“Ladybug Ladybug” (1964, Kino Lorber) Students and teachers at a small rural school react to a seemingly real warning about an imminent nuclear attack with anything but the orderly, civil response detailed in government training films, and fall prey to panic, fear, and in one case, apparent tragedy. Gut-wrenching for many viewers and critics upon its release, Frank and Eleanor Perry‘s black-and-white drama, which is based loosely on a real incident, has been surpassed in terms of intensity and ugliness by subsequent nuclear war dramas (see “The Day After”) but as a look at everyday people, and especially children, facing the enormity of their own mortality, “Ladybug” retains much of its awful, draining power, even in its ambiguous or arthouse-forward moments. Kino’s Blu-ray offers detailed and thoughtful commentary by historian Richard Harland Smith, who dives deeply into the film’s crew and cast (which includes TV/stage vets William Daniels and Nancy Marchand of “The Sopranos”), the incident on which it’s based, and the magazine article it inspired, in addition to a wealth of other production info.
“Far Western” (2016, Corinth Films) Modestly appointed but captivating documentary about the country/bluegrass music scene in Japan, its primary and devoted practitioners, and how music can forge links between very different cultures. Director James Payne eschews the easy out – “Stranger in a Strange Land” observations of cultural juxtaposition – in favor of the most compelling question in any music doc: how did you come to the sounds that changed your life? The answer is both culturally specific and wholly universal; honest music will find a place to take root, no matter where you call home, and scenes of veteran Japanese performers at the Grand Ole Opry or playing with their American counterparts speak simply but with volume about how easy it can be to connect as people (an entirely valuable lesson for the moment).
“Man with a Camera” (1958-1960, MPI Home Video) Charles Bronson played a Korean War vet turned freelance photographer in this ABC drama series. Based on comments I’ve read online, a lot of ’50s-era kids were turned on to photography by this program – not surprising, given that Bronson was not only the picture of virility, like a Jack Kirby drawing come to life, but also had boss tech (Kodak was among the show’s sponsors) and even spy-styled hidden cameras, as well as a portable darkroom in the trunk of his car. Episodes largely hinge around Bronson getting “in too deep” in hard-boiled situations on the streets of New York (played by Desilu Studios in LA); the supporting cast is dotted with notable faces (Harry Dean Stanton, Angie Dickinson, Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, Lawrence Tierney) at various points on their career, and Buck Houghton (“The Twilight Zone”) and William Castle are among the producing/directing team, but the show’s most appealing element is Bronson’s interactions with Ludwig Stossel as his sage Eastern European father (Bronson himself was Lithuanian). MPI’s two-DVD set includes all 29 episodes.
“Waterboys” (2016, Corinth Films) Crime writer Leopold Witte and his son (Tim Linde) are both shown the door by their respective partners for their various failings; thrown together but with no real relationship of their own, the pair decide that Witte’s upcoming promotional tour of Scotland might be the cure for their past and present ills. Lightweight but good-natured Dutch comedy benefits from its leads, who do well in fleshing out the fine details in their self-centered/sad sack roles, and director Robert Jan Westdijk’s refusal to let his film drift into lazy, familiar father-son/romcom waters. The Waterboys‘ back catalog strikes the right mix of melancholy and hopeful on the soundtrack, and the band also makes an appearance in the film; Corinth’s DVD is subtitled.
“Song Without a Name” (2019, Film Movement) Quecha mother Pamela Mendoza travels to the Peruvian capital city of Lima to give birth at a clinic promising free medical care, only to discover that the facility has stolen and apparently sold her baby. Writer-director Melina Leon‘s debut film addresses a harrowing and very real issue that plagued ’80s-era Peru (though mistreatment of indigenous women is not limited to a single decade or location) with natural performances and stately black-and-white compositions, which retain interest when the plot itself turns elliptical (and unfocused) as it follows journalist Tommy Paraga’s investigation. But as a spotlight on such abuses and the corrupt political machinery that allows them, “Song” lands a lingering punch that’s on par a documentary approach. Film Movement’s subtitled DVD includes an introduction by Leon and the 2018 short “Sin Cielo,” which covers similar territory – here, it’s the abduction and trafficking of teenage girls in Mexico – with equal skill.
“Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America” (2003, Severin Films) Disturbing trio of short films by indie director Douglas Buck, intended to pull back the curtain on the psychological dysfunction at the heart of the American nuclear family. The subject material is intensely unpleasant but also deeply personal: horrific abuse obscured by secrets and rigid family/society/religious structures which in turn, produce monstrous responses from abuser, victim, and relations alike. The violence and gore is plentiful and at times breath-taking in its intensity, but what lingers longer is the tension that builds around the explosions of violence, which Buck draws out with expert timing. Severin Films’ Blu-ray offers the option to watch the three shorts separately or as a single, feature-length film; vintage commentary by Buck, writer Douglas Winter, and others, as well as a new track by critic Maitland McDonough, cover production details and themes at exhaustive length, while members of the cast and crew (included effects supervisor Tom Savini) are featured in interviews. An early (and equally unpleasant) short by Buck, podcast interviews and analysis, and deleted and behind-the-scenes footage round out Severin’s impressive set.