MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Downsizing, Small Town Crime, Baal, The Church, Images, Daughter of the Nile, Ichi, ’Burbs… and more

Downsizing: Blu-ray
As much as I enjoy and admire the films of Alexander Payne, I’ve never once been tempted to visit his beloved Omaha or the extended borders of Cornhusker Nation. Sideways and The Descendants took him away from his native soil, but Omaha is listed as one of the filming locations for Downsizing, which must be reassuring to the state’s film office. It’s listed alongside Trollfjord, Tysfjord and Bergan, in Norway, which looks a lot more interesting and accommodating than anyplace in the Great American Midwest. The cruise up one gorgeous fjord by Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier convinced me to put Norway on my personal Bucket List. I wish I could say as much for Downsizing, a movie that many critics said would move me, but didn’t. I did like the concept, however. Facing financial challenges as an occupational therapist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey, (Kristen Wiig), decide to join a growing list of similarly distressed people who believe they would be better off if they were 5-inches-tall, living in world populated with other downsized humans. Everyday staples would be far more affordable, as would the occasional luxury item. Home repairs could be made with popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue, and a thimble of water would sate the thirst of an entire family, with enough left to do the dishes. Overpopulation and famine would be reduced to bad memories.  When it comes time to downsize for good, however, Audrey, decides not to participate in the program. This comes as news to her husband, who, by this time, is a wee middle-aged man without a partner in life.

Paul makes friends with an unlikely collection of fun-loving Lilliputians, sharing the good life in a miniaturized hi-rise. Waltz plays a jet-set hedonist, while Kier is his obedient servant. Chau plays a Vietnamese political activist who was jailed and downsized against her will. Their common link is somewhat confusing to explain, so suffice to say they share an interest in saving the planet and protecting the downsized masses. It’s what takes them to Norway, where the first colony of short people sits at the end of a magnificent fjord, with no natural enemies except global warming. The bad news is that humanity is doomed. The good news is that the colonists have had plenty of time to come up with a long-term solution, devised by the project’s founders, Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) and his wife, Anne-Helene (Ingjerd Egeberg). Downsizing doesn’t get more involving than a final choice between survival and love, and the solution to that dilemma is preordained. The humor is mostly invested in the excellent visual effects, but, at a certain point, our eyes reflect the reality that these are normal-sized characters in a fabricated environment. The novelty of the conceit wears out by the time we reach the fjord, whose majesty isn’t amplified by the optical gag. Neither will downsizing come as anything new to audiences. Payne’s humanistic tack provokes thought and concern over man’s fate, but, as speculative fiction, it delivers far less entertainment value than such sub-genre entertainments as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Fantastic Planet (1973), Inner Space (1987), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Ant Man (2015). Sadly, too, while mainstream critics nice things to say about it, Downsizing underperformed at the box office. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD add a half-dozen featurettes of varying interest.

Small Town Crime: Blu-ray
It’s nice to see John Hawkes, a fine actor blessed with one of the most distinctive faces in the business, finally be allowed to excel in a lead role, even if the vehicle, Small Town Crime, was accorded an extremely limited release and risked being dismissed as pulp fiction. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, Hawkes is instantly recognizable for his contributions to The Sessions (2012), Winter’s Bone (2010), Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), HBO’s “Deadwood” and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as Frances McDormand’s rotten ex-husband. If the IFP had a Walk of Fame, he’d have a star on it. Here, Hawkes could hardly have been cast with any more precision than as the alcoholic ex-cop, who, after a bender, finds the body of a young woman along the side of a road. In the desperate hope for redemption, he commits himself to finding the killer. It’s hard to say how long Mike Kendall has been an alcoholic, but it came to a head on the night his partner was killed in a traffic stop, because he failed to have his back. Kendall is the kind of drunk who’s fun to be around, until he reaches the point where he picks fights with bouncers twice his size. His former buddies on the force want Kendall to stay as far away from the case as is humanly possible, but he’s unwilling to dismiss the theory that the victim was just another drug-addicted hooker who ran out of time and luck. He’ll cooperate with the police, but only as long as he’s able to maintain a parallel investigation.

Contacts made while Kendall was pickling his brain on cheap booze in strip clubs and biker bars come through with tips they probably wouldn’t share with the local police. No one can say with any certainty why prostitutes are being targeted, but audiences will recall one of the masked killers – Orthopedic (Jeremy Ratchford) and Tony Lama (James Lafferty) — tell a soon-to-be-dead victim she shouldn’t have “gotten greedy.” Just as Kendall is beginning to put the pieces together, however, Orthopedic and Lama re-surface to tie up their loose ends. They’re as bad-ass as any contract killers I’ve seen in a long time. Co-writer/directors Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms (Lost on Purpose) don’t waste a lot of time going from the discovery of the first corpse to the well-choreographed, if inevitable final shootout. Even so, they manage to cram several very cool conceits into Small Town Crime’s 91-minute runtime. They include Kendall’s 1968 Chevy Nova muscle car; a tough-talking pimp (Clifton Collins Jr.), who joins the ex-cop’s posse; and his African-American adoptive brother and sister, played by Anthony Anderson and Octavia Spencer. Robert Forster’s also good as the dead girl’s wealthy, revenge-minded grandfather. The high-desert wastelands outside Salt Lake City provide a terrific setting for pulpy crime. The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes; a pair of making-of featurettes; and commentaries.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall: Blu-ray
The mystery implicit in the title of Shawn Christensen’s sophomore feature demands that we care enough about the titular protagonist that we won’t regret the investment of almost two hours of our precious time to its solution. Sadly, what worked for Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn’t come close to saving The Vanishing of Sidney Hall. As sympathetic as Christensen’s brooding boy genius (Logan Lerman) is made to look here, he’s no Roger Rabbit. But, then, where would Roger be without the sultry Jessica Rabbit, alcoholic P.I. Eddie Valiant and a host of cartoon legends interested in him? In the hands of Christensen and co-writer Jason Dolan (Enter Nowhere), Hall not only is way too cool for school, but also a challenge for audiences to embrace. After he mocks his English teacher’s choice of books to read, an inspirational administrator (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) dares him to write a novel that’s better than the ones on her syllabus. And, of course, that’s exactly what Sidney does. Its “honesty” speaks to a generation of disaffected teenagers, much in the same way as “Catcher in the Rye” spoke to his father and grandfather’s peers. It even is a finalist for a Pulitzer. In another unlikely, if humanizing twist, the disaffected writer befriends the school’s troubled jock hero, Brett (Blake Jenner), and the ethereal blond, Melody (Elle Fanning), who lives across the street and leaves mash notes for Sidney in his mailbox. Like almost everything else Sidney touches in the next 10 or 15 years – presented unconvincingly in a non-linear format — these friendships turn to shit.

Sudden fame is a bitch, but, when it happens to an 18-year-old prima donna, it can be overwhelming. When all the usual temptations lose their luster, Hall falls back on self-loathing. The success of his second book makes him even more suspicious of his gifts. Eventually, he stuns his fans by vanishing from the pop-cultural grid and adopting a pet dog as his closest friend and confidante. Kyle Chandler (“Bloodline”) plays a character, known throughout most of the movie as the Searcher, who commits his every waking moment to tracking down Sidney. By the time they connect, he’s a drunken sot who hops boxcars for his transit needs, affects the reclusive personalities of J.D. Salinger and the Unabomber, and visits libraries and bookshops to burn novels he’s written in his own name and under pseudonyms. The Searcher offers Sidney an opportunity to redeem himself, but there isn’t much left to salvage. To his credit, Christensen does come up with an ending that ties everything together. There are several other good things worth mentioning in the movie, besides excellent performances by Lerman and Fanning. Michelle Monaghan plays Sidney’s long-suffering mother, an attractive MILF who’s devoted the best years of her adult life to a nearly catatonic husband and an ungrateful son. The Blu-ray adds “Making of The Vanishing of Sidney Hall,” with interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and scenes from the film.

Ichi the Killer: Blu-Ray
Ever since its release in 2001, Takashi Miike’s famously transgressive Ichi the Killer has tested the ability of genre buffs to digest extreme violence, undiluted depravity and inky-black humor. Based on Hideo Yamamoto’s manga series of the same title, it’s been banned from exhibition in countries ranging from Norway, Germany and Great Britain, to Malaysia. When it was introduced to critics at the Toronto and Stockholm International Film Festivals, the distributor handed out barf bags. At least one of them came in handy. One critic theorized that Miike (Audition) and writer Sakichi Satô (Gozu) created Ichi the Killer – in part, at least – as a litmus test for intellectuals who professed to abhor gratuitous violence, misogynist behavior and buckets full of gore, while heaping praise on such extreme entertainments as Natural Born Killers and Kill Bill. If anything, the blood and gore looks even more repellant in Well Go USA’s digitally restored 4k edition, approved by Miike himself. Coming at Ishi the Killer with fresh eyes, it took me a while to figure out that the photo on the cover didn’t belong to the title character. It’s of Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a notoriously sadistic yakuza enforcer whose search for his boss’ killer brings him into the orbit of the truly demented Ichi (Nao Ohmori).

As an extreme parody of the slick Tokyo gangster typically portrayed on film, Kakihara blows cigarette smoke through the vents cut into his cheeks and favors comically garish outfits. (He resembles the Joker, if Batman’s nemesis had been mutilated in the underworld revenge ritual known as the Glasgow or Chelsea smile.) Ichi is a meek and morally conflicted vigilante, who wears black body armor with the number “1” on the back padding and backstay boots with a vertical razor embedded in the heel. (Ichi means “one” in Japanese.) He may be reluctant to insert himself into a situation, but, when he does, it’s for keeps. Ichi’s early training in the martial arts explains how he’s able to dispatch with rooms full of hoodlums – the occasional sarcastic prostitute, as well — in mere seconds. It’s an amazing picture, but decidedly not for everyone … not even westerners who’ve come to love other manga-inspired films. Fans will appreciate the hi-def upgrade, which accentuates Miike’s eccentric color palette, and restoration to its original 128-minute length. One caveat, however: the new Well Go edition eliminates most of the worthwhile bonus features included in the 2010 Tokyo Shock release, except commentary with Miike and artist/writer Hideo Yamamoto. So, don’t trade or throw away your previous Blu-ray.

Daughter of the Nile: Blu-ray
In 2015, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s action-packed historical drama, The Assassin, was one of the world’s most honored pictures. The wuxia also was one of the year’s most beautiful and entertaining films. It was his first release in eight years and the seventh to compete at Cannes for the Palme d’Or. The story’s opulent setting and epic reach were unlike anything Hou had displayed in previous efforts – notably, Millennium Mambo (2001), Café Lumière (2003) and A City of Sadness (1989) –which were marked by elliptical storytelling, long takes and minimal camera movement. It’s taken 30 years for his far more contemporary Daughter of the Nile to make the journey to the U.S. in the video format it deserves. Set in Taipei, the title refers to a Japanese manga about a young woman who travels back in time to ancient Egypt, ending up lost between the past and present. Here, a different young woman and her brother float along the periphery of the Taipei underworld, where American fast-food joints provide a subsistence-level alternative for young people reluctant to commit to a life of crime. The siblings turn in different directions, while also dealing with spiteful elderly relatives uprooted by politics and war. Structurally, Daughter of the Nile feels as if it might have been inspired, in part, by Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The sense of displacement felt by the young people is exaggerated by the negativity they face from native Taiwanese and their hugely successful adoption of western commercial models. Here, he shifted his focus from the rural countryside to the urban jungle. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary by film scholar Richard Suchenski and an authoritative interview with Asian film expert Tony Rayns.

Baal: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Like Daughter of the Nile, which represents the New Taiwanese Cinema, circa 1980-90, Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal (1970) is included among films categorized as New German Cinema, a movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1980s. Both films have been extremely difficult to find in their video and digital iterations. Baal is a faithful, if contemporized adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 theatrical debut, informed by the political upheaval that tore through Europe and the U.S. in 1968. Nearly as prolific an actor as he was a director and writer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is wonderfully unpleasant as the eponymous anarchist poet, who, after feeling himself expelled from bourgeois society, sets off on a schnapps-soaked rampage. Although it would be far too late to pull off and, in any case, both men are long dead, Fassbinder would have been the perfect choice to collaborate with Los Angeles poet/novelist Charles Bukowski on a biopic or debauched buddy film. Schlondorff presents Baal in 24 separate scenes, while employing several other distancing techniques in the Brechtian mode. Filmed largely outside the confines of a studio, the play’s theatricality is retained in the physical staging and line readings.

While Schlondorff hews faithfully to Brecht’s text, he juxtaposes the theatricality of the prose with handheld 16mm camera work, sometimes distorted by the application of a Vaseline-smeared lens. It gives the story of untamed rebellion a distinct sense of immediacy, while also shoving viewers’ faces into the reality of Baal’s brutal misogyny and drunken depravity. Schlondorff and Fassbinder are joined here by future New Wave stars Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta, Marian Seidowsky, Günther Kaufmann, Harry Baer and Irm Hermann. Not that everyone was a fan of the adaptation. The widow of Bertolt Brecht, Helene Weigel, was so unhappy it that she removed from public release. In 2011, Brecht’s granddaughter allowed it to be restored and publicly shown. The Criterion Blu-ray features a newly restored 2K digital transfer, supervised by Schlöndorff, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; interviews from 1973 and 2015 with the director; a new conversation between Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman about the play and adaptation; new interviews with Von Trotta and historian Eric Rentschler; and an essay by critic Dennis Lim. I wish that Criterion had been able to include Alan Clarke’s 1982 made-for-TV adaptation, starring David Bowie. It appears to be out of print, except for a recording of songs from the presentation.

The Church: Blu-ray
Gothic churches are cool places to stage horror movies, especially the ones that look as if they were built over mass graves or contain the caskets of priests or saints who dabbled in the dark arts. Getting permission to film a horror flick inside the famous ones isn’t easy, though. Originally, co-writer/director Michele Soavi and co-writer/producer Dario Argento planned to shoot The Church inside and around Nuremberg’s historic Lorenzkirche, of Nuremberg (Germany), and even did some test shots there. After learning of the film’s subject matter, however, they were forced to move to Budapest’s Matthias Church, whose history can be traced to 1015. Besides offering any number of places that passageways to hell could have been hidden, Matthias Church is the burial site of Béla III and Agnes of Antioch. I don’t think many viewers, outside Germany, noticed the difference. Loosely based on M.R. James’ short story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” The Church opens in a medieval town suspected of harboring suspected blasphemers and devil-worshippers. After being slaughtered by Teutonic Knights, the victims of their unholy wrath were thrown into a pit. To keep the evil contained, a Gothic cathedral was built over the mass grave.

Flash forward a few hundred years and newly hired librarian, Evan (Tomas Arana), is unable to resist the temptation to break the seal of the crypt, which is embedded in a large cross on the floor of the church’s basement. It doesn’t take long for Evan and fresco restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) to stick their noses into other mysteries hidden in the building’s various nooks and crannies. They are guarded by the Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), who looks old enough to have heard the confessions of the knights, and automated mechanisms designed to trap intruders. If The Church doesn’t offer much that horror buffs will find truly new and different, it touches all the genre bases and looks great in Scorpion Releasing’s 2K restoration. Although it doesn’t fit the definition of giallo, fingerprints on the screenplay suggest otherwise: Argento (Suspiria), Soavi (StageFright), Fabrizio and Lamberto Bava (Demons), Franco Ferrini (Opera) and Dardano Sacchetti (Cannibal Apocalypse). Arana (The Sect), Cupisti (StageFright) and Chaliapin (The Name of the Rose) were joined in the cast by 14-year-old Asia Argento, whose character was left in the right place for a sequel. She contributes her recollections in an interview included in the bonus package, alongside one with Soavi.

Robert Altman’s Images: Special Edition: Blu-ray
For all his great success, Robert Altman released more than his fair share of movies that left mainstream audiences cold and critics frothing at the mouth. After a decade spent making genre shows for television, Altman tried his luck at theatrical features Countdown (1967) and That Cold Day in the Park (1968), neither of which impressed anyone. If M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller hadn’t succeeded, he might not have been allowed the opportunity to make such idiosyncratic gems as The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split and Nashville, which are finding new life on Blu-ray. Like Brewster’s Millions, from the same period, Images has been as difficult to find in DVD and Blu-ray as it was in theaters, in 1972. After Nashville (1975), Altman’s career resembled a roller-coaster ride, with dozens of commercial and artistic highs and lows. Arrow Academy’s splendid new hi-def restoration – Robert Altman’s Images: Special Edition – convincingly argues today what critics and studio executives refused to say in 1972: it’s a terrific psychological thriller that demands to be seen by arthouse audiences, at least. The most likely reason it wasn’t successful is that it was marketed and reviewed as an Altman film – based on the popularity of M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller – but failed to resemble either one. The most obvious differences could be seen in the absence of overlapping dialogue and meandering ensemble interaction. Images was as close to a genre film as he would make – in this case, horror, of all things — building tension through mental illness and schizophrenia in the same way that Polanski, had previously done in Knife in the Water and Repulsion; Bergman, in Persona; Hitchcock, in Psycho; Losey, in Secret Ceremony; Nicolas Roeg, in Don’t Look Now; and he had attempted in That Cold Day in the Park.

In it, Susannah York plays a successful author of children’s books, temporarily living with her husband, Hugh (René Auberjonois), at a spectacularly beautiful estate in County Wicklow, Ireland. It’s autumn and, therefore, gray and wet on the Emerald Isle. Absent the usual rush of seasonal tourists, Cathryn relies on visual and auditory hallucinations for company. They include former and would-be lovers; nagging callers; a dog, or two; a unicorn; and at least one doppelganger. On top of these mysteries, Cathryn reads passages from a children’s fantasy, previously written by York. The estate house doubles as hunting lodge, which accounts for the rifles, shotguns and knives on hand. If this qualifies as a spoiler, it’s better than leaving viewers to their own devices in the confusion of Image’s first reel, which probably is what disturbed critics before its original release. Separating the living characters from the dead and imaginary ones is itself a task. Viewers won’t have to wait long for the narrative payoff, though. York does a great job interpreting Altman’s vision, as does Auberjonois, who’s the only member of the six-person cast that’s a regular member of the director’s coterie. Consider, as well, a production crew that includes cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and composers John Williams and Stomu Yamash’ta. In the bonus package, Altman offers scene-specific commentary, which is complemented by full-length commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger; an vintage interview with the director; a new interview with actor Cathryn Harrison; an appreciation by musician Stephen Thrower; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Carmen Gray, and an extract from “Altman on Altman.”

The ‘Burbs: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1989, the year The ’Burbs was released, Tom Hanks’ inevitable rise to superstardom was stuck in neutral. The early success he enjoyed in “Bosom Buddies,” Splash and Bachelor Party hadn’t been rewarded with can’t-miss assignments and it became impossible to tell whether he was being groomed as a comic actor, in the mold of the many “SNL” alumni spinning their wheels; the male co-protagonist in yuppie romcoms; the glib sidekick in buddy comedies; as America’s Dad; or the Jimmy Stewart of his generation. He could have sued his management team for lack of support and won big money. He finally hit the jackpot with the1988 body-exchange comedy, Big, which made him a natural candidate for top spots in Punchline, The ’Burbs and Turner & Hooch, none of which clearly defined who he was supposed to be, either. The blistering response to The Bonfire of the Vanities and Joe Versus the Volcano might have destroyed the careers of lesser rising talents, but those turkeys would be followed by an unprecedented string of monster hits, beginning with A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle, and only stalling a dozen years later with the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers. By this time, however, Hanks had won over the critics and was able to “open” pictures whose legs proved not to be very long. He’s since worked with the best directors, writers and actors of his generation; tackled such prestigious television projects as From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers; and shepherded indies That Thing You Do and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He’s been nominated for five Best Actor Oscars, winning back-to-back trophies for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. If his presence, alone, couldn’t carry such iffy pictures as A Hologram for the King, Inferno and The Circle, Hanks’ cachet did wonders for Sully and Captain Phillips. At 61, he’s also a popular guest on talk-shows and “SNL.” If, in a year or two, Hanks followed a cue from Cary Grant and retired from films, who could blame him? What does he have left to prove?

Looking back to the doldrums period, however, it’s likely that Joe Dante’s presence as director of The ’Burbs attracted more viewers than those drawn by Hanks. A graduate of the Corman School of Drama, Dante made a name for himself in the exploitation market with Hollywood Boulevard (1976), Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981). Gremlins (1984) took his career to a new level, even if it was followed by the family-oriented action-comedies Explorers and Innerspace, and segments of the raunchy R-rated Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), all of which did well in the burgeoning video market. While Dante was the right choice to direct The ’Burbs, Hanks’ top-billing presented a different sort of marketing challenge. Casting Hanks, Carrie Fischer and Corey Feldman in the PG-rated comedy/thriller suggested it was family-friendly, even if the suburbs-as-hell theme argued against it. When a creepy family moves into a dilapidated house situated on a typical suburban cul-de-sac and it coincides with the disappearance of a resident played by Gale Gordon (“The Lucy Show”), Hanks, Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun form a neighborhood militia. They get their opportunity to check out the house when their new neighbors — Brother Theodore, Courtney Gains and Henry Gibson – pile into their car for a day away from suburbia. (Feldman is there to provide stoner commentary, not unlike that delivered by a Shakespearian fool.) The rest is mayhem. Although ’Burbs didn’t hit paydirt upon its release, in some circles it’s considered to be a modern comedy classic. It has its moments, I suppose, but I enjoyed it for another reason. The movie was shot on a Universal’s Colonial Street backlot, which also provided settings for “The Munsters,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Leave It to Beaver” “Murder She Wrote” and All That Heaven Allows. The Shout!Factory Blu-ray has been rescanned in 2K and adds fresh interviews with Dante, editor Marshall Harvey and DP John Hora. Several other very good featurettes have been ported over from earlier editions.

Miss Kiet’s Children
How many parents have wanted to observe what goes on in their little angels’ classrooms from the perspective of a fly on the wall … or, in the case of Miss Kiet’s Children, a cinéma vérité camera? The older the child, the less adorable he or she would likely be, of course. Still, the opportunity to watch their children outside of their natural habitat would be tough to resist. Childless adults should find plenty to admire in Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s award-winning documentary, as well, even at its nearly two-hour length. What differentiates it from other docs set in classrooms are the children themselves, many of whom have just arrived in Holland from countries torn by war, poverty and famine. Their teacher, Kiet Engels, is a study in heroic determination, infinite patience and remarkable dedication to a seemingly impossible task. The filmmakers stop short of portraying her as saint, but there’s probably an easy chair awaiting her in heaven. None of the kids could be picked out of a crowd as a recent immigrant. The difference can be seen in Engels’ interaction with the kids, who don’t know how to read and write Dutch. (Who, outside of Holland, can?) Some lack everyday skills and confidence, while others are occasionally quarrelsome and headstrong. As such, Engels also helps them learn to solve problems together and respect one another, which they mostly do. The Latasters’ camera remains objective and unobtrusive throughout. The finished documentary only demands of viewers that they observe the kids dispassionately, without relying on interviews or voice-overs to do the thinking for them. To avoid overcrowding and confusion, Miss Kiet’s Children focuses on four refugee children of different nationalities, although two of them, at least, speak Arabic when their teacher’s back is turned. One of the boys still finds it difficult to focus on his studies and sports without also recalling the trauma of having his fun interrupted back home by bombs and shelling. Each of the pupils is unique and worthy of our admiration, especially when their successes bring broad smiles to their faces. It begs the question as to why Congress would allocate billions of dollars to prevent immigrant children from realizing their full potential in American schools. The disc adds interviews with the filmmakers.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: The Rachels
NOVA: Day the Dinosaurs Died
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Heart of Homecoming
In a movie that combines the primary conceits of Heathers and Mean Girls, “The Rachels” tells a story that probably will be all-too-familiar to its target teen audience. The ruling clique of the film’s typically American high school is comprised of Rachel Nelson and Rachel Richards, who do everything in lockstep, including reading the announcements over the loudspeakers, as “the Rachels.” It’s easy to tell the difference between them, though. Madison Iseman is only about three years older than the alternately kind and calculating blond Rachel she plays, while 26-year-old Caitlin Carver plays the cool, cruel and calculating brunette Rachel. Both appear to have taken their acting cues from the Kardashians and characters in “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl.” There used to be three Rachels, but one was jettisoned for not being able to maintain her weight and dress standards. Early on, we’re made privy to the events that lead to death of blond Rachel, after falling from a balcony at a school party. She had been talking to brunette Rachel, who appeared to be pissed off by a rare display of independence. The surviving Rachel has an alibi good enough to fool the cops, if not viewers. Still, to cover her tracks, she does everything in her power to memorialize her friend. The editor and photographer of the school yearbook smell a rat, however, and commit themselves to exposing brunette Rachel, who isn’t as popular as she thinks she is. It’s also possible that her alibi holds up. With an ending that’s clever, if not particularly credible, “The Rachels” is only as good as it had to be to please the programmers at Lifetime. I don’t think that teenagers will identify with the characters, even if they enjoy the bitchier moment.s  Ellen Huggins has already written two previous made-for-Lifetime movies, while, for director Michael Civille, it’s his first feature.

One of the things that binds pre-school children is a love of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. My son could spell “P-A-L-E-O-N-T-O-L-O-G-I-S-T” before he memorized the names of Snow Whites’ dwarves … or, in Disney textbooks, “dwarfs.” Most kids lose interest after a few years of elementary school, perhaps sensing correctly that there won’t enough jobs to go around once they get their PhD. The fascinating “NOVA” presentation, “The Day the Dinosaurs Died,” provides enough fresh information on the fate of the dinosaurs to possibly rekindle their passion for paleontology. It takes viewers to the site of the impact crater, off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan, where the seven-mile-wide asteroid collided with Earth 66 million years ago. We know that it triggered a chain of events that coincided with the end of the dinosaurs, but experts have long debated exactly what happened when the asteroid struck and how the giant beasts met their end, besides the giant cloud of dust that followed the collision. Now, scientists have uncovered compelling new clues about the catastrophe, from digs ranging from New Jersey to Patagonia. The show follows an international team of scientists that has drilled into the crater, recovering crucial direct evidence of the searing energy and giant tsunami unleashed by the asteroid. It’s a documentary that should captivate kids and adults in equal measure.

Fans of Hallmark’s limited series, “When Calls the Heart,” already know that the citizens of Hope Valley tend to celebrate holidays differently than residents of other mining towns on the Canadian frontier. In an episode that aired last December 25 as “The Christmas Wishing Tree,” but has been retitled “The Heart of Homecoming,” a Wishing Tree that promises to help everyone’s dreams come true is erected in the center of town. The residents put a wish on the tree, in anticipation of another person attempting to grant it. If the wish cannot be fulfilled, legend has it that the tree’s magic powers will make it come true. Elizabeth longs only for the return of her beloved Mountie, Jack, who’s been away six months while on duty in the boonies. Rosemary and Abigail do everything they can to convince Elizabeth to put a wish on the tree, even though she believes it’s selfish to take him away from his important assignment. Meanwhile, Abigail, Bill and the rest of Hope Valley work together to create a special Christmas parade to warm the town’s collective hearts and bring everyone closer together. Incidentally, Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries have announced they will unveil 34 original Christmas-themed movies in 2018. Last year’s combined total was 33 holiday films. Talk about exploitation.

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“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch

To me, Hunter S. Thompson was a hero. His early books were great, but in many ways, his life and career post–Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is a cautionary tale for authors. People expected him to be high and drunk all the time and play that persona, and he stuck with that to the end, and I don’t think it was good for him. I always sort of feel mixed emotions when I hear that people went and hung out with Hunter and how great it was to get high with Hunter. The fact is the guy was having difficulty doing any sustained writing at all for years probably because so many quote, unquote, “friends” wanted to get high with him … There was a badly disappointed romantic there. I mean, that great line, “This is where the wave broke, the tide rolled back … ” This was a guy that was hurt and disappointed and very bitter about things, and it made his writing beautiful, and also with that came a lot of pain.
~ Anthony Bourdain