MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Long Shot, Mountain Rest, Brighton Rock, Wildland, Ayiti Mon Amour, Hammer, Leopard Man, Woodstock, Manhunt and more

Long Shot: Blu-ray
Typically, any movie in which a great beauty (Charlize Theron) woos and wins a likeable, but sloppy nebbish (Seth Rogan), the romantic comedy would require that a spell be cast on her, first. Or, that she’s seeing something in him that the director forgot to add to the story. Shakespeare played games like that on his characters all the time. In Jonathan Levine’s often captivating opposites-attract comedy, Long Shot, viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief every bit as high as Shakespeare did in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” without an assist from Nick Bottom or Puck. That might have been even more fun to watch. Theron’s strait-laced Secretary of State Charlotte Field is as sexy, fashionable and ambitious as any public servant, maybe, in the history of the government post. Without a Puck-substitute whispering in her ear, it’s unthinkable that she would fall for an idealistic investigative reporter, Fred Flarsky  (Rogan), who hasn’t changed his basic wardrobe since middle school. Even he considers himself to be out of her league. A least two things work in his favor, though. Field’s closest advisors, played by Ravi Patel and June Diane Raphael, understand that their single boss is obsessed with the likelihood that President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) will endorse her candidacy when he leaves the White House for an acting job in Hollywood. If only … They encourage her to begin dating the handsome, if vapid Canadian prime minister (Alexander Skarsgard) – whose greatest talent is ballroom dancing  — who would help soften her D.C.-career-woman exterior. Then, too, at a typical A-list charity event, to which the just-fired reporter has been invited by a childhood buddy (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to partake in free cocktails, Flarsky recognizes Charlotte as the 16-year-old babysitter who gave him his first boner, when he was 13. Upon further reflection, he also remembers that she was a passionate crusader for environmental causes, but needed his help articulating those beliefs when she ran for a position on the student council. It isn’t until Fred picks a fight with an unprincipled media mogul (Andy Serkis), who just bought the company from which he was fired, that Field senses a long-severed connection between them. Attracted by Fred’s passionate rant, which causes him to be pushed down a flight of stairs, Field decides that he’d make a terrific addition to her team, as a speechmaker, a proposal her advisors greet with horror.

Now, based on just that much information, most people who haven’t already seen the movie should be able to predict, with about 80 percent accuracy, what will happen in Long Shot’s second half. What isn’t predictable, however, is the easy rapport generated between Theron and Rogan, as actors and characters, and some wild-card plot twists that enliven the proceedings considerably. They include the Secretary of State hilariously negotiating a hostage exchange, while stoned to the gills on the “party drug,” Molly; an unsanctioned romance within the campaign staff; and Field’s ability to find the butterfly within her caterpillar’s cocoon. None of these things make Long Shot that much more credible, but, like I said, an ability to suspend disbelief is necessary for any of this to be taken seriously or lightheartedly. Writers Liz Hannah (The Post) and Dan Sterling (The Interview) provided Levine with a story that played to his offbeat strengths, as demonstrated in such previous comedies as The Wackness (2008), 50/50 (2011), Warm Bodies (2013 and Snatched (2017). Together, they took an unlikely, illogical and intermittently off-putting concept and delivered a commercial comedy that should have done better than barely break even at the domestic and international box office.

I suspect that Rogan’s fan base, which embraces gross-out and stoner humor, wasn’t ready to welcome a Washington-based, at time when everything happening in nation’s capital is remotely funny. It’s also possible that the same younger skewing audiences that accepted Theron’s breathtaking presence in such actioners as The Fate of the Furious (2017), Atomic Blonde (2017) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), weren’t willing to cross genre borders to watch such challenging dramas as Gringo (2018), Tully (2018) and The Last Face (2016). Indeed, some of Rogan’s fans were barely out of their diapers when Theron’s Oscar-nominated role in North Country (2005), and the Best Actress-winning, Monster (2003), were honored. When Katharine Hepburn was her age, 44, or thereabouts, she was making such time-honored pictures as Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) and Pat and Mike (1952), alongside Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Hollywood simply isn’t interested in actresses of a certain age, unless they’re willing to make comic-book, action and fish-out-of-water pictures (nudity preferable). The thing that bothered me about Long Shot, far more than anything else, however, was my own inability to imagine a scenario in which the characters were reversed by gender and age. I couldn’t, for example, picture a male diplomat of Field’s age and pulchritude becoming enamored with an unkempt reporter played by Rebel Wilson, Lena Dunham, Gabourey Sidibe or Amy Schumer. That might make sense if the male Secretary of State were much older  – Harrison Ford, Woody Allen, Michael Douglas – and those women reminded him of his daughter. Would Hollywood buy a LGBTQ version of Long Shot, starring a gay Rogan in Theron’s place and Jonah Hill as the familiar face in the crowd, or an out-lesbian Jane Lynch as the secretary and former babysitter of sexually ambiguous Theron. Hollywood hasn’t come that far, yet, and neither has the American public. But, then, my discomfort might have caused by the romances on TMC, in which not-at-all-handsome older men always win the hearts of smart and pretty women, invariably in their 20s, who willingly sacrifice their youths to marry a rich geezer with a serious heart condition. The excellent Blu-ray edition of Long Shot arrives with a collection of interviews, making-of featurettes and background material, including, “Hanging With Boyz II Men,” with the hit 1990s band that provides the music and several of the big laughs in Long Shot.

Mountain Rest: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Body at Brighton Rock
Twenty years ago, or so, an article in Entertainment Weekly – a magazine that no longer exists in print form – prompted Jesse Jackson to fly into town and castigate everyone from studio and AMPAS executives, to the guilds and casting directors, for not adhering to fair hiring practices among job candidates of color and race. Jackson had statistics, raw data and conjecture on his side. When pressed, Hollywood responded by pointing the finger at the guilds and unions, which hold sway over certain hiring practices, and promising to organize committees to study the questions raised. Some have borne fruit. (Today, activists representing LGBTQ, people with disabilities and Asian Americans are making their presence known.) I think there’s actually been some improvement on hiring practices, but I’d be surprised if they amounted to gains of more than 10 percent, one way or another. Last year, in the wake of some industry-wide  soul searching, the issue of underrepresentation among women filmmakers and other behind-the-camera talent was promoted alongside problems concerning harassment and jobs-for-sex practices. In 2006, sexual-assault survivor Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too,” as a way to unite women and girls, who had also survived sexual violence. It would take another 10 years before such high-profile actresses as Ashley Judd, Alyssa Milano, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman, Rose McGowan and Asia Argento felt the time was finally right to blow the whistle on Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein and other less-prominent executives. The list of men accused of being serial harassers includes Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, John Lasseter and  James Toback.

Like Weinstein, Chicago recording artist R. Kelly was able to use his economic clout within the entertainment industry to avoid being imprisoned on charges that include rape, sexual abuse of minors, child pornography and obstruction of justice. After 17 years of dogged reporting, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis may finally see his hard work rewarded with a conviction of Kelly on myriad counts. The singer has slipped through the justice system before, however. Some observers believe that case against Weinstein could be endangered by legal loopholes and the victims’ willingness to engage the obese mogul, by taking him up on invitations to give him massages and have sex with him. While it’s impossible to gauge how their trials might conclude – last week, seemingly rock-solid charges again Spacey were dropped – it’s now obviously that entertainment-industry executive won’t act on a woman’s complaints, unless the evidence against him has reached critical mass. The term, “casting couch,” has been bandied about in entertainment circles – theater, film, television – since the 1920s and alluded to in several pre-Code movies. The dancer, Agnes de Mille, is quoted as saying, “If you didn’t sleep with them (the Shubert brothers), you didn’t get the part. The Shuberts ran a brothel: Let them sue me.” According to Marilyn Monroe, “I spent a great deal of time on my knees,” she once said of how she became a film star. “If you didn’t go along, there were 25 girls who would.” A quote from Judd published in Time (October 23, 2017) testified to Weinstein’s power: “How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?” So, the media is as much to blame for ignoring the psycho-sexual implications of sex-based hiring. They could have blown the whistle decades ago, but they lacked sources who would speak on the record or assumed that it was simply the way business is done … and not just in Hollywood or on Broadway, either.

What does any of that have to do with Mountain Rest or Body at Brighton Rock? Seemingly nothing, but a little bit of everything on the periphery of women’s struggles in the movie business. Both are the brainchildren of women — Alex O Eaton, Roxanne Benjamin — making their feature debuts in movies that deserved a great deal more attention than they received … before, during and after their similarly limited release. Mountain Rest stars three formidable actresses in roles that are meatier than what we usually see these days, even in indie circles. Key technical jobs are filled by women making the transition from shorts and assistantships to theatrical films.  Mountain Rest benefits most from the presence of Frances Conroy, playing an elderly actress who left her family years earlier to pursue a career in Hollywood, where the “casting couch” culture got in the way of a career; Ethel’s estranged daughter, Frankie (Kate Lyn Sheil), who left her Blue Ridge home when her mother’s eccentricities got to be too much for her; and Frankie’s daughter, Clara (Natalia Dyer), who, while being smart and clever, is hardly ready to meet Ethel’s inner circle of friends. That includes the much younger, Bascolm (Shawn Hatosy), who could be Ethel’s boy toy, a gold digger or her overly attentive caregiver. Despite their age discrepancy, it’s possible for viewers to like the soft-spoken mountain man. Eaton leaves open the possibility that Bascolm is paying too much attention to Clara, who looks as if she just graduated from high school. The daughters have traveled to the curiously appointed cabin to attend one of her mother’s locally famous costume parties. Residual tension from Frankie’s childhood permeates their time together, making Clara wonder where she stands in the overall picture. Two questions will be answered by the end of the 92-minute drama: what really caused the death of Ethel’s husband, several years earlier; and what she’s likely to reveal to her friends at the conclusion of the party. Eaton rather deftly keeps both of those balls bouncing in the air, with only a few clues as to what’s going to happen before the credits roll. All of the actors are terrific – Dyer will be familiar from “Stranger Things,” while Sheil remains busy in supporting roles on TV and in movies (“House of Cards,” Buster’s Mal Heart). Conroy delivers the kind of performance critics once described as being a “tour de force.” In her hands, Ethel is simultaneously eccentric, jaded, angry, intimidating, caring and completely enigmatic. Credit also belongs to cinematographer Ashley Connor (Madeline’s Madeline), who deftly captures the majesty of the region’s mountains and rivers, and the minutiae and tchotchkes that clutter the cabin. (Conveniently, it belongs to Eaton’s parents.)  Bonus features include interviews with Eaton, Dyer and Sheil, and deleted scenes. As small as Mountain Rest is, it delivers a big punch.
Body at Brighton Rock also is set in an almost overwhelmingly scenic range  of mountains, this one the San Jacinto mountains near Idyllwild (a 90-minute drive from Los Angeles, without traffic). The movie fits easily within the general parameters of “horror,” as well as its lost-in-the-woods subgenre. The protagonist is a wet-behind-the-ears park ranger, Wendy, played by Karina Fontes, who looks 19, but could probably be mistaken for being much older or slightly younger than that. Wendy is the kind of employee who’s routinely late for work, but covets the most rewarding assignments, anyway. On the particular day in question, Wendy trades a headquarters job for one that takes her into the wilderness, albeit stapling warning signs on the bark of large trees. Naturally, she finds a way to screw up such a basic task, by stepping off a trail and landing several dozen feet below, in a steep chasm. It causes her to lose her map, flashlight and any sense of where she is. Once Wendy is able to climb to a rocky promontory, she takes a selfie and transmits it back to HQ. Not only is she not on the peak that she imagines herself to be, but her friends can’t identify her location, either. As she scans the area below the peak, Wendy is told that there’s a body lying on the ground, no more than 100 feet away. Her boss tells her to remain where she is, until help arrives the next morning. Needless to say, Wendy can’t resist the temptation to disturb what could be a crime scene by searching the body for an ID. Her supervisor isn’t pleased. She also spots a tent that’s been there for an indeterminate period of time. As dusk turns into the pitch-black darkness of the wilderness at night. She tries to sleep but being so near a corpse freaks her out. Among the things that go bump in the night are a nearby bear and other potential threats. Wendy then begins to believe that the body has shifted while she wasn’t looking. By dawn, she’s happy to be alive … at least until she encounters a sinister-looking hiker and very hungry bear. Anyone who thinks they’ve seen this movie before may change his/her mind when the frighteningly discordant and completely unnerving music of the Gifted kicks in, alongside the sound effects created by Foley artist Matt Davies. The ambient sounds of the forest at night would be enough to frighten anyone lost and alone in a desolate corner of the national forest. The manmade sounds only add a palpable sense of menace to the second half of the movie. Fontes is convincing in the lead role, but, once again, it’s Hannah Getz’ cinematography that seals the deal. People who don’t spend a lot of time in SoCal probably don’t have the proper appreciation of the dangers presented by our mountains and forests. The fact is that seasoned hikers and campers get lost there all the time, sometimes requiring extensive searches by mountain-rescue teams and helicopters, sometimes for days. Besides bears, the threats include flash floods, cougars, fearless raccoons, snakes and all manner of nasty insects. Homeless people, meth cookers and Manson Family wannabes also have been known to inhabit the Alpine wilderness. Benjamin does a nice job keeping viewers in the moment and on the edge of their seats. And Wendy doesn’t look as if she could scare off a doe, let alone go mano a mano with a two- or four-legged predator. And, lest we forget, what’s the deal with the corpse? I have a feeling that both pictures would have benefited from a gender-neutral marketplace or, at least, one that doesn’t punish female filmmakers for creating films in settings dominated by male instincts. Perhaps, it isn’t too late for Indie Spirit Awards judges to give both films a second look. I’d be surprised if anyone turns in a better performance this  year than Conroy, in Mountain Rest, or either of the DPs.

Wildland: Special Edition: Blu-ray
This compelling documentary also takes place in the rugged mountains of California, some parts of which were ravaged in last year’s fires. The team of brave men and women we meet in Alex Jablonski and Kahlil Hudson’s Wildland covers a vast swath of greenery … or brownery, depending on the season. It extends from the Monterey Peninsula, on the Central Coast, to the marijuana farms of northern California, where growers occasionally burn the crops of their rivals. The doc couldn’t be more timely. Filmed over one eventful summer, Wildland (a.k.a., “Young Men and Fire”) is a sweeping yet deeply personal account of a single firefighting crew, as they struggle with fear of the unknown, fear of the know, apprehension over their emerging skills, loyalty to their teammates, dreams of getting a foothold in life and lingering demons from a less disciplined period. What emerges is a rich story of working-class Americans, who, for their own reasons have elected to risk their lives to protect the property of Uncle Sam and others. Some of those reasons include good money, a pursuit of “grit” and “adventure,” a resistance to urban conformity, and an opportunity to prove they deserve a second or third shot at becoming a valued member of society. Wildland is similar to Joseph Kosinski’s sadly underappreciated Only the Brave (2017) and the History Channel documentary, Fire on the Mountain (1999), both of which, in the end, were headline-making tragedies that demonstrated both the risks of the job and the power of a unchecked blaze. The former covers the devastating loss suffered by Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013. The latter describes the events and aftermath of the South Canyon Fire, on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994, which took the lives of 14 firefighters and smokejumpers. Fire on the Mountain was based on John Maclean’s non-fiction book of the same title. (Maclean’s father, Norman, wrote “Young Men and Fire,” which chronicled the Mann Gulch Fire of August 1949 and the 13 men who died there.) In Wildland, things get very real, very quickly for the trainees, when they are alerted to the death of a fellow Grayback Forestry employee, in a fire still raging hundreds of miles east of where they are. The doc focuses on the basic education of men and women who have only the vaguest idea of what Grayback employees can expect to endure during fire season, from the grunt work of laying hose lines to the intensity of confronting a lightning-fast blaze with a mind of its own. Simply watching the training exercises, led by coordinator Ed Floate and base manager Sean Hendrix, will exhaust most viewers. Bonus features include alternate trailers, a stills gallery and deleted scenes.

Ayiti Mon Amour
Haitian American filmmaker Guetty Felin had focused primarily on documentaries, before taking on this compelling tale of magical realism, set in Haiti, five years after the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake. (It seems as if the divided-island nation experiences one sort of a natural disaster, epidemic, famine or political upheaval every five years or so.) Ayiti Mon Amour debuted at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, but, after hitting a couple of other festivals and being shown in Haiti, a year later, it pretty much disappeared. It had become the country’s first representative in AMPAS’ highly competitive Best Foreign Language category, but, until recently, lacked distribution on video or PPV. Finally, Indiepix and Indiepix Unlimited came to the rescue. Ayiti Mon Amour shouldn’t missed. Unlike the many Hollywood and European movies set in Haiti, usually against a backdrop of war, voodoo or political corruption, it is rooted in village life and the ways poor people cope with being ignored by the rest of the world. In Kabic, a small southeast fishing village outside of Jacmel, we’re introduced to four key characters trying to make sense out of their existence. Orphée is a mixed-race teenager, who lost his father in the earthquake and is being bullied by the darker and more athletic locals. One day, Orphée (Joakim Cohen) discovers he possesses a special electrifying power, drawn from the rhythms of the sea. An elderly fisherman, Juares (Jaures Andris), spends most of his time caring for his ailing wife, Odessa (Judith Jeudy), and teaching the teenager some of the tricks of the trade. Her disease derives from the sea and can only be cured through its healing powers. The beautiful and mysterious Ama (Anisia Uzeyman) is the main character of an unfinished novel being written by an uninspired writer, who decides to quit the story and leave Ama to fend for her fictional self. to live a life of her own. Then, too, there are the swaths of discarded clothing, which contain the spirits of the dead and are animated by underwater currents. Herve Cohen’s cinematography captures the native colors of the village and the sea, from above and below its surface. The music is similarly captivating.

Domino: Blu-ray
Although the calendar on the wall tells me that it’s been seven years since any film carrying Brian De Palma’s directorial credit has been released, unless, of course, one counts last year’s re-release on Blu-ray of Sisters (1972) and Arrow Video’s “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films,” with Hi, Mom (1970), Greetings (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969). The 2012 picture, Passion (2012), may have made next to no money, but it was taken seriously by critics and cinephiles who knew where to look for the filmmaker’s usual blend of homages, trademark ticks and traits, and gimmicks that some regard as self-indulgent. That’s always been the case with De Palma, whose Hitchcockian references have been admired and dismissed in equal measure. In any case, it’s far easier to dissect his work on DVD/Blu-ray, which allows time for a closer inspection. And, how many films today can stand up to the scrutiny allowed by a viewer’s pause, slow motion and frame-by-frame capabilities. With Domino, written by Petter Skavlan (The 12th Man), it’s pretty obvious that De Palma quickly tired of answering to reps from as many as 15 separate production companies and financial problems that could have been predicted from the git-go. It’s one thing to hire a director for his reputation and marketability, but quite another to cut him off at the knees before the ink on the first press release dries. De Palma described it as a “horrible experience.” Even so, an underfinanced and troubled thriller by – lest we forget — the creator of Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996) and Femme Fatale (2002) is bound to be more entertaining than most of the films churned out by the major studios, especially those destined for direct-to-video status.

Domino opens with a pair of Danish cops answering a domestic dispute call in a Copenhagen apartment building. Turns out, the loud noises heard by neighbors are the result of the tortuous inquisition of one terrorist by another, Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). He’s got a beef against ISIS, which beheaded his father for not being in step with the gang’s radical beliefs. Completely unprepared to deal with anyone more dangerous than an angry spouse, the cops misread Tarzi’s ability to escape from handcuffs and pull a knife from a place they weren’t likely to search. The result is a seriously wounded cop, Lars (Søren Malling), and a rooftop fight that ends when his partner, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) – who left his gun in the car – falls and lands on the pavement next to Tarzi. Before Christian can recover his bearings, a team of black-ops types grabs the barely conscious terrorist and take him to a safe house, where he can be tortured according to CIA standards. Agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) convinces Tarzi to cooperate with his team in pursuit of a common enemy. Meanwhile, Danish police want to arrest the CIA asset in the now-fatal assault on Lars. In the ensuing chase, Christian and Alex (Carice van Houten) bounce from Copenhagen, to Belgium, Amsterdam and southern Spain, where ISIS militants plan to explode a bomb at a bullfight. Tarzi, Martin, Christian and Alex converge on the Plaza de Toros de Almería at approximately the same time as a drone launched by the terrorists takes off from the rooftop of a nearby hotel. As complicated as that scenario sounds – and is – De Palma finds a way to slow down the action, without sacrificing any pent-up tension or suspense. Meanwhile, the tour of Europe is both entertaining and enticing.

The House Is Black
It’s safe to say that most people’s concept of leprosy is limited to the scene in Ben-Hur (1959), during which Charlton Heston visits the Valley of the Lepers to claim his mother and sister. He wants to take them to Jerusalem, where he will petition Jesus to heal them. Although JC was crucified just prior to their arrival, they are cured in the ensuing wave of earthquakes. The miracle turns all three of their hearts to Christianity. It would take most of the next 2,000 years for people’s attitudes toward the treatment and segregation of lepers (a.k.a., people afflicted with Hansen’s disease) to change. In 1999, Paul Cox’s Molokai: The Story of Father Damien described how the Belgian missionary’s commitment to the his flock required him to live under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokaʻi. The facility existed from 1866 to 1969, when effective antibiotic treatments were developed and administered to patients on an outpatient basis, rendering them non-contagious. Ironically, after 11 years caring for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of his parishioners, Father Damien discovered that he, too, had contracted leprosy. He continued with his work for another five years, finally succumbing to the disease on April 15, 1889. Several other movies have used Molokaʻi as a backdrop for the profiles of the priest and his successor, Marianne Cope (a.k.a., Saint Marianne of Molokaʻi), who was every bit as dedicated to the colony’s residents as Damien and, likewise, canonized for her good work. Despite direct contact with the patients over many years, Cope did not contract the disease.

Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad opens her first and only film, The House Is Black (1963) with a quote: “There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more.” Only 20 minutes long, the little-seen docu/essay is interspersed with other quotes from Farrokhzad’s poetry, the Old Testament and the Koran. The film took viewers to Tabriz’ Bababaghi Hospice, which is located in the far northern province of East Azerbaijan. The community doesn’t appear to be forcibly segregated from the rest of society, although it’s certainly possible that it was. Rather, it’s just as possible to consider the hospice as a place where people afflicted with leprosy have chosen to the live, if only to avoid the stares and grimaces of “normal” people in reaction to the scars and other deformities they must endure. None of the residents appears to be outwardly afflicted in the same way. One man demonstrates his ability to exhale the smoke from his cigarette through the twin orifices that once were covered by skin and cartilage. A bride applies makeup to her non-functioning eyelids, using her crippled arms and hands to hold the cosmetics box. Almost everyone is barefoot, probably because shoes don’t fit their feet. Fifty years ago, the Bababaghi Hospice might have provided fodder for Mondo Cane (1962) and its “shockumentary” successors. Some of the images remain disturbing, but Farrokhzad’s empathetic approach is anything but freakish or condescending. Many students of the nation’s cinema consider The House Is Black to be a crucial precursor of the Iranian New Wave and a direct influence on Abbas Kiarostami and Chris Marker, a pioneer of the French essay film. It came in 19th in Sight & Sound’s list of the top-50 greatest documentaries of all time.

Also included on the Facets Video DVD are two important short films by master director Mohsen Makmalbaf. The School That Was Blown Away (1996) is an irresistible portrait of an elderly man, who visits a school for nomad children, whose observations on the world around them range from heartbreaking to hilarious. Images From the Qajar Dynasty (1992) explores visual works from the Qajar Dynasty, including the first photography and cinematography shot in Iran. The entire package spools out at 48 fascinating minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles.

The Intruder: Blu-ray
When a young African American couple, Annie and Scott Russell (Michael Ealy, Meagan Good), closes on their dream house in California’s Napa Valley, they couldn’t be happier or more anxious to seal the deal with some impromptu shagging. Considering that the guy who previously owned the mini-mansion is a clingy blue-collar type, played by Dennis Quaid, they should have guessed what was going to transpire in the next 90 minutes, or so. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for viewers to figure out what director Deon Taylor (Meet the Blacks) and writer David Loughery (Obsessed) have in mind for the self-satisfied yuppies. The title, The Intruder, spells it out even more emphatically. Instead of going to Florida with his profits, Charlie Peck (Quaid) decides to stick around for a while, cutting the grass, trimming the garden and buying them bottles of wine. He also shoots a deer in their yard and blames the bedtime noises they hear on local teenagers. Because Annie genuinely appreciates the help he provides, she easily mistakes his creepiness for separation anxiety and extreme neighborliness. (In Napa? Not likely.) Charlie does even more to alienate the Russells’ best friends, Mike and Rachel, played by Joseph Sikora (“Power”) and Alvina August (“Siren”). They bring up all the questions the Russells forgot to ask and pay the price for their temerity. The only thing viewers want to know is, “Why haven’t they called the cops or sought a restraining order?” Good questions. The Blu-ray package adds commentary with the principles, deleted and alternate scenes, a gag reel and “Making a Modern Thriller.”

Scary Stories
A couple of columns ago, I had occasion to list the most commonly banned books by high school principals, librarians and other easily intimidated guardians of post-pubescent morality. I can’t recall if Alvin Schwartz’ hugely popular “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” made that particular list or if it skewed too young for inclusion. In any case, Scary Stories’ director Cody Meirick makes a solid case for it to be “among the most banned books of modern times.” In yet another prime example of how the tyranny of a vocal minority can supersede the parental authority of the majority, Meirick explains how the process works and where personal beliefs and prejudices can trump common wisdom and common sense. This isn’t to say that the whimsical, gothic-tinged “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series – in combination with its gruesome illustrations – can’t be a bit much for some impressionable kids to handle. The slippery slope comes into play, however, when a handful of loud-mouthed parents forces educators and librarians to avoid an argument by unilaterally eliminating the source of the aggravation.  Sadly, Schwartz died a quarter-century before he would have been encouraged to defend his work, and the series’ illustrator, Stephen Gammell, is notoriously reclusive. In his place here are authors R.L. Stine and Q.L. Pearce family members, scholars, folklorists, artists and fans. Plenty of time is allowed Schwartz’ detractors, whose children have presumably grown into adults in the time it’s taken for them to be heard outside PTA meetings and church socials. And, yes, the question of Satan’s personal influence on Schwartz and Gammell is raised. (I would have loved to hear from the pro-banners’ kids.) I can’t remember if my own children were fans of the series or other horror franchises. I was more concerned that Ozzy Osbourne, Public Enemy and Rob Zombie might usurp my authority … something their teachers couldn’t control beyond excluding their records from sock-hop playlists. Bonus features include more than 20 minutes of bonus footage and director’s commentary.

Chain of Death
Genre-specialist Cleopatra Entertainment is releasing this almost straight-to-DVD thriller in the United States. That’s the least convoluted thing about David Martín Porras and co-writer Andres Rosende’s Chain of Death, which was made in Spain, but features familiar actors with Anglo-Saxon surnames. It was released theatrically in Spain, where Ray Wise (“Twin Peaks”), Madeline Zima (“Californication”), Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing), Jamie Clayton (The Snowman), Dey Young (Pretty Woman) and John Patrick Amedori (Dear White People) may still, for all I know, be on an A-list. When a successful surgeon, Mike (Amedori), discovers he has the same debilitating neurological disorder as his estranged, invalid father, Michael (Wise), he rushes back to his hometown with his wife, Sarah (Zima). It takes Mike a while to sense that something doesn’t add up with his dad’s condition, though. Not wanting to make his young wife suffer, like his saintly mother (Barbeau), he decides to join a therapy session that doubles as a suicide-assistance group. To avoid being prosecuted in the suicides, each new member is required to kill someone higher on the list. What Mike doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late is just how twisted and incestuous the Chain of Death has become. In fact, now that he’s joined the chain, Mike has learned to keep his eyes peeled for people hoping to make their bones by eliminating him. As goofy as it sounds, Chain of Death isn’t devoid of thrills, suspense and shocking scenes. The DVD adds a slide show.

Lust for a Vampire: Blu-ray
The Reptile: Blu-ray
The Leopard Man: Blu-ray
Hammer’s so-called Karnstein Trilogy, Lust for a Vampire (1971), is loosely based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella, “Carmilla,” in which a female aristocrat bathes in the blood of local virgins to remain young. It was preceded by The Vampire Lovers (1970) and followed by Twins of Evil (1971). The three films use the Karnstein family as the source of the vampiric threat and were somewhat daring for the time in explicitly depicting lesbian themes. In 1830, at a finishing school in Styria, Carmilla Karnstein (a.k.a., Mircalla Herritzen) arrives as a new student. A visiting author and fill-in teacher, Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson), instantly falls in love with her. Unaware of the full ramifications of the Karnstein myth and what goes on in the family’s magnificent castle, the writer falls for Carmilla in a big way. The Karnsteins only return to the castle – or, to be precise, come out of their comas – every 40 years, or so, for fun and nourishment. Naturally, they’re a bit out of tune on what’s been going on in the town, below, The Karnsteins are made the primary suspects when inhabitants of the village begin to die in abhorrent ways. As Carmilla/Mircalla, Yutte Stensgaard (Carry on Camping) didn’t have to do much, besides look drop-dead gorgeous when she sinks her fangs into her victims’ necks. (Her fellow students all look to be about 30 years old and former Miss Universe contestants.) Even so, fans and critics of Hammer legends unfairly compared Stensgaard’s performance against that of the far more experienced Ingrid Pitt, in The Vampire Lovers. Because the Karnstein vampires are immune to sunlight, the options for sexy fun are far more numerous. The Scream Factory package is enhanced by a new 4K remaster of the film struck from the original camera negative, presented in two aspect ratios: 1.66:1 and 1.85:1; new commentary by author/film historian Bruce Hallenbeck; a fresh interview with actress Mel Churcher; and vintage commentary, with director Jimmy Sangster, star Suzanna Leigh and Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn.

In Scream’s The Reptile (1966), a deadly epidemic is spreading through the remote Cornish village of Clagmoor Heath. As darkness falls, its victims are found foaming at the mouth with savage wounds on their necks. (That might suggest an epidemic not of the medicinal variety.) After his brother falls prey to the “black death,” Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) travels with his new wife (Jennifer Daniel) to Clagmoor to investigate his sibling’s mysterious death. With little help from the unfriendly locals, Harry follows a trail of clues that leads him to the sinister Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman); his strange, but beautiful daughter (Jacqueline Pearce); and a horrific family secret. Although the monster is more bizarre than scary, I think that director John Gilling’s decision to hold off on a full reveal was pretty wise.

Director Jacques Tourneur, producer Val Lewton and feline superstar  Dynamite wasted little time retuning to the animal kingdom for The Leopard Man. Its June 25, 1943, release followed hot on the heels of Cat People, which opened on Christmas Day, 1942, and I Walked with a Zombie, on April 30, 1943. Despite the presence of Dynamite and an intensely noir look, The Leopard Man is a very different film than Cat People. It’s set in the kind of a tiny New Mexican town that 20 years ago might have been described as “sleepy.” At night, however, the place swings. At the encouragement of her manager, a nightclub performer in New Mexico (Kiki Walker) takes a leashed leopard belonging to a carnie into the club as a publicity gimmick. But her rival (Jean Brooks), angered by the attempt to upstage her act, scares the animal and it bolts. In the days that follow, several people are mauled, and the countryside is combed for the loose beast. Soon enough, though, Kiki and her manager begin to wonder if maybe the leopard is not responsible for the killings, after all. The production team did a terrific job keeping the nighttime scenes dark and sinister, and the daytime scene looking hot and sweaty. The Scream package gets a sensational new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative; new commentary with filmmaker/historian Constantine Nasr; and archived commentary with filmmaker William Friedkin.

Hail Mary!
It’s never nice to pick on the poor, simple-minded and defenseless people among us, in life and on video. Being one of the greediest and most venal of all athletic conglomerates, the National Football League is both an easy and welcome target of parody and derision. The owners go out of their ways to make stupid pronouncements, turn the National Anthem into a recruitment ad for the Pentagon and alter the game, itself, in confounding ways. While Ziad H. Hamzeh and writer Richard Castellane’s gridiron farce, Hail Mary!, is pretty stupid, too, it’s also kind of endearing … like, back in the day, a sketch by the Mighty Carson Art Players. Take the original title, for instance, “Sushi Tushi or How Asia Broke Into American Pro Football.” In an act of desperation, the oily and unkempt coach of the hapless Maine Lobsters, Danny Morelli, takes the advice of a crony, who insists that a line composed of Sumo wrestlers might turn his team of never-rans into also-rans or, God forbid, contenders. They might be able to keep defenders from hauling off on the team’s expensive quarterback and turn the Lobsters’ D-line into an impenetrable wall. Morelli is played by Eddie Mekka (a.k.a., Carmine “The Big Ragoo” Ragusa), who understands what’s been asked of him and wrings a few laughs from the setup. The problem is that the Sumo strategy isn’t exactly new. Their athleticism is limited to short, explosive bursts of point-to-point power, but very little lateral movement and repetition. College and professional football teams have tapped into the steady stream players from American Samoa and other Pacific islands. They’re just as big, and far more mobile. Because the Sumo wrestlers don’t immediately take to the American game, Moretti hires a Japanese adviser to deal with their problems. (He imports a couple of big-legged cheerleaders from back home, for example.) Among the other things that take some getting used to are the cut-and-paste comic-book graphics and some innocuous racial humor.  I can see how might appeal to teenage boys and their dads, who can’t wait for the exhibition games to begin.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Experience: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation</u
Creating Woodstock
Acorn: Manhunt: Season One
Acorn: Marcella: Series Two
NBC: The Good Place: The Complete Third Season
Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Butterbean’s Cafe
Now that the mass media has begun to turn its attention away from the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, it’s time for them to obsess over coverage of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, already one the most closely observed events in the history of our democracy. PBS’ “American Experience” installment, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” recounts for the 500th time how a half-million young people were able to gather for that amount of time, without killing each other – that would come later – or doing anything more unlawful than storming the barricade and causing a massive traffic jam. Look closely at the young people wallowing in the mud and you’ll find tens of thousands of middle-class kids, mostly from New York and New England, who didn’t exactly fit the mold of the thousands of hippies who flooded into the Bay Area before and after the Monterey International Pop Festival. By the time Woodstock kicked off, San Francisco’s Death of Hippie Parade was nearly two years past; the Manson Family committed their worst crimes; the police riot at the Democratic Convention was a year old; and bulldog promoter Bill Graham had begun to develop ways to capitalize on the music once given away for free. The musicians, many of whom performed at Monterey and Woodstock, decided it was about friggin’ time they got paid, too. Still, young people continued to find amusing ways to get high, get laid and avoid the draft. The release of Abbie Hoffman’s book, “Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album” was a blatant attempt to capitalize on both the festival and police riots. Michael Wadleigh’s 184-minute Woodstock (1970) gave people countless reasons to believe the Altamont disaster was a fluke, until the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin began digging into it and discovered that the devil truly is in the details. None of this stopped record labels, video companies, book publishers and reunion shysters from trying to milk the concert dry. Personally, I’m already up to my ears in Woodstock nostalgia and can’t think of a single thing that hasn’t already been asked and answered. Still, anyone who can’t remember a time when tickets to see their favorite bands didn’t cost $500 to $1,000 a pop, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” is as good a place as any to start. It allows the “people who were there” to make sense of it all.

Mick Richards’ “Creating Woodstock” purports to be the most comprehensive examination of how the festival came to be, using original interviews with key figures, rare archival footage and unearthed photographs. A cursory search of Amazon’s Woodstock catalogue reveals dozens of books and movies that delve deeply into the festival, from inception to the current buildup to the 50th anniversary. Among those interviewed and re-interviewed here are the founders of Woodstock Ventures–John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld — along with the best production talent on either coast, including John Morris, Bill Belmont, Mel Lawrence and Chip Monck. They recall moments from the initial proposal, to the search for a suitable site and the race to build a venue, promote the event and, most importantly, book the bands. Several of the musicians in attendance recount anecdotes that may have sounded fresh 20-30 years ago but will sound overly familiar to completists. But, like I said, newcomers will be appreciate seeing the facts laid out in one or two convenient places. The music remains as entertaining as ever, though.

Released here by Acorn Media, “Manhunt” is a three-part British television drama, based on the true story surrounding the investigation into the death of French student Amélie Delagrange. Her body was found in Twickenham Green, part of an affluent suburb in south-west London. Because of the cross-Channel implications of the case, the police took an all-hands-on-deck approach to the investigation. BAFTA-winning actor Martin Clunes (“Doc Martin”) plays DCI Colin Sutton, a hardworking and humble officer who looks as if he might be more comfortable selling high-end ties to gentlemen at Marks & Spencer. As it turned out, the killer was well-practiced in eluding homicide detectives who tried to bag a suspect for previous murders of teenage girls. Sutton’s investigation hits several snags, before the clues lead directly to the killer. The procedural half of “Manhunt” is familiar from a dozen different top-rated dramas. Its Clunes’ portrayal of a DCI so obsessed with his prey that he begins to mistrust the efforts of his unusually large team and overlook the needs of his wife (Claudie Blakley). The show was renewed for a second series, to premiere in 2020.

I can’t remember where or when I caught the second season of “Marcella,” which Acorn Media sent out a few weeks ago, but I can remember the events of all eight episodes. Either my dreams are getting markedly better or I watched it on Netflix. No matter, it’s easy to recommend it to American viewers. That’s primarily because the title character, played with great intensity by Anna Friel, is so completely rattled by her impending divorce that it’s causing her to make major mistakes on the job and experience blackouts at the rest possible times. Her soon-to-be-former husband (Nicholas Pinnock) has moved in with his physical therapist and plans to accept a position in Singapore. The case she’s begun to investigative is a doozy, as well. DS Marcella Backland is called to a house where a body has been found. She is shocked to discover that she knew the victim, a 9-year-old boy, who disappeared four years ago after agreeing to walk home with her son. There are so many genuine suspects that their stories begin to intertwine. They include a convicted pedophile; an aging rock star and his devious agent; a self-made millionaire and his wife, the founder of a successful children’s charity; and an Afghanistan war veteran, struggling to support his sister and her baby. Meanwhile Marcella is finding it increasingly more difficult to her violent fugues under control. Her therapist suggests that the only way she can end the blackouts is to revisit their source — the painful loss of her baby daughter — by submitting herself to hypnosis. And, that only takes us to the final episode, which, in an overused word, is shocking. Because the series is written, directed and produced by Swedish screenwriter, Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of “The Bridge,” “Marcella” has been designated a “Nordic noir” detective series. Season Three will begin later this year … somewhere.

The good news that arrives with Shout Factory’s release of “The Good Place: The Complete Third Season” is that there will be fourth season on NBC and a DVD compilation will follow in due time.  The bad news: the network has already decided to throw in the towel on the still popular – at least, in the digital universe – and critically acclaimed series. The series focuses on Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who wakes up in the afterlife and is introduced by Michael (Ted Danson) to “The Good Place.” It is a highly selective heaven-like utopia Michael designed, as a reward for her righteous life. Eleanor, however, realizes that she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect behavior, while trying to become a better and more ethical person. As the third season opens, Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) authorizes Michael to travel to Earth, where he saves the lives of Eleanor, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (D’Arcy Beth Carden) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and creates a new timeline. Things don’t get any less complicated or entertaining than that. The package adds extended episodes, a gag reel and visual-effects reel.

Initially released into theaters on March 28, 1997, “Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie” takes place after the events of the “Power Rangers Zeo” television season on Fox, with the new cast and characters from the film becoming cast members of both “Zeo” and its successor, “Power Rangers Turbo.” The movie used concepts and costumes from the Japanese Super Sentai series, “Gekisou Sentai Carranger.” Other characters, including Maligore, are recycled, as well. Beyond that, the story is incomprehensible. The good news is that it finally is being sent out on Blu-ray.

“Butterbean’s Café,” from the creators of “Bubble Guppies,” premiered on November 12, 2018, on Nickelodeon. The series follows Butterbean, a fairy who runs a neighborhood café with her friends. It involves a “creative cooking, farm-to-table philosophy, and a social-emotional curriculum that focuses on leadership skills.” A total of 40 episodes have already been ordered. The seven selections compiled here include “The Grand Opening!,” “The Sweetest Ride,” “A Grilled Cheese for the Big Cheese!,”  “Fluttercakes!,” “Friendship Pretzels!,” “Wedding Cake Switcharoo” and “Grandma Nana Banana Bread.”

American Beach House/Bikini Model Academy
Designed to fill dead air in the wee hours on off-brand premium cable networks, American Beach House and Bikini Model Academy appear to have been cut from the same cloth as Malibu Beach (1978), The Beach Girls (1982), Spring Break (1983), Hardbodies (1984), Bikini Drive-In (1995) and Side Out (1990), which, at least, featured such recognizable stars as  Courtney Thorne-Smith (“Ally McBeal”), Harley Jane Kozak (“Santa Barbara”), C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) and Peter Horton (“thirtysomething”). The idea being: find ways for dorky college guys to con a bevy of beach bimbos into slipping  into skimpy bikinis and hiding cameras in their bedrooms. The subgenre emerged before pornography became widely available to garden-variety dorks, 12-year-old boys and 50-year-old boozehounds, surfing the cable networks for something steamy to watch. A quarter-century later and the formula hasn’t changed much, if any. Apparently, foreign distributors found something to like in American Beach House (2015) and Bikini Model Academy (2015) and, I suspect, it’s the presence of Mischa Barton (“The O.C.”) and Lorenzo Lamas (“Falcon Crest”) in the former and Gary Busey and Morgan Fairchild in the ladder, which, somehow, scored a PG-13, despite topless scenes and a simulated BJ. The most suspicious factoid of all, though, is the writer/director’s decision to change his name from Barry V. Weisman, to Straw Weisman. Maybe he wanted to try farming before becoming fixated on bikinis.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima