MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Mid90s, Oath, Obamaland, Bad Reputation, Hell Fest, Time Freak, Kusama, Oddsockeaters, Bent, Harry/Sally, Nemesis, Frontline, Cats … More

Mid90s: Blu-ray
Olympics purists may be saddened to learn that skateboarding will debut as an officially recognized event at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, alongside surfing, climbing, baseball/softball, karate and the 28 permanent sports. Others, not so much. The world didn’t end when bowling, roller hockey and water skiing became demonstration sports. In proposing the inclusion of the five temporary activities, representing 18 separate events and 474 male and female competitors, IOC President Thomas Bach said, “We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect anymore that they will come automatically to us. … Taken together, the five sports are an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games.” What Bach probably meant to say was, “We want to take the Olympics to the youth,” in the same way that organizers of the Winter Olympics have profited from the recognition of events popularized by the widely televised X Games. In addition to a boost in ticket revenues, the exposure could produce a boom in equipment sales in the host country.

Jonah Hill’s endearing dramedy, Mid90s, is only the latest entry in a long list of movies in which skateboarding plays a key role in the social development of borderline characters looking for a reason to wake up in the morning. For his directorial debut, Hill decided to stick with a subject near and dear to his heart. In the DVD/Blu-ray’s lively commentary track, the Crossroads School graduate and two-time Academy Award nominee – Moneyball (2012), The Wolf of Wall Street (2016) – reminisces about his own boarding experiences as a youth growing up on mean streets of Cheviot Hills, on L.A.’s West Side, and working at Hot Rod Skateboard Shop, on Westwood Boulevard. It’s where he met several of the kids, from diverse backgrounds, who influenced characters in Mid90s. Although Hill doesn’t profess to be an expert skater or ambassador for the sport, the film’s 13-year-old protagonist, Stevie (Sunny Suljic), didn’t fall very far from the tree. Although, at first glance, Stevie doesn’t look much like the kind of kid who would be physically and verbally abused at home by his older brother and alienated from his single mother. He more closely resembles a puppy in the window of a pet shop, begging for a loving family to claim him. That’s pretty much what happens when he begins to hang out at skate shop, where a group of older slackers kill time by smoking cigarettes, riffing on each other with homophobic slurs and bragging about their sexual exploits. After inadvertently becoming the brunt of one of their word games, he’s adopted into the gang as a sidekick. He graduates after attempting a dangerous jump and nearly killing himself in the process.

In addition to providing an outlet for fun, away from home, the older boys serve as surrogate fathers and inadvertent role models. As such, they not only help him to grow as a skater, but mature as a social being, willing to risk the perils of getting high, smoking cigarettes, guzzling booze, dropping pills and being embarrassed during his first encounter with a sexually aggressive girl. As is usually the case in such coming-of-age flicks, Stevie will be required to experience a come-to-Jesus moment as the 85-minute Mid90s nears its conclusion. Hill handles the situation with compassion, as well as concern for his audience’s feelings. Suljic, who’s already appeared in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Unspoken (2015), fulfills the role of Hill’s alter ego here, even if he looks completely out of place as a gang member. Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges are fine in roles that are largely overshadowed the wasted wastrels. They’re played by Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt,  Gio Galicia and Ryder McLaughlin, all of whom look as if they might have been cast from a lineup at a local skate park. The music, too, reflects an eclectic mix of 1990s’ sounds, ranging from punk and funk, to hard-core hip-hop, grunge and a delightful take on The Mamas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love.”

It’s interesting that Hill decided to position Mid90s midway between the Venice Beach scene depicted in Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) and Lords of Dogtown (2005), and the IOC’s overdue decision to exploit boarding’s popularity in the 2020 Gamers. The boys who hang out at the shop aren’t nearly as talented as the skaters introduced to us by Stacy Peralta in those films and The Search for Animal Chin (1987) and Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012). Hill acknowledges being influenced more by Kids (1995), This Is England (2006), Ratcatcher (1999) and The Sandlot (1993), in which awkward kids find surrogate families away from home. In 1978, “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf broke into the business as co-writer/producer of Skateboard, which introduced Tony Hawk and Tony Alva to non-skating audiences. It would be followed by such theatrical releases as Thrashin’ (1986), Gleaming the Cube (1989), Grind (2003), Paranoid Park (2007) and Skate Kitchen (2018). Enlightening documentaries have included the cautionary Helen Stickler’s Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002), Fruit of the Vine (2002), Who Cares?: The Duane Peters Story (2005), Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi (2006), D.O.P.E., a.k.a. Fallen Idols (2008), All This Mayhem (2014) and Minding the Gap (2018). Mike Hill’s The Man Who Souled the World (2007) was also set during the halcyon days of the 1990s. The international contingent is represented by Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul (Afghanistan, 2011), Wasted Youth (Greece, 2011), This Ain’t California (Germany, 2012), Cruzando el sentido (Spain, 2015), Deckument: od rolke do skejta (Slovenia, 2015) and Nightsession (Germany, 2015). There are several others, of course, ranging from celebratory shorts to the family comedy, Sk8 Dawg (2018). The DVD/Blu-ray of Mid90s adds Hills commentary, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and deleted scenes.

The Oath
Obamaland
Twenty, even 10 years ago, the premise behind Ike Barinholtz’ “social thriller, The Oath, would be less credible than those informing most zombie flicks. At a time when NFL owners have refused to hire Colin Kaepernick to replace their broken-down quarterbacks, simply because they fear incurring President Trump’s wrath, anything is possible, however. The President’s own hometown team, the Washington Redskins, might have walked into the playoffs if they’d given the former 49ers’ star a chance. The same can be said about two or three other teams. Instead, the owners cheated their fans, players and employees by ensuring early on that the playoffs would have to wait until next year, if then. Although the U.S. Constitution was ratified well before the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” many lock-step patriots felt as if they were honor-bound to condemn Kaepernick for exercising his right to protest police brutality and racial oppression.

Ike Barinholtz’ The Oath takes place at a time in contemporary American history when the government has announced plans for enforcing “The Patriot’s Oath,” a document that encourages, but doesn’t require U.S. citizens to endorse. Those who do agree to sign on, however, are offered tax incentives and other privileges not accorded to those who refuse. Because the deadline falls on Black Friday, the decision weighs heavily on families gathered for Thanksgiving. They include the one invited to spend the holiday weekend at the home of Chris and Kai (Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish), a mixed-race couple who have agreed not to sign the pledge. Chris’ father and mother (Chris Ellis, Nora Dunn) are don’t-rock-the-boat types, who prefer to ignore what’s going on around them. His sister and brother-in-law (Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass) are liberals, if not nearly as unwaveringly doctrinaire as Chris, while his right-wing brother and sister-in-law (Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner) accept anything they hear on conservative news outlets as the gospel. Even though they all agree not to bring up politics over the dinner table, news of riots in major cities can’t be ignored by Chris or his polar-opposite sister-in-law, Abbie. As unpleasant as they are, however, their arguments are trifling compared to the unexpected arrival of Peter and Mason (John Cho, Billy Magnussen), agents of the Citizens Protection Unit, which ostensibly targets Chris for preventing someone from signing the oath. Barinholtz’ script remains murky as to the nature of the crime, since no one is obligated to sign the document, or who informed on him. One of the agents meets Chris’ protests with heavy-handed brutality, prompting viewers to foresee a home-invasion drama in which the violence overpowers the dark humor. Instead, The Oath bounces back and forth between the agents holding the stronger hand and the increasingly disturbed family members coming together to defend themselves against the unpredictable enforcer. Even then, however, it’s difficult to empathize with the characters, who are either too strident in their views or aren’t as clearly drawn as Chris and Abbie. Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is too good a comedian to blow all the opportunities for laughs and the veterans actors make the best of everything handed them. As ruined-Thanksgiving movies go, I prefer  Jodie Foster’s raucous family dramedy, Home for the Holidays (1995). Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer’s offbeat study of urban paranoia, Little Murders (1971), remains relevant, as well.

Greg Bergman’s scattershot political satire, Obamaland (a.k.a., “Obamaland Part 1: Rise of the Trumpublikans”), takes an even more dubious premise and finds laughs in the possibility of near-term anarchy. If Bergman appears to take political sides, it’s only in defense of a story that could appeal to fanatics on either side of the current political divide … not that many of them go to the movies. The story opens in 2017, after the fictional death of newly elected President Trump in a mysterious fall from Trump Tower, taking VP Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan with him. (A newscaster describes it as one of the “worst luncheon-related tragedies” in history.) Exploiting the political vacuum, Barack Obama declares himself President-for-Life. Flashing forward, to 2040, a godless, gunless America has been renamed Obamaland and divided into curiously drawn states, dictated by political and geographic imperatives. Obama not only has acknowledged his Kenyan roots, but also his commitment to socialism and everything his opponents accused him of being during his first eight years as president. Now that he’s grown too old and goofy to hold together his Rainbow House coalition, a handful of diehard Trump loyalists have decided to overthrow the government from such chain-restaurant outposts as Applecheez, Chilibees, Cracker Garden and Olive Barrel. PBS, which has somehow morphed into the Patriot Broadcasting Service, now serves as the official voice of the rebel factions. Frankly, it’s impossible to fairly describe what happens in Obamaland, without risking misinterpreting Bergman’s intentions. That said, I found plenty of his ideas and gags to be quite funny, especially the ones that pushed the envelope on good taste. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Time Freak: Blu-ray
Sixteen years ago, multihyphenate filmmaker Andrew Bowler released his first feature, The Descent of Walter McFea, into the purgatory of PPV, VOD and other Internet sources. Such streaming services were still in their infancy and no one could predict how well straight-to-video genre pictures would perform on the new medium. Even if it didn’t generate a lot of waves in the early-aughts, “Walter McFea” still exists on the fringes of the www. He had better luck with his next cinematic venture, “Time Freak,” a 2011 short that did very well on the festival circuit and occasionally is shown on the wonderful ShortsTV network. Shorts, especially those that have done well on the festival circuit, have lately served as calling cards and launching pads for many of today’s youngest and brightest filmmakers and actors. Neither are they routinely dismissed as excess baggage on the Academy Awards broadcast. Indeed, the nominees now are shown before the ceremony in theaters, making it easier for fans to fill out their Oscar pools. Like so many other nominees, Time Freak would be developed into a feature-length film. Both versions of Bronson’s concept are included on the new DVD/Blu-ray from Lionsgate. As far as I can tell, Time Freak would be released theatrically in one or two theaters in the U.S., before hitting the ancillary markets, and a half-dozen foreign countries. (It still has February playdates scheduled in Belgium and the Netherlands.) While it only made $10,000 here, Time Freak recouped $150,000 elsewhere. Those numbers may not sound impressive, but any theatrical exposure helps DVD and PPV sales. If the time-travel conceit sounds as if it’s equal parts Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and (500) Days of Summer, it bears repeating that Time Freak is based mostly on Bowler’s original 10-minute creation and, in any case, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and H.G. Wells’ 1895 “The Time Machine” set the standard before motion pictures captured the nation’s fancy. Here, a teenage math/physics wizard has formulated an algorithm that allows him to travel back in time, using his cellphone. Instead of going back to opening day at Disneyland or the invention of the telephone, Stillman (Asa Butterfield) elects to correct mistakes made during his relationship with a blond bartender/musician, Debbie (Sophie Turner). I probably would have opted to crash Elizabeth Taylor or Natalie Wood’s Sweet 16 parties, instead.

Being something of an egotistical nerd, Stillman continues to repeat mistakes similar to the ones that initiated their breakup a year earlier. A time machine may be able to do a lot of things, but correcting social faux pas isn’t one of them. His many blunders required Bowler to add 94 minutes to the length of the Time Freak short, as well as a separate romantic throughline involving a buddy. Evan (Skyler Gisondo), who accompanies Stillman on his excellent adventure, if you will, falls for a vivacious young woman (Aubrey Reynolds) he meets on one of their trips back in time. Even with the movie’s extra padding, however, Stillman continues to pull dick moves. For example, just as Evan is about to score with his hard-to-get girlfriend, Stillman cock-blocks his digitally linked companion, forcing him to return to the future immediately. (Theoretically, eliminating any opportunity for them to meet again in real time.) As such, I think that Time Freak plays better to teen and YA audiences, looking for an offbeat romance, than to anyone else. The actors should be familiar to them from The Space Between Us (Butterfield), Game of Thrones and X:Men: Apocalypse (Turner), Vacation (Gisondo) and The Outcasts (Will Peltz). The special features include commentary tracks, interviews and the source short.

Bad Reputation
Kusama: Infinity
Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution
Three years after Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kevin Kerslake’s revelatory rockumentary, Bad Reputation, explains why the honor was so criminally late in coming. In 2014, Krist Novoselic had used the occasion of Nirvana’s induction to decry the historically myopic association’s lack of recognition for the woman alternately credited as the “godmother of punk,” “queen of noise” and “role model for the Riot Grrrl movement.” Jett then joined Novoselic and Dave Grohl in a hard-core rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A year later, when Jett’s turn finally arrived, Miley Cyrus cracked up the crowd by admitting, “I’m going to start off this induction with the first time I wanted to have sex with Joan Jett. … She’s been the first to do many things and not just as a woman, but as a badass babe on the planet.” That classic rock-’n’-roll moment was followed by a kickin’ collaboration on the 1968 Tommy James and the Shondells’ hit, “Crimson and Clover,” which Jett covered in 1982. The academy has famously ignored punk, garage and fringe artists, while celebrating the commercial success of singers who broke little or no new ground. In addition to delivering three albums that have been certified Platinum or Gold, Jett and her various bandmates recorded such anthemic singles as “Cherry Bomb,” “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “Dirty Deeds.” More than anything else, perhaps, she’s faced and survived four decades’ worth of de facto sexism in the music-recording industry and misogynistic practices of label executives, managers, promoters, club owners and fans. That’s in addition to the garden-variety corruption and thievery attendant to the business. Bad Reputation is far less solemn an exercise than that makes it sound, however. The 90-minute documentary is also funny, inspirational and informed by good music. It chronicles Jett’s roller-coaster life and career, from the rise and collapse of the Runaways; her do-it-yourself rebound; her traumatic attempt to achieve mainstream success on a major label; a near fatal crash-and-burn as a punk rocker; waning popularity in the 1980s; resurgence via early Warped Tour appearances; political and social activism; and attaining rock-icon status as the industry struggled to keep up with technology and indies. Among the people interviewed are Cyrus, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Adam Horovitz, Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Michael J. Fox, Kristen Stewart, Billie Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop, producer Carianne Brinkman (The Runaways), and several other contemporaries. Adding no small amount of humor and insight, however, is Jett’s longtime producer, manager, confidant, “schlepper” and fellow Blackheart, Kenny Laguna, who receives nearly as much face time as Jett. The bonus features include extended interviews and performance footage.

In the music business, at least, women could make a name for themselves as singers, writers or instrumentalists. In the art world, women are even less visible than background singers in a Las Vegas showroom. Visit any major museum and count the names of female artists who are represented on their walls and galleries. It won’t take long. Things have improved in the last 20-30 years, but, as Heather Lenz’ terrific bio-doc, Kusama: Infinity argues, it’s primarily because feminists forcefully demanded seats at the table inside one the world’s most rigidly segregated boys’ clubs. This was especially true, when, in the mid-1950s, avant-garde sculptor and installation artist Yayoi Kusama chose to exit the close-minded art establishment in Japan and try here luck in the United States, beginning in Seattle. Before arriving in New York, a year later, Kusama contacted Georgia O’Keeffe, who had broken the mold created for women in the American art establishment and, for decades, served as the exception that proved the rule. Kusama’s brilliantly colored and fanciful deployments of polka dots, nets and flowers would complement the work of pop artists ranging from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms also struck a chord, alongside embellishments of everyday items with white phallic protrusions. The counterculture movement of the late 1960s allowed her to expand her vision to include “happenings,” which frequently involved nudity, body painting, music and political activism. In 1966, Kusama participated in her first Venice Biennale, for which she created a Narcissus Garden comprised of hundreds of mirrored spheres. She infuriated organizers by installing her “kinetic carpet” on a lawn outside the Italian pavilion and selling individual orbs for about $2 a piece. It was her way of protesting the commercialization of popular art and artists – not that a few more sales of her own work would have killed Kusama – and willingness of key players to endorse celebrity over content. Kusama: Infinity follows the artist, who was in poor health, back to Japan, where she decided to experiment with writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories and poetry. In 1977, after her attempt to broker art, Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since then, by choice, and is allowed daily visits to a nearby studio, where she continues to churn out pieces in a variety of mediums. Today, it’s safe to say that her sculptures, paintings and installations are more popular than ever. They enchant schoolchildren drawn to the toy-like creations in museums in Tokyo and her hometown of Matsumoto, as much as adults who’ve followed her work to the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. At 89, Kusama still accepts commissions and remains an outspoken observer of the international art scene. Kusama: Infinity may only be 76 minutes long, but Lenz fills them with wonderfully whimsical visuals and the kind of biographical and critical insight that should have been available to art lovers decades ago.

And, while we’re discussing deeply entrenched sexism in male-dominated institutions, it would be short-sighted of me to ignore the scientific community. Over the span of 144 densely constructed minutes, John Feldman’s Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution explores the life and ideas of a largely unheralded woman, who challenged long-held theories on Darwinism, biology, evolutionary theory and symbiosis, while facing derision, ridicule and staunch opposition from her male peers. Not all of them, of course, just the ones who stood to lose their grants, reputations and federally funded facilities if her theories were confirmed. Margulis’ research transformed current understanding of the evolution of cells, with nuclei, by arguing it was the result of symbiotic mergers of bacteria. Eminent German biologist Ernst Mayr called it “perhaps the most important and dramatic event in the history of life.” I’ll have to take his word for it, because most of what’s discussed in Symbiotic Earth went so far above my head that it might as well be in Earth orbit. Later, in the mid-1970s, she collaborated with British chemist James Lovelock on the Gaia Theory, which proposed that all life in the “biosphere” is interconnected and interdependent. It wasn’t until Margulis turned 60, in 1998, that she was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and awarded a National Medal of Science, by President Clinton. Ironically, these honors were bestowed only after she was elected Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Outside of scientific circles, Margulis probably was probably known best for her seven-year marriage to astronomer Carl Sagan (1957-64) than anything else. Later in life, her reputation for being a maverick sometimes got the best of her, especially when she was accused of being an “AIDS denialist” and a “9/11 truther.” That part of her life isn’t covered here, however. There’s plenty of high-grade beef to savor in Symbiotic Earth. How much of it lay viewers will be able to digest, however, is debatable.

Hell Fest: Blu-ray/4K UHD
I grew up in a neighborhood where the most daring thing we did on Halloween involved visiting our city’s many working-class taverns to beg the boozehounds for loose change and the occasional pickled egg. The haunted-house phenomenon didn’t erupt for another couple of decades, with theme parks raising the ante for cheap thrills. I don’t know how much money is spent on such seasonal attractions at Universal City, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags and Disneyland each year, but’s possible that the price tags exceed the $5.5 million set aside the budget for Hell Fest, which takes place in just such a place. There’s been no shortage of movies that have been set in fantasy haunted houses. Like Gregory Plotkin’s sophomore feature, these gore-fests usually involve a psycho killer preying on participants who pay to be scared witless, if not actually murdered. Because the killers so closely resemble the costumed characters played by civilians or actors, they tend to blend into the woodwork. The victims, too, look as if they were disemboweled or decapitated solely for the amusement of customers. Naturally, when one of the victims’ friends goes missing and alerts security here, the rent-a-cops chalk it up to being part of the Halloween-night experience. I’ve only seen a few of these movies — Hell House LLC (2015), The Funhouse Massacre (2015), The Devil’s Carnival (2012), among them – but I can’t remember any of them being as elaborately designed or with more background activity.

We learn early on that Stephen Conroy’s psycho-killer, known simply as the Other, has struck before and favors a mask and outerwear favored by any number of monsters from 1980s’ slasher films. While all six of the college-age kids that form the nucleus of Hell Fest’s central cast of characters are young, attractive and horny, the Other marks Natalie (Amy Forsyth) as his primary target. Some of her friends will stumble into harm’s way, but their horrible deaths are shown primarily as testimony to the Other’s cruelty. Not surprisingly, the loathing reserved for Hell Fest by mainstream critics was balanced by the favorable reactions shared by everyday viewers. It probably made a little bit of money for Lionsgate, but not enough to assure a sequel, despite its open-ended conclusion. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Plotkin’s list of recent credits includes editing Get Out (2017) and Happy Death Day (2017) and directing Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015). In October, Michael Perry’s production design was replicated at select Six Flags locations, as a cross-promotion between the movie and the theme park’s Halloween activities. The Blu-ray adds “Thrills and Kills: Making Hell Fest,” which includes 16-minutes’ worth of backstage material, including cellphone video of the cast goofing off. The 4K UHD presentation works wonders with the predominantly dark and shadowy interiors, brightly lit exteriors and creepy costumes and makeup.

The Great Battle: Blu-ray
The easiest way to summarize the Korean historical-action drama, The Great Battle, is to compare it to Hollywood epics based on the siege of the Alamo, with the good guys winning … depending on whether the viewer is Korean or Chinese. Critics have also compared Kim Kwang-sik’s war picture to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or mega-assaults in “Game of Thrones.” The Great Battle relates the story of the Siege of the Ansi Fortress, where 150,000 Goguryeo forces held back 500,000 invading Tang soldiers and laborers, in a battle that raged for 88 days, from June 20 and September 18, in 645 A.D. (Goguryeo was one of the three kingdoms of Korea, located in the northern and central parts of the peninsula and the southern and central parts of Manchuria.) The siege was part of first campaign in the Goguryeo-Tang War. In 645, Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong led a military campaign against Goguryeo to protect his allies in the kingdom of Silla and punish Generalissimo Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-seong) for killing King Yeongnyu. Goguryeo commander Yang Man-chun (Jo In-sung) committed his officers and troops to keeping the invaders from pushing toward Silla, even against a superior force and such siege weapons as catapults, battering rams and assault towers. Even if some of the details don’t square with historical theory, the 136-minute movie, at its core, is one long battle, enhanced by tens of thousands of CGI warriors and cavalry; hundreds of archers; and carefully constructed fortifications. The hand-to-hand swordplay is thrilling, as well. The Blu-ray adds a couple of short EPK items, with interviews.

The Oddsockeaters
Pegasus: Pony With a Broken Wing
Based on the best-selling books by Czech writer and translator Pavel Srut, The Oddsockeaters is an animated yarn that can be enjoyed by anyone who’s ever wondered why their socks disappear, one at a time, and can’t be found when a full pair is needed. Because this includes kids, parents and grandparents, Galina Miklínová’s fantasy – winner of the Children’s Jury Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2018 Chicago Children’s Film Festival – practically defines what cross-generational family viewing should be. And, no one will notice the dubbing into English. In it, we’re introduced to the lives of the Oddsockeaters, small bandits who are largely invisible to humans. After the protagonist, Hugo (Krystof Hadek), loses his grandfather, he moves to the house belonging to his uncle, “Big Boss,” and his two nutty cousins. It’s here that he encounters Professor René Kaderábek (Josef Somr), who’s devoted his life to revealing the existence of the elusive creatures to the world. Hugo’s also called upon to rescue one of his cousins from a rival gang. The action is fun to watch and, for those seeking a redemptive lesson, Hugo learns about the limits of greed and true meaning of loyalty.

In Giorgio Serafini’s Dove-approved live-action adventure, Pegasus: Pony With a Broken Wing, a wounded white stallion makes an emergency pitstop on Earth. Fortuitously, the winged steed lands at a horse-rescue ranch in need of some divine financial intervention. Newcomer Eliza Jarrett plays Sydney, a teenager whose family’s business is being threatened by a greedy developer (Tom Arnold, naturally). With time running out, Sydney discovers the not-so-mythical horse, limping around in the forest. His presence prompts the girl’s family to attempt a desperate plan to bail out the ranch. As they do their best to care for the horse, the family comes together to carry out a daring plan to save Pegasus and the ranch. Jonathan Silverman, Charisma Carpenter, Johnny Sinclair and Jennifer Griffin play family members, while Jordan Elsass lends his hunky presence as the teen heartthrob.

Bent: Blu-ray
Adonis
In 1979, when Martin Sherman’s play, “Bent,”  debuted in London, very little was known about Nazi Germany’s persecution of homosexuals. Even less was known about the German Penal Code of 1871’s Paragraph 175, which made homosexual acts between males a crime and effectively allowed Adolph Hitler to incarcerate suspects in concentration camps , where they were identified by a pink triangle. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that the statute was stricken from the legal code. On May 17, 2002, two years after the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s shocking documentary, Paragraph 175, that Nazi-era convictions of homosexuals were annulled, as were those of deserters from the Wehrmacht. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2016 that the German Federal Minister of Justice announced it was investigating the possibility of pardoning and compensating all gay men convicted under Paragraph 175. In June 2017, the law was passed in the Bundestag by an overwhelming majority in all parties. In total, around 140,000 men were convicted under the law, including 50,000 from 1946-69. Only an estimated 10,000 of those imprisoned survived the camps. (More than 12,000 women and men deemed to be asocial — prostitutes, nonconformists and lesbians, among them – were sentenced to hard labor in camps and required to wear an inverted black triangle. An estimated 6,000 of these prisoners would die there. ) “Bent” has been credited with taking this footnote in Holocaust history and giving it a chapter of its own in WWII and LGBTQ studies. The release of Sherman’s 1997 film adaptation and Paragraph 175 would trigger future investigations, legal action and reforms. Until then, it’s likely that audiences outside Germany, at least, were unaware of the statute’s continued existence.

Although Bent, the movie, lost much of its emotional impact in its belated translation to film, it remains a powerfully heart-wrenching drama. Set in the aftermath of the murder of SA leader Ernst Röhm, on the Night of the Long Knives, Bent opens at an open-air bacchanal that picks up where Cabaret’s divine decadence left off. (Mick Jagger entertains the patrons as the transvestite, Greta, while sitting on a swing hanging from a beam in the no-longer-intact building.) One of the men attracted to party-animal Max – Clive Owen, in a role initiated on the West End by Ian McKellen and Richard Gere, on Broadway – is a uniformed Nazi soldier, who’s being followed by Gestapo spies. Before the Night of the Long Knives is over, the soldier will have his throat slit by stormtroopers, while Max and his live-in lover, Rudy (Brian Webber), manage to escape into a largely abandoned factory district. It’s where Greta provides them with men’s clothes he uses to pass, when he’s not singing. After turning down an offer for exit papers from his Uncle Freddie (McKellen), Max elects to hide in a forest with Rudy until his closeted relation can scrape up a second set of papers. In short order, Max and Rudy are captured by police, escorted to a train destined for Dachau and ordered into a box car, already occupied by men and women deemed undesirable. On the way to the camp, Max is forced to complete the torture of his doomed lover, already begun by a masochistic SS officer. It’s here that Max also meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who’s being transported to his second camp and, by now, knows the ropes of confinement. Cocky to the end, Max refuses to believe that he can’t survive the ordeal using his wits. He chooses to wear the yellow triangle, designating him as Jewish, instead of the pink triangle reserved for homosexuals, who are accorded even lower status on the camp’s pecking order. Both men will be assigned chores designed to drive them insane – or make a futile attempt to escape the camp – while also fomenting an illicit romantic relationship in their imaginations, if nowhere else. By the end of the story, Max will be forced to decide whether his love for Horst – a character who’s since emerged as an early martyr in the annals of the gay-liberation movement — is superseded by his natural tendency to survive at all costs, by denying his homosexuality. That he’s likely to die, anyway, as a Jew, is beside the point. Bonus features include cast and crew interviews, a Mick/Greta music video, making-of footage and a new essay, by Steven Alan Carr, author of “Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.”

While the emergence of a thriving LGBTQ cinema is a welcome addition to the menu of choices available to mainstream and arthouse audiences, it’s still difficult to find examples outside the international festival circuit, independent distributors of DVD/Blu-ray titles, and Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Because even the most deserving of these titles tend to land outside the niche marketplace, however, it’s difficult to accommodate them in theaters. (Dedicated streaming services Dekkoo and Revry have emerged recently as competitors to mainstream outlets.) GLAAD identifies Wolfe Releasing, Strand Releasing, IFC Films and Sundance Selects, Film Movement, Gravitas Ventures, Magnolia Pictures, Open Road Films, Starz Distribution and Breaking Glass Pictures as reliably consistent distributors of LGBTQ films.

This month’s selection from Breaking Glass is noteworthy for Adonis, the seventh feature by writer/director/producer Scud (a.k.a., Danny Cheng Wan-cheung), whose previous titles include Voyage, Utopians, City Without Baseball, Permanent Residence, Amphetamine and Love Actually… Sucks! To paraphrase a time-honored critics’ dodge, “they’re not for everyone.” Because Scud has refused to dilute the more overtly homoerotic imagery in his films, they exist in the nether region separating sensuality and soft-core porn. His latest, Adonis, revolves around Adonis Yang Ke (Adonis He Fei), an actor at the Beijing Opera, who, desperate for money to care for his ailing mother, enters the world of high-end prostitution. For his own selfish reasons, Adonis’ milquetoast manager (Justin Lim) steers him in the direction of extreme modeling, voyeurism, bondage, S&M, body sushi, mass orgies and group sex. He also takes on the occasional well-heeled female client. Within that realm, Adonis finds friends and comradery, while also confronting hypocrisy and avarice. In addition to the frequently poignant character study, Scud provides a visual tour of the haunts of rich and privileged perverts, with stops in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan and Stanley districts; the gambling mecca, Macau; Thailand; Taiwan; and Indonesia’s lush Riau Islands. All are beautifully rendered by cinematographer Nathan Wong (Chasing the Dragon). If some of the sexual material is rough to watch, there’s no doubt that Scud didn’t have to go too far to find source material and gorgeous young men willing to use their bodies to get a leg up in the world. The bonus material includes “Interviewing the 30s,” a making-of featurette and interview session with nude cast members and a primly clothed reporter.

Also, from Breaking Glass comes “Male Shorts: International V2,” the second volume of an international collection of five short films focusing on men, including “Free Fall,” “Enter,” “Sr. Raposo,” “Ocaso,” and “Twice.” The films are presented in their original language (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian) with English subtitles; and Simon Chung’s I Miss You When I See You, in which a pair of high school  friends’ emotional attachment is interrupted when one them moves to Australia with his mother. The reunite a dozen years later, in Australia, where Jamie and Kevin are reminded of what they saw in each other, in the first place. Inevitably, Jamie must decide between society’s expectations, by marrying his girlfriend, or following his heart back to Hong Kong.

Nemesis: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Albert Pyun’s cyberpunk action thriller, Nemesis, straddles the line dividing cult classics and guilty pleasures. Advancing ideas introduced in Blade Runner, the 1992 release is set in Los Angeles, 2027, when illegal androids and cyber-terrorists have become commonplace and human criminals enhance themselves with mechanical components, making them “more than human.” Alex Raine (Olivier Gruner) is a disillusioned LAPD bounty hunter, who, during a routine mission, is attacked by a group of cyborg freedom fighters, the Red Army Hammerheads. After undergoing months of cybernetic reconstruction, Alex tracks down his female nemesis (Jennifer Gatti) and kills her. Now identified as an out-of-control maverick, he’s hunted by his android handlers on the LAPD, one whom is an ex-lover, Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), reporting to Commissioner Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson). When Jared goes rogue, the commissioner calls in Alex to prevent her from collaborating with the Hammerheads. After 15 minutes of this back-and-forth, I stopped trying to figure what was happening, focusing, instead, on such veteran  hard guys as Thomerson (Trancers), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun), Yuji Don Okumoto (The Karate Kid Part II), Brion Howard James (Blade Runner), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears) and newcomer, Thomas Jane (“Hung”), as well as such heavenly bodies as Gatti (“Vice Principals), Monaghan (“Babylon 5”), Deborah Shelton (Body Double), Marjean Holden (“BeastMaster”) and the petite bombshell, Merle Kennedy (Bubble Boy). After a while, the foot chases, stunt work and half-assed special effects reframed the picture for me. Even so, it’s difficult to understand why the folks at the increasingly aggressive MVD Rewind Collection invested so much energy into this special collection. It includes four separate feature-length versions of the movie – one in sparkling hi-def, another in Japanese – new interviews, commentary, making-of material, introductions, after-words, a mini-poster, photo gallery and the valuable “Kill-Count” featurette.

Obsession: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
8mm: Blu-ray
Shout and Scream Factories continue to release titles from yesteryear that, in most cases, look better today than they did upon their release. That isn’t to suggest that the critics were wrong when they gave the films mediocre reviews, or worse, just that some vintage studio products stand up to comparison better today than anyone could have expected they would. At the time of Obsession’s release, in 1976, Hollywood was still feeling its way around Brian De Palma and his obsession with Alfred Hitchcock. If the well-received Sisters (1973) reminded everyone who saw it of Rear Window, Obsession would elicit comparisons to Vertigo, even from a none-too-pleased Hitchcock. Today, we’re able to watch the films without trying to figure out if De Palma was a one-trick pony or simply a film-school graduate with delusions of grandeur. Turns out, he was neither. Co-written with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Obsession opens as New Orleans property developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife, Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold), are about to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary with a gala party. The next day, Elizabeth and their 9-year-old daughter, Amy, are abducted and held for ransom. The plot begins to thicken as soon as the kidnappers realize that the briefcase delivered to them by Cortland contains stacks of blank paper, instead of money. Just as the police are about to storm the hideout, the kidnapers escape, with Elizabeth and Amy, in a car destined to collide with a tanker carrying gasoline. It explodes into flames, leaving no doubt of the victims’ fates. Courtland’s mourning period lasts for 16 miserable years, during which time his business partner, Robert (John Lithgow), loses several deals due to Michael’s inattention to duty. The two men decide to combine a little business with pleasure on a trip to Florence, where, dig this, Cortland becomes infatuated with a fresco restorer, Sandra Portinari (also Bujold), who not only is the same age his daughter would have been had she survived the crash, but also is a dead-ringer for Elizabeth. There’s no way that I’m going to reveal anything more about Obsession, because everything that follows their meeting qualifies as a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s makes great use of the Florence and New Orleans’ locations, while Bernard Herrmann’s score is an instant reminder of his work with Hitchcock (Vertigo). Fortunately, De Palma and Schrader’s conceits don’t get in the way of the intrigue – too often, anyway – and Obsession can be enjoyed on its own merits. Leave time for the new and vintage featurettes and commentary, with Douglas Keesey, author of “Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film”; “Producing Obsession,” an interview with producer George Litto; “Editing Obsession,” with editor Paul Hirsh; and “Obsession Revised,” an older piece, featuring interviews with De Palma, Robertson and Bujold.

Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999) is a tad more problematic, if only because its snuff-film throughline too readily recalls Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (1986), which already had mined similar territory. Neither were 8mm’s chances for success enhanced by Schumacher’s willingness to dig deeper into the porn underground than any of those three pictures. The sleaze is sleazier; the characters are grubbier; and the violence is more graphic. Nicolas Cage delivers an atypically measured portrayal of a private detective, whose obsessive search for the truth surrounding a six-year-old crime involves a wealthy family and teenage runaway. By following a path paved with the deceased patriarch’s cancelled checks, Cage’s Tom Welles invariably winds up in the lowest circles of Dante’s Inferno. His Virgil surrogate, Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), escorts him through the S&M dungeons, basement studios and peep-show palaces of L.A. and New York’s porn underground. It’s where Welles finds an 8mm film that appears to confirm his worst fears, but also produces a sliver of a lead toward to the fiend who produced it. By the time his investigation is put to bed and the blood starts to dry, Welles discovers yet another circle of hell … the one inside his head. Because Schumacher didn’t pull any punches in his literal interpretation of the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), 8mm ran the risk of being tagged with the NC-17 rating it probably deserved. Even so, Sony found it difficult to market the film, without appearing to exploit its sex and violence. It’s all explained in a lively new interview with Schumacher, as well as an archived commentary with the producer. Part of the fun here derives from checking out supporting performances by Phoenix (Walk the Line), James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Anthony Heald (The Silence of the Lambs), Amy Morton (Up in the Air), Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) and Chris Bauer (“The Deuce”).

When Harry Met Sally: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
I’m going to go out on a very short and wobbly limb by assuming that everyone who’s likely to check out Shout’s commemorative edition of  When Harry Met Sally probably has already watched it several times, albeit with less-than-optimum visuals. It’s one of those comedies that diehard fans check out whenever it’s on cable, even if they own it on VHS and DVD, and some women can quote verbatim … just like guys who’ve memorized every line of The Godfather, Scarface and Joe Pesci’s rants in Goodfellas. Who knows how many otherwise normal couples have visited Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Houston Street, to find the table at which the orgasm scene was filmed and attempt to repeat Sally Albright’s ecstatic soliloquy. (The table now has a plaque on it that reads, “Where Harry met Sally … hope you have what she had!”) Fact is, after 30 years, When Harry Met Sally holds up very well as a romantic comedy for the ages … not simply as a date-night confection, either. Billy Crystal may have been 40 years old when he shared a ride to New York with Meg Ryan, then 27, but he ages well throughout the movie. Director Rob Reiner was still at the top of his game, as was the late Nora Ephron, who practically created the template for such entertainments. Likewise, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby and Estelle Reiner, all of whom look fabulous, here, but are no longer with us. Their deaths are the only thing that lends an air of sadness to the newly recorded “Scenes From a Friendship” gabfest between Reiner and Crystal. If they repeat anecdotes and memories previously recorded for commentaries on earlier Blu-ray editions, chalk it up to old age and going over the same material for the millionth time. Also included are deleted scenes, a Harry Connick video and a trio of archived featurettes.

Willie Dynamite: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Unlike some blaxploitation classics released into Blu-ray recently, Willie Dynamite holds up today as an example of what can be accomplished on a miniscule budget and with a lot of imagination. As we’re told in Sergio Mims’ informed commentary, it was one of last films of its kind made before the studios lost interest in black audiences. Unfortunately, Michael Campus’ pimpin’ classic, The Mack, had been released only a few months earlier, reducing any pent-up interest in the subgenre. Production partners Zanuck/Brown and Universal Pictures were pre-occupied with such lucrative joint ventures as The Sting (1973), Jaws (1975) and The Sugarland Express (1974). The inattention forced director Gilbert Moses (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh) and his design team to improvise. In doing so, they set the standards for the next 40 years of pimps-and-hoes-ball fashions and transportation. (We can only hope the furs were of the faux persuasion.) When we meet the title character, he’s the flashiest pimp in New York, with a stable of working girls who service only the most desirable clients. He drives a personalized purple-and-gold Cadillac and carries a derringer in a holster that droops to within an inch of his johnson. Somewhere along the way, Willie managed to piss off the cops to the point where they’ve launched an all-out assault on his business and bankroll. Jealous of his access to ready cash and beautiful women, the cops act the way they always  do in blaxploitation pictures. While he’s down, the pimp brotherhood does its best to keep him there. The rest of Willie Dynamite unspools like a morality play designed to discourage youngsters from following him into the game. Beyond that, some lively dialogue, flamboyant acting and vocals by Martha Reeves & the Sweet Things compensate for the lack of nudity and realistic violence. (The lingerie anticipated Victoria’s Secret by several years, though.) Now, here’s the kicker: Willy is played by Roscoe Orman, known for his work on The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) and Follow That Bird (1985). Besides the commentary tracks, the Arrow Video package adds a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips, and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with writing on the film by Cullen Gallagher.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: The Pension Gamble
PBS: Frontline: The Facebook Dilemma
PBS: Nature: Super Cats
PBS: A Chef’s Life
Garfield: 20 Stories
American states and municipalities are facing so many different financial crises, it’s become impossible for politicians to know which one to take on next. With the disappearance of solid investigative reporting by local newspapers, radio and television stations, most citizens are unaware of impending problems, until it’s too late to fix them. One of the most ominous is the growing inability of states to fill the $4-trillion hole they’ve dug while borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. For many years, major cities, like Chicago, avoided strikes by public workers by promising them retirement benefits that have since become unsustainable. Aftershocks from the 2008 recession have practically ensured that the worst is yet to come. “Frontline: The Pension Gamble” investigates the consequences for teachers, police, firefighters and other public servants in Kentucky, a historically solvent state whose leaders kept the citizenry in the dark about the mismanagement of the futures. In 2000, a series of Kentucky politicians, reluctant to raise taxes, began to divert pension savings to pay their bills and fund other projects.
“The pension was used basically as a piggy bank,” journalist John Cheves tells “Frontline” producers, also comparing it to “a slow-motion car crash.” After the 2008 financial crisis, the geniuses managing Kentucky’s public pensions decided that in order to dig out from under, they would sample some of Wall Street’s more exotic and risky investment vehicles, like hedge funds. Wall Street was only too happy to provide the cars the states would drive over the nearest cliff.

“Frontline” also tackled “The Facebook Dilemma,” which no one knew existed until the Russians used the social-media giant to steal the 2016 election for their good friend, Donald Trump. Depending on where one is sitting on the deck of the Titanic, the election debacle was either the tip or unseen bottom of the iceberg. What began as a matchmaking service for Ivy League horndogs has grown into an amoral beast that sells data gleaned from subscribers to anyone able to afford it. How it’s used is anyone’s guess. Maybe, there’s a market for selfies of subscribers and their babies, cats and vacation destinations. “Frontline” investigates a series of warnings from insiders and outsiders that went unattended by Facebook, as the company grew from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm-room project to a global juggernaut. The promise of Facebook was to create a more open and connected world, but the company’s failure to protect millions of users’ data led to the proliferation of “fake news” and disinformation that Zuckerberg can barely acknowledge, let alone prevent. The two-part report features original interviews and rare footage.

You don’t have to be a cat person to enjoy PBS’ “Nature: Super Cats,” but, if you are, it will provide 160 minutes of memorable entertainment.  Cats of one variety, or another, prowl almost every continent and come in all sizes and personality types. The three-part mini-series was filmed over 600 days, in 14 countries, and features 31 species of cat. It introduces behaviors captured on film for the first time, using the latest camera technology and scientific research. While we expect to see the elusive Himalayan snow tiger in its natural habitat, we’re surprised by scenes featuring the swamp tiger of South Asia; a half-blind California bobcat; a tiny black-footed cat that hunts more in one night than a leopard does in six months;  a mother Pallas’ cat and her kittens; a puma, preying on Magellanic penguins; and a leopard capturing a sea turtle.

After five seasons on PBS affiliates, “A Chef’s Life” served its last hungry diner on October 22, 2018. Vivian Howard hosts “The Final Harvest,” a farewell feast for the ages. The show’s most popular personalities share their favorite moments, along with a series-worth of memorable flashbacks. It’s a fitting sign-off to a series that served as a veritable to eastern North Carolina. The series won a Peabody Award in 2013, “for its refreshingly unsensational depiction of life and work in a modern restaurant, with generous sides of Southern folkways and food lore.”

The animated episodes of “Garfield and Friends” represented in Public Media Distribution’s “Garfield: 20 Stories” have been previously released, recycled and repackaged under different titles, so, as usual, caveat emptor. They first appeared in the show’s Saturday-morning timeslot on CBS, in the season before the network decided the series was too expensive to produce and gave it the old heave-ho. Twenty-five years later, they remain as delightful as they were when Jim Davis’ creation was the fattest of all fat orange cats on television and video, in newspaper funny pages, video games, comics anthologies and all manner of tie-in products. Garfield’s since found homes in features films and the Internet. The 20 stories collected here allow viewers to tag along with the lasagna-loving feline and friends, as they re-imagine his favorite fairy tales, bring history to life and solve crimes big and small. Children can follow Garfield on a tour of a movie museum and learn about famous show-business cats in films. The DVD has a running time of 142 minutes.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“That’s the joke of Prune, that we just pretend to be a restaurant. But we’re actually an institute for living. We hide behind the fried eggs, and we hide behind the marrow bones, but really what we’re doing here is trying to change the whole goddamn world, one lamb chop at a time. It’s slow going, but I think we’re getting there.”
~ Gabrielle Hamilton

“I’m into pleasure rebellion,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “I’ve shared all my misery and tragedy but in my personal life I’m a cheerleader, an optimist. That aspect of myself is not shared. Once you are free from trauma, you are going to luxuriate in pleasure and happiness – personal pleasure. A divine gluttony, I should say.”
Lydia Lunch