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The DVD Wrapup: Endgame, White Crow, Vault, Trial by Fire, Shiraz, Keaton, Rafiki, Damned Summer, Anti-Nowhere League. … More

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Avengers: Endgame: Blu-ray/4K UHD
As I recall mentioning exactly a year ago, upon the general 4K UHD release of Avengers: Infinity War, any fan of the franchise who’s looking for educated opinions here is definitely barking up the wrong tree. Not surprisingly, then, the same caveat applies for Avengers: Endgame, which, we’ve been led to believe, is the massively successful series’ swan song. Any newbie who thinks it’s possible to step into it at midstream and appreciate how much serious thought, imagination, mythology and highly paid talent has been invested in The Avengers (2012) and its sequels, Age of Ultron (2015), Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) will be mistaken. That isn’t to say that latecomers would be unable enjoy and admire Endgame’s spectacular 90-minute grand finale, without also understanding what happened in the first 90 minutes, but it would be like arriving late to a Fourth of July fireworks show and only catching the final barrage of explosives. It wouldn’t explain why dozens of characters from separate Marvel universes – including the Guardians of the Galaxy and the armies of Wakanda and Asgard — have gathered in 2023 to battle a genocidal Titanian supervillain decapitated in 2014.  and deny him the Infinity Gems, which never remain in the same hands for very long. Life is complicated in the MCU and it helps to have a scorecard handy. Through the miracle of time travel, an already dead Thanos (Josh Brolin) is prepared to destroy the portion of humanity he neglected to obliterate in previous installments. Credit co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for making such a ludicrous turnaround even remotely credible. After Captain Marvel (a.k.a., Carol Danvers/Brie Larson) rescues Tony Stark (Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr.) and the possibly duplicitous female warrior, Nebula (Thanos’ daughter/Karen Gillan) from Deep Space, anything is possible. They’re returned to the New Avengers Facility, where Scott Lang (Ant Man/Paul Rudd), a recent escapee from the quantum realm, hopes to convince the remaining Avengers to retrieve the six Infinity Stones that Thanos used to destroy half of all living creatures in the Snap. That terrible deed accomplished Thanos shrinks the stones and disperses them to prevent his work from being undone. Lang believes that the Avengers can create a new Quantum Tunnel and use advance tech suits to travel back in time, retrieve the stones, affix them to a gauntlet and reverse Thanos’ actions in the present. As skeptical and weary of battle as Our Heroes are, they see no other way to repair the damage done by Thanos and his cohorts. If that summary sounds overly complicated to late arrivals to the franchise, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the timeline included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki.

The other thing that rainy-day fans of MCU need to know about Endgame, which was shot back-to-back with Infinity War, is that it also features Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle). They might not recognize Thor and Hulk in their present states, however. MCU devotees needed no further encouragement to embrace Endgame. On its way to surpassing Titanic’s box-office record — $2,795,486,053, worldwide – it covered its estimated $356- million production nut on its opening weekend … in the domestic revenues, alone. Even so, I recommend that uninitiated viewers begin at the beginning. It will quadruple the enjoyment triggered during Endgame’s lollapalooza climax. By bringing back hundreds of Marvel characters, actors and voicing talent – from Dr. Stephen Strange and Spider-Man (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland), to Nick Fury and Groot (Samuel L. Jackson, Vin Diesel) – Endgame effectively serves as a monumental memorial to franchise co-creator Stan Lee, who died last November, at 95. One needn’t possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the MCU – or familiarity with Marvel comics — to get excited by that aspect of Endgame. After all, how many baseball fanatics can rattle off the stats associated with the players from the last 10 years’ worth of All-Star games? My other recommendation is for fans to invest in the latest technology – 4K UHD – so as to re-capture as much of the theatrical experience as is possible on TV monitors. The hi-res presentation does make a difference. The supplements included in the Marvel/Disney package can be found on the bonus Blu-ray disc. Among them are a short “Intro,” with Joe and Anthony Russo; “Strange Alchemy,” a look at bringing together so many of the characters from the Marvel universe; “The Mad Titan,” a focused exploration of the film’s antagonist, Thanos, and his historical role in the franchise; “Beyond the Battle: Titan” opens with another look at bringing all the characters together, but finally moves to more closely exploring the making of the film’s battle on Titan; “Beyond the Battle: Wakanda,” a look at the Georgia location that stood in for the fictional African kingdom; deleted scenes; gag reel; audio commentary, with the co-directors and co-writers; and a personal salute to Lee, focusing on his trademark cameos.

The White Crow
As amazing as it might seem to Boomer parents and grandparents, their descendants’ knowledge of Cold War history begins with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc dictatorships and ends with President Trump’s bromance with his Russian counterpart. No memory of duck-and-cover exercises, fallout shelters or the space race. If the U.S. is a markedly less hospitable a place than it was 50 years ago, Russia under Vladimir Putin more closely resembles the USSR of Nikita Khrushchev than the one put out of business by Mikhail Gorbachev. Watching Ralph Fiennes and David Hare’s The White Crow, reminded me of a time when east was east, west was west, and the twain met at the Berlin Wall. as to how far the world has come in last 60 years. Inspired by Julie Kavanaugh’s “Rudolf Nureyev: The Life,” The White Crow also recalls a period in post-War War II history when ballet superstar  Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the west was front-page news in every newspaper – remember those? – in what was known as the Free World. That’s because half of the planet’s greatest artists, intellectuals and athletes were imprisoned by the countries they served in battle and represented in peace. Today, of course, the same VIPs travel back and forth as they please, unless they had the bad luck to have been born in North Korea, China or Cuba. Ballet was treated with more respect, as well. Today, it’s easier to recall Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1974 defection to Canada, if only because Nureyev practiced his newfound freedom in Europe, while Baryshnikov allowed himself to become one of the darlings of the American media. Although both men could fill the great concert halls of Europe and the Americas, Nureyev’s film career was dominated by adaptations of classic ballets and playing silent-screen legend Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell’s “biggest mistake,” Valentino (1977). Baryshnikov joined some of this country’s most visible companies as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, while also experiencing  better luck in Hollywood. He fit right into The Turning Point (1977), receiving one of the film’s 11 Oscar nominations; was typecast as an expatriate Russian dancer in White Nights (1985), alongside hoofer Gregory Hines and Isabella Rossellini; as an aging star who takes a young female protegee (prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri) in Dancers (1987); as a jailed Soviet spy, Company Business (1991), with Gene Hackman; and in the final season of  HBO’s “Sex and the City,” during which he played a Russian artist who woos Carrie Bradshaw. He was a fixture at Club 54, frequently accompanied by Liza Minnelli, Halston, Mick and Bianca Jagger and Jackie O.

Fiennes and Hare elected to use flashbacks to explain how Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) rose from impoverished conditions as a boy – he was born on a Trans-Siberian train, near Irkutsk – to become the biggest star in the USSR, if not, yet, the rest of the world. The divergent influences of his mother and father are also depicted. It leads to the young man’s early training with the Kirov, whose leader isn’t to his liking. Otherwise, The White Crow’s tick-tock pace is dictated by the events leading directly to the defection. They begin with Kirov’s pre-tour sojourn in Paris, during which Rudy refuses to be caged in by the KGB, and end with the nearly aborted defection at the airport. In between, viewers will be torn between the behavior of Good Rudy and Bad Rudy. He’ll carry on almost simultaneous affairs with Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), the wife of his coach, Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes), and a younger East German dance student, Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann), who encouraged the defection. We’re horrified by Bad Rudy’s behavior with other women, especially Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the French socialite who introduces him to her friends in Paris and helps him orchestrate the defection. Despite some explanatory notes ahead of the closing credits, The White Crow pretty much ends at the airport. Blessedly, at 127 minutes, the film allows plenty of room for dance. Because Ivenko is an accomplished dancer in his own right, the performance and rehearsal sequences don’t require doubles, inserts or visual tricks. Cinematographer Mike Eley was free to shoot him head to toe, without breaks or interruptions in Ivenko’s fluidity. This isn’t always the case in dance movies, where the focus is on anonymous steps or above-the-shoulder shots.. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the musical soundtrack is lovely. The package adds interviews and a Q&A.

Vault
Chazz Palminteri and Don Johnson have lent their names and faces to so many projects that are destined for the small screen that it’s become impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff ahead their VOD/DVD release. Mainstream critics don’t go near them and Internet pundits are more likely to cut the stinkers enough slack to get them past street dates. The same, of course, applies to movies in which such past-their-prime action stars as Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eric Roberts, Dennis Quaid and Kurt Russell have willingly played second fiddle to up-and-coming actors … as long as they share top billing. Some, maybe most of these films are eminently forgettable. Others, including Tom DeNucci’s gangster thriller, Vault, are quite watchable and well worth the effort it takes to find them. Based on the incredible 1975 heist of an estimated $30 million in mob loot from a Rhode Island storage facility, Vault can be mentioned in the same breath as Goodfellas (1990), if only for the results of the real-life crime, itself. If it isn’t in the same ballpark creatively and budgetarily with Martin Scorsese’s classic drama, the audacity of the Bonded Vault Company break-in and the intrigue that followed in its wake are in the same league as the 1978 Lufthansa Airlines robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport. (Who, after all, would dare rob a mob “bank.”) As is the case in Goodfellas, too, the heist was planned by lower-tier criminals Robert “The Deuce” Dussault (Theo Rossi) and Charles “Chucky” Flynn (Clive Standen) and sanctioned by a Mafia associate, Gerald “Gerry” Tillinghast (Johnson). Despite making a lot of money for New England kingpin Raymond Patriarca (Palminteri),Tillinghast was resented for being an uppity non-Italian. Deuce and Chucky were childhood friends who trusted each other implicitly. Their gang was an efficient, if motley crew of local hoodlums, who protected each other’s anonymity by combining the name, Buddy, with that of their hometowns. The score goes off so well, in fact, that DeNucci and co-writer B. Dolan (Almost Mercy), have plenty of time to concoct an entertaining portrayal of Deuce’s large Italian family and embellish the role played by his girlfriend and future snitch, Karyne Sponheim. Denucci was also able to address the strict caste system of the underworld, such as it was after the establishment of the Witness Protection Program, in 1970, and subsequent adoption of the RICO Act. Both served to dilute La Cosa Nostra’s sacred omertà code of honor. To seal the deal on a high-profile conviction, federal and state officials could offer turncoats a get-out-of-jail card and the opportunity for a new life. While this didn’t stifle some criminals’ inclination toward ill-gotten gains – Henry Hill was expelled from the program – it raised the bounty on suspected informants. Just as the death toll rose in the wake of the Lufthansa robbery, so, too, did the list of people who could lead the feds and state police to Tillinghast  and Patriarca, who, some believe, came up with the idea to steal the goods from the New England mob’s bank, fence them overseas and play the victim. Most, possibly all the cash stolen in both shocking heists has yet to be recovered. Some gangsters, at least, can keep a secret. In addition to benefitting from the largely unsung incident, itself, and ready-made cast of colorful characters, Vault got a strategic boost from Providence city officials, who, acknowledged one producer, were “just so behind us in every way. … We had the ‘Superman Building,’ we had the streets and we were able to recreate that time period.” The DVD adds background and making-of material.

Trial by Fire
Based on David Grann’s reporting for the New Yorker, Trial by Fire uses the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham to reignite the argument on capital punishment. The number of minds it could possibly change, however, is negligible. Debate over the issue has become so polarized, politicized and defined by extreme religious beliefs that only a handful of people could be swayed by a movie they aren’t likely to watch. Who wants to be reminded of a miscarriage of justice so obvious that it made headlines around the country and forced investigations of judicial procedure by internal and external panels. Their conclusions came too late to save Willingham (Jack O’Connell), who, in any case, might not have been vindicated.  and, in any case,  state  that it’s painful to watch. That the alleged crime occurred in Texas, at a time when its governor was a right-wing opportunist, fundamentalist Christian and all-around nincompoop – yes, that Rick Perry — does not go unremarked upon in Edward Zwick and writer David Grann’s unabashedly humanistic drama. The picture opens on December 23, 1991, when three children are trapped inside the Willingham home, in Corsicana, and burned to death by a horrendous fire. Their father, Cameron, is shown rushing out of the house, only slightly burnt, calling for help, and making a futile effort to re-enter it. Their mother, Stacy (Emily Meade), was away, shopping for Christmas gifts. Nine months later, the unemployed slacker was sentenced to death for the arson deaths of their 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twin girls. Not only did circumstantial evidence weigh heavily against Cameron, but rumors circulated about him being a wife beater, an abusive father and a cheater.  Based solely on the state’s evidence, he was guilty as well. Viewers aren’t given much more evidence upon which to draw their own conclusions. Oh, yeah, Cameron was a belligerent defendant in the courtroom and lousy cellmate. If he had been executed  the next day, any mourning would been left to his widow. That wasn’t likely to happen, either. Willingham declined a life sentence offered in exchange for a guilty plea and, in Trial by Fire, only wavers in his determination to clear his name under extreme external pressure.

It isn’t until the Innocence Project enters the picture and Houston teacher Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) begins her correspondence with the convict, that Willingham is given any reason for optimism. Gilbert didn’t propose an exchange of letters because she had followed the case and believed his innocence. She hoped to gain as much in emotional currency as she could offer Willingham in moral support. Unlike his wife, Stacy, she made it a point to visit him in jail. Once convinced of his innocence, however, Gilbert uncovered the kind of evidence that would warrant a reversal or reprieve in most states outside the South. The problem is that true, blue Lone Star Texans only hear what they want to hear and mistrust the efforts of do-gooders to overturn decisions based on prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense lawyers, lazy investigators and the defendants’ inability to afford a proper defense. In fact, the prosecuting attorney paid off a jailhouse witness with the promise of clemency and money; a neighbor misremembered Willingham’s behavior on the day of the fire; and the expert witness who described the fire’s origin wasn’t an expert in anything except extracting fees from prosecutors in return for “junk science.” Despite Gilbert’s perseverance and intervention of the Innocence Project, the governor stood by his belief that Texas law is infallible and, even if it weren’t, it would be impolitic of him to interfere. Perhaps, Perry was encouraged to take such an idiotic stand by something the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in concurrence with an opinion forwarded by that other giant of right-wing jurisprudence, Clarence Thomas, “Not a single defendant in America has ever been erroneously executed. If such an event had occurred … the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”  This ran contrary to a decision made in 1999 by Illinois Governor George Ryan —  a Republican – when he ended the death penalty in the state, saying he “didn’t want to be responsible for the execution of another innocent soul, even if it were one in a hundred.” It’s a proposition that most Americans should be able to accept, no matter how one feels about capital punishment. As is demonstrated in Trial by Fire, that simply isn’t the case.

The Command: Blu-ray
Despite the dramatic license taken by the filmmakers and some middling reviews from mainstream critics, fans of movies set on submarines probably will want to check out The Command. It is Thomas Vinterberg and writer Robert Rodat’s frequently exciting, if flawed adaptation of reporter Robert Moore’s investigative book, “A Time to Die.” Looking back at the sinking of the K-141 Kursk and loss of its 118 submariners on August 12, 2000, I can’t recall how the horrendous event was covered in the American media. I suspect that the BBC and New York Times led whatever coverage there was of the Kursk’s sinking in the west, but were limited by the avalanche of misinformation, false leads, rumors and government subterfuge that followed in its wake in Russia. It would take Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov two years to compile a report for newly installed President Vladimir Putin that revealed “stunning breaches of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment,” as well as “negligence, incompetence and mismanagement.” The report said the rescue operation was unjustifiably delayed. At a length of 117 minutes, The Command is roughly divided into three intertwined parts: the disaster, itself; the government’s bungled response to it; and the futility and fear experienced by the seamen’s families, who bore the brunt of the misinformation campaign. The film’s greatest conceit is elongating by five days the surviving submariners’ battle to stay alive and, in doing so, demonstrate their heroism, courage and grace under pressure. The film implies that the 23 survivors of the initial blasts – dummy torpedoes, with live, non-nuclear charges, detonated by a chemical leak — lived up to a week in the chamber furthest from the explosions, before succumbing mere minutes and hours before they could be rescued. Contrary to the timeline established in The Command, none of the men could have survived more than 11 hours. In fact, rescue attempts hadn’t even begun at that point. Even so, Russian naval authorities took even greater liberties with the hearts of family members. The manipulation of time allows Vinterberg to develop a what-if scenario to showcase the theoretical final days of the elite sailors, under the direct command of Russian Navy Captain-Lieutenant Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts). The families’ resistance to official lies and misdirection is led by Mikhail’s skeptical wife, Tanya Averina, well played by Léa Seydoux. Max von Sydow does a highly credible job as Admiral Vladimir Petrenko, who delivers the lies to family members. Colin Firth plays British Commodore David Russell, whose good intentions and offers of help are rebuffed by Petrenko. Because The Command doesn’t feature any American stars, and was shot in Belgium and France, any distribution in the U.S. was bound to be limited, at best.

Rafiki
When it comes to questions pertaining to LGBTQ rights in Kenya, the answers are “No,” “No,” “No” and “Don’t even think about it.” Otherwise, I’m told it’s a nice place to visit our animal friends. Compared to Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, Mauritania and northern Nigeria, where homosexuality is punishable by death, Kenya’s laws are almost progressive. In Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone offenders can be imprisoned for life. If the laws in these countries weren’t sufficiently draconian, there’s Nigeria, which, in addition to criminalizing homosexuality, has enacted legislation that would make it illegal for family members, friends and “allies” of LGBTQ people to be “supportive.” In Kenya, the state does not recognize any relationships between persons of the same sex. Same-sex marriage has been banned under the Kenyan constitution since 2010. Adoption is denied same-sex couples. Sodomy is a felony, per Section 162 of the Kenyan penal code, punishable by 14 years’ imprisonment, while “gross indecency” between males will get offenders five years in stir, under section 165 of the same statute. Here’s the kicker, though: on May 24, the High Court of Kenya refused an order to declare Sections 162 and 165 unconstitutional. That’s May 24, 2019. To be fair, however, I’m told there are no statutory provisions relating to transgender rights and it’s legal for Ts to change the names appearing on legal documents. If there’s a common denominator throughout Africa, it’s the unchecked power of evangelical preachers and imams to encourage their flocks to treat LGBTQ individuals as if they were Satan’s representatives on Earth. Politicians followed suit. It is against this poisonous background and the 2014 passage of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act that Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu and South African co-writer Jenna Cato Bass chose to adapt Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “Jambula Tree” as Rafiki. The short story won the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing, a first for the East-Central nation.

Kahiu and Bass moved the setting from Kampala to Nairobi, where the overripe symbolism of the jambula tree’s tangy purple fruit might have been lost on viewers. It also was important for the director to show the modernity and dynamism of Nairobi, where young people with new ideas set the tempo for the country’s cultural ecology. Teenagers ride their skateboards through the busy streets and home-grown music provides a reason, if any were needed, to step lively. Just out of high school, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are opposites that attract while one is going about her chores and the other is across the street working on her Beyoncé with her college-bound friends. The next time they meet, the girls form a friendship that leads tentatively, but inexorably toward forbidden love. Although, they attempt to keep it on the down low, Kena and Ziki’s exuberance can hardly be contained. As dangerous as such a liaison already is, its degree of difficulty is compounded by the fact that the girls’ fathers are campaigning for the same political office. Their mothers have different, more traditional goals in mind for their daughters. For their part, Kena and Ziki only want to sprout wings and fly away to somewhere where their love might flourish, along with their dreams. When they’re discovered, all of their options disappear in an instant, and things turn ugly fast. This is especially true for Kena  who had fewer choices all along. Rafiki was banned outright by Kenyan censors for its positive portrayal of lesbian romance. Pressure from people who caught it on the festival circuit, led to the government reluctantly opening a seven-day distribution window to allow for Oscar consideration. Instead, the nominating committee chose another film to represent the country in the Best Foreign Language races. The window was shut as quickly and emphatically as was opened. The Film Movement package includes a short film about a lesbian couple dealing with joint motherhood.

Shiraz: A Romance of India: Blu-ray
The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 3: Blu-ray
Restorations of nearly century-old silent films have opened a door for a new generation of audiences and filmmakers drawn to classics they may have only read about in books or watched in scratchy 16mm versions. Up until recently, the deterioration of such movies – many in the public domain or hidden in vaults – presented a challenge that wasn’t worth accepting. Cohen Media’s ongoing series of newly upgraded Buster Keaton films from the 1920s provides a perfect example of how great films can be made to look and sound even better than they did upon their original release. Juno Films’ unexpected gem, Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928), not only reminds us of the many forgotten masterpieces that stand to benefit from such brilliant restorations, but also the complete disappearance of thousands of other movies that no one thought mattered. An Indian/British/German co-production, Shiraz was the second of three silent films made on location in India by Munich-born director Franz Osten and Bombay Talkies founder Himansu Rai, who also starred in them. Largely made for consumption in western countries where “oriental”-themed pictures were popular.

Shiraz, The Light of Asia (1926) and A Throw of Dice (1929) draw on historical legends. Even Cecil B. DeMille might have been impressed by Rai’s ability to round up the 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants — provided by the royal houses of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore – for The Throw of Dice. Likewise, Shiraz features a huge cast of humans and animals. British screenwriter William A. Burton based the sweeping historical romance, set in the Mughal Empire, on a play by Niranjan Pal. In it, Rai portrays a villager named Shiraz. The son of a potter, he becomes infatuated with a little girl named Selima, who’s brought to his village after her caravan is attacked and everyone else is killed. Unbeknownst to the villagers, Selima (Enakashi Rama Rao) is a princess. Later, she’s kidnapped by bandits and sold as a slave to Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) — later Emperor Shah Jehan – who falls for her. This doesn’t sit well with his lover, Dalia (Seeta Devi), who conspires to ruin her every hope for happiness and freedom. In one unforgettable scene, Shiraz is arrested while seeking news of Selima’s well-being in the women’s quarters of the emperor’s place. The young man comes within a inch of being squashed by a gigantic elephant, before one of Jehan’s aides recognizes a pendant worn by Selima that authenticates her royal status and overrides the execution order. She marries the prince and becomes Empress Mumtaz Mahal, while Dalia is banned for her machinations against Selima. Although, Shiraz is also told not to return to the palace, he’s never far away from her. When Selima dies, in 1629, the emperor demands of his realm’s greatest architects and artisans that they present designs for a memorial to her goodness and his love. Inspired by feelings of love and loss, the now nearly blind Shiraz carves a model of what will become the Taj Mahal, where Selima will eventually be interred, alongside her husband. Its construction will take 10 years and become one of the world’s most admired buildings. Shiraz: A Romance of India can be enjoyed as an overtly melodramatic tribute to the triumph of love over jealousy and tyranny or as an epic built on a foundation of dubious history and lore. Either way, it’s difficult not to be moved by Shiraz: A Romance of India. Adding to the enjoyment is a new and brilliantly evocative musical score by Anoushka Shankar, Ravi’s daughter and Norah Jones’ half-sister. Shankar utilizes everything from ethnic instruments — lots of tablas — to Moog synthesizers. It’s worth the price of a rental, alone.

While we’re in the temporal neighborhood, fans of great silent movies will be happy to learn that Volume 3 of Cohen Media’s  Buster Keaton Collection has been cleared for a landing, on Tuesday. Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926) may not have been rated among the Great Stoneface’s triumphs at the time of their release, but critics were weighing them against some of the greatest comedies of all time, including Keaton’s best work. The set pieces in both films, at least, have stood the test of time as well as anything in The General (1926) or Sherlock Jr. (1924) and continue to be referenced by filmmakers today. In Seven Chances, Keaton plays a struggling businessman, James Shannon, who stands to inherit $7 million from his grandfather, on the condition he gets married before he turns 27, and the church bells toll 7 p.m. He’s already been turned down by his first choice, but that was before the inheritance came into play. Almost all of Seven Chances is consumed by a wonderfully elaborate chase sequence, which begins slowly when Shannon searches for the other seven women on his list. When his dilemma is mentioned in a newspaper story, the number of self-anointed candidates expands exponentially, to 500. They chase him through the streets of a very rural looking Los Angeles, narrowly escaping disaster at every corner. The climax comes when he arrives at a hilly part of town, where he’s outrun his pursuers, but still must contend with dozens of rocks and boulders dislodged in his dash to the church. Battling Butler can easily be summarized as, “a love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.” Alfred’s father has ordered him to take a trip to the mountains, where he can breathe fresh air, hunt, fish and generally get in manly shape. His idea of roughing it, though, involves loading a trailer with luxury items and bringing along his valet (Snitz Edwards). Alfred finds himself attracted to Mountain Girl (Sally O’Neil), whose overprotective brothers and father aren’t impressed by him. It isn’t until they confuse Keaton’s milquetoast millionaire Alfred Butler with champion boxer Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald) that he begins to notice a cloud of doom looming on the horizon. Coincidentally, the two Butlers cross paths in the same backwoods Kentucky town. Unwisely, Alfred agrees to meet Battling Butler, again, in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Keaton’s idea of training is turning around at the one-mile mark of a 10-mile jog and cutting corners wherever he can find one. The battle to impress Mountain Girl is full of wonderful surprises, as well. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Buster Keaton: The Daredevil.”

Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League
The Beatles: Made on Merseyside
Based on what’s revealed in the rockumentary, Nowhere League: We Are the League, it’s possible that Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were inspired to make This Is Spinal Tap (1984 ) by the English hardcore punk band, Anti-Nowhere League. Formed on a whim in 1979, the League was comprised of lead singer Animal (Nick Culmer), a biker; guitarist Magoo (Chris Exall), a skinhead; Bones (Tony Shaw), a grammar-school boy, on drums; and Persian exile Chris Elvy on bass. Their musical proficiency was roughly that of the Ramones at the same time. It was a Queens garage band that relied on four chords to maintain a torrid tempo, and songs that weren’t much longer than two minutes. After a slow start commercially, the Ramones caught a fair number of breaks, including becoming the de facto house band of CBGB’s and appearing in Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The League, which isn’t likely to follow the Ramones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had even less instrumental expertise behind its anarchic vocals. Because hardcore punk and metal were giving way to power pop, however, the members found a ready audience as an opening act for the Damned. This included an ability to mix antisocial lyrics with extremely loud guitars and a we-don’t-give-a-shit persona. That they really didn’t give a shit is one of the key points made in Cleopatra’s high-volume rockumentary Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League, which is as watchable for its Spinal Tap-like anecdotes as repeat recitations of its hits, “So What?,” “Streets of London” and “I Hate … People.” Like most such  ensembles, the turnover in personnel always threatened the band’s existence. The replacement musicians interviewed here were cut from the same cloth, though. Another highlight comes, in 1992. when Animal joins Metallica on the Wembley Arena stage for a killer rendition of “So What?,” which it covered. The film, directed by George Hencken, features cameos by Stewart Copeland and Rat Scabies. The two-disc package adds extended interviews.

The story of how the Beatles made the musical leaps from dreary post-war Liverpool, to the bustling bars in Hamburg’s red-light district, and back again to the home of the Mersey Sound, where fame awaited them. The Beatles: Made on Merseyside recounts how the Fab Four (or Five) parlayed a passion for American rock ’n’ roll and R&B into a band that shocked the world with its original songs and albums (none of which are heard here). It’s a familiar story, sweetened with fresh contributions from the “fifth Beatle,” Pete Best; Quarrymen Colin Hanton and Len Garry; Brian Epstein’s business associate, Joe Flannery; the Beatles’ first secretary, Freda Kelly; original Merseybeat magazine owner Bill Harry; and flatmates of John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe. Naturally, there’s a stop along the way at the Cavern Club.

Damned Summer
If I had the time and inclination to re-watch Pedro Cabeleira’s inarguably intoxicating Damned Summer, it’s possible that I might find a sign-of-the-times story with a discernible beginning, middle and end. Probably not, though. As near as I can tell, it’s a slice-of-life depiction of young adults in Lisbon, waiting for jobs to appear out of thin air, but, until that happens, have enough drugs to keep them going until fall. The protagonist here is a handsome young philosophy major, Chico (Pedro Marujo), who, when we meet him, is visiting his grandparents in the boonies. There’s a discussion about the state of this season’s lemon crop, but the scene mostly exists to establish the character’s rural roots. On the way back to the capital, Chico and his more responsible brother engage in some horseplay under a gigantic wind turbine, It ends when the wrestling threatens to tarnish the brother’s uniform. The wind turbine probably is intended to represent Portugal’s transition from an agrarian economy to one dominated by urban-based industries. By all outward appearances, the clean-cut Chico is as responsible his brother. He has a job interview scheduled for the next day and probably thinks a degree in philosophy might lead to something fulfilling, besides slinging hamburgers or attending graduate school to study something useful. Looks are deceiving, however. Chico is one of several young people we appear content to hang out in public spaces and chat with friends about what they should be doing, instead of smoking pot. (Marijuana has long been decriminalized in Portugal, while the possession of stronger drugs will get the offender a ticket.) Nights are reserved for more communal activities in apartments of some of the same friends and lofts. Prominent among them are the nightly parties in makeshift dancehalls, where Chico and his uniformly attractive friends play musical partners, dance to electronic trance music and do E, cocaine and molly until the cows come home. Unless I missed something, that’s it. By comparison, Roger Corman and Jack Nicholson’s similarly hallucinogenic  The Trip (1967) is Citizen Kane. That isn’t to say, however, that Damned Summer is dull or without purpose,  because, like the music, the overall vibe can be hypnotic. The movie will appeal to people drawn to raves and vacations on Ibiza. The message here, if any, boils down to; have fun while you’re young, unemployed and don’t need more than an hour or two of activity to bounce back from a hangover. I can’t argue with that.

The Other Side of Everything
One needn’t have a post-graduate degree in modern European history to fully appreciate Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlic’s compelling documentary, The Other Side of Everything. A  bachelor’s degree and familiarity with the events that led to the Yugoslav Wars, from 1991 to 2001, should suffice. At once a homage to her mother – Belgrade-based academic and political activist Srbijanka Turajlić – and an exploration of how 100 years of political dysfunction and toxic nationalism have torn a country and its inhabitants into shreds. The movie opens with a question of identity. Before the civil war, many of the people we meet here considered themselves to be Yugoslavian and colored only by the various shades of red in the spectrum of communist and socialist beliefs. Within only a few years, however, we watch as census takers begin to ask pointed questions relating to a citizen’s ethnic background, religion, political leanings and travels outside Serbia. After the country’s breakup into individual republics, Turajlić became a vocal critic of Slobodan Milošević’s nationalist policies and repression of intellectuals, labor unions and students. While her friends voice different opinions on the validity of going to war to keep the country from splitting apart, Turajlić’s focus is on bringing democracy to Serbia. “Other Side” also recalls the impact of sanctions imposed on the republic by western governments and the 1999 bombing campaign by NATO forces to destroy Serbian infrastructure and prop up a pro-Albania government in Kosovo, led by the guerrilla paramilitary group KLA. (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008.) After presidential elections in September 2000, opposition parties accused Milošević of electoral fraud. A campaign of civil resistance followed, led by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a broad coalition of anti-Milošević parties. Turajlić recalls the optimism that quickly rose when a half-million people from around the country congregated in Belgrade, a month later, compelling Milošević to concede. Her dissatisfaction with the new government echoes the lyrics to the Who anthem, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” A parallel throughline in the film explains the title, The Other Side of Everything. After World War II, apartments belonging the people deemed “bourgeoise” were subdivided to allow several families to live in a space just big enough for one. Early on, Mila Turajlić asks her mother what’s behind a door that’s remained locked for as long as anyone can remember. When the door’s seal is finally cracked, the hidden room and the documentary, itself, reveal little more than a house and a country haunted by history. The parallels between Turajlić and her friends’ feelings of hopelessness, throughout the film, will remind some American viewers of their deepening concerns over the possibility of a second Trump administration.

The Whirlpool
After spending most of the last seven years in limbo, IndiePix’s The Whirlpool is being given a chance to find an audience on DVD and its subscription service. Apparently, the company has given up any thoughts of releasing its 2015 acquisition into theaters and is willing to take what it can get for it. Don’t bother looking for a review on the Internet, though, because all you’ll find is the same boilerplate description, repeated over and over, again. Primarily set in and around Niagara Falls, N.Y. – there’s even a stop at the infamously toxic Love Canal site – it features two French-speaking strangers who meet at the onetime Honeymoon Capital of America and, after some non-stop sex, will take their time returning to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Blond chain-smoking Agathe (Agathe Feoux) has come to the falls for no other reason than she’s heard it’s an interesting place to kill time –which it is — and its’s closer to France than the Grand Canyon. While standing on a ledge overlooking the falls, puffing away in the face of nature’s grandeur, Agathe is  approached by a fellow chain-smoker: the young, heavily accented Victor (Pierre Perrier), who, when he deigns to remove his shades, resembles Donny Osmond. After some idle chitchat, Agathe invites Victor to crash in her bare-bones motel room and devour her body … which he does. On the drive to Logan, the couple makes an inexplicable stop at a tidy home, overlooking a river, that once belonged to his father. They spend a couple of days there smoking, having sex and wearing clothes left behind by his father. It takes a while to learn that Agathe supports herself by trading sex with her therapist for prescription drugs, which she then sells to yuppies in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Viewers are encouraged to believe that Victor moved to Paris after the death of his parents, although it doesn’t explain the full-blown accent. Or, maybe, I just missed something. Maybe Victor will follow Agathe to Paris and maybe he won’t. That’s all there to this 80-minute throwback to experimental films of the 1960-70s, when such spontaneous hookups weren’t uncommon. The best thing in The Whirlpool is Claudia Carty’s spooky musical score, which doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening on the screen, but triggers emotional responses on its own,   would have worked better in a movie with characters whose sole virtue is in their boobs and bums. It definitely helps camouflage the increasing dullness of the sex, between a pair of increasingly dull, if beautiful people. It came as no surprise to learn that writer/director Alvin Case threw out his original script; abandoned the Mojave Desert idea for Upstate New York; added a male protagonist; and told the actors to improvise their lines, without rehearsals. It shows. The DVD adds interviews with Feoux and Perrier.

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Creepy Creatures
In this 74-minute compilation of “Wild Kratts” episodes, the gang isn’t sure what to do for Halloween. (I know what you’re saying, what happened to Labor Day?) Should they go trick-or-treating or simply enjoy a Halloween party? The Kratt Brothers decide that the best thing to do is discover some new holiday-appropriate creatures. But when they set off to find new cool and creepy friends, Martin and Chris discover that Zach and the other villains have come up with a plan to ruin Halloween.

The DVD Wrapup: Charlie Says, Reflecting Skin, Girl in the Fog, Souvenir, Girls of the Sun, Deep Space Nine, Sweet Alice, Penguin Highway, Jamestown, Patrick Melrose … More

Friday, August 9th, 2019

Charlie Says: Blu-ray
Released in May, between the arrivals of Daniel Farrands’ exploitative The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Quentin Tarantino’s vastly overhyped, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s decidedly underhyped, underexposed and lower key, Charlie Says, got lost in the wash. In the 50 years that have passed since the Tate–LaBianca murders, no touchstone anniversary or fruitless probation hearing has been allowed to pass unnoticed in the media. Almost three dozen movies and TV series have used the killings as a central motive, at least, and dozens of books and novels have been written about the perpetrators, victims and court cases. Only Che Guevara and Mickey Mouse have sold as many T-shirts as Charles Manson in the same period. The numbers tell us more about our appetite for scandal and other people’s pain than anything revelatory about the events of August 9 and August 10, 1969. The motivations behind such slaughter remain unfathomable. It was a freakish occurrence in the Season of the Witch … far less portentous than the current wave of massacres at Walmarts, schools and garlic festivals. That’s why no California governor since Ronald Reagan has dared allow the release from prison of several elderly women long deemed repentant and harmless to a society afraid of contagion. If music producer Terry Melcher – played in Charlie Says by Bryan Adrian — had been the highest profile celebrity murdered that night on Cielo Drive, instead of the pregnant blond wife of a Hollywood A-lister, the Manson Family would, by now, have been relegated to a list that includes such late-20th Century freakazoid cults as Heaven’s Gate, People’s Temple Jonestown, Branch Davidian, Order of the Solar Temple and Warren Jeffs’ polygamist collective.

Manson’s genius was for marketing madness and exploiting established brands: “Helter Skelter,” the Beach Boys, Life magazine, the Black Panthers, the lure of dune buggies in the desert. The trial, itself, provided a textbook example of how to stoke the coals of a media frenzy: Charlie inspired his “girls” to carve X’s into their forehead and maintain a noisy vigil outside the courthouse. He controlled the flow of leaked information to select reporters. Family member, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford with an unloaded weapon. Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, couldn’t leave well enough alone, either. He added another 15 minutes of fame to Manson’s celebrity clock, by admitting to sharing Jack Nicholson’s Jacuzzi with a teeny bopper, not far the Cielo Drive slaughterhouse, and, then, skipping town. He continued to control the press from prison, by limiting access to reporters and talk-show hosts and, then, speaking to them in riddles. So far, only Tarantino’s revisionist opus appears to have caught the attention of audiences, and that may be attributable more to the presence of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio than anything else. Despite a slew of excellent reviews, it’s yet to crack the $100-million barrier domestically, on a budget estimated to be $90 million. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is still rolling out in foreign markets, though, and that’s where the money has been for QT in recent years.

Harron and Turner’s Charlie Says takes a different tack, by attempting to make sense of Manson’s hypermagnetic hold on the women in the family. The Spahn Ranch may have been the white-trash equivalent to the Playboy Mansion, but how to explain the girls’ glee when it came to “shopping day” excursions to the dumpsters behind local groceries? Brainwashing, LSD, imperceptible IQs, daddy issues. Was it that simple? How, for instance, was Manson able to convince them that they “don’t exist” and, as such, couldn’t have committed the heinous crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to death. The movie argues that this bizarro belief lingered far after those two fateful summer nights in August 1969. The “girls” held on to it for years after the murders, even in the absence of their “father,” LSD and the orgies at the ranch. A better excuse would have been that psychotic aliens from Outer Space, borrowed the Tex and the girls’ bodies for a few hours, and did Charlie’s biding as a professional courtesy. Today, you could find a hundred lawyers to argue that defense.

Harron and Turner aren’t strangers to group psychosis and sociopathic male behavior. As an indictment of lingering Reaganomics and laissez-faire greed, their nihilistic American Psycho (2000) picked up where Wall Street left off, 13 years earlier. The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) demonstrated how pitifully men react when confronted with a free-spirited, sex-positive woman, who defies their hypocrisy by posing nude without shame or excuses. Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) told the story of radical feminist and author, Valerie Solanas, best known for writing the SCUM Manifesto, and attempting to murder Andy Warhol in 1968. Having spent the first 11 years of her life with the notorious quasi-hippie Lyman Family, Turner knows exactly what it means to be dominated by a fanatically authoritarian father figure (and, like Manson, a musician). She was raised in various communes around the U.S. with more than 100 devotees of the misogynistic Mel Lyman, who believed they would eventually live on Venus.

Turner based her screenplay for Charlie Says on former Fug Ed Sanders’s extremely well-researched and insightful “The Family” and Karlene Faith’s non-fiction, “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten.” (The author is portrayed in the film by Merritt Wever.) Sanders’ book provided fodder for the scenes leading up to Tate-LaBianca murders, as well as the hippie mindset in the late-1960s. Faith’s research allows viewers to see them in prison, still parroting Manson’s wacko theories and waiting impatiently to be executed. When the death penalty was declared unconstitutional, it threw a huge monkey wrench into their plans. No longer was Charlie in control of their destinies. Having to come to grips with the fact that they must live in the Here and Now for the next 40 to 50 years forces them to accept the reality of their “existence” as grown-ass women … not girls, interchangeable sex toys or water sprites. Bummer. With only the sketchiest of hopes for parole available to them, Lulu (Hannah Murray), Katie (Sosie Bacon), Linda (India Ennenga) and Sadie (Marianne Rendón) begin to understand where Faith has been attempting to take them in the time together. That’s how Charlie Says  separates itself from most of the other movies and books about the murders that I’ve seen. Matt Smith, the 11th incarnation of  Doctor Who, does a credible job portraying the pipsqueak psychopath, Manson, while Suki Waterhouse (Billionaire Boys Club), Sosie Bacon (“13 Reasons Why”), Marianne Rendón (“Imposters”) and Kayli Carter (“Godless”) are excellent as minions. Wever (“Nurse Jackie”) and Annabeth Gish are better than fine as prison officials. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of featurette. Charlie Says isn’t perfect, by a long shot, but it does add some new twists to 50 long years of blah, blah, blah.

The Reflecting Skin: Blu-ray
Before the festival debut of The Reflecting Skin in August 1990, Philip Ridley was known for his ability to cross established media barriers and as a member of the visually audacious Young British Artists movement. As a novelist, the East Ender had already found success with “Crocodilia,” “In the Eyes of Mr. Fury” and “Flamingoes in Orbit.” While still a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art, he wrote the screenplay for Peter Medak’s acclaimed The Krays (1990), a fact-based gangster flick that starred brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet. Needless to say, however, what Ridley really wanted to do was write and direct his own material, as artists David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and George Miller (Mad Max) had done. Julian Schnabel would add non-experimental filmmaking to his resume in 1996, with Basquiat. Surprisingly, perhaps, The Reflecting Skin failed to find wide exposure, even in arthouses, and languished in distribution purgatory for more than 20 years. The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995) Heartless (2009) wouldn’t do much better. The Reflecting Skin deserves a much better shot on Blu-ray, where its attributes can’t be denied.

At first glance, Ridley’s genre-bending drama resembles a direct homage to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), which, had been shot in the same fields of wheat in Alberta, Canada. The centerpiece image of an isolated house in the middle of this sea of golden grain – one grand, the other not so much – is repeated in both movies, as well. They recall Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting, “Christina’s World.” (Malick was inspired, too, by Edward Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” and Benedict Family mansion, in Giant). The primary difference between the two landscapes comes in Ridley’s decision to paint the stalks of wheat a sunshine-bright shade of yellow and saturate the color balance. A cloudless blue sky adds yet another layer of color to the collage. Like Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography in Days of Heaven, Dick Pope’s contributions to The Reflecting Skin are breath-taking. Ridley diverts from Days of Heaven, as well, by adding another house to the property and, with it, a mystery. The inhabitants of the primary house look as if they might have blown there by the dust storms of the 1930s and stayed because they had nowhere better to go. Or, they could be descended from the farmer and daughter in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Ruth Dove (Sheila Moore) is strict on 8-year-old Seth (Jeremy Cooper), choosing to dote on her older son, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), a soldier in the Pacific. Ruth barely tolerates her husband, Luke (Duncan Fraser), a mechanic shamed by a past scandal, in which the local sheriff found him and an underage boy “in full embrace.”

The cottage inhabited by the enigmatic blond widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), stands as a memorial to her dead husband and his passion for whaling … 1,000 miles from the nearest large body of water. We’re introduced to her as she’s walking home from the nearest town and Seth and his friends play a shockingly grotesque prank on her. The boy has been fed a steady diet of horror stories by his father, causing him to believe that his almost translucent neighbor is a British vampire. He blames her for the recent disappearances and murders of his friends. Still, when Seth’s mother orders him to apologize to Dolphin, she welcomes him into her home and gives him a harpoon. Viewers will be given an alternate explanation for the murders, but Seth remains convinced of his neighbor’s passion for blood. When Cameron returns home from the Pacific, he’s a changed man. Haunted by photographs taken after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Cameron stokes his brother’s worst fears by seeking comfort in Dolphin’s arms. Seth feels it’s up to him to save Cameron from his friends’ fate. Just as Cameron’s mood begins to brighten, though, Ridley’s inescapable Cadillac of Doom pays one more visit to the farm. By the time Seth realizes the gravity of his role in the tragedies – telling lies that kept police off the trail of the most likely suspects – he feels as powerless, lonely and guilty as a boy could possibly be. The ending is extremely powerful. The filmmaker has described The Reflecting Skin as “Blue Velvet with children.” I thought I recognized elements of Harry Crews’ American-gothics. Bonus features include “Angels & Atom Bombs: The Making of The Reflecting Skin,” director’s commentary and a new essay by film writers Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche. Film Movement’s 2K restoration is little short of brilliant.

The Girl in the Fog
Here’s another dandy European mystery that opened at a festival to favorable notices but was denied a shot at success in U.S. arthouses. Novelist/writer/director Donato Carrisi adapted The Girl in the Fog from his own best-selling book, set in the frequently hazy village of Avechot in the Italian Alps. Too long by 10 to 15 minutes, potential investors might have felt the movie hewed too closely to the text and contained too many suspects and false leads for easily distracted Americans to follow. Because I enjoy reading mysteries as much as I do seeing them adapted for the big screen, I wasn’t bothered by the 128-minute narrative. Better that than adding a superfluous love scene or compressing two or three key characters into one. The natural setting and fine acting easily held my interest. When 16-year-old Anna Lou Kastner (Ekaterina Buscemi) disappears into the fog on her way to church, odds favor the likelihood that something terrible will or already has happened to her. Apparently, Italy is no more immune from such horrors as similar locales in the United States. The expert investigator Vogel (Toni Servillo) is called to the village to investigate and, wherever he goes, a media horde follows. Indeed, Vogel appears to welcome their disruptive presence and tendency to step on each other’s toes. Jean Reno (Léon: The Professional) plays the village’s psychiatrist, Augusto Flores, who believes that the investigation might be better served in the absence of TV cameras. Because Anna Lou vanished two days before Christmas, early suspicion  focuses on her parents, who belong to a Christian cult. Soon, however, it turns to a boy who reported the girl missing. In turn, he implicates Loris Martini (Alessio Boni), a married professor whose theories on crime fiction and a barely disguised fondness for female students attract Vogel’s scrutiny. He’s also heavily in debt and could have staged the abduction to collect a ransom. Annoying TV journalist Stella Honer (Galatea Ranzi) muddles things up in ways only someone with her own financial interests in the outcome could possibly do. In this regard, however, she’s not alone. These days, a bungled investigation can be as profitable as a successful kidnapping. Vogel recalls how a false presumption in a previous case earned the prime suspect a windfall profit for his ordeal.  Carrisi leaves open the possibility that Anna Lou will reappear, out of the haze, and either identify the culprit – the dreaded Man in the Fog — or hide her own motives for vanishing. Complicated, sure, but not confusing. Watching Servillo (The Great Beauty) and Reno play cat-and-mouse provides a great deal of dark humor to the proceedings.

The Souvenir
It’s rare to find as effete a movie as Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical The Souvenir receive as many 100-point scores on Metacritic as it has since its debut at Sundance 2019. Although Hogg previously attracted the attention of critics with Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), she’s mostly known in Britain for her work in television serials.

While in her twenties, Hogg studied at the National Film and Television School, outside London, where her 1986 graduation piece, “Caprice,” starred a then-unknown Tilda Swinton. (Her debut feature, Caravaggio, would also be released that year.) Swinton and Hogg have been friends since they were 10 years old. The actor also witnessed first-hand the collapse of the relationship doomed to failure in The Souvenir. Most American observers, I think, would write off Hogg’s marriage as an example of what can happen to a privileged young woman, who falls so in love with a slightly older twit, that she doesn’t equate the track marks on his arm with heroin addiction. Curiously, her naivete doesn’t endear her to us. Neither does his heroin addiction. The natural trajectory of such a dysfunctional marriage plays out slowly, but inexorably throughout the length of The Souvenir. By the time Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) finally figures out what’s wrong with Frankie (Frankie Wilson), it’s too late. He surprises her by inviting his dealers to his home; begins to write checks she’ll have to cover when they bounce; overdoses; and stages break-ins to relief Julie of her heirlooms. Frankie redeems himself by being supportive of Julie’s creative endeavors – including a short film that is outside the parameters of her personal experiences. Ultimately, she’s as needy as he is.  Doomed marriages, like the one in The Souvenir, aren’t nearly as unusual in American lives and films  … or, for that matter, in such British films as Sid and Nancy (1986).

It’s Hogg’s intimate rendition of her own naivete, personal ambition and bourgeoise values that makes The Souvenir stand out from the pack. That, and her decision to cast Swinton and her real-life daughter, Honor, in roles that approximate Hogg’s relationship with her own mother. The entertainment media couldn’t be expected to ignore that happy coincidence. The title derives from a postcard replication of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th Century Rococo painting, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover onto a tree. The gift probably was the most genuine token of her husband’s love and appreciation of Julie’s artistic sensibilities. Another, far more curious “souvenir” from Frankie’s travels is a lingerie ensemble that could have been ordered from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. It might as well have been a straitjacket. Reportedly, all of the actors, expect Honor, were able to read the script before performing their scenes in front of the camera. Instead, Hogg provided her with personal diaries from the early 1980’s, along with notes, photographs, scripts and films she wrote and made at that point in her career. From these tools, Honor was told to improvise her lines and impulses, leaving the rest of the cast to react to them as well as they could. Hogg also gave Burke old letters, recordings and drawings from the man upon whom his character is based. Swinton, who’s played every conceivable role there is, perfectly fits the parameters of woman who might have shared her off-hours with Maggie Thatcher, playing canasta.

Girls of the Sun: Blu-ray
I don’t know if a feminist war movie – based on facts, not wishful thinking – could be made outside the specific experiences of women who’ve already survived hell and have nothing left to lose. No war in memory has so directly impacted women as ISIS’ ruthless attack on Kurdistan, during which non-Sunni Muslims, Yazidi and Christian males were slain outright and women forced or sold into sexual slavery. Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun introduces us to a contingent of female escapees, who have taken up arms against ISIS. They answer to a predominantly male military board, but are led by a woman, Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani). I can’t recall seeing anything like it. The achievements of individual female combatants have been displayed in such American wartime dramas as G.I. Jane (1997), Courage Under Fire (1996), Return (2011) and Home of the Brave (2006). The purported contributions of Red Army sniper Tania Chernova were acknowledged in Enemy at the Gates. Disney’s animated adaptation of the Chinese folktale, Mulan (1998), tells the story of a young Chinese maiden, who, when she learns that her weakened and lame father has been ordered to fight the invading Huns, takes his place, instead. (A live-action feature film, based on Mulan, is scheduled to open in March 2020.) Movies featuring women spies, ninja warriors, martial artists and comic-book heroines come and go with some regularity these days. Husson and co-writer Jacques Akchoti’s Girls of the Sun doesn’t claim to be based on any one person or battle to take back land. After coming across stories of women who escaped and took up arms, Husson decided to craft a movie that could be mistaken for a documentary, but, in fact, combined several different storylines. Girls of the Sun is such an inspirational film that it disappointed me to learn that the battle described wasn’t drawn from a single incident or specific group of women. It didn’t, however, detract from my enjoyment of the picture any more than the truth killed my enthusiasm for dozens of other Hollywood war films that I would learn were embellished.

Iranian-born Farahani (About Elly) is the leader of the platoon, which has been armed, outfitted and acknowledged by at least one faction of the Kurd military. If her character, Bahar, seems impatient to reclaim her former hometown, it’s because her son has been kidnapped and held in a school within view of her position on a hill above the city. It’s only a matter of time before ISIS will pull out, taking their prisoners with them or fighting until the last man on the battlefield is dead. The women decide to utilize a tunnel that leads from the hilltop to the school, where they hope to surprise the enemy. Knowing that the tunnel is booby-trapped, they convince a captured ISIS fighter to march ahead of them and point out places where explosives have been laid. There’s no reason to spoil how their mission goes. The conceit that prompted me to think that Girls of the Sun – the title refers to imagery on the Kurdish flag – might be real, however, is the inclusion of a war correspondent, with a patch over an eye damaged in a previous battle. Here, she’s a French photojournalist, Mathilde H. (Emmanuelle Bercot), but, in Matthew Heineman’s biographical A Private War (2018), she’s Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike). At first, it didn’t bother me. As time went on, however, I wondered if Mathilde H.’s constant presence wasn’t detracting from Husson’s depiction of Bahar’s mission, by putting equal weight on both characters. Special features include a Q&A session with Husson.

Penguin Highway: Blu-ray
It doesn’t take long for the magic in Makoto Ueda’s debut feature,  Penguin Highway, to reveal itself. Thousands of miles away from their natural habitats, several “waddles” of penguins suddenly appear in a small Japanese village. There’s no obvious reason for their exodus – a strong Southern wind or Pacific Ocean current – but neither is there one for the arrival of the giant silver orb that hovers above the ground in a meadow outside town.  A precocious fourth-grader, Aoyama-kun, takes it upon himself to investigate the mystery of the penguins in his village and how it relates to the oceanic orb and his attraction for a busty young dental hygienist, Onê-san, whose covered breasts are capable of bringing a pre-pubescent boy to his knees. (His undisguised longing is curiously handled in a film otherwise accessible to family audiences.) The mystery of their appearance deepens when Ayoama’s captured by bullies and tied to an isolated vending machine in the middle of nowhere. Onê-san pulls out cans of soda that inexplicably transform into penguins when tossed through the air. Even though she appreciates her ability to summon the birds, she can’t explain how it’s done. There are other miracles. Penguin Highway was adapted from a Tomihiko Morimi novel by Makoto Ueda. I hope that it’s recalled easily by Oscar voters when nominating panels meets later this year. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds an English dub track and interviews with Ishida and Morimi.

Project Ithaca: Blu-ray
What We Left Behind: Looking Back at ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’: Blu-ray
Born in the land of Canuxploitation, 38-year-old Dawson Creek native Nicholas Humphries churned out dozens of shorts and TV episodes, before trying his hand at genre features in 2014, with the slasher/horror/thriller Death Do Us Part. A year later, he turned in Mermaid’s Song, a twisted homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” set during the Dust Bowl. Typically, he leaves the writing to others. In Humphries’ gonzo alien-abduction thriller, Project Ithaca, those honors went to first-timer Kevin C. Bjerkness and veteran location assistant Anthony Artibello. I doubt that the director needs much more than a skeletal plot to get his creative juices flowing, however. Here, a group of strangers awakens aboard an alien spacecraft, restrained and orbiting Earth’s atmosphere. Each individual comes from a different place in time, ranging from the 1960s to 2050. The oldest captive, John (James Gallanders), was working with the American government, when he discovered an alien spacecraft that had crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, a few years earlier. An examination of the local populace reveals a woman carrying an unborn fetus that’s displaying serious abnormalities. After giving birth, the agents switch her baby with an infant whose mother died giving birth. The child will be used as a human guinea pig. On board the alien ship, the prisoners are able to determine their relative ages, places of birth and value to a snake-like creature that feeds off their fear. Having figured this out, the humans are able to stay one step ahead of the aliens, by thinking and retaining happy thoughts. This usually means returning to a time in their youth when they were most content. The aliens attempt to induce fear by forcing flashbacks to less pristine moments. The outcome of a final confrontation could be determined by the humans ability to kill fear with hope. In between, things on board the ship get a bit weird and sticky. At 85 minutes, the R-rated Project Ithaca could have benefited from a straighter throughline.

For those just tuning in to the nearly eternal “Star Trek” franchise, it’s worth knowing that Rick Berman and Michael Piller’s “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” originally aired from January 3, 1993, to June 2, 1999, in syndication, spanning 176 episodes over seven seasons. It was the fourth series in the television-based series. It is set in the 24th Century, when Earth is part of a United Federation of Planets, and the Deep Space Nine ship is parked in the vicinity of the liberated planet of Bajor, adjacent to a wormhole connecting Federation territory to the Gamma Quadrant on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy. Compared to the original series and “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” faced resistance from some diehard fans of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. It was criticized for being too “dark,” “edgy” and “the black sheep” of the Star Trek family. Others favored “DSN” for the very same reasons. The comprehensive retrospective documentary, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,’” takes a detailed look at the series, including brand-new interviews with members of the cast and crew; a dozen deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes featurettes, with the cast and crew; character studies; a discussion of the HD restoration process with the producers; a musical reunion with  composers Dennis McCarthy and Kevin Kiner; and a 50-minute roundtable discussion with directors Ira Steven Behr, David Zappone and the film’s producers. The  Shout Factory release should serve as an essential addition to any Trekkie’s library.

One Bedroom
After five years of ups and downs, an African American couple spends their final afternoon together having sex, arguing and remembering better days. Melissa (Devin Nelson) is moving out of Nate’s family-owned apartment, which has been gentrified along with the neighborhood, itself. Writer/director/co-star Darien Sills-Evans plays the 30-something yuppie, who splits his time between working at a local barbershop – a nod to the neighborhood’s black heritage – and as a DJ at an upscale nightclub. She’s a teacher. One Bedroom combines humor and drama to show how perfectly matched his protagonists are, despite the secrets that are revealed in flashbacks. Not only has Nate cheated on Melissa, but, deep into the revelatory process, Melissa describes one of her own. Nate is required by barbershop law to spill the beans to his pals on the couple’s final day together, while Melissa is obligated to share her story with her friends, one or two of which  might want to take advantage of the separation. Nate knows that any perspective suitors would be as interested in sharing his apartment as in becoming his lover. For her part, Melissa knows that her biological clock isn’t likely to slow down while she seeks another mate. Despite some angry bickering, One Bedroom is surprisingly easy on viewers’ eyes and ears. The characters are likable; the women are attractive; the men are generally agreeable; and the musical soundtrack is excellent. Bonus features include cast auditions; commentary with Sills-Evans and Nelson; and soundtrack samples.

Alice, Sweet Alice: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Chill Factor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Not all Arrow Video releases are created equal. Some are interesting solely for early appearances by major stars, while others test the limits of the genre. Alfred Sole’s twisty, low-budget thriller, Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), is recommendable for its ability to keep audiences guessing as to the identity of the person who murders Brooke Shields’s Karen Spages, on the day of her First Holy Communion. At the time, Shields was an unknown commodity and a bargain hire for Sole. Her breakthrough film, Pretty Baby, would arrive two years later. The bigger draw would have been Linda Miller, who was the daughter of Jackie Gleason, and former wife of playwright/actor Jason Miller. A graduate of the University of Florence, with a degree in architecture, Sole thought that he could make some quick money by producing a porno. And, he did. The tongue-in-cheek hardcore parody Deep Sleep (1972) starred emerging adult stars Harry Reems, Jamie Gillis and Georgina Spelvin. The movie was pulled from theaters on charges that it was obscene, and all prints were confiscated. Four years later, Sole returned to his hometown of Paterson, N.J., to make the R-rated, Alice, Sweet Alice. After Karen is killed by someone in a yellow raincoat and full-face mask, other people with connections to the Catholic Church are also murdered. Her extremely jealous sister, Alice (Paula E. Sheppard), becomes the immediate suspect in the eyes of everyone except her mother. Could the solution to the mystery be that easy to solve? Yes … and no. Sole continues to ratchet up the tension, even after viewers will have assumed the obvious. The upgraded presentation adds new audio commentary, with genre specialist Richard Harland Smith; archival commentary with co-writer/director Sole and editor Edward Salier; “First Communion: Alfred Sole Remembers Alice, Sweet Alice,”; “In the Name of the Father,” a new interview with actor Niles McMaster; “Sweet Memories: Dante Tomaselli on Alice, Sweet Alice,” in which Sole’s cousin discusses his longtime connection to the film; “Lost Childhood: The Locations of Alice, Sweet Alice,” a tour of the original shooting locations, hosted by author Michael Gingold; an alternate “Holy Terror” television cut; a deleted scene; alternate opening titles; original screenplay; image gallery; and, first pressing only, a collector s booklet with essay by Michael Blyth.

Having grown up in the wilds of Wisconsin, I know that hunting deer and racing snowmobiles are right up there with grilling brats and swilling brandy-based cocktails, as seasonal pastimes. The further north of the “tension line” one goes, the more cheese curds are eaten. Christopher Webster and writer Julian Weaver’s The Chill Factor was shot in Eagle River, “The Snowmobile Capital of the World,” which is only a hop, skip and very long jump to Hayward, where the annual Lumberjack World Championships are held. Hayward is also home to the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum, which is housed inside the belly of a giant muskellunge. Troma’s Blood Hook (a.k.a., “Muskie Madness”) was shot there.

Northern Wisconsin isn’t the most congenial of locations for the creation of feature films. Summer (a.k.a., mosquito season) in the region can be as difficult a place to shoot as Martha’s Vineyard on Fourth of July or New Orleans during Mardi Gras. In the fall, bow hunters stalk the woods, giving way only to rifle-toting deer hunters, after the first snowfall. Fangoria Films’ Children of the Night (1991), Leszek Burzynski’s Trapped Alive (1988), Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) and The Chill Factor (1993) were shot near the border with U.P., which, by all rights, should be part of Wisconsin. The latter two did so during snowstorms. In Weaver’s thriller, a group of young couples find several ways to turn a snowmobiling excursion into a waking nightmare. During an impromptu race on a frozen lake one of their number is thrown from his vehicle, knocked unconscious and seriously wounded. While a friend elects to seek help in the nearest city, the others take shelter in an abandoned summer camp that holds more secrets than most other cabins in the woods. They include bizarre religious artifacts, books, photos and a sort of Ouija board. What they don’t know is that the camp was once used by a satanic cult for its rituals and is still infested by demons. Barely released outside of its original VHS outing (for which it was retitled “Demon Possessed”), The Chill Factor is given the same red-carpet treatment as was provided Trapped Alive, by Arrow, in January. In addition to the 2K restoration from original film elements, Arrow adds original uncompressed stereo audio;
new commentary with special effects artist Hank Carlson and horror writer Josh Hadley; new interviews with makeup artist Jeffery Lyle Segal, production manager Alexandra Reed and stunt coordinator Gary Paul; a still gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach; and a collector s booklet, with new writing by Mike White.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn/Showtime: Patrick Melrose: Blu-ray
PBS: Jamestown: The Complete Season 3
PBS: Frontline: Sex Trafficking in America
Universal Kids: The Jungle Bunch
Sesame Street: Dance Party!
While there’s no guarantee that Sky/Showtime’s  acerbic mini-series, “Patrick Melrose,” will be renewed for a second season, word has reached the trades that the relevant parties are “talking,” at least. Working in the favor of approval are the BAFTA awards recently accorded the mini-series and Best Actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Working against renewal is the fact that the author Edward St Aubyn only wrote five novels in the series and each one was adapted in Season One, thus necessitating several more original screenplays. Jump-starting a series after such a long hiatus is no easy trick, either. Although St Aubyn was born rich, his journey through life has been far from simple or uneventful. His father abused him; his mother ignored his needs; and he became addicted to alcohol and drugs in his teens. The second act in his life required him to achieve and maintain sobriety, which isn’t much fun or simple, especially while surrounded by barely functioning addicts and temptations. Cumberbatch’s tightly measured  portrayal could hardly be more convincing. His supporting cast appears to have been born to the manor, as well. Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh play his monstrous parents. Also along for the ride are such fine actresses as Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Indira Varma, Morfydd Clark, Jessica Raine, Allison Williams and Harriet Walter, as Princess Margaret.

For those who tuned in late, the Sky/PBS series “Jamestown” is a period soap opera set in the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. It was located on the northeast bank of the James (Powhatan) River, less than three miles southwest of the center of modern Williamsburg, Virginia. The mini-series begins in 1619, 12 years after a group of British men founded the settlement, and the arrival of three women expected to marry the lucky colonists. Not everything goes as anticipated, of course. Season Three begins three years later, in 1622. The Virginia Company’s investment is bearing fruit, but there’s still plenty of time left for political intrigue, romantic entanglements, rumor mongering and a bit of hoodoo on the side. A fragile truce between the native Pamunkey Indians and colonists appears to be holding. (The Brits have already wiped one tribe off the map.) Accused of treason, Silas Sharrow (Stuart Martin) has been offered sanctuary by the Pamunkeys. The eldest Sharrow’s infant son, by Winganuske (Rachel Colwell), dies after Henry (Max Beesley) refuses to allow him to be treated by Indian medicine men. Slaves Pedro (Abubakar Salim) and Maria (Abiola Ogunbiyi) have earned certain freedoms, but not the right to marry. And, that only takes us to the second episode of Season Three. Things get far messier as the show heads inexorably to its conclusion. (I recommend going back and start with Season One.) The Blu-ray adds making-of material and interviews.

PBS’ “Frontline: Sex Trafficking in America” travels to Phoenix, where underage girls are coerced into prostitution by street thugs, to whom they were introduced on the Internet. There’s nothing glamorous or sexy in the practice of the world’s oldest profession here. None of the escorts resembles Julie Roberts, in Pretty Woman, and their pimps aren’t a fraction as cool as Terrence Howard, in Hustle & Flow. They’re the dregs of society. Even so, the wheels of justice grind slow for the women rescued from “the life.” Filmed over three years, the “Frontline” investigation may not break a lot of new ground on the subject, but it does show how seriously the computerized vice cops take their jobs.

A feature-length version of the French animated series, “The Jungle Bunch,” was released here in 2017 to no critical acclaim and negligible box-office returns. Even so, a new movie is already in the works. As directed by David Alaux, the story revolves around characters, such as Maurice, who “may look like a penguin, but is a real tiger inside.” Raised by a tigress, Maurice and his friends, the Jungle Bunch, intend to maintain order and justice in the jungle, as his mother did before him. The evil koala, Igor – Is such a thing even possible? – confronts the bunch with his army of silly baboons.

In “Sesame Street: Dance Party!,” Elmo, Abby, and the rest of the crew are throwing a party and inviting all of their fans. Join in the fun as Zoe choregraphs a ballet, Nina teaches dances from all around the world and Elmo records a music video. Guests include Jason Derulo, Janelle Monae and Ne-Yo.

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

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

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.

The DVD Wrapup: Ash Is Purest White, Fast Color, Dogman, High Life, Space 1999, Big Bad Fox, Fassbinder’s BRD, Klute, Baker’s Wife, Noir Archive, Master Z, Keaton 2, Hellboy 4K … More

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

Ash Is Purest White: Blu-ray
It’s unusual to find a contemporary Chinese drama as rooted in the present and near-present as Jia Zhangke’s compelling Ash Is Purest White. Bookended by mahjong games in a no-frill social club, the story spans the 18 years of the 21st century, starting in 2001 and coming full circle at the historic northern city of Datong. In a nation whose economy, population and prestige is booming, Datong is dependent on China’s dwindling reliance on coal and other mid-20th Century essentials. Zhangke’s co-protagonist, Qiao, is brilliantly played by his wife, Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart). She runs the gambling den that is largely populated by elderly “brothers,” who have been laid off from the mines. Some have been offered jobs in the country’s oil and natural gas patches, but, needless to say, have little desire to start anew in a foreign province. The gambling den could have been modeled from social clubs and triads that existed even before Mao’s revolution. The setting rapidly shifts, as Qiao enters a disco with her lover, Bin, a local mobster who runs the city’s rackets and building trades, which isn’t as lucrative as it sounds. In an incongruous juxtaposition of modern and traditional pop sensibilities, they’re met there by Bin’s boss, who’s accompanied by a pair of award-winning ballroom dancers. The boss asks his protégé to allow the dancers a song or two to prove to the young crowd how hip traditional dancers can be. Within weeks, the boss will die an untimely death and Qiao will find himself outnumbered by rival gangs. The dancers perform at the outdoor funeral.

At one crucial moment, Bin’s limousine is surrounded by a mob of potential assassins, whose intentions are thwarted by Qiao firing off a few warning shots into the air. Then, he’s blindsided by a young assailant wielding a lead pipe to his legs. While Bin survives the attack, Qiao is sentenced to a women’s prison for five years for discharging an illegal firearm.  After being released, the noticeably older and more sedate Qiao is determined to reconnect with Bin, whose own loss of stature and imprisonment have humbled him to the core. Her pursuit takes her on a ferryboat ride down a scenic stretch of the Yangtze River, to a teeming city that in a few years will be swallowed by the rising waters behind the Three Gorges Dam. Millions of people will be displaced to feed the country’s insatiable appetite for electrical power. Bin hasn’t made it easy for her to find him. Qiao may not be fully prepared to deal with the city’s impersonal bureaucracy and cold-hearted businesses, but she’s quick learner. She finds free meals in places that welcome drifters and poor people, and some that emphatically don’t appreciate her subterfuge. While in prison, she met with a friend who was impregnated by a local businessman and deserted. He’s so humiliated by her presence that he willingly forks over money for both women. Before she locates Bin holed up in a shabby motel, still crippled from the earlier assault, Qiao also is required to use her cunning to recover stolen money and documents. As disillusioned as the onetime lovers have become, they remain committed to Jianghu, a set of wuxia-based principles that, for centuries, have governed triads, secret societies and people living on the fringes of their communities. Qiao will return to Datong, where things haven’t changed much in the interim.

When she runs into Bin again, she’s back at the social club looking over the gamblers and tending the kitchen. Although he’s too ashamed of his downfall to reveal himself to his “brothers,” it takes no effort on Qiao’s part for them to welcome him home. She also finds an acupuncturist who claims he can cure him. Can their love be restored, as well? Stay tuned. Ash Is Purest White contains so many amazing moments like that, it’s easy to mistake the UFO for a passing plane. Viewers should leave time for the Q&A’s and interview sessions in the bonus package.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy: Blu-ray
The Fate of Lee Khan: Blu-ray
Legendary action director Yuen Woo-Ping draws on a stellar cast in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy — some of whom have appeared in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man series — to create a hard-hitting martial arts extravaganza that rates among the best I’ve ever seen. It also is enhanced by a reasonably credible screenplay by Edmond Wong and frequent partner Chan Tai Lee (Ip Man). Too often, kung fu flicks have been allowed to overlook the basics of storytelling, in favor of wall-to-wall action. Following his defeat by Master Ip, Cheung Tin Chi (Jin Zhang) attempts to make a peaceful life with his young son in Hong Kong. He waits tables at a bar that caters to expats and westerners, and waves off the compliments of people who’ve seen him fight or collect newspaper clippings. The bar’s mix of foreign sailors, ex-pats, drug money, prostitutes and gangsters ultimately draws Cheung into the larger fray, spurred, as well, by an attack on his son. It’s terrifically entertaining and wonderfully mounted by Kay Brown, Niina Topp and Kenneth Mak. The fighting scenes, especially those featuring Zhang (The Grandmaster), Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior), Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) and Dave Bautista (Avengers: Endgame) could hardly be more exciting. There’s also cleverly realized romance and sentimentality. The bonus features include an English-language track and subtitles, and a behind-the-scenes piece. BTW: Yip’s Ip Man 4: The Finale is scheduled for a December opening in December.

King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) followed hot on the heels of his three-hour wuxia masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (1971), which became the first Chinese-language film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival and the first wuxia film to win a prize at any international event. (Wuxia, which translates to “martial heroes,” is a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. By contrast, Bruce Lee’s contemporary martial-arts picture fell outside the definition.) Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967) also were big hits in Pacific Rim nations that set the stage for the great leaps forward in A Touch of Zen and The Fate of Lee Kahn. These remarkable films merged Japanese samurai traditions with western editing techniques and an aesthetic informed by Chinese music and opera. Along the way, Hu’s preference for spare western Chinese settings drew comparisons to John Ford and Sergio Leone. What really set Hu apart from the crowd, though, was his predilection for featuring female protagonists, sometimes more than one. The Fate of Lee Kahn takes place during the waning years of the Yuan Dynasty — 1366, to be precise — when the Mongol general Lee Khan (Tien Fong) and his sister Lee Wan’er (Feng Hsu) travel to the desolate Spring Inn, in Shaanxi province, to obtain the plans of rebel forces. Aided by innkeeper Wan Jen-Mi (Li Li-Hua), a group of undercover resistance fighters seeks to recover the map to maintain their edge. Disguised as waitresses, they are, in fact, a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist. They’re kept busy at the inn distinguishing between the good and bad spies in residence there. Things get even wilder when the action moves to the desert. It’s worth noting that the stunts were choreographed by Sammo Hung. Bonus features include: a barely audible NYAFF chat and new essay by Chinese-language film expert and author Stephen Teo.

Fast Color: Blu-ray
If it takes a while for Julia Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz’ terrifically eclectic supernatural thriller, Fast Color, to get to the magical heart of its story, viewers’ patience will be rewarded in several different ways. Tragically underscreened in its post-festival– 25 theaters, at its widest – it should still be playing in specialty houses, building buzz for a larger rollout and anticipation for its release in DVD/Blu-ray. Instead, here it is, forced to fend for itself in a cruel and crowded marketplace without much marketing support. Rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) would have already made the rounds of the talk shows, where someone invariably would remark, “I hope they remember Fast Color at awards time.” Of mixed South African/ British background, Mbatha-Raw’s ascendency has been duly noted for memorable turns in such higher-profile entertainments as Belle (2013), Concussion (2015), Free State of Jones (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018). At least, Fast Color hasn’t been ghettoized by publicists hoping to gain some traction from a core supporting cast that includes Lorraine Toussaint (“Orange Is the New Black”), Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures), newcomer Aliza Halm and Jermaine Washington (Urban Justice). In any case, the integral presence of Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Christopher Denham (“Billions”) would preclude such a strategy. That’s the other thing about Fast Color, though. The cast’s diversity never calls attention to itself, even if the film’s supernatural throughline can be traced to the protagonist’s roots in Africa.

When we meet Ruth, she’s on the run from an unspecified federal agency, somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains, which is suffering from an eight-year drought. A recovering addict, Ruth’s sudden seizures ignite earthquakes in Tornado Alley. Terrified of her own superpower, she tries mightily to alert innocent bystanders to the possibility of impending doom. When news of Ruth’s telekinesis spreads to Washington, a dogged government scientist, Bill (Denham), takes the next plane out of town to capture Ruth for study. He manages to track her down in a Dust Bowl diner, where, without tipping his hand, he offers her a ride to wherever she’s going. It doesn’t take long for Ruth to sniff out Bill’s ruse and wound him with the handgun she finds in the glovebox. Broke and desperate, she finds a temporary port in the storm at a roadhouse where locals come to wet their parched whistles. The kindness allows her time to think and enough loose change to make it to her mother’s home, which sits in the middle of a vast cornfield, all but invisible from the road. Then, two things happen at once: 1) Bill demands the help of a local sheriff, Ellis (Strathairn), who, we’ll soon discover, knows enough about Ruth’s family, to temporarily delay the investigation; and 2) she seeks the forgiveness of her mother, Bo (Toussaint), to whom she has caused great mental and emotional anguish.

Viewers won’t be surprised to learn that Lila (Halm), the wee curly-haired girl who shares the house with Bo, is the daughter Ruth barely recalls delivering and abandoning, years earlier. Call it sci-fi or magical realism, but all three women are blessed – cursed, perhaps – with the ability to manipulate objects and colors in ways that surprise Ruth and Lila, frighten outsiders and amaze viewers. Now comes the “with great power comes great responsibility” moment, when Bo explains how the women in their family are linked. It’s complicated, but the revelation leads to a meteorological event that beats anything you’ll find on the Weather Channel or “Tornado Hunters.” All that is required of viewers is a fundamental ability to suspend disbelief and a mistrust of government agencies triggered by “The X-Files” and the “trust no one” copycats it inspired. If Fast Color isn’t a perfect movie, blame it on all the usual things that impact low-budget indies. That, and any inferences potential viewers could draw about it being a chick flick – it’s not — or an attempt to tap into the same multiracial audiences successfully cultivated by Jordan Peele for Get Out and Us, which hardly constitutes a crime. It’s almost too obvious to see how Lila, at least, would be a perfect candidate for enrollment at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, in the X-Men universe. Fast Color adds interviews with the filmmakers and the making-of featurette, “A Mother’s Power.”

Dogman
I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’ve begun to sound like a broken record on the subject of how difficult it is for foreign and indie movies to succeed when they leave the festival circuit. Even the best of them wind up being viewed on home-theater system that can’t help but diminish the experience to some degree. It’s the only  way, however, that I’ve been able to watch the movies I review here and a far better alternative to not seeing them at all. While it’s still possible for me to attend screenings of important films before their theatrical runs, it’s not the same thing as being able to explain to consumers what’s been lost or gained in the transfer to the small screen or the quality of the bonus material. There simply aren’t enough arthouse theaters to accommodate the hundreds of films currently being shown on the festival circuit. Without DVD/Blu-ray/PPV, they’d get no exposure whatsoever. Enough said. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman is only the latest example of a festival favorite – Palme d’Or nominee, Best Actor winner and recipient of the Palm Dog – that would have benefitted from greater exposure and publicity. According to Box Office Mojo, in the 14 weeks it was in release here, Dogman never played on more than a dozen screens at the same time, grossing $148,225 in the process. That may sound like a paltry sum, but, on a per-screen basis, it did OK. Another hurdle these movies face, of course, is the diminished amount of space allotted reviews, even in non-mainstream publications. The number of critics has decreased, as well, except in the blogosphere, which, while valuable, represents a relative drop in the bucket.

Dogman is a terrifically acted story about a dog washer, groomer and trainer, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a slight, mild-mannered man who divides his day between caring for canines at his modest business; caring for his daughter, Alida, at home; and chillin’ with his buddies at the local outdoor café or poolroom. Even if Fonte looks as if he were born to play the part, first-choice Roberto Benigni would have sold more tickets, while giving a different spin to the character and narrative. It’s hard to say how Benigni’s fans would have reacted to being so ruthlessly bullied by Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), an ex-boxer who terrorizes the neighborhood with his sudden outbursts of rage and ravenous appetite for beer and drugs, some of which are reluctantly supplied by the hapless dog washer. Marcello serves as Simoncino’s involuntary sidekick, helping him home after his frequent benders and performing criminal tasks for the hoodlum that are better suited to a smaller man. As difficult as it may be, Marcello struggles to remain true to his principles. After one of the Simoncino’s burglaries, for example, an accomplice admits to kicking a barking dog and throwing it into a freezer. It’s a measure of Marcello’s humanity that he returns to the apartment where the break-in occurred and risks arrest by attempting to breathe new life into the scrawny pup.

Obviously, the same Marcello who washes and walks dogs nearly his own size – and temperaments as threatening as the bully– isn’t about to stand up to Simoncino, whether it comes to abetting crimes or challenging his gang member’s treatment of barking dogs. Neither does anyone else in the neighborhood, though. The only option they have is to perform their civic duty by murdering Simoncino and pretend he left town. That will have to wait, however. Desperate to find money to buy drugs, the hoodlum tells Marcello to leave his shop’s door open one night, so that he can break into the neighbor’s business through the wood-paneled wall that separates the units. Not only does this make Marcello the logical suspect in the robbery, but by providing Simoncino access to the shop, he’s automatically an accomplice to the crime. If Marcello keeps his mouth shut, though, his nemesis has promised him a cut of the stolen money. After Marcello finishes his sentence, he expects Simoncino to honor his half of the agreement. When he refuses to do so, Marcello has two choices: 1) ignore the slight and go back to washing dogs, or 2) risk his life, by demanding his rightful share. As prison hardened as Marcello might think he is, he’s still no threat to Simoncini, who flaunts his ill-gotten earnings in Marcello’s face. Without going into detail, let’s just say that the dog washer pulls up his big-boy pants and devises a scheme that involves luring Simoncini into the kennel and using the basic principles of judo to gain an edge on him. If Marcello can slay Goliath or, at least, teach him a lesson he won’t soon forget, it’s possible that the dog washer can redeem himself in front his friends.

Anyone who’s seen Garrone’s Gomorra (2008) and The Embalmer (2002) already knows not to expect a leisurely examination of live on the seacoast between Naples and Rome. Gray, wet and dirty, Villaggio Coppola resembles the kind of resort city that summer forgot. As such, it’s an appropriate setting for such an unforgiving tale of revenge. It also provides Marcello and his daughter a safe outlet in their passion for scuba diving. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Dogman was inspired by one of the most infamous crime stories in post-war Italy. Likewise, The Embalmer was loosely based on the murder of a taxidermist, a middle-age dwarf, by his protégé, which took place in Villaggio Coppola in 1990. Gomorrah, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, was based on a work of non-fiction by Roberto Saviano. The drama is set in a housing complex in Naples, which has been taken over by feuding factions of the Camorra syndicate, and it intertwines five separate stories of residents whose lives are touched by organized crime. If Dogman isn’t nearly as dark as those films, it concludes on sadly ironic note. Its spurts of violent behavior definitely would upset anyone expecting Lassie or talking chihuahuas. BTW: while the excellent television spinoff of “Gomorah” has just wrapped up its fourth season on Sky Italia, there’s no telling when it will arrive here. Garrone’s upcoming live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio” is expected to open overseas in time for Christmas 2019.

Don’t Look at Me That Way
Uisenma Borchu’s  debut feature, Don’t Look at Me That Way (2015), is a LGBTQ rom/dram, with the emphasis on the “B.” That’s pretty much the only thing that’s emphatically clear in the film, which has taken three years to make the leap from the international festival circuit to DVD. That’s probably because potential distributors felt the freshman effort left too many questions unanswered, including where the characters are standing at any given moment and why they’re in such a hurry to screw up their lives. Don’t Look at Me That Way splits its time between Germany and Mongolia, although the Munich locations are so generically urban that they could be anywhere.  We know we’re in Mongolia because co-protagonist Hedi (Borchu) occasionally visits her grandmother there. She lives in a yurt on the outskirts of one of the country’s few cities and is old school all the way. It begs the unanswered question as to why, on one these visits – flash-ahead? flash-back? – Hedi is accompanied by Sophia, the precocious daughter of her German lover/neighbor, Iva (Catrina Stemmer). Hedi and Iva hooked up almost immediately after the blond single mother moved into their apartment building and Sophie gravitated to the more stable woman. The strangely maternal bond that develops between Hedi and Sophie affords Iva the time to develop a sexual relationship, at least, with the almost stereotypically seductive Asian woman. The sex is hot, heavy and beautifully photographed. So much so that it confuses us when Hedi tests Iva’s commitment to her by finding new boy toys. Iva’s even more confused. When Iva’s fat, bourgeois father arrives in Munich on business and blows off their father/daughter/granddaughter reunion, Hedi even more curiously tracks him down at his hotel and seduces him. It leads to something so unexpected and disturbing that it’s difficult to tell if it’s real or Borchu is simply playing a trick on us. Either way, it’s a heck of an ending, which is more than can be said about too many other films that pass this way. Even at 88 minutes, however, Don’t Look at Me That Way could have used a bit more exposition and less mystery about Hedi’s motivations. For those who value sex above narrative, though, what there is of it here is inarguably captivating.

High Life: Blu-ray
Space: 1999: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Claire Denis is one those directors who’s somehow managed to find the freedom, money and energy to re-interpret genres whose fans typically reject such meddling. High Life takes on sci-fi and space travel in a way that recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. In Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis merged unchecked sexual urges with extreme horror in a commentary about society’s moral decay. She addressed the legacy of colonialism in Chocolat (1988), Beau Travail (1999) and White Material (2009), and in Friday Night (2002) and Let the Sunshine In (2017) explored the walls we build to protect us from the insanity and irrationality of love, sex and change. One of things that makes High Life so compelling is Denis’ willingness to mess with the one of most enduring clichés about space travel: the portrayal of astronauts as squeaky clean, red-white-and-blue Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and science teachers, who were desexualized at Mission Control. Here, the crew is comprised of death row inmates, whose sentences will come to an end as their spacecraft makes a flying leap into a black hole. There are no guards to keep them from attempting to escape and nowhere to go if they managed to leave the ship. They participate in experiments designed to manage boredom, repress sexual urges and deal with the psychoses of fellow prisoners, er, astronauts. The on-board doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche), has a personal interest in captives Monte (Robert Pattinson) and Boyse (Mia Goth), whose regard for her authority couldn’t be lower. Neither does Denis spare us the realities of personal hygiene and less-than-tidy bodily functions in zero gravity, as NASA has done for the past 60 years.

The prisoners were coaxed into believing that their exploration of the black hole will make them heroes back home, instead of crash-test dummies. Why not simply populate the ship with robots that have well-defined duties and the ability to communicate with specialists in Houston? Perhaps, NASA authorities also wanted to learn about the potential for creating a self-sustaining food supply in space or test the effects of varying degrees of radiation on human beings. Those kinds of questions don’t mean much, compared to the tortuous conditions endured by the passengers, who somehow fall under the scrutiny of Doctor Strangelove-Dibs, who may well be testing the feasibility of remedying prison overcrowding by loading the baddest of the bad-asses onto giant ships and giving them a one-way ticket to deep space. This country’s demand for punishment without rehabilitation would be met and the prisons could be sold to real-estate speculators. Under Denis’ watchful gaze, the actors help their characters make the most of a difficult situation. Pattinson’s depiction of a single parent in space, along with Binoche’s tortured performance as the sex-starved mad scientist, are extremely convincing … even if the rest of the movie is too much to fathom. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Audacious, Passionate and Dangerous: Making High Life” and “Visualizing the Abyss: The Look of High Life.”

Shout Factory’s “Space: 1999: The Complete Series” begs the question as to why a respectable British/Italian joint venture would throw all of their marbles behind a prime-time space-travel series, so soon after the demise of “Star Trek.” ITC Entertainment, RAI and the creative team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (“Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”) clearly were on the same wavelength as the team at Paramount that bought the series from Desilu and licensed the broadcast syndication rights. Reruns began in the fall of 1969 and, by the late 1970s, the series aired in over 150 countries. It became the franchise that wouldn’t die. “Space: 1999” only ran for two seasons, from 1975 to 1977, attaining cult status at about the same time as rerun packages of such Supermarionation hits as “Supercar” (1961–62), “Fireball XL5” (1962–63), “Stingray” (1964–65) and “Thunderbirds” (1965–66) took off. In the opening episode of “Space 1999,” viewers were transported to a research station and nuclear-waste site, located in the crater Plato, on the dark side of the moon … which, come to think of it, is exactly what I’d consider doing with Earth’s growing problem. What could go wrong? When the storage site experiences a chain-reaction explosion, however, the moon is spun out of its orbit. In turn, it sends the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha – including characters played by Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (“Mission:Impossible”), Barry Morse (“The Fugitive”) and Nick Tate (“Holiday Island”) – hurtling through the solar system, toward deep space, where they encounter alien beings who didn’t make the cut on “Star Trek.” Never mind that such a catastrophe would cause irreparable harm to earthbound humanity and turn the green-cheese orb into an intergalactic whirling dervish. Much of the show’s sci-fi look is attributable to special-effects director/designer Brian Johnson, who previously had made the leap from The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and “Thunderbirds,” to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He later would be handed the FX reins to Alien (1979), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Dragonslayer (1981) and The Neverending Story (1984). At the time, “Space 1999” was the most expensive series ever produced for British television or for syndication. Among the actors making guest appearances were Christopher Lee, Margaret Leighton, Roy Dotrice, Joan Collins, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, Julian Glover, Ian McShane, Leo McKern, Billie Whitelaw, Stuart Damon and Brian Blessed. (Some appeared, as well, in future Star Wars and Star Trek movies.) In addition to the many special features included in previous sets, the Shout! Factory also offers new pieces, “Mission to Moonbase Alpha: An Interview With Actress Barbara Bain”; “Into the Uncertain Future: An Interview With Actor Nick Tate”; “Brain Behind the Destruction: An Interview With Director Kevin Connor”; “Moonbase Merch,” a tour of “Space:1999” ephemera with author John Muir; commentary by author Anthony Taylor on “Dragon’s Domain” And “The Metamorph”; commentary by series expert Scott Michael Bosco, on “Ring Around the Moon”; and a limited-edition set, which includes a snow globe, featuring an Eagle Transporter landing on the moon. The enhanced mono and 5.1 audio soundtracks add to the viewers’ fun.

Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Klute: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
By the time 37-year-old German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed “The BRD Trilogy” — The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982) he had already directed 44 films and television dramas (“Berlin Alexanderplatz”), written 15 stage plays and acted in several other projects. He died soon thereafter from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates. Audiences outside Europe were only beginning to get beyond the “bad boy” reputation he cultivated by making outrageous pronouncements in the West German press, maintaining a fluid attitude toward his own sexual identity, dressing as if he were a hobo and chain-smoking cigarettes. We were attracted to his movies as much for their titles — Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) — as their content. Needless to say, too, the prints that made it to theaters outside New York were far less than pristine. This was true, as well, for the works Fassbinder’s contemporaries, Wim Wenders Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff. While that much has changed, it’s safe to say that Americans are still catching up their work on DVD and Blu-ray. The Criterion Collection’s new collection — “BRD” stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany and of the united contemporary Germany – allows us to re-watch his most accomplished films with a greater awareness of Fassbinder’s intentions. In a word, the experience is “revelatory.” If Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or even John Waters had made them, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss would long ago have reached masterpiece status.

Fassbinder’s goal was to trace the postwar history of West Germany in a series of films told from the perspectives of three remarkable women, portrayed by three exceptional actresses. They were colored, as well, by the tenor of West Germany’s anarchist movement and his deeply grounded cynicism over a series of governments that encouraged citizens to forget the atrocities of World War II and focus instead on the country’s “economic miracle.” In “Maria Braun,” Hanna Schygulla marries soldier Hermann Braun in the last days of World War II. A bomb ruins the ceremony, but it doesn’t prevent the signing of official papers. Almost immediately thereafter, Hermann would be captured by Red Army forces, who, presumably, either killed him or put him on a train to Siberia. Maria never stops loving him or giving up hope that he’ll return home alive. To survive the post-war occupation and deprivation, Maria puts her beauty and desperation to work for her, exchanging sexual favors for food, soap and other necessities, as well as the occasional luxury. A beautiful dress she’s given allows Maria to find work in a dancehall favored by G.I.’s and, in time, as a prostitute. She’s also able to see, first-hand, how the “miracle” can work in her favor in other ways. A couple of years later, when Hermann unexpectedly returns home from a Siberian labor camp. she’ll be caught in flagrante delicto with a black Allied soldier with whom she’s also fallen in love. Hermann takes the fall when she commits an impulsive act to keep her husband from being pummeled. His imprisonment doesn’t, however, prevent Maria from falling in love with a kind, generous and wealthy man she seduces on a practically empty first-class train car. He hires her to translate conversations and contracts, but she volunteers to use her body to close the deal. Strangely enough, he’ll approach Hermann in prison to see the man “she loves more than me.” They form curious bond that gives Hermann, when freed, an opportunity to rehabilitate himself and Maria time to amass a fortune at the textile company. Fassbinder’s “alternate” ending leaves room for conjecture as to the married couple’s fate. “Maria Braun” may remind viewers’ of Joan Crawford’s performance in Michael Curtiz’ rags-to-riches noir drama, Mildred Pierce (1945). Along with Douglas Sirk, Curtiz was a key influence on Fassbinder. “Maria Braun” is a heartbreaking study of a woman picking herself up from the ruins of her own life, as well as a pointed metaphorical attack on a society determined to forget its past.

Likewise, Veronika Voss will remind viewers of Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of the long-forgotten and extremely delusional silent-film actress, Norma Desmond, in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). In fact, Veronika Voss (a.k.a., “The Longing of Veronika Voss”) more directly reflects the tragic fall from grace of Weimar-era leading lady Sybille Schmitz (Rosel Zech). A great actress and beauty, her only flaw was not looking sufficiently Aryan for Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, with whom she is rumored to have slept. Struggling for survival in post-war Munich and haunted by her past glory, Voss encounters sportswriter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a rain-swept park and intrigues him with her mysterious allure. As their unlikely relationship develops, Robert comes to discover the dark secrets that brought about the decline of Veronika’s career and virtual imprisonment by caretakers and drugs prescribed by a corrupt doctor.

Lola, which is an unmistakable homage to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is set in Coburg in the autumn of 1957. Lola (Barbara Sukowa), a seductive cabaret singer/prostitute, exults in her power to separate men from their money and pride. Like everyone else prospering from the “miracle,” she craves money, property and status. By pitting an oily building contractor and brothel owner (Mario Adorf) against the new straight-arrow building commissioner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), she launches an outrageous plan to elevate herself in a country where everything is for sale. Shot in wonderfully synchronized candy colors by Xaver Schwarzenberger, Lola is both a visual treat and another tragic example of how the vanity of accomplished older men can lead them into places they have no business being.  All three films are enhanced by 4K or high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. The bonus features include several hours’ worth of vintage commentaries, featuring Wenders and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (on The Marriage of Maria Braun), film critic and author Tony Rayns (Veronika Voss) and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen (Lola); interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech and Barbara Sukowa, Schwarzenberger, screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer and film scholar Eric Rentschler; “Life Stories: A Conversation With R. W. Fassbinder,” filmed for German television in 1978; “I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me,” a feature-length 1992 documentary on Fassbinder’s life and career; “Dance With Death,” a program from 2000 about UFA Studios star Sybille Schmitz; a conversation between author and curator Laurence Kardish and film editor Juliane Lorenz; vintage trailers; and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Kent Jones and production histories by author Michael Töteberg.

Including Alan J. Pakula’s 1971 thriller, Klute, in this summary may appear to be a leap, but, given its simultaneous release on Blu-ray by Criterion, the linkage should be obvious. Indeed, i’s tantalizing to imagine how movies such as Klute, Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979) might have been turned out under Fassbinder’s guidance. (And, no, I’m not suggesting there’s anything remotely wrong with those films.) Like Fassbinder’s female protagonists, Jane Fonda’s retired call girl, Bree Daniels, is a product of her times. She works as hard for her money as Sukowa’s Lola and Schygulla’s Braun. Her philosophy, as related to an intimidated trick, is, “Nothing one does is wrong … let it all hang out.” This might have worked in postwar Germany, but it could get a woman killed in New York’s dystopian nightmare. Because Pakula’s film was targeted at sophisticated American audiences of the time, however, Bree’s philosophy had its limits with the newly installed MPAA ratings board. As forthright and independent a woman as she is in Fonda’s hands, Bree needed some help to survive as a single woman in New York. Moments after claiming her Academy Award for Best Actress, Fonda told reporters: “I’m not very happy about what the picture is saying to women, which is, if you get a good shrink and a good guy, everything will turn out alright. I don’t think that’s true.” In a conceit that would be echoed in Hardcore, Midwestern detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is recruited by friends of a missing man to go to New York and find the woman to whom his last letters were addressed. At first, Bree takes Klute for a rube with no clue as to how things work in the big, bad city. Her opinion changes when she begins to receive threatening calls and is asked by police to examine photos of dead prostitutes to identify her friends. Bree’s only defense is to accept Klute’s help, which turns out to be quite adequate to the task. Naturally, this will include a bit of off-the-books sexual healing. A master of tension, conspiracies and paranoiac behavior, Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis ratchet up the suspense to the point where an explosive ending is assured. Even 10 years earlier, Fonda’s portrayal of a fashion-conscious, independently wealthy, sex-positive prostitute wouldn’t have met restrictions imposed by the Production Code. She’s since become an archetype. The Criterion Collection edition has been accorded a terrific 4K digital transfer, supervised by camera operator Michael Chapman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a fresh conversation between actors Fonda and Illeana Douglas; a new documentary about Klute and Pakula, by filmmaker Matthew Miele, featuring scholars, filmmakers and the director’s family and friends; “The Look of Klute,” a new interview with writer Amy Fine Collins; archival interviews with Pakula and Fonda; a making-of documentary made during the shooting of the film; an essay by critic Mark Harris and excerpts from a 1972 interview with Pakula.

The Baker’s Wife: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lovers of pre-World War II French cinema will welcome the new Criterion Collection edition of The Baker’s Wife (1939), by playwright/novelist/auteur Marcel Pagnol. Set in the lovely feudal village of Le Castellet, in far southeastern France, The Baker’s Wife is an enchanting slice-of-life comedy and portrait of a close-knit village, where the marital woes of one beloved citizen concern everyone in his orbit. The basic story, adapted from a novel by Jean Giono, could hardly be more familiar. A talented, if grossly out-of-shape baker, Aimable Castanier (Raimu), moves to the Provencal countryside with his pretty and much younger wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc). Their presence immediately fills a void in the community. By the time the ovens finally meet Aimable’s exacting specifications, a line has already formed outside the bakery. The customers aren’t disappointed. The priest and marquis Castan de Venelles order generous quantities in advance. In the same line is a virile shepherd, who locks eyes with Aurélie. That night, he returns to the bakery, with the intention of sweeping her off her feet and fleeing on horseback. Aimable is so devastated that he isn’t able to work, anymore. The villagers, who initially laughed at his cuckoldry, organize a plan to find Aurelie and bring her home. When they do locate the woman, the priest reads her the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery — “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” – and returns with her to Aimable. Her first word to her husband is “Sorry,” and the marital bond is restored. The citizens of Le Castellet will have fresh bread in the morning. It’s a lovely parable, enlivened by the personalities of the town’s residents. It’s also of a piece with Pagnol’s other humanitarian creations, which include Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources; “The Marseille Trilogy” (a.k.a., “The Fanny Trilogy”); Jofroi (1934); and The Pretty Miller Girl (1949). In 1940, the  National Board of Review Awards honored The Baker’s Wife with Best Foreign Film and Best Actor (Raimu) citations, while the New York Film Critics Circle Awards followed suit with it Best Foreign Film distinction. The film is also said to be mentioned in J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher In The Rye.” The Criterion edition features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; selected-scene commentary, featuring Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles; an introduction by Pagnol from 1967 and excerpt from a 1966 interview with the filmmaker for the French television series “Cinéastes de notre temps”; a short French news program from 1967, revisiting the village of Le Castellet after a screening of the movie at a local bar; and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

The Professor: Blu-ray
It would be a stretch for anyone to blame Johnny Depp’s recent string of underachieving movies – including the ill-fated The Professor and City of Lies – on ongoing legal problems surrounding his similarly ill-fated marriage to actress Amber Heard. Good actors make bad choices for all sorts of reasons. The only people who stand to benefit in the long run are the legal teams who have persuaded their clients to wrestle so publicly in the mud. They’ve probably calculated that Depp’s bad-luck streak can’t last forever, and that Heard has already won the lottery with ongoing roles in the Aquaman and Justice League. Even so, lawyers go through money at approximately the same rate as vampires go through blood. Wayne Robert’s low-key dramatic comedy, The Professor, opened and closed faster than most people can blink and eye. Among other titles that it was pitted against were John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum and incumbent No. 1, Avengers: Endgame. Ironically, The Professor opened only a week later than the unrelated bio/dram, The Professor and the Madman, which starred Mel Gibson as the former and Sean Penn, as the latter. In it, Professor James Murray begins work compiling words for the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1857, and receives over 10,000 legitimate entries from a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Dr. William Minor. It’s currently on display on PPV streaming sites. Ironically, too, a full year before legal challenges cleared Gibson’s pet project for release, Comedy Central’s  “Drunk History” summarized the same fascinating story in the episode, “Dangerous Minds,” for comic effect. Anyway …

Robert’s The Professor, also available on PPV outlets, describes how an unassuming teacher at a private college, Richard Brown (Depp), handles the news that he has cancer and, even with radiation treatments, no more than a year to live. Crushed, Richard chooses to only tell his closest friend and fellow educator, Peter (Danny Huston), about his condition. He’s also decided to redirect the course of his life, by living it to the fullest and eliminating the things that have kept him from doing so in the past. His first act is to cull the dullards and hangers-on from his classroom, by promising them a C if they got up and left. He’d put the remaining students through their paces in a manner that recalls Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989). He openly lampoons school administrators, one of whom (Ron Livingston) is having an affair with his snobby sculptor wife, Veronica (Rosemarie DeWitt). Brown’s first act of defiance comes when his daughter, Olivia (Odessa Young), comes out as a lesbian, and he refuses to share in Veronica’s outrage. Meanwhile, he’s also taken to drinking, smoking dope and expressing his innermost thoughts with his students. The Professor, then, begins to lean toward To Sir, With Love (1967), as Brown’s pedagogical attentions turn to Claire (Zoey Deutch), whose uncle is the school’s dean. The problem is that Brown’s disease tempers his ability to demonstrate the passion for life and teaching in the same way as Williams and Sidney Poitier did in their performances. In turn, the cancer has taken control of the movie, preventing it from escaping the bonds of soggy melodrama. That said, Depp’s loyal fans won’t be terribly disappointed by his lackluster performance here, unless they truly miss the disguises, wigs, weird accents and counterintuitive actions that have cluttered his recent work. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Death and How to Live It: Making The Professor.”

Apparently, even the puny buildup accorded The Professor prompted Vertical Entertainment to free Roberts’ Katie Says Goodbye (2016) from festival purgatory and release it into a handful of theater and streaming venues. In it, a kind-hearted 17-year-old girl (Olivia Cooke), in the American Southwest, turns to prostitution to fulfill her dream of a new life in San Francisco.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales: Blu-ray
No matter how many times animated features from outside the Hollywood firmament have been nominated for Academy Awards, mainstream American audiences have avoided them like the plague. I’d be surprised if Oscar voters took advantage of the free screeners and screenings before voting for the latest Disney/Pixar/Marvel blockbuster. (Anyone want to bet against Toy Story 4 in this year’s race? I thought not.) In 2002, the category’s second sanctioned competition, Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous Spirited Away took the top prize back with him to Japan. (Figuratively, because the maestro refused to travel to the U.S., “while it was dropping bombs on Iraq,”) It became the first and, so far, only hand-drawn, non-English-language animated film to win that award. Then-Pixar director John Lasseter saw the monster numbers in Japan and asked Walt Disney Pictures to pick it up for distribution here, but not before he agreed to produce an adaptation for English-speaking audiences. Even though it would make $10 million here – not counting the video sales – Disney shortchanged the marketing budget when it was denied ancillary rights. Two years later, Miyazaki’s anti-war stance might have given Aardman’s stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit a slight edge over Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, another Anglo/American stop-action picture. Ghibli would be represented again by also-rans The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014), When Marnie Was There (2016) and The Wind Rises (2013), which was competing against Disney’s monster hit, Frozen,  DreamWorks/Fox’s The Croods, Universal’s Despicable Me 2 and StudioCanal’s the Franco/Belgian’s delight, Ernest & Celestine. The extreme latter was produced by some of the same people responsible for the newly released The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and César finalist, A Mouse’s Tale (2008).

Ghibli’s success may have opened the Academy’s door for such later nominees as The Triplets of Belleville (2003), Persepolis (2007), The Secret of Kells and A Town Called Panic (2009) (2009), The Illusionist, A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita (2010), Boy and the World (2013), Song of the Sea and The Dam Keeper (2014), My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle (2016), The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent (2017), and Mirai (2018), but the floodgates to commercial acceptance have remained closed to outsiders. Only Oregon-based Laika’s Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) have topped the same nine-figure barrier that Disney/Pixar, Disney Animation, DreamWorks, Marvel/Sony/Disney, Paramount/Nickelodeon and Warner/Village Roadshow routinely expected for their products, along with Oscars. It once was easy to pin the blame on bad dubbing and annoying lip-synching for poor box-office returns. They imbued the animated features with a foreign air that frightens audiences who grew up on Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and the antics of Tom & Jerry. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Robert Zemeckis toyed with viewers’ lifelong relationship with their favorite cartoon characters.

I’ve always believed that the round-eyed characters in Japanese manga and anime – first attributed to Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy”/ “Mighty Atom” (1963) – were drawn that way to appeal to western audiences, in the same way that dubbing was introduced to ease their fear of subtitles. Along with that came the routine assembling of A-listers to lend their disembodied voices to a project’s dub track. If, in the 1960s, western audiences for anime and manga weren’t so minute, that theory might have carried some weight. Tezuka is said to have drawn inspiration from Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse and “Looney Tunes.” It didn’t take long for Japanese audiences to recognize a full range of emotions and personality traits telegraphed by subtle variations in the shape of a character’s eyes or color of their hair. The subject of eye shapes soon became a non-issue. Today, the trend has reversed course and more sophisticated animated features have adopted a more naturalistic look.

I’m not the only person who’s seen a resemblance between the characters in The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales and those drawn by Walt Disney, Tex Avery and other animators at Walter Lantz Productions, in the early 1930s. By putting words in the mouths of barn animals and forest dwellers, they created a paradigm that has lasted for nearly 100 years. Film journalist Gary Morris has described how Avery shifted that paradigm by “steering the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and making cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated (his) speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.” In “Big Bad Fox,” co-director/co-writer Benjamin Renner rejiggers both Hollywood cartoon formulas – whose usefulness has nearly been exhausted – and adds a layer of madness that includes role reversal, wish fulfillment and multiphrenia. From a distance, everything looks calm and peaceful. Up close, it’s a ball of confusion. We’re introduced to a fox who thinks it’s a chicken, a rabbit that acts like a stork and a duck who wants to replace Father Christmas. In this, Renner’s third animated film – he created the comic book, upon which the stories are based – he also appears to have been influenced by Doctor Seuss and Adult Swim. In the first tale (“A Baby to Deliver”), a feckless stork leaves a baby in the hands of a rabbit, a pig and a duck, urging them to make the delivery in his place. The second and longest story (“The Big Bad Fox”) follows a fox scrounging around for food and winding up — not unlike Seuss’ “Horton Hatches an Egg” — with a set of baby chicks to manage. It proves he may be a better at child-rearing than at hunting. In the third section (“The Perfect Christmas”), the animals mistakenly think they’ve killed Santa Claus and try their best to impersonate him. The package adds a nine-minute interview with co-directors Renner and Patrick Imbert (Ernest & Celestine), in which the characters are studied, identifying temperaments and quirks, and the challenges of direction are recounted; a fifteen-minute making-of featurette, in which four children attempt to interview select members of the crew; a Q&A at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (4:35, HD); and a piece on the English dub session.

Hold Back the Dawn: Blu-ray
Life along the border has always been contentious, harsh and dangerous. President Trump wants us to think that the men, women and children currently being held in cages are criminals, gang members, leeches and disease carriers, not human beings seeking freedom, jobs and security for their children. For Trump and his Republican cronies, most of whom have never done an honest day’s work, banging on the immigration drum is a way to stir the rabble and get re-elected. Mitchell Leisen’s surprisingly topical and frequently charming Hold Back the Dawn (1941) takes place on the border separating Tijuana and southern California, at a time when refugees from around the world – not just Mexico and Central America – were begging, scheming and bribing their way across the border. They did so to escape fascism, mindless violence, prejudice and poverty. Most of the refugees then waiting desperately for papers to be signed or a gate to open were vaguely aware, at least, of the quote engraved on a plaque mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” If POTUS had his druthers, he probably would order the National Park Service to build a Trump-branded hotel next to Lady Libertas, just like in Las Vegas. I wonder how many of the Democratic presidential candidates could quote more than a few words from the plaque, either.

Mitchell Leisen’s Best Picture-nominated romantic drama, Hold Back the Dawn, was co-adapted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, from a story by Ketti Frings, “Memo to a Movie Producer.” As an Austrian Jew, Wilder was among “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” who got out of Europe when the getting was still good. He would struggle a bit upon his arrival in in Hollywood in 1933, but the émigré community gave him its support. Before he was partnered with Brackett on a series of movies that led from Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939), to Hold Back the Dawn, he had one more large hurdle to clear. It directly inspired Leisen’s film. Like Charles Boyer’s devious gigolo, Georges Iscovescu, Wilder spent time in Mexico, waiting for the U.S. government to renew his papers after his six-month visa had expired in 1934. He was denied re-entry for several months, until, at the point of losing hope, he went to a new immigration officer. After the guard asked Wilder his profession, he stamped Wilder’s papers, adding, “Make good movies, then.” In today’s America, the next Billy Wilder could be trapped in a cage along the border, waiting for the 2020 elections to play out.

Hold Back the Dawn opens with a disheveled Iscovescu suddenly appearing at the gates of Paramount Studios, demanding to see Leisen, whose character, director Dwight Saxon, was on a soundstage rehearsing a scene from I Wanted Wings (1941), with Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy and Richard Webb. As will become apparent much later in the picture, Romanian-born Iscovescu wants to sell the story of his recent troubles for $500. What we aren’t told is the reason why. When Saxon takes the bait, the real-life director throws his movie, Hold Back the Dawn, into flashback mode. Now, Iscovescu is in Tijuana, being told that the waiting period for Romanian immigrants currently stands at eight years. Fortuitously, he runs into his former dancing partner, Anita (Pauline Goddard), who found a sugar daddy and, just as quickly, ditched him. She  advises Georges to marry an American woman and desert her once safely across the border. After being turned down by a German woman (Rosemary DeCamp) who’s already married, he sets his sight on American teacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). Emmy’s school bus broke down in Tijuana, stranding her with a dozen kids who have nothing better to do than terrorize the guests and managers at the Hotel Esperanza. Georges talks the mechanic into taking his time fixing the vehicle, giving him another day to win her heart. At the same time, a dogged Border Patrol inspector (Walter Abel) has figured out the scheme – a Romanian gigolo would stand out in most crowds — and vows to catch Georges before he can break Emmy’s heart. After he breaks the bad news to the teacher, she turns tails and returns home to Azusa. A terrible twist near the film’s end prompts the visit to Paramount Studios, where Iscovescu hopes to sell the story to Saxon.

It’s a neat gag that gets even better knowing Wilder’s experience at the border. Hold Back the Dawn would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Writing (Wilder and Brackett), Best Actress in a Leading Role (de Havilland), Best Cinematography (black-and-white), Best Art Direction (interiors) and Best Music (drama). Arrow Academy’s high-definition presentation is from original film elements and adds new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; featurette “Love Knows No Borders,” a new appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew; “The Guardian Lecture: Olivia de Havilland,” a career-spanning interview with the star, recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1971; a rare hour-long radio adaptation from 1941, starring Boyer, Goddard and Susan Haywood; a gallery of original stills and promotional images;  a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by writer and critic Farran Smith Nehme. The great bluesman, Sonny Boy Williams I, makes a sadly uncredited cameo as a street musician.

Noir Archive 9-film Collection, Volume 2: 1954-1956: Blu-ray
It’s been a short three months since Kit Parker Films and Mill Creek Entertainment released “Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954,” which is comprised of rarely seen thrillers from the Columbia  Pictures archives. Not all of the nine movies fit easily within the established parameters of noir, but the ones that don’t can be enjoyed as above-average B-movies and oddities. All benefit mightily from the upgrade to Blu-ray. Chronologically, “Noir Archive 9-film Collection, Volume 2: 1954-1956” picks up at exactly the same point as where “Volume 1” left off: 1954, which was on the downhill side of the subgenre’s life expectancy. Technically, the same can generally be said of movies intended as second features in theaters and drive-ins. The designation also applied to shorter, more budget-conscious horror, sci-fi and Western flicks. Just as Roger Corman provided opportunities for young, unestablished film school graduates in the 1960s, studios in the 1930s,’40s and ’50s maintained stables of emerging and submerging actors, directors, cinematographers and writers to churn out B’s. Today, many of their films have been upgraded to A-level status by buffs, collectors and academics.

“Volume 2” may only cover a two-year span, but the movies are of equal value to ones in “Volume 1,” which represented a full decade. Many viewers will be drawn first to 5 Against the House (1955), if only for the glowing presence of a 22-year-old Kim Novak, whose next picture would be The Man With a Golden Arm (1955). Digging further reveals the fingerprints of co-writers Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night), William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!), co-writer/producer John Barnwell, Frank Tashlin (The Girl Can’t Help It), magazine writer/novelist Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and journeyman director Phil Karlson (Hell to Eternity). In a plot that might have inspired Ocean’s 11 (1960), four Korean War veterans, attending college on the GI Bill, devise an elaborate scheme to rob Reno’s “impenetrable” Harold’s Club casino. At first, the idea is simply to prove it can be done. Brian Keith (“Family Affair”), who suffers from war-related flasnbacks, has other designs for the money, however, and his pal Guy Madison (“Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok”), feels obligated to join him. His girlfriend (Novak) plays a sultry cabaret singer, who thinks it might be fun to tag along. (Here’s how she was described in the New York Times’ slurpy review: “Kim Novak, as the blonde songstress who can’t quite make up her mind about her man, is as tempting a dish as any to have been set before a viewer this season.”) The co-stars include comic sidekick Alvy Moore (“Green Acres”), matinee idol Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) and William Conrad (“Cannon”), as a casino employee. More of a caper picture than noir, 5 Against the House has a lot to recommend it.

Also on tap are Hugo Haas’s Bait (1954), a tale of deceit set near the top of a mountain, which holds just enough gold to turn geezer partner, Marko (Haas), against his young and virile partner, Ray (John Agar), and the blond bombshell, Peggy (Cleo Moore), who marries the old man, prefers the younger guy and plays both of the prospectors against each other to escape with the claim. The echoes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) resonate between the Sonoran Desert and a snow-covered soundstage in Culver City. Cell 2455, Death Row (1955) was, of course, based on the autobiographical best-seller by San Quentin inmate Caryl Chessman (William/Robert Campbell). Although his crimes fell just short of murder, he was sent to Death Row under California’s Little Lindbergh Law. Released before Chessman was executed in 1960 – after dozens of appeals and stays — the popularity of the book and movie not only spurred protests against the death penalty, but also encouraged thousands of jailhouse lawyers to challenge their convictions. The setting shifts continually from Cell 2455 to scenes from his youth, when the well-meaning juvenile delinquent turned into a heartless criminal. Andrew Stone’s The Night Holds Terror (1955) also is based on a true crime. This one involves a carjacking by escaped convicts and the subsequent home invasion and kidnapping of the adult daughter (Hildy Parks) of a wealthy man. The movie, which easily passes for noir, is essential for early appearances by John Cassavetes (“The Dirty Dozen”), David Cross (“77 Sunset Strip”), Jack Kelly (“Maverick”), Vince Edwards (“Ben Casey”), fresh off an appearance in Cell 2455, Death Row. In addition to being a decent thriller, The Night Holds Terror works well as a procedural.

The other five Blu-rays in the bonus-free package include Nathan Juran’s The Crooked Web (1955), a post-war potboiler that largely is set in  Occupied Berlin, where a murder and theft remain unsolved 10 years later; Arthur Lubin’s “Gothic noir,” Footsteps in the Fog (1955) stars real-life couple Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons in a tale of homicide and psychological gamesmanship that smacks of Hitchcockian intrigue; ; Vernon Sewell’s Spin a Dark Web (1955) also was sold to Columbia after being made in London by Frankovich Productions. It involves a Canadian prizefighter (Lee Patterson), who, instead of excelling in the ring, finds work as an enforcer for the brother of a femme fatale, played by Faith Domergue (This Island Earth). By the time he figures out their game, it’s almost too late to escape a prison sentence. William Castle’s New Orleans Uncensored (1955) arrived in theaters less than a year after On the Waterfront (1954), although on opposite sides of the fence. In the similarly themed B-movie, a Navy veteran (Arthur Franz) purchases a government surplus vessel, hoping to restore it and make a living at sea. His plans are almost thwarted by a turf battle between gangsters and longshoremen. Beverly Garland, Helene Stanton and Michael Ansara add luster to the proceedings.

It’s impossible to imagine a universe in which Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim might have been influenced by Fred F. Sears’ Rumble on the Docks (1956), when they were putting the finishing touches on “West Side Story.” Or, that Jack DeWitt and Lou Morheim’s low-budget morality play used “Romeo and Juliet” as a launching pad, as was the case with the multi-platform musical. The original concept for “West Side Story” focused on a conflict between Irish Catholic and Jewish families on the Lower East Side, of during the Easter/Passover season. In “Rumble,” the gangs are largely generic, and they clash over territory along the docks. In his first feature film, James Darren (Gidget) plays the estranged son of a printing-press owner, Pete Smigelski (Edgar Barrier), whose back was broken in a labor dispute when he was a child. Ever since, Pete has treated Jimmy as if he’s personally responsible for the damage done to him by the local crime boss, Joe Brindo (Michael Granger), who thinks he owns the docks.  After doing a favor for the comically adorned Brindo – who should measure his tailor for concrete slippers — Jimmy thinks he’s found a surrogate father. He didn’t count, however, on being on the same team as thugs capable of beating up his girlfriend’s little brother and trashing his father’s shop. Look for Robert Blake as one of Darren’s fellow gang members and the late, great Hollywood heavy, Timothy Carey, as one of Brindo’s henchmen.

Universal Horror Collection, Volume 2: Blu-ray
The second volume of obscure horror titles from the Universal archives follows the first into release by six weeks. That one featured four films in which Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared together as atypical characters (for them) and for various amounts of time. A couple of them were good enough to recommend, while those others were curiosities, at best. The similarly upgraded “Universal Horror Collection, Volume 2” is comprised of movies Boomers and their parents might have watched as midnight monster-movie packages or at Saturday afternoon matinees. The selections were released by TCM in five-movie sets a couple of years ago and I don’t know why consumers today are being shortchanged, unless it was part of the deal with Scream Factory. A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933), Joseph H. Lewis’ The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), William Nigh’s The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) and James P. Hogan’s The Mad Ghoul (1943). All of them represent the mad-scientist or pseudoscience subgenres that were popular in the 1930-40s and provided Universal with low-budget alternatives to its monster series. They’re short on suspense; criminally underwritten; full of goofs (a python is passed off as a green mamba); and, apart from Shemp Howard, Charles Ruggles and a then-unknown Randolph Scott, populated with long-forgotten actors. They were part of the original “Shock Theater” package of 52 Universal titles released to television in 1957 and followed a year later with “Son of Shock,” which added 20 more features. They all look a lot better today. That said, buffs of such movies won’t mind wasting a few hours watching these bizarre entertainments.

The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2: Blu-ray
At Cohen Media, 2019 has turned into the Year of Buster Keaton, which should come as good news for anyone who’s never seen his work in such pristine shape. It began on April 2, with the release of Peter Bogdanovich’s 101-minute documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration. According to the boilerplate, the doc “celebrates the life and career of one of America’s most influential and celebrated filmmakers and comedians, whose singular style and fertile output during the silent era created his legacy as a true cinematic visionary.” No hyperbole, there. Keaton incomparable comedy was and continues to be the gold standard. Just in case some young whippersnapper wanted to argue a contrary position, Cohen released “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1” a month later. It contains two of the greatest films ever made … comedy or drama, silent or otherwise: The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), both restored in 4K and featuring fresh orchestral scores by Carl Davis and featurettes. A couple of weeks ago, “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2” added the equally hilarious and influential Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator to the mix, again restored and with featurettes. The embarrassment of riches continues in three weeks with “The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 3,” containing the more infrequently seem, Seven Chances (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). But don’t take my word for it, “The Great Stone Face” has appeared in eight films that have been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: One Week (1920), Cops (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928) and, lest we forget, Sunset Blvd. (1950). He also directed seven of those entries. All of the silents were made within the nine-year period, before he made the mistake of signing with MGM.

Among the things for which Sherlock Jr. will be forever remembered are a lengthy chase scene that occurs during a projectionist’s dream and pulls all the brilliant gimmicks out of Keaton’s bag of tricks; a game of pool that took four months to master and five days to shoot; the scene in which the projectionist’s alter ego, Sherlock Jr., escapes gangsters by leaping headfirst through the body of his disguised assistant, Gillette (Ford West) and disappears; and, of course, the sequence in which Sherlock Jr. is running along the roofs of some moving freight cars and grabs the spout connected to a water tower. Keaton’s weight caused the spout to descend and, as it did so, the gush of water washed him on to the track with force, fracturing his neck nearly to the point of breaking it. Not only is the scene in the picture, but the fracture went undiagnosed for until the 1930s, when Keaton sought relief from blinding migraines. All 45 minutes of Sherlock Jr. overflow with laughs, thrills and surprises. Oddly, it didn’t fare well with critics or audiences of the day. Go figure.

Released back-to-back, The Navigator (1924) became Keaton’s most successful movie in gross revenues. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, who took an early powder, Keaton and his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) are the only persons aboard the Navigator, when it’s cast adrift by saboteurs hoping it clogs the entrance to the harbor. Instead, it finds its way to an island populated by cannibals. When the Navigator runs aground, the islanders snatch Betsy While that happens, Rollo is underwater in a diving suit and weighted shoes, attempting to assess the damage. The head-to-toe outfit will come in handy when he walks to shore and scares the natives, but only for an hour or two. Then the battle begins. The innovate underwater scenes were shot off Catalina and in Lake Tahoe. The retired freighter Keaton purchased for the production provided him with all sorts of opportunities for gags and escape routes. The Cohen package adds a pair of featurettes that combine making-of and biographical detail.

Hellboy: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Doors: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Weird Science: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Even if Guillermo del Toro’s original Hellboy (2004) didn’t set the turnstiles ablaze in its theatrical run, video sales encouraged the writer/director and its star, Ron Perlman, to return four years later in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which did very well. It wasn’t until February 2017 that Del Toro admitted that the trilogy he proposed wouldn’t be completed under his and Perlman’s watch. Why any production company would turn down another opportunity to collaborate with Del Toro and Perlman is another one of those rhetorical questions pondered by so-called entertainment reporters … or so-called reporters of so-called news in the so-called entertainment industry. Given how quickly bad news travels on the Internet and among ComicCon geeks, it’s difficult to understand how anyone would greenlight a reboot of Hellboy (a.k.a., “Hellboy: Call of Darkness”), with an entirely new cast, a new writer (albeit from the same Dark Horse universe) and the near certainty of meddling by executives. And, of course, it failed to reach every measurable goal, commercially and critically. I suspect that Hellboy completists will want to check out the new Blu-ray/4K and re-evaluate it out of the shadows of their group-think peers. The special effects are pretty wild and, to me, David Harbour was indistinguishable from Perlman in the title role. Recruiting Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, and Thomas Haden Church wasn’t a mistake, either. I found it impossible to follow the many – too many – individual conceits, however. Before I was able to fully savor any of the individual set pieces and creatively drawn characters, others would follow immediately behind them. Fanboys already are aware of the film’s graphic-novel roots: “Darkness Calls,” “The Wild Hunt,” “The Storm and the Fury” and “Hellboy in Mexico.” It earns the series’ first R rating, so sayeth the MPAA, with “strong bloody violence and gore throughout, and language.” Those who make it through the end credits will be rewarded with a cute little scene alluding to a sequel that probably won’t be made. The package adds the feature-length “Tales of the Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn,” with principal cast and crew members, along with creator Mike Mignola; deleted scenes; and computer animated storyboards.

I’ve been listening to the Doors since the release of the band’s eponymous first album, in 1967, thanks primarily to a column written by Robert Christgau in the June issue of Esquire, to which my father subscribed. Included in his perusal of emerging west-coast bands, as well, were Love and Jefferson Airplane, whose debut albums didn’t particularly impress him. He had better things to say about the Doors, whose “esoteric” mix of original and covered material impressed him, if not as much as the Monkees. At the time, Christgau somehow neglected to mention the contributions of songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to the pre-fab band’s fame. He also didn’t bother to learn the name of the singer he dismissed – the great Arthur Lee – in his far less than visionary take on Love. The forgivably young critic completely missed the boat on “Surrealistic Pillow,” which he reviewed through the eyes and ears of a native New Yorker. I purchased all three, anyway, and, with later, began to listen to the Monkees with more educated ears. Christgau now is one of the grand old men of rock critics and frequently is asked to share his learned opinions in other rockumentaries. Writers with more than 50 years of experience under their belt shouldn’t be judged by their earliest columns, just as a rock band’s inaugural album shouldn’t be measured against the pioneers of rock, blues and R&B, which is how that particular article read.

Like millions of other people around the world I was saddened by Jim Morrison’s untimely death – yes, he was 27 — a mere four years after “The Doors” was released. That doesn’t mean I was surprised by the news, however. Neither have I ever felt the need to erase Doors’ songs from my various playlists because of Morrison’s suicidal behavior and ugly demise. Two decades later, Oliver Stone directly confronted Morrison’s legacy and that of the band. Did the generation nurtured on heavy metal, hip-hop, reggae, glam rock and punk still care about the Lizard King (Val Kilmer)? On the radio, yes; on the big screen, not so much. Stone’s hallucinogenic biopic, The Doors (1991), barely broke even at the box office. If it had been released alongside Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, Rocketman and Yesterday, it might have had a fighting chance. We’ll see. I don’t blame Oliver Stone’s adventurous direction, which pushed the limits on how much AIDS-era fans actually cared about behind-the-scenes mayhem, unfettered promiscuity and good old-fashioned substance abuse. The overfamiliarity with the Doors’ catalogue, caused by the explosion of greatest-hits packages, music videos, concert footage and rockumentaries, on every conceivable platform, definitely worked against Stone’s hagiography. A decade earlier, Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable use of “The End,” from the Doors’ first album, in Apocalypse Now (1979), triggered the same resurgence Stone envisioned. The depiction of Morrison’s inevitable decline and parallel addictions remains almost unbearable to watch, as are his alienation from the band and indefensible treatment of his terminally loyal girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan, at her most adorable). As he had in Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), immediately before The Doors, Stone deftly captured the frenzy, looks, sounds and textures of the times. The crowd scenes, newsreel footage and recreations of events from the band’s heyday are well recalled and depicted, seemingly from memory. The scenes at Andy Warhol’s Factory and its environs do a couple of things simultaneously: plumbing the depths of the chasm between east coast and west coast demimondes and demonstrating Morrison’s fish-out-of-water discomfort in the company of hard-core degenerates, as portrayed by Michael Madsen, Kathleen Quinlan, Mimi Rogers, Jennifer Rubin, Paul Williams, Costas Mandylor and Crispin Glover, as Warhol. There’s an abundance of nudity, but, as I recall, it fit the times. Neither did the psychedelic bits with the Navajo angels (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Wes Studi, Rion Hunter, Steve Reevis) bother me. Hippies and rock stars worshipped Native American culture, even if they didn’t completely grasp its nuances. The 4K package contains final-cut (2:18:11) and theatrical-cut (2:20:29) editions; new interviews with Stone and Lon Bender, mixer for the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The standard Blu-ray edition picks up lengthy featurettes, deleted scenes and an archival EPK from the 2008 edition.

Written and directed by the late, great John Hughes at the height of his creative power, Weird Science (1985) has been accorded the kind of Arrow Video upgrade all of his films merit. The still uproarious sci-fi comedy arrived on the heels of Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), and just ahead of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). By 1991, Hughes decided to stick exclusively with the writing and producing end of the profession. In a sense, Weird Science was Hughes’ computer-age homage to the Frankenstein legend. When Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) finally get sick of being bullied and ridiculed for being at the bottom of Shermer High’s food chain, they take advantage of their nerd skills to create a far more attractive version of the Monster’s Mate. Covergirl Kelly LeBrock had just played a model in Gene Wilder’s The Woman in Red (1984), but her portrayal of the geeks’ cybernetic dream girl required a bit more comic acting and personality. It works. She uses some supernatural magic to turn her ugly ducklings into full-blown swans, admired by everyone in the school for being attached to such a spectacular woman. Bill Paxton played Wyatt’s sadistic older brother; Robert Rusler and Robert Downey Jr. are the boys’ nemeses; and newcomers Suzanne Snyder and Judie Aronson played the hot babes on campus. Hughes’ broad, generous and au courant sense of humor – and empathetic feelings for his characters — was what shone through the Weird Science and his other classic comedies. It reportedly was inspired by EC Comics and, of course, was boosted by a killer soundtrack that included the title theme, by Oingo Boingo. Arrow Films’s restoration includes a 4K scan of the original negative; a theatrical version (94 minutes), edited-for-TV cut (95 minutes) and extended edition (97 minutes), featuring two additional scenes newly remastered in high-definition; newly filmed interviews with special makeup creator Craig Reardon, editor Chris Lebenzon, casting director Jackie Burch, composer Ira Newborn and supporting actor John Kapelos; “It’s Alive: Resurrecting Weird Science,” an archived documentary, featuring interviews with cast, crew and admirers; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tracie Ching; and, first pressing only, an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Amanda Reyes

Hail Satan?
As ridiculous as some of the people we meet in Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? may be, the documentary lays out issues that strike at the heart of our democracy. They include the still raging debate over the separation of church and state; the frequently conflicting freedoms of speech and religions; whether the Constitution applies to those who put their trust in God, not Satanists or atheists; and how to deal with citizens who put their beliefs over those of their fellow Americans. Even though the Supreme Court is pretty clear on the issue, a vocal minority of Christians apparently won’t be satisfied until the “silent majority,” if you will, is required by law to adhere to their interpretation of the bible. They want to be able to display giant crosses, nativity creches and replicas of the Ten Commandments on public land and government buildings, even when the law forbids them from doing so. Here, we see Satanists demanding the same right to gather and be represented in public forums as everyone else, as well as being allowed to parade their iconography in places where their opponents can see it. What I see as the basic issue being debated in Hail Satan? is whether the rights of hypocrites preclude those of non-conformists, provocateurs and kooks, and Lane makes a strong case for the latter. Or, that the well-informed, entirely logical and sometimes outwardly offensive Satanists – some of whom admit to being  non-believers in either deity — make it for her.

Why do I call the preachers and their followers hypocrites? Primarily because of the inconsistency of their constitutionally protected messages. For example, if religious leaders are so offended by the blasphemers and sinners in their midst, why have they refused to call for the impeachment of President Trump – an adulterer, sexual predator and unrepentant liar — strictly on moral and ethical grounds? It would mean the automatic ascension of one of their own: Vice President Mike Pence, who hasn’t been timid about his fundamentalist views. He’d back the same anti-abortion activists, name the same conservative judges and offend the same women’s group as his current boss and is more familiar with domestic and foreign policies. He probably wouldn’t play the clown to amuse his backers, either. What would Jesus do? Probably send Trump packing, back to New York, with all of his possessions balanced on the back of mules. Just as the President has deflected attention away from his miserable behavior and disgusting pronouncements by questioning the patriotism of his enemies, Evangelical preachers have rallied their flocks against self-described Satanists, atheists and quasi-religious narcissists. The Satanists we meet here are every bit as media-savvy as Trump’s advisers – so are the Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists who’ve been allowed to cause mayhem in our streets – but are vastly outnumbered by the MAGA crowd. Television camera crews will follow anyone’s parade down a lonely street on a Saturday afternoon, if something sexier – a police chase, hotdog-eating contest, random street crime – isn’t happening. Although Catholics are underrepresented in the movie, some of the people interviewed argue persuasively that the Church has allowed priests to serve Satan by buggering altar boys and, until recently, escape accountability. Again, WWJD? In her previous work, Lane (Nuts!) has displayed a willingness to stir up controversy. The transposing of a goat’s head on the visage of the Statue of Liberty, on the DVD cover, pretty much guarantees that civil libertarians will be as reluctant to watch Hail Satan? as the bible-bangers who only watch movies with a family-friendly, Dove-approved presentation.

Eternity Has No Door of Escape: Encounters with Outsider Art
Arthur Borgnis’ fascinating documentary, Eternity Has no Door of Escape, easily recalls a period in 20th Century history when Adolph Hitler and his perverted acolytes determined, on behalf of  all citizens of the Third Reich, split art into two categories: representative of Aryan values and “degenerate.” The latter category included modern and interpretive art, Surrealism, Dada and anything else Der Führer believed was experimental, Jewish or that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” From July 19, 1937, to November 30, of the same year, an exhibition of forbidden art was staged in counterpoint to the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition. The Degenerate Art Exhibition presented 650 works of art confiscated from German museums. Presumably, those pieces were subsequently destroyed, unlike the works stolen from Jewish homes and horded by Nazi leaders in caves, until the end of the war, or sold to private buyers. (In the U.S., today, some people consider statues of Confederate generals to be high art and of historical significance. Easily offended parents and special-interest groups – on both sides of the racial and political fence – have labored to ban such essential books as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Color Purple” and even “Harry Potter.”) Eternity Has No Door Of Escape traces the tumultuous history of outsider art (a.k.a., art brut) and introduces us to its pivotal figures, including psychiatrist and art collector Dr. Hans Prinzhorn and Surrealist artist and writer André Breton. Using a treasure trove of rare archival footage, the film brings viewers to the places and institutions – including mental hospitals –from which such frequently wondrous and atypically sacred examples of outsider art emerged. Borgnis invites viewers to feast their eyes on art that defies easy translation or understanding, while delighting us with fanciful images, illogical positioning and whimsical takes on architecture and practical objects. Among the artists discussed are Jean Dubuffet, Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, Laure Pigeon and August Natterer. Hitler wouldn’t approve.

Shortcut to Happiness
On paper, Alec Baldwin’s adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1936 short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” should have had a fighting chance at success. In fact, though, Baldwin’s first and only turn as a director of a feature film turned out to be a disaster, compounded by a train wreck. As the film’s protagonist, novelist Jabez Stone, Baldwin isn’t half-bad, and because Benet’s story has stood the test of time, changing the locale to New York’s chi-chi literary demi-monde shouldn’t have presented any problem, either. Moreover, Baldwin could count on screenwriters Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and Pete Dexter (Mulholland Falls) for a decent script and a supporting cast that included Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Bobby Cannavale, Kim Cattrall, Darrell Hammond, Barry Miller, Amy Poehler and cameos by John Savage, George Plimpton, Jason Patric, Carrot Top, Gay Talese and Gregg Bello. Baldwin plays a failed writer so desperate to be recognized at Elaine’s and other literary haunts that he signs a pact with the Devil. (That wouldn’t be unusual in a profession dominated by self-help hacks and genre specialists, who write the same book over and over, again.) I don’t think many people would pick Jennifer Love Hewitt as their first, second or third choice to play the antagonist, though. As the heroine of a Nicholas Sparks romance, sure, but not Ms. Scratch. And, not when you already have Cattrall on board as a demonic literary agent. That’s because, when things don’t go as planned for Stone, and he wants his life back, Hewitt’s can’t hold a candle to Hopkins’ portrayal of the great lawyer, statesman and orator, Daniel Webster.

The movie’s woes really began during the 2001 shoot, when financial woes hobbled all of production’s forward momentum. Baldwin has said that the movie was taken from him during editing and it prompted him to demand his directorial credit be replaced with the pseudonym “Harry Kirkpatrick.” Shortcut to Happiness was purchased from a bankruptcy court for an undisclosed amount by producer Bob Yari (“Crash”). Once the still unfinished film was cleared to be sold for distribution, a rough cut was screened at film festivals in 2003 and 2004. It then needed further financing to complete the editing and special effects, as well as to replace temporary music. Finally, in July 2006 it was announced that Yari’s company would work on finishing the film and shoot for a 2007 release … in Kazakhstan. The best estimate on Box Office Mojo puts the domestic haul at “n/a” and foreign box office at $605,294, making it a bomb of monumental proportions. The MVD Marquee Collection edition – probably, the first in high-def – doesn’t look any worse for the wear. Completists and diehard fans of the players might get something out of it, but only barely.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Blu-ray
With the exception of the hand game for which it’s named, Rock, Paper, Scissors (2017) is an acceptably thrilling collage of time-honored horror/splatter conceits. It’s directed by Tom Holland, who began his career directing such squirmy fare as Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988), and writing The Beast Within (1982), Psycho II (1983) and Scream for Help (1984). Here, serial killer Peter “Doll Maker” Harris returns to his ancestral home after being released from the state’s hospital for the criminally insane as a “cured” man. Michael Madsen plays the police officer who arrested Harris and rejects the idea that such a monster could be cured, as his psychotherapist (Tatum O’Neal) insists. He pledges to return Harris to the hospital – or kill him – before he can do any more damage to teenage girls in the neighborhood. He also suspects that the woman who’s moved across the street from him – a true-crime writer and sister to a still missing girl —  will become Harris’ next victim or goad him into attacking others. For his part, Harris has stopped insisting that he was ordered to kill the girls by his twin brother, who nobody except Peter believes exists. Neither do we, even when Harris begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with visitors, just as he did with his victims. Holland takes his time answering our questions, while also building tension within the confines of Harris’ house, which may still harbor horrors and secrets. Pretty basic stuff really, especially the bit about the nonexistent evil twin. Michael Madsen will never go hungry as long as B-movies like Rock, Paper, Scissors are made. FYI: In the past 20 years, no fewer that 22 movies, shorts and television episodes have carried the same title.

The DVD Wrapup: Facets, Eliana, Moullet, Pet Sematary, The Loveless, Transit, Kanarie, Escape Plan 3, Island Earth, Tough Ones, Pretenders, Broad City … More

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

Remembering Milos
Eliana, Eliana
The Films of Luc Moullet
I had just moved to Chicago, from Los Angeles, in 1980, when I became acquainted with Milos Stehlik and his bouncing baby, Facets Multi-Media and Cinematheque. Two years earlier, the non-profit organization moved to permanent facilities on West Fullerton Avenue, which, at the time, was still waiting to be gentrified. Even so, it was already was filling a void being experienced by buffs, students and lovers of international cinema. A few of the city’s glorious North Loop movie palaces were still hanging on by a thread, neighborhood theaters struggled to book first-run Hollywood fare, and still pay the rent. AMC and GCC had conquered the suburbs, with multiplexes that had no difficulty landing hit titles, if only because they cut sweetheart deals with distributers and soft-drink companies. Their uniformly rectangular auditoriums defined the term, “shoebox” and came complete with paper-thin walls, sticky floors and pre-packaged popcorn. Traditional arthouses were scattered around Chicago’s North Side, but audiences were often forced to wait weeks for the movies promoted in the trailers to dislodge a popular incumbent. In the late 1970s. the theater complex inside the newly completed Water Tower Place promised something new and different: a place to watch first-run pictures in theaters built for comfort and ideal viewing conditions. Neither were concessions an afterthought. As I recall, it was an instant success, and not at all unlike the now-popular ArcLight Cinemas, in Los Angeles. The opposite was true at Facets, where movies were the whole show and comfort was an afterthought. There were other things there to keep minds’ occupied, including being able to browse through the video collection. It reminded me of visits to San Francisco’s famously cluttered City Lights Bookstore, where the browsing also took place in the basement, and, besides being a cultural landmark, offered novels, non-fiction titles and poetry difficult to find anywhere else. Even so, the odds of Facets succeeding against the Goliaths were roughly the same as the Cubs making the World Series. Both persevered, however.

Stehlik, who had lung cancer, died Saturday at his home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. He was 70. Milos and I struck up a friendship based on the fact that our surnames indicated the possibility of a shared Czech background, somewhere in the country’s deep, dark past. I hadn’t started reviewing movies, led alone videos, yet, but valued the presence of a business that so directly catered to my tastes. As I moved up the ladder in the Tribune’s features department, Facets became an even more valuable resource. My bosses sometimes would voice their concern over why our critics were paying so much attention to such cinematic exotica as Eastern European film festivals and movies that weren’t buying advertising space in the Sunday paper. The non-issue would slip their minds soon enough. Meanwhile, learning that my wife is of the Serbian persuasion, we were always given a heads-up when a  new Yugoslavian export had arrived, or a noteworthy director was in town. Milos got a kick out of introducing Donna to Dušan Makavejev, the irrepressible bad boy director of such frequently banned films as WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), as well as the uproariously dark comedy, Montenegro (1981), whose characters shared traits with people we knew. In it, the uptight American wife (Susan Ansbach) of a deceptively straitlaced Swedish bourgeois (Erland Josephson) is abducted at the airport by a motley group of Yugoslavian immigrants connected to the raucous Zanzi Bar nightclub. (She’s forced to share a station wagon with a man with a knife in his forehead, a goat and a naïve stripper who’d just flown in for New Year’s Eve festivities. Her act includes a toy tank with a dildo attached to its cannon.) Montenegro had taken over the large screen at the historic Biograph Theater for weeks. Not many of Dušan’s pictures could attract such crowds, even at an arthouse, but they always found a home at Facets … and, in a sense, so did all lovers of foreign films. Even when we moved back to Los Angeles, in 1995, we kept in touch by subscribing to Facets’ catalog and newsletters. (A few free rentals were thrown in, as well.) I always found Milos to be a ready source for information about the movies about which I was writing or reviewing in their DVD iteration. Before Netflix was founded, in 1997, Facets had created a distribution network and rental business that connected cineastes around the country to the Fullerton Avenue store, screening room, classrooms and annual children’s festival. Lately, it’s begun streaming movies of significance to subscribers, especially those in the boonies.

Titles that Facets first made available in the U.S., or released on its private label, included Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Milos Forman’s Black Peter, Forough Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black, Frantisek Vlácil’s Adelheid” and collections of experimentalists, such as James Broughton, Heinz Emigholz and the UK architect-turned-filmmaker, Patrick Keiller. Over the years, devoted Facets customers included such bold-face names as Martin Scorsese, Stephen Sondheim and Cher, as well as hundreds of university and public libraries. In a 1998 New York Times article, Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert opined, “If you can’t find it at Facets, chances are you can’t find it. (Stehlik’s) really making a difference, on a national, even a worldwide, level.” When the Iron Curtain was brought down in the early 1990s, Facets benefited from his already established access to Eastern European artists and distributors, whose movies had been denied western audiences during the Cold War. Stehlik’s accomplishments include teaching at Columbia College Chicago and lecturing at Wayne State University, DePaul University and the University of Illinois. He served on the juries of several film festivals and on review panels for the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a board member of the Illinois Arts Alliance, the program committee of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and Chicago Latino Cultural Center. He provided film commentaries on Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ-FM, and received the Associated Press Broadcasters Award. In 1997, he was also awarded the Telluride Film Festival Silver Medallion for “creating a virtual Cinematheque on video,” and named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Communication.

I wonder if he was ever asked to throw out the first ball or sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field. How about an honorary street sign? At the recent Facets Master Class with Werner Herzog, on May 11, 2019, the filmmaker said: “There are some human beings that were named national treasures of the United States. They haven’t named Milos yet, but I do. I hope and wish there’s a great future for Facets.” To commemorate its founder and continue his work, Facets has established the Milos Stehlik Legacy Fund. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund can be made online at www.facets.org/legacyfund or by contacting Ann Kopec at ann@facets.org. It’s a credit to Milos’ foresight and commitment to the cinematic art – and Chicago, for that matter — that Facets’ concrete foundation isn’t likely to crack in his absence.

To that point, it’s worth recognizing the most recent additions to Facets’ video catalogue. Riri Riza’s Eliana, Eliana is exactly the kind of small, intensely realized urban drama that keeps slipping between the cracks of international distribution networks. It’s gone largely unseen since it began to make the rounds of niche festivals in 2002. IMDB.com only lists one review. Set in the teeming streets of Jakarta– at all hours of a single day — Eliana, Eliana’s handheld camera follows an estranged mother and daughter, as they struggle to make amends, while dodging pimps, slimy landlords and other threats to the young woman’s safety. Eliana’s day from hell already included being fired from her job for kicking a grabby supervisor in the nuts and coming home to find her older roommate, Heni, missing and presumably in hiding. Apparently Heni’s been covering the rent by sleeping with the thuggish landlord. She’s also being chased by her pimp, who, as the birth father of her daughter, attempts to maintain sole custody. Her mother, Bunda, wants to talk Eliana into returning home to Sumatra, which she left, at 15, to escape a pre-arranged marriage to an older man. It’s taken Bunda five years to follow her trail to the Indonesian capital. The last thing Eliana wants to do is relinquish her freedom, by returning home stripped of any semblance of dignity.

Once mother and daughter are reunited, the hostility between them becomes palpable. It’s interrupted when the men chasing Heni make their presence known outside the apartment building and Eliana orders Bunda to follow her to a secret exit. When the mother spots a taxi in an alley, she demands of the recalcitrant driver that he chauffer them around Jakarta, until the smokes clears. In turn, the driver demands that she cough up enough money to cover a day’s fare. Because neither of the women can decide how hungry they are, the driver is instructed to drop them off in front of all sorts restaurants and purveyors of street food. In the meantime, he agrees to cools his heels in the cab or complete crossword puzzles in a corner bar. As Bunda acclimates herself to the city at night and, in turn, comes to respect Eliana’s ability to survive there, it becomes abundantly clear the two women are cut from the same cloth. (They both know how to bring a male assailant to his knees, with a swift kick.) While I realize that any comparison to Mean Streets will sound like a copout, it’s inevitable and warranted. Riza’s ability to capture the sights, sounds, colors and textures of Jakarta at night – while also leaving room for the driver’s story – suggests that Martin Scorsese’s down-and-dirty depiction of Little Italy made an impression on him.

Facets has consistently demonstrated a particular fondness for the French writer/director/documentarian/actor Luc Moullet, who began contributing to Les Cahiers du Cinéma at 18 and is still associated with the Nouvelle Vague. It wasn’t until I received the new two-disc package from Facets that I recognized any of his work. “The Films of Luc Moullet” includes Gérard Courant’s The Man of the Badlands (2000), in which Moullet returns to the rugged landscapes and remote mountaintop villages that served as backdrops for his first color film, A Girl Is a Gun” (a.k.a., “Une aventure de Billy le Kid”). Released in 1971, only a month after El Topo put Alejandro Jodorowsky on the map, it’s a self-described “psychedelic Western.” Even though it starred French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows), it reportedly has never been shown theatrically in France. A laughably bad English dubbing held it back here, in the land of the genres Moullet embraced. In The Man of the Badlands, he gives viewers a first-hand description of what it feels like to push actors beyond their limits in the service of a story, which, even at the time, had been told dozens of times. What’s interesting, though, are the side-by-side comparisons of the settings … then and now. Moullet and Courant also revisit the remote villages that provided settings for the movie. In 1971, the houses, churches and other buildings were already beginning to decay, primarily because so few residents were left to care about them. That’s changed only a slight bit since the paving of roads and introduction of electricity. The presentation also allows for demonstrations, by Moullet, of how he was able to shoot the characters in such extreme conditions. They include escaping over a mountaintop covered with slippery and noisy scraps of shale. “Badlands” is a lot of fun, especially when we’re shown how dangerous and beautiful the settings actually were.

The Sieges of the Alcazar largely takes place inside a neighborhood movie theater, the Alcazar, circa 1955. It’s a place where critics gather to review movies and form opinions they’ll defend to the death. For Moullet, the film recalls a time, 30 years earlier, when he was a young writer and shared some of the same characteristics with the pompous critics we meet here. (Milos surely recognized some of them.) The proprietors appear to be openly hostile to their customers, who pay a premium to sit on chairs that don’t have springs sticking through the fabric or want to be left alone to neck in peace. Guy Moscardo, the idiosyncratic critic who serves as Moullet’s stand-in, is constantly surrounded by children, who couldn’t care less about the movie that was playing in front of them. Then, too, there are the townsfolks who straggle into the theater for reasons of their own and are badgered by the woman who takes tickets, escorts customers to their seats, sells candy and mops up after the show. (The projectionist and co-owner occasionally skips reel, in order to shorten his workday and see if anyone’s paying attention.) She’s a constant irritant, as well, to Guy, who writes for Cahiers du Cinéma. He demands ideal conditions to study the films of Italian writer/director Vittorio Cottafavi, but rarely gets them. Equally irritating are fellow critics, who he accuses of stalking him, and either disparaging his work or fawning over him. Not that the dilettante discourages fans of the magazine from admiring him. One-time actress Elizabeth Moreau plays Jeanne Cavalero, his print rival and chief deflator of his opinions on Cottafavi. The sparking, of course, could easily lead to romance or disappointment. The Sieges of the Alcazar looks as if it were inspired equally by Jacques Tati and the Marx Brothers, with Margaret Dumont thrown in to play Jeanne. I’m not sure that Moullet’s barbs will be relevant to viewers whose only knowledge of critics’ habits and peccadillos derive from watching a few episodes of “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies.” I found the movie to be hilarious, especially in the slickly choreographed movements of the Alcazar’s patrons and Guy’s devotion to film over love.

Pet Sematary: Blu-ray
Not having seen Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and screenplay for “Pet Sematary,” I thought I might be at a disadvantage when considering the worthiness of the 2019 remake. Despite mostly negative reviews, the original made a lot of money for Paramount. Still known primarily for her music-video collaborations with Madonna — “Material Girl,” “Borderline,” “Like a Virgin” — Lambert was asked to collaborate with writer Richard Outten  (Last Rites) on the inevitable sequel, Pet Sematary Two (1992). It scored similarly unimpressive numbers at Metacritic, and, unable to capitalize on King’s name, plummeted at the box office. That said, the sequel still managed to gross $17 million, against an estimated budget of $8 million, and probably did OK in cassette. A quarter-century later, Paramount handed the reins to the remake of Pet Sematary to co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) and co-writers Matt Greenberg (Mercy) and Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train). Because King’s name would be re-attached to the publicity material, Internet gossip began as soon the project was announced in the trades. When test screening began, however, anticipation would turn into kvetching over changes made to King’s text and subsequent screenplay. If the writer didn’t complain about seeing his name on marketing material, it’s safe to assume that the revisions fell short of taxing his patience and reserve. King once mentioned that the only novel he wrote that really scared him was “Pet Sematary.” Even with the revisions to characters, events and narrative twists, I found parts of the movie to be extremely scary. Because I wasn’t familiar with what happened in the book or 1989 Pet Sematary, I could only judge the new edition by what was on the screen.

Here, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates with his family from loud and messy Boston to the sylvan paradise he expects to find in rural Maine. His practice is small, but not without occasional outbursts of hysteria or an epidemic of bloody noses. At home, it doesn’t take long for the ghosts of New England past to make their presence known. On a hike through the woods, Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) and their precocious daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence), cross paths with a short procession of mourners on their way to the pet cemetery. On a solo visit to the Halloween-ready cemetery – misspelled “sematary” on a makeshift sign — Ellie steps on a hornet’s nest that’s lodged in the deadfall of rocks, logs and sticks that forms a border to the boneyard. Their spooky neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), pops up in the nick of time to remove the stinger and explain how the truly creepy cemetery ended up there, in the first place. Louis objects to Jud giving his impressionable young daughter a lesson in the hereafter. When confronted by the doctor, Jud opens up his home to him and shares his own multigenerational family’s experiences with the place. Soon enough, Jud gives Louis a more extensive tour of the graveyard and explains what happens, at night, behind the deadfall. Let’s just say that it has something to do with reanimating the dead – according to some ancient Micmac legend – and being given an opportunity to share some borrowed time with the dearly departed. Ellie becomes distraught when her cat, Church, is found dead on the side of a road. In an effort to calm her down, Louis asks the Maine lifer to help him reanimate Church, which Jud doesn’t think is a particularly good idea. Soon enough, viewers will understand his concern. When tragedy once again strikes, as it must, Louis ignores Jud’s warning by attempting to play God, for real. It sets off a perilous chain of events that unleashes an unfathomable evil with horrific consequences. King frequently pushes his characters into situations that will lead them to trip over their hubris. A medical degree can’t prevent Louis from falling into the same trap, over and over again. The Blu-ray adds an alternate ending; deleted and extended scenes; “Night Terrors,” in which three characters face their worst fears; “The Tale of Timmy Baterman,” in which Jud recalls the tale of a boy killed in war and resurrected in the Micmac burying ground; and the worthwhile “Beyond the Deadfall,” a four-part making-of featurette that lasts for about an hour.

The Loveless: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine how a genre flick as cool as The Loveless could have escaped my attention upon its release, in 1981, and somehow has managed to avoid cult status, ever since then. But that’s what could happen to a smallish film, when it was dismissed by the New York Times as a “pathetic homage to the 1950’s.” The reviewer must have woken up that morning, oblivious to the fact that she was living in New York, the world capital of ironic gestures and mecca for the tragically hip. Astute viewers would soon learn to ignore Times’ opinions on such offbeat fare, but a negative review could still crush a fragile movie. (The old guard would change, but not for another 15-20 years.) If I were to guess, I’d say that points were deducted for the relative anonymity of its freshman directors Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery, as well as such unsung actors as Willem Dafoe, rockabilly musician Robert Gordon, scenester Tina L’Hotsky and ingenue Marin Kanter. Today, in a blind taste test, this ode to The Wild One (1953) might be credited to a young David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch. As far as I know, The Unloved didn’t even make it to the drive-in circuit and it’s only previous appearance on video was a 2006 Blue Underground pairing with Smithereens. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Arrow Video saw the value in such an unrecognized classic and gave it a first-class upgrade.;

In it, a motorcycle gang comprised of guys who met in prison roars into a small town in Georgia, en route to the races at Daytona. Vance (Dafoe) arrives first, establishing his bad-boy credentials by coming to the aid of a distressed damsel, who, after having her tire changed, is forced to fight off his crude advances. After taking over a corner booth in a period-perfect diner, he puts the moves on the waitress, Augusta (Elizabeth Gans), who moonlights as a stripper at a local roadhouse. He would have better luck with Telena (Kanter), an impossibly cute teenager, whose deplorable stepdad gave her a pink T-Bird to absorb his sexual abuse. When the rest of the gang, including L’Hotsky’s bebop bad-girl Sportster Debbie – a dead-ringer for Deborah Harry —  arrives at the diner, the attitude-ratio immediately goes from cool to frigid. One guy’s bike requires immediate attention, but the only capable mechanic in town is too lazy to rush to the rescue. Money changes his mind, but the severity of the damage will force an overnight layover. While the bike is being fixed, the gang will visit the lounge – straight out of “Twin Peaks” – to catch Augusta’s set. It’s here that Telena’s shotgun-toting stepfather confronts Vance and … well, you get the picture.

The Loveless doesn’t follow the same trajectory as The Wild One or, for that matter, Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and Sons of Anarchy (2008–2014). It’s simply a surprisingly entertaining, micro-budget indie that never got a fair shot at becoming a cult classic. If nothing else, Dafoe’s fans shouldn’t miss it. The Arrow package adds a fresh 2K restoration, from the original camera negative, approved by Montgomery and director of photography Doyle Smith; new audio commentary with Montgomery, moderated by editor Elijah Drenner; the featurettes, “No Man’s Friend Today: Making The Loveless, “U.S. 17: Shooting The Loveless” and “Hot Leather: The Look of The Loveless”; new interviews with producers Grafton Nunes and A. Kitman Ho, actors Dafoe, Kanter, Gordon, Phillip Kimbrough and Lawrence Matarese, production designer Lilly Kilvert, DP Smith and musician Eddy Dixon; an extensive image gallery, including on-set photographs, storyboards and original production documentation; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Peter Stanfield.

Transit
I wonder how many World War II movies, besides Casablanca (1942), have based their narratives on the acquisition of travel documents and desperate attempts to escape Europe by plane or boat. Plug the keyword, “immigration document,” into IMDB.com’s remarkably undependable data base and you’ll find Casablanca and Maple Palm (2006), a LGBTQ rom/dram/com that has nothing to do with the war. It doesn’t even turn up Christian Petzold’s compelling wartime melodrama, Transit (2018), which bears a passing resemblance, at least, to Casablanca. Set largely in Marseille’s zone libre, in advance of the German army’s inevitable march south, past Lyon, Transit tells the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German refugee who agrees to carry the transit papers of a communist novelist, Weidel — a recent suicide victim — to his estranged wife, in Marseille. He’s also carrying the manuscript of Weidel’s final novel. When he arrives in the port city and attempts to return the transit permits to the Mexican consulate, the authorities assume that he is Weidel, in search of his wife, Marie (Paula Beer). It’s at this point in the drama that the plot really thickens. Georg and Marie’s paths frequently cross, but without any sign of recognition on either person’s face. Marie has taken up with a doctor (Godehard Giese), who is also a refugee. They need passage out of France, as well. When she learns that her husband might be in Marseille, looking for her, Like Georg, Marie is caught in an ethical dilemma. Thousands of other desperate souls are in same boat: staying in seedy hotel rooms until their papers are approved. Georg befriends a bilingual Arab boy, whose sudden illness leads him to call on Marie’s lover. Neither man makes the connection with Weidel. When the doctor learns that Georg might be able to help escape, he admits his willingness to grab the first boat steaming out of the port and to leave Marie behind in Marseille. One thing leads to another and Georg finally connects with Marie, leaving an opening for romance or tragedy.

Transit is based on Anna Seghers’ eponymous novel, written in 1944 and set in 1942 Marseille. Petzold, one of Europe’s most exciting filmmakers, takes great liberties with the story’s space-time continuum and issues relating to people escaping war, poverty and fascism, then and now. The German filmmaker has said that Transit is the final chapter of his “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, which also includes Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). Both of those films starred his personal muse, Nina Hoss, a terrific actress who also was featured in his Jerichow (2008), Yella (2007) and Wolfsburg (2003). They’re all extremely engrossing and well worth a rental. Special features include a making-of interview featurette with Rogowski; a separate interview and post-screening Q&A with Petzold; the featurettes “Franz Rogowski: Shooting Star” and “In Transit: Thrown Into the World,” with Petzold and actress Barbara Auer;  a press conference with the cast and crew, from the Berlin film premiere; and a collector’s booklet, featuring interviews and an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

Kanarie
To get the most out of Christiaan Olwagen and co-writer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s completely unexpected musical rom-com, Kanarie, it’s important to understand how backwards South Africa was, even as late as 1985, when the story begins. To keep outside influences from corrupting the nation’s youth and promoting unrest, the authoritarian government strictly limited the importation of cultural stimuli and, of course, anything that could change the white population’s attitudes toward Apartheid, or the native Africans’ willingness to resist. One way to accomplish this was to block the introduction of television, until 1975, and, then, filter the content. White audiences were afforded the luxury of believing that the elimination of Apartheid would inspire a deluge of white blood on city streets, economic disaster and the importation of pagan religions. Young people were further indoctrinated by their parents, church leaders and social institutions. Upon entering Kanarie, we’re left pretty much in the dark about South Africa’s treatment of homosexuality. In fact, under the ruling National Party, from 1948 to 1994, it was a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. The law was used to harass and outlaw South African LGBTQ events and political activists. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, the South African Defense Force forced white gay and lesbian soldiers to undergo various medical “cures” for their sexual orientation, including sex reassignment surgery. That would change dramatically in the early 1990s, with the undoing of Apartheid and other restrictive laws. Regulations prohibiting bullying and other forms of discrimination were also instituted.

It is with this in mind that viewers can better understand the mindset of Kanarie’s protagonist, Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout), who viewers will immediately recognize as being gay, even if he can’t recognize it in himself. There are no role models close at hand and, even his beloved Boy George, has yet to exit the closet. Johan doesn’t mind being dressed up in women’s clothing by his sisters and paraded around the neighborhood in a wedding gown. His inclination is to complete his military obligation and pursue a career in fashion design, music or both. His widely known  talent for singing and playing piano prompts military authorities to assign him to duty as a member of the SADF Choir, nicknamed the Kanaries (Canaries). Johan and the other Kanaries are required to survive military training, intense rehearsals and go on a nationwide tour, using their music to fortify beliefs in the military effort and promoting the interests of church and state. They also must endure the taunts of fellow soldiers, who consider the choir to be way to avoid going to the Namibian front It will come as no surprise to viewers that the tightly knit choir is as segregated as any other platoon in the army. A ridiculously stern drill instructor and a pair of ordained ministers are there to maintain the choir’s extremely high standards, promote military discipline and prevent sexual promiscuity. When Johan and his closest friend, Wolfgang (Hannes Otto), risk caressing each other in an otherwise vacant barracks, his guilt feelings tell him that he’s crossed a line drawn long ago in the bible. That line will shift throughout the rest of Kanarie’s excessive two-hour and, when it does, Johann isn’t always ready for the next step. Things will escalate as the Kanaries are exposed to regular, everyday South African hypocrites and the temptations faced by men, especially, when they’re herded together in conditions that invite intimacy. Bezuidenhout is excellent as the young man who finally comes of age to the mash-up of a church hymn and Culture Club’s “Victims.” Too bad, no one told him that the lifting of Apartheid was already in the works and the musicians who performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, at London’s Wembley Stadium would pressure the government to try even harder. Naturally, the concert, which was broadcast to 67 countries around the world, was blacked out in South Africa.

Escape Plan 3: The Extractor: Blu-ray
Last week, no less an expert on crappy straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray movies than Sylvester Stallone decided that this might be a good time to trash Escape Plan 2: Hades (2018). The sequel to 2013’s moderately successful – hugely so, in China and Southeast Asia – Escape Plan couldn’t rely on the drawing power of co-stars  Arnold Schwarzenegger, 50 Cent, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Caitriona Balfe and dozens of ’roid-ravaged body builders. The belated sequel could only boast the part-time presence of Stallone, a return performance by 50 Cent and addition of Chinese martial-arts standout, Xiaoming Huang (Ip Man 2), and WWE favorite, Dave Bautista. Mostly, though, movie lacked a viable script. While promoting Escape Plan 3: The Extractors, Stallone called it, “truly the most horribly produced film I have ever had the misfortune to be in.” He promised better things to come in the triquel, which, if nothing else, would be targeted directly at his Asian and Russian fans and martial-arts freaks everywhere. Sly re-reprises the character, Ray Breslin, a prison-security expert who specializes in plugging leaks and capping violence in super-max and black-site facilities. Bautista, 50 Cent and Jaime King also return, although their presence qualifies for cameo status. Stallone’s face time has increased, however. This time around, Breslin is hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Hong Kong tech mogul from a formidable Latvian prison, known as Devil’s station. As Breslin and his crew delve deeper, they discover the perpetrator is the deranged son of one of their former foes and his girlfriend is being held there. The team is joined by a small army of kung-fu fighters hired by the mogul to assist Breslin. At first, 50 Cent and Bautista’s feelings are hurt, but Stallone intercedes on the newcomer’s behalf. From this point on, “The Extractor” is a free-for-all. Special features include commentary with director John Herzfeld, Stallone, Devon Sawa and Daniel Bernhardt, and the background featurette, “The Making of Escape Plan: The Extractors.”

The Tough Ones: Collector s Edition: Blu-ray/CD
Four  years before Umberto Lenzi turned his attention to such police thrillers as The Tough Ones (1976), Violent Naples (1976) and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977), he almost singlehandedly created the template for a decade’s worth of filmmakers dedicated to the cannibal subgenre. Lenzi would admit that tortuous scenes in his 1972 trend-setter, Sacrifice! (a.k.a., “The Man from Deep River”), was influenced by a painful Sioux ritual in Elliot Silverstein’s then-shocking neo-Western, A Man Called Horse (1970). Ten years later, his Cannibal Ferox would pretty much cap the subgenre and zombies would fill the vacuum. In 1976, Lenzi would return the favor by borrowing from the similarly influential Dirty Harry (1971), Bullitt (1968), Serpico (1973) and Death Wish (1974), as blueprints for his primo poliziotteschi, The Tough Ones (a.k.a., “Rome Armed to the Teeth”). In it, Italian superstar Maurizio Merli stars as Inspector Tanzi, a cop with a flair for violence and getting the job done at any cost. Here, Tanzi targets a small-timer, Tony Parenzo (Ivan Rassimov), who’s trying to set up a crime network. The investigation leads to a sadistic, machine-gun-toting hunchback, Vincenzo Moretto (fellow superstar Tomas Milian). To accomplish his mission – using methods frowned upon by his superiors – Tanzi punches and shoots his way through the sleazy drug-, sex- and crime-infested streets of mid-1970s Rome. Token American Arthur Kennedy plays the chief of police forced to face the wrath of the media and politicians whenever the mad dog cop goes off the reservation. The Tough Ones is an excellent example of the poliziotteschi at its most gonzo. Besides the 4K transfer of Lenzi’s uncensored director’s cut, the new Grindhouse Releasing edition includes commentary by Mike Malloy, director of Eurocrime!; new, in-depth interviews with Lenzi, actors Milian, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Sandra Cardini, Maria Rosaria Riuzzi and Corrado Solari, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti and composer Franco Micalizzi; a special tribute to actor Marizo Merli, with appearances by directors Enzo Castellari (1990: The Bronx Warriors) and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust); a vintage VHS intro by cult movie superstar Sybil Danning; liner notes by Italian crime-film expert Roberto Curti; an embossed slipcover; a bonus CD, containing a newly remastered soundtrack album, by Franco Micalizzil; and a limited-edition .30-calibre bullet-pen, emblazoned with the Tough Ones logo.

This Island Earth: Blu-ray
Like many other sci-fi flicks made in the 1950s, This Island Earth (1955) is almost as difficult to summarize as it is to watch … with a straight face, anyway. For all of its cheeseball effects, dopey costumes and gobbledygook dialogue, Joseph M. Newman’s adaptation of a 1938 story by Raymond F. Jones actually did offer something new and different to the alien-invasion subgenre. Upon its release, This Island Earth received respectful reviews from mainstream critics and, even today, the Scream Factory Blu-ray is being treated with dignity by people who know a thing or two about sci-fi movie history. The average geek probably won’t take the film nearly as seriously as the cultists and historians, especially when they see nuclear scientist and jet pilot Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) put his flight suit on, over the sport coat, dress shirt and tie he wears any other day of the week. His commute to a top-secret research facility is interrupted by a cosmic ray that takes the control of his plane out of his hands. When Meacham is allowed to land safely, he soon finds himself among several other noted scientists summoned by the mysterious advanced scientist, Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Unlike everyone else watching the movie, Cal is unaware that Exeter – with his snow-white pompadour, extra-large forehead, groovy jumpsuit and booties — is an alien. Exeter sent Cal a list of unusual items he’ll need to construct a communications machine, he calls an “interociter.” Along with fellow American nuclear scientists Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson), Cal volunteers to board a pilotless space vehicle, sent by Exeter to take them to another secret research center, this one on his home planet, Metaluna. He promises Cal that they’ll be conducting humanitarian experiments designed to make his world a safer place. In fact, what Exeter and his peers really want is for the earthlings to show them how to harness atomic energy, so they can defend themselves against an attack by a rival civilization.

It’s at this point that This Island Earth goes off the rails, introducing a different sort of alien threat. This one (Regis Parton) looks as if it were put together with parts left over from other sci-fi flicks: a gigantic exposed brain, bug eyes, robotic arms, pincer claws and weighted boots. In another rare occurrence, the earthlings are sent home, with the thanks of peace-loving alien civilization and a new appreciation of the power of nuclear energy. The Blu-ray package features a 4K remaster of the film from an interpositive presentation of the film in 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 aspect ratios; the original Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, restored by 3-D Film Archive; commentary with author and Academy Award-winning visual effects artist, Robert Skotak; a new interview with film historian David Schecter, on the film’s music; an interview with filmmaker Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash); facts about Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, by Bob Furmanek; “This Island Earth: Two and a Half Years in the Making,” an extended look at the film’s creation; “War of the Planets,” a 1958 Castle Films release for the home market, including both the 50-foot silent edition and 200-foot sound edition; “Trailers from Hell: This Island Earth,” with commentary by filmmaker Joe Dante; a stills gallery; and a poster.

The Pretenders: With Friends: DVD/Blu-ray/CD
The latest edition of the Pretenders barely resembles the same Anglo-American band that was formed in 1978 and successfully bridged the punk and hard-rock movements for most of the next three decades. In 2005, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders were inducted into the Hall of Fame. The charismatic songwriter/singer/guitarist launched a solo career in 2014, before reuniting what’s left of the Pretenders in 2016. “The Pretenders: With Friends” rocks every bit as hard as any previous video, Here, though, the band shares the stage with several prominent musicians, some of whom may have dreamed of performing alongside Hynde someday. And, her voice is in tip-top shape. Joining her on the Decades Rock Arena stage are “friends” Iggy Pop, Shirley Manson, Kings of Leon and Incubus. It adds a couple of interview sessions that didn’t work very well on my player.

TV-to-DVD
Broad City: The Complete Series
Now that “Broad City” has moved to TV Heaven, it’s worth noting that Golden Globes and Emmy voters routinely failed to nominate one of the medium’s funniest and most inventive shows for awards. In 2016, the show was a finalist in the Writers Guild of America comedy category, and it also was a nominee for several off-brand awards. Those who care about such things probably saw it as a not entirely unexpected snub. I think it was a case of being too hip for the room. Based upon Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s web series of the same name, the show proved that no sacred cow was immune from satire or an occasional poke in the ribs. It also demonstrated how women could be every bit as messy, gross and politically incorrect as men … at least, in their TV incarnations. Abbi and Ilana also played fast and loose with LGBTQ archetypes. They were simultaneously sex-positive and sex-neurotic. Comedy Central’s “Broad City: The Complete Series” is comprised of five seasons worth of episodes, as well as special features, “Abbi & Ilana’s ‘Broad City’”; behind-the-scenes material; “Fan Surprise”; “The Making of Season 5”; a “NYC ‘Broad City’ Sendoff Fit for a Queen”; outtakes; deleted/extended scenes; and every episode of “Hack Into ‘Broad City’” and “Behind ‘Broad City.’” Among the many guest stars are Susie Essman, Bob Balaban, RuPaul, Clea DuVall, Rachel Dratch, Janeane Garofalo, Sandra Bernhard, Seth Green, Guillermo Díaz, Amy Ryan, Amy Sedaris, Fred Armisen, Patricia Clarkson, Kelly Ripa, Hillary Clinton, Alia Shawkat, Alan Alda, Seth Rogen and executive producer Amy Poehler.

The DVD Wrapup: War & Peace, Heiresses, Styx, Maze, Felix Austria, Winter Passage, Fatso, Horror, 24-Hour Party People, FM, Cavett’s Baseball Heroes … More

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

War and Peace: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If, this summer, you have only seven hours to devote to the cinema, consider spending those 422 minutes – not including bonus features – watching Criterion Collection’s spectacularly restored edition of Sergey Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Although I don’t recommend carrying a portable Blu-ray player to the beach and watching it there – as one could do with the novel or Kindle’s 1392-page edition – the four-part epic would make a rainy day less gray. Made by Kinostudiya MosFilm at the height of the Cold War – from 1961 to 1967 – its production was motivated by the success of King Vidor’s 1956 American-Italian co-production, which starred Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer. With the 150th anniversary of the 1812 French invasion of Russia at hand, an open letter signed by many of the country’s filmmakers declared, “It is a matter of honor for the Soviet cinema industry to produce a picture which will surpass the American-Italian one in its artistic merit and authenticity.” The USSR must have been pretty flush, if it could afford to send ballistic missiles to Cuba and greenlight one of the most expensive movie epics of all time … anywhere. War and Peace not only received substantially better notices in the worldwide press than the short-lived missile crisis, but it also did buffo business at the box office and, in 1969, carried home Best Foreign Language Film awards from the HFPA, AMPAS, New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review. When such honors didn’t convince the Soviet Union to raze the Iron Curtain and end the Cold War, a great opportunity for peace was missed. (They did, however, prompt Soviet authorities to confiscate Bondarchuk’s Oscar, immediately upon his arrival in the USSR, and demand that he join the Communist Party.)

War and Peace dazzled audiences with splendid art design, period-perfect costumes, magnificent sets and acting, but it was the historically accurate re-creations of battles and preparations for war that drew comparisons to Gone With the Wind (1939). The overwhelmingly humanistic tone of the novel remained intact, as well. Three hours longer than “GWTW,” Bondarchuk’s adaptation delivers the same dramatic, romantic, historical and emotional punch. The only thing that raised eyebrows in the aftermath of its release were the mythic numbers attached to its production. A rumor that spread among critics and other pundits put the overall budget at $100 million. Bondarchuk, himself, would soon reduce that figure to $12 million, or nearly 9 million Soviet rubles, at 1967 rates. (That figure swells to around $60 million in 2017 numbers.) In a 1986 interview, the co-writer/co-protagonist/director would also reduce the number of soldiers requisitioned to the production from an estimated 120,000 to 12,000, as well as nearly a thousand horses. More than 40 museums contributed historical artifacts, such as chandeliers, furniture and cutlery, to create an authentic impression of the Russian aristocracy. Thousands of costumes were sewn by hand, mainly military uniforms of the sorts worn by the various units, including 11,000 hats of the cylindrical military variety. Sixty museum-quality cannons were cast, and 120 wagons and carts were constructed for the production. If the movie actually did cost $12 million, instead of $100 million, Bondarchuk made it look as if it were produced by James Cameron.

The first two full-length segments – “Andrei Bolkonsky,” “Natasha Rostova” — debuted before the third and fourth – “The Year 1812,” “Pierre Bezukhov” — which were delayed by the director’s long recovery from a near-fatal heart attack. To accommodate the film’s extreme length, distributors outside the USSR drastically shortened War and Peace – by an hour in the dubbed U.S. version – or presented it in two parts, over two days. Anyone who came of age after Tron got the CGI ball rolling, in 1982, may be surprised to learn that every soldier, horse, cart, hunting dog and wolf in sight is real. Among the camera and sound techniques unfamiliar in the Soviet cinema were aerial lifts, in which cameras were hoisted over battlefield sets to create “a cannon ball view”; hand-held cameras, which, when filming Natasha’s first ball, allowed the operators to circle between the dancing extras on roller skates; crowd scenes shot using cranes and helicopters; and a six-channel audio recording system. They deftly complement the performances of, among others, Bondarchuk, as Pierre Bezukhov; Lyudmila Savelyeva, as Natasha Rostova; Vyacheslav Tikhonov, as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray edition features a new 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; fresh interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk, son of Sergei; two 1966 making-of documentaries; a 1967 television doc, profiling Savelyeva and featuring Sergei Bondarchuk, a Janus re-release trailer; new English subtitle translation; and an essay by critic Ella Taylor.

Maze
There’s no shortage of excellent movies set during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland: The Crying Game (1992), In the Name of the Father (1993), Some Mother’s Son (1996), The Boxer (1997), Bloody Sunday (2002), Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), ’71 (2014) and The Journey (2016), among them. The most unlikely, perhaps, Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own (1997), in which New York police officer Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford) is asked to take in a homeless houseguest, Francis “The Angel” McGuire (Brad Pitt), who turns out to be an I.R.A. terrorist. He’s in the Big Apple to shop for black-market surface-to-air missiles. After seven rewrites, the screenwriters finally managed to erase almost all mention of Irish politics from the script. If it weren’t for a boost in overseas revenues,  The Devil’s Own could have been written off by Columbia Pictures as a disaster. Steve McQueen’s brilliant Hunger (2008) would depict life – and death — in the H-Blocks of the HM Prison Maze prison (a.k.a., Long Kesh). It’s where Provisional IRA soldier and Member of Parliament Bobby Sands participated in the “second” hunger strike, in which protesters demanded a re-imposition of an agreement that effectively ended the “first” hunger strike. It stipulated that prisoners be treated as POWs, entitling them to certain rights and privileges not available to prisoners who weren’t IRA soldiers or such loyalist paramilitaries as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. There were other demands, but the Brits weren’t about to give in to any of them. The strike was called off after 10 prisoners — including Sands had starved themselves to death – while successfully garnering the attention of world media. British PM Margaret Thatcher, a woman not known for displaying compassion or possessing a realistic perspective on such things, wanted the world to consider Sands and other dead convicts, victims of “suicide by starvation.” Most observers didn’t buy it.

Stephen Burke’s Maze picks up two years after the second strike ended and many of the participants were housed in an “escape-proof” unit in H-Block. The Brits also thought it might be fun to add a larger group of loyalist belligerents to the population. Instead of putting a chill on political activity among minority Roman Catholics on the outside, as Thatcher insisted had happened, the media coverage that surrounded Sands’ death resulted in a new surge of IRA enrollment, fundraising and politicking. To avenge the 10 deaths, the IRA went on a murder spree in which 61 people were killed, 34 of them civilians, including prison guards and politicians. Three years later, the IRA took direct action against Thatcher with the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing, an attack on the Conservative Party conference that killed five people and Thatcher only narrowly escaped death. Inside the Maze, the prisoners were biding their time for something more newsworthy than a third hunger strike. Maze depicts how, in September 1983, a longtime convict and habitual escapee Lawrence Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) helped Brendan McFarlane, Bobby Storey and Gerry Kelly orchestrate the successful mass escape of 38 Republican prisoners from the air-tight facility. It was the largest prison escape in British penal history, but didn’t include Marley, who was close to his parole date. While his co-conspirators rallied the prisoners across separate cellblocks and exchanged messages with IRA supporters outside the prison, Marley took full advantage of his job as an orderly to gather intelligence on possible soft spots in Maze security. Although mortal enemies on political issues, Marley forms a relatively close bond with prison warden Gordon Close (Barry Ward), who was too pre-occupied with family matters to notice that someone was picking his pocket. Adding to the verisimilitude was the production’s ability to shoot interiors at Cork Prison, which had closed just weeks before shooting began. The 93-minute drama overflows with tense moments and threats to the ultimate completion of the plan, which almost goes off without a hitch. Describing what happens after the escape would require a 93-minute sequel.

The Heiresses
When it comes to movies that feature actors beyond a certain age in leading roles – actresses, especially – it’s tough to beat  the ones made in South America. And, they aren’t relegated exclusively to remakes of On Golden Pond or Driving Miss Daisy. Neither are the characters necessarily required to lose a long, drawn-out fight against cancer or succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford allowed themselves the luxury of playing characters their age, or older, in The Mule and The Old Man and a Gun, respectively. Oscar nominee Glenn Close (The Wife) was nearly 23 years older than the next-oldest candidate for this year’s Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Marcelo Martinessi’s outstanding drama, The Heiresses, starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irun and Ana Ivanova, was the official submission of Paraguay in the race for Best Foreign Language Film, but missed the cut. Somehow, I don’t see The Heiresses being adapted for American audiences, as was Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), which was remounted as Gloria Bell, with Julianne Moore in the lead role. Here, Chela and Chiquita are required by circumstances to sell off family heirlooms to keep them from going completely broke. They’ve lived together as lovers, comfortably and compatibly, for 30 years, in a country that traditionally has been more welcoming to ex-Nazis than gays and lesbians. When Chiquita is imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela faces a crisis in confidence. In a sense, they’ve both been put behind bars. Among the treasures Chela inherited from her father is a practically antique Mercedes-Benz. She’s never shown any interest in getting a license, because transportation was left to Chiquita. One day, one of their card-playing friends asks Chela for a lift to the weekly game, and she surprises us by agreeing to do it. Her passenger insists that she accept money for the trip. Before long, she’s chauffeuring several more friends to the game, all paying for the privilege. The women have outlived their husbands and enjoy seeing their friend in such an improved mood. Chela isn’t making a lot of money, just enough to keep Chaquita flush with cigarettes and coffee. Just as she’s begun to settle into her new life, she encounters the much younger, Angy (Ana Ivanova), who’s been around the block a few times and encourages her new friend to break out of her shell. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the almost certainly bisexual Angy uses the occasion of a wine-soaked evening to lay herself open to Chela. Clearly, she doesn’t know how to handle the overture or the adrenalin racing through her veins. Neither is she comfortable with Chaquita’s early release from prison and her desire to return to the point where their relationship left off. The dynamics experienced by the characters is wonderfully depicted by the three actresses, who’ve rarely, if ever appeared on the big screen. It’s worth noting that Brun found it necessary to use a pseudonym in her debut, fearing that her participation in such a controversial movie would have an adverse impact on her within still-conservative Paraguayan society. This, despite the absence of sex and nudity, gratuitous or otherwise. Anyone who’s interested in movies in which elderly characters are accorded the respect they’re due should check out Gloria; Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (2009) and Gatos Viejos (2010); Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story (1985); Jorge Gaggero’s Live-In Maid (2004); Walter Salles’ Central Station (1998); Andrucha Waddington’s The House of Sand (2005); and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius (2016).

Styx
The 2000s have brought us several excellent films about men and women who attempt to defy nature by sailing great distances, alone, or fighting off unexpected adversaries on the open ocean. Some are deadly serious, while others serve as vehicles for adventure, thrills, horror and juvenile behavior. Among the most prominent titles are Open Water (2003), Open Water 2: Adrift (2006), Donkey Punch (2008), Triangle (2009), The Reef (2010), All Is Lost (2013), Open Water 3: Cage Dive (2017), Adrift (2018), The Mercy (2018), Maiden (2018) and, by stretching the parameters of this audit a bit further, Dead Calm (1989), A Hijacking (2012) and Captain Phillips (2013). The German/Austrian co-production Styx, now on DVD, is as good as the best of these titles, even though it lacks the threat of shark attack, a recognizable star, a mid-Atlantic collision, Somali pirates and very much dialogue. It depicts the transformation of a strong German doctor, Rike (Susanne Wolff), who spends most of her time at work in the back of an ambulance, patching up accident victims or watching them die. On her vacation, she hopes to sail from Gibraltar to Ascension Island, 1,000 miles west of the Angola and 1,400 miles east of Brazil. She wants to see for herself the results of programs launched by Charles Darwin and botanist/ explorer Joseph Hooker to bring greenery and bird habitats back to the dusty volcanic island, which, for many years, was used by the British military and U.S. intelligence-gathering services. I won’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of Styx by pointing out that her voyage is interrupted by unforeseen circumstances further north.

Shortly after weathering a powerful storm at sea, Rike spots a trawler adrift on open waters. At first, it doesn’t look as if there’s anyone aboard the vessel. Following nautical procedure, she radios in the trawler’s position and seeming lack of visible life. Defying an order by naval authorities, she decides to sail a bit closer to the boat and take a closer look. As she does so, it becomes apparent that some of the passengers not only are alive, but they’re desperate for rescue. In fact, several of the passengers jump into the ocean and attempt to reach Rike’s much smaller boat. Only one boy swims close enough to reach the life jacket she’s thrown into the sea, when it looks as if he might not make it. The boy, Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), immediately falls into a deep sleep, as Rike takes to the radio to once again request help. And, yet again, she’s ordered not to make contact with any survivors. Help is on the way, she’s told. By now, both Rike and viewers will have recognized Styx’s central dilemma: assuming that Kingsley and the other passengers were infected by something resembling Ebola, what, as a doctor, was her obligation to come to his aid? Moreover, how should she react when Kingsley demands that she return to the trawler – he believes his sister is still alive – and he won’t take “no” for an answer. It comes to head when the boy begins throwing water bottles into the ocean and pushes Rike into the water. Will Kingsley show her the same quality of mercy that she’s been ordered by authorities not to give the survivors? What will happen after the men in Hazmat outfits arrive and take over the sailboat? Co-writer/director Wolfgang Fischer and freshman co-writer Ika Künzel leave those questions hanging in the air, until the very end of Styx.

In doing so, they force viewers to ponder how they’d react in the same situation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the splendid opening sequence, in which Fischer uses one of Gibraltar’s trademark Barbary macaques to make a point about how animals adjust to their diminished environments in ways that almost make humans irrelevant. The apes thread their way through the urban jungle like their cousins in the wild. When the wildly inventive sequence ends, Fischer takes us to Cologne, where Rike has to decide how far she’ll go to save the life of a man who’s been in a terrible accident. It’s at this point that we return to Gibraltar’s teeming seaport, where’s Rike’s about embark on what she hopes is an excellent adventure in a sailboat that looks like a thimble among the oil tankers. Bonus features include commentary with Fischer and Wolff, as well as a short film about an Arab girl with a foot in the world of her parents and ancestors, and the one to which she’s been exposed by carefree tourists, who pay her to perform their chores.

Pendular
In the Last Days of the City
Random Thoughts on Box Office
In one of its occasional surveys of the film industry, the New York Times recently assembled “a sprawling collection of influential figures … to assess the state of moviegoing.” According to Eric Kohn’s response-piece in IndieWire, “the result was a multifaceted collage of alarming messages.” Of course, any trend that negatively affects the bonuses of studio executives is going to be viewed with alarm throughout the industry. Trickle-down economics are alive and well in Hollywood. It made the producers and directors of so-called “small films” queasy about the future, as well. (Anyone who’s ever walked onto a soundstage or location shoot can identify myriad ways to save money, starting with craft services and star trailers, and ending with the expensive SUVs that shepherd key workers home or to their cars. Then, there’s the multimillion-dollar “consideration” campaigns, which allow thousands of industry insiders to bypass theaters entirely.) People fortunate enough to live in a city large enough to support more than one multiscreen arthouse don’t see the problem of empty seats from the same perspective as the people interviewed by the Times. Lovers of fine cinema will find quality entertainment wherever it is, and, yes, that includes the streaming services dedicated to new and vintage arthouse-quality films. It’s amazing what’s out there in the Land Beyond Netflix.

What is true is that the studios created their own monster and now their insatiable friends on Wall Street must be appeased. Not so long ago, the release windows for DVDs of mainstream movies and TV shows ranged from six months to a year. Today, those windows are nearly shut, allowing for the simultaneous release of mainstream and genre pictures, in theaters and inside the homes of once loyal fans. Studios have deemed some newly released movies to be too expensive to re-market and push the street dates of Blu-ray, DVD and digital products to less than a month after opening day, when trailers and ads are still fresh in the minds of consumers. They laud the big-screen experience, while conspiring to phase it out. Exhibitors who gather each year at NATO’s annual ShoWest/CinemaCon soiree have been waving the red flag on the same subject for the 15 years, at least. The studios respond by throwing them even more lavish feasts, following screenings of upcoming movies and product reels. Gone are the days when studios would take turns filling a dais with superstar talent and promises that the industry had the exhibiters’ best interests in mind. That might have been true before the industry realized that the pots of gold at the end of their rainbow had moved from the American heartland to developing markets in China, Japan and the rest of the Pacific Rim nations, and shiny new megaplexes in Europe and Latin America. In 2003, foreign revenues began to dominate the domestic market for good. Since then, they’ve bailed out the major studios’ tentpole pictures numerous times. Meanwhile, midlevel and smallish pictures have practically been ignored … until awards season. If attendance is down domestically, it’s easy to see why.

And, BTW, the same dynamics affecting the studios have, for some time, threatened the adult industry. When it became easy for viewers to find free hard-core products through mainstream search engines, the industry was forced to scramble. It made a mid-course correction by personalizing the niche products, expanding the fetish market, pumping up the Internet and phone services, and mixing gonzo titles with classics. Kohn’s survey of arthouse exhibiters was quite a bit more optimistic, if only because the movies shown in their theaters target adults, who’ve stopped going to the multiplexes – except for matinees and senior discounts — and can easily remember when the only way they could see niche movies was to find them at the local arthouse, on the big screen and without pre-popped popcorn. I concur with Dennis Lim, director of film programming at Lincoln Center, who points out that “the takeaway from the New York Times piece is not that movies are dying, it’s that Hollywood is in trouble.” We should all be in such trouble. He went on, “If Hollywood is struggling, maybe it is time to reframe this tired discourse and remind us all that cinema is about a lot more than Oscar movies and summer tentpoles. I watch hundreds of new films from around the world every year, and I find it hard to be pessimistic about cinema as an art.” I may not watch as many new films as Lim, but I’m constantly impressed by the dozens of niche, indie, foreign, genre and documentaries I see every month and review in this space.

Among them are a pair of intriguing DVDs from Big World Pictures, a dependable source for international and indie films that make the rounds of the festival circuit, before finding a distributor or disappearing completely. The Heiresses spent a full year on the international festival circuit, before opening in a small handful of theaters here and getting a DVD release. Júlia Murat’s Pendular and Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City spent quite a bit longer in festival limbo. One definition of “pendular” describes it as “moving or swinging back and forth in a regular rhythm, like a pendulum.” The film that’s taken that interesting concept as a title is set in a sprawling, largely abandoned industrial complex – in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, probably — that serves as a loft space and artists’ colony. Unlike other residents, dancer Alice (Raquel Karro) and her sculptor lover, Marido (Rodrigo Bolzan), have decided to live where they work. Their friends remind them that such workplace arrangements rarely are successful and no romantic relationship can withstand the pressure of being in each other’s hair for the better part of a 24-hour day. At the beginning of the film, the couple tapes off equal portions of the loft, demarcating “his” and “her” sections for their individual work. The loft may seem huge and the domestic area livable, but looks are deceiving. Marido specializes in large, heavy-to-lift pieces of wood, stone and metal. He uses a pulley to bring together parts that are intended to be bonded forever. His assistants use welding and shaping tools and to make Marido’s art come alive. Alice’s dances don’t clash with all the pounding and heavy lifting. In fact, she sometimes improvises routines around the raw and finished material. The inevitable moment of crisis arrives when Marido proclaims, “This isn’t working … I need more space.” After reminding him of their arrangement, Alice agrees to the kind of compromise that invariably favors the male. To the surprise of no one, it’s the first indication of bad things to come. The second comes when friends begin kicking a soccer ball around the loft and Marido throws a shit fit. What’s also striking about Pendular is the intense eroticism that turns their lovemaking sessions into tableaux vivants, with a dynamism all their own. The film’s climax may shock many viewers, but it isn’t out of step with what’s come before it.

In the Last Days of the City is the debut feature of Egyptian  writer/director Tamer El Said. In it, a young Cairo filmmaker, Khalid (Khalid Abdalla), struggles to capture the soul of a city on edge, while facing trauma in his own life. Shot in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and Berlin during the two years before the pro-democracy revolution in Egypt, the film’s multi-layered stories are a visually rich exploration of friendship, loneliness, loss and life in cities shaped by the shadows of war and adversity. El Said began “Last Days” before the Egyptian revolution, but Khalid’s friends had already experienced the destruction of Beirut, Baghdad and Tripoli, with Damascus still to come. When he lost the handle on his narrative, he began asking people who escaped the carnage there to recall what those cities were like before they left. Many of the elderly sources describe scenes that might very well have been dictated by Omar Khayyam. Even Khalid’s young-adult friends remember a time before constant war … somewhere. Meanwhile, his mother is dying, his girlfriend (Laila Samy) has given him the heave-ho and Islamic demonstrators demand the ouster and trial of Hosni Mubarek. (State radio reports that the protesters are fans of the national soccer team, which just lost an important match with Algeria.) The overall tone of “Last Days” is melancholic and bound to get worse, when Syria explodes. Khalid’s confusion grows even worse when his friends head back to their war-torn homes or escape to Berlin, and the writing on Cairo’s walls isn’t getting any less ominous.

The Poison Rose: Blu-ray
Dead Trigger: Blu-ray
The sad fact is that bashing John Travolta, Dolph Lundren and other onetime superstars has become tres, tres tedious. I take my job seriously enough to give each new one an opportunity to shine, knowing that isn’t likely to happen. The Poison Rose surprised me by maintaining my interest for at least 65 minutes of its 98-minute length. The first good sign was Travolta’s hair, which, for once, didn’t look as if it were painted on his head with chia seeds added for texture. This being a contemporary noir, the second came in his ability to deliver hard-boiled dialogue, with only a trace of a marginal Texas accent, even though The Poison Rose was largely shot in Georgia. The inclusion of old pros Famke Janssen, Brendan Fraser, Robert Patrick and Peter Stormare could only be a good thing. The unusually high number of co-writers, co-directors and co-producers boded the opposite, however. Set in the late 1970s, Travolta plays Carson Philips, a dissipated L.A. private investigator with serious gambling debts and mobsters on his tail. Out of the blue, a sexy MILF hires him to locate her daughter, who recently disappeared from a rehab facility and hasn’t been heard from since. Turns out, the last place the girl was spotted was in Carson’s hometown, where his exploits as a quarterback are easily recalled. His former teammates haven’t moved more than a few feet from where they were sitting, standing or passed out, when he split Galveston to save his former wife, Jayne (Janssen), the prospect of an ugly divorce. Freeman plays a sleazy casino owner; Patrick, a thoroughly corrupted chief of police; Fraser’s character is an elephantine doctor at the rehab facility; and his ex-wife married well and was left a fortune when the jerk died. Here’s the kicker, though, Travolta’s 19-year-old daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta, plays Rebecca, the betrothed of a hotshot college quarterback. He gets into a fight at the casino the night before the big game and dies after being hit by an opponent, foaming at the mouth. And, yes, Ella Bleu is a dead ringer for her dad. Jayne hires Colin to clear Rebecca in what the chief of police has been told to investigate as a homicide. Again, viewers won’t need a spoiler alert to assume that all paths lead to rehab facility, run by Fraser’s bulbous doctor. If there are next to no surprises in this high-humidity noir, the actors are fun to watch, anyway, and the scenery isn’t bad. I found hilarious that the noir conceit extends to Colin’s pink Cadillac convertible, whose top almost always stays open, even when it rains.

If the title of Lundgren’s zombie thriller, Dead Trigger, sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an adaptation of the 2012 videogame of the same name and storyline. Developed by Madfinger, it is a first-person-shooter game, which demands that players survive a variety of missions, all deadly. It was popular enough to spawn a sequel and movie, which, after its 2017 debut at the Moscow Film Festival, waited two years before being seen in the United States, on May 3, 2019. Both the game and movie so closely follow the trajectory of “The Walking Dead” (2010) that they all could be arms of the same franchise, extending back to Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s “The Walking Dead” (2003) comic book and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later … (2002). (A mysterious virus has killed countless millions of people and turned others into bloodthirsty zombies.) In the movie, the government is incapable of stopping the Zombie Apocalypse, so it calls on a pair of muscle-bound Special Forces types to teach an elite force of gamers how prevent an undead army from spoiling a rescue mission. There’s plenty of action in “Dead Trigger,” but nothing that should surprise any fan of “The Walking Dead,”  “Fear the Walking Dead” or, even, Shaun of the Dead (2004). I’m always amazed by the inability of humans with perfectly satisfactory auditory and olfactory skills to discern the grunting and shuffling of foul-smelling zombies from a mile away. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that co-director Mike Cuff abandoned ship during shooting, due to creative differences. Cuff and game developer Madfinger withdrew their support for the film and had no further input on its making. Never a good sign.

Felix Austria!
The Illusionist: Blu-ray
Twenty minutes into Christine Beebe’s offbeat portrait of the historian and educator Brian Scott Pfeifle, I began to wonder if Felix Austria! (2014) was a faux documentary or mockumentary. The story about this unconventional human being was, at once, too good to be true and too good not to be true. I considered hitting the pause button to check if Brian Scott Pfeifle – think, David Hyde Pierce (“Fraiser”) in a Broadway version of Felix Austria! – was the real thing, or a figment of Beebe’s demonstrably fertile imagination. Either way, it didn’t much matter to me. As yarns go, this one was a whopper. Staring down the barrel of an incurable genetic disease — Huntington’s chorea, I believe — Pfeifle decided not to waste any more time denying  himself the luxury of living with one foot in academia and the other in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, when people look back at Belle Epoque Vienna, they recall such Secessionist artists and modernist thinkers as Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele, Alfred Roller, Gustav and Ernst Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich. Pfeile looked back at the period from a different perspective. He was a Humanities student at Cal-Berkeley and received a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Vienna, where he studied the theory and work of architect Adolf Loos. By then, too, Pfeifle began to indulge his budding Aestheticism, by favoring powdered wigs and cravats, and entering psychoanalysis to interpret his Habsburg dreams. He changed his name legally to Felix Etienne-Edouard Pfeifle. (Austria’s motto was, “Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube,” or “Let others wage wars, you, happy Austria, marry.” It referenced the diplomatic philosophy of using marriage to cement alliances and gain territory.) Does any of this sound real to you, yet?

The cherry on the sundae arrived in the form of a box full of correspondence between an ordinary American, Herbert Hinkel, and Crown Prince Otto von Habsburg, the last descendent of the Holy Roman Empire. The cache included more than 100 letters, from approximately 60 years of correspondence, dating from 1937, when the Hapsburgs decided they’d better leave Dodge or prepare for a showdown with Hitler they couldn’t win. Approaching his quest from the perspective of both a historian and a fin-de-siècle dandy, Pfeifle knew that it would take him to New York, to Hinkle’s last known address, and, with luck, to Otto’s final home, in Germany, Vienna and Sarajevo. It was in Germany that Pfeifle came face-to-face with the former monarch, who had remained politically active during the second half of the 20th Century. Not all fairytales come with such a  clear historical narrative and evidentiary trail. Once the 77- minute Felix Austria! takes hold – if it does — you may want to learn what was in the letters and how a late-19th Century dandy confronts the vulgarity of contemporary life. In 2015, after the doc was released, he founded the Felix Austria School of Civility, in Los Angeles. It’s a tutorial program that “addresses the pervasive changes that have occurred in Western etiquette since the advent of digital technology and social media.”

If any of this discussion about fin-de-siècle Vienna and the Habsburg reign tickles your fancy, you may want to check out Neil Burger’s lush period mystery, The Illusionist (2006). Never mind that the name of the key antagonist was changed from Crown Prince Rudolf to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Budapest stands in grandly for Vienna. Neither is much made of double suicide at the Mayerling hunting lodge, where, in 1889, the direct heir to the crown and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, fulfilled a love pact. That’s not how this movie ends. The illusionist in question here, Eisenheim (Edward Norton), enters into a dangerous game of tag with the Crown Prince for the hand of Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel). As children, they felt destined to marry, but, being the son of a woodworker, they were separated. A couple decades later, Eisenheim returns to Vienna as one the of world’s great magicians. The minute he sees the princess, Eisenheim dedicates himself to preventing the Crown Prince’s wedding plans. It won’t be easy – or without the possibility of bodily harm – but magic always works in behalf of lovers. Leopold has ordered his chief of police, Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to investigate how the son of a woodworker could have become such a formidable foe. Uhl instantly confuses fraud and necromancy for legerdemain and goes to great lengths to back his suspicions. Eisenheim relishes the opportunity to prove both of these pompous fools wrong … or, at least, keep the wool pulled over their eyes.  Burger’s preparations included enlisting British magician James Freedman and the recently deceased American magician/historian/raconteur, Ricky Jay. The upgraded Blu-ray adds Burger’s commentary; a making-of featurette; and interview with Biel.

Mia and the White Lion: Blu-ray
Okko’s Inn: Blu-ray
Could the same audience attracted to Mia and the White Lion, a live-action story about an unlikely friendship, also be interested in an anime about a 12-year-old girl, whose parents are killed in a traffic accident and, with the help of some ghosts, learns how to get on with her life? In the former, 11-year-old Mia (Daniah De Villiers) is shaken to the core by her parents’ decision to move from London to South Africa, where they’ll manage a “lion farm.” Her father attempts to appease her displacement anxiety by allowing her to raise a white lion cub, until he’s too large to be a house pet. At first, their relationship is beyond cute. As they grow older, together, Charlie grows ominously large and Mia turns into a larger than life brat. Just as Mia becomes completely unreasonable in her love for Charley, director Gilles de Maistre (Le premier cri) and writers Prune de Maistre and William Davies (Johnny English Strikes Again) accentuate some of Mia’s better qualities and turn her father into a villain. Like his late father, he raises lions for the sole purpose of selling them to companies that promote can’t-miss trophy hunting. He neglects to reveal this detail to Mia, when she’s made Charley’s  guardian. When the lion’s deemed fully grown and Mia’s finally gotten his last nerve, he’s handed over to the broker. Naturally, Mia rescues her pet, with the intention of releasing it into a wildlife sanctuary set aside for white lions. His daughter’s rebellion convinces her dad to end his illegal business dealings and join her in the cross-country chase. As manipulative as Mia and the White Lion  can be, the points it makes about lion farms and cowardly trophy hunters are sound. It took three years for the real-life Charley and Mia to develop the rapport necessary to film them together in such unlikely circumstances. The scenery could hardly be more spectacular, especially as Mia nears the reserve. The DVD adds interviews and making-of featurettes. While the movie easily qualifies as PG, there are times when parental guidance is advised. There’s no getting around the ugliness of fake trophy hunting. The package includes several deleted scenes, making-of material and interviews.

The Japanese title for Okko’s Inn is the far more descriptive, if hopelessly unwieldy, “The Young Innkeeper Is a Grade Schooler!” It’s based on a series of 20 novels written by Hiroko Reijo and illustrated by Asami, as well as a manga illustrated by Eiko Ouchi and a 24-episode anime television series, directed by Mitsuyuki Masuhara and written by Michiko Yokote. The new, feature-length anime, Okko’s Inn, was directed by Kitaro Kosaka, who designed characters for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), It was written for the screen by Reiko Yoshida (Liz and the Blue Bird). As the movie opens, the pre-teen protagonist’s parents are killed in a car accident on the way back from a festival. It was held in the town where Okko’s grandmother, Mineko, runs a traditional ryokan, the Hananoyu Inn. Before Okko loses consciousness in the accident, she sees the ghostly image of a boy floating in the air. Once she’s recovered, she moves into the inn. It’s there that she learns that the boy is a ghost named Makoto Tachiuri, nicknamed “Uribo,” who died shortly after Mineko moved away from their hometown. Mineko makes her granddaughter “junior innkeeper,” giving her a kimono of her own to wear. While she doesn’t immediately take to innkeeping, her spirits are buoyed by Uribe and the idea that the Hananoyu Inn and its healing waters are intended for everyone. The animation bears a resemblance to that done at Studio Ghibli – generic round-eyed characters, detailed backgrounds, constantly in motion — but it’s understandable, based on creative team’s background. Besides Uribo, the inn is inhabited – haunted would be too harsh a word – by two more ghosts”: the sassy, mischievous, Miyo, and the pesky “demon,” Suzuki. Over the course of Okko’s coming-of-age journey, she meets a variety of unusual characters. Among them are a sullen teenage boy; a friendly fortune teller, Glory, who takes her on a memorable shopping trip; and a rival junior innkeeper, Matsuki, who treats her contemptuously at every opportunity. At the story’s core, however, is Okko’s inability to deal with the fact that her mother and father are no longer with her. This adds a contemplative tone to the proceedings that might make younger viewer restless. It’s a good reason for parents to stick around while the kids watch Okko’s Inn. That, and how to explain how ghosts act differently in other countries. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a Q&A with the creative team.

Winter Passing: Blu-ray
Released early in 2007, Winter Passage had the misfortune of being overshadowed by several pictures with essentially the same plot and tone. Zooey Deschanel, whose career was rapidly reaching its zenith, was cast as an aspiring off-off-Broadway actor, working as a bartender to make ends meet. She enjoys her cocaine and doesn’t always sleep at home, with her boyfriend. Her Reese Holden isn’t untalented, just one of thousands of twentysomethings seeking the same roles, careers and bliss. The chip on Reese’s shoulder becomes obvious when a book editor, Lori Lansky (Amy Madigan), pleads with her to share her parents’ love letters with the world, a get that would assure her career and profit the starving actor. The mere mention of her parents triggers an outburst that says almost everything about the source of her unhappiness and belligerent behavior. Turns out, Reese is the daughter of two highly successful and deeply depressed novelists, whose radical roots withered like their memories of the 1960s. It was a time when everything progressive was possible, except despair over a future that promised everything, but delivered nothing that hadn’t been exploited, bastardized and corrupted. Her narcissistic mother was estranged from her husband, Don Holden (Ed Harris), when she strangled herself, at home, with an old-school necktie. Both estranged themselves from Reese when she failed to show any interest in becoming the second coming of Emma Goldman or Rosa Luxemburg. Having avoided her mother’s funeral, Reese dreaded returning to her northern Michigan and asking her reclusive and alcoholic father where the love letters were hidden. Don’s in worse shape than even Reese could imagine. His literary outpost had dwindled to a few words a week and the onetime voice of his generation had been silenced. The only thing keeping him tripping down the stairs or completely ignoring meals are his worshipful live-in companions, Shelley (Amelia Warner) and Corbit (Will Ferrell), who Reese immediately mistrusts. It isn’t until she comes to the realization, they aren’t parasites – Don needs them as much as they need him —that writer/director Adam Rapp begins to lift the weight of doom, gloom and resentment off his character and narrative.

If you’ve already guessed the Don Holden is based on the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, you’d be right. Even so, being cursed with an almost catastrophic case of writer’s block wasn’t unique to the author of “The Catcher in the Rye.” If only a few people, about the same age, were able to crack the wall of ice surrounding his New Hampshire home – novelist and onetime lover, Joyce Maynard, and, Margaret Salinger, his daughter by his second wife – it would take many years before they felt comfortable sharing details of his life with readers. Don Holden is probably 20 years younger than Salinger, who was in his mid-80s when Winter Passage was put into limited release. Don’s disheveled appearance more resembles how Howard Hughes was supposed to have looked toward the end of his cloistered life in 1976, at 70. Salinger and his eccentricities informed several other movies of the period, even if they weren’t nearly as sharply sculpted, and they still do. Rapp is said to have been influenced, as well, by Bob Rafelson’s portrait of middle-age alienation, Five Easy Pieces (1970). The list of dramas and black comedies that extended the Salinger legend include Wonder Boys (2000), The Door in the Floor (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Running with Scissors (2006), Smart People (2008) and, skipping ahead, The End of the Tour (2015) and Rebel in the Rye (2017). Besides Harris, the stars included such heavyweights as Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Jeff Daniels, Dennis Quaid, Jason Segel, Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hoult. At times, Deschanel’s portrayal of a young woman attempting to escape the shadow of her talented, self-absorbed parents feels overly caustic. Rapp’s script gives her good reasons to behave so badly, though. In the key supporting performances, Ferrell does a terrific job in a counter-intuitive role and Emily Warner’s Mary surprises us – and Reese – by not being the gold-digger she, at first, appeared to be. (No spoiler alert needed.) When they finally come together as an only slightly dysfunctional family, we know that they’ve shared the same difficult journey and come out intact. That conclusion was always in doubt. Special features include a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Fatso: Blu-ray
I can’t remember if any advocacy group objected to anything in Anne Bancroft’s writing and directorial debut, Fatso. Like today, 1980 was a period in American history when everybody and their baby sister nitpicked movies for things to be offended by and report back to Oprah. Fatso is about a guy most people would recognize – Dominick DiNapoli, played by the admittedly overweight Dom DeLuise – who patiently listens to people warn him about the dangers of overeating, but is too busy stirring the tomato sauce to take notes. As the picture opens Bancroft employs a series of anecdotal flashbacks to demonstrate how Dominick came to be as large as he is and why it comes with the territory: Little Italy. He loves eating the food his mother and aunts make for celebrations, parties and funerals, and they love watching him gorge on it. After the opening credits roll, friends and family gather to say goodbye to Sal, his similarly fat cousin, who passed before he hit 40. This prompts his sister, Antoinette (Bancroft), to demand that he make another futile attempt at going on a diet and, failing that, she enrolls him in the “Chubby Checkers” support group. While DeLuise has us in stitches as he finds new ways to fall off the food wagon, viewers already are aware of the dangers he’s facing. So does Bancroft, of course. When Cupid’s arrows simultaneously strike Dom and Lydia Bollowenski (Candice Azzara) – an unconventionally pretty blond of mixed Italian and Polish descent — neither of them knows what to do with their feelings, except eat. Even when they do hook up, however, their insecurities keep them from fully connecting. You probably know the rest. Almost 30 years later, Fatso remains funny, without being cruel, offensive or insensitive. I can see where a person struggling with obesity in real life – DeLuise was merely dangerously large – might have some reservations about the movie, but not because it’s laden with clichés or stereotypes. Those, Bancroft reserved for the characters who resemble the Italian immigrants and first-generation Italian Americans around whom she grew up in the Bronx. They’re the flipside of the Corleones. It’s also possible to recognize the contributions made by her husband, Mel Brooks, and his production company, Brooksfilms. In an interview included in the bonus package, they both emphasize how difficult it was for a woman – any woman not named Streisand, anyway – to helm a mainstream feature in 1980. (Brooks’ name might have given Fatso a marketing boost, but he remained a very silent partner throughout the project.) Featurettes include “Looking Back on Fatso,” with Brooks and producer Stuart Cornfeld, and an interview with Maya Montañez Smukler, author of “Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s’ American Cinema.”

24 Hour Party People: Blu-ray
Michael Winterbottom may be one of the world’s most innovative, provocative and universally admired filmmakers, but such attributes don’t cut much ice among AMPAS nominators and voters. He’s directly tackled such issues as the interrogation and torture of political prisoners (The Road to Guantanamo), the migrations of war-ravaged refugees (In This World) and terrorism (A Mighty Heart), while also making time for excursions into comedy (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), scientific ethics (Code 46), literary icons (On the Road), crime fiction (The Killer Inside Me), thrillers (The Wedding Guest), romance (A Summer in Genoa), porn (The Look of Love), war correspondents (Welcome to Sarajevo), documentaries (The Shock Doctrine) and, more often than not, rock ’n’ roll (9 Songs). I can’t recall ever being disappointed by one of his filmic detours. Newly re-released into Blu-ray by the MVD Marquee Collection, 24 Hour Party People (2002) describes how one idiosyncratic British television personality changed the face, sound and beat of rock ’n’ roll, first in Manchester and, then, throughout the UK and, to a lesser degree, America. Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) couldn’t play an instrument or sing a lick, but after attending an early, nearly empty Sex Pistols concert, he was inspired to promote local bands, start a record label and open a nightclub. An idealist from the word “go,” Wilson did business the old-fashioned way: a handshake and a bloody thumbprint on a wall. It may have sounded like a righteous business practice at the beginning, but sincerity has never been one of rock’s selling points. He was fortunate enough to find and promote such quirky bands as Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, while also running the Factory nightclub, which became the sweaty “mecca of rave culture” in “Madchester.” His idea of solving a business problem was hiring local mobsters to keep track of admissions and sales, and opening the door to drug dealers – ecastasy, mostly – whose products killed sales of alcoholic beverages. All the while, he’s narrating his own rise and fall, with a stiff upper lip and British schoolboy’s sense of humor. The late, great cinematographer Robby Müller (Paris, Texas) captured both the club’s frantic atmosphere and the gritty urban sprawl of working-class Manchester, during the Thatcher years. The upgraded MVD Marquee Collection release adds commentary with Coogan and producer Andrew Eaton, as well as a separate track with the actual Tony Wilson, who still can’t understand what all the fuss was about; “Manchester: The Movie”; an “About Tony Wilson” featurette; 11 deleted scenes; and a photo gallery. In the aforementioned Pendular, Alice creates an impromptu solo dance to Joy Division’s, “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Resurrecting the Champ: Blu-ray
When the struggling sportswriter Erik Kernan Jr. (Josh Hartnett) rescues a raspy-voiced, homeless man, known around Denver’s Skid Row as the Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), from an assault, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the kind of beating he was about to endure. Neither can we. Although Rod Lurie’s absorbing urban drama, Resurrecting the Champ (2007), looks, smells and quacks like a boxing movie, it continually flirts with other themes and ideas. Unlike his father, who was a well-known sports broadcaster, Erik has yet to display any talent as a writer. His intentions are sound, however. He recognizes the torn and tortured Champ as a boxer whose legitimate name, “Battling” Bob Satterfield, somehow rang a bell. A visit to the newspaper’s morgue reveals that a fighter named Bob “Bombardier” Satterfield was, indeed, a prominent heavyweight contender, but has long been assumed to be dead. Things like that sometimes occur to punch-drunk fighters, who, when their careers are over, either end up sweeping the floors of a gym or collecting recyclable items to earn the price of a beer. In the movies, down-and-out athletes, Thoroughbreds and coaches are routinely re-discovered by guys like Erik, who help them sober up and aspire to something resembling redemption. While it’s clear that Champ suffers from dementia, Jackson has molded him into a likeable character, who means no harm to anyone and isn’t embarrassed to be penniless. When he’s tormented by punks, who, when drunk, want to impress their friends, he reflexively defends himself as any boxer would do in the same position. In this case, his tormentor received plenty of help from his cronies.

When Erik learns about Satterfield’s professional background – and the role his father played in bringing him down – he proposes a story to his editor (Alan Alda) that could eventually pull him out of his old man’s shadow and someday impress his son. Erik and his reporter wife, Joyce Kernan (Kathryn Morris), are going through a not terribly nasty divorce, and he fears losing contact with the boy. When the story is finally written and published, Erik’s career takes a turn for the better. Before long, however, the rug is pulled out from him. Suffice it too say, Satterfield isn’t who he appears to be and, in his own rush to redemption, Erik commits the one journalistic sin that’s never forgiven. Just ask New York Times reporters Jayson Blair and Judith Miller; the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke; the New Republic’s Stephen Glass; and the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith. As a film critic for Los Angeles Magazine and KABC Talk Radio. who often clashed with studio publicists, Lurie (The Contender) would have been aware of those controversies and may have used them to shape Erik Kernan’s journey. Like co-screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett Lurie, would also have read a 1997 piece in Los Angeles Times Magazine, in which reporter J.R. Moehringer described his own uneasy father-son relationship with a homeless guy he knew both as Champ and Bob Satterfield. In doing the research that Erik should have performed before doing an end run around his editor and selling his article about Champ to a publication other than the Denver Post, Moehringer avoided his own brush with infamy. Both reporters discover the truth, but Erik’s article was based on a delusional fighter’s imaginary alter ego. Moehringer’s piece, also “Resurrecting the Champ,”    documented his search for the truth after his no-brainer magazine feature collapsed around his ears and he had to rethink the whole project. The result was an excellent piece of introspective exposition that every aspiring journalist should read, before following a story that’s “too good to be true” off a cliff. If Lowrie had simply adapted Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” as written, it might have been four hours long. As it is, Resurrecting the Champ captured the essence of the article, by tweaking certain key facts, adding the bit about Erik and Joyce’s separation and fudging Moehringer’s own backstory. Jackson’s portrayal of Champ reminded me so much of Romulus “Rom” Ledbetter,  a similar character he played in Kasi Lemmons’s The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), that I wondered if he reclaimed the tattered costumes and unkempt dreadlock wig from that underseen picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary from Lurie, a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew.

The Old Man and the Sea
Shark Attack 3-Pack
The 1990 made-for-television adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Old Man and the Sea,” may not cast the same spell as the 1958 version, but that has more to do with our familiarity with the story and limitations demanded by network television, than anything else. Because so much of the three best-known iterations were set on the seas off Cuba – or sound stages at Warner Brothers’ Burbank Studios – it doesn’t matter where the great battle between man and beast finally took place. The beachside scenes could have been shot almost anywhere between Malibu, Acapulco and Honolulu. Most of the paint-on-glass animation for Aleksandr Petrov’s 20-minute The Old Man and the Sea (1999) was completed in Montreal and intended for exhibition on IMAX screens. (It won an Oscar for Best Short Film/Animated.) For some reason, John Sturges and Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation used locations in Hawaii, the Bahamas, Peru, Panama, Colombia and Cuba, before moving on to Burbank. (Presumably, Hemingway wanted to fish for marlin on the studio’s dime.) This one was shot on location on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. (The reason my recollections of 1958 The Old Man and the Sea are in black-and-white is because we wouldn’t get a color set for another 15 years.)  Here, Anthony Quinn finally got to play Santiago, the baseball-loving Cuban fisherman who is suffering through an 84-day string of bad luck. Legend has it that Sturges preferred Tracy over the Mexican-born two-time Oscar-winner (Viva Zapata!, Lust for Life), but the studio felt as if Tracy’s name carried more commercial value. Even at the ripe old age of 74, Quinn definitely fits the role of Santiago better than Tracy. Both performances are noteworthy. Once the most successful fisherman in town, others have begun to notice signs of a natural diminishment in his strength and judgment. his problems feeling he maybe too old to fish. The parents of his apprentice, Manolin, have gone so far as to forbid him to go out with Santiago. Even so, their bond remains extremely tight. On the day of his greatest challenge, Santiago makes the decision to venture farther north, into the Gulf Stream, than he normally goes. It’s where the pernicious god of fishing decided to give his friend a great gift and, then, two days later, begin to take it away from him, piece by piece. His adult children Valentina (Nuts) and Francesco (Platoon) also can be seen here, alongside Gary Cole (“Veep”), Patricia Clarkson (“Sharp Objects”) and Joe Santos (“Rockford Files”), in roles, I believe, were added to the story. Blessedly, the commercial breaks don’t disrupt from the flow of the movie and, at 93 minutes, is family friendly. Actor bios are included.

Remember Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the 2010 Hitchcock parody that gave serious movie critics a reason to slit their wrists? I’ve just received “Shark Attack 3-Pack,” a box set of movies about a species of killer sharks that inhabit fresh-water lakes in Ontario. That some varieties of sharks can survive out of their salt-water habitats for long periods has been proven in any number of extreme fishing shows on cable. Unlike “Birdemic,” Shark Exorcist (2015), Raiders of the Lost Shark (2015) and Sharkenstein (2016) run out of fresh gags almost immediately after the opening credits roll. Although the writers will accidentally make a funny reference to a movie that has nothing to do with sharks, these movies have about as much chance of breaking into a “Shark Week” rotation as the Facebook mini-movies I share with my sisters. In all possible ways, from lousy special effects to risible accents, these three exports from the Great White North make every other Canuxploitation title look like the French New Wave.

Heroes Shed No Tears: Blu-ray
1986 was a watershed year for martial-arts specialist John Woo, a Hong Kong-based writer/director/actor who’d gotten bogged down in the studio system and desperately wanted to make a name for himself. In the early 1970s, Woo left the Shaw Brothers’ factory and joined Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho’s break-way Golden Harvest Studio, which kept him busy churning out kung fu actioners and the occasional comedy, until the company’s heavy-handed editing drove him away. By 1984, he’d already collaborated with such giants as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and Damian Lau, and moved over to Lau’s fledgling Cinema City, where, two years later, his string of box-office disappointments ended with the Triad thriller, A Better Tomorrow, produced by Hark. It was a landmark film, credited with drawing the template for the “heroic bloodshed” subgenre, whose influence easily crossed the Pacific, to Hollywood. Still sitting on a shelf at Golden Harvest, however, was Heroes Shed No Tears, which had been manhandled by the editors there and wouldn’t be released until A Better Tomorrow proved itself. Because Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985, when Woo’s mercenary-based actioner was still gathering dust, it isn’t likely that one influenced the other. That they could have been hatched from the same egg, though, is pretty obvious. In Woo’s tale, a group of Chinese mercenaries is hired by the Thai government to capture a powerful drug lord, based in the Golden Triangle. While the mercenaries manage to capture the drug lord, they soon find themselves pursued by his private army and troops loyal to a bitter Thai officer. The Chinese mercenaries, led by Chan Chung (Eddie Ko), may be vastly outnumbered, and as their numbers begin to dwindle, the fighters raise the ante on carnage. Along the way out of Laos, the Chinese soldiers cross into Vietnam, where they are confronted by a sadistic Vietnamese colonel (Lam Ching-ying). Adding to the degree of difficulty is Chan’s desire to protect his family, who live in a village near the border with China. As the enemy closes in, women and children there pick up guns, grenades and rocket launchers to support the Chinese mercs. Heroes Shed No Tears has been described as one of Woo’s most gratuitously violent movies, which, I guess, is saying a lot. The fighters are either deadly accurate with their machine-gun fire or hopelessly inept. Bodies fly like drunken ballet dancers, auditioning for “Swan Lake.” Chan’s relationship to his son, and some of the other story elements, appear to have derived from the Japanese manga, “Lone Wolf and Cub.” A relatively scandalous drug/sex scene was imposed on Woo by the studio to give the movie more “production value” for sale to foreign territories, and the total on-screen body count is 323. What are you waiting for?  The long-awaited Blu-ray adds an interview with Ko and new essay by author, film programmer and Asian film expert Grady Hendrix.

13 Graves
Hi-Death
Filmed in woods surrounding historic Herstmonceux Castle, in Sussex, John Langridge’s undead thriller, 13 Graves, takes a simple idea and makes it feel a lot bigger than it is. It does so by putting a pair of hitmen in suits and requiring them to march their intended victim – also nicely dressed – to patch of land occupied by the decaying corpses of their favorite hits. Naturally, the snazzy assassins are ordered by their boss, Maddy (Terri Dwyer), to escort Billy (Jacob Anderton) a short distance into the woods and make him dig his own grave. Billy appeals to the gunmen (Morgan James, Kevin Leslie) to allow his escape, in return for a pile of money. Billy probably reneged on a drug deal, but it hardly matters. No sooner is some headway made on the grave than a hulking hillbilly appears out of nowhere to distract Frank and Terry long enough for Billy to sprint deeper into the woods. Meanwhile, the hitmen have lost all sense of direction and keep re-tracing their own tracks. Once they find their target hiding in a home that looks abandoned, but probably is used by Satanists to prepare for their rituals, they unload their pistolas into him and attempt to carry him back to the gravesite. This time, however, they not only get trapped in bogs and gullies, but they also find themselves encircled by a darker, more poetically judicial force. As night falls, things grow even creepier for the killers, who recognize some of the undead spirits as former acquaintances. Because only a couple of them look as if they’ve begun the transition into zombiehood, writer/director Langridge neatly avoids succumbing to all-too-familiar horror clichés. The movie’s 83-minute length doesn’t leave much time for applying too much extraneous baggage and viewers won’t miss it, anyway.

From the makers of the well-received 2013 anthology, “HI-8 (Horror Independent 8),” comes Wild Eye’s sequel, of sorts, HI-Death. While the former essentially was a love letter to the  VHS format and independent shot-on-video filmmaking,  the latter employs only a few visual references to that unlamented format. The HI-Death collection consists of five low-budget horror shorts, linked by a pair of female tourists who think it might be fun embarking on a smartphone-directed “Terror Tour” around Los Angeles. The framing device, helmed by Brad Sykes (The Pact), requires that they watch a selection of scary videos. First concerns a junkie tormented by a skeletal demon in a motel room. It’s followed by a story about a true-crime obsessive who’s forced to confront the dark escalation of his fascination with morbid memorabilia; a video-store clerk who can’t escape the threats emitted from a mysterious DVD; an actress facing a rather aggressive audition process; and a painter held captive as part of a demonic ritual. Some the scenes, while imaginatively conceived, require a strong stomach.

The New York Ripper: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The Green Inferno: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Double Face: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The flag of Italy waves over these releases, even though two of them were shot – partially, at least – in New York, London, all over Europe and South America, and, only then, Cinecitta studio, in Rome. The multinational casts were chosen with international sales in mind, and the films all suffered the indignity of being mutilated or banned in countries that promote creative freedom. I’m not a big fan of censorship, but these films all pushed the limits on graphic violence and sexuality. If your tolerance level is low – especially for extreme giallo, krimi and unnerving soundtracks – I recommend taking on pass on them. On the plus side, though, the production values are high, the locations exotic and the casts chosen for reasons other than their thespianic skills. (Is it possible for an actor to be considered gratuitously beautiful or handsome?) Neither did the studios’ marketing teams use tactics intended to mask the true nature of the sordid content. Their appeal can be summed up in a single sentence.

In Lucio Fulci’s garishly disgusting The New York Ripper (1982), for example, “A burned-out New York police detective teams up with a college psychoanalyst to track down a vicious serial killer, randomly stalking and killing various young women around the city.” The only things missing in mukthat description are the killer’s mutilated hand and propensity to wield cutlery of mass destruction. And, yes, his targets are, indeed, gratuitously beautiful. The fiend’s killing grounds extend a bit further than Travis Bickel’s cab took him in Taxi Driver, six years earlier. If anything, however, the Italian vision of Times Square is even more sordid than proffered by Martin Scorsese. NYPD detective Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) follows the trail of butchery from the decks of the Staten Island Ferry to the sex shows on the  Deuce. Soon enough, it becomes abundantly clear that the killer either has a childish sense of humor or is a fan of bad imitations of Donald Duck, because that’s what he uses to taunt the police and perspective victims … and torment viewers. Fulci, one of the early pioneers of giallo (Don’t Torture a Duckling, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), let it all hang out with The New York Ripper, which was entirely banned in the UK until 2007, when a DVD, reduced by 41 seconds, was cleared by censors. The cuts had nothing to do with the screenplay – credited to Gianfranco Clerici, Vincenzo Mannino, Dardano Sacchetti and Fulci, on the Italian side – which benefits from a sound narrative and, of course, the scenery. It’s being presented by Blue Underground with a new 4K restoration from its original camera negative, completely uncut and uncensored. Extras include commentary with Troy Howarth, author of ”Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films”; interviews with co-writer Sacchetti (Manhattan Baby), actors Howard Ross (The Killer Reserved Nine Seats), Cinzia de Ponti, Zora Kerova and Stephen Thrower (author of ”Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci”) and poster artist Enzo Sciotti; the featurette, “NYC Locations, Then and Now”; an original theatrical trailer; and, separately, the film’s original soundtrack CD, by Francesco De Masi; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by Travis Crawford; and lenticular 3D slipcover.

The mini-summary of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013) reads, “A group of student activists travels to the Amazon to save the rain forest and soon discovers that they are not alone, and that no good deed goes unpunished.” The aforementioned Gianfranco Clerici teamed with Ruggero Deodato on Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a true exploitation classic, in which, “during a rescue mission into the Amazon rainforest, a professor stumbles across lost film shot by a missing documentary crew.” They already collaborated on the kindred, Jungle Holocaust (1977), one of several titles in the post-“Mondo” cannibal subgenre. Co-writer Sacchetti joined Antonio Margheriti for Cannibals in the Streets (1980). Umberto Lenzi’s The Man From Deep River (1972), Eaten Alive! (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981) framed the trend. In an interview included here, Roth (Cabin Fever) admits a fondness for Cannibal Holocaust and a desire to create an opportunity for escape by spiking a student’s corpse with high-octane ganga and waiting for them to fall asleep. There’s no denying that The Green Inferno overflows with nearly unwatchable gore and sexual violence. It’s primary problem, though, comes toward the end when the endangered students – or what’s left of them – are rescued by the same de-foresters and racist plunderers they came to expose. One deeply secreted tribe is powerless against another deeply secreted tribe, which, we’re led to believe, begs for its own extinction by eating the well-meaning environmentalists. As the forest is depleted, the need for habitable land and access to water has pushed the rival tribes to war, which requires the intervention of do-gooders or corporations with a vested interest in one side winning or both sides losing. As an amoral cannibal entertainment, though, that reality encourages viewers to side with the guys driving bulldozers and carrying automatic weapons, who would create concentration camps or eliminate the tribes if they don’t agree to installing porta-potties and wear overalls. The rain-forest locations and Antonio Quercia’s cinematography almost made me forget scenes of free-flowing entrails. The two-disc set adds an exclusive original soundtrack by Manuel Riverio. with bonus tracks not included in the film; a new intro and interview with co-writer/producer/director Roth; the featurette, “Uncivilized Behavior: Method Acting in The Green Inferno, with actors Lorenza Izzo, Daryl Sabara and Kirby Bliss Blanton; nearly an hour of never-before-seen footage; commentary with Roth, producer Nicolás López and cast members; a vintage making-of featurette; and a stills gallery.

Released in 1969, Riccardo Freda’s Double Face is described thusly, “A millionaire is unwittingly led into murder by his lesbian wife.” Falling somewhere between a giallo and a krimi, the generically flexible thriller benefits greatly from a comparatively restrained portrayal of the protagonist, John Alexander, whose unfaithful wife, Helen (Margaret Leer) dies in a car crash. The vehicle looks as if they were borrowed from the layout of a toy train, while the landscape is no more authentic than an aluminum Christmas tree. The plot thickens when evidence arises suggesting that the car was tampered with prior to the crash. John’s entire perception of reality is thrown into doubt when he discovers a recently shot pornographic movie, which suggests that Helen is in alive and playing an elaborate mind game on him. The worm will turn a few more times before it becomes clear as to who’s going to survive the plotting, which was tentatively based on an Edgar Wallace novel – as were most other German thrillers of the period – and re-interpreted by Freda, Fulci, Paul Hengge (Spanking at School), Romano Migliorini (The Inglorious Bastards) and Gianbattista Mussetto (Bandidos). Born in 1909 to Italian parents, living in Egypt, Freda began his career during the war. Instead of following his peers in neo-realism, he proved himself adept at historical spectacles (Theodora, Slave Empress), horror/fantasies (Lust of the Vampire), spy films (Coplan FX 18 casse tout), a Western, or two (Death at Owell Rock), and gialli (The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire). Here, Freda adds a healthy dollop of psychedelia, as well. The Italian production team’s southern flavor is balanced by the inclusion of such northern accents as Christiane Krüger, Günther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Sydney Chaplin. The hardcore inserts (circa 1976) featured the heavenly body of Alice Arno. The Arrow package is enhanced by a new 2K restoration of the full-length Italian version of the film, from the original 35mm camera negative; original English and Italian soundtracks, titles and credits; new commentary by author/critic Tim Lucas; a fresh interview with composer Nora Orlandi; “The Many Faces of Nora Orlandi,” a new appreciation of the composer, by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; “The Terrifying Dr. Freda,” a new video essay on Riccardo Freda’s gialli, by author/critic Amy Simmons; an image gallery from the collection of Christian Ostermeier, including the original German pressbook and lobby cards, and the complete Italian cineromanzo adaptation; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, by Graham Humphreys; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell.

American Horror Project, Volume Two: Blu-ray
Histories of independent film in America sometimes aren’t able to find room for movies that failed to crack even the bottom tier of the drive-in circuit at its peak. There probably are a hundred reasons for such oversights and omissions, but, until they’re viewed with fresh eyes, there’s no way of knowing if the films were even worth the effort to add opening and closing credits. Anyone who’s gotten this far in the column already knows that I watch some movies so you don’t have to and will go out of my way to find a single saving grace in them. (Did I mention that the entries in the “Shark Attack 3-Pack” weren’t completely devoid of humor, especially if you’re Canadian.) I didn’t have to search very hard to locate reasons for the continued availability of Dream No Evil (1970), Dark August (1976) and The Child (1977), all of them collected by Arrow Films in its features-laden “American Horror Project, Volume Two.” or this presentation. I got an assist from curator Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents”), who made the selections here and for 2016’s “American Horror Project, Volume 1,” and has no trouble defending them. John Hayes’ Dream No Evil exists as a yellowed postcard from a long-ago period in American history. It portrays life on the road for a traveling preacher and faith healer, the Rev. Paul Jessie Bundy (Michael Pataki), who demonstrates the ravages of hell fire by requiring of his bombshell partner (Brooke Mills) that she put on a provocative costume, climb to the top of a tall, none-too-secure ladder, and dive into a bag filled with foam-rubber scraps. When she tires of this charade, the increasingly delusional Grace vows to find her missing father, Timothy (Edmond O’Brien), last seen in a small-town brothel and retirement home, right out of “Twin Peaks.” The retired evangelist is there, alright, ready to be embalmed by a sleazy undertaker (Marc Lawrence). While Grace is negotiating with the creep, Timothy somehow re-animates himself. After slicing open the undertaker with a scalpel, they return to the encampment. Since being resurrected, Timothy has let the bible dictate his actions, including beating Grace when she doesn’t bring his food quickly enough to the table and he catches her “fornicating” with Rev. Bundy. But, that’s only half of the gag. The disc adds featurettes “Melancholy Dreamer,” a savvy appreciation by Thrower, an Arrow regular; “Hollywood After Dark: The Early Films of John Hayes,” Thrower’s enjoyable retrospective overview of Hayes’ career; a 2005 audio interview and slide show with Hayes’ ex-squeeze, Rue McClanahan; “Edmond O’Brien: An Actor for All Seasons,” a 22-minute appreciation of the actor’s career; and commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan.

It’s followed by Martin Goldman’s Dark August (1976), which stars Academy Award-winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) in a story about a nervous wreck, Sal (J.J. Barry), who moves from the city to sleepy rural Vermont. He’s barely settled into his cabin, when he accidentally kills a little girl while driving through the countryside. He couldn’t possibly see her running into winding road without looking, but is severely traumatized by the event, anyway. After a while, he begins to experience hallucinations of a menacing figure, wearing a cowl and hood, and impromptu visits by the girl’s grandfather, who’s also cast on spell on him. It appears to be working, because he’s acting like a PTSD sufferer who’s decided to stop taking his meds. Finally, he takes the advice of friends, by scheduling a healing session with a local white witch (Hunter), who puts him on a different path to madness. Dark August definitely qualifies as a “slow burn chiller,” which is OK, because it gives us time to admire the Vermont scenery. It adds “Revisiting Dark August,” with Thrower; “Mad Ave to Mad Dogs,” a career-spanning interview with Goldman; “Don’t Mess With the Psychic,” an interview with producer Marianne Kanter; the 34-minute “The Hills Are Alive: Dark August and Vermont Folk Horror,” an overview of films with some kind of connection to the state; commentary with Goldman, moderated by Brandon Daniel and Joe Luke; and an original press book, accessible as BD-ROM content.

Any movie titled, The Child, runs the risk of being pigeonholed. The popularity of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) made it difficult for horror/thriller directors to come up with something more succinct and instantly identifiable. Even more difficult, of course, was meeting the expectations of fans and critics who take any comparison with Polanski’s horror/thriller as a challenge. Onetime director Robert Voskanian and writer Ralph Lucas (Zipperface) doesn’t look as if it’s going to break any new ground – a college student is hired by a weird family to be the nanny for an evil child – until the girl raises an army of the udead to attack the people she holds responsible for her mother’s death. It doesn’t matter that there weren’t marquee-value stars. The Blu-ray adds “Zombie Child,” with Thrower; “Fathers of The Child,” with director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian; commentary with Voskanian and Dadashian, moderated by Thrower; and BD-ROM access to the original press book.

Night of the Creeps: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
One the most difficult things facing publicists for genre films is avoiding giving away the gags, without dampening the expectations of fans and buffs. Another is to convey the fact their project is a genre parody, or a sendup of conventions and tropes loved by people in the target audience. Mel Brooks didn’t have to worry about offending geeks, because he knew that his admirers were adults, who’d grown up watching the movies being spoofed – gently – and understood the difference between satire and tone-deaf comedy. They knew he was laughing along with the audience, as they recognized where his pictures were going, not at them. It explains why people publicizing less-polished genre parodies find target-rich gatherings – ComiccCon, gaming conventions – provide the fans with enough free swag to put them in a mood for liking what’s being pitched and screened. (The same gimmick works for HFPA members, who love to be coddled and wooed.)  Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986) was a smart and funny cross-genre satire that failed at the box office for some of the same reasons it would become a cult classic. In 1986, there was no ComicCon as we now know it. Megaplexes had nearly wiped out drive-in theaters, which served as a breeding ground for buzz and word-of-mouth. And, of course, the Internet was still catering to scientists, the military, people who played Solitaire at work and video games at home. Worse, Night of the Creeps’ title conveyed nothing about what the movie was about and why buffs should be interested. It opens in 1959, when an alien ship crashes to Earth, without completing its experiment. A student is infected by something in the payload but is isolated inside a temperature-controlled capsule before the virus can do much damage. It also will provide sufficient time to search for a cure or antidote. Twenty-seven years later, the body of the cryogenically frozen student is thawed out by fraternity pledges determined to prove their worth to the Greek system. Once this happens, a plague of creepy crawlers invade the campus turning students into zombies. (A much better title would have been, “Night of the Creepy Crawlers.”) That Dekker’s scatter-shot approach frequently hits his targets and the gags show a working knowledge, at least, of B-movie history, Too often, however, they’re meaningful to film-school students and the writer/director’s friends. For example, the last names of the main characters are based on famous horror and sci-fi directors: George A. Romero (Chris Romero), John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper (James Carpenter Hooper), David Cronenberg (Cynthia Cronenberg), James Cameron (Detective Ray Cameron), John Landis (Detective Landis), Sam Raimi (Sergeant. Raimi) and Steve Miner (Mr. Miner, the janitor). Graffiti on the wall of the men’s lavatory, where one of the protagonists is trying to escape the killer slugs, reads, “Go Monster Squad!,” referring to The Monster Squad (1987), another Dekker project. Corman University is a nod to the maestro of exploitation, Roger Corman. You get the picture. Both of the discs containing the director’s-cut and theatrical versions contain more bonus supplements than a non-fan could handle. Cultists will eat them up.

The Believers: Blu-ray
After making two of the best movies set partially, at least, in New York – Midnight Cowboy (1969), Marathon Man (1976) – the frequently brilliant London-born director, John Schlesinger, returned to the Apple for a movie about, what else, Santería. He probably shouldn’t have bothered. Although The Believers (1987) was sandwiched between two other entertaining pictures — The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Madame Sousatzka (1988) – Schlesinger hadn’t logged a commercially successful movie in 11 years. His bad luck streak would dog the Academy Award-winning filmmaker for the rest of his career. Based on a novel by Nicholas Conde, The Believers was adapted for the screen by Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks,” “Hill Street Blues”), whose only previously produced screenplay was the haunted-house thriller, Scared Stiff (1987), recently restored by Arrow Video. There may not be anything nearly as poignant here as the Ratso Rizzo’s  death scene, in Midnight Cowboy; as revolutionary as the MMF love triangle, in Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971); or as disturbing as the torture-by-dentistry scene, in Marathon Man. It does, however, open with a truly shocking expository scene, in which a 7-year-old boy, Chris (Harley Cross), witnesses the death of his mother, after she steps into a puddle of milk that has been electrically charged by a shorted-out kitchen appliance. The electrocution could have been eliminated from the narrative, entirely, but it serves to explain how psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) ended up in Manhattan, shrinking the heads of traumatized cops. He’s one of the few psychologists I’ve seen – in the movies, anyway — who’s called to particularly nasty crime scenes by a police lieutenant (Robert Loggia), concerned about the welfare of his officers, including Jimmy Smits. In short order, Cal falls for his lovely landlord (Helen Shaver) and Chris becomes the object of obsession by “the believers.” Apparently, he’s the perfect candidate for sacrifice to the gods of darkness, as determined by a tall, skinny spiritual leader (Malick Bowens), who passed through U.S. Customs as if he were Casper the Friendly Ghost. I doubt that many viewers would be surprised by the intensity of the “blood rituals” performed by otherwise sane New Yorkers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t gut-churning, only that we’ve seen such rituals performed dozens of times in the last 30 years. The Olive Films Blu-ray adds a theatrical trailer, a MGM 90th– anniversary trailer and isolated score, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.

The Dark Side of the Moon: Blu-ray
Rock-video specialist D.J. Webster received his first and only shot at big-screen fame with The Dark Side of the Moon (1990), a dark and moody sci-fi drama, set in 2022. Writers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes would fare better, finally hitting high gear in 2013, with James Wan’s international blockbuster The Conjuring. “Dark Side” went straight to video, a category that allows for experimentation, plot cloning and looser accounting standards. In 2022, while in Earth orbit to repair nuclear satellites, Spacecore 1 suffers an inexplicable power failure. The crew panics as the ship is drawn towards the dark side of the moon and they are left with only 24 hours’ worth of oxygen and power the craft. On their journey into eternal darkness and mystery, they are stunned to find Discovery 8, a NASA space shuttle that crashed in the Bermuda Triangle 30 years earlier. After docking with the shuttle, the Spacecore crew members are taken over by a parasitic organism. It falls upon crewman Paxton Warner (Joe Turkel) to find the links between the deadly aliens and the Bermuda and Devil’s triangles. While there aren’t many surprises here, killer-alien-parasite completists should find something to like. Bonus features include interviews with actor Allen Blumenfield, stuntman Chuck Borden and FX artist Chris Biggs; commentary with producer Paul White and Stephen Biro (American Guinea Pig); production and dialogue notes.

TV-to-DVD
The Dick Cavett Show: Baseball’s Greatest Hits: The Pitchers
Syfy: Leprechaun Returns: Blu-ray
You never know exactly what to expect in S’More Entertainment’s series of themed episodes from Dick Cavett’s various talk shows. That’s because the common elements in the collected titles are sandwiched between the host’s other guests on any particular night. They’re nothing, if not eclectic. Previously issued episodes have featured appearances by influential black comedians, established white comics, emerging talents, famous news anchors, “Hollywood Greats,” rock icons and this week’s “The Dick Cavett Show: Baseball’s Greatest Hits: The Pitchers.” As nerdy and sycophantic as Cavett can be when interviewing personalities he particularly admires, he usually leaves enough room for tasty tidbits of talk. Because he’s loved baseball since childhood, he gives his guest even more room to share on-field anecdotes, opinions and personal stories. He even gets Tommy John, Satchel Paige and Whitey Ford to teach him their strikeout pitches. The other guest hurlers are the wonderful Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Denny McLain, Vida Blue and Mickey Mantle. Now, imagine these All-Stars, from all walks of life, siting alongside the likes of Paul Simon, Salvador Dali, Robert Altman, Rose Kennedy and Marcel Marceau, who teaches Cavett the moonwalk, 10 years before Michael Jackson introduced it to the masses. The DVDs add player bios and direct access to the pitchers’ segments.

Earlier, a bit farther north in this column, I made a case for the movies contained in “Shark Attack 3-Pac” being among the worst made in any genre. In making such an assertion, I took into account the possibility that the filmmakers might actually agree with it and knowing full well that some pundits consider Leprechaun 3 (1995) to be among the worst, as well.  The latest installment in the famously non-linear franchise, Leprechaun Returns, is a Syfy original that qualifies for true sequel status, albeit a quarter-century past the original theatrical release, Leprechaun (1993). The bad news here is the continued absence of Warwick Davis, the wee fellow who’s played the diminutive green booger in all but one other installment. I’m more upset by the fact that Jennifer Aniston passed up the opportunity to portray the mom who threw  the leprechaun into the well, 25 years ago. Her daughter, Lila (Taylor Spreitler), has returned to the area to attend college and help fix the old abode, so it can be converted to a sorority house. It doesn’t take long before the Leprechaun  (Linden Porco) is awakened by all the noise and demands to know where his cache of gold coins was hidden by Lila’s mother. There’s no lack of guts, gore and trash talk in Leprechaun Returns and there are times when nothing makes any sense, whatsoever. Special features include “Going Green With Director Steven Kostanski,” behind-the-scenes footage and a stills gallery.

Scrawl
Wild Eye Releasing is a reliably unpredictable distributor of low budget, independently made genre titles that may have experienced difficulties finding a home anywhere else. The DVD covers are deliciously lurid, but it’s likely that most consumers find its selections through PPV services. Scrawl has a better backstory than most other horror, slasher and sci-fi pictures you’d tend to find in the bargain bins of Internet distribution. Back in 2014, when it was shot, Welsh writer/director/producer Peter Hearn was known, if at all, for Appleseed Lake (2001) and Cross-Eyed Waltz (2005), a pair of films that were largely unseen and unreviewed. Ditto, Scrawl, which began its life as a collaboration between industry professionals and in-training actors and technicians of Andover College. After being shown at a couple of festivals, Hearn pulled it back for re-editing and reshooting, not to be seen again until this month on iTunes, which just pulled the plug on itself. (It’s available on Amazon Prime, YouTube and DVD.) All of that said, however. Hearn had the great good luck to have cast an unknown Daisy Ridley in a key role, at approximately the same time as she was hired to play Rey in the Stars Wars sequel trilogy, which opened with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). It’s taken Hearn four years to be able to exploit that happy coincidence. Ridley’s character in Scrawl, Hannah, is an unnerving presence that appears almost randomly, before someone is going to be sliced up. (A recent slasher trend is showing a head or torso being split in two and the victim’s innards flowing outward … none too convincingly.) The movie is nicely set in and around a beachside community in Hampshire, England. Simon Goodman (Liam Hughes) is an imaginative 16-year-old, who,  with his best friend, Joe Harper (Joe Daly), creates a gory comic book called Scrawl as a way to escape their mundane reality and, perhaps, get a leg up on their school’s social ladder. The characters are modeled after classmates, along with a few ringers, such as Hannah. Unfortunately, in an extreme example of life imitating art, Hannah’s presence in the comic foretells the occurrence of horrible things happening to the real-life students. Once that becomes clear, Simon and Joe must fight the forces of evil – sometimes, mirror images of the characters in the book — to gain enough time to rewrite death. The reviews of Scrawl I’ve read on niche websites are all over the block on its quality or lack thereof. Some of the writers are able to get past the confusion that comes with separating reality from fiction, while others aren’t nearly as forgiving. All agree that the gore, however gratuitous and cosmetically applied, should satisfy most fans of slasher flicks. The DVD, which may be a Walmart exclusive, adds the short film upon which the movies is based.

Crisis Hotline
After a week of nights spent fielding calls from people whose troubles hardly qualify as crises, Simon (Corey Jackson) receives one from a man who’s reached the end of his rope and has nowhere else to go for help. There are a lot of hotlines out there, serving the general public and niche communities, alike. In Crisis Hotline (a.k.a., “Shadows in Mind”), Simon is a gay man who volunteers for an agency that focuses its efforts on the LGBTQ demographic. It could just as well be focusing on veterans suffering from PTSD, alcoholics or drug addicts. Suicide isn’t limited to any single group. The differences are in the details. Here, at least, Simon benefits from knowing the caller, Danny (Christian Gabriel), is gay, and he can eliminate certain problems limited to heterosexuals. Cutting to the chase, Danny is a recently uncloseted man, who cruised many social media sites before finding “the right man.” Kyle (Pano Tsaklas) introduces Danny to another couples, whose sexual proclivities make him uncomfortable. One thing leads to another and Simon receives his first all-too-real crisis call. Not only is Danny suicidal, but he also wants to take out three other people before he goes. Because Crisis Hotline is a slow-burner that plays out in real time and flashbacks – and the conclusion is always in doubt —  you either buy into the premise right away or not at all. Schwab makes it easy to stay with it.  The DVD adds interviews with the cast and crew.

Hot Doug: the Movie
The classic Chicago hot dog – not to be confused with Nathan’s Famous or Dodger Dogs – has withstood the tests of time, trends and revisionist recipes. Here’s what you do: place an all-meat Vienna hot dog in a steamed poppy-seed bun. Then, pile on the toppings in this order: yellow mustard, sweet green pickle relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. The tomatoes should be nestled between the hot dog and the top of the bun, just right. Place the pickle between the hot dog and the bottom of the bun. No ketchup … ever. In Christopher Markos’ 56-minute documentary, Hot Doug: the Movie, we’re introduced to Doug Sohn, a restaurateur who didn’t want to reinvent the classic dog, necessarily, just introduce variations that consumers hadn’t tasted or expected. In Chicago, no one would dare label their hot dogs “gourmet” or “boutique,” because Windy City eaters would rather stand in line outside a disco than admit to paying Michigan Avenue prices for a hot dog that wasn’t any better, and probably worse than the ones they can pick up in their local dump for a fraction of the price. When Sohn opened his Avondale “sausage superstore,” at about the same time as the new millennium arrived, the last thing anyone in Chicago needed was a new place to buy a hot dog, deep-dish pizza, gyro or Italian beef sandwich. Iconoclast chef Sohn defied conventional wisdom by referring to his specialties as “encased meats” and using ingredients some would consider exotic. Typically, the menu featured 11 dogs and sausages, ranging from a standard Chicago-style hot dog with all the trimmings, to the Norm Crosby — a Thuringer sausage, made from beef, pork, and garlic — foie gras sausage with duck-fat fries, alligator and andouille sausage and, even, a ginger-spiked rabbit sausage with red pepper mayo and crème de brie. If that sounds completely non-Chicagoan, you should know that customers routinely lined up for hours to enjoy a Hot Doug’s dog. I wish that Markos’ film was half as tasty. Even at 56-minutes, the documentary feels padded and overly worshipful. It ends with the sad news that Sohn was closing the business and his workers would have to find work somewhere else. Viewers aren’t told why he pulled the plug, what he was doing at the time the movie was released (2016), if he gave his employees a decent retirement package and what kind of food the next restaurant in its place served, if any. (Apparently, he has a booth in the Wrigley Field bleachers.) I would have loved to see how his more noteworthy sandwiches were constructed, served and received at first bite. Instead, the movie is bloated with testimonials from people standing in line and his purveyors, and clips of Sohn taking orders. There simply isn’t enough meat in Hot Doug: the Movie.

FM: Special Edition: Blu-ray
By the time John A. Alonzo and Ezra Sachs’ FM was released on April 20, 1978, it already was outdated. With few exceptions, the murder of free-form radio was in full gear, and pre-programmed Adult Alternative Music and Classic Rock were its corporatized replacement. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and the Ramones were waiting in the wings, as was MTV and the Walkman. When deejays at Q-SKY Radio balk at being required to run recruitment ads for the Army, the station’s owner threatens to oust its manager. Fans cause a near riot outside the station, which, in any case, would not have happened in pacified 1978. Indeed, Steely Dan’s wonderfully smooth title song was an ode to the post-1960s weariness and ennui that affected psychedelic rock ’n’ roll, folk rock, blues rock and their cocaine-addicted stars, who sold their souls to the demons running record labels and concert tours. It opened the door to prog rock, glam rock, metal and punk, which is largely underrepresented in FM. The sexism and racism is probably real. That said, however, Baby Boomers will definitely enjoy watching Linda Ronstadt perform live and in her prime … Jimmy Buffet, too. The cast includes Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras, Norman Lloyd, James Keach and Cassie Yates. The Arrow Blu-ray presentation has been transferred from original film elements, and includes “No Static at All,” a newly filmed interview with Brandon; “Radio Chaos,” a fresh interview with Sacks; “The Spirit of Radio,” a video appreciation of the era of FM radio and the FM soundtrack by the film and music critic Glenn Kenny; and extensive gallery of original stills, promotional images and soundtrack sleeves; an isolated music and effects track; a reversible sleeve, featuring two original artwork options; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by writer and critic Paul Corupe.

The DVD Wrapup: Slaughterhouse Rulez, Silver Lake, Dark Sense, Swing Kids, Cherry Grove, Karloff/Lugosi, Running Man, Between the Lines, Crypto … More

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Slaughterhouse Rulez
Any time a movie starring such fine British actors as Michael Sheen (The Queen), Margot Robbie (I, Tanya), Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Simon Pegg (Star Trek), Nick Frost (Into the Badlands), Finn Cole (“Animal Kingdom”), Hermione Corfield (Rust Creek) and Isabella Laughland (Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince), you’d think someone on this side of the pond would sit up and pay attention to it. The presence of Pegg and Frost, alone, should have alerted fans of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul and The End to the possibility, at least, that it might be a sleeper of indeterminant genre. It was done in, methinks, by a title so vague as to confuse potential viewers of its intentions. Was it just another splatter fest, this time set at a spelling bee or an abattoir owned by a guy with a funny last name? Anyone who’s ever played on a Little League or junior soccer team might foresee a movie, Slaughterhouse Rulez, in which barely literate kids compete against each other – think, “Bad News Bearz,” “Ladybugz,” “The Mighty Duckz” – and the “slaughter rule” (a.k.a., “mercy rule”) is frequently applied. Tellingly, Crispian Mills’ nifty merger of horror, coming-of-age comedy and sci-fi is the first offering from Pegg and Frost’s production company, Stolen Picture. What begins as a darkish teen comedy, set in an  elite British boarding school, makes an abrupt midcourse correction by adding monsters, a corrupt dean and fracking, of all things. When the students return to school after summer holiday, its smarmy dean – the Bat, played with his nose in the air, by Sheen —  cautions against swimming in the estate’s serene pond and wandering through the surrounding forest. No one is told why, exactly, but the students quickly detect frequent temblors, noxious fumes and a flammable swimming hole. An unauthorized stroll through the woods reveals a giant sinkhole protected by armed guards.

As one of the new kids in school, Don Wallace (Cole) becomes the whipping boy for the privileged upperclassmen who despise his middle-class background and unwillingness to play along with “rulez,” forbidding them from assuming they’re human beings. All hell breaks out when Don dares to strike up a conversation with the school’s resident goddess, Clemsie Lawrence (Hermione Corfield), who’s been deemed the property of the crypto-fascist senior-class president. No sooner does the class struggle erupt in earnest than monsters emerge from the hole. Buckinghamshire’s historic Stowe School stands in for Slaughterhouse, as inelegant a name as any school in the movies, so Slaughterhouse Rulez doesn’t lack for ruling-class credentials and immaculately tailored grounds. It should appeal most to high school- and college-age audiences, as well as fans Sean of the Dead and St. Trinian’s, from which emerged Lily Cole, Tamsin Egerton, Talulah Riley, Jodie Whittaker, Kathryn Drysdale, Juno Temple, Antonia Bernath, Emily Bevan, Tereza Srbova and Russell Brand. Like them, the young actors here shouldn’t have any problem finding work at the next level.

Under the Silver Lake: Blu-ray
When David Robert Mitchell’s extremely ambitious neo-noir dramedy, Under the Silver Lake, arrived at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, it was floating on a cloud that began forming at the 2010 fest, with The Myth of the American Sleepover, and gathered momentum, in 2014, with the festival debut of It Follows. Because the former depicted an endless night of teenage revelry and self-discovery, critics compared it to Sixteen Candles, Dazed and Confused, Superbad, American Graffiti, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Go. Peering deeper into “Sleepover,” the assembled mass of critics and industry geeks identified enough individual talent to mark Mitchell as a multi-hyphenate to watch. Because it managed to add something new and different to the resurgent stalker/slasher subgenre, It Follows didn’t feel nearly as derivative or predictable. In it, an unrelenting supernatural force tails recently de-flowered teens, as if it were a STD among friends with benefits. As a Palme d’Or nominee, Under the Silver Lake, debuted to a mixed response at last year’s Cannes festival. It would take almost a full year to reach a handful of American theaters and, another two months, before arriving in DVD/Blu-ray, where it might finally find its ideal demographic grouping.

To understand Under the Silver Lake enough to recommend it to fellow hipsters, a walking knowledge of Los Angeles’ trendy Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz neighborhoods is essential. Also helpful is a familiarity with such landmarks as the Hollywood Forever cemetery, downtown’s Last Bookstore and such previously used locations as the Canfield-Moreno Estate (The Neon Demon), the Standard Hotel’s rooftop bar (Collateral), Bronson Caves (“Batman”), the statuary surrounding the Griffith Observatory (Rebel Without a Cause), the shimmering 2nd Street Tunnel, between Hill and Figueroa (Blade Runner), and Echo Park Lake (Chinatown). “Silver Lake” also appears to have been informed, stylistically, by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and The Long Goodbye (1973), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015), Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2015). Did I mention the dog park at the Silver Lake Reservoir? It’s there, too. I don’t know how many other homages, references and bows are scattered throughout the 139-minute Under the Silver Lake, but, I’m sure, there were plenty I missed. The film takes place in 2011, which I can’t remember being terribly eventful, and opens with the unemployed protagonist, Sam (Andrew Garfield), surveying the courtyard of his apartment building, with binoculars, not unlike Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954). The multi-floor complex is nearly identical to thousands of other domiciles in L.A., except for the presence of Topless Bird Woman (Wendy Vaden Hueval); mysterious blond swimmer, Sarah (Riley Keough), who mimics Marilyn Monroe in Something’s Got to Give (1962); a tall, thin blond (Riki Lindhome), who, while making love, stares at his signed Kurt Cobain poster; a resident skunk, which leaves its mark on Sam, like an ill-advised tattoo; and a coyote, imbued with the spirit of a Native American god. If Under the Silver Like appears to have been front-loaded with more extraneous baggage than any quirky indie should be required movie to carry, that’s only because it has.

Even at an accommodating length of 139 minutes, I can understand how audiences at Cannes – and those West Siders who never venture further east than the Paramount lot – might have felt intimidated by Mitchell’s indulgences. Those so inclined, however, shouldn’t have any problem adjusting to Mitchell’s survey of L.A. exotica or the unhinged mystery that propels the story. It begins with the blond swimmer (Keogh), who disappears from the complex after promising Sam a roll in the hay the next afternoon. While checking out her empty apartment, he witnesses another young woman (Zosia Mamet) breaking into it and stealing a box that he already knows contains photos and other memorabilia. She’s picked up outside the complex by a convertible carrying several other beauties, who head for the Echo Park Lake, where a weirdo in pirate costume is waiting to take the box. Sam will continue to run into the women in various places around town, where they could be recognized as aspiring ingenues or expensive escorts. He gets nowhere, though, until he connects with the mad conspiracy theorist, Comic Man (Patrick Fischler), who publishes the titular underground ’zine, which is full of clues to the swimmer’s disappearance and the whereabouts of Dog Killer, Owl Girl and Homeless King. The latter leads him to the rabbit hole that drops Sam into a subterranean Wonderland. Other clues are provided by the lyrics to songs by the emo band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula; a visit to the mansion of the most prolific songwriter in history; a 30-year-old map for the Legend of Zelda game; and a guide to the signage used by hobos. Also contributing to the overall sense of tension and dread is the Disasterpeace score. The cinematography, set design, costumes and acting are excellent, with Garfield doing most of the heavy lifting. (Twenty years ago, Jeremy Davies might have made for an even better lead.) The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “What Lies Under the Silver Lake” and “Beautiful Specter.”

Swing Kids: Blu-ray
The first thing to know about Well Go USA’s latest Korean import, Swing Kids, is that it bears only a titular similarity to Thomas Carter’s 1993 story about a group of German teenagers who rebel against the Nazi regime through a mutual affection for forbidden American swing music, British fashions and Harlem slang. Here, swing music provides the impetus for self-expression by a group of pro-communist POWs, who love tap dancing and are coached by a disaffected African American sergeant, Jackson (Jared Grimes). A professional dancer on Broadway before the Korean civil war – alternately known as a “police action,” “6.25 Upheaval” “Fatherland Liberation War,” “War to Resist America and Aid Korea,” “The Forgotten War”  — Jackson was assigned the task of organizing a Christmas show, designed to impress the brass and relieve the tension inside the camp’s barb-wire boundaries. Because Brigadier General Roberts (Ross Kettle) considers this to be an impossible mission, its failure would reflect badly on the camp’s sole black NCO. For his part, Jackson has nothing better to do than arrange for the music at camp socials and attempt to meet his commander’s impossibly high expectations. In that regard, he also feels a tentative kinship with the prisoners from South and North Korea, and the “volunteers” from the Peoples Republic of China.

Typically, the only thing the communists agree upon is their hatred of the UN forces that back the pro-capitalist, anti-communist leadership of Syngman Rhee. I mention this because much of the backstory on the Geoje Island prison camp – including a historically accurate insurrection – probably is already known to South Korean audiences, but will draw a complete blank with Americans, whose only awareness of the three-year conflict derives from “M*A*S*H” reruns. The 4.6-square-mile settlement housed as many as 170,000 POWs and experienced extreme climatic shifts. As is shown at the very end of Swing Kids – and should not be considered a spoiler – the facility would later be converted into a tourist attraction. There will be times when American viewers will be confused as to what prompted high-profile writer/director Kang Hyeong-cheol (Scandal Makers, Sunny) to take the liberties he does with what could have been a cut-and-dried war drama. For example, in addition to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the group taps to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shake,” the Beatles’ “Free as a Bird” and “Hava Nagila.” Not only does Jackson have thousands of prisoners from which to choose a handful of finalists, he also finds volunteers among the female “camp followers,” who prostitute themselves for food.

For much of the first half of the unnecessarily long Swing Kids, the emphasis is on the wonderfully choreographed tryouts and rehearsals. Only a few incidents expose the tensions and racism inherent in camp life. The finalists include Ro Ki-soo (K-pop star Do Kyung-soo), a mercurial North Korean prisoner; Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se), who dances as a prayer to finding his wife among the incoming POWs; Xiao Pang (Kim Min-Ho), a Chinese soldier who was born with natural talent for dance and a lack of endurance due to angina; and the lovely Yang Pan-rae (Park Hye-su), who attends camp dances to steal food. Politics are left on the sidelines, until the second half, when newly arrived North Korean regulars clash with their less dogmatic allies. When forced to choose between dance, complacency and communist ideals, however, most of the longtimers know not to rock the boat steered by spies, infiltrators and battle-hardened soldiers. Because one of newcomers is the hero brother of the gotta-dance protagonist, he’s forced to act as the trigger the rebellion. While that does constitute a spoiler, it’s necessary to alert unsuspecting viewers as to what they’re about to experience. As shocks to the system go, it’s like switching from flutes of light and bubbly champagne at a wedding reception, to shots of Jameson’s at a wake. Symbolically, though, it perfectly sums up the effect of an imperfect peace treaty that’s been stalemated for nearly 70 years and has always been in danger of exploding into World War III. If that sounds like a guarded recommendation for an intermittently exhilarating and horrific dramedy … it is.

Dark Sense
Based on Peter Flannery’s best-seller, “First and Only,” as well as the subsequent film short, “Simon, First and Only” (2016), the psycho/supernatural thriller, Dark Sense, takes place in a dark corner of one of the UK’s most industrialized cities, Glasgow. The locations exploited in the historic port city, alone, are enough to recommend it to tentative Anglophiles as an antidote to flighty entertainments set in the Lake District, Cornwall and London. It opens rather abruptly, in an underlit church, when a boy witnesses the murder of a friendly priest by a man dressed as an avenging angel … or Darth Vader, one. The killer spares Simon but leaves him with deep physical and mental scars. Among the assets derived by such trauma are an ability to foretell terrible events and an ability to transform static objects. The problem is that Simon never knows when to expect an attack, which typically trips something inside him that resembles an epileptic seizure and frightening premonitions. As a young adult, Simon (Shane O’Meara) foresees his own death at the hands of a serial killer that we assume to be the same one who attacked the priest. With only five days to track down the murderer and save himself, Simon hires Steve (Jim Sturgeon), an ex-SAS operative with personal problems. Somehow, his abilities have also caught the attention of MI5, which sends agents Stokes (Graeme McKnight) and Chatham (Margaret Ann Bain) after him. The agency believes that the virtually harmless Simon is a threat to national security and needs to be caged or killed. Between the MI5 and the hooded fiend, it’s difficult to tell who’s the greater threat to Simon and Steve. The chase scenes take full advantage of Glasgow’s gritty inner city and grubby wastelands along the River Clyde. The climax is a classic battle between the forces of good and evil and, as such, sometimes pushes the envelope of reasonable credibility. Apparently, Dark Sense broke the record for the most money raised for a Scottish film via crowdfunding. It wasn’t much, by U.S. standards, anyway, but, in his debut feature, director Magnus Wake was able to stretch the $67,000 in contributions to the breaking point.

Docs on DVD
Cherry Grove Stories
Game Girls
The Brink
Long before Stonewall, gay men and lesbians found temporary refuge on Fire Island, where their dollars dominated the summer economy and Suffolk County police only infrequently interrupted the fun with seaborne raids. At that point in LGBTQ history, however, an arrest for such inconsequential offenses as hand holding, cross-dressing and wandering too close to a homophobic undercover cop resulted in stories in the local press and gossip rags, naming names and alerting employers to the presence of deviant hand-holder in their midst. If the charges wouldn’t amount to much beyond a misdemeanor, fine or dismissal, the damage had already been done. Still, the pleasures of Fire Island in the summer kept rentals fully occupied and the bars and nightclubs jumping. Native islanders resumed normal activities for the next eight or nine months.Michael Fisher’s compelling oral history, Cherry Grove Stories, presents an intergenerational cross-section of gay men and a handful of lesbians, who look back fondly – mostly — on the titular Fire Island resort town, which has long been referred to as the Gay Shangri-La. The subjects range from longtime visitors, who first glimpsed Cherry Grove when it was a spartan post-World War II beachfront enclave, to those who bought houses after it had evolved into a thriving, queer-friendly destination. Fisher, who has been going to Cherry Grove for 32 years, was inspired to make the film by long-time resident Michael Delisio, who was one one of the first men to commute to Cherry Grove, in the 1950s. Fisher supplements the interviews with a fascinating array of photographs and home movies, many showing men in full or partial drag and simply enjoying the beach, pier and patio parties that were so much a part of the fair-weather activities. The men and women interviewed also recall the musicals and stage shows that became summer rituals. Younger Fire Island residents and visitors, including those who came of age during the AIDS panic, see things from an almost war-weary perspective. Sadly, a disproportionate number of the people shown here in the movies and photos fell victim to the epidemic. Fisher hopes that Cherry Grove Stories will provide a meaningful and accurate history that isn’t clouded with homophobic attacks, daily police harassment, street protests and waiting for Supreme Court rulings with bated breath. The DVD adds bonus footage, an intro and podcast interview with the director.

Judging solely from the cover photograph, I had only the vaguest clue as to what to expect from Polish filmmaker Alina Skrzeszewska’s insightful and informative Game Girls. The cover and poster art is accompanied by the tagline, “A Skid Row Love Story” and a sign that reads “Skid Row City Limits/Pop. Too Many.” One of the women standing in front of the sign is wearing a puffy white dress that would be appropriate for a prom, wedding or amateur production of “Swan Lake.” Her partner is decked out in a splashy black tuxedo, with white trim, blue sneakers, shades and tightly woven cornrows. It would be easy to assume that the person in the tux is the woman in white’s lesbian lover or fiancé. She’s showing more of her chest, shoulders and thighs than would be appropriate for a normal church wedding – straight or gay – so, who knows? Because I’ve made mistakes before, when judging gender identity by photographs, I went into Game Girls unhampered by needless assumptions. Teri Rogers and Tiahna Vince remind us that Los Angeles’ Skid Row – unlike those in other cities – has long been considered a painfully depressed neighborhood in a city obsessed with glamour, celebrity and ostentatious wealth. It wasn’t until L.A.’s resurgent downtown, Arts District, loft developments and Little Tokyo encircled the 54-block entity that politicians and community organizers became convinced that homelessness had reached epidemic proportions. By then, however, a tent-based mini-neighborhood had transformed Skid Row’s sidewalks and empty lots into something resembling Colorado Avenue, in nearby Pasadena, on the eve of the Rose Bowl parade. Until then, as well, Skid Row wasn’t a place that yuppies, foodies and tourists visited on foot, unless they were looking for drugs or down-on-their-luck relatives.

The number of people living on the streets of Skid Row, in tents, cardboard shelters. vehicles and in shelters has risen to 36,000 semi-permanent residents. This comes, even as the neighborhood’s available space has been reduced through gentrification, hot new restaurants, galleries, boutique hotels, brewpubs and expensive apartment buildings. When Skrzeszewska’s debut doc, Songs from the Nickel, was released in 2010, Skid Row was still a place where displaced people could find cheap and decent lodging in SRO hotels, affordable food in greasy spoons, occasional jobs as day laborers and no-frills booze at the landmark King Edward bar. In the ensuing 10 years, Skrzeszewska returned to America’s “homeless capital” numerous times to see what was changing and how it impacted its residents. We’re introduced to Teri and her girlfriend, Tiahna, just after the latter is released from prison for selling drugs. She returns to the neighborhood to find the belligerent and almost certainly mentally disturbed Teri desperate to get off the streets. In intimate and sometimes unsettling scenes that include group therapy and bureaucratic snafus, viewers witness snatches of the Skid Row that’s given way to tent encampments, crystal meth and panhandling, and is inspiring rancorous debate ahead of the coming civic elections, here and in San Francisco and San Diego. It’s also possible to recognize a community of residents, who make the best out of a bad situation and find numerous ways to engage with each other … at least until the sun goes down and the night creatures emerge. Together with other women from the neighborhood, they attend a weekly Expressive Arts workshop, where they are able to reflect, dream and heal. Can their love survive the violence of their past and their current environment? As becomes obvious, the journey won’t be easy. Game Girls premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, where it received several award nominations. It had to settle for an Internet debut here last month, which, of course, is part of the problem.

Alison Klayman (Al Weiwei: Never Sorry) adopts the fly-on-the-wall approach to chronicling embattled former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s global mission to spread “economic and populist nationalism.” When the President bristled at having to share the spotlight with a man who wears two winter coats at all times and only shaves when the mood hits, he decided the White House wasn’t big enough to contain two gigantic egos. (Bannon probably was the source of unauthorized leaks to the “fake media,” as well.) Since becoming persona non grata, the Abominable Snowman of American politics has taken full credit for being the architect who molded Donald Trump’s only partially sublimated sexism, racism and xenophobia into a cohesive whole, palatable to Hillary- and Obama-haters, bigots and anti-tax fanatics. In the runup to the 2018 midterm contests and last month’s European Parliamentary Elections, extreme right-wing Republicans here and Neanderthals around the world willingly coughed up exorbitant per-plate donations to listen to his cliché-ridden diatribes and pay for selfies with a Yeti. European conservatives wanted to hear Bannon explain how he saved America from the threat of criminals, gangbangers and rapists pushing northward from Mexico and Central America – what, he didn’t? – and how his theories emboldened pro-Brexit activists. As was the case in the 2018 mid-term elections in the U.S., Bannon’s whale-out-of-water presence didn’t work out too well in Europe. This isn’t to say that the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor folded up his tent and sulked home, only that he now has plenty of time to sow the seeds of hate among die-hard Republicans and reap millions of dollars for himself – not that he needs it — before November 2020. The Brink will frighten liberals in the same way that the Universal monsters scared their parents and grandparents. Otherwise, the film qualifies as a document that preaches to the choir.

Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre: Blu-ray
Wonder Park: Blu-ray
This newly available anime arrives with a short backstory. When Studio Ghibli temporarily closed in 2014, some proteges of the master, Hayao Miyazaki, followed former lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi to the upstart, Studio Ponoc. Its first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, based on Mary Stewart’s “The Little Broomstick,” was released on July 8, 2017, and reached sixth place on that year’s box-office charts. A monkey wrench was thrown into plans for a second animated feature, when Miyazaki proposed a new feature-length film, “How Do You Live?,” with a completion date of anywhere between 2019 and 2021. Several of Ghibli’s former employers elected to take the plunge with him. Hoping not to break the momentum, the studio sent out “Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre.” The 53-minute anthology is comprised of three 15-minute featurettes in one program. While Mary and the Witch’s Flower could easily have been mistaken for a Ghibli product, Modest Heroes has a look of its own. Each featurette is handled by different directors and animators. A fourth was planned, but its director, Isao Takahata, died in mid-production.

“Kanini & Kanino” takes place in a mid-stream fairyland the humanoid siblings call home. Their fully evolved father is taking care of saplings Kanini and Kanino while their pregnant mother has gone away to give birth. When a heavy current carries their father off, the siblings embark on a dangerous journey to find and rescue him. In “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose,” Shun is born with a lethal allergy to eggs. Since then, his family has focused its attention on protecting Shun from contact. At school, Shun has to eat specially prepared meals and his classmates are careful not to spit on him and get saliva with egg bits all over him. Field trips present hazards he’s never considered. Meanwhile, his mother tries to maintain her career as a professional dancer. When Shun unknowingly eats something that endangers him, he has to come to his own rescue. “Invisible” features a “salaryman” – someone who’s so involved in his work, he never makes time to smell the roses – that’s not only invisible, but also needs to hold on to a heavy weight to stay on the ground. One day, he nearly floats away, when he loses the fire extinguisher that he uses to hold himself down. When a blind man recognizes a kindred spirit, the invisible man suddenly has an opportunity to be a modest hero.

If ever a movie was born under a bad sign, it’s Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies’ kids-friendly fantasy Wonder Park. Among other things, the film has no credited director. The Director’s Guild almost always refuses to allow a film to be released without a credited director – hence, Allen Smithee, also uncredited — due to various contractual obligations. Dylan Brown, who, as they say, may never work in this town again, had completed most of the work when he was accused of and fired over #MeToo-related accusations. Jeffrey Tambor, originally slated to voice Boomer the Bear, was later removed from the project for similar reasons and replaced by Ken Hudson Campbell. Originally titled “Amusement Park” and scheduled for August 10, 2018, it was moved to March 15, 2019, to avoid competing with Disney’s Christopher Robin (2018). It also was retitled, Wonder Park, which might remind some viewers of Toronto’s massive theme park, Canada’s Wonderland, which, between 1993 and 2006, was known as Paramount’s Canada’s Wonderland. It looked as if Wonder Park had “straight-to-DVD” stamped all over it. Even with all this baggage and decidedly mixed reviews, it managed to eke out a cumulative worldwide gross of nearly $120 million, against a production budget estimated to be around $100 million. Not great, but Wonder Park is the kind of movie that performs well in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD platforms. In a nutshell, the film follows an imaginative young girl, June (Sofia Mali), who suddenly discovers that the amusement park of her dreams has come to life. It is filled with the world’s wildest rides, operated by fun-loving animals, and the excitement almost never ends. When the park faces extinction, however, June and her misfit team of furry friends begin an unforgettable journey to save it. The Blu-ray adds a handful of short kid-centric featurettes, a sing-along and a deleted scene. Typically, kids don’t tend to care much about the problems of adults, so they shouldn’t be punished by depriving them of an entertaining, if troubled movie.

Crypto: Blu-ray
I doubt that enough people in the U.S. sufficiently understand Bitcoin and other so-called cryptocurrencies to make John Stalberg Jr.’s sophomore feature, Crypto, a hit. I own a small,  invisible stack of Bitcoins and never have been able to figure out how much they’re worth and how to get rid of them. (I’m still trying to figure out S&H Green Stamps.) The film’s protagonist, Martin Jr. (Beau Knapp), doesn’t understand cryptocurrency any more than I do, and he’s been assigned by his employers to figure out why one of its affiliate banks – located on a speck of dust in far Upstate New York — is relying on it to boost revenues. Incredibly, one of his high school buddies, Earl (Jeremie Harris), has just installed a converter machine in his liquor store – yeah, right – and agrees to tutor the financial auditor, at great risk to himself. In the first of Cyrpto’s many illogical narrative missteps, Martin is sent back to the hometown he abandoned when he decided he didn’t want to join his PTSD-suffering brother (Luke Hemsworth) and hard-ass father Martin Sr. (Kurt Russell), growing and digging up potatoes. In their calloused opinion, Junior will have to prove his loyalty to them, before he’s allowed to step foot on the hallowed, if depleted dirt of the family farm. Caleb would prefer cutting to the chase and shooting him with one of his military-grade weapons. Elba is the kind of small town in which everyone knows everybody else’s business. That’s bad news for Junior and Earl, who’ve sussed out a scheme on the Darknet, involving the Russian mafia; a highly suspicious local art gallery, whose heroin- and sex-addicted curator is a dead-ringer for Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Russian nemesis, Natasha Fatale; illegal loans from Martin’s employer’s Manhattan bank, to the gallery owners; and a tiny, non-descript bait shop on the Canadian side of the Saint Lawrence River, through which all of the illegal money is laundered. Alexis Bledel, who doesn’t look a day older than she did in the final episode of “Gilmore Girls,” plays a lounge singer, gallery employee and Martin Jr,’s love interest. If no one in Elba appears to be in any particular hurry to help Martin do his job, it quickly becomes clear that nobody at the parent bank wants him to succeed, either. (“Law & Order” alumnus Jill Hennessy makes a welcome cameo as Martin’s immediate supervisor.) Based on that summary, alone, it’s remarkable that Stalberg (High School) was able to keep all his balloons in the air. Russell may not steal any of the scenes in which he appears, but neither does he waste anyone’s time by phoning in his performance. The same can’t be said for other over-the-hill superstars working the straight-to-video circuit, these days.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic
Watching Colin Bemis’ intriguingly titled debut feature, Strawberry Flavored Plastic, I was reminded of Denis Mueller’ 2014 confessional, I Killed JFK, which provided a first-person account of the assassination from the self-described “grassy knoll shooter.” At the time of the doc’s release, James E. Files (a.k.a., James Sutton) was still serving time at an Illinois correctional institution, either Stateville or Danville, for a 1990 shootout with police. He was paroled in 2016. At the time, I couldn’t think of a single Hollywood actor who could have provided a more credible performance in the same role. I was surprised by how little attention I Killed JFK received in both the mainstream and alternative media. A little more research would reveal that Files had been making the same claims since  he entered prison and he’s already been interviewed by the FBI and journalists. As convincing as Files appeared to me, his accusations of mob and CIA complicity had long been discounted. This doesn’t mean that Files was lying, only that no one in Washington wanted to re-open a can of worms that had already been buried and forgotten, as had Files’ 1993 interview with the late investigator Joe West. Other films with Files include, the shelved Frame 313: The JFK Assassination Theories (2008) and the as-yet-unreleased mini-series “JFK Assassination: Declassified Theories.” Oliver Stone’s JFK was released before Files began ratting himself out. Files has said that he met with Stone three times afterwards but refrained from signing a release.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic has nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates elements of several different cinematic subgenres: mockumentary, found footage, neo-noir, horror and true crime. Bemis describes the “crimes of still-at-large Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” A critic at Dread Central said the film is “basically a found footage version of American Psycho,” while also referencing Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog. The suburb is Peekskill, which, we’re told, has several unsolved murders on its books from 2016. Noel Rose (Aidan Bristow), who sort of resembles a better-groomed version of Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas, is a recovering junkie and sociopath, who just spent nine years in prison for an unrelated crime. He claims the murders as his handiwork. Budding documentarians Errol Morgan (Nicholas Urda) and Ellis Archer (Andres Montejo) sense an opportunity to make names for themselves by giving Noel a cheap digital camera and all the memory cards he can handle to chronicle the life and times of a “working” maniac. At first, we’re perfectly willing to play along with the gag. A bit later, it becomes clear to us that Noel isn’t what the filmmakers thought he was. This isn’t to say, however, that his homicidal urges aren’t real or that he isn’t a menace to society. It’s at this point that Noel forces Morgan and Archer to choose between becoming complicit in his very real crimes and dropping out of the program. It’s a dilemma that journalists and photographers face when given the choice of remaining objective bystanders and buying a starving child a sandwich or preventing a junkie from taking the shot that might kill them.

Between the Lines: Blu-ray
It’s likely that the same Baby Boomers who identified with the characters in The Big Chill (1983), and have since added it to their permanent playlists, will find something to enjoy in Joan Micklin Silver’s similarly transitional Between the Lines (1977). In the former, a group of friends from college gather for the funeral of a close friend, who, when he stopped trying to fix the world’s problems, committed suicide. They graduated from the University of Michigan together 10 years earlier, with hopes of their own to change society. Instead, they elected to embrace the emerging yuppie revolution, which allowed them to keep their ideals and make a ton of guilt-free money, too. If they taught their children well, the kids would save the world in their place. Set half-a-decade earlier in Boston, where radical politics had yet to go out of style, Between the Lines depicts what happens when a disparate collection of anti-establishment types are forced to accept the fact the 1960s are over and their underground weekly is about to be swallowed up by a mogul who specializes in turning bankrupt papers into profitable “alternative” rags. He does so by tempering the extreme left-wing proselytizing, broadening the approach to investigations, pumping up coverage of popular music, movies and local theater, and selling ads to anyone with the money to pay for them in cash. This included full pages devoted to strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors.

Although the Back Bay Mainline is modeled after the Boston Phoenix, it’s the same formula that kept the Village Voice and other weeklies alive for 30 more years. Between the Lines opens just as rumors of a purchase by a “hip capitalist” are beginning to circulate. As much as the journalists want to take to the barricades and withhold the assault by the establishment, most of them assume that their time has passed, and they will have to compromise or accept the consequences of leaving. Some of them have already begun writing the next chapters in their story … in secret. Silver and co-writer Fred Barron, himself a veteran of the Phoenix, decided correctly, I think, to focus less on the battle to save the Mainline and concentrate more on the interpersonal relationships, which have begun to change, as well. The women in the movie are beginning to wake up to the fact that they don’t have accept the male-chauvinist behavior of their boyfriends and bosses, while the rock critic, Max Arloft (Jeff Goldblum) is the only one able to let his freak flag fly, without feeling self-conscious. The other nice thing about Between the Lines is a cast that’s the equal of the higher paid actors assigned to The Big Chill. (The soundtrack’s pretty good, as well, but not nearly as nostalgic as the soundtrack afforded by Columbia Pictures.) Besides Goldblum, in a similar role to the one he would go on to play in Lawrence Kasdan’s dramedy, it includes John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Stephen Collins, Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Pollard, Marilu Henner, Jill Eikenberry, Gwen Welles and, as themselves rocker Southside Johnny Lyon and National Lampoon co-founder, Douglas Kenney. The restored Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a new interview with Silver.

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1: Blu-ray
It must be frustrating for collectors of classic genre fare to know when it’s the right time invest in the ultimate volumes, enhanced by the latest technology; new bonus features, as opposed to EPKs; individual releases on uncompressed discs of their own; and protective packaging. We’ve also been asked to choose between boxed sets, containing numerous titles, and smaller collections, containing the work of individual artists. Since the advent of home video, Universal and Disney have continued to lead the parade when it comes to finding new ways to exploit their inventories. By my count, the movies included in the Universal Horror Collection — The Invisible Ray (1936), The Raven (1935), Black Friday (1940) and The Black Cat (1934) – have been packaged together three times under different titles and technologies. Slightly more than a year ago, UPHE sent out the same titles on DVD. It fell to the good folks at Scream Factory to deliver these “second-line horrors” on Blu-ray, with featurettes that fans haven’t already seen a dozen times. Besides Son of Frankenstein (1939), where Karloff played the Monster to Lugosi’s Ygor, these four films are the only Universal films in which they appeared together. They were both in RKO’s The Body Snatcher (1945) – under director Robert Wise and producer Val Lewton — but Karloff’s role was substantially greater than Lugosi’s participation, which mostly constituted lending his name to posters. (It was released by Scream Factory, three months ago, on Blu-ray.) Just as Roger Corman would adapt the works of Edgar Allan Poe for the benefit of Vincent Price and his many fans, so, too, did Universal take liberties with Poe’s thrillers for fans of Karloff and Lugosi, with The Raven and The Black Cat. In Arthur Lubin’s ridiculously enjoyable Black Friday, elements of horror, gangster and mad-scientist flicks congealed into a fairly cohesive whole. The borderline racist Invisible Ray finds Our Heroes in Africa, where they track down a radioactive meteorite so powerful, it brings eyesight to the blind. There are some drawbacks, of course, to playing with such dangerous stuff. The new bonus material adds commentaries with author/film historians Gary D. Rhodes, Steve Haberman, Tom Weaver and Randall Larson, Constantine Nasr and Gregory William Mank; the four-part, nearly feature-length featurette, “The Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal”; the featurette, “Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe,” narrated by Doug Bradley; and some other archival material.  Karloff shifts wigs in every movie.

The Running Man: Blu-ray
Once again, I caution readers not to confuse a new archival release with a similarly titled movie of more recent vintage. Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray edition of Carol Reed’s The Running Man (1963) could easily be mistaken for yet another version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man (1987), Dead Man Running (2009), Night of the Running Man (1995) or, for that matter, The Swimmer (1968). It wasn’t until I actually put the blank disc on the platter – as radio deejays once said – that I discovered, to my pleasure, not only that this Running Man had been directed by one of the world’s great directors, but it starred Laurence Harvey, Lee Remick and Alan Bates, as well. If I hadn’t heard of The Running Man until now, it probably had something to do with the unfortunate coincidence of it being released within a month of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not that the movie had anything remotely to do with the tragic event. Somehow, the Warren Commission felt it necessary to shine a light into Columbia Pictures’ viral marketing campaign, which placed personal ads in the Dallas Morning News, asking “Running Man” to please call “Lee.” Investigators thought that the ads might contain coded messages placed by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, instead of references to Lee Remick and Laurence Harvey, as Columbia intended. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, an urban legend arose claiming that the film was a flop because it starred actors named Lee and Harvey. Any port in a storm for a sinking ship.

The Running Man is interesting today for a couple of good reasons. The first, obviously, is that it’s probably the one picture that Reed completists haven’t seen. Easier to find hard are Night Train to Munich (1940), The Young Mr. Pitt  (1942), Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949), Our Man in Havana (1959) and Oliver! (1968), for which Reed won the Academy Award for Best Director. The second reason is its similarity to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best heist and caper pictures. The capper is cinematographer Robert Krasker’s ability to make Gibraltar, Cádiz, Málaga and  County Wicklow, Ireland, look so appealing. In it, daredevil pilot Rex Black (Harvey) has it out for the insurance company that denied him a payout, when his plane took a mysterious header into a forest and he’d forgotten to meet the deadline on his policy. He’s so irate at the insurance broker’s refusal to grant him a day’s grace that he almost immediately plans another crash landing, this time into the sea. Although the plan works like a charm, the man who sold him the accidental death policy remains suspicious. Nonetheless, the company pays a hefty sum to his beneficiary, Stella (Remick), who plans to reunite with her lover in Malaga. Not so coincidentally, Bates’ Stephen also makes the trek to the south of Spain, where Rex has dyed his hair an extreme shade of yellow and grown a rather silly mustache. It’s only a matter of time before Rex’s crude behavior alienates Stella and she allows Stephen to seduce her, Desperate to avoid being arrested, Rex turns the movie’s remaining minutes into an exciting chase from Cadiz to Gibraltar. The Arrow special edition is enhanced by a 2K restoration of the film by Sony Pictures and Blu-Ray presentation. Commentary is provided by Peter William Evans, author of “British Film-Makers: Carol Reed”; a new featurette, “On the Trail of the Running Man,” with script supervisor Angela Allen and assistant director Kits Browning; “Lee Remick at the National Film Theatre,” an audio-only recording of the actor’s appearance at the NFT in 1970; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve featuring original artwork; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forsha.

One More Shot
Lola
I apologize in advance to anyone whose interest I’ve piqued in the Apartheid-era movies produced in South Africa for the amusement of segregated audiences in the townships. Hundreds were made in the decade before Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and the country was forced to make the difficult transition into the second half of the 20th Century. Most of the movies, which blacks in other parts of the world would find appalling, disappeared when the races began mixing and theaters were integrated. Far from being even mildly entertaining, the latest offerings from Indiepix’s Retro Afrika  collection, could have been used as instruments of torture. One More Shot follows the pattern of taking Hollywood  genre fare, dumbing down the scripts and adding native African actors in roles typically reserved for whites. Here, though, it’s the martial-arts genre being corrupted. In it, a criminal known as Ten-Ten is released from prison, fixed on revenge. Immediately teaming with sleazy human-traffickers, he sets a trap for former boxer Johnny Tough, imploring him to save a beautiful girl from the sex-trade. Johnny’s tough, but the fight scenes are risible. Not that it matters, but One More Shot is the first I’ve seen that’s fully integrated.

Lola takes on sexism in South African sports, by having its female protagonist challenge a volleyball team comprised of guys who delight in harassing the young men and women who study for college exams, while they kill time doing less than nothing. It’s not a bad idea, really. The problem comes in the production values, which are way more pathetic than usual. The net droops dramatically in the middle, the costumes are hideous, and the players’ techniques aren’t intended for anyone over 12. The director kills time by pointing his camera at informal practice sessions and letting film roll until there’s no more left to unspool. Lola couldn’t be any more boring if the balls were exchanged for marbles and the actors were limited to 4th Grade and lower. These two pictures should have remained lost. Like I said … sorry.

The DVD Wrapup: Michelin Stars, Captain Marvel, Sower, Cielo, Frank in Palm Springs, Swing Time, Can’t Stop the Music, Entity, Blood … More

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

Michelin Stars: Tales From the Kitchen
Constructing Albert
This week, trophies were awarded to the world’s best basketball and hockey teams. The triumphant players caressed, hugged and held the sparkling awards up for their fans to worship. The NHL not only allows for the champions to drink champagne from the Stanley Cup, but also enjoy a day in the off-season to show it off to friends, family, fans and sponsors. The Vince Lombardi Trophy goes to winner of the Super Bowl, while baseball’s best team gets the Commissioner’s Trophy and the World Cup – perhaps, the most coveted of them all – is awarded every four years to men’s soccer champions. As much as they are passed around, it was inevitable that someday, somewhere, shit would happen. The World Cup has been stolen several times in the past, but a true catastrophe occurred when the Super Bowl LII champion New England Patriots crashed this year’s home opener of the Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, which also served as the team’s World Series victory celebration. As is his wont, the now-retired Patriots’ tight end, Rob Gronkowski, volunteered to help fellow receiver Julian Edelman prepare for throwing out the first pitch. Outside of the view of fans, the clown prince of professional football picked up the silver football and used it to bunt a thrown pitch from Edelman. It left a baseball-shaped crater in the shiny surface that, today, is worn like a badge of honor by New England sports faithful. After all, boys will be boys.

Although professional sports may have next to nothing to do with haute cuisine and fine dining experiences, the awarding of a Michelin Star to a world-class restaurant may be as significant as any trophy … OK, there’s the Oscars. I was reminded of this by two new documentaries about the years-long pursuit of perfection by chefs and restaurants around the planet: Rasmus Dinesen’s Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen (2017) and Laura Collado and Jim Loomis’ Constructing Albert (2017). Just as pipsqueak hockey players in Moose Jaw dream of playing on a Stanley Cup-winning team and young ballers imagine kissing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, like MJ and LeBron, so, too, do sous chefs, back-of-the-house workers, servers, maître d’s, receptionists and bartenders anticipate basking in the reflected glory of a head chef and restaurant owner. Phone calls and press releases reveal the individual winners and no trophies are exchanged. A chef’s worst nightmare is losing a star, or two, in subsequent editions of the Michelin Guide, which is like a Negro Motorist Green Book for obscenely rich, mostly white and Asian, passionately fashionable and unbearably opinionated gourmands. Just as serious birders pursue rarely seen species in the wild, so, too, do foodies plan their vacations and business trips around visits to Michelin-rated dining rooms. The Michelin Guide to Chicago 2014, for example, includes almost 500 restaurants. Only one restaurant received three stars (Alinea); four were awarded two stars (Grace, L2O, Graham Elliot, Sixteen); and 20 restaurants got one star. That doesn’t mean the other 475 establishments served food that was inedible or that they weren’t sufficiently elitist. It means that the 25 winners were the crème de la crème. The 2019 guide for the Windy City lists one three-star restaurant (Alinea); three two-star establishments (Smyth, Oriole, Acadia); 15 one-stars; 58 Bib Gourmands; and 123 Plate Michelins. By comparison, New York City is home to 76 starred restaurants; Hong Kong, 63; and Rio de Janeiro, 6.  For the record, one star denotes, a “good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard; two stars, “a restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality”; three stars for a restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.”

Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen and Constructing Albert differ from documentaries about sports in that they aren’t about competition. Because the restaurants are judged by anonymous individuals, with specific guidelines and tastes, the awarding of stars isn’t based on such objective standards as wins and losses. Things can get sticky if a judge arrives on a day when a kitchen is under-staffed or key ingredients are unavailable. Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen goes behind the scenes to see how the stars are awarded, interview chefs and determine the impact of the Michelin Guide on the world of haute cuisine. It comes at a moment in time, when consumers consider themselves capable of passing judgment on a restaurant’s worth – based on their own standards – and photographing every dish for consumption by their followers on Yelp, where opinions can be bought and sold, and restaurants pander to yahoos with iPhones. Dinesen’s film digs under the surface by allowing chefs, writers, diners and purveyors to present their sides of the story, offering them an opportunity to tell viewers why the guide is so important to them, as a boon to business and maintaining excellence. Chefs have been known to commit suicide and close their dining rooms after losing a star. Among those featured are Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Victor Arquinzoniz and Guy Savoy, and other chefs from around the world. Preparations is also showcased.

When it closed in 2011, the much-honored Spanish restaurant elBulli was still considered the best in the world. The intriguing foodie documentary Constructing Albert reveals how head chef Ferran Adrià’s sterling reputation prompted his younger brother, Albert, to meet the challenge of matching it. Over a four-year period, filmmakers Collado and Loomis followed the story of Ferran’s former partner and co-chef, as he stepped out from the long shadow of elBulli and staked his own claim to fame. Creating another perennial Michelin contender would be difficult for any top chef. Albert chose to open five restaurants in Barcelona’s theater district, each featuring a different cuisine. This would be Albert’s proclamation of self-assurance and calling card to the Pantheon of great chefs. All the pressure, stress and tension that went into his pursuit are palpable in Constructing Albert, which sometimes resembles a heart attack waiting to happen. (He even closed a one-star startup when it failed to meet his standards.) Barcelona has emerged as one of the world’s prominent dining destinations. If this doc doesn’t wet your whistle, nothing will.

Captain Marvel: Cinematic Universe Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Being cast to play a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like being a handed an annuity or pension from the late, great Stan Lee, himself. As long as the franchise is going strong, superheroes and supervillains will appear and re-appear in lead roles and cameos, alike, in succeeding adaptations. Obscure characters will resurrected from the Marvel library and given an opportunity to share in the bounty. Take Nick Fury, for example. The character made his first appearance in the early 1960s and was given his inaugural cover story in May 1963 (“Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, #1”), as the leader of Marvel’s super-spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. Today, a physically transformed Fury has never been more active. In the Ultimate Marvel Universe, now-General Nick Fury is an African American born in Huntsville, Alabama, with his look and personality tailored after actor Samuel L. Jackson. The immensely popular actor first embodied the character on film in an uncredited appearance in Iron Man (2008). Since then, Fury has appeared for various amounts of time in more than a dozen feature films and voiced the character in four video games. Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives next month. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson joined the MCU/Avengers team in Iron Man 2 (2010), as Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow, which just began production in Norway, represents her character’s first personal vehicle.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel was released theatrically on March 8, 2019 — International Women’s Day — in IMAX and 3D. Since then, it has grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark. It is currently the No. 2 grossing film of 2019, and the No. 9 grossing superhero film of all time. Not doing nearly as well at the international box office this spring was David F. Sandberg’s critically lauded Shazam!, also based on the original Captain Marvel, created for DC Comics in 1939 by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. The male iteration of Captain Marvel (a.k.a., William Joseph “Billy” Batson, Wizard Shazam, Captain Thunder, Captain Sparklefingers) has represented the company on radio, in serials, features, direct-to-video animated films, comic strips and video games. Through a miracle of legal legerdemain, the MCU/Disney version of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) has transitioned into a female superhero, who commutes between outer space and an endangered Earth, also known as C-53. (Djimon Hounsou appears in both films as different characters, both male, and separate entities in the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the DCUE’s Aquaman.) After crashing an experimental U.S. Air Force fighter on the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala, pilot Carol Danvers (a.k.a., Vers, Captain Marvel, Captain Sparklefists) is rescued and treated for amnesia and recurring nightmares. She is then trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military, under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Six years later, after a failed mission to recover a prisoner of the shape shifting Skrulls, Danvers/Vers is led back to Earth by subliminal instincts. Meanwhile, the Skrulls tap into her memory cache and send a guerrilla team to pursue her. With help from Fury, Danvers sets out to unravel the truth.

If that brief summary sounds needlessly complicated, that’s only because it is. And, it only gets more confusing from there. Even with an early passion for comic books, I could barely keep track of what was happening to whom in the 123-minute movie and where the action was taking place at any given time. The shape-shifting element kept me off-balance, as well. Finally, I gave up trying, focusing my attention, instead, on the brilliantly conceived action scenes. My favorite character is a weaponized tabby cat named Goose. I also welcomed the occasional interludes when Annette Bening appears out of nowhere, as the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree people and ruler of the Kree Empire. She, too, is a shape shifter. Beyond that, the mind boggles. I have since come to the conclusion that the film’s six-person writing team based several of the characters and settings on The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy reincarnated as Danvers and Bening as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The HDR color enhancements make a big difference from the Blu-ray, where the  images sometimes are overwhelmed by the overall dark look. The bonus features, contained on the Blu-ray disc, offer alternate versions of Captain Marvel, with an introduction by directors/screenwriters Boden and Fleck, and with commentary by the same duo; a half-dozen EPK-style featurettes; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and several behind-the-scenes digital exclusives.

The Sower
The inspiration for the short story that was adapted as The Sower, is as interesting as anything in Marine Francen’s sumptuous historical rom-dram, And, that’s saying a lot about both works of art. In 1919, when Violette Ailhaud was in her 80s, the former village schoolteacher wrote the autobiographical short story “L’homme semence,” upon which The Sower is based. She passed the manuscript on to her attorney with clear instructions that it be given to her eldest female descendant in 1952, a full century after the events it depicts occurred. It remained in the family for a half-century before being published, in 2006, to steadily building acclaim. Some manner of film adaptation was inevitable. Today, The Sower can be enjoyed as a historically based romance or a bittersweet feminist fable that links lost innocence to a code of honor among women in a male-deprived community. Beyond modernizing the language and aesthetics, Francen stuck to the story, as written, which doesn’t always happen. The winner of the prestigious New Director competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival, The Sower opens in 1851, after France’s autocratic President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte rejected the constitutional ban against being re-elected and chose, instead, to become Emperor of the French (1852-70). It’s worth noting, perhaps, that, at about the same time, in Paris, Victor Hugo was beginning work on “Les Miserables.” As Francen’s film opens, the emperor has just ordered the arrest of all the men of a remote farming village in the Lower Alps. They were believed to have taken part in a Republican uprising and sent to prisons and work camps throughout the far-flung empire. The women left behind will spend years in total isolation, forced to tend the crops and animals themselves. While some of the older women have lost their husbands to the order, possibly forever, the younger ones — including the shy, but inwardly strong Violette (Pauline Burlet) – have come to the realization that they may have no chance of experiencing physical love or motherhood.

The women take an oath: if a man comes to the village, they will convince him to stay and share him as a lover. It takes a couple of years before a mysterious and handsome blacksmith, Jean (Alban Lenoir), offers to help with the harvest, in return for room and board. Conveniently, Violette is assigned the task of acclimating Jean to the village. That both can read sets them apart from the rest of the woman and establishes a bond between them. Naturally, this provides an easy transition to sex and love. Figuring that their turns are long overdue, the other women demand of Violette that she curtail their relationship and reveal the conditions of the oath to Jean, which she does only begrudgingly. By the time she’s become noticeably pregnant, some of the male villagers begin to stagger home, with woeful tales of torture and deprivation. When Jean senses that his continued presence could be misconstrued and punished, he gives Violette a choice between traveling with him to another town or staying behind to raise their daughter, alone. Some critics have compared the film’s plot to Xavier Beauvois’ wartime drama, The Guardians (2017), and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017), and it’s apt. Cinematographer Alain Duplantier expertly captures the hardships and scant rewards of the women’s daily grind, at home and in the golden fields of wheat. Unlike Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1850 painting “The Sower,” which it resembles, Francen’s film hasn’t been criticized for ennobling the poverty-stricken peasants. It does, however, humanize the women, by showing the severity of their challenge and personalizing their longings, pain and determination. The Sower was shot in and around the lovely medieval village of La Garde-Guérin. And, yes, tourism is welcomed.

Cielo
Minute Bodies: Blu-ray
Nature documentaries have improved exponentially since the introduction of digital technology to the filmmakers’ bag of tricks and Blu-ray and 4K UHD exhibition. While the subjects haven’t much – even taking global warming into consideration – everything else has evolved. Digital and handheld cameras have given documentarians greater access to their prey and drones offer perspectives unavailable only 10 years ago. Neither does going to the ends of the Earth to capture an image constitute an impossible mission. These two films literally shuttle viewers between the imperceptible and infinite, with no stops in between for gratuitous gasping and wondering if CGI was involved. Alison McAlpine’s documentary, Cielo, takes viewers to Chile’s ultra-remote Atacama Desert, where the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory investigates heavenly bodies outside the purview of  stargazers in the North Hemisphere. Located at an altitude of over 15,700 feet and 31 miles from the nearest town, Llano de Chajnantor, the site is home to nine separate telescopes and observatories, each designed to focus on different parts of the humidity-, pollution- and transmission- free sky. Extend the Atacama a few hundred miles north and east, into Argentina and  Bolivia and you’ll find 7 of the 10 highest such facilities in the world. But, let’s cut to the chase. The images captured for our amazement are “crazy beautiful,” thanks, in part, to some time-lapse photography. Beyond that, I won’t bother trying to describe the nightly display of stars and light, which make the Aurora Borealis look anemic. Occasionally, the phantasmagoria is interrupted by interviews with native Chileans, who live at these altitudes, and the astronomers who spend so much of their scientific lives here. Or, you could turn off the audio track and subtitles and, simply, watch the skies. Cielo makes a perfect double-feature with Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which combines the scientists’ search for answers in the cosmos and concurrent hunt for the remains of “disappeared” loved ones, killed by the U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Political activists, students and Chileans considered to be left of Henry Kissinger were imprisoned in a salt-miners’ barracks abandoned in the 19th Century. Some of the victims were buried anonymously there or put on an airplane or helicopter and dropped into the ocean.

Minute Bodies leads viewers in an altogether different direction. The effect is essentially the same, however. Stuart A. Staples’ meditative, immersive and description-free documentary pays homage to the astonishing work and achievements of naturalist, inventor and pioneering filmmaker F. Percy Smith. An early pioneer in time-lapse and microcinematography, Smith began to photograph the natural world around his house and inside his laboratory, while working as a clerk for the British Board of Education. He was on his own, until his close-up photograph of a bluebottle fly’s tongue caught the attention of producer Charles Urban. He subsequently made “Urban Science: To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly” (1909) and “The Acrobatic Fly” (1910), before joining the Charles Urban Trading Company full-time. He directed more than 50 nature films for the Urban Sciences series, including the pioneering stop-motion film, “The Birth of a Flower” (1910), prior to the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served as a naval photographer. Minute Bodies is a 50-minute merger of botanical poetry and the ambient music of Staples’ band, Tindersticks. Without a word of dialogue or narration, the film depicts the growth of plants – and a handful of frogs – from the cellular to their blossoming as flowers, ferns and a variety of other plant life. The overall effect is hypnotic. The Blu-ray adds several bonus shorts, which contain narration, but no music.

Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home: Blu-Ray
Although the focus of Leo Zahn’s documentary is Frank Sinatra, the people in his orbit and his love affair with Palm Springs, it falls well short of being sycophantic. Any biography of Sinatra is going to face close scrutiny and nit-picking by pop historians and detractors, alike. If it skims over Ol’ Blue Eye’s legendary temper tantrums, feuds, mob ties and reputation as a notorious horndog, Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home lives up to its site-specific mission. Up to immediately after the singer’s death in 1998, Zahn couldn’t have expected cooperation from local businessmen, neighbors, family members and friends. They protected Sinatra from the media glare, paparazzi and overly aggressive fans every bit as ferociously as he did. And, he repaid them by performing in countless benefit concerts and encouraging his Hollywood cronies to do likewise. In fact, his generosity to everyone with whom he crossed paths is noted by everyone interviewed here. That includes the wait staffs, bartenders and valets at his favorite restaurants and watering holes. After being repeatedly reminded of his proclivity for handing out hundred-dollar tips, as if they were singles, the glorification of Frank’s largess gets tiresome, however. We get it. According to Zahn, Sinatra made the Coachella Valley his primary home for almost 50 years. The film community had long considered Palm Springs to be a convenient escape from the madness of Hollywood. When Frank moved about 10 miles east, to Rancho Mirage, it re-awakened the sleepy desert outpost. Interviews with Barbara Sinatra, Tom Dreesen, Trini Lopez and local civic leaders provide a fuller picture than usual of his willingness to host late-night gatherings and let his toupee down in public. Finally, though, Zahn uses Sinatra to paint a comprehensive portrait of his adopted hometown. He describes how Frank decided to bypass the lure of “restricted” country clubs and help launch one open to Jews and other non-WASPs. The doc then describes how the concept of fairway-side housing first blossomed and how a new definition of exclusivity had to be written. Zahn glosses over the embarrassment Sinatra felt when President Kennedy was dissuaded by his brother, the attorney general, not to stay at his house, even after he built a helicopter pad to accommodate Marine One. He doesn’t get into the reasons behind Bobby Kennedy’s recommendation, however. The film makes it clear that Palm Springs was always a winter home for gangsters, without digging deeply into the coincidence. Zahn does acknowledge former wives and other family members, but it’s limited to photographs and one or two anecdotes. It would have been interesting to know if Sinatra’s children spent much time in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Clips from From Here to Eternity and 50 other movies and television shows – some that only used the home as locations – keep Sinatra in Palm Springs from growing monotonous and overly reverential. The bonus package adds nine deleted scenes. Maybe Zahn will tackle fellow Palm Springs resident, Elvis Presley, next.

Swing Time: Criterion Collection: Blu-Ray
Unlike the many screwball comedies made during the Depression, Swing Time uses music and dance – instead of physical gags and satire – to tell a story that barely makes any sense, otherwise. Most of the characters favor tuxedoes and gowns, and some occupy posh apartments that 95 percent of all Americans then could afford. Like the gangsters portrayed in movies of the time, their playgrounds are supper clubs, with chorus lines and featured dancers … the better to provide added entertainment value and glamour to the movie. Adaptations of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” wouldn’t reveal the other side of the Depression for another year, or so. Today, of course, it’s easy to buy the studio line that these sorts of pictures helped everyday audiences to forget their troubles for a few hours and, maybe, win a dinner setting while they were at it. It’s more likely that the moguls didn’t want to be reminded of the Hard Times – and the people considered to be below their station – anymore than the other members of their country clubs and income brackets. The profits spoke for themselves. But, as usual, I digress. No matter how one slices it, Swing Time was and remains a delight. It provided a perfect showcase for the heavenly dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Bernard Newman’s formal wear, Hermes Pan’s dance direction and Van Nest Polglase’s art direction. At first glance, George Stevens (Shane) probably wasn’t the most likely candidate to direct this perfect storm of talent, class and glamour – he’d just finished Annie Oakley (1935), his first Western – but his experience as a lighting cameraman gave him a leg up on helming the sixth Astaire/Rogers musical. Even though Oscar pretty much ignored his work on Swing Time – Kern and Field took home a statuette, while Pan was nominated for “Bojangles of Harlem” – the filmfecl’s since been recognized as one of the true classics of the American cinema. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Swing Time one of the top 100 films and, in 2004, it was included in the United States National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Three years later, in 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the movie No. 90 on its 10th-anniversary list, “100 Years …100 Movies.”

The plot is simplicity, itself. The feckless hoofer/gambler Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is tricked into missing his wedding to socialite Margaret Watson (Betty Furness) by the other members of Pop Cardetti’s magic and dance act, and he has to make $25,000 to be allowed to marry her. Lucky and Pop (Victor Moore) go to New York, where they run into Penny Carroll (Rogers), a dancing instructor. After some playful missteps, they form a successful dance partnership. Their romance is nipped in the bud by his attachment to Margaret and her feelings for the slick band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who won’t play for them to dance together. It’s only a matter of time before those entanglements are untangled and everyone can live happily ever after, well above the poverty level and Americans who don’t wear top hats and tails to work. It does allow for the marvelously choreographed and sung, “Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” “A Fine Romance,” “Bojangles of Harlem,” “Never Gonna Dance” and a final duet, in which Astaire and Rogers sing shortened versions of “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” If all anyone under 40 knows about formal dance is what they see on “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” these numbers will be revelatory. Just watching Rogers’ gown shimmer and sway to Astaire’s lead is the dance equivalent of poetry. The Criterion Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary from 1986, featuring John Mueller, author of “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films”; archival interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan; a fresh one with George Stevens Jr.; a new program on the film’s choreography and soundtrack, featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert and Dorothy Fields’ biographer Deborah Grace Winer; and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

The 800-pound gorilla in the movie is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, with Astaire performing in blackface. Apart from being a wonderfully orchestrated, brilliantly lit and innovatively choreographed number, it begs several questions that remain especially pertinent today. If the piece was meant as a homage to the reigning king of tap — Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – why was his presence and/or tap style not also deemed essential? If, as some have speculated, the innovatively conceived production number was intended as a parody of The Green Pastures (1936), what was the point? If it was merely intended as a sop to white audiences, who knew next to nothing about Robinson, but didn’t mind a bit of blackface, again, why bother? And, how might Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson or Louis Armstrong have reacted to seeing their art and music represented on the big screen, with nary a naturally black face to be seen. A new interview with film scholar Mia Mask addresses the subject, without providing any definitive answers.

Frankenstein Created Woman: Blu-Ray
The Entity: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The 27 Club
This week’s releases from Scream Factory may be more entertaining today than they were upon their original release. In part, that’s because the horror market has become so diffuse and segmented since Frankenstein Created Woman and The Entity were released in 1967 and 1982, respectively, that such pictures have been allotted comparatively meager budgets and almost no marketing support, as is the case with such non-theatrical fare as The 27 Club. The straight-to-cassette phenomenon was still gestating in 1982 and drive-ins were drying up, like L.A. in July. Only a handful of contemporary genre flicks are accorded the same publicity boost, star support and production values as vintage titles from the Hammer stable and 20th Century Fox.

Frankenstein Created Woman was originally intended as a follow-up to Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), piggy-backing on the notoriety of Roger Vadim and Brigette Bardot’s And God Created Woman (1956). Eight years later, it would lose the “And …” and any residual impact of a clever title. It did, however, represent a departure from the Frankenstein legend. In it, a young boy, Hans, witnesses the beheading of his father for a crime he neither committed, not could deny, without incriminating his lover. A decade later, Hans (Robert Morris) works as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who, with the aid of Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), is attempting to perfect a process that re-animates the body and soul of his creatures. Hans is in love with a local barmaid, Christina (recent Playboy model Susan Denberg), a disfigured girl, who’s ashamed of her looks and openly taunted by a trio of good-for-nothing swells. When the troublemakers team up to harass Christina’s father, restaurateur Kleve (Alan McNaughton), the men end up committing a murder, for which Hans takes the blame and is sent to the guillotine. The despondent Christine responds by killing herself. Employing a Nobel Prize-worthy technique, Doctor Frankenstein captures Hans’s soul and places it inside Christina’s new and improved body. The result is a  blond, beautiful and no longer crippled Christina, who takes orders from the separated head of Hans’ revenge-minded soul. Neither the remorseless dandies, nor the scientists are capable of curtailing the resultant bloodbath. The Scream Factory upgrade features a 2K remaster of the film; new commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr; new interviews with Morris, camera assistant Eddie Collins and assistant director Joe Marks, as well as nine ported-over supplements.

The Entity (1983), we’re assured, is based on the reported haunting of Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), her two kids and their new house. Not only does the spirit behave, at first, like an angry poltergeist, but it also rapes Carla for no more reason than that’s she there. It takes a while before the kids witness the spirits’ wrath. By then, however, Mom is approaching basket-case status. A bevy of psychiatrists, led by Ron Silver, dismiss her bruising and fright as something other than self-inflicted byproducts of an overly stressed mind. It isn’t until a team of parapsychologists and amateur ghost hunters enters the picture that we get a concrete idea of Carla really is up against. And, it’s formidable.  Finally, Silver agrees to join his disrespected peers in their scheme to isolate and reveal the demon, who doesn’t want to be isolated or revealed. The destruction wrought is impressive, even by post-Exorcist standards.  If the postscript is to be believed, the  continued haunting of Carla is one for the books.

Barbara Hershey is terrific in what might have been a career-saving performance. The promising co-star of Last Summer (1969), The Baby Maker (1970) and Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha (1972) spent much of the 1970s demonstrating her hippie credentials and alienating anyone who would put up with her antics. They included breast-feeding her 2-year-old while being interviewed by Dick Cavett. By 1980, she’d dropped the adopted surname of Seagull, which she adopted after a seagull was accidentally killed during the filming of Last Summer (1969). (Barbara said she felt as if she had absorbed the bird’s spirit.) She began the new decade with a stellar performance in Richard Rush’s little-seen masterpiece, The Stunt Man (1980). After The Entity, she appeared in The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Tin Men (1987), Shy People (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), A World Apart (1988) and Beaches (1988). That’s a hell of a run. In 1990, Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role as accused ax-murderer Candy Morrison in “A Killing in a Small Town.” Afterward, she would commit to a series of television and cable dramas, including “Paris Trout,” “Return to Lonesome Dove” and “Chicago Hope.” Although she hasn’t completely forsaken acting, such highlights as the Australia-set Lantana (2001), balletic psycho-thriller Black Swan and A&E’s “Damien” (2016) have been few and far between.

To qualify for membership in the mythical 27 Club, an artist of some substance merely has to die – preferably by substance abuse – during their 27th year on Earth. Among the noteworthy performers who’ve qualified for induction in the select club are Robert Johnson, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (The Stooges), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Kobain, Amy Winehouse, actor Anton Yelchin and Korean boy-band superstar Kim Jong-hyun. That abridged list might be more persuasive, if it didn’t cover a period, ranging from 1938 to 2017, the lack of statistical anomalies discovered by several dedicated computer jockeys. That didn’t prevent co-writer/director Patrick Fogarty (“Average”) from basing The 27 Club on the urban legend. If only it had. (It’s dedicated to sax master Big Jay McNeely, who died last September, at 81, before his scenes were edited out of the picture.) In it, an unpleasant punk rocker named Quinn Scott (Travis Grant) wastes no screen time before OD’ing and becoming eligible for the 27 Club. It doesn’t matter that he’s surrounded by friends when he buys the farm, because they’re too stoned to pay attention to his high or the demonic presence in the room. It inspires a student filmmaker, Jason (Derrick Denicola), to investigate the phenomenon. His mentor is played by Todd Rundgren, who also made it past the 27 barrier and helps here on the musical score. Jason hooks up with Lily (Maddisyn Carter), another punk-rocker who makes Courtney Love sound like Maria Callas. Her reason for being in the movie is the fact that her next birthday cake will have 27 candles. Together, they’ll find themselves trapped in an evil underworld that takes artists’ souls as payment for eternal fame. (While that’s the legend behind Johnson’s amazing blues output, most of the other club members committed suicide, OD’d or drank themselves to an early grave.) Jason steals Quinn’s copy of the “Necronomicon,” which adds to the story’s horror aspect. It’s seriously undernourished, though. The Blu-ray adds short interviews with Carter and Denicola, and a slideshow.

Can’t Stop the Music: Blu-Ray
Jeffrey: Blu-Ray
Shout Factory is celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month with the simultaneous re-release of Can’t Stop the Music (1980) and Jeffrey (1995). The company previously sent out an upgraded edition of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). The only thing new to be said about the musical retelling of the Village People’s rise to the top of the charts — during America’s post-Saturday Night Fever period –is that the production numbers look and sound great in Blu-ray. Otherwise, the critically lambasted box-office bomb remains a chore to watch from start to finish. It remains curious that EMI Films attempted to take the gay out of a movie about a clearly gay cultural phenomenon, which began in gay nightclubs and whose members affected the look of iconic gay fantasy figures. Here, if the implications are unavoidable, viewers are led to believe that the Village People’s early appeal was gender-neutral and only a little bit ironic. The VP’s secondary audience would be sports fans, who may or may not have recognized the spell-along hit, “Y-M-C-A,” from the album, “Crusing’,” as a gay anthem. (One group member has said that it can interpreted as a “double entendre,” because the YMCA is a place where gay culture and working-class workouts coexist in a single communal space.”) Either way you slice it, though, it’s one of the great dance songs of all time. By effectively neutering the protagonists of Can’t Stop the Music, producers kept most of its intended audience at arm’s length and opened themselves to criticism by activists, reviewers and anyone already aware of the VP’s story. Even so, Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard’s love child might have avoided most of the slings and arrows hurled at it, if it were even remotely entertaining and overtly campy. In it, a retired supermodel Samantha “Sam” Simpson (Valerie Perrine) and songwriter/deejay Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) hope to convince her devious ex-boyfriend, a record-company executive (Paul Sand), to promote one of his songs. When Jack’s vocal skills are deemed inadequate, Sam recruits neighbor and Saddle Tramps waiter/go-go boy Felipe Rose (Indian); fellow model David “Scar” Hodo (Construction Worker); “G.I.” Alex Briley; Ray Simpson (Policeman); “Cowboy” Randy Jones; and “Leatherman” Glenn Hughes. In return for their participation, she offers them … dinner. As things progress, the band is given rehearsal space at the local YMCA and a flashy musical commercial for milk. (The movie was rated PG, but amateur pervs can run the “Y-M-C-A” segment in slo-mo and catch a glimpse of an unpixellated penis and Perrine’s nipples in a whirlpool with the band.) With few exceptions, the acting is wooden and Nancy Walker’s direction is haphazard, at best.

Trivia buffs may recall that John Wilson was inspired to create the Golden Raspberry Awards after paying 99 cents to endure a double-bill featuring Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu (1980). “Music” was nominated for seven inaugural Razzie awards, with Carr winning Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay trophies. Caitlyn Jenner, then known primarily as the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion, was a finalist for Worst Actor. In 2005, the movie was a nominee for the Worst Musical of Our First 25 Years prize. Neither was Carr’s timing very sound. By the time Can’t Stop the Music was released, the Village People popularity had peaked and the Disco Sucks movement had made headlines by ransacking Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on Disco Demolition Night. The Blu-ray package is highlighted by a delightful 65-minute interview with Cowboy Randy Jones, in which he discusses the disco era, the creation of “Music” and life after disco. Commentary is provided by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and Jeffrey Schwarz, director of The Fabulous Allan Carr. There’s also vintage publicity material and a photo gallery. Co-stars included Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, Barbara Rush, Altovise Davis, Jack Weston and Leigh Taylor-Young.

Jeffrey, the movie, arrived in theaters about 2½ years after “Jeffrey,” the play, was mounted off-Broadway. If Can’t Stop the Music can be characterized as a pre-AIDS musical comedy, “Jeffrey,” the play and movie, takes place at what might be considered the height of the epidemic. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first combination drug therapies for HIV were introduced. In 1995, a new type of protease inhibitor drug, Saquinavir, became available to treat HIV. Within two years, death rates due to AIDS would begin to plummet in the developed world. It took no small amount of courage to use humor to treat the parallel plagues of sexual anxiety and fear of intimacy and loss. Even considering the unexpected success of the play, studios weren’t anxious to become the first to distribute what they mistakenly saw as an “AIDS comedy.” Produced independently for what might have been a song, Jeffrey might have made a tiny bit of money in its limited release by Orion Classics. Christopher Ashley (Lucky Stiff) and Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) returned to direct and write Jeffrey, the movie, which benefitted greater star power and a wider canvass. Steven Weber (“Wings”) plays the title character, a transplanted gay New Yorker whose attitude toward sex shifts from extremely positive to outright fearful, when he decides that AIDS has made it too unromantic and difficult. Celibacy becomes the only viable option, until he meets his dream man, Steve (Michael T. Weiss), who turns out to be HIV positive. With the help of his friends Sterling (Patrick Stewart) and Darius (Bryan Batt), Jeffrey decides to give love a second shot. Most critics preferred the intimacy and directness of the play, while relishing the well-timed cameos by Nathan Lane, Olympia Dukakis, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver. The Blu-ray adds new commentary with Weber and film critic/author Alonso Duralde; fresh interviews with Weber and producer Mark Balsam; and a stills gallery.

My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie: Blu-ray
In the last 12 months, Cult Epics has released several soft-core pictures from Pim de la Parra, Wim Verstappen and Scorpio Films’ “Dutch Sex Wave” series, spanning 1967 and 1976. Some, like Blue Movie (1971), pushed the boundaries on relaxed censorship laws, by combing natural sexual encounters, attractive actors and stories that support the nudity, humor and hanky-panky. My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie (1976) falls short in these departments, without adding anything to compensate for the loss for their absence. In it, Susan (Willeke Van Ammelrooy) lives in an idyllic farmhouse, along with the sex-loving youngsters, Sandra, Olga and Julie, and the unstable voyeur, Albert. Two of the women are spree killers, who target men who try to take advantage of their youth, beauty and deceptively frisky personalities. A witness to one of the killings  is Piet (Nelly Frijda), a female neighbor whose manly appearance and creepy behavior stands in stark contrast to the younger girls. Piet also commits an unconscionable murder that spoils any fun left in the story. De la Parra, who co-wrote Obsessions (1969) with Verstappen and Martin Scorsese, clearly knows how to make sex pictures with mainstream production values. “My Night” begins to fall apart as soon as Piet makes her appearance known. What I’m probably missing is the popularity of Frijda in Holland, where she’s long been a cultural fixture. It is interesting to note that, somewhere between the Netherlands and the U.S.,  Piet’s name was dropped from the title. The Blu-ray features the last score by composer Elisabeth Lutyens — known for Hammer films and Amicus Productions – a screenplay co-credited to Harry Kumel (Daughters of Darkness); a fresh HD restoration and transfer from original 35mm print; a lengthy introduction by Pim de la Parra; the short Scorpio films, “Heart Beat Fresco” (1966), “Joop” (1969) and “Joop Strikes Again” (1970); a poster and photo gallery; original Scorpio Films theatrical trailers; and an optional English-language track.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn Original: Blood: Blu-ray
Acorn Original: London Kills: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: Delicious: Series 3
If rural doctor Jim Hogan hadn’t lied to his black-sheep daughter, Cat, about the death of her invalid mother, the six-chapter mini-series could have been reduced to one. Thank goodness, that wasn’t an option in Sophie Petzal’s terrifically complex and entirely engrossing “Blood,” made for Ireland’s Virgin Media One and Acorn. In one way or another, all of the characters here are damaged by things they choose not to reveal to close friends and relatives. Jim and Cat take their insecurities to levels not often seen in series television, however. While successful in his small-town practice, Jim (Adrian Dunbar) has constructed a wall of lies to prevent his inordinately fragile family from being hurt by his self-destructive actions. The hyper-neurotic Cat (Carolina Main) is haunted by her decision to blow off a planned return home, hours before her mother’s seemingly accidental death. Instead of blaming herself for canceling the reunion, Cat immediately suspects her estranged father of murdering her. She bases her suspicions on the sketchiest of circumstantial evidence. When weighed against Jim’s flimsy defense, Cat’s case builds a parallel wall of infectious paranoia. I wouldn’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the mini-series by revealing that Jim has been cheating on his saintly wife (Ingrid Craigie), squandering money he couldn’t afford to lose, concealing a coroner’s report from the son of a suicide victim, taking advantage of a dotty patient and fudging his appointment book. On the plus side, however, viewers can see that he’s sincere about his determination to protect his family from the lies and their impact on the community, at large. Cat’s sublimated memory of an event in her childhood prevents her from trusting anything said by Jim. Viewers will find it difficult to fully embrace either character, even when they’re at their most vulnerable. Just when it seems as if we’ve discovered the truth, however, Petzal pulls the rug out from under us in the climactic final hour. Beyond the plotting and acting, “Blood” benefits from the beautifully photographed countryside and depictions of Irish manners and customs. It’s also interesting to learn that, at a time when American women are chafing at the bit for inclusion in the filmmaking process, “Blood” is represented by women at every level: writer, both directors, 4 of 11 producers, cinematographer, co-editor, casting director, costume design and production management, among other positions. Bonus material include cast and crew interviews, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Another Acorn Original mini-series, “London Kills,” takes full advantage of its widespread urban setting, from the banks of the Thames, to its junkie-infested tenements, leafy parks and architecturally significant inner city. While the homicide-squad setup would be recognizable to any fan of television procedurals, anywhere, each character here is allowed a full range of emotions and complexities. The diversity of the city’s demographic makeup is also represented, and women fill positions of authority inside the police department. They also are among the key suspects in the somewhat messy murder investigations. It opens when DC Rob Brady (Bailey Patrick) and Trainee DC Billie Fitzgerald (Tori Allen-Martin) respond to a gruesome scene in a hilly park, where a man is found stabbed multiple times and left hanging from a tree. When the victim is identified as the son of a prominent politician, the squad is not only pressured to find the killer, but also keep the details quiet from the press. That always works, right? The bodies keep piling up during the course of the five-part series, until a single common denominator surfaces in the form of a dreadlocked drifter, who attempts a sapphic hookup with Fitzgerald. An antagonistic relationship between DI David Bradford (Hugo Speer) and DS Vivienne Cole (Sharon Small) causes problems that are caused more by her rebellious nature, than any sexist inclinations on his part. The pressure on Bradford to solve the case is compounded by the recent disappearance of his social worker wife and their daughter’s insurrection, both of which, of course, could figure in the murder spree. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The soapy BSkyB mini-series, “Delicious,” appears to have been engineered specifically to appeal to what, in the U.S., highbrows frequently describe derisively as the Lifetime audience. That would be its natural home, I think, but Food Channel fanatics should love it, too. It also plays to fans of “Downton Abbey,” who were drawn to the series for its spectacular architecture, plush interiors and elitist aura. Shot at Cornwall’s Pentille Castle, Port Eliot House, Boconnoc House and other splendid locations, it also appeals to Anglophiles everywhere. In the show’s first four-part season, we were introduced to celebrity chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen), a serial philanderer, who, before his untimely death, was married to the beautiful blond hotelier, Sam (Emilia Fox), and having an affair with his first wife, Gina (Dawn French), from whom he stole recipes that made him successful. Instead of bashing each other, Sam and Gina combine their talents to preserve the Penrose estate’s legacy as a superb place to stay, dine and get married. Things get complicated when Gina and Sam’s children – possibly step-siblings – fall in love and split for parts unknown. The third season is highlighted by the return of Gina’s emaciated daughter, Teresa (Tanya Reynolds); a medical emergency for Leo’s live-in mother (Sheila Hancock); the arrival of rich investor and restaurateur Mason Elliott (Vincent Regan), with whom Gina also has a history; Elliott’s undisguised moves to steal Penrose’s top talent, including Sam and promising chef, Adam Hesketh (Aaron Anthony), who is Gina’s protege and Leo’s biological son. Like Ivory, “Delicious” is 99 and 44⁄100-percent pure soap. Although there’s plenty of room left for a Season Four – the return of Sam’s son, Vincent, perhaps? – no decision has yet been made.

The DVD Wrapup: Madea Funeral, Sharon Tate, Gloria Bell, Women at War, Guy, Farinelli, Screwball, The Kid, Andromeda Strain, Woody Guthrie, Jack Ryan, Sara Stein … More

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

A Madea Family Funeral: Blu-ray
Kinky
No one has more at stake in the controversy over Georgia’s heartbeat abortion bill than multi-hyphenate mogul Tyler Perry and the businesses and individuals who count on him for income. It took a while, but Hollywood and cable producers have fallen in line behind calls for a boycott of the state, if the legislation is fully enacted. (Among other things, a woman who isn’t aware she’s pregnant could be put on trial for miscarrying the fetus.) In 2016, Perry spoke out against legislation, which, effectively, would allow businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. The governor’s decision not to sign the law may have been influenced by Perry’s comments. (His drag persona, Madea, may have beaten the actor to death with her purse if he hadn’t spoken out.) Three years later, it remains unclear where Perry stands on the abortion bill, which soon will be winding its way to the Supreme Court, along with similarly draconian legislation in a few other Southern states and Ohio. (When did the Buckeye state join the Confederacy, anyway?) Earlier this week, in a media blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rodney Ho pointed out that “Perry has committed hundreds of millions of dollars into the state. … (He) has expressed a deep commitment to Georgia and has not shown any inclination to leave.” Nor should he, if he once again uses his influence to turn back a law pushed by predatory right-wing evangelicals.

What’s also at stake is Perry’s partnership with Atlanta-based TBS and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, as well as a long-term deal with Viacom, with shows slated mostly for BET. (Based in Georgia, as well, is the subsidiary of AT&T that oversees TBS, TNT and CNN.) While former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams understands the power of a boycott to force such issues to the fore, she’s also aware of the impact on people who benefit directly from the $2.7 billion Hollywood spends yearly in the state. Hollywood has a lot to lose in a boycott. Of that $2.7 billion figure, an estimated $800 million comes back to the studios in the form of the highest yielding, uncapped tax-incentive program in the nation. Abrams would prefer that some of that money be directed to pro-choice politicians and activists, working tirelessly to bring Georgia into the 21st Century. Because Abrams is well aware of the fact that Georgia continues to look for ways to prevent blacks and other minorities from voting, such a call could prove fruitless, in any case. Perry and Winfrey’s support for the boycott, in conjunction with the solicitations for contributions to the legal battle could tip the balance. And, why stop in the Deep South? Couldn’t Cleveland’s tourist-friendly Rock and Roll Hall of Fame use its weight to pressure Ohio’s governor?

Certainly, Perry has no problem with euthanizing his most popular creation before she’s drawn her last breath. He revealed last year, on the SiriusXM show “Bevelations,” that he’s finished playing the tough old bird, Madea. “I’m happy to kill off that old bitch,” he said. “I’m tired, man. I just don’t want to be her age, playing her.” Detractors of the 11-film series would be relieved for countless other reasons. It’s tough to laugh at Madea’s antics and coarse dialogue, knowing that she’s personified political incorrectness since 1999, when the musical play, “Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself,” was performed before mostly black audiences around the country. Even as a girl, Madea was in constant trouble with the law, supporting herself by stripping, pole dancing, professional wrestling, gambling, fraud and theft. She’s admits to killing two of her nine dead husbands, to collect life-insurance settlements and because she despised them. She carried a gun and a knife but was equally adept at fisticuffs and dispensing poison. If Madea softened over time and the transition to film – 2002’s Madea’s Family Reunion – it remained difficult for her children to pull the wool over her eyes. Stifling our laughter over Perry’s brilliant use of Ebonics and ghetto mannerisms hasn’t been easy for viewers to stifle.

There are plenty of laughs to be found in A Madea Family Funeral, which begins during a road trip with Madea; her younger brother, Joe (Perry); Joe’s son Brian (Perry), a defense attorney; feisty diner owner and family friend, Hattie Mae Love (Patrice Lovely); and partner-in-crime, Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis). Ostensibly, they’re on their way to backwoods Georgia for a joyous family reunion. They are required to stick around for a funeral, as well. Because of the nature of their relative’s death – hint, Viagra is involved – the funeral and its various rituals turn ugly. In hurriedly planning the funeral, Madea declares that it will be strictly be an African American affair, with an old-timey flare. Largely, this means that the ceremony will be long (eight hours), confessional and interactive. Depending on where one stands on impolite humor, Perry’s latest creation – Madea’s wheelchair-bound brother, Heathrow — will either be seen as delightfully offensive or just plain offensive. I’m in the former category. Despite the usual array of negative reviews, “Family Funeral” did extremely well at the domestic box office and, as usual, almost no business overseas. (I doubt that much effort was put into it.) I don’t know what Madea’s position is on abortion – who could? – but, even if she’s adamantly pro-life, she could also be against legislation that enslaves women and denies them their right to choose.

Operating in the long shadow of Tyler Perry, and well under the radar of mainstream media, is NuLite Media. Formed in in 2002, it is an independent production company, with a focus on niche films targeting African American audiences. Like Perry’s various endeavors, NuLite has produced dozens of movies, TV shows and live events that run the gamut from raw and risqué (Kinky, Chocolate City), to faith-based (The Sins of Deacon Whyles) and provocative (Color of the Cross), with forays into such genre fare as the revisionist Western, Gang Of Roses and the ensemble comedy, Nora’s Hair Salon. The Chocolate City spinoff, “Black Magic Live,” is billed as the only all-black male revue in Las Vegas. Moreover, Haitian American co-founder Jean Claude La Marre has 51 acting credits on his IMDB.com, ranging from Malcolm X (1992) and Fresh (1994), to Trapped: Haitian Nights (2010) and Basketball Girlfriend (2014). His Pastor Jones is a recurring character and Vivica A. Fox routinely appears in starring and co-starring capacity. They both appear in Kinky, in non-prominent roles.

Written and directed by La Marre, Kinky could have been re-titled “50 Shades of Ebony” – 50 Shades of Black was already taken — and reached the same audiences as those attracted by the DVD’s slightly naughty cover photo and posters. In them, a stunning black surgeon, Dr. Joyce Carmichael (Dawn Richard), clad in black leather lingerie and a freaky Lone Ranger mask, is being gently held from behind by a handsome black investor, Tyrone Bernard (Robert Ri’chard), wearing only a Rolex. The satin bedspread is littered with rose petals, while a padded set of handcuffs awaits its turn on a pillow. Although the film’s overly punitive R-rating would suggest something harder, that image sums up the movie’s tame approach to sexuality. That said, however, there may be a ready audience among African Americans for a PG-13 romance in an R-rated package. I wouldn’t know. Set primarily in Perry’s own backyard – Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood — the story follows the “talented, yet introverted” Carmichael, as she struggles with the fact that she is still single, despite all her professional success and well-manicured exterior features. Joyce’s strict Christian upbringing is a constant source of internal conflict for her, and it sets unwanted boundaries on the men she dates. What isn’t so obvious is her being blackmailed by a mysterious man who has photos of her in incriminating S&M poses. Tyrone decides to stalk the doctor to learn why she’s been so glum, lately. He discovers the mysterious man’s dungeon, where another young woman is being held, and a fire is about to erupt. The ending is both happy and ominous. Even so, Kinky makes “50 Shades” look like Deep Throat. Beyond the needlessly tame sex scenes, the writing, direction, set design and most of the acting are substandard, at best. If such shortcomings haven’t already stopped La Marre – and his films didn’t make money –we wouldn’t be here, right now.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate: Blu-ray
I’ve yet to see Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood or Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which is floating around the Internet. I have seen Daniel Farrands’ The Haunting of Sharon Tate, though, and it’s done nothing to make me want to rush out and see the other two. Supposedly inspired by premonitions reported by the rising Hollywood star and pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, writer/director Farrands (The Amityville Murders) re-creates the events of August 8, 1969, at 10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon. Since the so-called premonitions were so similar, Farrands likely saved money by filming the actual attack and two flashbacks simultaneously. Only one of them is the real thing, but they all look curiously similar. As has been reported, Tate and her soon-to-be-late friends encountered Manson and “Family” members several times before the massacre. The first contact came when he believed that record producer Terry Melcher still lived there, with Candace Bergman, and he wanted to personally deliver a recording to him. Not finding them there, Manson directed his gang to haunt and harass the current residents. With her husband in Europe doing God knows what, Tate approaches her delivery date with trepidation. OK, you know the rest. While Farrands’ version isn’t remotely new or newsworthy, it does avoid digging up cliched attempts to psychoanalyze Manson Family members and contextualize their actions as a harbinger of bad times to come. It’s a gory home-invasion thriller that tells us precious little about Tate we didn’t already know and even less about the other victims. It’s exploitation, pure and simple. Hilary Duff does a credible job as the ravishing blond protagonist … otherwise, zilch.

The one thing that struck me, however, was the incorporation of Manson’s “Cease to Exist” into the soundtrack. (It was covered by the Beach Boys as “Never Learn Not to Love”) It’s a freaky song, even by the standards of the time. Hearing it played as part of Tate’s nightmares makes some sense, but it also led me to wonder who licensed the song to Farrands and continues to profit from the tragedy. It isn’t an easy task. In the last 50 years, several bands have added the song to their repertoire, simply for the weird pleasure that comes with doing something shocking and reprehensible for personal gain. In 1993, Sharon’s sister, Patti, Tate confronted David Geffen and board members of Geffen Records over plans to include a song written by Charles Manson on the Guns N’ Roses album, “The Spaghetti Incident?” She commented to a journalist that the record company was “putting Manson up on a pedestal for young people … to worship like an idol.” Geffen wouldn’t budge. A year earlier, Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, sought inspiration by moving into the house 10050 Cielo Drive. He built a studio, called “Le Pig,” for recording “Broken” (1992) and “The Downward Spiral” (1994), with collaborations from other musicians. It soon, would later be demolished and renumbered. Reznor’s seeming glorification of evil ended during a random encounter with Tate’s sister. According to Reznor, in a 1997 Rolling Stone interview, she asked, “‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face.” Redd Kross member Jeff McDonald expressed regret for covering Manson on 1982’s “Born Innocent.” He said the move was largely done to annoy the band members’ parents. (By law, Manson wasn’t allowed to collect royalties. Others, including ESP-Disc, Come Organisation and Susan Lawly, have seen their videos and recording widely ripped off by YouTube pirates. Too bad.)

In what must have appeared, at first, to be an ironic marketing decision, Sony originally scheduled Tarantino’s 160-minute epic to be released on August 9, 2019, as if it were the pop-cultural equivalent of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The studio then changed the release date to July 26, 2019, insisting that August 9, 1969, is recognized, as well, as the date the hippie movement, free-love era and the 1960s, as a whole, came to a screeching halt. Someone forgot to mention this to the 500,000 freaks who gathered at Woodstock a week later or, for that matter, the 300,000 who attended Altamont. It wasn’t until the Family was rounded up and put on trial, beginning June 15, 1970, that it became safe to write obits for the hippie movement and, as I recall, for hitchhikers to return to the nation’s highway, albeit at greatly reduced numbers. On Monday, Gavin Newsom overruled a parole board’s decision to free Leslie Van Houten, marking the third time a California governor has stopped the release of the youngest member of Manson’s cult. No candidate for higher political office wants such an extreme show of mercy on their resume.

The Kid: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, The Kid, Vincent D’Onofrio takes on the legend of the Charles Manson of 1880s’ New Mexico, William H. Bonney (a.k.a., Billy the Kid). As criminal cult figures go, however, Bonney probably bore a closer resemblance to John Dillinger than the man reputed to have killed the 1960s. Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) is at least the 50th actor to portray the murderous young fellow, who died of a gunshot wound, administered by Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke), at 21. That much has remained consistent in Hollywood histories – I use the term advisedly – although he makes frequent extended cameos in such cross-genre fare as BloodRayne: Deliverance (2007), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (1979), Gas-s-s-s (1970) and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). In The Kid, DeHaan looks the part of a baby-faced killer, but was 32 when the film was released. (I wonder how many times Bonney has been played by someone his age.) The kid in the title may just as well refer to the boy, Rio (Jake Schur), who, after killing his abusive father, finds himself on the run from an uncle (Chris Pratt), who feels obligated to avenge his brother’s death. After Garrett captures Billy the Kid and saves him from being lynched, Rio and his sister, Sara (Leila George), hitch a ride with them to Santa Fe for the trial. In a very real sense, Rio finds two legitimate father figures in the older men. The Kid is a modern retelling of a classic Western legend, but it isn’t as revisionist as other oaters I’ve seen lately. All of the actors appear to be enjoying themselves and the frontier ambience is enhanced by cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s visions of the frontier state in the 1880s. (Lots of places in the Land of Enchantment haven’t changed all that much in the last 140 years.)

Gloria Bell: Blu-ray
A couple of weeks ago, in the general vicinity of the DVD Wrapup, Ray Pride reviewed Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria Bell and Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, ahead of their concurrent theatrical release in Chicago and almost simultaneous arrival in DVD/Blu-ray. As there are no good reasons to repeat raves in this space, I’ll simply reiterate my believe that I can’t think of more appropriate excuse for spending nearly five hours – plus, featurettes – in front of a television, in the company of two of the finest actresses in the world. It also would provide an excellent excuse for combining a monthly book-club meeting with a post-screening dissection of the protagonists, Juliette Binoche’s Isabella and Julianna Moore’s Gloria. Anyone with a bit more time on their hands might also want to check out the Chilean-born filmmaker’s 2013 comedy/romance/drama, Gloria, from which Gloria Bell was adapted, with the formidable Chilean actress Paulina Garcia in the lead. I suspect that you won’t see three better performances this year, even at awards time. Binoche is about four years older than Moore and Garcia, who were born within a week of each other, in 1960. In addition to being of the same age and divorced, with two adult children, both Glorias embrace their freedom by dancing in clubs, in which disco has never gone out of fashion. (Wisely, she’s surrounded by adults of a certain age and Lelio has resisted the temptation to re-paint Gloria Bell as a MILF or cougar. She’s sexually active and isn’t afraid to meet new men at the bar.) Oh, yeah, the Glorias also share a wiry hairless cat, possibly of the Ukrainian Levkoy or Peterbald persuasion. One problem all three women experience is a mutual inability to avoid men with baggage stuffed with issues. Gloria Bell is exactly the kind of mature, observant film that American studios have abandoned, except for awards consideration, leaving some great talent on the sidelines. Also prominent here are John Turturro, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin, Jean Tripplehorn, Holland Taylor, Brad Garrett, Barbara Sukowa, Alanna Ubach, Caren Pistorius and Lelio’s male muse Michael Cera. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director and the featurette, “An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: Making Gloria Bell.”

Woman at War
All You Ever Wished For
These days, you never know from which corner of the Earth a truly offbeat gem is going to emerge. Iceland usually is a reliable place to start looking, though. Directors of sci-fi and fantasy epics routinely take advantage of its otherworldly landscapes, volcanoes, lava fields, hot springs, mountains, fjords, glaciers and waterfalls. Native filmmakers tend to look inward and in the rugged faces of it citizenry for inspiration. Having to adjust from seemingly eternal darkness in winter, to summer’s frequently off-putting Midnight Sun, can drive Icelanders to drink … and usually does. And, those surnames … Guð minn! Like so many other Icelandic entertainments, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War starts small and ends bigger than one would expect. Halldóra Geirharõsdóttir (Sense8) plays a 50-year-old eco-terrorist, Halla, who, when she isn’t sabotaging high-tension wires leading to an aluminum plant, is the town’s well-respected choir director. She fears that Chinese investors and government officials will agree on plans for building a new aluminum smelter and find other ways to exploit the land. She takes it upon herself to trek into the mountains, usually by herself – or accompanied by an imaginary band and folk dancers — and take out the power line, using a makeshift bow-and-arrow. As federal police zero in on her, the self-described Woman of the Mountain knows that the time for her to complete her mission is running short. Halla also knows that an arrest could curtail her plans to adopt a Ukrainian child and experience motherhood. Her conflicted sense of urgency leads to a pretty exciting climax. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s expansive cinematography goes a long way toward explaining the importance of Halla’s quest. Jodie Foster is said to be interested in developing an English-language remake.

Emmy and Academy Award-winning writer Barry Morrow (“Bill,” Rain Man) tried his hand at directing in All You Ever Wished For, a fairytale romance set so high and deep in the Italian Alps that it might be the product of a spell cast by fairies. “Glee” alumnus Darren Criss plays Tyler Hutton, the almost impossibly handsome son of a Gordon Hutton (James Remar). The old man wants his kid to quit farting around and join the family business in a meaningful way. The curly-haired young man is sent to Milan, where he’s expected to finalize some deals. No sooner does he step out of the airport than he’s kidnapped by local Mafiosi, who immediately send a ransom note to Gordon, in New York. Tyler is whisked off to the Alpine village, where the locals await further instructions. Unbeknownst to most of the villagers and viewers, Tyler has fallen under a spell that makes him covet the first person he sees. Here, it’s the exotic Rosalia Drago (Mãdãlina Ghenea), who looks as if she had just been plucked from the centerfold of Romanian Playboy. As obsessed as Tyler is with her, Rosalia is equally resistant to his advances. Conveniently, the ransom money winds up in the hands of the village’s mayor, who declares it to be a miraculous windfall that calls for a celebration, which requires masks, costumes and dancing. It’s during this delightful interlude that the spell is lifted and the elder Hutton arrives with the mobsters, who want their ransom money back. Things get complicated for a while, but not long enough to spoil the happy ending. At this altitude, all sorts of magical things can happen. Like Woman at War, All You Ever Wished For is gorgeously shot, this time by Stefano Falivene (Still Life). The film may sound hopelessly schmaltzy, but, hey, it’s a fairytale.

Guy
Farinelli: Blu-ray
My knowledge of French pop and chanson singers from the 1960-80s is limited to Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday and Patricia Kaas. Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf arrived and departed before pop popped. That’s probably three or four more names than most Americans know. Chanson required more intimacy between the artist and audience and, by then, their American counterparts were building moats between themselves and their fans, if only for the sake of personal security. It explains why it took a while for me to figure out that Alex Lutz’ faux documentary, Guy, is just that: faux. Co-writer/director Lutz also stars as the title character, Guy Jamet, who, at 72, may or may not have another concert tour left in him. Faux-documentarian Gauthier (Tom Dingler), who’s just learned from his mother’s letters that he may be Guy’s love child, wants to probe the singer’s memories of her … if any. For years, the handsome, rail-thin singer affected a loosely combed white-as-snow coiffure, which makes him immediately identifiable to his faux fans, who adore him for reprising the songs to which they fell in love. Tony Bennett is the American singer who comes the closest to approximating Jamet’s appeal and willingness to play small clubs. Lutz’ ability to mimic his characters’ traits kept me guessing as to whether Guy was pulling my leg or was kidding on the square. Any film that can maintain my interest and curiosity in equal measures, while also being completely scripted – Vincent Blanchard and Romain Greffe’s songs, too – is worth a closer look by viewers outside France and Belgium. In case you’re wondering, Jamet is a dead ringer for Klaus Kinski and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), depending on their need for a haircut or dye job.) Dani (Day for Night), Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds) and Marina Hands (Tell No One) are the most recognizable of co-stars. For his effort, Lutz was awarded a Cesar Award as Best Actor, along with Blanchard and Greffe’s songs. Guy was a finalist for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Director.

When I was growing up, one of the more disturbing urban legends affecting boys assigned to choir duty in Catholic schools involved the probability that priests served as recruiters for the Vatican’s glee club. That’s because the heavenly chorus was in constant need of pre-pubescent sopranos, who could expect to be castrated on their arrival in Rome. Apparently, the pope’s musical director required a handful of boys each year, whose unnaturally high and powerful voices could survive puberty and last as long as they maintained their youthful appearance. Boys were chosen over girls because side-effects of the castration process gave them unrivalled vocal stamina and breath capacity. Moreover, because their vocal cords remained compact and flexible, their voices could replicate the sounds of amorous songbirds. No one bothered to tell us that the legend – which isn’t mythical, at all — was less than a century out of date. The Church didn’t officially ban the procedure until 1903. Indeed, the last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, who lived long enough to make solo recordings. Farinelli is the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, perhaps the most celebrated, well-travelled and highly rewarded castrato of the 18th Century. Although Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 drama, Farinelli, took many liberties with the history of the singer and his composer brother, Riccardo Broschi (Enrico Lo Verso), as well as their feud with composer George Frideric Handel, what truth there is in it is both fascinating and wonderfully decorous. Not at all graphic, the film’s most sensational scenes include demonstrations of the Broschis’ tag-team approach to copulation and pro-creation with their female fans. Even with the handicap of possessing only a single penis between them, the technique was pretty effective. Their partners were so overwhelmed by the presence of the superstar, Farenelli, they barely noticed when the brothers made the tag. Anyone who gets through the 111-minute costume drama and wants to learn more about castrati should make it a point to check out the featurettes, “Farinelli: Nostalgia for a Lost Voice,” “Farinelli: The Birth of a Voice,” and new essay by film critic Kenji Fujishima. Ewa Malas-Godlewska and Derek Lee Ragin are shown combining their talents to produce a single radiant sound, with the help of a synthesizer.

Screwball
As long as athletes from Eastern Bloc nations were the ones abusing steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, Americans could simply blame the commies for corrupting amateur athletics and ignore what was happening in their own back yards. By the time world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong acknowledged his own bending of the rules – almost 20 years after suspicions first were raised – dozens of professional and collegiate athletes had already been rounded up and put into the penalty box. Some of the best players in their sport have been suspended, fined and returned to the game. Still, the problem persists. In the surprisingly entertaining documentary, Screwball, director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) describes how Miami PED peddler Anthony Bosch built a lucrative business by supplying steroids – not all of them illegal – to body builders, fitness fanatics and athletes, mostly on the strength of word-of-mouth advertising. It wasn’t unusual to see photographs of the fake doctor in locker rooms and in the company of all-stars. A petty dispute with a hapless “juice” junkie would set off a chain of events that not only led to his own imprisonment, but also brought down such stars as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro  and Ryan Braun … temporarily, at least. In the process, Bosch also revealed the hypocrisy of Major League Baseball executives, who exploited the triumphs of homerun hitters Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds to sell tickets and merchandise, but, then, kowtowed to Congress by cracking down on users. Incredibly, MLB then paid Bosch and his accuser hundreds of thousands of dollars to join its flawed investigation. As we learn here, the whole mess could have been avoided if he’d repaid a $4,800 loan from a muscle-bound doofus, Porter Fischer, who hung out at his tanning salon and was desperate to help spread the message. Now that the eye of the hurricane has passed, Corben gives Bosch and Fischer plenty of time to tell their stories to the unblinking eye of his camera. In a stroke of genius, he also employs the considerable talents of a dozen, or so, pre-teen actors to impersonate other players in the scandal. Although the kids stick to the script, their costumes, padding and hairstyles turn what could have been a dry recitation of nearly forgotten events, into a comedy of errors worthy of Carl Hiaasen and the late, great Elmore Leonard. The common denominator in Screwball isn’t necessarily greed, however. Simply put, the performance-driven pros wanted to gain the same statistical edge as other athletes, whose almost freakish achievements spoke for themselves. They did so during pennant races and before their contracts expired. Finally, though, Bosch was done in by his own expensive habits and a mad desire to bask in the spotlight of his clients’ glory. Fischer simply wanted to be respected by people he admired. A $4,800 reimbursement would have discouraged him from snooping around the office and supplying evidence to a reporter at a weekly newspaper. For his part, A-Rod enjoyed the protection of influential media pundits, who bought into his story, and local gangsters, who, for a price, would fulfill his requests. Meanwhile, MLB executives sought the same authority to chase down outlaws as the FBI and DEA. The real schmucks here, however, are the parents of Little League and high-school athletes who went to Bosch to score steroids and PEDs, so their kids could excel at the next level. Sounds a bit like Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and the other millionaire moms and dads who only wanted to give their kids an edge, by paying a fortune to get them enrolled in the most prestigious colleges.

Trapped Alive: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Andromeda Strain: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the disappearance of drive-in theaters in the 1970-80s weren’t so devastating, the release of Leszek Burzynski’s reasonably entertaining Trapped Alive might not have been delayed for five years, with the distribution rights handed off to a completely different company. It didn’t help that it was the first movie to emerge from Wisconsin’s now-defunct Windsor Lake Studios, which would go on to produce a number of genre treasures (Mindwarp) under the Fangoria Films label. Otherwise, Trapped Alive wallowed in VHS hell as just another mutant-cannibal/slasher thriller that showed its seams at every turn and required T&A to keep its audience from dozing off every 15 minutes. Today, it’s considered to be a minor cult classic by genre buffs, whose opinions carry weight on niche websites. Cameron Mitchell (The Toolbox Murders) tops the marquee, even though most of the action involves a pair of teenage pals, Robin and Monica (one-time wonders, Sullivan Hester and Laura Kallison), who, one wintry night, are carjacked on their way to a Christmas party. Three desperadoes have just escaped from the local penitentiary and can’t decide whether to hold them for ransom – which never works – or simply force them to disrobe and submit to their demands. That happens after the jamoke driving the stolen car manages to cause it to plummet down a hill and into an abandoned mine shaft. Unbeknownst to the trapped humans, they’ve trespassed their way into the lair of a mutant cannibal, who has been living in the cavern for a couple of decades, waiting for such happy surprises to arrive. Soon enough, they’re joined by a sheriff’s deputy, who’s just finished schtupping the Cher wannabe who’s married to the mine’s dullard caretaker. Even by drive-in standards, Trapped Alive remains a smallish picture of interest primarily to genre geeks, teenage boys and topless-scene completists, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t get a kick out of it. Arrow gives it a spanking new 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentaries with Burzynski, special-effects artist Hank Carlson, horror writer Josh Hadley and The Hysteria Continues; a fresh making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Burzynski, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, production manager Alexandra Reed and actors Alex Kubik and Sullivan Hester; a vintage episode of “Upper Michigan Tonight”; a 1988 television documentary on Windsor Lake Studios, featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the DIY set of Trapped Alive; contemporary interviews with Burzynski, producer Christopher Webster and production designer Brian Savegar;  “Leszek Burzynski: The Early Years”; a reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by Zach Carlson. Some genuine classics haven’t received this much coverage when they launched in Blu-ray.

Before he created Westworld and Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton first blurred the line between science fiction and science fact with his breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain. Its success forced the 6-foot-9 Harvard Medical School student to begin using his real name – instead of clever pseudonyms – and move west to try his luck in the movie dodge. (God only knows what such a mind might have accomplished had he stayed in medicine.) Two years after the novel’s publication, Robert Wise was hired by Universal to direct the film adaptation. Wise brought in  screenwriter Nelson Gidding, with whom he collaborated on  The Haunting (1963). In 1972, Crichton joined the ranks of directors, by adapting his novel, “Pursuit,” for television. Then came Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978). The Andromeda Strain effectively linked the noir-tinged procedurals Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), with And the Band Played On (1993), also about an imported plague, AIDS. In The Andromeda Strain, almost an entire New Mexican town is wiped out by an air-borne virus carried into Earth’s atmosphere by a spent satellite. Curiously, only a baby and elderly alcoholic seem immune to the crystalline menace. The remains of the satellite and both survivors are sent to Wildfire, a top-secret underground laboratory equipped with a nuclear self-destruct mechanism. Because of the remote location of the town, the lethal organism has yet to spread elsewhere. It’s only a matter of time, however, and the clock is ticking. In hindsight, the movie’s state-of-the-art computers and other high-tech implements look pretty primitive. The interaction between scientists and technicians – men and women – still holds up to scrutiny, however. The production benefitted from Douglas Trumbull’s post-2001 visual effects and an avant-garde electronic musical score by Gil Melle (The Sentinel). The Arrow Video package is highlighted by a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; commentary by critic Bryan Reesman; a worthwhile critical appreciation, “A New Strain of Science Fiction,” by Kim Newman; “The Andromeda Strain: Making the Film,” an archived featurette, with Wise and Gidding; “A Portrait of Michael Crichton,” also from 2001, featuring an interview with Crichton; “Cinescript Gallery,” with highlights from the annotated and illustrated shooting script by Gidding; a BD-ROM: PDF of the 192-page ”cinescript” with diagrams and production designs; a reversible sleeve featuring original newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Peter Tonguette and archival publicity materials

Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert, 1970
Previously unreleased on video, except for excerpts shown recently on PBS, “Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert 1970” provides a visual record of one several concerts and CD collections honoring the American saint, who died in 1967, at 55. It represents the second of two star-studded concerts produced by Harold Leventhal to benefit research into hereditary diseases, like the one that stilled the voice of the hugely influential singer/songwriter. (“It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.”) The first was staged at New York’s Carnegie Hall, three months after Guthrie lost his battle with Huntington’s chorea, which also claimed his mother. The 1970 tribute concert was held over two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. (It might have inspired George Harrison to organize “The Concert for Bangladesh,” a year later.) At 80 minutes, the DVD couldn’t possibly cover all of the highlights of the concerts and still allow room for readings by actors Will Geer and Peter Fonda. Considering that live-concert recordings of such events had yet to be perfected – at times, there were too few microphones and cameras to handle the number of musicians involved – the DVD looks and sounds remarkably good. The performers on “Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert 1970” include Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald and Richie Havens. It isn’t designed to take the place of more complete CD collections from Bear Family Records, Sony Legacy and Smithsonian Folkways. Listening to Woody singing his own material is a completely different experience than listening to other artists covering him. And, yes, his songs are every bit as relevant today as they were during the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and Red Scare. Extras include three never-before-seen songs performed by Baez, Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack, as well as concert rehearsal footage and audio interviews with Arlo and Ramblin’ Jack.

TV-to-DVD
Amazon: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Season One
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Film Movement: Sara Stein: From Berlin to Tel Aviv: The Complete Series
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Jungle Rescues
Fox/Saban: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
When John Krasinski finished his 188-episode run on “The Office,” portraying Jim Halpert, the gentle homewrecker and stabilizing force at dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, it wasn’t easy to predict what he’d do for an encore. In addition to voicing characters in several animated features, he lent his support to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017), Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015) and Michael Bay’s 13 Hours (2016), since rebranded as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (see below). He also turned his attention to directing the rom/dram/com, The Hollars (2016), and co-writing, directing and co-starring in the wildly successful supernatural thriller, A Quiet Place (2018). The Amazon Prime mini-series, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” proves that “13 Hours” wasn’t a fluke and Krasinski could handle playing a kick-ass soldier with the best of them. As the titular character, Krasinski joined Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine as protagonists drawn from the Clancy’s so-called “Ryanverse.” (Unlike the other theatrical installments, “Jack Ryan” wasn’t adapted from a Clancy book.) Just like every succeeding actor who played Ryan, Krasinski brought something different to the character. Here, he’s in the beginning stages of his career, serving the CIA as a financial analyst. I found it a tad ironic that this iteration of Ryan combines elements of Jim Halpert and Krasinski’s Jack Silva, from 13 Hours. When the former Marine stumbles upon a suspicious series of bank transfers, his search for answers catapults him from the safety of his desk job, into a global game of cat-and-mouse with an up-and-coming terrorist leader, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman). If this Ryan ultimately is an Everyman in extremis, Suleiman is a fully realized character, with well-founded reasons for becoming a jihadist and a complicated family life. He’s also a monster. Because the story unfolds over eight hourlong chapters – it’s been renewed for two more seasons – the audience learns everything they need to know about the characters, their backgrounds and motivations. Spook jargon occasionally gets in the way of normal human discourse, but viewers get the picture soon enough. Also prominent here are Wendell Pierce, as Ryan’s tough-to-like boss, Jim Greer; Abbie Cornish, as Ryan’s easily deceived girlfriend; Dina Shihabi, as Suleiman’s courageous wife; and several extremely convincing child actors. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

Although the events depicted in 13 Hours have been manipulated beyond recognition by disingenuous Republican politicians and Hillary haters, the movie retains its power to impress. Hardly anyone makes action films with the same verve, intensity and signature touches as Bay, and Krasinski is credible as the leader of the commando force facing incalculable odds. As was the case with Black Hawk Down (2001), where our intelligence services underestimated the ferocity of Somali militia fighters, the CIA contractors in 13 Hours were at a disadvantage when Libyan militants attacked our ambassador’s compound in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annex on September 11, 2012. Four Americans died in the assault: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Information Officer Sean Smith and two CIA operatives, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs. Apart from being the anniversary of the 9/11 catastrophe, intelligence officials at the CIA, Pentagon and State Department should have foreseen how a leaderless Libya might be ripe for an uprising coordinated by members of the Islamic militant group, Ansar al-Sharia. Requests for increased security at American diplomatic facilities went unanswered until the Benghazi attacks demonstrated the possible shortfalls. When everything went wrong for the American team, six men had the courage to take it upon themselves to unscramble the clusterfuck, for which there was plenty of blame to go around. This is their story. Paramount’s marketing strategy targeted the same audiences that supported Lone Survivor and American Sniper, with a special emphasis on Republican lawmakers, whose primary goal was to discredit President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Thus politicized, the picture barely covered its $50-million production nut – not accounting from marketing costs — with another $16 million generated the foreign box office. The 4K UHD presentation upgrades Paramount’s already excellent 2016 two-disc Blu-ray. Here, the bundled Blu-ray includes the earlier supplements, “For the Record: Finding the Truth Amid the Noise,” “Uncovering Benghazi’s Secret Soldiers,” “Preparing for Battle: Behind the Scenes of 13 Hours,” “Operation: 13 Hours Premiere” and “In Memoriam.” The Atmos track is every bit as invigorating as one would expect.

Recent DVD and Blu-ray releases from the BBC, MHz, Acorn and other off-brand streaming services attest to the notion that the world has caught up with American producers of crime-based mini-series and courtroom dramas. While U.S. networks continue to shove impossibly young and physically attractive cops and lawyers down viewers’ throats – with the occasional veteran actor to add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings – the foreign imports are far more diverse and less obsessed with youth, beauty and bosoms. While Film Movement’s four-chapter, “Sara Stein: From Berlin to Tel Aviv: The Complete Series” doesn’t attempt to break much new ground in the genre, it tweaks the clichés and tropes is unexpected ways. The first involves locations largely unfamiliar to American viewers. Sara Stein (Katherina Lorenz) is an Israeli criminal investigator, working as a police investigator in Berlin. It’s entirely likely that she moved to Germany to avoid family entanglements that involve at least one overbearing Jewish mother, intrusive friends and the macho camaraderie that erupts when she returns to Israel and joins a police unit comprised of military veterans from the same unit. Even after Sara proves herself worthy of their support, she’s trips the wire on a long-buried secret among the smug male detectives. The four telefilms require that she solve the murders of an Israeli deejay in Berlin; the police inspector in whose seat she now sits; an archeologist corrupted by fame and money; and a human rights activist whose severed hand and forearm wash up on a beach. Apart from the occasional subtitle, the films are easily relatable to audiences here.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilation, “Paw Patrol: Jungle Rescues,” is comprised of seven adventures that are set, you guessed it, in a jungle. It features a double-length episode, in which they’re also required to solve the mystery of the Monkey Queen. In other episodes, the patrol swings into action, when an enchanted coconut turns Mayor Humdinger into a baby; an elephant gets trapped on a jungle gym; and a gigantic ape wanders into Adventure Bay.

First released in 1995, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie has been passed around as if it were a movie in the public domain that suddenly got hot. The brand name, alone, has been monetized to the point where you’d think the law of diminishing returns would have kicked in years before the new Blu-ray release. Still, the franchise keeps bouncing around the world, in search of audiences that weren’t born when the last re-release was launched. In the U.S., it’s carried the fingerprints of several different units of Twentieth Century Fox (now Disney-21st Fox), Saban Entertainment and Toei Company. Twenty-four years after the show’s boom times, Shout! Factory has picked up distribution rights. It’s been presented theatrically, in VHS, on cable and broadcast television, on DVD and, finally, on Blu-ray. In it, a giant egg is unearthed at a construction site. When opened, it releases the terrible Ivan Ooze. who wreaks vengeance on Zordon — an inter-dimensional being and the ultimate fighter for good — for imprisoning him six millennia ago. He is the leader of most of the Power Ranger teams. As always, the live-action heroes skydive, skateboard and engage in hand-to-hand combat, after morphing into their color-coded Power Ranger alter egos. Here, they fight giant metallic monsters and a villain who smirks like Freddy Krueger and leaves gobs of purple goo in his wake. With Zordon dying and their powers lost, the Rangers head to a distant planet to find the mystic warrior, Dulcea. The Blu-ray includes, “The Mighty Leap to the Silver Screen,” a new 44-minute documentary that covers the script’s origins, casting, the Australian locations, Ivan Ooze’s makeup, stunts, the Rangers’ armored suits, reception at the movie’s premiere and interviews with director Bryan Spicer, stars Jason David Frank, Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Cardenas, Karan Ashley, Paul Freeman, Jason Narvy and some of the stunt performers; and the original 4½-minute promotional featurette.

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

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

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.

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

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: What Men Want, Blaze, Banjos, Bauhaus, Scientology, Lily Chou-Chou, Glass, Grand Duel, George Carlin, Agatha Raison … More

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

What Men Want: Blu-ray
Not surprisingly, Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) is the best reason to pick up a copy of What Men Want, Adam Shankman’s re-imaging of Nancy Meyers’ hit comedy, What Women Want (2000). Tracy Morgan’s always fun to watch, but his character is only partially developed. In the original, Mel Gibson plays a chauvinistic advertising executive, whose life is turned around by a fluke accident that enables him to hear what women think. At first, all he wants to do is rid himself of this curse, which his psychiatrist convinces him can be used to his advantage. His primary target is the woman (Helen Hunt) that got the promotion he wanted. Naturally, love gets in the way of any plans for revenge. Henson’s Ali Davis is a successful sports agent for an Atlanta firm whose focus is on early first-round draft choices and male and female athletes with championship rings. The daughter of a boxer (Richard Roundtree), who named her after a great champion, Ali expects to be handed the promotion that goes to a white agent, whose head is stuck up the ass of their boss (Brian Bosworth). Her BFFs recommend that Ali visit their local pot-dealer/psychic – nuttily played by Erykah Badu – who gives her a liquid concoction that accords her the same powers that Gibson’s character gained in What Women Want. If the insights aren’t nearly as funny as those he gleaned in the original, it’s because Ali’s male co-workers are constructed from cardboard and the story’s romantic angle makes her look like as if she’s trying to squeeze up her boss’ butt, alongside her rival.

Her boyfriend, Will (Aldis Hodge), is a handsome bartender and single dad who’s too good to be true. Unwisely, if true to her character’s overly ambitious nature, Ali devises a way to use Will and his adorable son to impress a potential blue-chip client (Shane Paul McGhie) and his lame-brain manager, Joe “Dolla” Barry (Morgan). When Will discovers how he’s being played, Ali suddenly is left without a potential husband and a valuable client. She also loses the confidence of her friends (Tamala Jones, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Phoebe Robinson), when she gleans private information on their husbands and boyfriends and decides to reveal it at inappropriate times. As What Men Want winds down to its most-likely conclusion, the subplots crash into each other in ways that Meyers typically handled in a better way. Even so, cameos by sports stars Lisa Leslie, Devonta Freeman, Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, Kristen Ledlow and Grant Hill keep things interesting for a while, while co-stars Josh Brener (The Internship) and an uncredited Pete Davidson (“SNL”) add a light, gay touch to the proceedings, thereby touching all of the bases of modern rom-coms. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Shankman; deleted and extended scenes, as well as a gag reel, with an introduction by Shankman; and featurettes, “The Dream Team,” “Flipping the Narrative,” “What DO Men Want?,” “Poker Night,” “Ali + Athletes” and “Sister Spills the Tea,” with Badu.

Blaze: Blu-ray
In 1981, less than a year after Urban Country introduced line-dancing and mechanical-bull riding to a milieu already filling up with trend-followers and goat ropers, Barbara Mandrell recorded the Fleming/Morgan answer-song, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” The song, which featured an uncredited contribution by George Jones, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in July of that year. Blaze Foley, the real-life subject of Ethan Hawkes’ unconventional musical drama, Blaze, mocked the craze by placing duct tape on the part of his cowboy boots that urban cowpokes and some Nashville stars reserved for pointy silver tips. That included the boot-scooters who made Gilley’s massive nightclub, in Pasadena, Texas, one of the nation’s hottest tourist attractions. Later, perhaps in response to the run on Nudie’s custom-made apparel, Foley made a suit out of duct tape and wore it around town. It became his trademark. At his funeral, on February 1, 1989, friends of the troubled 39-year-old singer-songwriter coated his casket with duct tape. He had died after being shot in the chest by the son of Foley’s friend, Concho January, after Blaze accused him of stealing his father’s veterans’ pension and welfare checks. If that isn’t sufficiently country for you, Townes Van Zandt once recalled how he and other musicians went to Foley’s grave to dig up his body, because the pawn ticket for Townes’s guitar was still in his pocket. (Friends also considered digging up his body and duct-taping it to a wall in a club, where a benefit concert was being held.)

There’s no way anyone could mistake John Travolta or, for that matter, John Denver, for Foley. He was a mountain of a man, fully bearded, and unadorned by the usual conceits of country musicians. He was aligned with the Austin/Dallas school of Outlaw country artists, like Van Zandt, who’d been heavily influenced by Waylon Jennings’ album, “Honky Tonk Heroes”; Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger”; Kris Kristofferson’s  first two LPs on Monument Records; and Shaver’s own. “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” (Anyone inspired by Blaze and the Austin scene should check out Heartworn Highways, Heartworn Highways Revisited and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt.) Not knowing Foley’s story or being unfamiliar with his songs shouldn’t embarrass anyone, especially fans of mainstream country. Even though he recorded three albums, at least, none was released in his lifetime. Master tapes from his first studio album were confiscated by the DEA, after the executive producer was caught in a drug bust. Another studio album disappeared when the master copies were stolen with his belongings from a station wagon in which Foley was living. The master tape for Foley’s third studio album fell victim to posthumous legal wrangling and, yes, disappeared. Fortunately, his songs have been recorded by John Prine (“Clay Pigeons”), Merle Haggard (“If I Could Only Fly”) and Lyle Lovett (“Election Day”), and such contemporaries as Lucinda Williams, Van Zandt and Gurf Morlix have written odes to him in “Drunken Angel,” “Blaze’s Blues” and “Music You Mighta Made.” Country rockers Kings of Leon wrote the song “Reverend” as an homage to Foley.

Alia Shawkat (“Transparent”) is terrific as Sybil Rosen, whose memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” informed Hawke and Rosen’s screenplay. (Rosen appears in the movie as her own mother, who couldn’t quite fathom the eccentric musician’s appeal.) After serving as Foley’s companion, wife and muse, Rosen decided he was a lost cause and moved away to pursue her own artistic goals.) Portrayals of women attempting to live with alcoholic husbands, or struggling to save drug-addicted lovers from themselves, have become a staple of bio-pics on country, rock and jazz musicians. Hawke has filled Blaze with music indicative of his dark moods, bad habits, faded loves and life on the road. It’s as good as advertised. Musician/actor Ben Dickey (The Kid) delivers a restrained, yet highly sympathetic portrayal of Foley, who wasn’t always easy to love. Also excellent is musician/actor Charlie Sexton (Boyhood), who plays Van Zandt in various stages of disrepair.

Banjos, Bluegrass and Squirrel Barkers
Hardly anyone associates San Diego with bluegrass or, for that matter, any other particular genre of music. Mariachi’s popular there, but only because of its proximity to the border. That’s why Rick Bowman’s hourlong documentary, Banjos, Bluegrass and Squirrel Barkers, is such an unexpected treat. More influenced by the Kingston Trio than Flatt & Scruggs, the San Diego-based pickers we meet in the film learned their licks off records newly available in the folk-revival period and at hootenannies. Psychedelic rock was just taking off in Los Angeles and San Francisco — Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions would evolve into the Grateful Dead – and surf music was at its height, as well. In 1962, members of the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers found loyal followers in San Diego’s military melting pot, as well as veterans of the Okies’ migration west, during the Dust Bowl period. The selling point of the documentary, however, is knowing that the Squirrels provided an early launching pad for Chris Hillman (The Byrds), Bernie Leadon (The Eagles), Kenny Wertz (The Flying Burrito Bros.) and Larry Murray (“The Johnny Cash Show”) and Grammy-winning band, Nickel Creek. Mason Williams, who would later write and record the hit song, “Classical Gas,” and singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton, also hung out a local guitar shop. San Diego would provide an early home for the country-rock subgenre, which emerged from the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” featuring Graham Parsons. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the city is the longtime home of Greg and Janet Deering, whose Deering Banjos “has delivered the finest hand-built American instruments to over 100,000 happy musicians and counting … one banjo at a time.” The interviews here are folksy, informative and fun. (Apparently, Bowman’s next project is, “The Holstein Dilemma: Heritage Breed Animals and the Need for Biodiversity.”)

My Scientology Movie
If there’s a subject that causes more American eyes to close than the Kardashians, Trumps and British royals, it would have to be Scientology. The media spends more time obsessing over these three topics than covering global warming, the health-care crisis and the country’s deteriorating infrastructure. News outlets have convinced themselves that Americans are too stupid to understand complex issues, so they feed us more of what they think we want, in addition to commercials for processed foods, cosmetics and diet drinks. Organized religions always warrant close scrutiny, but, unless celebrities are involved, why bother? Tom Cruise gets plenty of screen time in Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and, as usual, he looks ridiculous in the company of the faith’s hierarchical leaders. Still, it’s difficult to condemn anyone who believes so earnestly in something whose appeal has never been completely articulated. From the outside, Scientology is best described as a religious Ponzi scheme, which preys on its own members and contradicts or ignores most tenets espoused in the bible, Koran and Talmud. Without the celebrities, it wouldn’t exist. As I understand it, Scientology’s greatest crime is using extortion and intimidation to prevent members – those who’ve provided a steady revenue flow, anyway – from leaving the fold or asking their spouses to come with them. It’s then that the church’s intimidation tactics and interaction with outsiders turns ferocious and its lawyers earn their fees. Beyond that, Scientology has had zero impact on my life.

My Scientology Movie was completed almost simultaneously with Alex Gibney’s incisive “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” and the launch of A&E’s “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” Both have provided closer inspections of church machinery than Leroux’s only occasionally revelatory doc. Theroux has a better reputation in the UK than here, for his work as a documentary filmmaker, investigative journalist and broadcaster. In “Weird Weekends” (1998–2000), Theroux covered marginal, mostly American subcultures — survivalists, black nationalists, white supremacists, porn — often by living among or close to participants. His feature-length specials for BBC Two covered such topics as gambling addiction, the notoriously hateful Westboro Baptist Church, American prisons and facilities for the criminally insane, Michael Jackson and extreme cosmetic surgery. Even though I haven’t seen any of them, I can’t imagine that Theroux had a more difficult time producing them than he experienced on My Scientology Movie. For some reason, Theroux’s producers anticipated a warmer reception from church leaders than was accorded the dozens of other journalists who hoped to crack its egg. He failed, as well, but elected to find another route to the something close to the truth. Among other things, Theroux hoped to address questions raised by the alleged physical attacks perpetrated by Grand Poohbah David Miscavige, even on his most trusted lieutenants. He might also have wanted to grill Miscavige on Scientology’s sweetheart deals with the IRS, which even managed to raise President Trump’s eyebrows, before he forgot to pursue the matter. Theroux could have focused on the Ponzi scheme, itself, which allows acolytes to profit from every dollar brought by new members, in the form of fees for tests and “educational” products.

Instead, he’s reduced to staging meetings and tantrums witnessed by high-level defectors and recording the verbal harassment he receives from street-level defenders of the faith when he closes in on church outposts. He also attempts to enter a Scientology studio, located in the high desert, where the church’s cornball propaganda is produced. After about an hour of such futile nonsense, John Dower’s 99-minute documentary hits a wall. Some viewers will chose other avenues, as well, including watching the scathing “South Park” episode, “Trapped in the Closet,” in which a Cruise lookalike comes to believe that Stan is the reincarnation of the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. The episode also mocked Cruise’s acting abilities and insinuated that he was gay. When Cruise bullied Paramount into pulling repeat showings from the schedule, South Park Nation rallied to get the studio to rescind that decision. What do they say about there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Theroux reminds me of CBS News’ too-clever-by-half correspondent, Mo Rocca, physically and their approach to similarly offbeat subject matter.

Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus
Several decades ago, humorist/musician/painter Martin Mull observed, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It has since been repeated so often that few people remember who uttered it first and what it means. The original title for Willard Carroll’s Playing by Heart (1998) was “Dancing About Architecture,” as was a short-lived Australian talk show and Jacob Potashnik’s musical/dance exploration of the principles behind Habitat ’67, architect Moishe Safdie’s model community built as part of Montreal’s Expo ’67. Niels Bolbrinker and Thomas Tielsch’s enlightening documentary, Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus, contains much celebratory and explanatory dancing about architecture. Literally and figuratively, it is employed to explore concepts advanced by the Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. The German art institution, which operated from 1919 to 1933. Tbe movement combined crafts and the fine arts to create architecture, communities, furniture, gadgets and objects that were, at once, beautiful and functional. Not surprisingly, the incoming Nazi leadership frowned upon such concepts and made things difficult for Bauhaus students and faculty. Before that happened, however, Gropius recruited such luminaries as Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, Otto Bartning and Wassily Kandinsky. As much as Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus looks back at the school’s historical significance and the work of its disciples, the film also looks forward, by providing answers for overcrowding in cities and the improvement of life for their citizens. The creation and implementation of “tiny houses” is an idea whose time has certainly come. The deployment of modular units, vertically or horizontally, also makes more sense today than ever. The irony derives from the fact that anything carrying a Bauhaus designer’s pedigree is likely to become prohibitively expensive, as soon as they’re put up for sale. The same thing happened with Montreal’s Habitat ’67 development, which was designed for economical living, but quickly became unaffordable. This, even though from certain angles, the still vital community could be mistaken for a hillside shantytown or favela. It’s still an answer waiting for a question.

Never Ever
Directed by Palme d’Or-nominated French director Benoît Jacquot (The School of Flesh) and co-starring Un Certain Regard winner Mathieu Amalric (Barbara), the fantasy/drama Never Ever barely raised a ripple of excitement when it was released three years ago, in European and Asian markets. It isn’t difficult to understand why the film – loosely based on the Don DeLillo novella,  “The Body Artist” – didn’t find any traction here. The story’s supernatural underpinnings allow for too many real-life questions to go unanswered and the lithesome Julia Roy – she also adapted the screenplay — lacks the heft of a young Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert or Isild Le Besco.  This is especially apparent when her performance-artist character, Laura, loses her much older lover – the self-centered filmmaker, Jacques Rey — and she’s left in a black hole of grief.

Amalric plays the director, who, during a museum retrospective of his films, wandered into an adjoining gallery, where he becomes mesmerized by Laura’s winsome beauty and fluid movements. Although Jacques arrived at the screening with his longtime leading lady and lover, Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), he’ll leave with Laura sitting on the back of his gender-affirming motorcycle. In DeLillo’s book, the director is 64 and his wife, Lauren, is only described as much younger. Amalric is 53 and Laura doesn’t look a day over 19 or 20 years old, so there’s no mystery as to what her initial appeal is to him. At first, Laura probably sees in the more accomplished director someone able to mentor her artistically and introduce her to all the right people. Instead, she immediately begins playing house with her venerable mentor, washing dishes and making sandwiches. The house is in a lovely oceanside setting, where there’s no pressure on her to hone her art. In Never Ever (a.k.a., “À jamais”), only three months pass before a terrible traffic accident takes the careless motorcyclist out of the picture early. Or, does it?

Obviously distraught, Laura doesn’t feel any immediate pressure to leave the leased house. Instead, she begins to hear noises that indicate to viewers, anyway, that the attic is either occupied by noisy raccoons or is haunted by a clumsy poltergeist. In the novella, Lauren’s fantasies involve entirely new characters, whose interference in her life dredges up memories of Jacques and prompts her to renew her career. In order to facilitate a more saleable romantic fantasy – think Ghost, without the clay – Never Again brings Jacques back from the dead, making us wonder if Laura has completely lost her mind or some ghosts are more resilient than others. Frankly, it feels as if Jacquot lost interest in the movie after Jacques is killed, deciding to feature Roy in an early showcase role. Francophiles will want to check out Never Ever, if only to observe Jacquot’s latest work and a bright young actress who’ll likely appear in better movies. I probably would encourage her to stick with acting and leave the adapting of intricately plotted novels to others … for the time being, at least.

All About Lily Chou-Chou: Blu-ray
For many years, western audiences viewed Japanese students and other young people through a prism that makes them look as regimented, rule-abiding and colorless as many American parents would like their own kids to be. In the 1960s, depictions of Japanese juvenile delinquents, greasers and gangs frequently incorporated such American tropes and clichés as tight jeans, motorcycle boots, wild hairdos and rockabilly music, with lyrics that rarely made any sense in translation. The bad girls wore fashions adopted from movies exported from the U.S., with poodle skirts and bobby sox. The trend didn’t last long, but, somehow, you knew that the characters would soon graduate to jobs with the yakuza or as B-girls, overserving the GIs and other rubes who stumbled into bars run by the yakuza. In the 1990s, teens were used as fodder for ghosts, ghouls and other malevolent spirits. In Takashi Miike’s Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), the son of a yakuza lieutenant witnesses his father killing his older brother to settle a business debt. Otherwise a model student, Fudoh vows to create a new and powerful gang controlled by talented teenagers and small children, who murder one old boss after another in creative ways. In Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial bloodfest, Battle Royale, groups of rebellious ninth-graders are forced by a government edict to compete in a deadly battle for survival on an island that is considered to be escape-proof. The annual Battle Royale, which may have inspired The Hunger Games (2012), pits students against each other in a no-holds-barred game to the death, until one survives the ordeal or all are dead.

In 2002, All About Lily Chou-Chou took on a problem – bullying – that wouldn’t be given a proper airing in western movies and television shows for several more years. The Internet angle made the subject sexy. Shunji Iwai’s film stands out for effectively combining experimental and arthouse conceits, with early attempts to merge Internet iconography and social-media graphics into the narrative. The story revolves around a pair of incoming junior-high boys, Yuichi and Hoshino, who meet in the school’s kendo club, which serves as a sanctuary for kids attempting to escape the usual classroom mayhem. They become close friends, with Hoshino proving kind and very communicative, in contrast to the timid, introverted Yuichi. On a summer trip to Okinawa, Hoshino experiences a near-death experience that affects him in an unexpected way. Starting next term, he becomes a harsh manipulator of everyone around him, including Yuichi, and even prostituting a classmate, Shiori. None of the adults wants to admit that they’ve lost control of their students and children, but the bullies know what’s up. Yuichi’s only solace is pop star Lily Chou Chou and the fan site he’s dedicated to her New Age-y music. Although Chou Chou’s a fictional and never-seen character, her ethereal songs appear to soothe the wounds of alienated students. As sung by Salyu and composed by Takeshi Kobayashi, the music might remind some viewers of Bjork, Sarah McLachlan, Kate Bush and other Lilith Fair veterans. At an exhaustive 146 nonlinear minutes, All About Lily Chou-Chou allowed Iwai plenty of time to address other issues affecting contemporary Japanese society, such as JK Business (dating and sexting between horny older men and adolescent girls, who are paid for their services), liberal interpretations of rape and assault, abuses of social media and idol worship. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and essay by Stephen Cremin, New York Asian Film Festival. Aiwa’s earlier success include the animated, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1995) and Ghost Soup (1992), and live-action Love Letter (1995) and Swallowtail Butterfly (1996).

Glass: The Brivido Giallo Trilogy: Blu-ray
Last month, I introduced readers to Vince D’Amato’s “Brivido Giallo Trilogy,” which he created to update the venerable Italian genre, by adding more sex, violence and micro-mini skirts than censors would have allowed in the 1960-70s. Or, for that matter, the mid-1980s horror anthology mini-series, “Brivido Giallo,” directed by the Italian master of horror, Lamberto Bava. Unfortunately, D’Amato’s contributions to the form are short on story, but long on psycho-sexual violence and leggy actresses … which, as far as I know, isn’t a crime, yet. Glass tells the tale of a well-off young couple, Mike and Zarana (Casey Manderson, Tirra Dent), who decide to cut themselves off from social media and stay put in their glass-walled apartment overlooking Vancouver. After she witnesses her neighbor’s murder through a mail slot, Zarana is consumed by paranoia and terrible nightmares. Soon, she finds herself relentlessly stalked by the enigmatic killer. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short films and music videos, as well as “Yoga With Tirra.”

The Grand Duel: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When asked by Spaghetti.Western.com to name his top-20 SW titles of all time, Quentin Tarantino came up with a list that includes a half-dozen movies that everyone who enjoys Westerns already loves and a dozen, or so, only obsessives would recognize. The request coincided with the release of the maestro’s Django Unchained (2012), which clearly was influenced by Sergio Corbucci‘s The Great Silence (1968) and Django (1966), and Giulio Petroni‘s Death Rides a Horse (1972). The latter film starred genre stalwart Lee Van Cleef, as does Giancarlo Santi‘s The Grand Duel (1972), the latest addition to Arrow Video’s Spaghetti Western Corral. It came in at No. 15 on Tarantino’s list. Apart from being made at the tail end of the genre’s reign, The Grand Duel is an archetypal example of the form, featuring such classic hallmarks as furiously staged shootouts, wild stunts and climactic showdowns. Van Cleef plays the gnarled ex-sheriff, Clayton, who comes to the aid of young Philip Vermeer (Alberto Dentice), a fugitive framed for the murder of “Patriarch” Samuel Saxon (Horst Frank). In a well-choreographed series of confrontations, Clayton helps Philip fend off attacks from bounty hunters. Before making their way to Jefferson for Vermeer’s date with destiny, they’ll also be required to deal with the revenge-minded Saxon brothers and clear up the question of who killed their old man. The complex tale of revenge was penned by prolific giallo writer Ernesto Gastaldi (Torso). The portentous score is by composer Luis Bacalov (Django). Much of The Grand Duel was shot in Uliveto Terme, near Pisa, in what appears to be a marble quarry. The new 2K restoration is from the original 35mm camera negative. It adds commentary by film critic, historian and theorist Stephen Prince; fresh interviews with Santi, Gastaldi, actor Alberto Dentice (a.k.a., Peter O’Brien), producer Ettore Rosboch and assistant director Harald Buggenig; a fresh video appreciation by the academic Austin Fisher; a comparison between the original cut and the longer German cut; an obscure sci-fi short film directed in 1984 by Bernard Villiot and starring Marc Mazza; marketing material; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Kevin Grant and original reviews.

Bachman: Blu-ray
In Mark 10:25, Jesus told his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” I wouldn’t know. Two millennia later, it can be argued that it will be easier for Jann Wenner to pass through the eye of a needle than for another Canadian rock band to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering the inclusion of Rush, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Band, Leonard Cohen and individual members of U.S.-based bands, Hall of Fame officials would argue against such an assertion. Fans of the Guess Who/Bachman Turner Overdrive, Steppenwolf and Paul Anka could point to Getty Lee and Rush’s 2013 induction as the exception that proves the rule. Their nearly 30-year wait for satisfaction shows no sign of ending any time soon. In the meantime, acts with fewer credentials have been clouted into the hall by their record labels and the pull of influential board members, including Wenner. Indeed, individual members of important bands have been repeatedly awarded for separate projects, presumably to ensure higher ratings for the televised ceremony.

John Barnard’s entertaining 2017 rockumentary, Bachman, makes a very good case for Randy Bachman’s induction, individually or as a founder of two exceedingly influential and commercially successful bands, the Guess Who and Bachman–Turner Overdrive, and he’s still rocking. But, don’t take my word for it. Listen to testimonials Neil Young, Paul Shaffer, Peter Frampton, Alex Lifeson (Rush), Buffy Sainte-Marie and Sam Roberts, none of whom sound as if they’re pimping for Bachman’s nomination. Speaking for themselves are such hits as “American Woman,” “These Eyes” and “Laughing,” with the Guess Who, and “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Roll on Down the Highway,” with BTO. Interviews with family members, friends and fellow rockers paint a portrait of a musician, who, while surviving many winters in Winnipeg, followed a route to stardom not unlike the paths walked by countless other artists. The exception is his early dedication to Mormonism and a commitment to sobriety and traditional family values. It’s something, as Young points outs, that was anathema to rock musicians in the 1960-70s. The low-key doc also points out Bachman’s commitment to excellence, hard work and history, through the instruments he’s chosen to use and save. Bachman adds extended interviews and deleted footage.

TV-to-DVD
George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy
Arrow: Agatha Raisin: Series Two
PBS: Sesame Street: Awesome Alphabet Collection
Enough time has passed since George Carlin died of cardiac arrest, at 71, for nearly an entire generation of young people to have forgotten why he’s still worshipped, alongside Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, as one of the greatest comedians of all time. It came in 2008, 48 years after he and fellow comic Jack Burns moved to Los Angeles, from Fort Worth, to pursue a career in comedy. The act only last about two years, but Carlin’s ability to create wacky characters — Al Sleet, the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman, and the doofus disc jockeys at “wonderful WINO radio,” among them – impressed bookers for late-night talk shows, variety specials and nightclubs. It was a different world then for comedians, as evidenced by his being detained for questioning on one of the nights Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity. Carlin simply was an audience member, but his lack of a government-issued ID was deemed sufficiently subversive to transport him to jail with Bruce in the same vehicle. A historic moment, indeed. On July 21, 1972, Carlin was arrested after performing “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, and charged with violating obscenity laws. Not only were the charges dropped, freeing countless comics and deejays from self-censorship, but the routine sent Carlin’s already soaring career into show-biz orbit. In between those landmark events, Carlin stopped wearing a coat-and-tie while performing and let his beard and hair grow, a la mode. If he lost some older fans along the way, the casual look endeared him to another generation of listeners, viewers and club-goers. His frequent ingestions of cocaine probably contributed to the heart problems he experienced during a five-year layoff in the late 1970s. His longtime relationship with fledging HBO began in 1982.  His 10th showcase, “George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy,” debuted there in 1997. The 50-minute special contains a 27-minute stand-up performance – including new bits,  “Advertising,” “Pets” and “American Bullshit” — a retrospective celebrating Carlin’s career and an interview with the host Jon Stewart. Short, but sweet, it showcased his ability to explain America to Americans, and the English language to consumers bombarded by the exaggerations and outright lies fed to them in commercials and advertising. It also provided a forum for his political activism, social views, boyhood recollections and history with drugs. The comedian’s 10th special for the pay-cable network was broadcast live from the Wheeler Theater in Aspen, Colorado. Another hour of material could have been gleaned from his acting in movies and television shows.

I suspect that many fans of Acorn TV’s “Agatha Raison” fell in with it for the same reason as the title character, a big-city PR executive, moved to the pastoral Cotswolds countryside, in the first place. She wanted to escape the crime, violence and mayhem associated with urban life, as much as viewers want to escape the same things on prime-time television. The mini-series is set in the fictional village of Carsely and shot in Biddestone, Wiltshire, a region that attracts tens of thousands of tourists for its natural beauty and quaint architecture. Until Raison’s arrival, Carsely had yet to experience a murder. “Après Agatha, le deluge.” In the pilot episode, “Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death,” the retirement-minded newcomer was forced to embark on an alternative career when she becomes a suspect in a murder case involving the village’s Annual Fete and Quiche Baking Competition. The fortysomething Agatha is played with great relish by the veteran comic actress, Ashley Jensen (“Ugly Betty”), who’s nothing like Agatha Christie’s protagonists. Raison’s famously blond hair figures in the first 90-minute episode in the second-season package, when her new stylist is found dead and her hair is “poisoned.” She suspects the arrogant stylist is blackmailing clients with their darkest secrets. There are two more episodes and a making-of featurette.

PBS’ “Sesame Street” has always used individual letters and numbers to facilitate its audience’s transition from pre-school, to real school and beyond. “Awesome Alphabet Collection” features such classics as “The Beetles Perform Letter B” and “C is for Cookie,” plus animation, parodies and the best segments from recent seasons. Celebrating the alphabet alongside their furry friends are Norah Jones, duetting with the letter Y; Tori Kelly, trying a little kindness; Pharrell Williams, belting it out for the letter B; Maya Angelou stops by to share hugs; Sheryl Crow helps “I” soak up some sun; and Ricky Gervais attempts a lullaby. “Elmo’s Amazing Alphabet Race” is included as a bonus feature.

The DVD Wrapup: Jackie Chan, Dragged Across Concrete, Miyazaki, Khrustalyov, Tarantula!, Bigger, Wire in Blood, Finding Joy

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

Police Story/Police Story 2: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Finding Jackie Chan’s name and likeness on the cover of a Criterion Collection double-feature may seem like an improbable discovery, but the pairing of Police Story and Police Story 2 doesn’t mark his first appearance on the prestigious label. That came three years ago, in Criterion’s 4K digital restoration of King Hu’s wushu classic, A Touch of Zen (1971), in which Chan delivered an uncredited performance. (As well, Hu’s splendid Dragon Inn was released last summer by Criterion, a label known more for Japanese samurai titles, than Hong Kong kung fu.) Barely out of his teens and still acting under several different pseudonyms, Chan would play bit parts and perform stunts alongside Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). His brief association with Lee resulted in movies with such Anglicized titles as Bruce Lee and I (1973), New Fist of Fury (1976) and the Bruce Li-vehicle, Bruce and Shao-lin Kung Fu 2 (1978). Chan’s big-screen breakthrough also came in 1978, albeit as Lung Cheng, in Yuen Woo-ping’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, as Jacky Chan. For the first time, the producers allowed the cocksure actor complete freedom over his stunt work, which was becoming increasingly injurious to his health. Performing under the now-familiar moniker, Jackie Chan, he was encouraged by a string of box-office successes to test western waters in Robert Clouse’s English-language, U.S.-shot Battle Creek Brawl (1980) – a.k.a., The Big Brawl — and Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (1981), neither of which provided much room for Chan’s brand of comic kung-fu. After disappointing returns for Cannonball Run II (1984) and The Protector (1985), he returned to Hong Kong, where he quickly began resetting box-office records and establishing critical acclaim.

Police Story (1986) was a huge hit in Asian markets, where audiences were more attuned to Chan’s trademark blend of action, comedy and sentimentality. It took another decade, at least, for American critics to recognize the genius it took to create such monumental set pieces as the opening chase, which ended with the destruction of a hillside shantytown. Chan plays Hong Kong police Inspector Chan Ka-Kui (a.k.a., Kevin Chan), who, after arresting drug kingpin Chu Tao (Chor Yuen), is assigned to protect Chu’s secretary and government witness, Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin). When the well-connected gangster is released on bail, he vows revenge against Ka-Kui, by framing him for the murder of a fellow police inspector. Meanwhile, Selina, realizing Chu’s criminality, goes to his office at a shopping mall to download incriminating data from Chu’s computer system. It sets up a fight, in which Ka-Kui defeats all of Chu’s henchmen and police apprehend the boss’ briefcase, which contains damaging data. Maggie Cheung. Ka-Kui’s much-put-upon girlfriend, May, won audiences’ hearts, as well.

In 1988, Police Story 2 overcame most of the obstacles that commonly upend action sequels. Most of the characters from the original were called upon to reprise their roles. Critical of the handling of his previous case – including the violent arrest of Chu and heavy property damage – his bosses have demoted Ka-Kui to highway-patrol duty. If attention-starved May is glad that her boyfriend is no longer taking difficult cases and has more time to see her, audiences already know that the downtime isn’t likely to last very long. Having convinced prison authorities that he’s terminally ill, Chu demands of his henchmen, John Ko (Charlie Cho), that he make life difficult for Ka-Kui and, if necessary, his family. It also results in the cop taking out his anger on Ko and his men in a restaurant; the near-calamitous bombing of the shopping mall; May’s kidnapping; and the introduction of an unhinged antagonist, Gabby (Benny Lai), who, despite being an undersized deaf-mute, is a fierce martial artist and explosives expert. Their skirmishes are almost worth the price of a purchase, alone. The bonus package includes the Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2, presented in a high-definition digital transfer for the first time; new pieces on Chan’s screen persona and action-filmmaking techniques, featuring author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix; archival interviews with Chan and actor/stuntman Lai; a 1964 featurette, detailing the rigors of training for a career in the Peking opera, which was Chan’s ambition as a child; a stunt reel; and an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton. In one of them, Chan pays homage to the great silent comedian, Buster Keaton, whose inventiveness is reflected in several Police Story stunts, just as Chan’s work has been mimicked in movies ever since then.

Dragged Across Concrete: Blu-ray
At a none-too-brisk 159 minutes, S. Craig Zahler’s intricately conceived crime story could never have competed with more concise thrillers for space in theaters. Those of us who no longer limit our entertainment choices to what’s playing at the local megaplex aren’t nearly as particular, though, especially when the straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray/PPV menu offers movies starring actors whose salad days have begun to wilt. In addition to the presence of a still-marketable Mel Gibson, Dragged Across Concrete features members of Zahler’s familiar repertory company: Vince Vaughn (Swingers), Don Johnson (“Miami Vice”), Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein), Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”) and Fred Melamed (A Serious Man). Of these, however, only Vaughn and Carpenter are accorded more than a few minutes of screen time. A terrific supporting cast of up-and-coming, mostly TV-based actors otherwise carries the load. Most of the viewers’ time is spent watching soiled cops Ridgeman and Lurasetti (Gibson, Vaughn) stake out suspects and crime scenes, while exchanging hard-boiled dialogue that falls well short of rivaling that provided by Ben Hecht and Elmore Leonard. Zahler’s script demands of Ridgeman and Lurasetti that they place odds on their every strategic movie, and some that aren’t remotely strategic. The gimmick is amusing for an hour, or so, but the arbitrariness of the numbers grows tiresome after that point.

After the cops were suspended for applying excessive force on a man suspected of pushing heroin in a school zone — or, so the arrest appeared on the television news, when captured by an engaged citizen – they’re unable to finance Lurasetti’s choice of an engagement ring for his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones) and a demand by Ridgeman’s wife (Laurie Holden) to move their family to safer environs. When Ridgeman is informed of a big heist already in the planning stage, he convinces his younger partner to join the party. Even when they sniff out the details of the robbery, the cops remain in the dark as to the crooks’ goals and the ruthlessness they’re willing to invest in the job’s success. The audience is given a hint – a stone-cold killer, committing petty crimes — but it makes virtually no sense. Neither is the hiring of small-timers Tory Kittles (“True Detective”) and Michael Jai White (“Arrow”) to drive the armored-car arranged for by the mastermind, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). He also is the crook who decides to abduct and hold bank employee Kelly Summer (Carpenter) as a wild-card hostage.

For no good reason, she’s been hesitant to return to work after taking her family-leave benefit, while her unemployable husband stays home with the baby. As Dragged Across Concrete reaches its climactic finale, Kelly’s sacrifice seems unnecessarily cruel. Those qualifiers aside, it isn’t likely that Gibson and Vaughn’s fans will be disappointed or terribly critical of Dragged Across Concrete, even if they feel the need to insert an intermission near its midpoint. In only his third directorial effort, Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99) isn’t afraid to make bold editorial decisions or free his actors to interpret their characters in their own way. The production values are solid, and the tension builds throughout the picture. If only he’d learned to yell, “cut,” more often than he did here. The Blu-ray includes “Elements of a Crime,” a three-part making-of documentary, and the featurette, “Moral Conflict: Creating Cinema that Challenges.”

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki: Blu-ray
In 2013, 72-year-old Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki caused a great uproar in the animation community – in Japan and abroad – by unexpectedly announcing his retirement. Having already reached and surpassed every milestone a filmmaker can achieve as an animator, storyteller, writer, director and manga artist, Miyazaki said he was abandoning the production of feature films, due to his age, declining health and to concentrate on displays at the Studio Ghibli Museum, in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka. Still, even as a self-described “retired geezer and pensioner,” Miyazaki couldn’t sit still for long. It is evidenced in Kaku Arakawa’s tightly focused documentary, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, first shown on Japanese television in November 13, 2016, and finally released here last December 14.  If all outward indications suggest that Miyazaki is some kind of Zen master, whose wisdom guided his artists’ pursuit of greatness, the truth is that he was a stern taskmaster and obsessive creative force. It made him a heart attack waiting to happen. His impatience with people interfering with time devoted to his work is evidenced here in cranky asides aimed toward Arakawa’s team and a group of young animators trying to sell the old-school artist on CGI technology. “Never-Ending Man” doesn’t spend a lot of time retracing Miyazaki’s personal history, discussing his occasionally controversial political views or reviewing such past successes as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises (2013). The film crew did, however, spend a lot of time at home with Miyazaki, chatting, cooking, watching him draw his sengoku-era samurai manga and begin production on the 14-minute “Boro the Caterpillar,” now showing at the museum. Anyone planning a trip to Mitaka is advised to make reservations for the museum and theater well in advance of their arrival.

Khrustalyov, My Car! Special Edition: Blu-ray
In an extended interview included in Arrow Academy’s special edition of Khrustalyov, My Car!, co-writer/director Aleksei German maintains that only a native-born Russian artist can translate what’s happened in the former Soviet state since the revolution and keeps recurring today. Outsiders, even those once aligned with Moscow in war and peace, are bound to get it wrong. Based on the evidence provided by Khrustalyov, My Car and other great Russian films newly available in DVD/Blu-ray, he’s probably right. Joseph Stalin forced his people to live under a veil of enforced secrecy and never-ending purges that only spared ass-kissers and thugs willing to enforce his paranoiac urges. After the Great Patriotic War was won and the possibility of freedom arose among returning Red Army soldiers, Stalin declared war on his own people. He had good reason to fear the encroachment of powerful anti-communist forces from the west and propaganda designed to promote the worship of material goods and free-market philosophies. Instead, he tempered the aspirations of Soviet citizens by manipulating the output of farms and factories and convincing his diehard admirers that the country would collapse without him. Finally, just before his death in 1953, Stalin finally got around to implementing plans of his own for sequestering Jewish intellectuals, skilled professionals and politicians. He especially feared their disloyalty to his hand-picked apparatchiks, the creation of an Israel aligned with the U.S. and the influence of American Jews on relatives still living in the USSR. These weren’t the only targets of Stalin’s hostility, however. The gulags and labor camps, once home to millions of German POWs, were quickly being refilled with perceived enemies of the Soviet people and those deemed susceptible to western influence.

Khrustalyov, My Car is set in the first still-frigid days of the spring of 1953, as Stalin’s anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot” raged in Moscow and, at his Kuntsevo Dacha, the dictator’s 74-year-old body was ready to give up his ghost. (At the time, there were as many suppressed conspiracy theories about his death as JFK’s assassination would spawn, only a decade later.) The film’s central character is military surgeon General Yuri Georgievich Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), a larger-than-life Jewish war hero who’s just discovered that he’s being targeted in the Doctors’ Plot. There’s no indication that he’s a threat to the state, but, as a Jewish doctor, Klensky no longer was trusted to treat or operate on party officials. In his final hours of freedom – for lack of a better term — he’s pursued, abused and marked for a tour of the gulags. It’s almost impossible for a writer to do justice to German’s nightmarish version of Yuri’s last hours in a Moscow he once considered to be a personal playground. His desperate, jolting journey east encapsulates the madness of the period. When Stalin’s failing health becomes known at the Kremlin, Soviet authorities track down the truck carrying Klensky to the labor camps and demand he be released to see what he can accomplish, if anything, at the dacha. He’s still suffering a beating and anal rape to which he was subjected on the truck, but even a whiff of freedom is enough to reignite his spirits. By the time Klensky arrives, the “Great Leader” is either dying or already dead. When Stalin finally kicks the bucket, his evil Head of Security, Lavrentiy Beria, utters the first sentence of post-Stalinist USSR, “Khrustalyov, My Car!” The apparatchiks are all in a great hurry to return to the Kremlin, where no clear line of succession was in place and powerful heroes of World War II wasted no time creating alliances and buying votes in the Politburo.

Even though Klensky is immediately released, he does not return to medicine, preferring, instead, to “go to the people.” As commandant of a train, the last image we see is of the general happily drinking with laborers and balancing a glass of port on his shaved head. Meanwhile, Klensky’s very bizarre family has been evicted from their relatively comfortable digs and relocated to a crowded communal apartment. Outside, the Russian winter keeps the streets empty, except for police vehicles and the limousines of government authorities and secret police. Almost nothing “normal” happens during the movie’s entire 147-minute length. To fully appreciate Khrustalyov, My Car, a short course in post-war Soviet history isn’t particularly necessary, even if a quick Internet survey might help non-academics. A perusal of  Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy, The Death of Stalin (2017), which depicts the power struggle following the leader’s  death, might be warranted, as well. The new 2K restoration, from the original camera negative, accentuates the austere beauty of Vladimir Ilin’s austere black-and-white cinematography. Audio commentary is provided by producer Daniel Bird; “Between Realism and Nightmare” is a new video essay on the movie and German’s other films, by historian and film critic Eugénie Zvonkine; “Diagnosis Murder: Jonathan Brent on the Doctors’ Plot” clarifies different elements of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign; film historian and critic Ron Holloway interviews the Russian director, who died in 2013 and struggled with censorship and financing throughout his career; “German … at Last,” an interview with German by producer Guy Séligmann; a double-sided fold-out poster; limited edition 60-page booklet, featuring new writing by Gianna D’Emilio, an  archival essay by Joël Chaperon and original reviews.

Tarantula!: Blu-ray
The Brain: Blu-ray
Jack Arnold (Creature From the Black Lagoon) and co-writer Robert M. Fresco’s giant-creature-feature Tarantula! (1955) has its defenders – mostly critics, who mark on the curve, and midnight-movie fanatics – but the only question it raises today is how it managed to avoid enshrinement on “MST3K.” It arrived in theaters a year after Them! effectively invented the “nuclear monster” and “big bug” subgenres. The primary difference between the two drive-in favorites is Tarantula!’s use of radioactive isotopes to trigger gigantism in caged lab animals, instead of fallout from nuclear bombs deployed or tested in southwestern desert. In Japan, the kaiju (a.k.a., “strange beast”) movement was launched by Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), whose monsters’ growth could be directly traced to the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and test in the South Pacific. In Tarantula!, Hitchcock-favorite Leo G. Carroll plays mad scientist Gerald Deemer, whose partner is first seen wandering through the Arizona desert deformed and demented by whatever happened in the lab. He’s replaced by recent college graduate Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), who looks as if she just stepped out of a Vogue pictorial on what modern socialites wear to work in New York. It takes handsome  Dr. Matt Hastings – genre specialist John Agar (The Mole People) – about 10 seconds to hook up with the new arrival, who needs a ride to Deemer’s remote laboratory. To be fair, the biochemist insists that he is working on a plan to feed the world, by developing a quick-growth formula on plants and animals. In Tarantula!, however, the test subject is more likely to eat the humans, instead of enrich them. In the absence of a direct nuclear threat, the only thing that appears to stall the progress of the insatiable creature are napalm bombs, called in by an uncredited jet-squadron leader (Clint Eastwood). That might sound like a spoiler – and, it is – but how else would viewers know to pay close attention to a masked character, who only arrives in the last five minutes? The Scream Factory package features a dandy new 2K remaster of the film, a stills gallery and fresh commentary with film historians Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J. Kiss and David Schecter.

Also from Scream Factory, Ed Hunt’s “Canuxploitation classic, The Brain, easily qualifies as a sci-fi/horror film that’s so outrageously bad it’s fun to watch. The eponymous antagonist is a pulsating mass of grey matter that explodes in size and strength as it takes control of human minds and devours human bodies. The monster is in cahoots with the host of a small town’s most popular TV show, “Independent Thinking,” which is hosted by the megalomaniacal Dr. Anthony Blakely (David Gale). Thinking that Blakely is on the level, local police and school authorities send juvenile delinquents to him to “fix.” Two of them, Jim Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan) and his girlfriend, Janet (Cynthia Preston), smell a rat when they spot other problem teens, doing their best impression of pod people. Although the movie harkens back to the 1950s, The Brain might remind some bad-movie aficionados of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978), which, 10 years earlier, introduced the concept of bulbous monsters. Unlike Tarantula!, too, The Brain was featured in last year’s live traveling tour of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In addition to the 4K restoration from the original negative, the package adds new commentaries from Hunt, Bresnahan and composer Paul Zaza; interviews with Preston, actor George Buza and assistant art director Michael Borthwick; the featurette, “Food for Thought: A Love Letter to The Brain”; and a stills gallery.

Bigger Like Me: Extended Director’s Cut
In his 2014 documentary, Big Like Me, comedian Greg Bergman took what I assumed to be a trademark bit from his standup routine and expanded the concept to its illogical conclusion. He did so by demonstrating how far he would go, in real life, to make peace with his penis, a goal that, so far, had eluded him. He claimed that men have always obsessed about the size of their penis, but, until recently, felt no great need to do anything about it. As long as their wives and lovers pretended, as least, to be satisfied with the length and girth of their appendage, most men elected to leave well enough alone. Then, in the 1960s, the sexual revolution opened the floodgates to nudity on-screen, on-stage, in magazines and in public. This freedom, some men believed, gave women the ability to see what they might be missing and, if desired, comparison shop. It wasn’t until the “Seinfeld” episode, “The Shrinkage,” brought size issues into the open – just as masturbation was demystified, in “The Contest” – that such once-taboo topics were opened for discussion by mainstream comics. It was about the same time as Internet streaming made pornography as accessible as music videos and flying saucer videos. When the tollgates were still up, subscription fees limited consumers to what they could afford to see and the fetishes they chose to embrace. Those days are way behind us, of course, with access to adult material freely available to anyone with a search engine.

Although no one, including Bergman’s wife, complained or ridiculed his perfectly normal-sized penis, he compared his johnson to those he saw on the porn sites and determined it was lacking a certain … heft. After it became a part of his standup routine, Bergman decided to do something about it and, of course, make a documentary about his quest.  Hence, Big Like Me. This year’s Bigger Like Me: Extended Director’s Cut adds 14 minutes of mostly redundant material to that film, updating us on his marital status and other pointless concerns. After failed experiments using pills, pumps and other OTC remedies, Bergman traveled to Tijuana, where, for a price and prayer, all things are available. He found a surgeon who reluctantly agreed to add some girth to Bergman’s joint, absent any promises that the experiment wouldn’t leave him deformed, disappointed and depressed. Instead, the surgery was successful. It opened all sorts of narrative avenues to the comic, including much semi-gratuitous nudity, embarrassing interviews with random women on size issues, a guest appearance by the man with the world’s biggest cock – hint, it isn’t — and a crude variation of the “The Dating Game.” We’re also invited to witness the inevitable second breakup with his first wife, who we don’t for a minute blame for the divorces. Bigger Like Me isn’t without humor, but it’s limited to the amount of time it would have taken Bergman to explain his adventure in a comedy club. (It might have worked better if the guy wasn’t such an outright dick, himself, or as a bit on Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You.”) I thought Bergman’s 2017 political mockumentary, Obamaland Part 1: Rise of the Trumpublikans, was a far better way for him to showcase his offbeat sense of humor.

TV-to-DVD
ITV/Acorn: Wire in the Blood: The Complete Collection
Acorn: Finding Joy: Series 1
Acorn: A Place to Call Home: Season 6
Based on characters created by the prolific Scottish mystery writer, Val McDermid, ITV’s “Wire in the Blood” pre-dated most of the network crime dramas featuring clinical psychologists, clairvoyants, forensic geniuses and other readers of crystal balls. Today, the show’s protagonist, Dr. Anthony Valentine Hill (Robson Green) might be confused with any number of other such crimefighters. During its 2002-2008 British run – it also aired on BBC America — the conceit was still extremely viable and full of intriguing storylines. Green, who, since 1989, has worked exclusively on television, had already endeared himself with fans of British police dramas, with ITV’s “Touching Evil.” For the first 14 episodes of “Wire,” Green was most often paired with DCI Carol Jordan, played by another stalwart of British television, Hermione Norris (MI-5), and, later, DI Alex Fielding (Simone Lahbib). Their turf is fictional Bradfield, which might still be found in West Yorkshire. Although Hill’s assistance isn’t always appreciated, he’s known for being able to tap into his own dark side to get inside the heads of serial killers. As such, he’s only called upon to help on tough and seemingly impenetrable cases. They feel as fresh today as most other British crime series from the period, which was well-known for its exemplary mini-series. A complete-series package was released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2016, but at a considerably higher price than the Arrow collection currently being offered by Amazon. The 24 movie-length episodes weigh in at a hefty 1,922 minutes.

In the first season of Acorn Media’s “Finding Joy,” Internet news gal, Joy Morris (Amy Huberman), is handed a horizontal promotion, from copy editor, to special-interest vlogger. It coincides with the nearly simultaneous discovery of a tryst by her live-in boyfriend, Aidan (Lochlann O’Mearáin), with a gorgeous brunette, and a turd left on her bed’s white duvet by her dog, also named Aidan. Yes, the same bed both times. The wee blond Dubliner (“Striking Out”) is a perfect fit in the role of a likeably neurotic young woman, whose new assignment takes her to the unusual places that people find their bliss: full-contact wrestling, touchy-feely wellness retreats, hot-yoga sessions, vertigo therapy, non-committal dating and Lamaze lessons with her best friend. Huberman is credited, as well, with creating and co-writing the six-episode series. Some of the fun comes when Joy attempts to fill the physical gap left by the ouster of “human Aidan.” After the de rigueur ordeal of finding the perfect roommate, she settles for her polar opposite: the bold and brassy Amelia (Aisling Bea). Joy’s quirky, punky workmate, Charlene (Jenny Rainsford), is also a delight. The talking “canine Aidan” may be a bit of a stretch, but the gimmick doesn’t wear out its welcome. The set contains a making-of featurette.

Set in rural New South Wales in the period following the Second World War, “A Place to Call Home” is a highly melodramatic mini-series/soap-opera, whose run was capped last year at six seasons. The show’s most prominent actor is Marta Dusseldorp, who’s starred in such international hits as “Jack Irish,” “Janet King” and the “BlackJack” movies. After 20 years living in Europe, her Sarah Adams returns to Australia, working her way home as a nurse on an ocean liner. During the voyage, Sarah befriends the influential and wealthy Bligh family and discovers a scandalous family secret. In Sydney, she finds her estranged mother still unwilling to forgive her perceived “sin” of converting to Judaism. With no other prospects, Sarah takes up an offer for a job by George Bligh (Brett Climo), in the Inverness hospital, much to the disapproval of his overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst). In the final season, Sarah finally marries George, causing Elizabeth’s anti-Semitic instincts to re-emerge, especially when her new daughter-in-law takes her place as lady of Ash Park.  George’s son, James (David Berry), also returns from abroad to start a business in Sydney, while his daughter, Anna (Abby Earl), remains in Hawaii with her sister-in-law (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood), nursing a secret from the rest of the family. An uprising of their male-chauvinist neighbors threatens to undo progress made on a center promoting women’s rights.

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

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Bumblebee: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Fans of the Transformers spinoff, Bumblebee, may not be aware that the film’s transforming mecha protagonist and title character is only now coming of age, 35 years after it was introduced in the original rollout of branded merchandise from the Japanese toy company Takara Tomy and America’s Hasbro label. The popularity of such “Generation 1″ products as Go-Bots, Transformers, the 1984 animated television series and comic books spread to other foreign markets, spawning an animated feature film (1986), video games, books, shirts, costumes and collectibles. It wasn’t until Michael Bay’s live-action adventure Transformers (2007) achieved blockbuster status worldwide – on a production budget of $150 million — that the venerable franchise found new wings. Buoyed once again by huge foreign sales, the six-chapter Paramount/DreamWorks series passed the billion-dollar barrier two times. Budgets would surpass or tease the $200-million threshold four times. In 2017, Transformers: The Last Knight, which cost $217 million to make, grossed a comparatively anemic $605 million, 78.5 percent of those dollars coming from outside the U.S. Clearly, something had to be done to preserve the franchise, before playing the straight-to-video card, anyway. Bumblebee was developed as either a spin-off or prequel, and later declared a reboot. The studio and now-producer Bay decided to downscale the size of the sixth installment, by reducing the budget drastically, bringing in fresh behind-the-camera talent (Travis Knight, Christina Hodson), keeping the running time under 120 minutes for the first time in 12 years, putting the focus on fewer characters and de-emphasizing the brand in the publicity material. It would promote the presence of a formidable teenage heroine (Hailee Steinfeld), alongside the already popular Bumblebee and formidable  Decepticon enemy, and add a malleable American warrior (John Cena). Neither did the atypically favorable reviews hurt Bumblebee’s chances  at the box office. By re-setting the action in 1987, it also serves as an origin story for those fans whose only knowledge of Transformers derives from Bay’s quintet.

On faraway Cybertron, the Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime, is on the verge of losing the civil war against the Decepticons. When a Decepticon force intercepts evacuees, Optimus sends his scout, B-127, to Earth to set up a less vulnerable base of operations. When B-127’s pod crash-lands in California, it disrupts a training exercise by a secret government agency that monitors extraterrestrial activity here. Sector 7 Colonel Jack Burns (Cena) assumes B-127 is a hostile invader and pursues him. To mask his escape, B-127 scans a Willys MB jeep and heads toward a mine. A Decepticon Seeker will ambush the Autobot there and interrogate it. When B-127 refuses to reveal Optimus’ whereabouts, Blitzwing tears out the alien’s  voice box and damages it’s memory core. Despite this, B-127 manages to kill Blitzwing with one of his own missiles. Before collapsing from his injuries, B-127 scans a nearby 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Flash ahead to 1987, when a teenage mechanic, Charlie (Steinfeld), finds a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard. Unaware of the VW’s identity, the  owner gives it to her as an 18th-birthday present. When she attempts to start “Bumblebee,” Charlie unknowingly activates a homing signal that is detected by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, as they interrogate and execute the Autobot, Cliffjumper, on one of Saturn’s moons. The pair heads to Earth, where the shapeshifters pretend to be peacekeepers, so as to convince Sector 7 agents Burns (Cena) and Powell (John Ortiz) to help them capture B-127. Bumblebee concludes with a series of action sequences designed to test the mettle of Charlie and Burns, who’s smelled a rat and joined B-127’s mission to protect Optimus Prime. Together, they will endeavor to keep the planet safe for humans and transformative allies, alike. The Paramount 4K UHD is a treat for the senses, thanks, in large part, to the 2160p/Dolby Vision and Atmos soundtrack. The bonus material contained on the Blu-ray disc includes deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and the featurettes, “Sector 7 Archive,” “Bee Vision: The Transformers Rrobots of Cybertron” and “Bringing Bumblebee to the Big Screen.”

On the Basis of Sex: Blu-ray
While on the subject of superheroes, Mimi Leder’s inspiring bio-drama, On the Basis of Sex, is the origin story of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), who’s maintained he seat on the Supreme Court after surviving several bouts with cancer, broken bones and the 2010 loss of her husband and collaborator, Marty (Armie Hammer). In some circles, the 86-year-old Brooklyn-native is known by her superhero alias, Notorious RBG. On the Basis of Sex recalls Ginsburg’s Harvard education and breakthrough case, which was widely considered to be a non-starter, simply because no one had successfully challenged the legal system’s Good Ol’ Boy cabal at its own game. For as long as anyone could remember, women were forced to accept positions of subservience to their male peers, no matter how qualified and successful they were. Ironically, the case involved the ability of a man to claim tax breaks as the caretaker of his ailing mother. Women caretakers could claim such deductions, but, incredibly, not men. If that sounds like a no-brainer today, no lawyer in the mid-1960s wanted to touch the case. Even the film’s ACLU attorney (Justin Theroux) had to be coaxed into supporting it. If, at times, Jones appears to be channeling Sally Field, in Norma Rae (1979), it doesn’t’ detract from her performance. On the Basis of Sex followed by only a few months the release of Oscar-nominated bio-doc, RBG, into niche theaters. By then, Ginsburg had already become a pop-culture icon, referenced in “SNL,” “New Girl,” The Lego Movie 2, Deadpool 2 and labels of Samuel Adams’s limited-edition beer, “When There Are Nine.” The Blu-ray adds three short production featurettes.

The Charmer
Co-writer/director Milad Alami and Ingeborg Topsoe’s twisty psychological drama, The Charmer, measures the lengths to which some immigrants and guest workers will go to secure citizenship in their adoptive homelands. Although the hurdles facing refugees are very much in the news these days, there’s never been a shortage of movies about immigrants – men, especially – who see marriage as the quickest way to secure green cards and citizenship papers. They practically constitute a subgenre of comedies and dramas of their own. When we meet Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), the young Iranian has already been in Denmark for several years. Despite a history of holding menial pa-time jobs, Esmail appears to have had no trouble hooking up with local ladies of marriageable age, solid finances and open minds. Each time, however, something in Esmail’s standoffish personality queers the deal at the last minute. It isn’t until he befriends a young Iranian woman, whose family has lived in the country long enough to have sunk roots in the soil, that Esmail appears to have hit the jackpot. Although he had no intention of getting involved with an Iranian woman – why, we wonder? – a pair of sexy Persian party animals grab his attention at a club. The less-cynical Sara (Soho Rezanejad) takes an immediate shine to the unpretentious outsider, although primarily  as a companion. Soon enough, however, Sara will use their friendship to avoid meeting her mother’s smothering expectations. It will evolve, as well, from best-buddy status, to friends-with-benefits, to mutually dependent lovers. It’s at precisely this point that Alami and Topsoe pull the rug out from everyone’s feet with one fell swoop, including our own. The twist changes everything, except our appreciation of the filmmakers’ imaginations and the cast’s ability to keep us guessing. Bonus features include Pearl Gluck’s excellent short film, “Summer,” about two teenage girls attending a Hasidic sleepaway camp, where a forbidden book poses questions about sex that the uptight counselors are reluctant to answer.

The Great Buster: A Celebration: Blu-ray
Way back in television’s Pleistocene Age, silent comedies and vintage cartoons often filled the gaps between local news reports and network programming.  There simply wasn’t enough original material available and the syndication market was beginning to blossom. Until the mid-1960s, “Popeye” cartoons, “Three Stooges” shorts, Mickey Mouse and Saturday  morning kiddie fare added words and sound effects to the mix … then, the bottom fell out, entirely, leaving a gap for imported anime. Nothing topped the classics, though. I only mention this here as a way to encourage anyone born after, say, 1980, to check out  Peter Bogdanovich and Cohen Film Classics’ delightful bio-doc The Great Buster: A Celebration, which explains why Buster Keaton – Hollywood’s “Great Stone Face” – Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd, remain only slightly less essential today than before they handed the baton to radio- and stage-based comedians. Unless one lives near a theater specializing in silent entertainment – or watches TCM on “silent nights” – it would be easy to think that physical comedy sprung from the brows of such post-silent comics as Jerry Lewis, John Candy, Jim Carrey and generations of “SNL” cast members. Among the many actors and comics bearing witness in The Great Buster: A Celebration is Johnny Knoxville – co-creator of MTV’s stunt- and prank-heavy “Jackass” – who freely acknowledges the debt he owes Keaton. The “Jackass” crew nearly killed themselves attempting the same gags Keaton invented and made look easy.

The doc is filled with impeccably restored material from the Keaton achieves.  It also delivers a fascinating recounting of Buster’s beginnings on the vaudeville circuit, where his dad used him as a fall guy and punching bag, and development of his trademark physical comedy and deadpan expression. He would struggle with  alcoholism and bad business advice to succeed as a director, writer, producer and star of his own short films and features. The loss of artistic independence and career decline, as the talkies took hold, are also covered by Bogdanovich, before focusing on Keaton’s extraordinary output from 1923 to 1929. It yielded 10 remarkable feature films — including The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) –that are among the greatest of all time. Also shown are snippets from Samuel Beckett’s  Film (1965), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and his final silent short, The Scribe (1966),  Interspersed throughout are interviews with nearly two-dozen collaborators, filmmakers, performers and friends, including Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, Dick van Dyke, Dick Cavett, Bill Irwin, Norman Lloyd  and Carl Reiner. The Blu-ray adds the nearly inaudible post-screening Q&A, “Conversations From the Quad,” an exclusive interview with Bogdanovich, and intro by Charles S. Cohen.

A Silent Voice: Blu-ray
No Alternative: Blu-ray
Bullying in our schools is one of those issues that concerns parents, teachers and children, equally, but won’t be solved until administrators and juvenile authorities are allowed to isolate the perpetrators and deal with them, without fear of being sued or retaliated against by delusional moms and dads. Social media has only exasperated the problem, by making the bullies invisible and the victims more vulnerable. Apparently, the plague knows no boundaries. Director Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice, which was adapted from Yoshitoki Oima’s manga, “Koe no katachi,” bypasses the after-school-special approach by refusing to sugarcoat the issue or find a quick fix in melodrama. Veteran voice actor  Miyu Irino (Spirited Away) plays class-clown Shôya Ishida, who’s fooled himself into believing that he’s popular, just because the cool kids think his antics are funny. When his mocking of a newly arrived deaf girl, which extends to stealing her earplugs, Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami), turns his classmates’ equally cruel laughter to scorn, Shôya begins to understand the meaning of, “what goes around, comes around.” What makes A Silent Voice exceptional, however, is the beautifully rendered animation, poignant narrative and empathetic characters. After Shoko drops out of school and Shôya’s shunning continues apace, he sets out to find her and offer his sincere apology. Yamada doesn’t make it easy for him to find redemption. As if bullying weren’t a serious enough problem to address in an anime, suicide will inevitably compound the narrative. The soft colors and evocative music add to the drama, which is genuine and heartfelt.

No Alternative is another coming-of-age drama that deals with the most serious of teen traumas. It’s set in a middle-class community in Upstate New Yok, in the direct wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, by suicide, in 1994. It struck teenage fans everywhere with the same devastating punch as the untimely deaths of Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and, three years later, Princess Diana. As a historically depressed individual and survivor of previous suicide attempts, Kobain was a tragedy waiting to happen. The lyrics to Nirvana’s songs sometimes read like invitations to oblivion. Writer/director William Dickerson adapted No Alternative from his 2012 debut  novel of the same title. It was informed by his own experiences as a youth and those of his late sister, Briana. “She suffered from borderline personality disorder and used the character of gangster rapper Bri Da B to channel her emotions and get outside of her own turbulent mind. A movie about this preppy white girl, who becomes this gangsta rapper, could have ended up being a broad comedy. I wanted it to show how my sister was suffering and how she dealt with it.” Thomas (Conor Proft) and Bridget Harrison (Michaela Cavazos) are determined to use music to escape the pressure of being lorded over by their politically ambitious father. Thomas wants his band to take a grungier approach to the band’s music. Dickerson allowed Bridget to adopt his sister’s stage name, Bri Da B. The conceit is as ludicrous as it sounds, primarily because she elects to make her debut at a coffeehouse, where the entirely white audience is flummoxed by the act. Blessedly, Dickerson pulls a rabbit out of his hat, with an ending that doesn’t necessarily condemn Bridget to an untimely death.

At the Drive-In
From sleeping under the concession stand, to working for free, the quirky film fanatics (a.k.a., nerds) at the struggling Mahoning Drive-in faced uncertainty when Hollywood distributors announced they would switch to digital projection for all new movies. Unable to purchase an expensive digital projector, the multigenerational gang pins its hopes of survival on showing vintage 35mm prints of their favorite movies on their original 1949 projectors. God bless ’em. At the Drive-In relives the underdog story to save a less-than-iconic Pennsylvania drive-in, old-school exhibition and imaginative programming. More to the point, it is a documentary about the magic of movies and the people who love them … on their own terms. Special features include more than 17 minutes of deleted scenes; three commentaries; and a Q&A from a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers.

Cam Girl
I don’t know enough about the Internet-enabled sex-chat business to say if anything about the enterprise depicted in Cam Girl makes sense financially and operationally. My guess is that it bears some likeness to the billion-dollar industry’s earliest iterations, when all one needed to make money was a Skype connection, a 900-number and prominent position on a powerful search engine, like Google or Yahoo. Early concerns about the legality and ethics of profiting from such sketchy endeavors temporarily provided openings for organized-crime elements from Eastern European – and young exhibitionists who recognized a quick and reasonably anonymous buck when they saw one — to prosper. Now, though, phone- and Internet-sex operations constitute a borderless industry that piggybacks on free- and subscriber-backed sites and offers large and diverse selections of models, kinks and fetishes. By comparison, fledgling companies that continue to rely on magazine ads and search-engine listings can’t remain competitive. What differentiates the models in Cam Girl from those found on a thousand other sites, today, is their extraordinary beauty, poise, naivete and girl-next-door appeal … if one lives next-door to the Playboy Mansion or a haute-couture fashion house in Paris. Neither does their generous sexuality ever wander beyond the bounds of Cinemax T&A.

Desperate after losing her dream job in advertising, Alice (Antonia Liskova) is advised by a fiend, Ross (Alessia Piovan), to consider joining or starting a webcam site. She enlists two other similarly gorgeous friends to take a chance on going broke or getting rich: struggling waitress, Gilda (Sveva Alviti), and aspiring basketball player, Martina (Ilaria Capponi). The business is headquartered in one of the girls’ apartment, which becomes awfully crowded after models from other webcam sites decide to switch teams. And, the business is tremendously successful … until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Now, Alice keeps running out of money to pay the employees or find more comfortable accommodations. It doesn’t take long before the ladies abandon ship. Some even begin to date clients on the side. If there’s a lesson buried under the T&A here, I couldn’t find it. Neither did I miss it.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires: Blu-ray
I’m not going to waste a lot of time trying to sell you on Shout!Factory’s splendidly restored edition of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a 1974 hybrid of Hammer Films trademark  horror and Shaw Brothers martial-arts action. Hammer’s original uncut version is being presented here for the first time in high-definition, 40 years after it was released in the U.S. in an edited version. “The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula.” In the movie’s English-language lifetime, alone, it’s been presented as “Seven Golden Vampires: The Last Warning,” “The Last Warning,” “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” “The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula,” “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” “7 Brothers Versus Dracula” and “7 Brothers and a Sister Meet Dracula.” If that weren’t sufficiently confusing, consider that Peter Cushing’s character in the film is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Professor Lawrence Van Helsing, when he is actually playing a different member of the Van Helsing family. All of Cushing’s scenes take place in 1904, even though Van Helsing was killed in 1872, in a previous edition in the Hammer franchise. After learning about the seven golden vampires of Ping Kuei, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) and Mai Kwei (Szu Shih) offer to guide Van Helsing and his son to the village, where he’s expected to free it from the curse of Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robinson). The group encounters several attackers before arriving at the golden vampires’ derelict temple. Once there, Van Helsing and Count Dracula begin the “ultimate clash between good and evil.” The count had traveled to the remote village, disguised as a warlord, to show his support for the vampires, who’ve been dispirited after the loss of a seventh member of their cult. Coincidentally, Van Helsing is in China on a lecture tour. Let the fun begin. The Shout! package also contains commentary with author/historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck; new interviews with actor David Chiang and Hong Kong film expert Rick Baker; and the alternate U.S. theatrical version, in high-def.

Nazi Junkies
While Adolph Hitler’s addiction to stimulants is common knowledge among historians, war buffs and biker gangs, the extent to which his fellow Germans were similarly hooked on der Führer’s little helpers — methamphetamine, cocaine and muscle relaxers — remains largely unknown. It explains why Hitler sounded so impassioned and inexhaustible  in speeches that seemed to go on forever. Inspired by Norman Ohler’s revelatory book, “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich,” Christian Huleu’s fascinating documentary, Nazi Junkies – sounds like “Nazi Zombies,”  doesn’t’ it? — explains how Pervitin pills put the blitz in blitzkrieg and gave his soldiers and pilots superhuman energy and stamina. Until the negative effects of the meth inevitably took hold, Pervitin served as the Reich’s secret weapon and stimulant of choice for soldiers, warmongers and housewives, alike. (Technically, the use of drugs was anathema to Nazi principles, but so were the opiates given soldiers to relax after combat and living on the down-low.) Hitler’s personal Doctor Feelgood was one of the first to recognize the negative signs of Pervitin abuse and immediately began the search for less-toxic substances to fill his patient’s insatiable hunger. They would include an assortment of medications, including vitamin cocktails, cocaine, opiates and steroids. Like Ohler’s best-selling book, Huleu relied on the secret journals of Hitler’s personal doctor, Théodore Morell, as well as archival documents and testimonies from historians, scientists and World War II experts. The practice didn’t end with pill-popping Nazis, either. Allied troops and pilots in Europe and Korea chowed down on Benzedrine, amphetamines and speed balls,  an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin. Chinese fighters were given an anti-sleep pill, referred to as “Night Eagle,” to enable soldiers to stay awake for up to 72 hours. In Vietnam, it was heroin, marijuana, LSD and alcohol that kept them buzzing. Today, the number of desert-war veterans suffering from an addiction to crystal meth is staggering, too frequently ending in jail sentences or suicide attempts, when they come home. Although there’s some disagreement on the extent to which Japanese combatants used uppers before engaging the enemy or kamikaze missions, having formulated meth in the 1890s, it isn’t likely they would curtail its use in World War II. More recently jihadists have been reported to consume the powerful stimulant  Captagon pervasively, while also taking powerful opioid painkillers and hashish.

The Prisoner: Blu-ray
No sooner were the Nazis defeated in World War II than the Soviet Union began to create a buffer zone between the communist east and democratic west, using Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, as Stalin’s first line of defense against  capitalism. Basically, though, Eastern Europe was handed to him on a platter by two war-weary American presidents, over the objections of Winston Churchill. In most respects, Stalin was just as domineering a presence in Eastern Europe as Adolph Hitler and just as willing to use force and atrocities to put down rebellions there. Puppet governments and kangaroo judiciaries were installed to maintain the status quo. Western democracies did their best to put down left-leaning liberation movements, as well, often bowing to American demands for autocratic, pro-capitalist leaders. Made in 1955, The Prisoner probably was informed by the ordeal of Polish Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, who was a war hero and religious leader of millions of Roman Catholics. Like Alec Guinness’ character in The Prisoner, Wyszynski had made accommodations with the communists, pledging to maintain a balance between Church and state, in return for property seized after the war and the ability to perform religious rites. As pro-democracy protests in Polish cities spread, the government demanded of Guinness’ cardinal that he encourage restraint – perhaps, even, rat out resistance leaders – or risk being arrested, put on trial and, worst case, executed for treason. In prison, his Interrogator (Jack Hawkins) is determined to get a confession from the strong-willed Cardinal and destroy his power over his flock. The verbal and psychological debates are gripping and powerful, even when the Interrogator’s bosses’ demand results, at all costs. When the Interrogator finds his Achilles’ heel, the Cardinal is faced with an even greater challenge. The harsh black-and-white set designs emphasize the barrenness of the ideology on display. It’s interesting that director Peter Glenville and writer Bridget Boland’s The Prisoner — both on stage and screen — was deemed sufficiently controversial to be banned from the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals, for ideologically opposite reasons. The Prisoner would make a terrifying lead-in to a double-feature from political hell, with Orson Welles’ equally disturbing, The Trial (1962). For anyone who’s ever wondered what it takes for a work of art to be considered “Kafkaesque,” the pairing would make the distinction painfully clear. Franz Kafka admitted being heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” The Arrow package adds selected scenes, with Philip Kent’s commentary, and a well-appointed insert booklet.

Terra Formars: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Takashi Miike’s many over-the-top entertainments don’t always arrive on these shores at the same time as they do in foreign markets. It doesn’t look as if his 2016 sci-fi extravaganza, Terra Formars, found a place to land here, even on the festival circuit. It isn’t difficult to see why. Terra Formars is too arthouse for genre buffs and too genre for arthouse habitués. Like Audition, the Dead or Alive trilogy and Blade of the Immortal, which it doesn’t remotely resemble, Terra Formars is a Miike film … plain and simple. Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch come to mind, but not many other filmmakers, even of the auteur persuasion. Like so many other Japanese films, these days, the space adventure is based on a popular manga series of the same title. Terra Formars also is something of a cautionary tale for those who want to colonize Mars in their lifetimes. It opens in the mid-26th Century, 500 years after scientists seeded the planet with algae and cockroaches, to create an atmosphere conducive to habitation by humans. A manned mission has arrived on the red planet with the sole purpose of eliminating the bugs. Turns out, however, la cucarachas are just as difficult to kill on Mars, as they are on Earth. The team of Japanese space explorers finds itself confronted by a horde of huge anthropomorphic cockroaches, capable of wielding weapons and shape-shifting. (All those years away from Raid and the soles of shoes has allowed them to evolve naturally.) Miike must not have had much money to spend on special effects, because the cheapo green-screen work distracts from the action sequences. Everything else is fun, though. The Arrow Blu-ray adds the feature-length “The Making of Terra Formars,extended cast interviews, footage from the 2016 Japanese premiere, outtakes, an image gallery, a reversible sleeve and a fully illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

Mélo: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Alain Resnais’ stagey slow-burn melodrama, Mélo, is typical of the French auteur’s work in his late period, when he began challenging himself and audiences by integrating material from other forms of popular culture into his films, drawing especially on music and the theater. While his work has always been influenced by the theater, Resnais’ adaptation of Henri Bernstein’s 1929 play of the same name – a shortening of “melodrama” – was extremely faithful to the source material. He  emphasized its theatricality by filming in long takes, on sets that could hardly be more artificially designed or lit. As such the narrative is almost entirely driven by dialogue and facial expressions. Like a play, too, the film’s acts are divided by the fall of a curtain and snippets from a playbill. Needless to say, viewers are left at a distinct disadvantage throughout much of Mélo’s first act, at least. It opens in the 1920s, in the courtyard of a home in a posh Paris suburb, where two old fiends are enjoying drinks after dinner. The distinguished soloist, Marcel (André Dussollier), has just returned from a long concert tour, during which he endured a cruel breakup with his lover. In the meantime, his longtime friend, collaborator and host, Pierre (Pierre Arditi) has fallen in love with and married a coquettish younger woman, Romaine (Sabine Azéma), who’s pretty, personable and not outwardly flirtatious. i Marcel s happy for his fiend’s good fortune and seemingly unaffected by Romaine’s charms. That lasts until the next afternoon, when Romaine pays a visit to Marcel’s apartment and lets Bach clear the way for some hanky-panky. The more  Marcel  resists her overture, the deeper the hook is set. Romaine takes his decision to return to touring badly and everyone’s affected by her response. Three years later, Pierre pays Marcel a visit to clarify their friendship and demand the truth. It’s here that the intimacy of the cinema returns to the forefront. Arrow Academy’s restoration adds a newly filmed introduction by critic Jonathan Romney; archived interviews with director Alain Resnais, producer Marin Karmitz, actors Pierre Arditi and André Dussolier, script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, set designer Jacques Saulnier; a reversible sleeve, featuring original artwork; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by Bilge Ebiri.

Iguana With the Tongue of Fire: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1971, the animal-in-the-title trend in giallo films – following Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — was just beginning.   Riccardo Freda (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) decided to further test the newborn genre’s elasticity by staging his thriller in Ireland and raising the ante on fetishized violence inflicted upon women. The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire is a gloriously excessive giallo that boasts a rogues’ gallery of perverse characters of both genders and, of course, a veritable orgy of red herrings and potential killers … probably too many, in fact. “Iguana” opens audaciously with an acid-throwing, razor-wielding maniac brutally slaying a woman in her own home. The victim’s mangled corpse is discovered in a limousine owned by Swiss Ambassador Sobiesky (Anton Diffring) and a police investigation is launched. When the murders continue and the ambassador claims diplomatic immunity, tough ex-cop John Norton (Luigi Pistilli) is brought in to jump-start the investigation. Benefitting from a sumptuous score by Stelvio Cipriani (Death Walks on High Heels) and exuberant supporting performances from Valentina Cortese (The Possessed) and Dagmar Lassander (The Black Cat), “The Iguana”  isn’t for beginners. It adds new commentary by giallo connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; a newly filmed video appreciation by the cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer; “Considering Cipriani,” a new appreciation of the composer by soundtrack collector, Lovely Jon; “The Cutting Game,” a new interview with assistant editor Bruno Micheli; “The Red Queen of Hearts,” a career-spanning interview with actress Dagmar Lassander; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich.

Penny Points to Paradise
There are a couple of very good reasons to check out Penny Points to Paradise, the first in a series of vintage British films from Juno and MVD. It marked the feature-film debut of the stars of “The Goon Show”: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. And, it’s available for the first time, on disc, in North America. It was directed by Tony Young, who later produced “The Telegoons” for BBC Television. After a big gambling win, Harry Flakers and his friend Spike Donnelly decide to go to the same shabby seaside boarding house that they have always patronized for their summer holiday. The other guests include two young women out to marry money, a dodgy investment adviser, a master forger and his assistant. They’re intent on taking the money from the Goonies, one way or another. Also included is the 32-minute short, “Let’s Go Crazy,” also starring Sellers. It’s a “madcap comedy,” set in a nightclub where variety acts are interwoven with comedy sketches. Neither is representative of the group’s later work.

We Die Young: Blu-ray
President Trump deserves partial screenwriter credit for Lior Geller’s hit-and-run gangland drama, We Die Young. Desperate for a quickee campaign issue, POTUS only had to investigate crime in his own backyard, where Mara Salvatrucha (a.k.a., MS-13), a gang of Central American criminals, ruled drug-running and child prostitution along the Eastern Seaboard. He unjustly equated the multi-tattooed hoodlums with immigrants seeking sanctuary and employment here. Naturally, the crisis disappeared, when a different bug crawled up his ass. In We Die Young, Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez) is a 14-year-old boy who was inducted into the gang life in Washington, D.C., but determined to prevent his 10-year-old brother from following the same trap. When a down-and-out Afghanistan war veteran (Jean-Claude Van Damme) comes into the neighborhood to score drugs, an opportunity arises. While We Die Young is loaded with clichés, it accomplishes what the federal government couldn’t, by disrupting a multinational syndicate. Strong performances by Van Damme and villain David Castañeda, who plays the brutal MS-13 gang leader, Rincon, add a few sparks to the proceedings.

Matriarch
Rachel (Charlie Blackwood) and her husband, Matt (Scott Vickers), are on a drive through the Scottish countryside, when Matt hits a tree. The pair decides to get out and walk, despite Rachel being 9-months pregnant. They soon come to a farmhouse owned by the same jerk (Alan Cuthbert),  who refused them a ride earlier.  At first, the farmer, Bob, once again rudely turns them away. When he sees that Rachel is with child, though, he insists that they come into the house.  There, they meet Bob’s wife, Agnes (Julie Hannan), and their sinister sons, David (Thoren Ferguson) and Luke (Martin Murphy).  While the family gives off an odd vibe, Rachel and Matt appreciate their hospitality. Before long, however, Rachel’s intuition tells them to leave, pronto. They also realize their hosts’ daughter was, in fact, abducted and made headlines when she went missing years earlier. In his first feature, writer/director Scott Vickers displays a flare for raising goosebumps.

Enigma: Blu-ray
The cold war was still in full forward gear, when Jeannot Szwarc’s espionage thriller, Enigma, opened, in 1982. From some perspectives, though, it was easy to see that the end was near. If Apocalypse Now (1979) had made Marin Sheen a star, he still wasn’t ready to pull off playing a spy of the caliber  of Harry Palmer  (The Ipcress File), Alec Leamas  (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), James Bond (Dr. No) or George Smiley (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Neither would Vick ever play in the same big leagues as novelists John le Carré, Len Deighton or Ian Fleming. Nobody could. Nonetheless, fans of the genre may want to make room for Enigma, which also features fine performances by Derek Jacobi, Sam Neill, Brigitte Fossey and Michael Lonsdale. In it, the CIA discovers a KGB plot to assassinate five Soviet dissidents on Christmas Day, but it doesn’t’ know their names. East German defector and radio activist Alex Holbeck (Sheen) is recruited in Paris by the CIA and sent to East Berlin to find and warn the intended victims and steal the code-scrambler machine, Enigma, still used by Soviet intelligence for communications. On his arrival, Holbeck discovers that the KGB and the East Germany government know that he’s in town and his contacts have been arrested. Holbeck meets his former lover, the lawyer Karen Reinhardt,  (Fosse), and she gives keys to a safe house to him. The Russian agent Dimitri Vasilikov (Neill) and the East German agent (Limmer) try to find Holbeck, while Karen seduces Dimitri to get the information about the location of the suspects that Holbeck needs. Enigma has is moments – including a clever chase scene and dangerous CIA trick — although no enough of hem.

Jihadists
Banned in France following the 2016 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, Jihadists goes to the dark heart of Islamic extremism, where men with guns, explosives and swords interpret the Koran for everyone else in the world. That includes the tens of millions of Muslims who belong to sects other than the Salafi movement and hundreds of millions of other infidels they’re willing to kill in the name of Allah. A pair of Western filmmakers were granted unparalleled access to fundamentalist Sunni clerics, who proselytize for a purer form of Islam in Mali, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan and the imposition of sharia law. Jihadists paints a stark portrait of everyday life under jihadi rule and the lectures could hardly be more tedious.

TV-to-DVD
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of … Volume 3
BBC: The Highway Rat
PAW Patrol: Ultimate Rescue
Since 1968, Dick Cavett has hosted his own talk show, in a variety of television and radio formats and several different panel configurations. At a time when all such hosts played to a wide cross-section of views – and others began to play to the cheap seats — Cavett wasn’t reluctant to put his IQ and high-end tastes on full display, sometimes to the point of overshadowing his guests’ input. “The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of … Volume 3” contains conversations, with  Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, in which his attempts to be as hip as thou bordered on self-parody. Regardless, enough good stuff sneaks into the chats to make them worthwhile. In addition to individual conversations, Foxx appears on a panel with Patty Duke, Richard Attenborough and James J. Kirkpatrick, from July 14, 1969, and Gregory is part of a panel with Alan Arkin, from May 5, 1972. Murphy sits with Cavett on November 4, 1985, shortly after departing “SNL” and while celebrating the success of Beverly Hills Cop. Already an accomplished multihyphenate, Pryor joins Cavett shortly before the release of his semi-autobiographical ”Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.”

Based on the beloved children’s book, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, the Annie-nominated The Highway Rat tells the tale of a ravenous rat who craves buns, cookies and all sweet things. Tearing along the highway, he searches for sugary treats to steal from the harvests of everyday people he meets on the highway. It’s only a matter of time before his sweet tooth leads him to a sticky end. Previous Magic Light Pictures productions for the BBC include Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo and Revolting Rhymes. Rob Brydon narrates, alongside David Tennant, Frances de la Tour, Tom Hollander, Nina Sosanya and Husaam Kiani. The making-of material is longer than the film itself, but quite worthwhile.

Nick Jr’s “Paw Patrol: Ultimate Rescue” is comprised of Season Five episodes, “Pups Save the Royal Kitties,” with Chase and his Ultimate Police Truck; “Pups Save the Tigers,” with Skye and her Ultimate Helicopter; “Pups Save the Movie Monster,” with Marshall and his Ultimate Fire Truck; “Pups Save a Swamp Monster,” with Zuma and his Ultimate Swamp Vehicle; and “Pups and the Hidden Golden Bones,” with Rocky and his Ultimate Tow Truck.”

The DVD Wrapup: Capernaum, Perfect Blue, Cameron Post, Tyrel, Ailes, Body Snatcher, Sam J. Jones, Sonny Chiba, Phantom Lady, Victoria’s Wedding … More

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Capernaum: Blu-ray
Nominated as one of five candidates for top prize in AMPAS’ Best Foreign Language category, Capernaum deserved consideration for a Best Picture Oscar, alongside Roma. It’s that good. For my money, 12-year-old newcomer, Zain Al Rafeea, deserved to be mentioned with the other Best Lead Actor nominees, as well. Academy voters are rightly cautious when it comes to honoring child actors, especially those with little or no experience or training. That’s because it’s difficult to tell when they’re acting, as defined in the guidelines, or simply behaving instinctively, based on personal history and genetics. There’s no question that Zain’s performance in Capernaum – a word that translates as “chaos” — was informed by incidents in his own life. Al Rafeea was born in Daraa, Syria, in 2004, and moved to Lebanon in 2012 as a refugee. He had lived in Beirut for several years, when he was discovered by co-writer/director Nadine Labaki in the streets of a depressed neighborhood, eating chicken. Like his character, Zain was uneducated, illiterate and genuinely “street smart.” (That’s changed.) In Capernaum, Zain is a victim of a nearly universal legal system that allows unsuitable parents to retain control of their children. Here, Zain helps support the family by hauling goods to costumers in the street market. It’s more than his old man contributes. He becomes incensed when his 11-year-old sister is sold to a man at least twice her age as a potential bride. Zain’s pleading is ignored by both his parents. Instead of risking a beating from his father, Zain runs away from home. He survives on the streets through his wits and wits and courage. Then, he’s taken in by an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil —   played by fellow first-timer, Yordanos Shiferaw – who’s the single mother of a son, Yonas, who’s only a few days away from teaching himself how to walk.

When Rahil is away, working, Zain proves to be a conscientious caretaker. Sadly, after she’s jailed in a roundup of undocumented workers, Zain and Yonas are left to their own devises. (She’s afraid that officials will take the boy away, if they learn of his existence.) When Zain begins to despair of his ability to properly care for the child – diapers pose a constant challenge – he tracks down Rahil’s Lebanese benefactor, who gives him money while hatching a plan to take control of Yonas, before his mother is released or deported, and sell him. In return, he’ll finance Zain’s dream of escaping north. Before that can happens, Zain needs to return home to collect the papers he’ll need to secure forged papers. While there, he learns that his sister died after being impregnated by her husband. His parents shrug off the tragedy as being the will of God – the mother is  already pregnant, again — and no longer any of their business. They also inform Zain of the illegal circumstances of his own birth, which prevented them from securing a birth certificate. Even more incensed than before, the boy picks up a kitchen knife, with the intention of avenging his sister’s death. He willingly takes a five-year sentence at a prison reserved for underage  offenders. Somehow, he comes up with idea of suing his parents for negligence and giving  him life, in the first place. Labaki uses the lawsuit as a framing device, holding Capernaum together. The suit is taken seriously by everyone involved and Al Rafeea makes a sound case for emancipation. Labaki and cinematographer Christopher Aoun (In White) benefitted from such existing settings as the Souk Al Ahad market, Beirut’s Le Cola slum, the Roumieh Prison and Luna Park amusement park with Labaki and  The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and a post-screening Q&A with Labaki, Zain and her husband/producer/composer/co-writer Khaled Mouzanar. BTW: After winning the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes festival, it was revealed that Zain and his family were relocated by the UN Refugee Agency, to Norway, where he’s begun going to school.

Perfect Blue: Blu-ray’s
In a season already overflowing with excellent anime titles, newcomers to the movement – adults, anyway — are encouraged to check out Perfect Blue, a sophisticated psychosexual thriller from the late Japanese director, Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress). Released in 1997, a time when western audiences were becoming attuned to the work of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) and the absence of fantasy superheroes, the R-rated Perfect Blue erased borders separating horror, erotica and suspense. I didn’t know the 81-minute thriller is 22 years old and only found out after reading the press clips. Either way, it holds up remarkably well, today. Mima is an ambitious J-pop superstar, anxious to escape the glare of the spotlight shone on boy and girl groups by rabid fans and an insatiable media. When she announces her retirement and desire to pursue an acting/modeling career, her fans can’t believe it. That includes the stalkers who follow Mima’s every movement. Like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus and other Disney brats gone bad, Mima’s ascendency in the grown-up world of leeches, perverts and corporate weasels doesn’t always go as expected. Not only is she is stalked by a potentially dangerous fan, but violent acts against her managers and backers have begun to occur, as well. Mima then comes to believe that an invisible hand has taken control of her mind and career. It begins when she stumbles upon “Mima’s Room,” a social-media website that purports to be written entirely by her, but publishes intimate details of her thoughts, dreams and desires, much of which are fabricated. It causes Mima to doubt her sanity. Finally, she’s driven to accept a role in a borderline hard-core film, which includes some not-so-borderline violence and rape. Kon’s ability to keep Mima guessing as to the source of her manic behavior is matched by the director’s skill at maintaining the audience’s confusion, too. His detail-rich panels and splashy color scheme works well across the board, in depictions of pop stardom, violence, cartoon nudity and sexuality. As much as Kon admitted to being influenced by novelists Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner) and Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika), and films by Terry Gilliam (Brazil), so, too, were westerners Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Christopher Nolan (Inception) inspired by Kon. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer on August 24, 2010, at 46. For all I knew going into Perfect Blue, adapted from Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel of the same title, it could have been made last year.

The Vault: Blu-ray
King of Thieves: Blu-ray
Released over Labor Day weekend, 2017, Dan Bush’s horror/heist/thriller, The Vault, spent a mere week in 11 theaters, before disappearing until this week, when it popped up again on DVD/Blu-ray. It may not be the greatest representative of it’s subgenre(s), but a cast that includes James “Mr. Everything” Franco, Taryn Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”), Francesca Eastwood (Outlaws and Angels), Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World), Clifton Collins Jr. (“Star Trek”), Scott Haze (Venom) and Jeff Gum (“New Girl”) make things interesting, at least. Bush probably could have used more time and money to recreate the critical success he enjoyed for his dystopian horror, The Signal (2007). For committing the sin of underperforming at the box office, The Vault was sent to purgatory for two years. The story revolves around a pair of estranged sisters, Vee and Leah Dillon, and their brother, Michael – none of whom are terribly bright – who were told that the bank they’re about to rob contains a million dollars in cash. After making a lot of noise and threatening to shoot their hostages, the gang only can locate $70,000. Reacting to the news as Manny’s character in “Orange Is the New Black” might, Vee tells her fellow gang members to keep searching. The only hostage who gives her any hope is the bank manager played by Franco, who, considering the circumstances, seems remarkably cool. After eliciting the sisters’ promise that no one will be hurt, he tells them that there’s a safe in the basement that may contain the rest of the cash. Horror buffs won’t be surprised by Maas’ willingness to give up the goods, because they’ve already guessed that something sinister is lurking in the basement. (The newsreel footage that preceded The Vault was a dead giveaway.) While what happens next is best left to the imagination, viewers already fixated on the zombie apocalypse will find themselves two steps ahead of the narrative. The Vault might have worked, if it weren’t too dark for its audience to clearly recognize the danger presented to bank robbers, hostages and SWAT team when the doors to the basement fly open. The ending is something of a surprise, if only to people who haven’t been paying strict attention to the shadowy details. Franco’s elongated cameo, while essential, might confuse viewers who expect a bit more from the cover blurbs. Manning and Eastwood’s testy relationship is almost reason enough to recommend The Vault.

According to the ticket-counters at Box Office Mojo, James Marsh’s true-crime/heist/drama, King of Thieves, played in 14 U.S. theaters, from January 25 through February 7, 2019. It’s total domestic gross reached $7,518 – about $1,800 more than The Vault – against the $9.55 million it made in foreign sales. It suffered from mostly mediocre reviews, which were influenced negatively from Marsh’s overly deliberate pacing and the dissipation of tension that followed the commission of the movie’s central crime. A gang of elderly crooks, dubbed the Diamond Wheezers, led by lifelong crook Jack Reader (Michael Caine), relieved the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd of £14 million worth of gold, jewels and cash. As much as £10 million from the haul still remains unrecovered. The heist, which occurred over the Easter weekend, 2015, is well-depicted by screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road), who adapted it from a Vanity Fair article by Mark Seal. Caine leads a cast of great British actors, including Jim Broadbent, as Terry Perkins, the uncompromising wannabe leader; Ray Winstone, as the straight-talking heavy, Danny Jones; Tom Courtenay, as the two-faced conniver, Kenny Collins; Paul Whitehouse, as the reluctant sixth man, Carl Wood; Michael Gambon, as the unlikely fence, Billy “The Fish” Lincoln; and Charlie Cox, Reader’s computer-savvy protégé. If none of the characters are as clearly drawn as Reader —  a former associate of the Krays — their roguish behavior and old-fashioned dialogue never gets dull. If Marsh’s name is familiar it’s because he also was at the helm of such fine entertainments as The Theory of Everything (2014), Shadow Dancer (2012), Best Documentary-winner Man on Wire (2008) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999).

Impulso
Dance enthusiasts from around the world travel to southern Spain for one express purpose: to observe flamenco in its purest form. If they’re very lucky, their guidebook will lead them to some out-of-the-way nightclub, where the tourists don’t outnumber the regulars and there isn’t a two-drink minimum. Typically, the amateurs aren’t interested in watching dancers who take liberties with tradition, which can be traced, some say, to the arrival of Romani clans to Andalusia. Other historians associate flamenco with the cross-cultural interchange between native Andalusians, Romani, Castilians, Moors and Sephardic Jews that occurred there. Emilio Belmonte Molina’s Impulso documents the creation of a new piece by avant-garde dancer/choreographer Rocio Molina, intended to debut at Chaillot National Theater in Paris. Her extravagant, mesmerizing and mostly improvised pieces combine traditional Flamenco with modern-dance, theatrics, physical objects, paint and eclectic musical compositions. As intriguing as it is, Impulso isn’t for those who get their kicks from watching “Dancing With the Stars” or study ballroom dancing at an Arthur Murray studio. (Amazingly, there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain.) Molina travels the world to perform her improvised “impulsos” at venues ranging from art museums to prisons. At 32, she’s into her third decade as a performer. Impulso was photographed in a studio with a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower and at her lavish family compound in Andalucia. In addition to Molina and her impassioned musicians, she’s also joined onstage by 67-year-old Antonia Santiago Amador (a.k.a., La Chana), a self-taught Gypsy dancer also known for her innovative approach to the discipline, as well as rhythmic combinations enhanced by atypical speed, expression and power. Lucija Stojevic’s 2016 documentary, La Chana, not only celebrates flamenco, but it also reveals a personal history that’s as dramatic as the dance. As such, it’s a perfect companion to Impulso.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Based on Emily Danforth’s debut novel of the same title, The Miseducation of Cameron Post examines the controversial practice of conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy and de-gaying – that many fundamentalist ministers and parents pushed on teenagers believed to be L, G, B, T or Q, in the 1970-90s. It quickly evolved from a trend, in the 1970s, to a thriving industry, in the 1990s, backed by Christian organizations and con artists, alike. Conversion therapy has since been discredited by psychiatric organizations and banned in 15 states, the District of Columbia, and such major cities as Miami and Cincinnati. In addition to being demonstrably ineffective, the practice has been shown to be harmful to teens whose sexuality may or not be established. Co-writer/director Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele’s adaptation of Danforth’s 2012 book – based on her own experiences growing up in Montana – is set in 1993, a time when dramatizations of kidnappings authorized by parents and deprogrammers had become a Hollywood staple. What makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post different from those movie-of-the-week dramas is its willingness to portray the staff of God’s Promise as something other than monsters, sadists and exploitative. Instead, they’re naïve and dangerously inexperienced in the treatment of standard deviations from normal behavior. The teachers and administrators of God’s Promise don’t realize they’re in over their heads until it’s too late. Neither do the state and federalagencies assigned to monitor them.

Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is caught by her boyfriend having a sexual encounter with another girl, in a parked car, on homecoming night. Cameron’s aunt, Ruth, a devout Christian, sends Cameron to God’s Promise. Cameron may not like it, but she’s willing to go along with Ruth’s demand for the sake of appearances. While Cameron is getting acclimated to guidelines and restrictions at the rural camp, which takes an AA approach to the teens’ witnessing, she befriends fellow “disciples,” Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), who was raised in a hippie commune, and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a Lakota “two-spirit,” whose father turned his back on tradition when he converted to Christianity. Another girl is so addicted to the modern Christian lifestyle that she works out to “Blessercize” videos, while another is obsessed with Christian rock music. The effeminate boy whose problems finally overwhelm councilors played John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle and Marin Ireland was bullied by his father, who expects certain results from the program. The movie’s willingness to treat all the characters with varying degrees of respect is what differentiates it from other, less sensitive dramatizations. The notion of teenage empowerment also is welcome. Some pundits were unhappy that Akhavan didn’t direct the wrath of God at the movie’s antagonists – I was a bit surprised, as well – but the film followed the novel’s blueprint, which the author describes as a story about growing up queer in Montana, in the ’90s. It was thoroughly researched by Danforth, currently an associate professor of English at Rhode Island College. It adds commentary with Akhavan and co-writer/producer Frugiuele.

The protagonist of Amanda Lundquist’s Pinsky is a Jewish out-lesbian adult, Sophia Pinsky – played by impish co-writer Rebecca Karpovsky — whose sexuality is vilified by her recently widowed grandmother, from  whom she’s been estranged for three years. The matriarch is more concerned about her position in Boston’s Russian-Jewish community than Sophia’s soul and happiness Even so, Sophia agrees to return home to sit shiva for her beloved grandfather. As expected, it’s the kind of nightmare that an aspiring standup comedian could mine for laughs in clubs around the country. Unless I missed something, though, Sophia isn’t quite ready for prime time and the film’s humor doesn’t always qualify as a “comedy about finding your chosen family and forgiving the one you’re born into.” Besides the death of her grandfather, Sophia’s misery is compounded by the sudden decision of her live-in lover to leave home, without notice. Being a lesbian doesn’t protect Sophia from the matchmaking that’s a staple of movies set in Jewish households. Despite a lifelong friendship with the likely candidate, their personal time together turns into a disaster, as well. And, then there’s the secret being kept between Granny and their rabbi (Alan Blumenfeld). Oy, vey. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, even for a movie that is only required to  bear the load for 73 minutes. Pinsky potentially could find an audience for the mishigas on display here among Jews living under the same circumstances as the protagonist. Others may fail to find the humor in the constant bickering, put-downs and stereotypes. The DVD contains a “Sitting Down” with Blumenfeld and additional standup comedy, featuring Rebecca Karpovsky.

Director Gene Saks and playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) doesn’t contain any LGBTQ references that I could see, but its depiction of a working-class Jewish family on the eve of World War II probably influenced Pinsky, if only subliminally. The 1982 play may also have informed parts of Woody Allen’s similarly nostalgic Radio Days (1987), as well. All three films are listed as comedies on IMDB.com, but there are plenty of times when the arguments, rivalries and unappetizing ethnic food  — never a problem in movies about Italian families – melt into blob of clichés. Simon’s semi-autographical story begins with a series of events that would test the stability of any family of disparate parts living under the same roof. Jonathan Silverman plays 15-year-old Eugene Jerome, around whom all the bad craziness revolves. During Brighton Beach Memoirs, the Polish/Jewish/American boy will be challenged by puberty, his first sexual cravings and desire to solve all of his family’s myriad problems. They include those faced by his Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) and her two daughters (Lisa Waltz, Stacey Glick), who share the house. His father (Bob Dishy) and older brother (Brian Drillinger) have just lost their jobs and their savings won’t pull them through the Depression. His mother (Blythe Danner) acts as if she has burrs in her foundation garments, while her sister, Blanche, is still traumatized by the loss of her husband. Eugene’s youngest cousin has a serious heart condition and her16-year-old sister desperately wants to take a Broadway producer up on his offer of a job in the chorus line of his new production … wink, wink/nod, nod. Then, there’s the matter of the impending storm in Poland, and their cousins’ efforts to get the papers necessary to leave for England or America, and a debt owed by some local gangsters by his brother. Just as things couldn’t get any less humorous, Eugene’s mother and aunt begin airing out differences that began when they were young. As it turns out, however, the Broadway-perfect ending couldn’t be more uplifting. Brighton Beach Memoirs, it should be noted, was the first installment in Simon’s unintended “Eugene trilogy,” followed by “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

Tyrel: Blu-ray
With such celebrated, if eccentric gems as The Maid (2009), Magic Magic (2013), Crystal Fairy (2013) and Old Cats (2010) on his resume, Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva is among a handful of filmmakers whose every new project is anticipated by critics and arthouse buffs around the world. One never knows what to expect from him. The only thing I knew about Tyrel (2018) was what I gleaned from a casual sampling of the trailer, which promised racially charged drama and, perhaps, a violent confrontation between the sole African-American character and a half-dozen, or so, white guys intent on making this bro’s-will-be-bro’s weekend one for the ages. Tyler (Jason Mitchell) is welcomed with the same gusto as every other new arrival, even if there’s no clear link between him and the other yahoos. When the booze begins to flow freely, references to Tyler’s singular distinction begin to be dropped into the rowdy conversations. Similar observations are made about the sole Hispanic character and anyone else with distinguishing characteristic. At this moment in American history, when every perceived slur is put under a microscope, the jokes carry added significance. Pretty soon, however, the apologies that follow each gag lose their ability soothe ruffled features. When, the next day, Tyler begs off playing a bruising game on a frozen-over pond, it’s impossible not to see it as a slight against the white guys, who, to be fair, don’t seem to be fazed by the rejection. At one point during the next drinking marathon, Tyler’s ability to overcome lack of sleep and a strong headache causes him to put on the nearest parka and escape into the below-zero Catskills night. When the temperatures get to be too much for the young man, he seeks temporary shelter in a lonely cabin. Instead of a family of white supremacists, meth cookers or lizard people, Tyler’s greeted by a friendly white woman (Ann Dowd), who’d helped his group when their car ran out of guess. More surprises come when he’s introduced to her husband (Reg E. Cathey) and their mixed-race son. When Tyler feels ready to return home, he’s greeted on the road by a large and intimidating party animal, who, we assume, has been sent to retrieve him, at all costs. But, no, all he’s being offered is a ride in a warm car. What gives? And, where are the strippers who inevitably show up at the worst possible time, and are either raped, forced to commit unthinkable sex acts or are tossed into the nearest snow bank, naked, and forced to walk home. Nope, nada, nothing like that occurs. Maybe, later. What Silva accomplishes in Tyrel – the spelling is significant – is the creation of a ticking time-bomb of a thriller, whose fuse appears to malfunction whenever the timer hits 0:00:01. By putting ourselves in Tyler’s shoes, so early in the narrative, we mirror how it must feel, every day, when minorities are surrounded by people in red MAGA caps in public. The same qapplies, of course, when a single white man or woman attends a rally, party or sporting event and is lost in a sea of black, brown, yellow faces. That’s where we’re at in America today and Silva has found a neat way to exploit the kind of loneliness that makes people feel trapped, on one side, and, on the other, by rampant paranoia. Michael Cera, who also starred in Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus is the most-recognizable actor here. The Blu-ray adds an interview with the writer/director.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Because I was taught never to speak ill of the dead – unless they’re Adolph Hitler, James Earl Ray, John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald – I’ll let Alexis Bloom’s horrifying documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes do it for me. Before being buried under a mountain of accusations of gender-related crimes and unconscionable behavior, Ailes enjoyed the support and confidence of Rupert Murdoch. He had, after all, managed the campaigns of politicians who shared the Fox head’s politics, policies and line of bullshit, and turned Fox News into a huge force in the American media.  As such, Ailes did more harm to our democracy than any sitting president, congressman or public official in the last 50 years. His preferred title at Fox News and other stops along the way was “king maker.” From the  1960s’ presidential debates onward, Ailes manipulated the broadcast media into serving as vehicles the lies, distortions and slander served up by ultra-conservative candidates. Fox News represented the realization of a lifetime spent destroying the reputations of people outside the 1 percent of American earners. But, you already knew that. The documentary is even more damning when it recalls Ailes’ 60-year history of blackmailing young women into humiliating themselves sexually, in exchange for jobs, raises and promotions. Sometimes, his demands were limited to leg shows and stripteases, but they escalated from there to blow jobs, intercourse and performing for friends. On camera, he demanded that beautiful blond anchors wear spike heels, short skirts and cross their legs while sinking into couches for inane chats. He even put lights under the news desks to prevent male viewers from getting bored by the right-wing propaganda. When an anchorwoman was sitting at the end of a desk, camera operators were told to shot from an angle that captured their every movement. Imagine your daughter, wife or sister working for a pig like Ailes and his minions. And, as long as he was making money for someone, Ailes had been allowed to get away with such behavior since his days as an executive producer for “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he met Richard Nixon for the first time. It wasn’t until settlements in suits filed against Ailes and commentator Bill O’Reilly passed the $100-million mark that Murdoch, his sons and other Fox executive realized that these bozos were greater liabilities than assets. Even then, his good friend, Donald Trump, used Ailes to prepare for debates and anti-Hillary tantrums. He was an evil man and there probably was a place reserved for him in hell when he died on May 18, 2017, at 77. Like I said, though, Bloom’s documentary makes a far better case for eternal damnation than I ever could.

The Body Snatcher: Blu-ray
The Witches: Blu-ray
Just because Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi had left the Universal Classic Monsters barn by the time production began on RKO Radio Pictures’ The Body Snatcher (1945) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t mentioned alongside any of their better-known horror titles. It’s extremely well-made and still a lot of fun to watch. Most of the credit belongs to producer/co-writer Val Lewton – a true genius of genre filmmaking – and his decision to hire promising director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still). British genre novelist/screenwriter Philip MacDonald (Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto) joined Lewton (as Carlos Keith) in adapting Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 short story of the same title, which he based on real-life body snatchers, who turned to murder when teachers, researchers and surgeons faced  a shortage of legally obtained cadavers. Robert Knox, a noted Edinburgh surgeon, anatomist, zoologist, ethologist and physician, was the chief beneficiary of crimes committed by Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare. They were paid handsomely by Knox to deliver more or less fresh bodies to the university. In 1928, after committing at least 16 murders in 10 months, they were captured. At the trial, Hare turned King’s evidence, while Burke was convicted, hanged, dissected and displayed for the amusement of 25,000 Jacobite spectators, some of whom paid handsomely for the privilege. When Knox escaped prosecution on a technicality, a mob comprised of “the lowest rabble of the Old Town” attacked his house. Although disgraced, he would continue working in the field until his death, in 1862. On the plus side, the trial raised public awareness of the need for bodies for medical purposes, and of the trade that doctors had conducted with grave robbers and murderers. After another corpse-selling ring was broken up, this one in London, a bill was quickly introduced into Parliament, and it gained royal assent nine months later as the Anatomy Act of 1832. It authorized dissection on bodies from workhouses, unclaimed after 48 hours, and ended the practice of anatomizing as part of the death sentence for murder. The filmmakers relied on Stevenson’s story for the thoroughly creepy ending to The Body Snatcher, even if the public record would might have been just as effective. have sufficed. It was one of three films – along with Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) – that Karloff made under Lewton’s guidance for RKO Radio Pictures. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Karloff stated that Lewton was the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored his soul. Lugosi’s role is far less pronounced in the story. Lewton, Wise and cinematographer Robert De Grasse made the most of RKO’s budgetary restrictions and it resulted in a picture that won the respect of critics, then and now. The Scream/Shout package benefits from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; the new featurette, “You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher”; commentary with Wise and writer/film-historian Steve Haberman; the documentary, “Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy; stills galleries; and marketing material.

Although Hammer’s The Witches (a.k.a., “The Devil’s Own”) and Dino de Laurentiis’ La Strega (a.k.a., “The Witches”) were produced almost simultaneously in the mid-1960s – released under the same title in some markets – the common elements begin and end there. That is, unless one considers the near coincidence of their Blu-ray release, a year apart. The short films collected in Arrow Video’s anthology all starred Silvana Mangano. The episodes were directed by Mauro Bolognini (Careless), Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Franco Rossi (Nude Odyssey) and Luchino Visconti (The Leopard). Scream/Shout’s Joan Fontaine-vehicle, was directed by journeyman Cyril Frankel, who was making the transition from documentaries and features, to television. Fontaine, who, a quarter-century earlier, captured the Oscar as Best Actress for Suspicion, reportedly purchased the film rights to Norah Lofts’ novel –written under the nom-de-plume of Peter Curtis — and brought the project to Hammer. A box-office and critical bomb, The Witches would be her last feature. The plot, you might ask? Haunted by the terrors of her experience with African witch doctors, teacher Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) accepts an appointment as headmistress at the quiet, rural Haddaby School, run by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) and his sister, Stephanie (Kay Walsh). Soon enough, however, the pastoral English town reveals itself to be an outpost for witches and subscribers to the dark arts. Voodoo dolls link Gwen’s memories of her African ordeal to what’s happening today. If there’s a genuine scare in the entirety of The Witches, I missed it. The Blu-ray adds commentary with filmmaker/historian Ted Newsom; a stills gallery; vintage trailers; and the entertaining “Hammer Glamour: A Featurette on the Women of Hammer,”  with a half-dozen still-fi 1960-70s scream queens.

Life After Flash: Blu-ray
I must have had other things on my mind when Universal launched the sci-fi fantasy, Flash Gordon, into 823 American theaters on December 6, 1980. It was an updated version of the wildly popular 1930s serials, starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers/Carol Hughes and Charles Middleton, and, I probably assumed, a cheap rip-off of Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Even if that was producer Dino De Laurentiis’ intention, Flash Gordon was anything but a cheap rip-off. Many critics lauded its faithful re-adaptation of the original serial, while the presence of director Mike Hodges (Get Carter), writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Pretty Poison), cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Star Wars), production and costume designer Danilo Donati (Amarcord), Queen (Highlander) and such top-shelf actors as Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal), Brian Blessed (“I Claudius”), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton (License to Kill), Ornella Muti (The Last Woman), Peter Wyngarde (“Doctor Who”) and Mariangela Melato (The Seduction of Mimi) should have alerted me to the movie’s blockbuster potential. Like I said, though, I wasn’t paying attention. The only ringers, it turns out, were unknowns Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson, who were chosen to play protagonists Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, and they did a commendable job in the future cult classic.

Lisa Downs’ incisive documentary, Life After Flash (2017), explains what happened to Jones after his career was nearly ruined by a nasty disagreement with De Laurentiis near the end of Flash Gordon’s production. The chisel-chinned actor never stopped working after being replaced during the dubbing process, but superstar status would forever elude him. Nonetheless fans of the actor and movie still turn out for autographs and photos by the dozens at Comic Cons and memorabilia auctions around the world. Still handsome and buff, at 64, the former Marine is a personable guy, who freely admits to his struggles and mistakes as an actor, husband and father. I don’t know how many fans of George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Klinton Spilsbury (The Legend of the Lone Ranger) and “internationally known and acclaimed actress,” Rula Lenska (Alberto VO5 Shampoo), frequent their appearances at conventions … if any. Jones survived his blunders in much the same way as Adam West overcame his close, campy association with “Batman,”  the 1967 TV series on ABC. Downs devotes an equal amount of time to the production of Flash Gordon, itself, through the candid recollections of Hodges, Stan Lee, Queen’s Brian May and Jones’ co-stars, crew members, fans, sci-fi buffs and family members. Among them are Michael Rooker, Robert Rodriguez, Patrick Warburton, musician Paul Oakenfold, Sean Gunn, Richard Donner, Martha De Laurentiis and Jon Heder. An appreciation of Jones’ body of work or Flash Gordon isn’t necessary to get something out Life After Flash, but it certainly helps. Bonus materials include behind-the-scenes footage and extended interviews with cast and crew. (In a cool cross-promotion gimmick, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment once paired the Blu-ray edition of Flash Gordon with Ted and Ted 2, during which Mark Wahlberg and his stuffed-bear buddy, Ted, frequently reference Jones. It includes, as well, the first episode of the 1936 serial.)

Warning Sign: Blu-ray
Made in 1985, a time when no conspiracy theory was too outrageous to dismiss out of hand, Warning Sign is a paranoid thriller too close to reality for comfort. In this way, at least, it resembled The China Syndrome (1979), The Satan Bug (1965), Soylent Green (1975) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). In the film’s opening moments, we watch a crop duster spray an agricultural field with chemicals created to kill pests, weeds and other deterrents to a profitable yield. We’re then transported to the grounds of a nearby chemical plant, BioTek Agronomics, where, we’re led to believe, such products are formulated. The rest of Warning Sign takes place inside the BioTek complex. When a clumsy researcher drops a vial on the floor and one of his cronies steps on it, we instinctively know that things won’t be the same for anyone in the vicinity. Moreover, fans of such cautionary tales know that a greater catastrophe could be triggered if the substance finds its way into the world outside the facility.

When the impacted worker attempts to leave the building for his nightly commute home, a warning sound blares out, prompting a cleansing ritual right out of Silkwood (1983). It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the plant’s primary product is a bio-chemical weapon and the research is backed by the Pentagon. Soon, scabs begin to form on the faces of BioTek scientists and they begin to act like blood-thirsty ghouls. Because this is a side-effect to the toxin no one in the company anticipated, they’ve failed to produce a vaccine to counteract its effects. Conveniently, sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) – who’s not only married to an endangered guard, Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan), but also is a rogue biologist – is emboldened to break into the infected laboratory and whip a remedy together. Can he do it in time to save the planet? You get one guess. All I’ll reveal is the curious fact that at least one of the women trapped inside the building appears to be immune to the virus and, therein, a cure might be discovered. Hal Barwood’s Warning Sign is every bit as cut-and-dried as that summary makes it sound. Early in their careers, co-screenwriters Barwood and Matthew Robbins worked closely with Steven Spielberg on his debut feature, The Sugarland Express (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), as well as John Badham’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Joe Sargent’s MacArthur (1977) and Robbins’ Dragonslayer (1981) and Corvette Summer (1978). It doesn’t show in Warning Sign, which isn’t as claustrophobic or ominous as it should be. Zombie completists may want to add it to their bucket list, though. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Barwood and producer Jim Bloom, and vintage commentary with Barwood.

Nemesis: Sequel Trilogy: Blu-ray
In December, Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) was released on Blu-ray in a surprisingly generous “Collector’s Edition” as part of MVD’s Rewind Collection. Coming so soon after the first re-discovery of Blade Runner’s brilliance, it seemed to be an unofficial, unsanctioned and unequal sequel to Ridley Scott’s futuristic noir. Even given its budgetary limitations, though, Nemesis didn’t dishonor Blade Runner by skimping on the production values or mocking the science behind the fiction. The Blu-ray release begged the question as to when the company would package the three sequels that quickly followed in original’s  wake. Here it is. Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) is set 73 years after the events depicted in Nemesis, during which humans lost the Cyborg Wars and were enslaved to their robotic masters. In the interim, rebel scientists developed a new DNA strain, which presents a direct threat to cyborg rule. The strain is injected it into a pregnant volunteer, who, when discovered, travels back in time with her baby, on a stolen cyborg time machine. Long story short, the child survives the death of her mother, growing into a formidable young cyber-woman, Alex, who not only is beautiful, but also is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. She’s played by professional body builder and model Sue Price, who sports blond dreadlocks and favors skimpy two-piece outfits. Her existence is discovered by a cyborg bounty hunter, Nebula (Chad Stahelski), who travels back in time to terminate her. In Nemesis 3: Time Lapse, which was cobbled together from scraps collected from the first sequel, Alex learns that she has 20 half-sisters, who are waiting for her to return to the year 2077. Before that can happen, though, Central Command wants her to be captured alive and scanned to see if her DNA is a more powerful strain than normal. Tim Thomerson returns to the franchise, playing the second version of his cyborg character from Nemesis. Alex may be too tough for him to handle, though.

In Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels: Alex finally returns to the future, during an uneasy ceasefire between the humans and the cyborgs. Like other such beings, she is earning a living as a cybernetically enhanced assassin for her boss, Bernardo (Andrew Divoff). When Alex accidentally kills the son of a crime-syndicate boss, he puts a price on her head that other assassins can’t ignore.  Here, the story unspools in an urban setting and Alex has changed her look into something cosmopolitan and traditionally feminine. Pyun also convinced Price to give fanboys a thrill, by instructing the character to shed her clothes for the first time. The package adds three lengthy interviews with Pyun. On June 6, MVD is scheduled to release the Pyun-less Nemesis 5: The New Model, which adds a bit more mileage to the franchise, if not a lot of substance. For it, Price returned to acting for the first time in 21 years.

The Street Fighter Collection: Blu-ray
Sister Street Fighter Collection: Blu-ray
In the wake of Bruce Lee’s untimely death on July 20, 1973, and posthumous release of Enter the Dragon, a month later, producers of martial-arts actioners scrambled to find somehow to fill one of his shoes, at least. In Hong Kong, it was easier to stage retrospectives and bio-docs, frequently with lesser actors adopting variations of his name, than to move forward with new ideas and superstars. That would come a bit later. Thai kick-boxing lacked the broader appeal that came with charismatic stars and complex storylines. Such American and European stars as Jim Kelly, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damm emerged from the pack, as did Asian fighters Jackie Chan, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Chia-Hui Liu and Bolo Yeung. Whether he played a hero or antihero, Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba capably shifted the axis of martial-arts domination from Hong Kong to Japan, at least until Chan developed a style and personality to call his own. Unlike Lee, there was nothing balletic, fluid or nuanced in Chiba’s repertoire of karate, judo and kenpo skills. At times, he defined the term, “bull in a china shop.” But, man, he could fight. After a decade spent playing gangsters, undercover cops, bodyguards and soldiers, Shiba broke through the scrum in The Street Fighter (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial-arts actor in international cinema for the next two decades. Produced by Toei Company Ltd and released in the U.S. by fledgling New Line Cinema, it is notable as the first film to receive an X-rating solely for violence. The MPAA ratings board looked askance at Chiba’s character, Tsurugi, castrating a rapist with his bare hands and crushing another henchman’s skull as if it were an ostrich egg. (Today, it would be released with an R or, worst case, NC-17 designation.)

In it, Takuma Tsurugi is a master of martial arts and much-in-demand mercenary. When an important business magnate dies, leaving billions to his daughter, the Mafia and Yakuza try to hire Takuma to kidnap the girl. When the gangsters refuse to meet his admittedly exorbitant price, they try to kill him to protect their interests. He, then, offers his services to keep her out of harm’s way. That’s all the information one needs to complete the summary. Also included in Shout’s “The Street Fighter Collection” are the sequels Toei produced immediately thereafter to cash in on Chiba’s increased marketability: Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. All three were released in Japan in the same year. In the first R-rated sequel, Tsurugi commits his talents to busting up a phony charity put together by the Yakuza. In “Last Revenge,” which took five years to reach the U.S., albeit in abbreviated form, Tsurugi is involved in a scheme to obtain one of two tapes containing a secret recipe that would allow someone to make high-quality synthetic heroin cheaply. When the deal goes wrong, the mobsters cheat Tsurugi out of his money and try to kill him. He also gets mixed up with a corrupt district attorney, who uses an ancient Korean martial-arts technique to beat up Tsurugi, who will go to great lengths to avoid it happening, again. It also turns out that the D.A. and Takuma are sleeping with the same femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to gets what wants. If the story doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, neither will the plots of most other martial-arts flicks of the period. It isn’t what drew paying customers to theaters. (This includes Alabama and Clarence, in True Romance, who meet at a Sonny Chiba triple-feature.) The Shout collection is enhanced by 2K remasters of the films; uncut versions of the films, as well as the U.S. edition of “Last Revenge”; and lively new interviews with Chiba and filmmaker Jack Shoulder (The Hidden).

The four films in Arrow’s  similarly entertaining “Sister Street Fighter Collection,” series, which began that same year with Sister Street Fighter, starring Chiba-protégée Etsuko Shihomi. After writing her hero a few times, the teenager joined his élite Japan Action Club, where students learned martial-arts technique and performed acting exercises. A quick learner, the onetime gymnast made her feature film debut opposite Sonny in 1973’s Bodyguard Kiba and shortly thereafter landed a supporting role in The Street Fighter. She went on to appear in both Street Fighter sequels and star in all three sequels to Sister Street Fighter, changing her character’s name from Li Koryu, in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (1974) and The Return of the Sister Street Fighter (1975), to Kiku Nakagawa, in Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (a.k.a., “Lethal Woman: Fifth Level Fist”), which probably was envisioned as a stand-alone feature, until studio executives decided that there was nothing to be gained by messing with the brand. Neither did they mess with the basic story elements. In all four movies, the title character is a wonderfully gifted martial artist, who volunteers to travel from Hong Kong to Japan to check on the well-being of a family member or friend who’s disappeared from view and is likely involved in a Yakuza enterprise, be it smuggling, cutting gems, drug trafficking, prostitution, blackmail, or combinations thereof. It doesn’t take long for the mob boss to recognize Li or Kiku as an imposter or undercover cop. He’ll pay his minions a small fortune to eliminate her, but her fighting skills keep her alive. What’s interesting is the large number of fighting styles represented in the clashes, which the producers were kind enough to identify by name, country of origin and weapon of choice, from nunchuks and swords, to darts and tanto daggers. Neither are Shihomi’s characters the only women represented in the melees. There’s also a group of female Thai kickboxers, called the Amazon Seven, (In Sister Street Fighter, Chiba appears in a cameo as a fellow karate master who helps Koryu in her mission.) The Arrow collection adds the excellent featurettes, “Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 3”; “Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Kick Ass Sisters,” with the director, who discusses some of his films, which prominently feature women; “Masahiro Kaketuda: Subversive Action,” with the co-screenwriter of the first three Sister Street Fighter films; isolated score highlights; a stills and poster gallery; international versions; and an insert booklet.

Also from Arrow Video
Phantom Lady: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Kolobos: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Strip Nude for Your Killer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Film noir is elastic enough a subgenre to include private detectives who aren’t particularly hardboiled, lighting schemes that aren’t always dark and shadowy, women who would resent being referred to as a dame or doll, and narratives that don’t need a searchlight to follow. Before watching Robert Siodmak’s “lesser noir” drama, Phantom Lady (1944), I recommend checking out “Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir,” an insightful archival documentary, featuring contributions from directors Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk and Bryan Singer, Dennis Hopper, critic B. Ruby Rich and others, who debate the definitions of noir and neo-noir, using lots of samples of movies that qualify and others that don’t. Siodmak was raised and educated in Germany, where he couldn’t help but be influenced by the techniques of Expressionism, which he would incorporate into his Hollywood assignments (The Killers, The Dark Mirror), especially those compartmentalized as noir. Phantom Lady has also been called Hitchcockian, if only because producer Joan Harrison worked closely with him in England and accompanied him to the U.S., in 1939. (With Harriet Parsons and Virginia Van Upp, was one of only three women working as contract producers for major Hollywood studios between 1943 and 1955.) What Phantom Lady lacks in narrative logic is more than made up for in eccentric stylistic conceits that mask the problems. Basically, it’s about businessman Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who’s framed in the murder of his wife, with whom he’s just had an argument. When Scott gets home from a night spent at a cabaret show, with an equally despondent woman (Fay Helm) he’s just met at a bar, he’s greeted by a trio of callous cops. After he recalls for them his movements from the moment he left home to the moment he returned, he’s still considered to be the prime suspect. The lead inspector (Thomas Gomez) willingly tests Henderson’s alibi, but no one he met the night before – bartender, cabbie, cabaret dancer, a drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) – agrees with his version. Worse, his date has vanished from the face of the Earth. Of course, Henderson comes off as a hopeless fantasist to the jury members and judge, who sentences him to death. His only hope lies in his secretary’s belief in his innocence. Carol (Ella Raines) picks up the investigation where the police dropped it. Then, she’s joined by Gomez and Scott’s best friend (Franchot Tone), whose alibi is being on a ship headed to Cuba that night. At 87 minutes, viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief to the limits of their patience. I suspect that Cornell Woolrich’s hit novel left less to the imagination. The package also includes a rare, hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady, by the Lux Radio Theater; a stills and promotional gallery; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by author Alan K. Rode.

In addition to classics, cult favorites and genre fare, Arrow will occasionally release on Blu-ray a pristinely archived edition of a film so obscure that its creators may not remember making it. Kolobos (1999) is just such a flick. Co-writers/co-directors Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk, and co-writer Nne Ebong, don’t appear to have benefitted much from the straight-to-video release, although a few of the actors would enjoy a couple of moments in the sun. It would be difficult not recognize Kolobos’ antecedents: Suspiria (1977), MTV’s “The Real World” (1992), Cube (1997) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), or such coincidental descendants as CBS’ “Big Brother” (2000) and “Survivor” (2000), Saw (2004) and My Little Eye (2002). The film begins with a couple coming across a severely wounded girl, who can only utter the word “kolobos.” It, then, flashes back a few days, to the arrival of an artist named Kyra (Amy Weber) at a house, with several other college-age kids who’ve agreed to take part in an experimental film. It requires them to live together for three months, while cameras record their interactions. Kyra’s artwork, which appears to be inspired by a creepy faceless entity, disturbs her new housemates. Certain members of the group don’t get along so well, but things don’t turn nasty until the house literally shuts itself off from the outside world and a series of deadly traps picks them off one by one. Each murder is ghastly in its own way. Then, of course, the story flashes forward briefly to Kyra’s portentous stay in the hospital. Kolobos doesn’t fit naturally into the haunted-house subgenre. The murders are gory enough to qualify the movie as “torture porn,” while the budget and production values probably fit within the D.I.Y. framework. Completists will certainly want to give Kolobos a peek. (At one point, Kyra observes, “Kolobos means ‘mutilated.’ Some would say it’s what Zeus did when he severed the first creatures who roamed the earth in two, condemning them to wander in search of their better half.”) The Blu-ray features a fresh 2K restoration from the original negative; original stereo and 5.1 audio options; commentary with Liatowitsch and Ocvirk; a new featurette, “Real World Massacre: The Making of Kolobos,” and interviews with actor Ilia Volok, the actor who played “Faceless,” and composer William Kidd; a behind-the-scenes image gallery; a Super 8 short film, by Liatowitsch; and, with the first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Phillip Escott.

Nowhere is the nexus between sex, violence and horror more pronounced than in special Blu-ray editions of “Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz” and Strip Nude for Your Killer. One of the most underrated and oft-neglected genre filmmakers of his generation, Catalonian director José Ramón Larraz finally receives his due in this collection of three creepy/sexy films from the first half of his 32-year cinematic career. Rarely seen, Whirlpool (1970) was his debut feature. It features Vivian Neves, as Tulia, a young model invited to a photographer’s secluded country home for a weekend retreat. A ménage-a-trois develops between Tulia, the decidedly perverse photographer (Karl Lanchbury) and a MILF-y magazine editor (Pia Andersson). Tulia has good reason to become concerned about the arrangement, when a local police detective arrives at the estate to investigate the disappearance of a previous guest, played by another model-turned-actress, Johanna Hegger. Whirlpool contains lots of nudity, feigned sex, a ghost and murder. Vampyres (1974) is the most widely-released of all Larraz’ films, if only because of the irresistible combination of beautiful lesbian vampires (Marianne Morris, Anulka Dziubinska), handsome male victims (Murray Brown, Brian Deacon, Michael Byrne), a busty tourist (Sally Faulkner), beaucoup nudity and gallons of blood. As an additional bonus, Vampyres was shot almost entirely at Oakley Court, a stately mansion also used on Rocky Horror Picture Show. In The Coming of Sin (1978), a superstitious, illiterate gypsy servant girl, Triana (Lidia Zuazo), is invited to move into the rural estate of a solitary female artist, Lorna (Patricia Granada). Triana experiences recurring nightmares of a naked man – a handsome, young gypsy – riding a magnificent steed, bareback. When Lorna meets Chico (Rafael Machado), the man she assumes is from Triana’s dreams, she can’t help but be attracted to him. Lorna will ignore her maid’s warnings about the danger presented by Chico, even going so far as to inviting him into the villa and painting him alongside Triana, in Goya-esque poses. She also encourages Chico to bring his entire family for a party, at which the paintings will be displayed. Trouble ensues. Coming of Sin was distributed around the world, but under different titles and varying degrees of censorship. The limited-edition collection features all three films, newly restored in 2K from original film elements; an extensive menu of newly produced bonus material, including commentaries, interviews and unseen archival content; newly commissioned artwork, by Gilles Vranckx; an 80-page perfect-bound book, with new writing by Jo Botting, Tim Greaves and Vanity Celis; and the frighteningly erotic 27-minute short, “His Last Request” (2005), directed by Simon Birrell and made under the guidance of Larraz.

As the 1970s wore on and audiences began to tire of the tried and tested giallo formula, Italian filmmakers sought to reinvigorate the ailing movement by injecting elements from other genres. Some took inspiration from the then-burgeoning crime/thriller movement, with tales of organized crime and corrupt police officials, while others decided to sex things up by crossing serial-killer thrills with salacious softcore antics. In Andrea Bianchi and co-writer Massimo Felisatti’s Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975), a spate of highly sexualized murders is rocking a prestigious Milanese fashion house. Ambitious photographer Magda (Edwige Fenech) and her boyfriend, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo), team up to crack the case. The common denominator is a leather-clad intruder, who wears a motorcycle helmet and knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. Although there are plenty of suspects, the revelation of the killer’s identity may take many viewers by surprise. Once again, the nudity is plentiful, as are such diversions as kitschy fashion shoots, a back-alley abortion, blow-up sex dolls and bawdy humor. It, too, benefits from a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative; enhanced subtitles; new audio commentary by horrorpedia.com’s Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; “Sex and Death With a Smile,” a fresh video essay by author and critic Kat Ellinger on giallo and sex comedy icon Edwige Fenech; “A Good Man for the Murders,” a newly edited video interview with actor Nino Castelnuovo; “The Blonde Salamander,” with actress Erna Schurer; “The Art of Helping,” with assistant director Daniele Sangiorgi; an interview with actor and production manager Tino Polenghi; two versions of the opening scene, tinted and un-tinted; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collectors’ booklet, with a new essay by critic Rachael Nisbet.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Victoria and Albert: The Wedding
PBS: NOVA: Pluto and Beyond
PBS: Nature: Equus: Story of the Horse
PBS is to Britain’s royal family what the Trumps are to Fox News: gifts that keep on giving. “Victoria and Albert: The Wedding” aired in the runup to the third-season premiere of the network’s much-admired mini-series, “Victoria.” Naturally, when the BBC decided to re-stage the world’s most lavish and expensive wedding to date, it tapped Lucy Worsley, the network’s historian of choice. Her sparkling personality stands in direct contrast to previous BBC presenters, who, by comparison, made Prince Phillip look like Buddy Hackett. In doing so, she scoured archival materials from several museums and libraries, as well Queen Victoria’s diaries. Not all of them had been preserved, but those that were available allowed Worsley to offer guidance and supervision to dozens of artisans hired  for the project. She accomplished this much in the same way that Victoria and her staff had pulled things together for the all-day gala on February 10, 1840. Worsley also delights in recounting the story of Victoria and Albert’s courtship and engagement, and the new king’s efforts to win over detractors of the German invader. More than anything else, however, the two-part mini-series explains how this one extraordinary event helped to invent the modern “white wedding.” The meals are replicated in ways that almost defy the laws of gravity, architecture and economics. We’re taken to the royal archives, where various pieces of wedding attire are stored. Absent wedding photographs, the show’s producers relied on George Hayter’s painting, “The Marriage of Queen Victoria,” which took the artist more than two years to complete. It detailed the placement of the guests and clergy, as well as dresses and military garb of those in attendance.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. For the next 62 years, it was considered the ninth planet in the solar system. Between 1992 and 2006, astronomers with too much time on their hand debated whether  Pluto was, in fact, a planet; a dwarf planet among other dwarves in the Kuiper belt; or a giant snowball. It took the International Astronomical Union all that time to define the term “planet” formally and reclassify Pluto as a dwarf. It pissed off a lot of astronomy buffs, lower-grade researchers and sci-fi enthusiasts. Pluto has five known moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra — but is less massive than Eris, another dwarf in the belt. While the geniuses at the IAU played the name game, NASA went ahead and launched the New Horizons interplanetary space probe and pointed it towards the soon-to-be-disrespected non-planet. It took the spacecraft nine years to accomplish its primary mission — a fly-by study of Pluto’s surface — and begin its secondary objective, which includes flying by and studying one or more other Kuiper belt objects. “NOVA: Pluto and Beyond” tells the amazing story of the mission, so far, through downloaded photographs, data, interviews and speculation. The probe then headed for Ultima Thule, for another flu-by and downlink.

The fascinating two-part “Nature” presentation, “Equus: Story of the Horse” traces the evolution of the horse from its emergence as a small multi-toed creature, Eohippus, into the large, single-toed animal of today. The process has occurred over the past 45 to 55 million years. Humans began domesticating horses around 4000 BC, and their domestication is believed to have been widespread by 3000 BC. Since then, they’ve helped shape the human world, conquering distances and other obstacles to progress, sometimes at full speed and, when necessary, pulling great loads. They’ve lifted countless warriors to victory and died beside less-fortunate riders on the fields of battle. In Part II, we follow the producers as they study the bloodlines of very different breeds of horses around the planet and use modern technology to discover why Thoroughbred racehorses sometimes appear as if they’re taking  flight. With the Kentucky Derby just around the corner the DVD is a perfect way to prepare for the annual display of pageantry, beauty and speed.

The DVD Wrapup: Mary Returns, Becoming Astrid, Quake, Holiday, Vengeance, Out of Love, HoneyGlue, Born in East L.A., Greasy Strangler, Mystery Road … More

Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The release of Mary Poppins Returns, on DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD, provides a great excuse for fans of the 1964  musical/fantasy to re-focus on the story behind the myth. It might not be essential to any enjoyment of Disney’s adaptation of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel – or its 2018 re-adaptation – but it’s always fun to spray graffiti on our landmarks.Many pop-historians thought Saving Mr. Banks (2013) would settle the score on who did what to whom and why Travers was so incensed by the Disney version. What, she was? Yes, but that’s not exactly how John Lee Hancock’s otherwise entertaining biopic, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, saw it. In fact, it echoed so many other Disney fantasies that merged fact with fiction in defense of a happy ending. What it didn’t explain was the mysterious lack of sequels to Mary Poppins, which normally would have spawned adaptations of all eight of the books in the series, which began in 1934 and didn’t end until 1988. It was a big commercial hit, with 13 Oscar nominations – winning five – and nearly unanimous praise from critics. In fact, Uncle Walt was so distressed over the possibility that Travers would spoil the gala opening, he made sure that she wasn’t invited. (She found an executive, who soothed her features by adding her name to the guest list.) In fact, most of Travers’ complaints didn’t hold water, then, and they still don’t. Instead, this wonderfully talented Australian-born writer should have followed the good witch Glinda’s advice to Dorothy, click the heels of her ruby slippers together three and chant, “There’s no place like home.” Or, she might have been better advised to anticipate the advice given to viewers of Last House on the Left (1972): “keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie,’ and a good one, at that.” Still, even with its revisionist take on a historic event, Saving Mr. Banks wasn’t all that far off the mark. There’s no faulting the actors’ portrayal of Disney or Travers, or Hancock’s depiction of the collaborative process that made Mary Poppins such a treat. (A quick perusal of the trivia sections at IMDB.com provides explanations for most of the misrepresentations.) In 2004, a stage musical adaptation opened on London’s West End, and, two years later, on Broadway.

The production defied her wish that no one who worked on the movie be allowed to contribute to any subsequent adaptation. And, Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Misérables”) did agree to her stipulation about only hiring English-born writers and crew. Wisely, though, Mackintosh and the folks at Walt Disney Theatrical chose to include original songs by the Sherman Brothers, with additional material by Brit tunesmiths George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The live musical did very well in both countries. Travers softened her anti-Disney stance in the 1980s, but all sorts of creative differences arose, anyway, delaying its launch until well after her death, in 1996. Flash ahead to Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel in most of the usual ways, it does tweak Julie Andrew’s sunny interpretation of the magical nanny’s personality, making her more outwardly stern and inflexible with Michael Banks’ three children. In Emily Blunt’s talented hands, Poppins is truer to Travers’ original description of the character. The family’s situation is quite a bit more dire, as well. The story is set in Depression-era London, a year after the untimely passing of Michael’s wife and 25 years since the events of Mary Poppins. Older sister Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) has moved into the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, largely to keep Annabel, John and Georgie from tearing the house into pieces and helping longtime housekeeper, Ellen (Emily Walters), feed and clothe them. When Jane isn’t doing that, she is a labor organizer. It’s a career choice that Disney wouldn’t have tolerated. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is preoccupied by threats from his boss, William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth), to foreclose on his home and fire him. As the bank’s deadline approaches, Mary conjures a plan to save the house and give Weatherall his comeuppance, all in one fell swoop.

By now, she’s got the kids working as a unit, alongside cockney lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Admiral Boom (David Warner) and first-mate Mister Binacle (Jim Norton), and Jack’s fellow lamplighter, Angus (Tarik Frimpong). Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameos in smaller, but still crucial scenes. Miranda and Blunt’s acting and singing in new, Broadway-ready production numbers – “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” — energize Mary Poppins Returns, without doing any damage to the Sherman Brothers’ original time-honored soundtrack, which can be heard in the background. Neither are we allowed to forget Mary Poppin’s mission to promote the notion that “everything is possible, even the impossible,” especially if Michael and Jane can rekindle their childhood enthusiasm for discovery and balancing work and play. My only problem with the picture is its length. At 130 minutes, I doubt that most younger viewers possess the stamina to stay with Mary Poppins Returns until the uplifting ending, which transcends the darkness by adding some pixie dust. (It’s correctly rated PG, for “some mild thematic elements and brief action.”) The 4K UHD presentation nicely enhances Marshall’s shifting color palette, depending on the outdoor setting, post-Victorian fashions and the live-action animation. The shimmering cityscape in the opening credits reminded me of Claude Monet’s “London, Houses of Parliament” series and other Impressionist views of urban life.

Bolstered by HDR color enhancements, the 4K produces a mild increase in sharpness over the Blu-ray, offering slightly more clear and nuanced textures across the board. Only audio geeks and purists are likely detect much of a difference between Mary Poppins Returns‘ Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. The bonus material is contained exclusively on the bundled Blu-ray disc. (A commentary track with Marshall and producer John DeLuca is available only with the enclosed digital version.) Also included  are the on-screen “Sing-Along Mode”; “Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns,” in which cast and crew members discuss the impact of the 93-year-old hoofer’s appearance in the film and how it shaped the production by returning an original cast member to the set; “Practically Perfect Bloopers”; “Seeing Things From a Different Point of View,” a collection of making-of shorts that focus on several of the musical numbers; “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” on the song’s importance to the film and how the choreography developed as an homage to the original film (young viewers are allowed to ask the musical question, “What the hell is a light fantastic?”); “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”/”A Cover Is Not the Book,” in which cast and crew discuss the challenges of filming live-action sequences that show up in the animated world; “Turning Turtle” explores set design for the “Topsy Turvy” sequence, with Meryl Streep, and how the musical number came together; “Can You Imagine That?,” a look at creating the magical sequence in the bathtub, including the slide used to move the characters into the underwater world and the rigging used to green-screen the scene before the CGI was added; the deleted song, “The Anthropomorphic Zoo”; the four-part “Practically Perfect Making of Mary Poppins Returns; “Nowhere to Go But Up” highlights Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke’s work and impact on the film; and deleted scenes.

Becoming Astrid
At its core, Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid is a coming-of-age story about a Swedish teenager, Astrid Lindgren, required to clear several hurdles before emerging, years later, as one of the most celebrated authors of children’s literature on the planet. If the name rings a bell, it’s because of her authorship of the Pippi Longstocking stories. The events covered in Becoming Astrid occur almost 20 years before the first of those beloved books was published. Instead of focusing on the development of her most popular character, the movie considers how her ability to overcome the social and religious stigmas of her time informed everything that would happen later. Raised on a modest dairy farm, by simple God-fearing parents, Astrid knew that her horizons expanded further than those typically allowed Scandinavian villagers. After graduating from high school, the whip-smart Astrid (Alba August) jumped at the opportunity to work for the editor of a local newspaper. Reinhold Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen) was several years older than his intern, married and the father of one of her classmates. Because Blomberg was in the process of divorcing his wife, he was vulnerable to the attention of a prime-and-proper teenager, in a hurry to grow up. If Christensen and her co-writer/husband Kim Fupz Aakeson don’t present the characters’ ensuing affair as a prime example of an early #MeToo moment, contemporary viewers won’t miss what’s right before her eyes. That’s because, when Astrid becomes pregnant, she’s the one required to give up a promising career and move out of town. Even though Blomberg promises they will be married, as soon as the divorce is finalized, we know that it’s unlikely to happen. Instead, Mrs. Blomberg sniffs out the situation and threatens her husband with charges of adultery and a never-ending trial. To avoid complications for her parents, who are reliant on the church for their living, Astrid decides to move secretly into a home for unwed mothers in Copenhagen, where she isn’t required to disclose the baby-daddy’s name. Eventually, she gives up on any chance that Blomberg will ever be in a position to acknowledge Lars as his child. Fortuitously, the saint-like woman who agrees to be the child’s foster mom is agreeable to regular visits from Astrid and a co-parenting arrangement. She’s working at the Royal Automobile Club, in Stockholm, and struggling build a nestegg. Lars isn’t quite as accommodating, however, feeling safer around the foster mother, Maria Bonnevie, wonderfully played by Trine Dyrholm (Nico, 1988).

Things come to a head, once again, when Maria is diagnosed with a fatal illness and Astrid must find a way to care for her toddler, while working  at the office as a proofreader. In what appears to be another perfect setting for a #MeToo moment, her new employer recognizes her dilemma and cuts her the slack she needs to attend to her son and still meet her deadlines. Our fears that Sture Lindgren (Björn Gustafsson), who’s married, will attempt to take advantage of Astrid, for once, aren’t realized. Indeed, they will spend the next 20 years together, as a married couple and parents of a daughter, Karin … off-screen. Long before that happens, however, Becoming Astrid ties a bow on the package, by allowing her to return to home town, with Lars in tow, where she’ll enjoy a sincere rapprochement with her parents and a family visit to church. To constantly remind viewers of the reasons we should care about her protagonist – years before Pippi enters Astrid’s life — Christensen creates a framing device build around letters she would receive decades later from young readers, who credit the stories for inspiring them to dream and overcome obstacles to success. Apropos of nothing, Lindgren created the mischievous 9-year-old, whose red hair is woven into braids, to amuse her daughter when she was sick and confined to her bed. Karin even came up with the girl’s delightful name.  The impact of Pippi’s rebellious personality on women born in the wake of World War II and, of course, their own daughters, wouldn’t be felt until the late 1960s, when the Women’s Liberation Movement forever changed male/female dynamic. Pippi also was an early, if subliminal model for women who would lead the charge in the movement to empower women. Stieg Larsson has admitted Pippi’s likeness to Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She could have been the patron saint of women belonging to Wild Grrrl bands of the early 1990s and the SuicideGirls’ online community. Alba August, whose parents are Swedish/Danish filmmakers, Bille and Pernilla August, was an excellent choice to play the girl who traded milking pails for typewriters and printers’ ink. Although I wouldn’t necessarily limit my recommendation of Becoming Astrid to teenage girls and women who grew up on Lindberg’s books, it’s the movie’s natural audience.

The Quake: Blu-ray
Like its 2015 predecessor, The Wave, the disaster depicted in The Quake is based on the laws of scientific probability and the real impact of previous tragedies. Roar Uthaug’s regional blockbuster, The Wave, was inspired by a geological event that occurred on April 7, 1934, in Tafjorden, Norway, when a huge chunk of a steep mountain fell 700 meters, into the fjord, creating a 62-meters-high tsunami. It swept away two villages, killing dozens, and prompted calls for early-warning systems. In the latter, John Andreas Andersen resets much of the calamitous action that made The Wave a hit, back in the partially restored village of Geirangerfjord, which was destroyed in the earlier picture. Also returning in The Quake is Norwegian actor Kristoffer Joner, as geologist Kristian Eikjord, the man credited with saving hundreds of lives in the tsunami. Three years later, Kristian is suffering from a debilitating bout of post-tsunami-stress disorder and depression, sufficiently serious to cause his wife and children to move to a high-rise in the capital. Although he’s still haunted by the faces of victims of the tsunami, he’s become fixated on the possibility of another disaster tearing through a more populated region. In 1904, a 5.4 earthquake shook Oslo, along the Oslo Graben rift, which, like the San Andreas Fault, presents a constant danger to the urban center. When a colleague is killed in a rockslide, inside a closed transit tunnel outside Oslo, Kristian visits the city to discover what the scientist was researching at the time of his death. Mostly, though, he wants to warn officials of the possibility of a similar disaster occurring sometime soon and encourage them to begin preparations for it. Kristian also wants to reconnect with his family and the daughter of his friend. In a Hollywood remake – please Lord, no – Jonas could be replaced by Steve Buscemi, to whom he bears a physical resemblance. Conveniently, just as city officials are preparing to write Kristian off as just another boy crying wolf, a series of electrical blackouts begin to occur. I’ll let you guess what happens next. The narratives of both The Wave and The Quake remain solidly in Syfy Channel territory, until the disasters strike and things get very exciting, indeed. The movies’ techies create a great deal of mayhem on budgets comparable to just over $5 million. In John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake, the anemic budget allows just enough leeway for an exciting escape from a bar/restaurant, teetering precariously at a chillingly high distance from the ground. The luscious scenery looks great on Blu-ray, which also adds an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Holiday
For her freshman feature, Swedish multi-hyphenate Isabella Eklöf wears the influence of Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export) like a tattoo drawn on her chest. That shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It’s also possible that Holiday was inspired by such sun-drenched dramas as Sexy Beast (2000), Sand Dollars (2014), Heading South (2005), Swimming Pool (2003), The Limey (1999) and Seidel’s Paradise Trilogy (2012). If none is a direct match to Holiday, they all feature characters who travel from the dreary climes of northern Europe, to places where an overabundance of sunshine and sex erase well-drawn boundaries separating decorum and risky business. The poster photo showed rising Danish star Victoria Carmen Sonne posing on an idyllic white-sand beach, probably on the Turkish Riviera, where much of Holiday was shot. Indeed, her stance and modest swimsuit wouldn’t have been out of place on the covers of such magazines as Travel, Famous Models and, yes, Holiday, from the 1950s. The appropriately named actress also graces the cover of the DVD. This time, however, Sonne’s balancing her well-toned bottom on a railing over a yacht’s tapered bow. If her character, Sascha, seems a tad more common here, it’s only because she’s looking over her shoulder with an inquisitive stare. Add heart-shaped sunglasses and she’d be the spitting image of Lolita, and just as barely legal. Sascha’s just arrived in Bodrum, on her way to her gangster boyfriend’s mancave and yacht. Once there, Michael (Lai Yde) treats her as if she were an apprentice tart on holiday, enjoying her presence one minute and pummeling her the next. The beatings usually lead to rough sex … the kind even a compliant teenage girlfriend, well on her way to becoming a sex slave, might try to avoid. Even if Michael knows no limits, Sascha understands that the primary benefit of being a modern mobster’s moll is unlimited access to champagne, cocaine, jewelry and expensive modes of transportation. Curiously, Sascha doesn’t even appear to mind being passed along to his cronies. Eklöf doesn’t turn the burners up until the 50-minute mark into her story, co-written by first-timer Johanne Algren. It’s when a vicious sexual assault – the kind that gives some men a kick, but will leave the victim fighting for life — makes something snap inside Sascha, and she knows that she’s reached a point no return. She can either go back home and become a barista, or, she could continue to enjoy the trappings of wealth and power as a sociopathic leach, not unlike Theresa Russell’s character, in Black Widow (1987), or Thomas Ripley, in Patricia Highsmith novels and adaptations.

Vengeance: A Love Story: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, stuntman-turned-director/producer Johnny Martin (Case#13) adapted Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, “Rape: A Love Story,” as Vengeance: A Love Story. It may have been the only sound choice he made in the run-up to the straight-to-VOD thriller. It removes any ambiguity Oates may have built into the title of her story, without forcing writer John Mankiewicz (“House of Cards”) to conjure any more of his own device … or subtlety, for that matter. By comparison, Vengeance: A Love Story makes the Charles Bronson-vehicle Death Wish (1974) and more recent Peppermint (2018), starring Jessica Alba, look nuanced and contemplative. In all three of these revenge-driven films, the vigilante protagonist reacts not only to the murder/rape of loved ones by garden-variety hoodlums, but also the miscarriages of justice that follow. The same pattern was repeated in Oates’ novella. In it, Teena Maguire (Anna Hutchison) and her pre-teen daughter, Bethie (Talitha Eliana Bateman), decide to walk home from a 4th of July party, at midnight, through a wooded area on the fringes of Niagara Falls. Of course, they are attacked by a group of semi-literate hairballs, who remember Teena from high school. They’ve been celebrating our nation’s birthday by drinking cheap liquor and smoking crank. The cheerleader-cute blond is dragged into a remote boathouse and gang-raped, while Bethie is forced to watch, only a few feet away from her sister. It’s one of the most vicious sexual attacks I’ve seen in a TV-MA movie and Teena is given little chance of survival.

Enter John Dromoor (Cage), a Gulf War veteran and police detective, who’s just returned to work after the traumatic loss of his partner in a chase. He finds Bethie, walking in the middle of a road, screaming hysterically, immediately after the attack. It doesn’t take long for Dromoor to track down the rapists, who would be among the usual suspects in any crime committed within earshot of the falls. After Bethie identifies the attackers in a lineup and Teena slowly recovers from her wounds, the young men’s mother forcibly convinces her husband to mortgage their home to afford the best defence lawyer in the region, unctuously played a slick-as-owl-shit Don Johnson. Naturally, he uses the judge’s acquiescence to batter the prosecution witnesses, including Teena and Bethia, guaranteeing a dismissal of charges. Anyone who’s watched similar tales, made in the wake of Death Wish, already knows what happens next and who the avenging angel will be. The only thing left to determine is the meaning of “Love Story” in the titles of the book and movie. It’s not as obvious as one might think. Cage has played any number of cold-blooded killers and sociopaths – on both sides of the law – and, here, he’s spot-on. He even dispenses with most of his trademark theatrics. It’s always nice to find Deborah Kara Unger in a juicy role, this time as Teena and Bethia’s mother. The scenes shot at the rim of the falls are better than anything in the movie’s by-the-numbers script. For those, the production moved to the Atlanta area.

Out of Love: Blu-ray
Filmed and set in the great melting pot that is the Netherlands, sophomore writer/director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s contentious drama, Out of Love, prompts viewers to ask themselves several tough questions: how much leeway should we give lovers, who, after meeting cute, inexplicably turn into monsters; how can characters we start out liking not see the same storm clouds moving in that we do; what are we missing here, anyway; and how many times can a filmmaker pull the rug out from viewers, before we can no longer fight the urge to get up and go home. Varya (Naomi Velissariou) and Nikolai (Daniil Vorobyov) hook up after their eyes meet over the counter in a neighborhood restaurant. He’s in the kitchen, cooking, while she’s at the bar, drinking. Before too long, the Greek woman and Russian man are in bed having great sex. It’s first time we’re allowed to feel good about them, as a couple. The next time comes  when they appear to be testing the Ronettes’ time-honored theorem, “The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up (with me).” At first, we’re willing to consider the possibility that their fights are minor inconveniences. Then, Nikolai’s rage issues begin to surface, triggered, first, by Varya’s cooking, which doesn’t measure up to his. His outbursts are greeted by tantrums of her own, in which dishware and other moveable objects become casualties of war. Still, the makeup sex is pretty good. Jealousy, greed and insecurity push them to the brink of despair and separation, which, as long as they don’t have kids, is OK with us. When they meet again, near the 90-minute mark, we couldn’t care less about what happens to them. In another lifetime, maybe, these inarguably cute kids might have been able to overcome their differences and agree never to cook for each other, again.

Beyond Atlantis: Blu-ray
This low-budget, lower-profile drive-in non-thriller from 1973 combined recognizable elements of South of Pago Pago (1940), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). It did so, without adding anything positive to the time-honored story of beautiful mermaids and amphibious mermen, determined to protect a fortune in pearls from outsiders. The island’s inhabitants believe they’re survivors of the calamity that wiped out Atlantis, as do some Basques, and it’s their duty to honor its legacy. Unlike most other products from Eddie Romero, John Ashley and Sid Haig’s Philippine grindhouse factory –  Black Mama White Mama (1973), Savage Sisters (1974) and The Woman Hunt (1972), come to mind — Beyond Atlantis is an exploitation picture with no exploitable content. That is, unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, whose computer blocks all adult content, and you’ll settle for Amazons in shaggy bikinis. That’s because co-star Patrick Wayne insisted that the film be family friendly and go out PG-rated. Beyond Atlantis has been described by Corman graduate David DeCoteau as “one of the very few family-oriented B movies to come out of the Philippines.” It’s probably the closest thing to a compliment – bank-handed, as it may be – the film received. If Romero and Ashley could have predicted the VHS revolution, they might have gone ahead with plans for the mermaids to go topless and held the footage for an optional director’s-cut edition. The scenes that would have benefited most from the partial nudity are clearly visible in the finished product and any alterations would have been seamless. The cover illustration wouldn’t have to be changed, at all. As it is, Beyond Atlantis probably would have attracted more family audiences if it had been animated. Still, Romero, Ashley and Haig completists will want to take a peek at it. Bonus features include the original theatrical trailer; interviews with Ashley, Haig and actress Leigh Christian; commentary track with makeup-effects specialists Howard S. Berger and Pinoy film historian, Andrew Leavold; the 13-minute “John Ashley Remembered,” which was culled from interviews done for Mark Hartley’s 2010 documentary, “Machete Maidens Unleashed”; a photo and pressbook gallery; Berger also contributes an essay, which is printed on the inside of the cover.

The Greasy Strangler: Special Director’s Edition: Blu-ray
After somehow surviving two separate viewings of Jim Hosking and co-writer Toby Harvard’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) – three years apart – I’m prepared to defend it as the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures released after Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Apart from being a modern gross-out classic, The Greasy Strangler is consistently funny and occasionally hilarious. The humor isn’t “ironic” and the total package is too shrewdly conceived to qualify for “so bad, it’s good” status. It knows how far the envelope can be pushed and tests viewers ability to laugh out loud, while vomiting. In it, extreme social misfits, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and his son, Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), live in a house that’s always on the verge of being condemned, subsisting on food whose expiration dates are long past and probably had been scavenged from dumpsters. No matter how vile it looks and tastes, Daddy Dearest insists on slathering on obscene amounts of grease. No surprise, they’re seriously out of shape, hideously coiffed, dressed in thrift-shop rejects and frequently air out their diseased cocks in public. Even though we know they’re prosthetic, the thought of any woman allowing the men to penetrate their orifices is sickening. And yet, a short, nearly rotund tourist they me       et while conducting one of their bogus Disco Walking Tours falls in love with both the color-coordinated men. Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) may be nearly as out of shape as Big Ronnie and Big Brayden, but she’s exponentially more conscious of personal hygiene and the need for borders. Janet’s willingness to share the attentions of father and son sparks a winner-take-all war between them. It also brings out the beast in Big Ronnie, who, while slathered with grease (tapioca), joins the ranks of sociopathic serial killers. After each murder, he walks through the swirling brushes at the carwash managed by Big Paul (Gil Gex), who’s blind and an easy mark for his friend’s hand-drawn counterfeit bills. It goes on like this until the movie’s slimy ending. The unrated The Greasy Strangler should come with a warning from the surgeon general attached to it, at least. The special Blu-ray edition includes 5.1 Surround Sound stereo and, of course, English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired; cast and crew interviews; commentary with  Hosking, St. Michaels and Elobar, whose careers don’t appear to have been stunted by their participation is The Greasy Strangler.

Born in East L.A.: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump’s immigration policy began to take shape after ordering one of his minions to pick up a VHS cassette of Wall Street (1987) – his favorite movie, despite its fake liberal ending – and finding a cassette of Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (1987), instead. Although it was rented as part of a 2-for-1 Tuesday promotion and intended for the personal enjoyment of his soon-to-be-fired houseboy, the future POTUS mistook it for a documentary and freaked out. When he realized his mistake and re-watched Born in East L.A. to find its deeper meaning, his delusional mind saw it as a work of prophesy. Instead of watching hundreds of illegal immigrants being led into the Promised Land by the wrongly deported Rudy (Marin) and his Salvadoran girlfriend, Dolores (Kamala Lopez), he somehow got it into his orange head that the freedom-seeking throng was comprised entirely of undocumented zombies, hoping to steal American jobs. The horrifying vision never left his mind. As such, Born in East L.A. is several times more relevant today, than it was in 1987, when the men and women were welcomed to the U.S. by farmers in need of pickers, willing to break their backs for sub-minimum-wage pay, and owners of food-processing plants, where it wasn’t uncommon for workers to have parts of their bodies sliced off by razor-sharp tools and thrown into the bologna.

Thirty years later, it’s entirely possibly our president is putting our economy at risk because he still can’t parse the difference between people desperate to escape poverty, gangs and tyranny for flesh-devouring fiends. Born in East L.A. may not feel as madcap as it did 40 years ago, but it’s topicality can’t be ignored. The scenes shot on the Tijuana side of the border, especially those set in the hillsides still used as rallying points for the refugees, take on a fresh aura of poignancy. In an interview included in the Blu-ray, Marin doesn’t make any excuses for the film’s slapdash appearance, except to point out its strictly monitored budget and shooting schedule. Tommy Chong only appears in a stream of cameos, during which Paul Rodriguez mistakes a painting of Jesus on the cross for the real thing. They’re still very funny. The Blu-ray adds Marin’s commentary; a 31-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a telling interview with  Rodriguez; “What Is a Disco Bunnies?,” with Lopez; a stills gallery; and the 93-minute, extended television cut of the movie, which sanitized the R-rated material in the theatrical version, while adding several deleted scenes.

Honeyglue
Then Came You: Blu-ray
The Long Goodbye
These three heart-rending films confront the subject of dying unnaturally young head-on, while also describing how the unfortunate women benefit from the kindness of friends, family members and, of course, strangers. The cancer patients in these modestly budgeted indies lose their hair, along with muscle tone, weight, their appetites and, sometimes, good reasons to fight for their lives. They stand in direct contrast to protagonists in Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), a hugely popular tragedy based on Erich Segal’s best-selling tearjerker and screenplay. Back then, viewers weren’t given a name for Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri’s suddenly devastating illness. Neither was Ali MacGraw required to sacrifice her hair for the role, lose weight or modify her natural beauty. (In Segal’s book, leukemia is mentioned as the disease that claim Jenny’s life, but the producers felt as if the reality of its impact could turn off paying customers.) Today, Jenny and Oliver (Ryan O’Neill) might have been able to survive their ordeal, through chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments unavailable to cancer patients in 1970. No actress would refuse to cut her hair off, if it meant landing a role in a sure-fire blockbuster. Neither would audiences be freaked out by having to witness the slow decline of a character they’d grown to love. Neither do these three new releases attempt to squeeze teardrops from the eyes of viewers, who know when they’re being manipulated into reacting to tragedies as if they hadn’t watched friends or relatives die before their eyes. None of the films is perfect, but all of them possess qualities that are life-affirming and inspirational.

James Bird’s Honeyglue is a prime example of the kind of movie that wouldn’t have found backers in the 1970s.The thoroughly offbeat romantic drama follows Morgan (Adriana Mather), who’s just learned that she has three months to live. Against the wishes of her curiously square and conservative parents, she falls for a cross-dressing cartoonist, Jordan (Zach Villa), who comforts Morgan while encouraging her to cross off as many items on her bucket list as she can. Although Jason doesn’t appear to be saving his money for a gender-reassignment operation, he favors women’s fashions, exotic makeup and fun hairdos. They marry and take a honeymoon, which is interrupted by a serious relapse. One of the things they both enjoy are Jason’s self-illustrated stories, featuring bees capable of turning nectar into gold.

Peter Hutchings and writer Fergal Rock’s Then Came You (2018) also features a terminally ill 19-year-old, Skye (Maisie Williams), who befriends a hypochondriac her age, Calvin (Asa Butterfield), whose every visit to the doctor ends in disappointment over the fact that he’s deemed perfectly healthy. In an odd sort of way, they’re a perfect match. When they finally hook up, Calvin helps Skye fulfill her final wishes, while she provides him with the love and courage he needs to confront and conquer his own fears. She even encourages him to pursue a relationship with an outgoing flight attendant, Izzy (Nina Dobrev), who normally would be way out of his league. Williams (“Game of Thrones”) is a gifted comic actor, who has a big future ahead of her. At the ripe old age of  21, Butterfield has already starred in such high-end projects as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Hugo (2011), Ender’s Game (2013), A Brilliant Young Mind (2014), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) and The Space Between Us (2017). The Bulgarian-Canadian actress, Dobrev (“The Vampire Diaries”), is 30 years old, but she doesn’t look a day over 19 in Then Came You. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hutchings gave all of them a copy of Hal Ashby’s delightfully dark comedy, Harold and Maude (1971), to study before beginning production. Butterfield is practically a dead ringer for that film’s wealthy male protagonist (Bud Cort), who’s obsessed with death,

In Jay Lyons’ heart-breaking documentary, The Long Goodbye (2019), we’re invited to watch middle-aged “normal mom” Kara Tippetts stand up to breast cancer, which has reached the terminal stage by the time we meet her. Kara is blessed with a vivacious personality, a strong family life and wonderful friends. She’s exactly the kind of woman who shouldn’t contact such a terrible disease, but, when she does, shares her recovery efforts with other cancer patients. Anyone who has experienced loss, pain or disappointment will relate to Kara,  who’s quick to smile, even through the pain. My only caveat would involve preparing for the pervasive evangelizing, which propels her struggle. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking solace in prayer and miracles, some viewers may find it difficult to square the witnessing before God and praising His good works, when someone as strong in her beliefs as Kara is in such pain. Bonus features include interviews with the best-selling Christian author Ann Voskamp (“One Thousand Gifts”) and Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian author, radio host and founder of Joni and Friends, an organization “accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community.”

Isiboshwa
Rich Girl
Hostage
In the latest release of long-lost titles from IndiePix’s “Retro Afrika” collection – all made in South Africa, just before the lifting of Apartheid – could be characterized as a tribute to the subgenre’s leading male actor. Although they weren’t made exclusively by black writers, directors and technical specialists, they featured all-black casts and were intended for the consumption of native audiences in strictly segregated townships and theaters. They paid homage to familiar Hollywood genres, with an emphasis on action. The link connecting Isiboshwa (1989), Rich Girl (1990) and Hostage (1986) is the presence in a starring role of Innocent Gumede (a.k.a., Popo Gumede).

In the action/comedy Isiboshwa, three adolescent boys set out on an  adventure in the bush, lured by a tale of missing treasure. Once the booty they seek is found, they’re overcome by gold-fever and turn on one another. Met with a similarly feverish pair of thieves, who attempt to scare the boys off with supernatural illusions, they gather their resources and together to combat the grownup thieves. There’s great scene in which the boys carve sharp points on the ends of bamboo stick and mimic a lion-hunting ritual passed down from generation to generation of tribesmen. They employ it to subdue one of the crooks. Isiboshwa avoids most the genre’s clichés and slapstick, in the service of casual comedy and a personality-driven fable.

In Rich Girl, Gumede plays a highly trained bodyguard for corporate clients, one of whom has a pampered and beautiful daughter who needs  protecting. As is common in such scenarios, the handsome and well-dressed Robert Gambu has his work’s cut out for him. Charlotte (Lungi Mdlala) doesn’t want protection or believe it’s necessary. Enter Hector Methanda, a popular gap-tooth actor, who specializes in tough-guy roles. He and his partner in crime kidnap both the girl and the guard, who may be one more person than they can handle. Being only 70 minutes long, Robert doesn’t waste many precious seconds planning an elaborate escape. It just sort of happens.

In Hostage, Gumede works the other side of the legal divide, as aspiring drug kingpin Bra Jack. His two underlings, Jabu and Thabi, specialize in setting up rich married men and blackmailing them, using photos of them having sex with the female side of the criminal triangle. To secure the cooperation of a stubborn warehouse owner, Bra Jack kidnaps the man’s wife and holds her for ransom. Instead of blindly acquiescing to the demand, the businessman calls in a friend who knows how these things work … or not.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission
PBS: USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter
Acorn: Mystery Road: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: The Simple Heist: Series 1
Acorn: Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 5
Ever since the release of The Right Stuff, Americans have been bombarded with documentaries, docudramas and plain ol’ dramas depicting events from the space race and beyond. Science-fiction writers could barely keep up with developments at NASA, JPL and the Johnson Space Center. When the Space Shuttle program got too boring to draw flies, let alone eyes, Hollywood screenwriters decided to clip the astronauts’ cords to the mother ship, sending the helping guy  spinning into deep space. One of the reasons taxpayers didn’t complain, when funds intended for the use by shuttle teams, were cut off is NASA’s inability to stick with narrative. Space flights lost their luster, except, perhaps, in the classrooms linked to the shuttle via the Internet. NASA probably could have sold millions of tickets for the privilege of watching astronauts copulating, while floating around their sleeping quarters in Zero-g conditions. If the highly educated and rigorously trained astronauts resisted the proposal, a couple of high-profile porn stars – Stormy Daniels and Ron Jeremy, come to mind – might want a slice of the pay-per-view action. Neither did NASA do itself any favors by keeping a tight lid on the really cool stuff going on up there, like eavesdropping on world leaders and celebrities, military research, intercepting UFOs and growing super strains of marijuana in space labs. I only mention this because of the things I learned while watching “NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission.” The PBS presentation tells the inside story of how NASA engineers – inat least one ex-Nazi — did the heavy lifting ahead of the first, now nearly completely forgotten mission to the moon.  Although the headline-making stuff would have to wait another seven months, the Apollo 8 mission laid the foundation for the far sexier Apollo 11. In addition to the risks taken by astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – the first humans to circle the moon – any failure along the way might have given the Soviet program an insurmountable lead in the race, while also dampening the optimism of millions of taxpayers. The story is told by surviving Apollo astronauts and engineers.

One of best scenes in Jaws comes when Robert Shaw describes the lingering tragedy that began with the sinking of USS Indianapolis, after being struck by a pair of torpedoes. It was the first time most Americans learned of the shark attacks on dozens of sailors stranded at sea for five long days and nights, without food, potable water, vests that retained their buoyancy and anything to get the oil off their bodies. We remember the sharks, but the top-secret mission that preceded the ship’s sinking has been largely forgotten. Ditto, the Navy’s rush to blame Captain Charles B. McVay III for its own malfeasance. (His name wouldn’t be cleared until 2000, three decades after he committed suicide.) It wasn’t until 2017 that an expedition financed by philanthropist Paul G. Allen discovered the ship, resting in an impact crater, at a depth of 18,044 feet below the surface of the North Philippine Sea. PBS’s “USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter” successfully reconstructs the ship’s heroic legacy, her dramatic final moments and the discovery of the wreck site. Watching survivors study images of the Indianapolis, transmitted from the submersible, is as emotionally rewarding as anything we’ve witnessed in this era of undersea exploration.

As much as I miss Judy Davis’ presence on the big scream – her last credit was for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (2015) —  it’s great to see the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner in such prestigious mini-series as “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the upcoming Netflix drama, “Ratched,” and Outback thriller, “Mystery Road.” Before jumping feet-first into the latest entry, it’s worth doing some homework first. Although Davis is the marquee attraction here, the show really belongs to Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Aboriginal police detective, whose bristly personality doesn’t always sit well with the non-native ranchers, farmers and traffickers in humans and drugs. Given the vast acreage the police are required to survey, and closed-mouth attitudes of the locals, finding crooks can be as challenging as separating fleas from a kangaroo’s hide. Adding to the degrees of difficulty are the largely hidden network of springs, waterfalls, streams and caverns, known only to Aboriginals, who’ve lived here centuries before the almost simultaneous arrival of the first Commonwealth felons and European rabbits. Ivan Sen’s feature-length Mystery Road (2013) introduced  Swan to crime-hungry Aussies. It was followed three years later by Goldstone (2016), which reset the action hundreds of miles away, in Furnace Creek, where a brothel/bar serves as a destination for girls flown in from Southeast Asia to service miners, in exchange for pay off family debts. For the 2018 mini-series, also called “Mystery Road,” Sen passed the baton to Aboriginal director  Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae). It takes place in linear time between the previous two movies, in a community that time may have forgot, but whose residents remember hundreds of years’ worth of slights and insults, crimes large and small, and incidents fueled by deeply entrenched racism and corruption. Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands on an outback cattle station. Working together with local police sergeant Emma James (Davis), the investigation uncovers drug trafficking in the town, and a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community. They don’t form a natural team, even though she’s part native, but get the work done … as long as she doesn’t expect responses to her questions or smiles to her jokes. It’s available on Acorn’s screening service and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Acorn’s far lighter mini-series “The Simple Heist” describes the two-woman crime spree, conducted by Jenny (Lotta Tejle) and Cecilia (Sissela Kyle), who, at a time when they should planning their retirements, discover that they’ve fallen for a fraudulent scheme involving Chinese securities and a criminally one-sided divorce agreement. Cecilia dreads the day when she’ll be forced to reveal the loss to her husband, who’s been given little cause to mistrust her. Jenny’s account has been frozen since divorce proceedings began. He’s an unlikeable bloke, who only realizes that’s he chosen the wrong woman to cheat when it’s too late.  In a scheme that combines elements of Going in Style (1979) and Small Time Crooks (2000), Jenny and Cecilia – a teacher and a gastroenterologist – take the advice of a dying security guard, who recommends robbing a bank in Stockholm. Even if everything that could go wrong, does, they wind up with containers full of money that they know are booby-trapped. They turn to a pair of ornery bikers who are as trustworthy as bald tires. It’s at this point, that things really start going sideways for the old gals, who’ve already begun to spend their windfall. As old-fashioned as the premise is, the actors make The Simple Heist irresistible.

Like “Midsomer Murders” and other small-town procedurals from foreign sources, New Zealand’s “The Brokenwood Mysteries” succeeds in making the characters’ home communities feel as comfortable and inviting as our own. Even when we begin to feel a fogbank of complacency as it rolls over the fields and quaint homes, something cruel and unexpected happens to get tongues wagging and deadbolts locking. Because each boxed set of “Brokenwood” procedurals contains four stand-alone episodes, the show and its quirky cops and interesting antagonists have been compared to “Columbo” and other entries in NBC’s “Mystery Movie” wheel in the 1970s. In Series 5, Shepherd and his team investigate the death of an amusement park owner killed on his own haunted-house ride; a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong; the systematic targeting of a will’s beneficiaries; and a gruesome electrocution in an abandoned asylum. As usual, New Zealand is one of the best countries on countries to shoot pictures.

The DVD Wrapup: Ritual, She Wolf, Over the Top, Dark River, Man’s Best Friend, Mr & Mrs Adelman, Mad Dog & Glory, A.I. Rising, Deadly Mantis, Watch Over Me … More

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

Ritual: Una storia psicomagica
She Wolf
The words “arthouse” and “horror” aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence. Two that qualify are Let Me In (2010) and its American remake, Let the Right One In (2008), both based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. So do Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ Good Manners (2017) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Add to that list the newly-released-on-DVD She Wolf  (2013) and Ritual: Una storia psicomagica (2013) and you’d have a pretty good head-start on a high-end Empowered Women in Horror festival, perfect for any  upcoming Women’s History Month commemoration. Female characters have played key roles in the horror and sci-fi genres since James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), at least. Here, however, the accent would be on fully realized women protagonists/antagonists, who aren’t merely interchangeable substitutes for archetypal characters previously created for and by men, within genre norms. Any programmers wary of being accused of trivializing women’s history could point out how rare it is to find empowered women in genre films – who don’t resemble Pamela Anderson or Jenna Jameson anyway — especially those driven by arthouse conceits. Or, to appease the doubts, they can add copies of the completely unrelated documentary, RBG, to gift bags handed out at the awards’ ceremony.

From Argentina comes Tamae Garateguy and co-writer Diego Fleischer’s belated arrival, She Wolf (2013), which combines elements from Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Ferrara’s The Addiction. Ms. 45 (1981) and Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987). Without giving too much of the story away, the title character is a drop-dead-sexy serial killer — alternately played by Mónica Lairana, Luján Ariza and Guadalupe Docampo – who stalks the steamy streets and sardine-can subway cars of Buenos Aires, exuding pheromones that confuse men into thinking she’s coming on to them. She is, of course, but her idea of a happy ending won’t correspond to their expectations. Things get sticky when a police detective tracks her down, unaware that witnesses’ descriptions of the killer won’t square with what he sees before his eyes. Each of woman’s individual selves look different from the other two and have different personalities. Neither are they all drawn to the same kind of man. When the reckoning comes, viewers might get the impression that Garateguy chose aura and tone, over narrative closure. Even so, her ability to maintain a shadowy and intensely erotic texture throughout most of She Wolf is commendable. Kudos also apply to Sami Buccella’s original punk-rock soundtrack, Catalina Rincon’s edgy editing and Pigu Gomez’ stark black-and-white photography. If the film dissuaded any Argentine horndogs and low-rent lotharios from hitting on women they encounter in public, Garateguy’s mission was served.

Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi’s Ritual: Una storia psicomagica is another late arrival to these shores – thank you, Film Movement — although it’s difficult to understand why. The chief selling point is spelled out on the jacket: “Inspired by the philosophy of, and featuring an appearance by the father of ‘psychomagic,’ Alejandro Jodorowsky.” The marketing team might just as easily summoned the memory of Luis Bunuel, if only because the movie’s characters and setting – Italy, but it could be Spain or Mexico – are right out of the master surrealist’s  sketchbook. Anyone expecting a reprise of the pyschomagic exhibited in such outrageous entertainments as El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989) might be disappointed, but only mildly so. Fragile Lia (Désirée Giorgetti) and her sadistic boyfriend, Viktor (Ivan Franek) – he recalls Marcel, the twisted antagonist, in Bunuel’s Belle du Jour (1967) – are involved in a long-term relationship that’s equal parts passionate and cruel. It’s sometimes difficult to tell when their sex is consensual and when it fits the legal definition of rape, however. When Li