MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Blockers, Finding Your Feet, Ismael’s Ghosts, Don’t Grow Up, Last House on Left, Sartana, Striking Back, Sharks … More

Blockers: Blu-ray
It probably took adults over the age of, say, 40 or 50, a while to decipher the imagery on posters for Universal’s cross-generational comedy, Blockers, upon its release in early April. In addition to the neatly arranged photo of the actors playing parents and daughters, there’s the silhouette of a rooster strutting atop the letters of the one-word title. Slightly to the left of the cock’s tail feathers is the tagline, “Parents can be such …” Combine the individual parts and you get, “Parents can be such … (COCK) BLOCKERS,” which might not have passed muster with MPAA watchdogs, who also monitor advertising. Although the term, “cockblock,” has been traced to 1972, via “DawgSpeak!: The Slanguage Dictionary of the University of Georgia,” it wasn’t until it was used in Superbad (2007) that it took hold among young white scenesters. The original script was titled “Cherries,” which not only would have been too blatantly suggestive for the MPAA, but also more than a tad misleading, in that the butt of the joke throughout Blockers is the attempt by three sets of parents to prevent their daughters from losing their virginity (a.k.a., “breaking their cherries”) on prom night. Originally, too, the story involved three fathers keen on preserving the virginity of their daughters. That concept was revised to include two fathers, Mitchell and Hunter (John Cena, Ike Barinholtz), and a mother, Lisa (Leslie Mann). If nothing else, the inclusion of Mann – a veritable Everymom figure – precluded potential viewers from thinking that Blockers was a delayed sequel to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) and Coline Serreau’s French original, Three Men and a Cradle (1985). It’s also possible that the 16 predominantly male producers – many of them veterans of Sausage Party and other Seth Rogan/Evan Goldberg projects – including, wait for it, Superbad – realized that another working title, “The Pact,” wouldn’t draw flies as a revisionist bromance, in which the teenage girls were in command of the teenage boys’ very active libidos.

Perhaps, though, the wisest choice of all was hiring Kay Cannon to make her directorial debut in the driver’s seat of Blockers. Her writing credits include all three Pitch Perfect entries and such gal-friendly TV shows as “Girlboss,” “New Girl” and “30 Rock.” By comparison, the film’s credited screenwriters, Brian and Jim Kehoe, hadn’t done much to impress anyone beyond some collaborative shorts and the little seen 2005 comedy Overachievers (a.k.a., “The Hand Job”). Even with Cannon’s hand on the wheel, too many of the gags rely on scatological set pieces, car crashes and other things borrowed from previous Rogan/Goldberg comedies. She must have done something right, however, because Blockers won the approval of the mainstream critics on Metacritic.com, while grossing a shade lower than $100 million, against a production budget of $21 million. Here, nosy mom Lisa intercepts an e-mail on the computer of her daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton). It sets out the basics of her arrangement with Mitchell’s daughter, Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and Sam (Gideon Adlon), concerning their mutual intention to get laid on prom night. (Usually, the ultimate wet dream of post-pubescent boys.)

It doesn’t seem as if there’s been much consideration given to contraception and disease prevention. Everyone acts as if AIDS/HIV no longer is a problem, the morning-after pill wasn’t widely available or that condoms are readily available in modern drug stores, not just in men’s room vending machines. To my mind, it’s a glaring omission, considering the vast amount of information on the subject available to teens and their parents these days. The adults are more concerned with the girls’ putting a moral price tag on their virginity and not selling it to the first bidder. Their daughters appear to have considered the ramifications of their pact, at least, and are fully prepared to say, “No,” if necessary. Neither are the boys portrayed as being anything other than gentlemen … doofuses, yes, but not overly aggressive doofuses. I suspect, however, that the blame for their convenient lack of memory lies more with the screenplay than the characters. As such, the comedy plays out on two parallel tracks, running in slightly different directions. The adults’ track is dominated by slapsticky contrivances and bumbling attempts to get ahead of the girls’ prom-night trajectory. The girls dominate every scene that calls for their presence, while the young male actors — Graham Phillips, Miles Robbins, Jimmy Bellinger – suffer from looking far too old to play high school seniors. An LGBT story thread is handled with humor and sensitivity, as well. The supporting adult cast members — Gary Cole, Gina Gershon, Hannibal Buress, Sarayu Blue and June Diane Raphael – aren’t given that much to do, but they do it well.

For what it’s worth, Gideon Adlon is the daughter of actress Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”) and Miles Robbins is the son of Tim Robbins and actress Susan Sarandon. It’s gotten to the point where critics may be required to take nepotism and other forms of favoritism into consideration, when weighing casting decisions in movies under review.  They’re nothing new, of course, but the ramifications of Hollywood’s current baby boom may someday tilt the playing field in the favor of pedigreed talent, as is the case in Ivy League schools with “legacy” admissions. (There’s no question that the celebrity media gives the children of celebrities top billing in puff pieces.) The Blu-ray adds unrated deleted scenes; a gag reel; Line-O-Rama, with ad-lib takes for several scenes; “Rescue Mission,” a discussion of the film’s most outrageous scenes and stunts; “Prom Night,” a look at the girls’ “sex pact”; “The History of Sex With Ike Barinholtz”; “John Cena’s Prom Survival Kit for Parents,” from his professional blocker’s bag of goodies; “Chug! Chug! Chug!,” a closer look at a scene in which John Cena’s character takes in some beer from the wrong end; “Puke-A-Palooza,” on the film’s vomit visuals; and commentary with Cannon.

Finding Your Feet
If Hollywood studios only seem to care about their elderly stars when they can be paired with ingenues, in such May-December dramedies as Georgia Rule or Grandma, or last-hurrah romps like Going in Style and Last Vegas, British producers don’t appear to have any problem finding meaningful work for their still extremely capable old-timers. Neither are their appearances limited to such Oscar-bait films as Florence Foster Jenkins, Phantom Thread, Mr. Turner and 45 Years, all released late in the year and sometimes described as valedictories. Susan Sarandon, Helen Mirren and Michael Caine don’t appear to have any trouble finding work, but they’re exceptions to the rule. If you find more than three old-timers within an inch of top billing in an American studio picture, you might consider making an appointment with your optometrist. Richard Loncraine’s Finding Your Feet is a prime example of the kind of ensemble dramedy – Calendar Girls, Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, My House in Umbria, Unfinished Song, Greenfingers and Tea with Mussolini — that the Brits do better than anyone. There are enough fine actors available to avoid recycling the same casts over and over, again. While Finding Your Feet isn’t likely to win any major awards outside the festival circuit, its sole intention is to locate its audience and entertain it. In it, Imelda Staunton plays haughty social climber Lady Sandra Abbott, who’s just discovered that her caddish husband (John Sessions) has been engaged in a longtime affair with one of her best friends (Josie Lawrence). Unable to face the social humiliation in her moneyed countryside community, Sandra turns up at the door of her estranged older sister’s London flat. Elizabeth (Celia Imrie) is a never-married misfit with a wide array of oddball friends and liberal beliefs.

To stay fit, Elizabeth participates in dancing classes for senior citizens, as well as the occasional flash mob. Although Sandra isn’t ready to fully embrace the social side of the class, she enjoys the dancing and the people she meets there. That includes Charlie (Timothy Sprall), a Cockney furniture restorer, who lives on a converted houseboat moored on a London canal. It takes a while for Sandra to recognize the chemistry between them, which viewers sense from the minute they meet. Despite the difference in their social standing, they’re a perfect fit. Meanwhile, the dancers participate in a flash mob in Piccadilly Circus, which catches the eye of contest promoters in Rome. What could be finer than a romantic escape to the Eternal City? The inevitable deal-breaker comes when Charlie reveals to Sandra that he’s married and supporting a wife soon to die of Alzheimer’s disease. Once bitten, twice shy, Sandra decides that the grass may still be greener at her country estate, now that her husband has split from his lover. What happens next isn’t entirely predictable, but close enough that we aren’t shocked by it. It does involve some jerking of tears, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, either. It’s especially fun watching Spall and Staunton in lead romantic roles.

Ismael’s Ghosts
While I’ve admired previous work by French director and multiple Palme d’Or nominee Arnaud Desplechin – Jimmy P., My Golden Days, A Christmas Tale, Kings & Queen, Esther Kahn, My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument – but I’d be hard pressed to give an unqualified recommendation to Ismael’s Ghosts to casual fans of arthouse films or its stars: Marion Cotillard, Mathieu Amalric and Charlotte Gainsbourg. There’s nothing wrong with their performances, certainly. In fact, I can’t imagine them being any more compelling than they already are here. Desplechin’s direction is similarly exceptional. Anyone considering a purchase or rental of Ismael’s Ghosts, based solely on the presence of the lead actors, should know that it can’t be fully enjoyed – or, understood – without a working knowledge of Desplechin’s earlier titles. The names of certain characters are revisited in Ismael’s Ghosts, as are themes, locations and storylines. It’s no accident, either, that Amalric returns in his sixth collaboration with Desplechin. Like the co-writer/director, Amalric’s character, Ismaël Vuillard, hails from the northern French commune of Roubaix. He’s played Ismaël Vuillard in Ismael’s Ghosts and Kings & Queen); Henri Vuillard, in A Christmas Tale; and Paul Dedalus, in My Golden Days and “My Sex Life …” Another related character is Ivan Dedalus, played by Raphaël Cohen in My Golden Days, and Louis Garrel in Ismael’s Ghosts. If that weren’t sufficient cause for doing one’s homework, consider the James Joyce references, including various Dedalus family members, and László Szabó’s Henri Bloom, Dedalus’ mentor and father-in-law. In an interview published on the Eye for Film website, Desplechin also acknowledged references to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, director Alfred Hitchcock and author Philip Roth. Not all of them made the cut in the 114-minute version shown at Cannes. Magnolia’s far better DVD restores 20 minutes of unfortunately trimmed material.

Potential viewers can take all of that as a warning or an invitation, I think. Going into Ismael’s Ghosts, I was blissfully unaware of most of the literary connections, cinematic references and recurring characters. It would have been difficult, however, for me not to notice the Joycean nods, Amalric’s always-welcome return or the Tajikistan thread that connects it to My Golden Days. Clearly, Desplechin had Vertigo in mind when creating the female protagonist, Carlotta Bloom (Cotillard), whose disembodied presence haunts an early scene in which Bloom and Vuillard share their unresolved pain over her disappearance, 20 years earlier. Ismael has already moved on, by having his wife declared dead – despite evidence of her death — and finding a new soulmate. In a flashback, we’re introduced to his current lover, Sylvia (Gainsbourg), an astrophysicist he met two years earlier. Attempting to break through Ismael’s paralyzing writer’s block, they rent a cabin in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, on France’s Atlantic coast. The production of a spy thriller about diplomat Ivan Dedalus (Garrel) — based on Vuillard’s similarly missing brother — has already begun, albeit without a completed screenplay. Of the myriad people who could have walked up to Sylvia while she’s lying on the sun-drenched beach, how is that Carlotta heads straight for this stranger and introduces herself as the wife of her lover? Although Sylvia is stunned by the encounter, they chat as if they were picking up a conversation interrupted earlier in the day. It’s Ismael who becomes unhinged by Carlotta’s sudden, unexpected presence. He further unravels after Carlotta invites herself to stay with the couple, with only the thinnest of explanations as to where she’s been and what she’s been doing. Now that Ismael is unable to deal with anything corporeal, Sylvia suggests rather forcefully that Carlotta contact her father, even at the risk of his suffering a heart attack. Ismael’s Ghosts engages viewers in ways other films don’t bother to try. Besides asking us to consider what’s real and what isn’t, we’re forced to share Ismael and Bloom’s possible descent into madness. How many movies can say that?

Don’t Grow Up
The Cured: Blu-ray
French director Thierry Poiraud’s previous thriller, Goal of the Dead, co-directed with Benjamin Rocher (The Horde), describes what happens when a nearly retired soccer star returns home after an absence of 17 years, only to be greeted by hostility from fans he left in the lurch. A match between the player’s current team and the home-town side is arranged. In the meantime, however, a key member of the locals – and the star’s former best mate – is injected with a youth-inducing drug. Naturally, it backfires, turning the guinea pig into a zombie, whose sputum infects his mates. It turns the game into a tongue-in-cheek contest between human and undead athletes. Like Poiraud’s new film, Don’t Grow Up, Goal of the Dead is difficult to find on this side of the pond, either in theaters or on DVD. The premise is no less inventive. In a sense, it combines elements of “Peter Pan,” MTV’s “Real World” and, in a stretch, “Lord of the Flies,” all in the service of a pretty good zombie-apocalypse mashup. Based on a screenplay by Marie Garel-Weiss (The Party’s Over), Don’t Grow Up is set on a heavily wooded island – one of the Canaries, probably – where a group of teenage delinquents have been sent to live in isolation, at a youth facility. One morning, they wake up to find themselves alone, with no adult supervision. After celebrating their newfound freedom, the teens decide to investigate what’s happening in other parts of the island. They discover that the adults have been turned into blood-thirsty and psychotic predators and the epidemic only impacts people over the age of 18. If only the survivors can escape the island, maybe, just maybe, they can find life beyond Thunderdome … or, at least, beyond Tenerife. There’s enough action in Don’t Grow Up to keep most fans of the subgenre satisfied, as well as an atypically thoughtful ending.

In David Freyne’s debut feature, The Cured, the Maze Virus has ravaged the Europe, turning people into mindless zombies. Then, a remedy is developed and 75 percent of the infected are cured and returned to humanity. The Irish, however, are slow to recognize a good thing when they see it, only adopting the cure when the Maze Virus has nearly devastated the population. No one in the government is willing to completely trust the results from the antidote in other countries, deciding, instead, to quarantine the patients in Belfast’s Victorian Era prison, the Crumlin Road Gaol. Those recovering fastest get to spend time outside the facility, with sponsors and family members, or working. Those left behind are subject to beatings and mistreatment by callous guards and other staff members. Senan (Sam Keeley) is caught in the middle. Relatives of those people killed by the zombies have no choice but to accept that the returning patients are cured, or violently resist their presence outside the hospital’s walls. The catch is that these former mindless killing machines remember every horrible thing they did under the influence of virus, living with their memories, their regrets, their guilt and their shame … however benign they might be. Most of the relatives and friends of the victims have neither forgotten nor forgiven what happened. Senan is invited to live with his brother’s widow, Abbie (Ellen Page), and his nephew, Cillian (Oscar Nolan), who aren’t completely aware of the pain he’s caused them. Still, Senan is required to pass through a gauntlet of screaming protesters before and after his weekly meetings with his supervisor – who’s a prick – and decide if their attempts to cage the “resistant” minority are sufficient cause for violence. Anyone who enjoys The Cured enough to look for analogous situations in real life shouldn’t have any trouble finding them on the nightly news.

Furious: Blu-ray
If Zack Snyder had elected to follow 300 with other depictions of heroism in the face of hopeless odds, he could have considered the Texans’ stand against the Mexican army at the Alamo or the Zealots’ three-year struggle to hold off 10,000 Roman soldiers at Masala. Instead, he left the comic-book-influenced depictions of epic defeats to other filmmakers, including Russian filmmakers Dzhanik Fayziev and Ivan Shurkhovetskiy, who adapted the live-action/CGI technique for Furious (a.k.a., “Legend of Kolovrat”). Set in 1237, during the Mongol invasion of Russia, the plot is based on “The Tale of the Destruction of Riazan,” a medieval military text about the capture of the prosperous border city of Ryazan by the Mongol Horde. Like other such historical tales passed down by generations of amateur historians and mythmakers, and then repurposed by clergy, the details were fudged to the advantage of the victorious or aggrieved parties. Nevertheless, Furious does appear to conform to known facts about the Golden Horde and the Russian resistance to it. The verisimilitude of the costumes, jewelry, weaponry and other period accoutrements is always open to question in such pictures, but these elements look as if considerable thought and research went into them. If the acting, dialogue and animation aren’t quite up to the standards expected by American audiences, younger viewers might enjoy the change of scenery.

The story focuses on Evpaty Kolovrat (Ilya Malakov), a Ryazan knight who stood up to the Mongols when the Golden Horde — a mixture of Turks and Mongols — reached the outskirts of the city. Prince Fedor (Ilya Antonenko) instructs a small group of his men, led by Evpaty, to go to Emperor Batu Khan (Aleksandr Choi) with an offering of gold and silver. When Batu’s demand that they kneel before him is refused, the Ryazans are set upon by the emperor’s swordsmen. They manage to escape, barely, but Batu knows that the wintery conditions will keep them from reaching home before his horsemen are able to destroy it. Evpaty and his 17-warrior force attempt to raise the spirits of the handful of devastated survivors, but very little of it remains. After reaching out to two neighboring cities, asking them to join the fight, they choose to take refuge behind their city walls, instead. They make the kind of final, fruitless stand that would inspire generations to come, but could only end badly. At its peak, the territory of the Golden Horde included most of eastern Europe from the Urals to the Danube River, and extended from the steppes into Siberia. In the south, its lands bordered on the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the territories of the Mongol dynasty known as the Ilkhanate. Internal struggles allowed the northern state of Muscovy to rid itself of the “Tatar Yoke” and reclaim Russian land. The Crimean Khanate and the Kazakh Khanate survived until 1783 and 1847 respectively. This tidbit of history isn’t included in the movie, but it explains the diversity of the states in the former USSR.

The Last House on the Left: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Released in 1972, when extremely violent content and explicit depictions of depraved behavior still were capable of shocking critics and audiences, alike, a nasty bit of business by freshman writer/editor/director Wes Craven pushed the envelope as far as it would go. A few months earlier, critic Pauline Kael had initiated a national debate on the use of violence (rape included) in A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Dirty Harry, meticulously made films that couldn’t be dismissed simply as exploitation or genre fare, the ghetto most mainstream critics reserved for Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Although carefully crafted displays of blood and gore had been cinematic staples for more than 50 years, such horror subsets as  “splatter,” “stalker” and “slasher,” had yet to be accorded subgenre status under its umbrella. Italian giallo frequently combined all three elements simultaneously, to support garish procedurals and murder mysteries, but it was more of a curiosity than Spaghetti Westerns had been in the mid-1960s. In “Last House,” a pair of wannabe hippies from the suburbs – Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham) – decide to score some marijuana before attending a rock concert in the city. It’s Mari’s birthday and her parents have given her a necklace with a peace-symbol pendant to wear, along with the usual admonishments about taking candy from strangers. Immediately agreeing to dismiss the advice, the girls ask the first long-haired guy they see where they might be able to purchase of lid. He escorts them to the apartment in which he’s staying, where three prison escapees and their moll are killing time until they can head north into Canada. It doesn’t take long for Mari and Phyllis to figure that they’ve been lured into a pit full of vipers, all waiting to sink their fangs into something tasty. After being taunted, tortured and raped, the hoodlums toss the girls into the trunk of their own car and split for the boonies.

As coincidence would have it, the escapees stop in the dense woods near Mari’s house to sate their appetite for sick, sadistic thrills. Craven made what happens next as realistic as his meager budget and twisted imagination would allow … which is to say, sickeningly so. Once the girls have been raped, sliced up and eliminated, the gang heads for the nearest house, where they ask for food and a place to crash. Sure enough, the place they pick for shelter belongs to Mari’s parents. Viewers familiar with Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) will know what to expect in the final reel. That’s because Craven based “Last House” on the Oscar-winning drama, asking viewers some of the same questions as Bergman posed. When queried about the terribly realistic rape and murder in The Virgin Spring, Bergman explained, “It shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of crime that breeds new crime, of guilt and grace. … We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.” In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther demurred, “Mr. Bergman has stocked it with scenes of brutality that, for sheer unrestrained realism, may leave one sickened and stunned. As much as they may contribute to the forcefulness of the theme, they tend to disturb the senses out of proportion to the dramatic good they do.” It’s fair to wonder what he’d say now.

So, a half-century later, what makes The Virgin Spring a universally admired work of art and “Last House” simply an early example of a splatter flick? The color and grain of the filmstock? Both movies were banned and censored upon their release, only to re-evaluated years later through different prisms. The violence in both films hasn’t lost its ability to shock and sicken. Bergman was raised in a devout Lutheran household, surrounded by religious imagery and discussion. Craven, who grew up in a strict Baptist family, earned an undergraduate degree in English and psychology from Protestant Wheaton College and a master’s degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University. After turning away from a career in teaching, he began making shorts and industrials with Tom and Harry Chapin. Then, he honed his behind-the-camera skills in the yet-to-explode porn industry. He envisioned a film in which the violence would be shown in detail onscreen, and, as was so often the case with Westerns that glamorized violence and the “vigilante hero,” not give the public a misleading representation of death, especially in the wake of the Vietnam War. Because “Last House” did very well in its domestic release, except among critics, studios and colleagues in the world of indie films, he was henceforth labelled a “horror director.” Despite the perceived stigma, he was free to expand his vision in such crowd-pleasers as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and Scream, in which he came full-circle on the genre. While the Arrow Video Blu-ray has been newly restored in 2K from original film elements, the source material almost looks as cheesy as it did in 1972. The new and vintage bonus features are what sell this three-disc limited edition. They’re plentiful, informative, provocative, humorous and nostalgia-inducing. Moreover, even if you hit the pause button after 20 minutes, “Last House” is as difficult to ignore as a bad nightmare.

The Complete Sartana: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After watching 10 Jerry Lewis movies back-to-back a couple weeks ago, I thought that 5 Spaghetti Westerns in a row would be a snap. No such luck. Arrow Video has been filling my mail box with so many Italian genre titles lately, I thought I’d catch a break after its “A Pistol for Ringo & The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Duccio Tessari” package, released two months ago. Then, a month later, came Film Movement Classics’ hyperviolent The Great Silence. I thought there was a Trinity title in there somewhere, but I could be mistaken. The movies included in Arrow’s The Complete Sartana might give you a hint of what I was up against: If You Meet Sartana … Pray for Your Death; I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death; Have a Good Funeral My Friend … Sartana Will Pay; Light the Fuse … Sartana Is Coming; and Sartana’s Here … Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin, in which George Hilton replaced Gianni Garko in the lead role. Like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Terence Hill’s Trinity, Franco Nero’s Django, Lee Van Cleef’s Sabata and Giuliano Gemma’s Ringo, Garko’s Sartana withstood numerous changes through the character’s lifetime, including imitations, new leading men, directors and co-stars; and cross-over movies. Giani “Johnny” Garko introduced a character named Sartana Liston in the 1966 Spaghetti Western, $1,000 on the Black (a.k.a., “Blood at Sundown”), and in his next film, 10,000 Dollars for a Massacre, he played Django, as Gary Hudson. In addition to the movies included in the Arrow box, Sartara would make appearances in a dozen more Westerns, with several more actors filling in for Garko and Hilton. In them, he was paired with and/or against Django, Trinity, Sabato and Ron Ely’s Hallelujah. Are you still with me, because I’m fading fast. The things that set Sartana apart from the other Spaghetti Western heroes were his cape, card tricks, unusually good grooming, a fondness for gadgetry and trick weapons, and a droll sense of humor. Robert Conrad’s James T. West comes to mind. Like the Man With No Name hero of Sergio Leone’s first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, Sartana manipulates other parties to fight each other and promote his interests. He also resembles Colonel Mortimer, the second protagonist in For a Few Dollars More, in that he carries a set of special weapons, including a derringer with a reversible barrel. (Don’t ask.) All of that said, however, fans of Westerns in general, and Spaghetti Westerns, in particular, will appreciate the TLC that went into “The Complete Sartana: Limited Edition,” especially the 2K upgrades, newly conducted interviews, commentaries, archived featurettes, artwork, essays and photo/media gallery.

Sunset
Funeral Day
The two latest titles from Random Media both deal with imminent death. One’s a talky drama and the other is dark comedy. The most recognizable actor in Jamison M. LoCascio and Adam Ambrosio’s Sunset – the drama — is veteran character actor Austin Pendleton, whose first important acting credits came in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968), Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Among other things, Pendleton was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Director, for directing Elizabeth Taylor in a 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” Here, he’s part of a small, but diverse company of actors whose primary responsibility is to look as if a nuclear warhead is about to land on their heads … which is exactly what’s about to happen to them. First, at a dinner gathering, the guest discuss the morality of reciprocating tit-for-tat to the expected attack by an unnamed country; then, the couples and a friend separately debate whether or not to evacuate; and, finally, they bend over and kiss their asses goodbye. No, I made that last one up … close though. The whole movie would feel far more intimate and suspenseful if performed on stage. On the screen, viewers have the time and freedom to wonder out loud why they aren’t being told which country is attacking us, why its leaders are pissed off at us or why the missiles are taking their good-natured time getting to New York. (L.A. was bombed hours earlier and terrorists don’t have ICBMs, yet.) Given the stupidity of the nut balls with their fingers on the nuclear triggers these days, Sunset certainly is topical enough. It might have felt more realistic if it were set in 1962, however.

Jon Weinberg and Kris Elgstrand’s Funeral Day is an inky comedy about a neurotic young man, Scott (Weinberg), who, after finding what he thinks is a lump on a testicle, becomes convinced that he’s about to make a long, painful descent to the grave. He discovers it on the same morning that he’s scheduled to attend the funeral of a friend, who died a couple days earlier of cancer. Doctor Oz might suggest that there are a few options available to him: 1) call his doctor and make an appointment for the first opening that day; 2) attend the funeral, then call his doctor to make an appointment; 3) make a beeline to the nearest emergency room and wait five hours for a doctor to give him a five-minute exam; 4) check out the facts on survival rates, proven treatments and the difference between benign and malignant tumors on WebMD; 5) ignore the previous options and panic. Not surprisingly, Scott chooses what’s behind door No. 5. Like too many other people who are likely to die of cancer before they’re able to celebrate their next, final Christmas, he’s too afraid of what a doctor might tell him and refuses to call for an appointment. Instead, he immediately visits old girlfriends to beg for sympathy and seeks the advice of strangers in a park. He does, however, find some relief in a hand job and mercy screw. Will he come to his senses before his allotted 79 minutes of screen time are over? Stay tuned.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn TV: Striking Out/Delicious: Series 2
Discovery: Shark Week: Sharktacular Adventurers
PBS: Rwanda: The Royal Tour
Nickelodeon: Nella the Princess Knight: Royal Quests
Is this a great time to be a couch potato, or what? In addition to the over-the-air broadcast networks, we can choose from hundreds of cable/dish channels and premium channels that offer movies and original programming. Because these services make money from the infomercials and shopping networks they carry, they’re loathe to offer a la carte packages that allow customers to purchase only the stations they watch. Rising prices have forced viewers to question the value of such services, causing cancellations and creating a market for TV-to-DVD packages and other alternatives. Soon enough, such streaming services as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Sling and Vudu took up the gauntlet by bundling the same network, premium and original programming that cable/dish services offered, without the home-shopping, religious, infomercial and junk-sports channels that added pennies on every dollar we’re billed, and fees, minus anything worth watching. Savvy viewers have since learned how to get the most bang from their bucks, without sacrificing programming from the broadcast networks and local affiliates, even in hi-def.

What’s really been fun is discovering services that bundle dramas, sitcoms, mini-series and vintage programming from around the world, via set-top boxes, smart-TVs and apps for personal viewing on smartphones. For a fee that I consider to be reasonable, Acorn TV and BritBox offer a bounty of English-language programming from England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, Ireland and Australia, some of which have been shown here on BBC America and PBS. MHz Networks offers the best in foreign-language series and shows, including some that have been remade with English-speaking casts – “The Tunnel,” “The Bridge” and “Wallander” for example – and regionalized plot lines. Acorn and MHz also release quality content on DVD. If you’re going to spend good money on fancy home-theater systems and cable/satellite equipment, anyway, why not learn how to make the most of it?

This month’s DVD selection from Acorn includes second-season compilations of “Striking Out” and “Delicious,” both of which are binge-worthy. The former is a popular legal drama from Ireland that follows the tumultuous professional and personal life of Dublin-based solicitor, Tara Rafferty (Amy Huberman) and her fledgling firm, which specializes in family law. Other key players are Emmet Byrne, as office assistant Ray Lamont, a petty criminal Tara once represented in court; Meg Riley (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), a duplicitous private detective and computer whiz; George Cusack (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Tara’s seen-it-all office partner; Eric Dunbar (Rory Keenan), Tara’s cheating ex-fiancé and former colleague, and his too-tempting-to-resist brother, Sam (Moe Dunford); and senior counsel Vincent Pike (Neil Morrissey), Tara’s mentor and friend. As the season opens, we learn that Tara’s been evicted from her former offices, presumably by her former boss, who also is Eric’s scheming father. To pay the bills, she takes on clients whose legal problems range from deportation and nasty divorces, to bigamy and a lawsuit against a convent. The show’s basic structure and romantic entanglements should remind American viewers of such shows as “L.A. Law,” “Law & Order,” “The Good Wife” and “Damages.” Although a bit more dark comedy and fooling around probably wouldn’t hurt, it’s easy quite binge-worthy, The special features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a panel discussion recorded at the Television Critics Association’s biannual séance, with Huberman and Morrissey discussing their characters, legal jargon and working in Dublin.

The second Acorn release is “Delicious,” a workplace drama set in a palatial country hotel, with a first-class restaurant, located in lovely South East Cornwall, England. In Season Two, a year has passed since the death of the horndog celebrity chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen). His ex-wife, Gina (Dawn French), and widow, Sam (Emilia Fox) – both of whom he deceived — have turned the failing hotel he left behind into a profitable enterprise, thanks to some ill-gotten money that went unmentioned in his will and, therefore, untaxed. When the two women aren’t kvetching and squabbling, Gina does the cooking, while Sam manages the business. Iain’s ghost figures prominently in Season Two, even as a bright young chef (Adam Hasketh) arrives out of nowhere to prepare Gina’s recipes. For my money, the soap-opera aspects of “Delicious” are extremely grating and the women’s working relationship is too contrived. Their nearly adult children, who can’t keep their hands off each other, are insufferable, as well. Gina’s estranged and humorously incorrigible father, Joe, is played with great relish by the wonderful Italian actor, Franco Nero. The stunning scenery and Pentillie Castle setting compensate for the frequently strident dialogue. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, in which cast and crew members discuss the characters, food, setting and what’s new in Season Two, and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

Christmas in July is a faux holiday celebrated on television, anyway, by the Hallmark Channel and the QVC shopping network. Following the recent death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and subsequent transfer in ownership of the Playboy Mansion, the summer’s most famous lingerie and roller-disco party, Midsummer Night’s Dream, has been moved to the Marquee Nightclub at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on July 28. With Independence Day fireworks a smoky memory and Bastille Day yet to come, loyal Discovery Channel viewers know that July won’t really begin until Shark Week 2018 kicks off, this year on Sunday, July 22. The network’s premiere event premiered on July 17, 1988, when original cable programming was in its infancy. It was devoted to conservation efforts and correcting misconceptions about sharks. Over time, it’s grown in popularity and the breadth of shark-related shows has widened to satisfy the interests of its fan base. Anyone hoping to get a head start on the festivities is invited to check out all 754 minutes of “Shark Week: Sharktacular Adventurers,” which collects 18 episodes from the 2017 iteration of the event, the highlight of which was swimming superstar Michael Phelps racing against sharks in Bimini. The episodes range from in-depth scientific studies to horrifying stories of shark attacks. Temporarily available at Target outlets, the Blu-ray edition of “Shark Week: 30th Anniversary Edition” features 30 years’ worth of fan-selected favorites, such as “Air Jaws,” “How Jaws Changed the World,” “Prehistoric Sharks,” “Diary of a Shark Man” and “Bull Shark: World’s Deadliest Shark.” Otherwise, it becomes available on September 4th, 2018.

Ten years ago, the thought of visiting the Central African country of Rwanda for anything other than a relief mission was considered to be preposterous. Even though the nearly four-year-long Civil War and genocide officially ended 12 years earlier, the images of savagery and intolerance remained fresh. The conflict pitted Hutu and Tutsi forces against each other, resulting in the concurrent mass murder and rapes of as many as 1 million Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutus. It would take another 20 years for the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal and Gacaca genocide courts to complete their business. In the meantime, such disturbing fact-based films as Hotel Rwanda (2004), Sometimes in April (2005), Shake Hands With the Devil (2007), A Sunday in Kigali (2007) and the documentary Earth Made of Glass (2010) convinced adventure tourists, naturalists and honeymooners to sample other destinations, instead. PBS’ “Rwanda: The Royal Tour” provides the first evidence I’ve seen that the country is ready to welcome visitors interested in sampling its many geographical, cultural and zoological treasures. In fact, tourism has become one of the country’s fastest-growing economic resources, with 1.3 million visitor arrivals logged in 2017. An estimated 94,000 tourists visited Nyungwe National Park, Akagera National Park and Volcanoes National Park. Tourism has generated 90,000 jobs and is Rwanda’s largest foreign exchange earner. The World Bank has ranked Rwanda the third easiest place to do business in Africa, with the continent’s second fastest growing economy, and it has been awarded for its leadership in tourism and competitiveness by the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Economic Forum respectively. Host Peter Greenberg imparts much the same information in his extended interviews with current Rwandan president and former guerrilla leader Paul Kagame, and during stops along their joint tour of the country’s primary attractions. Chief among them is the replenishment of the native wildlife population – also diminished during the war – and opportunities to commune with mountain gorillas in expensive guided tours, some conducted by former poachers. For an entire week, Kagame became the ultimate guide, showcasing the visual gems that his country has to offer. Together, they went gorilla trekking through Volcanoes National Park, jet-skied in Lake Kivu, explored Nyungwe Forest National Park on an elevated canopy walkway, and saw a variety of wildlife on a safari through Akagera National Park.

Nickelodeon’s “Nella the Princess Knight: Royal Quests” is comprised of eight episodes from the cable network’s popular kids’ adventure show. It follows Nellla and her friends, as they embark on daring quests to save her kingdom. They range from tracking down the rare Bafflin, to teaching a dragon the true meaning of friendship.

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

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

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