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Dretzka on DVD, Dec 16, 2019

The DVD Wrapup: The Cotton Club, Joan the Maid, Bless Their Little Hearts and more

The Cotton Club Encore: Blu-ray

Combine the talents of Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo and Robert Evans; then, subtract Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale     and several other perfectly cast co-stars; then, add dozens of portentous news reports, headlines, lawsuits, injunctions and a murder trial; finally, subtract seven Academy Awards (out of 17 nominations); and, even allowing for dashed expectations, what have you got? If you guessed The Godfather Saga (1977) or Godfather III (1990), which carry Evans’ uncredited fingerprints, you’d be wrong. The less-then-obvious answer that might escape anyone who came of cinematic age after 1984 is, The Cotton Club. Although it was co-written/directed by Coppola, co-written by Puzo, conceived/produced by Evans, and received mostly positive reviews, the wildly ambitious project was cursed with bad mojo from Day One. Even upon this week’s release of the re-edited The Cotton Club Encore Blu–ray edition — 12 minutes longer, including additions and subtractions – the debate continues over such now-irrelevant issues as cost overruns, casting decisions and who still owes what to whom. Coppola offers his side of the argument in an added “Introduction” and a 20-minute Q&A, recorded at a recent screening. Most of the other principals have gone to the big screening room in the sky – the latest, Evans, passed away on October 26, at 89 – as have the leading pundits of the day. The first DVD iteration of The Cotton Club was released in 2001, but, until this week, was unavailable here in  Blu-ray. Frankly, I can barely remember my reactions in 1984, except to say that I loved the dancing and all that jazz, but was unimpressed by the romantic elements and some of the portrayals of the movie’s who’s-who of real-life mobsters attempting to control vice in Harlem. I knew that the balance was off, somewhere, but blamed it on the other mishigas. Then, quite unlike Apocalypse Now (1979), it disappeared.

Many detractors, I think, were overly critical of Coppola’s decision to take on a musical – any musical – so soon after Once From the Heart (1981), an ostensibly modest pet project that fell victim to garish cost overruns and trademark Coppolian hubris. He wasn’t a stranger to the genre, however. Four years before the release of The Godfather, he garnered decent reviews and a bit of commercial success with the roadshow attraction, Finian’s Rainbow, adapted from the 1947 Broadway musical. After the rapid-fire failures of Once From the Heart and The Cotton Club, however. Coppola was, for the next 10 years required, to wear an albatross around his neck. While far from perfect, “Encore” proves that the disaster could have been avoided from the start. Certainly, Evans’ original concept wasn’t the problems. When the mega-producer realized that he wasn’t capable of directing and producing it, Coppola agreed to salvage the project, which was already burning dollars for fuel. It could only get worse. Unless the budget for “Encore” was excessive – it was re-created from 35 minutes of found footage — money is no longer an issue. The historic Harlem nightclub remains the focal point of everything that happens in the movie and it’s story only gets better with time. It’s worth recalling that, despite the rerouting of revenues into the coffers of New York’s Italian, Irish and Jewish mobs, the Cotton Club provided employment for dozens of African American musicians, dancers, comedians, choreographers, waiters, doormen and other backstage workers. Together with a rotating array of guest entertainers, the revues attracted wealthy, white New Yorkers and celebrities to 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, where Prohibition laws didn’t apply. The swells arrived in their limousines, furs and tuxedos, but, once inside, freely ogled at the “tall, tan, and terrific” chorus girls and athletic male dancers, while enjoying the orchestra’s “jungle music” and intentionally racist costumes, choreographers and decor. Because the black performers were expressly forbidden from patronizing with white patrons, their storylines played out backstage and in nearby speakeasies. The pimps, numbers runners and prostitutes, who preyed on the misfortunes of Harlem’s less fortunate residents, maintained their own sense of style and decorum, all the while plotting to take control of the underworld. It wasn’t what the framers of the Harlem Renaissance had in mind, but it allowed some amazingly talented artists to partake in it.

Central to Coppola, Puzo and William Kennedy’s screenplay are kindred spirits Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) and Delbert “Sandman” Williams (Gregory Hines), the former a white jazz musician and the latter an extraordinarily gifted tap dancer. Through them, we’re introduced to both sides of the equation. By saving the life of gangster Dutch Schultz (James Remar), the hepcat, Dwyer, is handed a free pass to the inner workings of the mob elite as well as the responsibility of standing between the gangster’s flapper lover, Vera Cicero (Diane Lane), and bitter wife, Frances Flegenheimer (Lisa Jane Persky). Remar’s portrayal is largely based on exaggerated facts and unverified connections, while Dwyer’s brother, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll (Nicolas Cage) is a dead ringer for the crazed killer. Hines’ “Sandman” allows viewers access to Harlem, beyond the Cotton Club. This community includes his brother and dancing partner, Clayton “Clay” Williams (Maurice Hines); members of the male-only Hoofers Club, including the comedy/dance act, Tip, Tap & Toe; the almost impossibly beautiful and greatly talented vocalist, Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee); and Stage Door Joe (Robert Earl Jones). Also depicted are Harlem rackets bosses, “Bumpy” Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne), Madame St. Claire (Novella Nelson), Big Joe Ison  (Bill Cobbs) and “Bumpy” Hood (Giancarlo Esposito).  Cab Calloway (Larry Marshall) and Duke Ellington (Zane Mark) attract such A-list celebrities as Gloria Swanson (Diane Verona), Fanny Brice (Rosalind Harris), Charles Chaplin (Gregory Rozakis) and James Cagney (Vincent Jerman-Jerosa). It’s quite a scene. Significant performances are turned in, as well, by Allen Garfield, Fred Gwynne, Gwen Verdon, Julian Beck, John P. Ryan, Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey, Bill Graham, James Russo and Woody Strode. Given 12 more minutes of screen time – boosting it to 139 minutes — Coppola was able to rebalance the film’s emphasis on narrative and set pieces, black and white throughlines, drama and romance. Because the characters are allowed ample room to breathe, the music never feels shoehorned into the plot … and vice-versa. As wonderful as all of this can be, however, dissenters shouldn’t have any problem finding nits to pick, including Coppola’s sometimes disjointed plotting and Gere’s occasionally awkward merging of Bix Beiderbecke and George Raft. It’s easier to sit back and enjoy watching and listening to Coppola’s $60 million-plus reclamation project in Blu-ray.  

Joan the Maid: The Battles/The Prisons: Blu-ray

One of the things that visitors to Milwaukee should do, after touring Foamation’s Original Cheesehead Factory, hoisting a mug at the Historic Pabst Brewery and tailgating at Miller Park is saving a few moments for reflection at the Joan of Arc Chapel, on the Marquette University campus. Dedicated on May 26, 1966, it’s the least touristy attraction between the Wisconsin Dells and the Willis Tower Skydeck, 1,353 feet above Chicago’s Loop. It’s said that the 17-year-old Maid of Orleans prayed in the chapel, originally named for St. Martin de Seysseul, before leading French soldiers into battle, in 1429. Incredibly, the gothic structure, which dates to the early 15th Century, was purchased in 1927 by Gertrude Hill Gavin, daughter of an American railroad magnate, who had it dismantled and transported from the village of Chasse, in the Rhone Valley, to her chateau on New York’s Long Island. Unappreciative of the value of such a historic treasure, the French government also allowed Gavin to purchase a 13th Century Gothic altar and the “Joan of Arc Stone,” upon which she prayed for success before the battle. (Soon after, France enacted a law banning the export of such items.) In 1962, Gavin sold the chateau and chapel to Marc Rojtman – who had been president of J.I. Case until 1960 – and his wife, Lillian. After a fire devastated the chateau, Rojtman gifted the chapel, altar and stone to Marquette. I mention this not as a sop to my former hometown’s Chamber of Commerce, but as a way to put a wee domestic spin on Jacques Rivette’s ambitious two-part historical epic, Joan the Maid 1: The Battles and Joan the Maid 2: The Battles, both of which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival, in February 1994. If the prospect of spending more than five hours waiting for the inevitable conclusion sounds tortuous – imagine how she felt – it’s worth noting the films’ several selling points. Rivette’s intention wasn’t to change anyone’s opinions about the dozens of movies extant, depicting her life and times, including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s intensely intimate masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954), both starring Ingrid Bergman; Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962); Luc Besson’s strangely cast, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999); Bruno Dumont’s highly inventive musical, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017). Nor does he demand that we weigh Sandrine Bonnaire’s portrayal against those of Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Hedy Lamarr, Jean Seberg, Geneviève Bujold, Jane Wiedlin, Marthe Keller, Milla Jovovich, Leelee Sobieski and the appropriately aged Lise Leplat Prudhomme. Bonnaire was in her mid-20s when both halves of Joan the Maid were released back-to-back, in Berlin – Bergman was in her 30s — and she looks every minute that old. Her Jeanne d’Arc is obsessed with fulfilling her mandate from God to save France from 100 years of British tyranny and convince troops to follow the orders of a teenager. Joan’s beatific visions occur off-screen and absent the kind of special effects that might suggest she suffered from hallucinogens or schizophrenia. Clearly mortal, she’s fulfilled by prayer, resistant to the whims of royalty and impatient when ordered to rest on her laurels. “The Battles” begins as Joan prepares to leave the village of Domremy, in northeastern France, to convince the Dauphin Charles of her intention to break the siege of Orleans and see him crowned. First, however, she must collect a group of military escorts willing to ride with her through enemy territory, to where the Dauphin is encamped. The rolling countryside, meadows and rivers through which they pass resemble works of art, as do the mountains on the horizon. Part One ends with Joan having proven her mettle in hand-to-hand combat against the combined British and turncoat French forces. Rivette does nothing to glamorize these scenes or make us believe that she’s been given superhuman strengths. Even so, they’re terrifically exciting and realistically gruesome. “The Prisons” begins with the lavish coronation of Charles and his insistence that Joan is in command of his soldiers and, when necessary, speaks for him. Not surprisingly, perhaps, his appetite for war subsided when he was crowned king and he keeps putting off Joan’s desire to drive his enemies into the English Channel. When she is finally given an opportunity to return to the fray, Joan’s captured by Burgundian soldiers and held for ransom in conditions resembling house arrest. After a while, Joan is sold to British authorities, who are anxious to find her guilty of heresy and witchcraft. As if to pay homage to Dryer’s incomparable depiction of Joan’s bogus prosecution and sentencing, Rivette skips past them, to preparations for Joan’s fiery end. It is, of course, which extremely  heart-wrenching, even without the aid of special effects. I watched both chapters of Joan the Maid in the same sitting and left the marathon no worse for the wear. Taking a longer intermission, though, probably would give viewers more time to savor the period-perfect set designs and costumes, as well as the powerfully coordinated battle scenes. Bonnaire’s performance is never less than brilliant, especially in the rare moments when Joan briefly permits herself to laugh and be happy. I was also struck by the possibility that the “Joan of Arc Stone,” now in Milwaukee, might have been replicated in scenes staged inside chapels in the movie. Cohen Film Collection presents the new 4K restoration, sadly unencumbered by much in the way of bonus features, except original and re-release trailers.

Bless Their Little Hearts

It would have been easy to miss the announcement, made last week, of the latest 25 additions to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The entertainment media were preoccupied with the nominations for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards, especially rounding up the so-called snubs, surprises and pre-fab quotes from the usual publicists. Yawn. On November 21, contenders for the 2020 Film Independent Spirits Awards were revealed. Unlike previous years, Hollywood “indies” took a back seat to the kind of indie indies that are largely ignored by mainstream publications and even some alternative weeklies outside New York, L.A. and Chicago. With a million more awards shows on the near horizon, the element of surprise for Academy Awards nominations, to be revealed on Jan. 13, is already gone. Some of the hopefuls will be rolled out in the hinterlands, as planned, while the “snubbed” will quickly be readied for their afterlife in streaming and DVD. My sole purpose in mentioning all this is to draw attention to the National Film Registry and its typically eclectic choice of inductees, which run the gamut of genres, periods, themes, historical value and box-office results, with a heavy emphasis this year on theatrical films and documentaries directed by women (seven) and racial diversity. They span a century of filmmaking, from 1903 to 2003, and feature several movies about musicians and their work. Check it out.

If it weren’t for the registry, dedicated archivists and preservationists, and such independent distributors as Milestone Films – which is handling the beautifully restored Bless Their Little Hearts — dozens of culturally and historically important titles might still be hidden away on a shelf or in a vault, deteriorating. Amy Heller and Dennis Doros’ company has, in recent years, resurrected films representing the UCLA Film School, Black Independent Movement and Third World Film Club, which were doing just that. Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) provides the tissue that connects such artists as Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Haile Gerima (Bush Mama), Larry Clark (Passing Through) and Billy Woodberry, whose 1983 urban family drama, Bless Their Little Hearts, was recently released on DVD. Written and shot in black-and-white by Burnett, it was informed by the school’s emphasis on Italian Neo-Realism and films from emerging Third World nations. Like Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) and To Sleep with Anger (1990), Bless Their Little Hearts has been enshrined by the Library of Congress. It was released in what appeared to be a hiatus between the demise of blaxploitation and the arrival of gangsta’-themed products. Black filmmakers hadn’t stopped in their tracks in the interim, however. It’s just that Hollywood studios failed to pick up the baton and make movies for audiences tired of brotha’s-vs.-the-man action pictures, made, in large part, by whites. Unfortunately, the African American actors who found work in exploitation pictures were thrown out with the bath water.

Before handing the project over to Woodberry, Burnett set the screenplay for Bless Their Little Hearts in the same working-class Watts neighborhood as his previous films. This time, however, the male protagonist, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman), is one of many black men – and, yes, women –victimized by Reaganomics and the rampant closing of factories that once paid living wages to American workers. The “changing economy” has left Charlie unemployed for 10 years, or so. He tries to make ends meet by taking pick-up jobs, most often as a handyman and sometimes as a house painter. His unemployment checks ran out years earlier and he can barely muster the energy to open the help-wanted ads. At some point during the day, Charlie will make up an excuse to hang out with his buddies, drinking and playing cards. Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife, Andais (Kaycee Moore), makes a meager income as a domestic. By the time her husband gets home, the kids have been fed and she’s too tired to do anything, especially give in to Charlie’s pawing at her. The children have learned to fend for themselves, mostly, but can’t unhear the arguments between mom and dad, some of which degrade him as a father figure. After nearly a decade of the same-old/same-old routine, Andais angrily confronts Charlie about the affair she knows he’s having and money that’s missing. His mistress picks that exact same time to tell him that he’ll have make a choice between her and Andais, or zip up and go home. Charlie may not be as lazy or woebegone as Andais makes him out to be, but the cold fact is that he remains one of too many other African American men who’ve been rendered “redundant,” as the Brits say. Egged on by his similarly unemployed pals, he comes up with harebrained schemes for making money, including fishing in a polluted river and selling the bottom-feeders they catch to passing motorists, and hunting rabbits long extinct in Watts. Even if the ending doesn’t attempt to offer hope where none exists, Woodberry leaves the door open to a miracle. His direction does justice to Burnett’s no-frills screenplay, and the actors, most of them amateurs, are entirely credible in tough roles. The DVD adds commentary by New York University professor Ed Guererro; a new 2K restoration of “The Pocketbook” (1980), Woodberry’s first film; “Workshop With Billy Woodberry,” courtesy of Indiana University’s Black Film Center/Archive; Ross Lipman’s interview, “Billy and Charles”; a separate interview with Guererro; behind-the-scenes photos; and a booklet with essays by filmmaker Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) and Cornell University professor Samantha N. Sheppard.

Hard Night Falling

With a cast and crew comprised largely of men and women with Italian surnames, I approached Hard Night Falling as if it might be a throwback to the heyday of giallo, when American and northern European actors were imported to supplement the local talent and find a larger audience. Frequently, too, the names of Italian filmmakers were anglicized to fool the rubes in the same territories. The practice probably began at the height of the Hercules and sword-and-sandal period and endured through the Spaghetti Western craze. In the 1970-80s, Cannon Films and other cheapo outfits followed suit, by seeking out inexpensive locations and hiring actors known to action fans. If there was any money left over, the company might spend it on a screenplay. As was par for the course, no time was allowed for advancing genre staples, when outright theft was a viable option. While most of the movies were down-right awful, some were just good enough to find traction in the straight-to-video market. Hard Night Falling would be nothing if it weren’t for the presence of Dolph Lundgren. A bona-fide international action star, the 62-year-old Swede still looks as buff as he ever did and, at 6-foot-5, hasn’t lost much of his ability to destroy his enemies without raising a sweat. In the occasionally capable hands of director Giorgio Bruno (My Little Baby), and writers Alessandro Riccardi (Margerita) and American-based action specialist Giorgio Serafini (Johnny’s Gone), Lundgren is allowed to demonstrate that he can still hold his own in a role that requires substantially more than a cameo appearance. In Hard Night Falling, he plays Interpol agent Michael Anderson, who’s coming off another tough assignment, which required the assistance of his brutally efficient cohort, Emma (Natalie Burn). He takes a rare night off to reconnect with his estranged wife, Mary (Sinne Mutsaers), and teenage daughter, Diana (Chiara Arrigoni), at an Italian villa. A lavish banquet is being thrown by a tycoon, Giuliano Rossini (Mario Opinato), who’s amassed a fortune in gold bullion and wants to demonstrate his good intentions for the cache. The party is interrupted by a sizable group of ninjas, led by the criminal mastermind, Goro (Hal Yamanouchi), who has other plans for the gold. He orders his minions to round up the guest and stash them elsewhere in the mansion. Unbeknownst to Goro, however, Anderson has already taken a powder, with the intention of single-handedly picking off the invaders, one-by-one. Wisely, he calls for backup from his team of agents. You can guess the rest. Burn is as fun to watch as Lundgren, who’s wearing a dinner jacket he might have borrowed from James Bond … or Bruce Willis.    

That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt

Going into Paul Hegeman’s surprisingly compelling portrait of  Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, I wondered what the musical documentary might offer those of us who don’t follow the ins and outs of modern classical music and wouldn’t even know where to find it on the radio. As far as I know, however, traditional symphonic music isn’t in danger of extinction any time soon and may be thriving, thanks to the popularity of dedicated streaming services and satellite radio networks. Contemporary classical music, for which Pärt is particularly known, refers to the post-1945 forms of post-tonal music that include serial, electronic, experimental and minimalist music, as forwarded by, among others, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It can be heard, if not always recognized  on the soundtracks of many mainstream and indie movies. Since the late 1970s, Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that employs his self-invented compositional technique, tintinnabuli. His compositions are inspired, as well, by Gregorian chant. Some of his most significant works, including “Tabula Rasa,” “Fratres,” “Trivium” and “Für Alina,” are performed here with the Cello Octet Amsterdam. It isn’t as forbidding or high-brow as that makes the music sound, though. Since 2011, we’re told, Pärt has been the most performed living composer in the world. What differentiates That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt from other such documentaries and biopics is the opportunity to watch a composer engage intimately not only with an orchestra’s conductor, but also individual musicians. Likewise, Hegeman’s camera observes his rapturous demeanor as his music is being played in rehearsal. Because of his unkempt beard and hair, Pärt sometimes comes off as a mad genius or nutty professor, with his head in the clouds and body on the ground. At other times, the 84-year-old composer seems perfectly normal. There’s no single, simple way to express passion. It’s easier to detect on the faces of the musicians and conductors Hegeman interviews, including classical musicians Tõnu Kaljuste, Candida Thompson and Daniel Reuss; choreographer Jirí Kylián; filmmakers Alain Gomis; and  musician Kara-Lis Coverdale. I didn’t expect to enjoy That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt as much as I did, let alone be emotionally stirred by the music.

Holly Near: Singing for Our Lives

Slaughterhouse-Five: Special Edition: Blu-ray

It’s difficult to think of a progressive cause or social change movement to which singer/songwriter/activist/actor Holly Near hasn’t lent her talents over the course of the last 50 years. If the northern California native had been born in 1959, instead of 1949, her shocking-red hair and apple cheeks would have made her first choice to play the lead in “Annie,” the Tony Award-winning musical that opened on Broadway in 1977 and quickly become an international sensation. Near was headed in that direction, anyway, before coming to a fork in the road in the mid-1960s. She logged her first public appearance at 8 and, two years later, auditioned for Columbia Records. Holly performed in all the musicals staged at Ukiah High School, finally playing Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” Her summers were spent at performing-arts camps in Colorado and Pennsylvania, where she studied under jazz musicians Phil and Chan Woods and dance teacher Joyce Trisler. She turned pro after a year in the  Theater Arts program at UCLA, appearing in such TV series as “The Mod Squad,” “Room 222,” “All in the Family” and “The Partridge Family”; movies The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971); and a Broadway production of “Hair.” It was at this point that Near, like so many other young men and women of her generation, had her career path irrevocably altered by the Vietnam War. Following the Kent State University shootings in May 1970, the entire cast of “Hair” staged a silent vigil in protest. A year later, she joined the “Free the Army”  (a.k.a., “”F— The Army”) troupe, an anti-Vietnam War road show conceived as a response to Bob Hope’s USO tour by activist Fred Gardner and actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. She would act sporadically in mainstream entertainments, up until Lanny Cotler’s Heartwood (1998). At a mere 63 minutes, Jim Brown’s heartfelt bio-doc, Holly Near: Singing for Our Lives (2018), can hardly contain the pursuits, passions and achievements in her personal, political and professional careers. There’s a certain symmetry at work here, as well: at a young age, Holly’s mother sparked her political consciousness by taking her to a Weavers concert, in San Francisco; in 1980, she shared her love for the once-blacklisted folk group, in Brown’s award-winning debut doc, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time; she would also testify, in his Woody Guthrie: Hard Travelin’ (1984); later in life, Near would befriend and join Weaver co-founder Ronnie Gilbert in a duet of Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”; she and Woody’s son, Arlo, have appeared in several more documentaries, since The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time and Woody Guthrie: Hard Travelin’. As a result of her travels in the Pacific with the “FTA” show, Near became an outspoken feminist — linking international feminism and anti-war activism – and, in 1976, came out as a lesbian. The declaration, while not entirely unexpected, cemented her bond with lesbian fans, who turned out in troves for her concerts. (She’s since readjusted her sexual identity to “monogamist.”) Although she never became as well-known as contemporaries Joan Baez and Judy Collins — outside the activist and LGBTQ communities, anyway – Near is every bit their equal behind the mike. Bonus features include live performances of “One Good Song” and “Somebody’s Jail,” as well as additional interviews with Holly, Fonda, Gilbert, Gloria Steinem, friends and family members, including her cousin, Kevin Bacon.

By coincidence, Near’s memorable performance in Slaughterhouse-Five can be enjoyedin a new “Special Edition” package from Arrow Video. She plays Barbara, the adult daughter of Billy and Valencia Pilgrim in George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel of 1969. Although, the book and movie remain very much a product of their time, they still retain the charm and intrigue of entertainments that spoke directly to college students and hippies drawn to their frighteningly dark humor, surrealistic conceits, unexpected twists and depiction of a planet that’s coming off its orbital rails. For many readers, the story’s central event – based on the author’s own experiences in World War II – may still come as a shock and revelation. After Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he served his time as a POW in the showcase city of Dresden. He survived the mass bombings and resultant firestorms by taking shelter in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned. After the three-day barrage, the POWs emerged from the underground vaults to find Dresden utterly devastated and thousands of bodies strewn amongst the wreckage. They were assigned by the Germans to excavate as many of the 25,000-plus corpses as they could find, so they could be cremated. Vonnegut called the attacks an “atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned … so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is.” His surrogate, the mild-mannered Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), was so traumatized by what he saw that it he would find himself trapped in a time warp that kept him uncertain as to where and when he was at any given time. His past, present and future play out in non-linear form from boyhood, when he’s thrown into a swimming pool by his cruel father and nearly drowns; through the war years; to success as an optometrist; life in a deeply dysfunctional family (Sharon Gans, Perry King, Near); a miraculous escape from a plane crash, which he prophesized; later, to a fateful encounter with a fanatical wartime nemesis (Rob Leibman); and, finally, an eternity spent inside an airtight, temperature-controlled dome, on a toxic planet, with a model-turned-actress, played by a mostly nude Valerie Perrine. “Slaughterhouse-Five” not only mirrored the madness described by Joseph Heller almost a decade earlier, in “Catch-22,” but it also made its American and British readers aware of what many observers still believe is a war crime, perpetrated by their own governments. Comparisons to nuclear bombs dropped on non-military targets in Nagasaki and Hiroshima are also still made. (They could just as well apply to the ultimately non-essential devastation caused by Allied forces in Vietnam and Iraq.) Praised by Vonnegut, himself, for its fidelity to the novel, Slaughterhouse-Five also features a memorable score by concert pianist Glenn Gould. The 4K hi-def restoration, from the original camera negative, was produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release. It adds new audio commentary by author and critic Troy Howarth; a video appreciation with author and critic Kim Newman; interviews with Perry King, filmmaker/producer Robert Crawford Jr., soundtrack historian Daniel Schweiger and Rocky Lang, the son of executive producer Jennings Lang; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley.

Jake Speed: Special Edition: Blu-ray

The Limits of Control: Special Edition: Blu-ray

If it were possible for blocked screenwriters to capture and store ideas in the same way that eggs and sperm are frozen for use at a more opportune time, Jake Speed (1986) might have attracted a higher grade of creative talent and a budget to match the concept. Come to think of it, though, isn’t that what copyright laws and various WGA provisions were designed to do? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. Co-writer/director Andrew Lane and co-writer/star Wayne Crawford’s adventure comedy came out at a time when there was a lull in the comic-book superhero market and adaptations of graphic novels were still in their infancy. Jake Speed took a different tack. Shot in Paris, Zimbabwe and the wilds of Sherman Oaks, it is both a tribute to and satire of pulp novels and their more or less mortal heroes, who exist in alternate, but reasonably recognizable realities. Jake’s peer group includes such pulpy protagonists as Remo Williams (a.k.a., the Destroyer), Mack Bolan (a.k.a., the Executioner) and Doc Savage (a.k.a., the Man of Bronze). Unlike them, Jake’s origin story didn’t begin in the pulps. Moreover, his heroism is almost always in doubt. The movie opens in Paris, when a pretty blond American is snatched off the streets of Paris by thugs working for a sinister Rhodesian white-slaver, Sid, played with gusto by John Hurt. When word of the abduction gets back to the victim’s sister, Margaret (Karen Kopins), in L.A., she’s advised by her grandfather to ask for Jake’s help in freeing her. He’s either oblivious to the fact that the character is a creation of Desmond Floyd (Dennis Christopher), or he doesn’t sense the urgency in the situation. As luck would have it, Jake and Desmond find Margaret, instead, offering their services to her. They agree to meet in the capital of a Third World country that only recently lifted the shadow of colonialism off of its back and is struggling to survive. The bad craziness begins when Jake tells Margaret that his services are gratis, which would be extraordinarily generous if it weren’t for the fact that Desmond will profit mightily from using the rescue effort as the premise for his next chapter in the pulp series. As wheel-within-a-wheel setups go, it isn’t bad. The Zimbabwe locations are pretty spectacular, as well. So, what happened to Jake Speed, the movie? In short, everything else in Lane and Crawford’s brainstorm. Among other things, the budget couldn’t possibly sustain a movie whose cinematic roots extend back to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), even if it is a knockoff. Far from being heroic, Crawford looks as if he had just been beat up by Rocky Balboa and no one bothered to count to 10. The action scenes could have been staged by any recent graduate of the International Stunt School’s 150-hour summer session. If the guns look real, it’s only because they were left over from the recent hostilities and weren’t being used by the current team in charge. Arrow Video probably spent more money on the Blu-ray’s 2K restoration, from the original 35mm interpositive, than the producers spent on the picture, itself, even in 1994 dollars. It adds the featurettes, “Paperback Wishes, Cinematic Dreams,” a new interview with co-writer/producer/director Lane, and “The Hard Way Reads Better,” with producer William Fay; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

With only a few exceptions, Jim Jarmusch’s movies have tested and surpassed the limits of what most movie lovers consider to be independent, avant-garde and self-consciously enigmatic. It’s what makes them so wonderfully challenging. Even by Jarmusch’s usual standards, however, The Limits of Control (2009) pushed the meter to new heights. It chronicles the travels of the tres, tres stoic Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé), who, after arriving at the airport in Madrid, looking as if he might be a courier, a spy, smuggler or a model, is greeted by the Creole (Alex Descas) and the Frenchman (Jean-François Stévenin). They give him the first in a series of cryptic clues, passed along in matchboxes by similarly mysterious characters, leading to heaven knows where. (He washes down the clues with double-shots of coffee.) At the same time, Jarmusch leads viewers through the story with references to famous works of art, poetry, literature and cinema. When things really slow down, he trots out Paz de la Huerta in various stages of disrobe. The movie’s saving grace is Christopher Doyle’s brilliant cinematography, which makes Andalucía look like a work of art and Madrid a city you’ll want to visit on your next vacation. Cameos are provided by Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, Hiam Abbass, a Flamenco group and, of course, Bill Murray. Featurettes include “An American in Europe,” with author Geoff Andrew; “The Rituals of Control,” with critic Amy Simmons; “Behind Jim Jarmusch,” an archival documentary on the making of the film; and “Untitled Landscapes,” an archival featurette showcasing the film’s locations.

Candy: Blu-ray

Upon its release in 2006, comparisons between Neil Armfield’s harrowing Aussie drama, Candy, and Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park, were inevitable. Connoisseurs of the tragically-addicted subgenre might have been inclined to add Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) to the list. Documentaries about celebrated artists, who happen to be junkies, are the only films in which users are allowed to live a full life and, if they’re lucky, die clean. At the time of Candy’s release, Heath Ledger was an international superstar and some of best and most commercially successful work was already behind him. His Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight wouldn’t be released here until six months after his untimely death, at 28, which was blamed on an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. It’s impossible to watch Candy today, on Blu-ray, without recalling his wasted promise as an actor and the daughter, Matilda Rose, he shared with actress Michelle Williams. In it, Ledger plays a poet, Dan, who

falls in love with an art student, Candy (Abbie Cornish), who gravitates toward his bohemian lifestyle, which includes his addiction to heroin. The trajectory of their relationship divides Candy into three distinct sections — Heaven, Earth and Hell – which roughly parallel the timeline in “Requiem.” The lighter moments are provided by their mentor, enabler and fellow user, Casper, who’s played by Geoffrey Rush. It’s as substantial a supporting role as he’s ever been assigned. If Cornish was known outside Oz, at all, it was for her acclaimed performance in the 2004 rom-dram, Somersault, atypically set in Jindabyne, in the Snowy Mountains. The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Armfield and writer Luke Davies, and three featurettes.

Big Trouble in Little China: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Dracula: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Leave it to Shout!Factory to come up with new reasons to check out old favorites on DVD/Blu-ray. I don’t know how big a dent streaming has put in the business of selling discs, but I suspect that it’s sizable. One way is to simply combine catalogue titles and repackage them as retrospectives in giftable boxed sets. Rhino Entertainment Company set the standard, way back in 1978, with imaginatively themed packages that weighed a ton  – when vinyl was still king – but reintroduced classic artists and played-out genres to a generation of geeks drawn to old-school R&B and country, surf music, soundtracks and garage rock. Vinyl would give way to cassettes, which gave way to CDs, which triggered the push to replace VHS/Beta/Laserdisc with DVDs, Blu-ray, streaming and 4K UHD. Every succeeding technology presented fresh challenges to purveyors of recorded music and films and, of course, the consumer-electronics industry. In 2002, Rhino begat Shout!Factory, which added previously released feature films, classic and contemporary television series, animation, live music and comedy specials to the mix. In doing so, it borrowed a page from Criterion Collection by adding bonus features to the immaculately restored digital content. Ironically, when DVD was introduced by a coalition of major studios only four years earlier, the idea was to use the extra space for foreign-language tracks and subtitles. Filmmakers convinced them to use the digital landscape for director’s-cut editions, commentaries, interviews and featurettes. It was a landmark case of the tail wagging the dog. For now, at least, the added-value packages apparently are the only things that separate discs from streaming.  

Among Shout’s most recent releases are updated editions of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and John Badham’s Dracula (1979), neither of which were unfamiliar to collectors. What’s new are bonus packages chock-full of the kind of freshly conceived supplements that buffs crave. Like Carpenter’s sci-fi adventure, Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China featured a bravura performance by Kurt Russell, who had earlier starred in the director’s TV movie, Elvis (1979). As Snake Plissken, Russell was finally able to shed any vestiges of his days with Disney. He would re-team with Carpenter on The Thing (1982), before distinguishing himself in Silkwood (1983), Swing Shift (1984) and The Mean Season (1985). Although they’re completely different animals, “Little China” feels as if it’s the missing bookend to “Escape,” set 3,000 miles from the Apple, and driven by the same dark energy by Carpenter at the wheel. Here, Russell stars as Jack Burton, a tough-talking truck driver whose life goes into a supernatural tailspin when he gets between warring Chinatown gangs and agrees to help his best friend find his kidnapped  fiancée. The tracks lead Jack to a murky, underground palace, where Lo Pan (James Hong), a 2,000-year-old sorcerer, plans to sacrifice the girl (Suzee Pai) to rid himself of an ancient curse. Kim Cattrall, Kate Burton, Carter Wong and Victor Wong join them in the cross-millennial fracas. Added to the package here are commentaries with producer Larry Franco, special-effects artist Steve Johnson, and Carpenter and Russell; the Blu-ray debuts of a vintage audio interviews with John Carpenter, a 27-minute EPK and gag reel; more than four hours’ worth of new and vintage interviews; and plenty of archival material.

Badham’s Dracula was promoted as a love story with fangs. Based loosely on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and its 1924 stage adaptation, which was remounted  on Broadway in 1977, and featured Frank Langella as the caped count and backdrops designed by Edward Gorey. The play ran for over 900 performances, even as it was becoming re-adapted as a movie, Dracula (1979), which would directly compete for eyes with separate versions of the tale by Werner Herzog and Stan Dragoti. They starred Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu the Vampyre) and George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), respectively. Even without Gorey’s contributions, Badham’s gothic romance fairly oozes with dark and shadowy atmospherics. It didn’t do particularly well in its initial release, but the director had an excuse. Turns out, the 1979 theatrical version looks noticeably different from the one envisioned by Badham. When it was re-issued for a widescreen LaserDisc release in 1991, the director chose to alter the color tinting, effectively desaturating the visual presentation imposed by Universal. The rejiggered scheme took on a virtually colorless look – Badham originally wanted to shoot it in B&W – which consequently sparked debate among fans about which version was the more valid. Scream Factory has given fans the opportunity to make their own decision, by adding separate discs devoted to the original theatrical release and Badham’s preferred version. The “Collector’s Edition” picks up Badham’s commentary from the 2004 release, adds a new track by film historian/filmmaker Constantine Nasr, a piles on with fresh introductions of the different versions, by Badham and more than three hours’ worth of new interviews and a vintage making-of featurette. Match that, Hulu.

Killerman

Upon its theatrical release, in August, Killerman made $614,366 in only a handful of theaters. That might not sound like a lot money, but the per-screen average suggests that it could do very well on DVD and PPV here and, on Blu-ray, in some foreign markets. Action addicts are likely to enjoy Malik Bader’s follow-up to his well-regarded Cash Only (2015) more than mainstream critics, who pretty much dismissed it as being too similar to movies from the 1970s, in which bad-ass crooks and dirty cops waged wars of attrition. Maybe so, but what’s wrong with a little genre diving? Down and dirty, Killerman takes a page from Martin Scorsese’s playbook, with a rolling meet-and-greet opening that introduces viewers to the key players and Bader’s central conceit. The camera follows money launderer Moe Diamond (Liam Hemsworth), as he makes his rounds trading ill-gotten greenbacks from out town for gold, which he trades for cashier’s checks from illicit merchants, and back into cash. His partner, Skunk (Emory Cohen), makes sure that the money winds up in the hands of his uncle, Perico (Zlatko Buric), who runs a limousine service, but reserves the clean money for the development of a Midtown building project. Perico’s partner is that endeavor is a corrupt politician … of course. (Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s blood-soaked Pusher trilogy will recognize Buric as the evil Copenhagen crime lord, Milo.) Any gig gets tiresome over time, so, when Skunk concocts a scheme to “borrow” some money his uncle won’t know is missing for a few days, Moe reluctantly agrees to support him. Naturally, the deal is too good to be true. When they hear that some Nigerian traffickers are offering their middle-man half-off on a pile of uncut powder, they decide to cut out their friend, Fedex (Suraj Sharma), and go straight to the source. What Fedex doesn’t know and consequently can’t tell his buyers is that the Nigerians are being forced to set a trap for him by the dirty cops, who plan to steal the money and the drugs, and take him out of the loop. It backfires when Moe and Skunk’s sniper pal susses out the deceit and protects his friends’ interests from afar. It allows them to get away with the money and the dope, with the cops hot on their trail. When their car breaks through a guard rail and topples into the street below, Moe’s injury cleanses his memory and forces Skunk to use his wiles to sell the drugs, return the cash to his uncle and, against all odds, split with his fried for a permanent vacation. The cops have a good reason to chase down Moe and Skunk, as they stole the drugs from the evidence locker and hoped to sell them before anyone noticed, keeping the money. None of this is as confusing as it might sound, and there’s still plenty of time left in the movie for the meat of narrative to play out. Bader uses every passing minute to ratchet up on the heat on the crooks, cops, Moe’s pregnant girlfriend – who he doesn’t recognize — and several cleverly conceived peripheral characters. Likewise, Killerman only gets bloodier. Bader leaves room for a neat final twist at the end, which ties everything up in an unexpected way. A postscript leads us to believe Killerman might be based on a true story. And, yes, Liam Hemsworth is Chris and Luke’s younger brother.

Emanuelle in America: Blu-ray

Aficionados of vintage soft-core erotica have long been aware of the differences between Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974), which made Sylvia Kristel an international sensation, and the parallel Black Emanuelle (1974), which fed off of its great success and made Javanese model Laura Gemser an international sensation. The former was based on a 1959 novel by Marayat Rollet-Andriane (a.k.a., Emmanuelle Arsan), while the latter’s source material was supplied by stories written by Ottavio Alessi and Piero Vivarelli. Both actresses are drop-dead gorgeous, unabashedly sensual, and they spend most of their time in exotic locales, nude, in the company of well-heeled horndogs … of both genders. The name of Gemser’s character is spelled with a single “m,” while Kristel’s has two of them. Kristel was able to find work in mainstream movies (Private School) and Gemser transitioned into costume design (Troll 2). While the two-m franchise remained true to his roots – too hot for premium cable, but softer than hard-core – legendary sleazemeister Joe D’Amato took the single-m series into far more sexually adventurous realms. Mondo Macabro’s edition of Emanuelle in America (1977) represents the first time the totally uncut European version has been released here on Blu-ray. It features a 4k transfer from the film negative, an interview with writer David Flint, a feature-length documentary on Joe D’Amato, commentary by Bruce Holecheck and Nathaniel Thompson, and a wonderfully perverse reel of Mondo Macabro previews. Not that it matters all that much, but “America” is the director’s much harder follow-up to Emanuelle’s Revenge (1975) and Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976). In it, the intrepid photojournalist and fashion photographer arrives in America on a mission to expose the kinky secrets of the international jet set. Her willingness to trade pleasures of the skin for access allows her to examine life as a love slave at a ranch run by a sadistic madam; investigate a spa for rich, sexually frustrated women; explore the twisted side of a straitlaced Republican politician; and, finally, uncover shocking evidence of an international snuff-film conspiracy. Yummy. The untamed edition’s notoriety derives from “hardcore footage of un-simulated fellatio, penetration, ejaculation and unconventional horse husbandry.”

TV-to-DVD

The Returned: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray

Fans of the French mini-series, “The Returned” (2012), or its 2015 American reimagining, on A&E – should be happy to learn that Music Box has just released the second season of Fabrice Gobert’s supernatural thriller on Blu-ray. I say “original,” fully aware that Les Revenants.” itself, was based on Robin Campillo’s 2004 French film, They Came Back, which, likewise, appears to have been informed by the 1971 Brazilian novel “Incidente em Antares,” by Erico Verissimo. The book spawned a mini-series, “Antares Incident,” broadcast in Brazil, in 1994. “Les Revenants” was shot in in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of Southeastern France, and the Lac du Chevril reservoir, around which most of the action takes places. The alpine settings couldn’t be more spectacular. The first season opened in a picturesque mountain community, which is rocked to its core when the dam bursts and the waters from the reservoir flood the town, leaving dozens of residents of all ages dead. Years later, several of the victims of the deluge began to re-appear at their homes. The ghostly figures appear in human, non-zombie form and, outwardly, no worse for the wear. Determined to reclaim their lives and start over, they slowly come to realize that they are not the only ones to have been brought back from the dead. Their return corresponds with a gruesome murder attempt that bears a chilling resemblance to the work of a serial killer from the past. Season Two begins six months after Season One concludes, with the village almost completely relieved of its human residents. The folks who remain have reasons of their to believe that their loved ones are still alive. Even when they reappear, however, most of them are beyond help. I pretty much lost track of who was dead and alive at this point. From what I can tell, the “returned” represent only a fraction of the flood’s victims, and they’ve moved into the village to await the repatriation of other victims. The police, who have cordoned off the exit routes, have been ordered to capture and jail the undead, even if they don’t know what to do with them. They’re already dead, after all, and impervious to further damage. The victims have something else on their mind, which may involve the giant sinkhole and series of tunnels that have opened up where the lake used to be. As bewildering as “The Returned” can be, the actors keep the plot from unraveling and the majestic setting never disappoints.

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