Madam Secretary

Following in the tradition of "The West Wing" and "Borgen" comes another look at the workings of government via series TV. "Madam Secretary" centers around Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), a former CIA operative who becomes Secretary of State when the current one is killed in a car crash. One of the story arcs that runs through the season has McCord trying to discover if he was murdered. There's international skullduggery aplenty as the president (Keith Carradine) tries to negotiate a deal with Iran that will have them abandon their attempt to become a nuclear power (mirroring reality somewhat). The staff sessions and the political maneuvering reminded me very much of "Borgen" — but with more explosions of course, this being U.S. TV. I don't mean to seem dismissive. The series is very well-written — the dialogue passing between the continuing characters is quite droll — and it is very well acted. The casting is intriguing; Bebe Neuwirth, Tim Daly and Robert Kline — best known for comic performances — are cast in essentially straight roles here (though the first is given the occasional wry comment as McCord's executive assistant).

There is, however, a sense of been-there-done-that with "Madam Secretary;" the similarities to the shows mentioned at the top of this review are very strong. Depicting the State Department as being involved in espionage is hardly a surprising enough ingredient to distinguish it; the political maneuvering and back-door negotiations have been done — not necessarily better, but they're nothing new. A story arc involving rogue intelligence agents plotting regime change in the Middle East doesn't quite fly because it's improbable the NSA or CIA wouldn't just embark on such an effort anyway. Less credible is a sub-plot that has a press secretary who's shocked that she's kept in the dark about some things and that she sometimes has to engage in persiflage with the press. (That she's even kept on staff after becoming extremely flustered during a press conference is even less believable.) The strong cast — that also includes Zeljko Ivanek and a good many performers who are unknown to me — is ultimately the main asset here.

2014-15 / CBS DVD, Paramount Home Entertainment / 961m (6 discs) / $64.99 [NR]

The American Dreamer

While Dennis Hopper was working on editing his second movie, Lawrence Schiller and L. M. Kit Carson were part of the entourage at Hopper's New Mexico home. The film was "The Last Movie" for which Universal — eager to cop a share of the youth market — had ponied up a million dollars after the success of "Easy Rider." "Last Movie" turned out to be a major fiasco (a million dollars was still a lot of money at the time) and legend has it that Hopper became a Hollywood pariah for a long time afterward. In truth, it would be three years before he'd act in another film and only 10 before he landed another directing assignment — there are directors who have spent far longer in the wilderness. The story of a horse wrangler who, after an actor is killed in a stunt, decides to give up filmmaking and live a simple life in a South American village was initially edited in a conventional manner but Hopper's friend, surreal filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, talked him into re-cutting the production in a more experimental fashion. The movie tanked at the box-office because audiences and many critics found it incomprehensible (Roger Ebert called it "a wasteland of cinema wreckage") but it has been hailed in more recent years as being ahead of its time.

As the film has never been released to DVD (Hopper was till attempting to make that happen at the time of his death) and has been barely seen since 1971, it's impossible to make an assessment. Based on the evidence in "The American Dreamer" I'm inclined to think it's a mess and a pretentious one, too. Hopper is shown too busy partying with a collection of hangers-on and to turn his attention to editing. This while frequently complaining that the studio has locked him into a delivery date. He's rarely seen without a beer in hand and high on weed (at least); disturbingly he is also handling guns in this condition. He dispenses "heavy" philosophical pronouncements and megalomaniacally compares himself to Orson Welles. Schiller and Carson aim for Maysles brothers territory but there is too much pointless footage (such as watching Hopper drive down a highway for several minutes). The film presents Hopper as a trainwreck in progress but I suspect that was not the intention. (Note that the unrated film has lots of frontal female nudity and several backal nudity scenes of Hopper.)

1971 / Etiquette Pictures / 81m / $32.98 [NR]

Jack Pierce, the Maker of Monsters

I'm guessing most readers won't have a clue who Jack P. Pierce is, but I'd also bet they know his work. From the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, he was the chief makeup artist for Universal Studios and as such was the man who created the look of the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man and a host of other iconic horror figures. Strephon Taylor's documentary is an affectionate, if somewhat fannish, look at the man whose work is familiar worldwide and to just about everyone even though the makeups have not been worn in a film for well over half a century. The strong point of "Jack Pierce, the Maker of Monsters" is in covering his years leading up to his early triumphs with make-up: transforming Jacques Lerner into a chimpanzee for "The Monkey Talks" and changing Conrad Veidt into "The Man Who Laughs;" the latter assignment led to his being hired by the studio that was in the forefront of the so-called Golden Age of horror movies.

Once the film gets past that point things get a tad confusing. There are stills from unidentified films and the chronology becomes very jumbled. It presents, for instance, a letter from director Arthur Lubin written to Pierce on the occasion of his leaving the studio. There's no mention that this was for a very brief period and that Lubin returned to make his best known films, including the Technicolor remake of "The Phantom of the Opera" and several Abbott and Costello features before finally departing in the mid-1950s and eventually creating the "Mr. Ed" series (for which he hired Pierce). Pierce survived several regime changes at Universal until its post-war acquisition by International Pictures when his "old-fashioned" approach was deemed too time consuming. Much has been written about how he had to rely on the occasional low-budget horror or science fiction movie for income, but in fact the man worked fairly steadily, supplementing films with TV work. Taylor's documentary doesn't note the latter. Nor does it correct misstatements made in archival articles and interviews. Pierce was not "the only makeup artist to receive an Oscar;" in fact he never even won one though Oscars have been awarded in that category. He surely deserved one for work that measures up to anything being created today with modern techniques.

2015 / November Fire / 82m / $15.00

Power Rangers: Trickster Treat

In case you hadn't noticed, all the stores have been ready for Halloween for some time. The first video themed toward the scary season to cross my desk however is a collection of "Power Rangers" episodes subtitled "Trickster Treat." Aside from the theme there's nothing that strays from the usual Power Rangers template: beings from another planet/dimension invade earth one representative at a time, are thrashed by the teenage team and then go supersized to do battle against the enormous Transformers-like thingie the rangers assemble to achieve their final victory. The first episode presented of the four is from the current series that has an insect race from outer space attempting a takeover of earth. The next is from the Super Samarai series and feature my favorite monsters — H. P. Lovecraft inspired water creatures trying to regain control of our dimension. The creature designs reached an apex of looniness during this period; take for instance the monster with forearms reaching from its shoulders, eyeballs in the palms of its hands and festooned with large dice. The final episodes are from the Mighty Morphin and Zeo series. The latter has one of the rangers dreaming he's trapped in a black and white horror movie, "The Bride of Hackensack." The look of the monsters here clearly shows that more money and advanced techniques have come into play as new series have gone into production. It's not as easy to surrender to the silliness with such low-budget creatures but the plots (should that be plural I wonder?) were still pretty goofy.

1996-2015 / Lionsgate / 88m / $$14.98 [NR]

The Raid (Cai shu zhi heng sao qian jun)

Tsui Hark has been referred to as the Chinese Steven Spielberg, but don't hold that against him. Partly it's because he has a fondness for big, fun action/adventure films ("Once Upon a Time in Japan") — though he's also drawn to other kinds of material — and partly because he functions as producer for directors whose films always end up looking like a Tsui Hark production ("Vampire Hunters"). Unlike his Hollywood counterpart Hark knows how to keep his set pieces edited briskly and his films never have a running time so inflated that they overstay their welcome. "The Raid" is set in World War II era China during the Japanese occupation. The invaders are using poison gas against the native forces and have built a poison gas factory under the supervision of Masa (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and his paramour (Joyce Godenzi) who has created a cover identity as a musical star and become the most popular entertainer in China. Uncle Choy (Dean Shek) gets drawn into the conflict when called on to treat victims of the gas; because the old man turns out to be a brilliant swordsman he gets drawn into the conflict and the attempt to destroy the gas factory, not to mention an assassination plot on the reinstalled emperor. His spear-fighting granddaughter and her equally teenage friend also become involved as does gangster Bobo Bear (Jacky Cheung).

Trying to recount the plot more fully would be futile because this is one screwy film — and I'm still trying to decide if it's in a good way. It bounces from serious to comic in a disconcerting way. The effects of the gas are depicted very graphically making the comedy seem desperate and forced. (There is however one scene involving multiple people in a bedroom that concludes with the emperor getting the notion that Masa is coming on to him. As characters dive into a closet or under the bed it ranks with the best French farce.) Even the action scenes emphasize slapstick. The transitions are jarring and additionally each tone is prominent for quite a time before being replaced. In some ways it seems as though at least two different movies were edited together (and given that Hark co-directed with Ching Sui-Tung that may be getting near the truth). If the tone shifts for prolonged periods so too does which characters are front and center. Choy seems to be set up as the central character early on but later he drops out of the narrative for significant stretches. Hark would later perfect an approach that more successfully integrated comedy and action but he hadn't done so in 1991. Still "The Raid" is just odd enough and possesses enough interesting sequences that it's worth a look.

1991 / Well Go USA / 98m / $14.98 [NR]

Tremors 5: Bloodlines

I stopped paying attention to the "Tremors" films after the second one. Losing Kevin Bacon from the cast was bad enough but losing Fred Ward as well was a deal breaker. While I admire Michael Gross' work, I just wasn't interested enough in his character to bother with No. 3. It therefore came as a complete surprise to be offered No. 5 for review — I wasn't aware there'd been a No. 4 in the meantime. (There was even a TV series!) I will give the films this much: they aren't content to merely serve up the same critters again and again. The graboids, as the giant worms are called, are evolving or mutating or something. There are two-legged variations that propel themselves through the air by expelling a gas that ignites and Africa (where this installment takes place) has developed a graboid that is leaner (it could hardly be meaner) and boasts some other improvements. Gross, as nutball survivalist Burt Gummer, and his blog-cast videographer Travis (Jamie Kennedy) set off to do battle, the latter more than a mite reluctantly. What follows is precisely what you'd expect with some situations similar to those in the original movie (a child in peril that you know will be rescued) and others lifted from other films.

What? You expected originality? The beauty of the original was that it was a good old-fashioned monster-on-the-loose movie that honored all the time-worn tropes aside from substituting the old scientists and military protagonists with redneck trash collectors. Did I mind that a part of the proceedings here involved a clear lift from "Them" and that another derived from "Jurassic Park" or that there's a revelation about Travis that owes something to the last Indiana Jones movie? I did not. All right, the last made me wince when it came about even though it's obvious way earlier, but I suspect it's one of the film's deliberate jokes. (Let's just ignore a sequence that has the beasties, who are attracted by sound, ignore a native ceremony with dozens of dancers bouncing round and attack elsewhere.) I only wish Don Michael Paul's film boasted more of them — or funnier ones at least. "Tremors" is a total hoot that's as funny as it is scary — and often at the same time. Aside from Gross' character, as creepy as he is comic, "Tremors 5" is only rarely more than amusing. If you're a fan of this type of fare you'll find it worth wasting time with.

2015 / Universal / 98m / $22.98 BR+DVD [PG-13]

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