MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Loveless, In Syria, Good Postman, Inflame, Ordinary Man, I Called Him Morgan, Jerry Lewis, Will & Grace … More

Loveless: Blu-ray
Whenever rescue workers fan out in search of a missing child, a palpable of sense of dread – even as transmitted through the lens of a camera – is impossible to avoid. Sadly, such searches have become commonplace events in American movies, TV dramas and true-crime programs like “Forensics Files.” When the child is found unharmed or rescued from harm, the relief we feel is as powerful as the sadness that comes from unspeakable tragedy. The same can be said about the crime dramas and mini-series from Europe that find their way to PBS, BBC-America and various streaming services. The greater horror comes from not knowing the missing child’s fate, one way or another. In the Oscar-nominated Loveless, Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin have crafted a different sort of missing-child story, set among atypically middle-class Muscovites, whose concepts of family and status are far from traditional. Their previous collaborations – Elena, The Banishment and Leviathan – have also required that we look to the east through a different prism. None of Zvyagintsev’s films have been particularly easy to watch, from an emotional point of view. If they present life stripped of contrivances and narrative shortcuts, it’s still the human condition that drives the stories and is never far from their surface.

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) share an apartment, which, for once, doesn’t look as if it were designed by a Politburo-approved architecture firm. It’s possible that they haven’t enjoyed a moment of marital bliss since they realized that the only thing holding them together is their 12-year-old boy son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), whose birth precipitated the marriage. Both enjoy the company of lovers, whom they’ll probably marry after the dissolution papers are signed. Boris’ girlfriend is already pregnant. It’s during one of Boris and Zhenya’s more bitter arguments that Zvyagintsev’s camera finds Alyosha, in a closet, sobbing uncontrollably. That night, or one soon thereafter, while the adults are sleeping elsewhere, the boy decides he’s had enough and runs away from home. When they finally figure out that Alyosha isn’t playing a game on them, Boris and Zhenya report the disappearance to police, who aren’t terribly helpful. Fortunately, one them advises them to call a local relief organization that specializes in such recovery efforts. There’s no reason to spoil anything here, except to say that the intricately choreographed search takes viewers into corners’ of the wooded Moscow neighborhood that look as familiar as any in our own backyards. Although the parents’ selfish responses to the continued lack of news isn’t likely to surprise viewers, the flash-forward ending should raise a few eyebrows, at least. The package includes the unusually candid 61-minute “The Making of Loveless,” which is more of a stripped-down documentary than promotional EPK.

In Syria
The Good Postman
In his 2009 debut as writer/director, seasoned Belgian cinematographer Philippe Van Leeuw chronicled the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of a Tutsi domestic, whose Belgian employers are preparing to flee the country in advance of Hutu militants. While The Day God Walked Away received scant exposure here, by all accounts. it wasn’t a feel-good movie about life on the run from horror. In his similarly impactful follow-up, In Syria (a.k.a., “Insyriated”), a mother struggles to keep her family safe over a 24-hour period, as war rages outside their largely undamaged Damascus flat. Because the movie was shot in an apartment in Beirut, the claustrophobia experienced by the family members is palpable here, as well. The incomparable Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree) was nominated for a Lumières Awards for her portrayal of Oum Yazan, the mother of three who has turned her home into a safe harbor for her multigenerational family and neighbors. Outside the front door, bombs explode at irregular intervals and automatic-weapons fire punctuates conversations. On this day, Oum’s attempts to keep her guests from panicking will be sorely tested by forces beyond her control, however.  Neighbors Samir and Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), a young couple with a small baby, have made plans to leave for the safety of Beirut after their flat upstairs was destroyed by shelling. Very little time passes before Samir is gunned down by a sniper, almost immediately after leaving the apartment to finalize their escape. Oum decides not to tell Samir that her husband might be lying dead or seriously wounded, fearing that she would run to him and be shot. She decides to withhold the truth from her until after dusk. The most disturbing scene comes when two burglars, pretending to be security officials, break through Oum’s defenses and rape the first woman they see, while the others hide in the kitchen.  Even though Van Leeuw spares viewers from the worst of the attack, the victim’s facial expressions reveal everything. The all-pervasive intimacy of the family’s ordeal makes In Syria different than the growing number of theatrical films and documentaries describing conditions in the war-torn country. The DVD includes the short film, “Le Pain,” directed by Hiam Abbass; a directors’ statement; Why-We-Selected statement, from Film Movement.

Theoretically, at least, it would be possible to follow the same characters we meet in films such films as In Syria, as they make their way north to places like Finland — Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope — with stops in Bulgaria — Tonislav Hristov’s The Good Postman – and another dozen border-crossings along the way. Other recent movies have chronicled what happens to African and Afghan refugees, seeking new lives in Italy, Greece, France and England, and, for several decades now, from Central America, to the United States. It’s a subject that not only lends itself to the prejudices of xenophobic demagogues, but also filmmakers whose compassion for displaced people has resulted in several powerful dramas and dark comedies. Sadly, most of them have a better chance of winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature than finding distribution here, outside the festival circuit. The Good Postman, a stylishly made documentary that I initially confused with being a work of fiction, is set in a tiny Bulgarian village, facing the Turkish border, that has been resisting foreign invaders since the times of the Roman and Ottoman Empires. It is now being overrun by refugees on their way elsewhere. The once-thriving village has been reduced to an electorate of 37 elderly citizens and at least one middle-age slacker hoping for a return to communism.

A mayoral election is being contested in the village — long referred to as the Great Gate — concurrently with efforts by UN border guards to stem the flow of men, women and children across the border. One candidate wants to crack down on the refugees, while his chief opponent would encourage some to take root in the village and work toward its recovery. The favorite has no stated opinion one way or another. The region, which appears to be rich in agricultural opportunity, has lost all the young people willing to put in the hard work it would take to bring the fields, pastures and vineyards back to life. The Good Postman, named for the mayoral candidate who advocates the absorption of refugees into village life, introduces us to several of the men and women who will decide the election, most of whom are infirm. My opinion of The Good Postman hasn’t changed since I realized – yeah, I know, duh – that it’s a documentary. The thoroughly engrossing film benefits mightily from Orlin Ruevski’s elegantly composed wide-screen cinematography and Petar Dundakov’s simple, Middle East-inflected score. It’s the faces of the ancient Golyam Dervent residents that most clearly resonate throughout the film, however. Only a century ago, their parents and grandparents were the ones escaping persecution, after Turkish troops and irregulars attacked the region, burning homes, raping women and killing villagers in their path

Inflame
Turkey not only serves as an entry point for refugees from its war-ravaged neighbors, but it also is dealing with serious troubles that originate within its own borders. Although it’s listed among the region’s secular states, Turkey’s increasingly politicized Muslim majority is divided among dozens of well- and lesser-known denominations. Some are extremely tolerant of their co-religionists’ beliefs, while others have resorted to violence to express the differences. The current government has been accused of using repressive measures of its own to maintain control of religious and political extremists. Turkish officials have also allowed their hatred of Kurds to interfere with the country’s key role in the war against ISIS and opened the door for Moscow to get a foothold in northern Syria. While a working knowledge of contemporary Turkish affairs isn’t necessary to appreciate Ceylan Özgün Özçelik’s impressive debut feature, Inflame, a basic understanding of the country’s varied demographics doesn’t hurt. That’s because what begins as a psychological drama – with supernatural overtones – gradually evolves into a paranoid thriller, colored by political mandates and religious intolerance. The film opens with a group of educated friends debating the role social media plays in modern Turkish society. It is heavily regulated by the government to control the flow of information and impede dissent. Inflame’s protagonist, Hasret (Algi Eke), is caught somewhere in the middle of the debate. As an editor of documentaries for the government news channel, she’s been accorded a certain amount of freedom in the choices she makes at work.

Lately, however, Hasret has been haunted by recurring nightmares that take the form of disjointed newsreel footage of a tumultuous event in the country’s near past. They’ve impacted her work to the point that she’s transferred to a department that contributes editorials and voice-over work for government speeches. It means that every word and image that airs is pre-screened by editors conversant in official government policy. Now, when she returns to the flat left to her after her parents’ death, 25 years earlier, the questions raised in her dreams take on a life of their own. In addition to hearing music that isn’t there and being confronted by a dog with strangely human traits, Hasret begins to suspect that the apartment, itself, is haunted by the spirits of her parents. I won’t spoil the outcome, except to point out that the date of their fatal accident corresponds to the 1993 mass murder of 35 artists and musicians, mostly Alevi intellectuals, who had gathered for a cultural festival in Sivas. She comes to believe that they died in the fire, deliberately set by fundamentalist Sunni locals, and their deaths went unreported in the media. The mob was reacting to the presence of prominent author, satirist and activist Aziz Nesin. (In early 1990s, Nesin began a translation of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, “The Satanic Verses.”) A post-script explains how the horror of that event still reverberates through Turkish society and creates a solid foundation for Hasret’s ordeal. Inflame was nominated for Best First Feature at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize at the Ankara International Film Festival and SXSW Gamechanger Award.

An Ordinary Man
One of the inherent flaws of the cinematic art is an inability to precisely differentiate between evil characters who earn our disdain for their sinful acts and lack of remorse for their crimes, and the antiheroes whose dastardly deeds are superseded by an actor’s outstanding interpretation of a clever screenplay. Although the concept can be traced back to the origins of theatrical drama, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was fully exploited in popular culture. Even then, however, filmmakers toyed with their audiences’ emotions by casting such charmers as Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Kris Kristofferson and a post-spaghetti Clint Eastwood to impersonate criminals, trigger-happy cops and vigilantes who, in real life, would look guilty, even leaving a confessional. Charles Bronson and Warren Oates had to work extra hard to win our sympathy. Ben Kingsley is one of a small handful of actors who’s delivered mesmerizing and highly credible portrayals of characters ranging from Mahatma Gandhi, Georges Méliès and Simon Wiesenthal, on one end of the spectrum, to Sweeney Todd, Fagin and Meyer Lansky, on the other … with Adolf Eichmann yet to come.  In the darkly comedic crime drama, Sexy Beast, his take on career criminal and world-class thug Don Logan was simultaneously, frightening and hilarious.

In Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man, Kingsley delivers another brilliant performance, this time as a character clearly modeled after former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić. Both men avoided arrest for more than a decade after charges were filed and a price was put on their heads. Like them, Kingsley’s character, the General, could be said to have been hiding in plain sight. To avoid capture, he was routinely moved from safehouse to safehouse by his security detail. Unlike Karadžić, who grew a beard David Letterman might have envied, the General resembles the undisguised images of him plastered on walls around the city in which he’s hiding … possibly Belgrade. In An Ordinary Man, no matter how much effort Kingsley exerts keeping viewers from seeing him as an antihero or obedient soldier, the General’s charisma and cunning are undeniable. Neither is the movie a procedural, whose focus is on the efforts to capture him.  Our fascination comes from the General’s interaction with his only companion, Tanja (Hera Hilmar), a cleaning woman in her 20s, who came with the apartment. After he tests Tanja with a withering barrage of sarcastic barbs and insulting demands, they open up to each other about their lives and later venture out to shop or, in one scene, dance. The chemistry that develops between them is well-earned and constantly surprising. That the 30-year-old Icelandic actress (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) is able to go toe-to-toe with Kingsley for most of the movie’s 90 minutes is quite an achievement.

Docs-to-DVD
Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
I Called Him Morgan
Motherland
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
The Cage Fighter
My Letter to the World
I can’t remember a better week for lovers of documentaries of all artistic persuasions. It’s topped by Icarus Films’ comprehensive seven-disc compilation, “Six Films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter.” The Vienna-born documentarian may not be as well-known here as Michael Moore and Errol Morris, but his films have routinely captured major awards in prestigious festivals around the world. They’re distinguished by calm, carefully framed shots with an eye for geometric compositions. Typically, they eschew commentary and music to create visually striking accounts of “places at the margins of our perception, while, at the same time, cataloging social phenomena and periods of upheaval in a cinematically epic fashion.” Using a mostly static camera, Geyrhalter has tackled such disparate topics as the terrain of post-disaster Chernobyl (Pripyat), reflections on a dystopian world (Homo Sapiens), modern food production (Our Daily Bread), Europe’s endangered factory workers (Over the Years), the western world after dark (Abendland), and people who live and raise families with little technological assistance (Elsewhere). The package is the first comprehensive survey, representing more than 17 years of Geyrhalter’s films, three of which have never been released in the U.S. It adds a booklet, featuring Alejandro Bachmann’s “Spaces in Time,” published in English for the first time; excerpted interviews with Geyrhalter; Elsewhere location notes; and a new high-definition Blu-ray edition of Our Daily Bread. In January, Kimstim released Cern, the director’s fascinating portrait of the immense Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest laboratory for particle physics, located underneath the border of France and Switzerland.

In February 1972, celebrated jazz musician Lee Morgan was shot and killed by his common-law wife, Helen, during a gig at a club in New York City. The murder sent shockwaves through the jazz community, and the memory of the event still haunts those who knew the Morgans. Filmmaker Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan is informed equally by vintage recordings and photographs of the “hard bop” trumpeter in rehearsal and performance, and a remarkably candid interview that jazz historian Larry Reni Thomas conducted in 1996, with Helen Moore (a.k.a. Helen Morgan), a year before her death. Among the other participants are Wayne Shorter, Jymie Merritt, Billy Harper, Judith Johnson, Bennie Maupin, Larry Ridley, Paul West, Al Harrison, Charli Persip and Albert “Tootie” Heath. The FilmRise release is as good a documentary about the passions that drive jazz musicians as any I’ve seen.

In Motherland, Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz takes viewers inside what’s reputed to be the world’s busiest maternity hospital, located in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. Her almost shockingly intimate portrait of Manila’s Fabella Hospital is enhanced by the same vérité approach popularized here in the 1960s by Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. Like flies on the wall, we follow Diaz’ unobtrusive camera through the doors of the warehouse-sized facility, where the next group of expectant women is told what to expect in the next few hours, then are ushered into waiting rooms teeming with patients experiencing severe labor pains and, as quickly as is safely possible, deposited into overcrowded nurseries, where they’re introduced to their babies and taught how to breast feed them. All of this transpires without narration or prejudicial observations. We’re allowed to eavesdrop on conversations between the patients and their discussions with nurses and social workers. Visiting hours resemble stampedes and, yes, misidentifications do occur. We’re not talking about dozens of patients here, but hundreds of women, coming and going as rapidly as their stitches and doctors allow them to exit. It would have been easy – if not particularly humane – for Diaz to focus more tightly than she does on the single mothers who are repeat customers and show reluctance to use contraception. (Most of them are Catholic, but the Church’s moral stance on such things isn’t utmost in the minds of the mothers and staff.) Even if we know that the children are likely to be raised under poverty conditions, it’s difficult not to cheer for these women and the uphill climbs they’ll face throughout motherhood.

Investigative documentarians make their bones by exposing miscarriages of justice, corruption and abuses of power by prosecutors. Even in the most egregious rushes to judgment, the odds are stacked against defendants attempting to reverse unfair convictions. No one in authority wants to admit that mistakes were made on the road to a headline-making verdict, least of all police, prosecutors and witnesses who swore to God that their testimony was truthful. Deborah Esquenazi’s almost excruciatingly painful to watch documentary, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, helped overturn the wrongful convictions of four Hispanic lesbians in a case even the producers of “Law & Order” would consider to be too far-fetched to air. In Texas, however, even a complete lack of evidence isn’t sufficient cause to dismiss charges on lesbians, gays and people of color. In the summer of 1994, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez were accused of sexually assaulting Ramirez’ 7- and 9-year-old nieces, in San Antonio. The four openly gay women were charged after a week-long visit from the girls at Ramirez’s apartment. They were indicted in an environment of pervasive homophobia and the idea that homosexuals are naturally prone to sexually abusing children and “satanic-related” crime. None of it, including the forensic evidence of abuse, was backed by science, data or precedent. Even so, the women were sentenced to 15 years in prison, with Ramirez being hit with an additional 12 years and the loss of her newborn baby, several days after the start of her sentence. The film picks up in the closing years of their incarceration, after one of the nieces admitted to having been pressured by her father, Javier Limon, to make the false accusations. In 2013, Texas lawmakers passed a law allowing individuals to challenge their convictions, if there is new or changed scientific evidence. With the assistance of the Innocence Project of Texas and Good Samaritans from as far away as Canada, Esquenazi’s film earned its happy ending. [

Jeff Unay’s action documentary, The Cage Fighter, might have delivered a more powerful punch if it weren’t for such recent pictures as Rocky Balboa (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Grudge Match (2013) and Creed (2015). Neither did it help the film’s chances that one of the recurrent themes of movies based on MMA fighting is the willingness of seemingly over-the-hill cage fighters to risk their lives in pursuit of one last title. In the briskly paced and edited film from IFC, Joe Carman is a journeyman cage fighter, whose constant battle with post-concussion syndrome hasn’t prevented him from re-entering the caged ring – sometimes in the shape of an octagon – and seeking redemption for past beatings. Neither have promises to his wife and four daughters prevented him from risking his life for the sake of vanity of delusions of grandeur. Watching the tears run down their faces when he comes homes bruised and battered, or is pummeled in the ring in front of them, is nothing short of heartbreaking. Just as shattering is a conversation over glasses of beer between Joe and top contender Clayton Hoy, a much younger MMA star who has precious little to show for his success. That Carman is cut from the same physical mold as characters played by Sylvester Stallone and Mickey Rourke – not to mention, Joe Palooka – doesn’t hurt The Cage Fighter one bit.

My Letter to the World was made as a companion piece to Terence Davies’ surprisingly well-received biopic of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, for which Cynthia Nixon was nominated as Best Actress by the National Society of Film Critics. The future gubernatorial candidate also lends her voice to Solon Papadopoulos’s project, which digs a bit deeper into the historical record of the poet’s life and work and fits perfectly on the small screen. The documentary journeys through the seasons of the writer’s life, in 1800s New England, and features interviews with scholars and other knowledgeable folks. They add new theories about the poet’s personal relationships and her revered work.

Tormentero
Progress is a relative thing, especially in parts of the world where poor people are the last to benefit from their labors, taxes and discoveries. In Mexican filmmaker Ruben Imaz’ visually arresting Tormentero, a huge oil patch is discovered in the watery backyard of a fishing village. Naturally, the accidental find makes everyone wealthy, except the residents of the villages, who no longer can take advantage of the once-rich supply of shrimp and swim in water uncontaminated by globules of oil and the chemicals used on the nearby oil derricks. The oil workers precipitated an overnight crime wave and inflation was soon to follow. Instead of taking their unhappiness out on the government-owned oil company and fat-cat profiteers, who followed in its wake, the helpless villagers decided to blame their troubles on Romero (Jose Carlos Ruiz), the poor sap who first noticed the crude oil bubbling up along the shoreline. Viewers are introduced to Romero much later in his life, when the alcohol he guzzles has begun to pickle his brain, causing hallucinations and dreams haunted by ghosts. He torments his simple-minded son, whose only friends appear to be the monkeys he finds in the jungle. In his final days, Romero makes it his mission to reclaim the love and honor he lost decades earlier. Imaz stages the film almost like a dream … somewhere between a hallucination and reality. Absent a clearly defined narrative, Imaz invites us to look at this world through the jaundiced eyes of his protagonist. He invests Tormentero with generous amounts of magical realism, surrealism and fever dreams. Cinematographer Gerardo Barroso allows Imaz to realize his vision by capturing the region’s beautiful natural settings and darker hues of Romero’s prison without walls.

Ice Mother
The characters we meet in Bohdan Sláma’s endearing family dramedy, Ice Mother, are so familiar that it takes a while to figure out what part of Europe it might be located. If the movie had been dubbed, instead of subtitled, it could have been set in Minnesota, Wisconsin or North Dakota … anywhere immigrants maintain customs that most Americans consider, at best, quaint. Otherwise, the family dynamics are universal. After the death of her tightwad husband, 67-year-old Hana (Zuzana Kronerová) attempts to continue such family traditions as the communal Sunday dinner and maintain a house that’s inefficiently heated by coal. Her two adult sons are spoiled and lazy, and their wives have come to expect Hana’s services as a cook and babysitter. One of the sons even steals money from her to finance one of his hare-brained schemes. It’s no wonder that she appears to have given up having any life of her own. That changes, however, when Hana and her equally spoiled grandson, Ivanek, happen upon a group of men and women her age, who belong to an outdoors swimmers’ club, which appears to prefer wintery conditions than warm weather. She’s welcomed to their number after she helps pull one of their struggling members, Broňa (Pavel Nový), from the frigid river. These old-timers make Polar Bear Club members in Chicago look like cowards. They also convince Ivanek to put down his handheld computer and play some of the same games as the people his grandma’s age do. (He’s also entrusted with Broňa’s favorite pet chicken.) Not surprisingly, the closer Hana and Ivanek grow to the club members – Broňa, especially – the greater their sense of independence becomes. The only questions that remain involve Hana’s willingness to prove to her family that she means business, and whether she’ll join her new friends in Prague’s version of the Winter Olympics.

The Outsider
There have been several good movies and documentaries made about the financial crisis of 2008 and the traders, bankers and white-collar thieves who nearly broke the back of the global economy. Boiler Room (2000), The Big Short (2015) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) preceded The Outsider, which reminds us that greed knows no boundaries. Months before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 caused chaos in world markets and misery for millions of homeowners, the Paris-based bank, Société Générale, lost approximately €4.9 billion in a scandal involving fraudulent transactions traced to a young hotshot trader, Jérôme Kerviel. Christophe Barratier’s The Outsider (a.k.a., “Team Spirit”) does a pretty good explaining how Kerviel (Arthur Dupont) pulled off the scheme, which didn’t begin to concern bank officials until his ledgers began to bleed red ink. Otherwise, everything was copacetic. And, while Kerviel was justly punished for his run of bad luck, he almost certainly wasn’t the only trader playing fast and loose with the numbers. There isn’t as much bad behavior on display in The Outsider, as that depicted in the American films. Except for a couple of strip-club scenes and a line of cocaine, or two, most of the good-ol’-boy antics are limited to the banks of computer screens in the high-rise office building overlooking the city. As repetitive as The Outsider feels, at times, it’s entertaining enough to recommend to completists. Barratier struck gold in 2004, with the musical drama, The Chorus.

I Can Only Imagine
Seventeen years after MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” became the best-selling Christian single of all time, selling 2.5 million copies, the inspirational story of its creation has been turned into film. Bart Millard says that he wrote the emotional ballad in the direct wake of the death of his father and terrorist attacks on 9/11, as way to comfort relatives and friends of people killed that day. The song took very little time to write and wasn’t necessarily targeted at a Christian audience.  “I think the biggest thing is, there’s no agenda: we’re not trying to shove the Bible down anybody’s throats,” Millard has explained. “I’m asking the same question many people have wondered, whether you go to church or not: ‘OK, God, if this turns out to be real, if we die and we get (to heaven), how am I going to respond?’ There’s no answers in that song, it’s all questions.” In the Erwin Brothers’ depiction of the song’s genesis, newcomer J. Michael Finley plays Millard, opposite Dennis Quaid, who effectively portrays the singer/songwriter’s abusive father. It isn’t until Millard discovers that his father has experienced a come-to-Jesus moment of his own, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, that he returns home to mend fences. Country-music stars Amy Grant and Trace Adkins also contribute to the song’s success in I Can Only Imagine. Despite mostly lackluster reviews, I Can Only Imagine scored big at the North American box office, returning $84 million against a reported $7-million production budget. Clearly, the unabashedly melodramatic drama wasn’t produced to impress critics. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with co-directors Andy Erwin and John Erwin, Millard, co-writer/composer Brent McCorkle and producer Kevin Downes; deleted scenes; featurettes “Imagine Forgiveness with Bart Millard,” “MercyMe: The Early Days,” “Casting I Can Only Imagine,” “The Power of the Song,” “Dennis Quaid: On My Way to Heaven”; recording sessions; and EPKs.

Body of Deceit
If this erotic thriller is supposed to remind viewers of the kinds of movies that made Sharon Stone an A-list star, it falls short in the excitement department. Apart from several clearly telegraphed double-crosses and an extremely fragile love triangle, Body of Deceit’s primary selling points are its gorgeous Malta locations and copious amount of nudity and make-out sessions … mostly of the girl/girl variety. Eliminate the beautiful scenery and reasonably high production values and what’s left is a late-night Cinemax movie. That’s OK with me, but others might feel cheated by the obvious plot twists. Kristanna Loken plays a professional ghost writer, Alice, who’s still traumatized by a terrible automobile accident that left her in a coma for two weeks in a mainland hospital. Unable to recall the details, Alice has begun to suffer from depression, cryptic nightmares and writer’s block. Her husband, Max (Antonio Cupo), persuades Alice to go back to the island, hoping that something will unblock her mind, so she can start working again and meet her last deadline. The couple is welcomed to a beautiful Maltese villa by the stunning maid, Sara (Sarai Givaty), who resembles Rosanna Arquette, circa 1985. Things heat up with Alice realizes that she’s being followed by an undercover cop, whose intentions are too-quickly revealed. Even so, director Alessandro Capone (Hidden Love) keeps a couple of rabbits up his sleeve until the film’s 91 minutes are over.

Jerry Lewis: 10 Films
Coming to America: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Trading Places: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Terminator: Genesis/Forrest Gump: 4K UHD/HDR
It’s been 10 months since Jerry Lewis’ death, at 91, of cardiovascular disease. In a career that extended, on one stage or another, from the early 1930s to 2017, the former Joseph and/or Jerome Levitch defined what it meant to be a multihyphenate. Obituary writers struggled to complete a lead paragraph that described all the different hats he wore during that period: comedian, straight man, actor, singer, hoofer, mime, humanitarian, film director, film producer, screenwriter, tech wizard, headliner, television host, guest star, author, teacher and family man. It wouldn’t be accurate to compare his career to a roller-coaster, because it remained on the ascendency for nearly 30 years. I think it’s safe to say, marathon appearances on the annual MDA than the movies included in “Jerry Lewis: 10 Films.” He deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination, at least, for his startling performance in The King of Comedy (1982), despite protestations that he was just playing himself. (His improvisational and directorial skills also were cited by Martin Scorsese.)

If the cheap shots about the reverence shown him by French critics and filmmakers never really ended, how many of his detractors could split the difference between auteur theory and schtick? Without belaboring the point, here’s what Jean Luc Godard had to say about the mercurial artist, at the height of his career and early days of the French New Wave: “Jerry Lewis … is the only one in Hollywood doing something different, the only one who isn’t falling in with the established categories, the norms, the principles. … Lewis is the only one today who’s making courageous films. He’s been able to do it because of his personal genius.” The titles included here, which played to adult sensibilities, while also delighting kids, are the one that prompted such praise.

The Stooge (1951) features one of Lewis’ earliest pairings with Dean Martin as a musical-comedy duo, albeit one forged by unusual circumstances; The Delicate Delinquent (1956), in Lewis’ first solo flight, he plays a bumbling janitor caught between neighborhood toughs and a friendly cop (Darren McGavin); The Bellboy (1960), in which a clumsy, mostly mute bellboy turns Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel upside-down; Cinderfella (1960), in which Lewis adds his trademark touches to the classic fairy tale, with Ed Wynn playing the Fairy Godfather; The Errand Boy (1961), in which Paramount Pictures enlists a human wrecking ball to discover who’s draining studio resources; The Ladies Man (1961) inserts a girl-shy nebbish into a women’s-only hotel to serve their every, frequently selfish whim; The Nutty Professor (1963) confuses a nerdy chemist with a slick lounge lizard, Buddy Love; The Disorderly Orderly (1964) puts an overly empathic med-school dropout in charge of caring for patients in a private rest home; The Patsy (1964), a cameo-heavy twist on “My Fair Lady,” with Jerry’s trademark schlub as Eliza Doolittle; and The Family Jewels, with Lewis playing seven distinctly different characters attempting to win the heart and fortune of an orphaned heiress. Binging on all 10 movies provides ample proof of how much Lewis influenced generations of comics to come, including Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey.

Only Murphy was afforded the kind of freedom Lewis that enjoyed while acting on his whims and brainstorms. His influence is most visible in Murphy’s own version of The Nutty Professor (1996) and its sequel, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). In 1988, Murphy and Arsenio Hall both played multiple characters in Coming to America, while Eddie reprised the gag in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). The original version of The Nutty Professor was included on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American films of all time and was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004. Just for kicks, let me suggest watching The Delicate Delinquent alongside West Side Story. The curated boxed set adds commentaries with Lewis and Steve Lawrence; deleted scenes; interviews with compiler Chris Lewis; auditions; and backstage material.

Paramount is rolling out a quartet of its most popular vintage titles on Blu-ray and/or 4K UHD/HDR. Newcomers to Murphy’s work should check out “Coming to America: 30th Anniversary Edition,” with Hall and James Earl Jones; and “Trading Places: 35th Anniversary Edition,” with Dan Aykroyd, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche and, of course, Jamie Lee Curtis. Both were directed by John Landis. Neither has been remastered or includes fresh featurettes, but they add slipcovers and vouchers for UV/iTunes digital copies. Terminator: Genesis and Forrest Gump benefit from fresh 4K UHD/HDR upgrades, with such enhancements as 12-bit Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Terminator: Genesis‘ UHD disc contains no extras, but the pair of bundled Blu-ray discs ports over both all the original Blu-ray’s content, as well as a second disc with in-depth extras not included on the core release from 2015. Forrest Gump‘s UHD disc carries over a pair of legacy commentary tracks, which can only be found under the “Settings” tab. Viewers will find a plethora of extra content on the included pair of Blu-ray discs, which are simple ports of the 2009 set. A UV/iTunes digital copy code is included purchase.

Abominable: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Released in 2006, Ryan Schifrin’s Abominable feels like a throwback to a bygone era when creature features and disaster epics ruled the drive-ins. For some reason that I can’t exactly figure out, it works remarkably well today, surrounded in the marketplace by even more dated flicks that have been re-tooled in Blu-ray. Like many of the titles refurbished by Scream Factory, Cult Epics, Lionsgate, Synapse, Grindhouse, Cheezy and, now, MVD Rewind, Abominable has camp and nostalgia value up the yin-yang. For once, the story behind it isn’t bad, either. The publicity material suggests that the almost certainly mythical beast, variously known as Sasquatch, Yeti and Bigfoot, has been sighted some 42,000 times in 68 countries. It wasn’t until 1921 that the Himalayan Yeti became popularly known as the Abominable Snowman, a term that has little resonance today. Despite the insistence of filmmakers, the Yeti, Sasquatch and Bigfoot sightings argue against the hairy bipeds being aggressively violent. In fact, the rarity of the sighting suggests they’re incredibly reclusive. No one, as far as I know, has encountered a baby Bigfoot and it’s more likely to be a vegan than carnivore. The persistence of the legend can largely be traced to its value to the tourist industry in the Pacific Northwest.

Abominable doesn’t offer viewers much of a back story, really. The conceit – a horror flick inspired by Rear Window – substitutes for a coherent narrative. The monster simply appears one night outside the farmhouse belonging to Billy and Ethel Hoss (Rex Linn, Dee Wallace). The creature has killed a horse and will soon devour the family dog, an Irish Setter too stupid to know when to stay put. It returns to the Hoss’ house, but only to leave behind some humungous footprints. When next encountered the Sasquatch is threatening the lives of a group of young women holding a bachelorette party at a high-altitude retreat and their neighbor, a wheelchair-bound man who lost the use of his legs in a climbing mishap. A hunting party that includes the farmer is also in the vicinity. Matt McCoy plays the injured neighbor, who monitors the monster’s attack on the women through a pair of binoculars. The subsequent attack on the mountain condos is well choreographed by Schifrin, whose father, Lalo, composed the musical score. The Sasquatch is a take-no-prisoners sort of a fellow, who’s even able to survive an ax that’s driven through its chest and being crushed between a tree and the rear end of an automobile.

The question that lingers is how can a single Sasquatch be at so many places simultaneously and still be hungry after devouring so many large pieces of meat? Stay tuned. Besides Wallace, Linn and McCoy, the familiar cast includes Jeffrey Combs, Paul Gleason, Haley Joel, Phil Morris, Tiffany Shepis and Lance Henriksen. The Blu-ray adds an audio/visual upgrade; commentary with Schifrin, McCoy and Combs; Schifrin’s introduction; deleted and extended scenes; outtakes and bloopers; the featurette, ”Back to Genre: Making Abominable”; short films by Schifrin; the original 2005 version of the film; a storyboard and stills gallery; and collectible poster.

Ninja III: The Domination: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find a genre picture more indicative of the cheeseball fare associated with Cannon Films in its 1980s heyday than Ninja III: The Domination. OK, maybe Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, which also starred former Miss Kansas candidate and Solid Gold dancer Lucinda Dickey. In it, she plays Christie Ryder, a telephone-company worker and part-time aerobics instructor, who becomes possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja, whose life she attempted to save. Dominated by the killer’s vicious and relentless rage, she sets out to avenge his death. Her boyfriend, confused by Christie’s changing personality and afraid that he might be her next victim, enlists the help of Yamada (Shô Kosugi). In a life-threatening exorcism and ultimate fight to the death, Yamada proves that he is Christie’s only chance for survival. It is not really a trilogy in the sense that the story lines are all connected or that Kosugi plays the same character in each movie, which he doesn’t. According to director Sam Firstenberg, Ninja III was inspired as much by The Exorcist and Poltergeist as previous kung-fu movies. The collector’s edition is enhanced by a 4K remaster of the film and new interviews with Dickey, actor Jordan Bennett, producer and stuntman Alan Amiel, production designer Elliot Ellentuck and co-composer Misha Segal. Ported over are isolated tracks from the original score; a theatrical trailer with optional “Trailers From Hell” commentary with screenwriter Josh Olson; commentary by Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert; and reversible cover with original theatrical poster art.

Sherlock Gnomes: Blu-ray
In this long-anticipated sequel to the remarkably successful animated feature, Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) is recruited to help investigate the mysterious disappearance of ornaments from lawns around London. Sherlock has defeated his archenemy Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), once and for all, and Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) – now in charge of restoring their master’s garden to its former glory — assume that he has plenty of time to get to the bottom of the crime. To this end, Sherlock can count on the wisdom and detection skills of Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This time around, the action is more suited to younger audiences than full-family viewing, but the production values are high enough to keep adults interested, for a while anyway. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Gnome Is Where the Heart Is,” “All Roads Lead to Gnome: London Locations in Sherlock Gnomes,” “Gnome Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Design and Art of Sherlock Gnomes,” “Miss Gnomer: Mary J. Blige and the Music of Sherlock Gnomes,” the music video “Stronger Than I Ever Was,” “How to Draw” and “Animating Sherlock Gnomes.”

TV-to-DVD
NBC: Will & Grace (The Revival): Season One
Lifetime: Sea Change
PBS: Frontline: Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia
History: Ancient Aliens: 10th Anniversary Edition
Nickelodeon Favorites: Great Summer Campout!
Unlike the revival of “Roseanne,” which ABC pulled the plug on last month, the reboot of NBC’s pioneering sitcom, “Will & Grace,” will live to see the bright lights of two more seasons, at least. If Roseanne Barr’s ignoble downfall taught the television establishment anything, it’s that the only person who can get away with posting crackpot opinions on Twitter is the President. Amazingly, he’s told so many lies on social media that his nose has run out of the cartilage needed to surpass Pinocchio’s record. And, no one asks him to apologize, either. The first incarnation of “Will & Grace” was broadcast on the Peacock Network from September 1998 to May 2006. Despite initial criticism for its stereotypical portrayals of gay characters, as well as some timidity on the part of NBC’s promotional department, it went on to become a staple of its Thursday-night lineup. It was met with continued critical acclaim and awards recognition. Emmy nominations have yet to be announced, but the revival likely will get its share. In 2012, former Vice President Joe Biden cited the show as a trailblazer for acceptance of the LGBT community, “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far. This is evolving.” Indeed, Biden’s endorsement of the sitcom and same-sex marriage preceded President Obama’s willingness to publicly accept the controversial stance. Beyond that, the ninth season of “Will & Grace” picked up where it left off 11 years ago. Not having followed the show for most of its original run, it’s difficult for me to say if the characters are more outspoken and willing to show their affection for same-sex friends. Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that Debra Messing’s Grace, with all her neuroses, would make a wonderful match to Jerry Seinfeld’s Jerry, in “Seinfeld.” (Their paths crossed twice on the show, in “The Yada Yada” and “The Wait Out,” but with Messing playing a different character, Beth.) Bonus features include deleted scenes, a gag reel, “Back to the Beginning,” “Reuniting the Team” and a discussion with director James Burrows and cast members.

If Lifetime had a YA division, “Sea Change” would be one of its marquee attractions. More or less based on Aimee Friedman’s young-adult novel of the same title, it’s about a teenage girl, who, after the death of her father, returns to the island home of a mother she never knew. It doesn’t take long for 17-year-old Miranda Merchant (Emily Rudd) to figure out that scenic Selkie Island – actually, Nova Scotia’s Oak Island – is divided in almost every way possible by the demands of the wealthy summer residents and the locals, who couldn’t survive without them. It will take a bit longer for Miranda to learn that the locals are divided, as well, by the normal folks and the seemingly normal Seawalkers, who are half-human, half-amphibian. As Miranda settles into island life, she finds herself torn between T.J., heir to one of the oldest Selkie families, and mysterious bad boy, Leo, who is part of the working-class “townies.” Leo has the advantage over T.J., for saving Miranda after she momentarily forgets that she can’t swim and wades into the ocean. The deeper she digs into Leo’s life, the closer Miranda comes to uncovering mysteries of her own. Veteran television director Chris Grismer does a nice job maintaining a balance between teen schmaltz and supernatural melodrama.

One doesn’t need a degree in international relations to fully appreciate how messed up things are in the Middle East and how unlikely it is that they’re going to get better any time soon. Invest two hours of your precious time watching the “Frontline” presentation, “Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia” and you’ll know as much about the situation as any undergraduate and more than 90 percent of the people running things in Washington. Not only is the mess complicated, but the roots of current hostilities extend back 1,400 years. The two-part documentary is quite a bit more interesting than what students usually are able to glean in lecture halls, if only because the visuals are more exciting than textbooks. The central event that drives the series is the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. The conflict, which left at least a million combatants and civilians dead, more closely resembled World War I than other modern wars. It involved large-scale trench warfare, with barbed wire stretched across fortified defensive lines; machine-gun nests; bayonet charges; Iranian human wave attacks, extensive use of chemical weapons by Iraq and deliberate attacks on civilian targets. What most people outside the region didn’t understand, at the time, is that the carnage was caused, in large part, by religious differences almost imperceptible to most westerners. Although Saudi Arabia wasn’t directly involved, it took sides with Iraq. Years later, the ramifications of that war would be felt in the ill-advised American invasion of Iraq; civil wars in Lebanon and Syria; the rise and decline of ISIS; collapse of Yemen; and increased militarization of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Throw in Israel, oil and an out-of-control refugee problem, and you have the makings of a real powder keg … or Armageddon, one.

Who knew that there was so mileage in a series of quasi-investigative reports about UFOs, extraterrestrials, crop circles and other phenomena associated with the possibility that life exists on other planets? I don’t know if “Ancient Aliens: 10th Anniversary Edition” represents History Channel’s biggest cash cow, but the 36-disc collection would be impressive, even as a doorstop. The gift set includes all 135 episodes and over 100 hours of “Ancient Aliens” content. The epic series explores the ancient and unexplained, in search of humankind’s origins, as well as the secrets of the universe. From the age of dinosaurs to the mysteries of ancient Egypt, and from early cave drawings to present-day sightings and cover-ups, “Ancient Aliens” has fed the imaginations of true believers and skeptics, alike.

The new “Nickelodeon Favorites” DVD, “Great Summer Campout!” features five episodes from select Nick Jr. shows about summer and camping. They are “Bubble Guppies: The Summer Camp Games,” “Shimmer and Shine: Treehouse Retreat,” “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Truck Rangers,” “Sunny Day: Wild Styled” and “Nella the Princess Knight: Dueling Sleepovers.” Let’s hope the DVD is reserved for rainy days only.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“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