Editor’s Notes: New to Blu-ray/DVD: Effects, Beggars of Life, Kill Switch, We the Parents, A Blast, Kiki, & Fringe: The Complete Series are out on their respective home video formats August 22.
Effects (Agfa) is a film put together on a miniscule budget by friends of the late director, George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead). A group of filmmakers high on cocaine including Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead), Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead), and John Harrison (Tales From the Darkside: The Movie) gather in Pittsburgh to make a slasher flick called Duped: The Snuff Movie. As filming begins and “accidents” occur, it becomes clear that something isn’t right. No one can be trusted.
Savini is the best known actor in the film. Starting as a make-up artist specializing is grisly special effects, he turned to acting, and has appeared in mostly horror films since his acting debut in Martin (1978). Intrigued by “Man of a Thousand Faces,” the screen biopic of Lon Chaney, Savini became fascinated with the magic of illusion on film. Later, as a combat photographer in Vietnam, he saw firsthand gruesome carnage which he then gained fame simulating on screen.
Effects has taken a long time getting to the public. When it was filmed in 1978, the original distributor shelved it. Further delays occurred because of rights issues, and the movie wasn’t released until 2005. As a horror film, it doesn’t have the same intensity as slasher films of the 80s. The first part is fairly slow moving, with more drug use than horror. The film combines voyeurism and horror, which was typical of grindhouse movies of the time.
Assembling these Romero alumni sounds like a better idea than the film that resulted. Though the acting is reasonably good, it never achieves the scare factor that horror fans crave and is more interesting as a genre footnote.
The R-rated widescreen Blu-ray release is a new 4K scan from the only 35-mm theatrical print. Bonus materials include a making-of documentary, commentary track, and early short films.
Beggars of Life
Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber) is a drama of hobo life. Jim (Richard Arlen), a wanderer, comes upon young Nancy (Louise Brooks), who has just killed her guardian who was trying to rape her. Disguised as a boy, she takes off with Jim and rides the rails to a hobo camp led by Arkansas Snake (Robert Perry). When Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) takes over the camp, he begins to pursue Nancy, but before he can take her from Jim, the detectives show up to arrest her. Jim and Nancy escape, trying to make their way to Canada, but Red hasn’t given up on her.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Jim Tully, who spent most of his teenage years in the company of hoboes. Drifting across the country as a “road kid,” he spent those years hiding in boxcars, sleeping in hobo jungles, steering clear of railroad cops, begging meals from back doors, and hanging out in public libraries. “Beggars of Life” is Tully’s autobiographical look at America’s underclass.
Though the subject matter of the film is very dark, director William Wellman (Wings, The Ox-Bow Incident) gives it a good deal of flair with sequences filmed on a moving freight train. Though the period is the Roaring Twenties, when gin was flowing, the charleston was in vogue, and the country was enjoying post-World War I prosperity, the hobo community was hardly sharing the good times, living in the shadows, not knowing what the next day would bring, and constantly in fear of the authorities. Wellman captures that depressing atmosphere, blending it with a romantic subplot that offers optimism in a bleak series of events.
The 1928 black & white silent film has been digitally restored from 35-mm film elements preserved by the George Eastman Museum. Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray release include audio commentary by actor William Wellman, Jr.; audio commentary by the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society; booklet containing a critical essay; and musical score compiled and performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, employing selections from the original 1928 Paramount cue sheet.
Kill Switch (Lionsgate) stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) as Will Porter, a former air force and NASA pilot, who’s hired by a mega-corporation to intervene when an experiment goes terribly wrong. A parallel universe has been created as a new source of energy for a depleted Earth, but something has thrown things out of whack. Will must assess the situation.
The alternate universe contains duplicates of organic life, including humans. The replicated corporation’s security force is killing anyone it encounters. Eventually, they target Will. Flashbacks reveal Will’s backstory, helping us tie it together with Will’s involvement. Unfortunately, Stevens is physically absent for a lot of the time, present mostly as off-screen narrator.
The visual effects are impressive for a low-budget science-fiction film, and frequently look like a video game. But the story is simply not engaging. Stevens is an effective actor with ample screen presence, but Kill Switch fails to exploit him by relegating him to a pretty small part for a lead character.
By jumping back and forth between past and present events, director Tim Smit adds unnecessary confusion to a narrative that should have been straightforward. The film’s origin as a made-for-TV movie is apparent by its weak script and apocalyptic images that have now become ubiquitous in major studio sci-fi flicks.
There are no bonus features on the widescreen, R-rated Blu-ray release.
We the Parents
We the Parents (Virgil Films) spotlights the first group of parents who attempt to transform their failing school under California’s 2010 Parent Trigger Law, an edict that encourages residents of Compton to organize and change the status quo. It also depicts the controversy that ensues when the historical balance of power is disrupted. The film is about courage, empowerment, and the dreams of parents for their children and their futures.
Rather than highlighting the crisis in our education system, We the Parents examines a potential solution by following everyday parents in their effort for their kids. The idea of giving power to parents is an untested one, and the film follows every step of the significant controversy, drama, and legal battles that ensue when parents attempt to exercise their rights.
As news spreads about the events in Compton, a working class city known for gang violence, the film tracks the ripple effect of these parents’ efforts as the idea of a “parent trigger” spreads to other communities in California and across the country. Director James Takata chronicles the numerous complications involved in taking advantage of the new law, including informing parents of the law and getting them to sign a petition, bureaucratic obstacles, and complacency. A major failure of the documentary is the absence of teachers, the folks who spend their days with children. It would have been interesting to know how the teachers of Compton felt about what was happening in their school district.
There are no bonus features on the widescreen, unrated DVD release.
A Blast (IndiePix Films), set during the years of the collapse of the Greek economy, tells the story of a generation’s disillusionment and radicalization. Directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas, the movie was nominated for Best Film at the Hellenic Film Academy Awards and the Sarajevo Film Festival.
The world of Maria (Angeliki Papoulia) is shattering. Greece’s ongoing financial crisis has forced people everywhere to reevaluate their expectations of the world, and she refuses to conform to this trend. Unwilling to accept a life of lost dignity and a half-hearted desire to live, Maria wants out, attacking the people she loves, her country, and the perception of her sex.
A flashback shows us college-age Maria revising her law school entry exam. The film moves rapidly back and forth among multiple time periods, a technique recently favored by contemporary directors. Because Ms. Papoulia’s appearance changes little in these scenes, it’s often difficult to figure out exactly where each scene falls chronologically.
Director Tzoumerkas incorporates this disorientation to emphasize an escalating sense of panic. Eventually, the full picture crystalizes. Maria has abandoned her studies to run the failing grocery store owned by her wheelchair-bound mother (Themis Bazaka), and married Yannis (Vassilis Doganis), a handsome sailor whose frequent absences at sea leave his wife overwhelmed by her obligations to her parents and three kids.
Placing a fictional story against the backdrop of the real Greek financial crisis suggests that, thematically, the movie will draw parallels between Maria’s personal troubles while the nation itself is on the verge of bankruptcy. There is a driving energy, juxtaposing scenes of years-ago optimism with present-day hardship. As Maria’s world deteriorates around her, we see bitterness consume her, and hope for a happier future fade.
There are no bonus features on the unrated, widescreen DVD release. The film is in Greek, with English subtitles.
Kiki (IFC Films), a documentary by Swedish filmmaker Sara Jordeno, explores the contemporary New York City LGBT ballroom scene, referred to by gay transgender teenagers and those in their early 20s as the “Kiki scene.” They dance and gyrate down half-empty streets, at the Christopher Street pier, and on underground subway platforms. They dress in glittery elaborate costumes before hitting the dance floors in various makeshift spaces, performing under hot lights, blaring music, and enthusiastic audiences.
Ms. Jordan chronicled her tight-knit group for several years, and was able to focus on two of her subjects, Gia Marie Love and Izana Vidal at various stages of their transitioning to women. These young people, tough on the outside but tender within, speak frankly about their various challenges, including the lure of sex work, relatively easy money in a world that still is uncomfortable seeing trans people working mainstream jobs.
The film moves briskly among seven young people, all LGBT people of color, letting them show off their moves and tell their personal stories. LGBT youth form makeshift families, complete with house mothers and house fathers, who aren’t much older than their “adopted” children. These enclaves also serve as competitive dance troupes, with individual styles reflected by names like House of Juicy Couture and House of Unbothered Cartier.
The art of voguing, with its dramatic poses and striking costumes, offers these young artists an opportunity to blur gender lines and to escape what they see as the tyranny of heteronormative culture. Though the dance footage is exciting, the interviews portray the individuals behind the glam — folks who have tried to break down barriers in their lives. They talk about coming out and being rejected by family, homelessness, and homophobia at the hands of West Village police.
Kiki is an intriguing look at a thriving lifestyle that portrays these young people not as freaks, but as people who come together to celebrate joyously and unapologetically who they are.
Bonus extras on the unrated DVD release include a music video, and theatrical trailer.
Fringe: The Complete Series
Fringe: The Complete Series (Warner Home Video) is a TV show in which FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is assigned to investigate incidents of paranormal activity with a team scientists. Though the premise, on the surface, is similar to “The X-Files,” “Fringe” involves its characters up close and personal with the phenomena they’re investigating. The show was created by J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.
The first season’s shows dealt with a monster-of the-week. The Fringe team would look into some kind of threat which seemed tied to earlier research by Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble). The second season altered the format in favor of a story arc, the most prominent dealing with the dangers created by cult leader David Robert Jones (Jared Harris), who is planning a doomsday event.
The next big change in the series was the introduction of an alternate universe, featuring two versions of the central characters, extremely different from one another. This allowed the cast to display greater acting range. Other developments included the introduction of an altered timeline, and plots that mirrored earlier story lines.
The alternate universe harks back to a storyline in the Superman comic books — the Bizarro World — in which people and events existed in a realm separate from the real world. This concept allowed the writers of “Fringe” to explore a “What if…” approach to stories, providing a fresh look at characters and themes, while presenting thought-provoking stories in the process.
The final season was set in the year 2036, creating a dramatic disconnect from the rest of the series. By fast forwarding, the creators were able to tie the show together in its final 13 episodes. We see a big change in who is ruling the world, and how Peter and Olivia’s grown daughter, Henrietta (Georgina Haig), takes a major role in dealing with an oppressive, iron-fisted autocracy.
All 109 episodes of the 5-season Fox sci-fi series are contained in a 20-disc Blu-ray box set. Bonus materials are abundant and include audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a look at the mythology of “Fringe,” gag reels, the finale script, Season 5 Comic-Con Panel, close-up examination of the show’s sound design, analysis of a scene, network promos, and the overview featurette “A Farewell to Fringe.”