MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Marseille Trilogy, Life, Bird With Crystal Plumage, Lawnmower Man, Car Wash and more

The Marseille Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
They Live by Night: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Way back in the Pleistocene Age, when all film students and cineastes had to rely on for evidence of a film’s virtues were barely-watchable 16mm prints of vintage movies, it was sometimes difficult to appreciate what differentiated true classics from run-of-the-mill entertainments. Poorly maintained projectors occasionally caused the film stock to melt, while scratches and other defects turned dialogue into garble. That all changed with laserdiscs, DVDs and the concerted efforts of preservationists, who benefitted mightily from advanced digital technology. In his introduction to the Criterion Collection release of Marcel Pagnol’s “The Marseille Trilogy,” Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight) describes how his opinions about Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936) changed after watching the 2015 restoration, conducted by Compagnie Méditerranénne de Film and the Cinémathèque Française. In short, the experience was revelatory. As the silent era gave way to talkies, Pagnol turned his attention away from the Paris stage for new challenges as a filmmaker in his native Provence. The writer/producer of Marius turned to Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Don Juan) to adapt his 1929 play into what became a trilogy about star-crossed lovers in the port city and the working-man’s cafe that serves as the center of Pagnol’s fictional universe. Part One introduces us to Marius (Pierre Fresnay), the sedentary son of the bistro’s boisterous owner, Cesar (Raimu), and Fanny (Orane Demazis), whose strait-laced mother, Honorine (Alida Rouffe), runs an adjoining seafood store. After reaching adulthood, Marius and Fanny take their friendship to the next level, by embarking on an impetuous sexual relationship. When Honorine discovers them in flagrante delicto, she orders Cesar to force his son to marry her daughter, which he does. Just as they’re about to tie the knot, however, Fanny recognizes her lover’s overriding desire to experience life on the high seas before settling down and reluctantly gives him a pass. The first installment ends with Marius’ ship pulling out of the harbor, destination, the Indian Ocean. Fanny’s in tears and Cesar yelling at a ship that no longer is there.

In Fanny, directed by Marc Allégret (Entrée des artistes), we learn that the female protagonist is pregnant with Marius’ child and, as such, runs the risk of being ostracized by neighbors and family members in the heavily Catholic community. Honorine instructs Fanny to accept a long-standing proposal of marriage from wealthy businessman Honore Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who, after being advised of her condition, still agrees to legitimize the child’s birth. Fanny would have preferred to wait for Marius, but his letters home are non-committal, at best. When the baby arrives, Honore is as good as his word and Cesar evolves from a blustery old coot into a doting “godfather” to the child. The comic relief is much appreciated. In Part Three, Cesar, written and directed by Pagnol, the elderly Honore is dying; his adopted son, Cesariot (André Fouché), has returned home from military school to comfort him; Marius is working as an auto mechanic in Toulon; and Fanny is faced with the dilemma of possibly having to reveal the name of her son’s birth father to him. All the loose ends will ultimately be tied, but not until the melodrama reaches a fever pitch. As old-fashioned and conventional as the trilogy sounds, the interweaving of fortunes makes it as compelling as such vintage mini-series as “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Winds of War.” Indeed, it has been readapted several times on French television and in Joshua Logan’s 1961 feature, Fanny. Marseille is a splendid location, even in black-and-white, as are Toulon and Les Lecques. In addition to the 4K digital restorations of all three films, Blu-ray features include a new interview with Nicolas Pagnol, the writer/director’s grandson; segments of “Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux de choisis,” a 1973 documentary series on his life and work; a short documentary on the Marseille harbor, by Pagnol; archival interviews with actors Demazis, Fresnay and Robert Vattier; “Pagnol’s Poetic Realism,” a video essay by scholar Brett Bowles; a French television clip about the restoration of the trilogy; and an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol’s memoirs. (BTW: If Honore’s surname sounds familiar, it’s because Alice Waters adopted it for her landmark Berkeley bistro, Chez Panisse, as a “homage to the sentiment, comedy and informality of these classic films.”

Criterion also has delivered a pristine Blu-ray edition of Nicholas Ray’s terrific 1948 debut feature, They Live by Night, a lyrical film noir that incoming RKO boss Howard Hughes kept on a shelf for two years, before word-of-mouth praise from abroad and Hollywood’s private-screening-room circuit changed his mind. When the release first came to my attention, I’ll admit, I confused it with Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), both of which share certain tonal qualities with Ray’s adaptation of Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel, “Thieves Like Us.” It would be re-adapted in 1974 by Robert Altman, under the book’s original title. I took some comfort in learning that, like me, Altman was not aware that Ray had previously adapted the book. They Live by Night anticipated Ray’s subsequent existential genre films, such as Knock on Any Door, In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar. It would be difficult, as well, not to see the resemblance between Farley Granger’s alienated bank robber, Bowie, and James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause, seven years later. After spending seven years on a Mississippi prison farm, 23-year-old Bowie joins a pair of hardened criminals in a string of thefts. During a pitstop, Bowie hooks up with the mechanic’s naïve teenage daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), who wants to taste freedom as much as he does. Instead, Bowie is implicated in a bank robbery that eventually results in the death of a highway patrolman. Although he had nothing to do with the shooting, itself, the media label him “Bowie the Kid” and paint him as the ringleader. Keechie believes enough in her man’s innocence that she decides to join him on his escape to Mexico. Naturally, things don’t work out as planned. When it comes to amour fou, do they ever?  The 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds commentary with Granger and historian Eddie Muller; a new video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith; a short piece from 2007 with film critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini; excerpts from a 1956 audio interview with producer John Houseman and a new essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.

Life: Blu-ray

Last month, in my review of The Space Between Us, I wondered if audiences have grown weary of stories based on the possibility of life on Mars and the many unexpected things that can happen during the commute from Earth. The Martian did well at the international box office, while others have struggled. If Daniel Espinosa’s adaptation of a smart and ominous screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) looked inviting in print ads and TV spots, it also suggested yet another merger of tropes from Alien and previous trapped-in-space flicks, including Gravity. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. At a time when the sci-fi/horror market is packed to bursting, however, covering a production budget of nearly $60 million is no small trick. In May, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien: Covenant kicked off the summer season with a loud thud. In Life, astronauts aboard the Mars Pilgrim 7 space station are doing their weightless thing somewhere between the Red Planet and Earth, when a scientist (Arlyon Bakare) studying a sample of soil discovers a large, single-celled organism he suspects could provide evidence of extraterrestrial life there. Eureka! After being nourished on glycerin, it doesn’t take long for the miniscule creature, christened “Calvin,” to grow tentacles and behave like a mischievous baby squid. The problem comes in watching the Calvin grow like Topsy and realizing that it craves nutrients found in the human body.  Suffice it to say that the rest of the mission is eclipsed by the efforts of the remaining five astronauts – Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Rebecca Ferguson, playing an overmatched quarantine specialist – to save their asses and mankind, if the shuttle returns to Earth and Calvin is unleashed there. Despite Life’s familiarity, Swedish-born director Espinosa (“Easy Money”) benefits from a cleverly designed space capsule, which allows for credible simulations of weightless movement, as well as the occasional jump scare. Like Gravity, ample time also is reserved for suspenseful space walks outside the shuttle. Sci-fi completists shouldn’t have any problem enjoying Life for its engineering conceits, if nothing else. Clearly, general audiences need something more than extraterrestrial squids to get their blood flowing, however. I wasn’t accorded the opportunity to sample the movie in 4K, but can see where it might be effective in places. Otherwise, the Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, astronaut diaries and three very good making-of featurettes: “Claustrophobic Terror: Creating a Thriller in Space,” “Life: In Zero G” and “Creating Life: The Art and Reality of Calvin.”

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In movies, as in life, some stories are simply too good to be true. The better ones also tend to be too good not to pass along as fact. As apocryphal as it may or may not be, the origin story attached to Dario Argento’s classic giallo, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is just such a tale. It’s said that at one point during the early days of production, an executive producer was so disappointed by the dailies that he considered firing the first-time director. Argento’s primary claim to fame had been co-writing the story for Once Upon a Time in the West, with Sergio Leoni and Berthold Bertolucci, so any directorial skills were based on observation, alone. When producer Salvatore Argento heard the complaints, he paid a visit to his associate’s office to hear him out of the subject of his son’s incompetence. Before that could happen, however, he noticed that the man’s secretary was visibly shaken by something she’d just experienced. The woman said that she was terrified by the footage she’d seen from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and couldn’t get it out of her head. The proud papa then asked her to tell her boss about her reaction to the screening. Without exerting an ounce of clout, Salvatore saved Argento’s job. Because the thriller would prove to be a box-office smash — in Europe, at least — it would be nice to think that the secretary was given a raise or promotion. Among other things, it became noteworthy as the first installment in Argento’s groundbreaking “Animal Trilogy,” which also includes the highly stylized murder/mysteries The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972). After more than 45 years, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage still retains its ability to shock and terrify viewers who don’t know what’s coming. In another possibly apocryphal story, one of the historians interviewed for the bonus package points out the debt of gratitude Argento and Hitchcock owed Gerd Oswald’s obscure 1958 adaptation of Fredric Brown’s noir thriller, “The Screaming Mimi.” Screaming Mimi starred Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee He insists that the depiction of a buxom blond being stabbed to death in an outdoor shower, not only influenced Argento’ deployment of razor-sharp cutlery, but also the famous shower scene In Psycho. Although neither film is considered an adaptation of the book, “The Screaming Mimi,” Argento only wrote the screenplay for “Bird,” on spec, after Bertolucci gave him a copy of it.  (Screaming Mimi has only been available on video since 2011 on VOD and MOD formats.)

Comparisons to Hitchcock extend, as well, to the role played by the American protagonist, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who becomes involved in the investigation of a series of vicious murders, even though he was simply an innocent bystander to one of them. The writer was passing by a glass-walled art gallery when he observed a woman fighting for her life from a knife wound. Although double glass doors prevented Dalmas from coming to her aid, he was able to give police their first vague description of the killer. Because it also made him a possible suspect, Dalmas’ passport is confiscated and he’s instructed to make himself available for further questioning. The misplaced notoriety also turns the American and his girlfriend, Giulia (Suzy Kendall), into sitting ducks for the man draped completely in black. If he wants to clear his name, Dalmas will have to launch an investigation of his own. It leads him to the nutso artist of grisly painting, which may have inspired the killer; the bug-eyed pimp of a murdered prostitute; an antiques dealer who employed one of the victims; and an assembly of retired pugilists, whose yellow jackets provide cover for a similarly dressed suspect. The closer Dalmas comes to actual clues, the more imperiled he and his girlfriend become. In case you’re wondering, the title refers to a magnificent crane in the city zoo, whose distinctive chirping can be heard in the background of a call made by the killer. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be a barrel of laughs, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Newcomers to giallo should find a lot to like here, as well, including the sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and a seductive score by composer Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in the West). The new 4K restoration of the film from the camera negative, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, was produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release. It adds commentary with Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “The Power of Perception,” a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of “Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study”; fresh interviews with critic Kat Ellinger, Gildo Di Marco (Garullo, the pimp) and Argento, now 76; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp; and a limited-edition 60-page booklet, illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie and other essays.

The Paul Naschy Collection: Blu-ray
Inquisition: Blu-ray
Although his name isn’t nearly as synonymous with horror as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price, Scream Factory’s five-disc The Paul Naschy Collection (1973-1981) makes a very good case for the Spanish actor being compared favorably to Lon Chaney pere et fils. Bearing a fair resemblance facially and in stature to John Belushi, Naschy has portrayed werewolves, vampires, mummies, hunchbacks, serial killers and evil priests, frequently using the same pseudonym, Waldemar Daninsky. If the films in which he appears don’t quite measure up to the classics from Universal, Hammer and AIP, it’s more a function of impossibly tight budgets and low production values in a national cinema not geared for genre fare. Still, they aren’t without their cheap thrills, including actresses who would give the last 50 years’ worth of Miss Universe candidates an inferiority complex. It’s been reported that Naschy developed a taste for monster movies as a boy, growing up during the Spanish Civil War and its brutal aftermath, in Madrid. He sought escape from the real-life horrors around him in adventure comics, movie serials and such American imports as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). His athleticism was honed as a soccer player and competitive weightlifter. Naschy got his start in the movie business as an extra during location shoots for such American and Italian productions as King of Kings, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Messalina vs. the Son of Hercules and Fury of Johnny Kid. Waldemar Daninsky’s first appearance came in Enrique López Eguiluz’ Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968), for which he received a writing and story credit, as Jacinto Molina. He would supplement his acting and screenwriting as a producer, illustrator, director and author of Western pulp novels under the pseudonym Jack Mill. The Blu-ray box set includes Vengeance of the Zombies, Horror Rises From the Tomb, Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, Night of the Werewolf and Human Beasts. While none of them is particularly noteworthy on its own merits, they easily qualify as movies that are so bad they’re good and too sexy to be completely unwatchable. In a first, the bonus package includes “alternate clothed sequences” and deleted scenes.

Being released separately from Mondo Macabre, Inquisition represents another common theme in Naschy’s repertoire. In addition to directing and writing the 1978 bloodbath, as Molina, he plays three key roles: Inquisitor/magistrate Bernard de Fossey, the Devil and the Grim Reaper. When it comes to horror, there are few events in history to top the Inquisition. Representatives of the Vatican were given carte blanche to torture and murder anyone it considered to be a heretic, blasphemer or enemy of the Church. This included women accused of being witches, devil worshippers and carriers of the plague. Here, Inquisitor De Fossey travels to the plague-ridden region of Peyriac, in southwestern France, a particularly target-rich environment for sadistic priests. Local beauty Catherine (Daniela Giordano) quickly catches his eye, tormenting him with impure thoughts. Her affections lie with her fiancé Jean, however. Her family’s embittered one-eyed manservant Rénover (Antonio Iranzo) rats out his enemies to the Inquisitor as blasphemers, including several semi-nude women who we’ll watch being tortured on the rack, then burned at the stake. (It isn’t as graphic as it could have been, especially by modern standards.) When Jean dies in mysterious circumstances, Catherine allies herself with Satan to get revenge on De Fossey and his henchmen. Because Naschy plays three roles, things sometimes get confusing. Still, the story is more compelling than most of the plots with which he was saddled. The Blu-ray adds an introduction by Naschy; an interview with Giordano; commentary by Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn, of the “NaschyCast” podcast; and “Blood and Sand,” a documentary on Spanish horror films.

The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Shout!Factory’s 25th anniversary release of The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition serves as a concrete reminder of how far Hollywood has come in its ability to duplicate images once reserved for virtual-reality headsets and other immersive hardware and software. Released 10 years after Tron failed to ignite the box office for excursions into the cyber-universe – the video game did better – The Lawnmower Man merged elements of Charly (“Flowers for Algernon”), a Stephen King short story and arcade-game technology. In Brett Leonard’s cult thriller, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is a scientist obsessed with perfecting virtual-reality software. When his military-financed experiments on animals go haywire, he finds the ideal substitute in Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), a slow-witted gardener who resembles Raggedy Andy. Angelo shoots Jobe up with intelligence-enhancing drugs, before strapping him into a VR apparatus and introducing him to an extensive schedule of learning disciplines. In short order, Jobe absorbs more recorded knowledge than Wikipedia and with a higher degree of accuracy. He also comes to realize that, if he’s going to attract the MILF next-door (Jenny Wright), he’d better buff up and clean up his act. Once he’s passed that test, it becomes clear that Jobe has become addicted to the experience and juices up to the point where develops telekinesis and other psychic abilities, including being able to control his souped-up lawnmower without using his hands. When he becomes too powerful for Angelo and his fiendish backers, things really get nuts. Not surprisingly, the computer-generated graphics look primitive to anything we’ve become used to seeing, especially in such soon-to-arrive entertainments as Disclosure, The Matrix, The Cell, eXistenZ and Virtuosity, also directed by Leonard. Some old-timers might recall that New Line Cinema had obtained the rights to King’s story, “The Lawnmower Man,” and an unrelated script called “Cyber God,” to which the studio attached the title and an idea for a single scene. King was furious, as well, that New Line attached his name to the purloined title, and he sued the studio to have both removed. When it refused,  a judge fined it $10,000 a day and full profits until it did. The controversy didn’t help business. The new Blu-ray includes both the theatrical and director’s cut of the movie, from 4K scans of an interpositive and footage from the original camera negative; commentary with Leonard and writer/producer Gimel Everett; conceptual art, design sketches and stills; storyboard comparisons; the new featurette, “Cybergod: Creating The Lawnmower Man”; deleted scenes; and an original EPK, with cast interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Car Wash: Blu-ray
When Michael Schultz’ workplace comedy was selected for the Palme D’Or competition at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, some French critics interpreted as a proto-Marxian parody of capitalistic oppression of the proletariat. The multiethnic cast of characters and hypocritical behavior of the business’ seemingly benevolent owner, Leon “Mr. B” Barrow (Sully Boyar), gave Car Wash a boost in the voting for the Best Music Award and a Technical Grand Prize. When it opened back home, a few months earlier, audiences overlooked the perceived political overtones, focusing, instead, on the frequently hilarious antics of the minimum-wage workers and their interaction with well-heeled customers and street rabble. Joel Schumacher’s script was, at once, funny and sympathetic to the employee’s various issues, while Schultz’ nimble direction validated the promise shown a year earlier in the urban teen dramedy, Cooley High. For all the structural comparisons to Nashville – each character having a discernible identity and story arc — Car Wash’s early buzz could be credited almost exclusively to producers’ Art Linson and Gary Stromberg’s decision to release Norman Whitfield’s funky soundtrack and titular theme song months ahead of opening weekend. It appealed to white and Latino disco audiences, as much as it did to African-Americans expecting some blaxploitation flavor. The pent-up want-to-see factor was palpable. As an extra incentive, there was the prospect of watching Richard Pryor’s spot-on imitation of Reverend Ike (a.k.a., Daddy Rich). Others making key contributions were George Carlin, the Pointer Sisters, Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, Pepe Serna, Garrett Morris, Dr. Irwin Corey and Melanie Mayron. The other showstopper was Antonio Fargas’ gender-unspecific, Lindy. When Car Wash had its network television premiere in 1978, on “NBC Monday Night at the Movies,” among the things deleted by network censors were scenes that included Fargas’ overtly gay and not at all unpopular character. They were replaced with a subplot involving a diner owner, played by Danny DeVito, and material with Brooke Adams and Benny Baker. Special features include new interviews with Stromberg and Otis Day (Animal House), and reprised commentary with Schultz.

Altitude: Blu-ray
At this point in her career, all 46-year-old Denise Richards is required to do to earn a paycheck is show up, look good and kick some ass, as if to remind us of her 15 minutes of true fame years earlier in The World Is Not Enough. Her association with former husband Charlie Sheen continues to pay dividends – as one of his two baby mommas, they’re still friendly – through occasional mentions in gossip columns and sitcoms in need of a recognizable star. True, being voted the “Worst Bond Girl of All Time,” by the readers of Britain’s Daily Mail, was a bummer, but she’s hung in there. In Alex Merkin’s Altitude, a confined-space thriller set on a hijacked jetliner, Richards plays an FBI hostage negotiator on her way back to headquarters to be reamed out for blowing an assignment. Relocated into business-class after a confrontation with an obese passenger, who’s hogging her seat in steerage, Gretchen will soon learn that her suave neighbor is harboring a dangerous secret. It’s revealed when Dolph Lundgren, Greer Grammer and Chuck Liddell take control of the plane, demanding that the Brit, Terry (Kirk Baker), relinquish the elephantine diamond he stole from them. Learning that Gretchen is a federal agent, he offers her $50 million to help him stay alive. She’s already recognized the air marshal (Jonathan Lipnicki) on the flight, but he’s too green and corruptible to be of much use. If the chase could hardly be more recognizably absurd, well, most of the good plot points were revealed already in Turbulence and Passenger 57. Even so, Richards holds her own in the kick-ass department.

Under the Turban
In the first month after 9/11, more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs were recorded by the Sikh Coalition, a 15-year-old community-based organization that has “worked towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people.” During the ensuing period, the coalition has documented hundreds of hate crimes, many of them described by police as simple cases of mistaken identity. The crimes have included the murders of several Sikhs – six in one 2012 rampage, alone – and the bullying of countless students. Earlier this year, a violent attack on a Sikh man, working on his car in the driveway of his Seattle home, followed the killing of a dark-skinned Indian man in Kansas. In both cases, the attackers shouted, “get out of my country.” It wasn’t until 2013 that the FBI agreed to track hate crimes against members of all self-identified religions, as listed in the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and Statistical Abstract. It took two years for the agency to implement the changes, however, and hate crimes have increased since then-candidate Donald Trump began his politically motivated campaign against Arab immigrants. Satinder Garcha, Mike Rogers and Meghan Shea’s documentary, Under the Turban, goes a long way toward explaining the history of the Sikh religion, how it differs from Islam and Hinduism, and why male followers honor their religion by wearing turbans and growing out their beards and hair. (Hint: it’s not just to piss off rednecks.) It’s a distinction even pea-brained bigots with assault rifles should be able to understand. Under the Turban should qualify as must-viewing for high school students not yet poisoned by society’s toxins. In it, entrepreneur Garcha attempts to answer a question posed to him, in 2012, by his 9-year-old daughter, Zara, “What does it mean to be Sikh?” It encouraged him to take his family of six on an extended adventure, with camera crew in tow, covering seven countries over five years. In visits to Italy, Argentina, Canada, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States, Zara asked dozens of fellow Sikhs the same question. The question of anti-immigrant violence is addressed in the family’s visit to the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where the 2012 attack still reverberates. While there are times when the documentary resembles a compilation of home movies, the Garchas’ message can’t help but ring through.

TV-to-DVD
Starz:  Power: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Workaholics: The Final Season
Lifetime: Showing Roots
PBS: Nature: Hotel Armadillo
PBS: Nature: Forest of the Lynx
PBS: Audubon
PBS: NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel
PBS: NOVA: Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb
PBS: NOVA: Chinese Chariot Revealed
Too often lately, my reviews of TV-to-DVD compilations read like obituaries of aborted series or final seasons. It’s nice to report that Starz’ gangsta drama, “Power,” will be with us for at least two more seasons. Through three action-filled stanzas – check out the first two, before Numero Tres — it has documented the fortunes of antihero James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), owner of a popular New York City nightclub, “Truth,” and drug kingpin. As cool as a Persian cucumber, Ghost has for three years balanced two careers; a supportive wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton); two kids, who miss and sometimes resent their daddy; his mistress, federal agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren); a loyal, if unpredictable Irish-American lieutenant, Tommy (Joseph Sikora); several employees/pushers; and a few enemies, who, despite the fact that he’s made them rich, would kill him in a heartbeat. As Season Three opens, Tommy has switched his allegiances to another gang and a smuggler earlier believed to be assassinated. Angela still doesn’t know that she’s sleeping with a fugitive from justice and Tasha isn’t about to ignore her husband’s unfaithfulness much longer. Meanwhile, there’s a mole in Angela’s office, who threatens to expose her affair with Ghost. As the season comes to a close, it’s impossible to tell the difference between his friends and foes. Oh, yeah, bodacious ta-tas are still a staple of the show. Among the plethora of producers, exec-producers, supervising producers, line and associate producers is 50 Cent, who also plays Ghost’s former business partner and all-around bad guy. “Power” creator Courtney Kemp Agboh, previously served as writer and executive producer of “The Good Wife.” The package adds a Season Two wrapup and short episodic commentaries by Agboh. New episodes begin next month.

The seventh and final season of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” has come and gone, so, the laughs end here, in “Workaholics: The Complete Series.” Hence, consider this to be another obit. As consistently funny as the low-brow series was, I’ll never know  how the series made it through seven full seasons … and, I expect, neither will creators/stars Blake Anderson, Adam Devine and Anders Holm. Before entering the cable arena, they had a YouTube Channel called “Mail Order Comedy” and a mini web series, “5th Year.” Comedy Central executives noticed the series and turned it into “Workaholics.” An apt summary might read, “The stoner grandsons of the Three Stooges find work in the only industry that employs such misfits – telemarketing – and how they managed to stay out of jail or the unemployment lines.” The first episode’s plot, “The guys must figure out how to pass a drug test at work,” told Comedy Central’s slacker audience everything they needed to know going forward, except to expect a rapport between the characters that would remind them of “The Office,” if it had been co-produced by Cheech & Chong. And, by the way, a summarization of the show’s final episode reads, “The guys become party gods after an energy drink company starts paying them to throw ragers.” That about sums up the whole series.

As contrived as it sounds, the Lifetime movie “Showing Roots” is a period melodrama that shouldn’t work as well as it does, and begs the question as to why so few viewers have been able to find it. Even now, it’s only being sold at Walmart. (It goes wide on August 22.) It is set in a sleepy Southern town during the same week as “Roots” debuted on ABC. Maggie Grace (Taken) and Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) play friends and co-workers in a beauty shop – a.k.a., hair salon – run by a blond, church-going racist, Shirley (Elizabeth McGovern), who engages in nooners with a local cop. All of the white people in the movie are racist of one strip or another, except Grace’s Violet. Blue-collar types refuse to work alongside African-American men, as ordered by a government mandate, while the delicate flowers of Southern womanhood wouldn’t consider having their hair styled with a comb previously used by a black woman. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Things pick up as the city’s blacks gather to watch the first episodes of “Roots,” which proves to be an ennobling experience for Aduba’s Pearl and Cicely Tyson’s Hattie. After Shirley fires Violet and Pearl for insubordination – cutting hair from designs in fashion mags – they rent a shop across the street. Some of the white women test Violet’s skills, but most refuse to share the waiting room with their peers from across the racial divide. Not surprisingly, something terribly cathartic happens to upset Shirley’s apple cart. In another unlikely scenario, Adam Brody plays a long-haired Vietnam vet, who rides into town in a VW van to ensure the integration of a construction site. Of course, he will worm his way into Violet’s heart. Will he, however, allow her to cut his hair? It’s that kind of a movie. Somehow, though, director Michael Wilson and writer Susan Batten find a way to dilute the clichés with fresh ideas on an overly familiar topic.

PBS’ aptly titled nature series, “Nature,” rarely fails to surprise viewers with its choice of subject matter and the technical expertise on display in capturing the animals in their natural habitats. When “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures” introduced some of the same photographic techniques, it was usually possible for anyone over 21 to see the seams in the productions. Kids didn’t care. It’s far more difficult to tell how “Nature” works. And, frankly, I don’t care. “Hotel Armadillo” and “Forest of the Lynx” are perfect examples of technology being able to tame the savage beasts … temporarily, at least. The former is set in Brazil’s remote Pantanal, which covers more than 80,000 square miles and, as such, is the largest tropical wetland in the world. It is chiefly made up of flooded grassland, with patches of dry savannah or forest. It is populated by some of the most amazing animals on the face of the Earth, whose roots extend back to prehistoric times. The focus here is on the highly secretive giant armadillo, whose den provides an independent eco-system for dozens of other species, including anteaters. “Hotel Armadillo” follows the work of conservation biologist Arnaud Desbiez, who founded the Giant Armadillo Project, and his team. The project is supported by more than 40 zoos and aquariums worldwide.

“Forest of the Lynx” takes us to forests in Austria, so remote they’ve been able to heal themselves from logging, fires and mining, and return to their natural state. The most symbolic change, perhaps, is the return of the lynx, a medium-sized cat with short tail, characteristic tufts of black hair on the tips of their ears, large, padded paws for walking on snow and long whiskers. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the Eurasian lynx has been considered extinct in central Europe. An extensive resettlement project has reintroduced lynx to Austria’s Kalkalpen National Park, which is nestled between two great mountain ranges. Three years in the making, “Forest of the Lynx” chronicles life in this remote wilderness and the complex partnerships among plants, insects, animals and trees, over the seasons. Especially interesting to watch are the white-backed woodpecker, one of Europe’s rarest birds, and pygmy owls, in mating season.

No single person was more responsible for introducing America to the rest of the world than James Audubon, who arrived here in 1803 on a false passport obtained by is wealthy French father. (George Washington had yet to build a wall around the 13 colonies.) Instead of pursuing a career mining lead on the family’s Pennsylvania estate, Audubon acted on his passion for birds. After selling his interest in the farm, he would marry and test his luck in other business opportunities. He would enjoy far more luck painting his favorite subjects than in any of his other endeavors. He subsidized his art work through portrait painting and teaching in the South. For someone who essentially was self-taught, Audubon’s ability to replicate the feathers, colors and poses of individual species bordered on the uncanny. While “Birds of America” wasn’t an easy sell in his adopted country, he found support in England and Scotland for the monumental work, which consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species. The PBS documentary, “Audubon,” covers every aspect of his life, career and the process used to create his books. The DVD, which is wonderful, contains both the 60-minute broadcast version and 90-minute theatrical cut. I suggest the latter.

Historians and archeologists interviewed in the “NOVA” presentation “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” argue that the Lithuanian city of Vilna – once known as the “Jerusalem of the North” – not only was an early target of German forces on their march to the major cities of the USSR, but also “ground zero of Hitler’s Final Solution.” Instead of pretending that the concentration camps were work camps or temporary housing for Jews rounded up throughout Central Europe, thousands were murdered as soon as the SS Einsatzkommando 9 arrived in Vilna on July 2, 1941. They didn’t die in gas chambers, either. They were shot to death, at close range, by Nazi intelligence squads, SS assassins and Lithuanian collaborators, who blamed Jews for the rise of Bolshevism and subjection by Soviet troops. The Ponary massacre chronicled here involved the mass murder of up to 100,000 Jews, Poles and Russian POWs, and simultaneous destruction of Vilna’s synagogues and cultural institutions. Out of 70,000 Jews living in Vilna (a.k.a., Vilnius) only 7,000 survived the war. Sadly, the title, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” is both overly promising and a tad misleading. Yes, the documentary features the efforts of archeologists searching for proof of one of Vilna’s greatest secrets: a lost escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners inside a horrific Nazi execution site. (Few actually escaped.) It is, however, a smaller part of a longer report on efforts to excavate the remains of its Great Synagogue, which was destroyed by Nazis and entombed by Stalin’s minions. No matter, because the entire documentary is interesting and important.

In 1986, in the heart of Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, releasing 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima Bomb and creating a restricted area larger than Long Island. Ever since, daredevil scientists, laborers and filmmakers have risked exposure to deadly radiation, to show the world how a post-apocalyptic Earth might look. My favorites are the docs in which we can observe how animals and plants have adapted to the extreme conditions and are thriving in the absence of man. They’re better than most of the sci-fi films I’ve seen lately, which can only speculate how a dystopian landscape might look. In the rush to confine the disaster, a so-called “sarcophagus” was built to contain the radioactive materials that lingered there. It wasn’t built to last forever. “Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb” describes how engineers and laborers from around the world are rushing to replace the temporary structure with one of the most ambitious superstructures ever built: an extraordinary 40,000-ton, 30-story-high, $1.5-billion dome. When it’s completed, workers will slide the dome over the sarcophagus, which, then, will be dismantled, along with the removal of the reactor pieces. If, in the meantime, the temporary roof collapses, another huge cloud of irradiated dust will follow the prevailing winds as far they take it. Clearly, too, construction workers are being exposed to radiation and, if that weren’t sufficiently unpleasant, the Ukrainian winter makes Chicago feel like Sarasota. The project is expected to take decades.

Every so often, a Chinese farmer will scrape the surface of his property and discover the ruins and artifacts of a civilization that thrived thousands of years earlier. It’s how the remarkably well-preserved Terracotta Army of the Qin necropolis was discovered, in 1973, and, last year, the Eastern Han Dynasty tombs of Jianghuai. The King of Zheng tomb was discovered by farmers in 1923, as well, but extensive excavations are still ongoing. Not only were the remains of hundreds of chariots discovered, but also the skeletons of as many horses in a mass grave. Horse-drawn chariots, once limited to transporting royalty and parades, were retrofitted for use in war and buried for use in some departed duke or king’s afterlife. Thundering across China’s battlefields, chariots dominated combat for a millennium, longer than anywhere else on Earth. “Chinese Chariot Revealed” documents the efforts to investigate the design secrets, reconstruct and test China’s first super-weapon.

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What are we doing wrong?
“Well, first of all, by “we” I assume you mean the public, the public approach or the public discourse, which means the discourse that takes place in the media. And for the purposes of this discussion, let us imagine that the media is white and thus approaches the topic of race as if they (the white people) were the answer and them (the black people) were the question. And so, in the interest of fairness, they take their turn (having first, of course, given it to themselves) and then invite comment by some different white people and some similar black people. They give what purports to be simply their point of view and then everyone else gives their beside-the-point of view.

“The customary way for white people to think about the topic of race—and it is only a topic to white people—is to ask, How would it be if I were black? But you can’t separate the “I” from being white. The “I” is so informed by the experience of being white that it is its very creation—it is this “I” in this context that is, in fact, the white man’s burden. People who think of themselves as well intentioned—which is, let’s face it, how people think of themselves—believe that the best, most compassionate, most American way to understand another person is to walk a mile in their shoes. And I think that’s conventionally the way this thing is approached. And that’s why the conversation never gets anywhere and that’s why the answers always come back wrong and the situation stays static—and worse than static.”
~ Fran Lebowitz, 1997

“If one could examine his DNA, it would read ACTOR. He embraced every role with fire and fierce dedication. Playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was his loving tribute to all actors and garnered him a well-deserved Academy Award. His work was his joy and his legacy.”
~ Barbara Bain On Martin Landau