MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Big Brother, Iceman, Upside, White Chamber, Trading Paint, Dark Place, Ruben Brandt, Lords of Chaos, Earthquake, Seduction, Les Miz … More

Big Brother: Blu-ray
Anyone able to visualize a movie that combines elements of To Sir, With Love (1967), Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995) and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” with Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man trilogy, will have a pretty good idea of what happens in Big Brother. I’d also toss Blackboard Jungle (1955) into the mix, but Kam Ka-Wai and Chan Tai-lee’s action/dramedy is set in a Hong Kong middle school and only handful of the kids could be considered juvenile delinquents. Like several of the protagonists in the movies already mentioned, Yen’s Henry Chen is a combat veteran. He’d performed heroic acts, but finally was traumatized by the toll paid by civilians caught in the crossfire. (His guardian had shipped the rambunctious youth to a military academy in the U.S., after which he joined the Marine Corps.) After taking time off to travel and reflect on his wartime experiences, he returns to Hong Kong, where volunteers to teach at the same school from which he was expelled. After years of neglect and understaffing, the school is in danger of losing its funding. I can’t recall whether Chen has a degree or was trained as a teacher, but he’s committed to using unconventional methods to reach the dead-enders. Typically, some of them relate immediately to his personable hands-on approach, while the hard-core elements show no interest in progressing. Chen, who appears to be everywhere at once, goes out of his way to explore what’s happening their lives at home and during the time they’re not doing homework. Not surprisingly, he learns how the most troublesome students have been impacted by the death or departure of a parent; a father’s alcoholism; another’s refusal to treat his daughter with the same positivity shown her brother; and one boy’s early acceptance in a street gang, whose leader is being paid by a developer to make the school disappear. It’s at this point that Yen’s martial-arts experience comes in handy. It allows Chen to overcome obstacles by kicking the crap out of the gangsters, who come at him in human waves when he disrupts their plans. His willingness to go to war for the students who’ve disrupted his classroom inspires everyone else in the school … kids, teachers and administrators. Now, if that makes Big Brother sound hopelessly contrived and overtly pollyannaish, it’s probably because we’ve seen the same movie a couple dozen times, already … hundreds, if you count “Kotter” reruns. The difference can be boiled down to Yen’s winning personality and inventive martial-arts choreography. As envisioned by Kam (Queen of Triads) and Chan (Ip Man), the middle-school students are cleverly drawn, worthy of our sympathy and deceptively vulnerable to outside forces. The antagonist’s foot soldiers are credibly nasty and, while no match for the hero, well-schooled in the martial arts and MMA fighting. In a satisfying, if tenuous narrative stretch, the gang leader (Yu Kang) has a secret connection to Chen, which extends to their days together in the same school. Their climactic fight is genuinely exciting and realistic.

Iceman
You might have heard of Ötzi, the mummified corpse discovered 28 years ago, in the Ötztal Alps – hence the name — near the border separating Austria and Italy. For the better part of the last 5,300 years, Ötzi has been hiding in plain sight on the east ridge of the Fineilspitze. His body was found on September 19, 1991, by two German tourists, at an elevation of 3,210 meters (10,530 feet). The hikers, who had wandered off the path between the Hauslabjoch and Tisenjoch passes, saw a bone extending from the frozen earth and notified authorities. It would take a while to determine the significance of the discovery, so Ötzi was transported to Innsbruck, together with objects found alongside the body, including an ax. Seven years later, Ötzi was put on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Bolzano, Italy. By then, forensics experts felt certain that he had bled out after being struck by an arrow. They also were able to determine what he’d eaten before he was attacked, where the food had been collected, how he made his living and the significance of his tattoos. All of these findings would inform Felix Randau’s fascinating Neolithic drama, Iceman (a.k.a., “Der Mann aus dem Eis”), which depicts what may have happened to Ötzi – here, named Kelab (Jürgen Vogel) — in the hours and days before his death. It was shot in the same mountains, at various elevations, that the keeper of his clan’s flame called home. Whatever hopes and dreams Kelab may have harbored were thwarted, when, while hunting, a marauding trio of savages pillaged his clan’s riverside outpost. They killed the men and raped the women; stole their valuables; desecrated their property; and set fire to the tents and shelters. The only survivor, beside Kelab, an infant child. The baby would accompany him, as he pursued the killers into further reaches of the valley. The mountains, which are spectacular, grow increasingly more threatening the higher Kelab treks and the weather begins to turn on him. The story benefits from not having to fake translatable dialogue and add subtitles. The guttural exchanges are a primitive form of an early Rhaetian dialect. Kelab hands off the child to the daughter of the leader of a down-river clan – played augustly by Franco Nero – freeing him to use stealth to exact his revenge. Anyone who enjoyed such movies as The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) and Quest for Fire (1981), which took place even earlier, should really get a kick out of Iceman. The DVD adds a bonus making-of featurette.

The Upside: Blu-ray
Not knowing much about The Upside before slipping the Blu-ray into the slot of my weary playback unit, it didn’t take long before experiencing the unmistakable sense of déjà vu. Sure enough, a quick visit to IMDB.com revealed it to be a fully credited transplant of Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s worldwide sensation Les Intouchables (2011), which also spawned Argentine director Marcos Carnevale’s Inseparables (2016) and Oopiri (2016), by Indian director Vamshi Paidipally and co-writer, Hami. Neil Burger and writer Jon Hartmere’s English-language adaptation only demonstrates how much Hollywood owes France, when it comes to such bright and lively adult entertainments: La Cage aux Folles (“The Birdcage”), Le Diner de Cons (“Dinner for Schmucks”), Les Compères (“Father’s Day”), Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire (“The Man with One Red Shoe”), among many others. The Upside, which starred Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman, did very well in domestic release, despite decidedly lukewarm reviews. Several American critics griped that The Upside merely represented the latest Hollywood effort to show that a black man and a white man, with seemingly nothing in common, can see past their differences and develop a mutual friendship …” (The Wrap).

Even if The Upside were an accurate portrayal of Hollywood liberalism in action, it’s more likely that its producers and audience were, once again, on a different wavelength than mainstream pundits. Some knee-jerk critics reject such notions as odd couplings actually exist in real life; that white males in power do occasionally come to the rescue of minority men and women in distress; and that easily conned white viewers can’t see through such blatant agitprop. The same dubious wisdom was dismissed by AMPAS voters as recently as the naming of Green Book for their choice of Best Picture. The more likely reason for re-adapting Les Intouchables was the ability of studio executives to recognize a sure thing when BoxOfficeMojo alerts them to one. Of the $426.6 million the French soufflé grossed worldwide, a not-so-bad $10.2 million was collected in the U.S. Even with largely unrecognizable stars and subtitles, that sum, alone, probably covered its production costs.  By adding three recognized box-office favorites and maintaining a modest budget of $37.5 million, not counting reasonable marketing costs, studio bean-counters probably foresaw profitable returns from cross-over audiences. The strategy worked to the tune of a $108.3 million domestic haul and another $13.9 million in foreign sales. With numbers like that, Hollywood execs will gladly wear the tar of liberality.

In The Upside, a recently paroled ex-convict, Dell (Kevin Hart), struggles to gain the signatures of three companies or individuals who’ve placed help-wanted notices. That’s he’s more interested in collecting signatures to maintain his freedom, than actually earning a paycheck, is evidenced when stumbles into an interview with quadriplegic billionaire Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his highly protective financial adviser, Yvonne Pendleton (Kidman). Because Phillip isn’t all that interested in prolonging his life any longer than is necessary, he recognizes in Dell someone who wouldn’t care if he lives or dies, either. This attitude amuses Phillip, almost as much as it disturbs Yvonne, who uses baseball metaphors to suggest that Dell is being given three strikes to avoid being fired. When he asks how much he would be paid, Dell is struck dumb by Phillip’s generosity. For most of the next two reels, the three characters trade barbs, witticisms and challenges … some funnier than the others. When Dell discovers Phillip’s expensive automobile collection in the garage, he asks the onetime daredevil if he’d like to take a hot lap around Manhattan in one of the sports cars. With the lead-footed Dell at the controls and nothing to lose, in any case, Phillip digs the adrenal juice that flows inside him. The rest of The Upside is easily predictable, even by viewers unfamiliar with the original. A sentimental twist at the end, while satisfying, can be seen from several miles away, as well. Still, the chemistry between the stars – two of whom would argue they’re playing against type — keeps things from getting slogged down in handwringing, heart wrenching and mind-numbing melodrama. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a gag reel; featurettes, “Onscreen Chemistry: Kevin and Bryan,” “Creating a Story of Possibility,” “Bridging Divisions,” “Embracing Positivity” and “Presenting a Different Side of Kevin Hart.”

White Chamber: Blu-ray
Paul Raschid’s techno-thriller, White Chamber, is set against the background of a civil war in the United Kingdom, triggered, in part, by an uprising of oppressed immigrants. That much we know from a few flashbacks and news footage. Otherwise, the story is set in a glass, steel and concrete penal facility, at the center of which is a rather large plexiglass cube. It has been fitted out with implements of psychological and emotional torture, as well as some two-way compartments that can be used to transfer food and utensils. Lying on the floor is an anonymous woman (Shauna Macdonald), who claims to be a clerical worker, but is being for grilled for information she swears she doesn’t possess. Because her inquisitor (Oded Fehr) feels otherwise, he punishes her by controlling the temperature inside the cell, alternating between Arctic and rain-forest conditions, as well as starvation and spiking what food she is given with hallucinogens. Then, without warning, the inquisitor – revealed as a leader of the insurgents – has switched places with the woman. Now, we know her as Dr. Elle Chrystler, a chilly scientist who’s about to lose control of her experiments to the whims of subordinates. To the extent that White Chamber works, at all, it’s because of forceful performances by Macdonald (The Descent) and Fehr (“Sleeper Cell”), which bypass the need for most explanations. Comparisons to the British game show “The Cube,” as well as the sci-fi/drama/thriller Cube, are impossible to ignore. That shouldn’t bother fans of the series or, for that matter, torture.

Trading Paint:  Blu-ray
God knows, anyone with a private air force in his back yard probably doesn’t need anyone telling him which movies he should or should not make. Fabulously wealthy people do what they want, when they want to do it and for reasons known only to them. For most of the last 10 years, John Travolta has been the recipient of slings and arrows from critics and fans who wonder what went wrong with his roller-coaster career and why he keeps repeating his mistakes. For every return to form – “American Crime Story,” “Hairspray,” “Get Shorty,” “Pulp Fiction” – there’s been several times that many more stinkers. Feeling obligated to watch such kamikaze missions as Gotti (2018), Speed Kills (2018), I Am Wrath (2016), Life on the Line (2015) and Battlefield Earth (2000) must be tortuous duty for Travolta’s diehard admirers and completists. One can only hope that some of the money that isn’t spent on jet fuel, goes directly into the Jett Travolta Foundation, which raises money for children with educational needs. (A similar tithe should be exacted from actors and state film commissions that benefit from such fan-bait movies.)

Apparently, Travolta has been feeling an acute need for speed, lately. In Speed Kills, which was partially shot in Puerto Rico and Miami, he plays Cigarette-boat designer and multimillionaire crook Ben Aronoff. Trading Paint was made on location in Alabama, a state that loves its redneck pastimes, but won’t be seeing much Hollywood money until its misogynistic leaders retire or die. The title, Trading Paint, derives from NASCAR jargon, describing what happens when drivers play bump-and-run with other competitors’ cars. Lifelessly directed by Karzan Kader (Bekas), who was born in Kurdistan and raised in Sweden, it’s a classic tale of a father/son rivalry that escalates beyond the point of any reason. Travolta plays veteran short-track racer Sam Munroe, whose son, Cam (Toby Sebastian), is getting impatient, waiting for his dad to get over some personal problems and put him in a competitive car. When Cam alerts Sam of a job, raise and driving offer from his archrival, Linsky – Michael Madsen, who else? – the old man throws a conniption fit. Cam’s family needs an influx of money and Linsky is happy to teach Sam a lesson. Anyone who can’t figure out what happens in the next few months hasn’t been paying attention to good-ol’-boy melodramas. Among the cast members are Western Heritage Award-winner Buck Taylor (“Gunsmoke”), Barry Corbin (Urban Cowboy), Kevin Dunne (“Veep”), Rosabell Laurenti Sellers (“GoT”) and Walk-of-Fame singer/songwriter Shania Twain, all of whom have a right to wonder why the star’s name is the only one to appear on the box cover and posters.

After re-reading my Big Brother review, I began to wonder how many times Travolta has been pitched “Welcome Back, Kotter” sequels, in which Vinnie Barbarino volunteers to fill in for his mentor, Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan). The now-74-year-old teacher has decided to retire, move to Atlantic City and risk his pension, playing poker. A whole new generation of Sweathogs could be introduced, as mirror images of Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Probably, a thousand times. I’m warming to the idea, however.

A Dark Place: Blu-ray
When a young boy turns up dead in a sleepy Western Pennsylvania town, everyone wants to belief that he wandered away from home and drowned in a nearby river. It made sense on most levels, except for the fact that the boy’s closest relatives didn’t press for an autopsy or any investigation into how the reclusive child found his way so far away from his comfort zone. The protagonist of Simon Fellows (Malice in Wonderland) and Brendan Higgins’ deliberately paced arthouse thriller, A Dark Place (a.k.a., “Steel Country”), is garbage-truck driver Donald Devlin (Andrew Scott), who remembers seeing the boy wave at him from his bedroom window on pickup days. After offering his condolences to the boy’s mother, Linda (Denise Gough), her affectless reply begins to bother Donald. He immediately embarks on an obsessive investigation to prove that foul play may have been involved in the boy’s death. Working on little more than a hunch, Donald’s case is fortified when he begins to receive warnings about continuing his search. Unable to do so, he digs up the body and pleads with a local medical examiner to go where law-enforcement officials refused to tread. He even takes up the challenge made by the letter-writer to meet at a bridge, underneath which trains pass. I’ve deliberately left out the role played by his work partner, Donna Reutzel (Bronagh Waugh), who grows increasingly concerned about Devlin’s off-the-job safety. That’s all we’ll say about that. A Dark Place was accorded lukewarm reviews upon it’s extremely limited release, ahead of a launch on DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. It probably works just as well, maybe better, as a small-screen crime story. Scott and Waugh make a terrific pairing, even if any romantic attachment is tenuous and beside-the-point.

Lords of Chaos: Blu-ray
Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders
I think it’s safe to say that Rory Culkin has effectively stepped out of the shadow of his older brother, Macaulay, who appears to be on extended hiatus. In 2018, alone, Rory’s taken key supporting roles in TV mini-series, “Waco,” “Castle Rock” and “Sneaky Pete,” with another series and feature film already on tap. He’s listed as a co-producer on Lords of Chaos (2018), a loud and nasty rock-u-drama based on the life and hideous death of former Mayhem guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth. Euronymous (Culkin) narrates the movie from the grave – or his ashes, one – as an early member of the extreme heavy-metal band; founder of the record label, Deathlike Silence Productions; and owner of Helvete (Norwegian for “Hell”), an Oslo record store and hangout for hard-core musicians, known collectively as the Black Circle. All I know about Norwegian Black Metal is that aficionados can tell the difference between it and Swedish Black Metal, both of which I’ve experienced in

Heavy Trip (2018), Metalhead (2013) and Until the Light Takes Us (2008). The difference between the characters we meet in those films and such English-language pioneers of heavy metal as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf approximates resembles the difference between a semi-retired member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a rotting corpse, which is what some of them yearned to be. In his 1962 novel, “The Soft Machine,” William S. Burroughs includes a character known as “Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid.” In the late 1960s, “heavy metal” was used to differentiate the subgenre from “acid rock.” While “heads” were weaning themselves from psychedelia, “headbangers” found solace in the former’s dark imagery and occasionally Satanic lyrics. By the time Norwegian Black Metal came into the picture, heavy metal had subdivided itself into glam, punk, thrash, death, black, industrial, sludge, goth, doom, drone and symphonic. It keeps evolving, but you’d need a keener sense of hearing than mine to discern the sub-generic differences. In Jonas Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s extremely dark and violent Lords of Chaos – based on Michael Jenkins Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 book, “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground” – describes Mayhem’s decision to put their money where their lyrics were by murdering people, slicing veins on stage, successfully committing suicide and burning down dozens of churches. The movie is not for the faint of heart or easily offended. Besides Culkin, it features gritty performances by Emory Cohen, as “Varg”; Jack Kilmer, as “Dead”; Anthony De La Torre, as “Hellhammer”; Valter (Son of Stellan) Skarsgård, as “Faust”; Jonathan Barnwell, as “Necrobutcher”; Sam Coleman, as “Metalion”; Lucian Charles Collier. as “Occultus”; and Sky Ferreira, as Ann-Marit. The names, alone, approximate the darkness of what humor there is in Lords of Chaos. The bonus material adds “11 Director’s Teasers”:

Cleopatra Entertainment’s Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders dramatizes the sad final days of ex-New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, who also formed an early edition of the Heartbreakers. Addicted to heroin throughout most of career, Thunders arrived in New Orleans in April 1991, committed to begin a new chapter of his life by following a new musical sound, and staying clean from drugs in order to see his kids again. When he settled into the St. Peter’s Guest House, he was carrying an adequate supply of methadone and enough money to get him through recording sessions and the occasional gig. Unfortunately, Thunders made the kind of mistake that native New Yorkers brag about never making, by neglecting to close the door to Room 37 before pulling a wad of cash out of one bag and putting it into the one containing his methadone. Not surprisingly, after a night on the town, Thunders returns to his room, which has been broken into and robbed. He attempted to score another supply of methadone – legally and illegally – without a prescription or the money to pay for it. Thanks to a lack of interest by the city’s police department, co-writer/directors Fernando Cordero Caballero and Vicente Cordero had almost nothing upon which to base their story, except conjecture and the shared memories of friends. Instead, they’ve concocted a scenario that may remind some viewers of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” According to a passage from Dee Dee Ramone’s autobiography, one of Johnny’s band members “told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards … who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.” An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, who concluded that the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. Thunders’ sister, Mariann Bracken, said the autopsy also confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which might have explained the decline in his appearance in the final year of his life. The musician’s nightmare end is well-depicted by the Cordero brothers and emerging actor, Leo Ramsey. The multimedia package includes a Blu-ray disc, DVD, bonus soundtrack CD and extended preview of the in-concert video, “Madrid Memory.” MVD Visual/Jungle also offers Danny Garcia’s compelling documentary, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders.

Ruben Brandt, Collector
This brilliantly colorful, tremendously imaginative and delightfully hyperactive animated feature reminds me of how narrow the gap separating animators from the U.S., Europe (East and West) and Japan has become since I began paying attention to such things. Disney still sets the standard not only for blockbuster movies, but also creating humanoid characters to sing, dance and canoodle on Broadway stages, on ice and at sporting events and theme parks from Paris to Japan. Since the mid-’90s, however, major animation studios and niche operations have used computer animation and CGI to level the playing field. With the exception of Hayao Miyazaki, producers of anime and manga-inspired films have used the same technology to expand their horizons beyond kiddie fare, sci-fi and superheroes. Every year at Oscar time, at least one post-Miyazaki creative team, or another, scores a nomination for animation that appeals more to adults than children. The short category no longer is dominated by Pixar. Western European studios have wowed with sophisticated storytelling and literary storylines. Although Klasky Csupo has been based in Hollywood since it was founded in 1982, it introduced American television audiences to a distinctly Eastern European sensibility, which was still being stifled behind the Iron Curtain. Such series as “Rugrats,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” and “The Wild Thornberrys” challenged Nickelodeon audiences to adjust to characters who owed more to Salvador Dali and Picasso, in his Cubist period, than Walt Disney. They looked as if they stepped off a spacecraft from the nearest populated planet to Earth, while babies knew more about life than their parents.

Milorad Krstic and co-writer Radmila Roczkov’s whimsical caper/thriller, Ruben Brandt, Collector, was financed by the Hungarian National Film Fund, whose sales arm placed it in festivals around the world and sold it to Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the Americas. Not bad, considering the 67-year-old Krstić’s last credit was for the 1995 short, “My Baby Left Me,” and it’s Roczkov’s debut as writer/producer. Since 1989, the Slovenia native has been living and working in Budapest, as a painter and multimedia artist. As such, it’s entirely possible that he’s experienced some of the same dreams/nightmares that haunt his “Collector” protagonist, psychotherapist Ruben Brandt. In Brandt’s dreams, at least, figures from a 13 famous paintings come alive to torment him. They include Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” Manet’s reclining Olympia, Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy,” Botticelli’s Venus, Bazille’s Renoir portrait, Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita and images from works by, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and the creation of Madison Avenue mad men. Knowing how much their doctor is suffering from lack of sleep, a group of his more larcenous patients teams up to steal the paintings and present them to Brandt, so he can “own his fears.” Krstic allows, “I’ve visited most of the museums you see in the film and use these locations — the Louvre, Tate, the Uffizi, MOMA, Art Institute of Chicago, St. Petersburg, Washington, among them — to make Ruben Brandt, Collector feel like a James Bond movie. This is a film about art, and I wanted to show that art belongs to the globe.” He also throws in references to Alfred Hitchcock, Dada and snails found in paintings through the years. Brand names and labels are placed next to masterworks. The backgrounds appear to have been inspired by Salvador Dali. When the museums put a $100-million price on his head, the Collector and his gang is forced to expend their energy dodging bounty hunters and other art thieves. (The sultry Mimi resembles various women painted by Picasso, Fernand Léger and Georges Braque.) This is one picture that benefits from repeat viewings.

Motel Mist
Foreigners visit Thailand for all sorts of reasons: street food, beautiful beaches, rain forests, elephant rides and, of course, sexual freedom. Thais visit the Motel Mistress – on the outskirts of Bangkok – for reasons of their own. Billed imprecisely as a sci-fi thriller, Prabda Yoon’s Motel Mist describes what happens during a seemingly routine afternoon in the “love” motel, through the eyes of four very different patrons. Although the sex isn’t particularly graphic, what’s on display will disturb viewers unfamiliar with such no-holds-barred operations, where guests are assigned rooms designed to sate their fetishes. It opens with Sopol, a typical Thai father figure, picking up a teenage girl, Laila, at her school and driving her to the motel, where, for a price, she’ll allow him to corrupt her. In another room,  a former child actor, Tul, hides from the media spotlight and the aliens he believes are coming to take him away. Tot, a motel staffer, dreams of finding a better job and, perhaps, the lucrative reward money offered by Tul’s mother. Sexy teenager, Vicky, arrives just in time to help keep Laila from falling under Sopol’s violent domination. These four lives eventually connect in a way that none of them could have anticipated. Motel Mist gets off to a tortuously slow start, but it picks up when we become attuned to Yoon’s conceits. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the filmmakers simply paid the manager of a similarly garish love motel to turn the premises over to them for the time it took to capture what goes on inside it. Thai movies aren’t particularly easy to grasp, even the ones that have won prestigious awards at international film festivals. In the case of Motel Mist, it’s worth doing some homework before committing to the price of a rental.

Earthquake: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At the same time as Hollywood was beginning to embrace a new generation of movie mavericks, it also made room for traditional storytelling, in films that combined melodrama with natural and manmade calamities and terrorist threats. The trend began in 1970, with Airport, and ended a decade later, with the box-office bomb, The Concorde … Airport ’79, and hilarious parody of such “event” pictures, Airplane! (1980). In between, there were The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Skyjacked (1972), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Two-Minute Warning (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and Black Sunday (1977) and Gray Lady Down (1978). In 1974, The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975 and Earthquake competed for top box-office honors with Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Godfather: Part II, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Gone in 60 Seconds and Benji. Some of them were the last to be shown in the gloriously designed movie palaces of yore. For those readers whose parents weren’t even born in 1974, it’s worth noting that Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks are represented in the top-10 with two titles each. You don’t have to be nearing the age of Social Security eligibility to pick out Brooks’ hits, or the second most prominent adaptation of a Puzo novel. It came as a surprise to learning that the author/screenwriter of The Godfather also penned the first draft of the Earthquake screenplay. When Universal executives deemed it to be too multi-layered, too expensive and overpopulated with characters who resembled actual human beings – heaven, forfend — the rewrite assignment went to magazine writer George Fox, who had never penned a screenplay. Director Mark Robson helped him work on the 11 drafts submitted to Universal, before one of them made the cut.

Like every other disaster movie, before or since, the cast included a dozen or more then-familiar actors, led by Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner and an uncredited Walter Matthau. An A-lister, Matthau insisted on being credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky, which several people incorrectly believed to be his real last name. Combine writer/alcoholic Charles Bukowski and streetwise informant Huggy Bear — Antonio Fargas’ character on “Starsky & Hutch” – and you’ve got Matuschanskayasky. He wears Superfly-inspired outfits and barely notices the first temblors. It’s hilarious. Otherwise, the only thing to know about Earthquake is that it’s set in a Los Angeles largely inhabited by middle-class white people – this, even after the Watts riots and bloody National Chicano Moratorium March, in 1970 – who weren’t wasn’t remotely prepared for a 9.0-magnitude shake. That would be like New Orleans being prepared to handle a hurricane packing twice the wallop of Katrina. Given the reliance on pre-CGI special effects, however, Robson made the best of a cliché-ridden situation. The two-disc Shout Factory re-release features 2K remasters of the theatrical and television versions of the film, original marketing material,  additional TV elements and featurettes,  “Sounds of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About Sensurround,” “Scoring Disaster: The Music of Earthquake” and “Painting Disaster: The Matte Art of Albert Whitlock.” In layman’s terms, Sensurround was employed by Universal in select big-city theaters to amplify the sonic impact of scenes depicting the Big One, which lasted 20 minutes longer than most such events. It required removal of several rows of seats and the installation of large, low frequency, horn-loaded speakers, which contained specially designed 18-inch drivers in custom-made black wood cabinets. Because the vibrations also caused pieces of the ceiling to fall into the audience, Sensurround was only used three more times, on Midway, Rollercoaster and Battlestar Galactica.
The Seduction: Blu-ray
This glossy 1982 thriller may not have been the first movie to address the menace of stalking and the people who prey on women who can’t escape their grasp. It’s difficult, after all, to forget scenes in Cat People (1942), in which Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrovna tracks and terrorizes her rival, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), in a darkened swimming pool. Alice wasn’t a celebrity, however, and Irena was lusting for her fiancé, not her. Let’s just say that David Schmoeller’s The Seduction (1982) was among the first movies, in the wake of attacks by John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman, to anticipate a series of attacks on women, prominent in the arts and media, whose lives would be threatened by unhinged fans and outright psychopaths. In the interview section of the Blu-ray package producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and writer/director David Schmoeller recalls how the story was influenced by a newspaper article about the stalking of a popular actress. (The near-fatal attack on actress Theresa Saldana occurred later that year.) Although, in hindsight, the inaccurately titled The Seduction can be considered prophetic, it was, at the time, purely an exploitation flick. Before viewers know anything else about the endangered TV-news anchorwoman, Jamie Douglas (Morgan Fairchild, in her first feature), she’s shown taking a skinny-dip within full view of a neighbor (Andrew Stevens) wielding a long-lens camera. When she rebuffs his attention – in the form of gifts and flowers – he convinces himself that the blond beauty is merely playing hard-to-get. Somehow, Derek is able to monitor her phone calls and badger her with calls of his own. Naturally, the situation escalates to the point where Jamie and her boyfriend, Brandon (Michael Sarrazin), attempt to enlist the help of police detective Maxwell (Vince Edwards), who’s helpless to do much more than advise her to buy a gun. If, in the end, frontier justice prevails, some important points are made along the way. In real life, a couple of decades and several similarly brutal attacks would pass before police departments were authorized by law to anticipate such crimes and nip them in the bud. Detectives also were taught to take women’s complaints seriously. In that light, The Seduction can be viewed as a cautionary tale. And, anyone who thinks Fairchild was too beautiful – artificially, perhaps – to be an anchorwoman … well, they weren’t paying attention to what was happening on the national and local news reports in the 1980s. Dazzling bleached-blond news readers and weather goddesses sat alongside ancient white male newsreaders and goofy male sports reporters, making horrible crimes and terrible accidents palatable for the consumption family audiences. Fox News is famous for honing and perfecting the same sexist policy. I suspect that most of them have been harassed by “fans” and seen video-captures of them crossing their legs for everyone on the Internet to “like” and pass along to fellow pervs. Maybe that’s putting too much weight on a long-forgotten drive-in hit, but an interview with Curtis, Schmoeller and L.A.P.D. detective Martha Defoe, from the force’s Threat Management Unit, suggests there’s still a long way to go.

The Short Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Raymundo Gleyzer’s active career as a creator of revolutionary documentaries ended with his disappearance and presumed death, at the hands of Argentine fascists and/or CIA torturers, in 1976, at the beginning of Operation Condor (a.k.a., Dirty War). The films he made over the course of 10 years tested the patience and resolve of right-wing leaders and their backers in the military to eliminate resistance by factory workers, agricultural laborers, students, artists and intellectuals. This put the filmmaker in the company of the roughly 30,000 people who were deemed threats to the dictatorship and disappeared in Argentine concentration camps or after being flown over international waters were dropped, sometimes already dead or barely alive. Facets’ “The Short Films of Raymundo Gleyzer” is comprised of “Swift” (1971), “Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive” (1973) and “They Kill Me If I Work and If I Don’t Work, They Kill Me” (1974). Like other documentary makers, he identified himself as a revolutionary first and artist second. He eschewed Hollywood production values and intended for them to be seen by workers in whatever venues were available to them: whitewashed walls, lunchrooms, union halls. In “Swift,” Gleyzer joins displaced workers in line for factory distributed food and blankets. In “Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive,” he puts viewers in the middle of a meeting of socialist leaders as they work out the terms for a peaceful surrender of escaped political prisoners. These young revolutionaries speak with confidence and idealism, but, days later, would be listed among the martyrs at the Trelew massacre. The most stylized of these films is “They Kill Me If I Work and If I Don’t Work, They Kill Me,” which chronicles an outbreak of lead poisoning among factory workers due to inhumane and completely disregarded factory conditions. The title derives from one of the ditties sung by the striking workers. Also included is Jorge Denti’s “The AAA Are the Armed Forces” (1979). It concerns the disappearance of the body of the activist writer Rodolfo Walsh, after he was shot in an ambush by a special military group on March 25, 1977.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Les Miserables: Blu-ray
PBS: Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters
PBS Kids: Splash and Bubbles: The Kelp Forest
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?
The last 110 years of cinematic history have been marked by repeat productions of beloved literary classics, of which Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is right on top of the list. If a better recipe for the perfect historic drama exists, it can only be found in the bible. Between Jean Valjean’s search for redemption, Javert’s twisted quest for “justice,” Fantine’s futile struggle for love and security, and Cosette’s pursuit of legitimacy in a corrupted Paris, lies a story no screenwriter or playwright has topped. A huge commercial success from Day One, “Les Miserables” has stood up against the snotty critiques of George Sand, Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s mother, among others, and it was banned by the Vatican as a “socialist tract” and publicly burned in Spain. Neither did the musical versions of “Les Misérables” escape the criticism of elitist critics. And, yet, audiences love it. Between 2007 and 2018, it’s been revived on film four times. Newly released on Blu-ray is Andrew Davies and Tom Shankland epic BBC One “Masterpiece” adaptation, which is concluding its run on some PBS affiliates. It might take some time for diehard fans of the 1980 musical to recognize the bones of the 1,280-page Modern Library edition in the six-episode, 240-minute mini-series. Having watched abridged versions of the book, I was struck by the intricacies and historical details that inform the mini-series. The acting is uniformly terrific, as well. Among the standouts are Dominic West (“The Affair”), as Jean Valjean; David Oyelowo (Selma), as Javert; Lily Collins (To the Bone), as Fantene; Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals), as Cosette; Adeel Akhtar (“Unforgotten”), as the thieving Thénardier; Olivia Colman (The Favourite), as the abusive Madame Thénardier; Erin Kellyman (Solo: A Star Wars Story), as the abused Azelma Thénardier. Also superb are Richard Bullock’s production designs; Ilse Willocx’s set decorations; Marianne Agertoft’s costumes; and Stephan Pehrsson’s subdued cinematography. The Blu-ray adds informative making-of and background featurettes. “Les Miserables” is extremely binge-worthy.

When the docu-drama, “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters,” was shown in Britain last year, it marked the centennial of the murders of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Like most of Europe’s royals, Nicholas had cousins in the United Kingdom and blood ties to potentates whose names are meaningless, today. When it was time for Nicholas to abdicate his throne, it was the furthest thing from a game. While there was practically no way for him to avoid violent reprisal for his crimes against the impoverished Russian people, vast unearned wealth and an inability to govern in periods of economic, military and civil stress, and pressure to join what promised to be an unpopular war. Nicholas held a sliver of hope that his family might be allowed to slip away to another monarchy. Instead, on the night of July 17, 1918, they were unceremoniously executed by their Bolshevik guards. The locations of their bodies remained a state secret for nearly 50 years, while conclusive IDs wouldn’t be made for another 40. As is typically the case, tyrants lose their bite after they’ve been buried for more than 50  years, or so, and their successors on the left have proven to be as bad, or worse, than they were. In 1981, Nicholas and his immediate family were recognized as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Nineteen years later, they were memorialized by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the 1998 DNA test, the remains of the Emperor and his immediate family were interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, where then-President Boris Yeltsin said, “Today is a historic day for Russia. For many years, we kept quiet about this monstrous crime, but the truth has to be spoken.” Reassessments of the monarchy will continue for as long as the Russian people are ruled by oligarchs and remnants of the Soviet system. By humanizing the Romanovs, “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters” is part of the rehabilitation process. Through the couple’s politically damning, sexually intimate and personally revealing letters, this two-part docudrama, presented by historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, explores Nicholas and Alexandra’s complex love story and the couple’s role in the lead up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to their executions. I wonder if a DVD copy found its way to Buckingham Palace, where the ever-expanding Mountbatten-Windsor lineage may someday need to justify their very existences, beyond their role as tourist attractions.

From PBS Kids, “Splash and Bubbles: Explore the Kelp Forest” is comprised of six ocean adventures, suitable for viewing by very young viewers. They’ll enjoy watching Splash, Bubbles and Dunk, as they meet Tidy the Garibaldi, the self-appointed Kelp Forest Ranger. The forest fun continues when Splash and Bubbles try to babysit a curious and fearless seal pup named Tyke, who they can’t find during a game of hide-and-seek. It’s produced by the Jim Henson Company and Herschend Studios.

Also from PBS Kids comes “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?,” an American-Canadian children’s television series, co-produced by Fred Rogers Productions. The animated program, which is targeted at preschool-aged children, is based on the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In this compilation, Daniel is so excited to learn that a new family is moving into the neighborhood that he rallies his family members and friends to welcome the newcomers and help them adjust to their unfamiliar surroundings. Daniel even lends an extra hand to make Jodi Platypus, his new playmate, feel right at home.

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho