MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Secret Life of Pets, JT Leroy, Just Eat It, Howard’s End, Quiet Earth, Henry, Phantasm and more

The Secret Life of Pets: Blu-ray
When homeowners began to install video surveillance devices in every room of their house, the idea was to spy on babysitters and nannies who might be neglecting or abusing a child or, perhaps, catch a burglar in the act of ransacking a home. At some point, though, a pet had to have been caught tearing up the pillows on a couch or acting out when a mail carrier got too close to the front door. After admonishing their dog or cat for behaving as if they had a choice in the matter, the next logical step was to send a tape to the producers of “America’s Favorite Home Videos.” They probably needed a break from watching kids hitting their dad in the nuts with a Wiffleball bat. In 1992, three years after the show launched its 27-year run on ABC, host Bob Saget presented the VHS release, “America’s Funniest Pets,” which may or may not have inspired the uproarious animated feature, The Secret Life of Pets. Even before Alan Funt’s radio-based “The Candid Microphone” crossed over to television as “Candid Camera,” in 1948, the ability to monitor the behavior of our kids, nannies, pets and, of course, spouses, was an idea too juicy not to contemplate. Today, of course, anyone with wi-fi and a video-surveillance system can watch their pets cavort on their computer at work. Somehow, it took almost a quarter-century for an animation studio – in this case, Universal’s ambitious Illumination Entertainment division — to merge the core elements of “America’s Funniest Pets” and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise into a spanking-new entertainment franchise. Emboldened by the success of Despicable Me and Minions, IE wisely invested its financial resources in The Secret Life of Pets, a 3D computer-animated buddy/adventure/comedy about what happens when our pets are left to their own devices. The A-list cast of voice actors probably had something to do with the stunning box-office appeal as well.

In it, a Jack Russell Terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) shares a compact Manhattan apartment with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). While she is at work, Max hangs out with other pets in the building: the obese and lazy tabby, Chloe (Lake Bell); hyperactive pug, Mel (Bobby Moynihan); laid-back dachshund, Buddy (Hannibal Buress); and parakeet, Sweetpea. When Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large and shaggy mongrel from the pound, all hell threatens to break loose behind her back. Enraged by Max’s effete attitude, Duke attempts to abandon his roommate in an alley, where, to his chagrin, they are both attacked by a gang of alley cats led by the hairless Sphynx cat, Ozone (Steve Coogan). The cats remove both dogs’ collars and leave them to be caught by Animal Control, opening the possibility that Duke will be put down for repeat vagrancy. In a clever turn, they are rescued by a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), the leader of the Flushed Pets Gang, which is comprised of sewer-dwelling animals who resent humans for their tendency to abandon their little friends when they tire of them. Max and Duke pretend to despise humans, but flunk the initiation test by refusing to allow a one-fanged viper to bite them.

After the dogs escape the sewers, things really get complicated. Their odyssey includes a trip to Brooklyn, on a ferry; a raid on a sausage factory; a visit to Duke’s last happy residence; a traffic mishap on the Brooklyn Bridge; and a plunge into the East River in an Animal Control van. They’re rescued at the last second by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white Pomeranian with a crush on Max; characters voiced by Albert Brooks and Dana Carvey; and a repentant Snowball. Not surprisingly, perhaps, The Secret Life of Pets finds all the animals back home, their owners none the wiser. Director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) joins the fun by playing Norman, a taxi-driving guinea pig who keeps getting lost. Sharp eyes will detect numerous references to previous Illumination titles, Universal brands and other cherished cartoon animals. The PG rating warns parents of pre-schoolers of scenes that contain “mild violence and peril” and a squished viper. The Blu-ray extras add a dozen, or so, informative making-of and background featurettes, sing-alongs, mini-movies and a visit from Brian the Minion.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
While literary hoaxes come and go, some are better than others. Because so many readers around the world were touched by the house-of-mirrors story cooked up by a novelist purporting to be a street urchin named JT LeRoy, the drama continues to reverberate today, a decade after the hoax was uncovered. Jeff Feuerzeig’s intriguing documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, is one of several books, films and crime-show episodes that have borrowed aspects of the case to discuss the literary and criminal ramifications of such chicanery, and the possible motivations of the perpetrator. In 2006, a New York Times article revealed that the15-year-old male author, LeRoy, was, in fact, a 35-year-old woman born in Brooklyn. Laura Albert adopted the pseudonym to facilitate her conceptualization of the troubled teenager, whose life played out in the highly realistic memoirs “Sarah” (2000), “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” (2001) and “Harold’s End” (2004). As a teen, Albert had called suicide hotlines for help, choosing to speak with counselors as a boy. One doctor encouraged Terminator, who later became known as JT LeRoy, to collect her thoughts on paper. Pseudonyms are hardly a new or novel literary device and, if the books hadn’t been marketed as autobiographical, the controversy might have been nipped in the bud. Instead, Albert’s deception extended to dealings with her publishers and a production company interested in adapting her short stories for film. She also invented a flesh-and-blood alter ego, who could stand in for her at signings and other literary gatherings, and accepted freelance assignments from prestigious publications in LeRoy’s name.

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was supposedly born in West Virginia to an abusive truck-stop prostitute. The androgynous teenager’s own backstory included prostitution, drug addiction and vagrancy in California. The poetically written novels initially struck a chord with readers who identified with the character’s total immersion in a lifestyle dictated by punk rock, drugs, gender confusion, pervasive societal bigotry, homelessness and inescapable violence. They would resonate, as well, with outsider artists who saw in LeRoy a younger version of themselves. His/her list of admirers included musicians Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento, David Milch and Tom Waits, all of whom reached out to the author in taped phone conversations, e-mails and faxes … remember those? LeRoy’s growing appeal caused a demand by fans and publishers for public appearances. Knowing that her bubble would burst if the truth was revealed, Albert conspired with Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of her guitarist boyfriend, Geoff, to fulfill the obligations typically associated with stardom. Unlike the overweight and plain-looking novelist, the 25-year-old aspiring fashion designer could have passed for Andy Warhol’s emaciated little brother. In addition to a hideous blond wig, Knoop wore dark googles over sunglasses and non-gender-specific clothes. Wherever LeRoy/Knoop appeared, so did a red-wigged Albert and her shaggy-haired boyfriend – a millennial Sonny & Cher, if you will — to supplement her words with angst-filled songs. Close proximity to the writer allowed Knoop to sound informed when quizzed by reporters and autograph seekers.

Ironically, the New York Times article was published after Albert had revealed her identity to Corgan and a couple of other artists in positions to advance her career, while maintaining her public persona. A year later, a Manhattan jury found Albert liable in monetary damages for the tort of fraud, because she had signed her nom de plume to the movie contract. She was ordered to pay $110,000 to the production company, covering the option contract; $6,500 in punitive damages; and $350,000 in legal fees. The Author’s Guild released an amicus brief supporting Albert and opposing the jury’s decision, because of the impact it might have on writers in the future. (In 2009, after an appeal, a settlement was reported.) By this time, Albert had proven to herself and others that her talent wasn’t limited to the JT LeRoy brand. She appears as herself throughout Author: The JT LeRoy Story, recalling the various twists and turns of her personal story and, if anything, looking better than ever. For her part, Knoop took advantage of newfound notoriety to publish “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.”

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
Anyone familiar with the prolific artist, philosopher, writer, storyteller and “radical humanist,” John Berger, will naturally be attracted to the multi-sourced cinematic exercise, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. Segmented according to seasonal changes affecting the French Alpine village, Quincy, it features a series of unabashedly brainy, yet accessible conversations with the Booker- and Guardian Fiction Prize-winner. Anyone drawn to the DVD solely by the presence of co-director and longtime friend Tilda Swinton – an arthouse mainstay, newly re-minted as a star of action and comic-book flicks – shouldn’t bother. She doesn’t kick anyone’s ass or appear in costume. When Swinton isn’t behind the camera, she engages Berger in friendly conversations that, invariably, lead to an exchange of philosophical points of view. She freely admits to having “an indissoluble bond of kinship” with Berger, with whom she acted in the 1989 film “Play Me Something,” based on one of his short stories. While they’re chatting in the kitchen of his rustic home, they peel and core apples for a delicious-looking crumble. In the other segments, Berger combines ideas and motifs from his work with the texture and history of his mountain home. Berger’s wife Beverly, who mainly remains in the background here, passed away during the shoot, leaving a void that’s palpable. Among Berger’s more familiar works are the 1972 BBC series and essay on art criticism, “Ways of Seeing”; the Booker Prize-winning novel, “G”; and collaborations with the Swiss director Alain Tanner on La Salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974) and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). An original score by Simon Fisher Turner helps unite the segments, also directed by Bartek Dziadosz (“The Trouble with Being Human”), Colin MacCabe (“Ways of Listening”) and Christopher Roth (Baader).

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
There’s a subset of documentaries that attempt to prove that modern men and women can survive in this materialistic society without succumbing to such luxuries as processed food, shopping malls, red meat, electricity and, yes, even toilet paper. Such well-meaning exercises in guilt-inducement focus on the western world’s obsession with gluttony, convenience and conspicuous consumption. Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer are obsessed with waste. The Clean Bin Project (2010) follows a “regular couple” who engage in a quasi-comedic contest to determine who can swear off consumerism and produce the least amount of garbage in an entire year. Their Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story addresses the same problem in a different way. This time, Grant and Jenny commit themselves to only consuming food that’s been discarded from farms, retail outlets and the overstocked refrigerators and shelves of friends. Grant gives new meaning to what it means to be reduced to dumpster diving to survive. To his dismay, he discovers an alarming amount of food thrown away not only because it’s approaching its expiration date, but also because it doesn’t meet the aesthetic demands of supermarket chains and picky consumers. Some is donated to agencies that provide food to poor people, but the demand for certain non-essential commodities simply doesn’t exist. One estimate puts the amount of food products disposed of in landfills, as opposed to being shipped to sub-Sahara Africa, at nearly 50 percent. They also discover that overproduction can’t be blamed on any one company, agency or agri-business conglomeration. As was the case with Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, a large dollop of humor helps the medicine go down. Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story is further informed by interviews with TED lecturer, author and activist Tristram Stuart, author Jonathan Bloom, food/agriculture scientist Dana Gunders, farmers, retailers, charitable organizations and consumers.

Howards End: Blu-ray
The re-release of Merchant Ivory Productions’ Howard’s End on Blu-ray, six years removed from Criterion Collection’s impeccable hi-def upgrade, reminds us once again of the great vacuum left by the loss of producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, as well as the subsequent retirement of director James Ivory. For at least one generation of movie lovers, the company’s adaptations of classic novels defined the term, “prestige picture” … or, if you will, period costume dramas. It did so on budgets that today would be reserved for genre films by untested directors. Howard’s End was the third adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel committed to the screen by Merchant Ivory, after A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987), and the third, along with David Lean’s A Passage to India, to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (Maurice’s screenplay is credited to Ivory and Kit Hesketh-Harvey.) All of Merchant Ivory’s films are renowned for their attention to period detail, respect for the source material, world-class acting and beautiful locations. That baton has been passed to the British mini-series – “Downton Abbey,” “Poldark,” “Wolf Hall,” among them — we see here on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” The Merchant Ivory catalogue looks more sumptuous with every new technology.

Howards End is a romantic drama, based on Forster’s 1910 novel surveying class relations in early 20th-Century England. It does so by focusing on three families connected only by proximity and the occasion of intimacy: the Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) who represent the enlightened bourgeoisie; the rich and largely uncultured Wilcox family (Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, James Wilby); and the white-collar middle-class Basts (Sam West, Nicola Duffett). When Ruth Wilcox dies, her estranged husband, Henry, is flummoxed to learn that she’s left her interest in the Howards End property to the less-frivolous of the Schlegals. To everyone’s surprise, Henry falls in love and marries Margaret, without acknowledging her hidden ownership of the country home. In response, Helen Schlegel turns to a married family friend – the lowly bank clerk, Leonard Bast – for comfort. Their brief, if fruitful encounter reverberates throughout the rest of the story, causing all sorts of acrimony and recriminations relating to Margaret’s “honor” and the Wilcox fortune. It’s wonderful stuff that translates well to the screen.

Thompson, Jhabvala and set/art designers Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker took home Academy Awards, while Merchant, Ivory, Redgrave, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, and composer Richard Robbins were among the finalists. Cohen Media’s new two-disc set ports over some of the supplements from the Criterion release while also offering some new bonus material, including commentary with critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein; a 2016 conversation between James Ivory and Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film, MOMA; a 2016 interview with Ivory and Redgrave at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; “On Stage Q&A,” with Ivory and critic Michael Koresky at Lincoln Center; an EPK short from 1992; featurettes “Building Howards End” and “The Design of Howards End,” with Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan; and a 12-minute testimonial to Merchant, by Ivory. Technically, it’s difficult to recommend one Blu-ray package over the other. The 2016 release benefits from a new 4K restoration, culled from the film’s original camera negative, and some fiddling on the aspect ratio.

The Quiet Earth: Blu-ray
In the 1950s, people around the world woke up every morning wondering if this would be their last day on Earth. Several powerful countries were conducting nuclear tests, without the benefit of knowing whether clouds of irradiated dust were harmless, deadly or somewhere in between. Pregnant women were cautioned against drinking the milk from cows that may have grazed on poisoned grasses, while schoolchildren were laughably led to believe that they could avoid death by ducking under desks and covering their heads. As if Americans weren’t sufficiently frightened by the concept of mutually assured destruction, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, “I Am Legend,” gave them good reason to fear surviving the nuclear holocaust. The premise was strong enough to support would three motion pictures. The 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Time Enough at Last,” demonstrated how a survivor’s good luck could reverse itself in a heartbeat. That year also brought Stanley Kramer’s sadly cerebral good-bye to mankind, On the Beach. After the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, we were allowed to think that cooler heads would ultimately prevail, but only if Barry Goldwater was denied the presidency. Between Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a new generation of Americans was given something to fear besides submarines carrying nuclear warheads. The current epidemic of dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies wouldn’t begin for another 30 years, or so. That’s a long and winding way of introducing Geoff Murphy’s 1985 The Quiet Earth, a largely ignored post-apocalyptic thriller that almost no Americans outside of large cities have seen.

Only one New Zealand film, Smash Palace, had made any kind of a splash here and, after Alien and Blade Runner, Americans had developed a taste for much more expensive sci-fi fare. The Quiet Earth simply didn’t qualify. It appears to have been based as much on Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 thriller, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which starred Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer, as Craig Harrison’s 1981 genre novel. In it, experiments with a radical new power source — a band of solar energy that would circle the planet — go awry and appear to wipe out all signs of life. All clocks have stopped at the biblically relevant time of 6:12 a.m. and only a handful of corpses are visible. Zak (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist who worked on the project, somehow survived the experiment. At first, of course, he’s frightened by the reality of his situation. Given time, however, Zak decides to take advantage of the situation by stealing fancy cars, declaring himself King of the Quiet Earth, enjoying the trappings of wealth and trying on women’s lingerie. Without giving too much away, Zak eventually will come in contact with a hippie girl and Maori truck driver, who demonstrate the hardiness of humanity, while also confirming that there’s nothing more destructive than a love triangle. Except for some metaphysical hocus-pocus, the enigmatic ending to The Quiet Earth reminded me of the ending to On the Beach, with a lonely Ava Gardner watching the last submarine disappear under the waves. The Blu-ray offers commentary by Neil deGrasse Tyson and critic Odie Henderson, and a detailed essay on the film by Professor Teresa Heffernan.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Clément Cogitore’s unsettling wartime drama, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, combines the haunting mystery of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with the cliff’s edge tension of Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary, Restrepo. Here, French Army Captain Antares Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his squad are assigned to monitor the remote Wakhan valley of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan. In the early stages of the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, its narrow passages were believed to provide a staging ground for cross-border attacks on allied troops and rival warlords. From their mountain-top outposts, the French also are within walking distance of the last Afghan village before the border and the shepherds who went about their own business in the valley. No one on either side of the conflict trusted the others particularly, but compromises based on mutual security and bribes often were negotiated.

The French soldiers may not engage the enemy every day, or even weekly, but the men’s vigilance and determination to get home in one piece are palpable throughout the film. One day, without a single shot being fired, animals and men from all sides start mysteriously disappearing. The French demand answers from the Afghans, who, in turn, suspect the warring forces of slipping into the village and terrorizing the residents. Captain Bonassieu is as confused as everyone else, but, as a realist, demands concrete answers to a mystery that may be steeped in metaphysics, religion or superstition. They all come into play here at one point in the investigation or another. A French chaplain is called in to contain the speculation, but ends up echoing mysticism found in the Koran. If Neither Heaven Nor Earth is not your typical war story, it’s largely because Afghanistan has historically resisted classification as a typical war zone. Alexander failed to tame it at a time when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion. Bonus features include Cogitore’s commentary and short film, “Among Us”; and Film Movement’s “Why We Selected” statement.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
When I was a mere lad, working at the Chicago Tribune and drinking at the Billy Goat, I’d frequently walk past one of the concrete pillars keeping Michigan Avenue from collapsing on the network of streets below it known collectively as Lower Wacker Drive. It’s provided an extremely cool setting for car chases and chance encounters in such entertainments as The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Adventures in Babysitting, The Fury, Code of Silence and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Anyone considering shooting a movie in Chicago, about real people who live and work in Chicago, at least, ponders ways of using Lower Wacker as a location. The Goat’s entrance was only a few feet away from the pillar upon which the flyer for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had been posted years earlier, and, ironically, where a key scene was shot. Once spotted, the flyer was impossible to ignore. The glowing opinions of esteemed critics might have confused some passersby into thinking the movie was showing at an arthouse, up the stars and down the street. Below the blurbs and stars, however, the reflection of the antagonist’s face, staring into a mirror, argued otherwise. It belonged to Michael Rooker, now a veteran character actor, but, then, one of many struggling to make a name for themselves in Chicago’s burgeoning off-Loop theater scene. Co-writer/director John McNaughton, himself a struggling artist, had taken one look at Rooker during the casting process – in the garb of a janitor on his way to work — and knew he had his serial killer. What he didn’t know was how much of an impact his ground-breaking first feature would have on a genre that had become bloated with poorly drawn slashers, stalkers and sociopaths.

By chronicling a week in the lives of two very sick Chicagoans, and refusing to pass judgment on their acts before the closing credits rolled, McNaughton brought something frighteningly new and different to the table. The first four tableaux were based on real life murders the self-admitted serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, claimed to have committed. Indeed, McNaughton arranged the shot of a nude corpse to mirror the same position of a victim in a case involving Lucas. In another reversal of form, he refused to provide the audience with a litany of excuses for how such a good boy had turned out so bad. Henry wasn’t the product of a broken home, abusive foster parents, societal ills or being bullied as a child. McNaughton demanded of us that we perform the duties normally reserved for the state’s attorney, judge, jury and executioner. His refusal to tack a “happy ending” or positive resolution to the end of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – along with the graphic violence – left audiences as perplexed as the MPAA ratings board, which remained adamant about its decision to brand it “X.” (Along with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,  it’s credited with forcing the MPAA to replace the X rating with slightly less restrictive NC-17.) As it is, three years would pass before the movie’s debut at the 1986 Chicago International Film Festival and its inclusion in the 1989 Telluride Film Festival, where half of the audience walked out.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer pulled in $600,000 in its first theatrical run — six times its production budget – before making a killing (pun intended) in video rentals, sales and re-releases. MPI previously released the film on Blu-ray in 2009. Dark Sky Films has restored the film in 4K resolution from its original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack, adding new extras to existing featurettes. They include “In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation,” with director Joe Swanberg, film critic Kim Morgan, film professor Jeffrey Sconce, exploitation expert Joe Bob Briggs and Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris ; “Henry vs. MPAA: A Visual History”; “Henry at the BBFC,” an interview with “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower; “It’s Either You or Them,” an interview with artist Joe Coleman”; “In the Round: A Conversation with John McNaughton”; and a booklet, with an essay by Stephen Thrower. Features ported over from the earlier hi-def release are McNaughton’s commentary and an interview with the director; “Portrait: The Making of Henry”; deleted scenes and outtakes; the original trailer; still gallery; and storyboards. The making-of material reminds us of the chilling effects working on a film, like “Henry,” can have on the actors – co-stars Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold, and murder victim Lisa Temple — and behind-the-camera crew.

If There’s a Hell Below
Anyone who longs for the days when “paranoid thrillers” were as commonplace as any other subgenre shouldn’t have to wait too long for a new wave of conspiracy-based pictures to crash on our shores. The difference between today’s conspiracies and the ones depicted in such fictional entertainments as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Klute, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Z, Missing, Blow Out and The Pelican Brief, is that one needn’t be paranoid, anymore, to believe that a government agency is listening in on their phone calls, inventing lies to advance a political agenda or trying to deprive them of their constitutional rights. The evidence of such plotting can be found in the handful of newspapers that still believe that supporting investigative teams is as important as running comic strips, bridge columns and horoscopes. When the FBI’s top-secret COINTELPRO program was exposed, in the 1970s, the findings confirmed nearly every conspiracy theory forwarded by radical groups over the past 20 years. Oliver Stone’s Snowden might have done better at the box office if the story of the NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques hadn’t already played out in the mainstream and niche media, and Laura Poitras’ non-fiction Citizenfour. The same applies to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, in which WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The much-admired film made even less money than Snowden. It’s tough for screenwriters and activist directors to top the facts already laid out on “60 Minutes” or a dozen other TV newsmagazines, late-night comedy shows and “Saturday Night Live.” The hideous presidential campaign we’ve just endured was one long paranoid thriller, during which lies and innuendo were as widely accepted as facts as news reports to the contrary. Tens of millions of voters not only bought into the lies, but they also spread falsehoods of their own.

It’s against this background that Nathan Williams decided to test the resiliency of the paranoid thriller with the low budget If There’s a Hell Below, co-written with his brother, Matthew. In it, an employee of a national security agency lures a reporter for an alternative paper in Chicago to a desolate section of the Pacific Northwest, where the paucity of rain has created an amber wave of grain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Debra (Carol Roscoe), a “senior information processing engineer,” has promised to give Abe (Conner Marx) a thumb drive ostensibly containing state secrets. Before that can happen, though, Debra must make sure that Max is the reporter he claims to be and can be trusted with the data. She instructs him to drive into the country, which is curiously devoid of farm implements. Besides some abandoned sheds and silos, the only sign that anyone lives nearby is a wind farm as ominous in its own way as the black helicopters in “The X-Files.” Debra tells him where to go and when to turn, but it isn’t likely that any of roads are on a map. Just when it seems that the exchange will be made, Debra spots a black SUV in the near distance, parked and apparently ready to follow them. Before long, the chase is on, and we’re none the wiser as to what she’s hiding and who might be driving the SUV. That’s all I can reveal, except to say that Williams does a nice job maintaining the tension and keeping us interested in the story. Neither is the ending as predictable as it might sound from this summary. If If There’s a Hell Below’s setting recalls the crop-duster chase in Hitchcock’ North by Northwest, it’s a testament to Williams’ imagination and Christopher Messina’s splendid cinematography.

Call of Heroes: Blu-ray
Looking for action? If you don’t mind reading subtitles, Benny Chan’s new wuxia epic, Call of Heroes, could be your ticket, as it reveals the influences of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, any number of spaghetti Westerns and action director Sammo Hung’s unmistakable handiwork in the fight scenes. It stars Louis Koo (Drug War), Eddie Peng (Cold War II), Wu Jing (Shaolin) and Sean Lau Ching-wan (Overheard 3). Set in the period between the end of the Qinq Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China, when warlords vied for power, Call of Heroes describes what happens after the government orders soldiers stationed in a rural village to move to the front lines, leaving it ripe for takeover by the sadistic son of warlord Cao Shaolun (Koo), who immediately kills three random people. While Sheriff Yang Kenan (Ching-wan) prepares for the convicted psychopath’s execution, his father’s aide Zhang Yi (Jing) arrives with the threat of a massacre. Instead of acquiescing to Cao and the fearful populace, the sheriff enlists the help of wandering warrior Ma Feng (Peng), who should remind viewers of Toshiro Mifune. They must organize a militia of peasants to defend the jail and keep the village out of Cao’s hands. Chan isn’t reluctant to borrow tropes from the Hong Kong action cinema, but he seems more interested in tweaking them for maximum effect. Made for the equivalent of $32 million, Call of Heroes delivers more than the usual number of grandiose sets, including an entire town. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes.

Never Open the Door: Blu-ray
Even over the long Thanksgiving-holiday weekend, city folks staying in secluded cabins in the woods should know enough to refrain from opening the door to strangers. This advice pertains, as well, to unexpected late-night visitors who look as if they might be in desperate need of assistance. Anyone who’s watched more than a few horror movies in the last 40 years knows that nothing good can come from such kindness, especially when out of cellphone range. No sooner is the turkey fully devoured in the opening minutes of Vito Trabucco’s Never Open the Door than Tess (Jessica Sonneborn) admits a wounded man, after he practically breaks down the door trying to attract the attention of someone inside. The stranger immediately spews her with blood and passes out on the floor. With his last ounce of strength, he advises the poor woman, “Never open the door.” Yeah, no shit. The rest of the movie requires of the couples that they go completely off their rockers, each one fearing they’ll be the next to die or be transformed into something unspeakably evil. Tess, bless her heart, decides this would be a good time to shower off the gore, instantly providing some viewers, at least, a reason to stick around for another 45 minutes of the film’s 64-minute length. Joe Provenzano’s nifty black-and-white cinematography imbues the proceedings with a 1950s “Twilight Zone” vibe, especially in its spooky final scene. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of pieces that are almost as long as the movie.

Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs
Typically, when I come in possession of a documentary with a title like, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs, the first thing I do is turn the box around and check out the running time. Based solely on the cable shows I’ve seen dealing with “ancient astronauts” and people who’ve been abducted by aliens, the prospect of watching anything over an hour fills me with dread. Director Justin Gaar deserves lots of credit in my book for getting me to sit through his truly offbeat doc and a bonus feature that purports to show the lights of UFOs dancing over Monterey Bay. Christo Roppolo claims to have seen UFOs since childhood and, as an adult, has collected hours of footage of strange crafts shooting across the skies of Central California. The camera clearly shows the light from unseen objects blinking and occasionally racing overhead. They occasionally reveal interesting pigments, as well. All I know is that Monterey isn’t all that far from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where rockets are tested and satellites are shot into orbit, and it’s less than an hour’s flight from Area 51. So, why not? The thing is, Roppolo really, really believes that he’s seen UFOs and occasionally uses a flashlight to blink back at them. His vehemence often translates into the kind of colorfully profane outbursts that would scare the crap out of people who’ve never lived in California. Gaar looks beyond his subject’s case for UFOs, turning the film’s focus towards Roppolo’s love for film, music and horror movies. Roppolo also reveals passages in his life that help explain how he managed to find some comfort in the possibility that a UFO might someday land in his backyard and carry him away to a planet where being eccentric isn’t a curse.

The Devil’s Dolls: Blu-ray
Padraig Reynolds’ tres, tres gory The Devil’s Dolls (a.k.a., “Worry Dolls”) begins where most direct-to-video horror flicks end … with a blood-stained electric drill, a mutilated cop and dead antagonist. Neither does the writer/director (Rites of Spring) waste any time attempting to hide the root cause of the violence we’ve just witnessed, although anyone expecting to see killer Barbies in action may be a tad disappointed. I suspect that the original title was changed to avoid any potential confusion with Charles Band’s depraved 2008 thriller, Dangerous Worry Dolls, which benefitted from being set in a women’s prison. Besides inhabiting the same subgenre, Reynolds’ dolls bear very little similarity to Band’s dolls. Typically, worry dolls are slipped under the pillows of people who want to pass along their concerns to an inanimate object. Here, though, none of the characters are logging many hours of sleep. After the serial killer is eliminated by a cop named Matt (Christopher Wiehl), a box full of worry dolls is found in his workroom and put in the back seat of the police car. Before it can be deposited in the evidence room, Matt’s snotty little daughter, Chloe (Kennedy Brice), mistakes the box for a present and claims it for her personal use. She decides to make some money by giving the dolls a makeover and selling them as lucky charms in her mom’s gift shop. Instead of absorbing the buyers’ worries, the cursed amulets turn the shoppers into monsters. Soon, the peaceful Mississippi town becomes the setting for a chain of random and brutal murders. The local voodoo queen (Tina Lifford) – she’s black, of course, and lives in a shack in the deep boonies — is the only local resident privy to the dolls’ curse and, of course, police ignored her earlier warning. Despite what must have been an extremely modest budget, The Devil’s Dolls exhibits decent production values and credible special effects.

Kiss Me, Kill Me
Me, Myself and Her
Shot in West Hollywood and populated with LGBT characters, director Casper Andreas cautions potential viewers against thinking Kiss Me, Kill Me will fit only one pigeonhole. The prolific actor/writer/director (Going Down in LA-LA Land, The Big Gay Musical) and writer David Michael Barrett (Bad Actress) aren’t even sure if the word, “gay,” is spoken in what they hope will be considered a traditional noir thriller. Good luck, on that. Kiss Me, Kill Me wouldn’t be the first picture to fill that niche, in any case. A dozen years ago, four pictures featuring the gay P.I., Donald Strachey, were adapted from the popular mystery series written by Richard Stevenson. Apart from festival dates and the occasional theatrical debut, the movies went straight to DVD. It’s possible that LGBT audiences in 2016 have been given sufficient cause to de-segregate their viewing habits. Unless I’m mistaken, all four letters in the acronym are represented in Kiss Me, Kill Me. Unable to make up his mind between his current boyfriend, Dusty (Van Hansis), and ex-lover, Craigery (Matthew Ludwinski), successful Hollywood producer, Stephen (Gale Harold), is required to make a difficult decision when push comes to shove at a party. After an embarrassing confrontation, Dusty splits for the nearest 24-hour convenience store, with the unfaithful Stephen just a few steps behind. A violent incident inside the store leaves Stephen dead and Dusty, who’s blacked out, the prime suspect … at least, in the mind of the salt-and-pepper police investigators. Except for the WeHo setting, mystery fans aren’t likely to find anything particularly new or genre-bending in Kiss Me, Kill Me, which, probably, is what the filmmakers intended. A trumpet-heavy soundtrack immediately recalls Mark Isham’s work in Trouble in Mind and Short Cuts. Brianna Brown, Allison Lane and D.J. “Shangela” Pierce also turn in nice performances. The DVD adds commentary with Andreas and Barrett, interviews, background, red-carpet footage from FilmOut San Diego, a music video and the Kickstarter video pitch.

Last December, Todd Haynes’ Carol was being touted by critics and industry insiders as one of top contenders for Oscar nominations. Set in New York City during the early 1950s, it tells the story of a “forbidden love affair” between an aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older woman going through a difficult divorce (Cate Blanchett). Carol, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, received six Oscar nominations, none of which were for Best Picture or Best Director. Maria Sole Tognazzi’s romantic com/dram, Me, Myself and Her, is built on a substantially different foundation, but the similarities are telling. At a time when Italy was weighing the question of legalizing same-sex marriages, Me, Myself and Her focused on a monogamous lesbian relationship that had avoided serious roadblocks until it hit the five-year mark. As the picture opens, Marina and Federica live together in the kind of posh apartment usually reserved for otherwise middle-class characters played by award-winning actresses. The voluptuous and self-confident Marina (Sabrina Ferilli) traded a career in the movie industry for the challenge of running a successful health food restaurant. The skittish Federica (Margherita Buy) is a respected architect with a marriage behind her and a grown son. Marina left the closet years earlier, while Federica is reluctant to admit that she’s strictly-clittly. When Marina inadvertently outs her partner in a magazine interview – she’s a dead ringer for Catherine Deneuve, in her 50s – Federica experiences a full-blown identity crisis, even going so far as to rekindle a romance with a younger man she met years earlier on a ski trip. If the betrayal crushes Marina, the tryst saddens Federica in ways that can only lead to the logical ending, circa 2016. (In the 1950s, the Production Code would have ensured a different ending.) Unlike Carol, which included a scene with partial nudity and caressing, Me, Myself and Her is sexy, but tame compared to other Italian romances. It’s the outstanding performances by Buy (Mia Madre) and Ferilli (The Great Beauty), who has one of the cinema’s great smiles, that will sell the movie outside Italy.

TV-to-DVD
OWN: Greenleaf: Season One: Blu-ray
HBO: Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again
PBS: Frontline: The Choice 2016
PBS: Frontline: A Subprime Education
PBS: NOVA: School of the Future
PBS: Time for School
If Tyler Perry’s success has taught us anything, it’s that programming targeted at African-American audiences has a better chance of holding on to viewers if it adds a taste of old-time religion to the mix of scandalous behavior, hypocrisy, scandal, romance and music. “Greenleaf,” which contains large dollops of all three elements, is the second scripted drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network, after Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” The various storylines revolve around the antics and agonies of Memphis’ powerful Greenleaf family and their sprawling megachurch. The series, which has been renewed for a second season, was created by “Lost” and “Six Feet Under” writer Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey, Wright and Clement Virgo (“The Book of Negroes”). Religion isn’t a passing notion in “Greenleaf.” The righteous characters have been washed thoroughly in the blood of the lamb and the sinners know a reckoning will come, even if it’s in the sweet by-and-by. Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield) are the patriarch and matriarch of the Greenleaf family. In the first episode, their estranged daughter — preacher-turned-journalist Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) – returns home after a 20-year absence, following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. Much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter, Sophie (Desiree Ross), Gigi decides to stay in Memphis to investigate the death of her sister and begin working in Greenleaf World Ministries. In turn, Sophia begins picking up bad habits from her preppy classmates. Winfrey plays Mavis McCready, who, besides being Lady Mae’s sister, owns a blues club and serves as Grace’s confidante. Along with faith and prayer, the early episodes feature storylines involving rape and police brutality. Special features include “The Oprah Winfrey Conversations,” bloopers and featurettes “Creating Greenleaf” and “Greenleaf Musicians.”

Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again” originated as a New Year’s Eve special for HBO on December 31, 2014. Shot over a six-month period, it combines spectacularly staged musical performances with “intimate” documentary footage and interviews with Lopez and her closest friends. The biggest challenge, we’re led to believe, is keeping track of her two young children and parents, who accompany Lopez on her first world tour. On it, they visit 65 cities on five continents, traveling 100,000 miles and reaching an estimated million fans. Someone was assigned the chore of tallying the minutes of music produced (11,250), sequins sewn (500,000) and wardrobe changes (162). sequins and 162 wardrobe changes. It will be interesting to see how “Dance Again” holds up against Showtime’s two-hour presentation, “Madonna: Rebel Heart Tour,” beginning this weekend.

I’ve been too depressed to pick up a newspaper or watch CNN ever since the results of the presidential election were announced. It’s easier for me to believe that the moon is made of green cheese than Donald Trump will soon be president. Hillary Clinton was no prize, but, compared to Trump, she looked like the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, well, it won’t be long before the president-elect shows his true colors and the people who voted for him begin to wish Obama had sought a third term. First shown at the end of September, the “Frontline” presentation, “The Choice 2016,” is about as relevant today as yesterday’s horoscope. The
two-hour investigative biographies draw on dozens of interviews from those who know the candidates best, including friends and family, advisors and adversaries, and authors, journalists, and political insiders. Sadly, too few voters studied reports like this before casting their ballots.

As part of PBS’ “Spotlight Education” initiative, “Frontline” aired two films examining the realities of education in America. In “A Subprime Education,” correspondent Martin Smith revisits the show’s investigation of for-profit colleges, which aired in 2010 as “College, Inc.” The colleges say they’re expanding access to education and preparing students for success, but Smith finds that, in many cases, they’re just collecting money and leaving students in debt, without degrees and unprepared to face the job market. It puts a tight focus on the implosion of Corinthian Colleges and includes “Omarina s Story,” about how a program to stem the high school drop-out crisis has affected one girl’s journey.

Once the envy of the world, American schools are now in trouble. Test scores show our kids lag far behind their peers from other industrialized countries, and as the divide between rich and poor grows wider, the goal of getting all kids ready for college and the workforce gets harder by the day. The “NOVA” presentation, “School of the Future,” questions whether the science of learning — including new insights from neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators reveal – can reveal how kids’ brains work and tell us which techniques are most likely to engage and inspire their growing minds?

PBS’ “Time for School: 2003-2016” is a “longitudinal documentary project” that attempts to put a human face on the global education crisis. It does so by following five children in five poverty stricken countries — India, Brazil, Kenya, Afghanistan and Benin — from their first days of school through the next 12 years, as they try to get a basic education. Lax child-labor laws, early marriage and the chaos of war prevent legions of young people from getting an education. The stories are told primarily from the point of view of the children and their families.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas