Killing Them Softly
A decade before anyone besides crime-fiction aficionados embraced Elmore Leonard as the greatest writer of street-level dialogue within the genre, the crown belonged to George V. Higgins. Twenty years before Quentin Tarantino enchanted audiences with the explosive repartee soliloquies in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction” and “True Romance,” there was “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” Peter Yates and Paul Monash’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Higgins’ masterpiece. Anyone who loves Leonard and Tarantino and hasn’t experienced either version of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” – it’s easily read in a day and available on a Criterion DVD – hasn’t really lived. “Killing Them Softly” won’t make fans forget “Eddie Coyle,” but in the assured hands of Kiwi writer/director Andrew Dominik, the new adaptation of “Cogan’s Trade” is a fitting testimonial to Higgins’ early work. The author died just a week short of his 60th birthday, in 1999. The advertising that preceded the delayed release of “Killing Them Softly” last November justly promoted the presence of Brad Pitt in the lead role of the wry mob assassin, Jackie Cogan, but suggested incorrectly that it was an action picture. While there’s enough bloodshed on display to satisfy any fan of, say, Bruce Willis, the real fun here comes in listening a crack cast of actors deliver lines that Higgins might have written with them in mind.
Ray Liotta plays a low-level Boston wiseguy, Markie Trattman, who runs a backroom poker game that’s frequented by guys who look as if they might have worked for Whitey Bulger, before he moved to Santa Monica. Foolishly, Markie decides that it might be fun to hire a couple of guys to break into the room and steal the goons’ money. Even more foolishly, Markie subsequently brags about the ripoff as if it were a prank on the hidden-camera show, “Punk’d.” Curiously, the top guns don’t take the heist seriously enough to condemn its planner to death. As so often happens, though, the robbery inspires a rival wiseguy, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola), to have two of his guys to hit the game a second time. He assumes that Markie would be blamed, but no longer be unable to escape the gallows. It doesn’t quite play out that way, because, really, who could be that stupid? Instead, a mob accountant and fixer named Driver (Richard Jenkins) hires Cogan to kill the ones actually responsible for the robbery. The culprits practically leave a trail of crumbs leading back to them. Cogan is known to one of the low-lives, so Driver allows him to import another hitman, the nearly over-the-hill Mickey (James Gandolfini), for backup. The coldly efficient Cogan knows that Mickey is something of a loose cannon, but his presence allows for some terrific old-school/new-school dialogue between them.
Mickey and Driver both believe that they’re smarter and more experienced than Cogan, who doesn’t seem to mind that they’ve mistaken his low-key demeanor for a chink in his armor. (Although they don’t share a scene, Gandolfini and Curatola remind us of their characters’ bitter rivalry on “The Sopranos,” as mob bosses Tony Soprano and Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni.) Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, as the hapless hoodlums who pulled the second job, are given some juicy material, as well. Dominik’s the real deal. Besides his previous collaboration with Pitt, “The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he played in the criminal muck in “Chopper,” a hard-core portrait of out-of-control Aussie thug Mark Brandon Read (Eric Bana). His only misstep in “Killing Them Softly,” perhaps, is setting the movie in 2008 and insisting on a subtext that puts the perpetrators of the Wall Street collapse on an equal footing with the Boston mobsters we meet. The difference being that while Mafiosi tend to kill each other, bankers don’t care who they harm. Of course, it’s only the guys that carry guns who end up in jail. I have no problem with that position, except to argue that the frequent interjection of news footage from the presidential campaign and reports from Wall Street distract from the business at hand. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.
A Royal Affair: Blu-ray
America’s love affair with the British royals extends far beyond watching the occasional wedding on television and following every new birth, divorce, scandal or golden jamboree in the tabloid media. There seems to be some residual jealousy over the fact that, with the exception of the occasional Kennedy or Bush, we don’t have blue bloods of our own to worship and condemn with equal fervor. I, for one, would have preferred to see Prince Charles in the White House than George W. Bush and Barak Obama. Democracy doesn’t lend itself to Shakespearian dramatics, certainly. Marie Antoinette has gotten her fair of attention here, as well, but how many of us could say with any certainty whether her Louis had a XIV, XV or XVI after his name. Until recently, though, Hollywood has played it pretty safe when it comes to portrayals of the crowned heads of Europe, treating the queens as if they were porcelain dolls and kings like paintings on a wall that have magically come to life. Things started changing with the release of Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of King George,” a brilliant movie that mapped the mental deterioration of King George III, and continued to evolve with Showtime’s “The Tutors.” Critics and pundits were divided on Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a frivolous party girl and fashionista, instead of sinner or saint, but that lavish movie, too, has gone to influence others, including last year’s excellent “Farewell, My Queen.” With larger budgets available to fashion and set designers, as well as greater access to such historical locations as Versailles, filmmakers have been freed from the mock formality of palaces built on soundstages.
“A Royal Affair” takes fans of historical dramas a bit further afield, to Denmark in the late 1700s. Danish writer/director Nikolaj Arcel appears to have been influenced as much by “The Madness of King George” and “Marie Antoinette,” as the history books he read growing up in Copenhagen. Like George III, King Christian VII of Denmark was, for long periods of time, as mad as a hatter and, the subject of much political maneuvering. Things were changing throughout Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. Christian’s British wife, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), like the Austrian Marie Antoinette, left everything she held dear in her youth to marry a stranger. She struggled with the languages of Court and the eccentricities of her husband (Mikkel Folsgaard), including those dealing with sex, and was looked upon with suspicion by Danish aristocrats. When CVII returned from a long tour of European capitals, he was carrying things he’d witnessed of the Enlightenment and, as his personal physician, the handsome and learned German doctor, Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). In time, Caroline Mathilde found in Struensee a kindred spirit and intellectual peer. She approved of his attitudes toward reform, religion and the abolishment of policies dictated by the ruling class against peasants. Before losing his capacities altogether, CVII gave Struensee the power of his office and permission to implement reforms. He also would engage in an ill-advised affair with the Queen, who, perhaps, bore him a daughter he couldn’t claim as his own. The scandal would give the opponents of reform all of the ammunition they needed to eliminate him.
Although not shot in Denmark, the lush outdoor locations and splendid interiors add a great deal of authenticity and romance to “A Royal Affair.” The acting is exemplary throughout, with Mikkelsen and Vikander standing out from the rest of the cast. Arcel, who is better known in Europe for his writing (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “King’s Game”), adds a sharp political edge to the drama. It would be a while before reforms stuck for good, but Struensee represents something that couldn’t be silenced by a blade. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Arcel, Mikkelsen and Vikander, profiles of the primary characters and a royal timeline.
A Man Escaped: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Monsieur Verdoux: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Gestapo, Robert Bresson’s austere thiller “A Man Escaped” proves the less-is-more axiom can apply to cinema as much as minimalist design. Basically, all we know about Fontaine is that he’s a possibly dangerous political prisoner and abhors spending time locked behind prison walls, and not just those belonging to the Nazis. Eventually, we will learn why he’s been condemned to death, but it’s just as likely that the frail-looking Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) would attempt to escape any confinement. Employing documentary-like precision, Bresson puts a tight focus on every detail of the escape strategy, from his initial survey of his cell to the creation of ropes, hooks and other tools. It really begins when the most senior convict secures for him a pencil and safety pin. The tension comes in knowing that any misstep could lead not to a few weeks in the hole, but immediate execution. There’s precious little dialogue and conversation among inmates or, for that matter, verbal abuse from the guards. Even if volleys of machine-gun fire can be heard in the near-distance, the Nazis stay mostly out of sight.
Until nearly the very end of the planning process, the escape is Fontaine’s show, alone, and not a jailbreak. It seems impossible that such a jerry-rigged operation would succeed, but we know going into the movie that the protagonist lived to tell his tale. (Bresson spent time in a Nazi prison, as well.) By then, though, we’re clinging to the edge of our collective seats. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that “A Man Escaped” was part of a trilogy of prison pictures that includes “Pickpocket” and “Joan of Arc,” and it was filmed in the same facility in which Devigny was held. The Criterion Collection edition benefits from a new high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; “Bresson: Without a Trace,” a 1965 episode of the television interview program “Cinéastes de notre temps,” in which the director gives his first on-camera interview; “The Essence of Forms,” a 2010 documentary featuring Bresson’s collaborators and admirers; a new visual essay with text by film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.
“Monsieur Verdoux” was released nine years earlier than “A Man Escaped,” in 1947, the same year Charlie Chaplin was summoned to appear before the HUAC panel. The publicity surrounding Chaplin’s politics, along with the memory of past indiscretions, combined to make his first film in seven years a huge dud at the box office. At press conferences during the publicity tour, the last thing any reporter wanted to know about was the movie. They were being paid only to hound him about his opinions on communism. If they had only watched the movie, the reporters could have found plenty else to discuss with him about his opinions on morality, personal ethics and capitalism. “Monsieur Verdoux” has only gotten more respect with age.
Orson Welles tipped Charles Chaplin to the real-life activities of French “Bluebeard” murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who was guillotined in 1922. “Monsieur Verdoux” (a.k.a., “A Comedy of Murder”) is not without humor, but what there is of it is inky black or found in the balletic physical gags Chaplin perfected as the Little Tramp. The title character is a faux French dandy who only turned to murder-for-profit after he was laid off from his job at a bank and realized there was no social safety net to protect his wheelchair-bound wife and son. Verdoux would go on to marry several wealthy women and murder some of them to collect their fortunes. Only one of the “wives” broke the mold of the snooty society doyenne, and that cackling middle-age shrew was played by Martha Raye. The MPAA didn’t appreciate Verdoux’s attitudes toward religion, state-sponsored murder and capitalism’s indifference toward the poor and infirm. Chaplin was given to speechifying about injustice and Verdoux’s unabashed criminality made such proclamations sound as if he was using the witness box as a stage for an ironic commentary on American hypocrisy. Given the circumstances, though, Verdoux seems to be, at worst, an anti-hero.
The woman with whom we and Verdoux sympathize most in the movie – a lost soul who credits him with giving her self-confidence and luck – betrays Verdoux by doing much the same thing he does to stay afloat. In her case, however, all she has to do is outlast a munitions magnate and war-profiteer to maintain her lush lifestyle. He didn’t spare her life just so she could become part of the problem. There are a lot of different things going on in “Monsieur Verdoux” and, absent the hysteria of the blacklist period, they can be fully appreciated in the Criterion Collection upgrade. It has been given a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition; “Chaplin Today: ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’” a 2003 program on the film’s production and release, featuring filmmaker Claude Chabrol and actor Norman Lloyd; “Charlie Chaplin and the American Press,” a new documentary featuring Chaplin specialist Kate Guyonvarch and author Charles Maland; a new video essay featuring an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash; radio advertisements and trailers; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and reprinted pieces by Chaplin and critic André Bazin.
Day of the Falcon: Blu-ray
Set some 15-20 years after the events described in “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Day of the Falcon” naturally invites comparisons to David Lean’s epic investigation of war, identity and survival. Ninety-nine percent of all of the movies ever made, about any subject, couldn’t stand on an equal footing with “Lawrence of Arabia,” so it’s no disgrace that “Day of the Falcon” falls short. The most interesting things about it can’t be found on screen, anyway. For one thing, the movie was co-produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, chairman of Quinta Communications, and the Doha Film Institute of Qatar. In a bonus interview, Ben Ammar says that it was his intention to tell a story about the region’s history from an Arab’s point of view. Moreover, with a $50-million budget and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, “Day of the Falcon” (a.k.a., “Black Gold”) looks just as classy as movies produced by western studios. Given the international cast, it clearly was intended for international distribution.
It’s the 1930s, somewhere on the vast Arabian Peninsula, and only two leaders of the many tribes understand what the discovery of oil portends. The one played by Antonio Banderas is enchanted by the idea that he not only could become personally wealthy, but it also would finally be possible to build schools and hospitals with money from Texas. The chieftain portrayed by Mark Strong is far more of a traditionalist. He understands that sudden wealth doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or positive change and its lasting effects could destroy an ancient lifestyle that’s governed by principles espoused in the Koran. The oil is found in a large swath of desert, the Yellow Belt, which was declared neutral territory in an earlier conflict. Because the children of the two kings have been raised together – and two recently married — the prospect of war carries added weight. When Prince Auda returns to his father’s village, he realizes that his interpretation of the holy book doesn’t square with either of the elders’ contradictory readings. If anyone fits the description of an infidel, it’s the Texas oilmen whose only god is the American dollar and would kill anyone who gets in their way. Ali knows that his father’s army can’t stand up to that of his father-in-law, but rides out, anyway, in the hope a compromise can be reached. When that doesn’t happen, the prince’s courage attracts other tribesmen to his cause, which gets less precise with every new battle.
In the same way that Chinese filmmakers are able to muster large numbers of extras and animals, the producers of “Day of the Falcon” were able to gather a veritable army of background actors, horses, camels and vehicles. A walled city was built in Tunisia, even as the revolution was taking place in the streets of Tunis, and there were more than enough magnificent sand dunes there to enhance the look of the battle scenes. Arnaud wanted to limit the use of CGI, so the cheap labor was welcome. Not surprisingly, the desert scenes look quite striking in Blu-ray. The bonus package includes a substantial making-of piece and a pair of shorts on visual effects and working off storyboards.
Dose of Reality
Set in a trendy bar after last call for alcohol, “Dose of Reality” got me thinking about how “Rashomon” might have played out if the witnesses to the murder of a samurai had been blackout drunks and Akira Kurosawa had handed off the project to a fan. Christopher Glatis’ third largely unseen film in 18 years is a classic he-said, she-said deal, with another he-said thrown in for good measure. Fairuza Balk plays Rose, a young woman found passed out on the floor of the bar’s bathroom after closing time. At first, bar manager Tony (Rick Ravanello) and bartender Matt (Ryan Merriman) fear the disheveled and bloody Rose is dead, but upon being revived, she spins several conflicting scenarios for how she got there. Tony and Matt believe their alibis to be air-tight, but they fall apart when their memories start failing. It’s quite a predicament. Finally, though, manipulation takes over for intrigue and only a surprise ending pulls “Dose of Reality” back from the brink. One consolation is that Jake is a dead ringer for Jon Bon Jovi.
Parental Guidance: Blu-ray
The Sandlot: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about “Parental Guidance,” besides the fact that most critics hated it, is that it made three times more money at the box office than its estimated budget. That either means that fans of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler don’t read reviews or they’re so happy to see them that they’re willing to endure 105 minutes of comedy designed to appeal to the 10-year-old in all of us. Crystal and Midler play the parents of a new-age mom attempting to raise her kids in a way that prohibits grass stains, tooth decay or politically incorrect behavior. Desperately in need of babysitters, the kids’ parents (Marissa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) reluctantly agree to ask the grandparents to watch them for a week. This sets up a culture clash of epic proportions and moralistic climax you can see coming from the local Blockbuster. Even so, the stars and child actors deliver the goods in terms of gratuitous slapstick, potty humor and schmaltzy resolutions. The Blu-ray supplements included deleted scenes, with optional commentary by director Andy Fickman; commentary with Fickman and Crystal; a gag reel; and “In Character With Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei.”
The connecting tissue between “Parental Guidance” and “The Sandlot” is baseball. In the former, Crystal plays a recently laid-off play-by-play announcer who’s as obsessed with the history of the game as he is about his own threadbare gags. “The 20th Anniversary Edition” reminds us that not all baseball movies are strictly about the sport, itself. Rather, they tend to serve as metaphors for life, itself, or a nostalgic link to a better time or place in our youths. “Sandlot” has a lot in common with the modern holiday classic, “A Christmas Story,” which recalls humorist Jean Shepherd’s memories of growing up in the shadows of the steel mills in Northwest Indiana. Here, 5th-grader Scotty Smalls moves to a new town with his parents, but is at a disadvantage because he doesn’t know how to play baseball. He’s determined to make the local team, however, and gets lessons from one of the neighborhood kids. It opens the door to one of those magical summers that linger in our memories forever. In effect, “Sandlot” is a pre-coming-of-age story, complete with a “monster” that lives beyond the left-field fence and devours errant baseballs. The movie co-stars Karen Allen, Denis Leary and James Earl Jones. The anniversary Blu-ray re-purposes previous bonus features, while adding trading cards.
The Frankenstein Theory
Sexquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek
The idea that corpses lying around a “body farm” might someday come to life and attack men and women aspiring to be forensic scientists is reasonably innovative and potentially exciting. Unfortunately, the makers of “13 Eerie” took this promising idea and, instead of pursuing a Toxic Avengers-vs.-CSI angle, sought the easy path to horror by giving us yet another zombie story. The address in the title refers to 13 Eerie Strait, a desolate island that also is home to an abandoned penitentiary. It’s a fine setting for this sort of thing and the decomposing bodies – not all of which were transported there for study — are reasonably disgusting. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the execution of “13 Eerie,” but its originality ends when the zombies reveal themselves. These days, you have to have something more than a good idea to stand out from the horror pack. The DVD comes with several making-of featurettes and commentary.
In the found-footage thriller, “The Frankenstein Theory,” director Andrew Weiner and co-writer Vlady Pildysh appear to have merged the ending of Mary Shelley’s great novel to the beginning of Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold/The Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold …” So, then, what if Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s monster managed to survive in the wilds of northern Canada all these many years and, inspired by global warming, decides to travel south, and a savvy professor puts 2 and 2 together? That’s the movie’s premise and it’s not bad. The disgraced educator, needing to restore his reputation, puts together a film team to find evidence of the monster’s existence. They travel to the Yukon, where a very serious outdoorsman agrees to take them where they want to go. He knows that something out of the ordinary is going on in the wilderness, but doesn’t think it’s wise to disturb it. As is the case with these found-footage films, it takes a long time to get to a point where something is scary and sometimes it never arrives. Here, the payoff is pretty good.
In “Bad Meat,” the parents of a half-dozen juvenile delinquents decide that they can’t handle their children and send them off to a remote camp for some tough love. Trouble is, the administrators and guards are sadists on the job and perverts in their free time. One evening, though, the staff members are poisoned with meat that carries a virus that turns them, first, into projectile-vomiting invalids and, second, zombies. The kids take advantage of their incapacitation, mostly by goofing off and creating a ruckus. Instead of escaping, they give the zombies a chance to regroup. The result is a repulsively bloody mess and little else. The only real selling point for “Bad Meat” is the presence of James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, and Elisabeth Harnois, of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” who, at 33, can still play teenagers.
Except for its impossible-to-ignore title, “Sexquatch: The Legend of Blood Stool Creek” is an imbecilic do-it-yourself movie about a group of teenagers who hope to spend a wild weekend getting laid, but, instead, are sexually abused by Sexquatch. If the filmmakers had more than $10 between them, they should have invested it in something more persuasive than an orangutan suit. Indeed, Sexquatch isn’t even the least attractive actor in the movie, in or out of costume. If I recall, a similar concept was exploited for one of the late-night spots on Cinemax. This one is much worse.
From Beyond: Unrated Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
Phantasm II: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It hardly seems possible that the same man responsible for such grotesque entertainments as “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” could get a meeting on the Disney lot, let alone sell the story that launched the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” franchise. That, however, is what makes Hollywood such a wild and wacky place to work. The good folks at Shout Factory have just released “From Beyond: Unrated Director’s Cut” in an excellent Blu-ray collector’s edition. Collaborators Stuart Gordon, Brian Yunza and Dennis Paoli – Gordon and Yunza had the idea had the idea for “Honey …” – frequently turned to H.P. Lovecraft for source material, much in the same way as Roger Corman was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. “From Beyond” is based on a short story first published in 1934. In it, a scientist uses a Resonator to open the door to a translucent alien environment and once-human creatures who communicate sensually through the brain’s pineal gland, when they aren’t trying to eat people’s brains. Released in 1986, Gordon’s special-effects and animatronic teams outdid themselves in the creation of horrifying monsters and human transitions. He also added a twisted sexual element with his muse, Barbara Crampton, playing an uptight psychiatrist whose libido is awakened via the male’s extended pineal gland. All of this caused a scandal among easily disturbed MPAA panelists who repeatedly refused to award it even a “R” rating. By the time it did, several key moments were eliminated. They’re restored in the new Blu-ray edition, which has been nicely restored and adds several fascinating commentaries, interviews and making-of featurettes.
Fans of micro-budget horror movies know what they like and are loyal to people who give it to them. Ten years before the Internet would become a force in buzz campaigns surrounding indie flicks, word somehow got out that “Phantasm II” had been sliced and diced by the franchise’s new studio parent, Universal. In attempting to attract a broader audience, executives decided that a sequel needed a more visible star, a love interest for him, a more linear narrative and a less dreamy tone to the story. James Le Gros is fine as the newly released mental patient, but, because the fans saw no good reason to replace him, the decision caused them to smell a rat. Otherwise, writer/director Don Coscarelli’s meditation on what happens immediately after death retained the Tall Man as the yellow blooded antagonist and armed him with flying killer balls. “Phantasm II” has its moments, but I don’t recommend it for newcomers to the franchise. The Blu-ray adds commentary, several lengthy backgrounders and making-of material, and a short film in which Rory Guy plays Abraham Lincoln.
Because “Futureworld” is a sequel to the far more adventurous “Westworld,” I highly recommend seeing the original before sampling the follow-up, made three years later. Not only is “Westworld” a superior entertainment, but it also represents Michael Crichton’s first double-credit on a feature film. It introduced the very cool possibility that visitors to a futuristic theme park – the near future then being 1985 – would be allowed to engage in Old West activities with humanoid gunslingers and Miss Kitty wannabes. The party’s over, though, when a glitch in the circuitry causes of one of the outlaws (Yul Brynner) to stalk and kill guests with real bullets. It’s vintage Crichton, of course, and a precursor to his “Jurassic Park.” “Futureworld” extends the concept by replacing the glitch with a conscious effort on the part of the Delos Park scientists to replicate VIPs with programmable androids. The fiends have had plenty of time to execute their scheme, but they forgot not to invite investigative reporters to the opening. This time, influential journalists played by Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner (always a delight) are summoned to check out the reopened park and be targeted for replication. The idea remains sound, but the direction and writing are better suited for movie-of-the-week status. It’s worth noting, however, that much of “Futureworld” was shot on location at the Johnson Space Center.
Bangkok Revenge: Blu-ray
I’ve seen so many good martial-arts movies lately that I forgot how bad they can be when they’re put together with used duct tape. If it weren’t for the models of the cars on the streets of Bangkok, it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that “Bangkok Revenge” was made in 1975 and put on a shelf for the last 35 years. And, it doesn’t look any better on Blu-ray, either. Jon Foo plays a young man, who, at 10, witnessed the murder of his parents. He would have been dead, as well, if it weren’t for the quick thinking of a nurse at the hospital where he was being treated for a gunshot wound. After thwarting one attempt on the boy’s life, she takes him to a remote village, where he’s watched over by a relative. After a rocky start, Manit becomes an expert in Muy Thai boxing. He’ll need all the help he can get when he returns to Bangkok to avenge the death of his father, a crusading cop killed because he learned too much about his boss. It doesn’t take him long to come in contact with the killers, whose legion of martial-arts deputies are no match for his fighting skills. Foo has some mad skills, but the violence in “Bangkok Revenge” is made to look so phony that it could easily have passed as a Muy Thai primer for 12-year-olds. The problem there, however, would be a lovemaking scene and a couple of references to blow jobs that come out of left field.
To the Arctic: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Glacier National Park: Crown of the Continent: Blu-ray
Voyageurs National Park: Spirit of the Boundary Waters: Blu-ray
You’d think that snow and frigid water wouldn’t benefit much from being viewed in high-definition, but, as we see in such movies as “To the Arctic,” the opposite is true. In Blu-ray, snow drifts resemble large lumps of granulated sugar, with a few diamonds thrown in for their sparkle. The crystalline seas allow for spectacular underwater photography. “To the Arctic” is the kind of IMAX 3D title that puts fannies in the seats of museum theaters, where a certain percentage of every movie must be of educational value. It’s no longer enough simply to photograph polar bear, walruses and seals in their natural habitat. The message conveyed here involves the effect of global warming on these habitats, the native populations (including Inuit) and people living in oceanfront communities thousands of miles to the south. Viewers aren’t pounded over the head with green rants, but the message is clear: if we don’t clean up our acts, these precious polar bear cubs are going to die, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you? Director Greg MacGillivray, producer Shaun MacGillivray and writer-editor Stephen Judson have been doing this sort of thing for a long time and know how to balance beauty, action and education in 40-minute packages. Meryl Streep lends her pleasant and softly authoritative voice to the proceedings, while songs by Paul McCartney play in the background. The Blu-ray 3D package arrives with 2D and DVD copies and a few short making-of featurette.
There aren’t many tourist destinations in the continental United States that can be considered inaccessible, but a few require more of an effort to get to than others. Glacier and Voyageurs National Parks aren’t places one easily can visit while on the way to somewhere else, as is the case with the Grand Canyon. Both are tucked just south of our border with Canada, about 800 miles apart, not accounting for the lack of a direct route by car. That’s a good thing, considering the kind of commercial slums found outside the gates of most national playgrounds. While Glacier is famous for its towering snow-capped peaks, rampaging rivers, steep waterfalls, glacier-fed lakes, bears and mountain goats, Voyageurs is a water wonderland whose splendors are more horizontal than vertical. This makes it ideal for canoe and kayak enthusiasts, as well as hikers. A veritable highway of a thousand interconnected lakes, streams, bogs and ponds feed Lake Superior, while supporting boreal forests and an animal and bird population undistracted by motor boats and hunters. “Spirit of the Boundary Waters” follows the loosely drawn borderline from Voyageurs to Isle Royale, a wilderness area accessible only by boat and sea plane. If the bears and mountain goats are the primary prey of tourist cameras in Glacier, it’s the wolves and moose that captivate visitors to Isle Royale, Boundary Waters and Voyageurs. “Crown of the Continent” takes us along on a few of the 700 miles of trails in Glacier and perilous cloud-scraping roads that sometimes are overwhelmed by snow melts. Both films are wonderfully photographed and informative about the forces that shaped the landscapes.
The words “hipster” and “humor” aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory, even if there’s an unwritten law that demands that hipsters act as if they’re too cool for any room into which they enter. Neither must deadpan humor border on deadly to be effective. Rick Alverson’s tres deadpan “The Comedy” is hip to the point of being exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t live in such communities as Williamsburg, Silver Lake or Wicker Park. How hip is it? LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy and comedian Gregg Turkington (a.k.a., “Neil Hamburger”) play key supporting roles in it. The title, itself, can be read as a challenge to audiences to find the funny in the largely improvised script or hand in their hipster credentials on their way out of the theater. Tim Heidecker, who’s half of the team responsible for “Tim & Eric Awesome Show,” is the tentative protagonist in a movie during which nothing really happens. He plays a 30-something slacker, Swanson, who soon will inherit a fortune from his brain-dead father, but, in the meantime, is content to wash dishes. For kicks, he and his pals enjoy getting drunk and high and provoking arguments with people they hardly know, including gang-bangers who aren’t in on the joke. If Swanson is inspired, he might even invite a girl to spend a night on his sailboat. For someone as bored and disconnected as Swanson, watching a date endure an epileptic seizure qualifies as a good time. If that makes “A Comedy” sounds perfectly awful, you should know that Alverson’s transgressive character sketch is crafted with razor-sharp accuracy and Swanson could serve as an archetype for an entire slacker sub-species. There are several deleted scenes, commentary and a short set of interviews.
One Last Game
Death comes in many forms and being hopelessly addicted to potentially lethal things qualifies as one of them. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross told us that people facing imminent death experience five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. A theory is a difficult thing upon which to hang a narrative, unless the filmmaker is attempting to simply dramatize the process or offer an exception that proves the rule. “All That Jazz” is a movie in which the protagonist is too busy to give anything but passing notice to the stages and not at all anxious to kick his addiction. Kubler-Ross is referenced during Bob Fosse’s cinematic suicide note. “One Last Game” goes so far as to credit her with the movie’s concept. Set during a game of Texas Hold’Em on a darkened stage, Ayassi’s claustrophobic psycho-drama centers around Gellert (Ken Duken), a handsome young gambler who appears to be addicted to losing, as much as anything else. Sitting at the poker table with him are three other top German actors and chanteuse Regina Lund, who looks as if she’s channeling Marilyn Monroe. Gellert thought he might win enough money to pay back his debts, but the other players know what he’s really there to do: lose and be berated for it. Near the end of the movie, a frustrated Gellert asks the sexy blond what the point of this particular game really is. “The objective of the game is to know when it is over,” she answers, “to know when to stop.” The same thing pertains life, itself.
GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
It’s been said that the only creatures likely to survive a nuclear apocalypse will be cockroaches. I’ve heard the same thing said about lawyers and IRS auditors. Professional wrestling has been declared dead several times over the last 100 years, but continues to pack stadiums and get solid ratings on television. When Vince McMahon took over his father’s wrestling business in the early 1980s, he knew that it had to appeal to Baby Boomers and their children to survive until the new millennium. The first thing he did was admit that professional was less a sport than a vehicle for entertainment and, by implication, its practitioners were actors. To help audiences adjust to this “startling” confession, McMahon borrowed the superhero concept from comic books, while also adding a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack to the proceedings. The WWF was a huge hit. Not to be outdone, some savvy promoters thought women could handle a circuit of their own and called it Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW). These women weren’t there to add novelty to the show, but to be the show. GLOW was a prime-time wrestling series, complete with elaborate characters, costumes, skits, personalized raps and, of course, wrestling. It found wide exposure through syndicated television and attracted male viewers by adding attractive young women who weren’t trained to be anything but pretty and, maybe, act a bit. The more “masculine” of the women professionals were given makeovers, costumes and flamboyant personae. Within five years, GLOW mysteriously ceased production. Brett Whitcomb’s “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” uses the anecdotes and recollections of many of the men and women who made GLOW a big hit, alongside archival video tapes of matches and promotional material. The documentary adds audio commentary with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and a couple of the wrestlers; extended interviews; deleted scenes; a collection of GLOW skits; opening raps; and a festival Q&A.
Adventures in Zambezia: Blu-ray
Pull back the curtain of mist that rises from Victoria Falls and you’ll find the mythical city of Zambezia, where birds of a feather stick together to protect each other from giant lizards and foraging Marabou storks. In Blu-ray 2D/3D, it’s a wondrously colorful place that’s well worth protecting from raids. Although the brash young falcon, Kai, was born in Zambezia, he was raised by his overly protective father in a desolate outpost in the desert after his mother was killed defending the city. Kai desperately wants to join Zambezia’s crack airborne fighter unit, the Hurricanes, but lacks the ability to take orders and be a team player. Naturally, there comes a time when Kai’s skills are needed to save the more experienced fliers and his father from disaster. Sure, “Adventures in Zambezia” tells a familiar story. What else is new, though? The nice thing about this South African production is the quality of the animation, which rivals much of what’s created in Hollywood. The color palette is brilliant, as well. The bonus package adds the featurettes “Birds of a Feature,” “An African Story,” “The Tree City” and “Technical Challenges.” Be aware that “Adventures in Zambezia” is available for purchase exclusively at Walmart.
The Official Digimon Adventure Set: The Complete Second Season
Digimon Adventure: Volume 2
Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series
It’s fitting that the post-World War II history of Eastern Europe be drawn in noir shades of black, white and gray. We remember the movies of the Czech New Wave, particularly, in black-and-white. Newsreel footage of the cities, mines and factories could hardly be more bleak and dispiriting. Even after the collapse of the Iron Collapse, it took years before we could find the brighter colors and humor, however cynical. Using rotoscope animation, “Alois Nebel” spans the beginning and end of Soviet domination in Czechoslovakia, telling the haunting story of a train dispatcher – and son of a train dispatcher – stationed near the borders with Germany and Poland. Even as news from East Berlin began spreading through Eastern Europe, few believed that freedom could come so quickly and without a fight. Indeed, Nebel remembers when the area’s ethnic German population was forced to pick up stakes and move north. Out of the blue, a mute stranger arrives out of the fog from Poland, carrying information of particular interest to the dispatcher. “Alois Nebel” doesn’t require a vast knowledge of modern Czech history to enjoy the film, but it helps. The atmospheric animation is what really stands out here.
Japanese animation began to take hold here in the mid-1980s, with TV shows that catered to the youngest of viewers and consumers of toys. The flood of video games also helped introduce Americans to the distinctive look and sounds of anime. By the mid-1990s, such narrative anime as “Ghost in the Shell” and “Princess Monoke” gained a foothold among older American audiences and renters. The evolution of manga played out in similar stages throughout the 20th Century. Artist/storyteller Yoshihiro Tatsumi came of age in post-war Japan, well before the country became a well-oiled machine and corporate superpower. As chronicled in Eric Khoo’s “Tatsumi,” based on the artist’s illustrated autobiography “A Drifting Life,” the demand for illustrated serials, even in the rental market, was booming. Tatsumi lived in an apartment with three other artists churning out manga for newspapers and magazines. The comics were growing up, as well. When parent groups began lobbying for more G-rated material, Tatsumi literally created the adult-oriented gekiga style of alternative comics. It was targeted specifically at the adult reader, with storylines that included sexy material, violence and other themes some took to be subversive. A decade later, the American “comix” movement would mimic the birth of gekiga. Between the impact of American forces on the culture and rise of criminal organization, Tatsumi rarely lacked for material. “Tatsumi” is a simply wonderful movie, perfect for anyone who loves animation, comics and graphic novels.
Children remain the largest market for anime, if only because they have an insatiable appetite for the toys, dolls, accessories and trading cards that are spun off the cartoon characters. I tried to explain what happens in “Digimon,” but got too confused to nail it on the head. Suffice it to say that teenagers journey to the Digital World to fight the enemies of the Digital Monsters being held by the enemy. Season 2 introduced a new cast of teenagers and a new enemy, the Digimon Emperor. The eight-disc “Official Digimon Adventure Set: The Complete Second Season” includes all 50 episodes of the show; a 32-page “Character Guide Booklet”; and a gallery featuring more than 40 Villain Digimon sketches. A more compact three-disc “Digimon Adventure: Volume 2” holds 18 episodes of the original “Digimon Adventure” series and follows the group as they learn the identity of the eighth DigiDestined child.
“Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series” is so thoroughly cheesy that it should have come with a grater and nose plugs. Many of the characters are played by human beings, at least. Although Johnny Sokko has yet to shave his first whisker, he is the brains behind a large flying metal behemoth with fiery breath, laser eyes, finger-launched missiles and strength uncommon even among robots. If anything, the enemy creatures are more bogus than the flying robot. The fantasy series from Toei Studios ran from 1967 through 1968 in Japan, before crossing the Pacific a year later in slightly altered form. It found an audience here in syndication, which kept it alive reruns for the next 10 years. Collected for the first time on DVD are all 26 episodes of kaiju battles, alien takeover plots and the heroics of jet-packed Johnny.
Dead in France
Maybe it’s the sunny Cote d’Azur weather, but “Dead in France” reminds me a lot more of “Sexy Beast” than the Guy Ritchie films that critics continue to compare it to. Like Spain’s Costa del Sol, Cannes is wonderful place for a criminal to retire, especially if they’ve lived most of their life in the U.K. At 40, Charles (co-writer Brian Levine) is a successful hitman who wants to retire while he still can. He also wants to conquer a lifelong germ phobia by finally committing to a woman. Just when Charles thinks that he might succeed, everyone within his rapidly expanding orbit decides to go crazy at once. It begins when he entrusts his villa to a sexy young cleaning woman (Celia Muir), who has all the grace of a classic “Essex girl.” When her moronic punk boyfriend shows up, all hell begins to break loose at the villa and surrounding areas. There’s a lot of bloodshed in the movie, but, the longer it goes on, the more cartoonish it is.
Bob’s New Suit
First-time filmmaker Alan R. Howard touches so many different bases in “Bob’s New Suit,” you’d think he was playing croquet, instead of that other game. Besides covering all of the letters in LGBT at least once, Howard gives one of the characters the kind of a secret past that allows for a traditionally happy ending. Oh, yeah, the movie’s narrated by an article of clothing. Apart from that, “Bob’s New Suit” is a perfectly agreeable rom-com that tries too hard to be all things to all viewers. Bob is a landscape gardener and handyman, who proposes to his longtime girlfriend, Jenny, in the opening minutes of the movie. She’s estranged from her mother over alcohol abuse, while Bob’s dad is starting to lose track of reality and has heart problems. It’s for that reason that Bob’s mother, who sells antique dolls on the Internet, is afraid to tell her husband that their daughter has begun gender-reassignment procedures. Bob’s cousin is an aspiring felon and amateur homophobe and there’s an aunt who’s a Jesus freak. There’s more, but the characters are made far too level-headed for any real drama to overwhelm the melodrama.
PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered
TBS: Men at Work: The Complete First Season
The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together
Showtime: Tom Green Live
One of the six episodes in the PBS mini-series “Shakespeare Uncovered” finds Joely Richardson discussing the comedies “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.” These are plays that demonstrate the assurance with which Shakespeare dealt with women characters and she explores might have been the case. She also takes us backstage to meet contemporary actors preparing for a performance of one of the plays and interviews several veteran performers – Helen Mirren and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, among them – about their experiences on stage. Even better, Richardson takes us on a stroll through the theater where her grandfather, Sir Michael Redgrave, and Sir Laurence Olivier performed “Hamlet,” before an audience that included her grandmother-to-be. Derek Jacobi watches himself on film, as a young actor, in “Richard II” for the first time, alongside Sir John Gielgud. That’s what happens when you entrust a television series about Shakespeare to Brits, some of whom, like Redgrave, cut their teeth on his works. Among the other hosts in this informative and entertaining series are Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Irons, Trevor Nunn and David Tennant.
TBS’ “Men at Work,” is yet another sitcom about yuppies with the social skills of horny baboons. This time, they’re four guys who work at a lad magazine targeted at horny yuppies, just like them. Each one of them represents a different aspect of early manhood: Milo (Danny Masterson) has just been dumped by a woman who’s far too cute, tall and self-assured to live with such a nebbish; Tyler (Michael Cassidy) is the “charming pretty boy”; Gibbs (James Lesure) is the cast’s resident chick magnet; and Neal (Adam Busch), is the dork who’s living with the boss’ daughter. Created by Breckin Meyer (“Road Trip,” “Franklin & Bash”), “Men at Work” is only slightly more risqué than the average network sitcom, but light years away from the truly smart and sexy comedies on HBO and Showcase. Like every other TV bromance, its writers feel it necessary to remind us that the guys aren’t gay and the hideous laugh track rewards the jokes with fake guffaws. Among the first-season guest stars are Amy Smart, Stacy Keibler, Kathy Najimy, Laura Prepon, William Baldwin, Kevin Pollack and Wilmer Valderrama. The first-season DVD adds deleted scenes and outtakes. The second stanza begins next week.
Last summer, Time Life released “The Carol Burnett Show”: The Ultimate Collection” in a 22-disc collection that was sold exclusively on the Internet for just south of $200. In a nod to less affluent fans of the show, Time Life broke out six-disc and single-disc collections. They provided fair representations of what made the variety show so popular. “The Carol Burnett Show: This Time Together” is the second six-disc release and, not surprisingly, it’s just as much fun as “Carol’s Favorites.” It includes 17 non-linear episodes and two hours of bonus material. Among the guest stars are Steve Lawrence, Lily Tomlin, the Pointer Sisters, Dick Van Dyke, Roddy McDowall, Bernadette Peters, Sammy Davis Jr., Edward Villella, Lucette Aldous, Hal Linden, Madeline Kahan, Ken Berry, Dick Van Dyke, Eydie Gorme, Paul Sand, Petulia Clark, Peggy Lee and Stiller & Meara. Those names might not mean much to anyone under 35, but, back in the day, they were big shots.
Although cancer impacts entertainers with the same frequency as it does regular folks, not many make it part of their act … for the next 12 years. Mad-man comedian Tom Green addresses the surgery and treatment with a solemnity that’s counter to everything else in his performance. He’s still able to milk some laughs from it, but I think he does it to reassure fans who might be experiencing similar traumas in their lives. Green was among the first flight of comedians who did things – ranging from merely rude to seriously outrageous – just to see what kind of response they’d elicit. He refers to that period as “You Tube, without the Internet.” His new performance DVD, “Tom Green Live,” is comprised of material from a 2011 engagement in Boston and the bonus, “The History of ‘The Tom Green Show.’” Of the two, the latter is the more entertaining because it reminds us of just how far out there that Green was in the mid-1990s, on his MTV and Internet shows. Today, he’s still using some of the same trademark shtick, reminiscing about the perfectly awful “Freddy Got Fingered,” his stint on “Celebrity Apprentice,” performing at both “A Gathering of the Juggalos” and a USO tour and, of course, his cancer. Pranking has gone on to become a team sport in some quarters, but he needs to develop new stuff.
Ship of Fools/Lilith: Blu-ray
The Squid and the Whale/Running with Scissors: Blu-ray
Hollywood Homicide/Hudson Hawk: Blu-ray
Mill Creek Entertainment specializes in repackaging the classics made by other companies in numbers ranging from 2 to 100 per box. It recently entered into distribution deals with Sony and Disney for Blu-ray “double features.” The most interesting coupling is “Ship of Fools” (1965) and “Lilith” (1964), which have almost nothing in common besides all-star casts and a swell-looking black-and-white facelift in hi-def. “Ship of Fools” was billed as a floating “Grand Hotel,” with Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal and Michael Dunn. Unbeknownst to the characters, there next port-of-call is it the Twilight Zone that became Nazi Germany. In “Lilith,” Warren Beatty plays an aspiring shrink to a manipulative patient played by Jean Seberg. Peter Fonda also is a resident of the same expensive rest home.
“The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Running with Scissors” (2006) were released at the height of the dysfunctional-family craze among arthouse patrons. Both were based on actual families of overeducated and hyper-neurotic individuals with more problems than any 10 Americans will have in their collective lifetimes. “Hollywood Homicide” (1989) and “Hudson Hawk” (1991) are action films, starring Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, respectively. Two decades later, both actors are still attempting to get away with playing the same characters.