MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Lady Macbeth, Girls Trip, Moka, Chicago, American Gods and more

Lady Macbeth
If the title of William Oldroyd’s evocative debut feature suggests something Shakespearian, potential viewers should know that the literary inspiration derives from a different corner of Europe entirely, Czarist Russia. Nikolai Leskov’s remarkably durable 1865 novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” was introduced in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s magazine, Epoch. In addition to Oldroyd’s variation on the same theme, the book has inspired a “dark and deadly” opera by Dmitri Shostakovich; the ballet, “Katarina Izmailova,” by Yugoslav composer Rudolf Brucci; Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 film, Siberian Lady Macbeth; Mikhail Shapiro’s 1967 musical drama, Katerina Izmailova; several stage productions recorded for television; and, in 2016, Oldroyd’s “Victorian noir,” Lady Macbeth. I’d be surprised if Leskov’s novel didn’t inspire some Hollywood screenwriters to borrow some of the story’s proto-feminist themes, as well. In 1865, women from poor families in rural Britain could be sold to landholders to make good their fathers’ debts. They, then, would be held responsible for maintaining the household staff and budgets, making sure chores are completed in proper manner and, of course, producing male heirs. Such was the case of Lady Katherine (Florence Pugh), who had the bad luck of being sold to a brutal colliery magnate, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who forces her to marry his emotionally challenged son, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Nonetheless, Katherine seems perfectly willing to honor her commitment, even if her new husband is in no mood to consummate the marriage. Father and son both treat her like chattel, constantly reminding her of the debt still owed by her father.

Alexander soon begins taking extended trips outside County Durham, leaving the young and frisky Katherine bored to tears, increasingly bitter and desperate. When the men are away on separate business trips, Katherine embarks on an affair with a handsome groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), that not only triggers a volcanic desire in her for unbridled sex, but also a willingness to risk a flogging for later displays of insubordination to Boris the staff loyal to him. It’s as if a sympathetic visitor had left a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s recently published “Madame Bovary” within her reach, hoping it would spark Katherine’s desire for something more substantial than practicing her needlepoint and making sure the surfaces are being dusted. When their relationship becomes the subject of village gossip, Katherine concocts plans that would leave her the true head of the estate. Viewers may not be able to precisely identify the peril that looms just over the horizon, but we know it can’t possibly bode well for the weak-willed Sebastian. In an interesting decision, Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch elected to make three key characters of African descent. The story practically ignores their race, leaving the audience to make of the casting what it will. Anyone who’s seen Amma Asante’s Belle, which directly addressed the question of mixed-race children among the landed gentry, will appreciate the conceit. The other surprises to come are best left unspoiled. Although all the actors are good, it’s Florence Pugh – now 21 – who shines brightest. Fans of “Masterpiece” are the target demographic for Lady Macbeth, even if the set design is a tad more austere and the sexuality isn’t shrouded to protect the sensibilities of PBS affiliates here. A making-of featurette is atypically informative.

Girls Trip: Unrated: Blu-ray
These are questions that will keep future generations of film scholars awake at night: if a direct thematic line can be drawn between Neal Israel’s uproarious Bachelor Party (1984) and Todd Phillips’ anarchic blockbuster The Hangover (2009), could a similar connection be made linking Forest Whitaker’s groundbreaking rom/dram/com, Waiting to Exhale (1995) and Malcolm D. Lee’s raunchy girls-gone-wild comedy, Girls Trip, and, if so, did the success of Whittaker’s ensemble take on Terry McMillan’s confessional novel also influence such disparate entertainments as Set It Off (1996), The Best Man (1999), Sex in the City (2008), Bachelorette (2012) and Rough Night (2017)?; and is there an equivalent word for “bromance” to encompass movies about the bonds that connect women? Such questions may sound petty, but they’re no more inconsequential than hundreds of other treatises and dissertations that clog the pipelines of academia. While decidedly different in tone, Girls Trip and Waiting to Exhale both feature ensemble casts of actors popular with so-called urban audiences. Even so, box-office returns suggest they appeal to women across the demographic spectrum. They even found a bit more support overseas than that accorded most other movies with African-American casts.

Girls Trip reportedly is the first film produced, written, directed by and starring African-Americans to cross the $100 million mark. In it, four lifelong friends and sorority sisters (Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah) travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, where one of them will deliver the keynote speech. Problems arise when photos of her husband/partner (Mike Colter), making out with a self-promoting “Instagram skank” (Deborah Ayorinde), surface just hours before a major deal with a corporate entity is to be announced. In the meantime, the ladies hope to take her mind off the dilemma by partying hardy in the French Quarter, which was Las Vegas hundreds of years before Nevada was granted statehood. Fueled on Hurricanes, 200-year-old absinthe and a mutual desire to get laid, they succeed in doing just that. The formula wouldn’t be complete, though, if the raucous set pieces didn’t set up dramatic conflicts and crowd-pleasing displays of empowerment, self-worth and sisterhood later. Even when the gags fizzle, the chemistry between the characters is palpable throughout. The Blu-ray arrives in a theatrical and extended unrated cut, with Lee’s commentary, deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, background and making-of featurettes; a music video; and an extended performance of “Because of You,” by Ne-Yo.

Moka
The primary attraction in this slow-burn thriller from France and Switzerland is being able to watch two truly great actresses — Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye – navigate the twists and turns in a mystery as carefully constructed as a French soufflé. Devos is typically convincing as Diane, a woman consumed with grief and a rage over the loss of her teenage son, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Baye, who’s just turned the corner on 69, plays Marlène, the owner of a cosmetics shop in the Swiss spa town of Évian, across Lake Geneva from Diane’s residence. Based on imprecise evidence, she tracks down Marlène and quickly concludes her Mercedes struck her son, causing his death. With the intention of avenging the teenager’s death, she even goes so far as to purchase a gun from a handsome young hoodlum she meets on the ferry from Lausanne to Évian. Once she meets Marlène face-to-face and even allows her the intimacy of applying rehabilitative makeup to her sad face, however, Diane decides to let her investigation take its course. Even as Diane cements her belief in Marlene’s culpability, viewers will begin to sense that something is wrong with her theory. (Watch enough episodes of “Law & Order” and you’ll never approach a movie mystery in the same way.) It’s a joy watching Devos and Baye, who are separated in age by about 16 years, construct their very different characters and milk every bit of suspense from Antonin Martin-Hilbert and Mermoud’s adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay’s best-selling novel. Francophiles and mystery lovers shouldn’t put off ordering a copy or download of Moka (the color of the hit-and-run vehicle). The Film Movement release adds a revealing interview with Mermoud and, as usual, a fine short, “Le créneau,” also by Mermoud and starring Devos and Hippolyte Girardot.

 

Shot Caller: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say how close to reality writer/director Ric Roman Waugh comes in his harrowing prison drama, Shot Caller. In researching the picture, he worked inside a facility very much like the one seen here – the former New Mexico State Prison, outside Santa Fe – and he hired ex-cons for the crowd and riot scenes. So, it looks like the real deal. The head-to-toe tattoos, ever-present shades and slicked-back haircuts favored by the baddest of the bad-asses are pretty scary, too. What bothered me is the characterization of the protagonist, Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), as a onetime Pasadena financial whiz, who had one or two drinks too many at dinner and ended up killing another motorist in a terrible collision. His record was clear, otherwise, and there’s no indication he’s an alcoholic with previous DUI violations. Instead of being sentence to a minimum-security prison with a no-nonsense rehab program and, of course, losing his driver’s license, he’s sent to a gang-infested facility where the concept of rehabilitation went out with rubber bullets and teargas. To survive, Harlan must prove that he can hang with the hard guys. After standing up to a black convict who challenges him, he’s recruited into a whites-only gang whose members are festooned with Nazi symbols tattooed on every bulging muscle of their bodies. (Still, the casting makes it hard to tell the difference between them and the Hispanic homies.)

His baptism by fire comes when ordered to shiv a snitch outside his cell. His subsequent elevation within the gang hierarchy – and accommodations to prison-movie conventions — seem accelerated to fit the film’s parallel storyline, which plays out after he’s paroled. No sooner is Harlon let go than he’s nearly killed in a drive-by shooting and ordered to participate in the transfer of stolen weapons to a Mexican gang. After the attack on his welcome-home party, he drives around L.A. in a borrowed pickup, as if probation comes with a shiny new driver’s license. A brief reunion with his wife (Lake Bell) and teenage son, during which he orders them to forget he ever existed, further tests our empathy. I don’t know if Harlon was modeled after a similarly corrupted convict in real life, but it seems unlikely. Everything else said and done in Shot Caller, however, feels frighteningly real. The causes of recidivism are laid out accurately, as are the reasons some prisoners should never again be allowed to taste freedom. Benjamin Bratt and Omari Hardwick play parole officers who know Harlon is going to wind up back in prison, even before he does. Fans of prison movies should be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy Shot Caller, which comes with commentary and a decent backgrounder. How it stacks up against S. Craig Zahler’s well-received Brawl in Cell Block 99, I couldn’t say, but comparisons are inevitable.

8 Assassins
Although hundreds of movies have been made in the Kingdom of Morocco, it’s the rare film that features homegrown talent in front of and behind the camera. Audiences around the world are familiar, then, with the country’s topographical diversity, sophisticated resorts, exotic markets and remote villages, but mostly as stopping-off points for actors from different cultures. Morocco’s biggest movie studio is located in Ouarzazate, a longtime crossroads town that sits on a plateau just south of the rugged Atlas Mountains, a frequent stand-in for similar locations in biblical Egypt, Judea and Palestine. Marrakesh native Said C. Naciri, writer/director of 8 Assassins (a.k.a., “KanYaMakan” or “Once Upon a Time”), left Morocco years ago to study at the Los Angeles Film School. He returned to take advantage of the same resources exploited by European and American filmmakers for decades. Naciri describes his sophomore feature as “a mixture of El Mariachi, Indiana Jones and Once Upon a Time in the West,” adding “My film is a bit like a UFO in the Moroccan cinematic universe. … Our goal is to offer an irreverent twist to clichéd views of Moroccan culture and landmarks. It is a mixture of a fable and an action-adventure film, whose primary goal is to entertain.” With a meager $2-million budget, the 100-minute-long production was going to be required to make sacrifices somewhere. The biggest holes I could find were in the narrative, which made me wonder if there was something wrong with my DVD player and it was repeating key scenes over and over, again. I’m not even sure that there were eight, or any, assassins.

8 Assassins tells the story of a bank robbery gone wrong. Amir (Mohamed Elachi) steals the loot from his accomplices and, after a nifty chase through the Kasbah, goes into hiding in a village in the desert. After his requests for refuge are laughingly rejected by the locals, Amir falls into the hands of the tyrannical Sharkan (Affif Ben Badra), who immediately sends him to the jail. It’s here that he meets Shahin (Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni) — head of the oldest and most prestigious local tribe — a wise and cunning man, who may or may not be able to lead Amir to what will be his destiny. After Amir does manage to escape and link up with Shahin’s men – as well as, the gorgeous and chase Aida (Sarah Kazemy) – Shahin bides his time in stir. Can the habitual crook redeem himself and win the hand of the fair maiden? Stay tuned. At the point of Amir’s escape and the introduction of a couple of new characters – possibly for comic relief — the story became unfathomable to me. Fortunately, Vitor Rebelo’s cinematography and Rachid Taha’s music compensate for the lapses. I don’t know if 8 Assassins made a cent outside northern Africa – it debuted at festivals in Tangier and Marrakech – but, all things being equal, its value to the Moroccan film industry might turn out to be immeasurable.

God of War: Blu-ray
In this nearly out of control historical epic, Chinese forces led by General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) are up to their ears in Japanese samurai pirates and Chinese smugglers. That’s right … samurai pirates. Too bad, the geniuses at Disney didn’t acquire the North American rights for the premise for their latest “POTC” installment, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which could have used some samurai pirates. The events depicted in Gordan Chan’s God of War actually do have some historical validity. Hung’s character was a respected Chinese general and martial artist during the 16th Century reign of the Jiajing Emperor. He’s best known for countering the wokou pirates along China’s southeastern coast Here, though, the aging Yu has failed for months to defeat the pirates and smugglers, who attack in waves, seemingly out of nowhere. He humbly turns over the reins to the much younger General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo), who’s something of a tactical genius. The lovely and dangerous Lady Qi (Regina Wan) also contributes to the war effort. Like I said, the action is fast, furious and practically non-stop … even when you wish it would slow down a bit.

Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear: Blu-ray
Red Christmas: Blu-ray
The Atoning: Blu-ray
Lilith’s Hell
Escape Room
Flesh of My Flesh: Limited Collectors Edition
House by the Lake
It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween, everywhere you go. It explains the lumping together in today’s column of the dozen, or so, horror pictures released this week. “Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear” was made for television here and theaters overseas. Craven was fresh off The Hills Have Eyes and Linda Blair (The Exorcist) was still considered to be a major draw. Based on a book by Lois Duncan, “Summer of Fear” didn’t steer very far from the formula, which required commercial breaks and only permitted modest scares.  Blair plays Rachel, a teenager whose recently orphaned cousin, Julia (Lee Purcell), comes to live with her family. It doesn’t take long before crazy things begin happening to Linda, her horse and people around her. At the same time, Julia gloms unto Rachel’s dad (Jeremy Slate), who doesn’t mind her flirtatious behavior. Rachel comes to suspect that her cousin may be a witch, because she finds some burnt horse’s hair in her cousin’s drawer, a tooth, a photograph with red blotches painted on her face, and a voodoo charm. Of course, Rachel’s fears mostly are ignored. As made-for-TV thrillers go, especially those from the late-1970s, “Summer of Fear” is about as good as it could be. Also on hand are Carol Lawrence, Macdonald Carey and 21-year-old Fran Drescher. As Craven explains in the commentary, he was happy to get the gig, because it elevated him from the depths of indie genre fare and allowed him to join the Directors Guild. It also includes a new interview with Blair, a poster and stills gallery

According to an article published on Slate in January 2014, approximately 515 movies and television shows referenced abortion in their narratives, between 1916 (Where Are My Children?) and 2014 (Wild, among several others). Not surprisingly, the majority of them were released after Roe v. Wade, in 1973. In the decade leading up to that ruling, such notable titles as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Cardinal (1963), Darling (1965), Alfie, Persona and Masculin Féminin (1966), In the Heat of the Night and Valley of the Dolls (1967), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Cabaret (1972) and “Maude” in one way or another featured female characters dealing with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. As reporter Roxanne Khamsi also pointed out, of the 310 movies and TV episodes that featured abortion as a major plotline or an abortion provider as a main character, “a striking 9 percent portrayed the death of a woman after having — or even deciding on — an abortion.” It’s a number, she argues, is way out of whack with real-world statistics. Still, it’s consistent with the Hays Office’s stated view that death – either through suicide or a pre-existing medical condition – was a preferable option to a woman surviving an abortion … of the back-alley variety or performed by a skilled surgeon. All that said, I’ve never seen the subject addressed in quite the same way as it is in the 2016 Ozploitation thriller, Red Christmas. Dee Wallace plays Diane, a woman determined to reunite her feuding family for the holidays. She couldn’t have anticipated the arrival on her doorstep of the hooded figure who claims to be the child she believes was aborted 20 years earlier. Diane had already delivered a baby with Down’s syndrome and didn’t think she could accommodate another one. During the procedure, after she had been sedated, a bomb was detonated at the clinic by an anti-abortion activist, who somehow managed to rescue and raise the seriously deformed child. When Diane refuses to immediately acknowledge Cletus as her child, he turns into an ax-wielding monster obsessed with avenging her denial. If that qualifies as a spoiler, so be it. I wouldn’t want anyone to rent or stream Red Christmas, expecting to see the Dee Wallace they know from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo, 10 or, especially, “The New Lassie.” Writer/director Craig Anderson specializes in inky black humor and satire, some of which is on full display here, in addition to his ability to choreograph gore, suspense and mayhem. The Artsploitation Blu-ray adds commentary; a fresh and funny interview with Wallace, a deleted scene; and bloopers. BTW: at 68, Wallace still looks great, playing a character at least 20 years her junior.

In his sophomore feature, The Atoning, multihyphenate Michael Williams (OzLand) scores points for originality, maintaining a spooky aura and keeping us guessing until the end as to what’s really happening to his characters. At first glance, Vera, Ray and Sam appear to be a perfectly normal family experiencing the kinds of problems other perfectly normal families face from time to time: a seriously bored child, bickering parents, defective plumbing and a house that sometimes seems to have a mind of its own. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that these concerns are anything but normal: no one seems able to leave the house and no one comes to visit; the boy, Sam (Cannon Bosarge), isn’t allowed to partake in outside activities; the father, Ray (Michael LaCour), is at wit’s end about something; Vera (Virginia Newcomb) considers the leaking faucet to be a sign that her marriage has sprung a leak; and the house is either haunted or some kind of bridge to a parallel universe that mirrors their own existence. Once the ghosts begin to manifest themselves, viewers are encouraged to draw conclusions of their own. By the time Williams is required to come up with answers to our questions, however, he decides to take an altogether different tack, merging subgenres likes cars on an on-ramp to the horror highway. If the shift doesn’t entirely spoil the fun, the new arrivals to the party come from way out in left field.

In the found-footage, movie-within-movie thriller Lilith’s Hell, a pair of filmmakers meet in Rome to solicit the wisdom of the legendary exploitation maven, Ruggero Deodato, as they set out to make movie to rival his magnum opus, Cannibal Holocaust. Fat chance of that happening in real life, but it isn’t the worst conceit I’ve heard lately. After taking over one of their producers’ country home and inviting a couple of pasta-fed bimbos to spend the night, they discover to their horror that they didn’t have to work very hard to come up with a gimmick. The house already was haunted beyond their wildest dreams, so, all they had to do, was set up a wall of security cameras and hit the record button. The evil alluded to in the title refers to the curse imposed on Adam’s demonic first wife by God for refusing to submit to him … or be forced to copulate in the missionary position, depending on which version of Genesis one believes. And, once summoned, she a true bitch from hell. Director Vincenzo Petrarolo and writer Davide Chiara have positioned Lilith’s Hell as a mockumentary, but parsing the difference between farce and satire in the subgenre is next to impossible. The DVD adds interviews with the filmmakers and Deodato.

I always have been led to believe that there are people in Hollywood whose job it is to make sure that no two movies carry the exact same title simultaneously. Viewers have a hard enough time trying to keep track of films with Roman numerals in their names, let alone two movies with the same titles, destined for straight-to-video releases in the same season. For the record, the Escape Room being reviewed here is not the one with Sean Young and Skeet Ulrich. In this one, Christen (Elisabeth Hower) gives her turning-30 boyfriend, Tyler (Evan Williams), six tickets for admission to a club tricked out with individual rooms that can only be entered or exited by solving intricate puzzles. It’s a clever idea, even if the owners don’t provide the guests with cocktails. The endgame involves freeing Christen from a cage, in which she’s been locked — naked and alone — in another room. The activities are being monitored by an anonymous fiend, via an elaborate camera network. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that someone could be killed here. The DVD adds commentary, interviews, bloopers and deleted scenes.

There also are two movies called Flesh of My Flesh. One’s apocalyptic and has zombies. The other isn’t dystopian and probably doesn’t feature the undead. This Flesh of My Flesh is described as a psychotropic thriller “set at the tail end of humanity’s last great war of existence.” A helicopter is sent to rescue survivors in far-flung locations and bring them to a makeshift medical facility, where bizarre experiments involving humanoid tapeworms have taken place. Turns out, the rescue team discovers a strain of zombies who are smarter than the average bear and hunt for their food, rather than wait for it to come to them. Writer/director Edward Martin III employs all sorts of video tricks that conceivably became obsolete in the 1970s, when acid trips were supposed to resemble messy video overlaps, jagged edits and audio/visual static. The ghouls are far more straight-forward in their approach to the end times. The signed and numbered collector’s edition contains a 40-minute making-of featurette; official Zombie Hunter ID card; a bonus card for the Hacked Off card game; four bonus short movies: “Animo Korvoj,” “Come to Us,” “Blood” and “Con of the Dead”; commentary tracks; and a music-only track.

The trouble with Adam Gierasch and writer Josh Burnell’s House by the Lake is that the troubled little girl at the center of the mystery is so annoying that we quickly stop caring if she’s carried away by the boogiemen who live in her brain or lured to the home of the nut-job child molester, who lives in a nearby cottage. Even knowing that wee Emma (Amiah Miller) is probably autistic and suffers from night terrors can’t compensate for her unpredictable behavior and blood-curdling screams when touched. Her mother (Anne Dudek) is a control freak, her nanny (Natasha Bassett) is useless, and father (James Callis) is ineffectual. When the shit really comes down, it’s too late to care.

Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit
ReelGore Collection: Blu-ray
The movies in “Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit” aren’t to be entered into lightly or without a good idea of what to expect. They’re as hardcore as anything in the horror genre and his signature titles, Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2, practically define what it means to be “transgressive.” John Waters proclaimed the former, “the first ever erotic film for necrophiliacs.” German film scholar Kris Vander Lugt describes Nekromantik (1987) as “a mix of elements from several genres: splatter, ‘schlock,’ black comedy, exploitation and softcore pornography. The title itself implies a mix of death and romance. It serves as both an ode to necrophilia and an attack on the perceptions of morality of the bourgeoisie.” The collection also includes the suicide anthology Der Todesking: The Death King (1990) and reality-inspired Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993). Anyone willing to sort through the nastier material should have no trouble finding the artistry in Buttgereit’s work. The movies’ cult status was assured as soon as they were banned by several European countries. The nifty Cult Epics package adds a bonus disc, with the “grindhouse version” of Nekromantik; several short films, including “Hot Love” (1983), “Horror Heaven” (1984) and “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein” (2012); interviews and Q&A’s; soundtracks; music videos; commentaries; photo galleries; the documentary, “Corpse Fucking Art” and other goodies. The first 500 copies sold will add an exclusive 40-page booklet.

Cult Epics is also responsible for the “ReelGore Collection,” which is comprised of four recent genre specimens that, while not definitively transgressive, overflow with blood, gore, anti-social behavior, fiendish killers, sharp tools, women in jeopardy and other giallo– and J-horror inspired characters and situations. None of the titles received much, if any distribution in the U.S. and reviews are limited to the genre press. The title of Luigi Pastore’s entry, Violent Shit (2015), pretty much sums up what buffs can expect here. That is, if one doesn’t consider “shit” to be a pejorative term. It is set in Rome and features the heinous serial killer, Karl the Butcher. Andreas Marschall’s Masks (2011) appears to have borrowed some elements of torture from Takashi Miike’s spine-tingler, Audition. It’s set at an acting school that gives new meaning to the Method discipline. Marc Rohnstock’s The Curse of Doctor Wolffenstein (2015) has a more traditional format, in that the titular monster comes back to life after being killed by townsfolks and spending the last 80 years in his grave. Five teenagers on their way to an out-of-town rave are stranded in the same village, just as the decaying Dr. Wolffenstein wakes up from his long slumber. Matt Farnsworth’s The Orphan Killer (2011) is less easy to pin down thematically, but no less violent. A serial murderer is hellbent on teaching his estranged sister what it means to have family loyalty. Throughout her brutal torture, it becomes clear that she’s inherited some of the same violent tendencies as her brother. Each of the entries adds featurettes and/or interviews with cast and crew.

Three O’Clock High: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Phil Joanou, who’s practically made a career churning out music videos for U2, was encouraged to make his feature debut by no less a Hollywood god than executive producer Steven Spielberg, for whom he’d directed a couple of episodes of “Amazing Stories.” If that idea hadn’t worked, Spielberg probably could have turned to DP and “lighting consultant” Barry Sonnenfield, who’d yet to helm his first feature. Three O’Clock High, which borrowed its plot from High Noon, also features other well-known names: executive producer Aaron Spelling, composers Tangerine Dream and adviser Robert Zemeckis. Despite the respective pedigrees, the movie flopped. John Hughes’ films were all the rage in Hollywood and the nod to Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western probably sailed over the heads of its intended audience. Three O’Clock High recently was picked up by the master archivists at Shout!Factory, who worked their magic on the Blu-ray and added fresh bonus features. In it, the school’s new kid, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), looks as if he just got of the army and is rumored to have a violent history to match. Reporter Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) has been tasked with getting to the bottom of it for the school paper. Instead, he accidentally angers Buddy, who demands relief at exactly 3 p.m., in the school’s parking lot. Jerry spends most of the day wondering if he’ll be alive after the sun sets. The disc arrives with Joanou’s commentary; interviews with the director, screenwriters Richard Christian Matheson and Tom Szollosi (“The A-Team”), and costume designer Jane Ruhm; and a stills gallery.

Meat: Blu-ray
With a population of slightly more than 4.8 million people, and a land mass of approximately 103,483 widely scattered square miles, New Zealand is a country whose economy depends on the food products it exports to countries that can’t sate the appetites of its own consumers. In 2014, agricultural products made up 55 percent of the value of all the country’s exports, with lumber a distant second at 7 percent. The numbers help explain why David White’s informative Meat can’t be viewed in the same light as documentaries made here, rightly condemning the inhumane practices allowed corporate farmers, crowded feed lots and rapid-fire meat packers and processors. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s muck-raking novel, “The Jungle,” exposed exploitative labor and unsanitary conditions in the U.S. meat-packing industry. It caused a public uproar that contributed, in part, to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. As the population migrated from rural America to industrial-based metropolitan areas, those laws and enforcement of consumer-protection legislation was allowed to slide. A spate of films, released in the early-2000s, including Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Food Inc., King Corn, Food Matters, Frankensteer and “Peter Jennings Reporting: How to Get Fat Without Really Trying,” demanded of Americans that they rethink the way they eat. Restaurants made sure diners knew that the chickens on their menus had once enjoyed free-range status – Chipotle offered burritos made of free-range pigs – and the fish caught for their enjoyment were of the sustainable variety. Vegans weren’t buying any of it, of course, vowing never to order anything with a face.

I mention this because Meat is a documentary about a handful of people who supply meat for consumers around the world and a hunter who only eats what he kills. It isn’t meant to counter any of the arguments made in the aforementioned films or make a case for New Zealand exports. If anything, it serves as a reminder of a time when family farms provided everything Americans needed to eat; wildlife wasn’t hunted to the point of extinction; and fishing vessels weren’t large enough to process, freeze and store the fish caught using deep-sea trawls and gill nets. The chicken, pig and sheep farmers we meet don’t rely on volume sales and growth-enhancement devices to make a living, and look the animals in their faces before they’re led to slaughter. As such, Meat reminds me of the school trips that those of us who grew up in the Midwest would make to farms, when cows were milked by hand and chickens weren’t raised in cages. The solitary hunter, who believes everyone needs to be educated about their food, is YouTube and social-media personality Josh James (a.k.a., the Kiwi Bushman). Even if Meat doesn’t sway a single vegan, it’s served its purpose.

Mr. Gaga
It might have been a good idea for Icarus Films, the North American distributors of Mr. Gaga, to consider changing the title of its intriguing documentary, which has nothing to do with Lady Gaga or Queen’s hit song, “Radio Ga Ga.” The closest I could come to a connection between Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, and the silly-sounding word is an Israeli variation on dodgeball, called ga-ga, which is played in a “pit” shaped like an octagon or hexagon. The title derives from a movement language and pedagogy developed by Naharin, during his time with the company. It has defined Batsheva’s training and continues to characterize Israeli contemporary dance. While nearly impossible to define, gaga is as identified with Bathsheba as any visual conceit attributed to Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Bob Fosse or Pilobolus, for that matter. In a 2007 New York Times article, Naharin’s signature style was described as being “distinguished by stunningly flexible limbs and spines, deeply grounded movement, explosive bursts and a vitality that grabs a viewer by the collar.” It can inspire dance that is alternately dramatic, comic, inspirational and patriotic. In Israel, where religious fundamentalists stick their noses into everyone’s business, Naharin’s decisions have also proven to be controversial. Filmed over a period of eight years, Tomer Heymann’s documentary mixes home movies and archival material, with intimate rehearsal footage and concert footage. As pretentious as “gaga” may sound, the dancing itself is accessible to all audiences. The DVD adds extended interviews and scenes.

Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago: Special Edition
Say what you will about the band Chicago, but the truth remains: it’s sold more singles and albums than almost any group in history and has remained viable as a commercial and creative entity for 50 years. The self-described “rock-and-roll band with horns” began as a cover act, before being allowed to perform its own blend of rock, R&B and blue-eyed soul, as Chicago Transit Authority. After moving to L.A., it performed on a regular basis at the Whisky a Go Go and became the opening act for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Its first release, a double album, went platinum, spinning off several enduring hits, and the group was nominated for a Grammy, as 1969 Best New Artist of the Year. So, what in God’s holy name prevented Chicago – the name was changed, so as not to be sued by the city’s archaic mass-transit system – from being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2016? There really is no good answer to that question, except to point to other essential bands, singers and musicians who’ve been snubbed by the industry goons who control such things. FilmRise’s nearly two-hours-long retrospective, “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago: Special Edition,” spends most of its time describing – through interviews and concert footage – the group’s incredible rise to the top of the charts and emergence as a stadium attraction. Soon enough, the narrative inevitably turns its view to the band’s Rocky Mountain High period, clash of egos, loss of personnel and inspiration, emergence as a classic-rock staple, and changes in management. The roller-coaster ride wouldn’t end for another 30 years, with the induction ceremony. In all that time, Chicago never stopped selling records and filling venues. It’s all here.

TV-to-DVD
Starz: American Gods: Season 1 Blu-ray
NBC: The Good Place: The Complete First Season
PBS/Amazon: Masterpiece: The Collection: Blu-ray
History: America: Promised Land Blu-ray
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 10, Volume 1
Comedy Central: Lewis Black: Black to the Future
At first, second and, even, third glance, Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel “American Gods” would appear to be as easy to adapt into a mini-series as “Finnegan’s Wake,” “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Absalom, Absalom!” In 2011, a decade after the book was first published in the U.S., by William Morrow, the author was given an opportunity to tweak the original, with a supplementary “author’s preferred text.” It added an additional 12,000 words.  Six years later, the London-based Folio Society published a special collector’s edition of “American Gods,” with corrections to the author’s preferred text version. Morrow published a coloring-book version, to coincide with the launch of the Starz mini-series and, next year, Dark Horse plans to publish a three-part graphic-novel adaptation. No wonder it’s taken so long for the 500-plus-page novel – or, at least, the beginning chapters — to be adapted for the small screen. Even Gaiman was unable to decide how the final version should read … or look. It explains why he gave executive producers Bryan Fuller (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) plenty of latitude to translate “American Gods” into an eight-part mini-series. To take the easy way out and describe it as Lynchian simplifies what Gaiman, Fuller and Green have accomplished in this exceedingly ambitious and undeniably trippy entertainment. (I don’t, however, recommend dropping a hit of acid before checking it out.)

The most succinct summarization I’ve read, describes it thusly: “‘American Gods’ is a place where gods—old and new, good and evil—walk among humans; where magic can revive the dead; and where a storm is brewing … one that threatens to bring about a war for the very soul of America.” Close enough. Each episode opens with a flashback to the period in history when the gods of Europe, Africa and the Middle East – the Queen of Sheba, a leprechaun, Odin, Chernobog, Anubis, Jinn, Jesus — first made their way to North America, in the rucksacks carried by several generations of immigrants. The new gods carry such names as Media, Mr. World, Technical Boy and a updated version of Vulcan. Navigating both the netherworld that separates the gods and material world of contemporary America are the con artist, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane); former convict and Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle); Shadow’s dead wife and revenant, Laura Moon (Emily Browning); and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a leprechaun who loses his powers when Laura ingests his lucky charm. McShane is, as usual, deliciously evil. Here, though, he graciously shares the spotlight with such world-class actors – some appearing in multiple roles — as Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Corbin Bernsen, Cloris Leachman, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Dane Cook, Fionnula Flanagan, Kristin Chenoweth and Jeremy Davies. The production values are outstanding, as well. The Blu-ray adds several audio commentaries and short making-of pieces, as well as a third disc dedicated to far longer featurettes on the project’s genesis, production and characters. While it’s not for everyone, adventurous viewers should thoroughly enjoy and savor “American Gods.”  The series has been renewed for a second season.

One of the questions raised in “American Gods” is “What happens when we die?” It’s the same query addressed in the NBC sitcom fantasy, “The Good Place,” starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. By comparison to most network comedies, the series is overpopulated with oddball characters and complicated storylines. Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a perky blond saleswoman from Arizona, who’s killed in a bizarre accident involving shopping carts and a truck. A case of mistaken identity finds her in an exclusive afterlife utopia, the Good Place, which is replete with yogurt shops, weird looking houses and people who, in life, earned admission to the paradisiacal suburb of heaven by being good and doing better. The show was created by Michael Schur, executive producer of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation.” Danson is well-cast as Michael, the architect of the Good Place and arbiter of taste and behavior among the citizenry. The DVD adds commentaries, a table read and background material. “The Good Place” already has launched its second-season run.

The “Masterpiece” presentation, “The Collection,” is the rare PBS mini-series that doesn’t encourage binging. (It’s a co-production of Amazon Prime Instant Video and BBC Worldwide.) Boiled to its essence, the eight-part mini-series is a family drama, set in a post-war Paris fashion house still trying to recover from the country’s post-WWII economic doldrums. The business is spearheaded by clashing members of the Sabine family – played by Brit actors Tom Riley (“Da Vinci’s Demons”), Richard Coyle (“Coupling”), Frances de la Tour (“Vicious”) and American, Mamie Gummer (Cake) – whose nationalities tend to dilute the Parisian setting, which worked pretty well for two recent films about Coco Chanel. Thrown in as diversions are a murder, a missing infant and saboteur. The fashions represent little more than window dressing. Still, fans of prime-time soaps should find the proceeding sufficiently sinister to keep them interested. And, being a British production, viewers should expect to see some nudity — not all of it female – deemed inappropriate for PBS affiliates.

The history of immigration in the United States extends back tens of thousands of years, to when isolated groups of hunter-gatherers tracked herds of large herbivores from Eurasia to Alaska, over a land and/or ice bridge across the Bering Strait. The Paleo-Indians’ pursuit of tolerable weather and a year-long supply of food eventually led them south, past the receding Ice Age glaciers, into what today is known as the Pacific Northwest. Some of the immigrants would travel further south, all the way to Patagonia, while others sought the American Dream in other directions. History Channel’s comprehensive treatise on immigration, “America: Promised Land,” begins with these Native American explorers and ends with the current flow of Asians and Mexicans across our borders. If I were King of the United States, I’d insist that the three-hour documentary become part of the curriculum of all public and private schools. Anyone running for office not only would be required to watch it, but also tested on its lessons.

A lot of time would pass before the next wave of immigrants arrived from Spain and England, in pursuit of religious freedom, gold, fertile fields and forests, peace and, of course, safe places to raise their children. Contrary to what President Trump would have us believe, nothing has changed in that regard since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (Unless one throws the Fountain of Youth into the mix.) “America: Promised Land” approaches the subject in chronological order, through enhanced maps and graphics and interviews with the descendants of immigrants who chronicled their experiences in letters. Indeed, in one fascinating section, the producers make the point that the introduction of the adhesive postage stamp, in the 1850s, and creation an international postal network, were as crucial to promoting immigration trends as famines, natural disasters and the discovery of gold. While emphasizing the contributions to their new homes made by immigrants, the producers couldn’t help but explore such deterrents as racism, xenophobia and fear mongering. The Statue of Liberty notwithstanding, the only times that the “huddled masses” were truly welcome here was when we needed them to work our fields and factories, or fight our wars. The families of Chinese laborers who risked their lives for the completion of the transcontinental railroad, were made to feel especially unwelcome afterwards. If the truth sometimes hurts, it also can comfort, invigorate and inspire Americans to recall what brought their ancestors here, in the first place.

On this half-season collection, “Ancient Aliens: Season 10, Volume 1,” the venerable show’s producers expose viewers to even more evidence of extraterrestrial intervention on Earth … as if the takeover of the White House by a giant, carrot-topped mutant weren’t sufficient proof. As near as I can figure, however, the episodes represent the output from the first half of Season 12, which ran from April 27, 2017, to June 16, 2017. Maybe, they’re counting on the fingers of Martians. Among the oddities are an aluminum object that resembles the foot of a lunar lander, but inexplicably dates to over 40,000 years ago; a 1,000-year-old mask, discovered in India, that looks identical to the face of a grey alien; and newly uncovered records, from Russia, that indicate an ancient rocket was discovered in Kiev … in 1948. (Feel free to add your own exclamation points.)

I never tire watching Lewis Black work himself into a frenzy of righteous indignation and outright rage against the political machine. Maybe, that’s because I share the same antagonism toward elected officials intent on maintaining the status quo, while accepting every penny thrown their way by the NRA and other lobbyists, and breaking every promise made in their campaigns. A good tongue-lashing is the least they deserve. “Lewis Black: Black to the Future” was taped for airing on Comedy Central at a time when the presidential primaries were still a target-rich environment for killer commentary and rants. I can only imagine what he has to say about President Trump now that he’s been in office for 10 months. Also included on the DVD is a 50- minute bonus program, “The Rant Is Due: Live From Napa.” In it, Black answers questions from the audiences, as relayed by his friend and fellow comic Kathleen Madigan. The format allows him to relax a bit, while fielding queries about a variety of subjects, not just politics.

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“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster

“One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing, is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form.”
~ Lindy West