MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Penance, 100 Foot Walk, Copenhagen and more

Penance: Blu-ray
Anyone who simply can’t wait for every new season of shows like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “The Killing” ought to check out the sensational Japanese mini-series, “Penance,” which has finally arrived here on DVD/Blu-ray. Shown in New York last spring as a single five-hour movie, it is best suited for the small screen in series form. Easily translatable, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it adapted for American television someday, just as the creepy French mini-series “Les revenants” was shown intact on Sundance and re-imagined for American audiences by ABC as “The Returned.” (An A&E version, “They Came Back,” may also be in the works.) In the hands of Japanese master of menace Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Pulse), “Penance” spreads its quietly ominous narrative over 15 years and 5 chapters, each representing a specific player in the mystery surrounding the brutal murder of a schoolgirl. Even though four friends were with the victim, Emili, when she volunteered to help a stranger on a job site, each professes that they are too traumatized to remember his face or any other evidence that could lead police to a suspect. After several months pass, Emili’s mother, Asako (Kyoko Koizumi), invites the girls to what would have been a birthday party for their friend. Instead, Asako lays a massive guilt trip on each one of them, demanding that they continue to search their minds or suffer the consequences of her curse, re-defined here as a “penance.” Indistinguishable from each other as children, the girls grow up to become unique individuals, who lost their small-town innocence long ago. Today, there only common trait is a seriously damaged psyche. The final wrap-up episode came as a disappointment to some critics, but I didn’t have any problems with it. On American television, it would have ended with a cliffhanger, in anticipation of a second season. In Japan, however, where so many people had already read Kanae Minato’s novel, a resolution was essential. As the primary character not required to age dramatically over a 15-year period, Koizumi’s Asako easily makes the girls – and viewers – believe that they are truly cursed and likely doomed. Although her emotional evolution is muted throughout most of the first four episodes, the volcano we always know is there finally explodes in the finale, revealing secrets that make the girls’ forgetfulness seem insignificant. As much of cliché as it is to compare Kurosawa’s style to Hitchcock, there’s no mistaking the sense of dread that rumbles just below the surface of the story. Akiko Ashizawa’s alternately bland and bright cinematography, in conjunction with Yusuke Hayashi’s eclectic choice of musical cues, also alert viewers to changes in the film’s climate. The Blu-ray adds interviews of a promotional nature with cast and director.

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Blu-ray
If a movie in which food preparation plays a prominent role in the narrative fails to make viewers hungry for something more substantial than popcorn, no amount of romantic and dramatic angles are going to make it work, either. The Hundred-Foot Journey excels not only as movie that will whet the appetites of foodies, it also tells a story that will leave many viewers smiling through their tears. Released quietly during the doldrums of August, Lasse Hallstrom and Steven Knight’s adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ book takes a familiar premise – two very different restaurants, 100 feet apart, compete for dominance and prestige in a mecca for sophisticated dining – and turns it into something fresh and delicious. It also leaves room for commentary on two of today’s most universally contentious social issues: unfettered immigration and racial intolerance. Even in a cast largely populated with appealing young actors, veterans Helen Mirren and Om Puri dominate this tale of two cuisines. Puri plays restaurateur Papa, the patriarch of a family that barely escaped mindless political violence in India, only to confront it once again in the French countryside. Mirren’s Madame Mallory represents everything that makes France, at once, the world’s most fascinating and oppressively self-centered culture. A curious twist of fate inspires Papa to open an Indian restaurant across the street from Mallory’s temple of haute cuisine in a quaint village in southern France. Apart from the unexpected competition, Mallory objects to the loud Indian music, garish lighting and pungent aromas that distract her customers as soon as they park their cars for the evening. Not surprisingly, their relationship will evolve for the better over the course of the movie. Less certain is the budding cross-cultural romance between Papa’s gastronomically gifted son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), and a pretty young trainee in Mallory’s kitchen, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Things get especially interesting when Hassan develops a talent for French cooking that even cuts through Mallory’s prejudices. And, yes, it will cause her to readjust her attitude to fusion cooking and spices foreign to her kitchen. As Hallstrom demonstrated in Chocolat, which, in 2001, was nominated for five Academy Awards, he is comfortable around food and romance. As it turns out, Steven Speilberg, Oprah Winfrey and longtime documentarian Julia Blake also were in his corner. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) does a nice job capturing both the beauty of the French countryside and intricacies of kitchens representing opposite cultures. The Blu-ray bonus package is best when it focuses on the food preparation and less good when Oprah and Steven go all gooey on us about re-teaming on The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Mark Raso’s Copenhagen is an easy film to admire but much more difficult to enjoy. That’s because it forces viewers to confront a societal taboo so engrained in us that our discomfort constantly is at war with the pleasure of watching a young filmmaker succeed so well in his first feature. There’s no way to avoid spoilers in any review of Copenhagen, as an acceptance of its primary conceit is necessary to dilute the shock and indignation it carries. In his late 20s, immature William (Gethin Anthony) is traveling through Europe with a couple of friends who barely tolerate his wisecracks and shitty attitude, which includes pretending to be Canadian to avoid being treated like an American by haters. (Back in my hitchhiking days, I would meet Yanks who sewed red maple leaf patches on their backpacks to catch rides from motorists who likely would bypass Americans.) No sooner do they arrive at their primary destination of Copenhagen than William’s juvenile attitude causes his friends to split to London, leaving him without an interpreter or bedmate. He needs help to locate his paternal grandfather and deliver a letter written in Danish by his father before his recent death. After fruitless efforts to find an interpreter, William manages to find assistance from a waitress who he’d earlier insulted. Apart from bearing a remarkable resemblance to Emily Van Camp, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen) is so forgiving and helpful that William’s obnoxious exterior begins to melt before our eyes. Effy’s funny, informed and flirty in a city that rewards all three traits. Their neuroses complement each other, as well. It isn’t easy tracing the grandfather’s location – he was ostracized for being Nazi sympathizer – but she manages to accomplish the task in an afternoon. When William asks her how she became so adept at tracing roots, Effy says that she learned it as part of a class project. Clearly smitten, William is stunned to discover that she’s “almost 15” and not the college-age student she led him to believe she was. Viewers will already have sensed that she’s not old enough to be a graduate student, but we’re nearly as caught off-guard by the reality of the true age gap. Indeed, we began to hope they would hook up and take us on lovely tour through Copenhagen and share their experiences with us. Instead, as Effy continues to pursue a relationship with William, we naturally become concerned that we’re going to become accomplices in a criminal act. Blessedly, though, Raso steers the drama straight down the middle of the ethical highway and, even after causing us to question the right of minors to ruin their lives, frees us from any culpability in the matter. There’s plenty more to Copenhagen than Effy and William’s forbidden love, including the unfinished business with his grandfather. Raso handles this essential aspect of the story very well, too.

To Kill a Man
In one very specific way, Thierry de Peretti’s debut feature, Apaches, reminds me of Peter Yates and Steve Tesich’s Oscar-winning Breaking Away, a terrifically entertaining slice of Americana set around the Little 500 bicycle race held annually in Bloomington, Indiana. As screenwriter and IU graduate, Tesich built his story about non-violent class warfare around his own observations of how townies (“cutters”) were looked down upon by college students, while a visiting team of Italian racers did its best to humiliate a local rider (Dennis Christopher) who worshipped all things Italian. To make his point even clearer, Tesich conjured a doomed romance between the ambitious townie and a sorority girl, who believed his lies about being European and punished him with a slap when she finally tumbled to the truth. The locals get even with everyone by winning the Little 500 against racers with far more sophisticated equipment and financial backing. While nothing as melodramatic happens in Apaches, Peretti’s description of a similar class struggle in his native Corsica should resonate with anyone who’s been bullied or made to feel inferior by people with more wealth and power. His Corsica is divided into three groups: permanent residents of the island, who trace their European roots back hundreds of years; working-class Arabs, attempting to eke out a living performing manual labor sustained by the tourist economy; and thousands of seasonal residents and tourists, who lay out in the sun all day and hit the discos at night. Even the dreaded Corsican mafia comes into play in Apaches. When they aren’t working at construction sites owned by a local mobster, Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi) and his father tend to the vacant homes of part-time residents, mostly from France. Before the season officially begins, Aziz invites some friends to enjoy the pool at one of the nicer houses. Unbeknownst to him, the girl he’s trying to impress has invited male friends of her own to the impromptu party. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they run roughshod over the property and steal personal items belonging to the owners. Not wanting to look cowardly in front of the fickle Jezebel, Aziz grabs a beat-up old hi-fi and a few albums she fancies. It doesn’t take long for the owners and Aziz’ father to size up the situation and threaten their jobs. The boy cops to the petty theft and returns the less expensive items to the owners. Sensing that this will put an end to the incident, Aziz is surprised to learn that an expensive shotgun also remains missing and the Corsican developer is embarrassed by the theft of such a valuable item. It’s likely that an Arab friend and his Corsican pals have already determined the gun’s value and aren’t likely to release it to save the ass of the lowest man on the island’s totem pole. Things reach a boiling point when rumors begin to fly about the mob inciting violence among the guest workers. The rest of Apaches is taken up with the eternal question of whether the guilty party will do the right thing and help pull Aziz and his father out of their jam or they’ll turn them into convenient scapegoats. De Peretti does a nice job building the tension to a fever pitch and clearly delineating the forces at play here. More than anything else, though, he succeeds at his stated mission of showcasing Corsica as a multifaceted and attractive place to stage a movie. The bonus features include a short film a young Gypsy musician facing an ethical dilemma, a director’s statement and biography.

Also from Film Movement comes To Kill a Man, a story about a hard-working Chilean groundskeeper, Jorge (Daniel Candia), whose family has become the primary target for a neighborhood bully and his Neanderthal friends. Stationing themselves at a neighborhood crossroads, the gang members make it impossible for Jorge to avoid confrontations. Unwilling to settle for cash, they even steal his diabetes-testing equipment. When Jorge’s son confronts the ringleader at home, he is made to pay for his effrontery by being shot. When Jorge decides to take his complaints to the local constabulary, he’s greeted with the usual litany of platitudes and delayed justice. Even after Kalule (Daniel Antivilo) is convicted of attempted murder, he’s given less than a two-year sentence and a free pass to begin menacing the neighbors while on parole. After his daughter is attacked by the gang, Jorge is once again rebuffed by authorities. It’s at this point that the mild-mannered laborer decides to exact his own justice. Instead of bringing relief, Jorge’s actions cause him great emotional distress. It’s a feeling hardened criminals and lazy bureaucrats hardly ever experience. Alejandro Fernández Almendras is one of several young Chilean filmmakers who’ve begun to make their presence known on the international stage. The country’s blend of cultures and topography informs their movies in ways that defy easy description. In To Kill a Man, Almendras makes it easy for us to empathize with Jorge’s dilemma, while also knowing that there’s no way for him to avoid prosecution. The contrast between the forests, gardens and coastline that Jorge tends every day and the dreary blue-collar neighborhood to which he returns each night is depicted in painterly shades and colors by cinematographer Inti Briones (The Loneliest Planet), who also frames his subject to accentuate an absolute sense of isolation. The DVD adds the short film, “Our Blood” and a discussion with the filmmaker.

Docs on DVD
Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes
There’s No Place Like Utopia
Fifi Howls From Happiness
Sand Wars
The Dark Matter of Love
Kids for Cash
Fagbug Nation
Three theories persist as to why Americans don’t practice what they preach when it comes to democracy: 1) the one-person/one-vote system works so well that no amount of absenteeism at the polls could screw it up, 2) the system is so hopelessly broken that a single vote couldn’t possibly fix it, and 3) Democrat or Republican, the candidates feed from the same trough laid out by corporate lobbyists and, a half-hour after they settle into their offices, they’re too compromised to act independently. Even if there’s at least a smidgen of truth in all three excuses, it’s no reason for any American to ignore the one duty we share as citizens. John Ennis’ alarming documentary, Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes, can be interpreted as both an excuse for never again voting in state and national elections and a call to arms for reform. Ennis says that it was his intention to use the film to make the world a better place for his newborn daughter to live. Clearly, the pay-to-play system rewards the candidate with the most financial backing. A majority of Supreme Court justices saw nothing wrong with this practice and cleared the way for even more abuses by political PACs. As soon as they got the green light, the nation’s wealthiest citizens raced to pour money into races whose outcome could benefit them financially, no matter the state they live. Ennis isn’t the only journalist or filmmaker to blow the whistle on the pay-to-play system, of course, but his documentary lays it out in terms that should make all Americans angry enough to vote. Besides breaking down several individual contests and chronicling the rise of the People Power movement, Ennis uses the “secret history” of Monopoly to demonstrate how Rich Uncle Pennybags and his billionaire buddies fixed the game. Such devices, alongside interviews with familiar observers and participants, make the political-science lesson easy to digest. Pay-2-Play could easily be accused of being biased against conservatives, PAC organizers and incumbents, but how many outlaws have ever stepped up to justify their crimes?

Never one to turn down an opportunity to play the devil’s advocate, literally, Joel Gilbert’s films reside on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s where President Obama is viewed as the Antichrist’s handmaiden and the twin boogeymen of communism and socialism continue to present a greater threat to freedom than any terrorist organization or greedy banker. Essentially, There’s No Place Like Utopia equates Obama’s campaign promises to the rhetoric of Stalin, Castro, Chairman Mao, Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn. Jesse Jackson and the Wizard of Oz, all of whom promised things they couldn’t deliver and brainwashed poor folks into believing paradise was right around the corner. It’s a legitimate complaint, but since when has any politician of either party made good on their promises? When he isn’t making documentaries about music icons Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Gilbert panders to American right-wingers willing to buy tickets to such fantasies as Dreams from My Real Father, Atomic Jihad: Ahmadinejad’s Coming War and Obama’s Politics of Defeat and Farewell Israel: Bush, Iran, and the Revolt of Islam. (Yes, the film declares, President W was duped into fighting the wrong war after 9/11.) In There’s No Place Like Utopia, Gilbert even goes so far as to introduce us to a rabid right-wing veteran of the Vietnam fracas, so unhappy with Obama that he flies the American flies upside-down outside his Denver home. As evidence that the country is in distress, he argues that the high school he attended is now predominantly Hispanic and, as such, they’re the future of the Democratic Party. He further indicts illegal immigrants, African-American welfare mothers and potheads who voted to legalize marijuana in his beloved Colorado. Gilbert fails to quiz the pinhead on the percentage of Hispanic men and women – some admittedly fighting in return for citizenship – are in the Middle East defending his First Amendment right to slander other Americans, or what his neighbors think of his show of defiance. The filmmaker, of course, is entitled to his views, as are the unvarnished racists and political opportunists he uses to counter the Obama supporters we meet who believe they were sold a bill of goods. He blames Obama and other Democrats – a.k.a., socialists – for the destruction of Detroit neighborhoods that have been slums since Americans wised up and started buying Japanese and German cars that resisted the scourge of planned obsolescence … another corporate mandate endorsed by Wall Street, not the Kremlin. What he also fails to mention is that international communism has been totally rejected by all but a tiny segment of the American left and no one has tried to deny the horror perpetrated on the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. Unless I missed it, Gilbert doesn’t mention the Republican-led stalemate in Congress, the Koch brothers’ purchase of the Supreme Court majority, the predatory capitalists who brought the world’s economy to its knees and escaped prosecution. Nor does he find room to applaud Obama’s rescue of the auto industry, which was opposed by Mitt Romney, or interview liberals and leftists angered by the President’s reluctance to delivery on such promises as the lifting of our embargo on Cuba, the closing of our Guantanamo gulag and curbing domestic intelligence gathering. The question that There’s No Place Like Utopia truly begs, however, is, If the Democrats lose the White House in 2016, how long will it take Republicans to blame Obama for their failure to fix the country by 2020? To be fair, I did enjoy Gilbert’s mockumentary, Elvis Found Alive.

Fifi Howls From Happiness is a fascinating title for a bio-doc about an important 20th Century artist whose name might even elude scholars who’ve memorized the floor plans of the MOCA, Louvre, Prado and Rijksmuseum. An openly gay man at a time and in places that were resolutely intolerant of sexual diversity, Bahman Mohassess was a Modernist painter, sculptor, translator, theatre director and translator of literary works. The turmoil that consumed Iran throughout most of the second half of the 20th Century overshadowed the attention finally being paid to his work by fellow artists and critics. Certainly, he’s the rare artist to have had commissioned work rejected by the Shah and Islamic censors. It also led to Mohassess’ decision to leave the country twice, for the intellectual sanctuary provided by Rome’s Hotel Sacconi. Mitra Farahani’s heartfelt and consistently entertaining film captures the outspoken and occasionally dictatorial artist during the last two years of his life, balancing strongly held convictions with dissections of his distinctively abstract work. (“I will tell you my life story, so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says, after telling Farahani what to shoot and how to do it.)  If Mohassess’ work isn’t as familiar to us as Iranian writers and filmmakers who faced similarly harsh restrictions under the Shah and his fundamentalist successors, it’s because the media has given itself over to moving images and pop music. The Impressionists still draw crowds, but only if they’ve achieved celebrity status. Mohassess’ paintings and sculptures are outwardly aggressive and genuinely disturbing. With their faceless heads and bodies missing limbs, feet and hands, they convey a dystopian vision of life in a world devoid of beauty and emotional release. (“But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert,” he argues. “It will make no difference.”) Not only was his work banned from display by the ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard, and frequently destroyed, Mohassess limited his own reach by ruining his painting before censors or sympathetic collectors could get to them. Also intriguing are the director’s exchanges with her subject, who often was as prickly as a porcupine. The DVD also includes footage from Ahmad Faroughi’s 1967 documentary, The Eye That Hears, which found him at work in his studio.

As if environmentalists needed another rallying cry, Sand Wars provides them with one that no one saw coming. Apparently, the demand for one of the world’s most prevalent resources, sand, has reached the point where three-quarters of all beaches are in decline and could disappear as victims of erosion or “sand mafia” groups that plunder shores and rivers for this highly prized commodity. Who knew? Among other places writer/director Denis Delestrac visits is Dubai, where hundreds of tons of imported sand has been used to build foundations for decorative islands and housing projects, as well as its growing inventory of thoroughfares, luxury hotels and shopping malls. Wait, what? At first, second and third glance, exporting sand to Dubai has to be the 2014 version of bringing coal to Newcastle, except for the fact that drifting desert sand isn’t of the same consistency – too smooth and circular — of ordinary grains of sand, which, under a microscope more closely resemble kidney stones. This, of course, raises the question as to what could happen to plundered shores and dredged rivers that now lack the protections required to withstand storms. If nothing else, Sand Wars should give viewers ample time to begin hoarding the stuff.

As states struggle to make ends meet, many have turned to for-profit prisons as a way to cut costs and relieve themselves of the burden of housing prisoners and funding pension funds for guards. In solving one problem, though, they’ve created an industry that is far less interested in rehabilitation and cutting recidivism than simply warehousing human beings for profit. Robert Mays’ sobering Kids for Cash dissects one horrendous case of injustice and corruption triggered by greed and readily available candidates for incarceration. In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, a small town in Pennsylvania elected a judge who pledged to throw the book at first-time offenders for crimes that normally would call for a few hours of public service. Naturally, a dangerously distressed electorate embraced the candidate and his hang-’em-high approach to reform, at least until their own kids were squeezed through the judicial sausage maker. In all, more than 3,000 juveniles were ripped from their families and imprisoned, sometimes for years over, what many people believed to be petty crimes. It wasn’t until a single parent sought justice outside the county that the extent of the corruption was revealed. Besides forcing defendants to waive their right to legal representation and open themselves to summary justice, the judge and his pimp received millions of dollars in payments from privately owned juvenile detention centers that profited from keeping their cells occupied. May interviews several of the youths whose lives were unalterably changed by being confined as if they were hardened criminals. Tough love is one thing, fascism-for-profit is quite another. May’s exhaustive report also includes interviews with the judges involved, child advocates, parents and local residents. The only thing missing is a clear and decisive indictment of the for-profit prison system, itself, and investors whose tacit support of such corruption encouraged bad behavior from judges who absolutely knew that what they were doing was wrong. I can’t imagine that the two judges, well into their 60s, thrown into prison for long periods of time, were alone or unique. It’s a system that encourages and rewards bad judgment, but rarely pays the price for its crimes. That’s because conservative politicians that have taken money and generic legislation from the powerful, if secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – partially funded by the Koch brothers – have committed themselves to privatizing state prison space and keeping them filled with third-strike and non-violent offenders.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, many childless American couples took advantage of the chaos by hiring insiders to arrange adoptions. Streamlining the process appeared to be – and, in many cases, has been – a win/win/win situation for the kids, adoptive parents and cost-conscious bureaucrats, alike. Given that most of the adoption agencies in Eastern Europe were hell holes of Dickensian proportion, few of us looked beyond the kindness and generosity of men and women willing to pay untold thousands of dollars for the opportunity to be parents. A closer look revealed such abuses as Romanian adoption agencies clearing their dormitories of children who inherited AIDS from their birth parents and adoptive parents who had similarly sinister agendas of their own. That not much has been reported on the fate of children raised an ocean away from their homelands leads me to believe that the adoptions worked more often than they failed. The three orphans we meet in The Dark Matter of Love are among the last group awarded to American couples before Vladimir Putin outlawed the practice, in reaction to travel and financial restrictions imposed by President Obama. Sarah McCarthy’s occasionally agonizing documentary follows the upper-middle-class Diaz family—mother Cheryl, father Claudio and 14-year-old Cami—to Russia to pick up 11-year-old Masha and 5-year-old twins, Marcel and Vadim. If such a decision has an ominous ring to it, especially since none of the Diazes spoke Russian, it will only take a few weeks of filming for McCarthy to demonstrate how short-sided they were. Anyone who’s raised twins or triplets probably would have advised against it. Based solely on their behavior in front of the camera, Marcel and Vadim appear to have spent their time in the orphanage studying the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Dennis the Menace and Pippi Longstocking. Masha’s moods change from light to dark in an instant and Cami begins to feel as if she’s an outsider in her own home. Neither does it help matters when the parents insist upon changing their given forenames to ones that begin with a “C,” so that everyone in the Diaz family can share the same monogrammed towel or enforce some goofball tradition. The kids probably would have been a bit easier to handle on an individual basis and someone had bothered to learn some rudimentary Russian. Even so, Cheryl and Claudio clearly went into this thing with the best of intentions and can be forgiven for calling in the Marines. Conveniently, a pair of developmental psychologists have been researching scientific ways to instill love into children who may never have experienced such feelings. Mostly, this involves studying tapes of the Diaz’ group dynamics; coaxing responses from the parents, whose marriage is endangered; and comparing the kids’ behavior to previously recorded experiments, including those with monkeys and owls. Just as the Mom, Dad and Babs are about to reach wits’ end, Masha discovers something within herself that positively affects all of the Diazes. If The Dark Matter of Love leaves more than a few questions unanswered, it also succeeds in shining a light on a difficult situation faced by thousands of American couples.

If homophobic vandals hadn’t defaced Erin Davies’ VW Beetle with anti-gay slurs, she probably wouldn’t have thought to tour North America in an effort to shine a light on the harassment experienced everyday by people whose most grievous sin may have been putting a rainbow sticker on their car, as she had just done. That tour resulted in the 2009 documentary, Fagbug, inspired by one of the epithets scribbled on the car. The sequel, Fagbug Nation, adds two more states to the ledger: Hawaii and Alaska. This time, instead of keeping the toxic graffiti intact, Davies decided to turn her vehicle into one large rainbow sticker, with “fagbug” and a now-mandatory Web address stenciled on its side. It isn’t intended as a provocation, as much as it is a statement that approximates the old battle cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” As such, the film is loaded with testimonials from fellow travelers, as to how they view such issues as same-sex marriage and sharing sleeping bags. To get back and forth from the 49th and 50th states, Davies was required to put her car on 5 boats and fly on 14 planes. Viewers already sold on the notion of gender equality and tired of rhetoric, however low key, may find Fagbug Nation to be more entertaining as a travelogue than an issue-oriented doc. Everyone, though, can enjoy the beautiful scenery, interesting layovers and examples of how much has changed between tours.

PBS: American Masters: Bing Crosby: Rediscovered
PBS: Robin Williams Remembered: A Pioneers of Television Special
PBS: Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Resurrecting Richard III
FX: Justified: Season 5: Blu-ray
NBC: Quincy, M.E.: Season 7
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Television Movie Collection
Hallmark: Oh Christmas Tree!
For the greater part of the 20th Century, Bing Crosby was one of the most popular, innovative and commercially successful entertainers in the world. His work crossed platforms that weren’t even invented when he began his professional career in Spokane and quickly earned a place behind the microphone of Paul Whiteman’s dance band, in Chicago. A half-billion records later, Crosby would be recognized not only for his distinctive bass-baritone voice and jazzy vocal mannerisms, but also for countless appearances on radio, television, stages and in films that ranged from slapstick comedy to award-winning dramas. He logged more miles on USO tours than any entertainer, with the possible exception of Bob Hope. His version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” has sold more than 50 copies, making it the best-selling single of all time and forever providing atheists with a vehicle to celebrate the season, if not the holiday. It was especially popular among soldiers and support personnel stationed overseas in World War II. And, yet, in its wisdom, PBS decided to title this “American Masters” episode, “Bing Crosby: Rediscovered.” How can someone whose great body of work has never disappeared be in need of rediscovery? I think it can be fairly argued that, by the time of his death in 1977, the American entertainment industry had successfully cleansed the airwaves and movie theaters of anything it deemed to be from a previous geologic age. The old-timers would show up on “The Tonight Show” occasionally to swap stories with Johnny Carson, or sponsor a golf tournament, but Crosby seemed satisfied to spend his time attending to his almost shockingly young wife and second-generation family, and golfing. Even so, television had an insatiable appetite for comedies and Baby Boomers were fed a steady diet of Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures. Thanks to cable’s TMC channel and the almost constant re-release of re-mastered CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, featuring more than a half-century’s worth of standards, Crosby is less in need of resurrection today than any time in the last 40 years.  If anyone under, say, 50 does want to learn more about Der Bingle’s life and times, “Rediscovered” would be a very good place to start. The producers appear to have been able to raid the vaults belonging to Hollywood studios, record labels and entertainment-industry archivists at will and tap the memories of dozens of family members, musicians and historians. And as is typical of the “American Masters” series, no one pretends that the subject went through life without acquiring unattractive blemishes and hitting some potholes along the way. Among the contributors are Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein, record producer Ken Barnes and biographer Gary Giddins. Writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman share the story behind Crosby’s Christmas special duet with David Bowie. Previously recorded interviews also add to the fun. The show’s soundtrack album features songs heard in the documentary, including 16 previously unreleased recordings.

Once again, I’m not sure that the title of PBS’ “Robin Williams Remembered: A Pioneers of Television Special” quite fits the package. Williams’ contributions to television were dwarfed by his accomplishments in movies and comedy venues. Before his death, Williams had been interviewed at length by producers of PBS’ “Pioneers of Television” for use in several different themed episodes. In them, he recalled the comedians who influenced his work and how sitcoms have evolved over the course of the last half-century. With that wide-ranging interview in hand, it wasn’t difficult for the producers of “Remembered” to collect clips from his many movies, television and stage appearances to accompany the unseen material. In the month between Williams’ suicide and the show’s airing, they also collected old and new interviews with his “Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, Penny Marshall, Jonathan Winters, Henry Winkler, Yakov Smirnoff, Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmie Walker, Louie Anderson, Paul Rodriguez, Rick Overton, Blake Clark, Pauly Shore and comedy producer George Schlatter. Williams had already spilled the beans on his own missteps in life, so there aren’t many surprises here. Still, the show’s reaction to sad news – it aired a month after his death — doesn’t ever look rushed, forced or exploitative.

Forty years ago, a camera-shy Willie Nelson agreed to perform live for the pilot episode of “Austin City Limits.” He appears again in PBS’ “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years,” alongside a dozen or so artists who hadn’t born when “Phases and Stages” and “Red-Haired Stranger” blew a hole in the wall separating country music from the rock establishment, as well as the one between Outlaw Country and the Nashville plutocrats. When “ACL” was picked up by PBS and its affiliates, two years later, the show favored the music and artists specific to Texas. It has since opened its gates to a wide cross-section of musical acts, sometimes quite a distance from the limits of Austin. Hosted by Oscar-winning actor/musician Jeff Bridges and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, the show features performances by Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, Foo Fighters, Jimmie Vaughan, Alabama Shakes, Buddy Guy, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett and names known only in households of the Texas capital. The DVD adds bonus tracks from the concert.

So much history has been made in England that it isn’t difficult to find human remains and artifacts associated with great conquering forces within a few scratches of the earth’s surface. In 2011, a group of amateur historians discovered the skeletal remains of King Richard III buried under a parking lot in Leicester. The “Secrets of the Dead” episode, “Resurrecting Richard III,” describes what happened after the remarkable discovery was made. After assuring themselves that the bones were, indeed, of royal lineage, researchers reassembled the loose bones to conduct a forensics autopsy, with special attention paid to the extreme curvature of his spine. The foremost question in their minds was how effective a warrior could the king have been with such a deformity. Pretty well, apparently.

As longtime fans of FX’s critically acclaimed “Justified” await its sixth and final season, the release of the collection of Season Five episodes provides distracted viewers with a last chance to catch up to the storyline, which extends from Detroit to Mexico. This go-round, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is confronted by the extended family of Crowes and criminals in cahoots with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who’s also pre-occupied with efforts to free his imprisoned fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter). The season is dedicated to the memory of novelist Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, 2013, and whose short story “Fire in the Hole” inspired the television adaptation. “Justified” has produced some the most memorably grotesque criminals in television history and, this season, added a wonderful turn by sexy Alicia Witt as the Crowe family’s brightest light … and, yes, I realize this isn’t saying much. The set adds making-of material and deleted scenes.

If there’s one thing that forensics examiners have going for them in the furtherance of their craft, it’s the unquenchable need for some Americans to commit murder. On television, the men and women who pursue the truth in such matters enjoy the benefit of their audience’s insatiable curiosity about how one might commit the perfect crime and get away with it. Fortunately, today, state-of-the-art forensics technology allows human investigators to discover clues that would have gone unnoticed by their predecessors. Watch “Quincy, M.E.,” back-to-back with episodes of “CSI,” “NCIS” and “L&O” and it’s easy to see how much progress has been made. I wonder how many of people were influenced to join the profession, by watching Jack Klugman and absorbing some of the passion demonstrated by Quincy in his weekly quest for the truth. The new collection of shows on DVD represents Season Seven, which began to air in October, 1981. Some of the cases involved such evergreen murders as fraternity hazing, toxic waste, gun control, drunk driving, refinery emissions and lack of access to trauma centers. Guest appearances by Mimi Rogers, Tyne Daly, Jonathan Frakes, Dixie Carter, Conchata Ferrell, Clu Gulager, Colleen Dewhurst, Michael Constantine, Diana Muldaur and Anita Gillette

Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart” tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher, played by several different actresses, a cultured young teacher from the city who receives her first classroom assignment in a small coal-mining town in the Canadian boonies, circa 1910. Her arrival is complicated by a recent mining disaster, during which Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin) and a dozen other women lost their husbands. As much as this tests their faith, the women must go on with their lives, if only for the sake of the children. The made-for-TV movies collected in the new compilation were adapted from Janette Oke’s “Canadian West Book Series.” The titles in the four-disc set are “Lost & Found,” “A Telling Silence,” “The Dance,” “Second Chances,” “Change of Heart” and “Rules of Engagement,” plus the original 2013 made-for-TV movie “When Calls The Heart.”

In the Hallmark film, “Oh Christmas Tree!” (a.k.a., “Fir Crazy”), the newly unemployed Elise (Sarah Lancaster) is forced to return home to work on the family tree farm in the run-up to Christmas. She thought that part of her life was over and isn’t looking forward to another working holiday. Things get even more complicated when a local Scrooge conspires with city officials to close the farm and develop the property. One of the farm’s repeat customers, Darren (Eric Johnson), convinces Elise to fight the power and save the family business.

Tales From the Crypt/Vault of Horror: Blu-ray
Martial Arts Double Feature: Kung Fu Girl/Whiplash
Legacy of Rage
Both of these wrap-around anthologies are based on stories culled from comic books published in the early 1950s by EC Comics. The company’s place in history was assured when its anthologies came under attack from parents, clergy, schoolteachers and politicians who blamed them for contributing to illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. This led directly to congressional hearings and the imposition of a highly restrictive Comics Code. Rather than buck the tide of conservative hysteria, publisher William Gaines chose to focus, instead, on his truly subversive and wonderfully funny Mad magazine. Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were only two of EC’s extremely popular horror titles. (Weird Science, which focused on science-fiction stories, also was adapted for film and television.)  In Freddie Francis’ 1972 Tales From the Crypt, five unrelated travelers find themselves trapped in a series of catacombs, which lead to the lair of the crypt-keeper, Sir Ralph Richardson. From him, black-hearted characters played by Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Ian Hendry and Barbara Murray, among others, have their worst aspects exposed before their date with destiny. In the still-terrifying “Blind Alley” segment, Magee rallies a group of sightless men against the despotic supervisor of their residence (Nigel Patrick), who’s been summoned by the crypt-keeper.

Roy Ward Baker’s even more graphic sequel, Vault of Horror, is presented by Scream Factory with and without the trims that allowed it to be released PG. Here, five hotel guests step into an elevator, which leads them into an inescapable underground vault. Each guest is required to share a gruesome tale of an encounter with death and how their actions may have precipitated the outcomes. The A-list case of British actors includes Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor Who), Denholm Elliott, Curt Jurgens, Terry-Thomas, Daniel and Anna Massey, Glynis Johns and Michael Craig.

Shout Factory’s new martial-arts double-feature, Whiplash/Kung Fu Girl, takes us back to the glory years of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest production company. Both pictures feature outstanding fighting action by Pei-Pei Cheng. I don’t think the plots would mean anything to anyone outside of the screenwriters’ immediate families, but the movies have been restored to the point where they can be enjoyed without experiencing terminal eyestrain. Pei-Pei’s career highlight may have been appearing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000, but she’s hardly had any time off since beginning her movie career in 1964.

Bruce Lee’s only son, Brandon, gets top billing in this uncharacteristically dull martial-arts picture from 1986. He was 21 at time and clearly not ready for prime time. Eight years later, just as he was approaching stardom, Lee would be killed in a freak on-set accident. In Legacy of Rage, his character is framed in the murder of a cop and forced to spend the next eight years in jail. As the title suggests, Lee’s Brandon spent most of his time in stir planning his revenge. There’s only one good fighting scene in the whole movie, so anyone not a Lee completist is advised to use caution.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon