MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Stations of the Cross, Code Unknown, Julien Duvivier, Eric Rohmer and more

Stations of the Cross
Marie’s Story
Last awards season, Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s impassioned story about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, walked away with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Agata Trzebuchowska delivered a stunning performance as a young woman who was raised as a devout Roman Catholic, but discovers on the eve of taking her vows that almost everything she’s learned about her parents and religious background is a lie. While providing a not altogether unkind profile of the Church under Nazi and Communist domination, Ida revealed truths about the deeply engrained anti-Semitism of many of the faithful. Stations of the Cross is Dietrich Brüggemann’s tragic depiction of religious fundamentalism at its most destructive and, as such, can be construed as serving as an indictment of one particularly conservative Catholic order. This one is based in southern Germany, an area not immune to fanaticism. Given the Vatican’s current leadership, it’s difficult to believe the cruelty perpetrated here on the 14-year-old protagonist in the name of Christ. American Catholics who came of age in a darker period of Church history shouldn’t have any trouble accepting the film’s premise, though. Bruggemann shares the writing credit with his sister, Anna, who also plays a character in the movie. Like Trzebuchowska, newcomer Lea van Acken is unforgettable as Maria, a 14-year-old German girl about to be confirmed as a soldier of Christ. In many Catholic homes, it is a sacrament that priests and nuns take far more seriously than the parents of the kids forced to endure accelerated catechism lessons. Maria’s mother (Franziska Weisz) takes the rite very seriously, indeed, as do the clergy attached to the real-life Society of St. Pius X. Founded in 1970 by the traditionalist French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, its adherents reject the more secular rulings of the Second Vatican Council, especially changes in the liturgy and revisions to the Roman Missal. While the longing for a return to the Latin mass isn’t particularly unusual among older Catholics, Maria’s treatment is something quite different. She’s been taught that anything that brings pleasure – contemporary music and helping boys with their homework, for example – could lead to promiscuity. Mutter insists that even the most innocent contact with boys her age opens the door for Satan. Because Maria is too isolated too challenge her parents’ beliefs, she maintains a safe distance from temptation. In her mind, disobeying Mutter would be as disrespectful as using a crucifix as a doorstop.

The title, Stations of the Cross, refers to the 14 Stations of the Cross that Jesus endured on his path to Golgotha. Maria’s been taught that the same path not only leads to heaven, but also could cure her younger brother’s autism. Bruggemann tells Maria’s story through 14 fixed-angle, single-shot tableaus. The same ritual was depicted in excruciating detail in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (On the cover, Maria is shown wearing a crown of thorns.) The nearer Bruggemann gets to the 13th and 14th station — Jesus dying on the cross and being laid in his tomb – the closer Maria gets to her personal Calvary. Instead of pulling the girl back from the brink of disaster, Mutter treats Maria’s ordeal as the first step toward beatification. Anyone who grew up Roman Catholic in a predominantly Catholic community, during the 1960-70s, won’t have any trouble recognizing the forces at play in Stations of the Cross. While many priests and parishioners embraced the reforms brought about during the Second Vatican Council, a vocal minority rejected it outright and still prays for a return to fundamentalist values. In their eyes, the pope is anything but infallible. It’s impossible not to equate Maria’s plight with the treatment of Moslem girls — Malala Yousafzai comes to mind — as they approach puberty and the likelihood of enslavement to a man not of their choosing. Certainly, Mutter and the parish priest could give the Taliban a run for their money. Stations of the Cross is powerful film that deserves to be seen and discussed by co-religionists and anyone who thinks Islamists have a monopoly on fanaticism. Bonus features include the director’s commentary and the short film, “One Shot.”

Also from Film Movement comes a more familiar story of Catholic faith and near-saintly charity. This time, the central figure is a French nun who sacrificed her own personal freedom to mentor a deaf and blind girl nearly given up for lost by her helpless parents. The true story of Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré) and Marie Heurtins (deaf actress Ariana Rivoire) unfolded at roughly the same point in the late 1800s as when Annie Sullivan was working her magic with Helen Keller, an ocean away in Massachusetts. Marguerite taught deaf girls to sign at the esteemed Larnay Institute, near Poitiers. In Jean-Pierre Améris’ tremendously moving Marie’s Story, her great challenge comes when a humble artisan brings his deaf and blind daughter to the rural facility in a last-ditch effort to keep her from being sent to an asylum for the mentally ill. When Marie is left at Larnay, the girl acts out her bewilderment, fear and anger in ways that recall Victor, Francois Truffaut’s l’enfant sauvage in The Wild Child. When the mother superior denies Marguerite’s request to tame the feral child, she’s treats the rejection as a direct challenge from God to serves as his miracle worker on Earth. (I wonder if Keller ever learned of Marie’s parallel story.) To accomplish this feat, the nun felt it necessary to distance herself from her other obligations and search for answers in nature. After much tussling, frustration and exploration, Marguerite feels confident of Marie’s ability to return to Larnay, where they can learn out to correspond using hand-to-hand signing techniques. Sadly, the other girls have yet to be taught the meaning of Christian charity, as they torment Marie whenever Marguerite leaves the room. Learning that the nun has been diagnosed with tuberculosis only makes us feel that much more fearful for Maria’s fate. Améris keeps a tight hold on the throttle here, nicely balancing the dramatic throughlines and resisting the temptation to play to the cheap seats. The acting is universally excellent and the lush rural settings open up a story that might have induced claustrophobia if the action remained indoors. Do I need to mention that Marie’s Story easily qualifies as entertainment for the entire family? The bonus features include an informative making-of featurette and the Iranian short film, “Motherly,” in which a blind woman “spies” on her wheelchair-bound son to determine if his girlfriend is marriage material.

Code Unknown: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When Code Unknown debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, the influx of immigrants into Europe was still deemed manageable and writer/director/playwright Michael Haneke was known primarily for his almost unbearably intense home-invasion thriller, Funny Games. Haneke would go on to become a perennial favorite at international festivals and, by 2015, undocumented immigration would reach crisis proportions throughout Europe and North America. If anything, critics then were more impressed by Juliet Binoche’s terrific performance than Haneke’s observations about the growing communications gap between native Parisians and newcomers from Africa, Kosovo and other hotspots. Today, I think, the opposite would be true. We’ve come to expect great acting from Binoche and Haneke’s response to the immigration problem would be considered prescient. The complete title, “Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” sums up the filmmaker’s narrative conceit pretty well. The central event involves the runaway brother of Binoche’s boyfriend, a photographer drawn to war zones around the world. Angry that the actress refuses to accept the boy’s frustration with farm life as seriously as he does, Jean crumples up a bag of pastry and rudely throws it into the lap of a Kosovar woman begging on a curb outside the bakery shop. Disturbed by the show of disrespect, a Malian student confronts the boy and is arrested for being the instigator of a tussle. The beggar is deported and the boy returns to the farm. Haneke revisits these characters throughout the rest of the movie, through vignettes separated by short blackouts. He also bookends the series of vignettes with scenes from a game of charades played by deaf students from several different cultural backgrounds.

In Code Unknown’s most troubling sequence, the actress is confronted on a subway train by an Arab youth, whose idea of fun is intimidating passengers he knows won’t fight back. At the time, at least, such provocations weren’t at all uncommon. Today, of course, the fear would be that the Arab youth would be in possession of a bomb or knife. I suspect some viewers might see the provocations as being too one-side and deduce that Code Unknown is an exercise in politically incorrect stereotyping. It would be difficult, however, to overstate the potential for violence and political extremism in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. Until President Trump clears the street of America of illegal immigrants, it will remain a problem without a solution here, as well. In this regard, even after 15 years, Code Unknown feels fresh and urgent. Haneke’s ability to keep the disparate characters from tripping all over each other is remarkable. Ten years after Funny Games raised his flag at Cannes, Haneke felt compelled to remake it almost verbatim for English-speaking audiences. Is it too much to ask of him to consider revisiting the issues raised in Code Unknown in a contemporary setting? The Criterion Collection upgrade includes a newly restored 2K digital transfer, approved by the director, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a new and vintage interview with Haneke; an introduction by Haneke, from 2001; a 2000 making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Haneke, Binoche and producer Marin Karmitz; a new interview with film scholar Roy Grundmann; and an essay by critic Nick James.

Eclipse Series 44: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
No less an expert than Graham Greene called Julien Duvivier’s Algiers-set crime drama, Pépé le moko, “One of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing. … (It) raises the thriller to a poetic level!” It would serve as inspiration for Greene’s novel, “The Third Man,” and the American remakes, Algiers (1938) and Casbah (1948). As if to demonstrate that Duvivier was no one-hit wonder, Criterion Collection has released a quartet of films he made between the end of the silent era and the release of “Pepe,” in 1937. Though decidedly French in origin, all four films would fit neatly on the nights Turner Classic Movies devotes to film noir classics. David Golder (1931) is Duvivier’s the first sound film and first collaboration with actor Harry Baur, who appears in all four pictures. it brings to life the vivid protagonist of Irène Némirovsky’s novel, an avaricious, self-interested banker whose family life is as tempestuous as his business dealings in inter-war France. Poil De Carotte (“The Red Head”) is Duvivier’s 1932 remake his own silent adaptation of a popular turn-of-the-century novella about a farm boy nicknamed Carrot Top, who desperately wants to connect with his father; 1933’s La tête d’un Homme (a.k.a., “A Man’s Neck”) is one of the first adaptations of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. It stars Baur as a novelist, investigating the odd circumstances surrounding the killing of a wealthy American woman in Paris. Every bit Baur’s equal is the Russian émigré actor Valéry Inkijinoff, cast as a nihilistic, reptilian medical student. Julien Duvivier gives the viewer one evocative image after another, constructing a work of sinister beauty. In Un Carnet De Bal (“Dance Program”), a rich widow, nostalgic for the lavish parties of her youth, sets off across Europe to reconnect with the many suitors who once courted her. In doing so, she embarks on a journey of discovery, both of herself and of how greatly the world has changed in two decades. The set is the 44th entry in Criterion’s valuable Eclipse Series.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
At a time when executions in the U.S. have been postponed in several states, due primarily to questions raised about the legality of the chemical formula used in lethal injections, it may come as a surprise for many Americans to learn that France relied on the guillotine until 1977. Four years after the execution of Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian pimp convicted of torture and murder, the guillotine and death penalty finally were abolished there. Four years before Djandoubi fell victim to the steel blade, a movie written and directed by a former Death Row inmate may have laid the foundation for their abolition. Far from being an emotionally draining drama on the order of Dead Man Walking, however, José Giovanni’s Two Men in Town (a.k.a., “Two Against the Law”) stuck a knife directly into the heart of France’s hypocritical justice system, which promoted punishment over rehabilitation for convicted criminals … much in the same way as American prisons do today. Giovanni (born, Joseph Damiani), knew whereof he spoke. After World War II, he joined the Corsican mob as a petty criminal and was involved in a crime that claimed three lives, including those of his older brother and an uncle. Despite the fact that he wasn’t armed, Giovanni was convicted and sentenced to death. After some political strings were pulled, clemency was granted and he began a more legitimate career, as writer of hard-boiled fiction set in the criminal underworld or prisons. Several would be adapted into excellent movies, starring such high-profile European leading men as Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paul Meurisse, Daniel Auteuil, Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. He would add a couple more hyphens to his title before his death, in 2004. In Two Men in Town, Delon plays a safecracker who’s released from prison early after being vouched for by a social worker and prison reformer, portrayed by Gabin, then 69. Committed to going straight, Gino Strabliggi encounters three huge obstacles in his path: a tragic romance, his former mates and a cop bent on sending him back to the joint. Throughout it all, Gabin’s Germain Cazeneuve remains in his corner. Finally, though, a system that puts its trust in crooked cops, over rehabilitated sinners, causes Gino to make the kind of foolish mistake that results in dates with the guillotine. Although Two Men in Town suffers a bit from a less-than-fluid narrative, it doesn’t soften the power of Giovanni’s message. Last year, his original screenplay would be re-adapted to fit an American setting by Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory), with Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel facing off against each other in comparable roles. Newly restored in 4K, the Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary by Gabin biographer Charles Zigman, as well as the very different original and re-release trailer.

Full Moon in Paris: Blu-ray
The Marquise of O: Blu-ray
Amour Fou: Blu-ray
And, since we’re on the subject of foreign films, here are three more Film Movement releases to consider, all with deep connections to the famously idiosyncratic French auteur, Eric Rohmer. His 1984 romantic drama, Full Moon in Paris, is the fourth in his “Comedies and Proverbs” series, in which he probes the cycles, permutations and mysteries of love and desire. (Who does this kind of cool stuff, anymore?) It stars the dangerously thin and weirdly coiffed Pascale Ogier, who died very soon after winning the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actress prize, at 26. Her flighty interior designer, Louise, personifies the film’s gender-reversed epigram, “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.” Louise lives with her hunky boyfriend, Remi (Tcheky Karyo), in a suburb of Paris. She loves him, but doesn’t dig his possessive nature or the wasting away of her young life in the sleepy town. Plus, Remi doesn’t dance. So, Louise elects to divide her time in a Paris apartment, where she strings along her effete friend, Octave (Fabrice Luchini), a married writer. She doesn’t mind living or sleeping alone, even while retaining strong feelings for both men. It isn’t until Louise lets down her guard to the point where she spends the night at a rock musician’s apartment that she begins to understand the wisdom in the epigram. If Louise looked a bit more like a young Catherine Deneuve or Nathalie Baye, we’d wonder why such a determined female character would care to split her time between such imperfect men. In a Hollywood movie, though, Ogier would be relegated to geeky sidekick roles and settling for scraps left behind by her friends on the cheerleader squad. It’s these kinds of departures from the norm that make Rohmer’s work so diverting.

The natural tendency when first coming across Rohmer’s 1976 period drama, The Marquise of O, is to assume it has something to do with the Marquis de Sade or the S&M classic, “Story of O,” by Anne Desclos (a.k.a., Pauline Reage_. Alas, no. In fact, it was adapted from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella, about a young widow, the Marquise, who places an ad in the local paper seeking the father of the baby she’s carrying, but doesn’t remember conceiving. In flashback, Rohmer recalls an attack by Russian soldiers on a northern Italian town, during the Napoleonic Wars and the attempted rape of Die Marquise by soldiers overrunning the citadel. It is interrupted by the Russian Count F (Bruno Ganz), who returns the unconscious damsel to safety. The Marquise is distraught that her savior had to leave town after it was ransacked and was mistakenly reported dead in the advance. Soon thereafter, however, the count returns to her home and asks Der Vater – who had unsuccessfully defended the town against the Russians — her hand in marriage. Before this can happen, however, the count once again is called back to duty, with the promise that the matter would be revisited upon his return. Soon thereafter, the Marquise will learn she is pregnant and begin the search for the father. Things get considerably more complicated, but in ways that are difficult to predict. Ganz is excellent as the imperious count, as is Edith Clever as the extremely fragile Die Marquise. The film, which is an exhaustive depiction of long-buried manners and protocol, won the Grand Prix Spécial Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.

The connection to Rohmer in Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is the dramatization of the hopelessly romantic Von Kleist’s final weeks of life, which culminated in a double suicide with the similarly minded musician Henriette Vogel, who lived in a grand estate near Potsdam. Greatly impressed by Von Kleist’s poetry, Vogel invites him to spend time with her family, which includes a husband and child. Led to believe that she’s suffering from a terminal illness, Vogel (Birte Schnoeink) allows the writer (Christian Friedel) to talk her into going out in a blaze of romantic glory, according to the lofty dictates of his poetry. This account differs from the historical record, as does the mystery that surrounds Vogel’s illness, but where’s the fun in the truth? While the dialogue leading to the suicide pact borders on crazy-talk, Hausner’s depiction of life among the aristocracy at a time when the clamor for democracy and the potential for taxing the rich were blowing strongly in the wind is captivating. She also does a splendid job depicting the grandiosity of the estates where the bewigged twits frittered away their days. The bonus features include commentary with the director, deleted scenes, “Why We Selected” and the short film, “OIDA.”

Do I Sound Gay?
I wonder if, even 20 years ago, David Thorpe’s insightful documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, would have attracted the number of men willing to be interviewed on a subject that, in other hands, might be considered politically incorrect. It’s also worth considering where such a film might have been exhibited outside of gay and lesbian film festivals. Back then, religious zealots still were able to sell the idea that homosexuality could be reversed or cured. Today, of course, the stigma of speaking in a stereotypically gay voice – or, what once was dismissed as a lisp – has practically disappeared, at least in big cities and campus communities. Not caring how one sounds in social situations, job interviews, on screen or at church is as much a sign of the times as having same-sex marriage announcements published in the New York Times. Thorpe uses the break-up with his boyfriend as an excuse for confronting his anxiety about “sounding gay.” To this end, he solicits the advice of acting coaches, linguists, friends, family, total strangers and celebrities. What starts as a personal journey, though, effortlessly evolves into larger discussions about sexuality, identity, self-esteem and, finally, gay pride. The interesting thing to remember is that actors have been affecting gay voices and mannerisms for a very long time, and not always in cruel parodies. Some have been able to use their normal voice and profit from it. It isn’t likely that Liberace, Paul Lynde and Clifton Webb would have profited from going butch. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is how what’s accepted in entertainers and celebrities can still divide families. Among the more prominent witnesses called to testify here are Tim Gunn, columnist Dan Savage, David Sedaris, George Takei and Margaret Cho.

Bound to Vengeance: Blu-ray
When J.M. Cravioto’s hyper-violent revenge thriller Bound to Vengeance was shown at this year’s Sundance Festival, its title was “Reversal.” There probably was a logical reason for the change, although I can’t think of one right now. The reviews that followed its screening were close enough to the ones that greeted I Spit on Your Grave and its sequels to raise the question as to just how violent a movie has to be these days to offend critics gathered at a festival devoted to indies. While there’s no denying Bound to Vengeance’s exploitative ambitions, such reviews suggest that the bar separating good exploitation from bad exploitation hasn’t moved much in the last 37 years. In Rock Shaink and Keith Kjornes’ story, a young woman, Eve (Tina Ivlev), escapes her psychopathic captor after being chained in a basement and abused for nine months. While attempting to take flight, Eve discovers photos taken of other women whose lives appear still to be in jeopardy. Assuming that her captor knows where the others are imprisoned, she beats him to within an inch of his life and puts him in a metal harness, which can be manipulated to inflict more pain. By promising the fiend (Richard Tyson) medical attention, Eve is able to elicit the location of another victim, who agrees to join her crusade, and, so on and so forth. The further the trail leads into the horror zone, the more resistance they meet … and, yes, reversals. The obvious questions become, why doesn’t Eve call the police and where does vengeance end and sadism begin? Then, too, is a harder line drawn by mainstream critics when an exploitation flick debuts at Sundance, instead of going straight to DVD, where such genre fare can be ignored? Methinks, yes. Critics don’t enjoy wallowing in gore any more than the victims in exploitation movies. I don’t either, but VOD and straight-to-video titles are a large part of my workload. That said, because the violence in Bound to Vengeance is directed far more at the evil male characters than helpless women, the titillation factor associated with I Spit on Your Grave and its ilk isn’t at play here. While far from a home run, the movie is just good enough to raise the profile of its talented Mexican director in his debut feature.

The Aviation Cocktail
Like other first features made on miniscule budgets, David R. Higgins’ The Aviation Cocktail is long on style, but short on follow-through. At its best, the Nebraska-set crime drama represents the kind of rural noir Richard Brooks injected into In Cold Blood. Set in the kind of sleepy Midwestern town profiled in Truman Capote’s account of the Clutter Family murders, Higgins’ film benefits from being shot in, around and above the Sandhills National Natural Landmark, in the north-central part of Nebraska, as well as a snow-covered patch of nothingness in Colorado. There are times when it also resembles the more barren landscapes of Coen Brothers’ Fargo, North Dakota. The movie opens with a shootout between a posse of police sharpshooters and the kidnaper of a girl, who’s already dead when they approach the dilapidated shed. While the wounded suspect is being flown to a hospital in a shiny silver prop plane, the three other passengers conspire to exact their own form of vigilante justice on him. Sheriff Henry Fisher (Beau Kiger), his brother, Jack (Michael Haskins), and friend Bob Halloran (Brandon Eaton) are World War II veterans, not at all averse to keeping the prisoner’s fate secret. Things don’t begin to unravel until the cuckolded sheriff’s unfaithful wife, Alice (Leah Lockhart), begins flashing her boobs to everyone willing – or unwilling – to look at them. Her lovers include the pilot, Bob. Like everyone else in town, Jack is aware of the situation, but doesn’t want his brother to slide completely off, into the deep end. As if to demonstrate how haywire things can go in a small town largely populated with heavily armed alcoholics, Higgins adds the dead girl’s religious-fanatic brother (Connor L. Boyle) to the mix and gives him a handgun. By the time the shit hits the fan between Henry and Alice, though, the story’s gotten bogged down with too many characters and subplots. Even so, it’s difficult not to be impressed with Higgins’ choice of locations and obsession with period accuracy, especially in the vintage vehicles.

Before We Go: Blu-ray
If I were to guess, I’d say that prolific-to-a-fault screenwriter Ron Bass woke up one morning thinking it might not be a bad idea if someone crossed Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and that his assistants might have fun throwing it together. Before We Go reportedly began to take shape in 2008, as “1:30 Train,” and with director Joel Schumacher and Monica Bellucci attached to the project. By the time shooting began, in 2014, the retitled rom-com starred frequent superhero Chris Evans and Reece Witherspoon look-alike Alice Eve, with Evans doubling down as first-time director. Evans has said that he doesn’t want to play Captain America forever, but, even if Before We Go is far from a disaster, he may want to reconsider killing the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. In it, Evans plays a subway busker, Nick Vaughan, who hopes to join an established jazz ensemble after an audition scheduled for the next day. He becomes attracted to Eve’s Brooke Dalton after noticing that she’s missed her train to New Haven and is upset because her expensive purse has been stolen and her phone is broken. Sensing a damsel in distress, Nick volunteers to help her locate her bag and raise the money she needs to get back to her philandering husband. They make a cute couple, traipsing around the Lower East Side, even if there’s no guarantee they’ll still be a twosome by the time sunrise rolls around. The problem is that they don’t look as if they could survive a night in the mean streets of Omaha, let alone Manhattan, especially while attempting to recover a purse worth more empty than Nick’s made in all of his performances at Grand Central Station. We’re left with an urban fairytale as phony as the knock-off accessories sold on street corners by Nigerian conmen.

Charlie’s Farm
Stung: Blu-ray
Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Theatre of the Deranged II: Blu-ray
Symphony in Blood Red Blu-Ray,
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.: Blu-ray
Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween
Bloodsucking Bastards: Blu-ray
If the Aussie export, Charlie’s Farm, is based on an overly familiar trope, writer/director Chris Sun deserves a lot of credit at least for creating a monster that fans of old-fashioned slasher flicks aren’t likely to forget. The story opens with a flashback to the night a vigilante mob confronted the owners of an Outback farm, believed to house a family of serial killers of trespassers and cannibals. The only person who escapes the carnage is the son, Charlie Wilson, who, 20 years later, has grown into a grotesque 6-foot-11, 360-pound killer, who wields handmade weapons of medieval origins. On this particular weekend, a quartet of fearless young suburbanites descends on the vacant farmhouse to test the validity of a horrifying local legend involving Charlie. While it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen to the couples, horror fans should enjoy guessing how they will be dispatched and in what order. It’s all pretty blood-curdling. American viewers may be tempted by the presence of Tara Reid, who hasn’t starred in anything more noteworthy lately than “Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2.”  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that a sequel is already in the works … probably without Reid.

Reportedly, first-time screenwriter Adam Aresty came up with the idea for Stung while working as a caterer at an outdoor party with a severe wasp-infestation problem. Based solely on that much background information, anyone who can’t guess what transpires over the course of the next 87 minutes of Aresty and Benni Diez’ film should be required to take a remedial course in creature features. Although I would have held out for predatory yellowjackets, Diez’s special-effects acumen (Melancholia) worked in the favor of the increasingly large, black wasps. If Stung had been made in the 1960-70s, it might have attracted Roger Corman’s attention and been distributed to drive-ins around the country. As it is, I can’t imagine how Syfy might have passed on it. It stars Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Matt O’Leary (Mother’s Day) and Jessica Cook (Awkward).

Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies isn’t the final movie Rowdy Roddy Piper made before his death this summer, at 61, but he’s the only good reason to check out Cody Knotts’ follow-up to Breeding Farm and Lucifer’s Unholy Desire. Although the title doesn’t need any further explanation, it’s worth noting that the battle royal takes place at night in an abandoned prison, where a troupe of professional wrestlers is booked for a private show. To their great surprise, the grapplers are confronted by a small army of zombies. The wrestlers turn to their weapons of choice – ladders, folding chairs, boards and sleeper holds – to turn back the undead horde, which relies primarily on rotten teeth and decaying fingernails. Besides Piper, the humans include Matt Hardy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Franchise Shane Douglas, Kurt Angle, Reby Sky, Sylvester ‘Bear’ Terkay and associate producer Camera Chatham Bartolotta. The action isn’t any more violent than what one might see at a Wrestlemania. The biggest problem is the under-lit setting, which makes the action tough to dicipher, even in hi-def. It adds commentary by Knotts and an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman.

In the sequel to Troma’s 2012 horror anthology, Theater of the Deranged, Internet freak Damien Shadows takes over the reins as host from Andy the Arsonist. Shadows calls himself a paranormal investigator, a title that’s hardly exclusive to self-promoting young webheads who resemble Alice Cooper. As before, Theater of the Deranged II is comprised of a half-dozen very strange short films, this time directed by James Cullen Bressack (Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys), Shawn Burkett (A Shameless Revenge), Eric Hollerbach (Pets of the Rich and Famous), Christopher Leto (Die Die Delta Pi), Dustin Mills (Kill That Bitch) and Shane Ryan (Amateur Porn Star Killer). And, yes, included in the cast of miscreants is a killer mime. It adds bloopers, commentary and other Troma stuff.

There may very well be more filmmakers imitating Dario Argento, today, than there ever were during the heyday of giallo. And, why not? Those movies were built on a recognizable foundation of violence, sex and vivid imagery and the DVD/Blu-ray revolution works to the advantage of those sick individuals for whom murder, nudity and stylistic cinematography are as vital as mother’s milk. The 2010 Troma import, Symphony in Blood Red, doesn’t bother to conceal its influences, even adding a pair of featurettes in which Argento’s name, spirit and thoughts are invoked. In it, a psychologist unleashes her mysterious patient’s latent madness, by insisting he seek further help in a more specialized institution. Instead, he kills her and becomes his own therapist, recording his feelings in a crazy “crescendo” with a small camera. Somehow, he’s come to belief that he’s emerging from a chrysalis state and the next step is full-blown madness. Symphony in Blood Red was written by Antonio Tentori (Dracula 3D) and Luigi Pastore, who also is the director. The genre-specific score is by Claudio Simonetti. The Blu-ray comes with an intro by Lloyd Kaufman; a documentary with the “best voices of Italian horror,” including Dario Argento; a behind-the-scenes piece; a “Minute With Dario Argento: Make Your Own Damn Movie lesson; highlights from the 16th Tromadance Film Festival; Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner trailer; and a music video, directed by Kaufman.

And, we’re not done with Troma just yet. On the 25th anniversary of Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., Lloyd Kaufman has decided to re-launch the sci-fi cop adventure in Blu-ray. Harry Griswald is a NYPD cop possessed with the spirit of a great Kabuki master. This has made him “the chosen one” to do battle with “the evil one.” Sadly, not everyone in the Big Apple is ready for reform or such superheroics. Among the bonus features are commentary by Lloyd Kaufman, an animated Kabukiman, Kabuki rap, “Sgt. Kabukiman Accused of Sexual Harrassment,” Tromaville Cafe with Rick Gianasi and the ever-popular Troma Trailers.

Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween isn’t from Troma, but it might as well be, I guess. The titular protagonists return to the DVD marketplace to mess with sci-fi and horror conventions and clichés, while also paying homage to classic scenes and characters. Previous chapters have included C&O’s Summer Camp Massacre, C&O’s Deadly Xmas and C&O Meet Dracula’s Lawyer. It helps to have a solid background in horror history.

You know that any improv-comedy group with the chutzpah to name itself Dr. God is going to work extra hard to make people laugh. Anything less would be sacrilege. Dr. God is a Los Angeles-based troupe that develops content for film and television, in addition to performing live all across the country. Besides producing Bloodsucking Bastards, it currently is working on “MOCKpocalypse” for AXS-TV.  It is intended to appeal to fans of such movies as Shaun of the Dead, Office Space and “The Office,” among other influences. The DVD adds a gag reel, a making-of featurette and commentary with Dr. God members, including director Brian James O’Connell, producer/actor Justin Ware, writer/actor Sean Cowhig and actors Neil W. Garguilo and David F. Park.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
Nothing in Jeremiah Zagar’s intriguing documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart leads me to believe that the subject of his inquest was railroaded or deserves a new trial. It does, however, demand of viewers that we question, at least, if any defendant can get a fair hearing after being deemed exploitable by media outlets able to introduce facts, hearsay and outright lies jurors wouldn’t be allow to hear in court. Twenty-five years ago, Pamela Smart’s case made a huge splash when she was charged with encouraging her teenage lover and his slacker buddies to murder her husband. She had met the three teenage boys and a girl at Winnacunnet High School, in Hampton, New Hampshire, where she was employed as a “media coordinator.” Before the seduction and murder occurred, Smart and the students were linked by a mutual interested in heavy-metal music. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because of the intense media coverage of the trial – the first, even before O.J., to be televised from start to finish – and Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel, “To Die For,” which was adapted by Gus Van Sant’s movie of the same title, starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon and Joaquin Phoenix. Smart also was portrayed by Helen Hunt in the CBS movie, “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story,” and she appeared on “Oprah” in 2010 to plead her case for a new trial. It was rejected, despite several inconsistencies in the testimony of her co-conspirators.

Zagar’s most salient point is that, once the media began to exploit the story for all it was worth, it would have been impossible for Smart’s case to be fairly heard by an untainted judge and jury. If a presumption of innocence is the rule of law in any courtroom, a presumption of guilt is what sells papers and pumps up ratings. Among the things working against Smart was a too-pretty face, an expensive hairdo and photos of her in a bikini. How could three boys in their mid-teens resist such a sorceress? Or, so the prosecutor’s argument went. Even if we agree with the guilty verdict and punishment of life without parole, what are we to make of decisions that have already allowed the boys, including the 15-year-old who stabbed Smart’s husband to death, to already be free on parole? Zagar asks other worthwhile questions, while also interviewing Smart in prison. The documentary is informed, as well, by numerous court records, transcripts and fresh interviews with people on both sides of the argument. For those who followed the trial or simply are fans of true-crime stories, “Captivated” should be considered a must-see.

Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar
Although Adam Ant enjoyed a substantial career in the UK, in the post-punk 1980s, I can only recall him having a single memorable hit on the U.S. charts, “Goody Two Shoes.” He found some traction on MTV for his theatrical music videos and quasi-military costume  – he appeared to be channeling Monty Python’s inept highwayman, Dennis Moore – but pretty much disappeared by 1985. Jack Bond’s documentary, Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar, describes the 61-year-old singer/actor’s attempt to relaunch his career after stops along the way doing television, film and theater gigs and dealing with his bipolar condition. This time around, Ant (born, Stuart Leslie Goddard) resembles a cross between Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. He’s still rocking – thanks to a solid band and hyperactive backup singers — but the lyrics to his new songs sound as if they were written during therapy sessions. Even so, the doc should appeal to 1980s’ nostalgists and fans who might have lost track of Ant. Among the more familiar guest stars are Charlotte Rampling (he’s a big fan of The Night Porter), guitarist Mark Ronson, sculptor Allen Jones, John Robb (Goldblade) and Jamie Reynolds (The Klaxons). Bonus features include live performances of “Whip in My Valise” (at The Scala in London), “Deutsche Girls” (at Electric Ballroom), and “Young Parisians” (duet with Boy George of Culture Club). There’s also an extended Q&A with Bond and Robb.

Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series
On Two Fronts Latinos & Vietnam
American Masters: Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey
Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes
The Jewish Journey: America
Nature: Nature’s Miracle Orphans
Cook’s Country: Season 8
It isn’t always easy to keep track of our favorite British series once we’ve fallen in love with them on PBS or BBC America. Few of them can afford the marketing push that alerts us to every new season of “Downton Abbey” and “Dr. Who,” so we’re pretty much left to our own devices. Fortunately, the release of these shows on DVD/Blu-ray has become far more predictable, and at their original UK lengths. (Yes, the U.S. outlets edit for language, nudity and the time necessary for pledge-drive hustles and commercials.) It explains why the arrival of “Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series” will be greeted with joy by fans of British spy stories and Bill Nighy, in particular. As conceived and administered by David Hare, Johnny Worricker is a veteran MI5 officer, whose boss and best friend (Michael Gambon) in the first chapter, “Page Eight,” died unexpectedly, leaving behind a mysteriously encrypted file that threatens the stability of the agency. Meanwhile, a seemingly chance encounter with Johnny’s striking next-door neighbor and political activist (Rachel Weisz) proves too good to be true, forcing Worricker to leave the agency to discover the truth. In the second chapter of the trilogy, “Turks & Caicos,” Worricker is laying low on the titular tax-exile islands, when a CIA agent (Christopher Walken) forces him into the company of some ambiguous American businessmen who claim to be on the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. When one is found dead, the head of the company’s publicity agency (Winona Ryder) leads Worricker in what could be a wild goose chase that leads back to the events described in “Page Eight.” The third episode, “Salting the Battlefield” follows Worricker as he criss-crosses Europe with a former girlfriend (Helena Bonham Carter), attempting to stay one or two steps ahead of MI5 agents pursuing him in the name of the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a terrifically excitin series, with plenty of fresh insights into the game within the game. The casts also include Judy Davis, Olivia Williams, Rupert Graves, Felicity Jones, Dylan Baker, James Naughton and Tom Hughes.

More than any previous conflict involving American soldiers, the Vietnam War was fought by conscripts of working-class and impoverished backgrounds, most of whom had no desire to be there. Meanwhile, college deferments allowed more privileged youths to postpone or entirely avoid their obligation to become cannon fodder for Uncle Sam. When Hollywood finally caught up with Vietnam, it was largely portrayed as a war in which African-American males either were killed or came of age as dope fiends or Black Panthers. The cold facts demonstrated that young working-class Latinos were drafted in similar proportions to black high school graduates and paid the same terrible price. A generation later, Hispanic men and women would comprise an inordinately high percentage of slots in the all-volunteer military. This number included undocumented immigrants who would parley the experience into American citizenship. The PBS documentary, “On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam” frames the documentary within the memoirs of two siblings, Everett and Delia Alvarez, who stood on opposite sides of the Vietnam War, one as a POW and the other protesting at home. Other stories deepen the narrative: in Greenlee County, Arizona, miners’ children fought and died for their country in devastating proportions; sisters and mothers took notice and action; and a farmworker’s son translated his military experience into a career, before resigning in protest from his post on a local draft board.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey,” tells the remarkable story of a Mexican-American native of then-segregated Mesa, Arizona, who developed a love of art, photography and architecture that carried him to the loftiest peaks of his craft. His collaborations with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson have been seen by millions of magazine readers who have no idea who took the photographs or how his cultural background may have influenced his work. He also established an international reputation photographing the mid-century modern houses of such luminaries as Eero Saarinen, Edward Durell Stone, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, John Black Lee and Joseph Salerno. Magazine assignments also took him to Julia Child’s pot-lined kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and to John Huston’s castle in Ireland. For his early opposition to the Vietnam War, however, Guerrero was blacklisted by the same publishers of major shelter magazines who profited from his work. One needn’t be Hispanic or a student of design to enjoy this beautifully composed profile of an important American artist.

Among the historical figures who deserve to be given a temporary rest, at least, by filmmakers and documentarians are the Henry VIII of England and his unfortunate wives. It’s not that we’re not interested in their stories of star-crossed love, just that it’s almost impossible to imagine anything new and compelling to be derived from them. Tell that to historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, who, in “Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History,” puts a tight focus on the heir-obsessed monarch and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In what amounts to a fact-based Harlequin bodice-ripper, Lipscomb illustrates her exhaustive research with sumptuous dramatizations and reconstructions, drawing on first-hand accounts from the time, and visiting the places where Henry and Anne lived. The only thing missing is a cameo appearance by Fabio, as the Lord High Executioner.

At a time when it would seem impossible to discover new accounts of heroism from World War II, here comes “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes,” which adds quite a bit more than a footnote to the story. In it, we’re introduced to dozens of largely unsung protectors of Jewish refugees, including Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali and citizens of a city that risked annihilation for hiding them. The film also offers an alternative take on the Catholic Church’s role in protecting scores of refugees. While not denying the presence of Vatican-endorsed “ratlines,” which allowed countless ex-Nazi leaders to escape Europe, Oren Jacoby’s film chooses to promote the actions of priests and nuns who adopted a more Christian response to Mussolini and Hitler’s insanity. Not all of the accounts have a happy ending, of course, but more than were previously known, at least. The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini.

On a significantly brighter note, “The Jewish Journey: America” traces Jewish immigration to the U.S. from the earliest arrivals in the mid-17th Century through the impact of the Nazi regime in World War II and subsequent breakup of the USSR. It also chronicles the choices made by American-born Jews in the 20th Century, as the religion faced challenges from within. Among those interviewed are two American-born rabbis whose own “Jewish Journey” has taken them from an assimilated household, with no real roots in the rituals of the religion, back to a life of observance. Top scholars, notable writers and immigrants themselves share stories of those who made a leap of faith to escape persecution or pursue opportunity.

There were several times during the two-part “Nature” mini-series, “Nature’s Miracle Orphans,” when I was tempted to put on one of the many recordings I have of the traditional Negro spiritual, “Motherless Child.” There were other times, however, when a happier tune would be a more appropriate accompaniment. As sad as it is to watch baby animals come to the grips with the absence of their parents – especially those of the maternal persuasion – it’s just that uplifting to see them discover ways to survive and prosper independently. While some orphans are taken in by foster parents, others are forced to go it alone or with the help of human volunteers. They include baby koalas, wallabies, kangaroos, sloths and anteaters.

Season Eight of PBS’ mouthwatering “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen” features the usual array of regional specialties prepared by host Christopher Kimball and chefs from America’s Test Kitchen. Among them are Delta Hot Tamales, Smoked Bourbon Chicken, Dakota Peach Kuchen, Latin Fried Chicken, Pork Ragu, Frosted Meatloaf and Barbecued Burnt Ends. It also includes “Tips & Techniques,” food tastings, equipment tests, and printable versions of all 26 recipes.

The Farmer’s Daughter
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13
Watch enough porn and you’ll be surprised at who shows up in one. The late, great monologist and actor Spalding Gray plays a leading role in a nasty little ditty, The Farmer’s Daughter, which has been re-released by Impulse Pictures. It also starred Golden Age favorites Marlene Willoughby, Susan McBain and Gloria Leonard, but it should hardly come as a shock to find them in a 1976 porno. Directed by Zebedy Colt (a.k.a., Edward Earle Marsh), it extended the old joke about the farmer’s daughter by adding a couple siblings, a trio of escaped convicts, a moronic farmhand and trigger-happy farmer, a girl-on-boy gang rape, gender-neutral golden showers, incest and some anal. If it weren’t so rough, The Farmer’s Daughter could pass for comedy. Gray doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as one of the randy convicts … that would come eight years later, when he played the U.S. consul, in The Killing Fields. In 1985, he gained prominence on stage with the autobiographical monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.” Gray also took uncredited roles in a pair of adult classics, Maraschino Cherry and Little Orphan Dusty. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for struggling actors to supplement their income with work in XXX flicks. No one could foresee the introduction of VCRs or that anyone might be able to reference past work in unsung flicks. Some of the then-unknown actors and peep-show veterans, including Leonard, would go on to make very decent money in the genre and never feel the need to apologize for it.

Among the future stars who likewise honed their craft in loops and other grindhouse attractions are Chris Cassidy, Tina Russell, Susan Nero and Sharon Mitchell, who can be found in “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13.” The recently deceased Leonard, who also would serve as publisher of High Society, has appeared in previous editions of the series. As usual, liner notes for both sets are provided by Cinema Sewer publisher, Robin Bougie.

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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