By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Hank Williams, Adderall Diaries, 6, Francofonia, Mad Tiger, Suture, Blood & Black Lace and more

I Saw the Light
Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Collection … Plus

Country-music singers have been trying to find the bottle in which Hank Williams captured his lightning for most of the last 65 years, with only a handful even coming close to locating the darkness in his soul or the poetic wellspring that inspired his most memorable songs. That’s why I don’t take much stock in the complaints of mainstream critics who voiced their disapproval of Tom Hiddleston’s interpretation of Williams’ vocalizing and stage presence in Marc Abraham’s biopic I Saw the Light. The actor moved into singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s Nashville home for five months for a crash course in singing, guitar playing and yodeling. If Crowell felt that the Brit entertainer was ready for prime time, that’s good enough for me. That’s not the part of the movie that bothered me, anyway. What I missed most were the early chapters in Hank’s life, during which Williams’ own roots were planted, thanks, in large part, to a black street performer, Rufus Payne, who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals or money. A similar debt to black musicians was owed by A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rogers, Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley. While lying awake at night in northern Minnesota, Bob Dylan would listen to hardcore R&B and country radio stations from the Deep South. Abraham elected to focus on Williams’ tortured relationship with his first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), who so desperately wanted to share the limelight with him, and overbearing manager/mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones). It also lacked the down-home Southern flavor that animated James Mangold’s Walk the Line and Jim McBride’s Great Balls of Fire!, as well as any indication of Williams’ expanding popularity outside the South and Canada. Even so, Hiddleston frequently is able to mine the emotional core of musician whose physical pain drove him to seek relief in booze and pills. The most telling moment comes when a reporter attempts to break through the artist’s cool exterior, between sips of whiskey, and finally is told, “Everybody has a little darkness in them. I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame. I show it to them, and they don’t have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles.” In another scene, Williams reverts to his “Luke the Drifter” persona, which he employed in his religious-themed recordings and recitations, for some stage preaching. He didn’t feel like performing that day, but gave the crowd its money’s worth, anyway. Abraham’s source material was provided by Colin Escott’s 1994 book, “Hank Williams: The Biography.” It arrives with deleted scenes; the featurettes “A Night in Nashville,” from the premiere and musical performance by Hiddleston, “Illuminating A Legend: Inside ‘I Saw the Light’” and “Talking Hank,” with Crowell and Hiddleston; and audio commentary with Abraham.


Where If I Saw the Light focuses on Williams’ dark side and decline, “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” reveals qualities in him that endeared him to radio listeners by bringing a little lightness into the days of men and women on their way to work or toiling in the kitchen. In 1951, it wasn’t unusual to hear the biggest stars in the country and blues arenas using their music to sell products in sponsored radio shows. “King Biscuit Hour,” which featured African-American blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and Robert Lockwood Jr., could be heard throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas. Nashville’s 50,000-watt WSM-AM lured Williams to do some pickin’, grinnin’ and singin’ in support of Mother’s Best Flour. As befit the early-morning timeslot, he kept things on the sunny side, often exchanging banter with the host. (At various times in his short career, he also promoted the Hadacol patent medicine, Naughton Farms plant nursery and the Health & Happiness Show.) If the Drifting Cowboys were going to be on the road, Williams would pre-record the 15-minute segments. Re-released by Time Life to coincide with the theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray release of I Saw the Light. “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” is comprised of 15 CDs, containing 143 songs, interstitials and casual chat. A 16th DVD disc features daughter Jett Williams, who didn’t learn she was Hank’s kin until the early 1980s, interviewing surviving members of his band. The recordings provide listeners a deeper insight into Williams’ life and music, revealing a personality that might have influenced Garrison Keillor. The recordings, including previously unrecorded material, are in surprisingly pristine condition and his voice is in tip-top shape. The set adds a 32-page booklet, with vintage photos and full discography. You may want to skip ahead to the 15th CD, which includes an audition for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and a truly amazing story-song warning young lovers against the scourge of syphilis.


The Adderall Diaries: Blu-ray

Another week, another James France performance to check out. And, just in case you’re beginning to think that the hyper-productive actor, poet, teacher and seeker of post-graduate degrees has begun to make things up as he goes his merry way through life, it’s worth knowing that his character in The Adderall Diaries is based on someone other than him or one of his myriad personae. Franco plays Stephen Elliot, a delinquent-turned-novelist modelled after Stephen Elliot, who wrote the best-selling memoir from which the movie was adapted (and directed Franco in About Cherry). Although severely blocked, Franco’s Elliot maintains a relatively high profile in literary circles by reading from his memoirs, which deal directly with his extremely troubled past and abusive relationship with his father. (It squares with known facts about Elliot’s life as a street urchin, drug addict and ward of the state, while growing up on Chicago’s North Side.) He’s been contracted to write a true-crime book on the murder trial of Hans Reiser (Christian Slater), a sociopathic fellow who’s been accused of killing his wife and making her body disappear. While covering the trial, he befriends New York Times reporter Lana Edmond (Amber Heard), who enables all of Elliot’s bad habits and picks some up for herself. The turning point of the story comes when the author’s father (Ed Harris), presumed dead, shows up at one of his readings and basically disavows everything he’s been accused of doing. Neil Elliot turns the tables on his son by suggesting that he refused all attempts to reconcile their differences or control his worst impulses. Being accused of lying in front of an influential group of readers at a book-signing party is a career altering experience, of course, and it not only impacts the publisher’s marketing campaign, but also Elliot’s fragile hold on reality. It won’t be the last time Neil Elliot figures into the narrative, but what finally brings the pot to a boil is an encounter between the author and newly convicted Reiser. The Adderall Diaries represents the feature debut of Pamela Romanowsky, who previously participated in The Color of Time, an expressionistic appreciation of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, written and directed by a dozen different NYU students and produced by their instructor, you guessed it, Franco. The embellishments Romanowsky added to make Elliot’s story – including a BDSM subplot — more cinematic mostly serve to distract viewers from what is a promising essay on how we select, edit and repress our memories to conform to a more appealing version of ourselves. The Blu-ray adds Romanowsky’s commentary, the featurette, “The Adderall Diaries: A Director’s Perspective,” and deleted scenes.


600 Miles

The films that have emerged from the on-going drug war in Mexico, informed either by unspeakable brutality or deeply engrained corruption, would be difficult to believe if it weren’t for the cartels’ willingness to blow their own horns and the ease with which journalists are able identify the kingpins and trace the trail of Yankee dollars from Sinaloa and Mexico City to Switzerland. From what I can tell, the traffickers see themselves as protagonists in movies that exist mostly in their heads, as well as the heroes of narcocorridos whose lyrics refer to specific illegal activities and include real dates and places. It explains why Denis Villeneuve’s otherwise excellent cross-border thriller Sicario failed to fully emerge from the shadow cast by Gianfranco Rosi’s 2010 documentary, El Sicario, Room 164, in which a cartel assassin recalls his greatest hits. Matthew Heineman’s intricately designed Cartel Land practically exists as a sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s fictional thriller Traffic. Gregory Nava’s fictional Bordertown, about a journalist (Jennifer Lopez) investigating a series of murders near American-owned factories on the border of Juarez and El Paso, echoed material in the documentaries Maquilopolis and Señorita Extraviada. In Mexico, the truth almost always is stranger and more compelling than fiction. At first, Gabriel Ripstein’s deliberately paced 600 Miles feels very much like a documentary. Two teenagers, a gringo and Mexican-American, take advantage of lax gun laws in Arizona to purchase firearms to be smuggled across the border to Mexican criminals, for fun and profit. They drive expensive SUVs and only occasionally are quizzed by dealers about their intentions. Unless you’re a NRA supporter or Republican, the ease with which these knuckleheads legally acquire assault weapons and handguns, using cartel-supplied money, might come as a shock.


It takes a while to realize that they’re being loosely tailed by ATF agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth), who’s awaiting the go-ahead to pounce on them. In what turns out to be a major miscalculation, Harris decides to confront Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) in a parking lot behind some stores in a Tucson shopping district. He doesn’t realize that the boy’s partner, Carson (Harrison Thomas), is within striking distance when Harris pulls out his gun. Carson knocks him out from behind and helps Arnulfo stuff him into a compartment normally reserved for contraband. Naturally panicked, Arnulfo volunteers to transport the agent’s handcuffed body 600 miles into the Mexican interior, where he’ll offer Harris up as tribute to his bosses. Once roused, Harris takes his time surveying the situation and attempting to guess how much danger he’s in. It doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that the kid only has the vaguest idea of what’s at stake for both of them. At a roadblock manned by cartel soldiers, Harris decides to impress Arnulfo by saving his life. He does this by telling him exactly what to say when confronted by the armed highwayman, including the name of a trafficker the guard should call to ascertain the agent’s identity. As he explains to the boy, sometimes the opposing forces in the drug war do favors for each other and this was one of them. 600 Miles will evolve from here into a taut thriller with sporadic bursts of intense action. Ripstein does a nice job keeping us guessing what will happen to Harris and Arnulfo and when. The ending should take most viewers by surprise. Roth is very good as the lone-wolf lawmen, as is Ferrer (Sin Nombre) as the wet-behind-the-ears cartel wannabe.


Electra Woman & Dyna Girl

Not having seen the original live-action version of “Electra Woman & Dyna Girl,” which aired only 16 episodes in a single season as part of the umbrella series, “The Krofft Supershow,” I would have no way of comparing it to the recent re-boot, which stars the slightly off-kilter YouTube sensations Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart, respectively. The original early-’70s sci-fi series, starring Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis, was targeted primarily at kids who were beginning to warm to the burgeoning superhero craze. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the new Electra Woman & Dyna Girl is aimed at the gender-neutral world of cosplay nerds and fans of alternative content. Helbig, especially, is an aggressively comedic actress, who knows precisely how to twist the dials of computer geeks. That she gets to do it here in head-to-toe Spandex alone is worth the price of a rental. Hart comes off more as a naughty pixie. In a world overpopulated with superheroes and archenemies, no city is large enough to accommodate all of them. EW&DG are relegated to the Rust Belt crime capital of Akron, Ohio, until being asked to relocate to L.A. by a mega-agent who specializes in branding and promoting superheroes. The degree of competition for the attention of the local media is fierce and DG soon feels as if she’s been relegated to “sidekick” status. When push comes to shove and an even more fabulous superbabe arrives on the scene, it probably won’t be long before old wounds are healed. The film was released as a series of eight 11-minute webisodes on April 26, 2016, through Fullscreen’s digital streaming platform. It looks pretty seamless here. The bonus features interviews at fan gatherings and background material.


Imber’s Left Hand

Anyone with a handheld camera and lots of patience is capable of transforming historical footnotes and also-rans into subjects worthy of a documentary to call their own. If they’re fortunate, a grant or two will miraculously become available or fans will contribute to a crowd-sourcing campaign to cover incalculable amounts of time and effort. A friend or relative might even consider crafting a Wikipedia page for posterity. It’s cheaper than buying a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, anyway. Before watching Imber’s Left Hand, I wasn’t aware of painter Jon Imber or what it meant to be considered a leading representative of the Boston Figurative Expressionism movement, which, itself, was an integral part of American modernism bracketing the Second World War. According to art historian Judith Bookbinder, “(It) expressed the anxiety of the modern age with the particular accent of the city…Boston figurative expressionism was both a humanist philosophy – that is, a human-centered and rationalist or classically oriented philosophy – and a formal approach to the handling of paint and space.” I’ll take her word for it. What made Imber a perfect candidate for a documentary profile is, sadly, the very thing that makes some little-known artists more interesting than other. At some point in late-middle-age, Imber contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was told it ultimately was be a death sentence for his life and career. Director Richard Kane traveled to the artist’s summer home in Maine to chronicle his increasingly labored efforts to continue his work as a credible artist, despite his condition. Thanks in large part to the support of his wife, painter Jill Hoy, Imber learns to paint with his left hand and eventually with both hands held together at his waist. His remarkable resolve leads to the creation of more than 100 delightfully stylized portraits in a four-month span. As the disease begins to take its toll, Jon and Jill remain extremely personable and outgoing to longtime friends and neighbors. The summer is capped with gallery opening, where the portraits are displayed. Imber’s Left Hand is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. The praise for his work seems justified and the testimonies run far short of becoming maudlin. The package includes an uncut interview with the artist.


Francofonia: Blu-ray

The story of the looting of French art galleries, museums and estates by Nazi officers during the German Occupation is pretty familiar to Americans, thanks to such movies as John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn’s The Train, René Clément’s Is Paris Burning? and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. If the facts weren’t always strictly observed, they captured what was at stake when German troops exited Paris and some officers took a stand against the cultural genocide demanded from Berlin. A catastrophe of incalculable scope was barely averted in a real-life drama that had its roots in actions begun years earlier by prescient curators and far-flung art lovers. In Francofonia, the same Russian filmmaker whose Russian Ark famously captured the soul of the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, in a single 99-minute take, not only describes how the Louvre was saved from disaster years, but also what was at stake. Alexander Sokurov explains how the deputy head of the Louvre, Jacques Jaujard, anticipated the looting of the museum and ordered its treasures be shipped to chateaus and castles around the country, well before the invasion. Moreover, he credits a German officer with inventing ways to keep Hitler and Goering’s thugs from running roughshod through what was left of the collection. On August 16, 1940, Jaujard was introduced to Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, who had been appointed by his Führer to oversee France’s art collection, not just those works once housed in the Louvre. In effect, this forced marriage meant that Jaujard’s decisions could be second-guessed by Hitler and his Vichy puppet, Marshall Philippe Pétain. One of Wolff-Metternich’s greatest services to world culture was to honor his conscience by serving as a buffer between both monsters. The heroic role played by Rose Valland, one of Jaujard’s employees, is explored in greater depth in Illustre et inconnu (a.k.a., “The Man Who Saved the Louvre”), the superb feature-length documentary that accompanies Francofonia. While documenting their contributions, Sokurov also waxes philosophic on the Louvre’s hold on French culture, pride and identity. He does this by using actors to portray Napoleon Bonaparte and Marianne, national symbol of the French Republic, as they survey the empty hallways and galleries of the wartime Louvre. It was Napoleon, after all, who brought so many of the treasures displayed there to France as the cost of doing business in times of conflict and conquest. Marianne flits around the same spaces, reciting the national motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” It takes a bit of time to become accustomed to the conceit, but what could be more French? At 57 minutes, Illustre et inconnu is able to expand on the tight focus afforded Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich in Francofonia, explaining what happened after the German was called back to Berlin for disobeying orders, and expanding on how Jaujard, Valland and French actress Jeanne Boitel, worked with Resistance fighters and American intelligence to avoid the bombing of chateaus sheltering art and preventing Hitler’s mandate to destroy Paris. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and collector’s booklet.


Dear Eleanor

Emma’s Chance


I would hate to think that any teen-oriented dramedy in which Eleanor Roosevelt plays a key role – visible or otherwise – is doomed to failure. Add a character based on one of the three men who may or may not have escaped from Alcatraz in June, 1962, and you wonder how such a quaint notion was green-lit. The fact is, though, it didn’t take much effort for Dear Eleanor to make me to suspend my disbelief long enough to share an unlikely cross-country ride with two runaway girls. Set in 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed, the coming-of-age story stars Isabelle Fuhrman (“Master of Sex”) and Liana Liberato (“If I Stay”) as a pair of friends who drive the length of the nation to realize one of their mothers’ dream of offering her opinions to the famously liberal Roosevelt. The woman wouldn’t live long enough to accomplish this personal goal, but her daughter Ellie feels obligated to go in her place. Naturally, her father (Luke Wilson) attempts to dissuade her from such folly and, just as naturally, her cocky friend talks her into hopping into the vintage family convertible for the trip east. Adventures await them, of course, in ways Thelma and Louise might themselves have envisioned several years later. Josh Lucas plays the escaped convict Frank Morris, a roguish fellow who imposes himself on their excellent adventure, while Jessica Alba plays a fairy-godmother stripper who hitches a ride to New York for an audition being conducted by the producers of “Gypsy.” The ending probably will seem sappy to some viewers, but it’s of a piece with what happens before it. Oh, yeah, an actor name Patrick Schwarzenegger also makes an appearance some teens in the audience will find appealing. Dear Eleanor was directed capably by Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”) and written by first-timers Amy Garcia and Cecilia Contreras. The DVD includes two commentary tracks.

Also flying under the radar this week is Emma’s Chance, an overly familiar story about a troubled teen, Emma (Greer Grammer), who finds redemption in the care and feeding – mucking the stall, too – of an abused animal. Chance is an ornery show horse quartered at an animal-rescue ranch to which Emma has been assigned by a juvenile court. Emma, who’s been bullied herself, forms an unlikely bond with the jumper, who won’t let just anyone ride him. After warming to each other, Emma hatches a plan to use Chance to save the financially strapped facility from an evil dude who wants to sell the horses to Mexican meat-packing interests. The story was inspired by the good work done at Chino Hill’s Red Bucket Equine Rescue and its president and founder Susan Pierce (Missi Pyle). Joey Lawrence plays a devoted wrangler.


Carmen Marron’s Endgame is another movie that succeeds, despite a fact-based plot that has been revisited a couple dozen times since Stand and Deliver re-wrote the rules on David-vs.-Goliath stories in 1988. Here, Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite) plays the chess coach at a school in Brownsville, Texas, where his brother was a star athlete before his untimely death. Jose’s always been required to live under the shadow of his brother and, now, their mother doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him. When he was 5 years old, Jose’s abuelita taught him to play chess like his grandfather, who was a champion in Mexico. It’s an unorthodox style, but Jose’s bigger problem has always been a lack of self-confidence. That changes, as well, when he begins defeating opponents in support of the school’s team on its way to the state championships. Lots of lessons are learned here, but they’re petty painless. It a perfect companion piece to Niki Caro and Kevin Costner’s McFarland, USA, in which a team comprised of the sons of poor farm laborers stuns California’s cross-country elite. It did well enough for Disney that, you’d think, someone would take a chance on giving Endgame a theatrical release, especially in markets with a large Mexican-American audience. Instead, it faces heavy competition in DVD and VOD.


Cabin Fever: Blu-ray

The Levenger Tapes

The Pack: Blu-ray

When Gus Van Sant produced his shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Psycho, nearly 40 years separated their release dates. The addition of color was the sole concession to the passage of cinematic time. The direct translation of Michael Haneke’s shocking Funny Games into English, 10 years later, could be justified as a concession to American audiences’ profound resistance to subtitles and unfamiliar stars with French accents. What possible excuse could Eli Roth have had for hiring Travis “Z” Zariwny to perform the same non-surgical procedure on his breakthrough hit, Cabin Fever, only 13 years removed from the original? Vanity? Not good enough … especially given the easy availability of the franchise entries on DVD/Blu-ray. In both, a band of college kids heads to the woods, where they plan on spending their spring break getting drunk and having sex. The first ominous note is struck when they pull into a gas station and are confronted by a garden-variety redneck and his possibly rabid son. The second comes when one of the young men uses a tricked-out assault rifle to shoot at something in the woods that takes him by surprise. Could the stranger’s odd behavior have anything to do with the sudden outbreak of a flesh-eating virus among the frisky spring-breakers? Of course, it could. The cast of largely unknown actors assembled here, led by Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, Samuel Davis and Nadine Crocker, isn’t required to stretch beyond their known limits or be any more naked than their predecessors. The real problem, I think, comes in the great number of nearly identical horror/slasher movies that have been released in the interim, mostly straight to DVD or VOD. So many clueless vacationers and horny teenagers have been slaughtered in the last 13 years – 30, really, for those keeping score – that a few more would hardly be noticed. Considering that the fleshing-eating virus isn’t the only terrifying disease afflicting innocent tourists and outdoors types, however, it can still provide a few chills. A movie about an attack of giant Zika-carrying mosquitos and/or their zombie victims, at the Summer Olympics, probably is already on the drawing boards. The Blu-ray adds some interviews and background material.


And, while we’re on the topic of familiar genre tropes, when was the last time you saw a found-footage thriller? Not long, I’ll bet. Once again, in Mark Edwin Robinson’s The Levenger Tapes, college students Amanda (Johanna Brady), Kim (Lili Mirojnick), and Chase (Morgan Krantz) are traveling to Chase’s family mountain retreat for a Spring Break getaway. They stop at a liquor store, where Chase decides to steal a bottle of rum. During the ill-advised getaway, their car is involved in a fender-bender with a truck. Upon their arrival, the students drink, converse and swim in their undies, before spotting a campfire in the distance. After ascertaining that it belongs to the man from the truck, they decide to walk over to deliver an in-person apology. Along the way, they develop a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. Meanwhile, one of them is capturing what passes for action on a video tape, which later is pored over by local police. On it, the students come upon the bloody dress of an 8-year-old girl, which may or may not be involved in the trio’s disappearance. There were times when I had trouble differentiating between the found footage and that captured during the normal course of the narrative. It all seemed to have been taken by the same camera used by cinematographer Magdalena Górka, without consistent allowance for the distressed images usually associated with home movies.


For a debut feature, director Nick Robertson and writer Evan Randall Green have fashioned a terrifically atmospheric and reasonably exciting siege thriller, involving a pack of wild dogs – thus, the title, The Pack — determined to kill every living thing on an Australian sheep ranch. Naturally, that includes the residents of the isolated farmhouse. Most of the action takes place over the course of a single night, with canine eyes sparkling in the brush and tree line, and the rancher running out of bullets for his rifle. Can the small family last the night, before the dark black dogs invade the house and have them for a late snack? Veteran Aussie actors Jack Campbell and Anna Lise Phillips take the threat with appropriate seriousness. The Blu-ray adds some interesting making-of material, focusing on the creation of the wild look-alike dogs … not to be mistaken for werewolves.


Mad Tiger

As previously noted here, the production of feature-length rockumentaries has reached the saturation point in the DVD marketplace, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. To break through the pack, the subject of any new film must have something going for it, besides the music and fans. Otherwise, all you have is a long rock video. Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi’s Mad Tiger easily qualifies as something different … at least, for those of us new to the wacky world of Japanese pop culture. It follows the relationship of two Japanese musicians, Yellow and Red, who have been best friends, band mates and business partners for more than 15 years, while touring the U.S. in the performance-art punk band, Peelander-Z. Based in New York, its on-stage persona merges elements of Mexican lucha libre wrestling, the live-action Power Rangers, Sun Ra and the American heavy-metal band GWAR. Or, as the group bills itself, “a Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander.” The costumes range from sentai style suits, to kimono, to rubber Playmobil style wigs. There is also a tiger costume and a squid/guitar costume, designed to coincide with the song “Mad Tiger.” The band employs such on-stage antics as human bowling, pretending to hit each other with chairs in imitation of pro-wrestlers and mid-performance piggyback rides. Apart from the performance footage, which borders on insanity, Mad Tiger chronicles the aftermath of Red’s departure from the band and Yellow’s attempts to replace him. (Other members include Peelanders Pink, Purple, Green, Black and formerly Blue.) It’s pretty wild stuff, so I recommend being in the right mood to absorb the act properly. The bonus package adds seven deleted scenes, two Peelander-Z music videos and a directors’ statement.


Search Party: Blu-ray

Scot Armstrong, co-writer/director of the anemic boys-will-be-boors comedy, Search Party, can boast of a resume that includes such not-bad/not-great entertainments as Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, School for Scoundrels, Hangover II and Showtime’s “Dice.” Somehow, he figured out a way to sweep up all of the jokes that fell on the cutting-room floor of those movies and make a nearly complete feature out of them. That’s not to say any of the gags were worth saving, only that they finally added up to about 90 minutes, with credits. Neither were they sufficiently funny to keep Search Party from sitting on a shelf for two years, despite a comically gifted cast that includes Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”), Alison Brie (“Community”), J.B. Smoove (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lance Reddick (“The Wire”), Krysten Ritter (“Jessica Jones”), Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), Horatio Sanz (“SNL”), Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci (“Garfunkel and Oates”) and Rosa Salazar (“Man Seeking Woman”). When the love of his life (Woodward) jilts him at the altar, thanks to his hard partying pals Jason (Miller) and Evan (Pally), Nardo (Middleditch) follows her down to Mexico, where he’s carjacked and left naked in the middle of nowhere. At this point, viewers are assaulted with the kind of racist gross-out humor that would make Donald Trump blush. The rest of the out-of-control road-trip humor isn’t much better. Only fans of the actors will be able to digest Search Party, without a great deal of pot and beer for chasers.


Code of Honor: Blu-ray

For a while there, I actually thought I was watching an action epic from Steven Seagal’s vintage years. That’s because Code of Honor features wall-to-wall gunplay, pyrotechnics, knife duels and strippers … all of it gratuitous. It’s pretty much in the same vein as the dozens of other straight-to-video (or close to it) titles that Seagal’s been churning out for the last 25 years. (He knows his audience and what it wants.) The only concession to age displayed by Seagal is a weirdly geometric hairdo and facial makeup/camouflage borrowed from a mortuary. Code of Honor is as resistant to mainstream criticism as almost everything as he’s done in the same period. Here, he plays Colonel Robert Sikes, a special-forces lifer who lost his family to gangs while he was overseas. It’s prompted him to return home and go all Charles Bronson on any ’banger or pimp working the streets with the intent of committing felonies. The local constabulary doesn’t appreciate the help from Sikes or his former protégé (Craig Sheffer), who’s stalking him and itching for a showdown. In another familiar urban-action trope, writer/director Michael Winnick balances the black and Latino criminals with crooked white politicians and cops, as well as a bogus news team acting as a Greek chorus. Action junkies, at least, won’t be disappointed.


Suture: Special Edition: Blu-ray

To fully appreciate this experiment neo-noir, viewers are required to buy into a conceit most won’t recognize or completely understand until they check out the bonus material provided by Arrow Video in its fully restored special edition. It explains why Suture found so little traction after its festival release, in 1994, despite gathering some indie cred at Sundance and encouraging reviews. Those who come to Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s mystery within a mystery with an open mind and close attention to detail, even 22 years later, will be rewarded with a uniquely intriguing cinematic experience. Miss a clue along the way and you might come away from Suture shaking your head. Given that introduction, maybe you’ll forgive me for not ruining the fun with too many spoilers. The story opens immediately after the funeral of a wealthy Phoenix businessman, who fathered almost identical half-brothers, but afforded them very different lots in life. It’s where Needles construction worker Clay Arlington meets his half-brother, Vincent Towers, who grew up in the lap of luxury in Scottsdale. Vincent immediately recognizes in Clay an opportunity to wipe clean a slate that includes being the prime suspect in the old man’s suspicious death. No sooner does Clay arrive in Scottsdale to solidify his newfound bond with Vincent than his half-brother exchanges IDs and clothes with his guest. Vincent also asks Clay to drive him to the airport to catch a flight for an unexpected business trip, with instructions on how to answer the new-fangled car phone – it’s 1993, you’ll recall – in case something comes up. Few viewers will be surprised, then, when the phone rings in the luxury convertible and Vincent hits a button on a pay phone at the airport and the tone detonates a bomb planted underneath the vehicle. While Clay miraculously survives the blast, he’ll awaken with a serious case of amnesia and a face requires extensive plastic surgery. The rest of the 96-minute film chronicles Clay’s recovery from the surgery, including an amnesiac’s attempts to clear his name in a murder he didn’t commit, a therapeutic return to a desert hellhole he can’t remember leaving and another trap set by Vincent. That’s only the skeleton of the story, however. At the time of Suture’s debut, the cast was largely unknown. Dennis Haysbert had just broken through with a key role in Love Field; Mel Harris had just completed a four-season run on “thirtysomething”; Michael Harris was struggling to make a living as an actor; Dina Merrill, at 71, was still gorgeous and active; and Sab Shimono was scrambling for the few acting jobs available to Asian-Americans. To introduce their characters would ruin the gag. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want to check out the fresh interviews and background featurettes.


Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan: Special Edition: Blu-ray

For most of the 20th Century, Ray Harryhausen’s name was synonymous with special visual effects and stop-motion animation. In biblical terms, the pioneering effects supervisor of King Kong, Willis H. O’Brien, begat Harryhausen, who begat Peter Jackson (The Hobbit), Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit), Terry Gilliam (Brazil), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), James Cameron (Avatar), Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park), Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!), Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Dennis Muren (Star Wars), Joe Dante (Gremlins), John Lasseter (Toy Story), Phil Tippet (Jurassic Park), Greg Broadmore (District 9) and Randy Cook (The Amazing Spider-Man), among the third- and fourth-generation filmmakers interviewed in this highly entertaining testimonial. Not only do these disciples praise the master, but they also explain exactly how Harryhausen’s contributions raised the state of the art, well into the digital era. Gilles Penso’s definitive documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, was accorded remarkable access to clips from such wonderful fantasies as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Those titles may not mean much to viewers born during the era of computer animation, virtual reality and 3D modeling, but they spelled m-a-g-i-c to their parents and grandparents. Harryhausen lived long enough to be interviewed for the documentary and narrate parts of it. So did, his longtime friend and partner in sci-fi exploration, Ray Bradbury. Rounding out the celebrity parade are daughter Vanessa Harryhausen, historian Tony Dalton, actors John Cairney, Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro and composers Christopher Young and Robert Townson. At 90 minutes, there isn’t a wasted moment. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews; home movies on the set of Sinbad; Q&A sessions at the Paris Cinematheque and London Gate Theater; commentary with the filmmakers; and a Ray Harryhausen trailer reel.


Blood and Black Lace: Special Edition: Blu-ray

If a newcomer to giallo asked me to recommend a title to use as a starting point in any exploration of the genre, it would be Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. By breaking from established conventions of whodunits and horror, Bava anticipated the golden era of giallo by six years. He did so by locating the nexus of terror, criminal pathology and sex, then lighting the scenes in garish primary colors and backing them with a creepy soundtrack. Even though nudity wasn’t a part of the recipe in the early to mid-1960s, what was left to the imagination carried viewers’ imaginations a long way. “B&BL” may not have made a lot of money, but it influenced a generation of Italian filmmakers and inspired the Americans who would launch the slasher sub-genre, a decade later. Set largely inside a couture fashion house, the still extremely watchable picture chronicles a series of murders involving beautiful models at the hands of what appears to be a masked mannequin. Police Inspector Sylvester (Thomas Reiner) is assigned to investigate the murder, beginning with salon managers Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell) and his lover, the recently widowed Countess Cristina Como (Eva Bartok). When it’s revealed that the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), had kept a diary, almost everyone involved in the operation attempts to locate and burn it. With each subsequent murder, the litany of vices grows to include corruption, then-outlawed abortions, blackmail, backstabbing and drug addiction. The deaths also serve to reduce the long list of potential suspects, without diminishing the mystery or tension. It helps, as well, that the salon is housed, in typical Bava style, in a creaky old building that once probably served as a villa for Italian aristocrats. Hence, the high ceilings, hidden stairways and numerous bedrooms.


The Arrow Video package arrives with a new 2K restoration of the film, from the original camera negative, as well as well as optional Italian and English soundtracks, presented in original uncompressed mono PCM audio. The highlight of the bonus package is “Psycho Analysis,” a comprehensive new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre, featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Lamberto Bava (Demons), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (All the Colors of the Dark) critics Roberto Curti and Steve Della Casa, and crime novelists Sandrone Dazieri and Carlo Lucarelli. Add to it a new audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer, Tim Lucas; an appreciation by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears; “Yellow,” the acclaimed neo-giallo short by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt; “Gender and Giallo,” a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the genre’s relationship with the social upheavals of the 1960-70s; a panel discussion on Mario Bava, featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival; “The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell,” an episode of David Del Valle’s television series, devoted to the star of “B&BL”; the alternative U.S. opening titles, sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release; the original theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Howard Hughes, author of “Cinema Italiano” and “Mario Bava: Destination Terror,” an interview with Dante and Del Valle on Mitchell, illustrated with archive stills and posters.


The Swinging Cheerleaders: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Return of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Teenage Swinger: Grindhouse Double Feature

Arrow Video prides itself in having an eclectic catalogue of obscure or forgotten titles, a few restored well beyond what their place in cinema history would suggest. Such is the case with Jack Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders and John De Bello’s almost indescribably rancid, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! Arrow’s inventory of Hill’s work includes the far more defensible Spider Baby, Pit Stop, Blood Bath, Coffy and Friday Foster, all prime examples of mid-century exploitation flicks. Also released under the titles “Locker Room Girls” and “H.O.T.S. II,” The Swinging Cheerleaders was selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest, in Austin, Texas, 1996, and featured in the Satan’s Cheerleader Camp Film Fest, also in Austin in 2000. Jo Johnston plays Kate, a j-school student at Mesa University, who goes undercover as a cheerleader for her college newspaper to expose female exploitation on campus. Instead of feeling oppressed, Kate kind of digs the spotlight provided pretty girls with pompons. What she doesn’t like is a plot involving school administrators, the football coach, backers and a local bookie to fix the big game in favor of the heavy underdog rival. The Swinging Cheerleaders reveals a total ignorance of the feminist movement, investigative journalism, the rules of football and the general erosion of school spirit. Instead, it offers some topless interludes with Johnston, Rosanne Katon and an obviously pregnant Rainbeaux Smith, and an opportunity for the captain of the football team to beat up a “hippie.” (Apparently, the crowd at a Texas preview reacted very favorably to the scene.) The package’s best moments are reserved for the bonus package in a newly recorded commentary and fresh interview with Hill; archived interviews with cinematographer Alfred Taylor, Hill and rockabilly musician, wrestling manager, film producer and actor Johnny Legend (My Breakfast with Blassie); a Q&A with Hill, and actors Colleen Camp and Rosanne Katon, recorded at the New Beverly Cinema in 2012; and reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.


Ten years after the horrors unleashed in the 1978 cult sensation, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, tomatoes have been outlawed, making criminals of anyone who loves pizza, pasta sauce and salad bars. Rather than attempting a spoof of a spoof, De Bello extended the conceit in Return of the Killer Tomatoes! in the hope of finding an even younger audience than the one that greeted the original. To accomplish this feat, he recruited fresh faces Anthony Starke and George Clooney … yes, that George Clooney. Not surprisingly, he plays the womanizing buddy of Chad Finlander, whose Uncle Wilbur was the hero of the Great Tomato War and inventor of the tomato-less pizza. The always-welcome John Astin plays the evil Professor Gangreen, who’s developed a way to transform tomatoes into human facsimiles trained to conquer the world. Clooney, who’s mostly there to attract teenage girls, is given far more to do in the sexploitation department than the overly chaste Karen Mistal and future Playboy Playmate and pre-porn Teri Weigel. As bad as it is, “ROTKT!” would spawn two more sequels, two TV series and a video game. The Blu-ray package adds an interview with Anthony Starke, a stills gallery, commentary with De Bello, hosted by Michael Felsher, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by critic James Oliver.


The latest “Grindhouse Double Feature” release from After Hours Cinema features a pair of unremarkable titles from 1975 that probably were exhibited in more sheltered drive-ins and hard-tops unashamed of their sticky floors and torn seats. There’s plenty of skin, but the money shots begin off-screen or have been so reduced by scratches and grime that they’ve disappeared entirely. I’d hate to see what the prints looked like before they received their digital polish. In “Teenage Swingers,” Pete and his live-in girlfriend are forced to end their arrangement when his puritanical dad moves in to their crowded apartment. This forces the couple to save their together time for visits to a friend’s apartment, where they discover the joys of swinging. Will Daddy Dearest get hip and join the party? Probably. In “My Daughter’s Babysitter,” the nubile girl-next-door, hired to watch a couple’s kid, becomes distracted by mom’s treasure trove of glossy mags and marital aids. Will the parents object when they come home and find their toy box disturbed? Probably not.



MHz Networks: The Young Montalbano

MHz Networks: Detective Montalbano

PBS Kids: Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)

PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: Out of This World

American prime-time television once was the bastion of idiosyncratic police detectives and lone-wolf private eyes, whose charisma, cunning and cocksure approach to crime fighting attracted a loyal audience base. If their heyday on the broadcast networks is long past, the premium cable and streaming networks have begun to pick up the slack with such shows as “Bosch,” “Longmire,” “The Red Road” and “Justified.” Anyone looking for characters like Kojak, Columbo, Sam McCloud or Robert T. Ironside may want to check out such foreign-language streaming services as MHz and Acorn (the queen’s English being foreign to most Americans). It’s on the former streaming network that I found Italy’s “Detective Montalbano” and “The Young Montalbano” (also newly available on DVD), as well as “Don Matteo,” “Detective De Luca,” “Inspector Manara,” “Inspector Nardone” and “Inspector Vivaldi Mysteries.” Produced and broadcast by Italy’s RAI since 1999, “Detective Montalbano” and its 2012 prequel series, “The Young Montalbano
are based on the internationally popular mysteries of Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is chief inspector of the police department in Vigàta, a scenic seaside town in Sicily, where mafia-related crime competes for the cops’ attention with normal criminal activity. He is a gruff character, responsible and serious at work, but also open and friendly with people he knows he can trust. Montalbano uses his superior intelligence and patience to reconstruct the details and personalities behind violent crimes. Among his colleagues are his slightly buffoonish best friend and deputy, Mimi Augello; the dogged inspector Giuseppe Fazio; his sensitive, name-mangling subordinate Agatino Catarella; his current girlfriend, Ingrid Sjostrom; journalist and ally, Niccolò Zito; and Livia Burlando, with whom he has a sometimes tempestuous, long-distance relationship spanning both series. All of these characters appear, as well, in “The Young Montalbano,” with habits and personalities still in their developmental stage. While veteran stage, screen and television actor Luca Zingaretti plays the elder Montalbano, William Petersen look-alike Michele Riondino plays Salvo as the newly appointed police chief of Vigata. He’s surrounded by younger versions of the same characters in the earlier series. Salvo, an avid swimmer, lives in an apartment whose terrace overlooks the town’s beach. Both series take full advantage of the magnificent Sicilian countryside and holiday traditions in ancient mountaintop villages. The producers also find ways to introduce voluptuous Italian actresses into Salvo’s cases, as femme fatales or red herrings. The two new “Young Montalbano” DVDs cover the series’ six-episode second season. The “Detective Montalbano” release covers Episodes 27 and 28 and includes Teresa Mannino’s flirtatious feature-length profile of the author, “Montalbano and Me: Andrea Camilleri.” Each episode runs about two hours in length, which, however entertaining, is about 20 minutes too long.


Although Steven Spielberg’s tres, tres expensive adaptation of Roald Dahl’s source novel The BFG failed to set the box office on fire over the long holiday weekend, it’s yet to open in several key foreign markets and Finding Dory has to run out of steam eventually … right? It will be interesting to see how the 1989 animated version, created for television and video, will fare at a price less than the cost of an individual ticket at the multiplex. Younger viewers won’t be able to tell the difference. First published in 1982, “The BFG” takes places on a moonlit night, when little Sophie is snatched from her orphanage bed by a giant who whisks her away on a magical, thrilling and funny adventure. Unlike the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater and the Bonecruncher, the Big Friendly Giant is a good fellow who blows sweet dreams into the bedroom windows of children as they slumber. When Sophie learns that the monstrous crew of meanies is off to England to gobble up innocent boys and girls, she sets out to stop them once and for all, with the help of her new, rather large friend. Producer Kathleen Kennedy first acquired the rights to the literary property in 1991 and it’s taken all these many years for frequent partner, Spielberg, to make it a reality. The animated musical feature was produced by the award-winning Cosgrove Hall Studio, makers of “DangerMouse” and “The Wind in the Willows.” The DVD arrives with a new documentary on Dahl.


PBS Kids’ takes problem solving to an entirely new level in “Peg + Cat: Out of This World.” In the compilation DVD, Peg and Cat must put their heads together to fix their spaceship, outsmart Big Mouth (a crafty space alien who loves to dance), and win a cosmic T-ball competition. It helps immensely that they’re great at spotting patterns and working together as a team. The hourlong set is comprised of “The Doohickey Problem,” “The Long Line Problem,” “Richard the Third” and “The T-Ball Problem.”


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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