MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Black Panther, Forgiven, Monkey King, Sweet Escape, Black Venus, It’s Alive and more

Black Panther: Blu-ray/4K UHD
What were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby smoking when they named their new superhero after the militant organization founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton? Or… what were Seale and Newton smoking when they named the BPP after a comic-book superhero? Fact is, Marvel introduced the chief of the Panther Tribe of the African nation of Wakanda in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, months before the Black Panthers of Oakland unveiled plans to counter police brutality by “policing the police.”  Lee would call the timing “a strange coincidence,” even as the company debated changing its superhero’s name from Black Panther to Black Leopard. That brainstorm was briefly realized in Fantastic Four #119, dated February 1972, but the name was changed back to Black Panther by the time T’Challa was asked to join “Earth’s mightiest heroes” that November in Avengers #105. The character’s development is discussed at length in the featurettes, “From Page to Screen: A Roundtable Discussion” and “Crowning of a New King.”

Black Panther could be considered one of the great no-brainers of all time. In reality, Disney executives had room for a sliver of concern going into its international opening. Historically, foreign audiences have shown a reluctance to embrace movie with largely black casts. As recently as 12 Years a Slave, distributors in some countries promoted minority-themed films with posters featuring white stars. Steve McQueen’s intense drama still collected more money – 69.8% of total lifetime gross –from international sources. It’s also true that Black Panther/T’Challa had yet to crack the upper echelon of the superhero elite.  In 2008, Wizard magazine ranked him the 79th greatest comic book character out of 200 others named in the survey. In 2015, IGN Entertainment elevated Black Panther to No. 51 in their list of 100 greatest comic-book heroes, and No. 10 in its ranking of the top-50 Avengers. In 2013, Comics Alliance ranked the Black Panther as #33 on its list of the “50 Sexiest Male Characters in Comics.” If the same polls were conducted today, he’d probably crack the top five. The latest breakdown by Box Office Mojo shows that domestic revenues beat foreign sales at a 51.9/48.1 percent ratio, roughly dividing the $1.342 billion pot in half. That reverses a trend that’s consistently put international revenues ahead of domestic revenues, at least when it comes to popcorn titles. (The MPAA’s final box-office report for 2017 put the overall split at $29.5 billion/$11,1 billion, in the favor of foreign revenues.)

As pointed out in bonus featurettes, Disney/Marvel deserves credit for entrusting the property to a production team of largely African-American talent, untested outside the independent arena. Foremost among them are co-writer-director Ryan Coogler, whose feature credits were Fruitvale Station and Creed, and writer Joe Robert Cole, who wrote two episodes of FX Network’s “American Crime Story” and the little-seen 2011 thriller, Amber Lake. Earlier this year, DP Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, for Mudbound. Despite having played such real-life American heroes as Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and James Brown, star Chadwick Boseman was fortunate to be surrounded by such top-shelf talent as Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis. The same can said for such talented newcomers as Letitia Wright, as T’Challa’s precocious sister; Danai Gurira, as his bodyguard; and Danai Gurira, as a rival warrior. Kudos, all around. The other essential featurette, I think, is “Wakanda Revealed: Exploring the Technology,” which explains how some of the film’s most exciting and visually spectacular scenes were created. Other extras include a director’s introduction, deleted scenes, “Crowning of a New King,” “The Warriors Within,” “Marvel Studios, the First Ten Years: Connecting the Universe,” a gag reel, sneak peek at “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and director’s commentary. If given the choice and opportunity, go with the 4K UHD edition. It does make a difference.

The Forgiven: Blu-ray
Zuri, Forest Whitaker’s character in Black Panther, has been described as Wakanda’s version of Obi-Wan Kenobi. For his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker played one of the worst dictators of the 20th Century. In The Forgiven, he plays Nobel Peace Prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu, who couldn’t be more different from the Ugandan despot and Wakandan elder statesmn. When the African National Congress assumed power in 1994, it wasn’t clear how South Africa’s new leaders would respond to the various human-rights abuses perpetrated by police and military officials, and serious crimes committed by anti-apartheid activists. Having to choose between universal amnesty and unfettered retribution not only could have prevented old wounds from healing, but also keep Nelson Mandela’s government from taking root. After parliament instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mandela chose Tutu to chair its proceedings. The Forgiven, Roland Joffé’s adaptation of Michael Ashton’s play, “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” describes just how difficult the process would be. Eric Bana plays Piet Blomfeld, a composite character who represents one of the most extreme cases the TRC is likely to face. He’s being held in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison with other hard-core soldiers and militants not yet ready to commit to recanting their sins, let alone make amends to their victims, even in exchange for amnesty. Blomfeld, a former officer in the South African Defense Force and member of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, is a potential witness to murders committed during the time of apartheid, particularly the disappearance and likely murder of the teenage daughter of Mrs. Morobe (Thandi Makhubele). When Tutu approaches Blomfeld

to ask about her daughter, the Afrikaner uses their time together berating the archbishop. At the same time, however, Blomfeld has made himself a ripe target for vengeful black prisoners and guards afraid that his meetings with Tutu might bear fruit. Although the outcome of The Forgiven is largely a foregone conclusion, the interplay between Whitaker and Bana is thrilling. One is a man of hate, while the other has been the country’s flagbearer for peace and reconciliation for decades. For Tutu’s mission to succeed, something approaching a miracle must happen to change Blomfeld’s mindset. It does, but not in the usual way such things happen in inspirational dramas.

The Sweet Escape
Sometimes, a foreign picture or indie will sneak up on me on DVD, making me wonder how it managed not to find distribution here. Twenty years ago, a movie that combined elements of Jacque Tati, King of Hearts, Apocalypse Now and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream …”) might have packed arthouses with audiences looking for something well off the beaten path. As far as I know, however, writer/director/star Bruno Podalydès’ disarming 2015 comedy/romance, The Sweet Escape, is only now making its U.S. debut on a DVD from Icarus Films. In it, Podalydès (Granny’s Funeral) plays a 50-year-old computer-graphics designer, Michel, who daydreams about flying an airmail plane, believing that going on a dangerous solo run will lead him to discover his true self. Michel previously took up the ukulele, believing that old novelty tunes might transport him to more exotic climes. His obsession with flying ends when co-workers gift him with a three-hour flight in a training plane. He thinks they’re making fun of his obsession.

To compensate for the sudden vacuum in his life, Michel (Podalydès) is inspired to take up kayaking. Not satisfied merely to drive to the nearest navigable river and take lessons, Michel purchases a do-it-yourself kit and constructs a kayak in the apartment he shares with his wife, Rachelle (Sandrine Kiberlain), who patiently allows for his idiosyncrasies. To master the complexities of kayaking, Michel reads every available book, including tips on navigation from Huey, Dewey and Louis. It’s at this point in such narratives that daydreamers usually find their comeuppance in the reality of their own limitations and return to their imaginary pursuits. This definitely is not the case with The Sweet Escape. Not only is Michel able to avoid putting his foot through the kayak’s floor on its first test paddle, but he takes to the water like a newborn duckling. With only a week available to him, Michel embarks on a waterborne excursion on a gently flowing stream in rural France.

Just as the crew of Martin Sheen’s patrol boat found unexpected places to explore along the Nung River, so, too, does Michel make the occasional pitstop. Among them are a seemingly enchanted B&B, where he’s allowed to pitch his tent – complete with all the Tati-inspired camping gimmicks that fit inside the kayak’s hold — and enjoy a good meal. Just as Alan Bates’ endangered soldier, Charles Plumpick, found shelter from the Huns in an asylum populated with endearing eccentrics, in King of Hearts, Michel is welcomed by a quirky collection of misfits at the inn. Foremost among them are two women – one of a certain age (Agnès Jaoui), the other (Vimala Pons) approaching 30 – still mourning the absence of lost lovers. Two very odd handymen (Michel Vuillermoz, Jean-Noël Brouté) complete the package. In return for his welcome company and comic relief, they introduce him to the recuperative powers of hand-picked cherries, duck confit and properly served absinthe. When a storm pre-empts his plans for “roughing it,” they share their beds with him. (In this fantasy, Rachelle exists in land far, far away.) No matter how far Michel makes it downriver, something always causes him to return to his new, extended family. Then, when he returns to his home and wife, he discovers a different reality. If it takes a while to pick up on the film’s peculiar rhythm, patience will soon enough be rewarded

The Monkey King 3: Blu-ray
Chinese filmmakers have been blessed with a catalogue of stories, myths and legends whose origins can be traced back hundreds of years before the Grimm Brothers began writing the fairytales that Walt Disney would plunder only a century later. The Monkey King legend, inspired by Wu Cheng’en’s 100-chapter novel, “Journey to the West” (1592), has been adapted several times over the course of the last 90 years, in China and abroad. It is considered by many historians to be one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels and the source of countless sequels, retellings and spinoffs. It’s also said, however, that the Ming Dynasty novelist and poet was inspired by a popular legend that first surfaced 1,000 years earlier. They’re based on the account of a pious T’ang Buddhist monk, Xuanzang (William Feng), who travels from China to India to search for Buddhist scriptures and dharma. The kinks in his plan are provided by his travelling companions, who include Monkey King Wukong (Aaron Kuck), historically referred to as Monkey Aware of Vacuity; the lustful pig demon, Bajie (Xiao Shenyang); and a sand demon, Wujing (Him Law). While chugging their way west, they’re confronted by a River God who picks up their boat and heaves it into the Womanland of Western Liang. Detached from the outside world by steep cliffs and an invisible dome, the colony is comprised of man-hating women.

Their Queen (Zhao Liying) is warned against getting too close to the treacherous intruders, but, after encountering them on her CGI stag, can’t help but fall for Xuanzang. Her protector (Gigi Leung) senses that their arrival might trigger an ancient prophesy, heralding the fall of Womanland, and immediately orders the men executed. Lovestruck, the Queen instead conspires with them to fake their deaths. Although the Monkey King makes a late entry in the story, his antics and acrobatics are worth the wait. With plenty of time left in the nearly two-hour adventure, director Cheang Pou-soi finds all sorts of diversions to keep viewers interested until the Queen and Xuanzang must decide to test fate in the name of love. Like such recent adventure/fantasies as Anthony LaMolinara and Zhao Xiaoding’s Once Upon a Time, Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back and Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, The Monkey King 3 and its predecessors will take some getting used to for Western viewers. Here’s an idea, though: if Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro want to tackle something other than another J.R.R. Tolkien retread, they should consider something from “Journey to the West,” which would be every bit as fanciful as “LOTR” and “The Hobbit,” and a potential east-west groundbreaker.

Black Venus: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When the screener disc of Arrow Films’ Black Venus arrived in the mail, I immediately assumed that it starred Laura Gemser, one of the queens of Italian sexploitation and star of Black Emmanuelle (1975) and Black Cobra Woman (1976). If the cover art had been included in the delivery, I couldn’t possibly have mistaken Gemser for Yahima Torres, the amateur who Abdellatif Kechiche chose to play his “Hottentot Venus.” Neither could I recall seeing Josephine Jacqueline Jones, a former Miss Bahamas, in her steamy portrayal of the same character in Claude Mulot’s 1983 softcore melodrama of the same title. While both are more or less based on a short story by Honoré de Balzac, Mulot’s film was produced and edited by Playboy Enterprises for its premium cable channel. (An uncut English-dubbed version was released on DVD in 2006.) The woman on the cover of Arrow’s Blu-ray is a much heavier woman than Gemser or Jones, with a protruding backside, decidedly larger breasts, close-cropped hair and an iron collar around her neck. Kechiche’s 2010 version of Black Venus is based more directly on the life of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who in the early 19th century was exhibited in Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus.” Kechiche (Blue Is the Warmest Color) elected to move the setting of his Black Venus, which wasn’t shown widely here, to a bit later in century. It allowed him to take advantage of the Victorian-era costumes, furniture and backdrops. As lavish a production as it is, and despite much fine acting, Black Venus is not an easy film to watch. The voyeuristic aspects of the story can’t help but make viewers, however sympathetic to Baartman’s plight, queasy. The facts aren’t any easier to stomach.

Here, Baartman (Yahima Torres) is a black domestic who’s been persuaded to leave South Africa with her boss, Hendrik Cesars (Andre Jacobs), with the promise of being able to sing, dance and play a stringed instrument for lots of money. Once they arrive, however, Cesars puts Baartman on display as a freak of nature … sometimes on stage, sometimes as a midway attraction. Although her act is pure fiction, it resembles bear-baiting, with the stocky slave occasionally going into the audience to scare the rubes. By the time we catch up with them, Baartman is beginning to resist Cesars’ inhumane demands, by insisting on more dignified clothing and treatment in her off-hours. Their act catches the attention of British abolitionists, who argue in court that her performance is indecent and that she’s being held against her will. Cesars convinces her to tell the court that she approves of the presentation, citing artistic license. She would later be sold to an animal trainer, Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), who introduces her to curious French socialites and academics. Georges Cuvier (François Marthouret), professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History, examines Baartman to find proof that black Africans are the missing link between apes and Homo sapiens. By any name, it’s a theory founded on scientific racism. After leaving the stage, Baartman’s short life turns tragic, with further indignities to come. Kechiche’s depiction of her final years, some spent in a brothel, will leave most viewers spent emotionally and aghast at the arrogance of white Europeans. The Blu-ray adds a new appreciation of Black Venus and other Kechiche films, by critic Neil Young; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Will Higbee, author of “Post-Beur Cinema: North African Émigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France Since 2000.”

It’s Alive Trilogy: Blu-ray
The Bloodthirsty Trilogy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1974, the last place one might have expected to find a score by Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann (for All That Money Can Buy, not Psycho) was in Larry Cohen’s evil-baby thriller, It’s Alive. Future Academy Award mainstay Rick Baker was also attached to the film, but his career had just begun, while Herrmann’s was coming to an end. (The special-effects and puppeteering wizard had just shared an Emmy for his work in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.) For his part, genre specialist Cohen was transitioning from writer to writer/director, with the blaxploitation classics Bone, Hell Up in Harlem and Black Caesar. After It’s Alive his focus would shift to such sci-fi and horror pix as Q, Full Moon High and A Return to Salem’s Lot. Still, he was hardly a household name in Hollywood. Herrmann had recently collaborated with Brian DePalma on the blatantly Hitchcockian thrillers, Sisters and Obsession, so it wasn’t that much of a leap for him to score It’s Alive. In fact, immediately after he finished recording the Taxi Driver soundtrack, on December 23, 1975, Herrmann viewed the rough cut of Cohen’s God Told Me To. Following dinner with the director, he returned to his hotel and died from a heart attack in his sleep. Not being one of Cohen’s most memorable works, it’s fair to wonder what contributed more to the composer’s sudden demise, the meal, wine or movie.

Richard Woodley’s subsequent novelization of It’s Alive alludes to the likelihood that the mother of the grotesquely deformed infant – visible on screen for less than a minute, in total – took an inadequately tested fertility drug to facilitate the conception of her second child. Immediately after taking its first breath, the child uses its fangs and claws to tear into the doctor and nurses in the delivery room. It eludes hospital security, leaving a trail of carnage as it heads for his parents’ home. Although a representative for the pharmaceutical company that supplied the fertility drug recommends killing the infant – rather than face a bevy of wrongful-death lawsuits – Frank Davis (John Ryan) and his wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell), begin to develop a weird parental attachment to the little monster. Frank tries to prevent a mob of vigilantes from killing the baby, but, when it attacks the fertility doctor, the little tyke is killed by police. Soon, thereafter, we learn that another murderous kid has been delivered in Seattle.

In hindsight, you’d think that a sequel would immediately be put on the drawing board, and it was. Funny thing, though. In between the time Cohen pitched and completed production on It’s Alive, Warner Bros. brought in a new team of executives, none of whom were enthusiastic about it. The studio gave the film a one-theater showcase in May 1974, in Chicago, and a limited release five months later. Despite doing respectable business, the company shelved the picture in the U.S. for three years. It did boffo business in foreign markets, however, prompting another new set of WB executives to agree to Cohen’s request for a second opinion. Thanks to a completely new marketing campaign, It’s Alive went on to become a cult classic. It was followed by two sequels, It Lives Again (1978) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) – included in the new ScreamFactory box — and a straight-to-DVD remake, It’s Alive (2009), which was disowned by Cohen. When WB decided to rush the sequel, Cohen was accorded an 18-day shooting schedule. It required him to divide post-production duties between It Lives Again and another theatrical project. By now, the number of evil babies has risen, sparking a curious debate between pro-lifers and abortion advocates, as to their fate. Frank Davis attempts to convince expectant parents, Jody and Eugene Scott (Fredric Forrest, Kathleen Lloyd) to protect their child from a lynch mob and turn it over to researchers. Naturally, a chase ensues.

It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive takes place a decade after the events of the first two installments and is largely set on a remote island, where the surviving babies have been quarantined. Michael Moriarty plays Jarvis, the father of one of the mutant children, to whom he pays a visit five years later as part of a scientific mission. The children have grown quickly into adults, with talents all their own. Jarvis’ son has fathered a child and wants nothing more than to return to the mainland and introduce the baby to its grandmother, Ellen (Karen Black). Before that can happen, though, Jarvis and the mutants are required to make a detour to Cuba. Oy vey! The trilogy arrives in Blu-ray, backed by 2K remasters from original film elements. Among the new bonus features are “Cohen’s Alive: Looking Back at the It’s Alive Films,” featuring interviews with the director, actors James Dixon, Michael Moriarty and Laurene Landon; “It’s Alive at the Nuart: The 40th Anniversary Screening,” with Cohen; a fresh interview with special-effects-makeup designer Steve Neill; and ported-over commentaries and marketing material.

Arrow Video’s “The Bloodthirsty Trilogy: Special Edition” is noteworthy primarily for its value to horror buffs and fans of Japanese genre fare. The films reflect the influence of Hammer Films, giallo and such American classics as James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) on two generation of J-horror specialists. Even the titles of the films in Michio Yamamoto’s trilogy — The Vampire Doll (1970), Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1974) – betray the western influence. Although the emphasis is more on the supernatural than Old World bloodsuckers, a case is made for the likelihood that the vampires here aren’t native to Japan, at all. The gothic tone is emphasized by stormy nights, ghostly mansions, hellish prophesies and unexpected guests, who wonder what happened to friends who disappeared after visiting the spooky inhabitants. Kim Newman provides lively analysis of the trilogy, which arrives with a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin, and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp.

Bruce’s Deadly Fingers: Blu-ray
After Bruce Lee’s untimely death in 1973, at 32, purveyors of Hong Kong chopsocky flicks wasted little time before unleashing a flood of pictures exploiting his memory. Enter the Dragon had become a posthumous box-office smash, world-wide, and studio executives wondered how and when they could replace such a charismatic personality. At first, attempts were made to cannibalize the titles and footage from Lee’s four features – that’s right, four – and pad the concoction with stock footage. Among the titles were “Re-Enter the Dragon,” “Enter Three Dragons,” “Return of Bruce,” “Enter Another Dragon,” “Return of the Fists of Fury” and “Enter the Game of Death,” as well as clip-job biopics with Lee’s name in the title. Actors representing Lee were shot in shadow and inserted in existing footage. Some were asked to change their screen names to Bruce or variations of Lee. They included Bruce Le, star of Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, Bronson Lee, Bruce Chen, Bruce Lai, Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lie, Bruce Liang (a.k.a., Bruce Leung), Saro Lee, Bruce Ly, Bruce Thai, Bruce K.L. Lea, Brute Lee, Myron Bruce Lee, Lee Bruce, and Dragon Lee. If the actors resembled the Real McCoy and could use their fists of fury, so much the better.  One of Lee’s fight choreographers, actor-director Sammo Hung, satirized the Bruceploitation phenomenon in his 1978 film, Enter the Fat Dragon. The fad faded when Jackie Chan emerged as the leader of the pack in such kung fu comedies as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. It’s safe to say that the recent spate of Ip Man movies benefited greatly from his student’s legacy.

In Joseph Kong’s 1976 actioner, Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, crime boss Lee Hung (Lo Lieh) covets a perhaps mythical fighting manual, “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Finger Book.” Hung already considers himself to be a martial arts master, even bragging to his girlfriend that he would kick Lee’s ass if he were still alive. Even so, acquiring the book would put the cherry on Hung’s ice-cream sundae. One of Lee’s students, Bruce Wong (Le), returns to Hong Kong from the U.S., after receiving a letter begging him to return home before the book falls into the wrong hands. Before he’s able to begin his search, however, Wong’s required to free his sister – Lee’s ex-girlfriend — from the clutches of gangsters who believe she’s hoarding the book. Bruce’s Deadly Fingers is jam-packed with kung-fu action, illogical dialogue, ridiculous kills, the requisite amount of rapes and nudity, and other clichés, including an unpleasant scene in which a woman is tortured with a live reptile. The VCI Entertainment Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K transfer from the original widescreen 35mm film negative; a photo and poster gallery of this and other Bruceploitation films; trailers of Bruceploitation titles; learned commentary by author/director/actor Michael Worth; and interviews with some of the actors.

Landing Up
Sadly, while there are several believable characters in Daniel Tenenbaum’s Landing Up, the protagonist isn’t one of them. That’s a real problem, especially when the character is a young prostitute, attempting to survive in New York by hooking up with guys she spills drinks on in bars, then persuades to give her a place to crash and a few bucks. There’s nothing unusual about that setup, which we’ve seen a hundred times. It’s entirely possible, however, that Tenenbaum and writer/star/spouse Stacey Maltin didn’t do more than a few hours of research on working girls in the Big Apple or, if they did, it came after watching Pretty Woman and some Cinemax movies. For no good reason, other than the fact that she’s reluctant to spend the money she makes, Chrissie (Maltin) sleeps in the streets when she isn’t staying with her friend, Cece (E’dena Hines), and her junkie boyfriend, or passes out on the bed of a trick. The fact that Chrissie also has a phone-sex number isn’t known to us until well into the second half of the movie. The revenues from that enterprise, alone, could have afforded her and Cece an apartment in one of the boroughs, at least. She carries the money she earns in her purse, which, even outside New York, is an invitation to be robbed. Landing Up’s biggest mistake, though, is allowing Maltin to turn Chrissie into an all-American girl, with a cute face, good teeth, hearty laugh and wonderful personality. If she had watched a couple of episodes of Starz’ “The Girlfriend Experience” – or, better, Brent Owens’ Pimps Up, Ho’s Down — Chrissie might have turned out several shades more genuine. Her biggest dilemma comes when she finds a real boyfriend, David (Ben Rappaport), who’s moderately well-off, extremely nice, good looking and has an eye toward the future. When she isn’t staying over at his apartment, Chrissie competes with homeless people for cardboard and patches of concrete. Either way, she can’t make any money. When his vindictive roommate blows the whistle on Chrissie, David freaks out. Can this relationship be saved? Does it matter? Landing Up was Hines’ last movie. The promising young actress and step-granddaughter of actor Morgan Freeman was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in August 2015, at 33. Two weeks ago, a New York jury found Lamar Davenport not guilty on charges of second-degree murder. He was, however, convicted of manslaughter, based on defense claims that he was in a “drug-induced psychosis during the brutal slaying, brought on by his use of PCP.”

Desolation: Blu-ray
In their feature debut, director Sam Patton and writers Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas, have combined all the ingredients necessary for a first-rate thriller, but pulled it out of the oven only half-baked. Timing in at a far too brisk 78 minutes, Desolation would have benefitted from another 15 minutes of suspense or one or two more false alarms. At its best, Desolation is a compelling study of bonding between a grieving widow and her supportive BFF, and a mother and her 12-year-old son, all devastated by the untimely death of a loving husband, father and friend. Jaimi Paige plays Abby, the mother of Sam (Toby Nichols) and close friend of Jen (Alyshia Ochse). Together, they’re hiking to remote spots in the forests of Upstate New York that were favorite destinations of the dearly departed. After a swim in a scenic lake and trek to the top of a mountain overlooking it, they intend to spread his ashes and bury a few mementos. Unbeknownst to the two women, they’re being followed – OK, stalked – by a villain straight out of a 1970s slasher picture: a disheveled mute, wearing a black, hooded coat; dark slacks; combat boots; and shades with copper-colored reflector lenses. The Hiker (Claude Duhamel) carries a staff and says nothing when summoned from afar. Clearly, he isn’t there to protect them from hungry bears and rabid raccoons. By the time the Hiker makes his first aggressive move against the trio, he’s so familiar to us that his ability to shock has dissipated. Eventually, though, he’ll have to attack the campers and do something so shocking we’ll want to turn our heads. If only … Patton reserved that moment for an off-screen deliverance, leaving viewers to guess when Sam’s preordained date with destiny will arrive. By then, the results are a foregone conclusion. If Desolation is a letdown in suspense department, it rewards viewers with some truly lovely scenery and a couple of scenes in which Abby and Jen reminisce about better times and act like a couple of teenage girls at a cookout. It’s when the picture comes most alive. There’s no reason to think that the filmmakers’ sophomore outing won’t by an improvement on the debut.

The Manor
Low-budget genre films don’t have to be logical to be enjoyable. They shouldn’t, however, insult viewers willing to cut first-time directors some slack. Jonathon Schermerhorn probably should be allowed to share the blame for The Manor, considering that four writers are credited with the script and none of them are named Schermerhorn. The story opens with Jane, the mother of an 18-year-old mental patient, Amy (Christina Robinson), insisting that the girl be allowed to leave the hospital under her guardianship. The administrator (Rachel True) advises against the move, but she’s helpless to prevent it. Instead of driving straight home, however, mom (Tanja Melendez Lynch) drags Amy to the exquisite country home of a guy who appears to have suffered childhood trauma while being taught how to play chess by his dogmatic father. Jane has deluded herself into thinking that Amy is ready to reunite with her aunt and cousins, with whom she shared some laughs as a kid. That was before Amy experienced something so disturbing that it would cause her to experience hallucinations and nightmares for years to come. Not surprisingly, her family does Amy more harm than good. To complicate matters, the proprietor has also booked rooms for a trio of sociopathic hillbillies masquerading as hunters. One of them, at least, immediately commits his energies to raping Amy and her horny cousin, Blaire (Danielle Guldin). He’s not the only guest with the same ambition. A couple of hours later, a large group of hippies arrives to set up what appears to be a mini-carnival. Their leader, played by WWE veteran Kevin Nash, takes it upon himself to protect Amy from harm. When he hears the name of the demon that’s been tormenting her, he agrees that it’s not a hallucination and deserves to be feared. Nothing really makes literal sense in The Manor, but, maybe that isn’t its point and I missed the joke.

Bent: Blu-ray
Rugged Kiwi action star Karl Urban plays Danny Gallagher, a disgraced narcotics detective, who has just been released from prison for shooting another cop he couldn’t possibly have known was also working undercover. Hey, mistakes happen. Usually, a cop will get a pass for not being aware of the circumstances before trying to arrest a bad guy. If Danny had suspected that his partner would be killed in the same bust, he certainly wouldn’t have rushed the drug traficker’s boat. That would have made for a short and largely pointless movie, however. Instead, Bent becomes one of those flicks in which everyone within a 50-mile radius is crooked, including police, federal agents and forensics investigators. Turns out, while Danny’s partner wasn’t exactly dirty, he did owe a substantial debt to a bookie. To buy back the IOU, he borrowed money from someone who was just as bent as everyone else in the picture. Now, the dough has disappeared, and everyone thinks Danny has it. There’s enough action here to satisfy most tastes, as well as the requisite number of minutes spent inside a strip club. Sofia Vegara (“Modern Family”), who plays another corrupt agent, has said that her shower scene with Danny contains her first screen nudity. Technically, that might be true, but the glass door of the shower is so clouded with steam that she might as well be wearing a bikini. Andy Garcia, Vincent Spano, and John Finn also appear in key, if undernourished parts. The Blu-ray adds an interview with writer/director Bobby Moresco (10th & Wolf) and other cast and crew members, and a making-of featurette.

Docs-to-DVD
Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 2
The Secret Life of Lance Letscher
Divine Divas
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Finding Oscar
It’s Not Yet Dark
Dayveon
At some point in the last 30 years, or so, documentaries evolved from being strictly formulated vehicles for education, enlightenment and consensus building, into films that can stand on their own as entertainment, provocation and counterweights to the shortcomings of the mainstream media. Indeed, some of the best documentaries have provided the source material for studio-backed adaptations. If most American docs made during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl period came approached their subjects from the left, it’s worth remembering that propagandist non-fiction was advanced first by Leni Riefenstahl, to sell Hitler’s fascist agenda to everyday citizens wearing red Make Germany Great Again caps. I kid. Recently, the right wing’s efforts to discredit President Obama and Hillary Clinton on film have been feeble, at best. The 16 films from 11 countries that are included in Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 2 represent 50 years of political activism on film. Most were made before the introduction of lightweight, handheld digital cameras. The 8mm and 16mm films show their age, as do the causes being forwarded by activists. According to its founders, the overall aim of the Disruptive Film Project is to help construct an “alternative history of experimental, political nonfiction media, specifically from the perspective of the short film.” Curators Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner put the two volumes together for political and educational purposes, “to offer film and media makers and scholars a chance to review unaccountably under-appreciated works of film, video, animation — from France to Chiapas, from Serbia to China, to Nigeria — works that propose various strategies of resistance to power.” If audiences weaned on the work of Errol Morris and Michael Moore find the selections a tad too primitive for their taste, they should know that Kartemquin Films – producers of such highly accessible docs as Hoop Dreams, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Milking the Rhino – made its bones in the non-fiction game 10 years before Hoop Dreams, with films that look virtually the same as these. Its titles left little room for guess work, anyway: Women’s Voices: The Gender Gap (1984), The Last Pullman Car (1983), Taylor Chain: A Story in a Local Union (1980) and The Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976).;

Otherwise, the folks at FilmRise have pretty much cornered this week’s market on docs on DVD.

Sandra Adair has been Richard Linklater’s go-to editor since Dazed and Confused (1993), garnering an Oscar nomination in 2015 for Boyhood. Her first directorial credit came last year with The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, a warm psychological portrait of the celebrated Austin-based collage artist. Told through memories of trauma and triumph, the brilliantly colored film provides a doorway into the artist’s insights on creativity, the subconscious, work ethic and spirituality. It coincides with Letscher’s determination to craft a large metallic mural along South Congress Avenue, in one of Austin’s busiest commercial districts. The documentary features detailed images of more than a hundred of his collages, sculptures and installations.

Brazilian actress Leandra Leal didn’t have to travel very far afield for inspiration when she decided to make her directorial debut. Her feature-length documentary, The Divine Divas, recalls the grit and determination of the country’s first generation of transvestite entertainers. They performed at Rio de Janeiro’s Rival Theater, which, in the 1960s, was run by her grandfather. It was one of the first clubs to openly feature men dressed as women – an activity frowned upon by the military government — and the film catches up with eight of them, during a performance marking their 50th anniversary.

Winner of three 2015 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” is Alex Gibney’s penetrating examination of the controversial religion, which, some insist, doubles as a cult and pyramid scheme. The HBO-produced film profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, exploring the psychological impact of blind faith and how the church attracts new followers and keeps hold of its A-list celebrity devotees. “Going Clear” is informed by exclusive interviews and never-before-seen footage featuring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta, as well as a comprehensive history and intimate portrait of the church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. It came on the heels of Gibney’s Peabody Award-winning documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, an investigation into the Catholic Church.

Ryan Suffern’s Finding Oscar takes us back more than 35 years, to the Central American killing fields, when right-wing dictators and their enforcers were granted carte blache to eliminate anyone – and everyone – deemed to be an enemy of the state. Frequently, the victims included innocent men, women and children, many of whom were native Guatemalans. In 1982, a band of Guatemalan soldiers entered the tiny village of Dos Erres, hunting anti-government guerrillas. Finding none, they settled for raping and murdering the residents. More than 200 bodies, some still alive, were thrown into a well and buried. Only two young boys, one named Oscar, were spared, to be raised by soldiers who killed their families. Nearly 30 years after the tragedy, a dedicated team of forensic scientists, led by a young Guatemalan prosecutor, sought to bring justice to those responsible. First, they were required to find Oscar, who had moved to the United States and wasn’t aware of his familial roots or the massacre. Sadly, atrocities and mass graves were commonplace occurrences during much of the 20th Century. This story, at least, leaves hope for the future.

Frankie Fenton’s debut feature, It’s Not Yet Dark, tells the remarkable story of Simon Fitzmaurice, a young Irish filmmaker struck down in his prime by Motor Neuron Disease (ALS). He was diagnosed with the debilitating disease shortly after his second short film, “The Sound of People,” premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Once he became completely paralyzed, Fitzmaurice typed the script for My Name is Emily (2015), through the movement of his eyes and the iris- recognition software, Eye Gaze. This is also how he communicated while directing the film during its five-week shoot in August and September 2014. Narrated by Colin Farrell, It’s Not Yet Dark describes how such a seemingly impossible thing was accomplished, before succumbing to the disease last October. My Name is Emily is currently available through streaming services.

Also new from FilmRise is Amman Abbasi’s freshman film, Dayveon, which could easily be mistaken for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It involves 13-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), who lives in poor town outside Little Rock with his older sister, Kim (Chasity Moore), her boyfriend, Bryan (Dontrell Bright), and their 3-year-old son. Dayveon’s older brother died recently in a gang-related shooting. His loss drove their mother mad and still haunts Dayveon. Left to his own devices, he soon falls in with the local gang members. If he can survive the initiation rites, he might live long enough to face the same fate as his brother.

TV-to-DVD
Lifetime: Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten, Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS: GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II
PBS: NOVA: Great Escape at Dunkirk
PBS: NOVA: Prediction by the Numbers
PBS: Frontline: The Gang Crackdown
Spike: The Shannara Chronicles: Season Two: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Pinkalicious & Peterrific: Pinkamagine It!
Not knowing how much money Catherine Zeta-Jones was paid by Lifetime to portray the infamous drug lord Griselda Blanco, I’ll resist the temptation to describe her decision as a step up, down or sideways. With an Oscar, Tony, BAFTA already under her belt, it would be all too easy to quip, “How the mighty have fallen,” and dismiss “Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story” as an attempt to piggy-back on the proliferation of movies and mini-series based on Colombian drug cartels, their lifestyles and smuggling networks, and the law-enforcement officials who pursued them. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) directs “Cocaine Godmother” in a serviceable, paint-by-numbers way that suits the cable network’s female-centric format and probably didn’t cost too much money to make. (Zeta-Jones told Parade magazine, “I didn’t want to make her likeable or acceptable in any way. But, I have to admire her having power and also abusing that power. She made it big in a very dangerous world.” That’s one way of sizing up a monster.) According to Molly McAlpine and David McKenna’s screenplay, which isn’t to be strictly believed, Griselda was pimped out by her mother as a child. She’s shown here taking a beating from Mommie Dearest for allowing herself to be cheated by a customer, who she went back and killed. At 17 or, maybe 30, depending on which bio one believes, Griselda made her way to Queens, New York, with a fake passport and a dispensable second husband. She worked for a dealer who admired her ability to forge documents, becoming his partner when she devised numerous ways to smuggle blow into the U.S. in the underwear and false-bottom suitcases of beautiful women, children and invalids.

After eluding capture there, she ended up in Miami in late 1970s. Griselda’s links to Escobar assured her a steady supply of cocaine and the money necessary to afford luxuries and a small army of assassins. It is widely believed that she directly ordered the killings of 200 people during Miami’s Cocaine Cowboy era. Likewise, her greedy sons took to the family business like flies to shit. “Cocaine Godmother,” one of three such projects on tap, tells her story from the perspective of the DEA agent who chased Blanco around the country for years, hoping to make an arrest. Considering that she only served a grand total of 10 years behind bars, before being sent back to Medellin, it hardly seems worth the effort. The movie’s biggest stumbling block is the casting of Zeta-Jones, a former A-lister whose roots extend east to Wales and Ireland, not south to Colombia and the rest of Latin America. Besides being too thin and beautiful to represent La Madrina, even with a minimal amount of makeup, Zeta-Jones’ accent isn’t always on point. It begs the question as to why a dozen other fine Hispanic actresses weren’t chosen for the part. (Answer: star quality.) Still, she doesn’t embarrass herself. Zeta-Jones has gone public about her struggles with depression and bipolar II disorder, which have caused her to take long breaks from her acting career. She’s enjoyed only sporadic success at the box-office in recent years – Reds 2 comes to mind — so, maybe, television is a better bet for her right now. Last year, the mother of two children with Michael Douglas, worked alongside Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in the entertaining FX mini-series “Feud.” In it, she won critical praise playing actress Olivia de Havilland, a contemporary of co-protagonists Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

A couple of weeks ago, in my review of the first season of the “Masterpiece Mystery!” presentation, “Unforgotten,” I suggested that the crime at the heart of the six-part series might have taken “Law & Order” only a week or two to solve. I didn’t really mind the padding, however, as the acting and writing were sufficiently compelling for binge viewing. The Season Two package is newly available on Blu-ray and on PBS affiliates, in hi-def. This time, the complexity of the murder and subsequent investigation might have warranted a seventh episode, simply to add some air to the extremely tight narrative. In the first go-round, police detectives were called to a construction site, where the skeletal remains of a young man are found under the footings of a house demolished 39 years after his murder. This time, bones and seriously damaged watch are found in a suitcase dug up from the silt covered-floor of a river by a dredging tool. Police use the damaged watch to help them identify the corpse and link it to several old codgers who begin acting strangely when called in for questioning. They’ve had several decades to get their alibis straight, and they’re all good.

Also on PBS, “GI Jews: Jewish Americans In World War II” tells the story of the 550,000 Jewish American men and women who served in World War II. Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Henry Kissinger are among the veterans who relate their war experiences, while also describing what life at home was like for the children of recent immigrants as they prepared to fight for their adopted country. Living in New York, where the Jewish population was high, was an altogether different experience from sharing a barracks with rednecks and other homegrown bigots who had never met a Jew and didn’t want to bunk alongside one, in any case. Neither were they encouraged to wear their dog tags into combat, because the stamped “H” could tip off a German captor and result in their execution. Their recollections of what some of the veterans found when they liberated the death camps makes for extremely powerful viewing.

Two new DVDs from PBS’ “NOVA” demonstrate the series’ ability to keep audiences guessing as to what the producers will next. “Great Escape at Dunkirk” picks up where Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour left off, by adding 50 years’ worth of insight into how the evacuation was able to succeed, against all odds. The show’s correspondents joined government-commissioned archaeologists and divers as they recovered the remains of ships and planes lost during siege and rescue. They also provide new evidence of the ingenious technology that helped save Allied forces from defeat by the encircling Germans at sea and in the air. “Prediction by the Numbers” examines how predictions based on mathematics and odds-laying underpin nearly every aspect of our lives and why some succeed spectacularly while others fail. The show is enhanced with entertaining real-world challenges that tackle the age-old question: Can we forecast the future?

PBS’s “Frontline” tackles “The Gang Crackdown” from the viewpoint of citizens of a Long Island town who would love to see President Trump make good on his promise to rid the U.S. of the scourge that is MS-13. A slew of killings linked to Central American-born gangbangers has prompted a crackdown that not only has led to the arrests of legitimate suspects in crimes, but also the jailing of innocent bystanders who ICE agents have mistaken for gang members. Justice hasn’t come easy for those whose only crime happened to be wearing the wrong color clothes to school or speaking Spanish in front of the wrong people. The constitutional protections afforded every other American don’t apply to people our great leader recently called “animals,” even those completely innocent of any crime. And, of course, no one in Washington or in law-enforcement feels compelled to blow the horn on such illegal detentions.

Self-inflicted wounds sometimes are the most difficult to heal. That appears to be the case with Viacom Media Networks’ decision to move “The Shannara Chronicles” from its first-season perch on MTV, to Spike in Season Two. While MTV’s youthful, largely female audience probably was the appropriate demographic for the fantasy/drama series, company executives misjudged the ability of the show’s hot actresses to keep male viewers tuned in. Consequently, the numbers didn’t add up for a third-season go-ahead. Unable to sell the New Zealand-based series – adapted from Terry Brooks’ “The Sword of Shannara” trilogy of fantasy novels – to another network, it was deemed expendable. Maybe. instead of punishing the fans for not migrating with the show, the executives who OK’d the move should have been deemed expendable.  For the record, though, the second season is newly available on Blu-ray. When it kicked off on Spike, chaos had overtaken the Four Lands, as a body called “The Crimson” began to hunt down magic users. As is the case with so many fantasy and Cosplay series, it’s often difficult to ascertain whether violence is downright medieval or futuristic.

In PBS Kids’ “Pinkalicious & Peterrific: Pinkamagine It!,” children are encouraged to join Pinkalicious and her brother, Peter, on adventures in the arts, creativity and self-expression. In the best-selling children’s book, a little girl named Pinkalicious wakes up to discover her whole body has suddenly turned pink, which makes her ecstatic, but isn’t without its downside. This collection is comprised of six stories that take place in Pinkville, “a pink-loving town with a touch of whimsy.”

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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“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