MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Not A Witch, Jonathan, The Captain, Speed Kills, Room 304, Hippocrates, The Dark, Crimson Peak, Tea With Dames, Forbidden Photos, Addiction … More

I Am Not a Witch
In 1980, Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy became the most commercially successful release in the history of South Africa’s film industry … possibly in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. The movie generated extensive word-of-mouth success in Europe, Japan and North America, with the movie rights initially being sold to 45 countries. Funny, unexpected and exotic, The Gods Must Be Crazy became a huge arthouse hit here. Set in Botswana, it follows the story of Xi, a Saan of the Kalahari Desert — played by Namibian Saan farmer Nǃxau ǂToma — whose tribe has no knowledge of the world beyond its villages. After a Coca-Cola bottle is discarded from a plane flying over the Kalahari Desert, it’s found, intact, by a bushman, who has no idea what it is, what purpose it serves or from whence it came. When Xi brings it to his village, the bottle causes such consternation that tribal officials order the bushman to return it to the gods, who must have sent it in the first place. His journey describes the stark differences between the “primitive” culture of the aboriginal, Xhosa-speaking Saan and the technologically advanced culture of the modern world. By becoming an international sensation, The Gods Must Be Crazy also opened the door for criticism by anti-apartheid activists, who were quick to point out the things Uys omitted from the comedy to assure a government subsidy and release. They included the economic, judicial and cultural realities for tribes under apartheid – the star, Nǃxau initially earned less than $2,000 for his starring role – self-censorship of political issues raised and any mention of restrictions prohibiting blacks from making movies and watching them in theaters, outside of crudely produced genre films made in the 1980s by white producers and featuring  actors of color, for the enjoyment of township audiences. (Some of them are now available through IndiePix Films’ Retro Afrika series.) The Gods Must Be Crazy and its inferior sequel were released on DVD in 2004, but not since in Blu-ray.

I was reminded of Nǃxau while watching I Am Not a Witch, an offbeat dramedy by the Zambian-born, British-raised writer/director Rungano Nyoni. It depicts the ways women convicted of being witches in rural Zambia cope with ignorance, prejudice and forced labor. That cold reality is offset by the comic buffoonery and outright hypocrisy of rural officials, who are swayed by legal statutes, superstition and fear of the unknown when dealing with women accused of being witches. Here, 9-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is exiled to a mobile witch camp after being accused of crimes that wouldn’t even stand up in a kangaroo court.  To prevent the women from “flying away,” they’re required to wear long white ribbons, which connect to spools affixed to rods on a flatbed truck. She’s warned by a corrupt government agent, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), that any attempt to escape could result in her being transformed into a white goat. Before Shula’s actually convicted of witchcraft and given a ribbon to wear, Banda confers with the local tribe’s witch doctor, whose judgements are dictated by what he gleans from the final death throes of beheaded chickens. If Shula doesn’t offer much in the way of a defense, it’s only because the older women are kind to her and benefit from regular meals, shelter and the occasional bottle of gin. It only takes Banda a few hours to figure out how to profit from Shula’s gift, as it were, and use it to maintain his comparatively lavish western lifestyle and the continued adoration of his wife – a pretty woman he rescued from the camp — who believes that she’s protected from bigotry by the ring on her finger. Banda courts celebrityhood by bringing Shula into the nearest city and sitting alongside her while she’s interviewed by a talk-show host. He goes out on a limb by promising the audience that Shula will come up with a way to end the region’s crippling drought. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little girl, but Banda has more to lose than she does, as her worst-case scenario begins and ends with being turned into a goat, able to roam freely and eat what it wants. Nyoni enhances the story with a few dollops of magical realism and her ability to remain as objective as possible under the circumstances. Special features include two of Nyoni’s award-winning shorts and an interview.

If the witch doctor in I Am Not a Witch is less sinister than Banda, the ones to whom we’re exposed in In the Shadow of the Sun (2012), Africa Investigates: Spell of the Albino (2011), White Shadow (2013) and Albino Africa (2014), are nothing less than demonic. These and other recent documentaries, docudramas and dramas describe how albinos in Tanzania – a country considered progressive by African standards – are hunted, maimed and murdered for body parts used by witch doctors in their rituals. While some people believe they bring bad luck and are somehow immortal, witch doctors have convinced bounty hunters that their bones can cure diseases or be used as charms to bring wealth. In Swahili, albinos are called “zeru zeru,” which means “ghosts.” In a country with a high rate of poverty, the prices put on their body parts have encouraged a recent wave of violent crimes against albinos. In Tanzania, the percentage of people born without melanin is said to be eight times higher than anywhere else in the world. There is no scientific explanation for this anomaly and the locals rarely talk about it. To combat the extraordinary cruelty and superstitions, government and relief agencies have created boarding schools and shelters to protect potential victims.

Jonathan
In his directorial debut, Bill Oliver puts a “Twilight Zone” spin on questions raised by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr  Jeckyl and Mr Hyde” and subsequent examinations of the duality of human nature and inner struggle between good and evil. Typically, filmmakers use identical-twin characters as easily recognizable entry points to narratives on schizophrenia and the “evil twin” phenomenon. If viewers are lucky, directors will provide a visual hint to distinguish between the twins. If not, we’re required to guess which of the characters are worthy of our support or empathy. Jonathan bears more than a passing resemblance to David Cronenberg’s simultaneously scary, disturbing and kinky Dead Ringers (1988). Clearly, Oliver hasn’t reached the point in his career where he’s capable of going toe-to-toe on the subject with Cronenberg, Brian De Palma (Sisters), Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Véronique) or François Ozon (Double Lover). It’s a good start, however.

In it, Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) plays two brothers, Jonathan/John, living separate lives inside the same body. While they’ve been cognizant of their otherness for some time, it’s been ascribed it to schizophrenia or some other mental condition that’s more perplexing than overtly painful or dangerous. Their therapist, Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson), made the controversial twin-within-a-twin diagnosis and convinced the brothers to agree on a schedule that allows for each of them to divide their 12-hour days into shifts: sleep, work and free time. Neither of them is aware of the other’s activities while he’s off-the-clock, as it were. Jonathan is rigid, precise and fussy, and takes his work home with him. John has more of a laid-back personality and invested his free time in more leisurely pursuits. Until lately, they’ve lived by a strict set of rules, limiting their exposure to outsiders and avoiding romantic and social entanglements. To make sure they’re on the same wavelength after each of their shifts – inwardly and outwardly – each brother leaves the other a video, describing every detail of their conscious periods, which run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and vice versa. The men will squabble over who’s forgotten to clean up their apartment or neglected other chores, but they know that cooperation is the only option open to them.

It takes a while for Jonathan, an aspiring architect, to notice a change in their respective routines. It presents itself as a lack of sleep or a bruise that wasn’t there when they last exchanged videos. It almost goes without saying that John, who works as a temp at a law firm and is something of a party animal, will eventually breaks the rules by falling in love with  Elena (Suki Waterhouse), a pretty blond who’s unaware of the brothers’ situation. When Jonathan alerts Dr. Nariman to John’s misbehavior, she immediately senses that such risky behavior could affect both of them simultaneously and unfairly impact Elena. She demands that John tell Elena about his double life or, preferably, cut things off completely. Jonathan is so unnerved that he hires a P.I. to dig up the goods on Elena and uses the information to stalk Elena on her daily rounds. He doesn’t ask John’s permission to do so, however. When John decides to break off their relationship, it causes him to fall into a depressive state and become belligerent with strangers. (Johnathan will find the bruises in the morning.) Ironically, the decision also serves to drive Elena into Jonathan’s arms, which isn’t particularly healthy, either. Because Jonathan, the movie, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be – sci-fi, romance, drama, suspense – it has trouble sticking the landing. As the title suggests, the story suffers from an unbalanced presentation of points-of-view, leaving us wondering what going on in John’s half of their brain. The same applies to Elena. It might have been interesting to see what would happen if John and Elena had decided to get married or take a trip to Mexico, without informing Jonathan. He’d wake up the next morning in Cancun, with a ring on his finger and reservations for scuba lessons. Then, what?

The Captain: Blu-ray
Memoir of War
If, going into it, all one knew about the harrowing German wartime drama, The Captain, is that its writer/director previously made Flightplan (2005), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), RED (2010), R.I.P.D. (2013), Insurgent (2015) and Allegiant (2016), the safe assumption would be that it will be a typical Hollywood entertainment, with a couple of marquee actors and lots of CGI-enhanced action. Oh, yeah, the same director is also scheduled to direct a G.I. Joe spin-off, featuring the character Snake Eyes, for release in 2020. That guess would be wrong. Instead, Stuttgart-born writer/director Robert Schwentke — a 1992 graduate of Columbia College Hollywood – has crafted the kind of story that takes risks most studios avoid, unless Steven Spielberg or George Lucas is attached to the project. Although it did well at several international film festivals and received excellent reviews, The Captain was released in only a handful of niche theaters, in advance of what deserves to be a lucrative run on DVD. Schwentke based the movie on the true story of Willi Herold – a.k.a., the Executioner of Emsland – which appears to have only been a footnote in the recorded annals of World War II. As far as I can tell, The Captain grossed $109,226 here and another $191,873 overseas. As Schwentke mentions in an interview included in the bonus package, he wanted to remind viewers – including his fellow countrymen – that some of the atrocities that were committed during the war were caused by everyday soldiers and officers, without any direct link to Adolph Hitler, the Gestapo or death-camp commandoes. The perpetrators weren’t following orders and their victims weren’t always Jews, enemy combatants or POWs protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Most of what happens during the first half of The Captain would naturally lead viewers to believe that it will be as darkly comedic as Catch 22 (1970) or The Good Soldier Schweik (1960). In September 1943, Herold (Max Hubacher), then 18, was called up for military service and fought in battles at Nettuno and Monte Cassino. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and promoted to corporal after destroying two British tanks at Salerno. After being relocated to Germany in early April 1945, Herold became separated from his unit near Bad Bentheim and swallowed up in the chaos of the retreating German army. The Captain opens with Herold wandering through the countryside, scratching for food and behaving strangely in the company of deserters in makeshift shelters. In time, Willie comes across an abandoned limousine, containing the luggage and papers of a Luftwaffe captain. After he puts on the officer’s uniform, Herold metamorphosizes into something he never was and is ill-prepared to be: a leader of men. Hoping simply to find food and the quickest route back to Berlin, he forms a platoon of raggedy soldiers, deserters and escaped criminals, who don’t look any more out of place than the other soldiers they encounter. At first, Willie’s uniform, papers and posturing protect him from possible questions about his actual status and youthful demeanor. He looks the part and effectively mimics the extreme behavior of a SS official. The closer Herold comes to a place where he can ride out the end of the war, however, the more likely it becomes that Wehrmacht officers will demand that he prove his leadership skills. Herold volunteers to shoot anyone acting out of line, while ordering his troops to perform odious tasks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the power goes to his head. At a loosely run prison camp for Nazi riff-raff, he orders guards to execute prisoners for breaking the rules or for simply getting in his way. A comedy presentation and sing-along turn violent and it triggers in him a mad desire to execute dozens of prisoners herded into a trench. When the Allies bomb the camp, Herold decides to get while the gettin’s good, escaping into the forest. He’s arrested and escapes one more time before returning home, where he pursues a career as a chimney sweep. In the epilogue, we learn that Herold was eventually arrested by the Royal Navy for the theft of a loaf of bread, and rightly punished for being a war criminal. Schwentke took some liberties with the details of the case, but not many. Even then, it’s difficult to discern whether Willi’s madness can be written off as the “banality of evil” or was the result of crossed circuitry in the brain of a 19-year-old sociopath unworthy of wearing anyone’s uniform.The Blu-ray adds commentary and a festival Q&A with Schwentke; making-of featurettes; interviews; and deleted scenes.

Also, from Music Box this month, comes a second atypical World War II drama, Memoir of War, from France. Both films are set during the waning months of World War II, albeit from radically different points of view. In Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel, “The War” (1985)  – ostensibly inspired by diaries discovered decades after VE Day — Mélanie Thierry (The Dancer) delivers a haunting portrayal of the author in extremis. Duras’ communist husband, Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), has been captured by French police and deported to a series of German concentration camps. Somehow, other members of their cell have avoided arrest. Naturally, they question Marguerite’s decision to play along with the intelligence officer, Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magim), who nabbed him. He wants to squeeze Duras, whose books he admires, for leads to other Resistance members and an opportunity to exchange information on her husband for sexual favors. Pierre is quite a bit more suave and intellectual than what we’ve come to expect from collaborators in other wartime movies, so Duras doesn’t seem to mind being in his company, as long as the flow of information about Robert continues. Neither gets what they want, even though an awkward friendship develops between them. (It’s difficult to tell what the cell members have accomplished, but, if nothing else, they serve as our conduit to information on the Allied advances and liberation of death camps.) Marguerite’s emotional state is in a steady decline throughout the movie, even when Robert returns home, nearly dead from beatings and malnutrition. Finkiel and his DP, Alexis Kavyrchine (Back to Burgundy), employ all sorts of visual gimmicks to reflect the extremes in Duras’ condition, as described in her diaries. While an affair with their oily friend and comrade, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), is handled with delicacy, viewers are left wondering as to who is taking advantage of whom and why their tryst couldn’t wait a couple more months to begin. Maybe it’s a French thing. The scenes I admire most in Memoir of War derive from Finkiel’s atypical depiction of the Occupation. Usually, the Nazis and Vichy police are shown beating and killing people, almost at random, and SS officers strut around town like malevolent peacocks. Signs of Nazi propaganda and oppression are everywhere, but, apart from the lines of people outside police headquarters, very little appears to be out of the ordinary … everything else considered.  Scenes depicting the return of relieved soldiers, weary POWs and rail-thing camp survivors pack quite a punch. They’re certainly a change of pace from the images we usually see of cheering, flag-waving crowds and pretty girls kissing American soldiers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Room 304
Released in 2011, but only now finding its way to the U.S., Birgitte Stærmose and writer Kim Fupz Aakesonn’s Room 304 borrows a familiar conceit and updates it to mirror contemporary issues and personnel dilemmas. The ensemble drama is set in a small, but classy Copenhagen hotel, where disparate lives intersect by chance or fate. Among the people we meet are a stewardess (Ariadna Gil) desperate for intimacy; an immigrant (Luan Jaha) from a war-torn country, obsessed with revenge; a hotel manager (Magnus Krepper) lost in despair; a wife (Trine Dyrholm) abandoned by her husband; and a receptionist (David Dencik) with blood on his hands … literally. Liberated by the feigned intimacy of hotel rooms, secrets are revealed and unexpected events merge into a dramatic tale of love and longing. One of the best things about Room 304 is the multicultural cast, which reflects the diversity of life – ethnically and economically – in central Europe, along with the upstairs/downstairs intermingling of characters.

Speed Kills: Blu-ray
Nominations for the 39th Golden Raspberry Awards won’t be announced until January 21, but, unless I’m very wrong, John Travolta (Gotti) is a mortal lock for being chosen as a Worst Actor finalist for the first time since 2010. That was the year he lost the Worst Actor of the Decade Razzie to Eddie Murphy and the Worst Actor prize (Old Dogs) to all three of the Jonas Brothers for The 3D Concert Experience. If it was any consolation to him, Battlefield Earth – adapted from L. Ron Hubbard’s eponymous sci-fi novel — was awarded the prize for Worst Picture of the Decade. For his contributions to Roger Christian’s homage to Scientology mythos, Travolta was named Worst Actor at the 2001 ceremony. In between Old Dogs and Gotti, Travolta appeared in eight movies that were elevated – if not very high – by his presence. The highlight, though, was his award-winning portrayal of sleazy “dream team” lawyer Robert Shapiro, in FX Network’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (2016). Whoever convinced the two-time Oscar nominee to follow that masterwork with Gotti and Speed Kills (2018) deserves to lose his talent-agent’s license and donate his or her fee to the Jett Travolta Foundation. In both films, Travolta plays men involved in organized crime: John Gotti was a king, while Ben Aronoff is portrayed as a pawn whose luck ran out in a Miami parking lot, in 1987. In fact, first-time director Jodi Scurfield and a team of screenwriters based Aronoff on Donald Joel Aronow, who, hardly a pawn, was known far and wide as a world-class racer and manufacturer of some of the fastest and most expensive boats ever made. His Rolodex included the names and numbers of kings, shahs, politicians, mobsters and poseurs, including then-Vice President George Bush, who was to Aronow what Richard Nixon was to Bebe Rebozo. That connection is alluded to in Speed Kills, but only during an almost comical boat ride, in which Travolta and Matthew Modine, as Aranoff and Bush, tool around Biscayne Bay. The ride is shown to have inspired Bush, already the proud owner of a Cigarette boat, to invest taxpayer dollars into a small fleet of Blue Thunder catamarans, at $150,000 apiece.

Until the cats were proven to be unequal to the task, they were assigned to the U.S. Customs Service, as substitutes for Cigarettes seized from drug dealers to catch traffickers. Because both the catamarans and Cigarettes were designed and manufactured by Aronow, President Reagan’s point man in the drug war was effectively pimping for a BFF who not only serviced his favorite maritime toy, but who also was selling boats to drug traffickers and laundering money for the Gambino crime family. It’s represented here by Meyer Lansky’s psychotic nephew, Robbie Reemer (Kellan Lutz). In fact, Reemer is based on the mafia accountant’s great-nephew, Ben Kramer, another champion racer, who, in 1989, would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for having imported a half-million pounds of marijuana. (A year later, father Jack and son Ben would be found guilty of 23 and 28 counts of federal money-laundering charges. In 1996, Ben Kramer pled guilty to manslaughter charges for ordering Aronow’s death over a business dispute.) As was the case in Gotti, in which the mob chieftain’s paternal qualities are emphasized, Speed Kills is less concerned with Aronow and the mob’s relationship with Bush and other world leaders than his willingness to puff out his chest and stand up to Lansky and his henchmen … until he became a liability, anyway. As such, Speed Kills isn’t nearly as interesting as the average episode of “Miami Vice,” which frequently served as an unofficial marketing wing for Aronow’s boat-manufacturing concerns. There was a better story to be told about Aronow and his dealings – sketchy, as they are, even today – but asking Travolta to reprise his makeup-intensive Gotti performance distracts from the truth. (Somehow, Scurfield  even manages to make Jennifer Esposito, playing Aronoff’s first wife, Katherine/Shirley Goldin, look frumpy.) If Speed Kills opened theatrically, no one told the ticket counters at Box Office Mojo. That’s what happens, though, when you have three dozen exec-producers on a project, three producers and a freshman director. The real story gets lost in the fog of myth-making. I wonder if they’ll all show up for the Razzies, if their baby is nominated.

The Dark
After Darkness
As much as I tried, I couldn’t find any linkage between these two thrillers, except for the similarity in the titles. Any port in a storm, right? The better movie, The Dark, debuted on the festival circuit, before being made available on streaming outlets. The deeply flawed After Darkness, as far as I can tell, went straight to VOD, before also landing on DVD. And, despite the presence of such recognizable actors as Tim and Sam Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”), John Patrick Amedori (“Dear White People”), Valerie Curry (“The Following”) and Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”), I couldn’t find any reviews for the latter picture. The opposite is the case for The Dark. Let’s start there.

Essentially, The Dark is a don’t-go-into-the-woods drama, with splatter, slasher and buddy elements thrown in for kicks. Viewers should brace themselves for 95 minutes of jump-scares from the minute a convenience-store operator warns a stranger about visiting a mysterious tract of wilderness, known far and wide as Devil’s Den. He describes it as a place where many outsiders have entered, but none has left. When the proprietor notices a photo of the stranger in that day’s newspaper, identifying him as a suspect in a terrible crime, he’s shot and killed by the man asking directions. Naturally, Josef (Karl Markovics) heads immediately for Devil’s Den, thinking it might be the last place anyone dares to look for him. (Turns out, it’s the first place local lawmen go.), Shortly after his car’s tires are destroyed by a spike strip laid across a dirt road leading deeper into the woods, the fugitive makes his way to a decaying house that appears to be abandoned, but we instinctively know is inhabited by a demon of some as-yet-unknown variety. Sure enough, he’s set upon by the creature, who moves too quickly to describe. Even without knowing who or what is responsible for the terrible deed, the killing serves writer/director Justin P. Lange’s purpose of convincing viewers not to get too comfortable in their seats. Just as surprisingly, a grotesquely disfigured boy, Alex, pops his head up from the back of the station wagon, wondering where Josef went. It captures the attention of the certifiably undead killer, Mina (Nadia Alexander), who didn’t know what to expect when she inspected the vehicle. Although we fear that Alex will become Mina’s dessert, nothing of the sort happens. In short order, we learn that the teenage girl is, indeed, the notorious monster of Devil’s Den and, more to the point, an undead reminder of a crime that happened long ago in the same house. Alex not only was blinded by Josef, after an indeterminate amount of time in confinement, but he also acquired Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps sensing the blind boy’s predicament, Mina takes pity on the boy and allows him to tag along on her bloody treks in search of food. Their co-dependency will be sorely tested when a sheriff’s begins looking for Josef, unaware of what else awaits them in the woods. For some reason, the coupling reminded of the scene in Frankenstein (1931), when the Monster (a.k.a., ?) first met Little Maria at the lake and they briefly enjoyed playing a game together. Eventually, Lange paints himself into a narrative corner, with nowhere to logically conclude The Dark. What’s lingers, though, is satisfying enough for a recommendation.

Thematically, at least, After Darkness reminded me of Mike Cahill’s pre-apocalypse rom-dram Another Earth (2011) and Lars von Trier’s chilling sci-fi drama, Melancholia (2011). That’s because all three pictures depict how small groups of endangered humans might deal with impending doom from above. In the first two, humanity is threatened by runaway planets on a collision course with Earth. In After Darkness, Batan Silva’s characters are threatened by our own Sun, which, like a lightbulb on the blink, has begun to show signs of going dark, leaving the world in darkness. Normally, that would be a prospect too horrifying to contemplate. What I found too horrible to imagine was the prospect of spending more than 98 minutes in the company of Tim Daly’s patriarchal brute, Raymond Beaty, a man so irredeemably abusive and selfish that it’s impossible to imagine why his wife and children have agreed to spend their last moments of life in his company. Raymond professes to have discovered a secret location, within a day’s drive, where the Beatys might survive the absence of natural light, for a short while, at least. From the moment the first family members begin to gather, however, the father criticizes their every movement and decision. He demands they remain in the house, at all hours, and obey other rules that make no logical sense in advance of the world’s end. Apparently, though, he’s always been a tyrant and his wife, Georgina, has demonstrated a reluctance to challenge him. So, why not spend their last hours with someone likeable? Maybe, because one of the siblings is hours away from delivering Raymond and Georgina their first grandchild and what better way to welcome it into what’s left of the  solar system’s life span. A couple of outside threats serve to pull the disparate family members together, but they’re no more unnerving than the Beatys’ family dinners. Blessedly, Sedgwick and the younger actors keep hope alive for a miracle that doesn’t include Daly’s character.

Tea With the Dames
In a different era, the title of this delightful chat-umentary would suggest a fish-out-of-water comedy starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, or  musical comedy inspred by the showstopping song from South Pacific, “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” In the UK, however, viewers would know exactly what to expect from Tea With the Dames: nearly 90 minutes of light-hearted banter with Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Joan Plowright. Already familiar to lovers of prestige theater, film and television presentations around the world, these formidable actresses have been honored by the Queen of England for their contributions to drama, although she might have included comedy and romance for good measure. The honorific title of dame is the feminine equivalent of knight and comparable form of address to “sir.” In addition to their many Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and BAFTAs, the longtime friends have logged four lifetimes worth of memories, anecdotes, observations, triumphs and regrets unique to only a handful of other actors, male or female. Before the Oscars, such publications as Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Vogue and the New York Times routinely stage roundtable discussions with nominees and former winners to gain some insight into their careers. None that I’ve read has been as delightfully rendered as Tea With the Dames or produced such candid disclosures. Director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson) benefits mightily from the congenial setting — the country home Plowright shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier – and many circumstances they have in common. In addition to the chat, Michell provides viewers with clips of their work from the beginning of their careers to as late as “Downton Abbey,” which senior  cast member Dame Smith admits not to have seen. Especially poignant are the images captured when the women were “younger than springtime” – to borrow another lyric from “South Pacific” – and enjoyed the spoils of capturing the attention of Swinging London. At 84, dames Dench, Smith and Atkins still look glamorous and remain active in their careers. In 2014, when she was 84, Plowright officially announced her retirement from acting, because she had become completely blind. That doesn’t prevent her from sharing tea, chocolate, champagne and candid memories with her friends here, however. Tea With the Dames is one of those films you wish could last another 90 minutes and, perhaps, be a tad more catty or contemporary, with references to #MeToo and their thoughts on today’s A-list actresses. It’s likely, though, that time-honored discretion would prevent them from sharing their thoughts on such subjects with the camera.

 
A Quest for Meaning
A lot of people make a lot sense in Nathanaël Coste and Marc De La Ménardière’s inspirational documentary, A Quest for Meaning. Unfortunately, none of them are in positions to dictate the kinds of changes we’ll need to save the planet, before the forces of greed, conspicuous consumption and opportunism lose their arguments against the reality of global warming. When, in 2009, French documentarian Nathanael Coste reconnected in New York with his childhood friend, Marc de la Menardiere, the latter was a marketing executive for an international agribusiness conglomerate. A freak accident cleared some time for Marc to watch Nathanael’s cautionary films about environmental issues. They caused him to reflect on a frequently misquoted observation, attributed to Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution or you’re going to be part of the problem.” The accident coincided, as well, with the rapidly expanding global financial crisis, which had taken the wind out of the sails of his generation’s hedonistic juggernaut. Their combined resources allowed the two men the freedom to find and film deep-thinkers who already had decided where they stood on Cleaver’s proposition. They also were introduced to farmers and communards, who are practicing what Mahatma Gandhi preached on questions about post-colonial agrarian reforms. Among other things, Gandhi believed that land, air, water, sunlight and sky are God’s gifts and, under no circumstances, should come under the control of any person, business or industrial group, or any centralized form of power. He didn’t have anymore luck achieving that goal than the hippie farmers in Easy Rider. Today, of course, proponents of organic agriculture and healthy eating have found support among customers of farmers’ markets, high-end restaurants and grocers. At the same time, genetically modified seeds have been pushed on farmers in developing countries, where information on their negative effects on humans and livestock is scarce and consumers aren’t alerted to their presence in food staples.  The things that differentiate A Quest for Meaning from dozens of other, more academic and polemical documentaries on our abuse of the planet are interviews with astrophysicists, clinical psychologists and developmental biologists and spiritualists. Conveniently, the filmmakers’ “quest” took them to splendorous corners of France, the Himalayas, Mexico, Guatemala and the United States. The conversations may be overly familiar to most viewers in the target demographic, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be shown to high school students or 4-H clubs. It’s their world, too, after all.

Hippocrates: Diary of a  French Doctor
Although thousands of medical doctors have served the movie and television industries as consultants, writers and inspirations, the number who’ve taken the next step, by becoming directors, can be counted on one hand. George Miller (Mad Max) is the most prominent exception to the rule, and Michael Crichton (Westworld) dropped out of medical school when his books became best-sellers. British comedian, author, television presenter, filmmaker and former doctor Harry Hill (“TV Burp”) probably wouldn’t be recognized outside the UK. Then, too, there’s French multihyphenate Thomas Lilti, a family doctor who’s written and directed three mainstream films featuring doctors, nurses and patients, as well as co-authoring Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017). Lilti began making short movies at the same time he was studying medicine. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014) and the spinoff series, “Hippocrates” (2018), are informed by his experiences as an intern, while Irreplaceable (2016) describes a changing of the guard at a country hospital and The Freshman explores friendships made during the first year of medical school. Irreplaceable, which starred François Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt, was released on DVD here last spring. Like that picture, the newly available Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor did well at the French box office. It looks at the daily life of a hospital through the eyes of a newly minted intern, Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste), whose father (Jacques Gamblin) just so happens to be the facility’s chief administrator. He’s cocky, but not because he thinks his dad will grease any skids for him. As an intern, Benjamin is assigned one of the least-desirable jobs, caring for terminally ill patients, of which there are many. Without going into detail, corners are cut in the treatment of some of the more needy patients, if only because the hospital’s budget doesn’t allow for reliable equipment. Innocently made mistakes are covered up, to protect the interns and hospital, alike. Benjamin benefits from one of the coverups, but he’s haunted by others. His relationship with his father eventually gets too close for the comfort of fellow staff ministers and administrators. As is usually the case with movies about interns at busy hospitals, we assume that Benjamin will someday become a good, possibly great doctor … but, only if he can survive the long hours, disappointments, politics and, being a French film, beaucoup cigarettes. And, that’s far from a gimme. It’s easy to see how Lilti’s experience and expertise kept the overstuffed narrative from going off the rails and no more than 102 minutes long. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor also benefits from non-stereotypical characters and a set that approximates a facility that’s out of date, out of space and running on empty. I’ve yet to see Canal Plus’ “Hippocrates,” which Lilti also directs and co-wrote, so I can’t say if it swings closer to “ER,” “St. Elsewhere” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” I’m guessing it’s not the latter.

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion: Blu-ray
The parade of exquisitely restored gialli from Arrow Video continues apace with Luciano Ercoli’s genre debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. It opened only a few months after Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and immediately preceded his own Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. Although giallo can be traced a bit further back, to the mid-1960s, these were the titles that captured the attention of European audiences and critics looking for something new and valid. Some historians consider “Forbidden Photos” to be closer to melodrama than giallo, while allowing for its importance as a female-drive story that would “define Ercoli’s style” and feature the recurring theme of “the nightmare of being threatened by one’s own sexual partner.” As sexually charged and borderline kinky as it is, however, the lack of nudity might not sit well with genre buffs. In Ercoli’s triangle of love, sex and, perhaps, murder, Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is newly married to Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi), a businessman who’s gone into debt as he struggles to bring a new product to market. They met through Dominique (Nieves Navarro), Minou’s sexually voracious best friend and Peter’s former lover. While strolling on the beach one night, Minou  is accosted by a leather-clad stranger (Simón Andreu) on a motorcycle. He informs her that Peter has murdered a business associate and may be involved in other crimes. If certain demands aren’t met, the creep threatens to take his evidence to police. Driven by misplaced loyalty to Peter, Minou ends up in bed with the blackmailer, who, naturally, takes photos of their tryst and uses them to escalate the terms of their arrangement. Curiously, Minou accidently discovers pornographic photos of the blackmailer with Dominque, which have made their way from Denmark to Barcelona. WTF, right? When Minou finally approaches the police, they lead her to believe that she’s imagining things and may need a different kind of help. That is pretty much the long and short of screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco’s story. “Forbidden Photos” will be of interest primarily to completists and admirers of Ennio Morricone bossa nova-tinged score and cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa. It further benefits from Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentary by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine; “Private Pictures,” a freshly edited documentary featuring archival interviews with Navarro and Ercoli, and new material with writer Ernesto Gastaldi; “The Forbidden Soundtrack of the Big Three,” an appreciation of the music of 1970s cult cinema by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; a Q&A with Lassander at the 2016 Festival of Fantastic Films; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and a limited-edition booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Michael Mackenzie.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
It’s been less than four years since Crimson Peak opened in theaters around the world and almost three years since Universal’s Blu-ray edition was released. The short window made me wonder why Arrow Video went to the trouble and expense to create a limited-edition set for a high-end genre film that was a box-office disappointment. The package isnn’t being promoted as an uncut, unrated director’s-cut version of the picture or a new, improved edition of the Universal release. Technically, they’re very much the same product, if not identical. Given all the attention paid to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), which made more money and cost less to produce, it’s possible that Arrow wanted to re-market Crimson Peak as a prestige Blu-ray, with a lavishly book-like package and a few new bonus features included in it. As a fan of 4K UHD, I also wondered why it wasn’t  sent out with the latest format upgrade attached. (It’s likely that Uni wanted to save that prestigious event for its own customers.) Even though del Toro admits to being influenced by The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Shining (1980) – as well as Mario Bava’s Technicolor conceits – he emphasizes in the bonus material that he envisioned Crimson Peak primarily as a “Gothic romance,” staged within a decrepit mansion populated by ghosts. Actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain have also said that their portrayals were shaped by those of Winona Ryder and Sadie  Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). You’d think that would be enough to sell a more than a few tickets to a superbly conceived period thriller. Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist haunted by frightening visions that bear an ominous warning about a place called Crimson Peak. She’s the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Jim Beaver), who rudely turns down a proposal by a young English entrepreneur, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), pitching an invention he hopes will facilitate mining red clay. Not only does Sharpe’s sales pitch fall on deaf ears, but his budding romance with Edith is cut short after her father hires a P.I. to dig into his past. Soon thereafter, Edith’s father is murdered. Bereft, but unhappy to learn of her father’s effort to bribe her boyfriend, Edith agrees to marry Sharpe and move with him to a decaying Victorian estate, sitting on a mountain of red clay. The catch comes in having to share their life with Sharpe’s freaky sister, Lucille (Chastain), and endure a nightmare that would intimate both sets of Ghostbusters. The Arrow package ports over the bonus material created for the Uni Blu-ray. It adds the featurettes “The House Is Alive: Constructing Crimson Peak” (50 minutes); “An Interview With Guillermo del Toro” (8:36); “Crimson Peak and the Tradition of Gothic Romance” (7:37), with an assessment of the “genre” proclivities of del Toro; “Violence and Beauty in Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic Fairy Tale Films” (23:37), a visual essay by Kat Ellinger; marketing material; and an image gallery.

The Plague of the Zombies: Blu-ray
Last month, a pair of newly remastered Hammer Films “classics” — Horror of Dracula (1958) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) – were re-released into Blu-ray. The parade continues in the new year with the restoration and release of The Plague of the Zombies (1966), which, absent Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, could get lost in the recent flurry of Hammer products from Scream Factory and Warner Archives. In effect, the period horror anticipated George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which gave the long-dormant, if undead subgenre a contemporary, distinctly American tenor. Even without Lee and Cushing, John Gilling (Blood Beast from Outer Space) and writer Peter Bryan (Trog) deserve to share some of the credit, with Romero, for shaping the ongoing Zombie Apocalypse. Shot back-to-back with Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), Hammer saved money by reusing many of the same sets, most noticeably the main village on the backlot at Bray Studios. Somehow, though, The Plague of the Zombies looks none the worse for the wear. In a remote 19th Century Cornish village, an evil presence lurks within the darkness of the witching hour. A mysterious plague relentlessly consumes lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) enlists the help of his mentor, Sir James Forbes (André Morell). Desperate to find an antidote, they instead encounter inexplicable horror: empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, they discover a deserted tin mine, where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of slaves. The importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean was already banned by law, but it came too late to halt the flow of voodoo rituals from the colonies. Without drawing much, if any undue attention to itself, The Plague of the Zombies, remains terrifically entertaining and as good as any Hammer production of the 1960s. Diane Clare and Jacqueline Pearce were even allowed to keep their clothes on for the full 90 minutes, while being pursued by grabby zombies. The supplemental features include an original theatrical trailer; making-of featurette; restoration comparison; and “Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead,” an episode of the “World of Hammer.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Addiction
PBS: NOVA: Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire/Volcano on the Brink
PBS: Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals
PBS: NOVA: Flying Supersonic
PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis
In the “NOVA” presentation, “Addiction,” viewers can hear first-hand accounts from individuals struggling with addiction and follow the cutting-edge work of doctors and scientists, striving to find cures, treatments and ways to curtail the epidemic. At the same time, the show’s producers investigate the stigma attached to addiction by people who’ve yet to feel the effects of the scourge in their lives. They also ask why such drugs and prescription medications as heroin, fentanyl and OxyContin are as readily available and affordable as they’ve ever been, especially in areas of the country where unemployment is high and hope for a meaningful future is non-existent. While scientists are revealing how addiction affects the brain, other professionals are gathering evidence about how we should address our drug problem, from embracing evidence-based treatments, to rethinking public policies. Forcing our legislators to reign in Big Pharma and its lobbyists would be a place to start, but that would mean refusing to take money from the companies that manufacture the poisons, without following the money back to the sources.

In the two-part “NOVA” presentation, “Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire” and “Volatile Earth: Volcano on the Brink,” an intrepid team of volcanologists embarks on an expedition to explore the Virunga Mountains in east Africa. It’s where two of the world’s most dangerous, spectacular and least understood volcanoes can be found. Viewers are also invited to join a team of scientists exploring another one of the world’s most active and mysterious volcanoes, Nyamuragira, in central Africa. What learn what feeds its frequent eruptions and what it portends for the tens of millions of people living on or near the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire.

For those fans of “Downton Abbey” who’ve already toured the great estates and mansions once inhabited by Britain’s upper crust, PBS now offers “Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals.” The three-disc set explores the ancient cathedrals and abbeys that have dominated the landscape for centuries and reflect the nation’s turbulent history through their architectural grandeur. The 432-minute mini-series features interviews with historians, architects and clergy, as well as footage showing their legendary facades and soaring interior spaces. Among other things, the producers go back to ancient blueprints and manuscripts, while using drones to capture images only available to birds and angels.

How many viewers remember a time when supersonic aircraft – military and commercial – flew across the country, scaring unsuspecting citizens with thunderous “sonic booms.” They became such a nuisance that Congress outlawed such flights over populated areas on the mainland and from landing and taking off from airports in the interior. It effectively killed an industry that catered to the rich and impatient and relied on frequent flights between far-flung countries. “NOVA: Flying Supersonic” recalls the historic international race to develop the first supersonic airliner, Concorde, and the choreographed effort to design and build it in two countries simultaneously. It also interviews pilots and flight crews. Then, it invites us to follow Concorde’s legacy to a new generation of innovators, hoping to revive the dream of supersonic passenger travel.

Now that the third season of PBS’ Victoria has begun airing, the network’s home-video wing is re-releasing “Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season,” in Blu-ray, at the original British-TV length.

From PBS Kids arrives “Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide,” in which the title character and his pals take on their nemesis, Ronald, in four exciting adventures. To win the neighborhood Hide ’N’ Seek Championship of the World, the challengers will have to learn how to master the art of camouflage from wild animals.

Nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis” is comprised of six underwater adventures, featuring Marshall, Chase, Zuma, Skye, Rubble and Rocky. Together, they save Puplantis, rescue a wiggly whale and save the Sea Patroller from pirates.

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“What Quibi trying to do is get to the next generation of film narrative. The first generation was movies, and they were principally two-hour stories that were designed to be watched in a single sitting in a movie theater [ED: After formats like the nickelodeon]. The next generation of film narrative was television, principally designed to be watched in one-hour chapters in front of a television set. I believe the third generation of film narrative will be a merging of those two ideas, which is to tell two-hour stories in chapters that are seven to ten minutes in length. We are actually doing long-form in bite-size.”
~ Jeffrey Katzenberg

“The important thing is: what makes the audience interested in it? Of course, I don’t take on any roles that don’t interest me, or where I can’t find anything for myself in it. But I don’t like talking about that. If you go into a restaurant and you have been served an exquisite meal, you don’t need to know how the chef felt, or when he chose the vegetables on the market. I always feel a little like I would pull the rug out from under myself if I were to I speak about the background of my work. My explanations would come into conflict with the reason a movie is made in the first place — for the experience of the audience — and that, I would not want.
~  Christoph Waltz