MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Gauguin, Blindspotting, Skate Kitchen, Wobble Palace, Third Murder, Outrage Coda, Nelly, Luciferina, MDMA, Heavy Trip, Agony, Family I Had … More

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti: Blu-ray
Once again, I caution students considering an advanced degree in Art History against using biopics as study tools when preparing theses and dissertations. Typically, they contain more dubious historical information than your average Hollywood Western, while promoting starving-artist clichés and the allure of figure models. Nonetheless, they also can be tremendously inspirational and entertaining. Any movie that encourages people to visit their local art museum – or library – is OK with me. Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti may not be 100 percent accurate – the only voyage in the movie is the one the artist takes to learn how to fish like a native – it’s certainly capable of encouraging viewers to find the nearest Gauguin exhibition or book a trip to French Polynesia. The wonderful French actor, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), joins a short list of actors who’ve played the post-Impressionist painter and sculptor at various times in his life. Anthony Quinn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his brash portrayal in Lust for Life (1956); Donald and Kiefer Sutherland both played Gauguin, in Oviri (1986) and Paradise Found (2003); Wladimir Yordanoff followed him to Arles, in Vincent & Theo (1990); and in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), George Sanders played a British composite. None of the them spent much, if any, time in the South Pacific, or captured the artist’s fragile physical and emotional condition as well as Cassel, who spent time in Tahiti’s mountainous backcountry prepping for the portrayal. It’s there that Gauguin discovers Tehura (Tuheï Adams), the beautiful young native girl who would become his wife-away-from home and muse.

The movie sidesteps Gauguin’s assertion in his memoir, “Noa Noa,” that Tehura was 13 years old, not 17, when she was offered to him in marriage. In her first appearance in a movie, Adams isn’t asked to do much more than look exotic, pose well and provide companionship, all of which she does very well. Once again, the screenplay plays fast and loose with the facts of their relationship and demise. Still, she bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose likeness hangs in museums around the world and the paintings included in the final credits. The movie opens in Paris, prior to Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti. He’s grown weary of buttoned-down European culture and its crowded, noisy and uncaring cities. He’s desperately in need of a genuine experience in a remote corner of the planet. (He’d spent time in Peru as a boy, living with relatives.) We’re also introduced to his beleaguered Danish wife, Mette (Pernille Bergendorff), and five children, who expected to travel with him to paradise, but, at the last moment, decided against it. The Blu-ray benefits from the beauty of the island’s remote locations and representations of island life – much of which Gauguin was too sick or broke to enjoy — and featurettes, including “Illustrations,” with behind-the-scenes footage; “Vincent Cassel Is Gauguin,” a brief piece focusing on the character and the actor portraying him; “Life and Painting of Gauguin,” a five-minute piece that offers an overview of the project, including its genesis in the “Noa Noa” diary of the artist; and “Tahiti,” a short study of the island’s exotic locales.

Blindspotting: Blu-ray
Sorry to Bother You: Blu-ray
As coincidences go, the ones linking Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which I caught on Netflix, are doozies. Both are set in Oakland and were shot there simultaneously in 2017; both debuted last January at Sundance, and did well in limited release, in July; like the city, itself, their casts are extremely diverse; they’re first features for the writers and directors; both received glowing reviews; and they’ll be represented at next year’s Independent Spirits Awards ceremony. It goes without saying, as well, that the filmmakers take risks that pay off in unexpected ways and make the stories that much more entertaining. Sorry to Bother You describes all the bad things that can happen when a young African-American slacker finally lands a job in the only field that’s hiring people desperate for work these days: telemarketing. Unable to connect with customers, at first, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) is encouraged to use his “white voice” on cold-calls. When the strategy pays off, he’s elevated to the status of “power caller.” It elevates him above his striking co-workers, who are engaged in a work stoppage he helped organize. It also gives Cassius access to the company’s penthouse offices and the boss’ perverse plans for conquering the world. It co-stars Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover and Armie Hammer.

In Blindspotting, which I received through the usual channels, co-writer Daveed Diggs plays Collin, a young Oakland resident, who we meet as he’s entering his final three days of probation. He’s been living in a halfway house, where, if it weren’t for a lenient supervisor, he’d be sent back to prison for breaking curfew. Collin welcomes this shot at a new beginning in life, but the next 72 hours will provide his toughest test. Collin and his longtime best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), work as a salt-and-pepper team of movers. Miles acts, talks and dresses as if he were as black as Collin, his girlfriend and most of their neighbors. He even affects a gangsta’-approved silver “grill” on his teeth. Unfortunately, his rage issues threaten to derail Collin’s ambition to go straight. Their anger kicks in whenever they’re in the company of the yuppies, Gen-Xers and millennials who are rapidly gentrifying Oakland. The invasion has caused housing prices to skyrocket and threatened to turn their seedy, if cozy neighborhood into the Bay Area’s newest outpost for bourgeois values and trendy tastes. With Miles unable to control his impulses, Collin is forced to reconsider their relationship, which mirrors the real-life friendship between Diggs and Casal. I don’t think I’m pushing my luck by suggesting that it also mirrors Charlie and Johnny Boy’s relationship in Mean Streets. The Blu-ray adds separate commentaries with Estrada, and Diggs and Casal; and featurettes “Straight From the Town: Making Blindspotting” and “Blindspotting: Director’s Diary”; and deleted scenes.

Skate Kitchen: Blu-ray
Crystal Moselle’s spunky girls-will-be-grrrls drama shares many of the same attributes that link Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, including their Sundance debut; young and diverse casts; urban settings; limited release; positive reviews; and festival awards. (I can’t imagine how the Indie Spirits voters missed it.) The primary difference is their location, which, in Skate Kitchen’s case is Lower Manhattan and Long Island. After Moselle completed her award-winning documentary, The Wolfpack (2015), she was approached by Miu Miu to direct a short for their “Women’s Tales” series, with the only stipulation being that it incorporates the company’s clothing. Moselle, who had already been collaborating with female skateboarders she’d met in a New York park, decided to add them to the short, “That One Day.” It premiered at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. For Skate Kitchen, she recruited many of the same actor/skaters from the short. If nothing else, Mosell wouldn’t have to hire stunt doubles for the skaters. In the short, Rachelle (Rachelle Vinberg) is a newbie skateboarder, who heads to a skate park, where she feels intimidated by the more experienced boys and their bullying. Things change when she’s defended by a group of teenage girls, who don’t take any shit from the boys. In Skate Kitchen, Rachel is already an experienced skater, whose biggest problem is convincing her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) that her daredevil style won’t result in a second dangerous wipeout. When that fails, Rachel does an end run around her mom by hooking up with the Skate Kitchen, a group of girls she discovers on the Internet, who meet regularly in a Chinatown skate park. First, though, she must prove to them that she’s worthy. It helps that Rachel’s reputation has preceded her, in the form of videos she’s shared on social media. As part of the Skate Kitchen crew, Rachel has little to fear from the rude boys and their macho posturing. After her mom embarrasses her by paying an unannounced visit to the park, Rachel finds comfort and camaraderie with her hip new friends and, eventually, the stoner boys in their orbit. The coming-of-age scenes include sexual encounters with girls and boys, alike, as well as dealing with disagreements about territorial rights that don’t come into play in the suburbs. The set adds behind-the-scenes featurettes on the skate Shoots; deleted scenes; and a photo gallery

Wobble Palace
The Boy Downstairs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
For several hours after I watched Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Wobble Palace, I tried to come up with the name of the indie writer/director/actor, who, way back in the mid-1990s, created as offensively narcissistic a character as the film’s protagonist, also named Eugene. My digital head-scratching finally led me to Eric Schaeffer, a New York-based multihyphenate (My Life’s in Turnaround) whose early career was briefly on the same trajectory as that of Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen). Most of Schaeffer’s screenplays recalled his nine-year stint as a cab driver and aspiring screenwriter. The way he told his own story, Schaeffer occasionally was able to convince passengers – attractive women, mostly — that he was on the brink of stardom and worthy of their attention. Apparently, his captive audience included Sarah Jessica Parker, who bought the pitch and agreed to co-star with Schaeffer, alongside Elle MacPherson and Ben Stiller, in If Lucy Fell. Like Woody Allen, he often surrounded his alter-ego characters with tall models and other young women, who pretended, at least, not to mind his stubbly beard and Elmer Fudd hat. After a while, Schaeffer’s conceits simply ran out of gas.

Instead of pre-recession New York, Kotlyarenko’s characters inhabit the hipster haunts on the eastern end of L.A.’s famed Sunset Boulevard, where young people can still find affordable housing. Wobble Palace takes place just days before Halloween and Election Day, 2016. Eugene (Kotlyarenko) and Jane (Dasha Nekrasova) have decided that this might be a good time to attempt a trial separation, if only for the weekend. It involves splitting up their tragically hip residence, which, I think is located somewhere near Old Chinatown, with one day reserved for each of their dalliances. Eugene, whose hairdo makes him look like Ted Nugent after a shower, immediately begins surfing social-media sites for women who might be willing to consider a tryst with a perfect stranger. They pretty much run the gamut of millennial types, from a photographer who splits after taking nude photos of Eugene and posting them on the Internet, to a sexually insatiable urban cowgirl. While Jane is every bit as sexually aggressive as Eugene, she’s also more picky. The guy she identifies as a likely candidate for her intentions bursts her bubble by not pulling out at the appropriate time and declaring his intention to vote for Donald Trump. To Jane’s horror, he uses the morning-after pill as an alternative form of contraception. (His defense of the Republican candidate just as chilling to her.) Kotlyarenko and co-writer Nekrasova clearly have created characters – their own, especially – who represent the self-centered behavior of millennials, who, in L.A., have reached critical mass in some neighborhoods, professions and colleges. With his “floating toupee,” however, Eugene is almost too annoying to watch for more than 15 minutes. Like other directors attempting to encapsulate the millennial moments cinematically, Kotlyarenko relies on the clever use of hand-held vérité footage and social-media inserts. Who knows how many viewers are keeping one eye on their smartphones and the other on the movie playing on their TV monitor? The DVD adds a director’s commentary and deleted scenes, preceded by Kotlyarenko’s introduction. Like Schaeffer, he already has four features – however obscure — under his belt.

Sophie Brooks’ debut feature The Boy Downstairs provides more than ample proof that millennials in Brooklyn can be every bit as boring and annoying as they are in Los Angeles. That’s coming from an old fogey – me — whose children were part of an earlier, seemingly less self-absorbed “generation.” The biggest difference between the characters in The Boy Downstairs and Wobble Palace is the New Yorkers’ ability to go through life without paying constant attention to their handheld devices and social media contacts. The protagonists, Diana and Ben, are convincingly played by Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) and Matthew Shear (“The Alienist”). Once again, viewers are constantly required to guess whether the movie is in flashback mode or unspooling in the present tense. It’s a narrative contrivance that has been beaten to death in rom/com/drams, but refuses to be refined or simply go away. Too often, the characters’ emotional growth is expressed in their clothing, eyeglasses and hair styles, instead of any intellectual progression. Diana and Ben’s romance was interrupted by her decision to study and work in London. Four years later, she returns to New York to start anew. Somehow, she locates a perfectly adorable apartment in the same brownstone in which Ben is living with his new girlfriend (Sarah Ramos). How she can afford such a posh pad is anyone’s guess. Despite the fact it was Diana who initiated the original breakup, and Ben wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a prize catch, the proximity to him completely unnerves her. Brooks provides her with an ideal fallback position, in that Diana is an aspiring novelist, who, when her writer’s block dissolves, may be able to profit from her experiences. Among the women to whom Diana pours out her emotions are Deirdre O’Connell (“The Affair”) and Diana Irvine (“Manson’s Lost Girls”), who get their fair share of funny lines. Ben’s mostly on his own. Although Mamet is a perfect fit for the role, I wouldn’t say that playing Diana required all that much of a stretch for her. After all, Shoshanna Shapiro, Mamet’s character in “Girls,” tore herself away from Hanna, Marnie and Jessa long enough to get a head start on a less-neurotic future. The DVD adds a photo gallery.

The Third Murder: Blu-ray
Outrage Coda: Blu-ray
Orgies of Edo Special Edition: Blu-ray
Lovers of Japanese cinema can thank Film Movement for releasing a pair of 2017 films into DVD/Blu-ray that were only accorded limited exposure here, if that. The timing of Hirokazu Koreeda’s twisty legal drama, The Third Murder, coincides with the limited release of the writer/director’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, which opened in a handful of theaters over the Thanksgiving weekend. It also is a likely candidate for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the 91st Academy Awards. The Third Murder deviates from Koreeda’s more familiar stories about families under various degrees of societal pressure. In it, a prominent Tokyo lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), takes on the defense of murder/robbery/mutilation suspect Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), who’s already served prison time for an earlier murder, 30 years ago, and has confessed to the new charges. No sooner does Shigemori accept what he expects to be a cut-and-dry case than his client begins to change his story for police, the legal team and reporters. This baffles Shigemori, who only anticipated a courtroom battle over the imposition of the death penalty. Relatives of the defendant, the lawyer and the victim – a factory boss, who had just fired Misumi – play important roles in The Third Murder, but Koreeda had other issues in mind. In an interview with Comingsoon.net, the 56-year-old Tokyo native said he was inspired to write a courtroom thriller after conversing with a lawyer friend about the gap between the Japanese public’s perception of the court as a place where people aim for the truth and what happens when lawyers and judges “make adjustments” that serve their own interests. The question then became, “what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?” In a sense, that’s what happens every night in prime-time legal dramas on American television. Viewers don’t have much confidence that the truth will emerge in courtroom settings, unless Perry Mason or one of his direct descendants is on the case. As Shigemori responds to every new claim by Misumi, the distance between them closes to a point where The Third Murder begins to resemble Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). The shifting points of view demand of viewers that they pay close attention to all 124 minutes of the film’s length. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and messages from the cast; an excerpt from an interview with Koreeda and a short film.

Although Outrage Coda may not be the best place for newcomers to enter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s trilogy on modern yakuza families, fans of the series will be ecstatic to learn that it’s finally reached our shores, albeit on DVD/Blu-ray. As usual, it’s hard enough to keep track of who’s getting killed by whom in Part III, without also having to figure out what inspired the carnage in the first place. Of the dozens of gangsters we meet in the opening minutes of “Coda,” only a small fraction will survive to see the closing credits. Outrage (2010) described a struggle for power among Tokyo’s yakuza clans, which, at the time, were just as likely to be playing the stock market as shaking down pachinko parlors. The chairman of the dominant Sanmo-kai clan is unhappy to learn that his chief henchman, Ikemoto, has entered into an alliance with the drug-dealing Murase family. When Kato, underboss of Sanno-kai, orders Ikemoto to bring the unassociated Murase-gumi gang in line, he passes the task on to his subordinate Otomo (Takeshi), who runs his own crew. Ultimately, Otomo will pay the price for his successful completion of the assignment by being sent to prison, where he’s shanked by one of the survivors of the Murase clan’s slaughter. Beyond Outrage (2012) opens with Otomo still in prison and police officials anxious to use his release as a catalyst for another round of infighting between the yakuza gangs. In the power shift, Otama is able to settle old scores with those who tried to eliminate him. Now, five years after surviving the all-out war between the Sanno and Hanabishi crime families, Otomo works in South Korea for Mr. Chang, a renowned fixer whose influence extends into Japan. A relatively minor incident causes tensions to rise between Chang Enterprises and the faraway powerful Hanabishi. When Chang’s life is endangered, Otomo returns to Japan to put an end to infighting, once and for all. That summary makes what happens in Outrage Coda sound deceptively orderly and logical, which, of course, it’s not. Kitano takes the double-crossing, back-stabbing and score-settling to an entirely new level and you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Kitano’s intention, all along, has been to fine-tune the violence and make every incredible shootout as technically viable as possible. The production values are, as usual, impeccable. He also wanted to eliminate any possibility that studio executives might demand a fourth installment. Special features include a feature-length making-of documentary and gallery of ‘Beat’ Takeshi trailers.

Arrow Video’s Orgies of Edo (1969) recalls a period in the Japanese cinema, during which filmmakers and studios turned toward exploitation to counter the impact of television on ticket sales. The shelf life for the individual genres was limited to the whims of a public with a growing number of entertainment options. After the sci-fi/monster boom of the 1950-60s petered out, the studios turned to B-movies featuring gangsters, revenge, juvenile delinquents, star-driven idol eiga and pinku eiga, which combined violence and sex. This didn’t preclude such masters as Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, Kenji Mizoguchi and, until 1963, Yasujirō Ozu from holding up the high end of the cinematic art and appealing to western critics and arthouse audiences, but, then and now, festival favorites didn’t pay the bills. Neither did it prevent an exciting New Wave from emerging. Pink flicks (a.k.a., “eroduction” and “pinky violence”) succeeded even in the face of censorship that forced filmmakers from fogging genitalia and pubic hair. (To avoid censorship, Nagisa Oshima was forced to send undeveloped footage of the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses to France and present it as a French entity.) These restrictions forced the more creative filmmakers to use sleight-of-hand to maintain quality and remain commercial. In Toei Company’s Orgies of Edo, Ishii tells three stories of “moral sickness,” set during Japan s prosperous Genroku era. It followed in the direct wake of his landmark “erotic grotesque” classic, Shogun’s Joy of Torture, by building moral lessons around tragic heroines caught up in violence, sadomasochism, incest and torture.

Told in anthology style by an impassive physician (Teruo Yoshida), the first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), an innocent young girl deceived by a handsome yakuza and sold into prostitution and eventual ruin. The tale of Ochise (Mitsuko Aoi) features a rich merchant’s daughter, whose “insatiable appetite for filth and perversion” draws her deeper into violence, darkness and betrayal. Finally, the story of Omitsu (Miki Obana) follows a sadistic lord (Asao Koike), whose eye is caught one day by a beautiful, if secretive member of his harem who shares his strange taste for pain and blood. Ishii s erotic films grew increasingly shocking, violent and strange, with Orgies of Edo combining period detail with “carnivalesque grotesquerie” to create his own particular vision of love and sex. The exquisitely upgraded Arrow Blu-ray adds “The Orgies of Ishii,” a newly filmed interview with author Patrick Maccias; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

Fireworks: Blu-ray
Within only a few decades of the exploitation period, Japanese animators would set a new standard for excellence outside Burbank, while also churning out easily translatable anime series for kids. Studio Ghibli led the way to international recognition, but other productions have begun to fill the gap left by the temporary retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, in 2013. Fireworks was animated by Studio Shaft, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi, from a screenplay written by Hitoshi Ohne. Last year, the unusually complex rom-dram was nominated for Best Animation Film at the Japanese Academy Awards. Based on Shunji Iwai’s live-action film, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1993), Fireworks tells the story of a schoolgirl, Nazuna, who’s about to be uprooted by her thrice-married mother and wants to escape her countryside town before that can happen. She’s admired by two post-pubescent boys, Norimichi and Yusuke, who’ve only recently begun to pay attention to their classmates’ feminine curves. Together, the trio also is obsessed with discovering whether fireworks, when exploded in the sky, are flat or round. On the day she plans to skip town with one of the boys, Nazuna finds a mysterious orb – not unlike a large cat’s-eye marble – that, when thrown, creates flashbacks to previous events. Each new reset results in complications that take them farther from reality. Fireworks probably requires a bit more concentration than viewers usually invest in animated features, but the music and voice actors make the 90-minute fantasy easier to digest. Special features include an interview with the director; a behind-the-scenes pieces with the English cast, including Brooklyn Nelson, Aaron Dalla Villa and Ryan Shanahan; and optional English and Japanese audio tracks.

Nelly
Anne Émond’s smart and sexy bio-drama, Nelly, is based on the semi-autobiographical novels of French-Canadian sex worker, Nelly Arcan. “Putain,” which became an international best-seller in 2001, contains similarities between the protagonist, Cynthia, and Arcan’s own experiences as a prostitute and professional escort. Besides achieving critical and commercial success, “Putain” (“Whore”) was a finalist for both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina, two of France’s most prestigious literary awards. Arcan was found dead in her Montreal apartment on September 24, 2009. She hanged herself after completing her fourth and last book, “Paradis, Clef en main,” whose narrator is left handicapped after a suicide attempt. Émond (Nuit #1) appears to have followed the blueprint laid out in Arcan’s book faithfully and frequently quotes from the text. In Mylène Mackay (“L’Âge adulte”), Émond found an actress, who, when called upon, can look glamorous and sophisticated, intensely sexy, plain, troubled, totally in control, frightened, younger and older. The production values are fine, and, at 100 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The problem is, of course, that there’s nothing particularly new here. There might have been if Nelly had been released before Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) or Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s guilty-pleasure adaptation, for Starz! HBO’s “The Deuce” covers some of the same territory, as well, if only from a street-level point-of-view. Ditto, Christian Molina’s Diary of a Nymphomaniac (2008) and Showtime’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” which also was based on the published memoirs of a onetime British prostitute and research scientist, Dr. Brooke Magnanti. I could go on. That said, Nelly should interest genre completists and those few people here who’ve seen Nuit #1. And, while some of scenes are undeniably hot, there probably isn’t enough skin revealed to attract fans of even soft-core porn. Arcan’s books have been translated into English and are available on Amazon.

Luciferina: Blu-ray
Apart from its intriguing title, Luciferina benefits from being shot in what we’re told is an abandoned convent, deep within an Argentinean jungle. As it turns out, however, the church and convent are inhabited by shamans, long-forgotten nuns and all manner of demonic spirits. The possibility that a divine presence could also be lingering in the shadows also exists, but it seems unlikely. While Gonzalo Calzada has dabbled with supernatural phenomena in previous features, in Luciferina he located Satan’s kitchen sink and threw it into the mix, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything. And, that appears to include references to Kenneth Russell’s less saintly efforts and the “Star Child” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The picture opens in a more traditional convent, where a 19-year-old novice, Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo), has just been informed of the death of her mother and worsening condition of her father, who’s been made up to resemble Boris Karloff in The Mummy. No matter how you slice it, Natalia’s family is out there where the buses don’t run at night. In Natalia’s absence, her sister was abused by her father and has lost faith in anything spiritual. Along with a couple of other friends, the sisters agree to take a boat to the overgrown church and convent, in search of a shaman conversant in the rites associated with the ayahuasca vine, which induces hallucinations and near-death experiences. That’s just the beginning of Natalia’s ordeal, however. Once the satanic presence slams the doors on the church, the battle royal for her soul begins for real. She assisted by the ancient nuns, who look as if they’ve been performing exorcisms and delivering hideously deformed babies for hundreds of years. The other thing to know is that Natalia’s salvation is complicated by the fact that she was never baptized and has been waiting for Jesus to return to take her virginity. As we approach the 110-minute mark, even that seems possible. Calzada creates an atmosphere of dread early in the proceedings and allows it to build to a crescendo when the shit gets real.

High Voltage: Blu-ray
Alex Keledjian’s been around the business long enough to have created “Project Greenlight,” which made some noise in 2001 for giving aspiring filmmakers a shot at making a real movie and being co-executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. I don’t know how long the idea for High Voltage has been gestating inside his brain, but it could be as many years as he’s been listening to rock ’n’ roll. The industry hasn’t evolved that much in the last 50 years, or so, and the possibility that a musician might be possessed by the demon goes back to Robert Johnson. As the picture opens, a completely dissipated band manager, Jimmy Kleen (David Arquette), is celebrating his 50th birthday – for the third time, he says – when he stumbles upon two artists who could help resurrect his career. Scott (Ryan Donowho) is an ambitious songwriter and guitarist from the Dave Matthews school of rock, while Rachel (Allie Gonino) is a promising young singer, afflicted with stage fright. Kleen attempts to interest record executive Rick Roland (Luke Wilson) in the band, Hollow Body, but he’s too high-and-mighty to help a friend. After blowing their first gig, due to Rachel’s phobia, lightning strikes a car carrying the singer and her mother (Perry Reeves). Both seemingly are lying dead in the local morgue, when Rachel is revived by what either is divine or diabolical intervention. Not only does the shock therapy cure her stage fright, but it also adds a range of emotion to her voice that rivals Tina Turner. Moreover, Rachel begins to act like a rock star, wearing hot little outfits and teasing her hair to the sky. Whenever a man attempts to kiss her, though, she zaps them with a charge of electricity that sucks the life out of them. If Keledjian isn’t quite able to use special electrical effects to scare viewers, at least the devil’s music, if you will, is pretty entertaining.

MDMA: Blu-ray
At the same time as crack cocaine was beginning to ravage cities around the United States, a far different kind of drug, ecstasy, was being mass-produced by semi-pro chemists in Europe for the enjoyment of ravers and 24-hour-party people. Both substances were illegally manufactured and distributed, then, and still are. The crack-cocaine epidemic crushed the souls of a generation of impoverished youths and adults, most of them of color, while devastating the economies of cities already crippled by Reaganomics. MDMA wasn’t without its addictive properties and, yes, some users were harmed by misusing what was generally perceived to be strictly a recreational drug, whose desired effects include altered sensations, increased energy, empathy and sensory pleasure. As rave parties and electronic dance music caught on here, so did the demand for E, which had originally been synthesized in 1912 and gained popularity in the 1960s, as MDA. At the time, it was considered a mellower alternative to LSD and amphetamines, and easier to find and afford than psilocybin mushrooms. Like most other drugs in 1970s, it was overshadowed by the widespread use and availability of powdered cocaine. That’s all anyone needs to know before inserting or streaming Angie Wang’s semi-autobiographical debut drama, MDMA (a.k.a., “Cardinal X”), into their home-theater system.

Set in 1984, MDMA describes the rise and inevitable fall of one of the most successful, if unlikely drug queenpins on the west coast. Angie (Annie Q) is a first-generation Chinese-American from a tough urban background, who was raised by her father (Ron Yuan) after her mother split, taking her brother with her. Blessed with a talent for chemistry, Angie is accepted at a prestigious university and awarded financial aid. Her party-hardy roommate, Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) not only introduces Angie to the school’s social scene, but she also inspires her to exploit the campus’ growing desire for Ecstasy. With the assistance of a fellow Asian-American chemistry nerd (Scott Keiji Takeda) – who has a crush on her – she creates a market and distribution system for the expertly made substance among the Greek-letter set. At the same time, she volunteers as a Big Sister for a local girl, whose mother and brother are abusers of heavier drugs and alcohol. While the experience helps Angie locate her place on the food chain of enablers and profiteers, she rationalizes it as a means to help the girl’s family out financially. Her first cruel awakening comes when she realizes that any money she gives the girl will be stolen by her mother and brother. The second comes when a larger-scale dealer demands that Angie supply him with the MDMA, so that he can control supply-and-demand and gouge her frat and sorority patrons. The third comes when … well, see for yourself. An interview with Wang amplifies on her own involvement in the by-now familiar cautionary tale – not unlike the story told in “Breaking Bad” – as well as her subsequent evolution as a business woman, social activist and filmmaker. As writer/director/actor/producer here, Wang probably bit off more than she could have chewed and digested, but, as a first feature, MDMA neatly fits within the drug-drama subgenre and further increases the visibility of Asian-American actors and filmmakers.

Heavy Trip
In one were able to meld Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap, the result would probably look and sound very much like Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren’s Heavy Trip. Those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki’s award-winning work aren’t able to fully appreciate how much it reflects traits associated with Finnish life and culture. The minimalistic approach allows for long spaces between words and actions, as well as a quiet inner strength – not to be confused with self-confidence — that has allowed the citizenry to endure periods of hardship and adversity … not to mention the annual absence of sunlight. Their humor has been described as dark, dry and subtle, with plenty of sarcasm thrown in for kicks. Heavy Trip follows the rise from anonymity to obscurity of a death-metal band, Impaled Rektum, based in the small Arctic Circle town of Taivalkoski. Turo (Johannes Holopainen) and his bandmates don’t look or dress any different from metal-heads anywhere else on the planet, but, like everyone else in Finland, they favor beer and aquavit over most other mind-altering substances. While a similar ensemble in the U.S. or England might wait until they’ve mastered two or three songs before trying their luck on the nightclub circuit, Impaled Rektum has practiced for 12 years without playing a single gig. The band’s lack of progress has led to Turo becoming the brunt of jokes for people his age and being reticent around women to whom he’s attracted, including the local gendarme’s daughter, Miia (Minka Kuustonen).

Turo’s paying gig is as an orderly at a local mental-health facility, where he cleans up messes and impresses the patients with his ability to use a broom as a make-believe mic stand. The band’s biggest hang-up is an inability to come up with a recognizable sound of its own, which normally wouldn’t be a problem for an aspiring rock group. Every time guitarist Lotvonen (Samuli Jaski) proposes a riff, it reminds bassist, Pasi (Max Ovaska), of a song popularized by another band and is vetoed. Working at his dad’s reindeer-processing business, drummer Jynnky identifies the band’s ultimate sound when a carcass gets stuck in a machine and the grinding reminds him of an industrial-metal motif. The other musicians agree that it could translate into a riff uniquely suited to Impaled Rektum. Soon thereafter, the band is approached by an English-speaking gent – they somehow confuse him for a government meat inspector – who’s promoting a headbanger festival in Norway. Not only does this sudden, unexpected recognition buoy the musicians’ career hopes, but it also makes them heroes in their small town. Suffice it say that nothing, from this point forward, will go precisely as planned for the boys, especially when a local pop star conspires with Miia’s dad to prevent the band from reaching Norway. Heavy Trip hits nearly all the right notes on the way to a (nearly) fairy-tale ending.

Agony
On the 3rd of October (the year doesn’t matter), unfortunate residents of Vienna are shocked to discover body parts belonging to a young woman turning up in dumpsters around the city. Police have no ID on the victim, whose head is missing, let alone suspects or a motive for the murder. Even if the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit, viewers have a much better handle on what’s going on than the police. What we don’t know is why David Clay Diaz is describing two men’s malfunctions, side by side, instead of those pertaining to the obvious killer. Maybe he’s setting the stage for something far bloodier and several times more villainous. Or, maybe not. Diaz’ feature debut, Agony, doesn’t fit neatly within usual genre classifications: drama, thriller, slasher, psychodrama. In July 2016, before it pretty much disappeared, Agony screened at Montreal’s genre-heavy Fantasia International Film Festival. Diaz’ split-narrative character study, comparing two millennials from opposite backgrounds, leads us to believe that their stories overlap. The biggest hints come in the way both men the deal with the women in their lives. The 24-year-old law student (Samuel Schneider) is a handsome fellow, who would appear to have everything going for him, except in the sack. That’s where we discover that normal sexual activity provides no thrill for him, at all. For the time being, anyway, his girlfriend willingly plays along with his increasingly kinky fetishes, which began with a slap and now include duct tape and bondage. His boxer/rapper counterpart (Alexander Srtschin) is from the other side of town, where life is hard-scrabble and machismo is enforced by parents and peers. Still, he’s grown tired of being bullied by his father, who calls him a pansy and demands to see his muscles. Neither will his former girlfriend cut him any slack. More telling, his best friend and sparring partner is making advances toward him sexually and he doesn’t quite know how to respond, except with violence. Both of these 24-year-olds are ticking time bombs, but only one is the killer. I wouldn’t have minded another 10 minutes of exposition.

Learning to See: The World of Insects: Blu-ray
Planetary
There are numerous ways to convince reasonably intelligent human beings of the dangers of global warming and its relationship to carbon-based fuels. One is to show them images of melting glaciers and ice packs, blackened skies and starving polar bears. Another is simply to make documentaries about the wondrous creatures – great and small – with whom we share the Earth and are likely to disappear in our children’s lifetimes. It can be presented as a nature film, without emphasizing the threats posed by shrinking habitats and pollutants. Unless the person to whom you’re addressing is a greedy business executive, a Republican politician or base-conscious president of the United States, a brief mention usually will suffice. Jake Oelman’s brilliantly photographed Learning to See: The World of Insects describes his father’s transformational journey from being a Boston psychologist who cared too much about his patients’ pain and his inability to cure all their ills, to someone unafraid to relocate to Colombia and reassess his future as a citizen of the world. Encouraged by something Robert read in Gabriel García Márquez’ “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Oelman the celebrated novel by Colombian Nobel Laureate. He bought a plot of land in the mountains, just outside of drug-ravaged Cali, and restored a finca there. As a born-again artist, Oelman began photographing the life on his land, starting small and getting smaller. He began with the almost impossible task of capturing hummingbirds in midflight and, then, turned to insects, some of them so well-camouflaged that he needed a guide to find them. From the mountains, Oelman journeyed to the Amazon basin, where an entirely new population of critters presented themselves to him. In an area that’s become increasingly dependent of revenues of oil drilling, it wasn’t difficult to see how its inhabitants might be endangered. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and making-of material.

Planetary (2015) employs a well-known image of the Earth, shot from the Space Shuttle, to demonstrate how everything on the planet is connected and how easy it is to see how much damage has been done to it since space travel began. It’s a powerful photograph, but no less impressive than the first color image of Earth that was used as the cover image of Whole Earth Catalog’s first edition, in 1968. For some reason, editor Stewart Brand had to repeatedly petition the government for use of a whole-earth photograph, like the composite of images taken in 1967 by the ATS-3 satellite. Neither was Davis Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – based on Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming – the first shot fired in the war to save the planet. After all, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and an enhanced photograph of the planet, taken from Apollo 17, was incorporated into John McConnell’s Earth Day flag. Even so, Guy Reid and Steve Watts Kennedy’s Planetary is a welcome addition to the catalogue of documentaries based on the premise that there’s still time to save the planet. It does so by interweaving imagery from NASA Apollo missions with visions of the Milky Way, Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas, and the cacophonous sounds of downtown Tokyo and Manhattan, with intimate interviews from renowned experts including astronauts Ron Garan and Mae Jemison, environmentalist Bill McKibben, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, anthropologist Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer Elizabeth Lindsey and head of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu school, the 17th Karmapa. It adds an abridged edition of the film, for television, and other making-of material.

My Big Gay Italian Wedding
It’s too bad Nia Vardalos can’t demand royalties on movies that paraphrase her title, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If she could, perhaps, we’d finally see the last of them. By the time Alessandro Genovesi’s entertaining matrimonial comedy, Puoi baciare lo sposo (“You May Kiss the Groom”) found its way to America, it had exhausted the alternative titles, “Matrimonio italiano” and “My Big Crazy Italian Wedding.” Its newest title, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, corresponds with Anthony J. Wilkinson’s play, which included original music and lyrics written by David James Boyd and premiered off-Broadway on November 14, 2003, and has been re-mounted in various cities and venues ever since then. In it, Antonio (Cristiano Caccamo) and Paolo (Salvatore Esposito) live happily together in Berlin and are finally making plans to get married in Antonio’s lovely hometown, Civita di Bagnoregio. Before than can happen, however, Paolo insists that Antonio come out to his family. Antonio’s mother (Monica Guerritore), who’s never doubted he was gay, has demands of her own: that they hire a famous reality-show wedding planner to make it as grand as possible; that Antonio’s homophobic father (Diego Abatantuono), the town’s image-conscious mayor, officiate; and that Paolo forces his similarly homophobic mother to be there, too. That might be the toughest one to pull off, as they’ve been estranged for the past three years. Ironically, the town’s priest is one of the first to give them his blessing. Optimistic that they can pull it off, Antonio and Paolo head south with flatmates – loudmouth Bernadetta (Diana Del Bufalo) and crossdressing Donato (Dino Abbrescia) — in tow. The screwball silliness doesn’t end there, as one of Antonio’s final one-night-stands (Beatrice Arnera) demands that he admit he’s straight and give her another chance. With all that nonsense to digest in one 90-minute setting, it’s almost a miracle that My Big Gay Italian Wedding turned out as consistently upbeat and enjoyable as it is. Even the Italian cultural clichés work. It helps that, with same-sex marriages already a fait accompli, Genovesi didn’t feel obligated to lard the narrative with any political sidebars, and that the physically mismatched grooms don’t look as if they just fell off the top of a wedding cake.

The Marine 6: Close Quarters: Blu-ray
Last week, I commented on how much influence Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo had on subsequent series fronted by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The same can be said about the WWE superstars who populate The Marine franchise, many of whose characters’ backgrounds match that of the former Green Beret, who the government turned into a killer and, then, abandoned … until it needed him, again. In his first theatrical picture, John Cena introduced the series in 2006, as a former Marine who used his training to thwart stateside crimes. (Opening footage of the enemy base in the Middle East reportedly was repurposed from Rambo III.) Even factoring in worldwide grosses, The Marine barely broke even on paper. Ted DiBiase Jr. replaced Cena in the lead role of The Marine 2 (2009), which wisely went straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. In The Marine 3: Homefront (2013), Mike “The Miz” Mizanin began his four-picture run as former Sgt. Jake Carter. The latest installment, The Marine 6: Close Quarters, pairs Carter with another retired jarhead, Luke Trapper (Shawn Michaels), who owes his life to his friend and fellow EMT. (Or, maybe, it’s the other way around.) They’re asked by the VA to extract a homeless veteran from an abandoned brewery. He’s dug in pretty securely, however, and is in no mood to be saved. As luck would have it, Luke and Jake overhear the screams of a teenager, Sarah (Louisa Connolly-Burnham), who’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom there by a gang of heavily armed thugs led by Maddy Hayes (SmackDown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch). She has told the girl’s father that she will be killed if he doesn’t force a mistrial in her father’s trial, on which he’s a jury member. Long story short, when the EMTs separate the hostage from her captors, a long, loud and messy chase ensues. It covers the entire length, breadth and depth of brewery, as well as a grain chute and tunnels leading to the river. As these things go, the ridiculously gratuitous violence is enhanced by the claustrophobic quarters and absence of electricity. If fans of the series are looking for surprises, they’ll have to wait until very close to the ending. It will be worth the wait. I have no idea if these films make money or they’re loss leaders for the WWE brand, which just expanded into Saudi Arabia. I suspect there will be at least one more entry. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Making Maddy & The Marines” and “The Breakdown: Epic Fights.”

TV-to-DVD
Discovery ID: The Family I Had: Special Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Left Behind America
PBS: Breaking Big
With all the true-crime shows clogging up the TV dial, you’d think that all the good murder mysteries would have been exhausted, by now. Sadly, in a country where gun lobbyists literally call the shots, new ones come along every day. The case upon which Katie Green and Carlye Rubin based The Family I Had has already been given several once-overs in the media and Internet and the guilt of the killer isn’t in doubt.   The documentary does, however, ask viewers to address questions that weren’t at issue during the trial and would be impossible to answer on film. The biggest among them: what’s the culpability of parents and guardians in a murder that might have been avoided if they’d acted like responsible adults and hadn’t ignored the obvious signs of a teenager’s danger to society? On Superbowl Sunday, Charity Lee was working at a restaurant in Abilene, Texas, when she was informed by police that her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, had been butchered by her 13-year-old half-brother, Paris Bennett. In a call to the 911 operator, he had admitted to “accidentally” killing the girl – who, he said, was possessed by the devil — and asked her what to do next. After pretending to perform CPR, all that was left for Paris to do was await arrest, sentencing and jail. Under Texas law, psychiatrists may have been limited in their ability to diagnose an underage suspect’s mental condition. Paris’ sociopathic tendencies were noted, however. Now 24, he could be eligible for parole in another nine years. It isn’t likely that he would be released, but, in Texas, stranger things happen every day. Other details laid out in The Family I Had make us wonder about what could happen when, and if, Paris is released. For all anyone knows, he could harbor the same grudges held when Charity left for work that day in 2007 and he convinced Ella’s babysitter to leave early. Or, she fears, Paris might decide to punish her further by harming the half-sibling who was born after he was incarcerated. We aren’t told what kind of meds, if any, he’s taking and what could happen if decided not to take them. Moreover, the documentary presents circumstantial evidence that he might have been pre-conditioned to commit such a heinous crime simply by growing up among parental figures who never should have been allowed to raise gerbils, let alone children.

When Charity was only 6, Paris’ rich, vain and oft-married grandmother was charged with hiring a hitman to murder her husband, using a powerful handgun. Although Kyla was acquitted, she admits here to flirting with jury members. Charity was clearly scarred by her father’s death, the effects of the trial and the cruel gossip of people in their hometown. It probably led, in part, at least, to Charity becoming addicted as a teenager to hard drugs and bad boyfriends. She cleaned up, but, after several years of sobriety, relapsed on cocaine when Ella was a toddler. She suspects that Paris, who registered IQ of 141, blamed her for not having a father figure in his life – or Ella’s — and forcing them to move in with Kyla when she relapsed. In the doc, all sorts of people say they began recognizing warning signs in Paris after Ella was born and he was forced to share his mother and grandmother’s attention. Interviews with Paris in prison add to our confusion over whether he’s still unbalanced, sincerely remorseful, getting the right psychiatric treatment and is genuinely thankful for his mother’s continued presence in his life. (As a teenager, he had joined Kyla in a suit requesting that Charity be removed as his legal guardian.) Charity has since moved to Georgia and established a foundation to support and advocate for people impacted by violence. She says that she’s forgiven Paris and visits him regularly in prison. Even so, she fears what might happen if he’s released without receiving the proper treatment. Multiple accounts allow for conflicting points of view, leaving viewers questioning where the ultimate truth and accountability lie. There’s also the whole nature-vs.-nurture debate. The DVD includes deleted scenes.

Over on PBS, the “Frontline” presentation, “Left Behind America,” chronicles how situations beyond the residents’ control conspired to reverse one Rust Belt city’s status, from a showcase to a municipality on the brink of collapse. Well into the country’s post-WWII economic boom, Dayton maintained a balance between white- and blue-collar jobs, decent housing for most people and the promise of upward mobility for people with union jobs, at least. When the American Dream of home ownership in comfortable surroundings drove white families to the suburbs, it became clear to blacks and Hispanics that they weren’t welcome to share in it. Even if good jobs were still available, businesses followed the money to the suburbs. When rising gas prices in the 1970s threatened the county’s once-thriving auto industry – second only to Detroit — it triggered a ripple effect throughout the region’s industrial base. Reaganomics came, but never left. President Clinton’s NAFTA program and China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization greased the skids for American businesses to look elsewhere for cheap labor and fewer regulations, with Wall Street’s blessing. Crack cocaine and opiates filled the void left by jobs no longer there. With a recent influx of refugees from Turkey and other countries, Dayton has shown signs of rebirth. The newcomers identified exploitable niches in the economy and built businesses from the ground up. Some people returned to work, but with substantially lower wages and benefits – or none, at all — that barely lifted families above the poverty level. It’s a fascinating, if depressing documentary, with clearly identified villains and victims.

In the PBS series, “Breaking Big,” some of the world’s most influential artists, innovators, athletes and leaders explain how they’ve pushed, prodded and cajoled the big breaks that would make them successful, frequently against steep odds. The 30-minute episodes feature such interesting and inspirational success stories as those provided by Trevor Noah, Eddie Huang, Danai Gurira, Jason Aldean, Ruth Zukerman, Christian Siriano, Roxane Gay, Michael Strahan, Senator Kristen Gillibrand, Lee Daniels, Gretchen Carlson and Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray

“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.”
~ Karyn Kusama