MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Cold Pursuit, Valentine, Bosch, Nina, Shape of Now, Big Clock, Yakuza Law, Donna Reed, Unforgotten, Moses, Korea … More

Cold Pursuit: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Big White: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray
When Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 thriller, In Order of Disappearance (a.k.a., “Kraftidioten”), was released on DVD in the U.S., it starred Stellan Skarsgård as Nils, a down-to-earth fellow who makes a living plowing snow in the mountains of Norway. When his son is mistakenly murdered by a ruthless drug gang, the recent Citizen of the Year awardee inadvertently ignites a war between the vegan gangster, Count (Pål Sverre Hagen), and his Serbian mafia-boss rival, Papa (Bruno Ganz). Before Nils can exact vengeance on whomever ordered the botched hit, he is required to kill his way through the many layers of the gangs’ hierarchy, one by one, which he does with great proficiency. His weapons of choice are snowplows and other heavy machinery. In Order of Disappearance is a terrifically exciting and darkly comic thriller that makes full use of its snowbound location. Now, if you or I had been asked to adapt the film for the consumption of English-speaking audiences, we might have considered keeping Skarsgård in the driver’s seat, based, as well, on his chilling work in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) or Liam Neeson, if he hadn’t already announced that he was getting too old for thrillers.  It would also be easy to  re-set the action in the American or Canadian Rockies, at the height of winter, and pit rival drug cartels against each other. (God knows, the apres-ski crowd loves its cocaine.) Director Hans Petter Moland (Aberdeen) had a better idea. He convinced Neeson, the world’s No. 1 action hero, to fill in for Skarsgård as the vigilante hero, Nels, and Americanized the story by turning into a contemporary Western. Before his son is mistakenly murdered, Nels is as much of a model citizen as Nils. The mountains of B.C. and Alberta are natural stand-ins for the Colorado Rockies, where Cold Pursuit is set. The cocaine cowboys and their Native American partners have profited in equal measure by pushing drugs in local communities. The truce is broken when Nels’ son is murdered and it’s made to look like a hit by the Indian gang. The grieving father tips over the first domino, by killing a few small-time dealers, who, before they die, give up the names of their suppliers. At the top of the ladders are Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman) and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who suspect each other of ordering the hits. By the time the small-town police department — eager new Kehoe Police recruit Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum) and her grizzled veteran partner John “Gip” Gipsky (John Doman) – they’re left with little to do, except to exchange light banter and notify the next of kin. Otherwise, Cold Pursuit and In Order of Disappearance are nearly identical. Laura Dern plays Nels’ distraught wife, who mistakenly blames herself for her son’s non-existent drug habit and disappears in the first reel. In 4K UHD, the snow drifts take on an extra dimension. Bonus features include “Welcome to Kehoe: Behind the Scenes on Cold Pursuit,” interviews with Neeson and Moland; and deleted scenes. Both movies are based on Finn Gjerdrum’s story, “Kraftidioten.”

Like Cold Pursuit, Mark Mylod and writer Collin Friesen’s dark and icy dramedy, The Big White (2005), takes place in parts of the Great White North that are usually reserved for migrating caribou, polar bears and the native Inuit. In summer, you might find the occasional prospector, seeking what’s left of the Klondike lode, or reality-show huckster. It’s a great place to shoot a movie, but only if the screenplay can stand up to the demanding conditions. Robin Williams plays an Alaskan travel agent, Paul, who owes money to everyone and has only one option. He decides to redeem his long-lost brother’s life-insurance policy, which has been collecting dust ahead of a ten-year deadline for the body to show up. When he discovers a frozen corpse in a dumpster, Paul devices a plan to dump the body in a spot where wolves, bears and crows will make identification difficult and, after a short period of mourning, lead police to believe it’s his brother. A local life-insurance agent, Ted (Giovanni Ribisi), remains skeptical. Before long, the hitmen return to the town to collect what remains of the body,  because their own skeptical boss demands proof. Don’t ask. Meanwhile, Paul’s missing brother, Raymond (Woody Harrelson), surprises everyone by returning home. After beating up Paul, Raymond demands a portion of the insurance money. To speed up the delivery of the million-dollar insurance payment, Paul convinces Ted’s supervisor that his agent beat him up. He satisfies the hitmen (Tim Blake Nelson, W. Earl Brown) by agreeing to dig up the original victim’s body and give it to them. When Raymond susses out the plan, he shows up at the cemetery, interested only in killing everyone and keeping the money for himself. Ted’s girlfriend (Alison Lohman) and Paul’s nutty wife (Holly Hunter), who has Tourette syndrome, add some giggles along the way. In the right hands, The Big White might have ended up resembling a minor-key Fargo. Up until 2005, however, Mylod was known mostly for directing the original British version of “Shameless,” “Succession” and “Ali G Indahouse.” Since then, his credits have included “Entourage,” Game of Thrones” and the Showtime version of “Shameless.” Writer Friesen is known best for his work on the CBC comedy “Schitt’s Creek.” The Blu-ray includes frigid on-location interviews with cast and crew.

Valentine: The Dark Avenger: Blu-ray
Kiss Kiss
While there’s never been a scarcity of female superheroes and supervillains in the world of comics and underground comix – R. Crumb’s Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos and S. Clay Wilson’s Ruby the Dyke, among them – Hollywood’s had a hard time selling them to fanboy-heavy audiences. It’s too early to say if Patty Jenkin’s 2017 blockbuster, Wonder Woman, will open a door or be the exception that proves the rule. Former Miss Israel Gal Gadot is making a solid case for Wonder Woman’s place in the Pantheon of superheroes and clearing memories of four decades of miscues. Lest we forget: Supergirl was supposed to make her cinematic debut in the third installment of Ilya Salkind’s Superman series, starring Christopher Reeve, but Warner Bros. rejected the story outline. The first live-action depiction of Supergirl, then, was in the eponymous 1984 film, starring Helen Slater as Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee/Supergirl. Kara (Laura Vandervoort) was re-introduced in the seventh season of the CW’s “Smallville” and, seven years later, received a CBS timeslot of her own, played by  Melissa Benoist. The character has also appeared in several animated series, direct-to-video titles, web series and video games. Other memorable female protagonists include, Brigitte Nielsen, in Red Sonja (1985); Laurie Petty, in Tank Girl (1995); Pamela Anderson, in Barb Wire (1996); Michelle Pfeiffer, in Batman Returns (1992), Catwoman (2004) and Avengers: Endgame (2019); Pfeiffer and Evangeline Lilly, in  Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018); Tanya Roberts, as Sheena (1984); Jennifer Garner, in Elektra (2005); and, if vampire warriors count, Kate Beckinsale, the Underworld series (2003-16). Halley Berry’s take on Catwoman (2004) may have set female-superhero movies back 10 years, at least. (For my money, Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar’s take on the character in the “Batman” TV  series may never be topped.)

Tucked in between these action pictures was a pair of mid-range independent flicks — Kick-Ass (2010), Kick-Ass 2 (2013) – in which teen superheroes played by Chloë Grace Moretz and Aaron Taylor-Johnson delighted audiences with MPAA-defying profanity and violence. Based on the Marvel comic book of the same name by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., the youthful crimefighters, Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass, are proteges of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop on a quest to bring down the crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). After its release on DVD and Blu-ray, Kick-Ass gained a strong cult following. I only mention Matthew Vaughan’s black comedy here, because it’s the movie that came immediately to mind while watching the Indonesian export, Valentine: The Dark Avenger. Based on a Skylar Comics storyline, Ubay Fox and Agus Pestol’s action-packed romp – from a screenplay by Beby Hasibuan – is set in a fictionalized Batavia City, which could easily be mistaken for modern-day Jakarta. Criminality is rampant in the capitol and no one is immune from its sting. Srimaya (Estelle Linden) is a pretty, young waitress, with a flair for martial arts handed down from her father. After watching Srimaya repel a group of robbers, documentary director Bono (Matthew Settle) and his friend, Wawan (Arie Dagienkz), ask her to join them in the creation of a reality show on fighting crime in Batavia. Their first encounter almost ends in failure, due to a wardrobe malfunction. Under her new identity, Valentine, Srimaya scours every corner of the Gotham-like city to fight criminals and uphold justice, while maintaining her dream of becoming a movie star. A sinister villain emerges from the shadows to test Valentine’s strength and commitment, in a final confrontation on the rooftop of the headquarters of Batavia’s beleaguered police force. Like everything else in Valentine: The Dark Avenger, it’s a doozy. Before cameras rolled, Linden spent a year preparing for the role, which required she master four different martial-arts disciplines: pencak silat, jujitsu, tae kwon do and boxing.

There’s really no defense for Dallas King’s exploitative Kiss Kiss, which could imprecisely be characterized as “Fight Club for Strippers.” In it, a new dancer at the local “gentlemen’s club,” Tia (Nathalia Castellon), is tipped a invitation to an exclusive wine tasting at a nearby vineyard — Malibu Wines Vineyard, to be precise – and she’s been encouraged to bring along some co-workers. While there, Tia, Kiss (Natascha Hopkins), Treasure (Tamra Dae) and Kurious (Janey B) display impeccable manners, as well as a curiosity for good wine. (As Kiss cautions their host, “We’re not strippers. We’re fucking ladies!”) At dinner, they’re poured glasses full of an Afghan wine smuggled out of the country by military brass, as if it were bottled by the folks at Château Lafite Rothschild. It gives them quite a buzz. In fact, when combined with the small mountain of cocaine they ingest, eliminates any possibility of resistance. They’re led to stables housing prized horses and four other women in the same predicament as they are. All the women will be pitted against each in a ring, from which one will emerge victorious and the loser will die. The combatants will be given shots of a serum, designed by the vineyard owner, to give the recipients superhuman fighting powers. He hopes to sell it to his male and female guests, from Washington, who wager on the bouts and chortle at the death blows. You get the picture. Unless In a real departure from grindhouse form, none of the women is forced to disrobe beyond two-piece outfits that barely qualify as bikinis. Somehow, King has convinced himself that Kiss Kiss is his homage to “Alice in Wonderland.” His explanation would be risible, if the movie weren’t intended to titillate voyeuristic men, who don’t object to watching women beat each other to death for their pleasure. The final surprise is a character, revealed late in the movie, who has been injected with enough serum to turn her into the perfect killing machine, which she isn’t. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Bosch: The Garden of Dreams
In 2016, at least three feature-length documentaries were released to commemorate the         quincentennial of the death of artist Hieronymus Bosch. His most famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – painted anywhere between 1490 and 1505 – lures tens of thousands of visitors each year to Madrid’s Museo del Prado, where it’s been housed since 1939. Although it’s instantly recognizable, in whole or in part, the origins of Bosch’s provocative imagery remain a mystery, debated by art historians, students, clergy, laymen, atheists and conspiracy theorists, alike. Many believe that “The Garden” was intended to be an altarpiece, as the left-hand panel, “Eden,” shows the pre-incarnate Christ blessing Eve before she is presented to Adam; the center panel describes the pleasures and temptations open to God’s Earth-bound flock;, and the right-hand panel, “Last Judgment,” is a vision of heaven and hell that would make any sermon about fire, brimstone and eternal damnation seem trivial. All three discourage easy or definitve interpretation. José Luis López-Linares’ intriguing Bosch: The Garden of Dreams stands alongside David Bickerstaff’s The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter van Huystee’s Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil, as essential viewing for anyone who’s been inspired, transfixed, perplexed or simply made curious by the masterpiece.  In “The Garden of Dreams,” López-Linares asks 30 well-schooled personalities from diverse disciplines – technology, science, the arts, academics — for their opinions on its meanings and signifiers. López-Linares’ camera captures the scale of Bosch’s work and the extraordinary detail of the piece through close-up analysis. Amateurs won’t have any problem enjoying the doc, either.

Nina
Marilyn
And Then There Was Eve
Olga Chajdas’ Nina is a lesbian melodrama that doesn’t take any particular stand on LGBTQ issues, but wouldn’t work, at all, if two of the primary characters weren’t gay. Set in middle-class Warsaw, Nina (Julia Kijowska) and Wotjek (Andrzej Konopka) have been attempting to have a child for years, without any luck. It isn’t clear why they’re desperate to experience parenthood, although, in predominantly Catholic Poland, married couples are encouraged to pre-create … or else, what’s the point of marriage? Arriving at the proverbial last resort, they agree to shop around for a surrogate. Wotjek is an automobile mechanic, who appears to have given up improving his lot in life and can’t wait to get home each night to watch a little TV and fall asleep. Nina teaches French at a good school and makes little effort to disguise her bourgeoise roots. Eventually, they meet, interview (surreptiously) and agree upon Magda (Eliza Rycembel). She’s a noticeably younger airport worker, whose carefree behavior is in direct contrast to Nina’s icy, somewhat world-weary demeanor, and Wotjek’s lumpen nature. Both women are attractive, but, clearly, Nina spends more time in front of the mirror and at the cosmetics counter. Although Nina doesn’t reveal her willingness to date women, Chajdas doesn’t waste any time cutting to the chase. Magda’s winsome nature and impulsive decisions appeal to Nina and she comes to enjoy the city’s lesbian-club scene, of which the younger woman is an active participant. The trouble comes when Wotjek discovers, to his dismay, that the two women in his life are lovers. They hadn’t let Magda in on their reproductive scheme, which is OK because the presence of an infant wouldn’t have suited any of their lifestyles, anyway. This only is a problem because, at 130 minutes, Nina has already run out of gas. Watching the two actresses interact rarely gets tiresome, however. Bonus features include the short film, Social Butterfly, which takes lesbian dating in a different direction, altogether.

Even at a brisk 79 minutes in length, Martín Rodríguez Redondo’s feature debut, Marilyn, is one of the most compelling LGBTQ dramas to find a home on DVD. It’s international and festival release barely qualified as “limited.” That it’s based on an incident that rocked much of South America, and ignored elsewhere, only makes the movie that much more essential. It tells the story of farmworker Marcelo Bernasconi, as he’s begun to make the transition from bullied teenager, Marco, to the exuberant cross-dresser, Marilyn, and beyond. It takes place in a part of rural Argentina, where anything out of the ordinary is treated with caution, if not outright alarm. Inside the home he shares with his mother and brother, Marco learns how to make the brilliantly colored clothes he’ll only be able to wear during the local festivals. At first, he’s indistinguishable from the women dressed to kill, while dancing to the cumbia rhythms – performed by the Argentine tropical-punk band, Kumbia Queers – but, as the night wears on and the men get grabby, his secret is revealed. Neither does the scandal sit well at home, where Marco/Marilyn is given an ultimatum with which he no longer is able to  abide. I won’t reveal what happens next. Most viewers in South America already know that Bernasconi has been incarcerated for most of the last 10 years in an Argentine prison and, in that time, has completed the transition to Marilyn. (He’s interviewed in the bonus package, which also includes a featurette on the creation of the soundtrack.) American audiences aren’t likely to know how he got there, however, so it’s better to maintain the suspense. BTW: wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws have been put into place  in Argentina since Bernasconi was imprisoned.

Savannah Bloch’s psychological thriller/mystery, And Then There Was Eve, has already collected enough positive reviews from LGBTQ festival screenings to render anything I have to say about it superfluous. It’s easy to applaud the casting of a transgender actor, in the role of a transgender character, and its straight-forward approach to an issue affecting the straight spouses of men and women about to embark on the transitioning process. That said, I found its flashback-laden narrative to be confusing and the final “reveal” too predictable to be considered thrilling or mysterious. Kiwi transplant Tania Nolan (“Home and Away”) plays Alyssa, a successful SoCal photographer, who wakes up one morning to find her apartment ransacked and her husband missing. Left without even a photograph to offer the police, Alyssa turns to his colleague, Eve (newcomer Rachel Crowl), a talented jazz pianist with flirtatious charm and disarming grace. Eve helps her confront her husband’s longtime struggle with depression and encourages her to accept his absence. Their relationship blossoms into something approaching love and admiration, but flashbacks remind viewers of things Alyssa has conveniently forgotten and/or overlooked. Nothing in the film, co-written by Colette Freedman (Lifetime’s “Sister Cities”) feels exploitative, controversial or targeted specifically at a niche-within-a-niche audience. Considering how little money was allotted the filmmakers, the production values and acting are excellent. Robert Lydecker’s score, while excellent, sometimes overwhelms the film’s emotional pull. The DVD adds interesting interviews and making-of material.

The Shape of Now
The fear of what might occur after apartheid ended kept many white South Africans from pursuing a peaceful accord earlier than it was forced on them. Part of the reason a peaceful transition was achieved was the public acceptance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was seen by many as a crucial component of the move to a full and free democracy. In the commission’s 1,000-plus hearings, victims of gross human rights violations were invited to recall their experiences, while perpetrators of said violence could request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution. It was an unusual way to solve a difficult problem. Contrary to the perception outside South Africa, only 849 out of the 7,111 amnesty applications were granted. It might not have been a perfect system, but, in the 23 years since the establishment of the TRC and Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, peace has held. The Shape of Now describes how survivors of  the nearly concurrent Colombian “conflict” are attempting to survive the peace by facing their grievances head-on and attempting to use peaceful means to heal wounds even deeper than those sustained in South Africa. The differences between the two long and bloody conflagrations can be found in the racial and political differences of the combatants. Once the white government of South Africa was isolated from the rest of the world economically and otherwise, the maintenance of apartheid was the only thing that stood in the way of a solution … peaceful or violent. In Colombia, however, you practically needed a scorecard to identify the various teams and reasons for fighting. Historical differences between the ruling class, working poor and peasants were exasperated by the success of the Cuban revolution, the defeat of the French in Vietnam, anti-colonial uprisings in Africa and fervently anti-communist, aggressively capitalistic leaders of Colombia and the United States. On the pro-government side were several blood-thirsty paramilitary groups, greedy multinational corporations and South American juntas and right-wingers in the White House and Pentagon. Opposing them in far-flung pockets of resistance were such pro-communist/guerrilla organizations as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Crime syndicates and drug cartels compounded the disorder not by choosing sides, but by mounting offensives of their own against anyone unwilling to accept their bribes and cooperate with the so-called war on drugs. The right- and left-leaning forces weren’t united against a common enemy, per se, frequently choosing to attack each other to increase their influence. The same applied to the warring cartels.

In November 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed a peace accord. (An earlier referendum was narrowly defeated by civilian voters.) According to most estimates, approximately 220,000 people lost their lives — 177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters — between 1958 and 2013. (Many of the 25,000 people kidnapped and held for ransom are still considered missing.) Between 1985-2012, more than 5 million civilians were forced from their homes, including 3 million children. Manuel Correa’s heart-breaking doc, The Shape of Now, argues that no two Colombians will tell you the same story about how they were impacted by the conflict. As such, the challenge of creating recognizable history, amidst post-war reconciliation, is extremely difficult. The doc portrays the experiences of survivors in the different social spheres invested in keeping the peace. They include scientists, academics and activists, attempting to normalize Colombia, as well as a group of elderly mothers, struggling to find a direct way to approach their children’s possible killers. It’s referred to as “closure,” but widows and grieving mothers will never find anything resembling closure until their loved ones’ bodies are found, identified and interred in a religious ceremony. Justice is another issue, althogeth. The Shape of Now illuminates the strenuous process of having to agree on a common past and forge a common path to the future.

 
Never Grow Old: Blu-ray
If Never Grow Old had been made in the 1960-70s, it could easily be pigeonholed with other “revisionist” Westerns. Today, however, nearly every new oater qualifies as revisionist, in one way or another. An animated version of Blazing Saddles or The Outlaw Josey Wales might extend the subgenre, but who, in their right mind, would make them? Shot in Luxembourg and Connemara, Ireland, Never Grow Old is set in the fictional town of Garlow, which straddles the California Trail. The muddy thoroughfare leads pilgrims, fur traders and 49er prospectors from Fort Hall, Idaho, to the NorCal goldfields. Irish writer/director Ivan Kavanagh (The Canal) shares a place-of-birth with the film’s tentative protagonist, undertaker/gallows-builder Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), whose business has profited from the recent influx of crooks and gunslingers, and the proclivity of the fundamentalist preacher (Danny Webb) to rid Garlow of backsliders, heathens and blasphemers. John Cusack plays the outlaw Dutch Albert, whose gang has just re-introduced booze, gambling and whoring to the town’s social activities, overturning the  preacher’s prohibition against all three vices. The low vocal timbre of Cusack’s antagonist – along with his cigars and whisky habit – make it difficult to discern a Dutch accent, but Tate’s wife (Deborah Francois) does nothing to disguise her European background. Garlow could serve as a high-plains’ United Nations. Tim Ahern’s Sheriff Parker is nearly powerless, standing, as he does, between two implacable sides. Things get really interesting when the daughter of a local citizen is forced into prostitution by a gang member – with grease applied by her mother – and her first and only customer is a known child molester and she’s charged with murder for defending herself.  DP Piers McGrail (Without Name) does a really nice job maintaining a dark and murky color palate, without losing any details in the mix. And, no, none of the castles that mark Luxembourg and Ireland’s sneak into the background in exterior shots. The Blu-ray adds “Dire Consequences: The Making of Never Grow Old.”

Life Like
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-writers Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke created a computer, the HAL 9000, with an AI mind of its own, It changed the way screenwriters, sci-fi novelists and audiences would look at computers, robots and cyborgs, which, in fact, had been visualized in art and theater since the Han Dynasty. Now that it appears as if our cellphones, laptops and set-top boxes have proven capable of interacting with us, recording our habits and predicting our behavior, Hollywood screenwriters have flashed on the reality that they have carte blanche to create any sort of mechanical or CGI creatures. They include virtual clones of any celebrity or historical figure, and invest them with personality traits guaranteed to freak us out. A brothel in Nevada recently challenged a manufacturer of sex dolls to put up or shut up when it comes to boasting that their creations are better lovers than humans. In his first feature, Life Like, writer/director Josh Janowicz – the Pride of Mukwonago, Wisconsin – adds only a slight twist to the long list of cyborgs, who, before they turn on their owners, willingly fulfill their every conceivable wish … from washing dishes to performing mind-blowing sex … AC or DC. Here, Addison Timlin (Californication) and Drew Van Acker (“Pretty Little Liars”) play an arrogant young couple, Sophie and James, who move to a spacious estate in Upstate New York, not far from the laboratory in which James’ father created a next-generation model of a cybernetic personal assistant. The suspiciously obedient Henry (Steven Strait) looks as if he was patterned after Christian Bale’s charter in American Psycho, as do most of the other male characters. When given a choice between robotic genders, Sophie’s potential for jealousy mandated the choice of James. You already can guess how that decision will play out. Left at home, alone, during the day, Sophie is the more likely candidate for a creepy liaison with the help. Apparently, Henry has not only been programmed to fold towels and make dinner, but also to read the minds and respond to the emotional and sexual needs of its owners … even before they recognize them. Life Like telegraphs its twists and surprise, except for a pretty decent closer. (There weren’t many more options left.)

Naples in Veils
Any tourist who’s avoided spending time in Naples, based solely on such movies, docs and TV series as Camorra (2018) and Gomorrah (2008) and its ongoing mini-series spinoff of the same title, is hereby encouraged to pick up a copy of Ferzan Ozpetek’s erotic thriller, Naples in Veils (2017). Like John Turturro’s tribute to the city and its people, Passione (2010), it captures the vitality of life in Naples’ many different  neighborhoods, as reflected in music, food, art and mysteries. Long available on DVD, the Clark Gable/Sophia Loren vehicle, It Started in Naples (1960), and Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964), should also be considered before planning obligatory side trips to Pompeii, Vesuvio National Park and the Amalfi Coast. Despite its reputation as a safe haven for petty larceny and con artists, the closest most tourists come to crime are the admonishments about being on the alert for pick pockets.

As scenic as Naples in Veils may be, its appeal should strictly be limited to adult audiences. During a party, the breathtaking medical examiner Adriana (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) crosses paths with a charming young stud, Andrea (Alessandro Borghi). Not surprisingly, perhaps, these paths lead to a bedroom, where a night of intense sex ensues. Adriana dares to imagine spending much more quality time with Andrea and they agree to meet the next day at a sculpture museum. Naturally, he’s a no-show. They do meet later in the afternoon, but in the morgue, where’s he’s laid out on a slab. The plot takes a turn for the Hitchcockian, when Adriana discovers that Andrea has a long-lost twin brother, Luca, and he’s been seen hanging around the city. Or, is it possible that Luca’s lying on the slab and Andrea is attempting to get cops or killers off his trail. Gian Filippo Corticell’s eye-catching cinematography nicely captures Naples’ many architectural wonders … old and new. “It’s a city I know well … very strange and fascinating,” Ozpetek has allowed in interviews. “Naples is magical, and very pagan. It’s a city back in time.” If the mystery-solving isn’t entirely satisfying, Ozpetek fills the gaps with eye candy.

Princess Mononoke: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray/CD/Book
A couple of columns ago, we checked out Shout! Factory’s  fascinating documentary, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, which chronicled the master’s life in semi-retirement. It was released in Japan in 2016, but it didn’t make it to these shores until last December. That same month, the company sent out My Neighbor Totoro,” repackaged in a special “30th Anniversary Edition” boxed set. This week, Princess Mononoke returns in a similarly classy “Collector’s Edition,” with a Blu-ray copy of the award-winning film; a CD soundtrack, featuring Joe Hisaishi’s evocative score; and an exclusive 40-page booklet, featuring artwork and essays on Princess Mononoke. Featurettes that have been ported over from previous Blu-ray editions include, “Princess Mononoke in the USA,” “Behind the Microphone,” feature-length storyboards and original marketing material. The 40-page book features new essays by film critic Glenn Kenny, alongside imagery and statements from Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, and Miyazaki’s poems about the characters. The movie, itself, remains as entertaining and visually stricking as it’s ever been. To summarize, “Inflicted with a deadly curse, the young feudal warrior, Ashitaka, heads west in search of a cure. There, he stumbles into the bitter conflict between Lady Eboshi, the proud people of Iron Town and the enigmatic Princess Mononoke. As a girl, the princess was adopted by a pack of wolves, who will stop at nothing to prevent the humans from destroying her home and the forest spirits and animal gods who live there.

It’s interesting to recall that Miyazaki had intended Princess Mononoke to be his final film before retiring. Its great success led him to do another, Spirited Away (2001), and a few more features. Produced for approximately $23.5 million, it was, at the time of its release, the most expensive anime ever made. When Miramax-founder Harvey Weinstein obtained the North American distribution rights to Princess Mononoke, he approached Miyazaki and insisted on a shorter version of the film that he felt would be better attuned to American audiences. Still upset by the heavily cut version of 1984’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (a.k.a., Warriors of the Wind), he angrily left the meeting. Several days later, Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sent a katana sword to Weinstein’s office, with “NO CUTS” embedded into its blade. The film was later released in the USA in its 133-minute version. When asked about the incident in an interview, Miyazaki smiled and said, “I defeated him.”

Beer League: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray
Mortuary: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray.
Boogie Boy: MVD Rewind Collection #18: Blu-ray
I’ve discovered a bug up my ass, so please bear with me for a paragraph, or so. In this highly mechanized and media-obsessed world, surprises are few and far between. That’s probably a good thing. Caller ID may take the suspense out of answering a ringing phone, but 90 percent of the calls we receive now fall under the category of “unsolicited.” Some of these are requests for donations or participation in surveys, which isn’t anything new. “Robocalls” to landlines and cellphones have become an epidemic. They bypass caller-ID programs, disguise themselves behind legitimate numbers proliferation and don’t respond to the people whose numbers they call. Spam texts not only are unsolicited, but they may also count against data quotas. This week, the government tossed the problem into the laps of telecommunication companies, by allowing them to take direct extralegal action against robo-companies. The problem, of course, is that the FCC and phone companies have never expended much time, energy and money getting ahead of the curve, at least when it comes to serving their customers in this way. They haven’t been able to combat call mills based in India and Philippines and are impotent against techies, who’ve committed themselves to confounding conglomerates and harassing consumers. So far, our only recourse has  been to ignore calls from unknown numbers or pay their service providers a fee for blocking more than a handful of numbers. The new FCC proposal would allow the companies to offer blocking services for free, thus requiring consumers to constantly update the list, themselves, and forcing the competition to spend money to match their “free” services … which, of course, they should do, anyway.

One of the pleasures of reviewing DVDs is the “surprise factor.” Typically, the envelopes and boxes in which new releases arrive can be easily traced to individual distributers, who’ve already pitched the journalist and told them when to expect delivery, frequently within a week prior to the “street date.” Some companies still fly under the radar, however, by anticipating a writer’s desires and interests, or putting us on an automatic-send basis. It partially explains why so many of the titles reviewed here – golden oldies, indies, docs, cult, foreign-language — qualify as obscure, unexpected and unheralded. As a University of Wisconsin graduate, I know that “sifting and winnowing is at the heart of what we do.” Typically, I leave the critiquing to others. MVD Visual is a company that’s surprised me on a monthly basis for nearly two decades. It describes itself as a “full-service music and movie distribution firm, exclusively representing thousands of audio and visual products for DVD, Blu-ray, CD, vinyl and digital rights, worldwide.” It distributes a growing line of titles and merchandise, including limited-edition collectibles and apparel. Recently, its visual line has branched into new territories.

There’s MVD Classics, whose releases “might be a little too obscure for our other labels” – we already reviewed Diamonds of Kilimanjaro (1983), Golden Temple Amazons (1986)  —  as well as its MVD Rewind and MVD Marquee collections. If few of these titles genuinely qualify as classics, there’s always something redeemable in them. We’ve already considered The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Giovanni Ribisi, Holly Hunter and Woody Harrelson, which, at least, offers scenic beauty and A-list names. Today’s other Marquee attractions are Blu-ray editions of Mortuary (2005) and Beer League (2006), which appear to have made on different planets. The former was made very late in Tobe Hooper’s directorial career and, as they say, it shows. In it, a family moves to a small town in California, where they plan on starting a new life, while Mom (Denise Crosby) attempts to revive a long-abandoned funeral home. And, guess what, local teens use its tiny cemetery as a proving ground for courage and romance. Adults suspect it’s build over haunted ground and stay away from it. Of course, zombies will make everyone’s live miserable, except, perhaps, those of Hooper and undead completists. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and Hooper’s commentary. In Beer League, a fat, sloppy, chain-smoking and wholly gross Artie Lange conspires to keep his favorite tavern’s softball team from being expelled by league officials. And, yes, the comedy’s as politically incorrect as one might suspect from one-time director Frank Sebastiano, a veteran of late-night variety shows and celebrity roasts. The real selling points are appearances by the late, great Seymour Cassel, Ralph Macchio, Laurie Metcalf, Jimmy Palumbo, Tina Fey, Mary Birdsong and porn star Keisha, who plays a human pitching machine. Bonus features add interviews and featurettes, including, “In the Studio with Artie: Jokes and Ringtones,” “Live From Cine Vegas!,” Artie behind-the-scenes at “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” and “Best Damn Sports Show,” behind-the-scenes featurette,” “Beer Goggles” short and unrated commentary with Lange and Sebastiano.

On MVD’s Rewind collection, the entries are packaged as they might have appeared in video stores during the Golden Age of cassettes. Fortuitously, that doesn’t include their audio and visual presentations, which weren’t high points in VHS. “Boogie Boy: MVD Rewind Collection #18” takes us back to the early days of the DVD revolution, when straight-to-video movies were a subgenre onto themselves. Hardly anyone thought that the majority of pulpy hit-and-run features would be worth the time and money to upgrade to future technologies. They’ve survived this long because some long-term thinkers anticipated a need for product when a killer-app technology took over the industry. Niche distributors purchased inventory in bulk and either sold them to other companies or created boutique labels of their own. And, that’s what’s happening now. Boogie Boy opens with pretty-boy outlaw Jesse Page (Mark Dacascos) being released from prison. Almost immediately he hooks up with his former cellmate and presumed lover, Larry (Jaimz Woolvett), and a drug deal goes sour. With the dealers hot on his trail, Jesse has three days to reach Detroit, where a new, clean, legitimate life, as the drummer for Joan Jett, awaits him. Before that can happen, though, his ties to his criminal past and biker buddies threaten to trip Jesse up. Upon its first release into video, the distributor attempted to create the illusion that sole writer/director Craig  Hamann had worked closely with Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The exaggerated claim was dubious, at best. The Blu-ray box isn’t nearly as misleading. Boogie Boy isn’t a total waste of time, however. (Avary’s status as executive producer is proclaimed, but no one can be sure what that title actually means.) It’s the cast that separates Boogie Boy from other bargain-bin mediocrities. Besides Jett (Light of Day), it includes Emily Lloyd (A River Runs Through It), Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now), Michael Peña (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Traci Lords (Blade), Linnea Quigley (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Jaimz Woolvett (“Joan of Arc”), Jonathan Scarfe (The Equalizer 2) and James Lew and John Koyama, two of the industry’s best and busiest martial-arts and stunt performers. It’s nice to find so many familiar faces in a movie that has so many visible faults. Action junkies might want to take a look at it, as well. The extras include the new, 92-minute ”The Making of Boogie Boy,” a photo gallery and mini-poster.

The Big Clock: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Yakuza Law: Special Edition: Blu-ray
UK-based Arrow Films also has divided its catalogue to differentiate cult and quirky selections, from classic and collectible titles. All look and sound great, while also offering new and vintage bonus features. Moreover, it’s difficult to know from which direction, genre and period the next group will come. Special editions of The Big Clock (1948) and Yakuza Law (1969) are indicative of the company’s scope and variety.

John Farrow’s adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel, for Paramount, combines elements of noir, thriller, crime drama and screwball comedy. Something for everyone, especially fans of Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, Charles Laughton, George Macready, Elsa Lanchester and Rita Johnson. I was completely taken aback by seeing Noel Neill in a brief uncredited appearance as an elevator operator and possible lover of Laughton’s rotund and thoroughly evil publishing tycoon, Earl Janoth. Stay tuned, as well, for a juicy performance by Harry/Henry Morgan, who plays a creepy masseuse and gunman. As young as they are here, they’re instantly recognizable as the future Lois Lane (“Adventures of Superman”) and Col. Sherman T. Potter (“M*A*S*H”) and Officer Frank Gannon (“Dragnet 1967”). Here, Milland plays George Stroud, an overworked editor for a true-crime magazine run by Janoth. He’s been planning to take a vacation/honeymoon for months, but something always comes up. When Janoth insists he give up his vacation, for another assignment, Milland decides to quit. Instead of going home to his suspicious wife, Georgette (O’Sullivan) he embarks on a drinking spree with his boss’ mistress, Pauline (Johnson). In one of the great closeups in noir history, Pauline taunts Janoth to the point where the skin beneath his nose begins to twitch, and he picks up a heavy prop and kills her. Not about to turn himself in to authorities, Janoth calls in his trusted henchmen and works out a plot to frame someone else in the murder. Eventually, he decides that Stroud deserves the honor, setting off a rather clumsy game of cat-and-mouse, from the penthouse to the basement of the magazine’s high-rise headquarters. Doors are slammed, opportunities are missed, clues are overlooked. The Blu-ray package includes a lovely tribute to Laughton by actor, writer and theater director Simon Callow, as well as new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; “Turning Back the Clock,” a fresh analysis of the film by the critic and chief executive of Film London, Adrian Wootton; an hourlong 1948 radio dramatization of The Big Clock by the Lux Radio Theatre; a stills gallery; promotional materials; reversible sleeve; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Christina Newland. Fearing’s book also provided the source material for the Kevin Costner vehicle, No Way Out (1987), adapted by Roger Donaldson and writer Robert Garland.

And, now, something completely different from across the Pacific. Yakuza Law (a.k.a., “A History of Yakuza Punishment: Lynch!”) was written and directed by Teruo Ishii, alternately and affectionately known as “Godfather of J-sploitation,” “The King of Cult” and as a pioneer in the Ero guro (“erotic-grotesque”) subgenre of pinku eiga. In a very small nutshell, Yakuza Law is a trilogy of stories depicting mistakes, misreads and the nature of punishment within crime families during the Edo, Taisho, and Showa periods. If yakuza clans have traditionally been guided by strict rules and vicious reprisals for breaking them, Ishii makes them look arbitrary, capricious and ridiculous. They might look different to viewers in Japan, but much of what happens in Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia dramas looks pretty darn silly, especially when taken out of historical context. Yakuza Law is one many Ishii films to make a late debut here. Critics who make their living writing about such things aren’t enamored with the film, but it’s probably as good a place as any for anyone curious about extreme Japanese genre fare to start. After a retrospective opening-credit roll, oozing with violence, Chapter One explores what happens when a major rule is broken: the one that forbids sleeping with a married woman or one who is already taken by another family member. In the second, gang soldier Ogata completes a hit on a rival gang boss, based on a request from his superiors. After he’s lopped off the rival’s arm and presented to them as evidence, his bosses come to believe the attack could start a gang war and it’s one they’ll surely lose. To save face and their lives, they declare the Ogata’s hit unsanctioned and exile him from both the clan and Eastern Japan. Finally, the third story focuses on the law that family secrets must not leaked or divulged, while exploring the backstabbing that occurs between ambitious gang members. The tale, which  is set in the 1960s, also introduces an outsider whose shooting skills attract the attention of a gangster looking to betray his boss. Eyes are gouged out, men are dragged over rocks by a helicopter; faces are burned off by cigarette lighters; and a vase is used to perform a punishment commonly utilizing knives. Other places to begin might include Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), The Hitman: Blood Smells Like Roses (1991) and Shogun’s Joys of Torture (1968). The segments star  Bunta Sugawara, Minoru Oki and Teruo Yoshida. The supplements include commentary by author and critic Jasper Sharp; “Erotic-Grotesque and Genre Hopping: Teruo Ishii Speaks,” an entertaining vintage interview, newly edited for this release; image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

A Serbian Film: Blu-ray
A few months ago, I had occasion to research the films other critics and writers have decided are the most transgressive, disgusting, disturbing and depraved titles of all time. Some are routinely listed among the Top 25: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pink Flamingos (1972), El Topo (1970), Audition (1999) , Cannibal Holocaust (1980), The Human Centipede II (2012) and Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985). Twenty years ago, Freaks (1932) might have been found on top of most lists. As disturbing as it might still be, Freaks is movie of substance, with allegorical throughlines and three-dimensional characters, possessing identifiable problems and dreams. Srdjan Spasojevic and co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic’s A Serbian Film (2010) appears on most ballots, as well. It’s been banned, censored, re-edited, trimmed and condemned by arbiters of good taste around the world. Like many of the movies that landed on the UK’s list of “Video Nasties,” A Serbian Film has also been lauded and taken seriously by enough critics, festival organizers and arthouse audiences to make headlines when authorities dare mess with it.

In it, retired Serbian porn star, Milos (Srdan Todorovic), and his beloved wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic), and son, Peter, are struggling to maintain a normal life, outside the nasty adult-film and modeling business. The family is facing financial difficulties, when, out of the blue, Milos is contacted by the still-active actress, Lejla (Katarina Zutic), offering him a job opportunity in an “art” film. The director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), offers a millionaire contract to Milos, but refuses to show him the screenplay or summarize the story. Milos discusses the proposal with Marija and, without any enthusiasm, signs the contract. When he discovers that Vukmir and his crew are involved in non-simulated snuff films — requiring pedophilia, necrophilia and torture – he’s told that it’s too late for him to back out and his decision might also imperil his family. Spasojević and Radivojević have stated that A Serbian Film is a parody of politically correct films made in post-war Serbia, which were financially supported by foreign funds. When asked why they chose the title “Srpski Film” for the film’s name, Radivojević answered, “We have become synonyms for chaos and lunacy. The title is a cynical reference to that image. Srpski Film is also a metaphor for our national cinema — boring, predictable and altogether unintentionally hilarious.” If he says so. To point out that it isn’t for everyone is like saying that gargling with bleach isn’t for everyone with bad breath. Invincible Pictures has re-released it on DVD and Blu-ray, at its original, uncensored 104-minute length.

TV-to-DVD
The Donna Reed Show: Seasons 1-5
PBS/ITV: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten: Season 3 (UK Edition)
PBS: Korea: The Never-Ending War
PBS: NOVA: Rise of the Rockets
PBS: Henry IX: The Lost King
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files
PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 5
Looking back at “The Donna Reed Show” and the star’s character, Donna Stone, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how it might be considered a pioneer in the portrayal of middle-class American women on television. Since the show’s inception, on September 24, 1958, Stone set what today is considered an impossible standard for wives and mothers at the center of nuclear families during Eisenhower- and Kennedy era. (Direct comparisons to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy can be made, I suppose.)  She is the idealized small-town housewife to her physician husband, Alex (Carl Betz), who she married at 18, as well as the mother of ideal teenagers, Mary (Shelley Fabares) and Jeff (Paul Petersen). Stone sometimes works as a nurse on the show, but she sees her first obligation as being a wife, mother and homemaker. She doesn’t expect or get much help from the others. She participates in such community activities as charity campaigns and amateur theatricals, but always finds time to share sound advice with friends and neighbors. What concerned some mid-century feminists and critics, though, was her appearance. Like other television wives and mothers of the 1950s, she inexplicably wears heels, pearls and chic frocks to do the housework. The only exception I saw was when one of Mary’s boyfriends (Jimmy Hawkins) began to treat Donna as if she was TV’s first MILF and she handled the situation by disguising herself as a shrew … not unlike Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne Conner, a couple of decades later. I’m not sure if Stone’s persona was a creation of the show’s writers, advertisers or the star, herself. (Reed was an uncredited producer — and occasional director and writer — on the series.) Four years earlier, Reed accepted the Best Supporting Actress trophy for playing a social-club “hostess” – wink, wink, nod, nod — in From Here to Eternity. In the hindsight provided by MPI Home Video’s gargantuan, “The Donna Reed Show: Seasons 1-5,” it’s clear that the show served as something other than an arbiter of mid-century tastes. For one thing, Stone was the sun around which the other characters and situations revolved. This was a TV first. The issues tackled were of a more topical nature than those on other sitcoms and, despite the double beds, Mom and Dad weren’t reluctant to demonstrate their affection for each other. Guest stars included Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Buster Keaton, Bob Crane, Marion Ross, Gale Gordon, John Astin, Ted Knight, Richard Deacon, Don Drysdale, Esther Williams and Tony Martin. The special DVD collection presents all 186 episodes from Seasons 1 through 5, in complete versions and digitally remastered. It adds several new featurettes and interviews with Fabares, Paul and Patty Peterse and Hawkins; vintage promotional spots; original cast/sponsor commercials; the cast’s 1959 Christmas greeting; Reed’s PS’s; music producer Stu Phillips’ interview and song outtakes; Reed tribute on “This Is Your Life”; rare footage and photos; and subtitles.

Season Three of the “Masterpiece Mystery” mini-series, “Unforgotten,” is approaching its final episode on PBS affiliates, with at least one more go-round assured. Like so many other such shows, it is a procedural dominated by unpleasant cold-case crimes, multiple suspects and dogged police inspectors and forensics experts. Imagine “Law & Order,” if the SVU had six television hours to solve a single notorious crime, following several false leads and dead-ends, and compiling enough evidence to put the fiend(s) away for a long time. Nicola Walker (“MI-5”) and Sanjeev Bhaskar (“The Kumars at No. 42”) make a terrific investigative team, with fellow officers who are supportive, competent and, like their supervisors, somewhere short of infallible. The central crime here involves the discovery of human remains, buried in a strip of land dividing a major highway. At first, speculation surrounds the possibility that the skeleton may date back to medieval times. Once that’s dismissed, the medical examiner uses a unique piece of evidence to trace it to a 16-year-old girl. who went missing on the eve of the millennium. That, in turn, leads to a group of men who attended high school together and remain friendly enough to build alibis for each other. Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart is determined to correct the mistakes made in the original investigation of the disappearance – and others — no matter the personal cost.

PBS’s gut-wrenching documentary, “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” could just as easily been titled, “Korea: The Never-Ending Tragedy” or “Korea: The Never-Ending Blunder.” The details surrounding the buildup to war, its execution and inherently unenforceable non-conclusion are so complicated that Americans have banished it to the recesses of their memory cache and shown no interest in learning its history. President Truman lied by labelling it a “police action,” while historians have reduced it to a “silent war.” It’s also been described an inevitable confrontation between free-market democracies in the UN, and predatory communist demagogues, who missed their chance to stop the war before it started. The U.S. supported the installation and maintenance of an authoritarian government in the south, while China and the Soviet Union backed an even more authoritarian dictator in the north. According to U.S. Department of Defense data, the US suffered 33,686 battle deaths, along with 2,830 non-battle deaths, during the Korean War. American combat casualties comprised 90 percent of non-Korean UN losses. South Korea reported some 373,599 civilian and 137,899 military deaths, while the toll in North Korea is still being calculated, with every new plague and famine. Still, it could have been worse, if General MacArthur had been allowed to nuke mainland China and Central North Korea, thus ensuring World War III, with the USSR leading the other team. The two-hour PBS doc sheds new light on the global upheaval that led to the Korean War, in 1950, and how that war’s brutal legacy led directly to the Vietnam War and other less-visible conflicts. It reminds us once again that no proponent of a military confrontation has ever considered the human factor, when deciding to go to war. Even they know they’re being duped, soldiers go where they’re told to go and fight the people that they’ve been convinced are their enemy. The lives of civilians caught between the lines are of no consequence. The current standoff between North Korea and the U.S. could escalate into another nuclear holocaust, and it’s only because President Trump and Kim Jong-un are megalomaniacs who only answer to their own demons. The North Korean people don’t hate and fear average Americans any more than we hate and fear them. PBS and BBC documentaries, such as “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” “The Vietnam War,” “The War,” “The Great War,” “World War I” and  “The Civil War,” remind us that human frailties, demagoguery and prejudices make wars inevitable. These films should be made required viewing for high-schools students, fighting men and women, and voters here and abroad.

PBS’ “NOVA: Rise of the Rockets” describes how rockets are becoming cheaper and more powerful to build and are opening the door wider for public and private entities to join the parade. As companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic make space more accessible, and NASA returns to crewed spaceflight, a new era of space exploration may be on the horizon. Of course, in these cases, “exploration” has always tended to be a synonym for “exploitation.” It’s older than 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, which predicted the branding of space travel and mining operations on far-flung planets. As much fun as it may be to spend a week or two vacationing on the moon – thanks to Virgin Galactic – it’s worth pondering how such programs would be impacted by a catastrophic explosion upon liftoff or the disappointment that comes when interplanetary travelers discover that one moonwalk is the same as every other moonwalk. “NOVA” explores the latest rocket technologies and the growing role private citizens may have in space.

In PBS’ informative, enjoyable and timely “Henry IX: The Lost King,” scholar/broadcaster Paul Murton takes viewers on a journey to investigate the mysterious disappearance from historical records of “forgotten” Scottish prince, Henry Fredrick Stuart (a.k.a., “the best king Britain never had.”) Yes, you read that right — Henry the 9th – who was born in Stirling Castle in 1594 and died young, 18 years later, of typhoid. He was the eldest son and heir of King James VI and I, of Scotland and Ireland, and his wife, Anne of Denmark. His father placed him in the care of John Erskine, Earl of Mar at Stirling Castle, away from the boy’s mother, because James worried that her tendency toward Catholicism might affect the son. The boy remained under the care of Mar until 1603, when James became King of England and his family moved south.  By all accounts, the prince was popular with the British people and was a proponent of education and the arts. Among his activities, the prince started the British Museum and the Royal Collection and was the first royal prince to back a permanent settlement on American soil in the early 1700s. Since the births of Prince George and his royal cousin, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the media’s been awash with speculation as to how they will be raised and what customs they’ll be required to follow. Because Prince Henry IX’s father feared the growing popularity and independence of his son, some historians believe he may have been poisoned. Murton’s research argues that the boy died after consuming toxic oysters and a swim in the Thames, which probably was just as polluted.

And, while we’re on the subject of intrigue in royal circles, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files” makes a good case for the probability that everything we know about Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus derives from the fertile imaginations of three Roman writers. Nero’s rule is usually associated with tyranny and extravagance, but renowned criminal psychologist Thomas Müller and a team of scientists have investigated newly available evidence, in order to discover the truth behind accusations that he killed his stepbrother, his wife and his mother, as well as his role in the persecution of Christians and instigating the devastating Great Fire of Rome, through which, it’s said, he fiddled. “Secrets of the Dead” is an absorbing series of documentaries, which rely on methodology that is as effective on television as it is in real life.

In PBS’s “Finding Your Roots: Season 5,” Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. discovers the surprising ancestral stories of 25 fascinating guests, including Marisa Tomei, Felicity Huffman, Laura Linney, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael K. Williams, Andy Samberg, Chloe Sevigny, Kal Penn, George R.R. Martin, Christiane Amanpour, Ann Curry, Joe Madison, Lisa Ling, Sheryl Sandberg, Seth Meyers, Michael Strahan and other celebrities. He does so by weaving genealogical detective work together with cutting-edge DNA analysis to trace the ancestries trailblazing public figures.

Moses, the Lawgiver
Surviving Birkenau: The Dr. Susan Spatz Story
Reb Elimelech & the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood
Broadcast on opposite ends of 1974 in the UK and Italy, and televised here during the post-sweeps holy month of June, 1975, “Moses the Lawgiver” is an epic biblical mini-series, that almost no one mentions in the same sentence as “Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s probably because the latter was directed three years later by Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) and made lots of money for producer Lew Grade when it was licensed to NBC. It’s even possible that  it was too much of a stretch for American audiences to accept Burt Lancaster in a role so firmly associated with Charlton Heston. Either way, one excellent mini-series is fondly remembered, while the other has nearly been forgotten. It opens with the discovery of baby Moses, by an Egyptian princess, after his mother and sister helped him escape a deadly edict by the Pharaoh. It follows Moses through his royal boyhood and the killing of a slaveholder that causes him to spend the next 40 years, wandering in the wilderness, until God orders him to return to Egypt and free the enslaved Israelites. The new Pharaoh, his cousin by adoption, resists losing his unpaid work force, only to succumb to heavenly intervention. Then, director Gianfranco De Bosio meets the challenge of re-creating the Hebrews’ arduous decades-long march to the Promised Land, where the 120-year-old “lawgiver” awaits his pre-ordained death. Location shoots in Israel and Morocco effectively depict the degree of difficulty involved in the journey. Writers De Bosio, Vittorio Bonicelli, Anthony Burgess and Bernardino Zapponi do a nice job emphasizing the problems Moses faced dealing with his flock of ex-slaves, many of whom saw every setback and misstep as an excuse to defy Moses and his God and return to Egypt and pantheistic beliefs. Ennio Morricone contributed the soundtrack.

Surviving Birkenau: The Dr. Susan Spatz Story” is the second film from the recently formed Holocaust Education Film Foundation. Their first release, To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story,” also describes a survivor’s unwavering will to live, by overcoming unimaginable horrors and inhuman conditions. Not all first-person accounts by Holocaust survivors have happy endings, but these do. Now living in Charlotte, Spatz recalls a privileged childhood, interrupted by the Nazis’ advance through central Europe. She’s extremely candid about her mother and father’s lack of responsibility, when it came time to escape or face the likelihood of death in the gas chambers. Instead, the Vienna-born multilinguistic was sent to the SS’ “model camp,” Theresienstadt, where she stayed until January 1943. Like most other residents of the Czech camp, Spatz was transferred to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, in Poland. Although she fully expected to be immediately sent to the gas chambers, Spatz escaped death by being assigned to horrible jobs, making friends in higher places and avoiding obvious traps. At one point, she was recognized by a Jewish woman, with whom she shared mutual acquaintances, and was given a job alongside her. It allowed her certain luxuries – relatively speaking, of course – like better food, more comfortable surroundings and companionship. That would end, too, when the SS got wind of the Red Army’s rapid advance west. She was ordered to grab clothes left behind by the dead captives and join the “death march” further west. It took her to an area occupied by American forces and freedom, serving the Allied team as a translator and spy. Her first marriage was a nightmare, but once she got her degree in linguistics, Spatz could look forward to happiness. “Surviving Birkenau” is informed by film footage taken and/or captured by Ukrainian troops.

Because I know next to nothing about Hasidism and how it compares to other Jewish religious groups, I was interested in screening a copy of “Reb Elimelech & the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood.” Apparently, present-day Hasidism is a sub-group within ultra-Orthodox Judaism (“Haredi”) and is noted for its religious conservatism and social seclusion. Its members adhere closely both to Orthodox Jewish practice and the traditions of Eastern European Jews. Hanoch Teller’s documentary explores the world prior to the evolvement of the movement, in the late 18th Century, and how certain traditions and practices translate today. Besides the history lesson, the film is filled with parables, music and examples of brotherhood and sharing, It is being shown around the country in special screenings at synagogues and clubs. I must admit to feeling like more of an outsider than I was before watching the film, mostly because the producers assume a knowledge of Yiddish that doesn’t allow for curious newcomers and wasn’t compensated for by subtitles. Discussions, fables and street interviews fluctuate between Yiddish and English so often that I couldn’t possibly look up the words on the Internet, even if I knew how to spell them. This won’t be a problem for those in the target audience.

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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