MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Good Time, Hitman’s Bodyguard, Tavernier’s Journey, Valerion, Lemon, Jabberwocky, Mick Ronson, Harmonium and more

IMG_0174Good Time: Blu-ray
It’s been eight years since critics predicted great things from Josh and Benny Safdie’s semi-autobiographical dramedy, Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a., “Go Get Some Rosemary”) impressed audiences at Cannes and, two years later, was nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards, taking home the prestigious John Cassavetes Award. Audiences weren’t given much access to it, except in DVD. Between then and now, the Safdies focused their energy on several festival-favorite shorts (“The Black Balloon”) and documentaries (“Lenny Cooke”), and Heaven Knows What, a harrowing feature that revisited the same territory assayed in Panic in Needle Park (1971). Released in 2014, it once again impressed festival judges and critics, without making a dent at the box office. Their race-against-the-clock crime thriller, Good Time, followed the same route to theaters, but, this time, was able to parlay the presence of Robert Pattison into a decent run at a few hundred theaters here and abroad. The actor has come a long way from his tenure as Edward Cullen, in the “Twilight” series. Like Kristen Stewart, his co-star and love interest in “Twilight,” Pattison’s taken on several challenging roles — The Childhood of a Leader, Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, The Lost City of Z – at least partially intended to challenge the public’s impressions of what he’s capable of accomplishing on screen. Good Times may be his most impressive transformation to date. Tuesday, Pattison’s performance was honored with a Indie Spirit nomination, his first, along with nods for Best Editing (Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie), Best Supporting Actor (Bennie Safdie), Best Supporting Actress (Taliah Lennice Webster), Best Director (Benny and Josh Safdie).

Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a bonehead hoodlum from Queens, who embarks on a one-night odyssey through New York’s criminal underworld in a desperate attempt to rescue his mentally retarded brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), from a heavily guarded ward in hospital. After extracting Nick from a court-ordered therapy session earlier in the day, Connie brings him along on a bank robbery that the dimwitted young man is singularly ill-prepared to handle. They get away with a duffle bag full of money, without anticipating that the teller might have spiked the bills with dye packs. When one explodes in their getaway car, Nick completely freaks out. One blunder leads to another and he is arrested and sent to Riker’s Inland, where the other inmates aren’t nearly as compassionate towards his limitations as Connie has been. A fight ensues, leaving Nick in a Manhattan hospital and a $25,000 bond hanging over his head. Brotherly love dictates that Connie raise the bail money or, failing that, bust him out of the hospital. Instead, he mistakes an alcoholic parolee for Nick, escaping with him into the New York night once again to come up with the money to cover the bail. This time, though, finds shelter with a 16-year-old waif, Crystal (Taliah Webster), who hooks him up with a manufacturer of LSD and aspires to nothing greater than being a gangster’s moll. In some ways, the brothers in Good Time remind me of George and Lenny, in “Of Mice and Men.” Apparently, the original screenplay – co-written by Josh Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein – was written more as a buddy comedy than a dark and scary thriller, whose urgency is magnified by a pulsating score by Cannes-winner Daniel Lopatin (The Bling Ring). In an interview with Charlie Rose, Benny Safdie said that he and Pattinson prepared for their roles by working in-character at a car wash in Queens. That rings true, as well. The disc adds the featurette, ”The Pure and the Damned”; a music video; and commentary with the Safdies, producer Sebastian Bear McClard, and actors Taliah Webster and Buddy Duress.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Blu-ray
Capping what was designated by Box Office Mojo as the worst August in two decades and worst summer in more than 10 years, the all-action buddy flick The Hitman’s Bodyguard brought smiles to faces at Lionsgate with three No. 1 postings in a row. The $30-million investment returned $75.5 million at the domestic box office and another $101.2 million in foreign sales. Shot on multiple locations in the Netherlands, England and Bulgaria, Patrick Hughes and Tom O’Connor’s extensively re-conceptualized story – from dramatic thriller, to comedy/romance — looks as if it might have cost twice that much to make. It stars such international favorites as Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung and Joaquim de Almeida and features car/boat chases galore. Neither Jackson nor Reynolds is required to stretch very far from their well-established personae, the former clocking 122 expletives in 118 minutes and the latter struggling to maintain his cool in the face of his client’s life-threatening antics. As their constantly tested love interests, Hayek and Yung aren’t asked to do much more than look good – OK, great – while waiting for their boyfriends to grow up and occasionally beating up bad guys. Ryan plays the titular bodyguard, whose reputation took a substantial hit when a high-profile client was assassinated by a gunman, situated at a distance so far away from the target that he could have escaped to Brazil before anyone located the shell casings. Jackson is the world-class hitman whose testimony at the International Criminal Court, at The Hague, is necessary to convict a notorious Eastern European leader of war crimes. Part of the deal involves the freeing of his girlfriend (Hayek) from prison in return for his cooperation. The ongoing gag involves Jackson’s Darius Kincaid continually attempting to out-maneuver Reynold’s by-the-book Michael Bryce in their danger-fraud trip from Manchester to The Hague. If there’s one thing that Kincaid enjoys doing more than showing up his former rival, it’s offering advice to him about his tenuous relationship with the Interpol agent (Yung) who hired him. The Hitman’s Bodyguard reportedly was made from a script included on the 2011 Black List of unproduced screenplays. Originally intended as a drama, it underwent a “frantic” two-week rewrite when the decision was made, at the last minute, to turn it into an action comedy. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes, outtakes and deleted/extended/alternate scenes.

My Journey Through French Cinema: Blu-ray
The Film Critic
Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema is a documentary for film buffs who miss sitting in a café or bar, discussing the movie they’ve just seen with friends who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions or having opinions worth sharing. Although the introduction of wine and snack bars to arthouses multiplexes has provided a comfortable place to extend the cinematic experience, it’s gotten far too easy watch the movies we want to see on high-definition monitors, at home, and try to stay awake before the screen goes dark. Given that most Hollywood movies defy further analysis and most post-mortems are limited to, “So, what did you think?,” it’s nice to hear smart people talk about movies as if they still matter … because, they do … somewhere. Tavernier’s life in film began when he was a boy and his family moved from Lyon, where they provided a refuge and a salon for the anti-Vichy intelligentsia, to post-war Paris. With the Nazis gone, Tavernier was able to haunt re-opened theaters and devour movies by such American directors as William Wellman, Henry Hathaway and John Ford. He almost made it through law school, but invested too much of his time at the Cinémathèque to succeed at the bar. Instead, he located the first step on the ladder to a film career and climbed every rung, until he convinced himself that he was qualified to make the leap from crusading critic and press agent for important artists, to co-writer/director of The Clockmaker of St. Paul, an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that won prestigious prizes at the 1974 Berlin International Film Festival. Of all his titles, the one most likely to strike a chord with American audiences is ‘Round Midnight (1986), for which jazz great Dexter Gordon received a Best Actor nomination. At a none-too-brisk 200 minutes, “My Journey” overflows with recollections, opinions, observations, conversations and criticism, not just about the French cinema, but its various influences and inspirations. It’s also loaded with clips chosen to amplify his points. Naturally, Francophiles and graduate students will find “My Journey” infinitely more provocative than most viewers, even those capable of picking Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura and Eddie Constantine from a police lineup in a B-movie. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a tentative preview of a follow-up series for French television.

It’s been said of movie critics that they spend so much time in darkened screening rooms or at a lonely desk, staring into a computer screen, that they have no real conception of how life plays out in the real world. While that may sound a tad harsh, ask your friendly local critic how much time they have to themselves between the start of awards season and the day their lists of 10-best and 10-worst films are due. The movie-reviewers’ dodge has changed considerably since the mainstream media started jettisoning scholarly types as if they were so much ballast on a hot-air balloon. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, screening rooms, themselves, are giving way to streaming codes, discs and the instant analysis of tweets and texts. Only a relatively few writers actually get paid for their thoughts, devaluing their opinions, no matter how astute or entertaining. Even so, there’s no denying the hard work and passion that go into the countless reviews that pop up on the Internet each week, even if the elimination of copy editors sometimes makes it difficult for readers to get through them. It’s for that reason that Argentine filmmaker Hernán Gerschuny’s uneven debut feature, The Film Critic, feels so anachronistic. It follows Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), a world-weary Buenos Aires critic who’s grown weary of being disappointed by every new release and writing negative reviews to justify his pitiful existence. (Or, being tortured by his editor for not cutting a popcorn movie an occasional break.) Because he prefers to think in French, instead of his native Spanish, he self-diagnoses himself as suffering from ennui and maladie du cinema. And, yes, in plain English he’s, a bit of a pill. In a decent twist that doesn’t really find its grip until halfway through the movie, Tellez falls for a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who’s his polar opposite in almost every way possible. More Sandra Bullock than Catherine Deneuve, she might as well be a refugee from an old-fashioned Lifetime rom-com. If it were possible for Tellez to simply live in the moment, he might enjoy the ride. Instead, he agonizes over his good fortune as if he’s just seen the latest head-scratcher by Terence Malick and he only has 20 minutes to write his review.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Once again, I’m at a loss to explain what’s right or wrong with a movie – in this case, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — that’s based on a long-running comic-book series I’ve never seen and, in any case, was published in French, before being translated into several other languages I don’t understand. Neither was I aware of the animated French-Japanese television series, “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline,” likewise based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic strip, “Valérian and Laureline,” which ran from 1967 to 2010 and spawned several graphic novels. The TV series first aired in France in 2007, racking up 40 episodes before disappearing into the wild blue yonder. Nor can I recall much of Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997), parts of which were inspired by key elements in the comic strip. The only thing I know for sure about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it cost a shitload of money to make and market – at $200-plus million, the most expensive French film to date – and only returned $40 million at the U.S. box office. It did better overseas, but not well enough to cover the total nut. It was recorded in English to avoid just such a debacle. The one positive thing I’m willing to say with any certainty is that the money spent on special effects and CGI technology was well spent. Brilliantly colorful backgrounds, sparkling pearls, azure skies and neon-lit marketplaces compete for our attention with purposefully drab steampunk machinery, while the 200 different alien species resemble a Who’s Who of fanciful characters from franchises ranging from Star Wars, Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, to Barbarella, Cowboys & Aliens and Avatar. They all really pop in 4K UHD. Prior to the date production began, Besson wrote a 600-page book describing each of the characters. He insisted that cast members read it, so they could adjust their performances to the alien character with which they were interacting. Unfortunately, viewers unfamiliar with the mythology aren’t nearly as well-equipped to handle the on-screen traffic jam and convoluted throughlines. In the 28th Century, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), they embark on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures in a peaceful and collegial manner. A dark force inside Alpha’s core threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. That’s all. Some of the fun derives from watching Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer and Benoît Jacquot deliver their lines in silly costumes and industrial-strength makeup. No amount of makeup could hide the beauty of Pearl royalty, as played by model/actors Aymeline Valade and Sasha Luss. Frankly, though, I suggest to newcomers to the story that they check out episodes of “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline” or chapters of the comic strip available on the Internet, before attempting the movie. The Blu-ray and UHD packages include the hour-long “Citizens of Imagination: Creating the Universe of Valerian,” 14 separate enhancement pods and a photo gallery.

Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo describes her first feature, Lemon, as a dark, absurdist comedy about failure. (Although her name sounds as if she might be from Eastern Europe, Bravo is a black native of Panama, who currently lives in Brooklyn.) Her husband/collaborator, Brett Gelman, plays an acting coach, Isaac Lachmann, who, like a continually malfunctioning automobile, is a lemon waiting to be recalled by the factory for a complete overhaul. It’s the kind of role Steve Martin played at the start of his career – The Lonely Guy, Pennies From Heaven, The Jerk – but, in doing so, didn’t make audiences so uncomfortable that they might consider leaving the theater in tears. While it’s not difficult to sympathize with Isaac’s growing inability to connect with his blind, unfaithful girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) or having to endure Passover Seder with his oppressively stereotypical family, it doesn’t take long for him to remind us of his less-empathetic qualities. They include berating acting students, as if his paying jobs weren’t limited to public-service-announcements for terrible diseases, and imposing himself on people totally unprepared for his complete lack of social graces. When Isaac begins dating a black woman of Caribbean background (Nia Long), Bravo introduces us to a family that’s the Jamaican equivalent of her protagonist’s dysfunctional clan. We’re no more comfortable in their company than we were watching Isaac react to his family’s atonal sing-along to “A Million Matzoh Balls.” Clearly, Lemon isn’t for everyone. It should appeal, however, to anyone who’s aspired to be an actor and taken classes from someone who thinks he’s Stanislavski, but begrudges the good fortune of students who find work in the movies or television. In such offbeat television series as “Married,” “Another Period” and “Blunt Talk,” Gelman has played variations of the same character so often that it’s possible to wonder how close to the bone his portrayal of Isaac might be. The excellent supporting cast includes Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Jeff Garlin, Shiri Appleby, Megan Mullally, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, David Paymer and Conrad Roberts. The bonus material includes deleted/extended scenes and interviews with Bravo and Gelman.

Jabberwocky: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released in the direct wake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the final season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Jabberwocky suffered in the media from comparisons to those ground-breaking entertainments and a generally held misconception that Terry Gilliam’s directorial feature debut was an extension of the Python empire. Although it starred Michael Palin and featured appearances by Gilliam, Terry Jones and Neil Innes (“The Seventh Python”) – alongside a veritable Who’s Who of post-war British comedy – the humor in Jabberwocky wasn’t intended to be savored in segments, as was the case in the series and “Holy Grail.” However outlandish it could be, the 105-minute film had an easily recognizable beginning, middle and end. Described as a “giddy romp through blood and excrement,” Jabberwocky was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same title, which was included in his 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Although the verse defies translation, Gilliam and co-writer Charles Alverson (Brazil) imagined a scenario in which an impoverished barrelmaker’s apprentice, Dennis Cooper (Palin) commits himself to making himself worthy of the less-than-lovely Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland). He leaves for the city, but not before his elusive beloved throws a potato at him, which he keeps as a cherished memento. The residents are paralyzed with fear over the appearance of a monstrous creature, the Jabberwock, that Gilliam says was inspired by Godzilla and chickens, in equal measure. Unable to find work, Dennis stumbles into the chambers of King Bruno the Questionable’s beautiful, if stupid daughter (Deborah Fallender). She mistakes him for the winner of a jousting contest called to determine the knight most qualified to battle the Jabberwock. Instead, the Princess decides to dress him in the guise of a nun and send him out to the countryside, where the peasants mistake him for Satan. It’s only by accident that he’s able to slay the beast.

The king delivers on his promise, but, in doing so, forces Dennis to decide between the Princess and a substantial dowry, or going home to live an uneventful life with an obese peasant girl who might end up rejecting him, anyway. In an interview included in the Criterion set, Gilliam says he perceived the kingdom to be the anti-Camelot, with a king who’s an oafish lout; a Princess whose beauty can’t disguise her unsuitability as royalty; a castle that’s on the verge of collapsing; a hero who wants nothing valuable in return for his courageous act; merchants and clerics who take pride in being greedy and corrupt; wretched peasants who don’t look as if they were culled from crowd scenes in Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella; and tournaments in which losers’ blood drenches the spectators, independent of their rank in society. Although Jabberwocky failed to find a ready audience in its theatrical run, it succeeded as a cult favorite on video. Made on an impossibly tight $500,000 budget, it finally began making the kind of money it deserved. The director-approved Blu-Ray edition features a 4K digital transfer from a restoration by the BFI National Archive and the Film Foundation; a 5.1 surround mix, supervised by Gilliam and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio; vintage commentary with Gilliam and  Palin; a new documentary on the making of the film, featuring Gilliam, Palin, Badland and producer Sandy Lieberson; an interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs; a selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches; and an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly two years since David Bowie left this mortal coil for points unknown and the vacuum left behind still sucks, in all sorts of ways. Less noticed has been the 24-year absence of guitar virtuoso and original Spider From Mars, Mick Ronson. Jon Brewer and Scott Rowley’s extremely compelling rockumentary, Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, goes a long way toward establishing his place in the pantheon of unsung collaborators and extraordinary sidemen. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Bowie’s narration in this celebration of the Kingston-Upon-Hull native’s life and art. Like so many such partnerships, the Bowie/Ronson connection was as much an accident as anything else. After failing to make a name for himself in London, Ronson returned to Hull, where a former mate found him marking out a rugby pitch as part of his duties as a Parks Department gardener. The musician was scouting talent for an early version of Bowie’s touring band and an electric guitar was needed for a gig on John Peel’s national BBC Radio 1 show. It didn’t take long for Bowie to recognize Ronson’s ability to play guitar, piano, violin, arrange and eventually score music that helped propel Bowie into the stratosphere, with “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and ended with the infamous “Farewell Concert,” in 1973. It would take the Spiders’ breakup for fellow rockers, critics and audiences to understand what Ronson meant to Bowie’s early success. Business relations within the Spiders were abysmal, as was top-down communication. While attempting to spark a solo career, Ronson collaborated with such established artists as Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Lulu, Lou Reed, David Cassidy, Roger Daltry, John Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett and Morrissey. It didn’t translate into much money, but the hardest blow was still to come. During a short visit to his sister in London, Ronson was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. He survived the original prognosis by a year, long enough for a final high-profile performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, in 1992, where he played on “All the Young Dudes,” with Bowie and Hunter, and “Heroes” with Bowie. “Beside Bowie” gives credit where it’s due, through archival backstage footage, Mick Rock’s photography and substantial interviews with Hunter, Reed, Lisa & Maggi Ronson, Angie Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Glen Matlock, Cherry Vanilla, Earl Slick and David Stopps. Bowie fans are encouraged to give their albums another spin, this time to savor Ronson’s contributions. The disc adds several extended interviews.

Kôji Fukada’s complex family drama, Harmonium, is intended as a companion piece to his 2010 dark comedy, Hospitalite, which could only be seen at a handful of festivals or on a Film Movement DVD. Irony fairly drips from the titles. Harmonium came about only after Fukada determined that “Fuchi ni tatsu” — literally, “Standing on the edge” — didn’t carry the same nuance when translated. Harmony is a favored trait of Japanese families and a harmonium plays a key role in both the narrative and household of the protagonist. It’s the discordance that’s generated by the truth that drives Harmonium, however. Outside of the fact that the husband, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), and his wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), don’t seem to have much in common anymore — most obviously, religion – their life revolves around their daughter, who’s kept busy rehearsing for a recital. Things begin to change, almost imperceptibly, when an old friend of Toshio’s appears out of the blue and not only is given a job at the machine shop in the garage, but also a room in the house. At first, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), is as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. We know that he’s spend the last several years in prison, but not the reason. Yasaka makes headway by mentoring the girl on the harmonium, then providing an ear for Akié’s religious views. His attentiveness serves as an aphrodisiac, even if she’s reluctant to give in to her desire. Again, out of the blue, something happens to drastically change the course of the drama. Even when the story is advanced by seven years, or so, and Yasaka is physically removed from the surroundings, his memory shrouds the second half like a raincloud. Fukuda keeps a firm hand on the wheel throughout this emotionally draining transition. By allowing some sunshine to sneak past the cloud’s dark edges, the audience is always kept guessing at where we’re being taken. The package adds an interview with Furutachi and Fukada’s short, “Birds.”

The Villainess: Blu-ray
I don’t know how the Korean producers of Jung Byung-gil’s hyperviolent thriller, The Villainess, were able to avoid crediting Luc Besson and La Femme Nikita as the inspiration, at least, for their story. The script also appears to borrow plot points from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, without acknowledging its influence. The possibility of an imprisoned woman being turned into a killing machine to serve the whims of a government agency or criminal organization might be considered too generic a concept to warrant attribution. No matter, because once the protagonist begins kicking serious ass – in a scene straight out of a first-person p.o.v. shooting game — The Villainess doesn’t leave much time for idle conjecture. Kim Ok-bin (Thirst) easily holds her own against the martial-arts chops of Anne Parillaud, Bridget Fonda, Uma Thurman, Maggie Q and Peta Wilson, all of whom have played what essentially is the same character. The biggest difference might be Kim’s ability to wield a hatchet with the same skill as a bushido blade or high-powered rifle. As the story goes, after Sook-hee (Kim) witnessed her father’s murder, as a child, she was raised by gangsters to be a skilled fighter and a ruthless killer. Then, days after her marriage to her boss and mentor, he’s also murdered. Her desire for revenge leads to that exciting opening, when Sook-hee storms into the rival gang’s headquarters and, corridor after corridor, wipes out several dozen men in identical dark suits. The slaughter only gets her into the inner sanctum, where the rival boss’ bodyguards offer a more formidable defense. After all is said and done, she emerges with three tiny scratches and in police custody.

The government agents who’ve eavesdropped on Sook-hee’s rampage sense an opportunity to get at the gang, using its own secret weapon. She is taken to a government training facility, where the sexy Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) offers her a deal she can’t refuse: if she works for the KIA for 10 years, they’ll let her go free to live her life. The other contributing factor is she’s pregnant and wants to be able to raise the child in peace. If The Villainess too frequently strains credulity and logic, there’s enough balls-to-the-wall action around every corner to satisfy any action geek. There are times when the wire work borders on the miraculous. The Blu-ray adds only a pair of short making-of featurettes.

Time to Die
How this terrific Mexican Western managed to avoid detection on the radar screens of genre buffs for the better part of a half-century is a mystery to me. My first guess would be that American distributors, audiences and critics simply didn’t take movies from south of the Rio Grande seriously, unless they were made by Luis Bunuel in his period of exile from Spain. Hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, many very good, have been set partially or in whole in Mexico. Many others have been made in Durango and other rugged locations. Until recently, it was easier to rely on the same kind of moronic I-don’t-have-to-show-you-any-stinking-badges stereotypes designed to make gringos feel better about stealing so much of Mexico from the Mexicans and minimize the country’s culture. It continues today, of course, but more superb Mexican movies and filmmakers are finding their way north than ever. Even so, how is it possible that a Western scripted by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Marquez and novelist Carlos Fuentes could be ignored? Four years after serving as AD to Bunuel on The Exterminating Angel, Arturo Ripstein made his solo directing debut on Time to Die, which was produced by his father, Alfredo (El crimen del padre Amaro). As good a movie as it is, Ripstein didn’t consider it to be a landmark work. In an interview contained in the bonus features, Alex Cox (Repo Man) suggests that the director may have felt there were too many obvious homages to classic Westerns and directors identified with the genre, or that he didn’t want to place too much weight on his first film.

In most ways, Time to Die is a simple drama, based on classic themes, which just so happens to take place in a part of the country not all that dissimilar to parts of the American Southwest once owned by Mexico. In it, legendary horseman and gunslinger Juan Sagayo (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) returns to his home town, by foot, after spending 18 years in prison for killing a man, Trueb, who deserved the punishment, instead. When Trueb’s son, Julian (Alfredo Leal), hears Sagayo has returned to town, he demands they face each other in a duel to avenge his father’s death. Julian’s younger brother, Pedro (Enrique Rocha), begins to doubt Sagayo is an honorless killer after meeting and spending time with him. Then, Pedro hears from his fiance’s father that Trueb had provoked Sagayo, until he was forced to preserve his honor as a man. Furthermore, he points out that Julian inherited most of his father’s worst traits, which he’s now using against Sagayo. The events that play out in the final reel are unpredictable and smack of a fatalism not common in American Westerns or, for that matter, gangster films. Film Movement’s 2K restoration of Alex Phillips’ evocative black-and-white cinematography expertly brings out the loneliness and frustration in a man who only desires peace and to be reunited with his former lover. He didn’t deserve to be sent to prison for 18 minutes, let alone 18 years, and shouldn’t have to pay a debt that he doesn’t owe to his tormenter’s sons. In addition to Cox’s introduction, the disc offers commentary by Ripstein and Rocha.

Candy Apple
Made for $100,000 in 2015, Dean Dempsey’s 79-minute debut feature, Candy Apple, is as hard-core as indie pictures get these days. Transgressive would be one way to describe it, but so would rambunctious, audacious, off-putting and spellbinding. It’s one of the very few movies whose trailers demand to be seen before any commitment to a rental or download. Candy Apple is set in a Lower Manhattan hellhole that is quickly being gentrified out of existence, and the characters might have been inspired by Hubert Selby Jr. and Lou Reed. The lead character, played by the heavily tattooed double-amputee, Terry “Texas Trash – played by Dempsey’s real-life father, of the same name — makes Charles Bukowski and Ratso Rizzo look like Donnie Osmond. Sound appealing, so far? Having burned his bridges out west, Trash moves in with his adult son, Bobby (Dempsey), in his small apartment on the Lower East Side. Bobby is reluctant, but committed to helping the former junkie, while trying to stay focused on his own creative pursuits. Both men harbor dark secrets about themselves and support their decrepit lifestyles through illegal means. Ultimately, they’re required to balance desire with responsibility – such as it is – in a darkly comedic fashion. The thing to know about Hard Candy is that Dempsey elected to cast the picture with amateurs playing themselves in a narrative that sometimes parallels their own lives. “The only one who has done any acting is the guy who eats cereal off my character.” Despite having an arm and leg amputated after a collision with a train, the fledgling actor Trash fronts the band, Texas Trash and the Trainwrecks. (The FB page is hilarious.)  The cast also includes transvestite actor Neon Music (Scumbag), Cory “Whorse” Kimbrow-Dana (Werewolf Bitches from Outer Space), Sophia Lamar (Violet Tendencies), and performance artist Kembra Pfahler and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Anyone who’s gotten this far here probably will enjoy the hell out of Candy Apple.

Satan’s Cheerleaders: Blu-ray
The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta: Blu-ray
There really isn’t much to recommend these cross-generational examples of irredeemably bad exploitation flicks … except, in the case of Satan’s Cheerleaders, at least, the dubious joy that comes with recognizing familiar actors in movies they may once have considered to be beneath them. If that sounds as if I’m being cruel to Yvonne De Carlo, John Carradine, Sydney Chaplin, Jack Kruschen and John Ireland, well, I assume their paychecks didn’t bounce. The picture opens with a group of cheerleaders, who might have gotten lost on the way to auditions for Debbie Does Dallas, inexplicably practicing their routines for the big game on a beach in Malibu. While there, they attract the attention of the star football player (Lane Caudell), his pissed-off coach (Joseph Carlo), their delightfully clueless adviser (Jacqulin Cole) and a gang of rival cheerleaders. They threaten the other girls with TP’ing their high school campus, which only serves to perturb the pervy janitor and Captain Kangaroo look-alike (Kruschen), who provides the link to a satanic cult recruiting virgins. Before that happens, though, he sneaks a peak at the girls while they’re taking a shower. It could have inspired a similar scene, three years later, in Porky’s, although I can’t imagine Bob Clark admitting to the theft. After the girls have vacated the locker room, the janitor sneaks in to put a curse on the blond cheerleader’s clothes. He also sabotages the car carrying the squad to the game, arriving just minutes after it breaks down. Instead of fulfilling his promise to get them there on time, he drops them off at the home of the local sheriff and wife, who have a direct line to Satan. None of the girls qualifies as a virgin, so the blond (Kerry Sherman) has an edge over the sheriff’s cabal, by having already been introduced to the dark side with the janitor’s curse. Or, something like that. When the cheerleaders escape the clutches of Ireland and De Carlo, they make the mistake of confiding in their cronies, played by Carrandine, Chaplin and other poor souls. Schlockmeister writer/director Greydon Clark pulls the kind of ending out of his ass that has to be seen to be believed. If that sounds like fun, be sure to save room for Clark’s commentary and a photo gallery.

Trying to find a redeeming quality in a Troma pickup like The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta (a.k.a., “The Miracle of Life”) is like searching for a fully functioning conscience in the White House. Even if such a thing exists, you’d have to sift through too many layers of dirt to find it. In his introductions to such fare, Lloyd Kaufman provides all the caveats most potential viewers would need to separate the merely curious from the truly depraved. That candor, of course, is also what’s separated Troma from its competitors and imitators for most of the last 35 years. Made in Belgium by newcomers Joël Rabijns and Yves Sondermeier, “The Thing” concerns a muscle-bound blond (Pascal Maetens) who suffers a miscarriage, but decides to raise the afterbirth as a normal human being. Like a miniature version of the Blob, the placenta, Luke, slithers through a world of hurt, buoyed by his intelligence, faith and sensitivity. As he struggles for his place in a world of drunks, junkies, whores, bodybuilders and bullies, viewers will begin to see the humanity in Luke and lack thereof in everyone else in the picture. Eventually, he comes to a crossroads, where he’s required to choose between holding on to his gentle ideals or becoming the merciless soldier his mother always wanted him to be. Anyone able to sit through the first 24 minutes without relinquishing their half-digested popcorn should be able to go the distance … should, being the operative term. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, the featurettes “Am I Really That Ugly?” and “Ham,” and typically outrageous Troma marketing material.

Lifetime: High School Lover
The Tower
Atheist America

At the ripe old age of 39, James Franco already has logged 146 acting credits – 13 still waiting for completion – and dozens more as a writer and director. Granted, many of them are for shorts and documentaries, but they require time and dedication some professional would otherwise dedicate to hobbies, traveling and family. He already was an accomplished actor when he returned to school for his BFA in English from UCLA, and then received two MFA degrees — both in writing — from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third MFA, in film, from New York University. He’s taught acting and enjoys painting. Among the 18 credits he accumulated in 2017, Franco played brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, in the HBO mini-series “The Deuce”; directed and starred in the star-studded comedy about acting, The Disaster Artist; and made his second appearance in a Lifetime movie in as many years, “High School Lover.” If someone told me that he’s been slated to replace 77-year-old Alex Trebek, as host of “Jeopardy!” upon his retirement, I wouldn’t be shocked. Neither was I particularly surprised to see him playing the father of a 17-year-old girl (Paulina Singer), who falls for a predatory actor (François Arnaud) that’s 10 years her senior. She does so against the advice of everyone except her star-struck friends, who bask in her reflected glory. Her father tries to intervene before the relationship turns into a dangerous obsession for everyone involved, but that logic doesn’t apply in the movies or real life. At 39, it isn’t inconceivable that Franco would be credible as the character, especially considering he’s a director and a decade older than his current wife (Julia Jones). What is surprising is that the father-knows-best throughline could have been recycled from a dozen, or more, other Lifetime originals and his character normally would be have been filled by someone who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, Un Certain Regard, SAG, MTV Video, Razzie, and numerous critics’ awards … or, for that matter, already has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his previous Lifetime credit, “Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?,” Franco also played a director and served as executive producer.

It took a while after the re-unification of East and West Germany for screenwriters to begin making movies and mini-series about life in the hard-line communist state and how politics split family members who elected to survive within the system and those who quietly pursued democracy, if not necessarily capitalism. I’ve seen several such series, all of which resemble each other in their condemnation of party apparatchiks who wouldn’t recognize Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin if they rose from the dead and grabbed their asses. Even so, like parents everywhere, those represented in Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower” caution their children against making their feelings known to the wrong people … of which, there were many. The two-part, 180-minute TV drama, made in 2012, was based on a novel by Uwe Tellkamp. It chronicles life and politics in Dresden between the dark days of 1982 and 1989, when demonstrations – and Soviet indifference – pushed Stasi-backed elements toward democracy and the tearing down of the wall. The key conflict here is between a hypocritical surgeon in a state-run hospital and his open-minded son, who strives to be respected for what he is and wants to be, not follow his parents’ shallow footsteps. The melodrama gets a bit thick at times, but not oppressively so. It’s the depiction of how the government maintained control over highly educated professionals and intellectuals – here, doctors and writers – that is especially effective. Similar titles include “Deutschland 83,” “Good Bye Lenin!,” “The Lives of Others” and “Barbara Weissensee.”

Once upon a time, atheist spokeswoman Madalyn Murray O’Hair regularly appeared on late-night talks shows to chat up her beliefs – or lack thereof — and represent the loose threads in the fabric of American life. This all changed when televangelists took over cable television and Ronald Reagan exploited their power to win re-election. By vilifying the non-believers and proving themselves to be as fallible as other sinners, the money-grubbing reverends opened the gates to atheists unafraid to challenge religious leaders at their own game. (Perverted Catholic priests share the blame for this.) “The Atheist Experience,” produced in Austin, reputedly is the only TV show dedicated to atheism in the United States. (Bill Maher might dispute that point.) It is delivered via public-access cable in a call-in format every Sunday afternoon. Two atheists debate religious callers for one hour, on camera, while most other Texans are working off hangovers, plotting against abortion providers or waiting for the Cowboys game to start. The debates between believers and skeptics can be funny, touching and shocking in turn, and they’re interspersed with footage of the very public religious displays common in Texas.

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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