MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Now You See Me, Bodyguard, Tale of Tales, Equals, Genius, Hockney, Lamb, Night Manager, South Park and more

Now You See Me 2: Blu-ray
An audience’s communal willingness to suspend disbelief while watching an illusionist perform live is a far more entertaining exercise than suspending disbelief in the service of a large-budget, effects-dependent movie, if only because a trick might occasionally go haywire or a normally docile tiger could unexpectedly attack its handler. We exist at a time in cinematic history when blunders and missteps are freely shown during the closing credits of a feature or as part of a DVD’s bonus package. The industry’s dependency on green screen and CGI technology, to achieve economic and creative goals, has become so commonplace that it’s possible to long for the days when stuntmen made us believe that A-list stars routinely risked everything to make us laugh, cry or tingle with excitement. The conceit behind Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2 requires us to accept the unlikely, if thoroughly appealing premise that a quartet of superstar magicians could combines their individual talents to play Robin Hood or save the world from powerful forces beyond our control. In the sequel, the newly reconstituted Four Horsemen — Lizzy Caplan filled in for the inconveniently pregnant Isla Fisher — are asked by FBI mole Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) to reconvene for the purpose of exposing corrupt businessman Owen Case (Ben Lamb). He’s developed software with the potential to de-encrypt data stored on computers around the world. (The premise might hold less water if it weren’t for recent cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee, the NSA, Sony Pictures Entertainment and several off-shore tax shelters.) The magicians conspire to do this at an elaborately staged party for Case’s company, but are interrupted by a mysterious individual who turns the tables on the Horsemen by revealing secrets of their own to the crowd. As federal agents descend on the party, they escape by jumping into waste-removal tubes located on the roof, expecting to be deposited onto the back of a garbage truck several stories below them.

Instead, they’re transported to a laundry bin in the back of a restaurant in Macau, where everyone is confused by their sudden arrival. They’re captured by henchmen serving Woody Harrelson’s evil hypnotist twin, Chase, and taken to the penthouse of Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), Case’s former business partner. Long believed dead, Mabry has his own ideas for the chip and enlists the Horsemen to steal it. After the cocky J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) agrees, they head for magic shop run by Li (Jay Chou) and his grandmother Bu Bu (Tsai Chin), who make them the equipment needed to pull off the heist. Meanwhile, Atlas contacts the all-seeing Eye to arrange the device’s handover, once stolen. As if this weren’t sufficiently confusing, the newly exposed Rhodes finds it necessary to arrange for the release of ace conman Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) from prison. In doing so, he also must accept certain realities about the death of his father, who died in a Houdini-esque illusion. Even at 129 minutes, “NYSM2” can barely contain the many plot twists, location leaps, misdirections and sight gags introduced by director John Chu (Jem and the Holograms) and returning co-writer Ed Solomon. To this end, the filmmakers were aided by David Copperfield and a team of magician advisers. A brilliantly choreographed sequence, in which a dizzying array of card flips, cups and tosses are used to infiltrate the heavily guarded mega-computer, may be the best of the lot and required the least amount of CGI intervention. The Blu-ray adds the excellent featurettes, “The Art of the Ensemble,” “You Can’t Look Away” and “Bringing Magic to Life.” A third installment in the franchise already is in the works – the first two played better overseas than domestically – and it likely will further accentuate the overall “Mission:Impossible” vibe.

The Bodyguard: Blu-ray
Hard Target 2: Blu-ray
In a career that’s spanned more than a half-century, Sammo Hung has worked and fought alongside most of the great martial-arts specialists in the Hong Kong and Chinese film industry. In addition to his 175 acting credits, Hung’s also served dozens of other producers as stunt coordinator and director, in an out of period costume. At a portly 5-foot-7, it hardly seems possible that his training began at age 9, while enrolled in the China Drama Academy, a Peking Opera school, in Hong Kong. By the time Hung reached 14, he had already followed his grandmother — archetypal martial-arts actress Chin Tsi-ang — and his film director grandfather, Hung Chung-Ho, into the family business as a stuntman. (His parents both worked as wardrobe artists.) In 1962, he made his first appearance alongside Jackie Chan in the film Big and Little Wong Tin Bar, and, 11 years later, played the Shaolin student Bruce Lee faces in the opening sequence of Enter the Dragon. In The Bodyguard, co-director Hung cast himself against such next- and future-generation stars Andy Lau, Tsui Hark, Li Qinqin, Jia Song, Hu Jun, Eddie Peng, Yuen Bo and William Feng, as well as old-timers Karl Maka, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu and Dean Shek. Although most appear in what amount to cameo roles, the stars’ presence boosted word-of-mouth for the movie (a.k.a., “My Beloved Bodyguard”) in mainland and Hong Kong theaters. It’s possible that audiences expected it to be something of a valedictory for Hung, even if, at 64, he doesn’t appear to be the retiring type. Just as John Wayne capped his career with a couple of cop roles (Brannigan, McQ), Hung plays a retired special agent, Ding, who once protected heads of state and other dignitaries, but now lives a solitary existence in a quiet industrial city on the borders of Russia, China and North Korea. As Jun Jiang’s freshman script unfolds, Ding is told by his doctor that his Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point where he should begin making notes for himself and using a tape recorder to help him remember even simple tasks. Coincidentally, he befriends a precocious girl, Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), whose degenerate-gambler father, Li (Lau), disappears after fulfilling a mission for the local mob. By skipping out with the dough, however, Li has placed himself and his family in jeopardy with the Vladivostok and local Chinese gangs. (The Russians are the scarier of the two entities.) Although Ding can barely remember his home address, his “muscle memory” kicks in whenever he’s challenged by the young gangsters. This, even though he’s as grossly overweight as Elvis or Brando in their waning years. While some critics bemoaned the emphasis on the grandfatherly relationship between Ding and Cherry, in combination with a dementia-complicated friendship with an elderly neighbor, Hung shouldn’t be penalized for adding melodramatic elements to an otherwise violent story. The Blu-ray adds a pair of making-of featurettes, mostly created to sing the praises of the filmmaker.

The original 1992 Hard Target was noteworthy as John Woo’s English-language directorial debut, as well as for the pairing of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lance Henriksen and a body count of 30-plus characters. Set in New Orleans, it was inspired by the 1932 thriller The Most Dangerous Game, from a story by Richard Connell. In it, a human becomes the prey of wealthy thrill-seekers, who pay large sums of money to stalk and kill him. Although rarely credited to Connell, the venerable conceit has been recycled endlessly over the last 80-plus years, as recently as the Hunger Games franchise and just-reviewed Woody Harrelson vehicle, The Duel. Netherlands-born director Roel Reiné (Death Race 2) chose to borrow the concept behind The Most Dangerous Game and title of Woo’s adaptation of it. Van Damme protégé Scott Atkins plays Wes Baylor, a MMA fighter who had the great misfortune of killing his best friend in a match in Thailand. He’s lured out of self-imposed retirement by a businessman who hangs a million-dollar carrot in front of his face, in the form of fight in Myanmar. Once he gets to the site of the bout, however, he’s greeted by the crooked promoter Aldrich (Robert Knepper), a platoon of soldiers and a half-dozen blood-thirsty hunters, attracted to the ruby-filled money belt rewarded to the last person standing. The lush Thailand-for-Burma jungle setting is perfect for such a competition, in that it allows cover for the prey and a tough challenge for the hunters. Aldrich, though, has stacked the deck against Baylor by adding a GPS tracker to the bag of gems he’s carrying. Hard Target 2 is loaded with action, kills and near misses. Baylor even gets a helping hand from a pretty young Burmese woman, Tha (Ann Truong), who tends a herd of elephants and is afraid that her brother has been killed by Aldrich’s clients. (The always welcome Rhona Mitra plays a vicious  huntress.) The beautifully rendered Blu-ray adds commentary with Reiné, Adkins and Knepper, composer Trevor Morris and camera operator Rolf Dekens, deleted scenes, a deleted-shots “montage” and the featurettes “A Fighting Chance: Behind-the-Scenes of ‘Hard Target 2,’” “‘Hard Target 2’ Through the Lens,” “Into the Jungle: On Location of ‘Hard Target 2’” and “Thrill of the Hunt.”

Tale of Tales: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find three movies more dissimilar to each other than Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, an unromanticized story about the real Neapolitan mob; Reality, a darkly comic treatise on the metaphysics of fame and reality TV; and Tale of Tales, his fanciful adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s 17th Century fairy tales, the “Pentamerone.” You can forget Basile’s secondary title, “Entertainment for Little Ones,” as the tales were written for the amusement of bored royals and filled with characters and storylines designed to frighten adults. So, too, of course, were the stories written by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault – “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella,” among them — fantasists who borrowed liberally from Basile and openly credited him for the inspiration. It’s possible that he was influenced, himself, by Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” whose stories could be traced to traders from India, Persia and Spain. Born in 1566 to middle-class Neapolitan parents, Basile would serve as a courtier, soldier, poet and fairy tale collector to several Italian princes. It explains the sharpness of his depictions of the foibles, vanity and eccentricities of royalty. Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly play the kings of three not terribly dissimilar kingdoms: Strongcliff, Highhills and Longtrellis, respectively.

While wandering through the streets of Strongcliff one day, the pompous and horny king becomes enchanted with the voice of a woman coming from inside the home of commoners Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson). Little does he know that the woman he hopes to seduce is elderly and extremely wrinkly. Fearing that the king will respond negatively to the truth, the sisters hatch a plan to conceal Dora’s looks when he inevitably forces her to share his bed. The plan is doomed to failure, of course, but, thanks to the intervention of a local witch, Dora almost pulls off the ruse.

In “The Flea,” the king of Highhills becomes as concerned with the care and feeding of a pet flea as he is with the marital status of his melodious daughter (Bebe Cave). When the critter finally dies, it’s the size of a cow. The king decides that the only man worthy of his daughter Violet’s hand in marriage will be the one who can identify the source of the hide. To his daughter’s chagrin, the lucky fellow is a gigantic ogre who lives in a bone-strewn cave near the top of a very high mountain. The ogre treats his new bride as if she were a valueless possession, rather than a princess, and Violet conspires with a troupe of circus entertainers to escape. Nothing comes easy for her, however, and the ogre is given a second chance to possess her. In “The Queen,” John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek play the rulers of a kingdom of great beauty and diversity, but no heir to the throne. In her desperation for a child, the queen commits her husband to performing an act of insane bravery, as suggested by a persuasive necromancer. If the king doesn’t survive his encounter with a sea monster, the queen’s compensation arrives in the form of the beast’s still-beating heart, which, after being cooked and eaten, ensures her instant pregnancy. The flip side of the necromancer’s prophesy reveals itself in the simultaneous pregnancy of the virgin who prepared the meal for the queen and absorbed the same fumes. It would result in the birth of twin albino half-brothers, whose allegiance to each other, years later, will drive the queen to banish one boy and alienate the other.

As re-imagined by Garrone and co-writers Edoardo Albinati Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, the stories interwoven throughout Tale of Tales feel delightfully fresh and altogether different than anything we’ve come to expect from film and cartoon adaptations of other traditional fairytales. That includes, of course, Disney’s collection of Grimm Brothers’ adaptations acquired for free from the public domain. There are plenty more tales from the “Pentamerone” – most completely unexposed to adaptation — left to be exploited by adventurous filmmakers. Despite its Italian roots, Tale of Tales was shot in English and is extremely easy on the eyes, from a cinematic perspective. The package includes an excellent making-of featurette and interviews.

Dozens of films and documentaries have been inspired by the lives and eccentricities of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and various other Lost Generation authors. As far as I know, before Genius, author Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins hadn’t been featured outside of the occasional mention in a literary documentary. First-time director Michael Grandage and the prolific John Logan (Spectre, The Aviator) based their story on the 1978 National Book Award-winner “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” by A. Scott Berg. If they saw the project as being anything other than a labor of love, targeted directly at English majors and arthouse habitués, they surely were fooling themselves. Even considering the protagonists’ legendary status in the publishing industry, the prospect of watching an editor work on elephantine manuscripts for almost two hours is daunting, at best. Perkins, as portrayed by Colin Firth, is every writer’s idea of a great editor, massaging words and ideas into beautiful prose and putting up with all manner of ego trips and hissy fits. Jude Law’s Wolfe is a coil of tightly wound energy, overflowing with self-serving opinions and North Carolina charm. Perkins would come to represent the father Wolfe lost while he was in Boston, working on his Master’s degree at Harvard. For Perkins, the father of five daughters, the impetuous novelist became the son he and his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), never had. Hemingway and Fitzgerald (Dominic West, Guy Pearce) make brief, but memorable appearances, providing literary context and inspiring some caustic dialogue. Nicole Kidman is fine as Wolfe’s muse, Aline Bernstein, while Vanessa Kirby’s Zelda looks as if she just put her finger in an electrical socket. The interaction between writer and editor would grow old very quickly, if weren’t for the dead-on Depression-era look provided by cinematographer Ben Davis and production designer Mark Digby.
Yared Zeleke’s remarkably self-assured feature debut tells the story of Ephraim, a half-Jewish Ethiopian boy who is sent by his father to live among distant relatives after his mother’s death in a drought-plagued region of the country. When it became the first Ethiopian film to be shown at Cannes, Lamb prompted immediate comparisons to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, based on the plucky kid’s determination to succeed against great odds. With his father away in Addis Ababa looking for work, Ephraim’s only true-blue friend is his rapidly growing pet lamb, Chuni. Although his relatives live in the spectacularly beautiful and lush green mountains in Ethiopia’s southern mountains, they treat the 9-year-old as if he’s a burden on them. His interest in cooking makes him an easy target for insults from his bullying uncle Solomon and other boys looking for a scrap. (He’s labeled a “starving hick” by peers, and “effeminate” by his uncle.) When the decision is made that Chuni must be sacrificed for the next religious feast, Ephraim (Radiat Amare) hatches a plan to save the animal and return home. As such, he represents what some seemingly helpless people will risk in order to take charge of their own destinies. Besides providing a spectacular background for this unusual coming-of-age story, the Bale Mountains remind us that there’s still a great of Africa we’ve never seen. The DVD adds short films.

The Seventh Fire
Once Were Warriors: Blu-ray
No matter how many press conferences, debates and forums are conducted in the next two months, the likelihood of any questions pertaining to Native American issues being asked of the presidential candidates, let alone answered, is … well, none. It’s been 53 years since then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy made headlines by addressing to the National Congress of American Indians in Bismarck, North Dakota, and making clear his opinion that First Nation tribes deserved fair treatment under law and enjoyed a unique status as separate, sovereign nations within the United States. He also recognized the responsibility of the United States to meet its trust obligations to Native Americans. It wasn’t until 1988, when Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, though, that some tribes, at least, would be able to realize RFK’s vision … which probably didn’t include casinos. The then-controversial legislation gave states the power to regulate the gaming and impose special taxes on the reservations in the form of compacts. Apart from certain social issues, it became a win-win situation. Sadly, too, the gradual proliferation of these casinos gave politicians a pretty good excuse to ignore Indian issues for years to come. By 2015, there were more than 460 gambling operations run by 240 tribes, with a total annual revenue of $29.9 billion. Non-native casino owners, including GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, have spent tens of millions of dollars in a futile attempt to impede their growth. Otherwise, the operating principle for non-native politicians has been, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s searing documentary, The Seventh Fire, reminds us that the financial success of some tribes, even those with casinos, hasn’t trickled down in any meaningful way to benefit all residents. The White Earth Indian Reservation, in north-central Minnesota between Bemidji and Fargo, is one of seven Chippewa/Ojibwa reservations in the state and home to the Pine Point (pop. 338) residents featured in the film. Prominent among them is Rob Brown, a Native American gang leader newly sentenced to prison for a fifth time. As muscular as a Vikings linebacker and Hollywood handsome, Brown bides his time on the outside confronting his role in bringing the violent drug culture into his beloved Ojibwa community, while also savoring the gangsta lifestyle. For Rob, the thought of spending the next several years behind bars is relieved by knowing he’ll have the freedom to write and draw, absent the distractions of criminal life. His 17-year-old protégé, Kevin, has been given every opportunity to escape – or, at least, kick his addictions to drugs, booze and the thug life — but still dreams of filling Brown’s shoes. He treats the inevitability of jail as a necessary rite of passage. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the girlfriends of both men become pregnant during the course of the film, ensuring that the cycle of poverty and government handouts won’t end soon. From executive producers Terrence Malick, Natalie Portman and Chris Eyre, The Seventh Fire isn’t unrelievedly depressing, thank goodness, but the positive moments are far outnumbered by the cries for help. I said much the same thing about Roberto Minervini’s unnerving documentary, The Other Side, which focused on disenfranchised young people in the northern Louisiana. Bonus features include deleted scenes and two short films directed by Riccobono.

The coincidental re-launch into Blu-ray of Lee Tamahori’s harrowing 1994 drama, Once Were Warriors, and recent release here of James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse, once again demonstrates that the hard-scrabble life of Aboriginal people isn’t unique to North America or desolate reservations. Set in urban Auckland, Once Were Warriors tells the story of the Maori Heke family and its place in the otherwise placid city’s gang hierarchy. Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), who could be Rob Brown’s brother by another mother, frequently beats his wife when drunk and frightens his children with the ferocity of his resentment of her pure Maori roots. Mixed race and descended from slaves, as he’s constantly reminded, Jake obviously loves Beth (Rena Owen) and their family, but is gripped by the disease of machismo. The movie follows a period of several weeks in the family’s life, showing Jake’s frequent outbursts of violence and the effect that they have on his family. The youngest son is in trouble with the police and is headed for a foster home, while the elder son is about to be “patched” in a Maori street-gang ritual. Jake’s 13-year-old daughter has serious problems of her own, mostly traceable to a woman’s place in a male-dominated culture. If I’m not mistaken, Once Were Warriors introduced the traditional posture dance, haka, to westerners, including the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football team. It combines war cries, stomping movements and chants, with the mugging of heavily tattooed faces. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, original stills and a collector’s booklet featuring an essay by New Zealand’s leading cinema expert, Peter Calder.

Maybe Donald Trump really is onto something, at least when it comes to action comedies co-produced by Mexican and American companies. He could have built a wall 30 feet high around the recently reviewed spring-break non-laugher, Sundown, and border-hopping, Compadres, and no one on either side would have minded. Some critics might have agreed to finance the construction, even. And, while Fernando Lebrija’s overtly racist Sundown was all too comprehensible, Enrique Begne’s Compadres requires that viewers carry a roadmap to gauge the side of the border upon which the characters are standing at any given moment. The action starts in Mexico, as good cop Garza (Omar Chaparro) watches his longtime partner get killed by a vicious crime boss named Santos (Erick Elias). Santos later kidnaps Garza’s pregnant girlfriend, Maria (Aislinn Derbez), and blackmails the cop to help him flee police custody. Newly dismissed from the police force for enabling the escape, Garza decides the way to nail Santos is through an accountant who has stolen $10 million from the criminal. Garza sneaks into the United States, only to discover that a chubby 17-year-old computer nerd Vic (Joey Morgan) is responsible for the theft, instead of a crafty old-timer. The visually comedic odd couple is put through a wringer of sophomoric antics and bilingual gags, while Eric Roberts and Kevin Pollack are only allowed enough screen time to justify adding their names to marketing material. On the plus side, Aislinn Derbez (“Gossip Girl: Acapulco”) is as gorgeous an actress as exists on either side of the border and her male counterpart, Garza, probably will remind some folks of a young George Clooney.

Sweethearts of the Gridiron
Thirty years before the owner of the Dallas Cowboys professional football team decided to add a troupe of high-kicking, suggestively attired cheerleaders to its entertainment mix, the Kilgore College Rangerettes did practically the same thing, only in less bodice- and thigh-revealing outfits. Football fans outside Texas were made aware of the Rangerettes’ unique ability to raise the temperature of even the chilliest of Cotton Bowl games, when, in 1951, they began an annual streak of appearances that continues today. Before the Rangerettes were outgunned physically by the DCC – all of whom bore a seemed to emulate fellow Texan, then-Farrah Fawcett Majors — they made regular appearances at Dallas Cowboys pre-game and half-time shows, which led to appearances at nationally televised parades, presidential inaugurations, military bases and the Radio City Music Hall, home of the Rockettes. Chip Hale’s comprehensive documentary, Sweethearts of the Gridiron, does a swell job explaining how the Rangerettes came to prominence at a small college in an oil boomtown, just east of Dallas, and the exhaustive process by which all future team members are chosen. Like the U.S. Marine Corps and Kirov Ballet, a certain degree of pain accompanies the grueling discipline necessary for precision cheerleading and pep squads. Hale also acts as a fly on the wall during practice sessions and the surprisingly dramatic judging, which takes into account choreography, physical skills, coordination and the all-important ability to smile through pain, rain and personal trauma. I’d compare the film to documentaries we’ve seen on cutthroat beauty contests – and, of course, Michael Ritchie’s Smile – except that no throats are threatened here and the girls are wonderfully talented and supportive of each other. Neither are they allowed to increase their chances of being selected with industrial-strength cosmetics, gravity-defying underwear or stripper poles. The only misstep I found was the failure to note the delay in choosing the first African-American team member, Freddie Goosby Evans, in 1973, and the first black officer in August 2012.

Equals: Blu-ray
If movies have taught us anything about the post-dystopian future, it’s that, unlike heaven, it’s hardly worth the investment in time, effort and piety it would take for us to end up there. In Equals, co-writer/director Drake Doremus (Breathe In) and screenwriter Nathan Parker (Moon) envision a utopian society every bit as sterile, affectless and robotic as those in such disparate entertainments as Logan’s Run, Sleeper, 1984, Brave New World, Defending Your Life, The Lobster, THX 1138 and Fahrenheit 451. Conformity in dress (white), architecture (ethereal) and thought (neo-fascist) are strictly enforced by an all-seeing force that’s been able to eliminate mankind’s natural desire to explore, experiment and create. Rebellion is represented by a character or group of characters’ striving for individual freedom through books, drugs, sex, ideas and fashion. Typically, the non-conformists live in forests, jungles or mountains and are hunted by the powers that be. Love and pro-creation are the greatest threats to the strictly enforced status quo. Leads Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart do a nice job playing citizens of the Collective, who, after becoming infected with Switched On Syndrome, fall in love. (Their other choice was committing suicide, also forbidden.) Their Silas and Nia are colleagues at a science journal, where they work on massive tabletop interfaces, researching and documenting the world prior to the Great War (no, not that one). They’re aware of a wild area known as the Peninsula, rumored to be populated by humans, but have been indoctrinated into rejecting its lure. They are as drawn to each other as any coupling of star-crossed lovers found in literature and face the same obstacles. Fortunately, other citizens have caught the SOS bug – to one degree or another – and are willing to break the law by resisting the temptation to rat them out. That’s about it, really. In a sense, Equals ends at a point other such romantic fantasies begin. It looks terrific, though, and Stewart, at least, is naturally able to take full advantage of her character’s limited emotional range. Commentary is provided by Doremus, cinematographer John Guleserian and editor Jonathan Alberts. The featurettes include the standard-issue “Switched On,” with interviews and film clips; “The Collective,” with better material from Stewart and Hoult; and the 30-minute “Utopia,” on the production design and some of the backstory that isn’t overtly covered in the film.

Night of the Living Deb
The Dead Room: Blu-ray
Therapy for a Vampire
Evils of the Night: Blu-ray
While nowhere near as clever and accomplished as Sean of the Dead – or Juan of the Dead, for that matter – co-writer/director Kyle Rankin and screenwriter Andy Selsor’s zombie romance, Night of the Living Deb, scores points for being teen friendly and giving free rein to ginger firecracker Maria Thayer. Born on a bee farm in Boring, Oregon, Thayer is 40, but possesses the looks and exudes the energy of a teenager. Here, she plays an aspiring reporter for a Maine television station, Deborah Clarington, who, after foisting herself on a young man in a bar, awakens in his apartment the next morning oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that’s erupted while they were sleeping. As handsome as he is, Ryan Waverly (Michael Cassidy) turns out to be little more than a greener-than-thou eco-dweeb. Conveniently, Ryan’s corrupt father (Ray Wise) is the owner of Portland’s water utility, which may or may not have something to do with the sudden invasion of undead Down Easterners. While Rankin fails to score many points in his orchestration of the seemingly amateur zombies’ stumbling movements, Thayer’s imitation of Lucille Ball on speed keeps things moving smoothly to Night of the Living Deb’s twisty ending. The DVD adds a making-of piece and bloopers.

The New Zealand import, The Dead Room, is a haunted-house thriller completely dependent on audio technology so bombastic that it could scare a train off of its tracks if turned to full blast. Inspired by reports of an actual haunting in a historic farmhouse in central Otago, New Zealand, The Dead Room involves an investigation being conducted by two scientists (Jed Brophy, Jeffrey Thomas) and a young psychic (Laura Petersen). After the owners flee the property, the trio moves in for a few days, arranging cameras and listening devices in the hallway and living room. For most of the movie’s 78 minutes, only the psychic senses that they’re not alone in the house. The scientists require more proof, of course, causing the trio to stay one more night than would normally be advisable under these circumstances. Found video footage reveals what they discovered next. My guess is that Kiwi director Jason Stutter (“Tongan Ninja”) and co-writer Kevin Stevens were more interested in capturing the fancy of native audiences already familiar with the story before sending the movie out into a world saturated with ghost stories. For what it’s worth, The Dead Room reportedly is the first film to use Acoustic Science’s new Rumble sound technology. It works just fine.

There can be no more difficult task in the filmmaking game than coming up with a new angle on the vampire or any other horror subgenre. Comic revisionism may have begun with Abbott & Costello, who first worked alongside Doctor Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man in 1949, but it certainly didn’t end there. The Fearless Vampire Killers, Transylvania 6-5000, Vampire in Brooklyn, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Blood for Dracula and Blacula also mined some laughs from an already tired genre before the deluge facilitated by special-effects and digital revolution of the late 1990s. From Austria comes David Rühm’s Therapy for a Vampire (a.k.a., “Der Vampir auf der Couch”), which is set in 1930 Vienna, with Sigmund Freud accepting new patients, one of whom is Tobias Moretti’s undead Graf Geza von Közsnöm. The count, whose marriage to the vain Gräfin Elsa von Közsnöm cooled centuries ago, has lost his thirst for life. Because she can’t see her reflection in a mirror, Freud suggests that the Count appease his vain wife by commissioning a portrait of her by his assistant, Viktor. Once there, he falls for Viktor’s headstrong girlfriend and model. Lucy (Jeanette Hain), who reminds him of the girl that got away many, many years ago. Thusly, Therapy for a Vampire becomes a comedy of errors, mistaken identities and misplaced affections that works in any language.

Mardi Rustam’s 1985 horror comedy, Evils of the Night, represents a very goofy attempt to combine sci-fi, horror and soft-core porn in the service of a slasher parody. XXX mainstays Amber Lynn, Crystal Breeze and Jerry Butler play teenagers who put their lives in jeopardy by having sex in convertibles on Lovers Lane and lonely fields, while a motley collection of alien fiends lurk in the bushes hoping to siphon their teenage blood. The geriatric vampires from outer space are played by John Carradine, Neville Brand (in his last film), Aldo Ray, Tina Louise and Julie Newmar, whose presence is almost worth the price of a rental. As usual, the folks at Vinegar Syndrome put lots more time and effort into restoring this rarity than the original producers did, at the time, before releasing it. In addition to being scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm master, the Blu-ray extras include “Alien Blood Transfusion,” an interview with director Mardi Rustam (a.k.a., Mohammed Rustam); an alternate feature-length TV edit; isolated score by Robert O. Ragland; 25 minutes of outtakes; marketing material; and a reversible cover artwork.

The Royal Road
David Hockney is one of only a handful of contemporary artists whose name and physical appearance are as recognizable as his work, whether it’s paintings capturing the shimmering sunlight on southern California swimming pools, fanciful photo-collages of American landscapes, composite Polaroids, stage designs or 1960s-era Pop Art. His bespectacled face and bleached-white hair are his trademark, as were Dali’s mustache, Warhol’s wig and Van Gogh’s ear. Randall Wright’s entertaining and informative feature bio-doc, Hockney, weaves together a portrait of the multifaceted artist from frank interviews with close friends and never before seen footage from his own personal archive. Like his paintings and experimentation with each new visual technology, Hockney, even at 79, seems ageless. As accessible as the work continues to be, the Yorkshire native never appears to take his relevancy for granted, a notion that’s backed up by the friends and peers interviewed by Wright. Hockney looks back at the artist’s formative years in the British Pop Art scene and his experience of being a gay man as the AIDS crisis took hold, as well as his years working in California. The charismatic artist takes us on an exclusive tour of his archives and into his studio, where he still paints seven days a week. The DVD adds the director’s commentary.

Also of interest to LGBT viewers, especially, is The Royal Road, Jenni Olson’s overstuffed “cinematic essay in defense of remembering” and stream-of-consciousness monologue on such disparate topics as the Spanish colonization of California, the Mexican-American War and broken promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, her own reflections on butch identity the pursuit of unavailable women, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s set against a backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes and features a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner. She explains how last year’s controversial beatification of Padre Junipero Serra is tarnished by historical evidence of the priest’s enslavement of the indigenous Indian population and harsh treatment of those hesitant to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior. Olson’s voice may be singular, but the visual debt owed to Chantal Akerman is undeniable. My biggest problem with The Royal Road is Olson’s sense of geography. After telling us she’ll be following the path of El Camino Real from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, in San Diego, to Mission San Francisco Solano, in Sonoma, the visual journey mostly bounces between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The Vertigo analogies take some getting used to, but eventually make sense. I would argue, however, that they’d better serve an entirely separate venture.

Urge: Blu-ray
It’s taken most of the last dozen years for moviegoers to sever the chains that bound Pierce Brosnan to his stint as James Bond in the never-ending 007 series. After being introduced to movie audiences 36 years ago, as an Irish assassin in The Long Good Friday, it’s interesting that he got his first big post-Bond break, playing an increasingly incapable hitman in The Matador. In between, Brosnan turned in memorably nuanced performances in The Tailor of Panama, The Thomas Crown Affair and Mars Attacks!, but the declining franchise required his presence. Ever since, Brosnan has been a welcome presence in romantic dramas (Married Life), romantic comedies (Laws of Attraction), romantic mysteries (The Ghost Writer), action fantasies (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), spy dramas (The November Man) and tone-deaf musicals (Mamma Mia!). I can’t recommend to Brosnan’s fans that they run out and get a copy of Aaron Kaufman’s stylish psycho-thriller, Urge, but he’s the closest thing to a reason for checking out this straight-to-VOD genre specimen. In it, a young billionaire, Jason (Justin Chatwin), invites a group of attractive friends to his island hideout for a weekend of revelry and gluttonous consumption. The highlight comes when they’re invited to a nightclub that wouldn’t have been out of place in Manhattan during the heyday of Studio 54. The music is loud, the dresses are skimpy, the drinks strong and the temptations plentiful. Among them are the usual array of ingestible drugs, including a smoky blue substance inhaled like gaseous cocaine. It is introduced to Jason by the enigmatic club owner, The Man (Brosnan). Urge is the kind of miracle drug that allows partakers to override their hang-ups and inhibitions for a few hours, while revealing their true natures. The Man makes it abundantly clear that Urge should only be taken once in a lifetime and its misuse could bring tragic results. The guests have such a blast the first night of their visit, they decide to ignore the Man’s warning and take it again, anyway. Maybe, you can guess what happens next. If you can, there’s no need to watch the movie. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

BBC/AMC: The Night Manager: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Nineteenth Season: Blu-ray
One of the most binge-worthy mini-series of the season, “The Night Manager,” has just been released in an “uncensored” version that fans of spy thrillers should find irresistible. Adapted by Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier (In a Better World) and writer David Farr (Hanna) from a best-selling 1993 novel by John le Carré, “The Night Manager” has been updated to the point in time when the Arab Spring began turning into the Arab Winter. In it, Tom Hiddleston plays a former British soldier, Jonathan Pine, who is recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), as a deep-cover intelligence operative. In doing so, he is required to navigate Whitehall and the Pentagon, where there is an alliance between the intelligence community and the secret arms trade, the theory being that one couldn’t exist without the other. His first attempt to serve Queen and country – and subsequent lack of discretion on the part of MI6 — inadvertently results in the death of the beautiful Egyptian woman who asked the night manager to copy some papers that were of value to her lover and British agents. Four years later, Jonathan would be given a night manager’s job in a different luxury hotel to go with a new identity and military background. His assignment is to infiltrate the inner circle of megalomaniacal arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) and his dangerously paranoid associate, Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander). That was the easy part. More difficult would be keeping up with Roper’s nefarious negotiations with legitimate world power brokers, insurgent groups and freelance terrorists. Jonathan could be killed for a dozen different missteps each day, including getting too near Roper’s blond bombshell mistress, Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki). Tension builds throughout the mini-series — which garnered 12 Emmy nominations — as does the complexity of Ropers’ machinations and negotiations. The most important “censored” scene recovered for the Blu-ray is the one in which Hiddleston’s bottom is revealed, during a vertical tryst with Jed.

Every new season of “South Park” can be described as “long awaited,” but, with the presidential election in its final stretch run, the upcoming debut of Season 20 couldn’t come soon enough for most fans. After lampooning Donald Trump’s foreign policy by having Canadians build a wall to keep Americans from fleeing northward, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone recently indicated that they might pull back on the political satire, so as not to “service” the candidates as characters. Instead, it’s likely that Mr. Garrison will represent Trump’s points of view in his run for the White House. And, to be fair, it’s only been nine years since “The Snuke” episode, in which the Secret Service discovers a small nuclear bomb concealed in Hillary Clinton’s vagina. The absurdities inherent in the American political system might prove too difficult to resist, however. Season 19 was noteworthy, as well, for Parker and Stone’s decision to forgo their practice of ending a storyline at the close of an episode, by extending story arcs for longer periods of time. For example, PC Principal and Caitlyn Jenner helped carry the political-correctness theme from beginning to end. The 10-episode compilation adds several deleted scenes from “Stunning and Brave,” “Where My Country Gone?,” “You’re Not Yelping,” “Safe Space,” “Naughty Ninjas” and “Truth and Advertising”; a 27-minute “season commentary” track; “South Park: The Fractured But Whole E3 2016 Game Trailer,” a sneak peek at the game coming to PS4 and Xbox One on December 6; and “#Socialcommentary,” on-screen tweets that shed some 140 character insights into each episode.

Prince: Up Close & Personal
Typically, the “Up Close & Personal” series of musician interviews is noteworthy for collecting obscure material from media outlets outside the United States. The fresh perspectives, even after 40-50 years on a shelf, can reveal fresh points of view and the artists sometimes are more forthcoming to European and Australian journalists. That was the case with the recent Frank Zappa release, anyway. “Prince: Up Close & Personal” strays from the normal path by repeating the entire Larry King session with His Purple Highness, including an almost pointless chat with bass player Larry Graham. In my book, that’s cheating. Shorter interviews, including his first with MTV, make better use of our time. In all of them, the recently deceased musician is friendly, attentive and informative. I, for one, was surprised and impresseds.

Atroz: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Short for atrocious, Atroz joins such extreme titles as Cannibal Holocaust, Martyrs, A Serbian Film, Wolf Creek and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on a short list of horror films even hard-core horror buffs might find too horrifying to watch under normal conditions. Made by veteran sound designer Lex Ortega and presented by legendary Italian exploitation director Ruggero Deodato, it appears to have been made as commentary on the huge number of unsolved murders in one of the most violent countries in the world, Mexico. It opens with a woman being struck down by a car and the arrest of the driver and his drunken passenger by police. In their search of the men’s car, the commanding officer makes a gruesome discovery on a camcorder. The video recorder features the relentless torture and murder of a transvestite prostitute. In their interrogation of the suspects, the police employ tactics that might even have sickened former VP and torture-defender Dick Cheney. The upshot is, however, the discovery of more videotapes, exposing sexually deviant torture and murders. As befits the found-footage subgenre, Atroz is crudely made under far less than adequate lighting conditions and shoddy production values.  Clearly, Ortega wants us to consider the possibility that the ends justify the means, especially in the investigation of heinous crimes, and no one should shed tears for obviously guilty perps. Or, maybe we should. The operative word there is “obviously” and it’s from the point of view of hardened and likely corrupt Mexican cops. The three-disc set includes a separate musical soundtrack and the short film from which Atroz was extended.

Fishes ‘N Loaves: Heaven Sent
Nancy Criss and Kenneth Lemm’s Dove-approved comedy, Fishes ‘N Loaves: Heaven Sent, is a fish-out-of-water affair in which an inner-city pastor (Patrick Muldoon) is re-assigned to a rural church and the burden of readjustment falls squarely on the shoulders of his wife (Dina Meyer) and children. Actually, Pastor Michaels has been asked to find a replacement for the still spry Pastor Ezekiel (Bruce Davison) and, as time passes, we are led to believe that he’d like the job. Naturally, a culture clash quickly emerges as Pastor Michaels’ biggest problem, with his wife being too sophisticated for the old biddies in the Arizona church and the kids anxious to go home. If the ending of any film would appear to be pre-ordained it’s “Heaven Sent.” Fans of faith-based cinema won’t mind.

Taboo: Blu-ray
Made in 1980, before anyone knew what a MILF might be, let alone a cougar, Kirdy Stevens’ hard-core classic, Taboo, broke through more barriers than any other adult film in the Golden Age in the Golden Age of Porn. No one knew how the growing number of couples interested in the genre – or, for that matter, the raincoat crowd — would respond to a movie that eroticized father-daughter/mother-son incest, a subject that had only been approached in mainstream films a handful of times. Thanks to savvy performances of the undeniably hot Kay Parker, then 35, and Juliet Anderson, 42, the forbidden subject matter pretty much was trumped by the ability of “mature” actresses to make the younger gals look like amateurs. They were MILFs before the term was even invented. Parker plays Barbara Scott, a middle-class suburbanite whose husband leaves her, blaming her frigidity for destroying their marriage. Left alone without a source of income, she turns to her friend, Gina (Anderson), who opens Barbara’s eyes to the secret world of suburban swingers. Nothing turns her on as much as her teenage son, Paul (28-year-old Mike Ranger), however. As vile as that might sound, the age and lineage of the actors was never in doubt – they weren’t dressed or made up to look like underage teenagers – and, amazingly, the series spawned 22 sequels, most in video format. The Blu-ray has been scanned & restored in 2k from 35mm original vault elements and adds new audio commentaries with Kay Parker, writer/producer Helene Terrie and Kirdy Stevens; an archival video interview with Parker; promotional image gallery; and reversible cover artwork.

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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