MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Salt of the Earth, Ex Machina, It Follows, Goodbye to All That, Black Stallion and more

The Salt of the Earth: Blug-ray
Dozens of compelling stories are told in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth, which chronicles the life and career of “social photographer” and environmentalist Sebastiao Salgado. Arguably, his most famous photo was taken at the site of Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold rush, which occurred in the early-1980s and petered out pretty quickly after that. From a distance, the open-pit mine resembles a giant toy ant farm carved into a hillside, revealing terraces, tunnels and precarious paths crawling with activity. Look closer and you’ll see that, instead of ants, tens of thousands of mud-covered human beings are clinging to hundreds of crudely made wooden ladders, carrying packs on their backs filled with what they hope and pray to be paydirt. Anyone unfamiliar with the Serra Pelada lode might assume that the photograph had been taken in the late 1800s and the men with packs on their backs were slaves. In fact, they were prospectors from all walks of life, driven by news that gold-yielding ore was being extracted from the pit without the benefit of tools or heavy equipment. If the gravel in any of those backpacks contained gold, a percentage of its value would go to the miner who carried it all the way to the surface. If the California and Klondike gold rushes could have been reduced to a single hole in the ground, it might have resembled the chaos generated by the discovery of a 6-gram nugget on the banks of the river on Genésio Ferreira da Silva’s remote farm, 270 miles south of the mouth of the Amazon River. Once seen, these photographs can never be forgotten. The same can be said of the hundreds of black-and-white images Salgado brought back from forced migrations of refugees in war zones around the world. These displaced men, women and children knew the closest thing to a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow would be relief from carnage, drought, hunger, cholera, brutality and despair.

For more than two decades, Salgado found subjects for his photojournalism all over South and Central America; Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mali, Congo and the Sudan; the Krajina region of Croatia and into Bosnia; among the impoverished ship dissemblers in India and Bangladesh; the victims of land mines in Cambodia; the sabotaged oil fields of Kuwait; and Third World nations supplying tea leaves and other commodities to First World consumers. After witnessing the horrors perpetrated on non-combatants in central Africa by machete-wielding tribesmen and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, Salgado arrived at his breaking point. He returned to his homes in Paris and Brazil, determined to devote a far greater amount of his personal time to wife/editor Laila and his sons, to whom he was a stranger. By this time, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was old enough to accompany his father on his journeys to record the lives of lost tribes in New Guinea and deeper into the Brazilian rain forest than the gold mine. Juliano and Wenders had planned to make separate documentaries on Salgado’s career, but, after much disagreement and rancor, settled on a single format in which both men provided narration. In addition to the dozens of black-and-white photographs, Salt of the Earth contains color film footage taken during Salgado’s shoots.

The color cinematography is especially effective in the final third of the film, which documents the family’s remarkable success in breathing no life into the blighted farm of his grandfather where Salgado spent much of his childhood. The farm had once been a part of the Atlantic rain-forest system, but, after the trees were cut and sold, erosion turned the property into a death zone. Laila suggested they attempt to reclaim the land by planting indigenous trees and finding ways to conserve what little water found there. After several re-plantings, the roots took hold and a thriving forest was reborn. Thus began the Instituto Terra, which is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education. The Blu-ray presentation often borders on the spectacular, with every shade of black, white, silver and gray strikingly represented in hi-def. Also included are commentary with Wenders and Julian Ribeiro Salgado; a recollection of the highs and lows of their collaboration; and deleted scenes. A similar pose is struck in Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1954 dramatization of the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County, New Mexico. In docu-drama fashion, it deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. It also emphasized the strength of the women in the community, who may have been even more committed to the strike than their husbands, brothers and fathers. Salt of the Earth was made by filmmakers blacklisted in Hollywood – the director served six months in prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC inquisitors – and predictably condemned as left-wing propaganda by right-wing politicians and commentators, and many weak-kneed liberals, as well. It wasn’t made by Salgado, but the depictions of mistreatment, manipulation and racial prejudice would have been in his strike zone. It’s well worth finding.

Ex Machina: Blu-ray
It is a function of the male computer geek’s discomfort in the company of strong and sexually affirmative women that so many sci-fi movies depict the search for a sexually compliant, anatomically correct and subtlely subservient female android, instead of a more gender-neutral robot design. Male screenwriters are fond of fembots, as well, but most would settle for a life-size sex doll or Fleshlight that was cast from the naughty bits of their favorite porn star. The theme can be traced at least as far back as the “Twilight Zone” episodes “I Sing the Body Electric” and “The Lonely”; the “Star Trek” episode, “Requiem for Methuselah”; TV’s “Bionic Woman”; the replicant babes in Blade Runner; the cyber-actress protagonist of S1m0ne; and the Japanese porn anime, Imma Youjo: The Erotic Temptress 2: The Perfect Love Doll. There are others, but you get the picture. There isn’t a less-than-gorgeous female character in any of them. The same holds true for Alex Garland’s highly ambitious digital wet dream, Ex Machina, which advances the sub-genre by setting it in an idyllic retreat, owned by a reclusive cyber-billionaire, and infusing his megalomaniacal vision with ideas inspired by Greek and Roman tragedies and mythology, the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Titian, Mary Shelly, crappy 1970s disco and Depeche Mode. Ex Machina is the kind of super-smart movie that should carry footnotes at the bottom of the screen. In it, a 26-year-old coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a competition to spend a week with his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who spends his free time punching a heavy bag, drinking vodka and harassing his super-sexy cyber-maid. It’s the kind of macho activity one has come to expect from the Silicon Valley billionaires who’ve overcome years of bullying by purchasing sports franchises and raising the price of beer and nachos to unconscionable levels. It doesn’t take Caleb very long to realize that he could have left the sun screen at home, because his room is a concrete-and-glass cell monitored by cameras and absent windows to enjoy the scenery.

Although it’s never made precisely clear as to what Caleb has been brought to the compound to do, in lieu of enjoying the scenery and stroke his boss’ ego. If the earlier model cyborg, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), resembles every yuppie male’s idea of how an Asian girlfriend should look and behave, the more fully evolved fembot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is such a dish that she looks great, even with her mechanical skeleton in full view. Vikander is 26, but, in a pinch, could pass for 14. It begs the question as to whether Nathan might be considered flaunting the laws governing sex with minors, simply by making Ava an android. Ava and Caleb hit it off immediately, despite being separated by a wall of glass. She becomes his sole confidante when he begins to doubt Nathan’s motivations and sanity. Her reasoned responses reveal evidence of artificial intelligence and a desire for independence. So far, at least, Nathan has been cunning enough to keep his guests under permanent lockdown. Part of his reason for bringing Caleb to the compound, I suspect, is to see if his programming expertise can detect holes in the system. His endgame remains murky throughout most of Ex Machina, though. Garland’s philosophical conceits should play better with hard-core sci-fi fans than those attracted to shape-shifting aliens and Nazis from outer space. There’s some relatively artistic nudity, but nothing that can’t be enjoyed out of context at Mr. Skin. More compelling, I think, is the Norwegian setting, which comes complete with cascading waterfalls, placid meadows and plush valleys. The Blu-ray package adds a 40-minute making-of featurette, post-screening Q&A and background vignettes.

Goodbye to All That
Anyone attracted to the offbeat relationship drama, Goodbye to All That, by Paul Schneider’s name on the DVD jacket probably won’t be surprised when the “Parks and Recreation” semi-regular steals their hearts. What’s unusual is how far first-time director Angus MacLachlan requires Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) to play against type in her portrayal of a stone-cold bitch, who demands a divorce but refuses to tell her perplexed husband, Otto, what he did wrong or what she wants, instead of him. Lynskey has previously portrayed women who’ve begun to question their marriages – most recently, “Together” – but we have a pretty good idea of makes them tick. Here, she’s a real shrew, whose screen time is pretty much limited to chilly handoffs of their daughter, Edie (Audrey P. Scott), on the custody shifts. Otto is a perfectly average suburban guy, who loves to jog and occasionally pushes the limits of personal safety in his outdoors activities. After he breaks his leg in an accident while speeding through the woods in an ATV, Otto also is required to find a new home for himself and enough space for Edie to pretend she’s a queen of the realm. One Sunday, out of the blue, Edie demands that her still-despondent dad take her to church. It marks a turning point in the narrative that changes almost everything that’s come before and gives meaning to the title, Goodbye to All That, if not in the way some church visits change people. Almost immediately, divorced women in the congregation begin contacting him to see if he’s ready to start dating again. What they’re really asking is if he’s willing to sate their appetites for sex. Thus inspired, Otto also tries his luck with an Internet dating service and an invitation to a reunion of summer-camp pals. Everywhere he turns, he’s greeted by women with minds of their own when it comes to sex and personal fulfilment. They know what they want from him and aren’t afraid to take it in ways that range from romantic to hilarious. In this area, Lynskey’s sour personality is easily compensated for by the lively performances of Anna Camp, Heather Graham, Heather Lawless, Ashley Hinshaw and Amy Sedaris. This entirely satisfying turn of events is in line with what we liked in MacLachlan’s 20005 Junebug, a fish-out-of-water comedy that opened many academy members’ eyes to the emerging talent that was Amy Adams. Goodbye to All That was launched on the festival circuit and VOD outlets, but deserves a better shot on DVD.

It Follows: Blu-ray
If you want to know what gets the juices of horror buffs flowing, check out David Robert Mitchell’s demonic-possession thriller, It Follows, which arrives on Blu-ray in the wake of his previous well-respected indie, The Myth of the American Sleepover. These days, it’s rare to find a low-budget picture that’s capable of breaking through the pack and impressing critics who can be brutal to newcomers. Besides the almost universally laudatory reviews, It Follows may be the only DVD/Blu-ray whose commentary track is supplied entirely by Internet opinion-makers capable of making or breaking a new release. For 100 minutes, these bloggers mostly geek out on a movie that satisfies their passion for a picture that offers substantially more than one-dimensional monsters, serial slashers, special makeup effects and gratuitous gore. (Gratuitous nudity is always welcome, though.) Mitchell also provides plenty of references to past genre classics, without beating audiences over the head with stale tropes, clichés and stereotypes. In fact, the demon in It Follows is more of a specter than a tangible threat to the residents of a quiet town in suburban Detroit. Mitchell took a chance by basing the picture’s central conceit – when teenagers lose their virginity, it opens the door for all sorts of monstrous possibilities, even death – that was put on the shelf after the Scream and Scary Movie franchises batted it around like a ping-pong ball. Here, the punishment for taking advantage of free love is less tangible than a masked fiend with a butcher knife in Lovers Lane. While 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is home from college, she caps a date by having sex with a young man who passes along a STD that can’t be cured with a shot of penicillin. It is a hand-me-down curse that unleashes a shape-shifting stalker on whoever is the current carrier. The demon is invisible to all of Jay’s friends, even as it brushes against them on its way to the pretty blond. Jay knows what has to be done to get rid of the curse, but doesn’t want to put any of her male friends in harm’s way. Things get really weird when the demon takes the form of her late father, who throws electric appliances at her when she’s in a public swimming pool … and, no, he isn’t trying to electrocute her. It was at this point that things stopped making sense to me. Even so, Mitchell’s patience keeps the pacing tight throughout the story and a palpable degree of tension is added by the eccentric musical soundtrack provided by the composer Disasterpeace, who is interviewed in the bonus package.

An Honest Liar
In the 1990s, after over-exposure on cable television killed the comedy-club boom, magicians, escape artists and illusionists picked up the baton and ran with it for a while. Soon, nearly resort in Las Vegas featured an in-house magician and magic shop. Entire multimillion-dollar shows – EFX at the MGM Grand, for example – combined magic, music and dance. It was a heady time for the artists, but, again, television helped kill the goose that laid the golden egg. One controversial Fox show even went so far as to hire the Masked Magician to reveal the secrets behind the classic tricks and illusions. Again, however, it was over-exposure that spoiled the game for everyone else. If one magician was going to make an elephant/helicopter/truck disappear into thin air, someone else was going to upstage him the next week by making the Statue of Liberty vanish or by appearing to be cut in half by a “death saw.” Today, about a dozen magicians, illusionists and mentalists are capable of headlining their own shows in Las Vegas, with Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Mac King and Criss Angel being the most prominent. In the fascinating documentary, An Honest Liar, we’re re-introduced to Randall James Hamilton Zwinge (a.k.a., The Amazing Randi), who’s spent most of his retirement challenging psychics, faith healers and occultists to come clean or be revealed as frauds out to extract donations from gullible believers. By portraying themselves as the real deal, instead of as fellow magicians or illusionists, Randi deemed them worthy of exposure. Offended by the popularity and public effrontery of Uri Geller, he even went so far as to arrange for one of his mind-bending gags to be debunked before millions of viewers on “The Tonight Show.” Geller was baffled when the objects that typically moved at his command didn’t behave as planned. Amateur magician Johnny Carson was so impressed that he made Randi a frequent guest. In the 1980s, Randi took on such faith healers as Peter Popoff and João Teixeira de Faria (a.k.a., João de Deus). At the ripe old age of 86, Randi isn’t at all reluctant to open up the books on his own accomplishments and reveal such personal details as his marriage to ex-con painter Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (a.k.a., José Alvarez), after exiting the closet in 2010. An Honest Liar includes testimonials by Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Alice Cooper, Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss. The DVD adds deleted scenes and extended interviews.

Dawn Patrol
Watching Rita Wilson guzzle beer, chain-smoke marijuana and slander Mexican immigrants in Dawn Patrol, I experienced the same hollow feeling as when I first saw Katey Sagal play the white-trash biker moll in “Sons of Anarchy.” After a couple of episodes of the long-running series, though, Sagal’s presence made sense within the context of the narrative and her anti-heroic character. As matriarch of a clan of SoCal surf Nazis, Wilson simply looks as if she stepped into the wrong movie and wasn’t about to turn down a payday. Surf movies come and go, of course, but only a few have stuck to the wall. Big Wednesday, Break Point, Blue Crush and Chasing Mavericks extended the Endless Summer mythos to include coming-of-age dramas, existentialist quandaries, serious criminality and romantic melodramas. Working from a screenplay by Rachel Long and Brian Pittman (A Haunting at Silver Falls), Daniel Petrie Jr. has crafted a story of revenge, misplaced clan loyalties and good-old-fashioned bigotry from an ugly incident in which a sun-bathing beach bimbo deliberately sets off a race war that’s supposed to link metaphorically to the war in Afghanistan, but doesn’t. The story is told from the point of view of John (Scott Eastwood), a surfer who comes unglued after his headstrong brother is killed by someone everyone assumes to be the Mexican who diddled his slutty girlfriend … and, no, there’s really not a better way to describe the character played by Kim Matula (“The Bold and the Beautiful”). Tensions between various ethnic groups began to rise when speculators and developers deemed the Ventura County beach communities to be ripe for exploitation. Until then, they had provided the foundation for working-class homeowners to feel as good about themselves as the millionaires who call Malibu home. But, contractors looking to boost profit margins by hiring undocumented workers and laid-off residents found it impossible to maintain their way of life. Property values skyrocketed, even as some neighborhoods began to look like beach-adjacent slums. About to have their home foreclosed on, John is taunted into retaliating against the Mexican interlopers by his embittered parents, played with no degree of subtlety of finesse by Wilson and Jeff Fahey. Assumptions that seemed sound one minute were turned inside-out the next by the facts. It’s all supposed to remind us of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, but it’s buried so deep in the sand that it gets bogged down in melodrama. Petrie’s first two writing credits were The Big Easy and Beverly Hills Cop, both home runs. Dawn Patrol is his first feature as a director since 1994, when he gave us In the Army Now, with Pauly Shore and Andy Dick. Hollywood’s a bitch.

Here Is Your Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Black Stallion Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Anyone as impressed by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the folks who helped it secure six Academy Award nominations and a Supporting Actress statuette for Patricia Arquette might consider extending the experience by picking up Jan Troell’s debut feature, Here Is Your Life. Based on a series of semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winner Eyvind Johnson, it describes a teenager’s coming-of-age at a pivotal time in the history of Sweden and Europe. While the rest of the continent was engaged in a horrific conflagration, Sweden remained neutral. It explains how 14-year-old Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) wasn’t sent to the front after being forced to leave his impoverished foster family and fend for himself. He could have returned home to his natural parents, but the burden of having another mouth to feed would have made things tougher for his siblings. Unlike Mason, the young protagonist of Boyhood, Olof can’t afford the luxury of attending school or partaking in extracurricular activities. He understands his lot in life and, for now, anyway, it means taking jobs intended for grown men and learning by doing. He finds one in the remote northern part of the country as a logger, risking his life as part of a gang whose duties include breaking up logjams on a roiling river. Because the men share a secluded shack, Olof is privy to the stories laborers swap after a hard day of work and several shots of vodka. Not at all cocky, Olof is as attentive to his co-workers’ eccentricities as he is to the rigors of logging. Next, he finds slightly less dangerous work in a sawmill and brick kiln.

His first job in a community setting comes when he’s hired by the owner of a primitive theater that offers silent movies and concert recitals. When he isn’t posting announcements on the sides of buildings, selling tickets and hawking candy, Olof uses the time left over to flirt with local girls and read books. It is here, as well, that he’s introduced to the differences between working stiffs and white-collar businessmen and entrepreneurs. The disparities are such that he’s inspired to consider joining the burgeoning international worker’s movement. When Olof gets hired away from the theater by a traveling projectionist, who works the carnival circuit, he is introduced to entirely different class of people. Better yet, he’s introduced to the joys of sex by a fortune-teller, who treats him like a boy toy. At 169 minutes, Here Is Your Life is only slightly longer than Boyhood. It provides plenty of space for the vignettes to play out naturally and take full advantage of the film’s historically accurate settings and Sweden’s natural beauty, very little of which is lost in Troell’s evocative cinematography. Given that this was his first theatrical venture, it isn’t surprising to discern the influence of Ingmar Bergman. By the end of the first half of the film, however, what we’re watching is all Troell.  He would go on to make such period gems as Everlasting Moments, Hamsun, Zandy’s Bride, The New Land and The Emigrants. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an introduction by filmmaker Mike Leigh; a new conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie; interviews with actor Eddie Axberg and producer/screenwriter Bengt Forslund; the short film, “Interlude in Marshland,” which preceded Here Is Your Life, starring Max von Sydow; and an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Carroll Ballard’s wonderful family adventure, The Black Stallion, is often included in lists of the most beautifully photographed movies ever made. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to learn that Caleb Deschanel’s work was ignored when the Oscar nominations were announced in the Best Cinematography category, ahead of the 1980 awards ceremony. Back then, being snubbed by your peers was part of the hazing ritual for freshmen in the tech categories. The Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital transfer, supervised by Deschanel, attests to the film’s rich cinematic legacy. (In 2002, The Black Stallion was accorded the honor of being named to the National Film Registry.) In Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel, a determined American boy and magnificent Arabian horse survive a disaster at sea, only to be tested once again after washing ashore a deserted island off North Africa. The only way to get through their mutual ordeal is by learning to trust each other. Once they’re rescued and returned to Alec’s hometown, a dilemma arises as to where one puts a magnificent steed accustomed to roaming freely and answering only to single voice. It comes to a head after the Black stallion bolts from the house’s backyard and is almost killed in a frantic tour of the city. It ends at farm owned by a former jockey, expertly played by Mickey Rooney. The film’s basic color scheme and visual context has changed dramatically by now, allowing for a dramatic test of equine heroism and stamina in a championship race. Hollywood legend has it that, upon viewing The Black Stallion for the first time, a studio executive asked rhetorically, “What is this, some kind of an art film for kids?” The easy answer to that question was then and still is, “Yes.” Ballard’s masterpiece would go unreleased for two years, until executive producer Francis Ford Coppola made sure that justice was served. Sadly, it’s a common tale, oft told. The Blu-ray adds a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; five career-making short films by Ballard, with introductions by the director; a conversation between Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas; a new interview with Deschanel; a piece featuring photographer Mary Ellen Mark, discussing her images from the film’s set; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Some Call It Loving: Blu-ray
Scratch the surface of an interesting, if long-neglected picture newly re-released on Blu-ray/DVD and you’re likely to uncover a story that puts a completely new spin on what you’ve just seen. Such is the case with the Vinegar Syndrome/Etiquette Pictures’ oddity, Some Call It Loving, a kinky soft-core fantasy made a year before Emmanuelle tested the limits of the old X-rating. In an unusual twist of fate, the actor who played the protagonist of James B. Harris’ film – Zalman King – would, 20 years later, successfully test the limits of cable television, with Showtime’s couples-friendly, “Red Shoes Diary.” He also collaborated with director Adrian Lyne on the S&M-lite feature, 9½ Weeks. Here, King plays a handsome jazz musician, who impulsively decides to buy the Sleeping Beauty attraction from a traveling carnival. Somehow, Robert senses correctly that the beautiful young woman, Jennifer (Tisa Farrow), really is in a deep trance and isn’t faking it for the rubes. He brings her comatose body to the secluded mansion he shares with a pair of women (Carol White, Veronica Anderson), who, likewise, get their kicks from role-playing games and other fetishes. Robert is able to awaken his new playmate with a kiss and taste of the potion given him by the sideshow barker. At first, he attempts to isolate Jennifer from the sex play, but, like the perfect fembot in Ex Machina, she develops a mind of her own.

In a completely detached sidebar, Richard performs at a nearly empty jazz club with his band. One of the habitués is a strung-out junkie and alcoholic played by Richard Pryor, who was nearly penniless at the time, but would soon emerge as an A-list actor, as well as a star comedian. The character presages the introduction of Mudbone in his albums and standup routines, a year later. Although the story, inspired by John Collier’s short story “Sleeping Beauty,” is more of a curiosity than anything else, the movie is enhanced by Mario Tosi’s gorgeous cinematography, sumptuous art direction of Rodger Maus and Ray Storey, and eerie score by Richard Hazard. Because Harris produced Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” “Lolita” and “The Killing,” some critics have suggested that Some Call It Loving may have influenced the look of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s more likely that Harris borrowed ideas generated by Radley Metzger in such arthouse erotica as The Lickerish Quartet and Camille 2000. The dandy Etiquette Pictures Blu-ray benefits from a 2K restoration from the 35mm camera negative; a six-page booklet, with an essay by Kevin John Bozelka; commentary by Harris and Sam Prime; “Some Call It History,” in which Harris recounts his early years in the Korean War, where he met Kubrick; “A Dream So Real,” a conversation with Tosi, who shares his thoughts on career choices; and outtakes, with commentary.

Singularity Principle
Of all the fascinating ideas put forward in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar, the most complex and compelling was the concept of a parallel universe, accessible through wormholes discovered in our solar system. Not having a degree in the sciences, that’s as far as I’m willing to go when attempting to synopsize movies whose plots are based on astrophysics. If anything, the pure science and mathematics that inform the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Singularity Principle, are even more intricate and, therefore, far more baffling than anything in most genre titles. This likely is because it was co-written, co-produced and co-directed (all with Austin Hines) by physicist Dr. David Robert Deranian and no one falls more in love with their chalk work than an academic. As such, Deranian boasts of “paying particular attention to accurate scientific detail and using the fascinating science of parallel universes to bring audiences a story that will both illuminate and entertain.” Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Singularity Principle opens with the disappearance of a noted scientist, Professor Jack Brenner (John Diehl), during an unauthorized parallel-universe experiment. It sets off all sorts of bells and whistles at a “clandestine black-ops agency,” which, of course, is anxious to learn how it might be able to exploit the data or fears that Brenner’s parallel universe might be found in Russia or China. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with emphasizing science over fiction in these sorts of movies, there’s something to be said for fudging the details to expand the audience. Science nerds should be able to find something in Singularity Principle to stimulate their intellects and imagination, though.

The Stray Cat Rock Collection: Blu-ray
The Outing/The Godsend: Blu-ray
Cellar Dweller/Catacombs: Blu-ray
Japanese exploitation movies of the 1950-70s frequently borrowed from conventions and tropes established by filmmakers toiling in the fields that belonged to Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Pick a subgenre that drew crowds here and Japanese filmmakers paid homage to it by copying its conceits and putting them through a blender of home-grown eccentricities. The five films in the Stray Cat Rock series, newly collected by Arrow Films, merge several themes crucial to post-war B-movies in the United States, along with stylized violence, gratuitous nudity, psychedelic rock music and fetishized vehicles, ranging from rice-burner motorcycles (no Harleys to be seen) and Jeeps leftover from the occupation, to gas-guzzling Detroit products, dune buggies and the occasional bicycle. The Japanese were especially fixated on juvenile delinquents, most of whom appear to have taken their cues from Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and West Side Story. In the Stray Cat Rock pictures, though, most of the girls look as if they were just as influenced sartorially by Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, even when waving knives at each other. There’s also room for a butch gang-banger to kick ass and take names when the boys join the fray. Among the constants are the lovely-but-deadly Meiko Kaji, Tatsuya Fuji and Bunjaku Han. The limited Blu-ray set from Arrow contains upgraded versions of Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71; new English subtitle translations; interviews with director Yasuharu Hasebe and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, star of Beat ’71; original trailers; a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; and original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays).

Unlike other double-features released by Scream Factory, this week’s offerings likely will be of interest specifically to 1980s completists and other people with niche tastes. Otherwise, the only things they have in common are a few momentary thrills and short titles. The Outing combines two time-honored tropes: the evil genie released from his lamp and the frightful night spent in a haunted museum. Even Ben Stiller wouldn’t have been able to save this one, though. In The Godsend, a very strange woman with alabaster skin leaves her newborn baby with an unsuspecting family that’s kind enough to take the wee lass in. Before long, she’s proven herself to be quite the little vixen.

Cellar Dweller’s crime is that it takes a perfectly good idea for a short film and almost ruins it by stretching it to a turgid 77 minutes. Twenty-five years after a comic-book artist is killed by one of the monsters he’s created on paper, a fan (Debrah Farantino) returns to the scene of the crime to investigate what happened and what can be salvaged from the panels he left behind in the basement. With the punchline revealed in the first five minutes, all that’s left is the blood-letting. There are two things to recommend Catacombs to horror fans, 1) the exterior scenes were shot at a historic monastery in the mountains surrounding Terni, Umbria, and 2) a scene in which a life-size Christ literally comes down from a cross, pulls a stake from his foot and attacks a priest. Actually, it’s the work of a satanic spirit imprisoned in the catacombs of the church since the Inquisition.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
All Quiet on the Western Front: The Uncut Edition: Blu-ray
Released 35 years before Donald Trump and other Republican nitwits declared illegal immigration to be the greatest threat to our democracy since the War of 1812, Hollywood tackled the problem with compassion, without also minimizing of the scale of the situation. Sadly, though, we no longer can count on the services of Charles Bronson (Borderline) and Telly Savalas (Border Cop) to jump in and solve the current quagmire. The latter was committed to DVD in 2003, while the former is new to disc this week. Bronson stars as Jeb Maynard, a steely U.S. Border Patrol officer stationed between San Diego and Calexico. Things heat up fast after his friend and partner (Wilford Brimley) is murdered by a vicious “coyote” – a white one, this time, played by Ed Harris, in his first credited role in a feature – along with a child who’s just made the crossing. An investigation takes Maynard to Tijuana, with the mother of the dead boy, so he can make the trek through the border as if he were sneaking into the country. The trail leads to a major grower in the Imperial Valley and a corrupt businessman in San Diego. I doubt that a border agent would be allowed to show as much compassion as Maynard, today, because of the political ramifications of being such behavior. Borderline may have its limitations as a product of its time and a rather obvious vehicle for Bronson, who was a huge star in 1980, but it’s well made and the based-on-fact story is reasonably entertaining.

After watching the 1981 box-office bomb The Legend of the Lone Ranger, it was only natural that I would compare it not only to the original TV show, but also to the 2013 box-office bomb, which starred Johnny Depp and someone named Armie Hammer. While neither measures up to the hit Western series, I enjoyed the earlier adaptation quite a bit more than the $216-million The Lone Ranger, which took huge liberties with the mythology. The biggest problem with “The Legend” wasn’t what ended up on the screen, but how it got there. For one thing, Klinton Spilsbury apparently was chosen to appeal to the teenage-girl demographic, not fans of classic oaters. Besides looking like a refugee from a boy band, Spilsbury wasn’t much of an actor. Compounding the problem was the treatment shown to Clayton Moore – the much-loved creator of the character on television – by one of the producers, who also owned the rights to the Lone Ranger brand. Moore was prohibited from appearing in public in costume, so he elected, instead, to wear oversized sunglasses. All that aside, “The Legend” stuck far closer to the origin story, with a surprisingly dapper Christopher Lloyd as the head of the treasonous Cavendish Gang and Jason Robards having a whale of a time as Ulysses S. Grant. Plus, Merle Haggard provides the original songs.

Forty-nine years and three major wars passed between Louis Milestone’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1979 made-for-television remake, starring Richard Thomas, Ian Holm and Ernest Borgnine. The new Blu-ray iteration of the latter adds nearly a half-hour to the original running time. There’s no need to compare the two versions too closely, as they’re both products of their time and medium of choice. The Delbert Mann-directed production had to accommodate commercial breaks and more expository narration than was required in the early talkie. There’s also the matter of the flat American and English accents of the German soldiers. It’s difficult to ignore completely, but, given time, other things vie for our attention, including the emphatic anti-war message. The timing is interesting, though, as it arrives on the heels of the Criterion Collection edition of The Bridge, Bernhard Wicki’s semi-autobiographical drama about a close-knit group of German teenagers drafted into the German army in the closing weeks of World War II. The young men in both movies are, at first, buoyed by patriotism sparked by misleading government propaganda and love of the Fatherland. No sooner do they leave basic training than they’re thrown into the hellfire of a conflagration for which there’s no chance for victory and leaders who should have been sent to the frontlines before anyone else.

BBC/PBS: The Crimson Field: Blu-ray
PlayStation: Powers: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History
BBC/PBS: Tales From the Royal Wardrobe
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC
It’s probably unfair to compare the compelling BBC/PBS mini-series “The Crimson Field” to a “M*A*S*H” without the laughs, but, then, how better to describe a wartime drama that combines testy nurse/doctor relationships with realistic portrayals of operating-theater horrors and triumphs. If World War I failed miserably as a “war to end all wars,” it helped improve the care and treatment of wounded and traumatized soldiers in future wars. The unprecedented volume of incoming patients and increased degree of difficulty in treating wounds, toxic gases and emotional disorders forced caregivers to rethink their approaches to healing. The International Red Cross had been founded only 50 years before the start of the war and nothing that had come before had prepared Red Cross workers and volunteers for the sheer enormity of their mission. In previous wars, the same wounds might have gone untreated except for the application of a surgical saw and unsanitary rags. In the “crimson fields” of France, the agency also was responsible for POWs and mail delivery, as well as other services. The mini-series’ soap-opera through-lines emerged from the close proximity of doctors, nurses and patients and intensity of the shared experience in a post-Victorian environment. In the absence of a steady rain of bullets and mortars, hospital personnel face were required to navigate divisions related to class distinctions, religious conventions and reservations concerning advanced treatments. Because the tented field hospital in “The Crimson Field” serves as a buffer between the battlefield and homefront, relatives of the wounded men were allowed to visit them. For those unprepared to deal with the severity of the wounds suffered by their loved ones, the shock of recognition could be frightening. Just as the unlikely hit series “Call the Midwife” took a while for Americans to embrace, “The Crimson Field” grows on you. That can be credited to the excellent writing and such familiar actors as Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kevin Doyle, Kerry Fox, Jeremy Swift and Alex Wyndham. The BBC cut of the series allows for a bit more realistic approach to the material than that allowed by PBS censors.

Even those viewers who can’t get enough of shows about superheroes and other supernatural shenanigans may be unaware of “Powers,” an original series available only via PlayStation platforms. Based on the graphic novel by Michael Avon Oeming and Brian Michael Bendis, it demands that we consider the ramifications of a world in which superheroes, supervillains and uniquely gifted mutants are as prevalent as, say, Starbucks. Powers-deficient humans would be defenseless against the bad apples, if it weren’t for the brave men and women of the Powers Division. It is represented primarily by homicide detectives Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Not being an aficionado, much of the mythology flew right over my head. Still, it’s the gamers who subscribe to the PlayStation Network who will make the final determination on “Powers” when it comes to ratings and renewals. There’s no reason to think it won’t have a bright future in the niche market.

Except for the occasional defection, hit movie revealing backstage intrigue or Kirov sighting, news from the world of ballet is practically non-existent in the mainstream media. That changed recently when Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history. Her personal story is so compelling that “60 Minutes” devoted an entire segment to it. While she’s a prominent dancer in Ric Burns’ “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History,” her appearances and opinions are threads in a tapestry whose creation began in pre-Soviet Russia and is still being woven. Anyone who thinks that Burns’ documentaries begin to look the same after a while should be surprised by what they see here. In addition to the archival material and talking heads, the show features some of the most elegantly photographed dance scenes and intimate interactions between performers I’ve ever seen. Burns was accorded unprecedented access to the company, including dramatic live performances, grueling rehearsals and tight focuses on Copeland, Gillian Murphy and other young stars following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In BBC/PBS’ “Tales From the Royal Wardrobe,” the affable British historian and TV host, Dr. Lucy Worsley, is in fine form as she explores the sartorial tastes of kings and queens from Elizabeth I to the present Queen Elizabeth II. Rather than simply precede over a series of photographs, sketches and newsreel footage, Worsley explains how the royal wardrobe is a carefully orchestrated piece of theater, managed by the royals themselves to control the right image and project the right message to their subjects. This extends to a time when wealth dictated what courtiers could and couldn’t wear to events and actual documents that laid out the guideline. She also models the extravagant fashions worn by queens and princesses, with special attention paid to the impracticality of their architecture. Fans of period programming on the BBC will find the show to be particularly entertaining and informative.

Also available from the same source are “Doctor Who: The Daleks,” which recalls the many the confrontations between the mutant creatures and the Doctor and his companions. The three-part documentary series, “BBC’s Shark,” goes up-close-and-personal with 30 species of the legendary predator, with footage from dozens of habitats worldwide, There is even a shark that walks on land.

From Shout comes “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season,” a compilation of all 22 episodes from the show’s penultimate season. It was at this point of its run that CBS began to treat the series like a pawn on its chessboard, by moving it around the schedule without concern for viewers or narrative continuity. Even the actors were at a loss as to when it would air. Most of original musical licenses have been renewed for DVD, but not all of them.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC” is a single–disc release from Nickelodeon, comprised of seven “central” episodes from Season Three. The Turtles’ mission is to retake New York, save their Sensei, search for Karai and team–up with the Mighty Mutanimals for a rescue mission into Dimension X.

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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