MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Trip to Spain, Lucky Goat, Viceroy House, Victoria & Abdul, Manolo and more

The Trip to Spain: Blu-ray
I wonder how much, if at all, estimable Brit director Michael Winterbottom was influenced by Louis Malle’s indie sensation My Dinner With Andre – or, for that matter, Andy Kaufman in My Breakfast with Blassie – before embarking on the first BBC mini-series, The Trip. In Malle’s film, quintessential New York City raconteurs Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant to reconnect after one of them disappeared for a few years. The don’t particularly like each other, but they manage to share two hours in each other’s company, engaged in the lively art of conversation. Dinner was so convincing that many, many viewers assumed that their conversation played out in real time and was wholly improvised. In fact, it was scripted, rehearsed and shot in a chilly Virginia restaurant that was closed for the winter. It still holds up to scrutiny, however. In The Trip (2010), British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) are asked by the Observer to tour the finest restaurants in the Lake District and document the experience. Their goofy exchanges, impersonations and kvetching only occasionally detract from the magnificent scenery. It would inspire a pair of sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and, now, The Trip to Spain, both of which follow the same format and conceits. Each time, Winterbottom whittled the roughly 180 minutes of television content to standalone features of about 110 minutes, for foreign consumption.

Typically, the lesser-known Brydon is invited to accompany Coogan only after the “I’m Alan Partridge” star’s girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), cancels at the last minute. Once on the road, they while away the time riffing on each other’s careers, romantic lives, families, hotel accommodations and the music being played on the car’s tape deck. Phone calls to their agents and loved ones back home reflect all the anxieties, despair and bravado one would expect from actors who are never quite sure what they’ll be doing in six months, let alone six years. The real fun comes when Coogan and Brydon compete over movie trivia, complemented by spot-on impressions of stars, ranging from Michael Caine and Sean Connery, to Woody Allen and Al Pacino. At times, they engage in these exercises at the expense of fellow diners. They’re easier to take from afar. Not so, the restaurants and scenery, which are better than advertised. While The Trip to Italy covered territory from the Piedmont region, down the western coast to Amalfi and Capri, paying special attention to the haunts of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This time around, the lads spend their time together in northern Spain, skirting the coastline and dipping south for a photography session at the windmills of Cervantes’ La Mancha. Once again, the dining and scenic beauty border on the indescribable. (My daughter and I just returned from a similar excursion and the movie brought back some tantalizing memories.) Coogan and Brydon have aged noticeably since their first trip and their concerns are those of middle-age family men. Even so, fans of the first two films will want to climb aboard for a third adventure.

Bad Lucky Goat
True Born African: The Story of Winston ‘Flames’ Jarrett
Although dozens of documentaries have been made about reggae, Rastafarianism and the ganja trade, only a handful of narrative features from Jamaica are worth the effort it would take to uncover. The best, by far, is Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), which introduced the island’s music, economic disparity and dreadlocks culture to the world. Rockers (1978), Countryman (1982) and Dancehall Queen (1997) made some noise outside Jamaica, but not enough to turn the focus away from docs about Bob Marley and the roots of Rasta. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Samir Oliveros’ Bad Lucky Goat is the best Jamaican movie since The Harder They Come. It contains all of the elements common to movies set on the island, including a bangin’ soundtrack, reefer, Rasta men and beautiful settings, but it’s what happens to the compelling characters that really counts here. It concerns a pair of incompatible teenage siblings, who, after colliding with an impressively horned and bearded goat on the coastal highway, are required to deal with life-and-death issues not normally associated with life in Port Paradise. After engaging in a nonsensical squabble over a mix tape, Corn and Rita borrow the truck used to transport tourists from the airport to the family’s hotel on the northern coast. Not being the island’s most conscientious driver, Rita isn’t paying attention when the black critter steps from the brush onto the road, seriously damaging the truck’s front bumper. Frightened that the poor beast might belong to someone who would blame them for the goat’s carelessness, they decide to weigh it down with stones and drop it into the sea.

They find a mechanic willing to replace the bumper that afternoon, but for a price just north of their ability to afford it. Figuring that the recently deceased animal had yet to begin decomposing, they pull its carcass out of the water and sell it to a local butcher, keeping the head as a souvenir. Riding past a roadside barbershop, with the head facing into traffic on the handlebar of their motorbike, a customer recognizes the disembodied creature as one of his own. It sets up a parallel chase, with Corn and Rita scratching to come up with the rest of the money needed to pay the mechanic, while the goat’s angry owner is hellbent on exacting justice on Corn, who’s riding the motorbike. Besides the stop at the butcher shop, the teens visit a Rastafari drum maker, a disreputable pawn-shop owner, a witch doctor and the local police headquarters. When Corn is finally grabbed by the thuggish farmer – who probably makes more money from selling ganja than selling goat-milk yogurt – Rita sets out to rescue him. Bad Lucky Goat probably could have been shot just as easily in any other part of the world, where a goat might cross a road unexpectedly, but Jamaica provides the perfect setting for a story that requires teenagers to embark on an odyssey of reconciliation and not have to rely on their parents to get them out of the fix. Oliveros also adds some magical realism as the movie nears its conclusion. The coastal locations are supplemented by scenes shot high in the Blue Mountains. It’s exotic without being completely foreign to viewers already familiar with reggae music, dreadlocks and other aspects of Jamaican culture. The DVD adds the short film, “Miss World.”

If, however, you haven’t tired of documentaries tracing the roots of reggae and Rastafarianism, there’s Nic Nakis’ True Born African: The Story of Winston “Flames” Jarrett, one of the true OG’s of the genre and religion. After moving to the impoverished Jones Town area of Kingston with his mother at the age of 5, Jarrett was taught to play guitar by Jimmy Cliff and Alton Ellis. He joined Ellis’s backing band, the Flames, in the early 1960s. After his mentor moved to the UK, Jarrett formed the Righteous Flames, which, in 1969, recorded for Lee “Scratch” Perry. In the 1970s, tired of recording for others without receiving adequate payment, Jarrett self-produced much of his output, releasing it on his own Attra, Human Rights and Humble labels. By this time, he had become an ardent Rastafarian. In “True Born African,” he recalls Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the island, where he was greeted as a living god. We travel to his old neighborhoods in Jamaica, a reggae festival in California and his new home in Seattle, sharing stories about the music and the philosophy that have kept him going for six decades. At 77, Jarrett is a spry old bird, with a ready smile and vibrant memory. Nakis adds plenty of concert footage, as well.

Viceroy’s House
Victoria & Abdul: Blu-ray
British filmmakers never appear to tire of reliving the tumultuous series of events surrounding India’s struggle for independence and their government’s role in the Partition, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Ever since the almost simultaneous release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, HBO’s “The Far Pavilions,” ITV’s “The Jewel in the Crown” and David Lean’s A Passage to India, several more movies and mini-series have traced the parallel dilemmas faced by the colonialists, forced to abandon their exalted place in the British Raj, and the Indians who either served them or plotted their demise … sometimes both. The dramas introduced mixed-race and mixed-faith relationships, amid the Brits’ fears of sabotage, violence and being forced to relinquish the lush life they enjoyed (“Indian Summers”). The contrast in lifestyles was accentuated by examples of torture, racism, economic deprivation and other injustices, sometimes exacted on the families of men who served valiantly in the British military. In Viceroy’s House, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings to life a pivotal historical moment that re-shaped the world. Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his liberal-minded wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), have just arrived in Delhi, essentially to turn out the lights on the Raj and hand over the keys to the palace to whomever is chosen to govern the newly independent India. The palace’s five hundred employees are unified in their devotion to duty, but divided by their religions as to how the residence and country should be administered. Mountbatten is determined to maintain a united India, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that violence will force the Partition and not even Mohandas K. Gandhi can stop it. Meanwhile, in the staff quarters, a love story is reignited between Jeet (Manish Daya), a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) a Muslim beauty he met while comforting her imprisoned father (Om Puri). Alas, her hand has already been promised to another man. Besides Mountbatten, the separate interests are represented by General Lionel Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon) and Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow); Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi); Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani); and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith). As familiar as it is, Viceroy’s House is well-mounted and impressively acted.

Victoria & Abdul may be take place a half-century before the Partition, but it would be impossible not to recognize the seeds of discontent sown before and during the reign of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Based on a remarkable true story, Stephen Frears’ opulent historical drama describes the unlikely friendship that developed between Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Muslim clerk, who’s unexpectedly instructed to travel from India to England, to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee ceremony. In a very real sense, “A&J” serves as a sequel to John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997), in which Dench delivered another splendid portrayal of a monarch who most of were taught to think of as a crusty old tyrant. Frears and writer Lee Hall were inspired by the book by Shrabani Basu, which, in turn, was based on volumes of Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks and journals, in Urdu, discovered in 2010. As soon as the queen began to demonstrate an interest in Indian culture – she had to be reminded that she was empress over all India, not just protector of British interests – her son, staff, aides and advisors turned on the newcomers as if he were a carrier of the plague. They even went so far as to threaten Victoria’s standing as Queen, if she went ahead with plans to beknight her Muslim “Munshi” (spiritual adviser and teacher). Their contempt and overt bigotry is palpable whenever the Queen is off-camera. They even despise Victoria’s willingness to find something inspirational in the culture of a subordinate nation. Eddie Izzard’s portrayal as Bertie, Prince of Wales, is so convincingly hateful that the future king might as well be Jack the Ripper. Michael Gambon and Simon Callow have meaty roles in both pictures. Dench was just nominated for a 12th Golden Globe and SAG award, which makes me think she’ll be a frontrunner for a second Oscar nomination as Queen Victoria. (Her sole Academy Award win came as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, playing Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love. She claimed the first of her two Globes as Victoria, in Mrs. Brown.) Because Oscar loves the Brits, it’s also likely to give serious consideration to Frears, Hall, Izzard, costume designer Consolata Boyle and production designer Alan MacDonald, who died on August 30, at 61. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short making-of featurettes

The Unknown Girl
The Dardenne brothers have become such a force in international festivals and arthouses that it’s borderline shocking to learn how difficult it’s become for American cineastes to find each new film, while the buzz is still hot, at least. Only the pictures with real Oscar and BAFTA potential get picked up immediately and held until December for limited release, in anticipation of nominations and critics’ polls. A Palme d’Or nod, of which the Dardennes have several, is no guarantee of wider exposure. While The Unknown Girl, for example, debuted at the 2016 Cannes festival, the Palme d’Or candidate only now is being sent out on DVD by MPI Home Video. The Liege-set drama was released briefly here, but it would have required a special kind of GPS to locate the theater(s) at which it played. Maybe, just maybe, the word-of-mouth emanating from Cannes wasn’t loud enough to reach American ears. After the festival, the brothers had originally planned to make only some very minor changes. That changed after consultation with friends, critics and their editor, who urged more extensive cuts. They made an additional 32 new edits to the film, which is now 7 minutes shorter than its original version. The new one was unveiled at the Institute Lumiere, in Lyon, in June 2016, and subsequently played the Toronto and New York festivals. This time, however, early reviews were mixed.

Typically, the searing story of guilt and redemption is set in a working-class neighborhood in the Walloon city, whose migrant population has grown considerably in recent years. One evening, after work hours, a young doctor decides not to answer the door buzzer at the small clinic where she works. Too many of these late-night calls are based on complaints she considers to be frivolous, or illegal, and could be handled better in a hospital’s emergency room. This time, however, the person at the door was an unidentified African woman who’s found dead shortly after by the side of a river. After examining the building’s security tape, police suspect that she was seeking refuge, instead of medical treatment, and, in either case, she was under no obligation to respond. Even so, Jenny (Adèle Haenel) is consumed by the thought that she is to blame for the woman’s death. It’s the kind of crime that police would only pursue with diligence if the victim were white and, in fact, she’s buried in an unmarked grave even before they can determine her name or next of kin. Jenny embarks on an obsessive crusade to do just that. At first, she runs into a brick wall. Slowly, but surely, Jenny’s able to determine that the woman was turning tricks that night and one encounter turned ugly. Later, her car is stopped on the road by an angry African man, who, in no uncertain terms, warns against her pursuing her inquiries. The police and potential witnesses urge essentially the same thing. The Unknown Girl plays out like a procedural, with unexpected flashes of rage and threats of violence. The redemption comes in such an unexpected form that it almost slides right past our eyes. It reflects the Dardennes’ dedication to realistic depictions of life among people whose unspectacular circumstances rarely warrant coverage in newspapers or films.

Heartworn Highways/Heartworn Highways: Revisited
If one cared to trace the history of country music over the last 50 years, one of the touchstone points of reference would be James Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways, which, in 1976, anticipated the emergence of such singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Charles Daniels, John Hiatt, David Allan Coe, Richard Dobson and Townes Van Zandt. They represented the next seismic shift after the Countrypolitan, Outlaw Country, Cosmic Country and California Country movements of the 1960s. They wore out the pavement between Nashville and Austin, hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle that sparked Kris Kristofferson’s career, after Janis Joplin recorded “Me and McGee” and it became her biggest hit single (posthumously). The song had already been recorded 10 times, but Joplin’s version found the cross-genre niche sought by the everyone in town. (Emmy Lou Harris’ 1977 take on Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” had a similar effect.) Heartworn Highways captured a moment in time, when such singer-songwriters envisioned themselves to be troubadours, flying below the radar of mainstream record labels, radio and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Whenever possible, they sang, partied and traveled together. Szalapski visits a convivial Van Zandt at his trailer, in what is now downtown Austin, along with his girlfriend Cindy, his dog Geraldine, Rex “Wrecks” Bell and Uncle Seymour Washington (a.k.a., “The Walking Blacksmith”). He locates Daniels, playing before fans at a high school gymnasium, and Coe (a.k.a., “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy”) performing at the same Tennessee prison that once served as his temporary home. The DVD, newly re-released by FilmRise, adds bonus songs and material from a Christmas party at Clark’s house.

But, that was then, and FilmRise’s Heartworn Highways: Revisited represents the now. Released 40 years after Szalapski’s film, it reunites Young, Coe and Clark (who died last year, at 74), while focusing on such new-generation troubadours as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Bobby Bare Jr., Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin, Nikki Lane and Phil Hummer. They are at approximately the same age as those musicians shown in Heartworn Highways. If anything, Nashville and mainstream radio networks have become harder nuts to crack for emerging talent. Although Wayne Price’s doc doesn’t dwell on it, the saving grace for these artists has been the arrival of satellite and streaming networks dedicated to the Americana and roots subgenres, as well as Internet services that provide outlets for their music and videos. If they haven’t yet been invited to the Opry, there’s no reason to think they won’t ever be summoned. Although Szalapski died in 2000, Price followed his blueprint to a T. And, that’s a very good thing. The DVD features bonus interviews, sometimes accompanied by music. (And, yes, the testosterone level on both albums is pretty high. In the former, at least, it probably couldn’t have been avoided.)

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards
Michael Roberts’s wonderfully titled bio-doc derives from a comment made by legendary fashion designer Manolo Blahnik, when asked how he got his start in the business. Growing up in Santa Cruz de la Palma, in the Canary Islands, he made shoes out of candy wrappers for lizards that he caught in his family’s garden. Although his parents steered him in the direction of a diplomacy major, which bored him terrifically, he moved to Paris to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts and Stage Set Design at the Louvre Art School, all the while working at a vintage clothing shop. In 1968, he moved to Swinging London to work as a buyer at the  boutique Zapata and wrote for L’Uomo Vogue, an Italian men’s version of the magazine. His turning-point moment came in a meeting with Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Vogue, while he was travelling in New York. After presenting his portfolio of fashions and set designs, Blahnik recalls Vreeland looking him “straight in the eye” and saying, “Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes.” The rest, of course, is fashion history. Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards explains how an extraordinary dedication to the craft led to his name becoming synonymous with high-end women’s footwear – not so much for men’s shoes – and a legion of well-heeled fans. They include celebrities, stylists, industry icons, heiresses, trophy wives and their teenage children, and very accomplished prostitutes. References to his work in HBO’s “Sex and the City” probably sold as many shoes as Michael Jordan did, at approximately the same period of time. After opening his first store in London, in 1973, and coming of age in the world’s fashion capitals, Blahnik now has shops and department-store concessions in over 20 countries and retains full control of the business, still creating every style, even hand-carving the wooden forms himself. The film features a who’s-who of fashion and celebrity types, including Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rupert Everett, Karlie Kloss, Isaac Mizrahi and André Leon Tally. Blahnik remains resolutely coy about his personal life throughout most of “Manolo,” so anyone looking for insight about his sexuality or the secrets of celebrity podiatry may come away disappointed, as some critics were. Those allergic to hyperbolic and fawning interviews could react negatively, as well. Most everyone else who’s ever subscribed to Vogue or Bazaar, and admired an imaginatively designed shoe on a red carpet or in a film, will be delighted.

Pulp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
A year after Michael Hodges delivered the quintessential British crime thriller, Get Carter (1971), he reunited with Michael Caine for his sophomore feature, Pulp. Although gangsters play a prominent role in it, Pulp is more of a comic sendup of noir and giallo tropes and clichés, especially the linkage between sex, death and beautiful women. As is the case in so many other noir classics, who-dun-it matters far less than what happens between the first and final murders. Caine plays Mickey King, author of such down-and-dirty paperback detective novels as “My Gun Is Long” and “The Organ Grinder,” and pseudonyms that include “S. Odomy.” And, no, he isn’t at all proud of his success. Out of the blue, King is offered an abnormally large sum to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mystery celebrity. The intrigue begins even before the writer boards the ferry to Malta, where he’ll meet the subject of the book. On the bus taking him to the embarcadero, a man named Miller (Al Lettieri) introduces himself as an English professor. He assumes Miller is the mysterious contact, until discovering him dead in his bathtub after a hotel room mix-up. (Any movie co-starring Lettieri is OK with me.) Once ensconced on the historic island, King begins to get the distinct feeling that someone doesn’t want him to hook up his subject, who turns out to be retired Hollywood movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). Gilbert, like George Raft and Frank Sinatra, is famous for portraying movie gangsters by day and hanging out with real-life mobsters at night. Gilbert may be dying from cancer, but it doesn’t prevent Rooney from stealing the show in every scene in which he appears. His improvisations may not have endeared Rooney with Powell, but the anarchic performance almost made up for his terribly offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

It will take a while before the assassin(s) is/are revealed in the 95-minute picture, but, in the meantime, viewers are encouraged to enjoy Powell’s loving depiction of life on Malta, the many pretty boys and girls, and offbeat performances across-the-board. If the actress playing femme fatale, Princess Betty Cippola, looks familiar, it’s only because, two decades earlier, Lizabeth Scott was an A-list star mentioned in the same breath as Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Lupe Vélez and Lana Turner. Her most previous film appearance came 15 years earlier, opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You. She had been slandered in the gossip press and decided to pursue a singing career, with the occasional guest-starring role in a TV series. Although she lived to the ripe old age of 92, she wouldn’t make another movie after Pulp. She’s joined by Nadia Casini (Starcrash), Lionel Stander (“Hart to Hart”), Leopoldo Trieste (Cinema Paradiso) and Luciano Pigozzi (Blood and Black Lace). The Arrow Video release benefits from a 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by director of photography Ousama Rawi; new interviews with Hodges, Rawi, assistant director John Glen and Tony Klinger, son of producer Michael Klinger; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. BTW: if all one knows about Get Carter derives from suffering through Stephen Kay and David McKenna’s misconceived Americanization of the story, starring Sylvester Stallone, do yourself a favor and give the Powell/Caine version a try.

Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros: Blu-ray
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas, on August 26, 2017, the last thing on the minds of most people living in the Houston area was the Astros’ chances of reaching the playoffs, let alone the World Series. If the team did make it, fine … if not, the residents had bigger problems. In the immediate wake of the storm, the team’s three-game series against the Texas Rangers, scheduled for August 29-31, was relocated to St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field. A couple of days later, at the waiver-trade deadline, GM Jeff Luhnow acquired veteran starting pitcher and Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander from Detroit to bolster the starting rotation. All he did was win each of his five regular-season starts, yielding only four runs over this stretch. The Astros finished 101-61, with a 21-game lead in the division. Verlander carried his success into the playoffs, posting a record of 4-1 in his six starts. As anyone who watched the post-season games can attest, the Astros’ pitching wasn’t the only reason they won their first World Series in franchise history. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and George Springer had something to say about it, as well. As was the case a year earlier, when the Chicago Cubs captured their first crown in a century, the seven-game series lived up to the hype. On the day the Astros beat the Dodgers in the decisive seventh game, it could have rained all night and no one at Minute Maid Park would have cared. Although I probably wouldn’t recommend giving either of these Shout!Factory boxes to SoCal fans who bled Dodger blue that night, fans in eastern Texas, at least, should welcome “Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition” and “2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros.” The former includes “Regular Season Highlights,” “Clinching Moments,” “Postseason Highlights” and “World Series Parade,” while the “Collector’s Edition” adds a bonus disc of the pennant-clinching ALCS Game Seven; four audio options (the TV feed, Astros radio, Dodgers radio and Spanish-language radio); and a SleeveStats insert, with game trivia and official stats.

The Brits have a great word for the kind of people who no one seems to miss when they turn up missing in Dan Pringle’s debut feature, K-Shop. “Yob” is a slang term that denotes an aggressive and surly youth, whose loutish behavior only gets worse with each succeeding drink. Yobs and Yobbettes represent the country’s troubling “binge-drinking culture,” which is further identified by fights, beatdowns, uncontrolled vomiting, passing out in the streets around nightclubs and pubs, and the ever-popular terrorizing of immigrants. An offshoot of the soccer hooliganism that has plagued Europe for years, it is considered one of the greatest problems facing a society in which heavy drinking has always provided a temporary cure for joblessness and underemployment. K-Shop is set in and around Bournemouth, a resort town on the south coast of England, where Pringle captured images of yobbo behavior on film and incorporated them in the film. The other thing to know about the movie is that it borrows liberally from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” minus the singing. After his father is killed in an altercation with drunken thugs outside the family’s kebab shop, Salah’s world is plunged into darkness. Instead of finishing his studies and finding work that doesn’t require slicing meat off a vertical spit rotating over a gas flame, the young man is forced to work long hours doing just that. Things probably wouldn’t be so bad if a nightclub catering to intemperate drinkers hadn’t opened directly across the street from the shop, ensuring a steady stream of yobs and yobbettes whose stomachs have regurgitated early meals and need refilling. Knowing that Salah is of Middle Eastern or Pakistani background, they consider him to be fair game for their verbal abuse. One night, when a fight with an angry customer goes wrong, he finds himself with a dead body on his hands. Having no faith in the authorities, Salah disposes of the body in the one place he knows best: the kebabs. You can probably guess what transpires next. As befits a contemporary horror film, Pringle uses every trick in the book to convince us – viscerally, at least – that real actors are being sacrificed for the sake of his art. (Don’t watch K-Shop if your plans for the evening include late-night stops at your local gyros or shawarma stand.) Although no one truly gets away with their crimes here, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Salah’s actions are justifiable and we might do the same thing, if sufficiently provoked. If anything, the supporting actors may be a tad too credible in this regard.

All Saints
Anyone interested in seeing how good a faith-based, family-friendly movie can be when the proselytizing is kept to minimum and Christ’s message is able to cut through the gratuitous moralizing and evangelism. I’ve watched as many of these films as anyone not paid to do so and have noticed a decided improvement in overall production values and storytelling. Some genre specialists can’t help themselves, though, when it comes to churning out holier-than-thou entertainments for captive audiences. Steve Gomer and Steve Armour’s inspirational drama All Saints arrives at a time when the President, his chief advisers and Supreme Court have decided that the Statue of Liberty’s welcome is limited to Russian oligarchs, jet-set celebrities, models and movie stars. All others stay put. It also relates directly to the current situation in Myanmar, where Christian and Muslim minorities face daily persecution for their beliefs and the country’s leaders – including a Noble Peace Prize-winner – assume that no one else in the world is watching. All Saints counted be more topical and representative of traditional American and Christian values. It is based on the true story of salesman-turned-pastor Michael Spurlock (John Corbett) and the tiny Tennessee church he was assigned to shut down, before the arrival of a group of Karen refugees from Southeast Asia found relief under its eaves. Although few in number, the parishioners treat Spurlock as if he were the Grim Reaper, which, in a sense, he was. Neither were the Anglican-taught Karens welcomed with open arms. Back home, they were farmers and fighters. In Tennessee, they can only find work at a chicken-processing plant, while, at night, they tend a small garden on church property. One night, during a rainstorm, Spurlock receives a “message from God” to plant seeds for the salvation of His people. The only salvation both the parishioners and devout Karens could benefit from together would be a way to pay the mortgage on the church before it is foreclosed upon. One way to satisfy the parishioners, Karens and church elders, he decides, is to make full use of church property by opening it to planting and selling the produce to local markets and those catering to Asians in Nashville. Even his wife, Aimee (Cara Buono), and son, Atticus (Myles Moore), are skeptical of his plan. Most wary, though, is a cranky old geezer, Forrest (Barry Corbin), who’s tried farming and knows how difficult it has become to reap a profit. The Lord, as usual, works in mysterious ways. When it isn’t raining on the garden, it’s pouring buckets. All Saints is full of Christian messages, none of which are deeply hidden, and the ending will have some viewers praising God. Others can simply enjoy a good story, well told. The bonus features introduce us to the real people behind the characterizations and their personal testimonials.

The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon
Serbia isn’t the first country I’d expect to produce a sci-fi thriller with pretensions of existential and religious significance. Why not, though? Considering that it’s a Serbian/South Korean/Slovenian co-production – targeted at the English-speaking market – it’s no surprise that The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon has something of a cobbled-together look to it. The film follows a team of CIA and Serbian agents – led by Liz Waid (Katarina Cas) and John Smith (Ken Foree) – as they attempt to secure the remains of a satellite that crash-landed somewhere in the eastern part of the country. When the team finally reaches the crash site, they discover the satellite has vanished and the only clue is a trail leading to an abandoned silk factory nestled near the forest line. As they approach they approach the building, shots are fired at the team from locals guarding something hidden inside it. Upon further investigation, they find an astronaut’s suit on a table, presumably with something inside it. One of the team members, a former astronaut, recognizes the suit as belonging to another astronaut on the same aborted lunar mission. That man disappeared into thin air … very thin air. Turns out, villagers believe the newly arrived entity is the son of God – or, perhaps, a son of God — and that it has been sent there in anticipation of the Second Coming. Now that we’re in Stanley Kubrick territory, director Dejan Zecevic raises the ante by depicting the ill-fated moon mission and mysterious purple-rimmed hole in the time/space continuum that presented itself there. Back on Earth, things get even stranger as people already dismissed as dead come back to life as malevolent forces. This phenomenon extends to agent Waid’s terminally ill child, back in Belgrade. That’s a lot of metaphysical baggage to pack into a 90-minute vehicle, and it doesn’t all fit into the trunk. Even so, sci-fi buffs might find something here to enjoy. The horror is provided by the ax-wielding residents who go to great lengths to protect their own personal Jesus.

Valley of Bones
With some careful pruning of scenes shot inside a strip club, Valley of Bones might have made a dandy little thriller for the Syfy channel. While Dan Glaser’s film suffers from the same budgetary problems that limit the network’s feature-length movies, Valley of Bones benefits from not having to depend on the cheesy special effects that propel the action in such Syfy original movies as Sharknado, Magma: Volcanic Disaster and Mongolian Death Worm. The dinosaurs are long dead and are expected to stay that way. Neither is life on Earth imperiled by UFOs, global warming or plague-carrying teenagers. No, the suspense is provided here by humans. As it is, the R-rated Valley of Bones opened in 300 theaters over the Labor Day weekend, making a paltry $107,393.  The R-rating promises less than it delivers on DVD, as well. Still, it could have been a lot worse. Filmed largely on location in the badlands of North Dakota, it stars Autumn Reeser (“The O.C.”) as the passionate paleontologist, Anna, who served time in prison from digging up artifacts on federal land. She is about to lose her right to explore ranch land once open to her and her late husband, thanks to oil and natural-gas interests. When word reaches her of the discovery of T-Rex’s tooth on private land, she begs the owner to be given one last opportunity to restore her reputation and make a few bucks. The problem is that the tooth was found by a recovering meth addict with unpaid debts to a Mexican cartel, and he has no intention of being cut out of any deal. She reluctantly teams up with the bounder, McCoy (Steven Molony), who leads Anna, her late husband’s brother (Rhys Coiro) and her estranged son (Mason Mahay) to the place in the boonies where he found the tooth. Sure enough, they unearth a complete skeleton, which the meth head offers to the cartel leader (Mark Margolis) in exchange for his freedom from debt. The action picks up from there, with a fiery ending assured.

Cops and Robbers
In Scott Windhauser’s gimmicky and wholly unconvincing hostage drama, Cops and Robbers, a negotiator (Michael Jai White) and bank robber (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) play cat-and-mouse with each other, while a dozen, or so, employees, customers and fellow crooks weigh the odds of making it out alive. They’ve already watched helplessly as a supervisor and police detective are pistol-whipped by Jackson’s unnamed character and the thug’s cohorts are dismayed by his refusal to get out while the getting is good. Then comes a string of surprises and coincidences so unlikely as to be almost laughable. They all lead to an ending that would be satisfying, if anything that came before it was logically presented. Straight-to-video hall-of-famer Tom Berenger plays a lead detective whose only reason for being cast probably was to have a recognizable actor play a dirty cop. Jackson is completely credible as the kind of crook who would kill someone for the simple pleasure of watching him die.

Architects of Denial
This documentary begins as another convincing argument against the Turkish government’s century-long denial of its role as the instigator of the Armenian genocide. By now, however, the only people who appear to agree with the Turks’ ridiculous stance are American politicians who are afraid of pissing off their strategic partners in Ankara. No matter how much new evidence is discovered and presented for the perusal of our so-called statesmen, they refuse to put “genocide” and “Turkey” in the same sentence. And, as long as lobbyists grease the palms of our representatives and our military presence is required in the Middle East, no Turkish government will be made to face the music. What is new and equally disturbing in David Lee George’s Architects of Denial are reports of the ongoing persecution of Armenians in oil-rich Azerbaijan and threats to invade neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh, which is largely populated by Christians. First-person accounts of the violent attacks on Armenians in Baku, among other cities in Azerbaijan, echo those of reports from the 1915 genocide and other attacks sanctioned by the Turkish government since World War I. Among those non-Armenians interviewed are Julian Assange, George Clooney and a former FBI agent with first-hand knowledge of both the atrocities in Azerbaijan and the seducing of American congressman and -women who sit on committees responsible for monitoring the situation there. When confronted with the evidence and asked for comments, the weasels have nothing to say in their defense and put their aides between them and the cameras, lights and microphones.

Wolf Warrior 2: Blu-ray
IMAX: Mysteries of China: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As many Chinese action pictures as I’ve watched in the last 10 years, there hasn’t been one quite like Wolf Warrior 2. In its predecessor, Wolf Warrior, Wu Jing (a.k.a., Jacky Wu) played a Chinese special-forces soldier, blessed with extraordinary marksmanship, who’s confronted by a group of deadly foreign mercenaries hired by a vicious drug lord to assassinate him. Unlike most other exports, the martial artistry in “WW” plays second fiddle to the type of fighting featured in such American franchises as Sniper, S.W.A.T., The Marine and, yes, even Rambo. The mercenaries included former soldiers from western nations, not simply Asian fighters controlled by the isolated mafia boss or CIA operative. It made about $100 million in the global marketplace, which, considering that very few of those dollars came North America, wasn’t bad. “WW2,” which moves the action to the Horn of Africa, where the Chinese government is heavily invested with money and personnel, took in – get this – a nifty $867.6 million in foreign sales and another $2.7 million on only 53 U.S. screens. What distinguishes it in my mind, at least, is the presence of Chinese military forces – not many, but they’re good – in the rescue of sailors from Somalian pirates and, later, Chinese-run factories captured by guerrillas of the ISIS variety. I’m not all sure that such a situation has ever confronted the Beijing government, as it has American leaders, but the barbarity shown African and foreign workers is considerable. With the UN reluctant to commit to the rescue, it’s left to Feng Leng (Wu) to lead the assault against the guerrillas, directed by Frank Grillo, and mercenary thugs. In days gone by, American Green Berets, French Foreign Legionnaires, Rambo and John Shaft might have been called in to protect the fruits of western imperialism. Today, of course, it’s the Chinese imperialists who matter most in much of Africa. There’s no question as to who’s wearing the white hats in this particular fight, however. And the action continues non-stop throughout the movie. Chinese-American actress, model, singer/songwriter and martial artist Celina Jade (a.k.a., Celina Haron) provides the love interest here … when she isn’t kicking some ass herself, that is. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Folks who find a 4K UHD television monitor under their tree on Christmas morning should be cognizant of the fact that the dang thing will only work as advertised if it’s also accompanied by a compatible disc player, receiver and HDMI cables. Not to worry though, as this ancillary equipment is far more reasonably priced than the technology required of 3D Blu-ray units. There’s also a growing number of 4K UHD titles and premium services dedicated to the format. Shout!Factory is one of the distribution companies that has stuck its feet into the 4K waters, through its partnership with Giant Screen Films, a supplier of large-format movies to museums and other institutions. Mysteries of China joins previous releases, Journey to Space, Humpback Whales, Flight of the Butterflies, Rocky Mountain Express, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea. Because the movies were originally shown in large-format 3D, they’re in the 40- to 50-minute range – easier on the eyes – and oriented toward viewing by school groups and families. To fully cover all the Mysteries of China (a.k.a., “Mysteries of Ancient China” and “China: The Rise of Empire”), the film would have had to be several hours longer than it is. Instead, it focuses on the amazing story behind the discovery of the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China. In 1974, farmers in Shaanxi province came upon artifacts while digging a well less than a mile east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li. They reported the find to Chinese authorities, who carefully uncovered the vast collection of terracotta sculptures, depicting Qin’s armies, whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. Later digs would locate funerary art of horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians and politicians, as well as the skeletal remains of workers who took their secrets to a mass grave. The 4K UHD format reveals the vast size of the dig – three football fields – and intricacy of the pieces.  The film makes use of 8K footage shot specifically for this project, high resolution CGI models and new scans of stock footage from feature films, such as The First Emperor. If nothing else, Mysteries of China serves as an excellent starter kit for people new to the format. Bonus material adds a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with producer/director Keith Melton.

One of Us
The recent passing of Charles Manson, the capo di tutti capi of American cult leaders, led some observers to point out that there may still be as many as 3,000 such groups currently operating in the United States. I’m not sure that I would trust the government to parse the difference between a true cult and your run-of-the-mill post-hippie commune, but it’s an impressive number, nonetheless. One of Us appears to have been directed and written by folks — Blake Reigle, and Andrea Ajemian and Blaine Chiappetta — whose knowledge of cults comes from depictions in Lifetime movies. The leader is a well-groomed control freak, whose idea of mind control is forcing yoga lessons on his female followers and making them work in a coffee shop in the mountains above Riverside, California. Otherwise, the beautiful women wear togas and sheep masks for ceremonies. Naturally, the local cop is on the cultists’ payroll and those who choose to leave are threatened with torture or death. It’s hard to see what the leader might be concealing from view, however. When a friend goes missing, investigative reporter Mary (Christa B. Allen) springs into action by travelling to the San Jacinto Mountains town of Idyllwild, California. She has no trouble infiltrating the cult, led by Brent (Derek Smith), although the other followers aren’t anxious for the competition. When Mary’s sister (Ashley Wood) comes nosing around, the cultists smell a rat in their midst. (Investigative reporters usually don’t require the help of siblings.) Anyway, the scenery is nice and there isn’t much here that would corrupt a teenager. As usual, the DVD jacket promises more than it delivers.

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!
In the last eight years, Jared Cohn has directed, written and acted in more than 25 films and videos, largely of the exploitation persuasion. Among the titles are Little Dead Rotting Hood, Bikini Spring BreakUnderground Lizard People and Hulk Blood Tapes, none of which have enjoyed much of a theatrical run, if any. I’m guessing that Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!’s title owes less to the Russian riot-grrrl group, Pussy Riot, than the Russ Meyer classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Even so, Cohn’s horror thriller features an all-grrrl band, Kill Pussy Kill, which makes Hole sound like the Supremes, and whose fashion sense is limited to thrift-shop rejects. For some reason, the movie opens in Islamabad, Pakistan, where an American special-forces team is ambushed by Islamic militants and a couple of them lose their heads in the process. (Don’t ask what they’re doing there, five years before 9/11, but a little bit of poetic license goes a long way here.) Flash forward a few years and the band is performing before a crowd of meth heads, one of whom decides to sexually assault a member, before being admonished by a wheelchair-bound man in a mask. On their way to a gig, the band decides to make a pit stop at a gas station that was already old when the Oakies made their way into California. Naturally, the van won’t start when they’re ready to pull out. Enter, Richard Greico, looking like Mickey Rourke’s younger brother, as the gas-station attendant. He offers the ladies – and I use that term advisedly – lodging in a shack tricked out for an adventure in torture porn, as conducted by an unseen “evil genius dead set on revenge” (voiced by Megadeth’s Dave Mustain).  For one of the women to survive, she’ll have to kill at least two of the others. The real freak show is going on outside the view of the captives, though. (A hand grenade is tossed at a group of trick-or-treaters.) I can understand how Greico might be willing to take any job that comes his way, but what former child star Margaret O’Brien is doing in a movie titled Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! is a mystery to me.

CBS: Zoo: Season Three
PBS: NOVA: Secrets of the Shining Knight
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season 10
Nickelodeon: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters
When I was sent the Season Three collection of episodes of “Zoo,” I wasn’t even aware the show even existed, let alone for three summers. Now that I’ve watched it, I wonder if might have done as well, or better, on Syfy … like the aforementioned Valley of Bones. Not that three seasons on CBS is anything to dismiss, even as a summer replacement. The blend of action, science-fiction nuttiness and attractive actors seems to be a perfect fit for a cable outlet, especially as it can appeal to those adolescents, teens and adults disinclined to watch PBS and the History Channel. As “Zoo” opened, animals around the world are attacking humans in troubling numbers. A multidiscipline team comprised of American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk), Kenyan safari guide Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie), Los Angeles reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), quirky veterinary pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke) and a French intelligence agent Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder) has been recruited to keep the attacks from reaching pandemic proportions. By the end of the first 13-episode season, mutated animals have taken over the streets of cities everywhere. Later, in Patagonia, a special-forces team comes across a human who has mutated into a monster and kills almost everyone. (The pretty one is spared.) Oz’s team captures the mutant beast and returns it to Mitch’s lab for further study. By the time Season Three rolls around, another group of scientists, the Shepherds, has joined the narrative and managed to make the war between man and animals even worse. Time passes and zones have been designated for humans and hybrids, alike. Sadly, even larger, more ferocious and less easily controlled creatures are turning up, demonstrating that the Shepherds’ plans have backfired. CBS announced the cancellation on October 23, so theoretically there’s still time for another network to collect the assets and put it back in production. It happens all the time, now.

No trip to Chicago is complete without a visit to the Art Institute. And, no visit to the Art Institute is complete without a tour of the George F. Harding Collection of arms and armor. It features numerous examples of full- and half-armors, finely etched helmets, firearms with carved ivory stocks, back- and breastplates with gilded figures, chainmail and other exotic items. It’s as popular an exhibit as any in the museum, and that says a lot about its appeal. Producers for the “NOVA” presentation, “Secrets of the Shining Knight,” visited the Institute as part of their research. In it, viewers are given an opportunity to learn how armors – shining and otherwise – were crafted, as well as the significance of the various styles and how they evolved over time. Tests are conducted as to their ability to withstand penetration by knives, jousting sticks, arrows and bullets fired by very long muskets. “NOVA” challenged blacksmith Ric Furrer and master armorer Jeff Wasson to recreate parts of an elite armor that was originally manufactured in the Royal Workshop founded by King Henry VIII. We trace their successes and setbacks from start to finish, as they rediscover centuries-old metalworking secrets, then put their new armor to the ultimate test against a period musket.

While other foodie entertainments have begun to broaden their horizons by traveling around the world to find interesting cuisine and meet people who cook for a living, fun or to feed their families, the team behind “Cook’s Country” prefers to wait for the world’s great dishes and recipes to America’s Test Kitchen, in Rupert, Vermont. It also features the best regional home cooking in the country, relying on a practical, no-nonsense approach to food preparation. Family-oriented recipes are scientifically re-imagined for the modern home cook, while utensils and brands are also put to the test. In Season Ten, Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison are joined by new test cooks Ashley Moore, Bryan Roof and Christie Morrison. The titles of the episodes are almost as mouth-watering as the recipes: “Pork and Pierogi,” “Spicy and Sour for Supper,” “Smoky Barbecue Favorites,” “Smothered and Dowdied,” “BBQ Thighs and Fried Peach Pies,” “Ribs and Mashed Potatoes Revisited,” “Bourbon and Broccoli Hit the Grill,” “Straight From So-Cal,” “Southern Discoveries,” “Cast Iron Comforts,” “Plenty of Garlic and Parm,” “When Only Chocolate Will Do” and “The Italian-American Kitchen.”

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters” encapsulates the show’s final hurrah on Nickelodeon, way back in 2012. Join the turtles as they battle an enormous army of monsters led by that time-traveling tyrant, Sevanti Romero. Then, rejoice at the return of their intergalactic Salamandrian friends — Mona Lisa and Sal Commander – only to be required to go to war with scourges of the universe, Newtralizer and Lord Vringath Dregg. But wait, there’s more. Our heroes are transported to an alternate universe, where they assist the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi escort the holy child, Kintaro, to the Temple Castle of the Sky Buddha. We also fast-forward to the future, where the world is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and it’s every mutant for themselves. Lone-wolf warrior Raphael and the now-bionic Donatello are the only ones who have the guts to find the ever-elusive Oasis.

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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