MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Lost City of Z, Zookeeper’s Wife, Fate of the Furious, Song to Song, Rossellini’s War, Quiet Passion, Norman, Terror in a Texas Town… and more

The Lost City of Z: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing that bugs me about the business of show – I know, just one? — it’s when someone decides that he or she can think of a better title for a work of art than the creator of the source material. The last time it really bothered me, I think, was when Disney’s mega-budgeted John Carter (2012) died a miserable death at the domestic box-office and, to some, it signaled one trend or another. In my opinion, the studio could have saved itself some agony – if not marquee space – if it had humored the folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., who had recently trademarked the phrases “John Carter of Mars” and “Princess of Mars,” in anticipation of reaping some quick cash. Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) said, at the time, that he lopped off the Mars reference in the title to appeal to a broader audience. My guess is that he couldn’t convince anyone at the studio to invest a tiny slice of John Carter’s titanic $250-million budget to secure either of the titles and avoid a lawsuit of dubious credibility. The decision may not have cost Disney its plans for another franchise, but it didn’t sell any tickets, either. Neither was I thrilled with Quentin Tarantino’s decision to change Elmore Leonard’s novel, “Rum Punch” (1992), into Jackie Brown (1997). It was inspired, however, by his very smart decision to showcase former blaxploitation princess Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) in every way possible. While adapting “Rum Punch” into a screenplay, Tarantino changed the ethnicity of the main character from white to black, as well as changing her surname from Burke to Brown, and the setting from Miami to L.A. While falling short of being an unqualified commercial success, Jackie Brown did well enough to deflect any questions about Tarantino’s changes to the property. And, while Leonard wasn’t asked for his approval, he admitted his admiration for the screenplay – I asked – and pleasure knowing the check from Miramax wouldn’t bounce.

At first, second and third glance, I assumed that The Lost City of Z, was just another comic-book movie, Indiana Jones knockoff or sci-fi extravaganza, this one set on a planet with regions that mimic the dense jungles of South America, Africa or Southeast Asia. The title accorded James Gray’s film doesn’t lead one to anticipate anything approaching the endeavor, adventure and courage evidenced in New Yorker staff writer David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.” If, in the commercials and trailers for the film, the actor doing the voiceover had said, “The Lost City of Zed,” instead of “Z,” as is the case in the movie, my questions might have been alleviated from the get-go.  Still, it’s my hang-up, no one else’s. I should have been required to read the book. The fact is, though, it isn’t at all clear how well Gray’s moderately budgeted picture did commercially. It was only given a limited theatrical release, before Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street Media turned their focus to the VOD marketplace, where the economics are far more byzantine.

Regardless, The Lost City of Z is an easy movie to like. Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) is very good as British explorer Percival Fawcett, who, after serving Queen and country in the military, was assigned the task of travelling to South America to map a jungle area at the juncture of Brazil and Bolivia. Fawcett would arrange seven more expeditions, between 1906 and 1924, at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society. As exciting as Fawcett’s reports were, they were greeted with equal parts awe, disbelief and ridicule by narrow-minded twits at the club. They were especially unimpressed by speculation that he’d come within a few days’ hike of a “lost civilization” long hidden in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He wasn’t the first explorer to report the possible existence of such a place, but, the Brits found it difficult to combine the concepts, “savage” and “civilization,” in the same thought. World War I would interrupt Fawcett’s most promising quest, leaving Gray the liberty to compact, exaggerate and ignore certain events in the explorer’s final seven years on and off the grid. Like Amelia Earhart’s final journey, Fawcett’s 1925 trek ended with a question mark. On it, he is accompanied by his son, Jack (Tom Holland), whose companionship Fawcett missed throughout miss of his career. The fact that The Lost City of Z ends in mystery squares with what we know about the explorer’s story and doesn’t detract from Gray’s yarn. The vast Amazon basin is famous for discoveries of “lost tribes” and valuable resources that force scientists to rewrite their textbooks. Who says that El Dorado — or the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, for that matter – doesn’t exist shrouded in vines and trees, somewhere between the Andes and Brasilia. Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Edward Ashley and Angus Macfadyen are fine in key supporting roles. Franco Nero appears in a scene almost certainly inspired by Fitzcarraldo, while the uncredited Aboriginal performers play their ancestors very well. Moreover, Darius Khondji’s cinematography deserves to be remembered. The Blu-ray adds audio commentary and three behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
As of January 1, Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial has recognized 26,513 “righteous gentiles,” from 51 countries, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust, according to the Seven Laws of Noah. That total represents 10,000 authenticated rescue stories. Among those men and women honored both as “Righteous Among the Nations,” and in films about their good work, are Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List), Raoul Wallenberg (Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg), Ángel Sanz Briz (“El ángel de Budapest”), Leopold and Magdalena Socha (In Darkness), Stefania and Helena Podgórska (Hidden in Silence), Czeslaw Milosz (“Let Poland Be Poland”) and, as we learn in The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jan and Antonina Żabiński. If even 1 or 2 percent of those 10,000 stories are as potentially cinematic as Niki Caro’s heart-wrenching drama, there should be a line of screenwriters camped out at Yad Vashem right now, seeking inspiration. Angela Workman (The War Bride) based her screenplay for The Zookeeper’s Wife on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same title, which was largely drawn from Antonina Żabiński’s unpublished-in-English diary. In the 1930s, Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) was a geography teacher, zoologist and director of Warsaw’s thriving zoo. During the occupation, he was appointed superintendent of the city’s public parks. The movie focuses –  a 60/40 margin, by my reckoning — on Antonina’s (Jessica Chastain) unofficial roles as associate zookeeper, wife and mother to the couple’s pre-teen son, Ryszard, and newborn daughter, Teresa, and hostess to visiting dignitaries. After the zoo is nearly completely destroyed in the blitzkrieg that toppled Polish autonomy, the Zabinskis shared equally in the care, feeding and transport of an estimated 300 Jewish men, women and children. In the movie, most are confined to the basement of the zoo’s villa, until, at least, the German guards leave for the night. In fact, the empty cages also were outfitted to provide shelter. The Zabinskis’ professional relationship with German zookeeper and geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) allowes them to remain at the zoo during the occupation and raise pigs as cover for transferring Jews from the ghetto, where scraps of food were collected, to the villa. Heck “volunteered” to move the most prominent of the endangered animals to German zoos – the others would be slaughtered for no good reason – and use the facilities to breed what became known as “Aryan cows.” His crush on Antonina causes all sorts of problems for the Zabinskis, the headstrong children and desperate survivors. There’s no reason to spoil anything else that transpires in The Zookeeper’s Wife, except to say that Heck’s position within Hitler’s inner circle would make an excellent movie on its own. Likewise, Caro’s depiction of the bombing of the zoo and subsequent panic caused by escaping animals is practically worth the price of a ticket, alone. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and short piece on the real-life Żabińskis.

The Fate of the Furious: Blu-ray
The untimely death of Paul Walker, during production of Furious 7, appears to have hadd the anomalous effect of adding almost $100 million of new business to the usual numbers associated with the venerable “F&F” franchise at the domestic box office and another $600 million to the global tally. The Fate of the Furious’s domestic take of some $225.5 million settled a bit below that of Fast & Furious 6 and a bit ahead of Fast Five. It’s significant that estimated production costs during the same period doubled, from $125 million, in 2011, to $250 million for “Fate.” So, what keeps the franchise from sinking from its own weight? You guessed it, an overseas haul that’s grown from about $415 million, in 2011, to $1.163 billion, in 2015, and $1.013 billion, today. Despite the dip, the Universal blockbuster became only the sixth film to cross $1 billion at the overseas box office. The others are Avatar (Fox), $2.027 billion; Titanic (Paramount), $1.528 billion; Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney), $1.131 billion; and Jurassic World (Universal), $1.019 billion. What that means for U.S. audiences is that another two sequels are practically guaranteed, and with matching budgets. If Universal depended on domestic sales, alone, “Fate” would have looked very different than it does. That holds especially true for the wonderful opening sequence, in which Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) races a cocky Cuban motorhead, Raldo (Celestino Cornielle), through Havana’s cramped residential neighborhoods and broad Malecón esplanade. Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon, visiting a Cuban cousin, while the rest of the “family” members are enjoying a semblance of peace, quiet and freedom from prosecution elsewhere. Diehard fans of the series will appreciate the tight focus director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) puts on the pre-embargo cars driven by Cubans. Through Dom and Raldo’s encounter, viewers get to look under the hoods of vehicles that are held together by scavenged engines, cannibalized parts, duct tape and chewing gum. Even so, they look as if they were collected in California and flown to Havana for color.

Sadly, the rest of the story feels every bit as cobbled together as the cars. Mere moments after Dom wins the race and, of course, destroys his car, he’s approached by the international cyberterrorist, Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into covertly joining her team. Back home, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) calls on Dom’s team – Letty, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) – to help him retrieve an Electro-Magnetic Pulse device from a military outpost in Berlin. During the getaway, Dom goes rogue, forcing Hobbs off the road and stealing the device for Cipher.  All too conveniently, methinks, Hobbs is arrested and locked up in the same high-security prison as his nemesis, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After escaping, both are recruited by intelligence operative Frank Petty/Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his protégé, Eric Reisner/Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), to help the team hunt down Dom and capture Cipher. Even more conveniently, Cipher has kidnapped Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky) – who recently became Dom’s baby momma – and is holding them in a cell in her tricked-out 747. If Dom doesn’t cooperate with her plan to retrieve a nuclear football held by the Russian Minister of Defense., Cipher surely will kill mother and child. This leads to the second of the three exciting set pieces, this one set in Manhattan and involving dozens of cars that she controls robotically. With EMP and nuclear football in hand, Cipher now intends to steal a submarine being retrofitted at a frozen-over base in the Arctic. Will Hobbs’ team arrive in time to save the planet from Cipher? Stay tuned. As exciting as the set pieces are, I don’t recommend that newcomers enter the series at The Fate of the Furious. All of the characters are carrying too much baggage from previous installments. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes, extended fight scenes and Gray’s commentary. The digital copy adds 13 minutes of unseen footage, which Gray describes as being “probably the most adult, tone-wise, in the franchise.”

Song to Song: Blu-ray
Critics can say what they will about Terrence Malick and the otherworldly turn his pictures have taken since his revelatory historical drama, The New World. Clearly, no high-profile filmmaker has taken greater risks, in anticipation of fewer financial gains and critical praise than Malick in the last dozen years. I can’t pretend to understand them anymore than anyone else, but, what I do love and admire about The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song is the intense visual palette he’s created with Mexican-born DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and, in the Voyage of Time couplet, the American natural-history specialist, Paul Atkins. They’ve explored the boundaries of cinematography as much, or more, than any other collaborative team extant. Malick’s meditations on love, passion, sex and self-indulgence, in To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, frankly, have the same effect on me as paging through the September issues of Vogue and other high-fashion magazines. The camera demands we take seriously characters we might otherwise dismiss as unusually lifelike mannequins. The first thing to know about Song to Song is that it was filmed back-to-back with Knight of Cups, which it resembles, and is dated by footage taken at the 2012 Austin City Limits music festival. So, while it might look as if Ryan Gosling’s characters here and in La La Land are related, the coincidence can be traced to Malick’s fastidious post-production regime. (Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett appear in both pictures. Michael Fassbender replaced Christian Bale when his commitment to American Hustle interceded with Malick’s plans.)

The decadence described in Knight of Cups mimicked life among the rich and famous in the high-rent districts of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and its list of cameo appearances in the party scene rivaled that of The Player. Song to Song takes place largely in Austin — the capital of New Wealth Texas — and the Yucatan Peninsula, a convenient getaway for cowboys who ride the digital range. The cameos and worldly advice here are provided by rockers Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten, Florence Welch, Chili Peppers Anthony Kiedis and Flea, and twins Sara and Tegan (Quin). The story’s two competing love triangles involve record producer Cook (Fassbender, only one degree removed from his character in Shame); his musician protégé, BV (Gossling); and an aspiring songwriter, Faye (Rooney Mara). When the hookup with Cook doesn’t pay the expected dividends, Faye discovers genuine feelings for BV. For his part, Cook seduces and corrupts a seemingly innocent waitress, Rhonda (Portman), just because he can. After BV drifts away from the double-dealing Faye, she engages in some girl-girl experimentation with Parisian bombshell, Zoey (former Bond Girl, Berenice Marlohe). Lubezki’s wide-angle approach to these entanglements makes them look far more idyllic than they could ever have been in real life. (Not that I’m an expert in such things.) At the same time, his camera makes Austin look like Paradise on Earth for New Age millionaires. (The nearly emaciated female characters really ought to consider visiting the city’s famous barbecue and beer joints.) Always visually compelling, I’d be interested in seeing what Song to Song looks like in 4K. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “The Music Behind the Movie.”

American Fable
Reading a filmmaker’s resume on or in a studio-prepared press kit typically provides less information than a race horse’s part-performance chart in the Daily Racing Form, where it’s possible to predict a competitor’s future by what it’s done in the past. Learning, in advance, that first-time writer/director Anne Hamilton merely worked as an intern for Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life told me next to nothing about what to expect from her Midwestern gothic, American Fable. Perhaps, her role was limited to securing a ready supply of decent-tasting coffee in the Texas Outback or anticipating the weather conditions in Iceland, Chile and Italy. Instead, judging from her representation of life on a small Wisconsin farm, at the height of the Reagan-era economic crisis, Hamilton appears to have paid close attention to Malick’s modus operandi and close working relationship with DP Emmanuel Lubezki. If her fairytale mystery doesn’t always keep pace with Wyatt Garfield’s gorgeous cinematography, well, American Fable represents an auspicious start to a promising career. With her family’s livelihood imperiled by the farm crisis of the 1980s, 11-year-old Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) is mostly kept in the dark as to the true extent of their plight. For his part, a sadistic older brother relieves his anxiety by bullying her unmercifully, leaving Gitty with only one true friend and confidante: her pet chicken. Clearly, though, something ominous is hanging in the air. One day, after her ritual stroll through the corn field, Gitty comes across an abandoned silo, in which a man in a business attire is imprisoned. With an imagination stoked by storybook adventures, Gitty sees in Jonathan (Richard Schiff) someone who both needs her help and understands her loneliness. Hamilton leaves open the possibility that Jonathan is a demon, encased in the silo for reasons the girl couldn’t possibly understand, or an angel being held hostage by a cabal of cosplay freaks, led by Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), a woman who fancies a ram’s-head mask and rides through the fields on a horse borrowed from the local Renaissance Faire. Or, maybe, Gitty’s reading something mystical into a desperate cry for help by farmers hoping to extort money from an agri-business conglomerate. Viewers are encouraged to take their pick of the options … or not. It isn’t until very late in the proceedings that Hamilton gives us a solid reason as to why Gitty’s mom, dad and brother are treating her like a bad-penny orphan and, even then, it doesn’t quite wash. Neither does the overly ambiguous ending. As Schiff has demonstrated in such smallish indies as Take Me to the River and The Automatic Hate, he’s as effective on the big screen as he is on television (“The West Wing,” “Ballers,” “The Affair”). At the ripe old age of 13, Kennedy (“Odd Squad”) has already proven she can hang with the big dogs. Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans), Marci Miller (“Days of Our Lives”) and Gavin MacIntosh (“The Fosters”) round out the family unit.

A Quiet Passion: Blu-ray
Although it didn’t seem to register with Oscar, Globes or Indie Spirit voters, Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of poet Emily Dickinson comes as close to perfection as any performance I was able to see last year. After playing the festival circuit and garnering rave reviews, A Quiet Passion only opened in six theaters, expanding to a grand total of 135 screens, and making a bit of money along the way. It arrived in the direct wake of the lovely BBC Wales production, “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters,” which found an audience here on PBS affiliates. Both movies were shot in historically accurate locations and could still be taught – and debated – as part of any English-department curriculum, without any ink-and-paper purists protesting too vigorously. Their lifelines overlapped, a tad, as did the cultural, religious and sexual norms under which they labored. Among the reasons the acclaimed British writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) was drawn to Nixon was her uncanny resemblance to the author, as evidenced by period photographs, and an audition for a previous unmounted project. Nixon says she was attracted to the project because, apart from the 1976 adaptation of “The Belle of Amherst” for television, Dickenson’s life and work has been given short shrift on film. And, of she admires her poetry. If anything, she’s been treated as an artist whose idiosyncrasies were more significant than her work or as just another dead poet, whose writing bored high school students were forced to memorize. Partially, this is because so much of what we might have learned about Dickenson went up in smoke, when, on her orders, her correspondence was destroyed by her sister. While the idiosyncrasies are on full, almost maddening display in A Quiet Passion, so, too, is her humanity and likely struggles with depression or bipolar disorder. Viewers should be able to identify with her struggles, especially those associated with the family’s Puritan heritage and conforming to strict borders separating men and women at home and in the marketplace. As such, I couldn’t help but compare the agonies endured by Dickenson – as well as agnostics and other 19th Century free-thinkers — to those faced by open-minded Muslims under Taliban and ISIS domination. Keith Carradine is especially good as Edward Dickinson, a man who allowed his daughter atypical creative and philosophical latitude, but could become a tyrant when pressed on his beliefs. As her loyal and much-put-upon brother and sister, Duncan Duff and Jennifer Ehle also stand out. The Blu-ray adds a post-screening Q&A session with Davies and Nixon; a behind-the-scenes featurette; a radio interview with Nixon; and a booklet with interviews, photos and a critical essay.

Bitcoin Heist: Bluray
If, like me, you have only a rudimentary knowledge of how cryptocurrency and other alternative markets work, the rare Vietnamese export, Bitcoin Heist, might provide a convenient entry point. Not only is it one of the very few action/adventures to emerge from our onetime enemy and current trading partner, but it also bears comparison to such glossy caper flicks as Ocean’s Eleven and Now You See Me. If it isn’t in the same league, quite yet, at least it’s trying to get there. Web surfers will also appreciate the protagonists’ attempts to deal with the ransomware epidemic. Co-writer/director Ham Tran (Journey From the Fall) built Bitcoin Heist on the same foundation as other thrillers in the it-takes-a-thief sub-genre, while adding some hot, young actors and sexy locations. It’s the kind of fast-paced flick you’d expect from Hong Kong and Korean studios. Bitcoin Heist is set in 2020, although it might as well be tomorrow. To snare one of the region’s most wanted hackers, the Ghost, an elite police team headed by Dada (Kate Nhung) is formed to infiltrate his gang and make sense of the scam’s intricacies. A failed operation will cause Dada to be relieved of her duties and begin a back-channel investigation of our own, using crooks she’d previously busted. They include a purple-haired hacker; a conman who hides priceless diamonds behind prosthetic facial moles; and an illusionist whose stage name is Petey Majik Nguyen. The Ghost is a tough nut to crack, alright, but Tran’s real problem is bringing the Internet to life long enough to make it interesting as a virtual character. He also must convince us of the likelihood that reformed crooks can be counted on to remain loyal to Dada. The magic and action sequences, influenced by Tsui Hark and early John Woo, free viewers from focusing too hard on the incomprehensible Bitcoin setup.

Because of writer/director Joseph Cedar’s prominence within the Israeli film industry (Beaufort, Footnote) and storylines that lead from New York’s Jewish community to the Knesset, it’s likely that the buzz on Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer – again, with my fixation on original titleswas intended to spread from festivals in North America, to Tel Aviv and back to the U.S., rather than rely on the usual media barnstorming. As obscure as Cedar may be here, commitments from Richard Gere, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin, Hank Azaria, Josh Charles and Steve Buscemi could have attracted arthouse audiences, anyway. In his first English-language film, the American-born Israeli was fortunate to cast Gere against type as a slightly disheveled, possibly homeless macher, Norman Oppenheimer, who might remind viewers of Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig. As the picture opens, Norman strikes up a wholly unlikely friendship with a down-in-the-dumps Israeli politician, during his visit to New York. Norman’s pragmatic gesture to Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) will bear fruit, three years later, when his friend is elected Prime Minister. What Oppenheimer lacks in charisma, he more than makes up for in chutzpah. Recognizable for his unkempt white hair, snap-brim cap and ratty camel-hair coat, Norman could be any variety of New Yorker, from eccentric multimillionaire to panhandler. Instead, he’s known by the people he helps as a “generous Jew” … someone who gets things done for people who don’t possess his cunning and connections, without any obvious interest in personal gain. Once Eshel is elected and he warmly greets Oppenheimer at a reception in New York, however, the fixer’s dormant intentions rise to the surface. No longer satisfied with being “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he uses Eshel’s name to leverage a series of quid pro quo transactions linking the Prime Minister to a nephew, a rabbi, a mogul, his assistant and a treasury official from the Ivory Coast. The perceived relationship even opens a door at Harvard. As Cedar explains in the bonus interviews, Norman’s timing coincides with a not dissimilar scandal involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ever since 2014’s Time Out of Mind, Gere has allowed himself to play characters closer to his own age or older, and he’s no worse for the wear. He does a terrific job here, alternately forlorn, manipulative and charming.

Feed the Light: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that I’m able to introduce a completely unheralded genre picture with an unqualified rave. It’s even more rare when a film as good as Feed the Light is the product of a single artist’s imagination and ingenuity. If only it were easier to summarize. Since 1999, Swedish filmmaker Henrik Möller has written, directed, produced and appeared in 60-some video shorts, as well as editing and shooting 20 of them. The tres, tres creepy Feed the Light, whose budget seemingly could be measured in rolls of quarters, is his first feature. Like so many other aspiring horror/fantasy/sci-fi specialists, Möller chose to adapt – loosely — a story by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Color Out of Space,” that’s already been resurrected several times. Here, though, he elected to shape his interpretation, based on visual patterns firmly established by the filmmaker he interviewed for the seven-minute short, “Henrik Möller Talks to David Lynch” (2010). Feed the Light is set in the labyrinthine corridors of a subterranean warehouse in Malmo, Sweden. There are no windows and the fluorescent lights twitch to a pulsating soundtrack, likely inspired by Philip Glass. Shot in grainy black-and-white, with the occasional flash of color, it reminds some critics of Eraserhead. The overriding mystery here, however, concerns an alien light source, independent of the electrical grid, that controls everything and everyone confined to the warehouse. Lina Sundén plays Sara, a slightly androgynous woman who’s lost track of her young daughter and thinks her abusive ex-husband, who works at the warehouse, may be behind the disappearance. Despite blowing her interview with the facility’s emotionally challenged Boss (Jenny Lampa), Sara lands the job she’ll use to search for her child. The custodial staff is either completely hostile to the newcomer or suspiciously helpful in sharing the warehouse’s secrets. Basically, though, except for the supernatural force, she’s alone. Only 75 minutes long, Moller doesn’t appear to have had any trouble maintaining Feed the Light’s tension, mystery and momentum. Occasionally, he throws in something disgusting, just to see if we’re paying attention. The Blu-ray adds “Making of Feed the Light” and “The Lovecraft Influence: Interview With Co-Writer/Director Henrik Möller.”

Their Finest: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: My Mother & Other Strangers
With Christopher Nolan’s historical epic, Dunkirk, set to open around the world in the next few weeks, it’s worth paying attention to another British movie, made on a considerably smaller scale and budget, about roughly the same subject. The defense and evacuation of British and Allied forces trapped in Europe took place from May 26 to June 4, 1940, on the beaches of Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France. The Blitz started three months later, on September 7, when Hitler’s Luftwaffe began systematically targeting locations in London for 56 out of the following 57 days and nights. If we already know the outcome of the Battle of Britain, Americans have largely been required to rely on PBS’ “Masterpiece” and other mini-series to fill in the details of what happened between then and America’s official entry into the war, more than a year later. Although this country’s material support was assured, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as Britain’s fortitude in the face of continued German airstrikes, to push us into the global conflict. Based on Lissa Evans’ wartime novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Their Finest describes efforts to make a movie so emotionally captivating that it not only would lift the spirits of fellow countrymen, but also inspire American audiences to demand an Allied effort. Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a character based upon the Welsh screenwriter and playwright, Diana Morgan, who worked at Ealing Studios throughout the 1940s. Catrin’s duties were mostly limited to punching up dialogue in propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, at least until she’s dispatched to the coast to interview twin sisters who allegedly helped ferry soldiers home during the evacuation of Dunkirk. While their reputation appears to have been exaggerated, the story is deemed worthy of further exploration. She’s paired with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a sour young screenwriter described as having been “spawned in a pub out of sawdust.” Their primary directive, it seems, is to make movies that contain “authenticity informed by optimism,” and that’s exactly what they intend to do … God willing and the German bombs don’t land on the soundstage. Movies about people making movies tend to err on the side of the Industry and, while Their Finest doesn’t paint the actors and filmmakers as angels, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) mines the humor in Gaby Chiappe’s (“Shetland”) adaptation of the novel, freeing Bill Nighy to steal the show as the crusty star, Ambrose Hilliard. You can probably guess how their movie turns out, but, as befits any good BBC mini-series, it hardly matters. The Blu-ray adds a making-up featurette and commentary with Scherfig.

The “Masterpiece” presentation, “My Mother & Other Strangers,” may be set three years after the events described in Their Finest, but it’s of a piece with other British mini-series and dramas staged on the homefront, before D-Day. Its primary difference is the Northern Ireland location, as befits a production financed by BBC Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen. Set on the shores of Lough Neagh, the series centers on the Coyne family and their neighbors, as they come to terms with the influx of thousands of American servicemen of the United States Army Air Forces’ Eighth Bomber Command. The pilots would soon relocate to England, but, in the meantime, the forced relationship often was rocky. By that, of course, I mean that the local men resented the appearance of so many cocksure Yanks in close quarters with the flower of Northern Irish sisterhood. There are times when their allegiances were decidedly mixed, as if Nazi soldiers wouldn’t try to take advantage of their sisters and wives, if they won the war.  At least, the Americans are polite. As displaced Englishwoman and the local publican’s wife, Rose Coyne (Hattie Morahan) finds herself acting as peacekeeper between the disgruntled locals and the soldiers, she is also drawn to the engaging young Captain Ronald Dreyfuss (Aaron Staton). Will Rose risk her family for this forbidden love? Stay tuned.

London Heist
It wouldn’t be fair to call Mark McQueen’s nasty crime drama a rip-off of Jonathan Glazer’s stylish gangland thriller, Sexy Beast, but there are too many similarities to ignore. At least, London Heist (a.k.a., “Gunned Down”) can’t be accused of mimicking Guy Ritchie, when he was still making movies that mattered. Both involve battle-hardened London gangsters, several of whom would kill their best mates to make an easier buck, and exploit sunbaked locations on Spain’s southwestern coast. There are crosses, double-crosses, shootouts and lots of tough, vaguely Cockney slang. The actors, even the dames, look as if they’ve just escaped from prison. Of the two films, Sexy Beast is, by far, the better movie. Considering that it’s 17 years old, however, fans of the subgenre might find a few things in London Heist to like. In a nutshell, it involves four seemingly allied gangsters and the equivalent of $4 million in cash stolen in an airport job. Co-writer Craig Fairbrass, who looks as if he could win a stare-down with Big Ben, plays the crook who not only is ripped off by his partners, but is forced to watch as his father is murdered. Cregan decides to catch the first thing smoking to Spain’s Costa del Sol, where his mentor (James Cosmo) is still calling the shots. To compensate for the missing money, while exacting his revenge, Cregan will have to round up mates he can trust and pull another job. You know how that usually goes.

Alive and Kicking
Although the Swing Era is said to have lasted from mid-Depression, 1935, to the year following V-E and V-J Days, when white Americans began their migration to the suburbs, it’s just as easy to trace swing and big-band music to the late-1920s and early-1930s, when African-American orchestras led by Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines and Fletcher Henderson turned Harlem into a late-night destination for the posh crowd. If 1935 sounds a bit arbitrary, it’s only because it coincides with Benny Goodman’s epochal performance at the Palomar Ballroom, in Los Angeles, on August 21, 1935. Spotting an instant trend, Hollywood musical would introduce the Lindy hop, jitterbug, various shags, Susie-Q, Big Apple and Truckin’ to the masses. In the post-war era, another generation would adopt the bop, rock (at its best, a variation of the Lindy hop) and twist to their needs. One of the women interviewed in Susan Glatzer’s delightfully lively documentary, Alive and Kicking, pinpoints the modern resurgence to Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids (1993), Doug Liman’s Swingers (1996) and The Gap’s ubiquitous, 1998 “Khakis Swing” commercial, featuring Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” If the 1990s swing craze appeared to give way to other, more trance-induced dance forms, Glatzer argues convincingly that the new-breed Lindy-hoppers simply lowered their public and media profile, organizing competitions and quietly forming social networks. As the rest of the world re-took to swing, the cream of our crop spread the gospel in clinics, contests and dance schools abroad. Alive and Kicking also showcases the dynamic culture and cathartic power of swing dancing from its historic origins to its impact today. Glatzer argues that, boiled down to its core, swing dancing simply is the pursuit of happiness, as joyous as it can be therapeutic. Only 88 minutes long, she follows a half-dozen individual dancers through highly personal stories. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an interview with the director and commentary with Glatzer and DP John W. MacDonald.

Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There’s no greater gift a lover of classic cinema can give to someone just beginning their own artistic journey than films that can be collected the way wealthy men once kept and, yes, sometimes hoarded, first editions of great literature. Things are simpler now, of course, and leather bindings no longer are in fashion. For an amount of money considerably less than a dinner for two at a good restaurant, you can ensure that a loved one or friend possesses three of the building blocks of 20th Century cinema in pristine, high-definition resolution. Criterion Collection has repackaged “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy” — Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero – for connoisseurs, collectors and novices to appreciate for as long as the plastic discs allow. Although the first neorealist film is thought by some scholars to be Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), the national film movement represented, first, in Rome Open City, would be characterized by stories set among the poor and the working class, filmed on war-ravaged locations, frequently using non-professional actors. If Europeans didn’t need to be reminded of the indignities and deprivations suffered during and immediately after World War II, the stories showed audiences that the devastation wasn’t limited to one class, city or neighborhood and words like “heroism” and “humanity” weren’t reserved solely for medal-presentation ceremonies. They had endured the horror together and survived only to clean up the mess left behind by the pursuit of fascism. For American and Canadian viewers, especially, neorealism brought the war home to people largely protected from the ugliest truths of war and genocide by government censors, Hollywood fantasists and veterans haunted by lingering memories of death and dying. Rome, Open City (1945) is set in the capital during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Although the Allies are advancing on the city, the Gestapo is still hunting communists and members of the resistance, some of whom wear the clerical collar. Divided into six episodes, Paisan (1946) opens as the Allies are preparing for the invasion of Italy and ends in the Po Delta, where partisans remain an endangered species. Germany Year Zero takes place in post-war Berlin, as survivors come to grips with the reality of total defeat and the shame of being revealed as co-conspirators to mass murderer. Not surprisingly, it was the most hotly debated entry in the trilogy.

A decade later, as the so-called economic miracles took hold across western Europe, neorealism would give way to other stories and genres. The boxed set features new high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks, as well as vintage introductions to all three films by Roberto Rossellini; interviews from 2009 with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà, film critic and Rossellini friend Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, and filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; commentary on Rome Open City by film scholar Peter Bondanella; “Once Upon a Time … Rome Open City,” a 2006 documentary on the making of this historic film, featuring rare archival material and footage of Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini and Ingrid Bergman; “Rossellini and the City,” a 2009 video essay by film scholar Mark Shiel on Rossellini’s use of the urban landscape in “The War Trilogy”; excerpts from rarely seen videotaped discussions Rossellini had in 1970 about his craft, with faculty and students at Rice University; “Into the Future,” a 2009 video essay about “The War Trilogy” by film scholar Tag Gallagher; “Roberto Rossellini,” a 2001 documentary by Carlo Lizzani, assistant director on Germany Year Zero, tracing Rossellini’s career through archival footage and interviews with family members and collaborators, with tributes by filmmakers François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese; “Letters From the Front: Carlo Lizzani on Germany Year Zero,” a podium discussion with Lizzani from the 1987 Tutto Rossellini conference; Italian credits and prologue from Germany Year Zero; and essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin McCabe and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Terror in a Texas Town: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I could recommend picking up Arrow Academy’s upgrade of Joseph H. Lewis’ much-neglected noir Western, Terror in a Texas Town, for a half-dozen different reasons, without spoiling the best part ahead of time. Although I hadn’t heard of the movie before it arrived in the mail last week, I will happily sample anything the company sends my way. Not only do the films tend to be wildly entertaining, but the bonus features can be revelatory, as well. The same can be said about releases from Criterion Collection, Cohen Media Group and a few other boutique distributors represented here each week. Arrow’s movies, however, range from completely off the wall to delightfully eclectic. Upon its release, in 1958, the 80-minute Terror in a Texas Town was intended specifically for distribution as a B-movie, or second feature on a double-bill. While it could have lost another 10 minutes and no one would have known the difference, 80 minutes was the length exhibitors required to sell some popcorn, candy and pop during intermission and previews. The first image, which could be interpreted as a parody of High Noon, finds an as-yet-unidentified Sterling Hayden marching with purpose down a dusty main street, somewhere in Texas — actually, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch – brandishing, of all possible lethal weapons. a harpoon. In fact, the scene is a flash-forward to a showdown with gunslinger Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), 75 minutes later. Crale is a nearly over-the-hill gunfighter, in town to intimidate the peaceful farmers into selling their plots to a fat-cat businessman (Sebastian Cabot), who covets the oil he knows is hiding just below the surface of their nearly worthless fields. Two days before Hayden’s George Hansen arrives by train, Crale murdered the Swede’s immigrant father for refusing to sign over his land in a cheap hustle. His hired hand, Mirada (Victor Millan), witnessed the shooting, but, like everyone else in town, is afraid to blow the whistle on Crale … not that the sheriff would have done anything about it, anyway. Hansen takes it upon himself to convince the townsfolk to stand up for what’s right and refuse to sell their soon-to-be-valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Soon enough, he’ll be strolling down main street, harpoon in hand.

Terror in a Texas Town’s unusually stylish look – for a Western, anyway – carries Lewis’ then-unmistakeable fingerprints. He’s known best for My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), The Big Combo (1955) and Gun Crazy (1950), a Bonnie and Clyde-inspired crime drama still considered to be one of the essential noirs. OK, here comes the surprise … at least, for me. The movie’s populist message was anything but accidental. The credited screenwriter, Ben L. Perry, was a pseudonym for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who also has penned Gun Crazy under the “front” identity, Millard Kaufman. Nedrick Young, the actor who plays Johnny Crale, would win that year’s Oscar for best screenplay, The Defiant Ones, under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas. He, too, was blacklisted for invoking his Fifth Amendment rights while testifying before the 1953 House Committee on Un-American Activities. Terror in a Texas Town would be Lewis’ final feature. He went on to direct such TV Westerns as “The Rifleman” (51 episodes), “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.” In 1960, at Kirk Douglas’ insistence, Trumbo would be accorded the screenwriter’s credit for Spartacus, in his own name, effectively ending the blacklist. Even so, Ned Young, who also wrote Jailhouse Rock (1957), reverted to Nathan E. Douglas once again for Inherit the Wind (1960), also nominated for an Oscar. That’s a lot of backstory for an 80-minute “programmer,” but well worth the time it takes to peruse the featurettes. The Blu-ray features a 2K restoration from original film elements produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release; an introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of “Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail” and “Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy”; scene-select commentaries by Stanfield; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Vladimir Zimakov; and a limited-edition booklet, featuring new writing by Glenn Kenny.

Pulse: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Doberman Cop: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Few national cinemas have been impacted as much by the fickleness of commercial trends as Japan’s studio-dominated system. Apart from Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and other giants of the arthouse realm, a select group of genre practitioners not only were exhaustively prolific, but also sufficiently nimble to occasionally create something brilliant within the strict guidelines of time, budgetary and studio pressure. No better example can be found than in J-horror, a genre variation that changed the way audiences around the world viewed supernatural phenomenon, especially ghosts and apparitions. Hollywood has done its best to transplant such films as Ringu, The Grudge, Dark Water and One Missed Call, only discover that not all plants bloom in foreign soil. This month’s double feature of vintage Japanese films from Arrow Video is a mixed bag of J-horror and yakuza crime. Listen closely to the atypically candid interviews included in the Blu-ray packages and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how teamwork frequently trumped the demands of bottom-line-conscious studio executives. Not all the films were gems, of course, but the ones that weren’t helped finance the ones that were. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s dark and foreboding 2001 Pulse is widely recognized was one of the hallmarks of J-horror. Even with Wes Craven’s adaptation of the screenplay, Weinstein/Dimension’s American remake was pummeled by critics and, at best, may have broken even at the box office and in ancillary sales. Arrow’s sparkling digital transfer brings the original back to life – or death, if you will – in ways that should thrill buffs on both sides of the Pacific. Informed by an early embracement of Internet and social media in Japan, the apocalyptic film foretells how technology will only serve to isolate us as it grows more important to our lives. A group of young Tokyo techies experience strange phenomena involving missing co-workers and friends, after a mysterious website asks, “Do you want to meet a ghost?” They set out to explore a city which is growing emptier by the day, and to solve the mystery of what lies within a forbidden room in an abandoned construction site. Check out new interviews with writer/director Kurosawa and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi, hunched over a fully stocked bar; “The Horror of Isolation,” a new video appreciation, featuring Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett; an archived making-of documentary and four behind-the-scenes featurettes; premiere footage from the Cannes Film Festival; cast and crew introductions from opening-day screenings, in Tokyo; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tommy Pocket; and limited edition booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Chuck Stephens.

Doberman Cop arrives on the heels of Arrow’s facelift of Wolf Guy (1975), a Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba actioner that combines lycanthropian horror with yakuza conceits. It’s an unholy mess, but far from unwatchable. Released to little fanfare in 1977, Doberman Cop reunites director Kinji Fukasaku (Cops vs. Thugs) with Chiba in a Western-style crime movie that mixes gunplay and pulp fiction, with martial arts, lowbrow comedy and revenge. It follows a hick cop, Joji Kano, to the big city, where he’ll help the locals in a murder investigation that may have ties to a missing-person case he’s been working on for several years. We know Joji’s a fish-out-of-water, because he arrives from Okinawa wearing a straw hat and holding the pork-bellied pig he intends to bestow on the chief. Before that can happen, though, Joji will visit a garish girlie show, during which one of the strippers decides to incorporate both recent arrivals into her act. Doberman Cop was adapted from an extremely popular manga, one of a “new breed” of cinema-ready gekiga. As he probes deeper into the sleazy world of flesh-peddling, talent-agency corruption and mob influence, Joji uncovers the shocking truth about the girl, her connection to a mobster-turned-manager (Hiroki Matsukata), and a savage serial killer who is burning women alive. It was Fukasaku’s sole film adapted directly from a manga and unreleased on video outside of Japan. It also showcases the combined talents of Chiba’s ”Piranha Army” of actors and pals. The package is enhanced by “Beyond the Film: Doberman Cop,” a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane; new interviews with Chiba – Part 2 of the one started on Wolf Guy – and screenwriter Koji Takada; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s book, featuring new writing on the films by Patrick Macias.

Species: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If nothing else, Roger Donaldson’s 1995 sci-fi/horror flick, Species, probably will go down as the first mainstream movie in which American scientists intently observe a space alien – who could pass for a Victoria’s Secret model – as it attempts to make sense of a brassiere. Natasha Henstridge spends a lot of time in the altogether, as she roams the streets of L.A. looking for a human mate. A brief topless flash by Marg Helgenberger, as molecular biologist Dr. Laura Baker, prompted Mr. Skin to award Species a rare 4-star, Hall of Fame rating. One suspects that more serious fans of the genre were less impressed by the alien nudity than Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s otherworldly designs. Henstridge’s Sil wasn’t always such a babe. Giger’s concept of her, pre-entry, makes her look far more “biomechanical.” He also contributed a Ghost Train nightmare sequence that MGM refused to finance, so he invested $100,000 of his own money to keep it in the picture. Otherwise, the story’s focus on what happens when Sil escapes from observation and scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) dispatches a crew of experts to find her before she fulfills her horrific mission: to acquire human sperm and produce offspring that could destroy mankind. As her deadly biological clock ticks rapidly, Fitch and his team are hurled into a desperate battle in which, we’re told, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. Of course, it does. The Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” features a 4K scan of the film’s inter-positive and a new featurette, “Afterbirth: The Evolution of Species,” featuring interviews with director Donaldson, cinematographer Andzej Bartkowiak, production designer John Muto, composer Christopher Young, creature designer Steve Johnson, chrysalis supervisor Billy Bryan and “Sil” creature supervisor Norman Cabrera. A full disc’s worth of commentaries and bonus material has been ported over from previous Blu-ray editions.

Urban Traffik
Don’t You Recognize Me?
If I hadn’t recently watched The Chosen Ones, David Pablos’ unsparing drama about a Tijuana family involved in wining, dining and enslaving teenage girls for the purpose of turning them into heroin-starved prostitutes, I might have thought better of Jason Figgis’ similarly themed debut, Urban Traffick. The Un Certain Regard nominee is only available here through VOD services, including Netflix, which is where I found it. The Chosen Ones reminded me of Lukas Moodysson’s  Lilya 4-Ever (2002), Damian Harris Gardens of the Night (2008) and a dozen, or so, episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.” Urban Traffik is hampered by what appears to be a non-existent budget and a script that takes too long to get to the point. Neither do all the actors appear to be up to the task. That said, Dublin always provides a compelling setting for serious criminality and horror, and Figgis (The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, Children of a Darker Dawn) practically owns the town, when it comes to filmmaking. It opens with first-time actor Damien Guiden, as Adam, stalking and befriending a homeless teenager in a Dublin cafe. She allows him to take her back to his apartment for some tea and sympathy, not suspecting that he’s a key player in a trafficking ring and needs to fill a quota, because the older girls keep disappearing. The most accomplished member of the gang is Alex (Kojii Helnwein), a raven-haired demon who appears to be conflicted by Adam’s insistence on testing the merchandise before turning the girls over to pimp central. It’s when Adam picks up the destitute street urchin, Amy (Clare Murray), that he recognizes his long-suppressed conscience and must decide what to do with it. Frankly, I’m not altogether sure whether Urban Traffik is intended to be an indictment of a crime that’s reached epidemic proportions on the Emerald Isle or the trafficking is just another excuse for the hyper-prolific director to roll film.

Figgis, reportedly a cousin of Academy Award-nominated writer/director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), is nothing if not prolific. Made two years before Urban Traffik, the slow-burn thriller Don’t You Recognize Me? takes a very different tack. Tony (Matthew Toman) is a documentary filmmaker who’s always on the lookout for interesting subjects for his “A Day in the Life Of” webisodes … the worse off they are, the better. Following an online appeal for fresh subjects, Tony has been contacted by K Gallagher (Jason Sherlock), a gang-banger from a rundown Dublin project. Along with a cameraman and sound recorder, Tony sets off by car to meet K, his mates and two girlfriends. K’s the real deal, alright. Things really get scary, however, when K leads the film crew to a warehouse set up like a rudimentary sound stage. It’s here that K’s older brother, Daz (Darren Travers), and his droogies have prepared a surprise party for Tony.  Daz explains that, when he heard someone was going to make a documentary about K, he decided to add his own contributions to the mix. Tony doesn’t recognize Daz, whose unfortunate twin brother, Damo, became the unwitting subject/victim of one of his first films. No need to go much further into the narrative, except to say that payback’s a bitch and Figgis has a knack for torture porn. If only he could afford a sound engineer who knew what he/she was doing and the equipment to pick up brogue-y dialogue in a cavernous warehouse. The subtitle option is recommended. Travers, who divides his time between stage, TV and movies, deserves a shot at better financed projects, as well.

Last Day of School: Blu-ray
Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo
It would be difficult to find a movie with lower production values and less reason to exist than Michael and Sonny Mahal’s grindsploitation quickie, Last Day of School. Anyone so inclined, however, could avoid a long, tiresome search by heading for, or the Troma Channel and Troma Universe at YouTube Red, and the Troma Now subscription service. In it, four college seniors at a school that looks very much like UNLV are caught cheating on their final exam. Instead of flunking them outright, their sex-addled and alcoholic professor demands that they perform a scavenger hunt, involving skanky sex workers, fat campus cops, horny sorority sisters, strip-club bouncers and his wife, who wakes up every morning hoping she’s magically been transformed into Jennifer Coolidge (a.k.a., Stifler’s Mom). The guys bounce between the campus and the Sex Strip on Industrial Road to collect the dancers. It’s possible, though, that the pros who actually dance in clubs like Sapphire’s and Spearmint Rhino make more in two hours than the producers of Last Day at School were willing to pay for several days’ work, while also showing their tits. Where they found these gals is anyone’s guess. All things considered, the Mahal Empire production (30 Girls 30 Days) could be forgiven its reliance on cut-rate talent, if Rolfe Kanefsky’s (Sorority Slaughterhouse) displayed an ounce of originality or modicum of humor, which it doesn’t. It’s possible, of course, that Kanefsky and the Mahals saved their best stuff for the Empire’s upcoming, “Party Bus to Hell,” during which “a party bus on its way to Burning Man — filled with a bunch of sexy young adults — breaks down in the desert … in the middle of a group of Satanic worshippers.” It stars Tara Reid … of course. The Blu-ray bonus package adds an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman; a behind-the-scenes slideshow; a “30/30” trailer; and other Troma-tastic promotional material.

The great thing about This Is Spinal Tap was the target audience’s willingness not only to buy into the closely observed spoof of heavy-metal bands and culture, but also to support the faux ensemble by purchasing albums and tickets to concerts and reunion events. Fans didn’t even have to grasp the mockumentary concept to enjoy the music, which sometimes is reprised on Sirius/XM’s Underground Garage. Twenty years later, Primus frontman Les Claypool would write, direct and perform in Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, a more obvious satire that attempted to stick a needle in the jam-band balloon. It features Steve “Aiwass” Trouzdale (Adam Gates); Steve “Gordo” Gordon (Bryan Kehoe); Herschal Tambor Brillstien (Jonathan Korty); and Lapland “Lapdog” Miclovich (Claypool), who display the requisite musicianship and ability to ad-lib dialogue. The premise holds that, in the Spring of 2005, a UCLA graduate filmmaker set out to make a documentary reflecting an element of contemporary-music culture that had yet to be fully examined. What he discovered was the music of Electric Apricot, through which he “achieved enlightenment.” Like Spinal Tap, Electric Apricot played occasional shows in 2004 and 2005, including the High Sierra Music Festival, to collect footage for the movie. It also performed a few gigs afterward, on the publicity tour. Skewered, as well, are Deadheads, Phish phans, Phil Collins, Burning Man, vegans, Lilith Fair poetics and Harry Potter. The handful of song parodies are well-mounted and funny, without also being terribly memorable. If the National Lampoon movie didn’t catch on, it’s probably because the gags are too spot-on to engage the ecstasy-amped jam-band crowd, for whom lyrics only get in the way of the “cosmic flan.” Troma, a sort of Criterion Collection in reverse, has picked up the distribution rights and, with a little help, could tap the same audience that embraced Cannibal! The Musical. It adds a High Times interview with the cast, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes slideshow and some NSFW marketing stuff.

Navy SEALs v. Demons: Blu-ray
If the ongoing wars in the Middle East ever end and the military-industrial complex doesn’t push us into another expensive conflict immediately thereafter, there’s a place back home for our extremely well-trained and highly efficient Special Forces troops to land and make enough money to afford the medical benefits President Trump wants to steal from them. Yup, you guessed it … in the movies. While there may not be much room left in Hollywood for military consultants and stunt performers, producers of genre films are rushing to deliver fresh products to VOD services and the straight-to-DVD marketplace, where action is everything. The musclebound and elaborately tattooed warriors in such films as Navy SEALs v. Demons, Navy SEALs vs. Zombies and Texas Zombie Wars: Dallas, to name just three projects forwarded by fiction writer and producer Jeff “AK-Charlie” Waters, should be in high demand for a long while.  Among the cast members are Mikal Vega (Navy SEAL), Dale Comstock (Delta Force), Max Mullen (Army Ranger), Trevor Scott (Army 101st Airborne), David Lonigro (Special Operations Sniper), Tim Abell (Army Ranger), Kerry Patton (Air Force), Tony Nevada (Marine Corps) and Matthew R. Anderson (Army Special Forces). Even without taking a single class at Stella Adler or the Actors Studio, the muscular vets can be cast as ex-soldiers, bikers, prisoners, coaches and gym rats. With a lesson or two, they could portray business executives, priests and college professors … no problem … as long as aliens and superheroes are involved. I only mention this because of the current epidemic of zombies and other monsters that require special handling in the movies. The days of the wimp hero are over. In Navy SEALs v. Demons, the action moves New Orleans – site of “NSvZ” – to south Texas, where God-forsaken killers are ripping out the guts of illegal immigrants and turning virgins into wives. When the first wave of SEALs proves unequal to the task of eradicating the demons, they join forces with a local biker gangs and their stripper girlfriends. It’s all pretty stupid, but, where else are Hispanic actors going to find decent work these days … Hollywood

Truth or Dare?
The backstory here is better than anything in the movie, which some observers of slasher fare consider to be a classic specimen of the subgenre. In 1986, straight-to-cassette goremeister Tim Ritter sold the script to Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness to a production company that also allowed him to direct his own adaptation. When the executives discovered Ritter was 17, they took the picture away from him and, he claims, butchered it. It’s almost impossible to discern when a horror movie shot on 16mm film, for the consumption of VHS owners, has been butchered, so we’ll have to take his word for it. Ritter would go on to write, direct, produce, edit and appear in quite a few more movies. Truth or Dare? has been recycled several times already. SRS Cinema, which specializes in such things, didn’t waste much money trying to clean this one up, however. I’ve seen worse. When an already unbalanced Mike Strauber (John Brace) catches his wife Sharon (Mary Fanaro) in bed with his best friend, the result is a rapid descent into madness. Mike’s revenge is triggered by the seemingly innocent child’s game “Truth or Dare?” His version is quite a bit more deadly than Madonna’s take on it, though. Look for an appearance by 9-year-old A.J. McLean, of the Backstreet Boys, as Little Mike. And, yes, Big Mike totes a chain saw and wears a leather mask. Its “A Critical Madness” theme song is the cherry on the sundae. The bonus package adds and an almost feature-length trailer reel of even less defensible SRS Cinema products; the director’s commentary; a 30th-anniversary scrapbook; several “TorD” trailers; and, of course, an Italian-language track.

The Blessed Ones
Although movies about Doomsday cults come and go, it’s possible that the negative publicity surrounding the ritualistic deaths at Heaven’s Gate, People’s Temple, Branch Davidian and Solar Temple has put a damper on the more murderous operations. The poor record of charlatans prophesizing the apocalypse hasn’t helped their cause much, either. In his second completed feature, behind Client 14 (2011), multihyphenate Patrick O’Bell describes what happens when two disaffected members of a messianic cult decide to test their luck in the vast desert wasteland surrounding their enclave, rather than “drink the Kool-Aid” provided them by a crackpot preacher. When their absence is discovered, the manipulative mastermind siccs his henchmen on them. Why he should be bothered by a couple of defectors, when heaven is only a few hours away, is beside the point. O’Bell and co-cinematographer Simon Hayes make the best out of what must have been an extremely limited budget, turning the desert landscapes outside Los Angeles into a formidable obstacle course. He also benefits from the work of actors, who, while active, probably need another feature credit on their resume: Dave Vescio (Wolf Mother), Andy Gates (Garden Party Massacre) and Tamzin Brown (The Adderall Diaries).

Bad Attitude
Search for Bad Attitude in and you’ll find a half-dozen entries, none of which lead to the one starring Ben Kobold, as Officer Kip White. Type in the actor’s name and you’ll be led to the entry for “White Cop,” which shares the same cover photo as the DVD for “Bad Attitude,” which was completed in 2014, only a few months after hashtag #BlackLivesMatter entered the social-media lexicon and hit the streets of America. I wonder who decided that “White Cop” might not be the best title for a comedy that’s supposed to remind viewers of “Reno 911!” By comparison, at least, Bad Attitude was an expedient compromise. Just as the roots of “Reno 911!” led from Nevada to the improv-comedy clubs of Los Angeles, so, too, it seems, do the roots of Jake Myers and co-writer Lara Unnerstall’s story lead to the improv stages and casting managers of the Windy City. It’s one of a handful of places in North America where naturally funny people either grow on trees or come to find jobs making people laugh. So much for the travelogue. Bad Attitude isn’t in the same league as comedies associated with the Groundlings, Second City or SCTV, but it isn’t devoid of laughs, by any means. Kobold plays a Clouseau-like cop, whose mission it becomes to wipe out a gang of European drug traffickers, who specialize in a popular new street drug, Stamp, for reasons made clear early in the picture. Among the actors who must deal with Kobold’s hapless character are David Liebe Hart, as the mayor of Chicago; and Britt Julious, as a TV news reporter.

Monster X
The first thing to know about Ruthless Studios’ Monster X is that it has nothing to do with Minoru Kawasaki’s 2008 creature feature, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit, whose premise sounds quite a bit more interesting than anything here. Imagine an English-language remake in which bodyguards for President Trump and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are required to protect world leaders from a giant dragon-like beast, capable of going mano-a-mano against Godzilla. I know which side I’d be backing. The 2017 iteration of Monster X has far more to do with vampires, werewolves, zombies and, even, banshees, than beasts hoping to disrupt Trump and Putin’s tea party. It took me nearly an hour to figure out that Monster X follows an anthology format. The chapters represent movies playing on different screens in a multiplex during a horror festival and the audience members who grow increasingly more sinister – and hairy – as it unspools. Some of it plays out, as well, through the eyes of a pair of nerds on their first date. It works intermittently, but only in a DIY sort of way.

PBS: Masterpiece: Prime Suspect: Tennison: Blu-ray
PBS: The Tunnel: Sabotage: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
WGN: Underground: Season Two
MHz: Detective Montalbano: Episodes 29 & 30
BBC: Food: Delicious Science
Smithsonian: Mummies Everywhere/Mummies Alive
If an American broadcast network announced that it was launching a prequel to “Columbo,” “The Rockford Files” or “Gunsmoke” – as opposed to, say, USA Network’s ill-fated reimagining of Ving Rhames as Lieutenant Theo Kojak – most viewers would greet the news with trepidation, at best. When Britain’s ITV revealed plans for a prequel to “Prime Suspect,” one of the most admired shows in television history, the trepidation was outweighed by anticipation. On Britain’s prestige networks, at least, such delicate endeavors are taken far more seriously than they are here. Apparently, though, the only person who was disappointed by the results was novelist Lynda LaPlante, upon whose books the long-running series was based and, it’s said, couldn’t work out the details on a deal. It’s our loss. The six-part “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Prime Suspect: Tennison,” opens with probationary officer Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) arriving late to work, as usual, to her North London headquarters, for which she receives a stern reprimand by the desk sergeant. Typically, she would be kept busy – out of the male detectives’ hair, if you will – directing traffic, working the dispatch desk, holding back looky-loos at crime scenes or getting coffee for the lads. On this day, however, the unusually grisly murder of a heroin-addicted prostitute requires her to canvass a working-class neighborhood with another WPC (Jessica Gunning), seeking clues and evidence. The crime’s resolution will take all six episodes to sort out, during which Tennison will blossom before our eyes. A related case, involving an elaborate bank heist, will further test her resolve. It’s pretty involving stuff. The fear going into the prequel, I suspect, was that the writers would push too hard on the sexism of veteran male cops – a bias that never really escaped Tennison – and that they might be treated shabbily as subordinate characters. They’re not. The semi-obligatory love interest rears its head by mid-series, but it, too, is handled with kid gloves. The best part is the verisimilitude accorded the supporting characters, headquarters setting and exterior locations. That, and a credible last-minute surprise, or two. The worst is the insertion of period rock hits, just in case viewers forget that this is 1973. It easy to see, as well, how Martini’s WPC Jane Tennison would evolve into Helen Mirren’s sainted Detective Inspector Jane Tennison. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and a backgrounder, comparing the two Tennisons.

Now showing on PBS affiliates here, as well, is the second season of “The Tunnel,” an Anglo-French co-production that not only extends the drama and interpersonal relations of Season One, but continues to honor its source. “The Bridge” was set largely on the bridge separating Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden. Like that mini-series, which was adapted for re-location to the bridge spanning El Paso and Juarez, the first stanza opens with police on either side of the border debating as to which department has jurisdiction in the case of a severed body found at the precise middle of the bridge. In addition to the language gap, personality traits associated with the chief investigators reflected cross-cultural tropes that were worked into the storylines. Lacking a bridge connecting England and France, the bisected body found in Episode One of Season One of “The Tunnel” lies along the center line of the Chunnel. “The Tunnel: Sabotage” bears a vague resemblance to the second-season plot of “The Bridge,” in that terrorists strike at the center of the crossing, but the culprits aren’t among the usual suspects rounded up in such calamitous events. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell who exactly is responsible for the mysterious downing of a jetliner over the English Channel and what they were hoping to accomplish. We’re encouraged to think of the mini-series as an “investigative thriller” that reveals its intentions in the same way as the wooden figures of a matryoshka doll are revealed, one by one, until only a single nested character is left. Without going into too much detail, the terrorists in “The Tunnel” all appear to have separate agendas, not all of them based on ideologies or religious dogma. The common connection leads to Colonia Dignidad, a Chilean enclave of Nazi exiles, pedophiles, arms traffickers, abused children and Mengele wannabes, that was protected by the Pinochet regime in exchange for the right to use it as a torture chamber. It’s complicated, but not outside the ken of the investigators played by Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy, who truly are pieces of work. The mostly unknown cast of supporting actors has been recruited from a half-dozen European countries. They’re all very good, as well. The Blu-ray adds several behind-the-scene featuretts.

Even with the attention paid recently in theatrical films to the indefensible institution of slavery – and remake of “Roots” — I didn’t think I’d see the day that a weekly series about slaves in the antebellum South was accorded a Season One, let alone a Season Two. Alas, a third season of WGN’s “Underground” wasn’t in the cards. The large cast and high production values must have taken their financial toll. “Underground” tells the story of American heroes and villains of all colors, as well as the harrowing journey of escaped slaves seeking freedom in the north. Anyone still wondering why Harriet Tubman will soon be gracing our $20 bills need look any further than this series.  In the second season, white and black women are given an opportunity to confront their oppressors in armed struggle. The producers don’t shy away from portraying the brutality and indignities suffered by slaves. As such, “Underground” may be too rough for some younger viewers and especially sensitive adults. It should also be noted that the use of a modern music, dialect and grooming enhancements can be off-putting, but no more than those on other historical dramas on TV.

The review of “Prime Suspect: Tennison” that leads this section concerns the prequel to a popular British cop series, starring an actress, Helen Mirren, who would be a tough act to follow in any language. For nearly 20 years, “Inspector Montalbano” has been a big hit in Italy and throughout Europe, and can be enjoyed here on DVD or the streaming service MHz Networks. It, too, spawned a prequel, “Young Montalbano,” that lasted two years and may still be on hiatus. The personality-driven series’ longtime star, Luca Zingaretti, resembles Telly Savalas in a couple of ways, including a pronounced lack of hair and laid-back approach to his job. Montalbano, the creation of 91-year-old novelist Andrea Camilleri, is chief of police of Vigata (a.k.a., Ragusa), a small fictional town on the sun-drenched coast of Sicily. It’s a gorgeous setting for crime and enjoying some of the best food on Earth, al fresco. He has a long-distance girlfriend, Livia (Sonia Bergamasco), but, of course, isn’t averse to inviting one of the show’s gorgeous guest stars to join him for dinner, as well. The new DVD contains episode 29 and 30, “A Nest of Vipers” and “According to Protocol.” In the former, a man arrives at his wealthy father’s villa, only to find him murdered while drinking coffee in the kitchen. There’s no shortage of suspects, not the least of them being the 20 young women he routinely seduced, photographed in the buff and abandoned. Then, there are the folks who owe him money, to be paid off at exorbitant interest rates. The investigation takes another turn when Montalbano discovers that the victim not only was shot, but poisoned hours earlier. If nothing else, the news increases the likelihood of Montalbano arresting someone who feels guilt for a murder they couldn’t have committed. In the latter chapter, a beautiful, if badly beaten and gang-raped  woman manages to drive herself to an apartment building, where she collapses and dies in the foyer. Her intent appears to have been to direct investigators to one of the building’s tenants. In the investigation, during which Montalbano’s two girlfriends meet for the first time, the team uncovers a world of vice and hypocrisy that leaves them all in shock. Montalbano also strikes up a friendship with his new neighbor, a retired judge haunted by the idea that true justice and objectivity may not be possible.

Consumers are rightly advised not look too closely into how the food they eat – hot dogs, especially – is processed and packaged. I grew up in a meat-packing town and it’s a wonder I didn’t turn vegan. The researchers we meet in the BBC’s “Food: Delicious Science” — Dr. Michael Mosley and botanist James Wong – argue persuasively that more we know about the food we put into our bodies, the more we’ll learn to appreciate it. The global culinary adventure “celebrates the physics, chemistry and biology hidden inside every bite of your next meal.” If it tends to do so in microscopic detail, plenty of room is left for an enjoyment of the variety of tastes we savor and, too often, take for granted, including mother’s milk.

When the latest incarnation of Universal’s 85-year-old The Mummy franchise opened around the world, in mid-May, the studio hoped it would be the first installment in a Universal Monsters shared universe, also known as “Dark Universe.” While it did OK at the overseas box office, the Tom Cruise vehicle underperformed at home, despite an expensive publicity campaign. Could it be that shows like the Smithsonian Channel’s “Mummies Everywhere” and “Mummies Alive,” in which the dead stay dead, even as their corpses tell tales from beyond the grave, have dampened our appetite for such folly? Here, the mummies on display come in all shapes and sizes, not merely wrapped in fabric and entombed in gold-leafed caskets. They are as diverse as a Roman soldier buried under Mount Vesuvius ash; an Irish king preserved in a bog; and teenage Inca girl frozen in time at the peak of the world’s tallest active volcano. Most are in astonishingly good condition and, through the miracles provided by modern forensics technology, have fascinating stories to tell.

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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