MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: The Year’s Top Titles, plus True Love Ways, Killing Gunther, Rock Docs, Unabomber and More

Titles that received a limited release in theaters or none at all make up my year-end list of DVDs and Blu-rays. Some are restored classics, while others are genre specimens that got lost in the crowd.

100 Years of Olympic Films: Criterion Collection: And, the gold medal goes to …
The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: Finally, the truth …
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille: Archeology, Hollywood-style …
The Eagle Huntress: Girl power in Mongolia …
Good Time: You’re not the only one who missed it …
The Lure/Glory/The Treasure: Gems from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania …
Certain Women: Criterion Collection: Precious Western miniatures …
The Sissi Collection: Germany before the wars …
The Marseille Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Pagnol’s Chez Panisse …
Maurice/The Wedding Banquet: LGBT before LGBT was cool …
The Lovers: How to mess up a good affair …
The Lost City of Z: Jungle fever, for real …
A Quiet Passion: A rose for Emily …
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer: Gere acts his age …
Feed the Light: H.P. Lovecraft in Sweden …
The Autopsy of Jane Doe: The unkindest cut of all …
Three Sisters: The China tourists never see …
Apocalypse Child: Coppola leaves something behind in Philippines …
Toni Erdmann/ The Forest for the Trees: Maren Ade takes two bows …
Daughters of the Dust: Dash’s masterpiece restored …
The Story of Sin: Borowczyk’s epic love story …
Film/Notfilm: Beckett by way of Buster …
Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Under the volcano …
The Brand New Testament/The Ardennes: Belgium takes its bow …
Bad Lucky Goat: Hoofing it around Jamaica …

True Love Ways
The title for Mathieu Seiler’s truly chilling psychosexual thriller, True Love Ways, harkens back to Buddy Holly’s achingly romantic hit single, which was recorded four months before his tragic death on February 3, 1959. It can be heard on the radio of the car Séverine (Anna Hausburg) is driving through a thick German forest, as she attempts to escape a kidnapping scheme devised by her ineffectual boyfriend, Tom (Kai Michael Müller). She’s also been haunted by nightmares that presage her ordeal to come. To win Séverine back, Tom has cut a deal with a slick conman, Chef (David C. Bunners), he’s met at a bar. Chef concocts a plan to abduct Séverine – who, in the right light, resembles a young Emmanuelle Béart – and alert him to the perfect time to rush in and “be her Tarzan.” Unbeknownst to Tom, Chef and his buddies are making a snuff film in the very same villa in which Séverine has sought refuge from Chef’s crew, tailing her in a black car. Sensing imminent danger, she hides underneath the mattress of a bed that will be used as the staging ground for the murder and necrophilic rape of another blond damsel in distress. This would be a swell time for Tom to swing into the bedroom on a long vine – a la Tarzan – and rescue his no-longer-bored lover. Instead, after realizing what Chef really intends to do to her, Séverine engages in a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, during which she’s captured, locked in a cellar and nearly raped by one of his men. It’s at this point that she picks up a hatchet and turns the tables on her tormentors, ultimately succeeding in escaping into the forest, where another game of cat-and-mouse begins. Tom won’t be nearly as fortunate. Seiler’s decision to shoot True Love Ways in black-and-white evokes the period when all the great thrillers and existential dramas were filmed sans color and audiences had to use their imaginations as to how certain horrors might affect them in real life. Cinematographer Oliver Geissler’s use of mirrors also adds to the victim’s sense of desperation. Besides Holly, the Swiss-born writer/director (Der Ausflug) appears, at least, to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Jim Jarmusch and Géla Babluani (13 Tzameti). If that makes True Love Ways sound a tad high-falutin’, potential viewers should know that its arthouse conceits stray just south of being pretentious. Anyone looking for a rape/revenge fantasy with lots of blood and gore might be disappointed, although there’s a scene of carnage that should satisfy all tastes. Originally released here on VOD and streaming outlets, it’s now available on DVD through Synergetic Distribution. It deserves to find an audience that crosses genre lines.

Killing Gunther: Blu-ray
Hollow Creek
Anyone drawn to Taran Killam’s directorial debut, Killing Gunther, by the prominence of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name on the DVD/Blu-ray’s cover, should know that the former Governator’s first appearance in the gangster mockumentary comes 67 minutes into the 92-minute picture. Is it worth the wait? Most viewers, I think, would say, “no.” Arnold completists and fans of the actors probably would stick with what essentially is an extended “Saturday Night Live” bit, if only to see if he can pull writer/director/producer/star Killam’s butt out of the fire. Almost. Killing Gunther is a spoof set in the world of contract killers. A group of young, raw and undisciplined assassins hire a documentary crew to produce undeniable proof that they’re the ones responsible for killing the most infamous hit man of all time, Gunther (Schwarzenegger), and deserve first dibs on his contracts. No dummy, Gunther is on to them before they can say, “Oops, missed,” and makes their lives miserable by turning the hunters into the prey. The killers, who wouldn’t be mistaken for assassins in an “Austin Powers” movie, think they have Gunther cornered a dozen times before he’s shown on screen. Instead of masters of daredevilry and stealth, the killers are revealed by the camera crew as being little more than buffoons. Killam, who took time off from his “SNL” gig to make Killing Gunther, looks reasonably credible as a secret agent, at least. Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, Allison Tolman, Aaron Yoo, Amir Talai and Paul Brittain … not so much. The director/etc.’s real-life wife, Cobie Smulders, plays a retired assassin and former girlfriend of both Blake (Killam) and Gunther. Although plenty of action transpires during the film’s first hour, things really pick up once he makes his presence known. As far-fetched as it gets, Arnold gets off some funny lines and the gunplay is reasonably entertaining. Curiously, his last three movies have opened on the Internet, with only a limited run accorded to them afterwards. His last substantial role came in 2013, in Kim Jee-woon’s excellent border thriller, The Last Stand. The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel and two deleted scenes.

I don’t know what inspired Schwarzenegger to join the cast of Killing Gunther, but Burt Reynolds’ “special appearance” in Guisela Moro’s debut feature, Hollow Creek (a.k.a., “A Haunting at Hollow Creek”) can be attributed to his generosity towards a former student. Reynolds makes a couple of brief cameos, during which he commands the screen, but nothing that directly impacts the narrative. Moro probably needed all the help she could get, bringing in a movie that looks this polished on a budget estimated to be in the $500,000 range. Not only did the Argentine immigrant write and direct Hollow Creek, but she also produced and stars in it. The kidnapping thriller suffers from weak depictions of police work, some too-convenient plot twists and inconsistent acting. At 116 minutes, it could have used a tighter edit, as well. Even so, Hollow Creek doesn’t lack suspense or atmosphere. Steve Daron plays Blake Blackman, a writer of horror novels, who retreats to the mountains of West Virginia with his mistress, Angelica (Moro), for inspiration. It doesn’t take long before Angelica begins to be visited by ghosts of boys we assume were kidnapped and killed by some local fiend. After checking out police reports and missing-persons posters, she sees one in the back of old Chevy at a filling station who appears to be signaling to her. Angelica follows the car to a gated property outside town, where her snooping leads to her being abducted by the crazed-hillbilly owners and locked in the basement. Oh, yeah, she’s pregnant. Naturally, inept local cops finger Blake for the disappearance, wasting time that could have been used looking for her and other kidnap victims. It isn’t until several months pass that the next major clue is discovered. Is it too late? Stay tuned. For a first feature, what’s lacking in execution is more than made up for in promise. Hollow Creek is the kind of woman-centric thriller that would have looked good as Lifetime Original, where it could have found an audience and an experienced editor.

The Adventurers: Blu-ray
If Stephen Fung’s mostly European-set actioner, The Adventurers, looks familiar, it’s probably because it appears to borrow freely from Blake Edwards’ original The Pink Panther, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11, Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds Are Forever, Jules Dassin’s Topkapi and John Woo’s Once a Thief. Fung also appears to be reaching out to international audiences by adding Jean Reno to a largely Asian cast, as a dogged French detective, Pierre, determined to prevent the recently paroled jewel thief, Zhang (Andy Lau), from committing another headline-making heist. Zhang doesn’t waste much time and effort attempting to convince Pierre that he’s seen the light and is planning to return to China to find honest work. Instead, he immediately teams up with hacker Po Chen (Tony Yang) and driver Red Ye (Shu Qi) to swipe the Wings of Destiny jewels from a chic Cannes auction. If they succeed, it won’t be because Pierre isn’t monitoring the auction with sophisticated surveillance equipment, because his eyes are constantly glued to the slick crook. The Wings of Destiny are part of a set that includes the Eye of the Forest and Rope of Life, which were the object of the Louvre robbery for which Zhang was imprisoned.  He wanted to complete the heist for a fatherly gangster, Kong (Eric Tsang), who’s holed up in Prague. Zhang goes there after the Cannes job to finish the job and learn who sold him out. He also discovers that the final piece of the jewelry puzzle is currently in the possession of tycoon Charlie Law (Sha Yi), who lives in a castle down the road. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Rock docs on DVD
England Is Mine: Blu-Ray
D.O.A.: A Right of Passage: Special Edition: Blu-ray
L.A.M.F.: Live at the Bowery Electric
Frank Zappa: Summer ’82: When Zappa Came to Sicily
Before he became the frontman of the Smiths and a poster boy for anti-depressants, Morrissey was known around Manchester as Steven Patrick Morrissey, a morose young man who possessed great talent and intellectual curiosity, but had the devil’s own time getting his thoughts off the pages of his notebooks and into the lyrics of his songs. England Is Mine is representative of a subgenre of music-based bio-pics that describe an artist’s childhood trials, heroes and insights, without taking the next step into adulthood and commercial success or failure. The biggest problem with Mark Gill’s debut feature isn’t Jack Lowden’s compelling portrayal of the enigmatic singer/songwriter/author, but that he was given so little ammunition with which to do battle with a character whose chronic depression is contagious. That’s because Gill and co-writer William Thacker were handcuffed by Morrissey’s refusal to authorize the project or license any of his music and words. The only full concert performance is a cover of the New York Dolls’ version of the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” Nice, but hardly representative of his future output. Gill capably transmits Morrissey’s difficulties in social and work situations, as well as a pathological reluctance to enter into collaborations with other local bands. Working-class Manchester, itself, plays an important role in the drama, just as it did in such down-and-dirty productions as “Shameless,” “Queer as Folk,” Velvet Goldmine, Control and 24 Hour Party People. Katherine Pierce does a nice job as the supportive high-school friend Steven dumps in favor of punky artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay). As future Smiths’ collaborator Johnny Marr, Laurie Kynaston is only around long enough to let fans know the Morrissey’s next chapter is about to open … without us.

Lech Kowalski and Chris Salewicz’ tortured rockumentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage tells several stories simultaneously. The first one chronicles the rise of punk rock in the U.K., with a tight focus on the Sex Pistols’ tumultuous 1978 tour of the United States, which introduced the band’s confrontational style to Americans who had yet to embrace it. The second story involves the excruciating breakup of the Pistols, which led ultimately to the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Another one traces the creation of “D.O.A.,” and the roles played by High Times magazine, its renegade founder, company bean-counters and the largely anchorless filmmakers. And, finally, there’s a nearly feature-length making-of documentary, that explains why such a compelling document almost never saw the light of day. Mixing this with footage of other contemporary bands, fashion trends and punks of all shapes and colors, the filmmakers captured a grainy, stained snapshot of the punk movement at its peak – including a disturbing interview with a nearly comatose Vicious and atypically nurturing Spungen — along with discussions the filmmakers and concert footage of the late 1970s’ music scene. “D.O.A” is one of several recently restored rockumentaries that cover the same musicians and period. The Pistols didn’t stay together very long, but they were a godsend for mainstream headline writers, rock journalists, photographers and government censors. The Clash, whose music had far greater impact on rock, especially in the U.K., garnered much less attention outside the rock press. Still the restoration of concert footage adds greatly to the film’s nostalgia value. Everybody, except the band members, appears to be having a great deal of fun. Besides ”Dead on Arrival: The Punk Documentary That Almost Never Was,” the bonus package adds a 12-page booklet with liner notes written by John Holmstrom, founding editor of PUNK Magazine; reversible artwork; photo gallery; and collectible two-sided poster.

L.A.M.F.: Live at the Bowery Electric is a concert film, enhanced by bonus interviews with musicians Walter Lure (Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers), Clem Burke (Blondie), Tommy Stinson (Replacements) and Wayne Kramer (MC5), all of whom, early in their careers, were identified with the domestic punk scene. Guest stars include Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Jesse Malin (D-Generation) and Liza Colby (The Liza Colby Sound). “L.A.M.F.” is the album recorded by Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers in punk-era London, after they accompanied the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash on the aborted Anarchy Tour. Comprised of former members of the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers were lauded by the young U.K. punks, and went on to record the high-octane, if technically flawed “L.A.M.F.” album, which, after being re-mixed several times, is considered a classic. The live DVD recording is an extension of the remastered, 40th-anniversary edition of “L.A.M.F.” and the reissue of an extended four-CD box set (and triple-vinyl) of the album’s many mixes and demos. It also coincides with surviving Heartbreaker Lure taking his “L.A.M.F.” show on out the road again, this time with the Sex Pistols’ original bassist Glen Matlock, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness on guitar and vocals, and Blondie’s Clem Burke.

In the feature documentary, “Summer 82: When Zappa Came to Sicily,” filmmaker and Zappa fan Salvo Cuccia tells the behind-the-scenes story of Frank Zappa’s star-crossed 1982 concert in Palermo, the wrap-up to a European tour that ended in public disturbances and unwarranted police intervention. Cuccia had a ticket to the concert but never made it to the show, which coincided with a religious major festival. Thirty years later, collaborating with members of Zappa’s family, he re-created the events through a combination of rare concert and backstage footage; photographs; anecdotes from family, band members and concertgoers; and insights from Zappa biographer and friend Massimo Bassoli. The story is also a personal one, as Cuccia interweaves the story of Zappa’s trip to Sicily with his own memories from that summer. Far more entertaining are the intimate moments Zappa shared with band members in rehearsals, soundchecks and performance. When the family returns to Sicily, cameras followed them to a dilapidated house once occupied by their grandfather and great-grandfather, before immigrating to the U.S; a street naming ceremony; concerts by students at a local high school; formal reception with mayor; and dinner with members of the Sicilian branch of the Zappa family. The concert footage is sandwiched in between all the meet-and-greets.

The Apartment: Limited Edition: Blu-Ray
I never thought of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s carefully blended romantic dramedy, The Apartment, as a holiday picture, but, re-watching it this week, it deftly describes the flipside of Christmas for people who have no one they love with whom to share it. This would describe Jack Lemmon’s hapless C.C. Baxter, who’s working his way up the corporate ladder by lending the key to his apartment to senior executives for their extra-marital liaisons. His neighbors assume that he’s the playboy of the western world, when, in fact, he spends his nights there alone. On Christmas Eve, when he finally does manage to summon the nerve to bring a fellow boozehound (Hope Holiday) home for a shag, Baxter finds his bed already occupied by a woman his boss (Fred MacMurray) left behind in a self-induced coma, from an overdose of Seconal. To make matters worse, he recognizes the unconscious woman as Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the bubbly elevator operator at work, who broke Baxter’s heart when he learned of her affair with personnel director J.D. Sheldrake. Instead of being gifted with the proposal of marriage Sheldrake has promised her – and at least four other women in the office – the cad handed Fran a hundred-dollar bill he had in his pocket. If she accepted it, Fran would have had to accept the fact that she was little more than a prostitute in both their eyes. Baxter and his physician neighbor save her life, without also solving her immediate dilemma. It leaves the door open for one more disappointment in the newly promoted bureaucrat’s sorry existence. If that sounds too much like a holiday bummer, Wilder has already lifted our spirits with scenes of a raucous office party and a bar where Baxter commiserates with a besotted department-store Santa and dances cheek-to-cheek with the aforemention floozy, whose husband is spending the holidays in a Cuban jail. The balance of humor, drama and romance was so artfully rendered by Wilder and Diamond that The Apartment somehow cleared the Production Code censors, despite depictions of infidelity and adultery. Several prominent critics at the time weren’t as charitable, accusing Wilder of exploiting the script’s prurient aspects and making male characters act like sharks in sharkskin suits. Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review dismissed it as “a dirty fairy tale.” Imagine that, predatory males in positions of power preying on single subordinates with promises of advancement and marriage. Mr. Weinstein, meet Mr. Sheldrake.

There’s so much else too learn from Arrow Video’s new 4K restoration of the multiple Academy Award-winning picture, especially if one takes the time to listen to the analytical commentary track by historian Bruce Block. Arrow adds a 150-page hard-covered book, with new writing by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche, illustrated with rare stills and behind-the-scenes imagery; a vintage interview with Wilder; featurette on the 4K restoration; a new appreciation and select-scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp; “The Flawed Couple,” a video essay by filmmaker David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon; “A Letter to Castro,” an interview with actress Hope Holiday; and original screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (BD-ROM content). Oh, yeah, The Apartment ends on New Year’s Eve.

The Bad Kids
Twentynine Palms, California, is a high-desert town that serves as both the gateway to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Joshua Tree National Park. You can see the lights of Palm Springs at night and fall asleep to the whirr of the wind turbines that dot the Coachella Valley like so many Candy Buttons. Despite the presence of a couple of better-than-decent restaurants and watering holes, most of the nearly 150,000 visitors to the Oasis of Mara — location of the original 29 palm trees planted by the Serrano people – drive right through town on their way to somewhere else. What they don’t see is what matters in The Bad Kids. About 13.6 percent of families and 16.8 percent of the population live below the poverty line, including 25.3 percent of residents under 18 and 10.0 percent of those 65 or over. It’s the last two statistics that hang like a dark cloud over Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s alternately heartbreaking and optimistic documentary, set at the Black Rock Continuation High School for students who’ve fallen so far behind in credits that they have no hope of earning a diploma at a traditional high school. Black Rock is one of 500 such alternative schools for at-risk students in California. They serve as final waystations for so-called “bad kids” likely to fail or drop out whenever the next personal calamity strikes. I don’t like the title, The Bad Kids, but understand that it’s more provocative than “Kids Struggling to Overcome Poverty and Parental Neglect in a High Desert Shithole.” Most of the students we meet already have experienced serious problems related to drugs, crime, unplanned pregnancies, sexual and physical abuse, and absentee parents. The only thing positive about life in Twentynine Palms – unless you’re a rock climber, bicyclist or Gila monster – is the proximity of resorts, hotels and tribal casinos always on the lookout for dependable workers willing to start their careers on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The school’s charismatic, supremely dedicated and empathetic principal, Vonda Viland, continually has to remind troubled students that graduates have a huge advantage over dropouts when it comes to finding worthwhile employment, anywhere, and a college or junior-college diploma is better than one from Black Rock. Even so, the problems endured by the students are many and varied. Each one presents a unique challenge for Viland and the teaching staff. The filmmakers take a fly-on-the-wall approach to the subject matter, probably using lipstick cameras and other unobtrusive technology. They’re with the kids and principal at the crack of dawn, when some of the kids refuse to leave their beds, and follow them home to deal with the turmoil of daily life, including raising infants, dealing with loneliness, abusive stepparents and hunger. Working together over the past two decades, Fulton and Pepe’s best-known credit is 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, a documentary on Terry Gilliam’s doomed feature, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

National Bird
Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck’s enlightening documentary National Bird introduces us to three former members of the U.S. military’s secret drone war, who’ve gone public with their concerns about civilian casualties and our government’s underwhelming reaction to them. Also on hand are an apologetic Air Force officer and lawyer for those facing espionage charges. More poignantly, we also meet surviving members of an Afghan family blown to bits by American rockets, directed to the target by coolly detached drone operators, who failed to see the baby being carried by one woman and other children. I can’t recall if the footage of the attack we’re shown – and dialogue we hear — is real or simulated, based on official records. Regardless, it’s nasty stuff. We’ve seen similar stories to the ones told here, but not quite as intimately presented.

Like the America’s Cup, Olympics boxing and tournament bridge, chess is something most Americans ignore unless one of our own competitors is involved.  I don’t know about bridge, but I can easily recall years when sailing, boxing and chess made front-page news, and not only in the New York Times. Norwegian documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree delivers the captivating story of Magnus Carlsen, who was bullied as an introverted 13-year-old boy, yet grew up to become a grandmaster and reigning World Chess Champion. A prodigy, Carlsen earned his grandmaster title at the age of 13. While some might the miss the idiosyncratic behavior of Bobby Fischer, Carlsen can lay claim to being young (27), a Matt Damon look-alike and as normal as one can be when engaged in such a taxing intellectual pursuit. Last February, Carlsen even made a special guest appearance on “The Simpsons,” in an episode where Homer’s chess history is revealed. In a 2012 “60 Minutes” profile, he was described as “the Mozart of Chess.” During it, Carlsen’s shown competing against 10 formidable players simultaneously, with his back turned to their boards. I wonder how he’d fare at the World Series of Poker

At a bang-bang 72 minutes, Brackenmore feels like a short film that wants to be a feature, but its creators either ran out of money or ideas as to how to differentiate it from the cult horror classic Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s largely unseen Kill List. Either way, it could have benefitted from another 10 minutes of exposition and 20 more minutes of hair-raising psychodrama. Chris Kemble and J.P. Davidson’s supernatural thriller simply ends — albeit, with a piercing scream and streams of blood — without exploring any of the intriguing options introduced along the way. As a child, Kate (Sophie Hopkins) survives an automobile accident that was, in part, precipitated by a mysterious radio signal that freaks her out and causes her father to take his eyes off the road long enough to miss a turn, killing Mom and Dad in the crash. Years later, Kate is summoned back to the southern Ireland hamlet of Brackenmore. An uncle she didn’t know existed has died and left her some property in his will. So far, so good. Even before she can empty her suitcase, however, everybody in town appears to know Kate’s arrived and makes her a target for malicious pranks. It doesn’t much longer for her to discover Brackenmore’s dirty little secret, which involves pagan rituals and sacrifices. After attending one such fiesta with a handsome suitor (D.J. McGrath), Kate is attacked in her bedroom by a creep wearing a friar’s outfit and white mask. She dispatches him with a knife and, thereafter, is treated as if she killed the Emerald Isle’s last remaining leprechaun. At the same time as the local yokels are breaking the windows in her car and taunting her with severed goats’ heads, others in the community refuse to allow her to sell the house and return to London. Satanic iconography appears on the walls of her room and a visiting boyfriend is tortured before her eyes. Before you know it, the closing credits are rolling. Brackenmore isn’t a total waste. The lakeside scenery’s gorgeous and the lead actors are pretty good. If only there was more to like.

Beware the Lake
Tabitha, who resembles Eliza Dushku in her “Buffy” phase, has just moved to the Pacific Northwest, in Elgin Cahill and co-writer Wendy Winterbourne’s evil-cheerleader thriller, Beware the Lake (a.k.a., “The Lake”). She’s played by newcomer Anja Knebl, who’s made up to look like she may be of Romanian Gypsy stock and is the polar opposite of the blond girls who dominate her high school’s social hierarchy. After moving to her new home with her mother, who doesn’t speak English, Tabitha attracts the attention of a helpful teenage neighbor and his brother, Mason, an atypically friendly jock. (At 27, Jonathan Lipnicki can still get away with playing boys 10 years younger than he is.) The head cheerleader believes that she’s the only one who can lay claim to his attentions, which makes Tabitha a target for hazing by the girls in the popular clique. They convince her to join them at a girls-night-out at the nearby lake. Before they get there, however, they add a roofie to her drink. After the drug begins to kick in, the cheerleaders drive off, leaving Tabitha wading in the lake in her bra and panties. As if that weren’t a mean enough trick to play on the poor thing, one of the girls calls a couple of pervy boys who might be interested taking in advantage of her situation. When she resists their advances, one of them chokes Tabitha to death and tosses her body back in the lake. Guess what happens next. That’s right, Tabitha’s spirit connects with an Old Country sorceress, who conjures a way for her avenge her death, in spades. Beware the Lake could have benefited from being considerably less predictable and a tad naughtier. If the filmmakers had wanted to have some fun, they could have exaggerated the built-in Sasquatch angle and included the beast in the film’s denouement.

Essex Spacebin: Blu-ray
The Middle Finger: Blu-ray
Over the course of 40 years, Troma has produced, acquired and distributed more than 1,000 independent films. Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Entertainment and creator of the Toxic Avenger series, has always found new and different ways to exploit the lowest common denominator in the video industry, with a song in his heart and smile on his lips. It was easy to distinguish Troma products from other purveyors of exploitation fare because its name either appeared in the titles — Tromeo & Juliet, Troma’s War – or was identified by a trademark character or theme: Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, Class of Nuke ’Em High. With each new advance in technology, Kaufman stuck his toe deeper in the video and digital waters. Hence, 1,000 films, which could be purchased or rented through traditional channels, or downloaded and streamed over the Internet through, Troma Direct and subscriber-based Troma Now. Earlier this year, Kaufman addressed Net Neutrality and the filters put on independent films by the “cartel of conglomerates” dominating the streaming media. “Amazon Prime recently announced that their service will ‘no longer allow titles containing persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes (‘adult content’) to be offered as Included with Prime or Free with Pre-Roll Ad,” he said in a grammatically challeged open letter. “WTF? All the movies The Troma Team and I have produced over the past 43 years contain ‘persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes,’ yet are presented by the New York Museum of Modern Art, the American Cinematheque, the Kennedy Center in DC, Oxford, and more.” (Italics mine.) Censorship takes different forms in the digital age and one way to stunt the growth of upstarts is to narrow the distribution stream. Nonetheless, Troma perseveres by providing its fans, customers and subscribers as unique a market as anyone in the industry. The titles speak for themselves. This month’s output includes The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta, which I’ve already reviewed, Essex Spacebin and The Middle Finger.

Compared to the self-explanatory “Thingy,” the former and latter titles constitute family-friendly entertainment, which is only to say that graphic sexual and violent acts are trumped by tongue-in-cheek humor, outrageous characters and gross-out gags. I can’t remember seeing a bare breast or penis. In Essex Spacebin, Lorraine’s tale begins as a young girl, when she encounters a dapper gentleman on a beach who explains his quest to find the key for the “stargate,” a portal which connects our world to a different universe. It picks up years later, with Lorraine now an obese senior marketing executive for a fried-chicken shop. She’s still obsessing over her search for the stargate, which now includes communicating with a Rasta vagrant/alien, covering herself with aluminum foil, being splashed with milk and orange juice, and stealing televisions. It’s totally nonsensical, but not without sly touches of Essex charm … or lack thereof. In The Middle Finger, an awkward teenage nerd sinks into despair when he’s held back from school and his friends have gone off to college. After being bullied and tied to a fence, Dennis is visited by an otherworldly being who transforms him into a reluctant superhero. Not only is he incapable of mastering those powers, but his head has been turned into a giant hand giving the finger. It’s sophomoric, to be sure, but kind of funny. The Blu-ray adds a “Making of the Helmet” featurette, commentary, outtakes and music videos.

One Million B.C.: Blu-Ray
Released in 1940, Hal Roach Studios’ One Million B.C. shares many narrative similarities to Hammer’s One Million Years B.C., which arrived 26 years later. Both feature cave dwellers in skimpy garb, warring tribes, ferocious beasts, dubious paleontological and geologic timelines, a volcano and a couple of certified legends operating behind the camera. Indeed, the principle difference between the two movies is the reception accorded the two leading ladies. The career of pretty, blond and barely out of her teens Carol Landis enjoyed a solid boost from her portrayal of Loana in the original, opposite newcomer Victor Mature, unheralded Lon Chaney Jr. and Conrad Nagel. In terms of unabashed sex appeal, however, Landis’ Hayes Office-approved costume couldn’t hold a candle to Raquel Welch’s form-fitting leather-and-fur combo — described as “mankind’s first bikini” – which set the standard for dorm-room art, until Farrah Fawcett’s poster came along, a decade later. Unlike Landis, Welch’s star turn as Loana overshadowed everything else in One Million Years B.C., including Martine Beswick, who was no slouch in the sex-appeal department. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation impressed the kids in the audience, but it went unrewarded by Academy voters. By contrast, the Roaches’ version was the top grossing movie of 1940 and nominated for two Oscars, for its special effects and musical score. The optically enlarged “slurpasaurs” seen in One Million B.C. include a pig in a rubber Triceratops suit, a man in a Allosaurus suit, elephants with fake tusks and fur, an armadillo with glued-on horns, a baby alligator with a glued-on Dimetrodon sail (Gatorsaurus), a rhinoceros iguana, a snake, a coati, a monitor lizard and an Argentine black and white tegu. Scenes involving the creatures and other special effects would be recycled in dozens of future action and fantasy flicks set in prehistoric times.

Hal Roach hired D.W. Griffith, then living Back East, to oversee certain aspects of the production, including the selection of “proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures.” Although Griffith eventually disagreed with Roach over production delays and went back home, Roach later insisted that some of the scenes in the completed film were directed by him. (This would make the film the final production in which Griffith was actively involved.) Cast members’ accounts recall Griffith directing only the screen tests and costume tests. When Roach promoted the film in late 1939, with Griffith listed as producer, he asked that his name be removed. Even so, the UCLA Film Archives and VCI/MVD Visual restoration of One Million B.C. succeeds in making it as watchable today as it probably was in 1940, although on a significantly smaller scale. The scratches and other artifacts typically seen on genre fare from the period are missing and the dinosaur costumes aren’t compromised by the hi-def Blu-ray presentation. Kids, today, might be too hip to admit to enjoying such old-fashioned fare, but, if watched with parents or grandparents, it could provide a couple hours of mindless fun. I watched the movie with film historian Toby Roan’s commentary track engaged and didn’t feel the need to watch it again for review without it. In one form or another, I’ve already watched the same movie a hundred times. Another 80 minutes didn’t kill me.

Discovery: Manhunt: Unabomber: Blu-ray
HBO: Camelot: Broadway Version
Pop culture quiz: which came first, the hoodie or the Unabomber? Few desperados can be said to have sparked a fashion trend, but that’s happened when the wanted poster was hung in post offices around the country. The man who would soon be known around the world as Ted Kaczynski did more for hooded sweatshirts and aviator shades than Tommy Hilfiger, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren combined. If nothing else, he reclaimed hoodies from Rocky Balboa wannabes and hip-hoppers, making them one more thing for mainstream society to fear. Discovery Channel’s eight-part mini-series, “Manhunt: Unabomber,” recalls the rise of the serial bomber, who emerged from the bowels of academia to become one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives. It also focuses on the agency’s 17-year manhunt, with special attention paid to the tenacity and imagination of FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), who pioneered the use of forensic linguistics to identify and capture criminals as brilliant and egomaniacal as the certified math genius, Kaczynski (Paul Bettany). In the list of 100 notorious cases published on the FBI’s website to mark its 2006 centennial, readers were asked, “How do you catch a twisted genius who aspires to be the perfect, anonymous killer: who builds untraceable bombs and delivers them to random targets; who leaves false clues to throw off authorities; who lives like a recluse in the mountains of Montana and tells no one of his secret crimes?” How, indeed. One way was to play to his ego, by breaking precedent and allowing his 35,000-word manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” — claiming to explain his motives and views on the ills of modern society – to be published in the New York Times and Washington Post. There was the last-ditch hope someone might recognize the unknown suspect’s use of language, syntax, source material and hatred for the status quo. It worked. The other task faced by the FBI was getting Kaczynski, once captured, to plead guilty to his crimes, so that he couldn’t beat them out of a conviction. As a procedural, “Manhunt: Unabomber” works pretty well, encapsulating nearly two decades of intense investigative and criminal activity into 340 minutes of theatrical content. The padding can be seen in the depiction of Fitzgerald’s family life and the dissolution of his marriage to Ellie Ftizgerald (Elizabeth Reaser); an affair with a forensic-linguistics specialist (Lynn Collins); and taking considerable poetic license with the facts of the case. I caught one gaping hole in the narrative, dealing with an early, if easily dismissed suspect, and I wasn’t really looking for goofs. Even so, Greg Yaitanes’ mini-series doesn’t lack for suspense in its depiction of a violent chapter in modern American history. The Blue-ray adds a few short featurettes, “Criminal Profiling,” “Who is the Unabomber” and “Deciphering the Manifesto.”

In 1982, HBO had only recently begun transmitting programming on a 24/7 basis to subscribers and was still searching for the killer app that would propel it into in the forefront of cable-delivered entertainment and convince viewers to pay even more for television services that, for 30 years, had been free. First and foremost, of course, was the elimination of commercial breaks. The second was a commitment to presenting material not typically available on the networks, including uncensored comedy showcases, concerts and sporting events, especially boxing, which was being phased out by broadcasters. One idea was HBO Theater, which would bring Broadway hits to the masses. Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” which debuted in 1960, had enjoyed an 873-performance run on the Great White Way, winning four Tony Awards and spawning several revivals, foreign productions and the 1967 film Camelot. The original cast album was America’s top-selling LP for 60 weeks. How much of its continuing success could be credited to the Jacqueline Kennedy’s revelation that the album was the slain president’s favorite bedtime listening – JFK and Lerner were classmates at Harvard – is anyone’s guess. One of the musical’s more noteworthy revivals and tours began at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater, on November 15, 1981. It was recorded, with only a few minor tweaks, for airing a year later, on HBO. Once again, Richard Harris heads an all-star cast, with Meg Bussert as Queen Guinevere and Richard Muenz as Lancelot. The New York Times’ television critic John J. O’Connor commented, “Richard Harris, reported to have been ill and notoriously out of sorts during the taping, is a memorably majestic and troubled king. He skillfully elevates a serviceable musical to surprisingly moving drama.” The DVD adds the original Broadway Playbill (DVD-ROM) and bios of Lerner, Loewe and Harris.

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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