MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: T2 Trainspotting, Autopsy of Jane Doe, Dirty, Trespass, Monster Hunt and more

T2 Trainspotting: Blu-ray
God bless Margaret Mitchell. When pressured for a sequel to the novel of Gone With the Wind, she claimed not to have a notion as to what may have happened to Scarlett and Rhett, and that she had “left them to their ultimate fate.” Ditto, François Truffaut, who, in 1974, turned down an opportunity to remake Casablanca. It took 14 years for writer-director Richard Curtis to acknowledge the clamor for a reunion sequel to his surprisingly resilient Love Actually. It runs all of 15 minutes, and was shown on British and American television two months ago, as part of one of his charity’s worldwide events. If fans of Grown Ups, Bridget Jones’s Diary and American Pie could be as easily sated, the world would be a better place. That said, however, as unnecessary sequels go, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, isn’t bad. Loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel, “Porno,” it revisits, after 20 years, a close-knit group of friends united by drug addiction, self-imposed poverty and life in the squalid housing projects outside Edinburgh. Here, Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home from Amsterdam, where he fled after stealing his friends’ share of the money they made in a drug deal. Waiting for him are Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), still a barely functional heroin addict; Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), now a cocaine addict, who runs the pub he inherited from his aunt and uses his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), to extort money from johns; and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a violent offender, who, before his escape, was serving a 25-year prison sentence. All of them are suffering one form of distress, or another, not the least being a sudden need for cash. There also are children to consider. Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald’s characters have returned, as well, but in key supporting roles, as functioning adults. T2 is again directed by Oscar-winner Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by John Hodge (Trance), whose collaborations began with Shallow Grave in 1994. Although Trainspotting could hardly be considered formulaic, T2 resembles the original in all the ways that made it so revelatory. The musical soundtrack features Blondie, the Clash, Wolf Alice, High Contrast, the Prodigy, Queen, Run–D.M.C., Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Underworld, the Rubberbandits and Young Fathers. The cinematography reflects the frequently frenetic action and occasional hallucinatory detour, while the comedy is inky black. In the 21-year interim, Boyle overcame one nearly fatal Hollywood misstep (The Beach) to become one of the industry’s most honored and in-demand directors.“T2 proves that neither he nor his fine ensemble cast has lost any of their edge.  The 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions include 30 minutes of deleted scenes, commentary with Boyle and Hodge and the lively featurette “20 Years in the Making: A Conversation with Danny Boyle and the Cast.”

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The not-at-all-bad gag here is that Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch run a century-old mortuary/crematorium business in their Virginia home. It also doubles as the police morgue. The building’s age doesn’t allow for modern lighting, high ceilings or other accoutrements of modern forensics work.  All the better for Norwegian helmer André Ovredal (Trollhunter), who takes full advantage of the primitive conditions to ratchet up the suspense in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Just as the sardonic widower, Tony (Cox), is about to close up for the night and free his son, Austin (Hirsch), to go on a date, the chief of police calls with news of a multiple homicide and to ask for an urgent favor. Among the victims found in a local basement is a half-buried Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly), whose body appears undamaged and unrelated to the carnage. The chief is interested in learning what might be revealed in an autopsy, to be performed ASAP. Rather than call off the date, Austin accedes to her desire to witness the proceedings, which are a tad more graphic than those conducted on your average TV cop show. Just as Ms. Doe’s innards are about to reveal secrets not obvious on the surface of her naked body, the lights go out and things begin to go bump in the night. Veteran horror fans will already know to pay attention for the sound of bells Tony has attached to the legs of corpses, just in case one of them isn’t quite dead. At 86 minutes, Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing’s screenplay is heavy on atmosphere and foreboding detail, if a bit familiar in the resolution department. Still, a good way to kill some time in the dark.

Dirty
The best thing about this cliché-ridden story about a pair of corrupt cops, who push their luck beyond all normal limits, isn’t even noted on the jacket of Dirty. It’s a juicy cameo by Chaz Bono – the transgender son of Sonny & Cher –who plays a grimy stoolpigeon, with terrible teeth and a 600-pound mother screaming at him from her bedroom prison. It’s short, but wonderful. Tony Denison (“The Closer”) is noted on the dust jacket, playing the LAPD chief stuck with a couple of bozo detectives who wear their bad intentions on their sleeves for all peaceful citizens to fear. Roger Guenveur Smith, especially, looks as if he were born specifically to play ill-bred villains, in and out of uniform. He and his partner (Paul Elia) have managed to accumulate quite the nest egg of stolen drugs and money in their time together. Instead of merely stealing a portion of a perp’s ill-begotten booty, then letting the wheels of justice grind away at them, the cops take all of it and kill everyone involved. Director Daniel Ringey and writer Benjamin J. Alexander are attempting to make a point here about the ease with which some cops get away with murder, but even Barney Fife could smell these two bad apples coming a mile away. Neither is it difficult to figure out ahead of time how the mighty will fall.

Motion
Evan Tramel’s Motion allows viewers to watch as all manner of cool things are blown up real good – as Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, hosts of SCTV’s “Farm Film Report,” might say — in slow motion and highly defined colors. Bullets are shot through balloons full of paint, marbles are thrown into the whirling blades of blender, animals and birds burst into flight, and galaxies expand in ways never thought possible. The images are amplified by a soundtrack filled with snippets of classical music … some familiar, others not. I can’t say that there’s much here we haven’t seen before, no matter how cool it looks. Indeed, some of the images can be traced back to the foundations of motion photography. Kids unfamiliar with such extraordinary cinematography will get the biggest kick out of Motion, but Dads will find something fun here, too.

Through the Looking Glass
When someone whose livelihood depends on a constant flow of creative juices experiences a block, it’s not dissimilar to an accident victim slipping into a coma. As far as I know, there are no known medical or psychological cures for a sudden inability to be artistic. Typically, patience and sensory stimulations are the best hope for rehabilitation. In Craig Griffith’s 2006 debut, Through the Looking Glass, the Artist (Paul McCarthy) has seen his career come to a grinding halt. The Agent (Michael Langridge) continues to remind him of a rapidly approaching deadline, while The Friend (Jonathan Rhodes) arrives at The Artist’s foreboding Gothic estate to see if he might be able to impart some wisdom on the subject. Not even The Life Model’s exquisite body can jolt the Artist from his malaise. Those are the only human characters in Griffith’s 93-minute exercise in existential horror. The Monster, if such a creature even exists, arrives in the form of a mysterious package left at the mansion’s doorstep. It contains a mirror, which, when it isn’t reflecting The Artist’s angst is providing him with visions that he’ll work onto a canvas. Unfortunately, they can only be seen by the man holding the brush. When The Agent alerts him to this fact, it results in the peculiar disappearances of everyone around The Artist.  Through the Looking Glass’ claim to marginal fame is winning Best Horror prize at the 2007 Swansea Bay Film Festival. Griffith’s ability to tell his story, while his characters are bathed largely in darkness, obviously impressed the judges.

Grey Lady
The title of John Shea’s second writer/director credit in 20 years – Southie came first – derives from Nantucket Island’s nickname, “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea,” based supposedly on how it appears from the ocean when it is fog-bound … which is frequently. Apparently, too, all of the expensive homes in the modern, post-whaling era have been painted in shades of gray (American spelling). Grey Lady is set in the naturally gray off-season, when the population decreases from 50,000 to 10,000 full-time islanders. Shea’s screenplay offers another explanation, based on the gray homes that line the inlet to the harbor, and the whalers’ wives who lived in them, but, I think, it’s a stretch. No matter, it’s a terrific location for a crime story not involving sharks or tourists. Boston homicide detective James Doyle (Eric Dane) is drawn to Nantucket, based on clues left behind in the murders of his sister and lover/partner. Once he lands on the island and begins to investigate, Doyle comes to realize that the killer is still active and appears to be targeting people who once were in the same orbit as his parents. These include characters played by Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams), Natalie Zea (“Justified”), Adrian Lester (“Hustle”), Carolyn Stotesbery (“Agent X”), Rebecca Gayheart (“Vanished”) and Laila Robins (“Homeland”), who may have owed Shea a favor, as Grey Lady has arrived on DVD virtually unheralded and unsung. Even so, the setting alone is worth the price of a rental or PPV donation.

Life of Significant Soil
In writer/director Michael Irish’s debut feature, Life of Significant Soil, the title isn’t the only thing that requires scrutiny. Billed, early on, as a “repetitive comedy” – the qualifier, “sort of” was added later, then deleted — its only similarity to Groundhog Day is the basic conceit, which requires its small handful of characters to constantly relive the events of the previous day. Suffice it to day that Irish has a long way to go before he can walk in Harold Ramis’ shoes. His stars, Charlotte Bydwell, Alexis Mouyiaris and Anna Jack, while game, aren’t nearly as capable as Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, either. The focus of each day’s dilemma is the floundering relationship of aspiring dancer Addison and her uninspiring slacker boyfriend Conor. Addison has just learned she’s pregnant and Conor’s fundamental concern is the air-conditioner, which is usually on the fritz. For some time, she’s been aware that he’s been cheating on her – sexually, if not emotionally – with the downstairs’ blond, Jackie. About halfway through the day, Addison decides to have an abortion, which Conor and another friend arrange through a back-alley practitioner, Upstate, although there’s probably a dozen perfectly legal clinics within a mile’s radius of their Brooklyn flat. Because Life of Significant Soil tops out at 72 minutes, it’s likely that Irish realized that he was in over his head at some point and decided to cut his losses. Smart move.

Wichita
Justyn Ah Chong and Matthew D. Ward’s debut feature, Wichita, borrows from all sorts of sources, not the least of which are The Shining (the long, lonely drive into the Colorado wilderness), Sliver (room-to-room surveillance cameras) and all sorts of Cabin Fever clones. I’m not quite sure what the title represents, except the stitching on one of the sweatshirts worn by the protagonist. The working title was “Manifesto,” which may have been even less precise. Trevor Peterson plays Jeb, the creator of a children’s cartoon show, “Amy and the Aliens,” that’s sagging in the ratings, but features the voicing talents of the network boss’ daughter. Jeb is ordered to hole up in a fancy house in the mountains with a writing team and churn out 30 brilliant scripts in 30 days. The first sign that Jeb is starting to crack under the pressure is when he begins monitoring his team’s activities through mini-cameras strategically located throughout the property and using what he sees to intimidate and blackmail them. (Who set up the cameras and why remains a mystery.) The deeper he sinks into his pit of narcissism, rage and fear, the uglier things get for the team members. Things get even nuttier when Jeb takes a side trip to visit his religious-nut mom – Sondra Blake, former wife of Robert – and she mistakes him for a terrorist, or Satan, and begins shooting. True slasher junkies will get a kick from the mayhem that follows Jeb’s return to the mountains, but everything else left me cold.

Legion of Brothers: Blu-ray
In this up-close-and-personal look at about 25 of the 100 Special Forces troops, who, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, were airlifted into Afghanistan to join forces with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban and send Al Qaeda packing. They fought alongside anti-Taliban rebels, sometimes on horseback, and provided eyes and ears on the ground for Coalition bombing missions. Those were heady days for Americans still reeling from the horrors of 9/11 and, for a while there, it looked as the mission was accomplished. Sadly, White House and CIA interference allowed Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leadership to slip past other Special Forces units at Tora Bora, and that effectively ended the euphoria over deposing the Taliban government in Kabul. When American troops and Marines were relocated to Iraq, well … that’s another story, altogether. Legion of Brothers not only allows the Special Forces veterans to relive their heroic campaign to get the Coalition’s efforts on solid footing, but it also re-visits events that left a far different taste in their mouths. Director Greg Barker illuminates the impact of 15 years of constant combat on the soldiers and their families, as well as having to observe the aftermath of certain “victory” as it turned sour. There’s probably no better time than the July 4 to listen to the stories these men tell about the horrors of war and peace.

Death Line: Limited Edition: Combo: Blu-ray
The Unholy: Blu-ray
Nurse Sherri: Blu-ray
This week’s selection of horror reissues includes a pair of relatively obscure thrillers that look fine in Blu-ray and feature actors who elevate the genre. The third is just plain nuts. Shot largely in an unused London Tube station in the early 1970s, Gary Sherman’s Death Line (a.k.a., “Raw Meat”) features Donald Pleasence and Norman Rossington as a humorously crusty Scotland Yard detectives; James Cossins, as a pervy politician; Hugh Armstrong, as a fifth-generation ghoul; and a wacky cameo by Christopher Lee. The plot takes some explaining. Decades earlier, a group of male and female tunnel workers were lost in the collapse of a subway wall and presumed dead. Instead, they managed to survive on rain water, sewer rats and refuse, and the solidarity of the damned. Oh, yeah, they occasionally consumed the flesh of their own dead comrades, as well. Not having that luxury, the sole living descendant of the original surviving tunnel dwellers is forced to exit his cozy boneyard to find fresh victims, who he also tries to feed to his decaying ex-wife. The disappearance of the honorable OBE member demands the attention of the skeptical detectives, as does the subsequent kidnapping of the pretty hippy chick (Sharon Gurney) who first reported finding his collapsed body on the steps of the subway station. The producers lucked out when their location scouts found an abandoned station that literally reeked with atmosphere. Armstrong’s portrayal of the vile antagonist is what really pushes Death Line over the top, however. The courtship of his replacement bride – the kidnapped young woman — is as disgusting as it can possibly be. But, don’t take my word for it. When the film was shown as part of a horror series at Lincoln Center in 2002, director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) pronounced it one of his all-time favorites. Sadly, just as interest was beginning to mount among European distributors for Sherman’s tasty little film, it was re-edited by the producers and sold to AIP for American grindhouses and drive-ins, under the title “Raw Meat,” and largely forgotten. (It was shown in Britain in its original form, under its original title.) It has been freshly transferred and fully restored in 2K from the original uncensored camera negative and comes fully loaded with new bonus features, including commentary with Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky (Police Academy) and AD Lewis More O’Ferrall; “Tales From the Tube,” an interview with Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr., whose younger brother, David, plays the boyfriend witness; “From The Depths,” an interview with David Ladd and Maslansky; “Mind The Doors,” an interview with Armstrong; marketing material for “Raw Meat”; and a booklet featuring new writing by authors Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo.

Phillip Yordan originally wrote the script for The Unholy in the 1970s, after the box-office successes of films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Director Camilo Vila found the script years later, in Yordan’s office, while they were working on something else and asked if he could use it. Unfortunately, the thirst for movies involving priests, exorcisms and Satan’s intrusions into church affairs was at a low point, and The Unholy languished in box-office purgatory. Set in New Orleans, a series of horrific murders of priests has only recently come to light. The latest involves a priest who succumbs to the charms of a beautiful woman (Nicole Fortier) in a diaphanous outfit that leaves nothing to the imagination. Viewers, of course, sense that she’s the devil in disguise Elvis once prophesized and there’s nothing we can do to save the doomed cleric. The archdiocese recruits the handsome Father Michael (Ben Cross) to take on the demon and his other manifestations. The priest deduces that Daesidarius (a.k.a., The Unholy One) murders the sinner in the act of sinning, then sends that person’s soul to hell. The movie’s biggest selling point is a cast that includes Peter Frechette, Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard, in one of his final roles. Otherwise, there are a few too many missed opportunities here to make The Unholy stand out among other exorcism flicks. Fortier, however, isn’t one of them. The special features add commentary with Vila; isolated score selections and an audio interview with composer Roger Bellon; an audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca, featuring selections from his unused score; ”Sins of the Father,” with Cross; “Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy”; ”Prayer Offerings,” with Fonseca; an original ending with optional commentary by producer Mathew Hayden; a storyboard and stills gallery.

One sure way to determine the degree of depravity of a particular grindhouse or drive-in specimen is to track the number of alternative titles under which it’s listed. In the case of Nurse Sherri, there’s “Possession of Nurse Sherri,” “Black Voodoo,” “Hands of Death,” “Beyond the Living,” “Hospital of Terror” and “Terror Hospital.” A second DVD, included in the package, is labelled “Killer’s Curse.” Added as an “exploitation cut” version, I failed to identify any differences between them. This shouldn’t be taken as a complaint, just an observation. The key point to be made is that it was made in the late 1970s, by semi-legendary schlockmeister Al Adamson (Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, Satan’s Sadists) and is a textbook example of what can happen when such an “artist” sets out to create a “violent and sleazy hybrid of ‘nurse’ films and supernatural horror.” That, it is. As usual, Vinegar Syndrome has invested significantly more money and TLC into its product than Adamson felt it deserved. It has been freshly restored, in 2K, of its original 35mm negative, and features interviews with its stars and semi-legendary producer Samuel Sherman, who supplies the commentary track. “Nurses’ Confessions” is a terrific backgrounder with co-stars Jill Jacobson and Marliyn Joi, and there’s a “Then and Now” locations featurette.

Trespass: Blu-ray
Stripped to its bare essentials, Walter Hill’s 1992 action/thriller Trespass works best as an urban adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, set in an abandoned factory in East St. Louis. It begins with a pair of good-ol’-boy Arkansas firefighters, Vince and Don (Bill Paxton, William Sadler), being handed a hand-drawn map and old newspaper clipping, purportedly leading to a stash of a stolen religious artifacts and hidden somewhere in the once thriving plant. The robber won’t need the map anymore, as he plans to kill himself in the four-alarm blaze. Naturally, the firefighters become fixated on the possibility that the museum-quality artifacts can be fenced or turned in to the insurance company for a nice reward. What Vince and Don don’t take into account, of course, is that the abandoned factory also is a hideout for local gang-bangers, including characters played by Ice-T, Ice Cube, Stoney Jackson, John Toles-Bey, Tommy “Tiny” Lister and De’voreaux White. Inconveniently, the factory serves as a home for a wily homeless gent (Art Evans). The Arkansas rubes aren’t prepared to take on an entire gang of obscenely well-armed thugs, who fear their sanctuary has been invaded, and the locals have no idea that they’re in possession of a fortune in gold. If you haven’t guessed already, the homeless guy is there to remind us not only of the folly of youth and wages of greed, but also Walter Huston’s old prospector in the John Huston classic. Fresh off their work on the Back to the Future trilogy, collaborative screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis supplied Hill with enough of a framework to fill in the blanks with brilliantly choreographed violence and sardonic humor.  If Trespass failed to ignite a bonfire at the box office, the blame can be laid on the coincidence of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Originally titled “The Looters,” its release date was pushed from the July 4 weekend to Christmas, so that a new marketing campaign could be devised around the new title and conceptual spin. By either title, Hill’s picture is lots of fun. The package contains a vintage making-of featurette; five new ones, including interviews and pieces on the stunts and weaponry; deleted scenes; and a music video.

Monster Hunt
Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions: Blu-ray
As of February, 2016, when it was surpassed by Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt held the title of highest-grossing, domestically made Chinese film of all time. Worldwide, it scored more than $400 million at the box office. Hui may not have been as stunned by those numbers as other observers, considering he’d previously worked on Shrek, Madagascar and Antz, and is listed as co-director on Shrek the Third, with Chris Miller, and director of several DreamWorks shorts. In other words, Monster Hunt’s success wasn’t a fluke. By combining live-action and animated characters, it tapped into a family-friendly market – even finding a ready audience in its very limited U.S. run – that most studios here would envy. Naturally, a sequel is already in post-production. This isn’t to say, however, I can safely describe what’s happening in Roi and writer Alan Yuen’s fantasy universe, I’ll paraphrase, thusly, “In a mythical ancient world, monsters rule their land while humans keep to their own kingdom. When adorable baby monster Wuba is born to a human father and the monster queen, mortals and creatures alike set out to capture the newborn. They include both monster-hating humans and monsters claiming Wuba as their own.” It has been dubbed into English.

I’m only a little more familiar with the universe described in Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions, a feature-length spinoff of the multi-tentacled Japanese animated franchise. The film is an original story, featuring Yugi Muto and Seto Kaiba as its main characters. It follows events of the original “Yu-Gi-Oh!” storyline and the original manga. Once again, I defer to a more accurate summarization than I could provide: “A year after the departure of the Pharaoh, Yugi and his high school friends are discussing what they will do after graduation. Meanwhile, Seto has commissioned an excavation to retrieve the disassembled Millennium Puzzle from the ruins of the Millennium chamber. The item had previously housed the soul of his rival, Atem, who he hopes to revive in order to settle their score. The excavation is interrupted by Diva, who faces Kaiba in a game of “Duel Monsters” and steals two pieces of the recovered Puzzle. He keeps one fragment and gives the other to his sister, Sera, who passes it on to Yugi … host of the Pharaoh.” At 130 minutes, the movie might be too overwhelming for novices. Bonus material includes “Favorite Moments With the Cast,” featuring the English voice cast; Q&A’s with the actors who voice the lead characters; “Show Us Your Cards!,” a gallery of fans displaying their favorite “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards;  and a separate collector’s card.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Epic: Blu-ray
PBS: The Story of China with Michael Wood: Blu-ray
ABC: Dirty Dancing: Television Special
PBS: Masterpiece: King Charles III
PBS: Frontline: Last Days of Solitary
I can’t think of better way to celebrate America’s birthday than binging on the four-part PBS documentary, “American Epic,” which the network describes as a “journey back in time to the Big Bang of modern popular music.” It’s well worth missing a fireworks barrage, or two. The “Big Bang” came in the 1920s, as radio took over the music business and scouts for record companies were forced to leave their studios in search of new voices and customers anxious to purchase phonographs. What they discovered was a treasure trove of uniquely American musicians, willing to share their sounds with the world and, perhaps, make some money doing so. Most had never heard themselves perform on a disc or over the airwaves. As unwieldy as the portable studios were, the sounds they captured were pristine and impassioned. The pops and scratches would be added later, at home. The 310 minutes of music in “American Epic” represents what today is commonly known as roots or Americana. It includes country singers in the Appalachians, blues guitarists in the Mississippi Delta, gospel preachers across the South, Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, tejano groups from the Texas/Mexico border, Native American drummers in Arizona and Hawaiian musicians. It adds a companion book, a soundtrack featuring 100 remastered songs, an educational outreach program and a historical archive. None of it is boring or without reach, even to untrained ears. The remarkable lives of America’s seminal musicians are revealed through previously unseen film footage and photographs, and exclusive interviews with music pioneers, their families and eyewitnesses to the era. “American Epic” is the brainchild of exec-producers T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, whose excitement for the project is palpable throughout. Engineer Nicholas Bergh, a pre-eminent restorer of audio tracks for early films, had just finished collecting parts and rebuilding just such a machine — none of the original 20, made by AT&T’s Western Electric division, had survived — which works on pulleys and allows for no stopping or restarting, while recording straight to wax. It took first-time director Bernard MacMahon, who also produced with Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, more than 10 years to complete the documentary, as it morphed and expanded. Among the participating acts are Alabama Shakes, John, Nas, the Avett Brothers, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rhiannon Giddens and Taj Mahal. In a word, “American Epic” is breathtaking.

I recently referred readers to hour-long documentaries on several aspects of Chinese history, including the discovery of ancient chariots, terra-cotta warriors and battlefields. I couldn’t imagine how the PBS documentary series, “The Story of China,” written and presented by historian Michael Wood, could encapsulate 4,000 years of continuous history into a meaningful 360-minute package. A CliffsNotes or Classics Illustrated version, maybe, but not six hours of gorgeously captured landscapes and informed discussions of architecture, geography and military history. And, yet, by stopping short of the events that led to Chinese Civil War, communist takeover and embracing of a free-market economy, Wood probably saved himself another two-hour dissertation. By journeying along the Silk Route, down the Grand Canal and across the plain of the Yellow River, where Chinese civilization began, Wood found common elements in his story. He also meets people from all walks of life, visiting China’s most evocative landscapes and exploring such ancient cities as Xi’an, Nanjing and Hangzhou, which still reveal the fingerprints of history.

Anyone attempting to remake “Dirty Dancing,” on the big screen, TV or stage, must have known they would be opening themselves to a noisy backlash by the movie’s rabid fanbase. With a 30th anniversary edition already in the marketplace, the producers of ABC’s adaptation probably weren’t nearly as concerned about reviews, as word-of-mouth leading into this Blu-ray release, less than six weeks later. Although it closely follows the original narrative, there are several key differences, besides the casting of Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes in the roles made famous by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Today’s teens might appreciate the stronger emphasis on race relations and class divisions, and the honest portrayal of a young woman’s coming of age at a time when birth control was an uncommon luxury and young middle-class males were practically clueless as to how to behave in their company. The lower-class dancers are painted as being more well-versed in the ways of the world, but just barely. The dancing is good, of course, and the locations attractive. Baby’s parents are experiencing problems that went unaddressed in the original, as well. Supporting cast members include Sarah Hyland, Nicole Scherzinger, Tony Roberts, Shane Harper, J. Quinton Johnson, Trevor Einhorn, Katey Sagal, Billy Dee Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Debra Messing.  Andy Blankenbuehler, a veteran of “9 to 5: The Musical” and “Hamilton’s America,” handled the choreography very capably. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “The Legacy Lives On” and “Don’t Step on the 1, Start on the 2.”

Those of us who’ve grown up wondering what crime Prince Charles must have committed to be denied his birthright — and by his mother, no less — might find a hint or two in PBS’ overtly Shakespearian, “Masterpiece: King Charles III.” Based on Mike Bartlett’s critically acclaimed and award-winning play, Rupert Goold’s interpretation benefits from terrific performances and a teleplay that includes ghosts, thoughts of patricide, romantic entanglements and much political intrigue. After waiting a lifetime for the call, Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) ascends to the British throne after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. With the future of the monarchy under threat, protests on the streets and his family in disarray, Charles must grapple with his own identity and purpose. The stellar cast includes Oliver Chris, as William; Richard Goulding, as Harry; Charlotte Riley, as Kate; Margot Leicester, as Camilla; and Katie Brayben, as Diana’s ghost.

PBS’ “Frontline: Last Days of Solitary” teaches us that the U.S. is the world leader in solitary confinement, with more than 80,000 prisoners being held in isolation. Besides introducing Maine’s ambitious attempt to decrease its reliance on the disciplinary practice, “Last Days of Solitary” investigates what happens when prisoners who have spent considerable time in isolation try to integrate back into society, sometimes only days or weeks after being forced to live like animals and act like mental patients participating in a cruel experiment. The truly scary presentation offers some reason to hope that solitary confinement could someday be abolished, without ignoring the fact that some prisoners simply can’t adjust to life among other inmates, let alone civilians. The self-abuse these men endure to make their complaints known and taken seriously border on the unwatchable. That the prisoners we meet are almost exclusively white begs other questions.

 

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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