MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Nutcracker, Always Room For Giallo, Mondo, Hunter Killer, Slice, Night Is Short, Suburbia, Masanjia and more

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Like most other people, the only “Nutcracker” of which I was aware, before tackling Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, was the ballet composed in 1892 by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. And, while I knew that it’s become as much a part of the annual Christmas ritual as presentations of “A Christmas Carol,” I didn’t know that it was based on Alexandre Dumas’ revision of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” For some reason, Disney decided that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms had a better ring to it than “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And, perhaps, that’s where the studio’s expectations for the holiday movie first hit a wall. I have no proof as to whether a title can turn a bad movie into a hit, but, I suspect, a good movie can be hindered by a bad title. What if someone at Paramount thought “The Godfather and the Five Families” would sell more tickets than The Godfather, which, before it was a movie, was a best-seller. Mainstream critics found several more reasons why The Nutcracker and the Four Realms might not be the placeholder Disney hoped it would be when it took over the original release date for the live-action Mulan, now set for March 27, 2020, and next December’s launch of Star Wars: Episode IX. None of them mentioned the title. They had more problems with the length of time it took for the heroine, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), to make her way to the Four Realms and figure out why they needed reunification. There was also the challenge of convincing audiences that the story was more interesting than the music and ballet that generations of little girls and their moms had grown to love. And, while Misty Copeland’s beautifully choreographed interludes add more than a mere touch of class to the 99-minute fantasy, they reduce whatever momentum that co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston managed to build.

The Stahlbaum family is facing a dreary Christmas. The matriarch died earlier in the year and Clara, at least, has no interest in going along with the request by her father (Matthew Macfadyen) to fulfill their social obligations. All she wants to do is find the key that unlocks the ornate silver egg left to her by her mother as a present. During the ball, Clara sneaks away to the workspace belonging to her wondrously inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who created the egg. He points her in the direction of the key, which is promptly stolen by a mouse. She’s led to a mysterious fairyland, where she encounters a nutcracker soldier, Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three of the four sectors: Snowflakes, Flowers and Sweets. Together, Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and return harmony to the unstable world, where her mother is favorably remembered. The wild card here is Keira Knightley’s duplicitous Sugar Plum Fairy. Watching The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in 4K UHD convinced me that 99 minutes wasn’t an inordinately long amount of time for viewers to invest in a movie whose imaginatively designed sets – alternately mechanical, floral, ominous and spectacular – probably were worth the studio’s $120-million  investment, as are the wonderful costumes, hairdos and makeup on display. At the beginning of Copeland’s first ballet sequence, which introduces the story of the Four Realms, conductor Gustavo Dudamel mounts a podium in silhouette and conducts the London Philharmonic. Older viewers will recognize the visual reference from Disney’s Fantasia, which included a segment based on “The Nutcracker Suite.” It’s a nice touch. The separate Blu-ray disc adds a rather slim menu of extras: “On Pointe: A Conversation with Misty Copeland”; “Unwrapping The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” in which cast and crew members discuss set designs, the qualities the various sets added to the film’s themes and how the costumes complement the story; deleted scenes; and the music videos, “Fall on Me,” performed by Andrea and Matteo Bocelli and Matteo Bocelli, and “The Nutcracker Suite” performed by Lang Lang.

Suspiria: Blu-ray
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria has frequently been referred to as a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 original, an Italian supernatural horror film that’s easily mistaken for a giallo. At 152 minutes, though, it’s more of a long homage than a remake. Only purists and genre nerds need quibble over the nomenclature. Guadagnino was the recipient of worldwide critical acclaim, as well as Best Picture nominations from AMPAS and BAFTA, for Call Me by Your Name (2017). The Palermo-born filmmaker also made a name for himself on the arthouse circuit with A Bigger Splash (2015), I Am Love (2009), Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory (2002) and The Protagonists (1999). Plans for a Suspiria reboot were announced in 2008, after Guadagnino acquired the option from Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi. He offered the project to director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), who gathered commitments from several A-listers, but it fell victim to financing conflicts. In 2015, Guadagnino confirmed his plans to direct Suspiria, from a new screenplay drafted by David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash). He began filming only four months after finishing work on Call Me by Your Name. The new script transferred the setting from a ballet academy in Freiberg, Germany, to a modern dance troupe in Berlin, circa 1977. Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) stands in for Jessica Harper, who, in the original, played an American transfer student, who figures out there’s something rotten in Freiburg, when she witnesses another student fleeing the school in terror and larvae falling from the ceiling during dinner. Because of the original’s 98-minute length, Argento wasted little time cutting to the chase, by acknowledging that the dance company is a front for an ancient witch coven. Madness ensues.

The reboot differs from the original in several other noticeable ways, besides the additional length, which allowed Guadagnino and Kajganich a great deal more time to escalate the suspense and focus on the dance company’s preparations for a major recital and disappearance of key performers. Susie’s miraculously quick rise to principal dancer suggests that her talent may be inspired less by her admiration for Madame Blanc (Swinton) than demonic guidance. Meanwhile, police and the runaway girl’s elderly psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton, as Lutz Ebersdorf), become suspicious enough about the missing dancers that they visit the school. It’s then that the strength of the “mother witches” begins to manifest itself in some extremely freaky ways. By the time the performance rolls around, viewers should already have braced themselves for an anything-goes horror show, hypnotically choreographed by Damien Jalet, and with special-makeup effects and prosthetics by Mark Coulier (Candyman). Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name) deviated from Argento and Luciano Tovoli’s brilliantly stylized color scheme by depicting Berlin as a fundamentally drab city not only divided by a wall, but also extreme right- and left-wing politics, terrorism and disparities in the distribution of wealth. Appropriately, Mukdeeprom’ reference point was cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ work in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The other nod to Fassbinder reference came in the casting of his wife and collaborator, Ingrid Caven (The American Soldier), as the company’s spooky housemother, Miss Vendegast.

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was the director’s first choice to compose the score, which, he said, was inspired by Blade Runner; musique concrète artists, such as Pierre Henry; modern electronic artists, including James Holden; and 1977-vintage krautrock. Finally, viewers who’ve made it through Suspira’s barrage of blood and gore will be rewarded with a nice cameo by Harper, whose presence ties up one of story’s lingering Nazi-era threads. Unlike most horror and suspense titles, Suspiria is dominated by women and maternal themes. And, in case anyone’s wondering, Johnson holds her own here, opposite Tilden and other excellent actors and dancers. For newcomers to gialli and Euro-horror of the period, I’d suggest starting with the 1977 version of Suspiria, from Synapse Films, and even more representative genre re-releases from Arrow, Scream Factory, Scorpion, Severin and Kino Lorber. The Blu-ray adds a trio of too-short making-of briefs.

All the Colors of Giallo: Blu-ray
All the Colors of the Dark: Blu-ray
Newcomers to giallo, as well as students of the international cinema, should benefit from Severin’s three-disc documentary, All the Colors of Giallo, which provides all the historical  background a master’s-degree candidate would need for their thesis. Watching the movies themselves is, of course, recommended, but that’s the fun part. Newcomers can learn where these frequently odd pictures fit within the context of films typically relegated to sub-genres encompassing crime, thrillers, horror, grindhouse and exploitation fare, and such kindred influences as Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Michael Powell (Peeping Tom), Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les diaboliques), Hammer Films (Paranoiac) and Sigmund Freud. If American audiences didn’t immediately embrace the genre – despite the presence of such familiar actors as Telly Savalas, Cameron Mitchell, Walter Matthau and Caroll Baker – the blame can be laid less on the stories than to the unfamiliar European settings and actors, garish cinematography, poor dubbing and/or subtitles. Feminists wouldn’t have to look very far to find objectionable portrayals of women as sex objects and vixens, easy targets for serial killers and willing victims of male chauvinism. There’s plenty of violence, but the representations are more lurid than graphic. Today, of course, gialli can appreciated for their technical and storytelling merits, as well as the amazing cinematography and color schemes.

All the Colors of Giallo is nothing, if not comprehensive. It recalls the genre’s pulp-fiction roots – the book jackets favored yellow ink – and its evolution into film, which was interrupted by the dictates of fascism, the liberation by Allied forces and rise of neo-realism, and popularity of German krimi flicks in the 1950s. Giallo also had to wait in line behind such fads as Hercules, Mondo and Spaghetti Westerns to run out of steam. In addition to Federico Caddeo’s feature-length documentary, Disc One of All the Colors of Giallo contains “The Giallo Frames,” an interview with John Martin, editor of “The Giallo Pages”; and four hours of trailers, with commentary by with Kat Ellinger, author of “All the Colors of Sergio Martino.” Disc Two includes “The Case of the Krimi,” with film historian Marcus Stiglegger, and another 90 minutes of trailers, including dozens of adaptations of novels by Edgar Wallace and a couple that starred a very young Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee. Disc Three is taken up by “The Strange Sounds of the Bloodstained Film,” a bonus CD of musical themes compiled by Alfonso Carrillo, of the DJ collective Rendezvous, and remastered by Claudio Fuiano.

Severin has released Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972), a movie that fits within the giallo category easier than Suspiria, while also adding full dollops of witchcraft, Satanism, psychedelia and Freudian dream analysis. Otherwise, it’s as representative an example of giallo as anything by such masters as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Dario Lucio Fulci, Antonio Margheriti and Umberto Lenzi. The most impressive aspect of the film, in my opinion, is the amazing use of color to amplify the things going on in the mind of the female protagonist. Some of it reminded me of the cinematography in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Genre favorite Edwige Fenech plays Jane, a bourgeoise “housewife,” who, after a serious auto accident and miscarriage, is plagued by nightmarish visions of her own bloody death. Her husband (George Hilton) attempts to raise her spirits, but they only lead Jane to suspect that he’s having an affair with her similarly gorgeous sister, Barbara (Nieves Navarro), who wants her to see her psychiatrist. Still largely unhinged, Janes is convinced by a sexy neighbor (Marina Malfatti) to attend a black-magic ceremony, organized by a secret sect. The desperate girl foolishly agrees and soon after her life spins out of control. The cult leader and one of his more psychotic followers manage to get far enough inside Jane’s head that they enter her nightmares as prospective killers, along with her partner and sister. As is typical the case in the best thrillers, it doesn’t pay to assume that the obvious suspects will even be alive at the 95-minute mark. For an actress that many people have dismissed as eye candy, Fenech is excellent as a woman whose paranoia is anything but a figment of her imagination. Martino is well known for toying with genre conventions and, here, his instincts nearly always hit the target. The Blu-ray benefits from the new 4K restoration of the film, from the original negative; the alternate, 88-minute U.S. cut; “Color My Nightmare,” an interview with Martino; “Last of the Mohicans,” an interview with ace screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi; “Giallo Is the Color,” interviews with Hilton and Italian horror expert, Antonio Tentori; and commentary with Ellinger.

Mondo Freudo?/Mondo Bizarro: Blu-ray
Ecco/The Forbidden: Blu-ray
Released in 1962, Mondo Cane (a.k.a., “Tales of the Bizarre: Rites, Rituals and Superstitions”) became such an international box-office sensation that it spawned a subgenre of non-fiction films that were equal parts travelogues, shockumentaries and culturally exploitative. Only a small handful of the sequels demonstrated the filmmakers’ attention to accuracy, truth and respect for the people and cultures represented in the original. In fact, most of the spinoffs were cut from whole cloth, inventing rituals and traditions and exploiting racial stereotypes. Because the world has become a much smaller place than it was in the early 1960s, it’s become much easier to spot a ruse or manufactured incident. A spinoff of the Mondo category was the cannibal film, which went to great to demonstrate the unholy rites of native tribes and their insatiable appetite for blonds from the U.S. and Europe. To that end, Severin Films presents Lee Frost and Bob Cresse’s Mondo Freudo (1996) and Mondo Bizarro (1996), shockumentaries that often crossed the line into schlockumentary and mockumentary territory. In addition to depictions of voodoo rituals in the Bahamas and East Harlem, a narrator gleefully expresses his dismay at S&M clubs and massage parlors in Japan; a fakir braving a bed of nails; the mailroom at Frederick’s of Hollywood; blindfolded swordsmen; and various food-preparation practices. Mondo Bizarro opens in lingerie shop’s dressing room, where women are captured trying on bras and panties from behind a two-way mirror. It was a time in America when most men and boys’ access to naked breasts – all pubic hair is scratched out – was limited to National Geographic, Playboy, foreign art films and midway attractions. There are many more of them on display here, although the models’ amateur status was dubious, at best. After a visit to topless bars in Tijuana, an “Arab slave auction” is staged in Griffith Park’s  Bronson Canyon, which is supposed to remind viewers of Lebanon. Both movies, some of whose scenes are interchangeable, are accompanied by commentary with Johnny Legend and Eric Caidin, and the featurette, “The Cadaver Is Infinity: Bob Cresse, Lee Frost and the Birth of American Mondo,” with Temple of Schlock founder Chris Poggiali.

Cresse adds his sleazy commentary to George Sanders’ narration in Gianni Proia’s Ecco (a.k.a., “This Shocking World”), which was shot in 1963, but seems several times more mature than the previous two Mondo titles. This documentary explores assorted “forbidden” topics from all over the world. Among them are a racy TV commercial for a female martial arts school, rowdy teenagers protesting a strict curfew on the Sunset Strip, an underground lesbian club in Geneva, a portable topless bar, and a London strip clubs featuring virgin dancers. The Forbidden is Frost and Cresse’s 1966 fake Mondo, which, when it isn’t visiting nightclubs catering to Swiss lesbians, Parisian tarts and Nazi strippers, visits an early antiwar demonstration on Sunset Boulevard. newly-transferred from the only known 35mm print in existence. The package adds “The Bandit,” in which producer David Goldstein remembers Cresse, and a short film, “I Want More.”

Hunter Killer: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Donovan Marsh’s contemporary submarine thriller, Hunter Killer, took a drubbing  from critics, largely based on circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers. In it, an untested American submarine captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), teams with U.S. Navy Seals, led by Lieutenant Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens), to rescue the Russian president, Nikolai Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who has been kidnapped by rogue defense minister, Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor). Durov wants to garner public support by triggering a war with U.S. naval forces. After a wildly improbable undersea rescue of a Russian submarine captain, Sergei Andropov (Michael Nyqvist), and his crew, Glass is assigned to breach enemy defenses and coordinate with Beaman, whose surveillance of the Russian naval base has confirmed the specifics of the plot to the satisfaction of American leaders – played by Common, Gary Oldman, Caroline Goodall and Linda Cardellini — monitoring the situation inside the president’s war room. If that scenario sounds far-fetched, it’s because Hunter Killer, which was based on the 2012 novel, “Firing Point,” by Don Keith and George Wallace, strains credulity throughout. Production began three months before Donald Trump was elected president, thanks, in no small part, to the interference of Russian hackers, with the blessings of Vladimir Putin. Although the saber-rattling continues, it doesn’t appear likely that Putin will be the target of a coup attempt any time soon. Any resemblance between Zakarin and Putin is strictly limited to their ability to speak Russian. Once one recognizes the improbability of anything in Hunter Killer playing out in real life the way it does on screen, however, the easier it is to sit back and enjoy the tension-filled story. (Was the ending of The Hunt for Red October any more realistic?) The real excitement comes in trying to figure out how the filmmakers are going to pull it off. Or, maybe, I’m just a sucker for submarine movies. Even if the native Scotsman, Butler, is dead-ringer for Mel Gibson facially and vocally, he fits the role of a naval officer who’s never spent a minute at Annapolis, but knows the abilities and limitations of his ship as well as any college-educated captain. There are other inconsistencies, but, even at 122 minutes, Hunter Killer doesn’t feel padded. The 4K UHD and Dolby Vision HDR bring out the nighttime and underwater scenes, while the Dolby Atmos audio track helps with the pings, pongs and silent moments. It adds Marsh’s commentary and the 24-minute featurette, “Surface Tension: Declassifying Hunter Killer.”

The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl: Blu-ray
Lu Over the Wall
Anyone who thinks that animated features from Japan are limited to stories that use children, fairies and forest animals to teach life lessons to adults, or wacky sci-fi adventures, might want to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. Adapted by Makoto Ueda from a popular YA novel by Tomihiko Morimi – the trio previously collaborated on the animated mini-series, The Tatami Galaxy – the coming-of-age story reminds me of something John Hughes might have written for Molly Ringwald, after her graduation from high school. Otome (a.k.a., Girl with Black Hair) is a student at Kyoto University, as is Seipei, a boy who’s determined to profess his love for her … but is having trouble getting near enough to do so, in a “coincidental” way. Like sophomores everywhere, Otome is an adult in most ways that matter, but is waiting to turn 21 for a blowout evening with her friends. On this particular night, however, she commits herself to getting pie-eyed drunk on cocktails with flowery names and boogying until the cows come home. Despite being a novice, Otome can hold her own against the local boozers and eccentrics she encounters, without appearing to be any worse for the wear. Meanwhile, Seipei is experiencing the opposite of fun, as his attempts to court the Girl With Black Har inevitably hit roadblocks. The hand-drawn cells are vividly rendered, reflecting Otome’s moments of joy, exhilaration and lightheadedness. Funny and extremely inventive, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl arrives on Blu-ray with a PG-13 rating intended to keep the kiddies, usually attracted to anime, from any premature lessons in debauchery. It adds an interview with the director.

Yuasa scored an extremely rare double when his second 2018 release, Lu Over the Wall, was submitted alongside The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl for consideration for this year’s Oscar as Best Animated Feature. They were among more than a half-dozen animated titles from Pacific Rim countries included in the list of 25. (Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs was based on a story by Anderson, Kunichi Nomura, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. It is set on an island off the city of Megasaki, Japan.) Last week, Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai was nominated alongside Isle of Dogs, Incredibles 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Ralph Breaks the Internet. It’s a formidable list, dominated by studio products. What makes Yuasa’s accomplishment so special is the time it takes to create one animated feature, from conception to release, let alone two. Although Lu Over the Wall and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl share several visual qualities, as well as fanciful storylines, they’re very different movies. For one thing, there’s nothing in “Lu” that can’t be enjoyed by family members over the age of, say, 8 or 9. The other concerns the musical content in “Lu,” which some might consider to be a rock opera. In it, new-kid Kai is a talented, but almost morbidly shy boy, who spends his days sulking and isolated in the small fishing village to which his parents just moved.  When Kai demonstrates a proficiency at making music on a synthesizer, his classmates invite him to join their nascent garage band. Their sound doesn’t begin to gel, until a young mermaid, Lu, lends her voice and enthusiasm to the compositions. Superstitious locals, including his umbrella-maker grandfather, have had a long, if not always happy relationship with the merfolk in their midst. They’ve even gone so far as to create a wall between the species. In light of Lu’s contributions to the band, it behooves the adults to reconsider their hostility to the merfolk. But, you old prejudices die hard. As in “Night Is Short,” Yuasa isn’t timid when it comes to making dramatic shifts in artistic styles and color palettes in “Lu.” Hayao Miyazaki, who just turned 78, recently came out of retirement for a couple of projects. Any fear that he won’t be able to pass his baton to a new generation of Japanese animators should no longer exist. The bonus features include commentary and an interview with Yuasa.

Slice
Blood Brother: Blu-ray
It wasn’t so long ago that such genre spoofs as The Groove Tube, Police Squad!, Airplane!, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle and Scary Movie ruled the nation’s multiplexes, skewering the kind of clichés and tropes that helped several generations of Hollywood screenwriters overcome writer’s block. The best ones would inspire any number of copycat comedies on television: like “Reno 911!,” “Another Period,” “Party Down,” “Children’s Hospital,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Angie Tribeca.” One of the things that made these shows work was the surplus of actors in L.A., who had honed their craft in such improv troupes as the Groundlings, the State, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City. Moreover, the actors willingly shared their spotlight with other improv veterans and created material for niche websites, including “Funny or Die,” that keep us laughing through our tears at the antics of brain-dead politicians, the media’s obsession with celebrities, overpaid athletes and the banality of everyday life, as reflected in sitcoms, tabloids and the nightly news. I didn’t know what to expect from Austin Vesely’s debut feature, Slice. The prominence of Chance the Rapper’s face on posters for the movie made me think that Slice might be yet another side project for bored hip-hop artists. On closer inspection, however, I was buoyed by the presence of Paul Sheer (“The League”), Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”), Rae Gray (“Fear of the Walking Dead”), Chris Parnell (“Happy Together”), Hannibal Buress (“Broad City”) and Katherine Cunningham  (“Condor”), none of whom could be mistaken for chopped liver. Like Chance the Rapper (a.k.a., Chance Bennett), many of the actors have strong Chicago roots. Beetz and Chance both have worked alongside Donald Glover, on “Atlanta” or one his Childish Gambino projects. Buress appeared in Chance’s music video “NaNa” and Vesely directed several other videos for the artist and philanthropist. Despite his marquee value, Chance spends a lot of screen time wearing a motorcycle helmet with a smoky face shield. As for the story, let’s just say that Mel Brooks probably would have taken a pass on Slice. It’s a faux mystery, in which someone is murdering pizza deliverers in a typical Midwestern town – it was shot in Joliet — where werewolves, ghosts and zombies co-exist with humans and the mayor has reasons of his own to keep the citizenry happy. Slice might have benefitted from one or two fewer subplots, but, at 83 minutes, Vesely’s gags hit pay dirt more often than they fizzle. The DVD adds commentary and deleted scenes.

There are several prominent rappers, singers and wrestlers in WWE Studio’s Blood Brother. None of them emerge from the experience as unscathed as Chance the Rapper, who made it through Slice without being taxed too heavily by Vesely. Unlike 50 Cent, Method Man, Ludacris, Common, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Will Smith and other male rappers, who didn’t miss a beat when they began acting in TV shows and movies, Chance’s biggest contribution to the movie was his name and visage on the marketing material. The same can’t be said for Trey Songz and Fetty Wap, singer/actor China Anne McClain (“Descendants”) and WWE star Ron Killings (a.k.a., R-Truth), all of whom succumb to a half-baked script. The only thing that really matters in Blood Brother is action and badassery, some of which gets lost in the muddled narrative. The movie opens with a quartet of teenage taggers, the Demons, escaping down an alley to avoid an angry business owner. Out of nowhere comes an armored truck and carload of crooks, speeding toward a devastating crash. The only survivor is a black guard, who’s ruthlessly slain by the only white kid, Jake (Jack Kasy), in the gang. The others get away with a small fortune in loot. Flash forward 15 years and Sonny (Songz) is a cop, shown waiting outside of a prison to pick up his old partner-in-crime, Jake, who clearly hasn’t been rehabilitated. During the next 24 hours, Jake murders a half-dozen innocent residents of New Orleans, as well as a few not-so-innocent hoodlums. Jake’s harbored 15 years of resentment for Sonny, his oldest friend and confidante, blaming him for letting him take the fall in the robbery. Somehow, he’d forgotten that he’d murdered a guard in cold blood, with his own service weapon, and deserved a life sentence, without parole. To Jake, it no longer matters that Sonny is perfectly willing to relinquish the money he’s hidden for the last 15 years, only that he be outed as the monster Jake thinks he is. It leads to several aborted head-to-head showdowns between the old friends, who chase each other around the city as if their cars were linked by GPS. Naturally, Jake has also threatened Sonny by making nice to his wife’s teenage sister, Darcy (McClain), and taunting him about his ex-wife (Tanee McCall). No one on the police force is aware of Sonny’s continued link to the Demons, through the hidden money, and why he manages to show up ahead of the cops at murder scenes. Director John Pogue (The Quiet Ones) is left with building to a final showdown – remember, this all takes place over a 24-hour period – that ostensibly is designed to seal Sonny’s fate. On the plus side, Kesy is extremely credible as the psychopathic ex-con with a one-track mind and death wish. (When did crooks become so emotionally attached to their crimes: why not take the money and run?) Their face-to-face confrontations are pretty effective, albeit redundant after the first two.

Suburbia: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Two years after Penelope Spheeris documented the burgeoning Los Angeles punk-rock scene, in The Decline of Western Civilization, producer Roger Corman recruited her for Suburbia, a theatrical movie that frequently looks like a sequel to her documentary. (Eventually, Spheeris would add two more chapters.) In it, she locates a small community of runaways, dopers and anarchists, illegally squatting in houses abandoned ahead of the construction of, what else, a freeway. Although some of the kids aren’t averse to breaking the law to gather food and other essentials, most are too stoned to bother, preferring to contribute in other ways. The living conditions are bared-boned and squalid, but preferable to the tense domestic situations they had escaped. Their dogs are nearly as feral as they are. (A child is killed by a stray in Suburbia’s opening scene.) At night, the kids to whom we’re introduced – not all of whom are actors – work out their frustrations in the mosh pits of punk-rock concerts. Much of drama evolves from a growing hostility between the squatters and a group of crudely drawn rednecks, who fancy themselves to be protectors of middle-class morality and red-white-and-blue values. The most prominent cast members are musicians Chris Pedersen and Flea. Bands include D.I., T.S.O.L. and The Vandals. As usual, the kids will prove to be their own worst enemies. Realistically gritty and frequently uncomfortable to watch, Suburbia is a long way from Spheeris’ teen-culture phenomenon, Wayne’s World (1992). It benefits from a fresh 4K remaster of the film; commentaries with Spheeris, individually, and Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay; and a stills gallery.

Screamers: Blu-ray
When Philip K. Dick died, on March 2, 1982, only two of his short stories had made the journey from page to screen … the small one. When Blade Runner was released, a few months after his passing, only sci-fi buffs recognized the resemblance to the author’s 1968 short novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” despite his name on the credit roll. Another eight years would pass before Total Recall, adapted from his 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” once again raised his profile in Hollywood. Screamers was released in 1995, between Jérôme Boivin’s French-language Confessions d’un Barjo (1992) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). Just before that, audiences and critics helped Dimension Films’ Imposter (2002) lay an extremely expensive egg. Last year, Amazon Prime offered subscribers two separate mini-series, based on Dick’s works: “Electric Dreams” and “The Man in the High Castle.” If more adaptations haven’t been attempted, it’s probably because of the complexity and intellectualism of Dick’s ideas and characters. Nearly 50 years before scientists, futurists and ethicists began debating whether our increased dependence on robotics might soon backfire on humanity, Dick’s books dealt with similarly crucial issues. Studio executives have traditionally shown a reluctance to fund genre movies that put ideas ahead of action. Dan O’Bannon (Alien) had been working on a screenplay for Screamers as early as 1981. When the project fell through, Dick’s estate made it difficult for anyone else to pick it back up. More than a decade would pass before Canadian producer Tom Berry was able to obtain the rights to the 1953 cautionary tale, “Second Variety.” In it, the U.S. and United Nations make a last-ditch stand against Soviet forces from a base on the moon. Outmanned by the Russkies, UN engineers develop weapons and prosthetics that rely on advanced robotic technology. Inevitably, the robots’ artificial intelligence develops the capacity to create weapons of their own, with which they attack humans and other robots.

To save money, Berry rounded up a group of film-school graduates from his alma mater, Montreal’s Concordia College, including director Christian Duguay (Scanners II/III), and acquired funds from Triumph Films, a division of Sony Pictures. The budget would be tight, but manageable in Canada. Miguel Tejada-Flores (The Revenge of the Nerds) revised O’Bannon’s screenplay, by resetting it on a distant planet devastated by a war between an Alliance of scientists and miners, and NEB mercenaries financed by mining companies profiting from a toxic energy source. Although most of the fighting had already taken place, robotic flesh-seeking weapons (Autonomous Mobile Swords) and armed humanoids were left behind, as was a squadron of Alliance soldiers. The AMS weapons are nicknamed “screamers” because of a high-pitched noise they emit as they attack from just below the surface of the land. Screamers track targets by their heartbeats, so Alliance soldiers wear “tabs,” which broadcast a signal canceling out the wearer’s heartbeat and rendering them “invisible” to the “swords.” A message, purportedly from Earth, arrives at Alliance headquarters, alerting the soldiers to a ceasefire and negotiations. The leader is ordered to return to Earth, but, first, he’ll be required to trek to a NEB stronghold, where a rocket transport is located. The problem for Hendricksson (Peter Weller) and his associate comes in knowing which of the enemy’s weapons they can defuse with their tabs and the difference between killer androids and NEB soldiers awaiting war’s end. (Former model Jennifer Rubin plays a soldier who could pass for both.) Duguay does a nice job keeping the guessing game going for most of Screamers’ 108-minute length, thanks in large part to an almost painfully noisy audio track. Wintertime Quebec looked desolate enough to pass for a combat zone on the planet Sirius 6B, circa 2078. If Screamers didn’t make much money in its initial release, it attained cult status on VHS and DVD. As usual, the bonus material produced by Scream Factory is informative and entertaining. It includes separate interviews with Duguay, Berry, Rubin and Tejada-Flores.

Letter From Masanjia
Watching Leon Lee’s disturbing documentary, Letter From Masanjia, I couldn’t help but recall the urban myth about a note purportedly found inside a fortune cookie that says, “Help, I’m trapped inside a Chinese fortune cookie factory!” The reason most such myths, legends and folklore persist is because they’re usually too good not be true and we willingly suspend our disbelief to maintain the delusion. In 2012, a letter, written in English and Chinese, was discovered inside a box of Halloween decorations purchased by Oregon resident Julie Keith from a local Kmart. It said essentially the same thing as the note in the fabled fortune cookie, but in many more words and much greater detail. The message had been clandestinely written two years earlier by an inmate of the notorious Masanjia labor camp, in far northeast China, where the principle of “re-education through labor” was used to punish dissidents, Falun Gong disciples and petty criminals. Their work also paid dividends to the Communist Party functionaries who dealt with foreign companies – including Sears Holdings’ Kmart subsidiary – that had no qualms about profiting from such arrangements. After U.S. news outlets learned about Keith’s discovery, however, it created the kind of firestorm that Chinese authorities abhor. After the story broke on the Internet, reforms in the re-education campaign were announced. The movie vividly describes the punishment received by the letter-writer, Sun Yi, and others caught defying camp rules. It also follows up on his efforts to live a normal life after his release. Despite a poignant reunion with the recipient of the letter, there would be no happy ending for Sun Yi.

TV-to-DVD
Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic: Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Dogs in the Land of Lions
Way back in the early 1950s, studio executives expressed concerns over the possibility their audiences would abandon theaters for the comfort of watching television in their living rooms. For a while, it looked as if they might be right. Their fears dissipated after certain realities became evident. For the most part, early television shows were little more than radio shows with pictures. The scope and grandeur of a Hollywood movie – especially biblical epics — couldn’t be equaled on the small screen. Despite the restrictions imposed by the Hays Office, filmmakers benefitted from certain freedoms that sponsors of television shows prohibited even the best directors. And, apart from guest appearances on variety shows, movie stars shied away from any commitments to television. All of that would change, but not before network execs decided that it would be more economical to produce movies of their own, instead of paying for the privilege of transferring Hollywood products to the small screen and annoying viewers with commercials. Likewise, the cost of rerunning such fare was nil. The so-called movies-of-the-week frequently served as testing grounds for proposed shows and actors not quite ready for prime time.  As a bonus, the writers of these teleplays found ways to address social ills of interest to viewers in the key demographics. Some courted controversy, while disease-of-the-week movies exploited viewer fears of illnesses causing premature death and disfigurement. Newly released on Blu-ray, the 1975 message film, “Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic,” remains one of the most memorable of these pictures. Like the NBC World Premiere Movie, “Born Innocent,” it starred Linda Blair, who, a year earlier, played the possessed daughter of a famous actress, in The Exorcist (1973). In it, Blair’s character is a 14-year-old runaway, who, after getting arrested one too many times, is banished to girls’ juvenile detention center, where she’s raped in a communal shower scene. Before the gruesome depiction of girl-on-girl sexual abuse was excised from future airings, it was loudly criticized by the National Organization for Women, the New York Rape Coalition and numerous gay and lesbian rights organizations. Such was the growing power of television. Also, in 1975, Blair played a semi-literate farm girl kidnapped by a fugitive mental patient, in ABC’s “Sweet Hostage.” Because of her “brainwashing” by her captor, Blair would be credited with introducing the Stockholm Syndrome theory to Americans, along with Patty Hearst and Al Pacino, in Dog Day Afternoon. It wasn’t until she played the lead in 1979’s Roller Boogie that Blair was given a too-rare respite from horror and crime flicks.

As the title character in “Sarah T,” Blair demonstrates how an innocent 15-year-old girl from the suburbs might get to the point in her young life where her only salvation comes at AA meetings. As tawdry as that might sound, “Sarah T” doesn’t pin the blame solely on a desire to fit in with her peers. Her alcoholic father (Larry Hagman) is forced to shoulder much of the responsibility, as are her mother (Verna Bloom) and stepfather (William Daniels), who never met a cocktail they didn’t like. Just as the adults in her life rely on booze to cure their ills and share their happiness with others, Sarah begins to drink to overcome her inferiority complex and raise her comfort level around boys. Before she knows what’s happening to her, Sarah’s stealing alcohol from her parents and those of the kids she babysits. Everything goes downhill from there. “Sarah T” doesn’t offer simple solutions to what, viewers are told, is a growing epidemic among teens. Most of the credit for the non-exploitative approach to the subject matter goes to writers Richard and Esther Shapiro (“Dynasty”) and director Richard Donner, who’d spent the 1960s at the helm of television Westerns and crime dramas. Immediately after “Sarah T,” Donner found big-screen success with The Omen, Superman and their sequels. It’s easy to see his touch allowed “Sarah T” to rise above the made-for-TV pack. The Shout!Factory package is enhanced by a new 2K scan of original film elements; a stills gallery; and lengthy interviews with Blair, and Donner and producer David Levinson.

No one travels all the way to Africa to study the habits of dogs, even those distantly related to the pets they left behind at home. Unless memory fails me, I can’t remember visiting any zoo that exhibits wild dogs captured on the savannah or raised in captivity. Kennels and pet shops, only. No, only the so-called big cats have earned the distinction of being tourist attractions. And, all they had to do was act naturally. PBS’ “Nature: Dogs in the Land of Lions” doesn’t attempt to make a case for the worthiness of African wild dogs – also known as the painted hunting dog – to be mentioned in the same breath as lions, cheetahs and leopards. In fact, it’s quick to point out that the dogs have become endangered, in large part due to their precarious relationship to lions, with whom they compete for prey and habitat in the Zimbabwe bush. Their battle for survival is well-documented by cinematographer Kim Wolhuter (“The Cheetah Children”), who spent two years capturing the habits of a large family of wild dogs, all of whom share a common mother, “Puzzle.” While the pups provide some light-hearted moments, viewers are constantly reminded of their precarious future, as well as their ferocious loyalty to the pack and ability to hunt much larger wildebeest.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

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

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

 

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

Agnes Varda