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DVD Reviews: Documentary reminds us of Harper Lee's timelessness

Harper Lee, from Mockingbird to Watchman

Like another Southern author Harper Lee was famous for some time for having published one very famous and widely read novel and it was widely assumed it was the only one she'd written. Lee simply quit and has published nothing, aside from a few essays since. It came to light a while back that there was an earlier novel that featured a grown-up Scout and an older Atticus Finch. As Lee not only ceased publishing after "To Kill a Mockingbird," but also stopped granting interviews this documentary, expanded from 2010's "Hey, Boo," relies almost entirely on the observations of those who admire the book (Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Wally Lamb and others), a few relatives and those who knew Lee. Mary Badham, who played Scout in the delicate and superb film adaptation, is naturally among the talking heads included. Fortunately Lee gave some recorded interviews, so the film is able to include her voice, though surprisingly it becomes the least important one. There is also some footage of Lee being presented with the first printed copy of "Go Set a Watchman;" she hasn't much to say but it's nice to see her shortly before her passing. More impressive are the other novelists (Mark Childress, Scott Turow, Anna Quindlen) and civil rights leaders who attest to how influential it has been. That it won the Pulitzer Prize and 50 years later is still required reading (after having been rejected by 10 publishers), speaks for itself.

Why Lee stopped publishing (her older sister, Alice – 99 and still practicing law when her interview was recorded – is certain Lee continued writing but chose not to put anything before the public) will never be known. She is on record that writing was a long, painful process for her as she struggles to get the words just right, so maybe the perfectionism just became too difficult. Or maybe she discovered she had only one story to tell ("Mockingbird" is, after all, semi-autobiographical). Or maybe nothing she created seemed to measure up to what is undeniably a masterpiece; Lee wouldn't be the first author to be stymied by a highly acclaimed first work. All conjectures are thrown out for consideration by the various participants, but of course there can only be conjecture. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of the most important books of the latter half on the Twentieth century because it examined racism at the same time our country was experiencing the upheavals of desegregation. It was of its time and it is timeless in its humanity. This documentary reminds us of that.

2015 / First Run Features / 83m / $24.95 [NR]

Crystal Lake Memories

A documentary on the "Friday the 13th" movie and television series? Fine. But six and a half hours of it strikes me as overkill. Heck, some while back, Turner Classic Movies covered the 100-plus year history of movies in only slightly more time. And yet oddly for all its length, the treatment seems oddly superficial; more than likely this is due to the subject – a series of movies whose main, heck only, point is to kill a baker's dozen of people (mostly teenagers) in inventive and/or splattery ways isn't a subject with much inherent depth. The splatter quotient is more important than the former; death by machete whack to any one of number of body parts is always good in a pinch. But let's face it, after Betsy Palmer turned out to be the psycho serial killer at the end of the first one, new ideas on the series have been far and few between; whoever is in charge has been content to make essentially the same movie over and over whether the killer is Jason or someone else. (Yes there have been Jason-less entries.) As such it is amusing to hear several of the directors interviewed here make mention of their "vision." The actors on the other hand rarely have much to offer beyond commenting on how neat their death scenes were.

And that actually is the most interesting thing contained here, explanations and behind-the-scenes photographs of the elaborate preparations for those gooey killings. Of one of the more extreme examples one of the makeup wizards notes that today it would be done with CGI. What he doesn't mention is that the computer has taken some of the awe out of movies; where once we'd see impossible things on-screen and wonder "How did they do that?" now we know. Not having a glimmer of just how the computer was manipulated to achieve the effect makes no difference, we "know" how the trick was done. I was disappointed, too, that so little time was devoted to the TV series that, name aside, had nothing to do with the ongoing killing sprees of Jason Voorhees. It was one of the better horror anthologies on the airwaves and featured episodes directed by Atom Egoyen and David Cronenberg. An ill-advised move of the program from late night to prime time brought it to the attention of Donald Wildmon who declared its existence signaled "the end of civilization as we know it." His comments clearly indicated he'd never seen it but that didn't stop sponsors from fleeing in droves.

2013 / RLJ Entertainment / 400m (2 discs) / $29.98 BR [NR]

The Journey Home (aka Midnight Sun)

Predictability rules in "The Journey Home" but that's not necessarily a bad thing in this case. While Luke's mom (Bridget Moynahan) is off observing whales and the lad is in the care of his aunt, a polar bear wanders into town. The beast is tranquilized and helicoptered off to a more northern part of Canada. Luke (Dakota Goyo) discovers that her cub has been left behind and undertakes to return it to her, setting off on a snowmobile that he apparently thinks has an inexhaustible fuel supply. Taking off after him is family friend Muktuk (Goran Visnjic), described as the best guide in Canada even though he is blamed for the death of Luke's father by some family members. Unsurprisingly, once Muktuk catches up with Luke, he decides to help him reunite mother and cub. No less startling is a plot development involving a terrific storm that separates the older and younger man. And of course young Luke overcomes all life-threatening obstacles to take the little white bear to momma's new home.

Naturally this is precisely what we want from a film such as "The Journey Home;" an unhappy ending is just not going to fly. While Visnjic may be the best-known name involved here, the bulk of the running time is given over to Goyo who, despite being only 16, has a long resume. Neither can quite steal the focus from the polar bear cub who's quite the most adorable thing you can imagine. Perhaps I should say that they are adorable because generally in movies multiple animals are used, but in any event if you can get through the film without the urge to get a polar bear cub for a pet you're a better man than I am. To the film's credit it never succumbs to an overdose of the cutes and that may be due to the presence of director Roger Spottiswood and writer Hugh Hudson. Though both have had dodgy careers they are generally involved in projects that might be described as more high-minded. If nothing else, this production may prove it's best not to put what are referred to as family films in the hands of hacks.

2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 98m / $27.97 [PG]


According to several writers, "Results" is a film that benefits from a second viewing, the better to appreciate all the subtle details writer/director Andrew Bujalski has incorporated into his rom-com. Time factors dictate that I must write my review on the basis of only one viewing but truth to tell, I'm not all that keen to revisit it and verify the assertion. The set-up has chubby schlub Danny (Kevin Corrigan) newly divorced and the recipient of an inherited fortune that luckily for him comes after he's have to split it with the ex. Ensconced in a rented mansion (the kitchen has more square footage than my ground floor) he obsesses over YouTube videos posted by Power 4 Life owner Trevor (Guy Pearce), particularly focusing on trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders). He buys enough equipment to outfit a home gym and hires Kat to give fitness sessions at his residence. Trevor meanwhile is eyeing a huge space to expand his business and Danny invests and becomes half owner. He has also made a move on Kat but been rebuffed; it does however lead Kat to quit Power 4 Life until Danny sells her his share. Somehow all this leads to Trevor and Katy resolving their feelings for each other, something both had repressed because of the pitfalls of employee/employer relationships.

Clearly Bujalski is aiming for Woody Allen or Wes Anderson territory with "Results" and to me, at any rate, he has clearly missed the bull's-eye. With Allen and Anderson what initially seem like scattershot snippets always begin tying together, building on and even commenting on each other. Here we have a bunch of snippets about three not very interesting people that just collect. It's a foregone conclusion that Trevor and Kat will eventually connect but the film doesn't build to that, it just – after over an hour and a half – happens. Cue end titles. Perhaps the messiness and the dialogue that goes nowhere (and is often downright incomprehensible) closely reflect life but reality makes for boring drama. Do we really need to observe Trevor brush his teeth for several minutes or call his dog in from the yard? Well, the latter isn't so terrible to endure as the canine and Danny's cat provided the high points of the film for me. But as I've noted others have gotten far more mileage out of this effort than I did. So if it strikes you as promising, by all means check it out.

2015 / Magnolia / 105m / $29.98 BR [R]

The Returned

Before you watch "The Returned," you should know that A&E has not renewed the series and so the cliffhangers in the final episode go unresolved and no questions are answered. Developed by Carlton Cuse it's based on a French TV series yclept "Les Revenants" – which in turn is based on a 2004 French film of the same name known stateside as "They Came Back" – and has the dead returning to a small town, years and even decades after they've passed (one character is stabbed to death and comes back to life shortly afterward). Most of them initially have no idea they've been dead or that any time has passed; some have distinctly hostile, or at least ambivalent attitudes toward the living. A young lad with really strange eyes, Victor (Dylan Kingwell), somehow precipitates the death of anyone who takes him in while Helen (Michelle Forbes), who died in a flood 29 years ago, thinks it's time to dynamite the dam and submerge the "cursed" town again. Simon (Mat Vairo) apparently wants to be reunited with the woman he was going to marry but it may be that he deliberately walked in front of a truck on the day of their wedding. His agenda, if any, is unclear, as is that of Camille (India Ennenga) who seemingly just wants to resume her teenage life. Then there are numerous other peculiar things happening such as the black goop that bubbles up in the church lavatory.

Given the involvement of Cuse, who was a major force behind "Lost," I was expecting "The Returned" would be another puzzle concoction with supernatural and spiritual elements. And I certainly didn't expect any answers within this first – and as it turns out only – season. The real headscratchers are not, however, the ones I assume Cuse and his cohorts intended. Why, for instance, has a series of women found Victor wandering the streets in the middle of the night and simply taken him home without alerting any authorities? He's apparently a lost boy, not a stray cat. (To be fair this element was lifted intact from the French series.) And how is it that almost everyone, including a small-town sheriff co-habiting with a librarian, can afford such fabulous houses? The series looks terrific thanks in part to a wonderfully picturesque town that has been chosen for the exteriors and it is cast with some accomplished actors (it's nice to see area resident Forbes and Carl Lumbly in recurring roles) but the show is done in by its own mystery. Are the dead – aside from Victor and Helen – any kind of a threat to the living or does their presence just cause things – sometimes bad things – to happen? It's difficult to work up concern if you don't know whether to be concerned. There's very little concession to the creepiness factor (but thank Cthulhu this isn't yet another zombie show.) The series also doesn't seem to be intended as an allegory of any kind, despite a brief flirtation with parallels to illegal aliens. When you get right down to it the show doesn't quite seem to know what it's about. I didn't find it compelling and it would seem the public also decided it wasn't must-see TV.

2015 / Lionsgate, A&E / 440m (2 discs) / $26.98 [TV-14]

Z Storm

On the one hand, it's refreshing to see an Oriental thriller that is free of martial arts sequences though it would have benefitted "Z Storm" to have something that energized the proceedings aside from a very late in game shoot out. Perhaps trying to construct a thriller on a Ponzi scheme is just too cerebral a concept and that's what we have here in a film that needs lots of dialogue to try to inform the viewer as to just what the heck is going on. Some unscrupulous westerner (seen initially as a backlit silhouette and facing away from the camera, an image reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse) is manipulating things through Hong Kong intermediaries to get a charity listed on the stock market. I suppose laws are different there as regards non-profit corporations. Then again, considering that the screenplay also refers to Zorro as Spain's greatest knight, it may simply be sloppy scripting, which might also explain why apparently just anyone can schlep a patient out of a hospital without so much as a by-your-leave. In any case the team of the Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating and the clock is ticking because the charity's stock is slated to go public in a few days.

The ICAC discover a corrupt policeman and a high roller who uses prostitution and blackmail to further his ends. Once anyone's usefulness is ended or they threaten to blab they're murdered. Time and again the ICAC convinces someone to turn state's evidence only to wind up with a corpse on their hands shortly after they promise full protection. This became such a theme that when one character was guaranteed such safety by cell phone as the head of the team (Louis Koo) raced to meet him I knew the informant's body would land on the officer's car shortly after it was parked. (Hint to all filmmakers: You risk getting an unwanted laugh when showing someone checking for a pulse after a body has plummeted 30 stories to the ground.) The murders do perk things up but the big shootout at a safehouse – where a can of Lemon Pledge and a microwave that apparently operates without being plugged in are put to interesting use – but this doesn't relieve the dryness of the first half. I admit I find it odd arguing in favor of dumbing down a genre offering but after all a thriller depends on thrills and there are precious few here.

2014 / Well Go USA / 92m / $29.98 BR [NR]