Ip Man 4: The Finale: Blu-ray
Two decades have passed since the idea for a Ip Man biopic was flouted by Hong Kong producers Jeffrey Lau and Corey Yuen (Kung Fu Hustle), who saw an opening for a movie about Bruce Lee’s even more interesting teacher. It would die aborning when the studio went belly up. Ten years later, director Winston Yip, writers Tai-lee Chan and Edmond Wong, producer Raymond Wong and actor Donnie Yen, would pick up the baton and release Ip Man, the first in a quartet of movies about the Wing Chun grandmaster. Almost simultaneous with that film’s success at the box office, Herman Yau began preparations for a concurrent franchise, with The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), which was followed three years later by the inaccurately titled, Ip Man: The Final Fight. Also in 2013, Wong Kar-wai’s wildly celebrated The Grandmaster (2013) made a splash in arthouses around the world. That same year, a television series, “Ip Man” (2013), enjoyed a 50-episode run. Yuen Woo-Ping’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) was a virtual spinoff of Yip’s Ip Man 3 (2015). All of them, exceptthe 2019 straight-to-video cash-in, Ip Man and Four Kings, which opened weeks ahead of Ip Man 4: The Finale, did well at the box office and impressed critics drawn to the action, over the mythologizing. Despite a couple of micro-appearances in compilation flicks released after Lee’s untimely death, in 1973, Ip’s true role in his training and that of several other important fighters went largely unsung for 25. The irony, of course, is that Lee’s characters only came to life when they were facing impossible odds in combat, while most of Ip’s 79 years were spent defending Wing Chun against more prominent martial-arts techniques and, using it to survive the turmoil within China and Hong Kong after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese invasion of China and 1948 revolution.
Ip Man focuses on his life during the 1930-40s, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when local Foshan fighters not only were required to defend their techniques against rivals from the north, but also Japanese occupation forces. A cruel military leader advocates Karate over Wing Chun and demands Ip’s students compete against the best Japanese combatants. Ip Man 2 focuses on Ip and his students’ tumultuous beginnings in Hong Kong, after their escape from the mainland. If his school is to survive, Ip will be required to prove its worth in the highly competitive market. He’ll also be challenged by an arrogant and racist English boxing champion (Darren Shahlavi). In the second sequel, Ip is enlisted in a fight to save a local grammar school from an American developer and fierce boxer, played by Mike Tyson, who is backed by the island’s triads. Neither does Ip Man 3 neglect issues pertaining to his wife’s health and sons’ education. The undisciplined Lee appears in both sequels, but he has yet to be deemed worthy of learning Wing Chun. By 1964, that changed, however. Ip Man 4 opens with the death of his wife, back in Foshan, and the discovery of throat cancer due to excessive smoking.
After his rebellious son, Ip Ching (Ye He), fights back against a bully and is expelled from school in Hong Kong, Ip decides to travel to San Francisco to look for a new school for him to attend and a fresh living environment. By now, Bruce Lee (Chan Kwok-Kwan) is living in the Bay Area and has offended leaders of the local Chinese martial-arts community by opening a Wing Chun school that’s open to Americans and writing an English- language book on martial arts. They feel as if any knowledge of Chinese fighting skills could be used against then by racists and hired goons, fortified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Ip is visiting a school when he observes a Chinese girl being attacked by a group of white jocks and cheerleaders, one of whom had just been taken down a beg by her rival. As he tends to do in such cases, Ip steps in to single-handedly even the odds against the bullies. He also intervenes when a Chinese-American Marine staff sergeant raises the hackles of his commanding officers, by suggesting that the military could do well by incorporating Lee’s Wing Chun into training exercise military barracks. U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu), a student of Lee, infuriates Colin Frater, a bigoted Marine Corps karate coach, by asking him to consider incorporating Wing Chun into the training curriculum. This puts a giant red target on Hartman’s back within the barracks, where Marines of color are blatantly discriminated against by white officers and their Goliath-like enforcer (Scott Adkins). Ultimately, the much smaller Ip will be called in to even the score, once again. Even at 105 minutes, Ip Man 4 is hampered by plot points that defy logic and only serve to get viewers from one fight to another, more difficult challenge. This is OK with me because action director and stunt choreographer Yuen Woo-ping — Kill Bill, The Matrix, Kung Fu Hustle — is working at the top of his game here. The disc adds “The 10-Year Legend” and “The Making of Ip Man 4: The Finale.”
Like a Boss: Blu-ray
Just as directors sometimes get too much credit for turning a well-crafted screenplay into a work of art, they occasionally bear the brunt of blame for not being able to salvage a hare-brained script from its own worst instincts and tendencies. Like a Boss is a perfect example of the latter. Miguel Arteta has previously helmed such indie delights as Duck Butter (2018), Beatriz at Dinner (2017), Cedar Rapids (2011), Youth in Revolt (2009) The Good Girl (2002), Chuck & Buck (2000) and Star Maps (1997), as well as such television standouts as “Six Feet Under,” “Getting On,” “Enlightened,” “The Big C” and “Forever.” None of them was a fluke or totally dependent on the ingenuity of such writers as Mike White (thrice), Alia Shawkat, Phil Johnston, Judd Apatow, Matt Hubbard, Alan Yang and Cary Joji Fukunaga. Like a Boss was written by a committee comprised of Adam Cole-Kelly and Sam Pitman (“Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television”) and veteran producer/writer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel (“My Name Is Earl”). Previously titled “Limited Partners,” the one-time Tiffany Haddish-vehicle eventually was re-populated with such established stars and familiar faces as Rose Byrne, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Coolidge, Billy Porter, Ari Graynor, Jacob Latimore, Karan Soni, Jimmy Yang, Ryan Hansen, Natasha Rothwell, Jessica St. Clair and surprise guest, Lisa Kudrow. Two friends with different goals and ideals start a niche business together. Byrne and Haddish play the owners of the Mia and Mel lifestyle boutique, which caters to everyday working women looking for an accessory, notion or cosmetic capable of transforming their lives from average to spectacular.
Their products catch the attention of unscrupulous investor, Claire Luna (Hayek), head of a major cosmetics empire, who intends to steal the brand and repackage best-sellers under her banner. Once the ladies discover Clair’s intentions, they only have enough money left to cover their debts and rue their lack of foresight. (Hayek’s great beauty is masked by a hideous orange wig, push-up bras and cuchi-cuchi fashions that are a size, or two, too small for her famously voluptuous 5-foot-2-inch frame.) Not surprisingly, Clair’s scheme drives the besties apart. Once Mia and Mel come to their senses and are rescued by a feminist angel, Shay (Kudrow), they are in a far better position to turn the tables and take their company back. In a nutshell, Shay’s lawyers read the merger agreement with a closer eye to details than Clair’s did. By the time the good news arrives, however, many viewers will have written off Like a Boss as a complete waste of time and talent. This many years past Colin Higgins’ 9 to 5 (1980) and Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1998), it takes more than a few time-honored buddy-film tropes and LGBTQ characters in supporting roles to make an underwritten female-empowerment comedy funny. There’s plenty of blame to go around here, but it shouldn’t fall on Arteta’s shoulders, alone. The actors must have felt just as trapped by the script’s outdated themes and tired caricatures: a rich woman, with no fashion sense, as the villain; a salt-and-pepper pairing of down-trodden besties, as the victims; and beautiful blond of a certain age, as the angel. How novel is that? It’s also a shame to see Coolidge’s natural comic chops wasted in a yet another portrayal of the curvy bimbo who’s smarter than she’s made to look. The film’s R-rating is attributed to crude jokes and risqué double entendres that in a bromance would be written off as “locker-room humor” and awarded a PG-13.
Heimat Is a Space in Time
At a daunting running time of 218 minutes, Thomas Heise’s deeply personal Heimat Is a Space in Time would make for tough-sledding in theaters on both sides of the long-extinct Berlin Wall. In it, the German documentarian shares with viewers the stories of three generations of family members, who, for most of the 20th Century, were treated as if they were aliens in their own country. This is accomplished through a collage of letters and notes from three generations of relatives, accompanied by archival and family photographs, newspaper clips, government records and newsreel footage. Stitched together by Heise’s matter-of-fact narration, Heimat Is a Space in Time might remind viewers here of the historical docs and mini-series lovingly produced for PBS by Ken and Rick Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, ever since “Huey Long” (1985), “The Civil War” (1990) and “Baseball” (1994). The intimately detailed correspondence reminded me, as well, of Clint Eastwood’s monumental Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and Flag of Our Fathers (2006). Clearly, though, Heise relied on German audiences’ earlier willingness to embrace Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 1/2-hour mini-series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), and Edgar Reitz’s equally long “Heimat” (1984) and its three sequels. As for the format, Heise had already carved a small niche for himself, with the much shorter, Fatherland (2002). In it, the writer/director explored the residual traces of a World War II labor camp, outside Zerbst, where, as Jewish mischlings (half-breeds), his father and other relatives, were imprisoned by the Nazis. Immediately after the war, Wolfgang Heise was able to return to academia and become a leading philosopher of the utopian persuasion in Eastern Germany. Heise sets the tone early, reading an anti-war essay written in 1912 by his grandfather, Wilhelm, when he was a schoolboy. The director then reads correspondence from family members, who lived through the horrors of the First World War, Nazi Germany, life in the GDR and propaganda wars that ended with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and forced adoption of a capitalist economy. Even fans of German-language films will require a bit of time to adjust to the juxtaposition of Heise’s words and imagery — some delivered in deceptively random patterns and poetics – but patience is rewarded with a new understanding of how the German Century evolved, devolved, matured as an economic superpower and resurrected itself as a stable democracy. If it’s threatened today by right-wing gangs, unchecked immigration, the stirrings of an untimely recession, a global pandemic and threats to NATO by a nutjob in the White House, well, at least, a precedent as already been set, more than once in the last 100 years
In some corners of the fashion industry, supermodel Slick Woods’ bald head, gap-toothed smile and tattoos might have worked as much to her detriment as they have for her success. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that glossy magazines shied away from putting models of color on their covers and, for that matter, any woman not blessed with perfect unblemished skin, silky hair, immaculately manicured nails and legs up to, well, there. Today, expensive supermodels have been replaced by movie stars and rock musicians. At 5-foot-10, the star of Goldie (a.k.a., Simone Thompson) only meets one of those qualifications. As the story goes, the 23-year-old Minneapolis native moved to L.A. in her teens. Before she was discovered, “I was just doing me. I was chilling. I was just enjoying being young.” While standing at a bus stop, she was approached by British model Ash Stymest, who offered her a joint. He would introduce her to photographer Dave Mushegain, who helped put her in contact with agencies and bookers and companies that are attracted more to a model’s attitude and fluidity than flawless features and movie-star looks. Soon, she began appearing in campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Rihanna, Kanye West, Miu Miu, Uqrban Outfitters and Jeremy Scott, as well as such magazines as American Vogue, Vogue Italia, Vogue Japan, Glamour, i-D, Jalouse, Net-a-porter, Dazed, V and Love, and guest starring on shows, like “Love Advent,” “Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood,” “Catfish: The TV Show” and “Wild ‘N Out.” Practically overnight, the bisexual model says, “she went from being homeless to spending $20,000 a week.” That’s because Woods arrived just in time to exploit “Social Media Modeling” and the “Instagirl” phenomenon, where standards of beauty don’t conform to those traditionally enforced by the glossies. Neither did being pregnant with her and Canadian model Adonis Bosso’s son, Saphir, prevent her from appearing in Rihanna’s SavagexFenty show in September 2018. The heartbreaking news would came a year later, when Woods revealed to her fans that she was undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 3 melanoma.
I wasn’t aware of any of this biographical information before picking out Goldie from my stack of DVDs and Blu-rays to review. Frankly, I wasn’t in the mood for another movie about impoverished youths hoping to use their mad skills as free-style and hip-hop dancers to make the move to Broadway, Hollywood or somewhere in between. For all I knew, Sam de Jong’s follow-up to his offbeat drama, Prince (2015), was an extension of the Step Up (2006) franchise or a sequel to Fame (1980). Blessedly, that wasn’t the case. Credit for that belongs to Woods’ tour de force performance, as a teenager willing to go to the ends of the Earth – or the Bronx, whichever comes first – to convince the producers of a music video that she’s ready for prime time. She’s stolen enough money from her mother’s drug-dealer boyfriend to afford the fluffy gold jacket she’s discovered in a neighborhood thrift shop. She needs the gig to protect her young sisters, Supreme and Precious, from being taken from their home by child-welfare authorities. When her mom (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is arrested by police for one crime or another, the worst-case scenario comes true. None of her friends or relatives is willing to take the kids in for more than a night or two, so time’s running out on Goldie. I’m no expert on hip-hop dance, but I don’t see much chance that her audition will go as she’s hoped and dreamed. Nonetheless, Goldie’s brimming with the kind of self-confidence and singular sense of style that makes her consistently appealing. In addition to giving Woods the space to express herself naturally, De Jong has delivered a film that genuinely captures a sliver of life in a real New York, where people’s dreams aren’t always realized, but hope sometimes prevails … or not. Nothing is guaranteed.
The Cat and the Moon: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Two Times You
This month’s collection of DVD/Blu-rays contains several low-profile films that, if not for the current cultural malaise, would have gotten lost among the usual array of comic-book capers, straight-to-VOD actioners, failed comedies and cute-rate animation. The major studios have elected to stream their new features, rather than put them on a shelf until the virus blows over, while others have taken a wait-and-see attitude. The Mouse House appears to be dedicating all of its energy into Disney+ and its streaming partners, while the cancellation of festivals have thrown fall and winter distribution schedules into disarray. The burgeoning virtual-arthouse services have created a business model that could survive the drought or do permanent damage to the exhibition of indie, foreign and documentary titles. Heimat Is a Space in Time and Goldie are perfect examples of films that deserve to be seen now, before the floodgates re-open and while buffs have plenty of time on their hands to lavish on obscure titles.
Director/writer/star Alex Wolff began writing the script for The Cat and the Moon – a coming-of-age drama that serves as his feature debut — at age 15. By that time, the son of actress Polly Draper and jazz pianist Michael Wolff, had already appeared in a half-dozen movies (The Babysitter) and TV shows (“In Treatment”); contributed to several soundtracks with his older sibling, Nat, as members of the Naked Brothers Band; and written/directed/produced the short film, “The Empty Room.” Even at 22, the show-biz kid and native New Yorker passes for a teenager in The Cat and the Moon. Like his character’s late, alcoholic father, Nick (Wolff) is a musical prodigy with a working knowledge of French, a healthy curiosity for all genres and a too-cool-for-school attitude that can’t help but lead him into trouble. While his mother seeks treatment in a Michigan rehab facility, Nick comes to New York to stay with Cal (Mike Epps), a jazz musician and friend of his late father’s. The boy makes instant friends with a boisterous clique of bored classmates, including the warm, outgoing horndog, Seamus (Skyler Gisondo), his aggrieved girlfriend, Eliza (Stefania LaVie Owen) and hyperactive, filter-free Russell (Tommy Nelson). They show the already tuned-in young man what the city has to offer in terms of drugs, parties and illegal distractions. It doesn’t take long before Nick steps on Cal’s last nerve in his disregard for house rules and simple courtesies. Inevitably, Nick comes face-to-face with the reality that not every teenager, however hip, is suited for the kinds of adventures that mold some New Yorkers into what they’re going to be: street-savvy survivors, unethical yuppies, jailbirds, addicts or garden-variety losers. Without going into too much detail, Cal recognizes the same tendencies in Nick that he witnessed in his father during his downfall. Cal’s patience gives them the time to find common ground in their mutual love for music. The interdisciplinary soundtrack features compositions by Wolff, his father, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Kevin Parker/Tame Impala. Anthony Savini’s evocative cinematography makes it easy to see how New York is a big enough city to accommodate the dreams, disappointments and growing pains of the characters in The Cat and the Moon, Goldie and dozens of other coming-of-age pictures.
Hollywood romances are full of meet-cute moments, in which would-be lovers are brought together by accident, coincidence, serendipity or the stars. Pre-arranged encounters are never part of the equation and sloppy hookups at frat parties or bars are anything but cute. It has been 10 years since the first screening of Valerio Mieli’s highly regarded debut romance, Ten Winters, at the Venice Film Festival. Not terribly unlike Ricordi? (a.k.a., “Remember?”) thematically, Ten Winters begins with the chance meeting, on a Venetian vaporetto, of 18-year-old students, Silvestro and Camilla. The film unfolds over 10 winters, as other lovers come and go, but the protagonists continue to be thrust back into each another’s arms … for better and worse. In Ricordi?, the central meet-cute moment occurs at the beginning of the movie, at a garden party, when Lui and Lei’s eyes meet across a crowded lawn. Bearded, brooding and unfriendly, Lui (Luca Marinelli) doesn’t look as if he belongs at the same party with Lei (Linda Caridi), let alone in her arms. Lei’s a vision in white, relaxing on a festooned birdcage chair, without a hair out of place. Anyone who remembers the lyrics to “Some Enchanted Evening” already will know half of the story: “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger/You may see a stranger across a crowded room/And somehow you know, you know even then/That somehow you’ll see here again and again.” Mieli’s achievement here is dividing the picture into three parts, with the meet-cute moment separating the flashbacks and flash-forwards. It also introduces the overriding theme of time and emotional memory. Lei tries to convince Lui that only the present exists, while he believes it’s the present that doesn’t exist. Until that moment, he’s been consumed with unhappy memories of the red-headed girl (Camilla Diana) who got away and life in a dysfunctional household, dominated by alcohol abuse. Lei comes from a well-to-do, close-knit family that’s protected her from life outside the estate’s wall. The lovers will not only be tested by modern conventions of romance and relationships, but also the decision to lease the vacated home in which Lei grew up as his parents’ punching bag. Over the course of the film, he learns that love can exist in the present, while she begins to fall back on nostalgia.
Born in Mexico City, multihyphenate filmmaker Salomón Askenazi (Ocean Blues) has created, in Two Times You, a mystery that combines elements of fantasy, tragedy and drama that echo conceits advanced by Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), Ingmar Bergman (Persona) and Brian de Palma (Sisters). Because Askenazi doesn’t beat viewers over the head with such film-school references, it’s entirely possible that he came up with them organically. I prefer to think that he wanted to inject some some fun in a story that deals with so much pain, self-recriminations and merged identities. Early in Two Times You, a pair of joined-at-the-hip cousins, Daniela (Melissa Barrera) and Tania (Anahí Dávila), get so caught up in the excitement of an alcohol-fueled wedding reception that they decide to play a joke on their respective husbands, Rodrigo and Benny (Mariano Palacios, Daniel Adissi). It involves swapping rings and driving home in separate cars. The bored young cousins are so intoxicatingly beautiful in their sexy gowns that many viewers will have already begun to anticipate a ménage à quatre playing out before their eyes. I know, I did. The couples race each other home, with their helpless spouses riding shotgun. Viewers shouldn’t be all that surprised by the horrifying crash that comes after the lead driver is blindsided by a van and both passengers are killed. Shit happens, right? Well, yes and no. Askenazi employs an achronological structure to get inside the heads of the survivors, who have diametrically opposed personalities, but share each other’s pain, shame, loss and guilt. Pretty soon, the woman becomes obsessed with the possibility that the tragic accident wasn’t so accidental. She begins to spy on her brother-in-law, play sexual tricks on him and tracks down the driver of the van … a magician, of all things. At 95 minutes, Askenazi can’t afford to waste much time with needless exposition and memory games, so he’s leaves a lot to his audience’s imagination. That’s a good thing.
It’s been 23 years since Anja Murmann’s first indie feature, 15 Months in May, made the rounds of film festivals and swiftly disappeared. (She was accorded a special-mention prize, as Best New Director, at San Sebastian) In between, the German-born filmmaker attended the Tisch School at NYU, produced a short film, “Mistress” (2014), and raised a family in the Apple. Her second feature, Unintended, focuses on a young New York professional, Lea (Elizabeth Lail), whose repressed memory of a tragic accident that occurred when she was 12 has turned her into a nervous wreck. On the verge of losing her job, Lea returns to her childhood home, on a picturesque lake in Upstate New York, to find some clues to unlock. We learn that the accident occurred on the same day that her parents were leaving for a new home in Houston and she took one last walk through the forest. Unhappy about the move, she was joined by a neighbor boy armed with handgun. She leaves for Houston wracked with a guilt and the kind of unanswered questions that don’t go away over time. The rest of the story, largely told in flashbacks, will keep most viewers guessing, as well. Being a small town, several people Lea knew growing up are still in residence but are little help to her. The solution to Unintended’s mystery plays out in a series of coincidences that add the viewers either will buy or dismiss. If nothing else, the scenery’s nice.
Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter: 4 Classic Comedies: Blu-ray
Although Anglophiles will recall Alastair Sim’s face from such classic entertainments as Waterloo Road (1945), Green for Danger (1946), Folly to Be Wise (1952) and An Inspector Calls (1954), as well as dozens of stage roles, American audiences will be more familiar with the Edinburgh native as Ebenezer Scrooge, in Brian Desmond-Hurst’s A Christmas Carol (1951); Commodore Gill, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950); Bishop Lampton, in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972); and as Mr. Greig, in Richard Lester’s Royal Flash (1975). In Frank Launder/Val Valentine’s long forgotten 1951 comedy Lady Godiva Rides Again (a.k.a., “Bikini Baby”), Sim appears anonymously alongside such largely unheralded and uncredited bombshells as Pauline Stroud, Diana Dors, Kay Kendall, Joan Collins, Anne Heywood, Dana Wynter, Ruth Ellis, Googie Withers, Susanne Lévesy and Ruth Ellis, who, four years later, became the last woman executed in the U.K. (In 1985, she was played by Miranda Richardson, in Dance With a Stranger). Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady) and Trevor Howard (Sons and Lovers) probably didn’t need the work, but they shared the shame with Sim. The fact is, however, that the British film industry was in no position to offer its actors Hollywood wages in consistently prestigious films. That’s what makes Film Movement’s ongoing series of repackaged and restored classics – and near misses – so essential … especially at a time when laughs are scarce.
“Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter: 4 Classic Comedies,” is comprised of films in which Sim is given ample support from his fellow Brit actors and sharply written scripts. In the riotous The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954), Sim plays Millicent Fritton, the headmistress of the loosely run academy for girls, as well as her brother, Clarence. Millicent is desperately in need of funds to keep the school running – and her pocketbook full – and the students help her with both problems. The girls are clever enough to take advantage of a gift horse that falls into their laps. When the daughter of an Arab sheik reveals her father’s fondness for racehorses, which he stables nearby, a lightbulb goes off over the heads of her classmates. Launder, Valentine and Gilliat’s screenplay was inspired by Ronald Searle’s original drawings for a series of books based on his sister’s Cambridge school and others in the same elitist neighborhoods. The disc adds interviews with some of the now-elderly women who played students in the movie. The equally sharp and witty School for Scoundrels (1960) – not to be confused with the subpar Hollywood remake, released in 2006 – was based on the “Gamesmanship” series of self-improvement books by Stephen Potter. The comedy stars Ian Carmichael as Henry Palfrey, a nondescript sort of chap who’s a failure in sports and love, as well as an easy target for conmen and unscrupulous employees, alike. Totally frustrated, Henry enrolls at the “School of Lifemanship,” in Somerset, run by Dr. S. Potter (Sim). In a flashback, Palfrey recounts for the acerbic “educator” how he first met April Smith (Janette Scott), after he knocked parcels from her hands while rushing to catch a bus. Even so, he manages to arrange a dinner date with her. It’s at the reception desk that Palfrey is humiliated by the head waiter, who’s conveniently misplaced their reservation. Out of the blue, a prototypical “rotter,” played wonderfully by Terry-Thomas, not only is able to provide seats at his table for the pair, but also impress April with his wealth, public-school wit and upper-crusty manners. After graduating from Potter’s school, Palfrey knows exactly how he’ll trip up the gap-toothed bounder, while also raising his profile at his country club and the business he inherited from his starchy father. The Blu-ray adds more interviews and historical background.
Mario Zampi’s amusing ensemble comedy, Laughter in Paradise (1951), chronicles what happens when a rich old practical joker (Hugh Griffith leaves 50,000 pounds to each of his four surviving relatives. While generous, the will contains one last gag: each is given a month to pull off a designated task that’s completely out of character for them. As they set out to meet their objectives, however, they discover things that are real and genuine about themselves. Only the caddish Simon Russell (Guy Middleton), follows his own suit. The other three hopeful heirs include Deniston Russell (Sim), a retired army officer, who secretly makes a living writing “penny dreadfuls”; Agnes Russell (Fay Compton), a harridan elder who abuses her servants; and Herbert Russell (George Cole), a milquetoast bank teller. Despite being a bit more lightweight than the other selections, Laughter in Paradise was Britain’s top-grossing film of the year. In one of her earliest appearances on film, a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn plays cigarette girl.
Sim has a similarly smallish, if far more essential role to play in Hue and Cry (1947), a precursor to Charles Crichton and T.E.B. Clarke’s Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), both recently released on Blu-ray. Teenager Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) is so obsessed with a popular weekly comic book – the Trump, of all titles – that he begins to fantasize that clues written into the strips somehow lead to actual crimes. Joe and his pals confront the writer/artist (Sim), who pleads ignorance of the additions. The problem, of course, is that the comic book is only released once a week and, in the meantime, more robberies could be committed. When it does arrive, Joe follows the clues to a dingy warehouse in a still bombed-out section of London – no temporary sets were necessary – containing boxes full of stolen furs. The troops answering to the criminal mastermind are big and bad, but they’re vastly outnumbered by Joe’s army of street urchins, who respond en masse when summoned. Considered to be first of the great Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry is a riot in more ways than one. Included in the two hours of bonus material are interviews with film historian Geoff Brown, critic Peter Bradshaw and Sim’s daughter, Melrith McKendrick.
Sixteen Candles: Special Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Everyone has his/her own favorite John Hughes movie. Rating them is as close to a useless exercise as there is in this list-crazy age. Add the answer, “They’re all good,” and the poll’s relevancy probably would go straight out the nearest window. That’s because, they really are that good. But, that’s OK. I suspect, however, that his debut comedy as writer/director, Sixteen Candles (1984), would be high atop everyone’s list. It not only introduced newly molded archetypes to the teen-movie subgenre, in addition to the standard array of geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, brainiacs and rebels without a cause, but they also had multidimensional personalities and good reasons to be in the films. The same thing generally applies to parents, teachers and other adult characters. Sixteen Candles mapped the hearts, souls and peculiarities of several characters, instead the one or two permitted in most mainstream specimens. At the same, Hughes’ team added music that didn’t appear to have been dictated by studio brass and dialogue that didn’t seem to be generated by writers whose teenage years were long behind them. Residing at the borders separating several generic stereotypes, Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) was something of an Everyteen, whose moods shifted like the wind, according to perceived slights, unexpected smiles, good grades, poor grades, bad-hair days, her monthly visitor and how she’s dressed at any given time. Despite Sam’s lack self-confidence, everyone in the audience knows her best days are yet to come. In some households, a girl’s 16th birthday is treated as if it’s the most memorable day in a girl’s life. Quinceaneras, too. In their preparations for their oldest daughter’s wedding to Rudy (The Bohunk), Sam’s parents and grandparents completely forgot to mark the landmark birthday. This gives her a bad case of the blues. It’s magnified by her crush object’s discovery of an embarrassing sex quiz she filled out in a magazine. Then there’s Anthony Michael Hall’s annoying Geek, who refuses to leave Sam alone. Here, a long melancholic day is followed by an eventful night spent drinking, puking, making out, unexpected hookups and role reversals. In one scenario, Geek successfully seduces the school’s beautiful ice maiden, who’s attached to Sam’s hunky crush object. In another, a scrawny Japanese foreign-exchange student (Gedde Watanabe) is smothered in the ample bosom of a young woman nicknamed, Lumberjack (Debbie Pollack). Just as Hughes treats the movie’s geek chorus – including John and Joan Cusack and Darren Harris – with kindness and empathy, he uses more than one brush to paint the adults. Here, they might have been the most precisely cast of all the characters: Paul Dooley, Carlin Glynn, Billie Bird, Max Showalter and wee Zelda Rubinstein. Sixteen Candles is the movie that changed everything in the 1980s, giving audiences something to live for every six months, or so. The new restoration by Arrow Films is from a 4K scan of the original negative. It adds the extended version, which is two minutes longer than the theatrical release; a newly remastered and extended cafeteria scene; and interviews with casting director Jackie Burch, Watanabe and Pollack, Kapelos, camera operator Gary Kibbe, filmmaker Adam Rifkim, composer Ira Newborn and “A Very Eighties Fairytale,” a video essay written and narrated by Soraya Roberts, looking at the film from a contemporary feminist perspective.
Jungle Queen: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Although it hardly seems likely today, there could come a time when homebound genre buffs will tire of binging on classic entertainments and turn to junk food, spiced with irony. It’s good to know that several niche distributors, including VCI Entertainment, have dedicated some of their resources, at least, to acquiring and cleaning up products that were gathering dust on shelves or garages in the San Fernando Valley. In fact, purveyors of ancient titles have been around since VHS toppled Beta as the format of choice for consumers. At the dawn of the video age, however, distributors didn’t bother to upgrade their offerings. They simply sent them out, as is, without regard for scratches, visual artifacts, audio imperfections and bonus features. The immediate success of DVDs gave some companies the impetus, tools and ready-made customer base to mine the gold. It wasn’t until recently, however, that VCI/MVD Visual committed to Blu-ray, using 2K scans of original source material and 35mm nitrate fine-grain studio masters. Among the recent hi-def titles are Black Shampoo and Boss, from the blaxploitation era; The French Way, with Josephine Baker; three volumes of rarely seen film-noir pictures from Columbia; a couple giallo classics; and a quartet of significant titles from Mexico’s Golden Era. The company also picked up several cliffhangers from the Universal catalogue. Besides “Jungle Queen: Special Edition,” there’s been “The Vanishing Shadow,” “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery,” “Lost City of the Jungle,” “Mysterious Mr. M” and a pair of Buck Jones Westerns.
Universal didn’t waste any time rewriting World War II history, by releasing its series of “Jungle Queen” cliffhangers, in January 1945. Set in 1939, during the runup to hostilities between British and German forces in Europe, representatives of both countries sought strategic alliances with native tribes and natural resources in the colonies. While it’s true that sub-Saharan Africa experienced some turmoil there, the serial’s “British Middle Africa” bears no relation to today’s Central African Republic, or anywhere else in the neighborhood, and the Tongghili federation doesn’t actually exist. (Most of the hostilities took place in French West Africa, where troops loyal to the Vichy regime and those fighting for the Free French, sometimes collided … hence Casablanca.) Here, the Nazi High Command inserts agents into the bush to stir up the local tribes against the Brits already living there. Posing as a scientist, Commander Elise Bork (Tala Birell) and her subordinate, Lang (Douglas Dumbrille), infiltrate Tambosa Experimental Farm. The Allies are represented by big-game hunter Bob Elliott (Edward Norris) and his Brooklynite mechanic sidekick, Chuck Kelly (Eddie Quillan), two unofficial American secret agents. Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier) not only is a British intelligence operative but also the niece of an archeologist who holds power in the federation. Thank goodness, the title character, Lothel (Ruth Roman) — the supernatural “mystery queen of the jungle” – pops in occasionally to watch over the Tongghillis, while supporting the English and American investigators at every turn. Like Tarzan, Lothel is revered for being a friend of the local wildlife and tribal traditions. Unlike Tarzan or Jane, Lothel can walk through walls of fire and disappear into the flames. Jungle Queen isn’t without certain mid-century racial clichés and stereotypes, but they’re kept to minimum and the African characters – including Clarence Muse, Ray Turner and Fred “Snowflake” Toones, among them – aren’t white actors in blackface.
Série Noire: Blu-ray
Alain Corneau and Georges Pérec’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1954 novel, “A Hell of a Woman,” is probably the least seen of all French film interpretations of American noir literature. Although Série noire (1979) followed Thompson’s narrative outline pretty well, Patrick Dewaere’s manic portrayal of protagonist Franck Poupart wasn’t then and won’t now suit everyone’s tastes, including lovers of noir, Thompson and French films. On the other hand, some admirers believe that Corneau and Poupart (Going Places) hit the nail on its head. No stranger to unvarnished interpretations of his lead characters, Corneau chose Poupart expressly for his interest in playing complex roles in experimental, budget-starved and overtly quirky ways. He appeared especially drawn to playing sensitive, scruffy and miserable neurotics, misfits and losers. The same was said about his own personal characteristics. Poupart’s still mysterious death came shortly after the release of Paradis pour tous (1982), a dark comedy in which his character commits suicide. So did the 35-year-old actor. Here, he plays Franck, a door-to-door salesman and bill collector, who’s married to a wife he despises, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer). He’s tracking down a deadbeat customer when he meets Mona (Marie Trintignant), a beautiful 17-year-old who lives with her rich and hateful aunt (Jeanne Herviale). The aunt, who has pushed Mona into prostitution, mistakes Franck for a trick and orders her to disrobe, which she does. When his boss (Bernard Blier) has him arrested for embezzlement, Mona endears herself to him by paying back the debt. In return, she asks Franck to help her kill her aunt to get hold of her fortune. All of this plays out in a consistently overcast and ugly corner of Paris, where the only enjoyment he allows himself is some solo dancing in a muddy lot. Bonus features include “Serie Noire: The Darkness of the Soul,” lengthy interviews with Corneau and Trintignant, and new essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton.
Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson: Blu-ray
Carnival Magic/Lost: Blu-ray
In most discussions of grindstone, drive-in and sexploitation classics – and I use that term advisedly – one name stands out by its absence. Following in the footsteps of his parents, Denver Dixon and Dolores Booth, Al Adamson began his career in the film industry in 1960, collaborating with his father (a.k.a., Victor Adamson) on the B- or Z-movie Western, Half Way to Hell. By the mid-1980s, he had helmed at least 33 feature films, produced 17, wrote 5 and acted in 10, sometimes simultaneously. While Adamson always enjoyed making Westerns, he took advantage of the prevailing legal winds by adding topless cowgirls, cheeseball action and over-the-hill stars (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Russ Tamblyn) and terrific locations to the mix. No matter how crummy his movies turned out to be, the southwestern settings always served as a diversion. Among them was the Spahn Ranch, in Chatsworth, even when the Manson Family was still in residence there. Not much else salvaged a resume that ran the gamut from Psycho a Go-Go (1965), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), The Female Bunch (1971), The Naughty Stewardesses (1974) and Blazing Stewardesses (1975), to the more salacious Lash of Lust (1972); blaxploitative Black Gunn (1972) and Mean Mother (1974), with singer Dobie Gray and Bond girl, Luciana Paluzzi; and his soft-core swan song, Nurse Sherri (1977). Among the cinematographers who benefitted from early gigs with Adamson were Gary Graver (The Other Side of the Wind), László Kovács (Five Easy Pieces) and Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). By 1980, creators of narrative hard-corn porn appeared to be remaking Al’s R-rated genre fare into stories that then were still labeled XXX. He retired into the real-estate and home-construction business in southeastern California, before being reported missing in 1995. Five weeks later, after law enforcement officials discovered his remains buried beneath the concrete and tile-covered floor, where a hot tub once sat at his home in Indio, his live-in contractor, Fred Fulford, was arrested in Saint Petersburg, Florida. David Gregory’s excellent bio-doc, “Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson,” covers the entirety of his life, film career and untimely death, with more than two-dozen interviews, lots of clips, conspiracy theories and info about the exploitation business. It also includes a copy of The Female Bunch, featuring fresh interviews with the female stars. It advances Severin’s comprehensive mega-set, “Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection,” which, in addition to Gregory’s doc, adds 32 Films on 14 discs, and much more memorabilia.
But, now, something completely different … from Adamson and Severin Kids. Although it carries a G-rating, Carnival Magic (1983) may be a tad too sophisticated – not to mention, weird – for the kiddies. The film, which disappeared after its limp initial release, was considered lost until 2009, when a clean print was discovered in a warehouse. It gained cult status after being shown on “TCM Underground,” receiving more exposure when it was featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return” (2017). If the picture offers much innocuous material from actual carnival and circus attractions, the story adds a magician, who actually can read minds and levitate people and objects; a super-intelligent chimp, Alex, who hides his ability to talk; a wild-animal trainer, who has been demoted as the carnival’s top act by the monkey; and a plot to kidnap Alex and sell him to a medical laboratory for experimentation. If that weren’t sufficiently goofy, there are throughlines involving alcoholism, domestic violence, Alex’s lingerie fetish, the threat of vivisection and suicide. Adamson’s buxom wife and muse, Regina Carrol (a.k.a., “The Freak-Out Girl”), spends most of her screen time braless, in a leotard that barely contains her breasts and hips, even while riding an elephant through town. Handsome Don Stewart (“The Guiding Light”) and Joe Cirillo (Ghostbusters) added some show-biz credibility to the proceedings, as well. Depending on who ones asks, Carnival Magic is “possibly the worst kiddie movie ever made” (DVD Drive-In) or “the finest family film since E.T.” (talk-show host Joe Franklin). It has been scanned from the only surviving pre-print 35mm elements, with several added features.
Among them is the obscure family Western, Lost (a.k.a., “Buddy + Skipper”), which proved to be the last feature for Adamson and co-star Sandra Dee, who, by 1989, was struggling with anorexia, alcoholism and depression. In it, Jeff Morrison (Stewart), his new wife Penny (Dee) and step-daughter Buddy (Shelia Newhouse) move from the city to the badlands of southeastern Utah. It wasn’t how Buddy expected to spend her formative years. Things become unbearable when her stepfather decides that her pet burro needs to be euthanized. To vent her rage, Buddy grabs her dog, Skipper, and heads into the wilderness. Fortunately, she’s picked the one month in the year when the snowmelt brings free-flowing, potable water to the region and daytime temperatures aren’t in the 100s. Even so, Adamson used every cent of his meager budget to show off his protagonist’s survival skills in such a harsh environment. Graver’s cinematography not only showcases the region’s spectacular topography, but also the many challenges Buddy faces. Thanks in no small part to appearances by veteran character actors Ken Curtis (“Gunsmoke”), Jack Elam (“Bonanza”) and Gary Kent (Lash of Lust), I found plenty to enjoy in Lost. Special features add, “A Boom to Science,” a critical appreciation by genre archivists Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen; outtakes; commentary with producer Elvin Feltner; and rushes for promos from unproduced Adamson kids film, “The Happy Hobo.”
No less an expert on kaiju eiga and tokusatsu than Ishiro Honda, director of Rodan (1956), Godzilla (1954) and The Mysterians (1957), described his antagonists thusly: “Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend itself. After several stories such as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters. They end up caring about them.” That’s certainly been the career trajectory of Godzilla, a monster that’s served as a cold-blooded red flag to warn humanity against nuclear proliferation, pollution, global warming and the uselessness of conventional weapon against unconventional enemies. Raiga: God of the Monsters (2009) is finally being released in the USA, mostly for completists and children who can’t tell the difference between toys and battleships. Otherwise, it’s Amateur Night in Dixie all the way. In it, global warming leads to excessive melting of the southern polar ice cap, disrupting Earth’s ecosystem. The receding ice brings long dormant ancient sea creatures back to life, monsters that set their sights on Japan. Among the kaiju is an enormous sea beast the locals refer to as the legendary Raiga. The monster attacks the city of Asakusa, bringing death and destruction as he tramples building and lays waste to the military. Along the way, we’re told, Raiga: God of the Monsters leaves room for absurdist humor, blatantly phony sets and military equipment, cheapo special effects and slyly placed propaganda. For my tastes, the only thing that raised a smile was watching the monster mark his territory in mid-rampage. The DVD adds an hourlong making-of featurette.
Hulu: Looking for Alaska
While it might be amusing to contrast the teenage characters in Sixteen Candles to those in Hulu’s eight-part mini-series, “Looking for Alaska,” the results would be too obvious to be meaningful. The same thing could be said about the differences between the borderline delinquents in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the rich twits in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), but why bother? As classless as pundits say America is, the roots of a privilege begin spreading before they can extract the silver spoons from their mouths. The joys and dilemmas experienced by kids in Hughes’ comedies have virtually no relation to those tackled by the boarding-school students in John Green’s highly personal novel. Although the school in the mini-series “Looking for Alaska” recruits kids from different backgrounds, they’re the ones most vulnerable to bullying, peer pressure, pranks, academic slipups and punishment for minor rules infractions. If a privileged troublemaker washes out of one school, there’s always another one down the road. The same doesn’t apply for underprivileged students. When a new girl, Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), arrives at the boarding school, she’s forced to make a choice between hanging with the cool kids or joining the more tentative students, who are always in the process of acting out their frustrations out loud. Alaska adopts Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) as her sidekick among the outcasts. Although they seem destined to have sex, it takes almost all eight episodes for the right moment to arrive. By this time, though, Alaska’s revealed herself as a truly messed up young woman, willing to put her friends’ futures in jeopardy when the mood hits. Ron Cephas Jones, Timothy Simons and Lucy Faust represent teachers and staff whose personal issues are never taken as seriously as those of the students. As someone whose high school days are a distant memory, I sometimes felt as the kids were speaking a foreign language and I wasn’t invited to their party. Finally, though, the actors’ passion and Green’s inciteful dialogue won me over. The DVD set adds more than 40 minutes of special features.