MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: John Wick 2, 3 Generations, Frantz, Three Sisters, South Park 20 and more

John Wick: Chapter 2: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
So many people are killed in the John Wick movies that it’s next to impossible to keep track of the body counts. Depending on who is counting, of the 119 deaths that occurred in the 2014 original, Keanu Reeves’ character was directly responsible for between 77 and 84. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the total is set at 128 kills, of which 123 are credited to Wick. I’d be hard-pressed to identify the five victims not attributed to Wick, although one key character commits suicide before he puts a bullet in her cranium. (Who gets the credit for that one?) If memory serves, only one police officer, Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), appears in either or both segments, unless one takes into account the sirens heard at one point in the sequel. The paucity of cops in these films borders on comic relief. As was the case in the former, Wicks is forced out of momentary retirement to avenge serious affronts to his psyche: the unrelated deaths of his wife and dog. Here, the life of Wick’s extremely obedient American Pitbull is spared at the expense of his thoroughly trashed Boss 429 Mustang, vintage 1969, and out-of-the-way Post-Modernist home. Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) uses twin RPGs to destroy the house, after Wick refuses to honor a commitment to return a favor, as directed by the code of his underground assassins’ bureau. His refusal is polite, but pointless. After the house is destroyed, Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental Hotel – headquarters, of sorts, for the New York operation — reminds John that, if he rejects the sacred “blood oath” medallion, he will be violating one of the two unbreakable rules of the underworld: no killing on Continental grounds and Markers must be honored. Wick will honor the commitment, begrudgingly, but there’s no question he and D’Antonio will meet again to settle the score. Instead of waiting, the oily D’Antonio commissions a $7-million hit on Wick. With that kind of money on the table, every assassin within the tristate area saddles up to track down Our Hero.

Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad make it ridiculously easy for Wick to be found and even more ridiculously easy for the battle-hardened assassin to eliminate his pursuers using “gun fu,” a hybrid fighting style that combines martial arts and close-up gun play. That’s pretty much the whole story here. How John Wick differs from almost every other ultra-violent franchise extant, including the straight-to-video flicks of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, is the attention paid to detail, nonstop action and imaginative death blows. Reaves, who, like Tom Cruise, performs most of his own stunts and is an attentive student of the martial arts, is far more credible as a master assassin than anyone could have guessed, at least before he made 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi, in 2013, and, of course, The Matrix trilogy. The set pieces in John Wick 2 border on the exquisite … beautifully choreographed and shot. Among them are a chase through a subway station (Montreal for New York); Rome’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; a hall-of-mirrors exhibit, inspired by Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon; and an elaborate party, staged in a disco hidden in the catacombs of Rome (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). There also are dozens of obscure references to Wickian minutiae and a video game called “Payday 2.” Although the distributor originally announced plans to bypass theaters, fans took to the social media to demand a theatrical release and it paid off handsomely. I doubt the same doubt will impact the triquel, which likely will be set immediately after the events at the close of the sequel. The striking HD/UHD presentation adds deleted scenes; commentary with Reaves and his onetime stunt double and coach, Stahelski; a “Dog Wick” short; and featurettes ”RetroWick: Exploring the Unexpected Success of John Wick,” ”Training John Wick,” ”WICK-vizzed,” ”Friends, Confidantes: The Keanu/Chad Partnership,” ”As Above, So Below: The Underworld of John Wick,” ”Car Fu Ridealong,” ”Beat Down: The Evolution of a Fight Scene,” ”Wick’s Toolbox” and ”Kill Count.”

Frantz: Blu-ray
If any filmmaker carries a better batting average into each new project than François Ozon, I don’t know who it would be. Although he returns to certain themes and character traits with some frequency, each new Ozon release is different than the one that came before or will follow it. They include such award-winners as Young & Beautiful, Potiche, Swimming Pool, Angel, 8 Women, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Time to Leave and Hideaway. His films are just as likely to debut at a festival dedicated to gay and lesbian titles, as Cannes or Venice. In his subtly Hitchcockian Frantz, Ozon introduces a character’s sexuality as a McGuffin, then returns to it much later from a different direction. As vague as that revelation may be, however, it probably tells potential viewers more than they should know going into the movie. Inspired in part, at least, by Vertigo, Ozon shifts directions so often that any spoiler would be one too many. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s1931 Broken Lullaby and a 1930 play by Maurice Rostand, whose title itself qualifies as a spoiler, Frantz is set in Germany and France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Both countries had suffered great losses and were in no hurry to welcome tourists from the opposing side.

Most of what happen in Frantz we observe from the perspective of a young German woman, Anna (Paula Beer), living with the parents of her late fiancé, who died in the trenches. Although Frantz’ body was buried in France, Anna visits the family plot almost daily. One day, she’s surprised to find a rose at Frantz’ marker. She will discover that it was left by a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who tells her he was friends with her fiancé in Paris before the war. Left as despondent by Frantz’ death as Anna, Adrien eventually is accepted by his parents, Doktor and Magda Hoffmeister, as someone who might provide them with a semblance of closure. Knowing that he’s unwelcome in the village, Adrien takes every opportunity to be with Anna and the Hoffmeisters, who even allow him to play Frantz’ prized violin. In turn, he regales them with couched memories about their time together in Paris. As abruptly as he arrived, Adrien makes plans to return to France, but not before unloading something heavy from his mind. Without giving anything away, Anna decides to follow him to Paris, where the mystery thickens and viewers can expect more surprises. What can be said is that, despite being on the winning side, the French are no more over the war than the Germans we met earlier. In fact, from the tortured landscape clearly visible from Anna’s train, you’d guess that France lost the war. Most of Frantz was shot in black-and-white, which Ozon considered to fit the period better than color. He uses that sparingly and with a strategic purpose in mind. The performances by Niney and Beer could hardly be any more compelling. The Blu-ray package adds a Q&A with Ozon, festival coverage, deleted scenes and a selection of ads and poster that demonstrate how difficult a task it was to market a film that could be interpreted in so many different ways.

3 Generations: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to overstate the disappointment registered by critics concerning 3 Generations, a well-intentioned dramedy in which three A-list actors tackle a hot-button issue, but let it slip away halfway through. In it, rising megastar Elle Fanning takes on Ray, a female-to-male transgender teen, desperate to begin hormone treatments before entering a new school, where no one knows her story. He was raised by in New York City by his impossibly neurotic single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), and grandmothers, Dolly and Frances (Susan Sarandon, Linda Emonds), who life in a lesbian-friendly multi-level home right out of Central Set Design. None of the adults, including Maggie’s estranged husband, Craig (Tate Donovan), is comfortable with Ray’s commitment to change, despite this late point in LGBTQ history. Maggie is holding on to the consent papers, as if her daughter will come to her senses in a few weeks and magically change her mind. She needs to get re-connect with Craig to get his signature, but, when she does, it triggers another unlikely contretemps. Meanwhile, Dolly would prefer that her grandchild come out as a lesbian, so she could date girls and skip the surgery. Really. If 3 Generations were set in 1975, and didn’t co-star someone as famously progressive as Sarandon, some of this tomfoolery would be timely, at least. (Another example: of all the cars in the world a lesbian couple would choose to own, here Dolly and Frances are hanging onto a barely roadworthy, if eminently practical Rambler station wagon.) Ray, on the other hand, is an extremely together young woman, who’s been recording her thoughts and observations for years and only wants to be treated as a male of the species. Even so, she seems anachronistically attached to her skateboard. Gaby Dellal and Nikole Beckwith’s story ends, not surprisingly, in a split decision that respects Ray’s narrative, while allowing the adults to escape with a smidgen of their dignity intact. 3 Generations debuted at the 2015 TIFF, but was pulled back from theatrical release soon thereafter for major revisions, a rewrite and two title changes. Fans of the actors will find more to enjoy here than almost anyone else, including members of the LGBTQ audience, some of whom have complained that Fanning’s role should have been played by a T. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

Alone in Berlin
Based on Hans Fallada’s 1947 German-language novel, “Every Man Dies Alone” – only translated into English in 2009 – Vincent Perez’ wartime drama, Alone in Berlin, tells a story of grass-roots resistance to fascism, at a time when the Nazi government was telling the citizenry to expect a swift end to the fighting. Otto and Elise Hampel were no different than anyone else, accepting the propaganda because they had no reason to disbelieve it. Then, one day, they receive word from the front of a personal tragedy. If the war is going so well, they reason, why were so many other Berliners receiving the same sad telegrams. Although the movie might have benefitted from German actors and subtitles, we’ve become so accustomed to watching Brits impersonate Nazis that the casting of Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson is not at all unwelcome. Otto and Anna Quangel, as they’re known in the novel and movie, protest the lies in the only way available to them: by pouring their rage and grief into postcards carrying anti-Nazi messages and scattering them across the city. By doing so, they hope to identify and spark a resistance movement comprised of people seeking the truth, if nothing else. Because the number of bodies returning home in caskets has yet to attain critical mass, however, German citizens are content to hold hands and sing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” whenever prompted. Instead of rallying the citizenry, the postcards are dutifully handed over to the Gestapo, who, in turn, order local police to track down and arrest the perpetrators. They land on the desk of Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), a dutiful cop about to learn where he stands in Hitler’s pecking order. (The longer it takes to find the perpetrators, the more he’s treated as a co-conspirator.) If there had been a happier ending to the Hampel/Quangel’s story, history would already have recorded it for posterity. Instead, Alone in Berlin is limited to dramatizing the three-year search for the protagonists, their quixotic quest and final betrayal. The story, as directed by Pérez (The Crow: City of Angels), is told in a straight-forward direction, with little room for dramatic high points. It’s influenced, perhaps, by Perez’ family history: a grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain; a great-uncle was murdered by the Nazis in a gas chamber; and another uncle died fighting on the Russian front.

Chapter & Verse
If anyone’s earned the right to make a movie about how one battle-hardened ex-con can make a difference in the life of an aspiring thug, it’s Jamal Joseph. Boil Chapter & Verse down to its essence and this, his first feature as writer/director, is nearly autobiographical. Films about tough love and how the absence of a father figure can impact a boy on his way to manhood have been around since the boot-camp movement took hold in the early 1980s. By dispensing with the abusive yelling and posturing, Chapter & Verse carries with it a ring of truth for almost all its 97-minute length. It’s also legitimately entertaining. Since Joseph went legit, the former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army has distinguished himself as a filmmaker, author, film professor, community leader and poet activist. If it weren’t for a few solid breaks, he’d still be doing time for his crimes. In 1969, the teenager was held at Riker’s Island with 20 older party members on charges of conspiracy to blow up public buildings in New York. The expensive, eight-month “Panther 21” trial ended with the co-defendants acquitted after three hours of jury deliberation. A couple years later, he would he would cop a plea for his role in the murder of a prominent BPP newspaper manager, Sam Napier, based on a bloody bicoastal rivalry stoked by the FBI. Joseph was also implicated in the infamous 1981 Brinks truck robbery, in Nyack, N.Y., in which two police officers and an armored car driver were killed. He was sentenced to 12½ years in Leavenworth for harboring a fugitive, but released after 5½, with a pair of college degrees from Kansas University and his first play. He would continue his work as a playwright, become a full professor and chair of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division, and artistic director of the New Heritage Theatre Group in Harlem. In 2008 Joseph was nominated for an Oscar for his contributions to the song “Raise It Up” from the film August Rush.

Chapter & Verse is the first title to be co-produced by the Harlem Film Company, an integrated film and digital-media company engaged in creating a studio that will develop, produce, market and distribute independently made African-American and Latino films. It follows reformed gang leader S. Lance Ingram (Daniel Beaty), who’s out on parole after an eight-year bit, and struggling to adapt to a Harlem in which crime, violence, poverty and gentrification co-exist none too peacefully. Like Joseph, Ingram collected a couple of computer-repair certificates in the joint, but can’t find anyone willing to consider the credentials of a black ex-con. Prodded by his parole officer to accept any old job, Ingram agrees to deliver meals to shut-ins for a local food bank. At night, he dutifully checks into a local halfway house. After a disagreement over a mislabeled meal with 75-year-old Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), one of the more particular customers on his route, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with her. She warms to Lance after he saves her a bundle, by fixing her computer and attempting to serve as a role model for her 15-year-old grandson. At first, Ty (Khadim Diop), a wannabe gangsta with one foot already on the road to prison, isn’t interested. One afternoon, Lance runs into an old gangbangin’ buddy, Jomo (Omari Hardwick), who also tries to steer Ty in the right direction, Normally, Jomo would be expected to serve as the devil-in-disguise character, tempting Lance with promises of respect and money as a dope dealer or enforcer. Instead, he turns out to be anything but that. In fact, Joseph isn’t at all reluctant to give Lance every opportunity to succeed in his personal reclamation project. More unexpected twists are reserved for his humorously lascivious boss (Selenis Leyva) and unpredictable probation officer (Gary Perez). Even the OG is shocked by the ferocity of Ty’s hoodlum buddies. Among the other things missing in “C&V” are the de rigueur pounding hip-hop soundtrack and cheap moralizing usually found in urban melodramas, today.

Bitter Harvest
The Iron Ivan
Anyone looking for subtext in the ongoing debate over overtures by Trump loyalists to Vladimir Putin – or, perhaps, vice versa — need only look at the continuing hostilities in the Ukraine and Crimea, which, this week, prompted the Senate to renew economic sanctions against the Russian aggressors. If the investigations into the clandestine meetings between presidential adviser Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and various Russian officials, have accomplished anything, it’s a delay in President Trump’s anticipated relaxing of sanctions. George Mendeluk’s gripping drama, Bitter Harvest, offers a few million reasons why Ukrainians, today, are leery are of any encouragement given to Putin to keep troops in their country and support insurrection by Russian nationals in Crimea. It’s set against the background of the little-known Holodomor, a Stalin-directed famine that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 million to 10 million people, in the early 1930s. Afraid that Soviet agricultural strategies were failing, Stalin ordered soldiers to confiscate Ukrainian food stocks and property, and severely ration supplies to cities and towns. Peasants were painted as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving. The Holodomor went largely unreported and officially unrecognized until the glasnost era opened secret files to historians from both the east and west. Bitter Harvest is considered the first movie to dramatize the tragedy with any concern for historical accuracy, and it took the efforts of Ukrainian Canadian screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover and investor Ian Ihnatowycz to come up with the $21 million to make it. Even Ukrainian government agencies were reluctant to support it financially.

Inspired by actual events, Bitter Harvest follows two star-crossed lovers, Yuri and Natalka, played by Max Irons (“The White Queen”) and Samantha Barks (Les Misérables), struggling with their kulak grain-farmer families to survive Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign and attacks on the church. Yuri’s father (Barry Pepper) and grandfather (Terence Stamp) are famous warriors, whose fighting was mostly done on horseback and with swords in hand. When an anti-Soviet revolt breaks out, Ivan is attending an art college in the capital. After being arrested and nearly killed, all he can think of is getting back to his village and rescuing Natalka. It’s during a train ride home that viewers are given a glimpse of the extent of the horror, via emaciated beggars and bodies dumped into creek beds. Critics weren’t impressed by Mendeluk’s decision to blend melodrama with straight historical drama, but there’s no denying the impact of being introduced to such a terrible event in world history for the first time, so many decades after it occurred. In this regard, Bitter Harvest recalls recent movies and documentaries about the Armenian genocide, which many Turks still refuse to acknowledge. The DVD comes with a photo gallery.

The events described in Gleb Orlov’s entertaining, if not wholly accurate biopic, The Iron Ivan, take place a couple of decades before the Holodomor, but in roughly the same vicinity as the horrors depicted in Bitter Harvest. It’s where Ivan Poddubny was born, in 1871, into a Cossack family, and grew into a man capable beating every opponent he faced as a circus performer and Greco-Roman wrestler for the next 45 years. I didn’t believe it, either, until I began doing some research on “Iron Ivan” in preparation for this review. Like Mikhail Porechenkov, the actor who plays the wrestler in his adult years, Ivan was a mountain of man who acquired his strength baling hay on his father’s farm and, later, working on the docks in Sevastopol. On a day off from work, Ivan took in the show at a traveling circus. One of the acts involved wrestlers, extremely large and from diverse backgrounds, who competed for the entertainment of the audience. If the outcomes were sometimes fixed, the strength of wrestlers couldn’t be faked. Ivan went through them like Hulk Hogan at a county fair. In lieu of the agreed-upon prize money, he joined the circus and took on all comers. Before long, he was training for international competitions in St. Petersburg and Paris. In 1903, he placed second in the world championship to Raul Bouchet, who greased his body with olive oil to prevent Ivan from getting a grip on him. He got his revenge the next year and never looked back. In America, he made a small fortune, but wasn’t allowed to claim it when he wanted to return home for good. Promoters weren’t anxious to lose their golden ticket and advised him against giving Soviet authorities a chance to confiscate it. The Iron Ivan skips over most of Ivan’s trials under the communist regime and during the Nazi occupation, choosing to romanticize his tragic romance with a gymnast (Katerina Shpitsa) he met in the circus. Its happened, but the context was largely lost in the retelling. I enjoyed the movie, despite the revisions, and may even try to learn more about the greatest grappler most of us never knew existed.

Three Sisters
The corner of China we visit in Wang Bing’s grueling documentary, Three Sisters, is so far removed from the teeming megalopolises shown in other movies, it might as well be on another planet. Xiyangtang is a tiny rural village in the mountains of China’s Yunnan province, where a handful of extended families grow potatoes, tend to livestock and work the land for the greater glory of the people. These villages were left behind when the communist government decided that the free-enterprise system could work to its benefit. Progress often can be observed over the next hill — in the form of power lines and stronger homes — or on television. but the peasants of Xiyangtang can barely afford the taxes to bring it closer, faster. At 153 minutes, Three Sisters provides ample time to describe what life is like for 10-year-old YingYing, 6-year-old ZhenZhen and 4-year-old FenFen, scrappy little kids forced to live with an aunt or grandfather, while their father is looking for work in the city. Their mother left the family a couple years earlier. Among their chores are herding sheep, goats and pigs, searching for firewood and collecting dung. The eldest sister, Ying, seems withdrawn and cautious, but can be as authoritative as she needs to be to keep the others in line, and loudly recite lines from books in the classroom.

Under different circumstances, she probably could have expected to attend college in a faraway city and become a future leader of her country. At this point in her life, however, the most she can hope for is that her father beats the odds, by finding a good job and taking the girls along with him. The intimacy of Wang’s approach can be overwhelming. The families’ poverty isn’t like that Wang has documented in the cities and PRC censors don’t want anyone to see. No one in the village is homeless, lacks basic sustenance or drinks to excess, but no one dares dream of the kind of life shown on television, either. Maybe, in a few years, but not now. The other thing Three Sisters has going for it is the natural beauty of Yunnan province, which borders Burma, Vietnam and Laos, as well as Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. The village is well above the tree line, though, so the great views come with a caveat. Icarus’ dGenerate collection features independently made documentaries from some of China’s most exciting and socially conscious filmmakers. Wang’s similarly provocative titles include The Ditch, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, Man with No Name and Bitter Money.

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie: Blu-ray
When it comes to stoner comedy and its impact on Hollywood, Cheech and Chong carried the same weight as such mainstream duos as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, minus the dope references. Not only were they able to tap into the zeitgeist of the 1960s counter-culture, but they also survived long enough as individual artists and advocates for the legalization of marijuana to influence several generations of entertainers, including Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Before Up in Smoke (1978) made a small fortune for Paramount and director/co-producer Lou Adler, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong honed their act on the stages of strip joints and night clubs across Canada and the U.S., and immortalized such hilarious sketches as “Basketball Jones,” “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” and “Sister Mary Elephant” on best-selling albums. As loosey-goosey as Up in Smoke turned out to be, its 1980 follow-up Cheech And Chong’s Next Movie – the second of seven C&C collaborations –made it look polished and refined. Reduced to its essence, the frequently uproarious and occasionally flat-out stupid movie represents a day in the life of the Cheech and Chong’s comic personae. This time around, they didn’t even bother to give their characters pseudonyms … except when Marin puts on a long blond wig and plays Cheech’s cousin, Dwayne “Red” Mendoza. Otherwise, the characters tool around Hollywood in stolen sports cars, using a duffel bag full of primo pot as a free pass to massage parlors, a movie set, fancy dinners, a comedy club and animated adventures in outer space. Today, viewers can enjoy discovering such familiar faces as Groundlings members Paul Reubens (Pee-wee’s Big Andventure), Edie McClurg (Wreck-It Ralph), Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira”), John “Jambi” Paragon (“Pee-wee’s Playhouse”) and Phil Hartman (“Saturday Night Live”), as well as Rita Wilson (Sleepless in Seattle), Jake Steinfeld (“Body by Jake”) and Michael Winslow (Police Academy), in early screen performances. The Shout!Factory restoration includes a fresh interview with Cheech Marin.

Handsome Devil
In his second feature, John Butler finds valuable lessons to be learned about homophobia and bullying at a posh Irish boarding school. We’ve come to expect a tolerance to sexual experimentation at elite “public” schools in England, where the bizarre hazing ritual known as “fagging” until recently practically was part of the curriculum. In movies set in Ireland, it’s the priests and nuns who typically put the fear of God into students they deem abnormal or overly mischievous. In Handsome Devil, the film’s sensitive, red-haired outsider, Ned (Fionn O’Shea), somehow finds himself in a school where rugby is king and queer-baiting not only is tolerated, but encouraged by the win-at-all-costs coach. Nicholas Galitzine is perfectly cast as the title character, a transfer student named Conor who automatically is assigned the bed, desk and dresser in Ned’s half-occupied bedroom. Both boys have a chip on their shoulders and take out their frustrations on each other. Things get even worse for Ned when it’s determined that Conor would be an asset to the school’s rugby team and the only thing holding him back from that obligation is his understated attraction to his roommate. Their mutual interest in singing is interpreted by the coach and the athletes as evidence that Ned’s gayness has rubbed off on Conor. At the same time, the team’s displaced star has discovered why Conor was kicked out of his previous school – guess what? – and is threatening to reveal the secret to school authorities. Anyway, it’s a mess, compounded by the fact that the coach also is blackmailing the boy’s inspirational, if closeted English teacher (Andrew Scott). As cliché as that might sound, viewers already know to expect surprises from the academy’s surprisingly reasonable headmaster (Michael McElhatton). Butler’s insistence on keeping Handsome Devil on the high road makes it one of the most widely accessible coming-out/coming-of-age specimens I’ve seen lately. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurettes and a director’s commentary.

The Wedding Party
I’ve attended enough wedding receptions to know that, while, no two are precisely alike, they all resemble each other in certain predictable ways. Like everything else these days, nuptials and the parties that follow tend to be ritualized and orchestrated to exclude anything resembling spontaneity. As weddings have become more complicated, expensive and exotic, a cottage industry has grown around their preparation, attention to detail and execution. Some of the same people also cover bar and bas mitzvahs, political receptions and birthdays. What they can’t do is eliminate such variables as outbursts from drunken ex-lovers, too much salt on the entrée and the occasional sprained ankle or broken arm. Martin Short’s portrayal of hyperactive wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer, in Father of the Bride (1991), hit the nail on the head so directly that it inspired an archetype that would be copied in dozens of movies, TV sitcoms and reality shows. In Thane Economou’s surprising debut feature, The Wedding Party, a groomsman and maid-of-honor assume the duties of a planner, working from a binder full of names, schedules and place settings. Nevertheless, shit happens, and Economou does an amazing job capturing most of it in one continuous take.

That’s the gimmick, if you will, that separates The Wedding Party from dozens of other movies about nuptials, funerals, baptisms, birthdays and quinceañeras. At 112-minutes, so many things could have gone wrong for Economou – a story that falls apart after 95 minutes, for example – that the exercise would have had to be abandoned, out right. Not many films have ever been made in a single take. When filming Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock intended for the film to have the effect of one long continuous shot, but the cameras available could hold no more than 1000 feet of 35mm film. Every 10 minutes of action ended on the back of a character’s head, a door or wall, to allow for a magazine change. Given the extreme difficulty of the exercise and the technical requirements for continuous shots, such feature films have only been possible since the advent of digital movie cameras. The titles include Timecode (2000), Russian Ark (2002) and PVC-1 (2007). Economou was able to pull it off, in large part, because the action begins as the ceremony ends and the reception is held in a spacious backyard, within a crane’s reach of the festivities. There’s enough room between tables to accommodate movement by actors and cameras, without forcing long walks through traffic or other extraneous movement. I didn’t recognize anyone in the ensemble cast of actors, who didn’t appear to miss a beat or step. (I hope this DVD finds its way to the desk of Hollywood casting directors.)

Everybody Loves Somebody
Un Padre No Tan Padre (From Dad to Worse)
You wouldn’t think it would be all that difficult to craft movies that appeal as much to Mexican audiences as Mexican-Americans, if only because they feature actors that are familiar from their roles in popular Spanish-language telenovelas and occasional appearances in American movies. Apparently, though, it is. The problem, I suppose, involves not having a sufficient number of screens available to test the market for films such as Everybody Loves Somebody and Un Padre No Tan Padre (“From Dad to Worse”), whose stories adhere to conventional themes, while maintaining a decidedly Hispanic tone and texture that should appeal to mainstream audiences on both sides of the border. Y Tu Mama, Tambien faced the same challenge. (American action films and comic-book superheroes play the same in any language, regardless of dubbing or subtitles, and dominate available space in theaters everywhere.)

In the romantic dramedy Everybody Loves Somebody, Karla Souza portrays Dr. Clara Barron, a successful OB/GYN who’s torn between two lovers and two cultures. Souza’s name and face are familiar from ABC’s ”How to Get Away with Murder” and her award-winning performances in Nosotros los Nobles (2013) and Suave patria (2012). Clara lives and works in Los Angeles, but has family in Ensenada and patients in Tijuana. She isn’t nearly as desperate to get married as her mother is to hook her up with an old boyfriend, who gave her up for a tour of duty with Doctors Without Borders. He’s played by José María Yazpik, a handsome Mexico City-born actor who’s won kudos for performances in Las oscuras primaveras and Solo quiero caminar, if not his turn in Beverly Hills Chihuahua. To avoid any unpleasantness at the seaside marriage of her mother and father (Patricia Bernal, Alejandro Camacho) – finally, after four decades of living together – Clara asks an Australian medical resident, Asher (Ben O’Toole), to serve as her beard at the event. Naturally, two things happen: 1) she develops a romantic interest in the younger Aussie, and 2) she’s confronted by her old beau, Daniel, who’s been invited to the wedding by her mom. Even after sleeping with both men, as if to test the whims of her heart, she can’t decide which man to choose. In Hollywood, the star system would decide the winner for her. In Catalina Aguilar Mastretta’s story, however, the verdict is always in doubt, if only because Clara has yet to mature to the degree she could make the right decision, whatever it is. Among the things Everybody Loves Somebody has going for it are its perfectly tuned ensemble cast and the natural beauty of the Ensenada shoreline. Although hardly a blockbuster, the picture did reasonably well on the 333 screens it played here, while making back its nut in worldwide receipts. That should come as good news to someone.

Raúl Martínez and Alberto Bremer’s Un Padre No Tan Padre (“From Dad to Worse”) did pretty well in its limited release here, in March, even if its cast doesn’t contain anyone who’s particularly well-known outside telenovelas. Héctor Bonilla is extremely credible in the role of an 85-year-old man so cantankerous that he’s been evicted from his nursing home for his abusive behavior toward staff and patients. The only one of his sons who volunteers to take him in – reluctantly – lives in a multigenerational commune of gentle folks outside lovely San Miguel de Allende. Not satisfied to be the fish out of water here, Don Servando isn’t at all reluctant to voice his displeasure for the hippy-dippy living conditions, the healthy menus or the non-conformists he meets. As rigid as a steel rod, in his standard three-piece woolen suit, he vehemently objects to sharing a bathroom with a woman who leaves her bras and panties on the floor or drying on the shower’s curtain rod. He carries a wooden cane, which he uses to punctuate his many grievances and can’t bear the fact that his son has long, stringy hair and is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, under the same roof as his aspiring artist grandson. Don Salvador shares Archie Bunker’s opinions on gays, minorities, unorthodox clergy and vegans. That is, until he unknowingly steals a brownie laced with medicinal marijuana — intended for the house’s resident cancer patient – and, not surprisingly, begins to a dance to a different beat. Neither are we shocked when the problems of the other non-cliché inhabitants begin to take precedence over those caused by the octogenarian. Even so, the solutions are never pat or forced on viewers.

The Blood of Fu Manchu/The Castle of Fu Manchu: Blu-ray
When it comes to controversial ethnic stereotypes, Sax Rohmer’s international super-villain, Fu Manchu, makes Charlie Chan and Amos & Andy look like models in an advertising campaign for United Colors of Benetton. Apart from the evil genius’ contribution to 20th Century tonsorial trends, the character has been offending Asians of all ethnic persuasions since the 1932 release of MGM’s adaptation of “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” In it, he tells a gathering of pan-Asian characters that they must “kill the white men and take their women.” As such, he became the poster child for the Yellow Peril. If only MGM had dialed down the rant and hired a Chinese actor to play Rohmer’s brainchild, Fu Manchu might have gone down in the annals of crime fiction as a worthy counterpart to Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty. Consider, if you will, that his longtime nemeses are British police detective and gentleman spy Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and his loyal assistant, Dr. Petrie. Moreover, where would Ming the Merciless be, in the pantheon of supervillains, if it weren’t Fu Manchu’s precedent-setting bad-assery. It explains my surprise when I opened the package from Blue Underground and found its Blu-ray double-feature of The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and Sax Rohmer’s Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), directed by Jess Franco and starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Richard Greene and Howard Marion-Crawford. The former is set in Fu Manchu’s secret lair, deep within the South American rain forest, where the mad scientist and his sadistic daughter, Lin Tang, are once again plotting world domination. This time, 10 beautiful slave girls are infected with an ancient poison so deadly that one kiss from their lips will bring instant death and lead to a global plague. When Nayland Smith is infected, Dr. Petrie races against the clock to find an antidote and foil the scheme. Among the women carrying the kiss of death are Maria Rohm, Loni von Friedl, Olívia Pineschi and, in an authorized cameo lifted from Rio 70, Shirley Eaton. The Blu-ray adds “Rise of Fu Manchu,” containing interviews with Franco, Lee, Chin, Eaton and producer Harry Alan Towers.

Set half a world away, in Istanbul, The Castle of Fu Manchu conjures a fiendish new chemical weapon that will turn the seas into a giant block of frozen water. (Ice-nine, anyone?) Once again, Smith and Petrie are called upon to save the world. In doing so, Smith becomes trapped in Fu Manchu’s “impenetrable lair of cruelty.” Maria Perschy and Rosalba Neri contribute their considerable charms, while Franco impersonates a nutty secret agent. The extras include “The Fall of Fu Manchu,” featuring interviews with Franco, Towers, Lee and Tsai.

Madhouse: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find a more derivative entertainment than Madhouse (1991), produced and directed by Ovidio Assonitis, a B-movie specialist who wasn’t reluctant to borrow a good idea when he saw one. The independent film producer and businessman made his bones in the mid-1960s, when he launched an extensive distribution network catering to the Southeast Asian market in the mid-’60s. After 10 years, it’s said that he had distributed more than 900 films from offices in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia. In 1974, Assonitis satisfied an itch by co-directing, co-writing and co-producing Beyond the Door, an Italo/American bloodfest that turned a huge profit. His name and/or pseudonym also could be found on such drive-in fare as The Visitor, Tentacles, Over the Line and James Cameron’s feature debut, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Although that film still carries the future director of Aliens and Titanic’s sole credit, Assonitis took the helm midway through the process. Among other things, Cameron found it difficult to work with an Italian crew that didn’t speak English.

Assonitis did the same thing on Madhouse, this time retaining sole directing credit, but sharing the writing credit with three others. This time around, Assonitis brought his largely Italian crew to Savannah, which offered the proper facilities for a cross-subgenre movie involving an evil twin, evil priest, evil Rottweiler and birthday party from hell. Trish Everly and Allison Biggers portray the twins, Julia and Mary. When the disfigured sibling escapes from the booby hatch, no one in Julia’s vicinity is safe. Mary’s place in the subsequent killing spree becomes uncertain when the vicious dog and crazy priest also begin to turn up at crime scenes, along with gurgling sounds that might have inspired future composers of video-game music. If the plot seems borderline incoherent and suspiciously familiar, Madhouse (1981) is just gory enough to be disturbing. Apropos of that, that it was included on one of the official lists of video nasties, compiled by British censors. It was released fully uncut in U.K. in 2004. The Arrow Video package features a 2K restoration from the original negative; commentary with the Hysteria Continues; new interviews with cast and crew; an alternate opening-title sequence; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film.

Political Animals
The only thing wrong with this topical documentary on insider politics is a title, Political Animals, and subtitle – “When Women Lead … Leaders Follow” – that tell us almost nothing about the film and may, in fact, be misleading. Co-writer/directors Tracy Wares and Tracy Wares maintain a tight focus on only four “out” legislators, Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, who struggled individually and as a group to convince their peers that equal rights belong to all Californians, not just born-again evangelicals and married heterosexuals. Kuehl’s first battle involved pushing legislation protecting gay and lesbian students from being harassed, bullied or harmed because of their sexual orientation. Simple enough, but, from the reactions of fellow legislators, you’d think the former TV star had advocated the abolishment of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Without answering the question of whether straight teens should be allowed to beat up their LGBTQ peers, the Republican lawmakers pontificated on their disapproval of same-sex couples. After Kuehl was joined in the statehouse by the other “out” women, they took on such meaty issues as equal protection under the law for all Californians, job discrimination and, of course, marriage equality. The same strident voices objected to these proposals, using the same tired arguments. One dimwit compared lesbians to the minority of heifers on his farm who didn’t seem particularly interested in birthing their first calf. It isn’t until the debate over marriage equality that viewers are introduced to legislators who vociferously supported the gang of four’s position, although, there must have been more than a few fellow Democrats, at least. Still, because the women’s roots extend back to the 1960s, the filmmakers are able to demonstrate how much personal fortitude was needed to fight for rights that already appeared to be protected in the Constitution.

Americano
Kuu Kuu Harajuku: Music, Baby!
The first major animated co-production between Mexico and the United States features a young male parrot, Cuco, in desperate need of reaching the United States to convince his make-believe hero to return home with him to save the family business. First, however, he must get past the eagle guarding the border. Sound familiar? If there’s a political subtext informing Americano, it’s probably in my imagination. Still, if a pre-teen parrot can find his way from Mexico to Hollywood, with a stop at the San Diego Zoo, what’s to prevent anyone else with a dream from getting here …a wall? Instead of performing his chores and rehearsing at the family bird circus, Cuco (Rico Rodriguez) kills time watching the crazy stunts of his TV super-parrot hero, El Americano. He hopes to enlist the powerful bird’s help in rescuing his family from a revenge-fueled, villainous kingfisher. Not everything in America is what it seems to be on TV, however, and Cuco must rely on his wits to save the day. The best thing about Americano is its vibrant color scheme. The bilingual songs are fun, too. Among the voicing-cast members are Lisa Kudrow, Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias, Kate del Castillo, Cheech Marin, Erik Estrada and Paul Rodriguez.

The animated world of “Kuu Kuu Harajuku!” is based on the singer’s retail brand of “pop electric fragances”: Harajuku Lovers. Produced originally for airing on Australian television, the show features the “super cool” band, HJ5, comprised of five hot girls: Love, Angel, Music, Baby and their inspirational leader G. They love to sing, dance and sport the latest “kawaii” (cute) fashions. With help from their humorously incompetent manager, Rudie, HJ5 travels all over to put on shows, which always seem to be interrupted before they finish the first bar. In the U.S., the series premiered on Nickelodeon, before moving to Nick Jr. on February 3, 2017. Season 2 of the series is currently in production.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Twentieth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: James Beard
PBS: American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution DVD
Time Life/WEA: Hee Haw: Pfft! You Was Gone!
The 20th season of “South Park” premiered on September 14, 2016, just as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered the home stretch of the presidential campaign: a.k.a., “Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich, Part II.” Mr. Garrison, Trump’s stand-in on the show, adopted the candidate’s strident anti-immigration stance, but the closer he got to victory, the less he wanted to win. As Election Day approached, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone pushed their deadlines to the breaking point, so as to be as topical as possible. With Trump/Garrison’s stunning victory – thanks to the anthropomorphic Member Berries — the boys had less than 24 hours to work it into the narrative. The approach worked for storylines involving Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton and Internet trolls. Special features on the Blu-ray include “South Park: By The Numbers,” “South Park: The Fractured But Whole: E3 2016 Game Trailer,” “South Park: We’ve Been There,” “Comic Con 2016: Extended Panel With Matt & Trey,” deleted scenes, season commentary and #Social Commentary.

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the “American Masters” presentation, “Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft.” Since then, I’ve received the tantalizing companion pieces, “American Masters: James Beard” and “American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution.” Like Pepin, these pioneering foodies changed the way Americans shopped, ate and prepared food that tasted good and was healthier than that grown by farming conglomerates and processed to within an inch of its nutritional value. Beard’s story is more personality driven than the Waters’ piece, which focuses on a Berkeley institution, Chez Panisse. The world-class restaurant evolved from a place where 1960s’ counter-culturists could find healthy, inexpensive “counter-cuisine,” to the shining restaurant on the hill for diners willing to pay the price for the best locally grown and seasonal products. She also changed the way farmers and community gardeners serve their patrons. Like Pepin, Beard was an early advocate for localism and sustainability, as well as a cookbook author, journalist, television celebrity and teacher.

The title of the collection of episodes from Time Life/WEA’s “Hee Haw” library gets its title from Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp’s trademark punchline, “Pfft! You Was Gone!” It was just one many bits that, repeated often enough, prompted comparisons to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.” In addition to Roy and Buck’s weekly pickin’ and grinnin’, this two-DVD collector’s edition is features musical performances by Dolly Parton (“Coat of Many Colors”), Tammy Wynette and George Jones (“We’re Gonna Hold On”), Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried,” “Branded Man”), Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner and Susan Raye, along with the Kornfield Kounty repertory company. The set adds bonus interviews with original cast members, including Moe Bandy and Aaron Tippin.

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“TIFF doesn’t make attendance numbers for its Lightbox screenings publicly available, so it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many filmgoers the Lightbox is attracting (or how much money it’s bringing in). But the King Street West venue hasn’t become a significant draw for film enthusiasts. The Lightbox’s attendance has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors last year, a drop of 27 per cent, according to figures recently reported in the Toronto Star. Its gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – saw most of its exhibitions staff quietly axed this past fall. And its marketing barely escapes the Lightbox’s walls. Unless you are a TIFF member or one of the city’s most avid filmgoers, you could walk by the Lightbox and remain blissfully unaware of a single thing that goes on inside. TIFF “still has a world-class brand,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former board member, “but it’s going to take some fresh vision from retail, consumer programming and marketing experts, given how the lines have become intensely blurred when it comes to how people watch film. They will have to experiment with programming to find the right blend of function and relevance.”
~ Globe & Mail Epic On State of Toronto Int’l (paywalled)

“I’m 87 years old… I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive… The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing. Like there was before I was born. I’m not really into religion, they’re all macrocosms of the ego. When man began to think he was a separate person with a separate soul, it created a violent situation.

“The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.

“Anybody else you’ve interviewed bring these things up? Hang on, I gotta take this call… Hey, brother. That’s great, man. Yeah, I’m being interviewed… We’re talking about nothing. I’ve got him well-steeped in nothing right now. He’s stopped asking questions.”
~ Harry Dean Stanton