MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: 99 Homes, Grandma, Crimson Peak, Jan Troell, Sheba Baby and more

99 Homes: Blu-ray
One way to view Ramin Bahrani’s gut-churning drama, 99 Homes, is as a powerful indictment of the corrupt practices embraced by the real-estate industry in the still unresolved collapse of the American economy. Lenders profited from the misery of homeowners who lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the first and second mortgages they pursued to afford everything from necessary home improvements to such luxuries as swimming pools, vacation condos and sports cars. As long as the economy was firing on all eight cylinders, everything was jake. When it spit out the bit, however, vultures like the character played by Michael Shannon in 99 Homes swooped in to displace the suckers and enrich themselves. The movie opens with single father Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) losing his only source of income when the loans supporting his construction business dry up and he faces being evicted from the home he no longer can afford. No matter how much Nash pleads for mercy, he can’t convince Shannon’s Rick Carver to give him more time to settle his debt. With the Sheriff’s Department and courts on his side, Carver’s able to give Nash, his mom (Laura Dern) and his son exactly two minutes to vacate the premises. In Shannon’s more than capable hands, Carver is only slightly less despicable than his assassin, Richard Kuklinski, in The Iceman.

Bahrani cleverly turns the screw once notch further by offering Nash a job with his tormentor, cleaning out a repossessed house so filthy even his regular crew couldn’t be convinced to touch it. One Carver scam invariably leads to another, until Nash is making the kind of money – dirty as it may be – to afford to return to the life he once lived. In doing so, however, he’s required to sell his soul to the same devils as Carver once did. This time, of course, he would have the law on his side. While Carver seems not to mind evicting families, or ripping off Fannie Mae on the side, Nash eventually begins to recognize himself in the people he’s helping evict from their homes. If, by this time, we’ve figured out how this based-on-a-true-story account probably is likely to end, we’re no less willing to cut Nash some slack. Just as he sees himself in his victims, we see ourselves in him. After all, how many of us could resist the urge to save our families at the expense of someone else’s troubles? If, at times, the pieces fall too neatly together, it’s difficult to feel overly manipulated by a scenario so realistic. Once again, the HFPA, Independent Spirit and SAG voters got it right by nominating Shannon for a Best Supporting Actor prize. The Blu-ray, which for some reason is only available at Best Buy, adds a deleted scene and Bahrani’s commentary.

Grandma: Blu-ray
Although it’s been 40 years since Lily Tomlin was last nominated for an Academy Award – Best Supporting Actress, Nashville – she had every right to expect a nod for her work in Paul Weitz’ Grandma. She should have taken home a Golden Globe, as well, but, by now, Jennifer Lawrence is a mortal lock in any HFPA category she’s nominated. I say that having seen and enjoyed Joy. What the academy voters were looking at, instead of Grandma, I have no idea. In it, Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet beyond a certain age who’s just broken up with her younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), if for no other reason than she woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Almost simultaneously, her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), unexpectedly shows up at her home, needing $630 before sundown the next day for an emergency medical procedure. A true child of the 1960s, Elle agrees to help, but recently cut up her credit cards in a display of idealistic pique and is short on available cash. Because Sage has already made an appointment with the clinic, time is of the essence. Writer/director Paul Weitz uses the deadline to arrange reunions with an ex-lover (Sam Elliott), Sage’s meathead ex-boyfriend (Nat Wolff), a onetime business partner (Elizabeth Pena) and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Elle’s estranged daughter and Sage’s moralistic mother, Judy, who’s so preoccupied with her business that she’s attached a makeshift desk to her exercise machine. Mom did, however, provide Sage with condoms, a gesture neutralized by the teenage couple’s decision to go without when the supply ran out.

Among the things we learn about Elle is that, while she’s been a less-than-perfect wife, mother, lover and friend, she’s shares many of the same negative traits as other peers trying to keep the 1960s alive in their hearts. The encounters with old friends are alternately funny and sad, with Sage getting a crash course on what it feels like to be trapped between two distinctly different generation gaps.  Neither does Weitz force Tomlin to play to the cheap seats in her first leading role in 27 years, by attempting to sugarcoat Elle’s negative traits with reminders of her days on “Laugh-In.” When the chips were down – especially after her disastrous collaboration with John Travolta and future wife, Jane Wagner, on Moment by Moment – she took to the stage for one-woman shows, sometimes with a whole new set of archetypal characters. Travolta’s career resurrection borders on Hollywood legend, of course, while Tomlin didn’t get enough credit for her supporting work in Nine to Five, Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, Tea with Mussolini and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and A Prairie Home Companion. Her versatility and appeal have been showcased, as well, on such hit series as “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Damages,” “Web Therapy” and “Grace and Frankie,” which returns to Netflix in May. Weitz has said that he wrote Grandma with Tomlin in mind and the love shows in every scene. The Blu-ray’s special features include “A Family Portrait: The Making of ‘Grandma,’” a Q&A with Tomlin, Elliott, and Weitz, and commentary with Tomlin, Elliott, Weitz and Garner and Garner.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
As brilliantly conceived and bloody as Crimson Peak is, the infrequency of genuine scares in the Gothic romance suggests that co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) had far too much on his plate between 2006 and 2014 to focus on the things that made his early movies so chilling. It’s been reported that Del Toro wrote the original script with Matthew Robbins – whose resume includes Steven Spielberg’s first feature, Sugarland Express, MacArthur and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings — in 2006, but its production was delayed for more than 6½ years to afford time to work on Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Hobbit trilogy and Pacific Rim. Normally, an artist as brilliant as the Mexican-born Del Toro could get away with knocking out a genre thriller in his spare time. Crimson Peak is so heavily steeped in literary, cinematic and Del Torian symbolism, though, it probably was easy to overlook the kind of edge-of-their-seats tension that made him an international sensation. The debt owed to such Victorian Age writers as Mary Shelley and the Brontës is made clear in the exchanges between aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and her perspective publisher and supportive, if doomed father. The only person who encourages Edith, who’s haunted by the ghost of her mother, is a mysterious stranger, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), from England.

They meet in Buffalo when Thomas approaches Edith’s industrialist father for money to complete a machine that extracts ore from the earth. Failing that, Thomas succeeds in comforting Edith after daddy’s “accidental” and whisking her away to his mansion on a barren patch of red clay in rural England. It’s there that Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), reveal their true designs on the Cushing fortune. That the mansion’s resident phantoms seem willing to save the new bride from a disastrous fate works in the favor of the unsuspecting young American and, finally, viewers. As does the unexpected arrival of an old friend and spurned suitor, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Even if genre fans were advised by critics not to expect to be scared out of their wits and early word-of-mouth bolstered that critique, Crimson Peak can be savored for its superlative production design, costumes, musical score, lighting and cinematography, all of which were unfairly ignored by Academy Award nominators. I can’t think of a better example of the added value designers and craftsmen/women bring to a story that CGI technicians simply can’t provide. It’s, as they say, worth the price of a rental by itself. The Blu-ray bonus package adds a treasure trove of making-of featurettes, as well as some deleted scenes and Del Toro’s commentary.

The Emigrants/The New Land: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released nearly back-to-back in 1971 and 1972, Jan Troell’s epic story of the quintessential American experience, The Emigrants and The New Land, could hardly be more relevant today, as the Republican candidates for president want to pull back the welcome mat to a new generation of immigrants. Adapted from the novels “The Settlers” and “The Last Letter Home,” by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, it’s a heart-tugging reminder of how millions of new Americans struggled not only to make a life for their families in America, but also find the courage to pick up stakes and make the hazardous journey to their new homes, which frequently had to be carved from the wilderness.  With only a small stretch of the imagination, the story of impoverished Swedish immigrants Karl-Oscar (Von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullman) echoes those we heard being told by our parents and grandparents about their experiences in the New World. Instead of the 15-foot wall Donald Trump and others want to see built to keep newcomers out, our ancestors are guided here by the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. At 151 minutes, Troell gave himself ample time to explain both how difficult it was for Karl-Oscar and Kristina Nilsson to leave Smaaland and how the harsh reality of life in mid-19th Century Sweden necessitated their decision to leave. Along with other Swedes from the same region, they suffered through a harrowing journey by ship to New York. They would end up in rural Minnesota, where, at least, they wouldn’t be surprised by the weather. Indeed, the homesteaders were buoyed by the discovery of soil so fertile that their plot backs home might as well have been concrete.

The New Land picks up where The Emigrants left off, with the Nilssons welcoming children into the world and beginning to reap the rewards of choosing a section of land that, after much hard work, would allow them to engage in commerce with local store owners. As important, they were free to practice their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Through Karl-Oscar’s brother, Robert, and his friend, Arvid, Troell expands the narrative to include another aspect of the immigrant experience. After helping Karl-Oscar create something bountiful out of nothing, the young men set out for the gold fields of California. As difficult as the journey by sea had been, the trip west was several times worse. Robert would return to Minnesota, only to be accused by his older brother of lying about the small fortune in money he was carrying and requiring the comfort of Kristina in battling a debilitating illness. Troell then adds storylines concerning the Civil War, a bloody Sioux uprising and the dilemma faced by Kristina, who, in return for complying with “God’s will,” risked her life to mass produce children for her husband, even if he was willing to forego sex to keep her alive. The epic length of The New Land and The Emigrants today probably would have required they be divided into a mini-series. (Five years later, “Roots” would prove the viability of the format.) It probably would have been a good one. As it is, Troell’s films were greeted with enthusiasm on both sides of the pond, garnering Oscar nominations in major categories and making a decent amount of money. The splendid Criterion Collection edition adds interviews with Troell and Ullmann. Harder to find on DVD is Zandy’s Bride, which Troell made for Warner Bros. two years after The Emigrants. Set in and around Big Sur, it stars Ullmann as a mail-order bride delivered to a gruff rancher played by Gene Hackman.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist
In their feature debut, Christina Zeidler and John Mitchell Smart appear to have borrowed the premise of Stephen Frears’ hipster rom-com High Fidelity to tell the story of a self-absorbed lesbian, Elsie (Diane Flacks), facing the prospect of middle-age solitude. Because she was dumped at an early age by her first schoolgirl crush, Elsie long ago vowed to be the dumper, instead of the dumpee, in future relationships. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist reminds me quite a bit more of Kissing Jessica Stein than the John Cusack vehicle, but mostly for its willingness to dial down the sex to appeal to a crossover audience. Canada has a long history of making LGBT movies that put to shame similar efforts by filmmakers in Hollywood. Among the films that even found traction here are Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Is Falling, Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island and Anne Wheeler’s Better Than Chocolate. Set in the Toronto’s clean and trendy Parkdale neighborhood, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist describes how Elsie’s friends and family members deal with her latest breakup, which seems to have been more than a little bit cruel. While Robyn (Carolyn Taylor) is able to bounce into the arms of another woman, Elsie’s commitment to play the field and not embark on yet another monogamist relationship appears to be taking on water. At the same time, Elsie is facing a troubling upheaval at her progressive radio station, which appears to be abandoning listeners her age. She takes up with a younger club deejay, who eventually tires of being treated like a homewrecker by the old farts in her girlfriend’s circle and some rude relatives. Portrait of a Serial Monogamist suffers from many of the same trivial conceits that afflict melodramas and rom-coms – gay or straight — in which yuppie characters invent their own problems. On the plus side, none are required to squeeze their way through a closet door or obsess over going all the way on a first date, and that’s a blessing. (Did Jessica Stein ever get past first base?)

Second Coming
Sweaty Betty
Every Family Has Problems
I wonder if any woman in the last two millennia has been able to convince her husband of the possibility that the unexpected and largely unwanted child she’s carrying is the result of being impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Not many, I suspect. Even Joseph wondered what was going on with his new bride, before being visited in a dream by an angel of the Lord who asked him to go along with the ruse for the next 18 years, or so. (It’s believed that Joseph took his secret to a relatively early grave.) In Debbie Tucker Green’s provocative feature debut, Second Coming, an Afro-Caribbean woman living in south London is faced with a dilemma that would benefit from the appearance of a holy messenger. Instead, Jax (Nadine Marshall) dreams of strange lights and leaking ceilings. Jax hasn’t had sex with her husband, Mark (Idris Elba), in a long time, and, in any case, was told after the birth of her son JJ (Kai Francis Lewis) that she’d no longer be able to bear children. It explains why Jax has only confided in her best friend from work, who logically suggests she get an abortion before she begins to show. Before long, however, JJ tips his dad off by asking him what he intends to name the child he couldn’t possibly have helped conceive. Naturally, the mystery threatens to tear the hinges off their marriage and the stability of their working-class family. Green probably deduced early on that such a premise probably wouldn’t fly on the face of it, even though it’s a dandy idea. She wisely decided to invest in JJ a curiosity and wisdom that could be perceived by viewers as being angelic, without also requiring him to sprout wings or a halo. Second Coming requires a heck of a balancing act on the part of a first-time filmmaker and there are times when the center fails to hold. The acting more than compensates for the rocky patches, however.

With all due respect to the humans we meet in Joseph Frank and Zachary Reed’s thoroughly irresistible DIY docu-drama, Sweaty Betty, it could have just as easily been titled “Petz n the Hood” and attracted the same amount of attention in indie circles … possibly more. As far as I can tell there’s no Betty, sweaty or otherwise, in the movie. There is a 1,000-pound hog named Ms. Charlotte, however, and an abandoned pit-bull named Kilmer. The hog is owned by Floyd, a huge Redskins fan who takes Charlotte to tailgate parties in hopes of getting someone to name her an official mascot. “The Hogs” was a term coined by offensive line coach Joe Bugel during team’s training camp in 1982, when he told Russ Grimm and Jeff Bostic, “Okay, you hogs, let’s get running down there.” It caught on and encouraged diehard fans to wear hats designed with a snout and tail … still more politically correct than wearing an Indian war bonnet. It’s entirely possible, as well, that the street after which the terrier – it resembles Petey on “The Little Rascals” — was re-named to honor former Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer. Otherwise, the connection between the real-life characters is tenuous. Sweaty Betty offers a slice-of-life portrait of a neighborhood that straddles the border of the capital and suburban Maryland. Although it’s a leafy and clean residential neighborhood, the mostly African-American residents appear to be, by most standards, poor and marginally employed. A few blocks away from Floyd live Rico and Scooby, two teenage single fathers and best friends, who see in Kilmer an opportunity to make money by raising puppies or selling her outright. They get help from family members to nurture the children, who appear to be well taken care of, healthy and happy. Kilmer … not so much. Anyway, as the three men make their rounds in the neighborhood, we’re given an opportunity to watch people interact in ways movies, TV sitcoms and dramas, the nightly news reports don’t. If their dreams border on the highly unrealistic, the men share an enthusiasm for life that’s palpable. Likely shot on a cellphone camera – as was the prize-winning TangerineSweaty Betty is as unpolished as a penny found lying on the sidewalk. Its fresh approach to the subject matter, however, is fresh and often quite funny. Oh, yeah, like The Harder They Come, the dialogue is subtitled to reflect the urban vernacular and patois. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a very weird short.

Like his older brother, Tyler, Emmbre Perry makes movies, some of which are produced as live recordings of stage plays. Also like his brother, the 36-year-old multi-hyphenate isn’t averse to slapping his name and photograph on DVD covers and lists of credits, whether or not he deserves the recognition. Unlike Tyler, however, Emmbre’s products aren’t even close to being ready for prime time. Every Family Has Problems is the second movie he’s written and the fourth he’s directed, behind No More Games, Let God Be the Judge and God Send Me a Man. You’d think, by now, he would have figured out how to mix an audio track in a way that doesn’t require viewers to continually adjust the sound levels. If it weren’t for the synopsis printed on the DVD cover, I wouldn’t have known what was happening on screen. Apparently, Every Family Has Problems concerns the disposition of a $500,000 life-insurance payout bequeathed to one of two stepbrothers living under the roof of an ill-matched pair of stepparents. Everyone suspects the boy has either stolen the money or is selling drugs. Perry plays the comic-relief grandfather with a beard so phony it wouldn’t fool a child, let alone the “upscale urban consumer” targeted by Perry’s production company. The cast also features Thomas Mikal Ford, rapper Lil Chuckee and a bunch of actors who were left off the credit roll, so as not to steal Emmbre’s thunder.

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)
Sheba, Baby: Blu-ray
If the minority-challenged folks at the motion-picture academy really want to make a statement at their annual Oscars soiree, they should, in addition to inviting the most bankable representatives of the African-American talent pool, consider going old-school … and I don’t mean trotting out Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, again. How about teaming Melvin van Peebles and Pam Grier to announce the winner in a high-profile category? Some observers might consider that to be a bit condescending, but it sure would make up for the absence of Will and Jada Smith. Joe Angio’s critically lauded 2005 tribute to Van Peebles, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It), presents all the evidence anyone would need to warrant such an honor, while also presenting a history lesson in African-American cinema. Although his self-produced 1971 feature film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, is widely credited as the first Blaxploitation film, its topicality and importance as a groundbreaking indie can’t be understated. Moreover, its early, no-nonsense take on police brutality speaks to what’s happening in cities around the country, today. Van Peebles’ contributions to the American theater, rap music and the civil-rights movement remain are significant, as well. The DVD adds a recent interview with Van Peebles, who’s as outspoken as ever.

The case for Grier is even easier to make. Simply put, for more than 40 years, she’s been one of the coolest actors — of any color or gender — in the business. Quentin Tarantino reminded us of that in Jackie Brown. More to the point, she was a bankable in her heyday as any actress not named Barbra Streisand. After starting out doing badass women-in-prison pictures in the Philippines, Grier claimed a new niche in Blaxploitation as a bona-fide action hero. Arrow Video/MVD’s refurbished edition of William Girdler’s 1975 Sheba, Baby may not constitute a prime example of the subgenre, but she’s in fine form as the revenge-minded daughter of an extortion victim and it’s still fun to watch. Her other 1975 credits included Bucktown and Friday Foster. Arrow adds such supplemental features as an original trailer for the film; a collection of stills and promotional materials; “Pam Grier: The AIP Years,” with historian Chris Poggiali; a new interview with producer and screenwriter David Sheldon; two audio commentaries; and a 14-page illustrated booklet, featuring Patty Breen’s essay “Sheba, Baby.”

This Changes Everything: Blu-ray
Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 1
Facets Kids
What will it take for citizens of the world to rise up and take action against global warming and the pollution caused by stripping the world of its natural resources: a) a series of meteorological disasters too relentless to ignore; b) the gradual absorption of prime real estate by swelling seas; c) when profit motives are stripped from the ecological equation, or d) the release of more well-meaning documentaries like This Changes Everything? All of the above certainly, but, as narrator Naomi Klein asks rhetorically in her introduction to Avi Lewis’ provocative, if less than groundbreaking film: Have we finally come to the point where preaching to the choir has actually become boring? This Changes Everything presents seven portraits of communities on the front lines of the fight, from Montana’s Powder River Basin and the Alberta Tar Sands, to the poisonous skies of South India and Beijing. Lewis produced the film in conjunction with Klein’s bestselling book of the same title, filming in nine countries and five continents over four years. Her premise: we can seize the existential crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better. This Changes Everything was made before the unexpected decline in oil prices effectively took some of the wind out of the sails of the environmental movement, by encouraging short-sighted consumers to buy less efficient toys powered by carbon-based fuels. It also has given industrialists, utility companies and investors an opportunity to promote free-market solutions for problems caused by predatory capitalists. In California, however, when consumers successfully lowered water consumption in response to the ongoing drought, utilities requested a raise in rates to compensate for loss of profits. They’ll follow the same tack when and if independent solar-energy companies gain a foothold. Neither was the film made in time to reflect the lack of interest by presidential candidates of both parties to address the same issues in their so-called debates. Has the media pressed them to explain their positions, or lack thereof? No. Several of the Republican candidates have suggested either that global warming doesn’t exist or, if it does, it’s God’s will. As wonderful as it is to witness grass-roots activism occurring around the globe, it’s just as clear that most people won’t take climate change seriously until the patios of their beach homes are submerged under three feet of saltwater and the clouds above them rain coal dust. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews, as well as access to teaching tools.

Just when it began to seem as if every film student in the western world is putting the finishing touches on a groundbreaking new movie about zombies or spring break with Robert DeNiro, Facets Video comes along to remind us that there’s still room for expressions of disgust for the status quo, repressive governments, capitalist swine and unfettered gentrification. Actually, the 26 short-form experimental non-fiction titles collected in Disruptive Film: Everyday Resistance to Power, Vol. 1, aren’t limited to any particular historical period, country or cause. Curators Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner have successfully established a new history of film as political resistance, with radical global narratives that span from 1914 to the early 21st century and represent the diversity in approaches to documentary filmmaking. The collection has been arranged in nearly hour-long segments, representing “Globalized Resistances,” “Live Like a Refugee,” “Cultural Displacements” and “Performative Provocations.” It is intended to serve political and educational purposes, offering film, media and scholars a chance to review unaccountably under-appreciated works of film, video and animation that propose various strategies of resistance to power. And, no, not all of the films can be construed as being anti-American. Among those that are is John Greyson’s almost heartbreaking “14.3 Seconds,” a work of speculative video based on the notion that only 14.3 seconds worth of film stock went undestroyed after the 2003 bombing of Iraq’s film archives. In 2004, ICARP (Iraq Coalition Archives Restoration Project) announced that it intended to use these scraps to painstakingly reconstruct what was once considered the greatest collection of Arab Cinema in the world. It resulted in six different restorations, all lasting 14.3 seconds, in which the frames have been mixed and match in separate genre configurations.

For more than 30 years, Facets has hosted the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the largest such event in North America. It annually welcomes 25,000 Chicago-area children, adults and educators, and features more than 250 films from 40 countries. These include live-action and animated feature films, shorts, TV series, documentaries and other child-produced works. Its mission is to showcase “the best in culturally diverse, non-violent, value-affirming new cinema for children, and is one of the only Academy Award-qualifying children’s film festivals in the world.” Facets’ Kids Film Camp introduces kids ages 7-14 to the techniques, language and process of filmmaking, through the expertise of professional filmmakers and respected critics. To coincide with the introduction of a new streaming service Facets Kids, four volumes of representative films have been released in DVD. They are “The Power of Imagination,” “Embracing Differences,” “Family and Community” and “Overcoming Obstacles.” There’s nothing quite like these compilations in the marketplace.

Serial Kaller
Far better than it has any right to be, the micro-budget slasher flick, Sociopathia, was co-produced, -written, -directed and -edited by multi-hyphenate scream queen Ruby Larocca, who also found time to co-star in it. She does so alongside such like-talented actresses as Nicola Fiore (Slaughter Daughter), Asta Paredes (Return to Nuke ‘Em High), Tammy Jean (Apocalypse Kiss), Nicolette le Faye (Call Girl of Cthulhu) and lesser-known ingénues Tabetha Ray, Desiree Saetia and Brandy Noir. I don’t expect anyone to be familiar with most or any of these names. I just enjoy repeating them. Jean plays the mild-mannered Mara, a prop designer by day and psycho-killer by night. Desperately lonely, Mara can’t stand the thought of saying good-night to her lovers – mostly of the female persuasion – so she kills them and trusses them up as living dolls. When she’s hired by a fledgling producer, Kat (Parades), Mara faces choices she never thought would be available to her and the “dolls” resent having to share her creator with someone new. If the acting here won’t make anyone forget such legendary scream queens as Jamie Lee Curtis, Debbie Rochon, Tiffany Shepis or Linnea Quigley, at least they deliver the goods when it comes to semi-nudity and looking reasonably dead in zombie makeup. Moreover, it’s nice to see genre players get their own slice of the pie, for once. The DVD adds a complete B&W version of Sociopathia – don’t ask why – and seven deleted Scenes, including one with George Stover, a cult actor best known for his work in John Waters’ films.

Even more scream queens have been rounded up for Dan Brownlie and Dani Thompson’s Serial Kaller, in which a group of beautiful Internet models are trapped inside their studio by an unstable fan. Instead of stroking the caller’s ego, while he’s stroking his … the models decide it might be fun to insult him. Other factors may be at work, but dissing a paying customer is never a good idea. Among the voluptuous stars are Thompson, Debbie Rochon, Suzi Lorraine, Jessica Ann Brownlie and Ashleigh Lawrence. The ladies divide their time between their double-mattress stages and the dressing room, rarely bothering to change their lingerie, in between. Serial Kaller isn’t even as good as Sociopathia, but, at least, the actresses are given more to do than scream on cue.

In the House of Flies
Madness of Many
While having to listen to the disembodied voice of renaissance punk Henry Rollins would be unnerving in the best of circumstances, it seems especially diabolical coming from a telephone in a cinderblock dungeon occupied by a pair of unfortunate young lovers in In the House of Flies. The innocent couple, Heather (Lindsay Smith) and Steve (Ryan Kotack), have been abducted for no apparent reason by a stranger whose voice resembles that of the former frontman of Black Flag. The Voice’s “game” involves pitting his captives against each other, by promising things he may or not be able to deliver. He has left various props inside suitcases strategically placed inside the dungeon, which seemingly has no exit. That Heather is pregnant effectively raises the tension level in Gabriel Carrer and Angus McLellan’s alternating absorbing and tedious psychodrama. The DVD adds a 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary; footage from the Spanish premiere; deleted scenes; and commentary.

Clearly inspired by Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik) and Tom Six (The Human Centipede), Danish filmmaker Kasper Juhl has created in Madness of Many a work of torture porn, so hideously graphic and profane that it begs the question as to what passes for sanity these days in Scandinavia. According to the marketing blurb, “The film depicts the psychological journey of a young woman named Victoria. Since her childhood she has been sexually abused by her family. One day she decides to escape but the world is against her and she soon finds herself cast into an inferno of torture and punishment. This causes her unimaginable suffering, but she also comes to understand the true meaning of her existence …” I take the last five words to mean that Victoria (Ellen Abrahamson) should accept the fact that she’s just one more female character in extreme jeopardy, who exists solely for the entertainment of sadists and perverts. To this end, Buttgereit is a master at creating makeup effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a snuff film. In a preface to Madness of Many, he says, “Pain and suffering expands my consciousness to find peace.” The problem comes in not being able to differentiate between storytelling and the equivalent to killing cats for masturbatory fun. It’s interesting, as well, that the DVD arrives in a package containing three separate discs, including one for bonus material and another for the soundtrack. The making-of featurette does a nice job demonstrating how much fun the actors were having on the set and why horror is just another form of make-believe … except when it isn’t, of course. When Buttgereit isn’t making movies, he’s the lead singer in the death- metal band Abscission. Of course, he is.

Freaks of Nature: Blu-ray
Mansion of Blood
Hangman: Blu-ray
Black Mountain Side
Hellions: Blu-ray
The temptation to make and star in satires of genre flicks must be hard to resist. Mel Brooks did the world a favor by churning out parodies so dead-on funny that most potential imitators decided not to risk failure. The Scream and Scary Movie franchises reopened the floodgates, even as the National Lampoon series was running out of steam. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright demonstrated the right way to have fun with genre parodies, in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, without insulting anyone’s intelligence or disrespecting time-honored tropes and conventions. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows would be tough to beat, as well. Freaks of Nature (a.k.a.,“Kitchen Sink”) would appear to have had everything going for it, before it got caught up in some kind of a logjam at Columbia/Sony at the time of the hack . If I had to guess, I’d say it too closely resembled Hell Baby – also with Keegan-Michael Key – and The World’s End, with their all-star casts and Millennial humor. Among the recognizable players here are Nicholas Braun, Ed Westwick, Mackenzie Davis, Denis Leary, Vanessa Hudgens, Bob Odenkirk, Rachael Harris, Mae Whitman, Patton Oswalt and Werner Herzog’s disembodied. Director Robbie Pickering (Natural Selection) and writer Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) don’t leave any of them hanging, exactly, but the laughs are sporadic. In a plot that might have been inspired by Troma’s Toxic Avenger, Freaks of Nature is set in the peaceful town of Dillford, Ohio, where vampires, zombies and humans co-exist in separate residential zones and everyone owes their well-being to a factory manufacturing dangerously unhealthy snacks made of brains. One day, a giant space vehicle hovers over the town and plant, causing the citizenry to panic and each other in stampedes. A force field prevents them from leaving. The key for their survival stands right before their eyes, but isn’t unleashed for 90 minutes of screen time.

In the horror comedy Mansion of Blood, Mike Donahue (Pooltime) appears to have invited everyone he’s ever known to a party at a haunted mansion in River Ridge Iowa, where the millionaire owner expects a lunar eclipse to shine light on a mystery that’s last several generations. As is the case in most eclipses, though, light eventually gives way to shadows. It does inspire a local witch to cast a spell to summon the spirit of her dead boyfriend, a trick that would be akin to bringing coals to Newcastle. The most noteworthy appearances here are by a creepy servant, played by Gary Busey, who looks more like Donald Trump every day. The other strange thing about Mansion of Blood is the inclusion of “college girls” whose breast implants might be older than the average age of their school’s student body.

I don’t know if Adam Mason’s Hangman is supposed to be a parody or comedy, but I lumped it in here because it very easily could have been funny and produced better results. Returning from vacation, the Millers (Jeremy Sisto, Kate Ashfield, Ty & Ryan Simpkins) find their home has been broken into by a very messy home invader. Naturally, they feel violated, angry and confused about what to do next. After a house search that completely misses the presence of the intruder and several screens linked to security cameras in the attic, they decide that lightning can’t strike twice in the same place and begin to go about their business as if nothing happened. Somehow, the Millers’ guest managed to install cameras so unobtrusively that they can’t be seen in the dozens of places they’re located. Every so often, the masked man drops down from the attic door to play pranks on the Millers and get closer to them than the cameras allow. His ability to do so, without causing the homeowners to call in exterminators or lock the door to the attic, finally becomes laughable.

In a high-altitude variation of The Thing and The Thing From Outer Space, writer/director Nick Szostakiwskyj pits a team of archeologists against a mysterious figure lurking on the fringes of the forest in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains. Being the dead of winter, the scientists are trapped not only by the snow and cold, but also curiosity over the seemingly ancient structure they’ve found buried nearby. With nowhere to go, it becomes difficult to tell if the greater threat comes from the unknown or cabin fever. If nothing else, Black Mountain Side is easy on the eyes.

In Hellions, veteran Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald puts a rural twist on the Rosemary’s Baby conceit by having the interested bystanders to a teenager’s pregnancy be greedy little monsters using Halloween as a pretext for wearing creepy costumes and masks. Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) just learned of her pregnancy that morning and is awaiting trick-or-treaters in the guise of an angel or fairy. The kids keep coming, even after the candy runs out. Ostensibly, the pro-life brats are torturing Dora because they assume she’ll abort the fetus. Always a welcome presence in genre flicks, Robert Patrick keeps everyone guessing as to his character’s motivation. McDonald also does a nice job with the arty dream sequences.

A Violent Life
Comin’ at Ya!: Blu-Ray 3D/2D
Hector the Mighty
I’m not enough of a genre buff to know just how valuable One 7 Movies’ newly released A Violent Life might be to collectors of mid-century Italian cinema, except to point out that the 1970 drama appears to have lost its original title, “Ostia,” in the translation and given one used by Pier Paolo Pasolini for a 1959 novel about life among dispossessed youth in post-war Rome. The 1961 film adaptation of that book, by Paolo Heusch and Brunello Rondi, carried the title Violent Life, from the original “Una vita violenta.” Co-adapted and directed by frequent Pasolini collaborator, Sergio Citti (Salo, Accatone), Ostia/A Violent Life remains interesting for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it prefigured the artist’s ghastly murder – still unsolved – on the same beach, five years later. Bandiera (Laurent Terzieff) and Rabbino (Franco Citti) are inseparable brothers – the sons of a brutal anarcho-communist peasant — who live on a patch of land outside Rome. As children, they’re traumatized by the callous devouring of a pet sheep and take out their rage on their drunken father. Years later, in the same fields, the petty criminals discover the body of a vivacious blond, Monica (Anita Sanders), whose sleep they mistake for death. The young brothers don’t seem particularly interested in ravaging the beauty, but their cronies take advantage of her dazed condition to finish what a wandering soldier and her father had previously attempted to do. While Bandiera and Rabbino are in prison for one crime or another, they’re given an opportunity to “cohabitate” with Monica, but only one shag per visit. Forced to choose between them, Monica inadvertently causes a rift between the brothers, who, otherwise, hadn’t shown any interest in her sexually. Upon their release, the trio goes for a swim in the sea. The sight of her nude body so casually displayed – in combination with latent jealousy – sparks a confrontation that’s possibly intended to remind us of Cain and Abel. A Violent Life may not be in the same league as Pasolini’s more noteworthy works, but it is of a piece with his earlier post-war studies of how poverty and caste impacted Italy before the economic “miracle” brought la dolce vita. Sadly, there are no bonus features.

Fifteen years after Italian genre specialist Ferdinando Baldi directed Django, Prepare a Coffin and Texas, Adios, he attempted to blow fresh air into the deflated Spaghetti Western category with Comin’ at Ya! Inspired, perhaps, by John Wayne’s 3D Western, Hondo, Baldi and writer/star Tony Anthony enthusiastically embraced the format. The story follows bank robber H.H. Hart (Anthony) as he exacts his vengeance on a pair of desperadoes who kidnap his fiancé, Abilene (Victoria Abril), at the altar and leave him for dead. The gunmen lock Abilene in the basement of a hacienda with a couple dozen other women they intend to sell as sex slaves. The question, of course, is whether H.H. can rescue the prisoners before they’re sold and dispersed throughout Mexico. Baldi appears to have been less interested in the intricacies of the story than creating opportunities to show off 3D effects. These include darts, snakes, beans, rats, spears, grasping hands, spiders, a bowling ball, bats, gun barrels, swords, cowboys falling down stairs, a spinning yo-yo and pinwheel, gold coins, apple peelings, flaming arrows and a baby’s bottom. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to purchase a 3D television simply to take advantage of the special effects, but those who’ve already made the investment might want to check out Comin’ at Ya!

Where the archivists at Cheezy Flicks find the masterpieces in their inventory, I’ll never know. As far as I can tell, Hector the Mighty never opened in the U.S. and, given the opportunity, stars Giancarlo Giannini and Vittorio De Sica might have considered buying the negative and destroying it. Giannini was on the verge of becoming a huge international star with Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi and Love & Anarchy, while 71-year-old De Sica still would go on to direct A Brief Vacation and The Voyage. Writer/director Enzo G. Castellari’s future held jobs helming The Inglorious Bastards and The Loves and Times of Scaramouche, so he, too, might have had reasons to keep Hector the Mighty submerged. Students of the Greek mythology might recognize the debt Castellari owes to Homer, as Helen of Troy’s kidnapping by Theseus is recalled in the abduction of Elena (Rosanna Schiaffino), wife of an Italian mob boss. Two powerful gangs compete to rescue her, even if she doesn’t want to be returned to her husband. Giannini plays Ulisse to Michael Forest’s Achilles. Because both men are recognized for their voicing talent, it’s a shame that they’re dubbing appears to have been performed by Three Stooges impersonators.

Five Italian filmmakers contributed to E.N.D. The Movie, a zombie-apocalypse drama whose related segments cover three different time periods, three different locations and three different gradations of a worldwide plague. The first takes place in a funeral parlor, where different employees are forced to deal with the earliest stage of an epidemic spread by cocaine. Soon, the corpses ready for the burial wake up in their coffins. On Day 1466, when the epidemic has already devoured the whole country, an American soldier and a pregnant woman are surrounded by zombies in a cabin in the woods. By Day 2333, the country is divided in two factions — humans and undead – neither of them what they appear to be. The DVD adds an interview with screenwriter Antonio Tentori.

Red Krokodil
Maybe you’ve heard or read about the street drug krokodil, which has been known to rot the skin of users from inside-out. Mostly popular in Russia and former Soviet states, where it surfaced in a heroin panic, krokodil was first synthesized in 1932 and patented in 1934 as desomorphine. A dose can be 8 to 10 times more potent than morphine, but have a far shorter active period. While it hasn’t been manufactured for pharmaceutical use for more than 30 years, it is relatively easy to make, given codeine and other ingredients readily available in Russia. Because it is known to cause such extreme gangrene and abscesses that a user’s muscles, tendons and bones can become exposed – and scaly ruptures surround the injections — it’s difficult to imagine even the most strung out junkie finding it therapeutic. Even so, a few cases of krokodil abuse have been reported in the U.S. In Domiziano Cristopharo’s harrowing Red Krokodil, we watch as the drug slowly destroys a young man who’s survived a nuclear disaster, like Chernobyl, but is consumed by loss and lack of hope for a future. Even though he lives in an apartment that can only charitably be described as a pigsty, his hallucinations carry him to places in nature where he can roam freely, naked as a jaybird. It doesn’t take long for Him (Brock Madson) to return to his world of hurt and decay, however, where his only companions are an imaginary Bunny Man and a stuffed toy crocodile given to him as a child. Red Krokodil is as nihilistic a movie as one is likely to encounter and not one for the faint of heart. As metaphors go, though, the drug certainly conveys how the filmmakers feel about a civilization destined to destroy itself. The DVD adds an alternate ending, a couple of deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

Hard Scrambled

Kurtwood Smith (“That ’70s Show”), whose face is far more familiar than his name, shines in David Scott Hay’s stagey character study, Hard Scrambled. Set primarily in a rundown urban eatery, Alice’s Diner is the kind of place where street urchins gorge themselves on coffee, but don’t spend much money on food. When the restaurant’s namesake (Beth Grant) suffers a terrible accident in the kitchen, Smith’s ex-con character and Richard Edson’s dreamer, Joe, compete to take over the operation, opening the door for financial scams and double-crosses. Hard Scrambled began its life as a play and its roots show throughout the movie. The DVD contains a lengthy making-of featurette, which likely will appeal to aspiring filmmakers.

Masterless: Blu-ray
I wonder if Craig Shimahara ever considered titling his debut feature “Gotta Serve Somebody,” after Bob Dylan’s gospel-rock classic, instead of the more ambiguous, Masterless. Kane Madison (Adam LaVorgnais) is a recently laid-off L.A. architect, whose spirit exists in two worlds. The first is in a hellishly competitive business environment, where godless capitalists are too busy worshipping the holy dollar to notice the emptiness inside them. The other is among the ancestors of his Japanese wife, who’s deathly ill, but must have some samurai blood coursing through her veins. In a conceit that’s far-fetched even by faith-based standards, Kane’s doppelganger spirit, Ronin, is an Anglo swordsman without a master, wandering through the forests of 19th Century Japan. He’s struggling in both spheres of consciousness. The idea, of course, is that no one can succeed without a master – God, for example — no matter how ruthless and well-armed they might be. (The word, “ronin,” also can be interpreted to identify a “salaryman,” between employers.)  Shimahara deserves credit for taking a chance here, both thematically and technically. Despite the elaborate conceit, it’s easy to keep track of the time shifts and the only really unlikeable character is Kane’s shrewish mother-in-law, who blames him for taking her daughter to America and allowing her to follow a Christian path. Those so inclined might enjoy the fresh approach to the genre by Masterless.

David Bowie: In His Own Words
Coldplay: Live Stories
Dicks: The Dicks From Texas
Charles Bradley: Live From the House of Soul
As coincidences go, this week’s package from MVD Visual contained a real doozy. No one at the company could have foreseen the loss of David Bowie, last month, at 69, to liver cancer, so the release of David Bowie: In His Own Words is purely and simply a coincidence. No one from the company called to give me head’s-up, as I’d already requested a copy in December. It’s possible that AXS-TV hadn’t scheduled showings of D.A. Pennebaker’s splendid 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, before his death, but I’m glad I was given an opportunity to tape it. Filmed during the last stop of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour/incarnation, it could hardly be more entertaining or difficult to find through normal channels in mint condition. By contrast, “In His Own Words” contains virtually no music. The same applies to the same company’s Keith Richard: In His Own Words, released last month. They’re both comprised of interviews in the public record and other archival material, absent anything the producers would have to license. Because of the nature of the publicity tours from which most of the material was generated, the Bowie session provide far more insight into the man. For one thing, he’s asked better questions by interviewers who include Conan O’Brien and Carson Daly. Neither does he appear to be selling anything. He’s personable, funny, absent all pretext and completely forthcoming. Bowie seems at home talking about the fate of the planet, making wild but intriguing predictions about the future, chatting about the path of music or discussing any number of writers, poets, philosophers or artists who have inspired him. At 90 minutes, there’s more than enough material to make fans happy.

A similar coincidence applies to Coldplay: Live Stories, whose release coincided with the British band’s near disastrous appearance during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Through no fault of the band’s own, it was expected to impress a packed stadium and tens of millions of TV viewers in exactly the wrong demographic range with songs they might have heard on the radio, but not associated with Coldplay. Neither did it help attract eyes when Chris Martin admitted to not knowing anything about American football. Why would he? Probably realizing that they’d made a mistake, the Pepsi promoters decided Coldplay couldn’t hold the interest of nacho-stuffed fans long enough to sell their latest concoctions. So, they invited Beyonce to join the party and plug her new album, alongside Bruno “Crazy Legs” Mars. Coldplay has filled venues around the world that are twice as big as Levi’s Stadium. No matter, it’s likely the check didn’t bounce and Coldplay didn’t look any worse, in retrospect, than the Carolina team. Coldplay: Live Stories, too, is largely free of music until near the end, when there’s plenty. What it does have, in spades, is band history going back to previous iterations and commentary by longtime followers. And, again, fans should love it.

Not at all coincidental, but similarly compelling are the two other music docs included in the delivery. Dicks: The Dicks From Texas recalls the early-1980s heyday the Austin band, which probably couldn’t get into the Super Bowl, even if the members purchased tickets. Cowpunk and “queercore” before either of those subgenres were remotely cool in Texas, the Dicks’ lead singer Gary Floyd could pass for Divine’s illegitimate child on stage. By all accounts, the Dicks were – and still are – influential in the national hard-core punk scene, even if they didn’t make any money at it. A good time is had by all in the DVD.

If Daptone Records sounds familiar, it’s probably because of its association with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the funk/soul ensemble that backed Amy Winehouse on her breakthrough album, “Back to Black.” The Brooklyn-based label’s been around longer than that, however. Charles Bradley: Live From the House of Soul represents the first installment of Daptone Records’ new video series. Before settling on a career in the funk/soul/R&B arena, Bradley was a well-regarded James Brown impersonator.

Trancers: City of Lost Angels
Sci-fi completists are the primary audience for Trancers: City of Lost Angels, a long lost chapter in a three-part anthology concocted in 1988 by Full Moon founder Charles Band as “Pulse Pounders.” Once the money disappeared, so, too, did the 35mm negatives for “The Evil Clergyman” and a “Dungeonmaster” follow-up. A quarter-century later, a VHS transfer of an edited work print surfaced. In the 30-minute short, Tim Thomerson plays Jack Deth, a supercop from the future, who has put away three centuries worth of time-traveling criminals. Velvet Rhodes plays the violent assassin Edlin Shock, a recent escapee from a maximum-security prison. Now based in 1988 Los Angeles, Deth is involved in shaky relationship with 21-year-old Helen Hunt. The DVD adds some background features.

El Rey: From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series: Season Two
MHz: A French Village: 1941: Season 2
MHz: Spiral: Season 5
PBS: Nova: Making North America
PBS: BBC Earth: Earth’s Natural Wonders: Blu-ray
PBS: American Experience: The Mine Wars
PBS: American Experience: Murder of a President
Independent Lens: A Ballerina’s Tale: Blu-ray
While there’s no shortage of hot young vampires on television, very few of them are conversant in Spanish and represent the fastest-growing minority in the U.S. Developed by Robert Rodriguez, the supernatural crime series “From Dusk till Dawn” expands on its namesake film and straight-to-DVD franchise, which employs a more comic/horror tone. If you haven’t heard of the show, it’s only because the series is the cornerstone production of the El Rey network, which is only carried on a handful of cable and satellite services. In addition to the usual bloodsuckers, the featured creatures include characters from Aztec and other Mexican traditions. In Season Two, Santanico Pandemonium (Eiza González) and Richie Gecko (Zane Holtz) are impersonating a modern version of Bonnie and Clyde, Seth Gecko and Kate (Madison Davenport) are scraping by as small-time criminals in north Mexico and Ranger Freddie Gonzalez (Jesse Garcia) is struggling to protecting his family in the suburbs. Naturally, the Titty Twister strip club attracts desperadoes like a Venus flytrap attracts, well, flies. As confusing as the shapeshifting can be, the mix of little known actors and popular guest stars is nicely choreographed. While full of fantasy violence and mayhem, nudity is of the partial variety. Look for visits by Danny Trejo, Wilmer Valderrama, Jake Busey, Robert Patrick, Esai Morales, Jeff Fahey and Don Johnson. The Blu-ray adds commentary on select episodes, recaps, making-of featurettes and a presentation from the 2015 NYC Comic Con.

The MHz Networks import, “A French Village,” chronicles the impact of World War II on a small village in central France from the beginning of the German occupation, 1940, until the liberation by Allied forces in 1944. Newly available on DVD is the second of six seasons, mostly encompassing the events of 1941. As the residents settle down for the long haul, the German presence in Villeneuve has become firmly entrenched, eclipsing any notion that the Vichy government had any say in the matter. The interaction between the German troops and residents is about to devolve from almost cordial to antagonistic, with the resistance taking shape and threats to Jews becoming more direct. One interesting storyline involves discussions among Communist Party members as to how to show their support for their comrades on the Eastern Front, where the Nazis still appear to hold the upper hand. As we already know, any violent resistance against the enemy would result in reprisals against the population at large. Here, though, there’s still room dialogue, commerce and soap-opera romance. It’s an amazing series, well worth the effort it takes to endure the subtitles. The MHz streaming site appears to be a year ahead of the DVD releases.

Also from MHz comes Season Five of the contemporary police procedural, “Spiral,” winner of the 2015 International Emmy for best Drama Series. It is about the men and women who work at the heart of the Parisian judicial system, especially the interaction between the lawyers, judges, prosecutors and detectives who cross paths on the most serious and heinous crimes. As is the case with “Law & Order,” reality tends to spiral out of control for each character, blurring the boundaries between private and professional life. If anything, the tension between men and women on the force is greater in “Spiral.” Season Five begins with the shocking double murder of a woman and a girl, found bound together in a canal. Naturally, the investigation begins with the father, who appears to have disappeared with his young son, after a bitter domestic clash. Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) is still reeling from the death of a partner in Season Four and her demeanor is further tested by an unplanned pregnancy. As seemingly unrelated investigations develop, the characters find similarities to the original murders.

In its continuing effort to make viewers regret not taking advanced geology and Earth-sciences in college, PBS appears to have made it its business to explain not only how the world as we know it was shaped, but also the ways its continued to change … imperceptibly and in great physical upheavals. More to the point of television, though, such science-based series as “NOVA” and “BBC Earth” have made these changes look far more spectacularly beautiful than previous generations of students got have imagined. Drone technology probably will add new dimensions to our appreciation of the geologists’ art. The latest entries include “Making North America” describes how such elemental forces as volcanic eruptions, floods, glaciers and meteorites conspired to shape our land. The “NOVA” presentation serves as a sweeping biography of our continent and how it came to be. It is enhanced by hyper-realistic CGI animations, immersive geological field missions and the latest scientific research, The BBC’s “Earth’s Natural Wonders” travels to some of the planet’s most extraordinary destinations to show how their environments shape the lives of those who live there. They include Mount Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, the Amazon Basin and Grand Canyon.

From PBS’s “American Experience” come “The Mine Wars” and “Murder of a President,” the first taking an in-depth at struggle of mine workers to be compensated commiserate to the hazards of the job and needs of their families. The mine owners, of course, would have preferred the miner paid them to work there. They fought every effort to organize unions with repressive legislation, brutal police and national guard units, scabs and mercenary violence. If enormous profits weren’t available to management and the country didn’t need the coal to fuel our industrial engine, the strikes might never have been settled. It seems as if the unions have been fighting the same battles for respect, safety and adequate compensation since the early 1900s covered here. “Murder of a President” recounts the assassination and excruciating final months of President James Garfield’s life. Our 20th president was gunned down by a deranged Stalwart politician only a few months after taking office. He would die two months later from the wounds. A brilliant scholar, courageous general and fervent abolitionist, Garfield never wanted the job of president, but, once in office, he worked tirelessly to reunite a nation still divided 15 years after the Civil War.

Now playing on select PBS stations is “A Ballerina’s Tale,” which is a short version of Nelson George’s beautiful bio-doc of Misty Copeland, who made history when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer of the legendary American Ballet Theater. George followed the Los Angeles-raised dancer for the past two years, during which her profile was raised to almost astronomical heights, if only because her backstory is as compelling these things get. Because of her ethnic background and non-traditional “body type,” the spotlight shown on her during her rise was harsher than the one accorded non-black ballerinas. The film also describes her career-threatening surgery for six stress fractures to her tibia. It is, at once, highly inspirational, motivational and entertaining,

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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