MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Eleven, Genesis 2.0, Climax, Sweet Murder, Let Sunshine In, One Sings, Eugenie, JCVDx2, Boom!, Velvet … More

Eleven
Now that another Memorial Day is in the books, it’s worth remembering the combatants on both sides of the lines who were killed minutes before and after the ceasefires were called and armistices were signed. Someone had to be the last one to die and typically it was because of a mistake made by an overzealous officer or a soldier who wasn’t on the need-to-know list. It’s a tragedy compounded by ignorance or malice. I don’t know if the military records how such blunders occurred, or if. parents and spouses are alerted to the true nature of their loved one’s sacrifice. (We know that instances of friendly-fire casualties often are disguised.) Sean Cronin and Rock Salt’s Eleven is a small film on the recurring tragedy of bad timing. It dramatizes what happened on a single battlefield in France, I believe, in the 11 minutes leading up to and away from the World War I armistice. It went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of 1918, but negotiations on the terms of disengagement would take six more months. In Eleven, soldiers on both sides of the line knew it was coming and some resisted orders given at the very last moment to score one last tag. Although we aren’t shown the German officer who ordered his troops to prepare for a last-minute counterattack, we do meet the demented Brit who uses toy soldiers to prepares for the final assault. We are introduced to their immediate subordinates, who assume their directives are based on solid intelligence and never learned to say “no” to a dubious order. Nonetheless, they’re reluctant to pass them along to their men.

Filmed on a relatively compact piece of land on a micro-budget, we learn a little bit about the 11 men who died and a bit more about the one or two who survived. For some reason, the death-dealing shots are made to sound more like individual firecrackers or caps than loaded bullets, and the “assault” resembles a re-enactment by war buffs. Still, the sunshine of humanity occasional shines through the darkness. In the UK,  Eleven’s November 11, 2018, release coincided with the arrival of Peter Jackson’s more formidable documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which not only colorized black-and-footage from the Great War, but also added a hi-def sheen to the century-old images. (They both arrived on DVD and/or Blu-ray in time for Memorial Day.) Driven by a personal interest in the war, Jackson set out to re-create the day-to-day experiences of frontline British soldiers. After months immersed in the BBC and Imperial War Museum’s archives, Jackson was able to re-capture dialogue, and formulate narratives and strategies on how to tell this massive story. (Time restraints prohibited inclusion of restored footage of naval combat, the invention of aerial combat and the war effort at home, where women joined the workplace, leading directly to the success of the women’s suffrage movement.) They Shall Not Grow Old made almost $18 million in its U.S. release and, no doubt, more millions in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, both of which recorded terrible losses in the war. Eleven would be fortunate to break even. Both deserve to reach their intended audiences.

Genesis 2.0
The fact that woolly mammoths have been discovered intact and in pieces for hundreds of years doesn’t diminish the entertainment and educational value of Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev’s fascinating documentary, Genesis 2.0 (2018), one bit. It takes viewers to the remote New Siberian Islands, in the Arctic Ocean, where Native Siberian hunters scratch the permafrost surface – literally — searching for the tusks and intact carcasses of the long extinct behemoths. Global warming has made their jobs considerably easier. The hunters don’t appear to mind the presence of the filmmakers and scientists as they scour the frozen tundra for ancient ivory. They are far more cautious when it comes to revealing the exact locations of their finds, some of which are extremely valuable when sold in China and places where tusks are sculpted into jewelry, religious and historical treasures. One of the hunters reminds us of native mythology that cautions against touching or unearthing buried animals. In some digs, they leave behind ornaments and blessed soil. One estimate puts the annual harvest, if you will, at between 20-30 tons of mammoth ivory from the New Siberian Islands, of which the hunters reap only a few hundred dollars in return. Ethical questions are also addressed. The filmmakers visit facilities in Korea and China, where sequencing and stem-cell research have produced litters of puppies, some for sale to people, like Barbra Streisand, who can’t deal with the loss of a beloved pet. Researchers prefer to point out the work done on cures for Down’s syndrome and other diseases. It’s also possible that the genetic tools provided by long-frozen beasts, might free commercial interests to open their own versions of Jurassic Park or, perhaps, Mammoth Burgers franchises. Could vivisection be far behind?. I’d like someone to clone Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain and Seabiscuit, but Barbra and her rich friends’ puppies come first.

Climax
A Record of Sweet Murder: Blu-ray
When a Stranger Calls Back: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, in my review of Brink Video’s “Edwin Brienen Collection,” I lumped it together with a couple of films from Darkside Releasing, directed by Vince D’Amato, as examples of a new school of transgressive “entertainment.” The recent re-release of A Serbian Film (2010) also prompted a perusal of Internet sites that keep track of such supremely offensive titles. I couldn’t have known how soon I would be called upon to return to the subgenre. Turns out, not long, thanks to the ever-controversial Gaspar Noé, who, 15 years ago, earned a permanent place on most lists with Irreversible. In it, the events of one traumatic night in Paris unfold in reverse-chronological order, Monica Bellucci’s character is brutally raped and beaten by a stranger (Jo Prestia) in an underpass. Her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and ex-lover (Albert Dupontel) take matters into their own hands by hiring two criminals to help them find the rapist, so that they can exact revenge, in kind. Roger Ebert put himself in the minority, by giving Irreversible three stars and a heads-up to potential viewers attracted by Bellucci and Cassel. Among the many walkouts during its theatrical run were 200 members of the audience at its Cannes debut. Three others fainted during the same showing, which reportedly left everyone else sitting in almost complete silence, until the next movie was scheduled to start. By contrast, Climax received a standing ovation. It’s set in the mid-1990s, inside a rehearsal space of a closed school, where a racially diverse troupe of dancers is rehearsing to the pounding hip-hop music provided by a very large deejay. The dancers seem possessed with a divinely inspired surge of enthusiasm and energy that combines improvisation with ideas provided by Noe. Parts of it were shot in single 10-minute takes and from every conceivable angle. In my untrained opinion. it’s as exciting as anything in All That Jazz (1979), West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002).

Like the street artists who invented the locks, pops and robotic moves, in the first place, it doesn’t feel at all choreographed … which some of it was. Audition tapes give us an opportunity to meet the dancers as individuals, and not the characters they’ve been assigned. They all make their livings dancing, or try to, at least, but probably would do it for free. The exception of Algerian actress, dancer and model Sofia Boutella (Atomic Blond), who started her career in Capezios. Once the rehearsal ends, the dancers celebrate by sharing cups of sangria laced with something that combines the worst tendencies of meth, LSD, ecstasy and PCP. When it begins to kick in, Noe pulls the rug out from under the feet of his characters and audience. As he describes the transition: “The first part of Climax is like a roller-coaster, the second like a ghost train.” Noe’s also compared it to a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the humans revert to being apes and their natural forces re-emerge. One critic described that opposing halves as “Rent meets Lord of the Flies.” It’s nothing short of madness, as the stoned dancers try to discover the person who dosed the sangria and, then, turn against each other, largely based on racial and class distinctions. The soundtrack turns aggressively loud and the women’s screams are unbearable. Not only is Climax the first R-rated release in Noe’s career, but it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It made him suspect that he’d done something wrong. It’s interesting that he positioned the end credits to appear 2 minutes into the film; the main credits, 43 minutes later; and title card within the final 8 seconds. The featurette, “A Visceral Experience: Making Climax,” caps off the package.

Kôji Shiraishi’s Grotesque (2008) has appeared atop some lists I’ve seen, as well. If his Teketeke (2009), Occult (2009), Noroi: The Curse (2005), The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) and Sedako vs. Kayako (2016) have, so far, failed to make the cut, it’s only because they’ve been so rarely seen in the U.S. (It’s entirely possible that “SvK,” which pits the vengeful spirits of the Ring and Grudge series against each other, someday will be adapted for western audiences.) Critics found Shiraishi’s A Record of Sweet Murder (2014), newly released on DVD, to be something of letdown, but not for lack of trying on his part. His decision to shoot 95 percent of the film in a single take, in a single deserted apartment, drained a bit of the suspense from the film, as did the reliance on a found-footage narrative. (Yawn.) In it, the inarguably insane Sang-joon (Yeon Je-wook) has recently escaped from a Korean mental institution and, since then, has amassed a kill count of between 18 and 25 innocents, depending on who’s keeping score. He invites a childhood friend, South Korean investigative journalist Soyeon (Kkobbi Kim), to meet with him in an abandoned apartment building, with a Japanese cameraman (the mostly unseen Kôji Shiraishi) and no other recording devices. Turns out the criminal and reporter are linked by a childhood tragedy, involving the accidental death of a playmate, and Sang-joon wants his captives to bear witness to the final two murders on a list he believes was handed down to him by God. When then happens, he expects, their little playmate will be resurrected and return to him. He predicts that the final two killings will involve a pair of Japanese lovebirds (Ryôtarô Yonemura, adult star Tsukasa Aoi), who will  mysteriously be attracted to the fifth floor of the same building. The only other things to know are that the totally nutso Sang-joon continually threatens his unarmed captives with a carving knife and cleaver, and that his Japanese guests have criminal backgrounds, as well, but favor slashing knives and baseball bats. The weapons may have been made of rubber here, but they appear to be razor-sharp stainless steel. The Unearthed Films package arrives without extras.

When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) doesn’t really fit in a summary alongside Climax and A Record of Sweet Murder, except in its willingness to jack up the levels of suspense to the limit. It is a belated sequel to co-writer/director Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979), which fit right in with the emerging women-in-jeopardy trend. If viewers of Record of Sweet Murder, viewers never know which bodily appendage will sliced off next, or orifice violated, the menace in “Stranger” derives from more traditional conceits. Here, an unseen fiend begins to harass a babysitter almost as soon the parents leave the driveway. Their two children are already asleep upstairs, so the high school student, Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), has nothing to distract her from the stalker lurking outside. The incessant ringing of a telephone, backed by a scary musical soundtrack, not only begins to unnerve the girl, but it has the same effect on viewers. By the time the parents return home, their kids have been butchered and Jill has come within seconds of sharing the same fate. Charles Durning played the cop who prevented the prowler from doing to Jill what was done to the children. Seven years later, in the same 94-minute span, the killer escapes the mental hospital in which he’s been incarcerated and returns to terrorize the now-married Jill, who has kids of her own. Once again, Durning intervenes. Pretty simple, huh? Even though When a Stranger Calls returned nearly 20 times its production budget, but co-writer/director Walton found it difficult to sell a sequel to Columbia and other major studios. The moment had passed. The only company to show him some love for When a Stranger Calls Back was Showtime, which, in 1993, was just beginning to experiment with original movies. Then, as now, the premium-cable service was a place where exhausted subgenres never went out of style. In the sequel, Jill (still Kane) works for a victim’s-rights agency, while Durning’s cop, John Clifford, has retired. Even though she was approaching 30 years old at the time, Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) fit the role of a babysitter, who, when summoned, didn’t have time to change out of her school uniform. Once again, the babysitter – newly named, Julia Jenz – is taunted by an invisible antagonist … two, actually. One is standing behind the front door, demanding to be allowed inside to call AAA. It’s only when Julia agrees to call the service, herself, that the threatening calls begin. Once again, the sitter escapes death. Four years later, the still-traumatized Julia begins to receive threats from someone who knows that she’s a sitting duck in a dorm room. Police recommend that she contact Jill, who asks Durning for some help. After revisiting the scene of the original crime, he concludes that the assailant is a ventriloquist who knows how to blend into his surroundings. If When a Stranger Calls Back wasn’t as graphic as today’s cable-TV standards would allow, it probably raised more than a few goosebumps. The climax, which Walton says was influenced by the supermodel Veruschka (Blow-Up), is pretty clever. Simon West’s 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls, starring Camilla Belle, Katie Cassidy and Clark Gregg, made some money by sticking to a modest $15-million budget. Critics didn’t like it, though, even if cellphones were integrated into the story. The newly remastered Scream Factory Blu-ray is presented in its original 1.33:1, for TV broadcast, and an alternate 1.78:1 theatrical version; interviews with Walton, Kane and Schoelen; and Walton’s gritty 1977 short film, The Sitter, which concisely set up the first 20 minutes of the 1979 feature.

Let the Sunshine In: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When the great purge of full-time, adequately paid movie critics began in the mid-’90s and continued into the ’2000s, the primary reason given by the editors of mainstream publications was to save money on salaries and benefits. Local voices were lost, but syndicated reviews cost almost nothing and freelancers even less. Other unstated reasons included basic disagreements between features editors and news editors as to the value of reviews. The latter relied on box-office tallies in USA Today to determine quality, without also watching the movies, themselves. Some editors considered critics to be too effete for their readers tastes, and, as such, expendable when studio advertising began to shrink. (An editor once fumed to me about the lack of quotes pulled from our pundits’ reviews by studios for inclusion in the display ads placed in Sunday and Friday features sections. The alternative was for critics to inflate the value of stars attached to “popular” releases and deflating the stars accorded arthouse films. Occasionally, an overly vague sentence or paragraph would be added, so advertisers could tailor it to their needs. Some reviewers became notorious for their leniency.) Some editors went so far as to justify the firing of white, male critics – and the occasional white woman – by saying they wanted to diversify the paper’s voice. What they didn’t want to do, however, was pay for the luxury. The promise of a Golden Age of Internet Criticism loomed, but not for long. Pretty soon, the number of unpaid critics – in all of the artistic disciplines – surpassed the number of staff reviewers. Advertising flowed into a handful of websites, while others simply disappeared or stopped paying for content. Fans of arthouse, indie and documentary films were required to rely on reviews and articles in local alternative and niche media for sound opinions. Sadly, they also began laying off critics and reducing the space to accommodate brief summaries of select films, plays, exhibits and concerts. which, today, are mere skeletons of their former selves. Blessedly, such aggregators as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have filled some of the vacuum left by the Great Purge by redefining “mainstream” and separating critic reviews and audience reviews.

After watching Criterion Collection’s impressive Blu-ray editions of Claire Denis’ brilliant 2017 drama/comedy/romance Let the Sunshine In (a.k.a., “Bright Sunshine Within”) and Agnès Varda’s 1977 historical drama One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, I really wanted to learn what women critics thought of these very different, if similarly feminist films. The latter was released before aggregators came into vogue, so I’ll let Roger Ebert’s then-contemporary four-star review and Carmen Gray’s recent analysis on VillageVoice.com stand as consensus. (Most of the other nine critics based their ratings on DVD releases and revivals. Only a single audience response was recorded and only Ebert, Gray, Dave Kehr and Justin Chang were designated “top critics.”) Of the 46 reviews by Metacritic contributors, only 6 were written by women. Rotten Tomatoes tends to cast wider net. In its look at Let the Sunshine In, which includes several newspapers, magazines and websites in the UK and Australia, the ratio of men-to-women was slightly better, but not by much. The 134 conclusions by “all critics,” derive, as well, from vanity and other niche websites, 87 percent of which certified it “fresh.” An audience score of 30 percent  — 582 responses, presumably many from home viewers – baffled, but didn’t surprise me. What could they have been expecting? On Metacritic, only 11 “amateurs” bothered to respond, with 5 positive, 5 negative and a single middling review. The interesting thing to me was the contrasting opinions of men and women critics. Men seemed to focus less on the foibles of the individual characters and more on the tour-de-force performance by Binoche, who, for obvious reasons, has never been afraid to play her age (55). While women critics also admire Binoche’s portrayal of the lonely, love-starved, but not-at-all brittle divorcee, many of them found it difficult for one inarguably desirable woman to make so many bad choices in lovers, who come in several different sizes, shapes, ages and colors. All of the critics took their time to express their opinions, even when they were negative, and found it to be a worthwhile viewing experience.

Let the Sunshine In was adapted from Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments” by novelist Christine Angot and frequent Denis collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau. In my opinion, which isn’t part of the aggregators’ tallies, Isabelle goes through lovers like some serial killers go through victims: obsessed one minute, pissed off the next. Once Isabelle mind is made up, the men are dead in her eyes. Viewers will generally, if not always agree with her assessments. Her ex-husband may be total dick, but it’s easy to see why they agreed on a divorce. What we don’t understand is why she keeps having hit-and-run sex with him. She’s given him custody of their daughter and, in return, doesn’t have to pay rent in the building they once shared. He refuses to return his set of keys to her and walks in whenever he feels like it. From a distance, Isabelle’s only guilty of looking for love in all the wrong faces and allowing her libido to overcome reason. She asserts her independence by favoring short leather skirts and jackets, black stockings, over-the-knee boots, colorful scarves and ironic t-shirts. If Binoche weren’t as beautiful as she is – with silky smooth skin and impeccable makeup – Isabelle might have resembled one of those sad cougars on “Real Housewives.” When her tears ravish her cosmetics, however, she looks 15 years older than when’s she out on the town. (Much credit for this transformation is owed cinematographer Agnès Godard.) Finally, after yet another lover has failed to impose his conditions on their relationship – or burdened her with his neuroses – Isabelle visits a psychic (Gérard Depardieu), who reads her like a book and doesn’t hold back on his opinions. He  neatly sums up her problems in the romance department, while also advising to keep on keeping on. The clairvoyant sees better luck in her future, but he can’t say when or with whom (probably not married lechers, though). It’s an amazingly well-scripted, exquisitely acted sequence, which benefits, as Binoche allows in an interview, from time spent together with Depardieu in an earlier, more intimate setting. In some ways, I think, Let the Sunshine In bears comparison to Francois Truffaut’s underseen The Man Who Loved Woman (1977) and kinda-sorta of John Trent’s difficult-to-find Middle Age Crazy (1980), which, I’m sure, wasn’t on Denis’ radar. The Criterion package adds a pair of newly recorded and absolutely essential interviews with Denis and Binoche; Denis’ incisive short film, “Voilà l’enchaînement,” which depicts what can happen in an interracial marriage, when misread signals come between spouses; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

As dated as Vardas’ One Sings, the Other Doesn’t may seem to women who came of age after Roe v. Wade, it might feel like yesterday for their mothers, grandmothers and aunties who struggled for the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, as well as the ill-fated ERA and equal pay for equal work. That includes the ranks of staunch feminists, harried housewives and hippies, who decided it was time to make their own way in life, trying not to let male-dominated legislatures get the best of them. Now that the right to an abortion is more threatened than it’s been in nearly a half-century – at least, in the states controlled by right-wing troglodytes – such discussions have returned to relevancy. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t follows the intertwined lives of two young Parisian women, who become close friends in 1962, but, in most respects, are opposites. Pauline/Pomme (Valerie Mairesse) is a red-headed 17-year-old spitfire, who befriends a dour 22-year-old neighbor, Suzanne (Therese Liotard), who is the unmarried mother of two toddlers and once-again pregnant. Her married photographer lover, Jerome (Robert Dadies), can barely afford to maintain one family, let alone two, so, when Pauline suggests an illegal abortion, her hesitancy only comes from a lack of money and proximity to a safe clinic. Pauline lies to her parents to get the money, but the procedure is performed too late to prevent Jerome from committing suicide. His inability to secure a divorce and make money as a commercial photographer – not the abortion, which may have been shielded from him — have forced him over the edge. The women will go their own separate ways, meeting up occasionally to let the audience know what they’ve been up to and where they’ve been. Nothing remarkable, considering the times, but interesting.

By the mid-1970s, when they hook up once again, Pomme is part of traveling group of talented activist singers, busking their way around Europe. She was married to a Persian man, Darius (Ali Rafie), and moved with him to pre-Ayatollah Iran. After deciding that life there was untenable, Pauline decides to go home. He agrees to let her go, but demands that she leave their son in Isfahan, which is what happens. Suzanne and her two children struggle for a while on a relative’s subsistence farm, before she self-teaches her way to a stable life as administer of a family-care center in the south. By the time Suzanne’s daughter and son have grown into their teens, France is a completely different place for women than it was when she was their age. The trials and tribulations of motherhood haven’t gotten any easier, however. The 2K restoration was supervised by Varda, who died this past March 29, at 90, and cinematographer Charlie Van Damme. It adds a pair of short films, “Women Are Naturally Creative” (1977), a documentary directed by Katja Raganelli, featuring an interview with Varda shot during the making of the film, plus on-set interviews with actors Mairesse and Liotard; “Réponse de femmes” (1975), on the question “What is a woman?”; “Plaisir d’amour en Iran” (1976), another short film by Varda, starring Mairesse and Ali Raffi; and an essay by critic Amy Taubin, with excerpts from the film’s original press book

Eugenie … The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion
On the face of it,  Eugenie … The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1970) is only slightly more watchable today than a dozen other soft-core flicks from Jesús Franco’s sexploitation mill. It differs tonally from the early erotica of Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet) and Chuck Vincent (While the Cat’s Away ...), and mid-career Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), if only in Franco’s obsession with edgy pre-Victorian literature and a willingness to cast a wide net for actors. The same casting formula was used to sell Italian genre pictures outside Italy and Spain. Eugenie … (a.k.a., “De Sade 70”) benefits from the presence of expatriate American Jack Taylor (Succubus); Stockholm-born Marie Liljedahl, who’d already appeared in Joseph W. Sarno’s Inga and The Seduction of Inga; prolific Swiss character actor Paul Muller (Moses, the Lawgiver); and Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man). Lee has said that he was under the impression his only responsibility was to narrate Sade’s writings and was surprised to see his name attached to what was being marketed in London as a porno. Lee further explains that the scenes in which naked bodies are shown writhing behind him – wearing a smoking jacket borrowed from Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) – were staged to prevent him from seeing a quick removal of costumes. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Of all the cast members, however, Vienna-born Maria Rohm is the most intriguing. The classically trained ingenue was content to settle for a career on stage, until, at age18, she auditioned before writer/producer Harry Alan Towers (a.k.a., Peter Welbeck). The 50-year-old Brit (The Face of Fu Manchu) was about to make a hard-right turn into the exploitation business, hitching his wagon to Franco’s perverse story-telling genius and Rohm’s professional approach to some pretty seedy material. (That, and her slinky 5-foot-6 frame, golden-blond hair and steely reserve.) Before her retirement, in 1976, to join her husband in the producers’ office, she’d worked alongside an odd lot of international stars: including Lee, Klaus Kinski, Vincent Price, Jack Palance, Tony Randall, Senta Berger, Herbert Lom, James Darren, Frankie Avalon, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Barbara McNair and Oliver Reed. Broken down to its essentials, Eugenie … describes what happens when the virginal teenager, Eugenie (Liljedahl) is summoned to an isolated island off the Spanish coast, by an aunt (Rohm) who’s decided she isn’t maturing fast enough into womanhood. Little time is wasted breaking the girl into the cult of DeSade, organized by her aunt, her “brother” and a bunch of S&M devotees, who dress up in pirate outfits and show up after the girl’s meals have been dosed. Franco and Towers saw the torture scenes as being part of Eugenie’s coming-of-age process. They’re reasonably hard-core, without drifting into XXX territory. Cinematographer Manuel Merino (Vampyros Lesbos) captures much of the island’s natural light, while also adding some psychedelic tricks during the torture scenes. The Blue Underground Blu-ray package adds a new video interview with film historian Stephen Thrower; archival interviews with Franco and Towers; cast and crew interviews; a large collection of promotional materials; a CD, featuring Bruno Nicolai’s soundtrack; and an 18-page illustrated booklet with writings on the film and technical credits.

Double Impact: MVD Rewind Collection: Blu-ray
Way back when I was a lad, I found myself in the same Pasadena bank as the Doublemint Twins. Presumably, their contributions to Wells Fargo’s solvency were exponentially larger than mine would ever be, then and now. Although I had known twins of both genders while growing up, I’m embarrassed to recall that I stared at them as if they had just escaped from the midway of a traveling circus. That isn’t to say they were freakish in any way, shape or form. Being in the presence of beauty-squared – especially in its most apple-pie wholesome form – almost brought me to my knees. I’m sure they were as unaware of the damage done to American teeth by chewing gum, as they were of my presence that day. The twin fighting machines on display in Sheldon Lettich’s Double Impact (1991) were separated as infants after a Triad hit squad attacked their parents’ limousine. Their mother begs the gang’s leader to spare the twins, but Moon (Bolo Yeung) is in no position to disobey his boss’ orders. In all the confusion, baby Chad is rescued by the family bodyguard, Frank Avery (Geoffrey Lewis), and raised in the U.S. At the same time, Baby Alex is dropped off on the doorstep of a Hong Kong orphanage by the family maid. Despite the miles separating them, the boys grow up in ways that argue a predisposition for martial arts and body building can be shared by twins, along with a handsome face and good hair. In the present day, Chad and Frank are running a successful martial-arts dojo and fitness center in Los Angeles, when Frank reveals a new “business” for the two of them in Hong Kong. At a financially appropriate time, Frank not only tells Chad that he isn’t his uncle, but, upon their return to Hong Kong, he should expect to meet his long-lost brother, Alex. Things get exceptionally complicated at this point, even by the standards established by chop-socky action flicks. Suffice it to say that the brothers quarrel before teaming up to avenge the deaths of their parents and wipe out the triad’s criminal operations. Lettich and JCVD’s screenplay leaves room for a pair of lethal women (Alonna Shaw, recent Ms. Olympia Corinna Everson) and a cameo by that June’s Penthouse Pet of the Month, Julie Strain. The Hong Kong scenery isn’t bad, either. The MVD Rewind package adds the two-part “The Making of Double Impact,” deleted and extended scenes, “Anatomy of a Scene” and a “collectible” mini-poster.

Boom!: Blu-ray
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything: Julie Newmar: Blu-ray
No less an expert on outré entertainment than John Waters has cited Boom! (1968) as one of the “best films you’ve never seen.” (The same title as Robert K. Elder’s anthology on the subject.) It doesn’t seem possible that any British drama, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward, directed by Joseph Losey, and adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, could be so savagely dismissed by critics and audiences as Boom! Waters explains the film’s singular appeal thusly, “… beyond bad. It’s the other side of camp. It’s beautiful, atrocious, and it’s perfect. It’s a perfect movie, really, and I never tire of it.” The film’s poster is visible in Waters’ 1972 outrage, Pink Flamingos, and he has introduced it to understandably skeptical cineastes at festivals around the world. Taylor’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth is a fabulously wealthy and thoroughly eccentric widow, who lives in a spectacular clifftop house on the Mediterranean island she owns (a.k.a., Sardinia). When the acrophobic Goforth isn’t too drunk or high, she dictates the words to a book to her beleaguered secretary (Joanna Shimkus). One day, the poet Chris Flanders (Burton) washes up on the beach below her villa, climbs the 1,000-foot cliff below it and reminds Sissy that she’d invited him to visit her, whenever he’s in the neighborhood. It’s an invitation she almost immediately regrets, especially after Coward’s “Queen of Capri” informs her of Flanders’ reputation as an Angel of Death, who guides rich and sickly spinsters to the afterlife. Add the wonderfully talented dwarf actor, Michael Dunn (“The Wild Wild West”), and you’ve got a movie that is more entertaining today than it was 50 years ago, when very different things were expected of the principals, Waters provides the commentary; “The Sound of a Bomb,” with critic Alonso Duralde; and three photo galleries.

President Trump and his Republican cronies are so phobic about the thought of having to share a rest room with a transsexual, transvestite or drag queen that they pushed for laws that would prevent such things from ever happening to anyone in the MAGA rabble. The controversy may be rekindled before the 2020 elections, but as long as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” remains on television, the next generation of voters isn’t likely to take the homophobic bait. It’s even gotten difficult to find shows that are targeted at young-adult audiences that don’t include one or more LGBTQ characters. La Cage aux Folles (1978), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), Paris Is Burning (1990), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) The Birdcage (1996) and Kinky Boots (2005) all went a long way toward changing attitudes toward gender-fluid people that mainstream Americans may not have encountered in their normal day-to-day activities. Beeban Kidron and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), which bears an uncanny resemblance to “Pricillla,” must have confused fans of macho guys Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing), John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet) and Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump) as much as Aussies who weren’t accustomed to seeing  Hugo Weaving, Terrence Stamp and Guy Pearce in gowns, heels and makeup. In the former, Vida (Swayze), Chi-Chi (Leguizamo) and Noxeema (Snipes) hit the road linking New York to Hollywood in a broken-down Cadillac. Naturally, they encounter a redneck cop (Chris Penn), who stops them for speeding, but is willing to forgive the offense for a quickie. After he discovers his mistake, the bully is knocked flat for his efforts. (It isn’t easy for him to explain the situation to his chief and fellow deputies.) The ladies find a temporary home in a Midwestern farm town, which they transform into their personal Brigadoon. The Shout Factory edition of “To Wong Foo” arrives with deleted scenes; the making-of featurette, “Easy Rider In Dresses”; and marketing material.

TV-to-DVD
MHz: Miss Friman’s War
MHz: Velvet: Seasons 1-4
MHz: Captain Marleau, Volumes 1-2
PBS: Frontline: The Trial of Ratko Mladic
Typically, before reviewing season-long compilations of television shows and mini-series, I prefer to do a bit of binging, first. If I were to binge my way through the trio of compilations I received last weekend from MHz Video, it would require 5,376 minutes of my not-so-precious time. That translates to 89.6 hours, or nearly 4 complete days, of staying glued to my television. OK, sometimes I’ll watch two shows simultaneously – one in English and the other subtitled – on my living-room unit and portable Blu-ray player. That isn’t an excuse for giving short shrift to any one of them … or, maybe, it is. Judging from the amount of material I’ve been able to absorb, however, I can safely recommend “Miss Friman’s War,” “Velvet” and “Captain Marleau” to fans of quality television who aren’t allergic to subtitles. Two of them involve the running of stores … large and small, on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

The surprisingly addictive “Miss Friman’s War” traces the roots of  Sweden’s feminist movement to 1905, when a diverse group of women takes on the male-dominated Grocer’s Association, by opening a coop dedicated to providing fresh meat, fruit and produce, as well as other dry and canned goods and other merchandise, to women from diverse backgrounds. Children are dying of TB, while their fathers drink away the money that they’ve forced them to earn. The only food they’re able to afford is rancid or camouflaged to look edible and, of course, city officials and purveyors can’t be bothered. It prompts characters played Sissela Kyle, Frida Hallgren, Lena T. Hansson and Maria Kulle to organize a women’s solidarity organization and take on the men, including one or two husbands, constantly throwing hurdles in their way. In pre-World War I Europe, anyone harboring such anti-establishment feelings could be tarred for espousing Marxist ideals, threatening paternalistic families and dismantling class barriers. The melodramatic touches include the rekindling of long-dormant romance, the adoption of a mistreated boy; working-class romance; adultery; and the coming-around of a love-starved chauvinist. In Season Two and beyond, the women of the cooperative grocery store begin to campaign for women’s equal and universal suffrage, as well as the right to run for public offices; take on corrupt officials, some of whom force young women into prostitution; labor unions; and rumors of revolution.

“Velvet” is easy to recommend to fans of “Mr Selfridge,” “The Paradise” and other prime-time soaps for the BBC/PBS crowd.   It is set in late-1950s Madrid, during Spain’s golden age of haute couture, a period when Franco’s privileged patrons enjoyed pretending that they were too busy to shop in Paris, London or New York. Like Selfridge’s, Velvet’s management dotes on its wealthy patrons, whose tastes in haute couture haven’t changed in decades. With the swinging ’60s just around the corner, Velvet will have to change with the times or perish. That’s only one of several storylines that propel the mini-series. The rest mostly involve love, broken promises, adultery, deception and jealousy … the standard stuff. Unlike Selfridge’s, rank-and-file employees live, work and canoodle under the same roof. As in “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” conditions are strict, without also being draconian. The women’s supervisor may be as rigid as they come, but her secrets are coming home to roost, like so many chickens. The men’s supervisor is more malleable, except when it comes to his niece, Ana (Paula Echevarría), whose happiness he blocks at every step. After the suicide of the store’s founder, his heir, Alberto (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), comes to believe that he and Anna can rekindle their long-simmering childhood romance. Instead, their hopes are dashed, when Alberto is offered a deal to rescue Velvet from bankruptcy, if only he agrees to marry the benefactor’s daughter. While there isn’t anything remotely wrong with Cristina (Manuela Velasco), with whom Alberto shares a romantic past, he will inevitably find his way back to Anna, once again threatening the store’s solvency, Very soapy, indeed. Two of the story’s greatest assets are its glorious Art Deco décor and mid-century fashions.

From France, “Captain Marleau” is the latest in a long line of TV mysteries, whose protagonist’s methodology bears a distinct resemblance to that of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo. As portrayed by Corinne Masiero, Marleau is a high-ranking officer in the National Gendarmerie, with a hunter’s instinct. It comes disguised under a deliberately offbeat veneer and a hat inspired by Elmer Fudd. Like so many other TV cops, she’s a real piece of work. (As is also the case in such shows, the coroner is deceptively wise and funny.) Marleau doesn’t skim over cases, she plunges into them. Always on the prowl, she lies in wait for clues and her prey, until she can take them by surprise. In each episode, her case centers around a character played by a famous actor: Gérard Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, Victoria Abril, Bruno Todeschini, Pierre Arditi, Sandrine Bonnaire, Julie Depardieu, Yolande Moreau and David Suchet.

The PBS “Frontline” presentation, “The Trial of Ratko Mladic” describes how a legal case against a widely recognized war criminal can go from no-brainer to nail-biter over the course of 22 years. The media had long branded Mladic, “Butcher of Bosnia,” and deemed him responsible for war crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was convened in The Hague, was less willing to declare a verdict, even in absentia. The first indictment of Mladic was issued by the ICTY on July 24, 1995, but he escaped capture until May 26, 2011, after which he was promptly extradited to the Netherlands. His trial formally opened in The Hague on 16 May 2012. It would take another five years to convict Mladic on 10 of 11 very serious charges. They included one of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide. What … how did that happen? Watch this documentary and learn.

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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