Editor’s Notes: The Neon Demon, Valley of the Dolls, A House Is Not a Home, Central Intelligence, Barbarians Rising, Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich, Warcraft, Two Films From Director Douglas Sirk, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, & Edge of Winter are out on their respective home entertainment formats September 27th.
The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon (Broadgreen) is a grim look at the Los Angeles modeling world. Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old orphan fresh off the bus, is looking to be the next girl to hit it big as a high-paid fashion model. When we first meet her, Jesse is the archetypal Middle America girl-next-door. Her youth and beauty attract the attention of bigwigs in the fashion business. When she undergoes the requisite transformation, she clearly stands out among her fellow models. She befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and observes firsthand the cynicism and jealousy of older model Gigi (Bella Heathcote) as she navigates this new and often bizarre world.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn has created a film as cold as an iceberg. The theme, that beauty is the ultimate currency in a business that ultimately consumes its young, is hardly new, but Refn has a visual flair that keeps the eye entertained even as the story fails to deliver the dramatic impact he intended. Ms. Fanning is effective in showing both the physical but spiritual changes in Jesse. After costume, hair and make-up professionals have finished their work, it’s as if they have deadened her soul. In contrast with her earlier liveliness, Jesse now has the blank stare common to models.
Special features on the R-rated Blu-ray release include audio commentary with director Nicolas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning; “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon;” and a making-of featurette.
Valley of the Dolls
Valley of the Dolls (The Criterion Collection), based on the bestselling novel by Jacqueline Susann, is the story of three young women who pursue their dreams in the world of entertainment. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) is a nice girl from New England who becomes one of America’s top fashion models. Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) from Pittsburgh becomes a singing and acting sensation. Jennifer (Sharon Tate) is a beautiful but talentless showgirl/model. The movie traces their efforts to make it in the competitive world of Hollywood and their downward spiral into drugs, scandal, and sex.
With a reputation of being so bad it’s entertaining, the film is an unfortunate time capsule of the 60s, with costumes and especially hairdos looking as if they were designed on another planet. Susan Hayward, an Academy Award-winner for I Want to Live, plays aging star Helen Lawson and has the misfortune of being in two of the film’s worst scenes — a knock-down fight between her and Neely in which Neely rips off Helen’s wig, and Helen’s performance of the song, “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” before an enormous revolving mobile that nearly blocks her from view and forces her to stand practically motionless.
Made early in the sexual revolution, the film was perhaps shocking in its time. Panned by critics, it was popular with audiences. Today, however, despite its vulgarity and soap-opera script, it fails to deliver the intended shock value and is regarded as a curiosity.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include audio commentary from 2006 featuring Barbara Parkins; new interviews about author Jacqueline Susann and the costumes in the film; new video essay by critic Kim Morgan; footage from “Sparkle, Patty, Sparkle!,” a 2009 gala tribute to actor Patty Duke; two promotional films from 1967; an episode of “Hollywood Backstories” from 2001 on the film; screen tests; trailers; and a booklet containing a critical essay.
A House Is Not a Home
A House Is Not a Home (MVD Visual) is an interesting spin on the haunted house horror sub-genre. Alcoholism and an affair have left Ben and Linda Williams (Gerald Webb, Diana Nicole Baxter) struggling to save their marriage. Figuring a fresh start is best for them and their kids, they move to a new town and into a dream home. None of the family members can shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right in their new home, and their fears are realized when things inside the house take a supernatural and sinister turn. They try to flee but an ancient evil traps them in the house’s ever-changing labyrinth. The family must pull together as never before to fight for their lives.
Veteran actor Bill Cobbs (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) plays real estate agent Paul, a fellow with a pleasant smile who may just have a hidden agenda of his own.
The idea of a haunted house with a mind or spirit of its own is a terrifying thought. Director Christopher Ray puts a spin on the genre by making his imperiled family African-American. This might be a first. Typically in horror flicks, the occasional black character is killed early on. This family encounters the same terrors as their white counterparts. There are strange noises, shadowy appearances, an evil entity, and an elaborate series of nooks and crannies where spooky beings can hide. The family confronts the escalating horror realistically and generally avoids cliches.
The horror of claustrophobia is a tried-and-true technique to create tension, and the family’s inability to get away amps up the danger. The film shows influences of The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and The Conjuring but never achieves their caliber.
There are no bonus features on the unrated DVD release.
Central Intelligence (Warner Home Video) is an action comedy starring Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. The story begins in 1996 when Calvin Joyner (Hart) is big man on campus at his high school. Though Calvin is popular with everyone, he makes a particular fan in Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson), an overweight, bullied boy who is thrown naked in front of the entire school during an assembly. Pitying the helpless victim, Calvin gives Robbie his jacket to cover himself. Robbie makes Calvin his idol for life.
Twenty years later, Calvin is an accountant whose routine, undramatic life is thrown into chaos by the sudden reappearance of Robbie, now a rogue CIA agent named Bob Stone. The reunion is awkward, particularly when federal agents show up to tell Calvin that his buddy is a fugitive and Calvin faces serious charges if he attempts to protect him. The film then shifts gears into a buddy-action flick with chases, escapes, gunfights, and double crosses. Calvin manages to rattle off non-stop one-liners amid the mayhem even as he wonders whether Robbie is entirely truthful or just playing him.
Audiences already know that Kevin Hart is a funny guy but it’s Johnson who generates most of the laughs in Central Intelligence. Hart is pretty subdued, compared with his previous screen roles. Johnson in a fat suit in the prologue is a great sight gag, and his comic timing throughout is spot-on. The pairing works remarkably well; the actors have great screen chemistry. Likely this film will be the foundation of a comedy franchise.
The Blu-ray release contains both the theatrical (PG-13) and unrated versions of the film. Bonus extras include a gag reel, alternate takes, and commentary with director Rawson Marshall Thurber. A digital HD copy is included.
Barbarians Rising (Lionsgate) is the HISTORY Channel’s four-part miniseries tracing the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The series contains dramatic sequences from the point of view of the enemies who brought Rome down — specifically Hannibal, Spartacus, Arminius, Boudica, and Attila. The Romans referred to them as “barbarians” — savage tribes beyond the fringe of civilization. But they were also fierce warriors who rose up against absolute power to live free or die trying.
Action reenactments put the viewer in the midst of battle, showing how the barbarians waged a 700-year fight against oppression. Also included are extensive interviews from authoritative historical experts and contributors.
Many movies and TV shows have depicted the Roman Empire as a bastion of civilization in the face of barbarian hordes. This series illustrates the abuses of the Empire on those under its control. Most people have heard of Hannibal, Attila, and Spartacus, but the other leaders aren’t as well known, so it is interesting to learn about the role they played in Rome’s demise.
Historical TV shows can be awfully dull, with numerous “talking heads” telling us about significant events and their effect on generations to come. The reenactment technique definitely enlivens what might otherwise have been a bland series. There are still on-screen experts’ commentary, but they almost seem extraneous. Perhaps the series should have been a straight dramatic look at the events, with historians serving as off-screen contributors and advisors.
There are no bonus features on the unrated 2-disc, widescreen Blu-ray release. A digital HD copy is included.
Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich
Beyond Valkyrie: Dawn of the Fourth Reich (Sony Home Entertainment) is set after D-Day — June 6, 1944 — when constant Allied bombings of Nazi installations begin to cause dissension among high-ranking Nazis about the direction of the war and the fate of Germany when the war ends. As German officers prepare Operation Valkyrie to assassinate Adolf Hitler, an Allied special ops team gets ready to extract the man destined to lead a post-Hitler Fourth Reich, but when Valkyrie fails, the mission changes. Now, unlikely allies must stop a group of Nazi SS officers from escaping to Argentina and establishing a beachhead for the Fourth Reich.
This wartime thriller looks great. There’s a lot of suspense as plans are abruptly altered. Director Claudio Fah has provided lots of action to keep the pace brisk, and the battle scenes are staged believably. Though the film doesn’t have the star power of Saving Private Ryan or that film’s superstar director, Beyond Valkyrie is a very good war picture with an interesting theme: defeating Germany decisively and preventing any possibility of a Fourth Reich.
The cast includes Sean Patrick Flanery, Tom Sizemore, Kip Pardue, Rutger Hauer, and Stephen Lang. There are no bonus features on the R-rated widescreen DVD release.
Warcraft (Universal Home Entertainment), based on the role-playing video game, contains lots of violence for a PG-13 rated film — sword fights, hand-to-hand combat, heads smashed by axes, impalements, fights to the death. The human civilization of the peaceful realm of Azeroth faces extinction by the fearsome orcs of the planet Draenor. A voiceover early in the film tells us that the battle has gone on as long as anyone can remember. On Draenor, which is dying, the orcs are led by the shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who has mastered the evil magic called the Fel, portrayed as a glowing green mist.
Seeking a new place to live, Gul’dan opens a portal into lush, green Azeroth and leads an army of orcs in to conquer it. From the opposing sides, an unlikely group of heroes embark on a collision course that will decide the fate of their families, their people, and their home.
The movie assumes a knowledge of the video game’s names, characters, and locations. To a viewer unfamiliar with the game, the result is a confusing movie overloaded with characters and mythology. The sheer quantity of CGI, with monsters battling one another, eventually leads to sensory overload, particularly since it’s never clear what’s going on. There are some lighter moments and one-liners to break up the action scenes, as in the “Star Wars” films, but the characters and story lack the appeal of that immensely popular sci-fi franchise.
Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, and Ben Foster co-star.
Bonus extras on the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD widescreen edition include four making-of featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, origin story, “The Fandom of Warcraft,” and a look at the film’s special effects. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
Two Films From Director Douglas Sirk
Two Films From Director Douglas Sirk (Cohen Film Collection) contains two mid-1940s films by the German-born director. Sirk left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and the fact that he had a Jewish wife. After arriving in the United States, he was put under contract to Columbia Pictures.
Both films star George Sanders, perhaps best known for his role as acerbic theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. With a patrician manner that served him well in roles as aristocrats, cads, and villains, he had a long career and even was a Guest Villain of the Week (as Mr. Freeze) on the campy 1960s Batman TV show.
A Scandal in Paris (1946) is based on the memoirs of Francois Eugene Vidocq, the elegant thief turned chief of police of all Paris. George Sanders stars as the clever criminal who climbs up through the ranks of French society in the early 1800s, with seemingly nothing to stop him from the biggest heist of his career except the charms of a young lady. Signe Hasso, Carole Landis, Akim Tamiroff, and Gene Lockhart co-star.
Lured (1947) is a taut thriller, all the more fascinating because it stars Lucille Ball in an atypical role. A serial killer is on the loose in London, luring young women into his web through ads placed in the personals column. Scotland Yard’s bait to capture the villain is young American dance hall girl Sandra Carpenter (Ball), who encounters a series of likely suspects including sophisticated playboy Robert Fleming (George Sanders) and mad fashion designer Charles van Druten (Boris Karloff).
Sirk returned to Germany after the war but later returned to America and directed a series of lavish, Technicolor melodramas for Universal-International from 1952 to 1959, among them Magnificent Obsession (1954), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).
There are no bonus features on the unrated 2-disc Blu-ray release.
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (Time Life) contains performances from the May 16, 1983 NBC-TV special celebrating the artists who rose to fame recording for Motown Records and made the label a formidable force in pop music. Taped before a live audience, the event showcases virtually every Motown artist from the company’s inception, including Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Miracles, The Temptations, and The Four Tops.
Several artists outside the Motown family who were influenced by Motown performers also appear, including Linda Ronstadt, who performs a duet with Smokey Robinson; Billy Dee Williams; and Jose Feliciano. The evening was hosted by Richard Pryor, one of the hottest comedians at the time. The concert provided the backstory for the Tony-nominated Broadway show Motown: The Musical.
The highlight is Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album was breaking sales records. Since he was recording for another label at the time, it was never certain he would appear to pay homage to the label that launched his career, but there he was, with his brothers, reprising some of The Jackson 5’s hits. It was his solo performance of “Billie Jean” and his trademark moonwalk, however, that brought the house down and presented to the world the adult Jackson strutting his stuff.
The concert also included a Temptations/Four Tops “battle of the bands,” Marvin Gaye’s speech about black music history and his performance of “What’s Going On,” and an abbreviated reunion of Diana Ross and The Supremes, who performed their final Number 1 hit, “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Other featured performers included Lionel Ritchie, The Commodores, Martha Reeves, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and The Marvelettes.
The 6-DVD box set contains 20 minutes not seen in the original broadcast, over 14 hours of specially produced bonus features, and a 48-page collector’s booklet with detailed information about the show and artists as well as never-before-seen photos from the production and essays on Motown performers.
Edge of Winter
Edge of Winter (Sony Home Entertainment), a psychological thriller, is about two siblings, Bradley (Tom Holland) and Caleb (Percy Hynes White), who start out on a family day trip with their father, Elliot (Joel Kinnaman), who is desperate to spend more time bonding with them. Recently divorced and laid off from his job, Elliot is determined to toughen up the kids by teaching them to shoot, but things turn dark when they become stranded in a remote cabin in the dead of winter. Elliot begins to exhibit odd behavior, becoming increasingly unhinged, and the boys must fight for survival against the man who was supposed to protect them.
One of the things that really creeps kids out is a parent acting in strange and scary ways. That fear is exploited here by director Rob Connolly. Because the family is miles from civilization, there is little hope for rescue and the terror escalates as Elliot’s temper and personal burdens take their toll and he lashes out at his boys. The tragedy of the story is that we’re aware that Elliot loves his kids, so when he turns violent, it’s all the more frightening, and the boys initially can’t grasp what’s happening. Seeing a situation through a child’s eyes is always effective in heightening tension, and Connolly manages to sustain the suspense as events degenerate. The bleak wilderness setting is both beautiful and chilling.
There are no bonus features on the R-rated widescreen DVD release.