MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: American Honey, Snowden, Man Called Ove, Orphan Killer and more

American Honey: Blu-ray
Even though Kent-native Andrea Arnold was awarded the 2005 Academy Award for her live-action short film, “Wasp,” not many American viewers saw her widely acclaimed follow-up features, Red Road and Fish Tank. She would veer away from the grit and grime of life among marginally employed Brits, into the more refined precincts of Bronte country, for Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s adaptation striped the novel of certain literary elements to focus on those aspects that lent themselves to more darkly cinematic and sensory interpretation. Even though American Honey was filmed on location in smallish towns throughout the Midwest – Walmart country, if you will — Arnold brought to the Cannes favorite a familiarity one might not have expected. That’s because, apart from hiring Shia LeBeouf and Riley Keogh for key roles, she committed herself to casting actors who she discovered on the street or virtual unknowns. The strategy worked well in Fish Tank, with housing-estate resident Katie Jarvis, and, in Wuthering Heights, with mixed-race iterations of Heathcliff (first-timers Solomon Glave, James Howson). Independent Spirit nominee Sasha Lane – around whom everything in American Honey revolves — was initially approached by Arnold during spring break at Panama City Beach, Florida. Also of mixed-race background (African-American/Maori), she more than holds her own alongside LeBeouf and Keough, in a role that requires as much acting as intuition and personal recall. When we first meet her character, Star, she’s living in Muskogee, dumpster-diving with her younger sister, foraging for that night’s dinner and whatever might be left for their dog and useless stepdad. On the way home, they encounter a van full of teenagers, who arrive on the scene like a car full of clowns in a Fellini movie or the mime troupe at the end of Blow-Up. The exuberance and playful mischief on display immediately remind Star of the things missing in her own life. Likewise, the leader of the pack, Jake (LaBeouf), senses in Star a kindred spirit to the members of his team of itinerant door-to-door hawkers of magazine subscriptions.

As soon as she can sneak out of her house that night, she dumps her younger siblings on a woman – possibly their estranged mother or an aunt – who’s boot-scooting her brains out at a hangout for faux-cowboys, stoners and other local losers. While, none of the young people on the sales team looks as if they’d survive 10 minutes behind the counter of a McDonald’s, they’re right at home selling magazines. Energized by hip-hop, cigarettes and pot, they’re making a semblance of a living pretending to be college students, while selling subscriptions to families unlike the ones they left behind months or years earlier. Their supervisor, Krystal (Keough), is a tough, but strangely nurturing taskmaster, who stays behind at whatever Motel 8 they’re staying, arranging accommodations for the next stop and dealing with the parent company. She sometimes conducts business in a trashy Confederation-flag bikini and clearly views Krystal as potential rival for her boy-toy, Jake. Star has all the earmarks of an earner, however, and that’s more important to her. Star is initially teamed with the abundantly tattooed Jake, who, as they say, could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. She braces at his fabrications, but senses that she’ll be able to find ways to use her own acting skills to secure subscriptions, if not outright gifts from male admirers. Arnold’s narrative, which takes almost three hours to unwind, is far more picaresque than anything else. The romantic interludes are fleeting, at best, and there’s very little drama invested in the story … beyond our fear that Star might try to sweettalk a murderous trucker or rapist. The extra minutes allow viewers plenty of time to get to know the other kids in the van, as well as one or two of their potential customers. You might even recognize the teens as part of a crew that worked your own suburban neighborhood, pitching magazines at inflated pre-Internet prices to overly sympathetic homeowners. If anything is going to hurt American Honey’s chances with academy voters, it’s the length. At 163 minutes, it’s a long haul. Even so, everything from the street-savvy acting and dialogue, to the evocative cinematography and pulsating soundtrack, demands that we stick with Arnold’s vision. Otherwise, I would hope that due consideration is given Lane, LaBeouf, Keough, Arnold and her frequent DP, Robbie Ryan. The Blu-ray contains brief interviews with the actresses Lane and Keough.

Snowden: Blu-ray
Like a lot of other people, I greeted the prospect of spending another two-plus hours on the saga of whistle-blower Edward Snowden with a been-there/seen-that ambivalence. Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ 2014 Oscar-winning documentary on the former National Security Agency contractor, had already covered much of the same territory as Oliver Stone’s Snowden would dramatize. The back-and-forth debate over Snowden’s rationale for going public had reached ad nausea status, in my mind, anyway, even before the documentary was released. And, yet, there remained several extremely legitimate reasons to watch Snowden. The most obvious is the continuing visibility of Snowden in the debate over the Kremlin-sourced leaks that appear to have swayed the recent presidential campaign, even if it were by one or two votes. His detractors inside the Beltway would love for us to believe that Snowden is offering his expertise to Putin’s gang, even if there’s no reason to believe that he would be treated any differently by Donald Trump. Candidates and politicians on both sides of the aisle have denounced him as a traitor, while also using data he leaked to condemn unfettered spying on American citizens of non-Islamic persuasions. Such uniformity of opinion among the country’s military, political and industrial elite should always be held up to public scrutiny. If NSA eavesdroppers weren’t able to immediately identify the source of those and other damaging leaks – and determine why they only appeared to benefit Republicans – what’s the upside of being able to listen in on everyone from your local neighborhood mullah to Ma and Pa Kettle. Snowden, himself, admits to wasting time testing the amorous intentions of his girlfriend … a task his superiors also were doing. (Maybe they use FX Networks’ sexy spy-vs.-spy series, “The Americans,” as a training film.)

Snowden does an excellent job depicting exactly what it is the computer jockeys at the NSA do, whether for good, evil or just plain fun. It also nails the arrogance and sense of entitlement that accompanies employees of our government as they climb the latter to their desired stations in life. Their ability to succeed always trumps the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Stone also makes palpable the tightening of the noose around Snowden’s neck in the days before he makes the ultimate decision to leave the country and tell his story. By emphasizing Shailene Woodley’s role in his decision-making, the co-writer/director also adds the kind of humanistic throughline – the media couldn’t help itself, portraying her as merely the stripper girlfriend – that’s been missing in any discussion of Julian Assange’s culpability in the WikiLeaks scandal. As usual, Stone coaxes stellar performances, not only from Woodley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but also from such supporting stalwarts as Melissa Leo, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Chaplin Tom Wilkinson, Keith Stanfield and Scott Eastwood. Typically, no matter how severe the implications on personal privacy, Americans fall back on the bromide, “If you’re not guilty of anything, there’s no reason to be afraid of government or police surveillance.” By demonstrating just how invasive government snooping can be – reversing the Skype portal on the PC in your bedroom, for example – Stone deftly personalizes what’s at stake for all of us. If Snowden doesn’t leave you feeling more paranoid than when you began watching it, you weren’t paying attention. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Finding the Truth” and a post-screening Q&A with Stone, Gordon-Leavitt, Woodley and Snowden, via an Internet link.

Coming Through the Rye
At one time in the not-too-distant cultural history of the United States, reading “Catcher in the Rye” was as much a rite of passage as registering for the draft, buying that first car or surviving your first hangover. The book probably hit home harder with adolescents who aspired to attend good colleges, while suffering from undefinable feelings of alienation and angst in post-World War II America. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, helped teenagers identify a deep-seated yearning for rebellion against conformity and group-think and deal with complex issues arising from innocence, identity, belonging and loss. When traditional role models and religious doctrine proved lacking, a large number of disillusioned American youths turned to Caulfield as a kindred spirit. Some even began sporting his trademark red hunting cap, complete with ear flaps. A few years later, in “Catch 22,” Yossarian would serve a similar purpose, as would Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, and the characters who came to life in Bob Dylan’s post-protest songs. Coming Through the Rye is inspired by writer/director James Sadwith’s own youthful obsession with “Catcher in the Rye,” right down to the personal journey he made to track down the elusive novelist in rural Cornish, New Hampshire. Movies in which troubled individuals seek the personal guidance of their idols practically constitutes a subgenre of its own, typically concluding with the protagonist’s disappointment over discovering the Emperor’s nakedness or stumbling upon enlightenment on his own. The time is the late 1960s, and Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff) is consigned to a Pennsylvania prep school, not so different from the one that Holden Caulfield fled in Salinger’s novel. For his senior project, he decides to turn the book into a play he hopes to produce as his senior project.

Humiliated when his roommate shares with his buffoonish buddies Schwartz’ proposal letter to Salinger, whose endorsement he desires, Jamie convinces a local girl, Deedee (Stefania LaVie Owen), to drive him to New Hampshire to find the mysterious author and argue his case in person. The road trip is eventful in ways that viewers should find irresistibly relatable, especially if they remember the details of Caulfield’s personal journey. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Deedee proves to be significantly more worldly than Jamie. There’s no need to expand on the events that lead to their almost-inevitable encounter with Salinger or how that goes. Anyone who sees Chris Cooper’s name and photograph on the DVD cover will know that the Academy Award winner (Adaptation) isn’t there to play a cameo role as the high school dean. His mere presence provides an anchor for the various coming-of-age throughlines and Jamie’s neurotic search for acceptance among his peers. To that end, Wolff and Owen are nothing less than charming. As someone whose television projects have won or been nominated for three dozen Emmy Awards and Golden Globes, Sadwith recognizes a cliché when he sees one coming and manages to avoid them – or face them head-on – whenever one threatens to diminish the story. Coming Through the Rye was a popular addition to the festivals in which it was invited and critics gave it high marks, as well. Sadly, it apparently found its way into a only small handful of theaters, before going into DVD. Rated PG-13, it’s the kind of rom/dram that Boomer and post-Boomer parents should enjoy sharing with teens, especially those with a literary bent. The rural locations – Virginia for N.H. – are easy the eye, too.

A Man Called Ove: Blu-ray
For all the even-money favorites that have won an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, there typically are three or four excellent movies that didn’t make the short list or were passed over by the nominating committees of their home countries. This year’s entry from Germany, Maren Ade’s offbeat comedy/drama Toni Erdmann, made the short list and is considered the frontrunner to be nominated and take home the statuette. This year’s list of distinguished snubs includes Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Fire at Sea; Israel’s Sandstorm; Paul Verhoeven’s Elle; Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta. Sweden’s longshot entry, A Man Called Ove, not only made the first cut in the foreign-language category, but also is among the seven titles shortlisted on the hair-and-makeup list. Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s best-selling novel no doubt benefited from a campaign strategy engineered by Edward Arentz, managing director at Music Box Films, a Chicago-based company that’s enjoyed considerable good luck in the past, even with snubbed pictures. Its catalogue boasts such outstanding films as the shockingly unnominated The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy, also from Sweden, and the widely admired Tell No One, Ida, Monsieur Lazhar, Potiche, The Innocents, Le Weekend, Meru and The Deep Blue Sea. Music Box’s The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – likewise from Sweden — was deservedly nominated in last year’s hair-and-makeup competition. Finding any audiences at all, apart from festival crowds, is more than half the battle for foreign films hoping to make a dent in the American arthouse circuit and, increasingly, the VOD and DVD/Blu-ray market. Music Box wisely played the company’s Scandinavian card by previewing “Ole” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and creating buzz in theaters in the Upper Midwest, where many viewers didn’t require subtitles to understand. Comedies usually rate longshot status in the foreign-language category – ditto, Best Picture – any attention at all is appreciated by distributors.

A Man Called Ove fits neatly in the ever-popular “grumpy old man” pigeonhole. An age-appropriate Rolf Lassgård (“Wallander”) plays the title character, a crusty geezer who’s still grieving the loss of his wife when he’s unceremoniously laid off by his longtime employer. His best friend and occasional nemesis has been levelled by a devastating stroke, forcing Ove to handle the petty annoyances that kept them busy as property managers in their housing development. Naturally, he sees no other recourse than to loop a noose around his neck and hang himself in the living room of his tidy home. Just as naturally, Ove’s decision goes unfulfilled, due to defective ropes and a dedication to duty that requires him to answer the door to residents in need of assistance. If these interruptions don’t exactly force him to reconsider ending his life, they take his mind off his mission long enough for Holm to find ways to make him feel needed, again. Most of the credit belongs to a comically needy new arrival, delightfully played by Iranian-born Bahar Pars (When Darkness Falls), her hapless Swedish husband and their irresistible daughters. Ove isn’t particularly anxious to help his pregnant neighbor, but he’s driven to distraction by her pathetic attempts to handle a stick shift and make proper use of household tools. If that doesn’t make A Man Called Ove sound very different to such American favorites as Grumpy Old Men, About Schmidt or Grand Torino, it’s only because all movie curmudgeons share certain characteristics, including a need to feel useful and a bleeding heart when it comes to kids in desperate need of a male role model. It also benefits from flashbacks to the time when he and his wife first met – cutely, natch – and their differences, while distinct, served their marriage. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “The Ove in Us All: A Talk with Hannes Holm, Rolf Lassgård and Bahar Pars”; “Makeup Gallery” and “Makeup Time Lapse”; a Q&A with the director and cast at the Scandinavia House, in New York.

The Orphan Killer: Blu-ray
Just in time for Jesus’ birthday, fans of extreme horror, torture porn and gonzo/slasher movies must have been overjoyed by the nearly concurrent releases of special-editions packages of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Driller Killer, Rob Zombie’s 31, Phantasm Remaster/Ravager, Jack Frost, Creepshow 2, Hellraiser and Black Christmas. My copy of Reel Gore Releasing’s kindred The Orphan Killer must have gotten lost in the Christmas rush, because it only arrived for review this week. Originally released in 2011, it received enthusiastic reviews from some niche critics, even though it wasn’t all that easy to find. Clearly, one-man-band filmmaker Matt Farnsworth (Iowa) hoped to interest investors in a franchise focused on a masked killer, who, at first glance, appears to be a composite of every masked, ax-wielding, mouth-breather killer who’s walked the earth since Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees joined the genre menagerie nearly 40 years ago. Here, the title character, a.k.a. Marcus Miller (David Backus), copped a bad attitude after his parents were slaughtered in a home break-in and he was sent to an orphanage with his baby sister, Audrey (Diane Foster). They are separated when Audrey is adopted and Marcus is locked in an attic by sadistic nuns, convinced that it will prevent him from bashing in the head of another naughty little boy. This is all revealed in flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative … such as it is.

As bad luck and worse timing would dictate, the adult Audrey is back at the orphanage supervising a religious pageant when Marcus decides to get his revenge on her for leaving him behind to deal with his tormenters. Naturally, Marcus is required to kill every student, nun and priest he happens upon before his sister completes the obligatory and entirely welcome shower scene.  Blessedly, it’s at this point that Farnsworth begins to tweak the genre tropes and clichés he’s invested in The Orphan Killer, by demonstrating how adept Audrey has become at enduring extreme pain – a crown of barbed-wire thorns, no less – and giving as good as she gets. For once, the scream queen is allowed the privilege of standing up to her attacker, without having to rely on a male cop, boyfriend or girly contrivance. As gory as things get, Farnsworth allows his senses of humor and irony to come into play. Foster’s role here isn’t limited to being a pin cushion for her insane brother’s pleasure. She also served as co-producer, alongside Farnsworth, just as she had on Iowa and the subsequent anti-drug documentary, Dying for Meth. As the blond who refuses to die, however, she’s extremely credible. The Blu-ray adds the informative video diary, “Behind the Murder,” a death-metal music clip and slideshow.

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: After Stonehenge
PBS: NOVA: Great Human Odyssey
PBS: Frontline: Terror in Europe
PBS: Frontline: Confronting ISIS
Three thousand years ago, at the same time as the Egyptians (and their slaves) were building the pyramids, some only slightly less amazing things were happening in Bronze Age Britain. Unlike the pyramids, however, proof that they existed wouldn’t be discovered until several millennia later. Until five years ago, the mysterious ring of standing stones at Stonehenge hogged the attention of British archeologists, tourists, Druid wannabes and alien-astronaut theorists. The charred remains of an ancient, post-Stonehenge settlement remained hidden just below the surface of Must Farm Quarry, in the Fens region of southeast England. The fascinating PBS documentary, “Secrets of the Dead: After Stonehenge,” chronicles the race against time being run by a team of archeologists, scientists, historians and specialists, as they shed new light on the discovery. The remains of the ancient site began to emerge from the quarry five years ago, but, due to its delicate nature, experts have largely been working in secret. Among other things, researchers have attempted to re-create the fire that destroyed a prominent structure, leaving a distinct pattern of charred building material. They’re also tracing non-native metals, used in tools and weapons, to mines known to have existed on the continent. Almost on a weekly basis, “Secrets of the Dead” explains how farmers, construction workers and meteorological phenomena reveal things to archeologists who then can deploy modern technology to answer questions they didn’t even know to ask.

Every so often, too, scientists will stumble upon a skull or bone fragment that completely changes what we think we knew about our prehistoric ancestors. I’ve always wondered how only a handful of fragments have managed to survive the elements this long and where the millions of others pieces might be buried. I’m still waiting for answers. The special two-hour “NOVA” presentation, “Great Human Odyssey,” employs recent DNA breakthroughs to trace the journeys made by tiny bands hunter-gatherers, as they spread to every corner of the planet. It also attempts to answer how they acquired the skills, tools and talent to thrive in every conceivable environment on Earth? With unique glimpses of today’s Kalahari hunters, Siberian reindeer herders and Polynesian navigators, we discover amazing skills that hint at how our ancestors survived and prospered long ago.

The “Frontline” presentations, “Terror in Europe” and “Confronting ISIS” demonstrate how difficult it is for investigative reporters to stay ahead of breaking news events as they try to make sense of the global war against terrorism, global warming, natural disasters, crime and corruption. Even as an alliance of military forces closes in on the ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, the organization’s tendrils are extending across Europe and taking different forms as strategies evolve. U.S.-led efforts to degrade and destroy ISIS progress apace. Otherwise, terrorist attacks might be a daily occurrence, instead of an occasional tragedy. The setbacks that occur throughout Europe shouldn’t mask the advances we’ve made toward hitting the central nervous system of bigotry, hate and religious intolerance.

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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