Brave: Blu-ray 2D/3D
Watching the delightful Blu-ray edition of the latest Pixar/Disney animated feature, “Brave,” I couldn’t help but wonder if the fateful argument between Princess Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, had been drawn from memory by someone who had the misfortune to observe what happens when a headstrong teenage daughter declares war on her well-meaning, if clueless mother. I have and it isn’t a pretty sight. Fortunately for everyone in the family, the storm tends to pass in advance of a girl leaving home for college, marriage, work or the military. In “Brave,” the brilliantly red-haired Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald) takes umbrage at Elinor (Emma Thompson) for demanding that she put away her trusty bow and arrow to prepare for the day when the first-born sons of the leaders of Scottish Highland clans would gather to compete for the honor of her hand, which she isn’t ready to give. Her father, King Fergus of Dunbroch (Billy Connolly), needs this tradition to be maintained to ensure peace and the current line of succession. Instead, Merida disappears into the forest, where will-o’-the-wisps lead her to the cabin of a clever witch (Julie Walters), posing as a wood carver. The old woman agrees to help the girl convince the queen to cut her some slack, but not in a way anyone could have expected. In one of those careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios, the witch’s spell turns Elinor into a large bear. By the time Merida returns to the cabin, the witch has split the scene and, moreover, her triplet brothers have been turned into cubs. In the time remaining for Merida to reverse the spell and save the kingdom, she and Momma Bear must defeat a far more savage ursine changeling. Younger children might find the confrontations too darkly realistic for comfort, so it’s wise for parents to consider the PG rating before plopping them in front of the video babysitter.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that “Brave” is very much a hybrid of Disney and Pixar styles. The story-telling flows from the Disney tradition of demonstrating how humor, music, magic and friendship can be combined to confront adversity and inspire unlikely acts of heroism from human and anthropomorphic characters. Pixar’s mastery of CG animation is evident throughout, but no more so than in the person of Merida, whose blazing red hair and palpable riot-grrrl attitude dominate every scene in which the princess appears. It’s significant, as well, that Merida is Pixar’s first female protagonist and she’s the company’s first character to be included in the Disney Princess line of consumer products. Technically, “Brave” is every bit as spectacular as Merida’s hair. It reputedly is the first film to use the new Dolby Atmos sound system, which expands from the 5/7.1 channel sound mixes to 64 discrete speaker feeds and 128 simultaneous and lossless audio channels. (I’ll take their word for this.) The Ultimate Collector’s Edition includes separate Blu-ray 2D and 3D discs, a DVD and digital copy, as well as a disc dedicated to bonus material. Among the supplementary features are an informative commentary track; the short films, “La Luna” and “The Legend of Mor’Du,” which explains the legend of the witch’s evil-bear creation; eight behind-the-scenes vignettes; extended scenes; an alternate ending; and pieces on Scottish slang, Angus the horse, the family tapestry and the unkempt look of the Scottish warriors. – Gary Dretzka
The Watch: Blu-ray
Given the talent involved, “The Watch” should be about a dozen times funnier than it is. Akiva Schaffer’s extended bromance comedy should satisfy its core demographic target, but others likely will find the laughs to be too few and far between to save the movie when inevitably jumps the shark. The only thing I knew about “The Watch” before watching it on DVD was that four funny guys would be playing members of a Neighborhood Watch committee and that such a situation is ripe for screwball antics. To me, that was enough reason to expect “The Watch” to be an adequate time-killer. That it was rated “R” practically guaranteed that the humor would be rude, crude and obscene. For me, that’s a plus. Having grown up in a suburb, I know that four self-righteous adult knuckleheads who believe that they’re on a mission from God are no match for juvenile delinquents armed with paintball guns, not to mention the occasional free-range alcoholic and marauding meth head. Why, then, toss extraterrestrials into the mix? Logic argues against the likelihood that an invasion force of space creeps would choose a small town in Ohio to set up shop, let alone a Costco. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to find a big-box store in Miami, Washington, Kabul, Cleveland or Las Vegas? Certainly, it worked for Tim Burton in “Mars Attacks!”
Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade and Ben Stiller play the hapless make-believe cops, who, in addition to saving the planet from invaders and egg-throwing kids, are required to deal with such domestic issues as infertility, an oversexed daughter, post-divorce depression and short-guy syndrome. That’s a lot of stuff to pack into a single 102-minute movie, but, I’m sure, writers Jared Stern (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”), Seth Rogan (“Pineapple Express,” “Superbad”) and Evan Goldberg (“Pineapple Express,” “Da Ali G Show”) felt themselves capable of creating something hilarious around several half-baked ideas. (What could be more mind blowing, after all, than green alien jizz?) Almost anything is funny when you’re stoned and, I’m even surer, that’s the condition they were in while writing “The Watch.” Sadly, too, director Schaffer appears to have been afflicted with the same virus as other “Saturday Night Live” veterans when they made the leap from sketch to feature-length comedy. His first feature, “Hot Rod,” felt like an extension of a bit by his frequent collaborator, Andy Samberg, than a fully realized idea, while the aliens in “The Watch” might have been related to the Coneheads. Not surprisingly, then, both movies were disappointments at the box office. In fairness to distributor 20th Century Fox, though, the timing couldn’t have been less fortuitous. Originally titled “Neighborhood Watch,” the final product was renamed to avoid any connection with the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a Florida man associated with his suburb’s program, and there was nothing funny in that sad footnote in American history. The Blu-ray package includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, a compilation of Jonah Hill’s alternate takes and the featurettes “Casting the Alien,” “Alien Invasions & You” and “Watchmakers.” – Gary Dretzka
No one makes movies quite like Todd Solondz and that’s probably a good thing. It takes a special talent to find the humanity in characters most of us would consider to be despicable, while also exploring how they’ve managed to fit into mainstream society as long as they have. This ability has been amply demonstrated in “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime,” inky black dramedies that, among other things, demand we look beyond our revulsion for a pedophiliac (ostensibly the same character, played by different actors) and other acts many consider to be deviant. Most of the characters we meet in Solondz’ films lead lives of quiet desperation and fly below society’s radar until things begin to go sideways in their life. By then, it’s too late to prevent a disaster. “Dark Horse” follows a man and woman in their mid-30s, whose development was arrested at about the same time as they graduated from high school. A classic underachiever, Abe (Jordan Gelber) can’t think of a single good reason not to continue sponging off his parents (Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow) at home and at work. Things would be different if he was nice about it, but he’s both useless and petulant. Against all odds, he convinces the pretty, if extremely fragile Miranda (Selma Blair) to go out with him. She, too, lives with her mom and dad in their suburban home. Although they have little in common, she’s too overmedicated to do anything except agree to date, marry and move in with Abe when his parents take off for Florida. He assumes they will go along with this scenario.
Just when things start to go right for Abe – in his feeble mind, anyway — his father pulls the rug out from under him. He’s finally had his fill of Abe’s act at work and takes him up on his ill-timed threat to quit. Worse, he learns that his parents intend to sell the house, not bequeath it to him, leaving Abe without a paycheck or a roof over his head. Naturally, he blames his parents for everything that’s gone wrong in his life and for favoring his brother, a doctor, over him. It’s at this point that Solondz allows his creation’s paranoia to take hold and steer him in the direction of madness. If “Dark Horse” isn’t nearly as disturbing as some of his previous works, there are several images that will linger in the mind long after you return the DVD to the rental outlet. Foremost among them is the physical appearance of Walken and Farrow, who look as if they might have stepped off the cover of R. Crumb’s Despair Comix. Walken is required to wear one of the rattiest looking toupees in cinema history, while Farrow occasionally resembles an older version of her floozy character in “Broadway Danny Rose.” Solondz has already cautioned, “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.” That shouldn’t scare any of his fans off “Dark Horse,” however, as it’s of a piece with everything else he’s done. – Gary Dretzka
As near as I can tell, “Vamps” opened in exactly one New York venue, where the video games in the lobby probably out-grossed the movie. The distribution company probably wanted to cut its losses, before sending the vampires-just-wanna-have-fun comedy into ancillary markets. The last-ditch strategy worked – sort of, at least – because about half of the small handful of critics who saw the movie liked it enough to contribute pull-able quotes for the DVD jacket. I kind of, sort of, liked “Vamps,” too. It’s exactly the kind of picture I’d imagine that Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverston might make as a virtual follow-up to “Clueless.” If its potential audience is limited to teenage girls and adult women who were teenagers when they saw “Clueless,” well, so be it. The perpetually perky Silverstone plays a club-hopping vampire, Goody, alongside the leggy and exceedingly charming Krysten Ritter, who portrays Stacy. Their midtown Manhattan apartment, right down to the colorfully patterned coffins in which they sleep, looks as if it might have been designed by the same person responsible for the teenagers’ rooms in “Clueless.” Because the vamps only go out after dark, they favor barely-there fashions and sky-high pumps, appropriate mostly for nightclubs and brothels. I don’t know how old Stacy is supposed to be, but Goody’s old enough to be getting tired of the vampire game. She realizes this when she reconnects with an old boyfriend, Danny (Richard Lewis), who hasn’t aged nearly as gracefully as Goody since they first fell in love during the turbulent 1960s. Because she’s the spitting image of his old girlfriend, Danny assumes that the women are related and she’ll lead him to his lost love.
Stacy, meanwhile, has fallen for the hunky son of Dr. Van Helsing and Mrs. Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn, Kristen Johnson), who still are in the family vampire-hunting business. The son, Joey, has inherited none of his ancestor’s prejudices against the undead and hopes to find a way to spend a lifetime, if not eternity, with Stacy. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In this case, though, it takes something of a miracle for their dreams to be realized. There’s always a flurry of activity accompanying the ladies on their nightly sojourns and for every interesting character they meet, there are couple more who just get in the way of the story. The craziest ones, by far, are a chronically horny cougar played by Sigourney Weaver and the Vampire Anonymous chairman (Malcolm McDowell). (While not vegans, the girls do draw the line at consuming the blood of their boyfriends.) “Vamps” has plenty of flaws, but not enough to discourage anyone in the target demographic from sampling it. – Gary Dretzka
Weekend: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Pier Paulo Passolini’s Trilogy of Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Among the things that distinguish the Occupy Wall Street movement from the political activism of the 1960s are the absence of leaders and the decided lack of easily identifiable political, social and economic philosophies. The Howard Beale approach to expressing outrage at the inequities of American capitalism worked as long as the media had nothing better on which to focus than the makeshift camps. Unlike the Tea Party movement, most ideological dialogue ended with the clearing of sites by over-armored cops. It was a non-factor in the presidential race, if only because division among the left would have assured a Republican victory. Perhaps, the decision not to place rhetorical power in the hands of only a few people was based on the failure of their parents’ inability to fundamentally change society in the waning days of the antiwar and civil-rights movements. The changes that were made came in such non-combative areas as promoting environmental issues, creating healthier food options, redefining fashion and reversing the demonization of marijuana. If anything, there were too many leaders for too many causes. What couldn’t be avoided, however, was a discussion, at least, of philosophies ranging from Communism and Maoism, to pacifism and flower power. By 1970, the groups identified by the media as leaders of the mass movement — the Black Panthers, Yippies and Weatherman – had managed to alienate intellectuals, the non-violent left and disenchanted Democrats with their clownish behavior, ego trips and turn to violence. The release on Blu-ray of “Weekend” reminds us, as well, that filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, critics and educators all found ways to address the issues of the day.
Released a year before France would be rocked by protests, strikes, riots and police vengeance, Jean-Luc Godard’s darkly comic “Weekend” mirrored the anxiety and anger that was percolating just below the calm, bourgeois surface of Gaullist France. It anticipated the dissatisfaction of workers in essential industries to being taken for granted by bureaucrats and an upper-middle-class obsessed with expensive cars, exotic holiday destinations and designer fashions. When the unions took to the streets to demand satisfaction, leftist students joined the protests, adding issues of their own to the fray. By playing one group of protesters against the other, the government was able to avert something resembling revolution. Godard would go on to fight losing battles of his own, but, if anything, “Weekend” is more compelling today than it’s been since those heady days of the late-’60s. The signature image in “Weekend” remains a long parallel pan of a traffic jam on a country road. The film’s greedy upper-class protagonists are in a hurry to get to a relative’s home to beg for a larger share of their ailing mother’s inheritance and feel entitled to bypass the line of cars by driving in the lane reserved for traffic coming from the opposite direction. Not only do they not care who they piss off when they attempt to cut into the row of cars, but they’re completely oblivious to the burning cars and injured passengers lying on the side of the road. The characters are fully aware they’re in a film and occasionally remind themselves they’re being manipulated by a veritable puppet master. Godard never lets us get comfortable, either. That’s because the tonal palette continually changes and he adds chapter cards that update the couple’s progress, while also providing snarky commentary. Godard only offers hope in the form of terrorists – he later described them as Yippie precursors – who live in the forest, attack the cars of tourists and prepare for the revolution to come. They aren’t kind to the bourgeois couple when they dare trespass on their land.
The newly restored digital transfer for the Criterion Blu-ray perfectly captures the wild color scheme the director demanded of cinematographer Raoul Coutard. It includes a new video essay by critic Kent Jones; archival interviews with stars Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne and AD Claude Miller; an excerpt from a French television program on Godard and the location shoot; trailers; and a booklet with an essay by Gary Indiana. Some of the reminiscences of working with Godard are hilarious and delightfully insightful.
Godard’s Italian peer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was every bit the activist, provocateur and artist. Their approach to storytelling could hardly be more different, however. At approximately the same time as “Weekend” was addressing rampant consumerism and the emptiness of life in bourgeois society, Pasolini was preparing his “Trilogy of Life” triptych, which traveled back in time to find common ground on the same contemporary issues, as well as regressive attitudes toward sexual freedom. To this end, he adapted three historic story cycles, Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Thousand and One Nights” (a.k.a., “Arabian Nights”), interpreting them in ways not often taught in college English courses. Loosely segmented by individual stories, as intended, the three features films remain raw, bawdy, sensational and confrontational. Some are, at once, shocking and hilarious. Students of Renaissance art will recognize many of the faces, poses and tableaux seen in “The Decameron,” including Bruegel’s “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.” Pasolini, himself, plays a favored student of Giotto di Bondone in one of the arcs. He believed that the characters lived “uncompromised” lives, if only because the accumulation of possessions was less important than the threat of plagues, wars, thieves and capricious behavior by their patrons. As important as sexual activity is to the narrative, it’s introduced organically and very little distinction is made between homosexual and heterosexual love.
Pasolini went on to portray Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales,” a collection of eight lusty and often scatological stories originally told to entertain and stimulate people for whom being blind drunk wasn’t enough. The movie was shot in England, where the ghosts of history still haunt the ruined castles and uncorrupted countryside. The production returned to Sicily’s Mount Etna for a vision of hell you won’t soon forget. “Arabian Nights” took Pasolini to Africa, India and the Middle East, where the stories take on a more exotic and mystical texture. It follows one young man’s quest to reconnect with his beloved slave girl. Pasolini not only found poetry in the words of these stories, but also in the amazingly sensuous costumes, setting and landscapes. In the final installment of the trilogy, it’s possible to watch it once for the stories and, again, for the magnificent locations, costume and set design. There’s even a happy ending.
The movies have all been digitally restored, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. The Blu-rays are accompanied by new visual essays by film scholars Patrick Rumble, Tony Rayns and Sam Rohdie; new interviews with art director Dante Ferretti and composer Ennio Morricone about their work with Pasolini; documentaries “The Lost Body of Alibech,” “The Secret Humiliation of Chaucer,” “Via Pasolini” and “Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Form of the City”; deleted scenes from “Arabian Nights”; an English-dubbed track for “Canterbury Tales”; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 article “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for “The Canterbury Tales”; and a report from the set of “Arabian Nights” by critic Gideon Bachmann. Pasolini definitely is not for everyone. The sexual material is often very raw and graphic, in addition to being highly entertaining. The blasphemous moments won’t sit well with some viewers, either. But, if you’ve come this far already, why not sample the work of one of the great artists of the 20th Century? – Gary Dretzka
Empire of the Sun: Blu-ray
In 1987, Steven Spielberg was riding pretty high in the wake of creating such hugely popular movies as “E.T,” “The Color Purple” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and after directing a segment in “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Several years removed from what might go down as his greatest critical embarrassment, as well as a financial dud – the raucous post-Pearl Harbor farce, “1941” — he decided to dip his toes back into the waters of one of his most frequent subjects, World War II. The source novel for “Empire of the Sun” was written by British author J.G. Ballard, who was a boy during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. In the book, if not in real life, Jim “Jamie” Graham (12-year-old Christian Bale) survived for a short time on his own after losing his mother and father in a crowd attempting to escape the city. He would be saved from starvation by a pair of American rogues, Basie and Frank (John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano), before being sent to a civilian-assembly center and internment camp. Absent his well-to-do parents, Jamie relied on the kindness of strangers for the duration of the war and he would reward them by passing along is joie-de-vivre. (Ballard was more fortunate, in that he wasn’t separated from his parents in the camps.) The biggest break Jamie caught was being assigned to a camp near a Japanese airfield, where he could indulge his passion for planes, at least. As the war progressed and the likelihood of American airstrikes became higher, Jamie would once again be buoyed by his hobby.
“Empire of the Sun” is informed by several recurrent Spielbergian themes. Jamie’s fortitude in the face of great adversity and loss mirrored the strengths of other young characters in his movies (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “E.T.”). His exuberance, cunning and precocious personality, which put him on equal footing with adults twice his age, also is a trademark quality. Typically, too, Spielberg somehow manages to reserve a few ounces of humanity for the Japanese – notably, a boy Jamie’s age, who’s destined to become a kamikaze pilot – who typically have been characterized as war-mongers, brutes and fanatics. I’m not sure they deserve any breaks, but, maybe, that’s right out of Ballard’s book. Conversely, the American prisoners don’t look so gallant when they’re placing odds on Jamie’s ability to survive a dangerous trek beyond the barbed-wire fence or when their cowboy behavior kills a sympathetic character. I’m not sure if Spielberg or screenwriter Tom Stoppard is more responsible for the schmaltzy touches ladled on the story before and after American pilots bomb the airstrip. (Look for the “Bridge on the River Kwai” reference.) The Blu-ray presentation benefits from a new hi-def digital transfer and a strong audio component. It arrives with a making-of documentary and “Warner at War.” “Empire of the Sun” didn’t fare well at the American box office – it did better overseas – but some of the indifference can be blamed on our general apathy toward the war stories of other countries and the fact that Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic drama about pre-war Chinese history, “The Last Emperor,” was released at approximately the same time. – Gary Dretzka
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Blu-ray
Looking back more than two decades to the release of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” one thing stands out in my mind more than all others. The comedy, which frequently has been labeled a classic, was almost universally dismissed by critics as being goofy, at best, but, more often than not, moronic. While falling far short of being a classic, “B&T” has had an impact on pop culture that far outweighs its artistic merits, such as they are. If the government levied a fine on any writer who used the phrase “excellent adventure” to describe a road trip without any real destination, the national debt could be reduced by one zero, at least. Just as Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s surfer-dude creation, Jeff Spicoli, came to represent a specific male archetype, Bill and Ted would become the poster children for teen ADD. The trippy rhythm of their modifier-happy vernacular would be repeated endlessly, not only in the U.S., but by kids just like them around the globe. Even if Alex Winter’s career never came close to matching that of his co-star and friend Keanu Reeves – whose body of work and screen persona formed the basis of a class at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design – he probably hasn’t spent the last 23 years trying to convince people that Ted is creation of someone else’s imagination. Sean Penn hasn’t been required to carry Spicoli on his shoulders for the past 30 years, either. Fans still make the pilgrimage to the San Gabriel Valley city of San Dimas to see if Keanu and Alex are in residence at the world’s most famous Circle K store, though, only to learn that the movie was shot in Tempe, Arizona.
The Circle K is important because that’s where George Carlin’s time-traveling phone booth – shades of “Doctor Who” – nearly lands on Bill and Ted, who are in desperate need of a presentation for their history class. They’ve been so intent on organizing their garage band, Wyld Stallyns, they’ve entirely spaced the final project, which they need to pass the course. Rufus (Carlin) offers to help by introducing the boys to such famous historical figures as Napoleon, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig van Beethoven. That way, they can pick their brain and observe world-shaping events first-hand. If they’re very lucky, Bill and Ted might even be able to convince the VIPs to return with them to San Dimas. Among the supplements are “The Original Bill & Ted: In Conversation With Chris & Ed,” an air-guitar tutorial with Bjorn Turoque & the Rockness Monster and “One Sweet and Sour Chinese Adventure to Go” and original marketing material. – Gary Dretzka
Painted Skin: The Resurrection: Blu-ray
It’s a shame that American kids aren’t being encouraged to sample the adventures, romances and fantasies of countries where English isn’t the mother tongue. While it’s true that animated features from Hollywood studios are second to none, live-action pictures based on ancient legends must be tricked out with CGI gimmicks, action and cute actors to appeal to young adults. “Painted Skin” and “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” are perfect examples of epic entertainments that, given a fair chance, could cross several demographic lines, while also stoking the imaginations of younger viewers. Just as Disney’s “Mulan” is based on a legend that goes back to the Northern Wei Dynasty, “Painted Skin” and its 2012 sequel were inspired by Po Songling’s “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio,” written during the early Qing Dynasty. Hundreds of his tales, handed down through generations in the oral tradition, were collected by his grandson and published in the mid-1740s. They’re populated with ghosts, demons, immortals and animistic spirits that interact with humans of all castes and economic strata. The fantastical elements often masked social commentary and outrage against the corruption that permeated Chinese society. The parables also glorified heroism, self-sacrifice and romance, in addition to promoting moral standards and Taoist principles.
In both “Painted Skin” episodes, Zhou Xon plays a beautiful fox spirit who sustains her powers and youth by stealing and devouring the beating hearts of mortals. If the demon can convince a human to freely sacrifice his or her heart to her, she, too, will become mortal and capable of experiencing passion, pain and other non-predatory feelings. The fox spirit has been encased in an ice floe for the last 1,000 years as punishment for one misdeed or another. After being freed from her prison by a bird spirit (Yang Mini) that’s determined to chip a hole in the ice, the fox spirit makes up for lost time by seducing random men and stealing their hearts. Before long, the replenished fox crosses paths with Princess Jing (Zhao Wei), who’s been forced into exile from her kingdom by mysterious threats. Despite the half-mask of gold she wears to cover a deformity, Jing is every bit as gorgeous as the wandering spirit. Together, they pursue the only man the princess has ever loved: a guard who long ago failed at his mission to protect her. He has carried the shame on his shoulders ever since then. Although alliances shift and enemies are vanquished along the way, it’s inevitable that someone’s heart eventually is going to end up in someone else’s body.
Like most Chinese historical epics, the fight scenes in “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” are wonderfully choreographed and genuinely exciting. The brilliant colors of the period costumes add even more visual flair. The movie was directed by Wuershan, a Mongolian-born filmmaker and an award-winning commercial director, animator, fine artist, avant-garde composer and musician. His sophomore effort, “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” owes far more to kick-ass martial-arts action than “Painted Skin,” which is less graphically violent and designed to skew more to women and girls. It was a huge hit in China, even topping the foreign imports on its opening weekend. The Blu-ray adds a 23-minute making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
The Night of the Devils
It takes more than a blurb on the cover of a DVD for a movie that aspires to “grindhouse” status to actually attain it. Neither does comparing a filmmaker to Quentin Tarantino make it so. The publicity material I read ahead of watching Ward Roberts’ “grindhouse Western,” “Dust Up,” set the bar for it just that high. As an example of contemporary grindhouse, “Dust Up” succeeds pretty well, I think, but comparing a filmmaker or his work to Tarantino is merely a fool’s errand. It’s like comparing Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse to his line chefs and there’s no mileage in that. There’s almost no point in parsing the plot of “Dust Up,” because it basically doesn’t have one. Instead, there’s lots of unbalanced characters and mindless violence in search of a plot. The protagonist is Jack (Aaron Gaffey), a war veteran who lost an eye on a recon mission – the ladies dig his eye patch — and now practices yoga in the Mojave. For money, Jack does odd jobs for the desert rats that live on the fringes of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms. One of them, Ella (Amber Benson), lives out in the boonies with her newborn child and an abusive husband who’s addicted to meth. Her water pipes have started spitting out mud and the last person she trusts with her pipes is him. He owes money to Buzz (Jeremiah Birkett), the leader of a mob of criminals, drug dealers and crank addicts, whose idea of a good time is getting stoned and eating human flesh. As collateral for what is owed him, the crazed mob leader kidnaps Ella’s baby and threatens to turn her into an appetizer. Jack and his beatnik Indian buddy, Mo (Devin Barry), take it upon themselves to rescue the baby, but are outmatched by the mob’s craziness. In the end, Ella’s maternal fury proves to be insurmountable and the resulting bloodbath is so far over the top that genre fans should find it inspiring. The DVD package includes a behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews and extra footage; a mock public service announcement; audio commentary with Amber Benson and Ward Roberts; and the sneak preview at San Diego ComicCon.
In Italy, the equivalent genre to grindhouse is “giallo.” Looking back at the genre from the distance of 40 years, it’s easy to see the common elements shared by American, Italian and British horror films, as well as the singular touches that distinguished one country’s cinema from the other. The same thing applies in other areas. In the 1960-70s, anyone who couldn’t immediately tell the difference between an Italian sports car and those produced in Germany, the UK and the U.S. simply wasn’t paying attention. From RaroVideo, “The Night of the Devils” (“La notte dei diavoli”) is an example of how bright colors, vulnerable female beauties, nudity, male psychosis, strange music and extreme violence combined to tell stories that didn’t have to make a lot of sense to be fun to watch. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni (“Mill of the Stone Women”), “The Night of the Devils” is the second of three movies that have been adapted from the 1839 Tolstoy novella “The Family of the Vourdalak.” The first came as part of Mario Bava’s horror trilogy, “Black Sabbath,” while the third was made in Russia as “The Vampire Family.” Here, Gianni Garko plays an anonymous man, who’s admitted to a psychiatric institution after experiencing something so traumatic that it rendered him mute, with fractured memories and wandering aimlessly through a forest. It isn’t until a mysterious woman passes through security and enters his room that he begins to speak and, then, only with the ravings of a lunatic. Everything traces to a backwoods family, whose patriarch had volunteered to participate in a manhunt, only to return 10 days later as a vampire. It isn’t the easiest movie to follow, but few giallos are … especially those whose dream sequences and flashbacks appear to have been created by someone who’s experienced a bad acid trip. The DVD comes with an interview with composer Giorgio Gaslini and introduction by Chris Alexander, of Fangoria magazine. – Gary Dretzka
Hideout in the Sun 2-DVD Collector’s Edition
Escape From Women’s Prison
Women Ordered to Love
Rudyard Kipling’s Mark of the Beast
Five Senses of Eros
And while we’re on the subject of exploitation and sexploitation, here’s a sampling of the monthly bounty of outrageous titles from MVD Visuals.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, some adventurous filmmakers got around the ban on nudity in movies by setting them in nudist and “naturist” communities and resorts. It allowed them to be promoted as educational material, under the same guidelines that permitted National Geographic to be displayed in high school libraries, regardless of the Third World breasts on display. Nudist camps were sufficiently mysterious and uncommon to be considered worthy of investigation. Of course, once the MPAA introduced the ratings system and allowed the studios and distributors to add nudity to their mix, the nudism and nudie-cutie subgenres were toast. Doris Wishman, whose career spanned 42 years, first made her mark with the 1959 camp classic, “Hideout in the Sun.” To stay within existing laws, it combined a documentary narrative with a goofy crime story. Two brothers rob a Florida bank and, while attempting to elude police, carjack the convertible of a pretty redhead. The goons demand she offer them shelter in the resort at which she’s employed. Turns out, it’s a nudist colony, a fact that delights one brother and repels the other. To avoid questions, the woman must make an appearance, at least, on the grounds. The younger brother agrees to strip down and accompany her, so she can’t spill the beans. It allows Wishman the opportunity to “document” the naturist experience and meet some of the participants, not all of whom are in it for the health benefits. Cooling his heels inside the woman’s room is the older brother, who, after blowing their escape by sea, decides to risk a police chase. It leads him to a serpentarium, where he breaks his ankle while hopping into an enclosure and is bitten by a cobra. Meanwhile, back at the resort, the sun lovers and their families – no kidding – are letting the sun’s rays make them healthy and the younger crook has fallen in love with his hostage and the naturist way of life. Among the many curiosities in “Hideout in the Sun” is the nimble way the actors and models are able to hide their pubis areas whenever the camera is pointed their way. The DVD benefits from a colorful, hi-definition transfer from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and in a 16×9 anamorphic version. The bonus features include commentary by Wishman biographer Michael J. Bowen; vintage interviews with Wishman and exploitation filmmaker David Friedman; the newsreel, “The Year Was 1960”; the short, “Postcards From a Nudist Camp”; a full-color booklet with notes and an interview with Wishman; and some wonderfully raunchy trailers from the period.
Women-in-prison fetishists might be disappointed to learn that “Escape From Women’s Prison” (a.k.a., “Jailbirds”) doesn’t actually take place in a prison, but, as the title suggests, outside of one. Otherwise, all the elements of a classic sexploitation flick are in place. Released in 1978, and looking every minute of its age, Giovanni Brusadori’s film describes what happens when four convicted female errorists escape from prison and hijack a bus carrying a team of women tennis players. (Maybe you can see where this is going.) They direct the driver to the posh home of the judge who sentenced them. Once there, the escapees attempt to convince the hostages of the joy of lesbian sex, whether they want to learn or not. The male bus driver, too, will be made to perform. Their humiliation of the judge causes him to piss his paints, as well. Even as the police are surrounding the house, the escapees and tennis players continue the romp. There isn’t much more to the movie than that, but, for some viewers, the forcible seductions and ample displays of nudity will suffice.
There are times when the slasher-thriller “Slice” reminded me of what a grindhouse adaptation of a Thomas Harris novel, featuring Hannibal Lecter, might look like if it were made in Thailand. A killer who was emotionally and physically abused as a child avenges the crimes as an adult by butchering sex tourists who prey on underage boys in Bangkok. It’s very nasty stuff, but, in addition to being repellent, the victims are wealthy enough to avoid prosecution. Nevertheless, a corrupt cop who looks as if he’s channeling Jim Jarmusch is intent on catching the serial killer, whose ability to evade arrest offends his bosses. The only person he trusts to help in the search is a convicted assassin, who, while behind bars, does favors for him. Conveniently, the hitman has been haunted by blurred memories of a red-cloaked specter, which fits the m.o. of the serial killer. The investigation inevitably leads backs to the village where the two killers were raised and traumatized. “Slice” is a bit on the messy side, but fans of outrageous crime stories should quite a bit to like here.
The story behind the movie now known as “Women Ordered to Love” is more interesting than anything in the film itself, despite its undeserved reputation as being the godfather of the Nazisploitation sub-genre. Any similarities between “Women Ordered to Love” (previously titled “Lebensborn E.V.”) and “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS” are coincidental, at best. Regardless of the cover art, which carries the tagline “Frauleins Forced Into Nazi Breeding” and shows a semi-naked blonde, partially covered by a Nazi flag, cowering before a soldier in high leather boots. The truth is quite a bit less scandalous. Yes, Heinrich Himmler instituted the program in 1935 to promote the growth of the Aryan population by providing women who met certain racial and genetic criteria — as well as the wives of SS members — with excellent health care and financial assistance. As an alternative to having abortions, women who agreed to turn their infant over to an SS-sanctioned orphanage were provided with anonymity and health care. It was alleged but not proven in post-war courts that Lebensborn also promoted the kidnapping of children in occupied countries and their adoption by SS families. The facilities were not fronts for brothels or forced couplings between proper Aryan soldiers and caged women. (This certainly occurred, but not under the auspices of Lebensborn.) The title “Woman Ordered to Love” was substituted for “Lebensborn” a dozen years after its debut, when it was re-released to piggyback off the success of “Ilsa” and other Naziploitation flicks. Its less-than-titillating approach to the subject must have come as a great disappointment to fetishists expecting whips, leather, jackboots and garter belts. Instead, they got a weird romantic drama set at a Lebensborn facility during the latter part of the war. As such, it’s far more interesting as a curiosity piece than an example of vintage sexploitation.
Rudyard Kipling may not be known as a writer of horror stories, but Jonathan Gorman and Thomas Edward Seymour’s adaptation of his short story, “The Mark of the Beast,” suggests he would have been very good at it. Even though the setting had to be changed from the jungles of colonial India to the forests of modern Connecticut, the filmmakers were able to remain reasonably faithful to the source material. Instead of desecrating a shrine where lepers pray to the Monkey God, an inconsiderate tourist violates a shrine guarded by a New England Yankee version of the Silver Leper Priest. The pathetic creature bites the doofus and curses him. It turns him into a monster that, then, preys on his fellow campers. To ward off his evil intentions, they turn to torture and religion. Even though it was made in a hurry and on a meager budget, “Mark of the Beast” works pretty well as a horror thriller. The special makeup effects are credible and the cast, led by the estimable Debbie Rochon, gives it their all. It arrives with a making-of featurette.
Sometimes, anthology movies signal a coming of age on the part of national cinemas, genre directors or themes. At their best, the individual episodes compare favorably to short stories or novellas by master novelists. Too frequently, though, the participants treat the assignment as if it were a group project in summer school, an opportunity to recycle half-baked ideas and kill time between features. Audiences have never particularly warmed to the concept, except, perhaps, in anthology series on cable TV that have specific guidelines – time, nudity, violence – and a week between each episode. “Five Senses of Eros” is interesting not so much for its eroticism, but because it’s of a part with the flowering of Korean cinema. Fifteen years ago, there wouldn’t have been sufficient reason for such an endeavor. Sense then, however, the Koran cinema has become one of the most exciting in the world, not only for its many fine horror pictures, but also dramas, rom-coms and police procedurals. The chapters the comprise “Five Senses of Eros” were directed by Hyuk Byun (“Scarlett Letter”), Yu Yong-sik (“The Anarchists”), Min Kyu-dong (“Memento Mori”), Oh Ki-hwan (“Voices”) and Hur Jin-ho (“Happiness”). Each of their stories has some kind of twist to it, naturally, but the idea here is to surround it with a distinct erotic aura. The thing for exploitation fans to know before going into the movie, however, is that the sexuality is relatively tame, and the little violence there is serves the story. Each is extremely well made and the feelings between the key characters are palpable. Not all of the stories work, but that’s par for the course in the anthology game. – Gary Dretzka
Asylum (AKA — I Want to be A Gangster)
The Definitive Document of the Dead
Schoolgirl Report, Volume 9: Mature Before Graduation
No slouch in the area of grindhouse and sexploitation is Synapse Films, which routinely finds and distributes DVDs of interest to the most curious of viewers.
For his debut as a writer/director, Olivier Chateau has taken on a segmented crime story that begins in Tarantino country and demonstrates the limits of hubris among thieves before evolving into solitary battle for survival in the woods. If that description makes “Asylum (AKA – I Want to Be a Gangster)” sound as if it’s too large a challenge for a newcomer, I’m here to assure you that Chateau found clever new ways to keep the story simple, swift and entertaining. Jack (Julien Courbey) is a small-time French crook who’s determined to be taken seriously by local Mafia leaders. As the movie opens, Jack and a buddy are running a scam involving a non-lethal game of Russian roulette, during which the participants risk only their kneecaps in return for a monetary reward. Unfortunately for the two conmen, the rube is a drug courier for the mob and the stake he put up wasn’t his to risk. They feel pretty good about themselves until the courier’s boss shows up, demanding they turn over the drugs he insists they now possess. In denying the accusation, Jack’s partner tells the thug a story whose outline clearly was borrowed from “True Romance,” Tony Scott’s underappreciated collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. It’s funny, but not to the guy holding the gun. Jack wisely points the mobsters in the direction of the drug cache and it buys him time to ingratiate himself with the supreme boss. His ability to escape death once again, in what amounts to a turkey shoot, convinces Le Grand Patron to give him another reprieve. Operating under the distinct misapprehension that he’s immortal, Jack attempts to play one boss off against another in botched hit. Still alive to tell the tale, he disobeys orders of his new patron by agreeing to teach the guy’s hapless nephew how to rob a bank.
This time, however, things don’t work out so well for Jack. Although he isn’t summarily executed, he’s taken deep into a forest and chained like a dog to a tree. Seemingly out of reach of anything that could make his ordeal any less terrifying and uncomfortable, Jack not only must contend with the elements, but also human and canine intruders. Chateau paces Jack’s ordeal patiently enough to make us believe that almost two weeks pass without any real chance of escape. In the meantime, he’s also managed to convince us that deep within the prisoner’s black heart lies something worth our sympathy. The final confrontations offer several narrative options, but why spoil the fun by revealing them? Julien Courbey is extremely convincing as the delusional wannabe, Jack. Chateau’s decision to shoot “Asylum” in standard definition, with a de-saturated sepia palette and intentionally degraded grainy picture quality, also adds to its austere tone and populist appeal. Reportedly made for $4,000, “Asylum” was released in France in 2008, before disappearing from radar screens. In DVD, however, it’s easily recommendable to fans of offbeat crime dramas and DIY genre fare. The feature is accompanied by a making-of featurette and the very different short film, “Homer,” which stars a pet rabbit and a hamster.
For better or worse, George A. Romero is the filmmaker who deserves most of the credit for resurrecting the zombie movie as a staple of the horror genre. Even though his 1968 masterpiece, “Night of the Living Dead,” flew in the face of everything mainstream distributors believed about audience habits, it became a drive-in and cult sensation. Among other things, it demonstrated that audiences could still be drawn to black-and-white movies and the undead could be awakened by means other than voodoo chants. It also gave aspiring filmmakers hope that their ideas could be shot on a miniscule budget and in off-the-beaten-path locations as Pittsburgh. Ten years later, Romero reprised the predatory-undead theme – the original didn’t mention zombies by name – in “Dawn of the Dead,” which, set in a shopping mall, added commentary about consumerism run amok. It, too, was a huge hit. Roy Frumkes, writer/director of the behind-the-scenes documentary “Document of the Dead,” perhaps is best known for playing the first zombie hit in the face with a pie in that movie. Released originally in 1985, “Document of the Dead” was both informative and entertaining. Twenty-five years later, the public’s undying love of zombie-themed entertainment prompted Frumkes to revisit and update Romero’s story in “The Definitive Document of the Dead,” adding much fresh material and on-set footage from subsequent Romero productions, “Two Evil Eyes,” “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead,” as well as example of parodies and other movies that owe their existence to “Night of the Living Dead.” The 1985 documentary has been re-mixed and re-edited to accommodate the new material, which includes Frumkes’ commentary. It should be considered essential viewing for serious fans of the horror genre.
Just as mid-century producers of nudist and naturist films were given a bit of a pass by American censors, if they included material deemed “educational” or instructional, the first European imports that crossed the border into pornography played fast and loose with the facts. Sweden’s “I Am Curious: Yellow” made headlines upon its release here for some graphic sexuality, but, in fact, the inclusion of so much socio-political commentary turned off most of the audience members. By 1970, it wasn’t unusual to find nudity in Hollywood dramas and the artistically erotic films/travelogues of Radley Metzger. What the German series, “Schoolgirl Report,” brought to the table combined the faux documentary with simulated sex and full-frontal nudity … lots of it. Moreover, viewers were encouraged to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept the female characters as being 18, or so. Each new chapter in the series purported to inform parents of their daughters’ behavior at boarding schools – or that of their peers — according to a best-selling book by German psychologist Günther Hunold. If anything, though, “Schoolgirl Report” was to Hunold’s research what Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex ** But Were Afraid to Ask” was to David Reuben’s best-seller. In the ninth chapter, “Mature Before Graduation,” the students are discovering the pitfalls of committing themselves to marriage at an early age, even when encouraged by their parents to substitute it for living together. As is the case in most of the movies, the teenagers pay a price for their unbridled sexuality. – Gary Dretzka
Pixar Short Films Collection 2: Blu-ray
Among the Academy Award categories that have emerged from the shadows in the digital age are the ones representing the best short animated, live action and documentary films. The desire to see the nominated titles has grown to the point where fans of short titles have successfully lobbied for mini-festivals to be held before the night of the Oscar ceremony, in addition to those designed to be shown weeks later and made available on DVD. For proprietary reasons of their own, executives at Pixar/Disney have held their nominees back from the ancillary marketplace. They show up later in the bonus packages of DVD and Blu-ray releases and stand-alone compilations, such as “Pixar Short Films Collection 2.” The 12 shorts included in it were released, in one platform or another, between 2007 and 2012. “La Luna,” “Presto” and “Day & Night” were among the award nominees, while the others were inspired by such animated features as “WALL*E,” “Up,” “Ratatouille,” “Toy Story” and “Cars.” Also interesting are the seven films by directors John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter while they were students. Most of the shorts are accompanied by commentaries, as well. – Gary Dretzka
They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain
Last Call at the Oasis
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story
The timing of President Obama’s trip to Myanmar — more commonly known as Burma – neatly coincides with the release of Robert H. Lieberman’s remarkable documentary, “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain.” The clandestinely shot film describes conditions in a country that until very recently was almost as isolated as North Korea and has been ruled with an iron fist by a corrupt military dictatorship. Even a year ago, such a diplomatic mission would have been unthinkable. After activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and elected to the lower house of the parliament, leaders of the outside world cautiously began to make overtures to the leaders, who, only a few years ago, brutally quashed pro-democracy protests by monks and students, while also ignoring the needs of victims of a devastating hurricane. Lieberman, a respected American educator and filmmaker, was invited to Burma to upgrade media-studies programs in Burma, but took the opportunity to surreptitiously record the thoughts of citizens on a number of issues, many unrelated to politics. In addition to shooting street scenes, pagodas and gold-covered Buddhist statuary, Lieberman documented examples of government neglect and decaying infrastructure. What shines through most vividly, however, is the genuine warmth of the Burmese people and their understated desire to rejoin the world community. Before the military dictatorship took hold in 1962, the newly independent Burma was one of the most prosperous and highly educated in the region. That ended when the junta decided to enforce a ban on foreign influences and line their own pockets with the money made from the nation’s widely sought resources. “They Call It Myanmar” is alternately enchanting and horrifying. If he hasn’t already seen the documentary, I hope President Obama takes the opportunity of a long plane trip to watch it. If nothing else, it should serve as a reminder to count his fingers after shaking hands with the military leaders he meets.
As vital as such red-flag documentaries are, there’s no escaping the fact that most of them leave viewers with a palpable sense of hopelessness and depression. “Last Call at the Oasis” is just such a movie. No matter how gloomy its message about the coming crisis in access to potable water may be, however, it’s important that people see Jessica Yu’s film. It’s probably more crucial for politicians and world leaders to screen it, but, considering how little attention was paid to global warming in the presidential campaign, it isn’t likely they will. The same companies responsible for polluting, diverting and wasting the world’s supply pay lobbyists handsomely to convince lawmakers to give them a pass. When Dick Cheney was vice president, he took time away from promoting the war in oil-rich Iraq to find a way to exempt his former employer, Halliburton, from enforcement of clean-water laws. It’s far easier, too, to talk the talk about protecting the environment than to finance EPA efforts to do just that. “Last Call at the Oasis” casts a wide net in describing the state of clean water. In addition to the obvious industrial abuses, Yu points to the damage done by poor supervision of feed lots and the potential for droughts in areas now rich in precipitation. We visit Las Vegas, of course, where magnificent fountains thrill the tourists, while also depleting Lake Mead. People who think they’re buying their way to good health by drinking bottled water might be shocked to learn that they’re actually consuming another city’s tap water and the multi-billion-dollar industry is largely unregulated. It also drains the ground water of communities willing to sell out their own interests. It’s a deliberately alarming documentary and some of the research seems weighted to promote the cause being forwarded, but, even if a tenth of what’s prophesized comes true, we’re basically screwed. Among the familiar faces here are attorney Erin Brockovich, who’s still fighting the good fight, and Jack Black, who agreed to promote water bottled after being recycled. The DVD adds “Jack Black: Save the World from Thirst,” “Meet Mr. Toilet,” an extended interview with Brockovich; an animated video on the loss of ground water; and the featurette, “Arid Lands.”
“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women” was inspired by the book written by New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It deals with such important issues as the epidemic of rape in Africa and the sale and abduction of young girls into prostitution in Southeast Asia. There are laws against such offensives, of course, but they’re enforced with far less intensity than in western nations. It’s easier for an offender to buy his way out of jail and subsequent prosecution than to be punished. Along the way, Kristof and WuDunn do come across agencies and social workers who’ve organized programs to educate the public, work with victims and change attitudes among offenders. The efforts are miniscule in comparison to public apathy, the poverty that drives a father to sell his daughter and a prejudice against raising girls in such countries as China and India. “Half the Sky” was the central element in an international transmedia project that also involved a Facebook-hosted social-action game, mobile activities, two websites, educational video modules with companion text, a social-media campaign, more than 30 partner organizations and an impact assessment plan. Prominently acknowledged on the DVD cover are the names of celebrity contributors America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde. The marketing move is explained by George Clooney ahead of the film presentation. As is obvious to anyone who’s tried to raise awareness of a problem or sought donations to support research, unless a celebrity is attached it’s almost impossible to get media coverage. The three-hour-plus media experience adds extended and deleted scenes and interviews; public-service announcements; campaign videos; bonus content for Facebook game; and action-oriented activities.
Way back in the 1960s, when network news divisions occasionally broadcast documentaries and special reports, audiences in northern and western states were made aware of Apartheid American-style in prime-time hours. At the time, all of the broadcast networks competed for viewers drawn to social and political issues, here and around the world. Today, if a message can’t be delivered in three minutes, it’s left for the documentarians at PBS. In 1965, Frank De Felitta traveled through the Mississippi Delta updating the progress of the civil-rights movement and giving people on both sides of the racial divide an opportunity to tell their stories. Being an outsider, De Felitta was seen as an agitator and largely ignored by white residents. Blacks were only a bit more open with their thoughts, displaying their contempt mostly through facial gestures and telling posture. When a landowner escorted De Felitta through sharecropper homes on his property the inhabitants could barely contain their disdain for the man and his lies, mostly responding, “Yes, sir … that’s right sir,” whenever asked if he was a good provider. His attempts to meet with KKK members were met with implied threats. Of all the people interviewed, store owner and part-time waiter in a whites-only supper club Booker Wright was, by fair, that most charismatic and candid. He volunteered in a completely matter-of-fact way how he was treated by diners and how he smiled through the abuse simply for the opportunity to support his family. When the documentary ran, Wright not only was fired from his job but also beaten to within an inch of his life. In a seemingly unrelated incident, he was shot to death by a belligerent black costumer he’d thrown out of his place hours earlier. One theory suggests that the notorious bully was put up for the attack by whites who still were peeved at Wright and was guaranteed a not-guilty decision or brief prison stay, neither of which he got. Years later, De Felitta’s son, Raymond, embarked on a journey to find the descendants of the people interviewed in the show and see if things had changed markedly in the ensuing half-century. Well, yes and no. The reflections in “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” range from funny to revelatory to heart-breaking, especially on the part of Wright’s kinfolk and contemporaries. Frank De Felitta continues to indict himself for not editing out the material that offended Wright’s employer and his customers, and might have got him killed. As his son and Wright’s granddaughter reminds, however, he said those things knowing the consequences, but refusing to remain silent.
Although probably a bit too inside-baseball to suit general audiences, “Objectified” explores how designers of mostly everyday stuff relate to their creations and what it says about them, recognizing and exploiting trends and free-market capitalism. It also unravels some of the mystery behind the various shapes, colors and sizes of the things we buy and what it says about us. We’re introduced to people who design staplers and carrot scrapers, alongside those who create chairs and computer shells. Director Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”) knows that most of us will buy something that simply looks nicer than the object next to it and gives us a reason to pay more attention to our choices in the future. His search took him to design studios around the world and artists who tackle assignments ranging from minute to very, very large. The gorilla in the room is there to remind viewers that the shelf life of any cleverly designed product could be five years or five minutes, depending on what magazine pictorials are pimping this week. When its time has come and gone, all of these wonderful products eventually end up in landfills or remainder bins. It’s a humbling experience. – Gary Dretzka
Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’: Blu-ray
Last month saw the release on DVD and Blu-ray of the PBS documentary series, “Broadway: The American Musical.” “Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’” was showcased as one of the very few musicals that dealt with adult themes and relationships, instead of, say, dancing cowboys and cute orphans. Sondheim has said that he intended for “Company” to reverse the usual pattern, by which upper-middle-class New Yorkers escaped their upper-middle-class problems through Broadway musicals: “Here we are, with ‘Company,’ talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces.” What was daring in 1970, though, serves more as a vehicle for laughs and only slighted dated insight in 2012. The story focuses on Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor whose inability to sustain a long-term relationship is of great concern to five different couples in his orbit. Their relationships are no great shakes, so Bobby (Neil Patrick Harris) takes much of their advice with a grain of sand. Individually, the characters have feelings for Bobby that are different from those voiced when coupled. The vignettes all come with songs attached to them, but, as was usually the case on Broadway, the music didn’t drive the narrative. The songs are used more as commentary. “Company” was nominated for an astonishing 14 Tony awards, winning six. Besides Harris, this highly entertaining and visually intimate revival stars Stephen Colbert, Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Christina Hendricks, Martha Plimpton, Patti Lapone, Aaron Lazar, Jill Paice, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jim Walton, and Chryssie Whitehead. They are backed by a 35-piece orchestra. – Gary Dretzka
A&E: Duck Dynasty: Season One
A&E: Shipping Wars: Season One
A&E: Storage Wars: Texas: Season One
Sometimes it’s fun to watch Syfy original movies simply to see how far some filmmakers stretch the money allotted for special visual effects. There can’t be very much left here after the cost of the earthquake simulator and lava machine –staples of the natural-disaster category — are factored into what must have been an extremely tight budget. Once “Snowmageddon” was chosen as the title, of course, most of the guess work was eliminated. Just for the record, though, Sheldon Wilson’s thriller is set on Christmas Eve in an Alaskan town called Normal. It’s so quaint that Heidi and her grandfather may have passed through it on their way to Switzerland. Soon after a snow globe arrives at the home of the local sheriff (David Cubitt) and his helicopter-jockey wife (Laura Harris), mysterious things beginning happening in the town square and mountains surrounding the village. First, an earthquake causes a giant fissure on Main Street. Then, a long-dormant clock, on a tower overlooking the shops, suddenly comes back to life. The only person who notices that these events are replicated in the miniature town encased in the snow globe is the sheriff’s young son, but no one takes kids seriously until the last reel of these movies. Instead, the men act as if Bigfoot is leading a flotilla of alien spacecraft to Sarah Palin’s house and Normal is the final line of defense. The best thing about “Snowmageddon” is the appearance of killer clouds, which lob cluster bombs containing razor-sharp particles at Normal. This plague is followed by volcanic explosions on the mountain and pointed logs jutting through the earth’s surface. None of it looks particularly convincing, but you have to give the effects wizards credit for thinking outside the box.
Of the three new compilations of A&E series – “Duck Dynasty,” “Shipping Wars,” “Storage Wars: Texas” – I am hard-pressed to determine which one is of the least social value. The least stupid show, if only because of its setting, is “Duck Dynasty.” It follows the day-to-day activities of the Robertson family, whose menfolk look as if they just won a ZZ Top look-alike contest, from the floor of their duck call and decoy warehouse, to the swamps and forests of Louisiana, where they hunt for their meals. They may be millionaires, but, really, who cares? Anyone who dons cammo gear and paints their face to sneak up on squirrels should see a psychiatrist. The women and kids look as if they’re just along for the ride. “Duck Dynasty” is only for those reality buffs who thought the Osbournes got a bad rap.
Not to be outdone in the area of lowbrow pursuits, “Shipping Wars” chronicles the professional lives of a group of men and women who make their livings hauling objects that other truckers consider to be too fragile, weird or unwieldy to be profitable. Before they can fire up their rigs, however, the motley crew of competitors must bid on each job. The process is comparable to playing poker, in that they identify “tells” in each other’s strategy and use bluffs to put an opponent in untenable position. The veterans especially enjoy tricking the rookies into low-balling a bid, just to watch them lose money. The drama of securing the loads and racing the clock to a destination is almost unbearable … not. After two episodes, I gave up on the show.
By comparison to the regular participants in “Storage Wars: Texas,” though, the “Shipping Wars” crew is a breath of fresh air. The mopes who bid on abandoned goods in storage have all the charisma of an aquarium full of plastic fish. The Lone Star spinoff from A&E’s hit reality show, “Storage Wars,” begs the question as to what part of Arts & Entertainment the channel’s shows represent. Picking through someone else’s discarded property can be fun, but only if you’re the one doing the picking. Otherwise, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. – Gary Dretzka
Any filmmaker who lacks the imagination to come up with a better title than “Lukewarm” pretty much deserves what he’s going to get from the critics. Even though it refers to a point made by an Evangelical preacher during a sermon – which, itself, was pretty tepid, as these things go – titles generally are created with box-office in mind. A distributor, exhibitor or video-store owner shouldn’t have to rely on a patron’s knowledge of Revelation 3:16 to make money off a movie. As it turns out, however, I probably couldn’t think of a better word to describe my response to “Lukewarm” than lukewarm. I understand, of course, that the people who make such Christian-based, family-friendly fare aren’t particularly interested in what reviewers have to say about their products. They pander, er, cater to a certain audience demographic and, well, why bother? I would suggest, however, that movies intended to deliver a Christian message should try, at least, to preach to someone other than members of the choir. Early in “Lukewarm,” a happy and devout little boy, Luke (Jeremy Jones), is shaken to his core by the sudden disappearance of his father (John Schneider) in his life. Fast forward to adulthood and Luke is still confused about what hit him and why. He works as a bartender, where he’s surrounded by temptations and reasons not to get enough sleep to pay attention at Sunday services. Even so, his girlfriend Jessie (Nicole Gale Anderson) remains devoted to him and believes there’s still time for him to get right with Jesus. First, however, she must convince him to sanctify their relationship by agreeing to be married. Every time Luke gets close to a commitment, though, his boss at work talks him into backsliding. We’ll later learn that his boss still has the hots for Jessie and would love for her to wash Luke out of her hair. It isn’t that Luke blames God for his situation or rejects his pastor’s teaching, nor does he drown himself in self-pity. His lukewarm nature simply won’t allow him to keep from messing up by sinning.
Unwisely, I think, director Thomas Makowski and writers Christopher James Miller and Sean Stearley decided not to let this storyline reach its inevitable destination on its own steam. Instead, they invent a scenario in which the movie’s only black actor (Bill Cobbs) is driven to martyrdom by archetypal redneck thugs who don’t appreciate his character’s efforts to read the bible to them. Thomas is a harmless old coot whose only crime was knocking on the wrong door too many times and trying to save the debauched souls from damnation. It’s annoying, perhaps, but hardly a capital offense. Luke enjoyed discussing scripture with Thomas, but was helpless against the racist heathens. It is at this point that he turns to the pastor to give prayer a chance of saving his friends. There’s more, but it’s easy to guess how the story unfolds in the final scenes. There’s never a moment in “Lukewarm” when we’re in doubt about Luke’s destiny or not in the presence of characters constructed out of cardboard. The audience for movies like this deserves a bit more respect than is shown to them here. – Gary Dretzka