MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: 68 Kill, Bad Day for the Cut, Friend Request, Tiger Hunter, CERN, Conduct!, Macon County Line and more

The January doldrums are upon us, when Hollywood attempts to attract audiences in smaller cities and towns to movies ballyhooed in the run-up to awards season, but whose exposure has been limited to critics, guild members and viewers in select cities, as they used to call New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Traditionally, movies that did well at the Golden Globes and in Oscar nominations could expect a bump at the box-office in January and run-up to Valentine’s and Presidents’ days. Lately, prestige films that miss the cut in the polls, critics’ lists, nominations and awards presentations might not be accorded even a wider theatrical release in non-select cities. But by advancing the streaming and DVD/Blu-ray windows, distributors now can take advantage of the pre-holiday marketing halo and avoid spending another fortune in advertising revenues. It might take current box-office faves Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Justice League, The Greatest Showman and Pitch Perfect 3  longer to reach the small screen. (The Last Jedi didn’t open in China until this past weekend, and Jumanji  has yet to show in several prominent countries. Neither have The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, I Tonya, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

Genuine awards hopefuls Dunkirk, Victoria & Abdul, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Mother! (Jennifer Lawrence), Girls Trip (Tiffany Haddish), Wind River, Mudbound and Get Out are available in the aftermarket. Meanwhile, distributors are holding their collective breath until January 23 – Academy Award nominations — to announce their plans for VOD and DVD/Blu-ray dates. Any way one slices this half-assed system, the only winners are the fortunate few thousand industry insiders – as well as their relatives, friends and neighbors — who are sent “for your consideration” screeners and never have to set foot in a theater to see how pictures are supposed to look.

January is also prime time for studios to dump disappointments and question marks into theaters, before a fast turnaround on video. Occasionally, an overlooked gem will sneak into circulation – last year’s The Founder and Split, for example — but it won’t be because anyone saw it coming. I’ve found a few titles that fit that description.

68 Kill: Blu-ray
If 2018 is going to be the year that women in film begin fighting back, Trent Haaga’s breakneck thriller 68 Kill would be a grand place for them to draw inspiration. AnnaLynn McCord plays Liza, an alpha female who tricks her ineffectual, if adorable boyfriend Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) into participating in a scheme to steal tens of thousands of dollars – $68,000, to be precise — from the safe in her sugar-daddy landlord’s bedroom. Chip could use the money, but clearly isn’t ready for the heist to go sideways or for Liza to relish the ultra-violence as much she does. Although Liza demands that he personally eliminate a pretty young witness, Violet (Alisha Boe), Chip decides instead to put his bloodthirsty lover temporarily out of commission and head for the hills with the money. It doesn’t take long for the hapless Chip to fall in love with the deceptively fragile flower. Violet has plans of her own for the money, and disappears. After seeking the assistance of a hard-boiled goth cashier at a local gas station, Chip is lured into an evil more diabolical trap, this one devised by a half-dozen meth heads with guns, zits and bad teeth. Just when he thinks he has control of the situation, Chip loses whatever edge he might have had to a pair of female tweakers, whose girlhood heroines probably included Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox, in Natural Born Killers, and Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny, in Pulp Fiction. Neither does Troma veteran Haaga (Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV) give up on the possibility Violet or Liza might return, looking for the money, which is hidden somewhere in the bowels of a low-rent trailer park. Based on a novel of the same title by Bryan Smith, 68 Kill could be accused of overplaying the gratuitous-violence card, if it weren’t for the juxtaposition of the women’s psychotic behavior and Chip’s inability to stand on his own two feet for more than a couple minutes at a time. It leads to some shockingly abrupt narrative shifts, as well as much inky black humor, mostly at Chip’s expense. It’s also sexy, without a great deal of forced nudity. That so much of the action takes place in trailers and mini-marts is only to be expected.

Bad Day for the Cut: Blu-ray
Newcomer Chris Baugh is the latest writer-director to join the short, but growing list of Irish genre specialists to watch. In the consistently involving Bad Day for the Cut, Nigel O’Neill plays a hard-working farmer whose only enjoyment in life comes from downing a pint or two at the local pub, breathing new life into broken-down cars and allowing his widowed mother to spoil him in the home they share. One night, after falling asleep in his makeshift garage, Donal interrupts a home invasion that leaves his mother dead on the floor of the living room. He’s seen the perpetrators, but they get away before he can identify them or get their license-plate number. No sooner has his mother been laid to rest than Donal is ambushed by a different pair of hooded thugs, who blow their attempt to hang him from the barn’s rafters. It gives him an opportunity to take one of them out for good. Donal doesn’t recognize his attackers this time, either, but is able to wring some valuable information from the thoroughly inept survivor, Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), and whatever can be gleaned from the dead man’s phone. Still, Donal can’t imagine why anyone would want to murder his mother or him. Donal’s investigation will take him to Belfast in a garish red camper van he’s just restored. It is also where Bartosz’ sister, Kaja (Anna Próchniak), is being held against her will by the same white-slavers who forced the young man into participating in the botched hanging. By this time, Donal and Bartosz are cooperating in their separate quests. The only spoiler I’m willing to spill here comes in revealing that the original break-in was anything but random and the mystery can be traced to the bad old days of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The prostitution angle is also crucial to the story, but mostly as connecting tissue and a catalyst for extreme violence. Also terrific in Bad Day for the Cut is Susan Lynch, whose character could hardly be more menacing or tough. As such, she’s another formidable woman with whom to be reckoned in 2018.

Friend Request: Blu-ray
Even before Facebook became a ubiquitous presence in the lives of millions of Americans, serious questions were raised about trusting the identity of people hanging out in on-line chatrooms, posing as one thing, while being something else entirely. Middle-age male predators preyed on underage teenagers of both genders, until police figured out how to identify the perverts and initiate well-coordinated stings. When Facebook was launched in 2004, membership was limited to students at Harvard and other high-end colleges. As it expanded, students began to fall prey to some of the same scams as that perplexed AOL and other services. If anything, though, the new community of “friends” was more educated and able to see through the ruses. Conversely, this allowed some of them to conceive ever-more-devious schemes, while burglars monitored their “friends” movements to plan break-ins. While Munich-born writer/director/actor Simon Verhoeven carefully avoids aggravating FB lawyers in Friend Request, he extends the discussion by warning viewers against “unfriending” people whose identities they have been given reason to question. The story updates the source technology in Ringu, without eliminating any of the menace. Friend Request begins with a harried college professor upbraiding his class for downloading a suicide video that the deceased student had posted on the Internet. When he asks if anyone has any information about the death, the camera introduces us to Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a dead-ringer for Piper Perabo. In a flashback, Laura is shown accepting an invitation to befriend the class’ goth outsider, Marina (Liesl Ahlers), who everyone else avoids. Marina is talented artist whose macabre illustrations come to life in nightmarish animations. When things get too weird for Laura, Marina turns on her other friends on the site. Suddenly, they begin dying in horribly grotesque ways. Videos of their deaths appear on the website, complete with terrifying animations. One thing leads to another, and we’re back in the classroom, where the professor is grilling the students. Friend Request may not be the most original movie of the season, but most of the scares are genuine and the international cast of actors takes their roles seriously. Originally titled “Unknown Error,” the film was later renamed internationally to avoid confusion with Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014). In Germany, Friend Request was titled “Unknown User” to avoid confusion with the Filipino-language Unfriend (2014). Verhoeven’s version took its good-natured time opening in the U.S., possibly to distance it further from Unfriended, which appealed to the same audience demographic. The Blu-ray adds “Friend Request: The Social Nightmare,” in which brief interviews are intercut with scenes from the film. BTW: Verhoeven is the son of writer/director Michael Verhoeven (The Nasty Girl) and Senta Berger (The Quiller Memorandum), but no relation to the Dutch filmmaker, Paul.

The Tiger Hunter: Blu-ray
At a time in our history when the President of the United States has turned his back on the Statue of Liberty and demands that Congress allocate funds to build a fence to prevent “huddled masses” of color from breathing freely, it’s nice to find a movie that makes a quiet, yet emphatic case for tolerance and inclusion. This isn’t to say that Lena Khan’s debut feature sugarcoats the debate over illegal immigration or oversells the idea that America wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for men and women from foreign countries, not all of whom were welcomed with open arms. The Tiger Hunter is about a highly educated young Indian, Sami (Danny Pudi), who’s promised an engineering job in Chicago, but loses it when the company decides to downsize without warning. Inspired by his late father, who became a hero by saving a village from a killer tiger, Sami decides not to let the setback crush his spirit. Instead of being able to afford a nice apartment and send money home to his mother, he moves into a cramped flat with eight other men struggling to realize the American Dream. He also would love to convince his sweetheart’s demanding dad that he’s worthy of his trust and her hand. In a nice change of pace, the characters have left their political, religious and ethnic differences behind them in India and Pakistan. When Sami’s supervisor steals his idea for a countertop microwave oven and sells it to the Boss (Kevin Pollak) as his own – this is 1979, when such gizmos were rare – his friends rally behind him to find a way correct the misrepresentation. Khan keeps the atmosphere light by introducing the romantic throughline, which requires Sami to ask a wealthy co-worker (Jon Heder) if he can use his family’s mansion to impress his girlfriend (Karen David) and her father (Iqbal Theba), who are in the U.S. interviewing potential suitors. Plenty of things could have happened to turn The Tiger Hunter into a needlessly dramatic exercise in America-bashing, filled with racial jibes and unpleasant bickering. According to interviews in the hourlong making-of featurette, the movie’s individual stories and vignettes mirrored the experiences of their friends and relatives, who moved to the U.S. and the UK to realize their dreams. As such, The Tiger Hunter is sweet, without being saccharin, and can be enjoyed by anyone able to trace their roots to the Old Country, wherever that might be. Although Indian and Pakistani actors aren’t prevalent on American screens, the ones who appear here should be familiar to fans of “Community,” “Glee,” “Galavant,” “Outsourced,” “The Grind” and “House Arrest.” Sadly, it’s theatrical release was limited to 42 theaters. It deserves to be given a fair chance in video.

Austrian-born filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter is a new-school documentarian, whose borders stretch to the ends of the Earth and who employs techniques that combine visual artistry with existential questioning of fact-based subject matter. He is perhaps best known here for Our Daily Bread (2005), which changed the way viewers looked at the production of food and explained why it doesn’t taste the way it should. In 1999’s Pripyat, Geyrhalter became one of the first filmmakers to enter Chernobyl’s evacuated zone, a dozen years after the meltdown. In addition to discovering a technological graveyard, he interviewed people who returned to one of sthe most unlikely places on the planet to support life. In Elsewhere (2000), he directed camera teams that travelled to different extreme locations each month, searching for places untouched by the millennium hysteria. My favorite, Homo Sapiens (2016), quietly surveys post-apocalyptic landscapes in a pre-dystopian world. Outwardly, CERN is a far more traditional undertaking. The 75-minute, made-for-television documentary takes us to the human ant farm known as the Large Hadron Collider, a circular city of 2,500-plus scientists, physicists, mathematicians and technicians, from dozens of different countries, buried 100 meters below a northwest suburb of Geneva. Operated by the world-renowned research organization, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the 27-kilometer-circumference tunnel is the world’s largest laboratory for particle physics. In laymen’s term, the facility’s primary mission is to re-create the so-called Big Bang and understand how the universe evolved. They do it by circulating proton beams through the 27-kilometer ring in both directions.  According to LHC’s main engineer, Steve Myers, this is like “firing two needles across the Atlantic and getting them to hit each other.” Among other things, the World Wide Web began as a CERN project named ENQUIRE, initiated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and Robert Cailliau in 1990. After establishing the scale and mission of the facility, he introduces viewers to some of the men and women whose job it is to keep this massive gray beast running. They attempt to define the work they do in terms that even college dropouts might understand, but the explanations flew by me as if they were, well, needles fired across the Atlantic. It was like watching “The Big Bang Theory,” translated into Mandarin Chinese. Those viewers who have no problem understanding what makes the geniuses in that show tick, however, might very find CERN to be very entertaining. The existential angle can be found in one scientist’s description of a conversation he had with Pope John Paul II, when he visited the facility. He asked the pontiff if the work being done by CERN contradicted Church doctrine. The answer should be of interest to fundamentalists of all stripe.

Conduct! Every Move Counts
To the same degree that I don’t understand particle physics, neither can I fathom the mysteries of classical music and how all the individual parts come together to make such beautiful sounds. Growing up, the job of conducting a symphony orchestra always seemed to require little more than looking imperious in a tuxedo, bowing grandly, being able to read music and wave a baton simultaneously, and occasionally stare down the one musician out of a hundred who needs a bit more encouragement. The more I began to appreciate repertoire, however, the easier it was to disabuse myself of such a stupid notion. I don’t suppose that a composer’s job can be said to be comparable to herding cats, but it requires an ability to keep dozens of moving parts working in unison like a fine Swiss watch. The showmanship evolves over time. In his first feature-length documentary, Götz Schauder chronicles the lofty ambitions of 24 young conductors from around the world, all invited to Frankfurt to compete in the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition. Having seen Solti in action with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and edited our classical-music critic’s articles for years — it doesn’t take much additional background to gauge just how high the bar has been set for the competitors. (A little more information on the Hungarian-born pianist and conductor might have helped laymen, however.) The first thing that struck me in Conduct! Every Move Counts was the initial tension between the experienced musicians and the whippersnappers attempting to make them align their sensibilities to the unheard music in the conductors’ heads. Otherwise, the intensity of the competition approximates that which informs documentaries about chess, Scrabble, ballroom dancing, poetry and math. Great professional and amateur athletes possess the same inner drive and passion for their chosen disciplines.  Each candidate is accorded 20 minutes to work with an orchestra he – or the single she, Alondra de la Parra — has never met and impress an intimidating panel of judges … again, all men. “Conduct” follows five conductors: the 20-year-old Aziz Shokhakimov, from Uzbekistan; Parra, the rising star New Yorker, via Mexico City; Englishman James Lowe; Andreas Hotz, from Germany; and Japan’s Shizuo Z. Kuwahara, who conducts with his bare hands. Unlike most competition docs, not all of them will make it past the first cut, let alone the final list of three. Some tension occurs as two also-rans stick around long enough to check out the rehearsals and final performance of the finalists. Naturally, they think they were cheated and are every bit as surprised to learn that they weren’t. “Conduct” probably could have benefitted from another 10 minutes of exposition, during which the art of conducting could be deciphered for casual fans of classical music.

Macon County Line: Blu-ray
Now that the archivists at Shout!Factory have committed Macon County Line to Blu-ray, I wonder how long it will take the company to re-release Jackson County Jail in hi-def, as well. In 2011, it was packaged with Caged Heat! as part of the company’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” and “Women in Cages” series of double- and triple-features. Although all the selections resemble each other in certain Corman-esque ways, a discernible amount of individuality manages to peek out from behind the gaudy cover art. Macon County Line, which starred Yvette Mimieux and Tommy Lee Jones, is set in the same kind of Deep South hellhole where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were gunned down in Easy Rider. It could have been influenced just as easily by Two-Lane Blacktop, in which James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drag-race their way across the U.S., in a gray-primer ’55 Chevy, taking on all comers. Then, too, Macon County Line also borrows liberally from “Route 66,” a great TV series, in which Martin Milner and George Maharis wandered around the country in a vintage Corvette, taking odd jobs to pay for gas and allowing themselves to be seduced by beautiful women. Today, however, its biggest selling point may be the novelty of having been written by Max Baer Jr. (“The Beverly Hillbillies”), who also plays an extremely credible redneck sheriff, Deputy Reed Morgan. Based on a true story, Macon County Line is about two young brothers from Chicago, who are about to be inducted into the service. As they make their way south-by-southwest, Chris and Wayne Dixon (Alan and Jesse Vint) pick up an anchorless young woman, Jenny (Cheryl Waters), who’s on her way to Dallas. When the Dixons’ convertible breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they barely have enough money to pay for gas, let alone a new fuel pump. The owner of the garage (Geoffrey Lewis) jerry-rigs the pump, so that the car might make it as far as the next big city, but not much further. When it breaks down again, they’re practically in the front yard of the sheriff (Baer) who gave them a hard time at garage. This time, however, it coincides with a clumsy home invasion, during which the deputy’s wife (Joan Blackman) is raped and murdered. Without a stitch of evidence, the former Jethro Bodine picks up a rifle and tracks down the Yankee outsiders. The ending isn’t nearly as predictable as it might seem from that summary.  In fact, it’s downright poignant. Despite a shoestring budget that precluded anything remotely fancy, cinematographer Daniel Lacambre (Humanoids from the Deep) finds and exploits every inch of atmosphere from the rural location. The actors also contribute fine performances to the proceedings. That includes 13-year-old Leif Garrett, a future teen heartthrob who’s given a harsh lesson in 1960s racism by his dad, Morgan. The Blu-ray adds a fresh interview with editor Tina Hirsch (“The West Wing”), commentary with director Richard Compton and the featurette, “Macon County Line: 25 Years Down the Road.”

My Little Pony: The Movie: Blu-ray
I wonder how many parents noticed the PG-rating accorded My Little Pony: The Movie and scratched their heads over what might have caused the nincompoops at the MPAA ratings board to react so harshly to “mild action” and a story with fewer objectionable parts than most Disney pictures. Or, so says the Parents Guide on the website. PG may not be the new NC-17, but really … My Little friggin’ Pony? No matter what one thinks of the silly plots and fantastical characters, the franchise has stood the test of time as a harmless pastime for very young fans, many of whom profit from the lessons taught by miniature horses during the animated adventures. I could understand the rating if it were linked to the barely subliminal marketing of toys and other products to impressionable youngsters. If that were the case, however, none of Disney’s films would pass muster. Neither would releases from Nickelodeon and PBS Kids. The main character in this, the second My Little Pony: The Movie in 30 years, is Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), who, once again, is asked to explore the Power of Friendship that comes with her title. The new guest antagonist is Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a disenfranchised pony who has become calloused and driven. Another antagonist, Storm King (Liev Schreiber) is just as important to the narrative as allies Princess Celestia, Princess Luna and Princess Candence. Along the way to restoring Equestria to its former luster, the movie provides lessons in loyalty, honesty and persistence. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, an “Equestria Girls Short,” “Baking With Pinkie Pie,” “Making Magic With the Mane 6 and Their New Friends,” “The Journey Beyond Equestria,” “I’m the Friend You Need” and “Hanazuki: Full of Treasures.”

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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