Editor’s Notes: Blood on the Mountain, Bad Santa 2, King Solomon’s Mines, Grace and Frankie: Season Two, 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol, & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown are out on their respective formats Tuesday February 21nd.
Blood on the Mountain
Blood on the Mountain (Virgil Films) is a documentary that spotlights the long-term impacts of coal mining on the American public and the planet. Over the course of many years, the coal industry has transformed the development of coal. The need for both coal and labor has placed a massive burden on many people including the workers and the Appalachian area. The movie delivers a dramatic portrait of a divided population, exploited and besieged by corporate interests. It details the struggles of a hard-working, often misunderstood people who have historically faced limited choices and have never benefited fairly from the rich natural resources of their land.
Directors Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman look at a dying business through archival clips, news footage, newspaper headlines and interviews, which tell a tale of both aggressive capitalism and company towns and hard-fought unionizing that have given way to environmentally devastated land, poverty, and health issues. The film chronicles 150 years’ worth of disaster Big Coal was wreaked on the land — explosions, floods that washed away entire communities, accidents resulting in permanent damage, black lung, corrupt government officials, corrupt companies, and loss of pensions when companies folded. The movie also covers a recent situation in Charleston, West Virginia in which a chemical company contaminated its drinking water.
This is the kind of documentary that has the drama of a suspense thriller as revelation upon revelation build to illustrate how thoughtlessly the coal companies treat their workers, placing profits ahead of safety. It crystallizes the plight of the West Virginia workers, which most of us outside the state might know only from brief news items when an especially horrendous accident occurs. The movie stresses that industrial accidents have become part of the job for coal workers, and makes the sad comment that the workers have been abandoned by the elected officials who should be looking out for their welfare.
There are no bonus features on the unrated widescreen DVD.
Bad Santa 2
Bad Santa 2 (Broadgreen) comes to the screen 13 years after Bad Santa — a sequel long time coming and hardly worth waiting for. As the film opens, Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has lost his job as a valet in Phoenix for crashing a car while leering at a breastfeeding woman. Former partner Marcus (Tony Cox) pops up, suggesting they target a children’s charity run by Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks) for an easy $2 million theft. Willie’s estranged mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), will be their inside accomplice. Made up as Santa, his elf, and Mrs, Claus, the felonious trio set their sights on a huge payday, if only they can suppress family dysfunction, alcoholism, womanizing, and general disdain for children. Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a dim-witted kid who practically attached himself to Willie in Bad Santa, turns up — still devoted to Willie as a young adult — just in time to complicate the nefarious scheme.
Bad Santa 2 follows the same dark comic path as its predecessor with its cynicism, political incorrectness, reference to bodily functions, foul language, sexual innuendo, insults, and mean-spirited tone. This is not your traditional holiday movie, but it does offer a diametrically different approach to holiday cinema fare. With its R rating, the movie pushes nearly every button of bad taste as it tells its tale of greed during a time of “good will to men.” However, the film wants to have it both ways since, at its heart, there is gooey sentimentality in an attempt by director Mark Waters to pull back and telegraph the message, “I’m only kidding. I love Christmas.” This is a cop-out, and was probably a decision made to make an already alienating film more palatable to general audiences.
In light of current political rhetoric and real concerns about the future of the country, the film is a perfect fit, but its pessimistic view of human nature and civilized behavior ultimately leaves a bad taste.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include the featurettes “Thurman Then & Now” and “Just Your Average Red Band Featurette;” “Jingle Bells,” an adult version of the classic holiday song; gag reel; alternate opening and ending; and deleted scenes.
King Solomon’s Mines
King Solomon’s Mines (Olive Films) is the fourth of five adaptations of the adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard. Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) is hired by Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone) to find her father, who she believes disappeared in an attempt to find the fabled mines of King Solomon. Quatermain will meet a major obstacle in Colonel Bockner (Herbert Lom), a German explorer also on a quest to locate the mythic treasures. Neither Bockner nor his partner, the merciless Turkish slave trader Dogati (John Rhys-Davies), is pleased with the competition.
Made in 1985, during the Raiders of the Lost Ark craze, the film is a feeble attempt to duplicate the smooth blend of action and humor that Steven Spielberg achieved in Raiders… This is an obvious copy of the much better film. Director J. Lee Thompson presents nearly non-stop action, which includes gunfights, whippings, capture by hostile natives, angry lions, and explosions, most putting Quatermain in the midst of danger. The film has the look and feel of an action serial of the 1930’s with a story built on one cliffhanger after another. Despite the frequency of disasters, violence is on the tame side in accordance with the movie’s PG-13 rating.
This is a very straightforward film in which the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, with little nuance. Chamberlain makes for a dashing, if somewhat bland, action hero, and often looks as if he’s merely going through the motions. Lom’s Bockner is patterned on the silent pictures’ mustache twirling, eyebrow-raising villain, and his portrayal is a highlight. The attempts at humor sometimes work, and other times fall flat. For those who enjoy period adventure stories with well-staged action sequences, “King Solomon’s Mines” will satisfy. However, the 1950 version starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr is far superior.
The widescreen Blu-ray release contains no bonus features.
Grace and Frankie: Season Two
Grace and Frankie: Season Two (Lionsgate) is about the misadventures of two 60+ women who are forced to live together when their husbands, Sol and Robert (Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen) confess they’re gay lovers and want to marry while they still have some time left on the planet. In Season One, Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) and Frankie Bernstein (Lily Tomlin) dealt with this revelation in traditional sitcom fashion, their dialogue sprinkled with jokes that were at odds with them being shocked, feeling abandoned, and fearing an unknown future. Their plight seemed more a contrivance to hang one-liners on than a real, life-altering bombshell.
Season Two’s episodes are more firmly grounded in real-life problems and concerns, and the jokes better suited to the situations. It’s almost as if the writers were given an order to slow down, take a breath, exhale, and think up how to milk humor from Grace and Frankie’s new lifestyle.
The leads are both excellent. Fonda’s Grace is the more emotionally fragile Always looking like she stepped out of a fashion layout, Grace is class all the way. Frankie is stronger, earthier, and more eccentric in her ways. The two women living together creates plenty of opportunities for conflict, both comic and dramatic, but it all boils down to the fact that these two serve as each other’s support mechanism during a rough spell. What starts out as a resentful co-habitation out of financial necessity turns into camaraderie and ultimately friendship. They’re no longer young, so there are genuine concerns about losing regular male companionship, awkwardly re-entering the dating scene, and facing life as single women.
The main story lines in Season Two are Frankie going into business with Grace’s daughter (June Diane Raphael), Grace thinking about renewing a relationship with a one-time admirer, and Robert dealing with a health scare.
The only bonus features on the 3-disc widescreen DVD set is a gag reel.
3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol
3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Cohen Media) celebrates one of the most prolific and widely respected of French film directors. As one of the prime instigators of the French New Wave, Chabrol directed lean narrative films whose keenly observed realism typically drew inspiration from the suspense film and psychological thriller.
In one of Chabrol’s darkest dramas, Marie Trintignant gives an astonishing performance as Betty, a woman whose alcohol-soaked life has finally fallen to pieces. She fortunately falls under the care of an older woman (Stéphane Audran) with a similar background, but her benefactor’s sympathies may be misplaced. This two-character study doesn’t have much of a traditional plot as it explores the nuances and unpredictability of human behavior, but the performances are riveting.
Based on a script by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Chabrol explores the point at which jealousy and obsession turn to madness. François Cluzet plays Paul, a young husband who, along with his beautiful wife (Emmanuelle Béart) runs a country hotel. Paul soon becomes obsessed with his wife’s flirtations, but is it all in his head? This is a nightmarish exploration of how jealousy and perceived unfaithfulness escalates into domestic abuse and kidnapping. Viewers may be disappointed by the cryptic ending, but the performance by Béart is excellent, ranging from self-confidence to madness.
Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault (La Cage aux Folles) star as a couple of small-time con artists looking for the next big game in this psychological thriller tinged with wry humor. Into their web stumbles a naïve financial courier (François Cluzet) accompanying what might be their biggest score yet. This crime comedy, Chabrol’s 50th film, is the lightest of the three. It’s fun to watch the pair’s methodical hotel-based plans being set in motion, and there are a few Hitchcockian touches that film fans will recognize and appreciate. We never know the actual relationship between the two. Are they father and daughter? Former lovers? Current lovers? The pairing is ambiguous, but that’s what holds the film together and keeps us guessing.
Bonus extras on the 3-disc Blu-ray release include feature-length audio commentaries (for Torment and The Swindle), theatrical trailers, and a new 40-minute interview with Francois Cluzet by New York Film Festival director Kent Jones.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (The Criterion Collection), a film about love in all its manifestations, is Pedro Almodovar’s funniest and most popular film. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is a soap opera actress and movie dubber who’s been left pregnant and abandoned by Ivan (Fernando Guillen), her lover of many years. A textbook male chauvinist pig, he breaks up by leaving a message on her answering machine. Over a 24-hour period, Pepa worries about how she is going to get him back.
She decides to commit suicide by lacing her gazpacho with liberal amounts of Valium, but keeps getting sidetracked. First she accidentally sets her bed on fire, then friend Candela comes over seeking refuge from the police because she has been having an affair with a Shiite terrorist. And there’s a visit from a couple looking to rent her apartment — Carlos, Ivan’s adult son, and his girlfriend Marisa. With one situation after another popping up, the exaggerated elements fall into place, making for a very entertaining farce.
The film is a cross between Nights of Cabiria, in which a woman of the streets is constantly exploited by men yet retains an optimistic view that things will get better, and The First Wives Club, in which three divorced women decide tho seek revenge on the husbands who left them for younger women. Ms. Maura plays Pepa with conviction, never allowing her to become a mere cartoon. Pepa has been deeply hurt, but she moves from depression to dealing with a series of chaotic events, turning her plight into a wild adventure.
The Blu-ray release features a new restoration supervised by Pedro Almodovar and executive producer Agustin Almodovar. Bonus extras include new interviews with Pedro Almodovar and Carmen Maura; new discussion by film scholar Richard Pena of the film’s impact in Spain and abroad; theatrical trailer; and a critical essay. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles.