MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Spider’s Web, Maquia, Cloverfield, No Date, Free Lunch, Possessed, Road House 2, Dolphins, Poetic Justice, Human 3.0 … More  

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: Blu-ray
If ever a literary franchise looked as if it could equal its success at the international box office, it was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, from which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were created. The Swedish-language series began OK, but it petered out in the second and third installments. David Fincher and Steven Zaillian’s English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might have made a few dollars, as well, but not enough to get Columbia/Sony/MGM to commit another nearly $100 million, each, on sequels that already have failed in the marketplace. Why Larsson’s dark and edgy protagonist, Lisbeth Salander – portrayed equally well by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara – couldn’t sell as many tickets as books is one of those questions without answers that vex box-office prognosticators. Most of them chalked it up to the audience’s unwillingness to embrace a female hero, in general, and a character who didn’t resemble Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson, specifically. In an article for Queen’s Quarterly, Jennie Punter characterized Salander as a “diminutive, flat-chested, chain-smoking, tattoo-adorned, anti-social, bisexual, genius computer hacker,” albeit “one of the most compelling characters in recent popular fiction.” A Bond girl, she’s not. In the only interview he ever gave about the series, Larsson said he based the character on how Pippi Longstocking might have turned out, as an adult. He also credited his rebellious teenage niece, Therese, for Salander’s goth look. She often wore black clothing and dark makeup, and told Larsson several times that she wanted to get a tattoo of a dragon. Apparently, he often e-mailed Therese to ask her about her life and how she would react in certain situations. From small seeds, big things sometimes grow.

After Larsson’s untimely death, in 2004, Swedish author/journalist David Lagercrantz was handed the reins to the Millennium series by the writer’s estate. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” was published in 2015, with “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” following two years later. Although both books did well, I doubt that any studio will ever take a stab at “Millennium 5.” That’s because the fourth installment, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story only recovered $35 million of its production budget of a reported $43 million. In an interview included in the bonus package, producer Elizabeth Cantillon says that the protagonist in her predecessors had targeted the wrong audiences. While readers of crime thrillers had no problem with a female protagonist who was as complex, devious and hard-boiled as any of her male peers. Cantillon believes that audiences wanted Salander to be a female James Bond. The problem here, of course, is that Salander must cross-circuit plans for a global paramilitary conspiracy, based on activating stolen computer software at nuclear bases around the globe, while also escaping several life-threatening situations, based solely on good luck. Salander is hired by computer programmer Frans Balder to retrieve Firefall, the program he developed for the National Security Agency.

After she accomplishes the task, Salander becomes the target for an array of mercenaries, hoping to profit from stealing it back from her. One manages to kidnap the inventor’s super-smart son, who has stored the information on how to open the software in his head. After about 90 minutes of this back-and-forth, one of Salander’s computer-geek pals rides to the rescue, using his security devices to turn the tables on her captors. Add the inclusion of an origin story for Salander and some viewers will require a scorecard to keep track of the players. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did pretty much what the producers wanted of him, but the action frequently overwhelms the story. Otherwise, “Spider’s Web” makes for some entertaining viewing. Claire Foy (First Man) is as convincing as Salander as Rapace and Mara, and the Swedish and German settings maintain the books’ frosty atmosphere. The supporting characters aren’t given much to do, however. One of the fascinating things I learned from a featurette on choreographing the action was that the stunt coordinators used driverless cars to jack up the pace and impact of the chases. Other bonus items include commentaries on the feature and deleted scenes, with Álvarez and screenwriter Jay Basu; and four featurettes: “Claire Foy: Becoming Lisbeth,” “All About the Stunts,” “Secrets of the Salander Sisters” and “Creating the World: The Making Of.”

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms: Blu-ray
Anyone who wants to check how much anime has evolved, as a storytelling medium, anyway, needs only to pick up Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. On its surface, or through the eyes of a child, Maquia may look like just another medieval fantasy that mimics The Hobbit and “Game of Thrones. Just below that surface, however, lies a story that demands to be viewed as a parable about motherhood, aging, loss and coming of age in a cruel world … grown-up stuff. And, coming in at just short of two hours, Maquia easily fits the description of epic fairy tale. Though only 15, the title character knows she will live for centuries without outwardly aging past adolescence. She belongs to the Iorph, a clan of ageless beings whose primary task on Earth is to weave colorful tapestries whose threads anticipate future events. Maquia has been warned against falling in love with anyone outside their realm, which would inevitably lead to the twin tragedies of loss and loneliness, emotions rarely felt by immortals. The Iorph’s realm is turned upside by an attack from the mortal territory of Mesate, whose prince wants to attain immortality for his heir by kidnapping and marrying Leilia, the clan’s eternally radiant elder. As they’re whisked away atop a gigantic dragon – Mesate’s weapons of mass destruction – the prince’s troops ransack the Iorphs’ homes and kill as many of them as possible. Maquia is carried away by a benign, if dying dragon that leads her to a cave in a forest, where she discovers a young warrior and an abandoned baby, who’s handed off to the newcomer to raise. We follow their progress through Ariel’s teenage years, as he grows taller than Maquia and itchy to find his own place in life. It strains their relationship to the point where he wants to serve the prince, effectively siding with the enemy of his adoptive mother’s people. By this time, though, Maquia’s re-connected with fellow survivors, who hope to free their queen – who, by now, is pregnant –and move back to their kingdom. There’s more, but why spoil the drama? The emphasis on  issues pertinent to women is easily traced to writer/director Okada, who has 58 writing credits and four directing nods, three of them shorts. Because women are so rarely chosen to direct anime features, it made headlines when Maquia took first prize for an animation film at the Shanghai International Film Festival. (It also was submitted for Oscar consideration.) The special features add the 25-minute “Making of Maquia.”

The Cloverfield Paradox: Blu-ray
J.J. Abrams is a multihyphenate’s multihyphenate. If he needed a nickname, it could be “Abracadabra,” for his ability to pull rabbits out of his hat wherever he goes. As a writer, producer, director, actor and composer, Abrams has won or been nominated for almost every award  available to multihyphenates, including a Razzie (Armageddon). The exception is any recognition from AMPAS – an Academy Award being the only honor that really counts in Hollywood — and that’s only because of Oscar voters’ prejudice against sci-fi, action and other genre pictures, outside of the technical categories. He’s extended more franchises – Mission:Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, Cloverfield – than anyone not named McDonald. Without question, it’s the latter series that has raised the most eyebrows among sci-fi and horror nerds. With three installments already completed – Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox – and another sequel on the way, it’s difficult to explain, with any certainty, what they all have in common, apart from Godzilla-like monsters, apocalyptic scenarios, everyday characters, extreme secrecy from the get-go and references to something called  Slusho and Abrams’ grandfather, Henry Kelvin. In Cloverfield (2008), a farewell party held by a group of New York yuppies is interrupted by the appearance of a rampaging sea monster. All the action is captured by a hand-held camera, operated by an unseen friend. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) describes what happens to a young woman, when, after a car accident, she finds herself in a bomb shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is infected by a widespread chemical attack. The Cloverfield Paradox takes places almost entirely on a space vehicle, which is orbiting Earth while scientists test a machine – a giant particle accelerator – that could solve a global energy crisis. For a while, the only unusual thing that happens is the crew’s inability to get the damn thing to kick into gear. When it does, however, really strange things begin to happen in the control room. On the down side, the accelerator is capable of interfering with the time-space continuum and creating alternate realities. There’s no reason to spoil any mysteries here, except to suggest that an alien force has taken control of the orbiter and is messing with the astronauts’ heads. It even finds a way to make our world “disappear.” Critics weren’t particularly impressed with The Cloverfield Paradox, which launched on Netflix almost immediately after a preview ad aired during the 2018 Super Bowl broadcast. It’s interesting enough, however, to recommend to sci-fi buffs and completists. The international crew is portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki and Chris O’Dowd. The Blu-ray boasts excellent technical credentials, as well as “Things Are Not as They Appear: The Making of The Cloverfield Paradox” and “Shepard Team: The Cast.”

No Date, No Signature
There are so many things that Iranian filmmakers are forbidden from exploring in their own country, it’s amazing how good the ones that are approved turn out to be. In No Date, No Signature, co-writer/director Vahid Jalilvand (Wednesday, May 9), winner of Best Director prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, takes on a gripping psychological drama about morality and class dynamics in contemporary Iran. It was the official submission of Iran in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. Facing stiff competition, however, it failed to make the list of finalists. In it, forensic pathologist Dr. Kaveh Nariman’s car accidentally injures a motorcyclist’s 8-year-old son. And, yes, it was a clearly an accident. He offers to take the child to a clinic, but the father refuses his help. A few days later, in the hospital where he works, Nariman (Amir Aghaee) learns that the boy has died under suspicious circumstances, which caused him to be infected with botulism. The father, Moosa, had purchased the chicken from a worker at the slaughter house. Too embarrassed to share his encounter with Moosa with colleagues handling the autopsy, he merely acknowledges knowing the father. Even so, the doctor becomes obsessed with the possibility that the boy’s spine might have been damaged in the accident and a sudden awkward movement might have caused his death. Meanwhile, the father (Navid Mohammadzadeh), himself wracked with guilt, goes to the plant to confront the man who sold him the diseased bird. Finding no relief, Moosa gets into a fight that leaves the worker in a coma and him in jail. This pushes the doctor to call for an exhumation of the boy’s body, based on his own belated admission of possible guilt. Anyone expecting a clear-cut Hollywood ending might be disappointed. It’s enough to know that Nariman’s sense of morality and integrity faces the kind of challenge that others would have bypassed when the cause of death, botulism, was rendered. Several critics have remarked on the similarities between No Date, No Signature and the work of Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, Fireworks Wednesday, The Past), who tackles sticky contemporary issues with clarity and dramatic appeal. Zakieh Behbahani and Hediyeh Tehrani deliver compelling portrayals of Iranian women from opposite sides of the country’s economic and cultural divide.

Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen
The more attention paid to Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Corte in the runup to the 2020 elections, the more scrutiny will be given the concept of an unconditional basic wage. If it isn’t the most popular issue to be debated – no one wants to be accused of advocating extreme economic politics or, worse, socialism – it’s certainly the most misunderstood. For one thing, its leading proponents didn’t wake up one morning, thinking they might give UBI a spin. The idea of a state-run Basic Income dates to the early 16th Century, when Sir Thomas More argued in “Utopia” that every person should receive a guaranteed income, and to the late 18th century when English radical Thomas Spence and American revolutionary Thomas Paine both declared their support for a welfare system in which all citizens were guaranteed a certain income. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Canada conducted several experiments with negative income taxation, a related welfare system. Neither is it true that UBI is an idea that sprung from the brow of hippies looking for a handout. Richard Nixon proposed a negative income tax in a bill to the U.S. Congress, which only approved a guaranteed minimum income for the elderly and the disabled. Warren Buffet is a UBI advocate, so was Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, the Permanent Fund of Alaska already provides a kind of basic income to longtime residents – all of them, regardless of other sources of income — based on the oil and gas revenues generated by the oil pipeline. So, there. Christian Tod’s well-reasoned documentary Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen lays out the whys and wherefores of UBI, in addition to responding to criticisms. It does so in ways that go beyond laymen’s terms, without resorting to economics jargon and academics. It explains why America’s middle class has become an endangered species – trickle-down economics got that ball rolling – and how the low unemployment rate is maintained by people who work two or three low-paying jobs. Neither does Tod demand of viewers that they buy into his pitch. It would be enough for the citizenry to be in position to yell, “B.S.,” whenever a politician tries to sell a truckload of snake oil, based solely on such faulty premises that UBI is socialism and recirculating new money through the system won’t raise all boats equally. If citizens had the opportunity to benefit from the Alaska model – or, not – my guess is that they’d take the free money and spend some of it, at least, on American-made products.

All the Devil’s Men: Blu-ray
Movies about mercenaries and former Special Forces fighters have reached dime-a-dozen status, especially those destined for an early reincarnation in DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. If action pictures, such as Matthew Hope’s All the Devil’s Men, enjoy a theatrical run, it’s only to salvage a few quotes from otherwise negative reviews for their release in foreign markets. It may not be a particularly new strategy, but the appetite for product in the streaming marketplace has become voracious. Here, it takes a while before clues emerge, explaining what all the shooting is about. After nearly losing his life in Morocco, on a covert operation financed by the CIA, former Navy SEAL Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is sent by his American handler, Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), to London, where a disavowed CIA operative, McKnight (Elliot Cowan), is about to procure a WMD from Russian gangsters. Where the device’s final destination might be is anyone’s guess. Because Leigh has a personal grudge against McKnight, she teams Collins with two other bounty hunters, Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). When they’re ambushed by ninja-looking thugs, viewers wonder how it could have occurred with such accuracy. The leader of this pack is a former colleague, Deighton (Joseph Millson), who was hired by McKnight as protection, but was willing to make a deal with Leigh, against Collins and McKnight. Because so much of the fighting takes place at night, between men wearing balaclavas and carrying similar weaponry, it’s difficult to tell who’s assaulting whom. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t always wear a mask, and his partner is black, so that much is clear, at least. The other thing at play here is Collins’ disintegrating emotional strength, for which he takes “go pills” to keep him, yes, going. The other interesting thing is the presence of Milo Gibson in the lead role, playing the kind of character his dad, Mel, might have been assigned before he left Australia. All the Devil’s Men’s might have been a better picture if it had focused on our government’s recent practice of outsourcing its dirty work to contractors, with private armies that are only held accountable when they go too far and begin slaughtering civilians. In doing so, the government buys itself “plausible deniability,” when shit happens, and the mercenaries aren’t questioned by congressional committees, the media and representatives of their victims’ families. As long as filmmakers bypass the obvious conflicts in their pictures, for the sake of promoting pure action, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be anything except mediocre genre specimens. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Large-format specialist Stephen Low has been making movies about airplanes for as long as he’s been in the business, almost 40 years. For nearly 35 of those years, the Ottawa-born filmmaker has given managers of IMAX venues reasons to go to work each day, whether they’re located in modern megaplexes or in museums. In addition to creating edutainment products about all manner of aircraft, from biplanes to fighter jets, he’s made several stops along the way to promote advances in corporate aeronautics. He’s also used bulky 65mm cameras to explore oceanic wonders, aboveground transportation and natural splendor. Because the 3DTV format has yet to be embraced by consumers, the full impact of his films must be enjoyed in theaters that cater to large groups of students, seniors and pot smokers. This isn’t to say that very much is lost on large-screen television monitors, especially those set up for 4K UHD playback. Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas not only promotes the capabilities of the modern navy in times of war and peace – remember peace? – but it also marks advances in naval aviation, which is largely dependent on the readiness of crews assigned to such magnificent ships. One of the greatest engineering feats in the history of warfare, the Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan is a masterpiece of technology, and the flagship of the American fleet. The ship also provides a focal point for Low’s coverage of RIMPAC exercises, which take place far from view of curious citizens and prying media. Audiences, however, are whistled aboard the carrier and its 6,000 highly skilled sea and air personnel, amid war games comprised of 22 allied nations and more than 50 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 military personnel. From the air, especially, the fleet is impressive. (I think some of the same aerial footage might have been repurposed in Hunter Killer.) From the viewpoint of an engineer, mechanic or aspiring naval recruit, the dissection of duties and responsibilities, via live-action coverage and engineering visualizations – including a cross-section of the nuclear reactor and power train – should be nothing short of awe-inspiring. It takes viewers from the ship’s bridge to its rudders, with up-close peeks at the F-35C Lightning, the F35A, F-18 Super Hornet and Osprey. And, while a certain amount of patriotic posturing is inevitable, the emphasis is clearly on deterrence. Bonus features include some audience testimonials; speed comparisons between an F-35, Bugatti and human cannonball, and Usain Bolt, giraffe and nuclear carrier; and a F-35 Navy “selects reel.” Someone at the studio should have tried harder on them.

The Possessed: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Fifth Cord: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Another week, another pair of giallo thrillers from Arrow. These, however, are a bit different than the usual fare. The Possessed (a.k.a., “The Lady of the Lake”) is described on the jacket as being an atmospheric proto-giallo,” based on one of Italy’s most notorious crimes, the Alleghe killings, and adapted from the book by Giovanni Comisso. If it’s proto-anything, it’s only because The Possessed was released in 1965, more than a year after Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace merged his brilliantly colorful cinematography with stylized crime stories. It’s entirely possible that co-directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini were more interested in combining traditional American noir with Michelangelo Antonioni’s arthouse appeal and Carol Reed’s deployment of shadows and light. Peter Baldwin (The Weekend Murders) stars as Bernard, a depressed novelist who sets off in search of his old flame, Tilde (Virna Lisi), a beautiful maid who works at a remote lakeside hotel. Bernard is warmly greeted by the hotel owner, Enrico (Salvo Randone), and his daughter, Irma (Valentina Cortese), but Tilde isn’t around, anymore. After some cajoling, he learns that Tilde is deceased and her death has been ruled a suicide. The consternation in the faces of the people with whom he speaks about the case keeps him wondering what really happened to his ex-lover. When he notices a woman in a white coat and scarf, walking along the lakeshore, night after night, Bernard suspects that he’s being tested or it’s an innocent coincidence. Things only get more darkly sinister from there. The Possessed is presented here in a sensational new 2K restoration, from the original camera negative. It also includes newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack; new audio commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas; an appreciation by critic Richard Dyer; “Cat’s Eyes,” a wonderfully wicked interview with the film’s makeup artist, Giannetto De Rossi; “Two Days a Week,” an interview with the film’s award-winning assistant art director Dante Ferretti; “The Legacy of the Bazzoni Brothers,” an interview with actor/director Francesco Barilli, a close friend of Luigi and Camillo Bazzoni; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich, Roberto Curti and original reviews.

There’s no question that Luigi Bazzoni’s brilliantly photographed The Fifth Cord is straight-up, old-school giallo … one of the best. It was released simultaneously with Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy,” which still represents ground zero for giallo. In addition to the many home-grown actors, the cast is enhanced by the presence of such genre-specific hotties as Silvia Monti, Ira von Fürstenberg, Rossella Falk, Agostina Belli and token American Pamela Tiffen (State Fair).Too bad, most of these bodacious ladies don’t survive the movie’s central killing streak or Franco Nero’s investigation into the five pre-ordained crime. Nero plays reporter Andrea Bild, an almost-divorced lush, who drinks whatever is put in front of him. The Fifth Cord opens on New Year’s Eve, at one of the hottest nightclubs in town. Off camera, the murderer tells us that before the new year ends, five people will die at his hands. He’s already scoped out the candidates and all that’s left is the preferred method. At the scene of the first aborted attack, the killer leaves behind a black glove with a fingertip missing. With every new murder, another leather fingertip disappears. When police deduce that Bild not only is in direct contact with the killer, but also is connected to the victims, they make him the prime suspect. Given his propensity to black out when he’s drunk, even Bild isn’t 100 percent sure he’s innocent. He begs the police for one more day to identify the killer or he’ll voluntary come in for booking. The only surprise left is the identity of the killer and his/her motivation. Giallo buffs are encouraged to skip ahead to the bonus features and check out “Lines and Shadows,” a new video essay on DP Vittorio Storaro’s use of architecture, space and reflections; new audio commentary by critic Travis Crawford; “Whisky Giallore,” a new video interview with author and critic Michael Mackenzie; “Black Day for Nero,” an entertaining video interview with actor Franco Nero; “The Rhythm Section,” a new interview with film editor Eugenio Alabiso; a previously unseen deleted sequence, restored from the original negative; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love; and,first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Kat Ellinger and Peter Jilmstad.

1 Billion Orgasms
Although theories about female ejaculation can be traced to the 16th Century, no serious scientific research has been reported, except in brief acknowledgments by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. Typically, the studies have been limited to determining the ejaculate’s chemical composition or the precise location of the G-spot. It wasn’t until 1998 that any new light was shown on the phenomenon, by Helen O’Connell, a urology surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. “There is a lot of erectile tissue down there that is not drawn in any anatomy textbooks, save perhaps a couple of really old dissections in the French and German literature,” O’Connell wrote, at the time. “Just because you can’t see the rest doesn’t mean it is not there.” Some feminists continued to describe it as a male myth. By then, though, “squirting” had already entered the porn lexicon and actresses were showing off their ejaculatory skills in videos. The actress, Fallon, is credited with being the first porn star to perform the act on the small screen, in The Squirt (1989), Squirt Bunny (1989) and Squirt ’em Cowgirl (1990). Today, amateurs and fakers do most of the Internet squirting. Brent Kinetz and Terence Mickey’s very strange documentary, 1 Billion Orgasms, profiles the respected engineer and field-applications engineer Aaron Headley, who, when he wasn’t developing digital filters for space capsules, invented a “wristband movement detector” that, he claims, practically guarantees women an explosive full-squirt orgasm. Also known as the “G-spot Squirt Watch,” it could be used, Headley claims, by the world’s 8 billion women to ensure spectacular orgasms, with ejaculations of whatever it is as a side benefit.

On March 7, 2017, Headley was granted a patent for what was more discreetly described as “Wrist Band Motion Analyzer With Comparison Feedback.” Three years earlier, he’d applied for a patent for the remarkably similar “Squirt Watch.” Headley is portrayed as being a personable Minnesota family man, who grew up in a household that treated sex as a perfectly normal human experience and believes that all 8 billion women on Earth deserve an otherworldly orgasm. We’re even allowed to eavesdrop on his experiments with male and female porn stars. And, heck, the thing seems to work. The second-half of the doc takes place at the storied AVN show, in Las Vegas, where dozens of male and female orgasm-enhancers are on display. There might have been something in the desert air the weekend 8 Billion Orgasms was filmed, as, before our eyes, Headly goes from mild-mannered inventor to sleazy salesman. The first thing he does after his plane arrives is get a shoeshine at the airport, from a gentleman who doesn’t seem to mind having his ears bent by a future Nobel Prize-winner, who sounds as if he’s capable of delivering a good tip. After hooking up with Kat, the same woman who served as his booth assistant (a.k.a., booth babe) a year earlier, Headley turns into a schmoozaholic, who glad-hands everyone who might agree to endorse his product or help him get on Howard Stern’s radio show. (He’s become the Ed Sullivan of adult-toy purveyors.) His encounters with porn superstars appear, at first, to go well, but it’s an illusion. By the end of the first day of business, Headley looks crushed and Kat acts as if the only thing she wants to do is take a shower. He only sells a couple of watches, even when he offers a lucrative cut to wholesalers. One gets the feeling that women aren’t as keen to squirt that he believes they are and would prefer having the kind of orgasms that don’t require toweling off afterwards or wearing a raincoat. If Headley hadn’t been such an insufferable dick on the convention hall’s floor, it would be easy to forgive his resemblance to Willie Loman and file him away as someone dreaming the impossible dream. Even Kat takes an early powder from the show. If humiliating a guy who believes he knows more about a woman’s sexual response than the 8 million women he hopes to serve – or the inventor of the Rabbit, for that matter —  was the co-directors’ goal, they achieved it.

Road House 2: Blu-ray
Greater minds than mine have tried to explain what made Road House (1989) a bigger hit on VHS and cable than it was in theaters. Some pundits have cited the distributors’ dubious decision to emphasize Patrick Swayze’s romantic links to Dirty Dancing – another cult favorite – over the picture’s many fighting scenes and vigilante action. Others think that describing Swayze’s character, Dalton, as a world-class bouncer (a.k.a., cooler) from New York, instead of local tough guy, was too ludicrous a conceit to support. The T&A was more conducive to viewing on VHS, which, for guys, anyway, allowed endless rewinds. After the first bloody fight scene, I’m guessing that a lot of women viewers forgot that Swayze was even in Dirty Dozen. What began as a date movie, quickly devolved into a flick whose appeal was limited to guys looking for 90 minutes of transgressive entertainment. Neither were VHS sales and rentals dampened when Road House was nominated for Razzies  as Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actor (Swayze), and Worst Supporting Actor (Ben Gazzara), winning none. There simply was no interest on the part of women who loved Dirty Dancing in embracing a guy who, while undeniably cute, lacks Swayze’s charisma and sex appeal.

Road House 2: Last Call may be every bit as stupid and nonsensical as the original, but, by bypassing theaters, it could appeal directly to the core audience, with porn-y cover art and the promise of watching major tool, Jake Busey (a.k.a., Wild Bill), get the shit kicked out of him. It takes too long for that to happen, though. Shane Tanner (Johnathon Schaech) is an undercover DEA agent, who left the bayou country to escape the onus of being the only surviving son of a legendary bouncer. When his uncle (Will Patton) is nearly killed by gang of low-lives, Shane takes a leave of absence from the DEA and volunteers to run the joint. He discovers that the Black Pelican is Wild Bill’s bar of choice to conduct drug deals and he’ll stop at nothing in his efforts to buy it. Both men vow to run the other out of town or die trying. Although the movie features more than the usual number of bar fights and shootouts – most of them so obviously choreographed as to be a distraction — the highlight for most guys will be the knife fight between Wild Bill’s right-hand-woman (Marisa Quintanilla) and Shane’s blond girlfriend (Ellen Hollman). It’s right up there with the cat fights in Kill Bill.The MVD Collection release looks great in Blu-ray, but is scarce on bonus material.

Double Dragon: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The 1994 live-action film, Double Dragon, was based on the Technōs Japan arcade game, which was released in 1987 and went on to spawn a video-game franchise across several different platforms and animated television series. Directed by music-video specialist James Yukich (“Jeff Beck: Live at the Hollywood Bowl”), Double Dragon was set in 2007, amid the ruins of Los Angeles – now known as New Angeles — a city ravaged by earthquakes, tidal waves and vicious gangs. The landmark Capitol Records tower has begun to sag; Hollywood Boulevard has become the highly flammable Hollywood River; and curbside oxygen booths provide the only relief from the suffocating smog. Each day’s horrors are reported on television by news anchors Vanna White and George Hamilton. The evil tycoon Koga Shuko (Robert Patrick) is obsessed with joining the two halves of a talisman known as the Double Dragon, which, he believes, possesses mystical powers. Two teenage brothers, Jimmy (Mark Dacascos) and Billy Lee (Scott Wolf) find themselves in possession of the amulet’s other half, leaving them in a precarious position with the ruthless tycoon. With the help of Maria (Alyssa Milano) and her vigilante group, the Power Corps, the boys are required to summon all their courage, resourcefulness and martial-arts skills to stop Koga Shuka’s evil plan. Because of its origins as a fighting game, it should come as no surprise to fans that Double Dragon overflows with non-stop action and imaginative special effects. The problem, of course, is a plot that will only make sense to children well-versed in franchise mythology. The irony of filming so much of the New Angeles scenes in Cleveland won’t be lost on many older viewers. Here, the Cuyahoga River was set ablaze artificially – it caught fire in 1969, due to industrial pollution – to show what the faux Hollywood River would look like in similar circumstances. It caused quite a stir in Cleveland, with 210 phone calls to emergency services reported in 10 minutes. New featurettes include “The Making of Double Dragon,” a full-length documentary, with interviews with Wolf and Dacascos, writers Peter Gould and Michael Davis, and producer Don Murphy; and “Don Murphy: Portrait of a Producer.” Several previously shown featurettes are included, as well.

Poetic Justice: Blu-ray
After his hugely successful debut a year earlier, as writer/director of Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton probably would have made Columbia executives happy by churning out another drama about growing-up-gangsta’ in South-Central L.A. It’s difficult to imagine how they reacted to Singleton’s proposal for a romantic drama, featuring characters who would be recognizable from “Boyz,” but was set largely along the famously scenic coastal highway connecting Los Angeles and Oakland. “Black people take vacations, too,” Singleton recalls telling doubters, in an interview included in the bonus features on Poetic Justice. Not wishing to ruffle the feathers of the goose who laid a golden egg on his freshman project, Columbia only demanded screen tests from prospective leads, Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. If that sounds crazy, today, consider that Jackson had yet to star in a feature film and Shakur’s only other prominent role was in Ernest Dickerson gang-related thriller, Juice. When Jackson’s character, Justice, isn’t working at a hair salon, she’s writing poetry to overcome her depression over witnessing the violent death of a boyfriend (Q-Tip). In a brief early scene, Justice rejects Lucky  (Shakur) by pretending to be in a lesbian relationship with her boss. Lucky, who works at the post office, has his hands full caring for his daughter, after catching her mother having sex with her crack dealer, while the child is only a few feet away from the bedroom. A bit later, Justice’s friend Iesha (Regina King) talks her into taking a road trip to Oakland with her boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry), who works at the post office with Lucky. Justice warily accepts, mainly because she’s expected in Oakland for a hair show and her car broke down at the last minute. Unbeknownst to Justice, Lucky is also on the trip, and she will now be sharing a postal van with him and their two mutual friends.

Initially they argue, but they soften towards each other as they discover their similarities over the course of the film. As Justice and Lucky establish common ground, though, Iesha and Chicago are coming apart at the seams. She’s a flirt and he’s a bully. When the truck reaches Oakland – minus Chicago, who may still be hitchhiking through Big Sur – Lucky arrives at his aunt’s home at the same time as paramedics, who fail to save his cousin from a gunshot wound. Somehow, the incident serves to cause enough tension between Justice and Lucky to cause a fissure to develop between them. Anyone want to guess how this story ends? Too easy. Besides taking his protagonists out of the ’hood, for a few days, anyway, Singleton finds a pastoral setting for a Johnson Family Picnic, at which some of the many relatives trace their ancestry all the way back to Africa. He also breaks the urban-drama mold by creating empowered black female characters. They include Maya Angelo, who supplied Justice’s poetry, Khandi Alexander, Lori Petty, Yvette Wilson, Robi Reed and  Mikki Val. I didn’t recognize all the hip-hop singer/actors, but the soundtrack is terrific. The bonus material includes 10 never-before-seen deleted and extended scenes, a rare look at Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur’s original screen test, and a new retrospective interview with Singleton.

Bernie the Dolphin
Set in St. Augustine, Florida, Bernie the Dolphin is a better-than-average family adventure about a brother and sister, who use their friendship with a pod of dolphins to investigate a well-financed scheme to construct a chemical plant on a stretch of pristine beach. Using the ruse of building a marine amusement park, instead, the contractors’ rep  (Kevin Sorbo) has inadvertently hired the kids’ father (Patrick Muldoon) to purchase land for the factory. When the kids (Lola Sultan, Logan Allen) raise their suspicions to their parents – based on clandestine surveillance of the rep’s meetings with corrupt officials – they are warned about getting their dad fired. While this is going on, the kids volunteer to work at a local dolphin-rescue facility, where a severely sunburnt member of the pod is being nursed back to health after being beached by a reckless boater. If Bernie the Dolphin’s narrative sounds a tad complicated, if not completely inconceivable, it’s worth knowing that the movie is saved by the young actors’ credibility as amateur sleuths/ninjas and their trusting relationship with their somewhat goofy dad and down-to-earth mom (Sam Sorbo). Their mentor at the care facility (Lily Cardone) is realistically drawn, as well. By combining the movie’s strong environmental message with the frequently humorous antics of the siblings, Kirk Harris’s Bernie the Dolphin becomes the rare family film that should appeal to all family members, regardless of age. The lovely St. Augustine locations serve the story well. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. It must have done well in limited release and PPV, because a sequel is already in the works.

TV-to-DVD
AMC/Acorn: Humans 3.0: Uncut UK Edition:  Blu-ray
PBS: NOVA: Last B-24
PBS:  NOVA: Thai Cave Rescue
PBS: Letters From Baghdad
PBS: We’ll Meet Again, Season 2
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Pawsome Collection
Nickelodeon: Peter Rabbit Springtime Collection
Nickelodeon Shimmer and Shine: Flight of the Zahracorns
Nick Jr.: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Robot Riders
Based on the Swedish science-fiction drama “Real Humans,” the Channel 4/AMC Studios co-production, “Humans” (a.k.a., “HUM∀NS”) explores artificial intelligence and robotics, while focusing on the social, cultural and psychological impact of the invention of anthropomorphic robots called “synths.” Frankly, I hadn’t noticed that the show existed, before receiving the “Humans 3.0” package in the mail from Acorn Media. As such, I have no idea how much footage was trimmed from the UK edition to make room for commercials and cuts for content. (I didn’t notice any offensive material.) Synths were created as convenience tools for people who had run out of time to accommodate to their work, social and family obligations. Naturally, many owners treated their synths as slaves. Others developed a more emotional attachment to them. In “2.0.” we learned that some of them, at least, were built with the ability to achieve consciousness embedded deeply in their software. “3.0” opens one year after a devastating event drives a wedge between the synths and humans, who fear they’ve begun to plan a revolt. A large number of synths are confined to an abandoned railyard, where some hone their technological abilities and others develop a conspiracy. At the same time, a human lawyer, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), fights for synth rights at a high-profile government commission. The glamorous Mia (Gemma Chan) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) run a settlement for sentient synths. But Max is torn between his new role as leader and helping his friend, human-synth hybrid Leo (Colin Morgan). When a bomb destroys an integrated pub, Niska (Emily Berrington) searches for the perpetrator, and what she finds will have monumental consequences for humans and synths, alike. Bonus material includes “Behind the Scenes,” during which cast and crew members discuss what to expect in Series Three and how the characters have changed; “Synths,” in which cast and crew go into depth on all things synth; and “New Characters,” about, you guessed it, the new characters introduced in “3.0.”

The “NOVA” presentation “Last B-24” demonstrates how a new generation of forensic scientists is working feverishly to find and identify soldiers and airmen long considered MIA and, by now, deceased. Although the show’s primary focus is on the Tulsamerican, a B-24 bomber that crashed off the coast of Croatia during World War II, parallel searches involve a B-17 Flying Fortress lost in the section of the Adriatic Sea, and a Red Tail fighter plane piloted by a lost Tuskegee Airman. In the search of the B-24, divers create the same kind of grid forensics scientists and archeologists use in terrestrial digs. The degree of difficulty is markedly higher, due mostly to the corrosive effects of sea water, strong currents and silt. When the B-17 is discovered, the plane is nearly intact. Pentagon bureaucracy makes it difficult for the dive teams to explore the plane’s interior, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The Tuskegee Airman’s remains are relatively easy to locate, on a forested hill on the Austrian border, but the story of racism involving those brave African-American volunteers is simultaneously beyond sad and not a bit surprising. Among other things, the pilots were forced to fly many more missions than their white peers, without much recognition in official releases to the media. In “Thai Cave Rescue,” the “NOVA” team chronicles the efforts made to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand. In July 2018, the world held its breath as an international team of scientists and cave divers struggled to come up with answers for problems they’d never before faced. Follow the harrowing operation and discover the scientific ingenuity that made the rescue possible. Hear how rescuers explored every option, from pumping water, to drilling a new exit, to ultimately cave diving with the children through the treacherous, flooded passages.

Sometimes, an online subscription to the New York Times pays unexpected dividends. After watching Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s intriguing documentary, “Letters from Baghdad,” as well as Werner Herzog’s  Queen of the Desert (2015), I dialed up Gertrude Bell’s name on the Times’ search engine, just to see how far back coverage of this largely unsung explorer and diplomat went in the “paper of record.” The headline over her four-column obituary, which ran on July 18, 1926, next to sketched portrait, read, “GERTRUDE BELL A DESERT POWER: Englishwoman Who Died as Her Cherished Dream Was Fulfilled in Middle East Helped Win the Arabs to Britain.” A year later, over a full-front-page review in the Times Book Review, the headline read, “AN UNCROWNED QUEEN OF ARABIA: Gertrude Bell’s Letters Give The Story Of An Amazing Career.” In 1937, a second collection of Bell’s letters was reviewed and, in 1941, Ronald Bodley and Lorna Hearst’s biography, “Gertrude Bell,” was feted in the same section. When Allied forces decided to kick Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, Bell’s diplomatic efforts in the Iraq were recalled, as well. So, no, Times readers would not be surprised by much in the PBS documentary. It’s likely, however, that outlanders didn’t receive much information about shaping British relations with nations demanding independence from the Crown and its broken promises. What “Letters from Baghdad” does add to the mix is a cornucopia of unseen photographs and home-movie footage (with sound) and readings from the letters by Tilda Swinton. Other actors give voice to the recollections of colleagues and friends, including, among others, T.E. Lawrence, Vita Sackville-West, Lady Florence Bell, Fakhry Jamil, Suleiman Faidhi, Winston Churchill and Mme. Jamil Zadeh. It’s a fascinating program. March being Women’s History Month, any teenager scratching for a noteworthy subject to cover could do worse than turning to the New York Times, “Letters From Baghdad” and Queen of the Desert for their audio-visual presentation.

Today, broadcast reporters can barely contain themselves when the parents of a long-missing child or relative of a POW use the “c” word or is prompted into doing so. Before the word became so overused that it lost most of its meaning, “closure” was a precise way of describing the feeling that comes with closing one bleak chapter in life and opening a brighter new one. The PBS presentation, “We’ll Meet Again,” could just as easily be titled, “Closure,” because that’s the gift given the subjects of each episode. The mini-series, hosted by Ann Curry, explores the lives of everyday Americans who survived moments of great personal trauma, thanks to the humanity shown to them by strangers. Season Two includes powerful stories of the Vietnam War, refugees fleeing Cuba, the great Alaskan earthquake, WWII’s Holocaust, the fight for women’s rights, and brothers in arms during the Korean War. (My Season Two DVD held shows from Season One.) Two-thirds of each episode is devoted to the search for the missing person, while the other third focuses on the reunion, which sometimes is limited to the next of kin. There isn’t a dry eye in the house, including those of viewers.

In the runup to spring and Easter, Nickelodeon is pulling out some of its big guns: the extended-length “PAW Patrol: Pawsome Collection” and “Peter Rabbit Springtime Collection.” The former repackages “PAW Patrol: Sports Day,” “PAW Patrol: Meet Everest” and “PAW Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case.” The latter encourages kids to hop
into a modern take on Beatrix Potter’s classic adventure. They’re invited to join Peter, his cousin Benjamin Bunny and his friend Lily Bobtail for eight charming tales in the Lake District. Help them take on adventures big and small, as the bunnies work together to rescue a friend, catch a trout, help a baby bunny who’s afraid of the dark and make time for a yummy radish snack.

Shimmer and Shine: Flight of the Zahracorns represents the popular Nickelodeon characters’ sixth DVD release. In it, the genies-in-training take to Zahramay Skies for a series of adventures through fluffy clouds and over glittering rainbows. From learning about stardust magic, to discovering the enchanting stars of Zahramay Skies, and participating in the Zahracorn race, Shimmer and Shine’s journeys are always filled with magic and valuable lessons for youngsters. In Nick Jr.’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Robot Riders” fans can join the gang on four adrenaline-pumping adventures, as they transform into robots to save Axle City, rescue T-Rex babies and race through wormholes. The episodes are “Robots to the Rescue,” “T-Rex Trouble,” “Meatball Mayhem” and “Robots in Space.”

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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