MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrap: Robin Hood, Overlord, Alexanderplatz, Rodrigo D., Happy Hour, Moko Jumbie, Last Race, Joseph H. Lewis, Backtrace, Backbeat … More

Robin Hood: Blu-ray/4K UHD
At one time or another, we’ve all been asked to consider the great conundrum of the 20th Century: if you were able to go back in history and kill a tyrant, before he assumed power, would you? The easy answer  is, yes. What, then, if the despot’s replacement turned out to be even worse? The same applies in Hollywood. What if some smart cookie had talked his boss out of investing in a dubious biopic of John Gotti, only for the money to be spent on something demonic, like “Battlefield Earth II” or “The Postman Returns”? Worse things happen all the time, I suppose. I wonder, though, if a soothsayer had warned producer Leonardo DiCaprio against pouring a small fortune into Otto Bathurst and writer Ben Chandler’s Robin Hood, would  his Appian Way Productions have redirected the money into, say, another collaboration with Martin Scorsese, like The Revenant and The Wolf of Wall Street? Universal and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) would have bombed if Russell Crowe weren’t a box-office force around the world. WB and Kevin Reynold’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) did well, too, but, at the time, Kevin Costner was still at the top of his game. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) gave Mel Brooks one last big-screen hurrah, before he turned his comic intentions toward Broadway, voice-overs and television. You’d think, by 2018, that Hollywood would have exhausted any interest in Mr. Hood and his Merry Men. Where was the upside? Not surprisingly, perhaps, the geniuses decided that a Robin Hood that borrowed liberally from the Wachowskis’ V for Vendetta (2005) and Baz Luhrmann and DiCaprio’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) could pump fresh blood into a character whose cinematic career began in 1908, in Percy Stow’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1908)? Talk about re-inventing the wheel. According to the creative folks interviewed in the bonus material: the set and costume designers were instructed to make everything one-third historically correct, one-third contemporary and one-third futuristic. That Columbia Pictures is said to have bought the script for its “universe” of Marvel superheroes also explains why it looks like a movie made for teenage boys with a comic-book fetish. Casting Bono’s 5-foot-1-inch daughter, Eve Hewson, and asking her to spark a revolt in the streets of Nottingham, probably wasn’t a good idea, either.

But, then, Taron Egerton (Robin), Jamie Foxx (John), Ben Mendelsohn (the sheriff) and Tim Minchin (Friar Tuck) don’t always feel comfortable in their tights, either. Worse, Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlett is reimagined as a competitor for Marion’s hand, with Robin, and a potential ally to the evil oligarchs. It all squares with Bathurst’s stated desire to turn Robin Hood into more of a rock ’n’ roll, action flick for a new generation of viewers. (In a gala party scene, the damsels are dressed for a long day’s night in Las Vegas, while their suitors favor “Star Trek” fashions.) The revisions arrive out of nowhere, absent context, and interrupt any flow Bathurst has managed to develop in the opening scenes. Otherwise, stripped of all the nonsensical revisionism and before being drafted into the Third Crusades, Lord Robin of Loxley lives in Nottingham, enjoying a good life with his lover Marian. It’s in the Holy Land that Lord Robin meets, fights and fails to save John the Moor’s son from being executed by his commander, Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Anderson). After four years away from England, Robin is surprised to learn that he’s been declared dead and his property has been seized on the sheriff’s orders, on behalf of the corrupt Cardinal Franklin (F. Murray Abraham). The citizens are being taxed to pay for the Crusades, while the Church is pocketing the tariffs. Robin and his not-so-merry men need only follow the money to plot their insurrection. And, while there’s plenty of explosive action to keep teenagers interested – including some terrific archery effects – it takes viewers far too long to sort long-cherished legend from revisionary text. Most of Robin’s altruistic thievery takes place off-screen, in a Sherwood Forest that is left to the imagine. Mendelsohn’s sheriff may be constructed from pure evil, but his forces are too easily outfoxed by a handful of rag-tag rebels. The climax is left open-ended, of course, but it seems unlikely that there will be many takers for a sequel. The bonus features add the hour-long “Outlaws and Auteurs: Reshaping Robin Hood,” outtakes and a deleted scene. Another plus: the 4K UHD edition is a gem.

Overlord: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
After watching Julius Avery’s Nazi-zombie thriller, Overlord, I thought it might be fun to see if the conceit was a one-off or something more familiar to genre specialists. Sure enough, there were enough titles to constitute a sub-genre of its own: Jesus Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (1982), the video-game-based Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), the Outpost trilogy (2008), Joel Schumacher’s Blood Creek (2009), Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves (1977) and Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow (2009). And, yes, there are several more, all relating to experiments designed to create undead super-soldiers or resurrecting Hitler. In fact, Overlord was released in the same week as Nazi Overlord, a bargain-basement knockoff that starred Tom Sizemore, of course. As their titles imply, both movies are set within hours of the D-Day landings. In Nazi Overlord, a team of soldiers is sent to Romania to rescue an English scientist (Dominque Swain) being used by Nazis for experiments. The better, theatrically released Overlord follows a platoon of U.S. paratroopers, dropped behind enemy lines that morning for the sole purpose of destroying a radio transmitter believed to be hidden in the steeple of a church in an occupied Normandy town. The village is packed with Germans, guarding the church and killing the occasional insubordinate resident. The American soldiers get a boost from a local woman – red-hot newcomer, Mathilde Ollivier — whose only interest is to protect her young brother. It takes a few hours to prepare for the attack and, in the meantime, an SS officer arrives for a forced sexual encounter. So far, viewers have been kept in the dark about the presence of dozens of human guineas pigs in a heavily guarded cavern below the tower. When a couple of GIs discovers them, however, all hell breaks loose. The ensuing standoff is extremely well choreographed, and the zombies are very combative. Overlord is gory, of course, but not without some humor and emotionally charged moments. The fights are loud and exciting, even by zombie standards, and the makeup effects are excellent. For what it’s worth, in Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011), the female vampire, Rayne, is battling her way through Europe in search of Ekart Brand, a Nazi leader who wants to inject Hitler with her blood in order to transform him into a dhampir and attain immortality. Produced by J.J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber (The Cloverfield Paradox), Overlord arrives with about 50 minutes of making-off material.

Happy Hour: Blu-ray
The bad news about Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s epic drama, Happy Hour, is that its running time is 5 hours and 17 minutes, which is extraordinary even by most arthouse standards. The good news comes in knowing that it will be a long time before viewers – those inclined to forgive gifted filmmakers their excesses, at least — are likely to find another 5-hour-plus movie so worthy of their time and patience. (In France, it was released theatrically in three parts, over three weeks, respectively dubbed “1&2,” “3&4″ and “5.”) On Blu-ray, Happy Hour is divided into two discs, separated at a natural break in the narrative. I couldn’t help but watch the whole thing in one sitting. Still, I have no idea why Hamaguchi selected the title, except as an acknowledgement that only about 60 minutes of its runtime qualifies as being particularly happy or light. It only makes sense when the protagonists share a few laughs over drinks and dinner. Otherwise, the overall tone is one of elongated melancholy. Happy Hour follows the emotional journey of four middle-class women, all 37, who live in the misty port city of Kobe and welcome each other’s company. It isn’t until Jun (Rira Kawamura)  reveals that she’s had an affair and is divorcing her inattentive husband that the worm begins to turn. Jun’s decision causes her friends to re-evaluate their feelings about work, friendship, romance, family and identity. Besides these breaks for drinks and conversation, Hamaguchi interrupts the narrative flow with several brilliant set pieces: a leisurely trip, via aerial tramway, to the top of Mount Rokkō; a half-hour self-awareness session at a New Age performance space, managed by Fumi (Maiko Mihara); a divorce hearing for Jun and her husband, Kohei (Yoshitaka Zahana); a reading at the same performance space, by a writer (Reina Shiihashi) who had a romantic encounter at a spa once frequented by the women; a face-saving visit to the parents of a girl impregnated by the son of Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi); and Akiri’s unpleasant encounter with a subordinate nurse, which leaves her with a broken leg. Potentially, any one of the vignettes could have been excised in their entirety by a heavy-handed studio executive to save time. Blessedly, the they remain intact, as intended, serving Hamaguchi and co-writers Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi as connecting tissue to other storylines and characters. If this summary doesn’t make Happy Hour sound all that appealing to viewers who tend to check out after 120 minutes, it’s worth knowing ahead of time that the story’s tightly woven fabric is of a piece with the best Japanese cinema, while cast members – almost all of them rigorously rehearsed first-timers – are superb in difficult roles. (They were chosen from an improvisational workshop conducted Hamaguchi when he was artist-in-residence at KIITO Design and Creative Center Kobe.) The Blu-ray comes with an informative 20-minute making-of featurette.

Berlin Alexanderplatz: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15½-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” based on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same title, began its life on West German television in 1980, as a 14-part mini-series. When it was released theatrically in the U.S., three years later, it would be divided into two or three parts and exhibited as if it were a multi-day movie marathon. It garnered a cult following and eventually was released on VHS and shown on PBS and Bravo. In the select world of hit television mini-series, it’s only rivaled by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” (1989), for Polish television; the BBC’s “I Claudius,” “The Singing Detective,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Jewel in the Crown” and “Downton Abbey”; American television’s “Brothers in Arms,” “Lonesome Dove,” “John Adams,” “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man”; France’s “A French Village”; and Sweden’s “Wallander,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and, with Denmark, “Bron/Broen” (2011). That’s heady company, but “Berlin Alexanderplatz” has not only stood the test of time, but also put a foot in the door of American markets for long-form, foreign-language programming. At 34, Fassbinder had already made more than 30 films, some of them among the most radically conceived of the various international new-wave movements. His immersive epic follows the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to “become an honest soul” amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. With equal parts cynicism and humanity, Fassbinder details a mammoth portrait of a common man struggling to survive in a viciously uncommon time. The Criterion release is highlighted by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and Bavaria Media’s hi-def digital restoration, supervised, and approved by director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger, with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; separate documentaries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz, one with cast/crew interviews and the other on the restoration; Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary, “Notes on the Making of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’”; Phil Jutzi’s 1931 feature-length film of Döblin’s novel, from a screenplay cowritten by the author; a 2007 interview with Peter Jelavich, author of “Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film and the Death of Weimar Culture”; a book featuring an essay by filmmaker Tom Tykwer, reflections on the novel by Fassbinder and author Thomas Steinfeld, and an interview with DP Schwarzenberger.

Rodrigo D.: No Future
Not of This World
A Woman Without Love
The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales
Shelter Song: Art from the Homeless
In the formative years of VHS/Beta, one of the few reliable places to find and rent cassettes from the American underground, foreign distributors of arthouse films and documentaries was Facets Multimedia. Founded in 1975, the non-profit Chicago-based organization and cinematheque has also exhibited obscure and newly restored titles of consequence from Eastern Europe and post-colonial nations. Through  some miracle of word-of-mouth marketing, dogged persistence and innovative programming, it still does. The package of recently released films partially reveals the breadth of Facets’ menu.

From Colombia, Víctor Gaviria’s Rodrigo D: No Future (1990) tells the brutal tale of impoverished teenagers trying to make their way in one of the world’s toughest and most densely populated cities: Medellin. In 1988, it was known as the home of the Medellín Cartel, funded by Pablo Escobar, and was fought over by rival suppliers of cocaine to the world. If any of Escobar’s well-known largesse trickled down to the young people we meet in the city’s high-altitude barrios, it isn’t visible in Rodrigo D: No Future. Rodrigo (Ramiro Meneses) dreams of playing drums in a punk-rock band, whose music would be as angry and violent as the musicians, themselves. His pickup band’s music, which is rarely heard outside the slum, emerges as temporary salvation from a web of violence, fear, aimlessness, drugs, booze and jail. It doesn’t last long, however. Gaviria’s title makes it clear to viewers not to expect a happy ending, and the incessant beat of Rodrigo’s drum sticks – absent a decent set of skins to play – only propels the tension to an inevitable climax. The characters have been compared to those in Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, and desperate youth in City of God and Pixote. In a postscript, we learn that some of the young actors and real-life street toughs in the movie met violent ends before the film was released.

Giuseppe Piccioni’s Not of This World tells the story of a young nun, Caterina (Margherita Buy), who, like most such women in the movies, comes to a point in her life where her faith is tested by God, fate or love. Unlike most nuns and priests in films, however, Caterina’s dilemma comes at a time when she’s well-suited to confronting it and making rational decisions, founded on deep-seated beliefs. Bay’s portrayal is informed by a quiet strength and determination to do the right thing without consulting anyone, except her own conscience. Not that it matters much within the narrative, but Caterina not only is atypically pretty, but her calling came a bit later in life than it did for her fellow novitiates. One even gets the feeling she’s been around the block a time or two. While strolling through a large Milanese park, one day, Caterina is handed a baby swathed in a sweater by a jogger. He found the infant alongside the jogging path and can hardly wait to hand the hot potato to someone else. Caterina takes the baby to a hospital, but she appears to have developed an emotional attachment to the child in the short time he was in her arms. Naturally, viewers are free to assume that the nun’s crisis will come when she’s forced to choose between motherhood and the convent. Instead, Caterina embarks on a mission to pair the foundling with one of his parents, at least. Her first lead comes by tracing the sweater to the owner of a dry-cleaning shop, Ernesto (Silvio Orlando), an unhappy nebbish, who, it turns out, may have slept with the child’s mother. Ernesto is a mess. Although his business is successful, he frets about it continually. The stress has affected his already weak heart and discovering he’s possibly the father could cause him to have another heart attack, this one fatal. It could, but it doesn’t. Instead, he partners with Caterina in her search, even going so far as to participate with her in chores and bingo at the convent. Again, Piccioni invites viewers to anticipate a marriage of convenience between them. Other, less obvious forces are at play here, however. Ludovico Einaudi’s ethereal score adds a touch of magic that complements all of Not of This World’s many twists and turns. A short making-of featurette arrives with the DVD.

Luis Buñuel reportedly dismissed A Woman Without Love (1952) — a Sirkian melodrama from his 18-year, 21-movie creative period in Mexico — as his “worst film.” Even if contemporary critics and historians took Bunuel at his word, however, most other directors would be happy to claim it as their own. Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s “Pierre et Jean,” A Woman Without Love is absent any hint of the director’s trademark surrealism. Intended as a commercial vehicle, it still manages to skewer bourgeois values, with subtle humor and sharply etched characters. Rosario (Rosario Granados) is unhappily married to Don Carlos Montero (Julio Villarreal), an upper-class antiques dealer, who rescued her family from poverty in exchange for her hand. After a theft at school, for which their son, Carlitos, is blamed, the boy reacts to his father’s severe scolding by running away from home. A couple of days later, Carlitos is discovered by a team of foresters and returned to his parents. In addition to being extremely grateful for the supervising engineer’s kindness, Mr. and Mrs. Monteros develop a bond of friendship with Julio (Tito Junco). Rosario’s feelings for Julio extend beyond mere friendship, however. He serves as a receptacle for the younger woman’s pain, which only makes her that much more appealing to him. Julio also helps Carlos through a medical crisis. A visit to Julio’s worksite, absent Carlos for most of the day, provides the couple an opportunity to connect as lovers, although nothing sexual is shown. Just as they’re about to run off to a new life in Brazil, Carlos suffers a severe heart attack. He survives, but it unnerves Rosario to the point where she cancels her plans. The movie flashes forward 20 years, or so, to the point in the story where Carlitos and his younger brother, Miguel, have graduated from medical school and are planning to develop a clinic. One day, a telegram alerts the Monteros to Julio’s death and his desire to leave his fortune to Miguel, who’s never met the man. The mystery deepens considerably from there, even though viewers will have already put all the clues together themselves. Just when it appears as if the Monteros family is about to be torn apart by the ambiguity of the bequest, fate steps in to clarify the situation. Most soap operas take weeks to work out the same number of kinks as Bunuel does in 85 minutes.

Considering how desperate Hollywood studios are for compelling stories, both new and time-honored, it’s odd that so few of Arthur Machen’s works have been adapted. Active between 1888 and 1940, the Welsh writer was consumed with the occult, horror, Christian and Celtic mysticism, fantasy and legends. As such, his works have influenced novelists, ranging from Algernon Blackwood, Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft, to Peter Straub, Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King. Machen’s novel “The Secret Glory” – published in 1922, but completed in 1908 — marked the first use in fiction of the possibility that the Holy Grail survived into modern times in some form. The same idea has informed Charles Williams (“War in Heaven”), Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) and George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Nonetheless, The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960) is one of only five stories adapted into films from Machen’s bibliography. It would have been a perfect match for Roger Corman and Vincent Price, for instance. Instead, the prolific Mexican writer/director Luis Alcoriza (Always Further On) — a frequent collaborator with Buñuel — adapted The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales for director Rogelio A. González (Agony to Be a Mother) from Machen’s “The Islington Mystery.” In it, the quiet, if occasionally soused taxidermist Pablo Morales (Arturo de Córdova) is the long-suffering husband of Gloria (Amparo Rivelles), a prudish hypochondriac who wears her orthodox Catholicism on her sleeve. Finally, when he’s had enough of her sanctimonious behavior and generous contributions to a local priest, Pablo uses his scientific training to concoct a semi-tragic end to his misery and a perpetual place in heaven for his wife, alongside her lord and savior. When Pablo puts a human skeleton on display in the shop’s front window, the priest convinces police that it once belonged to Gloria and he should face the consequences for her death. There’s no need to spoil anyone’s fun, by describing what happens at his trial and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it’s of a piece with the rest of the story and, if you will, comparable literary-based thrillers produced by Corman. Over-the-top performances and an ironic, final twist make this film by Rogelio A. González a timeless satire of weepy melodramas.

Even at 26 minutes, Shelter Song: Art From the Homeless provides a vivid reminder of the artistic talents that lie hidden inside the hearts and souls of people who’ve been relegated to the scrap heaps of society. Documentarian Joan Laskoff disputes the common misconception that art is too intangible or too impractical to create social change, by discovering artists and performers who prove that creativity can exist even in the most dire circumstances. The film explores the work of men, women and children who either are or have been homeless, providing a candid look at their lives and context for their vehicles for expression, from painting to hip hop. Laskoff’s film gives invaluable insight into the therapeutic, empowering and political potential of art, as well as the transformation that comes from peer and tutorial approval and fresh, clean clothes.

Moko Jumbie
Down by Love
Nude Area
Ferahfeza
Blue Movie: Blu-ray
More recent imports than the ones released by Facets are every bit as intriguing and obscure. All involve love and romance in one way or another … sex, too.

Vashti Anderson’s debut film, Moko Jumbie, is a “gothic punk Caribbean love story,” set among the ruins of a coconut plantation in rural Trinidad. An English teenager, Asha (Vanna Girod), has returned to her Indo-Caribbean family home, where, if nothing else, no one dismisses her generically as a “Paki.” Asha is staying with her aunt and uncle (Sharda Maharaj, Dinesh Maharaj), whose ancestors were led to Trinidad by the British to work on the sugar-cane farms after slavery was abolished. When the industry dried up, most of the Indians couldn’t afford the fare to their native home, where they might have faced issues related to their caste. Although Trinidad is generally considered to be multicultural, a longstanding strain between African and Indian populations has persisted. Asha’s uncle says that the Africans and Indians keep fighting each other, while the British get richer. Almost immediately, she’s drawn to Roger (Jeremy Thomas), the Afro-Caribbean boy who lives across the road in a house that’s best described as delightfully ramshackle. The taboo attraction between the two teenagers grows despite family disapproval, political turmoil, a clash between cultures and mysterious hauntings by stick-walkers, representing mythic spirits from the Middle Passage. Tempers flare when auntie’s nest egg  of gold jewelry is stolen from a barely concealed hiding place. Issues pertaining to identity and the desire to connect with one’s roots are interwoven with those pertaining to superstition and spirituality. The musical soundtrack is also worth a visit.

From French director Pierre Godeau (Juliette), Down by Love is driven by an incendiary performance by Adéle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), as Anna, an inmate in a women’s prison. It’s where she meets Jean (Guillame Gallienne), the warden who can’t resist her raw, natural beauty and faux air of vulnerability. Jean is happily married to Elise (Stéphanie Cléau), who also works at the detention center. She’s beautiful and sexy, too, but Jean can’t resist the lure of Anna’s youthful vitality. As he devices more excuses for them to connect, it becomes increasingly obvious to prisoners and staff that he’s developed a taste for forbidden fruit. His superiors have also been made aware of it, along with a discrepancy in the numbers pertaining purchases. (Apparently, he’s saving the prison too much money … a clear indication that he’s either dealing with black-market sources or has blocked an avenue for kickbacks to others.) Viewers will also be asked to judge Anna’s true intentions toward Jean. Based on a true story, Down by Love explores the power of right, wrong and unleashed passion.

Although the title makes Nude Area sound more prurient than it is, the steam that clouds the female-only sauna, where nudity means equality, can be interpreted literally and figuratively. In a series of 15 dialogue-free vignettes, Urszula Antoniak’s third feature tells the sensual and seductive story of forbidden love between two very different girls, living in Amsterdam. Native Dutch teenager Naomi (Sammy Boonstra) hails from posh Amsterdam South, while Fama is a Muslim beauty, Fama (Imaan Hammam), from the poor quarter of Amsterdam East. They meet each other in the spa, where, among other things, fashionable clothes are left inside lockers and head scarfs can’t be worn. Even so, their body language delivers messages that words can’t fully convey. Piotr Sobocinski Jr.’s cinematography and music by Pawel Mykietyn and Ethan Rose amplify what’s happening inside the girl’s hearts and minds.

In Elif Refig’s debut feature, Ferahfeza (a.k.a., “Ships”), Istanbul is as essential a character as the youthful would-be lovers and adventurers, Ali (Ugur Uzunel) and Eda (M. Sitare Akbas). Confined to the ancient, teeming city, which straddles Europe and Asia, they’re mere cogs in a hugely impersonal machine. On its fringes, however, they find room to dream and pursue their own creative avenues. Although he isn’t fond of the work, Ali spends time on the water, servicing ships docked in the bustling port. It’s his father’s business and Ali imagines a world beyond the horizon. At every opportunity, his minds drifts towards thoughts of signs that will guide him to a happier life. One night, Ali climbs up to a billboard platform, and sees a half-finished mural of a ship on the side of an abandoned building. Upon meeting its creator, Ada (M. Sitare Akbas), he is certain she will accompany him to faraway lands. In the port, they search for the ship, “Vamos,” that repeatedly appears in Ali’s dreams and visions.

An early example of European soft-core erotica, Blue Movie (1971) provided a test of the ongoing liberalization of laws and attitudes towards nudity and depictions of sex in movies. A product of Holland, it joined Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969) and The Lickerish Quartet (1970), cleared the way for such X-rated blockbusters as Deep Throat (1972) and Emmanuelle (1974). Unlike their successors, they offered voyeurs – er, viewers – recognizable narrative structure and, in some cases, wonderful scenery, as well as female protagonists. In Blue Movie, however, the central character is a 25-year-old ex-con, Michael (Hugo Metsers), who’s just been released on parole after spending five years in jail for having sex with an underage girl. His parole officer has placed him in a high-rise apartment building, while he looks for work. Not so coincidentally, it’s populated with dozens of gorgeous predatory women – married and otherwise – who love the idea of taking advantage of a handsome guy who’s been celibate for five years. The sexual revolution has been fought in Michael’s absence and won by the libertines, so anything goes. It allows for several amusing meet-and-greets with his neighbors, who couldn’t possibly be more horny. The overriding question, however, is whether Michael can find something resembling normal love and a permanent relationship. Among the actress are Carry Tefsen, Ine Veen, Bruni Heinke, Ursula Blauth and Monique Smal. The controversial release made a small fortune for producer Pim de la Parra and his partner/director Wim Verstappen. (Jan De Bont was the director of photography.) The Blu-ray boasts a fresh HD restoration and transfer by Eye Film Institute; new interviews with Verstappen, De la Parra and Metsers; a featurette on the Eye Film Institute; a poster and photo gallery; and vintage Scorpio Films theatrical trailers.

Skinner: Blu-ray
Some horror movies slip through the cracks, disappearing completely or eventually achieving cult status. Others ooze through the same fissures, biding their time until someone discovers them, lying just below the surface of the floor. Ivan Nagy and writer Paul Hart-Wilden’s 1993 contribution to the miseducation of American youth, Skinner, didn’t make its video debut here until 1995, delayed by one of Cannon Films’ many bankruptcies and legal blockades. Nagy’s involvement in Heidi Fleiss’ prostitution scandal didn’t help Skinner’s chances for finding wide distribution, or that it was barred for release on VHS and DVD in the UK and Australia. From a distance of 25 years, Skinner is as repulsive as it ever was, but the inky black humor is a lot easier to find on Blu-ray. Probably inspired by Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lambs’ Jame Gumb, who, themselves, were patterned after Wisconsin’s most notorious ghoul, Ed Gein, Nagy’s titular antagonist is a serial killer who mostly targets solitary female pedestrians and prostitutes. He flays his victims in an unused backroom of the factory where he works as a janitor, and stitches together pieces of skin, as if he were making a costume for a superhero alter ego. Tired of being hassled at work by a black co-worker, Skinner (Ted Raimi) even goes so far as to murder the bully, relieve him of his skin and repeat his jive dialogue while pursing a prostitute. (This conceit probably wouldn’t pass muster in the Black Lives Matter era.) Skinner lives in a boarding house owned by Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) and her ill-tempered husband, Geoff (David Warshofsky), who also gets on the killer’s last nerve. The beauty part in all this nonsense is the unexpected presence of Heidi (Traci Lords), a vampire with physical deformities, who looks and dresses like Stevie Nicks. Heidi’s become obsessed with avenging an attack by Skinner and stalks him on his nightly creeps. There’s isn’t much more to the story, except for the entertainment value in watching the building supervisor, played by Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”), peep on Heidi without understanding the possible consequences. The uncut Severin package, which benefits from a 4K remaster, features some of the earliest effects work by KNB EFX Group (“The Walking Dead”). The featurettes include “A Touch of Scandal,” an interview with Nagy; “Under His Skin,” with Raimi; “Bargain Bin VHS for a Buck,” with screenwriter Paul Hart-Wilden (“1000 Ways to Die”); “Cutting Skinner,” with editor Jeremy Kasten; and barely watchable out-takes and extended takes from a flaying sequence.

Backtrace: Blu-ray
The greatest amount of noise being generated from this year’s Oscar hoedown derives from debates over the future of Hollywood interests vs.  those of streaming and distribution services provided by Netflix, Amazon and other off-brand companies. The controversy isn’t new or particularly fresh. AMPAS prefers to remain a reactionary force within the greater filmmaking community, protecting well-entrenched and deep-pocketed interests over those representing new schools of thought and technology. In 2017, the Cannes Film Festival decided not to let films done exclusively for Netflix or other streaming services participate in its prestigious soiree, stating that it wants to preserve the traditional way of watching and making films. In 2018, Netflix announced a boycott of the festival, and Roma instead went to the Venice festival. In retaliation, Netflix announced a boycott of the 2018 festival, taking Roma to the Venice festival, instead. If Alfonso Cuarón’s memory play weren’t the Academy Awards’ frontrunner or merely was relegated to the Best Foreign Language category – as is AMPAS’ usual fallback position — the media might have delayed the Great Debate for another year.

None of this is related to any criticism of director Brian A. Miller and Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films’ Backtrace, a fingerpaint-by-numbers genre flick, distinguished solely by the presence of Sylvester Stallone, Matthew Modine and enough firepower to launch a coup in Venezuela. Miller’s directed several of Bruce Willis’ recent actioners, while EFO’s name has been attached to such limited-release and direct-to-PPV/DVD exercises as Gotti, Escape Plan, Acts of Violence, Aftermath, Reprisal, Inconceivable, Exposed and Heist. The common denominator in all of them – apart from certain genre tropes and clichés – is the listless presence of one or two bona-fide stars from a previous era, if only as marketing aids for streaming and foreign revenues. The younger, less universally known cast members do almost all the heavy lifting, which is frequently just as  well. Among the other one-time A-listers in EFO’s stable have been John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Keanu Reeves Mira Sorvino and Gina Gershon.

Now, here’s the rub, EFO has also employed multiple award-winners Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns), Martin Scorsese (The Silence) and Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) in respectable mainstream projects. If, hypothetically, such production and distribution companies as EFO, Grindstone (Affairs of State), thefyzz (A Private War), WWE Studios (The Call) or, for that matter, Troma Entertainment (Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies), should discover a pearl cast into a pigpen of genre muck, they be given demerits by AMPAS for their streaming, direct-to-video and PPV pasts? Roma began its post-festival life with a limited theatrical run here, three weeks before it started streaming on Netflix on December 14, 2018. The same day-and-date distribution strategy is being applied to many high-profile studio releases. Why should Netflix be held to a higher standard at Cannes or by diehard observers of Oscar standards and practices. The ceremony, after all, has become just another  made-for-TV fashion show. By the time the academy’s contract with ABC runs out, it isn’t difficult to imagine the rights being sold to Netflix, HBO or the Food Network, if it’s the highest bidder. How ironic would that be?

Back to Backtrace, though, for a minute. It opens seven years in the past, when Mac (Modine) was part of a well-organized crew that stole $20 million from a Savannah bank. Before being ambushed by the gang’s silent partners, Mac managed to hide the cash. After he’s shot in the head and left for dead by the shortsighted crooks, he slips into a coma and awakens in a state hospital facility. Apparently suffering from retrograde amnesia. he can’t recall where the money is hidden. It not only frustrates the remaining bank robbers, but also police detective Sykes (Stallone) and the FBI. One day, Mac is surprised by a soon-to-be-paroled inmate, Lucas (Ryan Guzman), who offers him a chance to escape, although he’s not sure why, exactly. Joined by nurse Erin (Meadow Willis) and generic hard-ass Farren (Tyler Jon Olson), Lucas forces Mac to take an experimental memory enhancer to help clear his mind. It does appear to work, but only in painful fits and starts. News of Mac’s escape immediately captures the attention of Sykes and FBI Agent Franks (Christopher McDonald), who join forces for one last attempt to clear the case. (Anyone familiar with McDonald’s resume will know that his duplicitous characters tend not to reveal their evil side until they’ve gained the faith of his enemies.) Sadly, Mike Maples’ story never overcomes its Swiss-cheese plot. Even if Stallone, at 72, looks as if he should have retired when he turned 65, Modine picks up some of the slack, with a performance that recalls his character in Alan Parker’s PTSD drama, Birdy (1984).

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
How do parents and teachers in the South explain slavery to students whose knowledge of the abomination may be limited to the most basic excuses employed by generations of historians, economists and partisans? I suspect that most nuanced discussions are left for educators at the college level, where politicians are less likely to censor textbooks. This also includes consideration of the contradictory role played by northern industrialists and planters, who weren’t as offended by slavery as we’ve been let believe. Issues raised in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 still resonate today, more than 150 years after the spilt blood dried. Wait, what, draft riots? How many of us were taught that rich people in the North could pay $300 – or hire a substitute – to avoid the draft, just as hypocritical Southern planters and corrupt officials worked the system in favor of their sons and heirs. Only those who watched Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

Watching Isaac Julien and co-writer Mark Nash’s incisive docudrama, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995), prompted me to wonder how students in countries whose economies thrived under colonialism learn about the black stains in their histories. It’s easy to see how the chickens of colonialism have come home to roost on the walls built to contain immigrants from the lands of their former masters. War- and poverty-ravaged immigrants need only follow the roots of the languages the were required to learn to find refuge from the storm. Just as issues raised by Fanon (Colin Salmon) in such books as “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) raised the political and social consciousness of enslaved people nearly 70 years ago, many of the same theories hold true today. The Martinique-born, Paris-educated author, intellectual, psychiatrist and activist was credited – when he wasn’t being condemned and censored – with pioneering studies of the psychological impact of racism on both colonized and colonizer. Jean-Paul Sartre recognized Fanon as the figure “through whose voice the Third World finds and speaks for itself.” The 70-minute Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask takes an impressionistic, almost poetic approach to his theories of identity and race, as it traces his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, which set the table for liberation movements around the world. Even if Fanon’s posthumous influence on left-wing, anti-war and anti-colonial activists and students probably peaked in 1970s, many of the same issues he raised have remained unresolved since then. Julien is also responsible for such prize-winning films as Derek (2008), Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991). Bonus features include Nash’s short film, “Between Two Worlds” (1992), and essays by the filmmakers.

Docs to DVD
The Last Race
Canine Soldiers
To the Edge of the Sky
PBS: NOVA: Operation Bridge Rescue
PBS: American Masters: Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
Any similarities between Michael Dweck’s elegiac documentary, The Last Race, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show may be coincidental, but the effect is the same.  Even if his choice of classical music to back up the otherwise percussive sounds of a stock-car arena appears to be an ironic conceit, it grows on you. As we’re reminded in a historical prelude, stock-car racing originated on Long Island in 1927, the same year as Charles Lindbergh embarked for France from the same hallowed ground. At its post-WWII heyday, Long Island was home to more than 40 small-track ovals. While NASCAR expanded in the south and west, erasing its good-ol’-boy roots along the way, racetracks in the northeast became victims of suburban sprawl and the malling of America. The focus here is on Riverhead Raceway, in Suffolk County, a quarter-mile track that now stands as the last of the Mohicans. It opened as a dirt track in 1951, before permanently changing over to asphalt in 1955. Although Dweck doesn’t dwell on it, the raceway is also known locally for a towering statue of a Native American warrior, dubbed “Chief Running Fair,” standing at its gates. Both the track and statue are surrounded by megamalls distinguished by, well, large parking lots. Dweck is a photographer, who’s been a fan of stock car racing since childhood. He had been shooting stills at the track for five years when he got the idea for a documentary, and he enlisted Gregory Kershaw as both cinematographer and co-producer. Besides the film’s high-art trappings, it’s distinguished by a grounds-up approach to the sport and its participants, who are blue-collar to their core. It also introduces us to 87-year-old owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, who’ve run the place for 37 years, but are being courted by developers who want to make them multimillionaires. It’s an Oscar-quality documentary that should appeal to any adult or teenagers who’s ever dreamed of taking the family car out for a fast and messy spin. The DVD adds extended interviews.

I’ve seen a dozen documentaries about dogs trained to serve the military in combat and as working pets for wounded and blind veterans and civilians. Like their owners, service dogs now come in a variety of shapes, sizes and breeds, not just shades of German shepherd. Canine Soldiers stands out for its willingness to acknowledge the moral and ethical concerns of putting our best four-footed friends in harm’s way, so their human counterparts can avoid death in the name of someone in Washington’s corrupt political agenda. Moreover, the film answers any questions about whether combat canines are capable of suffering from PTSD – they are – and the same separation anxiety that affects their handlers when they’re sent home. One needn’t be a card-carrying member of PETA see how such issues approximate the same moral equivalencies that apply to captive animals used to test cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and fashion trends. That, however, is only part of what we’re asked to consider in Nancy Schiesari’s 66-minute film. Mostly, it’s dominated by footage showing the dogs in training and at work, where they’re susceptible to the same bullets and bombs as the rest of the men and women in their units. Like them, too, not all dogs are suited to combat and other stressful situations. If they’re accorded the same military rites as those reserved for humans killed in action – as depicted here — it’s only because they deserve it.

Jedd and Todd Wider’s heart-wrenching and provocative documentary, To the Edge of the Sky, accomplishes several important things simultaneously. By chronicling the evolution of four mothers from caregivers to political activists, it demonstrates how far parents will go before giving up on children assumed to be terminally ill. It also describes the commitment by patients, researchers, nurses and volunteers to get over some painfully frustrating obstacles. Even more to the point, we’re given another reason to believe that federal bureaucracies – the FDA, specifically – are more prone to work against the interests of sick people than to risk lawsuits, political blowback and pressure of lobbyists who only answer to corporations.  To the Edge of the Sky follows the battle of four American mothers whose sons are diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, described as the No. 1 genetic killer of boys. They’ve learned of a treatment that shows promise, but whose development and testing have been blocked by the FDA. It’s a common problem, really, and one that could be mitigated by allowing parents to voluntarily enlist their children in trials and experiments that might be their last hope. They would be required to sign away their right to sue the manufacturers of drugs that fail to work, along with the agencies supervising the process, but why not give it a shot? The women’s efforts led to passage of the federal Right to Try Bill —  a.k.a., “Dallas Buyers Club” – and similar legislation in more than 38 states. Of course, such legislation comes with known hazards and limitations. Still, seeing the joy in the faces of parents and children, who once were doomed to an early death, explains why the bill was able to gain bipartisan support in Congress.

Until it was destroyed by Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Old Blenheim Bridge, which spanned Schoharie Creek in North Blenheim, N.Y., was the longest surviving single-span covered bridge in the world. The “NOVA” presentation “Operation Bridge Rescue” follows an elite team of engineers, commissioned to faithfully reproduce the intricate timber structure that characterized the bridge, which opened in 1855. We also witness traditional Chinese artisans restoring ancient covered bridges to ensure their survival.

It’s been almost 29 years since Sammy Davis Jr., one of the greatest entertainers in show-business history, succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 64. After smoking four packs of cigarettes a day for much of his adult life, the doctors’ bad news couldn’t have come as any surprise to Davis. Impressionists, including Billy Crystal, have kept his memory alive for people who were born after his final appearances on stage and on television. So did the recent resurgence in interest in the Rat Pack and mid-century Las Vegas. PBS’ “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me” digs much further back in Davis’ life than that, to his amazing childhood, struggle to attain stardom, survive racism in the army and entertainment industry, and recover from an automobile accident that cost him an eye. Some humiliations hit harder than others: JFK, who benefitted from the Rat Pack’s fund-raising support, canceled Davis’ appearance at the Inauguration, because he recently married a white woman. (A previous affair with Kim Novak nearly prompted Frank Sinatra’s pals in the Mafia, at the behest of a studio executive, to take his one good eye.) For a previous generation of young Americans, Davis’ very public hugging of President Nixon, along with a tour of American bases in Vietnam, wiped out a lifetime of good will and financial support for civil-rights groups and individual activists, without seeking recognition. Each time his career stalled, Davis found ways to return to the spotlight. One of them was a timely ability to pick hit songs – “Mr. Bojangles,” “Candy Man,” “I Gotta Be Me,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?” – and, the other, to never shortchange an audience. The PBS special captures the Davis’ spirit, energy and contradictions in such chapters as Hoofer, Singer, Impressionist, Leading Man, Rebel and Activist. It also includes clips of Davis in performance and interviews with current stars.

So Dark the Night: Special Edition: Blu-ray
My Name Is Julia Ross: Special Edition: Blu-ray
This month, Arrow Academy is celebrating the film noir of Joseph H. Lewis, a Brooklyn-born director of B-movies in several different genres. His reputation among auteur theorists began to grow only after his retirement, in 1966. An earlier heart attack limited his work in movies, but he continued to direct television Westerns. After his retirement, Lewis kept his foot in the door by lecturing at film schools and festivals, while also participating in special screenings and retrospectives in the U.S. and Europe. In 1997, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on him. Along with Gun Crazy (1950), his most memorable noir titles are So Dark the Night (1946) and My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). So Dark the Night is a Hitchcockian tale of mystery and intrigue, in which a renowned Paris detective (Steven Geray) departs to the country for a much-needed break. He falls in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, Nanette (Micheline Cheire, who is already betrothed to a local farmer. On the evening of their engagement party, Nanette and the farmer both disappear. Cassin volunteers to discover what happened to them and who is responsible. Curiously, a sketch of the prime suspect resembles the detective. There’s a very good reason for that, even if he doesn’t understand how such a thing could happen. Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde) effectively used his camera to create a rural noir with Expressionist shadings. The black-and-white Blu-ray adds commentary with critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme; the featurette, “So Dark: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia,” with critic Imogen Sara Smith; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tonci Zonjic; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by critic David Cairns

At 65 minutes, Lewis’ gothic melodrama My Name Is Julia Ross is six minutes shorter than So Dark the Night, which must have pleased exhibitors interested in selling more popcorn and candy between shows. It might not have gone down so well with customers expecting 180 minutes’ worth of entertainment for their investment in a double feature, not counting cartoons, newsreels and trailers. Reportedly, Lewis’ first movie for Columbia was so well-received that it was promoted to A-feature status in mid-run. Nina Foch portrays the title character, who, after a surgical procedure, is in desperate need of work. After answering an ad placed by an employment agency, Julia not only is hired, but also told to report to duty that night in a Cornish mansion resting precariously on a seaside cliff. Viewers have already been shown evidence of a devious scheme, but Julia will have to wait her turn. Soon enough, she learns that she’ll be impersonating the late wife of the mansion’s psychotic owner (George Macready). Fortunately, she’s sent an emergency message about her whereabouts to an anxious suitor (Roland Varno), who already is searching for her. The rest of the movie becomes a race to see if Julia is murdered before she can be rescued. There’s a twist at the ending that most people will have figured out beforehand, but, in 1945, might have fooled audiences. Although My Name Is Julia Ross easily qualifies as time-killing fun, it probably could have used another six minutes – or 20 – of exposition to add some flair. The similarly upgraded Blu-ray adds commentary by noir expert Alan K. Rode; “Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia,” with Nora “Nitrate Diva” Fiore; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Adrian Martin.

Backbeat: Blu-ray
Last month, pop-culture historians commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ final performance, which famously took place on the roof of the band’s multimedia Apple Corps, at 3 Savile Row. That momentous event ended prematurely when London police arrived, ostensibly in response to the noise and traffic issues. Footage from the performance was used in the 1970 rockumentary, Let It Be, which was accompanied by a studio album, produced by Phil Spector, on May 8, 1970. By then, however, the individual Beatles had already embarked on career paths of their own. (The 50th anniversary of the album’s release begs the question as to whether Spector will be made accessible to reporters’ questions, from his current home, the California Health Care Facility, a prison hospital, in Stockton. In September 2014, it was reported that Spector had lost his ability to speak, owing to laryngeal papillomatosis, so the conversations may be limited to e-mail.) Appropriately, Shout Factory didn’t wait for that landmark anniversary to release Iain Softley’s Backbeat in Blu-ray. That’s because the 1994 film recalls the core group’s earlier roots, which extend back another 10 years, to the Beatles’ 3½ -month residency at a club in Hamburg’s red-light district. At the time, John (Ian Hart), Paul (Gary Bakewell) and George (Chris O’Neill) were accompanied by bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and pre-Ringo drummer, Pete Best (Scot Williams). Backbeat effectively chronicles that grungy period in the band’s history, as well as the departure of Sutcliffe  and overall influence of German photographer/muse Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). The rollicking soundtrack is comprised of songs popularized Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the Marvelettes, Barrett Strong and Bo Diddley, performed by such contemporary artists as Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs). There’s even a cameo by a pre-Beatles’ Ringo (Paul Duckworth). Bonus features include a conversation with Kirchherr, deleted scenes, interviews with Softley and Hart, a made-for-TV featurette, casting session and commentary with Softley Hart, and Dorff.

Iceman: The Time Traveler: Blu-ray
Hong Kong-based critics really tore into Wai Man Yip’s Iceman: The Time Traveler, dismissing it as an unnecessary sequel to Iceman (2014), a botched remake of a not terribly coherent 1989 time-travel actioner, Iceman Cometh. I kid you, not. Not having seen the earlier movies, I decided to go into Iceman: The Time Traveler blind and somewhat distracted. And, no, it didn’t make much sense to me, either. The basic premise shared by all three films is the protagonist’s ability to bounce between the grounds of a Ming Dynasty palace and contemporary Hong Kong, while chasing criminals and threats to the  crown. In “Time Traveler,” a few more temporal stops are made, including one in Mao-era Beijing and another on a train carrying people anticipating the ruinous Japanese occupation of China. Between those disparate destinations, He Ying (Donnie Yen) and whichever traitor he’s been ordered to chase through time are frozen in ice, until they’re defrosted by some innocent bystander. Facilitating their migrations is an ancient crystal that serves as a remote control for the Golden Wheel of Time – a gyroscope crossed with a Rubik’s cube – devised by an ancient Buddhist mystic to capture and manipulate time. One new twist here involves a young woman, May (Eva Huang), that He befriends in current-day Hong Kong, where she studied the martial arts. Somehow, she manages to hitch a ride on the Golden Wheel of Time, back to the Ming Dynasty’s royal court, only to discover that He’s fiancé has been waiting 10 years for him to return. Teenagers are likely to get more from “Time Traveler” than adults accustomed to less gimmicky Chinese adventures. For them, the first 10 minutes are used to familiarize viewers with what happened in the first two movies.

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

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