Editor Notes: The Dinner, Charlotte, Wolves, I Am the Blues, Re-Animator, The Exception, Diamond Cartel, The Hunter’s Prayer, The Breaking Point, Frankie and Johnny, & The Taisho Trilogy are out on their respective home video formats August 8th.
The Dinner (Lionsgate) is a thriller about how far parents will go to protect their children. A group of four well-to-do people gather to formally discuss a crime committed by their children. The two couples meet at a fancy restaurant. Cynical history teacher Paul (Steve Coogan) and campaigning congressman Stan (Richard Gere) are brothers who don’t much care for each other. Paul’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s fairly new partner, Kate (Rebecca Hall), regard each other with suspicion and are aware that they must engage in a difficult conversation.
The couples’ respective teenage sons have collaborated on a heinous act of juvenile delinquency that threatens to derail Stan’s political career if the authorities find out about it. As the group considers the options and their ramifications, ethical positions change quickly, though no one really takes the moral high ground.
Writer-director Oren Moverman incorporates a series of flashbacks to both provide back story information and keep the film from being too visually static. The film, which might have worked better as a stage play, contains more dialogue than a traditional movie. With this much dialogue, it’s essential to have actors who can command and hold the viewer’s attention. Unfortunately, the actors don’t succeed in keeping us involved. There is suspense initially when we learn why the two couples have come together. This is no pleasant social evening, but one that promises to both tear away pleasant social veneers and show the ease with which one’s sense of decency can be compromised. The psychological aspects of the dilemma provide the film’s central conflict.
Bonus materials on the widescreen, R-rated Blu-ray release include audio commentary with writer-director Oren Moverman and actress Laura Linney, and a photo gallery. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
Charlotte (MVD Visual) is from the horror sub-genre “scary dolls.” Time and again, writers and producers have tapped into the unsettling appearance of inanimate objects that are designed to be as life-like as possible. When these dolls develop movement of their own and have pretty bad tempers to boot, the stage is set for a frightening time ahead.
Charlotte carries on this tradition. A teenage girl is babysitting at a new house when she is confronted by a vicious doll. Bound up, she is forced to watch terrifying stories on the TV, which is mysteriously and magically controlled by the nasty plaything, each story more grave than the next.
Because she cannot escape these images and has become a virtual prisoner, the babysitter undergoes a form a psychological torture. Distressed by the uncertainty of her fate, she becomes increasingly terrified, not knowing what her captor intends.
Child’s Play (1988) set the feature film template for crazed dolls, but it was a TV movie — “Trilogy of Terror” — that many will remember for the knife-wielding Zuni fetish doll come to life to torment Karen Black. The danger with this kind of film is hitting the right balance between building suspense and having viewers suspend their disbelief about a fantastic premise. Charlotte both benefits and is hurt from familiarity with the plot.
We can readily say to ourselves, “Oh, it’s about a crazy doll come to life. I get it,” but we also expect a few variations to make the story seem fresh. Charlotte never achieves this, nor does it elicit the scare factor that, say, Child’s Play or Annabelle provides. The images that the babysitter is forced to watch are not that scary, which undermines the entire point of the movie.
There are no bonus features on the unrated DVD release.
Wolves (IFC Films) is a drama that adheres pretty closely to movies about an athlete overcoming adversity and obstacles in his struggle to achieve a goal. Anthony (Taylor John Smith, TV’s American Crime) is an A-plus student and talented basketball player on his Manhattan high school’s team. He seems to have lots going for him: amazing skill on the court, a loving girlfriend (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool), and a chance at a scholarship to Cornell.
But Anthony’s dreams of playing college ball are jeopardized by his volatile father (Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals), a hard-drinking writer whose compulsive gambling threatens to derail the lives of both his wife (Carla Gugino, Watchmen) and son. Though it goes against his nature, Anthony must summon the strength to step out from his father’s shadow and set his sights on his future.
Two individuals serve as inspiration for Anthony — Socrates (John Douglas Thompson), a former New Jersey Nets player, and Charlie (Chris Bauer), the boy’s uncle. They both are there for Anthony, offering him encouragement even when things look bleak.
Though the entire cast is effective, it is Shannon who really shines, elevating the movie with his talent and star power. He is a unique actor who has the ability to draw in the viewer and believably convey the character he’s portraying.
The plot template is familiar, and is right from the playbook that brought us Rudy, The Karate Kid and The Blind Side, but even if you’re not a sports fan, Wolves delivers as a family-in-crisis drama.
There are no bonus features on the R-rated, widescreen DVD release.
I Am the Blues
I Am the Blues (Film Movement) is a documentary that spotlights small towns in Mississippi and Louisiana where aging blues musicians live and practice their art. The film takes a musical tour of the juke joints, back roads, and church halls of the Mississippi Delta, exploring America’s last generation of blues artists. The blues incorporates spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and simple rhymed ballads and has greatly influenced jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
The movie is a travelogue of little-known byways and highlights the lives of veteran blues musicians dating back to the genre’s heyday, many of whom are now in their 80s, still living in the American deep south and touring the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Among the artists featured are Barbara Lynn, Little Freddie King, harpist Lazy Lester, pianist Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, RL Boyce, LC Ulmer, and guitarist Lil’ Buck Sinegal.
Many of the above artist express concern over the lack of younger people playing traditional blues, and some wonder if the genre will die when they do. Rather than a historical history-of-the-blues overview, the film, directed by Daniel Cross, has the feel of a folksy visit to the region where the blues started. Bluesmen gather for jam sessions in homes, at crawfish boils, and at senior centers.
Between the music, the artists tell anecdotes about their lives and music, many very funny, others quite sad. The overall mood, however, is one of joyous celebration, as these men and women carry on a musical tradition started in the 19th century.
Included on the widescreen unrated DVD release are 30 minutes of bonus footage.
Re-Animator (Arrow Video), based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, is a horror movie about an individual who’s obsessed with reanimating the dead — sort of a modern-day Frankenstein. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is attempting to understand the mysteries of life and death and find a way to bring the dead back to life. West is an arrogant genius who left the Zurich University Medical Institute after his experiments yielded horrific results. Now, hoping to continue his research at the Miskatonic Medical School, West rooms with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott).
West sets up a laboratory in the basement and pressures Dan to become his assistant. As Dan becomes more and more involved, he has less time for girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton). When Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) tries to claim credit for West’s work, he triggers in West determination to make Hill pay dearly.
If if weren’t for Combs’ wildly energetic performance, Re-Animator would be just another minor horror film. Occasionally, his performance is over the top, but the intensity only makes the movie better. The story is familiar, but its telling this time manages to put a new spin on it. Combs chews up the scenery and makes the film his own. By embracing the madness of West and playing that madness all out, Combs achieves a unique and memorable performance.
For horror fans, Re-Animator is a definite “must see,” and ranks with Return of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead in the way it smoothly blends outright horror with black comedy. Director Stuart Gordon creates several unforgettable, graphic scenes.
The 2-disc Blu-ray release includes both the 86-minute unrated and 105-minute exclusive limited edition of the film. Bonus materials include audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon; audio commentary with producer Brian Yuzna, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, and Robert Sampson; making-of documentary; interviews with Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, writer Dennis Paoli and composer Richard Band; interview with former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone; deleted and extended scenes; trailer and TV spots; and a 92-page booklet containing Re-Animator, the original 1991 comic book adaptation of the movie, reprinted in its entirety.
The Exception (Lionsgate), set in 1941 in the Netherlands, where, Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer, Beginners) is living in exile, still believing the Fuhrer will restore the monarchy. As Germany is taking over Holland, the Nazi Party sends Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) to personally oversee the Kaiser’s bodyguard detail following intelligence reports that a spy has infiltrated the household. Brandt must discover the identity of the spy and keep the Kaiser safe, but he is distracted from his task when he falls for a Dutch maid, Mieke (Lily James, Cinderella), an employee in the Kaiser’s household.
Plummer looks terrific in his make-up and conveys a regal bearing though he has been reduced to the head of a household rather than head of a nation. His Kaiser lives in a state of hopeful disillusionment — a man whose self-interest clouds his view of current events and allows him to live a kind of fantasy life, free of actual regal responsibility. He wears his starched military uniforms embroidered in gold, a human relic of a time gone by. Janet McTeer co-stars as his second wife, who encourages his hopes of regaining the throne. Eddie Marsan appears briefly as head of the S.S. Heinrich Himmler, and Ben Daniels plays the Kaiser’s right-hand man.
The weak link in the casting is Courtney, who ties all the story lines together and is on screen for nearly the entire film. He is rather stiff, which might be excused because he’s playing a rigid character, but there is little nuance in his performance. The role calls for him to be both a military man as well as a romantic lead. In the latter capacity, he fails to generate any heat. There’s little chemistry between Courtney and Ms. James, who does a credible job as a young woman hiding a secret that could mean her death.
The film is fascinating because it brings together participants of two World Wars, illustrating how war takes its toll on all involved whether they are technically winners or losers. Director David Leveaux has focused on an interesting bit of World War II lore, and created a fascinating look at war’s ability to create seismic shifts not only in countries, but in the personalities of men and women caught in the upheaval.
Bonus materials on the R-rated, widescreen Blu-ray release include a making-of featurette, and audio commentary with director David Leveaux. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
Diamond Cartel (MVD Visual) is a Kazakhstani action/adventure production that’s had a long, tenuous history of filming and editing, finally achieving a domestic theatrical release in 2015.
Mussa (Armand Assante) is determined to purchase a cut diamond — the Star of the East — from the Hong Kong crime boss “Mr. Lo,” but he his robbed through an inside job by his own people — former lovers Aliya and Rusian. With the assistance of a friend intent on ferrying the traitorous duo of Aliya and Russian across the sea, the couple nearly makes it across the borders with the loot. But Mussa’s gangsters find them just before their escape.
The movie contains lots of wild mayhem, including a multi-car desert car chase, blazing machine guns, female assassins, explosions, elaborate stunts, and lots of violent confrontations as the quest for the diamond doesn’t go as planned. The movie combines elements of heist and action flicks. The cast of international actors includes Peter O’Toole (in his final screen appearance), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), and martial arts star Bolo Yeung. It’s initially jarring to see an actor of O’Toole’s caliber in this kind of film, but his presence adds to the wild fun. Assante’s performance is frequently over the top as the obsessed Mussa, a ruthless individual whose interest in material wealth far outweighs his concern for human life.
There are no bonus features on the unrated DVD release.
The Hunter’s Prayer
The Hunter’s Prayer (Lionsgate) is an action thriller about an assassin who becomes the target of other killers when he fails to murder a 16-year-old girl on his contract kill list. Lucas (Sam Worthington, Avatar) is a drug-addicted combat veteran who makes his living as a hired killer. Richard Addison (Allen Leech) is a nefarious businessman who hires Lucas to kill Ella (Odeya Rush), the daughter of a man who embezzled money from him.
After her father and stepmother are killed in New York, Ella becomes the next subject of Addison’s revenge, but she’s in a private boarding school in Switzerland. Ella reminds Lucas of the way he’s failed to establish contact with his own estranged daughter, and instead of her killer, he becomes her protector as they make their way across Europe and Great Britain, just a step or two ahead of Addison’s hired thugs.
Director Jonathan Moscow (Breakdown, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) has fashioned a fast-paced action flick with some sharply choreographed hand-to-hand fights, car chases, and violent gunfights. The plot is practically the same as 1994’s Leon, the Professional, but is nonetheless an enjoyable, fast-paced 90 minutes. What distinguishes The Hunter’s Prayer from other action movies is its hero’s addiction. Between the mayhem, we see him stopping to shoot up. This is never overexplained and adds an unexpected layer of complexity to the Lucas character.
Worthington is effective, and has the rugged, grizzled appearance that suggests his Lucas has not had the easiest of lives. Israeli actress Odeya Rush portrays Ella as an intelligent young woman who recognizes the danger she’s in yet has her doubts about trusting Lucas. Fearful, yet brave enough to do what it takes to protect herself, Ella is a well written character rather than mere window dressing and gives the movie some gravity.
Bonus materials on the R-rated widescreen Blu-ray release include the featurettes “The Cost of Killing: Making The Hunter’s Prayer,” “The World of the Hunter,” and “Creating the Driving Force.” A digital HD copy is enclosed.
The Breaking Point
The Breaking Point (The Criterion Collection), directed by Michael Curtiz, is a thriller based on Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. John Garfield stars as Harry Morgan, the honest charter-boat captain of the Sea Queen, who, facing tough times, takes on dangerous cargo to save his boat, support his family, and preserve his dignity. Along with best friend and first mate Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez), he takes a wealthy man named Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his sexy girl Lenora (Patricia Neal) on a week-long charter fishing cruise to Mexico. But in a small port town, Hannagan skips town by plane, leaving Lenora stranded behind.
With no money to buy fuel to get home, Harry takes the offer of a corrupt lawyer (Wallace Ford) to help his client smuggle eight Chinese illegals into the United States for $1,600. The desperate captain accepts the offer, even though if he’s caught, it could mean a ten-year jail sentence. Once again, Harry is double crossed and must force his passengers to jump ship when the Coast Guard suddenly appears. As Harry makes a series of moral compromises, he endangers not only himself and a group of innocent individuals, but his marriage as well.
The more famous adaptation of the Hemingway story is 1944’s To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Breaking Point, made six years later, lacks the A-picture gloss, leaning more into film noir as it deals with a cast of characters trying to make the best of bad situations. Garfield was at the height of his popularity when he made the film and, even though studio heads weren’t thrilled with his vocal left-leaning politics, he kept getting good roles. Juan Hernandez has a substantial role and plays it seriously, unlike Walter Brennan, who took on the part in the ’44 version and served as comic relief. Hernandez gives the role and, by extension, the film itself a sense of quiet dignity.
Warner Brothers originally intended to give the film a big promotional push, but backed out when Garfield’s name turned up in Red Channels, a publication listing — often inaccurately — film personnel associated with communism. Though the film received good reviews, it quickly disappeared and Garfield’s contract for a second Warners picture was canceled by studio head Jack Warner. This is ironic, because Garfield became a star at Warners in 1938 after the release of Four Daughters, for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Special features on the unrated Blu-ray release include a new interview with critic Alan K. Rode; actor and acting instructor Julie Garfield discussing her father, John Garfield; new video essay analyzing director Michael Curtiz’s methods; excerpts from a 1962 episode of “Today” showing contents of the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, Florida; trailer; and a critical essay.
Frankie and Johnny
Frankie and Johnny ((Kino Lorber), made in 1966, stars Elvis Presley (in his 20th feature film) as Johnny and Donna Douglas as Frankie, entertainers on a Mississippi riverboat. According to Frankie, Johnny’s life has become “one great big roulette wheel.” He’s so obsessed with gambling that when a gypsy fortune teller predicts that a redhead will be his good luck charm, he sets out to find one. The problem is, Frankie is a blonde. When she sees Johnny with redhead Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack), she decides to break off her relationship with Johnny.
Like many of Elvis’ Hollywood films, Frankie and Johnny looks like what it was intended to be — a slight story with enough songs to make up a best-selling soundtrack album. Elvis coasts through the movie, coming alive only when he sings one of the film’s eleven new songs, most undistinguished.
This was a transitional time in Elvis’ career. The Beatles had come onto the scene a few years earlier and were now dominating the pop charts. Though known as The King, Elvis no longer dominated rock ’n’ roll. Films like Frankie and Johnny didn’t do much to shore up his diminishing influence on pop music, since the movie soundtracks failed to feature many songs that became certifiable hits.
Frankie and Johnny marked the first starring role for Donna Douglas, who was starring as Elly Mae Clampett on the hit CBS sit-com The Beverly Hillbillies at the time she made this film. Also in the cast are Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H), Sue Ann Langdon, Robert Strauss (Stalag 17), and Jerome Cowan (The Maltese Falcon). This was the last feature film directed by Frederick De Cordova, who would go on to produce over 1,400 episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
There are no bonus features on the unrated widescreen Blu-ray release.
The Taisho Trilogy
The Taisho Trilogy (Arrow Academy) gets its name from the historical period under Emperor Taisho in which all three films in this collection are set — a 14-year span from 1912 to 1926 when Western influences rocked Japan’s traditional social, cultural and political institutions. Regarded as a period of decadence, it also established a growth in the arts. The films’ visual style features the clash of then modern technology and Western fashion existing side by side with geishas and kimonos.
The films were made by director Seijun Suzuki, best known for the 1967 Yakuza movie, Branded to Kill, a film that got him fired but influenced Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and others who dealt with both violence and controversy on screen.
In the first film of the trilogy, Zigeunwrweisen (1980), Suzuki focuses on two childhood friends — one a serious academic, the other a bohemian vagabond — intellectuals and former colleagues from military academy who involve their wives in a series of dangerous sexual games. In Kageroza (1981), a playwright is captivated and drawn to a mysterious beauty who might be a ghost.
Yumeji (1991), deals with real-life painter-poet Takehisa Yumeji (1884 - 1934), an artist during the Taisho period. The film deals with obsession. When Takehisa sees a beautiful woman, he is mesmerized and spends the rest of the film in pursuit of this vision who turns out to be a widow looking for her dead husband. His obsession leads him down a path of despair and debauchery.
Though visually striking, the films are often confusing because Suzuki doesn’t rely on traditional narrative. There are surreal images, ambiguity and symbols whose function isn’t clear, leaving the viewer perplexed. It is often difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy.
The 6-disc unrated Limited Edition Blu-ray + DVD box set contains the trilogy, on Blu-ray for the first time in North America. Bonus materials include new introductions to each film by film critic Tony Rayns; making-of featurette; vintage interview with Seijun Suzuki; Tony Rayns discussing The Taisho Trilogy; trailers; and a 60-page book featuring background on the films.