic-book flick. – Gary Dretzka

Bible Quiz
One of the teenagers we follow in Nicole Teeny’s low-key and frequently surprising “Bible Quiz,” asks the most obvious question even before we get an opportunity to do so ourselves. Why, asks 17-year-old Mikayla Irle, is she involved so deeply in an activity that all of her friends at school consider to be hopelessly geeky and boring? Mikayla may not get around to answering her own question, but anyone who’s watched one of the many documentaries about young people striving for excellence through games or artistic pursuits already knows what it is. She is a member of an award-winning team of Tacoma bible students on their way to the national championships in Green Bay, Wisconsin, commonly referred to as Title Town. Having grown up in a bible-quizzing family, Teeny understands what’s at stake for the competitors she’s chosen to follow. Teeny also knows a thing or two about being a teenage girl at the cusp of womanhood. By all outward appearances, Mikalya is one of, perhaps, millions of young people who’ve devoted their lives to God and spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen and some who won’t. While many of the nation’s generic Jesus freaks are robotic and single-minded, when they aren’t being thoroughly annoying, at least, others are in it for the same reasons that teenagers join athletic teams, glee clubs and student councils. Besides enjoying the companionship and buzz that comes with being really good at something – she knows Scripture inside-out — Mikalya has an innocent crush on the team’s star, J.P. O’Connor. It also relieves some of the pressure of having an alcoholic, largely absentee mother.

Teeny’s camera follows the team from qualifying rounds in Washington to Wisconsin, without condescending to the teens or making the quiz sound more important than it is. She also understands that memorizing and reciting Scripture – in competition with other sharp teens and a 30-second clock – is a significantly different thing than comprehending their meaning. Some will get to that point at a later date, others might find different ways to incorporate Christ into their lives or stray from the flock. Most of the kids we meet here have yet to come to grips with the stirrings inside their bodies they’ve been taught to fear, ignore or put on the back burner until their wedding night. Indeed, Mikalya is steal wrestling with the idea that Jesus might not approve of her submitting to a kiss or, at one significant point in “Bible Quiz,” initiating a congratulatory hug. The thought of putting on makeup and a shoulder-revealing dress for the awards ceremony almost makes her apoplectic. In a pre-coming-of-age documentary that very easily could have turned ugly with condescension and disapproval, these are moments for viewers to savor. Being a cheesehead, I found it amusing that anyone would see Green Bay in the same light as Sodom and Gomorrah. The parents and pastors we do meet are kept mostly in the background, unless they’re running the contest or there to support the team. One dad doesn’t pretend to understand what his kid is doing and why, but doesn’t want to spoil the fun. “Bible Quiz” grows on you to the point where it matters who wins the contest, even if the answers are delivered at 78 r.p.m.– Gary Dretzka

The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Volumes 1 & 2: Blu-ray
Far less than the career-encompassing collection Spike Lee deserves and his fans desire, the three “Spike Lee Joint” packages extant – one from Universal, two now from Touchstone – represent bargains for collectors and handy introductions to those new to his work. Perhaps, this week’s release of “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” will prompt Universal to re-release its five-title box on Blu-ray. Although Touchstone’s compilations basically amount to double-features, at least the films are now available in hi-def and with new commentary tracks. The first volume includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game,” while the second adds “Summer of Sam” and “Miracle at St. Anna.” Edward Norton” gives a bravura performance in “25th Hour,” which chronicles the last 24 hours of freedom for convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan. The most significant thing one learns listening to the commentary is how much Lee wanted to pay homage to pre-9/11 New York and salute those who gave their lives attempting to rescue others trapped in the Twin Towers. One scene primarily dominated by dialogue is shot with cleanup operations at Ground Zero visible in the background.

The other masterpiece here is “Summer of Sam,” another portrait of New York, only this one sweats and shouts back at the viewer. At the same time as dweeb killer David Berkowitz is raising the temperature of the already sweltering melting pot, the Yankees’ are uniting the citizenry with another pennant run. Lee is a master at getting audience members to feel as if they’re as integral a part of the story as any of the characters and, here, there’s almost no line separating those hunting the killer and those whose appearance and idiosyncracies make them suspects. As such, “Summer of Sam” is one of the most visceral movies of all time.

Apart from being an indictment of the corruption in the college-recruiting game, “He Got Game” cuts to the heart of a father-son relationship poisoned by distance, bitterness and jealousy. Denzel Washington plays Jake, the father of a high coveted prep basketball star, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen). Jake was convicted of murdering his wife and is serving time in Attica. The governor allows him to leave prison for a week, during which he’s expected to convince the teenager to commit to the state university. If he does, Jake could be released on parole. Trouble is, he hates his father and blames him for his mother’s death, however accidental it was. Jake also plays a key role in a subplot, involving a prostitute played by Milla Jovovich. The epic World War II drama, “Miracle at St. Anna,” describes how four members of the U.S. Army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division — Buffalo Soldiers — are trapped behind enemy lines after one of them risks his life to save a traumatized Italian boy. Although it attempts to do too many big things at once, “Miracle” does most of them right.

The Blu-ray bonus package adds, on “25th Hour,” commentaries by Lee and Norton, Lee alone, and screenwriter David Benioff ; deleted scenes; “The Evolution of an American Filmmaker; and “Ground Zero: A Tribute.” “He Got Game” includes commentary by Lee and actor/NBA star Ray Allen; “Summer of Sam” has commentary by Lee and actor John Leguizamo; and “Miracle at St. Anna,” adds commentary by Lee and screenwriter James McBride, deleted scenes and featurettes “Deeds Not Words” and “The Buffalo Soldier Experience.” The commentaries may be a tad chatty and unfocused for some tastes. – Gary Dretzka

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between “Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles” and the Seven Labors of Hercules may be purely coincidental, but what better inspiration could there be for martial-arts movie? Instead of having to battle dangerous beasts and mythic creatures as penance for his sins, the martial-arts master Toramaru is required to prove himself to his sensei, Gensai, by traveling throughout Japan and Okinawa and defeating the masters of seven separate disciplines. After a year on the road, Toramaru returns to his dojo with seven scrolls containing secrets and techniques of kung-fu, stick fighting, sword fighting, nunchaku, yakuza, gun-slinging and samurai skills. When integrated with traditional Bushido values, the combined disciple is mugen-ga-ryu. Gensai’s advice to Toramaru is to pay attention to regional cuisines and duplicate his opponent’s diet as a way to get to inside his head. “Bushido Man,” then, is little more than a series of exciting fights and quiet discussions between sensei and student. There’s no reason to ruin the surprise ending, but hardly anyone is likely to go away disappointed by Takanori Tsujimoto’s follow-up to “Monster Killer.” For western viewers, “Bushido Man” can be enjoyed almost as much as a travelogue as an action picture, with no small amount of humor. The Blu-ray extras consist of Q&A’s conducted at festival screenings. – Gary Dretzka

Kill Zombie!: Blu-ray
Almost Human
Fans of “Shaun of the Dead” and other zombie comedies should find a lot to like in the Dutch zombie-apocalypse farce, “Kill Zombie!” Martijn Smits and Erwin van den Eshof may not be emphatically satirical or as genre-bending as some recent efforts, but its cartoonish approach to the eradication of humans and zombies is surprisingly effective. “Kill Zombie!” also is informed by the diverse cultures of Amsterdam, which somehow has managed to balance a welcoming persona to outsiders with the country’s distinctly conservative core. Here, a motley crew of stoners, straights, immigrants from two or three different continents, femme fatales, a gun-toting blond cop and Russian mercenary all come together to battle zombies contaminated by an oozy green substance released when a space vehicle crash lands into a skyscraper in Amsterdam-West. The undead act in ways familiar to all of us, but the weaponry collected by our merry band of survivors ranges from the completely ineffectual to devastating. The less logic one applies to the story, the easier it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to follow who’s still among the living. It’s a lot of fun.

In only five years, IFC Midnight has established itself as a destination for browsers seeking innovative horror flicks, most of which are made on a limited budget and using unknown actors or cult favorites. Among its successes are Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede,” Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral.” Even if mainstream critics don’t pay much attention to such movies – until they become cult sensations, anyway – the genre-centric websites tend to give them a fair shake. Its catalogue is also a good place to find young talents and trending ideas.

Working off of a script by fellow-freshman Andrew Barrer, Mac Carter deftly integrates a compelling teen romance into the haunted-house thriller, “Haunt,” saving it from being just another horror wannabe. When a spooky pediatrician, Dr. Janet Morello (two-time Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver), finally decides to sell her rural home to the Ashers, she reluctantly leaves behind a family of distinctly grotesque ghosts. Teenage son, Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), may sense there’s something fishy about the place, but his parents are in no mood to buy into what they see as his fantasies. While walking through the woods one night, he meets Samantha (Liana Liberato), the sadly abused daughter of the Ashers’ alcoholic neighbor. They hit it off to the point where Mrs. Asher (Ione Skye) allows her to move into the house and tastefully enjoy the first fruits of young love with Evan. It’s convenient, because both share a fascination with the supernatural and can’t wait to test a transmitter box left behind by the doctor. Not surprisingly, they bite off more than they can chew with their investigation into the ghosts’ origins. Besides the romantic subplot, “Haunt” benefits from the enthusiastic performances of the young actors and some nifty special-makeup effects.

For his feature debut, “Almost Human,” writer/director Joe Begos borrows liberally from John Carpenter and other masters of sci-fi/horror genre, circa the 1980s. What begins as an alien-abduction mystery turns quickly into a grisly splatter film, when a Maine redneck returns after two years from a sojourn in space. Mark (Josh Ethier) makes loud screechy noises when he really wants to scare people or suck things from their bodies through the long Pocket Hose Penis protruding from his mouth. It appears as if Mark has returned to reclaim his girlfriend (Vanessa Leigh) from another suitor. Meanwhile, their best friend Seth (Graham Skipper) is inexplicably experiencing nosebleeds and other premonitions of doom. Depending on one’s ability to withstand numerous images of gore and an ear-splitting soundtrack, the reasonably novel ending either will make up for the incomprehensible middle third or be just another thing that life was too short to waste time waiting to see. “Almost Human” may be far too excruciating an experience for most viewers to watch, but it’s short and the best gags may be indicative of a bright future for Begos. Don’t forget to fast-forward through the eight-minute credits crawl to find a brief closing scene. The DVD adds a couple of featurettes, interviews and the short film, “Toxin.” – Gary Dretzka

Fox: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey: Blu-ray
The Chisholms: Complete TV Series
The Adventures of Batman
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon
PBS Kids/
The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm
Thirty-four years ago, when Carl Sagan’s landmark series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” first aired on PBS, Pluto was still a planet, the Hubble Space Telescope had yet to wow us with remarkable images from deep space, high-definition television monitors weren’t close to being affordable and the colony of unreformed Nazis living on the dark side of the moon had yet to reveal itself. That last one wasn’t known until the Finnish film “Iron Sky” was released in 2012. If “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” didn’t make quite the same splash when it was simulcast earlier this year across all 10 Fox broadcast and cable outlets, it’s only because Sagan had already become a genuine media celebrity. He had already made several appearances on the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where the host, an amateur astronomer, had made him feel as welcome as any movie star. The similarly ambitious “A SpaceTime Odyssey” follows the blueprint laid out in 1980. This time, though, digital technology, computer-generated animation and high-resolution video monitors have raised the ante on science programming. Among other things, the visual presentation is exponentially sharper, deeper and immersive. The 13-episode series is presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who learned more than a few lessons from his idol, Sagan. Among the executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, a co-creator of the original series. Astronomer and writer Steven Soter returns to share scripting duties with Dryun. As family-oriented entertainment and explanatory science, “A SpaceTime Odyssey” isn’t likely to be topped, until home theaters become totally immersive and everyone can afford an IMAX screen in their living room. By then, too, we’ll probably be receiving YouTube videos from Mars. The 662-minute Blu-ray experience includes audio commentary; the Library of Congress dedication; deleted scenes; “‘Cosmos’: A Vision Reborn”; “‘Cosmos’ at Comic-Con”; and an interactive “cosmic calendar.”

The Chisholms” began its life on CBS as a 1979 mini-series, before being spun-off as a short-lived series the next year. That was pretty late in the game for TV Westerns, but “Little House on the Prairie” still had some a few years life in it and a cast that included Robert Preston, Brian Keith, Rosemarie Harris, Ben Murphy, Brian Kerwin and Donald Moffat, in addition to interesting guest stars, still should have been able to find an audience. Moreover, it was executive produced by David Dortort, who had written, produced and exec-produced dozens of episodes of “Bonanza,” which “The Chilsholms” kind of, sort of resembled. Swindled out of their Virginia property, the Chisholm family, led by proud patriarch Hadley (Preston) and his wife, Minerva (Harris), make the trek westward in order to build a new life for themselves in the Oregon Territory. Along the trail, the Chisholm clan encounters challenges that threaten not only their safety, but the very fabric of their familial bonds. It helped, as well, that the shooting locations looked as if they’re nowhere near SoCal or British Columbia. If nothing else, it’s great to see the lead stars in action, again.

Slugterra: Ghoul From Beyond” is a feature-length extension of the Nerd Corps’ sci-fi/fantasy series, “Slugterra,” which defies synopsis, easy or otherwise. The story takes place in a deep, underground realm in which magical garden slugs are treated like commodities to be collected, trained and shot from guns. Topsider Eli Shane is determined to be the greatest slug-slinger since his legendary father disappeared in one of the many caverns of the underworld. A villain known as Dr. Blakk is seeking to “ghoul” the slugs, transforming them into feral mindless weapons. As was the case with gunfighters in Old West, every time one goes down, someone bigger and badder comes along to take his place. The movie is only slightly less complicated than the series.

The Adventures of Batman” is the companion package to “The New Adventures of Superman, Seasons 2 & 3,” released last week. Produced by Filmation, the show aired on CBS in 1968. It featured the voices of Olan Soule, as the original voice of Batman; Casey Kasem, as Robin, Jane Webb as Batgirl and Catwoman; Ted Knight, as Commissioner Gordon, Penguin, Riddler and Mr. Freeze; and Larry Storch, as The Joker. The two-disc set contains all 34 episodes.

It’s the rare episode of PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” that doesn’t hold one’s interest for its entire 60-minute length. Some reveal secrets buried in the recent past, while other episodes take viewers back to antiquity. One of the most interesting things about “The Lost Gardens of Babylon” is learning how much evidence is still available today, 3,000 years since the gardens are believed to have been built. Satellite photography and advanced imaging technology reveal things that have been hidden in plain sight all along. Dr. Stephanie Dalley, of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, has been searching for the exact location of the gardens for most of her career. Now that the imagery has pointed her in a direction different than she was looking, the war in Iraq has made it impossible to complete her research. When guards prevent her from getting too close to ground zero, she equips Iraqis known to them to film the area with handheld cameras. Even we miss the “Eureka” moment, what Dalley is able to describe is pretty fascinating.

The latest package from the “PBS Kids” block includes, “Dinosaur Train: Adventure Camp,” “Wild Kratts: Tiny Trouble” and “Word Girl: Monkey Business.” Lifelong Who fans who want their kids to follow in their footsteps can give them a headstart with the “The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm.” Roger Daltrey provides the voice of Argon the Dragon, one of several animal characters — Papaya, the fun-loving monkey, and his toucan friend, Mango – who are transported to adventures on a musical bus. The episodes included here are “Fill it Up!,” “A Trip to the Market,” “Guide Dogs” and “A Visit to the Circus.” – Gary Dretzka

Unacceptable Levels
It may come as a shock to anyone born after the nearly universal push for concise labelling of food products and easy availability of healthy meals that there was time when the names of chemicals weren’t listed on every package or can containing edibles. Generally speaking, it wasn’t until after World War II that giant agricultural interests began to use chemicals to rush seasons and create produce that lasts longer on shelves and doesn’t taste nearly as fresh as it did only a few years earlier. Americans took it for granted that those chemicals were safe, because, well, why would anyone want to poison us? Now, with genetically modified produce, the battle over labelling is being fought once again, with giant agri-business concerns once again arguing that the products are so safe that identification isn’t necessary, let alone warnings. Ed Brown’s “Unacceptable Levels” tells us that, on average, we all have more than 232 industrial chemicals floating around in our bodies, with more to come. The science behind the prevention of chemically spurred diseases has, until now, lagged behind the creation of new preservatives and growth hormones. Brown believes that there are ways to reverse the trend. The film is sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council, whose stated mission it is to advance “public policies that foster a vibrant, just and sustainable economy.” – Gary Dretzka

Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again
The Hilltops
Established in 1988, SISU Home Entertainment Inc. markets and distributes Israeli and Jewish videos, audio, books and multimedia properties. The company’s wide variety of products is primarily made available through the SISU/Kol Ami websites or at Judaica shops, major retail stores and websites. In addition to films concerning current events, religion, the Holocaust and other Jewish history, SISU also distributes such titles as “Shalom Sesame,” “Operation Grandma” and “Schmelvis.” Among the titles released this month are “Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again” and “The Hilltops.” The former was inspired by the attacks of 9/11, when the family of Linda G. Mills was threatened by the debris falling from one of the planes that struck the WTC. The experience caused her to plan a trip to Vienna, from which her mother and her parents were forced to leave in 1939. It wasn’t a journey her mother was looking forward to, especially, but Mills felt it was important to revisit events of the past and give her 10-year-old son an opportunity to connect to his roots. While she accomplished those things in the usual way, Mills also learned a great deal about the Anschluss and the relationship between Jewish officials and the Nazi government, none of which was common knowledge. They also met with historians who located records clarifying family history and its ability to escape to the United States, before Hitler ended the extortionist pay-to-flee visa program. Not surprisingly, the 10-year-old got antsy after a couple of days, but even he admitted that he’ll likely see the trip through different eyes as an adult. The extremely well made DVD adds deleted scenes and a seminar held in New York.

I found “The Hilltops” to be a bit more problematic, but only because I’m one of those people who think that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict won’t end until concessions are made by the settlers who’ve illegally taken over hilltops on the West Bank and have no intentions on leaving. The only attempt to balance the discussion is the inclusion of sound bites from a liberal Israeli legislator, who opposes the spread. The cause of her frustration can be easily seen in the hardline tactics of the settlers and rhetoric that practically compares President Obama to Yasser Arafat. I suspect that director Igal Hecht knew better than to play devil’s advocate to the adamantly Zionist settlers, who insist they have God on their side and don’t need anyone else’s permission. So, he didn’t try. The best part of the documentary is the physical perspective we gain by seeing how rugged and otherwise useless the land may be without expensive irrigation systems and an almost constant police presence. It is in direct contrast to other settlements we’ve seen in other parts of Israel, which, by comparison, look downright suburban. I doubt that “The Hilltops” will change anyone’s point of view, one way or the other. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

RoboCop: Blu-ray I wondered if the folks who decided to return to Detroit for the re-staging of “RoboCop,” circa 2028, considered the possibility that Motown may not exist in any recognizable form by then. It barely exists, today. Unless it is declared a welfare state and put under the control of a conservatorship – not unlike our nation’s capital, which benefits from the self-sustaining windbag industry – there will be nothing left to steal or protect, nowhere left to live and nothing left to do. As if to give credence to just such a scenario, Jose Padilha’s futuristic remake of the 1987 sci-fi classic – even then, shot largely in Texas and Pennsylvania — was made entirely in Canada, which, perhaps, could benefit from annexing Detroit as a suburb of Windsor. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, though, that there’s enough left of the city for a cyborgian lawman to save. How, then, does Padilha’s “RoboCop” stand up to Paul Verhoeven’s far more nuanced original? Well, like most other things in life and the cinema, it depends on the beholder. If the storyline doesn’t deviate much from the framework built by writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the script devised by Padilha (“Elite Squad”) and freshman writer Joshua Zetumer substitutes hard-core action and menace for the dark humor and old-fashioned humanity that distinguished Verhoeven’s picture. It doesn’t lack for violence, certainly, even if Padilha was required, against his will, to cut the film for a PG-13 release. Here, Samuel L. Jackson plays a rabble-rousing talk-show blowhard, who shills for OmniCorp, the company financing the RoboCop project. It has been supplying mechanical soldiers to the U.S. military, for its overseas wars, but CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) believes that the future lies in the domestic market. Sellars knows that the populace won’t feel secure, however, unless the computerized cops display human sensitivities. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) finds just the right fit in a seriously damaged good-guy cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who’s none too thrilled to wake up to find himself under the control of the ruthless Sellars. Nonetheless, it’s a human face. The change allowed Padilha to reposition Murphy’s suburban family (Abbie Cornish, John Paul Ruttan) in the narrative, from background to forefront. It probably didn’t matter that critics were split down the middle on the 2014 release, which cost more than $100 million to make and market. (The 1987 model made do on a $13 million budget, returning four times that much to MGM.) What I found interesting, though, was how international audiences saved “RoboCop” from tanking, cornering 75 percent of total revenues of $243 million. Even without counting for inflation, domestic revenues for both the original and remake were practically the same, $53.4 million vs. $58.6 million, making a sequel an iffy proposition. I see no reason why it shouldn’t do just fine in the after-market, though. Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley and Marianne Jean-Baptiste also play key roles. The Blu-ray offers a superior audio/visual presentation, as well as several deleted scenes and extensive making-of and background material. – Gary Dretzka Lone Survivor: Blu-ray Ride for Lance Ask a firefighter, cop or soldier what prompted him or her to act heroically in a life-or-death situation and the answer almost always will be something like, “I was just doing my job” or “I just did what I was trained to do.” Perhaps, knowing that most Medal of Honor recipients have been killed in the line of duty, they’re content to leave the anointing of heroes to their superiors and politicians. Heroism, itself, is far easier to define and recognize. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about America’s Special Forces, in the last 15 years, at least, it is that the units don’t go into battle anticipating anything beyond what might happen in the next few minutes or hours. Having undergone such an extremely demanding training regimen, practically nothing is left to chance… even while under fire. Typically, too, while the successes of Special Forces teams go unreported, the failures often make headlines. The mission to kill Osama Bin Laden was weighted with such political significance that it became the exception that proved the rule. In 1980, the deaths of eight Americans in the failed attempt to rescue hostages held in the U.S. Embassy by Iranian radicals quickly was overshadowed by finger-pointing and political rhetoric. The first news reports on Operation Red Wings — the failed mission that inspired “Lone Survivor” — focused necessarily on the helicopter being shot down and the deaths of the rescue-team members. More than two years later, after sole survivor Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling account of the mission was published, President Bush posthumously awarded Lt. Michael Murphy the Medal of Honor and the author was given the Navy Cross. Peter Berg’s heart-wrenching film sticks pretty close to Luttrell’s recollection of the doomed mission to eliminate a pro-Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. I doubt that I’m giving away anything that isn’t already known about “Lone Survivor” by pointing out that Occupation Red Wings was compromised by one of the goatherds whose life was spared in a vote among the SEALs. No sooner was the youngest let go than he scampered down the mountain side to alert the insurgents. If they had killed him or tied him to a tree until the action was completed, it’s possible that the team could have called off the mission and been safely extracted from the landing zone. Even though it takes place less than half-way through the picture, the vote sets up the story’s central moral dilemma: are this country’s rules of engagement realistic in a war such as the one we’re fighting in the mountains of a largely hostile region. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) has since said that his vote to release the boy was influenced by premonitions of how the “liberal media” would have played imposing on a death sentence on the goatherds. I would think that the prospect of a court-martial would be more frightening, but that’s what happens to your moral compass when you watch too much Fox News. Once the Taliban attack the four-man team, it becomes a moot point. Berg’s dramatization of the combat that quickly follows the identification of the Americans is as exciting as anything I’ve witnessed since “Saving Private Ryan.” It feels as if the confrontation is happening in real time and we can reach out and touch the SEALs, not that it would do anyone any good. After the smoke clears on the mountain, Berg introduces another profile in courage in the person of the Pashtun leader who stood his ground against the insurgents. Relying on centuries of tribal tradition, he risked his life by refusing to hand the American over to them. In such pictures as “The Kingdom” and “Battleship,” Berg has demonstrated that he can create and direct credibly violent and exciting war scenarios. His desire to remain faithful to the book gives us an opportunity to meet the SEAL team members before the action and understand what makes a Special Forces unit tick. By the time the operation begins, we’ve bought in to their devotion to duty and each other. Berg also makes sure we understand that the insurgent leader, Ahmad Shah, is a dangerously violent man, capable of killing innocent villagers to make a point. Unlike other post-Vietnam war movies, “Lone Survivor” doesn’t make a case for the futility of war or challenge the reasons we were in Afghanistan. It’s 2005, after all, and the characters here are doing what needed to be done when the rest of the world was still on our side in the war on terror. If this were a movie set in Iraq, instead, viewers might rightly question whether the life of even one American soldier was worth the entirety of the embattled country and the president’s personal crusade against Saddam Hussein. Politics aren’t discussed much in “Lone Survivor” and that’s a big point in its favor. In a profile included in the Blu-ray package, Luttrell doesn’t point to patriotism as being the key reason for wanting to be a Navy SEAL. He’s always considered himself to be a warrior and that’s what attracted him to Special Forces. Berg personally convinced him of his desire to honor Luddell’s brothers-in-arms. In “The Pashtun Code of Life,” we’re introduced to another real-life hero, Mohamad Gulab, who may have signed his own death warrant by obeying traditional Pashtun principles and saving Luttrell’s life. His ordeal is far from over. Last year, producer and Navy veteran Scott Mactavish released the practically DIY documentary, “Murph: The Protector” to honor Lieutenant Murphy. His act of valor came when he decided to climb back up to the ridge, unprotected, to find reception for the team’s satellite phone. He and Luttrell both knew it was a suicide mission, but kept on picking off as many enemy fighters as possible. The movie relied solely on interviews, re-creations and personal memorabilia to describe the Medal of Honor recipient and act of courage. Mactavish has followed up on that effort with the similarly low-budget, “Ride for Lance,” which describes a 31-day, 12,000-mile motorcycle excursion undertaken by friends and comrades of Chief Petty Officer Lance Vaccaro, a decorated SEAL, killed in a 2008 training exercise. Four riders and a support team made the trek from Virginia Beach to Alaska, all the way accepting donations for the Navy SEAL Foundation. The scenery may be the best thing about “Ride for Lance,” but easily the most heart-warming is the response accorded the riders along the way by vets, average citizens and police and fire officials. If any of them had to pay for a drink or lodging during the trip, I didn’t notice it. – Gary Dretzka Alexander: The Ultimate Cut: 10th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray Riddle me this, Batman: when is the “final cut” version of a DVD not, in fact, the final cut? When Oliver Stone says it isn’t. In addition to the theatrical-, director’s- and final-cut editions of his grand historical epic, we now have the “Ultimate” 10th-anniversary package of “Alexander.” It’s even been collected on Blu-ray alongside “300” and “Troy.” A few studios, notably Disney, routinely send out different editions of the same movie, adding a feature or two to entice fans. Depending on whose article one reads, “Alexander” has been released at lengths of 167, 175, 206, 213 and 220 minutes, although only three of those appear to be valid. It’s no secret that Stone felt rushed by studio demands for the picture and a firm deadline or that he couldn’t wait to add to re-edit it to his own specifications for DVD. Curiously, though, the original director’s-cut edition came in eight minutes shorter than the theatrical release. Likewise, the 2007 “Final Cut” is about six minutes longer than the new “Ultimate” set. But, who’s counting, right? Suffice it to say that Stone appears to be satisfied at its current length, which restores some philosophical discussion with Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and additional homo-erotic references. Three-and-a-half hours spent in anyone’s company can prove taxing and Alexander the Great is no exception. What was good-to-great in the theatrical version remains the same today and the new stuff looks OK, too. Even so, the restored material is likely to be best appreciated by fresher eyes than mine. I kept looking for the changes and it made a long movie longer. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation and that should come as good news to people who need an excuse for revisiting “Alexander.” Also included are an introduction by Stone; 40-page booklet with concept drawings, storyboards and behind-the-scenes photos; collectible packaging; correspondence memos between Stone and the cast and crew; a new documentary, “The Real Alexander and the World He Made”; commentaries by Oliver Stone and historian Robin Lane Fox; the original theatrical version and commentary; Sean Stone’s feature-length making-of documentary, “Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’”; and “Vangelis Scores ‘Alexander’.” – Gary Dretzka Black Out: Blu-ray Anyone able to erase the memory of 15 years’ worth of Guy Ritchie miscues, along with dozens of anemic attempts to copy “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” by lesser directors, might find something fresh and exotic in “Black Out.” (Just try to forget he was married to Madonna and directed her in the “Swept Away” remake.) Everyone else, I’m afraid, will see it as just another apple that fell too close to the tree. Don’t get me wrong, though, the Rotterdam-set crime story has many redeeming qualities. In his first feature for mature audiences, Dutch director Arne Toonen used a novel by fellow countryman Gerben Hellinga as the foundation for “Black Out.” So it’s possible, I suppose, that the novelist owes more to Ritchie than does Toonen. How does one say, “moot point,” in Dutch? The basic story involves an amnesic crook, Jos, who can’t remember picking up 20 kilos of cocaine from a smuggler, let alone how he could have paid for it or delivering it to someone other than an octogenarian crime boss, who’s near death and confined to a wheelchair. There’s also the matter of a fortune in Eurodollars that’s missing and presumed forgotten by Jos, as well. To avoid being killed on the eve of his wedding, Jos and a burly buddy pay call on all of the unusual suspects in the port city to pick their brains and pockets. Besides Grandpa, they include a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet turned kick-boxer, a bowling center operator, a woman who’s adept at guessing the purity of cocaine by touch, a Surinamese dog groomer, his finance’s corrupt father, the operator of the Cowboy Disco and, best of all, sexy female ninjas Petra and Charity. As imagined by Katja ad Birgit Schuurman, the tattooed enforcers need wield only a fireman’s ax and cricket bat to make their points. Otherwise, “Black Out” overflows with Ritchie-esque ultra-violence, cleverly rendered profanity, loud music and enough backstabbing and double-crosses to fill a dozen homages to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel, photo gallery and comic short, “Oh, Deer,” also by Toonen. As ragged as “Black Out” is, I’d watch it again just to see Petra and Charity. – Gary Dretzka Clockwork Orange County Of all the places in America for a virulent strain of punk rock to take root in the late-1970s, SoCal’s Orange County was one of the least likely. Former President Richard Nixon still lived on its southern tip and the residents’ dedication to suburban values was unequaled in the U.S. If the Flower Power and antiwar movements failed to make a dent in Orange County complacency, a different kind of youth-quake was on the horizon in the mid-1970s. Kids who were bullied for their non-conformist ideas and unconventional appearance began to find each other in school, at the beach and other places that they could drink, smoke, show off their tattoos and get pierced in peace. The “skate punk” movement was already in full swing and the increasingly violent “surf Nazi” crowd was threatening to turn public beaches into war zones. Mostly, though, kids just wanted to have fun and there was only one place that allowed them to head-bang to songs that matched their outsider attitudes. Appropriately, it was a Costa Mesa nightclub, the Cuckoo’s Nest, that booked the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, T.S.O.L and didn’t mind taking money from kids who preferred slam-dancing and stage-diving to whatever was being shown on “Soul Train.” The exposure that bands received at the Cuckoo’s Nest sometimes put them on a fast track to national attention, even if the money didn’t always match the energy exerted on the dance floor. The more popular the club got, however, the more it became infested with addicts, overly aggressive lunatics and tailgaters, hoping to save some money by getting drunk in the parking lot. This led to all sorts of problems, including fights between the punks and patrons of the “cowboy” bar, down the road. Not surprisingly, then, “Clockwork Orange County” will be of interest primarily to those who still enjoy the music or remember the nightclub. It features interviews, then and now, with many of the musicians and fans who put the place on the map. – Gary Dretzka Ravenous: Blu-ray Parts Per Billion: Blu-ray Death Bed: The Bed That Eats: Blu-ray How many times have you been warned about eating a big meal before watching a particularly gory movie? Typically, such talk only enhances our appetites for mayhem that rarely lives up to the hype. “Ravenous” is the only movie I can recall where the admonishment actually holds water. And, yes, we’re talking about cannibalism here. As unappetizing as it might be, Antonia Bird’s quasi-Western is set among some of the most beautiful scenery that Slovakia and Durango have to offer. It also features a cast that, in 1999, was built to sell tickets. It included Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer and Neal McDonough. Pearce plays an army officer who experienced a spot of bother in our war with Mexico and developed a nasty habit. Somehow, though, he managed to capture a Mexican command post, for which he was given a promotion. His reward was being posted in a fort high in the Sierra Nevada range, which for several winter months is impassable. Pearce’s Captain John Boyd may look as if he’s just gone 10 rounds with a rabid bear, but he’s Robert Redford in “Jerimiah Johnson” compared with the rest of the soldiers stationed there. Carlyle plays a Scottish stranger, who after being treated for frostbite, tells a story about the leader of a group of settlers who lured members of his party into caves when the snows came. When the soldiers investigate the claim, they get a lesson in extreme dining. By now, though, “Ravenous” still has a long way to go. In addition to cannibalism, screenwriter Ted Griffin borrows from the Wendigo legend to give a spiritual twist to the proceedings. Despite the excellent cast, the movie didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. Perhaps, if the producers built an outdoor theater and showed it to tourists at the Donner Summit campground, they’d have made a fortune. The Blu-ray includes a new interview with actor Jeffrey Jones; commentaries with Bird and composer Damon Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and Carlyle; deleted scenes with Bird’s commentary; and two still galleries of the costume and production design. Brian Horiuchi’s freshman feature, “Parts Per Billion,” is another picture whose cast couldn’t save it from straight-to-PPV oblivion. The “On the Beach” approach to apocalyptical drama doesn’t quite work here, as airborne biological toxins slowly make their way from the Middle East to Michigan and a bunch of people who can only sit and wait for the curtain to drop on their lives. Among actors involved here are Josh Hartnett, Teresa Palmer, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Penn Badgley, Hill Harper and the always welcome Gena Rowlands and Frank Langella. The deeper drama involves three couples desperate to keep love alive, even under such extreme conditions. I hate to say it, but this is one post-apocalypse movie that could use some zombies. Also set in Detroit, well before the economic collapse, is George Barry’s one and only gift to the cinematic gods. “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” is so unbelievably strange and poorly made that it cries out to be seen by cultists, if no one else. And, yet, here “Death Bed” is, 37 years later and in Blu-ray, no less. Actually, it might be even older than that. Legend has it that Barry’s film was shot in 1972, but the answer print wasn’t struck until six years later. Barry had pretty much forgotten he’d made the movie until 2003, when he discovered that bootleg copies of “Death Bed” had been circulating and it had developed a fan base. He then decided to put it out officially on DVD, with a bonus package that rivals any assembled by Criterion Collection. The story is set in a stone outbuilding of a crumbling estate outside Detroit. The only piece of furniture is a large four-post bed with a crimson cover. There’s also an Aubrey Beardsley painting that carries a supernatural charge. As the title suggests, anyone who sits on the bed gets devoured by it, especially if they’re partially naked actresses. It’s nuts … truly nuts … but in a good way. Inexplicably, independent distributors Cult Epics and Olive Films have decided to invest even more money into “Death Bed,” in the form of a new HD transfer; introductions and commentaries by Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA,” and Barry; a conversation between Thrower and Barry on horror films of the 1970s and 1980s; a new behind-the-scenes featurette; and original “Death Bed” music track. – Gary Dretzka We Always Lie to Strangers: The Incredible True Story of Branson, Missouri When I saw the title to this documentary about a town that could only exist in America, I expected an expose of the family-values dodge or a snotty putdown of an entertainment mecca that caters to men and women who haven’t boogied since Lawrence Welk died. They used to say the same thing about Las Vegas, too, but, this time, it’s true. Instead, A.J. Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” examines how a remote Ozark Mountain town prospers by providing stages for entertainers too old to draw flies in Las Vegas or, even, Nashville. More than 7.5 million tourists visit Branson a year, generating some $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Unlike Las Vegas and Nashville, however, the year-round population is just north of 10,000 people, almost all of whom owe their living to the entertainment and tourism industries. Besides such well-known performers as Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and Yakov Smirnoff, who have permanent theaters in town, Branson is home to more than 100 song-and-dance stages. (There’s small cemetery’s worth of tribute shows dedicated to departed country legends.) It almost goes without saying that none of the productions dare allow naughty language, nudity, gambling or political jokes that might alternately offend Republicans and Democrats. It isn’t unusual for a show to end with a gospel medley or salute to our armed forces. Not everyone comes to Branson for the shows or even the family values. It’s located in a beautiful corner of the country, where outdoors sports, zip lines, mini-golf, fishing and other more-or-less healthy activities can be enjoyed. There are a lot worse places to be stuck than Branson, even if one isn’t yet eligible for Social Security. That’s the good news, though. The bad news is that family values, alone, can’t keep Branson safe from the economic realities of the rest of the world. Again, like Vegas, it has been hit hard by the cutback in tourism by financially endangered Americans. Unlike Vegas, though, I doubt it has much of an international audience to compensate for the losses. It’s the trickle-down effect of a crippled economy that impacts the people we meet here most. “We Always Lie to Strangers” introduces us to the Presley and Lennon families, whose must-see productions embody everything there is to like in Branson … if you like that kind of stuff. As popular as their shows have been, the entertainers can’t escape the slow economy and drop in state support for tourism. It isn’t unusual to find performers, in costume, hustling coupons to tourists. Still, like troupers everywhere, they go on with the shows. I wondered if the filmmakers were going to address the elephant in the room, which is the town’s disproportionately large gay population. As is pointed out by one of the male dancers in a popular show, Branson probably is the most gay-friendly place of its size and location in the country. Take away the gays and no one would be left to entertain the paying customers. As long as couples don’t flaunt their affection on Main Street, everything’s copacetic. Their everyday problems, however, are only slightly more pronounced than others interviewed. “We Always Lie to Strangers” has a pleasant home-spun quality to it and the people chosen to represent the town and cross-section of its residents have plenty of worthwhile things to say. One divorced dancer with an unreliable baby-sitter even allows herself to cuss when shit happens, but only off-stage. – Gary Dretzka Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton Breaking Through As an admirer of the Beat writers and many experimental filmmakers, I suppose that I should have heard about James Broughton before watching “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” the celebratory bio-doc produced by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon. A square peg almost from birth, the Modesto-born poet and filmmaker was a poet and filmmaker (a.k.a., “father of West Coast independent cinema”) whose ecstatic approach to life and the arts was as infectious as it was entertaining. His influence can be traced back to the post-WWII San Francisco renaissance, which, in turn, directly influenced the Beats and hippies, the gay-liberation movement and Radical Faeries (a group that rejects assimilation into mainstream society by gays and lesbians). He also was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist and social-welfare organization comprised of “queer nuns.” Not one to limit his choices, Broughton once lived with Berkeley film critic and future New Yorker writer Pauline Kael and, in 1962, married artist and designer Suzanna Hart, with whom he brought two children onto this Earth. He considered himself to be married to one of his male partners, at least. Broughton’s poetry celebrated his expansive views on sexuality and life, in general. The poems we remember are playful and display a child-like quality in the manipulation of words and phrases. The film’s title defines his approach to life, which he synopsized as being, “follow your own weird.” “Big Joy” features interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives and lovers, plus images from his films. I don’t know if anyone’s dedicated a street in Broughton’s name, but it’s entirely possible that, without his presence, San Francisco might not have become the wildly diverse and hugely entertaining city that it is today. The DVD adds more interviews and background material. At 85 minutes, “Breaking Through” overplays its hand by a good half-hour. This isn’t to infer that its message wears thin over time or the un-closeted politicians Cindy Abel interviews here are dull, only that watching and listening to anyone discuss themselves in mostly static poses can grow tiresome. Even so, an hour spent in the company of openly LGBT elected officials – from the first openly gay U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin, to local officials in unlikely districts – is an hour well-spent. These are men and women, who, after all, were required to convince voters and themselves that sexual preference should be an irrelevant consideration in politics and public service. In fact, self-doubt was the toughest barrier to be overcome by LGBT candidates. And, yes, in addition to “L” and “G” office-holders, we also meet those of the “B” and “T” persuasion. While dry, Abel’s first feature-length documentary is uplifting and encouraging as it pertains to acceptance at the polls. It was shot before things got really ugly in the wake of Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, so we miss some perspective there. – Gary Dretzka Son of God: Blu-ray It’s always fun to watch mainstream critics tie themselves in knots when putting a beat-down on movies that deal with issues near and dear to the hearts of many readers or demand a politically correct approach to the subject matter. This certainly applies to movies that depict accepted religious beliefs and revered historical figures, ranging from Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ to the prophet Muhammad and Moses. In the first century of cinema, studios have been every bit as circumspect in their portrayals and interpretations of Hebrew and Christian bibles and the Koran. I mean, why bother? While historical and literary purists have been known to angrily criticize Hollywood revisionism, it’s the devotedly religious constituency that can kill a movie’s box-office potential. The Monty Python gang milked the controversy surrounding “Life of Brian” for all it was worth, while Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” took its message directly to the demographic group most likely to create buzz for a religious movie. In both cases, the strategy worked. Despite some heated discussions about what some critics saw as gratuitously torturous material and anti-Semitic propaganda, Gibson basically trumped the reviewers. On the flip side, Martin Scorsese’s critically lauded “The Last Temptation of Christ” became as controversial as the book upon it was based. Nikos Kazantzakis’ intensely thoughtful novel was loudly condemned as blasphemous by religious leaders and pundits, who, of course, hadn’t read the book or conferred with its defenders. Universal didn’t accede to demands that the movie be pulled from circulation, but threats of violence and government action in some countries gave the studio pause when it came to marketing the picture, which it tagged with a lame cautionary note. Potential audiences also were intimidated by the protests. It’s been reported that Universal agreed to finance the project as long Scorsese agreed to make “Cape Fear,” in return. In this case, the victory went to those who prefer the Jesus-on-black-velvet approach to the crucifixion. In February, Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God” made a substantial return on investment by sticking to the least controversial interpretation of the New Testament possible. The feature-length film, Spencer’s first, was cobbled together from material included in or deleted from the hit History Channel mini-series, “The Bible.” Even playing it safe proved risky for the producers, however. During mini-series’ run, some viewers took to the Internet to question why Satan bore a distinct resemblance to President Obama. Exec-producers Mark Burnett and Rona Downey, who presumably would have no reason to add such a contentious element to their highly anticipated project, emphatically denied the charge. By this time, however, right-wing radio nuts picked up on the rumors and decided there was mileage there to be gained. By the time “Son of God” was released into DVD/Blu-ray, however, Satan had been “cast out” of the movie. Downey said it was done to put the focus on Jesus. This, of course, prompted no-nothing pundits to suggest that Obama, himself, forced the excision. “Son of God” received reviews that largely argued that, despite the earnestness of everyone involved, the movie … well … sort of … sucked. I didn’t think it was as bad as all that, really. My primary objection derives from the casting of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as the leading man. In their effort to make Jesus more “human,” for contemporary audiences, the producers cast someone who could be a mid-fielder for a Lisbon soccer team or Brad Pitt’s body-double. His turning out of the tax collectors in the temple had all the gravity of a player disputing a yellow-card penalty. For those who prefer their Jesus Lite, however, “Son of God” seems perfectly agreeable. Still, I wondered how it managed to gross $60 million, against a production budget of $22 million, when most of the material was already available via History Channel sources. An answer may have been revealed in the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in the Blu-ray package. Powerful church leaders Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., among them, show up in set visits or singing the movie’s praises in interviews. They and other “megachurch” founders subsequently vowed to take over the nation’s megaplexes upon its opening on February 28, purchasing tickets and gobbling down popcorn. Beyond that, who knows? – Gary Dretzka Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time: Blu-ray If anyone could make the genesis of a 50-year-old television show entertaining, it’s the BBC. Of course, “Doctor Who” isn’t just any BBC series. What began as an experiment rapidly evolved into a national phenomenon and, eventually, a worldwide cult sensation. It has survived several hiatuses and cast upheavals and may, today, be enjoying its highest level of popularity. 2013 was filled with programming related to the remarkable longevity of the show and hubbub surrounding the abdication of Matt Smith, as the 11th Doctor, and coronation of his successor, Peter Capaldi. Among the other goodies included in the celebration was the 90-minute “Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time,” which aired near the end of November around the globe. It describes how, in 1963, the BBC’s then-head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) was assigned the task of coming up with a show that would carry viewers from earlier day parts to the older-skewing portion of the schedule, without losing most of its younger audience. Newman decided to attempt a sci-fi series, but absent most of the clichés of the genre. He took another risk by asking Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) to be his producer. Both choices were greeted with disdain by BBC veterans, who resisted taking orders from a woman and wasting their precious brain cells on fantasy. Her biggest challenge, though, turned out to be the casting of the first Doctor, whose personality and cleverness would go a long way toward dictating the show’s success. In the cranky veteran thespian William Hartnell (David Bradley), they felt as if they had made the right choice. He had his doubts, of course, but raised them mostly to his wife, who was quite used to such anguished self-examination. On the set, his near-tyrannical behavior made him few friends. It wasn’t until after Opening Night, when the boffo ratings were revealed, that everyone could breathe easily. What’s remarkable about this production is how it reflects the complete change of attitude in everyone involved, when their worst fears weren’t realized. Overnight, cast and crew became a team. Hartnell, for one, can’t believe that children come up to him in public, asking for autographs. Three years later, he will have to come to grips with the serious disease that is ruining his memory and complicating his performance. Bradley is terrific in demonstrating Hartnell’s emotional roller-coaster ride. The Blu-ray package is worth the price of admission, alone, as it includes the first “Doctor Who” serial and pilot, “An Unearthly Child”; “The Making of an Adventure in Space and Time”; “William Hartnell: The Original”; “Regeneration: Doctors 1, 2 and 3,” re-cast; “Reconstruction: Four Sequences”; David Bradley’s “Farewell” and “Christmas Greeting”; a titles sequence; and deleted scene, “Delia Derbyshire.” – Gary Dretzka TV-to-DVD USA: Graceland: The Complete First Season TNT: Falling Skies: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray ABC Family: Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season New Adventures of Superman/JLA Adventures PBS: Nova: Inside Animal Minds PBS: Nature: Snow Monkeys PBS: Nature: My Bionic Pet PBS: Frontline: TB Silent Killer If, like me, you were turned off by the idea of watching another TV series set in Memphis or involving a P.I. who wears a jump suit with a large thunderbird embroidered on it in sequins, you might have bailed on the latest USA Network series, “Graceland.” (I mourned the cancellation of “Memphis Beat,” but one was enough.) Instead, “Graceland” is set in an expensive beachfront house, within a short drive to LAX. It was confiscated from a drug kingpin and repurposed as a co-habitual residence for undercover agents of DEA, FBI and U.S. Customs Agency. Naturally, extremely attractive men and women share the plush crash pad, setting up myriad possible story arcs and potentially lethal relationships. And, yes, surfing is an integral part of the bonding process. Among the criminal activities to be eradicated are drug smuggling, parrot smuggling and Levis smuggling, street gangs, cartels, Russian gangsters, pot farmers and a possible turncoat in their midst. You know, the usual stuff. Heading into Season One, the best thing going for “Graceland” was the participation of Jeff Eastin, who wrote and exec-produced “White Collar.” In my opinion, “Graceland” doesn’t measure up to “White Collar,” which benefitted from its sly humor, compelling characters and interesting crime-solving. The cable-ready hotness of the actors, including Aaron Tveit, Daniel Sunjata, Manny Montana, Vanessa Ferlito and Serinda Swan, is an asset. Once one gets past the missing-Elvis thing, it’s much easier to enjoy “Graceland,” which benefits greatly from some L.A. locations we haven’t seen for a while. Season Two begins next week. In the weekly battle between apocalypse survivors and giant metallic space invaders on “Falling Skies,” the storylines have begun to crash into each other and it’s gotten far more difficult to take sides. If it weren’t for the presence of Noah Wylie – all “ER” vets get the benefit of the doubt in this column – I still wouldn’t be able to discern the protagonist from the antagonist. The same confusion now occurs when I watch shows and movies about zombies. They’re only doing what comes naturally, after all. In Season Three, the Second Mass of aliens has taken root in Charleston and the survivors’ newly elected president, Tom (Wylie), would like nothing more than to spoil the upcoming anniversary of aliens’ arrival. One way of doing it is to shut down the power source that allows the “skitters,” “mechs” and “Espheni” to counter the human resistance. Meanwhile, power struggles continue to threaten the coalition and some begin to mistrust the Volms’ motives. Paying attention to detail is definitely a pre-requisite for enjoying “Falling Skies.” A scorecard would be even more helpful. The thing I appreciate most about the new “Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season” DVD is the featurette in which all of the storylines and mysteries are traced back to Day One. It allowed me to understand what all the fuss is about surrounding the red coat and snail-paced progress in the murder investigation, among other things. Although the show is adapted from Sara Shepard’s series of YA novels, it is better described as “Desperate Housewives” for teenage girls, as one critic put it. There’s a major twist in the murder storyline at midseason that puts everything that’s gone before it into question and adds several new suspects to the mix, including MILF moms and other adults. Blessedly, the girls still look good doing whatever they’re doing, instead of studying, and they never have to worry about wearing the same outfit twice. Another thing I don’t understand is how a kissy-face lesbian relationship got past the censors at ABC Family. Either someone is asleep at the switch or no one cares, which is OK with me. They can scrap the whole TV-ratings charade, for all I care. The extras include featurettes, “Unhooding Red Coat: Alison Is Alive!,” “Confessions of ‘A’ Liar” and “Pretty Little Scenes,” the bonus-recap episode and deleted scenes. In 2007, the first season of “The New Adventures of Superman” was released on DVD by Warner Home Video and, ever since, fans of the animated series from 1966-69 have anxiously awaited the release of the next two seasons of the Filmation series. The segments were excised from the Saturday-morning shows the Man of Steel shared with Aquaman, Batman and Superboy, Game-show veteran Bud Collyer supplied his voice, if not the likeness, while Ted Knight provided the narration. If the animation looks primitive, well, everything did in 1966. Compare it to “JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time,” which is “2001: A Space Odyssey” compared to “New Adventures of Superman.” It’s also a million times more complex. The 52-minute feature is as much about Lex Luthor as the Justice League, in that he plans to take over the world by expanding the polar ice caps (which should really confuse the deniers of global warming). Incredibly, Luther turns up a thousand years later in the Legion of Superheroes’ Museum, where he’s privy to all of the secrets of 21st Century superheroes. After being accidentally sprung, he time-travels back to the present, ready and able to destroy Our Hero. This week’s package from PBS is heavy on animal-related shows. “Inside Animal Minds” is a three-part, 180-minute documentary that explores how animals understand the world around them and learn to react to things that happen in certain patterns, shapes and speeds in common ways. It employs dogs, birds and dolphins to make some fascinating points. The “Nature” presentation “Snow Monkeys” takes us to Japan’s Shiga Highlands, where a troop of snow monkeys – yes, the ones that bask contentedly in the hot springs in frigid weather – is learning to adjust to the complex society of rank and privilege under a relatively new boss monkey. Also from “Nature,” “My Bionic Pet” describes how modern prosthetics, some developed to assist wounded soldiers, are being used to put injured animals back on their feet, fins, flippers, tails and beaks. Cures thought impossible only a few years ago soon could be commonplace. From “Frontline” comes “TB Silent Killer,” documents how tuberculosis has returned with a vengeance in countries already ravaged by disease. The virulent strains now emerging are drug-resistant and spread without warning. We meet some of the victims. – Gary Dretzka Kissing Jessica Stein: Blu-ray The Birdcage: Blu-ray The Ringer: Blu-ray These very different comedies arrive on Blu-ray alongside a wave of other Fox anniversary titles. Released in 2001, “Kissing Jessica Stein” became a surprise indie hit, opening the door to other movies that treated lesbians as something other than deviants and/or victims of abusive relatives. Light and up-to-date, it told the story of New York journalist Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt), who grows weary of trying to find “Mr. Right” through the usual channels and decides to answer an ad for a roommate-with-benefits from the far more worldly Helen (Heather Juergensen), who’s recently made it known that she’s strictly clitly. They become fast friends and almost lovers, but Jessica has a difficult time cutting the cord from her suburban Jewish family. “Kissing Jessica Stein” was very well received, even from those feminists and lesbians who would have preferred a less traditional ending. In my opinion, I think that the movie may inadvertently have unlocked the door for dozens of closeted actors, executives and writers in Hollywood, as well as characters languishing in unmade screenplays. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; commentaries by director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and Lawrence Sher, and Juergensen and Westfeldt; outtakes and original ending; and a behind-the-scenes featurette. I wonder if RuPaul would have become an international superstar if it weren’t for the success of “The Birdcage” and the French movie from which it was adapted, “La Cage aux Folles.” Drag queens now seem to be as hard to miss on cable TV as any of the Kardashians. Like “Kissing Jessica Stein,” after it, “The Birdcage” probably opened the door to a better understanding of divergent lifestyles for mainstream audiences. It’s pretty hard to hate on cross-dressers and same-sex marriages when you’re rolling on the floor laughing at Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Mike Nichols’ version of the story played for the big laughs more than Édouard Molinaro’s original, but that certainly didn’t bother American audiences. There are no bonus features included on the Blu-ray. Although the fingerprints of Peter and Bobby Farrelly are all over “The Ringer,” their role is officially listed as producers only. Who else, after a seven-year search, could find financing for a movie about a plot to fix the Special Olympics? (It sounds funnier on paper than what appears on screen.) The gag here involves Johnnie Knoxville’s character, who, after some bizarre complications, agrees to help himself and his mobbed-up uncle (Brian Cox) raise money to pay off heavy debts. Instead of scamming the Special Olympics contestants into gold medals and glory, the athletes upstage him at every turn. I’m not sure how many of the characters were played by special-needs actors, but I recognized several that weren’t. Given the Farrellys’ well-earned reputation, “The Ringer” could have been a lot crueler toward the Special Olympics, but the movie’s mushy center rescues it. – Gary Dretzka Sugar Cookies: Blu-ray Baby Rosemary/Hot Lunch 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 2 Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle/Office Love: Behind Closed Doors Written and produced by a pre-Troma Lloyd Kaufman and starring cult favorites Lynn Lowry and Mary Woronov, “Sugar Cookies” is one of the soft-core classics from the early-1970s. Lowry, who, a decade later, would be mauled and jizzed upon by a black panther in “Cat People,” plays the dual role of seriously endangered actresses, Alta and Lowry. No longer in the Andy Warhol repertory company, Woronov plays the corrupt manager who shills for a sleazy sex-film producer. Kaufman and director Theodore Gershuny (Woronov’s then-husband) were shooting for something that might remind grindhouse audiences of a Hitchcock thriller. On a budget that might have maxxed-out at $10,000, in 1973 dollars, it couldn’t have afforded Hitch’s monthly cigar allotment. Nonetheless for really cheap skin-tacular thrills, it’s hard to beat. Look for guest appearances by Ondine, Monique van Vooren and porn superstar Jennifer Welles. Vinegar Syndrome sends it out with a fresh 4K polish, interviews with Kaufman, Lowry and Woronov, and vintage trailers. Also from Vinegar Syndrome comes the “Peekarama” double-feature, “Baby Rosemary” (1976) and “Hot Lunch” (1978), vintage titles that are far more interesting for who’s in them than any story that director John Hayes was trying to tell. “Baby Rosemary,” a supernatural romp in which “no” never means “no,” future Hall of Fame porn star John Leslie is still going by John Leslie Dupré. He’s joined by Sharon Thorpe and newcomers Candida Royalle (then Royale) and Leslie Bovee. In “Hot Lunch,” the name game is even crazier. Male lead Jon Martin goes by Jerry Heath; Sharon Kane is Sheri Vaughan; Juliet “Aunt Peg” Anderson is Alice Rigby; and Desiree Cousteau is Desirée Costeau. For these future headliners, “Hot Lunch” was only their second porn credit. Both titles have been restored in 2k from the camera negative, original theatrical trailers, and alternate scenes from “Hot Lunch.” The second release in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” clocks in at an impressive 129 minutes of pure raunch, with a heavier emphasis on girl-girl action than in “Volume 1.”  Among the 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, are some featuring uncredited performances by Desiree Cousteau, Candida Royalle, Chris Cassidy and John Holmes. Liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie are included in the package. The latest entries from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection feature women who use their wiles to get ahead in their chosen fields, yet pine for the men who ushered them into womanhood. Although there are nods to feminism here and there, none would have been strong enough to give the average Japanese perv in the early- to mid-1980s pause. In “Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle,” Junko Asahina plays Kei, the captain of the Kara Cosmetics Company’s rhythmic gymnastics team, which is about to compete in an important corporate tournament. When Aoki (Funasaku Sasairi) is brought in as their new coach and is required to work alongside his former lover, Kei, he turns into an impotent wreck. The last time Aoki slept with Kei before a competition, she lost, and that’s not an acceptable option at this level. When the corporate executives suspect he may be gay, they treat him with the same courtesy as they show to their female employees, which is to say, none. In “Office Love: Behind Closed Doors,” an old lover also returns to haunt up-and-coming travel executive Reiko (Akasaka Rei), who’s given the key to her Tokyo apartment to the three men she calls boss. Things get really weird when her now-married ex-boyfriend tries to insinuate himself back into her life and a subordinate takes a shine to her, as well. (Oh, yeah, Reiko also does a bit of escorting on the side, but with western businessmen.) When her bosses figure out that they’re being used by Reiko, she uses her humiliation to destroy two other men in her circle, while also getting her rocks off. The Impulse DVDs contain essays on the individual filmmakers and actors. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The People vs Paul Crump
Back in 1962, when William Friedkin completed his searing indictment of the death penalty, “The People vs. Paul Crump,” few people believed that police routinely used brutality and torture to coerce confessions from possibly innocent men. When the issue was raised in Chicago, anyway, citizens and journalists, alike, chose to believe police spokesmen and the State’s Attorney Office as to the veracity of the claims. To do otherwise would have eroded the citizenry’s faith in the democratic systems, while making all public institutions suspect. In Chicago, where corrupt and power-made politicians have always enjoyed the benefit of a doubt, mainstream voters (a.k.a., white) only began to doubt the invincibility of the mayor and police after the Walker Report declared the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention a “police riot.” Even if they’d witnessed it for itself on television, or knew young people bludgeoned in Lincoln and Grant Park, doubters could be swayed into believing that “outside agitators” were to blame for their city’s black eye. A year after the convention, Chicagoans allowed themselves to accept reports that Illinois Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark Less were killed by police acting in self-defense during an early-morning raid. That claim proved not to be true, as well. It was officially sanctioned murder, pure and simple. It took another 20-plus years for a case to come along that proved inconclusively what community activists, lawyers and victims had been arguing all along. In 1993, police detective Jon Graham Burge would be fired after the Police Department Review Board ruled that he had used torture to force confessions from as many as 200 criminal suspects, between 1972 and 1991. In the past, such charges were ignored by people who argued “they must have been guilty of something.” Here, though, the fallout eventually led to tens of millions of tax dollars in legal fees and settlements; dozens of new trials and reversed decisions; and, finally, concern over the very real possibility that innocent men were sitting on Death Row. By 2003, so many flaws in the system were discovered that outgoing Republican Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners … just in case. It wasn’t until January, 2011, however, that Burge – now a pensioner, living in Florida – was sentenced to 4½ years in federal prison on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury. The statute of limitations on the brutality charges had long expired.

In “The People vs. Paul Crump,” future Academy Award-winning director Friedkin (“French Connection”) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bill Butler (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) made a strong case for the possibility that a man on who already had been sitting on Death Row for the last nine years was convicted based on a confession had come after being beaten and tortured for several days. We learn that Crump unsuccessfully contended that he had been sleeping with a woman not his wife at the same time as a security guard was killed in the armed robbery of a Chicago meatpacking plant. Four men known to have been involved in the crime were given prison sentences, perhaps for implicating Crump in the shooting. Fifteen dates with Old Sparky would come and go by the time Crump’s sentence was commuted to 199 years by Governor Otto Kerner. He would be paroled in 1993 and imprisoned once again in an unrelated case. He died of cancer in 2002. “People vs. Crump” was deemed too controversial to air on Chicago television and has been shown only a handful of times since 1962. It was credited, along with Crump’s autobiographical novel (“Burn, Killer, Burn”) and a Life magazine article, for convincing Kerner that there was at least a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and the confession might have been forcibly obtained. After watching the nicely upgraded DVD from Facets, I think that most viewers would come away with the same conclusion. In his interviews with Friedkin, Crump is most eloquent in his description of what life is like for a doomed prisoner, especially those who have come within minutes of having the switch to the electric charge pulled on them. The robbery, arrests and beatings were dramatized in ways that purists argue aren’t kosher, but no one can dispute the diversity of sources questioned by the Chicago Daily News-columnist John Justin Smith. Based on cinematic values, alone, it isn’t at all difficult to believe that Friedkin and Butler might someday create stylish thrillers and procedurals. It moves with same urgency and purpose of a good crime novel. The film is part of the Reel Chicago series of Chicago-based documentaries restored and released through Facets Video. A booklet expands on the principles’ lives after 1962. – Gary Dretzka

Claire Is Dead
Dan Ast’s first feature combines mystery and melodrama to demonstrate just how wrong things can go when teenagers play with fire before learning that it can burn their fingers and singe their heart. It’s something everyone figures out, at one time or another, usually too late. Being young only makes the lesson that much more painful or confusing, as the case may be. In “Claire Is Dead,” there’s no question that the titular protagonist is dead or, even, how it happened. Indeed, it occurred in the most despicable of all possible ways. Claire, a junior in high school, was killed by a drunk driver minutes before the flower of her womanhood was about to blossom. To make matters worse, the jerk attempts to crash the funeral and continues to drink and drive. But, that’s not what makes “Claire Is Dead” tick. Not long after her death, the school’s Golden Boy begins to sense that Claire’s trying to reach out to them from the grave. Although they had never really met and Jack couldn’t pick her picture out from a yearbook, he noticed that someone named Claire signed his cast after he was seriously injured in a football game. Her name also appears on a get-well card. The more curious Jack becomes about her identity, the more he comes to believe that she was, at the very least, stalking him. These clues lead to others that not only seem to confirm that theory, but also suggest that someone is covering up something that might explain how Claire came to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. His investigation takes a hard right turn into the existential when Jack’s obsession begins to impact people in his and Claire’s social circle. Writer/director Ast keeps us guessing throughout “Claire Is Dead,” revealing only what we need to know to get sucked deeper into the mystery. Nor has he torn a page from Rian Johnson’s highly entertaining high-school noir, “Brick,” turning Jack into a mini-Sam Spade. The young cast is very good, even if the actors look as if they haven’t stepped into a high school since their 10-year reunion. It stars Aidan Bristow, Cory Driscoll, Avital Ash, Jennifer Baule, Landon Ashworth, Tybee Diskin, Carolina Castro and Corsica Wilson. They should be with us a long while. – Gary Dretzka

Broken Side of Time
24 Exposures
Among the things in porn that haven’t gone south in the last few years – financially, anyway – is fetish-specific modeling. That’s what I’m told, anyway. The more specific the kink, the less likely it is to be available for free and without a password on the many video-sharing sites. Fetish art probably can be traced back to Pompeii, if not Paleolithic cave drawings. The roots of model Jane/Dolce (Lynn Mancinelli), the protagonist in “Broken Side of Time,” need only be traced to Bettie Page, who specialized in soft-core posing and light bondage. Page began her career modeling for amateur photographers, who formed clubs and chipped in to pay the models. She barely profited from her work for professionals, some of whom still make money off of the images she provided. (Bunny Yeager, who first sold her photos to Playboy, passed last week at 85.) The publicity blurb on the DVD box refers to Jane as one of a million women who have modeling portfolios online. The difference is that she’s been able to make a career of it, albeit one without benefits and a pension, for more than a decade. Co-writer/director Gorman Bechard’s conceit here, then, is to turn up the volume on the footsteps Jane is hearing from younger models, some of whom studied her work before committing to the profession. Without slobbering all over the keyboard, I can attest to the fact that Jane doesn’t look old enough to consider retiring from any profession, let alone modeling. It’s the bullshit that comes with the territory — separating the phonies and pervs from the professionals – that’s causing her to feel older and more hopeless than she is. Her concession to growing older is picking up a camera and joining the game from the other side of the lens. On a long-delayed trip home, Jane attempts to shed the bad habits and other crutches used by models – runway and erotic – to get through the day. Like all bad habits, though, they refuse to go easy. Finally, “Broken Side of Time” is more a character study than a story that ends with a resolution. It could also be described as a tonal piece, in which Bechard (“Friends With Benefit”) uses sound, light and color to make us understand what Jane is experiencing. In an interview, he admits to being surprised by how readily his digital camera interpreted his intentions and accentuated his vision. As good a model as Jane/Dolce is, Bechard is every bit as solid a photographer of nudes. I imagine that he spent a good deal of prep time studying the work of Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham. The DVD features unedited photo shoots, extended scenes, a blooper reel and a featurette on how they achieved the look and feel on a budget of merely $15,000, raised on Kickstarter.

Joe Swanberg’s “24 Exposures” also focuses on a photographer, but, this time, one with a too cozy relationship with his models, all of whom look as if they’re sorority sisters slumming over summer break from a good school. Billy (Adam Wingard) doesn’t care as much about how the models look alive, as they do dead. That, and their willingness to shed their tops and play along with kinky stuff, whether or not they’re being photographed. The fetish he exploits is the simulation of death scenes, in which the models pose broken, bloody and partially nude. If the critic viewing the photograph is a cop, as two of them are here, it would be difficult for them to tell if it was art or murder. And, I suppose that’s the point. The first thing to know about the hyper-prolific Swanberg is that he’s one of the founding fathers of mumblecore, a movement that rewards naturalism and improvisation. The characters tend to have such an easy rapport with each other that viewers can be excused for confusing acting with living. And, I suppose that, too, is a point being made. Like Lars von Trier and fellow proponents of Dogma 95, Swanberg doesn’t seem wed to mumblecore techniques. They have, however, allowed him to shoot professional-looking films on a super-tight budget, using a repertoire company – Greta Gerwig among them – of actors so accustomed to his style that no time is wasted getting accustomed to it. In “24 Exposures,” a young model appears to have been murdered and left to rot in a pose that looks as if it could have been staged by the photographer or is really a crime scene. It’s only when the film crew breaks up laughing that we realize Swanberg has played his first trick on us, but it was close. We aren’t given much reason to sympathize with Billy, who frequently seems intent on using and abusing models for his own amusement, not just his art. One of the detectives (Michael Bamfeaux) investigating an actual look-alike death, nearby, becomes obsessed with Billy’s setup. He’s being tortured by his estranged wife and develops a nonprofessional curiosity with women who do such work. A couple of other characters are thrown in to the mix, as suspects, but none is as fleshed out as Billy. Where “24 Exposures” works best is as sexploitation … a rough blend of arthouse and grindhouse. It’s too loosey-goosey to qualify as a mystery and the acting is a bit chummy for drama. That said, it can easily stand alongside “Broken Side of Time” as a legitimately erotic time-killer for adults of both genders. The DVD adds commentary and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Run & Jump
Anyone who was pleasantly surprised by “SNL” veteran Will Forte’s performance in “Nebraska” ought to check out the smallish indie drama, “Run & Jump.” He plays Ted Fielding, an American psychologist in Ireland to document on film the complicated recovery of Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) from a stroke and serious brain trauma. Before the stroke, Conor, Vanetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids enjoyed a free-wheeling Bohemian lifestyle outside the lovely town of Dingle. When Conor returns home, however, he’s completely self-contained and withdrawn from the outside world. He isn’t completely non-communicative, but nowhere near the same person as before the stroke. Like tens of thousands of other women and men attempting to deal with a spouse’s personality upheaval, Vanetia is finding it difficult to adjust to Conor’s almost complete lack of interest in dancing and other things – excluding woodworking and watching Animal Planet – about which he once cared very much. If Ted weren’t a complete research nerd and his camera as intrusive as it is, we’d expect Venetia to react favorably to having someone in the house with something resembling a sense of humor and normal human emotions. Instead, it simply adds an additional layer of aggravation to her life. That changes when Vanetia discovers a lid of grass among Ted’s belongings and demands he share a joint with her that night. Naturally, it loosens both of them up to the point that most moviegoers would expect the housemates to do something they’ll regret later. Maybe, maybe not. Their newfound closeness does, however, cause Vanetia’s uptight in-laws and temperamental teen son to imagine that Ted might be attempting to insinuate himself into the family as a father figure. When things come to a head in the last reel, we still don’t know where our affections should lie. It would be different if we knew for sure that Conor could someday be capable of making Vanetia happy, again. If there’s a big payoff coming, we can’t see it from here. In her freshman debut as co-writer/director, Steph Green has pulled together a remarkable cast – also including Sharon Horgan, Edward MacLiam, Ciara Gallagher, Brendan Morris – and the result is a movie that deals with an issue only now coming to the fore. The Dingle Peninsula setting may inspire some viewers to purchase tickets to Ireland within minutes of viewing “Run & Jump.” The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Color of Lies: Blu-ray
This Blu-ray upgrade of Claude Chabrol’s little-seen 1999 psychodrama, “The Color of Lies,” follows on the heels of Cohen Media Group’s “The Inspector Lavardin Collection,” which brought us four of the master’s made-for-television films from the 1980s. After making the leap from criticism, in the 1950s, the man often cited as the father of France’s of “nouvelle vague” turned to writing, directing and acting in movies, primarily mysteries and thrillers. He continued doing so, right up to his death, at 80, almost four years ago. “The Color of Lies” is set in the kind of small Breton fishing village where everyone knows each other’s business and has an opinion on everything that happens. When something really big happens, the gossip mongers compete to ruin the lives – if inadvertently – of everyone who might be considered a target. That’s certainly the case here, when a 10-year-old girl is raped and murdered on her way home from the ocean-side home of her art teacher. René (Jacques Gamblin) has been laboring to overcome a painter’s block he’s had since he nearly lost a leg to a terrorist bomb in Paris. No sooner do the gossips learn that René is the leading suspect in the girl’s death – even if there’s no other evidence suggesting he might be the killer – than he begins to lose the students he needs to pay bills. His wife, Vivianne, a rural medical practitioner played by Sandrine Bonnaire, assertively rejects the theories of the lead detective, Frederique (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who doesn’t seem to mind that she’s scarred the reputation of a possibly innocent man. Even so, Chabrol has planted the seed of doubt not only in Rene’s neighbors, but also Vivianne and his audience. Tired of dealing with her husband’s despondency, Vivianne falls very easily into an affair with the worldly, self-absorbed Parisian writer who keeps a home nearby and exploits both that doubt and her pain. Conveniently, Chabrol has added a messy subplot involving stolen jewels, pieces of art and the same gossips. When the writer is found dead outside the seawall of his home, it’s even easier for us to buy into the idea that Rene might be guilty of both murders. Chabrol didn’t often do pure “whodunits,” but “The Color of Lies” easily qualifies as one of the better ones in memory. The 1080p transfer adds to the pleasure of looking at the charming Ille-et-Vilaine settings. Commentary is provided by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein. Fans of crime flicks who’ve run out of things to watch in English are encouraged to begin binging on Chabrol. – Gary Dretzka

How to Train Your Dragon: Blu-ray
I find it interesting that the much-anticipated sequel to “How to Train Your Dragon” was shown at the just-completed Cannes Film Festival – who knew, right? — where it received raves from the assembled Academy Award prognosticators. That’s good for two reasons: 1) Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation need hit, and 2) the fans who contributed $500 million to the international box-office, in 2010, deserve another good run for their money. It will be shown at film festivals in L.A., Sydney and Seattle before opening really, really wide in mid-June. In the meantime, DreamWorks has gotten the juices flowing with its Blu-ray re-release of the original. Even if there are only a couple of new features added from previous editions, as well as a more robust 7.1 soundtrack, kids who’ve lately developed a love for dragons should dig it. The hi-def animated short “Frozen” – no relation to Disney’s “Frozen” – is billed as an “exclusive episode” of the TV show “Dragons: Defenders of Berk” and “Book of Dragons,” which adds to what we know about the fire-breathing creatures, and “Ultimate Book of Dragons,” an interactive feature that allows the viewer to investigate the “book” for themselves. The disc retains “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon,” deleted scenes and commentary. The Blu-ray presentation didn’t require much in the way of visual improvement, so the best reason to pick up the new package is for those few who are desperate to see the sequel, but don’t want to go into it blind. That, and the UltraViolet copy and free ticket to “2.” – Gary Dretzka

Eastern Bandits: Blu-ray
The second Sino-Japanese War has inspired several intriguing movies, told from such diverse perspectives as the martial-arts community (“The Grandmaster”), underground resistance groups (“Lust, Caution”) and a Japanese pacifist (“The Human Condition”) forced to fight. Lu Chuan’s “City Of Life and Death” (2009) and Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” (2011) depict the horrors of the Nanking Massacre, joining several foreign-made pictures about that atrocity’s German-born hero John Rabe. “Eastern Bandits” (“An Inaccurate Memoir”) addresses the occupation in a way that mixes humor, revenge, action and drama. It’s unusual, but fans of contemporary mainland cinema should have no problem with it. Here, a Chinese soldier seeks to avenge his father’s death by kidnapping the Japanese emperor’s brother, who’s in the country to commemorate the raising of a Buddhist monument at a remote military base. To accomplish this, Gao must prove his courage and loyalty to the resistance to a gang of notorious bandits, known for wearing baby-face masks to bank jobs. He does this by helping the gang’s leader escape from jail and withstanding an extreme torture test. If he passes, Gao will get a crack at the Japanese prince, while the bandits will feast on the spoils. It mostly requires digging a network of tunnels and picking off the Japanese soldiers who fall into them. As unconventional as “Eastern Bandits” is, it rarely lacks for martial-arts action and adventure. Cao Yu’s cinematography nicely captures the wide open spaces of the Chinese frontier. There’s a bit of romance between bandit Lady Dagger and Gao, but it’s pretty tame. – Gary Dretzka

Naming a movie “Buttwhistle,” no matter how quirky it may be, is either a curious marketing ploy or a desperate cry for help … or both. Among the many screeners that pass my way every week, it certainly managed to catch my attention, anyway. The title refers to a nickname bestowed upon the male protagonist, Ogden Confer (Trevor Morgan), a Minneapolis community-college student who also answers to the blast of an air horn. There’s no good reason for this to happen, except to establish Ogden as an idiosyncratic character. Filmmakers have been creating such desperately confused young men ever since Benjamin Braddock descended, in full scuba gear, to the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. Ogden was dealt a rough hand when his best friend, Rose (Analeigh Tipton), died on him. She does visit him occasionally, however, either to prolong his agony or lift his spirits, since she’s become something of a masturbatory fantasy. He’s conversing with Rose when he prevents a young woman, Beth (Elizabeth Rice), from committing suicide by gravity. Beth is neither happy about having her leap interrupted, nor is she pleased that the boy with the funny name won’t accept her offer of sex as a reward. Now, in hindsight, that appears to be an offer any straight male of college age couldn’t refuse. At the time, however, it’s easy to see how somehow sensitive enough to be named Buttwhistle might be intimidated by a cute girl who disrupts his conversation with a ghost by dropping from the sky. As if to punish him for having the temerity to foil her suicide and refuse the gift of her tight, white body, Beth uses her wiles to cause trouble for him around the neighborhood. Actually, almost all of the characters here are tragically hip and gifted with the ability to quip at the drop of a hat. For that reason, alone, writer/director Tenney Fairchild (“The Good Humor Man”) appears to have deliberately targeted his dark rom/com/dram directly at those hipsters and wannabes who prefer podcasts and webisodes over any form of mainstream entertainment. The entertaining parkout sequence that plays behind the opening credits offers more promise than the movie can deliver to anyone else. – Gary Dretzka

Rock & Rule: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
For various reasons, none of them good, this animated rock-’n’-roll fantasy made almost no dent at the box office after it was accorded a hyper-limited release in 1983. The loud and lively take on the Faust legend got caught in an executive shuffle at the producing studio and a crunch in the numbers that might have gone to a targeted marketing campaign. It arrived at a time when Don Bluth (“The Secret of NIMH”) and Ralph Bakshi (“Fritz the Cat”) were still active, after all, and the stoner demographic was still expanding. Instead, “Rock & Rule” was pulled from circulation before it could find traction, even in college towns. It enjoyed a semblance of cult popularity when it found its way to late nights on HBO and Showtime. For some reason, the Blu-ray “25th Anniversary Edition” is being re-released in time for its 31st birthday. Presumably, its reappearance will remind people of the unlikely participation in the project of the late Lou Reed, who’s in fine vocal form. The story is set in a post-apocalypse Nuke York, where punk-rocker Angel (Deborah Harry, singing voice), is kidnapped by an aging heavy-metal legend, Mok (Reed), obsessed with summoning a demon from another dimension. In addition to Harry and Reed, the film also features entries from Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick and Earth, Wind & Fire. As far as the rocku-fantasies usually go, the musical contributions are surprisingly appealing. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director Clive Smith; an alternate version, representing the original Canadian release, with Gregory Salata’s voice, instead of Paul Le Mat; a 25-minute making-of featurette and interviews with the singers; “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” the 22-minute animated short that inspired the feature-length film; a making-of featurette with, “The Devil and Daniel Mouse”; a work-print title sequence;    and work-print “Drats” ending sequence. – Gary Dretzka

American Made Movie
PBS: Craft in America: Industry: Season 5
One of the things that documentaries do is reinforce things we already believe to be true. If, for instance, we already sense that far too many manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas — to the benefit of far too few average Americans – then, the makers of “American Made Movie” have fulfilled at least part of their mission. Even Republicans would find it difficult to argue against that premise, not that they’ve offered any solutions to the problem. To make their case, the filmmakers don’t need to pull out a bunch of Commerce Department charts and numbers that, out of context, would be meaningless. Instead, we’re taken out to the old ball game to see for ourselves just how much baseball owes to products made overseas, sometimes by workers paid slave wages. If it weren’t for the bats, everything in the park would have arrived by boat in a cargo container. The point being made is that, at its peak, manufacturing employed over 19 million American workers. Between 1979 and 2009, 7 million jobs in the sector were lost, matching its lowest numbers since before World War II. Those lost jobs cost the economy far more than just the wages paid those workers, though. Recycled currency is what makes a nation’s economy grow and that’s no longer happening. “American Made Movie” attempts to tell a more positive story than that, however. It goes to places around the country where companies, including suppliers of baseball bats, are fighting the good fight to keep jobs and revenues in the U.S. If the uplifting reports don’t quite compensate for the scenes of Rust Belt decay, at least the movie leaves us with a morsel of optimism. At 82 minutes, it’s a tad long for general consumption, but civic organizations probably find it worth the effort.

In Season 5 of the PBS series “Craft in America,” the producers demonstrate how American craftsmen and small manufacturers have learned to play nice with technology, instead of fearing it. It hasn’t been an easy marriage, but we all need help sometime. The examples include dorry-making in Massachusetts, quilt-stitching in Alabama and weaving in North Carolina. – Gary Dretzka

House in the Alley
Death Spa: Blu-ray
Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dan Curtis’ Dracula: Blu-ray
Some very good films have emerged from Vietnam since the end of the war and stabilization of the economy. Typically, though, their natural home was the arthouse. “House in the Alley” is the first I’ve seen that fits easily within the parameters of the contemporary horror genre. Like similar movies we’ve seen from Thailand, South Korea and Japan, writer/director Le-Van Kiet’s picture is essentially a ghost story. It has nothing to do with the war of liberation and everything to do with how the spirit world informs the national psyche. In it, a young couple has moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where the husband, Thanh, has been assigned an important job at his mother’s firm. Sadly, his wife Thao suffers an extremely painful and messy miscarriage, essentially turning her into a basket case. Rarely has post-partum depression been portrayed with such raw emotion. It takes a few weeks before Thanh’s job performance draws the attention of his shrewish mother, who, contrary to everything Ho Chi Minh espoused, has an insane preoccupation with money. Thanh, on the other hand, is too busy keeping Thao from burning down the house and the ghosts from breaking every bone in his body to worry about the family business. There’s a very good reason why all hell is breaking loose in their home in the alley and genre audiences should be able to figure it out long before the tortured couple picks up on it. Even as a novelty, though, “House in the Alley” should keep horror fans interested for most of its 93-minute length.

Few of the many vintage horror titles being shipped out on Blu-ray these days represent the decade in which they were made quite so well as “Death Spa,” a guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Made in 1989, Michael Fischa’s gore-fest was informed by “Flashdance,” “Perfect,” Jane Fonda’s exercise videos, programmable workout machines, the Memphis design movement, legwarmers and Polyester. Like other memorable genre sensations, “Death Spa” exploited shower scenes and computer Nazis playing God. Here, the health club is possessed by the evil spirit of the owner’s dead wife, or so it seems. Every machine appears to have a mind of its own and the steam-room scenes not only ensure nudity, but the promise of death by locked door. It’s so goofy, it’s fun. Special features include commentary, an extensive making-of featurette and interviews with surviving actors.

I wondered two things about the “Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition” release: 1) why anyone would collect any edition of the 1983 splatter flick, and 2) why the actors look as if they had recently graduated from middle school. Although it’s considered to be a classic in some corners, only the surprise ending seems to differentiate the plot from a dozen others. The answer to the second question can be attributed to Robert Hiltzik’s very sound decision to only cast actors that are the same age as the characters. I’m so used to watching actors approaching 30 play teenagers that it took me completely by surprise. Too much information here wouldn’t be helpful to viewers new to the franchise. Suffice it to say that “Sleepaway Camp” grows on you and, yes, the ending is still capable of shocking viewers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K scan of the original camera negative and features that include new commentary with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; new commentary with Hiltzik, moderated by webmaster Jeff Hayes; the original commentary with Hiltzik and Rose; new interviews with Hiltzik, Rose, Tiersten, Paul DeAngelo, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould, Frank Saladino and make-up FX artist Ed French; “Judy,” a short film by Jeff Hayes, starring Fields; “Princess,” a music video by Jonathan Tiersten; and a Camp Arawak Scrapbook.

Among the many things the world probably can do without this week is yet another Blu-ray revival of a movie based on the “Dracula” legend. I say that as someone who last week praised the Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski remake of “Nosferatu” and reviewed several other “classic” vampire pictures in the past six months. Although there’s nothing at all wrong with “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” (a.k.a., “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) especially in Blu-ray, I suspect it will get lost in the deluge of titles. (Curtis created television’s horror soap opera, “Dark Shadows.”) The interpretation, which runs pretty true to form plot-wise, benefits most from the presence of Jack Palance, who, in 1973, had yet to have his career revived by doing push-ups on the Oscar-cast with Billy Crystal. The movie is enhanced by being shot in English and Yugoslavian locations, befitting a Hammer Studio production. It was made for theatrical release overseas, but as a made-for-TV presentation in the U.S. Its first airing was pre-empted by a news conference announcing the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, so it was postponed until February, 1974. It holds up better than Agnew ever did. In fact, as TV movies go, “Dracula” is extremely well made and quite effective in scares department. It has been transferred and restored in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative. Other Blu-ray features add an interviews with Palance and Curtis; outtakes and alternative takes; and editorial cuts to comply with TV censors. – Gary Dretzka

Cimarron Strip: Complete Series
PBS: The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer
Syfy: Independence Daysaster
The deeper one digs into the history of Westerns on television, the more interesting it is. In its heyday, the “oaters” could do no wrong, even when pitted against each other on the prime-time grid. Of course, when I say “do no wrong,” I’m not implying that Native Americans were slighted on a weekly basis and the feats of characters based on actual people weren’t embellished beyond recognition. They were. The writers and producers of some shows, however, did attempt to level the playing field by casting Indians to play Indians and accurately depicting their culture and tribal identity. Given only 30 minutes or an hour, including commercials, their ability do so was sorely limited. “Cimarron Strip,” “The Virginian” and “Wagon Train” all briefly toyed with the 90-minute format, which roughly boiled down to a solid 75 minutes of entertainment each week. “Cimarron Strip” was canceled after one year, while “Wagon Train” dropped the idea after the 1963-64 season. “The Virginian” lasted nine years at the extended length. Airing on CBS from September, 1967, to March, 1968, “Cimarron Strip,” starred Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown. It was produced by the creators of “Gunsmoke,” if not blessed by the brilliant supporting cast backing Marshall Matt Dillon. The title located the show in three counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle, which, in 1888, separated Indian Territory from Kansas Territory. It included the last free homestead land in America and served as a battle ground for ranchers and newly arrived farmers. (The mountains and badlands in the background betray the fact that the show was shot near Lone Pine and Bishop, California; Kanab, Utah; and Tucson, Arizona.) Crown probably could have used some help in policing the nearly lawless region, but he worked without the benefit of a sheriff or support from the Army. The series was well made and, each week, featured a raft of guest stars. Even so, diehard bingers might find a marathon viewing session too exhausting to contemplate.

PBS’ “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is for those of us, who, like Rip Van Winkle, woke up after a long nap on January 1, 2014, with no memory of media overload that accompanied ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since our modern-day Van Winkle probably remembers the 25th anniversary commemoration, as if it were yesterday, almost nothing new will be new to him here. The mystery surrounding the assassination has yet to be solved and JFK’s legacy as a philanderer was well known. He probably would be surprised to learn that Teddy Kennedy never was elected president and John-John was killed in an unfortunate, if possibly avoidable plane crash. At 310-minutes, “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is comprised of two feature-length DVDs — the two-part “American Experience: The Kennedys” and “Oswald’s Ghost” — and a printed set of rare replica memorabilia, with accompanying booklet.

Currently wrapping up its fourth season, PBS’ informative and highly entertaining limited series, “Pioneers of Television,” probably could have been several hours longer and contained dozens more interviews and it would still be a quick trip down Memory Lane. It also would be every bit as nitpick-able. That’s the way it is with a medium that has influenced everything that’s happened in the last 60 years, everywhere. The emphasis this season is entertainment. Two of the episodes focus on comedy, one on race and the other on medical shows. The recollections of more than 200 influential stars complement footage from hit shows, old and new. The episodes: “Standup to Sitcom,” in which top comedians describe how they made the transition from stage to such shows as “Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Roseanne”; “Acting Funny” feels like an extension of “Standup to Sitcom,” in its descriptions of the sitcom stars’ methodology; the self-explanatory “Doctors and Nurses,” featuring such vintage stars as Richard Chamberlain (“Dr. Kildare”) and Chad Everett (“Medical Center”), and actors in the breakthrough entertainments “St. Elsewhere” and “ER”; and “Breaking Barriers,” about race and the industry’s pitiful record on diversity, with Diahann Carroll (“Julia”), Bill Cosby (“I Spy”), Edward James Olmos (“Miami Vice”), George Takei (“Star Trek”) and Margaret Cho (“All American Girl”).

The “Nature” presentation, “Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer,” extends a well-worn theme of animal-centric series on PBS. It involves documenting the interaction between humans and the animals that, in effect, adopt them into their families. Naturalist Joe Hutto, who previously chronicled his life among wild turkeys, took his act to the mountains near his home in Wyoming, where the mule deer and antelope play. Hutto points to genetic studies that suggest that mule deer may have developed relatively recently through the interbreeding of white-tailed and black-tailed deer and, therefore, might be less skittish around humans. By loitering in areas that deer are known to frequent, Hutto wore down their resistance to newcomers. The seven-year study included spending time with the herd every day, for over two years. Frankly, I found Hutto’s mannerisms and techniques to be border-line creepy, in ways that differed from his approach in “My Life as a Turkey.” Still, there’s no denying how such ambition benefits us all.

As notoriously cheesy as most made-for-Syfy movies tend to be, their ability to survive the slings and arrows of outraged criticism is admirable. Fans continue to overlook the bargain-basement effects, anemic storylines and nearly amateur-level acting, if only for their value as freakish curiosities.  I doubt that younger teenagers aren’t nearly as picky as older kids and genre buffs. How’s this for a cheap shot?: “Independence Daysaster” was shot in 15 days … and looks like it. The cover image apes marketing material for “Independence Day,” without actually taking place anywhere near the White House. All of the elements of a Syfy sci-fi thriller – as opposed to the Syfy creature feature — are evident here. The opening credits have barely stopped rolling before things start falling from the sky and explode as they hit the ground. The aliens’ warships resemble Battlebots crossed with the drill bits employed by Roto Rooter repairmen. While adults are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, geeky teens and conspiracy theorists come to mankind’s defense, using computers found in bedrooms and barns. The Apocalypse is averted at the 88-minute mark of the movie’s 90-minute length. Here, the president’s helicopter is blasted out of the sky, while on his way to a hometown picnic, and his son is on some kind of rural expedition. Both miraculously manage to find each and other survive the attacks. You can guess the rest. Syfy obsessives should love it. – Gary Dretzka