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SEE YOU IN VALHALLA

I wonder if the dysfunctional family comedy-drama has yet become a genre unto itself? The basic set-up is well established. Squabbling and possibly estranged family members have to gather for some reason and continue squabbling until an event – preferably a crisis – causes them to unite. Well, until after the end credits roll at least. "See You in Valhalla" follows the tropes faithfully. Aspiring artist Johana (Sarah Hyland) tunes in the evening news to discover that her brother, who is identified as a Meth dealer, has committed suicide. She realizes that this of course means she must head for home just as Peter (Alex Frost) arrives for a date they've arranged. He's so smitten (she shows nowhere near as much interest in him) insists on coming along for moral support. She arrives to find that widowed dad has acquired a wifty "nurse" (Emma Bell as Faye); her gay brother Barry (Brett Harrison) is already there with his partner Makewi (Steve Howey), who is every bit as New Age as Faye. Older brother Don (Michael Weston) soon arrives with his judgmental, fundamentalist daughter in tow. The stage is obviously set for dinner table arguments that rake up past slights. An added complication is that an old lover of Sarah's, Johnny (Beau Mirchoff) is clearly not over her.

As per ususal the bickering continues – even escalating to a physical fight between Don and Barry (Makewi observes they don't appear to be fighting so much as hugging very aggressively) – until dad has a stroke, which puts a damper on the antagonism. If nothing else – and I think there's a great deal else – "See You in Valhalla" offers a slew of wonderful performances. Hyland is the film's backbone and the secret she's been keeping for year provides a delightful surprise. Possibly the best work comes from Howey who provides just the right combination of butch and queen to his performance, shaded with pot and shroom-addled behavior. (Given that, per IMDB, Howey is a staunch conservative this role can have been no small stretch.) The dialogue by Brent Tarnol sings and the direction by Jarret Tarnol keeps things moving at a nice clip for the most part (there are a few lulls but nothing damaging). Makawi's apt but decidedly nutball solution to things is perhaps a bit too predictable (especially given the title and one photo on the DVD case) but the scene is handled beautifully. I don't suppose there's anything new here but it's a very agreeable hour and a half.

2013 / Arc Entertainment / 82m / $20.99 [R]

LILITH, A VAMPIRE WHO COMES BACK (aka Lemuri, Il bacio di Lilith)

"Lilith, a Vampire who Comes Back" is an attempt to create a film in the style of the silents. This little-known Sicilian production predates "The Artist" by several years so we can't blame Michel Hazenavicius for it. Like "The Artist," however, this film from Gianni Virgadaula seems to have been made by those with only the mistiest notion of silent films. I'd tell you what the plot is but the film itself never quite seems sure what it's about. There is a vampire eventually but not until 15 or 20 minutes before the end does Lusilla, wife of the baron Von Reder – who abruptly dies from an unknown disease very early on – finally rise from her coffin. In between, there's a lot of footage devoted to a homicidal servant named Balduin. The name references the character played by Paul Wegener and later Conrad Veidt in silent versions of "The Student of Prague" while the actor's performance is clearly modeled on Alexander Granach's Knock in W. H. Murnau's "Nosferatu." In that film the clearly insane character is clapped into an asylum; here he seems to be the entire staff of a nobleman and no one thinks his behavior odd. His murderous activities are merely dropped after awhile and the plot thread goes unresolved.

Then there's a lot of footage involving a woman named Lilith who centuries earlier was fingered as a witch, burnt at the stake and who (legend has it) became a vampire. She was also a lookalike for Lusilla but what this otherwise has to do with the main story (I'm not convinced there is one) set in 1928 is never really explained. Equally unclear is why the dickens the baroness becomes a vampire or why vampires are referred to by a name associated by those adorable little ring-tailed primates. An even bigger head-scratcher is why the synopsis on the DVD case bears no resemblance to the film on the disc. Frankly the whole thing is a muddle with acting that doesn't really capture any of the styles of pantomime that characterized silent film. Actors who are not staring blankly in close-up here are over-acting wildly and showing no understanding of the Delsarte or Expressionist theories that guided what now look like overdone performances. The camerawork bounces back and forth from striking to bland and in such things as use of a wobbly handheld camera departs from any known film technique predating sound. In short "Lilith" is pretty much a mess.

2008 / One 7 Movies / 82m / $19.95 [NR]

BLACK CHURCH, INC.

Todd L. Williams' documentary, "Black Church, Inc." opens with images of humble churches, capable of holding only a few dozen worshippers, that were the norm before and during the early days of the civil rights movement. These are followed with larger and grander structures – the megachurches that have grown up in the years following. These massive organizations are expensive to run (huge organizations mean huge staffs) so the pastors seem to spend as much time in the pulpit exhorting their flocks to tithe as preaching the gospel. One clip has the Rev. Eddie Long reminding his followers that the tithe is 10 percent of their gross income. But not all the money goes to church operations (and Cthulhu only knows how much, if any, finds its way to social programs); the preachers live high on the hog with high-end cars, lavish mansions and private jets. Rev. Creflo Dollar is shown saying "I'm not going to heaven and be broke when I get there." Seems to me I read somewhere that it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the likes of pastor Dollar to pass through the pearly gates. Some have termed these members of the clergy gospeltainers in part because with their abundance of bling and their determination to acquire expensive things they mirror the lifestyle of rappers.

Now you might wonder why we should care if a number of black faithful are parting with somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million a year so these cats can wallow in luxury. The fact is that it is our tax dollars that are also supporting them because churches of course pay no taxes of any kind – neither property taxes on their real estate nor sales tax on those private jets. They are incorporated as non-profits under a special category that doesn't even require them to report anything about their finances. And I should note that while this documentary focuses on black megachurches the same could be said for the white equivalents. The set-up is ripe for scam artists and so in 2007 Sen. Charles Grassley instituted an investigation into the black megachurches but it ended up going nowhere. Long's church turned in incomplete records and Dollar's refused outright to cooperate; both cited racism and the persecution of Christians (that Grassley, a Republican, did not include the white megachurches may be understandable given their influence over conservative politics). "Black Church, Inc." gives much evidence that we should question the real purpose of any minister with a church that seats thousands and whose services are televised.

2014 / Cinedigm / 49m / $19.97 [NR]

THE JESTER'S SUPPER (La Cena della Beffe)

To the best of my knowledge, there are few, if any, examples of World War II Italian cinema available on any U.S. home video label (although several productions from Nazi Germany can easily be obtained). As such I was eager to watch "The Jester's Supper," a film that hails from 1942 and one of Italy's top directors during the fascist era, Alessandro Blasseti. Active from 1917 to 1980 (the last decade was spent primarily in television), he is best known outside Italy for "Fabiola." This effort is in the vein of Jacobean tragedy and has the handsome but brutish Neri (Amedo Nazzari, a Neopolitan cinema heartthrob of the time) forcibly seize and rape Genevra (Clara Calamai) from the weaker love-struck Gianetto (Osvaldo Valenti), who thinks she's a chaste maid. She is actually an amoral courtesan who ultimately is all too willing to be kept by Neri as the latest in her string of lovers. Before he tumbles to this Gianetto orchestrates a revenge that has Neri declared insane, chained in a dungeon first to be tortured and thence taunted by a parade of wronged women and cuckolded husbands. Revenge, however, ultimately turns out to be somewhat less than sweet.

"The Jester's Supper" certainly looks lavish but it's also staged on at most a half dozen sets (this may simply have been a hangover from its stage origins). Those sets and the lush costumes may well have been part of the Cinecitta studio's inventory; I don't know if Il Duce took the same attitude as Adolph Hitler that his populace should be fed a diet of elaborate films to keep them placid as the war raged on in increasing futility. What can't be denied is Blasseti's rich visual approach, his camera gliding through the Medici-era sets in which his actors are intricately blocked. It's intriguing that the director of this studio-bound production – and one who was much responsible for the creation of Italy's greatest studio, Cinecitta – would later become one of the chief influences for neo-realism. Visually this is a stunning film and also a well-acted one. Not much acting may have been required by Valenti who in real life was a staunch supporter of Mussolini; after the liberation he and his pregnant wife were executed by partisans. Possibly the reptilian avenger the wimpy Gianetto transforms into was not such a stretch. If you can put that aside, "The Jester's Supper" is an enjoyable slice of overripe melodrama.

1942 / One 7 Movies / 82m / $19.95 [NR]

MAN, PRIDE AND VENGEANCE (L'uomo, l'orgoglio, la vendetta aka With Django Comes Death)

Franco Nero made only two films in which he portrayed the character of Django but that character was so popular that for a period of time every western film (and even some others) were retitled with a reference to Django. (This is in addition to other films with other actors falsely labeled Django.) Nero is not playing Django in the spaghetti western retelling of Prosper Merimee's novel "Carmen," which also served as the basis for Georges Bizet's opera. Nero takes the role of Jose, a guard at a factory who lets Carmen (Tina Aumont) escape after she carves up a co-worker; he is jailed and demoted as a result of his passion for the woman and eventually, after killing one of his fellow guards, ends up in the outlaw band headed up by her husband (Klaus Kinski). This of course is the next step on the slippery slope to tragedy because Jose just can't quite grasp that Carmen is a faithless trollop who transfers her attentions to a bullfighter after Jose has killed her husband.

The plot follows Merimee's novel more faithfully than the opera does (Bizet omits Carmen's husband and expands the character of the bullfighter for starters) but "Man, Pride and Vengeance" is cast in spaghetti western mode. That is apparent in the opening sequence that alternates long shots of horsemen pursuing Jose with extreme close-ups of Nero's impossibly blue eyes. The film, as originally shot, is set in Spain – dubbed versions relocate the action to Mexico, which makes the presence of Gypsies a tad baffling – so maybe it can't properly be called a western but the visual style of certain sequences are obviously influenced by Sergio Leone. Merimee's novel was also set in Spain and written in 1830, so the film really doesn't relocate the action by more than a few decades. The results may bring nothing particularly new to the tale but neither do they do any disservice to the source which translates surprisingly well to the new setting. This is an uncommonly good looking film with director Luigi Bazzoni makes excellent use of both city architecture and landscapes and ultimately a surprisingly good adaptation of Merimee's work.

1967 / Blue Underground / 100m / $29.98 BR [NR]

STAY AS YOU ARE (Cosi Come Sei)

Soaps don't come much sudsier than "Stay as You Are," one of many entirely forgettable films that Marcello Mastroiani appeared in during his long career. (I sometimes think there were more unmemorable than notable ones but I suppose even great actors have to eat.) This one has him as a middle-aged landscape architect, unhappily married, who chances across a college age woman (Nastassja Kinski) and pursues an affair with her, even after he comes across information that she may be his daughter from a long-ago affair. OK, he's reluctant at first but he overcomes that. He also ignores that her behavior is odd to say the least. Her mood swings are mercurial. She gives him her phone number but cuts the conversation short when he calls; she abruptly takes off with someone else when they're together; late in the film she tricks him into drinking her urine. He thinks she's adorable; she struck me as certifiable. The key to any soap is presenting characters you care about. Ultimately I didn't give a fig about these two.

1978 / Cult Epics / 105m / $29.95 BR [NR]

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