MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Letter From An Unknown Woman, Despicable Me 3, Crucifixion, Maurizio Cattelan, A New Leaf, Silent Night and more

Letter From an Unknown Woman: Blu-ray

Letter From an Unknown Woman is an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama I might have watched for a few minutes on television long ago and abandoned in favor of a baseball game. Black-and-white films, no matter how opulent or romantic, never looked the way they were supposed to on television. Even when Laserdiscs and TCM came, analog sets couldn’t do justice to the director and cinematographer’s shared vision. Scratches were left in disrepair, just as fuzz and other artifacts clung to prints as if intended. The digital revolution made restoration miracles possible, transforming tired old movies into the classics they actually are. High-resolution screens made everything even better. Even so, I might not have accepted the challenge of watching Letter From an Unknown Woman – its title is as inviting as a warm beer or cold cup of coffee – if I hadn’t already seen the Criterion Collection editions of Max Ophüls’ La ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de … and Lola Montès, all of which were made after he returned to Europe after World War II. After absorbing the lessons dispensed in the bonus features, it was easy to appreciate this widely admired film from his surprisingly unproductive Hollywood sojourn. Now, at least, I knew what to look for in the upgraded Olive Signature release. The first thing I noted was Joan Fontaine, whose unadorned beauty escaped me in other films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion. The 30-year-old actress plays the same woman, Lisa, at three different stages in her life, looking radiant in all of them. Indeed, she reminded me very much of Laura Linney, who, at 53, still looks as if she could play recent graduates.

Ophüls directed Letter From an Unknown Woman from a screenplay by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig. It opens with the famous concert pianist and world-class cad Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) offering ominous goodbyes to his servant, who’s just handed him a letter from Lisa, written on her death bed. It is intended to remind him not only of the unknown woman’s place in his life, but also the shit he’s put Lisa through without giving her a second thought. They had met three times previously, none of them fixed in his memory. During their second encounter, Lisa and Stefan fell in lust with each other, treating Vienna as their personal love nest. After lying to her about returning after a concert tour, Lisa delivers the son he won’t know exists until its too late to do either of them any good. The third time they meet, years later, their eyes meet across a concert hall, which she exits in near panic. Even though he’s enchanted by her, Stefan doesn’t recognize the mother of his child. Lisa is married to a wealthy older man, who accepts the boy as his adopted son, but her obsession with Stefan drives her into his uncaring arms for the last time. Now, however, his absence of feelings for Lisa backfires on him, leading years later to a duel with her husband. It’s here that the movie sharply deviates from Zweig’s book, but in a patently Hollywood sort of way. In 1992, Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The pristine 4K restoration of the black-and-white presentation makes it easy to identify Ophüls’ trademark touches, including a gliding camera, baroque imagery and lush atmospherics. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher; “A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath,” an interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls; “An Independent Woman: Changing Sensibilities in a Post-War Hollywood,” with Professor Dana Polan; “Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter From an Unknown Woman,” with cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams; “Letter From an Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph,” a visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher; and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Despicable Me 3: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom: Blu-ray
It isn’t difficult to see why Universal’s Despicable Me / Minions franchise continues to grow – globally, at least – while other animated series have begun to run out of juice. Besides the fact that youngsters relate easier to protagonists their own size, the Minions think, act and move like kids on a 90-minute sugar rush. Neither does the creative team at Illumination Entertainment force viewers to be overly concerned about the kinds of things that drive critics crazy: unwieldy plots, disjointed action sequences, annoying sound effects and cookie-cutter characters. It’s as if directors Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon, alongside writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, live across the street from public elementary schools and study the behavior of unruly children during recess and lunch breaks. By capturing that level of anarchic energy, they’ve been able to play directly to the munchkins in all of us. Throw in a dastardly villain, or two, and supporting characters whose only purpose is to take some weight off the Minions’ barely-there shoulders, and you have a movie that relates to audiences around the world. And, that’s kind of the point. Although the third installment performed better at the domestic box office than the 2010 original, it gave up $100 million from tally registered by the 2013 sequel. The thing is, though, the budgets for the four films in the franchise have remained within the $70 million to $80 million range, which is nothing compared to those allotted the Shrek and Cars sequels. Like Minions, Despicable Me 3 surpassed the billion-dollar barrier on the strength of foreign revenues of $823.4 million and $767.8 million, respectively. And, of course, those figures don’t take into account DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, toys, video games and theme-park attractions. Not that the story makes any conceivable difference, it’s worth noting that Felonious Gru (Steve Carell), who’s now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is summoned by his long-lost twin brother, Dru (also Carell), to the land of Freedonia. (No, not that one.) Dru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have just foiled a plan by supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) to steal the world’s largest diamond. The former child star grew up to become obsessed with the character he played in the ’80s and is hell-bent on world domination. Dru and Lucy’s failure to seize the diamond and neutralize Bratt prompts their ouster from the AVL and the subsequent loss of most of their Minions, when they refuse to return to the dark side. Dru will help Gru deal with Bratt and the diamond, but for reasons that are substantially less than honorable. Suffice it to say that Bratt is a far more formidable foe than they imagined, but not infallible. The denouement leaves the door open for Despicable Me 4 and Minions 2. Besides the reference to Duck Soup, the triquel pays homage to the Pink Panther series. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, introduced by Dana Gaier (Edith Gru); the Mini-Movie, “The Secret Life of Kyle”; several background and making-of featurettes; a sing-along and music video; and visitors guide to Freedonia.

It would be difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to be the subject of an animated feature than a character based on the boy who grew up to be H.P. Lovecraft, but that’s exactly what Canadian comic-book writer Sean Patrick O’Reilly has given us in Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom and Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom. They represent two-thirds of the graphic-novel series created by Bruce Brown and Dwight L. MacPherson, and inspired by the author’s Necronomicon. The volume is a fictional grimoire – a textbook of magic – that appears in Lovecraft’s stories, as well as the books and movies of his followers. In 1897, young Howard (Kiefer O’Reilly) is taken by his mother to see his father, Winfield (Tyler Nicol), who is locked away in an asylum. (This representation is based on fact.) His doctors say Winfield is too deranged to meet with them, but Howard wanders off, anyway, to find his cell. Mixed into his father’s ravings are instructions as to where to find his copy of the Necronomicon and reasons why it must be destroyed. After going against his father’s wishes by reading it, Howard slips through a portal leading to another dimension. The journey to the Frozen Kingdom of R’yleh is fraught with danger, in the form of monsters and other threats to his safety. Fortunately, Howard befriends a hideous creature he names Spot, who helps him through the mess. A year after “Frozen Kingdom” concludes, with the defeat of the evil King Abdul Alhazred, the second part of the trilogy begins. In it, O’Reilly demands that Howard pass through the portal leading to “Undersea Kingdom” and conquer the demons that have captured his family and are holding them hostage. Additionally, Howard must take back the Necronomicon and prevent the impending wrath of Cthulhu. Lovecraft buffs will recognize these references, even if Winfield is a dead ringer for Edgar Allan Poe and Howard looks as if he stepped out of a cartoon by Charles Addams. Working against the movie is animation that wouldn’t pass muster in 1985, let alone 2017, and a family-friendly approach that’s meant to introduce young readers to Lovecraft, but effectively sucks the goosebumps out of his work. Somehow, O’Reilly was able to lure a voicing cast that includes Christopher Plummer (Go), Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) to supplement members of his family.

The Crucifixion Blu-ray
Although it wouldn’t be fair to say, “If you’ve seen one exorcism, you’ve seen them all,” the movies about demonic possession I’ve watched all bear an undeniable likeness to William Friedkin’s still frightening, The Exorcist (1973). Likewise, the documentaries describing the ancient rite and the Vatican’s role in preserving it. Fact is, all the world’s prominent religions have established procedures for expelling evil forces from a possessed person’s body, once the typical manifestations are recognized, and some priests have even been able to identify the specific fallen angel they’re attempting to extract from the poor soul’s corporeal body. Even today, people of extreme faith will blame Satan for such physical and mental deviations as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist on a widely reported case of suspected possession, which occurred in 1949. Because the Vatican has kept careful records of exorcisms authorized by the Church, and fans of The Exorcist have bought into the mythology, journalists and other skeptics have been unable to routinely dismiss reports of such cases. The coverage has given screenwriters a leg up while scratching for ideas for movies involving demonic possession, exorcisms and houses built over gateways to hell. Also based on an actual case, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), kick-started the possession subgenre, just as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) benefited from advances in special effects to raise the bar on haunted domiciles. Early buzz surrounding The Crucifixion could be traced to screenwriters’ Carey and Chad Hayes’ success with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, producer Peter Safran’s links to those films and the Annabelle series, and French director Xavier Gens’ previous genre hits, Frontière(s), Hitman and Divide.

The Crucifixion is closely based on the botched exorcism of Maricica Irina Cornici, a mentally ill nun at the Romanian Orthodox monastery of Tanacu, in Vaslui County, Romania. She was killed during a days-long exorcism conducted by 29-year-old priest Daniel Petre Corogeanu, who, with the help of four other nuns, chained her to a cross with her hands and feet bound, and her arms at a perpendicular angle to her body. They carried her into the church on the crucifix and prayed over her writhing body for three days. Finally, they stuffed a towel into Sister Maricica’s mouth to temper her outbursts. It killed her. An autopsy determined that she died of dehydration, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen. The case was widely publicized in the Romanian media and, following a lengthy trial, the perpetrators were convicted of her murder. To this fact-based foundation, The Crucifixion adds an overly enthusiastic American reporter, Nicole (Sophie Cookson), who somehow convinces her editor that readers of the New York Sentinel will welcome an investigation into the faraway case. The Hayes’ script calls for Nicole to be an atheist, in addition to a dedicated seeker of the truth. Because viewers won’t have any trouble predicting what happens to her during the course of the narrative, The Crucifixion suffers from predictability and a heavy reliance on jump-scares to maintain the drama. On the plus side, the decision to shoot the movie on location in Romania’s picturesque countryside pays real dividends. Appropriately, then, Cookson is the only actor who looks out of place in the rustic setting and an easy target for the demons’ wrath and curses of local Gypsies, who, of course, are feared and reviled by the locals.

Of Horses and Men
When it comes to movies from Iceland, it’s best not to take the summaries found on the back covers literally. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to capture in words the twists and turns the story is likely to take or the quirky personalities of the characters you’re about to meet. The common elements in all the Icelandic movies I’ve seen is a keen attention to the island’s diverse scenic beauty, the mortifying effects of chronic alcoholism and the toll taken by having to cope with too many hours of sunlight and darkness every six months. While Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík) is probably the best known and most representative of the country’s filmmakers, relative newcomers Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson (Heartstone), Erlingur Thoroddsen (Rift), Grímur Hákonarson (Rams), Dagur Kári (Noi the Albino), Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam/Contraband) and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson (Paris of the North) have followed nimbly in his footsteps. Written and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, Of Horse and Men focuses on the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals in an Icelandic farming village, miles away from the nearest convenience mart. Along the way, a few Swedes, Spaniards, Germans and Russians are introduced to interact with the locals. Of Horses and Men opens with a vignette so replete with dark humor and conflicting emotions that you’d think it would overwhelm everything that follows it. Horse lovers from near and far await the appearance of erudite Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) as he rides his splendid white mare to a local inn, employing the “flying pace” gait unique to native Icelandic steeds. Not realizing the mare’s in heat, their journey home is interrupted by a black stallion so randy that it can’t be contained by a mere gate in the fence. When it catches up to Kolbeinn’s horse, which is patiently awaiting the coupling, all he can do is hang on for dear life while they do what comes naturally. This takes place in full view of the startled innkeepers – one of whom appears to be jealous of the mounted mare – and binocular-bearing tourists. What happens next is totally unexpected, heart-breaking and a necessary element of the continuing narrative. It’s followed by several interrelated segments that seemingly unspool from the point-of-view of the horses, although their demeanor is largely ambivalent. In a very real sense, it mirrors the disregard shown the characters by the surrounding ocean, mountains and pastures. Of Horses and Men was Iceland’s official submission to the Oscars’ 2014 Best Foreign Language Film category. It didn’t make the cut. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s amazing cinematography, which was able to capture the intimacy of life in the hamlet, without compromising the majesty of the setting, is nothing short of brilliant.

M.F.A.: Blu-ray
Now that celebrity rape has supplanted date rape as a hot-button topic for debate and trigger for activism, there’s the temptation to treat the events portrayed in M.F.A. as old news, instead of unfinished business. It’s the likely position of director Natalia Leite (Bare) and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick (“Makeup Call”) that the rich and famous bozos being accused of sexual abuse are no different than the frat boys and jocks who’ve never been taught that “no means no.” Because M.F.A. debuted last march at SXSW, it would be a stretch to draw more parallels between the movie and L’affaire Weinstein. It’s now possible that what started as a feminist exploitation flick – femploitation, if you will – might benefit from the continuing parade of headline-grabbing revelations. As far as I can tell, though, M.F.A. only played a few festivals before going into the VOD, Internet and DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. Although she cut her teeth on movies starring and/or directed by her parents — Clint Eastwood (True Crime) and Frances Fisher (The Stars Fell on Henrietta) — 24-year-old Francesca Eastwood only began climbing the Hollywood ladder for real in 2015, with a supporting role in Final Girl … that is, unless one counts gigs on the short-lived reality show “Mrs. Eastwood & Company” and being chosen Miss Golden Globes, in 2013, by the HFPA. Even so, Eastwood is arguably the most recognizable actor in Leite and McKendrick’s revenge/vigilante thriller. In it, she plays a graduate student in the art department of a small SoCal college. Timid and only a middling artist, Noelle accepts an invitation from a fellow student to attend a party. Even before her first beer loses its bubbles, she’s given a quick tour of his bedroom and thrown to the bed, turned on tummy and viciously raped. I’m not sure if a male director could have caught the same degree of anguish and embarrassment on Noelle’s face as the jerk quickly pulls up his trousers, leaves the room and she’s forced to perform the “walk of shame” ritual before the party guests. When Noelle confides in her neighbor, Skye (McKendrick), and the school’s social worker, she’s basically told to suck it up and try to forget about the incident. Police had ignored Skye when she complained about being raped in the same way, as did another woman who was attacked at a frat party by three football players. A group of campus women meet on the scourge of date rape, without offering Noelle any solace or advice, except to use nail polish that can distinguish when a drink has been spiked. Without giving anything away, Noelle then embarks on a mission to avenge her rape and those of the other women. With each ensuing murder, Noelle grows stronger as an independent woman and artist. As such, M.F.A. feels a lot like a cross between Death Wish and Ms .45, but without the same sustained bite. There’s also a palpable absence of the kind of tension that accompanies the best vigilante thrillers, including Francesca’s father Clint’s Dirty Harry. Still, it isn’t like we’ve seen the last of the Ms. Eastwood, if only genre flicks. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

Docs-to-DVD
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back
Angry Inuk
Karl Marx City
The War Show
Gun Runners
In no artistic discipline is it more difficult to separate the charlatans from the visionaries than the one associated with cheese-and-wine gallery openings, tony auctions and hyperbolic coverage in the Sunday New York Times. Learned men and women have probably debated the question of what makes a painting, sketch or sculpture “art” since the first Homo sapiens began decorating the walls of caves with naturalistic renditions of bison, aurochs and deer, instead of handprints and graffiti left by their former tenants, the Neanderthals. And, while every succeeding artistic movement since the Renaissance has been met with doubt and derision, it wasn’t until the Dadaists, Abstractionists and Pop Artists that collectors and curators raised the ante in this high-stakes game of chicken. Maura Axelrod’s provocative documentary, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, leaves the question of what is and isn’t art to the eyes of the beholder, while seeming to argue that any manmade creation that raises the pulse and/or ire of those same beholders should be considered artistic, at least. And, once the price tag for such works enters the five-figure range – and more — it doesn’t matter what they’re called. Italian hyperrealist Maurizio Cattelon has been delighting and confounding observers of his work, ever since 1989, when he hung a sign reading, “Torno subito” — “Be back soon” – on the door of the gallery hosting his first solo exhibition, citing an absence of ideas for the show. If politicians were as candid about their own lack of substantive thoughts, the world would be a better and more peaceful.

The art world, though, abhors such vacuums, so, when, a few years later, Cattelan declared himself open for business, it beat a path to his door. If the artist was happy to finally be recognized, it wasn’t always visible in his alternately disruptive, disrespectful and self-deprecating work. Unlike the site-specific public art of Christo (“Wrapped Reichstag”), topiary and stainless-steel art of Jeff Koons (“Puppy”), monumental sculptures of Richard Serra (“Tilted Arc”) and architecture of Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), which are easy on the eyes, at least, Cattelon’s most notorious pieces thumb their noses at art establishment. Axelrod’s film offers more than the usual number of specimens for our perusal, as well as allowing for contrasting opinions of curators, critics, peers, ex-girlfriends and passersby. Among the most controversial are his sculpture of Pope John Paul II, struck down by a meteorite; a rendering of Adolf Hitler, in the scale of a young boy, kneeling in a pose of supplication; an effigy of a serene and barefoot John F. Kennedy, lying in state; sculptures created from taxidermized horses; Pinocchio floating facedown in a fountain on the rotunda of the Guggenheim/New York; and a functioning 18-karat-gold toilet that some might compare to Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, “Fountain.” (Or, the plumbing in the Presidential Suite of the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, for that matter.) Everything in the film is pointed toward Cattelan’s eye-popping 2011 retrospective at the Guggenhein, which filled the entirely of its atrium. Fans of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop are the target audience for “Be Right Back,” but anyone who’s ever pondered the question, “What is art?” – especially teens and art students – will find something of value here.

Those of us who routinely fall asleep in front of our televisions are consciously or subliminally exposed to hundreds of infomercials and PSAs pleading for donations to one cause or another, using distressed animals or starving children as bait for their emotional appeals. No effort is made to present the downside of such generosity, if any, or demonstrate how donations might not make it to those who need the money most. It takes dogged reporting and incorruptible accountant to determine if donors and victims are being ripped … not the television station on which the PSAs appear. Among the more memorable of these tear-jerking commercials is the one depicting the annual seat hunts in southeastern Canada, during which impossibly cute baby harp seals – “whitecoats,” if you will – are clubbed to death and stripped of their pelts. Only a monster could be left unmoved by the sight of the trails of red blood left on the white snow after the individual beatings. All it took for viewers to donate money was the face of a baby seal staring back at them and predictions of when its pelt might be headed. Thanks to commercials, the Newfoundland “hunts” are far more stringently monitored and controlled by the Canadian government. Moreover, sales of clothing and other byproducts made from the seal have been prohibited in many western countries. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s provocative documentary Angry Inuk begins where those infomercials left off by demonstrating how the boycotts and embargoes continue to impact Canada’s Inuit population – not the club-wielding white men — which traditionally has relied on the seal hunt for food, clothing, commerce and rites of passage. The people we meet here don’t participate in the harp-seal culling, which takes place hundreds of miles from their homes. Even so, the boycotts and sanctions directly impacted what they could command for the skins of ring seals, oils and other by-products. Sales also plummeted in reaction to a reduced demand for coats, boots and gloves made from the skin. It got to the point where the money a hunter received didn’t even cover gas for his snow mobile, let alone food, fuel, clothing and other household necessities not provided by the hunts. With no other source of income, residents have been forced to move to villages and cities, where, at best, they could make a subsistence living or be closer to government safety nets. Arnaquq-Baril describes how a new generation of Inuit, conversant with social media and armed with a burning desire to protect their families and threatened customs, are directly challenging what they believe is a disingenuous campaign by anti-sealing groups. Among others things the activists stress that the northern Inuit don’t slaughter the harp seals and, even if they did join the hunt, the animals have never been designated an endangered species. We follow a group of students to meetings of the European Union, which initiated bans on skins and other products after being confronted by delegates from Greenpeace, PETA and other well-financed groups. They handed out fliers and pamphlets, while their opponents provided delegates with dolls and trinkets before each debate/ The larger question, however, pertains to how much abuse should governments be allowed to inflict on Inuit and other First Nation communities, who already are suffering from the effects of unchecked global warming, limitations on whaling, the proliferation of oil rigs, effects of pollution on fish and wildlife, and, now, plans for humongous storage bladders to contain oil before it can be piped south or loaded onto tankers. They can’t afford to hire lobbyists to cajole or bribe politicians, let alone compete with images of fuzzy baby seals on televisions around the world.

Another new documentary from Film Movement/Bond360 echoes issues raised in The Tower and other films and mini-series set in East Germany before the re-unification. In Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s truly chilling Karl Marx City, disturbing facts about everyday life in the “workers’ paradise” are related like contemporary versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Epperlein grew up in the titular city, renamed after World War II for the author of “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.” The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (a.k.a., Communist Party) conceived Karl-Marx-Stadt as a showcase of productivity, prosperity and the supremacy of the East German proletariat. Almost immediately after the Wall began to crumble, the name was changed back to Chemnitz and statues demolished. Epperlein grew up there, but moved to the U.S. when the ban against traveling to the west was lifted. In 1999, her father mailed her a cryptic farewell note, burned all his photos and letters, then hanged himself from a tree behind the old family home. He was 57. Karl Marx City not only is a personal investigation into a family tragedy, but also into a regime that mistook repression and paranoia for equality and freedom. Soon after the GDR collapsed, Epperlein’s father received a series of anonymous letters that threated to expose him as a former undercover Stasi agent. Dismissed by the family at the time, the accusations would serve as a starting point for her search for the truth, whatever it turned out to be. The film, which resembles a black-and-white espionage thriller from the early 1960s, features interviews with her mother and twin brothers, plus visits to the Stasi archives in Berlin and Chemnitz. She meets historians, scholars, former spies and informers, and experts on suicide. Even though Stasi headquarters was looted, she was given access to dossiers, films and recordings pertaining to her father and life in her neighborhood, growing up. They’re simply the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg.

Until it became too dangerous for most western journalists to cover the war in Syria from the front lines, the escalation of hostilities was laid out in clearly defined chapters. At first, it was taken for granted that the cruel and corrupt Assad regime would fall in line with other governments overturned in the Arab Spring of 2011. Westerners long accepted Bashar al-Assad’s role as a despot, agent for state-sponsored terrorism and protector of war criminals, without fully appreciating his ability to leverage the support of the Syrian middle- and upper-classes, Iran’s Shia state and Russia’s expansionist agenda to his advantage. The longer the Americans and European nations waited to develop a plan either to eliminate Assad or support the resistance, the easier it became for Assad’s military to contain the uprising to urban centers outside Damascus. Knowing that Vladimir Putin would ignore the vicious barrages of rebel-held centers and starvation of trapped citizens, Assad was able to consolidate his hold on war-weary Syrians and imprison anyone suspected of opposing it. Frustration caused resistance groups to splinter and fight amongst each other, leaving a vacuum easily filled by ISIS and other Sunni fanatics. The crisis caused by the large number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, was far easier for the media to cover. What will happen now that ISIS has been displaced remains to be seen. Obadiah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s shattering documentary, The War Show, closely follows that outline of events in Syria, but from a point-of-view unlike that of other films about the Arab Spring. Like so many other Syrians, Zytoon embraced the calls for democracy and felt confident they would spread like wildfire in Syria. As a radio host in Damascus, she was surrounded by young people caught up in the sudden ability to protest, with and without masks or shawls. I doubt that Zytoon took videos of her close-knit group of friends, thinking beyond the fall of Assad and their reactions to newfound freedom. Instead, the college-age youths serve as our eyes and ears on the ground in The War Show, which begins with such hope and ends in tragedy and despair. In between, the friends move from Damascus to Zytoon’s hometown of Zabadani and Homs, the latter practically levelled in rocket barrages and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes. They even make time to spend a day or two at a secluded beach, their pets in tow. The film’s emotional turning point comes when the abandoned puppy they adopted is killed after straying on a busy road, and Zytoon sees it as an omen of bad things to come. The War Show pays special attention to the role of women in the movement and fear of cameras exhibited by soldiers and militants, alike. Early on, the director asks a young girl why she shows her face: “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated. I’m demonstrating to breathe,” she replies. The film divides the ensuing events into seven sections (“Revolution,” “Suppression,” “Resistance,” “Siege,” “Memories,” “Frontlines” and “Extremism”), one more depressing than the chapter before it.

The fifth new doc from Film Movement/Bond360 also adds fresh perspective to a familiar story. Ever since the mid-1960s, when Kenyan men began to dominate foot races from 800 meters to marathons, the sports media have descended on the Great Rift Valley – otherwise, noted for international arms trading – to uncover their secrets. (In 2008, Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.) Before establishing formal training facilities and dietary regimens, it was a commonly held belief that living at a relatively high altitude and running to school or work every day was the prime factor. Anjali Nayar’s inciteful film, Gun Runners, goes a bit further than most of ABC Sports’ trademark up-close-and-personal features might, focusing on a pair of world-class marathon runners, whose stories include time spent among the bands of warriors that terrorize the North Kenyan countryside, stealing cattle, raiding villages and running from the police. As part of a government-sponsored program to disarm combatants in conflicted regions, boyhood friends and Julius Arile and Robert Matanda agreed to trade their AK-47s for running shoes they didn’t have. Taking time away from their families and crops proved to be a sacrifice not only for the runners, but for the villagers whose dreams included sharing the riches from Arile and Matanda’s accomplishments. When they didn’t come, the men allowed themselves to be exploited by politicians, whose promises were as empty as their pockets. Nayar’s camera is able to follow Arile’s progress on the comeback trail from injury and competition at the regional, national and international level. Joan Poggio’s cinematography contributes greatly to Gun Runners’ success.

On Wings of Eagles
Too often, stories of true-life courage and sacrifice leave viewers with only a few lines of information as to what finally happened to the protagonists, or their cause, in advance of the final credits. Although I can remember how Chariots of Fire ended, I can’t recall if viewers were told how British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams filled the rest of their years, away from the track. A year after the 1924 Paris Games, Abraham broke a leg while long jumping, effectively ending his competitive career. It led him to return to his studies as a lawyer, but, for the rest of his life, he would remain involved in sports and Jewish causes. In the 36 years since Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four, I’m amazed that no one attempted to chronicle Liddell’s post-Olympics life. I say that because, for all its flaws, Stephen Shin and Michael Parker’s On Wings of Eagles (a.k.a., “The Last Race”) inspired me to learn more about this truly amazing man and his inspirational story. Without Chinese financing, Liddell’s story probably would have remained more of a question mark than hero, and the movie would still be stuck on Square One. Although he represented the UK at the Games, the “Flying Scotsman” was born in China to Scottish missionary parents, and died there 43 years later. In some circles, this qualified him as China’s first Olympics champion and someone well worth memorializing. After his moment of glory, Liddell returned to the city of his birth, Tianjin, to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a teacher, coach, Sunday School superintendent and ordained minister. In 1941, life in northern China had become so dangerous for foreigners that the British government advised its nationals to leave. Florence Liddell, who was pregnant, would leave for Canada with their two daughters to wait out the war, while her husband and physician brother-in-law returned to positions at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang.

As fighting between the Chinese army and invading Japanese forces reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell (Joseph Fiennes) returned to Tianjin. Two years later, Liddell and members of the mission were sent to an internment camp in the city now known as Weifang. The Japanese called it Courtyard of the Happy Way” (or, in Chinese, Campus of Loving Truth), As portrayed in On Wings of Eagles, it was anything but “happy” or “loving.” Even so, Liddell became a leader and organizer at the camp, where food, medicine and other supplies would become increasingly scarce for everyone. If he had been Roman Catholic priest, instead of a Protestant minister, the Vatican might have financed the production and used it as testimony for Liddell’s legitimate shot at sainthood. By all accounts, he was just that kind of man: always sacrificing his food and comfort for others and never losing track of his Christian beliefs and principles. He agreed to compete in foot races against the camp’s boss, even though he was desperately undernourished, having given the allotments of food he received from the Chinese to his fellow prisoners. Criticism I’ve read argues that the Chinese financial backing ensured that the religious angles would be played down, in favor of a portrayal that demonstrated his willingness to stand up to the brutal Japanese officials and sacrifice to save the lives of local children. Liddell succumbed to a brain tumor, just months before the camp was liberated. A monument still stands at the former Weihsien Internment Camp. If the proselytizing is kept to a minimum here, there’s no doubt that Liddell was a man of God and devout Christian. I can’t imagine that the Japanese camp supervisors were anything but monsters, who worshipped the emperor as a living God who sanctioned anything done in his name, even torture, rape and murder. The bigger problem, especially for admirers of Chariots of Fire, is the production, itself, which relies on a weak script, too many composite characters and events, and some not-ready-for-prime-time acting. It’s possible that Hollywood producers were scared off by Liddell’s staunch Christian beliefs – he refused to participate in Olympics races scheduled for Sunday, if you recall – and the potential for controversies based on the number of times Jesus Christ’s name did or did not pop up.

A New Leaf: Blu-ray
Five years after her former partner in comedy, Mike Nichols, stunned Hollywood with his adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – and, a year later, The Graduate – Elaine May was handed the reins of a dark comedy based on Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart.” Critics also heaped praise on A New Leaf, but, in doing so, felt it only fair to point out to their readers that they didn’t know how much of the credit belonged to the star/screenwriter/director and how much should go to editors who re-cut her original three-hour film to 102 minutes. Not only was Paramount head of production Robert Evans unhappy over the cut’s length, but also May’s seeming disregard for her budget and the studio’s deadline. Reportedly, neither the director’s cut of the film nor the original shooting script have ever been made publicly available. While the same thing has happened to other fledging filmmakers, most have accepted the kudos without exposing the ruse. May was given a couple of other opportunities to redeem herself in the eyes of studio bigshots. Like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid (1972) received high praise from critics and still is considered one of the top 100 comedies of all times, depending on who’s doing the polling. It also did better at the box office. Shot in 1973, but not released until 1976, May’s talky buddy drama Micky and Nicky – starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk – suffered an almost identical fate to A New Leaf, creatively and commercially. A full decade would pass before she was once again allowed to go to the plate as writer/director. Plagued with similarly crippling budgetary and deadline problems, Ishtar laid a very expensive egg for Columbia. It took a long time for the dust to clear, but, upon further review lots of folks, including stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Charles Grodin, have found positive things to say about the high-profile adventure/comedy. Although she wouldn’t get another directing job until the 2016 “American Masters” salute to her former partner, Nichols did ask her to adapt screenplays for The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998).

In A New Leaf, a never-better Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, a playboy from a wealthy patrician family, who has run through his entire inheritance and is completely unequipped to provide for himself. His childhood guardian, Uncle Harry (James Coco), refuses to give him a dime. Henry considers suicide, but, instead, takes the advice of his valet, who suggests he immediately marry into wealth. With a $50,000 loan from Uncle Harry to tide him over, Henry has just six weeks to find a rich bride and repay the money, otherwise he must forfeit all his property to his uncle. May is wonderful as the painfully shy and beyond-klutzy botanist, Henrietta Lowell, who agrees to marry him, just days before the deadline. The other half of Henry’s plan is to eliminate his new problem – Henrietta – and inherit her wealth. Not surprisingly, Henry’s strategy doesn’t play out as he envisioned it would. If Paramount had left well enough alone, A New Leaf would have been significantly darker and the ending less quasi-romantic. As it is, however, it’s a terrific entertainment. Olive Films previously released A New Leaf on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012, sans bonus features. The new Olive Signature edition features a fresh restoration from a 4K scan of original camera negative; audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler; featurettes, “The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf,” with assistant editor Angelo Corrao, and “Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions,” with director Amy Heckerling; an essay by critic, editor and film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and Ritchie’s “The Green Heart.”

 

Silent Night, Deadly Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once Upon a Time at Christmas
Rarely has a hit-and-run genre flick generated as much controversy and outright contempt than master showman Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night did, upon its 1984 release on the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street. If the splatter classic wasn’t the first horror movie to exploit the holiday connection – that honor probably belongs to Bob Clark’s influential Black Christmas – its marketing campaign likely was the first to draw the collective ire of parents, the PTA, Siskel and Ebert. If the poster and commercials didn’t include an ax-wielding Santa, however, it existence might have come, gone and been forgotten in the wake of Wes Craven’s far superior blood bath. Once the furor broke out and a parents’ group organized a boycott and picketing, TriStar Pictures pulled its ads and attendance dropped significantly. A year later, “SN/DN” would be re-released by a different distributor, sparking a franchise consisting of six feature films, action figures, clothing, stockings, Christmas ornaments and numerous re-releases on home video. The latest is a Blu-ray “collector’s edition,” restored from the original vaulted film negative.by Scream Factory, with new bonus material and a limited edition, with an action figure and a poster. For the record, “SN/DN” relates the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who, at 5, was cautioned by his seemingly catatonic grandfather about St. Nick’s propensity for punishing naughty little boys. On the drive home, his parents will be brutally murdered by a desperate criminal in a Santa suit. Billy and his brother are sent to an orphanage run by a sadistic nun. One Christmas morning, he’s horrified by the unexpected appearance of Santa. After being dragged to see the bearded geezer, Billy punches him and escapes to a corner of his room. Years after surviving that nightmare, Billy finds work in a toy store. His transformation to serial killer is sparked by having to don a costume to play Santa for a party. It’s his cue to “punish the naughty,” in various unsavory ways. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley delivers an unforgettable portrayal of one of Billy’s victims. The set adds more bonus features than you can shake an ax handle at, including an extended unrated version of the film; interviews with writer Michael Hickey, co-executive producers Scott J. Schneid and Dennis Whitehead, editor/second-unit director Michael Spence, composer Perry Botkin and actor Robert Brian Wilson; a new interview with the great scream queen Linnea Quigley; “Christmas in July,” in which locations used in the movie are revisited; new and vintage commentaries; “Santa’s Stocking of Outrage”; and classic marketing material.

In Once Upon a Time at Christmas (2017), British writer/director/producer Paul Tanter (White Collar Hooligan) delivers a Santa and Mrs. Claus in the form of a one-eyed lunatic (Simon Phillips) and a curvy, bat-swinging blond (Sayla de Goede). This serial-killing couple is splattering blood all over the holidays in a small town in upstate New York, staging one gruesome rampage per night. Though the victims seem random — a mall Santa, a smooching couple, a quiet family — high-schooler Jennifer (Laurel Brady) and clever cop Sam (Jeff Ellenberger) begin to unravel the sinister pattern behind the slayings.

Shattered
“The Shattered Faberge Egg,” the novel upon which Natasha Kermani’s debut feature is based, is set in beautiful and historic Asheville, North Carolina. Nestled at the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, it could never be mistaken for Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that’s flat as a board and noteworthy today primarily for being home to the Delta Blues Museum. It’s where screenwriters Paul Leach and Nicholas Celozzi set Shattered, a movie that hinges on prejudices, deep-seated fears and dark secrets peculiar to prominent families in the Deep South. Unfortunately, the film suffers from not being shot in a location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where you can cut the humidity with a knife and kudzu grows on anything that stands still for more than five minutes. According to producer Marie Pizano, the team had 18 days to make Shattered and it was easier and less expensive for it to be made in California. As such, it looks like every other underbudgeted movie shot within a 40-radius of Hollywood & Highland. The only concessions to the Delta are some brief establishing shots of cotton fields and ramshackle homes, and a blues band whose leader looks like Joseph Buttafuoco. (Apparently, all the African-American musicians were busy that day.) No one breaks a sweat, even when they’re playing tennis in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and a Southern accent isn’t heard. In it, Kate Stenson (Molly Burnett) dreams of an enviable life as the quintessential Southern bride. She marries Ken Burnett (Tom Malloy), the son of the town’s powerful mayor (Ray Wise) — a controlling father who will do anything to protect his reputation. Kate has two children with Ken — a biological daughter, and an adopted son, Logan — but Kate’s seemingly perfect existence begins to fray when she discovers that Logan suffers from severe mental-health issues. Just as Shattered begins to look as if it might turn into a demon-seed thriller, something terrible happens to the boy and the entire flow of the movie changes direction. Kate’s journey to uncover the true story of Logan’s genetic line reveals dark secrets that can destroy the entire Burnett legacy. But wait, there’s more. Once all of the cats are out of their respective bags, Shattered takes another abrupt turn, taking us into Lifetime movie territory. Some viewers will argue that the uplifting ending justifies the mistakes made getting there – including the mixed-race Logan, who looks as white as the Burnetts’ biological daughter, Emma – but others, who only judge a DVD by its cover, are likely to feel cheated.

All Male, All Nude
Body Electric
On Showtime’s few-holds-barred series “Shameless,” characters played by Steve Howey and Cameron Monaghan dance for tips at a rowdy gay nightclub in Chicago. Although all the dancers have their own reasons for doing so, the common denominator is money. Unlike the dancers in Magic Mike, whose primary audience is comprised of women who get off on the highly choreographed routines and fantasy of making it with a beefy cowboy, firefighter or Top Gun pilot, the strippers in Gerald McCullouch’s documentary, All Male, All Nude, forgo rip-away pants for jeans and jock straps that don’t stay on for very long. It’s The Full Monty for real. Four decades after the Village People introduced gay-nightclub iconography to Middle America, with the crowd-pleasing “Y.M.C.A.,” the only time people dress in such costumes to dance is on Halloween … or in movies like Magic Mike. All Male, All Nude reminds me of Jerome Gary’s 1985 documentary, Stripper, which introduced viewers to exotic dancers who owed less to Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr than to Jane Fonda’s “Workout” and Flashdance. (Eight years earlier, Gary produced Pumping Iron, which Stripper and All Male, All Nude also resemble.) The women’s routines combined acrobatics, ballet, contortionism and rock music, all designed to extract dollar bills from the stacks of money in front of men sitting around the proscenium stage. Graduates of the Vancouver School of Stripping then added pole, lap and table dancing to their resumes, effectively eliminating the “tease” from “striptease” and removing the traditional burlesque stage show. Today, pole-dancing is taught in aerobics and yoga classes. Not so much, lap dancing.

Movies in which strippers and strip clubs play key roles in the narrative not only became a staple of Cinemax and other early premium-cable services, but in such mainstream dramas and comedies as Dressed to Kill, Erotica, Showgirls, Striptease and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. All Male, All Nude, takes us to Atlanta’s Swinging Richards, purportedly the country’s only all-male, all-nude, gay strip club … not that women aren’t welcome, as well. The format isn’t all that different than that employed in a half-dozen episodes of HBO’s “Real Sex,” “Blue Iguana” and Strippers, which split their time between the bar area, backstage and the alley, where it’s quiet enough to smoke cigarettes and be interviewed. The club resembles the one depicted in “Shameless,” where the dancing also provides a showcase for the men’s muscular bodies and extraordinary penises. We’re introduced to a half-dozen dancers – gay, straight and bi- — who discuss their motivations, work conditions and customers. Some are married with children, while others are saving money for an advanced degree in college or a cool new car … just like exotic dancers the world over. Once again, the only common denominator is a willingness by all parties to accept or spend money to be entertained. Unlike “Shameless,” the dancers in McCullouch’s film don’t sneak into the shadows to service customers with the occasional blow job … just cigarettes. While Atlanta allows full-frontal nudity, it closely regulates the interaction between dancers and customers, right down to where tips can be placed (elastic garters above the bicep, only). The dancers all pay a straight fee for the right to dance at the club, with money deducted for special V.I.P. services and tips for the deejay and bouncers. I don’t know if celebrity dancers – typically porn stars – are imported to boost admissions and booze sales, as is common in gentlemen’s clubs. The downside of the job is represented, as well. At 57 minutes, All Male, All Nude doesn’t overstay its welcome or overstate its mission. And, no, the men’s naughty bits aren’t digitally disguised or edited by camera angles. The DVD adds several background featurettes and music videos.

While Marcelo Caetano’s debut feature, Body Electric, steers well clear of being a comedy, the overall mood is celebratory and carefree. That isn’t the usual vibe associated with films in the LGBTQ genre, where one form of conflict or another not only is expected, it also reflects the realities of life within a contentious society. The lack of conflict, while welcome, finally leaves us slightly off-balance. At 23, Elias (Kelner Macêdo) is an openly gay man who works as an assistant designer and supervisor at a small textile workshop, and, in his free time, enjoys exploring his sexuality and intimate friendships. Even so, Elias is limited by his circumstances at work, where he’s been asked to maintain a distance between labor and management.  He wants to have as much fun as possible, but can’t do it if he can’t hang out with the cool kids. Something will have to give, somewhere, but, at 23, those kinds of choices are too difficult to make in swinging São Paolo. Caetano describes Body Electric as “a poem that celebrates the diversity of bodies and the beauty that exists in every action of the body […] that sings the encounter of the bodies and the value of community.” In a sense, it pays homage the diversity of beauty, race and sexuality present within Brazil’s largest city. In another twist, Caetano doesn’t limit the associations made by Elias during the course of the narrative, crossing all of the boundaries of typical L-G-B-T-Q typecasting. Straight and lesbian women share screen time with characters who are gay, transvestites, transgenders and questioning, as Elias apparently is. Once the management/labor hurdle is cleared, everyone is playing on the same level field. The doesn’t necessarily make for great drama, but it will leave most viewers with a smile.

Trumping Democracy
If, like several my closest friends and relatives, you spend an inordinate number of hours watching MSNBC and have eliminated Fox News from your programming guide, Thomas Huchon’s Trumping Democracy is a documentary that not only will get your juices flowing, but also put you off your feed for days to come. In a nutshell, it describes how multi-billionaire Robert Mercer, a major shareholder in Breitbart News, took control of then-candidate Donald Trump’s loosey-goosey campaign and molded it into a lean, mean war machine against Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates. The secretive computer scientist and AI pioneer inserted Breitbart editor Steve Bannon into the campaign as its manager – paying his salary, so Trump didn’t have to put it on his books – and the unctuous Kellyanne Conway as a key adviser and current counselor to the President. A polling company attached to Mercer’s operation first identified the constituency willing to pull Britain from the European Union and found parallels to the large number of American voters becoming alienated from both political parties and mainstream candidates. By exploiting their inability to distinguish Trump’s natural hyperbole from outright lies, Mercer’s minions effectively flooded social media with fake news – a term they would usurp and turn on the Democratic opposition – and right-wing PACs with cash. Anyone who doesn’t already believe someone like Mercer isn’t the puppet master controlling the President’s strings – and those attached to Bannon — probably would avoid Trumping Democracy like the plague. Political junkies should, however, find Mercer’s methodology as instructive as it is frightening. His ability to corrupt Facebook, through “dark posts” and other fabrications, is either the work of genius or fascism, depending on which side of the fence one stands. “In the darkness of the web, democracy was ‘trumped’ by data,” the doc successfully argues. Experts include psychometric scientist Dr. Michal Kosinski, PhD Psychology (University of Cambridge); David Carroll, associate professor of media design at the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design; Rosie Gray, Whitehouse Correspondent, The Atlantic; and Brendan Fischer, director, Federal & FEC Reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan nonprofit. In November, Mercer announced he would step down from Renaissance Technologies and sell his stake in Breitbart News, which either means he has terminal cancer or is resting up for the 2018 midterm elections. Bannon has returned to Breitbart News, where he can manipulate Trump without being called to task for his crypto-Nazi beliefs.

Digimon Adventure Tri.: Confession: Blu-ray
In this, the third in a series of six feature length movies in the Digimon Adventure Tri series, infected Digimons continue to threaten both the human world and digital world. There is also a new threat when a mysterious message appears one night over all electrical devices stating that “the Digimon will be released again,” which creates mass panic. There is one possible solution: triggering a “reboot” which would reset the Digital World. But the reset comes at a high price, as the Digimons would lose all memories of their human companions. Special features include the English-premiere panel at Anime Expo 2017.

One Response to “The DVD Wrapup: Letter From An Unknown Woman, Despicable Me 3, Crucifixion, Maurizio Cattelan, A New Leaf, Silent Night and more”

  1. Hi Gary Dretzka,
    Great post. Thanks for sharing :)

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“Would I like to see Wormwood in a theater on a big screen? You betcha. I’d be disingenuous to argue otherwise. But we’re all part of, like it or not, an industry, and what Netflix offers is an opportunity to do different kinds of films in different ways. Maybe part of what is being sacrificed is that they no longer go into theaters. If the choice is between not doing it at all and having it not go to theaters, it’s an easy choice to make.”
~ Errol Morris

“As these stories continue to break, in the weeks since women have said they were harassed and abused by Harvey Weinstein, which was not the birth of a movement but an easy and highly visible shorthand for decades of organizing against sexual harassment that preceded this moment, I hope to gain back my time, my work. Lately, though, I have noticed a drift in the discourse from violated rights to violated feelings: the swelled number of reporters on the beat, the burden on each woman’s story to concern a man “important” enough to report on, the detailed accounting of hotel robes and incriminating texts along with a careful description of what was grabbed, who exposed what, and how many times. What I remember most, from “my story” is how small the sex talk felt, almost dull. I did not feel hurt. I had no pain to confess in public. As more stories come out, I like to think that we would also believe a woman who said, for example, that the sight of the penis of the man who promised her work did not wound her, and that the loss she felt was not some loss of herself but of her time, energy, power.”
~ “The Unsexy Truth About Harassment,” by Melissa Gira Grant