MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Hunt for Wilderpeople, Skiptrace, Nerve, Vampire Ecstasy, Gored, Dark Water, The Id, Norman Lear and more

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I’ve complained before about the lack of attention given to uniquely entertaining indie movies by distributors, even after being greeted with near-unanimous approval by audiences and critics at festivals. Indulge me while I endorse another film that has broad audience appeal but could easily get lost in the VOD-DVD shuffle. Set in a supremely scenic corner of Peter Jackson’s backyard (a.k.a., New Zealand), Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows a state-raised Maori boy who’s nearly run out of options when it comes to being taken in by foster families and non-penal shelters for abandoned kids. Rotund, lazy and belligerent, Ricky (Julian Dennison) is handed over to a middle-age couple living on the edge of the “bush” – a term not at all representative of the environmentally diverse Tongariro National Park – at the center of the country’s North Island. After a rough start, Ricky quickly finds himself at home with the loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) and mutts Zag and Tupac. When news of Bella’s unexpected death reaches Auckland, Ricky knows that he’ll be transferred to another facility and that Uncle Hec probably won’t go out of his way to prevent the militaristic marshal (Rachel House) from taking him away. The adventure begins when Ricky takes refuge in a forest thick enough to protect him from anyone not named Hec and Zag.

After Hec sprains his ankle, he finds himself at the mercy of the bush and his deceptively out-of-shape “nephew.” To his surprise, Ricky turns out to be a terrific companion. Fearless and a veritable encyclopedia of American gangsta’ culture, he’s also able to provide food and shelter for both of them. Meanwhile, though, the authorities have decided that Hec must be an abusive guardian and Ricky is in harm’s way. The manhunt is complicated by the combined wiles of the desperadoes and the oddball characters they encounter along the way. There’s nothing here that’s predictable or pre-ordained by cinematic tropes. Neill’s experience (Jurassic Park, “The Tudors”) provides a nice counterbalance to Dennison’s fresh take on Ricky’s impertinence and unbridled enthusiasm. The natural wonders of New Zealand – parts of the “LOTR” saga were filmed here, as well – provide an uncommonly diverse background for the story. If Waititi’s name sounds familiar, it’s for his peculiarly Kiwi entertainments as Eagle vs. Shark, “Flight of the Conchords” and What We Do in the Shadows. He’ll get his shot in the Major Leagues with – surprise! – the next chapter in the comic-book epic, “Thor: Ragnarok.” Let’s hope he doesn’t lose sight of the little picture. (BTW, the only thing preventing “Wilderpeople” from getting a PG is some coarse language and hand-to-hand combat with huge wild boars.)

Skiptrace: Blu-ray
American fans of Jackie Chan action-comedies, especially those of the Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and Tuxedo persuasion, will want to check out Skiptrace, a sprawling romp in which Johnny Knoxville takes over the buddy role previously reserved for Owen Wilson, Chris Tucker and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I don’t know if “Jackass” or Bad Grandpa got much play in China, but there isn’t anything here that requires Knoxville to stick a roman candle in his anus or take a flying leap off a ski jump on a tricycle. Chan plays Bennie, a top Hong Kong detective whose partner is killed in mob hit orchestrated by a heavily protected character nicknamed, “The Matador.” Knoxville plays American gambler Connor Watts, who’s on the lam from Russian gangsters out to settle a score credible only as a plot device. Conveniently, Connor holds the missing link Bennie needs to connect with the Matador. Mostly, the setup allows director Renny Harlin to shoot in China, Hong Kong, Siberia, Macau and Mongolia, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. This, plus the presence of Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, WWE Diva Eve Torres and 6-foot-1 Finnish singer/songwriter Sara Maria Forsberg, lends Skiptrace a faux James Bond aura. The Blu-ray adds Harlin’s commentary and the featurette, “When Jackie Met Johnny.” And, how’s this for trivia: Chan and Harlin were set to film a fight scene for the abandoned film, “Nosebleed,” on the roof of the World Trade Center the morning of the 9/11 attacks. Instead, the shoot was rescheduled for the next day, so Chan could come up with a new stunt using a window-washing lift. Or, maybe, just maybe, the CIA tipped him off to the impending doom. All conspiracy theories are welcome here.

Nerve: Blu-ray
In Rebel Without a Cause, a game of chicken was staged to determine whether Jimmie or Buzz was the baddest dude at Dawson High School. Theoretically, Buzz won the “chickie run” by staying in his car the longest. By deciding to bail out before his car could fly off the cliff, into the Pacific, however, Jimmie lost the game, but saved his life. If collared by the police, the spectators might have been held as accomplices to any charge of manslaughter registered against James Dean’s archetypal alienated teen. The same game would be staged in other movies, but none as memorably well as the one in Nicholas Ray’s classic story of alienated youth in post-war America. The most significant difference between the games of chicken played in “Rebel” and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s not dissimilar teen drama, Nerve, is that the dares are meted out via social media, where the viewers are separated into groups of interactive Players and Watchers. The stakes, however, are every bit as high. An industrious, but terribly withdrawn high school senior, Vee (Emma Roberts), is pressured by friends to join the popular online game Nerve, in which Players are rewarded with cash for passing each succeeding test. They range from kissing a stranger, Ian (James Franco), in a restaurant, to risking her life in increasingly dangerous games of chicken.

Vee turns out to be a natural competitor and supportive partner to the more seasoned Ian. If the ending is predictable – or, to be more precise, inevitable – the tests roll out in a satisfying manner. It’s conceivable that games like Nerve already exist on social media and Watchers have served as accomplices by egging on Players or already suicidal peers. I doubt that Nerve was specifically intended to be a cautionary tale, as was Rebel With a Cause. Neither do I think it could play as well across different generations. It did pretty well in its theatrical run and should find an audience, as well, among teens attracted to the interactive features – viewers can choose between being Players or Watchers – and youthful cast of television veterans. They include Miles Heizer (“Parenthood”), Emily Meade (“The Leftovers”), Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”), Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky (“3AM”) and Machine Gun Kelly (“Roadies”). Juliette Lewis plays the token adult. The Blu-ray adds 15 character “pods”; outtakes; games; and profiles.

The Last Film Festival
By one account, at least, some 4,000 film festivals are staged annually around the world. Several of them are held in cities so far off the beaten path that they may not have more than one or two screens, including the pull-down job at the local high school. The Last Film Festival asks us to consider how bad a movie would have to be to be rejected by 3,999 of them. Or, conversely, how desperate the organizers would have to be to accept an atrocity titled “Barium Enigma.” Dennis Hopper, in his final role, plays the film’s producer, Nick Twain, who knows how bad it is, but is committed to promoting it because of the presence of his teeny-bopper mistress, Chloe (Katrina Bowen). He assumes that the fix is in and “Barium Enigma” will sweeps the awards presentation. If so, no one told the O’Hi Festival’s organizer, Harvey Weinstein (Chris Kattan), who also is the tiny Ohio town’s undertaker. Nick is chagrined by the lack of attention surrounding his picture, alternately blaming his young agent (Joseph Cross), missing star (Agim Kaba), aging diva (Jacqueline Bisset), ambitious mayor (JoBeth Williams) and a mysterious stalker (Leelee Sobieski). The premise and cast might have lent itself to ensemble piece directed by Robert Altman (A Prairie Home Companion) or David Mamet (State and Main), in which celebrities rub shoulders with star-struck rubes. Co-writer/director Linda Yellen (The Simian Line) is said to embrace an improvisational filmmaking style, but the anemic script – co-authored with Michael Leeds (The Simian Line) – provided too weak a foundation for meaningful ad-libbing. The Last Film Festival has its moments, but too few for such a rich premise and too far in between, even for a 90-minute production. Because Hopper died during the shoot, in 2010, at 74, it must have tested Yellen’s mettle to cobble together a releasable picture. Hopper completists will want to see it, if only to watch him interact with top-shelf actors. The DVD adds interviews with cast and crew.

Vampire Ecstasy/Sin You Sinners: Blu-ray
With the possible exceptions of Russ Meyer and David F. Friedman, no name was more closely associated with American sexploitation flicks of the mid- to late-20th Century than Joseph W. Sarno. In the early 1960s, Sarno recognized the early stirrings of the sexual revolution – currently being depicted in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” — and made pictures about wife swapping, swinging in the suburbs, sexual identity and psycho-sexual anxiety. As the floodgates opened after court rulings involving I Am Curious/Yellow and Deep Throat, his work would transition from grindhouse to soft- and hard-core pornography Although he made Suburban Secrets in 2004 – six years before his death, at 89 – his filmmaking career basically ended in 1990, with a series of pictures completed under the pseudonym Irving Weiss. The Vampire Ecstasy/Sin You Sinners package represents the first entry in a new series from Film Media/Film Movement. Newly restored to high-definition from the original film elements, Vampire Ecstasy (1973) is Sarno’s initial soft-core foray into gothic horror. When a trio of beautiful young women journey to their ancestral home to claim an inheritance, they fall prey to a coven of witches intent on reincarnating the deceased daughter of their vampire leader. It was shot inside and around an actual German castle, which came complete with a dungeon for rituals that required nudity.

Sin You Sinners (1963), the earliest available film in Sarno’s catalogue, isn’t in nearly as good a shape as Vampire Ecstasy, and its cautious approach to nudity has an almost historical quaintness surrounding it. The actors look as if they might have been recruited that day from a Times Square burlesque theater and were asked to bring their sleazy costumes with them, however tattered. The plot involves a medallion forged in a voodoo ritual, capable of sustaining an exotic dancer’s seductive qualities. When her jealous daughter and employer hatch plots to steal the amulet for themselves, it sets off a chain of events that ends badly for the dancer. The Blu-ray includes an interview with Sarno and producer, Chris Nebe; commentary on Vampire Ecstasy with Nebe; a featurette, “A Touch of Horror,” in which Sarno describes adapting his style to the horror genre; and liner notes by film scholar Tim Lucas.

Gored: A Love Story
Anyone who’s ever attended a bullfight, if only to cheer for the bull, will find something compelling in Ido Mizrahy’s Gored: A Love Stoy, a documentary that neither glamorizes the controversial Spanish pastime nor condemns it out of hand. It is the story of Antonio Barrera, reputedly the “most gored bullfighter in history,” a man who grew up surrounded by manifestations of the culture and tradition. He knew from an early age that  the blood sport would provide his only path to fame and a comfortable life for his family. Despite the fact Barrera has been impaled 23 times in the ring and undergone 17 surgeries, Mizrahy takes his quixotic quest seriously. And, while his bravery is unquestionable, it’s easy for viewers to wonder what would possess an already wounded bullfighter to return to the ring to give an audience its money’s worth. Gored follows Barrera from Spain to Mexico, and back, as he approaches the reality of retirement. It contains home-video footage of the bullfighter as a boy and interviews with family members and fellow bullfighters. Much of the footage will be impossible for people who care about animals to watch, unless they’re looking for evidence to build a case against the sport. Aficionados probably will be able to see beyond the gore far enough to support their love for it.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
For most of the last 100 years, the Guggenheim name has been synonymous with the collection, curation, exhibition and preservation of modern and contemporary art, sculpture and architecture. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s fascinating documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, describes how one member of the extended family used her comparatively modest inheritance not only to collect art in Europe and America, but also to nurture the creativity of a who’s-who of Bohemian artists, writers and thinkers whose talent might have withered on the vine for lack of interest by mainstream benefactors. Her life, while clearly comfortable, didn’t lack for disappointments and tragedy. Guggenheim’s father, Benjamin, died in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, and her artist daughter, Pegeen, committed suicide. She existed as an independent woman, with a notoriously voracious sexual appetite, in world dominated by powerful and self-centered men. She promoted and collected the work of Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and William Congdon, among many others. In 1943, at Duchamp’s instigation, she curated an exhibition wholly dedicated to women artists. Exhibition by 31 Women was comprised of works by such underrepresented artists as Djuna Barnes, Leonora Carrington, Buffie Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Dorothea Tanning, Xenia Cage, her sister Hazel and daughter Pegeen … even Gypsy Rose Lee. In 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the unoccupied Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and, in 1949, she established herself in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal. Before her death in 1979, she gifted her home and collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, to be used for teaching purposes and tourism. All name-dropping and gossip aside, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict should be considered must-viewing for anyone who’s ever stood in line to get into an exhibit of Modern art or took Art History 101. The DVD adds extended interviews.

Schneider vs. Bax
Apart from having just watched Alex van Warmerdam’s ninth feature, Schneider vs. Bax, I’m not at all familiar with the Dutch writer/director/actor’s oeuvre. Most often compared to the Coen Brothers, van Warmerdam’s eccentric works have been become additions to major festivals around the cinematic world. His follow-up to the much-admired Borgman is a slow-burn thriller and comedy so dark that it’s almost impossible to tell when it’s sneaking up on you in the shadows. It’s even harder to guess what van Warmerdam is trying to say about the violence dished out by his characters. On the morning of his birthday, a hitman named Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) gets a call from his boss, Mertens (Gene Bervoets), demanding that he fulfill a contract to take out Ramon Bax (Van Warmerdam), a debauched writer living in a small bungalow surrounded by a veritable forest of reeds in vast Lowland marsh. Mertens doesn’t provide a reason for the hit, allowing only, “It’s an easy job. With a little luck, you’re back home before noon.” This suits Schneider, because his wife and daughters have planned a party for him that afternoon. It may have seemed easy to Mertens, but, when Schneider arrives at the wetlands preserve, nothing goes as planned. Among other things, Bax is visited by a half-dozen friends and acquaintances, including his estranged daughter and randy father. Normally, the grumpy writer would share a line or two of cocaine and some shots with his visitors, before kicking them out of the house. Today, however, having already been tipped off to Schneider’s approach, the extra bodies are a nuisance. Their dangerous game of cat-and-mouse progresses at a glacial pace, even when Schneider figures out that he’s been double-crossed and decides to proceed, anyway. The actors’ deadpan approach to the material adds yet another layer of tension to the mix. Schneider vs. Bax is said to convey certain Dutch tendencies, but I could imagine it being remade – ideally, by van Warmerdam – in the Everglades. The bonus features include the delightful short film, “House Arrest,” a director’s statement and “Why-We-Selected” statement from Film Movement.

Fight Valley
I don’t know about you, but I attended the kind of high school where, every so often, a couple of girls would get so worked up about one thing or another – not always boys –and walk into the nearest alley to duke it out. For the males in the crowd, the highlight always came when one or both of their blouses fell to the pavement. Typically, it was at this point that the girls figured out that nothing good could come from going on any further. They’d give the crowd the finger, indicating that the show was over, and go home. Fear of retribution by gangs had yet to become a concern for girls or boys. None of us could imagine a day when the novelty of women’s professional wrestling would evolve to the point where girls with a chip on their shoulders could earn a living kicking the crap out of each other, for real, in MMA and UFC competitions or, for unreal, in the WWE, or, for glory, in the Olympics. These days, progress is in the eye of the beholder.

These things came to mind while watching Rob Hawk’s no-holds-barred Fight Valley, a bargain-basement version of Fight Club, featuring several highly trained and totally buff women who’ve competed at the professional level. When 22-year-old Tory Coro (Chelsea Durkalec) is found dead in a dumpy neighborhood where fighters go to earn money, her sister, Windsor (Susie Celek), moves to town to begin her own investigation. A rank amateur, Windsor would train with Jabs (Miesha Tate, a former bantam-weight champ), who teaches her how to survive in the valley as they prepare to come face-to-face with Tory’s killer. In addition to Tate, Fight Valley’s street cred is provided by UFC “superstars” Holly Holm and Cris Cyborg, WBO lightweight champion Amanda Serrano, Belgian standout Cindy “Battlecat” Dandois and Serena DeJesus, an “inspiring autistic MMA fighter” dubbed the Southpaw Outlaw. And that’s just the women. The DVD adds preproduction choreography; final fight-scene choreography; a Philadelphia diner “Meet & Greet”; New York premiere with Q&A; drone footage; and deleted scenes.

The Midnight Swim
While they share no other similarities, I can’t help but think that the depiction of three sisters in Sarah Adina Smith’s directorial debut, The Midnight Swim, bears an uncanny resemblance to those in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and, by extension, Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” It probably has more to do with Smith’s editing of Shaheen Seth’s empathetic cinematography than anything else, but the balance of intimacy and estrangement are what keeps The Midnight Swim from sinking to the depths of the film’s very likely haunted Spirit Lake. Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino play look-alike siblings, who gather at the family home on the lake their mother, an environmental activist, disappeared into during a deep-water dive. While reacquainting themselves with each other’s eccentricities, June, Annie and Isa must come to grips with their mother’s legacy, estate and a local legend that could be tied to her death. It involves seven sisters who vanished into the same lake, one after the other, never to be seen again, dead or alive. Given the women’s New Age-y predilections, they are open to the possibility of a “River of Forgetting,” flowing through the lake like a current of spirituality, or the summonsing of the mythical Seventh Sister, through incantation. If the path leads to re-incarnation, so much the better. One of the women’s ex-boyfriends adds his homespun wisdom, when asked, while the youngest sister annoys everyone by recording everything on her video camera. If Smith had chosen to add a ghostly dimension to the proceedings – or a sea serpent, for that matter — viewers might have had something to grasp besides the characters’ almost non-existent backgrounds and personal motivations. Without it, The Midnight Swim feels too much like the kind of chick-lit musings best savored while waiting for a yoga class to begin. There are far worse things to ponder, I suppose.

Dark Water: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Exorcist III: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Thing: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Hideo Nakata and Hiroshi Takahashi’s 1998 adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 thriller, “Ringu,” introduced western audiences to the supernatural traditions of Japanese horror fiction and its modern manifestation, J-horror. Ringu, its sequel Ringu 2 and a pair of excellent English-language re-interpretations by Gore Verbinski and Nakata, himself, would open the door for Walter Salles’ 2005 ghost story, Dark Water, starring Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth and John C. Reilly. Nakata and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s original version of Dark Water, adapted from Suzuki’s “From the Depths of Dark Water,” went largely unseen here, despite the popularity of The Ring. It may have been held back from distribution to clear the way for Salles’ English-language version. Arrow Video fills that void with a splendid Blu-ray “special edition,” which benefits from a new hi-def digital transfer, the original making-of featurette, a half-dozen informative interviews, a new cover design and commemorative booklet. Dark Water follows Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a single mother struggling to win sole custody of her only child, Ikuko. When they move into a new home within a dilapidated apartment complex, Yoshimi begins to experience startling visions and unexplainable sounds, calling her mental well-being into question and endangering not only her custody of Ikuko, but perhaps their lives as well. Almost the entire movie takes place during a steady rainfall. Once again, the ghost of a “dead wet girl” plays a key role.

No film franchise, based on an undeniable classic, has experienced as tortuous an afterlife as the one represented here by Scream Factory’s The Exorcist III: Collector’s Edition. The 1977 sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, was reviled by everyone involved in the production, with the possible exception of Warners’ accountants, who squeezed some undeserved profits from unsuspecting audiences and video sales. The saga of Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) is almost as horrifying as the movie itself. A television series of the same title began this season on Fox. The second sequel, “Exorcist III,” was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who based it on his novel “Legion,” which is to William Friedkin’s original what Mrs. Butterworth’s is to maple syrup. Blatty would have been happy to adapt “Legion” as it was written, minus the misleading reference to The Exorcist. Instead, the geniuses at Morgan Creek Productions demanded he add an exorcism to the final reel, a new and old character, and more graphic violence. It opens 15 years after the events related in the original, with George C. Scott replacing Lee J. Cobb, as Police Lieutenant Kinderman, and Ed Flanders sitting in for William O’Malley, as Father Dyer. For all that time, Kinderman has been haunted by the death of his friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who magically reappears here as Patient X.

The true embodiment of evil in “III” is Brad Dourif’s demonic serial killer, who identifies himself as the long-dead Gemini Killer and mimics his M.O., even from behind bars. In an investigation that defies all logic, he pushes all of Kinderman’s buttons. Because reviews and revenues for “III” reflected the bad vibes generated by the producers’ demands, it comes as some relief that the restoration team at Scream Factory was able to take what little unused footage was available and re-create something more in keeping with Blatty’s original vision. Both are included here, along with a vintage featurette; deleted scenes/alternate takes/bloopers; the deleted prologue; vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with Blatty, Scott, Miller, Flanders, Grand L. Bush, executive producer James G. Robinson, production designer Leslie Dilley, Larry King and former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop; a new audio interview with Blatty; fresh interviews with cast and crew, including Dourif and composer Barry DeVorzon. Both versions are scary in different ways.

John Carpenter’s 1982 re-imaging of John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella, “Who Goes There,” which had already inspired Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World, wasn’t an immediate hit when it was released nearly simultaneously with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner. It didn’t take long, however, before word-of-mouth caught up with the chilly sci-fi thriller and showcase for state-of-the-art special effects. It would influence a generation of aspiring filmmakers in the crossover genres and unleash a flood of ancillary products. Thirty-five years later, Antarctica has become a popular destination for tourists and all manner of scientists, as well. The alien organism discovered by Norwegian researchers here and in the 2011 remake wouldn’t stand a chance against an army of tour guides and killer penguins. The Scream Factory “collector’s edition” is enhanced by a 2K scan of the inter-positive, supervised and approved by director of photography Dean Cundey, and 4.1 sound created from the original 70mm six-track Dolby Stereo soundtrack. New HD material includes commentaries with Cundey and star Kurt Russell; the featurettes, “The Men of Outpost 31,” “Assembling and Assimilation,” “Behind the Chameleon,” “Sounds From the Cold,” “Between the Lines” and “The Art of Mike Ploog.” Separate discs of vintage SD featurettes, commentary and marketing material also are provided.

On his first day on the job at a medical supply warehouse, Freddy (Thom Mathews) unwittingly releases the gas in a canister left over from a secret U.S. military operation, involving the suppression of zombies. After the cadaver stored in the canister springs back to life, it’s subdued in the tradition way by characters played without irony by Clu Gulager and James Karen. To be safe, they convince a local mortician to destroy the infected body parts in his crematorium. The smoke from the chimney carries the gas over the adjacent cemetery, which is being deluged by rain. The particles re-animate an army of corpses, who arise from their graves with a ravenous hunger for human brains. Fortunately, a group of wonderfully punky teens is partying among the headstones, just waiting to be eaten. “The Return of the Living Dead: Collector’s Edition” revisits and restores Dan O’Bannon’s horror/comedy – genuinely scary and very funny — which paid homage to George Romero’s drive-in classic, without also being a parody. (The story behind the legal wrangling that stalled “Return” is fully explained in the bonus package.) The two-disc collector’s package adds a pair of new commentary tracks; the two-hour retrospective, “More Brains”; nearly two-hour “workprint” version; and more than two hours’ worth of fresh interviews, including a half-hour with O’Bannon. The SD package has also been ported over from previous editions. Anyone who watched these four collections back-to-back – along with other recent packages from the niche distributors – should qualify for post-graduate credits in film history and theory.

The Id: Blu-ray
A Better Place
SIN: Self Induced Nightmares
Tales of Poe
Girl in Woods
One of the most formidable of all psycho-horror tropes involves the abused children of insanely overprotective parents, who, when they emerge from behind locked doors as adults, are ill-prepared to deal with the everyday hassles and temptations the rest of us take for granted. In Psycho IV: The Beginning, we were allowed a glimpse into the traumatic childhood events that would shape Norman Bates’ murderous psychosis. It is the only film in the series in which Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) was shown alive. Director Thommy Hutson and screenwriter Sean H. Stewart’s feature debut, The Id, describes what happens when fifty-something Meridith Lane (Amanda Wyss) decides that she’s had enough of her wheelchair-bound father’s tyranny and breaks out of her shell. For viewers, who despise the old man (Patrick Peduto) from minute-one, her re-awakening as an independent woman could hardly come at a more opportune time. Sadly, as was the case with Norman Bates, the damage done by years of abuse proves to be permanent. For decades, she’s survived on memories of a teen fling, severely aborted by the ogre-in-residence. When, out of the blue, her white knight calls and appears at her door in slightly tarnished form, we’re afforded a vision of true madness. Although Peduto is quite convincing as the geezer, The Id belongs to Wyss, who will forever be known as Freddy Krueger’s very first murder victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even at 55, the still-attractive Manhattan Beach native looks youthful in flashbacks and frightfully overwrought when tested, wearing a red dress suitable for a late-1970s prom. The Id hasn’t been accorded much attention outside the horror websites since it was voted Best Thriller at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. It deserves a shot a success in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD, if only with genre buffs. It includes a featurette, “Needs, Wants & Desires: Behind the Scenes of The Id”; commentary with Hutson and Wyss; deleted and alternate scenes; behind-the-scenes and audition footage; and a photo gallery.

In his debut, A Better Place, Dennis Ho introduces us to a young man, Jeremy, whose overly protective mother kept him locked up at home, not because she’s a sadist, but for the protection of people who aren’t aware of his special talent and make the mistake of bullying him. Instead of home-schooling the boy, he might have been better served enrolled at the Mutant Academy reserved for X-Men. Jeremy (Stephen Todt) possesses the uncontrollable ability to transfer the pain and injury he endures from outsiders to the persons his attackers love most. It isn’t much of a superpower, but it’s the only one the meek and mild youth has. When his mother passes away under suspicious circumstances, Jeremy knows that he must venture into the real world. Just as he meets a sweet young thing, waiting tables at the local diner, he’s confronted by the kind of bullies his mom protected him against … and vice-versa. The rest of the story isn’t as predictable as it might sound. Besides the singing waitress (Mary Ann Raemisch), Jeremy finds an unlikely ally in a sexy older woman, who’s schtupping the town’s corrupt mayor and horny reverend. Ho weaves a decidedly Christian through-line into the story that isn’t particularly Evangelical or distracting.

The horror anthology SIN (Self Induced Nightmares) brings together some of Europe’s leading genre specialists in the service of seven short films that range from reasonably entertaining to downright clever, if universally bloody. They’re spun by a mysterious woman writer, who is mistaken for a blind date by an unfortunate stranger. Dan Brownlie’s “Bear Scary” is arguably the most memorable in that it features a stuffed toy that makes Ted look like Smokey the Bear. Three ever-popular tales of Edgar Allen Poe have been compiled by directors Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly in the surprisingly ambitious Tales of Poe. They take some liberties with “The Tell Tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontillado” and “Dreams.” but not many and nothing egregious. The primary selling point here is a cast a scream queens that includes Debbie Rochon, Bette Cassatt, Amy Steel, Caroline Williams, Lesleh Donaldson, Adrienne King. The men are represented by ex-Village Person Randy Jones, Joe Zaso, Carl Burrows and Michael Varrati. They probably would have been a perfect, even without makeup or costumes. It adds deleted scenes, a NYC Horror Film Festival interview and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Jeremy Benson’s babe-in-the-wilderness thriller, Girl in Woods, offers Juliet Reeves London the kind of showcase she needs to have her name recognized as someone other than “Uncredited” on She plays Grace, a fragile young woman who loses her fiancé to a tragic accident no more than a day after he proposes to her. Lost somewhere in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grace becomes increasingly desperate – and delusional – the longer she’s forced to go without her medication. The victim of severe childhood trauma, she’s tortured by enemies real and imagined. By the end, viewers will be confusing the two, as well.

Be Somebody
Because I don’t follow anyone or anything on Twitter and wouldn’t have recognized the  newly defunct Vine from a stick of licorice, I wasn’t aware that the star of Be Somebody is bona-fide social media phenomenon and has been since he was 14. Now, at the ripe old age of 18, Matthew Espinosa has made his feature-film debut as Justin Bieber-like superstar Jordan Jaye, who, despite his success and fame, only wants to live like a regular teenager … or so we’re told. He gets an opportunity to do just that while escaping from a pack of rabid teeny-bopper fans. He finds refuge in the person of small-town, high school art student Emily Lowe (Sarah Jeffery). Not only does she not recognize Jordan, but she’s also completely unimpressed by his story. Did I mention this is a fantasy? In keeping with Be Somebody’s PG rating, they get past their differences long enough to embark on an unexpected journey of friendship, affection and self-discovery. Working from a snappy script by Lamar Damon (Slap Her, She’s French!), Joshua Caldwell (Layover) has crafted a romantic fantasy that should appeal to younger teen and ’tween girls. Even though Espinosa is said to have 20 million followers on social media, not enough of them bothered to show up for Be Somebody’s limited release engagements to justify something more grand. It wouldn’t be the first time that a studio executive bought into the myth of Internet stardom.

Fox: The Passion Live
PBS: American Masters: Norman Lear: Blu-ray
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 9
PBS: Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 8
PBS: Royal Wives at War
Hallmark: When Calls The Heart: Year Three
Although Tyler Perry gets top billing in this musical interpretation of “The Passion,” fans of Medea shouldn’t expect to see his trademark character turn up unexpectedly at the Last Supper, serving grits and gravy. In fact, Perry’s only responsibility here is to narrate the 2,000-year-old story of the last hours of Jesus Christ’s life on Earth through passages from the Bible – adapted by Peter Barsocchini (“High School Musical”) — and introduce singers Seal (Pontius Pilate), Trisha Yearwood (Mary), Michael Whitaker Smith (disciple), Chris Daughtry (Judas Iscariot), Jencarlos Canela (Jesus), Shane Harper (disciple) and Prince Royce (Peter), who perform in contemporary dress. The Fox special was an American adaptation of a Dutch television special of the same name, which has been broadcast annually since 2011, and was, in turn, a localized version of the BBC’s 2006 special “Manchester Passion.” The soundtrack includes songs recorded by Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Creed, Evanescence, Train, Hoobastank and Tears for Fears, among others. This epic event was broadcast live from some of New Orleans’ most familiar locations – it’s Perry’s hometown and a symbol of urban resurrection — while featuring a procession of hundreds of people carrying a 20-foot, illuminated cross from outside the Superdome to the stage at Woldenberg Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It goes without saying that Norman Lear remains one of a small handful of television producers who can truly be called visionary. He not only changed the programming Americans watched in prime-time, but he also had a profound effect on what adult viewers expected of the medium, itself. “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman/Mary Hartman,” “Fernwood Tonight” and “One Day at a Time” owned broadcast television in the 1970s and early ’80s, with “a.k.a. Pablo” representing the flop that proved the rule. He left the television racket in the mid-1980s to deal with personal matters and get involved in feature films. As a political activist, he founded the advocacy organization People for the American Way in 1981 and has actively supported First Amendment rights and progressive causes ever since. He owns a copy of the Declaration of Independence and, in his late 60s, started a second family with a new wife and twins. For “American Masters: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” the show’s producers were given unprecedented access to Lear, personal archives, family, friends and collaborators. Their work coincided with the publication his memoirs, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version.”

As difficult as it is to believe the hypotheses forwarded by the researchers on History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” it’s just as hard to imagine how the producers managed to find enough material to make it through nine seasons. The theories may be undeniably provocative and entertaining, but again … nine seasons? Sure, why not? If the not-so-ancient aliens on “Duck Dynasty” can fool viewers for the same number of seasons, who’s to say that the subjects of “Ancient Aliens” aren’t every bit as credible? The season’s menu includes “Forbidden Caves,” “The Great Flood,” “Alien Resurrections,” “Alien Messages,” “Mysteries of the Sphinx,” “Secrets of the Mummies,” “Aliens Among Us,” “Aliens and the Civil War” and “The Alien Agenda.” Most begin with a grain of truth, before zooming off into the ozone, just like “Duck Dynasty” and most other reality-based shows.

Season Eight of PBS’ “Art in the Twenty-First Century” once again provides unparalleled access to the most innovative artists of our time, revealing how they engage the culture around them and how art allows viewers to see the world in new ways. Instead of being organized around an artistic theme, as is usually the case, the 16 featured artists are grouped by their unique and revealing relationships to the places where they live: Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Vancouver.

After Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, public confidence in the British monarchy almost completely subsided. A popular and charismatic king was suddenly gone, choosing his twice-divorced mistress over his Crown and country. His ashamed family drove him into exile, but nobody had faith in his successor, George VI, a nervous man with a crippling stutter. Hitler saw in the former King a man with whom he could work. Now, the PBS docudrama Royal Wives at War returns to the original words and opinions of the two women at the heart of that battle — the Queen Mother (Emma Davies) and Wallis Simpson (Gina McKee) — to discover the truth. Drawing together new evidence found in their letters, memoirs and biographies, director Tim Dunn and writer Lindsay Shapero unravel the story of a feud between, later the Duchess of Windsor, that lasted from their first encounter in the chilly winter of 1933 right up to their deaths.

From the Hallmark Channel comes “When Calls the Heart: Year Three,” a five-disc DVD set comprised of the two-hour holiday movie, “It Begins With Heart” (a.k.a., “A New Year’s Wish”); “Troubled Hearts,” which combines episodes “Troubled Hearts” and “A Time to Speak”; “Heart of a Hero,” a combination of episodes “Heart of a Hero” and “A Gentle Heart”; “Forever in My Heart,” with episodes “Forever in My Heart” and “Heartbreak”; and “Hearts in Question,” with “Hearts in Question” and “Prayers From the Heart.”

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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