MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Night of Virgin, Lovecraft, Carpenter, Moss, Love After Love, Gravity Falls, Keeping Faith, Spiral … More

The Night of the Virgin
If I didn’t have a calendar on my computer – and it weren’t 110 degrees outside – I’d think that Halloween was barreling down on us, like a zombie bitch in heat. And, by bitch, I mean of the canine persuasion. This week’s selection of horror on DVD/Blu-ray is nothing short of thrilling.

Let’s begin with The Night of the Virgin, a nasty piece of work from Spain that brought back memories of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), a ground-breaking example of J-horror that advanced the sub-genre from the realm of ghost stories, folk tales and the nightmares of schoolgirls. Two years later, Miike would raise the bar even further with Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris and Visitor Q, all released within months of each other in Japan. It took a couple of years for Audition to find an audience here, but it has since gone on to influence an entire generation of filmmakers whose intention is to disturb viewers, as much as horrify them. Clearly, Roberto San Sebastián and writer Guillermo Guerrero have a way to go before their names are routinely mentioned in the breath as Miike or Guillermo del Toro. This hasn’t prevented some genre buffs from connecting the dots, however. In a sense, The Night of the Virgin is a perversion of such dark 1980s comedies as Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (1987), Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986), in which Bruce Willis, Griffin Dunne and Jeff Daniels find themselves overwhelmed by the personalities and peccadillos of women they’ve met. The Night of the Virgin also corrupts certain things we all take for granted when attempting to hook up with someone we meet on-line, through a dating service or in a social situation. The first is that the people with whom we connect are interested in many, if not most of the same things we are and, for the time being, anyway, are more interested in having fun than forming a lasting attachment. The second thing is that the odds are against meeting a vampire, serial killer or someone genuinely interested in harming us. When it comes to strangers meeting in the night, however, anything is possible. The genuinely frightening and darkly comedic The Night of the Virgin opens in a crowded upscale bar on New Year’s Eve. It’s where a socially awkward 20-year-old, Nico, is determined to break his cherry, if only because he’s tired of being harassed by his more confident friends. Because he’s not what most women would consider to be attractive — or gay men, for that matter — Nico is working at something at a disadvantage to the other singles attempting to get laid later in the night. After one potential candidate pukes on his shoes, Nico makes eye contact with an attractive middle-age woman across the bar from his perch. In their texts, his friends will refer to Medea (Miriam Martin) as “Grandma,” but, truth be told, she’s as attractive as any of the eligible bachelorettes half her age. Coincidentally, Medea has been scouring the male half of the crowd, looking for someone she assumes to be a virgin. Nico adamantly denies being any such thing, but the more worldly seductress knows better.

When Medea invites Nico to her pad for a nightcap, we assume that the apartment will be clean, uncluttered and, given her fashion sense, reasonably modern. Instead, it looks as if its floors, bathroom fixtures and kitchenware haven’t been vacuumed, scrubbed, dusted or polished since Generalissimo Franco kicked the bucket. Immediately after he closes the door behind him, Nico is cautioned not to step on the free-range cockroaches or disturb the tchotchkes, including a statuette of a Nepali fertility goddess. These are only two of the red flags that should have caused Nico to rethink his objective, but, being this/close to getting laid, his mind is only on one thing. Just as they’re about to achieve both of their goals, however, Medea’s ex-boyfriend, Spider, begins banging incessantly on the front door, threatening her guest with great bodily harm. Nico’s attempts to leave are thwarted by the absence of a fire escape, as well as neighbors who refuse to take his cries for help seriously – one drops a used condom on his head – and the absorption of his cellphone into Medea’s vagina (that’s right). By now, though, Spider has changed his tune, insisting that Nico immediately have sex with his former lover, so that she can satisfy the demands of her fertility goddess. San Sebastián keeps viewers off-balance by keeping his protagonist in the dark about Medea’s true motives here and overwhelming our circuit breakers with banging doors, barking dogs, crawling cockroaches, expended bodily fluids and other grotesqueries. He encourages us to share the young man’s horror and disgust, while vaguely sympathizing with Medea’s religious and cultural imperatives. If the picture could have benefitted from losing about 15-20 minutes of repetitive depravity – it’s a shade under two hours long – San Sebastián has wisely saved enough good stuff in reserve to nail the landing. But, don’t take my word for it. The Night of the Virgin has scored top prizes at more than a dozen niche festivals and garnered excellent reviews from genre buffs. I’m pretty we haven’t heard the last of San Sebastian and Guerrero, in Spanish or English.

Beyond Re-Animator: Collector’s Series: Blu-ray
H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon: Collector’s Series: Blu-ray
Although H.P. Lovecraft is as dependable a brand within the horror genre, as Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Eli Roth, Sam Raimi, George Romero, Wes Craven and Stephen King, it wasn’t until the success of Stuart Gordon’s 1985 adaptation of his 1922 serial novelette, “Herbert West: Reanimator,” that the writer was completely rescued from cult anonymity. From 1963 until the release of Re-Animator, only 14 movies and episodes of TV anthologies bore Lovecraft’s name, including Sergio Martino’s Screamers (1979) and Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror (1970), co-written by freshman scripter Curtis Hanson. Since then, 157 titles have been directly credited to Lovecraft’s influence, at least, with another 13 in various phases of the pre- and post-production process. The number does not include John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness) and other movies indebted to Lovecraft, to one degree or another, but not credited to him. Since most of his books and stories are in the public domain – as are the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales – they’re pretty much up for grabs. Brian Yuzna, producer of Re-Animator, took over for Gordon at the helm of Bride of Re-Animator (1989) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003). A third sequel was planned, but money became scarce. Beyond Re-Animator is set in a prison, where mad scientist Harold West (Jeffrey Combs) has been cooling his heels for the past 13 years, working in the facility’s infirmary and experimenting on rats in his cell. After helping save the life of an inmate, West is invited to assist Dr. Howard Phillips (Jason Barry), who’s assigned to take over the medical operation. In one of those coincidences that only occur in the movies, Phillips encountered West years earlier, after one of his experiments went terribly awry and his sister was murdered by a flesh-eating ghoul.

While horrified, Phillips’ fascination with the re-animation process began after he picked up a vial of florescent liquid dropped by West as he was placed inside a police car. Now, having chalked up his sister’s death to scientific endeavor, Phillips is looking forward to collaborating with the madman, who can put plenty of human guinea pigs at their disposal. Throw in a sadistic warden (Simón Andreu), beautiful blond reporter (Elsa Pataky) and cellblocks overflowing with sociopathic prisoners and you have all the fixings for a hellacious prison riot. Unlike Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), however, the convicts who’ve stolen and injected West’s secret potion display signs of immortality. Even when they’ve been torn in half by a guard’s shotgun blast, they keep on coming. Yuzna keeps us guessing as to which of the convicts have injected the chemicals and the ones who still vulnerable to lead and cutlery. Having just watched Phillips and the reporter spend an evening rolling in the hay, as it were, it comes as something of a surprise when, decked out in a black bustier, matching panties and fishnet stockings, she dispatches with a trio of rapists in the cruelest way possible. Given the extensive use of special makeup effects, the riot is as gruesome as they come, but comically so. The bonus package that comes with Lionsgate’s latest addition to its Vestron Video Collector’s Series also includes Yuzna’s commentary; a recycled EPK featurette; new interviews with Yuzna, composer Xavier Capellas, Combs and S.T. Joshi, author of “I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft”; new art from illustrator Richard Raaphorst; a music video, “Dr. Re-Animator … Move Your Dead Bones”; and a stills gallery.

Considering all the positive attention paid to Guillermo del Toro’s Lovecraftian tale, The Shape of Water, it’s interesting to hear Stuart Gordon describe the trouble he had committing Dagon () to film. Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been planning to make the film – based on Lovecraft’s “Dagon” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – since 1985, while working on Re-Animator and after he and Yuzna helped Disney create the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” franchise. Apparently, no studio in town would touch a movie about “fish people,” including Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures. Finally, he was able to make Dagon in the same country that Yuzna found financing for Beyond Re-Animator: Spain. The only significant hurdle he’d face involved being limited to employing a largely native support team. Considering how much the industry there had improved – thanks in large part to Pedro Almodovar – this didn’t pose much of a hassle, either. The real benefit to filming in Spain, though, was the discovery of Combarro, a tiny, centuries-old fishing village in Galicia that was perfect, as is, as a primary location. That didn’t prevent Dagon from being released straight-to-video, however.

The story begins with a quartet of early dot-com millionaires enjoying some time in the sun off the shore of the scenic village. Soon, however, ominous storm clouds develop on the horizon, pushing massive waves toward the village and causing the boat to crash on the rocks. Two of the passengers, Paul (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Meroño), paddle their way to the village, while the others, Howard (Brendan Price) and Vicki (Birgit Bofarull), remain on board, awaiting rescue. Once on shore, Paul and Barbara are greeted by empty streets and an ominous fog. When they do locate the local priest, he sends them to a hotel whose rooms don’t look as if they’ve ever been serviced and the telephone doesn’t work. A bit later, while Barbara supposedly is trying to track down medical help, Paul spots a few more locals gathering outside the church. From his vantage point, they closely resemble amphibious zombies, walking slowly on all fours, or staggering around the square like, yes, fish out of water. The humanoid creatures are all too aware of Paul’s presence and appear to be working up an appetite for the strangers. Without spoiling too much of the fun, let’s just say that the “fish people” exist within the universe of Lovecraft’s cosmic entities – the Old Ones – and worship Cthulhu. The creature has been described as looking like an octopus, a dragon and a caricature of human form. The Hebrew Bible mentions the “fish-god” Dagon as a primary deity of the Philistines, with temples at Ashdod and elsewhere in Gaza, but the point has been argued by scholars for centuries. Despite being given up for dead in 2001, Dagon is a terrifically entertaining and frequently harrowing tale, enhanced by wildly inventive makeup effects and the village’s creepy nighttime fog and rain. The Lionsgate/Vestron package adds commentaries with Gordon and Paoli, and Gordon and star Ezra Godden; lengthy interviews with Gordon, Yuzna and author S.T. Joshi; a half-hour vintage EPK featurette; a conceptual art gallery, featuring the work of Richard Raaphorst; a storyboard gallery; and stills gallery.

In the Mouth of Madness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Memoirs of an Invisible Man: Blu-ray
Someone’s Watching Me!: Blu-ray
Through the miracle of coincidence, Scream Factory has elected to release the horror/thriller In the Mouth of Madness in the same week as Lionsgate’s Lovecraftian double-feature, Dagon and Beyond Re-Animator. Its title is a play on Lovecraft’s novella, “At the Mountains of Madness” – which Guillermo del Toro has been attempting to adapt for years — and insanity plays as great a role in the film as it does in Lovecraft’s fiction. In fact, the narrator of the story is relating what happened to him before he was committed to a mental hospital. Horror buffs will find several other references and homages to the author, as well as a few linking certain plot points in Stephen King’s novels, stories and screenplays. The antagonist here is best-selling author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), whose latest novel is driving his vast legion of readers insane … literally. One clear sign of the mass hysteria is the sudden willingness of fans to attack innocent citizens with axes. They also display bleeding eyeballs. Fearing that all of Cane’s readers are going mad and eventually will drain the company’s revenue stream, his publisher (Charlton Heston) sends special investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to track him down. Drawn to the small New England hamlet that doubles for fictional Hobb’s End – not far from King’s Castle Rock, Maine, one supposes — Trent is convinced the epidemic is a publicity stunt gone awry. He’s joined by Cane’s strait-laced editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmn), who’s been ordered to join Trent on the mission.

Things really begin to get weird when Linda replaces the sleepy investigator behind the steering wheel and ghostly apparitions begin to appear to her. By the time he wakes up, Linda is severely shaken and Trent’s fresh as a daisy, happy they’ve reached their idyllic destination in one piece. When they finally meet with the author, though, the borders between fact and fiction completely disappear. Trent even comes to believe that Cane’s new book is dictating his own dissent into the mouth of madness, with monstrous characters coming to life at the author’s command. Linda hands him the manuscript, which has destroyed her sanity, and instructs him to take it back to New York. Instead, he destroys it. When he returns to New York, however, the publisher denies the existence of Linda and informs Trent that the new book is already in book stores and will soon be a movie. Sure enough, the dystopian tome is causing readers to go insane. After taking an ax to a man with googly eyes and a nosebleed, Trent is thrown into the booby hatch. He’s questioned by a leading psychiatrist (David Warner), who determines that Trent’s merely hallucinating the wild tale. Wrong. John Carpenter’s interpretation of Michael DeLuca’s long-gestating script shows him at top form, building suspense to a fever pitch and keeping viewers on edge with bizarro characters and unnerving audio prompts. In the Mouth of Madness is said to have done well enough to cover its production nut, but not much better than that. Critics were divided roughly in half. Like so many other vintage genre titles, though, this one appears to have gotten more entertaining over time. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K scan of the original film elements; new commentary with Carpenter and producer Sandy King Carpenter; a new featurette that revisits the film’s original locations; fresh interviews with Julie Carman and special-effects artist Greg Nicotero, including behind-the-scenes footage; “Home Movies From Hobb’s End,” with Nicotero; commentary with director Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe; and a recycled making-of featurette.

Much the same thing can’t be said about Carpenter’s 1992 comedy/thriller Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which was adapted from a 1987 novel of the same title by H.F. Saint. It’s as if H.G. Wells’ source novel never existed or that it was acknowledged as the inspiration for James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) and Charles Lamont’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Paul Verhoeven didn’t bother to credit Wells on Hollow Man, either, even though the concept put the novelist less than one degree from Kevin Bacon. A Warner Bros. co-production, Memoirs of an Invisible Man didn’t take the most-direct route to the screen. Ivan Reitman was originally set to direct the film, but, when he and Chevy Chase couldn’t agree on the tone, Reitman demanded the studio choose between them. Two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman wrote several drafts of the screenplay, all of which were rejected. He conceived it to be a simple comedy, while the producers insisted that it “explore the loneliness of invisibility.” I don’t think the writers who were hired to replace him, Robert Collector and Dana Olsen, got the memo. In 1992, Carpenter was well between studio gigs. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Starman (1984) had underperformed and studio meddling made things ugly. How little control he had on “Invisible Man” is indicated by the lack of a director’s credit attached to the title, as was customary, and no apparent input on the musical score. Beyond that, it only scores a couple of technical points by making the character’s clothes invisible – unlike previous iterations, he didn’t need to remove his clothes — and everything he ingests, including food and cigarette smoke, stays visible within him. As the story goes, after a freak accident, Nick Halloway’s invisibility comes to the attention of a devious CIA official (Sam Neill), who wants him to serve as his own private weapon. Chase spends his time avoiding capture and attempting to score points with a lovely documentary producer (Daryl Hannah). Only middle-aged fans of the former “SNL” regular are likely to find something entertaining here. The package adds “How to Become Invisible: The Dawn of Digital F/X”; vintage interviews with Carpenter, Chase and Hannah; behind-the-scenes footage; and outtakes.

More of a curiosity than a milestone in Carpenter’s career, Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) marks his transition from obscurity to prominence within Hollywood’s studio-based economy. He had caught the attention of the indie crowd with Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and had co-written The Eyes of Laura Mars, but had yet to prove that he could complete a studio project – albeit a made-for-TV quickie – on time and in good enough shape for someone else to worry about post-production chores. That accomplished, the USC product was free to complete work on the micro-budget slasher flick Halloween (1978) and watch it become a stunning hit, a month before Someone’s Watching Me! aired on NBC. In it, model-turned-actress Lauren Hutton plays L.A. newcomer Leigh Michaels, a director of live-television shows, who’s well on her way to network stardom. Michaels has moved into an ultra-modern high-rise building, with all sorts of high-tech gizmos on hand. Her apartment faces another high-rise apartment building – a rarity in L.A. at the time – which is called home by a psycho-stalker with a powerful telescope. He somehow manages to enter Leigh’s unit and terrorize her with a steady barrage of phone calls. She also begins to receive unexpected gifts from a fictional company, “Excursions Unlimited.” (Philip Noyce’s 1993 erotic thriller Sliver also would re-jigger the reverse-Rear Window formula, by putting the stalker inside the same high-security building of his intended targets and observing their habits on a bank of computer monitors.) Unlike many countries in Europe, where the movie was released on VHS, Someone’s Watching Me! wasn’t accorded a video afterlife until 2007, when it was released here on DVD. If he had it to do all over again, Carpenter might have added a tad more skin and gore, but, as a TV movie, it can stand on its own merits. The Scream Factory Blu-ray release benefits from a 2K scan from the original film elements, in both 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 aspect ratios; a new commentary with author Amanda Reyes (“Are You in the House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999”); interviews with Adrienne Barbeau, who met her future husband on the shoot, and Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers; a “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” featurette; and “John Carpenter: Director Rising.”

Moss
Among several other remarkable aspects of Daniel Peddle’s beautifully realized and tremendously moving coming-of-age drama, Moss, is the backstory of its titular star, Mitchell Slaggert. Although a childhood accident deprived the buff Georgia native of his goal of becoming a Marine, he realized the dream of thousands of other teenage boys by posing in his Calvins alongside Kendall Jenner in a high-profile modeling gig. If Slaggert was curiously unimpressed by being in the company of pop royalty, it’s because he has no idea who she was. “Well, I don’t watch her show,” he explained. Slaggert had been discovered near the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington by the same “street scout,” Peddle, who, a decade earlier, recognized Jennifer Lawrence’s untapped star quality. “He asked me if I wanted to model and it sounded too good to be true,” Slaggert told W magazine. Peddle had plans of his own for Slaggert, including playing the lead character in Moss, which would be shot not far from Wilmington. The title character lives in a too-small house situated deep among the thickets that border the inlets, estuaries and beaches along the Carolina coast, with his wood-carver father (Billy Ray Suggs) and a pet owl. That he lost his mother at birth appears to remain an occasional bone of contention between Moss, his father and grandmother, who lives nearby. Moss’ best and, perhaps, only close friend, Blaze (Dorian Cobb), is a frizzy-haired African-American drug dealer, living on a makeshift houseboat on the Cape Fear River.

On his 18th birthday, he peddles his canoe to Blaze’s pad, where they get high and shoot the breeze in the same way as teenage boys do, everywhere, when they have nothing better to accomplish. On his way home, Moss spots a young woman camping alongside the river, alone. He offers to trade her some freshly caught fish for a campfire upon which to cook them. After Mary (Christine Marzano) tells Moss that she’s a footloose 30-year-old refugee from the hustle and bustle of New York City, she reciprocates by offering him a magic mushroom. Even though they spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in a state of psychedelic bliss, she politely refuses to spend the night together in her tent. Instead, he crashes on Blaze’s houseboat, completely missing the birthday celebration planned for him by his dad and grandmother, who passes during the same night. Other things happen in the 81-minute film, but nothing quite so devastating as Moss blowing his chance to say goodbye to the woman who helped raise him. The forced juxtaposition of ecstasy and anguish forces Moss to come of age in an unanticipated rush of divergent emotions. Our pleasure comes in savoring the natural beauty of the region and languid pace of life in the company of someone who knows the region like the back of his hand. Moss immediately recalls such kindred movies as Mud, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Daughters of the Dust, in which unspoiled natural beauty and the trappings of civilization co-exist side-by-side, marking a culture in transition; and early scenes in Terrence Malick’s The New World that conjured pre-colonial Virginia’s forest primaeval. It’s a blessing to know how many of the locations are protected by government restrictions. The DVD adds a worthwhile making-of featurette.

The Great Game
You Will Be Mine
The Three-Way Wedding
Any American who can understand the intricacies of the French political system, especially with its seeming tolerance of extremist philosophies and divisions based on religious and ethnic differences, shouldn’t have any trouble enjoying Nicolas Pariser’s debut thriller, The Great Game. Neither should anyone who’s fully digested both the BBC and Netflix editions of “House of Cards.” All that’s important to understand here is the relative fragility of the ruling coalition and variety of viable political alternatives. By comparison, electoral politics in the U.S. are as sophisticated as elections held to determine student councils and homecoming courts. The Great Game opens mysteriously enough with a “chance meeting” outside a Parisian casino between a political “puppet master,” Joseph Paskin (Andre Dussollier), and seriously blocked novelist, Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud), who, years earlier, was associated with a notorious group of left-wing radicals. Blum hasn’t written anything substantial in a long time, so he’s naturally suspicious when the debonair white-haired “fixer” makes him an offer he can’t refuse. For a relatively large sum of much-needed money, Blum agrees to ghost-write a work of literary agitprop guaranteed to be published, publicized and read by opinion makers at the Elysee Palace. Paskin intends for the book to put enough pressure on a right-wing Minister that he’ll take out his frustrations on a well-established group of middle-age and mostly toothless radicals, living on a large communal farm. When the raid backfires, Paskin’s associates will already be in place to oust him. As predicted, the book becomes a best-seller. Instead of being able to retain his anonymity, however, Blum suddenly finds his life endangered by agents of the left, right or both. Ironically, he finds temporary shelter at the commune, where he experiences uneasy reunions with some old cronies, helps raise a barn and hooks up with Laura (Clemence Poesy), a young friend of his gallerist ex-wife (Sophie Cattani), who appears to have retained links to people still underground. Now, things get really nasty, in the same way as they did in “House of Cards.” Despite “The Great Game” being Pariser’s first feature, the often-unwieldly narrative hangs together remarkably well. Francophiles should love the Distrib Films release from 2015.

Film Movement has revived a couple of French titles, from almost a decade ago, which, as far as I know, never saw the light of day in U.S. arthouses or festivals. There probably weren’t enough screens available to accommodate them and, without the benefit of quotes from prominent U.S. critics and laurels to post, distributers of DVDs simply aren’t as likely to take chances with unknown quantities. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Sophie Laloy’s You Will Be Mine (2009), a coming-of-age drama that should appeal to LGBTQ audiences and older teens. Childhood friends played by Judith Davis and Isild Le Besco agree to share a flat in Lyons owned by the older girl’s parents. Marie (Davis) is a gifted young pianist, who’s been accepted at the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique Classique, while Emma is a medical student. When it comes to life experiences, Marie is as green as the grass that grows in the yard of her family’s modest rural home. Emma is as sophisticated as one would expect a woman her age to be, raised by absentee parents who enrolled in her private boarding schools. She’s as well-dressed and sophisticated as Marie is naïve and insecure. When she suffers a few early setbacks, including a near rape attempt at a party, she allows Emma to comfort her in a way that results in intimacy. Emma is thrilled by the closeness she believes has developed between them, while Marie is left confused and shaken. To compensate, she begins to shun Emma. She also enters into a sexual relationship with a male student, who’s nice enough, but not as grown-up, tender and, yes, devious as Emma. Her confusion and distress begin to affect preparations for an important audition. Viewers who assume Emma is a merely a sexual predator, taking advantage of a vulnerable friend, will be given an opportunity to readjust their opinions of her … or not. Davis and Le Besco are pitch perfect, preserving an air of mystery over intentions and blame.

Released in 2010, Jacques Doillon’s The Three-Way Wedding (a.k.a., “Le mariage à trois”) plays like a modern version of a classic French sex farce. It involves a series of seductions and alliances that ensue after a famous playwright (Pascal Greggory) invites the cast of his new play to his country estate. Among the guests are his enchanting, barely legal assistant (Agathe Bonitzer), his ex-wife (Julie Depardieu), her new lover (Louis Garrel) and a producer (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). The older couple is anxious to get in bed with the youngsters, who begin to enjoy each other’s company. When his ex-wife and red-haired assistant both ditch the producer for the young actor, the producer lets the green-eyed monster get the better of him. At 104 minutes, the roundelay overstays its welcome by 10-15 minutes, but, again, Francophiles might not mind.

Love After Love
Allow me to preface my remarks by pointing out that in Love After Love’s limited theatrical and festival release, Russell Harbaugh’s debut drama scored an impressive 84 rating (out of 100) among the mainstream critics represented at Metacritic.com and an 88 percent rating among “top critics” at Rotten Tomatoes. By contrast, the audience score at RT was 58 percent, which, considering the up-scale viewers surveyed, represents a steep drop. It’s easy to see why. The film describes what happens to an upper-middle-class family upon the death of the man whose strength, dignity and income provided the glue that held it together. With his sons unable to maintain its stability, the family begins to collapse under the weight of their oppressive behavior. Although the setup isn’t unusual, the discordance makes already unappealing characters nearly unbearable to watch. The single redeeming factor is a powerful performance by Andie MacDowell, whose character doesn’t deserve the aggravation. That’s my two cents and I’m sticking to it. Harbaugh introduces the family at a picnic staged while the father is still in good enough shape to enjoy a cigarette and not cough up a lung doing it. The next time we see him, he’s on his death bed, barely capable of raising his head. Harbaugh measures time with scenes depicting subsequent family gatherings at parties, funerals and holiday dinners, each more gratingly unpleasant than the one before it. Reportedly, Harbaugh attempted to capture the desired tone by screening films by John Cassavetes for cast members. He could just as well have followed them up with adaptations of plays by Eugene O’Neill. Absent actors of the caliber of Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands and Cassavetes, however, much of the humanity that drives their characters’ dysfunctions is simply missing here. I don’t blame the actors, though.

MacDowell plays the patriarch’s still-radiant wife, who, while grieving, knows that she isn’t ready to commit to wearing widow’s weeds for the next 20 years, or so. Suzanne’s two adult sons — Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian) – seemingly can’t get beyond the salad courses of their meals together without bickering, tearing into each other’s wives or girlfriends, or getting drunk enough to mistake an umbrella stand for a urinal. Things get even worse when Suzanne begins dating, again, and she makes the mistake of thinking that her sons– one of whom works for a book publisher, while the other aspires to be a standup comic — will respect her feelings long enough to not disrespect them. But, no such luck. It would be different if an emotionally distressed Suzanne was grabbing men off the street to compensate for her loneliness or lack of sexual gratification. Instead, they’re fine, upstanding gentlemen, who wouldn’t think of insulting Suzanne by bludgeoning her sons with a baseball bat to cure their insensitivity. If it had been Harbaugh’s intention to bring out the worst in the sons, with the intention of reeling them back into the family circle in the last reel, I could have reserved some patience for their redemption. As portrayed by the fine Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd (“Moone Boy”), Nicholas not only cheats on his fiancé, but also on the women with whom he’s having affairs. Chris (James Adomian) shows some talent as a comedian … until his routines begin to hit too close to home and he gets weepy. This is the first meaty role MacDowell has undertaken in a long time and, when she’s on screen, she almost makes us forget about the assholes her character bore and raised and why they turned out so badly. Also appearing, in the thankless roles of the sons’ beleaguered female companions, are Romy Byrne, Juliet Rylance, Dree Hemingway and Francesca Faridany.

The Con Is On: Blu-ray
There were at least three sure signs that this star-studded heist comedy was going to be a stinker: 1) it sat on shelf for three years gathering dust, before being accorded a limited theatrical run and a quick trip to the wastelands of VOD and DVD/Blu-ray, 2) the director’s name changed from James Oakley, as it was in his previous film, The Devil You Know, to James Haslam in the interim; and 3) its title was changed from “The Brits Are Coming” to The Con Is On. A lot of things can happen between the time a movie goes into production and a distribution deal is cut. Rarely, if ever, does it get any better – or worse, for that matter – than it already was. The basic setup here involves a pair of international con artists, Harriet and Peter (Uma Thurman, Tim Roth), who are forced to cook up a jewel heist in Los Angeles to pay off a debt to a sexy gangster, Irene (Maggie Q). If that’s a lot of star power to pack into a single sentence, consider that the film also includes Alice Eve, Sofia Vergara, Parker Posey, Crispin Glover, Melissa Sue Anderson, Stephen Fry, Ashley Williams and Kevin Brown, whose faces will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a TV movie in the last 15 years. After squandering Irene’s fortune in a single drunken night, Harriet and Peter escape to Hollywood, where they conspire to steal a priceless jewel from Peter’s loopy ex-wife, Jackie (Eve), to repay the debt. After scamming a free room at the Chateau Marmot, Harriet and Peter conspire to steal Jackie’s gem, while her filmmaker fiancé is pre-occupied with trying to seduce the leading lady of his latest movie (Vergara). Along the way, they also encounter a drug-dealing nun (Dot Cosgrove) and a pedophile priest (Fry). I’m surprised the film’s world premiere wasn’t held at the Vatican Multiplex. After an almost promising opening, The Con Is On quickly disintegrates into an ungodly mashup of sight gags, slapstick and sexual innuendo. Nearly 50, Uma Thurman remains an extremely radiant screen presence, even as she towers over her partner, Roth, with whom she worked 24 years ago, in Pulp Fiction.

Operation Red Sea: Blu-ray
In the 1940- 50s, movies based famous battles in World War II and heroic acts by our soldiers and Marines became a mainstay of motion-picture viewing. Even if the names of battles and their locations were familiar, it was the rare war film that a military historian or veteran couldn’t pick to pieces. I don’t know how these pictures fared in foreign markets, but, given the state of the post-war art, I imagine that posters with uniformed images of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda were as prevalent throughout Europe as “care packages.” The Chinese film industry has grown to the point where stories about the country’s overseas triumphs – rescue missions, attacks on pirates, interdicting drug traffickers – can be dramatized without resembling recruitment vehicles or calls for blind patriotism. Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior series – No. 3 is already in production – put the spotlight on Chinese Special Forces teams operating in Southeast Asia and Africa. Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong was directly inspired by deadly attacks on two Chinese merchant ships, during which 13 crew members were killed and Thai policemen found 900,000 methamphetamine pills on board the ships. They were almost certainly plant by druged lords operating in the Golden Triangle to divert attention from their own activities. The government sent a crack team of drug investigators to discover the truth and arrest the perpetrators. Lam’s contribution to story involved merging the excitement of Hong Kong action flicks with police and military procedurals.

Lam’s hugely popular follow-up, Operation Red Sea, was inspired by the evacuation of the 225 foreign nationals and almost 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the 2015 civil war. It didn’t receive a lot of coverage here, but that’s par for the course when Americans aren’t involved in one way or another. Screenwriter Feng Ji took that event and added a confrontation between the Chinese Navy’s elite Jiaolong Assault Team and a terrorist conspiracy to obtain nuclear materials. The naval force was already in the area, rescuing a cargo carrier from pirates, when the call came to head for the fictional country of Yewaire. Islamic-state fighters have complete control of the countryside, where the transaction is expected to take place, so the evacuation could be jeopardized by terrorists based in the port city, hoping to divert attention from the handoff. Lam’s sense of action cinema turns what was a peaceful evacuation into a battle royal, with the use of sophisticated weapons – a cruise missile and attack drone — by both sides and an airborne assault team dropped from an airplane. It reminded my of the many tank battles I’d watched in American movies, back in the day. Apparently, Operation Red Sea had the full cooperation of the government and was presented to Chinese audiences as a “gift” to commemorate for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, as well as the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress. Described as being China’s “first modern naval film,” it made $226.7 million (U.S.), making it the sixth highest-grossing film of 2018. A post-script alludes to recent naval activity in the South China Sea, where several different countries claim territorial rights. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes.

The Windrider: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the American Film Institute ever gets arounds to bestowing a Life Achievement Award on Nicole Kidman – hey, it could happen – I sure hope that the highlights reel includes footage from Windrider. Filmed in far-western Perth, Australia, it is considered Kidman’s first adult role, with some nudity, simulated sex and a music video. At the ripe old age of 19, the Little Orphan Annie look-like already had Hollywood on her mind, although she wisely waited until production finished on Dead Calm and Flirting to make the big leap north. In the next two years, Kidman was accorded prominent roles in Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder, Robert Benton’s Billy Bathgate, Ron Howard’s Far and Away and Harold Becker’s Malice. In Windrider, she plays a punky rock singer, who falls for a world-class windsurfer, Stewart ”P.C.” Simpson (Tom Burlinson), after she witnesses a record-breaking stunt and he needs her to verify it. Simpson wants to convince the board of directors of his dad’s company to invest in an inland surfing park, instead of whatever else it is they intend to do with his money. Of course, they scoff at the proposal … until Kidman joins P.C.’s team. Everything then points to a major windsurfing competition, during which he plans to repeat his near-miraculous feat and get back in his father’s good graces. If it weren’t for the topless scenes, Windrider’s appeal would be limited to 14-year-olds. As bad as it is, though, Windrider isn’t any worse than the 1990 beach-volleyball epic, Side Out, or the Elvis-on-water musical, Clambake (1967). The MVD Rewind release includes commentary with director Vince Monton and writer Everett De Roche; a musical promo, featuring Kidman; an extended bedroom scene; a stills gallery; and mini-poster.

Last month, Arrow Video released Vincent Ward’s terrific coming-of-age drama, Vigil, which highlighted the almost mythic natural beauty of the Taranaki region of New Zealand’s North Island. It was the first Kiwi movie invited to screen in the competitive section of the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. This week, Arrow is releasing Ward’s bold and highly fanciful The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, a time-travel adventure that provided the director with a ticket to Hollywood (What Dreams May Come), if not unqualified fame. It, too, would be nominated for a Palme d’Or and win a bunch of awards in Australia and New Zealand’s annual year-end bakeoffs. It begins during the Black Death of 14th Century England, where people in a remote Cumbrian mountain village listen fearfully to tales of the gruesome plague that has engulfed the world. To stave off the infection, they rely upon the visions of a boy, Griffin (Hamish Gough), who has a reputation for having a kind of “second sight.” With the backing of the village’s most famous adventurer, Connor (Bruce Lyons), whom Griffin idolizes, a group of the townsfolk travel to a nearby cavern, where they hope to dig to the “good side” of the planet, where the pandemic is blinded by God’s all-powerful light. On the “evil side” of the Earth, the sun is shrouded by dark clouds and smoke. Thus the alternate B&W and color cinematography.

They bring copper ore with them to be melted down and cast into the shape of a cross, all the while racing against time and the coming of the next full moon. Their goal is to place a holy cross on the steeple of “the biggest Church in all of Christendom” as an offering for God’s protection. As the full moon is rising, the villagers break through the Earth’s crust, dig a tunnel to God-knows-where and locate a ladder that allows them to climb up and into late 20th Century New Zealand. The villagers marvel at the various technologies, never questioning what year it might be, believing that such things are only natural in great cities, where cranes and steam-powered shovels can be mistaken for dragons. But Griffin is haunted by a dark vision as the villagers come closer to fulfilling their quest. It’s a wonderful tale, well-depicted by Ward, although I sometimes wondered how Terry Gilliam might have handled the same material. The package adds an appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, recorded exclusively for this release; a 1989 documentary profile of the director, made for New Zealand television; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman and an introduction by Vincent Ward.

IMAX: National Parks Adventure: 4K UHD
IMAX: Dream Big: Engineering Our World: 4K UHD
Antarctica: In the Footsteps of the Emperor
As is the case with most new digital technology, the best results can only be achieved if a top-rate operator is in control of the best available equipment. It helps explain why the quality of the picture shown on video monitors in showrooms is so much better than what you might find on your own set, if your home-theater components aren’t up to snuff. Anyone who purchases a 4K UHD playback unit, without also upgrading their speakers, television or video monitor, is bound to be disappointed. If they attempt to save money by skimping on the appropriate cables and plug-ins, they’ll be just as unhappy. Similarly, not all 4K UHD entertainment is going to look as impressive as other movies, shows and documentaries. Compare a 4K UHD movie you’ve just purchased or streamed to the films released this week by Shout Factory, IMAX: National Parks Adventure and IMAX: Dream Big: Engineering Our World. Both were originally produced by MacGillivray Freeman Films for exhibition in IMAX, IMAX 3D and other theaters with large-format capability. Since the company was founded in the mid-1960s to accommodate the niche surfing/skateboarding audience, Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman have produced more than 40 documentaries, feature films and IMAX films. They’ve shot more than 7 million feet of 70mm film — the most in cinema history – and developed three cameras that work with the format: a high-speed (slow-motion) model; the industry’s first lightweight model; and the “all-weather” camera used while filming on Mt. Everest. Until very recently, the production technology has outpaced that necessary for playback. These look terrific. Narrated by Jeff Bridges, Dream Big: Engineering Our World (2017) celebrates the human ingenuity behind engineering marvels big and small, while demonstrating how engineers push the limits of innovation in unexpected and amazing ways. At first glance, it might feel a bit too dry for general consumption, but, the more broadly the producers define engineering, the more impressive the visuals become. This is especially true of the images taken above the Great Wall of China and the world’s tallest buildings. It extends to underwater robots, solar cars and smart, sustainable cities, revealing the compassion and creativity that drive engineers to create better lives for all.

As familiar as many of the images showcased in National Parks Adventure will be to fans of IMAX and other nature programming, the ultra-high-definition presentation brings out the magic even more succinctly than ever before. Robert Redford is here to remind viewers of both the majesty and fragility of our greatest natural resources, which may be more at risk today than at any other time in the last 100 years. Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray considers National Parks Adventure to be his most visually ambitious giant-screen film to date … a film that offers not only a sweeping overview of the national parks’ history, but that is equal parts adrenaline-pumping odyssey and soulful reflection on what the wilderness means to us all. Both films weigh in at slightly longer than 40 minutes. It’s been determined this is optimum length for visual comfort, when watching 3D on large-format screens. Apparently, our brains can only handle so much stimulation before they start going off on tangents of their own.

Delivered to us on Blu-ray, from MHz Choice, is the stunning and highly ambitious, “Antarctica: In the Footsteps of the Emperor,” which picks up where March of the Penguins left off 13 years ago. The difference this time is technology that allows divers to go below the surface of the ice, with the penguins and seals, for extended periods of time, as well as studying aquatic life never before recorded. Traveling aboard a French polar icebreaker in 2016, the team of explorers documents the marvels of the continent, both on the ice and under it, chronicling the effect climate change is having on the unique and diverse wildlife in this harsh environment. The story is told in three overlapping installments: “Antarctica’s Secrets” and “Antarctica: Living on the Edge,” which highlight the flora and fauna of the rapidly changing continent, and the feature-length, “In the Footsteps of the Emperor,” which focuses on the life cycle of emperor penguin. The standard hi-def photography rivals that in many 4K UHD films I’ve seen. The narration is geared more toward older teens and adults, than it was in the more family-oriented Match of the Penguins.

TV-to-DVD
Disney: Gravity Falls: The Complete Series: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Acorn: Keeping Faith: Series 1
MHz: Spiral: Season 6
Talk about your basic kiss of death: several mainstream critics labelled “Gravity Falls” the “smartest” show on television before its untimely demise after two seasons. It is the one medium for which “smart” and “popular,” when used in the same sentence, don’t necessarily spell “success.” The Disney Television Animation product was, however, smart, popular and successful. So, why did it only last two seasons on the various Disney networks? My guess is that viewers tired of trying to guess when a new episode might appear and whether their VCR would record a repeat or something fresh. In the world of children’s programming on cable, especially, a season needn’t be contained within the usual 23-episode cycle or confined within a 52-week year. Shout’s “Gravity Falls: The Complete Series: Collector’s Edition,” for example, represents two seasons’ worth of programming. Those two seasons, comprised of 20 episodes each, aired irregularly from June 15, 2012, to February 15, 2016. Not only were viewers – who ran the gamut from kids to geezers – confused, but the uncertainly also challenged studio programmers and publicists. Finally, loyalty only went so far. For the uninitiated, twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines are sent to the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, to spend their summer vacation with their Great-Uncle Stan (a.k.a., Grunkle Stan). Upon their arrival, Stan enlists the kids’ help in running the Mystery Shack, a tourist trap that overcharges unsuspecting customers. While Dipper has a hard time getting used to his new surroundings, Mabel’s upbeat optimism comes in handy in her quest to find true love. It doesn’t take them long to realize that strange occurrences and weird creatures come with the territory in Gravity Falls. The discovery of an elusive book helps Dipper come up with answers to the town’s many mysterious questions. Meanwhile, Grunkle Stan guards a secret of his own. I’m not sure how the recent Disney product ended up at Shout!Factory, but it fits the company’s personality and marketing reach. Bonus features include commentaries on all 40 Episodes, with creator Alex Hirsch and cast and crew members; the retrospective featurette, “One Crazy Summer”; “The Hirsch Twins,” in which Alex and Ariel Hirsch recall their own summers growing up; more than an hour of deleted scenes and outtakes; “Between the Pines,” a behind-the-scenes look at the series finale; interstitial programming between Seasons 1 and 2; and promotional material.

It isn’t often that you come across a binge-worthy crime drama from Wales, especially one that originated in Welsh and was reshot for English-speaking audiences. The first such hybrid was “Hinterland,” which is available through Netflix, and, now, there’s Acorn’s “Keeping Faith,” featuring a terrific bilingual performance by Eve Myles (“Torchwood”). She plays Faith Howells, a fun-loving lawyer with a happy marriage and three children, living on the wee country’s southern coast. Faith’s maternity leave ends abruptly when her husband and legal partner, Evan (Bradley Freegard), takes a powder, without leaving a note. She has no reason to believe he’s in danger or engaging in an affair, until evidence of both possibilities begins to trickle in like so many droplets in Chinese water torture. Before long, too, she discovers that their firm is in serious financial trouble and its unethical role in the acquittal of a woman in a gangland murder could soon be revealed. Then, there’s the pressure being put on her by the dogged female chief of Laugharne’s tiny police force, who would like nothing more than to arrest and convict Faith on circumstantial evidence before anyone notices she’s been framed. The pieces of the puzzle don’t come together until very late in the game and, by then, we’re well-hooked. The wonderful Welsh locations, alone, are worth the price of an early look.

Originally released in France as “Engrenages,” the hard-hitting Parisian cop thriller “Spiral” has found a loyal audience around the world, via DVD, cable and streaming services. It differs from most other procedurals in its depiction of the self-serving nature of justice within its very special French bureaucracy of cops, prosecutors and judges. Likewise, the crimes, criminals and corruption reflect the cold, street-level realities of life among Paris’ multi-racial and multi-ethnic communities. Season Six begins with the discovery of a dismembered human torso in a pile of garbage in the 20th arrondissement. Police Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) returns from maternity leave – a trend, perhaps — to reunite with her colleagues Gilou (Thierry Godard) and Tintin (Fred Bianconi), and together they tackle the complex investigation. The trail leads them to a northern suburb where Laure’s mentor Commissioner Herville (Nicolas Briançon) was transferred, and where the team will face off against institutional corruption and organized crime in a neighborhood devastated by poverty and delinquency. Meanwhile, a high-profile criminal trial causes all sorts of unexpected problems for bombshell lawyer Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), and Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos) faces a rapidly escalating health crisis. There are times when “Spiral” resembles “NYPD Blue,” without the humor, but all of its cynicism and off-the-job tension retained. It is available through MHz Networks, MHz Choice, Amazon and Hulu.

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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