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The DVD Wrapup: Quiet One, Maiden, Itsy Bitsy, Killer Croc, Silent Revolution, Light of My Life, Spare a Dime?, Wax Mask, Prey, Aftermath, Sesame Street … More

Friday, October 4th, 2019

The Quiet One
In pop culture, as in life, it’s the “quiet ones” whose lives frequently are the most meaningful. George Harrison served that purpose after the Beatles disbanded and he became the conscience of rock ’n’ roll. Throughout his three-decade career playing bass for the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman was known to the world as the “quiet one,” even though Charlie Watts has been every bit as taciturn as Wyman. A deceptively great drummer, who, like Ringo, made the discipline look easy, Watts never hid his greater desire to lead a jazz ensemble, while also maintaining his interest in art and graphics. Why he’s still up there banging away with the boys is anyone’s guess. Unlike Watts, Wyman acted on his impulses in 1993, when he cut the cord to pursue his side interests and hobbies, and escape the spotlight drawn to Keith and Mick’s every move. A quarter-century later, some people probably think he never left the band. (Ace bassist Daryl Jones has toured and recorded with the Stones ever since Wyman’s departure, but only diehard fans could pick him out in a lineup.) Oliver Murray’s compelling rock/doc, The Quiet One, demonstrates, among other things, how satisfying life can be for retired stars, who haven’t blown their savings on drugs (he didn’t imbibe), buying luxurious homes and recording studios in exotic places, and courting the attention of tabs, paparazzi and police with antics that have killed many younger artists. (He has shown a preference for  teenage models, but not lately.) He still tours occasionally with the Rhythm Kings, but is just as likely to be found puttering in his gardens or searching for Roman relics with a metal detector of his own design.)

Thanks to Bill’s passion for recording every aspect of his life on film, in photographs and through music … especially his time on time on the road with the Rolling Stones, Murray was given a long head start on The Quiet One. It opens with a leisurely stroll through Wyman’s labyrinthine archives, where the stacks and shelves containing memorabilia, tapes, films, new and old equipment, clothing and technology, leave precious room for walking, let alone expansion. Even casual fans of the Stones and their heroes – Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy – will salivate over what’s revealed in the collection. The same is true for his museum-quality recordings, recollections of the highs and lows of stardom, and some funny stuff about the devotion of groupies and fans. When the band moved its operations to the south of France – tax problems in England, don’t you know – Wyman made the best of an inconvenient situation by taking advantage of the more leisurely pace of life, absence of adulation by the locals and the region’s spectacular natural beauty. It also afforded him the opportunity to befriend such remarkable neighbors as artist Marc Chagall, then in his 90s, and writer James Baldwin, who lent Bill his collection of Ray Charles records. The Quiet One failed to make much of a dent in the domestic box office in its post-festival run, but that’s probably because much of the potential audience was deterred by critics – again, not many – who were expecting more salacious material about life alongside Mick and Keith. A few felt as if Wyman was holding something back from viewers. Some may have been disappointed by the bassist’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get lifestyle, which is on full display in The Quiet Once. For the rowdy stuff, I suggest checking out Keith Richard’s widely acclaimed and best-selling autobiography, “Life” (2010), which is full of juicy anecdotes. Ditto, Wyman’s “Rolling With the Stones” (2002), “Bill Wyman’s Treasure Islands: Britain’s History Uncovered” (2005) and “Bill Wyman’s Scrapbook” (2010). If Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones ever decide to make a feature-length encore for “Detectorists,” I’d love to see Wyman in a cameo with his patented metal detector.

Maiden: Blu-ray
Competitive sailing in the United States has only managed to capture the imaginations of Americans in years when something other than the race, itself, was being contested. That’s primarily because yachting has always been seen as an athletic endeavor limited to people with sufficient finances – or sponsorship – to afford it. Polo is a similarly expensive endeavor, but, at least, spectators can tell what’s happening from the sidelines, which is not the case with sailing. There was a flurry of interest in the 1970s, when Ted Turner – the “Mouth From the South” –  skippered the Courageous and forced the mainstream media to pay attention to the America’s Cup. In the early to mid-1980s, San Diego native Dennis Connor and Australian businessman Alan Bond competed against each other in court and the Cup. Modern technology had allowed for modifications in the ships’ designs, size and transformation from wood and aluminum, to fiberglass. In 1983, the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Australia II became the first foreign vessel in the race’s 132-year history to wrest the Cup from the New York Yacht Club’s trophy room. When Dennis Connor won the next challenge, in 1987, he insisted on bringing the Cup to San Diego, where it remained until 2000, when the races moved to New Zealand. In the last 19 years, the Cup has only been contested once on U.S. waters, in San Francisco. Without a hometown favorite, of course, Americans lost track of the sport’s elite component and even Conner has found it difficult to raise the kind of money needed to mount a challenge and bring the Cup home. Perhaps, if the races were more spectator- and sponsor-friendly, he could have done so. Today, not even the mainstream can afford to follow yachting. Unless one owns a yacht and military-strength binoculars, the only way to cover such races is from a helicopter.

As historic as the 1989-90 Whitbread Around the World Race — chronicled in Alex Holmes’ inspirational documentary, Maiden – turned out to be, coverage was limited to airplanes, ship-to-shore dispatches and boats sent out to greet the competitors in various ports-of-call. It helps explain why it’s taken this long to make a feature-length documentary or theatrical movie about the Maiden’s unprecedented achievement, in a 33,000-mile race that took the all-female team 167 days to complete. If a team of American women had competed successfully in the Whitbread that year, instead of Brits, Hollywood probably would have rushed to commit the achievement on film, albeit using the giant water tanks in Ensenada, Paramount or Warner Bros. That footage could have been supplemented with location footage from the America’s Cup or Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, as was seen in The Jackal (1997), albeit backwards.  Such sailing movies as Carroll Ballard’s Wind (1992), Ridley Scott’s White Squall (1996), The Perfect Storm (2000), J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (2013), Wolfgang Peterson’s The Perfect Storm (2000), Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift (2018) and James Marsh’s The Mercy (2018) have demonstrated the sub-genre’s durability. (Not to mention, Captain Blood, Mutiny on the Bounty and Pirates of the Caribbean.) Most of those films dealt with imminent disasters and tragedies, privateers or romance under pressure. Holmes began working on Maiden, in advance of any 30th anniversary commemoration of the women’s victory. He’d already written and directed “Dunkirk” (2004) and “Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (2014), for which there was plenty of archival footage and news coverage. Maiden would present far greater challenges. Among other things, the greater share of the drama occurred offshore, far from any camera crews or monitoring from above. And, while the media eagerly glommed onto the feminist angle, it wasn’t until the crew had demonstrated it was up to the task and was in the race not simply to prove women could make the distance, but to win. Pre-race coverage was almost exclusively limited to stories about why they didn’t have a chance in hell of completing the race – from the point of experienced, if clearly chauvinistic male sailors – and dismissive punditry about the role of women in sports and society.

At least, it gave Holmes a starting point. His focal point would be 26-year-old Tracy Edwards, who wanted to participate, but was met with resistance, derision and blatant sexism. She wanted desperately to participate in a big-time sailing event, but the closest Edwards could come was working in the galley, or as a deckhand and first mate on boats skippered by men. Still, she’d absorbed enough basic training to dream of competing in the Whitbread. When no team or sponsor would back her, Edwards rounded a dozen seaworthy women, bought and repaired a used yacht, and entered the marathon race. A fortuitous encounter with Jordan’s King Hussein led to the monarch agreeing to finance Tracy’s dream. Although she talked a good game, she shared many of the same misgivings as those expressed by the doubters. Several women in the last 20 years had completed solo around-the-world excursions, but the Maiden was considerably larger, required strenuous grinding and rigging, exceptional navigational skills and precision teamwork. Edwards had yet to prove that she could work alongside men or women within the framework of a team. As arrogant as she could be sometimes, Tracy often suffered bouts of low esteem and depression. At first, the doubters’ prophesies appeared to be all too accurate. An essential team member would break her wrist in the opening hour of the race, and nothing could have prepared the women for what they would experience on the high seas, off the glacial shores of Antarctica, long periods of slack winds and the powerful waves generated by storms.

Holmes’ greatest hurdle was depicting those dramatic events, as well as the women’s daily activities and interaction on the open water. In what the director considers to be something of a miracle, one of the women revealed to him that, yes, much video evidence did exist, and she had shot it … and it’s good. In the ensuing 30 years, the crew had scattered to all corners of the Earth and the Maiden ended up abandoned on the rocks in the Seychelles. Despite becoming the first woman to receive the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy and being awarded an MBE, Tracy succumbed to many of the pressures and roadblocks experienced by sailors forced to depend on other people’s money. She has wrote two books about her experiences, but moved into youth counseling, motivation speaking and promoting sailing to young women. She also crowdfunded the money to repurchase the wreck of the Maiden, return it to Southampton and restore it to tip-top shape. It currently is on a three-year world tour to raise money and awareness for girls’ access to education in poorer nations. Maiden has won top honors at three film festivals and, I think, is eligible for consideration for an Academy Award. Young women and girls already impressed by the success of American women in international soccer competition would be the perfect audience for a screening of Maiden. The bonus package adds the Q&A, “An Evening With Maiden,” with Holmes and Edwards; and “Women Making Waves,” with Holmes, producer Victoria Gregory and Edwards discussing how Maiden‘s exhilarating archival footage captured the personalities of the crew and why the film’s story is so significant today.

The Silent Revolution
As difficult as it for some Boomers to remember the construction of the Berlin Wall, which commenced on August 13, 1961, it’s that much harder to find old-timers who can recall the events that led to its creation. For many of us, it was as familiar a post-war icon as Disneyland and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Few recall that the Soviets ordered the building of the wall as much to keep capitalist ideals, propaganda and cultural influences from corrupting the socialist mindset as to prevent East Berliners from escaping. Neither were Nikita Khrushchev and other Eastern bloc leaders appreciative of the fact that by maintaining police states in countries that had been under the thumb of fascist rule in World War II, they would alienate people who had so recently fought alongside the Red Army to liberate themselves. Not everyone felt as if they’d been imprisoned by communism, but the clampdowns on freedom fighters and construction of the wall made them doubt that freedom was just behind the Iron Curtain. The Silent Revolution opens in East Berlin, in 1956, when citizens were still able to commute more or less freely between the sectors created by the Allies. High school students Theo (Leonard Scheicher) and Kurt (Tom Gramenz) have been cleared to cross through the border separating East and West Berlin, based on Kurt’s insistence that they’ll be visiting a cemetery to mark the birthday of his fallen grandfather. After laying a spray of flowers on the former stormtrooper’s grave, they hightail to the movies, sneaking in through the bathroom window. Newsreel footage of the uprising in Budapest leaves them confused. They couldn’t understand why socialists were using weapons of war against socialist students, many of whose parents had sided with the Red Army during its surge westward. The presence of Soviet police and guards in Berlin could hardly be more obvious to the boys, but they’ve bought into Soviet propaganda – as well as their parents’ insistence that socialism has made their lives better — that the troops serve as a first line of defense against the forces of capitalism and moral depravity.

From the boys’ points of view, it made sense. Indeed, under socialism, schools and living conditions had improved, especially for the families of workers and party officials. Apart from the bombed-out buildings in the center of the city, something resembling suburbia had begun to emerge. Even so, when they went back to their school in Stalinstadt, the boys describe to their classmates what was shown in the newsreel and how the incident was being described in the eastern media: the protesters were portrayed as counter-revolutionaries financed by  interests in the west. They convince the 30, or so, members of the senior class to observe two minutes of silence for young people killed in the uprising, including a soccer star on Hungary’s cup-winning team.  When their teacher comes into the classroom, he’s greeted by this wall of silence, which he takes personally. He dutifully informs the principal, who knows exactly what’s about to happen next. Even though the protest was intended as a onetime thing, East Berlin school authorities treat it as if it were a full-blown insurrection. A school supervisor (Jördis Triebel), who might as well have been named Brunhild, demands to know the names of the leaders of the protest. By now, the teens have concocted an excuse, arguing that they were simply honoring the memory of the soccer legend. Frau Kessler doesn’t care whether the protest was over a fallen hero or fallen statue, she demands to know who was involved. Kessler turns to her boss, who’s even less flexible. He orders his police to dig up dirt on their parents and threaten the kids with being expelled from the prestigious school. Of course, these tactics lead some of the students to make comparisons to the Gestapo, which drive the party functionaries nuts. Eventually, they push the students to wonder what might happen to their families if they persist, Others, who’ve been monitoring the situation in Hungary via a forbidden radio frequency, begin to consider their options in the west. If one extends the timeline from the partitioning of Berlin into quadrants, to the point where tens of thousands of East Germans – mostly young and educated – are escaping into the west every week, the wall becomes an inevitable, if seemingly temporary option to a third world war … within the even thicker walls of the Kremlin, anyway. We know that The Silent Revolution is based on a real event, if only because, later, we’re shown an updated photograph of the 30, or so, students, who took advantage of holiday travel to cross the border one last time Lars Kraume’s adaptation of Dietrich Garstka’s book forgoes the dank and dreary atmospherics that typically color movies about fascism and a tyranny. It isn’t necessary to show the kids having their fingernails pulled out by a pliers or being beaten with a rod, to know that the threats made to the students’ families are real, as are warnings of being sent to work camps if they refuse to rat on their classmates. One needn’t have been born before JFK stood before the concrete barrier and declared, “I, too, am a Berliner” to feel the tension build in The Silent Revolution and worry that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump would love to build walls around their countries – or moats, stocked with snakes and crocodiles – to keep people from experiencing what it truly means to be free.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?: Blu-ray
Between Ric and Ken Burns’ documentaries on PBS and the vintage movies I watch each week on TMS, I managed to convince myself that I’d seen all of the Depression-era newsreels, film clips and hit songs I needed  to appreciate the ordeals faced by my ancestors and fear a reoccurrence of what almost happened in the Depression of 2008. While watching the new Blu-ray edition of Philippe Mora’s  Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, originally released in 1975, I realized that I hadn’t. At the time, Ken Burns was still six years away from the airing of his first documentary – Brooklyn Bridge – and Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (1978) had yet to be completed. A year earlier, however, Peter Davis and co-producer Bert Schneider made a huge splash with the divisive anti-Vietnam War doc, Hearts and Minds (1974). That same year, That’s Entertainment! celebrated MGM’s golden anniversary in a documentary overflowing with song, dance and other things designed to chase the blues away. Because an appetite for such non-traditional documentaries had yet to develop among American audiences, it isn’t hard to see how Brother Can You Spare a Dime? might have been just slightly ahead of its time. It’s possible, as well, that the quality of the source material might not have been as up to snuff as it was in That’s Entertainment! and other underbudgeted works that typically were intended to be shown in classrooms and union halls through a 16mm projector littered with floating debris and artifacts. VCI’s Blu-ray iteration is as close to pristine as Mora’s doc is ever going to be. Neither are black and brown faces as absent here as in previous documentaries about the same period. There are a couple of other similarities to Burns’ films. Mora emphasizes the hopes, dreams and disappointments of Americans from the point of view of a few key individuals: James Cagney and Franklin D. Roosevelt; they’re awash with catchy music; and both borrow from WB cartoons to lighten the load of history. A welcome addition to the package is a collection of Pathé Newsreels from the same period.

Light of My Life: Blu-ray
Walden: Life in the Woods
Anyone who’s seen and enjoyed such stories of survival as Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018) and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) will be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to falling in love with Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life. On the other hand, those who haven’t could see something fresh and intriguing in a movie about a single parent determined to protect his 11-year-old from predatory humans, the unforgiving elements and grinding boredom that are as much a part of life in the forest primeval as the morning dew. It takes a while for writer/director/star Affleck to answer some, if not all of the questions that pop up with regularity throughout the 119-minute course of Light of My Life. The picture opens in a tent, at night, with Affleck’s Dad invents a revised version of a biblical fable to help his child of indeterminate gender, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), fall asleep. The child asks a lot of questions, while attempting to steer the story in directions other than the one Dad intended to go. When the sun comes  up, we’ll witness the father’s obsession with survival measures, escape routes, red alerts and making one’s way through a forest whose branches aren’t particularly sheltering and whose borders open them to disaster. We’ve yet to be told what the pair is attempting to avoid and why Rag must learn survival techniques previously reserved for Special Forces trainees. There’s no question that something awful has happened in the outside world and that Dad’s probably going to run out things to teach Rag, who’s smart as a whip and extremely curious, without also being obnoxiously precocious. When a fellow survivor wanders into their camp, Dad orders Rag to assume red-alert status and follow him deeper into the woods. By now, viewers will have deduced that Rag is a girl and she’s somehow managed to survive the plague that’s killed her Mom (Elisabeth Moss) and most of the women in the country and possibly the world. Dad knows that if Rag’s true identity were known, she would become a target for rapists or scientists desirous of cloning her until her uterus stopped producing eggs. Other red alerts will cause them to leave temporary shelters in abandoned homes, including one previously owned by Dad’s grandmother. It’s currently inhabited by three evangelical Christian men, only one of whom (Tom Bower) feels secure in their presence. The problem at this point, I think, is that Dad’s reticent demeanor and fear of the unknown make us wish that Affleck would find a way to kill himself off and let Rag carry the story herself. We already have been alerted to the existence of a hidden sanctuary, where a number of survivors of both genders have  and Rag could glean from them what it means to be a woman. Dad has attempted to explain the facts of life to his daughter, but only a woman could fill in the blanks left in his biology lesson. As it is, Rag has no memory of ever seeing another female. The movie could definitely use a change of pace from Affleck’s low-key personality and the secrets he refuses to share with the audience. I would have liked to see how Rag might interact with another girl her age or a mother figure. Even so, Light of My Life has plenty to offer viewers drawn to such dramas and the mysteries they contain.

For most of the first half of Alex Harvey and Adam Chanzit’s reimagining of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden (Life in the Woods),” any connection between the classic memoirs and movie are vague, at best, and, at worst, invisible. The second half of Walden: Life in the Woods (2017) doesn’t make the linkage any more obvious, but, at least, some of it takes place somewhere in the vicinity of trees, rocks and streams. It isn’t until the final third of the 104-minute drama that Walden: Life in the Woods reveals its transcendental roots to Theroux and his search for an objective understanding of society through personal introspection, simple living, self-sufficiency and escape. Here, via three interlaced storylines, the filmmakers hoped to update the book’s lessons for 21st Century viewers. In the first, 81-year-old Lynn Cohen (Munich) did the filmmakers a favor by agreeing to playing Alice, a resident in an assisted-living facility who’s haunted by visions of her late husband and yearns to uncover riddles from her past as she struggles with dementia. Her grandson, Guy (Erik Hellman), embarks on a Walden-esque journey, as he hikes through some very steep mountains with his rugged-outdoorsman partner, Luke (Tony LoVerde). Meanwhile, after his benefits are cut at his job at the nursing home, beleaguered family-man, Ramirez (Demian Bichir), becomes entangled in the web of a bureaucracy that eats people like him for dessert. All three narratives merge in a moment of spiritual epiphany at three very different “ponds,” where the characters confront their inner Thoreaus. As obscure as that message is, the actors find ways to make Walden: Life in the Woods somewhat thought-provoking, at least. How many viewers will have tuned out by this time is what makes the movie problematical. The film also stars T.J. Miller, Chris Sullivan, Jamie Horton, and Amber Gray.

Itsy Bitsy: Blu-ray
Killer Crocodile: Blu-ray
In 1955, Jack Arnold advanced the baton carried by director Gordon Douglas and screenwriter Ted Sherdeman a year earlier, in the seminal killer-insect thriller, Them! At the same time as Arnold was helming Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955), he also was weaving the web that produced “No Food for Thought” and “Spider, Inc.” (1955), for Ivan Tors’ TV anthology series, “Science Fiction Theatre,” and Tarantula. All four of these titles incorporated time-honored aspects of the mad-scientist subgenre into the as-yet-undefined subgenre dealing with the unexpected results of nuclear experimentation on humans and animals. Meanwhile, in Japan, filmmakers borrowed/stole the template created for RKO’s King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion and split-screen techniques, in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), for their own sci-fi/horror pix, Gojira (a.k.a., Godzilla), Rodan (1956), Gigantis, the Fire Monster (1959) and Mothra (1961). They served as muted commentaries on post-war nuclear-weapons training. For the next 60 years, there’s hardly been an insect, predatory creature or dinosaur that hasn’t presented a challenge to humanity. Veteran special-effects specialist Micah Gallo’s first feature, Itsy Bitsy – which, for some reason, debuted in Vietnam – is the latest in a long line of horror pictures in which a spider is the antagonist. Unlike Tarantula and other specimens in the eight-legged cinematic species, the enemy is only marginally larger than the largest spider you’ve ever seen on the Discovery Channel and has a distinct resemblance to a pre-boiled Alaskan king crab. Its bite and toxicity, though, are that of an unnaturally large brown recluse spider.

The critter has lain dormant ever since it was carried to the U.S. in a piece of pottery stolen from a tribe of spider-worshippers in Africa – why not Norway, you might ask – and destined for the home and workshop of the sickly American anthropologist, Walter Clark (Bruce Davison). Apparently, it’s possessed by an alien spirit, but any number of other evil forces would have sufficed. As long as the long the pot remains intact, all is well. When, however, the 13-year-old son of the private nurse, Kara (Elizabeth Roberts), hired to care for the anthropologist, steals the vessel from Walter’s office and it’s broken by an angry former employee, the malevolent spider escapes. There are dozens of nooks, crannies and holes in the holes in the decrepit mansion for a spider – even one the size of a St. Bernard puppy – to lurk … and strike. The added value to Itsy Bitsy is that the single mother, Kara, is a recovering opiate addict – a leftover side effect of losing a daughter in a careless accident — and not the most attentive or conscientious of mothers. She puts teenage Jesse (Arman Darbo) in charge of 8-year-old Cambria (Chloe Perrin), who doesn’t stay still for very long, thus putting herself in imminent danger. (Cambria was named after the town from Arachnophobia.) Mom doesn’t get her act together until it’s nearly too late. Apart from the advanced special effects, production values and hi-def presentation, Itsy Bitsy could have been made at any point in the last 50 years … in color or black-and-white. This isn’t a knock on the movie, because it makes full use of what must have been a limited budget and a claustrophobic setting. The acting is as good as it had to be and the presence of Denise Crosby (“Ray Donovan”), as Sheriff Jane Dunne, is a nod to gender-blind casting. The Blu-ray package adds separate commentaries with Gallo, and co-writers Jason Alvino, Bryan Dick and Gallo; brief making-of featurettes, “The Spider: The Beginnings,” “The Journey” and “Denise on Set,” with co-star Crosby; Kickstarter mini-featurettes, intended to elicit funding; “The Most Spidery Spider,” a jokey featurette detailing how Andy Dick brought the movie’s creature to life through a hyper motion-capture performance; and a lengthy storyboard gallery.

As we learned in 1989’s Killer Crocodile, reptiles thousands of miles away from the test sites, and decades removed from them, as well, aren’t immune from the scourge of illegally dumped radioactive waste … a problem that still plagues the U.S. Here, producer-turned-director Fabrizio De Angelis (Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals), as Larry Ludman; screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (Bay of Blood), as David Parker Jr.;  crocodile designer Giannetto De Rossi (Dune); and composer Riz Ortolani (Mondo cane) created one of the most ridiculously entertaining Jaws rip-offs in the ItaloSleaze era. It’s simple enough, really.
When it becomes known that a humongous beast is preying on natives of a remote village on an impoverished tropical island, a group of idealistic young environmentalists travel upriver to check it out. It doesn’t take long for them to discover the truth. The beast is a crocodile of great size and an insatiable appetite for human flesh and gore. It’s likely that the croc’s growth was accelerated by the barrels of radioactive waste found bobbing along the shore. Naturally, corrupt officials in a nearby town – represented here by Van Johnson (The Caine Mutiny) — have been covering for the polluters for years. Fans of extreme gore and low-budget exploitation will appreciate the care that went into the monster, if nothing else. Newly released into Blu-ray and DVD here, Killler Crocodile adds interviews with De Rossi, actor Pietro Genuardi and cinematographer Federico Del Zoppo.

Lost City of the Jungle: Blu-ray
Ten years before the tsunami of giant prehistoric monsters and mutated bugs crashed on the shores of southern California and Japan, Universal Studio’s penultimate serial, Lost City of the Jungle (1946), dealt with issues that arose almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, less than a year earlier. The monsters here were of the human variety. Curiously, the 13-episode “chapter play” opened on American screens three years before the Soviet Union secretly conducted its first successful nuclear-weapons test, in Kazakhstan. Not having been born yet, I grew up thinking that almost everything pertaining to the Manhattan Project and nuclear proliferation was classified. In Lost City of the Jungle, however, something called the United Peace Foundation has become concerned about the discovery of new radioactive element that blocks the effects of the atomic bomb. The gist of the story is that the race for Meteorium 245 has begun and the Peacekeepers must prevent the Warmongers from monopolizing the substance. In the right hands, Meteorium 245 could be shared by nations in search of a defense and deterrent to nuclear war. In the mitts of the bad guys, though, a shield could be built to protect a handful of countries, giving them time to deploy their own offensive missiles. The evil Sir Eric Hazarias (Lionel Atwill) has traced a Meteorium deposit to the isolated Himalayan province of Pendrang, which is ruled by the casino owner, Indra (Helen Bennett). After Hazarias fakes his own death, he shows up in Pendrang as philanthropist Geoffrey London. He is joined by the criminal mastermind, Malborn (John Mylong), who’s posing as his secretary. (I don’t think serials were intended to make sense, except in the final chapter.) Thus begins a search for Meteorium by the Warmongers. On the trail of Hazarias/London is UPF operative Rod Stanton (Russell Hayden), who is determined to lift the mask of the man who’s believed to be dead and put a stop to his evil scheme. (At the same time as this was happening on screen, Soviet scientists were desperately searching for uranium in the USSR and East Germany.) Also attempting to obstruct Hazarias’ sinister plan to rule the world are Pendrang native Tal Shan (Keye Luke) and Marjorie Elmore (Jane Adams), daughter of a respected scientist (John Eldredge) and unwilling assistant to Sir Eric. On the way to the reserve of Meteorium – is extremely dangerous, in its own right – the western teams will face off against a native tribe that believes the rock to be sacred. Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor’s Lost City of the Jungle opens slowly and takes a bit too much focus to fully grasp. A lot of the confusion derives from Atwill’s death from bronchial cancer during the production and the need to camouflage his absence, by having a stand-in perform with his back to the camera. Fans of serials will appreciate VCI Entertainment’s 2K restoration and imaginative set designs.

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil: Blu-ray
The premise behind Lee Won-tae’s explosive actioner, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, could hardly be more simple. As the title implies, a fierce gangster joins forces with a resourceful police detective to track down and eliminate a sociopath, who doesn’t care who he kills and doesn’t need an excuse for doing so. The alliance begins after Jang Dong-su (Don Lee/Ma Dong-seok) is violently attacked after a fender bender on a rainy night. Although he barely escapes almost certain death, the burly boss’s gambling racket is severely damaged. The only way to restore his image is to find his attacker and exact revenge. He teams up with Detective Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo Yul) to find the assailant, but soon discovers that he’s a serial killer, not a single-minded assassin. No one in the department is interested in expending resources to capture a man who appears to be ridding Seoul of gangsters for them. With no support from the police department, Detective Jung is forced to use gang boss Jang’s resources in order to track down the killer (Kim Sungkyu), who goes by the name of “K” or “The Devil.” When the showdown finally comes, it’s fun to watch the gangster navigate his way through his foes with all the grace of a meth-gorged bull in a china shop. The ending can be chalked up to coincidence, irony or justice. It doesn’t matter, because the movie’s strength is in its fights. Learning that The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil has been picked up by Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa Productions doesn’t necessarily mean that we should anticipate a movie that’s bigger, bolder and less constrained by a tight budget. If Sly’s recent track record is pretty spotty, it’s good to know that tough-guy actor Don Lee (Train to Busan) will participate in the remake. The extras include a short making-of featurette  and character profiles.

The Wax Mask: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In 1997, nearly 15 years past the zenith of the giallo movement, one of the leading pioneers of the genre, Dario Argento (Tenebre), approached a physically and professionally ailing Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling) to direct one final production, an over-the-top shocker about grisly murders at wax museums in Paris and Rome. When Fulci passed away only weeks before filming began, Argento turned to special effects specialist Sergio Stivaletti (Opera) to pick up the football and run with it. Because Stivaletti already was familiar with the story and Argento’s methodology, and desperately wanted to direct his first film, he jumped at the opportunity. More gothic than giallo, The Wax Mask (1997), which wasn’t released theatrically here, won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen Michael Curtiz Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), André De Toth’s House of Wax (1953) or Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959). It opens in Paris, 1900, when a couple are horribly murdered by a masked man with a metal claw, who rips their hearts out. The sole survivor and witness to the massacre, Sonia (Romina Mondello), turns up at a new wax museum in Rome, a dozen years later. The facility’s main attractions are lifelike recreations of gruesome murder scenes. Its curator, Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossien), is nothing if not fastidious. It partially explains why the museum retains such a spooky atmosphere and the effigies are etched in such horrific detail, including one that depicts her own father’s murder. A young man bets that he can spend an entire night inside the museum and leave through the front gates the next morning. Turns out, he couldn’t. Soon, people start disappearing from the streets of Rome and the halls of the museum halls begin filling up with new figures. Even if The Wax Mask isn’t up to the standards previously set by Argento and other incarnations of the same story, it should satisfy fans of Hammer’s goriest horror classics. The Severin package features a 4k scan from the original negative, supervised by Stivaletti; rare behind-the-scenes footage; fresh interviews; commentary with Sergio Stivaletti and Michelangelo Stivaletti; and featurettes “Beyond Fulci,” “The Chamber of Horrors,” “Living Dolls,” “The Mysteries of the Wax Museum,”“The Waxworks Symphony,” “The Grand Opening” and “Wax Unmasked”; and vintage pieces on special effects, behind the scenes and on set with Argento.

The Prey: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Shot in late 1979, but not released theatrically until the fall of 1983, Summer and Edwin Brown’s The Prey crosses several subgenre boundaries to get to the point most graduates of the Roger Corman School of Low Budget Exploitation Cinema reach in three weeks or less. Three versions of a movie most people can’t recall – even horror/slasher freaks – have been preserved and restored specifically for the new Arrow Video package. They include an alternate cut of The Prey, which runs approximately 17 minutes longer than the 80-minute theatrical cut, and a composite version made by a devoted fan. One is informed by the spectacular scenery around Idyllwild, in the mountains north of San Bernardino. The longer cut adds a background story, involving members of a gypsy caravan who were slaughtered by local rednecks, convinced that one of them had raped the wife of a friend. This version adds almost 20 minutes’ worth of sepia-tinted sex and exotic dancing around a campfire, at the expense of some nice scenery. The extended material features the work of Eric Edwards, Arcadia Lake and John Leslie, all of whom were big stars during the Golden Age of Porn. (The Browns were involved in “the industry,” as well.) While the gypsies barely figure in the theatrical cut – except to explain the possible origin of the monster – they’re essential to any understanding of the international iteration. The funny thing is that the Browns claim to have had nothing to do with the added material. Anyway, several years after a fire burned through the area, a pair of elderly campers are slashed to death by an unseen assailant.  A few months later, three young couples set up camp near the site of the previous murders. Naturally, they’re sitting ducks for the monster, who appears to have survived the forest fire. For those interested in watching The Prey, without sitting through all three editions, I recommend starting with the composite and taking advantage of the 45-minute outtake package and freshly taped interviews with some of the stars. There’s plenty more where they came from.

In the Aftermath: Special Edition: Blu-ray
This intriguing merger of artfully drawn anime and dystopian drama reminds me of what happened when Woody Allen took a particularly insipid Japanese spy film, “International Secret Police: Key of Keys,” and overdubbed it with completely original dialogue that had nothing to do with the plot of the original film. By putting in new scenes and rearranging the order of existing scenes, he completely changed the tone of the film from a James Bond clone into a comedy about the search for the world’s best egg salad recipe. In the Aftermath (1988) may not look anything like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), but the effect is curiously similar. In his directorial debut, Carl Colpaert (Swimming With Sharks) took New World’s 71-minute acquisition, Mamoru Oshii’s Angel’s Egg (1985), and padded it with 15 minutes of live-fiction footage shot at an abandoned steel plant in Fontana, California. Anyone familiar with Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008) already knows how amazing an anime can look, when it isn’t burdened by commercial concerns and constraints on intellectual, metaphysical and artistic exploration. A summary of Angel’s Egg describes it thusly, “A pretty young girl is the sole protector of a large and precious egg, containing some kind of life force. She lives in a decaying gothic city, inhabited by restless shadows. A mysterious young man arrives one day, eventually winning her trust. They converse sparsely about obscure philosophical and theological topics, and she shows him some astonishing fossils and works of historic and scientific art. The ambiguous ending leaves many unanswered questions and plenty of room for interpretation.” The new, live-action material is the opposite. It turns In the Aftermath into a post-apocalyptic tale of exploration and human connection. While the little girl still plays a key role in the blended narrative, her angelic qualities have been muted to serve the needs of humans running out of non-toxic air to breathe. They’re represented in the radiation-soaked wasteland by a pair of soldiers wearing Hazmat suits and sucking oxygen from portable tanks. After a violent confrontation with a desperate survivor and a near-death experience that leaves Frank (Tony Markes) in a hospital room that is safe from the toxic atmosphere. He’s haunted by visions of an angelic young girl (Rainbow Dolan), holding the giant egg, whose contents could help cleanse the air and provide potable water for survivors. The revolving door of anime and live-action takes a great of patience – and, perhaps, a couple of tokes of good pot – to fully absorb. The high point for me was watching Frank serenade his beautiful doctor (Filiz Tully) on a piano, located just outside his hospital, while wearing a gas mask. (The piece is “Carnavalito Tango,” written by Horatio Moscovici.) Anyone who’s made it this far will want to check out “The Path to Aftermath,” a newly filmed interview with producer Tom Dugan; “Apocalypse Then,” with Markes; “Before the Aftermath: The Influence of Angel’s Egg,” a fresh appreciation of Oshii’s original film, by Andrew Osmond, author of Arrow Books’ “Ghost in the Shell”; a still and poster gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley; and, first pressing only, a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Jon Towlson.

Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots
As played by co-writer/director/star Thales Corrėa, this film’s co-protagonist, Leo, is an aging Brazilian ex-pat who finds the gay scene in Los Angeles lacking. Learning that his on-line friend, Totah (Felix Olmedo), may be visiting San Francisco while he’s hanging out there with his friend, Donnie, Leo enters the “Waiting for Godot” stage of their romance. No matter, because Donny (co-star and co-writer Izzy Palazzini) convinces Leo to embark on a magical mystery tour of the Castro District, which shines brighter than almost anything else in the movie. Somewhere along the line in the not-at-all-graphic Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots, they’re joined by Donnie’s “straight” friend, Hunter (Oscar Mansky), who hopes to teach Leo how to turn a casual sexual relationship into a more meaningful one. Their bar- and party-hopping takes them to places in the Castro that aren’t on the Gray Line’s sight-seeing tours of the Bay Area. They also meet a variety of people, who lead them into some of the city’s more precarious corners. Much of the dialogue is smart and witty, and the good-looking characters don’t fit any single LGBTQ pigeonhole. The DVD’s bonus package adds deleted scenes, bloopers, behind-the-scenes and making-of material, interviews, the original soundtrack and short film, “Parents.”

Sesame Street: 50 Years and Counting
USA Network: Power of Grayskull
When “Sesame Street” began its unprecedented 50-year run on public television, shows produced for the consumption of youngsters was as sugary and unsubstantial as the cereal their sponsors peddled on Saturday mornings. The Muppets only occasionally were spotlighted on such variety programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Jimmy Dean Show,” and Jim Henson’s contributions to the first year of “SNL” were still six years away. In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett began developing a children’s educational television program and approached Henson to design a cast of Muppet characters during this stage. It would be produced by the Children’s Television Workshop and debut three years later, as “Sesame Street.” The creators’ goal was to create a children’s television show that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them,” such as helping young children prepare for school. If critics and educators would quickly voice concerns about the show’s educational methodology and its ability to hold the interest of young viewers, kids took to it like a duck to water. By its 50th anniversary, in 2019, there were over 150 versions of “Sesame Street,” produced in 70 languages. Its  format, characters, actors and audiences have changed over the same time period, but only for the better. The new commemorative package is broken into two parts: Disc One contains more than three hours of fan favorites, including: Kermit, Alastair Cookie, the Frazzles, Forgetful Jones, the Amazing Mumford, Sherlock Hemlock, Don Music and Lefty the Salesman; while Disc Two adds such beloved moments as   Maria and Luis’ marriage, the passing of Mr. Hooper, Snuffleupagus becoming “real” and Big Bird and Snuffy running the New York City Marathon. Joining the festivities are a host of special guests, including classic clips of Madeline Kahn, REM, and Patti LaBelle; songs from Solange, Sara Bareilles, Janelle Monáe, and Josh Groban; and belly laughs courtesy of Amy Poehler, Jeff Goldblum and Ricky Gervais.

The full title of the second item here is “Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” For millions of Boomer Boomlets, that’s all the inspiration they’ll need to check out this exhaustive history of one of the popular toys – oops, action figures – ever molded in plastic. He-Man and the accompanying “Masters of the Universe” franchise would make their debut in 1982, five years before Tom Wolfe used the phrase to describe the gods of Wall Street, in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” with Mattel’s release of the original line of 5.5-inch action-figures. It also preceded “Power Rangers,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Biker Mice From Mars,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Darkwing Duck.” The initial MOTU mini-comics were soon followed by several children’s books and issues of DC Comics. The “Masters of the Universe” franchise would become best known through Filmation’s groundbreaking “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” which debuted in fall of 1983, ran 130 episodes over two seasons, and was rebooted in 2002. It spawned a spin-off series, “She-Ra: Princess of Power,” following the adventures of He-Man’s sister, Princess Adora. Mattel’s subsequent attempts to relaunch the He-Man toy line also led to the short-lived sequel series, “The New Adventures of He-Man,” in the early 1990s, and an update of the series for a contemporary audience in 2002. “Masters of the Universe: Revelation,” a direct-sequel series to the original series will be released on Netflix. It will be directed by Kevin Smith and will be animated by Powerhouse Animation. Among the many people interviewed here are Dolph Lundgren (He-Man), Frank Langella (Skeletor), fight coordinator Anthony De Longis, FX designer Richard Edlund, animator Tom Sito, comic artist Larry Houston and “He-Man” historian Val Staples.

The DVD Wrapup: The Circus, J.C.’s Vampires, Bucket of Blood, Tracker, Black String, Major/Minor, Find Me Guilty, Pitching In … More

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

The Circus: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Fists in the Pocket: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Cloud-Capped Star: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray Around India With a Movie Camera
Hot on the heels of Cohen Media’s terrifically entertaining series of restored silent features, “The Buster Keaton Collection,” comes Criterion’s upgraded edition of “The Circus.” It not only represents the last film Charles Chaplin made during the silent era, but also the least heralded and most troubled of his masterpieces. Its production was so traumatic, in fact, that Chaplin left it out of his autobiography. He first began discussing his ideas for a film about a circus as early as 1920, ultimately combining them with thematic elements from The Vagabond (1916) and gags and plot devices from French comedian Max Linder’s films. Some critics have pointed out the similarities between The Circus and Linder’s last completed film, King of the Circus (1924). As tsunami of personal and production difficulties would result in a gap of  three years between The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus, which, 95 years later, hasn’t lost any of its ability to entertain. In it, the Little Tramp is an inadvertent accessory to a pickpocket’s theft of the watch and wallet of a dapper gentleman watching a side show on the midway of a traveling circus. When the crime is discovered, the pickpocket transfers his haul to the pockets of the unsuspecting drifter. When the Tramp discovers the treasure in his pocket, he goes on a spending spree that draws the attention of the crime victim, who quickly summons the police. It triggers a chase that leads them into the Big Top, where, it’s almost needless to say, they become part of the afternoon’s show. This comes as welcome news to the audience, which is unimpressed by the company’s clowns. In fact, viewers are under the impression that the slapstick chase is part of the clowns’ repertoire and laugh accordingly. The circus’ merciless owner and ringmaster Allan Garcia believes, as well, that no mere amateur could produce the same reaction from the crowd and hires the Little Tramp on the spot. He has no idea why or what’s expected of him. It’s at this point that Chaplin stirs the pot by adding the troupe’s bareback rider (Merna Kennedy) to the mix. The tiny acrobat is regularly beaten by the ringmaster, who’s also her stepfather, and it’s made to look as if he isn’t holding anything back. The newly hired star of the circus intercedes, forcing the brute to decide between beating the girl or losing his services. decide between any further punishment and his services. It gives him hope that the damsel in distress will return the favor by showing him some affection. Then, when a dashing tightrope walker is hired, it’s obvious that the bareback rider will soon be forced to make some tough decisions in the romance department. The Circus’ most fondly remembered set pieces include a confrontation between the Tramp and a caged lion, and his attempt to upstage the tightrope walker on the high wire, which comes complete with some monkeys. (Both gags, which required as many as 200 takes each, are explained in a featurette included in the bonus package.) The 72-minute film ends, as is so often the case, on a bittersweet note.

In hindsight, it’s something of miracle that The Circus was completed, at all. Production was delayed for nearly a year due to several incidents: a fire at the studio; his mother’s death; Chaplin’s messy public divorce and shocking details of his private life; the IRS freezing Chaplin’s assets over a million-dollar tax dispute poor lab work, causing four weeks of filming to be unusable; the theft of a circus wagon; and a storm destroying the big-top tent. The many disruptions led to a nervous breakdown, which, in turn, caused his hair to turn prematurely white. (When production resumed, Chaplin dyed his hair to match it’s original color.)  Despite the fact that The Circus is the seventh highest-grossing silent film of all time and universally admired by critics, scholars and audiences, Chaplin pulled it from circulation for 40 years. When it was re-released, in 1969, it contained a new score by Chaplin, who also sang the theme song. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 4K digital restoration of the 1969 re-release version, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; fresh commentary featuring Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance; an interview with Chaplin from 1969; an interview with Chaplin’s son, Eugene; “In the Service of the Story,” a new program on the film’s visual effects and production design, by effects specialist Craig Barron; “Chaplin Today: The Circus,” a 2003 documentary on the film, featuring filmmaker Emir Kusturica; excerpted audio interview with Chaplin’s musical associate, Eric James; an unused café sequence with new score, by composer Timothy Brock, and related outtakes with audio commentary by Chaplin historian Dan Kamin; newly discovered outtakes, featuring the Tramp and the bareback rider; original recording of the film’s opening song, “Swing, Little Girl,” by Ken Barrie; footage of the 1928 Hollywood premiere; and an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson.

Marco Bellocchio’s debut feature, Fists in the Pocket, was released in 1965, on the eve of Italy’s decade-long uprising by students against bourgeois family values, classism spawned by the Italian Economic Miracle and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. It anticipated the seismic shift away from commonly held middle-class principles, which no longer held the line against radical politics, violence and cynicism. It also encouraged Italian youths to look beyond their parents’ blind adherence to nationalism and Catholic morality. Ironically, the same people who benefited most from the economic boom sent their kids to prestigious colleges, whose educators planted the seeds of revolution and anarchy that culminated with the Red Brigades’ kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro, in 1978, as well as reactive attacks by right-wing militias. If, at 26, Bellocchio couldn’t have predicted the youthquake powered by rock music, drugs and fiery rhetoric, he was savvy enough to feel and recognize the vibrations of change. Or, Fists in the Pocket might simply have been a pre-giallo horror based on observations of his and other bourgeois families. Here, the family at the heart of Bellocchio’s story lives outside the town of Bobbio, in the far northwest corner – or armpit – of Italy, where the writer/director was raised. The fatherless clan, which fits all the definitions of “dysfunctional,” yearns for the days when they enjoyed the good things in life. The oldest son, Augusto (Marino Masé), is the de facto head of the household and the only member who holds a proper job. He also enjoys shooting rats at the town dump for sport. Their mother (Liliana Gerace) is blind and demanding. The youngest son is a misshapen and mentally retarded teenager, who’s addicted to sugar and dependent on his older siblings. Giulia (Paola Pitagora) is beautiful, but seemingly incapable of distinguishing between good and bad influences or the morality of the middle brother’s curious morality. Alessandro (Lou Castel) understands that the family is holding Augusto back from pursuing more prestigious work away from Bobbio, but he is too responsible to act on his inclinations. Behind his back, Alessandro conspires to lift the yoke from his brother’s shoulders, once and forever. He may be completely demented, but a pecan-sized conscience lies somewhere deep, within Alessandro’s nut-hard shell. Cinematographer Alberto Marrama’s grainy black-and-white images captured the morbidity of life within the decaying villa, while Ennio Morricone’s bleak score found the darkness in the characters’ hearts. If Fists in the Pocket doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it’s only because it wasn’t intended to be uplifting. It wasn’t released in the U.S. until nearly three years after its debut at the Lucarno and Venice film festivals, It’s likely that American distributors found it difficult to sell a movie, even on the arthouse circuit, by an unknown Italian commodity not named Antonioni, Fellini or Bertolucci. The Criterion package arrives with a 4K digital restoration, approved by Bellocchio, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; interviews from 2005 with Bellocchio, Castel and Pitagora, editor Silvano Agosti, critic Tullio Kezich and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci; a new interview with scholar Stefano Albertini; and an essay by film critic Deborah Young

Ritwik Ghatak’s exceptional Indian melodrama, The Cloud-Capped Star, describes another family that ceased functioning normally when tragedy struck and it was left to its own devices. As was the case in Fists in the Pocket, a single member of the Bengali family accepts the responsibility of providing the others with the necessities of life. Both characters carry the load without expecting much in the way of gratitude or rewards. In The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) ), which was adapted from a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru, it’s the eldest daughter in a family  uprooted by the Partition of India who fills that role. Supriya Choudhury plays the self-sacrificing Nita, who’s forced to give up her dreams and chances for happiness to keep the family from imploding. When the patriarch loses his meager income from teaching, he demands that she quit college and make money to pick up the slack. The mother’s a world-class bitch to everyone, except the youngest daughter, Gita (Gita Ghatak),who she pushes to steal Nita’s boyfriend. One brother spends nearly every waking hour practicing his singing – a form of Indian blues — under a tree on the banks of the Ganges. Another brother defies his parents by taking a job at a nearby factory, where he’s injured and nearly dies. His father’s response, “I told you so,” while Mommy Dearest blames Nita for not bringing home enough money. Her decision to maintain a vigil at his bedside, causes her to lose her job and finally her health, by contracting tuberculosis. Her singing brother is the only person who cares about her in the end. The Cloud-Capped Star closes with a powerful demand by Nita to be allowed to live her life unburdened by India’s soul-crushing male chauvinism and caste system. The package benefits from a 2K restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; a fascinating conversation between filmmakers Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Kumar Shahani; a stills gallery of Ghatak family photographs, curated by writer and photographer Nabarupa Bhattacharjee; and an essay by film scholar Ira Bhaskar,

Sandhya Suri’s fascinating Around India With a Movie Camera explores life on the subcontinent – British, Indian, Pakistani — in the 50 years leading up to independence in 1947. It does so by skillfully combining archival footage, including hand-colored sequences, with a new score by Soumik Datta. It opens with what’s believed to be the first footage shot in India, in 1897, from a boat on the Ganges, in Varanasi  (a.k.a., Benares), where bodies are cremated and the ashes are spread by the river. The final image is of a ship loaded with British citizens, some leaving the country for the first and last time. Around India With a Movie Camera is resplendent with parades, processions and other functions designed to showcase the melding of cultures and beliefs. Everything from infants to elephants is fairly encrusted with jewels and silver ornamentation. The films, which are drawn exclusively from the BFI National Archive, feature some of the earliest surviving footage from India, including as gorgeous travelogues, intimate home movies and newsreels from British, French and Indian filmmakers. Mahatma Gandhi and Sabu the Elephant Boy make cameos, along with all manner of maharajas and viceroys, fakirs, farmhands and exotic dancers. The film not only explores the shared history of people who lived under King George VI’s rule, but it also asks us to engage with broader themes of a empire, independence and servitude. It doesn’t, however, depict the brutality visited on Indian activists and those arrested for criticizing the empire in the leadup to August 15, 1947. The only reference to any such discord comes when we witness a British Salvation Army worker confiscate the bracelets, earrings and jewels worn by peasants, who have legitimate reasons for wearing  them. The volunteers promise that their “contributions” will help finance Jesus’ work on Earth. Yeah, sure.

John Carpenter’s Vampires: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The once-prolific John Carpenter hasn’t directed a feature film since 2010’s forgettable The Ward and, before that, 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. In the 1990s, however, the creator of the Halloween franchise made a half-dozen films that his most loyal fans supported, but probably didn’t make back their nuts, at least in their theatrical runs. Carpenter probably was anticipating a gentle slide into semi-retirement, when, in 1998, he was handed a project he couldn’t refuse. Don Jakoby’s  adaptation of a novel by John Steakley was offered to him by the folks at Largo Entertainment — Affliction (1997), City of Industry (1997), Finding Graceland (1998) – with James Woods already attached. Both men were anxious to do a Western and Vampires was the closest they would probably come. The Western horror would be shot in northern New Mexico, where the topography hasn’t changed much in the last150 years and several of the visual conceits could have been inspired by The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). No horses, though. A gang of vampires led by Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) is in the Land of Enchantment to recover the 600-year-old Black Cross of Béziers, which they believed would protect them from sunlight. It was believed to have been transported from the Old World, to the new one, by priests attached to the conquistadors. It’s taken this long for the location of the crucifix to be tracked to New Mexico by Valek. Wood’s Jack Crow has been conscripted by Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) to prevent Valek from doing just. Besides his own gang of vampire killers, Jack will be accompanied by a Vatican-based priest, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), who’s familiar with the Church’s history with the undead. Two massacres occur, before the showdown at the rural church. If Carpenter doesn’t veer very far off the traditional path, even if he allows some victims of vampire contamination a few days to find the one who bit them and drive a stack through its heart, reversing the process. Among them are Sheryl Lee (“Twin Peaks”), whose crowning achievement here is to maintain a modicum of modesty in a micro-miniskirt, while writhing in agony. Daniel Baldwin plays an ace vampire killer, who, once bitten, stays human long enough to help Crow take on Valek. The pulsating rock/blues score was supplied by members of the Mar-Keys, plus Carpenter, performed on keyboards, piano, guitar and bass. The Blu-ray adds several fresh bonus features, including “Time to Kill Some Vampires,” an interview with composer/director John Carpenter, producer Sandy King Carpenter and cinematographer Garry B. Kibbe; “Jack the Slayer,” an interview with Woods; “The First Vampire,” an interview with Griffith; “Raising the Stakes,” with special-effects artist Greg Nicotero; and “Padre,” with Guinee.

A Bucket of Blood: Blu-ray
There are times in Roger Corman and frequent collaborator Charles B. Griffith’s hugely entertaining black comedy, A Bucket of Blood (1959), when viewers of a certain age might anticipate a walk-on appearance by Maynard G. Krebs, the resident beatnik on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Because American International Pictures limited the budget to $50,000 and a five-day shooting schedule, though, it’s unlikely they could have afforded such a luxury. After Corman and Griffith, who worked side-by-side on The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961), spent an evening touring the coffeeshops on Sunset Boulevard and other beatnik hangouts, they decided to turn AIP’s idea for a straight horror movie into a black comedy. In a few more hours, they had enough input to develop the film’s plot structure, partially basing the story upon Mystery of the Wax Museum (1931). Here, a dimwitted and highly impressionable busboy, Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), is inspired to become an artist by the existential poetry of Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton). Like Paisley, Brock is a regular at the Yellow Door Café. The busboy orders a clump of clay, with which he hopes to match the likeness of the café’s voluptuous hostess, Carla (Barboura Morris). He stops when he hears the meowing of Frankie, the landlady’s cat, who has somehow gotten himself stuck in Walter’s wall. In attempting to rescue the cat, Walter accidentally kills it. Instead of giving the cat a proper burial, Walter covers the cat in clay, leaving the knife stuck in it. In a direct parody of bohemian tastes, the sculpture winds up at the Yellow Door, where it impresses the regulars and draws bids from collectors. The response encourages Paisley to produce more such sculptures, except, instead of cats, he begins turning his murder victims into works of art. It takes a while for the café owner to figure out the ruse, but, when he does, the discovery leads to an extremely dark conclusion. The Olive Signature Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K remaster of the film; the featurettes, “Creation Is. All Else Is Not,” with Corman; “Call Me Paisley,” with Dick and Lainie Miller; commentary by Elijah Drenner, director of “That Guy, Dick Miller”; an archival audio interview, with Griffith; “Bits of Bucket,” a visual essay comparing the original script to the finished film; an essay by Caelum Vatnsdal, author of “You Don’t Know Me, But You Love Me: The Lives of Dick Miller”; a rare prologue from the German release; a Super 8 “digest” version; and gallery of newly discovered on-set photography.

The Tracker: Blu-ray
Still buff at nearly 62 years of age, Dolph Lundgren keeps busy bouncing between big-budget actioners, such as last year’s Aquaman  and Creed II, and tongue-in-cheek junk, like Syfy’s Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017) and the irredeemable zombie flick, Dead Trigger (2017). In the former, at least, he was surrounded by such mercenary goofballs as series regular, Tara Reid, Chris Kittan, Clay Aiken, Bret Michaels, David Naughton, Charo, Geraldo Rivera, Olivia Newton-John, Tony Hawk, Greg Louganis, Downtown Julie Brown, Fabio, Margaret Cho, Kathie Lee Gifford, Hoda Kotb, Bai Ling, Gilbert Gottfried and Nichelle Nichols. It sounds like the cast list for a revised version of “The Love Boat” or “Paradise Island.” In The Tracker, Lundgren plays Aiden Hakansson, who’s lured back to the thoroughly corrupt town in southern Italy, where, 10 years earlier, his wife and daughter were killed in a botched kidnapping. A cop calls Aiden, living somewhere in northern Europe, to tell him that he’s uncovered fresh evidence against the killers, and he should return to the town. When he does, however, he’s immediately targeted by drug traffickers; told that the whistleblower committed suicide, two days earlier; and the frightened citizenry he left behind a decade earlier is still powerless. The only difference is the arrival of new police detective, who hasn’t been in town long enough to be corrupted or killed. Together, they’ll take on the drug kingpin’s ninja militia. Typically, the story begs more questions than it answers. No matter, because Lundgren’s fans only want to see him kick serious ass, which, of course, is what happens here.

The Black String
When “Malcolm in the Middle” ended its six-year run in 2006, its star, 20-year-old Frankie Muniz, could have written his own ticket to any destination in the world. It was assumed that he would take a year off, or so, and return to the entertainment grind in another show or a movie, such as his earlier hit, Agent Cody Banks (2003). Instead, Muniz decided to take a few years off, channeling his energy into open-wheel racing and, later, the bands You Hang Up and Kingsfoil. He’s appeared in the occasional Syfy movie (Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!), series episode (“The Mysteries of Laura”) or special (“Dancing with the Stars”). Most of all, though, he vanished from the sight of the fans who loved him as Malcolm. Apparently, Muniz endured serious medical problems, as well. He stars in Brian Hanson’s Lovecraftian shocker, The Black String, playing a young liquor-store clerk, who catches a sexually transmitted disease from a woman whose phone number flashed on his television. While most such ailments can be treated with penicillin, Jonathan’s welts and boils are satanic in nature. He decides to track down the woman (Chelsea Edmundson) to figure out what had happened to him. It leads to a nest of suburban ghouls, who feast on the unfortunate mooks who respond to chatline sites. Muniz is subjected to some of the nastiest makeup effects and physical grief an actor should ever have to endure. The Black String holds up, as well, as a low-budget, straight-to-VOD/DVD/Blu-ray horror.

Find Me Guilty: Blu-ray
In Sidney Lumet’s penultimate feature film – his first in seven years – the great chronicler of all things New York returned to roots that began growing in 1957, with his first feature, 12 Angry Men (1957). That courtroom drama would be nominated for three Academy Awards. Find Me Guilty (2006) could hardly be a more different picture and still fit the parameters of a judicial setting. It didn’t collect any major awards nominations, but a couple of its cast members deserved some consideration, anyway. The incongruity of finding Vin Diesel as the protagonist in a Lumet film – alongside the then-little-known Peter Dinklage as an attorney for the mob – was palpable. Despite receiving excellent reviews from mainstream critics, Find Me Guilty tanked at the box office. Followers of Lumet’s previous movies probably would have preferred to see Al Pacino – star of Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) —  in the lead role of real-life mobster, Giacomo “Jackie” DiNorscio. Diesel’s fans might have wished the same thing, especially after seeing the toupee the star of the Fast and the Furious franchise was required to wear. Anyone familiar with Jonathan Lynn’s 1992 courtroom comedy, My Cousin Vinny, should have been the target audience for Find Me Guilty, but they didn’t get the message. In 1980, DiNorscio was a soldier in the Philadelphia mob and, later, the Lucchese crime family in southern New Jersey. He acted as his own lawyer in the RICO trial, United States v. Anthony Accetturo et al, which remains noteworthy for being the longest federal trial in history. The trial was conducted while DiNorscio was already incarcerated on separate drug charges. Instead of accepting a presumably suicidal deal to rat on his co-defendants, DiNorscio fired his lawyer, turned down an offer to be represented by lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Dinklage) and decided to represent himself during the entire 21-month trial. Although not popular with Accetturo and fellow Lucchese boss Michael Taccetta – who likely ordered a hit on him in prison —  DiNorscio’s ability to charm the jury led to all 20 defendants being acquitted. He wins us over, too. After the trial, DiNorscio went back to prison and was released on November 23, 2002, after serving 17.5 years of a 30-year sentence. Not only was Diesel up to the challenge, but he demonstrated once again that he wasn’t a one-trick pony. Also good here are Annabella Sciorra (Jungle Fever), Alex Rocco (The Godfather), Ron Silver (Reversal of Fortune) and Linus Roache (Batman Begins). Legend has it that DiNorscio picked Vin Diesel to portray him in the movie, after watching The Fast and the Furious. In addition to the bad toupee, Diesel gained over 30 pounds for his role, and spent two hours a day in make-up to apply and disguise prosthetics. The Blu-ray adds the short, pre-recorded, “A Conversation With Director Sidney Lumet.”

Who Saw Her Die?: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If American admirers of giallo aren’t familiar with Aldo Lado’s nifty mystery/thriller, Who Saw Her Die? (1972), it’s only because distributors here didn’t want to take on a movie that dealt with a serial killer who targeted schoolgirls … and in such vivid shades of red. Nearly 50 years later, the violence is no easier to take. The Church also takes it on the chin in Who Saw Her Die? For those accustomed to giallo conceits, however, there’s plenty to like here. The killing begins in the French Alps, where a little girl strays off the beaten path to recover a sled. It’s difficult to say if the off-screen killer – who’s wearing lacy, black gloves, naturally – has been stalking the redhead or laying in wait for just such an opportunity. The action then moves to Venice, where we’re introduced to another redheaded girl, this one played by the formidable child actress, Nicoletta Elmi, who, at 8, was no stranger to giallo. Little Roberta has just arrived in Venice, to spend some time with her sculptor father, Franco, who’s played by, of all possible actors, George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). While his daughter’s outside, playing with other kids her age, daddy’s upstairs taking a booty call with one of the insanely beautiful actresses in his orbit. Because we’ve already observed the killer stalking Roberta, waiting for her to be deserted by her playmates, it comes as no surprise what happens next. The search for the killer takes Franco and police from the cathedrals of Venice, to the cemetery on Isola di San Michele, and glass kilns of Murano. The killer practically reveals himself to Franco, when he begins to target adult women with auburn hair. Not all of what happens in Who Saw Her Die? fits the working definition of giallo, but, in 1972, the rules were rarely enforced. Look for another, more recognizable Bond veteran, Adolfo Celi, who played Emilio Largo, in Thunderball. The eye-candy is  supplied by giallo mainstays Anita Strindberg (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), Dominique Boschero (The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire) and Rosemarie Lindt (Heat in the Suburbs). For those interested in such things, amateur pornography involving some of Venice’s leading citizens serves as a clue or diversion. The Arrow Video release has been impeccably restored in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative (Italian version only); uncompressed mono 1.0 LPCM audio; new interviews with Lado, Elmi, co-writer Francesco Barilli and author/critic Michael Mackenzie; a poster and fotobusta gallery; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love.

The Major and the Minor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Among other things, this endearing, if silly 1942 comedy is interesting for being Billy Wilder’s first directorial effort in this country and one of his early collaborations with co-writer Charles Brackett. Much of the fun comes in watching them work out tropes and conceits that would follow them as they made their way toward the 17th and final screenplay collaboration, on Sunset Blvd. (1950). Among them are some eyebrow-raising sexual inferences that, while not intentionally disturbing, still beg the question, “WTF?” In it, Ginger Rogers stars as Susan/Su-Su Applegate, a young woman whose sale jobs in New York have tended to end with being chased around a desk by some horny geezer – one is played here by Robert Benchley — whose wife no longer puts up with him. Fed up, Susan decides to move back home, to Iowa, but can barely come up with half the fare. She convinces another old horndog to pretend he’s her dad and buy her a half-price ticket. Once on the train, Susan transforms herself into 12-year-old Su-Su, who, while looking every bit her age, fools the conductors into accepting the ticket. When the charade is seriously challenged, Su-Su takes refuge in the compartment reserved for Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), on his way to a teaching job at an Indiana military academy. Before that can happen, though, a flood washes out a bridge, causing Kirby to agree to hide Su-Su in the Pullman. When his fiancé, Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson), arrives at the stranded train, she assumes the major is cheating on her with the young woman. (If Su-Su was 25, but acting 17, Pamela’s assumption would be valid, but isn’t.) Instead, Kirby uses the story about her being 12 and stranded on her way to Iowa, and he’s playing the Good Samaritan card. Unbelievably, both of the adults convince themselves that Susan’s Su-Su act is legit. Accordingly, they take her to the academy to wait out the flood, in the company of Pamela’s teenage sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn), who doesn’t buy it for a second. Even so, they share a disliking for Pamela, who, they believe, is a bad match for Kirby. The major goes so far as to present Su-Su to the cadets as a flower waiting to be plucked. The cadets’ are as badly behaved as the old men Susan contended with in New York. (Conveniently, Benchley’s son is one of the cadets who try to ravage Su-Su at a campus landmark.) It isn’t difficult to see that Su-Su is stuck on the major and he’s beginning to have forbidden feelings about her. As you can imagine, Wilder and Brackett had to figure a way out of this mess. It’s clever and doesn’t involve contravening the Mann Act. The Major and the Minor looks great in its high-definition debut. It adds commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; “Half Fare, Please!,” a video appreciation by film critic Neil Sinyard; an archival interview with Ray Milland; a rare hour-long radio adaptation from 1943, starring Rogers and Milland; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork; and a collector’s booklet with an essay by Ronald Bergan.

PBS: 8 Days: To the Moon and Back
Arrow: Pitching In: Series 1
Eight days, 3 hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds. That, we’re once again reminded, was the total duration of the most important and celebrated space mission ever flown: Apollo 11. Anyone who isn’t sick of reliving this monumental event in world history, probably will enjoy PBS’ “8 Days: To the Moon and Back,” which reveals parts that were left out of the official record. Previously classified cockpit audio, recorded by the astronauts themselves, gives a unique insight into their fears and excitement as they undertake the mission. Dramatic reconstructions bring those recordings to life, re-creating the crucial scenes that were never filmed. They include the exhilarating launch, the first sight of the moon, the dramatic touchdown and nail-biting journey home. Original footage from the Apollo archives is combined with newly shot film and cinematic CGI to create “8 Days: To the Moon and Back,” and conversations between Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. It stars Rufus Wright (“EastEnders”), Jack Tarlton (The Imitation Game) and Patrick Kennedy (“Mrs. Wilson”) in a stunning recreation of the first moon landing.

It took a year for the four-part mini-series, “Pitching In,” to make the leaps from BBC One Wales, to BBC One and across the ocean to Acorn’s streaming service. I can’t imagine the same old-fashioned character-driven show being made by and shown on an American network. That’s only because the cast of characters is dominated by actors who represent the demographic most ignored by the television and movie industries: men and women of retirement age, or who are facing midlife crises. Their children and grandchildren aren’t ignored, by any means, but their storylines are generated for them by the senior set, who’ve got plenty of life left in them. The gentle drama centers around the life of a recent widower, Frank (Larry Lamb), who owns a holiday caravan park and camping area on the Island of Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales. There are very few words in the English, Welsh or Gaelic dictionary to do justice to the island’s sublime beauty. The series’ central dilemma involves the return of Frank’s socially inept adult daughter, Carys (Caroline Sheen), to the resort, with her young mixed-race son. She’s separated from her husband, for no good reason, and intends to make the family business a growing concern, whether or not Frank likes the idea. Complicating matters even further is the awkwardness that attends Carys’ return to the same town, where she left her well-liked fiancé, Danny (Craig Russell), standing at the altar. Danny’s still there and his girlfriend fears that Carys is back to re-entice him and make their lives miserable. Frank has been offered a small fortune for the resort by an agent for a suspicious developer (Hayley Mills), but Carys has other, less lucrative plans for it. Even if the fourth episode ends on a cliffhanger, plans for a second season are vague.

The DVD Wrapup: Country Music, Cassandro, Hana & Alice, Hesburgh, Bottom of 9th, Chicago Cab, Socrates, Intimacy, Noir Archive III, In the Aisles, Midsomer … More

Friday, September 20th, 2019

PBS:  Country Music: Blu-ray
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me: Blu-ray
Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?: Blu-ray
Viewers whose VCRs are on the fritz or are too impatient to wait for each new episode in Ken Burns’ 16-hour “Country Music,” now showing on PBS affiliates, should know that it’s already available on Blu-ray. The wonderfully nostalgic, exhaustively researched, historically relevant and brilliantly produced series is broken into eight episodes, representing overlapping periods in the evolution of the genre, seminal influences and, simultaneously, the importance of Nashville in its growth. That doesn’t mean that Burns and his crew remain landlocked in central Tennessee. It makes as many stops along the long and winding road as the musicians themselves, on their way to fame on tour. Burns opens in the 1920s and ends in 1986, leaving himself plenty of room to inspect the mileage of the genre, which began with performances in fields and on front porches and ended up in football stadiums. The overriding point Burns makes throughout the series is how great a role blues and gospel musicians have played in each stage of country music’s development. You simply couldn’t have had one without the others. Burns also puts a tight focus on such emblematic artists as Fiddlin’ John Carson, producer/publisher Ralph Peer, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, writers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks. Among the 100-plus people interviewed are Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Garth Brooks, Brenda Lee, Ronnie Milsap, Roy Clark, Hank Williams Jr., Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Rhiannon Giddens, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. They supply anecdotes, recollections, gossip, some music and perspective. To the surprise of no one, Peter Coyote returns to Burns’ camp as narrator, for at least the seventh time. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews and “Behind the Scenes at Florentine Films,” in which viewers are invited to the New Hampshire compound owned by Ken Burns, who explores the incredible labor required to assemble his documentaries.

Two other new documentaries about music and musicians are available via MVD Visual, on Blu-ray. Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me relates the inspirational story of beloved R&B singer, Teddy Pendergrass. He was poised to be the biggest R&B artist of all time until the tragic accident that changed his life forever. In 1982, at the age of 31, a car accident left him paralyzed. At the time, Teddy was the first African American male to record five consecutive platinum albums. He later made a triumphant comeback in front of a global audience of 1.9 billion viewers at Live Aid. The doc features interviews with his family, friends and colleagues, alongside industry legends, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; rarely seen archive footage; and a soulful soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes.

Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? reveals a side of the Big Man largely unknown to fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. In the wake of the group’s marathon “Rising Tour,” in 2003, Clemons felt as if he needed a break. So, he packed up his saxophone and journeyed to China, where he could be more or less a nameless traveler in a foreign land. Following him was director, friend and photographer Nick Mead, who documented his transcendent awakening overseas. Once Clarence had returned to the States, Mead decided to keep the cameras rolling, which is when tragedy struck. While in Florida, Clemons suffered a stroke and passed away. The Blu-ray highlights the life of the E Street band member, while also showcasing the spiritual side not many saw when he was away from stage lights. It also features interviews with former President Bill Clinton, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Jake Clemons, former band mates, friends, and close family members.

Cassandro, the Exotico!
On the cover of French documentarian Maria Losier’s  Guggenheim Award-financed Cassandro, the Exotico!, her colorfully adorned subject strikes a pose that will be familiar to anyone who loves professional wrestling and knows even a little bit about its history. It should remind them of Gorgeous George, a superb athlete, who excelled in the ring as a professional wrestler and, more importantly, perhaps, as a showman. Known as the “Human Orchid,” his persona was created in part by growing his hair long, dyeing it platinum blond and putting gold-plated bobby pins in it. (He called them “Georgie Pins” and distributed facsimiles to the audience.). Not only did George Raymond Wagner influence such great entertainers and athletes as Little Richard, James Brown, Elton John, Muhammad Ali, Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and lucha libre superstar Cassandro, but also, along with Liberace, he helped television emerge as a popular medium. As far as the record shows, George was a straight man, married to two women for most of his life and with one biological son and two adopted children. (His first wife, Betty Hanson, recalled their in-ring marriage, in 1939, and the several times it was re-enacted, for show.) He portrayed himself as a cowardly “heel,” who used all the tricks in the book to antagonize the crowd and sell tickets and televisions. Sensing that George’s unsuppressed flamboyance and faux effeminate persona would corrupt millions of red-blooded American men and boys, the medium’s newly created production code forbade any inference that gay entertainers and showmen actually participated in sexual acts. It might explain why Liberace remained closeted throughout his career and even flirted with the idea of marrying Las Vegas dancer, JoAnn Del Rio. Lee even went so far as to “date” and be photographed in the company of Susan Hayward, Gale Storm, Rosemary Clooney, Mae West, Judy Garland and close friend, Sonja Henie, who testified in his victorious libel suit against a London newspaper. While his attempts to be a leading man in the movies failed, his concert appearances remained extremely lucrative for him. (My grandmother loved him.)

Liberace’s affiliation with professional wrestling and boxing probably was limited to being named timekeeper at the first WrestleMania … and being photographed alongside Hogan and Ali in a publicity photo. Besides their ethnic backgrounds, El Paso-born Saúl Armendáriz (a.k.a., Cassandro, Mister Romano) and Gorgeous George differ in one significant way: the former is openly gay, and he doesn’t care who knows it. In 1988, Saul abandoned the gladiator-themed rudo (villain) persona of Mister Romano and took on a new exótico character, Baby Sharon. Exóticos are male wrestlers who dress in drag, portraying gay caricatures. While at the time, at least, most exóticos were straight, Sharon/Armendáriz was gay. Before he settled on Cassandro, he wrestled unmasked and in drag as Rosa Salvaje (“Wild Rose”). Like many other professional wrestlers, the 5-foot-5½ grappler’s career was affected by serious ring-related injuries, politics associated with who’s in line for championship bouts, homophobic promoters and an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Through spiritualism, he finally found sobriety on June 4, 2003, a date, which is tattooed on his back. Cassandro is roughly divided into three parts: the fighters’ daily ablutions; the intensely physical matches; and the difficult realization that he isn’t getting any younger or more resilient to pain. His makeup table is filled with enough cosmetic products, maintenance utensils and mirrors to keep an army of supermodels supplied throughout the New York, Paris and London fashion weeks. Losier also follows Cassandra around to family gatherings; behind the-scenes at matches in northern Mexico, Texas and England, where lucha libre is surprisingly popular; and teaching wrestling to the next generation of masked marvels.

The Case of Hana & Alice: Blu-ray
In the 45 years since The Godfather II established the prequel/sequel as a legitimate avenue for artistic expression and the art of storytelling, a week hardly goes by when a new installment in a popular series arrives in theaters or DVD. The subgenre can be traced back to the silent era, when Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920) expanded on the legend introduced in Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s now-lost, The Golem (1915). Arthur D. Howden Smith was authorized by Robert Louis Stevenson’s executor to write Porto Bello Gold (1924), a prequel to Maurice Tourneur’s Treasure Island (1920). Now considered to be lost, as well, it was the fourth of five such silent adaptations. Even before Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone/Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) were accepted by Westerns purists here as legit, United Artists green-lit a prequel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), adding an air of respectability to Spaghetti Westerns. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather II, the interwoven prequel helped advance the events dramatized in the sequel sequences. The movie in question here, The Case of Hana & Alice (2015) is distinguished by writer/director Shunji Iwai’s decision to animate the prequel to his live-action hit Hana & Alice (2004) – based on his series of short stories for teen readers – and release it more than a decade later. Iwai’s list of credits already included the widely acclaimed All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), April Story (1998), Love Letter (1995) and Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1995), which began its life as a live-action teleplay (1993), was released theatrically in 1995 and animated in 2017.

Unlike that version of “Fireworks,” The Case of Hana & Alice (a.k.a., “The Murder Case of Hana & Alice”) relies less on anime than good-old-fashioned rotoscoping, used by animators to trace over motion-picture footage, frame by frame, to produce realistic action. No less remarkable was Iwai’s ability to recast actors from the original for the prequel, without revealing the 11-year difference in their ages. After the breakup of her parents’ marriage, 14-year-old Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yū Aoi) moves to a new city with her youthful looking mother (Shoko Aida) and transfers to a middle school. Her new home in the boonies, as her mother describes it, is situated next-door to a reclusive classmate, Hana Arai. In school, Alice is bullied by students who know that the seat she’s been assigned once belonged to Kotaro Yuda, nicknamed “Judas,” who disappeared a year earlier and is believed to be a murder victim. Her undusted desk sits above letters the boy supposedly carved into the floor and portend evil for anyone who occupies the space. After an elaborately costumed student, Mutsu Mutsumi (Ranran Suzuki) accuses her of releasing the evil spirit, he leads the class in an elaborate ceremony to reseal it. Alice is told that Hana may know the missing student’s fate, but she hasn’t been unable to bring herself to attend class since “Judas” disappeared. The girls are natural opposites, who attract to investigate the case, which turns out not to be as mysterious as it appears to be, if no less entertaining and full of surprises. Newcomers to the movie/literary franchise won’t be penalized for starting with the prequel and moving backwards toward the future in Hana & Alice and the books. The Blu-ray bonus package adds interviews with voice actors Aoi and Suzuki, and Iwai; a film-completion press conference; stage greeting at the premiere; and a message from animator Makoto Shinkai.

Anyone who wants to know the difference between a man who woulda/coulda/shoulda been president and the evil clown currently occupying the Oval Office really should check out Patrick Creadon’s Hesburgh. Instead of answering the call of friends and political cronies, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh followed the call that drew him to the priesthood in his teens. By the time he reached the ripe old age of 35, Father Ted was named president of the University of Notre Dame. He held the post for the next 35 years. His first goal was to upgrade the university’s image from “football school” to world-class institution of learning. (He later would oversee ND’s transformation to a coeducational institution.) At the same time, Father Ted couldn’t help but confront the great issues of his time: nuclear proliferation, race relations, immigration, Third World development, poverty and the war in Vietnam. When he was called upon by several U.S. president to serve his country on commissions and study groups  – while also serving his faith at Notre Dame – he declared his independence from partisan politics, just as he held interference from Vatican bureaucrats at arm’s length. Although Hesburgh proved himself adept at bringing Democrats and Republicans together on the contentious U.S. Civil Rights Commission, its findings were ignored by presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, strictly for reasons based on political expediency. His greatest challenge may have come in his own back yard, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, when student activists demanded that he use his influence to push for an end to the Vietnam War. Nixon congratulated him for his tough stand against student strikes and protests, but Hesburgh disappointed the president by refusing to endorse legislation designed to punish protesters. Instead, he pushed for an acceleration in the removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and Cambodia, while encouraging students to channel their anger through non-violent activism.

In 1969, after some of Notre Dame’s African American students criticized the low number of blacks enrolled at the university – and working in menial jobs for low pay — Hesburgh appointed a student-faculty committee to assess the issue. The committee’s findings caused him to take immediate measures to increase minority employment and aggressively recruit minority students. Hesburgh also persuaded the university’s trustees to lift their forty-year ban on participation in postseason football games and use revenues generated from Notre Dame’s bowl game appearances to fund minority scholarships. Even after his retirement in 1987, Father Ted remained active in various ways, including returning to the university to write his autobiography. In 2009, he supported the school’s invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at commencement exercise, which was controversial because of his strong endorsement of pro-choice legislation. Hesburgh died on February 26, 2015, at the age of 97. His funeral attracted a wide array of dignitaries, including politicians from both sides of the aisle, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, a pair of Roman Catholic cardinals, former football coach Lou Holtz and the current vice president of the U.S., Mike Pence. Even more impressive, perhaps, was the cordon of students that lined the path to the school’s private cemetery. Hesburgh’s lifetime commitment to faith, humanitarian causes, racial equality and peace provided a prime example for three generations of politicians to follow. Precious few of them have elected to do so. The DVD adds anecdotes that didn’t fit the 106-minute film.

Chicago Cab
First staged in 1992, at Chicago’s fondly remembered Ivanhoe Theater, “Hellcab” is one of those plays that perfectly captured a slice of Windy City life and characters that locals loved but who didn’t always translate well in other urban centers. When, in 1981, the Organic Theater’s long-running “Bleacher Bums” was set to open in San Francisco, the producers hired eternal Cubs fan Jerry “The Bleacher Preacher” Pritikin as a paid consultant to coach the cast on Chicago fan vernacular and proper fan behavior. Now that Wrigley Field has been completely gentrified and the Cubs are a winning team, the same nearly empty bleachers are filled daily with yuppies; seating is assigned; tickets for big games cost a small fortune; and the characters immortalized in the play are strictly discouraged from being colorful. While they’re barely recognizable today, the actors who portrayed them in the 1970s include such then-unfamiliar faces as Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina, Gary Sandy, Keith Szarabajka, William Daniels, Stuart Gordon, George Wendt and Ian Patrick Williams. Like “The Vagina Monologues,” after it, “Hellcab” featured a rotating cast of Chicago actors, playing passengers in the cab of an unnamed taxi driver (Paul Dillon) over the course of one day and night in the city: December 24. Each new actor spun their character or characters’ dialogue and attitudes toward life a bit differently. (The cast ranged from 8 to as many as 30 characters, depending on the production’s budget.) The date is significant for several reasons, among them the passengers’ need for temporary shelter on a typically frigid day; the impact of the holiday on believers and non-believers, alike; and the feeling of loneliness and desperation that is shared by anyone forced to work on Christmas Eve or be out in the cold for reasons of their own.

On this particular December 24, beginning at the cabbie’s starting time of 6 a.m., it’s 20 degrees below zero. In the next 14 hours, the driver will pick up fares from parts of the city considered to be  “good” and “bad” – based primarily on one’s ability to avoid being robbed or killed – including a depressed rape victim, rabid crack heads, a pair of  hot and horny lawyers, a drug runner, a Gold Coast MILF willing to tip the driver with sex and a pregnant woman in urgent need of an emergency room. Chicago Cab (1997) was directly adapted from former cabbie Will Kern’s play by directors by Mary Cybulski and John Tintori. Apparently, the film’s prospects were hobbled by a marketing campaign that made it seem as if it was a horror movie. In Dillon’s signature portrayal, the driver loses his ability to remain objective and noncommittal toward his passengers about six hours into the shift. If Kern had wanted to rewrite Hellfire as a horror picture, all he would have had to do was turn the driver into a satanic messenger, with a ravenous appetite and ability to spare the passengers who already are living in their own personal hells. Among the actors giving cameo appearances are Gillian Anderson, John Cusack, Laurie Metcalf, Julianne Moore, Reggie Hayes, John C. Reilly, Michael Shannon, Moira Harris Sinise, Michael Ironside, Tracy Letts, Shulie Cowen and Reggie Hayes. People who love Chicago will appreciate the cabbie’s-eye tour of the city, which clearly wasn’t limited to the usual locations.

Bottom of the 9th
If anyone wanted to produce a biopic about former Major League slugger Jose Canseco – and I doubt there’s much demand for one — Joe Manganiello would be the natural candidate to play the lead. They’re about the same size and look as if they could be brothers. Moreover, in Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th, he fits the role of a former baseball player in need of redemption to a T. Joe’s real-life wife, Sofía Vergara, seems comfortable, as well, playing the girl Sonny Stano  gave up when he was sent up the river, to Sing Sing. He caused the accidental death of a Bronx punk, who threw a drink that struck his car’s windshield. After he beat the crap out of a prisoner, who attempted to bean him in a pickup game, his 6-year beef was raised to 16. Before that happened, Sonny had signed to play for the Yankees, but by the time he was released, that dream was dashed. Although Angela Ramirez stopped waiting for his release at about the same time as Sonny lost his temper a second time, she isn’t unhappy to see him, again. The same can’t be said for her cop cousin, who warns the parolee against breaking her heart, again, and the revenge-minded brother of the guy he killed. When Sonny’s ready to give up his job at a friend’s fish marketa, he runs into his old coach, Hannis (Michael Rispoli), and the scout who signed him (Burt Young). Hannis offers him a job as his assistant with a minor league team in Staten Island. It will demonstrate to him just how much the game and players have changed over the last 16 years. Maybe you can guess, by now, how the rest of Bottom of the 9th plays out. The thing is, though, De Felitta (City Island) knows his way around the boroughs and finds ways to keep the movie fresh. Manganiello and Vergara aren’t required to add any beefcake or cheesecake to the proceedings and producer William Chartoff has proven adept at turning out human reclamation projects in Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2015). With the Yankees already in the playoffs, Bottom of the 9th is a pleasant way to kill time before the post-season begins. The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette with Manganiello and Vergara.

Noir Archive Volume 3: 1957-1960: Blu-ray
The period, 1957-1960, didn’t produce many noir classics, if only because audiences clamored for movies released in Technicolor, Cinemascope and other advanced technologies. Neither are the titles available in “Noir Archive Volume 3: 1957-1960” definitively noir. What differentiates this collection from previous sets is a topicality that foreshadows the lowering of the Iron Curtain, the “scourge” of illegal drugs and easy access to foreign countries, thanks to the general acceptance and affordability of jetliners. Among the selections in this, the final three-disc, nine-film compilation are Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), which deals frankly with mid-century race relations, specifically those involving Asian-American men and Caucasian women; Don Siegel and Stirling Silliphant’s The Lineup (1958), in which a psychopathic gangster and his mentor retrieve heroin packages carried by unsuspecting travelers disembarking in San Francisco; Ken Hughes’ The Long Haul (1957), in which a former G.I., stationed in Germany, takes a job as long-haul truck driver, in Britain, where he runs into an organized-crime syndicate that controls the industry; William Asher’s The Shadow on the Window (1957), during which three teenagers break into an isolated farmhouse and murder its prosperous owner, whose secretary witnesses the crime and is taken hostage; John Gillings’ Pickup Alley (1957), in which a faceless international narcotics smuggler is trailed through various European countries by a dogged DEA agent; André De Toth’s Man on a String (1960), a twisty Cold War thriller, in which a Russian American secret agent is sent to Berlin to pretend to be a spy for the USSR; Leslie Kardos’ fact-based The Tijuana Story (1957), in which a ruthless Tijuana mob and its influential enablers are threatened with exposure by a crusading newspaper editor; Sidney Gilliat’s She Played with Fire (1957), about an insurance investigator. who runs into a still-beautiful ex-girlfriend, who ropes him into a scheme involving arson, blackmail, and murder; and Paul Wendkos’ also fact-based The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), about corrupt cops, mobsters and a recent police-academy graduate involved, in various ways, with an illegal gambling operation in the borough. Among the noteworthy actors who pop up here are Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw, James Shigeta, Ernest Borgnine, Colleen Dewhurst, Philip Carey, Victor Mature (twice), Diana Dors, Anita Ekberg, Trevor Howard, Darren McGavin, Jack Hawkins, Arlene Dahl, James Darren and Jerry Mathers, as a character other than the Beaver. The Kit Parker Films package is enhanced by digital upgrades of the film.

While watching Jiang Yichun’s deeply moving story about two very different young adults in China, dealing with alienation and loneliness in a city teeming with people, I was reminded of John Prine’s poignant ballad, “Donald & Lydia.” Donald is a PFC, confined to life in an army barracks not far from Lydia, who subsists by “making change behind the counter in a penny arcade.” Even if they may never have met, these two lonely souls share similar dreams, however impossible, and a lust to connect with someone … anyone: “The made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams/They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams/But, when they were finished, there was nothing to say/’Cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.” Jiang’s feature debut, Intimacy, is set largely in Shanghai, a city of 24 million people that also serves as the commercial, financial, trade and transport center of China. Bin (Xipeng Zhang) hails from Dali, a city of 652,000, whose economy is dependent on tourism and services catering to travelers. Because his mother runs a small business that can hardly support two adults, Bin decides to seek more stable employment in the PRC’s largest metropolitan area. It isn’t much, but the small, white-glove factory to which he’s directed is clean, legitimate and active. Shanghai attracts travelers from greater China and around the world. They’re drawn to the mega-conventions held there, business opportunities and architecture that rivals that in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. Bin’s curiosity is dampened by a man at a viewing site, who attacks him for pointing his cell phone camera in his direction. He’s actually taking a photograph of the cityscape in the background, but the man demands he surrender the camera. Bin returns to his tiny room in an SRO building, with his tail between his legs.

While Qin (Jingxuan Huang) comes from a relatively wealthy family, she does nothing all day, except surf social-media sites, and usually feels depressed for no reason. She, too, is searching for greater meaning in her life, but she limits her access to the outside world to her telephone and nightclubs. While Qin isn’t opposed to hooking up with the guys she meets there, the encounters are quick, sloppy and immediately forgettable. Things get all too real for Qin when, during a flirtatious chatroom exchange, she makes the mistake of revealing her address. The man arrives soon thereafter and begins pounding on her door. He knows she’s inside, because he can hear the ringing of her phone when he calls her from just outside the apartment. Qin isn’t shy, unattractive or a tease. She’s mostly just trolling for something meaningful, while her dad’s away on business. By contrast, Bin is shy, cautious and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. He finds something resembling sexual satisfaction with a demanding young prostitute, who looks as if she would be out of his league financially. Their worlds overlap in seemingly the least consequential of ways, providing Intimacy with a path to a compelling coming-of-age conclusion. If you’ve ever thought of visiting Shanghai, but need a good excuse for doing so, Intimacy might do the trick.

I apologize ahead of time for once again relying on the lyrics of a song to summarize my impressions of a movie that most viewers haven’t seen. This time, it’s from Blind Willie Johnson’s oft-adapted blues standard, first recorded in 1927, “Motherless Children.” It was inspired by a terrible event that followed the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent remarriage. Most of Johnson’s biographers agree that he was blinded at the age of 7, by his stepmother, when his father discovered her infidelity. During the argument, she splashed Willie with a caustic solution of lye, permanently blinding him. Despite the impairment, he went on to write and record “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole,” “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” “John the Revelator,” “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” and “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” whose opening and closing stanzas include the lines, “Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead/They’ll not have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door/Motherless children have a hard time.” Socrates opens with the title character’s discovery of his mother’s unexpected death, which occurred while sleeping. Already living on the margins of São Paulo, near a garbage-strewn beach, 15-year-old Socrates (Christian Malheiros) attempts to disguise her death, by fulfilling her janitorial duties at the train depot. Although his work in a thankless job is impeccable, his mother’s boss refuses to pay him, unless she shows up, in person, to pick up the check. When the asshole learns that the boy is underage, Socrates is fired. A case worker then warns him that he could be sent to a home for abandoned and disadvantaged youths, unless a guardian agrees to take him in. Socrates doesn’t consider his estranged father to be an option, primarily because he abandoned the family in a violent confrontation with his mother. A cousin refuses to shelter him, as well. By this time, a subtext begins to emerge to explain the boy’s predicament. After being given a temporary job at a construction site, he gets into a fight with a  strangely belligerent co-worker, Maicon (Tales Ordakji), who probably believes he’s being replaced. The storm quickly blows over, however.

It is at approximately this point in the narrative that co-writer/director Alexandre Moratto elects to reveal his hole cards. After being lured to Maicon’s apartment under false pretenses, Socrates surprises us by nuzzling up to the shaggy young man and inviting him to return the show of affection, which he does. Even at 15, Socrates’ approach makes us think that, despite an awkward moment, he’s not only comfortable with his sexuality, but he’s already been around this block a time or two. It also explains almost everything we need to know about his estrangement from remaining family members and the vacuum left behind by the death of his compassionate and nurturing mother. When his promising relationship with Maicon is cruelly abbreviated, and a plea for temporary shelter is rejected, we’re reminded of Johnson’s prophesy, “Motherless children won’t have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door.” Broke, lonely, famished and still three years from being legally employable, the extremely likeable Socrates turns to alcohol for relief and, for money, sex with strangers. The rest of the movie holds several compelling surprises for Socrates and viewers. Socrates is the debut feature from the 29-year-old Brazilian-American filmmaker, Moratto, who wanted to make a statement about the worldwide epidemic of homelessness among children and teenagers. If anything, he says, the problem is greater in Brazil than the United States and elsewhere. Significantly, too, Socrates is the first feature produced by São Paulo’s innovative Querô Institute, where, with the support of UNICEF, it was co-written, produced, and acted by at-risk teenagers. After the film premiered at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Moratto, whose mother died in 2014, received the Someone to Watch Award at the 2019 Spirit Awards ceremony, in absentia. The wonderfully talented Malheiros was nominated for Best Male Lead – against Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, John Cho and Daveed Diggs – as was the ensemble cast for the John Cassavetes Award. The extras include a Q&A at the Out at the Movies Festival and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

In the Aisles
At first, second and third glance, Thomas Stuber and co-writer Clemens Meyer’s bittersweet dramedy, In the Aisles, could easily be confused with an undiscovered film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre) or an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. The movie shares with Kaurismaki a taste for deadpan sight gags and an interest in the lives of blue-collar  drones … of the honey-producing variety. Franz Rogowski (Transit) plays the almost painfully introverted Christian, who takes a job on the night shift at a big-box superstore, somewhere in Germany. He’s assigned to the beverage department of the cavernous facility, where he’ll learn the ropes of operating a forklift, which isn’t nearly as easy as his dour supervisor, Bruno (Peter Kurth), makes it seem. Christian is the opposite of a quick study, frequently turning a perilously unbalanced load over to his mentor before disaster strikes. Eventually, the two men become friends … or, at least, the workplace equivalent of friends. Anyone who’s worked the graveyard shift can attest to the camaraderie that develops among men and women who labor outside the direct purview of ass-kissing foremen or a curious boss. He absorbs some playful teasing by a charming, if enigmatic co-worker “Sweets Marion” – played by Michelle Williams-lookalike Sandra Huller (Toni Erdmann) – who, you guessed it, toils in the pastry and desserts department. In a different workplace ritual, they often get together during breaks to chat, flirt and drink coffee, without fear of raising eyebrows. Without warning, though, Marion stops coming to work. Bruno, who somehow knows all of the store’s secret, explains that she’s married to a right bastard, who must have sensed she was beginning to enjoy work a tad too much. It causes Christian to go into a tailspin, reverting to bad habits with unsavory friends. Soon enough, however, the pace quickens, and loose ends are tied. The two overriding questions involve the options open to Christian and Marion, and his ability to fill Bruno’s shoes, when and if that becomes necessary. Peter Matjasko’s cinematography and lighting somehow manage to turn a cold and sterile warehouse into a place where everyday laborers and precariously stacked packaged goods co-exist in harmony. Even if it doesn’t work quite that way in real life, the efficiency of shiftwork in German factories and warehouses leaves plenty of room for casual friendships to blossom. The DVD adds interviews, Q&As and making-of featurettes.

Hypnosis to Be Happy
I probably would have gotten more from Victor Audiffred’s perplexing, if beautifully rendered romantic drama, Hypnosis to Be Happy, if the producers had chosen not to put lemon-yellow subtitles on white and yellow backgrounds. (Ingmar Bergman once was notorious for utilizing white-on-white subtitles, as if to piss off non-Swedish audiences.) Even though I have an excellent Samsung television, with a moderately large screen, capable of displaying 4K UHD images, I have no idea what information was shared by the two lonely protagonists, Pilar (Ericka Ramirez) and Felipe (Antón Araiza), in the first 10-15 minutes of the film. However lovely the scenes might be, their meaning was lost to me. I still don’t know, for example, where the Spanish-language movie is set and why these two fine people feel so isolated. I assume they’re in Mexico, but I’ve never seen anything to match the scenery in other films shot there. When the subtitles became legible Felipe and and Pilar – both in their early 40s — appeared to be enjoying dinner in a nice restaurant. (There’s next to nothing about the movie on the Internet.) From what I could gather, they had begun dating casually for a while, probably after taking some hits in previous relationships. At one point, Felipe decides to raise the ante by presenting an engagement ring to Pilar. Stunned by the impertinent gesture, she tells him that she’s just come off a tortuous relationship and wasn’t ready to risk another one. Felipe takes the rejection extremely hard. Even so, he offers to give her a ride home. On the way, they stop at a non-descript, if spacious garage, where he maintains a library of thousands of books and manuscripts, many of them first-offs. Pilar is duly impressed, but things turn dark when he refuses to let her leave the second-floor space that doubles as his bedroom. Even though we fear the worst, when the sun rises the next morning, they hop into a yellow car and head off for points unknown. The route takes them through some spectacularly beautiful and topographically diverse scenery that I’ve never associated with Mexico. It leads them into an agricultural area, with fields of corn stretching to the horizon and a valley dotted with sugarloaf mountains. Another stop requires them to hike into a forest, along a rugged path that leads to a pristine waterfall, pond and river. It’s here that Pilar and Felipe elect to lean against a large tree and watch the river flow. They allow themselves to be hypnotized by the sheer beauty and near-silence of the place. In other movies, they might have realized their love for each other and consummated it on the spot. Here, it comes off as a plug for a book and self-help program, also called “Hypnosis to Be Happy.” The subtitles were no help here, either.

The Kids Table
It wasn’t all that long ago that poker, at the professional level, at least, was said to be on its deathbed. The introduction of hole-card cams provided the impetus for expanded television coverage of the World Series of Poker and subsequent tours, while video poker in casinos and on the Internet introduced the game to millions of new addicts, er, players. The WSOP expanded exponentially, as did the prize money, inclusion of foreign and Internet players, and television coverage. Newspapers added poker columns, to run alongside the traditional bridge replays. Bridge got a bump from Internet competition, but, as far I know, the game has yet to make the transition to television. Edd Benda and Stephen Helstad’s documentary, The Kids Table, describes what happens when four young friends discover the highs and lows of the game, competition and a community where the average age of their opponents was 73. The teenagers didn’t simply jump into competitive bridge feet-first. The game’s far too complicated for that to happen. They’re tutored by experienced players, Brian Reynolds and Samantha Douglas, who keep a watchful eye on them as they move to the tables. Any young people inspired by The Kids Table should check out the website,

Nightwish: Blu-ray
Finished in 1988, but not released until 1990, Bruce R. Cook’s straight-to-video thriller, Nightwish, provides a prime example of VHS-era horror at its most generic. Unearthed Classics has given it a fresh new digital polish from its original camera negative and presents it in a 1:85:1 aspect ratio. Nightwish isn’t a classic – unearthed or otherwise – but it has its moments. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they’re reserved for examples of David P. Barton’s slimy makeup-effects work and the mandatory T&A provided by co-stars Elizabeth Kaitan (Necromancer) and Alisha Das (The Slugger’s Wife). They play graduate students whose demented professor is trying to come up with a way to “narrate” dreams. It allows for Cook to keep viewers on edge by alternating between dream sequences, hallucinations and reality, all of which include elements of horror. This requires the flimsily clad young women to spend time in an immersion tank, connected by electrodes to a gizmo controlled by the professor, whose previous experiments led to him being fired from other institutions. Even knowing this much about the guy’s past, four students accompany him to a remote cabin in the mountains, which is reputed to be haunted. It doesn’t take long for the prof’s true intentions to be revealed, and, while the special makeup effects are pretty good, the other fakery is unconvincing. Commentary is provided by Unearthed Films executives Stephen Biro and Paul White, who add some behind-the-scenes insight into the film and its stars, and a photo gallery is also included.

The Hills Have Eyes: Part 2: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Few movie sequels have been reviled as much as The Hills Have Eyes: Part 2, now available in a “Special Edition” from Arrow Video. It followed by seven years the enthusiastically greeted original, which was inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the legend of Sawney Beane and his family, a feral clan who inhabited and roamed the highlands of Scotland’s East Lothian County, near Edinburgh, in the early 1400s. Before they were captured, tortured, judged insane and summarily executed, on the order of Scotland’s King James, the miscreants tormented and ate several travelers. When, in the movie, the Carter family finally takes revenge on their cannibal adversaries, they become as brutal as their attackers. It helped introduce a subgenre of horror that later would be tagged, “torture porn.” Most of what became The Hills Have Eyes: Part 2 was shot before Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was released, but production was halted due to budget concerns. After “Elm Street” became a hit, VTC convinced Craven to finish Hills Have Eyes Part 2 using only the footage that had already been shot. Since there was not enough for a feature-length film, footage from the original was edited in to pad out the running time. Even though Craven disowned the sequel, he footed most of the blame from critics. In it, a motocross team on its way through the desert to test a new fuel takes an ill-advised shortcut through a nuclear test site. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, Rachel (Janus Blythe) is a survivor of the cannibal clan that menaced the Carter family several years before. She directs the team’s bus to the remnants of her demented kin, including the menacing Pluto (Michael Berryman) and a hulking, blood-hungry brute, The Reaper (John Bloom). James Whitworth and Suze Lanier-Bramlett, among other stars from the original, were added through borrowed material. The highlight for many viewers were flashbacks attributed to the dog in the original. If nothing else, it set the movie’s lighter tone. The new Blu-ray edition includes a new commentary with podcasters from The Hysteria Continues; “Blood, Sand and Fire: The Making of The Hills Have Eyes Part II,” a fresh making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Berryman, Janus Blythe, production designer Dominick Bruno, composer Harry Manfredini and unit production manager/first assistant director John Callas; a stills gallery; lobby cards; a reversible fold-out poster; a limited-edition 40-page booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Amanda Reyes; an archival set visit with Fangoria reps; and reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper.

Mock & Roll
One of the things that made This Is Spinal Tap (1984) such an influential and enduring entertainment was its ability to confound the expectations of viewers who loved heavy-metal music and those who loathed it. That, and the fact that the musical parodies were as good as anything on the Top 40 charts. Because heavy metal lyrics were, at once, indecipherable and irrelevant, the parody was lost on diehard fans, who, nonetheless, were attracted to Spinal Tap because of its self-ordained reputation as “one of England’s loudest bands.” It drew enthusiastic audiences on the road; sold lots of albums; and would frequently turn up on “SNL” and late-night talk shows. It opened the door for dozens of mockumentaries to come, some terrific, like Best in Show (2000) and Fear of a Black Hat (1995), and more than a few parodies that completely missed the mark, such as Ben Bacharach-White’s Mock & Roll, a new DIY spoof on metal bands. It features an Ohio parody band, Liberty Mean, whose targets are limited to rock groups that are unknown outside south-central Ohio, including the Black Owls. The band steals the Black Owls’ music, but rewrites the lyrics for its own purposes. In that regard, the members credit Weird Al Yankovic for inspiration. Liberty Mean’s larger goal is to raise the money needed to attend the South by Southwest Music Festival, with or without an invitation. When a crowd-funding campaign fails miserably, the band turns to crime, which doesn’t work, either. On the plus side, Mock & Roll features special appearances by Roger Earl, of Foghat; reasonably listenable metal music; Cleveland rock legend, Michael Stanley; and Alex Ortiz, the “Boriqua Beast of Comedy.”

Acorn/PBS: Midsomer Murders: John Barnaby’s Top 10
PBS: Tiananmen: The People Versus the PartyPBS: Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed
Nickelodeon: JoJo Siwa: Sweet Celebrations
Nickelodeon: Ready, Race, Rescue
Now that a 21st season of “Midsomer Murders” has been commissioned, it’s a good time to check out the latest DVD collection from the show, which is shown here on Acorn, PBS and Netflix. With a title like “Midsomer Murders: John Barnaby’s Top 10,” the gift set hardly needs any more introduction than that. Located in several small English country villages, the show’s unusual mix of drama, lighthearted whimsy and dark humor has survived several cast changes, including the transition from John Nettles, as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, to Neil Dudgeon, as his younger cousin, DCI John Barnaby. (Nettles retired from the show in 2011.) The show is based on Caroline Graham’s “Chief Inspector Barnaby” book series, as originally adapted for television by Anthony Horowitz. Dudgeon has selected 10 out of 120 episodes for inclusion in the specially designed package, which adds witty and revealing anecdotes about the series’ production. Affable and amusing, Dudgeon introduces each mystery, sharing behind-the-scenes stories and favorite memories that explain his selections and provide a window into the on-set antics. His choices pinpoint such highlights as Funniest Moment, Favorite Storyline, Best Costumes and Unlikeliest Murder Weapon. Also included is the hour-long documentary, “20 Things to Do in Midsomer … Before You Die,” presented by Nettles.

On June 4, 1989 the world’s biggest, longest and most famous pro-democracy demonstration was brought to a tragic end. The images from those final bloody days have, ever since, been impossible to forget, especially the images of a young refusing to make room for a cordon of tanks to pass. The still disputed death-toll totals range from the official Chinese-government figure of 300 to estimates as high as 15,000. “Tiananmen: The People Versus the Party” recalls the gripping narrative of the seven-week period in which the whole future of China rested and where, at various crucial turning points, the final tragic outcome could have been avoided. These key moments unfold over two hours, in a story told with the drama and pace of a political thriller. Never-before-seen Chinese television footage and exclusive interviews with key insiders — from protest leaders and students, to government officials — reveal the scale of the 1989 protest, its aims, the military crackdown and its aftermath.

It’s long been known that German soldiers used a methamphetamine called Pervitin in the World War II, to sharpen their senses and drive them toward unthinkable carnage and atrocities. Indeed, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed” was preceded on DVD this year by AcornTV’s “Blitzed: Nazis on Drugs” and Film Movement’s “Nazi Junkies,” based on Norman Ohler’s research. The History Channel’s “High Hitler” was released on DVD in 2010. The PBS series argues that tales of Nazis on speed – and Japanese troops, for that matter — obscured the other side of the story: the massive use of stimulants by British and American troops. Did total war unleash the world’s first pharmacological arms race, which continues today with the popularity of crystal meth? Historian James Holland searches for the truth behind a coverup designed to paint Axis fighters and leaders as dope fiends and the Allies as untarnished heroes.

Sixteen-year-old Joelle Joanie “JoJo” Siwa is an American dancer, singer, actress and YouTube personality, familiar to fans of “Dance Moms” and single records “Boomerang” and “Kid in a Candy Store.” JoJo signed with Nickelodeon in 2017 and has since appeared on the network’s “Make It Pop,” “The Thundermans,” “Lip Sync Battle Shorties,” “School of Rock,” “SpongeBob’s Big Birthday,” “All That,” feature films “Blurt” and “SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout,” and Disney Channel’s “Bizaardvark.” Her visual trademark comes from wearing large, colorful bows in her hair. It turned into a successful business venture for her. “Jojo Siwa: Sweet Celebrations” contains “The Jojo Siwa Special: Jojo’s Dream Birthday,” and a half-dozen episodes of “The Jojo & Bowbow Show.”

For reasons known only to Nickelodeon, Walmart is the exclusive retail outlet for “PAW Patrol: Ready, Race, Rescue.” It’s probably because it will be released in theaters next month and Nickelodeon doesn’t want to dilute the potential audience. In advance of the Adventure Bay 500, the pups have built a racetrack and are ready to serve as the pit crew for their hero, the Whoosh. When the legendary driver is unable to drive in the championship race, he calls on his biggest fan, Marshall, to replace him and take on his dastardly rival, the Cheetah.

The DVD Wrapup: JW3, Aladdin 4K, Third Wife, Daybreakers, Echo in the Canyon, Rabbi Jacob, Lock Up, Mayday … More

Saturday, September 14th, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum: Blu-ray/4K
One way to gauge the strength of an action franchise is to study the numbers. Another is to measure how long it takes for a series to make the leap from theaters to the VOD/DVD/Blu-ray marketplace, where marketing costs are relatively reasonable and star power goes a long way. The numbers show John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum to be the most successful chapter in a series that has done nothing but improve in the opinion of audiences and critics, who’ve long shown their support for the n R-rated action franchise. Far short of seeking a backdoor into the straight-to-VOD arena, Lionsgate/Summit has announced that John Wick: Chapter 4 will arrive May 21, 2021. Even though Keanu Reeves deserves much of the credit for the series’ continuing success, there’s something else going on here. Keanu may add marquee value to the product, but he’s never been in the same league in that regard as Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. The creative teams behind the John Wick and Matrix juggernauts have earned the right to bask in the reflected glory. The fact is, almost every other movie in which he’s appeared since The Devil’s Advocate (1997) has underperformed. His co-stars in The Gift (2000), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), The Lake House (2006), Street Kings (2008) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) brought as many of their fans to the multiplex as he did. Reeves’ first solo forays into the martial-arts genre — Man of Tai-Chi (2013) and 47 Ronin (2013) – failed to recover their budgetary nut … and, they demonstrated several redeemable qualities. In both, he showcased skills learned under the direct tutelage of Hong Kong’s legendary Yuen Wo-ping (Master Z: Ip Man Legacy) and actor/stuntman Tiger Hu Chen (The Matrix Reloaded). Yuen’s influence extends to the John Wick series, as well. Three-time director Chad Stahelski served as Reeves/Neo’s stunt double on the Wachowskis’ trilogy, while co-star Laurence Fishburne also learned “movie kung fu” from Yuen. He’s filled the crucial role of Bowery King in the sequel and triquel of John Wick. Veteran actor, martial-arts champion and “Chairman” of Food Network’s “Iron Chef America: The Series,” Mark Dacascos (Maximum Impact), joins the Wick series here as Zero, who commands a force of ninja assassins and proves himself to be every bit the equal of the hero. The series’ formidable villainesses — Adrianne Palicki, Ruby Rose, Asia Kate Dillon – are all tall, look hot in black and give as good as they get.

At the end of Chapter Two, Wick broke one of the cardinal rules governing members of the criminal Underworld’s High Table and their assassins. After making good on an odious marker owed to Camora kingpin Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio), Wick was tasked with murdering the fiend’s sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini), so he can claim her seat at the table. It doesn’t take long for Wick to realize that he’s been double-crossed and set up for assassination, himself. Santino sends his mute security enforcer, Ares (Rose), to finish the job. The sequel ends when Wick breaks Rule No. 1, by killing Santino inside the New York Continental Hotel, an established sanctuary for high-ranking members of the Underworld. Parabellum opens with one foot in the sequel and the other in the triquel. Hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) has risked his own security by granting Wick an hour’s head start, before declaring him excommunicado and imposing a $14-million ransom on him. It rises another million each hour thereafter. A severely wounded Wicks is shown racing through the streets of Manhattan – in a pattern established decades ago, in Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – dodging potential assassins while searching for a sympathetic doctor. It causes him to miss the deadline for sanctuary and adjudication of his disrespect for the rules. Wick’s only hope is to call in some markers of his own. It takes him to the New York Public Library, where he’s hidden valuables in a book of Russian fairy tales; an store that specializes in antique weapons; a ballet theater run by an old friend (Angelica Huston), who reluctantly helps him; and the Continental Hotel in Essaouira, Morocco, which is managed by another former crony (Halle Berry), who even more reluctantly agrees to teleport him to the sun-drenched sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, where the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) holds court. After collapsing from exhaustion and lack of water, John is taken by horsemen before the only man whose position is elevated above the High Table. The Elder’s condition for forgiveness is for Wick to return to Manhattan to kill Winston. None of this will make sense to anyone who hasn’t watched the first two chapters.

Enter the Adjudicator, a vision in head-to-toe black leather, who’s played by Dillon, the androgynous computer nerd in “Billions.” As the menacing judge/jury for the High Table, she wants to know why Winston didn’t punish John immediately after he killed Santino in the hotel, giving him seven days to put his affairs in order before being removed from the hotel premises. She also wants the Bowery King – ruler of the underworld beneath the Underworld — to explain his role in helping his friend escape. He, too, is given seven days to depart. When he doesn’t comply, she orders full-time sushi chef, Zero, to slice him seven times with razor-sharp sword. All of this Underworld hocus-pocus might remind viewers of Tommy DeVito’s fate, in Goodfellas (1990), after he killed protected Gambino family member Billy Batts and buried his body in the boonies. The most exciting set piece takes place inside a “house” of glass walls and mirrors, where Wick must test his fighting skills against Zero’s top disciples, Shinobi #1 and Shinobi #2. The structure cost $4 million to design and construct, and every penny can be seen through the glass walls. The best way to describe Stahelski’s pacing, throughout most of Parabellum’s 131-minute length is “balls-to-the-wall action.” This should come as good news to lovers of films in which the protagonists take no prisoners. (John Wick personally eliminates 94 people in the film; more than he killed in the original, where he killed 77, but less than in the sequel, where he offed 128.) Most franchise pictures fall well short of that goal after the second sequel. In keeping with Stahelski’s creative casting decisions, 7-foot-tall NBA center, Boban Marjanovic, was hired to battle Wick in the library – think Jaws, in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker — while New York City Ballet soloist, Unity Phelan, is put through her paces by Huston in an arduous rehearsal session. Maurice Binder, who designed the distinctive opening sequences in many 007 movies, frequently looked toward the world of dance for graceful models. Dan Laustsen’s alternately dark and reflective cinematography looks great in 4K UHD, and the Dolby Atmos track is equal to the task, as well. The Lionsgate bonus package is comprised of a dozen making-of featurettes, of varying length, which go a long toward answering all the questions that detail-minded viewers will want answered, including those pertaining to the creative use of animals and armaments.

Aladdin (2019): Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Aladdin (1992): Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
No studio milks a significant property as aggressively, and with as much attention to the bottom line, as the folks at Disney. Despite the shuttering of a dozen satellite animation studios, which shouldered much of its non-feature products, brand identity has always been a studio trademark. If the straight-to-video sequels suffered by comparison to the theatrical titles, it’s primarily because of the tightened production budgets and production schedules. Kids didn’t seem to notice or mind the shortcuts being taken. The addition of 20th Century Fox Animation and Fox Television Animation offer new opportunities. Apart from the traditional array of branded toys, novelties, records, comic books, clothing, costumes, video games, television series and theme-park attractions, Disney opened a new road to record profits by using Aladdin, already an animated TV series, as a wedge to enter the much maligned and far riskier straight-to-VHS market, with the 69-minute The Return of Jafar (1994) and the 81-minute Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996). Then studio boss Michael Eisner felt that the move might deflate the value of the brand, while loyal exhibitors questioned why they were being removed from traditional food chain and six-year re-release cycle, as had happened with The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast. Instead, popular animated features would re-released on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD, with all sorts of bonus material unavailable in theaters, and advanced Signature, Platinum and Diamond Collection editions. With every new edition, the BVHV would toy with faithful fans and collectors by adding and subtracting supplements and changing the cover art and packaging. (Last year, it forced Amazon and other retail outlets to honor a release embargo, designed to give Disney’s own streaming and hard-copy business a head start on sales.) The success of the Broadway-musical version of Beauty and the Beast opened another avenue for Disney to trod. It ran from April 18, 1994, to September 5, 1999, at the Palace Theater, before moving to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, for an additional seven-plus years. On March 20, 2014, after two years on the road, Aladdin became the seventh of eight movies to make the transition to the Broadway stage, replacing “Mary Poppins” at the New Amsterdam Theater. It’s still there. Another adaptation, “Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular,” opened at the Hyperion Theater at Disney California Adventure in 2003 and ran until early 2016. It was replaced by a musical stage version of Frozen. Whoever coined the term, “Disneyfication of Broadway,” back in 1994, hadn’t seen anything, yet. (A plan to Disneyfy Las Vegas went unrealized, except for a successful run of “The Lion King,” at Mandalay Bay.) Another version of the “Aladdin” musical continues to entertain passengers on board the Disney Cruise Line ship, Disney Fantasy.

Naturally, someone at the Mouse House felt as if there was still plenty of oil in Aladdin’s lamp. A live-action hybrid of the animated movie and Broadway musical was released earlier this year, in 3D, Dolby Cinema and IMAX. It filled the original date set aside for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, now scheduled to open on December 20, 2019. A 4K UHD alternative has been added to the digital/DVD/Blu-ray roster. For a company reluctant to hop on board the 4K bandwagon, it represents a distinct change in strategy. Despite middling reviews, Guy Ritchie and John August’s take on the property raked in $1.046 billion worldwide, more than twice as much as the 1992 edition. While Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban and Nasim Pedrad more than adequately fill the key roles, the most pressing question involved the ability of Will Smith to fill the hyper-animated shoes once worn by Robin Williams, as Genie. That wasn’t going to happen, in any case. (Jim Carrey was an early first choice.) Knowing this, former Fresh Prince shaped the character in his own likeable image. Ritchie, known for his early examinations of underworld crime in London, was anxious to add a more muscular texture to Aladdin, while maintaining the family-friendly appeal, and use CGI to inject some magic into the carpet rides. Frankly, I missed Gilbert Gottfried – who previously voiced the squawks for Jafar’s scarlet macaw, Iago – as much as I did Williams, whose manic interpretation of Genie occasionally overwhelmed everything else on the screen. The brilliantly photographed 4K UHD edition fairly sparkles with bright reds, yellows, purples and the colors of every gem on the planet. Featurettes include “Aladdin’s Video Journal: A New Fantastic Point of View”; the deleted song, “Desert Moon,” with an introduction by composer Alan Menken; “Guy Ritchie: A Cinematic Genie”; “A Friend Like Genie,” in which Smith discusses the challenges and rewards of following up on Williams’ classic performance; almost 11 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes; three music videos; and bloopers.

The animated Aladdin doesn’t benefit as much from the higher-definition visual presentation and Dolby Atmos sound, at least when compared to the enclosed Signature Collection Blu-ray, which is very good. It’s simply a case of giving viewers – those willing to try something new and only slightly different, anyway — too much of a very good thing. It took some time for me to accustom myself to the oversaturated colors that sometimes blur the lines that separate characters from backgrounds. The coloring was done with the computerized CAPS process, and the color motifs were chosen according to the characters’ personality. The protagonists use light colors such as blue; the antagonists darker ones, such as red and black; and Agrabah and its palace employ the neutral color, corn yellow. The plan’s simplicity might clash with 4K’s higher resolution. Otherwise, there’s nothing new to say about the animated Aladdin that hasn’t been said a thousand times before now, including the many half-assed conspiracy theories that dogged the film. They were excised – for better or worse – long ago. The shabby treatment accorded William in contractual dispute also goes unremarked upon. Just as well. The new additions to the package include “Aladdin on Aladdin,” a half-hour interview with Scott Weinger, who voiced the title character; “Let’s Not Be Too Hasty: The Voices of Aladdin,” a short montage of voice-recording sessions, set against corresponding clips from the film; a pair of alternate endings with text intros; a preview for the vintage extras that appeared on previous home video releases and are now only available digitally; and “Drawing Genie,” with supervising animator Eric Goldberg discussing his life as an animator, his influences and the joy he finds in creating animated characters. A couple dozen more featurettes have been ported over from previous editions and are divided between the Blu-ray and digital versions. Missing from the earlier Diamond Collection package are “Made You Look,” a segment from “Diamond in the Rough”; deleted songs, “Proud of Your Boy,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Humiliate the Boy” and “Why Me.”; trailers for the Aladdin sequels; and “Proud of Your Boy,” an original story reel.

Daybreakers: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Lock Up: Blu-ray/4K UHD
If the title of the Spierig Brothers’ inverted vampire thriller, Daybreakers (2009), doesn’t sound familiar, despite a cast that includes Willem Dafoe Ethan Hawke and Sam Neill, blame it on bad timing. It had the misfortune of being released on the fourth weekend of Avatar’s run to the record books, as it surpassed the billion-dollar barrier, domestically and abroad. That it ended up making any money, at all, was something of a small miracle. Set in 2019 and shot in a semi-dystopian Australia — where a plague theoretically could be contained by the oceans surrounding it — Daybreakers imagines a scenario in which almost every human being has been transformed into a vampire. This might have worked out fine for the vamps, if it weren’t for the fact that fewer humans means less blood for the undead masses. Synthetics have been diluted to the point where they have lost the ability to satisfy the demand for sustenance. Riots have broken out in the streets of big cities, and a scientist (Hawke) and an industrialist (Neill) are at cross purposes. The scientist is struggling to come up with a beverage made of synthetic blood – little different from the elixir in “True Blood” — and the other hoping to make a killing limiting its access to rich people. Meanwhile, an underground band of unaffected humans, led by Dafoe and Claudia Karvan (Spirited), have come up with a treatment that could reverse the plague and ruin the ambitions of the industrialist. In an effort to clear up some of the hematological details, they kidnap the “bleeding heart” researcher. Because the industrialist is in cahoots with a vamp politician, with connections to the military, the Spierigs are able to spare no expense in creating a bloodbath for the ages. They even come up with sunshine-proof uniforms for the stormtroopers and light-resistant armored vehicles. While horror fans should find the wall-to-wall savagery to their liking – especially the in-your-face 4K visuals and Dolby Atmos soundtrack — squeamish fans of the actors are encouraged to think twice before streaming Daybreakers. The combo pack arrives with commentary by the Spierig Brothers and Steve Boyle, the film’s creatures designer and supervisor; a 121- minute making-of featurette; and the Spierigs’ short film, “The Big Picture.”

From his portrayal of a soccer playing P.O.W. in John Huston’s Victory (1981), to this year’s Escape Plan: The Extractors, no actor has spent more time behind bars than Sylvester Stallone. Released in 1989, between Rambo III and Rocky V, John Flynn’s Lock Up finds Sly’s character, Frank Leone, back in stir, after previously breaking out of a facility run by the evil Warden Drumgoole, played by Donald Sutherland at his most psychotic. After some reconsideration of his original sentence by authorities, Frank agrees to return to a minimum-security prison to complete the remaining six months of time due. On his first night back in his cell, he’s forcibly transferred to a maximum-security prison for no better reason than Drumgoole has some unfinished business with him and seeks revenge. In fact, the warden wants to make Leone’s life a living hell, before pushing him to the point where he’ll do something severe enough to accrue another 10 years behind bars. Because he’s established a stable life in mainstream society, complete with a woman who loves him (Darlanne Fluegel), he refuses to take the bait when he’s beaten to within an inch of his life by sadistic guards. The warden has also commissioned a demented prisoner, Chink (Sonny Landham), to push him in the same direction. It isn’t until the craziest of the nutso guards threatens to rape Flynn’s girl, Melissa, that he decides to take matters into his own hands. While Flynn and cinematographer Donald E. Thorin (Scent of a Woman) make full use of the cramped facilities – the same prison in which The Hurricane (1999) was shot and Rubin Carter once called home – you can count the original ideas in Lock Up on the fingers of one hand, from the brutal football game in the prison yard, to characters who are neatly divided between good, bad and indifferent. Leone is allowed some unlikely scenes in which he can enjoy a few hours of faux freedom, working on a red Mustang, whose best miles were in its rear-view mirror. A trained mechanic on the outside, he convinces a motley crew of fellow misfits of the wisdom, “Your body has to be here, but your mind can be anywhere.” For what it’s worth, the inevitable confrontation between Stallone and Sutherland makes up for a lot of earlier nonsense. The other redeeming quality is the casting of such actors as John Amos (“Good Times”), Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), Frank McRae (Cannery Row), Sonny Landreth (Predator), Fluegel (To Live and Die in L.A.) and Danny Trejo (Machete). The vintage featurettes include a couple of making-of pieces and several painfully short interviews.

The Third Wife
History teaches us that good things usually came to the wives, lovers and concubines of kings, wealthy merchants and landowners, who, in exchange for a son and heir, could write their own tickets. If not, well, Catherine of Aragon wouldn’t have suffered the indignity of being banished from court, simply because the sons she did deliver King Henry VIII either were stillborn or died seven weeks after their cords were cut. The Holy Roman Empire might still hold Europe in its sway; Henry’s girlfriends would have kept their heads and lived long a fruitful lives; and several generations of academics, playwrights, novelists and screenwriters would have to look elsewhere for inspiration. Movies about lines of succession, male privilege and the repression of women aren’t unique to England, of course. The great Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made at least three films — Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Ju Dou (1990), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) – that  address similar issues, while also adding polygamy to the mix. Although The Third Wife is set in rural Vietnam, during the 19th Century, writer/director Ash Mayfair appears to have been greatly influenced by Zhang’s period dramas. The blueprint included spectacular costumes, lavish set designs, attention to period detail and the rivalries that arise when new wives and concubines are introduced to the equation.

The Third Wife is bookended by spectacularly beautiful waterborne processions, leading to and from the estate of Hung (Le Vu Long). Fourteen-year-old May is being delivered to her new master on a ceremonial barge, in lieu of a debt owed to the old coot by her father. Hung has already had a son bestowed upon him by his first wife, Ha (Tran Nu Yên-Khê), so the pressure on May to produce another male heir has been significantly reduced. Still, in some aristocratic households one son is never enough. May knows that her life of leisure would be assured if her firstborn is of the male persuasion. Plus, Hung probably won’t be around much longer, leaving time to find a younger husband and bring boys and girls into the world. Apart from the exotic consummation ritual performed on Hung and May’s wedding night, the old man remains in the background throughout most of The Third Wife. It’s the interrelationships between the women – including the frank and friendly second wife, Xuan (Mai Thu Huong Maya) – that interest Mayfair. Little more than a child, herself, May spends her free time with Xuan’s small daughters, who are closer in age to her than May is to the older wives, who treat her like a younger sister. After Xuan teaches May some time-honored ways for a woman to satisfy herself sexually, when a husband or lover is otherwise engaged, the teenager falls in love with her. When May’s pregnancy becomes obvious, the experienced women share more practical knowledge.

The necessity for bringing another male heir into the family is evidenced by the selfish behavior of Ha’s son, who prefers the companionship of his mothers-in-law to his own pre-arranged partner, who’s the same age as May. By rejecting the consummation of his own marriage, the young man not only risks being cut out of his inheritance, but he’s also left his young wife buried under a mountain of shame and obsolescence. It wouldn’t be fair – or accurate – to suggest that May’s situation changes dramatically after the birth of her child, one way or the other, or that The Third Wife is an overtly feminist document. It adheres more to the Eurythmics’ anthem, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” than Helen Reddy’s No. 1 hit, “I Am Woman.”

Mayfair’s messages are delivered quietly, but emphatically. An Ton That’s emotive musical soundtrack fills most of the gaps in dialogue, while Chananun Chotrungroj’s cinematography captures views of Vietnam that few Americans would recognize, even veterans. Mayfair based The Third Wife on stories passed down to her by her grandparents and great-grandparents, who experienced such practices at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century. She points out that one in every three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18 and one in seven by the age of 15. Although modern Vietnamese law requires men to be at least 20 years old and women to be at least 18 before marrying – and both spouses required to give free consent — child and arranged marriages persist in rural areas. Bonus features include Mayfair’s commentary, her short film, “Grasshopper,” and a NYAFF chat interview.

Echo in the Canyon: Blu-ray
I wonder if Andrew Slater’s engrossing rockumentary, Echo in the Canyon, didn’t begin production with one thing in mind, then, somewhere along the line, diverge in two or three other directions. Ostensibly, the film is a conjoined profile of the musical genre – folk-rock – that sprang from the guitars and harmonies of artists living in Los Angeles’ idyllic Back 40: Laurel Canyon. As has been noted in several other books, albums and movies about the period before the Summer of Love, it was here that dozens of musicians lived in close enough proximity to eavesdrop on each other’s jam sessions and rehearsals, and be only a few minutes’ drive from the Sunset Strip, a dozen different recording studios and the Troubadour nightclub, an essential club that gets short-shrift here. It isn’t alone. At an all-too-brief 82 minutes, “Echo” overflows with vintage and freshly recorded interviews, concert footage and studio sessions. Most of it as fresh as sunny spring day on Wonderland Drive. Among the Laurel Canyon habitués represented in chats with host/guide Jakob Dylan are surviving members of the Beach Boys, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, Mamas and the Papas, Beatles Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, Loving Spoonful and Tom Petty (in his last film interview). In addition to a zip code, the artists recall sharing riffs, lyrics, ideas and inspiration (a.k.a., lovers), before and after gigs. The anecdotes are far more entertaining and revelatory here than those we hear in the average rockumentary or late-night talk-show interviews. I expect that has a lot to do with Dylan’s status within the industry, as a musician and prince among rock royalty. Among the younger faces invited to reflect on the impact of the California Sound are Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Regina Spektor, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos and Norah Jones, all of whom are shown at various times reflecting on, recording or performing songs that will bring back a flood of memories for Baby Boomers, especially. The soundtrack album, comprised of duets with Dylan, has already been released. But wait, there’s more. Slater also admits that the project was inspired by Model Shop (1969), an obscure film by French director, Jacques Demy, in which a young draftee tools around greater Los Angeles in a 1952 MG TD Midget. While he’s deciding whether to report for duty or go to Canada, George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) begins stalking a French woman (Anouk Aimée), who models for amateur photographers in her britches. Besides its nostalgic visuals, New Wave aura and music by Spirit, Model Shop has virtually nothing to add to “Echo.” It does afford Dylan an opportunity to re-create George’s scenic tour of late-1960s in a convertible of his own.  Curiously, music producer and Lakers’ superfan Lou Adler appears in all three films, twice as a young man and, again, as a wise old sage. Despite some curious narrative choices, Echo in the Canyon really comes alive whenever the singing begins.

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob: Blu-ray
In yet another case of unfortunate timing, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob was released smack dab in the middle of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War – or, if one prefers, the Yom Kippur, Ramadan or October War – which, while brief, proved to be extremely costly for both sides. On October 18, the film’s opening day in France, the 35-year-old wife of its publicist, Georges Cravenne, attempted to hijack a Boeing 727 to protest what she believed to be its “anti-Palestinian” bias. Apparently, no one bothered to alert police to the fact that Danielle Cravenne was a manic-depressive and might only be carrying fake weapons. At a stopover in Marseille, sharpshooters disguised as maintenance workers took her out as soon as the Air France jetliner was cleared of passengers. She had identified herself as a member of the bogus Solidarity Movement for French-Israeli-Arab Reconciliation and issued three demands: suppression of The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, passage to Cairo and the suspension of all French motor traffic for 24 hours. The final demand should have tipped authorities to the likelihood that she was slightly off her rocker, at least. At the time, however, cops didn’t have the luxury, patience or wherewithal to distinguish between fake and real guns. The movie opened on time, anyway, and did well at the international box office. (I see no indication that it’s ever opened in Islamic countries.) Although the raucous comedy dealt with serious topical issues, American distributor 20th Century Fox was able to coerce the MPAA into awarding The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob a completely unwarranted G-rating. PG would have served the same purpose.

That said, however, director Gérard Oury (The Sucker) and a team of writers deserve kudos for creating a mistaken-identity comedy that straddles the fine line separating culturally insensitive material and undeniably hilarious slapstick. And, when I say, “hilarious slapstick,” I’m fully aware of the fact that,  depending on the circumstances, a pie-in-the-face or banana-peel gag could pass for comedy, drama or tragedy. And, furthermore, I’ll concede that Danielle’s perception of The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob being offensive to Palestinians and Arabs, intentionally or not, was valid. Not that it warranted hijacking a plane to protest its existence or was a good enough reason to commit suicide-by-police. The film opens in New York, where the titular Hasidic rabbi (Marcel Dalio) and his companion, Rabbi Zeiligman (Claude Giraud), are preparing for Rabbi Jacob’s first visit to his French hometown in 30 years. Among other things, he’ll celebrate a nephew’s bar mitzvah. In danger of missing their plane, due to a traffic jam on a bridge, the taxi driver alerts the rabbis to the need for a miracle, which, of course, occurs in the nick of time.  Upon their arrival at Orly, they become embroiled in a standoff between a bigoted French factory owner, Victor Pivert (Louis de Funès); terrorist leader Mohamed Larbi Slimane (also Giraud), who’s taken him hostage; and police, who think Pivert is a murderer. To escape the mishigas, the anti-Semitic industrialist and his Arab captor assume the identity of the American rabbis, right down to fake beards and long, uncut sidelocks, called peyos. While the real rabbis are cooling their heels in a Parisian jail, Pivert and Slimane, now joined at the wrist by handcuffs, are driven to Jacob’s former neighborhood, which is filled with people eager to celebrate the gala reunion. (He would have found his way to America at the height of the Nazi occupation.)

Pivert is able to fake his true identity by noticing the names on signs on local shops and pretending he knew the proprietors back in the day. It helps that the families are gathered on the steps below the signs. He has more trouble deciphering the Talmud and sidestepping such common stumbling blocks as reading left to right and confusing the days Jews, Muslims and Christians mark the sabbath. Pivert’s clandestinely Jewish chauffeur, Salomon (Henri Guybet), enjoys watching the anti-Semites squirm. Meanwhile, Pivert’s dentist-wife, Germaine (Suzy Delair), has put the well-being of a patient at risk, when she comes to believe that her husband is leaving her for another woman, and their daughter, Antoinette (Miou-Miou), freaks out at the thought he won’t show up to her arranged wedding to a man she doesn’t love. (A much better fate awaits her.) If it sounds as if Louis de Funès got the better of the two key roles, you’d be right. At the time, he was France’s most popular comic actor and someone well capable of performing the chases and strenuous stunts required of him, including a lengthy and terrifically funny set piece that takes place in a factory that manufactures green chewing gum. (It’s safe for family viewing.) The updated Blu-ray package adds an interview with Oury’s daughter, co-screenwriter Danièle Thompson, and a new essay written by author Phoebe Maltz Bovy. In late 2016, it was reported that a sequel to “Rabbi Jacob” – “Rabbi Jacqueline” – would be in theaters by Christmas, 2018. It would be written by Thompson and Jul (“Silex and the City”) and released by specialty distributor, Haut et Court (Toni Erdmann). So far, however, nada.

It’s difficult to imagine a worse way to kill eight hours on a trans-Atlantic flight to London than having to watch movies as bad as Mayday, back-to-back, for the duration. The heavily censored Hollywood flicks usually available to passengers are punishment enough. The airline could substitute any of Massimiliano (Max) Cerchi’s straight-to-video turkeys for Mayday and the effect would be the same. Born in Italy, Cherchi began making micro-budget straight-to-video horror/thrillers in 1993, with Brainmaster, and, thereafter, Satan Claus (1996), Hellinger (1997) and Hellbilly (2003). With movies as formulaic as Mayday, it almost doesn’t matter that Rod Smith’s dialogue doesn’t resemble anything normal people would say in similar circumstances or that most of the characters don’t resemble anyone you’d imagine finding in the first-class section of an airliner … or a Greyhound bus, for that matter. The special effects, too, are limited to flashing the lights on the jetliner off and on and adding the sound of crackling electricity. These far-less-than-convincing power outages occur during a flight from Los Angeles to London. They’re followed by the mysterious disappearance of a passenger or member of the flight crew. Normally, something like this would result in pandemonium in the plane, but not here. Somehow the passengers in business class and economy are left blissfully unaware of what’s happening in first class.

It does, however, cause the on-board air marshal (Michael Pare) to blow his cover and reveal himself to the handful of passengers and viewers who might not have already guessed his profession. The first hint comes when he greets the blond flight attendants — Chanel Ryan, Sadie Katz — as if he regularly dates both of them on their ports of call. (This doesn’t prevent him from hitting on the flirty brunette sitting next to him, however.) He is the best-dressed guy in first class, as well as the only one who looks as if he belongs there. Although the sudden disappearances aren’t remotely scary – look closely and the face of a demon is recognizable – they provide a recognizable plot device. While Mayday could easily qualify for so-bad-it’s-good status anywhere, it’s natural audience would be comprised of airline employees, frequent travelers and airplane fetishists who might get a kick out of watching a movie that makes Airport ’77 (1977) and Airplane! (1980) look like documentaries on the Smithsonian Channel.

The DVD Wrapup: Rocketman, Last Black Man, Tasteless, Pixelia, Cruising, Handkerchiefs, Kiarostami, Ozu, More Manson, Planets, Straight Forward … More

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

Rocketman: Blu-ray
Based on what we’ve seen already this year, it’s possible that the Academy Award for Best Lead Actor might go to Taron Egerton, whose entirely credible portrayal of Elton John, in Rocketman, should remind voters of Rami Malek’s exciting impersonation of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Most of the awards-bait movies have yet to be screened for the influencers who gather each year at the Toronto International Film Festival. So, it’s more of a hunch than an educated guess, and Egerton certainly deserves consideration.  If things do work out that way, it would heighten expectations for Johnny Flynn, who, in Gabriel Range’s still-in-production Stardust, plays David Bowie on his first visit to the U.S. in 1971. A possible three-peat for rock biopics could have the same effect on the Oscar-cast’s slumping ratings as a bona-fide Triple Crown contender has on ratings for the Belmont Stakes. Voters have shown no reluctance to honor actors players playing musicians. Jamie Foxx took home the statuette for Ray (2003); Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall did the same for Crazy Heart (2008) and Tender Mercies (1983), as did Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005); Gary Busey was nominated for The Buddy Holly Story (1978); and, ditto, for Bradley Cooper for A Star Is Born (2018), Laurence Fishburne for What’s Love Got to Do With It (1992) and non-actor Dexter Gordon for Round Midnight (1985). Apparently, Oscar always dreamed about being a singer. This isn’t the same thing as saying that Hollywood studios are comfortable with such subject matter, because they aren’t. It took Rocketman 18 years to reach the big screen, after being aborted by Disney in its developmental stage in the early 2000s. Several studios wanted the picture to be shaped to receive a PG-13 from the ratings board. It was not something executive producer John could abide, and it left the door open for budget issues. Incoming chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, Jim Gianopulos, not only agreed to a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million, but he also became a chief defender of the R-rating and sexual content.

In the past decade, Tom Hardy and Justin Timberlake were both seriously considered for the lead role. When Focus Films passed the baton to Paramount, the studio hired a new producer, Matthew Vaughn, who brought in Egerton – they’d worked together on Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) – and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott), in the key role of lyricist Bernie Taupin. Dexter Fletcher, who’d just swept up behind Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody, was in the director’s chair and handed a script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot). In May 2018, Egerton told reporters that the film would be more of a fantasy-musical, as opposed to a straightforward biopic. The distinction gave the filmmakers license to mess around with the chronological order of record releases and performances; revise the cast of the characters; and use an AA meeting as a framing device to introduce the wonderfully choreographed set pieces. (As is wont, John changes costumes in mid-session from a bright red hell-boy outfit, into a drab gray robe, to fit his mood.)  Veteran pop-culture watchers already will be familiar with John’s back story. As a boy, his impressive talent on the piano led to enrollment in Saturday classes to the Royal Academy of Music on a junior scholarship. While he impressed his schoolmates with Jerry Lee Lewis imitations and R&B standards during the week, John amazed his instructor at the academy by listening to a four-page piece by George Frideric Handel once and repeating it like a “gramophone record.” The next several years are compacted to show his commitment to rock ’n’ roll and R&B, playing in a backup band for touring musicians; the effects of a cantankerous homelife; his name change, from Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John; his early collaborations with Taupin; and struggles to find representation.

Most of the movie’s second half is taken up by his loss of control over his addictions, petulant behavior, self-loathing and issues related to his sexual identity. In my opinion, there’s almost nothing so dreary as watching rock stars and other celebrities becoming addicted to drugs and booze. Blessedly, these moments are interspersed with impressionistic set pieces that correspond to the artist’s prevailing moods, including his several suicide attempts and nightmares. Without them, Rocketman would be a real bummer. Presumably, its timeline ends at 1990, when John declared himself to be clean and sober … except for the occasional shopping binge. However, his breakup and reconciliation with Taupin occurred a decade earlier than the movie suggests. Typically, historical accuracy is something I value in a fact-based movie. Here, however, any subscriber to People magazine or Rolling Stone already has memorized the chronological timeline and recognizes the difference between fact and fantasy. As conceived by Fletcher, Lee, cinematographer George Richmond, costume designger Julian Day and choreographer Adam Murray, Rocketman is ready-made for an adaptation on London’s West End, Broadway or Las Vegas. The non-linear narrative and song-and-dance numbers that are spun off the AA discussions, resemble elements of theatrical musicals as varied as “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Grease,” “Tommy,” “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia,” “Chicago,” “Jersey Boys” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

I wish that the filmmakers had elected to retain at least one of the deleted scenes, during which John’s awareness of the incipient AIDS epidemic was triggered. The first depiction was staged inside a recording studio, as Renata (Celinde Schoenmaker) reads from a newspaper article about a “gay cancer” and she describes the symptoms experienced by a friend. The second deleted scene shows the singer’s first, inadvertent exposure to the plight of Indiana teenager and AIDS patient Ryan White, while watching a CNN report at a hospital waiting room. As a hemophiliac, White became infected with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment. In December 1984, he was given six months to live. Doctors said he posed no risk to other students, as AIDS is not an airborne disease and spreads solely through body fluids, but, when White tried to return to classes, many parents and teachers rallied against his re-enrollment. As harassment and intolerance against the family grew, the national news media quickly moved in, making the boy a cause célèbre. Unfairly, perhaps, some the coverage unfairly differentiated between victims deemed “innocent” (non-gay) and “guilty” (gay). Ryan’s entire battle moved John so much, he reached out to the Whites and invited them to one of his concerts. In October 1986, the singer arranged a private tour and a party for Ryan at Disneyland. When Ryan’s health took a turn for the worse in April 1990, John went to be with his family. He performed “Skyline Pigeon” at his funeral. In other excised scenes, John is shown being tested for HIV and telling people in his support group that he somehow had been spared. Ryan’s death and that of friend Freddy Mercury, in 1991, inspired John to create the Elton John AIDS Foundation, to which he donated proceeds from “The Last Song” to a Ryan White fund at Riley Hospital. His contributions are acknowledged in a postscript, which puts donations to support HIV-related programs in 55 countries at more than $400 million. Joining that war gave John reasons to live that eluded him in the years before he met Ryan.

Rocketman is reputed to be the first major Hollywood-studio production to include a sex scene between gay males. (Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Luca Gbeuadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, both of which did very well, were released by mini-major Sony Classics.) Dexter Fletcher’s musical fantasy has grossed $187 million worldwide against its $40 million budget. Fox’s PG-13 Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t feature any sex scenes, despite the fact that its protagonist was a gay icon. Both movies have been censored in Russia and Malaysia and the R-rated Rocketman was banned outright in Samoa. As far as I know, it has yet to open in China. In addition to the abovementioned deleted scenes and several others that didn’t make the cut, the sparkling Blu-ray package adds four extended musical numbers, with optional introductions by Dexter Fletcher; featurettes “It’s Going to Be a Wild Ride: Creative Vision,” “Becoming Elton: Taron’s Transformation,” “Larger Than Life: Production Design and Costuming,” “Full Tilt: Staging the Musical Numbers,” “Music Reimagined: The Studio Sessions,” a “Rocketman Lyric Companion: Sing Along With Select Songs” and “Rocketman Juke Box”; and a booklet written by John.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Blu-ray
Widely acknowledged to be one of the most desirable places in the world to visit and live, San Francisco also is a real American city with real American problems. It has one of the highest costs of living in the world and homeownership is an impossible dream for anyone without a job that pays in the high six figures. Rentals are, at once, impossible to find and difficult to afford. Once a joy, strolling from one neighborhood to the next now demands paying attention to predatory panhandlers and human feces on the sidewalks. Dining can be a wonderful adventure, as well, but only if one can afford anything besides appetizers and, even then, get reservations to the choice spots. Things might become more affordable in the next recession – as they did in 2008 – but only if speculators don’t hit the bargains first. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, reminds us that San Francisco’s minority population is being pushed out of their homes, even in some of the least favorable neighborhoods, which have been targeted by investors for gentrification, condominiums and mixed-use developments. The decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, which figures prominently in the movie, has, since the mid-1990s, been designated as a Superfund site by the EPA. As soon as individual parcels are cleaned up, they’re sold to developers who can’t wait to offer condos with spectacular views of the bay. It’s where Fails’ best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), clears his head by fishing from a rowboat. One day, Mont lands a perfectly normal-looking fish, except for its eyes, which are the same side of its head … and, no, it isn’t a flounder. Jimmie and Mont take the bus or skateboard to their jobs, so, they know it as well as anyone whose roots extend beyond one or two generations. Any pride in vicarious ownership is limited, however, by the fact that they share a tiny bedroom in the home Mont shares with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover).

In an unexpected shift in scenery, Talbot relocates the young men to a neglected, if still beautiful Victorian house in the Fillmore District. They’re re-painting the red and gold trim that adorns the small circular windows in the house’s tower, which is covered with white fish-scale shingles and extends to a “witch’s hat” cupola. It says “San Francisco” as well as any postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Curiously, the couple that lives in the house – leftovers from the Summer of Love, no doubt – want nothing to do with Jimmie and Mont’s home improvements. If they accepted the gratis handiwork, they’d also have to acknowledge Jimmie’s belief that his grandfather built the house immediately after World War II, but he was ultimately forced to give it up. It’s led Jimmie to believe that he’s as genetically matched to the Victorian gem as he is to the city that’s provided his family a home, shelter and inspiration for most of the last 75 years. When the despicable woman is forced to move from the house, it doesn’t take longer than a few heartbeats for Jimmie and Mont to stake their claim by moving into it. And, it’s as impressive inside as it is from the street, where tourists on Segways sometimes gather to marvel at its facade. In his great naivete, Jimmie visits a real-estate agent to inquire as to what it would take to purchase the Victorian. Needless to say, the agent provides nothing in the way of encouragement to his visitor. It does, however, tip him off to a potential listing, which could put Jimmie in the streets, again. In the meantime, several enlightening things happen to the squatters. They’ll test their friendship, sense of worth as African Americans and San Francisco natives, and enthusiasm for getting up in the morning. The Last Black Man in San Francisco generated a lot of buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as comparisons to last year’s indie faves, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, both of which were set and shot across the bay, in Oakland. It deserves to be remembered when awards are handed out.

In the 1980s, a series of books — aptly titled “Truly Tasteless Jokes” — swept the nation with their crude, controversial and politically incorrect zingers. This was before such material spread at the speed of the Internet and social media provided avenues for instant criticism as vulgar, tasteless and insulting as the jokes themselves. Unlike almost anything published in the past 25 years, the “Truly Tasteless” books spared nothing and no one. The targets ranged from Helen Keller and dead babies, to Catholics, Jews and WASPs, and gays, women and minorities. Many of gags were inarguably funny, while others were “as funny as a crutch.” Not surprisingly, the books were especially popular with teens and adolescents, whose grasp of a joke’s subtext was, for the most part, pretty weak. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the series was the identity of their author, Ashton Applewhite, a lowly paid assistant at a New York publishing house, where she  asked co-workers to contribute samples from their own stash of tasteless jokes. Finally, an editor at Ballantine Books decided to publish it. The original title, “What’s the Difference Between Garbage and a Girl From New Jersey?” — punchline: garbage gets picked up – was vetoed by the marketing director, who didn’t get the gag and preferred the infinitely more direct, “Truly Tasteless Jokes.” For every new addition to the series, Applewhite was forced to cast her net wider than Publishers Row. Her new income allowed her to focus, instead, on issues relating to prejudices against the elderly and women’s rights. Like The Aristocrats (2005), Jeff Cerulli and Matt Ritter’s Tasteless features interviews with numerous working comedians, including a French-Canadian standup who was fined $80,000 for insulting a boy with a serious illness. It was a stiff price to pay for casting shade on the boy – a public figure in Canada – who defied the stated odds by not dying in a timely fashion. (The case is on appeal.) Anyone who enjoyed The Aristocrats and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018), Gus Van Sant and Joaquin Phoenix’s profile of the late quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, should find a lot to like in Tasteless. Anyone easily offended by such insensitive material, however, should give it a pass.

Is That You? (Eres Tu Papa?)
Thanks, in large part, to United States’ absurd 50-year-long economic embargo of Cuba – which, in a fit of pique, was re-imposed in 2017 by our current Lunatic in Chief – the country’s film industry has taken a backseat to more pressing issues, including obtaining medicines, food and tourist dollars. (In 1998, Donald Trump’s hotel and casino company violated the embargo by funneling a minimum of $68,000 into Cuba, without U.S. government approval. It did so in collaboration with Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corporation, which instructed senior officers with Trump’s company in ways to make it appear legal, by linking it after the fact to a charitable effort.) It was another classic example of a conservative president attempting to appease voters in south Florida, at the expense of farmers, industrialists and tourism officials who’d begun making inroads with Cuban officials in 2010, during the Obama administration. Ironically, attitudes toward maintaining the stranglehold on the island’s economy have shifted greatly in the last two decades, including those held by descendants of the original boatlifts.

Coincidentally, 2010 also marked the release of what many people considered to be the first horror made in Cuba in at least 50 years, Juan of the Dead, written and directed by an Argentinian filmmaker, Alejandro Brugués. By contrast, the frightening psychological thriller, Is That You? (Eres Tu Papa?), is a completely homegrown product. By contrast, Rudy Riverón Sánchez was living and working in his hometown of Holgyuin, acting in local  theater as an actor, when he decided to move to Havana to study film direction at El Instituto Superior de Arte. He also worked as an assistant director at Tele Rebelde, at the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Television. Seeking to expand his horizons, Sánchez moved to the UK, where he undertook a BA in Film and Television Production at York St. John University. In his final year, he was awarded a prize for the student who contributed most to the course and for his creepy short film, “Beyond Reach.” Sánchez returned to York to work on his MA at Northern Film School and make music videos for his Almost Film Productions. It couldn’t have cost much money for Sánchez to find the right locale for a picture that depends on complete isolation to maintain an atmosphere of dread. Most of Is That You? takes place inside a shack on a hardly farmed finca in the Cuban countryside.

It’s where 13-year-old Lili (Gabriela Ramos) and her mother, Alina (Lynn Cruz), have been imprisoned by the abusively perverted father/husband, Carlos (Jorge Enrique Caballero), a traveling shoe repairman with no visible worthwhile qualities. The only other person living on the property is a crippled Afro-Cuban assistant – no more than a slave, really – who’s incapable of helping the women. By the time Sánchez has convinced of us of Carlos’ irredeemably monstrous mentality, a scenario is presented in which Eduardo (Osvaldo Doimeadiós) is pushed one step too far and he beats his master to death, with Aline only a few steps away, bound to a banana tree plant. Typically, Lila and Aline would now be free to break away from their mental and physical chains and embark on a new life. In an extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome, however, Aline demonstrates no interest in moving away from the finca and Lila refuses to believe the lie that Carlos has either run away, been sent to prison or been seriously wounded in an accident on his mobile shoe repair vehicle. For all Carlos’ abusive behavior, Lila becomes distraught at the thought of losing the only man who’s ever shown her the slightest sign of affection in her life, however abhorrent. The closer the daughter comes to the truth,  the more she blames her thoroughly traumatized mother for her father’s disappearance. After running away from the shack to look for Carlos, she’s rescued from a roadside breakdown by Caridad (Eslinda Núñez), an elderly spiritualist who nurses the girl back to health and provides her with a recipe – largely dependent on breaking eggs – to coax him out of hiding, Upon Lila’s return to the shack, Sanchez dials up the atmospherics to a point where viewers will be forced to witness the slaughter of already damaged characters or the return of Carlos, in zombie drag. Either way, it’s a scary proposition. Owain Kell and James Williams’ freaky musical soundtrack only adds to the escalating sense of impending disaster. The DVD adds festival footage; behind-the-scenes material; and Sanchez’ prize-winning short, “Breaking Through.”

Miss Arizona
At the risk of sounding condescending toward Lifetime and other cable networks that cater to women, I’m surprised that freshman director Autumn McAlpin’s Miss Arizona didn’t debut on a service more attuned to its overriding themes of female empowerment and solidarity against abuse and sexism. Maybe, it tried and failed to impress anyone at the network level … I don’t know. I just think that the ambitious indie dramedy will have a tough time drawing attention to itself in a crowded VOD/DVD marketplace, despite recognizable stars and a meaningful LGBTQ subplot. Handing McAlpin’s sophomore screenplay – after Waffle House (2015) — to a more experienced director might not have hurt Miss Arizona’s chances, either. Johanna Braddy (“Quantico”) is credible as a former beauty queen, Rose Raynes, who lost her identity and independence when she married her college sweetheart, Rick (Kyle Howard), an aspiring talent agent, who enslaved her when he took a position in Beverly Hills. They live in a fancy house, but Rick has put her on a tight leach, questioning her every purchase and limiting her ability to use her credit card for anything beyond household essentials and clothes for their son. Rose suspects that Rick’s cheating on her with one or more of his clients, but she’s too busy meeting his petty demands to prove anything concrete. This weekend, Rose has been left at home, alone, while Risk’s escorting one of his stars to the Tony Awards ceremony, in New York, and her son is on a sleepaway with friends. It gives her plenty of time to substitute for a friend who teaches a life-skills class at a women’s shelter. Rose is so out of touch with reality that she brings along the relics from her pageant days, including a ventriloquist’s dummy with which she performed a rendition of Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” The four women in attendance are duly unimpressed by anything the beauty queen has to say. Bummed, she tries another tack. When the manager of the group home asks the ladies to split for a few hours – yeah, sure – Rose volunteers to escort them around town in her shiny new SUV.

After one of the women, Leslie (Robyn Lively), learns that she’ll need $800 to recover her children, who were abducted by her redneck husband and hidden in Kentucky, Rose agrees to use the only talent she possesses to raise it. It takes them to a talent and beauty pageant for drag queens, several of whom have appeared on “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” Even though an 8-year-old wouldn’t buy Rose as a female impersonator, she calls on her background in the Miss Arizona contest to make it through the preliminary rounds, prompting one of the contestants to trash her belongings and her agent, Emerald (Steve Guttenberg), to blow the whistle on her. (He works with her husband and shares friends in common with them.) Instead of being beat up by the rest of the girls, Rose is embraced as someone who needs their support, while she’s raising the spirits of the women of the shelter. Although almost everything else in Miss Arizona defies logic, the final scenes, at least, can be enjoyed for the contestants’ singing, congeniality and willingness to help a sister in distress. Beyond that, Rose is encouraged to finally to do the thing she should have done five years ago. Also good here ar Shoniqua Shandai, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Otmara Marrero and Missi Pyle.

It isn’t often that a movie will send one scurrying to the Internet to learn more about the culture and history of its little-known setting. Occasionally, the reviews on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes can be helpful in this regard, but not in the case of Pixelia. It took a deeper search to find anything useful about Ratheesh Ravindran’s debut feature. Once it became clear that picture takes place in a large city on the Indian Subcontinent, the boilerplate summary on the distributor’s website led me to the port city of Kochi, near the southwestern tip of India, in the country’s 13th most populous state, Kerala. Malayalam is Kerala’s official and most widely spoken language. Its film industry is a segment of India’s so-called Parallel Cinema, which originated in the state of West Bengal in the 1950s as an alternative to the mainstream commercial Indian cinema, known today as Bollywood. Inspired by Italian Neorealism, Parallel Cinema began just before the French and Japanese New Wave and was a precursor to the Indian New Wave of the 1960s. Among the PC’s leading lights was Satyajit Ray. Despite the deceptive sobriquet, Mollywood, Malayalam films carved a niche for themselves in the Indian film industry with its depiction of social themes. Pixelia is as modern as these things probably get, with a protagonist who drives for Uber, but only until he finishes his first graphic novel, also titled “Pixelia.” On the day we meet him, he picks up a lovely and outspoken transgender woman,  Mandakini (model/actress Gowri Savithri), who changes Kumar’s life forever. In fact, Kumar (Sanal Aman) incorporates Mandakini into the plot of his story. They spend the whole day together, as if they’re childhood friends meeting after a long absence. Mandakini shares her past life and desire to adopt a child, while Kumar narrates the story of his graphic novel. A special bond ensues, whereby Kumar realizes his own queer identity. With a stylized blend of documentary and magical realism, Pixelia speaks to the fragmentation of daily life due to the social media, pop culture iconography and near-instantaneous sexual gratification. While its look is inspired by comic books and genre clichés, it’s informed, as well, by yakshini spirits, sex robots and characters out of 1980s’ vintage Malayalam porn. What it doesn’t contain is a scene in which Kumar is freaked out to learn of Mandakini’s sexual identity – it isn’t as apparent as in other movies we’ve seen – or needs time to adjust to his own feelings. It’s all handled in an adult, non-exploitative manner, allowing viewers to focus on the story, instead of their own feelings about LGBTQ themes. Even so, Pixelia is a compelling representative of “Queer Drama,” a genre seldom touched in India … or anywhere else, for that matter.

In co-writer/director Amanda Kramer’s sophomore feature, to last year’s Paris Window, eight teenage girls become trapped in a large house in the aftermath of a powerful, if possibly apocryphal earthquake, that ruins their birthday party. While Ladyworld’s characters are left without much in the way of food, water and electricity, Kramer and Benjamin Shearn’s screenplay does allow for the creeping paranoia that spreads among them, when speculation over a sinister male, lurking in the shadows or basement, arises. As loaded with potential as such a scenario is, it doesn’t take long before Ladyworld  devolves into a loud and ugly example of what can happen when spoiled children are left to their own devices. Anyone who’s read William Golding’s timeless novel, “Lord of the Flies,” or watched Peter Brooks’ 1963 adaptation, will recognize certain inevitable parallels, as the trapped girls separate into cliques and behave according to their own rules. Adults aren’t likely to get much out of Ladyworld, which validates their paranoia about a mass psychosis that affects teenage girls and alienates them from their mothers, specifically. Clearly, boys no longer have a monopoly on wicked behavior. Teenagers, drawn first  to the movie’s excellent young cast, should recognize bits and pieces of themselves in the portrayals. The actors include Maya Hawke (“Stranger Things”), daughter of Ethan Hawk and Uma Thurman; Odessa Adlon (“Nashville”), daughter of “Better Things” creator, Pamela Adlon; Ariela Barer (Runaways); Annalise Basso (Ouija: Origin of Evil); Ryan Simpkins (Avengers: Endgame); Atheena Frizzell (The Old Man & the Gun), no relation to the late, great “Lefty Frizzell”; Tatsumi Romano (“Class of Lies”); and newcomer Zora Casebere. Callie Ryan’s screechingly empathetic soundtrack only adds to the chaos. The DVD adds a slideshow.

Killers Anonymous: Blu-ray
I can’t imagine what Tommy Flanagan, Gary Oldman and Jessica Alba saw in the screenplay for Killers Anonymous that convinced them to take the gig, but whatever it was failed to make it to the big or small screen. I doubt whether any of them needed the work or, like some of their fellow cast members, the exposure. Alba’s been attempting to demonstrate her bad-assedness ever since she appeared in Sin City (2005), Machete (2010) and The Killer Inside Me (2010), but, here, she is only given 10 minutes to prove her case and it isn’t all that convincing. Martin Owen’s extremely messy Killers Anonymous focuses on a support group that includes assassins, murderers and sociopaths, all of whom have expressed some interest in ending their felonious ways. The group’s leader, Joanna (MyAnna Buring), struggles to keep the killers on-topic, especially when they’re joined by a fresh-faced newbie, who appears to have been involved in the assassination attempt on a U.S. senator that afternoon. Tensions mount as the members of the group attempt to unravel the mystery behind the shooting, which later is explained in a way that makes no sense to anyone, including viewers. Meanwhile, The Man (Oldman) sits on a perch high atop a building overlooking the meeting space and greater London, where, we’re told, bedlam reigns. We have to take his word for it, however. Clearly, things happening below him aren’t what aren’t what they appear to be from that height.  When new truths are unveiled during the meeting, the killers form secret alliances and betrayals cause the session to explode into violence. In the end, when the CIA makes its sleazy presence known, Owen’s 95-minute package begins to burst at the seams. The DVD includes the director’s commentary, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

Cruising: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Even before he had finished location shooting, in and around Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection) realized that his adaptation of Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel, Cruising, was in trouble. As sensitive as Friedkin thought he was being in depicting a murder spree within the S&M/leather community, it didn’t appease the crowds that gathered for the nightly protests, blowing whistles and air horns and flashing mirrors and lights on the sets. He’d bent over backwards to research the scene and hired extras who had an intimate knowledge of what happened inside the leather bars and cruising lanes. If the distractions weren’t enough, the actors, including Al Pacino, felt threatened by the size of the crowds and vehemence of the protesters. Upon the movie’s completion and release, in 1980, it was time for the producers to give critics their shot at savaging it, which many of them did, if rarely for the same reasons. Despite everything, Cruising probably returned a few pennies of profits to Lorimar and United Artists.

Watching the new Arrow Video, it’s easy to look back at the protests and see the disconnect between Friedkin and the people blowing horns in the streets. Based on a long history of studio films that portrayed homosexuals as being too sick or self-loathing to prevent them from acting on their base instincts, there was no reason to think Cruising was going to be any different. They were also angry about Hollywood’s abysmal treatment of gay and lesbian stars, directors and behind-the-camera talent, who risked being blackballed by producers and casting directors, and stereotypical portrayals of gay men as effeminate and wildly flamboyant providers of comic relief or outright perverts. It’s also easy to see that Cruising wasn’t attempting to make any political points – even a decade after Stonewall – or lump the S&M/leather community in with any other aspect of gay life. In a 2006 biography, Pacino said that he understood the protests but insisted that upon reading the screenplay he never at any point felt that the film was anti-gay. He said that the leather bars were “just a fragment of the gay community, the same way the Mafia is a fragment of Italian-American life,” referring to The Godfather.

In fact, it’s a police procedural whose straight characters are predominantly interested in capturing the serial killer and sending him to prison. Pacino’s undercover cop, Steve Burns, stops short of being the character in the novel who develops feelings for his gay neighbor (Don Scardino) at the same time he is in a relationship with his girlfriend (Karen Allen). Viewers will also savor fine, early performances by Paul Sorvino, Allan Miller, Richard Cox, Joe Spinell, Ed O’Neill, Sonny Grosso, James Remar, William Russ, Mike Starr and Powers Boothe. The Arrow package adds director-approved special-edition content; a fresh restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, supervised and approved by Friedkin; newly remastered 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio; archival audio commentary by Friedkin; “The History of Cruising” archival featurette, looking at the film s origins and production; “Exorcizing Cruising” archival featurette, looking at the controversy surrounding the film and its legacy.

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs: Blu-ray
Apart from the fact the Bertrand Blier’s odd 1978 comedy, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, probably couldn’t find backing or distribution today, it’s an interesting reminder of what was allowed back in the day, but soon would be taboo. Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, made in the same year and starring a pubescent Brooke Shields, would be stopped in its tracks, as well. First things first. “Handkerchiefs” opens as Raoul (Gérard Depardieu) and his noticeably depressed wife, Solange (Carole Laure), are eating in a bistro, across from another young man, Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere), who’s buried in the book he’s reading. Raoul describes Solange’s condition, which besides depression, has left her with a loss of appetite, migraines, insomnia, dizziness and fainting spells. Raoul believes that Solange’s condition might  improve if she agrees to take Stéphane as her lover and allows them to take turns attempting to impregnate her. Stéphane also shares with Solange his love for Mozart and complete library of Pocket Books. When their next-door neighbor, a greengrocer, complains about the noise from their apartment, he, too, is invited to join their circle … without benefits. It’s all lost to Solange, who sometimes appears to be rehearsing for “La sonnambula.” She  only lights up when she’s doing household chores and knitting indentical sweaters for the men in her life.

Soon, that number will include a 13-year-old math prodigy, Christian (Riton Liebman), who is bullied by the other boys at the camp that Stéphane’s parents run and where the trio will spend the summer, minding the rebellious kids. One night, after a particularly cruel hazing, Christian is allowed to share Solange’s bed. She awakens to find the boy with his hands inside her nightgown, exploring her body, and scolds him. He tells her a sob story about being a naturally inquisitive boy, whose parents don’t understand him and can’t wait until he’s 18 to taste forbidden fruit. Not only does Solange buy the story, but she also gives in to his request. She becomes dependent on Christian, who provides her with a vulnerability Raoul and  Stéphane can’t. When his parents insist that the boy return to his boarding school, his adult friends conspire to kidnap him, if only to keep Solange happy. There’s more, including a delightful scene between the grocer and Christian’s mother, but why spoil any more of the fun? “Handkerchiefs” is seen by some critics as a sequel to Blier’s Going Places (1974), which also starred Depardieu and Dewaere, as whimsical, aimless thugs who meet their match in Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou), a jaded, passive hairdresser who joins them as lover, cook and mother confessor. In 2020, Going Places will be remade as “The Jesus Rolls,” John Turturro’s spinoff of The Big Lebowski (1988). Forty years later, the Cohen Media release looks great and adds an introduction by Richard Peña.

The Koker Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It took a shared Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for Abbas Kiarostami to come to the attention of audiences outside the elite festival and international arthouse circuits. In Taste of Cherry a middle-aged and relatively affluent man drives around the hilly outskirts of Tehran, searching for someone who will bury him under a cherry tree if he succeeds in committing suicide. If not, that person would retrieve him. The film showcased many of the minimalistic traits that would distinguish his work as it became known to the world at large. Roger Ebert hated it, but he was in the distinct minority. Even before the festival began, however, the film’s profile was raised by the last-moment decision of Iran’s Islamic government to allow Kiarostami to attend the premiere of Taste of Cherry. By 1997, Kiarostami was an already well-known presence at Cannes. Two of the films included in Criterion Collection’s essential “The Koker Trilogy” (a.k.a., “The Earthquake Trilogy”) — And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) – had already been showcased before festival audiences. Both depicted the effects of the May 1990 earthquake, which devasted large parts of Gilan province and left some 45,000 people dead. Even though the first entry in the trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House?, was released in 1987, well before the quake struck, the fates of the amateur actors would provide the throughline in all three films. In my opinion, Where Is the Friend’s House? is nothing short of a cinematic miracle.

Set in the rural northern-Iranian town of Koker, it describes what happens when Ahmed, a boy of elementary school age, mistakenly carries home the notebook of a boy, Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh, who’s in trouble with their stern teacher. That morning, the strict disciplinarian had threatened Mohamed with expulsion, if he didn’t complete his homework in the designated notebook. Not wanting to cause the boy any more embarrassment and tears, Ahmed, asks his mother if he could return Mohamed’s notebook to him, before completing his own homework and chores. She flatly refuses his request. Visibly perplexed, he’s too preoccupied to do anything else. When his mother asks him to go to the bakery to pick up some bread, Ahmed uses it as an excuse to search for Mohamed’s house. The problem is that no one in his village knows anything about Mohammed and Ahmed’s grandfather is more interested in teaching Ahmad a lesson in respect and obedience than helping him out. Finally, Ahmad is told that his friend lives the neighboring hamlet, Poshteh, but the houses there don’t have addresses and the directions are vague, at best.

Even so, Ahmad is desperate to return the notebook. His mission turns into an odyssey, which requires several trips over the hilly zig-zag path that links Koker to Poshteh, where more bittersweet encounters await. The film ends the next morning, in class, with the boys next in line for the teacher’s inspection. Brothers in real life, the actors playing Ahmad and Mohamad bear an uncanny resemblance to Dewey in “Malcolm in the Middle,” who already had three years of experience when he joined the Fox sitcom. Kiarostami’s early experience with Iran’s Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults must have imbued his work with a humanistic foundation and an ability to elicit a wide range of emotions from his amateur cast. Simply put, Where Is the Friend’s House? is a wonderfully ecumenical film, easily accessible to anyone between 8 and 80. The Blu-ray disc adds the filmmaker’s entirely relatable 1989 documentary, Homework, in which he interviews a couple dozen pupils – and a few parents — at a Tehran elementary school their feelings about afterschool responsibilities.

And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees were produced in the direct wake of the earthquake. In the former, amateur Farhad Kheradmand plays Film Director, who travels north with his son, by car, into the area most affected, hoping to learn the fate of the children who acted in Where Is the Friend’s House? The roads are virtually impassable, and communications are limited to word-of-mouth and rumors. Puya (Buba Bayour) is full of difficult questions for his father to answer and more curious than saddened by the devastation. After pulling off the jammed highway to Gilan, they must ask local residents – some of whom are injured or in mourning – for directions to Koker and Poshteh. Most assume the roads have been rendered unusable by landslides and fissures. All of them have lost family members, neighbors and friends. Somehow, though, they make it to their destination, where FD finds some of the people in Where Is the Friend’s House? living in makeshift campsites and making the most of a very bad situation. It’s God’s will, after all. Puya is coaxed into remaining in the tent village by a pair of green-eyed maidens – the genetic trait runs through the villages – who know he wants to watch the World Cup match with their friends, one of whom is stationed on a hill adjusting the antenna. Clearly the implied message in the title, And Life Goes On, applies directly to the people rebuilding their lives and those of others so soon after the tragedy. In Through the Olive Trees, experienced actor Mohamad Ali Keshavarz assumes the role of Film Director, while Kheradmand plays Farhad, an actor in a movie the FD is making about the production of And Life Goes On, two years earlier. It’s as much of a Chinese box as a film-within-the-film. And, it’s funny to boot.

Hossein Rezai, in his first acting role, plays a local stonemason-turned-actor, who takes over for the director’s first choice, a guy who freezes when coupled with his female co-star in their first scene together. It didn’t happen in rehearsal, but neither did the young man admit to stuttering when in the company of women. Hossein assures FD that he can handle the part, but, the same silence spoils the scene. Hossein sheepishly explains that he knows his co-star and she refuses to speak to him, whether he’s being himself or playing a character. Apparently, Hossein had proposed marriage to Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), but was shoot down by her grandmother – her parents died in the rubble – who considers him to be too poor, illiterate and houseless to claim the green-eyed girl. When FD convinces Tahereh to reply to her co-star – in a scene unrelated to the proposal – Hossein uses the setups to bombard her with reasons why she should marry him. As convincing as he is, she remains mute. Meanwhile, FD and his AD, Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), are fighting a losing battle with their crew members, who have more pressing concerns than participating in a movie they may never be able to see. The students from the tent school, who’ve been given permission to watch the shoot, are also getting antsy. (The FD calms them down by asking them questions from their textbooks.)

With no one paying attention to her and tired of performing menial tasks for the director and Miss Shiva – as does Hossein — Tahereh splits for home. Undeterred, Hossein follows her through a grove of olives, still pleading his case, and another lush field, before she reaches a zig-zag path leading to Poshteh. Because the scene is shot from a high and distant perspective, viewers will have to guess for themselves what happens in the field, when Tahereh stops walking, turns around and finally says something to Hossein, who heads back to Koker with a indeterminate a bounce in his step. Even absent a firm resolution, it is one of those inarguably poetic single-take scenes that are worth the price of a rental, alone. (The enigmatic ending for And Life Goes On is similarly impressive.) It went on to become the first film to be officially submitted to the academy after the Islamic revolution. I expect that the decision had something to do with the scenes that show Iranian citizens and relief workers joining together to get the region back in shape, without any hints of dissatisfaction over government support. The survivors’ continued belief in Islamic principles must have impressed the ruling mullahs and censo, as well. The Criterion package benefits from new 2K digital restorations of all three films; audio commentary on And Life Goes On, featuring Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, coauthors of “Abbas Kiarostami”; “Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams,” a 1994 documentary; a fresh interview with son Ahmad Kiarostami; a conversation between Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire; a chat from 2015, between Kiarostami, who died a year later, and festival programmer Peter Scarlet; and an essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Except for a conciliatory ending that’s played with grace and dignity, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1952 marital drama The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is informed by the same feminist sensibilities that Hollywood wouldn’t explore until the mid-1970s. That’s when such pictures as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Coming Home (1978), Starting Over (1979), 9 to 5 (1980) and, 10 years later, Thelma & Louise demonstrated that middle age working women could be as sexually aggressive, outspoken, funny, profane, independent and dangerous as their male counterparts … and there was an audience for such fare. Likewise, as an admirer of Ernst Lubitsch, Ozu may have been looking backwards, to Hollywood comedies in 1930s, when some female protagonists possessed a talent for exchanging snappy dialogue with men, holding their own at a bar or cocktail party, and weren’t tied down by marriage vows. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggested that Ozu’s class-conscious comedy, What Did the Lady Forget? (1937), which laid the blueprint for The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, might have been influenced by the lead characters in The Thin Man (1934). The earlier Ozu film is included in the bonus features here. I would have loved to see what the actors in George Cukor’s delightfully snarky “The Women” could have done with the same material in an American adaptation.

Like the 1937 film, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice concerns a mismatched Tokyo couple, whose long childless marriage has reached the point of diminishing returns for both of them. Secrets and deceptions strain the already tenuous relationship of the middle-aged pair, Taeko and Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi, Michiyo Kogure), as the wife’s city-bred sophistication has finally begun to collide with her engineering executive husband’s small-town simplicity and willingness to forgo the luxuries of life, which, of course, she covets. Things get complicated when Taeko’s niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), arrives in Tokyo at precisely the same time as her aunt his using the girl’s “illness” as an excuse to visit her sister.  Oops. No matter, because she figures out a scheme to visit a spa with her BFFs, anyway. Among their amusements is comparing the fish in the koi pond to their husbands, in none-too-flattering ways. The reason Setsuko has come to the city is to participate in a matchmaking session her mother has arranged for her, but she has no intention on attending. Even Taeko demands that her niece take the old-fashioned route to an unhappy marriage. If her headstrong behavior clashes with her aunt’s sense of hidebound tradition, it has a positive effect on her uncle. A visit to a recently legalized pachinko parlor has the unexpected benefit of reuniting Mokichi with one of the men in his command in the war. They become fast friends, in addition to onetime comrades. It recharges his batteries and inspires Setsuko to invite Taeko to re-evaluate her priorities. She even finds a potential boyfriend. Even by 1952 standards, the ending is enigmatically sexy, but satisfying.  In addition to the earlier movie, the Criterion package has been given a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new interview with film scholar David Bordwell; “Ozu & Noda: Tateshina Diaries,” a documentary by Daniel Raim on Ozu’s relationship with longtime screenwriter Kogo Nodall and an essay by scholar Junji Yoshida.

Rambo: Blu-ray/4K UHD
When this chapter in the Rambo saga arrived in my mail, I had no idea where it fit into the franchise. In knew that it wasn’t First Blood, the 1982 opener that a lot of people believe was called “Rambo.” Neither did I think it was a Blu-ray/4K UHD edition of the awkwardly titled, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) or Rambo III (1988), which acknowledged the misconception, while adding to the confusion. A close look at the cover convinced me that the newly released disc, Rambo: The Fight Continues, actually was Rambo, and since I hadn’t stored it in my memory bank back in 2008, I came to believe that it was the latest installment in the series, which, in fact, is called Rambo: Last Blood, and is slated for September 20. But, I’m not the only person to have mistaken the Blu-ray/4K UHD for something else. Four of the five “reviews” on its page think that it includes characters from a 1986 cartoon series, which lasted 65 episodes, or from the various video games in which John Rambo appears. Someone isn’t monitoring the website very well. Then, too, there’s Ramb-Ohh! (1986), Ramb-Ohh: The Sex Platoon (1987), Rambone XXX: A DreamZone Parody (2013) – none of which, alas, star Stallone, who broke into the business in the early porno, The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970) — and the series spun off Rocky/Creed, The Expendables and Escape Plan. Nope, Rambo (2008) is very much its own creature.

Serious fans of Sylvester Stallone’s oeuvre will already know that Rambo was set and shot in the jungles of Thailand and Burma, where Our Hero stays busy carrying the occasionally tourist or entrepreneur up the Mekong for purposes of their own. He also collects pythons, cobras and other critters, which he sells to people whose intentions aren’t always honorable. (And, no, the snakes don’t reference his vigilante cop in the 1987 actioner, Cobra.) Here, Rambo is cajoled into escorting a group of evangelicals upriver to the site of their mission. He knows it’s dangerous, but just try to explain that to bible-bangers determined to bring medicine and Jesus to the embattled Karen people. Like the Rohingya Muslims, a decade later, the Myanmar military has been given license to commit genocide on the Karen. Among the evangelists are Julie Benz (“Dexter”) and Paul Schulze (“Nurse Jackie”), who are horrified by Rambo’s use of firearms to prevent them from being beheaded and raped by river pirates. It’s the martyr complex in action. Sometime later, the leader of the missionary organization (Ken Howard) arrives at Rambo’s camp, begging him to carry a team of mercenaries upriver to check on the well-being of his team. Naturally, by now, they’ve all been captured by government troops and are being held in cages, awaiting their fates. The mercs don’t think the “boatman” can help them out much, until he uses his archery skills to pulls their asses out of the fire in an encounter with the cold-blooded soldiers. From that point on, it’s Rambo’s show. In the “extended version,” at least, the rescue mission turns into the largest bloodbath in the series, with a body count of 466 mostly Burmese soldiers. And, of course, the carnage is magnified in 4K UHD. Normally, I’d be among the critics who criticize the indiscriminate killing and profuse letting of blood in such fantasies. In Rambo, however, Stallone purposely chose to depict the horrors of the never-ending civil war in Myanmar and genocide against the Karen, who were left hanging by the British after serving them in World War II. As such, the excessive and gratuitous violence didn’t raise much of a stink here in 2008. The Burmese troops might as well have been Nazi stormtroopers in a Tarantino flick, for all we cared. The near extinction of the Rohingya Muslims, only a decade later, would have required the intervention of a thousand Rambos to prevent. Naturally, the DVDs were banned from distribution in Myanmar, making them even more valuable on the black market. By contrast, Karen Freedom Fighters said the movie gave them a great boost of morale, as well as some rah-rah platitudes to copy. The new package from Lionsgate has ported over the dozen bonus features previously included on the Blu-ray.

Darlin’: Blu-ray
To fully appreciate the frequently disturbing horror/thriller Darlin’, it helps to have already seen Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee’s 2011 cult favorite, The Woman, and Ketchum and  Andrew van den Houten’s Offspring (2009), which was adapted from Ketchum’s first novel, “Off Season.” Published in 1980, it was partially based upon the legend of Sawney Bean, which also inspired Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The reason to do a bit of home work before leaping in Darlin’ is to familiarize one’s self with one of the primary characters in all three pictures, the Woman, played by Pollyanna McIntosh. Immediately recognizable from her performances in “Hap & Leonard” (Angel) and “The Walking Dead” (Jadis/Anne), the 5-foot-10 native of Loch Lomond, Scotland, graduated to the post of writer/director/actor in Darlin’. I didn’t do as much homework in my senior year in high school, but, I think, it would help anyone looking to get full value from the trilogy. Offspring centers on survivors of a feral flesh-eating tribe, whose members have terrorized unsuspecting locals in the Northeast since the 1850s. In The Woman, a successful country lawyer captures and attempts to “civilize” the last remaining member of the violent clan by hanging her in his basement naked and occasionally hosing her down. It puts the lives of his family in jeopardy, but where better … a zoo? In the latest chapter, the Woman drops off her feral daughter, Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny), at a hospital, where the well-meaning staff tries to deal with her problems, without getting bitten or killed in the process. An especially kind male nurse (Cooper Andrews) is the only one who makes any headway with the filthy, barely clothed teenager. Then Darlin’ is shipped off to a residence for wayward girls run by nuns in full penguin habit and a creepy bishop (Bryan Batt). As prim as she now looks, the illiterate red-haired vixen has a short fuse, which causes the rest of the girls to anxiously await confrontations with the mean nuns. Only Sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noone) shows Darlin’ the time and patience to get her through her lessons and catechism. When trouble comes, as it surely will, other feral creatures are in close enough proximity to rush to her rescue. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Conflict of Wings (Fuss Over Feathers)
Child’s Play
The Vanishing Shadow
Part of the fun that derives from this job/hobby comes in discovering entertainments that don’t show up on the weekly list of new releases or even on the websites of PPV and streaming services. You never know what to expect. Unlike the days of VHS and Beta, though, most of the ones that come my way, whether they’re from such high-end companies as Criterion Collection, Arrow, Shout or Cohen Media, or niche distributors,  like Juno, VMI or MVD, have been accorded a digital makeover and, in some cases, bonus material. This month’s package from Brit-centric Juno Films Selects contains a seaborne thriller, a populist comedy and a Little Rascals lookalike. All are from post-war England and none would be confused with a “kitchen sink drama.” They are fun to watch, however. Anthony Squire’s Doublecross (1954) was adapted from Kem Bennett’s sharply honed spy story, “The Queer Fish,” collected in “Deep Water, Mysteries on the Waves.” In it, Cornish fisherman and salmon poacher Albert Pascoe (Donald Houston) is approached by a stranger, Anna (Delphi Lawrence), and two men, who offer him a great deal of money to smuggle them across the English Channel. Albert is unaware that the men are criminals and espionage agents, who’ve stolen top-secret documents and killed a man in the process. A bit of a con artist himself, Albert jacks up his fee to a price he’s willing to accept and adds a few more pounds for a tip. First, though, he must appropriate a rusty trawler belonging to a weekend resident of the village and make sure it will make the trip. About halfway through their voyage, Pascoe overhears his guests talking about the murder and slyly turns the boat back toward Cornwall. The experienced seaman adjusts the compass to fool the passengers into thinking they are still on course for the French coast. (That gambit will only work until sunset, however.) Feeling guilty, Anna warns Pascoe that his life is now in danger, as well. Meanwhile, back on shore, the villagers have no idea where Albert is and begin to fear the worst when his dinghy, with a small fortune in poached fish aboard it, floats into the harbor. Left hanging in the air are questions pertaining to the stolen boat, illegal salmon, the shanghaied spies and weather or not the burly blond villager can sustain a romance with Anna. The noir touches are provided by the storm clouds that are as essential to the story as the bad guys’ guns and the curiously duplicitous Anna. I wouldn’t be surprised if Doublecross turned up one Saturday night (or Sunday morning) on TCM’s “Noir Alley.”

Adapted from a novel by Australian-born writer/director Don Sharp, Conflict of Wings (a.k.a., “Fuss Over Feathers”) is a 1956 British comedy/drama directed by John Eldridge (Scotch on the Rocks) and starring John Gregson (The Lavender Hill Mob), Muriel Pavlow (Doctor in the House) and Kieron Moore (Darby O’Gill and the Little People). It is set in a seaside village in Norfolk, whose marshy Island of Children has just been chosen by Ministry of Land Acquisition as a perfect place to put a target range for RAF pilots. Historically, it’s also served as a bird sanctuary and locals-only fishery, as designated by Henry VIII, or so the story goes. For its part, the RAF is anxious to test the limits of its new fleet of jet fighters and the rockets they carry. Not surprisingly, the residents of Cley Next the Sea and Ludham are reluctant to allow missile testing on their beloved island, whose legends date back to Roman times. In a well-coordinated and potentially dangerous act of civil disobedience, the locals form an alliance with the national birders society, fishermen and even a few RAF crew members stationed nearby. Needless to say, the protest doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Sharp’s fingerprints are all over Juno’s Child’s Play (1954), as well. Although the similarities to the Little Rascals and Our Gang comedies are undeniable – the child actors are billed collectively as the Holy Terrors – a British franchise never developed. With the help of an advanced chemistry set kit and a lava rock said to be from Krakatoa, a group of children living in the village of Hambleden manages to split an atom. They use the energy generated in their experiments to create a new type of popcorn, called Bangcorn. The American snack wasn’t well known in the UK, at the time, so kids could be excused if they confused popping a kernel of corn with splitting a molecule. Naturally, the very real explosions the Holy Terrors set off – mushroom clouds and all — frighten the residents and alert the police to some serious shit going down in the sleepy hamlet.

As late as 2008, the 1934 Universal sci-fi serial, The Vanishing Shadow, was given up for lost. Then, three minutes of a 35mm nitrate preview trailer were discovered in the George Eastman House archives, in Rochester, New York. Two years later, after being copied onto safety-film stock, all 12 of the series’ 20-minute chapters – all directed by Lew Landers’ (“Tailspin Tommy”) — were made available for viewing on YouTube. Serials began to emerge in the U.S. in the early teens, with the release of Edison Studios’ “What Happened to Mary?” (1912) and “Who Will Marry Mary?” (1913) and Pathé’s “The Perils of Pauline” (1914). The early talkie serials were heavy on genre fare, including Jungle (“King of the Wild”), Western (“The Vanishing Legion”), Sports (“The Galloping Ghost”), Mystery (“The Whispering Shadow”) and Aviation (“The Airmail Mystery”). In 1930, Ben F. Wilson’s sci-fi serial “The Voice From the Sky” became the first to have full sound. For its part, The Vanishing Shadow features what is believed to be the first appearance of a hand-held ray gun in film. In hindsight, that may sound insignificant, but it also introduced a vanishing ray, a destroying ray, a lock-buster ray and full-size robot with superpowers and a head that looks as if it belonged to Chickenman. Of course, The Vanishing Shadow’s plot is goofy as hell, the props are bogus and the action sequences are dominated by fistfights, car chases and explosives. The trick was to end each episode with a cliffhanger, capable of luring patrons back to the theater each week. All of the gimmicks and gizmos served the relatively lame story Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens), the son of a murdered newspaper editor, who teams up with Gloria Grant (Ada Ince), the estranged daughter of a villainous and thoroughly corrupt tycoon to protect the journalist’s legacy. When the mogul’s henchman begin to appear around every corner, Stanley turns to Carl Van Dorn, a “mad scientist” and ally of the handsome young protagonist. In one of the chase scenes, freshman actor Lee J. Cobb (uncredited) plays a roadwork foreman who tries to warn Gloria of an impending explosion.

Disney Channel: Back of the Net
Watching Skateboard today, 40 years after its original theatrical release, is kind of like observing the athletes going through their paces in the early chapters of Criterion Collection’s “100 Years of Olympic Films.” While the athleticism and desire to win are on full display in the historic footage, the participants appear to be hamstrung by clothing and equipment that defies unfettered movement. Today, of course, sports science has pushed competitors beyond their natural limits, giving some of them advantages over their rivals that border on thievery. That includes swimsuits and running apparel that cut seconds – milliseconds, even – off an athlete’s time and gives him or her a temporary edge, at least. Today, the characters in Skateboard could be mistaken for any number of kids honing the skills on the local playground. Neither are the uniforms anything special. The moves are far than X-treme, as well. The publicity material would like us to think that it’s a “cult classic” and represented the cutting-edge of skating in 1978, but, in reality, Scott Dittrich’s Freewheelin’ had introduced Stacy Peralta and the Z-Boys in 1976. It would be safe to say, I think, that Skateboard was the first traditional sports melodrama with a boarding theme and, for that matter, the great-granddaddy of all skatesploitation films.

Directed by George Gage (Fire on the Mountain) and co-written by Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), Skateboard tells the story of an underachieving Hollywood agent, whose gambling debts have come home to roost. After almost being blindsided by a group of kids racing down a road in the Hollywood Hills, Manny Bloom (Allan Garfield) comes to believe that he can take the same hooligans and turn them into a competitive team, the L.A. Wheels, and make up the debt with a few victories. The team’s leader is played by teen-idol Leif Garret, who reportedly did his own stunts. Teammate Tony Bluetile was portrayed by Z-Boy Tony Alva, the 1975 USSA World Invitational Skateboard Champion and Skateboarder magazine’s “Skateboarder of the Year,” as determined in a readers poll. In the film, Alva performs a barrel-jumping stunt that’s still hard to believe. Thirty-year-old Kathleen Lloyd (The Missouri Breaks), who could pass for one of Garret’s teenage fans, plays the nurse who provides a sweet counterpoint to Garfield’s prickly pear exterior. The soundtrack contains songs written by Mark Snow (“The X-Files”) and sung by Dr. John, Mickey Thomas (Jefferson Starship)  and an uncredited Leon Russell. The DVD adds interviews with Gage and Alva. I don’t think much effort was put into upgrading the audio and video presentation.

While not nearly as fat with talent and resources as the average  Disney Channel Original Movie — High School Musical, Camp Rock, Teen Beach Movie – the inspirational Aussie export, Back of the Net, makes a reasonable facsimile thereof. So much so that it imported rising Disney star Sofia Wylie (“Andi Mack”) and features some of the brightest and bubbliest teen talent in Australian. After its theatrical run Down Under, Back of the Net aired on the DC here and in the UK. Wylie plays Cory, an American math and physics wiz who flies from L.A. to Sydney to catch one of those Semester at Sea voyages that weren’t around when these kids’ grandparents were young. Instead, Cory mistakenly hops on a bus heading to the national soccer academy in a town called Wollongong, in New South Wales. The problem is, of course, that the math nerd’s knowledge of soccer is limited to the fact that it’s played with a spherical ball. She will learn, by observation, that the best players employ laws of physics and aerodynamics to bend the ball like Beckham, if you will. Typically, Cory will meet resistance from the school’s ruling clique, especially the resident princess, Edie (Tiarnie Coupland), who doesn’t want to share her turf – and boys – with the newcomer. It’s ludicrous, of course, because Cory is a hopeless athlete and isn’t confident in her dealings with the players on the men’s team. She’s adopted by the girls on the “practice team,” who are delightfully patient with her lack of skills and willing to listen to her scientific explanations for things they don’t understand. Ninety-minute story short, everything comes to a head when Edie’s team of bullies meets the practice squad in the Big Game. As predictable as Back of the Net may sound – and it is – it avoids must of the pitfalls of the genre and frosts the clichés with enthusiastic performances and super-cute actors. In Skateboard, with the exception of one or two black faces seen in crowds reacting to stage directions, the only African American actor with a speaking role is a thug sent by the bookie to threaten Garfield. By contrast, Back of the Net is as diverse as these things get in Australia, I suspect, with Asian-Australian, Anglo-Indian, Polynesian and African Australian actors in prominent roles. I didn’t notice any Aboriginal characters, which probably is par for the course, as well. Still, at a time when our women’s soccer team is outshining the men in World Cup competition, a movie that’s strong on Girl Power is welcome.

Manson Family Movies: Limited Edition
Anyone whose appetite for Manson-family lore and arcana has been whetted by Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Charlie Says and The Haunting of Sharon Tate may want to extend the experience by checking out Cult Epics’ “Manson Family Movies: Limited Edition.” It has been re-released on DVD, accompanied by a separate disc, “Sharon Tate’s Home Movies,” which wasn’t available on previous editions. The genesis of the compilation began with rumors that 8mm home movies, taken during family rituals and parties and confiscated by police, were available if one knew the right people. Instead, underground Baltimore filmmaker and self-described “aesthetic nihilist” John Aes-Nihil (The Goddess Bunny Channels Shakespeare) and his troupe approximated what might have been revealed on the Family movies, including preparations for the killings, the killings and visits to such Family landmark as the Spahn/Barker ranches; Jay Sebring’s hair salon; Topanga Canyon; and Leno LaBianca’s market. Given the filmmaker’s roots, it should come as no surprise that his movies have won praise from John Waters (Pink Flamingos), Kenneth Anger (Hollywood Babylon) and George Kuchar (The Devil’s Cleavage). I couldn’t find any redeeming social or satiric value in the film and its outtakes, but, the experience, such as it is, is enhanced by the director’s commentary tracks. Also included is “never before released Manson music,” which, as has been noted previously, isn’t as bad as it could be; “original” cover artwork; and LAPD morgue photos … not for the faint of heart. “Sharon Tate’s Home Movies” appear to be authentic and include footage from her studio shoots – with Dean Martin – and romps with Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow and friends on Malibu Beach. If nothing else, it’s Tate’s great beauty and natural charisma that shine through the silent 16mm film.

Acorn TV: Straight Forward: Series 1
PBS: NOVA: The Planets
ITV: Martin Clunes: Islands of America: Season 1
Nickelodeon: Blaze and The Monster Machines: Ninja Blaze
Nickelodeon: Sunny Day: Welcome to the Pet Parlor
The latest engrossing mini-series from Europe, via Acorn Media, is a transcontinental affair, Straight Forward, pitting a master con-artist, Robyn (Cecilie Stenspil), against a traditional Danish crime boss, Ravn (Mark Mitchinson, who set the wheels in motion by killing her crooked father outside a Copenhagen restaurant. As revenge, Robyn and her Merry Men rob a truck full of kroner, which Ravn dearly misses. He hires a pair of ruthless Serbs, natch, to do the dirty work, while computer geeks in the employ of both parties keep the balls rolling on the darknet. Finally, a series of genuine threats to Robyn’s safety leads to her belligerent daughter, Ida (Marie Boda),being held for leverage by Ravn’s goons. By this time, though, Robyn’s ensconced in a spectacularly scenic beach community in New Zealand, communicating with her hacker, Huss (Arlo Green), who demonstrates with a flick of wrist that the Web is truly worldwide and he’s the equal of Ravn’s geek, Nord (Stephane Garneau-Monten). The wildcards in all this madness are Ida, who still loves her self-serving slime-ball daddy, Gillard; her busybody grandmother, (Vibeke Hastrup); the razor-toting black-widow, Karmen (Mia Pistorius); and a couple of Copenhagen cops, who remain behind the 8-ball throughout most of series. Award-winning writer/creator John Banas (“City Homicide”) keeps things lively by bouncing between the northern and southern hemispheres and keeping things dangerous for everyone. The eight-part story is distinguished, as well, by New Zealand’s magnificent scenery.

I’d have a lot more faith in the scientific establishment if the experts interviewed on such documentary series as PBS’ “The Planets,” didn’t say, “This changes everything,” so often. I feel the same way about the paleontologists who continue to discover bones indicating that half of what we know about dinosaurs is wrong. But, hey, if nothing changed, we could rely on the bible for scientific facts, as Republican Party dullards insist, anyway. No sooner had PBS finished its stellar coverage of the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing than it began churning out the amazing five-part “NOVA” series. Using data and digital images sent back to Earth from all of the various probes, rovers, missions we’ve shot into space, scientists at JPL and other facilities deconstruct the high-resolution shots that, among other things, reveal what Mars might have been like before its vast deposits of water disappeared; how the rings of Saturn were formed; amazing ice and stone formations on Uranus and Neptune; and the mysteries of the Kuiper Belt. Based on the degradation of resources on the planets closest to us, the scientists interviewed don’t appear to be particularly optimistic about the chances of Earth avoiding their fate. It explains the urgency to find places suitable for the survival of our species … not that we deserve it, considering how we treat Mother Earth. Apparently, though, with everything changing on each new mission, there are more mysteries left to solve in space than on all of the true-crime shows on television, combined.

Last month, MVD Visual released “US Generation: 1982: The US Generation,” an all-encompassing look at a festival conceived by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and music impresario Bill Graham, at a venue carved into a hillside, where the I-15 now merges with the I-215 near San Bernardino. Besides taking a documentary approach to the construction of the giant arena and setting up the entertainment menu – including tents promoting Apple’s then-fledgling line of computers – the film offered a sampling of the talent on display. From Shout! Factory comes “Santana: Live at the US Festival,” which puts a tight focus on Carlos Santana and his eponymous band’s nearly hourlong performance. Among the songs are “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” “Oye Como Va,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Incident at Neshabur” and “Jingo Lo Ba.” The interview breaks add “Santana Reflects on His Career,” “Explaining His Signature Sound” and “The Theory of Santana’s Music.”

Alexander Martin Clunes, OBE, is an English actor, television presenter, film director and comedian. He is best known for portraying Martin Ellingham on “Doc Martin” and Gary Strang in “Men Behaving Badly.” In 2008, the affable, if slightly goofy host began starring in animal documentaries, mostly on dogs and horses. Acorn’s “Martin Clunes: Islands of America” is the third mini-series that began with “Islands of Britain” (2009) and “Martin Clunes: Islands of Australia” (2017). Here, starting off in Hawaii, Martin witnesses the islands’ great natural beauty firsthand, as well as  destruction caused by recent volcanoes. His journey continues in Kodiak Island, Alaska, where giant bears play like children and enough of a Russian presence remains for Vladimir Putin to consider annexing it. Then it’s off to California’s similarly protected Channel Islands, where he encounters seal and sea lions in abundance, in addition to the  endangered fox population; and Washington state’s most remote islands, one of which was shared by American and British colonial troops simultaneously. On the East Coast, Martin salsa dances in Puerto Rico, learns about the mysterious lost colony of Roanoke, and watches wild ponies swim at Chincoteague, before ending his journey in New England’s playgrounds of presidents.

“Blaze and the Monster Machines: Ninja Blaze” is comprised five vintage episodes. In “Ninja Blaze,” Ninja Master Blackbelt is training Blaze and AJ to become powerful ninjas, when Crusher and Pickle accidentally launch themselves onto an icy mountain; “Ninja Soup,” when Blackbelt’s Grandma Ninja, gets a bad cold, Blaze, AJ and Blackbelt set out to make the most powerful medicine there is: Ninja Soup; “Pickle Power,” Blaze, AJ, and Pickle work together to save Crusher after he gets sucked into his own Auto MegaVac; “Defeat the Cheat,” Blaze and AJ are gearing up for the second-ever Team Truck Challenge, and this time, their teammate is Crusher; “The Super-Size Prize,” Blaze and AJ don’t have enough coins to try the new Supersize Prize Machine at the Axle City Fair, so they  have to take odd jobs to cover it.

Sunny Day: Welcome to the Pet Parlor” has three episodes from Season One: “Pet Parlor,” “Parlor Problems” and “The Royal Wedding” and an episode from Season Two, “Sunny and the Groom and Vroom.”

The DVD Wrapup: All Is True, Patrick Swayze, Harder They Come, Aniara, Alice Guy-Blache, Akio Jissoji, Orcas, Ronja, Walking Dead … More

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

All Is True
The name of Kenneth Branagh and writer Ben Elton’s historical drama, All Is True, refers to an early alternative title to William Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” first performed in 1613. If the producers had wanted to attract an audience whose average age was closer to 30 than, say, 60, they might have considered changing it to “Even Bards Gets the Blues,” which not only is a tad sexier, but also is closer to the movie’s tone. Shakespeare is at the top of his game creatively and financially when disaster strikes. A cannon shot used as a special effect ignites the Globe Theater’s thatched roof and beams, burning it to the ground. Devastated, Shakespeare (Branagh) returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Still haunted by the death of his only son, Hamnet, Shakespeare is forced to examine his own failings as husband and father. They include extolling the legacy of his dead son, while denying the considerable literary gifts of his daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder). Previously, in “Upstart Crow,” Elton tackled Hamnet’s death at the age of 11 and he reopens that wound here, making it the film’s emotional center. Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) is required to referee the war between the two people she loves most and examine her own role in the fissure. She wants her husband to know how much his absence had damaged her, while knowing that her support will be necessary when some of more pompous residents try to knock him down. They attack Shakespeare’s daughters for being promiscuous – a rumor that’s stood the test of time – and resent his presence. When a local squire confronts Shakespeare in town, questioning the intrinsic value of being the greatest playwright in the English-speaking world, the Bard tears him a new asshole by explaining the correlation between running a successful playhouse and improving the economic lot of a city’s citizenry. Even today, Shakespeare’s soliloquy could be used in economics courses to teach students the meaning of “halo effect.” It’s doubly fun to watch Branagh and Dench trade barbs. When he stumbles over a line from his work, Dame Judi picks up the thread as if it had been scripted … which it wasn’t. The setting couldn’t more appealing, either. Ian McKellen, as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, stops by to prop up his close friend’s spirits. When Shakespeare bemoans the loss of a literary peer, Wriothesley says, “We have only Johnson now.” It prompts William to whine, “Who laughs at me because I speak no Greek and don’t know whether Bohemia has a coast.” To which the Earl of Southhampton replies: “Oh Christ, Will, why do you care what he thinks? You wrote ‘King Lear.’” Some viewers will already know that Wriothesley has frequently been identified as the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and they once may have shared something more intimate than advice.

Such exchanges are only half the fun here. Much of the rest is provided by the attention to period detail and lovely settings. New Place, Shakespeare’s final residence in Stratford-upon-Avon, is well represented by Dorney Court, a Grade I-listed structure in Buckinghamshire. Zac Nicholson’s cinematography wonderfully captures the estate’s natural beauty and that of the gardens the playwright now enjoys tending. Adding to the film’s verisimilitude are the candlelit interiors. Sadly, All Is True’s appeal likely will be limited to viewers whose knowledge of the canon isn’t limited to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) or Tim Blake Nelson’s O (2001). Those films were targeted directly at teens and young adults who don’t mind changes in period, locations and traditional costumes … even the addition of rock ’n’ roll. All Is True can be talky, anti-romantic, old-fashioned and absent actors with youthful appeal of Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles and Josh Hartnett. I wonder how many of the teenagers who dug Romeo + Juliet and O in theaters or on video enrolled in Shakespeare courses in college and went on to support local theater companies. Fifty-eight-year-old Branagh, who’s unrecognizable here, has done more to keep Shakespeare relevant, relatable and entertaining than anyone since Laurence Olivier. The Sony Classics package adds an excellent Q&A with Branagh and eight behind-the-scenes featurettes: “Shakespeare Comes Home,” “The Bard’s Reckoning,” “Becoming Shakespeare,” “Judi Dench,” “Ian McKellen,” “Fact or Fiction,” “A Family Drama” and “Visiting Stratford: The Story Behind All Is True.” FYI: In what must have seemed like the smart move at the time, Sony took the calculated risk of releasing All Is True in a handful of theaters last December 21, so as to qualify for awards consideration. Despite excellent performance and past track records, the only group that took the bait was the niche AARP Movies for Grownups Awards, which honored Branagh, as Best Director; Dench, as Best Supporting Actress; McKellen, nominated for Best Supporting Actor; the movie, as Best Grownup Love Story. It snuck back into a few dozen theaters on May 10. The more appropriate release date — for publicity, at least – would have been October or early November, before the comic-book epics and animated juggernauts take over the box office.

Paramount Network: I Am Patrick Swayze
If you sneezed, you missed it. Or, at least, that was the case for those of us who don’t study cable listings religiously. “I Am Patrick Swayze” debuted over the weekend on Viacom’s Paramount Network. Anyone not familiar with the service’s new name might recall the former occupants of the same numerical spot: Spike TV, National Network, TNN and the Nashville Network. (In May, Spike was relaunched in the U.S. as two streaming channels on Pluto TV, which, in March 2019, was acquired by Viacom.) At the moment, the highlights of Paramount’s programming are limited to “Yellowstone,” “The  Last Cowboy,” “Marriage Doctor,” “Bellator MMA Live,” “Ink Master” and recirculated episodes of “Cops,” “Bar Rescue,” “Mom,” “The Office” and “Two and a Half Men.” The “I Am …” series of documentary bio-docs is a welcome carryover from Spike TV. It began in 2012 with “I Am Bruce Lee” and also includes portraits of John F. Kennedy Jr., Martin Luther King Jr., Steve McQueen, Evel Knievel, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison,  Paul Walker, Chris Farley, Heath Ledger and Richard Pryor. From my experience, the chapters are well made, reliably informative and less exploitative than other such shows on cable. These qualities are on full display in “I Am Patrick Swayze,” which might be the most surprising of them all. The multidimensional Houston native took an atypical route to Hollywood, where his first visible role was in Skatetown, U.S.A. (1979), alongside a dozen, or so, former TV  stars who weren’t working on “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” or “The Hollywood Squares” that week. As the leather-clad leader of a skate gang, Swayze stood out from the crowd for his confidence, masculine bearing and athleticism, which evidenced years of dance training, competitive skating and a passion for sports. Not yet committed to the modified mullet/pompadour hairdo he would sport throughout most of his career, ranging from The Outsiders (1983), Red Dawn (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), Road House (1989), Point Break (1991), to A&E’s “The Beast” (2009). (His roller-disco coiffure appeared to have been influenced more by Rudolf Nureyev than Rod Stewart.)

I Am Patrick Swayze” traces Swayze’s life backward from  Skatetown, U.S.A., to Houston, where he frequently had to defend himself from bullies suspicious of his ballet classes and violin case. His mother, Patsy, was a choreographer and owner of the dance school her son and future daughter-in-law, Lisa Niema, attended. His father, Jesse Wayne, was a draftsman at a chemical plant and a passionate horseman. His death, in 1982, devastated Patrick, but it also drove him to excel throughout his leukemia-shortened career. A serious football injury not only curtailed his athletic ambitions, but it also threatened a promising career in ballet. His New York City dance training included the Harkness Ballet School and Joffrey Ballet School. He first danced professionally as “Prince Charming,” in “Disney on Parade,” and played Danny Zuko in the original Broadway production of “Grease.” He was advised to hightail it to Hollywood, where his leading-man good looks and toned body lent themselves to action and romantic pictures targeted at teens and young adults. In Dirty Dancing, Swayze fully exploited all of his natural and acquired assets, as well as a personality that ran the full gamut of emotions from vulnerable to macho.

I Am Patrick Swayze benefits greatly from rarely seen home-movie footage, including a ballet performance in New York; heart-warming family photographs; plenty of clips from his hit movies; and candid interviews. Naturally, the exchanges are dominated by his wife and younger brother, Don, who followed Patrick to Hollywood. Co-stars given extended screen time here include Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott, Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell, Marshall Teague, Kelly Lynch and Lori Petty. Director Roland Joffe (City of Joy), agent Nicole David, manager Kate Edwards, personal assistant Rosemary Hygate, stuntman Cliff McLaughlin and bodyguard Frank Whiteley also share their memories. Although some nasty business between family members battling over his estate is ignored, Swayze’s off-camera battles with alcohol and cancer aren’t. So, keep the Kleenex box handy. The documentary was a huge hit for Paramount Network, in all the important demos.

The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Among the reasons that The Harder They Come was deemed an instant cult classic upon its U.S. release in 1972 was that, outside of a few major cities and college towns, it was almost impossible to find and, once located, difficult to understand, due to the heavy Jamaican patois and slang on worn prints. It received the push it needed when Island Records released the soundtrack album the same year and, in 1973, on Mango Records here. Although it peaked at No, 140 on the Billboard charts, the throbbing reggae rhythms reached the right ears, including those of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Cat Stevens. Instead of attaining cult-classic status, itself, the album swiftly became one of the most influential soundtrack albums in the history of popular music. Each track was a gem, especially Jimmy Cliff’s infectious rendition of the title song. Reggae wasn’t a completely unknown quantity in U.S., even though the genre had yet to be recognized by name. Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” found success on the pop charts in 1969, as did Millie Small’s ska version of the Cadillac’s “My Boy Lollipop,” in 1964. “The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” “Pressure Drop,” “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Rivers of Babylon” continue to be played and covered today. A lot of people think Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff” was on the soundtrack, as well, if only because it fit so well thematically. It wasn’t released in Jamaica until a year later, however, and subsequently included on Clapton’s 1974 album, “461 Ocean Boulevard.” Meanwhile, The Harder They Come began multiyear runs in revival houses in Boston and Berkeley. It would take another 10 years before VHS and Beta cassettes became available for sale and rental, and several more years for Perry Henzell’s film to be adopted in the laserdisc. Some of the same technical problems persisted on the cassette editions, only to be rectified on DVD and Blu-ray in the late 1990s. (A Criterion Collection special edition, with only a couple of bonus features, was released on DVD in 2000.) Only one mystery remained: what happened to Henzell?

Shout! Factory’s “The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition” is recommendable, even to longtime fans, for several reasons beyond the new 4K scan from the original 16mm negative and 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio. The feature adds new commentary with David Katz, author of “Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography,” and ported-over interviews, featurettes and a music video. It’s on the second and third discs that the real treasures are revealed. At one time, Henzell envisioned a Jamaican trilogy, with an immediate follow-up, No Place Like Home, and a direct sequel, in which Ivan Martin’s wounds have healed and he’s released from prison, into a Jamaica that’s become a  popular tourist magnet, known for its beaches, coffee, marijuana and entrenched poverty. Primarily a travelogue with music, No Place Like Home was largely complete, before it became stuck in bankruptcy hell and disappeared into the thin air. The post-prison sequel never saw the light of day. (In 2005, Henzell became involved in a stage musical by the Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts International. It added a couple of new songs and toured a bit. Henzell continued to write novels and operate his Kingston studio/retreat.) As is recalled in several new featurettes, No Place Like Home was “miraculously” recovered in the 1ate 1990s, in a vault whose contents were set to be destroyed. New digital restoration technology was used to piece the film back together, but it wouldn’t be ready for viewing until 2006, the same year of the director’s death. It took another dozen years for the 16mm film – more of an enticing curiosity than anything else — to be restored to the point where it could shown in theaters.

The story involves a New York advertising executive, Susan – played by real-life advertising executive Susan O’Meara – is summoned to Jamaica when a shampoo commercial begins to go sideways. In it, model P.J. (P.J. Soles) gets tired of being told to continually repeat shots in which she’s required to run through a dense forest and sit under a waterfall to promote a shampoo whose manufacturer doesn’t have his shit together. When told to return to the bush to reshoot scenes, this time with a new label on the product’s container, P.J. decides to head for a then undeveloped Negril, before heading back to New York. O’Meara asks the shoot’s Rastafarian driver, Countryman (Countryman), to chauffeur her around the island to find P.J., who never stays in one place for very long. It provides the perfect opportunity for Henzell to showcase a part of Jamaica that had yet to be discovered by tourists and Countryman had connections via the ganga trade. To say that they’re living in two different metaphysical time zones is an understatement. She’s on Eastern Frantic Time, while Countryman is on the Me-Soon-Come Zone. Because Countryman’s taxi requires constant attention by laid-back rural mechanics, Susan has nothing better to do than hang out with Countryman and his friends, who introduce her to the sacred herb and a way of life that isn’t determined by clocks, schedules and deadlines. Things get done, but only when Jah deems them to be worthy of completion. When they finally arrive back in Kingston, the cacophonous chaos of city life is nearly unbearable. Henzell’s hand-picked soundtrack features songs by Marley, Etta James, Carly Simon, Toots and the Maytals, Marcia Griffiths, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, the Sensations, the Three Degree, Ernest Ranglin, the Heptones, Nasio Fontaine, Lobo, Lord Messam and His Calypsonians and a song recorded by Soles. This disc contains audio commentary with Perry’s wife, Sally Henzell, producers David Garonzik and Arthur Gorson, and stills photographer Cookie Kinkead.

Disc Three is filled with new material: “The Legacy of Perry Henzell: A Story of Jamaican Cinema,” produced and directed by Gorson and Garonzik, and exec-produced by daughter Justine Henzell; “Filmin’ in the Gully: Anatomy of Three Scenes,” with cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste; “Duppies in the Control Room,” about Dynamic Sounds Studios, past and present; “10A: Jamaica’s Film Yard,” the story of Perry’s Kingston home and production center; “A Conversation with Sir Ridley Scott,” who spent a great deal of time working at 10A on commercials; “Live From the Reggae Awards: Red Carpet,” with interviews recorded at Kingston’s annual music awards; “Out of Many, One Filmmaker: The Disciples of Perry Henzell,” with directors Storm Saulter, Rass Kassa, Chris Browne and producer Maxine Walters; “Everyone a Star: The Original Cast,” including actors Soles, Carl Bradshaw and Winston Stona; “Big Heap of Help: The Original Support Team,” with Perry’s first personal assistant Beverley Manley and assistant director Bobby Russell; “Roots: The Family Henzell,” with Sally, Justine and Jason Henzell; and “How Perry Rocked the World,” with radio personality “Native Wayne” Jobson, historian Chris Salewicz and composer Steven Soles. All of these riches from a 16mm movie, The Harder They Come, whose production was repeatedly halted by money problems and the ordeal of finding anyone in America to distribute it. Henzell’s stated goal was to showcase Jamaican culture and residents, whose presence was ignored by tourists, the producers of James Bond movies and the island’s ruling class. It was the new country’s first feature film.

Aniara: Blu-ray   
Arriving on the heels of Claire Denis’ existential sci-fi drama,  High Life, is Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s similarly bleak and unsettling Aniara, based on an epic poem Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Both works examine what life might be like for passengers on a one-way trip into Deep Space. While the former is adapted from a contemporary screenplay, Aniara’s roots stretch back to 1956, a year before the USSR launched Sputnik I into low-Earth orbit. At the time, space colonies, life on alien planets and stranded astronauts were domains left to the pulpy imaginations of sci-fi writers and their readers. Getting monkeys and dogs into orbit kept the hands of American and Soviet scientists full. In 1961, the year cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s hugely influential novel, “Solaris,” was published. It advanced a scenario in which a team of human scientists hovering over oceanic surface of the planet Solaris came to the realization that their attempts to communicate with its inhabitants were being blocked by a sentient force that’s studying the scientists and forcing them to address their inner demons. A psychologist from Earth is sent to the space station to determine why the scientists are going nuts. “Solaris” spawned a reasonably faithful made-for-TV movie shown to Soviet audience in 1968, and, four years later, Andrei Tarkovsky’s nearly three-hour adaptation of the same novel. Stanley Kubrick used Arthur C. Clarke’s 1948 short story, “The Sentinel,” as the foundation for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), another monumental entertainment that dealt which the disparity between human and alien intelligence and communication. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the near-disastrous voyage of Apollo 13 forced American citizens, scientists and politicians to accept the fact that failure is always a possibility in space travel and only the sharpest of human minds can prevent failures from becoming disasters. The passengers on the ship in High Life are doomed criminals, who accept a mission in space to become the subjects of a human reproduction experiment. They will come face to face with eternity in the form of black hole they are compelled to investigate. Based on an original script by Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, it may very well be a conceptual exaggeration of the sort of missions being planned by today at Cal Tech, MIT and the Johnson Space Center.

Certainly, Mars is a place being considered for habitation by researchers at those institutions and the politicians who have to allocate the money for such an adventure. For sci-fi writers, of course, it’s a case of been there, done that. Ditto, Hollywood screenwriters. Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard’s The Martian (2015) was adapted from Andy Weir’s self-published 2011 novel of the same title, in which an American astronaut (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars by his teammates, due to a freak storm. He, too, must decide between scrambling to remain alive, against impossible odds, or taking the cyanide pills that presumably are sewn into the fabric of each astronaut’s flight suit. As far-fetched as the premise sounds, Scott added a palpable air of credibility to narrative. Although I have no way of knowing if Kagerman and Lilja’s Aniara was influenced by anything except Martinson’s poem, it shares conceits with all sorts of sci-fi movies and books. It is set on one of the many spaceships transporting Earthlings from their ruined planet to their new home, Mars. The crafts are huge, more like oil tankers than the streamlined rocket ships of your, upon which facsimiles of modernistic cities have been built to accommodate the needs of the humans who may have vacationed on ocean liners. Algae ponds create the oxygen necessary for the passengers to breathe freely and there’s plenty of room for food storage and makeshift farms, not unlike the biological pods in Douglas Trumbow’s visionary Silent Running (1972). Provisions have been made for physical and social activity, mental health treatment, amusement and education. NASA estimates a trip to Mars using the fictional Hermes spacecraft, of the sort that carried the astronauts in The Martian, today would take about six to eight months.

In Aniara, a far-larger vessel is thrown off its course when it collides with space junk. The captain attempts to explain the situation away, employing the same unaffected tone and bromides that commercial pilots use today to pacify passengers after their plane hits an air pocket. Conditioned to accept the captain’s word as gospel, the passengers go about their business as if the situation is under control, which it isn’t. The difference between Aniara and other such stranded-in-space dramas is that the passengers aren’t doomed by a lack of oxygen, fuel or sustenance. They’ll die, eventually, but in due time and surrounded by people they know. Does that prospect sound to you as if it’s frightening or comforting? Kagerman and Lilja allow for the probability that boredom and overfamiliarity is a stronger negative force than the inherently human impulse to survive under extreme conditions. Some passengers will consider the ship to be a reasonably comfortable place to spend the next few decades, while others will feel as if they’re trapped on a floating hospice and consign themselves to permanent residence in the psyche ward. The tentative protagonist of Aniara is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), whose job it is to monitor a room in which a sentient computer allows humans to experience near-spiritual memories of the Earth and its natural beauty. As the ship drifts further into the endless void, more and more passengers require her services and willingly break the rules to gain access to the veritable oasis. Pressure builds on Mimaroben as she is the only one who can keep the growing insanity and lethal depression at bay. Soon enough, passengers and crew members will congregate in groups dedicated to their own concerns, politics and religious preferences. Cults and cliques will form, if only to pass time. Pro-creation will be necessary to sustain the community as it closes in on in eternity, carrying with it other questions. Some viewers will hope against hope that God or some other deity pokes his/her head out from behind an asteroid and directs the ship to the next exit to paradise. Special features include behind-the-scenes featurettes on visual effects, production design, sound design and a conceptual design/art gallery.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache
This enlightening documentary is for anyone who believes that institutional sexism in the movie industry began in the early 1930s, when women who excelled in the silent era were put out to pasture and men filled the gaps left behind them. Or, in the early 1950s, when Ida Lupino became the exception who proved the rule, by breaking into Hollywood’s boys club. Or, you could try to answer the same question Pamela B. Green asks a couple dozen industry insiders in the prelude to Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache: Who was Alice Guy-Blanche? None of them could recall with any certainty that, when, in 1896, Guy-Blache completed her first film, she staked her claim not only as the first female filmmaker, but also one of the first directors of either gender to make a narrative film. That put her in the same forward-thinking company as the Lumiere brothers, Thomas Edison, Charles Pathé, Georges Méliès and Léon Gaumont. While working as a secretary at L. Gaumont et Cie, Guy-Blache was able study every facet of the fledgling motion-picture business, including the photographic equipment. After attending a demonstration screening of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), to promote the Lumiere’s projection technology, she asked Gaumont for permission to make a moving-picture that incorporated fictional story-telling elements into film. It was titled La Fée aux Choux (“The Cabbage Fairy”), described in a French newspaper as being a “chaste fiction of children born under the cabbages in a wonderfully framed chromo landscape.” Like Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), it incorporated special effects and in-camera tricks. From 1896 to 1906, Guy-Blaché was the company’s head of production and probably the first filmmaker to systematically develop narrative filmmaking and use audio recordings in conjunction with the images on screen.

In 1907, the Chilean-born and French-educated Alice Guy married Herbert Blaché, who would become the production manager for Gaumont’s operations in the United States. Three years later, they partnered with George A. Magie in the formation of the Flushing-based Solax Company, the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America. They would invest more than $100,000 into new, technologically advanced production facilities in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the country’s filmmaking hub. The title of Green and co-writer Joan Simon’s documentary derives from a sign posted in the studio, “Be Natural.” As narrator Jodie Foster reminds viewers, actors in early silent films were anything but natural. By the time Guy-Blaché directed her last film, in 1919, the couple had moved to Hollywood, where their marriage quickly unraveled. It didn’t prevent them from collaborating  on two films starring Russian diva Alla Nazimova, The Brat (1919)  and Stronger Than Death (1920). In neither was she credited. In 1921, she was forced by bankruptcy to auction her film studio and other possessions. By the time she returned to Paris, Guy-Blache had directed more than 1,000 films, 22 of which were feature-length. (Around 150 of them have survived the physical test of time.) Her legacy also includes opening the door for actress/producer/screenwriter Lois Weber to become the first American woman to direct a movie and the second, behind Guy-Blache to manage her own studio.

Although she didn’t make another film after 1922, Guy-Blaché never stopped writing, sharing ideas with her peers and correcting the impressions left by historians and academics that Herbert was solely responsible for their joint projects, including the Solax Company. Her omission from the first official records would be repeated by subsequent generations of historians. In 1953, Guy-Blaché was awarded the Légion d’honneur, the highest non-military award France offers. On March 16, 1957, she was honored in a Cinématheque Française ceremony that went unremarked upon in the press. She died in 1968, four years after she returned to the U.S. to live with her daughter, Simone, in Wayne, New Jersey, not far from where her original studio was located. In 2013, Guy-Blaché was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a consistently compelling document that will be of interest to all students of the medium, as well as people fixated on the largely ignored role played by women in the early days of the cinema. AMPAS executives could rectify a huge miscarriage of historical justice by awarding Guy-Blache – and Weber, for that matter – with one of the academy’s posthumous awards. In 2010, its Film Archive preserved the Blachés’ short film, The Girl in the Armchair (1912). In 1960, Weber was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6518 Hollywood Boulevard.

Not having watched “General Hospital” since it jumped the shark, in 1979, by having the virginal Laura Webber forgive her scumbag rapist, Luke Spencer – so they could get married in a record-setting TV wedding — I have no idea how Wes Ramsey (a.k.a., Peter August) fits into ABC’s long running clusterfuck. I do know that Ramsey’s name on the publicity material for Ilana Rein’s uneven thriller, Perception, is the only hook likely to catch viewers who’ve never heard of the co-writer/director or anyone else listed on the website. And, he doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the female protagonist, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, an up-and-coming actress with an uncanny resemblance to Gina Bellman, of the British “Coupling” and TNT’s “Leverage.” Here, she plays the exotically beautiful Nina, who practices the ancient art of palmistry in a strip mall soon to be demolished by a real estate developer who pays Daniel (Ramsey) to deliver the bad news to tenants. On one such assignment, Nina’s weird little boy manages to slip out of the shop and sneak into Daniel’s truck, as if he wants to run away from home. She shows her gratitude by giving the handsome stranger a free reading. Nina guesses correctly that he’s haunted by the “presence” of late wife, Maggie, an artist. When Daniel says he’d pay any amount of money to be re-connected with the woman whose death won’t be fully explained until much later in Perception, she “reluctantly” accepts the challenge. In fact, Daniel is exactly the kind of fish that fortune tellers and psychics dream about hooking and hanging on their walls. She acknowledges as much to her mother and an older friend. What happens when Nina unexpectedly connects with Maggie, somewhere in the ether, freaks both of them out. The more she obsesses over the money she needs to send her seemingly autistic son to a private school, the more obsessed Daniel becomes with exploiting the medium’s ability to usurp the dead woman’s persona … sexually and otherwise. In fact, the boy’s incessant sketching of trucks, cars and people in distress holds the key to the central mystery. It’s at this point that Perception begins to resemble Vertigo (1958) and I began to wish it had been directed by Brian De Palma. If there’s nothing wrong with protagonists, whose attraction to each other borders on the explosive, almost everything else about the movie, including the supporting cast, feels hamstrung by a tight budget and Rein’s inability to tie things together with a tidy little bow.

The Assault
If Tom Sizemore’s resume on is to be believed, the reigning King of the B’s has more than two dozen projects somewhere in the production cycle, from already completed to pre-production. It’s difficult for me to imagine how the onetime co-star of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Black Hawk Down (2001) could think it was possible to squeeze the completely illogical The Assault into his taxing schedule and think that it would do his career any good. Based solely on his exhaustively reported problems with substance abuse, domestic violence and other legal issues, it’s conceivable that the better-than-decent actor not only needs the money, but he also could benefit from doing constructive with his time, besides getting into even more trouble. Clearly, the Detroit native and former boyfriend of “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss no longer can expect the same multimillion-dollar paychecks he commanded in his heyday. It’s possible that his performance in Jacob Cooney’s non-thriller required only a few days of his time. If it doesn’t look as if he phoned in his portrayal of a New York cop who’s relocated to the boonies, then he obviously wasn’t expected to do much heavy lifting. His character, Detective Gary Broza, leads the investigation into a series of robberies by a pair of robbers disguised as ninjas, wielding automatic weapons and speaking through voice modifiers. The first big clue arrives in the form of a burned-out car, with a bag full of stolen cash burned to a crisp in the backseat. Huh? Figuring out who’s pulling off the increasingly violent crimes isn’t difficult, neither is their motive. They’re amateurs, but they pull off their jobs as if they’re seasoned professionals. That the final twist doesn’t square with reality isn’t surprising, either. Potential spoilers prevent me from revealing much more than the story’s bare outline. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, however, I can reveal that the detectives spend an inordinate amount of time in a local strip club, where, like “Cheers,” everyone knows their name.

Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy: Limited Edition; Blu-ray
If all one knows about Japanese film and television director Akio Jissôji is his 40-year relationship with the venerable sci-fi franchise, “Ultraman,” Arrow Video’s “Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy” will come as a revelation. In Japan, at least, Jissôji is famous, as well, for the tokusatu epic, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988), based on Hiroshi Aramata’s historical fantasy novel, “Teito Monogatari.” (Tokusatsu is a Japanese term for live-action film or television dramas that use special effects in the service if science fiction, fantasy or horror.) His body of work also includes adaptations of books by Japanese horror and mystery author Edogawa Rampo. Between 1966 and 2006, the year of his death, Jissôji bounced back and forth from children’s television, to genre material and sexually provocative films that sometimes highlighted sadomasochistic and non-consensual sexual practices. Until recently, most of these films have been unavailable outside Japan or with English subtitles. The four films included in Arrow’s “trilogy” walk a tightrope between dramas based on Buddhist themes, art and principles and the pinku genre, which came into vogue in the 1960s and promoted nudity and abhorrent content. They encompassed everything from serious dramas, to action thrillers and exploitation features. This Transient Life (1970), Mandara (1971), Poem (1972) and the bonus feature, It Was a Faint Dream (1974), are examples of the New Wave movement, produced by the Art Theatre Guild and shot in radically stylized manners. They are about as different from “Ultraman” as “Superman” was to “Gone With the Wind,” both of which starred George Reeves

This Transient Life, winner of the Golden Leopard at the 1970 Locarno Film Festival, concerns a brother and sister from a rich family, who defy the expectations placed on them by siblings and society. Instead, Masao prefers studying under a master sculptor famous for making Kannon statues of the Goddess of Mercy. His sister, Yuri, is frustrated in her pursuit of a husband when she’s impregnated by her brother in game involving masks and roughhousing. The nature of their illicit relationship is disguised by Yuri’s ability to marry the man everyone assumes is the baby’s father. A monk at the nearby monastery sets off a chain-reaction that involves Masao, the sculptor, his unfaithful wife and their son, who she violates in response to her own indiscretion. He blames everything on Masao and vows to kill him. Mandara, Jissôji s first color feature, extends the controversial subject matter, by focusing on a cult that recruits followers through rape and believes that true ecstasy can be achieved through sexual release. Poem is centered around the austere existence of a young houseboy, who becomes helplessly embroiled in the schemes of his two brothers. It continues the trilogy’s exploration of faith in a post-industrial world. In this case, though, the story takes place in late-13th Century Kyoto, a decidedly pre-industrial period dominated by the Kamakura Shogunate, It Was a Faint Dream incorporates ideas from all three movies. Shijo, an attractive and perceptive peasant girl, is sold to the Imperial Court to live her life as a concubine. Although she’s treated well by her master, his mild demeanor becomes so boring that she allows herself to be seduced at different times by his brothers – a high priest and the future shogun – and, yes, impregnated. That her daughter is taken from her at birth and sent to live in a royal palace continues to haunt her throughout the film. After the men around her begin to die off, she sets off on a voyage of discovery to determine her daughter’s well-being. Finally, she elects to become a nun, in order to pursue a life without desire.

Anyone who thinks I’ve provided potential viewers with far too many spoilers should know that they merely scratch the surface of the films’ complexity, drama, perception and appeal. The harsh treatment of the women characters merits a spoiler alert for scenes in which they’re raped, undermined, dismissed and otherwise taken advantage by men. Considering that films were made at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement, it’s possible that Jissôji’s presentations were dictated by the perceived interests – or titillation — of unenlightened male viewers. Or, he intended the brutality to come as a wake-up call to viewers whose acceptance of a male-dominated hierarchy extends to the 13th Century and probably before that. It should be noted, however, that, while violence toward women was permissible, Japanese censors prohibited depictions of graphic sex or nudity in which the genitalia and pubic hair was shown. What makes these films truly special are Masao Nakabori and Yuzo Inagaki brilliantly emotive cinematography; Jissôji’s attention to period detail and societal standards; Toru Fuyuki’s occasionally startling music and sound design; and the acting, which allows us to get inside the characters’ heads and emotional mindset.  The Arrow package is enhanced by original uncompressed LPCM mono 1.0 audio, on all three films; introductions by David Desser, author of “Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave”; scene-select commentaries on all three films by Desser; original trailers; limited-edition packaging, fully illustrated by poster artist Maarko Phntm; and an illustrated 80-page perfect-bound collector’s book, with new writings on the film by Anton Bitel and Tom Mes.

Long Gone Wild
Like people, nations evolve, mature and flourish without regard to time, speed or prevailing fashions. Americans may think they’ve held the moral high ground since, at least, the last 250 years, but that wouldn’t explain how the British and French managed to abolish slavery decades before we did; police have been required to do the dirty work for corporations and right-wing politicians; Vietnam; Iraq; and global warming. Every time President Trump signs into his Twitter account, he pushes us closer to the next world war, a global depression, the destruction of our planet and an autocracy. And, he does so simply to watch liberals and reformists cringe. One morning, he decides to lift protections on endangered species; the next, he gives polluters permission to befoul our air, rivers and federal lands. In less than four years we’re devolved from a country that’s been a leader in the conservation movement, to one that refuses to acknowledge the writing on the wall. Bill Neal’s pointed documentary, Long Gone Wild, reminds us of the fragility of legislation specifically protecting killer whales, a species that most Americans assume is protected from exploitation and abuse. It also reveals how theme parks, hunters and traders have continued to profit from the quasi-legal trade in cetaceans, decades after President Richard Nixon signed the sweeping, if imperfect U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, in 1972. That’s right, the same conservative Republican who created the EPA; signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 and Endangered Species Act of 1973; and proposed the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, none of which would get a hearing today, in Mitch McConnell’s Senate.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act was approved a mere decade after the first orca died a horrible death in captivity, at Marineland of the Pacific, south of Los Angeles, and two more were shot by the aquarium’s head animal collector in Haro Strait, off San Juan Island, in Washington State. A couple years later, a killer whale dubbed Moby Doll — harpooned by a sculptor in pursuit of a model — lived long enough to be briefly exhibited in a makeshift pen in Vancouver Harbor. In 1965, Ted Griffin, the owner of the Seattle Public Aquarium, set a precedent by agreeing to purchase Namu from a B.C. fisherman for $8,000 … “cash on the barrelhead.” Once a base price was established, hunters developed a netting technique for capturing specimens in Puget Sound. By the early 1970s, Don Goldsberry had captured more than 200 orcas, about 30 of which were sent to various facilities, while the rest went to Sea World. The ante was raised when the corralling of 80 killer whales, by collectors from the Seattle Public Aquarium, resulted in the deaths and slaughter of several orcas, whose carcasses washed up on shore. The locals were outraged. The MMPA still allowed the collection and sale of cetaceans under specified conditions, including that they be used for solely for scientific and educational purposes, a loophole Sea World easily slid through. In 1976, an aide to Washington Governor Dan Evans witnessed a roundup by representatives of Sea World, illegally using aircraft and explosives to herd and net the whales. A clear violation of the permit granted to collectors under the act, it prompted Evans to declare state waters an unofficial sanctuary. In turn, the ban prompted Sea World to send collectors to Iceland for its finned performers. When Sea World reached its quota, the extras were sold to aquaria on the Island, Canada, France and Japan.

Anyone wondering how Shamu fits into this scenario should know that the first star of Sea World San Diego was caught in October 1965, by Griffin, in Puget Sound; sold to the southern California landmark, when it was rejected by its playmate in his Seattle attraction; and died in 1971, after about six years of performances. Shamu’s swan song came on April 19 of the same year, when she bit the legs and hips of Anne Eckis, a SeaWorld employee who was trying to ride her as part of a filmed publicity event. Shamu refused to release the woman, who had been instructed to wear a bikini that day, instead of the one-piece suit the orca might have instantly recognized, until other workers came to the rescue and pried the its jaws apart with a pole. It meant instant retirement for the orca and, soon thereafter, a quick death. Shamu’s name would be trademarked, however, and awarded to whichever killer whale was the star of that day’s show. In doing so, Sea World effectively convinced a generation of children and, conceivably, their parents, that orcas live forever and could be trained not to attack their trainers, another myth shattered in Long Gone Wild. In the mid-1980s-90s, the attention of activists turned to Japan, where “drive fishery” was practiced by fishermen, who didn’t discriminate between bottle-nosed dolphins and orcas. It wasn’t until the release of Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009) that the whistle was blown on a practice that would turn the waters of a dead-end cove near Taijii, Japan, red with blood. The film also reported on Japan’s alleged “buying” of votes of poor nations in the International Whaling Commission.

Neal also credits Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary, Blackfish, with alerting Americans to the continuing abuses and coverups at Sea World. It does so by focusing on the captivity of Tilikum, an orca involved in the deaths of three people, as well as the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity. Long story short, the resulting debate, rebuttals and court cases led to Southwest Airlines ending its 26-year relationship with Sea World and a boycott by musicians participating in a “Bands, Brew & BBQ” event at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa. By November 2015, Sea World announced it would stop killer-whale shows at its theme park in San Diego. Five months later, park officials announced it would end its orca breeding program and begin to phase out all live performances using orcas. Long Gone Wild isn’t likely to have the same impact as The Cove and Blackfish, if only because the hunting, buying and exploitation of killer whales is now being conducted in countries that are at the same ethical point in environmental law as the U.S. and Canada in 1960. Russians fisherman must attain permits to gather specimens for sale, but don’t appear to care how many animals die in the process of making their quota. The orcas that survive capture are frequently sold in China, where dozens of marine parks have recently been built or are under construction. The activists we meet in Long Gone Wild manage to infiltrate one gigantic facility that will soon be used to store orcas awaiting distribution to new Chinese parks. The film also spotlights the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization committed to establishing model seaside sanctuaries, where once captive and injured cetaceans can live in an environment that maximizes their well-being and autonomy and comes as close as possible to their natural habitat. It was inspired by the sanctuaries that have proven their ability to care for zoo animals and circus attractions, when they’re given their pink slips or abandoned by people who no longer are interested in caring for them. It was announced earlier this month that Russian authorities have begun the transport of a third group of orcas from the “whale jail” on Russia’s Far East coast to the Sea of Okhotsk, where they will be released into the ocean. The government’s objective is to return all 10 orcas and 87 belugas to the ocean by this coming fall, with the Whale Sanctuary Project’s possible participation in future releases.

Ronja: The Robber’s Daughter: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
The Walking Dead: The Complete Ninth Season: Blu-ray
Shimmer and Shine: Legend of the Dragon Treasure
Even by the usual standards applied to the work of Studio Ghibli, “Ronja: The Robber’s Daughter” was an unusual undertaking. Based on the book, “Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter,” by Astrid Lindgren, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, the animated series is a first for the studio famous for the hand-drawn, feature-length anime of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). Among other things, it is the first television series to be co-produced by Studio Ghibli and directed by the Maestro’s son, Gorô Miyazaki. It also represents the first time the studio Ghibli has produced a computer-animated cel-shaded anime. Divided into 26 episodes that run about 25 minutes each, “Ronja” first aired in Japan between October 11, 2014, and March 28, 2015. It follows the daughter of a bandit king, Mattis, from her birth in a castle in the woodlands of early-Medieval Scandinavia, to her coming of age as a devil-may-care teenager. When, in Episode Two, the girl turns 10, her parents encourage her to venture into the surrounding forest, exploring and discovering its wonders and dangers for herself. They include mystical creatures, like the gray dwarves, who resemble hedgehogs but are extremely dangerous, as are the harpies that hover above the trees and have the faces of women. Ronja’s life begins to change, when she happens upon a boy her own age, Birk, who turns out to be the son of the rival clan chief. They become fast friends, constantly testing the limits of their courage, strength and their parents’ patience. Despite theme music that grows more annoying by the episode, the characters are irresistible, the dubbing is flawless and the story can be enjoyed by children and adults, alike, without condescending to one group or adding hidden messages to keep the other interested. It recalls Pippi Longstocking in that regard. Another interesting aspect arrives when Ronja stand up to her frequently unreasonable father and takes to the forest with her new accomplice.

For those keeping score at home. the ninth season of “The Living Dead” is based on material from issues #127 to #144 of the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. It focuses on the aftermath of last season’s All Out War, which pitted the Militia, led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), and the Saviors, led by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The season opens 18 months after Negan’s defeat, as the various communities are working on rebuilding society. However, the Sanctuary suffers from infertile ground and underlying support for Negan. Rick leads a trek to a Washington, D.C., museum to recover pioneering supplies. On the way back, they find the main bridge to Hilltop has been wiped out by a storm, forcing them to detour. A young man, Ken (AJ Achinger), is killed while protecting the group’s horses from walkers. Gregory (Xander Berkeley), ousted as Hilltop’s leader, convinces Ken’s father, Earl (John Finn), to try to assassinate Maggie (Lauren Cohan), but he fails. Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) ask Maggie for Hilltop’s help in providing for the Sanctuary, but she refuses. That evening, Maggie has Gregory publicly executed for his actions. And, that’s just for starters. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple was promoted to chief content officer for both “The Walking Dead” and its spin-off show “Fear the Walking Dead,” while writer and co-executive producer Angela Kang has taken Gimple’s role for “The Walking Dead.” Fans will already know that two of the show’s biggest stars won’t make it until the end of Season Nine. The Blu-ray contains commentaries on three episodes; deleted scenes; episode recaps and brief character and thematic insights for each episode; making-of featurettes; several backgrounders; an “In Memoriam” salute to the characters who died in the ninth season; and a look at Andrew Lincoln’s work on the series and the character’s story throughout the past nine seasons.

The latest Nickelodeon collection, “Shimmer and Shine: Legend of the Dragon,” features six dragon-themed episodes, including two double-length adventures, and follows Shimmer, Shine and Leah as they meet Dragon Rider Farnaz, track down a Dragon Gem, rescue dragons and even learn to ride one. Fraternal-twins Shimmer and Shine are genies who unintentionally create chaos, sometimes in magical ways, while attempting to grant wishes for their human best friend, Leah. The selections include “Legend of the Dragon Gem,” “The Dragon Rider,” “Zahracorns on Parade,” “Nazboo’s Magic Robe,” “Dragon Tales” and “Nazboo’s Family Reunion.”



The DVD Wrapup: Endgame, White Crow, Vault, Trial by Fire, Shiraz, Keaton, Rafiki, Damned Summer, Anti-Nowhere League. … More

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Avengers: Endgame: Blu-ray/4K UHD
As I recall mentioning exactly a year ago, upon the general 4K UHD release of Avengers: Infinity War, any fan of the franchise who’s looking for educated opinions here is definitely barking up the wrong tree. Not surprisingly, then, the same caveat applies for Avengers: Endgame, which, we’ve been led to believe, is the massively successful series’ swan song. Any newbie who thinks it’s possible to step into it at midstream and appreciate how much serious thought, imagination, mythology and highly paid talent has been invested in The Avengers (2012) and its sequels, Age of Ultron (2015), Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) will be mistaken. That isn’t to say that latecomers would be unable enjoy and admire Endgame’s spectacular 90-minute grand finale, without also understanding what happened in the first 90 minutes, but it would be like arriving late to a Fourth of July fireworks show and only catching the final barrage of explosives. It wouldn’t explain why dozens of characters from separate Marvel universes – including the Guardians of the Galaxy and the armies of Wakanda and Asgard — have gathered in 2023 to battle a genocidal Titanian supervillain decapitated in 2014.  and deny him the Infinity Gems, which never remain in the same hands for very long. Life is complicated in the MCU and it helps to have a scorecard handy. Through the miracle of time travel, an already dead Thanos (Josh Brolin) is prepared to destroy the portion of humanity he neglected to obliterate in previous installments. Credit co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for making such a ludicrous turnaround even remotely credible. After Captain Marvel (a.k.a., Carol Danvers/Brie Larson) rescues Tony Stark (Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr.) and the possibly duplicitous female warrior, Nebula (Thanos’ daughter/Karen Gillan) from Deep Space, anything is possible. They’re returned to the New Avengers Facility, where Scott Lang (Ant Man/Paul Rudd), a recent escapee from the quantum realm, hopes to convince the remaining Avengers to retrieve the six Infinity Stones that Thanos used to destroy half of all living creatures in the Snap. That terrible deed accomplished Thanos shrinks the stones and disperses them to prevent his work from being undone. Lang believes that the Avengers can create a new Quantum Tunnel and use advance tech suits to travel back in time, retrieve the stones, affix them to a gauntlet and reverse Thanos’ actions in the present. As skeptical and weary of battle as Our Heroes are, they see no other way to repair the damage done by Thanos and his cohorts. If that summary sounds overly complicated to late arrivals to the franchise, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the timeline included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki.

The other thing that rainy-day fans of MCU need to know about Endgame, which was shot back-to-back with Infinity War, is that it also features Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle). They might not recognize Thor and Hulk in their present states, however. MCU devotees needed no further encouragement to embrace Endgame. On its way to surpassing Titanic’s box-office record — $2,795,486,053, worldwide – it covered its estimated $356- million production nut on its opening weekend … in the domestic revenues, alone. Even so, I recommend that uninitiated viewers begin at the beginning. It will quadruple the enjoyment triggered during Endgame’s lollapalooza climax. By bringing back hundreds of Marvel characters, actors and voicing talent – from Dr. Stephen Strange and Spider-Man (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland), to Nick Fury and Groot (Samuel L. Jackson, Vin Diesel) – Endgame effectively serves as a monumental memorial to franchise co-creator Stan Lee, who died last November, at 95. One needn’t possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the MCU – or familiarity with Marvel comics — to get excited by that aspect of Endgame. After all, how many baseball fanatics can rattle off the stats associated with the players from the last 10 years’ worth of All-Star games? My other recommendation is for fans to invest in the latest technology – 4K UHD – so as to re-capture as much of the theatrical experience as is possible on TV monitors. The hi-res presentation does make a difference. The supplements included in the Marvel/Disney package can be found on the bonus Blu-ray disc. Among them are a short “Intro,” with Joe and Anthony Russo; “Strange Alchemy,” a look at bringing together so many of the characters from the Marvel universe; “The Mad Titan,” a focused exploration of the film’s antagonist, Thanos, and his historical role in the franchise; “Beyond the Battle: Titan” opens with another look at bringing all the characters together, but finally moves to more closely exploring the making of the film’s battle on Titan; “Beyond the Battle: Wakanda,” a look at the Georgia location that stood in for the fictional African kingdom; deleted scenes; gag reel; audio commentary, with the co-directors and co-writers; and a personal salute to Lee, focusing on his trademark cameos.

The White Crow
As amazing as it might seem to Boomer parents and grandparents, their descendants’ knowledge of Cold War history begins with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc dictatorships and ends with President Trump’s bromance with his Russian counterpart. No memory of duck-and-cover exercises, fallout shelters or the space race. If the U.S. is a markedly less hospitable a place than it was 50 years ago, Russia under Vladimir Putin more closely resembles the USSR of Nikita Khrushchev than the one put out of business by Mikhail Gorbachev. Watching Ralph Fiennes and David Hare’s The White Crow, reminded me of a time when east was east, west was west, and the twain met at the Berlin Wall. as to how far the world has come in last 60 years. Inspired by Julie Kavanaugh’s “Rudolf Nureyev: The Life,” The White Crow also recalls a period in post-War War II history when ballet superstar  Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the west was front-page news in every newspaper – remember those? – in what was known as the Free World. That’s because half of the planet’s greatest artists, intellectuals and athletes were imprisoned by the countries they served in battle and represented in peace. Today, of course, the same VIPs travel back and forth as they please, unless they had the bad luck to have been born in North Korea, China or Cuba. Ballet was treated with more respect, as well. Today, it’s easier to recall Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1974 defection to Canada, if only because Nureyev practiced his newfound freedom in Europe, while Baryshnikov allowed himself to become one of the darlings of the American media. Although both men could fill the great concert halls of Europe and the Americas, Nureyev’s film career was dominated by adaptations of classic ballets and playing silent-screen legend Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell’s “biggest mistake,” Valentino (1977). Baryshnikov joined some of this country’s most visible companies as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, while also experiencing  better luck in Hollywood. He fit right into The Turning Point (1977), receiving one of the film’s 11 Oscar nominations; was typecast as an expatriate Russian dancer in White Nights (1985), alongside hoofer Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini; as an aging star who takes a young female protegee (prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri) in Dancers (1987); as a jailed Soviet spy, Company Business (1991), with Gene Hackman; and in the final season of  HBO’s “Sex and the City,” during which he played a Russian artist who woos Carrie Bradshaw. He was a fixture at Club 54, frequently accompanied by Liza Minnelli, Halston, Mick and Bianca Jagger and Jackie O.

Fiennes and Hare elected to use flashbacks to explain how Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) rose from impoverished conditions as a boy – he was born on a Trans-Siberian train, near Irkutsk – to become the biggest star in the USSR, if not, yet, the rest of the world. The divergent influences of his mother and father are also depicted. It leads to the young man’s early training with the Kirov, whose leader isn’t to his liking. Otherwise, The White Crow’s tick-tock pace is dictated by the events leading directly to the defection. They begin with Kirov’s pre-tour sojourn in Paris, during which Rudy refuses to be caged in by the KGB, and end with the nearly aborted defection at the airport. In between, viewers will be torn between the behavior of Good Rudy and Bad Rudy. He’ll carry on almost simultaneous affairs with Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), the wife of his coach, Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes), and a younger East German dance student, Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann), who encouraged the defection. We’re horrified by Bad Rudy’s behavior with other women, especially Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the French socialite who introduces him to her friends in Paris and helps him orchestrate the defection. Despite some explanatory notes ahead of the closing credits, The White Crow pretty much ends at the airport. Blessedly, at 127 minutes, the film allows plenty of room for dance. Because Ivenko is an accomplished dancer in his own right, the performance and rehearsal sequences don’t require doubles, inserts or visual tricks. Cinematographer Mike Eley was free to shoot him head to toe, without breaks or interruptions in Ivenko’s fluidity. This isn’t always the case in dance movies, where the focus is on anonymous steps or above-the-shoulder shots.. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the musical soundtrack is lovely. The package adds interviews and a Q&A.

Chazz Palminteri and Don Johnson have lent their names and faces to so many projects that are destined for the small screen that it’s become impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff ahead their VOD/DVD release. Mainstream critics don’t go near them and Internet pundits are more likely to cut the stinkers enough slack to get them past street dates. The same, of course, applies to movies in which such past-their-prime action stars as Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eric Roberts, Dennis Quaid and Kurt Russell have willingly played second fiddle to up-and-coming actors … as long as they share top billing. Some, maybe most of these films are eminently forgettable. Others, including Tom DeNucci’s gangster thriller, Vault, are quite watchable and well worth the effort it takes to find them. Based on the incredible 1975 heist of an estimated $30 million in mob loot from a Rhode Island storage facility, Vault can be mentioned in the same breath as Goodfellas (1990), if only for the results of the real-life crime, itself. If it isn’t in the same ballpark creatively and budgetarily with Martin Scorsese’s classic drama, the audacity of the Bonded Vault Company break-in and the intrigue that followed in its wake are in the same league as the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport. (Who, after all, would dare rob a mob “bank.”) As is the case in Goodfellas, too, the heist was planned by lower-tier criminals Robert “The Deuce” Dussault (Theo Rossi) and Charles “Chucky” Flynn (Clive Standen) and sanctioned by a Mafia associate, Gerald “Gerry” Tillinghast (Johnson). Despite making a lot of money for New England kingpin Raymond Patriarca (Palminteri),Tillinghast was resented for being an uppity non-Italian. Deuce and Chucky were childhood friends who trusted each other implicitly. Their gang was an efficient, if motley crew of local hoodlums, who protected each other’s anonymity by combining the name, Buddy, with that of their hometowns. The score goes off so well, in fact, that DeNucci and co-writer B. Dolan (Almost Mercy), have plenty of time to concoct an entertaining portrayal of Deuce’s large Italian family and embellish the role played by his girlfriend and future snitch, Karyne Sponheim. Denucci was also able to address the strict caste system of the underworld, such as it was after the establishment of the Witness Protection Program, in 1970, and subsequent adoption of the RICO Act. Both served to dilute La Cosa Nostra’s sacred omertà code of honor. To seal the deal on a high-profile conviction, federal and state officials could offer turncoats a get-out-of-jail card and the opportunity for a new life. While this didn’t stifle some criminals’ inclination toward ill-gotten gains – Henry Hill was expelled from the program – it raised the bounty on suspected informants. Just as the death toll rose in the wake of the Lufthansa robbery, so, too, did the list of people who could lead the feds and state police to Tillinghast  and Patriarca, who, some believe, came up with the idea to steal the goods from the New England mob’s bank, fence them overseas and play the victim. Most, possibly all the cash stolen in both shocking heists has yet to be recovered. Some gangsters, at least, can keep a secret. In addition to benefitting from the largely unsung incident, itself, and ready-made cast of colorful characters, Vault got a strategic boost from Providence city officials, who, acknowledged one producer, were “just so behind us in every way. … We had the ‘Superman Building,’ we had the streets and we were able to recreate that time period.” The DVD adds background and making-of material.

Trial by Fire
Based on David Grann’s reporting for the New Yorker, Trial by Fire uses the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham to reignite the argument on capital punishment. The number of minds it could possibly change, however, is negligible. Debate over the issue has become so polarized, politicized and defined by extreme religious beliefs that only a handful of people could be swayed by a movie they aren’t likely to watch. Who wants to be reminded of a miscarriage of justice so obvious that it made headlines around the country and forced investigations of judicial procedure by internal and external panels. Their conclusions came too late to save Willingham (Jack O’Connell), who, in any case, might not have been vindicated.  and, in any case,  state  that it’s painful to watch. That the alleged crime occurred in Texas, at a time when its governor was a right-wing opportunist, fundamentalist Christian and all-around nincompoop – yes, that Rick Perry — does not go unremarked upon in Edward Zwick and writer David Grann’s unabashedly humanistic drama. The picture opens on December 23, 1991, when three children are trapped inside the Willingham home, in Corsicana, and burned to death by a horrendous fire. Their father, Cameron, is shown rushing out of the house, only slightly burnt, calling for help, and making a futile effort to re-enter it. Their mother, Stacy (Emily Meade), was away, shopping for Christmas gifts. Nine months later, the unemployed slacker was sentenced to death for the arson deaths of their 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twin girls. Not only did circumstantial evidence weigh heavily against Cameron, but rumors circulated about him being a wife beater, an abusive father and a cheater.  Based solely on the state’s evidence, he was guilty as well. Viewers aren’t given much more evidence upon which to draw their own conclusions. Oh, yeah, Cameron was a belligerent defendant in the courtroom and lousy cellmate. If he had been executed  the next day, any mourning would been left to his widow. That wasn’t likely to happen, either. Willingham declined a life sentence offered in exchange for a guilty plea and, in Trial by Fire, only wavers in his determination to clear his name under extreme external pressure.

It isn’t until the Innocence Project enters the picture and Houston teacher Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) begins her correspondence with the convict, that Willingham is given any reason for optimism. Gilbert didn’t propose an exchange of letters because she had followed the case and believed his innocence. She hoped to gain as much in emotional currency as she could offer Willingham in moral support. Unlike his wife, Stacy, she made it a point to visit him in jail. Once convinced of his innocence, however, Gilbert uncovered the kind of evidence that would warrant a reversal or reprieve in most states outside the South. The problem is that true, blue Lone Star Texans only hear what they want to hear and mistrust the efforts of do-gooders to overturn decisions based on prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense lawyers, lazy investigators and the defendants’ inability to afford a proper defense. In fact, the prosecuting attorney paid off a jailhouse witness with the promise of clemency and money; a neighbor misremembered Willingham’s behavior on the day of the fire; and the expert witness who described the fire’s origin wasn’t an expert in anything except extracting fees from prosecutors in return for “junk science.” Despite Gilbert’s perseverance and intervention of the Innocence Project, the governor stood by his belief that Texas law is infallible and, even if it weren’t, it would be impolitic of him to interfere. Perhaps, Perry was encouraged to take such an idiotic stand by something the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in concurrence with an opinion forwarded by that other giant of right-wing jurisprudence, Clarence Thomas, “Not a single defendant in America has ever been erroneously executed. If such an event had occurred … the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”  This ran contrary to a decision made in 1999 by Illinois Governor George Ryan —  a Republican – when he ended the death penalty in the state, saying he “didn’t want to be responsible for the execution of another innocent soul, even if it were one in a hundred.” It’s a proposition that most Americans should be able to accept, no matter how one feels about capital punishment. As is demonstrated in Trial by Fire, that simply isn’t the case.

The Command: Blu-ray
Despite the dramatic license taken by the filmmakers and some middling reviews from mainstream critics, fans of movies set on submarines probably will want to check out The Command. It is Thomas Vinterberg and writer Robert Rodat’s frequently exciting, if flawed adaptation of reporter Robert Moore’s investigative book, “A Time to Die.” Looking back at the sinking of the K-141 Kursk and loss of its 118 submariners on August 12, 2000, I can’t recall how the horrendous event was covered in the American media. I suspect that the BBC and New York Times led whatever coverage there was of the Kursk’s sinking in the west, but were limited by the avalanche of misinformation, false leads, rumors and government subterfuge that followed in its wake in Russia. It would take Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov two years to compile a report for newly installed President Vladimir Putin that revealed “stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment,” as well as “negligence, incompetence and mismanagement.” The report said the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed. At a length of 117 minutes, The Command is roughly divided into three intertwined parts: the disaster, itself; the government’s bungled response to it; and the futility and fear experienced by the seamen’s families, who bore the brunt of the misinformation campaign. The film’s greatest conceit is elongating by five days the surviving submariners’ battle to stay alive and, in doing so, demonstrate their heroism, courage and grace under pressure. The film implies that the 23 survivors of the initial blasts – dummy torpedoes, with live, non-nuclear charges, detonated by a chemical leak — lived up to a week in the chamber furthest from the explosions, before succumbing mere minutes and hours before they could be rescued. Contrary to the timeline established in The Command, none of the men could have survived more than 11 hours. In fact, rescue attempts hadn’t even begun at that point. Even so, Russian naval authorities took even greater liberties with the hearts of family members. The manipulation of time allows Vinterberg to develop a what-if scenario to showcase the theoretical final days of the elite sailors, under the direct command of Russian Navy Captain-Lieutenant Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts). The families’ resistance to official lies and misdirection is led by Mikhail’s skeptical wife, Tanya Averina, well played by Léa Seydoux. Max von Sydow does a highly credible job as Admiral Vladimir Petrenko, who delivers the lies to family members. Colin Firth plays British Commodore David Russell, whose good intentions and offers of help are rebuffed by Petrenko. Because The Command doesn’t feature any American stars, and was shot in Belgium and France, any distribution in the U.S. was bound to be limited, at best.

When it comes to questions pertaining to LGBTQ rights in Kenya, the answers are “No,” “No,” “No” and “Don’t even think about it.” Otherwise, I’m told it’s a nice place to visit our animal friends. Compared to Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, Mauritania and northern Nigeria, where homosexuality is punishable by death, Kenya’s laws are almost progressive. In Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone offenders can be imprisoned for life. If the laws in these countries weren’t sufficiently draconian, there’s Nigeria, which, in addition to criminalizing homosexuality, has enacted legislation that would make it illegal for family members, friends and “allies” of LGBTQ people to be “supportive.” In Kenya, the state does not recognize any relationships between persons of the same sex. Same-sex marriage has been banned under the Kenyan constitution since 2010. Adoption is denied same-sex couples. Sodomy is a felony, per Section 162 of the Kenyan penal code, punishable by 14 years’ imprisonment, while “gross indecency” between males will get offenders five years in stir, under section 165 of the same statute. Here’s the kicker, though: on May 24, the High Court of Kenya refused an order to declare Sections 162 and 165 unconstitutional. That’s May 24, 2019. To be fair, however, I’m told there are no statutory provisions relating to transgender rights and it’s legal for Ts to change the names appearing on legal documents. If there’s a common denominator throughout Africa, it’s the unchecked power of evangelical preachers and imams to encourage their flocks to treat LGBTQ individuals as if they were Satan’s representatives on Earth. Politicians followed suit. It is against this poisonous background and the 2014 passage of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act that Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu and South African co-writer Jenna Cato Bass chose to adapt Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “Jambula Tree” as Rafiki. The short story won the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing, a first for the East-Central nation.

Kahiu and Bass moved the setting from Kampala to Nairobi, where the overripe symbolism of the jambula tree’s tangy purple fruit might have been lost on viewers. It also was important for the director to show the modernity and dynamism of Nairobi, where young people with new ideas set the tempo for the country’s cultural ecology. Teenagers ride their skateboards through the busy streets and home-grown music provides a reason, if any were needed, to step lively. Just out of high school, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are opposites that attract while one is going about her chores and the other is across the street working on her Beyoncé with her college-bound friends. The next time they meet, the girls form a friendship that leads tentatively, but inexorably toward forbidden love. Although, they attempt to keep it on the down low, Kena and Ziki’s exuberance can hardly be contained. As dangerous as such a liaison already is, its degree of difficulty is compounded by the fact that the girls’ fathers are campaigning for the same political office. Their mothers have different, more traditional goals in mind for their daughters. For their part, Kena and Ziki only want to sprout wings and fly away to somewhere where their love might flourish, along with their dreams. When they’re discovered, all of their options disappear in an instant, and things turn ugly fast. This is especially true for Kena  who had fewer choices all along. Rafiki was banned outright by Kenyan censors for its positive portrayal of lesbian romance. Pressure from people who caught it on the festival circuit, led to the government reluctantly opening a seven-day distribution window to allow for Oscar consideration. Instead, the nominating committee chose another film to represent the country in the Best Foreign Language races. The window was shut as quickly and emphatically as was opened. The Film Movement package includes a short film about a lesbian couple dealing with joint motherhood.

Shiraz: A Romance of India: Blu-ray
The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 3: Blu-ray
Restorations of nearly century-old silent films have opened a door for a new generation of audiences and filmmakers drawn to classics they may have only read about in books or watched in scratchy 16mm versions. Up until recently, the deterioration of such movies – many in the public domain or hidden in vaults – presented a challenge that wasn’t worth accepting. Cohen Media’s ongoing series of newly upgraded Buster Keaton films from the 1920s provides a perfect example of how great films can be made to look and sound even better than they did upon their original release. Juno Films’ unexpected gem, Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928), not only reminds us of the many forgotten masterpieces that stand to benefit from such brilliant restorations, but also the complete disappearance of thousands of other movies that no one thought mattered. An Indian/British/German co-production, Shiraz was the second of three silent films made on location in India by Munich-born director Franz Osten and Bombay Talkies founder Himansu Rai, who also starred in them. Largely made for consumption in western countries where “oriental”-themed pictures were popular.

Shiraz, The Light of Asia (1926) and A Throw of Dice (1929) draw on historical legends. Even Cecil B. DeMille might have been impressed by Rai’s ability to round up the 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants — provided by the royal houses of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore – for The Throw of Dice. Likewise, Shiraz features a huge cast of humans and animals. British screenwriter William A. Burton based the sweeping historical romance, set in the Mughal Empire, on a play by Niranjan Pal. In it, Rai portrays a villager named Shiraz. The son of a potter, he becomes infatuated with a little girl named Selima, who’s brought to his village after her caravan is attacked and everyone else is killed. Unbeknownst to the villagers, Selima (Enakashi Rama Rao) is a princess. Later, she’s kidnapped by bandits and sold as a slave to Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) — later Emperor Shah Jehan – who falls for her. This doesn’t sit well with his lover, Dalia (Seeta Devi), who conspires to ruin her every hope for happiness and freedom. In one unforgettable scene, Shiraz is arrested while seeking news of Selima’s well-being in the women’s quarters of the emperor’s place. The young man comes within a inch of being squashed by a gigantic elephant, before one of Jehan’s aides recognizes a pendant worn by Selima that authenticates her royal status and overrides the execution order. She marries the prince and becomes Empress Mumtaz Mahal, while Dalia is banned for her machinations against Selima. Although, Shiraz is also told not to return to the palace, he’s never far away from her. When Selima dies, in 1629, the emperor demands of his realm’s greatest architects and artisans that they present designs for a memorial to her goodness and his love. Inspired by feelings of love and loss, the now nearly blind Shiraz carves a model of what will become the Taj Mahal, where Selima will eventually be interred, alongside her husband. Its construction will take 10 years and become one of the world’s most admired buildings. Shiraz: A Romance of India can be enjoyed as an overtly melodramatic tribute to the triumph of love over jealousy and tyranny or as an epic built on a foundation of dubious history and lore. Either way, it’s difficult not to be moved by Shiraz: A Romance of India. Adding to the enjoyment is a new and brilliantly evocative musical score by Anoushka Shankar, Ravi’s daughter and Norah Jones’ half-sister. Shankar utilizes everything from ethnic instruments — lots of tablas — to Moog synthesizers. It’s worth the price of a rental, alone.

While we’re in the temporal neighborhood, fans of great silent movies will be happy to learn that Volume 3 of Cohen Media’s  Buster Keaton Collection has been cleared for a landing, on Tuesday. Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926) may not have been rated among the Great Stoneface’s triumphs at the time of their release, but critics were weighing them against some of the greatest comedies of all time, including Keaton’s best work. The set pieces in both films, at least, have stood the test of time as well as anything in The General (1926) or Sherlock Jr. (1924) and continue to be referenced by filmmakers today. In Seven Chances, Keaton plays a struggling businessman, James Shannon, who stands to inherit $7 million from his grandfather, on the condition he gets married before he turns 27, and the church bells toll 7 p.m. He’s already been turned down by his first choice, but that was before the inheritance came into play. Almost all of Seven Chances is consumed by a wonderfully elaborate chase sequence, which begins slowly when Shannon searches for the other seven women on his list. When his dilemma is mentioned in a newspaper story, the number of self-anointed candidates expands exponentially, to 500. They chase him through the streets of a very rural looking Los Angeles, narrowly escaping disaster at every corner. The climax comes when he arrives at a hilly part of town, where he’s outrun his pursuers, but still must contend with dozens of rocks and boulders dislodged in his dash to the church. Battling Butler can easily be summarized as, “a love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.” Alfred’s father has ordered him to take a trip to the mountains, where he can breathe fresh air, hunt, fish and generally get in manly shape. His idea of roughing it, though, involves loading a trailer with luxury items and bringing along his valet (Snitz Edwards). Alfred finds himself attracted to Mountain Girl (Sally O’Neil), whose overprotective brothers and father aren’t impressed by him. It isn’t until they confuse Keaton’s milquetoast millionaire Alfred Butler with champion boxer Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald) that he begins to notice a cloud of doom looming on the horizon. Coincidentally, the two Butlers cross paths in the same backwoods Kentucky town. Unwisely, Alfred agrees to meet Battling Butler, again, in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Keaton’s idea of training is turning around at the one-mile mark of a 10-mile jog and cutting corners wherever he can find one. The battle to impress Mountain Girl is full of wonderful surprises, as well. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Buster Keaton: The Daredevil.”

Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League
The Beatles: Made on Merseyside
Based on what’s revealed in the rockumentary, Nowhere League: We Are the League, it’s possible that Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were inspired to make This Is Spinal Tap (1984 ) by the English hardcore punk band, Anti-Nowhere League. Formed on a whim in 1979, the League was comprised of lead singer Animal (Nick Culmer), a biker; guitarist Magoo (Chris Exall), a skinhead; Bones (Tony Shaw), a grammar-school boy, on drums; and Persian exile Chris Elvy on bass. Their musical proficiency was roughly that of the Ramones at the same time. It was a Queens garage band that relied on four chords to maintain a torrid tempo, and songs that weren’t much longer than two minutes. After a slow start commercially, the Ramones caught a fair number of breaks, including becoming the de facto house band of CBGB’s and appearing in Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The League, which isn’t likely to follow the Ramones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had even less instrumental expertise behind its anarchic vocals. Because hardcore punk and metal were giving way to power pop, however, the members found a ready audience as an opening act for the Damned. This included an ability to mix antisocial lyrics with extremely loud guitars and a we-don’t-give-a-shit persona. That they really didn’t give a shit is one of the key points made in Cleopatra’s high-volume rockumentary Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League, which is as watchable for its Spinal Tap-like anecdotes as repeat recitations of its hits, “So What?,” “Streets of London” and “I Hate … People.” Like most such  ensembles, the turnover in personnel always threatened the band’s existence. The replacement musicians interviewed here were cut from the same cloth, though. Another highlight comes, in 1992. when Animal joins Metallica on the Wembley Arena stage for a killer rendition of “So What?,” which it covered. The film, directed by George Hencken, features cameos by Stewart Copeland and Rat Scabies. The two-disc package adds extended interviews.

The story of how the Beatles made the musical leaps from dreary post-war Liverpool, to the bustling bars in Hamburg’s red-light district, and back again to the home of the Mersey Sound, where fame awaited them. The Beatles: Made on Merseyside recounts how the Fab Four (or Five) parlayed a passion for American rock ’n’ roll and R&B into a band that shocked the world with its original songs and albums (none of which are heard here). It’s a familiar story, sweetened with fresh contributions from the “fifth Beatle,” Pete Best; Quarrymen Colin Hanton and Len Garry; Brian Epstein’s business associate, Joe Flannery; the Beatles’ first secretary, Freda Kelly; original Merseybeat magazine owner Bill Harry; and flatmates of John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. Naturally, there’s a stop along the way at the Cavern Club.

Damned Summer
If I had the time and inclination to re-watch Pedro Cabeleira’s inarguably intoxicating Damned Summer, it’s possible that I might find a sign-of-the-times story with a discernible beginning, middle and end. Probably not, though. As near as I can tell, it’s a slice-of-life depiction of young adults in Lisbon, waiting for jobs to appear out of thin air, but, until that happens, have enough drugs to keep them going until fall. The protagonist here is a handsome young philosophy major, Chico (Pedro Marujo), who, when we meet him, is visiting his grandparents in the boonies. There’s a discussion about the state of this season’s lemon crop, but the scene mostly exists to establish the character’s rural roots. On the way back to the capital, Chico and his more responsible brother engage in some horseplay under a gigantic wind turbine, It ends when the wrestling threatens to tarnish the brother’s uniform. The wind turbine probably is intended to represent Portugal’s transition from an agrarian economy to one dominated by urban-based industries. By all outward appearances, the clean-cut Chico is as responsible his brother. He has a job interview scheduled for the next day and probably thinks a degree in philosophy might lead to something fulfilling, besides slinging hamburgers or attending graduate school to study something useful. Looks are deceiving, however. Chico is one of several young people we appear content to hang out in public spaces and chat with friends about what they should be doing, instead of smoking pot. (Marijuana has long been decriminalized in Portugal, while the possession of stronger drugs will get the offender a ticket.) Nights are reserved for more communal activities in apartments of some of the same friends and lofts. Prominent among them are the nightly parties in makeshift dancehalls, where Chico and his uniformly attractive friends play musical partners, dance to electronic trance music and do E, cocaine and molly until the cows come home. Unless I missed something, that’s it. By comparison, Roger Corman and Jack Nicholson’s similarly hallucinogenic  The Trip (1967) is Citizen Kane. That isn’t to say, however, that Damned Summer is dull or without purpose,  because, like the music, the overall vibe can be hypnotic. The movie will appeal to people drawn to raves and vacations on Ibiza. The message here, if any, boils down to; have fun while you’re young, unemployed and don’t need more than an hour or two of activity to bounce back from a hangover. I can’t argue with that.

The Other Side of Everything
One needn’t have a post-graduate degree in modern European history to fully appreciate Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlic’s compelling documentary, The Other Side of Everything. A  bachelor’s degree and familiarity with the events that led to the Yugoslav Wars, from 1991 to 2001, should suffice. At once a homage to her mother – Belgrade-based academic and political activist Srbijanka Turajlić – and an exploration of how 100 years of political dysfunction and toxic nationalism have torn a country and its inhabitants into shreds. The movie opens with a question of identity. Before the civil war, many of the people we meet here considered themselves to be Yugoslavian and colored only by the various shades of red in the spectrum of communist and socialist beliefs. Within only a few years, however, we watch as census takers begin to ask pointed questions relating to a citizen’s ethnic background, religion, political leanings and travels outside Serbia. After the country’s breakup into individual republics, Turajlić became a vocal critic of Slobodan Milošević’s nationalist policies and repression of intellectuals, labor unions and students. While her friends voice different opinions on the validity of going to war to keep the country from splitting apart, Turajlić’s focus is on bringing democracy to Serbia. “Other Side” also recalls the impact of sanctions imposed on the republic by western governments and the 1999 bombing campaign by NATO forces to destroy Serbian infrastructure and prop up a pro-Albania government in Kosovo, led by the guerrilla paramilitary group KLA. (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008.) After presidential elections in September 2000, opposition parties accused Milošević of electoral fraud. A campaign of civil resistance followed, led by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a broad coalition of anti-Milošević parties. Turajlić recalls the optimism that quickly rose when a half-million people from around the country congregated in Belgrade, a month later, compelling Milošević to concede. Her dissatisfaction with the new government echoes the lyrics to the Who anthem, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” A parallel throughline in the film explains the title, The Other Side of Everything. After World War II, apartments belonging the people deemed “bourgeoise” were subdivided to allow several families to live in a space just big enough for one. Early on, Mila Turajlić asks her mother what’s behind a door that’s remained locked for as long as anyone can remember. When the door’s seal is finally cracked, the hidden room and the documentary, itself, reveal little more than a house and a country haunted by history. The parallels between Turajlić and her friends’ feelings of hopelessness, throughout the film, will remind some American viewers of their deepening concerns over the possibility of a second Trump administration.

The Whirlpool
After spending most of the last seven years in limbo, IndiePix’s The Whirlpool is being given a chance to find an audience on DVD and its subscription service. Apparently, the company has given up any thoughts of releasing its 2015 acquisition into theaters and is willing to take what it can get for it. Don’t bother looking for a review on the Internet, though, because all you’ll find is the same boilerplate description, repeated over and over, again. Primarily set in and around Niagara Falls, N.Y. – there’s even a stop at the infamously toxic Love Canal site – it features two French-speaking strangers who meet at the onetime Honeymoon Capital of America and, after some non-stop sex, will take their time returning to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Blond chain-smoking Agathe (Agathe Feoux) has come to the falls for no other reason than she’s heard it’s an interesting place to kill time –which it is — and its’s closer to France than the Grand Canyon. While standing on a ledge overlooking the falls, puffing away in the face of nature’s grandeur, Agathe is  approached by a fellow chain-smoker: the young, heavily accented Victor (Pierre Perrier), who, when he deigns to remove his shades, resembles Donny Osmond. After some idle chitchat, Agathe invites Victor to crash in her bare-bones motel room and devour her body … which he does. On the drive to Logan, the couple makes an inexplicable stop at a tidy home, overlooking a river, that once belonged to his father. They spend a couple of days there smoking, having sex and wearing clothes left behind by his father. It takes a while to learn that Agathe supports herself by trading sex with her therapist for prescription drugs, which she then sells to yuppies in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Viewers are encouraged to believe that Victor moved to Paris after the death of his parents, although it doesn’t explain the full-blown accent. Or, maybe, I just missed something. Maybe Victor will follow Agathe to Paris and maybe he won’t. That’s all there to this 80-minute throwback to experimental films of the 1960-70s, when such spontaneous hookups weren’t uncommon. The best thing in The Whirlpool is Claudia Carty’s spooky musical score, which doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening on the screen, but triggers emotional responses on its own,   would have worked better in a movie with characters whose sole virtue is in their boobs and bums. It definitely helps camouflage the increasing dullness of the sex, between a pair of increasingly dull, if beautiful people. It came as no surprise to learn that writer/director Alvin Case threw out his original script; abandoned the Mojave Desert idea for Upstate New York; added a male protagonist; and told the actors to improvise their lines, without rehearsals. It shows. The DVD adds interviews with Feoux and Perrier.

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Creepy Creatures
In this 74-minute compilation of “Wild Kratts” episodes, the gang isn’t sure what to do for Halloween. (I know what you’re saying, what happened to Labor Day?) Should they go trick-or-treating or simply enjoy a Halloween party? The Kratt Brothers decide that the best thing to do is discover some new holiday-appropriate creatures. But when they set off to find new cool and creepy friends, Martin and Chris discover that Zach and the other villains have come up with a plan to ruin Halloween.

The DVD Wrapup: Charlie Says, Reflecting Skin, Girl in the Fog, Souvenir, Girls of the Sun, Deep Space Nine, Sweet Alice, Penguin Highway, Jamestown, Patrick Melrose … More

Friday, August 9th, 2019

Charlie Says: Blu-ray
Released in May, between the arrivals of Daniel Farrands’ exploitative The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Quentin Tarantino’s vastly overhyped, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s decidedly underhyped, underexposed and lower key, Charlie Says, got lost in the wash. In the 50 years that have passed since the Tate–LaBianca murders, no touchstone anniversary or fruitless probation hearing has been allowed to pass unnoticed in the media. Almost three dozen movies and TV series have used the killings as a central motive, at least, and dozens of books and novels have been written about the perpetrators, victims and court cases. Only Che Guevara and Mickey Mouse have sold as many T-shirts as Charles Manson in the same period. The numbers tell us more about our appetite for scandal and other people’s pain than anything revelatory about the events of August 9 and August 10, 1969. The motivations behind such slaughter remain unfathomable. It was a freakish occurrence in the Season of the Witch … far less portentous than the current wave of massacres at Walmarts, schools and garlic festivals. That’s why no California governor since Ronald Reagan has dared allow the release from prison of several elderly women long deemed repentant and harmless to a society afraid of contagion. If music producer Terry Melcher – played in Charlie Says by Bryan Adrian — had been the highest profile celebrity murdered that night on Cielo Drive, instead of the pregnant blond wife of a Hollywood A-lister, the Manson Family would, by now, have been relegated to a list that includes such late-20th Century freakazoid cults as Heaven’s Gate, People’s Temple Jonestown, Branch Davidian, Order of the Solar Temple and Warren Jeffs’ polygamist collective.

Manson’s genius was for marketing madness and exploiting established brands: “Helter Skelter,” the Beach Boys, Life magazine, the Black Panthers, the lure of dune buggies in the desert. The trial, itself, provided a textbook example of how to stoke the coals of a media frenzy: Charlie inspired his “girls” to carve X’s into their forehead and maintain a noisy vigil outside the courthouse. He controlled the flow of leaked information to select reporters. Family member, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford with an unloaded weapon. Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, couldn’t leave well enough alone, either. He added another 15 minutes of fame to Manson’s celebrity clock, by admitting to sharing Jack Nicholson’s Jacuzzi with a teeny bopper, not far the Cielo Drive slaughterhouse, and, then, skipping town. He continued to control the press from prison, by limiting access to reporters and talk-show hosts and, then, speaking to them in riddles. So far, only Tarantino’s revisionist opus appears to have caught the attention of audiences, and that may be attributable more to the presence of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio than anything else. Despite a slew of excellent reviews, it’s yet to crack the $100-million barrier domestically, on a budget estimated to be $90 million. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is still rolling out in foreign markets, though, and that’s where the money has been for QT in recent years.

Harron and Turner’s Charlie Says takes a different tack, by attempting to make sense of Manson’s hypermagnetic hold on the women in the family. The Spahn Ranch may have been the white-trash equivalent to the Playboy Mansion, but how to explain the girls’ glee when it came to “shopping day” excursions to the dumpsters behind local groceries? Brainwashing, LSD, imperceptible IQs, daddy issues. Was it that simple? How, for instance, was Manson able to convince them that they “don’t exist” and, as such, couldn’t have committed the heinous crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to death. The movie argues that this bizarro belief lingered far after those two fateful summer nights in August 1969. The “girls” held on to it for years after the murders, even in the absence of their “father,” LSD and the orgies at the ranch. A better excuse would have been that psychotic aliens from Outer Space, borrowed the Tex and the girls’ bodies for a few hours, and did Charlie’s biding as a professional courtesy. Today, you could find a hundred lawyers to argue that defense.

Harron and Turner aren’t strangers to group psychosis and sociopathic male behavior. As an indictment of lingering Reaganomics and laissez-faire greed, their nihilistic American Psycho (2000) picked up where Wall Street left off, 13 years earlier. The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) demonstrated how pitifully men react when confronted with a free-spirited, sex-positive woman, who defies their hypocrisy by posing nude without shame or excuses. Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) told the story of radical feminist and author, Valerie Solanas, best known for writing the SCUM Manifesto, and attempting to murder Andy Warhol in 1968. Having spent the first 11 years of her life with the notorious quasi-hippie Lyman Family, Turner knows exactly what it means to be dominated by a fanatically authoritarian father figure (and, like Manson, a musician). She was raised in various communes around the U.S. with more than 100 devotees of the misogynistic Mel Lyman, who believed they would eventually live on Venus.

Turner based her screenplay for Charlie Says on former Fug Ed Sanders’s extremely well-researched and insightful “The Family” and Karlene Faith’s non-fiction, “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten.” (The author is portrayed in the film by Merritt Wever.) Sanders’ book provided fodder for the scenes leading up to Tate-LaBianca murders, as well as the hippie mindset in the late-1960s. Faith’s research allows viewers to see them in prison, still parroting Manson’s wacko theories and waiting impatiently to be executed. When the death penalty was declared unconstitutional, it threw a huge monkey wrench into their plans. No longer was Charlie in control of their destinies. Having to come to grips with the fact that they must live in the Here and Now for the next 40 to 50 years forces them to accept the reality of their “existence” as grown-ass women … not girls, interchangeable sex toys or water sprites. Bummer. With only the sketchiest of hopes for parole available to them, Lulu (Hannah Murray), Katie (Sosie Bacon), Linda (India Ennenga) and Sadie (Marianne Rendón) begin to understand where Faith has been attempting to take them in the time together. That’s how Charlie Says  separates itself from most of the other movies and books about the murders that I’ve seen. Matt Smith, the 11th incarnation of  Doctor Who, does a credible job portraying the pipsqueak psychopath, Manson, while Suki Waterhouse (Billionaire Boys Club), Sosie Bacon (“13 Reasons Why”), Marianne Rendón (“Imposters”) and Kayli Carter (“Godless”) are excellent as minions. Wever (“Nurse Jackie”) and Annabeth Gish are better than fine as prison officials. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette. Charlie Says isn’t perfect, by a long shot, but it does add some new twists to 50 long years of blah, blah, blah.

The Reflecting Skin: Blu-ray
Before the festival debut of The Reflecting Skin in August 1990, Philip Ridley was known for his ability to cross established media barriers and as a member of the visually audacious Young British Artists movement. As a novelist, the East Ender had already found success with “Crocodilia,” “In the Eyes of Mr. Fury” and “Flamingoes in Orbit.” While still a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art, he wrote the screenplay for Peter Medak’s acclaimed The Krays (1990), a fact-based gangster flick that starred brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet. Needless to say, however, what Ridley really wanted to do was write and direct his own material, as artists David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and George Miller (Mad Max) had done. Julian Schnabel would add non-experimental filmmaking to his resume in 1996, with Basquiat. Surprisingly, perhaps, The Reflecting Skin failed to find wide exposure, even in arthouses, and languished in distribution purgatory for more than 20 years. The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995) Heartless (2009) wouldn’t do much better. The Reflecting Skin deserves a much better shot on Blu-ray, where its attributes can’t be denied.

At first glance, Ridley’s genre-bending drama resembles a direct homage to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), which, had been shot in the same fields of wheat in Alberta, Canada. The centerpiece image of an isolated house in the middle of this sea of golden grain – one grand, the other not so much – is repeated in both movies, as well. They recall Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting, “Christina’s World.” (Malick was inspired, too, by Edward Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” and Benedict Family mansion, in Giant). The primary difference between the two landscapes comes in Ridley’s decision to paint the stalks of wheat a sunshine-bright shade of yellow and saturate the color balance. A cloudless blue sky adds yet another layer of color to the collage. Like Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography in Days of Heaven, Dick Pope’s contributions to The Reflecting Skin are breath-taking. Ridley diverts from Days of Heaven, as well, by adding another house to the property and, with it, a mystery. The inhabitants of the primary house look as if they might have blown there by the dust storms of the 1930s and stayed because they had nowhere better to go. Or, they could be descended from the farmer and daughter in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Ruth Dove (Sheila Moore) is strict on 8-year-old Seth (Jeremy Cooper), choosing to dote on her older son, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), a soldier in the Pacific. Ruth barely tolerates her husband, Luke (Duncan Fraser), a mechanic shamed by a past scandal, in which the local sheriff found him and an underage boy “in full embrace.”

The cottage inhabited by the enigmatic blond widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), stands as a memorial to her dead husband and his passion for whaling … 1,000 miles from the nearest large body of water. We’re introduced to her as she’s walking home from the nearest town and Seth and his friends play a shockingly grotesque prank on her. The boy has been fed a steady diet of horror stories by his father, causing him to believe that his almost translucent neighbor is a British vampire. He blames her for the recent disappearances and murders of his friends. Still, when Seth’s mother orders him to apologize to Dolphin, she welcomes him into her home and gives him a harpoon. Viewers will be given an alternate explanation for the murders, but Seth remains convinced of his neighbor’s passion for blood. When Cameron returns home from the Pacific, he’s a changed man. Haunted by photographs taken after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Cameron stokes his brother’s worst fears by seeking comfort in Dolphin’s arms. Seth feels it’s up to him to save Cameron from his friends’ fate. Just as Cameron’s mood begins to brighten, though, Ridley’s inescapable Cadillac of Doom pays one more visit to the farm. By the time Seth realizes the gravity of his role in the tragedies – telling lies that kept police off the trail of the most likely suspects – he feels as powerless, lonely and guilty as a boy could possibly be. The ending is extremely powerful. The filmmaker has described The Reflecting Skin as “Blue Velvet with children.” I thought I recognized elements of Harry Crews’ American-gothics. Bonus features include “Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of The Reflecting Skin,” director’s commentary and a new essay by film writers Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche. Film Movement’s 2K restoration is little short of brilliant.

The Girl in the Fog
Here’s another dandy European mystery that opened at a festival to favorable notices but was denied a shot at success in U.S. arthouses. Novelist/writer/director Donato Carrisi adapted The Girl in the Fog from his own best-selling book, set in the frequently hazy village of Avechot in the Italian Alps. Too long by 10 to 15 minutes, potential investors might have felt the movie hewed too closely to the text and contained too many suspects and false leads for easily distracted Americans to follow. Because I enjoy reading mysteries as much as I do seeing them adapted for the big screen, I wasn’t bothered by the 128-minute narrative. Better that than adding a superfluous love scene or compressing two or three key characters into one. The natural setting and fine acting easily held my interest. When 16-year-old Anna Lou Kastner (Ekaterina Buscemi) disappears into the fog on her way to church, odds favor the likelihood that something terrible will or already has happened to her. Apparently, Italy is no more immune from such horrors as similar locales in the United States. The expert investigator Vogel (Toni Servillo) is called to the village to investigate and, wherever he goes, a media horde follows. Indeed, Vogel appears to welcome their disruptive presence and tendency to step on each other’s toes. Jean Reno (Léon: The Professional) plays the village’s psychiatrist, Augusto Flores, who believes that the investigation might be better served in the absence of TV cameras. Because Anna Lou vanished two days before Christmas, early suspicion  focuses on her parents, who belong to a Christian cult. Soon, however, it turns to a boy who reported the girl missing. In turn, he implicates Loris Martini (Alessio Boni), a married professor whose theories on crime fiction and a barely disguised fondness for female students attract Vogel’s scrutiny. He’s also heavily in debt and could have staged the abduction to collect a ransom. Annoying TV journalist Stella Honer (Galatea Ranzi) muddles things up in ways only someone with her own financial interests in the outcome could possibly do. In this regard, however, she’s not alone. These days, a bungled investigation can be as profitable as a successful kidnapping. Vogel recalls how a false presumption in a previous case earned the prime suspect a windfall profit for his ordeal.  Carrisi leaves open the possibility that Anna Lou will reappear, out of the haze, and either identify the culprit – the dreaded Man in the Fog — or hide her own motives for vanishing. Complicated, sure, but not confusing. Watching Servillo (The Great Beauty) and Reno play cat-and-mouse provides a great deal of dark humor to the proceedings.

The Souvenir
It’s rare to find as effete a movie as Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical The Souvenir receive as many 100-point scores on Metacritic as it has since its debut at Sundance 2019. Although Hogg previously attracted the attention of critics with Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), she’s mostly known in Britain for her work in television serials.

While in her twenties, Hogg studied at the National Film and Television School, outside London, where her 1986 graduation piece, “Caprice,” starred a then-unknown Tilda Swinton. (Her debut feature, Caravaggio, would also be released that year.) Swinton and Hogg have been friends since they were 10 years old. The actor also witnessed first-hand the collapse of the relationship doomed to failure in The Souvenir. Most American observers, I think, would write off Hogg’s marriage as an example of what can happen to a privileged young woman, who falls so in love with a slightly older twit, that she doesn’t equate the track marks on his arm with heroin addiction. Curiously, her naivete doesn’t endear her to us. Neither does his heroin addiction. The natural trajectory of such a dysfunctional marriage plays out slowly, but inexorably throughout the length of The Souvenir. By the time Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) finally figures out what’s wrong with Frankie (Frankie Wilson), it’s too late. He surprises her by inviting his dealers to his home; begins to write checks she’ll have to cover when they bounce; overdoses; and stages break-ins to relief Julie of her heirlooms. Frankie redeems himself by being supportive of Julie’s creative endeavors – including a short film that is outside the parameters of her personal experiences. Ultimately, she’s as needy as he is.  Doomed marriages, like the one in The Souvenir, aren’t nearly as unusual in American lives and films  … or, for that matter, in such British films as Sid and Nancy (1986).

It’s Hogg’s intimate rendition of her own naivete, personal ambition and bourgeoise values that makes The Souvenir stand out from the pack. That, and her decision to cast Swinton and her real-life daughter, Honor, in roles that approximate Hogg’s relationship with her own mother. The entertainment media couldn’t be expected to ignore that happy coincidence. The title derives from a postcard replication of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th Century Rococo painting, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover onto a tree. The gift probably was the most genuine token of her husband’s love and appreciation of Julie’s artistic sensibilities. Another, far more curious “souvenir” from Frankie’s travels is a lingerie ensemble that could have been ordered from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. It might as well have been a straitjacket. Reportedly, all of the actors, expect Honor, were able to read the script before performing their scenes in front of the camera. Instead, Hogg provided her with personal diaries from the early 1980’s, along with notes, photographs, scripts and films she wrote and made at that point in her career. From these tools, Honor was told to improvise her lines and impulses, leaving the rest of the cast to react to them as well as they could. Hogg also gave Burke old letters, recordings and drawings from the man upon whom his character is based. Swinton, who’s played every conceivable role there is, perfectly fits the parameters of woman who might have shared her off-hours with Maggie Thatcher, playing canasta.

Girls of the Sun: Blu-ray
I don’t know if a feminist war movie – based on facts, not wishful thinking – could be made outside the specific experiences of women who’ve already survived hell and have nothing left to lose. No war in memory has so directly impacted women as ISIS’ ruthless attack on Kurdistan, during which non-Sunni Muslims, Yazidi and Christian males were slain outright and women forced or sold into sexual slavery. Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun introduces us to a contingent of female escapees, who have taken up arms against ISIS. They answer to a predominantly male military board, but are led by a woman, Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani). I can’t recall seeing anything like it. The achievements of individual female combatants have been displayed in such American wartime dramas as G.I. Jane (1997), Courage Under Fire (1996), Return (2011) and Home of the Brave (2006). The purported contributions of Red Army sniper Tania Chernova were acknowledged in Enemy at the Gates. Disney’s animated adaptation of the Chinese folktale, Mulan (1998), tells the story of a young Chinese maiden, who, when she learns that her weakened and lame father has been ordered to fight the invading Huns, takes his place, instead. (A live-action feature film, based on Mulan, is scheduled to open in March 2020.) Movies featuring women spies, ninja warriors, martial artists and comic-book heroines come and go with some regularity these days. Husson and co-writer Jacques Akchoti’s Girls of the Sun doesn’t claim to be based on any one person or battle to take back land. After coming across stories of women who escaped and took up arms, Husson decided to craft a movie that could be mistaken for a documentary, but, in fact, combined several different storylines. Girls of the Sun is such an inspirational film that it disappointed me to learn that the battle described wasn’t drawn from a single incident or specific group of women. It didn’t, however, detract from my enjoyment of the picture any more than the truth killed my enthusiasm for dozens of other Hollywood war films that I would learn were embellished.

Iranian-born Farahani (About Elly) is the leader of the platoon, which has been armed, outfitted and acknowledged by at least one faction of the Kurd military. If her character, Bahar, seems impatient to reclaim her former hometown, it’s because her son has been kidnapped and held in a school within view of her position on a hill above the city. It’s only a matter of time before ISIS will pull out, taking their prisoners with them or fighting until the last man on the battlefield is dead. The women decide to utilize a tunnel that leads from the hilltop to the school, where they hope to surprise the enemy. Knowing that the tunnel is booby-trapped, they convince a captured ISIS fighter to march ahead of them and point out places where explosives have been laid. There’s no reason to spoil how their mission goes. The conceit that prompted me to think that Girls of the Sun – the title refers to imagery on the Kurdish flag – might be real, however, is the inclusion of a war correspondent, with a patch over an eye damaged in a previous battle. Here, she’s a French photojournalist, Mathilde H. (Emmanuelle Bercot), but, in Matthew Heineman’s biographical A Private War (2018), she’s Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike). At first, it didn’t bother me. As time went on, however, I wondered if Mathilde H.’s constant presence wasn’t detracting from Husson’s depiction of Bahar’s mission, by putting equal weight on both characters. Special features include a Q&A session with Husson.

Penguin Highway: Blu-ray
It doesn’t take long for the magic in Makoto Ueda’s debut feature,  Penguin Highway, to reveal itself. Thousands of miles away from their natural habitats, several “waddles” of penguins suddenly appear in a small Japanese village. There’s no obvious reason for their exodus – a strong Southern wind or Pacific Ocean current – but neither is there one for the arrival of the giant silver orb that hovers above the ground in a meadow outside town.  A precocious fourth-grader, Aoyama-kun, takes it upon himself to investigate the mystery of the penguins in his village and how it relates to the oceanic orb and his attraction for a busty young dental hygienist, Onê-san, whose covered breasts are capable of bringing a pre-pubescent boy to his knees. (His undisguised longing is curiously handled in a film otherwise accessible to family audiences.) The mystery of their appearance deepens when Ayoama’s captured by bullies and tied to an isolated vending machine in the middle of nowhere. Onê-san pulls out cans of soda that inexplicably transform into penguins when tossed through the air. Even though she appreciates her ability to summon the birds, she can’t explain how it’s done. There are other miracles. Penguin Highway was adapted from a Tomihiko Morimi novel by Makoto Ueda. I hope that it’s recalled easily by Oscar voters when nominating panels meets later this year. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds an English dub track and interviews with Ishida and Morimi.

Project Ithaca: Blu-ray
What We Left Behind: Looking Back at ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’: Blu-ray
Born in the land of Canuxploitation, 38-year-old Dawson Creek native Nicholas Humphries churned out dozens of shorts and TV episodes, before trying his hand at genre features in 2014, with the slasher/horror/thriller Death Do Us Part. A year later, he turned in Mermaid’s Song, a twisted homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” set during the Dust Bowl. Typically, he leaves the writing to others. In Humphries’ gonzo alien-abduction thriller, Project Ithaca, those honors went to first-timer Kevin C. Bjerkness and veteran location assistant Anthony Artibello. I doubt that the director needs much more than a skeletal plot to get his creative juices flowing, however. Here, a group of strangers awakens aboard an alien spacecraft, restrained and orbiting Earth’s atmosphere. Each individual comes from a different place in time, ranging from the 1960s to 2050. The oldest captive, John (James Gallanders), was working with the American government, when he discovered an alien spacecraft that had crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, a few years earlier. An examination of the local populace reveals a woman carrying an unborn fetus that’s displaying serious abnormalities. After giving birth, the agents switch her baby with an infant whose mother died giving birth. The child will be used as a human guinea pig. On board the alien ship, the prisoners are able to determine their relative ages, places of birth and value to a snake-like creature that feeds off their fear. Having figured this out, the humans are able to stay one step ahead of the aliens, by thinking and retaining happy thoughts. This usually means returning to a time in their youth when they were most content. The aliens attempt to induce fear by forcing flashbacks to less pristine moments. The outcome of a final confrontation could be determined by the humans ability to kill fear with hope. In between, things on board the ship get a bit weird and sticky. At 85 minutes, the R-rated Project Ithaca could have benefited from a straighter throughline.

For those just tuning in to the nearly eternal “Star Trek” franchise, it’s worth knowing that Rick Berman and Michael Piller’s “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” originally aired from January 3, 1993, to June 2, 1999, in syndication, spanning 176 episodes over seven seasons. It was the fourth series in the television-based series. It is set in the 24th Century, when Earth is part of a United Federation of Planets, and the Deep Space Nine ship is parked in the vicinity of the liberated planet of Bajor, adjacent to a wormhole connecting Federation territory to the Gamma Quadrant on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy. Compared to the original series and “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” faced resistance from some diehard fans of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. It was criticized for being too “dark,” “edgy” and “the black sheep” of the Star Trek family. Others favored “DSN” for the very same reasons. The comprehensive retrospective documentary, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,’” takes a detailed look at the series, including brand-new interviews with members of the cast and crew; a dozen deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes featurettes, with the cast and crew; character studies; a discussion of the HD restoration process with the producers; a musical reunion with  composers Dennis McCarthy and Kevin Kiner; and a 50-minute roundtable discussion with directors Ira Steven Behr, David Zappone and the film’s producers. The  Shout Factory release should serve as an essential addition to any Trekkie’s library.

One Bedroom
After five years of ups and downs, an African American couple spends their final afternoon together having sex, arguing and remembering better days. Melissa (Devin Nelson) is moving out of Nate’s family-owned apartment, which has been gentrified along with the neighborhood, itself. Writer/director/co-star Darien Sills-Evans plays the 30-something yuppie, who splits his time between working at a local barbershop – a nod to the neighborhood’s black heritage – and as a DJ at an upscale nightclub. She’s a teacher. One Bedroom combines humor and drama to show how perfectly matched his protagonists are, despite the secrets that are revealed in flashbacks. Not only has Nate cheated on Melissa, but, deep into the revelatory process, Melissa describes one of her own. Nate is required by barbershop law to spill the beans to his pals on the couple’s final day together, while Melissa is obligated to share her story with her friends, one or two of which  might want to take advantage of the separation. Nate knows that any perspective suitors would be as interested in sharing his apartment as in becoming his lover. For her part, Melissa knows that her biological clock isn’t likely to slow down while she seeks another mate. Despite some angry bickering, One Bedroom is surprisingly easy on viewers’ eyes and ears. The characters are likable; the women are attractive; the men are generally agreeable; and the musical soundtrack is excellent. Bonus features include cast auditions; commentary with Sills-Evans and Nelson; and soundtrack samples.

Alice, Sweet Alice: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Chill Factor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Not all Arrow Video releases are created equal. Some are interesting solely for early appearances by major stars, while others test the limits of the genre. Alfred Sole’s twisty, low-budget thriller, Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), is recommendable for its ability to keep audiences guessing as to the identity of the person who murders Brooke Shields’s Karen Spages, on the day of her First Holy Communion. At the time, Shields was an unknown commodity and a bargain hire for Sole. Her breakthrough film, Pretty Baby, would arrive two years later. The bigger draw would have been Linda Miller, who was the daughter of Jackie Gleason, and former wife of playwright/actor Jason Miller. A graduate of the University of Florence, with a degree in architecture, Sole thought that he could make some quick money by producing a porno. And, he did. The tongue-in-cheek hardcore parody Deep Sleep (1972) starred emerging adult stars Harry Reems, Jamie Gillis and Georgina Spelvin. The movie was pulled from theaters on charges that it was obscene, and all prints were confiscated. Four years later, Sole returned to his hometown of Paterson, N.J., to make the R-rated, Alice, Sweet Alice. After Karen is killed by someone in a yellow raincoat and full-face mask, other people with connections to the Catholic Church are also murdered. Her extremely jealous sister, Alice (Paula E. Sheppard), becomes the immediate suspect in the eyes of everyone except her mother. Could the solution to the mystery be that easy to solve? Yes … and no. Sole continues to ratchet up the tension, even after viewers will have assumed the obvious. The upgraded presentation adds new audio commentary, with genre specialist Richard Harland Smith; archival commentary with co-writer/director Sole and editor Edward Salier; “First Communion: Alfred Sole Remembers Alice, Sweet Alice,”; “In the Name of the Father,” a new interview with actor Niles McMaster; “Sweet Memories: Dante Tomaselli on Alice, Sweet Alice,” in which Sole’s cousin discusses his longtime connection to the film; “Lost Childhood: The Locations of Alice, Sweet Alice,” a tour of the original shooting locations, hosted by author Michael Gingold; an alternate “Holy Terror” television cut; a deleted scene; alternate opening titles; original screenplay; image gallery; and, first pressing only, a collector s booklet with essay by Michael Blyth.

Having grown up in the wilds of Wisconsin, I know that hunting deer and racing snowmobiles are right up there with grilling brats and swilling brandy-based cocktails, as seasonal pastimes. The further north of the “tension line” one goes, the more cheese curds are eaten. Christopher Webster and writer Julian Weaver’s The Chill Factor was shot in Eagle River, “The Snowmobile Capital of the World,” which is only a hop, skip and very long jump to Hayward, where the annual Lumberjack World Championships are held. Hayward is also home to the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, which is housed inside the belly of a giant muskellunge. Troma’s Blood Hook (a.k.a., “Muskie Madness”) was shot there.

Northern Wisconsin isn’t the most congenial of locations for the creation of feature films. Summer (a.k.a., mosquito season) in the region can be as difficult a place to shoot as Martha’s Vineyard on Fourth of July or New Orleans during Mardi Gras. In the fall, bow hunters stalk the woods, giving way only to rifle-toting deer hunters, after the first snowfall. Fangoria Films’ Children of the Night (1991), Leszek Burzynski’s Trapped Alive (1988), Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) and The Chill Factor (1993) were shot near the border with U.P., which, by all rights, should be part of Wisconsin. The latter two did so during snowstorms. In Weaver’s thriller, a group of young couples find several ways to turn a snowmobiling excursion into a waking nightmare. During an impromptu race on a frozen lake one of their number is thrown from his vehicle, knocked unconscious and seriously wounded. While a friend elects to seek help in the nearest city, the others take shelter in an abandoned summer camp that holds more secrets than most other cabins in the woods. They include bizarre religious artifacts, books, photos and a sort of Ouija board. What they don’t know is that the camp was once used by a satanic cult for its rituals and is still infested by demons. Barely released outside of its original VHS outing (for which it was retitled “Demon Possessed”), The Chill Factor is given the same red-carpet treatment as was provided Trapped Alive, by Arrow, in January. In addition to the 2K restoration from original film elements, Arrow adds original uncompressed stereo audio;
new commentary with special effects artist Hank Carlson and horror writer Josh Hadley; new interviews with makeup artist Jeffery Lyle Segal, production manager Alexandra Reed and stunt coordinator Gary Paul; a still gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach; and a collector s booklet, with new writing by Mike White.

Acorn/Showtime: Patrick Melrose: Blu-ray
PBS: Jamestown: The Complete Season 3
PBS: Frontline: Sex Trafficking in America
Universal Kids: The Jungle Bunch
Sesame Street: Dance Party!
While there’s no guarantee that Sky/Showtime’s  acerbic mini-series, “Patrick Melrose,” will be renewed for a second season, word has reached the trades that the relevant parties are “talking,” at least. Working in the favor of approval are the BAFTA awards recently accorded the mini-series and Best Actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Working against renewal is the fact that the author Edward St Aubyn only wrote five novels in the series and each one was adapted in Season One, thus necessitating several more original screenplays. Jump-starting a series after such a long hiatus is no easy trick, either. Although St Aubyn was born rich, his journey through life has been far from simple or uneventful. His father abused him; his mother ignored his needs; and he became addicted to alcohol and drugs in his teens. The second act in his life required him to achieve and maintain sobriety, which isn’t much fun or simple, especially while surrounded by barely functioning addicts and temptations. Cumberbatch’s tightly measured  portrayal could hardly be more convincing. His supporting cast appears to have been born to the manor, as well. Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh play his monstrous parents. Also along for the ride are such fine actresses as Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Indira Varma, Morfydd Clark, Jessica Raine, Allison Williams and Harriet Walter, as Princess Margaret.

For those who tuned in late, the Sky/PBS series “Jamestown” is a period soap opera set in the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. It was located on the northeast bank of the James (Powhatan) River, less than three miles southwest of the center of modern Williamsburg, Virginia. The mini-series begins in 1619, 12 years after a group of British men founded the settlement, and the arrival of three women expected to marry the lucky colonists. Not everything goes as anticipated, of course. Season Three begins three years later, in 1622. The Virginia Company’s investment is bearing fruit, but there’s still plenty of time left for political intrigue, romantic entanglements, rumor mongering and a bit of hoodoo on the side. A fragile truce between the native Pamunkey Indians and colonists appears to be holding. (The Brits have already wiped one tribe off the map.) Accused of treason, Silas Sharrow (Stuart Martin) has been offered sanctuary by the Pamunkeys. The eldest Sharrow’s infant son, by Winganuske (Rachel Colwell), dies after Henry (Max Beesley) refuses to allow him to be treated by Indian medicine men. Slaves Pedro (Abubakar Salim) and Maria (Abiola Ogunbiyi) have earned certain freedoms, but not the right to marry. And, that only takes us to the second episode of Season Three. Things get far messier as the show heads inexorably to its conclusion. (I recommend going back and start with Season One.) The Blu-ray adds making-of material and interviews.

PBS’ “Frontline: Sex Trafficking in America” travels to Phoenix, where underage girls are coerced into prostitution by street thugs, to whom they were introduced on the Internet. There’s nothing glamorous or sexy in the practice of the world’s oldest profession here. None of the escorts resembles Julie Roberts, in Pretty Woman, and their pimps aren’t a fraction as cool as Terrence Howard, in Hustle & Flow. They’re the dregs of society. Even so, the wheels of justice grind slow for the women rescued from “the life.” Filmed over three years, the “Frontline” investigation may not break a lot of new ground on the subject, but it does show how seriously the computerized vice cops take their jobs.

A feature-length version of the French animated series, “The Jungle Bunch,” was released here in 2017 to no critical acclaim and negligible box-office returns. Even so, a new movie is already in the works. As directed by David Alaux, the story revolves around characters, such as Maurice, who “may look like a penguin, but is a real tiger inside.” Raised by a tigress, Maurice and his friends, the Jungle Bunch, intend to maintain order and justice in the jungle, as his mother did before him. The evil koala, Igor – Is such a thing even possible? – confronts the bunch with his army of silly baboons.

In “Sesame Street: Dance Party!,” Elmo, Abby, and the rest of the crew are throwing a party and inviting all of their fans. Join in the fun as Zoe choregraphs a ballet, Nina teaches dances from all around the world and Elmo records a music video. Guests include Jason Derulo, Janelle Monae and Ne-Yo.

The DVD Wrapup: Long Shot, Mountain Rest, Brighton Rock, Wildland, Ayiti Mon Amour, Hammer, Leopard Man, Woodstock, Manhunt and more

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Long Shot: Blu-ray
Typically, any movie in which a great beauty (Charlize Theron) woos and wins a likeable, but sloppy nebbish (Seth Rogan), the romantic comedy would require that a spell be cast on her, first. Or, that she’s seeing something in him that the director forgot to add to the story. Shakespeare played games like that on his characters all the time. In Jonathan Levine’s often captivating opposites-attract comedy, Long Shot, viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief every bit as high as Shakespeare did in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” without an assist from Nick Bottom or Puck. That might have been even more fun to watch. Theron’s strait-laced Secretary of State Charlotte Field is as sexy, fashionable and ambitious as any public servant, maybe, in the history of the government post. Without a Puck-substitute whispering in her ear, it’s unthinkable that she would fall for an idealistic investigative reporter, Fred Flarsky  (Rogan), who hasn’t changed his basic wardrobe since middle school. Even he considers himself to be out of her league. A least two things work in his favor, though. Field’s closest advisors, played by Ravi Patel and June Diane Raphael, understand that their single boss is obsessed with the likelihood that President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) will endorse her candidacy when he leaves the White House for an acting job in Hollywood. If only … They encourage her to begin dating the handsome, if vapid Canadian prime minister (Alexander Skarsgard) – whose greatest talent is ballroom dancing  — who would help soften her D.C.-career-woman exterior. Then, too, at a typical A-list charity event, to which the just-fired reporter has been invited by a childhood buddy (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to partake in free cocktails, Flarsky recognizes Charlotte as the 16-year-old babysitter who gave him his first boner, when he was 13. Upon further reflection, he also remembers that she was a passionate crusader for environmental causes, but needed his help articulating those beliefs when she ran for a position on the student council. It isn’t until Fred picks a fight with an unprincipled media mogul (Andy Serkis), who just bought the company from which he was fired, that Field senses a long-severed connection between them. Attracted by Fred’s passionate rant, which causes him to be pushed down a flight of stairs, Field decides that he’d make a terrific addition to her team, as a speechmaker, a proposal her advisors greet with horror.

Now, based on just that much information, most people who haven’t already seen the movie should be able to predict, with about 80 percent accuracy, what will happen in Long Shot’s second half. What isn’t predictable, however, is the easy rapport generated between Theron and Rogan, as actors and characters, and some wild-card plot twists that enliven the proceedings considerably. They include the Secretary of State hilariously negotiating a hostage exchange, while stoned to the gills on the “party drug,” Molly; an unsanctioned romance within the campaign staff; and Field’s ability to find the butterfly within her caterpillar’s cocoon. None of these things make Long Shot that much more credible, but, like I said, an ability to suspend disbelief is necessary for any of this to be taken seriously or lightheartedly. Writers Liz Hannah (The Post) and Dan Sterling (The Interview) provided Levine with a story that played to his offbeat strengths, as demonstrated in such previous comedies as The Wackness (2008), 50/50 (2011), Warm Bodies (2013 and Snatched (2017). Together, they took an unlikely, illogical and intermittently off-putting concept and delivered a commercial comedy that should have done better than barely break even at the domestic and international box office.

I suspect that Rogan’s fan base, which embraces gross-out and stoner humor, wasn’t ready to welcome a Washington-based, at time when everything happening in nation’s capital is remotely funny. It’s also possible that the same younger skewing audiences that accepted Theron’s breathtaking presence in such actioners as The Fate of the Furious (2017), Atomic Blonde (2017) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), weren’t willing to cross genre borders to watch such challenging dramas as Gringo (2018), Tully (2018) and The Last Face (2016). Indeed, some of Rogan’s fans were barely out of their diapers when Theron’s Oscar-nominated role in North Country (2005), and the Best Actress-winning, Monster (2003), were honored. When Katharine Hepburn was her age, 44, or thereabouts, she was making such time-honored pictures as Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) and Pat and Mike (1952), alongside Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Hollywood simply isn’t interested in actresses of a certain age, unless they’re willing to make comic-book, action and fish-out-of-water pictures (nudity preferable). The thing that bothered me about Long Shot, far more than anything else, however, was my own inability to imagine a scenario in which the characters were reversed by gender and age. I couldn’t, for example, picture a male diplomat of Field’s age and pulchritude becoming enamored with an unkempt reporter played by Rebel Wilson, Lena Dunham, Gabourey Sidibe or Amy Schumer. That might make sense if the male Secretary of State were much older  – Harrison Ford, Woody Allen, Michael Douglas – and those women reminded him of his daughter. Would Hollywood buy a LGBTQ version of Long Shot, starring a gay Rogan in Theron’s place and Jonah Hill as the familiar face in the crowd, or an out-lesbian Jane Lynch as the secretary and former babysitter of sexually ambiguous Theron. Hollywood hasn’t come that far, yet, and neither has the American public. But, then, my discomfort might have caused by the romances on TMC, in which not-at-all-handsome older men always win the hearts of smart and pretty women, invariably in their 20s, who willingly sacrifice their youths to marry a rich geezer with a serious heart condition. The excellent Blu-ray edition of Long Shot arrives with a collection of interviews, making-of featurettes and background material, including, “Hanging With Boyz II Men,” with the hit 1990s band that provides the music and several of the big laughs in Long Shot.

Mountain Rest: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Body at Brighton Rock
Twenty years ago, or so, an article in Entertainment Weekly – a magazine that no longer exists in print form – prompted Jesse Jackson to fly into town and castigate everyone from studio and AMPAS executives, to the guilds and casting directors, for not adhering to fair hiring practices among job candidates of color and race. Jackson had statistics, raw data and conjecture on his side. When pressed, Hollywood responded by pointing the finger at the guilds and unions, which hold sway over certain hiring practices, and promising to organize committees to study the questions raised. Some have borne fruit. (Today, activists representing LGBTQ, people with disabilities and Asian Americans are making their presence known.) I think there’s actually been some improvement on hiring practices, but I’d be surprised if they amounted to gains of more than 10 percent, one way or another. Last year, in the wake of some industry-wide  soul searching, the issue of underrepresentation among women filmmakers and other behind-the-camera talent was promoted alongside problems concerning harassment and jobs-for-sex practices. In 2006, sexual-assault survivor Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too,” as a way to unite women and girls, who had also survived sexual violence. It would take another 10 years before such high-profile actresses as Ashley Judd, Alyssa Milano, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman, Rose McGowan and Asia Argento felt the time was finally right to blow the whistle on Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein and other less-prominent executives. The list of men accused of being serial harassers includes Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, John Lasseter and  James Toback.

Like Weinstein, Chicago recording artist R. Kelly was able to use his economic clout within the entertainment industry to avoid being imprisoned on charges that include rape, sexual abuse of minors, child pornography and obstruction of justice. After 17 years of dogged reporting, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis may finally see his hard work rewarded with a conviction of Kelly on myriad counts. The singer has slipped through the justice system before, however. Some observers believe that case against Weinstein could be endangered by legal loopholes and the victims’ willingness to engage the obese mogul, by taking him up on invitations to give him massages and have sex with him. While it’s impossible to gauge how their trials might conclude – last week, seemingly rock-solid charges again Spacey were dropped – it’s now obviously that entertainment-industry executive won’t act on a woman’s complaints, unless the evidence against him has reached critical mass. The term, “casting couch,” has been bandied about in entertainment circles – theater, film, television – since the 1920s and alluded to in several pre-Code movies. The dancer, Agnes de Mille, is quoted as saying, “If you didn’t sleep with them (the Shubert brothers), you didn’t get the part. The Shuberts ran a brothel: Let them sue me.” According to Marilyn Monroe, “I spent a great deal of time on my knees,” she once said of how she became a film star. “If you didn’t go along, there were 25 girls who would.” A quote from Judd published in Time (October 23, 2017) testified to Weinstein’s power: “How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?” So, the media is as much to blame for ignoring the psycho-sexual implications of sex-based hiring. They could have blown the whistle decades ago, but they lacked sources who would speak on the record or assumed that it was simply the way business is done … and not just in Hollywood or on Broadway, either.

What does any of that have to do with Mountain Rest or Body at Brighton Rock? Seemingly nothing, but a little bit of everything on the periphery of women’s struggles in the movie business. Both are the brainchildren of women — Alex O Eaton, Roxanne Benjamin — making their feature debuts in movies that deserved a great deal more attention than they received … before, during and after their similarly limited release. Mountain Rest stars three formidable actresses in roles that are meatier than what we usually see these days, even in indie circles. Key technical jobs are filled by women making the transition from shorts and assistantships to theatrical films.  Mountain Rest benefits most from the presence of Frances Conroy, playing an elderly actress who left her family years earlier to pursue a career in Hollywood, where the “casting couch” culture got in the way of a career; Ethel’s estranged daughter, Frankie (Kate Lyn Sheil), who left her Blue Ridge home when her mother’s eccentricities got to be too much for her; and Frankie’s daughter, Clara (Natalia Dyer), who, while being smart and clever, is hardly ready to meet Ethel’s inner circle of friends. That includes the much younger, Bascolm (Shawn Hatosy), who could be Ethel’s boy toy, a gold digger or her overly attentive caregiver. Despite their age discrepancy, it’s possible for viewers to like the soft-spoken mountain man. Eaton leaves open the possibility that Bascolm is paying too much attention to Clara, who looks as if she just graduated from high school. The daughters have traveled to the curiously appointed cabin to attend one of her mother’s locally famous costume parties. Residual tension from Frankie’s childhood permeates their time together, making Clara wonder where she stands in the overall picture. Two questions will be answered by the end of the 92-minute drama: what really caused the death of Ethel’s husband, several years earlier; and what she’s likely to reveal to her friends at the conclusion of the party. Eaton rather deftly keeps both of those balls bouncing in the air, with only a few clues as to what’s going to happen before the credits roll. All of the actors are terrific – Dyer will be familiar from “Stranger Things,” while Sheil remains busy in supporting roles on TV and in movies (“House of Cards,” Buster’s Mal Heart). Conroy delivers the kind of performance critics once described as being a “tour de force.” In her hands, Ethel is simultaneously eccentric, jaded, angry, intimidating, caring and completely enigmatic. Credit also belongs to cinematographer Ashley Connor (Madeline’s Madeline), who deftly captures the majesty of the region’s mountains and rivers, and the minutiae and tchotchkes that clutter the cabin. (Conveniently, it belongs to Eaton’s parents.)  Bonus features include interviews with Eaton, Dyer and Sheil, and deleted scenes. As small as Mountain Rest is, it delivers a big punch.
Body at Brighton Rock also is set in an almost overwhelmingly scenic range  of mountains, this one the San Jacinto mountains near Idyllwild (a 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, without traffic). The movie fits easily within the general parameters of “horror,” as well as its lost-in-the-woods subgenre. The protagonist is a wet-behind-the-ears park ranger, Wendy, played by Karina Fontes, who looks 19, but could probably be mistaken for being much older or slightly younger than that. Wendy is the kind of employee who’s routinely late for work, but covets the most rewarding assignments, anyway. On the particular day in question, Wendy trades a headquarters job for one that takes her into the wilderness, albeit stapling warning signs on the bark of large trees. Naturally, she finds a way to screw up such a basic task, by stepping off a trail and landing several dozen feet below, in a steep chasm. It causes her to lose her map, flashlight and any sense of where she is. Once Wendy is able to climb to a rocky promontory, she takes a selfie and transmits it back to HQ. Not only is she not on the peak that she imagines herself to be, but her friends can’t identify her location, either. As she scans the area below the peak, Wendy is told that there’s a body lying on the ground, no more than 100 feet away. Her boss tells her to remain where she is, until help arrives the next morning. Needless to say, Wendy can’t resist the temptation to disturb what could be a crime scene by searching the body for an ID. Her supervisor isn’t pleased. She also spots a tent that’s been there for an indeterminate period of time. As dusk turns into the pitch-black darkness of the wilderness at night. She tries to sleep but being so near a corpse freaks her out. Among the things that go bump in the night are a nearby bear and other potential threats. Wendy then begins to believe that the body has shifted while she wasn’t looking. By dawn, she’s happy to be alive … at least until she encounters a sinister-looking hiker and very hungry bear. Anyone who thinks they’ve seen this movie before may change his/her mind when the frighteningly discordant and completely unnerving music of the Gifted kicks in, alongside the sound effects created by Foley artist Matt Davies. The ambient sounds of the forest at night would be enough to frighten anyone lost and alone in a desolate corner of the national forest. The manmade sounds only add a palpable sense of menace to the second half of the movie. Fontes is convincing in the lead role, but, once again, it’s Hannah Getz’ cinematography that seals the deal. People who don’t spend a lot of time in SoCal probably don’t have the proper appreciation of the dangers presented by our mountains and forests. The fact is that seasoned hikers and campers get lost there all the time, sometimes requiring extensive searches by mountain-rescue teams and helicopters, sometimes for days. Besides bears, the threats include flash floods, cougars, fearless raccoons, snakes and all manner of nasty insects. Homeless people, meth cookers and Manson Family wannabes also have been known to inhabit the Alpine wilderness. Benjamin does a nice job keeping viewers in the moment and on the edge of their seats. And Wendy doesn’t look as if she could scare off a doe, let alone go mano a mano with a two- or four-legged predator. And, lest we forget, what’s the deal with the corpse? I have a feeling that both pictures would have benefited from a gender-neutral marketplace or, at least, one that doesn’t punish female filmmakers for creating films in settings dominated by male instincts. Perhaps, it isn’t too late for Indie Spirit Awards judges to give both films a second look. I’d be surprised if anyone turns in a better performance this  year than Conroy, in Mountain Rest, or either of the DPs.

Wildland: Special Edition: Blu-ray
This compelling documentary also takes place in the rugged mountains of California, some parts of which were ravaged in last year’s fires. The team of brave men and women we meet in Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson’s Wildland covers a vast swath of greenery … or brownery, depending on the season. It extends from the Monterey Peninsula, on the Central Coast, to the marijuana farms of northern California, where growers occasionally burn the crops of their rivals. The doc couldn’t be more timely. Filmed over one eventful summer, Wildland (a.k.a., “Young Men and Fire”) is a sweeping yet deeply personal account of a single firefighting crew, as they struggle with fear of the unknown, fear of the know, apprehension over their emerging skills, loyalty to their teammates, dreams of getting a foothold in life and lingering demons from a less disciplined period. What emerges is a rich story of working-class Americans, who, for their own reasons have elected to risk their lives to protect the property of Uncle Sam and others. Some of those reasons include good money, a pursuit of “grit” and “adventure,” a resistance to urban conformity, and an opportunity to prove they deserve a second or third shot at becoming a valued member of society. Wildland is similar to Joseph Kosinski’s sadly underappreciated Only the Brave (2017) and the History Channel documentary, Fire on the Mountain (1999), both of which, in the end, were headline-making tragedies that demonstrated both the risks of the job and the power of a unchecked blaze. The former covers the devastating loss suffered by Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013. The latter describes the events and aftermath of the South Canyon Fire, on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994, which took the lives of 14 firefighters and smokejumpers. Fire on the Mountain was based on John Maclean’s non-fiction book of the same title. (Maclean’s father, Norman, wrote “Young Men and Fire,” which chronicled the Mann Gulch Fire of August 1949 and the 13 men who died there.) In Wildland, things get very real, very quickly for the trainees, when they are alerted to the death of a fellow Grayback Forestry employee, in a fire still raging hundreds of miles east of where they are. The doc focuses on the basic education of men and women who have only the vaguest idea of what Grayback employees can expect to endure during fire season, from the grunt work of laying hose lines to the intensity of confronting a lightning-fast blaze with a mind of its own. Simply watching the training exercises, led by coordinator Ed Floate and base manager Sean Hendrix, will exhaust most viewers. Bonus features include alternate trailers, a stills gallery and deleted scenes.

Ayiti Mon Amour
Haitian American filmmaker Guetty Felin had focused primarily on documentaries, before taking on this compelling tale of magical realism, set in Haiti, five years after the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake. (It seems as if the divided-island nation experiences one sort of a natural disaster, epidemic, famine or political upheaval every five years or so.) Ayiti Mon Amour debuted at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, but, after hitting a couple of other festivals and being shown in Haiti, a year later, it pretty much disappeared. It had become the country’s first representative in AMPAS’ highly competitive Best Foreign Language category, but, until recently, lacked distribution on video or PPV. Finally, Indiepix and Indiepix Unlimited came to the rescue. Ayiti Mon Amour shouldn’t missed. Unlike the many Hollywood and European movies set in Haiti, usually against a backdrop of war, voodoo or political corruption, it is rooted in village life and the ways poor people cope with being ignored by the rest of the world. In Kabic, a small southeast fishing village outside of Jacmel, we’re introduced to four key characters trying to make sense out of their existence. Orphée is a mixed-race teenager, who lost his father in the earthquake and is being bullied by the darker and more athletic locals. One day, Orphée (Joakim Cohen) discovers he possesses a special electrifying power, drawn from the rhythms of the sea. An elderly fisherman, Juares (Jaures Andris), spends most of his time caring for his ailing wife, Odessa (Judith Jeudy), and teaching the teenager some of the tricks of the trade. Her disease derives from the sea and can only be cured through its healing powers. The beautiful and mysterious Ama (Anisia Uzeyman) is the main character of an unfinished novel being written by an uninspired writer, who decides to quit the story and leave Ama to fend for her fictional self. to live a life of her own. Then, too, there are the swaths of discarded clothing, which contain the spirits of the dead and are animated by underwater currents. Herve Cohen’s cinematography captures the native colors of the village and the sea, from above and below its surface. The music is similarly captivating.

Domino: Blu-ray
Although the calendar on the wall tells me that it’s been seven years since any film carrying Brian De Palma’s directorial credit has been released, unless, of course, one counts last year’s re-release on Blu-ray of Sisters (1972) and Arrow Video’s “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films,” with Hi, Mom (1970), Greetings (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969). The 2012 picture, Passion (2012), may have made next to no money, but it was taken seriously by critics and cinephiles who knew where to look for the filmmaker’s usual blend of homages, trademark ticks and traits, and gimmicks that some regard as self-indulgent. That’s always been the case with De Palma, whose Hitchcockian references have been admired and dismissed in equal measure. In any case, it’s far easier to dissect his work on DVD/Blu-ray, which allows time for a closer inspection. And, how many films today can stand up to the scrutiny allowed by a viewer’s pause, slow motion and frame-by-frame capabilities. With Domino, written by Petter Skavlan (The 12th Man), it’s pretty obvious that De Palma quickly tired of answering to reps from as many as 15 separate production companies and financial problems that could have been predicted from the git-go. It’s one thing to hire a director for his reputation and marketability, but quite another to cut him off at the knees before the ink on the first press release dries. De Palma described it as a “horrible experience.” Even so, an underfinanced and troubled thriller by – lest we forget — the creator of Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996) and Femme Fatale (2002) is bound to be more entertaining than most of the films churned out by the major studios, especially those destined for direct-to-video status.

Domino opens with a pair of Danish cops answering a domestic dispute call in a Copenhagen apartment building. Turns out, the loud noises heard by neighbors are the result of the tortuous inquisition of one terrorist by another, Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). He’s got a beef against ISIS, which beheaded his father for not being in step with the gang’s radical beliefs. Completely unprepared to deal with anyone more dangerous than an angry spouse, the cops misread Tarzi’s ability to escape from handcuffs and pull a knife from a place they weren’t likely to search. The result is a seriously wounded cop, Lars (Søren Malling), and a rooftop fight that ends when his partner, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) – who left his gun in the car – falls and lands on the pavement next to Tarzi. Before Christian can recover his bearings, a team of black-ops types grabs the barely conscious terrorist and take him to a safe house, where he can be tortured according to CIA standards. Agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) convinces Tarzi to cooperate with his team in pursuit of a common enemy. Meanwhile, Danish police want to arrest the CIA asset in the now-fatal assault on Lars. In the ensuing chase, Christian and Alex (Carice van Houten) bounce from Copenhagen, to Belgium, Amsterdam and southern Spain, where ISIS militants plan to explode a bomb at a bullfight. Tarzi, Martin, Christian and Alex converge on the Plaza de Toros de Almería at approximately the same time as a drone launched by the terrorists takes off from the rooftop of a nearby hotel. As complicated as that scenario sounds – and is – De Palma finds a way to slow down the action, without sacrificing any pent-up tension or suspense. Meanwhile, the tour of Europe is both entertaining and enticing.

The House Is Black
It’s safe to say that most people’s concept of leprosy is limited to the scene in Ben-Hur (1959), during which Charlton Heston visits the Valley of the Lepers to claim his mother and sister. He wants to take them to Jerusalem, where he will petition Jesus to heal them. Although JC was crucified just prior to their arrival, they are cured in the ensuing wave of earthquakes. The miracle turns all three of their hearts to Christianity. It would take most of the next 2,000 years for people’s attitudes toward the treatment and segregation of lepers (a.k.a., people afflicted with Hansen’s disease) to change. In 1999, Paul Cox’s Molokai: The Story of Father Damien described how the Belgian missionary’s commitment to the his flock required him to live under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokaʻi. The facility existed from 1866 to 1969, when effective antibiotic treatments were developed and administered to patients on an outpatient basis, rendering them non-contagious. Ironically, after 11 years caring for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of his parishioners, Father Damien discovered that he, too, had contracted leprosy. He continued with his work for another five years, finally succumbing to the disease on April 15, 1889. Several other movies have used Molokaʻi as a backdrop for the profiles of the priest and his successor, Marianne Cope (a.k.a., Saint Marianne of Molokaʻi), who was every bit as dedicated to the colony’s residents as Damien and, likewise, canonized for her good work. Despite direct contact with the patients over many years, Cope did not contract the disease.

Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad opens her first and only film, The House Is Black (1963) with a quote: “There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more.” Only 20 minutes long, the little-seen docu/essay is interspersed with other quotes from Farrokhzad’s poetry, the Old Testament and the Koran. The film took viewers to Tabriz’ Bababaghi Hospice, which is located in the far northern province of East Azerbaijan. The community doesn’t appear to be forcibly segregated from the rest of society, although it’s certainly possible that it was. Rather, it’s just as possible to consider the hospice as a place where people afflicted with leprosy have chosen to the live, if only to avoid the stares and grimaces of “normal” people in reaction to the scars and other deformities they must endure. None of the residents appears to be outwardly afflicted in the same way. One man demonstrates his ability to exhale the smoke from his cigarette through the twin orifices that once were covered by skin and cartilage. A bride applies makeup to her non-functioning eyelids, using her crippled arms and hands to hold the cosmetics box. Almost everyone is barefoot, probably because shoes don’t fit their feet. Fifty years ago, the Bababaghi Hospice might have provided fodder for Mondo Cane (1962) and its “shockumentary” successors. Some of the images remain disturbing, but Farrokhzad’s empathetic approach is anything but freakish or condescending. Many students of the nation’s cinema consider The House Is Black to be a crucial precursor of the Iranian New Wave and a direct influence on Abbas Kiarostami and Chris Marker, a pioneer of the French essay film. It came in 19th in Sight & Sound’s list of the top-50 greatest documentaries of all time.

Also included on the Facets Video DVD are two important short films by master director Mohsen Makmalbaf. The School That Was Blown Away (1996) is an irresistible portrait of an elderly man, who visits a school for nomad children, whose observations on the world around them range from heartbreaking to hilarious. Images From the Qajar Dynasty (1992) explores visual works from the Qajar Dynasty, including the first photography and cinematography shot in Iran. The entire package spools out at 48 fascinating minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles.

The Intruder: Blu-ray
When a young African American couple, Annie and Scott Russell (Michael Ealy, Meagan Good), closes on their dream house in California’s Napa Valley, they couldn’t be happier or more anxious to seal the deal with some impromptu shagging. Considering that the guy who previously owned the mini-mansion is a clingy blue-collar type, played by Dennis Quaid, they should have guessed what was going to transpire in the next 90 minutes, or so. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for viewers to figure out what director Deon Taylor (Meet the Blacks) and writer David Loughery (Obsessed) have in mind for the self-satisfied yuppies. The title, The Intruder, spells it out even more emphatically. Instead of going to Florida with his profits, Charlie Peck (Quaid) decides to stick around for a while, cutting the grass, trimming the garden and buying them bottles of wine. He also shoots a deer in their yard and blames the bedtime noises they hear on local teenagers. Because Annie genuinely appreciates the help he provides, she easily mistakes his creepiness for separation anxiety and extreme neighborliness. (In Napa? Not likely.) Charlie does even more to alienate the Russells’ best friends, Mike and Rachel, played by Joseph Sikora (“Power”) and Alvina August (“Siren”). They bring up all the questions the Russells forgot to ask and pay the price for their temerity. The only thing viewers want to know is, “Why haven’t they called the cops or sought a restraining order?” Good questions. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with the principles, deleted and alternate scenes, a gag reel and “Making a Modern Thriller.”

Scary Stories
A couple of columns ago, I had occasion to list the most commonly banned books by high school principals, librarians and other easily intimidated guardians of post-pubescent morality. I can’t recall if Alvin Schwartz’ hugely popular “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” made that particular list or if it skewed too young for inclusion. In any case, Scary Stories’ director Cody Meirick makes a solid case for it to be “among the most banned books of modern times.” In yet another prime example of how the tyranny of a vocal minority can supersede the parental authority of the majority, Meirick explains how the process works and where personal beliefs and prejudices can trump common wisdom and common sense. This isn’t to say that the whimsical, gothic-tinged “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series – in combination with its gruesome illustrations – can’t be a bit much for some impressionable kids to handle. The slippery slope comes into play, however, when a handful of loud-mouthed parents forces educators and librarians to avoid an argument by unilaterally eliminating the source of the aggravation.  Sadly, Schwartz died a quarter-century before he would have been encouraged to defend his work, and the series’ illustrator, Stephen Gammell, is notoriously reclusive. In his place here are authors R.L. Stine and Q.L. Pearce family members, scholars, folklorists, artists and fans. Plenty of time is allowed Schwartz’ detractors, whose children have presumably grown into adults in the time it’s taken for them to be heard outside PTA meetings and church socials. And, yes, the question of Satan’s personal influence on Schwartz and Gammell is raised. (I would have loved to hear from the pro-banners’ kids.) I can’t remember if my own children were fans of the series or other horror franchises. I was more concerned that Ozzy Osbourne, Public Enemy and Rob Zombie might usurp my authority … something their teachers couldn’t control beyond excluding their records from sock-hop playlists. Bonus features include more than 20 minutes of bonus footage and director’s commentary.

Chain of Death
Genre-specialist Cleopatra Entertainment is releasing this almost straight-to-DVD thriller in the United States. That’s the least convoluted thing about David Martín Porras and co-writer Andres Rosende’s Chain of Death, which was made in Spain, but features familiar actors with Anglo-Saxon surnames. It was released theatrically in Spain, where Ray Wise (“Twin Peaks”), Madeline Zima (“Californication”), Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing), Jamie Clayton (The Snowman), Dey Young (Pretty Woman) and John Patrick Amedori (Dear White People) may still, for all I know, be on an A-list. When a successful surgeon, Mike (Amedori), discovers he has the same debilitating neurological disorder as his estranged, invalid father, Michael (Wise), he rushes back to his hometown with his wife, Sarah (Zima). It takes Mike a while to sense that something doesn’t add up with his dad’s condition, though. Not wanting to make his young wife suffer, like his saintly mother (Barbeau), he decides to join a therapy session that doubles as a suicide-assistance group. To avoid being prosecuted in the suicides, each new member is required to kill someone higher on the list. What Mike doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late is just how twisted and incestuous the Chain of Death has become. In fact, now that he’s joined the chain, Mike has learned to keep his eyes peeled for people hoping to make their bones by eliminating him. As goofy as it sounds, Chain of Death isn’t devoid of thrills, suspense and shocking scenes. The DVD adds a slide show.

Lust for a Vampire: Blu-ray
The Reptile: Blu-ray
The Leopard Man: Blu-ray
Hammer’s so-called Karnstein Trilogy, Lust for a Vampire (1971), is loosely based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella, “Carmilla,” in which a female aristocrat bathes in the blood of local virgins to remain young. It was preceded by The Vampire Lovers (1970) and followed by Twins of Evil (1971). The three films use the Karnstein family as the source of the vampiric threat and were somewhat daring for the time in explicitly depicting lesbian themes. In 1830, at a finishing school in Styria, Carmilla Karnstein (a.k.a., Mircalla Herritzen) arrives as a new student. A visiting author and fill-in teacher, Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson), instantly falls in love with her. Unaware of the full ramifications of the Karnstein myth and what goes on in the family’s magnificent castle, the writer falls for Carmilla in a big way. The Karnsteins only return to the castle – or, to be precise, come out of their comas – every 40 years, or so, for fun and nourishment. Naturally, they’re a bit out of tune on what’s been going on in the town, below, The Karnsteins are made the primary suspects when inhabitants of the village begin to die in abhorrent ways. As Carmilla/Mircalla, Yutte Stensgaard (Carry on Camping) didn’t have to do much, besides look drop-dead gorgeous when she sinks her fangs into her victims’ necks. (Her fellow students all look to be about 30 years old and former Miss Universe contestants.) Even so, fans and critics of Hammer legends unfairly compared Stensgaard’s performance against that of the far more experienced Ingrid Pitt, in The Vampire Lovers. Because the Karnstein vampires are immune to sunlight, the options for sexy fun are far more numerous. The Scream Factory package is enhanced by a new 4K remaster of the film struck from the original camera negative, presented in two aspect ratios: 1.66:1 and 1.85:1; new commentary by author/film historian Bruce Hallenbeck; a fresh interview with actress Mel Churcher; and vintage commentary, with director Jimmy Sangster, star Suzanna Leigh and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn.

In Scream’s The Reptile (1966), a deadly epidemic is spreading through the remote Cornish village of Clagmoor Heath. As darkness falls, its victims are found foaming at the mouth with savage wounds on their necks. (That might suggest an epidemic not of the medicinal variety.) After his brother falls prey to the “black death,” Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) travels with his new wife (Jennifer Daniel) to Clagmoor to investigate his sibling’s mysterious death. With little help from the unfriendly locals, Harry follows a trail of clues that leads him to the sinister Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman); his strange, but beautiful daughter (Jacqueline Pearce); and a horrific family secret. Although the monster is more bizarre than scary, I think that director John Gilling’s decision to hold off on a full reveal was pretty wise.

Director Jacques Tourneur, producer Val Lewton and feline superstar  Dynamite wasted little time retuning to the animal kingdom for The Leopard Man. Its June 25, 1943, release followed hot on the heels of Cat People, which opened on Christmas Day, 1942, and I Walked with a Zombie, on April 30, 1943. Despite the presence of Dynamite and an intensely noir look, The Leopard Man is a very different film than Cat People. It’s set in the kind of a tiny New Mexican town that 20 years ago might have been described as “sleepy.” At night, however, the place swings. At the encouragement of her manager, a nightclub performer in New Mexico (Kiki Walker) takes a leashed leopard belonging to a carnie into the club as a publicity gimmick. But her rival (Jean Brooks), angered by the attempt to upstage her act, scares the animal and it bolts. In the days that follow, several people are mauled, and the countryside is combed for the loose beast. Soon enough, though, Kiki and her manager begin to wonder if maybe the leopard is not responsible for the killings, after all. The production team did a terrific job keeping the nighttime scenes dark and sinister, and the daytime scene looking hot and sweaty. The Scream package gets a sensational new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative; new commentary with filmmaker/historian Constantine Nasr; and archived commentary with filmmaker William Friedkin.

Hail Mary!
It’s never nice to pick on the poor, simple-minded and defenseless people among us, in life and on video. Being one of the greediest and most venal of all athletic conglomerates, the National Football League is both an easy and welcome target of parody and derision. The owners go out of their ways to make stupid pronouncements, turn the National Anthem into a recruitment ad for the Pentagon and alter the game, itself, in confounding ways. While Ziad H. Hamzeh and writer Richard Castellane’s gridiron farce, Hail Mary!, is pretty stupid, too, it’s also kind of endearing … like, back in the day, a sketch by the Mighty Carson Art Players. Take the original title, for instance, “Sushi Tushi or How Asia Broke Into American Pro Football.” In an act of desperation, the oily and unkempt coach of the hapless Maine Lobsters, Danny Morelli, takes the advice of a crony, who insists that a line composed of Sumo wrestlers might turn his team of never-rans into also-rans or, God forbid, contenders. They might be able to keep defenders from hauling off on the team’s expensive quarterback and turn the Lobsters’ D-line into an impenetrable wall. Morelli is played by Eddie Mekka (a.k.a., Carmine “The Big Ragoo” Ragusa), who understands what’s been asked of him and wrings a few laughs from the setup. The problem is that the Sumo strategy isn’t exactly new. Their athleticism is limited to short, explosive bursts of point-to-point power, but very little lateral movement and repetition. College and professional football teams have tapped into the steady stream players from American Samoa and other Pacific islands. They’re just as big, and far more mobile. Because the Sumo wrestlers don’t immediately take to the American game, Moretti hires a Japanese adviser to deal with their problems. (He imports a couple of big-legged cheerleaders from back home, for example.) Among the other things that take some getting used to are the cut-and-paste comic-book graphics and some innocuous racial humor.  I can see how might appeal to teenage boys and their dads, who can’t wait for the exhibition games to begin.

PBS: American Experience: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation</u
Creating Woodstock
Acorn: Manhunt: Season One
Acorn: Marcella: Series Two
NBC: The Good Place: The Complete Third Season
Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Butterbean’s Cafe
Now that the mass media has begun to turn its attention away from the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, it’s time for them to obsess over coverage of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, already one the most closely observed events in the history of our democracy. PBS’ “American Experience” installment, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” recounts for the 500th time how a half-million young people were able to gather for that amount of time, without killing each other – that would come later – or doing anything more unlawful than storming the barricade and causing a massive traffic jam. Look closely at the young people wallowing in the mud and you’ll find tens of thousands of middle-class kids, mostly from New York and New England, who didn’t exactly fit the mold of the thousands of hippies who flooded into the Bay Area before and after the Monterey International Pop Festival. By the time Woodstock kicked off, San Francisco’s Death of Hippie Parade was nearly two years past; the Manson Family committed their worst crimes; the police riot at the Democratic Convention was a year old; and bulldog promoter Bill Graham had begun to develop ways to capitalize on the music once given away for free. The musicians, many of whom performed at Monterey and Woodstock, decided it was about friggin’ time they got paid, too. Still, young people continued to find amusing ways to get high, get laid and avoid the draft. The release of Abbie Hoffman’s book, “Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album” was a blatant attempt to capitalize on both the festival and police riots. Michael Wadleigh’s 184-minute Woodstock (1970) gave people countless reasons to believe the Altamont disaster was a fluke, until the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin began digging into it and discovered that the devil truly is in the details. None of this stopped record labels, video companies, book publishers and reunion shysters from trying to milk the concert dry. Personally, I’m already up to my ears in Woodstock nostalgia and can’t think of a single thing that hasn’t already been asked and answered. Still, anyone who can’t remember a time when tickets to see their favorite bands didn’t cost $500 to $1,000 a pop, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” is as good a place as any to start. It allows the “people who were there” to make sense of it all.

Mick Richards’ “Creating Woodstock” purports to be the most comprehensive examination of how the festival came to be, using original interviews with key figures, rare archival footage and unearthed photographs. A cursory search of Amazon’s Woodstock catalogue reveals dozens of books and movies that delve deeply into the festival, from inception to the current buildup to the 50th anniversary. Among those interviewed and re-interviewed here are the founders of Woodstock Ventures–John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld — along with the best production talent on either coast, including John Morris, Bill Belmont, Mel Lawrence and Chip Monck. They recall moments from the initial proposal, to the search for a suitable site and the race to build a venue, promote the event and, most importantly, book the bands. Several of the musicians in attendance recount anecdotes that may have sounded fresh 20-30 years ago but will sound overly familiar to completists. But, like I said, newcomers will be appreciate seeing the facts laid out in one or two convenient places. The music remains as entertaining as ever, though.

Released here by Acorn Media, “Manhunt” is a three-part British television drama, based on the true story surrounding the investigation into the death of French student Amélie Delagrange. Her body was found in Twickenham Green, part of an affluent suburb in south-west London. Because of the cross-Channel implications of the case, the police took an all-hands-on-deck approach to the investigation. BAFTA-winning actor Martin Clunes (“Doc Martin”) plays DCI Colin Sutton, a hardworking and humble officer who looks as if he might be more comfortable selling high-end ties to gentlemen at Marks & Spencer. As it turned out, the killer was well-practiced in eluding homicide detectives who tried to bag a suspect for previous murders of teenage girls. Sutton’s investigation hits several snags, before the clues lead directly to the killer. The procedural half of “Manhunt” is familiar from a dozen different top-rated dramas. Its Clunes’ portrayal of a DCI so obsessed with his prey that he begins to mistrust the efforts of his unusually large team and overlook the needs of his wife (Claudie Blakley). The show was renewed for a second series, to premiere in 2020.

I can’t remember where or when I caught the second season of “Marcella,” which Acorn Media sent out a few weeks ago, but I can remember the events of all eight episodes. Either my dreams are getting markedly better or I watched it on Netflix. No matter, it’s easy to recommend it to American viewers. That’s primarily because the title character, played with great intensity by Anna Friel, is so completely rattled by her impending divorce that it’s causing her to make major mistakes on the job and experience blackouts at the rest possible times. Her soon-to-be-former husband (Nicholas Pinnock) has moved in with his physical therapist and plans to accept a position in Singapore. The case she’s begun to investigative is a doozy, as well. DS Marcella Backland is called to a house where a body has been found. She is shocked to discover that she knew the victim, a 9-year-old boy, who disappeared four years ago after agreeing to walk home with her son. There are so many genuine suspects that their stories begin to intertwine. They include a convicted pedophile; an aging rock star and his devious agent; a self-made millionaire and his wife, the founder of a successful children’s charity; and an Afghanistan war veteran, struggling to support his sister and her baby. Meanwhile Marcella is finding it increasingly more difficult to her violent fugues under control. Her therapist suggests that the only way she can end the blackouts is to revisit their source — the painful loss of her baby daughter — by submitting herself to hypnosis. And, that only takes us to the final episode, which, in an overused word, is shocking. Because the series is written, directed and produced by Swedish screenwriter, Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of “The Bridge,” “Marcella” has been designated a “Nordic noir” detective series. Season Three will begin later this year … somewhere.

The good news that arrives with Shout Factory’s release of “The Good Place: The Complete Third Season” is that there will be fourth season on NBC and a DVD compilation will follow in due time.  The bad news: the network has already decided to throw in the towel on the still popular – at least, in the digital universe – and critically acclaimed series. The series focuses on Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who wakes up in the afterlife and is introduced by Michael (Ted Danson) to “The Good Place.” It is a highly selective heaven-like utopia Michael designed, as a reward for her righteous life. Eleanor, however, realizes that she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect behavior, while trying to become a better and more ethical person. As the third season opens, Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) authorizes Michael to travel to Earth, where he saves the lives of Eleanor, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (D’Arcy Beth Carden) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and creates a new timeline. Things don’t get any less complicated or entertaining than that. The package adds extended episodes, a gag reel and visual-effects reel.

Initially released into theaters on March 28, 1997, “Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie” takes place after the events of the “Power Rangers Zeo” television season on Fox, with the new cast and characters from the film becoming cast members of both “Zeo” and its successor, “Power Rangers Turbo.” The movie used concepts and costumes from the Japanese Super Sentai series, “Gekisou Sentai Carranger.” Other characters, including Maligore, are recycled, as well. Beyond that, the story is incomprehensible. The good news is that it finally is being sent out on Blu-ray.

“Butterbean’s Café,” from the creators of “Bubble Guppies,” premiered on November 12, 2018, on Nickelodeon. The series follows Butterbean, a fairy who runs a neighborhood café with her friends. It involves a “creative cooking, farm-to-table philosophy, and a social-emotional curriculum that focuses on leadership skills.” A total of 40 episodes have already been ordered. The seven selections compiled here include “The Grand Opening!,” “The Sweetest Ride,” “A Grilled Cheese for the Big Cheese!,”  “Fluttercakes!,” “Friendship Pretzels!,” “Wedding Cake Switcharoo” and “Grandma Nana Banana Bread.”

American Beach House/Bikini Model Academy
Designed to fill dead air in the wee hours on off-brand premium cable networks, American Beach House and Bikini Model Academy appear to have been cut from the same cloth as Malibu Beach (1978), The Beach Girls (1982), Spring Break (1983), Hardbodies (1984), Bikini Drive-In (1995) and Side Out (1990), which, at least, featured such recognizable stars as  Courtney Thorne-Smith (“Ally McBeal”), Harley Jane Kozak (“Santa Barbara”), C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) and Peter Horton (“thirtysomething”). The idea being: find ways for dorky college guys to con a bevy of beach bimbos into slipping  into skimpy bikinis and hiding cameras in their bedrooms. The subgenre emerged before pornography became widely available to garden-variety dorks, 12-year-old boys and 50-year-old boozehounds, surfing the cable networks for something steamy to watch. A quarter-century later and the formula hasn’t changed much, if any. Apparently, foreign distributors found something to like in American Beach House (2015) and Bikini Model Academy (2015) and, I suspect, it’s the presence of Mischa Barton (“The O.C.”) and Lorenzo Lamas (“Falcon Crest”) in the former and Gary Busey and Morgan Fairchild in the ladder, which, somehow, scored a PG-13, despite topless scenes and a simulated BJ. The most suspicious factoid of all, though, is the writer/director’s decision to change his name from Barry V. Weisman, to Straw Weisman. Maybe he wanted to try farming before becoming fixated on bikinis.

The DVD Wrapup: Ash Is Purest White, Fast Color, Dogman, High Life, Space 1999, Big Bad Fox, Fassbinder’s BRD, Klute, Baker’s Wife, Noir Archive, Master Z, Keaton 2, Hellboy 4K … More

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Ash Is Purest White: Blu-ray
It’s unusual to find a contemporary Chinese drama as rooted in the present and near-present as Jia Zhangke’s compelling Ash Is Purest White. Bookended by mahjong games in a no-frill social club, the story spans the 18 years of the 21st century, starting in 2001 and coming full circle at the historic northern city of Datong. In a nation whose economy, population and prestige is booming, Datong is dependent on China’s dwindling reliance on coal and other mid-20th Century essentials. Zhangke’s co-protagonist, Qiao, is brilliantly played by his wife, Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart). She runs the gambling den that is largely populated by elderly “brothers,” who have been laid off from the mines. Some have been offered jobs in the country’s oil and natural gas patches, but, needless to say, have little desire to start anew in a foreign province. The gambling den could have been modeled from social clubs and triads that existed even before Mao’s revolution. The setting rapidly shifts, as Qiao enters a disco with her lover, Bin, a local mobster who runs the city’s rackets and building trades, which isn’t as lucrative as it sounds. In an incongruous juxtaposition of modern and traditional pop sensibilities, they’re met there by Bin’s boss, who’s accompanied by a pair of award-winning ballroom dancers. The boss asks his protégé to allow the dancers a song or two to prove to the young crowd how hip traditional dancers can be. Within weeks, the boss will die an untimely death and Qiao will find himself outnumbered by rival gangs. The dancers perform at the outdoor funeral.

At one crucial moment, Bin’s limousine is surrounded by a mob of potential assassins, whose intentions are thwarted by Qiao firing off a few warning shots into the air. Then, he’s blindsided by a young assailant wielding a lead pipe to his legs. While Bin survives the attack, Qiao is sentenced to a women’s prison for five years for discharging an illegal firearm.  After being released, the noticeably older and more sedate Qiao is determined to reconnect with Bin, whose own loss of stature and imprisonment have humbled him to the core. Her pursuit takes her on a ferryboat ride down a scenic stretch of the Yangtze River, to a teeming city that in a few years will be swallowed by the rising waters behind the Three Gorges Dam. Millions of people will be displaced to feed the country’s insatiable appetite for electrical power. Bin hasn’t made it easy for her to find him. Qiao may not be fully prepared to deal with the city’s impersonal bureaucracy and cold-hearted businesses, but she’s quick learner. She finds free meals in places that welcome drifters and poor people, and some that emphatically don’t appreciate her subterfuge. While in prison, she met with a friend who was impregnated by a local businessman and deserted. He’s so humiliated by her presence that he willingly forks over money for both women. Before she locates Bin holed up in a shabby motel, still crippled from the earlier assault, Qiao also is required to use her cunning to recover stolen money and documents. As disillusioned as the onetime lovers have become, they remain committed to Jianghu, a set of wuxia-based principles that, for centuries, have governed triads, secret societies and people living on the fringes of their communities. Qiao will return to Datong, where things haven’t changed much in the interim.

When she runs into Bin again, she’s back at the social club looking over the gamblers and tending the kitchen. Although he’s too ashamed of his downfall to reveal himself to his “brothers,” it takes no effort on Qiao’s part for them to welcome him home. She also finds an acupuncturist who claims he can cure him. Can their love be restored, as well? Stay tuned. Ash Is Purest White contains so many amazing moments like that, it’s easy to mistake the UFO for a passing plane. Viewers should leave time for the Q&A’s and interview sessions in the bonus package.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy: Blu-ray
The Fate of Lee Khan: Blu-ray
Legendary action director Yuen Woo-Ping draws on a stellar cast in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy — some of whom have appeared in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man series — to create a hard-hitting martial arts extravaganza that rates among the best I’ve ever seen. It also is enhanced by a reasonably credible screenplay by Edmond Wong and frequent partner Chan Tai Lee (Ip Man). Too often, kung fu flicks have been allowed to overlook the basics of storytelling, in favor of wall-to-wall action. Following his defeat by Master Ip, Cheung Tin Chi (Jin Zhang) attempts to make a peaceful life with his young son in Hong Kong. He waits tables at a bar that caters to expats and westerners, and waves off the compliments of people who’ve seen him fight or collect newspaper clippings. The bar’s mix of foreign sailors, ex-pats, drug money, prostitutes and gangsters ultimately draws Cheung into the larger fray, spurred, as well, by an attack on his son. It’s terrifically entertaining and wonderfully mounted by Kay Brown, Niina Topp and Kenneth Mak. The fighting scenes, especially those featuring Zhang (The Grandmaster), Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior), Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) and Dave Bautista (Avengers: Endgame) could hardly be more exciting. There’s also cleverly realized romance and sentimentality. The bonus features include an English-language track and subtitles, and a behind-the-scenes piece. BTW: Yip’s Ip Man 4: The Finale is scheduled for a December opening in December.

King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) followed hot on the heels of his three-hour wuxia masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (1971), which became the first Chinese-language film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival and the first wuxia film to win a prize at any international event. (Wuxia, which translates to “martial heroes,” is a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. By contrast, Bruce Lee’s contemporary martial-arts picture fell outside the definition.) Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967) also were big hits in Pacific Rim nations that set the stage for the great leaps forward in A Touch of Zen and The Fate of Lee Kahn. These remarkable films merged Japanese samurai traditions with western editing techniques and an aesthetic informed by Chinese music and opera. Along the way, Hu’s preference for spare western Chinese settings drew comparisons to John Ford and Sergio Leone. What really set Hu apart from the crowd, though, was his predilection for featuring female protagonists, sometimes more than one. The Fate of Lee Kahn takes place during the waning years of the Yuan Dynasty — 1366, to be precise — when the Mongol general Lee Khan (Tien Fong) and his sister Lee Wan’er (Feng Hsu) travel to the desolate Spring Inn, in Shaanxi province, to obtain the plans of rebel forces. Aided by innkeeper Wan Jen-Mi (Li Li-Hua), a group of undercover resistance fighters seeks to recover the map to maintain their edge. Disguised as waitresses, they are, in fact, a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist. They’re kept busy at the inn distinguishing between the good and bad spies in residence there. Things get even wilder when the action moves to the desert. It’s worth noting that the stunts were choreographed by Sammo Hung. Bonus features include: a barely audible NYAFF chat and new essay by Chinese-language film expert and author Stephen Teo.

Fast Color: Blu-ray
If it takes a while for Julia Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz’ terrifically eclectic supernatural thriller, Fast Color, to get to the magical heart of its story, viewers’ patience will be rewarded in several different ways. Tragically underscreened in its post-festival– 25 theaters, at its widest – it should still be playing in specialty houses, building buzz for a larger rollout and anticipation for its release in DVD/Blu-ray. Instead, here it is, forced to fend for itself in a cruel and crowded marketplace without much marketing support. Rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) would have already made the rounds of the talk shows, where someone invariably would remark, “I hope they remember Fast Color at awards time.” Of mixed South African/ British background, Mbatha-Raw’s ascendency has been duly noted for memorable turns in such higher-profile entertainments as Belle (2013), Concussion (2015), Free State of Jones (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018). At least, Fast Color hasn’t been ghettoized by publicists hoping to gain some traction from a core supporting cast that includes Lorraine Toussaint (“Orange Is the New Black”), Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures), newcomer Aliza Halm and Jermaine Washington (Urban Justice). In any case, the integral presence of Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Christopher Denham (“Billions”) would preclude such a strategy. That’s the other thing about Fast Color, though. The cast’s diversity never calls attention to itself, even if the film’s supernatural throughline can be traced to the protagonist’s roots in Africa.

When we meet Ruth, she’s on the run from an unspecified federal agency, somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains, which is suffering from an eight-year drought. A recovering addict, Ruth’s sudden seizures ignite earthquakes in Tornado Alley. Terrified of her own superpower, she tries mightily to alert innocent bystanders to the possibility of impending doom. When news of Ruth’s telekinesis spreads to Washington, a dogged government scientist, Bill (Denham), takes the next plane out of town to capture Ruth for study. He manages to track her down in a Dust Bowl diner, where, without tipping his hand, he offers her a ride to wherever she’s going. It doesn’t take long for Ruth to sniff out Bill’s ruse and wound him with the handgun she finds in the glovebox. Broke and desperate, she finds a temporary port in the storm at a roadhouse where locals come to wet their parched whistles. The kindness allows her time to think and enough loose change to make it to her mother’s home, which sits in the middle of a vast cornfield, all but invisible from the road. Then, two things happen at once: 1) Bill demands the help of a local sheriff, Ellis (Strathairn), who, we’ll soon discover, knows enough about Ruth’s family, to temporarily delay the investigation; and 2) she seeks the forgiveness of her mother, Bo (Toussaint), to whom she has caused great mental and emotional anguish.

Viewers won’t be surprised to learn that Lila (Halm), the wee curly-haired girl who shares the house with Bo, is the daughter Ruth barely recalls delivering and abandoning, years earlier. Call it sci-fi or magical realism, but all three women are blessed – cursed, perhaps – with the ability to manipulate objects and colors in ways that surprise Ruth and Lila, frighten outsiders and amaze viewers. Now comes the “with great power comes great responsibility” moment, when Bo explains how the women in their family are linked. It’s complicated, but the revelation leads to a meteorological event that beats anything you’ll find on the Weather Channel or “Tornado Hunters.” All that is required of viewers is a fundamental ability to suspend disbelief and a mistrust of government agencies triggered by “The X-Files” and the “trust no one” copycats it inspired. If Fast Color isn’t a perfect movie, blame it on all the usual things that impact low-budget indies. That, and any inferences potential viewers could draw about it being a chick flick – it’s not — or an attempt to tap into the same multiracial audiences successfully cultivated by Jordan Peele for Get Out and Us, which hardly constitutes a crime. It’s almost too obvious to see how Lila, at least, would be a perfect candidate for enrollment at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, in the X-Men universe. Fast Color adds interviews with the filmmakers and the making-of featurette, “A Mother’s Power.”

I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’ve begun to sound like a broken record on the subject of how difficult it is for foreign and indie movies to succeed when they leave the festival circuit. Even the best of them wind up being viewed on home-theater system that can’t help but diminish the experience to some degree. It’s the only  way, however, that I’ve been able to watch the movies I review here and a far better alternative to not seeing them at all. While it’s still possible for me to attend screenings of important films before their theatrical runs, it’s not the same thing as being able to explain to consumers what’s been lost or gained in the transfer to the small screen or the quality of the bonus material. There simply aren’t enough arthouse theaters to accommodate the hundreds of films currently being shown on the festival circuit. Without DVD/Blu-ray/PPV, they’d get no exposure whatsoever. Enough said. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman is only the latest example of a festival favorite – Palme d’Or nominee, Best Actor winner and recipient of the Palm Dog – that would have benefitted from greater exposure and publicity. According to Box Office Mojo, in the 14 weeks it was in release here, Dogman never played on more than a dozen screens at the same time, grossing $148,225 in the process. That may sound like a paltry sum, but, on a per-screen basis, it did OK. Another hurdle these movies face, of course, is the diminished amount of space allotted reviews, even in non-mainstream publications. The number of critics has decreased, as well, except in the blogosphere, which, while valuable, represents a relative drop in the bucket.

Dogman is a terrifically acted story about a dog washer, groomer and trainer, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a slight, mild-mannered man who divides his day between caring for canines at his modest business; caring for his daughter, Alida, at home; and chillin’ with his buddies at the local outdoor café or poolroom. Even if Fonte looks as if he were born to play the part, first-choice Roberto Benigni would have sold more tickets, while giving a different spin to the character and narrative. It’s hard to say how Benigni’s fans would have reacted to being so ruthlessly bullied by Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), an ex-boxer who terrorizes the neighborhood with his sudden outbursts of rage and ravenous appetite for beer and drugs, some of which are reluctantly supplied by the hapless dog washer. Marcello serves as Simoncino’s involuntary sidekick, helping him home after his frequent benders and performing criminal tasks for the hoodlum that are better suited to a smaller man. As difficult as it may be, Marcello struggles to remain true to his principles. After one of the Simoncino’s burglaries, for example, an accomplice admits to kicking a barking dog and throwing it into a freezer. It’s a measure of Marcello’s humanity that he returns to the apartment where the break-in occurred and risks arrest by attempting to breathe new life into the scrawny pup.

Obviously, the same Marcello who washes and walks dogs nearly his own size – and temperaments as threatening as the bully– isn’t about to stand up to Simoncino, whether it comes to abetting crimes or challenging his gang member’s treatment of barking dogs. Neither does anyone else in the neighborhood, though. The only option they have is to perform their civic duty by murdering Simoncino and pretend he left town. That will have to wait, however. Desperate to find money to buy drugs, the hoodlum tells Marcello to leave his shop’s door open one night, so that he can break into the neighbor’s business through the wood-paneled wall that separates the units. Not only does this make Marcello the logical suspect in the robbery, but by providing Simoncino access to the shop, he’s automatically an accomplice to the crime. If Marcello keeps his mouth shut, though, his nemesis has promised him a cut of the stolen money. After Marcello finishes his sentence, he expects Simoncino to honor his half of the agreement. When he refuses to do so, Marcello has two choices: 1) ignore the slight and go back to washing dogs, or 2) risk his life, by demanding his rightful share. As prison hardened as Marcello might think he is, he’s still no threat to Simoncini, who flaunts his ill-gotten earnings in Marcello’s face. Without going into detail, let’s just say that the dog washer pulls up his big-boy pants and devises a scheme that involves luring Simoncini into the kennel and using the basic principles of judo to gain an edge on him. If Marcello can slay Goliath or, at least, teach him a lesson he won’t soon forget, it’s possible that the dog washer can redeem himself in front his friends.

Anyone who’s seen Garrone’s Gomorra (2008) and The Embalmer (2002) already knows not to expect a leisurely examination of live on the seacoast between Naples and Rome. Gray, wet and dirty, Villaggio Coppola resembles the kind of resort city that summer forgot. As such, it’s an appropriate setting for such an unforgiving tale of revenge. It also provides Marcello and his daughter a safe outlet in their passion for scuba diving. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Dogman was inspired by one of the most infamous crime stories in post-war Italy. Likewise, The Embalmer was loosely based on the murder of a taxidermist, a middle-age dwarf, by his protégé, which took place in Villaggio Coppola in 1990. Gomorrah, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, was based on a work of non-fiction by Roberto Saviano. The drama is set in a housing complex in Naples, which has been taken over by feuding factions of the Camorra syndicate, and it intertwines five separate stories of residents whose lives are touched by organized crime. If Dogman isn’t nearly as dark as those films, it concludes on sadly ironic note. Its spurts of violent behavior definitely would upset anyone expecting Lassie or talking chihuahuas. BTW: while the excellent television spinoff of “Gomorah” has just wrapped up its fourth season on Sky Italia, there’s no telling when it will arrive here. Garrone’s upcoming live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio” is expected to open overseas in time for Christmas 2019.

Don’t Look at Me That Way
Uisenma Borchu’s  debut feature, Don’t Look at Me That Way (2015), is a LGBTQ rom/dram, with the emphasis on the “B.” That’s pretty much the only thing that’s emphatically clear in the film, which has taken three years to make the leap from the international festival circuit to DVD. That’s probably because potential distributors felt the freshman effort left too many questions unanswered, including where the characters are standing at any given moment and why they’re in such a hurry to screw up their lives. Don’t Look at Me That Way splits its time between Germany and Mongolia, although the Munich locations are so generically urban that they could be anywhere.  We know we’re in Mongolia because co-protagonist Hedi (Borchu) occasionally visits her grandmother there. She lives in a yurt on the outskirts of one of the country’s few cities and is old school all the way. It begs the unanswered question as to why, on one these visits – flash-ahead? flash-back? – Hedi is accompanied by Sophia, the precocious daughter of her German lover/neighbor, Iva (Catrina Stemmer). Hedi and Iva hooked up almost immediately after the blond single mother moved into their apartment building and Sophie gravitated to the more stable woman. The strangely maternal bond that develops between Hedi and Sophie affords Iva the time to develop a sexual relationship, at least, with the almost stereotypically seductive Asian woman. The sex is hot, heavy and beautifully photographed. So much so that it confuses us when Hedi tests Iva’s commitment to her by finding new boy toys. Iva’s even more confused. When Iva’s fat, bourgeois father arrives in Munich on business and blows off their father/daughter/granddaughter reunion, Hedi even more curiously tracks him down at his hotel and seduces him. It leads to something so unexpected and disturbing that it’s difficult to tell if it’s real or Borchu is simply playing a trick on us. Either way, it’s a heck of an ending, which is more than can be said about too many other films that pass this way. Even at 88 minutes, however, Don’t Look at Me That Way could have used a bit more exposition and less mystery about Hedi’s motivations. For those who value sex above narrative, though, what there is of it here is inarguably captivating.

High Life: Blu-ray
Space: 1999: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Claire Denis is one those directors who’s somehow managed to find the freedom, money and energy to re-interpret genres whose fans typically reject such meddling. High Life takes on sci-fi and space travel in a way that recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. In Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis merged unchecked sexual urges with extreme horror in a commentary about society’s moral decay. She addressed the legacy of colonialism in Chocolat (1988), Beau Travail (1999) and White Material (2009), and in Friday Night (2002) and Let the Sunshine In (2017) explored the walls we build to protect us from the insanity and irrationality of love, sex and change. One of things that makes High Life so compelling is Denis’ willingness to mess with the one of most enduring clichés about space travel: the portrayal of astronauts as squeaky clean, red-white-and-blue Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and science teachers, who were desexualized at Mission Control. Here, the crew is comprised of death row inmates, whose sentences will come to an end as their spacecraft makes a flying leap into a black hole. There are no guards to keep them from attempting to escape and nowhere to go if they managed to leave the ship. They participate in experiments designed to manage boredom, repress sexual urges and deal with the psychoses of fellow prisoners, er, astronauts. The on-board doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has a personal interest in captives Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Boyse (Mia Goth), whose regard for her authority couldn’t be lower. Neither does Denis spare us the realities of personal hygiene and less-than-tidy bodily functions in zero gravity, as NASA has done for the past 60 years.

The prisoners were coaxed into believing that their exploration of the black hole will make them heroes back home, instead of crash-test dummies. Why not simply populate the ship with robots that have well-defined duties and the ability to communicate with specialists in Houston? Perhaps, NASA authorities also wanted to learn about the potential for creating a self-sustaining food supply in space or test the effects of varying degrees of radiation on human beings. Those kinds of questions don’t mean much, compared to the tortuous conditions endured by the passengers, who somehow fall under the scrutiny of Doctor Strangelove-Dibs, who may well be testing the feasibility of remedying prison overcrowding by loading the baddest of the bad-asses onto giant ships and giving them a one-way ticket to deep space. This country’s demand for punishment without rehabilitation would be met and the prisons could be sold to real-estate speculators. Under Denis’ watchful gaze, the actors help their characters make the most of a difficult situation. Pattinson’s depiction of a single parent in space, along with Binoche’s tortured performance as the sex-starved mad scientist, are extremely convincing … even if the rest of the movie is too much to fathom. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Audacious, Passionate and Dangerous: Making High Life” and “Visualizing the Abyss: The Look of High Life.”

Shout Factory’s “Space: 1999: The Complete Series” begs the question as to why a respectable British/Italian joint venture would throw all of their marbles behind a prime-time space-travel series, so soon after the demise of “Star Trek.” ITC Entertainment, RAI and the creative team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”) clearly were on the same wavelength as the team at Paramount that bought the series from Desilu and licensed the broadcast syndication rights. Reruns began in the fall of 1969 and, by the late 1970s, the series aired in over 150 countries. It became the franchise that wouldn’t die. “Space: 1999” only ran for two seasons, from 1975 to 1977, attaining cult status at about the same time as rerun packages of such Supermarionation hits as “Supercar” (1961–62), “Fireball XL5” (1962–63), “Stingray” (1964–65) and “Thunderbirds” (1965–66) took off. In the opening episode of “Space 1999,” viewers were transported to a research station and nuclear-waste site, located in the crater Plato, on the dark side of the moon … which, come to think of it, is exactly what I’d consider doing with Earth’s growing problem. What could go wrong? When the storage site experiences a chain-reaction explosion, however, the moon is spun out of its orbit. In turn, it sends the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha – including characters played by Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (“Mission:Impossible”), Barry Morse (“The Fugitive”) and Nick Tate (“Holiday Island”) – hurtling through the solar system, toward deep space, where they encounter alien beings who didn’t make the cut on “Star Trek.” Never mind that such a catastrophe would cause irreparable harm to earthbound humanity and turn the green-cheese orb into an intergalactic whirling dervish. Much of the show’s sci-fi look is attributable to special-effects director/designer Brian Johnson, who previously had made the leap from The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and “Thunderbirds,” to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He later would be handed the FX reins to Alien (1979), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Dragonslayer (1981) and The Neverending Story (1984). At the time, “Space 1999” was the most expensive series ever produced for British television or for syndication. Among the actors making guest appearances were Christopher Lee, Margaret Leighton, Roy Dotrice, Joan Collins, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, Julian Glover, Ian McShane, Leo McKern, Billie Whitelaw, Stuart Damon and Brian Blessed. (Some appeared, as well, in future Star Wars and Star Trek movies.) In addition to the many special features included in previous sets, the Shout! Factory also offers new pieces, “Mission to Moonbase Alpha: An Interview With Actress Barbara Bain”; “Into the Uncertain Future: An Interview With Actor Nick Tate”; “Brain Behind the Destruction: An Interview With Director Kevin Connor”; “Moonbase Merch,” a tour of “Space:1999” ephemera with author John Muir; commentary by author Anthony Taylor on “Dragon’s Domain” And “The Metamorph”; commentary by series expert Scott Michael Bosco, on “Ring Around the Moon”; and a limited-edition set, which includes a snow globe, featuring an Eagle Transporter landing on the moon. The enhanced mono and 5.1 audio soundtracks add to the viewers’ fun.

Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Klute: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
By the time 37-year-old German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed “The BRD Trilogy” — The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982) he had already directed 44 films and television dramas (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”), written 15 stage plays and acted in several other projects. He died soon thereafter from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates. Audiences outside Europe were only beginning to get beyond the “bad boy” reputation he cultivated by making outrageous pronouncements in the West German press, maintaining a fluid attitude toward his own sexual identity, dressing as if he were a hobo and chain-smoking cigarettes. We were attracted to his movies as much for their titles — Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) — as their content. Needless to say, too, the prints that made it to theaters outside New York were far less than pristine. This was true, as well, for the works Fassbinder’s contemporaries, Wim Wenders Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff. While that much has changed, it’s safe to say that Americans are still catching up their work on DVD and Blu-ray. The Criterion Collection’s new collection — “BRD” stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany and of the united contemporary Germany – allows us to re-watch his most accomplished films with a greater awareness of Fassbinder’s intentions. In a word, the experience is “revelatory.” If Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or even John Waters had made them, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss would long ago have reached masterpiece status.

Fassbinder’s goal was to trace the postwar history of West Germany in a series of films told from the perspectives of three remarkable women, portrayed by three exceptional actresses. They were colored, as well, by the tenor of West Germany’s anarchist movement and his deeply grounded cynicism over a series of governments that encouraged citizens to forget the atrocities of World War II and focus instead on the country’s “economic miracle.” In “Maria Braun,” Hanna Schygulla marries soldier Hermann Braun in the last days of World War II. A bomb ruins the ceremony, but it doesn’t prevent the signing of official papers. Almost immediately thereafter, Hermann would be captured by Red Army forces, who, presumably, either killed him or put him on a train to Siberia. Maria never stops loving him or giving up hope that he’ll return home alive. To survive the post-war occupation and deprivation, Maria puts her beauty and desperation to work for her, exchanging sexual favors for food, soap and other necessities, as well as the occasional luxury. A beautiful dress she’s given allows Maria to find work in a dancehall favored by G.I.’s and, in time, as a prostitute. She’s also able to see, first-hand, how the “miracle” can work in her favor in other ways. A couple of years later, when Hermann unexpectedly returns home from a Siberian labor camp. she’ll be caught in flagrante delicto with a black Allied soldier with whom she’s also fallen in love. Hermann takes the fall when she commits an impulsive act to keep her husband from being pummeled. His imprisonment doesn’t, however, prevent Maria from falling in love with a kind, generous and wealthy man she seduces on a practically empty first-class train car. He hires her to translate conversations and contracts, but she volunteers to use her body to close the deal. Strangely enough, he’ll approach Hermann in prison to see the man “she loves more than me.” They form curious bond that gives Hermann, when freed, an opportunity to rehabilitate himself and Maria time to amass a fortune at the textile company. Fassbinder’s “alternate” ending leaves room for conjecture as to the married couple’s fate. “Maria Braun” may remind viewers’ of Joan Crawford’s performance in Michael Curtiz’ rags-to-riches noir drama, Mildred Pierce (1945). Along with Douglas Sirk, Curtiz was a key influence on Fassbinder. “Maria Braun” is a heartbreaking study of a woman picking herself up from the ruins of her own life, as well as a pointed metaphorical attack on a society determined to forget its past.

Likewise, Veronika Voss will remind viewers of Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of the long-forgotten and extremely delusional silent-film actress, Norma Desmond, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). In fact, Veronika Voss (a.k.a., “The Longing of Veronika Voss”) more directly reflects the tragic fall from grace of Weimar-era leading lady Sybille Schmitz (Rosel Zech). A great actress and beauty, her only flaw was not looking sufficiently Aryan for Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, with whom she is rumored to have slept. Struggling for survival in post-war Munich and haunted by her past glory, Voss encounters sportswriter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a rain-swept park and intrigues him with her mysterious allure. As their unlikely relationship develops, Robert comes to discover the dark secrets that brought about the decline of Veronika’s career and virtual imprisonment by caretakers and drugs prescribed by a corrupt doctor.

Lola, which is an unmistakable homage to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is set in Coburg in the autumn of 1957. Lola (Barbara Sukowa), a seductive cabaret singer/prostitute, exults in her power to separate men from their money and pride. Like everyone else prospering from the “miracle,” she craves money, property and status. By pitting an oily building contractor and brothel owner (Mario Adorf) against the new straight-arrow building commissioner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), she launches an outrageous plan to elevate herself in a country where everything is for sale. Shot in wonderfully synchronized candy colors by Xaver Schwarzenberger, Lola is both a visual treat and another tragic example of how the vanity of accomplished older men can lead them into places they have no business being.  All three films are enhanced by 4K or high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. The bonus features include several hours’ worth of vintage commentaries, featuring Wenders and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (on The Marriage of Maria Braun), film critic and author Tony Rayns (Veronika Voss) and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen (Lola); interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech and Barbara Sukowa, Schwarzenberger, screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer and film scholar Eric Rentschler; “Life Stories: A Conversation With R. W. Fassbinder,” filmed for German television in 1978; “I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me,” a feature-length 1992 documentary on Fassbinder’s life and career; “Dance With Death,” a program from 2000 about UFA Studios star Sybille Schmitz; a conversation between author and curator Laurence Kardish and film editor Juliane Lorenz; vintage trailers; and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Kent Jones and production histories by author Michael Töteberg.

Including Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller, Klute, in this summary may appear to be a leap, but, given its simultaneous release on Blu-ray by Criterion, the linkage should be obvious. Indeed, i’s tantalizing to imagine how movies such as Klute, Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979) might have been turned out under Fassbinder’s guidance. (And, no, I’m not suggesting there’s anything remotely wrong with those films.) Like Fassbinder’s female protagonists, Jane Fonda’s retired call girl, Bree Daniels, is a product of her times. She works as hard for her money as Sukowa’s Lola and Schygulla’s Braun. Her philosophy, as related to an intimidated trick, is, “Nothing one does is wrong … let it all hang out.” This might have worked in postwar Germany, but it could get a woman killed in New York’s dystopian nightmare. Because Pakula’s film was targeted at sophisticated American audiences of the time, however, Bree’s philosophy had its limits with the newly installed MPAA ratings board. As forthright and independent a woman as she is in Fonda’s hands, Bree needed some help to survive as a single woman in New York. Moments after claiming her Academy Award for Best Actress, Fonda told reporters: “I’m not very happy about what the picture is saying to women, which is, if you get a good shrink and a good guy, everything will turn out alright. I don’t think that’s true.” In a conceit that would be echoed in Hardcore, Midwestern detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is recruited by friends of a missing man to go to New York and find the woman to whom his last letters were addressed. At first, Bree takes Klute for a rube with no clue as to how things work in the big, bad city. Her opinion changes when she begins to receive threatening calls and is asked by police to examine photos of dead prostitutes to identify her friends. Bree’s only defense is to accept Klute’s help, which turns out to be quite adequate to the task. Naturally, this will include a bit of off-the-books sexual healing. A master of tension, conspiracies and paranoiac behavior, Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis ratchet up the suspense to the point where an explosive ending is assured. Even 10 years earlier, Fonda’s portrayal of a fashion-conscious, independently wealthy, sex-positive prostitute wouldn’t have met restrictions imposed by the Production Code. She’s since become an archetype. The Criterion Collection edition has been accorded a terrific 4K digital transfer, supervised by camera operator Michael Chapman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a fresh conversation between actors Fonda and Illeana Douglas; a new documentary about Klute and Pakula, by filmmaker Matthew Miele, featuring scholars, filmmakers and the director’s family and friends; “The Look of Klute,” a new interview with writer Amy Fine Collins; archival interviews with Pakula and Fonda; a making-of documentary made during the shooting of the film; an essay by critic Mark Harris and excerpts from a 1972 interview with Pakula.

The Baker’s Wife: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lovers of pre-World War II French cinema will welcome the new Criterion Collection edition of The Baker’s Wife (1939), by playwright/novelist/auteur Marcel Pagnol. Set in the lovely feudal village of Le Castellet, in far southeastern France, The Baker’s Wife is an enchanting slice-of-life comedy and portrait of a close-knit village, where the marital woes of one beloved citizen concern everyone in his orbit. The basic story, adapted from a novel by Jean Giono, could hardly be more familiar. A talented, if grossly out-of-shape baker, Aimable Castanier (Raimu), moves to the Provencal countryside with his pretty and much younger wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc). Their presence immediately fills a void in the community. By the time the ovens finally meet Aimable’s exacting specifications, a line has already formed outside the bakery. The customers aren’t disappointed. The priest and marquis Castan de Venelles order generous quantities in advance. In the same line is a virile shepherd, who locks eyes with Aurélie. That night, he returns to the bakery, with the intention of sweeping her off her feet and fleeing on horseback. Aimable is so devastated that he isn’t able to work, anymore. The villagers, who initially laughed at his cuckoldry, organize a plan to find Aurelie and bring her home. When they do locate the woman, the priest reads her the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery — “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” – and returns with her to Aimable. Her first word to her husband is “Sorry,” and the marital bond is restored. The citizens of Le Castellet will have fresh bread in the morning. It’s a lovely parable, enlivened by the personalities of the town’s residents. It’s also of a piece with Pagnol’s other humanitarian creations, which include Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources; “The Marseille Trilogy” (a.k.a., “The Fanny Trilogy”); Jofroi (1934); and The Pretty Miller Girl (1949). In 1940, the  National Board of Review Awards honored The Baker’s Wife with Best Foreign Film and Best Actor (Raimu) citations, while the New York Film Critics Circle Awards followed suit with it Best Foreign Film distinction. The film is also said to be mentioned in J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher In The Rye.” The Criterion edition features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; selected-scene commentary, featuring Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles; an introduction by Pagnol from 1967 and excerpt from a 1966 interview with the filmmaker for the French television series “Cinéastes de notre temps”; a short French news program from 1967, revisiting the village of Le Castellet after a screening of the movie at a local bar; and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

The Professor: Blu-ray
It would be a stretch for anyone to blame Johnny Depp’s recent string of underachieving movies – including the ill-fated The Professor and City of Lies – on ongoing legal problems surrounding his similarly ill-fated marriage to actress Amber Heard. Good actors make bad choices for all sorts of reasons. The only people who stand to benefit in the long run are the legal teams who have persuaded their clients to wrestle so publicly in the mud. They’ve probably calculated that Depp’s bad-luck streak can’t last forever, and that Heard has already won the lottery with ongoing roles in the Aquaman and Justice League. Even so, lawyers go through money at approximately the same rate as vampires go through blood. Wayne Robert’s low-key dramatic comedy, The Professor, opened and closed faster than most people can blink and eye. Among other titles that it was pitted against were John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum and incumbent No. 1, Avengers: Endgame. Ironically, The Professor opened only a week later than the unrelated bio/dram, The Professor and the Madman, which starred Mel Gibson as the former and Sean Penn, as the latter. In it, Professor James Murray begins work compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1857, and receives over 10,000 legitimate entries from a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Dr. William Minor. It’s currently on display on PPV streaming sites. Ironically, too, a full year before legal challenges cleared Gibson’s pet project for release, Comedy Central’s  “Drunk History” summarized the same fascinating story in the episode, “Dangerous Minds,” for comic effect. Anyway …

Robert’s The Professor, also available on PPV outlets, describes how an unassuming teacher at a private college, Richard Brown (Depp), handles the news that he has cancer and, even with radiation treatments, no more than a year to live. Crushed, Richard chooses to only tell his closest friend and fellow educator, Peter (Danny Huston), about his condition. He’s also decided to redirect the course of his life, by living it to the fullest and eliminating the things that have kept him from doing so in the past. His first act is to cull the dullards and hangers-on from his classroom, by promising them a C if they got up and left. He’d put the remaining students through their paces in a manner that recalls Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989). He openly lampoons school administrators, one of whom (Ron Livingston) is having an affair with his snobby sculptor wife, Veronica (Rosemarie DeWitt). Brown’s first act of defiance comes when his daughter, Olivia (Odessa Young), comes out as a lesbian, and he refuses to share in Veronica’s outrage. Meanwhile, he’s also taken to drinking, smoking dope and expressing his innermost thoughts with his students. The Professor, then, begins to lean toward To Sir, With Love (1967), as Brown’s pedagogical attentions turn to Claire (Zoey Deutch), whose uncle is the school’s dean. The problem is that Brown’s disease tempers his ability to demonstrate the passion for life and teaching in the same way as Williams and Sidney Poitier did in their performances. In turn, the cancer has taken control of the movie, preventing it from escaping the bonds of soggy melodrama. That said, Depp’s loyal fans won’t be terribly disappointed by his lackluster performance here, unless they truly miss the disguises, wigs, weird accents and counterintuitive actions that have cluttered his recent work. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Death and How to Live It: Making The Professor.”

Apparently, even the puny buildup accorded The Professor prompted Vertical Entertainment to free Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye (2016) from festival purgatory and release it into a handful of theater and streaming venues. In it, a kind-hearted 17-year-old girl (Olivia Cooke), in the American Southwest, turns to prostitution to fulfill her dream of a new life in San Francisco.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales: Blu-ray
No matter how many times animated features from outside the Hollywood firmament have been nominated for Academy Awards, mainstream American audiences have avoided them like the plague. I’d be surprised if Oscar voters took advantage of the free screeners and screenings before voting for the latest Disney/Pixar/Marvel blockbuster. (Anyone want to bet against Toy Story 4 in this year’s race? I thought not.) In 2002, the category’s second sanctioned competition, Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous Spirited Away took the top prize back with him to Japan. (Figuratively, because the maestro refused to travel to the U.S., “while it was dropping bombs on Iraq,”) It became the first and, so far, only hand-drawn, non-English-language animated film to win that award. Then-Pixar director John Lasseter saw the monster numbers in Japan and asked Walt Disney Pictures to pick it up for distribution here, but not before he agreed to produce an adaptation for English-speaking audiences. Even though it would make $10 million here – not counting the video sales – Disney shortchanged the marketing budget when it was denied ancillary rights. Two years later, Miyazaki’s anti-war stance might have given Aardman’s stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit a slight edge over Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, another Anglo/American stop-action picture. Ghibli would be represented again by also-rans The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014), When Marnie Was There (2016) and The Wind Rises (2013), which was competing against Disney’s monster hit, Frozen,  DreamWorks/Fox’s The Croods, Universal’s Despicable Me 2 and StudioCanal’s the Franco/Belgian’s delight, Ernest & Celestine. The extreme latter was produced by some of the same people responsible for the newly released The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and César finalist, A Mouse’s Tale (2008).

Ghibli’s success may have opened the Academy’s door for such later nominees as The Triplets of Belleville (2003), Persepolis (2007), The Secret of Kells and A Town Called Panic (2009) (2009), The Illusionist, A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita (2010), Boy and the World (2013), Song of the Sea and The Dam Keeper (2014), My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle (2016), The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent (2017), and Mirai (2018), but the floodgates to commercial acceptance have remained closed to outsiders. Only Oregon-based Laika’s Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) have topped the same nine-figure barrier that Disney/Pixar, Disney Animation, DreamWorks, Marvel/Sony/Disney, Paramount/Nickelodeon and Warner/Village Roadshow routinely expected for their products, along with Oscars. It once was easy to pin the blame on bad dubbing and annoying lip-synching for poor box-office returns. They imbued the animated features with a foreign air that frightens audiences who grew up on Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and the antics of Tom & Jerry. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Robert Zemeckis toyed with viewers’ lifelong relationship with their favorite cartoon characters.

I’ve always believed that the round-eyed characters in Japanese manga and anime – first attributed to Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy”/ “Mighty Atom” (1963) – were drawn that way to appeal to western audiences, in the same way that dubbing was introduced to ease their fear of subtitles. Along with that came the routine assembling of A-listers to lend their disembodied voices to a project’s dub track. If, in the 1960s, western audiences for anime and manga weren’t so minute, that theory might have carried some weight. Tezuka is said to have drawn inspiration from Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and “Looney Tunes.” It didn’t take long for Japanese audiences to recognize a full range of emotions and personality traits telegraphed by subtle variations in the shape of a character’s eyes or color of their hair. The subject of eye shapes soon became a non-issue. Today, the trend has reversed course and more sophisticated animated features have adopted a more naturalistic look.

I’m not the only person who’s seen a resemblance between the characters in The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and those drawn by Walt Disney, Tex Avery and other animators at Walter Lantz Productions, in the early 1930s. By putting words in the mouths of barn animals and forest dwellers, they created a paradigm that has lasted for nearly 100 years. Film journalist Gary Morris has described how Avery shifted that paradigm by “steering the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and making cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated (his) speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.” In “Big Bad Fox,” co-director/co-writer Benjamin Renner rejiggers both Hollywood cartoon formulas – whose usefulness has nearly been exhausted – and adds a layer of madness that includes role reversal, wish fulfillment and multiphrenia. From a distance, everything looks calm and peaceful. Up close, it’s a ball of confusion. We’re introduced to a fox who thinks it’s a chicken, a rabbit that acts like a stork and a duck who wants to replace Father Christmas. In this, Renner’s third animated film – he created the comic book, upon which the stories are based – he also appears to have been influenced by Doctor Seuss and Adult Swim. In the first tale (“A Baby to Deliver”), a feckless stork leaves a baby in the hands of a rabbit, a pig and a duck, urging them to make the delivery in his place. The second and longest story (“The Big Bad Fox”) follows a fox scrounging around for food and winding up — not unlike Seuss’ “Horton Hatches an Egg” — with a set of baby chicks to manage. It proves he may be a better at child-rearing than at hunting. In the third section (“The Perfect Christmas”), the animals mistakenly think they’ve killed Santa Claus and try their best to impersonate him. The package adds a nine-minute interview with co-directors Renner and Patrick Imbert (Ernest & Celestine), in which the characters are studied, identifying temperaments and quirks, and the challenges of direction are recounted; a fifteen-minute making-of featurette, in which four children attempt to interview select members of the crew; a Q&A at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (4:35, HD); and a piece on the English dub session.

Hold Back the Dawn: Blu-ray
Life along the border has always been contentious, harsh and dangerous. President Trump wants us to think that the men, women and children currently being held in cages are criminals, gang members, leeches and disease carriers, not human beings seeking freedom, jobs and security for their children. For Trump and his Republican cronies, most of whom have never done an honest day’s work, banging on the immigration drum is a way to stir the rabble and get re-elected. Mitchell Leisen’s surprisingly topical and frequently charming Hold Back the Dawn (1941) takes place on the border separating Tijuana and southern California, at a time when refugees from around the world – not just Mexico and Central America – were begging, scheming and bribing their way across the border. They did so to escape fascism, mindless violence, prejudice and poverty. Most of the refugees then waiting desperately for papers to be signed or a gate to open were vaguely aware, at least, of the quote engraved on a plaque mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” If POTUS had his druthers, he probably would order the National Park Service to build a Trump-branded hotel next to Lady Libertas, just like in Las Vegas. I wonder how many of the Democratic presidential candidates could quote more than a few words from the plaque, either.

Mitchell Leisen’s Best Picture-nominated romantic drama, Hold Back the Dawn, was co-adapted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, from a story by Ketti Frings, “Memo to a Movie Producer.” As an Austrian Jew, Wilder was among “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” who got out of Europe when the getting was still good. He would struggle a bit upon his arrival in in Hollywood in 1933, but the émigré community gave him its support. Before he was partnered with Brackett on a series of movies that led from Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939), to Hold Back the Dawn, he had one more large hurdle to clear. It directly inspired Leisen’s film. Like Charles Boyer’s devious gigolo, Georges Iscovescu, Wilder spent time in Mexico, waiting for the U.S. government to renew his papers after his six-month visa had expired in 1934. He was denied re-entry for several months, until, at the point of losing hope, he went to a new immigration officer. After the guard asked Wilder his profession, he stamped Wilder’s papers, adding, “Make good movies, then.” In today’s America, the next Billy Wilder could be trapped in a cage along the border, waiting for the 2020 elections to play out.

Hold Back the Dawn opens with a disheveled Iscovescu suddenly appearing at the gates of Paramount Studios, demanding to see Leisen, whose character, director Dwight Saxon, was on a soundstage rehearsing a scene from I Wanted Wings (1941), with Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy and Richard Webb. As will become apparent much later in the picture, Romanian-born Iscovescu wants to sell the story of his recent troubles for $500. What we aren’t told is the reason why. When Saxon takes the bait, the real-life director throws his movie, Hold Back the Dawn, into flashback mode. Now, Iscovescu is in Tijuana, being told that the waiting period for Romanian immigrants currently stands at eight years. Fortuitously, he runs into his former dancing partner, Anita (Pauline Goddard), who found a sugar daddy and, just as quickly, ditched him. She  advises Georges to marry an American woman and desert her once safely across the border. After being turned down by a German woman (Rosemary DeCamp) who’s already married, he sets his sight on American teacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). Emmy’s school bus broke down in Tijuana, stranding her with a dozen kids who have nothing better to do than terrorize the guests and managers at the Hotel Esperanza. Georges talks the mechanic into taking his time fixing the vehicle, giving him another day to win her heart. At the same time, a dogged Border Patrol inspector (Walter Abel) has figured out the scheme – a Romanian gigolo would stand out in most crowds — and vows to catch Georges before he can break Emmy’s heart. After he breaks the bad news to the teacher, she turns tails and returns home to Azusa. A terrible twist near the film’s end prompts the visit to Paramount Studios, where Iscovescu hopes to sell the story to Saxon.

It’s a neat gag that gets even better knowing Wilder’s experience at the border. Hold Back the Dawn would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Writing (Wilder and Brackett), Best Actress in a Leading Role (de Havilland), Best Cinematography (black-and-white), Best Art Direction (interiors) and Best Music (drama). Arrow Academy’s high-definition presentation is from original film elements and adds new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; featurette “Love Knows No Borders,” a new appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew; “The Guardian Lecture: Olivia de Havilland,” a career-spanning interview with the star, recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1971; a rare hour-long radio adaptation from 1941, starring Boyer, Goddard and Susan Haywood; a gallery of original stills and promotional images;  a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by writer and critic Farran Smith Nehme. The great bluesman, Sonny Boy Williams I, makes a sadly uncredited cameo as a street musician.

Noir Archive 9-film Collection, Volume 2: 1954-1956: Blu-ray
It’s been a short three months since Kit Parker Films and Mill Creek Entertainment released “Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954,” which is comprised of rarely seen thrillers from the Columbia  Pictures archives. Not all of the nine movies fit easily within the established parameters of noir, but the ones that don’t can be enjoyed as above-average B-movies and oddities. All benefit mightily from the upgrade to Blu-ray. Chronologically, “Noir Archive 9-film Collection, Volume 2: 1954-1956” picks up at exactly the same point as where “Volume 1” left off: 1954, which was on the downhill side of the subgenre’s life expectancy. Technically, the same can generally be said of movies intended as second features in theaters and drive-ins. The designation also applied to shorter, more budget-conscious horror, sci-fi and Western flicks. Just as Roger Corman provided opportunities for young, unestablished film school graduates in the 1960s, studios in the 1930s,’40s and ’50s maintained stables of emerging and submerging actors, directors, cinematographers and writers to churn out B’s. Today, many of their films have been upgraded to A-level status by buffs, collectors and academics.

“Volume 2” may only cover a two-year span, but the movies are of equal value to ones in “Volume 1,” which represented a full decade. Many viewers will be drawn first to 5 Against the House (1955), if only for the glowing presence of a 22-year-old Kim Novak, whose next picture would be The Man With a Golden Arm (1955). Digging further reveals the fingerprints of co-writers Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night), William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!), co-writer/producer John Barnwell, Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It), magazine writer/novelist Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and journeyman director Phil Karlson (Hell to Eternity). In a plot that might have inspired Ocean’s 11 (1960), four Korean War veterans, attending college on the GI Bill, devise an elaborate scheme to rob Reno’s “impenetrable” Harold’s Club casino. At first, the idea is simply to prove it can be done. Brian Keith (“Family Affair”), who suffers from war-related flasnbacks, has other designs for the money, however, and his pal Guy Madison (“Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok”), feels obligated to join him. His girlfriend (Novak) plays a sultry cabaret singer, who thinks it might be fun to tag along. (Here’s how she was described in the New York Times’ slurpy review: “Kim Novak, as the blonde songstress who can’t quite make up her mind about her man, is as tempting a dish as any to have been set before a viewer this season.”) The co-stars include comic sidekick Alvy Moore (“Green Acres”), matinee idol Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and William Conrad (“Cannon”), as a casino employee. More of a caper picture than noir, 5 Against the House has a lot to recommend it.

Also on tap are Hugo Haas’s Bait (1954), a tale of deceit set near the top of a mountain, which holds just enough gold to turn geezer partner, Marko (Haas), against his young and virile partner, Ray (John Agar), and the blond bombshell, Peggy (Cleo Moore), who marries the old man, prefers the younger guy and plays both of the prospectors against each other to escape with the claim. The echoes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) resonate between the Sonoran Desert and a snow-covered soundstage in Culver City. Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) was, of course, based on the autobiographical best-seller by San Quentin inmate Caryl Chessman (William/Robert Campbell). Although his crimes fell just short of murder, he was sent to Death Row under California’s Little Lindbergh Law. Released before Chessman was executed in 1960 – after dozens of appeals and stays — the popularity of the book and movie not only spurred protests against the death penalty, but also encouraged thousands of jailhouse lawyers to challenge their convictions. The setting shifts continually from Cell 2455 to scenes from his youth, when the well-meaning juvenile delinquent turned into a heartless criminal. Andrew Stone’s The Night Holds Terror (1955) also is based on a true crime. This one involves a carjacking by escaped convicts and the subsequent home invasion and kidnapping of the adult daughter (Hildy Parks) of a wealthy man. The movie, which easily passes for noir, is essential for early appearances by John Cassavetes (“The Dirty Dozen”), David Cross (“77 Sunset Strip”), Jack Kelly (“Maverick”), Vince Edwards (“Ben Casey”), fresh off an appearance in Cell 2455, Death Row. In addition to being a decent thriller, The Night Holds Terror works well as a procedural.

The other five Blu-rays in the bonus-free package include Nathan Juran’s The Crooked Web (1955), a post-war potboiler that largely is set in  Occupied Berlin, where a murder and theft remain unsolved 10 years later; Arthur Lubin’s “Gothic noir,” Footsteps in the Fog (1955) stars real-life couple Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons in a tale of homicide and psychological gamesmanship that smacks of Hitchcockian intrigue; ; Vernon Sewell’s Spin a Dark Web (1955) also was sold to Columbia after being made in London by Frankovich Productions. It involves a Canadian prizefighter (Lee Patterson), who, instead of excelling in the ring, finds work as an enforcer for the brother of a femme fatale, played by Faith Domergue (This Island Earth). By the time he figures out their game, it’s almost too late to escape a prison sentence. William Castle’s New Orleans Uncensored (1955) arrived in theaters less than a year after On the Waterfront (1954), although on opposite sides of the fence. In the similarly themed B-movie, a Navy veteran (Arthur Franz) purchases a government surplus vessel, hoping to restore it and make a living at sea. His plans are almost thwarted by a turf battle between gangsters and longshoremen. Beverly Garland, Helene Stanton and Michael Ansara add luster to the proceedings.

It’s impossible to imagine a universe in which Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim might have been influenced by Fred F. Sears’ Rumble on the Docks (1956), when they were putting the finishing touches on “West Side Story.” Or, that Jack DeWitt and Lou Morheim’s low-budget morality play used “Romeo and Juliet” as a launching pad, as was the case with the multi-platform musical. The original concept for “West Side Story” focused on a conflict between Irish Catholic and Jewish families on the Lower East Side, of during the Easter/Passover season. In “Rumble,” the gangs are largely generic, and they clash over territory along the docks. In his first feature film, James Darren (Gidget) plays the estranged son of a printing-press owner, Pete Smigelski (Edgar Barrier), whose back was broken in a labor dispute when he was a child. Ever since, Pete has treated Jimmy as if he’s personally responsible for the damage done to him by the local crime boss, Joe Brindo (Michael Granger), who thinks he owns the docks.  After doing a favor for the comically adorned Brindo – who should measure his tailor for concrete slippers — Jimmy thinks he’s found a surrogate father. He didn’t count, however, on being on the same team as thugs capable of beating up his girlfriend’s little brother and trashing his father’s shop. Look for Robert Blake as one of Darren’s fellow gang members and the late, great Hollywood heavy, Timothy Carey, as one of Brindo’s henchmen.

Universal Horror Collection, Volume 2: Blu-ray
The second volume of obscure horror titles from the Universal archives follows the first into release by six weeks. That one featured four films in which Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared together as atypical characters (for them) and for various amounts of time. A couple of them were good enough to recommend, while those others were curiosities, at best. The similarly upgraded “Universal Horror Collection, Volume 2” is comprised of movies Boomers and their parents might have watched as midnight monster-movie packages or at Saturday afternoon matinees. The selections were released by TCM in five-movie sets a couple of years ago and I don’t know why consumers today are being shortchanged, unless it was part of the deal with Scream Factory. A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933), Joseph H. Lewis’ The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), William Nigh’s The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) and James P. Hogan’s The Mad Ghoul (1943). All of them represent the mad-scientist or pseudoscience subgenres that were popular in the 1930-40s and provided Universal with low-budget alternatives to its monster series. They’re short on suspense; criminally underwritten; full of goofs (a python is passed off as a green mamba); and, apart from Shemp Howard, Charles Ruggles and a then-unknown Randolph Scott, populated with long-forgotten actors. They were part of the original “Shock Theater” package of 52 Universal titles released to television in 1957 and followed a year later with “Son of Shock,” which added 20 more features. They all look a lot better today. That said, buffs of such movies won’t mind wasting a few hours watching these bizarre entertainments.

The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2: Blu-ray
At Cohen Media, 2019 has turned into the Year of Buster Keaton, which should come as good news for anyone who’s never seen his work in such pristine shape. It began on April 2, with the release of Peter Bogdanovich’s 101-minute documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration. According to the boilerplate, the doc “celebrates the life and career of one of America’s most influential and celebrated filmmakers and comedians, whose singular style and fertile output during the silent era created his legacy as a true cinematic visionary.” No hyperbole, there. Keaton incomparable comedy was and continues to be the gold standard. Just in case some young whippersnapper wanted to argue a contrary position, Cohen released “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1” a month later. It contains two of the greatest films ever made … comedy or drama, silent or otherwise: The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), both restored in 4K and featuring fresh orchestral scores by Carl Davis and featurettes. A couple of weeks ago, “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2” added the equally hilarious and influential Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator to the mix, again restored and with featurettes. The embarrassment of riches continues in three weeks with “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 3,” containing the more infrequently seem, Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). But don’t take my word for it, “The Great Stone Face” has appeared in eight films that have been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: One Week (1920), Cops (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928) and, lest we forget, Sunset Blvd. (1950). He also directed seven of those entries. All of the silents were made within the nine-year period, before he made the mistake of signing with MGM.

Among the things for which Sherlock Jr. will be forever remembered are a lengthy chase scene that occurs during a projectionist’s dream and pulls all the brilliant gimmicks out of Keaton’s bag of tricks; a game of pool that took four months to master and five days to shoot; the scene in which the projectionist’s alter ego, Sherlock Jr., escapes gangsters by leaping headfirst through the body of his disguised assistant, Gillette (Ford West) and disappears; and, of course, the sequence in which Sherlock Jr. is running along the roofs of some moving freight cars and grabs the spout connected to a water tower. Keaton’s weight caused the spout to descend and, as it did so, the gush of water washed him on to the track with force, fracturing his neck nearly to the point of breaking it. Not only is the scene in the picture, but the fracture went undiagnosed for until the 1930s, when Keaton sought relief from blinding migraines. All 45 minutes of Sherlock Jr. overflow with laughs, thrills and surprises. Oddly, it didn’t fare well with critics or audiences of the day. Go figure.

Released back-to-back, The Navigator (1924) became Keaton’s most successful movie in gross revenues. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, who took an early powder, Keaton and his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) are the only persons aboard the Navigator, when it’s cast adrift by saboteurs hoping it clogs the entrance to the harbor. Instead, it finds its way to an island populated by cannibals. When the Navigator runs aground, the islanders snatch Betsy While that happens, Rollo is underwater in a diving suit and weighted shoes, attempting to assess the damage. The head-to-toe outfit will come in handy when he walks to shore and scares the natives, but only for an hour or two. Then the battle begins. The innovate underwater scenes were shot off Catalina and in Lake Tahoe. The retired freighter Keaton purchased for the production provided him with all sorts of opportunities for gags and escape routes. The Cohen package adds a pair of featurettes that combine making-of and biographical detail.

Hellboy: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Doors: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Weird Science: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Even if Guillermo del Toro’s original Hellboy (2004) didn’t set the turnstiles ablaze in its theatrical run, video sales encouraged the writer/director and its star, Ron Perlman, to return four years later in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which did very well. It wasn’t until February 2017 that Del Toro admitted that the trilogy he proposed wouldn’t be completed under his and Perlman’s watch. Why any production company would turn down another opportunity to collaborate with Del Toro and Perlman is another one of those rhetorical questions pondered by so-called entertainment reporters … or so-called reporters of so-called news in the so-called entertainment industry. Given how quickly bad news travels on the Internet and among ComicCon geeks, it’s difficult to understand how anyone would greenlight a reboot of Hellboy (a.k.a., “Hellboy: Call of Darkness”), with an entirely new cast, a new writer (albeit from the same Dark Horse universe) and the near certainty of meddling by executives. And, of course, it failed to reach every measurable goal, commercially and critically. I suspect that Hellboy completists will want to check out the new Blu-ray/4K and re-evaluate it out of the shadows of their group-think peers. The special effects are pretty wild and, to me, David Harbour was indistinguishable from Perlman in the title role. Recruiting Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, and Thomas Haden Church wasn’t a mistake, either. I found it impossible to follow the many – too many – individual conceits, however. Before I was able to fully savor any of the individual set pieces and creatively drawn characters, others would follow immediately behind them. Fanboys already are aware of the film’s graphic-novel roots: “Darkness Calls,” “The Wild Hunt,” “The Storm and the Fury” and “Hellboy in Mexico.” It earns the series’ first R rating, so sayeth the MPAA, with “strong bloody violence and gore throughout, and language.” Those who make it through the end credits will be rewarded with a cute little scene alluding to a sequel that probably won’t be made. The package adds the feature-length “Tales of the Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn,” with principal cast and crew members, along with creator Mike Mignola; deleted scenes; and computer animated storyboards.

I’ve been listening to the Doors since the release of the band’s eponymous first album, in 1967, thanks primarily to a column written by Robert Christgau in the June issue of Esquire, to which my father subscribed. Included in his perusal of emerging west-coast bands, as well, were Love and Jefferson Airplane, whose debut albums didn’t particularly impress him. He had better things to say about the Doors, whose “esoteric” mix of original and covered material impressed him, if not as much as the Monkees. At the time, Christgau somehow neglected to mention the contributions of songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to the pre-fab band’s fame. He also didn’t bother to learn the name of the singer he dismissed – the great Arthur Lee – in his far less than visionary take on Love. The forgivably young critic completely missed the boat on “Surrealistic Pillow,” which he reviewed through the eyes and ears of a native New Yorker. I purchased all three, anyway, and, with later, began to listen to the Monkees with more educated ears. Christgau now is one of the grand old men of rock critics and frequently is asked to share his learned opinions in other rockumentaries. Writers with more than 50 years of experience under their belt shouldn’t be judged by their earliest columns, just as a rock band’s inaugural album shouldn’t be measured against the pioneers of rock, blues and R&B, which is how that particular article read.

Like millions of other people around the world I was saddened by Jim Morrison’s untimely death – yes, he was 27 — a mere four years after “The Doors” was released. That doesn’t mean I was surprised by the news, however. Neither have I ever felt the need to erase Doors’ songs from my various playlists because of Morrison’s suicidal behavior and ugly demise. Two decades later, Oliver Stone directly confronted Morrison’s legacy and that of the band. Did the generation nurtured on heavy metal, hip-hop, reggae, glam rock and punk still care about the Lizard King (Val Kilmer)? On the radio, yes; on the big screen, not so much. Stone’s hallucinogenic biopic, The Doors (1991), barely broke even at the box office. If it had been released alongside Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, Rocketman and Yesterday, it might have had a fighting chance. We’ll see. I don’t blame Oliver Stone’s adventurous direction, which pushed the limits on how much AIDS-era fans actually cared about behind-the-scenes mayhem, unfettered promiscuity and good old-fashioned substance abuse. The overfamiliarity with the Doors’ catalogue, caused by the explosion of greatest-hits packages, music videos, concert footage and rockumentaries, on every conceivable platform, definitely worked against Stone’s hagiography. A decade earlier, Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable use of “The End,” from the Doors’ first album, in Apocalypse Now (1979), triggered the same resurgence Stone envisioned. The depiction of Morrison’s inevitable decline and parallel addictions remains almost unbearable to watch, as are his alienation from the band and indefensible treatment of his terminally loyal girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan, at her most adorable). As he had in Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), immediately before The Doors, Stone deftly captured the frenzy, looks, sounds and textures of the times. The crowd scenes, newsreel footage and recreations of events from the band’s heyday are well recalled and depicted, seemingly from memory. The scenes at Andy Warhol’s Factory and its environs do a couple of things simultaneously: plumbing the depths of the chasm between east coast and west coast demimondes and demonstrating Morrison’s fish-out-of-water discomfort in the company of hard-core degenerates, as portrayed by Michael Madsen, Kathleen Quinlan, Mimi Rogers, Jennifer Rubin, Paul Williams, Costas Mandylor and Crispin Glover, as Warhol. There’s an abundance of nudity, but, as I recall, it fit the times. Neither did the psychedelic bits with the Navajo angels (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Wes Studi, Rion Hunter, Steve Reevis) bother me. Hippies and rock stars worshipped Native American culture, even if they didn’t completely grasp its nuances. The 4K package contains final-cut (2:18:11) and theatrical-cut (2:20:29) editions; new interviews with Stone and Lon Bender, mixer for the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The standard Blu-ray edition picks up lengthy featurettes, deleted scenes and an archival EPK from the 2008 edition.

Written and directed by the late, great John Hughes at the height of his creative power, Weird Science (1985) has been accorded the kind of Arrow Video upgrade all of his films merit. The still uproarious sci-fi comedy arrived on the heels of Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), and just ahead of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). By 1991, Hughes decided to stick exclusively with the writing and producing end of the profession. In a sense, Weird Science was Hughes’ computer-age homage to the Frankenstein legend. When Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) finally get sick of being bullied and ridiculed for being at the bottom of Shermer High’s food chain, they take advantage of their nerd skills to create a far more attractive version of the Monster’s Mate. Covergirl Kelly LeBrock had just played a model in Gene Wilder’s The Woman in Red (1984), but her portrayal of the geeks’ cybernetic dream girl required a bit more comic acting and personality. It works. She uses some supernatural magic to turn her ugly ducklings into full-blown swans, admired by everyone in the school for being attached to such a spectacular woman. Bill Paxton played Wyatt’s sadistic older brother; Robert Rusler and Robert Downey Jr. are the boys’ nemeses; and newcomers Suzanne Snyder and Judie Aronson played the hot babes on campus. Hughes’ broad, generous and au courant sense of humor – and empathetic feelings for his characters — was what shone through the Weird Science and his other classic comedies. It reportedly was inspired by EC Comics and, of course, was boosted by a killer soundtrack that included the title theme, by Oingo Boingo. Arrow Films’s restoration includes a 4K scan of the original negative; a theatrical version (94 minutes), edited-for-TV cut (95 minutes) and extended edition (97 minutes), featuring two additional scenes newly remastered in high-definition; newly filmed interviews with special makeup creator Craig Reardon, editor Chris Lebenzon, casting director Jackie Burch, composer Ira Newborn and supporting actor John Kapelos; “It’s Alive: Resurrecting Weird Science,” an archived documentary, featuring interviews with cast, crew and admirers; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching; and, first pressing only, an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Amanda Reyes

Hail Satan?
As ridiculous as some of the people we meet in Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? may be, the documentary lays out issues that strike at the heart of our democracy. They include the still raging debate over the separation of church and state; the frequently conflicting freedoms of speech and religions; whether the Constitution applies to those who put their trust in God, not Satanists or atheists; and how to deal with citizens who put their beliefs over those of their fellow Americans. Even though the Supreme Court is pretty clear on the issue, a vocal minority of Christians apparently won’t be satisfied until the “silent majority,” if you will, is required by law to adhere to their interpretation of the bible. They want to be able to display giant crosses, nativity creches and replicas of the Ten Commandments on public land and government buildings, even when the law forbids them from doing so. Here, we see Satanists demanding the same right to gather and be represented in public forums as everyone else, as well as being allowed to parade their iconography in places where their opponents can see it. What I see as the basic issue being debated in Hail Satan? is whether the rights of hypocrites preclude those of non-conformists, provocateurs and kooks, and Lane makes a strong case for the latter. Or, that the well-informed, entirely logical and sometimes outwardly offensive Satanists – some of whom admit to being  non-believers in either deity — make it for her.

Why do I call the preachers and their followers hypocrites? Primarily because of the inconsistency of their constitutionally protected messages. For example, if religious leaders are so offended by the blasphemers and sinners in their midst, why have they refused to call for the impeachment of President Trump – an adulterer, sexual predator and unrepentant liar — strictly on moral and ethical grounds? It would mean the automatic ascension of one of their own: Vice President Mike Pence, who hasn’t been timid about his fundamentalist views. He’d back the same anti-abortion activists, name the same conservative judges and offend the same women’s group as his current boss and is more familiar with domestic and foreign policies. He probably wouldn’t play the clown to amuse his backers, either. What would Jesus do? Probably send Trump packing, back to New York, with all of his possessions balanced on the back of mules. Just as the President has deflected attention away from his miserable behavior and disgusting pronouncements by questioning the patriotism of his enemies, Evangelical preachers have rallied their flocks against self-described Satanists, atheists and quasi-religious narcissists. The Satanists we meet here are every bit as media-savvy as Trump’s advisers – so are the Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists who’ve been allowed to cause mayhem in our streets – but are vastly outnumbered by the MAGA crowd. Television camera crews will follow anyone’s parade down a lonely street on a Saturday afternoon, if something sexier – a police chase, hotdog-eating contest, random street crime – isn’t happening. Although Catholics are underrepresented in the movie, some of the people interviewed argue persuasively that the Church has allowed priests to serve Satan by buggering altar boys and, until recently, escape accountability. Again, WWJD? In her previous work, Lane (Nuts!) has displayed a willingness to stir up controversy. The transposing of a goat’s head on the visage of the Statue of Liberty, on the DVD cover, pretty much guarantees that civil libertarians will be as reluctant to watch Hail Satan? as the bible-bangers who only watch movies with a family-friendly, Dove-approved presentation.

Eternity Has No Door of Escape: Encounters with Outsider Art
Arthur Borgnis’ fascinating documentary, Eternity Has no Door of Escape, easily recalls a period in 20th Century history when Adolph Hitler and his perverted acolytes determined, on behalf of  all citizens of the Third Reich, split art into two categories: representative of Aryan values and “degenerate.” The latter category included modern and interpretive art, Surrealism, Dada and anything else Der Führer believed was experimental, Jewish or that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” From July 19, 1937, to November 30, of the same year, an exhibition of forbidden art was staged in counterpoint to the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition. The Degenerate Art Exhibition presented 650 works of art confiscated from German museums. Presumably, those pieces were subsequently destroyed, unlike the works stolen from Jewish homes and horded by Nazi leaders in caves, until the end of the war, or sold to private buyers. (In the U.S., today, some people consider statues of Confederate generals to be high art and of historical significance. Easily offended parents and special-interest groups – on both sides of the racial and political fence – have labored to ban such essential books as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Color Purple” and even “Harry Potter.”) Eternity Has No Door Of Escape traces the tumultuous history of outsider art (a.k.a., art brut) and introduces us to its pivotal figures, including psychiatrist and art collector Dr. Hans Prinzhorn and Surrealist artist and writer André Breton. Using a treasure trove of rare archival footage, the film brings viewers to the places and institutions – including mental hospitals –from which such frequently wondrous and atypically sacred examples of outsider art emerged. Borgnis invites viewers to feast their eyes on art that defies easy translation or understanding, while delighting us with fanciful images, illogical positioning and whimsical takes on architecture and practical objects. Among the artists discussed are Jean Dubuffet, Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, Laure Pigeon and August Natterer. Hitler wouldn’t approve.

Shortcut to Happiness
On paper, Alec Baldwin’s adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1936 short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” should have had a fighting chance at success. In fact, though, Baldwin’s first and only turn as a director of a feature film turned out to be a disaster, compounded by a train wreck. As the film’s protagonist, novelist Jabez Stone, Baldwin isn’t half-bad, and because Benet’s story has stood the test of time, changing the locale to New York’s chi-chi literary demi-monde shouldn’t have presented any problem, either. Moreover, Baldwin could count on screenwriters Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and Pete Dexter (Mulholland Falls) for a decent script and a supporting cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Bobby Cannavale, Kim Cattrall, Darrell Hammond, Barry Miller, Amy Poehler and cameos by John Savage, George Plimpton, Jason Patric, Carrot Top, Gay Talese and Gregg Bello. Baldwin plays a failed writer so desperate to be recognized at Elaine’s and other literary haunts that he signs a pact with the Devil. (That wouldn’t be unusual in a profession dominated by self-help hacks and genre specialists, who write the same book over and over, again.) I don’t think many people would pick Jennifer Love Hewitt as their first, second or third choice to play the antagonist, though. As the heroine of a Nicholas Sparks romance, sure, but not Ms. Scratch. And, not when you already have Cattrall on board as a demonic literary agent. That’s because, when things don’t go as planned for Stone, and he wants his life back, Hewitt’s can’t hold a candle to Hopkins’ portrayal of the great lawyer, statesman and orator, Daniel Webster.

The movie’s woes really began during the 2001 shoot, when financial woes hobbled all of production’s forward momentum. Baldwin has said that the movie was taken from him during editing and it prompted him to demand his directorial credit be replaced with the pseudonym “Harry Kirkpatrick.” Shortcut to Happiness was purchased from a bankruptcy court for an undisclosed amount by producer Bob Yari (“Crash”). Once the still unfinished film was cleared to be sold for distribution, a rough cut was screened at film festivals in 2003 and 2004. It then needed further financing to complete the editing and special effects, as well as to replace temporary music. Finally, in July 2006 it was announced that Yari’s company would work on finishing the film and shoot for a 2007 release … in Kazakhstan. The best estimate on Box Office Mojo puts the domestic haul at “n/a” and foreign box office at $605,294, making it a bomb of monumental proportions. The MVD Marquee Collection edition – probably, the first in high-def – doesn’t look any worse for the wear. Completists and diehard fans of the players might get something out of it, but only barely.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Blu-ray
With the exception of the hand game for which it’s named, Rock, Paper, Scissors (2017) is an acceptably thrilling collage of time-honored horror/splatter conceits. It’s directed by Tom Holland, who began his career directing such squirmy fare as Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988), and writing The Beast Within (1982), Psycho II (1983) and Scream for Help (1984). Here, serial killer Peter “Doll Maker” Harris returns to his ancestral home after being released from the state’s hospital for the criminally insane as a “cured” man. Michael Madsen plays the police officer who arrested Harris and rejects the idea that such a monster could be cured, as his psychotherapist (Tatum O’Neal) insists. He pledges to return Harris to the hospital – or kill him – before he can do any more damage to teenage girls in the neighborhood. He also suspects that the woman who’s moved across the street from him – a true-crime writer and sister to a still missing girl —  will become Harris’ next victim or goad him into attacking others. For his part, Harris has stopped insisting that he was ordered to kill the girls by his twin brother, who nobody except Peter believes exists. Neither do we, even when Harris begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with visitors, just as he did with his victims. Holland takes his time answering our questions, while also building tension within the confines of Harris’ house, which may still harbor horrors and secrets. Pretty basic stuff really, especially the bit about the nonexistent evil twin. Michael Madsen will never go hungry as long as B-movies like Rock, Paper, Scissors are made. FYI: In the past 20 years, no fewer that 22 movies, shorts and television episodes have carried the same title.

The DVD Wrapup: Facets, Eliana, Moullet, Pet Sematary, The Loveless, Transit, Kanarie, Escape Plan 3, Island Earth, Tough Ones, Pretenders, Broad City … More

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

Remembering Milos
Eliana, Eliana
The Films of Luc Moullet
I had just moved to Chicago, from Los Angeles, in 1980, when I became acquainted with Milos Stehlik and his bouncing baby, Facets Multi-Media and Cinematheque. Two years earlier, the non-profit organization moved to permanent facilities on West Fullerton Avenue, which, at the time, was still waiting to be gentrified. Even so, it was already was filling a void being experienced by buffs, students and lovers of international cinema. A few of the city’s glorious North Loop movie palaces were still hanging on by a thread, neighborhood theaters struggled to book first-run Hollywood fare, and still pay the rent. AMC and GCC had conquered the suburbs, with multiplexes that had no difficulty landing hit titles, if only because they cut sweetheart deals with distributers and soft-drink companies. Their uniformly rectangular auditoriums defined the term, “shoebox” and came complete with paper-thin walls, sticky floors and pre-packaged popcorn. Traditional arthouses were scattered around Chicago’s North Side, but audiences were often forced to wait weeks for the movies promoted in the trailers to dislodge a popular incumbent. In the late 1970s. the theater complex inside the newly completed Water Tower Place promised something new and different: a place to watch first-run pictures in theaters built for comfort and ideal viewing conditions. Neither were concessions an afterthought. As I recall, it was an instant success, and not at all unlike the now-popular ArcLight Cinemas, in Los Angeles. The opposite was true at Facets, where movies were the whole show and comfort was an afterthought. There were other things there to keep minds’ occupied, including being able to browse through the video collection. It reminded me of visits to San Francisco’s famously cluttered City Lights Bookstore, where the browsing also took place in the basement, and, besides being a cultural landmark, offered novels, non-fiction titles and poetry difficult to find anywhere else. Even so, the odds of Facets succeeding against the Goliaths were roughly the same as the Cubs making the World Series. Both persevered, however.

Stehlik, who had lung cancer, died Saturday at his home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. He was 70. Milos and I struck up a friendship based on the fact that our surnames indicated the possibility of a shared Czech background, somewhere in the country’s deep, dark past. I hadn’t started reviewing movies, led alone videos, yet, but valued the presence of a business that so directly catered to my tastes. As I moved up the ladder in the Tribune’s features department, Facets became an even more valuable resource. My bosses sometimes would voice their concern over why our critics were paying so much attention to such cinematic exotica as Eastern European film festivals and movies that weren’t buying advertising space in the Sunday paper. The non-issue would slip their minds soon enough. Meanwhile, learning that my wife is of the Serbian persuasion, we were always given a heads-up when a  new Yugoslavian export had arrived, or a noteworthy director was in town. Milos got a kick out of introducing Donna to Dušan Makavejev, the irrepressible bad boy director of such frequently banned films as WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), as well as the uproariously dark comedy, Montenegro (1981), whose characters shared traits with people we knew. In it, the uptight American wife (Susan Ansbach) of a deceptively straitlaced Swedish bourgeois (Erland Josephson) is abducted at the airport by a motley group of Yugoslavian immigrants connected to the raucous Zanzi Bar nightclub. (She’s forced to share a station wagon with a man with a knife in his forehead, a goat and a naïve stripper who’d just flown in for New Year’s Eve festivities. Her act includes a toy tank with a dildo attached to its cannon.) Montenegro had taken over the large screen at the historic Biograph Theater for weeks. Not many of Dušan’s pictures could attract such crowds, even at an arthouse, but they always found a home at Facets … and, in a sense, so did all lovers of foreign films. Even when we moved back to Los Angeles, in 1995, we kept in touch by subscribing to Facets’ catalog and newsletters. (A few free rentals were thrown in, as well.) I always found Milos to be a ready source for information about the movies about which I was writing or reviewing in their DVD iteration. Before Netflix was founded, in 1997, Facets had created a distribution network and rental business that connected cineastes around the country to the Fullerton Avenue store, screening room, classrooms and annual children’s festival. Lately, it’s begun streaming movies of significance to subscribers, especially those in the boonies.

Titles that Facets first made available in the U.S., or released on its private label, included Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Milos Forman’s Black Peter, Forough Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black, Frantisek Vlácil’s Adelheid” and collections of experimentalists, such as James Broughton, Heinz Emigholz and the UK architect-turned-filmmaker, Patrick Keiller. Over the years, devoted Facets customers included such bold-face names as Martin Scorsese, Stephen Sondheim and Cher, as well as hundreds of university and public libraries. In a 1998 New York Times article, Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert opined, “If you can’t find it at Facets, chances are you can’t find it. (Stehlik’s) really making a difference, on a national, even a worldwide, level.” When the Iron Curtain was brought down in the early 1990s, Facets benefited from his already established access to Eastern European artists and distributors, whose movies had been denied western audiences during the Cold War. Stehlik’s accomplishments include teaching at Columbia College Chicago and lecturing at Wayne State University, DePaul University and the University of Illinois. He served on the juries of several film festivals and on review panels for the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a board member of the Illinois Arts Alliance, the program committee of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and Chicago Latino Cultural Center. He provided film commentaries on Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ-FM, and received the Associated Press Broadcasters Award. In 1997, he was also awarded the Telluride Film Festival Silver Medallion for “creating a virtual Cinematheque on video,” and named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Communication.

I wonder if he was ever asked to throw out the first ball or sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field. How about an honorary street sign? At the recent Facets Master Class with Werner Herzog, on May 11, 2019, the filmmaker said: “There are some human beings that were named national treasures of the United States. They haven’t named Milos yet, but I do. I hope and wish there’s a great future for Facets.” To commemorate its founder and continue his work, Facets has established the Milos Stehlik Legacy Fund. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund can be made online at or by contacting Ann Kopec at It’s a credit to Milos’ foresight and commitment to the cinematic art – and Chicago, for that matter — that Facets’ concrete foundation isn’t likely to crack in his absence.

To that point, it’s worth recognizing the most recent additions to Facets’ video catalogue. Riri Riza’s Eliana, Eliana is exactly the kind of small, intensely realized urban drama that keeps slipping between the cracks of international distribution networks. It’s gone largely unseen since it began to make the rounds of niche festivals in 2002. only lists one review. Set in the teeming streets of Jakarta– at all hours of a single day — Eliana, Eliana’s handheld camera follows an estranged mother and daughter, as they struggle to make amends, while dodging pimps, slimy landlords and other threats to the young woman’s safety. Eliana’s day from hell already included being fired from her job for kicking a grabby supervisor in the nuts and coming home to find her older roommate, Heni, missing and presumably in hiding. Apparently Heni’s been covering the rent by sleeping with the thuggish landlord. She’s also being chased by her pimp, who, as the birth father of her daughter, attempts to maintain sole custody. Her mother, Bunda, wants to talk Eliana into returning home to Sumatra, which she left, at 15, to escape a pre-arranged marriage to an older man. It’s taken Bunda five years to follow her trail to the Indonesian capital. The last thing Eliana wants to do is relinquish her freedom, by returning home stripped of any semblance of dignity.

Once mother and daughter are reunited, the hostility between them becomes palpable. It’s interrupted when the men chasing Heni make their presence known outside the apartment building and Eliana orders Bunda to follow her to a secret exit. When the mother spots a taxi in an alley, she demands of the recalcitrant driver that he chauffer them around Jakarta, until the smokes clears. In turn, the driver demands that she cough up enough money to cover a day’s fare. Because neither of the women can decide how hungry they are, the driver is instructed to drop them off in front of all sorts restaurants and purveyors of street food. In the meantime, he agrees to cools his heels in the cab or complete crossword puzzles in a corner bar. As Bunda acclimates herself to the city at night and, in turn, comes to respect Eliana’s ability to survive there, it becomes abundantly clear the two women are cut from the same cloth. (They both know how to bring a male assailant to his knees, with a swift kick.) While I realize that any comparison to Mean Streets will sound like a copout, it’s inevitable and warranted. Riza’s ability to capture the sights, sounds, colors and textures of Jakarta at night – while also leaving room for the driver’s story – suggests that Martin Scorsese’s down-and-dirty depiction of Little Italy made an impression on him.

Facets has consistently demonstrated a particular fondness for the French writer/director/documentarian/actor Luc Moullet, who began contributing to Les Cahiers du Cinéma at 18 and is still associated with the Nouvelle Vague. It wasn’t until I received the new two-disc package from Facets that I recognized any of his work. “The Films of Luc Moullet” includes Gérard Courant’s The Man of the Badlands (2000), in which Moullet returns to the rugged landscapes and remote mountaintop villages that served as backdrops for his first color film, A Girl Is a Gun” (a.k.a., “Une aventure de Billy le Kid”). Released in 1971, only a month after El Topo put Alejandro Jodorowsky on the map, it’s a self-described “psychedelic Western.” Even though it starred French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows), it reportedly has never been shown theatrically in France. A laughably bad English dubbing held it back here, in the land of the genres Moullet embraced. In The Man of the Badlands, he gives viewers a first-hand description of what it feels like to push actors beyond their limits in the service of a story, which, even at the time, had been told dozens of times. What’s interesting, though, are the side-by-side comparisons of the settings … then and now. Moullet and Courant also revisit the remote villages that provided settings for the movie. In 1971, the houses, churches and other buildings were already beginning to decay, primarily because so few residents were left to care about them. That’s changed only a slight bit since the paving of roads and introduction of electricity. The presentation also allows for demonstrations, by Moullet, of how he was able to shoot the characters in such extreme conditions. They include escaping over a mountaintop covered with slippery and noisy scraps of shale. “Badlands” is a lot of fun, especially when we’re shown how dangerous and beautiful the settings actually were.

The Sieges of the Alcazar largely takes place inside a neighborhood movie theater, the Alcazar, circa 1955. It’s a place where critics gather to review movies and form opinions they’ll defend to the death. For Moullet, the film recalls a time, 30 years earlier, when he was a young writer and shared some of the same characteristics with the pompous critics we meet here. (Milos surely recognized some of them.) The proprietors appear to be openly hostile to their customers, who pay a premium to sit on chairs that don’t have springs sticking through the fabric or want to be left alone to neck in peace. Guy Moscardo, the idiosyncratic critic who serves as Moullet’s stand-in, is constantly surrounded by children, who couldn’t care less about the movie that was playing in front of them. Then, too, there are the townsfolks who straggle into the theater for reasons of their own and are badgered by the woman who takes tickets, escorts customers to their seats, sells candy and mops up after the show. (The projectionist and co-owner occasionally skips reel, in order to shorten his workday and see if anyone’s paying attention.) She’s a constant irritant, as well, to Guy, who writes for Cahiers du Cinéma. He demands ideal conditions to study the films of Italian writer/director Vittorio Cottafavi, but rarely gets them. Equally irritating are fellow critics, who he accuses of stalking him, and either disparaging his work or fawning over him. Not that the dilettante discourages fans of the magazine from admiring him. One-time actress Elizabeth Moreau plays Jeanne Cavalero, his print rival and chief deflator of his opinions on Cottafavi. The sparking, of course, could easily lead to romance or disappointment. The Sieges of the Alcazar looks as if it were inspired equally by Jacques Tati and the Marx Brothers, with Margaret Dumont thrown in to play Jeanne. I’m not sure that Moullet’s barbs will be relevant to viewers whose only knowledge of critics’ habits and peccadillos derive from watching a few episodes of “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.” I found the movie to be hilarious, especially in the slickly choreographed movements of the Alcazar’s patrons and Guy’s devotion to film over love.

Pet Sematary: Blu-ray
Not having seen Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and screenplay for “Pet Sematary,” I thought I might be at a disadvantage when considering the worthiness of the 2019 remake. Despite mostly negative reviews, the original made a lot of money for Paramount. Still known primarily for her music-video collaborations with Madonna — “Material Girl,” “Borderline,” “Like a Virgin” — Lambert was asked to collaborate with writer Richard Outten  (Last Rites) on the inevitable sequel, Pet Sematary Two (1992). It scored similarly unimpressive numbers at Metacritic, and, unable to capitalize on King’s name, plummeted at the box office. That said, the sequel still managed to gross $17 million, against an estimated budget of $8 million, and probably did OK in cassette. A quarter-century later, Paramount handed the reins to the remake of Pet Sematary to co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) and co-writers Matt Greenberg (Mercy) and Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train). Because King’s name would be re-attached to the publicity material, Internet gossip began as soon the project was announced in the trades. When test screening began, however, anticipation would turn into kvetching over changes made to King’s text and subsequent screenplay. If the writer didn’t complain about seeing his name on marketing material, it’s safe to assume that the revisions fell short of taxing his patience and reserve. King once mentioned that the only novel he wrote that really scared him was “Pet Sematary.” Even with the revisions to characters, events and narrative twists, I found parts of the movie to be extremely scary. Because I wasn’t familiar with what happened in the book or 1989 Pet Sematary, I could only judge the new edition by what was on the screen.

Here, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates with his family from loud and messy Boston to the sylvan paradise he expects to find in rural Maine. His practice is small, but not without occasional outbursts of hysteria or an epidemic of bloody noses. At home, it doesn’t take long for the ghosts of New England past to make their presence known. On a hike through the woods, Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) and their precocious daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence), cross paths with a short procession of mourners on their way to the pet cemetery. On a solo visit to the Halloween-ready cemetery – misspelled “sematary” on a makeshift sign — Ellie steps on a hornet’s nest that’s lodged in the deadfall of rocks, logs and sticks that forms a border to the boneyard. Their spooky neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), pops up in the nick of time to remove the stinger and explain how the truly creepy cemetery ended up there, in the first place. Louis objects to Jud giving his impressionable young daughter a lesson in the hereafter. When confronted by the doctor, Jud opens up his home to him and shares his own multigenerational family’s experiences with the place. Soon enough, Jud gives Louis a more extensive tour of the graveyard and explains what happens, at night, behind the deadfall. Let’s just say that it has something to do with reanimating the dead – according to some ancient Micmac legend – and being given an opportunity to share some borrowed time with the dearly departed. Ellie becomes distraught when her cat, Church, is found dead on the side of a road. In an effort to calm her down, Louis asks the Maine lifer to help him reanimate Church, which Jud doesn’t think is a particularly good idea. Soon enough, viewers will understand his concern. When tragedy once again strikes, as it must, Louis ignores Jud’s warning by attempting to play God, for real. It sets off a perilous chain of events that unleashes an unfathomable evil with horrific consequences. King frequently pushes his characters into situations that will lead them to trip over their hubris. A medical degree can’t prevent Louis from falling into the same trap, over and over again. The Blu-ray adds an alternate ending; deleted and extended scenes; “Night Terrors,” in which three characters face their worst fears; “The Tale of Timmy Baterman,” in which Jud recalls the tale of a boy killed in war and resurrected in the Micmac burying ground; and the worthwhile “Beyond the Deadfall,” a four-part making-of featurette that lasts for about an hour.

The Loveless: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine how a genre flick as cool as The Loveless could have escaped my attention upon its release, in 1981, and somehow has managed to avoid cult status, ever since then. But that’s what could happen to a smallish film, when it was dismissed by the New York Times as a “pathetic homage to the 1950’s.” The reviewer must have woken up that morning, oblivious to the fact that she was living in New York, the world capital of ironic gestures and mecca for the tragically hip. Astute viewers would soon learn to ignore Times’ opinions on such offbeat fare, but a negative review could still crush a fragile movie. (The old guard would change, but not for another 15-20 years.) If I were to guess, I’d say that points were deducted for the relative anonymity of its freshman directors Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery, as well as such unsung actors as Willem Dafoe, rockabilly musician Robert Gordon, scenester Tina L’Hotsky and ingenue Marin Kanter. Today, in a blind taste test, this ode to The Wild One (1953) might be credited to a young David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch. As far as I know, The Unloved didn’t even make it to the drive-in circuit and it’s only previous appearance on video was a 2006 Blue Underground pairing with Smithereens. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Arrow Video saw the value in such an unrecognized classic and gave it a first-class upgrade.;

In it, a motorcycle gang comprised of guys who met in prison roars into a small town in Georgia, en route to the races at Daytona. Vance (Dafoe) arrives first, establishing his bad-boy credentials by coming to the aid of a distressed damsel, who, after having her tire changed, is forced to fight off his crude advances. After taking over a corner booth in a period-perfect diner, he puts the moves on the waitress, Augusta (Elizabeth Gans), who moonlights as a stripper at a local roadhouse. He would have better luck with Telena (Kanter), an impossibly cute teenager, whose deplorable stepdad gave her a pink T-Bird to absorb his sexual abuse. When the rest of the gang, including L’Hotsky’s bebop bad-girl Sportster Debbie – a dead-ringer for Deborah Harry —  arrives at the diner, the attitude-ratio immediately goes from cool to frigid. One guy’s bike requires immediate attention, but the only capable mechanic in town is too lazy to rush to the rescue. Money changes his mind, but the severity of the damage will force an overnight layover. While the bike is being fixed, the gang will visit the lounge – straight out of “Twin Peaks” – to catch Augusta’s set. It’s here that Telena’s shotgun-toting stepfather confronts Vance and … well, you get the picture.

The Loveless doesn’t follow the same trajectory as The Wild One or, for that matter, Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and Sons of Anarchy (2008–2014). It’s simply a surprisingly entertaining, micro-budget indie that never got a fair shot at becoming a cult classic. If nothing else, Dafoe’s fans shouldn’t miss it. The Arrow package adds a fresh 2K restoration, from the original camera negative, approved by Montgomery and director of photography Doyle Smith; new audio commentary with Montgomery, moderated by editor Elijah Drenner; the featurettes, “No Man’s Friend Today: Making The Loveless, “U.S. 17: Shooting The Loveless” and “Hot Leather: The Look of The Loveless”; new interviews with producers Grafton Nunes and A. Kitman Ho, actors Dafoe, Kanter, Gordon, Phillip Kimbrough and Lawrence Matarese, production designer Lilly Kilvert, DP Smith and musician Eddy Dixon; an extensive image gallery, including on-set photographs, storyboards and original production documentation; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Peter Stanfield.

I wonder how many World War II movies, besides Casablanca (1942), have based their narratives on the acquisition of travel documents and desperate attempts to escape Europe by plane or boat. Plug the keyword, “immigration document,” into’s remarkably undependable data base and you’ll find Casablanca and Maple Palm (2006), a LGBTQ rom/dram/com that has nothing to do with the war. It doesn’t even turn up Christian Petzold’s compelling wartime melodrama, Transit (2018), which bears a passing resemblance, at least, to Casablanca. Set largely in Marseille’s zone libre, in advance of the German army’s inevitable march south, past Lyon, Transit tells the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German refugee who agrees to carry the transit papers of a communist novelist, Weidel — a recent suicide victim — to his estranged wife, in Marseille. He’s also carrying the manuscript of Weidel’s final novel. When he arrives in the port city and attempts to return the transit permits to the Mexican consulate, the authorities assume that he is Weidel, in search of his wife, Marie (Paula Beer). It’s at this point in the drama that the plot really thickens. Georg and Marie’s paths frequently cross, but without any sign of recognition on either person’s face. Marie has taken up with a doctor (Godehard Giese), who is also a refugee. They need passage out of France, as well. When she learns that her husband might be in Marseille, looking for her, Like Georg, Marie is caught in an ethical dilemma. Thousands of other desperate souls are in same boat: staying in seedy hotel rooms until their papers are approved. Georg befriends a bilingual Arab boy, whose sudden illness leads him to call on Marie’s lover. Neither man makes the connection with Weidel. When the doctor learns that Georg might be able to help escape, he admits his willingness to grab the first boat steaming out of the port and to leave Marie behind in Marseille. One thing leads to another and Georg finally connects with Marie, leaving an opening for romance or tragedy.

Transit is based on Anna Seghers’ eponymous novel, written in 1944 and set in 1942 Marseille. Petzold, one of Europe’s most exciting filmmakers, takes great liberties with the story’s space-time continuum and issues relating to people escaping war, poverty and fascism, then and now. The German filmmaker has said that Transit is the final chapter of his “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, which also includes Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). Both of those films starred his personal muse, Nina Hoss, a terrific actress who also was featured in his Jerichow (2008), Yella (2007) and Wolfsburg (2003). They’re all extremely engrossing and well worth a rental. Special features include a making-of interview featurette with Rogowski; a separate interview and post-screening Q&A with Petzold; the featurettes “Franz Rogowski: Shooting Star” and “In Transit: Thrown Into the World,” with Petzold and actress Barbara Auer;  a press conference with the cast and crew, from the Berlin film premiere; and a collector’s booklet, featuring interviews and an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

To get the most out of Christiaan Olwagen and co-writer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s completely unexpected musical rom-com, Kanarie, it’s important to understand how backwards South Africa was, even as late as 1985, when the story begins. To keep outside influences from corrupting the nation’s youth and promoting unrest, the authoritarian government strictly limited the importation of cultural stimuli and, of course, anything that could change the white population’s attitudes toward Apartheid, or the native Africans’ willingness to resist. One way to accomplish this was to block the introduction of television, until 1975, and, then, filter the content. White audiences were afforded the luxury of believing that the elimination of Apartheid would inspire a deluge of white blood on city streets, economic disaster and the importation of pagan religions. Young people were further indoctrinated by their parents, church leaders and social institutions. Upon entering Kanarie, we’re left pretty much in the dark about South Africa’s treatment of homosexuality. In fact, under the ruling National Party, from 1948 to 1994, it was a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. The law was used to harass and outlaw South African LGBTQ events and political activists. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, the South African Defense Force forced white gay and lesbian soldiers to undergo various medical “cures” for their sexual orientation, including sex reassignment surgery. That would change dramatically in the early 1990s, with the undoing of Apartheid and other restrictive laws. Regulations prohibiting bullying and other forms of discrimination were also instituted.

It is with this in mind that viewers can better understand the mindset of Kanarie’s protagonist, Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout), who viewers will immediately recognize as being gay, even if he can’t recognize it in himself. There are no role models close at hand and, even his beloved Boy George, has yet to exit the closet. Johan doesn’t mind being dressed up in women’s clothing by his sisters and paraded around the neighborhood in a wedding gown. His inclination is to complete his military obligation and pursue a career in fashion design, music or both. His widely known  talent for singing and playing piano prompts military authorities to assign him to duty as a member of the SADF Choir, nicknamed the Kanaries (Canaries). Johan and the other Kanaries are required to survive military training, intense rehearsals and go on a nationwide tour, using their music to fortify beliefs in the military effort and promoting the interests of church and state. They also must endure the taunts of fellow soldiers, who consider the choir to be way to avoid going to the Namibian front It will come as no surprise to viewers that the tightly knit choir is as segregated as any other platoon in the army. A ridiculously stern drill instructor and a pair of ordained ministers are there to maintain the choir’s extremely high standards, promote military discipline and prevent sexual promiscuity. When Johan and his closest friend, Wolfgang (Hannes Otto), risk caressing each other in an otherwise vacant barracks, his guilt feelings tell him that he’s crossed a line drawn long ago in the bible. That line will shift throughout the rest of Kanarie’s excessive two-hour and, when it does, Johann isn’t always ready for the next step. Things will escalate as the Kanaries are exposed to regular, everyday South African hypocrites and the temptations faced by men, especially, when they’re herded together in conditions that invite intimacy. Bezuidenhout is excellent as the young man who finally comes of age to the mash-up of a church hymn and Culture Club’s “Victims.” Too bad, no one told him that the lifting of Apartheid was already in the works and the musicians who performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, at London’s Wembley Stadium would pressure the government to try even harder. Naturally, the concert, which was broadcast to 67 countries around the world, was blacked out in South Africa.

Escape Plan 3: The Extractor: Blu-ray
Last week, no less an expert on crappy straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray movies than Sylvester Stallone decided that this might be a good time to trash Escape Plan 2: Hades (2018). The sequel to 2013’s moderately successful – hugely so, in China and Southeast Asia – Escape Plan couldn’t rely on the drawing power of co-stars  Arnold Schwarzenegger, 50 Cent, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Caitriona Balfe and dozens of ’roid-ravaged body builders. The belated sequel could only boast the part-time presence of Stallone, a return performance by 50 Cent and addition of Chinese martial-arts standout, Xiaoming Huang (Ip Man 2), and WWE favorite, Dave Bautista. Mostly, though, movie lacked a viable script. While promoting Escape Plan 3: The Extractors, Stallone called it, “truly the most horribly produced film I have ever had the misfortune to be in.” He promised better things to come in the triquel, which, if nothing else, would be targeted directly at his Asian and Russian fans and martial-arts freaks everywhere. Sly re-reprises the character, Ray Breslin, a prison-security expert who specializes in plugging leaks and capping violence in super-max and black-site facilities. Bautista, 50 Cent and Jaime King also return, although their presence qualifies for cameo status. Stallone’s face time has increased, however. This time around, Breslin is hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Hong Kong tech mogul from a formidable Latvian prison, known as Devil’s station. As Breslin and his crew delve deeper, they discover the perpetrator is the deranged son of one of their former foes and his girlfriend is being held there. The team is joined by a small army of kung-fu fighters hired by the mogul to assist Breslin. At first, 50 Cent and Bautista’s feelings are hurt, but Stallone intercedes on the newcomer’s behalf. From this point on, “The Extractor” is a free-for-all. Special features include commentary with director John Herzfeld, Stallone, Devon Sawa and Daniel Bernhardt, and the background featurette, “The Making of Escape Plan: The Extractors.”

The Tough Ones: Collector s Edition: Blu-ray/CD
Four  years before Umberto Lenzi turned his attention to such police thrillers as The Tough Ones (1976), Violent Naples (1976) and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977), he almost singlehandedly created the template for a decade’s worth of filmmakers dedicated to the cannibal subgenre. Lenzi would admit that tortuous scenes in his 1972 trend-setter, Sacrifice! (a.k.a., “The Man from Deep River”), was influenced by a painful Sioux ritual in Elliot Silverstein’s then-shocking neo-Western, A Man Called Horse (1970). Ten years later, his Cannibal Ferox would pretty much cap the subgenre and zombies would fill the vacuum. In 1976, Lenzi would return the favor by borrowing from the similarly influential Dirty Harry (1971), Bullitt (1968), Serpico (1973) and Death Wish (1974), as blueprints for his primo poliziotteschi, The Tough Ones (a.k.a., “Rome Armed to the Teeth”). In it, Italian superstar Maurizio Merli stars as Inspector Tanzi, a cop with a flair for violence and getting the job done at any cost. Here, Tanzi targets a small-timer, Tony Parenzo (Ivan Rassimov), who’s trying to set up a crime network. The investigation leads to a sadistic, machine-gun-toting hunchback, Vincenzo Moretto (fellow superstar Tomas Milian). To accomplish his mission – using methods frowned upon by his superiors – Tanzi punches and shoots his way through the sleazy drug-, sex- and crime-infested streets of mid-1970s Rome. Token American Arthur Kennedy plays the chief of police forced to face the wrath of the media and politicians whenever the mad dog cop goes off the reservation. The Tough Ones is an excellent example of the poliziotteschi at its most gonzo. Besides the 4K transfer of Lenzi’s uncensored director’s cut, the new Grindhouse Releasing edition includes commentary by Mike Malloy, director of Eurocrime!; new, in-depth interviews with Lenzi, actors Milian, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Sandra Cardini, Maria Rosaria Riuzzi and Corrado Solari, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and composer Franco Micalizzi; a special tribute to actor Marizo Merli, with appearances by directors Enzo Castellari (1990: The Bronx Warriors) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust); a vintage VHS intro by cult movie superstar Sybil Danning; liner notes by Italian crime-film expert Roberto Curti; an embossed slipcover; a bonus CD, containing a newly remastered soundtrack album, by Franco Micalizzil; and a limited-edition .30-calibre bullet-pen, emblazoned with the Tough Ones logo.

This Island Earth: Blu-ray
Like many other sci-fi flicks made in the 1950s, This Island Earth (1955) is almost as difficult to summarize as it is to watch … with a straight face, anyway. For all of its cheeseball effects, dopey costumes and gobbledygook dialogue, Joseph M. Newman’s adaptation of a 1938 story by Raymond F. Jones actually did offer something new and different to the alien-invasion subgenre. Upon its release, This Island Earth received respectful reviews from mainstream critics and, even today, the Scream Factory Blu-ray is being treated with dignity by people who know a thing or two about sci-fi movie history. The average geek probably won’t take the film nearly as seriously as the cultists and historians, especially when they see nuclear scientist and jet pilot Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) put his flight suit on, over the sport coat, dress shirt and tie he wears any other day of the week. His commute to a top-secret research facility is interrupted by a cosmic ray that takes the control of his plane out of his hands. When Meacham is allowed to land safely, he soon finds himself among several other noted scientists summoned by the mysterious advanced scientist, Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Unlike everyone else watching the movie, Cal is unaware that Exeter – with his snow-white pompadour, extra-large forehead, groovy jumpsuit and booties — is an alien. Exeter sent Cal a list of unusual items he’ll need to construct a communications machine, he calls an “interociter.” Along with fellow American nuclear scientists Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson), Cal volunteers to board a pilotless space vehicle, sent by Exeter to take them to another secret research center, this one on his home planet, Metaluna. He promises Cal that they’ll be conducting humanitarian experiments designed to make his world a safer place. In fact, what Exeter and his peers really want is for the earthlings to show them how to harness atomic energy, so they can defend themselves against an attack by a rival civilization.

It’s at this point that This Island Earth goes off the rails, introducing a different sort of alien threat. This one (Regis Parton) looks as if it were put together with parts left over from other sci-fi flicks: a gigantic exposed brain, bug eyes, robotic arms, pincer claws and weighted boots. In another rare occurrence, the earthlings are sent home, with the thanks of peace-loving alien civilization and a new appreciation of the power of nuclear energy. The Blu-ray package features a 4K remaster of the film from an interpositive presentation of the film in 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 aspect ratios; the original Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, restored by 3-D Film Archive; commentary with author and Academy Award-winning visual effects artist, Robert Skotak; a new interview with film historian David Schecter, on the film’s music; an interview with filmmaker Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash); facts about Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, by Bob Furmanek; “This Island Earth: Two and a Half Years in the Making,” an extended look at the film’s creation; “War of the Planets,” a 1958 Castle Films release for the home market, including both the 50-foot silent edition and 200-foot sound edition; “Trailers from Hell: This Island Earth,” with commentary by filmmaker Joe Dante; a stills gallery; and a poster.

The Pretenders: With Friends: DVD/Blu-ray/CD
The latest edition of the Pretenders barely resembles the same Anglo-American band that was formed in 1978 and successfully bridged the punk and hard-rock movements for most of the next three decades. In 2005, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders were inducted into the Hall of Fame. The charismatic songwriter/singer/guitarist launched a solo career in 2014, before reuniting what’s left of the Pretenders in 2016. “The Pretenders: With Friends” rocks every bit as hard as any previous video, Here, though, the band shares the stage with several prominent musicians, some of whom may have dreamed of performing alongside Hynde someday. And, her voice is in tip-top shape. Joining her on the Decades Rock Arena stage are “friends” Iggy Pop, Shirley Manson, Kings of Leon and Incubus. It adds a couple of interview sessions that didn’t work very well on my player.

Broad City: The Complete Series
Now that “Broad City” has moved to TV Heaven, it’s worth noting that Golden Globes and Emmy voters routinely failed to nominate one of the medium’s funniest and most inventive shows for awards. In 2016, the show was a finalist in the Writers Guild of America comedy category, and it also was a nominee for several off-brand awards. Those who care about such things probably saw it as a not entirely unexpected snub. I think it was a case of being too hip for the room. Based upon Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s web series of the same name, the show proved that no sacred cow was immune from satire or an occasional poke in the ribs. It also demonstrated how women could be every bit as messy, gross and politically incorrect as men … at least, in their TV incarnations. Abbi and Ilana also played fast and loose with LGBTQ archetypes. They were simultaneously sex-positive and sex-neurotic. Comedy Central’s “Broad City: The Complete Series” is comprised of five seasons worth of episodes, as well as special features, “Abbi & Ilana’s ‘Broad City’”; behind-the-scenes material; “Fan Surprise”; “The Making of Season 5”; a “NYC ‘Broad City’ Sendoff Fit for a Queen”; outtakes; deleted/extended scenes; and every episode of “Hack Into ‘Broad City’” and “Behind ‘Broad City.’” Among the many guest stars are Susie Essman, Bob Balaban, RuPaul, Clea DuVall, Rachel Dratch, Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard, Seth Green, Guillermo Díaz, Amy Ryan, Amy Sedaris, Fred Armisen, Patricia Clarkson, Kelly Ripa, Hillary Clinton, Alia Shawkat, Alan Alda, Seth Rogen and executive producer Amy Poehler.

The DVD Wrapup: War & Peace, Heiresses, Styx, Maze, Felix Austria, Winter Passage, Fatso, Horror, 24-Hour Party People, FM, Cavett’s Baseball Heroes … More

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

War and Peace: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If, this summer, you have only seven hours to devote to the cinema, consider spending those 422 minutes – not including bonus features – watching Criterion Collection’s spectacularly restored edition of Sergey Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Although I don’t recommend carrying a portable Blu-ray player to the beach and watching it there – as one could do with the novel or Kindle’s 1392-page edition – the four-part epic would make a rainy day less gray. Made by Kinostudiya MosFilm at the height of the Cold War – from 1961 to 1967 – its production was motivated by the success of King Vidor’s 1956 American-Italian co-production, which starred Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer. With the 150th anniversary of the 1812 French invasion of Russia at hand, an open letter signed by many of the country’s filmmakers declared, “It is a matter of honor for the Soviet cinema industry to produce a picture which will surpass the American-Italian one in its artistic merit and authenticity.” The USSR must have been pretty flush, if it could afford to send ballistic missiles to Cuba and greenlight one of the most expensive movie epics of all time … anywhere. War and Peace not only received substantially better notices in the worldwide press than the short-lived missile crisis, but it also did buffo business at the box office and, in 1969, carried home Best Foreign Language Film awards from the HFPA, AMPAS, New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review. When such honors didn’t convince the Soviet Union to raze the Iron Curtain and end the Cold War, a great opportunity for peace was missed. (They did, however, prompt Soviet authorities to confiscate Bondarchuk’s Oscar, immediately upon his arrival in the USSR, and demand that he join the Communist Party.)

War and Peace dazzled audiences with splendid art design, period-perfect costumes, magnificent sets and acting, but it was the historically accurate re-creations of battles and preparations for war that drew comparisons to Gone With the Wind (1939). The overwhelmingly humanistic tone of the novel remained intact, as well. Three hours longer than “GWTW,” Bondarchuk’s adaptation delivers the same dramatic, romantic, historical and emotional punch. The only thing that raised eyebrows in the aftermath of its release were the mythic numbers attached to its production. A rumor that spread among critics and other pundits put the overall budget at $100 million. Bondarchuk, himself, would soon reduce that figure to $12 million, or nearly 9 million Soviet rubles, at 1967 rates. (That figure swells to around $60 million in 2017 numbers.) In a 1986 interview, the co-writer/co-protagonist/director would also reduce the number of soldiers requisitioned to the production from an estimated 120,000 to 12,000, as well as nearly a thousand horses. More than 40 museums contributed historical artifacts, such as chandeliers, furniture and cutlery, to create an authentic impression of the Russian aristocracy. Thousands of costumes were sewn by hand, mainly military uniforms of the sorts worn by the various units, including 11,000 hats of the cylindrical military variety. Sixty museum-quality cannons were cast, and 120 wagons and carts were constructed for the production. If the movie actually did cost $12 million, instead of $100 million, Bondarchuk made it look as if it were produced by James Cameron.

The first two full-length segments – “Andrei Bolkonsky,” “Natasha Rostova” — debuted before the third and fourth – “The Year 1812,” “Pierre Bezukhov” — which were delayed by the director’s long recovery from a near-fatal heart attack. To accommodate the film’s extreme length, distributors outside the USSR drastically shortened War and Peace – by an hour in the dubbed U.S. version – or presented it in two parts, over two days. Anyone who came of age after Tron got the CGI ball rolling, in 1982, may be surprised to learn that every soldier, horse, cart, hunting dog and wolf in sight is real. Among the camera and sound techniques unfamiliar in the Soviet cinema were aerial lifts, in which cameras were hoisted over battlefield sets to create “a cannon ball view”; hand-held cameras, which, when filming Natasha’s first ball, allowed the operators to circle between the dancing extras on roller skates; crowd scenes shot using cranes and helicopters; and a six-channel audio recording system. They deftly complement the performances of, among others, Bondarchuk, as Pierre Bezukhov; Lyudmila Savelyeva, as Natasha Rostova; Vyacheslav Tikhonov, as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray edition features a new 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; fresh interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk, son of Sergei; two 1966 making-of documentaries; a 1967 television doc, profiling Savelyeva and featuring Sergei Bondarchuk, a Janus re-release trailer; new English subtitle translation; and an essay by critic Ella Taylor.

There’s no shortage of excellent movies set during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland: The Crying Game (1992), In the Name of the Father (1993), Some Mother’s Son (1996), The Boxer (1997), Bloody Sunday (2002), Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), ’71 (2014) and The Journey (2016), among them. The most unlikely, perhaps, Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own (1997), in which New York police officer Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford) is asked to take in a homeless houseguest, Francis “The Angel” McGuire (Brad Pitt), who turns out to be an I.R.A. terrorist. He’s in the Big Apple to shop for black-market surface-to-air missiles. After seven rewrites, the screenwriters finally managed to erase almost all mention of Irish politics from the script. If it weren’t for a boost in overseas revenues,  The Devil’s Own could have been written off by Columbia Pictures as a disaster. Steve McQueen’s brilliant Hunger (2008) would depict life – and death — in the H-Blocks of the HM Prison Maze prison (a.k.a., Long Kesh). It’s where Provisional IRA soldier and Member of Parliament Bobby Sands participated in the “second” hunger strike, in which protesters demanded a re-imposition of an agreement that effectively ended the “first” hunger strike. It stipulated that prisoners be treated as POWs, entitling them to certain rights and privileges not available to prisoners who weren’t IRA soldiers or such loyalist paramilitaries as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. There were other demands, but the Brits weren’t about to give in to any of them. The strike was called off after 10 prisoners — including Sands had starved themselves to death – while successfully garnering the attention of world media. British PM Margaret Thatcher, a woman not known for displaying compassion or possessing a realistic perspective on such things, wanted the world to consider Sands and other dead convicts, victims of “suicide by starvation.” Most observers didn’t buy it.

Stephen Burke’s Maze picks up two years after the second strike ended and many of the participants were housed in an “escape-proof” unit in H-Block. The Brits also thought it might be fun to add a larger group of loyalist belligerents to the population. Instead of putting a chill on political activity among minority Roman Catholics on the outside, as Thatcher insisted had happened, the media coverage that surrounded Sands’ death resulted in a new surge of IRA enrollment, fundraising and politicking. To avenge the 10 deaths, the IRA went on a murder spree in which 61 people were killed, 34 of them civilians, including prison guards and politicians. Three years later, the IRA took direct action against Thatcher with the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, an attack on the Conservative Party conference that killed five people and Thatcher only narrowly escaped death. Inside the Maze, the prisoners were biding their time for something more newsworthy than a third hunger strike. Maze depicts how, in September 1983, a longtime convict and habitual escapee Lawrence Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) helped Brendan McFarlane, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly orchestrate the successful mass escape of 38 Republican prisoners from the air-tight facility. It was the largest prison escape in British penal history, but didn’t include Marley, who was close to his parole date. While his co-conspirators rallied the prisoners across separate cellblocks and exchanged messages with IRA supporters outside the prison, Marley took full advantage of his job as an orderly to gather intelligence on possible soft spots in Maze security. Although mortal enemies on political issues, Marley forms a relatively close bond with prison warden Gordon Close (Barry Ward), who was too pre-occupied with family matters to notice that someone was picking his pocket. Adding to the verisimilitude was the production’s ability to shoot interiors at Cork Prison, which had closed just weeks before shooting began. The 93-minute drama overflows with tense moments and threats to the ultimate completion of the plan, which almost goes off without a hitch. Describing what happens after the escape would require a 93-minute sequel.

The Heiresses
When it comes to movies that feature actors beyond a certain age in leading roles – actresses, especially – it’s tough to beat  the ones made in South America. And, they aren’t relegated exclusively to remakes of On Golden Pond or Driving Miss Daisy. Neither are the characters necessarily required to lose a long, drawn-out fight against cancer or succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford allowed themselves the luxury of playing characters their age, or older, in The Mule and The Old Man and a Gun, respectively. Oscar nominee Glenn Close (The Wife) was nearly 23 years older than the next-oldest candidate for this year’s Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Marcelo Martinessi’s outstanding drama, The Heiresses, starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irun and Ana Ivanova, was the official submission of Paraguay in the race for Best Foreign Language Film, but missed the cut. Somehow, I don’t see The Heiresses being adapted for American audiences, as was Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), which was remounted as Gloria Bell, with Julianne Moore in the lead role. Here, Chela and Chiquita are required by circumstances to sell off family heirlooms to keep them from going completely broke. They’ve lived together as lovers, comfortably and compatibly, for 30 years, in a country that traditionally has been more welcoming to ex-Nazis than gays and lesbians. When Chiquita is imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela faces a crisis in confidence. In a sense, they’ve both been put behind bars. Among the treasures Chela inherited from her father is a practically antique Mercedes-Benz. She’s never shown any interest in getting a license, because transportation was left to Chiquita. One day, one of their card-playing friends asks Chela for a lift to the weekly game, and she surprises us by agreeing to do it. Her passenger insists that she accept money for the trip. Before long, she’s chauffeuring several more friends to the game, all paying for the privilege. The women have outlived their husbands and enjoy seeing their friend in such an improved mood. Chela isn’t making a lot of money, just enough to keep Chaquita flush with cigarettes and coffee. Just as she’s begun to settle into her new life, she encounters the much younger, Angy (Ana Ivanova), who’s been around the block a few times and encourages her new friend to break out of her shell. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the almost certainly bisexual Angy uses the occasion of a wine-soaked evening to lay herself open to Chela. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to handle the overture or the adrenalin racing through her veins. Neither is she comfortable with Chaquita’s early release from prison and her desire to return to the point where their relationship left off. The dynamics experienced by the characters is wonderfully depicted by the three actresses, who’ve rarely, if ever appeared on the big screen. It’s worth noting that Brun found it necessary to use a pseudonym in her debut, fearing that her participation in such a controversial movie would have an adverse impact on her within still-conservative Paraguayan society. This, despite the absence of sex and nudity, gratuitous or otherwise. Anyone who’s interested in movies in which elderly characters are accorded the respect they’re due should check out Gloria; Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (2009) and Gatos Viejos (2010); Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story (1985); Jorge Gaggero’s Live-In Maid (2004); Walter Salles’ Central Station (1998); Andrucha Waddington’s The House of Sand (2005); and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius (2016).

The 2000s have brought us several excellent films about men and women who attempt to defy nature by sailing great distances, alone, or fighting off unexpected adversaries on the open ocean. Some are deadly serious, while others serve as vehicles for adventure, thrills, horror and juvenile behavior. Among the most prominent titles are Open Water (2003), Open Water 2: Adrift (2006), Donkey Punch (2008), Triangle (2009), The Reef (2010), All Is Lost (2013), Open Water 3: Cage Dive (2017), Adrift (2018), The Mercy (2018), Maiden (2018) and, by stretching the parameters of this audit a bit further, Dead Calm (1989), A Hijacking (2012) and Captain Phillips (2013). The German/Austrian co-production Styx, now on DVD, is as good as the best of these titles, even though it lacks the threat of shark attack, a recognizable star, a mid-Atlantic collision, Somali pirates and very much dialogue. It depicts the transformation of a strong German doctor, Rike (Susanne Wolff), who spends most of her time at work in the back of an ambulance, patching up accident victims or watching them die. On her vacation, she hopes to sail from Gibraltar to Ascension Island, 1,000 miles west of the Angola and 1,400 miles east of Brazil. She wants to see for herself the results of programs launched by Charles Darwin and botanist/ explorer Joseph Hooker to bring greenery and bird habitats back to the dusty volcanic island, which, for many years, was used by the British military and U.S. intelligence-gathering services. I won’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of Styx by pointing out that her voyage is interrupted by unforeseen circumstances further north.

Shortly after weathering a powerful storm at sea, Rike spots a trawler adrift on open waters. At first, it doesn’t look as if there’s anyone aboard the vessel. Following nautical procedure, she radios in the trawler’s position and seeming lack of visible life. Defying an order by naval authorities, she decides to sail a bit closer to the boat and take a closer look. As she does so, it becomes apparent that some of the passengers not only are alive, but they’re desperate for rescue. In fact, several of the passengers jump into the ocean and attempt to reach Rike’s much smaller boat. Only one boy swims close enough to reach the life jacket she’s thrown into the sea, when it looks as if he might not make it. The boy, Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), immediately falls into a deep sleep, as Rike takes to the radio to once again request help. And, yet again, she’s ordered not to make contact with any survivors. Help is on the way, she’s told. By now, both Rike and viewers will have recognized Styx’s central dilemma: assuming that Kingsley and the other passengers were infected by something resembling Ebola, what, as a doctor, was her obligation to come to his aid? Moreover, how should she react when Kingsley demands that she return to the trawler – he believes his sister is still alive – and he won’t take “no” for an answer. It comes to head when the boy begins throwing water bottles into the ocean and pushes Rike into the water. Will Kingsley show her the same quality of mercy that she’s been ordered by authorities not to give the survivors? What will happen after the men in Hazmat outfits arrive and take over the sailboat? Co-writer/director Wolfgang Fischer and freshman co-writer Ika Künzel leave those questions hanging in the air, until the very end of Styx.

In doing so, they force viewers to ponder how they’d react in the same situation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the splendid opening sequence, in which Fischer uses one of Gibraltar’s trademark Barbary macaques to make a point about how animals adjust to their diminished environments in ways that almost make humans irrelevant. The apes thread their way through the urban jungle like their cousins in the wild. When the wildly inventive sequence ends, Fischer takes us to Cologne, where Rike has to decide how far she’ll go to save the life of a man who’s been in a terrible accident. It’s at this point that we return to Gibraltar’s teeming seaport, where’s Rike’s about embark on what she hopes is an excellent adventure in a sailboat that looks like a thimble among the oil tankers. Bonus features include commentary with Fischer and Wolff, as well as a short film about an Arab girl with a foot in the world of her parents and ancestors, and the one to which she’s been exposed by carefree tourists, who pay her to perform their chores.

In the Last Days of the City
Random Thoughts on Box Office
In one of its occasional surveys of the film industry, the New York Times recently assembled “a sprawling collection of influential figures … to assess the state of moviegoing.” According to Eric Kohn’s response-piece in IndieWire, “the result was a multifaceted collage of alarming messages.” Of course, any trend that negatively affects the bonuses of studio executives is going to be viewed with alarm throughout the industry. Trickle-down economics are alive and well in Hollywood. It made the producers and directors of so-called “small films” queasy about the future, as well. (Anyone who’s ever walked onto a soundstage or location shoot can identify myriad ways to save money, starting with craft services and star trailers, and ending with the expensive SUVs that shepherd key workers home or to their cars. Then, there’s the multimillion-dollar “consideration” campaigns, which allow thousands of industry insiders to bypass theaters entirely.) People fortunate enough to live in a city large enough to support more than one multiscreen arthouse don’t see the problem of empty seats from the same perspective as the people interviewed by the Times. Lovers of fine cinema will find quality entertainment wherever it is, and, yes, that includes the streaming services dedicated to new and vintage arthouse-quality films. It’s amazing what’s out there in the Land Beyond Netflix.

What is true is that the studios created their own monster and now their insatiable friends on Wall Street must be appeased. Not so long ago, the release windows for DVDs of mainstream movies and TV shows ranged from six months to a year. Today, those windows are nearly shut, allowing for the simultaneous release of mainstream and genre pictures, in theaters and inside the homes of once loyal fans. Studios have deemed some newly released movies to be too expensive to re-market and push the street dates of Blu-ray, DVD and digital products to less than a month after opening day, when trailers and ads are still fresh in the minds of consumers. They laud the big-screen experience, while conspiring to phase it out. Exhibitors who gather each year at NATO’s annual ShoWest/CinemaCon soiree have been waving the red flag on the same subject for the 15 years, at least. The studios respond by throwing them even more lavish feasts, following screenings of upcoming movies and product reels. Gone are the days when studios would take turns filling a dais with superstar talent and promises that the industry had the exhibiters’ best interests in mind. That might have been true before the industry realized that the pots of gold at the end of their rainbow had moved from the American heartland to developing markets in China, Japan and the rest of the Pacific Rim nations, and shiny new megaplexes in Europe and Latin America. In 2003, foreign revenues began to dominate the domestic market for good. Since then, they’ve bailed out the major studios’ tentpole pictures numerous times. Meanwhile, midlevel and smallish pictures have practically been ignored … until awards season. If attendance is down domestically, it’s easy to see why.

And, BTW, the same dynamics affecting the studios have, for some time, threatened the adult industry. When it became easy for viewers to find free hard-core products through mainstream search engines, the industry was forced to scramble. It made a mid-course correction by personalizing the niche products, expanding the fetish market, pumping up the Internet and phone services, and mixing gonzo titles with classics. Kohn’s survey of arthouse exhibiters was quite a bit more optimistic, if only because the movies shown in their theaters target adults, who’ve stopped going to the multiplexes – except for matinees and senior discounts — and can easily remember when the only way they could see niche movies was to find them at the local arthouse, on the big screen and without pre-popped popcorn. I concur with Dennis Lim, director of film programming at Lincoln Center, who points out that “the takeaway from the New York Times piece is not that movies are dying, it’s that Hollywood is in trouble.” We should all be in such trouble. He went on, “If Hollywood is struggling, maybe it is time to reframe this tired discourse and remind us all that cinema is about a lot more than Oscar movies and summer tentpoles. I watch hundreds of new films from around the world every year, and I find it hard to be pessimistic about cinema as an art.” I may not watch as many new films as Lim, but I’m constantly impressed by the dozens of niche, indie, foreign, genre and documentaries I see every month and review in this space.

Among them are a pair of intriguing DVDs from Big World Pictures, a dependable source for international and indie films that make the rounds of the festival circuit, before finding a distributor or disappearing completely. The Heiresses spent a full year on the international festival circuit, before opening in a small handful of theaters here and getting a DVD release. Júlia Murat’s Pendular and Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City spent quite a bit longer in festival limbo. One definition of “pendular” describes it as “moving or swinging back and forth in a regular rhythm, like a pendulum.” The film that’s taken that interesting concept as a title is set in a sprawling, largely abandoned industrial complex – in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, probably — that serves as a loft space and artists’ colony. Unlike other residents, dancer Alice (Raquel Karro) and her sculptor lover, Marido (Rodrigo Bolzan), have decided to live where they work. Their friends remind them that such workplace arrangements rarely are successful and no romantic relationship can withstand the pressure of being in each other’s hair for the better part of a 24-hour day. At the beginning of the film, the couple tapes off equal portions of the loft, demarcating “his” and “her” sections for their individual work. The loft may seem huge and the domestic area livable, but looks are deceiving. Marido specializes in large, heavy-to-lift pieces of wood, stone and metal. He uses a pulley to bring together parts that are intended to be bonded forever. His assistants use welding and shaping tools and to make Marido’s art come alive. Alice’s dances don’t clash with all the pounding and heavy lifting. In fact, she sometimes improvises routines around the raw and finished material. The inevitable moment of crisis arrives when Marido proclaims, “This isn’t working … I need more space.” After reminding him of their arrangement, Alice agrees to the kind of compromise that invariably favors the male. To the surprise of no one, it’s the first indication of bad things to come. The second comes when friends begin kicking a soccer ball around the loft and Marido throws a shit fit. What’s also striking about Pendular is the intense eroticism that turns their lovemaking sessions into tableaux vivants, with a dynamism all their own. The film’s climax may shock many viewers, but it isn’t out of step with what’s come before it.

In the Last Days of the City is the debut feature of Egyptian  writer/director Tamer El Said. In it, a young Cairo filmmaker, Khalid (Khalid Abdalla), struggles to capture the soul of a city on edge, while facing trauma in his own life. Shot in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and Berlin during the two years before the pro-democracy revolution in Egypt, the film’s multi-layered stories are a visually rich exploration of friendship, loneliness, loss and life in cities shaped by the shadows of war and adversity. El Said began “Last Days” before the Egyptian revolution, but Khalid’s friends had already experienced the destruction of Beirut, Baghdad and Tripoli, with Damascus still to come. When he lost the handle on his narrative, he began asking people who escaped the carnage there to recall what those cities were like before they left. Many of the elderly sources describe scenes that might very well have been dictated by Omar Khayyam. Even Khalid’s young-adult friends remember a time before constant war … somewhere. Meanwhile, his mother is dying, his girlfriend (Laila Samy) has given him the heave-ho and Islamic demonstrators demand the ouster and trial of Hosni Mubarek. (State radio reports that the protesters are fans of the national soccer team, which just lost an important match with Algeria.) The overall tone of “Last Days” is melancholic and bound to get worse, when Syria explodes. Khalid’s confusion grows even worse when his friends head back to their war-torn homes or escape to Berlin, and the writing on Cairo’s walls isn’t getting any less ominous.

The Poison Rose: Blu-ray
Dead Trigger: Blu-ray
The sad fact is that bashing John Travolta, Dolph Lundren and other onetime superstars has become tres, tres tedious. I take my job seriously enough to give each new one an opportunity to shine, knowing that isn’t likely to happen. The Poison Rose surprised me by maintaining my interest for at least 65 minutes of its 98-minute length. The first good sign was Travolta’s hair, which, for once, didn’t look as if it were painted on his head with chia seeds added for texture. This being a contemporary noir, the second came in his ability to deliver hard-boiled dialogue, with only a trace of a marginal Texas accent, even though The Poison Rose was largely shot in Georgia. The inclusion of old pros Famke Janssen, Brendan Fraser, Robert Patrick and Peter Stormare could only be a good thing. The unusually high number of co-writers, co-directors and co-producers boded the opposite, however. Set in the late 1970s, Travolta plays Carson Philips, a dissipated L.A. private investigator with serious gambling debts and mobsters on his tail. Out of the blue, a sexy MILF hires him to locate her daughter, who recently disappeared from a rehab facility and hasn’t been heard from since. Turns out, the last place the girl was spotted was in Carson’s hometown, where his exploits as a quarterback are easily recalled. His former teammates haven’t moved more than a few feet from where they were sitting, standing or passed out, when he split Galveston to save his former wife, Jayne (Janssen), the prospect of an ugly divorce. Freeman plays a sleazy casino owner; Patrick, a thoroughly corrupted chief of police; Fraser’s character is an elephantine doctor at the rehab facility; and his ex-wife married well and was left a fortune when the jerk died. Here’s the kicker, though, Travolta’s 19-year-old daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta, plays Rebecca, the betrothed of a hotshot college quarterback. He gets into a fight at the casino the night before the big game and dies after being hit by an opponent, foaming at the mouth. And, yes, Ella Bleu is a dead ringer for her dad. Jayne hires Colin to clear Rebecca in what the chief of police has been told to investigate as a homicide. Again, viewers won’t need a spoiler alert to assume that all paths lead to rehab facility, run by Fraser’s bulbous doctor. If there are next to no surprises in this high-humidity noir, the actors are fun to watch, anyway, and the scenery isn’t bad. I found hilarious that the noir conceit extends to Colin’s pink Cadillac convertible, whose top almost always stays open, even when it rains.

If the title of Lundgren’s zombie thriller, Dead Trigger, sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an adaptation of the 2012 videogame of the same name and storyline. Developed by Madfinger, it is a first-person-shooter game, which demands that players survive a variety of missions, all deadly. It was popular enough to spawn a sequel and movie, which, after its 2017 debut at the Moscow Film Festival, waited two years before being seen in the United States, on May 3, 2019. Both the game and movie so closely follow the trajectory of “The Walking Dead” (2010) that they all could be arms of the same franchise, extending back to Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s “The Walking Dead” (2003) comic book and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later … (2002). (A mysterious virus has killed countless millions of people and turned others into bloodthirsty zombies.) In the movie, the government is incapable of stopping the Zombie Apocalypse, so it calls on a pair of muscle-bound Special Forces types to teach an elite force of gamers how prevent an undead army from spoiling a rescue mission. There’s plenty of action in “Dead Trigger,” but nothing that should surprise any fan of “The Walking Dead,”  “Fear the Walking Dead” or, even, Shaun of the Dead (2004). I’m always amazed by the inability of humans with perfectly satisfactory auditory and olfactory skills to discern the grunting and shuffling of foul-smelling zombies from a mile away. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that co-director Mike Cuff abandoned ship during shooting, due to creative differences. Cuff and game developer Madfinger withdrew their support for the film and had no further input on its making. Never a good sign.

Felix Austria!
The Illusionist: Blu-ray
Twenty minutes into Christine Beebe’s offbeat portrait of the historian and educator Brian Scott Pfeifle, I began to wonder if Felix Austria! (2014) was a faux documentary or mockumentary. The story about this unconventional human being was, at once, too good to be true and too good not to be true. I considered hitting the pause button to check if Brian Scott Pfeifle – think, David Hyde Pierce (“Fraiser”) in a Broadway version of Felix Austria! – was the real thing, or a figment of Beebe’s demonstrably fertile imagination. Either way, it didn’t much matter to me. As yarns go, this one was a whopper. Staring down the barrel of an incurable genetic disease — Huntington’s chorea, I believe — Pfeifle decided not to waste any more time denying  himself the luxury of living with one foot in academia and the other in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, when people look back at Belle Epoque Vienna, they recall such Secessionist artists and modernist thinkers as Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele, Alfred Roller, Gustav and Ernst Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich. Pfeile looked back at the period from a different perspective. He was a Humanities student at Cal-Berkeley and received a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Vienna, where he studied the theory and work of architect Adolf Loos. By then, too, Pfeifle began to indulge his budding Aestheticism, by favoring powdered wigs and cravats, and entering psychoanalysis to interpret his Habsburg dreams. He changed his name legally to Felix Etienne-Edouard Pfeifle. (Austria’s motto was, “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube,” or “Let others wage wars, you, happy Austria, marry.” It referenced the diplomatic philosophy of using marriage to cement alliances and gain territory.) Does any of this sound real to you, yet?

The cherry on the sundae arrived in the form of a box full of correspondence between an ordinary American, Herbert Hinkel, and Crown Prince Otto von Habsburg, the last descendent of the Holy Roman Empire. The cache included more than 100 letters, from approximately 60 years of correspondence, dating from 1937, when the Hapsburgs decided they’d better leave Dodge or prepare for a showdown with Hitler they couldn’t win. Approaching his quest from the perspective of both a historian and a fin-de-siècle dandy, Pfeifle knew that it would take him to New York, to Hinkle’s last known address, and, with luck, to Otto’s final home, in Germany, Vienna and Sarajevo. It was in Germany that Pfeifle came face-to-face with the former monarch, who had remained politically active during the second half of the 20th Century. Not all fairytales come with such a  clear historical narrative and evidentiary trail. Once the 77- minute Felix Austria! takes hold – if it does — you may want to learn what was in the letters and how a late-19th Century dandy confronts the vulgarity of contemporary life. In 2015, after the doc was released, he founded the Felix Austria School of Civility, in Los Angeles. It’s a tutorial program that “addresses the pervasive changes that have occurred in Western etiquette since the advent of digital technology and social media.”

If any of this discussion about fin-de-siècle Vienna and the Habsburg reign tickles your fancy, you may want to check out Neil Burger’s lush period mystery, The Illusionist (2006). Never mind that the name of the key antagonist was changed from Crown Prince Rudolf to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Budapest stands in grandly for Vienna. Neither is much made of double suicide at the Mayerling hunting lodge, where, in 1889, the direct heir to the crown and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, fulfilled a love pact. That’s not how this movie ends. The illusionist in question here, Eisenheim (Edward Norton), enters into a dangerous game of tag with the Crown Prince for the hand of Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel). As children, they felt destined to marry, but, being the son of a woodworker, they were separated. A couple decades later, Eisenheim returns to Vienna as one the of world’s great magicians. The minute he sees the princess, Eisenheim dedicates himself to preventing the Crown Prince’s wedding plans. It won’t be easy – or without the possibility of bodily harm – but magic always works in behalf of lovers. Leopold has ordered his chief of police, Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to investigate how the son of a woodworker could have become such a formidable foe. Uhl instantly confuses fraud and necromancy for legerdemain and goes to great lengths to back his suspicions. Eisenheim relishes the opportunity to prove both of these pompous fools wrong … or, at least, keep the wool pulled over their eyes.  Burger’s preparations included enlisting British magician James Freedman and the recently deceased American magician/historian/raconteur, Ricky Jay. The upgraded Blu-ray adds Burger’s commentary; a making-of featurette; and interview with Biel.

Mia and the White Lion: Blu-ray
Okko’s Inn: Blu-ray
Could the same audience attracted to Mia and the White Lion, a live-action story about an unlikely friendship, also be interested in an anime about a 12-year-old girl, whose parents are killed in a traffic accident and, with the help of some ghosts, learns how to get on with her life? In the former, 11-year-old Mia (Daniah De Villiers) is shaken to the core by her parents’ decision to move from London to South Africa, where they’ll manage a “lion farm.” Her father attempts to appease her displacement anxiety by allowing her to raise a white lion cub, until he’s too large to be a house pet. At first, their relationship is beyond cute. As they grow older, together, Charlie grows ominously large and Mia turns into a larger than life brat. Just as Mia becomes completely unreasonable in her love for Charley, director Gilles de Maistre (Le premier cri) and writers Prune de Maistre and William Davies (Johnny English Strikes Again) accentuate some of Mia’s better qualities and turn her father into a villain. Like his late father, he raises lions for the sole purpose of selling them to companies that promote can’t-miss trophy hunting. He neglects to reveal this detail to Mia, when she’s made Charley’s  guardian. When the lion’s deemed fully grown and Mia’s finally gotten his last nerve, he’s handed over to the broker. Naturally, Mia rescues her pet, with the intention of releasing it into a wildlife sanctuary set aside for white lions. His daughter’s rebellion convinces her dad to end his illegal business dealings and join her in the cross-country chase. As manipulative as Mia and the White Lion  can be, the points it makes about lion farms and cowardly trophy hunters are sound. It took three years for the real-life Charley and Mia to develop the rapport necessary to film them together in such unlikely circumstances. The scenery could hardly be more spectacular, especially as Mia nears the reserve. The DVD adds interviews and making-of featurettes. While the movie easily qualifies as PG, there are times when parental guidance is advised. There’s no getting around the ugliness of fake trophy hunting. The package includes several deleted scenes, making-of material and interviews.

The Japanese title for Okko’s Inn is the far more descriptive, if hopelessly unwieldy, “The Young Innkeeper Is a Grade Schooler!” It’s based on a series of 20 novels written by Hiroko Reijo and illustrated by Asami, as well as a manga illustrated by Eiko Ouchi and a 24-episode anime television series, directed by Mitsuyuki Masuhara and written by Michiko Yokote. The new, feature-length anime, Okko’s Inn, was directed by Kitaro Kosaka, who designed characters for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), It was written for the screen by Reiko Yoshida (Liz and the Blue Bird). As the movie opens, the pre-teen protagonist’s parents are killed in a car accident on the way back from a festival. It was held in the town where Okko’s grandmother, Mineko, runs a traditional ryokan, the Hananoyu Inn. Before Okko loses consciousness in the accident, she sees the ghostly image of a boy floating in the air. Once she’s recovered, she moves into the inn. It’s there that she learns that the boy is a ghost named Makoto Tachiuri, nicknamed “Uribo,” who died shortly after Mineko moved away from their hometown. Mineko makes her granddaughter “junior innkeeper,” giving her a kimono of her own to wear. While she doesn’t immediately take to innkeeping, her spirits are buoyed by Uribe and the idea that the Hananoyu Inn and its healing waters are intended for everyone. The animation bears a resemblance to that done at Studio Ghibli – generic round-eyed characters, detailed backgrounds, constantly in motion — but it’s understandable, based on creative team’s background. Besides Uribo, the inn is inhabited – haunted would be too harsh a word – by two more ghosts”: the sassy, mischievous, Miyo, and the pesky “demon,” Suzuki. Over the course of Okko’s coming-of-age journey, she meets a variety of unusual characters. Among them are a sullen teenage boy; a friendly fortune teller, Glory, who takes her on a memorable shopping trip; and a rival junior innkeeper, Matsuki, who treats her contemptuously at every opportunity. At the story’s core, however, is Okko’s inability to deal with the fact that her mother and father are no longer with her. This adds a contemplative tone to the proceedings that might make younger viewer restless. It’s a good reason for parents to stick around while the kids watch Okko’s Inn. That, and how to explain how ghosts act differently in other countries. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a Q&A with the creative team.

Winter Passing: Blu-ray
Released early in 2007, Winter Passage had the misfortune of being overshadowed by several pictures with essentially the same plot and tone. Zooey Deschanel, whose career was rapidly reaching its zenith, was cast as an aspiring off-off-Broadway actor, working as a bartender to make ends meet. She enjoys her cocaine and doesn’t always sleep at home, with her boyfriend. Her Reese Holden isn’t untalented, just one of thousands of twentysomethings seeking the same roles, careers and bliss. The chip on Reese’s shoulder becomes obvious when a book editor, Lori Lansky (Amy Madigan), pleads with her to share her parents’ love letters with the world, a get that would assure her career and profit the starving actor. The mere mention of her parents triggers an outburst that says almost everything about the source of her unhappiness and belligerent behavior. Turns out, Reese is the daughter of two highly successful and deeply depressed novelists, whose radical roots withered like their memories of the 1960s. It was a time when everything progressive was possible, except despair over a future that promised everything, but delivered nothing that hadn’t been exploited, bastardized and corrupted. Her narcissistic mother was estranged from her husband, Don Holden (Ed Harris), when she strangled herself, at home, with an old-school necktie. Both estranged themselves from Reese when she failed to show any interest in becoming the second coming of Emma Goldman or Rosa Luxemburg. Having avoided her mother’s funeral, Reese dreaded returning to her northern Michigan and asking her reclusive and alcoholic father where the love letters were hidden. Don’s in worse shape than even Reese could imagine. His literary outpost had dwindled to a few words a week and the onetime voice of his generation had been silenced. The only thing keeping him tripping down the stairs or completely ignoring meals are his worshipful live-in companions, Shelley (Amelia Warner) and Corbit (Will Ferrell), who Reese immediately mistrusts. It isn’t until she comes to the realization, they aren’t parasites – Don needs them as much as they need him —that writer/director Adam Rapp begins to lift the weight of doom, gloom and resentment off his character and narrative.

If you’ve already guessed the Don Holden is based on the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, you’d be right. Even so, being cursed with an almost catastrophic case of writer’s block wasn’t unique to the author of “The Catcher in the Rye.” If only a few people, about the same age, were able to crack the wall of ice surrounding his New Hampshire home – novelist and onetime lover, Joyce Maynard, and, Margaret Salinger, his daughter by his second wife – it would take many years before they felt comfortable sharing details of his life with readers. Don Holden is probably 20 years younger than Salinger, who was in his mid-80s when Winter Passage was put into limited release. Don’s disheveled appearance more resembles how Howard Hughes was supposed to have looked toward the end of his cloistered life in 1976, at 70. Salinger and his eccentricities informed several other movies of the period, even if they weren’t nearly as sharply sculpted, and they still do. Rapp is said to have been influenced, as well, by Bob Rafelson’s portrait of middle-age alienation, Five Easy Pieces (1970). The list of dramas and black comedies that extended the Salinger legend include Wonder Boys (2000), The Door in the Floor (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Running with Scissors (2006), Smart People (2008) and, skipping ahead, The End of the Tour (2015) and Rebel in the Rye (2017). Besides Harris, the stars included such heavyweights as Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Jeff Daniels, Dennis Quaid, Jason Segel, Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hoult. At times, Deschanel’s portrayal of a young woman attempting to escape the shadow of her talented, self-absorbed parents feels overly caustic. Rapp’s script gives her good reasons to behave so badly, though. In the key supporting performances, Ferrell does a terrific job in a counter-intuitive role and Emily Warner’s Mary surprises us – and Reese – by not being the gold-digger she, at first, appeared to be. (No spoiler alert needed.) When they finally come together as an only slightly dysfunctional family, we know that they’ve shared the same difficult journey and come out intact. That conclusion was always in doubt. Special features include a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Fatso: Blu-ray
I can’t remember if any advocacy group objected to anything in Anne Bancroft’s writing and directorial debut, Fatso. Like today, 1980 was a period in American history when everybody and their baby sister nitpicked movies for things to be offended by and report back to Oprah. Fatso is about a guy most people would recognize – Dominick DiNapoli, played by the admittedly overweight Dom DeLuise – who patiently listens to people warn him about the dangers of overeating, but is too busy stirring the tomato sauce to take notes. As the picture opens Bancroft employs a series of anecdotal flashbacks to demonstrate how Dominick came to be as large as he is and why it comes with the territory: Little Italy. He loves eating the food his mother and aunts make for celebrations, parties and funerals, and they love watching him gorge on it. After the opening credits roll, friends and family gather to say goodbye to Sal, his similarly fat cousin, who passed before he hit 40. This prompts his sister, Antoinette (Bancroft), to demand that he make another futile attempt at going on a diet and, failing that, she enrolls him in the “Chubby Checkers” support group. While DeLuise has us in stitches as he finds new ways to fall off the food wagon, viewers already are aware of the dangers he’s facing. So does Bancroft, of course. When Cupid’s arrows simultaneously strike Dom and Lydia Bollowenski (Candice Azzara) – an unconventionally pretty blond of mixed Italian and Polish descent — neither of them knows what to do with their feelings, except eat. Even when they do hook up, however, their insecurities keep them from fully connecting. You probably know the rest. Almost 30 years later, Fatso remains funny, without being cruel, offensive or insensitive. I can see where a person struggling with obesity in real life – DeLuise was merely dangerously large – might have some reservations about the movie, but not because it’s laden with clichés or stereotypes. Those, Bancroft reserved for the characters who resemble the Italian immigrants and first-generation Italian Americans around whom she grew up in the Bronx. They’re the flipside of the Corleones. It’s also possible to recognize the contributions made by her husband, Mel Brooks, and his production company, Brooksfilms. In an interview included in the bonus package, they both emphasize how difficult it was for a woman – any woman not named Streisand, anyway – to helm a mainstream feature in 1980. (Brooks’ name might have given Fatso a marketing boost, but he remained a very silent partner throughout the project.) Featurettes include “Looking Back on Fatso,” with Brooks and producer Stuart Cornfeld, and an interview with Maya Montañez Smukler, author of “Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s’ American Cinema.”

24 Hour Party People: Blu-ray
Michael Winterbottom may be one of the world’s most innovative, provocative and universally admired filmmakers, but such attributes don’t cut much ice among AMPAS nominators and voters. He’s directly tackled such issues as the interrogation and torture of political prisoners (The Road to Guantanamo), the migrations of war-ravaged refugees (In This World) and terrorism (A Mighty Heart), while also making time for excursions into comedy (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), scientific ethics (Code 46), literary icons (On the Road), crime fiction (The Killer Inside Me), thrillers (The Wedding Guest), romance (A Summer in Genoa), porn (The Look of Love), war correspondents (Welcome to Sarajevo), documentaries (The Shock Doctrine) and, more often than not, rock ’n’ roll (9 Songs). I can’t recall ever being disappointed by one of his filmic detours. Newly re-released into Blu-ray by the MVD Marquee Collection, 24 Hour Party People (2002) describes how one idiosyncratic British television personality changed the face, sound and beat of rock ’n’ roll, first in Manchester and, then, throughout the UK and, to a lesser degree, America. Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) couldn’t play an instrument or sing a lick, but after attending an early, nearly empty Sex Pistols concert, he was inspired to promote local bands, start a record label and open a nightclub. An idealist from the word “go,” Wilson did business the old-fashioned way: a handshake and a bloody thumbprint on a wall. It may have sounded like a righteous business practice at the beginning, but sincerity has never been one of rock’s selling points. He was fortunate enough to find and promote such quirky bands as Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, while also running the Factory nightclub, which became the sweaty “mecca of rave culture” in “Madchester.” His idea of solving a business problem was hiring local mobsters to keep track of admissions and sales, and opening the door to drug dealers – ecastasy, mostly – whose products killed sales of alcoholic beverages. All the while, he’s narrating his own rise and fall, with a stiff upper lip and British schoolboy’s sense of humor. The late, great cinematographer Robby Müller (Paris, Texas) captured both the club’s frantic atmosphere and the gritty urban sprawl of working-class Manchester, during the Thatcher years. The upgraded MVD Marquee Collection release adds commentary with Coogan and producer Andrew Eaton, as well as a separate track with the actual Tony Wilson, who still can’t understand what all the fuss was about; “Manchester: The Movie”; an “About Tony Wilson” featurette; 11 deleted scenes; and a photo gallery. In the aforementioned Pendular, Alice creates an impromptu solo dance to Joy Division’s, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Resurrecting the Champ: Blu-ray
When the struggling sportswriter Erik Kernan Jr. (Josh Hartnett) rescues a raspy-voiced, homeless man, known around Denver’s Skid Row as the Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), from an assault, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the kind of beating he was about to endure. Neither can we. Although Rod Lurie’s absorbing urban drama, Resurrecting the Champ (2007), looks, smells and quacks like a boxing movie, it continually flirts with other themes and ideas. Unlike his father, who was a well-known sports broadcaster, Erik has yet to display any talent as a writer. His intentions are sound, however. He recognizes the torn and tortured Champ as a boxer whose legitimate name, “Battling” Bob Satterfield, somehow rang a bell. A visit to the newspaper’s morgue reveals that a fighter named Bob “Bombardier” Satterfield was, indeed, a prominent heavyweight contender, but has long been assumed to be dead. Things like that sometimes occur to punch-drunk fighters, who, when their careers are over, either end up sweeping the floors of a gym or collecting recyclable items to earn the price of a beer. In the movies, down-and-out athletes, Thoroughbreds and coaches are routinely re-discovered by guys like Erik, who help them sober up and aspire to something resembling redemption. While it’s clear that Champ suffers from dementia, Jackson has molded him into a likeable character, who means no harm to anyone and isn’t embarrassed to be penniless. When he’s tormented by punks, who, when drunk, want to impress their friends, he reflexively defends himself as any boxer would do in the same position. In this case, his tormentor received plenty of help from his cronies.

When Erik learns about Satterfield’s professional background – and the role his father played in bringing him down – he proposes a story to his editor (Alan Alda) that could eventually pull him out of his old man’s shadow and someday impress his son. Erik and his reporter wife, Joyce Kernan (Kathryn Morris), are going through a not terribly nasty divorce, and he fears losing contact with the boy. When the story is finally written and published, Erik’s career takes a turn for the better. Before long, however, the rug is pulled out from him. Suffice it too say, Satterfield isn’t who he appears to be and, in his own rush to redemption, Erik commits the one journalistic sin that’s never forgiven. Just ask New York Times reporters Jayson Blair and Judith Miller; the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke; the New Republic’s Stephen Glass; and the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith. As a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine and KABC Talk Radio. who often clashed with studio publicists, Lurie (The Contender) would have been aware of those controversies and may have used them to shape Erik Kernan’s journey. Like co-screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett Lurie, would also have read a 1997 piece in Los Angeles Times Magazine, in which reporter J.R. Moehringer described his own uneasy father-son relationship with a homeless guy he knew both as Champ and Bob Satterfield. In doing the research that Erik should have performed before doing an end run around his editor and selling his article about Champ to a publication other than the Denver Post, Moehringer avoided his own brush with infamy. Both reporters discover the truth, but Erik’s article was based on a delusional fighter’s imaginary alter ego. Moehringer’s piece, also “Resurrecting the Champ,”    documented his search for the truth after his no-brainer magazine feature collapsed around his ears and he had to rethink the whole project. The result was an excellent piece of introspective exposition that every aspiring journalist should read, before following a story that’s “too good to be true” off a cliff. If Lowrie had simply adapted Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” as written, it might have been four hours long. As it is, Resurrecting the Champ captured the essence of the article, by tweaking certain key facts, adding the bit about Erik and Joyce’s separation and fudging Moehringer’s own backstory. Jackson’s portrayal of Champ reminded me so much of Romulus “Rom” Ledbetter,  a similar character he played in Kasi Lemmons’s The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), that I wondered if he reclaimed the tattered costumes and unkempt dreadlock wig from that underseen picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary from Lurie, a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew.

The Old Man and the Sea
Shark Attack 3-Pack
The 1990 made-for-television adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Old Man and the Sea,” may not cast the same spell as the 1958 version, but that has more to do with our familiarity with the story and limitations demanded by network television, than anything else. Because so much of the three best-known iterations were set on the seas off Cuba – or sound stages at Warner Brothers’ Burbank Studios – it doesn’t matter where the great battle between man and beast finally took place. The beachside scenes could have been shot almost anywhere between Malibu, Acapulco and Honolulu. Most of the paint-on-glass animation for Aleksandr Petrov’s 20-minute The Old Man and the Sea (1999) was completed in Montreal and intended for exhibition on IMAX screens. (It won an Oscar for Best Short Film/Animated.) For some reason, John Sturges and Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation used locations in Hawaii, the Bahamas, Peru, Panama, Colombia and Cuba, before moving on to Burbank. (Presumably, Hemingway wanted to fish for marlin on the studio’s dime.) This one was shot on location on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. (The reason my recollections of 1958 The Old Man and the Sea are in black-and-white is because we wouldn’t get a color set for another 15 years.)  Here, Anthony Quinn finally got to play Santiago, the baseball-loving Cuban fisherman who is suffering through an 84-day string of bad luck. Legend has it that Sturges preferred Tracy over the Mexican-born two-time Oscar-winner (Viva Zapata!, Lust for Life), but the studio felt as if Tracy’s name carried more commercial value. Even at the ripe old age of 74, Quinn definitely fits the role of Santiago better than Tracy. Both performances are noteworthy. Once the most successful fisherman in town, others have begun to notice signs of a natural diminishment in his strength and judgment. his problems feeling he maybe too old to fish. The parents of his apprentice, Manolin, have gone so far as to forbid him to go out with Santiago. Even so, their bond remains extremely tight. On the day of his greatest challenge, Santiago makes the decision to venture farther north, into the Gulf Stream, than he normally goes. It’s where the pernicious god of fishing decided to give his friend a great gift and, then, two days later, begin to take it away from him, piece by piece. His adult children Valentina (Nuts) and Francesco (Platoon) also can be seen here, alongside Gary Cole (“Veep”), Patricia Clarkson (“Sharp Objects”) and Joe Santos (“Rockford Files”), in roles, I believe, were added to the story. Blessedly, the commercial breaks don’t disrupt from the flow of the movie and, at 93 minutes, is family friendly. Actor bios are included.

Remember Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the 2010 Hitchcock parody that gave serious movie critics a reason to slit their wrists? I’ve just received “Shark Attack 3-Pack,” a box set of movies about a species of killer sharks that inhabit fresh-water lakes in Ontario. That some varieties of sharks can survive out of their salt-water habitats for long periods has been proven in any number of extreme fishing shows on cable. Unlike “Birdemic,” Shark Exorcist (2015), Raiders of the Lost Shark (2015) and Sharkenstein (2016) run out of fresh gags almost immediately after the opening credits roll. Although the writers will accidentally make a funny reference to a movie that has nothing to do with sharks, these movies have about as much chance of breaking into a “Shark Week” rotation as the Facebook mini-movies I share with my sisters. In all possible ways, from lousy special effects to risible accents, these three exports from the Great White North make every other Canuxploitation title look like the French New Wave.

Heroes Shed No Tears: Blu-ray
1986 was a watershed year for martial-arts specialist John Woo, a Hong Kong-based writer/director/actor who’d gotten bogged down in the studio system and desperately wanted to make a name for himself. In the early 1970s, Woo left the Shaw Brothers’ factory and joined Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho’s break-way Golden Harvest Studio, which kept him busy churning out kung fu actioners and the occasional comedy, until the company’s heavy-handed editing drove him away. By 1984, he’d already collaborated with such giants as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and Damian Lau, and moved over to Lau’s fledgling Cinema City, where, two years later, his string of box-office disappointments ended with the Triad thriller, A Better Tomorrow, produced by Hark. It was a landmark film, credited with drawing the template for the “heroic bloodshed” subgenre, whose influence easily crossed the Pacific, to Hollywood. Still sitting on a shelf at Golden Harvest, however, was Heroes Shed No Tears, which had been manhandled by the editors there and wouldn’t be released until A Better Tomorrow proved itself. Because Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985, when Woo’s mercenary-based actioner was still gathering dust, it isn’t likely that one influenced the other. That they could have been hatched from the same egg, though, is pretty obvious. In Woo’s tale, a group of Chinese mercenaries is hired by the Thai government to capture a powerful drug lord, based in the Golden Triangle. While the mercenaries manage to capture the drug lord, they soon find themselves pursued by his private army and troops loyal to a bitter Thai officer. The Chinese mercenaries, led by Chan Chung (Eddie Ko), may be vastly outnumbered, and as their numbers begin to dwindle, the fighters raise the ante on carnage. Along the way out of Laos, the Chinese soldiers cross into Vietnam, where they are confronted by a sadistic Vietnamese colonel (Lam Ching-ying). Adding to the degree of difficulty is Chan’s desire to protect his family, who live in a village near the border with China. As the enemy closes in, women and children there pick up guns, grenades and rocket launchers to support the Chinese mercs. Heroes Shed No Tears has been described as one of Woo’s most gratuitously violent movies, which, I guess, is saying a lot. The fighters are either deadly accurate with their machine-gun fire or hopelessly inept. Bodies fly like drunken ballet dancers, auditioning for “Swan Lake.” Chan’s relationship to his son, and some of the other story elements, appear to have derived from the Japanese manga, “Lone Wolf and Cub.” A relatively scandalous drug/sex scene was imposed on Woo by the studio to give the movie more “production value” for sale to foreign territories, and the total on-screen body count is 323. What are you waiting for?  The long-awaited Blu-ray adds an interview with Ko and new essay by author, film programmer and Asian film expert Grady Hendrix.

13 Graves
Filmed in woods surrounding historic Herstmonceux Castle, in Sussex, John Langridge’s undead thriller, 13 Graves, takes a simple idea and makes it feel a lot bigger than it is. It does so by putting a pair of hitmen in suits and requiring them to march their intended victim – also nicely dressed – to patch of land occupied by the decaying corpses of their favorite hits. Naturally, the snazzy assassins are ordered by their boss, Maddy (Terri Dwyer), to escort Billy (Jacob Anderton) a short distance into the woods and make him dig his own grave. Billy appeals to the gunmen (Morgan James, Kevin Leslie) to allow his escape, in return for a pile of money. Billy probably reneged on a drug deal, but it hardly matters. No sooner is some headway made on the grave than a hulking hillbilly appears out of nowhere to distract Frank and Terry long enough for Billy to sprint deeper into the woods. Meanwhile, the hitmen have lost all sense of direction and keep re-tracing their own tracks. Once they find their target hiding in a home that looks abandoned, but probably is used by Satanists to prepare for their rituals, they unload their pistolas into him and attempt to carry him back to the gravesite. This time, however, they not only get trapped in bogs and gullies, but they also find themselves encircled by a darker, more poetically judicial force. As night falls, things grow even creepier for the killers, who recognize some of the undead spirits as former acquaintances. Because only a couple of them look as if they’ve begun the transition into zombiehood, writer/director Langridge neatly avoids succumbing to all-too-familiar horror clichés. The movie’s 83-minute length doesn’t leave much time for applying too much extraneous baggage and viewers won’t miss it, anyway.

From the makers of the well-received 2013 anthology, “HI-8 (Horror Independent 8),” comes Wild Eye’s sequel, of sorts, HI-Death. While the former essentially was a love letter to the  VHS format and independent shot-on-video filmmaking,  the latter employs only a few visual references to that unlamented format. The HI-Death collection consists of five low-budget horror shorts, linked by a pair of female tourists who think it might be fun embarking on a smartphone-directed “Terror Tour” around Los Angeles. The framing device, helmed by Brad Sykes (The Pact), requires that they watch a selection of scary videos. First concerns a junkie tormented by a skeletal demon in a motel room. It’s followed by a story about a true-crime obsessive who’s forced to confront the dark escalation of his fascination with morbid memorabilia; a video-store clerk who can’t escape the threats emitted from a mysterious DVD; an actress facing a rather aggressive audition process; and a painter held captive as part of a demonic ritual. Some the scenes, while imaginatively conceived, require a strong stomach.

The New York Ripper: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The Green Inferno: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Double Face: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The flag of Italy waves over these releases, even though two of them were shot – partially, at least – in New York, London, all over Europe and South America, and, only then, Cinecitta studio, in Rome. The multinational casts were chosen with international sales in mind, and the films all suffered the indignity of being mutilated or banned in countries that promote creative freedom. I’m not a big fan of censorship, but these films all pushed the limits on graphic violence and sexuality. If your tolerance level is low – especially for extreme giallo, krimi and unnerving soundtracks – I recommend taking on pass on them. On the plus side, though, the production values are high, the locations exotic and the casts chosen for reasons other than their thespianic skills. (Is it possible for an actor to be considered gratuitously beautiful or handsome?) Neither did the studios’ marketing teams use tactics intended to mask the true nature of the sordid content. Their appeal can be summed up in a single sentence.

In Lucio Fulci’s garishly disgusting The New York Ripper (1982), for example, “A burned-out New York police detective teams up with a college psychoanalyst to track down a vicious serial killer, randomly stalking and killing various young women around the city.” The only things missing in mukthat description are the killer’s mutilated hand and propensity to wield cutlery of mass destruction. And, yes, his targets are, indeed, gratuitously beautiful. The fiend’s killing grounds extend a bit further than Travis Bickel’s cab took him in Taxi Driver, six years earlier. If anything, however, the Italian vision of Times Square is even more sordid than proffered by Martin Scorsese. NYPD detective Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) follows the trail of butchery from the decks of the Staten Island Ferry to the sex shows on the  Deuce. Soon enough, it becomes abundantly clear that the killer either has a childish sense of humor or is a fan of bad imitations of Donald Duck, because that’s what he uses to taunt the police and perspective victims … and torment viewers. Fulci, one of the early pioneers of giallo (Don’t Torture a Duckling, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), let it all hang out with The New York Ripper, which was entirely banned in the UK until 2007, when a DVD, reduced by 41 seconds, was cleared by censors. The cuts had nothing to do with the screenplay – credited to Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Dardano Sacchetti and Fulci, on the Italian side – which benefits from a sound narrative and, of course, the scenery. It’s being presented by Blue Underground with a new 4K restoration from its original camera negative, completely uncut and uncensored. Extras include commentary with Troy Howarth, author of ”Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films”; interviews with co-writer Sacchetti (Manhattan Baby), actors Howard Ross (The Killer Reserved Nine Seats), Cinzia de Ponti, Zora Kerova and Stephen Thrower (author of ”Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci”) and poster artist Enzo Sciotti; the featurette, “NYC Locations, Then and Now”; an original theatrical trailer; and, separately, the film’s original soundtrack CD, by Francesco De Masi; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by Travis Crawford; and lenticular 3D slipcover.

The mini-summary of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013) reads, “A group of student activists travels to the Amazon to save the rain forest and soon discovers that they are not alone, and that no good deed goes unpunished.” The aforementioned Gianfranco Clerici teamed with Ruggero Deodato on Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a true exploitation classic, in which, “during a rescue mission into the Amazon rainforest, a professor stumbles across lost film shot by a missing documentary crew.” They already collaborated on the kindred, Jungle Holocaust (1977), one of several titles in the post-“Mondo” cannibal subgenre. Co-writer Sacchetti joined Antonio Margheriti for Cannibals in the Streets (1980). Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (1972), Eaten Alive! (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981) framed the trend. In an interview included here, Roth (Cabin Fever) admits a fondness for Cannibal Holocaust and a desire to create an opportunity for escape by spiking a student’s corpse with high-octane ganga and waiting for them to fall asleep. There’s no denying that The Green Inferno overflows with nearly unwatchable gore and sexual violence. It’s primary problem, though, comes toward the end when the endangered students – or what’s left of them – are rescued by the same de-foresters and racist plunderers they came to expose. One deeply secreted tribe is powerless against another deeply secreted tribe, which, we’re led to believe, begs for its own extinction by eating the well-meaning environmentalists. As the forest is depleted, the need for habitable land and access to water has pushed the rival tribes to war, which requires the intervention of do-gooders or corporations with a vested interest in one side winning or both sides losing. As an amoral cannibal entertainment, though, that reality encourages viewers to side with the guys driving bulldozers and carrying automatic weapons, who would create concentration camps or eliminate the tribes if they don’t agree to installing porta-potties and wear overalls. The rain-forest locations and Antonio Quercia’s cinematography almost made me forget scenes of free-flowing entrails. The two-disc set adds an exclusive original soundtrack by Manuel Riverio. with bonus tracks not included in the film; a new intro and interview with co-writer/producer/director Roth; the featurette, “Uncivilized Behavior: Method Acting in The Green Inferno, with actors Lorenza Izzo, Daryl Sabara and Kirby Bliss Blanton; nearly an hour of never-before-seen footage; commentary with Roth, producer Nicolás López and cast members; a vintage making-of featurette; and a stills gallery.

Released in 1969, Riccardo Freda’s Double Face is described thusly, “A millionaire is unwittingly led into murder by his lesbian wife.” Falling somewhere between a giallo and a krimi, the generically flexible thriller benefits greatly from a comparatively restrained portrayal of the protagonist, John Alexander, whose unfaithful wife, Helen (Margaret Leer) dies in a car crash. The vehicle looks as if they were borrowed from the layout of a toy train, while the landscape is no more authentic than an aluminum Christmas tree. The plot thickens when evidence arises suggesting that the car was tampered with prior to the crash. John’s entire perception of reality is thrown into doubt when he discovers a recently shot pornographic movie, which suggests that Helen is in alive and playing an elaborate mind game on him. The worm will turn a few more times before it becomes clear as to who’s going to survive the plotting, which was tentatively based on an Edgar Wallace novel – as were most other German thrillers of the period – and re-interpreted by Freda, Fulci, Paul Hengge (Spanking at School), Romano Migliorini (The Inglorious Bastards) and Gianbattista Mussetto (Bandidos). Born in 1909 to Italian parents, living in Egypt, Freda began his career during the war. Instead of following his peers in neo-realism, he proved himself adept at historical spectacles (Theodora, Slave Empress), horror/fantasies (Lust of the Vampire), spy films (Coplan FX 18 casse tout), a Western, or two (Death at Owell Rock), and gialli (The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire). Here, Freda adds a healthy dollop of psychedelia, as well. The Italian production team’s southern flavor is balanced by the inclusion of such northern accents as Christiane Krüger, Günther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Sydney Chaplin. The hardcore inserts (circa 1976) featured the heavenly body of Alice Arno. The Arrow package is enhanced by a new 2K restoration of the full-length Italian version of the film, from the original 35mm camera negative; original English and Italian soundtracks, titles and credits; new commentary by author/critic Tim Lucas; a fresh interview with composer Nora Orlandi; “The Many Faces of Nora Orlandi,” a new appreciation of the composer, by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; “The Terrifying Dr. Freda,” a new video essay on Riccardo Freda’s gialli, by author/critic Amy Simmons; an image gallery from the collection of Christian Ostermeier, including the original German pressbook and lobby cards, and the complete Italian cineromanzo adaptation; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, by Graham Humphreys; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell.

American Horror Project, Volume Two: Blu-ray
Histories of independent film in America sometimes aren’t able to find room for movies that failed to crack even the bottom tier of the drive-in circuit at its peak. There probably are a hundred reasons for such oversights and omissions, but, until they’re viewed with fresh eyes, there’s no way of knowing if the films were even worth the effort to add opening and closing credits. Anyone who’s gotten this far in the column already knows that I watch some movies so you don’t have to and will go out of my way to find a single saving grace in them. (Did I mention that the entries in the “Shark Attack 3-Pack” weren’t completely devoid of humor, especially if you’re Canadian.) I didn’t have to search very hard to locate reasons for the continued availability of Dream No Evil (1970), Dark August (1976) and The Child (1977), all of them collected by Arrow Films in its features-laden “American Horror Project, Volume Two.” or this presentation. I got an assist from curator Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents”), who made the selections here and for 2016’s “American Horror Project, Volume 1,” and has no trouble defending them. John Hayes’ Dream No Evil exists as a yellowed postcard from a long-ago period in American history. It portrays life on the road for a traveling preacher and faith healer, the Rev. Paul Jessie Bundy (Michael Pataki), who demonstrates the ravages of hell fire by requiring of his bombshell partner (Brooke Mills) that she put on a provocative costume, climb to the top of a tall, none-too-secure ladder, and dive into a bag filled with foam-rubber scraps. When she tires of this charade, the increasingly delusional Grace vows to find her missing father, Timothy (Edmond O’Brien), last seen in a small-town brothel and retirement home, right out of “Twin Peaks.” The retired evangelist is there, alright, ready to be embalmed by a sleazy undertaker (Marc Lawrence). While Grace is negotiating with the creep, Timothy somehow re-animates himself. After slicing open the undertaker with a scalpel, they return to the encampment. Since being resurrected, Timothy has let the bible dictate his actions, including beating Grace when she doesn’t bring his food quickly enough to the table and he catches her “fornicating” with Rev. Bundy. But, that’s only half of the gag. The disc adds featurettes “Melancholy Dreamer,” a savvy appreciation by Thrower, an Arrow regular; “Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes,” Thrower’s enjoyable retrospective overview of Hayes’ career; a 2005 audio interview and slide show with Hayes’ ex-squeeze, Rue McClanahan; “Edmond O’Brien: An Actor for All Seasons,” a 22-minute appreciation of the actor’s career; and commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan.

It’s followed by Martin Goldman’s Dark August (1976), which stars Academy Award-winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) in a story about a nervous wreck, Sal (J.J. Barry), who moves from the city to sleepy rural Vermont. He’s barely settled into his cabin, when he accidentally kills a little girl while driving through the countryside. He couldn’t possibly see her running into winding road without looking, but is severely traumatized by the event, anyway. After a while, he begins to experience hallucinations of a menacing figure, wearing a cowl and hood, and impromptu visits by the girl’s grandfather, who’s also cast on spell on him. It appears to be working, because he’s acting like a PTSD sufferer who’s decided to stop taking his meds. Finally, he takes the advice of friends, by scheduling a healing session with a local white witch (Hunter), who puts him on a different path to madness. Dark August definitely qualifies as a “slow burn chiller,” which is OK, because it gives us time to admire the Vermont scenery. It adds “Revisiting Dark August,” with Thrower; “Mad Ave to Mad Dogs,” a career-spanning interview with Goldman; “Don’t Mess With the Psychic,” an interview with producer Marianne Kanter; the 34-minute “The Hills Are Alive: Dark August and Vermont Folk Horror,” an overview of films with some kind of connection to the state; commentary with Goldman, moderated by Brandon Daniel and Joe Luke; and an original press book, accessible as BD-ROM content.

Any movie titled, The Child, runs the risk of being pigeonholed. The popularity of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) made it difficult for horror/thriller directors to come up with something more succinct and instantly identifiable. Even more difficult, of course, was meeting the expectations of fans and critics who take any comparison with Polanski’s horror/thriller as a challenge. Onetime director Robert Voskanian and writer Ralph Lucas (Zipperface) doesn’t look as if it’s going to break any new ground – a college student is hired by a weird family to be the nanny for an evil child – until the girl raises an army of the udead to attack the people she holds responsible for her mother’s death. It doesn’t matter that there weren’t marquee-value stars. The Blu-ray adds “Zombie Child,” with Thrower; “Fathers of The Child,” with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian; commentary with Voskanian and Dadashian, moderated by Thrower; and BD-ROM access to the original press book.

Night of the Creeps: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
One the most difficult things facing publicists for genre films is avoiding giving away the gags, without dampening the expectations of fans and buffs. Another is to convey the fact their project is a genre parody, or a sendup of conventions and tropes loved by people in the target audience. Mel Brooks didn’t have to worry about offending geeks, because he knew that his admirers were adults, who’d grown up watching the movies being spoofed – gently – and understood the difference between satire and tone-deaf comedy. They knew he was laughing along with the audience, as they recognized where his pictures were going, not at them. It explains why people publicizing less-polished genre parodies find target-rich gatherings – ComiccCon, gaming conventions – provide the fans with enough free swag to put them in a mood for liking what’s being pitched and screened. (The same gimmick works for HFPA members, who love to be coddled and wooed.)  Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986) was a smart and funny cross-genre satire that failed at the box office for some of the same reasons it would become a cult classic. In 1986, there was no ComicCon as we now know it. Megaplexes had nearly wiped out drive-in theaters, which served as a breeding ground for buzz and word-of-mouth. And, of course, the Internet was still catering to scientists, the military, people who played Solitaire at work and video games at home. Worse, Night of the Creeps’ title conveyed nothing about what the movie was about and why buffs should be interested. It opens in 1959, when an alien ship crashes to Earth, without completing its experiment. A student is infected by something in the payload but is isolated inside a temperature-controlled capsule before the virus can do much damage. It also will provide sufficient time to search for a cure or antidote. Twenty-seven years later, the body of the cryogenically frozen student is thawed out by fraternity pledges determined to prove their worth to the Greek system. Once this happens, a plague of creepy crawlers invade the campus turning students into zombies. (A much better title would have been, “Night of the Creepy Crawlers.”) That Dekker’s scatter-shot approach frequently hits his targets and the gags show a working knowledge, at least, of B-movie history, Too often, however, they’re meaningful to film-school students and the writer/director’s friends. For example, the last names of the main characters are based on famous horror and sci-fi directors: George A. Romero (Chris Romero), John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper (James Carpenter Hooper), David Cronenberg (Cynthia Cronenberg), James Cameron (Detective Ray Cameron), John Landis (Detective Landis), Sam Raimi (Sergeant. Raimi) and Steve Miner (Mr. Miner, the janitor). Graffiti on the wall of the men’s lavatory, where one of the protagonists is trying to escape the killer slugs, reads, “Go Monster Squad!,” referring to The Monster Squad (1987), another Dekker project. Corman University is a nod to the maestro of exploitation, Roger Corman. You get the picture. Both of the discs containing the director’s-cut and theatrical versions contain more bonus supplements than a non-fan could handle. Cultists will eat them up.

The Believers: Blu-ray
After making two of the best movies set partially, at least, in New York – Midnight Cowboy (1969), Marathon Man (1976) – the frequently brilliant London-born director, John Schlesinger, returned to the Apple for a movie about, what else, Santería. He probably shouldn’t have bothered. Although The Believers (1987) was sandwiched between two other entertaining pictures — The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Madame Sousatzka (1988) – Schlesinger hadn’t logged a commercially successful movie in 11 years. His bad luck streak would dog the Academy Award-winning filmmaker for the rest of his career. Based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, The Believers was adapted for the screen by Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks,” “Hill Street Blues”), whose only previously produced screenplay was the haunted-house thriller, Scared Stiff (1987), recently restored by Arrow Video. There may not be anything nearly as poignant here as the Ratso Rizzo’s  death scene, in Midnight Cowboy; as revolutionary as the MMF love triangle, in Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971); or as disturbing as the torture-by-dentistry scene, in Marathon Man. It does, however, open with a truly shocking expository scene, in which a 7-year-old boy, Chris (Harley Cross), witnesses the death of his mother, after she steps into a puddle of milk that has been electrically charged by a shorted-out kitchen appliance. The electrocution could have been eliminated from the narrative, entirely, but it serves to explain how psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) ended up in Manhattan, shrinking the heads of traumatized cops. He’s one of the few psychologists I’ve seen – in the movies, anyway — who’s called to particularly nasty crime scenes by a police lieutenant (Robert Loggia), concerned about the welfare of his officers, including Jimmy Smits. In short order, Cal falls for his lovely landlord (Helen Shaver) and Chris becomes the object of obsession by “the believers.” Apparently, he’s the perfect candidate for sacrifice to the gods of darkness, as determined by a tall, skinny spiritual leader (Malick Bowens), who passed through U.S. Customs as if he were Casper the Friendly Ghost. I doubt that many viewers would be surprised by the intensity of the “blood rituals” performed by otherwise sane New Yorkers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t gut-churning, only that we’ve seen such rituals performed dozens of times in the last 30 years. The Olive Films Blu-ray adds a theatrical trailer, a MGM 90th– anniversary trailer and isolated score, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.

The Dark Side of the Moon: Blu-ray
Rock-video specialist D.J. Webster received his first and only shot at big-screen fame with The Dark Side of the Moon (1990), a dark and moody sci-fi drama, set in 2022. Writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes would fare better, finally hitting high gear in 2013, with James Wan’s international blockbuster The Conjuring. “Dark Side” went straight to video, a category that allows for experimentation, plot cloning and looser accounting standards. In 2022, while in Earth orbit to repair nuclear satellites, Spacecore 1 suffers an inexplicable power failure. The crew panics as the ship is drawn towards the dark side of the moon and they are left with only 24 hours’ worth of oxygen and power the craft. On their journey into eternal darkness and mystery, they are stunned to find Discovery 8, a NASA space shuttle that crashed in the Bermuda Triangle 30 years earlier. After docking with the shuttle, the Spacecore crew members are taken over by a parasitic organism. It falls upon crewman Paxton Warner (Joe Turkel) to find the links between the deadly aliens and the Bermuda and Devil’s triangles. While there aren’t many surprises here, killer-alien-parasite completists should find something to like. Bonus features include interviews with actor Allen Blumenfield, stuntman Chuck Borden and FX artist Chris Biggs; commentary with producer Paul White and Stephen Biro (American Guinea Pig); production and dialogue notes.

The Dick Cavett Show: Baseball’s Greatest Hits: The Pitchers
Syfy: Leprechaun Returns: Blu-ray
You never know exactly what to expect in S’More Entertainment’s series of themed episodes from Dick Cavett’s various talk shows. That’s because the common elements in the collected titles are sandwiched between the host’s other guests on any particular night. They’re nothing, if not eclectic. Previously issued episodes have featured appearances by influential black comedians, established white comics, emerging talents, famous news anchors, “Hollywood Greats,” rock icons and this week’s “The Dick Cavett Show: Baseball’s Greatest Hits: The Pitchers.” As nerdy and sycophantic as Cavett can be when interviewing personalities he particularly admires, he usually leaves enough room for tasty tidbits of talk. Because he’s loved baseball since childhood, he gives his guest even more room to share on-field anecdotes, opinions and personal stories. He even gets Tommy John, Satchel Paige and Whitey Ford to teach him their strikeout pitches. The other guest hurlers are the wonderful Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Denny McLain, Vida Blue and Mickey Mantle. Now, imagine these All-Stars, from all walks of life, siting alongside the likes of Paul Simon, Salvador Dali, Robert Altman, Rose Kennedy and Marcel Marceau, who teaches Cavett the moonwalk, 10 years before Michael Jackson introduced it to the masses. The DVDs add player bios and direct access to the pitchers’ segments.

Earlier, a bit farther north in this column, I made a case for the movies contained in “Shark Attack 3-Pac” being among the worst made in any genre. In making such an assertion, I took into account the possibility that the filmmakers might actually agree with it and knowing full well that some pundits consider Leprechaun 3 (1995) to be among the worst, as well.  The latest installment in the famously non-linear franchise, Leprechaun Returns, is a Syfy original that qualifies for true sequel status, albeit a quarter-century past the original theatrical release, Leprechaun (1993). The bad news here is the continued absence of Warwick Davis, the wee fellow who’s played the diminutive green booger in all but one other installment. I’m more upset by the fact that Jennifer Aniston passed up the opportunity to portray the mom who threw  the leprechaun into the well, 25 years ago. Her daughter, Lila (Taylor Spreitler), has returned to the area to attend college and help fix the old abode, so it can be converted to a sorority house. It doesn’t take long before the Leprechaun  (Linden Porco) is awakened by all the noise and demands to know where his cache of gold coins was hidden by Lila’s mother. There’s no lack of guts, gore and trash talk in Leprechaun Returns and there are times when nothing makes any sense, whatsoever. Special features include “Going Green With Director Steven Kostanski,” behind-the-scenes footage and a stills gallery.

Wild Eye Releasing is a reliably unpredictable distributor of low budget, independently made genre titles that may have experienced difficulties finding a home anywhere else. The DVD covers are deliciously lurid, but it’s likely that most consumers find its selections through PPV services. Scrawl has a better backstory than most other horror, slasher and sci-fi pictures you’d tend to find in the bargain bins of Internet distribution. Back in 2014, when it was shot, Welsh writer/director/producer Peter Hearn was known, if at all, for Appleseed Lake (2001) and Cross-Eyed Waltz (2005), a pair of films that were largely unseen and unreviewed. Ditto, Scrawl, which began its life as a collaboration between industry professionals and in-training actors and technicians of Andover College. After being shown at a couple of festivals, Hearn pulled it back for re-editing and reshooting, not to be seen again until this month on iTunes, which just pulled the plug on itself. (It’s available on Amazon Prime, YouTube and DVD.) All of that said, however. Hearn had the great good luck to have cast an unknown Daisy Ridley in a key role, at approximately the same time as she was hired to play Rey in the Stars Wars sequel trilogy, which opened with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). It’s taken Hearn four years to be able to exploit that happy coincidence. Ridley’s character in Scrawl, Hannah, is an unnerving presence that appears almost randomly, before someone is going to be sliced up. (A recent slasher trend is showing a head or torso being split in two and the victim’s innards flowing outward … none too convincingly.) The movie is nicely set in and around a beachside community in Hampshire, England. Simon Goodman (Liam Hughes) is an imaginative 16-year-old, who,  with his best friend, Joe Harper (Joe Daly), creates a gory comic book called Scrawl as a way to escape their mundane reality and, perhaps, get a leg up on their school’s social ladder. The characters are modeled after classmates, along with a few ringers, such as Hannah. Unfortunately, in an extreme example of life imitating art, Hannah’s presence in the comic foretells the occurrence of horrible things happening to the real-life students. Once that becomes clear, Simon and Joe must fight the forces of evil – sometimes, mirror images of the characters in the book — to gain enough time to rewrite death. The reviews of Scrawl I’ve read on niche websites are all over the block on its quality or lack thereof. Some of the writers are able to get past the confusion that comes with separating reality from fiction, while others aren’t nearly as forgiving. All agree that the gore, however gratuitous and cosmetically applied, should satisfy most fans of slasher flicks. The DVD, which may be a Walmart exclusive, adds the short film upon which the movies is based.

Crisis Hotline
After a week of nights spent fielding calls from people whose troubles hardly qualify as crises, Simon (Corey Jackson) receives one from a man who’s reached the end of his rope and has nowhere else to go for help. There are a lot of hotlines out there, serving the general public and niche communities, alike. In Crisis Hotline (a.k.a., “Shadows in Mind”), Simon is a gay man who volunteers for an agency that focuses its efforts on the LGBTQ demographic. It could just as well be focusing on veterans suffering from PTSD, alcoholics or drug addicts. Suicide isn’t limited to any single group. The differences are in the details. Here, at least, Simon benefits from knowing the caller, Danny (Christian Gabriel), is gay, and he can eliminate certain problems limited to heterosexuals. Cutting to the chase, Danny is a recently uncloseted man, who cruised many social media sites before finding “the right man.” Kyle (Pano Tsaklas) introduces Danny to another couples, whose sexual proclivities make him uncomfortable. One thing leads to another and Simon receives his first all-too-real crisis call. Not only is Danny suicidal, but he also wants to take out three other people before he goes. Because Crisis Hotline is a slow-burner that plays out in real time and flashbacks – and the conclusion is always in doubt —  you either buy into the premise right away or not at all. Schwab makes it easy to stay with it.  The DVD adds interviews with the cast and crew.

Hot Doug: the Movie
The classic Chicago hot dog – not to be confused with Nathan’s Famous or Dodger Dogs – has withstood the tests of time, trends and revisionist recipes. Here’s what you do: place an all-meat Vienna hot dog in a steamed poppy-seed bun. Then, pile on the toppings in this order: yellow mustard, sweet green pickle relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. The tomatoes should be nestled between the hot dog and the top of the bun, just right. Place the pickle between the hot dog and the bottom of the bun. No ketchup … ever. In Christopher Markos’ 56-minute documentary, Hot Doug: the Movie, we’re introduced to Doug Sohn, a restaurateur who didn’t want to reinvent the classic dog, necessarily, just introduce variations that consumers hadn’t tasted or expected. In Chicago, no one would dare label their hot dogs “gourmet” or “boutique,” because Windy City eaters would rather stand in line outside a disco than admit to paying Michigan Avenue prices for a hot dog that wasn’t any better, and probably worse than the ones they can pick up in their local dump for a fraction of the price. When Sohn opened his Avondale “sausage superstore,” at about the same time as the new millennium arrived, the last thing anyone in Chicago needed was a new place to buy a hot dog, deep-dish pizza, gyro or Italian beef sandwich. Iconoclast chef Sohn defied conventional wisdom by referring to his specialties as “encased meats” and using ingredients some would consider exotic. Typically, the menu featured 11 dogs and sausages, ranging from a standard Chicago-style hot dog with all the trimmings, to the Norm Crosby — a Thuringer sausage, made from beef, pork, and garlic — foie gras sausage with duck-fat fries, alligator and andouille sausage and, even, a ginger-spiked rabbit sausage with red pepper mayo and crème de brie. If that sounds completely non-Chicagoan, you should know that customers routinely lined up for hours to enjoy a Hot Doug’s dog. I wish that Markos’ film was half as tasty. Even at 56-minutes, the documentary feels padded and overly worshipful. It ends with the sad news that Sohn was closing the business and his workers would have to find work somewhere else. Viewers aren’t told why he pulled the plug, what he was doing at the time the movie was released (2016), if he gave his employees a decent retirement package and what kind of food the next restaurant in its place served, if any. (Apparently, he has a booth in the Wrigley Field bleachers.) I would have loved to see how his more noteworthy sandwiches were constructed, served and received at first bite. Instead, the movie is bloated with testimonials from people standing in line and his purveyors, and clips of Sohn taking orders. There simply isn’t enough meat in Hot Doug: the Movie.

FM: Special Edition: Blu-ray
By the time John A. Alonzo and Ezra Sachs’ FM was released on April 20, 1978, it already was outdated. With few exceptions, the murder of free-form radio was in full gear, and pre-programmed Adult Alternative Music and Classic Rock were its corporatized replacement. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and the Ramones were waiting in the wings, as was MTV and the Walkman. When deejays at Q-SKY Radio balk at being required to run recruitment ads for the Army, the station’s owner threatens to oust its manager. Fans cause a near riot outside the station, which, in any case, would not have happened in pacified 1978. Indeed, Steely Dan’s wonderfully smooth title song was an ode to the post-1960s weariness and ennui that affected psychedelic rock ’n’ roll, folk rock, blues rock and their cocaine-addicted stars, who sold their souls to the demons running record labels and concert tours. It opened the door to prog rock, glam rock, metal and punk, which is largely underrepresented in FM. The sexism and racism is probably real. That said, however, Baby Boomers will definitely enjoy watching Linda Ronstadt perform live and in her prime … Jimmy Buffet, too. The cast includes Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras, Norman Lloyd, James Keach and Cassie Yates. The Arrow Blu-ray presentation has been transferred from original film elements, and includes “No Static at All,” a newly filmed interview with Brandon; “Radio Chaos,” a fresh interview with Sacks; “The Spirit of Radio,” a video appreciation of the era of FM radio and the FM soundtrack by the film and music critic Glenn Kenny; and extensive gallery of original stills, promotional images and soundtrack sleeves; an isolated music and effects track; a reversible sleeve, featuring two original artwork options; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by writer and critic Paul Corupe.

The DVD Wrapup: Slaughterhouse Rulez, Silver Lake, Dark Sense, Swing Kids, Cherry Grove, Karloff/Lugosi, Running Man, Between the Lines, Crypto … More

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Slaughterhouse Rulez
Any time a movie starring such fine British actors as Michael Sheen (The Queen), Margot Robbie (I, Tanya), Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Simon Pegg (Star Trek), Nick Frost (Into the Badlands), Finn Cole (“Animal Kingdom”), Hermione Corfield (Rust Creek) and Isabella Laughland (Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince), you’d think someone on this side of the pond would sit up and pay attention to it. The presence of Pegg and Frost, alone, should have alerted fans of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul and The End to the possibility, at least, that it might be a sleeper of indeterminant genre. It was done in, methinks, by a title so vague as to confuse potential viewers of its intentions. Was it just another splatter fest, this time set at a spelling bee or an abattoir owned by a guy with a funny last name? Anyone who’s ever played on a Little League or junior soccer team might foresee a movie, Slaughterhouse Rulez, in which barely literate kids compete against each other – think, “Bad News Bearz,” “Ladybugz,” “The Mighty Duckz” – and the “slaughter rule” (a.k.a., “mercy rule”) is frequently applied. Tellingly, Crispian Mills’ nifty merger of horror, coming-of-age comedy and sci-fi is the first offering from Pegg and Frost’s production company, Stolen Picture. What begins as a darkish teen comedy, set in an  elite British boarding school, makes an abrupt midcourse correction by adding monsters, a corrupt dean and fracking, of all things. When the students return to school after summer holiday, its smarmy dean – the Bat, played with his nose in the air, by Sheen —  cautions against swimming in the estate’s serene pond and wandering through the surrounding forest. No one is told why, exactly, but the students quickly detect frequent temblors, noxious fumes and a flammable swimming hole. An unauthorized stroll through the woods reveals a giant sinkhole protected by armed guards.

As one of the new kids in school, Don Wallace (Cole) becomes the whipping boy for the privileged upperclassmen who despise his middle-class background and unwillingness to play along with “rulez,” forbidding them from assuming they’re human beings. All hell breaks out when Don dares to strike up a conversation with the school’s resident goddess, Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield), who’s been deemed the property of the crypto-fascist senior-class president. No sooner does the class struggle erupt in earnest than monsters emerge from the hole. Buckinghamshire’s historic Stowe School stands in for Slaughterhouse, as inelegant a name as any school in the movies, so Slaughterhouse Rulez doesn’t lack for ruling-class credentials and immaculately tailored grounds. It should appeal most to high school- and college-age audiences, as well as fans Sean of the Dead and St. Trinian’s, from which emerged Lily Cole, Tamsin Egerton, Talulah Riley, Jodie Whittaker, Kathryn Drysdale, Juno Temple, Antonia Bernath, Emily Bevan, Tereza Srbova and Russell Brand. Like them, the young actors here shouldn’t have any problem finding work at the next level.

Under the Silver Lake: Blu-ray
When David Robert Mitchell’s extremely ambitious neo-noir dramedy, Under the Silver Lake, arrived at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, it was floating on a cloud that began forming at the 2010 fest, with The Myth of the American Sleepover, and gathered momentum, in 2014, with the festival debut of It Follows. Because the former depicted an endless night of teenage revelry and self-discovery, critics compared it to Sixteen Candles, Dazed and Confused, Superbad, American Graffiti, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Go. Peering deeper into “Sleepover,” the assembled mass of critics and industry geeks identified enough individual talent to mark Mitchell as a multi-hyphenate to watch. Because it managed to add something new and different to the resurgent stalker/slasher subgenre, It Follows didn’t feel nearly as derivative or predictable. In it, an unrelenting supernatural force tails recently de-flowered teens, as if it were a STD among friends with benefits. As a Palme d’Or nominee, Under the Silver Lake, debuted to a mixed response at last year’s Cannes festival. It would take almost a full year to reach a handful of American theaters and, another two months, before arriving in DVD/Blu-ray, where it might finally find its ideal demographic grouping.

To understand Under the Silver Lake enough to recommend it to fellow hipsters, a walking knowledge of Los Angeles’ trendy Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz neighborhoods is essential. Also helpful is a familiarity with such landmarks as the Hollywood Forever cemetery, downtown’s Last Bookstore and such previously used locations as the Canfield-Moreno Estate (The Neon Demon), the Standard Hotel’s rooftop bar (Collateral), Bronson Caves (“Batman”), the statuary surrounding the Griffith Observatory (Rebel Without a Cause), the shimmering 2nd Street Tunnel, between Hill and Figueroa (Blade Runner), and Echo Park Lake (Chinatown). “Silver Lake” also appears to have been informed, stylistically, by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and The Long Goodbye (1973), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015), Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2015). Did I mention the dog park at the Silver Lake Reservoir? It’s there, too. I don’t know how many other homages, references and bows are scattered throughout the 139-minute Under the Silver Lake, but, I’m sure, there were plenty I missed. The film takes place in 2011, which I can’t remember being terribly eventful, and opens with the unemployed protagonist, Sam (Andrew Garfield), surveying the courtyard of his apartment building, with binoculars, not unlike Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954). The multi-floor complex is nearly identical to thousands of other domiciles in L.A., except for the presence of Topless Bird Woman (Wendy Vaden Hueval); mysterious blond swimmer, Sarah (Riley Keough), who mimics Marilyn Monroe in Something’s Got to Give (1962); a tall, thin blond (Riki Lindhome), who, while making love, stares at his signed Kurt Cobain poster; a resident skunk, which leaves its mark on Sam, like an ill-advised tattoo; and a coyote, imbued with the spirit of a Native American god. If Under the Silver Like appears to have been front-loaded with more extraneous baggage than any quirky indie should be required movie to carry, that’s only because it has.

Even at an accommodating length of 139 minutes, I can understand how audiences at Cannes – and those West Siders who never venture further east than the Paramount lot – might have felt intimidated by Mitchell’s indulgences. Those so inclined, however, shouldn’t have any problem adjusting to Mitchell’s survey of L.A. exotica or the unhinged mystery that propels the story. It begins with the blond swimmer (Keogh), who disappears from the complex after promising Sam a roll in the hay the next afternoon. While checking out her empty apartment, he witnesses another young woman (Zosia Mamet) breaking into it and stealing a box that he already knows contains photos and other memorabilia. She’s picked up outside the complex by a convertible carrying several other beauties, who head for the Echo Park Lake, where a weirdo in pirate costume is waiting to take the box. Sam will continue to run into the women in various places around town, where they could be recognized as aspiring ingenues or expensive escorts. He gets nowhere, though, until he connects with the mad conspiracy theorist, Comic Man (Patrick Fischler), who publishes the titular underground ’zine, which is full of clues to the swimmer’s disappearance and the whereabouts of Dog Killer, Owl Girl and Homeless King. The latter leads him to the rabbit hole that drops Sam into a subterranean Wonderland. Other clues are provided by the lyrics to songs by the emo band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula; a visit to the mansion of the most prolific songwriter in history; a 30-year-old map for the Legend of Zelda game; and a guide to the signage used by hobos. Also contributing to the overall sense of tension and dread is the Disasterpeace score. The cinematography, set design, costumes and acting are excellent, with Garfield doing most of the heavy lifting. (Twenty years ago, Jeremy Davies might have made for an even better lead.) The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “What Lies Under the Silver Lake” and “Beautiful Specter.”

Swing Kids: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about Well Go USA’s latest Korean import, Swing Kids, is that it bears only a titular similarity to Thomas Carter’s 1993 story about a group of German teenagers who rebel against the Nazi regime through a mutual affection for forbidden American swing music, British fashions and Harlem slang. Here, swing music provides the impetus for self-expression by a group of pro-communist POWs, who love tap dancing and are coached by a disaffected African American sergeant, Jackson (Jared Grimes). A professional dancer on Broadway before the Korean civil war – alternately known as a “police action,” “6.25 Upheaval” “Fatherland Liberation War,” “War to Resist America and Aid Korea,” “The Forgotten War”  — Jackson was assigned the task of organizing a Christmas show, designed to impress the brass and relieve the tension inside the camp’s barb-wire boundaries. Because Brigadier General Roberts (Ross Kettle) considers this to be an impossible mission, its failure would reflect badly on the camp’s sole black NCO. For his part, Jackson has nothing better to do than arrange for the music at camp socials and attempt to meet his commander’s impossibly high expectations. In that regard, he also feels a tentative kinship with the prisoners from South and North Korea, and the “volunteers” from the Peoples Republic of China.

Typically, the only thing the communists agree upon is their hatred of the UN forces that back the pro-capitalist, anti-communist leadership of Syngman Rhee. I mention this because much of the backstory on the Geoje Island prison camp – including a historically accurate insurrection – probably is already known to South Korean audiences, but will draw a complete blank with Americans, whose only awareness of the three-year conflict derives from “M*A*S*H” reruns. The 4.6-square-mile settlement housed as many as 170,000 POWs and experienced extreme climatic shifts. As is shown at the very end of Swing Kids – and should not be considered a spoiler – the facility would later be converted into a tourist attraction. There will be times when American viewers will be confused as to what prompted high-profile writer/director Kang Hyeong-cheol (Scandal Makers, Sunny) to take the liberties he does with what could have been a cut-and-dried war drama. For example, in addition to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the group taps to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shake,” the Beatles’ “Free as a Bird” and “Hava Nagila.” Not only does Jackson have thousands of prisoners from which to choose a handful of finalists, he also finds volunteers among the female “camp followers,” who prostitute themselves for food.

For much of the first half of the unnecessarily long Swing Kids, the emphasis is on the wonderfully choreographed tryouts and rehearsals. Only a few incidents expose the tensions and racism inherent in camp life. The finalists include Ro Ki-soo (K-pop star Do Kyung-soo), a mercurial North Korean prisoner; Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se), who dances as a prayer to finding his wife among the incoming POWs; Xiao Pang (Kim Min-Ho), a Chinese soldier who was born with natural talent for dance and a lack of endurance due to angina; and the lovely Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su), who attends camp dances to steal food. Politics are left on the sidelines, until the second half, when newly arrived North Korean regulars clash with their less dogmatic allies. When forced to choose between dance, complacency and communist ideals, however, most of the longtimers know not to rock the boat steered by spies, infiltrators and battle-hardened soldiers. Because one of newcomers is the hero brother of the gotta-dance protagonist, he’s forced to act as the trigger the rebellion. While that does constitute a spoiler, it’s necessary to alert unsuspecting viewers as to what they’re about to experience. As shocks to the system go, it’s like switching from flutes of light and bubbly champagne at a wedding reception, to shots of Jameson’s at a wake. Symbolically, though, it perfectly sums up the effect of an imperfect peace treaty that’s been stalemated for nearly 70 years and has always been in danger of exploding into World War III. If that sounds like a guarded recommendation for an intermittently exhilarating and horrific dramedy … it is.

Dark Sense
Based on Peter Flannery’s best-seller, “First and Only,” as well as the subsequent film short, “Simon, First and Only” (2016), the psycho/supernatural thriller, Dark Sense, takes place in a dark corner of one of the UK’s most industrialized cities, Glasgow. The locations exploited in the historic port city, alone, are enough to recommend it to tentative Anglophiles as an antidote to flighty entertainments set in the Lake District, Cornwall and London. It opens rather abruptly, in an underlit church, when a boy witnesses the murder of a friendly priest by a man dressed as an avenging angel … or Darth Vader, one. The killer spares Simon but leaves him with deep physical and mental scars. Among the assets derived by such trauma are an ability to foretell terrible events and an ability to transform static objects. The problem is that Simon never knows when to expect an attack, which typically trips something inside him that resembles an epileptic seizure and frightening premonitions. As a young adult, Simon (Shane O’Meara) foresees his own death at the hands of a serial killer that we assume to be the same one who attacked the priest. With only five days to track down the murderer and save himself, Simon hires Steve (Jim Sturgeon), an ex-SAS operative with personal problems. Somehow, his abilities have also caught the attention of MI5, which sends agents Stokes (Graeme McKnight) and Chatham (Margaret Ann Bain) after him. The agency believes that the virtually harmless Simon is a threat to national security and needs to be caged or killed. Between the MI5 and the hooded fiend, it’s difficult to tell who’s the greater threat to Simon and Steve. The chase scenes take full advantage of Glasgow’s gritty inner city and grubby wastelands along the River Clyde. The climax is a classic battle between the forces of good and evil and, as such, sometimes pushes the envelope of reasonable credibility. Apparently, Dark Sense broke the record for the most money raised for a Scottish film via crowdfunding. It wasn’t much, by U.S. standards, anyway, but, in his debut feature, director Magnus Wake was able to stretch the $67,000 in contributions to the breaking point.

Docs on DVD
Cherry Grove Stories
Game Girls
The Brink
Long before Stonewall, gay men and lesbians found temporary refuge on Fire Island, where their dollars dominated the summer economy and Suffolk County police only infrequently interrupted the fun with seaborne raids. At that point in LGBTQ history, however, an arrest for such inconsequential offenses as hand holding, cross-dressing and wandering too close to a homophobic undercover cop resulted in stories in the local press and gossip rags, naming names and alerting employers to the presence of deviant hand-holder in their midst. If the charges wouldn’t amount to much beyond a misdemeanor, fine or dismissal, the damage had already been done. Still, the pleasures of Fire Island in the summer kept rentals fully occupied and the bars and nightclubs jumping. Native islanders resumed normal activities for the next eight or nine months.Michael Fisher’s compelling oral history, Cherry Grove Stories, presents an intergenerational cross-section of gay men and a handful of lesbians, who look back fondly – mostly — on the titular Fire Island resort town, which has long been referred to as the Gay Shangri-La. The subjects range from longtime visitors, who first glimpsed Cherry Grove when it was a spartan post-World War II beachfront enclave, to those who bought houses after it had evolved into a thriving, queer-friendly destination. Fisher, who has been going to Cherry Grove for 32 years, was inspired to make the film by long-time resident Michael Delisio, who was one one of the first men to commute to Cherry Grove, in the 1950s. Fisher supplements the interviews with a fascinating array of photographs and home movies, many showing men in full or partial drag and simply enjoying the beach, pier and patio parties that were so much a part of the fair-weather activities. The men and women interviewed also recall the musicals and stage shows that became summer rituals. Younger Fire Island residents and visitors, including those who came of age during the AIDS panic, see things from an almost war-weary perspective. Sadly, a disproportionate number of the people shown here in the movies and photos fell victim to the epidemic. Fisher hopes that Cherry Grove Stories will provide a meaningful and accurate history that isn’t clouded with homophobic attacks, daily police harassment, street protests and waiting for Supreme Court rulings with bated breath. The DVD adds bonus footage, an intro and podcast interview with the director.

Judging solely from the cover photograph, I had only the vaguest clue as to what to expect from Polish filmmaker Alina Skrzeszewska’s insightful and informative Game Girls. The cover and poster art is accompanied by the tagline, “A Skid Row Love Story” and a sign that reads “Skid Row City Limits/Pop. Too Many.” One of the women standing in front of the sign is wearing a puffy white dress that would be appropriate for a prom, wedding or amateur production of “Swan Lake.” Her partner is decked out in a splashy black tuxedo, with white trim, blue sneakers, shades and tightly woven cornrows. It would be easy to assume that the person in the tux is the woman in white’s lesbian lover or fiancé. She’s showing more of her chest, shoulders and thighs than would be appropriate for a normal church wedding – straight or gay – so, who knows? Because I’ve made mistakes before, when judging gender identity by photographs, I went into Game Girls unhampered by needless assumptions. Teri Rogers and Tiahna Vince remind us that Los Angeles’ Skid Row – unlike those in other cities – has long been considered a painfully depressed neighborhood in a city obsessed with glamour, celebrity and ostentatious wealth. It wasn’t until L.A.’s resurgent downtown, Arts District, loft developments and Little Tokyo encircled the 54-block entity that politicians and community organizers became convinced that homelessness had reached epidemic proportions. By then, however, a tent-based mini-neighborhood had transformed Skid Row’s sidewalks and empty lots into something resembling Colorado Avenue, in nearby Pasadena, on the eve of the Rose Bowl parade. Until then, as well, Skid Row wasn’t a place that yuppies, foodies and tourists visited on foot, unless they were looking for drugs or down-on-their-luck relatives.

The number of people living on the streets of Skid Row, in tents, cardboard shelters. vehicles and in shelters has risen to 36,000 semi-permanent residents. This comes, even as the neighborhood’s available space has been reduced through gentrification, hot new restaurants, galleries, boutique hotels, brewpubs and expensive apartment buildings. When Skrzeszewska’s debut doc, Songs from the Nickel, was released in 2010, Skid Row was still a place where displaced people could find cheap and decent lodging in SRO hotels, affordable food in greasy spoons, occasional jobs as day laborers and no-frills booze at the landmark King Edward bar. In the ensuing 10 years, Skrzeszewska returned to America’s “homeless capital” numerous times to see what was changing and how it impacted its residents. We’re introduced to Teri and her girlfriend, Tiahna, just after the latter is released from prison for selling drugs. She returns to the neighborhood to find the belligerent and almost certainly mentally disturbed Teri desperate to get off the streets. In intimate and sometimes unsettling scenes that include group therapy and bureaucratic snafus, viewers witness snatches of the Skid Row that’s given way to tent encampments, crystal meth and panhandling, and is inspiring rancorous debate ahead of the coming civic elections, here and in San Francisco and San Diego. It’s also possible to recognize a community of residents, who make the best out of a bad situation and find numerous ways to engage with each other … at least until the sun goes down and the night creatures emerge. Together with other women from the neighborhood, they attend a weekly Expressive Arts workshop, where they are able to reflect, dream and heal. Can their love survive the violence of their past and their current environment? As becomes obvious, the journey won’t be easy. Game Girls premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, where it received several award nominations. It had to settle for an Internet debut here last month, which, of course, is part of the problem.

Alison Klayman (Al Weiwei: Never Sorry) adopts the fly-on-the-wall approach to chronicling embattled former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s global mission to spread “economic and populist nationalism.” When the President bristled at having to share the spotlight with a man who wears two winter coats at all times and only shaves when the mood hits, he decided the White House wasn’t big enough to contain two gigantic egos. (Bannon probably was the source of unauthorized leaks to the “fake media,” as well.) Since becoming persona non grata, the Abominable Snowman of American politics has taken full credit for being the architect who molded Donald Trump’s only partially sublimated sexism, racism and xenophobia into a cohesive whole, palatable to Hillary- and Obama-haters, bigots and anti-tax fanatics. In the runup to the 2018 midterm contests and last month’s European Parliamentary Elections, extreme right-wing Republicans here and Neanderthals around the world willingly coughed up exorbitant per-plate donations to listen to his cliché-ridden diatribes and pay for selfies with a Yeti. European conservatives wanted to hear Bannon explain how he saved America from the threat of criminals, gangbangers and rapists pushing northward from Mexico and Central America – what, he didn’t? – and how his theories emboldened pro-Brexit activists. As was the case in the 2018 mid-term elections in the U.S., Bannon’s whale-out-of-water presence didn’t work out too well in Europe. This isn’t to say that the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor folded up his tent and sulked home, only that he now has plenty of time to sow the seeds of hate among die-hard Republicans and reap millions of dollars for himself – not that he needs it — before November 2020. The Brink will frighten liberals in the same way that the Universal monsters scared their parents and grandparents. Otherwise, the film qualifies as a document that preaches to the choir.

Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre: Blu-ray
Wonder Park: Blu-ray
This newly available anime arrives with a short backstory. When Studio Ghibli temporarily closed in 2014, some proteges of the master, Hayao Miyazaki, followed former lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi to the upstart, Studio Ponoc. Its first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, based on Mary Stewart’s “The Little Broomstick,” was released on July 8, 2017, and reached sixth place on that year’s box-office charts. A monkey wrench was thrown into plans for a second animated feature, when Miyazaki proposed a new feature-length film, “How Do You Live?,” with a completion date of anywhere between 2019 and 2021. Several of Ghibli’s former employers elected to take the plunge with him. Hoping not to break the momentum, the studio sent out “Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre.” The 53-minute anthology is comprised of three 15-minute featurettes in one program. While Mary and the Witch’s Flower could easily have been mistaken for a Ghibli product, Modest Heroes has a look of its own. Each featurette is handled by different directors and animators. A fourth was planned, but its director, Isao Takahata, died in mid-production.

“Kanini & Kanino” takes place in a mid-stream fairyland the humanoid siblings call home. Their fully evolved father is taking care of saplings Kanini and Kanino while their pregnant mother has gone away to give birth. When a heavy current carries their father off, the siblings embark on a dangerous journey to find and rescue him. In “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose,” Shun is born with a lethal allergy to eggs. Since then, his family has focused its attention on protecting Shun from contact. At school, Shun has to eat specially prepared meals and his classmates are careful not to spit on him and get saliva with egg bits all over him. Field trips present hazards he’s never considered. Meanwhile, his mother tries to maintain her career as a professional dancer. When Shun unknowingly eats something that endangers him, he has to come to his own rescue. “Invisible” features a “salaryman” – someone who’s so involved in his work, he never makes time to smell the roses – that’s not only invisible, but also needs to hold on to a heavy weight to stay on the ground. One day, he nearly floats away, when he loses the fire extinguisher that he uses to hold himself down. When a blind man recognizes a kindred spirit, the invisible man suddenly has an opportunity to be a modest hero.

If ever a movie was born under a bad sign, it’s Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies’ kids-friendly fantasy Wonder Park. Among other things, the film has no credited director. The Director’s Guild almost always refuses to allow a film to be released without a credited director – hence, Allen Smithee, also uncredited — due to various contractual obligations. Dylan Brown, who, as they say, may never work in this town again, had completed most of the work when he was accused of and fired over #MeToo-related accusations. Jeffrey Tambor, originally slated to voice Boomer the Bear, was later removed from the project for similar reasons and replaced by Ken Hudson Campbell. Originally titled “Amusement Park” and scheduled for August 10, 2018, it was moved to March 15, 2019, to avoid competing with Disney’s Christopher Robin (2018). It also was retitled, Wonder Park, which might remind some viewers of Toronto’s massive theme park, Canada’s Wonderland, which, between 1993 and 2006, was known as Paramount’s Canada’s Wonderland. It looked as if Wonder Park had “straight-to-DVD” stamped all over it. Even with all this baggage and decidedly mixed reviews, it managed to eke out a cumulative worldwide gross of nearly $120 million, against a production budget estimated to be around $100 million. Not great, but Wonder Park is the kind of movie that performs well in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD platforms. In a nutshell, the film follows an imaginative young girl, June (Sofia Mali), who suddenly discovers that the amusement park of her dreams has come to life. It is filled with the world’s wildest rides, operated by fun-loving animals, and the excitement almost never ends. When the park faces extinction, however, June and her misfit team of furry friends begin an unforgettable journey to save it. The Blu-ray adds a handful of short kid-centric featurettes, a sing-along and a deleted scene. Typically, kids don’t tend to care much about the problems of adults, so they shouldn’t be punished by depriving them of an entertaining, if troubled movie.

Crypto: Blu-ray
I doubt that enough people in the U.S. sufficiently understand Bitcoin and other so-called cryptocurrencies to make John Stalberg Jr.’s sophomore feature, Crypto, a hit. I own a small,  invisible stack of Bitcoins and never have been able to figure out how much they’re worth and how to get rid of them. (I’m still trying to figure out S&H Green Stamps.) The film’s protagonist, Martin Jr. (Beau Knapp), doesn’t understand cryptocurrency any more than I do, and he’s been assigned by his employers to figure out why one of its affiliate banks – located on a speck of dust in far Upstate New York — is relying on it to boost revenues. Incredibly, one of his high school buddies, Earl (Jeremie Harris), has just installed a converter machine in his liquor store – yeah, right – and agrees to tutor the financial auditor, at great risk to himself. In the first of Cyrpto’s many illogical narrative missteps, Martin is sent back to the hometown he abandoned when he decided he didn’t want to join his PTSD-suffering brother (Luke Hemsworth) and hard-ass father Martin Sr. (Kurt Russell), growing and digging up potatoes. In their calloused opinion, Junior will have to prove his loyalty to them, before he’s allowed to step foot on the hallowed, if depleted dirt of the family farm. Caleb would prefer cutting to the chase and shooting him with one of his military-grade weapons. Elba is the kind of small town in which everyone knows everybody else’s business. That’s bad news for Junior and Earl, who’ve sussed out a scheme on the Darknet, involving the Russian mafia; a highly suspicious local art gallery, whose heroin- and sex-addicted curator is a dead-ringer for Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Russian nemesis, Natasha Fatale; illegal loans from Martin’s employer’s Manhattan bank, to the gallery owners; and a tiny, non-descript bait shop on the Canadian side of the Saint Lawrence River, through which all of the illegal money is laundered. Alexis Bledel, who doesn’t look a day older than she did in the final episode of “Gilmore Girls,” plays a lounge singer, gallery employee and Martin Jr,’s love interest. If no one in Elba appears to be in any particular hurry to help Martin do his job, it quickly becomes clear that nobody at the parent bank wants him to succeed, either. (“Law & Order” alumnus Jill Hennessy makes a welcome cameo as Martin’s immediate supervisor.) Based on that summary, alone, it’s remarkable that Stalberg (High School) was able to keep all his balloons in the air. Russell may not steal any of the scenes in which he appears, but neither does he waste anyone’s time by phoning in his performance. The same can’t be said for other over-the-hill superstars working the straight-to-video circuit, these days.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic
Watching Colin Bemis’ intriguingly titled debut feature, Strawberry Flavored Plastic, I was reminded of Denis Mueller’ 2014 confessional, I Killed JFK, which provided a first-person account of the assassination from the self-described “grassy knoll shooter.” At the time of the doc’s release, James E. Files (a.k.a., James Sutton) was still serving time at an Illinois correctional institution, either Stateville or Danville, for a 1990 shootout with police. He was paroled in 2016. At the time, I couldn’t think of a single Hollywood actor who could have provided a more credible performance in the same role. I was surprised by how little attention I Killed JFK received in both the mainstream and alternative media. A little more research would reveal that Files had been making the same claims since  he entered prison and he’s already been interviewed by the FBI and journalists. As convincing as Files appeared to me, his accusations of mob and CIA complicity had long been discounted. This doesn’t mean that Files was lying, only that no one in Washington wanted to re-open a can of worms that had already been buried and forgotten, as had Files’ 1993 interview with the late investigator Joe West. Other films with Files include, the shelved Frame 313: The JFK Assassination Theories (2008) and the as-yet-unreleased mini-series “JFK Assassination: Declassified Theories.” Oliver Stone’s JFK was released before Files began ratting himself out. Files has said that he met with Stone three times afterwards but refrained from signing a release.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic has nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates elements of several different cinematic subgenres: mockumentary, found footage, neo-noir, horror and true crime. Bemis describes the “crimes of still-at-large Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” A critic at Dread Central said the film is “basically a found footage version of American Psycho,” while also referencing Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog. The suburb is Peekskill, which, we’re told, has several unsolved murders on its books from 2016. Noel Rose (Aidan Bristow), who sort of resembles a better-groomed version of Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas, is a recovering junkie and sociopath, who just spent nine years in prison for an unrelated crime. He claims the murders as his handiwork. Budding documentarians Errol Morgan (Nicholas Urda) and Ellis Archer (Andres Montejo) sense an opportunity to make names for themselves by giving Noel a cheap digital camera and all the memory cards he can handle to chronicle the life and times of a “working” maniac. At first, we’re perfectly willing to play along with the gag. A bit later, it becomes clear to us that Noel isn’t what the filmmakers thought he was. This isn’t to say, however, that his homicidal urges aren’t real or that he isn’t a menace to society. It’s at this point that Noel forces Morgan and Archer to choose between becoming complicit in his very real crimes and dropping out of the program. It’s a dilemma that journalists and photographers face when given the choice of remaining objective bystanders and buying a starving child a sandwich or preventing a junkie from taking the shot that might kill them.

Between the Lines: Blu-ray
It’s likely that the same Baby Boomers who identified with the characters in The Big Chill (1983), and have since added it to their permanent playlists, will find something to enjoy in Joan Micklin Silver’s similarly transitional Between the Lines (1977). In the former, a group of friends from college gather for the funeral of a close friend, who, when he stopped trying to fix the world’s problems, committed suicide. They graduated from the University of Michigan together 10 years earlier, with hopes of their own to change society. Instead, they elected to embrace the emerging yuppie revolution, which allowed them to keep their ideals and make a ton of guilt-free money, too. If they taught their children well, the kids would save the world in their place. Set half-a-decade earlier in Boston, where radical politics had yet to go out of style, Between the Lines depicts what happens when a disparate collection of anti-establishment types are forced to accept the fact the 1960s are over and their underground weekly is about to be swallowed up by a mogul who specializes in turning bankrupt papers into profitable “alternative” rags. He does so by tempering the extreme left-wing proselytizing, broadening the approach to investigations, pumping up coverage of popular music, movies and local theater, and selling ads to anyone with the money to pay for them in cash. This included full pages devoted to strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors.

Although the Back Bay Mainline is modeled after the Boston Phoenix, it’s the same formula that kept the Village Voice and other weeklies alive for 30 more years. Between the Lines opens just as rumors of a purchase by a “hip capitalist” are beginning to circulate. As much as the journalists want to take to the barricades and withhold the assault by the establishment, most of them assume that their time has passed, and they will have to compromise or accept the consequences of leaving. Some of them have already begun writing the next chapters in their story … in secret. Silver and co-writer Fred Barron, himself a veteran of the Phoenix, decided correctly, I think, to focus less on the battle to save the Mainline and concentrate more on the interpersonal relationships, which have begun to change, as well. The women in the movie are beginning to wake up to the fact that they don’t have accept the male-chauvinist behavior of their boyfriends and bosses, while the rock critic, Max Arloft (Jeff Goldblum) is the only one able to let his freak flag fly, without feeling self-conscious. The other nice thing about Between the Lines is a cast that’s the equal of the higher paid actors assigned to The Big Chill. (The soundtrack’s pretty good, as well, but not nearly as nostalgic as the soundtrack afforded by Columbia Pictures.) Besides Goldblum, in a similar role to the one he would go on to play in Lawrence Kasdan’s dramedy, it includes John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Stephen Collins, Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, Marilu Henner, Jill Eikenberry, Gwen Welles and, as themselves rocker Southside Johnny Lyon and National Lampoon co-founder, Douglas Kenney. The restored Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a new interview with Silver.

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1: Blu-ray
It must be frustrating for collectors of classic genre fare to know when it’s the right time invest in the ultimate volumes, enhanced by the latest technology; new bonus features, as opposed to EPKs; individual releases on uncompressed discs of their own; and protective packaging. We’ve also been asked to choose between boxed sets, containing numerous titles, and smaller collections, containing the work of individual artists. Since the advent of home video, Universal and Disney have continued to lead the parade when it comes to finding new ways to exploit their inventories. By my count, the movies included in the Universal Horror Collection — The Invisible Ray (1936), The Raven (1935), Black Friday (1940) and The Black Cat (1934) – have been packaged together three times under different titles and technologies. Slightly more than a year ago, UPHE sent out the same titles on DVD. It fell to the good folks at Scream Factory to deliver these “second-line horrors” on Blu-ray, with featurettes that fans haven’t already seen a dozen times. Besides Son of Frankenstein (1939), where Karloff played the Monster to Lugosi’s Ygor, these four films are the only Universal films in which they appeared together. They were both in RKO’s The Body Snatcher (1945) – under director Robert Wise and producer Val Lewton — but Karloff’s role was substantially greater than Lugosi’s participation, which mostly constituted lending his name to posters. (It was released by Scream Factory, three months ago, on Blu-ray.) Just as Roger Corman would adapt the works of Edgar Allan Poe for the benefit of Vincent Price and his many fans, so, too, did Universal take liberties with Poe’s thrillers for fans of Karloff and Lugosi, with The Raven and The Black Cat. In Arthur Lubin’s ridiculously enjoyable Black Friday, elements of horror, gangster and mad-scientist flicks congealed into a fairly cohesive whole. The borderline racist Invisible Ray finds Our Heroes in Africa, where they track down a radioactive meteorite so powerful, it brings eyesight to the blind. There are some drawbacks, of course, to playing with such dangerous stuff. The new bonus material adds commentaries with author/film historians Gary D. Rhodes, Steve Haberman, Tom Weaver and Randall Larson, Constantine Nasr and Gregory William Mank; the four-part, nearly feature-length featurette, “The Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal”; the featurette, “Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe,” narrated by Doug Bradley; and some other archival material.  Karloff shifts wigs in every movie.

The Running Man: Blu-ray
Once again, I caution readers not to confuse a new archival release with a similarly titled movie of more recent vintage. Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray edition of Carol Reed’s The Running Man (1963) could easily be mistaken for yet another version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man (1987), Dead Man Running (2009), Night of the Running Man (1995) or, for that matter, The Swimmer (1968). It wasn’t until I actually put the blank disc on the platter – as radio deejays once said – that I discovered, to my pleasure, not only that this Running Man had been directed by one of the world’s great directors, but it starred Laurence Harvey, Lee Remick and Alan Bates, as well. If I hadn’t heard of The Running Man until now, it probably had something to do with the unfortunate coincidence of it being released within a month of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not that the movie had anything remotely to do with the tragic event. Somehow, the Warren Commission felt it necessary to shine a light into Columbia Pictures’ viral marketing campaign, which placed personal ads in the Dallas Morning News, asking “Running Man” to please call “Lee.” Investigators thought that the ads might contain coded messages placed by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, instead of references to Lee Remick and Laurence Harvey, as Columbia intended. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, an urban legend arose claiming that the film was a flop because it starred actors named Lee and Harvey. Any port in a storm for a sinking ship.

The Running Man is interesting today for a couple of good reasons. The first, obviously, is that it’s probably the one picture that Reed completists haven’t seen. Easier to find hard are Night Train to Munich (1940), The Young Mr. Pitt  (1942), Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949), Our Man in Havana (1959) and Oliver! (1968), for which Reed won the Academy Award for Best Director. The second reason is its similarity to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best heist and caper pictures. The capper is cinematographer Robert Krasker’s ability to make Gibraltar, Cádiz, Málaga and  County Wicklow, Ireland, look so appealing. In it, daredevil pilot Rex Black (Harvey) has it out for the insurance company that denied him a payout, when his plane took a mysterious header into a forest and he’d forgotten to meet the deadline on his policy. He’s so irate at the insurance broker’s refusal to grant him a day’s grace that he almost immediately plans another crash landing, this time into the sea. Although the plan works like a charm, the man who sold him the accidental death policy remains suspicious. Nonetheless, the company pays a hefty sum to his beneficiary, Stella (Remick), who plans to reunite with her lover in Malaga. Not so coincidentally, Bates’ Stephen also makes the trek to the south of Spain, where Rex has dyed his hair an extreme shade of yellow and grown a rather silly mustache. It’s only a matter of time before Rex’s crude behavior alienates Stella and she allows Stephen to seduce her, Desperate to avoid being arrested, Rex turns the movie’s remaining minutes into an exciting chase from Cadiz to Gibraltar. The Arrow special edition is enhanced by a 2K restoration of the film by Sony Pictures and Blu-Ray presentation. Commentary is provided by Peter William Evans, author of “British Film-Makers: Carol Reed”; a new featurette, “On the Trail of the Running Man,” with script supervisor Angela Allen and assistant director Kits Browning; “Lee Remick at the National Film Theatre,” an audio-only recording of the actor’s appearance at the NFT in 1970; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve featuring original artwork; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forsha.

One More Shot
I apologize in advance to anyone whose interest I’ve piqued in the Apartheid-era movies produced in South Africa for the amusement of segregated audiences in the townships. Hundreds were made in the decade before Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and the country was forced to make the difficult transition into the second half of the 20th Century. Most of the movies, which blacks in other parts of the world would find appalling, disappeared when the races began mixing and theaters were integrated. Far from being even mildly entertaining, the latest offerings from Indiepix’s Retro Afrika  collection, could have been used as instruments of torture. One More Shot follows the pattern of taking Hollywood  genre fare, dumbing down the scripts and adding native African actors in roles typically reserved for whites. Here, though, it’s the martial-arts genre being corrupted. In it, a criminal known as Ten-Ten is released from prison, fixed on revenge. Immediately teaming with sleazy human-traffickers, he sets a trap for former boxer Johnny Tough, imploring him to save a beautiful girl from the sex-trade. Johnny’s tough, but the fight scenes are risible. Not that it matters, but One More Shot is the first I’ve seen that’s fully integrated.

Lola takes on sexism in South African sports, by having its female protagonist challenge a volleyball team comprised of guys who delight in harassing the young men and women who study for college exams, while they kill time doing less than nothing. It’s not a bad idea, really. The problem comes in the production values, which are way more pathetic than usual. The net droops dramatically in the middle, the costumes are hideous, and the players’ techniques aren’t intended for anyone over 12. The director kills time by pointing his camera at informal practice sessions and letting film roll until there’s no more left to unspool. Lola couldn’t be any more boring if the balls were exchanged for marbles and the actors were limited to 4th Grade and lower. These two pictures should have remained lost. Like I said … sorry.

The DVD Wrapup: Michelin Stars, Captain Marvel, Sower, Cielo, Frank in Palm Springs, Swing Time, Can’t Stop the Music, Entity, Blood … More

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

Michelin Stars: Tales From the Kitchen
Constructing Albert
This week, trophies were awarded to the world’s best basketball and hockey teams. The triumphant players caressed, hugged and held the sparkling awards up for their fans to worship. The NHL not only allows for the champions to drink champagne from the Stanley Cup, but also enjoy a day in the off-season to show it off to friends, family, fans and sponsors. The Vince Lombardi Trophy goes to winner of the Super Bowl, while baseball’s best team gets the Commissioner’s Trophy and the World Cup – perhaps, the most coveted of them all – is awarded every four years to men’s soccer champions. As much as they are passed around, it was inevitable that someday, somewhere, shit would happen. The World Cup has been stolen several times in the past, but a true catastrophe occurred when the Super Bowl LII champion New England Patriots crashed this year’s home opener of the Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, which also served as the team’s World Series victory celebration. As is his wont, the now-retired Patriots’ tight end, Rob Gronkowski, volunteered to help fellow receiver Julian Edelman prepare for throwing out the first pitch. Outside of the view of fans, the clown prince of professional football picked up the silver football and used it to bunt a thrown pitch from Edelman. It left a baseball-shaped crater in the shiny surface that, today, is worn like a badge of honor by New England sports faithful. After all, boys will be boys.

Although professional sports may have next to nothing to do with haute cuisine and fine dining experiences, the awarding of a Michelin Star to a world-class restaurant may be as significant as any trophy … OK, there’s the Oscars. I was reminded of this by two new documentaries about the years-long pursuit of perfection by chefs and restaurants around the planet: Rasmus Dinesen’s Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen (2017) and Laura Collado and Jim Loomis’ Constructing Albert (2017). Just as pipsqueak hockey players in Moose Jaw dream of playing on a Stanley Cup-winning team and young ballers imagine kissing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, like MJ and LeBron, so, too, do sous chefs, back-of-the-house workers, servers, maître d’s, receptionists and bartenders anticipate basking in the reflected glory of a head chef and restaurant owner. Phone calls and press releases reveal the individual winners and no trophies are exchanged. A chef’s worst nightmare is losing a star, or two, in subsequent editions of the Michelin Guide, which is like a Negro Motorist Green Book for obscenely rich, mostly white and Asian, passionately fashionable and unbearably opinionated gourmands. Just as serious birders pursue rarely seen species in the wild, so, too, do foodies plan their vacations and business trips around visits to Michelin-rated dining rooms. The Michelin Guide to Chicago 2014, for example, includes almost 500 restaurants. Only one restaurant received three stars (Alinea); four were awarded two stars (Grace, L2O, Graham Elliot, Sixteen); and 20 restaurants got one star. That doesn’t mean the other 475 establishments served food that was inedible or that they weren’t sufficiently elitist. It means that the 25 winners were the crème de la crème. The 2019 guide for the Windy City lists one three-star restaurant (Alinea); three two-star establishments (Smyth, Oriole, Acadia); 15 one-stars; 58 Bib Gourmands; and 123 Plate Michelins. By comparison, New York City is home to 76 starred restaurants; Hong Kong, 63; and Rio de Janeiro, 6.  For the record, one star denotes, a “good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard; two stars, “a restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality”; three stars for a restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.”

Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen and Constructing Albert differ from documentaries about sports in that they aren’t about competition. Because the restaurants are judged by anonymous individuals, with specific guidelines and tastes, the awarding of stars isn’t based on such objective standards as wins and losses. Things can get sticky if a judge arrives on a day when a kitchen is under-staffed or key ingredients are unavailable. Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen goes behind the scenes to see how the stars are awarded, interview chefs and determine the impact of the Michelin Guide on the world of haute cuisine. It comes at a moment in time, when consumers consider themselves capable of passing judgment on a restaurant’s worth – based on their own standards – and photographing every dish for consumption by their followers on Yelp, where opinions can be bought and sold, and restaurants pander to yahoos with iPhones. Dinesen’s film digs under the surface by allowing chefs, writers, diners and purveyors to present their sides of the story, offering them an opportunity to tell viewers why the guide is so important to them, as a boon to business and maintaining excellence. Chefs have been known to commit suicide and close their dining rooms after losing a star. Among those featured are Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Victor Arquinzoniz and Guy Savoy, and other chefs from around the world. Preparations is also showcased.

When it closed in 2011, the much-honored Spanish restaurant elBulli was still considered the best in the world. The intriguing foodie documentary Constructing Albert reveals how head chef Ferran Adrià’s sterling reputation prompted his younger brother, Albert, to meet the challenge of matching it. Over a four-year period, filmmakers Collado and Loomis followed the story of Ferran’s former partner and co-chef, as he stepped out from the long shadow of elBulli and staked his own claim to fame. Creating another perennial Michelin contender would be difficult for any top chef. Albert chose to open five restaurants in Barcelona’s theater district, each featuring a different cuisine. This would be Albert’s proclamation of self-assurance and calling card to the Pantheon of great chefs. All the pressure, stress and tension that went into his pursuit are palpable in Constructing Albert, which sometimes resembles a heart attack waiting to happen. (He even closed a one-star startup when it failed to meet his standards.) Barcelona has emerged as one of the world’s prominent dining destinations. If this doc doesn’t wet your whistle, nothing will.

Captain Marvel: Cinematic Universe Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Being cast to play a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like being a handed an annuity or pension from the late, great Stan Lee, himself. As long as the franchise is going strong, superheroes and supervillains will appear and re-appear in lead roles and cameos, alike, in succeeding adaptations. Obscure characters will resurrected from the Marvel library and given an opportunity to share in the bounty. Take Nick Fury, for example. The character made his first appearance in the early 1960s and was given his inaugural cover story in May 1963 (“Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, #1”), as the leader of Marvel’s super-spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. Today, a physically transformed Fury has never been more active. In the Ultimate Marvel Universe, now-General Nick Fury is an African American born in Huntsville, Alabama, with his look and personality tailored after actor Samuel L. Jackson. The immensely popular actor first embodied the character on film in an uncredited appearance in Iron Man (2008). Since then, Fury has appeared for various amounts of time in more than a dozen feature films and voiced the character in four video games. Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives next month. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson joined the MCU/Avengers team in Iron Man 2 (2010), as Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow, which just began production in Norway, represents her character’s first personal vehicle.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel was released theatrically on March 8, 2019 — International Women’s Day — in IMAX and 3D. Since then, it has grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark. It is currently the No. 2 grossing film of 2019, and the No. 9 grossing superhero film of all time. Not doing nearly as well at the international box office this spring was David F. Sandberg’s critically lauded Shazam!, also based on the original Captain Marvel, created for DC Comics in 1939 by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. The male iteration of Captain Marvel (a.k.a., William Joseph “Billy” Batson, Wizard Shazam, Captain Thunder, Captain Sparklefingers) has represented the company on radio, in serials, features, direct-to-video animated films, comic strips and video games. Through a miracle of legal legerdemain, the MCU/Disney version of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) has transitioned into a female superhero, who commutes between outer space and an endangered Earth, also known as C-53. (Djimon Hounsou appears in both films as different characters, both male, and separate entities in the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the DCUE’s Aquaman.) After crashing an experimental U.S. Air Force fighter on the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala, pilot Carol Danvers (a.k.a., Vers, Captain Marvel, Captain Sparklefists) is rescued and treated for amnesia and recurring nightmares. She is then trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military, under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Six years later, after a failed mission to recover a prisoner of the shape shifting Skrulls, Danvers/Vers is led back to Earth by subliminal instincts. Meanwhile, the Skrulls tap into her memory cache and send a guerrilla team to pursue her. With help from Fury, Danvers sets out to unravel the truth.

If that brief summary sounds needlessly complicated, that’s only because it is. And, it only gets more confusing from there. Even with an early passion for comic books, I could barely keep track of what was happening to whom in the 123-minute movie and where the action was taking place at any given time. The shape-shifting element kept me off-balance, as well. Finally, I gave up trying, focusing my attention, instead, on the brilliantly conceived action scenes. My favorite character is a weaponized tabby cat named Goose. I also welcomed the occasional interludes when Annette Bening appears out of nowhere, as the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree people and ruler of the Kree Empire. She, too, is a shape shifter. Beyond that, the mind boggles. I have since come to the conclusion that the film’s six-person writing team based several of the characters and settings on The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy reincarnated as Danvers and Bening as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The HDR color enhancements make a big difference from the Blu-ray, where the  images sometimes are overwhelmed by the overall dark look. The bonus features, contained on the Blu-ray disc, offer alternate versions of Captain Marvel, with an introduction by directors/screenwriters Boden and Fleck, and with commentary by the same duo; a half-dozen EPK-style featurettes; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and several behind-the-scenes digital exclusives.

The Sower
The inspiration for the short story that was adapted as The Sower, is as interesting as anything in Marine Francen’s sumptuous historical rom-dram, And, that’s saying a lot about both works of art. In 1919, when Violette Ailhaud was in her 80s, the former village schoolteacher wrote the autobiographical short story “L’homme semence,” upon which The Sower is based. She passed the manuscript on to her attorney with clear instructions that it be given to her eldest female descendant in 1952, a full century after the events it depicts occurred. It remained in the family for a half-century before being published, in 2006, to steadily building acclaim. Some manner of film adaptation was inevitable. Today, The Sower can be enjoyed as a historically based romance or a bittersweet feminist fable that links lost innocence to a code of honor among women in a male-deprived community. Beyond modernizing the language and aesthetics, Francen stuck to the story, as written, which doesn’t always happen. The winner of the prestigious New Director competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival, The Sower opens in 1851, after France’s autocratic President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte rejected the constitutional ban against being re-elected and chose, instead, to become Emperor of the French (1852-70). It’s worth noting, perhaps, that, at about the same time, in Paris, Victor Hugo was beginning work on “Les Miserables.” As Francen’s film opens, the emperor has just ordered the arrest of all the men of a remote farming village in the Lower Alps. They were believed to have taken part in a Republican uprising and sent to prisons and work camps throughout the far-flung empire. The women left behind will spend years in total isolation, forced to tend the crops and animals themselves. While some of the older women have lost their husbands to the order, possibly forever, the younger ones — including the shy, but inwardly strong Violette (Pauline Burlet) – have come to the realization that they may have no chance of experiencing physical love or motherhood.

The women take an oath: if a man comes to the village, they will convince him to stay and share him as a lover. It takes a couple of years before a mysterious and handsome blacksmith, Jean (Alban Lenoir), offers to help with the harvest, in return for room and board. Conveniently, Violette is assigned the task of acclimating Jean to the village. That both can read sets them apart from the rest of the woman and establishes a bond between them. Naturally, this provides an easy transition to sex and love. Figuring that their turns are long overdue, the other women demand of Violette that she curtail their relationship and reveal the conditions of the oath to Jean, which she does only begrudgingly. By the time she’s become noticeably pregnant, some of the male villagers begin to stagger home, with woeful tales of torture and deprivation. When Jean senses that his continued presence could be misconstrued and punished, he gives Violette a choice between traveling with him to another town or staying behind to raise their daughter, alone. Some critics have compared the film’s plot to Xavier Beauvois’ wartime drama, The Guardians (2017), and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017), and it’s apt. Cinematographer Alain Duplantier expertly captures the hardships and scant rewards of the women’s daily grind, at home and in the golden fields of wheat. Unlike Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1850 painting “The Sower,” which it resembles, Francen’s film hasn’t been criticized for ennobling the poverty-stricken peasants. It does, however, humanize the women, by showing the severity of their challenge and personalizing their longings, pain and determination. The Sower was shot in and around the lovely medieval village of La Garde-Guérin. And, yes, tourism is welcomed.

Minute Bodies: Blu-ray
Nature documentaries have improved exponentially since the introduction of digital technology to the filmmakers’ bag of tricks and Blu-ray and 4K UHD exhibition. While the subjects haven’t much – even taking global warming into consideration – everything else has evolved. Digital and handheld cameras have given documentarians greater access to their prey and drones offer perspectives unavailable only 10 years ago. Neither does going to the ends of the Earth to capture an image constitute an impossible mission. These two films literally shuttle viewers between the imperceptible and infinite, with no stops in between for gratuitous gasping and wondering if CGI was involved. Alison McAlpine’s documentary, Cielo, takes viewers to Chile’s ultra-remote Atacama Desert, where the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory investigates heavenly bodies outside the purview of  stargazers in the North Hemisphere. Located at an altitude of over 15,700 feet and 31 miles from the nearest town, Llano de Chajnantor, the site is home to nine separate telescopes and observatories, each designed to focus on different parts of the humidity-, pollution- and transmission- free sky. Extend the Atacama a few hundred miles north and east, into Argentina and  Bolivia and you’ll find 7 of the 10 highest such facilities in the world. But, let’s cut to the chase. The images captured for our amazement are “crazy beautiful,” thanks, in part, to some time-lapse photography. Beyond that, I won’t bother trying to describe the nightly display of stars and light, which make the Aurora Borealis look anemic. Occasionally, the phantasmagoria is interrupted by interviews with native Chileans, who live at these altitudes, and the astronomers who spend so much of their scientific lives here. Or, you could turn off the audio track and subtitles and, simply, watch the skies. Cielo makes a perfect double-feature with Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which combines the scientists’ search for answers in the cosmos and concurrent hunt for the remains of “disappeared” loved ones, killed by the U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Political activists, students and Chileans considered to be left of Henry Kissinger were imprisoned in a salt-miners’ barracks abandoned in the 19th Century. Some of the victims were buried anonymously there or put on an airplane or helicopter and dropped into the ocean.

Minute Bodies leads viewers in an altogether different direction. The effect is essentially the same, however. Stuart A. Staples’ meditative, immersive and description-free documentary pays homage to the astonishing work and achievements of naturalist, inventor and pioneering filmmaker F. Percy Smith. An early pioneer in time-lapse and microcinematography, Smith began to photograph the natural world around his house and inside his laboratory, while working as a clerk for the British Board of Education. He was on his own, until his close-up photograph of a bluebottle fly’s tongue caught the attention of producer Charles Urban. He subsequently made “Urban Science: To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly” (1909) and “The Acrobatic Fly” (1910), before joining the Charles Urban Trading Company full-time. He directed more than 50 nature films for the Urban Sciences series, including the pioneering stop-motion film, “The Birth of a Flower” (1910), prior to the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served as a naval photographer. Minute Bodies is a 50-minute merger of botanical poetry and the ambient music of Staples’ band, Tindersticks. Without a word of dialogue or narration, the film depicts the growth of plants – and a handful of frogs – from the cellular to their blossoming as flowers, ferns and a variety of other plant life. The overall effect is hypnotic. The Blu-ray adds several bonus shorts, which contain narration, but no music.

Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home: Blu-Ray
Although the focus of Leo Zahn’s documentary is Frank Sinatra, the people in his orbit and his love affair with Palm Springs, it falls well short of being sycophantic. Any biography of Sinatra is going to face close scrutiny and nit-picking by pop historians and detractors, alike. If it skims over Ol’ Blue Eye’s legendary temper tantrums, feuds, mob ties and reputation as a notorious horndog, Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home lives up to its site-specific mission. Up to immediately after the singer’s death in 1998, Zahn couldn’t have expected cooperation from local businessmen, neighbors, family members and friends. They protected Sinatra from the media glare, paparazzi and overly aggressive fans every bit as ferociously as he did. And, he repaid them by performing in countless benefit concerts and encouraging his Hollywood cronies to do likewise. In fact, his generosity to everyone with whom he crossed paths is noted by everyone interviewed here. That includes the wait staffs, bartenders and valets at his favorite restaurants and watering holes. After being repeatedly reminded of his proclivity for handing out hundred-dollar tips, as if they were singles, the glorification of Frank’s largess gets tiresome, however. We get it. According to Zahn, Sinatra made the Coachella Valley his primary home for almost 50 years. The film community had long considered Palm Springs to be a convenient escape from the madness of Hollywood. When Frank moved about 10 miles east, to Rancho Mirage, it re-awakened the sleepy desert outpost. Interviews with Barbara Sinatra, Tom Dreesen, Trini Lopez and local civic leaders provide a fuller picture than usual of his willingness to host late-night gatherings and let his toupee down in public. Finally, though, Zahn uses Sinatra to paint a comprehensive portrait of his adopted hometown. He describes how Frank decided to bypass the lure of “restricted” country clubs and help launch one open to Jews and other non-WASPs. The doc then describes how the concept of fairway-side housing first blossomed and how a new definition of exclusivity had to be written. Zahn glosses over the embarrassment Sinatra felt when President Kennedy was dissuaded by his brother, the attorney general, not to stay at his house, even after he built a helicopter pad to accommodate Marine One. He doesn’t get into the reasons behind Bobby Kennedy’s recommendation, however. The film makes it clear that Palm Springs was always a winter home for gangsters, without digging deeply into the coincidence. Zahn does acknowledge former wives and other family members, but it’s limited to photographs and one or two anecdotes. It would have been interesting to know if Sinatra’s children spent much time in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Clips from From Here to Eternity and 50 other movies and television shows – some that only used the home as locations – keep Sinatra in Palm Springs from growing monotonous and overly reverential. The bonus package adds nine deleted scenes. Maybe Zahn will tackle fellow Palm Springs resident, Elvis Presley, next.

Swing Time: Criterion Collection: Blu-Ray
Unlike the many screwball comedies made during the Depression, Swing Time uses music and dance – instead of physical gags and satire – to tell a story that barely makes any sense, otherwise. Most of the characters favor tuxedoes and gowns, and some occupy posh apartments that 95 percent of all Americans then could afford. Like the gangsters portrayed in movies of the time, their playgrounds are supper clubs, with chorus lines and featured dancers … the better to provide added entertainment value and glamour to the movie. Adaptations of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” wouldn’t reveal the other side of the Depression for another year, or so. Today, of course, it’s easy to buy the studio line that these sorts of pictures helped everyday audiences to forget their troubles for a few hours and, maybe, win a dinner setting while they were at it. It’s more likely that the moguls didn’t want to be reminded of the Hard Times – and the people considered to be below their station – anymore than the other members of their country clubs and income brackets. The profits spoke for themselves. But, as usual, I digress. No matter how one slices it, Swing Time was and remains a delight. It provided a perfect showcase for the heavenly dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Bernard Newman’s formal wear, Hermes Pan’s dance direction and Van Nest Polglase’s art direction. At first glance, George Stevens (Shane) probably wasn’t the most likely candidate to direct this perfect storm of talent, class and glamour – he’d just finished Annie Oakley (1935), his first Western – but his experience as a lighting cameraman gave him a leg up on helming the sixth Astaire/Rogers musical. Even though Oscar pretty much ignored his work on Swing Time – Kern and Field took home a statuette, while Pan was nominated for “Bojangles of Harlem” – the filmfecl’s since been recognized as one of the true classics of the American cinema. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Swing Time one of the top 100 films and, in 2004, it was included in the United States National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Three years later, in 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the movie No. 90 on its 10th-anniversary list, “100 Years …100 Movies.”

The plot is simplicity, itself. The feckless hoofer/gambler Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is tricked into missing his wedding to socialite Margaret Watson (Betty Furness) by the other members of Pop Cardetti’s magic and dance act, and he has to make $25,000 to be allowed to marry her. Lucky and Pop (Victor Moore) go to New York, where they run into Penny Carroll (Rogers), a dancing instructor. After some playful missteps, they form a successful dance partnership. Their romance is nipped in the bud by his attachment to Margaret and her feelings for the slick band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who won’t play for them to dance together. It’s only a matter of time before those entanglements are untangled and everyone can live happily ever after, well above the poverty level and Americans who don’t wear top hats and tails to work. It does allow for the marvelously choreographed and sung, “Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” “A Fine Romance,” “Bojangles of Harlem,” “Never Gonna Dance” and a final duet, in which Astaire and Rogers sing shortened versions of “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” If all anyone under 40 knows about formal dance is what they see on “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” these numbers will be revelatory. Just watching Rogers’ gown shimmer and sway to Astaire’s lead is the dance equivalent of poetry. The Criterion Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary from 1986, featuring John Mueller, author of “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films”; archival interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan; a fresh one with George Stevens Jr.; a new program on the film’s choreography and soundtrack, featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert and Dorothy Fields’ biographer Deborah Grace Winer; and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

The 800-pound gorilla in the movie is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, with Astaire performing in blackface. Apart from being a wonderfully orchestrated, brilliantly lit and innovatively choreographed number, it begs several questions that remain especially pertinent today. If the piece was meant as a homage to the reigning king of tap — Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – why was his presence and/or tap style not also deemed essential? If, as some have speculated, the innovatively conceived production number was intended as a parody of The Green Pastures (1936), what was the point? If it was merely intended as a sop to white audiences, who knew next to nothing about Robinson, but didn’t mind a bit of blackface, again, why bother? And, how might Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson or Louis Armstrong have reacted to seeing their art and music represented on the big screen, with nary a naturally black face to be seen. A new interview with film scholar Mia Mask addresses the subject, without providing any definitive answers.

Frankenstein Created Woman: Blu-Ray
The Entity: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The 27 Club
This week’s releases from Scream Factory may be more entertaining today than they were upon their original release. In part, that’s because the horror market has become so diffuse and segmented since Frankenstein Created Woman and The Entity were released in 1967 and 1982, respectively, that such pictures have been allotted comparatively meager budgets and almost no marketing support, as is the case with such non-theatrical fare as The 27 Club. The straight-to-cassette phenomenon was still gestating in 1982 and drive-ins were drying up, like L.A. in July. Only a handful of contemporary genre flicks are accorded the same publicity boost, star support and production values as vintage titles from the Hammer stable and 20th Century Fox.

Frankenstein Created Woman was originally intended as a follow-up to Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), piggy-backing on the notoriety of Roger Vadim and Brigette Bardot’s And God Created Woman (1956). Eight years later, it would lose the “And …” and any residual impact of a clever title. It did, however, represent a departure from the Frankenstein legend. In it, a young boy, Hans, witnesses the beheading of his father for a crime he neither committed, not could deny, without incriminating his lover. A decade later, Hans (Robert Morris) works as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who, with the aid of Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), is attempting to perfect a process that re-animates the body and soul of his creatures. Hans is in love with a local barmaid, Christina (recent Playboy model Susan Denberg), a disfigured girl, who’s ashamed of her looks and openly taunted by a trio of good-for-nothing swells. When the troublemakers team up to harass Christina’s father, restaurateur Kleve (Alan McNaughton), the men end up committing a murder, for which Hans takes the blame and is sent to the guillotine. The despondent Christine responds by killing herself. Employing a Nobel Prize-worthy technique, Doctor Frankenstein captures Hans’s soul and places it inside Christina’s new and improved body. The result is a  blond, beautiful and no longer crippled Christina, who takes orders from the separated head of Hans’ revenge-minded soul. Neither the remorseless dandies, nor the scientists are capable of curtailing the resultant bloodbath. The Scream Factory upgrade features a 2K remaster of the film; new commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr; new interviews with Morris, camera assistant Eddie Collins and assistant director Joe Marks, as well as nine ported-over supplements.

The Entity (1983), we’re assured, is based on the reported haunting of Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), her two kids and their new house. Not only does the spirit behave, at first, like an angry poltergeist, but it also rapes Carla for no more reason than that’s she there. It takes a while before the kids witness the spirits’ wrath. By then, however, Mom is approaching basket-case status. A bevy of psychiatrists, led by Ron Silver, dismiss her bruising and fright as something other than self-inflicted byproducts of an overly stressed mind. It isn’t until a team of parapsychologists and amateur ghost hunters enters the picture that we get a concrete idea of Carla really is up against. And, it’s formidable.  Finally, Silver agrees to join his disrespected peers in their scheme to isolate and reveal the demon, who doesn’t want to be isolated or revealed. The destruction wrought is impressive, even by post-Exorcist standards.  If the postscript is to be believed, the  continued haunting of Carla is one for the books.

Barbara Hershey is terrific in what might have been a career-saving performance. The promising co-star of Last Summer (1969), The Baby Maker (1970) and Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha (1972) spent much of the 1970s demonstrating her hippie credentials and alienating anyone who would put up with her antics. They included breast-feeding her 2-year-old while being interviewed by Dick Cavett. By 1980, she’d dropped the adopted surname of Seagull, which she adopted after a seagull was accidentally killed during the filming of Last Summer (1969). (Barbara said she felt as if she had absorbed the bird’s spirit.) She began the new decade with a stellar performance in Richard Rush’s little-seen masterpiece, The Stunt Man (1980). After The Entity, she appeared in The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Tin Men (1987), Shy People (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), A World Apart (1988) and Beaches (1988). That’s a hell of a run. In 1990, Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role as accused ax-murderer Candy Morrison in “A Killing in a Small Town.” Afterward, she would commit to a series of television and cable dramas, including “Paris Trout,” “Return to Lonesome Dove” and “Chicago Hope.” Although she hasn’t completely forsaken acting, such highlights as the Australia-set Lantana (2001), balletic psycho-thriller Black Swan and A&E’s “Damien” (2016) have been few and far between.

To qualify for membership in the mythical 27 Club, an artist of some substance merely has to die – preferably by substance abuse – during their 27th year on Earth. Among the noteworthy performers who’ve qualified for induction in the select club are Robert Johnson, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (The Stooges), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Kobain, Amy Winehouse, actor Anton Yelchin and Korean boy-band superstar Kim Jong-hyun. That abridged list might be more persuasive, if it didn’t cover a period, ranging from 1938 to 2017, the lack of statistical anomalies discovered by several dedicated computer jockeys. That didn’t prevent co-writer/director Patrick Fogarty (“Average”) from basing The 27 Club on the urban legend. If only it had. (It’s dedicated to sax master Big Jay McNeely, who died last September, at 81, before his scenes were edited out of the picture.) In it, an unpleasant punk rocker named Quinn Scott (Travis Grant) wastes no screen time before OD’ing and becoming eligible for the 27 Club. It doesn’t matter that he’s surrounded by friends when he buys the farm, because they’re too stoned to pay attention to his high or the demonic presence in the room. It inspires a student filmmaker, Jason (Derrick Denicola), to investigate the phenomenon. His mentor is played by Todd Rundgren, who also made it past the 27 barrier and helps here on the musical score. Jason hooks up with Lily (Maddisyn Carter), another punk-rocker who makes Courtney Love sound like Maria Callas. Her reason for being in the movie is the fact that her next birthday cake will have 27 candles. Together, they’ll find themselves trapped in an evil underworld that takes artists’ souls as payment for eternal fame. (While that’s the legend behind Johnson’s amazing blues output, most of the other club members committed suicide, OD’d or drank themselves to an early grave.) Jason steals Quinn’s copy of the “Necronomicon,” which adds to the story’s horror aspect. It’s seriously undernourished, though. The Blu-ray adds short interviews with Carter and Denicola, and a slideshow.

Can’t Stop the Music: Blu-Ray
Jeffrey: Blu-Ray
Shout Factory is celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month with the simultaneous re-release of Can’t Stop the Music (1980) and Jeffrey (1995). The company previously sent out an upgraded edition of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). The only thing new to be said about the musical retelling of the Village People’s rise to the top of the charts — during America’s post-Saturday Night Fever period –is that the production numbers look and sound great in Blu-ray. Otherwise, the critically lambasted box-office bomb remains a chore to watch from start to finish. It remains curious that EMI Films attempted to take the gay out of a movie about a clearly gay cultural phenomenon, which began in gay nightclubs and whose members affected the look of iconic gay fantasy figures. Here, if the implications are unavoidable, viewers are led to believe that the Village People’s early appeal was gender-neutral and only a little bit ironic. The VP’s secondary audience would be sports fans, who may or may not have recognized the spell-along hit, “Y-M-C-A,” from the album, “Crusing’,” as a gay anthem. (One group member has said that it can interpreted as a “double entendre,” because the YMCA is a place where gay culture and working-class workouts coexist in a single communal space.”) Either way you slice it, though, it’s one of the great dance songs of all time. By effectively neutering the protagonists of Can’t Stop the Music, producers kept most of its intended audience at arm’s length and opened themselves to criticism by activists, reviewers and anyone already aware of the VP’s story. Even so, Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard’s love child might have avoided most of the slings and arrows hurled at it, if it were even remotely entertaining and overtly campy. In it, a retired supermodel Samantha “Sam” Simpson (Valerie Perrine) and songwriter/deejay Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) hope to convince her devious ex-boyfriend, a record-company executive (Paul Sand), to promote one of his songs. When Jack’s vocal skills are deemed inadequate, Sam recruits neighbor and Saddle Tramps waiter/go-go boy Felipe Rose (Indian); fellow model David “Scar” Hodo (Construction Worker); “G.I.” Alex Briley; Ray Simpson (Policeman); “Cowboy” Randy Jones; and “Leatherman” Glenn Hughes. In return for their participation, she offers them … dinner. As things progress, the band is given rehearsal space at the local YMCA and a flashy musical commercial for milk. (The movie was rated PG, but amateur pervs can run the “Y-M-C-A” segment in slo-mo and catch a glimpse of an unpixellated penis and Perrine’s nipples in a whirlpool with the band.) With few exceptions, the acting is wooden and Nancy Walker’s direction is haphazard, at best.

Trivia buffs may recall that John Wilson was inspired to create the Golden Raspberry Awards after paying 99 cents to endure a double-bill featuring Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu (1980). “Music” was nominated for seven inaugural Razzie awards, with Carr winning Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay trophies. Caitlyn Jenner, then known primarily as the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion, was a finalist for Worst Actor. In 2005, the movie was a nominee for the Worst Musical of Our First 25 Years prize. Neither was Carr’s timing very sound. By the time Can’t Stop the Music was released, the Village People popularity had peaked and the Disco Sucks movement had made headlines by ransacking Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on Disco Demolition Night. The Blu-ray package is highlighted by a delightful 65-minute interview with Cowboy Randy Jones, in which he discusses the disco era, the creation of “Music” and life after disco. Commentary is provided by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and Jeffrey Schwarz, director of The Fabulous Allan Carr. There’s also vintage publicity material and a photo gallery. Co-stars included Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, Barbara Rush, Altovise Davis, Jack Weston and Leigh Taylor-Young.

Jeffrey, the movie, arrived in theaters about 2½ years after “Jeffrey,” the play, was mounted off-Broadway. If Can’t Stop the Music can be characterized as a pre-AIDS musical comedy, “Jeffrey,” the play and movie, takes place at what might be considered the height of the epidemic. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first combination drug therapies for HIV were introduced. In 1995, a new type of protease inhibitor drug, Saquinavir, became available to treat HIV. Within two years, death rates due to AIDS would begin to plummet in the developed world. It took no small amount of courage to use humor to treat the parallel plagues of sexual anxiety and fear of intimacy and loss. Even considering the unexpected success of the play, studios weren’t anxious to become the first to distribute what they mistakenly saw as an “AIDS comedy.” Produced independently for what might have been a song, Jeffrey might have made a tiny bit of money in its limited release by Orion Classics. Christopher Ashley (Lucky Stiff) and Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) returned to direct and write Jeffrey, the movie, which benefitted greater star power and a wider canvass. Steven Weber (“Wings”) plays the title character, a transplanted gay New Yorker whose attitude toward sex shifts from extremely positive to outright fearful, when he decides that AIDS has made it too unromantic and difficult. Celibacy becomes the only viable option, until he meets his dream man, Steve (Michael T. Weiss), who turns out to be HIV positive. With the help of his friends Sterling (Patrick Stewart) and Darius (Bryan Batt), Jeffrey decides to give love a second shot. Most critics preferred the intimacy and directness of the play, while relishing the well-timed cameos by Nathan Lane, Olympia Dukakis, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver. The Blu-ray adds new commentary with Weber and film critic/author Alonso Duralde; fresh interviews with Weber and producer Mark Balsam; and a stills gallery.

My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie: Blu-ray
In the last 12 months, Cult Epics has released several soft-core pictures from Pim de la Parra, Wim Verstappen and Scorpio Films’ “Dutch Sex Wave” series, spanning 1967 and 1976. Some, like Blue Movie (1971), pushed the boundaries on relaxed censorship laws, by combing natural sexual encounters, attractive actors and stories that support the nudity, humor and hanky-panky. My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie (1976) falls short in these departments, without adding anything to compensate for the loss for their absence. In it, Susan (Willeke Van Ammelrooy) lives in an idyllic farmhouse, along with the sex-loving youngsters, Sandra, Olga and Julie, and the unstable voyeur, Albert. Two of the women are spree killers, who target men who try to take advantage of their youth, beauty and deceptively frisky personalities. A witness to one of the killings  is Piet (Nelly Frijda), a female neighbor whose manly appearance and creepy behavior stands in stark contrast to the younger girls. Piet also commits an unconscionable murder that spoils any fun left in the story. De la Parra, who co-wrote Obsessions (1969) with Verstappen and Martin Scorsese, clearly knows how to make sex pictures with mainstream production values. “My Night” begins to fall apart as soon as Piet makes her appearance known. What I’m probably missing is the popularity of Frijda in Holland, where she’s long been a cultural fixture. It is interesting to note that, somewhere between the Netherlands and the U.S.,  Piet’s name was dropped from the title. The Blu-ray features the last score by composer Elisabeth Lutyens — known for Hammer films and Amicus Productions – a screenplay co-credited to Harry Kumel (Daughters of Darkness); a fresh HD restoration and transfer from original 35mm print; a lengthy introduction by Pim de la Parra; the short Scorpio films, “Heart Beat Fresco” (1966), “Joop” (1969) and “Joop Strikes Again” (1970); a poster and photo gallery; original Scorpio Films theatrical trailers; and an optional English-language track.

Acorn Original: Blood: Blu-ray
Acorn Original: London Kills: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: Delicious: Series 3
If rural doctor Jim Hogan hadn’t lied to his black-sheep daughter, Cat, about the death of her invalid mother, the six-chapter mini-series could have been reduced to one. Thank goodness, that wasn’t an option in Sophie Petzal’s terrifically complex and entirely engrossing “Blood,” made for Ireland’s Virgin Media One and Acorn. In one way or another, all of the characters here are damaged by things they choose not to reveal to close friends and relatives. Jim and Cat take their insecurities to levels not often seen in series television, however. While successful in his small-town practice, Jim (Adrian Dunbar) has constructed a wall of lies to prevent his inordinately fragile family from being hurt by his self-destructive actions. The hyper-neurotic Cat (Carolina Main) is haunted by her decision to blow off a planned return home, hours before her mother’s seemingly accidental death. Instead of blaming herself for canceling the reunion, Cat immediately suspects her estranged father of murdering her. She bases her suspicions on the sketchiest of circumstantial evidence. When weighed against Jim’s flimsy defense, Cat’s case builds a parallel wall of infectious paranoia. I wouldn’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the mini-series by revealing that Jim has been cheating on his saintly wife (Ingrid Craigie), squandering money he couldn’t afford to lose, concealing a coroner’s report from the son of a suicide victim, taking advantage of a dotty patient and fudging his appointment book. On the plus side, however, viewers can see that he’s sincere about his determination to protect his family from the lies and their impact on the community, at large. Cat’s sublimated memory of an event in her childhood prevents her from trusting anything said by Jim. Viewers will find it difficult to fully embrace either character, even when they’re at their most vulnerable. Just when it seems as if we’ve discovered the truth, however, Petzal pulls the rug out from under us in the climactic final hour. Beyond the plotting and acting, “Blood” benefits from the beautifully photographed countryside and depictions of Irish manners and customs. It’s also interesting to learn that, at a time when American women are chafing at the bit for inclusion in the filmmaking process, “Blood” is represented by women at every level: writer, both directors, 4 of 11 producers, cinematographer, co-editor, casting director, costume design and production management, among other positions. Bonus material include cast and crew interviews, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Another Acorn Original mini-series, “London Kills,” takes full advantage of its widespread urban setting, from the banks of the Thames, to its junkie-infested tenements, leafy parks and architecturally significant inner city. While the homicide-squad setup would be recognizable to any fan of television procedurals, anywhere, each character here is allowed a full range of emotions and complexities. The diversity of the city’s demographic makeup is also represented, and women fill positions of authority inside the police department. They also are among the key suspects in the somewhat messy murder investigations. It opens when DC Rob Brady (Bailey Patrick) and Trainee DC Billie Fitzgerald (Tori Allen-Martin) respond to a gruesome scene in a hilly park, where a man is found stabbed multiple times and left hanging from a tree. When the victim is identified as the son of a prominent politician, the squad is not only pressured to find the killer, but also keep the details quiet from the press. That always works, right? The bodies keep piling up during the course of the five-part series, until a single common denominator surfaces in the form of a dreadlocked drifter, who attempts a sapphic hookup with Fitzgerald. An antagonistic relationship between DI David Bradford (Hugo Speer) and DS Vivienne Cole (Sharon Small) causes problems that are caused more by her rebellious nature, than any sexist inclinations on his part. The pressure on Bradford to solve the case is compounded by the recent disappearance of his social worker wife and their daughter’s insurrection, both of which, of course, could figure in the murder spree. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The soapy BSkyB mini-series, “Delicious,” appears to have been engineered specifically to appeal to what, in the U.S., highbrows frequently describe derisively as the Lifetime audience. That would be its natural home, I think, but Food Channel fanatics should love it, too. It also plays to fans of “Downton Abbey,” who were drawn to the series for its spectacular architecture, plush interiors and elitist aura. Shot at Cornwall’s Pentille Castle, Port Eliot House, Boconnoc House and other splendid locations, it also appeals to Anglophiles everywhere. In the show’s first four-part season, we were introduced to celebrity chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen), a serial philanderer, who, before his untimely death, was married to the beautiful blond hotelier, Sam (Emilia Fox), and having an affair with his first wife, Gina (Dawn French), from whom he stole recipes that made him successful. Instead of bashing each other, Sam and Gina combine their talents to preserve the Penrose estate’s legacy as a superb place to stay, dine and get married. Things get complicated when Gina and Sam’s children – possibly step-siblings – fall in love and split for parts unknown. The third season is highlighted by the return of Gina’s emaciated daughter, Teresa (Tanya Reynolds); a medical emergency for Leo’s live-in mother (Sheila Hancock); the arrival of rich investor and restaurateur Mason Elliott (Vincent Regan), with whom Gina also has a history; Elliott’s undisguised moves to steal Penrose’s top talent, including Sam and promising chef, Adam Hesketh (Aaron Anthony), who is Gina’s protege and Leo’s biological son. Like Ivory, “Delicious” is 99 and 44⁄100-percent pure soap. Although there’s plenty of room left for a Season Four – the return of Sam’s son, Vincent, perhaps? – no decision has yet been made.

The DVD Wrapup: Madea Funeral, Sharon Tate, Gloria Bell, Women at War, Guy, Farinelli, Screwball, The Kid, Andromeda Strain, Woody Guthrie, Jack Ryan, Sara Stein … More

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

A Madea Family Funeral: Blu-ray
No one has more at stake in the controversy over Georgia’s heartbeat abortion bill than multi-hyphenate mogul Tyler Perry and the businesses and individuals who count on him for income. It took a while, but Hollywood and cable producers have fallen in line behind calls for a boycott of the state, if the legislation is fully enacted. (Among other things, a woman who isn’t aware she’s pregnant could be put on trial for miscarrying the fetus.) In 2016, Perry spoke out against legislation, which, effectively, would allow businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. The governor’s decision not to sign the law may have been influenced by Perry’s comments. (His drag persona, Madea, may have beaten the actor to death with her purse if he hadn’t spoken out.) Three years later, it remains unclear where Perry stands on the abortion bill, which soon will be winding its way to the Supreme Court, along with similarly draconian legislation in a few other Southern states and Ohio. (When did the Buckeye state join the Confederacy, anyway?) Earlier this week, in a media blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rodney Ho pointed out that “Perry has committed hundreds of millions of dollars into the state. … (He) has expressed a deep commitment to Georgia and has not shown any inclination to leave.” Nor should he, if he once again uses his influence to turn back a law pushed by predatory right-wing evangelicals.

What’s also at stake is Perry’s partnership with Atlanta-based TBS and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, as well as a long-term deal with Viacom, with shows slated mostly for BET. (Based in Georgia, as well, is the subsidiary of AT&T that oversees TBS, TNT and CNN.) While former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams understands the power of a boycott to force such issues to the fore, she’s also aware of the impact on people who benefit directly from the $2.7 billion Hollywood spends yearly in the state. Hollywood has a lot to lose in a boycott. Of that $2.7 billion figure, an estimated $800 million comes back to the studios in the form of the highest yielding, uncapped tax-incentive program in the nation. Abrams would prefer that some of that money be directed to pro-choice politicians and activists, working tirelessly to bring Georgia into the 21st Century. Because Abrams is well aware of the fact that Georgia continues to look for ways to prevent blacks and other minorities from voting, such a call could prove fruitless, in any case. Perry and Winfrey’s support for the boycott, in conjunction with the solicitations for contributions to the legal battle could tip the balance. And, why stop in the Deep South? Couldn’t Cleveland’s tourist-friendly Rock and Roll Hall of Fame use its weight to pressure Ohio’s governor?

Certainly, Perry has no problem with euthanizing his most popular creation before she’s drawn her last breath. He revealed last year, on the SiriusXM show “Bevelations,” that he’s finished playing the tough old bird, Madea. “I’m happy to kill off that old bitch,” he said. “I’m tired, man. I just don’t want to be her age, playing her.” Detractors of the 11-film series would be relieved for countless other reasons. It’s tough to laugh at Madea’s antics and coarse dialogue, knowing that she’s personified political incorrectness since 1999, when the musical play, “Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself,” was performed before mostly black audiences around the country. Even as a girl, Madea was in constant trouble with the law, supporting herself by stripping, pole dancing, professional wrestling, gambling, fraud and theft. She’s admits to killing two of her nine dead husbands, to collect life-insurance settlements and because she despised them. She carried a gun and a knife but was equally adept at fisticuffs and dispensing poison. If Madea softened over time and the transition to film – 2002’s Madea’s Family Reunion – it remained difficult for her children to pull the wool over her eyes. Stifling our laughter over Perry’s brilliant use of Ebonics and ghetto mannerisms hasn’t been easy for viewers to stifle.

There are plenty of laughs to be found in A Madea Family Funeral, which begins during a road trip with Madea; her younger brother, Joe (Perry); Joe’s son Brian (Perry), a defense attorney; feisty diner owner and family friend, Hattie Mae Love (Patrice Lovely); and partner-in-crime, Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis). Ostensibly, they’re on their way to backwoods Georgia for a joyous family reunion. They are required to stick around for a funeral, as well. Because of the nature of their relative’s death – hint, Viagra is involved – the funeral and its various rituals turn ugly. In hurriedly planning the funeral, Madea declares that it will be strictly be an African American affair, with an old-timey flare. Largely, this means that the ceremony will be long (eight hours), confessional and interactive. Depending on where one stands on impolite humor, Perry’s latest creation – Madea’s wheelchair-bound brother, Heathrow — will either be seen as delightfully offensive or just plain offensive. I’m in the former category. Despite the usual array of negative reviews, “Family Funeral” did extremely well at the domestic box office and, as usual, almost no business overseas. (I doubt that much effort was put into it.) I don’t know what Madea’s position is on abortion – who could? – but, even if she’s adamantly pro-life, she could also be against legislation that enslaves women and denies them their right to choose.

Operating in the long shadow of Tyler Perry, and well under the radar of mainstream media, is NuLite Media. Formed in in 2002, it is an independent production company, with a focus on niche films targeting African American audiences. Like Perry’s various endeavors, NuLite has produced dozens of movies, TV shows and live events that run the gamut from raw and risqué (Kinky, Chocolate City), to faith-based (The Sins of Deacon Whyles) and provocative (Color of the Cross), with forays into such genre fare as the revisionist Western, Gang Of Roses and the ensemble comedy, Nora’s Hair Salon. The Chocolate City spinoff, “Black Magic Live,” is billed as the only all-black male revue in Las Vegas. Moreover, Haitian American co-founder Jean Claude La Marre has 51 acting credits on his, ranging from Malcolm X (1992) and Fresh (1994), to Trapped: Haitian Nights (2010) and Basketball Girlfriend (2014). His Pastor Jones is a recurring character and Vivica A. Fox routinely appears in starring and co-starring capacity. They both appear in Kinky, in non-prominent roles.

Written and directed by La Marre, Kinky could have been re-titled “50 Shades of Ebony” – 50 Shades of Black was already taken — and reached the same audiences as those attracted by the DVD’s slightly naughty cover photo and posters. In them, a stunning black surgeon, Dr. Joyce Carmichael (Dawn Richard), clad in black leather lingerie and a freaky Lone Ranger mask, is being gently held from behind by a handsome black investor, Tyrone Bernard (Robert Ri’chard), wearing only a Rolex. The satin bedspread is littered with rose petals, while a padded set of handcuffs awaits its turn on a pillow. Although the film’s overly punitive R-rating would suggest something harder, that image sums up the movie’s tame approach to sexuality. That said, however, there may be a ready audience among African Americans for a PG-13 romance in an R-rated package. I wouldn’t know. Set primarily in Perry’s own backyard – Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood — the story follows the “talented, yet introverted” Carmichael, as she struggles with the fact that she is still single, despite all her professional success and well-manicured exterior features. Joyce’s strict Christian upbringing is a constant source of internal conflict for her, and it sets unwanted boundaries on the men she dates. What isn’t so obvious is her being blackmailed by a mysterious man who has photos of her in incriminating S&M poses. Tyrone decides to stalk the doctor to learn why she’s been so glum, lately. He discovers the mysterious man’s dungeon, where another young woman is being held, and a fire is about to erupt. The ending is both happy and ominous. Even so, Kinky makes “50 Shades” look like Deep Throat. Beyond the needlessly tame sex scenes, the writing, direction, set design and most of the acting are substandard, at best. If such shortcomings haven’t already stopped La Marre – and his films didn’t make money –we wouldn’t be here, right now.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate: Blu-ray
I’ve yet to see Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood or Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which is floating around the Internet. I have seen Daniel Farrands’ The Haunting of Sharon Tate, though, and it’s done nothing to make me want to rush out and see the other two. Supposedly inspired by premonitions reported by the rising Hollywood star and pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, writer/director Farrands (The Amityville Murders) re-creates the events of August 8, 1969, at 10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon. Since the so-called premonitions were so similar, Farrands likely saved money by filming the actual attack and two flashbacks simultaneously. Only one of them is the real thing, but they all look curiously similar. As has been reported, Tate and her soon-to-be-late friends encountered Manson and “Family” members several times before the massacre. The first contact came when he believed that record producer Terry Melcher still lived there, with Candace Bergman, and he wanted to personally deliver a recording to him. Not finding them there, Manson directed his gang to haunt and harass the current residents. With her husband in Europe doing God knows what, Tate approaches her delivery date with trepidation. OK, you know the rest. While Farrands’ version isn’t remotely new or newsworthy, it does avoid digging up cliched attempts to psychoanalyze Manson Family members and contextualize their actions as a harbinger of bad times to come. It’s a gory home-invasion thriller that tells us precious little about Tate we didn’t already know and even less about the other victims. It’s exploitation, pure and simple. Hilary Duff does a credible job as the ravishing blond protagonist … otherwise, zilch.

The one thing that struck me, however, was the incorporation of Manson’s “Cease to Exist” into the soundtrack. (It was covered by the Beach Boys as “Never Learn Not to Love”) It’s a freaky song, even by the standards of the time. Hearing it played as part of Tate’s nightmares makes some sense, but it also led me to wonder who licensed the song to Farrands and continues to profit from the tragedy. It isn’t an easy task. In the last 50 years, several bands have added the song to their repertoire, simply for the weird pleasure that comes with doing something shocking and reprehensible for personal gain. In 1993, Sharon’s sister, Patti, Tate confronted David Geffen and board members of Geffen Records over plans to include a song written by Charles Manson on the Guns N’ Roses album, “The Spaghetti Incident?” She commented to a journalist that the record company was “putting Manson up on a pedestal for young people … to worship like an idol.” Geffen wouldn’t budge. A year earlier, Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, sought inspiration by moving into the house 10050 Cielo Drive. He built a studio, called “Le Pig,” for recording “Broken” (1992) and “The Downward Spiral” (1994), with collaborations from other musicians. It soon, would later be demolished and renumbered. Reznor’s seeming glorification of evil ended during a random encounter with Tate’s sister. According to Reznor, in a 1997 Rolling Stone interview, she asked, “‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face.” Redd Kross member Jeff McDonald expressed regret for covering Manson on 1982’s “Born Innocent.” He said the move was largely done to annoy the band members’ parents. (By law, Manson wasn’t allowed to collect royalties. Others, including ESP-Disc, Come Organisation and Susan Lawly, have seen their videos and recording widely ripped off by YouTube pirates. Too bad.)

In what must have appeared, at first, to be an ironic marketing decision, Sony originally scheduled Tarantino’s 160-minute epic to be released on August 9, 2019, as if it were the pop-cultural equivalent of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The studio then changed the release date to July 26, 2019, insisting that August 9, 1969, is recognized, as well, as the date the hippie movement, free-love era and the 1960s, as a whole, came to a screeching halt. Someone forgot to mention this to the 500,000 freaks who gathered at Woodstock a week later or, for that matter, the 300,000 who attended Altamont. It wasn’t until the Family was rounded up and put on trial, beginning June 15, 1970, that it became safe to write obits for the hippie movement and, as I recall, for hitchhikers to return to the nation’s highway, albeit at greatly reduced numbers. On Monday, Gavin Newsom overruled a parole board’s decision to free Leslie Van Houten, marking the third time a California governor has stopped the release of the youngest member of Manson’s cult. No candidate for higher political office wants such an extreme show of mercy on their resume.

The Kid: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, The Kid, Vincent D’Onofrio takes on the legend of the Charles Manson of 1880s’ New Mexico, William H. Bonney (a.k.a., Billy the Kid). As criminal cult figures go, however, Bonney probably bore a closer resemblance to John Dillinger than the man reputed to have killed the 1960s. Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) is at least the 50th actor to portray the murderous young fellow, who died of a gunshot wound, administered by Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke), at 21. That much has remained consistent in Hollywood histories – I use the term advisedly – although he makes frequent extended cameos in such cross-genre fare as BloodRayne: Deliverance (2007), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (1979), Gas-s-s-s (1970) and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). In The Kid, DeHaan looks the part of a baby-faced killer, but was 32 when the film was released. (I wonder how many times Bonney has been played by someone his age.) The kid in the title may just as well refer to the boy, Rio (Jake Schur), who, after killing his abusive father, finds himself on the run from an uncle (Chris Pratt), who feels obligated to avenge his brother’s death. After Garrett captures Billy the Kid and saves him from being lynched, Rio and his sister, Sara (Leila George), hitch a ride with them to Santa Fe for the trial. In a very real sense, Rio finds two legitimate father figures in the older men. The Kid is a modern retelling of a classic Western legend, but it isn’t as revisionist as other oaters I’ve seen lately. All of the actors appear to be enjoying themselves and the frontier ambience is enhanced by cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s visions of the frontier state in the 1880s. (Lots of places in the Land of Enchantment haven’t changed all that much in the last 140 years.)

Gloria Bell: Blu-ray
A couple of weeks ago, in the general vicinity of the DVD Wrapup, Ray Pride reviewed Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria Bell and Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, ahead of their concurrent theatrical release in Chicago and almost simultaneous arrival in DVD/Blu-ray. As there are no good reasons to repeat raves in this space, I’ll simply reiterate my believe that I can’t think of more appropriate excuse for spending nearly five hours – plus, featurettes – in front of a television, in the company of two of the finest actresses in the world. It also would provide an excellent excuse for combining a monthly book-club meeting with a post-screening dissection of the protagonists, Juliette Binoche’s Isabella and Julianna Moore’s Gloria. Anyone with a bit more time on their hands might also want to check out the Chilean-born filmmaker’s 2013 comedy/romance/drama, Gloria, from which Gloria Bell was adapted, with the formidable Chilean actress Paulina Garcia in the lead. I suspect that you won’t see three better performances this year, even at awards time. Binoche is about four years older than Moore and Garcia, who were born within a week of each other, in 1960. In addition to being of the same age and divorced, with two adult children, both Glorias embrace their freedom by dancing in clubs, in which disco has never gone out of fashion. (Wisely, she’s surrounded by adults of a certain age and Lelio has resisted the temptation to re-paint Gloria Bell as a MILF or cougar. She’s sexually active and isn’t afraid to meet new men at the bar.) Oh, yeah, the Glorias also share a wiry hairless cat, possibly of the Ukrainian Levkoy or Peterbald persuasion. One problem all three women experience is a mutual inability to avoid men with baggage stuffed with issues. Gloria Bell is exactly the kind of mature, observant film that American studios have abandoned, except for awards consideration, leaving some great talent on the sidelines. Also prominent here are John Turturro, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin, Jean Tripplehorn, Holland Taylor, Brad Garrett, Barbara Sukowa, Alanna Ubach, Caren Pistorius and Lelio’s male muse Michael Cera. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director and the featurette, “An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: Making Gloria Bell.”

Woman at War
All You Ever Wished For
These days, you never know from which corner of the Earth a truly offbeat gem is going to emerge. Iceland usually is a reliable place to start looking, though. Directors of sci-fi and fantasy epics routinely take advantage of its otherworldly landscapes, volcanoes, lava fields, hot springs, mountains, fjords, glaciers and waterfalls. Native filmmakers tend to look inward and in the rugged faces of it citizenry for inspiration. Having to adjust from seemingly eternal darkness in winter, to summer’s frequently off-putting Midnight Sun, can drive Icelanders to drink … and usually does. And, those surnames … Guð minn! Like so many other Icelandic entertainments, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War starts small and ends bigger than one would expect. Halldóra Geirharõsdóttir (Sense8) plays a 50-year-old eco-terrorist, Halla, who, when she isn’t sabotaging high-tension wires leading to an aluminum plant, is the town’s well-respected choir director. She fears that Chinese investors and government officials will agree on plans for building a new aluminum smelter and find other ways to exploit the land. She takes it upon herself to trek into the mountains, usually by herself – or accompanied by an imaginary band and folk dancers — and take out the power line, using a makeshift bow-and-arrow. As federal police zero in on her, the self-described Woman of the Mountain knows that the time for her to complete her mission is running short. Halla also knows that an arrest could curtail her plans to adopt a Ukrainian child and experience motherhood. Her conflicted sense of urgency leads to a pretty exciting climax. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s expansive cinematography goes a long way toward explaining the importance of Halla’s quest. Jodie Foster is said to be interested in developing an English-language remake.

Emmy and Academy Award-winning writer Barry Morrow (“Bill,” Rain Man) tried his hand at directing in All You Ever Wished For, a fairytale romance set so high and deep in the Italian Alps that it might be the product of a spell cast by fairies. “Glee” alumnus Darren Criss plays Tyler Hutton, the almost impossibly handsome son of a Gordon Hutton (James Remar). The old man wants his kid to quit farting around and join the family business in a meaningful way. The curly-haired young man is sent to Milan, where he’s expected to finalize some deals. No sooner does he step out of the airport than he’s kidnapped by local Mafiosi, who immediately send a ransom note to Gordon, in New York. Tyler is whisked off to the Alpine village, where the locals await further instructions. Unbeknownst to most of the villagers and viewers, Tyler has fallen under a spell that makes him covet the first person he sees. Here, it’s the exotic Rosalia Drago (Mãdãlina Ghenea), who looks as if she had just been plucked from the centerfold of Romanian Playboy. As obsessed as Tyler is with her, Rosalia is equally resistant to his advances. Conveniently, the ransom money winds up in the hands of the village’s mayor, who declares it to be a miraculous windfall that calls for a celebration, which requires masks, costumes and dancing. It’s during this delightful interlude that the spell is lifted and the elder Hutton arrives with the mobsters, who want their ransom money back. Things get complicated for a while, but not long enough to spoil the happy ending. At this altitude, all sorts of magical things can happen. Like Woman at War, All You Ever Wished For is gorgeously shot, this time by Stefano Falivene (Still Life). The film may sound hopelessly schmaltzy, but, hey, it’s a fairytale.

Farinelli: Blu-ray
My knowledge of French pop and chanson singers from the 1960-80s is limited to Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday and Patricia Kaas. Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf arrived and departed before pop popped. That’s probably three or four more names than most Americans know. Chanson required more intimacy between the artist and audience and, by then, their American counterparts were building moats between themselves and their fans, if only for the sake of personal security. It explains why it took a while for me to figure out that Alex Lutz’ faux documentary, Guy, is just that: faux. Co-writer/director Lutz also stars as the title character, Guy Jamet, who, at 72, may or may not have another concert tour left in him. Faux-documentarian Gauthier (Tom Dingler), who’s just learned from his mother’s letters that he may be Guy’s love child, wants to probe the singer’s memories of her … if any. For years, the handsome, rail-thin singer affected a loosely combed white-as-snow coiffure, which makes him immediately identifiable to his faux fans, who adore him for reprising the songs to which they fell in love. Tony Bennett is the American singer who comes the closest to approximating Jamet’s appeal and willingness to play small clubs. Lutz’ ability to mimic his characters’ traits kept me guessing as to whether Guy was pulling my leg or was kidding on the square. Any film that can maintain my interest and curiosity in equal measures, while also being completely scripted – Vincent Blanchard and Romain Greffe’s songs, too – is worth a closer look by viewers outside France and Belgium. In case you’re wondering, Jamet is a dead ringer for Klaus Kinski and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), depending on their need for a haircut or dye job.) Dani (Day for Night), Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds) and Marina Hands (Tell No One) are the most recognizable of co-stars. For his effort, Lutz was awarded a Cesar Award as Best Actor, along with Blanchard and Greffe’s songs. Guy was a finalist for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Director.

When I was growing up, one of the more disturbing urban legends affecting boys assigned to choir duty in Catholic schools involved the probability that priests served as recruiters for the Vatican’s glee club. That’s because the heavenly chorus was in constant need of pre-pubescent sopranos, who could expect to be castrated on their arrival in Rome. Apparently, the pope’s musical director required a handful of boys each year, whose unnaturally high and powerful voices could survive puberty and last as long as they maintained their youthful appearance. Boys were chosen over girls because side-effects of the castration process gave them unrivalled vocal stamina and breath capacity. Moreover, because their vocal cords remained compact and flexible, their voices could replicate the sounds of amorous songbirds. No one bothered to tell us that the legend – which isn’t mythical, at all — was less than a century out of date. The Church didn’t officially ban the procedure until 1903. Indeed, the last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, who lived long enough to make solo recordings. Farinelli is the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, perhaps the most celebrated, well-travelled and highly rewarded castrato of the 18th Century. Although Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 drama, Farinelli, took many liberties with the history of the singer and his composer brother, Riccardo Broschi (Enrico Lo Verso), as well as their feud with composer George Frideric Handel, what truth there is in it is both fascinating and wonderfully decorous. Not at all graphic, the film’s most sensational scenes include demonstrations of the Broschis’ tag-team approach to copulation and pro-creation with their female fans. Even with the handicap of possessing only a single penis between them, the technique was pretty effective. Their partners were so overwhelmed by the presence of the superstar, Farenelli, they barely noticed when the brothers made the tag. Anyone who gets through the 111-minute costume drama and wants to learn more about castrati should make it a point to check out the featurettes, “Farinelli: Nostalgia for a Lost Voice,” “Farinelli: The Birth of a Voice,” and new essay by film critic Kenji Fujishima. Ewa Malas-Godlewska and Derek Lee Ragin are shown combining their talents to produce a single radiant sound, with the help of a synthesizer.

As long as athletes from Eastern Bloc nations were the ones abusing steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, Americans could simply blame the commies for corrupting amateur athletics and ignore what was happening in their own back yards. By the time world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong acknowledged his own bending of the rules – almost 20 years after suspicions first were raised – dozens of professional and collegiate athletes had already been rounded up and put into the penalty box. Some of the best players in their sport have been suspended, fined and returned to the game. Still, the problem persists. In the surprisingly entertaining documentary, Screwball, director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) describes how Miami PED peddler Anthony Bosch built a lucrative business by supplying steroids – not all of them illegal – to body builders, fitness fanatics and athletes, mostly on the strength of word-of-mouth advertising. It wasn’t unusual to see photographs of the fake doctor in locker rooms and in the company of all-stars. A petty dispute with a hapless “juice” junkie would set off a chain of events that not only led to his own imprisonment, but also brought down such stars as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro  and Ryan Braun … temporarily, at least. In the process, Bosch also revealed the hypocrisy of Major League Baseball executives, who exploited the triumphs of homerun hitters Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds to sell tickets and merchandise, but, then, kowtowed to Congress by cracking down on users. Incredibly, MLB then paid Bosch and his accuser hundreds of thousands of dollars to join its flawed investigation. As we learn here, the whole mess could have been avoided if he’d repaid a $4,800 loan from a muscle-bound doofus, Porter Fischer, who hung out at his tanning salon and was desperate to help spread the message. Now that the eye of the hurricane has passed, Corben gives Bosch and Fischer plenty of time to tell their stories to the unblinking eye of his camera. In a stroke of genius, he also employs the considerable talents of a dozen, or so, pre-teen actors to impersonate other players in the scandal. Although the kids stick to the script, their costumes, padding and hairstyles turn what could have been a dry recitation of nearly forgotten events, into a comedy of errors worthy of Carl Hiaasen and the late, great Elmore Leonard. The common denominator in Screwball isn’t necessarily greed, however. Simply put, the performance-driven pros wanted to gain the same statistical edge as other athletes, whose almost freakish achievements spoke for themselves. They did so during pennant races and before their contracts expired. Finally, though, Bosch was done in by his own expensive habits and a mad desire to bask in the spotlight of his clients’ glory. Fischer simply wanted to be respected by people he admired. A $4,800 reimbursement would have discouraged him from snooping around the office and supplying evidence to a reporter at a weekly newspaper. For his part, A-Rod enjoyed the protection of influential media pundits, who bought into his story, and local gangsters, who, for a price, would fulfill his requests. Meanwhile, MLB executives sought the same authority to chase down outlaws as the FBI and DEA. The real schmucks here, however, are the parents of Little League and high-school athletes who went to Bosch to score steroids and PEDs, so their kids could excel at the next level. Sounds a bit like Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and the other millionaire moms and dads who only wanted to give their kids an edge, by paying a fortune to get them enrolled in the most prestigious colleges.

Trapped Alive: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Andromeda Strain: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the disappearance of drive-in theaters in the 1970-80s weren’t so devastating, the release of Leszek Burzynski’s reasonably entertaining Trapped Alive might not have been delayed for five years, with the distribution rights handed off to a completely different company. It didn’t help that it was the first movie to emerge from Wisconsin’s now-defunct Windsor Lake Studios, which would go on to produce a number of genre treasures (Mindwarp) under the Fangoria Films label. Otherwise, Trapped Alive wallowed in VHS hell as just another mutant-cannibal/slasher thriller that showed its seams at every turn and required T&A to keep its audience from dozing off every 15 minutes. Today, it’s considered to be a minor cult classic by genre buffs, whose opinions carry weight on niche websites. Cameron Mitchell (The Toolbox Murders) tops the marquee, even though most of the action involves a pair of teenage pals, Robin and Monica (one-time wonders, Sullivan Hester and Laura Kallison), who, one wintry night, are carjacked on their way to a Christmas party. Three desperadoes have just escaped from the local penitentiary and can’t decide whether to hold them for ransom – which never works – or simply force them to disrobe and submit to their demands. That happens after the jamoke driving the stolen car manages to cause it to plummet down a hill and into an abandoned mine shaft. Unbeknownst to the trapped humans, they’ve trespassed their way into the lair of a mutant cannibal, who has been living in the cavern for a couple of decades, waiting for such happy surprises to arrive. Soon enough, they’re joined by a sheriff’s deputy, who’s just finished schtupping the Cher wannabe who’s married to the mine’s dullard caretaker. Even by drive-in standards, Trapped Alive remains a smallish picture of interest primarily to genre geeks, teenage boys and topless-scene completists, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t get a kick out of it. Arrow gives it a spanking new 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentaries with Burzynski, special-effects artist Hank Carlson, horror writer Josh Hadley and The Hysteria Continues; a fresh making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Burzynski, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, production manager Alexandra Reed and actors Alex Kubik and Sullivan Hester; a vintage episode of “Upper Michigan Tonight”; a 1988 television documentary on Windsor Lake Studios, featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the DIY set of Trapped Alive; contemporary interviews with Burzynski, producer Christopher Webster and production designer Brian Savegar;  “Leszek Burzynski: The Early Years”; a reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by Zach Carlson. Some genuine classics haven’t received this much coverage when they launched in Blu-ray.

Before he created Westworld and Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton first blurred the line between science fiction and science fact with his breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain. Its success forced the 6-foot-9 Harvard Medical School student to begin using his real name – instead of clever pseudonyms – and move west to try his luck in the movie dodge. (God only knows what such a mind might have accomplished had he stayed in medicine.) Two years after the novel’s publication, Robert Wise was hired by Universal to direct the film adaptation. Wise brought in  screenwriter Nelson Gidding, with whom he collaborated on  The Haunting (1963). In 1972, Crichton joined the ranks of directors, by adapting his novel, “Pursuit,” for television. Then came Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978). The Andromeda Strain effectively linked the noir-tinged procedurals Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), with And the Band Played On (1993), also about an imported plague, AIDS. In The Andromeda Strain, almost an entire New Mexican town is wiped out by an air-borne virus carried into Earth’s atmosphere by a spent satellite. Curiously, only a baby and elderly alcoholic seem immune to the crystalline menace. The remains of the satellite and both survivors are sent to Wildfire, a top-secret underground laboratory equipped with a nuclear self-destruct mechanism. Because of the remote location of the town, the lethal organism has yet to spread elsewhere. It’s only a matter of time, however, and the clock is ticking. In hindsight, the movie’s state-of-the-art computers and other high-tech implements look pretty primitive. The interaction between scientists and technicians – men and women – still holds up to scrutiny, however. The production benefitted from Douglas Trumbull’s post-2001 visual effects and an avant-garde electronic musical score by Gil Melle (The Sentinel). The Arrow Video package is highlighted by a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; commentary by critic Bryan Reesman; a worthwhile critical appreciation, “A New Strain of Science Fiction,” by Kim Newman; “The Andromeda Strain: Making the Film,” an archived featurette, with Wise and Gidding; “A Portrait of Michael Crichton,” also from 2001, featuring an interview with Crichton; “Cinescript Gallery,” with highlights from the annotated and illustrated shooting script by Gidding; a BD-ROM: PDF of the 192-page ”cinescript” with diagrams and production designs; a reversible sleeve featuring original newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Peter Tonguette and archival publicity materials

Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert, 1970
Previously unreleased on video, except for excerpts shown recently on PBS, “Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert 1970” provides a visual record of one several concerts and CD collections honoring the American saint, who died in 1967, at 55. It represents the second of two star-studded concerts produced by Harold Leventhal to benefit research into hereditary diseases, like the one that stilled the voice of the hugely influential singer/songwriter. (“It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.”) The first was staged at New York’s Carnegie Hall, three months after Guthrie lost his battle with Huntington’s chorea, which also claimed his mother. The 1970 tribute concert was held over two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. (It might have inspired George Harrison to organize “The Concert for Bangladesh,” a year later.) At 80 minutes, the DVD couldn’t possibly cover all of the highlights of the concerts and still allow room for readings by actors Will Geer and Peter Fonda. Considering that live-concert recordings of such events had yet to be perfected – at times, there were too few microphones and cameras to handle the number of musicians involved – the DVD looks and sounds remarkably good. The performers on “Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert 1970” include Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald and Richie Havens. It isn’t designed to take the place of more complete CD collections from Bear Family Records, Sony Legacy and Smithsonian Folkways. Listening to Woody singing his own material is a completely different experience than listening to other artists covering him. And, yes, his songs are every bit as relevant today as they were during the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and Red Scare. Extras include three never-before-seen songs performed by Baez, Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack, as well as concert rehearsal footage and audio interviews with Arlo and Ramblin’ Jack.

Amazon: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Season One
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Film Movement: Sara Stein: From Berlin to Tel Aviv: The Complete Series
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Jungle Rescues
Fox/Saban: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
When John Krasinski finished his 188-episode run on “The Office,” portraying Jim Halpert, the gentle homewrecker and stabilizing force at dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, it wasn’t easy to predict what he’d do for an encore. In addition to voicing characters in several animated features, he lent his support to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017), Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015) and Michael Bay’s 13 Hours (2016), since rebranded as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (see below). He also turned his attention to directing the rom/dram/com, The Hollars (2016), and co-writing, directing and co-starring in the wildly successful supernatural thriller, A Quiet Place (2018). The Amazon Prime mini-series, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” proves that “13 Hours” wasn’t a fluke and Krasinski could handle playing a kick-ass soldier with the best of them. As the titular character, Krasinski joined Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine as protagonists drawn from the Clancy’s so-called “Ryanverse.” (Unlike the other theatrical installments, “Jack Ryan” wasn’t adapted from a Clancy book.) Just like every succeeding actor who played Ryan, Krasinski brought something different to the character. Here, he’s in the beginning stages of his career, serving the CIA as a financial analyst. I found it a tad ironic that this iteration of Ryan combines elements of Jim Halpert and Krasinski’s Jack Silva, from 13 Hours. When the former Marine stumbles upon a suspicious series of bank transfers, his search for answers catapults him from the safety of his desk job, into a global game of cat-and-mouse with an up-and-coming terrorist leader, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman). If this Ryan ultimately is an Everyman in extremis, Suleiman is a fully realized character, with well-founded reasons for becoming a jihadist and a complicated family life. He’s also a monster. Because the story unfolds over eight hourlong chapters – it’s been renewed for two more seasons – the audience learns everything they need to know about the characters, their backgrounds and motivations. Spook jargon occasionally gets in the way of normal human discourse, but viewers get the picture soon enough. Also prominent here are Wendell Pierce, as Ryan’s tough-to-like boss, Jim Greer; Abbie Cornish, as Ryan’s easily deceived girlfriend; Dina Shihabi, as Suleiman’s courageous wife; and several extremely convincing child actors. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

Although the events depicted in 13 Hours have been manipulated beyond recognition by disingenuous Republican politicians and Hillary haters, the movie retains its power to impress. Hardly anyone makes action films with the same verve, intensity and signature touches as Bay, and Krasinski is credible as the leader of the commando force facing incalculable odds. As was the case with Black Hawk Down (2001), where our intelligence services underestimated the ferocity of Somali militia fighters, the CIA contractors in 13 Hours were at a disadvantage when Libyan militants attacked our ambassador’s compound in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annex on September 11, 2012. Four Americans died in the assault: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Information Officer Sean Smith and two CIA operatives, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs. Apart from being the anniversary of the 9/11 catastrophe, intelligence officials at the CIA, Pentagon and State Department should have foreseen how a leaderless Libya might be ripe for an uprising coordinated by members of the Islamic militant group, Ansar al-Sharia. Requests for increased security at American diplomatic facilities went unanswered until the Benghazi attacks demonstrated the possible shortfalls. When everything went wrong for the American team, six men had the courage to take it upon themselves to unscramble the clusterfuck, for which there was plenty of blame to go around. This is their story. Paramount’s marketing strategy targeted the same audiences that supported Lone Survivor and American Sniper, with a special emphasis on Republican lawmakers, whose primary goal was to discredit President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Thus politicized, the picture barely covered its $50-million production nut – not accounting from marketing costs — with another $16 million generated the foreign box office. The 4K UHD presentation upgrades Paramount’s already excellent 2016 two-disc Blu-ray. Here, the bundled Blu-ray includes the earlier supplements, “For the Record: Finding the Truth Amid the Noise,” “Uncovering Benghazi’s Secret Soldiers,” “Preparing for Battle: Behind the Scenes of 13 Hours,” “Operation: 13 Hours Premiere” and “In Memoriam.” The Atmos track is every bit as invigorating as one would expect.

Recent DVD and Blu-ray releases from the BBC, MHz, Acorn and other off-brand streaming services attest to the notion that the world has caught up with American producers of crime-based mini-series and courtroom dramas. While U.S. networks continue to shove impossibly young and physically attractive cops and lawyers down viewers’ throats – with the occasional veteran actor to add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings – the foreign imports are far more diverse and less obsessed with youth, beauty and bosoms. While Film Movement’s four-chapter, “Sara Stein: From Berlin to Tel Aviv: The Complete Series” doesn’t attempt to break much new ground in the genre, it tweaks the clichés and tropes is unexpected ways. The first involves locations largely unfamiliar to American viewers. Sara Stein (Katherina Lorenz) is an Israeli criminal investigator, working as a police investigator in Berlin. It’s entirely likely that she moved to Germany to avoid family entanglements that involve at least one overbearing Jewish mother, intrusive friends and the macho camaraderie that erupts when she returns to Israel and joins a police unit comprised of military veterans from the same unit. Even after Sara proves herself worthy of their support, she’s trips the wire on a long-buried secret among the smug male detectives. The four telefilms require that she solve the murders of an Israeli deejay in Berlin; the police inspector in whose seat she now sits; an archeologist corrupted by fame and money; and a human rights activist whose severed hand and forearm wash up on a beach. Apart from the occasional subtitle, the films are easily relatable to audiences here.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilation, “Paw Patrol: Jungle Rescues,” is comprised of seven adventures that are set, you guessed it, in a jungle. It features a double-length episode, in which they’re also required to solve the mystery of the Monkey Queen. In other episodes, the patrol swings into action, when an enchanted coconut turns Mayor Humdinger into a baby; an elephant gets trapped on a jungle gym; and a gigantic ape wanders into Adventure Bay.

First released in 1995, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie has been passed around as if it were a movie in the public domain that suddenly got hot. The brand name, alone, has been monetized to the point where you’d think the law of diminishing returns would have kicked in years before the new Blu-ray release. Still, the franchise keeps bouncing around the world, in search of audiences that weren’t born when the last re-release was launched. In the U.S., it’s carried the fingerprints of several different units of Twentieth Century Fox (now Disney-21st Fox), Saban Entertainment and Toei Company. Twenty-four years after the show’s boom times, Shout! Factory has picked up distribution rights. It’s been presented theatrically, in VHS, on cable and broadcast television, on DVD and, finally, on Blu-ray. In it, a giant egg is unearthed at a construction site. When opened, it releases the terrible Ivan Ooze. who wreaks vengeance on Zordon — an inter-dimensional being and the ultimate fighter for good — for imprisoning him six millennia ago. He is the leader of most of the Power Ranger teams. As always, the live-action heroes skydive, skateboard and engage in hand-to-hand combat, after morphing into their color-coded Power Ranger alter egos. Here, they fight giant metallic monsters and a villain who smirks like Freddy Krueger and leaves gobs of purple goo in his wake. With Zordon dying and their powers lost, the Rangers head to a distant planet to find the mystic warrior, Dulcea. The Blu-ray includes, “The Mighty Leap to the Silver Screen,” a new 44-minute documentary that covers the script’s origins, casting, the Australian locations, Ivan Ooze’s makeup, stunts, the Rangers’ armored suits, reception at the movie’s premiere and interviews with director Bryan Spicer, stars Jason David Frank, Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Cardenas, Karan Ashley, Paul Freeman, Jason Narvy and some of the stunt performers; and the original 4½-minute promotional featurette.

The DVD Wrapup: Eleven, Genesis 2.0, Climax, Sweet Murder, Let Sunshine In, One Sings, Eugenie, JCVDx2, Boom!, Velvet … More

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Now that another Memorial Day is in the books, it’s worth remembering the combatants on both sides of the lines who were killed minutes before and after the ceasefires were called and armistices were signed. Someone had to be the last one to die and typically it was because of a mistake made by an overzealous officer or a soldier who wasn’t on the need-to-know list. It’s a tragedy compounded by ignorance or malice. I don’t know if the military records how such blunders occurred, or if. parents and spouses are alerted to the true nature of their loved one’s sacrifice. (We know that instances of friendly-fire casualties often are disguised.) Sean Cronin and Rock Salt’s Eleven is a small film on the recurring tragedy of bad timing. It dramatizes what happened on a single battlefield in France, I believe, in the 11 minutes leading up to and away from the World War I armistice. It went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of 1918, but negotiations on the terms of disengagement would take six more months. In Eleven, soldiers on both sides of the line knew it was coming and some resisted orders given at the very last moment to score one last tag. Although we aren’t shown the German officer who ordered his troops to prepare for a last-minute counterattack, we do meet the demented Brit who uses toy soldiers to prepares for the final assault. We are introduced to their immediate subordinates, who assume their directives are based on solid intelligence and never learned to say “no” to a dubious order. Nonetheless, they’re reluctant to pass them along to their men.

Filmed on a relatively compact piece of land on a micro-budget, we learn a little bit about the 11 men who died and a bit more about the one or two who survived. For some reason, the death-dealing shots are made to sound more like individual firecrackers or caps than loaded bullets, and the “assault” resembles a re-enactment by war buffs. Still, the sunshine of humanity occasional shines through the darkness. In the UK,  Eleven’s November 11, 2018, release coincided with the arrival of Peter Jackson’s more formidable documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which not only colorized black-and-footage from the Great War, but also added a hi-def sheen to the century-old images. (They both arrived on DVD and/or Blu-ray in time for Memorial Day.) Driven by a personal interest in the war, Jackson set out to re-create the day-to-day experiences of frontline British soldiers. After months immersed in the BBC and Imperial War Museum’s archives, Jackson was able to re-capture dialogue, and formulate narratives and strategies on how to tell this massive story. (Time restraints prohibited inclusion of restored footage of naval combat, the invention of aerial combat and the war effort at home, where women joined the workplace, leading directly to the success of the women’s suffrage movement.) They Shall Not Grow Old made almost $18 million in its U.S. release and, no doubt, more millions in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, both of which recorded terrible losses in the war. Eleven would be fortunate to break even. Both deserve to reach their intended audiences.

Genesis 2.0
The fact that woolly mammoths have been discovered intact and in pieces for hundreds of years doesn’t diminish the entertainment and educational value of Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev’s fascinating documentary, Genesis 2.0 (2018), one bit. It takes viewers to the remote New Siberian Islands, in the Arctic Ocean, where Native Siberian hunters scratch the permafrost surface – literally — searching for the tusks and intact carcasses of the long extinct behemoths. Global warming has made their jobs considerably easier. The hunters don’t appear to mind the presence of the filmmakers and scientists as they scour the frozen tundra for ancient ivory. They are far more cautious when it comes to revealing the exact locations of their finds, some of which are extremely valuable when sold in China and places where tusks are sculpted into jewelry, religious and historical treasures. One of the hunters reminds us of native mythology that cautions against touching or unearthing buried animals. In some digs, they leave behind ornaments and blessed soil. One estimate puts the annual harvest, if you will, at between 20-30 tons of mammoth ivory from the New Siberian Islands, of which the hunters reap only a few hundred dollars in return. Ethical questions are also addressed. The filmmakers visit facilities in Korea and China, where sequencing and stem-cell research have produced litters of puppies, some for sale to people, like Barbra Streisand, who can’t deal with the loss of a beloved pet. Researchers prefer to point out the work done on cures for Down’s syndrome and other diseases. It’s also possible that the genetic tools provided by long-frozen beasts, might free commercial interests to open their own versions of Jurassic Park or, perhaps, Mammoth Burgers franchises. Could vivisection be far behind?. I’d like someone to clone Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain and Seabiscuit, but Barbra and her rich friends’ puppies come first.

A Record of Sweet Murder: Blu-ray
When a Stranger Calls Back: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, in my review of Brink Video’s “Edwin Brienen Collection,” I lumped it together with a couple of films from Darkside Releasing, directed by Vince D’Amato, as examples of a new school of transgressive “entertainment.” The recent re-release of A Serbian Film (2010) also prompted a perusal of Internet sites that keep track of such supremely offensive titles. I couldn’t have known how soon I would be called upon to return to the subgenre. Turns out, not long, thanks to the ever-controversial Gaspar Noé, who, 15 years ago, earned a permanent place on most lists with Irreversible. In it, the events of one traumatic night in Paris unfold in reverse-chronological order, Monica Bellucci’s character is brutally raped and beaten by a stranger (Jo Prestia) in an underpass. Her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and ex-lover (Albert Dupontel) take matters into their own hands by hiring two criminals to help them find the rapist, so that they can exact revenge, in kind. Roger Ebert put himself in the minority, by giving Irreversible three stars and a heads-up to potential viewers attracted by Bellucci and Cassel. Among the many walkouts during its theatrical run were 200 members of the audience at its Cannes debut. Three others fainted during the same showing, which reportedly left everyone else sitting in almost complete silence, until the next movie was scheduled to start. By contrast, Climax received a standing ovation. It’s set in the mid-1990s, inside a rehearsal space of a closed school, where a racially diverse troupe of dancers is rehearsing to the pounding hip-hop music provided by a very large deejay. The dancers seem possessed with a divinely inspired surge of enthusiasm and energy that combines improvisation with ideas provided by Noe. Parts of it were shot in single 10-minute takes and from every conceivable angle. In my untrained opinion. it’s as exciting as anything in All That Jazz (1979), West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002).

Like the street artists who invented the locks, pops and robotic moves, in the first place, it doesn’t feel at all choreographed … which some of it was. Audition tapes give us an opportunity to meet the dancers as individuals, and not the characters they’ve been assigned. They all make their livings dancing, or try to, at least, but probably would do it for free. The exception of Algerian actress, dancer and model Sofia Boutella (Atomic Blond), who started her career in Capezios. Once the rehearsal ends, the dancers celebrate by sharing cups of sangria laced with something that combines the worst tendencies of meth, LSD, ecstasy and PCP. When it begins to kick in, Noe pulls the rug out from under the feet of his characters and audience. As he describes the transition: “The first part of Climax is like a roller-coaster, the second like a ghost train.” Noe’s also compared it to a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the humans revert to being apes and their natural forces re-emerge. One critic described that opposing halves as “Rent meets Lord of the Flies.” It’s nothing short of madness, as the stoned dancers try to discover the person who dosed the sangria and, then, turn against each other, largely based on racial and class distinctions. The soundtrack turns aggressively loud and the women’s screams are unbearable. Not only is Climax the first R-rated release in Noe’s career, but it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It made him suspect that he’d done something wrong. It’s interesting that he positioned the end credits to appear 2 minutes into the film; the main credits, 43 minutes later; and title card within the final 8 seconds. The featurette, “A Visceral Experience: Making Climax,” caps off the package.

Kôji Shiraishi’s Grotesque (2008) has appeared atop some lists I’ve seen, as well. If his Teketeke (2009), Occult (2009), Noroi: The Curse (2005), The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) and Sedako vs. Kayako (2016) have, so far, failed to make the cut, it’s only because they’ve been so rarely seen in the U.S. (It’s entirely possible that “SvK,” which pits the vengeful spirits of the Ring and Grudge series against each other, someday will be adapted for western audiences.) Critics found Shiraishi’s A Record of Sweet Murder (2014), newly released on DVD, to be something of letdown, but not for lack of trying on his part. His decision to shoot 95 percent of the film in a single take, in a single deserted apartment, drained a bit of the suspense from the film, as did the reliance on a found-footage narrative. (Yawn.) In it, the inarguably insane Sang-joon (Yeon Je-wook) has recently escaped from a Korean mental institution and, since then, has amassed a kill count of between 18 and 25 innocents, depending on who’s keeping score. He invites a childhood friend, South Korean investigative journalist Soyeon (Kkobbi Kim), to meet with him in an abandoned apartment building, with a Japanese cameraman (the mostly unseen Kôji Shiraishi) and no other recording devices. Turns out the criminal and reporter are linked by a childhood tragedy, involving the accidental death of a playmate, and Sang-joon wants his captives to bear witness to the final two murders on a list he believes was handed down to him by God. When then happens, he expects, their little playmate will be resurrected and return to him. He predicts that the final two killings will involve a pair of Japanese lovebirds (Ryôtarô Yonemura, adult star Tsukasa Aoi), who will  mysteriously be attracted to the fifth floor of the same building. The only other things to know are that the totally nutso Sang-joon continually threatens his unarmed captives with a carving knife and cleaver, and that his Japanese guests have criminal backgrounds, as well, but favor slashing knives and baseball bats. The weapons may have been made of rubber here, but they appear to be razor-sharp stainless steel. The Unearthed Films package arrives without extras.

When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) doesn’t really fit in a summary alongside Climax and A Record of Sweet Murder, except in its willingness to jack up the levels of suspense to the limit. It is a belated sequel to co-writer/director Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979), which fit right in with the emerging women-in-jeopardy trend. If viewers of Record of Sweet Murder, viewers never know which bodily appendage will sliced off next, or orifice violated, the menace in “Stranger” derives from more traditional conceits. Here, an unseen fiend begins to harass a babysitter almost as soon the parents leave the driveway. Their two children are already asleep upstairs, so the high school student, Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), has nothing to distract her from the stalker lurking outside. The incessant ringing of a telephone, backed by a scary musical soundtrack, not only begins to unnerve the girl, but it has the same effect on viewers. By the time the parents return home, their kids have been butchered and Jill has come within seconds of sharing the same fate. Charles Durning played the cop who prevented the prowler from doing to Jill what was done to the children. Seven years later, in the same 94-minute span, the killer escapes the mental hospital in which he’s been incarcerated and returns to terrorize the now-married Jill, who has kids of her own. Once again, Durning intervenes. Pretty simple, huh? Even though When a Stranger Calls returned nearly 20 times its production budget, but co-writer/director Walton found it difficult to sell a sequel to Columbia and other major studios. The moment had passed. The only company to show him some love for When a Stranger Calls Back was Showtime, which, in 1993, was just beginning to experiment with original movies. Then, as now, the premium-cable service was a place where exhausted subgenres never went out of style. In the sequel, Jill (still Kane) works for a victim’s-rights agency, while Durning’s cop, John Clifford, has retired. Even though she was approaching 30 years old at the time, Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) fit the role of a babysitter, who, when summoned, didn’t have time to change out of her school uniform. Once again, the babysitter – newly named, Julia Jenz – is taunted by an invisible antagonist … two, actually. One is standing behind the front door, demanding to be allowed inside to call AAA. It’s only when Julia agrees to call the service, herself, that the threatening calls begin. Once again, the sitter escapes death. Four years later, the still-traumatized Julia begins to receive threats from someone who knows that she’s a sitting duck in a dorm room. Police recommend that she contact Jill, who asks Durning for some help. After revisiting the scene of the original crime, he concludes that the assailant is a ventriloquist who knows how to blend into his surroundings. If When a Stranger Calls Back wasn’t as graphic as today’s cable-TV standards would allow, it probably raised more than a few goosebumps. The climax, which Walton says was influenced by the supermodel Veruschka (Blow-Up), is pretty clever. Simon West’s 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls, starring Camilla Belle, Katie Cassidy and Clark Gregg, made some money by sticking to a modest $15-million budget. Critics didn’t like it, though, even if cellphones were integrated into the story. The newly remastered Scream Factory Blu-ray is presented in its original 1.33:1, for TV broadcast, and an alternate 1.78:1 theatrical version; interviews with Walton, Kane and Schoelen; and Walton’s gritty 1977 short film, The Sitter, which concisely set up the first 20 minutes of the 1979 feature.

Let the Sunshine In: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When the great purge of full-time, adequately paid movie critics began in the mid-’90s and continued into the ’2000s, the primary reason given by the editors of mainstream publications was to save money on salaries and benefits. Local voices were lost, but syndicated reviews cost almost nothing and freelancers even less. Other unstated reasons included basic disagreements between features editors and news editors as to the value of reviews. The latter relied on box-office tallies in USA Today to determine quality, without also watching the movies, themselves. Some editors considered critics to be too effete for their readers tastes, and, as such, expendable when studio advertising began to shrink. (An editor once fumed to me about the lack of quotes pulled from our pundits’ reviews by studios for inclusion in the display ads placed in Sunday and Friday features sections. The alternative was for critics to inflate the value of stars attached to “popular” releases and deflating the stars accorded arthouse films. Occasionally, an overly vague sentence or paragraph would be added, so advertisers could tailor it to their needs. Some reviewers became notorious for their leniency.) Some editors went so far as to justify the firing of white, male critics – and the occasional white woman – by saying they wanted to diversify the paper’s voice. What they didn’t want to do, however, was pay for the luxury. The promise of a Golden Age of Internet Criticism loomed, but not for long. Pretty soon, the number of unpaid critics – in all of the artistic disciplines – surpassed the number of staff reviewers. Advertising flowed into a handful of websites, while others simply disappeared or stopped paying for content. Fans of arthouse, indie and documentary films were required to rely on reviews and articles in local alternative and niche media for sound opinions. Sadly, they also began laying off critics and reducing the space to accommodate brief summaries of select films, plays, exhibits and concerts. which, today, are mere skeletons of their former selves. Blessedly, such aggregators as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have filled some of the vacuum left by the Great Purge by redefining “mainstream” and separating critic reviews and audience reviews.

After watching Criterion Collection’s impressive Blu-ray editions of Claire Denis’ brilliant 2017 drama/comedy/romance Let the Sunshine In (a.k.a., “Bright Sunshine Within”) and Agnès Varda’s 1977 historical drama One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, I really wanted to learn what women critics thought of these very different, if similarly feminist films. The latter was released before aggregators came into vogue, so I’ll let Roger Ebert’s then-contemporary four-star review and Carmen Gray’s recent analysis on stand as consensus. (Most of the other nine critics based their ratings on DVD releases and revivals. Only a single audience response was recorded and only Ebert, Gray, Dave Kehr and Justin Chang were designated “top critics.”) Of the 46 reviews by Metacritic contributors, only 6 were written by women. Rotten Tomatoes tends to cast wider net. In its look at Let the Sunshine In, which includes several newspapers, magazines and websites in the UK and Australia, the ratio of men-to-women was slightly better, but not by much. The 134 conclusions by “all critics,” derive, as well, from vanity and other niche websites, 87 percent of which certified it “fresh.” An audience score of 30 percent  — 582 responses, presumably many from home viewers – baffled, but didn’t surprise me. What could they have been expecting? On Metacritic, only 11 “amateurs” bothered to respond, with 5 positive, 5 negative and a single middling review. The interesting thing to me was the contrasting opinions of men and women critics. Men seemed to focus less on the foibles of the individual characters and more on the tour-de-force performance by Binoche, who, for obvious reasons, has never been afraid to play her age (55). While women critics also admire Binoche’s portrayal of the lonely, love-starved, but not-at-all brittle divorcee, many of them found it difficult for one inarguably desirable woman to make so many bad choices in lovers, who come in several different sizes, shapes, ages and colors. All of the critics took their time to express their opinions, even when they were negative, and found it to be a worthwhile viewing experience.

Let the Sunshine In was adapted from Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments” by novelist Christine Angot and frequent Denis collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau. In my opinion, which isn’t part of the aggregators’ tallies, Isabelle goes through lovers like some serial killers go through victims: obsessed one minute, pissed off the next. Once Isabelle mind is made up, the men are dead in her eyes. Viewers will generally, if not always agree with her assessments. Her ex-husband may be total dick, but it’s easy to see why they agreed on a divorce. What we don’t understand is why she keeps having hit-and-run sex with him. She’s given him custody of their daughter and, in return, doesn’t have to pay rent in the building they once shared. He refuses to return his set of keys to her and walks in whenever he feels like it. From a distance, Isabelle’s only guilty of looking for love in all the wrong faces and allowing her libido to overcome reason. She asserts her independence by favoring short leather skirts and jackets, black stockings, over-the-knee boots, colorful scarves and ironic t-shirts. If Binoche weren’t as beautiful as she is – with silky smooth skin and impeccable makeup – Isabelle might have resembled one of those sad cougars on “Real Housewives.” When her tears ravish her cosmetics, however, she looks 15 years older than when’s she out on the town. (Much credit for this transformation is owed cinematographer Agnès Godard.) Finally, after yet another lover has failed to impose his conditions on their relationship – or burdened her with his neuroses – Isabelle visits a psychic (Gérard Depardieu), who reads her like a book and doesn’t hold back on his opinions. He  neatly sums up her problems in the romance department, while also advising to keep on keeping on. The clairvoyant sees better luck in her future, but he can’t say when or with whom (probably not married lechers, though). It’s an amazingly well-scripted, exquisitely acted sequence, which benefits, as Binoche allows in an interview, from time spent together with Depardieu in an earlier, more intimate setting. In some ways, I think, Let the Sunshine In bears comparison to Francois Truffaut’s underseen The Man Who Loved Woman (1977) and kinda-sorta of John Trent’s difficult-to-find Middle Age Crazy (1980), which, I’m sure, wasn’t on Denis’ radar. The Criterion package adds a pair of newly recorded and absolutely essential interviews with Denis and Binoche; Denis’ incisive short film, “Voilà l’enchaînement,” which depicts what can happen in an interracial marriage, when misread signals come between spouses; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

As dated as Vardas’ One Sings, the Other Doesn’t may seem to women who came of age after Roe v. Wade, it might feel like yesterday for their mothers, grandmothers and aunties who struggled for the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, as well as the ill-fated ERA and equal pay for equal work. That includes the ranks of staunch feminists, harried housewives and hippies, who decided it was time to make their own way in life, trying not to let male-dominated legislatures get the best of them. Now that the right to an abortion is more threatened than it’s been in nearly a half-century – at least, in the states controlled by right-wing troglodytes – such discussions have returned to relevancy. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t follows the intertwined lives of two young Parisian women, who become close friends in 1962, but, in most respects, are opposites. Pauline/Pomme (Valerie Mairesse) is a red-headed 17-year-old spitfire, who befriends a dour 22-year-old neighbor, Suzanne (Therese Liotard), who is the unmarried mother of two toddlers and once-again pregnant. Her married photographer lover, Jerome (Robert Dadies), can barely afford to maintain one family, let alone two, so, when Pauline suggests an illegal abortion, her hesitancy only comes from a lack of money and proximity to a safe clinic. Pauline lies to her parents to get the money, but the procedure is performed too late to prevent Jerome from committing suicide. His inability to secure a divorce and make money as a commercial photographer – not the abortion, which may have been shielded from him — have forced him over the edge. The women will go their own separate ways, meeting up occasionally to let the audience know what they’ve been up to and where they’ve been. Nothing remarkable, considering the times, but interesting.

By the mid-1970s, when they hook up once again, Pomme is part of traveling group of talented activist singers, busking their way around Europe. She was married to a Persian man, Darius (Ali Rafie), and moved with him to pre-Ayatollah Iran. After deciding that life there was untenable, Pauline decides to go home. He agrees to let her go, but demands that she leave their son in Isfahan, which is what happens. Suzanne and her two children struggle for a while on a relative’s subsistence farm, before she self-teaches her way to a stable life as administer of a family-care center in the south. By the time Suzanne’s daughter and son have grown into their teens, France is a completely different place for women than it was when she was their age. The trials and tribulations of motherhood haven’t gotten any easier, however. The 2K restoration was supervised by Varda, who died this past March 29, at 90, and cinematographer Charlie Van Damme. It adds a pair of short films, “Women Are Naturally Creative” (1977), a documentary directed by Katja Raganelli, featuring an interview with Varda shot during the making of the film, plus on-set interviews with actors Mairesse and Liotard; “Réponse de femmes” (1975), on the question “What is a woman?”; “Plaisir d’amour en Iran” (1976), another short film by Varda, starring Mairesse and Ali Raffi; and an essay by critic Amy Taubin, with excerpts from the film’s original press book

Eugenie … The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion
On the face of it,  Eugenie … The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1970) is only slightly more watchable today than a dozen other soft-core flicks from Jesús Franco’s sexploitation mill. It differs tonally from the early erotica of Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet) and Chuck Vincent (While the Cat’s Away ...), and mid-career Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), if only in Franco’s obsession with edgy pre-Victorian literature and a willingness to cast a wide net for actors. The same casting formula was used to sell Italian genre pictures outside Italy and Spain. Eugenie … (a.k.a., “De Sade 70”) benefits from the presence of expatriate American Jack Taylor (Succubus); Stockholm-born Marie Liljedahl, who’d already appeared in Joseph W. Sarno’s Inga and The Seduction of Inga; prolific Swiss character actor Paul Muller (Moses, the Lawgiver); and Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man). Lee has said that he was under the impression his only responsibility was to narrate Sade’s writings and was surprised to see his name attached to what was being marketed in London as a porno. Lee further explains that the scenes in which naked bodies are shown writhing behind him – wearing a smoking jacket borrowed from Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) – were staged to prevent him from seeing a quick removal of costumes. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Of all the cast members, however, Vienna-born Maria Rohm is the most intriguing. The classically trained ingenue was content to settle for a career on stage, until, at age18, she auditioned before writer/producer Harry Alan Towers (a.k.a., Peter Welbeck). The 50-year-old Brit (The Face of Fu Manchu) was about to make a hard-right turn into the exploitation business, hitching his wagon to Franco’s perverse story-telling genius and Rohm’s professional approach to some pretty seedy material. (That, and her slinky 5-foot-6 frame, golden-blond hair and steely reserve.) Before her retirement, in 1976, to join her husband in the producers’ office, she’d worked alongside an odd lot of international stars: including Lee, Klaus Kinski, Vincent Price, Jack Palance, Tony Randall, Senta Berger, Herbert Lom, James Darren, Frankie Avalon, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Barbara McNair and Oliver Reed. Broken down to its essentials, Eugenie … describes what happens when the virginal teenager, Eugenie (Liljedahl) is summoned to an isolated island off the Spanish coast, by an aunt (Rohm) who’s decided she isn’t maturing fast enough into womanhood. Little time is wasted breaking the girl into the cult of DeSade, organized by her aunt, her “brother” and a bunch of S&M devotees, who dress up in pirate outfits and show up after the girl’s meals have been dosed. Franco and Towers saw the torture scenes as being part of Eugenie’s coming-of-age process. They’re reasonably hard-core, without drifting into XXX territory. Cinematographer Manuel Merino (Vampyros Lesbos) captures much of the island’s natural light, while also adding some psychedelic tricks during the torture scenes. The Blue Underground Blu-ray package adds a new video interview with film historian Stephen Thrower; archival interviews with Franco and Towers; cast and crew interviews; a large collection of promotional materials; a CD, featuring Bruno Nicolai’s soundtrack; and an 18-page illustrated booklet with writings on the film and technical credits.

Double Impact: MVD Rewind Collection: Blu-ray
Way back when I was a lad, I found myself in the same Pasadena bank as the Doublemint Twins. Presumably, their contributions to Wells Fargo’s solvency were exponentially larger than mine would ever be, then and now. Although I had known twins of both genders while growing up, I’m embarrassed to recall that I stared at them as if they had just escaped from the midway of a traveling circus. That isn’t to say they were freakish in any way, shape or form. Being in the presence of beauty-squared – especially in its most apple-pie wholesome form – almost brought me to my knees. I’m sure they were as unaware of the damage done to American teeth by chewing gum, as they were of my presence that day. The twin fighting machines on display in Sheldon Lettich’s Double Impact (1991) were separated as infants after a Triad hit squad attacked their parents’ limousine. Their mother begs the gang’s leader to spare the twins, but Moon (Bolo Yeung) is in no position to disobey his boss’ orders. In all the confusion, baby Chad is rescued by the family bodyguard, Frank Avery (Geoffrey Lewis), and raised in the U.S. At the same time, Baby Alex is dropped off on the doorstep of a Hong Kong orphanage by the family maid. Despite the miles separating them, the boys grow up in ways that argue a predisposition for martial arts and body building can be shared by twins, along with a handsome face and good hair. In the present day, Chad and Frank are running a successful martial-arts dojo and fitness center in Los Angeles, when Frank reveals a new “business” for the two of them in Hong Kong. At a financially appropriate time, Frank not only tells Chad that he isn’t his uncle, but, upon their return to Hong Kong, he should expect to meet his long-lost brother, Alex. Things get exceptionally complicated at this point, even by the standards established by chop-socky action flicks. Suffice it to say that the brothers quarrel before teaming up to avenge the deaths of their parents and wipe out the triad’s criminal operations. Lettich and JCVD’s screenplay leaves room for a pair of lethal women (Alonna Shaw, recent Ms. Olympia Corinna Everson) and a cameo by that June’s Penthouse Pet of the Month, Julie Strain. The Hong Kong scenery isn’t bad, either. The MVD Rewind package adds the two-part “The Making of Double Impact,” deleted and extended scenes, “Anatomy of a Scene” and a “collectible” mini-poster.

Boom!: Blu-ray
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything: Julie Newmar: Blu-ray
No less an expert on outré entertainment than John Waters has cited Boom! (1968) as one of the “best films you’ve never seen.” (The same title as Robert K. Elder’s anthology on the subject.) It doesn’t seem possible that any British drama, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward, directed by Joseph Losey, and adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, could be so savagely dismissed by critics and audiences as Boom! Waters explains the film’s singular appeal thusly, “… beyond bad. It’s the other side of camp. It’s beautiful, atrocious, and it’s perfect. It’s a perfect movie, really, and I never tire of it.” The film’s poster is visible in Waters’ 1972 outrage, Pink Flamingos, and he has introduced it to understandably skeptical cineastes at festivals around the world. Taylor’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth is a fabulously wealthy and thoroughly eccentric widow, who lives in a spectacular clifftop house on the Mediterranean island she owns (a.k.a., Sardinia). When the acrophobic Goforth isn’t too drunk or high, she dictates the words to a book to her beleaguered secretary (Joanna Shimkus). One day, the poet Chris Flanders (Burton) washes up on the beach below her villa, climbs the 1,000-foot cliff below it and reminds Sissy that she’d invited him to visit her, whenever he’s in the neighborhood. It’s an invitation she almost immediately regrets, especially after Coward’s “Queen of Capri” informs her of Flanders’ reputation as an Angel of Death, who guides rich and sickly spinsters to the afterlife. Add the wonderfully talented dwarf actor, Michael Dunn (“The Wild Wild West”), and you’ve got a movie that is more entertaining today than it was 50 years ago, when very different things were expected of the principals, Waters provides the commentary; “The Sound of a Bomb,” with critic Alonso Duralde; and three photo galleries.

President Trump and his Republican cronies are so phobic about the thought of having to share a rest room with a transsexual, transvestite or drag queen that they pushed for laws that would prevent such things from ever happening to anyone in the MAGA rabble. The controversy may be rekindled before the 2020 elections, but as long as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” remains on television, the next generation of voters isn’t likely to take the homophobic bait. It’s even gotten difficult to find shows that are targeted at young-adult audiences that don’t include one or more LGBTQ characters. La Cage aux Folles (1978), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), Paris Is Burning (1990), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) The Birdcage (1996) and Kinky Boots (2005) all went a long way toward changing attitudes toward gender-fluid people that mainstream Americans may not have encountered in their normal day-to-day activities. Beeban Kidron and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), which bears an uncanny resemblance to “Pricillla,” must have confused fans of macho guys Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing), John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet) and Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump) as much as Aussies who weren’t accustomed to seeing  Hugo Weaving, Terrence Stamp and Guy Pearce in gowns, heels and makeup. In the former, Vida (Swayze), Chi-Chi (Leguizamo) and Noxeema (Snipes) hit the road linking New York to Hollywood in a broken-down Cadillac. Naturally, they encounter a redneck cop (Chris Penn), who stops them for speeding, but is willing to forgive the offense for a quickie. After he discovers his mistake, the bully is knocked flat for his efforts. (It isn’t easy for him to explain the situation to his chief and fellow deputies.) The ladies find a temporary home in a Midwestern farm town, which they transform into their personal Brigadoon. The Shout Factory edition of “To Wong Foo” arrives with deleted scenes; the making-of featurette, “Easy Rider In Dresses”; and marketing material.

MHz: Miss Friman’s War
MHz: Velvet: Seasons 1-4
MHz: Captain Marleau, Volumes 1-2
PBS: Frontline: The Trial of Ratko Mladic
Typically, before reviewing season-long compilations of television shows and mini-series, I prefer to do a bit of binging, first. If I were to binge my way through the trio of compilations I received last weekend from MHz Video, it would require 5,376 minutes of my not-so-precious time. That translates to 89.6 hours, or nearly 4 complete days, of staying glued to my television. OK, sometimes I’ll watch two shows simultaneously – one in English and the other subtitled – on my living-room unit and portable Blu-ray player. That isn’t an excuse for giving short shrift to any one of them … or, maybe, it is. Judging from the amount of material I’ve been able to absorb, however, I can safely recommend “Miss Friman’s War,” “Velvet” and “Captain Marleau” to fans of quality television who aren’t allergic to subtitles. Two of them involve the running of stores … large and small, on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

The surprisingly addictive “Miss Friman’s War” traces the roots of  Sweden’s feminist movement to 1905, when a diverse group of women takes on the male-dominated Grocer’s Association, by opening a coop dedicated to providing fresh meat, fruit and produce, as well as other dry and canned goods and other merchandise, to women from diverse backgrounds. Children are dying of TB, while their fathers drink away the money that they’ve forced them to earn. The only food they’re able to afford is rancid or camouflaged to look edible and, of course, city officials and purveyors can’t be bothered. It prompts characters played Sissela Kyle, Frida Hallgren, Lena T. Hansson and Maria Kulle to organize a women’s solidarity organization and take on the men, including one or two husbands, constantly throwing hurdles in their way. In pre-World War I Europe, anyone harboring such anti-establishment feelings could be tarred for espousing Marxist ideals, threatening paternalistic families and dismantling class barriers. The melodramatic touches include the rekindling of long-dormant romance, the adoption of a mistreated boy; working-class romance; adultery; and the coming-around of a love-starved chauvinist. In Season Two and beyond, the women of the cooperative grocery store begin to campaign for women’s equal and universal suffrage, as well as the right to run for public offices; take on corrupt officials, some of whom force young women into prostitution; labor unions; and rumors of revolution.

“Velvet” is easy to recommend to fans of “Mr Selfridge,” “The Paradise” and other prime-time soaps for the BBC/PBS crowd.   It is set in late-1950s Madrid, during Spain’s golden age of haute couture, a period when Franco’s privileged patrons enjoyed pretending that they were too busy to shop in Paris, London or New York. Like Selfridge’s, Velvet’s management dotes on its wealthy patrons, whose tastes in haute couture haven’t changed in decades. With the swinging ’60s just around the corner, Velvet will have to change with the times or perish. That’s only one of several storylines that propel the mini-series. The rest mostly involve love, broken promises, adultery, deception and jealousy … the standard stuff. Unlike Selfridge’s, rank-and-file employees live, work and canoodle under the same roof. As in “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” conditions are strict, without also being draconian. The women’s supervisor may be as rigid as they come, but her secrets are coming home to roost, like so many chickens. The men’s supervisor is more malleable, except when it comes to his niece, Ana (Paula Echevarría), whose happiness he blocks at every step. After the suicide of the store’s founder, his heir, Alberto (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), comes to believe that he and Anna can rekindle their long-simmering childhood romance. Instead, their hopes are dashed, when Alberto is offered a deal to rescue Velvet from bankruptcy, if only he agrees to marry the benefactor’s daughter. While there isn’t anything remotely wrong with Cristina (Manuela Velasco), with whom Alberto shares a romantic past, he will inevitably find his way back to Anna, once again threatening the store’s solvency, Very soapy, indeed. Two of the story’s greatest assets are its glorious Art Deco décor and mid-century fashions.

From France, “Captain Marleau” is the latest in a long line of TV mysteries, whose protagonist’s methodology bears a distinct resemblance to that of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo. As portrayed by Corinne Masiero, Marleau is a high-ranking officer in the National Gendarmerie, with a hunter’s instinct. It comes disguised under a deliberately offbeat veneer and a hat inspired by Elmer Fudd. Like so many other TV cops, she’s a real piece of work. (As is also the case in such shows, the coroner is deceptively wise and funny.) Marleau doesn’t skim over cases, she plunges into them. Always on the prowl, she lies in wait for clues and her prey, until she can take them by surprise. In each episode, her case centers around a character played by a famous actor: Gérard Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, Victoria Abril, Bruno Todeschini, Pierre Arditi, Sandrine Bonnaire, Julie Depardieu, Yolande Moreau and David Suchet.

The PBS “Frontline” presentation, “The Trial of Ratko Mladic” describes how a legal case against a widely recognized war criminal can go from no-brainer to nail-biter over the course of 22 years. The media had long branded Mladic, “Butcher of Bosnia,” and deemed him responsible for war crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was convened in The Hague, was less willing to declare a verdict, even in absentia. The first indictment of Mladic was issued by the ICTY on July 24, 1995, but he escaped capture until May 26, 2011, after which he was promptly extradited to the Netherlands. His trial formally opened in The Hague on 16 May 2012. It would take another five years to convict Mladic on 10 of 11 very serious charges. They included one of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide. What … how did that happen? Watch this documentary and learn.

The DVD Wrapup: Big Brother, Iceman, Upside, White Chamber, Trading Paint, Dark Place, Ruben Brandt, Lords of Chaos, Earthquake, Seduction, Les Miz … More

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Big Brother: Blu-ray
Anyone able to visualize a movie that combines elements of To Sir, With Love (1967), Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995) and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” with Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man trilogy, will have a pretty good idea of what happens in Big Brother. I’d also toss Blackboard Jungle (1955) into the mix, but Kam Ka-Wai and Chan Tai-lee’s action/dramedy is set in a Hong Kong middle school and only handful of the kids could be considered juvenile delinquents. Like several of the protagonists in the movies already mentioned, Yen’s Henry Chen is a combat veteran. He’d performed heroic acts, but finally was traumatized by the toll paid by civilians caught in the crossfire. (His guardian had shipped the rambunctious youth to a military academy in the U.S., after which he joined the Marine Corps.) After taking time off to travel and reflect on his wartime experiences, he returns to Hong Kong, where volunteers to teach at the same school from which he was expelled. After years of neglect and understaffing, the school is in danger of losing its funding. I can’t recall whether Chen has a degree or was trained as a teacher, but he’s committed to using unconventional methods to reach the dead-enders. Typically, some of them relate immediately to his personable hands-on approach, while the hard-core elements show no interest in progressing. Chen, who appears to be everywhere at once, goes out of his way to explore what’s happening their lives at home and during the time they’re not doing homework. Not surprisingly, he learns how the most troublesome students have been impacted by the death or departure of a parent; a father’s alcoholism; another’s refusal to treat his daughter with the same positivity shown her brother; and one boy’s early acceptance in a street gang, whose leader is being paid by a developer to make the school disappear. It’s at this point that Yen’s martial-arts experience comes in handy. It allows Chen to overcome obstacles by kicking the crap out of the gangsters, who come at him in human waves when he disrupts their plans. His willingness to go to war for the students who’ve disrupted his classroom inspires everyone else in the school … kids, teachers and administrators. Now, if that makes Big Brother sound hopelessly contrived and overtly pollyannaish, it’s probably because we’ve seen the same movie a couple dozen times, already … hundreds, if you count “Kotter” reruns. The difference can be boiled down to Yen’s winning personality and inventive martial-arts choreography. As envisioned by Kam (Queen of Triads) and Chan (Ip Man), the middle-school students are cleverly drawn, worthy of our sympathy and deceptively vulnerable to outside forces. The antagonist’s foot soldiers are credibly nasty and, while no match for the hero, well-schooled in the martial arts and MMA fighting. In a satisfying, if tenuous narrative stretch, the gang leader (Yu Kang) has a secret connection to Chen, which extends to their days together in the same school. Their climactic fight is genuinely exciting and realistic.

You might have heard of Ötzi, the mummified corpse discovered 28 years ago, in the Ötztal Alps – hence the name — near the border separating Austria and Italy. For the better part of the last 5,300 years, Ötzi has been hiding in plain sight on the east ridge of the Fineilspitze. His body was found on September 19, 1991, by two German tourists, at an elevation of 3,210 meters (10,530 feet). The hikers, who had wandered off the path between the Hauslabjoch and Tisenjoch passes, saw a bone extending from the frozen earth and notified authorities. It would take a while to determine the significance of the discovery, so Ötzi was transported to Innsbruck, together with objects found alongside the body, including an ax. Seven years later, Ötzi was put on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Bolzano, Italy. By then, forensics experts felt certain that he had bled out after being struck by an arrow. They also were able to determine what he’d eaten before he was attacked, where the food had been collected, how he made his living and the significance of his tattoos. All of these findings would inform Felix Randau’s fascinating Neolithic drama, Iceman (a.k.a., “Der Mann aus dem Eis”), which depicts what may have happened to Ötzi – here, named Kelab (Jürgen Vogel) — in the hours and days before his death. It was shot in the same mountains, at various elevations, that the keeper of his clan’s flame called home. Whatever hopes and dreams Kelab may have harbored were thwarted, when, while hunting, a marauding trio of savages pillaged his clan’s riverside outpost. They killed the men and raped the women; stole their valuables; desecrated their property; and set fire to the tents and shelters. The only survivor, beside Kelab, an infant child. The baby would accompany him, as he pursued the killers into further reaches of the valley. The mountains, which are spectacular, grow increasingly more threatening the higher Kelab treks and the weather begins to turn on him. The story benefits from not having to fake translatable dialogue and add subtitles. The guttural exchanges are a primitive form of an early Rhaetian dialect. Kelab hands off the child to the daughter of the leader of a down-river clan – played augustly by Franco Nero – freeing him to use stealth to exact his revenge. Anyone who enjoyed such movies as The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) and Quest for Fire (1981), which took place even earlier, should really get a kick out of Iceman. The DVD adds a bonus making-of featurette.

The Upside: Blu-ray
Not knowing much about The Upside before slipping the Blu-ray into the slot of my weary playback unit, it didn’t take long before experiencing the unmistakable sense of déjà vu. Sure enough, a quick visit to revealed it to be a fully credited transplant of Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s worldwide sensation Les Intouchables (2011), which also spawned Argentine director Marcos Carnevale’s Inseparables (2016) and Oopiri (2016), by Indian director Vamshi Paidipally and co-writer, Hami. Neil Burger and writer Jon Hartmere’s English-language adaptation only demonstrates how much Hollywood owes France, when it comes to such bright and lively adult entertainments: La Cage aux Folles (“The Birdcage”), Le Diner de Cons (“Dinner for Schmucks”), Les Compères (“Father’s Day”), Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire (“The Man with One Red Shoe”), among many others. The Upside, which starred Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman, did very well in domestic release, despite decidedly lukewarm reviews. Several American critics griped that The Upside merely represented the latest Hollywood effort to show that a black man and a white man, with seemingly nothing in common, can see past their differences and develop a mutual friendship …” (The Wrap).

Even if The Upside were an accurate portrayal of Hollywood liberalism in action, it’s more likely that its producers and audience were, once again, on a different wavelength than mainstream pundits. Some knee-jerk critics reject such notions as odd couplings actually exist in real life; that white males in power do occasionally come to the rescue of minority men and women in distress; and that easily conned white viewers can’t see through such blatant agitprop. The same dubious wisdom was dismissed by AMPAS voters as recently as the naming of Green Book for their choice of Best Picture. The more likely reason for re-adapting Les Intouchables was the ability of studio executives to recognize a sure thing when BoxOfficeMojo alerts them to one. Of the $426.6 million the French soufflé grossed worldwide, a not-so-bad $10.2 million was collected in the U.S. Even with largely unrecognizable stars and subtitles, that sum, alone, probably covered its production costs.  By adding three recognized box-office favorites and maintaining a modest budget of $37.5 million, not counting reasonable marketing costs, studio bean-counters probably foresaw profitable returns from cross-over audiences. The strategy worked to the tune of a $108.3 million domestic haul and another $13.9 million in foreign sales. With numbers like that, Hollywood execs will gladly wear the tar of liberality.

In The Upside, a recently paroled ex-convict, Dell (Kevin Hart), struggles to gain the signatures of three companies or individuals who’ve placed help-wanted notices. That’s he’s more interested in collecting signatures to maintain his freedom, than actually earning a paycheck, is evidenced when stumbles into an interview with quadriplegic billionaire Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his highly protective financial adviser, Yvonne Pendleton (Kidman). Because Phillip isn’t all that interested in prolonging his life any longer than is necessary, he recognizes in Dell someone who wouldn’t care if he lives or dies, either. This attitude amuses Phillip, almost as much as it disturbs Yvonne, who uses baseball metaphors to suggest that Dell is being given three strikes to avoid being fired. When he asks how much he would be paid, Dell is struck dumb by Phillip’s generosity. For most of the next two reels, the three characters trade barbs, witticisms and challenges … some funnier than the others. When Dell discovers Phillip’s expensive automobile collection in the garage, he asks the onetime daredevil if he’d like to take a hot lap around Manhattan in one of the sports cars. With the lead-footed Dell at the controls and nothing to lose, in any case, Phillip digs the adrenal juice that flows inside him. The rest of The Upside is easily predictable, even by viewers unfamiliar with the original. A sentimental twist at the end, while satisfying, can be seen from several miles away, as well. Still, the chemistry between the stars – two of whom would argue they’re playing against type — keeps things from getting slogged down in handwringing, heart wrenching and mind-numbing melodrama. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a gag reel; featurettes, “Onscreen Chemistry: Kevin and Bryan,” “Creating a Story of Possibility,” “Bridging Divisions,” “Embracing Positivity” and “Presenting a Different Side of Kevin Hart.”

White Chamber: Blu-ray
Paul Raschid’s techno-thriller, White Chamber, is set against the background of a civil war in the United Kingdom, triggered, in part, by an uprising of oppressed immigrants. That much we know from a few flashbacks and news footage. Otherwise, the story is set in a glass, steel and concrete penal facility, at the center of which is a rather large plexiglass cube. It has been fitted out with implements of psychological and emotional torture, as well as some two-way compartments that can be used to transfer food and utensils. Lying on the floor is an anonymous woman (Shauna Macdonald), who claims to be a clerical worker, but is being for grilled for information she swears she doesn’t possess. Because her inquisitor (Oded Fehr) feels otherwise, he punishes her by controlling the temperature inside the cell, alternating between Arctic and rain-forest conditions, as well as starvation and spiking what food she is given with hallucinogens. Then, without warning, the inquisitor – revealed as a leader of the insurgents – has switched places with the woman. Now, we know her as Dr. Elle Chrystler, a chilly scientist who’s about to lose control of her experiments to the whims of subordinates. To the extent that White Chamber works, at all, it’s because of forceful performances by Macdonald (The Descent) and Fehr (“Sleeper Cell”), which bypass the need for most explanations. Comparisons to the British game show “The Cube,” as well as the sci-fi/drama/thriller Cube, are impossible to ignore. That shouldn’t bother fans of the series or, for that matter, torture.

Trading Paint:  Blu-ray
God knows, anyone with a private air force in his back yard probably doesn’t need anyone telling him which movies he should or should not make. Fabulously wealthy people do what they want, when they want to do it and for reasons known only to them. For most of the last 10 years, John Travolta has been the recipient of slings and arrows from critics and fans who wonder what went wrong with his roller-coaster career and why he keeps repeating his mistakes. For every return to form – “American Crime Story,” “Hairspray,” “Get Shorty,” “Pulp Fiction” – there’s been several times that many more stinkers. Feeling obligated to watch such kamikaze missions as Gotti (2018), Speed Kills (2018), I Am Wrath (2016), Life on the Line (2015) and Battlefield Earth (2000) must be tortuous duty for Travolta’s diehard admirers and completists. One can only hope that some of the money that isn’t spent on jet fuel, goes directly into the Jett Travolta Foundation, which raises money for children with educational needs. (A similar tithe should be exacted from actors and state film commissions that benefit from such fan-bait movies.)

Apparently, Travolta has been feeling an acute need for speed, lately. In Speed Kills, which was partially shot in Puerto Rico and Miami, he plays Cigarette-boat designer and multimillionaire crook Ben Aronoff. Trading Paint was made on location in Alabama, a state that loves its redneck pastimes, but won’t be seeing much Hollywood money until its misogynistic leaders retire or die. The title, Trading Paint, derives from NASCAR jargon, describing what happens when drivers play bump-and-run with other competitors’ cars. Lifelessly directed by Karzan Kader (Bekas), who was born in Kurdistan and raised in Sweden, it’s a classic tale of a father/son rivalry that escalates beyond the point of any reason. Travolta plays veteran short-track racer Sam Munroe, whose son, Cam (Toby Sebastian), is getting impatient, waiting for his dad to get over some personal problems and put him in a competitive car. When Cam alerts Sam of a job, raise and driving offer from his archrival, Linsky – Michael Madsen, who else? – the old man throws a conniption fit. Cam’s family needs an influx of money and Linsky is happy to teach Sam a lesson. Anyone who can’t figure out what happens in the next few months hasn’t been paying attention to good-ol’-boy melodramas. Among the cast members are Western Heritage Award-winner Buck Taylor (“Gunsmoke”), Barry Corbin (Urban Cowboy), Kevin Dunne (“Veep”), Rosabell Laurenti Sellers (“GoT”) and Walk-of-Fame singer/songwriter Shania Twain, all of whom have a right to wonder why the star’s name is the only one to appear on the box cover and posters.

After re-reading my Big Brother review, I began to wonder how many times Travolta has been pitched “Welcome Back, Kotter” sequels, in which Vinnie Barbarino volunteers to fill in for his mentor, Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan). The now-74-year-old teacher has decided to retire, move to Atlantic City and risk his pension, playing poker. A whole new generation of Sweathogs could be introduced, as mirror images of Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Probably, a thousand times. I’m warming to the idea, however.

A Dark Place: Blu-ray
When a young boy turns up dead in a sleepy Western Pennsylvania town, everyone wants to belief that he wandered away from home and drowned in a nearby river. It made sense on most levels, except for the fact that the boy’s closest relatives didn’t press for an autopsy or any investigation into how the reclusive child found his way so far away from his comfort zone. The protagonist of Simon Fellows (Malice in Wonderland) and Brendan Higgins’ deliberately paced arthouse thriller, A Dark Place (a.k.a., “Steel Country”), is garbage-truck driver Donald Devlin (Andrew Scott), who remembers seeing the boy wave at him from his bedroom window on pickup days. After offering his condolences to the boy’s mother, Linda (Denise Gough), her affectless reply begins to bother Donald. He immediately embarks on an obsessive investigation to prove that foul play may have been involved in the boy’s death. Working on little more than a hunch, Donald’s case is fortified when he begins to receive warnings about continuing his search. Unable to do so, he digs up the body and pleads with a local medical examiner to go where law-enforcement officials refused to tread. He even takes up the challenge made by the letter-writer to meet at a bridge, underneath which trains pass. I’ve deliberately left out the role played by his work partner, Donna Reutzel (Bronagh Waugh), who grows increasingly concerned about Devlin’s off-the-job safety. That’s all we’ll say about that. A Dark Place was accorded lukewarm reviews upon it’s extremely limited release, ahead of a launch on DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. It probably works just as well, maybe better, as a small-screen crime story. Scott and Waugh make a terrific pairing, even if any romantic attachment is tenuous and beside-the-point.

Lords of Chaos: Blu-ray
Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders
I think it’s safe to say that Rory Culkin has effectively stepped out of the shadow of his older brother, Macaulay, who appears to be on extended hiatus. In 2018, alone, Rory’s taken key supporting roles in TV mini-series, “Waco,” “Castle Rock” and “Sneaky Pete,” with another series and feature film already on tap. He’s listed as a co-producer on Lords of Chaos (2018), a loud and nasty rock-u-drama based on the life and hideous death of former Mayhem guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth. Euronymous (Culkin) narrates the movie from the grave – or his ashes, one – as an early member of the extreme heavy-metal band; founder of the record label, Deathlike Silence Productions; and owner of Helvete (Norwegian for “Hell”), an Oslo record store and hangout for hard-core musicians, known collectively as the Black Circle. All I know about Norwegian Black Metal is that aficionados can tell the difference between it and Swedish Black Metal, both of which I’ve experienced in

Heavy Trip (2018), Metalhead (2013) and Until the Light Takes Us (2008). The difference between the characters we meet in those films and such English-language pioneers of heavy metal as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf approximates resembles the difference between a semi-retired member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a rotting corpse, which is what some of them yearned to be. In his 1962 novel, “The Soft Machine,” William S. Burroughs includes a character known as “Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid.” In the late 1960s, “heavy metal” was used to differentiate the subgenre from “acid rock.” While “heads” were weaning themselves from psychedelia, “headbangers” found solace in the former’s dark imagery and occasionally Satanic lyrics. By the time Norwegian Black Metal came into the picture, heavy metal had subdivided itself into glam, punk, thrash, death, black, industrial, sludge, goth, doom, drone and symphonic. It keeps evolving, but you’d need a keener sense of hearing than mine to discern the sub-generic differences. In Jonas Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s extremely dark and violent Lords of Chaos – based on Michael Jenkins Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 book, “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground” – describes Mayhem’s decision to put their money where their lyrics were by murdering people, slicing veins on stage, successfully committing suicide and burning down dozens of churches. The movie is not for the faint of heart or easily offended. Besides Culkin, it features gritty performances by Emory Cohen, as “Varg”; Jack Kilmer, as “Dead”; Anthony De La Torre, as “Hellhammer”; Valter (Son of Stellan) Skarsgård, as “Faust”; Jonathan Barnwell, as “Necrobutcher”; Sam Coleman, as “Metalion”; Lucian Charles Collier. as “Occultus”; and Sky Ferreira, as Ann-Marit. The names, alone, approximate the darkness of what humor there is in Lords of Chaos. The bonus material adds “11 Director’s Teasers”:

Cleopatra Entertainment’s Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders dramatizes the sad final days of ex-New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, who also formed an early edition of the Heartbreakers. Addicted to heroin throughout most of career, Thunders arrived in New Orleans in April 1991, committed to begin a new chapter of his life by following a new musical sound, and staying clean from drugs in order to see his kids again. When he settled into the St. Peter’s Guest House, he was carrying an adequate supply of methadone and enough money to get him through recording sessions and the occasional gig. Unfortunately, Thunders made the kind of mistake that native New Yorkers brag about never making, by neglecting to close the door to Room 37 before pulling a wad of cash out of one bag and putting it into the one containing his methadone. Not surprisingly, after a night on the town, Thunders returns to his room, which has been broken into and robbed. He attempted to score another supply of methadone – legally and illegally – without a prescription or the money to pay for it. Thanks to a lack of interest by the city’s police department, co-writer/directors Fernando Cordero Caballero and Vicente Cordero had almost nothing upon which to base their story, except conjecture and the shared memories of friends. Instead, they’ve concocted a scenario that may remind some viewers of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” According to a passage from Dee Dee Ramone’s autobiography, one of Johnny’s band members “told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards … who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.” An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, who concluded that the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. Thunders’ sister, Mariann Bracken, said the autopsy also confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which might have explained the decline in his appearance in the final year of his life. The musician’s nightmare end is well-depicted by the Cordero brothers and emerging actor, Leo Ramsey. The multimedia package includes a Blu-ray disc, DVD, bonus soundtrack CD and extended preview of the in-concert video, “Madrid Memory.” MVD Visual/Jungle also offers Danny Garcia’s compelling documentary, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders.

Ruben Brandt, Collector
This brilliantly colorful, tremendously imaginative and delightfully hyperactive animated feature reminds me of how narrow the gap separating animators from the U.S., Europe (East and West) and Japan has become since I began paying attention to such things. Disney still sets the standard not only for blockbuster movies, but also creating humanoid characters to sing, dance and canoodle on Broadway stages, on ice and at sporting events and theme parks from Paris to Japan. Since the mid-’90s, however, major animation studios and niche operations have used computer animation and CGI to level the playing field. With the exception of Hayao Miyazaki, producers of anime and manga-inspired films have used the same technology to expand their horizons beyond kiddie fare, sci-fi and superheroes. Every year at Oscar time, at least one post-Miyazaki creative team, or another, scores a nomination for animation that appeals more to adults than children. The short category no longer is dominated by Pixar. Western European studios have wowed with sophisticated storytelling and literary storylines. Although Klasky Csupo has been based in Hollywood since it was founded in 1982, it introduced American television audiences to a distinctly Eastern European sensibility, which was still being stifled behind the Iron Curtain. Such series as “Rugrats,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” and “The Wild Thornberrys” challenged Nickelodeon audiences to adjust to characters who owed more to Salvador Dali and Picasso, in his Cubist period, than Walt Disney. They looked as if they stepped off a spacecraft from the nearest populated planet to Earth, while babies knew more about life than their parents.

Milorad Krstic and co-writer Radmila Roczkov’s whimsical caper/thriller, Ruben Brandt, Collector, was financed by the Hungarian National Film Fund, whose sales arm placed it in festivals around the world and sold it to Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the Americas. Not bad, considering the 67-year-old Krstić’s last credit was for the 1995 short, “My Baby Left Me,” and it’s Roczkov’s debut as writer/producer. Since 1989, the Slovenia native has been living and working in Budapest, as a painter and multimedia artist. As such, it’s entirely possible that he’s experienced some of the same dreams/nightmares that haunt his “Collector” protagonist, psychotherapist Ruben Brandt. In Brandt’s dreams, at least, figures from a 13 famous paintings come alive to torment him. They include Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” Manet’s reclining Olympia, Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy,” Botticelli’s Venus, Bazille’s Renoir portrait, Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita and images from works by, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and the creation of Madison Avenue mad men. Knowing how much their doctor is suffering from lack of sleep, a group of his more larcenous patients teams up to steal the paintings and present them to Brandt, so he can “own his fears.” Krstic allows, “I’ve visited most of the museums you see in the film and use these locations — the Louvre, Tate, the Uffizi, MOMA, Art Institute of Chicago, St. Petersburg, Washington, among them — to make Ruben Brandt, Collector feel like a James Bond movie. This is a film about art, and I wanted to show that art belongs to the globe.” He also throws in references to Alfred Hitchcock, Dada and snails found in paintings through the years. Brand names and labels are placed next to masterworks. The backgrounds appear to have been inspired by Salvador Dali. When the museums put a $100-million price on his head, the Collector and his gang is forced to expend their energy dodging bounty hunters and other art thieves. (The sultry Mimi resembles various women painted by Picasso, Fernand Léger and Georges Braque.) This is one picture that benefits from repeat viewings.

Motel Mist
Foreigners visit Thailand for all sorts of reasons: street food, beautiful beaches, rain forests, elephant rides and, of course, sexual freedom. Thais visit the Motel Mistress – on the outskirts of Bangkok – for reasons of their own. Billed imprecisely as a sci-fi thriller, Prabda Yoon’s Motel Mist describes what happens during a seemingly routine afternoon in the “love” motel, through the eyes of four very different patrons. Although the sex isn’t particularly graphic, what’s on display will disturb viewers unfamiliar with such no-holds-barred operations, where guests are assigned rooms designed to sate their fetishes. It opens with Sopol, a typical Thai father figure, picking up a teenage girl, Laila, at her school and driving her to the motel, where, for a price, she’ll allow him to corrupt her. In another room,  a former child actor, Tul, hides from the media spotlight and the aliens he believes are coming to take him away. Tot, a motel staffer, dreams of finding a better job and, perhaps, the lucrative reward money offered by Tul’s mother. Sexy teenager, Vicky, arrives just in time to help keep Laila from falling under Sopol’s violent domination. These four lives eventually connect in a way that none of them could have anticipated. Motel Mist gets off to a tortuously slow start, but it picks up when we become attuned to Yoon’s conceits. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the filmmakers simply paid the manager of a similarly garish love motel to turn the premises over to them for the time it took to capture what goes on inside it. Thai movies aren’t particularly easy to grasp, even the ones that have won prestigious awards at international film festivals. In the case of Motel Mist, it’s worth doing some homework before committing to the price of a rental.

Earthquake: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At the same time as Hollywood was beginning to embrace a new generation of movie mavericks, it also made room for traditional storytelling, in films that combined melodrama with natural and manmade calamities and terrorist threats. The trend began in 1970, with Airport, and ended a decade later, with the box-office bomb, The Concorde … Airport ’79, and hilarious parody of such “event” pictures, Airplane! (1980). In between, there were The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Skyjacked (1972), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Two-Minute Warning (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and Black Sunday (1977) and Gray Lady Down (1978). In 1974, The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975 and Earthquake competed for top box-office honors with Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Godfather: Part II, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Gone in 60 Seconds and Benji. Some of them were the last to be shown in the gloriously designed movie palaces of yore. For those readers whose parents weren’t even born in 1974, it’s worth noting that Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks are represented in the top-10 with two titles each. You don’t have to be nearing the age of Social Security eligibility to pick out Brooks’ hits, or the second most prominent adaptation of a Puzo novel. It came as a surprise to learning that the author/screenwriter of The Godfather also penned the first draft of the Earthquake screenplay. When Universal executives deemed it to be too multi-layered, too expensive and overpopulated with characters who resembled actual human beings – heaven, forfend — the rewrite assignment went to magazine writer George Fox, who had never penned a screenplay. Director Mark Robson helped him work on the 11 drafts submitted to Universal, before one of them made the cut.

Like every other disaster movie, before or since, the cast included a dozen or more then-familiar actors, led by Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner and an uncredited Walter Matthau. An A-lister, Matthau insisted on being credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky, which several people incorrectly believed to be his real last name. Combine writer/alcoholic Charles Bukowski and streetwise informant Huggy Bear — Antonio Fargas’ character on “Starsky & Hutch” – and you’ve got Matuschanskayasky. He wears Superfly-inspired outfits and barely notices the first temblors. It’s hilarious. Otherwise, the only thing to know about Earthquake is that it’s set in a Los Angeles largely inhabited by middle-class white people – this, even after the Watts riots and bloody National Chicano Moratorium March, in 1970 – who weren’t wasn’t remotely prepared for a 9.0-magnitude shake. That would be like New Orleans being prepared to handle a hurricane packing twice the wallop of Katrina. Given the reliance on pre-CGI special effects, however, Robson made the best of a cliché-ridden situation. The two-disc Shout Factory re-release features 2K remasters of the theatrical and television versions of the film, original marketing material,  additional TV elements and featurettes,  “Sounds of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About Sensurround,” “Scoring Disaster: The Music of Earthquake” and “Painting Disaster: The Matte Art of Albert Whitlock.” In layman’s terms, Sensurround was employed by Universal in select big-city theaters to amplify the sonic impact of scenes depicting the Big One, which lasted 20 minutes longer than most such events. It required removal of several rows of seats and the installation of large, low frequency, horn-loaded speakers, which contained specially designed 18-inch drivers in custom-made black wood cabinets. Because the vibrations also caused pieces of the ceiling to fall into the audience, Sensurround was only used three more times, on Midway, Rollercoaster and Battlestar Galactica.
The Seduction: Blu-ray
This glossy 1982 thriller may not have been the first movie to address the menace of stalking and the people who prey on women who can’t escape their grasp. It’s difficult, after all, to forget scenes in Cat People (1942), in which Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrovna tracks and terrorizes her rival, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), in a darkened swimming pool. Alice wasn’t a celebrity, however, and Irena was lusting for her fiancé, not her. Let’s just say that David Schmoeller’s The Seduction (1982) was among the first movies, in the wake of attacks by John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman, to anticipate a series of attacks on women, prominent in the arts and media, whose lives would be threatened by unhinged fans and outright psychopaths. In the interview section of the Blu-ray package producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and writer/director David Schmoeller recalls how the story was influenced by a newspaper article about the stalking of a popular actress. (The near-fatal attack on actress Theresa Saldana occurred later that year.) Although, in hindsight, the inaccurately titled The Seduction can be considered prophetic, it was, at the time, purely an exploitation flick. Before viewers know anything else about the endangered TV-news anchorwoman, Jamie Douglas (Morgan Fairchild, in her first feature), she’s shown taking a skinny-dip within full view of a neighbor (Andrew Stevens) wielding a long-lens camera. When she rebuffs his attention – in the form of gifts and flowers – he convinces himself that the blond beauty is merely playing hard-to-get. Somehow, Derek is able to monitor her phone calls and badger her with calls of his own. Naturally, the situation escalates to the point where Jamie and her boyfriend, Brandon (Michael Sarrazin), attempt to enlist the help of police detective Maxwell (Vince Edwards), who’s helpless to do much more than advise her to buy a gun. If, in the end, frontier justice prevails, some important points are made along the way. In real life, a couple of decades and several similarly brutal attacks would pass before police departments were authorized by law to anticipate such crimes and nip them in the bud. Detectives also were taught to take women’s complaints seriously. In that light, The Seduction can be viewed as a cautionary tale. And, anyone who thinks Fairchild was too beautiful – artificially, perhaps – to be an anchorwoman … well, they weren’t paying attention to what was happening on the national and local news reports in the 1980s. Dazzling bleached-blond news readers and weather goddesses sat alongside ancient white male newsreaders and goofy male sports reporters, making horrible crimes and terrible accidents palatable for the consumption family audiences. Fox News is famous for honing and perfecting the same sexist policy. I suspect that most of them have been harassed by “fans” and seen video-captures of them crossing their legs for everyone on the Internet to “like” and pass along to fellow pervs. Maybe that’s putting too much weight on a long-forgotten drive-in hit, but an interview with Curtis, Schmoeller and L.A.P.D. detective Martha Defoe, from the force’s Threat Management Unit, suggests there’s still a long way to go.

The Short Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Raymundo Gleyzer’s active career as a creator of revolutionary documentaries ended with his disappearance and presumed death, at the hands of Argentine fascists and/or CIA torturers, in 1976, at the beginning of Operation Condor (a.k.a., Dirty War). The films he made over the course of 10 years tested the patience and resolve of right-wing leaders and their backers in the military to eliminate resistance by factory workers, agricultural laborers, students, artists and intellectuals. This put the filmmaker in the company of the roughly 30,000 people who were deemed threats to the dictatorship and disappeared in Argentine concentration camps or after being flown over international waters were dropped, sometimes already dead or barely alive. Facets’ “The Short Films of Raymundo Gleyzer” is comprised of “Swift” (1971), “Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive” (1973) and “They Kill Me If I Work and If I Don’t Work, They Kill Me” (1974). Like other documentary makers, he identified himself as a revolutionary first and artist second. He eschewed Hollywood production values and intended for them to be seen by workers in whatever venues were available to them: whitewashed walls, lunchrooms, union halls. In “Swift,” Gleyzer joins displaced workers in line for factory distributed food and blankets. In “Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive,” he puts viewers in the middle of a meeting of socialist leaders as they work out the terms for a peaceful surrender of escaped political prisoners. These young revolutionaries speak with confidence and idealism, but, days later, would be listed among the martyrs at the Trelew massacre. The most stylized of these films is “They Kill Me If I Work and If I Don’t Work, They Kill Me,” which chronicles an outbreak of lead poisoning among factory workers due to inhumane and completely disregarded factory conditions. The title derives from one of the ditties sung by the striking workers. Also included is Jorge Denti’s “The AAA Are the Armed Forces” (1979). It concerns the disappearance of the body of the activist writer Rodolfo Walsh, after he was shot in an ambush by a special military group on March 25, 1977.

PBS: Masterpiece: Les Miserables: Blu-ray
PBS: Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters
PBS Kids: Splash and Bubbles: The Kelp Forest
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?
The last 110 years of cinematic history have been marked by repeat productions of beloved literary classics, of which Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is right on top of the list. If a better recipe for the perfect historic drama exists, it can only be found in the bible. Between Jean Valjean’s search for redemption, Javert’s twisted quest for “justice,” Fantine’s futile struggle for love and security, and Cosette’s pursuit of legitimacy in a corrupted Paris, lies a story no screenwriter or playwright has topped. A huge commercial success from Day One, “Les Miserables” has stood up against the snotty critiques of George Sand, Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s mother, among others, and it was banned by the Vatican as a “socialist tract” and publicly burned in Spain. Neither did the musical versions of “Les Misérables” escape the criticism of elitist critics. And, yet, audiences love it. Between 2007 and 2018, it’s been revived on film four times. Newly released on Blu-ray is Andrew Davies and Tom Shankland epic BBC One “Masterpiece” adaptation, which is concluding its run on some PBS affiliates. It might take some time for diehard fans of the 1980 musical to recognize the bones of the 1,280-page Modern Library edition in the six-episode, 240-minute mini-series. Having watched abridged versions of the book, I was struck by the intricacies and historical details that inform the mini-series. The acting is uniformly terrific, as well. Among the standouts are Dominic West (“The Affair”), as Jean Valjean; David Oyelowo (Selma), as Javert; Lily Collins (To the Bone), as Fantene; Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals), as Cosette; Adeel Akhtar (“Unforgotten”), as the thieving Thénardier; Olivia Colman (The Favourite), as the abusive Madame Thénardier; Erin Kellyman (Solo: A Star Wars Story), as the abused Azelma Thénardier. Also superb are Richard Bullock’s production designs; Ilse Willocx’s set decorations; Marianne Agertoft’s costumes; and Stephan Pehrsson’s subdued cinematography. The Blu-ray adds informative making-of and background featurettes. “Les Miserables” is extremely binge-worthy.

When the docu-drama, “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters,” was shown in Britain last year, it marked the centennial of the murders of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Like most of Europe’s royals, Nicholas had cousins in the United Kingdom and blood ties to potentates whose names are meaningless, today. When it was time for Nicholas to abdicate his throne, it was the furthest thing from a game. While there was practically no way for him to avoid violent reprisal for his crimes against the impoverished Russian people, vast unearned wealth and an inability to govern in periods of economic, military and civil stress, and pressure to join what promised to be an unpopular war. Nicholas held a sliver of hope that his family might be allowed to slip away to another monarchy. Instead, on the night of July 17, 1918, they were unceremoniously executed by their Bolshevik guards. The locations of their bodies remained a state secret for nearly 50 years, while conclusive IDs wouldn’t be made for another 40. As is typically the case, tyrants lose their bite after they’ve been buried for more than 50  years, or so, and their successors on the left have proven to be as bad, or worse, than they were. In 1981, Nicholas and his immediate family were recognized as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Nineteen years later, they were memorialized by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the 1998 DNA test, the remains of the Emperor and his immediate family were interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, where then-President Boris Yeltsin said, “Today is a historic day for Russia. For many years, we kept quiet about this monstrous crime, but the truth has to be spoken.” Reassessments of the monarchy will continue for as long as the Russian people are ruled by oligarchs and remnants of the Soviet system. By humanizing the Romanovs, “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters” is part of the rehabilitation process. Through the couple’s politically damning, sexually intimate and personally revealing letters, this two-part docudrama, presented by historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, explores Nicholas and Alexandra’s complex love story and the couple’s role in the lead up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to their executions. I wonder if a DVD copy found its way to Buckingham Palace, where the ever-expanding Mountbatten-Windsor lineage may someday need to justify their very existences, beyond their role as tourist attractions.

From PBS Kids, “Splash and Bubbles: Explore the Kelp Forest” is comprised of six ocean adventures, suitable for viewing by very young viewers. They’ll enjoy watching Splash, Bubbles and Dunk, as they meet Tidy the Garibaldi, the self-appointed Kelp Forest Ranger. The forest fun continues when Splash and Bubbles try to babysit a curious and fearless seal pup named Tyke, who they can’t find during a game of hide-and-seek. It’s produced by the Jim Henson Company and Herschend Studios.

Also from PBS Kids comes “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?,” an American-Canadian children’s television series, co-produced by Fred Rogers Productions. The animated program, which is targeted at preschool-aged children, is based on the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In this compilation, Daniel is so excited to learn that a new family is moving into the neighborhood that he rallies his family members and friends to welcome the newcomers and help them adjust to their unfamiliar surroundings. Daniel even lends an extra hand to make Jodi Platypus, his new playmate, feel right at home.

The DVD Wrapup: Cold Pursuit, Valentine, Bosch, Nina, Shape of Now, Big Clock, Yakuza Law, Donna Reed, Unforgotten, Moses, Korea … More

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Cold Pursuit: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Big White: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray
When Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 thriller, In Order of Disappearance (a.k.a., “Kraftidioten”), was released on DVD in the U.S., it starred Stellan Skarsgård as Nils, a down-to-earth fellow who makes a living plowing snow in the mountains of Norway. When his son is mistakenly murdered by a ruthless drug gang, the recent Citizen of the Year awardee inadvertently ignites a war between the vegan gangster, Count (Pål Sverre Hagen), and his Serbian mafia-boss rival, Papa (Bruno Ganz). Before Nils can exact vengeance on whomever ordered the botched hit, he is required to kill his way through the many layers of the gangs’ hierarchy, one by one, which he does with great proficiency. His weapons of choice are snowplows and other heavy machinery. In Order of Disappearance is a terrifically exciting and darkly comic thriller that makes full use of its snowbound location. Now, if you or I had been asked to adapt the film for the consumption of English-speaking audiences, we might have considered keeping Skarsgård in the driver’s seat, based, as well, on his chilling work in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) or Liam Neeson, if he hadn’t already announced that he was getting too old for thrillers.  It would also be easy to  re-set the action in the American or Canadian Rockies, at the height of winter, and pit rival drug cartels against each other. (God knows, the apres-ski crowd loves its cocaine.) Director Hans Petter Moland (Aberdeen) had a better idea. He convinced Neeson, the world’s No. 1 action hero, to fill in for Skarsgård as the vigilante hero, Nels, and Americanized the story by turning into a contemporary Western. Before his son is mistakenly murdered, Nels is as much of a model citizen as Nils. The mountains of B.C. and Alberta are natural stand-ins for the Colorado Rockies, where Cold Pursuit is set. The cocaine cowboys and their Native American partners have profited in equal measure by pushing drugs in local communities. The truce is broken when Nels’ son is murdered and it’s made to look like a hit by the Indian gang. The grieving father tips over the first domino, by killing a few small-time dealers, who, before they die, give up the names of their suppliers. At the top of the ladders are Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman) and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who suspect each other of ordering the hits. By the time the small-town police department — eager new Kehoe Police recruit Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum) and her grizzled veteran partner John “Gip” Gipsky (John Doman) – they’re left with little to do, except to exchange light banter and notify the next of kin. Otherwise, Cold Pursuit and In Order of Disappearance are nearly identical. Laura Dern plays Nels’ distraught wife, who mistakenly blames herself for her son’s non-existent drug habit and disappears in the first reel. In 4K UHD, the snow drifts take on an extra dimension. Bonus features include “Welcome to Kehoe: Behind the Scenes on Cold Pursuit,” interviews with Neeson and Moland; and deleted scenes. Both movies are based on Finn Gjerdrum’s story, “Kraftidioten.”

Like Cold Pursuit, Mark Mylod and writer Collin Friesen’s dark and icy dramedy, The Big White (2005), takes place in parts of the Great White North that are usually reserved for migrating caribou, polar bears and the native Inuit. In summer, you might find the occasional prospector, seeking what’s left of the Klondike lode, or reality-show huckster. It’s a great place to shoot a movie, but only if the screenplay can stand up to the demanding conditions. Robin Williams plays an Alaskan travel agent, Paul, who owes money to everyone and has only one option. He decides to redeem his long-lost brother’s life-insurance policy, which has been collecting dust ahead of a ten-year deadline for the body to show up. When he discovers a frozen corpse in a dumpster, Paul devices a plan to dump the body in a spot where wolves, bears and crows will make identification difficult and, after a short period of mourning, lead police to believe it’s his brother. A local life-insurance agent, Ted (Giovanni Ribisi), remains skeptical. Before long, the hitmen return to the town to collect what remains of the body,  because their own skeptical boss demands proof. Don’t ask. Meanwhile, Paul’s missing brother, Raymond (Woody Harrelson), surprises everyone by returning home. After beating up Paul, Raymond demands a portion of the insurance money. To speed up the delivery of the million-dollar insurance payment, Paul convinces Ted’s supervisor that his agent beat him up. He satisfies the hitmen (Tim Blake Nelson, W. Earl Brown) by agreeing to dig up the original victim’s body and give it to them. When Raymond susses out the plan, he shows up at the cemetery, interested only in killing everyone and keeping the money for himself. Ted’s girlfriend (Alison Lohman) and Paul’s nutty wife (Holly Hunter), who has Tourette syndrome, add some giggles along the way. In the right hands, The Big White might have ended up resembling a minor-key Fargo. Up until 2005, however, Mylod was known mostly for directing the original British version of “Shameless,” “Succession” and “Ali G Indahouse.” Since then, his credits have included “Entourage,” Game of Thrones” and the Showtime version of “Shameless.” Writer Friesen is known best for his work on the CBC comedy “Schitt’s Creek.” The Blu-ray includes frigid on-location interviews with cast and crew.

Valentine: The Dark Avenger: Blu-ray
Kiss Kiss
While there’s never been a scarcity of female superheroes and supervillains in the world of comics and underground comix – R. Crumb’s Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos and S. Clay Wilson’s Ruby the Dyke, among them – Hollywood’s had a hard time selling them to fanboy-heavy audiences. It’s too early to say if Patty Jenkin’s 2017 blockbuster, Wonder Woman, will open a door or be the exception that proves the rule. Former Miss Israel Gal Gadot is making a solid case for Wonder Woman’s place in the Pantheon of superheroes and clearing memories of four decades of miscues. Lest we forget: Supergirl was supposed to make her cinematic debut in the third installment of Ilya Salkind’s Superman series, starring Christopher Reeve, but Warner Bros. rejected the story outline. The first live-action depiction of Supergirl, then, was in the eponymous 1984 film, starring Helen Slater as Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee/Supergirl. Kara (Laura Vandervoort) was re-introduced in the seventh season of the CW’s “Smallville” and, seven years later, received a CBS timeslot of her own, played by  Melissa Benoist. The character has also appeared in several animated series, direct-to-video titles, web series and video games. Other memorable female protagonists include, Brigitte Nielsen, in Red Sonja (1985); Laurie Petty, in Tank Girl (1995); Pamela Anderson, in Barb Wire (1996); Michelle Pfeiffer, in Batman Returns (1992), Catwoman (2004) and Avengers: Endgame (2019); Pfeiffer and Evangeline Lilly, in  Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018); Tanya Roberts, as Sheena (1984); Jennifer Garner, in Elektra (2005); and, if vampire warriors count, Kate Beckinsale, the Underworld series (2003-16). Halley Berry’s take on Catwoman (2004) may have set female-superhero movies back 10 years, at least. (For my money, Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar’s take on the character in the “Batman” TV  series may never be topped.)

Tucked in between these action pictures was a pair of mid-range independent flicks — Kick-Ass (2010), Kick-Ass 2 (2013) – in which teen superheroes played by Chloë Grace Moretz and Aaron Taylor-Johnson delighted audiences with MPAA-defying profanity and violence. Based on the Marvel comic book of the same name by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., the youthful crimefighters, Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass, are proteges of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop on a quest to bring down the crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). After its release on DVD and Blu-ray, Kick-Ass gained a strong cult following. I only mention Matthew Vaughan’s black comedy here, because it’s the movie that came immediately to mind while watching the Indonesian export, Valentine: The Dark Avenger. Based on a Skylar Comics storyline, Ubay Fox and Agus Pestol’s action-packed romp – from a screenplay by Beby Hasibuan – is set in a fictionalized Batavia City, which could easily be mistaken for modern-day Jakarta. Criminality is rampant in the capitol and no one is immune from its sting. Srimaya (Estelle Linden) is a pretty, young waitress, with a flair for martial arts handed down from her father. After watching Srimaya repel a group of robbers, documentary director Bono (Matthew Settle) and his friend, Wawan (Arie Dagienkz), ask her to join them in the creation of a reality show on fighting crime in Batavia. Their first encounter almost ends in failure, due to a wardrobe malfunction. Under her new identity, Valentine, Srimaya scours every corner of the Gotham-like city to fight criminals and uphold justice, while maintaining her dream of becoming a movie star. A sinister villain emerges from the shadows to test Valentine’s strength and commitment, in a final confrontation on the rooftop of the headquarters of Batavia’s beleaguered police force. Like everything else in Valentine: The Dark Avenger, it’s a doozy. Before cameras rolled, Linden spent a year preparing for the role, which required she master four different martial-arts disciplines: pencak silat, jujitsu, tae kwon do and boxing.

There’s really no defense for Dallas King’s exploitative Kiss Kiss, which could imprecisely be characterized as “Fight Club for Strippers.” In it, a new dancer at the local “gentlemen’s club,” Tia (Nathalia Castellon), is tipped a invitation to an exclusive wine tasting at a nearby vineyard — Malibu Wines Vineyard, to be precise – and she’s been encouraged to bring along some co-workers. While there, Tia, Kiss (Natascha Hopkins), Treasure (Tamra Dae) and Kurious (Janey B) display impeccable manners, as well as a curiosity for good wine. (As Kiss cautions their host, “We’re not strippers. We’re fucking ladies!”) At dinner, they’re poured glasses full of an Afghan wine smuggled out of the country by military brass, as if it were bottled by the folks at Château Lafite Rothschild. It gives them quite a buzz. In fact, when combined with the small mountain of cocaine they ingest, eliminates any possibility of resistance. They’re led to stables housing prized horses and four other women in the same predicament as they are. All the women will be pitted against each in a ring, from which one will emerge victorious and the loser will die. The combatants will be given shots of a serum, designed by the vineyard owner, to give the recipients superhuman fighting powers. He hopes to sell it to his male and female guests, from Washington, who wager on the bouts and chortle at the death blows. You get the picture. Unless In a real departure from grindhouse form, none of the women is forced to disrobe beyond two-piece outfits that barely qualify as bikinis. Somehow, King has convinced himself that Kiss Kiss is his homage to “Alice in Wonderland.” His explanation would be risible, if the movie weren’t intended to titillate voyeuristic men, who don’t object to watching women beat each other to death for their pleasure. The final surprise is a character, revealed late in the movie, who has been injected with enough serum to turn her into the perfect killing machine, which she isn’t. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Bosch: The Garden of Dreams
In 2016, at least three feature-length documentaries were released to commemorate the         quincentennial of the death of artist Hieronymus Bosch. His most famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – painted anywhere between 1490 and 1505 – lures tens of thousands of visitors each year to Madrid’s Museo del Prado, where it’s been housed since 1939. Although it’s instantly recognizable, in whole or in part, the origins of Bosch’s provocative imagery remain a mystery, debated by art historians, students, clergy, laymen, atheists and conspiracy theorists, alike. Many believe that “The Garden” was intended to be an altarpiece, as the left-hand panel, “Eden,” shows the pre-incarnate Christ blessing Eve before she is presented to Adam; the center panel describes the pleasures and temptations open to God’s Earth-bound flock;, and the right-hand panel, “Last Judgment,” is a vision of heaven and hell that would make any sermon about fire, brimstone and eternal damnation seem trivial. All three discourage easy or definitve interpretation. José Luis López-Linares’ intriguing Bosch: The Garden of Dreams stands alongside David Bickerstaff’s The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter van Huystee’s Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil, as essential viewing for anyone who’s been inspired, transfixed, perplexed or simply made curious by the masterpiece.  In “The Garden of Dreams,” López-Linares asks 30 well-schooled personalities from diverse disciplines – technology, science, the arts, academics — for their opinions on its meanings and signifiers. López-Linares’ camera captures the scale of Bosch’s work and the extraordinary detail of the piece through close-up analysis. Amateurs won’t have any problem enjoying the doc, either.

And Then There Was Eve
Olga Chajdas’ Nina is a lesbian melodrama that doesn’t take any particular stand on LGBTQ issues, but wouldn’t work, at all, if two of the primary characters weren’t gay. Set in middle-class Warsaw, Nina (Julia Kijowska) and Wotjek (Andrzej Konopka) have been attempting to have a child for years, without any luck. It isn’t clear why they’re desperate to experience parenthood, although, in predominantly Catholic Poland, married couples are encouraged to pre-create … or else, what’s the point of marriage? Arriving at the proverbial last resort, they agree to shop around for a surrogate. Wotjek is an automobile mechanic, who appears to have given up improving his lot in life and can’t wait to get home each night to watch a little TV and fall asleep. Nina teaches French at a good school and makes little effort to disguise her bourgeoise roots. Eventually, they meet, interview (surreptiously) and agree upon Magda (Eliza Rycembel). She’s a noticeably younger airport worker, whose carefree behavior is in direct contrast to Nina’s icy, somewhat world-weary demeanor, and Wotjek’s lumpen nature. Both women are attractive, but, clearly, Nina spends more time in front of the mirror and at the cosmetics counter. Although Nina doesn’t reveal her willingness to date women, Chajdas doesn’t waste any time cutting to the chase. Magda’s winsome nature and impulsive decisions appeal to Nina and she comes to enjoy the city’s lesbian-club scene, of which the younger woman is an active participant. The trouble comes when Wotjek discovers, to his dismay, that the two women in his life are lovers. They hadn’t let Magda in on their reproductive scheme, which is OK because the presence of an infant wouldn’t have suited any of their lifestyles, anyway. This only is a problem because, at 130 minutes, Nina has already run out of gas. Watching the two actresses interact rarely gets tiresome, however. Bonus features include the short film, Social Butterfly, which takes lesbian dating in a different direction, altogether.

Even at a brisk 79 minutes in length, Martín Rodríguez Redondo’s feature debut, Marilyn, is one of the most compelling LGBTQ dramas to find a home on DVD. It’s international and festival release barely qualified as “limited.” That it’s based on an incident that rocked much of South America, and ignored elsewhere, only makes the movie that much more essential. It tells the story of farmworker Marcelo Bernasconi, as he’s begun to make the transition from bullied teenager, Marco, to the exuberant cross-dresser, Marilyn, and beyond. It takes place in a part of rural Argentina, where anything out of the ordinary is treated with caution, if not outright alarm. Inside the home he shares with his mother and brother, Marco learns how to make the brilliantly colored clothes he’ll only be able to wear during the local festivals. At first, he’s indistinguishable from the women dressed to kill, while dancing to the cumbia rhythms – performed by the Argentine tropical-punk band, Kumbia Queers – but, as the night wears on and the men get grabby, his secret is revealed. Neither does the scandal sit well at home, where Marco/Marilyn is given an ultimatum with which he no longer is able to  abide. I won’t reveal what happens next. Most viewers in South America already know that Bernasconi has been incarcerated for most of the last 10 years in an Argentine prison and, in that time, has completed the transition to Marilyn. (He’s interviewed in the bonus package, which also includes a featurette on the creation of the soundtrack.) American audiences aren’t likely to know how he got there, however, so it’s better to maintain the suspense. BTW: wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws have been put into place  in Argentina since Bernasconi was imprisoned.

Savannah Bloch’s psychological thriller/mystery, And Then There Was Eve, has already collected enough positive reviews from LGBTQ festival screenings to render anything I have to say about it superfluous. It’s easy to applaud the casting of a transgender actor, in the role of a transgender character, and its straight-forward approach to an issue affecting the straight spouses of men and women about to embark on the transitioning process. That said, I found its flashback-laden narrative to be confusing and the final “reveal” too predictable to be considered thrilling or mysterious. Kiwi transplant Tania Nolan (“Home and Away”) plays Alyssa, a successful SoCal photographer, who wakes up one morning to find her apartment ransacked and her husband missing. Left without even a photograph to offer the police, Alyssa turns to his colleague, Eve (newcomer Rachel Crowl), a talented jazz pianist with flirtatious charm and disarming grace. Eve helps her confront her husband’s longtime struggle with depression and encourages her to accept his absence. Their relationship blossoms into something approaching love and admiration, but flashbacks remind viewers of things Alyssa has conveniently forgotten and/or overlooked. Nothing in the film, co-written by Colette Freedman (Lifetime’s “Sister Cities”) feels exploitative, controversial or targeted specifically at a niche-within-a-niche audience. Considering how little money was allotted the filmmakers, the production values and acting are excellent. Robert Lydecker’s score, while excellent, sometimes overwhelms the film’s emotional pull. The DVD adds interesting interviews and making-of material.

The Shape of Now
The fear of what might occur after apartheid ended kept many white South Africans from pursuing a peaceful accord earlier than it was forced on them. Part of the reason a peaceful transition was achieved was the public acceptance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was seen by many as a crucial component of the move to a full and free democracy. In the commission’s 1,000-plus hearings, victims of gross human rights violations were invited to recall their experiences, while perpetrators of said violence could request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution. It was an unusual way to solve a difficult problem. Contrary to the perception outside South Africa, only 849 out of the 7,111 amnesty applications were granted. It might not have been a perfect system, but, in the 23 years since the establishment of the TRC and Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, peace has held. The Shape of Now describes how survivors of  the nearly concurrent Colombian “conflict” are attempting to survive the peace by facing their grievances head-on and attempting to use peaceful means to heal wounds even deeper than those sustained in South Africa. The differences between the two long and bloody conflagrations can be found in the racial and political differences of the combatants. Once the white government of South Africa was isolated from the rest of the world economically and otherwise, the maintenance of apartheid was the only thing that stood in the way of a solution … peaceful or violent. In Colombia, however, you practically needed a scorecard to identify the various teams and reasons for fighting. Historical differences between the ruling class, working poor and peasants were exasperated by the success of the Cuban revolution, the defeat of the French in Vietnam, anti-colonial uprisings in Africa and fervently anti-communist, aggressively capitalistic leaders of Colombia and the United States. On the pro-government side were several blood-thirsty paramilitary groups, greedy multinational corporations and South American juntas and right-wingers in the White House and Pentagon. Opposing them in far-flung pockets of resistance were such pro-communist/guerrilla organizations as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Crime syndicates and drug cartels compounded the disorder not by choosing sides, but by mounting offensives of their own against anyone unwilling to accept their bribes and cooperate with the so-called war on drugs. The right- and left-leaning forces weren’t united against a common enemy, per se, frequently choosing to attack each other to increase their influence. The same applied to the warring cartels.

In November 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed a peace accord. (An earlier referendum was narrowly defeated by civilian voters.) According to most estimates, approximately 220,000 people lost their lives — 177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters — between 1958 and 2013. (Many of the 25,000 people kidnapped and held for ransom are still considered missing.) Between 1985-2012, more than 5 million civilians were forced from their homes, including 3 million children. Manuel Correa’s heart-breaking doc, The Shape of Now, argues that no two Colombians will tell you the same story about how they were impacted by the conflict. As such, the challenge of creating recognizable history, amidst post-war reconciliation, is extremely difficult. The doc portrays the experiences of survivors in the different social spheres invested in keeping the peace. They include scientists, academics and activists, attempting to normalize Colombia, as well as a group of elderly mothers, struggling to find a direct way to approach their children’s possible killers. It’s referred to as “closure,” but widows and grieving mothers will never find anything resembling closure until their loved ones’ bodies are found, identified and interred in a religious ceremony. Justice is another issue, althogeth. The Shape of Now illuminates the strenuous process of having to agree on a common past and forge a common path to the future.

Never Grow Old: Blu-ray
If Never Grow Old had been made in the 1960-70s, it could easily be pigeonholed with other “revisionist” Westerns. Today, however, nearly every new oater qualifies as revisionist, in one way or another. An animated version of Blazing Saddles or The Outlaw Josey Wales might extend the subgenre, but who, in their right mind, would make them? Shot in Luxembourg and Connemara, Ireland, Never Grow Old is set in the fictional town of Garlow, which straddles the California Trail. The muddy thoroughfare leads pilgrims, fur traders and 49er prospectors from Fort Hall, Idaho, to the NorCal goldfields. Irish writer/director Ivan Kavanagh (The Canal) shares a place-of-birth with the film’s tentative protagonist, undertaker/gallows-builder Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), whose business has profited from the recent influx of crooks and gunslingers, and the proclivity of the fundamentalist preacher (Danny Webb) to rid Garlow of backsliders, heathens and blasphemers. John Cusack plays the outlaw Dutch Albert, whose gang has just re-introduced booze, gambling and whoring to the town’s social activities, overturning the  preacher’s prohibition against all three vices. The low vocal timbre of Cusack’s antagonist – along with his cigars and whisky habit – make it difficult to discern a Dutch accent, but Tate’s wife (Deborah Francois) does nothing to disguise her European background. Garlow could serve as a high-plains’ United Nations. Tim Ahern’s Sheriff Parker is nearly powerless, standing, as he does, between two implacable sides. Things get really interesting when the daughter of a local citizen is forced into prostitution by a gang member – with grease applied by her mother – and her first and only customer is a known child molester and she’s charged with murder for defending herself.  DP Piers McGrail (Without Name) does a really nice job maintaining a dark and murky color palate, without losing any details in the mix. And, no, none of the castles that mark Luxembourg and Ireland’s sneak into the background in exterior shots. The Blu-ray adds “Dire Consequences: The Making of Never Grow Old.”

Life Like
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-writers Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke created a computer, the HAL 9000, with an AI mind of its own, It changed the way screenwriters, sci-fi novelists and audiences would look at computers, robots and cyborgs, which, in fact, had been visualized in art and theater since the Han Dynasty. Now that it appears as if our cellphones, laptops and set-top boxes have proven capable of interacting with us, recording our habits and predicting our behavior, Hollywood screenwriters have flashed on the reality that they have carte blanche to create any sort of mechanical or CGI creatures. They include virtual clones of any celebrity or historical figure, and invest them with personality traits guaranteed to freak us out. A brothel in Nevada recently challenged a manufacturer of sex dolls to put up or shut up when it comes to boasting that their creations are better lovers than humans. In his first feature, Life Like, writer/director Josh Janowicz – the Pride of Mukwonago, Wisconsin – adds only a slight twist to the long list of cyborgs, who, before they turn on their owners, willingly fulfill their every conceivable wish … from washing dishes to performing mind-blowing sex … AC or DC. Here, Addison Timlin (Californication) and Drew Van Acker (“Pretty Little Liars”) play an arrogant young couple, Sophie and James, who move to a spacious estate in Upstate New York, not far from the laboratory in which James’ father created a next-generation model of a cybernetic personal assistant. The suspiciously obedient Henry (Steven Strait) looks as if he was patterned after Christian Bale’s charter in American Psycho, as do most of the other male characters. When given a choice between robotic genders, Sophie’s potential for jealousy mandated the choice of James. You already can guess how that decision will play out. Left at home, alone, during the day, Sophie is the more likely candidate for a creepy liaison with the help. Apparently, Henry has not only been programmed to fold towels and make dinner, but also to read the minds and respond to the emotional and sexual needs of its owners … even before they recognize them. Life Like telegraphs its twists and surprise, except for a pretty decent closer. (There weren’t many more options left.)

Naples in Veils
Any tourist who’s avoided spending time in Naples, based solely on such movies, docs and TV series as Camorra (2018) and Gomorrah (2008) and its ongoing mini-series spinoff of the same title, is hereby encouraged to pick up a copy of Ferzan Ozpetek’s erotic thriller, Naples in Veils (2017). Like John Turturro’s tribute to the city and its people, Passione (2010), it captures the vitality of life in Naples’ many different  neighborhoods, as reflected in music, food, art and mysteries. Long available on DVD, the Clark Gable/Sophia Loren vehicle, It Started in Naples (1960), and Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964), should also be considered before planning obligatory side trips to Pompeii, Vesuvio National Park and the Amalfi Coast. Despite its reputation as a safe haven for petty larceny and con artists, the closest most tourists come to crime are the admonishments about being on the alert for pick pockets.

As scenic as Naples in Veils may be, its appeal should strictly be limited to adult audiences. During a party, the breathtaking medical examiner Adriana (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) crosses paths with a charming young stud, Andrea (Alessandro Borghi). Not surprisingly, perhaps, these paths lead to a bedroom, where a night of intense sex ensues. Adriana dares to imagine spending much more quality time with Andrea and they agree to meet the next day at a sculpture museum. Naturally, he’s a no-show. They do meet later in the afternoon, but in the morgue, where’s he’s laid out on a slab. The plot takes a turn for the Hitchcockian, when Adriana discovers that Andrea has a long-lost twin brother, Luca, and he’s been seen hanging around the city. Or, is it possible that Luca’s lying on the slab and Andrea is attempting to get cops or killers off his trail. Gian Filippo Corticell’s eye-catching cinematography nicely captures Naples’ many architectural wonders … old and new. “It’s a city I know well … very strange and fascinating,” Ozpetek has allowed in interviews. “Naples is magical, and very pagan. It’s a city back in time.” If the mystery-solving isn’t entirely satisfying, Ozpetek fills the gaps with eye candy.

Princess Mononoke: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray/CD/Book
A couple of columns ago, we checked out Shout! Factory’s  fascinating documentary, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, which chronicled the master’s life in semi-retirement. It was released in Japan in 2016, but it didn’t make it to these shores until last December. That same month, the company sent out My Neighbor Totoro,” repackaged in a special “30th Anniversary Edition” boxed set. This week, Princess Mononoke returns in a similarly classy “Collector’s Edition,” with a Blu-ray copy of the award-winning film; a CD soundtrack, featuring Joe Hisaishi’s evocative score; and an exclusive 40-page booklet, featuring artwork and essays on Princess Mononoke. Featurettes that have been ported over from previous Blu-ray editions include, “Princess Mononoke in the USA,” “Behind the Microphone,” feature-length storyboards and original marketing material. The 40-page book features new essays by film critic Glenn Kenny, alongside imagery and statements from Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, and Miyazaki’s poems about the characters. The movie, itself, remains as entertaining and visually stricking as it’s ever been. To summarize, “Inflicted with a deadly curse, the young feudal warrior, Ashitaka, heads west in search of a cure. There, he stumbles into the bitter conflict between Lady Eboshi, the proud people of Iron Town and the enigmatic Princess Mononoke. As a girl, the princess was adopted by a pack of wolves, who will stop at nothing to prevent the humans from destroying her home and the forest spirits and animal gods who live there.

It’s interesting to recall that Miyazaki had intended Princess Mononoke to be his final film before retiring. Its great success led him to do another, Spirited Away (2001), and a few more features. Produced for approximately $23.5 million, it was, at the time of its release, the most expensive anime ever made. When Miramax-founder Harvey Weinstein obtained the North American distribution rights to Princess Mononoke, he approached Miyazaki and insisted on a shorter version of the film that he felt would be better attuned to American audiences. Still upset by the heavily cut version of 1984’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (a.k.a., Warriors of the Wind), he angrily left the meeting. Several days later, Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sent a katana sword to Weinstein’s office, with “NO CUTS” embedded into its blade. The film was later released in the USA in its 133-minute version. When asked about the incident in an interview, Miyazaki smiled and said, “I defeated him.”

Beer League: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray
Mortuary: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray.
Boogie Boy: MVD Rewind Collection #18: Blu-ray
I’ve discovered a bug up my ass, so please bear with me for a paragraph, or so. In this highly mechanized and media-obsessed world, surprises are few and far between. That’s probably a good thing. Caller ID may take the suspense out of answering a ringing phone, but 90 percent of the calls we receive now fall under the category of “unsolicited.” Some of these are requests for donations or participation in surveys, which isn’t anything new. “Robocalls” to landlines and cellphones have become an epidemic. They bypass caller-ID programs, disguise themselves behind legitimate numbers proliferation and don’t respond to the people whose numbers they call. Spam texts not only are unsolicited, but they may also count against data quotas. This week, the government tossed the problem into the laps of telecommunication companies, by allowing them to take direct extralegal action against robo-companies. The problem, of course, is that the FCC and phone companies have never expended much time, energy and money getting ahead of the curve, at least when it comes to serving their customers in this way. They haven’t been able to combat call mills based in India and Philippines and are impotent against techies, who’ve committed themselves to confounding conglomerates and harassing consumers. So far, our only recourse has  been to ignore calls from unknown numbers or pay their service providers a fee for blocking more than a handful of numbers. The new FCC proposal would allow the companies to offer blocking services for free, thus requiring consumers to constantly update the list, themselves, and forcing the competition to spend money to match their “free” services … which, of course, they should do, anyway.

One of the pleasures of reviewing DVDs is the “surprise factor.” Typically, the envelopes and boxes in which new releases arrive can be easily traced to individual distributers, who’ve already pitched the journalist and told them when to expect delivery, frequently within a week prior to the “street date.” Some companies still fly under the radar, however, by anticipating a writer’s desires and interests, or putting us on an automatic-send basis. It partially explains why so many of the titles reviewed here – golden oldies, indies, docs, cult, foreign-language — qualify as obscure, unexpected and unheralded. As a University of Wisconsin graduate, I know that “sifting and winnowing is at the heart of what we do.” Typically, I leave the critiquing to others. MVD Visual is a company that’s surprised me on a monthly basis for nearly two decades. It describes itself as a “full-service music and movie distribution firm, exclusively representing thousands of audio and visual products for DVD, Blu-ray, CD, vinyl and digital rights, worldwide.” It distributes a growing line of titles and merchandise, including limited-edition collectibles and apparel. Recently, its visual line has branched into new territories.

There’s MVD Classics, whose releases “might be a little too obscure for our other labels” – we already reviewed Diamonds of Kilimanjaro (1983), Golden Temple Amazons (1986)  —  as well as its MVD Rewind and MVD Marquee collections. If few of these titles genuinely qualify as classics, there’s always something redeemable in them. We’ve already considered The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Giovanni Ribisi, Holly Hunter and Woody Harrelson, which, at least, offers scenic beauty and A-list names. Today’s other Marquee attractions are Blu-ray editions of Mortuary (2005) and Beer League (2006), which appear to have made on different planets. The former was made very late in Tobe Hooper’s directorial career and, as they say, it shows. In it, a family moves to a small town in California, where they plan on starting a new life, while Mom (Denise Crosby) attempts to revive a long-abandoned funeral home. And, guess what, local teens use its tiny cemetery as a proving ground for courage and romance. Adults suspect it’s build over haunted ground and stay away from it. Of course, zombies will make everyone’s live miserable, except, perhaps, those of Hooper and undead completists. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and Hooper’s commentary. In Beer League, a fat, sloppy, chain-smoking and wholly gross Artie Lange conspires to keep his favorite tavern’s softball team from being expelled by league officials. And, yes, the comedy’s as politically incorrect as one might suspect from one-time director Frank Sebastiano, a veteran of late-night variety shows and celebrity roasts. The real selling points are appearances by the late, great Seymour Cassel, Ralph Macchio, Laurie Metcalf, Jimmy Palumbo, Tina Fey, Mary Birdsong and porn star Keisha, who plays a human pitching machine. Bonus features add interviews and featurettes, including, “In the Studio with Artie: Jokes and Ringtones,” “Live From Cine Vegas!,” Artie behind-the-scenes at “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” and “Best Damn Sports Show,” behind-the-scenes featurette,” “Beer Goggles” short and unrated commentary with Lange and Sebastiano.

On MVD’s Rewind collection, the entries are packaged as they might have appeared in video stores during the Golden Age of cassettes. Fortuitously, that doesn’t include their audio and visual presentations, which weren’t high points in VHS. “Boogie Boy: MVD Rewind Collection #18” takes us back to the early days of the DVD revolution, when straight-to-video movies were a subgenre onto themselves. Hardly anyone thought that the majority of pulpy hit-and-run features would be worth the time and money to upgrade to future technologies. They’ve survived this long because some long-term thinkers anticipated a need for product when a killer-app technology took over the industry. Niche distributors purchased inventory in bulk and either sold them to other companies or created boutique labels of their own. And, that’s what’s happening now. Boogie Boy opens with pretty-boy outlaw Jesse Page (Mark Dacascos) being released from prison. Almost immediately he hooks up with his former cellmate and presumed lover, Larry (Jaimz Woolvett), and a drug deal goes sour. With the dealers hot on his trail, Jesse has three days to reach Detroit, where a new, clean, legitimate life, as the drummer for Joan Jett, awaits him. Before that can happen, though, his ties to his criminal past and biker buddies threaten to trip Jesse up. Upon its first release into video, the distributor attempted to create the illusion that sole writer/director Craig  Hamann had worked closely with Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The exaggerated claim was dubious, at best. The Blu-ray box isn’t nearly as misleading. Boogie Boy isn’t a total waste of time, however. (Avary’s status as executive producer is proclaimed, but no one can be sure what that title actually means.) It’s the cast that separates Boogie Boy from other bargain-bin mediocrities. Besides Jett (Light of Day), it includes Emily Lloyd (A River Runs Through It), Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now), Michael Peña (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Traci Lords (Blade), Linnea Quigley (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Jaimz Woolvett (“Joan of Arc”), Jonathan Scarfe (The Equalizer 2) and James Lew and John Koyama, two of the industry’s best and busiest martial-arts and stunt performers. It’s nice to find so many familiar faces in a movie that has so many visible faults. Action junkies might want to take a look at it, as well. The extras include the new, 92-minute ”The Making of Boogie Boy,” a photo gallery and mini-poster.

The Big Clock: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Yakuza Law: Special Edition: Blu-ray
UK-based Arrow Films also has divided its catalogue to differentiate cult and quirky selections, from classic and collectible titles. All look and sound great, while also offering new and vintage bonus features. Moreover, it’s difficult to know from which direction, genre and period the next group will come. Special editions of The Big Clock (1948) and Yakuza Law (1969) are indicative of the company’s scope and variety.

John Farrow’s adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel, for Paramount, combines elements of noir, thriller, crime drama and screwball comedy. Something for everyone, especially fans of Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, Charles Laughton, George Macready, Elsa Lanchester and Rita Johnson. I was completely taken aback by seeing Noel Neill in a brief uncredited appearance as an elevator operator and possible lover of Laughton’s rotund and thoroughly evil publishing tycoon, Earl Janoth. Stay tuned, as well, for a juicy performance by Harry/Henry Morgan, who plays a creepy masseuse and gunman. As young as they are here, they’re instantly recognizable as the future Lois Lane (“Adventures of Superman”) and Col. Sherman T. Potter (“M*A*S*H”) and Officer Frank Gannon (“Dragnet 1967”). Here, Milland plays George Stroud, an overworked editor for a true-crime magazine run by Janoth. He’s been planning to take a vacation/honeymoon for months, but something always comes up. When Janoth insists he give up his vacation, for another assignment, Milland decides to quit. Instead of going home to his suspicious wife, Georgette (O’Sullivan) he embarks on a drinking spree with his boss’ mistress, Pauline (Johnson). In one of the great closeups in noir history, Pauline taunts Janoth to the point where the skin beneath his nose begins to twitch, and he picks up a heavy prop and kills her. Not about to turn himself in to authorities, Janoth calls in his trusted henchmen and works out a plot to frame someone else in the murder. Eventually, he decides that Stroud deserves the honor, setting off a rather clumsy game of cat-and-mouse, from the penthouse to the basement of the magazine’s high-rise headquarters. Doors are slammed, opportunities are missed, clues are overlooked. The Blu-ray package includes a lovely tribute to Laughton by actor, writer and theater director Simon Callow, as well as new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; “Turning Back the Clock,” a fresh analysis of the film by the critic and chief executive of Film London, Adrian Wootton; an hourlong 1948 radio dramatization of The Big Clock by the Lux Radio Theatre; a stills gallery; promotional materials; reversible sleeve; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Christina Newland. Fearing’s book also provided the source material for the Kevin Costner vehicle, No Way Out (1987), adapted by Roger Donaldson and writer Robert Garland.

And, now, something completely different from across the Pacific. Yakuza Law (a.k.a., “A History of Yakuza Punishment: Lynch!”) was written and directed by Teruo Ishii, alternately and affectionately known as “Godfather of J-sploitation,” “The King of Cult” and as a pioneer in the Ero guro (“erotic-grotesque”) subgenre of pinku eiga. In a very small nutshell, Yakuza Law is a trilogy of stories depicting mistakes, misreads and the nature of punishment within crime families during the Edo, Taisho, and Showa periods. If yakuza clans have traditionally been guided by strict rules and vicious reprisals for breaking them, Ishii makes them look arbitrary, capricious and ridiculous. They might look different to viewers in Japan, but much of what happens in Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia dramas looks pretty darn silly, especially when taken out of historical context. Yakuza Law is one many Ishii films to make a late debut here. Critics who make their living writing about such things aren’t enamored with the film, but it’s probably as good a place as any for anyone curious about extreme Japanese genre fare to start. After a retrospective opening-credit roll, oozing with violence, Chapter One explores what happens when a major rule is broken: the one that forbids sleeping with a married woman or one who is already taken by another family member. In the second, gang soldier Ogata completes a hit on a rival gang boss, based on a request from his superiors. After he’s lopped off the rival’s arm and presented to them as evidence, his bosses come to believe the attack could start a gang war and it’s one they’ll surely lose. To save face and their lives, they declare the Ogata’s hit unsanctioned and exile him from both the clan and Eastern Japan. Finally, the third story focuses on the law that family secrets must not leaked or divulged, while exploring the backstabbing that occurs between ambitious gang members. The tale, which  is set in the 1960s, also introduces an outsider whose shooting skills attract the attention of a gangster looking to betray his boss. Eyes are gouged out, men are dragged over rocks by a helicopter; faces are burned off by cigarette lighters; and a vase is used to perform a punishment commonly utilizing knives. Other places to begin might include Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), The Hitman: Blood Smells Like Roses (1991) and Shogun’s Joys of Torture (1968). The segments star  Bunta Sugawara, Minoru Oki and Teruo Yoshida. The supplements include commentary by author and critic Jasper Sharp; “Erotic-Grotesque and Genre Hopping: Teruo Ishii Speaks,” an entertaining vintage interview, newly edited for this release; image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

A Serbian Film: Blu-ray
A few months ago, I had occasion to research the films other critics and writers have decided are the most transgressive, disgusting, disturbing and depraved titles of all time. Some are routinely listed among the Top 25: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pink Flamingos (1972), El Topo (1970), Audition (1999) , Cannibal Holocaust (1980), The Human Centipede II (2012) and Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985). Twenty years ago, Freaks (1932) might have been found on top of most lists. As disturbing as it might still be, Freaks is movie of substance, with allegorical throughlines and three-dimensional characters, possessing identifiable problems and dreams. Srdjan Spasojevic and co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic’s A Serbian Film (2010) appears on most ballots, as well. It’s been banned, censored, re-edited, trimmed and condemned by arbiters of good taste around the world. Like many of the movies that landed on the UK’s list of “Video Nasties,” A Serbian Film has also been lauded and taken seriously by enough critics, festival organizers and arthouse audiences to make headlines when authorities dare mess with it.

In it, retired Serbian porn star, Milos (Srdan Todorovic), and his beloved wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic), and son, Peter, are struggling to maintain a normal life, outside the nasty adult-film and modeling business. The family is facing financial difficulties, when, out of the blue, Milos is contacted by the still-active actress, Lejla (Katarina Zutic), offering him a job opportunity in an “art” film. The director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), offers a millionaire contract to Milos, but refuses to show him the screenplay or summarize the story. Milos discusses the proposal with Marija and, without any enthusiasm, signs the contract. When he discovers that Vukmir and his crew are involved in non-simulated snuff films — requiring pedophilia, necrophilia and torture – he’s told that it’s too late for him to back out and his decision might also imperil his family. Spasojević and Radivojević have stated that A Serbian Film is a parody of politically correct films made in post-war Serbia, which were financially supported by foreign funds. When asked why they chose the title “Srpski Film” for the film’s name, Radivojević answered, “We have become synonyms for chaos and lunacy. The title is a cynical reference to that image. Srpski Film is also a metaphor for our national cinema — boring, predictable and altogether unintentionally hilarious.” If he says so. To point out that it isn’t for everyone is like saying that gargling with bleach isn’t for everyone with bad breath. Invincible Pictures has re-released it on DVD and Blu-ray, at its original, uncensored 104-minute length.

The Donna Reed Show: Seasons 1-5
PBS/ITV: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten: Season 3 (UK Edition)
PBS: Korea: The Never-Ending War
PBS: NOVA: Rise of the Rockets
PBS: Henry IX: The Lost King
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files
PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 5
Looking back at “The Donna Reed Show” and the star’s character, Donna Stone, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how it might be considered a pioneer in the portrayal of middle-class American women on television. Since the show’s inception, on September 24, 1958, Stone set what today is considered an impossible standard for wives and mothers at the center of nuclear families during Eisenhower- and Kennedy era. (Direct comparisons to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy can be made, I suppose.)  She is the idealized small-town housewife to her physician husband, Alex (Carl Betz), who she married at 18, as well as the mother of ideal teenagers, Mary (Shelley Fabares) and Jeff (Paul Petersen). Stone sometimes works as a nurse on the show, but she sees her first obligation as being a wife, mother and homemaker. She doesn’t expect or get much help from the others. She participates in such community activities as charity campaigns and amateur theatricals, but always finds time to share sound advice with friends and neighbors. What concerned some mid-century feminists and critics, though, was her appearance. Like other television wives and mothers of the 1950s, she inexplicably wears heels, pearls and chic frocks to do the hou