MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Owl’s Legacy, Good Manners, Childrens Act, Juliet Naked, Unnamable, Little Italy, Gas Food Lodging, SWF, Detective Dee, Windtalkers … More

The Owl’s Legacy
In the continuing march of time, empires have come and gone with some regularity. To quote Tears for Fears, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” No one has come close to owning it. Some empires have left their marks behind in architecture and statuary, while others are recalled by unnatural borders, the bastardization of languages and appropriation of cuisine, clothing or music. If it weren’t for DNA testing, we might not be able to recognize the debt we owe a long-forgotten culture, even if it’s limited to the shape of one’s nose or a shared propensity for certain hereditary diseases. When Europeans colonized the New World, Africa and Southeast Asia, they assumed that the differently colored inhabitants had nothing to offer them but gold and silver, rubber, tobacco, cocoa, tea and other commodities. In return, the natives would be given a new language to learn, fabrics to cover their breasts and genitals, foreign diseases and a religion that promised a better life after death than the one they were given at the occasion of their birth. Heaven must have especially appealed to those native peoples who were already enslaved, impoverished, exploited and left with no hope, whatsoever. Chris Marker’s epic 13-episode documentary mini-series, The Owl’s Legacy (1989) was supported by the Onassis Foundation and aired on French public television. When it failed to deliver the expected conclusions about the ancient Athenians’ influence on modern Greece — owls are symbolic of Athens and wisdom — it was shelved and left to gather dust for nearly 30 years. What it did produce was something far more compelling than a testimonial to the current government’s commitment to democracy. It was, after all, a gift from their ancestors, who would have been appalled by the occasional impositions of totalitarian, nationalism and fascist rule that corrupted Athenian democracy in the 150 years since the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Here, Marker employs a casual approach to an otherwise scholarly discussion about the impact of Ancient Greece on modern thinking and European identity. He invited a couple dozen academics, artists and intellectuals to gather around the tables in Paris, Tbilisi, Athens and Berkeley, drink wine and feast on appetizers, while doing so … mostly in French, but in Greek and English, too. To fill in some gaps in the tableside discussions, taped interviews with individual scholars and ex-pat celebrities — including filmmaker Elia Kazan — are sprinkled throughout the series, as are clips from such movies as Costa-Gavras’ Z, which dramatized events that took place early in the junta’s rule. The despotic military cabal had taken “democracy” and ground the word under its heels, until it was rendered meaningless … for the time being, anyway. Although the nearly decade-long nightmare is only discussed at length in a few of the 13 chapters, it hangs like a storm cloud over the entire series, which finds other reasons to hail the Athenian legacy. And, while Alexander the Great and the Trojan wars are mentioned, the emphasis is on other gifts Greeks brought to the world, in addition to democracy, tragedy and philosophy.

Marker’s brain trust also discusses how Greece’s democratic reawakening — after winning its independence from the Turks in the 1820s – was thwarted in the bud by Europe’s Central Powers, who feared that its revolution and an earlier one in Serbia could trigger other uprisings. Instead, Greeks were required to accept a Roman Catholic Bavarian prince as the country’s first modern king. He would be deposed in 1862, but Germans would return 80 years later to complete the conquest Italian forces couldn’t accomplish. After the liberation, Greece once again became a pawn in a much larger game of chess. With the government’s army backed by the United States and United Kingdom, and the Democratic Army of Greece supported by communist Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria, the Greek Civil War became the first proxy war of the post-WWII period. The United States would side with the Greek military junta of 1967–1974, as well. If issues pertaining to the ongoing economic dilemma and influx of refugees cause the current democracy to teeter, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is waiting in the wings to take control.

The Owl’s Legacy’s true message comes into focus in “Episode 6: Mathematics, or the Realm of Signs” and “Episode 7: Logomachy, or the Roots of Words,” and the introduction of Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 BCE). A Renaissance man a couple of millennia removed from the Renaissance, it’s possible that Pythagoras contributed more to our civilization than any other human not named Jesus, Moses or Muhammad. His interests included philosophy, mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, music, mysticism, politics and religion. He traveled widely and learned from scholars in Egypt, Crete and Persia. Pythagoras would influence Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Socrates and Aristotle, as well as Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Keple and Isaac Newton, among others. Pythagoras believed in a “harmony of the spheres,” which maintained that the planets and stars move according to mathematical equations, which correspond to musical notes and thus produce an inaudible symphony. The Pythagorean theorem, which may have been borrowed from the Babylonians and Indians, allowed Greek mathematicians to construct the first “proof.” There’s plenty more, of course, including a demonstration of how Pythagoras’ ideas were incorporated into the creation of modern computers and, by inference, the Internet. That’s one hell of a legacy for modern Greeks to claim.

So, maybe, restaurateur Gus Portokalos wasn’t too far off base, when, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), he told everyone who would listen to him for more than five minutes: “Give me a word, any word, and I’ll show you that the root of that word is Greek.” Not all his examples held up to scrutiny, but he was on the right path. In Portokalos had seen The Owl’s Legacy, his Hellenic chauvinism would have driven everyone around him crazy, Further chapters add “Music, or the Inner Space,” “Cosmogony, or the Use of the World,” “Mythology, or the Truth of Lies,” “Misogyny, or Desire’s Traps,” “Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death,” “Philosophy, or the Owl’s Triumph.” Literary critic George Steiner, who condemns mankind’s environmental recklessness, argues at one point that modern Greece bears no relation to the glory of Ancient Greece. Apparently, such observations were met with displeasure by the Onassis Foundation, which had funded Marker’s film and wanted to deliver a far different message. As a result, The Owl’s Legacy was long kept out of circulation in video and left unseen on Greek television. The Owl’s Legacy won’t be for everyone, but anyone fascinated by the machinations of world history will welcome the opportunity to finally see it.

Good Manners
In recent weeks, movies I’ve referenced such off-brand monsters as werecats (Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers) and, maras, wraith-like creatures that strangle people in their sleep. Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ Good Manners is a terrifically bizarre, if overlong thriller from Brazil about the consequences of a human giving birth to a werewolf baby and, after the mother dies, its guardian inviting it to join her non-lycanthropic family. It further ponders the question of whether such a potentially monstrous child can be domesticated and saved from its worst physiological and supernatural instincts. Isabel Zuaa plays Clara, an emotionally fragile nurse from the outskirts Sao Paulo, who’s hired by Ana (Marjorie Estiano) to be the nanny of her soon-to-be-born child. Ana’s a bit of a wild card, in that she’s wealthy, modern and inclined to unexpected behavior. Her refrigerator is stocked with bloody raw meat and she’s a somnambulist. Despite their cultural differences, Clara and Ana develop a strong bond, emotionally and sexually. After Ana dies in childbirth, Clara whisks the hirsute infant away from the hospital and gives it a home, with her family, in the favela. Fast-forward seven years, at least, and Joel (Miguel Lobo) has grown into a seemingly normal boy, who attends school and associates with other kids. Clara has raised Joel as a vegetarian, who, when there’s a full moon, is chained to a wall in the basement. When Clara’s back is turned, however, a well-meaning relative decides that a good rare steak would help bring some color to Joel’s cheeks. What it really brings to his cheeks, though, is something significantly more sinister. I’ll leave it at that. Dutra and Rojas use Good Manners’ 136-minute length to explore the imbalance of life in the “financial capital of Brazil,” but not in any way that interferes with the story. The filmmakers admit to an early fondness for the scarier moments in Walt Disney’s animated features, while referencing An American Werewolf in London. I would imagine, as well, that they’ve been influenced by Guillermo del Toro and other European horrormeisters, whose works have found homes in American arthouses. Rui Poças’ impressionistic cinematography frequently conjures the beauty and sensuality inherent in the best horror pictures.

The Children Act
In this heart-wrenching drama by Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal), adapted from a novel and screenplay by Ian McEwan (Atonement), Emma Thompson delivers a powerhouse portrayal of a Children’s Court judge whose strict adherence to protocol nearly destroys her. The breaking point arrives during one of those cases in which a judge is, in fact, asked to play God, by determining whether a teenager should be forced to adhere to his parents’ religious beliefs and die, or be given a chance to live a healthy life with a blood transfusion. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) portrays 17-year-old Adam, who was raised by parents who devoutly accept the principles of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Accordingly, he believes that it’s God who will decide whether he’ll live or die, not his well-meaning doctors or a judge he’s never met. Before Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) renders her decision, however, she makes the unorthodox decision to visit Adam in his hospital room and get his unforced opinion. Although he corroborates his parents’ wishes, Adam asks “my lady” to stay long enough to hear him play a tune on his guitar. Turns out, Fiona is aware of the song and begins to sing along to its life-affirming lyrics by William Butler Yeats. (She also gently corrects one of the boy’s chord changes.) After Fiona renders her decision, allowing the doctors to transfuse Adam’s blood, he recovers. At home, however, Fiona’s marriage to Jack, a professor played by Stanley Tucci, is crumbling.

For as long as he cares to remember, Jack has been required to play along with his wife’s devotion to duty: long hours, weekends on call, endless homework and fatigue that’s led to a distinct lack of interest in sex. When Jack tells Fiona that he wants to enter into a purely sexual affair with another woman, her response is icy and matter-of-fact. Within hours of his leaving home – temporarily – she changes the locks to the door of their apartment and refuses to speak with him, again, ever. Meanwhile, Adam has decided to pursue an unwelcome relationship with Fiona, based on her life-saving advice andtheir mutual admiration of poetry. Not surprisingly, the judge in her decides this isn’t a good idea and she refuses to return his letters. This leads to Adam stalking Fiona and almost breaking through her icy exterior. Almost. Ditto, Jack. Although viewers will have already drawn their own conclusions on Fiona’s behavior, there’s still plenty of time left in The Children Act for things to come to a fork, or two, in the road. Parents effectively played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh aren’t treated as villains for their beliefs, even though Jehovah Witnesses tend not to come off well in courtroom dramas. As usual, Tucci is excellent in a role that could be considered in a negative light, as well. It’s Thompson’s movie to carry, though, and her performance deserves to be considered when Best Actress nominations are revealed. Given that The Children Act only played in, at most, 73 theaters here, it will take an active screener campaign for it to be seen in the right households, I’m afraid. It arrives with commentary by Eyre and McEwan.

Juliet, Naked: Blu-ray
As much as I try to avoid generalizations when it comes to characterizing the kinds of people who might enjoy a movie arriving on DVD – those not associated with specific genres, anyway – sometimes there’s simply no way to avoid it. Shorthand references to “chick flicks,” “bromances,” “tweeners” and, even, “arthouse,” simplify things for everyone. The same thing applies to ads for Juliet, Naked, which make it abundantly clear that it’s “from the author of About a Boy and High Fidelity.” It could have further narrowed the appeal by adding, “directed by former Lemonhead and ‘Girls’ helmer Jesse Peretz.” If Hugh Grant had accepted a cameo role, the ad could add, “featuring the star off Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which would have even more precisely nailed the intended audience for Juliet, Naked. In fact, author Nick Hornby is only responsible for supplying the source material from which Peretz’ rom-com, the Weitz Brothers’ About a Boy and Steven Frears’ High Fidelity were adapted. Typically, adaptations bear little resemblance to the books upon which they’re based. In Hornby’s case, however, the screenwriters – here, they’re Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins – aren’t required to do much more than tweak a few plot points. His books are that cinematic. Like John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, Chris O’Dowd’s podcaster Duncan Thomson is obsessed with rock music. More to the point, Duncan’s spent most of his adult life analyzing the lyrics written by Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an enigmatic singer/songwriter who disappeared from the face of the Earth two decades earlier, in mid-concert. When he isn’t teaching at a local college, Duncan shares his fanboy musings with countless other rock obsessives on his podcasts. Unbeknownst to him, Crowe is one his followers.

Because Duncan is convinced that Crowe’s final studio album, “Juliet,” is as important as anything from Van Morrison, Jackson Browne and Morrisey, Crowe has sent him a CD of acoustic outtakes from the session. His longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), isn’t thrilled with Duncan’s hobby, but she tolerates it. When the envelope containing “Juliet, Naked” arrives, Annie can’t resist the temptation to open it and listen to the CD. When Duncan discovers her faux pas, he feels as violated as anyone who’s had their home broken into and underwear drawer ransacked. Worse still, Duncan is horrified to learn that Annie posted an extremely negative review on his website, under a transparent pseudonym. He’s so unnerved that he engages in an affair with a co-worker. It leads to their breakup and Duncan’s banishment from the home they share. To her astonishment, Ann receives an email – or text, I can never tell the difference – from Crowe, agreeing with her opinion of the album. It triggers an exchange of missives that leads to a rendezvous in London, where he’ll be visiting one of his five children from four different women. He’s only recently learned that his daughter, Carly (Lily Newmark), is pregnant and, naturally, her boyfriend is a musician.

The road-trip is a real change of pace for Crowe, who, for the last several years, has been laying low in Pennsylvania, occupying a garage owned by the mother of his youngest son (Azhy Robertson) and basically doing nothing. Jackson is the only sibling who isn’t estranged from Tucker in one way or another. In fact, they’re best buddies. Before Crowe can connect with Carly or Annie, however, he suffers a heart attack in the lobby of the hospital. Annie learns of his hospitalization on the ride back to her coastal hometown and catches the next train back to London. She gets back in time to join an uncomfortable gathering of half-siblings, who’ve never met each other, and a couple of ex-wives who mistakenly thought he was on his death bed. Long story short: Annie invites Tucker to recuperate, with Jackson, in Broadstairs, where Duncan will inevitably be introduced to his idol and not believe it’s him. Neither does Crowe agree with Duncan’s assessment of his music and its relevance in the overall scheme of things. His presence does, however, make him reevaluate his position on Annie, who will have decisions of her own to make. If Juliet, Naked isn’t nearly as endearing as High Fidelity or About a Boy, it’s an easy way to kill 97 minutes of time, and the evocative musical soundtrack contains songs written by Conor Oberst, Robyn Hitchcock, Ryan Adams and Nathan Larson. The Blu-ray adds a 10-minute making-of featurette.

The Unnamable, Special Edition: Blu-ray
Nearly 30 years after the author’s untimely death, at 46, the first of many stories by H.P. Lovecraft was turned into a movie by – you guessed it – Roger Corman. Ironically, Lovecraft shared the writing credit on The Haunted Palace (1963) with Edgar Allan Poe, a mainstay in Corman’s stable of writers … living and dead. He called upon Charles Beaumont, who made his bones on TV anthology series in the 1950s, to marry eight lines from Poe’s eponymous 1839 poem and Lovecraft’s novella, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” The deluge of Lovecraft-sourced movies wouldn’t begin in earnest until Stuart Gordon’s loose adaptation of “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” in 1985. Three years later, freshman writer/director/producer Jean-Paul Ouellette based his low-budget indie, The Unnamable, on Lovecraft’s 1925 story of the same title. The movie takes some liberties with the source material, but Lovecraft lovers shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing it. The film opens in the early 18th Century, outside the secluded mansion belonging to Joshua Winthrop. Inside the house, some kind of an unseen monster is making a terrible ruckus. When Winthrop unlocks a large door in the attic, the creature reaches out to the old man’s chest and rips his heart out. Three hundred years later, a couple of wiseass college boys decide to test the legend’s veracity by arranging a weekend sleepover – girlfriends in tow — in the ancient mansion. Anyone who’s seen more than three or four modern horror films already knows what happens next: after the couples settle in, and one of the women sheds her blouse, the monster makes her presence known.

The rest of The Unnamable requires the actors to race around the house, trying to avoid be picked apart by the truly bizarre-looking creature, now recognized as Alyda Winthrop.  And, yes, “The Necronomicon” does play a role in the resolution of the exceedingly gory flick. Sounds good, but Lovecraft left enough holes in the original story for future viewers to wonder what exactly is Alyda’s story and how the mansion has managed to remain intact over the last three centuries. Ouellette probably had enough trouble coming up with the money it would take to keep The Unnamable from looking like “Amateur Night in Dixie” to worry much about unanswerable questions. The big reveal doesn’t take place until late into 87-minute movie and, while the monster is a masterwork of cobbled-together effects, the costume doesn’t look very sturdy. The Unnamable is just goofy enough to pass for cult status, which is how Unearthed Films treats the straight-to-VHS title, making its first foray into Blu-ray. In addition to the high-definition restoration from a 4K scan, with color correction, of the original camera negative, the package includes commentary with actors Charles Klausmeyer, Mark Stephenson, Laura Albert and Eben Ham, and makeup-effects artists Camille Calvet and R. Christopher Biggs, as well as separate interviews with the same people. In her portion, Albert allows the interviewer to inquire at length about her semi-topless scene, which was comparatively tame and, according to the actress, no big deal to her. Even so, it’s an area of inquiry not many actresses discuss in such interviews and Albert handles it well. A limited edition of 2,000 units arrives with a slip-sleeve cover for the Blu-ray. It’s too bad that Unearthed was unable to package it with a Blu-ray edition of Ouellette’s hard-to-find 2004 DVD of The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter.

Little Italy: Blu-ray
At the ripe old age of 27, Emma Roberts already has accumulated 51acting credits on IMDB.com, beginning with Blow (2001), playing Johnny Depp’s daughter. She spent her 2017 hiatus from “American Horror Story” stretching out in four features, including the ill-fated Billionaire Boys Club, that debuted on VOD or received stealth releases. Little Italy debuted on the same day on VOD and in limited release, registering nearly a million bucks in 133 theaters. Journeyman director Donald Petrie came to the notice of studios in 1988 with the indie hit, Mystic Pizza, which featured early appearances by Annabeth Gish, Vincent D’Onofrio, Matt Damon, Lili Taylor and Emma’s aunt, Julia Roberts. Petrie would find success, again, with Grumpy Old Men (1993), Miss Congeniality (2000) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), while also working in television. His career hit a pothole with the high-profile flop, Welcome to Mooseport (2004), and, thanks to a handful of dreadful reviews, Little Italy probably isn’t going to do much to restore luster to his career. A frequently cloying screenplay by Steve Galluccio (Mambo Italiano) and Vinay Virmani mostly will remind viewers of earlier performances by Hayden Christensen, Danny Aiello, Andrea Martin, Adam Ferrara (“Rescue Me”), Gary Basaraba (“Mad Men”), Alyssa Milano and Jane Seymour.  As Nikki and Leo, Roberts and Christensen carry most of the load in a romcom that merges “Romeo & Juliet” with tonal elements from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” (Martin plays funny aunts in both pictures.)

The Shakespearian throughline emerges when Roberts and Christensen’s fathers, Vince and Sal, engage in a boisterous feud over which of their pizzerias has the best pie in their ethnic neighborhood. Once best friends, all they exchange now are insults. After growing up as close to each other as their families’ adjacent restaurants, Nikki goes to London to attend a culinary college, while Leo stays behind to help his dad. The various mothers, uncles and aunts may only pay lip service to Vince and Sal’s feud, but it’s enough to keep the pre-destined lovers from consummating their friendship. Things will come to a head when Nikki returns from London for a brief vacation and Leo can’t resist the temptation to rekindle the flame. Because neither of them wants to offend their dad, the inevitable solution – this is a comedy, not a tragedy – has to wait for nearly all of Little Italy’s 102-minute length. Blessedly, while viewers are required to sit back and wait for this to happen, Aiello and Martin’s characters – Carlo and Franco – decide not to adhere to the Capulet/Montague mandate and begin to see each other behind their brothers’ backs. For SCTV mainstay Martin still works pretty steadily, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen Aiello – who was nominated for an Oscar, as the pizzeria owner in Do the Right Thing (1989) – in such a substantial role. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings: Blu-ray
For those western viewers already familiar with Tsui Hark’s wonderfully inventive and action-filled Detective Dee wuxia series, all that will be required of me here is to inform them of the release on Blu-ray of The Four Heavenly Kings. They’ll want to see it asap, even if’s not available in the IMAX 3D format in which it was presented in China. For newcomers to the fantasy franchise, however, some amplification is in order. The Four Heavenly Kings is the second prequel to Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and, therefore, not a great entry point. That’s because, the 132-minute tale picks up where Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013) left off. It’s roughly 465 CE when Empress Consort Wu Zetian begins the process of eclipsing her husband, Emperor Gaozong (a.k.a., Li Zhi), who’s indebted to Dee for saving his kingdom from extinction. Based on an actual historical figure, Gaozong was the ninth son of the powerful second leader of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong (598-649 CE). Even so, he’s no match for his father’s former concubine, Wu (Carina Lau), who’s also based on a real person, as is the title character. Dee’s heroics reflect cases handled in the service of the Tang and Zhou courts by Di Renjie (630-700 CE), an important county magistrate and statesman, said to have judged as many as 17,000 cases a year. In the 18th Century, an anonymous Chinese author turned the magistrate into a gong’an crimefighter. During World War II, Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik translated those stories into English, as “Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.” His investigations into crimes more closely resemble those of Sherlock Holmes than the exploits of Hark’s rootin’-tootin’ superhero, who’s been portrayed by Andy Lau and Mark Chao.

Following the events of Rise of the Sea Dragon, during which the fictional Dee labored alongside his sworn enemy, Yuchi Zhenjin (Shaofeng Feng), he is appointed to head the Department of Justice and conferred the prestigious Dragon Taming Mace (forged from “stardust steel”) by the emperor. This doesn’t sit well with the empress, who knows that Dee is smart enough to see through her power grab. Wu assigns Yuchi to join forces with the mysterious Mystic Clan to steal the mace from Dee. (Her Zhou dynasty would interrupt the Tang reign, from 684–705). Meanwhile, a different group of conjurers is conspiring to exact revenge on the Tang Empire for earlier crimes and destroy the imperial capital. What does this mean for new arrivals to the series? A lot, really, because, in Hark’s hands, Dee and Yuchi are insanely gifted practitioners of the martial arts and deploy weapons that appear to have minds of their own. The fights are wonderfully plotted and choreographed by action director Lin Feng and photographed by Choi Sung-Fai. The conjurers also unleash a veritable menagerie of albino apes, gigantic koi, flying dragons and some creatures too bizarre to describe adequately here. At the same time, the evolving participation of Dee’s Watson, Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin), and the female assassin Moon Water (Ma Sichun), frees the primary characters to take a breather on the sidelines. It’s convenient to say that Hark has given viewers more than they can possibly chew, let alone digest, even in a two-hour-plus movie. The fact is, though, the Detective Dee films are made for popular consumption by audiences of all ages in theaters large enough to accommodate large-format productions. The fights and fantasy aspects of The Four Heavenly Kings and other such entertainments are what sells popcorn, not orderly narrative and history lessons.

Gas, Food Lodging: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Allison Anders made her presence in the indie world known in 1987, with the low-budget, black-and-white feature, Border Radio. Co-written and directed with fellow UCLA film-school graduates Dean Lent and Kurt Voss, it tells the story of an L.A. underground rocker, who steals some money owed to him by a local club owner and heads for his trailer in Ensenada. The musician’s wife attempts to track him down, as do several other interested parties. The film’s musical soundtrack attracted as much attention as the story. Anders’ first solo project Gas, Food Lodging – she says she couldn’t afford a second comma – reflected her own experiences growing up with a single mother. It also signaled her intention to make movies about strong women forced to fend for themselves in an unfair world. Her next films, Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart, Sugar Town and Things Behind the Sun suffered from the public’s seeming lack of interest in subjects about which she cared deeply. Most of her work since then has been on television. Thanks to an Arrow Academy facelift, Gas, Food Lodging looks and feels as fresh today as it did in 1992. It helps that the towns in which the was shot haven’t changed all that much in the last 25 years, or the 25 years before it was made.

Abandoned by her husband, Nora (Brooke Adams) waitresses to keep her head above water, while raising two teenagers in a cruddy trailer park in a tiny New Mexico town. If anything exciting happens in Laramie, it generally involves guns, alcohol, drugs and unprotected sex.  Trudi (Ione Skye) quits school without telling her mom, mostly to stay up late with her loser boyfriends. Her younger sister, Shade (Fairuza Balk), is far less cruel to Nora, but still bursting at the seams with post-pubescent ambition. Again, the pickings are slim for a smart, attractive girl in a hurry to grow up. The same applies for Nora, who’s practically given up finding a man who’s worth a damn. Things will change dramatically for all three women, but in ways that aren’t easy to predict. Anders and cinematographer Dean Lent really nail the desolate tenor of life in the flatlands of southern New Mexico. You can practically taste the dust and desperation in the air. The Arrow package adds an excellent interview with Anders and writer Josh Olson; an archival documentary examining the challenges women face in the film industry, with Anders, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Gale Anne Hurd and Sherry Lansing; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film.

Single White Female: Blu-ray
When it comes to horror, there’s nothing scarier than watching realistically drawn characters deal with life-and-death situations they can’t comprehend or control. The prospect of someone we know being attacked by a flesh-eating zombie is outlandish from the get-go, so viewers are required to find other reasons to dread what’s going to happen in the next 90 minutes of a genre flick. Jump scares can do the trick, in a pinch, but only if they’re used sparingly and are intricately timed. Building and controlling tension is another sure way for a skilled director to manipulate viewers who’ve paid good money to have the shit scared out of them. Barbet Schroeder doesn’t make a lot of movies, but the challenges he does elect to accept – Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, Our Lady of the Assassins, Amnesia — are usually worth the wait. Released in 1992, behind a roommate-from-hell marketing campaign, Single White Female looked very much like the kind of movie that would fulfill the expectations of genre buffs and couples looking for some nasty thrills. After recognizing Schroeder’s name on the posters, arthouse dwellers might have decided to give it shot, as well. Solid word-of-mouth helped “SWF” turn a tidy profit, before making the move to VHS. The subgenre found a little bit of traction in coming years, but, without a strong hand at the wheel, such copy-cats as Single White Female 2: The Psycho (2005) and The Roommate (2011) simply demonstrated how difficult it is to match Schroeder’s recipe. The mad-obsession category, which flourished after Fatal Attraction (1987), proved to be a lot more expansive.

“SWF” still works on the premise that no one can be absolutely sure of finding a perfect match, simply by checking out references on a resume, curriculum vitae, lease application, dating app or Airbnb form. A lie-detector test might be able to ferret out the ringers, but, alas, is too expensive for the average landlord to afford. Hiring a PI to check a potential roommate’s background isn’t practical, either. Schroeder and screenwriter Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) — working from John Lutz’ novel – set everything up in the opening scenes. After discovering that her fiancé, Sam (Steven Weber), had slept with his ex-wife that afternoon, Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) swiftly kicks him out of her Manhattan apartment, necessitating the search for a roommate. A typically unsuccessful screening of candidates adds a humorous touch, while demonstrating the difficulty of her task … and why people looking for tenants have turned to leasing agencies to check out applications. Then, very soon after Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) moves in, Allison discovers a container with prescription drugs in her purse. It’s at this point that the audience knows more about what’s about to happen to the protagonist than she does. It then became incumbent on Schroeder to ratchet up the tension in a way that forces the audience to empathize with the unsuspecting Allison, while gradually dispensing hints at Heddy’s psychosis and keeping Sam in the near background. We also learn that the shy and needy roommate is a twin and someone who envies Allison’s success.

As their friendship grows, Heddy takes it upon herself to protect Allison from potential threats – emotional, professional and sexual – while also usurping her identity, hairdo, fashion sense and love interest. The chemistry that binds Leigh and Fonda’s characters throughout the first half of “SWF” reverses itself in the buildup to a terrifying climax, as Heddy’s attempt to assume Allison’s identity begins to disintegrate. Schroeder wraps it up without relying on genre tropes, clichés or shortcuts. Anyone familiar with the Iranian-born filmmaker’s previous work will recognize the director’s ability to inject tactical measures of kinky sex, nudity, sociopathic behavior and graphic violence into a thriller, without holding back to preserve a rating. In an interview included in the bonus package, though, Schroeder admits to toning things down in response to the reactions of test audiences. It doesn’t show. The Shout!Factory package also adds new commentary with Schroeder, editor Lee Percy and associate producer Susan Hoffman, as well as fresh interviews with Weber, Roos and Peter Friedman, who played Allison’s sympathetic, if doomed-from-the-start neighbor.

Windtalkers: Ultimate Edition: Blu-ray
When Windtalkers was released in 2002, it took a critical and commercial drubbing that, in some instances, seemed excessive to me. I’d met several of the Navajo code-talkers prior to the release of John Woo’s movie – a friend represented the tribe in legal matters – and was made aware of its rough journey to full production mode. I also learned what Hollywood’s delayed recognition of the code-talkers’ heroism meant to Navajos specifically and Native Americans, in general, as Indians from other tribes served in Europe and North Africa during both world wars. (Comanche soldiers participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.) Because Pentagon and Canadian military officials had kept their mission a secret until early in the Vietnam War, the code-talkers weren’t allowed to discuss their experiences with friends, relatives and historians. The mere fact that Native Americans were being cast to play Native Americans was considered highly unusual, as well.  Thank goodness, I was only writing about movies at the time, not reviewing them. Part of the criticism was aimed at MGM’s choice of Hong Kong action specialist Woo as director of what they considered to be an American war picture. Others thought that the Native American experience played second-fiddle to the exploits and personal anguish of a white man, Marine Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage), who was entrusted with guarding Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) with his life. Still others complained that the stylized violence and constant artillery fire detracted from the story, which involved demonstrating the limits of comradery under fire and the high cost of following orders to the letter. Obviously, the critics’ reviews were based on what made it to the screen, not the 19 minutes of footage restored in the “Director’s Cut” or Woo’s commentary on the DVD/Blu-ray. It probably wouldn’t have changed their opinions drastically, but that’s where DVD/Blu-ray owners have it over theatergoers … not that the majority of supplemental packages are worth a damn. Too many consist of canned EPKs, self-serving interviews, lame gag reels and unenlightening commentary tracks. For the record, the 19 minutes added to the 134-minute theatrical cut mostly represent graphic violence trimmed to get Windtalkers an R-rating. That, and some atmospheric touches cut for length. The “Ultimate Edition” includes both cuts of the picture, in high-def; separate commentaries with Woo and producer Terence Chang, Christian Slater and Nicolas Cage, and actor Roger Willie and real-life Navajo code-talker and consultant Albert Smith; deleted scenes; extensive featurettes, ”The Code Talkers: A Secret Code of Honor,” ”American Heroes: A Tribute to Navajo Code Talkers,” ”The Music of Windtalkers” and ”Actors Boot Camp”; four “Fly-on-the-Set” scene diaries; behind-the-scenes photo gallery; and original marketing material.

Topper Returns: Blu-ray
Long in the public domain, Roy Del Ruth’s contribution to the original “Topper” series, Topper Returns (1941), benefits from a nice hi-def polish that restores some of the luster it lost in previous video iterations and duplications. It rests on the same gag that made the 1937 comedy such a hit, minus almost all its previous cast members. Essential ingredients Roland Young and Billie Burke return for the third and final time, as Mr. and Mrs. Cosmo Topper, a banker with the inconvenient power to see and hear ghosts. In the first installment, the apparitions were played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. Bennett reprised her role in Topper Takes a Trip (1938), during which Marion Kerby is told that the only way she’ll get past the pearly gates is to chalk up another good deed. She decides to prevent the Toppers from divorcing. In Topper Returns, the ghost of a beautiful murdered blond (Joan Blondell) enlists Cosmo to try and find her killer in the Dark Old House next door. The fun-loving victim, Gail Richards, was killed by a shadowy intruder as she slept in the bed belonging to the mistress of the house and, one can assume, the intended victim. Topper had picked her up, along with a wealthy friend, Ann Carrington (Carole Landis), while hitchhiking to the Carrington estate. The car in which they were riding blew a tire and nearly flew off a cliff. After being picked up by Cosmo’s chauffeur, played very broadly by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, she ended up sitting on Topper’s lap. This did nothing to endear either of them to Clara Topper. The movie remains a trifle, but it’s diverting enough. Anderson gets off the best line, when, flabbergasted by one thing or another, he opines, “Doors closing by themselves. People talkin’ to nuthin’ and gettin’ answers. I’m going back,” to which Mrs. Topper responds, “Back where?” Referring to his boss in a famous radio show, “To Mr. Benny. Ain’t nuthin’ like this ever happened there.” The Blu-ray adds trailers from the first Topper. VCI Entertainment will release Topper Takes a Trip in December.

Glastonbury Fayre: 1971: The True Spirit of Glastonbury: Blu-ray
This long out-of-circulation rockumentary is a relic from a long-ago period of Anglo-American history, when hippies roamed the Earth, gathering occasionally in large groups to listen to music, take drugs and take off their clothes. That may sound like an egregious exaggeration, but just try watching Nicolas Roeg, Peter Neal and David Puttnam’s Glastonbury Fayre: 1971: The True Spirit of Glastonbury without thinking something similar. Today, the Glastonbury Festival is a five-day event that features contemporary music, dance, comedy, theater, circus, cabaret and other performing arts on separate stages. It attracts upwards of 150,000 unrepentant hippies, naturists and music lovers to a wide-open patch of greenery near Pilton, Somerset, England. Each year’s collection of performers is taped and packaged for airing on MTV and outlets. In 1971, when the trademark pyramid stage – a one-tenth replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza – was introduced, there was plenty of room for dancing, mud flopping, chanting, building campfires, raising tents and sneaking out for a quickie. Only 12,000 people bothered to attend, despite a bill that promised performances by David Bowie, Traffic, Fairport Convention, Hawkwind, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Arthur Brown, Terry Reid, Family, Melanie and, of course, the Worthy Farm Windfuckers. Seven years earlier, the Beatles, alone, drew 55,000 screaming teenyboppers to Shea Stadium. Nobody really knows how many people were at Woodstock and Altamont. Glastonbury Fayre: 1971: The True Spirit of Glastonbury holds up remarkably well after nearly 50 years, technically and as a cultural artifact. Roeg had already directed and shot Performance and Walkabout, while Neal had directed Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending, a companion film to the Incredible String Band’s eighth album. In short order, Puttnam would go on to produce Lisztomania, The Duellists, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Oscar-winner Chariots of Fire. It adds commentary with Roeg and a making-of featurette.

TV-to-DVD
Snowmance
PBS: Ancient Invisible Cities
Smithsonian: Arlington: Call to Honor
Visit Hallmark Channel’s website and, I guarantee, you’ll be stunned to see how many Christmas-themed romcoms are available to subscribers via its store and “Countdown to Christmas” programming. Among the 2018 premieres are “Christmas at Graceland,” “Christmas at the Palace,” “Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe” and “Mingle All the Way.” None approach the status of being considered classic or specifically target kids. The casts appear to have been chosen with a nod, at least, toward diversity and the stars are all young, attractive and toothy. I couldn’t find MarVista Entertainment’s “Snowmance” among the holiday titles on Hallmark, where it would seem to belong, but it’s available on PPV and streaming services. It probably isn’t because attentive viewers can see the payoff coming from the North Pole, because that appears to be a common trait in holiday romcoms.  For what it’s worth, Sarah (Ashley Newbrough) and her BFF, Nick (Adam Hurtig), have carried on a Christmas tradition of building a Snow Beau snowman, which corresponds to Sarah’s idea of the perfect boyfriend and, she hopes, will attract such a guy to her Manitoba home. After a couple of decades of fruitless snowball rolling, she borrows a scarf belonging to an older gentleman, who thinks it might bring her some luck. Abracadabra, the next day, a handsome dude named Cole (Jesse Hutch) knocks on her door, holding the scarf and inviting her to dinner. On a later day, they make snow angels and skate on a frozen river. Oblivious to Nick’s obvious feelings for her, Sarah showers Cole with all the attention he wishes was directed at him. Observant viewers will notice that the new guy is uncomfortable around campfires, turns up his nose at cooked carrots and is constantly on the move from one cold destination to another. How clueless can one woman be? In holiday specials destined for cable and VOD outlets, nongender-specific cluelessness comes with the territory and tends to last for 80 of the movie’s 90-minute length. Even so, “Snowmance” is targeted at a specific audience and it presses all the right buttons, without insulting anyone.

In PBS’s fascinating documentary mini-series, “Ancient Invisible Cities,” archeologist/educator Darius Arya explores the hidden secrets of three of the most fascinating cities of the ancient world: Athens, Cairo and Istanbul. The latest 3D imaging technology allows us to view the architectural jewels of these cities as they’ve rarely been seen.  From the buildings on the Acropolis to the silver mines and quarries beyond, Arya investigates the story of Athens, the city that gave the world democracy (see above review of “The Owl’s Legacy”). He also uses the latest scanning technology to reveal the historical secrets of Cairo and Ancient Egypt and explore the Great Pyramid of Giza. Later, Darius takes us on an journey through the treasures of Istanbul, many of which are concealed or underground.

The Smithsonian Channel’s “Arlington: Call to Honor” arrives during a week dedicated to honoring men and women who died in the service of their respective countries. President Trump might not have had the courage to brave some rain to mark Armistice Day in France – what happened to the First Umbrella? – but that shouldn’t discourage more patriotic Americans from touring Arlington National Cemetery on DVD. It has provided a final resting place for veterans of conflagrations, from the Revolutionary War to the current struggle in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Its size accommodates the 27 burials that take place every day and attracts visitors simply there to observe the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and eternal flame at JFK’s gravesite.

 

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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