When the folks behind “Veronica Mars” decided to finance the reunion project through Kickstarter, they basically put its fate on the shoulders of the fans who’ve been begging for closure since the show went off the air in 2007. It had ended in a cliffhanger, after all, and nothing disturbs a diehard fan as much as uncertainty. The producers must also have been encouraged by the broadening of Kristen Bell’s already broad popularity base, which not only includes “marshmallows” once obsessed with the show, but also fans of Showtime’s very adult sitcom, “House of Lies.” She also provided the voice for Anna in Disney’s animated blockbuster, “Frozen.” The crowd-sourcing campaign, itself, was a huge success, recording unprecedented numbers for a movie launch. Somewhere between idea and conception, however, something about “Veronica Mars” simply didn’t translate to the big screen. For one thing, the series about a teen crime-fighter was a hit only within the demographic served by the old UPN and CW networks, not a CBS or HBO. Critics also enjoyed it, but mostly because it took teenagers seriously and was different. (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, notwithstanding.) The larger reason, I think, is that creator/director/co-writer Rob Thomas is a creature of prime-time television and failed to take into account the differences between the two mediums. While “Veronica Mars” does a nice job of tying up loose ends left behind from the show’s three-year run, it feels very much like one of those “very special episodes” pitched with deep sincerity during sweeps periods. Even though the movie cost a modest $6 million to make, it struggled to make back $4 million of that total, including overseas revenues. This, despite reviews from mainstream critics that were overwhelmingly positive.
Almost all of the key characters from the original show have returned to Neptune for the reunion, along with the sex tape that caused Veronica a great deal of anguish in Season Three. There also are cameos by famous friends of the series and Easter eggs. Among the newcomers are Jerry O’Connell and Gaby Hoffman, an actor who plays nutzo as well as anyone these days. Now a law-school graduate living in New York, Mars decides to make the trek back to Neptune after receiving a call for help from her ex-boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who is accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend. There’s also some unfinished business with her father, the former sheriff of Neptune (a job now performed by O’Connell). I think that Turner and Diane Ruggiero’s script will play well with the one or two marshmallows who haven’t seen it, already. The tickets and computer codes handed out to Kickstarter contributors probably cut into box-office revenues, although it’s possible that they’ll want to own the movie on DVD/Blu-ray. Bell, not surprisingly, remains the star of the show here. She’s matured, but not to the point where she’s unrecognizable. Viewers who only know her from “House of Lies” or “The Lifeguard,” however, might not be able to square the Bell they know with the peppy PG-13 do-gooder in “VM.” One reviewer advised first-timers to watch a season’s worth of “VM” before taking on the movie, which, I guess, is just another way of encouraging audiences to the read the book before judging the film adaptation too harshly. Fans certainly will delight in learning about the proposed spinoff series of webisodes from CW Seed, which supposedly are on the drawing board. The Blu-ray adds “By the Fans: The Making of the ‘Veronica Mars’ Movie”; “More On-Set Fun,” with Bell, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield and cast members; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
The Art of the Steal: Blu-ray Jonathan Sobol’s art-heist thriller, “The Art of the Steal,” may not break any new ground on the sub-genre, but it has so much fun tweaking the clichés and conventions that it easy qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The less one tries to figure out precisely what the thieves are doing – I lost track about halfway through – the more entertaining it will be for viewers attracted to the stars. If the movie’s twists and turns recall a bargain-basement “Ocean’s Eleven,” then, so much the better. “Art of the Steal” benefits most from an instantly recognizable cast of old pros – Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Kenneth Welsh, Terence Stamp – as well as an eager group of up-and-comers, including Jay Baruchel, Chris Diamantopoulos, Katheryn Winnick and Jason Jones. Russell and Dillon play feuding brothers, whose paths diverged after their last heist landed one of them in a Polish prison. The lure of a monster haul causes them to reunite with other members of the old gang. This time, however, everyone in international law-enforcement – specifically, Stamp and Jones — has their eyes squarely on the gang and seems cognizant of the treasures about to be moved from Europe to North America. None of the crooks is especially trustworthy, though, so we’re constantly aware of the possibility that a con game is being played on the crooks, cops and us. Sobol makes very good use of locations in Canada and Romania, while also adding a neat animated sequence illustrating how an Italian maintenance worker, in 1911, stole the “Mona Lisa” and keep it from view for two years. (Anyone who’s seen “The Freshman” is welcome to put two and two together at this point in the movie.) The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of interesting making-of featurettes and commentary. – Gary Dretzka
Mr. Jones: Blu-ray Despite all of the found-footage conceits and limitations of a seemingly forced PG-13 rating, “Mr. Jones” has enough going for it to satisfy most fans of direct-to-DVD horror flicks. Here, a foray into the world of art scholars and anthropologists, adds an intellectual subtext to the proceedings, broadening the story’s scope and appeal beyond genre borders. Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) are indie filmmakers who’ve decided to breathe fresh air into their personal and professional relationship by moving to the American Southwest, where supernatural vibes come with the territory. If their remote cabin is an unholy a mess, they quickly discover that they’re living in the shadow of a famously enigmatic sculptor, whose work suggests he’s possessed by the devil. While exploring their new neighborhood, Scott and Penny discover several “scarecrows” – made from materials found in nature – strewn along paths around the property. If anything, they resemble the fetishistic appendages and “birds’ nests” found during the investigation of a serial killer in “True Detective.” Stumbling upon one of them, while on a hunger-induced vision quest, would give anyone the creeps. They appear to have been constructed by a artist known simply as Mr. Jones, who, if agreeable, would make a terrific subject for a documentary. His Southwestern-style home is surrounded by sagebrush and offers a panoramic view of a vast arid valley. At night, the artist wanders around the property, wearing a hoodie made of burlap and hanging new scarecrows. Mr. Jones, it seems, doesn’t like having neighbors, nosy or otherwise. When Scott and Penny sense Mr. Jones’ absence from the house, they can’t help but go snooping through its nooks and crannies. Writer/director Karl Mueller uses found-footage to tell his story, but far more sparingly than other filmmakers. Despite the artsy-fartsy and anthropological stuff, the accent is on cheap thrills of the more generic sort. It’s here that I think Mueller was hand-cuffed by someone’s decision to go out PG-13. Why bother? An unrated director’s cut could easily have been stitched together for less timid distributors. That’s easy for me to say, though. (I wonder if I’m the only viewer who would freely associate the scarecrows in “Mr. Jones” with the Counting Crows’ song, “Mr. Jones”?) – Gary Dretzka
Desert Riders Normally, when documentaries are made about child labor and parents willing to sell their children for ridiculously small amounts of money, the filmmakers describe crimes so hideous as to bring tears to a Death Row resident. And, yet, people around the world continue to buy clothes, toys and computers made in countries that turn a blind eye to such abusive practices, and “sexual tourists” continue to flock to Thailand to taste the forbidden fruit of enslaved boys and girls. “Desert Riders” tells a slightly less nauseating, if similarly heart-breaking story. The problem of importing children to provide entertainment for rich punters has yet to be eradicated, even after legislation was passed to prevent it. As clichéd as it might sound, one of the leading spectator sports in the Middle East is camel racing. In some quarters, it’s held in the same esteem as Thoroughbred and greyhound racing are here. While Dubai, too, has become a major center for horse racing, camel racing remains a popular draw. It also draws crowds in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Australia, and Mongolia, where races have traditionally been staged for weddings and other special ceremonies. Vic Sarin and Noemi Weis’ documentary describes a racing establishment that has benefitted financially from importing young boys from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mauritania and Sudan to train and race camels. Chosen for their small size and lack of options in life, the boys run the risk of grave injury every time they climb aboard such large and unwieldy beasts. With a seemingly unlimited supply of sellers and buyers, an injured boy is as expendable as a camel with a broken leg. The filmmakers not only spent time in the Emirates, but they also traveled to the places where parents have been told that their sons will never have a better opportunity to earn money, be educated and provided with the finest medical care. These proved to be false promises for most of the boys. When the situation became known outside the racing community in the UAE and Qatar, the practice of using jockeys under 15 was banned and compensation was ordered for former riders. In Qatar, owners have been required to use robotic jockeys. “Desert Riders” tells us that the practice has yet to be universally eradicated and injured jockeys are still waiting for restitution. The ugliness of abuse stands in stark contrast to the beautiful desert backdrops and excitement that comes with racing. – Gary Dretzka
Josh (Against the Grain) In some countries, all an aspiring filmmaker needs to produce a first feature today is an idea, a digital camera, a friend with editing equipment and, lately, either a credit card or crowd-sourcing. A film-school education is optional. In a country as tightly wound as Pakistan, even an idea can get a filmmaker killed. Portraying women in ways that run counter to someone else’s interpretation of the Koran can also be dangerous to one’s health. The route Iram Parveen Bilal, writer/director of “Josh (Against the Grain),” took to the release of her first feature was different than most folks. Before serving as an assistant editor on the documentaries “West of Memphis” and “Bhutto,” Bilal paid her dues on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” an abomination that couldn’t be more different than her intense village-based drama. Aamina Sheikh, who could be Mariska Hargitay’s younger sister, plays a teacher enjoying a cosmopolitan existence in Karachi. Fatima returns to her non-descript village after learning of the disappearance and presumed death of her childhood nanny, Nusrat, a woman who dared challenge the way food is distributed to peasants by the preposterously greedy feudal chief. When it becomes clear that Nusrat was murdered for threatening to cut into the fiend’s revenues, Fatima vows to pick up where she left off, organizing a food coop. No fool, Fatima enlists the help of several of her highly placed Karachi friends, whose influence, she hopes, reaches beyond the potentate’s fiefdom. At first, the villagers aren’t at all keen to join Nusrat in the parched, rock-strewn cemetery. Another complicating factor arrives in the form of Islamic fundamentalists, just beginning to flex their muscles in the village. For the villagers to mobilize against tyranny and stand up for the most basic of their human rights would require no small measure of courage. Finally, though, Fatima’s conviction proves infectious. At a time in Pakistan when the Taliban and fanatical forces are dictating terms among peasants and government officials, alike, and local strongmen remain active, Bilal’s call for self-determination borders on the incendiary. The traditional narrative format saves “Josh” from teetering into agitprop, however. The cinematography is exceptional, as are the performances by the amateur and professional actors. – Gary Dretzka
A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert Suzanne Vega: Solitude Standing The Republican Party, at large, and the Bush administrations, in particular, could never be accused of being hip. It’s possible that “W” is a closet head-banger, based solely on what appears to have been a wasted youth, but his tastes as president reflected a preference for classic rock and traditional country. “A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert” is so uncharacteristically cool that it can only be considered a historical anomaly or aberration. The event being celebrated on January 21, 1989, was the inauguration of the first President Bush, who considered it a compliment to be called “square” … as in “far and square.” The campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been nastier than anything pundits had seen in their lifetimes and everyone, I think, was greatly relieved that it was over. How bad was it? RNC chairman Lee Atwater, architect of a dirty-tricks campaign unprecedented in its overtly racist tone, would be moved before his death four years later to apologize for its “naked cruelty.” It probably didn’t provide much solace to the unsuccessful Democrat. I had no idea that the footage shown in “A Celebration of Blues and Soul” existed. This leads me to believe that it was sealed inside a vault, probably to avoid being shown to the big-money bigots who deliver bushel baskets full of Franklins to party headquarters every day. Indeed, one of the scenes missing from this wonderful document is the arrival of the President and First Lady, accompanied by Booker T & MGs. The irony, of course, is that the affair was organized by Atwater, who might have been the only man in America capable of running such an overtly racist operation and, two months later, jam with some of greatest soul, blues and R&B artists of our time. He loved the music and was, himself, an accomplished guitarist. In his greeting to the large crowd of rabid Republican attendees, Atwater asked that politics not be made part of the evening’s festivities. As if …
The result is one of most entertaining concert films of the last 40 years. No expense was spared in the 24-track recording of the music and multi-camera visual presentation. That it would sit unnoticed in an office for 20 years, awaiting rediscovery and re-mastering, is both a mystery and a sin. The new DVD from Shout!Factory adds an hour’s worth of music to the abridged documentary shown recently on PBS outlets. It adds a booklet, with an essay by music historian Peter Guralnick, comprehensive liner notes by former Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington and an extensive photo gallery of never-before-published photos from the event. Dig this lineup of talent from Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans: Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Sam Moore, Billy Preston, Albert Collins, Percy Sledge, Chuck Jackson, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Joe Louis Walker, Ronnie Wood, Jimmie Vaughan, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Cash McCall and a whole lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. It’s a remarkable gathering of musicians. Frankly, I would have expected the Blues Brothers and Osmonds.
Shout!Factory and Wienerworld have a lot in common when it comes to producing concert DVDs. Represented here by MVD Visuals, the former is the UK’s leading independent music publisher and distributor. Its concert series features well-known groups, entertaining in some of Europe’s most prestigious venues. The crowds are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Suzanne Vega has always enjoyed great support on the continent — for her songs and poetry, both — so she was a natural candidate for inclusion in the Weinerworld series. “Suzanne Vega: Solitude Standing” bears the name of the artist’s second and most-popular album, from which derived “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.” It was filmed at the Rome Auditorium in July, 2003, and features hits from the preceding 20 years of her career and more contemporary songs. She’s accompanied onstage by singer/songwriter Valerio Piccolo, who also translates her poetry for the audience and conducts an interview contained in the bonus package, along with a photo gallery. It is being released to coincide with Vega’s new studio album, “Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.” – Gary Dretzka
TV-to-DVD PBS: The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama PBS: Your Inner Fish Frontline: Secrets of the Vatican Secrets of the Dead: Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone/Carthage’s Lost Warriors China Beach: Season 3 As if to prove how difficult it is to cram 3,000 years of Jewish history into five hours of television, historian Simon Schama will need about a thousand pages to complete his two-volume book of the same title and subject matter. The first volume was accorded ecstatic reviews upon its release earlier in 2014 and, when it arrives later this year or next, one hopes the second will elaborate on issues that didn’t fit the epic documentary. The BBC/PBS version of “The Story of the Jews” carries us away to places only our imaginations are able to take us in a book, which begins and ends within a relative stone’s throw of each other. No story of the Jewish people could be complete, however, without stops in dozens of world capitals, shtetls that once flourished in Eastern Europe, the catacombs of Rome, the parched sands of the Middle East and palm-stitched boulevards of Hollywood. Even if those journeys represent 2,000 of the 3,000-miles traveled in the documentary, one can imagine how much history might be lost along the way. It’s Schama’s contention that what’s unified Jews are the words on paper and parchment they’ve carried with them everywhere they’ve gone and, when need be, were memorized to be put down later. Even when Torahs have been destroyed by tyrants seeking to eradicate any furtherance of the faith, the words have continued to live and inform generations to come: one history, common to all Jews. The other key point he makes involves the common misapprehension about Jews’ unwillingness to assimilate or share their knowledge. Instead, he argues, history shows that Jews have, more often than not, worked toward common goals with their Gentile neighbors. Such attempts at integration – while maintaining a tight hold on their religion — have almost always have resulted in disaster. Entire populations of Jews were expelled from Spain and England, when their contributions were no longer deemed necessary; pogroms in Russia cleared the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement; Jews who fought for Germany in World War I were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Everywhere, cruel stereotypes and slander followed the survivors. It explains why all roads lead back to Israel in this exhaustive documentary. Shama isn’t reluctant to share his opinions, not all of which won’t be shared by his audience. His narrative style is accommodating and sometimes deceptively jovial. Not all of the questions we might have are addressed, let alone answered, especially those pertaining to the schisms dividing Jews in Israel and America. Still, Shamas makes it easy for Jews and non-Jews to make it through the entire mini-series, with intriguing anecdotes and stops in places that help make history come alive for people whose appreciation for the Old Testament may never include a visit to the Holy Lands.
Those of us unwilling to buy into the bible’s take on Genesis and claims that the universe is as old as the life span of the average Twinkie aren’t terribly disturbed by the likelihood that are forebears may have had tails and walked on all four limbs. You’ve got to start somewhere and it might as well be the Ethiopian Rift Valley. Even after watching the three-part PBS presentation “Your Inner Fish,” however, I might draw the line at the contention that humans evolved from fish that more closely resemble smashed Play-Doh creations than Nemo or Willy. Here, the time span covered is 3.5 billion years, give or take a million. Through extremely well made CGI re-enactments, we’re able to imagine, if not necessarily accept how such a transition might have occurred. The mini-series is narrated by the noted paleobiologist and anatomist, Neil Shubin, who, in 2006, introduced the world to the likely culprit, Tiktaalik roseae. The lobe-finned fish from the late Devonian period shared features of tetrapods (four-legged animals) and represented the evolutionary transition from fish to amphibians. The Tiktaalik’s natural habitat was in the shallow, oxygen-poor waters that lapped mud flats along the shores of ancient oceans. Once Shubin confirmed its existence through fossils discovered in the Canadian Arctic, he traveled around the world in his search for fossils that would provide links to other stops on the evolutionary train. Talk about looking for needles in haystacks. “Your Inner Fish” is followed by the more familiar creatures in “Your Inner Lizard” and “Your Inner Monkey,” which gets us caught up to the present. All along, he presents evidence that physically connects Tiktaaliks to homo sapiens.
The “Frontline” presentation, “Secrets of the Vatican,” revisits the Catholic Church’s ongoing child-abuse scandal, this time following the evidence to the inner sanctums of the Vatican. Knowing that Pope Francis has already begun the process of weeding out the really bad apples among the clergy, as well as the crooks in the Vatican-controlled bank, softens the blow of new accusations. These lead straight to the closest advisers of Francis’ predecessors, many of whom have avoided prosecution because of the Vatican’s sovereign status in Italy. Among the heroes here are Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, who stood trial for stealing documents and leaking them to the press, and victims of abuse who risked everything by coming forward to tell their stories. The priests’ most powerful weapon against exposure appears to have been threatening the victims with eternal damnation. How the Church has managed to survive this horrible scandal, more or less intact, is one of the great mysteries of our time. If God truly does exist, he must have run out of tears long ago.
PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” can’t help but fascinate us with revelations about mysteries that, until now, resisted easy solutions. In “Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone,” we follow the British explorer’s footprints throughout Africa, as he searches for the source of the Nile. The path stops in a village, which, for Livingston, represented a crossroads where the past and future of slavery met. A firm abolitionist, he was so desperate to realize his lifelong dream that he entered into a devil’s bargain with guides who also worked in the slave trade. While recovering from a serious disease, he witnessed a terrible massacre of villagers by slave-traders who were from a different tribe. Desperate to record and report what he’s just witnessed, Livingston’s only option was to write his story over an article in an old newspaper. It was difficult to decipher the report, but a Scottish newspaper managed to piece enough of it together for publication, alongside an illustration. Many years later, a forensics historian was able to use advanced computer equipment to lift Livingston’s words from those on the newspaper, giving a different perspective on the explorer’s interpretation of what happened that day. “Carthage’s Lost Warriors” is interesting for providing evidence – however circumstantial — to support a new theory about which Europeans discovered the Americas first. Is it possible that defeated Carthaginian seamen found refuge on the Iberian Peninsula and, from there, sailed and rowed to Brazil with experienced Celtic sailors? Once there, they journeyed to the Andes, via the Amazon River, where they were allowed to join a tribe that lived a few mountaintops away from Machu Picchu. Architecture bearing symbols common to Iberia structures, a sling weapon and axe head support the theory, as well as native Peruvian children whose European traits are far more prevalent than anything Indian.
Last week, the folks at Starvista Entertainment/Time Life sent out releases crowing about winning a pair of prizes at the fourth annual Home Media Magazine Awards. As is the company’s practice, complete-series collections of “China Beach” and “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” – Best Vintage TV Series and Best Comedy Disc, respectively — had been introduced in 2013, months ahead of their release in annual collections. “China Beach: Season 3” arrives this week in a six-disc set, which features all 22 uncut episodes from 1989-90 and bonus programming. This season was marked by the unlikely relationship between nurse Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany) and “entrepreneur” K.C. Kolowski (Marg Helgenberger). It began after the women were held hostage in one of the enemy’s notorious tunnel systems. Among the new arrivals is Holly Pelegrino (Ricki Lake).
None of the broadcast networks care much for launching new shows during the summer months … too expensive, too few viewers. That’s the excuse, anyway. “Rookie Blue,” approaching its fifth-season debut, has been the rare exception to the rule. Produced in Canada, where it’s known as “Coppers,” the show long ago ceased chronicling the trials and tribulations of mere rookies. The fourth season begins with Andy and Nick returning from an undercover mission and ends with a noisy shootout. Who knew Canada was so violent?
The latest compilation of “Adventure Time” episodes from Cartoon Network bears the title of one of its show’s most-discussed episodes, “The Suitor.” As is frequently the case when attempting to synopsize a single entry in the series, describing what happens on screen in 11 minutes requires twice that much time to explain. Here, Peppermint Butler thinks Princess Bubblegum is spending too much time in her lab and decides she needs a suitor. After an extensive search, he picks a PB devotee named Braco. Too busy to pay much attention to her suitor, PB satisfies his lust in a less personal way. The set adds 15 more episodes from the fifth and previous seasons. – Gary Dretzka
New to Blu Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary: Blu-ray Bachelor Party: Blu-ray The Terminal: Blu-ray Weekend at Bernie’s: Blu-ray It seems like only yesterday that Mel Brooks broke the fart barrier in movies and risked the ire of animal-rights activists by ordering a future Hall of Fame football player to punch out a horse. I can’t say that “” feels as fresh as it did 40 years ago, although the new Blu-ray version is top-drawer — but it’s still hilarious and a must-see for every new generation of comedy lovers. Nothing like “Blazing Saddles” had been shown to American audiences. It satirized most Western clichés and conventions, while chipping away at such cowboy icons as Randolph Scott. More to the point, Brooks used the n-word and cocky black sheriff as a battering ram against racism, not just in Hollywood, but also across the country. Forty years later, however, the word still hasn’t lost any of its power to sting. The almost constant use of the word in “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” was as off-putting as the whippings endured by the slaves. Brooks’ subversive streak didn’t end with racist epithets and parodies of Western clichés. Brooks recalls anticipating a negative response from studio executives by adding Richard Pryor – who had yet to swear off using the n-word in his act — to his writing team and getting his reaction to its use in various situations. Finally, even after a howlingly positive test screening, one of the suits demanded that Brooks edit out everything that might be considered offensive by any customer. (Imagine the airline-approved version of the movie.) With the power of final-cut approval behind him, he refused to cut anything and it has since gone on to be one Warner Bros.’ greatest hits and most influential comedies. It has proven so, as well, in every subsequent playback format. “Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary” retains most of the features and commentary from the 30th anniversary edition, adding only a new background featurette with Brooks and souvenir lobby cards. The most unusual among them is “Black Bart: 1975 Pilot Episode of the Proposed TV Series Spin-off,” complete with a wholly unnecessary laugh track.
“Blazing Saddles” and other of Brooks’ pictures would usher in a golden age of parody on the big screen. The much celebrated beans-and-farts scene certainly influenced the creators of “Animal House” and the many gross-out and frat-boy comedies that followed in its wake. Among the best was “Bachelor Party,” a raunchy comedy that may have been responsible for resuscitating the bachelor- and bachelorette-party industry in America. Except for the silly TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies” and a star turn in “Splash,” Tom Hanks was a relatively unknown player. Just as his wildly exuberant performance in “Animal House” caused John Belushi’s stock to rise in Hollywood, Tom Hanks’ take on a soon-to-be married rascal in “Bachelor Party” put him on the fast track. In it, he’s engaged to a woman (Tawny Kitaen) so far out of his league that he’s afraid she’ll wake up one morning and wonder what drug she had ingested before agreeing to marry him. Of course, the bride-to-be warns her fiancé about inviting prostitutes to the party … or else. The challenge gives her disapproving father and former boyfriend a reason to hope they can stop the wedding. The ensuing anarchy is tightly controlled by writer/director Neal Israel, who takes every opportunity to focus on the sparkle in Hanks’ eye. The other thing that drew young males to the movie were the many topless women, ranging from pros to nuns. After 30 years, the familiarity of the gags in “Bachelor Party” has caused it to lose some, but not all of its zip.
Twenty years later, a far more subdued and physically mature Tom Hanks starred in Steven Spielberg’s smallish comedy/drama, “The Terminal.” It tells the Capra-esque story of an Eastern European man, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who gets stranded at JFK airport after his papers are deemed defective, due to situations out of his control. Given the rigid post-9/11 restrictions on travel, it isn’t surprising that airport officials might want to err on the side of caution, not generosity. He’s given an opportunity to return home, but prefers to wait at JFK until the bureaucrats sort things out for him. He takes up unofficial residence there, making friends and demonstrating something irresistible about the human spirit. The presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones likely had something to do with that. The Blu-ray recycles several informative featurettes from the previous standard-definition release, adding a photo gallery and trailers in HD.
Released in 1989, “Weekend at Bernie’s” wore its negative reviews like badges of honor. With movie-going demographics skewing younger and decidedly more male, a critic’s outrage at tasteless material meant next to nothing at the box office. This phenomenon began when viewers defied the critics by flocking to see slasher and splatter flicks. After the success of the much-reviled “Porky’s” franchise, they pundits might as well have been spitting into the wind. Ads for such movies suggested, “You’ll hate yourself for laughing so hard …” and “The funniest movie you’ll love to hate.” The presence of teen heartthrobs Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman helped convince teenagers and young women to spend date-nights in the company of their Neanderthal boyfriends. And, in truth, only a corpse as stiff as Bernie could sit through the movie without cracking a smile, at least. McCarthy and Silverman work at a life-insurance company in Manhattan, which is withering in one of its more miserable heat waves. Almost by accident, they discover some questionable bookkeeping. When they inform Bernie of their discovery, the notorious party animal rewards them with a weekend at his summer home in the Hamptons. What we know and the lads have yet to learn is that Bernie is in league with the mafia and, because he’s also sleeping with the boss’ girlfriend, they would far prefer seeing him dead than the innocent young men. When they arrive at Party Central, they can’t help but notice that Bernie is dead. Afraid they’ll be blamed for the death, they decide to pose Bernie in ways that won’t be detectable to the drunks who fill the house each weekend. Bernie’s apparent resurrection confuses the hitman, who dedicates himself to re-killing the corpse. While the slapstick does wear thin after a while, it’s Terry Kiser’s ability to look alive, while demonstrably dead, that makes us laugh. – Gary Dretzka
Amistad: Blu-ray The Bridges of Madison County: Blu-ray The Women: Blu-ray The Blu-ray release of “” should benefit from marketing campaigns designed to help “12 Years a Slave” win Oscars in 3 of the 12 categories in which it was nominated. Steven Spielberg’s courtroom drama chronicles the trial that followed the 1839 slave uprising on the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad. When the ship was confiscated after reaching American waters, lawyers representing the ship owner, the Queen of Spain and other interested parties argued that the Africans were legally defined as “cargo” and should be returned to their clients or tried for murder. The opposing lawyers argued that Africans, represented by Cinque, revolted in self-defense and should be free to return to Africa. The debate is riveting and the re-creations of brutality are heart-wrenching. Historical accuracy was questioned, but not the ability of the all-star cast to move us. It includes Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anna Paquin, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard and Matthew McConaughey, in a performance that signaled what might come later (after his career got mired in bad rom-coms). The Blu-ray contains the making-of piece added previously to the DVD.
Based on Robert James Waller’s weepie best-seller, “The Bridges of Madison County” tells the story of forbidden love in the wilds of Iowa. Well, not exactly. How else, though, to sell the movie to men of a certain age who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of the 1992 novel on their nightstand, even if it were the last book on Earth? It’s sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide, all of them to women. Even if those 50 million women only manage to drag 10 percent of their husbands to the megaplex, you’ve sold a lot of tickets. As such, it became one of those literary properties that attract the attention of Hollywood’s top actors, writers and directors. Finally, Clint Eastwood was hired to star in and direct the unlikely romance between middle-age characters who’d given up on ever again falling intensely in love with someone, let alone a person they’ve just met and, given the circumstances, probably can’t have. Once the 65-year-old Eastwood agreed to join the project, to which Robert Redford originally was attached, he had a surprisingly large choice of excellent middle-age actresses from which to choose. It’s said that Clint’s mother convinced him to choose 45-year-old Meryl Streep, even when studio geeks were pushing for someone younger. In hindsight, the match seems perfect. Streep plays Italian “war bride” Francesca Johnson, who runs into photographer Robert Kincaid while he’s in rural Iowa photographing the endangered wooden bridges of Madison County. Cupid smacks both of them upside the head, leaving Francesca, especially, with the choice of ditching her husband and children for what could be the love of her life. We know this because, after her untimely death, her children discover letters and journals left behind for them to understand this unknown part of her. (They can even pinpoint in their minds the four-day span during which the affair took place.) Finally, their reactions are as important to us as the revelation, itself. The Blu-ray does a nice job picking up the summer colors, without attempting to make anyone look artificially younger in the process. The featurettes have been recycled from previous DVD editions.
In the opening credits to George Cukor’s screen adaptation of Claire Boothe Luce’s Broadway hit, “The Women,” he teases us with photos of the key actors underneath clips of the animals their characters’ behavior most closely resembles. If some of the depictions seem impertinent or cruel … well, watch the movie. In dialogue commonly referred to as “toxic,” Luce’s characters conspire to ruin each other’s marriages and position in society. When a salon worker overhears the wealthy, beautiful and blissfully idle friends of socialite Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) gossip about her husband’s affair with a sales clerk, she accidentally conveys that information to an unsuspecting Haines while getting her nails done. It takes Mary only a little while longer to discover who’s enjoying her husband’s sexual companionship, but the likely suspects include Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and Phyllis Povah. We know that Mr. Haines isn’t a closet case, because there are no men in the movie and, after all, it’s 1939. The set design changes from Park Avenue chic to Reno rustic when Mary stops beating herself up and accepts the fact that her husband’s a dick and she needs to get divorced asap. Like so many other women in the same position, she books a short stay at a dude ranch for divorcees, run by the great butch character actor, Marjorie Main. I don’t think that Luce or Cukor could get away with the same code-approved “happy” ending today, but divorce wasn’t rewarded in those days. The Blu-ray comes with the documentaries “From the Ends of the Earth” and “Hollywood: Style Center of the World”; an alternate black-and-white fashion-show sequence; music cues; and trailers from the movie and its 1956 musical remake, “The Opposite Sex.” Feel free to ignore Diane English’s 2008 remake, which starred/wasted Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen. – Gary Dretzka
The Real Decameron Jungle Blue Deep Tango/Young Secretaries Pretty Peaches 2/Pretty Peaches 3 This month’s selection of adult reissues takes us back to the dawn of the modern age of porn with titles collectors will appreciate far more than casual fans and viewers looking for a gonzo fun. Like nearly a dozen other copycat movies, “” (“The Sexbury Tales”) followed hot on the heels of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ribald 1971 hit, “The Decameron.” That film was comprised of adaptations of nine stories from Bocaccio’s “Decameron.” Like most Italian sex comedies of the period, it featured busty innocents of almost indescribable beauty required to put up with suitors, priests and perverts who more closely resemble toads and tree stumps than the handsome young men who populated Pasolini’s movies. “The Real Decameron” doesn’t measure up to Pasolini’s work – what could? – but the sketches are amusing in the same way as the jokes and cartoons in Playbook are amusing to college freshmen. The stories are introduced by a group of prostitutes, gossiping as they wash their clothes at a village well. Among the stars are Rosalba Neri and Christa Linder.
“Jungle Blue” (“Rey del Amazonas”) combines the myths of Tarzan and Bigfoot, in the service of a nearly incomprehensible story about lost treasures, missing explorers and loose hippies. The only thing that separates this silly wet dream from a million other such flicks are early appearances by Annette Haven and Candida Royalle, in spliced-in group gropes, and locations I have no reason to believe aren’t actually in the Peruvian rain forest, as advertised.
Annette Haven turns up, as well, in the 1973 “Deep Tango.” The quickie sex satire borrows elements of “Deep Throat” and “Last Tango in Paris,” although none was likely to have gotten anyone in trouble with the copyright office. The second half of the double-feature is “Young Secretaries,” a 1974 office comedy in which secretaries impress their bosses in ways other than taking shorthand, while their wives are serviced by guys in line for their husbands’ job.
A far better double-feature experience is provided by the second and third installments in Alex de Renzy’s “Pretty Peaches” series. Sitting in for Desiree Cousteau are Siobhan Hunter and Keisha. Both films are representative of the Golden Age of Porn. – Gary Dretzka
Hot Guys With Guns Truth Mystery fans have been following gay and lesbian private eyes for almost two decades, now. Some of the characters have even broken through the niche barrier, attracting crossover readers more interested in crime solving than sexual interludes. I don’t know if there are any equivalent series on the fringes of cable television, but the time is probably right to give one a shot. Given a more generous budget, “” would be a good place to start. Veteran actor Doug Spearman (“Noah’s Arc”) moved behind the camera as writer, director and executive producer of the interracial beefcake detective story, which is an appealing blend of comedy, action, drama, romance and sharp dialogue. Marc Anthony Samuel (“General Hospital”) and newcomer Brian McArdle play Danny and “Pip,” ex-boyfriends on a mission to solve a series of robberies whose common denominator is that they take place at wild sex parties and involve “roofies.” The victims aren’t keen on seeing their names appear on a Beverly Hills police blotter. Coincidentally, Danny is enrolled in a class designed for actors wanting to look legitimate when auditioning for roles in cops-and-robbers movies. He practices his skills by spying on Pip, an attractive ornament on the party scene. When Pip is robbed, Danny volunteers to help him recover his goods. Also important to the story are Danny’s gruff teacher (Alan Blumenfeld), and Pip’s sex-starved mother (Joan Ryan). Given the limitations imposed on it, “Hot Guys With Guns” is more entertaining than it has any right to be. As it is, the clever James Bond-inspired opening probably used up half the budget.
The jarring musical score, alone, tells us that writer/director/actor Rob Moretti is no stranger to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the methods he deployed to build suspense and tension. It wouldn’t be fair to Hitch or Moretti to belabor the comparison any further, if only because “Truth” isn’t playing in the same league or arena as most Hollywood thrillers. It’s targeted at gay viewers and, as such, suffers from miniscule budgets and limited resources. The story is told through prison interviews and the flashbacks of Caleb (Sean Paul Lockhart), a young man whose hellish childhood put him on direct path to incarceration. When Caleb connects with the older Jeremy (Moretti) on the Internet, an escape route from pain opens up to him. Can it last? Well, we already know that the protagonist is in prison. The real question is how Caleb got there. – Gary DretzkaTags: actor, actress, concert, director, film, movie, music, producer, release, singer, television, tour, tv