The LEGO Movie: Everything Is Awesome Edition: Blu-ray/DVD/3D
When, in February, “The LEGO Movie” opened huge and kept right on growing, there must have been a lot of folks at Warner Bros. willing to take credit for its shocking commercial success, if not the nearly unanimous positive reviews. They’d taken a risk by launching an original animated movie in February, typically a weak month for family films, and it paid off big. It out-performed the month’s next four releases combined. As if to prove the numbers were no fluke, foreign markets followed a similar trajectory and produced similar numbers. A boffo marketing campaign, big stars, favorable reviews and brand recognition may be able to pull a picture through its first weekend, but only ecstatic word-of-mouth can keep the turnstiles spinning. That’s what happened here. The buzz not only spread among children, all of whom probably were given LEGOs at some time in their young lives, but also among grown-ups and, not incidentally, older teens attracted to the smart dialogue and clever action sequences. I won’t go as far as to say that liberalized marijuana laws had anything to do with its success among young adults, except to suggest “TLM” might eventually stand as this generation’s “Yellow Submarine.” Anyone who thinks I might be exaggerating the movie’s appeal need only rent a copy and sample it, stoned or straight, and see if you disagree. Better yet, it does so without banging viewers over the head with LEGO plugs and other product placement. I hope that the brothers Warner are already preparing for an award campaign in the Best Picture category, not just Best Animated Feature, which is the category into which animated pictures are usually discarded. If there are 10 better movies released in the next six months, 2014 will go down as an extraordinary year for the American cinema.
Somehow, the CGI animation team assembled by writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) was able to manipulate the basic LEGOs conceit – toys that are created using interlocking bricks of various geometric shapes, sizes and basic colors – to add fluidity, texture and non-robotic movement to the mix. Everything in the movie, including water, fire, laser bolts, explosions and smoke, was designed to look as if built out of LEGO pieces. Parents who’ve patiently helped their kids construct LEGO buildings and vehicles won’t believe how simple everything looks in 2D and 3D. In addition to the traditional LEGO characters, the cast is augmented by such guest stars as Johnny Thunder, Green Lantern, C-3PO, Han Solo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Shaquille O’Neal, Abraham Lincoln, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare and pieces from the Minifigures series. If it seems as if I’m avoiding the movie’s plot, well, I am. There are simply too many potential spoilers sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative and too few reasons to reveal them, except to suggest that Karl Marx’s estate could have petitioned the WGA for an “inspired by” credit. The class struggle has rarely been as concisely encapsulated as it is in “TLM,” although I’m guessing that the studio would prefer it to be seen as a struggle between good and evil or David and Goliath.
The bourgeois are represented here by the egomaniacal President Business (a.k.a., Lord Business) the despotic president of the conglomerate, Octan, which induces complacency in LEGO Land workers using generic pop-songs and rigid manuals for team-based LEGO construction. The proletariat is led by the completely unremarkable construction worker Emmet Brickowoski (they’re always Polish, aren’t they?), who discovers the fabled Pièce de résistance on a building site and is henceforth treated as the “Special one,” prophesized by Vitruvius. Emmet is brought before the Master Builders assemblage, which is comprised of toy superheroes and whose mission it is to prevent Lord Business from unleashing his grand weapon, the Kragle. Its strength resembles that of Batman nemesis Mr. Freeze. I was completely surprised and delighted by what happens in the climactic third act. I expect that other viewers will be as well. Besides Will Ferrell and Chris Pratt, the voicing cast includes such actors as Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman.
As wildly imaginative as “TLM” is, it wouldn’t be quite so spectacular if audio/visual presentation had under-performed. I wasn’t able to catch the 3D version, but, in Blu-ray 2D, it is nothing short of spectacular. The aptly titled “Everything Is Awesome Edition” combines 3D, 2D, DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD, adding a Vitruvius mini-figure and 3D photo of Emmet. The amusing and informative commentary is provided by Miller and Lord, as well as actors Pratt, Arnett, Day and Brie. Most of the featurettes are short and targeted primarily at those kids who may watch the movie surrounded by their own LEGO collection. – Gary Dretzka
The Grand Budapest Hotel: Blu-ray
While not exactly an example of shrewd cross-marketing strategizing and cooperation among major studios, it difficult not to think that Fox’s publicity team decided to piggyback on all of the attention being accorded “The LEGO Movie” with a stunt that could benefit everyone involved. As if to take full advantage of the same-day release into DVD/Blu-ray of “TLM” and Wes Anderson’s fanciful confection, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” by commissioning a replica of the movie’s centerpiece location, constructed entirely with LEGO pieces. A time-lapse video of the project was shot and offered to reporters, via YouTube video, as a link to incorporate in their reviews and stories. Normally, I have a low-tolerance for publicity stunts. This one, however, serves to honor the creative process, while harkening to a time when publicity wasn’t limited to press junkets and the oversaturation of stars on TV talk shows. (Check it out at http://youtu.be/oJ2ezbi3ZCc.) Although “Grand Budapest Hotel” reaped a very respectful $58 million at the domestic box-office and another $104 million overseas in its theatrical run, it could probably use a little extra help on DVD/Blu-ray. Anderson’s films are acquired taste, after all, and this one seemed to benefit from a gradual rollout designed to build word-of-mouth. In selling a DVD/Blu-ray, however, it’s important to play off of the publicity and buzz generated in the film’s theatrical run, without spending another small fortune in marketing to people who may not have had an opportunity (or interest) to see it on the big screen.
“Grand Budapest Hotel” practically defines what it means for a movie to be “quirky,” “offbeat” and “wildly inventive,” hackneyed terms used by critics to describe films – indies, in particular – that don’t fall into the usual Hollywood pigeonholes. All of Anderson’s movies are like that. “GBH” harkens back to a time between the wars, when aristocrats and potentates of all stripe expected to be pampered, primped and slobbered over by the peons whose livelihoods depend on tips. I don’t know how many times Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Royal Tenenbaums”) has seen Edmund Goulding’s star-studded 1932 classic, “Grand Hotel,” but my guess would be more than two or three. His greatest inspiration came from the life and works of the popular Viennese writer and journalist Stefan Zweig (“Beware of Pity,” “The Post-Office Girl”), upon whom the characters played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson are based. Although constructed like frosting-covered layer cake, the story’s darker elements can be directly linked to Zweig’s experiences in pre-World War II Europe, as the fascist tide began washing into neighboring countries from Germany. (Zweig escaped the Nazis, but couldn’t outrun his demons. Depressed over intolerance and the spread of fascism, he and his wife committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil, in 1942.)
Otherwise, “Grand Budapest Hotel” chronicles the life of concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), famous near and far for his unimpeachable civility and ability to accommodate his guests’ most-difficult requests, including those of sex-starved dowagers. After one of the elderly women (Tilda Swinton) dies, her family is stunned to learn that she bequeathed a priceless Renaissance painting to him. The greediest among them successfully frame him for her murder. In prison, he endears himself to fellow prisoners by his ability to smuggle in delicious pastry and generally upgrade the facility’s food service. He’s rewarded by being invited to join a motley crew of convicts planning to break out of the ancient facility. Even in prison, Gustave has managed to remain in contact with his devoted “lobby boy” and confidant, Zero Moustafa – played wonderfully as a young man by Tony Revolori — whose devotion to duty goes well beyond what anyone, except the concierge would expect from him. No need to reveal anything more, except to mention that the settings, backdrops and Alpine locations often look as if they were created by pastry chefs or Santa’s elves. It’s also fun to anticipate the appearances by Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric and Harvey Keitel. The excellent Blu-ray presentation is a bit weak on bonus features. The best wisely exploit Murray’s popularity, especially the amusing, if far too short, “Bill Murray Tours the Town.” The eclectic musical soundtrack was composed by frequent collaborator, Alexandre Desplat, with an assist by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra.
Oh, yeah, if you suspect that your video monitor is playing tricks on you, the real culprit is Anderson. He deliberately changes aspect ratios for the years 1932, 1968 and 1985. – Gary Dretzka
Judex: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
L’eclisse: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Even film buffs who consider themselves to be experts in the post-nouvelle vague French cinema are unlikely to have seen Georges Franju’s “Judex.” As far as I can tell, it only was shown in New York, circa 1966, and its first video appearance here was in 2008. Known primarily as co-founder, with Henri Langlois, of the French Cinematheque and director of the 1960 plastic-surgery horror film, “Eyes Without a Face.” “Judex” is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 masked-avenger serial. That series of pulpy shorts was highly popular among pre-war audiences and a marked contrast to the spooky “I, Fantômas” and “Les Vampires,” which, while admired by the surrealists, were accused by French authorities of being anti-patriotic and demoralizing. By creating a charismatic vigilante hero, Feuillade bought some time with the censors. Franju admired Feuillade’s shadowy tone and incorporation of magic into the story. Unlike most of the movies making noise in France in the 1960s, “Judex” was a throwback to the days of cliffhangers and pushing cameras to see what they could do. His Judex would borrow from German expressionism, film noir and fantasies of Jean Cocteau. If the Zorro-like protagonist seemed out-of-place at time, “Judex” was a movie that required little more than the viewers’ attention.
In it, the fabulously wealthy and famously corrupt banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), receives a letter demanding that he return money stolen from poor and working-class investors. After Favraux rejects the command, signed by the mysterious Judex (Channing Pollock), he suffers a heart attack while giving a toast at a masked ball. In fact, though, his champagne was spiked with a drug that merely approximated the effects of a heart attack. The banker’s body is hustled out of the party and taken to an underground bunker, where he can be monitored by a TV camera. (Remarkably, the 1916 version of “Judex” used the same device.) The only people truly disturbed by Favraux’s disappearance are his naïve adult daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) and her cunning former governess, Diana (Francine Berge), to whom he recently proposed. Unaware that Jacqueline doesn’t intend to accept her father’s tarnished inheritance, Diana and her crew kidnap her. Impressed by Jacqueline’s ethical stand, Judex’s takes it upon himself to free Jacqueline and punish Diana. In addition to his team of black-draped ninjas, Judex requires the assistance of the owner of a traveling circus (Sylva Koscina) to do so. It adds yet another layer of magic to what already has been a delightfully enchanting tale. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, as well as a 2007 interview with co-writer and Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux; a 2012 interview with actor Francine Bergé; “Franju le visionnaire,” a 50-minute program from 1998 on Franju’s career and imagination; a new English subtitle translation; a DVD copy, with all content available in both formats; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Geoffrey O’Brien, along with reprinted writings by and excerpted interviews with Franju.
Unlike “Judex,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’eclisse” is a film that no self-professed cineaste would admit to not having seen. Simply put, it’s an essential work by a singular director, whose movies have been shown in U.S. theaters since the 1960s and are widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. “Blow-Up” was nominated for a pair of Oscars and, in 1995, the academy honored Antonioni with an award for the body of his work. As the final part of the “Alienation Trilogy,” with L’Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), “L’eclisse” (“Eclipse”) was a work of art-for-art’s sake that tested its audience’s willingness to go along with Antonioni’s modernist ideas and narrative conceits. Anyone who’s ever bragged that they “got” any one of these three films on first viewing didn’t get anything, at all. It’s worth the effort, then, to listen to the scholarly commentary here on the second or third time through it. The Blu-ray release may not add any features that weren’t already available on the 2005 DVD, but the newly restored high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, may be enough to recommend it to connoisseurs, as well as newcomers. The same could be said about the mere presence of Monica Vitti as the alienated female lead. The supplemental material retains commentary with Richard Pena, former program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and professor at Columbia University; Sandro Lai’s documentary, “The Eye That Changed Cinema”; “Elements of Landscape,” featuring Italian critic and film scholar Adriano Apra and longtime Antonioni friend, Carlo di Carlo; and an illustrated booklet featuring essays by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, as well as excerpts from Antonioni’s writing about his work. – Gary Dretzka
The Odd Way Home
As far as I can tell, former Miss Golden Globe Rumer Willis’ film career hasn’t profited all that much from being the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, although she’s certainly enjoyed access to casting directors and record producers that other women would pay to have. Contrary to common belief, the only times when a Golden Child is guaranteed a gig is when their name on a poster directly impacts tickets sales or a parent is doing the hiring. Otherwise, a familiar last name can only get one to the front of the line. Although I felt pity for her when mom Demi decided to marry her teenage crush object, Ashton Kutcher, I really hadn’t paid much attention to her career. (She was closer in age to her stepfather than her was mother was … poor girl.) I doubt that her road/message movie “The Odd Way Home” will get her any closer to whatever it is her ultimate acting goal may be, it certainly won’t hurt her chances, either. In it, she plays a woman, who, after one too many beatings, hops in her truck and heads due east to Middle of Nowhere, N.M. (It’s right around the corner to co-writer/director Rajeev Nirmalakhandan’s home town of Las Cruces.) Experiencing car trouble in L.A. can be a real bitch, but having one break down in Middle of Nowhere can spell disaster. Fortunately, she arrives at the home of an elderly woman, who, only minutes earlier, died while watching television. Once bad-ass Maya determines that the woman isn’t sleeping, she goes through her purse and medicine cabinet, before stealing the delivery van in the back-40.
What Maya doesn’t realize until later is that the van doubles as a bedroom on wheels for a young man, Duncan, who is autistic in the same way as Raymond Babbitt is in “Rain Man.” Duncan (Chris Marquette) has a job behind the counter at a local mini-mart, but uses flash cards to read the faces of the patrons. His gift appears to be drawing maps on sections of paper toweling from the rest rooms. He has a couple of other useful talents, but an obsession with time, cleanliness and diet work against him. Even so, Maya reluctantly decides to help him find the father who selfishly gave him up when he became a burden. Along the way, of course, Duncan teaches Maya a few much-needed lessons in tolerance, patience and sobriety. When she left L.A., Maya had a massive chip on shoulder toward everyone, including her own, differently estranged, mother (Veronica Cartwright), who has the personality of a wounded rattlesnake. “The Odd Way Home” benefits mostly from the chemistry between the lead actors and nicely photographed New Mexico locations, which range from the dunes at White Sands, to the state’s mountains, forests, gorges and high desert. Nirmalakhandan’s directorial ambitions aren’t quite ready for prime time, as he tends to rely on clichés and improbable narrative leaps to cover for lapses in the script. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and short film, in which stars Willis and cleverly makes sound points about autism. I’m pretty sure that Willis is performing songs of her own creation in the barroom scenes, and she’s not bad. – Gary Dretzka
BB King: The Life of Riley: Blu-ray
Too many years ago than I care to count, I attended a BB King concert at the University of Wisconsin. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as is recalled in this fine bio-doc, King was only then beginning to play auditoriums and other venues not limited to the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit. Playing before predominantly white audiences not only meant wider exposure and greater financial opportunities, but also that King and other top blues musicians were finally being recognized by a broad cross-section of U.S. audiences for their contributions to American culture and rock ’n’ roll, itself. Ironically, British bands had been paying homage to the artists in their music for years and it was only through such acts as the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds that white audiences here finally figured out what they were missing. After soaking in our welcoming applause that night, BB struck a single note on Lucille and held it for what seemed like an eternity, before exploding into “Every Day I Have the Blues.” A couple of dozen white musicians are interviewed in Jon Brewer’s comprehensive “BB King: The Life of Riley” and most of them recall experiencing the very same sensation listening to master for the first time in concert. Besides these musicians, Brewer was able to gather friends, relatives, business associates and fellow bluesmen to add their stories to those told by BB — then 85, now nearly 90 – about how a Mississippi sharecroppers’ son became King of the Blues. Unlike so many other Delta blues guitarists, King’s migration north ended in Memphis. It was from there that the name Riley B. King was changed to Beale Street Blues Boy, Blues Boy and, finally, BB, and his style solidified into something distinctly different than what was being heard in Chicago, New Orleans, Texas and Detroit. BB’s sound was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Bukka White and Sonny Boy Williamson, from whose West Memphis radio program King’s early fame would emerge. He would get a radio show of his own, before hitting the Chitlin’ Circuit and playing as many as 350 gigs a year.
His fame would grow as his records began being played in the South, but, as was so often the case in the 1960s for black entertainers, King wouldn’t realize anything resembling a sustainable income from music, alone, until it was validated by British invaders John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, all of whom repay the favor by appearing here in one form or another. King’s influence on more contemporary artists is reflected in interviews with Bono, Carlos Santana, Susan Tedeschi, Slash, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and several other blues-rockers. Even if the documentary overflows with adoration for King, it’s fairly candid about the hazards faced by wives of musicians who thrive on the road and the deal-making that too often ignores the people who helped an artist get to the point where it behooves him to turn to more powerful management. The challenges of trying to make a living – in the cotton fields or in nightclubs – under the dark clouds of segregation also are recounted. If it’s about 20 minutes too long, well, BB deserves our indulgence. Otherwise, the portrait painted of King in “Life of Riley,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is that of a genuinely nice guy, who’s universally admired by his peers, many of whom have benefited from his generosity and wisdom. Moreover, he can still bring it. The strikingly presented Blu-ray disc adds extended interviews and selections from a command performance at the Royal Albert Hall. – Gary Dretzka
European filmmakers have always looked at the American West through different eyes than their Hollywood counterparts. As colonialists, themselves, they understood how American writers and directors helped mask what had really happened in the American Indian Wars in the name of Manifest Destiny, corporate imperialism, Jesus Christ and racial segregation. By appropriating the ancestral lands of native tribesmen and profiting from the slave trade in Africa, while also exploiting nature’s bounty in countless other countries, Europeans had shown their American offspring how it’s done and justify it to their God. After World War II, it was only a matter of time before European leaders would have deal with the chickens that came home to roost in such places as Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam. Perhaps, if they had John Wayne on their side in the wars for liberation, instead of the French Foreign Legion, the colonial powers would have been able to prolong the agony for a couple more years. As much as foreign filmmakers admired the cowboy heroes and such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, they deplored the horrifying conditions Native American were required to endure in times of peace. As long as genocide sold tickets, there wasn’t a heck of a lot they could do about it, though.
While Arnaud Desplechin’s highly compelling drama, “Jimmy P.” – released theatrically as “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” – isn’t intended to stand as an indictment of American colonialism, it could easily have been sentimentalized or played as tragedy. After all, Jimmy Picard’s story does bear a certain resemblance to that of U.S. Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag over Iwo Jima, only to die drunk and alone outside an abandoned adobe hut in Arizona. Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot war veteran, who, after suffering severe headaches, hearing loss, dizzy spells and catatonia, is sent to a VA hospital in Kansas that specializes in psychiatric therapy. It wasn’t at all clear what caused Picard’s problems, but noted clinic director, Dr. Karl Menninger, sensed that they might be related to the patient’s cultural background, somehow, and exasperated by what once was called “shell shock.” He turns to the man, Georges Devereux, who would author the book on which this movie is based. The therapist is a Hungarian Jewish émigré to France, born Gyorgy Dobo, who converted there to Catholicism and spent two years among the Mojave tribe as ethno-psychiatrist. Combining the work of a therapist with that of an anthropologist wasn’t recognized by the analytical establishment, so he was between gigs at the time of the call. While not conversant in the languages of the Plains tribes, Devereux knew enough Mojave to understand the nuances and rhythms of Indian dialects, which, in the past, had sometimes been considered symptoms of mental retardation.
Deveraux’s first question to Picard — “In your dreams, do you speak English or Blackfoot” — immediately establishes a rapport between the two very different outsiders. They are played with great empathy by the always wonderful Mathieu Amalric and Benicio del Toro, an actor whose speech patterns have also been misconstrued. Not being the kind of Freudian disciple who requires a couch or one-sided discussions, Deveraux encourages an on-going dialogue between them. Eventually, Picard begins to remember things that happen in his dreams and flash back to incidents that shaped him as a youth. Deveraux asks him what the imagery might portend in the Native American tradition and how it might relate to the events that play out in the flashbacks. The question then becomes one of determining how much having a foot in two worlds, especially under wartime conditions, may have contributed to his current condition. In Devereux’s opinion, Pickard isn’t suffering from schizophrenia and such treatments as shock therapy and psychotropic drugs would do nothing but exasperate the symptoms. What’s wonderful, then, are interchanges between patient and therapist, most of which Desplechin captures in tight focus or two-shots. It’s a talky movie, then, but the excitement that comes with watching two first-rate actors working at the top of the game is palpable. Desplechin (“A Christmas Tale”) takes us out of the clinic often enough to understand how Picard’s roots were split between growing up poor and parentless on the reservation, the natural magnificence of the Montana landscape and perils of life in white America. The supporting cast includes Native American actors Misty Upham, Gary Farmer, Michelle Thrush, A Martinez and Michael Greyeyes, as well as Brit Lisa McKee and Larry Pine. – Gary Dretzka
So many great Canadian comedians have taken their acts to Los Angeles, it’s a wonder that the country has any left to populate their own televisions and improv revues. There must something funny in the nation’s water, because, like last winter’s icy Alberta Clippers, the laughs just keep coming. Carl Bessai and Brent Butt’s sendup of film noir, “No Clue,” may rely on too thin a premise to be uproariously funny, but it should keep Canada-philes in the U.S. satisfied until “Trailer Park Boys: Don’t Legalize It” arrives, most likely in VOD and DVD. Some folks might recall Butt as the creator of the comedy series “Hiccups” and “Corner Gas,” as well as his standup routines. In “No Clue,” his character gives new meaning to the word, “nebbish.” As the picture opens, a beautiful blond dame (Amy Smart) mistakes a purveyor of key chains, matchbooks and other brand-ready trinkets for the PI down the hall. Butt’s Leo Falloon is well aware of the fact that he knows next to nothing about investigative work, but is intrigued by the per diem and possibility of scoring with the hot chick … a frequent reward in geek mythology. Smart’s femme fatale, Kyra, hires Falloon to find her brother, a software genius who appears to have vanished in advance of the launch of his new computer-gaming company. He turns to his best and seemingly only friend, Ernie (David Koechner), for help in finding the missing man. Being a gaming nerd, Ernie knows immediately what’s at stake, even if his advice is suspect. Hereafter, the laughs come from watching Falloon stumbling his way through the investigation and continuing to come out smelling like a rose. “No Clue” is set in Vancouver, although the locations are pretty generic. The DVD adds making-of material. – Gary Dretzka
From a distance, South Korea seems to be a country of uncommon financial stability and sanity, at least when compared to its neighbor to the north. It wasn’t until the late-1980s, however, that its repressive governments relaxed the iron fist it held over the populace and admitted to torturing students and human-rights advocates to the left of Attila the Hun. Yang Woo-seok’s “The Attorney” examines one of the most intense standoffs between activists and police officials, who, in the 1980s, did the dirty work for the authoritarian regime. Although only loosely based on actual events, it’s been a huge success at the South Korean box office. That’s because “The Attorney” appears to dramatize the rise to power of Roh Moo-Hyun, a reformist lawyer who would be elected president in 2002. Like Roh, Song Woo-seok becomes a lawyer without the benefit of a law degree. Unlike the reformer, Song uses loopholes in the tax and real-estate laws to cut through the bureaucracy and make lots of money from grateful clients. Jealous, his peers dismiss and ridicule for essentially for being an under-educated hack and ambulance chaser. Song doesn’t care, because his only loyalty is to his family. Fully aware of his limits, Song reluctantly agrees to defend the teenage son of the woman who runs his favorite restaurant. He’s been arrested for belonging to a book club accused of being a front for pro-communist activity, so the fix, as usual, is already in place. Song had once engaged in a debate with the young man, so it wouldn’t have surprised him if the club really was sympathetic to North Korean interests. After seeing for himself what the students looked like after being tortured, he began to rethink his position. He might have gone along with other defense attorneys, who were attempting to accept a plea deal, if the judge and prosecutors hadn’t denied his client basic rights guaranteed in the constitution. It was a document so poorly vetted by the militarist leaders that it provided Song the ammunition he needed to turn the courtroom into a battleground for human rights. Newly radicalized, Song, like Roh, would go on to become an advocate for Koreans who took to the streets to demand reforms and true democracy. Sang Kang-ho does a nice job portraying his character’s evolution from joke to hero. – Gary Dretzka
The Angela Mao Ying Collection
I don’t think that Hollywood has produced a female action star comparable to the Taiwan-born martial-arts “whirlwind” Angela Mao Ying, who rose to prominence in the 1970s and starred in several dozen martial-arts flicks made in Hong Kong. Michelle Rodriguez, Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Alba, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lucy Lawless, Lucy Liu, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and, of course, Pam Grier spring immediately to mind. With the possible exception of Grier, they’d probably slit their wrists if forced to make a career out of being manipulated by wires and pulleys. Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano, former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot and onetime stuntwoman Zoë Bell appear to be ready for genre stardom, along with new faces from China. As a teenager, Mao Ying trained in ballet and enjoyed a successful career as an actress in the Chinese Opera. Her flexibility gave her an edge when she began learning hapkido, the discipline then in favor with Hong Kong producers. She later would adopt several other forms. In 1969, she was spotted by director Huang Feng and signed to a contract at Golden Harvest, the studio responsible for all of the titles in “The Angela Yao Mao Ying Collection,” from Shout!Factory. Her greatest international exposure came when the rising star was paid $100 for a guest appearance as Bruce Lee’s sister in “Enter the Dragon.” She left Golden Harvest in the late 1970s, worked in a few more Taiwanese productions, married and retired to raise a family. The compilation contains “When Taekwondo Strikes” (1973), “The Tournament” (1974), “Stoner” (1974), “The Himalayan” (1976), “A Queen’s Ransom” (1976) and “Broken Oath” (1977). None found wide release in the U.S. and Mao Ying’s reputation may be greater now, because of recent DVD/Blu-ray releases from Shout!, than during her heyday. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the movies themselves vary in quality from pretty good to goofy. Unlike most other kung fu exports to the U.S., most of these include some nudity to complement the violence. The cast lists also include such popular stars as Bolo Yueng, Jimmy Wang Yu, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Yuen Biao, Betty Ting Pei and Carter Huang. The most curious choice of actors was George Lazenby, who, in 1969, had starred in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as James Bond. In “A Queen’s Ransom” and “Stoner,” he bears an uncanny resemblance to porn star John Holmes. – Gary Dretzka
Once Upon a Time in Dublin
A Fighting Man
Even after watching this hyper-violent revenge picture, it isn’t clear to me why its name was changed to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” from “3 Crosses,” which, itself, was adapted from a graphic novel, “The Altar Boys.” The story has only a peripheral relationship to the Irish capital and parts of it were shot in London and Vermont. I wonder what James Joyce might have said if his publisher had suggested changing “Finnegans Wake” to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin.” Seemingly, though, every director since Sergio Leone has considered a variation of “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the title of their movie. Writer/director Jason Figgis, perhaps best known for the fitfully chilling dystopian thriller, “Children of a Darker Dawn,” has created what one Irish critic described as “future noir.” That’s because almost everything takes place in corners, basements, shadows and a disorienting variety of scrims, scratches and artifacts. It is the story of Jay (Karl Hayden) and Jonnie Linski (Emmett Scanlan), two Polish-Irish brothers who use violence to gain clues in the brutal murder of their youngest sibling, Danny (Stephen Wilson). Both men look as if they could take on the world by themselves, but, right now, they’ll settle for channeling their anger into personally punishing the people responsible for the crime. Not surprisingly, no one in Danny’s circle is forthcoming as to the identity of the culprit, dirty businessman Neville Jessoppe (Bill Fellows). Being a bare-knuckles fighter of some distinction, Jonnie uses his fists to get answers, while Jay prefers sharper-edged objects. Besides beatings, Figgis throws in some hallucinatory fragments of similarly rough sexual encounters and flashbacks to brighter days. “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” isn’t easy to watch, even for those of us who know how the makeup effects are created. The inventively frenetic cinematography isn’t a picnic, either.
If “A Fighting Man” had been released in 1994, instead of straight-to-DVD in 2014, a cast that includes James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Famke Jannsen and Michael Ironside might have attracted a bit more attention from viewers than it has, 20 years hence. The boxing clichés wouldn’t have been any fresher or less visible, but the actors would have been closer to their prime. Dramas in which boxing serves as a metaphor for one thing or another haven’t delivered the same punch since the first “Rocky” gave us all something to cheer. Occasionally, a really good one, such as “Million Dollar Baby,” sneaks through, but the sport has lost its sparkle in these days of $50 pay-per-view fees. “A Fighting Man” is a bit of a throwback, in that its protagonist is an over-the-hill palooka whose only claim to fame is not ever having tasted the canvas. Like the former heavyweight punching bag, Chuck Wepner, Sailor O’Connor (Dominic Purcell) has the remarkable ability to remain on his feet as the rest of his body is being beaten into a bloody pulp. Against everyone’s better judgment, he decides to come out of retirement for one last time to finance a trip to Ireland for his mother, before she dies of cancer. His opponent is a cocky up-and-comer with something to prove of his own, although it’s difficult to see how beating the crap out of an old man could work to his favor. Apparently, the prize money accumulated by a blood-thirsty promoter, played by Adam Beach, was enough to tempt the soon-to-be father. The beating Sailor endures in the ring truly is excruciating to watch. Because of this, I think that the only viewers who will find something worthwhile in low-budget specialist Damian Lee’s picture are boxing completests. A mysterious parallel storyline, involving Sailor and Janssen’s ex-con character, is left unresolved until the very end of “A Fighting Man.” By then, however, it feels superfluous to the central drama and hardly worth the effort necessary to guess what’s causing all the pain. – Gary Dretzka
That Awkward Moment: Blu-ray
When the makers of big-screen rom-coms begin to take their cues from overworked sitcom tropes, it’s a sure sign that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Tom Gormican’s first film, “That Awkward Moment,” does borrow from several very good shows – “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “New Girl” – but ultimately falls back on conventions and clichés. At times, the only thing missing is a laugh track. I won’t argue that every action in the movie is predictable from minute-one, although most of them are. Instead, I can easily say that once a plot twist or conceit is revealed – even the clever ones — everything that follows is familiar, including the bloopers in the credit roll. Here, we’re asked to watch a mixed group of Big Apple yuppies meet-up, hook-up, goof-up, break-up, wise-up, ’fess-up to their hang-ups and realize it’s time to grow-up before hooking-up again for the inevitable happy ending. Gormican’s stated aim here was to make a rom-com in which most of men are dumb as dirt and the one who isn’t is being is cuckolded. On the other hand, the women are drop-dead gorgeous, smart, vulnerable and patiently willingly to wait for these dopes to grow up. The movie’s central conceit, however, appears to have been lifted from the “Seinfeld” episode in which the gang wagers that he or she will be able to go the longest without masturbating. Here, after experiencing one relationship trauma or another, three best friends pledge to stay single for as long as is humanly possible. One-night stands are OK in this three-way bromance, but commitments are forbidden. If you’ve seen “The Contest,” you already know how long it will take for them to cease being master of their domains. Zach Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan display a decent rapport, but aren’t asked to extend themselves much in the acting department. Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas and Addison Timlin aren’t required to stretch much, either. Even so, they outclass the guys at every turn, which, I suppose, is one of the points Gormican is trying to make. The Gramercy Park locations are pretty easy on the eyes, though. The Blu-ray adds a second blooper reel, interviews and some idle chat. – Gary Dretzka
Joy Ride 3: Roadkill: Blu-ray
13 Sins: Blu-ray
The Monkey’s Paw: Blu-ray
You’d think that drivers of teeny-tiny automobiles would know by now how dangerous it can be to piss off an over-the-road trucker. Besides the possibility of startling a driver trying to take a cat nap between 48-hour shifts, they risk spoiling his view of a mini-skirt-wearing passenger in the next lane or, yes, tempt fate by cutting him off. Although we know that the vast majority of all truckers are law-abiding citizens, who everyday risk OD’ing on caffeine, country music and Preparation H, a few bad apples spoil the bunch. Like its predecessors, “Joy Ride 3” reminds us that there are sadistic bastards out there who enjoy nothing more than chaining bad boys and girls to various parts of their rig, just to see what happens when a link or two gets caught in the drive shaft or they can squeeze their bodies into the shape of a pancake to avoid being torn in half by low bridges. And, if you were hear the name “Rusty Nail” over the CB radio, don’t pass any trucks or stop … not even for gas or a flat tire. The original “Joy Ride,” directed by John Dahl (“Rounders”), received sensational reviews and did better in DVD than at the theatrical box office. “Joy Ride 2” went straight-to-DVD, while “Joy Ride 3” is nothing more than a splatter-fest. That would be OK, if there was a story to support the blood-letting. Instead, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the characters are driving east, west, south or north, and why their super-duper drag-racer can’t outrun an 18-wheeler. In any case, all the action takes place on a little-traveled highway, somewhere south of the Canadian border, where harvesting roadkill is a cottage industry. “Joy Ride 3” is very much what fans of the series might expect it to be, only less thrilling. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, interviews and special-effects explainer.
“Blood Soaked” is a nasty piece of business about an incoming college freshman, who reluctantly allows herself to be seduced by a lesbian upper-classman at a campfire in the New Mexico desert. Still glowing from their encounter, they make the mistake of stopping their car in the vicinity of a pair of orphaned sisters, who kidnap strangers, torture them and turn them into zombies in their underground bunker. If that weren’t sufficiently sordid, the sisters foresee a time when they’ll have enough zombies to create a Fourth Reich. Can the young lovers escape before being fitted for a Gestapo uniform? Blessedly, perhaps, someone forgot to pay the electrical bill in the bunker, because most of the movie looks as if it were shot through a day-for-night filter and the color of blood is muted. The biggest selling point is the music by Eternal West Coast Killa Beez.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before … or the next one. In “13 Sins,” a pathetic salesman gets canned within days of being married. Elliot (Mark Webber) is desperate, so, when he receives a phone call offering a fortune if he passes 13 tests, he’s both suspicious and intrigued. Typically, they start out easy and get weirder as they go along, just like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Unlike the game show, though, no money is returned when the contestant decides to quit. The punchline arrives when Elliott discovers that he’s not the only participant and there’s only one winner. It’s pretty hard-core, but good old Ron Perlman plays a New Orleans cop, so maybe there’s hope for justice, after all. The Blu-ray adds making-of material, a deleted scene and short film of the writer going nuclear about it.
“The Monkey’s Paw,” also set in New Orleans, offers a gory take on “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” Whoever is in possession of a dried-up monkey’s hand is given three wishes, if not a full explanation of how they’ll actually play out. After a stressed-out factory worker (C.J. Thomason) cashes in his first wish on a hot car, the even more messed-up guy sitting next to him on a test drive goes through the windshield when the vehicle dodges an alligator and hits a tree. Should he use the second wish to save his friend’s life? “Monkey’s Paw” may not be very original, but the bayous of southern Louisiana, as usual, make a terrific background for bizarro criminality. – Gary Dretzka
Invasion of the Scream Queens: 20th Anniversary Special Edition
In the 1980-90s, the standard-issue exploitation flick featured violence, nudity, black humor, a cool villain, a generic hero and a skeleton of a story that could accommodate all of these elements. The most popular of these movies – good or bad — featured one or more women who not only could supply the skin, but scream to high heaven. If these “scream queens” were good enough, the male heroes needed only to be handsome and slightly smarter than a box of rocks. Besides a variety of sharp cooking implements and a dark and remote kill zone, the story only required a beginning, middle and end. The breast moments were reserved for such women as Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Marya Gant, Katina Garner, Monique Gabrielle, Martine Beswick, Janus Blythe and Mary Woronov, all of whom were given an opportunity to speak in normal tones in “Invasion of the Scream Queens.” The 20-year-old documentary, which remains essential viewing for genre buffs and curious newcomers, combines interviews and film clips to very good effect. The DVD adds extended interviews and background from Donald Farmer, director of “Demon Queen” and “Savage Vengeance.” – Gary Dretzka
Can Dialectics Break Bricks?
I’ve never been able to understand dialectics well enough to take one side of a political or philosophical argument against the other. What I do know is that listening to Marxists debate anything is about as much fun as watching politicians use C-SPAN to speechify in front of an empty Congress. In the same way as Woody Allen turned a really bad Japanese pot-boiler into the hilariously dubbed, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” French filmmaker Rene Vienet chopped and channeled a Hong Kong martial-arts movie, “The Crush,” into the Marxist action-melodrama “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” In it, the combatants attack each other with fists of fury and political dogma. Only a small fraction of the people who loved Allen’s comedy could find 10 minutes of “Dialectics” entertaining or meaningful, though. Those who do understand the very smart exchange of political rhetoric, however, will find it to be a hoot. It looks even more comical after having being “aged” in film-to-video and color-to-black-and-white transfer. If movies like this had been shown in my political sciences courses, I might have been able to stay awake for the whole period. – Gary Dretzka
Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII: Blu-ray
The suspense should have been over for Seattle Seahawks’ fans at halftime, when the score of the Super Bowl was 22-0 against the favored Denver Broncos. Instead, while viewers outside the Pacific Northwest tuned to HBO to see what was on, it took Seahawk loyalists another quarter and the lone Broncos’ touchdown to pay more attention to the buffet counter than the TV. The two-point conversion made the score 36-8, but it hardly mattered to anyone who hadn’t placed a bet on the over/under. The newly released “Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII,” then, is primarily for Hawks fans who couldn’t believe their eyes and those who decided not to watch what might have been the dullest quarter in Super Bowl history. Like the Denver defense, the long-predicted frigid weather was a no-show for the game. SBXLVIII may have been the first NFL championship game to be held at an open-air stadium in a “cold-weather” city, but the temperature at kickoff was a boring 49 degrees. Can you spell A-N-T-I-C-L-I-M-A-C-T-I-C? Far more exciting were the playoff games versus the Saints and 49ers, which provided the stepping stones to the Super Bowl and are here, as well. And, while there’s plenty of room for nitpicking the fleeting moments NFL Films chose to excise, in addition to hours of ridiculously overproduced commercials, the high-definition video presentation is probably sharper than what was transmitted by Fox, and that’s not to suggest that the original broadcast was all that shabby. Now, however, people who invested in a Blu-ray player after the playoffs can watch the games with new eyes. – Gary Dretzka
BBC/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: The Escape Artist: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Why Sharks Attack
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: The Complete Third Season
MTV: Teen Wolf: Season 3 Part 2
Usually, mini-series under the “Masterpiece Mystery” banner are distinctly British in their mannered tone and deliberate pacing. Even when one resembles an elongated episode of “Law & Order” or “CSI,” the multi-dimensional portrayals of key characters and attention to detail distinguish them from American shows, in which, typically, cases are opened and closed within 60 minutes, including 15 minutes of commercials. That’s not a knock on the best hour-long dramas on network television here, just reality. The BBC’s fine three-part mini-series “The Escape Artist” possesses all of the best qualities of a typical “Masterpiece Mystery” presentation, while also adding plot points familiar from such movies as “The Devil’s Advocate.” David Tennant is, as usual, excellent as junior barrister Will Burton, who, like Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” has become well known in British legal circles for having never lost a criminal defense case. Al Pacino doesn’t appear here as Satan, but the point being made by director Brian Welsh and writer David Wolstencroft doesn’t require his presence: even in Her Majesty’s halls of justice, what goes around comes around. No sooner does Burton successfully defend suspected rapist and murderer Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) than the fiend inexplicably decides to torture his defender, by killing his wife and making it look as if the lawyer did it. Naturally, he denies it, pointing to his former client as the killer. By now, the prosecutor Burton had just humiliated on the previous case, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo), has gone over to the dark side of the law and been assigned by her new firm to defend Foyle. The real kicker to the mini-series, which I won’t reveal, comes after the disgraced Burton attempts to find a job away from the city and spots Foyle coming out of a pub, ostensibly on a hunting trip. Although the story might have been compressed into two unabridged episodes and still worked, I don’t think many fans of Brit legal dramas will mind the padding.
The “Nova” presentation, “Why Sharks Attack,” attempts to answer a question most of us would dismiss with, “because they’re hungry,” or by recalling the parable of the scorpion and the frog (“It’s my nature …”). Scientists rarely accept such pat answers, even though one needs only to look elsewhere in the Animal Kingdom to understand that humans represent the only species that has mastered the art of having food delivered to one’s home or driving to a restaurant for takeout. It’s our never-ending fascination with sharks that compels us to go beyond the obvious, however, and wonder what it means when great whites begin attacking swimmers, surfers and waders in increasing numbers. To “separate fact from fear,” “Nova” has teamed with leading experts in Australia and the United States to trace the great white’s movements and match them with possible changes in their habitats. GPS, satellite and other high-end technology allows scientists to widen their horizons when it comes to establishing migratory patterns and re-adaptation to meteorological conditions, including global warming.
The third and longest season of “Regular Show” rolled out between September 19, 2011, and September 3, 2012. It opened with Benson disposing of Mordecai and Rigby’s stick-hockey table and culminated with the heartbreak of halitosis, which resulted in Mordecai’s recent kiss-fail. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for the compilation to go on sale and only in DVD, but, I suspect, it has something to do with the show’s ready availability on PPV and streaming outlets, including episodes from Season 7. Bonus material adds episode commentaries, “Four Things You Didn’t Know About J.G.,” “J.G. Answers Why” and a live episode read.
If it seems odd that the third-season packages of “Teen Wolf” would be broken into two parts, it can be explained by the simple fact that the third stanza was comprised of 24 episodes instead of 12, as were the first two go-rounds. It arrives just in time for the start of Season 4, with Scott attempting to deal with the loss of two close friends in the desperate showdown that closed Season 3. The show’s roots extend all the way back to the AIP classic, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” in which a letter-jacket-wearing Michael Landon transformed into a hairy rage-oholic. Along with several cheapo “I Was a Teenage …” sequels, it would inspire a “Teen Wolf” featuring Michael J. Fox and two “Teen Wolf” series. The success of “Buffy” and “Twilight Trilogy” also influenced the latest iteration. The DVD, which has been “musically edited,” adds a fan art collection and fan video. — Gary Dretzka