The Theory of Everything: Blu-ray
Having already won top honors in BAFTA, Golden Globes and SAG competition, Eddie Redmayne is as close to a mortal lock for a rare Grand Slam of acting awards as these things get. If that turns out to be the case, some observers surely will argue that portraying a famously disabled genius in The Theory of Everything gave him an edge he needed in the voting. It’s a popular theory, but how does it square with truth? Certainly, it didn’t hurt Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Al Pacino in The Scent of a Woman, Jon Voight in Coming Home, Cliff Robertson in Charly and Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives. It didn’t, however, guarantee top honors for Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Neither do excellent portrayals of disabled characters ensure nominations: John Hawkes performance in The Sessions went unrecognized, as did Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Eric Stoltz in Mask and The Waterdance. The list goes on. All of this is a long way of saying that there’s no such thing as a mortal lock at the Academy Awards ceremony, unless one also factors in sympathy votes, overdue honors and previous slights, and the willingness of academy members to actually see all of the nominated pictures. However, were it to leak out that 73-year-old Stephen Hawking had agreed to hand out the Oscar for Best Actor or Best Picture, I’d probably agree that the fix was in. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bet against Michael Keaton pulling a mild upset.
Unlike so many of the physically or mentally challenged people whose trials and triumphs have formed the basis for movies and television shows, Hawking qualifies as a true 21st Century celebrity. If fewer than 1 percent of all viewers understand what he’s taught us about theoretical physics and cosmology, the great majority will have some knowledge of his work through his best-selling books, “A Brief History of Time” and “The Universe in a Nutshell”; appearances on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The Simpsons,” “Futurama,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Doctor Who,” “60 Minutes,” “Monty Python,” “TEDtalks,” “David Blaine: Real or Magic” and as a synthesized voice of a Pink Floyd album; several television documentaries; and his advocacy for the rights of disabled people. If Hawking hasn’t been awarded a Nobel Prize, it’s primarily because his theories remain years away from being proven or disproven. Our familiarity with Hawking served as both an asset and potential landmine for Redmayne, in that audiences would necessarily judge his physical characterization of a man with a crippling form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, every bit as much as his acting within that limitation. In both cases, the 33-year-old Londoner excels.
All that said, it should be noted that un-nominated director James Marsh (Man on Wire) and nominated writer Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero) based their adaptation on Jane Hawking’s bittersweet 1999 memoir, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” As such, the film is far less a biopic than the chronicle of a romance that lasted for more than 30 years, from their days at college, through their divorce in 1995 and reconciliation eight years later. How many of us knew that Hawking was married once, let alone twice? Because Jane met Stephen as students at Cambridge, before his diagnosis of motor-neuron disease, the challenges they would face as lovers, newlyweds, parents, patient/caregiver, and somewhat jaded middle-aged adults are shared candidly on the screen. Several detours are made to lecture halls and workshops, so as to provide basic insight into his ideas and methodology, but most of the drama comes from watching the fissures grow between them. Can we blame Jane for seeking the emotional support a choir director when her husband begins to withdraw from her? Conversely, how are we to feel about Stephen’s lascivious attachment to the dominatrix masquerading as his nurse and traveling companion (Maxine Peake)? The 800-pound gorilla in the Hawkings’ marriage, and throughout the 123-minute course of The Theory of Everything, is the existence of God. Jane and her mother-in-law (Emily Watson) are believers, while Stephen is of the atheistic persuasion. He leaves just enough wiggle-room in his writings to appease them, by allowing for a deity’s role as a trigger mechanism for the Big Bang. He never appears to be sold on the prospect of divine intervention, though. And, yet, how was Hawking, given little hope of surviving past 25, able not only to survive the killer disease another 50 years, but contribute so much to science under such unbearable conditions? Many agnostics, even, would consider this to be the kind of miracle that argues for God’s existence. One way or another, it does seem as if someone’s been looking out for Mr. Hawking. The Blu-ray presentation brings out the best in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Oscar-nominated musical score, as well as Benoît Delhomme’s lovely cinematography. It comes with several deleted scene, Marsh’s commentary and the featurette, “Becoming the Hawkings.”
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: Blu-ray
Big Hero 6: Blu-ray
Gladiators of Rome
The same people who’ll want to catch up on The Theory of Everything before filling out their Oscar pools are advised to watch The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, which must be considered a leading candidate in the wide-open animated-feature category. Japan’s Studio Ghibili has been a finalist four times since 2001, winning one Academy Award in the category, for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It likely would have garnered even more nods if the animation wing hadn’t limited itself to only three nominees in 8 of the last 14 competitions. With Miyazaki retired, it became incumbent on the marginally less-revered and far less prolific studio co-founder, 78-year-old Isao Takahata, to carry the baton, if only for another year. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is based on the 10th Century Japanese folktale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” When a tiny wood sprite is discovered inside a shining stalk of bamboo, the elderly woodsman and his wife take it to be their blessed obligation to accept the challenge of raising her, as a newly morphed infant. The rapidly growing “Princess” – or “Li’l Bamboo,” as she’s known to her friends – appears to love being a country girl, with free run of the forest and fields. Later, when the woodcutter finds gold dust and exquisite silks in the forest, he feels it necessary to move to the imperial capital, where Princess can realize her promise and he might realize his fortune. Princess, though, stubbornly refuses to make things easy for her wealthy suitors or anyone else in the city. In this way, the movie doesn’t resemble any fairy tale with which we’ve become accustomed. What distinguishes Takahata’s film from previous Ghibili releases is an artistic style that’s simple, yet elegant style, like the ancient scrolls and watercolors he’s studied for most of his life. If, at 137 minutes, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will tax the patience of children and many adults, it’s well worth the effort to see it through to the blissful ending. As usual, the Blu-ray arrives with a feature-length documentary, “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” as well as the peculiarly Japanese featurette, “Announcement of the Completion of the Film.”
Also very much in the running is the delightfully inventive action comedy, Big Hero 6, from the resurgent Walt Disney Animation Studios (not to be confused with Pixar/Disney). Among the company’s recent successes are Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, all pictures enhanced by cutting-edge animation techniques, Disney-esque narratives, gender-conscious protagonists and sequel-ready financial strategy. That Big Hero 6 opens in an only slightly futuristic Pacific Rim city, San Fransokyo, perhaps is an indication of the company’s intention to convince international geekdom that Disney embraces the reality of our cyber-destiny. Or, not. Although the movie teaches sound lessons about family, loss and perseverance in the face of adversity, its most marketable character offers plenty of comic relief. Baymax is a personal-companion robot shaped like a giant inflatable snowman. It was invented by the brother of Big Hero 6’s human protagonist, Hiro Hamada, a teenage robotics prodigy who will need all the help he can get when the older sibling is killed in an explosion at a trade show. It’s there that a sinister industrialist steals the prototype of a rapidly multiplying miniature robot, no larger than Tylenol capsule, which could be used for good, evil or the amusement of consumers. The fluidity of the tiny machines is as entertaining to observe as the sequences in which Baymax attempts to find its bearings, as would a human toddler given its first soccer ball to kick around. Inspired by an obscure Marvel Comics superhero team of the same name, Hiro is joined by a half-dozen other friends who possess individual superpowers. They remind me of the characters in the ancient video game Mega Man. Once the action kicks in, it rarely stops. Don Hall and Chris Williams’ film is accompanied by “Feast,” an amusing animated short that documents the life of a Boston Terrier from the viewpoint of his ravenous appetite, as well as “The Origin of ‘Big Hero 6’”; “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters”; deleted and unfinished scenes, with introductions by the directors.
The Italian import, Gladiators of Rome, may not be playing in the same league as Princess Kaguya, Big Hero 6 and the other Oscar nominees, but neither is the animated feature from Paramount so obviously foreign that American youngsters can’t relate to it. If it had been released here in 2001, instead of 2014, writer/director Iginio Straffi (“Winx Club”) might have been considered a contender in the inaugural Best Animated Feature Oscar category, won by Shrek, over Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Monsters, Inc. If nothing else, Ridley Scott’s Best Picture-winning Gladiator would have been fresh in the minds of voters. That’s only to say, though, that animation has come a long way in the last 15 years. Here, Timo is adopted by the head of a Roman gladiator school, after his mother is killed in the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. The boy appears to be destined for big things in the arena, until he’s separated from his playmate, Lucilla, causing the oversized lunk to descend into an eight-year funk. When Lucilla returns from boarding school in Greece, she’s already committed to a cocky aristocrat. It will take some help from the gods for Timo to prove he’s worthy of Lucilla’s hand … but, guess what. Gladiators of Rome should appeal to kids whose appreciation of the animation art doesn’t begin and end with Pixar or Ghibili. There’s plenty of bloodless gladiatorial action on display, but only after the characters are established and stakes of winning made clear through Straffi’s smart and humorous script. For once, too, the women characters are portrayed as something other than tyrannical princesses and topless slaves.
Skating to New York
Starz!: The Chair: The Complete First Season
Sometimes, mainstream critics miss the point of certain genres of film entirely. The coming-of-age adventure, Skating to New York, is a perfect example. At a time when there a so few non-exploitative stories being written for teenage boys, especially, here’s one that was blown out of the water before it had a chance to swim … or, here, to skate. Even a single negative review by a third- or fourth-string critic at a major publication can be enough for a distributor to relegate a potential “crowd-pleaser” to straight-to-VOD/DVD status. It’s no secret that marketing costs have skyrocketed to the point where independent studios and distributors, especially, will always err on the side of caution. After watching this delightful saga of five boys attempting to leave a small mark on the world, I wondered if the 1986 coming-of-age hit, Stand by Me, might today be given an opportunity to prove itself theatrically. Having Rob Reiner and/or Stephen King’s name attached to a project doesn’t guarantee anything more than a limited release, if that. I’m certainly not trying to persuade anyone that veteran cinematographer Charles Minsky’s directorial debut can stand up to comparison to Reiner’s gem, only that it deserves a fair shot in DVD and Blu-ray.
Adapted from a novella by Edmond Stevens and screenplay by sports specialist Monte Merrick (Mr. Baseball, 8 Seconds), Skating to New York couldn’t have been released on DVD/Blu-ray at a more appropriate time. With most of the northeastern states enduring deep-freeze conditions, the movie recalls a similarly vicious cold snap, when Lake Ontario was sufficiently frozen over to prompt the boys – whose egos are bruised by a recent beating they took at the local hockey arena – to prove their mettle by making the 25-mile trek on the coldest day of the year. As anyone who lives along the shores of the Great Lakes knows, it’s impossible to anticipate what to expect on such a journey, and the kids encounter large snow drifts, uneven and broken surface ice, crevasses that extend for miles and freak weather conditions. In one scary scene, the boys take temporary refuge in a trailer inexplicably abandoned in the middle of the lake. Just as they’re getting comfortable, a gust of wind rips the to[ of the trailer from its fragile mooring. Soon thereafter, they ask a passing pickup driver to help their friend, who’s fallen through the ice and needs to get to a hospital before hypothermia sets in. Anyone who’s seen Frozen River will anticipate exactly what a wild-eyed guy in a Hawaiian shirt is doing in the middle of a frozen lake on such a day, and it has nothing to do with hockey. Although an unlikely domestic subplot threatens to knock the narrative of its tracks, Minsky recovers in time to save the picture. Also worth noting is how well the Blu-ray presentation looks, given an overwhelmingly bleak icescape that you’d think would defy Canadian shooter François Dagenais’ attempts to make it look beautiful. Well Go USA, a company that specializes in martial-arts and other genre fare, deserves a lot of credit for taking a chance on a film like Skating to New York.
The harsh realities of making films in off-Hollywood situations are made abundantly clear in Starz Media’s “The Chair,” a 667-minute-long making-of featurette for the cable network’s “original filmmaking experiment.” From Chris Moore, the executive producer of Good Will Hunting and Project Greenlight, which it resembles, “The Chair” follows two novice directors through the process of bringing their first feature to the screen. The directors have been assigned the same original screenplay, written by actor-turned-filmmaker, Dan Schoffer, which they must craft as their own film, to be shot in Pittsburgh on shoestring budgets. It is a feature-length coming-of-age comedy that describes the first homecoming on Thanksgiving weekend by a handful of college freshman. It’s not the most original setup for a first film, but, sometimes, that’s the best way to go. In this case, however, the finished products — Shane Dawson’s Not Cool and Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg — could hardly be more different. The Starz mini-series documents the never-easy creation, marketing and theatrical release from pre-production to preview screenings. The film audiences liked most would be awarded $250,000.
Of the two, Hollidaysburg is the more conventional, in that the characters look as if they might exist in the real world and the weekend’s touchstone events will be familiar to anyone who’s found that first trip home to be alternately awkward, nostalgic and painful. Martemucci plays a supporting role in the picture, as do other members of the creative team. As YouTube superstar, Dawson brings far more of his own outrageous personality to Not Cool and, as such, he’s decided that no one else could do justice to the lead role. Anyone who’s seen Aussie comedian Chris Lilley on HBO’s “Summer Heights High” will recognize what Dawson brings to his movie as a director, co-writer and actor. Because he isn’t afraid to push the limits on racial and sexual stereotypes or scatological humor, that decision often works to the detriment of the film. Finished versions of Not Cool and Hollidaysburg are included in “The Chair” package, so they can be seen by curious viewers of the mini-series. The cruelest lesson for everyone involved comes from seeing how shattering it can be for someone who’s invested so much of their time, sweat and tears into a movie to realize that not everyone fell in love with their movies. (Anticipating rage issues, Dawson refused to read the notes from preview screenings.) On the plus side, the participants make great use of Pittsburgh as a setting and both pictures have at least one redeeming feature. In Not Cool, it’s the sit-com ready co-star Michelle Veintimilla and, in Hollidaysburg, it’s handsome male lead, Tobin Mitnick. The jury’s still out on the directors.
No Tears for the Dead: Blu-ray
Brotherhood of Blades: Blu-ray
Fans of no-frills action flicks from Korea and Hong Kong should find something to sink their teeth into in Lee Jeong-beom’s ruthless follow-up to 2010’s The Man From Nowhere. In that movie, a despondent government operative finds redemption in the eyes of a little girl whose drug-addicted mother was killed attempting to betray the mob. In No Tears for the Dead, assassin Gon (Jang Dong-gun) was orphaned as a boy when his drug-addicted mother committed suicide on a trip together through the American Southwest. Raised by strangers to become exactly what he became, the amorphous psychological blob that passes for Gon’s conscience is tripped after a little girl is accidently killed in a shootout. In a cruel twist, Gon’s employers decide that the victim’s mother was too far involved in her dead husband’s crooked business to allow her to live. Normally, this wouldn’t present a problem, but, the more he observes the grieving woman (Kim Min-hee), the greater his guilt feelings grow. When Gon fails to perform his task, he becomes the target of his employers and various other triad and gangland elements. Frankly, after about an hour, I lost track of who was trying to kill whom and what they’d done to deserve such shabby treatment. (It pays to memorize the facial hair and other distinguishing characteristics of the characters in Korean shoot-’em-ups, as there will come a point when they become indistinguishable from the each other.) If there’s very little emotional release in No Tears for the Dead, there are plenty of action sequences seemingly influenced by such western masters as Michael Mann, Luc Bresson and the late Tony Scott. The excellent Blu-ray adds director’s commentary, deleted scenes, action highlights, a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews.
Because Brotherhood of Blades is a story of deceit, deception and backstabbing, it’s comes as no surprising that the historical epic might leave viewers bamboozled for long stretches of time. And, don’t even get me started on power-hungry enuchs – enuchs? — whose place in Chinese courts was different than in most other countries. Set in the late Ming Dynasty, around 1627, an incoming emperor decides that it’s in his best interests to rid the palace and countryside of a eunuch sect that had dominated the imperial secret police. Like so many J. Edgar Hoovers, the eunuchs were in a position to blackmail nearly everyone in the palace, except monarchs that came from outside the realm. Three brothers, all members of the deadly Jinyiwei Secret Police of the Imperial Guard, are assigned the task of killing the corrupt and powerful Wei, one of the last of the eunuch potentates, and his followers. Desperate to raise the money to buy the freedom of his favorite prostitute, one of the brothers is bribed by Wei to stage his death. This deception leads to other, even more dire consequences for the special police, whose newfound notoriety has made them the target of nearly everyone hoping to eliminate competition for the emperor’s favor. Brotherhood of Blades overflows with sword, knife and spear play, much of which was choreographed without the benefits of wires. It more than makes up for the frequently confusing subplots and array of momentarily significant characters. Typically, the set designs are nothing short of spectacular, as well.
The Lookalike: Blu-ray
Gillian Jacobs hasn’t let any grass grow under her feet since “Community” ended its run on NBC last year. (It begins a 13-episode Season Six next month on Yahoo’s streaming service.) In the otherwise unappealing crime thriller, The Lookalike, she plays a drug addict being played for a sucker, both by police (Gina Gershon) and sibling drug dealers (John Corbett, Jerry O Connell), who want to feed her to a sadistic crime boss (John Hurt). Actually, the kingpin wants to work his sadistic magic on a different young woman, but her inconvenient death forces the dealers to scramble, by tarting up Joyce’s unfortunate Lacey. That’s only the primary through-line, however. Subplots include one involving a pretty, deaf amputee; a debt owed to Luis Guzman (never a good thing); a pissed-off Steven Bauer; playground basketball; and one of the dealers’ desire to use money from the scam to start a cooking show on cable TV. That’s far too much stuff for director Richard Gray and writer Michele Davis-Gray’s story to contain comfortably. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
Fear Clinic: Blu-ray
The Phantom of the Opera: Blu-ray
According to legend, the Six Degrees of Separation exercise was originally proposed by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, in 1929, and popularized 60 years later in a play by John Guare. For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that Six Degrees of Separation was inspired by Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but apparently that isn’t the case. An offshoot of the so-called “small-world experiment,” it suggests that modern human society is based on a shrinking network characterized by as few as six short path-lengths. The Internet has simplified the exercise, by allowing people with no known relationship to each other to suddenly appear as “friends” on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. What started as a parlor game has spread like cholera in a Third World swamp, infecting computers, phones and tablets at an alarming rate. This week, it’s possible to play a little game we’ll call Two Degrees of Brad Dourif – or Two Degrees of Robert Englund, if you prefer – in which viewers are connected to the genre legends through Dourif’s daughter, Fiona, who appears alongside Englund in the nifty mad-scientist thriller, Fear Clinic. In Robert Hall and Aaron Drane’s expansion of a FEARNET.com series from 2009, Englund is given an opportunity to demonstrate his chops in ways that haven’t been available to him in years. Five young adults travel to a special clinic run by the infamous Dr. Andover (Englund) to treat their phobias, which isn’t to say that he actually finds cures for them. Fiona Dourif plays one of the survivors who returns to the clinic after their phobias begin to re-emerge. Andover now uses a “fear chamber” to animate his patients’ fears in the form of terrifying hallucinations. The problem is that some of the fears are caused by very real threats to their personal safety. Robert Englund isn’t quite old enough to have posed for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” but there are moments in Fear Clinic that he looks the part, at least. Fiona’s dance card has been growing since breaking into the business in 2005, and she now has several projects in various stages of development.
In the oddly paced Malignant, Brad Dourif plays a scientist of dubious reputation who wears a long black western slicker and makes house calls. Referred to only as The Man, the scientist has begun focusing his attention on a young man, Allex (Gary Cairns), who lost his wife in a drunken driving accident and now seems intent on using the same poison to kill himself. One night, after blacking out from too much booze, Allex wakes up to find a wound in his chest stitched up and no way to know what happened to him. The Man explains that he’s now part of an experiment that requires him to stay sober – and not ask questions about the stitches – or else he’ll face the consequences. After visiting his doctor and carousing in a bar, The Man shows Allex a video in which he murders a woman he met in his drunken stupor. He’s told that even more dire things will happen in his name if he doesn’t take the cure. Dourif convinces us, if not Allex, that sobriety is a better alternative to terror.
The other Englund entry in this week’s selection is a Blu-ray version of The Phantom of the Opera, which is probably significantly more recommendable in 2015 than it was in 1989, only a year after the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical opened on Broadway. The stench of exploitation must have reeked from the marketing material, especially considering the release coincided with one of Menahem Golan’s many bouts with bankruptcy at Cannon and 21st Century Films. There wasn’t even enough money to stage the chandelier scene, which has become a staple in the nearly 50 adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel. I doubt that this “Phantom” did much to refill Golan’s coffers, either. Twenty-five years later, however, it holds up remarkably well, thanks to the introduction of more true horror than any of the remakes since the Lon Chaney/Mary Philbin version in 1925. This is accomplished through advances in the art of special-makeup-effects, which began to come of age with the slasher/splatter flicks of the early ’80s. Moreover, the producers lucked out being able to re-purpose sets and locations from a picture that just completed shooting in Budapest, whose infrastructure probably resembled that of 19th Century Paris. The Blu-ray adds the 38-minute “Behind the Mask: The Making of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’” and commentary with director Dwight H. Little and Englund.
If it weren’t for the presence of Michael Imperioli, I can’t imagine how Foreclosure could have scared up the money to get made, let along distributed. It’s a ghost story that gives viewers almost no credit for having the patience to wait for a ghost story to unfold at a normal pace or recognize when something as important as a geographical setting makes no sense. Imperioli plays Bill, a guy who looks as if he hasn’t been employed in quite a while and may have given up the job search entirely. Along with his teenage son and crusty old father-in-law, who looks as if he’s decided not to shave or comb his hair until he’s given a damn good reason to do so, Bill has inherited the rundown home of an uncle who has just committed suicide there. The house is in a neighborhood so devoid of life and color that it could only be situated in Detroit, Flint or Atlantic City. The literature says that Foreclosure was shot in Queens, but I doubt it. No matter, it’s clearly north of the Mason-Dixon Line. That’s why I found it surprising that the house was haunted by the ghost of a black boy who lived in the neighborhood and was lynched for addressing a white woman in a way deemed improper. Now, while I don’t doubt that lynchings have occurred in New York or Michigan, it’s unlikely that the circumstances would be similar to the ones described by the black cop who opened the house to Bill. Even so, the walls are festooned with Civil War memorabilia, presumably owned by an ancestor of his father-in-law. (The old man is even suspicious of Bill’s Greek heritage.) While snooping, the boy, Steven, (Spencer List), uncovers other more disturbing artifacts from his distant Confederate past. One thing leads very quickly to another and, before long, the haunted house gets the better of its new inhabitants, as it had Uncle Cal. Finally, Foreclosure delivers only the cheapest of thrills on a premise that might have had a better chance of succeeding had it been set closer to where most of the non-fictional lynchings took place and Civil War re-enactors still prefer to represent the losing side.
Not long after the first camper gets mauled in Animal, I wondered if it might be the latest in a long line of straight-to-Syfy originals. It had a certain half-baked quality that suggested the creature-feature was made on a budget even Roger Corman would find stingy, but might entertain 14-year-old boys ready to open their hearts to genre fiction. Instead of being destined for multiple showings on Syfy, though, Animal was affiliated with its sister network, Chiller, with an assist on the production end from Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films. The idea here is that there are places in North America where amazing creatures have lived largely undetected since the beginning of time. Native American legends are full of such demons, some resembling Sasquatch and Bigfoot. Animal’s first narrative disconnect comes in knowing that the monster’s first contact with the campers comes within walking distance of a road leading to a modern cabin. The creature resembles a giant baby robin with the razor-sharp teeth of a goliath tiger fish or the Alien monster. Not content to track, capture and devour a single victim every few days, or so, like most predators, this one is so insatiable that every forest north of the Mexican border should have been de-populated by the time Europeans first crossed the Mississippi River. After outrunning a couple of the slower campers, the monster lays siege to the cabin, in which several others are “hiding.” Among them are characters played by the always welcome Joey Lauren Adams, Elizabeth Gillies, Paul Iacono, Eve Jeffers, Thorsten Kaye, Amaury Nolasco, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Sumpter and Parker Young. Animal is gory, without being particularly frightening, and exceedingly loud.
Love at First Bite/Once Bitten: Blu-ray
Vampire’s Kiss/High Spirits: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing these vintage double-features from Shout Factory share, besides vampires and ghosts, it is casts that are remarkable for their credentials in non-genre fare. The titles don’t hold up very well after 30 years, or so, out of the spotlight, except for the fun that comes with seeing familiar faces in campy situations. In Love at First Bite (1979), George Hamilton proved to be an inspired choice to play Count Dracula, who moves to New York after being forced out of his castle to make room for an Olympic training facility. It’s the beginning of the city’s hard-core disco period and he’s immediately drawn to a fashion model, played Susan Saint James. It also includes Richard Benjamin, Arte Johnson, Dick Shawn and Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford from the “The Jeffersons.” Unlike other vampire protagonists, Hamilton wouldn’t be caught undead without his trademark tan. Once Bitten (1985) is noteworthy for providing Jim Carrey with his first lead role in a movie someone might have wanted to see. He plays a fresh-faced teenager who attracts the attention of a ridiculously sexy vampire countess (Lauren Hutton). Unlike most of her peers, she prefers the blood of male virgins to that of, say, hobos or prostitutes. Carrey is allowed to show off some of the comic chops he would display on “In Living Color.”
The second double-feature opens with the irresistible Nicolas Cage vehicle, Vampire’s Kiss (1988), which he made after raising his profile in Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Moonstruck. In it, Cage plays a cutthroat business executive and passionate partier, who believes that he’s been turned into a vampire by Jennifer Beals. For some reason, she appears to be wearing blackface makeup – or is it the effects of high resolution — and her nipple patches are clearly visible in the bedroom scenes. Once his character is bitten, Cage kicks his performance into manic overdrive. It’s the kind of show that’s provided impressionists material for decades to come. It would be funnier if his fellow actors didn’t look so frightened by his improvisational antics. Also appearing are Maria Conchita Alonso, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons, John Michael Higgins, David Hyde Pierce and older brother, Marc Cage. I recommend listening to the commentary track, during which Cage and director Robert Bierman recall how crazy things became in his early post-Method period.
I had forgotten that Neil Jordan had written and directed High Spirits (1988), after impressing critics and audiences with The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa. What prompted him to try his hand at a dopey supernatural farce is beyond me, but he claims the studio mangled his final cut. Maybe so, but I can’t see how he could have made something worthwhile from material that might have been better served as dinner-theater entertainment on a tour of Irish castles. That said, however, the presence of Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Jennifer Tilly, Peter Gallagher and Liam Neeson enhances a story in which ancient spirits interact romantically with tourists hoping to commune with the supernatural world.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: The Complete Series
Power Rangers: Super Sentai Zyuranger: The Complete Series
Peanuts Movies: Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown
Apparently, the 1967 British Supermarionation series, “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons,” has no known connection to the seminal Tex-Mich punk band “? and the Mysterions,” which recorded “96 Tears” at least a year earlier. The Detroit-area band’s name can be traced, instead, to the Japanese sci-fi classic, The Mysterians, which finally made it to these shores in 1959. As usual, Shout Factory/Timeless Media has done a spectacular job restoring this relic of a bygone age. It is being released as the second entry in Shout’s Gerry Anderson Collection, which began in January with “Stingray: The Complete Series: 50th Anniversary Edition” and will be followed this spring by “Fireball XL5: The Complete Series” and “Joe 90: The Complete Series.” Those too young to recall Supermarionation can catch up to it here or by seeking out Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s highly satirical Team America: World Police, which was released at a time Americans were beginning to question President Bush’s obsession with Iraq. The threat to world peace in “Captain Scarlet” is a technically advanced, if completely invisible Martian force, the Mysterons, that possesses the ability to re-create the exact likeness of any object or person they destroy. Naturally, their primary target is Captain Scarlet. When that fails, Scarlet is imbued with the special power of retro-metabolism – self-resuscitation — allowing him to continue in his quest to protect the Earth from any attack. Set nearly 100 years into the then-future, Anderson’s concept isn’t any sillier than those predicted by other sci-fi masters. It’s the characters, themselves, who are the freakiest elements in the city. They resemble Barbie and Ken, dolled up in military-issue jump suits and equipped with ray-guns and explosives. One of the key characters speaks in a voice that is distinctly that of Cary Grant. The package arrives with a new interview with Anderson; commentary on two episodes; and three background featurettes.
Having been quite a bit too old to be a fan of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” in the show’s mid-1990s heyday, it’s difficult for me to form an accurate appraisal as to how it might differ from its hyperkinetic Japanese predecessor, “Super Sentai Zyuranger.” According to legend, five young warriors from an ancient civilization of dinosaur-evolved humans have been awakened from a 170-million-year sleep, simultaneously with the release of their sworn enemy, Bandora the Witch, from a magic container on Planet Nemesis. In order to combat Bandora, the squad of acrobatic crime-fighters summons the support of dinosaurs in their family lineage (a.k.a., Guardian Beasts). Typically, everything about the show is wildly exaggerated, fueled by adrenaline and seemingly made as inexpensively as possible. I can see where kids would fall in love with it. The complete-series set, which contains 1020 minutes of material, is being released by Shout, with a pair of featurettes and a panel discussion from the 2014 Power Morphican. Like “Captain Scarlet,” girl viewers are accorded more than the usual number of female role models.
With a new feature-length, CGI-animated Peanuts Movie scheduled for release in time for Thanksgiving, there’s still plenty of time for parents and children to reacquaint themselves with all of Charles Schultz’ beloved creations, in all of their various media incarnations. Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, the third of four feature-length films released theatrically, is making its DVD debut this week, with “Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)” following suit in October. (“A Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy, Come Home” have been on DVD for some time now.) Here, the gang is vacationing at a wilderness camp, where Charlie is required to stand up to a group of bullies. And, no, Peppermint Patty isn’t one of them.
PBS: Earth: A New Wild: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Surviving Ebola
PBS: American Experience: Klansville U.S.A.
CNN: The Sixties
Nickelodeon Favorites: Springtime Adventures
Chuggington: Turbo Charged Chugger
Carol Burnett Show: Together Again
The working principle behind PBS’ terrific nature series, “Earth: A New Wild,” is that most documentaries extolling the preciousness of our environment ignore the proximity of everyday human activity to the wildlife being featured. We already have a good fix on the damage that’s been done to the environment and the efforts being made to contain it. Likewise, such David Attenborough-hosted series as “Planet Earth,” “Life,” “Blue Planet” and “Frozen Planet” have convinced us that wildlife removed from the wild are prisoners. Hosted by conservation scientist Dr. M. Sanjayan, “Earth: A New Wild” visits dozens of habitats where the borders between wildlife and humans have disappeared and mutual encroachment is threatening the balance that’s sustained life on Earth for millennia. He doesn’t advocate radical fixes for long-gestating problems or demand reparations from the worst offenders. Instead, Sanjayan follows the food chain for various species from its approximate inception to the place where the soiled environment began to turn on them and their freedom became threatened. By finding the last place where a semblance of balance existed, Sanjayan is able to demonstrate how it might be restored. In the segment devoted to sea life, he interviews people who’ve identified core issues – shoreline erosion, poaching, overgrazing, the proliferation of predators and scavengers, chemical depletion – and demonstrates how they are using modern technology to gradually reverse the process. He also visits far-flung places where elephants, tigers and even raccoons have begun to retaliate against their closest human neighbors and where commerce has made natural habitats too financially valuable for humans to resist exploitation. At a time when so many of us have begun to assume that the planet is on an irreversible path to destruction, it’s nice to meet people who have found logical and not overwhelmingly expensive or controversial ways to stem the tide. Need I mention how beautiful everything looks on Blu-ray?
“Nova” producers and reporters have an uncanny tendency to appear at the right time, at the right place for the purpose of making sense of natural and manmade disasters, epidemics and major scientific achievements. In the case of “Surviving Ebola,” PBS viewers were able to witness the monumental battle to contain the vicious disease not only as it happened, but also before the deaths stopped. Indeed, some of the aid workers interviewed for this episode would die before the production process was completed. The “Nova” team traveled to the African “hot zone,” even as the death count was rising, and medical labs where scientists were racing to test vaccines. “Surviving Ebola” also provides chilling first-hand testimony from those who caught and survived the epidemic.
Among other important things, the “American Experience” presentation “Klansville U.S.A.” reminds us of the resiliency of racism. We’re shown how it can lie dormant for long periods of time, then reappears when the body is least able to combat it. Such was the case with the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which was able to resurrect itself at least twice and, perhaps, three times, since the Reconstruction period so hideously depicted in The Birth of a Nation. It wasn’t until the 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education was rendered that rabble-rousers like Bob Jones were able to convince poor white folks that their “way of life” was being threatened by their equally poor and desperate black neighbors, the liberal media and, of courses, Jews. It wasn’t until a black woman was murdered by an unrepentant Klansmen that President Johnson openly declared war on the organization and J. Edger Hoover was nudged out of his deep sleep long enough to sicc his agents on the leadership, through informers and close readings of the leaders’ checkbooks. North Carolina was chosen as the focus of this documentary seemingly for three reasons: its reputation as the South’s most progressive state; Jones’ ability to organize the largest Klan group in the country; and, believe it or not, the false image of Southern justice burnished weekly by the enormously popular “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sadly, the DVD doesn’t include a bonus feature on how the Tea Party has been able to convince ignorant North Carolinians to vote for candidates, who, a half-century ago, might have kept a white robe and pointed hood in their closets.
Of all of the decades in recorded history, the one that doesn’t require being replayed repeatedly is the 1960s. As epochal as those 10 years may have been, they’ve been analyzed, reanalyzed, dramatized, labeled, exulted, dismissed, praised, ridiculed and documented ad nauseam for as long as the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers have been alive. There are several legitimate reasons for this overabundance of information, opinion and recollections, as well a few that that can be boiled down to nostalgia and narcissism. First, the ability of the media to cover several major events simultaneously, while collecting great volumes of video evidence for posterity, had never been greater, 2) so many of those events were far too momentous for future historians to minimalize, rationalize or ignore; 3) never were more young men and women affected by the same political, cultural and economic upheavals, and 4) we’ll never know how our democracy may have fared if Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated. It’s also true that Baby Boomers never tire of watching themselves on television. Books and movies that have attempted to encapsulate the decade’s myriad pros and cons haven’t been nearly as successful – or accurate — as such documentary series as CNN’s “The Sixties.” Executive produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (“John Adams,” “The Pacific”) and produced by Mark Herzog (“Gettysburg”), the 10-part series touches all of the key touchstone events and movements of the decade, without adding much of anything new to viewers who experienced them first hand. (A segment on resistance to contraception and the treatment of homosexuals isn’t bad, though.) I do think, however, that younger generations of Americans will be surprised at how quickly and greatly the times they were a changin’. Patient viewers will even be able to watch the birth of the modern Republican Party, in the nomination of conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. Today, the Arizona senator would be condemned as a moderate by the right wing of his own party.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks at Nickelodeon/Paramount, as well, with a quartet of compilations from the network’s most popular kids’ shows. They include “Nickelodeon Favorites: Springtime,” with seasonally relevant episodes already featured in “Wallykazam,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Wonder Pets.” There also are separate collections: “Dora and Friends,” “Max & Ruby: Sweet Siblings” and “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Blaze of Glory.”
“Chuggington: Turbo Charged Chugger” is comprised of six episodes from the show’s tenure on Disney Junior, plus the “Badge Quest” episode, “No Time to Waste”; character montages of Asher and Payce; and coloring and activity pages. Here, Wilson and the Chug Patrollers attempt a daring bridge rescue; Brewster helps the Chuggineers build a new station; Koko tries to break her Chug-A-Sonic record; the Speed Fleet competes in the Track Dash; and everybody learns how to use the Piggy-Back Wagon.
Few television shows embodied the variety-show format as well as “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978. Besides a core cast of multitalented performers — Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and, later, Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke – two or three guest stars were brought in each week to participate in comedy skits, dance routines and sing songs, from show tunes to ballads. It’s easy to forget how much entertainment was packed into each week’s show. This three-show package features Ruth Buzzi, Richard Crenna, Roddy McDowall, Ken Berry and Gloria Swanson.