MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Spy Who Dumped Me, Elena Ferrante, Sun at Midnight, Elephant’s Journey, Retro Afrika, Never Goin’ Back, Believer, Dragnet, Valley Girl, Black Sails … More

The Spy Who Dumped Me: Blu-ray
Contrary to what the title might suggest, Susanna Fogel’s late-summer comedy is neither a spoof of the James Bond franchise nor a gender-reversal twist on Austin Powers, even though it features a pair of former “SNL” standouts. (Blessedly, despite the welcome presence of Jane Curtin, as Kate McKinnon’s mom, Lorne Michaels doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with The Spy Who Dumped Me.) Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (McKinnon) play a pair of 30-year-old BFF’s, who are thrust unexpectedly into an international conspiracy, thanks to a hunky ex-boyfriend. Audrey’s ex-, Drew (Justin Theroux), recently broke up with her via an out-of-the-blue text message. As she and Morgan are preparing to burn what’s left of the clothes Drew left behind him, he bursts into her apartment with a dozen guys wielding automatic weapons on his tail. In the kind of unexpected twist that keeps The Spy Who Dumped Me from being a non-stop comedy, the title character is killed in the shootout … or is he? Before Drew takes his last breath, he asks Audrey to fly to Vienna, from L.A., and give a sports trophy to someone named Verne, at a popular restaurant. Unfortunately, Drew dies before he can tell Audrey anything more about Verne or the significance of the trophy. Naturally, Audrey and Morgan’s rendezvous is the worst-kept secret in Central Europe. Another noisy shootout transpires when Audrey attempts to pass the trophy to the person she assumes is Verne – Sebastian, played by Sam Heughan, the handsome “Highlander” dude — and the girls are off on a merry romp are the continent, with stops in Budapest, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin.

As the body count mounts, the search for clues hidden on Drew’s missing thumb drive becomes both extremely twisty and consistently entertaining. Credit for keeping viewers from sweating the improbable details largely belongs to McKinnon’s inspired riffing and improvisation, along with Fogel and co-writer David Iserson’s clever plotting and location-hopping. Production designer Marc Homes and cinematographer Barry Peterson also contribute mightily to the fun. Gillian Anderson and Paul Reiser also pop up at opportune times in the story. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes, “Covert Operations: The Making of The Spy Who Dumped Me”; “Gary Powell: The Action Behind the Film; “Makin’ Friends With Hasan Minhaj,” which should appeal to fans of the former “Daily Show” correspondent; deleted scenes and outtakes; and “Off Script,” which features a six minutes’ worth of ad libs. “Spy” opened on a weekend that Box Office Mojo described as having “the worst grosses for the eighth month of the year in 20 years.” It deserves a better shot on the small screen.

Elena Ferrante on Film: Blu-ray
Just because a successful author writes under a pseudonym and goes to great lengths to preserve their anonymity doesn’t mean that literary detectives won’t attempt to put a face to the name and a history to the face. If an aspiring author fails to capture the imagination of critics and public, the writer could call himself/herself Tarzan and no one would bother to investigate the ruse. Neither does an air of mystery, in and of itself, ensure sales of an unreadable tome. Seems obvious, but such mysteries have kept people guessing for centuries. More recently, the conceit has tweaked the interest of forensic book critics, who’ve tried to guess the real identity of “Elena Ferrante,” author of the Italian best-seller, “L’amore molesto” (1992). It took 14 years for the book to be translated into English and another decade for Mario Martone’s excellent adaptation, Troubling Love, to be released here on DVD, with Roberto Faenza’s The Days of Abandonment (2005). In the meantime, three more Ferrante books were published in Italy and the debate took on a life of its own. Her most widely known work is “The Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part series that began in 2012, with “My Brilliant Friend,” and was followed by “The Story of a New Name” (2013), “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (2014) and “The Story of the Lost Child” (2015). The series follows the lives of two bright Neapolitan girls, Elena and Raffaella, from childhood to adulthood and old age, as they try to create lives for themselves in a poor and violent neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. An HBO adaptation of the first book – and subsequent 2017 play, by April de Angelis — is scheduled to begin here on November 18. Coincidental to the opening of the play was the publication of journalist Claudio Gatti’s presumed unmasking in the New York Review of Books.

Not that it matters outside the realm of literary salons, a handful of blogs and libraries, but Gatti surmised that Ferrante was, in fact, a Rome-based translator named Anita Raja. A year ago, team of scholars, computer scientists, philologists and linguists at the University of Padua analyzed 150 novels written in Italian by 40 different authors, including 7 books by Ferrante. They concluded that Raja’s husband — author and journalist Domenico Starnone — is the probable author of the Ferrante novels. “Ferrante” has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that she is a man, telling Vanity Fair in 2015 that questions about her gender are rooted in a presumed “weakness” of female writers and, of course, the inherent sexism of male critics, publishers and their camp followers. Again, no matter. In an article published in March 2017 on elenaferrante.com, Lauren Strain argued, “That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.” Ferrante has also said, “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” – a theory that might disturb publicists more than readers – and that anonymity is a precondition for her work. It didn’t prevent Time magazine from calling Ferrante one of the 100 most influential people of 2016, or the New York Times putting “The Story of the Lost Child” on its list of 10 best books of 2015. The controversy is discussed, at length, in a featurette contained in Film Movement’s long-awaited, “Elena Ferrante on Film,” featuring The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love, now available for the first time in North America.

For the sake of brevity, both films can be lumped together in a subgenre reserved for women-on-the-brink dramas. The Days of Abandonment stars the estimable Italian actress, Margherita Buy (Mia madre), as the woman scorned. In a scenario that recalls Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), Buy plays Olga, the 38-year-old mother of two, whose life is shattered when her husband splits. It prompts her to fall into a period of self-degradation, self-destructive behaviors and uncharacteristic violence. Her husband, Mario (Luca Zingaretti), has fallen for a much younger woman, Carla (Gaia Bermani Amaral), who served as his intern and exists as a living indictment of Olga’s inevitable slip into middle age. It isn’t a pretty sight, especially when friends attempt to lure her into places where she might meet a man willing to exploit her desperation, or, if nothing else, have a good time. Just before she reaches the end of her tether, Olga attempts to force herself on a downstairs neighbor, Damian (Goran Bregovic), who resembles Roberto Benigni, and plays a cello. If the incident ends in shame, it also opens the door for a surprising and entirely satisfying climax.

Troubling Love features another heart-wrenching lead performance, this time by Anna Bonaiuto (Il Postino). Delia is an artist living in Bologna, a northern Italian city that is extremely different than Naples, where she grew up. When we meet her, Delia is expecting – dreading? – a visit by her estranged mother, Amalia (Angela Luce). Instead, she’s notified of Amalia’s death by drowning. The official determination is suicide, but Delia isn’t convinced. She believes that Amalia was too full of life – as southerners define it – to end it in such a peculiar way: washing ashore, wearing only a lacy red bra. Delia decides to travel to Naples for the funeral and, while she’s there, reconstruct for herself the last few days and weeks of her mother’s life. (When she pays a visit to the lingerie boutique that sells the bra, Delia’s given a rude welcome.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, the investigation opens windows into her own past, especially incidents that she’d sublimated or completely forgotten, including her role in her parents’ breakup. The more people she meets, the less recognizable her mother becomes. At the same time, Delia gets phone calls from someone who wants to make her life even more difficult. Martone succeeds in drawing distinctions between Naples and Bologna, textually and in the southern city’s far more chaotic atmosphere. And, although Troubling Love is now 23 years old, the Blu-ray restoration makes it look as fresh and vital as “Abandonment.” The two-disc set adds a 32-page booklet, containing Elena Ferrante’s letters and script notes about the films (excerpted from “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,” published by Europa Editions); interviews with Martone, Bonaiuto and producer Andrea Occhipinti; interviews with “Abandonment” personnel; and the featurette, “Elena and the Books.”

The Sun at Midnight
Kirsten Carthew’s debut feature succeeds on so many different levels that it begs the question as to why it wasn’t accorded a meaningful theatrical run and the kind of media attention it deserves. Instead, after a tour of niche festivals, The Sun at Midnight (2016) is finally being made available to general audiences on direct-to-DVD outlets and streaming services. Filmed in Canada’s Northwest Territories, at the Arctic Circle, The Sun at Midnight describes an unexpected friendship between a 16-year-old girl and a Native hunter, who’s obsessed with finding a caribou herd that’s late to arrive on its annual migration. It’s where Lia (Devery Jacobs) has been sent by her father, in the wake of her mother’s death. He needs to leave Montreal for a mining job and the only place for his punky daughter to spend the summer is with her Gwich’in grandmother, in Fort McPherson. Lia isn’t welcomed with open arms by the girls her age in the largely aboriginal community. Frustrated, she hijacks a motor boat, which breaks down well before she reaches the nearest big city, Dawson, in the Yukon. Unprepared for a stay of more than a few hours on a nearby range of tundra and mountains that remain capped with snow, even during the long days of summer. Fortunately, she’s met on the shore by Alfred (Duane Howard), who hopes to hand her off to the men at a nearby hunters’ camp, which is equipped with a two-way radio. Instead, one of them attempts to accost the spunky teen, who hits him with a paddle and takes off to find Alfred, who knows that bears and wolves aren’t the only predatory animals on the range.

Because Alfred is familiar with Lia’s mother and grandmother, most of the walls that would normally separate them are already gone. He teaches her how to survive in the wilderness, by trapping rabbits and using a rifle to scare off four-legged hunters. Most of what he imparts to Lia on the history of her ancestors is limited to practical knowledge and anecdotal evidence of the Gwich’ins’ relationship to their harsh, yet beautiful environment. Soon enough, she will be tested on what’s she learned. As such, The Sun at Midnight overlaps three enduring subgenres: survival, coming-of-age and embracing one’s roots. None of it is forced or pedantic. Moreover, Carthew’s screenplay feels as organic as the surprisingly colorful terrain, nicely captured by cinematographer Ian MacDougall (Wrecker). Most of the dialogue is in English, but the discussions between relatives in Fort McPherson are conducted in an Athabaskan dialect. There’s a nod, as well, to the problems caused by climate change, including threats to the caribou migration that’s an essential part of Native culture. Although The Sun at Midnight isn’t rated, it easily qualifies as family fare.

Never Goin’ Back
With the terrifically inventive and entertaining BFFs-gone-wild comedy, Never Goin’ Back, native Texan Augustine Frizzell makes the leap from “indie actress” (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to writer/director, whose “lone star” is suddenly on the rise. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the granddaughter of Lefty Frizzell, one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the history of country music, whose roots run deeper in Texas soil than all the Bushes combined. Augustine may be married to director David Lowery (The Old Man & the Gun), in whose films she’s frequently appeared, but Never Goin’ Back belongs to her. The escapades attributed to teen waitresses Jessie (Camila Morrone) and Angela (Maia Mitchell) are drawn from Frizzell’s memories of her own debauched youth and the kinds of friendships that live forever. “I was 15 when all this stuff was happening … but I was also living on my own, with my best friend and some roommates,” Frizzell recalled, in an interview published in the Observer. “We worked at IHOP, which is comparatively as shitty as the restaurant in the movie. We did a lot of drugs, we robbed a store, our house got robbed, all of it.” Then, at 18, she had her first child. Through it all, she had the support of her best friend and family, which explains why Never Goin’ Back is a comedy, instead of just another story about kids having to hit rock bottom, before either bouncing back into something resembling the mainstream or perishing in the flames of their misspent youths. Indeed, the film has routinely been described as “raunchy” and a gender-reversed version of Superbad (2006). It’s a comparison with which Frizzell doesn’t disagree. By the time we meet them, roomies Jessie and Angela have dropped out school in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and are sharing a house with some garden-variety slackers, who support themselves by selling drugs … or, at least, trying to sell drugs. The house is about to get robbed, their rent’s due and their plan to work multiple back-to-back shifts is foiled by an inopportune bust. They weren’t planning on using the money to pay the rent, but to go to Galveston for a week and eat doughnuts. Despite the fact that Frizzell survived her own teenage years and is now beginning to profit from her experiences, Never Goin’ Back was never intended to appeal to parents who might need some reassurance about their own kids’ trajectories. It has more in common with fellow A24 titles, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Laggies, Lady Bird and American Honey, which suggest that expectant moms and dads shouldn’t anticipate an easy ride through parenthood. Sarah Jaffe’s musical soundtrack reflects the girls’ tastes and the filmmaker’s sense of irony, with a couple of ditties by Barry Manilow and Michael Bolton. The other interesting thing about Never Goin’ Back is its unwillingness to go into any depth on whether Jessie and Angela are lesbians, bi- or, simply, BFFs with benefits. Declaring one way or the other would force viewers to base their opinions of their behavior on information Frizzell clearly doesn’t think is any of our business. And, of course, it isn’t. The DVD adds a deleted scene; commentary with Frizzell, Mitchell, Morrone and producers Liz Cardenas and Toby Halbrooks; the featurette, “Art Imitates Life: Never Goin’ Back”; and a blooper reel.

An Elephant’s Journey
That a well-produced family film about an important subject — featuring recognizable stars and a gorgeous setting – could only find a home on DVD speaks volumes about the state of distribution today. (See previous review.) As far as I can tell, An Elephant’s Journey’s only exposure in theaters came in one-night stands intended to attract Christian audiences. This strategy has proven to be an effective way to get faith-based pictures in front of ticket-buying audiences, given to non-offensive material. In the case of Richard Boddington’s inspirational adventure, however, the faith-based message is subordinate to a story that deals with the elephant-poaching crisis in Africa and how a troubled boy can make the difference between life and death for an endangered friend. Rising Canadian star Sam Ashe Arnold plays Phoenix Wilder, a 15-year-old who recently lost his parents in an accident and is sent to South Africa to live with his Aunt Sarah (Elizabeth Hurley) and Uncle Jack (Tertius Meintjes). They live on a South African preserve, which is populated with animals Phoenix can only remember seeing in a zoo. One day, he accompanies his uncle and several other guides on a safari, where he eventually disappears into the bush. By the time Jack realizes that Phoenix is missing, the group has already returned home, where Sarah is fuming. Although Phoenix is justifiably frightened, he’s able to travel a considerable distance on foot. He comes upon an adult male elephant, caught in a net left behind by poachers hired by Blake von Stein (Louis Minnaar), a mercenary who trafficks in ivory and animals on consignment. After the boy frees the elephant from the net, they become fast friends. The rest of An Elephant’s Journey concerns both the rescue of Phoenix from the bush and the struggle to protect the elephant, his mate and their child from the poachers. Boddington’s story keeps Phoenix front and center in both narrative streams. In doing so, he matures before our eyes. The movie benefits greatly from the natural South African setting and non-condescending approach to the material. The poaching dilemma is real, and Boddington doesn’t sugarcoat it for family audiences. Hurley’s sincere presence doesn’t hurt, either. The production could have used a larger budget, but who knows if it would have helped secure greater theatrical reach.  The bonus material goes into a bit more detail on international efforts to prevent poaching.

Distant Voices, Still Lives: Special Edition: Blu-ray
12 Monkeys: Collector’s different Edition: Blu-ray
This month’s selection from Arrow Academy and Arrow Films includes two films that could hardly be more different from each other: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Both are brilliant entertainments, but not in ways that might appeal to mainstream audiences. Of the two, Davies’ memory musical may be the more challenging, at least to American eyes and ears, while 12 Monkeys warrants repeat viewings, like most of the ex-Python’s other films, especially with the passage of time and experience. The primary reason that Distant Voices, Still Lives might seem foreign to Yanks is its depiction of how blue-collar families evolved in post-war England. At the same time that American workers were beginning to migrate from neighborhoods in the shadow of the factories in which they toiled, into single-family homes in the suburbs, hard-scrabble Brits were still waiting for their “economic miracle” to arrive. Many were forced to live on top of each other in terraced row houses – the architectural equivalent of sardine cans — walk to work and dull their existential pain at the local pub. When tightly knit families gathered to celebrate births, marriages and funerals – or, simply, whenever they felt like it — Davies recalls them breaking into song, without worrying about who’s watching.  The tunes, performed a cappella or accompanied by the family piano, had either been passed from one generation to the next or had helped get them through two wars. The songs recalled by Davies aren’t there to advance the narrative or embellish the dialogue. They are the narrative. The songs are colored by the 72-year-old writer/director’s childhood memories of, yes, “distant voices.” The film’s separate segments were shot two years apart, but with the same cast and crew. The first, “Distant Voices,” chronicles Davies’ earliest memories, as the youngest of 10 siblings in a working-class Catholic family, living under a domineering and occasionally violent father. The second, “Still Lives,” finds the children grown up and emerging into a brighter 1950s Britain. Distant Voices, Still Lives must have been an extremely nostalgic experience for British audiences. It’s interesting to think that, in another 10 years, members of these same families would be responsible for giving the world the Beatles, Rolling Stones, mini-skirts, geometric hairdos and the first stirrings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Blu-ray boasts a new 4K restoration, carried out by the British Film Institute; commentary and an interview with Davies; an interview with art director Miki van Zwanenberg; period documentaries; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Christina Newland and archived essays.

And, now for something completely different. In August, Arrow released Terry Gilliam’s largely incomprehensible and critically trashed Tideland (2005), in an edition that helped explain what went wrong and why, a dozen years later, it’s worth a first, second or third look. By the time 12 Monkeys was released, he’d recorded a string of hits and misses that, while demonstrating his artistic brilliance and vivid imagination, were too off-the-wall for mainstream audiences. His previous movie, The Fisher King, benefitted commercially from the presence of Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, as well as a flock of positive reviews. The decent grosses helped convince Universal to take a shot on David and Janet Peoples’ adaptation of Chris Marker’s sci-fi short, “La Jetée” (1962). The studio limited Gilliam’s budget to $29 million and required him to hire an A-lister, or two. He got Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, who are terrific here. Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner of the state in the year 2035, who’s told that he can earn parole if he agrees to travel back in time and thwart a devastating plague. The virus has wiped out most of the Earth’s population and the remainder live underground because the air is poisonous. Mistakenly transported to 1990, six years before the start of the plague, Cole is imprisoned in a psychiatric facility. There, he meets a scientist named Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe) and Goines (Pitt), the mad son of an eminent virologist (Christopher Plummer). After Cole is returned to 2035, he’s transported to the proper year and setting. (Faces repeat themselves, as well.) He discovers the graffiti of animal rights group, the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but as he delves into the mystery, he hears voices, loses his bearings, and doubts his own sanity. He must figure out if Goines, who appears to be mad as a hatter, holds the key to the puzzle. The flashbacks and flash-forwards could give viewers whiplash, so it pays to maintain a tight focus on Willis’ time-traveler. Despite mixed reviews, 12 Monkeys collected a tidy $57 million at the domestic box office and another $111.6 million in foreign sales.  The special edition sports a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative, approved by Gilliam; commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys,” a feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha); an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and an illustrated collector s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Nathan Rabin and archive materials.

Retro Afrika Collection: Gone Crazy/Fishy Stones/Umbango
At first glance, Gone Crazy, Fishy Stones and Umbango – from South Africa’s apartheid-era B-Scheme period — could easily be confused with the “race” films produced in the United States between 1915 and the early 1950s, for the consumption of black audiences. They were made by African-American filmmakers and featured minority actors, some of whom would crossover into Hollywood films after that de facto color line was broken. Oscar Micheaux, who was born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884 – you thought Clark Kent was the town’s only favorite son? – was the best known African-American writer/director/producer of his time, and his career spanned the nearly 45-year period. It would take another 40 years for his contributions to the medium to be acknowledged with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and posthumous awards from the DGA and PGA. South Africa has never been known for its movie output, except for providing locations for filmmakers from other countries. For many years, the only South African film that made a dent in the international box office was Jamie Uys’ comic allegory, The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), in which a bushman encounters technology for the first time, in the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle. Due to an embargo against South African products, the film was released as Botswanan, despite having a South African director and being financed with South African government funds.  Compared to “Gods,” the newly released DVDs from IndiePix Films — in a distribution partnership with Retro Afrika Bioscope — might as well have been made at the dawn of “race” movies in the U.S. Nonetheless, there’s a good origins story behind Gone Crazy (1980s), Umbango (1986) and Fishy Stones (1990).

South Africa’s B-Scheme allowed for a government-subsidized production system for movies made in an African language, with an African cast, intended for African audiences. The movies avoided topical subjects and overt references to apartheid. Mostly, they paid homage to Hollywood B-movie titles, with plenty of action, broad comedy and melodramatic dialogue. A white, South African director, writer and construction executive, Tonie van der Merwe, was almost single-handedly responsible for an entire film movement. As he showed Hollywood genre and blaxploitation pictures to his 200 black workers on Saturday nights, he saw a business opportunity. The government had subsidized films for white South Africans since the 1950s under a so-called A-scheme, but there were no domestic movies for the black majority. Using his own money, as well as his own car, tractors and airplane as production props, he made Joe Bullet, an action movie about corruption in a soccer league. A cross between John Shaft and James Bond, the protagonist (Ken Gampu) fights evil with his brains, guns and karate chops. He wins the heart of a nightclub singer, Beauty (Abigail Kubeka), with his suave personality and cool demeanor. While the movie only lasted two nights in a theater, before the censors banned it, Van der Merwe would go on to collect some 400 credits during the B-scheme period.

Of the three films, Umbango is probably most noteworthy for being the first South African Western – Van der Merwe’s crews built the set in KwaZulu-Natal – with an almost all-black cast (there’s a shady white character, named Gringo) and in a native language. The film’s “white hats” are an ace horseman and gunfighter, Jack, and his buddy, Owen, who dream of staking a claim to some prime real estate nearby and building their own ranch. The men are accused of murder by a ruthless businessman, bent on avenging his dead brother. KK strong-arms the local sheriff into forming a posse of thugs to aid in his vendetta. It leads to a nifty gunfight. In Gone Crazy, a psychopath seeking revenge on a small-town mayor steals a bomb from a local research facility, planning to blow up the dam and drown the town. Two police inspectors, each working different angles of the case, team up to rescue a kidnapped professor and stop the madman before the bomb – a few sticks of dynamite, a blasting cap and clock, held together with a few strands of twine — can do its worst. In Fishy Stones, two amateur robbers rob a jewelry store. After a chase through the countryside, the men stash their loot in a clump of bushes, before they’re apprehended and thrown in jail. Two teenage friends will discover the cache of diamonds while on a camping expedition. Before they can realize their fortune, the boys are confronted by the crooks, who’ve escaped from the jail. All three pictures have been digitally remastered and re-released for the amusement and scholarly consideration of a new generation of African filmmakers and audiences.

God Knows Where I Am
Jedd and Todd Wider’s extremely sad and thought-provoking documentary, God Knows Where I Am, not only makes us care about a woman whose death wouldn’t otherwise have mattered to us, but it also considers what society owes people destined to self-destruct. It is the story of Linda Bishop, a well-educated New Hampshire mother, who suffered from severe bipolar disorder with psychosis, and died alone in an unheated New Hampshire farmhouse, in winter, alongside her diary. Without beating viewers over the head with actuarial data and psychiatric double-speak, God Knows Where I Am paints a detailed portrait of Bishop, through the memories of those who knew her, and tortured excerpts from the diaries. They are read by actress/co-producer Lori Singer in a voiceover performance that tears at the heart, while evoking the spirit of a woman determined to live or die on her own terms. Bishop wasn’t abandoned by relatives and friends who observed her slide into the depths of schizophrenia and were thwarted in their efforts to help her survive. She was intermittently incarcerated and homeless, inevitably being committed for three years to a state psychiatric facility. Patients’ rights legislation allowed Bishop to successfully fight her sister’s protective attempts to be named her legal guardian. She was free to refuse treatment and medication, and procure an early, unconditional release, despite the lack of post-release planning. Upon her release, Bishop wandered 10 miles down the road from the hospital, broke into an abandoned farmhouse and lived off rainwater and apples picked from a nearby orchard for the next four months. She was incapable of leaving the house or signal for help. Her body was discovered several months after she starved to death, with the diary she kept until the end. God Knows Where I Am is at once compelling and deeply disturbing. The question with which we’re left comes down to how someone whose mental illness keeps her imprisoned inside her own body is able to truly exercise free will when allowed to evaluate her own condition and dictate treatment?

Believer: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about Lee Hae-yeong’s non-stop thriller, Believer, is that it’s a Korean remake of Johnnie To’s exciting Hong Kong actioner, Drug War (2012), only 15 minutes longer. The other thing to know is that, for once, virtually nothing is lost in the translation. Both versions are worth a rental. Here, police detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-Woong) is determined to bring down a mysterious druglord, Mr. Lee, who uses many different associates to impersonate him in business transactions. The ruse keeps authorities from focusing on his real identity and tracking him down the right path. He catches a break when a factory is blown up and one of the two survivors – the other is a badly injured dog – agrees to work undercover to topple the man he blames for killing his mother. Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) may be a low-level guy, but the explosion has left some room for the advancement of underlings within the ranks. Even so, Rak has to prove himself to all sorts of slightly demented and totally dangerous people, claiming to be relatives of Lee or reasonable facsimiles, thereof. All the while, his movements are monitored by drug-enforcement officers, who have plans A, B and C in place, in case an opportunity presents itself. The settings for these transactions – a new super-drug’s being introduced into the marketplace – may be luxurious, but Rak and Won-ho know that they’re basically dealing with greedy forms of pond scum. Once all of this is established, of course, senior police officials can’t help but get in the way of any further progress. Fortunately, several terrific set pieces have been built into the narrative, ensuring that viewers will stick with it to the enigmatic ending. It’s always worth mentioning that Korean action directors have become every bit as adept at churning out full-blown thrillers as anyone else, including American filmmakers, who still rely on tropes and clichés that exhausted themselves years ago.

Spontaneous Combustion: Blu-ray
By the time Spontaneous Combustion was released, in 1990, Tobe Hooper was struggling to regain the momentum he’d squandered from the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982). His protagonist in the sci-fi thriller would be played by Brad Dourif, who was 15 years removed from his Oscar-nominated performance, as momma’s-boy Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). He also was terrific as a mad preacher in John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic, Wise Blood (1979), a great picture that almost no one saw. He isn’t bad here, but, at 40, Dourif was nearly 20 years too old to convincingly portray Sam Kramer, the victim of a military experiment gone wrong. Many of his best years were yet to come, however, and he’s become a legitimate horror icon. The title condition results from his parents being placed in a capsule on the Nevada testing ground where the hydrogen bomb is being tested. Although his mother, who’s pregnant, passes the radiation test, she bursts into flame after delivering the boy. She had just passed Sam off to a nurse, who keeps him out of harm’s way. The same couldn’t be said of his father. Flash forward 20 years, or so, and the weird birthmark on Sam’s hand is transforming into something frightful. Meanwhile, people in his immediate orbit are combusting spontaneously all around him. When Sam checks himself into a hospital, some of the same people who monitored his birth are in place to make sure his pyrokinesis doesn’t become known to the general populace. Good luck, on that score. Upon its release, Spontaneous Combustion was rated “R,” primarily for some grisly images of crispy critters. Today, I can’t imagine it being scored worse than PG-13. Critically, unflattering comparisons were made to Firestarter, a 1984 Stephen King adaptation that received better reviews and made exponentially more money.

I Am Vengeance: Blu-ray
Former WWE superstar Stu Bennett is the latest pro grappler to take his act from the ring to the screen. Although he holds a degree in marine biology from the University of Liverpool, the 6-foot-5¼ behemoth instinctively knew that he was more suited to wrestling and bare-knuckle boxing than in studying the mating habits of North Sea mollusks. Even after watching Bennett “act” in I Am Vengeance, it’s clear that he probably made the right decision. In the role of an ex-Special Forces soldier turned mercenary, all he’s really expected to do is kick ass until there’s no one left to stand up to him. When his character, John Gold, learns of the murders of his best friend and his parents, he immediately heads for the pastoral town of Devotion, where a group of fellow Afghan vets has built a factory to manufacture powerful drugs, as well as a network through which to distribute them. Gold’s buddy was working with the former soldiers, until he discovered something about them that caused him to threaten their operation. When he gets to Devotion, Gold doesn’t even bother to fake his identity or disguise his mission. He simply calls out the assassins and begins to annihilate them. Along the way, Gold picks up a gorgeous junkie, Sandra (Anna Shaffer), who knows the layout of the factory, and Barnes (Fleur Keith), a local cutie whose restaurant is in danger of going out of business due to the town’s bad vibes. That’s about it, really. Veteran hard guy Gary Daniels makes a formidable foe for Gold and writer/director Ross Boyask (Warrioress) knew enough to point his musclebound gladiators in the right direction and get out of the way. Ample room is left for a sequel. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

A Happening of Monumental Proportions
In movies, as in life, everybody’s got to start somewhere. Some beginners hit the bulls-eye right away. Others aren’t so lucky. Freshman director Judy Greer and first-time writer Gary Lundy decided to break their behind-the-camera cherries on a dark ensemble comedy, A Happening of Monumental Proportions. In it, characters played by no fewer than a dozen recognizable stars cross paths for 81 minutes. Sadly, there’s only about 45 minutes’ worth of viable material in a story that almost demands to be judged by the challenge built into its title and the stars’ photos on the DVD’s cover. In a career that’s spanned 21 years and an amazing 130 acting and voicing credits, Greer probably was able to collect enough IOUs to cast A Happening of Monumental Proportions, twice-over again. As it is, she was able to recruit Common (Selma) to play the single father of a teenage girl, portrayed by Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), both of whom are about to endure very humbling experiences. On the same day that Common’s Daniel is fired for something he couldn’t control, he’s expected to represent Patricia at her school’s Career Day. Little does he know that his boss (Bradley Whitford) has been asked by his son (Marcus Eckert) to participate, as well. The boy, Darius, doesn’t appreciate his father’s tendency to pull up their roots every year, or so, causing him to be bullied on an annual basis. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Patricia takes Darius under her wing, before he proves to be too clingy.

Everybody’s day starts out poorly, however, when the body of a maintenance worker is found lying on the pavement and is discovered by the school’s already uptight co-principals (Allison Janney, Rob Riggle), who want to hide the corpse from the kids. They contact paramedics (Katie Holmes, Nat Faxon), but are told that such problems don’t fall under their purview. Also experiencing personal problems are the school’s underappreciated music teacher (Anders Holm), who commiserates with Darius on the school’s roof, and Daniel’s flakey assistant (Jennifer Garner), with whom he shared a fateful moment of intimacy. John Cho plays a shop teacher named Ramirez, whose bleak observations on life make the music teacher and Darius even more depressed than they were. And last, but not least, Keanu Reeves appears out of nowhere to offer a typically Reevesian summation on what’s occurred over the past 81 minutes. A Happening of Monumental Proportions bites off quite a bit more than its audience can chew. The actors do what they can in the limited amount of time they’re given, but only a couple of the throughlines carry enough meat on them to keep things interesting. It will be interesting to see if Greer and Lundy try their hands at something a tad less challenging, the next time around, or they stick to acting.

Out of Time: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the sweaty sexual couplings in Out of Time remind viewers of Body Heat (1981), the plot will be familiar to fans of the similarly moist Against All Odds (1984) and The Last Seduction (1994). As they say in the noirs, “Cherchez la femme.” In Carl Franklin’s twisty, if slightly overheated crime drama from 2003, Denzel Washington plays the chief of police on a two-bit Florida key, where everyone’s been corrupted by promise of easy money, whether its from the occasional bale of marijuana floating ashore or more traditional crimes, like extortion, fraud and murder. Although chief Matt Lee Whitlock thinks he knows what’s happening in his community, he makes the mistake of hooking up with a married woman, Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan), who’s several times more devious than he is. He also blunders by attempting to steal money confiscated in a federal sting, under the even more watchful eyes of his soon-to-be ex-wife and strait-laced fellow cop, Alex (Eva Mendes), and a medical examiner (John Billingsley), who’s also set his sights on the confiscated loot. When a no-nonsense FBI agent demands the return of the money, it causes chaos among the Banyan Key irregulars, who’ve lost track of where it is, precisely. Meanwhile, Ann Merai and her ex-QB husband (Dean Cain) are found burned to a crisp in their home, with Matt named as beneficiary on a life-insurance policy that his lover took out when she was diagnosed with cancer. It makes him a prime suspect in Alex’s eyes. Washington is the only actor here who doesn’t seem to break a sweat in the heat. Unfortunately, his presence doesn’t leave much room for guessing who’s going to survive the worst of the bad craziness, either. Still, not a bad time-killer. The Blu-ray adds Franklin’s commentary; an ”Out of Time: Crime Scene” featurette; character profiles; outtakes; screen tests, with Lathan and Cain; and a photo gallery.

Dragnet: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
While I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t watched the original “Dragnet” taking much away from Tom Mankiewicz’ feature-length parody, it still is capable of amusing those Boomers who got a kick out of the protagonist’s wooden mannerisms. For those who couldn’t pick Jack Webb out of a lineup that also included Tom Waits, O.J. Simpson, Billy Barty, Jerry Brown and Judge Judy, the highly prolific writer/producer/actor introduced an early version of Sgt. Joe Friday in the noir procedural, He Walked by Night (1948). A year later, “Dragnet” debuted on NBC, with the full cooperation of LAPD chief William H. Parker. In the interim, Friday moved from medical examiner to detective. In the 1987 Dragnet, Dan Ackroyd plays Friday’s similarly by-the-book, just-the-facts-ma’am nephew. Also named Friday, he’s an anachronism, even in the beat-them/ask-questions-later LAPD, which, in the 1980s, resembled an arm of the Marine Corps. He’s teamed with Tom Hanks’ Pep Streebek, an unkempt, wise-cracking undercover cop, who’s Friday’s polar opposite. The story finds Friday and Streebek on the trail of a motorcycle gang threatening the publishing empire of a sleazy playboy (Dabney Coleman), under the direction of anti-porn crusader/Satanist, Whirley (Christopher Plummer). After rescuing “the virgin, Connie Swail” (Alexandra Paul) from a sacrificial demise – her purity becomes a running gag — Friday makes the uncharacteristic mistake of calling out the hypocritical reverend in a restaurant frequented by city officials (Elizabeth Ashley, Bruce Gray) who are in cahoots with Whirley. It costs Friday his badge, but not his obsession with the case and preserving Connie’s virginity. Aykroyd’s nearly perfect as the squarest human being in Los Angeles, while Hanks’ schtick is still fresh and funny. Harry Morgan makes a welcome appearance as Joe Friday’s former partner, Gannon, which, of course, is the role he played in the TV series, from 1967-70. The Blu-ray adds “A Quiet Evening in the Company of Connie Swail,” a new interview with Alexandra Paul; fresh commentary with pop culture historian Russell Dyball; “Just the Facts!,” a promotional look at “Dragnet,” with Aykroyd and Hanks; and original marketing material.

Valley Girl: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Martha Coolidge’s endearing take on the Valley Girl aesthetic, arrived in the summer of 1983, hot on the heels of Frank and Moon Zappa’s satiric ode to L.A.’s Galleria Girls and Amy Heckerling’s fabulously successful teen comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As played by Sean Penn, Jeff Spicoli is an important link in the chain connecting Valley and surf cultures, largely because Val-speak was an extension of surf slang, designed to separate the real dudes from the ho-daddies. The Zappas’ hit song came about when, at a loss for lyrics, daddy Frank woke up Moon in the middle of the night and asked her to record snippets of conversations she had with friends at school and on shopping excursions. An age-appropriate Nicolas Cage played a fast-food worker in “Fast Times,” but his big break came a few months later, when he wowed Coolidge at an audition for Valley Girl. In it, he plays the punky, borderline hoodlum, Randy, who lives on the other side of the Hollywood Hills from female protagonist Julie Richman (Deborah Foreman). Their unlikely relationship provides the movie’s culture-clash throughline. Julie may be one of the more opened-minded young women in her clique, but her romance with the uninhibited Randy causes her friends’ tongues to wag and her jock boyfriend to turn into a territorial ape. Coolidge is best when she’s locating the haunts of her characters and inserting them organically into the story. The making-of featurettes are interesting for what they reveal about creating low-budget indies in the early 1980s. Besides having to scramble for money and the things it affords, certain other realities had to be considered.

For example, Coolidge was required by the film’s producers to show female breasts at least four times. They felt it would make the movie more appealing to younger males. On any other teen comedy, they might have been proven right. After the opening weekend, however, Valley Girl turned out to be less a date movie than a chick flick. It captured a moment in time when teenage girls were rejecting the anti-materialism of their hippie parents — represented here by Colleen Camp and Frederic Forrest – and using their overly generous allowances to create a counter-culture of their own, dictated by the women they saw in Tiger Beat and videos on MTV. Elizabeth Daily, Heidi Holicker and Michelle Meyrink provide the Greek chorus for Julie, while Cameron Dye does a nice job as Randy’s best bro. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a 4K remaster from the original camera negative; the retention of music from the original soundtrack; “Valley Girl in Conversation,” with Coolidge, Daily and Holicker; “Greetings From the Valley,” a short history of the San Fernando Valley, hosted by Tommy Gelinas of the Valley Relics Museum; extended interviews from 2003, with Cage, Dye, Forrest, Daily, Holicker, Camp, co-star Lee Purcell, producers Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford, Peter Case of the Plimsouls, singer Josie Cotton and deejay Richard Blade; storyboard-to-film comparisons; archival commentary with Coolidge; original music videos from Modern English and the Plimsouls; “Valley Girl: 20 Totally Tubular Years Later”;  “In Conversation With Martha Coolidge and Nicolas Cage”; “The Music of Valley Girl”; making-of featurettes; and interviews with cast and crew.

Yessongs: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Melanie: For One Night Only
Here are a couple of vintage in-concert performance features from artists who sold a lot of tickets and albums, way back in the Neolithic period of 20th Century rock-’n’-roll. Yessongs: 40th Anniversary Edition is a re-release of the feature-length concert film, captured during the progressive rockers’ 1973 Close to the Edge tour. (Prog-rock was a new genre in the post-psychedelic 1970s.) Yes drew its inspiration from music that traversed the spectrum from symphonic to improvisational and classic rock. It has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. The film features their new line-up of the time: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Alan White. Despite the band’s commercial success, it wasn’t until 2017 that Yes was recognized by induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as “the most enduring, ambitious and virtuosic progressive band in rock history.” Among the selections are “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Close to the Edge” and excerpts from Wakeman’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.”

That singer/songwriter Melanie isn’t in the Hall of Fame shouldn’t be taken as an indication of her talent, perseverance, ability to sell out concert halls and move albums. All it means is that she’s in good company. Melanie (a.k.a., Melanie Safka) was one of only three women soloists who performed at Woodstock. Soon thereafter, she appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and at such festivals as Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight and Strawberry Fields. She was the first solo pop/rock artist ever to appear at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and the Sydney Opera House. Today, she’s probably more popular in Europe than in her native U.S. Melanie: For One Night Only came about after the artist was invited by Jarvis Cocker to perform at the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, in London, accompanied by her musical children. The DVD of that concert was released in October 2007. Its highlights include “Brand New Key,” “Beautiful People,” “Peace Will Come,” “Hush A Bye,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Alexander Beetle.”

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray
PBS: No Passport Required
Smithsonian: The Real Story: The Da Vinci Code
The great thing about movies and television series based on the Golden Age of Piracy is how well they’ve held up since D.W. Griffith’s The Pirates Gold was released in 1908. The one-reeler lasted only 16 minutes, but Griffith stuffed enough drama – and irony – into it to fill a feature-length film. Disney could do a lot worse than borrowing the plot for the already announced sixth installment of its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Last year’s POTC: Dead Men Tell No Tales failed to make back its nut in domestic sales, while critics delivered a broadside assault designed, one suspects, to sink the series. Pirates have provided fodder for hundreds of other titles, ranging from swashbucklers and historical dramas, to “Veggie Tales” spinoffs and high-budget porn. For four seasons, the producers of Starz’ “Black Sails” took advantage of the freedoms offered by premium-cable networks to deliver the nudity, sex, profanity, extreme violence, gore and substance abuse that Hollywood’s Captain Blood and Jack Sparrow could only dream of unleashing on their audiences. And, they were rendered in ways cable subscribers considered to be artistic, tasteful and worth the added expense to their cable bill. It can argued, of course, that 18th Century prostitutes weren’t nearly as alluring as the ones we meet in “Black Sails: The Complete Collection,” but, then, neither were the pirates and soldiers. And, personal hygiene wasn’t a priority, either. The Blu-ray compilation includes all four seasons of the show, which wrapped up production in South Africa last year. “Black Sails” is set roughly two decades before the events described by Robert Louis Stevenson in “Treasure Island.” The writers took plenty of creative license with known historical events, while basing their key characters on actual men and women known to have sailed under the skull and crossbones. They include Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Ned Low, Israel Hands and Blackbeard. The sea battles were enhanced by CGI and the sword fights required stunt coordinators, but you knew that already. The thoroughly binge-worthy boxed set adds more than 20 making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes, covering all four seasons.

It isn’t likely that anyone will fill the shoes left behind by Anthony Bourdain, any more than Julia Child’s been eclipsed by the current crop of screamers, shopping-network hustlers and celebrity chefs. That’s because Bourdain wasn’t afraid to leave the comfort of the studio and visit places where food’s primary purpose is to sustain life and mirror cultural imperatives, not impress the shit out of paying customers and freeloading peers. He wasn’t afraid to share his opinions on things other than food or make enemies of chefs he didn’t respect. Until I received the seasonal compilation of “No Passport Required” episodes, I wasn’t aware of chef Marcus Samuelsson, who once accompanied Bourdain to his home country, Ethiopia, and whose own show is cut from the same template as “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” After being separated from their family in the Ethiopian Civil War, Samuelsson and his sister were adopted by Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson, a homemaker and a geologist, who lived in Gothenburg, Sweden. After becoming interested in cooking through his maternal grandmother, Samuelsson studied at the city’s Culinary Institute. He apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria, then came to the United States in 1994 as an apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit. He is the head chef of Red Rooster in Harlem. “No Passport Required” focuses on diverse immigrant communities and cuisines in cities across the U.S. In each hour, Marcus will travel to a different city and dive into a new food culture. At a time when President Trump wants to eclipse the American Dream for outsiders of color, Samuelsson explains how immigrants of all races and backgrounds contribute to the American mosaic, using culinary traditions to open doors and shape the way we eat today.

I couldn’t possibly tell you how much new information is proffered in Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story: The Da Vinci Code.” It seems to me to be a recap of information already presented in the buildup to the three movies based on Dan Brown’s best-selling novels. The same questions are asked and, if not answered, at least recapped and put under different microscope: did Da Vinci leave hidden clues to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail in his paintings; is there, indeed, a secret society protecting the bloodline of Christ and Mary Magdalene; have documents been hidden within the pillars of a famous French church; and did Da Vinci invent lock boxes that rival the Rubik’s Cube in mechanical complexity? The show’s producers have rounded up real-life code breakers, Renaissance scholars and professors of religion and linguistics to help put the pieces of the puzzle together.

 

 

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“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.”
~ Stan Lee, 1965

“I’m more and more interested in Godard’s idea that not much matters except dealing with the present moment, that when you look at history, you’ve got to refract it through your awareness of the present. I mean, I’m interested in history, and here I am talking about biopics, but I don’t want to run from the present. And the idea of time-travel through CGI feels like a magic trick that might be an evasion of other issues. Besides, I like working with real actors in real spaces. Can’t help it.”
~ Michael Almereyda