MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: 45 Years, 10 Cloverfield Lane, London Has Fallen, Wenders/Franco, La chienne and more

45 Years: Blu-ray
I, Anna

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movies that featured elderly characters played by venerable stars could be counted on to attract a decent-sized slice of the box-office pie and command the attention of awards voters. The Shootist, On Golden Pond, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy and Grumpy Old Men come immediately to mind, of course, but they were made at a time when a John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau also could pop up unexpectedly on a late-night talk show whenever they felt like it and not merely as an excuse to pimp their new movie. When Johnny Carson left “The Tonight Show,” in 1992, the talent bookers for Jay Leno and David Letterman’s shows targeted a radically younger demographic with actors whose publicists insisted they stay on-message and didn’t stray too far into unknown territory. Ever since then, it seems, while a major studio might consider distributing a movie that targets “mature” viewers, it’s far less likely to finance one. If an Ian McKellen, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins or Jane Fonda finds high-profile work in a studio project, it’s a comic-book fantasy or action picture alongside actors who may never have performed a Shakespeare play on stage and may never will. RED, RED 2, The Expendables and The Expendables 2 would appear to be exceptions to the rule, but their appeal to star-crazy overseas audiences can’t be denied. Thank goodness for the tax- or lottery-supported European producers, indie studios and mini-majors that still take chances on age-neutral productions.

Charlotte Rampling, still radiant at 70, was a finalist in the Best Leading Actress category in this year’s Oscar race for her performance in 45 Years, opposite Tom Courtenay, 79. Financed in large part by public money, the independently made British drama features a cast dominated by actors who probably have never stayed up to watch Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, let alone been asked to appear on their shows. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rampling was profiled earlier this year on the much-older-skewing “CBS News Sunday Morning.”) Written and directed by Andrew Haigh (“Looking”), 45 Years bears comparison to Away from Her (2006) and Amour (2012), but not in ways you might expect. Although the story hinges on memories, its focus isn’t on a partner with Alzheimer’s disease or a life-threatening medical condition. It’s in a different genre altogether from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet and Calendar Girls, which were dominated by veteran actors and appealed to roughly the same audiences. (Made for around $10 million, they averaged about $30 million in worldwide receipts.) Based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” 45 Years is set Norfolk County, England, a lovely rural community whose infrastructure dates back to Roman times. Geoff and Kate Mercer are on the brink of their 45th  anniversary, which is to be celebrated with friends and neighbors in a historic hall in the village. In lieu of children, they’ve enjoyed the company of dogs for all these years. If Geoff is a bit fragile in his dotage, Kate has no trouble picking up the slack. That is, until a letter arrives alerting him to the shocking revelation that a slowly receding glacier in the Swiss Alps has revealed the long-frozen corpse of a lover who died decades earlier in a fall. In some ways, the revelation hits the couple as if it actually were a doctor’s diagnose of a disease that may or may not prove fatal. Although Kate was aware of the fate of her husband’s ex-lover, she isn’t ready to deal with Geoff’s reaction to the news. She deduces correctly that he’s been silently carrying at torch for her throughout their seemingly idyllic marriage. Even as they’re approaching a happy milestone, however contrived – Geoff was too ill to celebrate their 40th with a party – Kate struggles to make sense of what’s just happened to her. To his credit, Haigh doesn’t require of Courtenay and Rampling that they break down in tears or argue bitterly as the story evolves. Instead, every minute emotional tug and tear can be read in the actors’ faces and physicality. The gorgeous English countryside, which allows for agricultural, industrial and tourism components in the economy, is vividly captured by Lol Crawley’s camera.

It’s taken four years for I, Anna to makes its debut here on DVD, this despite another terrific performance by Rampling, whose face and body have never betrayed much, if any evidence of cosmetic manipulation. This time, she plays Anna/Allegra, a lonely divorcee living in a London high-rise with her daughter and young grandchild. Sixty-something Anna has begun to frequent singles mixers and speed-dating events, after which she might go home with the occasional bachelor. Here, one of them ends up dead. Another after-hours companion is insomniac police inspector Bernie Reed (Gabriel Byrne), who, at first, masquerades as just another lonely heart, but can’t help being attracted by her mysteriously vulnerable persona. Anna doesn’t recall the brief encounter she had with the detective, in an elevator, after she returned to the victim’s building to retrieve an umbrella she misplaced. This, combined with the testimony of the hostess at the mixer, make her the prime suspect in the murder. There are others, including a stepson and his drug dealer, but none so well-suited for the role of femme fatale than Anna. If she doesn’t exactly seduce Bernie, we’re aren’t surprised by their attraction to each other. I don’t know how it is in real life, but, in the movies, detectives are suckers for attractive suspects, often risking their investigation by corrupting evidence. As adapted from Elsa Lewin’s novel by Rampling’s son Barnaby Southcombe, who’s sitting in the driver’s seat of his first feature, the increasingly creepy story is told largely in flashbacks. Deeply disturbed, Anna is a perfect match for Rampling’s famously steely approach to her assignments. Whenever I, Anna runs the risk of being too contrived, the two veteran leads – at 66, Byrne is no spring chicken, either—make it easy for viewers to hang with it. Southcombe also does a nice job capturing high-altitude views of London we don’t always see.

10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray

If the title of this claustrophobic thriller from producer J.J. Abrams—Hollywood’s reigning master of disaster—sounds familiar, it’s because it refers ever so obliquely to the surprise international hit, Cloverfield, which used found footage to document the destruction of New York City by aliens. Made for a paltry $15 million, 10 Cloverfield Lane was similarly profitable – if studio accountants would ever admit that such a thing exists – in its domestic release last March. This, despite the fact that it contains no found footage and was shot by a standard, decidedly non-“shaky” camera. The threat to humanity here is largely dubious and the setting can fairly be described as the middle of nowhere … or somewhere, like rural Louisiana, where the tax breaks are beneficial to cost-conscious producers. References to the slushie brand “Slusho,” from the original Cloverfield, can be found if fans look real hard. The inspiration for a memorable incident at the end of the movie can be traced to star Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character in The Thing, while a central conceit appears to have been borrowed from the second season of Abrams’ “Lost.” If that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane sound too much like just another cynically conceived sequel to an unexpected sensation, it’s worth noting that the movie more closely resembles Room, albeit with a sci-fi twist, than the original. That, folks, is the movie’s greatest asset. After gathering her suitcases and hurriedly leaving her apartment for no apparent reason, Winstead’s character, Michelle, is involved in a serious accident on a lonely country road. After waking up, she quickly realizes that she’s shackled to a wall in a bunker-like cell, with an IV attached to her arm. Haven’t we seen this before, it’s fair to ask. Well, yes and no.

After a few moments of confusion, brought upon the realization that she immobile, a survivalist named Howard (John Goodman) comes through the locked door, insisting that he rescued her with all the best of intentions in mind and the restraint is to prevent her from re-damaging her leg. Indeed, after he frees Michelle from her restraints, Howard brings her food and water. (“You must stay hydrated,” he demands.) He then explains how they may be the only survivors of a devastating attack of unknown origins and it’s unsafe to leave the bunker under any circumstances. At this point, the odds are about 50/50 that Howard’s either completely crazy or actually telling the truth. Michelle and a bunker mate, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), have a difficult choice to make, in either case. I suppose there are viewers who are capable of guessing what happens in the last reel, but it would be of the wild variety. The movie’s unpredictability is what endeared 10 Cloverfield Lane to critics and audiences in its theatrical run. Hint: sci-fi fans shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand as an entertainment option. Goodman and Winstead work very well together, both as adversaries and potential allies. Commentary is provided by Abrams and freshman director Dan Trachtenberg. Also good is the behind-the-scenes footage, in which cast and crew revisit the legacy of 2008’s Cloverfield; discuss how 10 Cloverfield Lane went from script to production; tour Howard’s extremely elaborate mega-bunker; see how the costume designers were challenged to create a homemade Hazmat suit; and follow the production team and sound designers as they work on the movie’s epic finale.

London Has Fallen: Blu-ray

Of the two nearly identical POTUS-in-jeopardy movies released in 2013 – Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen – it’s difficult to say which one deserved a sequel more … or less. Saving the world’s most prestigious residence from destruction would seem to be the kind of act that’s too tough to follow. If I were the president, I’d lock myself in the Situation Room and not come out until the end of my term and wait until Morgan Freeman was ready to relieve me of my duties. Besides playing God twice, Freeman has portrayed a sitting President in Deep Impact; the Speaker of the House, in Olympus Has Fallen; Chief Justice, in “Madam Secretary”; a senator, in Momentum; a general, in Outbreak; Nelson Mandela, in Invictus; Frederick Douglas, in “Freedom: A History of Us” and “The Civil War”; and Malcolm X, in Death of a Prophet. Here, in London Has Fallen, three years have passed since North Korea devised a plot to kidnap President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), and Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has earned his way back into his confidence. Freeman returns, as well, this time as VP, along with Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo and Radha Mitchell, whose talents aren’t exactly tested in the sequel. In fact, no one’s talents are particularly challenged here. In the original, Fuqua reportedly balked at having Middle Eastern terrorists attack the White House, if for no other reason than it would have been just another cliché waiting to happen. By setting the action in London, this time, and hiring Iranian-born Babak Najafi to direct, the threat against President Asher and other world leaders by Arab revolutionaries is more legitimate. The difference between legitimate and credible, however, is huge.

Returning writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt have conjured a device by which heads of state from around the globe will descend on London at the same time. The British Prime Minister has died and a state funeral is planned. Audience members will smell a rat long before the Secret Service and a British Special Air Service team are forced into action to counter what amounts to an elaborate Trojan-horse infiltration of the city by a horde of Arab militants. In an operation that must have taken years to plan, but only a few minutes of screen time to execute, terrorists disguised as police and other security personnel attack the procession of arriving dignitaries. At same time, bombs are detonated on bridges across the Thames and in every landmark building in the city. It’s all being orchestrated by men we see narrowly escaping a drone strike in the first few minutes of the movie. They plan to blow up Asher’s limousine or, failing that, taking out the presidential helicopter on the escape route with strategically located Stinger missile slingers. Failing that, the insurgents will settle for kidnaping him and cutting off his head on the Internet for everyone to see. It’s preposterous, of course, but no more so than the Die Hard movies that London Has Fallen and Olympus Has Fallen resemble. Gerard Butler may not be as effortlessly funny as Bruce Willis, but he can stab a terrorist in the eye with a Ka-Bar knife as well as any handsome galoot making his living as an action star. The featurettes include “The Making of London Has Fallen,” which explains how a backlot in Bulgaria was transformed into central London, and “Guns, Knives & Explosives.”

Every Thing Will Be Fine: Blu-ray

Another week, another film starring James Franco. Wim Wenders is once again represented, as well, a mere two weeks after “The Road Trilogy” was released by Criterion Collection. For Wenders, at least, Every Thing Will Be Fine marks a return to narrative drama, after 10 years of focusing on such documentaries as The Salt of the Earth, Pina and Cathedrals of Culture. It was during this period that Wenders fully embraced 3D, vowing not to make any more films in the 2D format. While it’s one thing to make action and horror pictures that use the format to elicit screams or laughter from audiences between mouthfuls of popcorn, it’s quite another to employ 3D in a film doesn’t require jump-scares to entertain viewers. Not having seen Every Thing Will Be Fine in 3D, I can’t say whether he succeeded in creating a more satisfying visual environment for drama. In mainstream films and porn, even, it’s easy to see where a director inserted a scene or series of shots for the purpose of titillating or shocking viewers. Here, the consistency of the multidimensional look, not to mention the stereoscopic glasses, could work against a filmmaker’s intentions. If Wenders’ visually spectacular dance-performance film, Pina, was perfectly suited to 3D, it’s possible that it appeared superfluous in Every Thing Will Be Fine. It’s unlikely, though, that home viewers will get the opportunity to check it out as Wenders intended it to be seen. Financial and technical considerations aside, it took a critical drubbing and failed miserably at the box office. It’s possible that Wenders was too pre-occupied with the visual presentation to focus on the story, which suffers from a lack of narrative flow and fully developed characters. The opening scene, filmed on a frozen lake in Quebec, is indicative of what appears to be a desire on Wenders’ part to impress viewers with the format’s potential. It’s here we’re introduced to the protagonist, struggling novelist Tomas Eldan (Franco), as he awakens from a nap in an unheated fishy shanty, surrounded by folks who actually are there to catch fish or get drunk, one. If it isn’t the first place I’d expect to find a blocked writer, I’ll bet the brilliantly white icescape looked terrific in 3D.

As Eldan, Franco reminded me a lot of the shell-shocked drifter, Travis Henderson, portrayed so eloquently by Harry Dean Stanton, in Paris, Texas. Besides being hamstrung by a debilitating writer’s block, Eldan is troubled by his fractured relationship with his father and his longtime girlfriend’s increasing unwillingness to put up with his detached personality and ugly moods. One day, after a quarrel, he decides to take a drive in the country, which, being winter, is white with driven snow. Through no fault of his own, Eldan’s car collides with a sled recklessly ridden down a hill by a young boy and his brother. It takes a while for him to figure out that only one of the children survived the accident, but, when he does, the realization hits him like a sledgehammer. The boy’s mother, Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is, of course, similarly devastated – and not completely blameless for permitting such dangerous play—but knows she must hold things together for the sake of the boy who survived the accident. In the days and weeks to come, Kate and Eldan develop a peculiar rapport, based, possibly, on survivor’s remorse. Ultimately, the aftershocks from the accident flatten out, allowing the writer to create something meaningful based on the experience. He will find commercial success from his writing and happiness in a loving relationship with a fan of his work and her precocious daughter. Kate isn’t nearly as fortunate. Years later, the accident comes back to haunt Eldan in the form of an out-of-the-blue letter from the surviving boy. Now approaching adulthood, his desire to connect with writer emotionally threatens to once again push everything out of balance. It isn’t easy to discern how much of the alienation and angst displayed by Eldan derives from Franco’s interpretation of the character or Wenders’ instructions. Rachel McAdams, Marie-Josee Croze, Julia Sarah Stone and Gainsbourg provide excellent counterpoints to Eldan, who, at times, can be insufferable. The Blu-ray adds several informative interviews and background on Wenders’ techniques and choices.

Those People

I don’t know if writer-director Joey Kuhn was inspired by Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan when he began work on his debut feature, Those People, but I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t checked it on Netflix, once or twice. As an American Graffiti for privileged Upper East Side youths, it’s aged pretty well in the 26 years since it was released on the arthouse circuit. Apparently, the sons and daughters of extremely wealthy New Yorkers still feel as comfortable in formal wear as the rest of us do in Levis and resent their parents in direct proportion to the amount of money they mooch off them for champagne, cocaine and dry cleaning. What makes Those People different than other films clearly influenced by Metropolitan and Cruel Intentions is a central storyline involving two gay men in a mixed group of art-school graduates and the handsome newcomer, who threatens to upset the established order of things within the clique. For years, Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and his manipulative best friend, Sebastian (Jason Ralph), have maintained a relationship that’s fitfully romantic. Sebastian’s world has been rocked by the arrest and conviction of his father in a financial scheme similar to the one concocted by Bernie Madoff. The world outside their socially isolated group considers Sebastian to be as toxic as his dad and mom, who’s tried to distance herself from both of them. As cocky and promiscuous as he is, however, Sebastian relies on Charlie for unconditional emotional support. When Charlie falls for a handsome Lebanese pianist, Tim (Haaz Sleiman), Sebastian considers it to be a personal betrayal. While their other friends take the introduction of an outsider in stride, they’re afraid that Sebastian will attempt to steal the spotlight from Tim by harming himself. If that were the only angle being worked by Kuhn, Those People wouldn’t be nearly as impressive a freshman effort. He has two other cards, at least, up his sleeves. For a first feature in a niche genre, Those People, is a remarkably polished entertainment. The acting is completely natural and the technical work is well above par. Until recently, the film has been displayed predominantly in gay-and-lesbian film festivals. There’s no reason Those People can’t be enjoyed by straight audiences as well.

Rabid Dogs: Blu-ray

Apart from some lovely old buildings and signs written in French, Montreal could easily pass for any Canadian city trying to pass for American in the movies. True, the city’s young adults are exceptionally attractive and prefer French to English, but, outside Old Montreal and Old Port, it might as well be Cincinnati. And, while some genuinely fine movies have been produced in Quebec, economic necessity demands they look beyond the St. Lawrence River to fickle French audiences, arthouses in the United States and, only then, to English-speaking Canadians and the straight-to-video market here. I don’t know if the reverse is true, but Montreal’s filmmakers and distributors have their work cut out for them. Rabid Dogs is exactly the kind of hyperviolent and chase-heavy crime thriller you’d expect from film students who grew up on Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Guy Ritchie, Clint Eastwood and Robert Rodriguez, all of whom owe a debt of gratitude to such post-Code rabble-rousers as Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, John Boorman, Peter Yates and Walter Hill. It’s safe to say that freshman co-writer-director Éric Hannezo has studied the masters, as well. The remake of Mario and Lamberto Bava’s thriller of the same title – finished in 1974, but not released in the U.S. until 1998, as Kidnapped—opens with an explosion and bank heist in central Montreal. Three masked robbers rush through a cloud of blue smoke toward a getaway car, manned by a driver with an itchy trigger finger. They’ve come away with at least two big sacks full of cash, but are followed almost immediately by police. Before long, the brain of the operation is killed in a collision with a large chunk of concrete, leaving the others on foot and virtually clueless. The first vehicle they carjack belongs to a pretty newlywed (Virginie Ledoyen), who is forced to share the back seat with a horndog creep. They also will steal the station wagon of a guy (Lambert Wilson) who says he’s transporting his comatose daughter to a hospital for a transplant.

The gang’s driver promises the newcomer that he won’t let the girl die and assigns the female hostage to comfort her. Their presence allows the robbers to con the police at roadblock stops, but, otherwise, they’re burdens. By hanging on to them for so long, viewers are tipped to the likelihood of an ending that either going to be extremely messy or loaded with gimmicks. In fact, it’s a little bit of both. Without giving anything away, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the movie’s most entertaining set piece. After finally managing to get the police off their tail, the road leads directly into a tiny village, where heavily armed bear worshippers have gathered to sacrifice an ursine effigy that sits in the middle of their escape route. The celebration forces the equally well-armed bad guys to mingle with the quintessentially Canadian animists. At the same time, a local woman insists that the still-unconscious little girl be brought into her home to be comforted when she awakens. When photographs of the fugitives are shown on TV, the situation escalates from crazy to insane. To his credit, Hannezo has an ace up in his sleeve in the form of a narrative twists few viewers will see coming. I enjoyed Rabid Dogs, even though I was put off by the studly crooks, all of whom appear better suited to modelling jock straps than threatening innocents in hoser French. Usually, it’s the female actors whose beauty tests the boundaries of credibility. If one of the male characters, at least, resembled Jean-Paul Belmondo, Warren Oates or Steve Buscemi, it would have been easier to buy into Rabid Dogs. Even so, rabid fans of action pictures and shoot-’em-ups should find plenty to enjoy here. The Blu-ray adds one of the longest making-of featurettes I’ve ever seen and several decent interviews.

La chienne: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Le amiche: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

This month’s selection of films from Criterion Collection includes two interesting, if largely unsung titles from a pair of European masters who had yet to hit their stride. Released in Paris in 1931, La chienne is Jean Renoir’s second picture using the new synchronized sound technique. Based on a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, it describes the kind of love triangle that confounds kind-hearted, if sometimes tragically gullible older men when a pretty young thing promises to deliver kindnesses their wives no longer provide. Such is the case with the sad-sack cashier, Maurice Legrand, played by Michel Simon. (In the next three years, the great comic actor would star in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante.) After rescuing the pretty blond prostitute, Lulu (Janie Marèse), from a public beating by her pimp and lover, Dédé (Georges Flamant), Legrand returns home to his shrewish wife, Adele (Magdeleine Bérubet), who treats him as if he personally killed her late husband in the Great War. When Adele threatens to destroy the canvases he paints on his day off, Maurice finds a way to solve two problems at once. By leasing an apartment for the visibly bereft Lulu, he not only can dream of being admired by a gorgeous dame, but he’ll also have what amounts to a faux gallery for his paintings. What he fails to recognize, however, is Lulu’s unchecked passion for the deadbeat pimp, who she continues to support. Even though he wouldn’t recognize a valuable work of art from a black-velvet painting of Maurice Chevalier, Dédé is able to find a dealer as unscrupulous as he is. It isn’t until Maurice leaves Adele, in a hilarious scheme involving her not-so-late husband, that Maurice discovers the full extent of Lulu’s deceit. Such love triangles are doomed to collapse, of course, but Renoir has other points to make about the human comedy. Despite La chienne’s age, its message is as relevant today as it was both in 1931 and when it was re-introduced in 1945 in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Likewise, Michel Simon is still able to bring tears and laughter to the eyes of contemporary viewers. La chienne has been newly restored in a 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The Criterion package also adds an introduction to the film from 1961 by Renoir; a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner; a fresh restoration of On purge bébé (1931), Renoir’s first sound film, also starring Simon; a 95-minute French television program, from 1967, featuring a lively conversation between Renoir and Simon, directed by Jacques Rivette; an updated English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

When Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche finally made its American debut in 1963, eight years after its initial release overseas, many critics made the mistake of comparing it to L’Avventura, an unqualified masterpiece that had shared the Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival (with Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession). By not viewing the earlier picture within the context of Antonioni’s creative evolution, they had expected things from Le Amiche it couldn’t possibly have delivered. What was relevant in 1963 and remains interesting today is how the many of the film’s themes and visuals techniques would be refined in such 1960s’ triumphs as L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, Il Deserto Rosso and Blow-Up. Set in Turin and based on a short novel by Cesare Pavese, Le Amiche explores the complicated social milieu of women – and, not incidentally, a few of their men – finally released from the sacrifices required of them by the post-war economy and free to enjoy the finer things in life offered by Italian designers, craftsmen and chefs. Although the excesses of the country’s “la dolce vita” period wouldn’t emerge for another five years, the “modern women” we meet here have already gotten a head start. Among them is fashion designer Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), who’s returned to her hometown of Turin, from Rome, to oversee the opening of a boutique. She is drawn into the tumultuous lives of a group of bourgeois women (potential customers, all) when one of them, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), risks internal damnation – a very real fear in 1950s Italy—by attempting suicide in the hotel Clelia is staying. They are exactly the kind of ridiculously frivolous women who, today, populate the various “Real Housewives” series on cable. (One woman interviewed in the bonus package also makes comparisons to the characters in HBO’s “Girls,” although I think that might be a stretch.) If nothing else, these self-indulgent women contribute to the common good by supporting artisans, cosmetic surgeons, psychiatrists and designers, who, one supposes, pay taxes on their earnings. I wouldn’t want that comparison to diminish anyone’s interest in watching Le Amiche, because, in every other way possible, it is an accomplished work of art. The Criterion Blu-ray offers a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a conversation with scholars David Forgacs and Karen Pinkus on the film’s themes; a new interview with scholar Eugenia Paulicelli on the importance of fashion in Antonioni’s work; a new English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.

The Best Intentions: Blu-ray

At just a shade over three hours, Bille August’s The Best Intentions easily qualifies as an epic romance. What makes it extraordinary is a screenplay written Ingmar Bergman based somewhat loosely on the difficult courtship and turbulent early years of the marriage of his parents, Erik Bergman and Karin Åkerbloom (a.k.a., here, Henrik and Anna). The maestro had retired from making feature films 10 years earlier, but still wrote screen- and teleplays and directed television and stage productions. Private Confessions and Sunday’s Children would form a trilogy of life in the Bergman family. Only in Sweden, perhaps, could so much be wrung from the marriage of a Lutheran minister and his aristocratic life partner, but, in a sense, most of Bergman’s films were informed by things he experienced in life, especially religious matters. The Best Intentions opens in 1909, with the poor, idealistic theology student Henrik meeting the strong-minded and educated daughter of a rich family in Uppsala. At the time, he was engaged to a slightly older woman (Lena Endre), who allowed the future servant of God to share her bed in an otherwise unheated room. That Anna’s parents (Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby) so vehemently attempted to douse the sparks between Henrik and Anna (Samuel Fröler, Pernilla August) only served to bring them closer together. Henrik’s widowed mother disapproved, as well, but far less openly. Immediately after their wedding, Henrik and Anna travel to the north of Sweden, where he’s accepted a position in a community controlled by a brutal factory owner. While extremely beautiful throughout the year, the town’s closed-minded citizens and virulent gossip-mongering eventually would drive Anna up the wall. Henrik’s offered a lucrative position in Stockholm, but disappoints Anna by turning it down for curiously altruistic reasons. (Erik Bergman would serve as chaplain to the King of Sweden.) Their return to the northern town will bring even greater challenges. It’s an amazing film, splendidly shot by Jörgen Persson and wonderfully acted by Sweden’s finest actors. Jurors at Cannes set a precedent by awarding August the Palme d’Or for best film and his wife, Pernilla, the Best Actress prize. The Blu-ray adds Ingmar Bergman’s rarely seen short film “Karin’s Face,” which is comprised of artfully composed photographs of his mother taken at different stages of her life, and a collector’s booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie.

The Films of Maurice Pialat, Volume 2: Under the Sun of Satan: Blu-ray

The second installment in Cohen Media’s “The Films of Maurice Pialat” series is 1987 Palme d’Or winner Under the Sun of Satan. The choice was unanimous. In it, Gerard Depardieu plays Father Donissan, a mediocre seminarian who’s haunted by evil and the failure of his divine mission. He practices self-flagellation before going to bed and is constantly challenged by his superior (Pialet) to engage parishioners, even though he freaks them out. Donissan counters, “With you, everything looks easy. Alone, I’m useless. I’m like the zero, only useful next to other numbers. Priests are so miserable.” On a long walk through absolutely gorgeous farmlands to hear confessions at a different church, Donissan is joined by a stranger we soon recognize to be Satan. Like Christ in the desert, the priest is tempted by pleasures of the flesh and promises of untold powers. Shaken, Donissan will nonetheless pass the test. He then is confronted by a young woman, Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), who appears to be on her way to setting a local record for committing mortal sins, and parishioners who challenge him to bring a dead boy to life. Under the Sun of Satan is based on Georges Bernanos’ novel “Diary of a Country Priest.” And, while Depardieu has become a large shadow of his former self, his performance here is nothing short of remarkable. Bonus features include interviews, conducted in 2012, with Depardieu, cinematographer Willy Kurant and production designer Katia Wyszkop; nearly an hour’s worth of deleted Scenes, introduced by members of Pialet’s crew; behind-the-scenes footage; and the original trailer. All spend considerable time describing how difficult it could be to work with man who clearly considered himself to be a genius.


Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 2: Blu-ray

Because Arrow Video’s first “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” collection delivered a trio of eccentric, if not completely off-the-wall crime flicks, I expected more of the same from Volume Two. But, boy, was I in for a surprise. In fact, Tokyo Mighty Guy, Danger Pays and Murder Unincorporated are parodies, spoofs and farces that could have been concocted by Jerry Lewis and Pee-wee Herman on an acid trip to Japan. They’re every bit that strange … in a delightfully childish sort of way. “Diamond Guys” refers to a star system employed by Nikkatsu studios in the late-1950s that promoted its marquee actors in various genre modes. In Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy, Akira Kobayashi stars as Jiro, a chef who defies the Yakuza by opening a French restaurant in the busy Ginza district. They had previously collaborated on The Rambling Guitarist – included in Volume One – a genre-bending action picture that may have inadvertently laid the foundation for every cheeseball movie musical Elvis Presley made after he was directed by Don Siegel in Flaming Star. Jiro not only is able to convert a leading gangland functionary into being a sushi chef, but he also is able to save the bathhouse owned by the parents of the perky girl-next-door (Ruriko Asaoka) and a brothel coveted by the mob. This might sound like a straight crime story, but the Crayola-colored opening, all-punches-pulled fights and silly musical interludes clearly are targeted at a much younger audience. Chipmunk-cheeked Jô Shishido stars in Kô Nakahira’s Danger Pays and Haruyasu Noguchi’s screwball Murder Unincorporated, one of which deals with a billion-dollar counterfeiting ring and the other a comically inventive hit squad. As silly as the movies are, the Arrow Video package treats them with utmost seriousness with beaucoup interviews, trailers and image galleries, as well as another sit-down with Nikkatsu expert Jasper Sharp and a booklet with new writing from Stuart Galbraith IV, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling.


Jeepers Creepers/Jeepers Creepers 2: Blu-ray

Judged solely on its own merits, the Jeepers Creepers franchise remains a legitimately scary and largely original entertainment to be enjoyed primarily by teen audiences. The Creeper (Jonathan Breck) kills people in ways that most other movie monsters and serial killers couldn’t possibly accomplish and, if he isn’t strictly original, name me one that is. Likely inspired by legends of the flying biped creatures Spring-Heeled Jack and the Jersey Devil, the Creeper hunts every twenty-third spring for twenty-three days, feasting on pre-selected body parts, before making like a cicada. If a limb or eyeball is damaged in an encounter with a human, the Creeper will compensate for it by expropriating the same body part in a later attack. It’s attracted, as well, by the smell of fear in its victims. When challenged, the Creeper is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, not unlike Superman. In the 2001original, executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, homeward-bound teen siblings (Gina Philips, Justin Long) are terrorized on a Florida highway by a maniac in a beat-up truck. Sometime later, they spot the same vehicle in the yard of an abandoned church and recognize the driver dropping something vaguely human into a waste barrel. Naturally, their curiosity gets the best them. On closer inspection, Darry discovers that the bottomless barrel opens into a shaft that leads to a cavern strewn with mutilated bodies. Avoiding detection in the hellhole, Darry convinces Trish to alert local authorities. The only reason they buy into the outrageous story is because of the unusual number of unsolved murders in the county. The title derives from a warning issued to Darry by a local psychic, who draws a parallel to the attacks and 1938 novelty song, “Jeepers Creepers.” Mayhem ensues.


The sequel, Jeepers Creepers 2, picks up a few days after the original ends, when a scarecrow abducts a boy and whisks him away into the heavens. Still hungry with only a few hours left in his 23-day eating spree, the Creeper attacks a target-rich school bus carrying teens home from a track meet. Conveniently, the bus has stalled on a desolate stretch of highway outside the usual range of two-way radios. The missing boy’s father (Ray Wise) and brother, whose farm isn’t that far away from the bus, hightail it to the site with a harpoon-like device attached to the back of their pickup truck. Once again, mayhem ensues. This time, however, the teens have already deduced that the Creeper is selective in its pursuit of prey and susceptible to being punctured by javelins and other makeshift weapons. With the clock ticking, the monster is at a slight disadvantage to the kids and farmer. We know it survived, barely, because a Jeepers Creepers 3 is on the drawing board for 2017, with Victor Salva back at the helm, Breck returning as the Creeper and the hope that Philips and Ray Wise will return as their 23-years-older characters. The Scream Factory package contains more bonus features than would seem humanly possible for such genre fare. Now, caveat emptor, it should be noted the Salva still carries the brand burned into the hides of convicted child molesters, alerting those around him to what many would consider to be an unforgiveable crime. For sexually abusing the underage star of Clownhouse, then in production, Salva served 15 months of a 3-year-prison term, before being released on parole. The actor came forward again in 1995, before Salva’s film Powder was released. Not surprisingly, the controversy negatively impacted box-office results for the Disney fantasy drama.


Bad, Bad, Gang!

Released in the same year as Deep Throat, John Donne’s Bad, Bad, Gang! is far more a curiosity than a landmark in the history of the adult-film industry. Significant, if at all, as a “roughie” that blends the kidnapped-by-bikers subgenre with hard-core sex in an outdoors setting, it features uncredited performances by future stars Rene Bond, Nancy Martin and Suzanne Fields – reunited, two years later, in Flesh Gordon – in then-uncredited roles. Four civilians, given the tangentially biblical names of Kane, Able, Eve and Jane are harassed by members of the Vipers motorcycle gang on their way to the Garden of Eden campground. By this time, the hoodlums have added a pair of horny hitchhikers to the entourage and will soon kidnap Eve from the trailer. That’s the end of the biblical references, thank all that’s good. After some sexual hijinks of their own, Kane, Able and Jane will form a posse to rescue Eve, who, by this time, appears to enjoy being cuffed, in the spread-eagle position, to the side of a cliff and toyed with by her greaseball captors and, of course, hitchhikers Satin and Blackie. None of this amounts to good, clean fun, except, perhaps, for a skinny-dip in a nearby pond. But, you get the picture. The 480p Impulse Pictures presentation is as good as it ever was, maybe better. Collectors of edgy grindhouse fare will find Bad, Bad Gang to be of far greater interest than casual fans of vintage porn.


Quackerz: Blu-ray 3D

Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas


It appears as if Shout! Factory is doing OK with the animated features it picks up from all corners of the map and adds the talents of familiar American voice actors. Quackerz was written and directed by Kazakhstani special-effects specialist Viktor Lakisov and distributed first to countries in that region. If I’m not mistaken, the 3D effects were added later by Montreal’s Mokko Studio. It is set on an island, populated with peaceful Mandarin ducks, that is mistakenly invaded by militaristic mallards. As if their stars were aligned against them by Shakespeare, Longway, the son of the Mandarin emperor, and Erica, the daughter of the mallard commander, meet and fall for each other. Meanwhile, the wicked Ms. Knout is conspiring to blot out the sun. Can the opposing forces agree to settle their differences in time to save the planet from extinction? Probably. Quackerz probably won’t win any Annie Awards, but young viewers won’t notice the difference in quality from those that do contend for such prizes. The cast includes Mark DeCarlo, Michael Gross, Jessi Corti, Robbie Daymond, Andrea Becker and Bruce Nozick.


At a brisk 28 minutes, parents and older kids won’t have any problem sitting through and enjoying Aardman’s “Shaun the Sheep” spinoff “The Farmer’s Llamas.” It’s that funny and well done. When the farmer and Bitzer go to a country fair, Shaun steals away with them intent on causing mischief. He talks the unwitting farmer into purchasing a trio of llamas at the auction and bringing them back to Mossy Bottom Farm. The other sheep aren’t convinced that the zany foreigners will find farm life to be compatible with their overreaching ways. They’re right, of course, so Shaun is required to devise a way to bring tranquility back to the farm. The DVD package includes several making-of featurettes and bonus cartoons.


I don’t know if the folks at Ruthless Studios were anticipating the release of Pixar/Disney’s Finding Dory this week and intended Fishtales to feed off the marketing campaign, like a remora attaches itself to a shark, or if it’s strictly coincidental. After a shark attack causes Angie the anglerfish and Puffy the puffer’s octopus friend, Ollie, to get lost in the vast ocean, fun-loving Ray the manta ray helps them scour the depths for the eight-legged creature. The animated characters stand out from the live-action backgrounds containing actual sea life. If Fishtales isn’t the most sophisticated animation you’ll ever see, there’s something soothing about the aquarium-like environments. I kept waiting for something strange to happen, but it didn’t.



Discovery: Alaskan Bush People: The Compete Seasons 1 & 2

PBS/ITV: Grantchester: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray

PBS: Nature: Animal Reunions

Discovery Family: Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends

Lifetime: Toni Braxton: The Movie Event

Discovery’s “Alaskan Bush People” is one of the most disturbing reality-based series I’ve yet experienced. And, yes, that includes all of the Kardashian spinoffs, “Armed & Famous,” “The Swan” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which it resembles. The living-off-the-beaten-track conceit isn’t all that weird, really – disenchanted ex-hippies from Texas attempt to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, with their large brood, by the sheer force of will – but it’s Billy Browns’ bald-faced arrogance and half-baked solutions that are so appalling. For one thing, because the show largely consists of re-creations of events culled from the father of seven’s 2009 book, “One Wave at a Time,” it’s impossible to discern what’s real and what’s been embellished. For another, the clumsy old man constantly puts his family in jeopardy by stumbling over inert objects and not avoiding serious illnesses. Worst, though, is the notion that anyone with a high school education is capable of home-schooling children, including two teenage girls, so isolated from humanity that they’ve developed accents unheard anywhere else in North America. Neither are there textbooks or teaching implements to be found. Brown’s idea of proper living quarters are, first, a makeshift hunter’s shelter and, then, a one-room cabin that wouldn’t have been completed if it weren’t for the help of neighbors concerned about the kids’ health. As it is, the only source of heat is the combined warmth produced by nine bodies in insufficient sleeping bags. The five boys, none of whom resemble each other, are fully grown adults who fetishize their guns – not uncommon in Alaska – but probably could have benefitted from remedial shop courses provided in a real high school. Mama Ami Brown seems overwhelmed by her husband’s grandiose plans and usually looks as if she’s just along for the ride. The other troubling thing about Brown is an attitude that allows him to believe he’s entitled to homestead in places where it’s long been forbidden and that his family has greater rights to the vast wilderness than the animals who’ve forever considered it to be their natural habitat. As far as I can recall, none of the challenges in the American “Survivor” series have been staged in locations nearly as potentially life-threatening – certainly nowhere near as cold—as Alaska’s Copper River Valley in the dead of winter. The production unions wouldn’t allow such a thing.


The lowlight of Season One comes when unidentified locals attack the uncompleted cabin at night, with guns blazing for no apparent reason. Things got so dangerous, production had to be curtailed. Viewers had to wait until the opening of Season Two to learn that some of the notoriously private Alaskans had tired of serving as colorful background elements for no compensation. There was also the very real possibility their faces would be exposed to skip tracers, debt collectors and ex-wives in the Lower 48. Undaunted, Brown buys a decrepit fishing boat and heads for an island with one of the largest populations of bears in the world. That experiment didn’t last long, either. “Alaskan Bush People” might be considered a comedy of errors, if it weren’t for the lack of anything funny, except, perhaps, the Brown boys’ ideas on dating etiquette. The third season just ended.


Pick a profession, proclivity or fetish and someone in England will build a perfectly agreeable murder-mystery series around it. “Grandchester,” which just completed its second season, is a perfect example of that theory. Although priests, nuns and vicars have contributed to the genre in many different iterations, it took crime novelist James Runcie to come up with Anglican priest and former Scots Guards officer Sidney Chambers (James Norton), who investigates crimes with the far more pragmatic Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Keating is gruff and methodical, where Chambers is more intuitive and forgiving of mankind’s foibles. Among the vicar’s idiosyncrasies is a love for whiskey, jazz and the occasional buxom brunette. “Grandchester” may not the most unusual or sexy shows on the “Masterpiece Mystery” lineup, but it’s well produced and lots of fun. Guest stars for Season Two include Neil Morrissey, Claudie Blakley, Nigel Planer, Andrew Knott, Nicky Henson and Oliver Dinsdale.


In the “Nature” episode, “Animal Reunions,” we witness what happens when humans are reunited with the wild animals—gorillas, elephants, cheetahs, chimpanzees—with which they forged deep bonds, years earlier. Will they still recognize their human caregivers and how will they react? The broader question, perhaps, is whether wild creatures can experience such emotions as joy, devotion and love. Pet owners have never doubted the possibility, but scientists demand more proof than a bark, slobber or hug. Narrated by Richard Thomas, “Animal Reunions” contains interviews with scientists, authors and caregivers, in addition to scenes of their journeys to reconnect with their former charges.


No such questions concern the characters on Discovery Family’s “Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends.” Blythe and the non-human residents of the Littlest Pet Shop love making new friends of all shapes, sizes and species. In the 110-minute compilation, they babysit a curious kitten, befriend a genial spider and meet another fashion-minded girl. The adventures wind up with a two-part special, during which Blythe’s dream of holding a Pet Fest finally comes true. Parents need to know that “Littlest Pet Shop” is produced by Hasbro Studios and DHX Media, which means children will be exposed to product placement for an extensive line of toys, a mobile game and comic-book adaptation.


In a career that’s spanned more than a quarter-century, R&B singer Toni Braxton has experienced more than any singer’s fair share of ups and downs. Throughout her career, the Maryland native has sold more than 67 million records, including 41 million albums, worldwide. She’s won seven Grammy Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards and seven American Music Awards. Braxton has become a television executive producer and personality, thanks to stints on “Dancing with the Stars” and the reality series, “Braxton Family Values,” with her mother and sisters Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar. On the downside, Braxton has spent far too much time in courtrooms, defending her career decisions and spoiled business relations. The made-for-Lifetime biopic, “Toni Braxton: The Movie Event,” based on her memoir “Unbreak My Heart,” follows her career from her discovery, in 1990, by L.A. Reid (Greg Davis, Jr.) and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (Gavin Houston), to her public battle with lupus and divorce, her son’s autism and other family struggles. What’s glossed over could probably fill another 90-minute biopic, however. It’s directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and stars       Lex Scott Davis as the singer.


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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon