MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Diamonds of the Night, School of Life, Red Room, Witch/Hagazussa, Tito & the Birds, Keoma, Andre’s Gospel, Noir

Diamonds of the Night: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One way to tell if a film-school graduate wasn’t daydreaming his or her way through courses in cinema history is by paying attention to the overt homages and purloined images in their debut films. A fledgling writer/director can overplay her hand, by referencing such oft-imitated classics as Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Psycho, Persona and, of course, Pulp Fiction. Or, she can integrate the references with such natural fluidity that only the sharpest of eyes would be able to identify them. Among the homages in Jan Nemec’s amazing debut drama, Diamonds of the Night (1964) – newly released into Blu-ray — were those paid to such giants as Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped), Luis Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood). They were woven into the narrative so seamlessly that only a buff or one of Nemec’s classmates would recognize most of them. His innovative techniques would signal the beginning of the Czech New Wave, to which he also would contribute A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) and Martyrs of Love (1967). In 1988, Philip Kaufman would repurpose footage of Soviet tanks from the banned documentary Oratorio for Prague (1968), in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nemec’s reputation for being an enfant terrible didn’t endear him with Czech or Soviet censors or mainstream producers in the west. Neither did it serve him well during his exile in the west. He returned to his native country after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, making several new films and teaching at his alma mater, FAMU. Nemec’s literary influences included William Faulkner, from whom he borrowed non-linear storytelling techniques, and Prague native Arnost Lustig, who survived the Holocaust in ways that were repeated by characters in his novels. The splendid Criterion Blu-ray package finds room for Nemec’s 11-minute school project, A Piece of Bread (1960), also adapted from a semi-autobiographical Lustig short story.

Like “Diamonds, it chronicles the fate of a few Nazi prisoners, who escape from a train being used to transfer concentration-camp inmates, in advance of the Red Army advance. Starving, they draw lots to select which one of them will risk his life, stealing a loaf of bread from under the nose of a SS guard and making it back to cover before he notices it missing. Likewise, “Diamonds” follows the progress of two unnamed boys – who we can only assume to be Jewish – after they escape from a train transferring prisoners to another death camp. The boys find themselves in a dense forest, again, with no food, wet clothes and no escape route. Diamonds of the Night differs from A Piece of Bread, as well, by making it difficult for viewers to discern, with any accuracy, when events are taking place. Some occur in the present, while the others are presented as flashbacks and memories. Nemec also anticipates their futures in dreamlike settings. In a risky leap of narrative faith, he avoids attaching labels to the characters. Instead of describing “Diamonds” as a World War II or Holocaust film, he wants audiences to see it as a survival story that explores the human condition under extreme conditions. Even when it looks as if the protagonists might be able to avoid capture until the end of the war, Nemec keeps audiences guessing. He did so by expanding a short scene in the book and original screenplay into an intriguing serio-comic nightmare for the boys. In it, they’re chased through a steeply textured forest by a group of retirees, who are shooting at them with rifles they might have salvaged from World War I. Once captured, accidentally, they’re forced to await their fates in the same room as that being used by the geezers to celebrate, with buckets of beer, drinking songs and dances with make-believe partners. Then, Nemec gives us reason to believe that the boys either are killed by their captors, released into a secure situation, or forced to give up their dignity in a post-war world muddled by poverty, hunger, destroyed homes, revenge seeking and the arrival of new tyrants from the east. The supplemental features include an archival program with the director; an exclusive new video interview with film programmer and Czechoslovak-film expert Irena Kovarova; the documentary, “Arnost Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Nemec”; new video essay produced by film scholar James Quandt; an illustrated leaflet, featuring critic Michael Atkinson’s essay “Into the Woods” and technical credits.

School of Life
There is a subgenre of French cinema in which children are pulled from their natural abodes and sent to the boonies, either to escape a sinister force – Nazis, usually – or to realize a coming-of-age experience, under the tutelage of grumpy old men. Nature-specialist Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life takes a different route to a similarly foretold conclusion. It opens behind the high walls of an austere orphanage in suburban Paris, circa the early 1930s. It’s the only home that Paul (Jean Scandel) has only ever experienced. As such, he doesn’t know how to react when an out-of- their-element couple — Célestine (Valérie Karsenti) and Borel (Eric Elmosnino) – arrives with the sole purpose of taking him back to their rural home, situated on magnificent estate owned by a reclusive aristocrat. Habitually inclined to mistrust strangers,  Paul resists their many acts of kindness toward him. Borel is the gamekeeper on the property, which lies in the untamed French countryside of Sologne. Initially recalcitrant and rebellious, Paul becomes close with Borel’s nemesis: the elusive poacher, Totoche (François Cluzet). He teaches Paul about life and death in the forest primeval, while Borel focuses the boy’s attention on conserving Count de la Fresnaye’s  resources and keeping poachers from destroying the natural balance. In doing so, Borel allows the count to feel ethically comfortable in his attempts to advance the generational tradition of downing a magnificent stag and adding its head to the mansion’s trophy wall. Paul doesn’t’ know how to feel about such regal pursuits, except to side with the beast when it’s cornered. That’s only half the story, though. The other half begins when the count is seriously injured in a hunt and his cruel, playboy son arrives to wait for him to die and the will to be read. The pompous jerk, who once was cursed by gypsies for killing a heron on a duck hunt, can’t wait to fence in the entire property and prevent the migration of animals and people. He can’ t possibly know what lies ahead for him when the will is read, although some viewers may not be surprised. Nicolas Vanier has already demonstrated his ability to create films that aren’t overwhelmed by nature’s grandeur — Belle & Sebastian (2013) and Loup (2009) — freeing cinematographer Éric Guichard (Les diables) great latitude in capturing the beauty, serenity and ecology of the count’s property, as well as the diversity of its inhabitants.

We Are Boats
Born in Soviet Armenia, in 1983, Angela Sarafyan possesses the kind of ethereal beauty that is marked by flowing white gowns, eyes that don’t require cosmetic enhancements and wavy brown hair, inspired by goddesses in Greek mythology. It must be difficult for agents and casting directors to find roles in which her exotic features won’t detract from those of her co-stars and dominate every scene in which she appears. Although she’s fit comfortably within the parameters established for guest stars and supporting characters in short-lived roles, Sarafyan’s still waiting for a major breakthrough. Audiences might recall performances in hourlong TV dramas (“American Horror Story”), playing top-shelf hookers (“Westworld”), paranormals (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), vampires (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), spies and assassins (“Nikita”) and, most notably, in films about the Armenian genocide (The Promise, Lost and Found in Armenia, 1915). Everything came together for Sarafyan on “Westworld,” in which she played the occasionally topless host/prostitute Clementine Pennyfeather at Maeve’s saloon. As far as I can tell, We Are Boats marks Sarafyan’s first shot as playing the protagonist, Francesca, who alternately performs the duties of an angel, grim reaper, prostitute, temptress and distraught mom. It is, however, not a movie most people are likely to see.

In it, Francesca dies prematurely after being shot by a disgruntled john in a hotel-room assignation. After some confusion at the gates to the hereafter, she is assigned by Sir (Uzo Aduba) to remain in the corporeal world temporarily, encountering strangers at crisis points in their lives. She’ll guide them onto a path toward happiness or set the wheels in motion for tragic ending. Her status allows her to appear and disappear, according to her own whims and the directions the various characters are heading. When she completes her assignments, Francesca fears she’ll be sent to her just reward before she can re-connect with the daughter. We Are Boats is writer/director/producer James Bird’s fourth feature after Eat Spirit Eat (2013), Honeyglue (2015) and From Above (2013), for which he received sole writing credit only. I get the feeling that he becomes so invested in his characters’ affairs and issues that he begins to take them personally. In We Are Boats, at least, a couple of promising characters – Amanda Plummer’s homeless Jimmie, among them – get lost in the stories of other people.

According to Bird and everyone else interviewed in the special features, We Are Boats is “the first 100 percent vegan feature film ever made. No animals were harmed, worn or eaten during the entire production. This includes cruelty-free hair products, makeup, wardrobe and all catering.” Moreover, the film’s cast is 50 percent female and 41 percent people of color. The crew is comprised, as well, of 45 percent women. Bird is of Native American ancestry and Indians were cast in non-stereotypical roles. While admirable in so many ways, this devotion to an atypical agenda – swimming outside the Hollywood mainstream at every turn – may have caused Bird to momentarily take his eye off the narrative ball. As enchanting as Sarafyan’s interpretation of Francesca may be, for example, viewers may lose track of who it is she’s supposed to be.

The Witch: A New-England Folktale: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Hagazussa: A Gothic Folk Tale: Blu-ray
Considering that Robert Eggers’ terrifically creepy period horror The Witch: A New-England Folktale (a.k.a, “A Primal Folktale”) was initially released on Blu-ray just short of three years ago and nothing new has been added to sweeten the package — except, 4K UHD – collectors may want to consider holding back on a visual upgrade. Rabid fans, who’ve only recently committed to the format, won’t be disappointed by the ultra-high-definition transfer and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation, which fine-tune some of the sensory details. Eggers’s debut feature not only is one of the smartest genre pictures in memory, but it also stands up in repeat viewings. Part of The Witch’s charm derives from the story’s no-frills approach, which corresponds to the no-frills existences of Puritan settlers in 1630s New England. For reasons that probably are too complex to explain, devout English settlers William, Katherine and their children have been banished from their congregation and forced to find agreeable land outside the settlement’s walls. (Historically, there was a rift between Puritan factions at the time.) The patch of land they find looks as if it would be a perfect place to grow corn, goats and chickens, and raise God-fearing children. The perfectly horizontal tree-line that borders and protects the stone-free property should have raised suspicions, but God-fearing pilgrims never questioned His plans for them. Moreover, William and Katherine believe strongly in the power of prayer to protect them from spiritual and physical harm … and, boy, do they pray. Almost from the start, inexplicable tragedies impact the family and continue as the children grow. Anya Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds) plays the oldest daughter, Thomasin, who is accused by her mother and younger twin sisters of being a witch and the catalyst for terrible occurrences. What, then, to make of Black Phillip, the family’s truly scary billy goat; a mysterious rabbit that’s always around when trouble starts; and the wrinkly old woman, who sneaks into the barn at night to drink bloody milk from the teat of the female goats? Nothing beneficial to the protagonists, that’s for sure. The fancifully curious ending goes a long way to redeeming the film’ more disturbing moments, but only if you think witches are entitled to some good times, too. The ported-over bonus material includes Egger’s commentary; “The Witch: A Primal Folktale,” with interviews; “Salem Panel Q&A,” with cast and crew; and design gallery.

The highly coincidental title, Hagazussa: A Gothic Folk Tale (a.k.a., “A Heathen’s Curse”), is taken from an Old High German term for “witch.” It isn’t the only similarity to Egger’s The Witch – the subtitles ring a bell, as well – but it’s the one that comes immediately to mind. Both are set in the kinds of isolated rural locations where locals consume gossip, lies and superstition like people in the city absorb newspaper and broadsheet headlines. As such, the possibility of Satan intruding  into the lives of church-going people is a more fearsome prospect than the virtual absence of God in their daily lives. Even with the daily deluge of prayers from fundamentalist Christians, the deity seems to prefer letting the miracles revealed in the Book of Genesis speak for themselves. After all, how could the creation of Earth and all its natural wonders be considered less wondrous than the devil’s occasional manifestations? Seemingly, God has bigger fish to fry. In Hagazussa, the walls of the local church are built from the dried bones and skulls of former parishioners, and priests are the closest things the living have to medical practitioners. The goats in Hagazussa are only slightly less sinister than those in The Witch, however. Like The Sound of Music, it is set in the highest pastures in the Austrian Alps, only a century removed from the events depicted in Eggers’ film. Although Mark Korven’s score for The Witch was honored with nominations and awards from several niche festivals and publications, the droning white-noise score here, by Greek duo MMMD, is as ominous as Black Phillip’s chillingly blank stares in The Witch. Because of the hideous circumstances surrounding her mother’s death, Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) becomes the scapegoat for every inexplicable evil that feeds the ancient superstitions and monstrous misogyny of the mountain folk. Shunned, Albrun grew up alone in a shepherd’s cabin with a zillion-dollar view of the Alps, but still managed to become impregnated by an unseen and undescribed man. Her loneliness is abated somewhat by the appearance of a young and pretty neighbor, Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), who takes advantage of Albrun’s situation and pays the price. After Swinda arranges for Albrun to be raped by her dimwitted husband, something that’s laid dormant since her mother’s death suddenly comes to the surface. Her revenge can easily be interpreted as a satanic act, as is her lack of remorse. Later, she eats a psychedelic mushroom that causes her to experience a bad trip of epic proportions. MMMD’s no-frills musical accompaniment suits debuting writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld’s approach to minimalist horror. It’s stunning to learn that Hagazussa served as his graduation project. His work is also on display – along with that of cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro – in the unsettling short film, Interferenz (2014), included in the Music Box package. There’s also a deleted scene, music video and commentaries on select scenes.

Red Room
The Manitou: Blu-ray
Superstition: Blu-ray
Scared Stiff: Blu-ray
It wouldn’t be fair to assume that the people who create, market and pay good money to watch such torture-porn exercises as Red Room are as twisted and depraved as the movies’ inarguably sick antagonists. How else to explain their very existence, though? Less frightening than it is gut-wrenching. Dubliner Stephen Gaffney (Bully) and freshman co-writer Erica Keegan’s  women-in-jeopardy drama is too well-made to be dismissed out of hand, however. Red Room sets a goal and achieves it. Only sadists, misogynists and perverts are likely to find anything entertaining in watching helpless young women being toyed with and tormented by porn profiteers. As an indictment of the corruptive power of the Internet, too, it falls well short of the target. In its opening moments, Kyra (Amy Kelly), is kidnapped off the street after a night out on the town. She wakes up in the locked basement of an isolated house with two other young female captives. They are being held for the amusement of sickos who get their kicks via webcasts that capture the women being forced to do unconscionable things and suffer deprivations designed to make them look even more pitiable than they already are. When one patron pushes the bidding for an exclusive act of cruelty past the $4-million mark, the women realize that their only salvation will come though their own cunning and collective strength … if then. Superheroes and comic-book heroes don’t exist in this realm. The most interesting featurette is a video capture of a test audience reacting to one of Red Room’s more unsettling scenes. Other additions include interviews with director and cast, deleted scenes and a concept promo.

Leave it to Hollywood to take a sacred Native American origins myth and turn it into a horror show. While most screenwriters are cautioned against restructuring religious dogma to fit their own needs – Satan being the exception that proves the rule – aboriginal mythology has been considered fair game for more than a hundred years. The Manitou not only reinvented Algonquian-group beliefs, but it turned the spiritual and fundamental life force into an intergalactic bogeyman. Based on Graham Masterton’s best-selling 1976 pot-boiler, it begins when Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) enters a San Francisco hospital, suffering from a growth on her spine. Her incredulous doctors surmise that it’s a soft tumor with the characteristics of William Castle’s Tingler. On closer inspection, they fear it’s a fetus of unknown origin incupating inside the tumor. Fortune-teller Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) dismisses the whole thing, until one of his customers begins speaking in tongues and levitating, finally throwing herself down a flight of stairs. Her words appear to relate to an aboriginal spirit. Then, as Karen’s surgeon attempts to excise her tumor, a supernatural force pushes him to cut off his hand, instead. Erskine finally seeks help from another fortune teller, Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens), and her husband, to learn the cause of these frightening events. Dr. Snow
(Burgess Meredith) speculates that within her tumor lives a the embryo of a vengeful 400-year-old Indian spirit. Erskine travels to South Dakota to enlist the aid of Indian medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to force the evil spirit out of Karen’s body and back to from whence it came. If not, it could find new hosts and spread the pain. The final showdown takes  place in outer space, where a topless avatar uses then-modern technology to defeat the ancient beast. Blu-ray additions include a new 4K scan of the original film elements; fresh interviews with Masterson, executive producer David Sheldon; new commentary with film historian Troy Howarth; and a stills gallery.

Working from a screenplay by Galen Thompson (Hellbound), director James W. Roberson (The Legend of Alfred Packer) provides little time in Superstition (1982) for minister George Leahy (Larry Pennell) and his family to settle into their new home, before he pulls the rug out from under them. The long-abandoned mansion — popular with pranksters and neckers – is haunted by a malevolent spirit … or two. It was built on the site of an infamously botched witch hunt, in 1692, when a crazed minister decided to improvise on her spiritual cleansing. Instead of burning Elvira Sharack (Jacquelyn Hyde) on a wooden stake, the Puritan fanatic elects to drown the genuinely possessed woman in a nearby pond, while tied to a cross. Ever since then, the property has been assumed to be haunted. As the new renters settle in, mysterious things begin to occur around the estate, including the deaths of workers and visitors. Because it’s owned by the local Catholic archdiocese, Father David Thompson (James Houghton) is called in to determine what’s really going on there and, more to the point, if the Church is liable for reparations. Conveniently, the caretaker’s mentally ill and prone-to-violence son, Arlen (Joshua Cadman), makes himself the primary suspect. If the violence is sufficiently nasty to satisfy gore aficionados, Superstition’s inner logic and overabundance of characters make it impossible to embrace. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K scan from the original film elements and new interviews with Roberson and Houghton.

When it entered the genre marketplace, in 1987. Richard Friedman’s haunted-house thriller, Scared Stiff, doesn’t appear to have done much business, despite the presence of genre heartthrob Andrew Stevens. Apart from the dull-as-dishwater title, it probably suffered from the setting: an ante-bellum Southern mansion that once was owned by a ruthless planter, George Masterson (David Ramsey), who tormented everyone who entered his perimeter, including his wife, son and slaves. By then, movies featuring scenes of extreme racist behavior had become repugnant to post-“Roots” and post-Mandingo audiences. They wouldn’t come back into vogue until Django Unchained (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Free State of Jones (2016) and The Birth of a Nation (2016). After the demonic repression of a slave uprising in Scared Stiff, Friedman flash-forwards 125 years and the introduction of the plantation’s new owners. Mary Page Keller plays Kate, a recently traumatized pop star, while Stevens portrays her psychiatrist/boyfriend, David Young. Their freaked-out son isn’t immune to the horrors to come, either. After poking around the house’s attic, Doctor Young discovers artifacts and papers left behind by the previous owners and rebellious slaves. The artifacts include talismans associated with voodoo and rituals that extend back to Africa. Soon enough, Kate (Mary Page Keller) and her son begin seeing the Masterson’s ghost, who fools her by playing impeccable piano sonatas with his back turned to her. They’re also exposed to flashbacks of Masterson’s brutality toward his family. None of it is terribly well executed, really, more closely resembling “Dark Shadows” than a period horror. Eventually, the previous owner’s much-abused wife (Nicole Fortier) appears to recall the original voodoo curse and the likelihood that Young’s body has been repossessed by Masterson. The portrayals of the slaves and their African customs may not have impressed test audiences, who, by this time, were exhausted by plantation-based dramas. The really crazy stuff – the slaves’ ghostly revenge – doesn’t happen until near the end of the 83-minute flick, which seems to have disappeared from view upon its U.S. release. The Blu-ray adds a few extras, including commentary with Friedman and writer/producer Dan Bacaner; the 34-minute featurette, “Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff”; a stills gallery a separate interview, with composer Billy Barber; and some marketing material. It’s worth noting that co-writer Mark Frost would go on to co-create “Twin Peaks” and “Buddy Faro.”  (The greater mystery involves IMDB.com’s insistence that the actor playing Masterson, David Ramsey, was a then-16-year-old black male, instead of a twenty- or thirtysomething white man, who, based on an Internet search, appears to have never existed. The black Ramsey has starred recently in “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “Dexter.”)

Edwin Brienen Collection: Blu-ray
Once upon a time in cinema history, films designated “avant-garde,” “underground,” “cult” and “experimental” filled the same niches held today by arty music videos, YouTube and other Internet-delivered oddities, and cutting-edge animation. While some became midnight-movie and campus-film-club sensations – Night of the Living Dead (1968), El Topo (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) Eraserhead (1977) – it was difficult for them to find crossover appeal. To some degree, that’s because off-Hollywood movies, made by members of the so-called Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation, pushed the limits of mainstream appeal and moviegoers’ willingness to take chances with their hard-earned money. Foreign products lost their appeal, as well, simply because Americans decided not to support movies with subtitles, anymore. It became a best-of-times/worst-of-times deal, soon to be overwhelmed by the “tentpole” phenomenon. When the studios also committed to single-laydown marketing campaigns, openings on multiple screens in the same complex and pleasing teen audiences before adults, the avant-garde was left cooling its collective heels. The next revolution was facilitated by introduction of camcorders and handheld digital cameras, VHS and Beta technology, and the willingness of independent distributers and mini-majors to take chances on low-budget movies. Internet streaming has broken down the walls left standing from the days of studio domination. It’s never been easier, or less expensive to find examples of films even arthouses wouldn’t touch over the last 50 years.

Brink’s five-film “Edwin Brienen Collection” is an invitation for extreme cineastes, if you will, to sample the work of a Dutch auteur, whose films can rightly be said to mirror those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Theo van Gogh, Andy Warhol and artists associated with Brechtian theater. Now 48, Brienen only began making feature films in 2001, after stints as an actor, producer, journalist, radio moderator and television director. The sole English-language review on IMDB.com, lifted from the soiledsinema.com website, describes that film, Terrorama!, as being “a sensory-deranging digital-diarrhea explosion of raunchy rape, unsentimental sacrilege, nasty nihilism, sick sex, and philosophical terrorism.” Moreover, “Because, it won Best Film at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival and earned (actress) Esther Eva Verkaaik Best Leading Actress honors at the Toronto Independent Film Festival, Terrorama! cemented the director’s reputation as an erratic enfant terrible.” The critic failed to mention that it received the 2002 Melbourne Underground Film Festival prize for Best Gratuitous Use of Sex.

No matter, really. Asked to characterize his transgressive approach to such keystone themes as sexuality, politics, religion, relationships, death, abuse and trauma, Brienen, now a resident of Berlin, remarked, “I don’t do mainstream films. And, I realize that people might find themselves uncomfortable, while watching my work. But, I think, it’s not the film that’s disturbing. It’s the person who looks at it, who chooses to find it that way. To be honest, I do not shoot my films with the idea of making them disturbing, on purpose.” Whether he said it with a straight face or not, I can’t say. Brienen acquired the nickname, “Dutch Fassbinder,” for having churned out 30 features, shorts and television series in fewer than 20 years, with the highest of production values affordable. For some reason, Terrorama! (2001), Last Performance (2006), Lena Wants to Know Once and for All (2011), Exploitation (2012) and God (2016) are presented out of chronological order on the Brink collection, with the latest release on the first disc and the earliest on the second. Sharp eyes would be required to spot Brienen’s creative and philosophical evolution, though. There’s no question that he elicits exemplary work from his small repertory company of fearless actors: Eva Dorrepaal, Esther Eva Verkaaik, Vivien LaFleur and Agnieszka Rozenbajgier. My best recommendation for new arrivals to this sort of thing would be taking a short course in Fassbinder’s body of work.

The Lightest Darkness
Reversed: Blu-ray
Billed as the first female-directed Russian noir – a niche if I ever saw one — Diana Galimzyanova’s The Lightest Darkness also is noteworthy for being the first made with a reverse chronology. It’s a conceit that explains a lot about the movie’s inscrutable narrative. In a nutshell it involves the neurotic, if stylish sleuth R.I. Musin (Rashid Aitouganov), who’s overly invested in a complex case that has troubled him for a long time. Working to finish up the estate of a recently deceased uncle, Musin finds himself traveling by train alongside a concert pianist, Elina (Marina Voytuk), and video-game scriptwriter, Arina (Irina Gevorgyan), both of whom are fashionably seductive and exchange intriguingly clever dialogue. Arina’s work-in-progress is based on the Fruiterer, an active serial killer who haunts the night trains. The Lightest Darkness is a consciously Modernist noir, whose striking black-and-white imagery masks the story’s reverse-linear mysteries. A second viewing may be necessary to grasp Galimzyanova’s intricate methodology, but that’s up to you.

Vince D’Amato’s Reversed: The Brivido Giallo Trilogy, also from Darkside Releasing, arrives self-described as “a thrilling new experience in experimental noir, inspired by the sensual and violent world of the Italian giallo film.” Its roots extend back to Lamberto Bava’s mid-1980s cable series, “Brivido Giallo,” which featured four full-length horror films, directed by the master: Dinner With a Vampire (1989), The Ogre (1989), Until Death (1988) and Graveyard Disturbance (1988), all of which are available on DVD. It took me a while to figure out that Reversed is the third release from Darkside’s so-called Brivido Giallo division, alongside Glass and Valley of the Rats. According to the press material, they pay homage to the visually dazzling, exceedingly violent and inarguably sexy Italian horror/mystery/thrillers of the 1970s, “while broadening modern artistic exploration in this genre.” By broadening modern artistic exploration, I suppose they mean incorporating fetishistic portrayals of women in peril, who are photographed through gauzy lenses reminiscent of early Penthouse magazine pictorials, Vogue and underground photographers Richard Kern, Petra Collins and former Leg Show editor Dian Hanson. I’ll let the official summary say what I can’t discern: “Reversed tells the twisted tale of Asia, a globe-trotting socialite who winds up involved in murder, sex and mayhem. Is someone really after her, or is she completely delusional and paranoid?” Exploring the bloody back-story from the point-of-view of her three lovers, Asia’s tale of eroticism and violence is a twisting journey through a disturbed and passionate mind that either will perplex or titillate viewers.

Tito and the Birds: Blu-ray
One of the most difficult duties in any awards season has to be choosing five films from short lists of a dozen, or so, titles in as many as nine hotly contested categories: animation, documentaries, foreign language, music, visual effects, makeup and hairstyling among them, on the Academy Awards docket. Nominees for the 2019 Best Foreign Language Film prize, alone, were pared down to 9 films from the 87 submitted and, in the Best Documentary Feature, 166 to 15. The short lists would be winnowed down even further, typically, to five. Twenty-five years ago, few people outside the niche branches paid much attention to such preliminaries. The unconscionable treatment accorded Hoop Dreams (1994) by the nominating committee forced critics, pundits and administrators to demand reforms in one of the most hidebound categories of them all. Observers then turned their attention to the similarly shameful selection processes in other categories. The ascendency of independent distributors in the early 1990s raised the ante on the importance of all awards. The word, “snub,” had been around for decades, probably, but the Hoop Dreams fiasco gave it new life in the media. Today, entertainment reporters file stories about snubs immediately after the short lists are announced – now, in mid-December – and, again, in mid-January, when the finalists are announced. Snub pieces also follow the selections of nominees for Grammys, Emmys and the Golden Globes …  after the media began to take the HFPA seriously. The laws that govern the Independent Spirit Awards ensure dozens of snubs, each year, but the stakes are lower and the once-fun ceremony is overshadowed by coverage of Oscar parties. Most film lovers don’t enjoy the luxury of watching more than a handful of the short-listed nominees – not to mention, the snubs — in the niche categories.

The arrival on my doorstep of Brazil’s AMPAS entry, Tito and the Birds, reminded once again how difficult it must be to cull the picks from the near-misses, snubs and also-rans. Then, there are prize-worthy films that go unnominated by the selection committees in their sources countries. Anime and animated films from Japan, Eastern and Western Europe, Mexico, South America and, lest we forget, Canada hold their own against pictures from Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and other studios, whose primary goal is to make lots of money, here and abroad. American studios still dominate the finalists, but artists from around the world have earned a place at the table. Tito and the Birds was directed, in Portuguese, by Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg, from a screenplay by Eduardo Benaim and Gustavo Steinberg. It was a finalist for an     Annie Award for Best Animated Independent Feature – won by Studio Chizu’s terrific Mirai, an Oscar finalist – but didn’t make the short list of 10, out of 25 qualifiers, I won’t go as far as to say that Tito and the Birds was snubbed, because it wasn’t. It simply didn’t make the cut. The gloriously colorful and politically shaded film tells the story of an inventive 10-year-old boy, Tito (voiced by Pedro Henrique), who takes on the responsibility of finding the cure for an illness that is contracted after individuals experience something hugely frightful. Building from data developed by his father (Matheus Nachtergaele), Tito creates a rattletrap machine to help humans translate the language of birds, who are known to anticipate traumatic events. Tito’s anxious and over-protective mother, Rosa (Denise Fraga), is a typical victim of the malady, which causes patients to shrink into mute, immobile lumps of quasi-human rock.

The contagion is exploited by Alaor Souza (Matheus Solano), a right-wing TV personality whose dubious state-of-the-nation reports stoke paranoia throughout the populace. (Viewers don’t have to look too far to see the similarities between Souza and real-life potentates Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump.) The commentator encourages them to purchase property in the disease-free Dome Garden, a high-tech, sealed-off luxury estate that he owns. Tito believes that the answer lies, instead, in the wisdom of doves. Unfortunately, there’s no known way for the birds to relate their thoughts to humans. If the political angle goes over the heads of some viewers, Tito and the Birds can be enjoyed solely for the constantly shifting fusion of oil paints, embellished with digital enhancements. The swirling images build to an Expressionist-inspired dystopian nightmare, as well as a beautifully rendered solution. Here and there are hints of Disney’s Coco, as well. The Blu-ray adds an interview with filmmakers Steinberg and Bitar.

Replicas: Blu-ray
Director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad and star Keanu Reeves will soon find out how much steam is left in their collective engine, when John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum opens in theaters around the world, beginning on May 15. It’s the rare action franchise that’s increased in value since its initial release on October 24, 2014, while also garnering largely positive reviews. The modest $40 million production budget for the first sequel doubled that of the original entry, which almost seems impossible. Both times, the martial-arts action and fetishistic gunplay easily compensated for a script that required a minimum amount of dialogue. If foreign sales hold up the way they have for this and other action franchises, a fourth installment for the poor man’s Mission:Impossible couldn’t be ruled out. Alas, the same can’t be said about such recent Reeves’ sidebars as Destination Wedding, Siberia, A Happening of Monumental Proportions, Lionsgate Television’s “Swedish Dicks” and this week’s movie-in-question, Replicas, all of which followed John Wick: Chapter 2 into the marketplace. It isn’t likely that Reeves participated in their creation to feather his nest-egg. On Replicas, which was developed at Reeves and Stephen Hamel’s Company Films, he was one of nearly 30 dozen producers credited on the movie’s IMDB.com web page. The star’s bona-fides as an action hero are well-established, so, despite the stinkers, “Chapter 3” probably won’t disappoint anyone born after “The Matrix” trilogy. The less said about Replicas, the better. It’s an old-school sci-fi flick that takes advantage of new-school technology to tell a story whose origins can be traced to Frankenstein (1931). Reeves plays Will Foster, a “daring synthetic biologist,” who, after a car accident kills his family, stops at nothing to bring them back, even if it means pitting himself against a government-controlled laboratory, a military task force and the physical laws of science. Also participating are the nearly ubiquitous John Ortiz (Peppermint), Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), Alice Eve (“Iron Fist”) and her look-alike screen daughter, Emily Alyn Lind (“Code Black”). Blu-ray extras include commentary with Nachmanoff and executive producer James Dodson; the 26-minute “Imprint Complete: The Making of Replicas”; and deleted scenes.

Keoma: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Spaghetti Western, in most of its crazy permutations, was headed for its last roundup when veteran writer/director Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards) was handed the reins of Keoma, one of the very few such genre specimens to be made in the mid-1970s, and beyond. He didn’t particularly like the patchwork script by Luigi Montefiori (a.k.a., George Eastman) and the vintage studio sets had been torn down for lack of use. A short window opened in Franco Nero’s schedule, allowing for some time to rewrite the screenplay and move the location shoot to scenic, unspoiled Abruzzo, about 80 miles due east of Rome. Even then, much of the dialogue was improvised as the production moved forward. Although Keoma isn’t well-known outside Italy, the Arrow/Mill Creek special edition should go a long way toward raising its profile here. It’s every bit that skillfully made and genuinely entertaining. The title character, a half-breed Civil War veteran, is played with undisguised relish by Nero (Django), still one of the great stars of genre cinema.

The first time we see Keoma Shannon’s long hair and beard, it’s impossible not to anticipate his come-to-Jesus scene, during which he’ll suffer at the hands of his enemy and look to the sky for God’s help. It’s worth the 90-minute wait. Keoma has returned to his hometown after the war, looking forward to spending time with his stepfather, William Shannon (Willian Berger), a rancher who trained him as a boy to be an ace gunslinger. Instead, the town is awash with fears of the plague spreading through the population. Those already exposed are forced by vigilantes to find shelter in caves outside the city limits. One of the evacuees is a gorgeous pregnant woman, Liza (Olga Karlatos), who’s treated like Typhoid Mary at a Fourth of July celebration. She becomes Keoma’s personal reclamation project. He believes that the infectious disease can be treated with medicines available nearby, but only if he can eliminate the tyrannical gang leader, Caldwell (Donald O’Brien) who’s blocking shipments for his own financial gain.

Then, there’s the personal vendetta being conducted by his three evil stepbrothers, who’ve bullied Keoma since he was boy. Even when he’s outmanned by a ratio of 50-to-1, he’s the match of his enemies. Things do get sticky after a while, but, with the aid of crack archer, George (Woody Strode), and his stepfather, he’s able to vanquish the Caldwells. If the ending is more or less proforma – what Western isn’t? – Keoma overflows with brilliantly choreographed fights and scenery that rivals that in any Western, shot east of Monument Valley. The special Blu-ray edition is enhanced by a new 2K restoration, from the original 35mm camera negative; new commentary by Spaghetti Western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke; lengthy new interviews with Nero, Castellari, Montefiori, editor Gianfranco Amicucci, actors Massimo Vanni and Volfango Soldati; “Keoma and the Twilight of the Spaghetti Western,” a newly filmed video appreciation by the academic Austin Fisher;
“An Introduction to Keoma,” by Alex Cox; original Italian and international theatrical trailers; gallery of original promotional images from the Mike Siegel archive; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Simon Abrams and Howard Hughes.

Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954: Blu-ray
Death Is a Number/Torment
While the nine movies collected in “Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954” stretch the definition of what it means to be “noir,” they’re in the same ballpark. Originally released as the second title in a double-feature, these B-movies are only formulaic in the sense that the shading is dark, the angles are sharp, the guys are tough and the dames are slicker than owl shit. Unlike most other noirs, the themes and settings are all over the place. Address Unknown (1944) stars Paul Lucas, as a German/American art dealer, who returns to the Rhineland at the outbreak of World War Two and swallows the Nazi-propaganda pill whole. In doing so, he puts the lives of his Jewish fiancée (K.T. Stevens) and son (Peter Van Eyck) in the crosshairs of the Gestapo. Budd Boetticher’s Escape in the Fog (1945) also tackles wartime intrigue, this time in San Francisco, with spies vying for a secret message the Japanese literally would kill to possess. Rosalind Russell stars in The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), alongside Melvin Douglas, Sid Caesar, Betsy Blair and Nina Foch. Russell plays a war widow whose husband threw himself on a grenade, saving five men in his platoon. Angry and bitter, she has the names of the men, and sets out to meet each one to see if any of them is worth her husband’s sacrifice. The movie feels a bit like A Christmas Carol, with Douglas’ Smithfield “Smitty” Cobb playing the ghost of her past, present and future. It features a wild performance by Caesar. The real ringer here is Anthony Mann’s The Black Book (1049), which takes place during the French Revolution and involves the fevered search for Maximilian Robespierre’s enemies’ list. Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl and Norman Lloyd top the bill. In the not-terribly-noirish Johnny Allegro (1949), George Raft unconvincingly plays an ex-con currently working as a florist in a swank hotel. (The character possibly was based on Chicago mobster/florist Dion O’Bannion.) Before you know it, though, he’s killed a federal agent and is hustled away to an island not far from L.A. … or Miami. It’s occupied by the mastermind of counterfeiting ring, who agrees to shelter Allegro at the behest of his girlfriend. Not surprisingly, his curiosity makes him an easy target for the slick crook, who wields a bow-and-arrow and enjoys hunting humans. It’s nutty, but watchable. As is The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), an engaging public-safety procedural in which the killer is small-pox; the femme fatale (Evelyn Keyes) is an infected gem smuggler; and plague-hunters team up with police to solve a crime and prevent a disaster. Despite the craps reference in the title, 711 Ocean Drive (1950) is less concerned with loaded dice than fixed horse races. An excellent Edmond O’Brien plays an electronics expert, who creates a lucrative bookie network for his crime boss. He takes over operations when his boss is murdered, but, of course, is upended by his greed. Joanne Dru and Dorothy Patrick supply the sizzle. Assignment Paris (1952) is a Cold War thriller, in which American and French reporters (Dana Andrews, Märta Torén) are assigned the task of proving that Hungarian authorities killed an American operative and poisoned a reporter who got the goods on them. George Sanders plays the editor of the Paris-based newspaper. The Miami Story (1954) takes a quasi-documentary approach to an overly complicated story about Cuban and native-born mobsters, competing to control organized crime in “the spa.” Luther Adler, Barry Sullivan, Adele Jergens, Beverly Garland and stripper Lili St. Cyr keep things moving, as well. In a real-life PSA, former U.S. Senator George Smathers informs the world that organized crime is a thing of the past in Miami. OK.

The British film industry produced several monumental pictures in the period directly following World War II: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948); Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949); Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948); and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. In the early 1950s, however, studios faced financial difficulties and restrictions, not unlike those facing the country, at large. A few excellent comedies slipped through, including The Lavender Hill Mob: and Laughter in Paradise (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). The doldrums pretty much ended towards the end of the decade, when Hammer Films found audiences for its peculiar brand of horror, while British New Wave filmmakers introduced “kitchen sink realism” to audiences.

Juno Films Selects and MVD recently launched a series of lesser-known films from the era. This week’s selection includes John Guillermin’s Death Is a Number and Torment (a.k.a., “Paper Gallows”). Short enough to fit within the confines of a horror or crime anthology for television, both films feel more like short stories. In the former, a numerologist (Terrence Alexander) relates the family history of a friend — racing driver John Bridgeman (Denis Webb) — whose mysterious death, he sets out to prove, may have been the final act of an ancient family curse, related to the number, 9. The dry narration is saved by the arrival of several cool ghosts and a haunted castle in a haunted section of England. In the latter, Torment, brothers Cliff (Dermot Walsh) and Jim Brandon (John Bentley) are a successful writing team specializing in murder mysteries. They resemble each other facially, but one is a fine, upstanding gentleman and the other a moody, neurotic psychopath. When an ex-convict visits them, Cliff is determined to commit the perfect crime and frame his secretary, Joan (Rona Anderson), who favors his brother. Jim engages in a race against time to save her from execution. Guillermin would go on to direct Shaft in Africa (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974) and King Kong (1976).

Fortune Defies Death
Writer/director/producer/editor and visual effects and sound poohbah Jennifer Hulum stretches the limits of the locked-door mystery in her debut feature, Fortune Defies Death. She does so by putting 10 years between the death of a wealthy family’s patriarch and the reading of his will in front of a roomful of anxious relatives. At the time, he expected that the disappearance of his adopted daughter would be explained, and she could join her relatives at the reading conducted by her father’s lawyer. Even if she doesn’t appear, out of the blue, the old man anticipated that it would either bring the feuding Woods’ family members together or reveal the killer(s). Among the usual suspects are the old man’s greedy sister and her grandson; an eccentric niece and two ambitious nephews; his mistress; and his missing daughter’s husband, accompanied by their amnesiac granddaughter. Standing in for Agatha Christie — or Nero Wolf, one — is the family attorney, who’s been investigating Mona’s disappearance, all along. With so many legitimate suspects, convoluted storylines and flashbacks – compounded by the absence of well-known actors — Fortune Defies Death wears out its welcome, long before the 115-minute mark.

As You Like It
Based on the jacket art, alone, it would be easy to dismiss Carlyle Stewart’s freshman film as a stunt – an all-male cast, in a modern setting — suited primarily for screenings at LGBTQ festivals and benefits. Once you get past the suggestive cover, however, it’s worth recalling that theatrical productions in Shakespeare’s time were staged with casts comprised of men and boys, exclusively, and the contemporizing of sets, props and costumes has been a popular option for a long time. Even so, it’s impossible to watch an all-male anything and not think that all the actors are as gay as the subtext. Although I’m not at all sure what Stewart’s intentions were going into the project, As You Like It does a nice job combining both conceits at once and sticking to the Shakespearean ideal. Set in and around the vast open spaces of Death Valley, the male characters look very much like the ranchers, cowhands and drifters they’re supposed to be. The males playing women – with one prominent exception – are made up to resemble attractive young women in the same outdoor milieu. (The lone ringer qualifies as both comic relief and the exception that proves the rule.) Anyone expecting a Western version of “Beach Blanket Bingo” may be disappointed, but not for long. A synopsis: “After the overthrowing of Duke Senior by his tyrannical brother, Senior’s daughter Rosalind disguises herself as a man and sets out to find her banished father, while also counseling her clumsy suitor Orlando in the art of wooing.” The part about, “Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, disguising herself as a man” only adds another layer of intrigue to the roles played by Grant Jordan (“Home”). Another noteworthy thing about As You Like It is the cast’s diversity, which reflects that of the American Southwest. Among the more recognizable actors are Tom Bower (“Ice”),  Branton Box (“Mayans M.C.”), Eloy Casados (“Shameless”), Stephen Ellis (“You’re the Worst”), Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) and Jeff Lorch (Jonny’s Sweet Revenge).

The Gospel According to Andre
Traditionally, the fashion world isn’t a place most people go to measure the progress of women of color in the worlds of culture, business and influence. As much as Vogue magazine has changed in that regard, the “industry bible” is still playing catch-up when it comes to balancing the color palate as evidenced by its covers. Even today, most people assume that Beverly Johnson’s appearance on the cover of the August 1974, issue of Vogue gave her the historical distinction of being the first black woman so anointed. In fact, that distinction is held by African-American model Donyale Luna, whose obscured visage graced the cover of the  March 1966, edition of British Vogue … only. Still, for many people, Johnson’s non-masked appearance is seen in the same light as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, in 1947. She would appear on the American Vogue cover twice more, in 1975 and 1981, and break the same ground as the first black woman to appear on the cover of the French edition of Elle, in 1975. Within the next three years, Peggy Dillard appeared on two covers of American Vogue, with Sherrie Belafonte being shot by Richard Avedon five times in 1980s. In December 1987, supermodel Naomi Campbell appeared on the front of British Vogue, as that publication’s first black cover model since 1966. A year later, she became the first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, if only because designer Yves St. Laurent threatened to withdraw his advertising if the magazine continued its discriminatory practices.

In 1988, Campbell broke another barrier by appearing on the front of the magazine’s September magazine, traditionally the year’s biggest and most important issue. Like movie studios and television networks, the fashion-magazine industry had taken that long to be convinced of the marketability of minority women, especially in the South. That all changed in the 1990s, when Vogue executives decided that entertainers and celebrities of all racial backgrounds sold more magazines at the checkout counter than predominantly white supermodels. It broadened the choices available to the various editors exponentially, while raising the magazine’s profile in Hollywood. The decision also paved the way for multiple appearances by Beyonce, Halle Berry, Rihanna, Serena Williams, Lupita Nyong’o and Michelle Obama, with Jennifer Hudson and Oprah already having proven doubters wrong. Now that Vogue has opened outposts in several different countries, editors can choose the colors and nationalities of models/celebrities that work best for them. (South African model, activist and lawyer Thando Hopa is the current cover model at Portugal Vogue. She’s the first woman with albinism to grace the cover of Vogue and most other periodicals. In some African countries, albinos are still demonized by witch doctors and murdered for their bones.)

For 30 of those years, André Leon Talley was a fixture at Vogue magazine and the fashion world, at large … really large. At 6-foot-5 and various levels of weight, Talley cast a long shadow on the industry as a journalist, pundit, taste-maker, scenester, boulevardier and muse to rich and powerful women looking for a few tips. He’s a fixture in documentaries about other fashion fixtures, and frequent guest star on talk shows and such entertainments as “America’s Next Top Model,” “Empire” and “Sex and the City.” Kate Novack’s lively bio-doc The Gospel According to Andre goes well beyond Talley’s sometimes outrageous public persona, to a consideration of how he evolved from being a curious and whip-smart North Carolina schoolboy, to becoming an important editorial voice at Vogue and a companion to the top designers and their influential patrons. What isn’t so well-known are his deep Southern and religious roots and commitment to civil rights and equality in the fashion realm. Talley’s emotional recollection of seeing Michelle Obama on the cover of his magazine for the first time is heart-wrenching. He wonders what how his beloved grandmother/mentor would have reacted to the same sight, knowing exactly how proud she would be.

Target: St. Louis
If we’d lost World War II or the Vietnam War, some people think that the men who build our weapons of mass destruction, including poisonous gases, antipersonnel bombs and nuclear devices, would have been put on trial as war criminals. The toll paid by Vietnamese and Cambodian non-combatants for the target spraying of Agent Orange has yet to tallied and children around the world continue to lose their limbs after stepping on landmines made here and still buried, there. Sean Slater’s deeply disturbing documentary, Target: St. Louis, reminds viewers how powerless American citizens have been when it comes to discovering the truth about atrocities committed against them and their neighbors by military officials and government-paid researchers sworn to protect them. News of the U.S. Department of Public Health’s facilitation of the famously flawed Tuskegee Syphilis Project broke hearts and embarrassed tens of thousands of government employees. Reports of tests of LSD sprays and air-borne diseases in the transit systems of major cities – without the test subjects being told they were being used as guinea pigs — was greeted by dismay, as well. The cold reality of such revelations, however, came in learning that the government is shielded from lawsuits, criminal complaints and revealing the names of victims and amounts of compensation paid, if any. Target: St. Louis describes how the government secretly tested the effects of airborne aerosol radiation on mostly poor and black residents of a metropolitan area whose meteorological conditions approximate those of Moscow. Most of the now-elderly men and women interviewed here say they were led to believe that the chemical already being sprayed on them was a pesticide commonly used to control pests, such as mosquitos or Dutch elm disease. Even in those largely benign situations, however, residents of more prosperous neighborhoods were typically advised in advance of such flyovers and advised to stay indoors. No warnings were given the children living in the projects and playing outside at the time. The face of one of the men interviewed is nearly covered with humongous tumors that weren’t there when he was a boy and outside his home at the time of the spraying. The documentary makes comparisons to the experiments conducted in Nazi Germany by Joseph Mengele, although the contexts are extremely different, and no Americans have punished for approving domestic atrocities and similar experiments. There’s no telling what kinds of substances to which Americans are being exposed, even a half-century after the St. Louis incident.

Tickled
It would be easy to mistake David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s  beyond-strange documentary, Tickled (2016), for a mockumentary. That’s because the subject matter is almost too bizarre to be true. If it isn’t the first documentary to shine a light on Internet activities that defy easy explanation – from “crush porn,” to “cosplay” – it’s one of the few to measure the lengths to which some folks will go to defend their extreme behavior and perpetuation of cash cows. Tickled is downright scary. Farrier is a New Zealand television reporter, whose beat focuses on “quirky and odd stories.” When he learns of videos being distributed online about an activity described as “competitive endurance tickling,” he can’t resist sinking his teeth into it. In them, young athletic men are restrained and tickled to the point where they might break a blood vessel or pee their gym shorts. Farrier begins his research into the story by requesting an interview with the videos’ producer, Jane O’Brien Media, but the company refuses to “associate with a homosexual journalist,” which he’s not. The e-mails threaten legal action, bodily and mental harm, and reports of criminal activity to people involved with Farrier in a professional capacity. But, why? After blogging about the incident, Farrier and Reeve receive even worse threats and a fruitless visit from O’Brien reps. The Kiwis respond by traveling to Los Angeles, where they find the same representatives at their recording studio, but they’re are turned away at the door. Upon further investigation, Farrier and Reeve discover a network of trolls, known for harassing and harming those who protest their inclusion in these films. The closer they get to the pathetic individual instigating the campaign, the more elusive he becomes. Worse, they discover that he’s already been brought to court to answer such charges, but the judges didn’t take them seriously enough to give him more than a light slap on the wrist. Tickled would be more amusing than it is if every-day Americans weren’t already being bombarded by serial callers, cybercrooks, trolls and Nigerian housewives at all hours of the day or night. I wish someone would make a movie about them.

Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver
Supposedly based on an unlikely urban folk tale, spread via Creepypasta and Angelfire– once described as “the world’s worst website” — Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver is a slow-burn horror/thriller that gets more exciting the further it strays from the legend. It’s the story of two estranged brothers, Ted and Brad (Chris Cleveland, Matthew Alan), reunited momentarily for the funeral of their father, a dedicated spelunker. They stumble upon the sealed entrance to an underground cavern no one knew existed. Knowing that their dad would want them to explore the hole in the ground, they rappel down the sides of the cave’s entrance, where they find signs of his presence. What’s most intriguing, though, is small hole that appears to lead to a space beyond an extremely tight tunnel. The old man’s chair is positioned immediately of front of the hole in the impenetrable stone, as if he knew there was something on the other side worth pursuing. Viewers won’t be able to avoid feeling claustrophobic, as Ted scratches his way through the tunnel, with no more than a half-inch to spare on either side of his body. Once he reaches what appears to be a virgin space, the real freak show begins. Perhaps, you can guess what it is. Constructed on a budget said to be $2 million, Living Dark takes full advantage of its compact quarters, deep shadows and our natural fear of being trapped in an inaccessible space. Now that fracking could cause untold damage to areas not typically prone to earthquakes, it’s OK to fear what’s going below the ground at our feet. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, Living Dark performs surprisingly well.

The Adventures of Jurassic Pet
Ryan Bellgardt’s resume includes such fantasy titles as The Jurassic Games (2018), Gremlin (2017) and Army of Frankensteins (2013). His current directorial effort is The Adventures of Rufus: the Fantastic Pet. You get the idea that he’s comfortable around make-believe animals and monsters, knowing he doesn’t have the money available to Steven Spielberg for creating fluid movement and credible skin texture. In The Adventures of Jurassic Pet, an adventurous teenager, Chris (Kyler Charles Beck), finds an ancient unbroken egg in a curio shop and decides to hatch it. When an adorable baby T. Rex pops out, Chris names him Albert. After it runs wild in a grocery store, Albert’s captured by police and delivered to mad scientist Dr. Jost (David Fletcher-Hall), who wants to use the rapidly growing beast to breed more dinosaurs. With time running out, Chris must find the secret lab, rescue Albert and stop the experiment, before dinosaurs rule the earth … again. Kids are obsessed with dinosaurs, anyway, so why not one in which dinosaurs work toward the same goal as the youthful hero.

TV-To-DVD
Acorn: Rake: Series 5
Acorn: The Heart Guy: Series 3
Not having seen the first four seasons of the Australian dramedy series, “Rake,” I can’t say with any certainty how “Series 5” measures up to the others. It reminds me of a cross between “Veep” and “House of Cards,” with an Aussie accent and down-under point-of-view. In its final year, disbarred lawyer Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh) doesn’t quite know what to do with the Australian Senate seat he won, based on a confusion of names on the ballot and his campaign promise to do nothing while in office. As low as Cleaver’s expectations are for his tenure, they fall short of matching the absurd reality of Australian politics. The onetime pro athlete manages to blunder his way into one situation after another, requiring he cut deals with other politicians and justify his extreme behavior outside chambers to the media. Among other things Cleaver contends with a delightfully hypocritical right-wing nemesis (Jane Turner, of “Kath & Kim”); a noxious gas attack mistakenly believed to be the work of terrorists; a disastrous visit from the U.S. defense secretary (Anthony LaPaglia); and having to sort out romantic entanglements that would make Cupid consider changing jobs. The writers even find humor in the fact that one of Australia’s greatest allies is being led by a man whose decisions threaten the existence of peaceful countries that just happen to be in the neighborhood. The series also stars Matt Day (Muriel’s Wedding), Sara Wiseman (A Place to Call Home), Jacek Koman (“Jack Irish”), Erroll Shand (“Mystery Road”), Mark Mitchinson (“Dear Murderer”) Kate Box (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”), Caroline Brazier (“Tidelands”) and William McInnes (“East West 101”). It adds a backgrounder.

Likewise, I’ve haven’t seen the first two seasons of “The Heart Guy,” another hit Australian prime-time soap opera. It’s set in a small farming town in New South Wales, Whyhope, where the closely-knit Knight family has just lost its patriarch and is about to begin coming apart at the scene. Each of the three adult brothers will react differently to their father’s death, but none does it very well. They argue about the division of labor on the property and base their behavior on what their father might have expected to see from them. They stifle their mother (Tina Bursill) when she wants to rejoin the world of non-mourning women and men, and violently resist anyone who volunteers to stand in for their dad. Rodger Corser plays Hugh Knight, a brilliant but arrogant heart surgeon forced to give up his prestigious job in Sydney, after being put on probation for addiction problems. He elects to work as a GP in Whyhope, until he can reapply for his big-city job. As his tenure there winds up, Hugh is forced to choose between three women: his pregnant ex-wife (Genevieve Hegney); an ex-lover (Vanessa Buckley); and his hospital boss (Hayley McElhinney), a pretty redhead who’s just adopted a wounded wombat. If the other sons, played by Matt Castley and Ryan Johnson are insufferable, as well, the women in their lives (Nicole da Silva, Chloe Bayliss) find ways to make them seem human, at least.

One Response to “The DVD Wrapup: Diamonds of the Night, School of Life, Red Room, Witch/Hagazussa, Tito & the Birds, Keoma, Andre’s Gospel, Noir”

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Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

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Gary J Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more

aniban83 on: The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more

Quote Unquotesee all »

“I remember very much the iconography and the images and the statues in church were very emotional for me. Just the power of that, and even still — just seeing prayer card, what that image can evoke. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the esoteric, and I know some girls in New York that are also into the supernatural. I don’t feel that I have that gift. But I am leaning towards mysticism… Maybe men are more practical, maybe they don’t give into that as much… And then also, they don’t convene in the same way that women do. But I don’t know, I am not a man, I don’t want to speak for men. For me, I tend to gravitate towards people who are open to those kinds of things. And the idea for my film, White Echo, I guess stemmed from that — I find that the girls in New York are more credible. What is it about the way that they communicate their ideas with the supernatural that I find more credible? And that is where it began. All the characters are also based on friends of mine. I worked with Refinery29 on that film, and found that they really invest in you which is so rare in this industry.”
Chloë Sevigny

“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier