MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Circle, Amnesia, Lovers, I Am the Blues, Wakefield, Opening Night, 1944, Slither and more

The Circle: Blu-ray
James Ponsoldt worked his way up the ladder by directing and/or co-writing such delicate indie entertainments as The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour and Off the Black. Although the focus of his adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best-selling novel, The Circle, is on Emma Watson’s mousy office worker, Mae Holland, any movie in which Tom Hanks shares the marquee is going to be dominated by a screen persona the equal of Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. In Ponsoldt’s up-to-date paranoid thriller, the 5-foot-5 Brit not only remains in Hanks’ lengthy shadow for most of the film, but she also is dwarfed by the magnitude of the swindle being perpetrated by her employers. As soon as Mae walks onto the Circle’s sprawling corporate campus, she’s greeted with the same blind obeisance to its mission as that once associated with followers of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon. At first, she’s impressed by the in-your-face friendliness of co-workers, as well as the enthusiasm and loyalty generated by Hank’s charismatic Eamon Baily at weekly employee gatherings, where new products and sales goals are introduced. The pep-rally atmosphere also surrounded Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, whenever Apple and Microsoft called a gathering of the tribes. Instead of immediately buying into the corporate culture and relishing the social benefits attached to employment at Circle, however, Mae becomes wary of the perversely collegial atmosphere. Instead of releasing the skeptical employee after a probationary period, her supervisors invite Mae to meet directly with the silver-tongued Baily and his oily associate Stenton (Patton Oswalt). After promising to cover medical expenses for her seriously ill father, they invite her to join a special marketing team enlisted to push an all-invasive product designed to encourage customers to participate in broadly conceived interactive programs. In fact, the company’s most promising product is a mini-camera that allows customers to monitor every move, thought and utterance of a subject or, even, the minute changes in a familiar setting or neighborhood. (Baily choses his favorite surfing beach.) The visuals and data are transmitted via satellite to corporate headquarters, where they’re analyzed and stored in a cloud.

Mae’s contribution to the concept is to suggest that mandatory use of the interactive device could help customers become better citizens and neighbors. They wouldn’t have to leave home to vote and participation would be mandatory. Likewise, responding to surveys and polls no longer would be voluntary. The answers and choices would be monitored and counted by Circle computers, analyzed by Circle employees and fed to election boards and corporate sponsors anywhere and everywhere. The taxpayers benefit from eliminating part of the bureaucratic structure of voting, while companies benefit from instant answers to marketing questions and reducing the dependence on middlemen. A cynic might have pointed out to Mae that a central Cloud – let’s call it the Putin 2016 citizen-bypass calculator – could be engineered to conform to the opinions of its owner or sponsor. Circle could have the final say on any issue or elected official. Far-fetched? Not since Julian Assange and Edward Snowden became household names and Russian hackers interfered with U.S. and French elections. If anything, the sting of Ponsoldt’s cautionary tale was blunted by these revelations. Mae’s enthusiasm for the concept completely evaporated when Bailey’s team overplayed its hand by demonstrating to employees how any criminal – or average citizen, like her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) – could be tracked down, anywhere in the world, and arrested or harassed. Not nice. Any character played by Tom Hanks is going to be a pretty tough nut to crack, however, it will take all the magic left in the former Hermione Granger to save us from corporate tyranny. Again, a bit too obvious.

When compared to Watson and Hanks’ most recent successes – Sully and Beauty and the BeastThe Circle failed to live up to expectations. On the other hand, weighed against Regression and A Hologram for the King, its $20-million take doesn’t look so bad. And, it probably will do OK in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, where marquee names have a distinct advantage. In a sad coincidence, the actors who play Mae’s parents — Bill Paxton and Glenne Headley – both died before the film’s release. It’s impossible to watch The Circle without paying extra close attention to their performances, which, while smallish, provide necessary diversions to the narrative. The affectionate featurette, “A True Original: Remembering Bill Paxton,” was completed in time to be added to the DVD. Headly’s passing, on June 8, due to complications from pulmonary embolism, left too little time for an appreciation here. Both actors, whose deaths were unexpected, were in their early 60s. The Blu-ray adds the four-part, 31-minute “No More Secrets: Completing The Circle” (1080p; 30:56) and “The Future Won’t Wait: Design and Technology,” on the film’s production design.

Apart from directing an episode of “Mad Men,” Oscar- and Palme d’Or-nominated filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Barfly) hasn’t notched a significant credit since Our Lady of the Assassins (2000). He’s been an arthouse fixture since 1975, when Maîtresse, starring Gérard Depardieu and his current wife, Bulle Ogier, introduced S&M to the cineaste crowd. (Not the Shades of Grey or 9½ Weeks pabulum, either.) He even enjoyed some mainstream success here with Reversal of Fortune (1990) and Single White Female (1992). Amnesia won’t make anyone forget his best work, including Koko: A Talking Gorilla and General Idi Amin Dada. He returns to the indie arena with Amnesia, a personal story that should resonate with anyone whose parents harbored secrets that tested their familial bonds. Set in the 1990s, it explores the friendship between an elderly, if still-vital German woman, Martha Sagell (Marthe Keller), living as an expatriate in Ibiza, and a much younger German man, Jo Gellert (Max Riemelt), hoping to make a name for himself as a deejay in the tech-music capital of Europe. Their tidy white-washed homes are located close enough to each other that they can hear each other’s stereo systems on their patios, a hill away. It takes a while before Jo asks Martha why she doesn’t play her piano or speak German with him. She relates a story about losing her musician lover to the Nazis in World War II and how using the language would only bring back horrible memories. Jo doesn’t completely understand the depth of her resentment until he’s paid a visit by his mother (Corinna Kirchhoff) and grandfather (Bruno Ganz), who, as civilians, survived the war and economic troubles that followed. Over a pleasant sun-drenched lunch, they inquire about Martha’s wartime choices, causing her to ask Jo’s grandfather’s role how he avoided conscription. Serious hearing problems kept from the fronts, but not in a position of authority over children destined for the death camps. His mother became a physician, partially in response to her country’s complicity in the Holocausts. It’s allowed both of them to compartmentalize their guilt. While neither is a war criminal, by any means, their memories conflict with what Jo had been taught about that period. Schroeder handles the material with sensitivity and respect for his characters, possibly because he was inspired by the memory of his own mother. In fact, the principal Sant Antoni de Portmany location in Amnesia was acquired by Schroeder’s mother in 1951 and, in 1969, was used during the filming of More. The Film Movement package adds the short, “Your Mother and I,” and statement by the director and company.

The Lovers: Blu-ray
Unlike England and France, where Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Catherine Deneuve and Maggie Smith are still finding rewarding work on the big screen, the most interesting work being offered American actresses above a certain age is on television. Glenn Close and Meryl Streep would appear to be exceptions to the rule, but aren’t nearly as visible outside awards seasons as the European stars. Susan Sarandon remains active, but arguably her best work in years came in FX Networks’ “Feud,” opposite Jessica Lange and Judy Davis. Likewise, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin struck gold in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.” The photo on the copy of The Lovers I received caused me to wonder when I last saw Debra Winger in as prominent a role in a feature. Apart from nice supporting performances in Lola Versus (2012) and Rachel Getting Married (2008), she’s stayed active recently in HBO’s “In Treatment,” Lifetime’s “The Red Tent” and in 30 episodes of Netflix’s “The Ranch.” In Azazel Jacobs’ very grownup dramedy, Winger plays the unhappily married Mary, who’s probably 10 years younger than her own 62 years of age. Her similarly miserable husband, Michael, is played by 52-year-old Tracy Letts (“Homeland”). You can’t tell the difference. Although Mary and Michael sleep in the same bed and are civil to each other at home, both are engaged in affairs with people who can’t wait for their sham marriage to end. They’ve told their lovers that this will occur after their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), returns home to introduce them to his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula). She’s been told to anticipate the homecoming from hell. That’s probably how it would have played out, too, if it weren’t for the impatience of Mary and Michael’s lovers. Lucy (Melora Walters) and Robert (Aidan Gillen) display the kind of rash behavior that makes unhappily married couples reconsider their indiscretions. By the time Joel and Erin arrive, Mary and Michael are acting like newlyweds. Things will happen to shatter the rapprochement, but it isn’t their fault. Their son’s bitterness makes lemons look sweet. Winger and Letts keep us guessing as to how things will turn out with their suddenly likeable characters. That isn’t an easy thing to do when everyone’s misbehaving.

I Am the Blues
Roaring Abyss
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus: Blu-ray
Ever since the 1992 release of Robert Palmer and Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues, musicians, historians and documentary makers have scoured the Mississippi Delta in search of what remains of America’s blues traditions. Peter Meyer’s Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson focused its attention on a legendary bluesman, whose impact on rock ’n’ roll was as great as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The mystery surrounding his death didn’t hurt, either. In Delta Rising: A Blues Documentary (2008), actor and club owner Morgan Freeman helped co-directors Michael Afendakis and Laura Bernieri pinpoint Clarksdale as the still-beating heart of Delta blues. Before that, PBS’ exhaustive seven-part documentary series, “The Blues” (2003), traced the origins and history of the genre from Africa to Mississippi, to Chicago, London and around the world. If Daniel Cross’ I Am the Blues doesn’t break much new ground, it is distinguished by the esteemed presence of octogenarian Bobby Rush. He is one the few active musicians who followed Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed to Chicago, in the 1950s, when the blues went electric. Rush serves here as our guide to the Mississippi Delta’s Chitlin’ Circuit, the state’s northern Hill Country and Louisiana bayous, where guitar and harmonica players his age still perform in juke joints for peanuts and tips. I Am the Blues is far less interested in “rediscovering” artists who weren’t all that famous in the first place – as was the case at the Newport Folk Festivals of the 1960s – than simply enjoying their company and sharing some songs. Among those represented are Barbara Lynn, Little Freddie King, Lazy Lester, Henry Gray, Carol Fran, Bilbo Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, R.L. Boyce, L.C. Ulmer, Lil’ Buck Sinegal and New Orleans maestro Allen Toussaint.

IndiePix’s music-filled Roaring Abyss serves as an ideal companion DVD to Mali Blues, released last week by Icarus Films. Both describe the contemporary music scene in their respective countries, Ethiopia and Mali, on opposite sides of the African continent, facing different obstacles to economic and artistic survival. The musicians we met in Mali Blues were forbidden by Islamic militants from playing any music, while the artists we meet in Roaring Abyss are struggling to maintain traditions, while adopting contemporary trends. Quino Piñero’s journey took him across Ethiopia’s mountains, deserts and forests, where more than 80 ethnic groups and cultures can be differentiated, as well as the teeming bars and musical venues in Addis Ababa. It’s exciting to watch musicians playing such traditional instruments as the Krar (a five- or six-stringed lyre), Washint (a type of flute), Masenqo (single-stringed bowed lute) and Kebero (double-headed membranophone), interact with electronic keyboards and vibrant high-octave singers. The sad thing is knowing that none of the musicians is likely to enjoy a fraction of the success as the worst boy band or Britney Spears wannabe in the U.S.

Movies about jazz musicians can’t help but leave viewers with the blues, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beyond the battles with drugs, booze, cops and mobsters, there’s always the music, where the blues are a good thing. Hollywood only occasionally gets it right, especially when white actors or composers are asked to fill roles that, by all right, should have gone to African-Americans. As much as that tendency has been reversed, there’s still room for the occasional La La Land and Whiplash, in which the spotlight stays mostly on the white protagonists and music by the same white composer. Even so, it can’t be said that Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz’ hearts weren’t in the right place. In 1986, Robert Mugge’s Saxophone Colossus and Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight put the spotlight where it belonged, on saxophones played Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon’s. Two years later, Clint Eastwood’s Bird focused on the third saxophone colossus, Charlie Parker. In 2015, trumpeters Miles Davis and Chet Baker got their due in Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue, respectively. Although he’s been plagued with respiratory problem, Rollins not only has survived almost all of his contemporaries, but he also continues to receive honorary degrees and prestigious accolades. Check out Rollins’ resume and you’ll discover that his foray into cinema began in 1966, with Alfie. It captured the flawed character of Michael Caine’s playboy protagonist and a slice of Swingin’ London not owned by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The centerpiece of Mugge’s film comes when a small crew accompanies Sonny and Lucille Rollins to Tokyo, where the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra premiered his Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra. They also captured the studio-phobic musician and his ensemble performing at the sculpted rock quarry, Opus 40, in Saugerties, New York. Among those interviewed are jazz critics Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins and Francis Davis. MVD Visual’s new release has been given a 4K remastering and an updated commentary by Mugge.

Wakefield: Blu-ray
Writer/director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) based Wakefield on a New Yorker story by E.L. Doctorow, who, in turn, borrowed the idea from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same title in the 1837 collection, “Twice-Told Tales.” There are portions of Wakefield, the movie, that feel just the old and tired. If it weren’t for Bryan Cranston’s fittingly tragicomic performance in the lead role, it might not have enjoyed an afterlife outside the festival circuit. He plays successful New York business executive Howard Wakefield, who, one day, after his daily train ride home, arrives at the conclusion that he no longer wants to participate in his own life. Neither does Howard want to participate in the life of his family, which includes a lovely wife (Jennifer Garner) and twin teenage daughters. He will, however, observe their every move from the middle distance provided by the attic of detached garage. He does so from summer through spring, leaving his habitat to scrounge for food or sneak into the house for a shower. While technically not homeless, Howard might as well be sleeping on park benches and diving into dumpsters for hidden treasures. Diana makes it easy for Howard to eavesdrop on the family by habitually refusing the close the house’s shades and curtain. He used to demand that she do so while dressing, but the nightly show is a poor man’s television. When it comes to securing his daily bread and warm clothing, Howard competes with a local homeless man; Russian immigrants, who descend on the neighborhood an hour or two after garbage canisters are rolled to the street; and a crafty raccoon, whom he comes to resemble. He also benefits from the kindness and generosity of an unlikely set of neighborhood kids. Cranston does a fine job selling his character, but loses his credibility when Howard nearly freezes to death in the attic, instead of, say, hitching a ride to San Diego or Key West.

The Hippopotamus
One of the reasons Americans – some of us, anyway – seek out the adaptations of British literary gems thrown our way by the BBC and ITV is to hear our shared language spoken correctly. That, and the lovely estates that are the natural habitat of ruling-class twits. John Jencks’ adaptation of “The Hippopotamus,” a novel by actor/comedian/writer Stephen Fry (Bright Young Things), qualifies on both fronts. Anglophiles will love the actors’ smart and correct English diction, while cherishing the grandeur of West Wycombe House, in Buckinghamshire. It also recalls Evelyn Waugh, which is a plus. There are too many times, however, when the aristocratic trappings of The Hippopotamus fail to make the leap from page to screen. Roger Allam (“Endeavor”) is almost too credible as the blocked, alcoholic poet, Ted Wallace, whose intolerance for mediocrity recently cost him his job as a theater critic for a major newspaper. The title refers to the character’s obesity, which causes him to feel most comfortable wallowing in a bathtub with drink in hand. After being fired, Wallace’s terminally ill adult godchild, Jane Swann (Emily Berrington), asks him to investigate a series of bizarre occurrences at the mansion, some of which qualify as being miraculous. While incredible, Wallace will discover that they don’t qualify as acts of God. Reaching that conclusion, however, almost pushes him past the point of maintaining a stiff upper lip. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a happy ending. Matthew Modine and Fiona Shaw do a nice a job portraying Lord and Lady Logan, who can afford to hover just above the fray.

Opening Night
Conceived in the same irreverent spirit as “Broadway Babylon,” “Noises Off” and Showgirls, Isaac Rentz’ backstage farce, Opening Night, benefits from energized performances by a familiar cast of second-tier actors, who, conceivably, have endured the same indignities as their characters. Freshmen writers Gerry De Leon and Greg Lisi mine whatever paydirt can be found in being a highly visible flash in the pan in an industry that abhors a sophomore slump. Stage manager Nick (Topher Grace) has the odds stacked against him on opening night of the new Broadway production, “One Hit Wonderland,” a musical starring former NSYNC member, J.C. Chasez. The musical score is comprised of actual songs that reached the top of the charts, before their creators disappeared into a cloud of obscurity. While audience members are dancing in their seats, things could hardly be more dischordant backstage. Among other things, Nick’s talented ex-girlfriend, Chloe (Alona Tal), is about to escape understudy hell, when leading lady Brooke (Anne Heche) experiences the same calamity as Gina Gershon in the aforementioned Showgirls. Once Chloe shows what she can do, she becomes a target for J.C.’s none too subtle come-ons. Meanwhile, a prima donna back-up dancer (Taye Diggs) enters into a competition with a bodaciously busty chorus girl (Carly Anderson) for rights to the new chorus boy. (She’s too dimwitted to realize that he, like all the other chorus boys, is gay.) Temperamental producer (Rob Riggle) blames Nick for every misstep and blunder, except for Chloe’s breakthrough performance, for which he’s perfectly willing to take credit. Like any farce worth its salt, Opening Night gets crazier as it nears the 90-minute barrier. The sheer likeability of the one-hit-wonder songs compensates for most of the story’s lapses.

First-time writer/director John Alexander cut his workload in half by choosing to tell the true story of Kansas’ Bloody Benders, believed to be America’s first known family of serial killers. All he was required to do was add some Little Slaughter House on the Prairie atmospherics and voila, the festival-ready thriller, Bender. The killings of at least 11 men, women and children began after a family of German immigrants – Trump alert! – moved into a wooden cabin just outside Independence. The Benders converted half of the building to a modest general store, separated from the living quarters by a canvas wagon-cover. In addition to the groceries, strangers were attracted to the store by the promise of a psychic reading by creepy 23-year-old daughter, Kate Bender (Nicole Jellen). If the visitor stayed for dinner, Pa or Ma Bender would sneak behind the canvas, smash his skull with a hammer and slice his throat with a razor. They would bury the body in the garden behind the house, barely covered by dirt. Alexander opens Bender with an actual photo of the house, showing one of the holes dug by deputies, looking for corpses. All that stood between the Benders and the Rockies was prairie. He maintains the desolate tone throughout the length of the 80-minute movie. Sadly, just as viewers have committed their focus to the story … it’s over. Even a quick perusal of the Wikipedia page devoted to the murders would argue for another half-hour’s worth of story, most of which would describe the police chase that covered most of the Midwest. Instead, Bender ends all too abruptly with an ambiguous postscript. Also appearing are Bruce Davison, Linda Purl, James Karen and Jon Monastero, who plays the doctor who died investigating the disappearance of a different family, and his twin brother, a lawman.

In the unusually philosophical World War II drama, 1944, Estonian filmmaker and theater director Elmo Nüganen picks up where his debut movie, Names Engraved in Marble, left off in 2002 … sort of. It chronicled the Estonian War of Independence, which occurred between 1918 and 1920, after German occupation forces went home and Bolshevik soldiers attempted to fill the vacuum. Their defeat led to Estonian independence, if only for 22 years. Names Engraved in Marble, which I haven’t seen, deals specifically with the students caught in an ideological split between those espousing Estonian nationalism and Marxist dogma. The fate of Estonia in the Second World War was decided by the German–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and its Secret Additional Protocol of August 1939. They ensured that Estonia would be split once again by outside forces and opposing ideologies. Men would be forcibly conscripted by whichever power held sway when the treaties were broken by Hitler. Estonians, who were given no choice in the matter, had every reason to distrust both sides, even as they were forced to don foreign uniforms and pick up arms against their brothers. Estonia ended up with more than 50,000 men of combat age conscripted to fight for the Red Army and over 70,000 for the German military. The events depicted in 1944 take place between July’s battle of the Tannenberg Line and the Red Army’s occupation of the Sorve peninsula, five months later. Although many of the soldiers feared what might happen if their side lost, they also knew that they could end up in Berlin or Siberia, along with family members. Either way, it meant almost certain death. Some Estonians fighting for the Germans simply took the uniforms off the enemy dead and joined the Soviets.

Lacking even this much historical background, it took a while for me to figure out who was who and what was what in 1944. Even more perplexing was the emotional gridlock precipitated by not knowing which side to support. The Estonians conscripted into the Waffen SS – the Wehrmacht only accepted Germans – were, in effect, serving as the handmaidens of Satan incarnate. Neither is it easy to cheer for the success of the Red Army troops, whose officers swore allegiance to a different monster, Stalin, and vowed to kill anyone who didn’t strictly adhere to Soviet principles, prejudices and thuggery. Deaths attributed to the war and back-to-back-to-back occupations have been estimated at 90,000, including those suffered in the Soviet deportations of 1941, the subsequent German deportations and Holocaust victims killed in locally established concentration camps. Instead, Nüganen encourages viewers to focus on individual soldiers and their struggle to stay alive and unsoiled by war crimes. He adds a romantic angle that further complicates our feelings, while also demonstrating how civilians persevered at the crossroads of war. As much as American audiences will want to hold their enthusiasm for the re-establishment of independence in the Baltic states, we know that it wouldn’t occur, again, until 1991. Who knows what could happen if Vladimir Putin wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and decides to annex Estonia, as he did Crimea. The only thing I didn’t care much for is the English dubbing, which lacks emotion.

The Black Room: Blu-ray
Just in case anyone needed to be reminded about the perils of teenagers mixing booze, drugs and Ouija boards, along comes Stephen Shimek’s nifty little horror flick, Nocturne, to add a few new wrinkles. When Isaac and Vi’s plan to throw a grand graduation party peter out, due to scarcity of invited guests, the half-dozen teens who do show up decide to pull out a Ouija board and see what the spirits have to say about their collective future. Instead of making up a lie about better times ahead, the malevolent spirit decides to play a game of its own. It patiently waits inside the house for the kids to wear themselves out before striking. When it does, however, it’s like a nightmare come to life. Part of the attraction here is Shimek’s creative deployment of assets, starting with the limited amount of space for the spirit to hide and opportunities for partygoers to reveal their deep, dark secrets and hidden desires … such as they might be for people their age. The makeup effects are quite decent, as well, again considering the extremely limited budget.

It seems like only yesterday when I was warning readers off Last Day of School, an extremely lazy and completely vapid exploitation flick written by the hyper-prolific Rolfe Kanefsky. Little did I know that two weeks later another Kanefsky vehicle would be heading my way. This time, the Hampshire College alumnus doubled down by serving as writer and director of the haunted-house thriller, The Black Room. It wouldn’t be difficult for any movie to be exponentially better than the Vegas-set Last Day of School, so merely pointing out that The Black Room is a better film could be construed as damning with faint praise. But, it is. The house in question has claimed one set of owners, at least, before Paul and Jennifer Hemdale (Lukas Hassel, Natasha Henstridge) claim it as their dream home. It’s tough to say how many evil spirits inhabit the place, because they/it are invisible (at first, anyway) and capable of bringing Paul and Jennifer to orgasm simultaneously, without them knowing whose fingers are pulling the strings. The next thing they know, a repairman disappears in the basement … behind the black door they failed to open during the inspection. When the demon takes possession of Paul’s body, it’s free to roam around the house and take advantage of all pleasures of the flesh, including that attached to the wee skeleton of Jennifer’s goth sister, Karen (Augie Duke, who currently has more than 15 projects in the production cycle). Can they remedy the problem or will it be passed along to the next buyer? If the gag isn’t particularly original, the supernatural sex scenes take up the slack.

Slither: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Judging solely from the cover art, Slither could be anything from a sui generis creature feature to a Troma-like parody of such grisly entertainments. And, yes, the Toxic Avenger does make a cameo performance here. It is James Gunn’s first directorial foray away from Lloyd Kaufman’s plantation, where his name was attached to “The Tromaville Café,” “Hamster” and “Sgt. Kabukiman” PSAs and “Troma’s Edge TV.” Eight years later, Gunn would stun Hollywood with the international hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, which cost 155 million more dollars to make than Slither. Typically, it opens with a meteor crash-landing in a forest, somewhere in redneck country. Turns out, this isn’t just any meteor. Contained within its rocky exterior are thousands of slug-like creatures drawn, like vampires, to human blood. In addition to sucking the nutrients out of its host – the first one being a wealthy doofus, Grant Grant, played by Michael Rooker – the victims begin wandering around town like zombies. His wife, Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), sees the humanity in her husband, even as he starts to resemble a beached sperm whale, with tentacles. The only person she can trust is an old boyfriend, who’s now the local sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion). What differentiates Slither from dozens of other meteor-borne disaster movies are the many verbal and visual homages to classic horror flicks and state-of-the-art makeup effects. The Scream Factory “Collector’s Edition” adds a new acommentary track, with Gunn, Rooker and Nathan Fillion; a lengthy interview with Gunn; a chat with Gregg Henry, who plays Mayor Jack MacReady; vintage commentary with Gunn and Fillion; deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary; a “slithery” set tour; a half-dozen making-of featurettes; Lloyd Kaufman’s “Video Diary”; and a gag reel.

BBC/PBS: Remember Me
Audience/DirecTV: Kingdom: Seasons One and Two
Amazon: Fortitude: The Complete Second Season
PBS: America’s Test Kitchen: Season 17
TimeLife: The Best of Harvey Korman
Michael Palin’s performance in BBC/PBS’ “Remember Me” isn’t the only good reason to watch the three-part mini-series, but, for “Monty Python” faithful, anyway, it’s as good an entry point as any. Among the other things worth mentioning are sterling performances by Mark Addy and Jody Comer; the hauntingly gray Yorkshire setting; and a ghost story Stephen King might wish he’d written. Palin plays Tom Parfitt, a forlorn gent who looks 70, but could be well into his hundreds. In fact, Parfitt probably stopped counting birthdays a full lifetime ago, when his Indian bride, Isha, died just after their honeymoon. Since then, he’s convinced himself that her spirit’s never left his side and doesn’t want him to stray from home. Finally, though, Parfitt decides to fake an injury sufficiently severe to have him placed in a nursing home. No sooner does he lay down his suitcase than the social worker who accompanies him is thrown from the seemingly impenetrable fourth floor window of his room. One by one, strange things begin happening to those in contact with Tom, including a teenage caregiver, Hannah (Comer), and a skeptical copper, Rob Fairholme (Addy). They include leaky ceilings, soggy carpets and untimely appearances by sari-wearing apparitions. Meanwhile, the clouds that fill the skies over Yorkshire grow heavier and infinitely more foreboding. On the eve of World War I, in a rush to return to India, Isha stowed away on a ship doomed never to arrive at its destination. Although her drowned body washed ashore, it went unidentified. When the next Mrs. Parfitt died, as well, only hours after their honeymoon, Tom blamed Isha for the accident. From that point on, he became a recluse. All of the clues to what happened, and might happen to Hannah and her 10-year-old brother, can be found in the lyrics to the different versions of “Scarborough Fair” cluttering Tom’s home. The mini-series’ creator, Gwyneth Hughes, has spent most of the last 10 years writing such shows as “The Girl,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Under the Skin,” “Five Days” and “Miss Austen Regrets.” This one is genuinely scary.

As if to prove that a prime-time soap can be molded from any contemporary workplace or family situation, Audience Network and DirecTV’s “Kingdom” has built a rather decent serial drama around a motley collection of MMA fighters, ex-cons, steroid abusers, alcoholics, junkies, whores and soft-hearted molls. And, of course, it’s set in Venice, California, where people like that can be found at the local Ralph’s, 12-step meetings and PTA gatherings. Showrunner Byron Balasco almost dares viewers to form an emotional attachment with any of the characters, including Frank Grillo’s Alvey Kulina, who owns the Navy Street Gym and whose two sons (Nick Jonas, Jonathan Tucker) are MMA fighters. The women, Lisa Prince (Kiele Sanchez), Natalie Martinez (Alicia Mendez) and the matriarch, Christina Kulina (Joanna Going), as usual, provide emotional, financial and sexual healing for their rowdy laddies. (Rocky’s Talia Shire makes an appearance at the end of the third and final season.) Another compelling storyline involves Matt Lauria (“Parenthood”), an overly amped-up former champion, trying to make his way back up the ladder after a few years in prison. The person responsible for the actors’ tattoos probably deserves consideration for an Emmy. As befits the times, there’s even an LGBTQ throughline. The nine-disc DVD set includes all 30 episodes from the first two seasons.

For as long as anyone can remember, the remote northern Norwegian outpost, Fortitude, has been one of the safest towns on Earth. Until the launch of Season One of the Amazon Studios’ series not a single violent crime was reported there. By the midpoint of “Fortitude: The Complete Second Season,” at least a half-dozen bodies are found, beheaded, sliced open and their tongues removed. If that weren’t sufficiently ominous, there’s the occasional carnivorous reindeer, crazed polar bear and poisonous wasp. Showrunner Simon Donald (“The Deep,” “Low Winter Sun”) turns that rather simple setup into a frequently frightening mashup of The Thing and “Twin Peaks.” The international cast includes Richard Dormer, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Sofie Gråbøl, Sienna Guillory, Mia Jexen, Verónica Echegui, Ken Stott, Michelle Fairley, Michael Obiora, Parminder Nagra, Luke Treadaway and Dennis Quaid, who look as if he’s in his element here … the here, being scenic Reyðafjörður, Iceland, as Fortitude. Amazon has yet to decide if the show – which, by the way, is extremely gory – will be accorded a third stanza.

From the kitchens of PBS comes “America’s Test Kitchen: Season 17,” a show targeted at people who love to eat the food they buy and prepare, hate to be called “foodies,” don’t worship at the altar of celebrity chefs or care who wins “Iron Chef.” The formula is tried and true: “develop, refine and test recipes, again and again, until they arrive at the very best versions … discover the best ingredients, gadgets and kitchen equipment for the money.” The new volume is comprised of 26 episodes on four discs, featuring dishes from all corners of the globe, ranging from breakfast through dessert, with room for takeout.

As the story goes, the producers of “The Carol Burnett Show” wanted a “Harvey Korman-type” to be Burnett’s “second banana,” but didn’t bother to ask him if he was interested in the job, because he was already a regular on “The Danny Kaye Show.” Unbeknownst to her, Kaye’s show was about to get the axe after a four-year run, so, when she confronted Korman in a CBS parking lot, he cheerfully accepted her offer. His tenure as television’s top second banana lasted 10 years, during which time he won four Primetime Emmys and a Grammy. Guest stars on “The Best of Harvey Korman” include Sid Caesar, Diahann Carroll, Tim Conway, Ella Fitzgerald, Bernadette Peters and Nancy Wilson, along with classic long-running sketches, “V.I.P.,” “Carol and Sis” and “The Old Folks.”  Like the Tim Conway collection before it, the best of Korman could hardly be contained on a single disc, but price isn’t bad.

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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