Listen up, dear readers. This is important news. Even those with a scant knowledge of art know about the moment when artist Vincent van Gogh looked into a mirror, held up a blade and cut into his ear. Ouch! The deed was dramatized by Irving Stone in his best-selling novel Lust for Life, and portrayed vividly by Kirk Douglas in the 1956 film.
But did Stone get it right? What did van Gogh really do on the fateful night of December 23, 1888 in the town of Arles in southern France? Afterwards, there was a successful effort by his family to play down the event. His friend, artist Paul Gauguin, who was present, gave conflicting accounts. Still others tried to profit from his local infamy. Generations have theorized about what really happened, but no one has unearthed the true details. Until now.
Answers lie in Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear (PBS Distribution), available on DVD January 17. The program will also be available for digital download.
The program offers fascinating evidence discovered by Bernadette Murphy, an independent researcher living in Provence, France. Murphy had long been intrigued by van Gogh’s story and spent seven years piecing together a meticulous picture of his life in Arles; person by person, house by house, exploring closely his friends and his enemies.
Her detective work uncovered definitive long-lost evidence, which graphically reveals exactly what happened that night, who was involved and how it ultimately shaped van Gogh’s remarkable art. Murphy finally provides answers to the mystery that has divided art historians for decades.
The program focuses on van Gogh’s time in Arles including the visit from Gauguin which proved to be life-changing, weaving together a detailed timeline of the momentous events. Following Murphy’s meticulous research and a reexamination of van Gogh’s work, the film reveals the artist’s roller coaster of emotions and his mental health, placing his actions in proper context for the first time.
We cannot think of a better Valentine’s Day gift, even if it won’t be released until February 24. Judy Collins takes the audience through Stephen Sondheim’s remarkable treasure trove of music, interweaving stories of Broadway with her personal anecdotes in A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim (MVD Entertainment Group). The musical treat was filmed in May 2016 at the Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver, Colorado.
“I have loved the songs and the shows of Stephen since recording ‘Send in the Clowns’ on my album Judith in 1974,” says Collins. (Her take on the tune earned Sondheim his only chart-topping song.)
“My version of the great Sondheim ballad garnered a Grammy, the top ten slot in Billboard twice in a decade, and is still played on the radio all over the world. Ever since the success, I have longed to sing the rest of Sondheim’s greatest songs. Now, I have the opportunity do to that. These songs glow with familiarity and inhabit the rooms and vistas of all our lives, scenes and melodies from A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Company, Merrily We Roll Along and Into the Woods. I pray to do justice to these great songs, and to their composer, one of our national treasures: Stephen Sondheim.”
All orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, who has been orchestrating Stephen Sondheim’s musicals for decades. Tunick’s genius orchestration were used by Collins for her “Send in the Clowns.”
We got so excited when we heard Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment was releasing The Birth of a Nation on Blu-ray. The D.W. Griffith controversial masterpiece, finally to be (re)introduced to a (new) generation!
The silent version is a landmark in cinema history, yet since the day it opened, it has been continuously protested . . . and defended. It depicts the Civil War, and as such contains some battle scenes, though nothing overtly gory or bloody. We see the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. A black slave tries to attack a white woman, and she runs, leading to her accidental death. It also depicts drinking and drunkenness, mostly by the African-American characters. It contains some of the most disturbingly racist images ever filmed. Still, it’s unlikely that audiences today will be as powerfully influenced by this film as audiences were nearly 100 years ago.
Then we learned that the film was not the film. Kino already released the Blu-ray. This time ’round, director Nate Parker simply “stole” the title of the 1915 silent epic . . . to confuse audiences? Make a statement? Who knows? Who cares?
The new Birth? It’s set against the antebellum South and follows Nat Turner (also played by Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities against himself and fellow slaves Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
The flick is riddled with white characters who define evil: Think bad teeth, stupidity,violence. Plus it’s extremely violent. Characters are beaten and/or raped (happens largely off screen, but the effects of the violence are shown), and there’s fighting, shooting, stabbing, and more, with lots of blood and gore, in many forms. Slaves are also whipped, hung, and tortured. Topless women are seen in both a sexual context and during an African tribal scene. Language includes many uses of the “n” word, plus “hell” and “goddamn.” While it’s undeniable that Turner’s actions sent a message against oppression, the fact that he relied on violence makes things more complex.
It’s obvious Parker knew he was pushing buttons with the title.He says his film had the same title “ironically, but very much by design.” He adds: “Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.”
If you can make it there, you’d make it anywhere. No wonder it’s called Madhattan. First Run Features is off to a great New Year run with the DVD release of True New York, an anthology of five award-winning short documentaries about New York City and the amazing characters who call the city home
C-Rock (Director: Jordan Roth)
Featuring stunning cinematography and staggering footage of cliff-diving, C-Rock tells the story of a group of Bronx boys who leap off the 100-foot tall cliff known as “C-Rock” and into the Harlem River. A dangerous rite of passage going back generations in the Bronx, the film captures the rawness of youth while also revealing a wistful nostalgia for a changing neighborhood.
Taxi Garage (Director: Joshua Z Weinstein)
Forget Louie De Palma and Elaine O’Connor Nardo. This Taxi Garage is a powerful and touching look inside a taxi depot in Queens filled with classic New York personalities and a melting pot of immigrants with big dreams of making it in America. The film focuses on Johnnie “Spider” Footman, a colorful octogenarian who has driven a taxi all his life and is New York’s oldest taxi driver.
One Track Mind (Director: Jeremy Workman) One Track Mind reveals the amazing story of Philip Coppola, who has devoted four decades to cataloging, archiving and sketching every station in the New York City subway system. Filmed over the course of four years, this is a portrait of a man consumed by a singular obsession as well as a loving exploration of the city’s unique artistic idiosyncrasies.
A Son’s Sacrifice(Director: Yoni Brook) The award-winning film is a classic immigrant story and father/son tale. Imran is just another 27-year-old New Yorker struggling to take over his family’s business, which happens to be a halal slaughterhouse in Queens. Imran must confront his mixed Bangladeshi-Puerto Rican heritage and gain acceptance from his father’s conservative community.
Black Cherokee (Directors: Sam Cullman & Benjamin Rosen) This film focuses on street performer Otis Houston Jr., a self-taught artist from Harlem who performs before a captive audience of car-bound commuters along Manhattan’s FDR Drive. A meditation on family and inspiration.
I may live in Churchill (PA), but I can’t bear the though of not visiting Churchill (Manitoba, Canada). Every fall, about 10,000 tourists from around the world descend on Manitoba, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.” This community of about 800 people on Hudson Bay in Northern Canada is home to the annual migration of more than 1,000 hungry polar bears that pass through town as they wait for the bay ice to return.
Polar Bear Town (Public Media Distribution) documents a season in Churchill, following this extraordinary migration of human and four-legged animals as they collide in unexpected and sometimes dangerous ways. The Smithsonian Channel original series will be available on DVD on January 24.
The program takes viewers close to the enormous creatures known as the “Lords of the Artic.” These polar bears can grow to be 10 feet tall and more than 1,300 pounds. They are also skilled hunters that can detect the presence of seals beneath three feet of snow and ice and can pick out scents from nearly 20 miles away. Ouch!
Churchill is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild and prime viewing happens in October and November. The program captures that moment when tourists from around the world fly into town in hopes of getting up close and personal with a polar bear. Professional guides Dennis Compayre and Kelsey Eliasson have a delicate mission: To get their clients close, but keep them safe.
A look at the segments on the two disc set:
Welcome to Churchill
The town prepares for the fall migration. As the season opens, tensions are higher than usual. Last Halloween, a surprise late-night encounter with a polar bear left a local woman seriously injured and the bear dead, the nightmare all in Churchill strive to avoid. Officer Bob Windsor of Manitoba’s Department of Natural Resources, who leads a team of conservation officers, is stepping up efforts to make the town safer, even if it means increasing challenges for guides like Dennis and Kelsey. Among the bears closing in on Churchill is a Polar mom with two cubs to protect and a 1,000 pound male known as Big Bear. Churchill resident Brian Ladoon, who owns and operates the Miles 5 Dog Sanctuary, braces for bear interlopers who try to poach food from his pack of endangered Canadian Eskimo dogs.
A mother bear is leading her nine month-old cub back from his first hunting season on the ice. Now, they’ll face an even more daunting challenge: Throngs of tourists descending on Churchill, which could put the cub and themselves at risk. Veteran guide Compayre takes his apprentice, but an aggressive client might complicate her “baptism by bear.” And fellow guide Kelsey Eliasson flips the script and takes up a camera himself to assist in a groundbreaking research project that identifies bears through their unique whisker patterns.
Rumble on the Tundra
Polar bear season has reached its peak and Brian Ladoon is looking for help at his Mile 5 Dog Sanctuary. Brian can’t be in two places at once–feeding his Canadian Eskimo dogs and on the lookout for polar bears. Luckily, volunteer Russell Hausler has traveled from Australia to give Brian a hand. Meanwhile, bear guide Dennis Compayre and regular client, California photographer Andrew Bazeley, are looking for the perfect shot to complete Andrew’s book. They encounter a pair of polar bears that locals call the Scrappy Brothers, because they wrestle each other to hone their skills for mating battles to come. And a cub called Curious ventures away from its mother and finds itself on a dangerous collision course with a hungry but elderly male known as St. Pete.
Halloween Horror Story
Halloween has arrived in Polar Bear Town. It’s the worst day of the year for bears in Churchill and the busiest for conservation officers. Children are trick-or-treating and people like Erin Greene are attending parties. Last year, Erin was on her way home from a party when she was attacked by a polar bear. Erin survived the attack but is afraid that it could happen again. Erin enlists her friend; bear guide Karine Genest, to confront her fears by getting close to a polar bear for the first time since the attack. While humans are understandably fearful, the bears are even more at risk. New Mom follows her nose into a bear trap and separates herself from her cub, whose very survival may depend on Kelsey’s intervention. And a roaming Big Bear is headed directly toward the army of guards protecting town.
Winter has settled in on Churchill. It’s the time of year when conservation officers release bears from its polar bear holding facility, which the locals call “Polar Bear Jail”. A special release sees a mother polar bear and her cub airlifted out of town, to be safely released in the wilderness. Kelsey has special access for the release and follows along in a chase helicopter. But the tranquilizers that conservation officers use on bears wear off quickly and the helicopter pilots need to find a place to land before the bears wake up. Meanwhile, Compayre enlists some friends to help him find a special bear called Dancer, who he’s known for over 20 years.
Quest for Cubs
It’s spring in Churchill. While most polar bears are now hunting for seals on the frozen Hudson Bay, pregnant females have migrated south to their ancestral dens to give birth. The race is on for guides, photographers and scientists to find hidden denning sites outside of Churchill, in hopes of seeing mothers and cubs emerge. Inside one of those dens, a mother bear has spent three full months nursing her cubs. At around 20 pounds each, they’re nearly ready to leave the den and embark on the epic trek to their icy hunting grounds. And a team of biologists, including Don Moore of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, make an astonishing discovery–a maternity denning complex that a group of polar bears has used for generations.
Checkmate! You will cheer for Disney’s Queen of Katwe, the inspirational journey of a young girl from the streets of Uganda to world-class chess player, which has earned widespread critical acclaim, including a 93% Certified Fresh critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes.
The triumphant film, which is based on a true story based on Tim Crothers’ book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster (expanded from an ESPN the Magazine article), arrives home on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere on January 10 and on Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand on January 31.
Queen of Katweis based on the true story of Phiona, a young girl (portrayed by Madina Nalwanga) from the streets of Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess. It doesn’t take long for her fall in love with the game. Recognizing her natural aptitude for chess, a man named Robert (David Oyelowo), starts mentoring the pre-teen. Initially, Phiona’s mother, Harriet Mutesi (played by Lupita Nyongo’o), is hesitant to encourage her, as she fears that her daughter will be disappointed.
As Phiona continues to succeed in local chess competitions, Robert teaches her to read and write. Harriet eventually realizes that Phiona has a chance to excel and helps Phiona fulfill her potential and escape a life of poverty. As a result of the support she receives from her family and community, she becomes an international chess champion. It is a remarkable story of perseverance against all odds that will leave viewers feeling humbled and inspired.
Says director Mira Nair, “The triumph of the human spirit is not to weep for what we don’t have but to focus on what we do have and allow that to take us to a place we never imagined possible.”
The drama was filmed entirely on location in South Africa and Uganda. Adds Nyong’o : “It was so great to go back home. I’m from East Africa. I’m from Kenya, which is just next door to Uganda. This is a story about the commitment to a dream even in the most discouraging of situations. The slum of Katwe is a very difficult place to live, but you see these people living there with dignity and making it day by day. And so to go there and to have that environment to work from really did sober us and enliven us.”
The release of Queen of Katwe takes viewers behind-the-scenes with filmmakers, as well as the cast and their real-life counterparts, through extensive bonus features, including a three-part documentary highlighting the amazing personal stories behind the film; audio commentary by director Mira Nair; a short film by Nair depicting the life of Robert Katende; in-studio access to 15-time Grammy-winning recording artist Alicia Keys during the creation of her new original song “Back to Life;” and deleted scenes.
Celebrate singer-songwriter, poet and cultural icon Leonard Cohen, when the fascinating and critically acclaimed documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, arrives for the first time on Blu-ray (plus Digital HD) from Lionsgate. The 2015 film, narrated by Cohen himself, is based on Came So Far for Beauty, the January 2005 tribute that was held at the Sydney Opera House.
The documentary features performances of Cohen songs by such luminary artists as U2, Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Antony, Martha Wainwright and Beth Orton. Bonus: Cohen’s former back-up singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen appear as special guests. Yet another bonus: The end of the film includes a performance by Leonard Cohen and U2, which was not recorded live, but filmed specifically for the film at Manhattan’s Slipper Room in May 2005.Think of this as a free concert, at which you can sit thisclose.
What did you say? You want more bonuses? The Blu-ray include exclusive performances not seen in the theatrical release: Tunes by Martha Wainwright, Batalla, The Handsome Family and Teddy Thompson. There’s also a conversation with Cohen and audio commentary with director Lian Lunson. And what timing: Nab the flick on February 7, just before the 2017 Grammys are handed out. Music to our ears . . . and eyes! Want even more? A soundtrack CD is available from Verve.
Morphine can be addictive. It’s a drug of choice. When it comes to “low rock,” the Boston-born band Morphine blazed like a comet across the international music scene in the ’90s, rising from local small clubs to indie and major label record deals, high and wide critical acclaim, and packed shows until their untimely demise.
The trio’s unique and mesmeric sound continues to resonate with its fans and music lovers as the group ascends to legendary if not iconic status. The documentary Morphine: Journey of Dreams (MVD Entertainment Group) is the definitive, in-depth tale of this unique musical act’s compelling career and life together and their resonant musical creativity.
Journey of Dreams doesn’t just get behind the music, but inside the band as its story is primarily told by the trio’s surviving members, saxophonist Dana Colley and drummers Billy Conway and Jerome Dupree, plus the close-knit familial coterie that worked with them as well as Sandman’s girlfriend Sabine Hrechdakian.
It’s punctuated by incisive commentary and observations from such friends and admirers of the group as Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. A wealth of live performance footage gathered from across Morphine’s career recalls and amplifies the band’s innovative yet at the same time classic, timeless and “beautifully bottom-heavy” sound, as Rolling Stone (the mag, not the Mick) praised it.
Viewers ride and fly along with the hard- touring band’s road experiences, vibrantly brought to life as Colley reads from his tour diaries at key points in the film as well as through his accompanying Polaroid pictures and Super 8 films.
Journey of Dreams is not just a tale of music business struggle, triumph and tragedy, but also a love story (among its members and team as well as Sandman and Hrechdakian) as well as an adventure, drama, travelogue, and something of a roller coaster ride. When all is told, an evocative and loving tribute to a rock band that was like no other.
Lionsgate is celebrating the New Year with a most unusual treat . . . some 10 months in advance. Of sorts.
On January 31, Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween–the outrageous return of Madea after a three-year theatrical hiatus–lands on on Blu-ray (plus Digital HD), DVD, Digital HD and On Demand. Perry returns as Madea along with fan favorites Aunt Bam and Hattie to prevent her teenage niece from attending the crazy frat party next door.
The film tells the story of Madea being summoned to keep a watchful eye on Brian’s teenage daughter and keep her out of trouble. Little does Madea know, the trouble is coming for her. Fortunately, or not, she has her posse of Bam, Hattie and Joe to shield off ghosts and killer clowns.
More Madea? Also on January 31, following a nine-month nationwide tour, Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run (The Play) will be available on Blu-ray (plus Digital HD), DVD, Digital HD and On Demand. On the run from the law, Madea hides out at Bam’s house, thinking she will lie low. Unfortunately, Bam’s house is packed with rambunctious family and friends, and Madea finds herself needing to lay down her own law and drop the hammer.
A group of college students venture into the Black Hills Forest in Maryland to uncover the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of their friend’s sister, who many believe is connected to the legend of the Blair Witch.
At first the group is hopeful, especially when a pair of locals offer to act as guides through the dark and winding woods, but as the endless night wears on, the group is visited by a menacing presence. Slowly, they begin to realize the legend is all too real and more sinister than they could have imagined.
Nearly two decades after documentary filmmakers vanished in the groundbreaking film The Blair Witch Project, an investigative team searches for them and the truth behind their disappearance in Blair Witch. The flick has landed on Blu-ray Combo Pack (plus DVD and Digital HD), DVD, Digital HD and On Demand from Lionsgate. From acclaimed filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, Blair Witch stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Valorie Curry, Corbin Reid and Wes Robinson. An official selection of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, this much-buzzed-about film will haunt viewers far beyond the closing credits.
Also get buzzed with more than three hours of bonus features on the Blair Witch Blu-ray and Digital HD,including an audio commentary with director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett; the House of Horrors: Exploring the Set featurette; and a six-part making-of documentary, “Never Ending Night: The Making of Blair Witch”. The DVD release includes the audio commentary and the “House of Horrors: Exploring the Set” featurette.The Blu-ray Disc of Blair Witch will feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack remixed specifically for the home theater environment to place and move audio anywhere in the room.
Quite bewitching, eh?
Petrucelli Picks the best in books, music and film . . . and then some