By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Born to Be Blue, Sing Street, Boss, Hardcore Henry, Criminal, Opry Classics, Last Diamond, Invitation, Ozland and more

Born to Be Blue

This spring, jazz lovers were given the rare opportunity to sample films about two of the greatest trumpet players in American musical history. And, while neither Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue or Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead would pass a lie-detector test, both are well-made testaments to the players’ unique talents and well-documented idiosyncrasies. Performances by Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle in the lead roles are wonderful and the soundtracks do justice to the artists’ legacy. The Chet Baker we meet in Born to Be Blue has already scaled the heights of his art – largely off-screen – and is starring as himself in an unfinished biopic, presumably being made in Italy. Budreau uses black-and-white flashbacks to describe Baker’s past and color for the period following the brutal 1966 attack that seriously threatened his career and required of him that he relearn the mechanics of playing the trumpet. In this, he receives the tireless support of a composite African-American girlfriend (Carmen Ejogo), who finally must face the reality that, when forced to choose between heroin and love, an addict will always pick his love for junk. In the 1950s, when he was introduced to hard drugs, Baker was one of the most famous trumpeters in the world, renowned as a pioneer of the West Coast “cool jazz” scene, a song stylist, ensemble player and an icon of cool, right up there with James Dean and Marlon Brando. Budreau messes with the timeline a bit, as to when Baker invades New York’s Birdland, where Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are waiting to see if the white kid from California can cut it. In reality, Davis and Gillespie were already aware of Baker’s chops and possibly had even listened to tapes of a jam session with Charlie Parker, conducted in Los Angles, two years earlier. Still, they had every reason to be envious of his outsized commercial appeal, especially as it was manifested in the 1953 and 1954 jazz polls. Predominantly white readers of Down Beat and Metronome rated the native Oklahoman over all other trumpet platers and, in 1954, top jazz vocalist. (By contrast, Baker would be inducted posthumously into Down Beat’s Hall of Fame, one year after his death in 1989, but nearly 30 after Miles and Dizzy were so honored in their lifetimes.)

Baker’s lifelong love affair with heroin began in 1957. It would result in an addiction that caused him to pawn his instruments, serve time in an Italian prison and be expelled from both West Germany and the United Kingdom. He would settle in northern California, where he played in San Jose and San Francisco between short jail terms served for prescription fraud. After dramatizing the attack, which occurred after a gig in Sausalito, Budreau focuses his attention on Baker’s arduous, painful and initially humiliating recovery and attempt to stay clean, while relearning the trumpet and flugelhorn. Even when the story doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, it’s difficult not be impressed by Hawke’s gritty performance, which clearly was a labor of love. He resembles the drug-ravaged musician we met in Bruce Weber’s essential 1988 bio-doc, Let’s Get Lost, in which Baker performed and reminisced. At the time, he was touring and occasionally would return to the U.S. to perform. Anyone who saw him in that film couldn’t have been surprised that he would die within the year, after having fallen from the second-floor window in an Amsterdam hotel. Heroin and cocaine were found in his room and bloodstream. The events dramatized in Born to Be Blue end long before that happens. The jazz score to the film was created by composer and pianist David Braid and performed by Kevin Turcotte. Two tracks feature Hawke’s vocals. It isn’t the only movie based on Baker’s life. Michael Anderson’s All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), which starred Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, gave an even looser interpretation of events in his life. Actually, jazz has fared pretty well on film. Anyone looking for a good way to kill a rainy weekend could do a lot worse than binging on Bernard Taverniers’ Round Midnight, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, Dee Rees’ Bessie, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone?, Sidney J. Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues, Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues, Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley’s Cabin in the Sky and Arthur Lubin’s New Orleans, with performances by Armstrong, Woody Herman and Billie Holiday. Also check out Chet Baker Live @ Ronnie Scott’s, with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, which can be found on the Internet.

Sing Street: Blu-ray

Typically, it takes nine months to a year for a film that debuts at Sundance or Cannes to complete the festival circuit and enter general distribution. A few months later, it might be introduced into DVD/Blu-ray. The less commercial foreign offerings tend to take a while longer to find a distributor. Some of the prize winners – The Artist and Son of Saul, among them — are held back for release until closer to awards time, with a stop at Toronto and/or New York to build some critical buzz. (The 2015 Cannes Jury Prize-winner, The Lobster, was given a limited U.S. release in May, seven months after its European run, and arrives in DVD/Blu-ray next week, possibly in anticipation of Oscar consideration.) Because there are no hard and fast rules, overblown media coverage of festivals doesn’t always square with the reality of industry demands or do much more than tease the public’s appetite for quality entertainment.

Sing Street, John Carney’s second music-themed romance since Once, debuted in January at Sundance. It made a quick stop at the hometown Dublin Film Festival, where it was nominated for seven awards, winning one, before embarking on a limited international theatrical release two months later to almost unanimous acclaim and its arrival in DVD/Blu-ray this week. That’s quick, by any standard. Even if Sing Street didn’t follow the unusual pattern, I wouldn’t bet against it. Carney’s musical follow-up to Once, the endearing New York-set Begin Again, quietly outperformed the much admired tale of buskers in love. Credit for that probably goes to the drawing power of Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener and James Corden, but a heartfelt story and some catchy tunes spawned positive word-of-mouth for Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay. Sing Street, which recalls That Thing You Do!, The Runaways, Absolute Beginners and The Commitments, did pretty well in an extremely limited U.S. run. Without being at all derivative or contrived, it takes us back to 1980s Dublin, as seen through the eyes of 14-year-old boy Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who sees music as a way to cope with life in a soon-to-be-broken home and school run by bully priests and bully kids. His introduction to the power pop of Duran Duran, Joe Jackson, the Jam, the Police, Hall & Oates, the Cure and Spandau Ballet came through a tight relationship with his slacker brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), who lives at home after dropping out of college and tries to blot out their parents’ bickering by staying high.

This being the dawn of the music-video era, Conor and his mates’ eventual sound and look will be heavily influenced by these groups. Once he settles on rock as an option to despair, Conor begins to collect like-minded teens with more musical training for a band. If he can’t play an instrument, he contributes his voice and considerable writing talents to the ensemble. Even before they book their first gig, though, it’s important for Conor to visualize their first video. To that end, he turns to the most worldly and heavily made up girl in the neighborhood, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), to dance and vamp as the boys pretend to be playing their first song. Raphina aspires to being a model, but is willing to accommodate the younger boys as a showcase for her talents. It isn’t surprising that Conor falls for the more mature girl, who displays a fondness for older men in convertibles and a weakness for their promises of stardom. With all of those pieces in place, it’s up to the boys in Sing Street – from the Synge Street Christian Brothers School depicted in the movie – to embark on the painfully slow path to recognition, if not immediate stardom. To his credit, Carney lets the story play out at its own pace, without building unreasonable expectations of a fairytale ending. Neither does the preponderance of teen characters mean that Sing Street can’t be enjoyed by grownups, especially those who passed through the ’80s on their way to adulthood and remember the good time they had watching The Commitments. The lyrics to the songs created specifically for Sing Street were written by Gary Clark, vocalist and songwriter with the ’80s band Danny Wilson (“Mary’s Prayer”). His “Drive it Like You Stole It,” sung by Walsh-Peelo, and Adam Levine’s “Go Now,” deserve consideration for next year’s Best Original Song. The Blu-ray package adds a brief making-of featurette; a discussion between Carney and Levine; and original cast auditions.

The Boss: Unrated: Blu-ray

When Melissa McCarthy shed 45 completely redundant pounds, the Hollywood rumor mill went into overdrive speculating as to whether the producers of her hit sitcom, “Mike & Molly,” would require her to put back the weight they assumed attracted millions of fatties to the show. Instead, it was cancelled outright, leaving a half-season’s worth of scripts unshot and dozens of people out of work. Apparently, no one at CBS cared to test the possibility that funny is funny, no matter the weight of the actors and quality of scripts. McCarthy would land on her feet, by accepting a job on the “Gilmore Girls” reboot, reprising the character of Sookie. At the same time, she was looking ahead to the release of high-profile feature films, The Boss and Ghostbusters. By the time Ghostbusters debuted, McCarthy’s weight loss topped 70 pounds. Good for her. I’ve yet to see Ghostbusters, but I doubt that it is any more or less funny because of her decision. In any case, it isn’t likely she’ll ever be confused with Twiggy or Shelly Duval. For McCarthy, The Boss represents yet another broad and bawdy comedy that rests on the notion that laughs are based more on timing and delivery than weight. The genesis of the turtleneck-favoring Michelle Darnell character came years earlier, in a sketch McCarthy created while a member of the Los Angeles-based improv company, the Groundlings. In it, a wealthy businesswoman “goes to jail for insider trading, then struggles to reinvent herself as America’s new sweetheart upon her release.” Any resemblance to Martha Stewart is probably intended, while the similarities to Donald Trump come naturally. The Boss was written McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone, along with Groundlings friend, Steve Mallory. Darnell is too full of herself to realize the extent of the damage she left in her wake after being sent to prison. Her vindictive former lover, played well by Peter Dinklage, has emerged as her greatest threat, while her former assistant (Kristin Bell) reluctantly agrees to give her a couch in her apartment. It takes time for Claire’s innocent young daughter, Rachel, to warm to Michelle, but eventually they become unlikely business partners in a scheme inspired by cut-throat Girl Scout cookie drives. The R-rating is fairly earned by the film’s dependence on profanity for laughs. The unrated Blu-ray edition adds about five minutes of new material to the original length, but nothing that anyone would have missed. There’s an alternate ending, deleted scenes, extended/alternate scenes, a gag reel, the original “Michelle Darnell” sketch upon which the movie was based, and featurettes on the Groundlings connection, Dinklage and Bell.

Hardcore Henry: Blu-ray

Criminal: Blu-ray

Seemingly unrelated, these adventurous sci-fi action thrillers feature protagonists with superhuman strength and memories that have been scientifically recycled in an effort to combat an evil villain’s designs on world domination. Neither Hardcore Henry nor Criminal will make a lot of sense to mainstream viewers too old to have become addicted to violent video games or have grown weary of watching movies in which people are killed like so many cockroaches in the basement of a greasy-spoon restaurant. Of the two, Ilya Naishuller’s Moscow-set shoot-’em-up, Hardcore Henry, is the more innovative. Because viewers and the protagonist share a field of vision, gamers will recognize the conceit as being the same as that employed in such first-person-shooters as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and Battlefield. Henry’s just been brought back to life by his engineer wife, Estelle (Haley Bennet), who’s also fitted his broken body with new robotic limbs and appendages. No sooner is his consciousness given a jump start than Henry and, by extension, viewers are thrust into a running battle with the rebel scientist Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), an albino supervillain with telekinetic powers and obligatory designs on, yes, world domination. The thing is, Henry has no memory of Moscow and doesn’t really understand why everyone is shooting at him. All he knows is that Estelle has been kidnapped and something tells him that he should free her from the bad guys. In doing so, perhaps, he just might discover his purpose in life and the truth behind his identity. The POV action takes us from city to country, above and below ground, and involves parkour, gunfights, flamethrowers, airships, streetcars, helicopters, tanks and exploding heads. Non-gamers, I suspect, will find that Hardcore Henry gets as tiresome as the shaky camera technique. Fanboys and FPS enthusiasts, on the other hand, should have a ball. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, fan chat and commentary tracks with Naishuller and Copley.

Criminal extends the legend of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s creation into the 21st Century by giving the monster a mission and an ability to channel the intermittent memories of the person whose brain it now carries in its head. In a role that even he thought might be out of his strike zone, Kevin Costner is introduced as a ferocious inmate, Jericho Stewart, whose reputation for inflicting pain on anyone who gets in his way is well-deserved and about to cost him his life. Inexplicably, Stewart is deemed to be the perfect vessel for an assignment that requires the elimination of shadowy enemies of freedom and others seeking, yes, world domination. The London-based CIA station chief (Gary Oldman) calls on a brilliant surgeon (Tommy Lee Jones) to replace Stewart’s brain with that of a recently murdered CIA operative. Before his untimely demise, Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) was about to trade a satchel full of money for a thumb-drive containing American nuclear codes, also being offered to a nihilistic terrorist group by a computer whiz known as the Dutchman (Michael Pitt). Pope was killed before he could accomplish that task, leaving his handlers without a clue as to the whereabouts of the Dutchman. Knowing that it will take a one-man army to deal with the terrorists, even if the doctor can recapture Pope’s memories, the increasingly frazzled CIA chief borrows Stewart from the Brits for the experiment. It takes a while for Pope’s memories to take hold in Stewart’s body, however, leaving unsuspecting Londoners in danger of being hurt for his personal amusement. That includes Pope’s wife (Gal Gadot), who, he suspects, knows the location of the bag of cash her husband had yet to deliver to the Dutchman. The rest of Criminal plays out in tick-tock fashion, as the Dutchman has no preference as to which side deserves his data most. Ariel Vromen (The Iceman), working from a convoluted script by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock, Double Jeopardy), appears to have lost control of Criminal, which is by far his most ambitious project. Indeed, in an interview included in the bonus package, Costner admits to frequently giving Vromen advice on various aspects of the production. As director/producer/star of the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, Costner’s insights probably were helpful. For his part, Costner eventually convinces us that his monster is capable of developing a conscience, before it was too late. Special features include deleted scenes, the featurettes “Criminal Intent” and “Director’s Notes,” and Madsonik’s “Drift and Fall Again” music video.

Grantham & Rose

This is exactly the kind of first feature that, while it doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, offers enough small surprises to keep us watching for 90 minutes … after which it begins to fade rather quickly from memory. Stage veteran Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”) built the unlikely May-December dramedy and road picture, Grantham & Rose, from a script by Ryan Spahn (He’s Way More Famous Than You). In it, an eightysomething volunteer at a facility for juvenile offenders takes a curious interest in a 17-year-old boy who’s just gone through processing for something that’s never really fully explained. As played by Jake T. Austin (“Wizards of Waverly Place”), Grantham Portnoy quickly becomes an easy target for the more hardened teens, if only because he wears eye makeup, carries a sketch book and is kind of a wimp. Rose is portrayed by Marla Gibbs, herself 85, who’s instantly recognizable from her tenures on “The Jeffersons,” “227” and dozens of other TV sitcoms. One day, after scouring his records, Rose talks Grantham into accompanying her on an unauthorized road trip to Atlanta. Being a juvenile, it isn’t likely that he’d spend any more time in the facility than he originally was scheduled to serve, so why not? Along the way, Grantham upsets Rose by helping a pretty young shoplifter escape from the clutches of a convenience-store owner. Thirty-two-year-old Tessa Thompson plays the sexy lone-wolf Wallis, who looks 17 but is of indeterminate age. Along the way, Rose uses her state-supplied credit card to pay for shared lodging and the occasional meal. For a kid whose home life gives him an excuse for breaking the law, Grantham spends an inordinate amount of time trying to reach his derelict mother by phone. All of this leads to a climax so whimsically contrived that it actually works in favor of us leaving the picture with a smile. It may answer only one of the questions left hanging throughout the narrative, but, sometimes in first features, we don’t even get that much satisfaction. And, of course, it’s nice to see Gibbs in a feature film that doesn’t require her to play a housekeeper.

The Last Diamond

Heist movies are like magic acts that rely on sleight of hand and momentary distractions to help audience members suspend their disbelief. In a movie such as Eric Barbier’s The Last Diamond, a director can sustain an illusion by introducing new characters, changing locations and manipulating the camera. A product of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, The Last Diamond has a serviceable heist at its core and plenty of interesting things to look at while waiting for the theft of a diamond that’s almost as big as the Ritz. The matter-of-fact nature of the crime, which doesn’t occur until the middle of the movie, is complicated by the number of people involved in it and icy allure of the victim, which almost causes the male protagonist to be killed before his time is up. Yvan Attal (Rush Hour 3) plays a professional safecracker, Simon, who’s only out of prison a few hours before his most trusted associate, Albert (Jean-François Stévenin) recruits him in an increasingly elaborate scheme to steal the famous Florentine diamond, valued at around $55 million. The supposedly cursed gem stone had belonged to a fabulously wealthy Antwerp resident, whose death – mysterious, naturally – causes her beautiful heir, Julia (Bérénice Bejo), to arrange for a gala display and auction. This is the best possible scenario for the crooks, who now know exactly where the diamond will be and when. Simon ingratiates himself with Julia by convincing her that he was a former security adviser to her mother and knows things about the diamond and its admirers that she doesn’t. Not surprisingly, they become lovers, furthering complicating Simon’s mission. Without giving anything else away, let’s just say that the second half of the movie and caper, itself, is taken up with crosses, double-crosses and booby traps. The Last Diamond may not be a prime example of the subgenre, but it’s stylishly executed and reasonably clever. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Bonus material adds an interview with Barbier and interviews with Bejo and Attal.

The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story

It once could be said with no small degree of accuracy that the men, mostly, who wear the headphones and work the dials in a recording session are “unsung” or, worse, anonymous. In concert, Frank Sinatra always made it a point to credit the writers and arrangers of his songs, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that producers were accorded star status and buffs would buy an album, simply to find his fingerprints on it. George Martin, Phil Spector, Bob Johnston, Quincy Jones, Andrew Loog Oldham and Brian Wilson actually did become household names, adding their musical signatures to albums by some of the biggest names in the business. Thirty years later, documentary makers would begin to put faces to their sounds in feature-length films and television newsmagazines. The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story is the latest such documentary to find its way to DVD, behind Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built, about his boss and home studio; Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll; Tom Dowd & the Language of Music; Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story; Walk on By: The Story of Popular Song; Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of “Smile”; Muscle Shoals; The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector; and The Heart of Country: How Nashville Became Music City USA. Doug Biro and Joe Mardin, Arif’s son, began “The Greatest Ears in Town” knowing that the subject probably wouldn’t live long enough to see the finished product, which, was first shown in 2010, four years after he succumbed to pancreatic cancer. The story begins in Turkey, where Mardin was born and developed a love of music. In 1956, after meeting Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones at a concert in Ankara, he sent demo compositions to a friend at an American radio stations, who passed them along to Jones. Mardin became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Mardin began his career at Atlantic Records in 1963 as an assistant to Nesuhi Ertegün, a fellow Turkish émigré and brother of the label’s co-founder, Ahmet Ertegün. While climbing up the ladder at Atlantic, he worked with Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd in the creation of the “Atlantic Sound.” What makes this documentary so compelling is the number of stars who responded to the filmmakers’ call to bear witness on Mardin’s contributions to their careers. Accompanied by rare footage, photos and hit songs are Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Jones, Martin, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Jewel, Daryl Hall, Phil Collins, Felix Cavalieri and Barry Gibb.

Invitation: Blu-Ray

For her debut feature, Girlfight, Karyn Kusama received the kind of reviews that set the bar for her next film at almost impossibly high levels and, sure enough, the live-action comic book Aeon Flux, starring Charlize Theron as a sexy assassin, came up short with critics and at the box office. In 2009, Jennifer’s Body, the story of a sexy succubus cheerleader (Megan Fox), written by Diablo Cody, promised more than it could deliver, but garnered some decent reviews and pretty much broke even in sales. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kusama’s career pretty much was put on hold for the next six years. In addition to preparing for an indie release of the locked-door thriller, The Invitation, Kusama directed episodes of “Casual,” “Billions,” “The Man in the High Castle” and “Chicago Fire.” She probably deserved better, but that’s Hollywood. After screenings at several fantasy and horror-themed festivals, where it took a couple of top prizes, The Invitation opened in a handful of theaters and on VOD, to mostly positive reviews. The dinner-party scenario laid out by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.)

will be familiar to those familiar with Would You Rather, The Perfect Host, The Last Supper and, why not, The Exterminating Angel. A group of friends and acquaintances are invited to a dinner party, for no apparent reason, by a pair of garden-variety L.A. yuppies, in a house with a nice view of the city lights. Curiously, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), have invited her former husband, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), who’s never really gotten over the death of their young son. Because he senses a hidden agenda that the others don’t, Will becomes acutely aware of the fact that doors are locked from the inside and one of the guests disappears in the middle of the party. Things get even stranger when the hosts show the guests a movie from their latest trip to Mexico. It looks every bit like a recruiting video for a cult preparing to get a head start on the apocalypse. By the time Will’s deepest fears are realized, it’s almost too late to prevent the delivery of the surprise intended for dessert. There’s more to the story than that outline suggests, but the thing to know going into it is that Kusama does an excellent job maintaining the suspenseful pace, making Will look like an overly paranoid ex-husband and holding back a few surprises for the end.


Dystopian dramas appear to have gone out of style, at least for the time being. It’s possible that filmmakers have run out of ideas on the subject or, as was the case with Allegiant, the creation of credibly apocalyptic backdrops has become too expensive. Ozland, a debut feature by Mississippi native Michael Williams, succeeds by breaking away from the chains that keep most sci-fi/horror pictures from straying too far from the zombie/vampire/alien vortex. All viewers have to do is tap their heels together three times and think to themselves, “There’s no place like home.” Don’t close your eyes, however. Made for what must have been pennies, Ozland describes what happens when two divergent survivors of one kind of horrible disaster, or another, are left to their own devises in a dry and dusty post-apocalyptic world. For some reason, the title led me to believe that the location was in the Australian outback. On closer examination, the same rural countryside could easily be found in Kansas. I should have figured out the overriding gimmick after the younger of the two men finds a copy of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and takes every word of it as the gospel truth. That a giant tornado descended from the heavens to devastate humanity becomes as easy to believe as any nuclear disaster or climate-related catastrophe. Traveling companions Leif (Zack Ratkovich) and Emri (Glenn Payne) have no true memory of what caused things to go to hell, so L. Frank Baum’s version of life on Earth was as good as any other. As they move from one deserted house to another, they do pick up Ozian references of how things might have been from discarded magazines and newspapers once used as protection against the elements. In Leif’s mind, Kansas becomes Oz and the book could be their last hope for finding other people, running water and salvation. Once I figured out what Williams had in mind, buying into Ozland’s conceit wasn’t difficult at all.


Khalil Sullins’ imaginative debut feature, Listening, follows the progress of impoverished Cal Tech students as they struggle to perfect a technology that would allow people to read each other’s minds and dictate those thoughts in “circular feedback loops.” For the military, such an advance would take the guesswork out of interrogating prisoners and other enemy agents. For civilians, it would assure honesty in romantic relationships and give parents a way to determine which of their kids broke the window in a neighbor’s garage or didn’t re-fill the ice tray. You can imagine the ramifications of such technology falling into the wrong hands or being acquired before the kinks have been worked out of it. Desperately broke, one of the researchers hopes to sell the gizmo to a mysterious government agency as soon as possible, while his partner envisions the pitfalls and splits for a remote location tipped in the opening sequence. As a way to geek-proof his creation, Sullins has added a couple of women who look hot, even when a rectangular patch of hair is shaved to make room for the transmitter gizmo. As bargain-basement sci-fi goes, Listening isn’t bad. The scientific stuff looks reasonably accurate and the jargon almost makes sense. It’s worth recalling that one of David Cronenberg’s early successes, Scanners, was based on similar theme.

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf: Blu-ray

Rollercoaster: Blu-ray

Originally sent out by Universal as a double feature with the superior creature-feature Sssssss, Nathan Juran’s PG-rated The Boy Who Cried Werewolf must have really come as a severe letdown to viewers, even in 1973. Not terribly unlike the 1957 drive-in classic, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, its only concession to 16 years of special-effects progress appeared to be color cinematography. Seeing the movie now, it’s no wonder that horror fans were so excited by Rick Baker’s revolutionary effects work, only eight years later, in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. As the picture opens, California ’tweener Richie Bridgestone (Scott Sealey) is trying to cope with the impending divorce of his parents. He hopes they will reconsider, if only he can put them together in an idyllic location, such as Big Bear Lake, where his dad (Kerwin Matthews) still maintains a cabin. One weekend together, Richie witnesses his dad being attacked by a werewolf. Robert manages to kill the beast by pushing him off the side of a cliff and onto a jagged piece of metal. Before the sheriff arrives and Richie’s story can be proven, the werewolf reverts to his human form. The damage to Richie’s dad is done, however, as will become apparent with the arrival of new full moon. It isn’t the last time the son will witness his dad’s destructive powers. Even as the death-toll mounts, the authorities continue to dismiss his claims and fears. It isn’t until a wandering band of Jesus Freaks begins their pilgrimage through the forest that the truth is revealed. Will it come too late? In his first year as a Hollywood art director, Austrian-born Juran won an Academy Award for art direction on How Green Was My Valley. He would go on to direct Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and First Men in the Moon, before turning to television and such series asDaniel Boone” and “Lost in Space.”

Rollercoaster washed up in the first wave of terrorist-spawned thrillers in the mid-1970s, including Black Sunday, Two-Minute Warning, Juggernaut, Ffolkes and the fact-based Raid on Entebbe. At the time, the antagonist didn’t have to reveal political motives, as was the case with Black Sunday, in which Black September terrorists intended to spoil the Super Bowl for millions of Americans. He could be a lone-wolf lunatic or cold-blooded extortionist, as is the character played Timothy Bottoms in Rollercoaster. The Young Man pledges to stage five rollercoaster attacks in as many different amusement parks, unless $1 million is paid to him. As the formula went, there was always a good-guy cop who took the threat and the blackmailer seriously and wanted to save as many people as possible, even if it meant shutting down the attraction. Here, detective Harry Calder (George Segal) must not only contend with the nut job, but also the forces of capitalism and politics — Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino — who would put customers at risk to avoid losing a single dollar. Calder was further humanized by having an attractive wife (Susan Strasberg) and spunky daughter (Helen Hunt). In an interview included in the bonus package, associate producer/writer Tommy Cook says that it was his intention to make the rollercoaster as much a character as anyone else, but have Young Man be a disgruntled Vietnam vet. He still doesn’t like how the ending was changed. The Blu-ray also adds the original Sensurround soundtrack, which was a technological gimmick to immerse viewers in the action.

Hellhole: Blu-ray

Doctor Butcher M.D./Zombie Holocaust: Blu-ray

The Candy Tangerine Man/Lady Cocoa: Blu-ray

Petey Wheatstraw: Blu-ray

How does a director make the leap from such family-friendly fare as Savannah Smiles and Christmas Mountain, to Hellhole, a nasty piece of work that could be a charter member of the grindhouse hall of fame? Newly available in Blu-ray, the rarely seen 1985 release has it all, including lots of kinky sex, shower scenes, creepy stalkers, vulnerable blonds and ball-busting nurses. Instead of taking place in a vermin-infested prison in the Philippines, it is set in a psychiatric facility in the good ol’ US of A., where sexy psycho-bitch Mary Woronov is testing a new lobotomy technique, using helpless inmates as her guinea pigs. Her prize patient is Susan (Judy Landers), a pretty amnesiac who is believed to have internalized secrets that caused a sicko named Silk (Ray Sharkey) to strangle her mother with a red sash. Somehow, Silk is able to land a job as an orderly in the same facility in which Susan now resides, alongside dozens of dangerously anti-social women. The title derives from the prison-within-a-sanitarium, where the women who misbehave the most are sent for punishment. Woronov denies the existence of the Hellhole to state administrators, almost in the same breath as she explains the presence of women pretending to swim in a large sandbox, “I find sand to be much more therapeutic than water.” It takes something in the neighborhood of 80 minutes for Silk to reawaken Susan’s dormant memories by attacking another woman with a red scarf. The end of Hellhole turns out to be as nutty as the beginning. If it never strays too far from genre conventions, it manages to stand out from the pack with an all-star cast of cult favorites, including Marjoe Gortner (The Food of the Gods), Richard Cox (Cruising), Terry Moore (Mighty Joe Young), Edy Williams (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Robert Z’Dar (Maniac Cop), Dyanne Thorne (Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS) and, of course, Sharkey (“Wiseguy”) and Woronov (“Eating Raoul.”). Hellhole may be as close as these things get to perfection. The Blu-ray adds a fresh interview with Woronov.

The Severin double-feature Doctor Butcher M.D./Zombie Holocaust isn’t quite what it appears to be on the cover. In fact, both of these Italian-into-English gore fests, by Marino Girolami (as Frank Martin), are pretty much the same picture, with the latter adding about five minutes of previously excised material, a restored title sequence and some color correction. Doctor Butcher M.D. is the official U.S. release version, with extra footage and a unique soundtrack. Both open in New York, where a group of Dr. Dreylock’s med students discovers that body parts are missing from the cadavers they use for research. Not being valuable organs, the missing appendages aren’t much good to anyone who isn’t a cannibal. When one hospital worker is killed after taking the heart of a corpse, smokin’ hot anthropologist Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) recognizes it as the handiwork of a tribe in the Moluccan Islands that worships the god Kito. Dr. Peter Chandler (Ian McCulloch) organizes an expedition to Moluccas, to which Lori and the journalist Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan) are invited. Once there, they meet the mad Doctor Obrero (Donald O’Brien), who directs them to an island populated with cannibals and zombies, one of whom is no match for the blade of a motorboat engine. Both movies are of a piece with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and should viewed in the same context and with the same caution. The extensive bonus features include featurettes on the making, marketing and impact of the films, especially as they pertain to the scene along New York’s 42nd Street before its Disneyfication. There are fresh interviews with editor Jim Markovic, Ian McCulloch, effects master Rosario Prestopino, filmmaker Enzo Castellari (Girolami’s son), Sherry Buchanan; FX artist Maurizio Trani, as well as vintage trailer.

One of the things that worked against blaxpoitation and chop-socky films, when it came to attracting crossover audiences, at least, was an obvious lack of polish in the production-values department. No matter how good a story, they looked cheap. Released in 1975, The Candy Tangerine Man and Lady Cocoa are perfect example of movies that would have benefitted from even slightly larger budgets and more behind-the-camera know-how. Matt Cimber’s The Candy Tangerine Man would have been just another movie about pimps, whores and revenge if it weren’t for an entirely unexpected twist in the middle that changes everything we think we know about John Daniels’ ghetto prince, Baron. And, no, it doesn’t involve him being an undercover cop or narc. It may not hold up under close scrutiny, but logic and realism aren’t necessarily considered to be virtues in exploitation pictures. Otherwise, “Candy Tangerine” repeats all the usual clichés about pimps reciprocating for the pressure put on them by white cops, gangsters and their lackeys, by demanding more productivity from their working girls. The violence is crude, but, like I said, the twisteroo compensates for the sins. Way better overall is Lady Cocoa, a movie about a female inmate (Lola Falana) at a Nevada penitentiary who agrees to trade testimony against her gangster boyfriend for a few days of R&R at a Lake Tahoe resort. As if in anticipation of being rescued by her lover, Cocoa proves to be a real handful for her strait-laced handler, Doug (Gene Washington), who resists her temptations. The movie benefits from being shot on location in a North Lake Tahoe resort, where a storm prevented visitors and employees from coming or going. It provided the film with a more natural feel than what could be expected if the production was restricted to a few hours a day in a handful of hotel and casino locations. Falana is never less than a blast to watch, even if she doesn’t look like the typical female lead in an exploitation flick. Also, look for Mean Joe Greene, the great Steelers’ defensive tackle, as one of the thugs hot on Cocoa’s trail, and Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) as a party-hardy tourist. The excellent Vinegar Syndrome package adds Cimber’s introduction for The Candy Tangerine Man, commentary for Lady Cocoa with Cimber and DA/actor John Goff, and a reversible cover.

The ever-exploitable Rudy Ray Moore plays the title character in Petey Wheatstraw, a comedy that followed in the wake of the action-oriented Dolemite and The Human Tornado. Petey grew up knowing that he would have to be stronger, faster and more clever than his enemies. He learned kung-fu at an early age, but grew up with a desire to be a nightclub comedian. He books a date at a friend’s club for the same night as a mob-financed club is about to open in another corner of the ghetto. As a territorial battle erupts, Petey negotiates a deal with Lucifer to rectify a fatal mistake. The devil’s half of the arrangement requires Petey to marry his daughter, who looks as if she might have spent the last 1,000 years tanning in the raging fires of hell. The comedy here is as broad as it could possibly be, while the treatment of women is on a par with that in most Blaxploitation pics. The bonus pieces add the making-of documentary, “I, Dolemite Part III”; commentary with Rudy Ray Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray, co-star Jimmy Lynch and director Cliff Roquemore; a “Shooting Locations Revisited” featurette; previews of other Rudy Ray Moore epics; and cover artwork, by Jay Shaw.

Opry Video Classics II

The performances compiled for posterity in Time Life/WEA’s eight-disc “Opry Video Classics II” represent a time in American cultural history before the borders that separated rock-’n’-roll and country/western were closely guarded by disc jockeys, record labels and arbiters of taste based largely in Nashville. Rockabilly wouldn’t come back into fashion for several years and the old guard controlled everything from hair styles to the authenticity of the acts allowed to perform on the stage of the venerable Ryman Auditorium. Elvis Presley wasn’t welcomed back after his first performance, in 1954, and, until 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis was deemed far too uncontrollable to book. When the Killer finally did appear, he broke the rules by playing his rock-’n’-roll hits and referring to himself in words unsuited to for public consumption in the shrine to country music. The Byrds were practically run off the stage after Gram Parsons convinced Columbia executives that country-rock was compatible with other Opry standbys and the label should lobby for an invitation. Nope, too soon. Today, of course, the lines separating the genres have been completely and forever blurred. As such, “Opry Video Classics II” exists as both a time capsule and juke box full of wonderful songs, performed with utmost respect for an audience full of people who had never dreamed of seeing that much talent on one stage in their lives. At the Opry, it was the men who dressed like peacocks and the women who were required to look as if they’d just left an ice-cream social. The clowning was reserved for the hillbilly comics, who, in a couple of years, would moonlight on “Hee Haw.” It’s all in good fun and the music is memorable. The material presented here was recorded between 1955, when WSM-TV added a one-hour show to its lineup, and 1974, when the Opry moved from the Ryman to points east of downtown Nashville. Over time, sponsorship would change from Purina, to Pet Milk and National Life, while host T. Tommy Carter would make way for Bobby Lord and Judd Collins. The final incarnation would be “That Good Ole Country Music,” which added more contemporary production values to reflect the changing times. The compilation is broken into the chapters “Songs That Topped the Charts,” “Legends,” “Love Songs,” “Pioneers,” “Queens of Country,” “Hall of Fame,” “Kings of Country” and “Jukebox Memories.” Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, the Carter family, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and Minnie Pearl, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner (and his Nudie suits), Bill Anderson, Charlie Pride, Connie Smith, Carl Smith, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Ray Stevens, who contributes the ever-timely “Ahab the Arab.” Despite the age of the video clips, they are unblemished and the sound is excellent.

My Big Night

If Pedro Almodóvar ever agreed to remake Blake Edwards’ madcap 1968 comedy, The Party, it might look a lot like Álex de la Iglesia’s over-the-top showbiz satire My Big Night. The absence of Peter Sellers would be a problem, but Almodovar’s never had much trouble finding comic actors with the versatility necessary to carry a work of unbridled slapstick. De La Iglesia is known primarily for such dark comedies as El día de la bestia, Accion mutante, Perdita Durango, Crimen ferpecto and Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi, as well as a documentary on the great Argentine soccer player, Lionel Messi, who plays for FC Barcelona. Co-written with frequent collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Mi Gran Noche describes what happens when a pre-recorded, studio-produced New Year’s Eve show descends into chaos and everything that could go wrong actually does. The TV special combines the worst elements of Euro-pop schlock with an audience of preening celebrities, rival hosts and entertainers, onetime lovers, has-beens, wannabes and extras, such as Jose (Pepón Nieto), sent by an employment agency after a camera crane takes out one of the stars. One rivalry could very well result in an unscheduled shooting before the close of the show, which never seems to end. Meanwhile, outside the studio, a strike by TV union workers is threatening to escalate into a full-blown riot and fire, requiring clouds of foam to quell. The gala setting may prove too foreign for many American viewers, but those with a sense of contemporary European pop culture shouldn’t find the translation difficult to make.


Most of Partho Sen-Gupta’s neo-noir procedural, Sunrise, feels as if it had been inspired by a rain-splashed cover of a Frank Miller comics collection. The back alleys and seedy nightclubs of Mumbai, during monsoon season, could very well double for the most desolate locations in Miller’s “Sin City.” In a country where tens of thousands of children are abducted each year, however, there would be no reason to simulate everyday horror in a comic. In Sen-Gupta’s second feature to his 2004 drama, Let the Wind Blow, Social Services officer Lakshman Joshi (Adil Hussain) is investigating the same trafficking ring that may have abducted his own 6-year-old daughter several years earlier. Joshi’s never stopped looking for Aruna, but a more recent kidnapping adds a greater sense of urgency to the investigation. Determined to crack both cases simultaneously, the dour detective rarely looks as if the never-ending rain is anything more than an irritant. As is usually the case in such neo-noir stories, the closer one gets to the object, the further away is the solution. One night, while chasing a lead, Joshi stumbles upon the Paradise nightclub, where the entertainment is supplied by underage girls dancing fully clothed to snake-charming music in a slightly provocative manner. A group of unpleasant looking men emerges from a doorway to shower the girls with currency as the detective grinds his teeth in disgust. While this seems real enough, it’s repeated the same way several different times. By this time, we’re never clear as to whether Sen-Gupta is leading us to a possible recovery – the girls on stage would be Aruna’s age – or a trip deeper into Joshi’s tortured mind. In an interview, the filmmaker reminds us that there’s no greater anguish than that experienced by a parent whose child has disappeared and that feeling is palpable throughout the film. In fact, his wife has already lost her mind. Sunrise could hardly be a more harrowing experience. Sen-Gupta’s direction, in combination with Hussain’s acting, the “noise music” of Eryck Abecassis, brilliant nighttime cinematography of Jean-Marc Ferriere and sound design of foley artist Nicolas Becker (Gravity) shouldn’t be missed by fans of the genre. The DVD adds an informative making-of featurette.

A Light Beneath Their Feet

If ever an actress was born to play the bipolar mother of teenage girl, it’s Taryn Manning, whose character on “Orange Is the New Black” is several different kinds of crazy. Then, too, if any rising star was the perfect choice to play that daughter, it’s Madison Davenport (Sisters). Valerie Weiss’ closely observed sophomore feature, A Light Beneath Their Feet, tackles a mental problem most Americans don’t spend a lot of time pondering. Even if one understands what it means to have bipolar disorder, understanding what it must feel like to be the child of single bipolar parent is another thing altogether. Davenport’s Beth Gerringson is an extremely bright young woman, who’s been accepted at UCLA and her hometown school, Northwestern. They’re both fine schools, but going to California would mean that Beth would be separated from her emotionally dependent mother, Gloria, for the first time in both of their lives. Staying in Evanston would ensure that the dependency continues for another four years, at least. Beth’s dad and second wife are on the verge of starting new family, so would be of no help. As played by Manning, Gloria is capable of working in the cafeteria of the school that Beth attends and keeping herself entertained with whatever television show is playing in her mind at any given time. Beth’s dilemma is compounded by the appearance in her life of school bad-boy, Jeremy (Carter Jenkins), who will be forever known for being the underage boy who had sex with a now-jailed junior-high teacher. He’s really not a bad kid, but, in an unlikely contrivance, their relationship is threatened in the cruelest of ways. I get the feeling that Weiss and screenwriter Moira McMahon Leeper did a lot of homework, when it came to shaping Gloria into a dramatically compelling and intellectually honest character. When she does go off her meds, as is inevitable in these sorts of things, what happens is entirely believable and deeply sad. How many teenagers share Beth’s dilemma is anyone’s guess.

Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo

The re-release of Robert Mugge’s 1977 film Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo would hardly raise a blip on the national political radar screen, if it weren’t for the fact that the rise of the former police commissioner and two-term mayor of Philadelphia wasn’t so reminiscent of Donald Trump’s ascendency in the Republican party. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the GOP candidate studied Rizzo’s career and his divide-and-conquer approach to politics. The documentary leads with Rizzo’s performance as a beat cop, who protected the large Italian-American community from the things it feared most: blacks, hippies and liberals. To Rizzo’s credit, he was able to increase the number of African-American cops on the force, without diminishing its para-military approach to policing. Even so, beatings were routine and the racism even trickled down to the point where Rizzo would have interracial couples harassed and order raids on coffee shops. As mayor, he continued to protect his natural constituency, while dealing harshly with anyone who made waves. That’s not to say that all of his decisions were controversial or racially biased, however. His downfall would come when he spent money the city didn’t have on unnecessary patronage work and other self-aggrandizing projects. After being re-elected on a no-tax-increase platform, Rizzo was almost immediately forced to increase the payroll tax to cover the debt. “Amateur Night” was completed two years before Rizzo left office, so it lacks a distinct sense of closure and perspective. After seeing it, though, it will be impossible not see a little bit of Rizzo in the Trump campaign.


PBS: NOVA: Operation Lighthouse Rescue

PBS: Nature: Nature’s Perfect Partners

PBS Kids: WordWorld: It’s Time for School

As the curse of extreme climate change begins to kick in for real, hundreds of stories like “NOVA: Operation Lighthouse Rescue” will be told. Lighthouses exist on pieces of land that are exposed directly to rising tides and storm-tossed waves. As easy as it would be to build a tower and add a revolving light to the top of it, such a strategy would mean giving up a part of our heritage that’s nearly impossible to replace. The historic Gay Head Lighthouse, which sits on a bluff at the tip of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, could have been an early casualty, if residents hadn’t taken steps to protect it. Built in 1856, the more than 400-ton structure soars 175 feet above the ocean. Because it still warns ships and sailors of impending danger, the cost of raising the landmark from its foundation and moving it 134 feet inland could easily be justified. The “NOVA” team goes into great detail on every aspect of the transfer, which is in danger of failure from Step One.

In the “Nature” episode, “Nature’s Perfect Partners,” we learn how partnerships between such unrelated species as lions and lizards can work for both entities. Although a lizard could provide a snack for a lion, they feed on the flies that constantly buzz around the lions, as they try to nap after a hearty meal. Other unlikely couples include tarantulas and toads; hippos and little fish called barbells; silver tip sharks and saltwater jacks; and the tiny goby and its housemate, the shrimp, which is almost completely blind. The film also documents how other animals build partnerships with their own kind in order to survive. Teamwork is a trait practiced by elephants that live in large social groups, often spanning generations. The program shows how members of a herd quickly react when an inexperienced mother unknowingly puts her newborn calf in jeopardy crossing a mud pan and river. Other examples feature the strategies of a wolf pack, a pod of killer whales, a group of silver ants and a large hyena clan.

This may come as bad news to youngsters who can’t get enough of the things summer has to offer, but the start of school is only a month away. In the PBS Kids’ cartoon compilation, “WordWorld: It’s Time for School,” it’s the first day of school for the critters. Shark, of all species, is afraid to go. With the help of his good friend, Duck, and some encouragement from Cat, their teacher, Shark’s fear turns into confidence, and by the end of the day, he’s head of the class. When it’s Duck’s turn for show-and-tell, he wants to bring the thing he loves best: his nest! When the nest breaks apart into letters, however, will Duck be able to retrieve them all in time? The set contains eight stories.

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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