MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Double Lover, Death of Stalin, Flower, Hooked, Alex & Me, Guilty Men, Night of Lepus, Greaser’s Palace, Man in Orange Shirt … More

Double Lover: Blu-ray
Adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novel, “Lives of the Twins,” written under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith, Double Lover is as different from François Ozon’s previous period drama, Franz, as noon is to midnight. The same could be said about most of the movies in Ozon’s credits. Double Lover should please those who dig his erotic psychodramas and eclectic views on human sexuality. Swimming Pool comes to mind, of course, as do Water Drops on Burning Rocks and The New Girlfriend. Because Ozon makes arty films for arthouse habitués – thrillers, comedies, melodramas – a place should already be reserved for him in heaven … if not atop the charts at Box Office Mojo. In an interview included in the Blu-ray package, the co-writer/director acknowledges the debt he owes here to Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma. That’s pretty obvious, though. I suspect that Ozon would also admit to watching David Cronenberg’s “body horror” drama, Dead Ringers, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and Paul Verhoeven’s neo-noir erotic thriller, Basic Instinct. In Double Lover, Ozon raises the kink factor about as high as it can get and still find distribution in the few dozen American theaters in which it played.

In it, Marine Vacth (Young & Beautiful) plays Chloé, a beautiful young woman – aren’t they all? – whose chronic stomach pains can’t be explained by her internist or gynecologist, through whose speculum we’re allowed to co-examine her vagina. The somewhat murky shot dissolves into a close-up of Chloé’s eye, which sets the tone for all that follows. On her doctor’s advice, the former model begins to see a psychoanalyst, Paul (Jérémie Renier), who’s attentive, gentle and, yes, handsome. After declaring her cured, Paul is free to declare his love for Marine and pursue a more lasting relationship with her. They move in together, but things start to get weird when Chloé thinks she’s spotted him on the street, chatting with another woman. He swears that it wasn’t him, without fully confiding in her as to how such a mistake could have been made. After some snooping into Paul’s personal items, Chloé suspects that an answer might lie in a clandestine visit to a different psychoanalyst, Louis, who is the twin brother Paul refuses to acknowledge.

Although they’re identical physically, the men’s professional methodology could hardly be more different. Louis immediately decides that Marine’s problem is sexual frigidity and rape could be the cure. It isn’t, but she reacts to it in the same way as too many other mentally fragile women do in the movies … first with revulsion, then curiosity and, finally, passion. After a while, Louis figures out Chloé’s relationship to his brother, and she cops to it. Once Paul agrees to open the lid on his personal vault of secrets, Ozon lets the good-twin/evil-twin dynamic take over the narrative. It reveals another wrinkle in the story, involving a different young woman with the bad luck to have gotten between the siblings. As strange as this scenario gets, it opens the door for the arrival of the always-welcome Jacqueline Bisset, as her mother. The final confrontation, which differs in one important way from the novel, at least, requires no small degree of attention from viewers. They may want to keep their fingers on the replay button of their remote control, just in case. Ozon does a nice job keeping all the loose ends from fraying, while also playing with our perceptions of what’s being done to whom.  The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds “Conversations From the Quad,” with Ozon and Vacth being interviewed by Richard Pena, professor of film studies at Columbia University.

The Death of Stalin
Before the collapse of the Soviet empire, American intelligence agents and political scientists engaged in a form of tea-leaf reading, known as Kremlinology, that required a careful analysis of the positioning of ministers and generals on the reviewing podium of May Day parades. In the movies, at least, FBI agents engaged in the same kind of unscientific research at the funerals of mob bosses and the marriages of their children. They would stake out the processions and study the floral arrangements for clues to the new order of things. Unscientific, sure, but, more often than not, reasonably accurate. Kremlinology is still practiced at CIA headquarters, even though it’s clear who’s in charge in Russia. The Death of Stalin recalls when Stalin was on his death bed and no one in his inner circle dared assume his intentions as to his choice for a successor. The intrigue and machinations that followed the funeral made the average American political convention look like a church picnic. In anyone else’s hands than Armando Iannucci, the much-feared dictator’s death, after 30 years at the helm of the ship of state, probably wouldn’t lend itself to comedy … even of the black variety. The Scottish satirist, writer, director and radio producer is best known in England for having created or co-created “Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge” and “I’m Alan Partridge,” with Steve Coogan, and “The Thick of It,” a television series that satirized the inner workings of British government, from 2006 to 2012. A feature film spin-off, In the Loop (2009), did the same thing to Anglo-American politics in the Iraq War period. Described as the anti-“West Wing,” it was a critical hit, but commercial failure. The good news that emerged from its lack of popular success arrived three years later, in the form of an invitation from HBO to create “The Veep.”

It is in the darkly comedic shadows of those television shows that The Death of Stalin was adapted from the French graphic novel, “La mort de Staline.” It was directed by Iannucci; co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows and Fabien Nury; and stars Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor and Adrian McLoughlin, as Stalin. Whatever the producers shelled out on makeup, wigs and costume design was money well spent. The movie opens in March 1953, with Stalin demanding that the engineers at Moscow Radio rush a recording of that night’s concert to his residence. Pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) is performing Mozart, accompanied by a full orchestra. This night, however, no one bothered to record the concert and Stalin’s request sends the station manager, Andreyev (Paddy Considine), into a panic. Instead of telling him the truth, Andreyev immediately stops the musicians, audience members and technicians from leaving the concert hall. He drags people from the street to fill the auditorium and maintain the acoustical integrity. A substitute conductor was rushed to the hall, in his pajamas, to fill in for the previous maestro. Even though the ruse is successful, it’s still possible that heads will roll for the delay. Instead, when Stalin reads the insanely disparaging message secreted in the sleeve by the pianist – whose parents were purged — he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and collapses. He dies three days later, with no anointed successor nor a framework within which a transfer of power could take place. If the history, as depicted, wouldn’t pass muster in a classroom, Iannucci’s comedic touches can be felt everywhere else. Not for nothing, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Fans of “The Veep,” especially, should make the effort it takes to find it.

Way back at the dawn of the Golden Age of Porn, many Americans were shocked to learn that the pretty blond model, known as the “Ivory Snow girl,” was neither Cybill Shepherd, whom she resembled, nor “99 44/100% pure,” as advertised. Marilyn Chambers posed for the photo, which was prominently displayed in supermarkets across the nation, before she committed to a career in the adult-film industry. Naturally, the producers of Behind the Green Door found it very handy as a marketing tool for their movie. That’s kind of how I felt during the first few minutes of Flower, after seeing that the film’s seemingly virginal 17-year-old protagonist, Erica Vandross was doing land-office business giving blow jobs to grown men and blackmailing them, ostensibly to raise money for her father’s bail. Erica even offers to perform a hummer, gratis, on her obese and practically mute future stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan), to pull him out of the suicidal shell he entered after leaving rehab. Few actresses would seem less likely to be handed the role of a sexual predator than Zoey Deutch, the daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, and broke into the business, at 15, on the Disney Channel series, “The Suite Life on Deck.” Now 24, she’s appeared in such movies as Vampire Academy, Dirty Grandpa, Everybody Wants Some!!, Why Him? and The Disaster Artist. If she wanted, Deutch probably could pass for a teenage for another couple years. Even though she’s the best reason to pick up a copy of Flower, however, it was difficult for me to buy into Deutch playing a sexual mercenary and outcast at school. Fellow Disney alumnus Miley Cyrus would be more credible in the role, perhaps, but nowhere near as good an actor. Deutch carries the movie in the palm of her hand, as if it were a snowball made of Ivory Snow. Although though Luke politely turns down Erica’s seemingly genuine offer — “I like sucking dick, it wouldn’t be a burden” — it sparks a friendship between them.

Luke tells Erica that the root of his problem can be traced to an incident of sexual abuse, in which a teacher, Will (Adam Scott), fondled his genitals. Because of a scarcity of evidence and the boy’s lack of credibility, no charges were filed against him. The stain proved to be permanent, however, and he was fired from his job. While conversing with Emily at a local bowling alley, Luke spots Will, panics and runs home to commit suicide. Like everything else he’s done in his life, it’s a pathetic failure. Even so, it convinces Emily that Will is guilty. Along with her only true friends and co-conspirators, she uses her sexual wiles to entrap Will into confessing his crime or leave himself open to be outed as a pedophile. The trouble, of course, is that Will’s story turns out to be as credible as Luke’s tale of woe sounded, at first. He argues that Luke is harboring a misconception of the incident, based on something else, entirely. By now, however, the wheels of their scheme are already in motion. If the movie’s conclusion doesn’t feel any more realistic than the beginning, it works within the context of everything that’s transpired, in between. It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Deutch, writer/director Max Winkler (Henry’s son) and co-writers Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer were influenced – directly, or otherwise – by Lolita (1962) or Baby Doll (1956). Still, I can’t imagine that DNA belonging to Sue Lyon and Carroll Baker wouldn’t show up in Emily, somewhere. Spicer co-wrote and directed Ingrid Goes West, in which Aubrey Plaza plays a social-media stalker who could have been Emily’s distant cousin. Traces of Thirteen, The Bling Ring, Something Wild can also be seen. Also good is the ubiquitous Kathryn Hahn, who plays the kind of mom who either wasn’t paying much attention to her daughter’s precocious behavior when she was growing up or was too busy trying to get laid, herself, to care.

If Erica had been a gay white male, instead of an impulsive, sexually active teenager, she’d be known as a hustler, instead of “slut.” In Hooked, newcomer Conor Donnally’s homeless 18-year-old hustler, Jack, looks more like a fashion model or surfer than a guy who puts his life on the line with each new trick. Max Emerson’s debut feature was inspired by the troubling e-mails he received from LGBT youths after he published his own memoir, “Hot Sissy: Life Before Flashbulbs.”  The statistics cited before the closing credits bear out the 25-year-old filmmaker’s belief that being a homeless runaway makes a cash-starved teenager an easy target for predators of all stripe, and being hustler is an especially dangerous practice. As is the case with Deutch’s performance, in Flower, the thing that makes Hooked significantly more entertaining than the average message movie is Donnally’s charismatic personality and belief in his character’s ability to survive in the concrete jungle, without sacrificing his sense of humor and dignity. When Jack isn’t on the make, he and his 17-year-old boyfriend, Tom (Sean Ormond), bounce around Manhattan posing for photographs and playing pranks on people who don’t enjoy bearing the brunt of their gags.

One of them, Ken (Terrance Murphy), re-enters Jack’s life while he’s sitting in a Chinese restaurant, daring a waiter to evict him for only ordering a glass of water and chasing it with a dash of Dijon mustard. The boys had ruined Ken’s expensive shirt by squirting condiments at him as he walked down the street. Instead of busting the devilishly handsome young man for the offence, Ken demands he order some real food and join him for lunch. Later, Ken asks him to fly to Miami and spend the weekend together in his swank condo. Ken is a closeted married man, with a devoted wife (Katie McClellan) and child, and plenty of money to burn. He’s a decent guy, really, but, by living a lie, Ken’s destined to make someone close to him extremely unhappy. He enjoys Jack’s mischievous side, but, when his borderline-personality disorder kicks into gear, Ken doesn’t quite know how to handle it. They have fun together, until one of the older man’s little white lies darkens Jack’s mood. After that, Hooked takes an abrupt turn to the more serious side of Emerson’s story. The DVD adds behind-the-scenes footage and a teaser for “Drag Babies.” Although Deutch’s future is assured, itwill be interesting to see where Ormond’s next job takes him.

Alex & Me: Blu-ray
Disney Channel: The Swap
It’s tough to ascertain the impact of the United States’ team being shut out of World Cup on boys dreaming of attaining the same goal in 2022 and 2026. There probably are some boys cooling their heels in President Trump’s detention centers right now, who aspire to representing Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador in the upcoming games and, at least, can look to the Mexican team for inspiration. Let’s hope they’re being allowed to watch the matches on television in their cages and tents. Pre-teen and teenage girls have been encouraged to pursue their soccer dreams – once considered to be impossible – by the continued success of the U.S. women’s amateur and professional teams. Eric Champnella’s inspirational sports comedy/fantasy, Alex & Me – not to be confused with “Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence” – follows 14-year-old Reagan Willis, whose overriding dream is to play soccer as well as her hero, Olympic gold medalist and World Cup winner, Alex Morgan. Her room is a shrine to all things Alex, including a life-size poster of the star forward. In the Willis household, however, Reagan lives in the shadow of her brother, Logan (Matt Cornett), the MVP of his high school football team and highly sought college recruit.

When Reagan fails to make the cut of her middle-school soccer club and is humiliated by her rival, Claire, she’s certain “her ship has sailed.” After accidentally hitting her head in a fall, Reagan’s poster suddenly comes to life and everything changes. Morgan becomes her exclusive, if invisible coach and best friend. Their workouts lead to Reagan joining a team of girls with far fewer advantages than the one that rejected her. One of the things they lack is a well-manicured practice field and a dependable coach. After the team’s first coach leaves, Reagan’s father feels obligated to fill in for him. Together, they turn an empty lot into proper soccer pitch. It raises the spirits and ambitions of all the team members. You can probably predict the trajectory of the story from here, even though Champnella digs some potholes in the team’s road to the finals. If Alex & Me isn’t nearly as polished or universal as Bend It Like Beckham, there audiences probably overlap a bit. The enthusiasm of the young actors is palpable, while Morgan is just good enough at impersonating herself that the movie succeeds as family entertainment and inspiration for aspiring athletes. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and interviews.

I don’t know why it’s taken two years for the Disney Channel original movie, The Swap, to find its way into the DVD marketplace, but probably doesn’t have anything to with the reception it received on its cable debut or the film’s passing resemblance to the studio’s Freaky Friday. Based on the YA novel of the same title, written by Megan Shull, The Swap stars Peyton List (“Bunk’d”) and Jacob Bertrand (“Kirby Buckets”) as thoroughly modern teens, who find it easier to exchange their thought in visible text blocks – think cartoon balloons, but with Twitter messages – than converse using actual words, like their ancestors. During one of their frequent text arguments, the kids compare notes on whose life is tougher. A cyber-genie, who’s been eavesdropping on their exchanges, decides it might be fun to have Ellie and Jack inhabit each other’s bodies for a while. It takes a while for the kids to feel comfortable in their new bodies, especially when Jack learns he’s destined to compete in a rhythmic-gymnastics championship and Ellie prepares for hockey tryouts for Jack. Wanting to keep the swap hidden from their family and friends, Ellie and Jack work together to teach the other the ins and outs of their normal lives. The Swap found a big audience when it debuted. It probably included some of the same viewers who would enjoy Alex & Me.

Guilty Men
There’s probably been a hundred movies and television show about Colombia’s drug cartels and the epidemic of violence that’s followed in their wake. Less documented has been the war for the country’s soul between FARC guerrillas and the government forces, backed by the CIA, and right-wing paramilitaries, who enjoy extorting money from peasants and drug kingpins, as much as the love killing rebels. Colombian director Ivan D. Gaona’s Guilty Men is a curiously romantic drama set against the background of the 2005 agreement for the rebels and paramilitary groups to demobilize. In rural Santander province, though, peasants are forced to continue making payments to one group or another, and the bodies of people who refuse are dumped in the fields that surround the villages. The central mystery involves the identity of the men who drive around the countryside on motorcycles, at night, killing their enemies, collecting extortion money and stealing chickens and pigs from farmers. Things don’t get straightened out in this regard until late in the film. The romantic subplot involves a love triangle, with two men vying for the hand of Mariana (Leidy Herrera). When he isn’t driving a dump truck around Santander, Willington (Willington Gordillo Duarte) serves the community as a DJ. Mariana has committed to his cousin, Rene (René (René Diaz Calderon), earlier than expected because she’s pregnant. Rene believes that the baby will carry his genes, but Willington and Mariana aren’t as sure. She still finds it difficult to refuse late-night drives in the spacious cab of his truck, if only because the music on his mix tapes is so beautiful. It helps to know a little bit about recent Colombian history, but a quick survey of Wikipedia should do the trick. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery captured by cinematographer Juan Camilo Paredes and Edson Velandia’s percussion-heavy score. The bonus features add deleted scenes; cast & crew interviews; behind-the-scenes footage; and material from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Frat Pack
For reasons known only to Danny Trejo and his agent, the truly iconic Echo Park-born character actor has recently begun to lend his name, face and hard-ass persona to the covers of DVDs in which his contributions are limited to extended cameos. This would be a perfectly fine gesture, if his presence weren’t the only reason his fans would have for investing 90 minutes of their precious time watching such pathetic gross-out flicks as Frat Pack. Anyone sucked into renting, streaming or purchasing a copy of this bro’s-will-be-bro’s fiasco should be allowed to trade their receipt for a free Mexi Falafel appetizer at any one of his excellent L.A.  restaurants. Completists would only get a 25-percent discount. (With more than two dozen projects in various stages of production or post-production, it’s possible that Trejo simply is too nice a guy to say, “No.”) Frat Pack has been described as, “Road Trip meets Bridesmaids meets Project X, with a little American Pie thrown in for good measure.” In it, a recent graduate of a British college, Elliot (Richard Alan Reid), crosses the ocean to meet his soon-to-be American stepfather, Michaelson, and stepbrothers, who drag him along on a road trip to a fraternity reunion in Colorado. Why his mother, Moira (Beverly D’Angelo), would be interested in marrying a schlub whose major claim to fame are his imitations of Chris Farley – as channeled by the comic’s real-life brother, Kevin – is constantly open to question. The frat brothers are shadowed to Colorado by a quartet of mismatched sorority sisters. Along the way, the students encounter all manner of Red State riff-raff, including Trejo’s dissipated tattoo artist, Dirty. The humor arrives in the form of scatological and sexual clichés, or depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, and fat people taking dumps.  None of it is original or particularly amusing. The good boy, Elliot, and good girl, Skylar, are portrayed by co-writers Reid and Rachel Risen, who are a dozen years older than the characters they portray. Other familiar faces include Robert Knepper (“Prison Break”), Tommy Davidson (“The Proud Family”), Lochlyn Munro (“Riverdale”) and Hana Mae Lee (Pitch Perfect).

Night of the Lepus: Blu-ray
Viewed from a distance of nearly 50 years, it’s possible to watch the early eco-horror flick, Night of the Lepus, and enjoy it for everything it’s not. On the top of that list would be scary, passably realistic and well made. What it does have going for it, however, is a premise that was inspired by an actual infestation of rabbits, in Australia, which prompted the construction of trans-continental fences to keep the pests from overrunning pasture lands. By substituting Arizona for western Australia, it was possible for producer A.C. Lyles and director William F. Claxton to pitch a sci-fi Western they hoped would remind viewers of The Birds (1963), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Them! (1954), The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) and The Deadly Bees (1966), while anticipating the dozens of similarly themed creature-features to come. Based on Russell Braddon’s 1964 novel, “The Year of the Angry Rabbit,” Night of the Lepus describes what happens when rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) seeks the help of college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelley) to halt the advance of thousands of rabbits that have filled the void left behind when ranchers eradicated their natural predators: coyotes, mostly. Clark enlists researchers Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh), who are more likely to respect the rancher’s wish to avoid using cyanide to poison the rabbits. Roy proposes using hormones to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. After one of the test bunnies is injected with a new serum, believed to cause birth defects, the Bennetts’ daughter switches it with one from the control group. After it escapes, the super-stud rabbit fathers an army of gigantic hare-lipped killers. It’s easy to figure out that domesticated rabbits were filmed against miniature models, from extreme angles, while costumed actors occasionally pop up in the attack scenes. Night of the Lepus is the perfect movie to show at parties and have guests pretend they’re crew members on MST3K’s Satellite of Love. The Blu-ray remaster of the film was struck from original film elements and adds commentaries with author Lee Gambin (“Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film”) and pop-culture historian Russell Dyball.

Greaser’s Palace: Blu-ray
Sandwiched in between the releases of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Greaser’s Palace (1972) gave lovers of experimental and underground films a reason to believe that their time had come. Unfortunately, acid heads comprised too small a demographic to be economically feasible, and the trend was short-lived. Fortunately, the midnight-movie phenomenon was just beginning, and it proved to be a perfect way to exhibit hard-to-distribute pictures. Robert Downey Sr. had already made a name for himself among critics, students and arthouse buffs as the writer/director of Putney Swope, a devastating satire of Madison Avenue, in which an African-American activist (Arnold Johnson) is given carte blanche at an advertising agency. Filmed entirely in New Mexico, Downey’s follow-up, Greaser’s Palace, re-located the Passion of Christ to a wild-and-wooly corner of the Old West. A zoot-suited drifter, Jesse (Allan Arbus), arrives from out of nowhere, entertaining the motely crew of boozehounds, over-the-hill cowboys and prostitutes, criminals and transvestites attracted to the Palace, a saloon run by the ruthless Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson). His ability to walk on water and raise the dead really slays them. All Jesse wants to do is reach Jerusalem, where he can perform his song-and-dance routine in peace. After restoring life to Lamy “Homo” Greaser (Michael Sullivan) – shot and killed by his father – and causing Seaweedhead’s showgirl daughter, Cholera (Luana Anders), to see him as a rival for the Palace’s audience, Jesse becomes the perfect candidate for crucifixion. Yes, Greaser’s Palace every bit as nutso as it sounds. From a distance of nearly 50 years, however, like so many other relics of the period, it seems almost quaint. Other prominent members of the cast are Pablo Ferro, Toni Basil, Hervé Villechaize, George Morgan, Don Calfa, Woody Chambliss, Jim Antonio and an uncredited Robert Downey Jr., then 7 years old. The music was supplied by Jack Nitzsche. Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray re-master was struck from the original camera negative, and it includes an interview with Robert Downey conducted by the late screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), and late filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

Lionheart: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In this early star vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Muscle From Brussels demonstrates a side of his trademark character that wouldn’t be particularly useful in the dozens of theatrical and straight-to-video originals to come. Lionheart opens with the brutal attack on the brother of a French Foreign Legionnaire, Lyon Gaultier (Van Damme), who’s stationed in a desert outpost half a world away. Upon receiving news that his brother in Los Angeles is seriously injured, Gaultier is refused a furlough to visit him. Before he can be thrown into a pit with a tin roof for insubordination, however, he kicks the crap out of a half-dozen guards and escapes into the desert in a stolen Jeep. Once he reaches New York, on a freighter, he needs to make enough money to reach the west coast. With the help of an amateur fight manager, Joshua (Harrison Page), Gaultier reluctantly turns to the illegal, bare-knuckles fighting circuit. He arrives in L.A. just in time to watch his seriously burned brother die and his sister-in-law (Lisa Pelikan) refuse any offer of financial support, even for his charming niece. Unwilling to forsake his brother’s struggling family, Gaultier returns to the underground circuit. This time, though, he and Joshua are forced to throw in with a ruthless, drop-dead gorgeous promoter (Deborah Rennard), who pits him against fighters straight out of a video-arcade game. At the same time, bounty hunters from France have traced him to L.A., with a warrant for the deserter’s return. What happens next should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen even one of JCVD’s many movies. The refurbished MVD Rewind package adds nearly 90 minutes of new interviews and featurettes, as well as several more archived pieces, marketing material and a poster.

PBS: American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act
PBS: Masterpiece: Man in an Orange Shirt: Blu-ray
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Hannibal in the Alps
PBS: First Civilizations
PBS: Frontline: Trump’s Takeover/
PBS: Nature: Natural Born Rebels
Smithsonian: A Star-Spangled Story: Battle for America
Smithsonian: America’s Greatest Monuments
PBS Kids: Nature Cat: Onward & Pondward!
I don’t know when PBS’ justifiably damning documentary, “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” began production, but it has to have been before our current president began referring to immigrants as “animals” and “rapists,” and demanding a wall be built along our southern border. The story behind America’s longest running insult to the spirit of the Constitution rings as true today as it did when the act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, on May 6, 1882. It prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, whose hard work had already helped the country’s western expansion, codifying the Angell Treaty of 1880 and the U.S.-China Burlingame Treaty of 1868, both of did the same thing. Beyond the act’s stated goal, it restricted the movement of immigrants already here, limited their ability open businesses and buy land, and prohibited them from marriage. As such, it forced Chinese women into prostitution and freed hooligans to lynch the men, but not before cutting off their pigtails. The would be repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, when Uncle Sam required the assistance of Chinese nationalists in the war against Japan. The first significant Chinese immigration to North America began with the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855 and it continued with subsequent large labor projects, such as the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad, from 1863 to 1869. Not surprisingly, they were assigned the most dangerous tasks, while receiving the least amount of pay. Once the golden spike was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 19, 1869, white Americans – most of them recent immigrants themselves – demanded that the Chinese not be allowed to stay in the country. They feared that they would accept “coolie wages” to work the fields in the south and dominate commerce in the west. Instead of resorting to mob violence, lynching and arson, the aggrieved white laborers should have taken out the wrath on the capitalists whose divisive policies benefitted their businesses. It would take them several more decades to figure out that economic scheme and form unions to defend against it. Directed by Ric Burns, the documentary addresses the effects of the act on three generations of immigrants through subsequent uprisings, strikes, hideous court rulings and racist legislation. Things have improved on that count, largely because of the impact of educated Chinese immigrants – no laborers need apply – on the American economy. Last week, in fact, a lawsuit against Harvard University charged that, while Asian-Americans scored higher than other racial groups on test scores, they fared less well when it came to a more subjective assessment of their “positive personality, likability and kindness,” providing the school an excuse to exclude them. (I’d love to see how Harvard grad Jared Kushner fared against the average Asian-American applicant in 1998, before his father pledged $2.5 million to the school and provided funding toward a scholarship program for low- and middle-income students.) Many of the same ethnic slurs and discriminatory policies that were used against Chinese immigrants are being expressed today by Trump and his flunkies.

The BBC commissioned novelist Patrick Gale to write the teleplay for “Man in an Orange Shirt” as the flagship drama for its “Gay Britannia” celebration, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalized gay sex between consenting adults. Prior to the 1967 ruling, the arrest and imprisonment of gay men destroyed lives, legacies and careers. Far from ideal, the measure only decriminalized homosexual acts done in private. Still, it paved the way for people to agitate for more meaningful change, as well as openly protest abuses by courts and police. The show’s two interconnected chapters, roughly an hour each, describe how much the decriminalization of once-forbidden love has changed the ways of life for gay couples over a span of 50 years. It also points out how little the emotional climate has changed for those still hiding in a closet of their own making. Oliver Jackson-Cohen and James McArdle play Michael and Thomas, who first explore their affection for each other during the heat of war and hope to rekindle their love after they return home. To avoid being discovered and arrested, though, Michael marries Flora (Joanna Vanderham), who remains in the dark until she discovers the men’s affair through love letters found in a drawer. Although she’s disgusted by them, Flora would prefer to live a loveless life than raise their son without a father. She also fears the humiliation that would derive from having her husband land in the same jail as Thomas, an artist being punished for an ill-planned tryst in a public loo. The first chapter ends with Thomas’ release, a chance meeting in a large department store with Michael’s family and a question mark. In Chapter Two, Michael’s grandson, Adam (Julian Morris), is living with a much older version of Flora (Vanessa Redgrave), while trolling the Internet for hookups and slowly falling in love with a handsome black architect, Steve (David Gyasi). Even though the legal climate has changed, Adam remains commitment-phobic. And, when he does come out to Flora, her angry words carry the same sting as the ones she used to denounce his grandfather. By now, though, Flora no longer equates being gay with pedophilia. Having lost the love of her husband, Flora must decide if her outdated beliefs are worth the cost of losing her grandson. As poignant as the men’s stories are, Flora is truly the central figure in Man in an Orange Shirt. It’s through her evolution that viewers are able to see how difficult it’s been for England’s LGBT community to affect change in a society hidebound by tradition.

I’ve always subscribed to the belief the Hannibal’s invasion of the Roman Republic, in 218 BC, has been accorded too little respect by teachers in American schools. Sure, everyone knows about the elephants – or their facsimiles in the “LOTR” and “Star Wars” sagas — but everything else about the campaign has been ignored. How many students, for example, can name with any certainty the mountain ranges and rivers his army was forced to cross – OK, the Alps are given – and how everything ended for the great general and the future of Rome. PBS’s “Secrets of the Dead: Hannibal in the Alps” tackles some of the questions left unanswered by Polybius’ “Histories,” combining state-of-the-art technology, ancient texts and a recreation of the route itself to prove conclusively where Hannibal’s army made it across the Alps. His army was comprised of 30,000 troops, 15,000 horses and 37 war elephants, and we’ve been told that he crossed the mighty Alps in only 16 days to launch an attack on Rome from the north. For more than 2,000 years, nobody has been able to prove which of the four possible routes Hannibal took across the Alps, and no physical evidence of Hannibal’s army has ever been found… until now. In “Hannibal in the Alps,” a team of experts – explorers, archaeologists, geologists and animal wranglers –– ascertains how and where he did it. More than anything else, though, the show’s fascinating graphics allow us to visualize exactly how daunting Hannibal’s task actually was.

Having lived as mobile foragers for most of our time on Earth, when and why did humans set out on the road to civilization? How did they create villages, towns, cities and states, and establish the blueprint for the modern world? PBS’ “First Civilizations” is broken into what its producers identify as the four cornerstones of civilization: war, religion, cities and trade. It explores each in the context of a different location, traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Oman, Morocco, France, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. They record the latest archeological discoveries, test new theories and uncover original information. Dramatic reconstructions and computer graphics are employed to visualize the lost world of the first civilizations. In each episode, the ancient story is complemented by a modern-day analogy, with an expert connecting the dots between past and present. The idea is to show how our ancestors were motivated by the same impulses that persist today: the inevitability of war, a need for religion, the lure of the city, a love of trade. Their story is our story.

The “Frontline” reports, “Trump’s Takeover” and “McCain” examine the battle for the soul of the GOP – such as it is — being waged between the devil and angel sitting on opposite sides of party members’ shoulders. The former takes viewers inside POTUS’ high-stakes crusade, which has employed more dirty tricks, divisive rhetoric and outright lies than Richard Nixon could have invented in his lifetime. The latter focuses on Sen. John McCain’s complicated relationship with the President and his own Republican party. It also looks at McCain’s life and politics, from POW in Vietnam, to choosing Sarah Palin as running mate, to his dramatic vote against the GOP’s health-care bill.

From a promiscuous prairie dog to a kleptomaniac crab and an alpha chimpanzee, who reigns with an iron fist, “Natural Born Rebels” explores the most rebellious animals in the natural world. A better word to describe most of the critters we meet in the three-part “Nature” series might be mischievous, sneaky, funny and pugnacious. I don’t think an animal can be considered rebellious, if it’s doing what comes naturally. Animals living in zoos, forced to conform to certain unnatural norms, have been known to rebel against their captors, however, but that’s another story. The PBS mini-series follows scientists, equipped with the latest recording equipment, as they uncover an astonishing variety of “insubordinate” animal behaviors and, despite how it appears on the surface, they’re discovering the complex science behind why these animals behave the way they do. The photography, as usual, is amazing. And, yes, “Natural Born Rebels” is as family friendly as these things get.

Along with “Louie Louie” and “La Bamba,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the least understood songs in heavy rotation today, as well as the most misconstrued. It would be interesting to learn how many of today’s sunshine patriots, who religiously participate in the singing of the National Anthem, whenever and wherever it’s performed, know all its words, their meaning and its original. We know that the current President, who loves to use it as a weapon against his enemies, is only able to mumble the lyrics — and words to the Pledge of Allegiance, for that matter – but he looks sincere, at least. The National Anthem has been played before some, but not all baseball games for nearly 100 years. It’s only been since World War II that it’s been performed before every game and, since 9/11, that “America the Beautiful” has become mandatory during the seventh-inning stretch. There’s no law against sitting, kneeling, sleeping or remaining silent while they’re being played. Unless you’re a member of the armed services, no law dictates the placement of one’s hand over one’s heart, either. The Smithsonian Channel’s “A Star-Spangled Story: Battle for America” explores the bicentennial of the National Anthem and the battle that inspired it, combining interviews with leading historians, conservators, and soprano superstar Renée Fleming, who sang the anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl. Experts explain why the song is so unique and what the individual lyrics mean to them. The special also includes historical re-enactments, 3-D computer graphics, hands-on demonstrations and behind-the-scenes tours of the Smithsonian’s extraordinary collection of artifacts, including the sealed chamber that houses the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song. named the Star-Spangled Banner.

Smithsonian Channel’s “America’s Greatest Monuments” asks similar questions about the war memorials, statues and monuments honoring America’s founding fathers, fallen soldiers, heroes and political leaders. They range from Arlington’s eternal flame to soaring tributes in stone, steel, soil and sky. Many have fascinating stories to tell.

Go Onward and Pondward,” with PBS Kids’ backyard explorer extraordinaire, “Nature Cat,” along with his friends Hal, Squeeks and Daisy. The team learns where a stream begins and explores new environments along the way in seven fun-filled outdoor adventures.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin