MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: 2018’s Most Memorable Titles, Hobbyhorses, Martyr, CMA Live, Tailspin Tommy, Gilda, Miracle Worker … More

Last year’s list of best DVD/Blu-rays was headed by Criterion Collection’s “100 Years of Olympic Films.” The company  topped itself in 2018 with the cineaste’s dream compilation “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” which spans six decades of the maestro’s work – 39 films – and includes 11 introductions, 6 commentaries, a pair of rarely seen documentary shorts, more than 5 hours of interviews with Bergman and many of his key collaborators, several featurettes and a lavishly illustrated 248-page retrospective book. Criterion’s other must-own collection is “Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood, 1930-1935,” which focuses on Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is a Woman and other related topics. I’ve tried to group the other top titles by genre.

Action & Adventure
Black Panther: Blu-ray/4K UHD, will Wakanda be represented at Oscars?
Mission:Impossible: Fallout: Blu-ray/4K UHD, Tom Cruise goes to extremes, again.

Animation & Fantasy
The Incredibles 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD, a worthy sequel that only gets better in ultra-high definition.
Coco: Blu-ray/4K, the dancing dead look and sound great in any format.
The Monkey King 3: Blu-ray, the final installment in an ancient trilogy.
Once Upon a Time: Blu-ray; Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings: Blu-ray; and Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days: Blu-ray, exotic blends of Chinese history, mythology and martial arts.

Comedy
The Big Lebowski: 20th Anniversary Limited Edition: 4K UHD, the Dude bowls us over, again.
Sorry to Bother You: Blu-ray, telemarketers from hell and back.
Robin Williams: Comic Genius, 100-plus performances on 22 DVDs.

Crime
American Animals: Blu-ray, a hare-brained scheme to steal Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
68 Kill: Blu-ray, how many ways can a perfect plan go haywire?
Bad Day for the Cut: Blu-ray, a profoundly Irish tale of revenge.
Small Town Crime: Blu-ray, the smaller the town, the bigger the crime.
You Were Never Really Here: Blu-ray, Lynne Ramsey’s assassin with a heart.
The Third Murder: Blu-ray, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s legal prelude to Shoplifters.
In Her Name, in France, justice delayed is (almost) justice denied.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Blu-ray, the first blaxploitation gem.

Documentary
Chavela, a great Mexican artist recalled in words and song.
Whitney: Blu-ray, the only documentary on the singer’s life that matters.

Drama
The Insult: Blu-ray, an escalation of words into violence in Beirut.
Novitiate: Blu-ray, a girl struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.
Loveless: Blu-ray, feuding parents lose track of their son in Moscow.
In the Fade: Blu-ray, in wake of tragedy, a German woman seeks revenge.
First Reformed: Blu-ray, Ethan Hawke’s performance makes him awards front-runner.
A Prayer Before Dawn: Blu-ray, fighter faces heavy odds in Thai prison.
The Suffering of Ninko: Blu-ray, a monk confronts his irresistible sexual appeal.

Giallo
Suspiria: Special Edition: Blu-ray, the original, less-messy version of Argento’s masterpiece.
Dario Argento’s Opera: Blu-ray, never trust a psycho-fan.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition: Blu-ray, Dario’s directorial debut.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails: Special Edition: Blu-ray, Malden and James Franciscus, Italian Style.

Horror & Suspense
The ToyBox: Blu-ray, haunted RV turns on its new owners.
A Quiet Place: Blu-ray/4K UHD, Krasinski and Blunt find a quiet place to die.
Hereditary: Blu-ray/4K UHD, can Toni spring an Oscar surprise?
Annihilation: Blu-ray/4K UHD, horror meets sci-fi in dystopian future.

Indie
Skate Kitchen: Blu-ray, coming of age on a skateboard built for one.
Blindspotting: Blu-ray, Oakland gangstas confront gentrification.
Eighth Grade: Blu-ray, 13-year-old finds solution to growing up on social media.

Science-Fiction
2001: A Space Odyssey: 4K UHD, Kubrick’s visionary film looks better than ever on UHD.
The Wild Boys: Blu-ray, ‘Lord of the Flies’ reinvented for a different generation of kids.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn:  Picnic at Hanging Rock: Blu-ray, Aussie mini-series adds intrigue to mystery.
Acorn: Detectorists: Complete Collection: Box Set, off-beat British  comedy finds motherlode.
Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition, more from the man who shaped comedy on TV.
Paramount: Yellowstone: Blu-ray, taking ‘Dallas’ to Big Sky country.

Westerns
Woman Walks Ahead: Blu-ray, finally a feminist, revisionist Western.
The Rider: Blu-ray, injured rodeo star faces life-or-death dilemma.
Lean on Pete: Blu-ray, boy rescues horse, horse rescues boy.
The Hired Hand: Blu-ray, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates’ great Western bromance.
Mohawk: Blu-ray, revenge never goes out of fashion in Old West.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown, a traditional Western for revisionist times.
Hostiles: Blu-ray/4K UHD, a rugged return home for legendary Cheyenne war chief.
Damsel, Mia Wasikowska may be a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress.
Dances With Wolves, Steelbook Edition: Blu-ray, Costner’s extended epic looks gorgeous in Blu-ray.

Books on Film
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (Screen Classics), the women who’ve taken bruises for stars.
Native Americans on Film (University of Kentucky), can Hollywood put stereotypes behind it?
Jarmila Novotná: My Life in Song (University of Kentucky), crossing over from opera to the movies.
Buster Keaton in His Own Time (McFarland), what the responses of 1920s critics reveal.

Martyr
In Beirut, a city nearly destroyed by mindless partisan violence and unceasing bloodshed, unexpected deaths once were as common an occurrence as the delivery of milk and bread to the corner market. Although things have calmed down – at least, in comparison to Syria and Iran – the possibility of a young man being gunned down on his way to school or worship still exists. What isn’t expected, though, is the accidental death of a son, friend or lover while participating in an activity typically associated with fun and sport. In Martyr, Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) is one of countless young Lebanese men for whom a college degree is no more useful than a medal earned in a long-ago war. The jobs he’s managed to land have been menial and unfulfilling and his parents have begun to question his desire to put his diploma to work. They’re especially unhappy by his daily trips to Beirut’s rocky shoreline, where a group of friends gather to kill times, get some exercise and, one suspects, flirt. One this particular day, Hassane decides to show off by taking a running leap off a guard rail, into a watery space cluttered with submerged rocks and cement blocks. Although it’s likely that Hassane’s head hit a rock and knocked him unconscious, all writer/director Mazen Khaled wants us to see his body floating in the murky water unable to swim. By the time his friends get to the body, it’s already too late to resuscitate the young man. Because there’s only a trickle of blood on his forehead, we keep waiting for a miracle to happen. When it doesn’t, though, all we can do is stare at Hassane’s nearly pristine body and, like his friends, wonder why his god chose this day for him to die. The only thing left for them to do is rush his body to his parents’ home for prayers and ritual absolution.

His parents and sister are beside themselves with grief, of course. Hassane’s father asks the friends stay for the cleansing of the body, so they can witness for themselves the fragility of life and finality of death. Before that can happen, however, the father and uncle debate the question as to whether Hassane died a martyr and if the mullah will recognize it as such. It’s important because one of the Islamic sects doesn’t consider death outside of war to be worthy of Allah’s mercy, while another defines martyrdom in less absolute terms. It’s complicated. What matters most to the friends is that the ritual is performed with as much sensitivity and precision as possible. Khaled transforms the funeral into a contemplative appreciation of the young     man’s life; the beauty and sensuality of corpse; and youth, friendship, and love, in general. Moreover, he shapes the mourning sequences into modern dance, underwater ballet and tableaux vivant. It’s beautiful, without also being morbid or melodramatic. Knowing that Martyr was nominated for the Queer Art Award and Queer Lion awards at festivals in Lisbon and Venice, it’s natural to wonder if the film’s specifically targeted at the LGBTQ community or its appeal is universal. In this case, it’s the latter. If it weren’t the four shirtless men on the Breaking Glass DVD’s cover, the question may not have arisen. While Martyr certainly can be interpreted as a movie of special interest gay audiences, it also should resonate with Muslim viewers and anyone whose interests aren’t limited to events in their own backyard. The DVD adds Khaled’s well-regarded 2012 short film, “A Very Dangerous Man.”

Hobbyhorse Revolution: Blu-ray
Six years ago, Laurent Malaquais’s Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (2012) shone a light on a subculture almost no one existed and, once exposed, few could even begin to comprehend. It explored the resurgence of interest in “My Little Pony,” when, in 2010, the “Friendship is Magic” reboot caught fire among girls, their moms and, way behind the scene, a group of adult and teen males known as bronies (“bro” + “pony”). Many of the men interviewed cited the show’s celebration of friendship development in young viewers — from first impressions to true connections – and how the characters accept each other’s differences and work out their small troubles through peaceful means. It’s a swell message and the bronies didn’t seem to care who delivers it. For detractors, however, there was something perverse about men and teenage boys embracing a hobby designed to entertain 5-year-old girls and sell toys and accessories, no matter the ecumenical philosophy. Many adults will find Selma Vilhunen’s Hobbyhorse Revolution off-putting – at first, at least – for similar reasons. Hobby horses have long been associated with equine characters in certain traditional seasonal customs — May Day, Mummers’ plays and the Morris dance in England — and similar processions and observances around the world. The ones in Vilhunen’s documentary refer to the toys made of a broom stick with a small horse’s head (of wood or stuffed fabric) and, perhaps, reins, attached to one end.

Historically, the word, “hobby,” can be traced to the 14th Century Middle English and Old French terms, hobin or haubby, which characterize a “small or middle-sized horse … an ambling or pacing horse … a pony.” According to Scottish author George MacDonald Fraser (“Flashman”), border horses, called hobblers or hobbies, were small and active, and trained to cross the most difficult and boggy country, “and to get over where our footmen could scarce dare to follow.” Here, the use of “hobby” refers more to activities or pastimes that consume the spare time of practitioners, young and old. The film follows three pubescent Finnish girls — Aisku, Elsa and Alisa — whose lives have been transformed by their new obsession: the design, creation, “training” and riding of hobbyhorses in competition. Thanks to the social media, the girls know they aren’t alone in this unlikely hobby, which ostensibly could set them apart from the cool kids and bullies their age. It’s possible, as well, to discern a certain something missing in their lives, whose absence is filled by personalizing the old-fashioned stick toys, making them beautiful and training them to excel in competition. Beats Barbie, anyway.

In addition to designing and producing horses’ heads for themselves, some of the girls make money doing it for other girls, who will add names, personalities and backstories to them … not unlike Cabbage Patch Kids and American Girls dolls. The difference is that many of these horses are deployed in Olympics-style equestrian events, such as dressage and show jumping, where their riders will be judged for poise, execution, precision and presentation. Afterwards, groups of girls will conduct group and drill-team events, on their own. It’s said that the phenomenon now has over 10,000 devotees in Finland, alone, with interest growing in the United States, after it was featured in the Wall Street Journal, ESPN and on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Like other obsessions attributed to so-called nerds, geeks and loners, hobby-horsing is described as an instrument of self-expression and female empowerment. Even so, watching a roomful of girls – as giddy as they are determined to win – jumping, cantering and galloping on a makeshift course, while straddling their show horse, can strain credulity, as if it were an activity invented for a mockumentary. That feeling dissipates after watching the most troubled of the girls – a mixed-race Finn, facing detention in youth facility — finally take charge of her life, by becoming a coach for younger competitors. Her reactions to her girls’ performances wouldn’t be out of place in any “kiss and cry” space reserved for ice-skaters and their coaches in competition. For the first time, perhaps, she can anticipate a meaningful future.

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery
I haven’t spent as much time watching vintage serials as some folks, so all I can say with any certainty about Universal’s “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery” is how much it appealed to me as a layman. First, the set up. In the second series of episodes featuring ace airman-for-hire Tailspin Tommy Tompkins (Clark Williams, replacing Maurice Murphy) and his comic wingman, Skeeter Milligan (Noah Beery Jr.), are enlisted by Ned Curtis (Bryant Washburn) to do a survey for an oil pipeline across the mountains of Nazil. Curtis is the wealthy uncle of the lovely and adventurous Betty Lou Barnes (Jean Rogers, replacing Patricia Farr) and Nazil is an imaginary island located somewhere off the coast of California, Mexico or Central America. Arriving late, they miss the departure of the dirigible carrying Curtis, Betty Lou and her friend, Inez Casmetto (Delphine Drew), daughter of Curtis’ partner, Don Alvarado Casmetto (Harry Worth). The dirigible is torn apart in an intense storm, but Tommy and Skeeter are still able to assist the rescue of crew and passengers. They eventually get to Nazil, where Don Alvarado’s no-good brother Manuel (Herbert Heywood) and associate Horace Raymore (Matthew Betz) are plotting to take over the oil fields that would supply the pipeline. For the time being, Tommy and Skeeter hold the advantage over the conspirators. They’re also aided by a mystery flyer (Pat J. O’Brien), known as “El Condor,” who tends to arrive out of nowhere in the nick of time and vanish in a cloud of exhaust smoke. When El Condor is duped into landing his eagle-motif plane to rescue a downed airman, Manuel captures the flier and puts one of his own men – duplicitous Garcia (Paul Ellis) — in the pilot’s seat. In between all the yack-yack-yack and strategizing, there’s plenty of exciting of aerial action, with dogfights, bombing raids and loop-the-loops. Ray Taylor and a half-dozen writers make it stretch for 12 reasonably entertaining episodes, all except one ending in a cliffhanger. The serials were based on the adventure comic strip “Tailspin Tommy,” which was syndicated to newspapers from 1928 to 1942. It was the first aviation-related strip to appear after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. If Skeeter looks familiar, it’s because Beery would go on to play Rocky, in “The Rockford Files.”

Love, Gilda
Lisa D’Apolito’s heart-wrenching bio-doc, Love, Gilda, is a frequently hilarious love letter to the late Gilda Radner, a gifted actor and comedian who died far too prematurely, at 42, in 1989. Although the indefatigable Detroit native may be best remembered today as the first founding member of SNL’s Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, her tenure on the show lasted 99 episodes in five seasons. Radner was a terrific physical comedian, mimic and inventor of unforgettable characters, some drawn from her personal life. She was a natural. After dropping out of the University of Michigan and moving to Toronto, where she made her stage debut in “Godspell.” It starred a rotating group of comic actors who would follow each other to Toronto’s Second City and, then, to “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Some would try their luck on television, either on “SNL” or the similarly groundbreaking “SCTV.” Gilda became famous for her boundless energy, fearless physicality and a smile that wouldn’t quit. Even so, she battled bulimia while working on “Saturday Night Live.” Before leaving the show with the other original cast members, in 1980, Radner realized a personal dream by starring in a one-woman show on Broadway, which allowed her the freedom to stretch out a bit. In 1982, she met and fell in love with Gene Wilder, with whom she would act in three Hollywood movies. In 1986, Radner began her three-year battle with ovarian cancer. Love, Gilda is filled with video clips from her shows, of course, while the personal elements are informed by diaries; her autobiography, “It’s Always Something,” written during a period of remission; home movies; and the recollections of friends and cohorts. In an especially nice touch, cast members from future “SNL” seasons read passages from her autobiography. Finally, we’re reminded of Radner’s posthumous legacy, which includes her standing up to her killer with a sense of humor, courage and grace that inspired countless other cancer patients, and Gilda’s Clubs, a network of affiliate clubhouses, co-founded by Wilder, where people living with cancer, their friends and families can meet to learn how to live with the disease. While extremely poignant, Love, Gilda isn’t nearly as sad or depressing as it could have been, thanks mostly to Radner’s gigantic smile, unruly curls and magnetic personality. The DVD adds more interviews, home movies and a gallery.

Abrazos: Tango in Buenos Aires
With all the attention currently being paid to competitive dancing by television networks, Facets Media has chosen the right moment to resurrect Daniel Rivas’ 2003 documentary, Abrazos: Tango in Buenos Aires. Set during the fifth Buenos Aires Tango Festival, the film celebrates a populist art form that originated here in the 1880s, when natives mixed with slave and European immigrant populations to create something all their own. It’s survived the edicts of Argentine dictators, economic travail and whims of popular culture, while also being embraced by dancers in Europe, the United States and Japan, all of which were represented in the multi-faceted nine-day competition. The musicians and singers we meet are renowned within the borders of Argentina, and sometimes beyond, as they maintain a working-class legacy not unlike that of American blues, Spanish flamenco, Portuguese fado, French bal-musette and Greek rebetiko. (Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis summarized the key elements of rebetiko as love, joy and sorrow, all of which apply to the tango, as well.) Like the singers, dancers in groups and pairs are accompanied at various times by full acoustic orchestras or soloists on bandoneon, a cousin of the concertina. The dancers are judged as much by their appearance – men in formal wear; women in strikingly colorful, form-fitting and sleek dresses, some split up to here — and how they move “as one” with the music. At 85 minutes, however, it’s the dances themselves that give way to the meeting and greeting of competitors from around the world, rehearsals and fine-tuning, and brief profiles of the participants. Another 20 minutes of competitive dancing would have gone a long way. The tango has hardly been a stranger to movies and documentaries. Others that come to mind are, Fernando E. Solanas’ Tangos, the Exile of Gardel (1985), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, German Kral’s Our Last Tango (2015), Lorena Muñoz and Sergio Wolf’s I Don’t Know What Your Eyes Have Done to Me (1997), Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2002) and Carlos Saura’s Argentina (2015).

Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker
On August 31, 2017, I opened my review of Jonathan Baker’s debut feature, Inconceivable, with, “Halfway through the crazy-nanny thriller ‘Inconceivable,’ I got a funny feeling that I’d seen it before, at least once. A bit later, I remembered Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which is memorable in ways that Jonathan Baker’s picture never will be. In fact, the only thing that’s really stayed with me is watching Nicolas Cage play the rock of stability between two hysterical women: the sinister surrogate and babysitter played by Nicky Whelan; and the middle-class suburban mom, desperate to have a second child, portrayed by Gina Gershon.” Inconceivable may have opened in a couple of theaters, but it failed to grab the attention of anyone at Box Office Mojo or more than a handful of critics at Rotten Tomatoes, where it scored 31 percent. The production was “troubled” from Day One and I doubted that Baker deserved all the blame. Well … little did I know at the time that I’d be asked to review a documentary, “Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker,” in which the director/actor describes the movie’s conception as something bordering on immaculate. Having broken into the business in 1987 as exec producer of the video hit, “Dorf on Golf,” Baker’s since become a fixture in reality shows that range from “The Amazing Race” and “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” to “Dr. Phil,” “The Girls Next Door” and “Kendra.” (On the Amazing Race Wiki, he’s described as “annoying, loud, abusive and quite possibly the most hated contestant ever.”) A native New Yorker of indeterminate age, Baker’s a handsome devil, who’s enjoyed success in businesses associated with personal lifestyles and health care. Naturally, all Baker’s really wanted to do is direct.  Mission accomplished.

Although Neal Thibedeau is credited as director of “Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker,” it’s a vanity project from start to finish. Divided roughly into two separate parts, the first chronicles directorial advice he’s received in taped interviews with Jodie Foster, John Badham, Taylor Hackford, Adrian Lynne and presumed BFF Warren Beatty, whose name is dropped at least two dozen times, but is never actually seen, except in photos. (Baker and his wife, Victoria, purchased Beatty’s first house.) The advice is sound and agreeably presented. The second half appears to have been intended as a warts-and-all making-of doc, minus most of the warts associated with Inconceivable. It also goes long on Baker’s youthful obsession with movies and his ability to navigate the mean streets of Manhattan without much parental guidance. He recalls on-set conversations with Nicolas Cage, Gina Gershon and Faye Dunaway, as well as battles with studio executives, who, we’re led to believe, know less about making a low-budget picture than a first-time director and frequent realty-show contestant. In his own defense, however, Bishop has made one more movie than 99.9 percent of everyone else on the planet and has his calls returned by Warren Beatty. He also has a personalized headstone already waiting for him in a Westwood cemetery. How many of us can say that? If nothing else, “Becoming Iconic” would make a great double-feature with The Disaster Artist.

CMA Awards Live: Greatest Moments 1968-2015
Time Life continues to take the lead in compilations made from awards shows, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association, and various television specials. “CMA Awards Live: Greatest Moments: 1968-2015” is a three-disc set, taken from the more comprehensive 10-disc compilation of the same title, costing $100 more and containing a 44-page booklet. Both offer five decades’ worth of performances, highlights and memories from country music’s more legitimate awards ceremony. It includes songs performed by Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Kenny Rogers, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton, plus newly produced interviews and featurettes. Then, too, there are collaborations between Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow and Loretta Lynn on “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; George Strait and Alan Jackson, singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Mark Knopf and Ricky Skaggs, performing “Go Rest High on That Mountain”; and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”

TV-to-DVD
NBC: The Miracle Worker: Blu-ray
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Woman in the Iron Coffin
PBS: NOVA: Transplanting Hope
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Master and Commander
The Dick Cavett Show: And That’s the Way It Is
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Mind Of …
Typically, stunt casting is employed to generate publicity for a project that needs a little bit more attention paid to it. In Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), for example, the casting of Jack Larson and Noel Neill in noticeable cameos effectively reminded older viewers of their characters, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, in the original TV series. When, in 1979, NBC decided to re-adapt William Gibson’s Tony Award-winning play, “The Miracle Worker,” for television, Melissa Gilbert, a franchise player on the network’s “Little House on the Prairie,” was a lock to play Helen Keller. There was, however, no shortage of actors available to play Anne Sullivan. At 48, Anne Bancroft was too old to reprise her Tony- and Academy Award-winning portrayal of Keller’s 20-year-old instructor and governess. In a stroke of casting genius, the role went to Patty Duke, who played Keller on Broadway, and, like Bancroft, won an Oscar for Arthur Penn’s film adaptation, in 1962. It would result in her third Primetime Emmy and Gilbert’s first nomination. (Gibson wrote the play, screenplay and teleplay.) Because the play is one of the most frequently revived theatrical works in the English language, it would be difficult to find anyone unfamiliar with Keller and Sullivan’s mutual struggle to communicate in the only way available to them. Often frustrated and desperate, Helen would fly into uncontrollable rages and tantrums that terrified her hopeless family and, initially, Sullivan. Their “Eureka!” moment, at the water pump, retains its power to tug at the heartstrings of audiences. Newcomers might appreciate seeing the TV version over the original, if only because it’s in color. Both filmed adaptations, available on Blu-ray, are worth the viewers’ time.

PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead: Woman in the Iron Coffin”  describes the arduous task of determining how the title character came to be discovered, in 2011, by construction workers in an abandoned lot in Queens, New York. The show follows forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch and a team of historians and scientists as they investigate the woman’s story, revealing a vivid picture of what life was like for free African-American women and men in the North, before the Civil War. Even without too much help, it shouldn’t be difficult for followers of the series to speculate correctly on how the woman’s body found its way into an iron casket. Everything else surrounding that central question, however, shines a light on how Americans lived then and how such mysteries are solved on today’s cutting edge of science and technology.

And speaking of being on the cutting edge, PBS’ “NOVA: Transplanting Hope” takes viewers inside the operating room to witness organ-transplant teams transferring organs from donors to recipients.  We’re also introduced to families navigating both sides of a transplant, and researchers working to end the organ shortage. Their efforts to understand organ rejection, discover ways to keep organs alive outside the body, and even grow artificial organs with stem cells, could save countless lives.

Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story” not only serves the valuable purpose of sorting out the baloney from the facts in movies “inspired by actual events,” but it also adds context sometimes neglected by the filmmakers constrained by time and money. The latest DVD installment of the series examines Peter Weir’s exciting 2003 historical drama, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Based on the first three novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, the $150-million film changed several key elements that inspired the action in the books. O’Brien’s story was set in April 1805, during the Royal Navy’s campaign against French warships during the Napoleonic Wars. In it, the H.M.S. Surprise, a British frigate under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is on a mission to track and capture or destroy the French privateer, Acheron. The formidable French war vessel was operating in seas around South America and the Galapagos Islands when confronted by Aubrey. In the Hollywood version, the H.M.S. Surprise was given a fighting chance over the faster, fictional Acheron by modeling it after the USS Constitution, a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. Most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom, Old Ironsides captured numerous merchant ships and defeated five British warships. Weir describes how the Surprise was re-imagined to make it as formidable as the Constitution – which is still a commissioned ship and is usually berthed in Boston — primarily by using live-oak planks on its hull, in addition to less-dense white oak. Tests reveal just how much difference live oak makes by firing a cannon round at it. Production designers share their ideas for the movie, with facts presented naval historians and wood workers.

Unlike most of television’s current late-night hosts, whose humor targets a relatively narrow demographic range, Dick Cavett didn’t tailor his interview technique or choice of guests for audiences that cut their teeth on MTV and comic-book movies. He was smart and funny, and he didn’t underestimate his audience’s interest in people he thought they should know, no matter the flavor-of-the-month celebrity. Cavett’s biggest chink, I think, was a tendency to banter as if he were the invited guest, instead of the host, and the audience was there for his amusement.  Some of that self-reverence is on display in the latest releases from S’more Entertainment’s series of themed shows from his golden years.

The title of the two-disc set, “The Dick Cavett Show: And That’s the Way It Is,” derives from Walter Cronkite’s trademark signoff on the “CBS Evening News.” There are two Cronkite shows, from 1974 and 1982, one in Cavett’s ABC studio and another from the veteran newscaster’s New England summer home. Interviews with Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer, range from 1970 to 1991, and were first shown on ABC, PBS or CNBC.  If Cavett’s in his element with the adult newscasters, he’s frequently overwhelmed by the childish antics and schtick of the comedians represented on “The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Mind of …,” especially Bobcat Goldthwait and Gilbert Gottfried. The former standup comedian and writer for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson had better luck with Richard Lewis and Robin Williams. None of them were particularly interested in answering the questions put to them, however, causing Cavett to improvise. Even so, it’s fun to watch comedians at a time in their careers when they’d yet to achieve headliner status.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

The Atlantic: You saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech. Did you have a reaction?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.” Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley, Ang or Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super-relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge. I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.
~ Steven Soderbergh

 

“I have made few films in a way. I never made action films. I never made science fiction films. I never made, really, very complicated settings, because I had modest ambitions. I knew they would never trust me to have the budget to do something different, so my mind is more focused on things I know. So they were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. Working for cinema with no – not only no money, but also no ambition for money. I was happy and proud [to receive the honorary Oscar] because of that, that [the Academy] could understand what kind of work I have done over 60 years. I stayed faithful to the ideal of sharing emotion, impressions, and mostly because I have so much empathy for other people that I approach people who are not really spoken about. I have 65 years of work in my bag, and when I put the bag down, what comes out? It’s really the desire of finding links and relationships with different kinds of people. I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people. about nobility. My choices have been to show people that are, in a way, more common and see that each of them has something special and interesting, rare and beautiful. It’s my natural way of looking at people. I didn’t fight my instincts. And maybe that has been appreciated in the famous circle of Hollywood.“

Agnes Varda