MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: In Search of Fellini, In Her Name, High School Sinks Into Sea, Jigsaw, Argento’s Opera, Red Trees and more

In Search of Fellini
The Witches: Blu-ray
I can’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a movie that was dumped into limited release, received mixed reviews and could be lost in the shuffle of January releases that receive little fanfare. Maybe, though, I can help draw attention to In Search of Fellini if I point out the romantic fantasy’s “Simpsons” connection. (Everybody loves “The Simpsons.”) In Search of Fellini was adapted from a one-woman play co-written by Nancy Cartwright, who, since 1989, has been the voice of Bart Simpson on Fox’s trail-blazing animated series. Before that, however, the Ohio native joined an acting class taught by Milton Katselas. He recommended that she study Federico Fellini’s La Strada, which starred Giulietta Masina as the street urchin sold by her mother to circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to be his comic foil. Cartwright recalls performing “every imaginable scene” from the movie in her class and spending several months trying to secure the rights to produce a stage adaptation. Like the protagonist in In Search of Fellini, she visited Italy with the intention of meeting Fellini and requesting his permission in person. Although she never met the Maestro, Cartwright kept a journal of the trip and later co-wrote the play upon which it was based. (Performed in Los Angeles in 1995, it won a Drama-Logue Award.) It’s been her dream to turn it into a film ever since then. In Taron Lexton’s feature debut, Cartwright is portrayed by the Latvian-born blond, Ksenia Solo (Black Swan), as Lucy. By opening up the play, Lexton not only was able to shoot in cities visited by Cartwright in her quest, but also replicate key scenes from Fellini’s movies, ranging from a lone horse wandering through empty Italian streets at night, to a grand, gilded orgy from Fellini’s Casanova (1975). Here, Lucy is a naive 20-year-old artist and would-be actor, who, after being propositioned at an audition, escapes that cold reality of show-biz life in a theater showing La Strada. Her resemblance to Masina, as much as the story, compels Lucy to take a crash course in Felliniana, via VHS cassettes. Coincidentally, her mother (Mario Bello) has been diagnosed with an incurable illness, which she tries to conceal from her daughter. Her aunt (Mary Lynn Rajskub) encourages her to pursue her dream of meeting Fellini in person, in Italy. While there, she experiences the highs and lows of solo traveling in a foreign land. First, she meets a sweet and handsome young man, who, under the right circumstances, would make an ideal companion. Then, she’s assaulted by a classic Latin bounder. Although Cartwright didn’t meet Fellini on her trip, Lucy is given reason to believe that he might turn up around any corner in Rome. It’s a stretch, but a little bit of magical realism goes a long way. I can understand how some critics might think that Lexton stuffed too many disparate elements into a 93-minute package and, stylistically, it’s all over the place. As a sucker for all-things-Fellini, however, I had no trouble buying into Cartwright’s almost-true fantasy. It also was a pleasure watching Ksenia Solo spread her wings in a lead role. Anyone who enjoyed Gary Winick’s Letters to Juliet (2010), also partially shot in Verona’s historical district, should rush to find a copy of In Search of Fellini. The DVD adds interviews and Cartwright’s commentary.

Fellini’s name may not be attached to Arrow Video’s restored edition of The Witches, but his fingerprints can be found on all five of the vignettes in the wildly uneven, but still entertaining 1967 anthology. The concept advanced by producer Dino De Laurentiis was for several of Italy’s most celebrated directors and screenwriters to create short films in which his wife, Silvana Mangano (Bitter Rice), plays a strega. They’re not your average, garden-variety witches, mind you, but Mangano makes them all bewitching in her own captivating way. Luchino Visconti (Ossessione) and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves) open the film with “The Witch Burned Alive,” about a famous actress and a drunken evening that leads to unpleasant revelations; “Civic Sense” provides a lightly comic interlude from Mauro Bolognini (The Lady of the Camelias), but with a dark conclusion; in the delightfully surrealistic “The Earth as Seen From the Moon” combines the considerable talents of comedy legend Totò with those of Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron) for a tale of matrimony and reincarnation; in “The Sicilian’s Wife,” Franco Rossi (The Woman in the Painting) concocts a story of revenge and its ultimate consequence; and, finally, in “An Evening Like the Others,” Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine) merges a bittersweet homage to Italian comic books with a lament over the loss of passion in marriage. An impossibly young Clint Eastwood plays the business-obsessed husband of a not-at-all frumpy middle-age woman, who can’t help wondering how things might have turned out between them if reality were more like Hollywood musicals of the 1940s. Like Clark Kent, Mangano removes her character’s glasses whenever the unhappy wife transitions from plain to hot. The Eastwood/Mangano segment is worth the price of a rental, itself. In the U.S., Eastwood was still known for playing Rowdy Yates, on “Rawhide.” By the time “Witches” was released in Europe, however, his portrayal of the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” had made him a highly bankable star. The movie wasn’t shown here until 1969, the same year as Eastwood co-starred in “Paint Your Wagon,” contributing three less-than-memorable songs. The Blu-ray features a fresh 2K restoration from original film elements, produced by Arrow Films; a worthwhile commentary by critic and novelist Tim Lucas; an interview with actor Ninetto Davoli, recorded exclusively for this release; an English-language version of De Sica’s episode; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone and Kat Ellinger.

In Her Name
Unless I’ve missed something, the true story upon which this riveting French/German legal thriller is based hasn’t garnered much press coverage on this side of the pond. All the better for American audiences, for whom Vincent Garenq’s In Her Name (a.k.a., “Kalinka”) will feel as fresh as any other real-crime drama currently being shown in theaters or on television. The case, we’re told, kept France enthralled for more than 30 years. I believe it. The film is so compellingly rendered that viewers unfamiliar with the story will be left guessing until the final moments as to whether justice will finally be served or the antagonist, a German doctor, will once again escape punishment for defiling teenage girls under his treatment. The narrative begins in the early 1970s, in Morocco, as French accountant André Bamberski (Daniel Auteuil) confronts his wife, Danièle (Marie-Josée Croze) and her lover, Dieter Krombach (Sebastian Koch), midway through an afternoon tryst. The affair would continue for about a year after the couple moved back to France – with Krombach not far behind – causing the Bamberskis to divorce, with the custody of their two children to be shared. Flash forward eight years and Bamberski is next shown saying goodbye to his son and daughter, Kalinka and Nicolas, as they’re about to depart for a summer vacation with her mother and Krombach in Germany. Before long, Bamberski is informed that Kalinka, now 14, died in her sleep, after an exhausting day of swimming with friends. Krombach doesn’t immediately admit to injecting the girl with an iron supplement, to accelerate tanning, and giving her a sleeping tablet, only hours before she died.  Bamberski can’t imagine how an otherwise healthy teenager could die in her sleep, with or without the injections. His suspicions are validated when the autopsy belatedly is sent to him in France and, after being translated, is as revealing for what’s left out of the report as for what’s in it. Describing everything that happens over the course of the next 30 years would require more than a few spoiler alerts. Suffice it to say that the well-connected doctor somehow was allowed to observe the autopsy and probably encouraged officials to destroy key evidence, including the girl’s sex organs. Bamberski made a big enough stink about the autopsy that German officials felt compelled to conduct a show trial, at least. He would receive a series of slaps on the wrist that not only allowed him to continue practicing in Germany, but also be accused of rape in other instances. When French authorities fail to convince their German counterparts to extradite the doctor, Bamberski begins his decades-long crusade to keep the case alive and Krombach continually on edge. The obsessive campaign for the truth and justice will cost him a small fortune and the love of his son and girlfriend, as well as a discernible portion of his sanity. Will he be vindicated? Europeans, already well familiar with the story, already knew the answer to that question when In Her Name opened in 2016. Only a handful of American viewers will already know the outcome. Fans of true-crime documentaries won’t want to miss Auteuil’s anguished portrayal of a man so committed to his dead daughter’s memory that he risked everything, just so “she can rest in peace.”

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea: Blu-ray
From now on, no compilation of the 10- or 20-best movies about high schools will be complete without mention, at least, of Dash Shaw’s wonderfully inventive My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. If you haven’t heard of it, by now, blame the vagaries of modern film distribution. Shaw adapted the animated feature from his graphic novel of the same title. After the teen-disaster flick made the rounds of the festival circuit, eliciting excellent reviews, it was released in only a handful of theaters. This, despite an all-star voicing cast — Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, John Cameron Mitchell – and the potential for a positive word-of-mouth campaign. Try to imagine Fast Times at Ridgemont High or “Freaks and Geeks,” by way of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Titanic, and you’ll be halfway there. “Sinking” is set in a generic public high school, populated by dozens of archetypal students, teachers and administrators. The school’s pecking order is roughly that of the characters in The Breakfast Club, only in macrocosm. At the lowest end of the food chain are Dash (Schwartzman) and Assaf (Watts), sophomore buddies who decide to elevate their station by joining the staff of the Tides High school newspaper, which is facing the same fate as most mainstream papers in the digital age. Its irritable editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), demands that the newcomers come up with stories capable of getting the student body in the reading habit. Instead, the boy’s increasingly divergent personalities cause a major rift at the paper. Verti wants something sexy to tear teenagers away from their iPhones, which is OK with Assaf, but not the more traditional Dash. Cut adrift from the paper, Dash discovers a cover-up of the school’s likely inability to withstand an earthquake. It was built on landfill, on the edge of a cliff, but still managed to pass every seismic inspection. It doesn’t take long before a temblor strong enough to knock the building off its foundation occurs, causing it to slide down the cliff and into the sea. Miraculously, the school’s infrastructure survives the disaster mostly intact, allowing for survivors to maintain hope for rescue, but only if they can reason their way to a solution. Or, to put it metaphorically, Dash advises: “We must make our way to the senior floor and then graduate … to the roof!” Among the obstacles they face are marauding sharks, ruptured elevator shafts and their own anxiety. As the friends race to escape, they are joined by a “popular” know-it- all (Dunham) and the lunch lady (Sarandon). Shaw’s mix-and-match animation makes it easy for viewers to suspend their disbelief as the students’ situation grows increasingly dire. So, does the dizzying soundtrack by Rani Sharone (American Ultra). Only 75 minutes long, “Sinking” is the right length to sustain the conceit, without running out of gags, metaphors or its welcome. Special features include Shaw’s commentary, several animated shorts and a spotlight on the film’s unique artwork.

Jigsaw: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Cloverfield/10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray, 4K UHD HDR
Although the latest addition to the Saw franchise somehow managed to shed its brand identification during its seven-year hiatus, Jigsaw had no problem attracting old fans and newcomers to the series’ eighth installment. In 2010, producer Mark Burg announced that the seventh chapter, Saw 3D, would be the last. Even so, Lionsgate quickly expressed interest in continuing the still-lucrative series. That can be explained by comparing a combined $77 million in production costs to nearly a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales. That figure, of course, doesn’t take into account money from DVD/Blu-ray/VOD returns, video games, comic books and theme-park attractions. Not bad for a movie that’s never scored higher than a 50-percent approval rating in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic polls and dropped to 9 percent for Saw 3D in RT. To be fair, the average CinemaScore grade is “B.” Believed dead for, lo, these many years, villain John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) appears to have returned to the scene of his terrible crimes. A cancer survivor and civil engineer with a genius for creating implements of torture and death, Kramer targets individuals who’ve shown a disregard for life or whose behavior endangered others. The new series of killings bear his unique stamp, even if police are reluctant to admit Jigsaw might still be alive. Neither are viewers completely sure of who’s pulling the strings on the ingenious traps and leaving behind the cassettes. Otherwise, it’s the same-old, same-old. Australian siblings, Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers), worked from a script by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Piranha 3D). The Blu-ray/4K UHD extras include the seven-part documentary, “I Speak for the Dead: The Legacy of Jigsaw,” “The Choice Is Yours: Exploring the Props” and commentary with producers Mark Burg, Oren Koules and Peter Block. Fans of extreme gore will appreciate the added clarity of the 4K UHD presentation.

Unless close attention is paid to Easter eggs and an augmented-reality game related to Cloverfield mythology, the only thing connecting all three chapters of the Paramount/Bad Robot franchise – “Cloverfield Station” (a.k.a., “God Particle”) has been slated for April but could wind up on Netflix – appears to be producer J.J. Abrams’ guiding hand. There’s also the 2008 “Cloverfield/Kishin” manga and cross-media tie-in and viral-marketing websites. “Cloverfield Station” reportedly takes place in a stranded space station that’s lost the ability to connect with Earth. There’s no way to know if the monster in Chapter One or John Goodman’s space worms in “10” will make cameos, but don’t bet against it. It’s said that Abrams had plans for individual spinoffs of the modestly budgeted, yet profitable originals, but Paramount may not be interested in pursuing them. Until then, fans with 4K UHD machines are invited to check out those pictures in the enhanced technology. This raises one big question, at least. Cloverfield is a found-footage film that benefitted from the grainy visual presentation that would have been discovered in the aftermath of such a disaster. You wouldn’t want the upgrade to make the cassette’s contents too clean … and they aren’t. It’s fun to see future stars Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller and Odette Annable in key roles. The 10 Cloverfield Lane Blu-ray, released last June, already was very good technically and now offers Dolby Atmos sound and HDR performance. The generous bonus packages have been ported over from the Blu-ray editions.

Dario Argento’s Opera: Blu-ray
If your taste in horror is a bit more Italianate than the monsters of Cloverfield – reptilian and human – or the torture porn of Jigsaw, Scorpion Releasing has added a dollop of vintage giallo to this week’s menu, with Dario Argento’s 1987 thriller, Opera. It should not be confused with Argento’s 1998 misfire, The Phantom of the Opera, or the severely edited version of Opera that might have sneaked out of the lab before Orion Pictures capsized and sank into bankruptcy, in 1991. Scorpion’s newly restored Blu-ray neatly captures the grandeur of the Parma Opera House and brilliant color palette typically employed by Argento to jack up the gore factor in his genre flicks. He based the movie and one of its lead male characters on his experiences directing a failed production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Part of the fun derives from the various superstitions and curse associated with the Scottish Play, some of which may have impacted the production of the opera and movie. Opera, which did well in markets outside the U.S., opens with an accident that prevents the company’s diva from performing in the avant-garde production. Her young and inexperienced understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), impresses the opening-night audience, even while a Phantom-like figure adds some real drama to the opera. Later, the fiend breaks into the apartment Betty shares with her boyfriend, Stefano’s (William McNamara), overpowering the singer and forcing her to watch him being killed. Horror buffs should recall the poster image of the killer taping a row of needles beneath each of her eyes, ensuring that she witnesses every horrific detail. Although the masked assailant unties Betty and flees the apartment, he’s far from done with her. He has a history with her family and fully intends to make her miserable. Argento takes full advantage of the historic setting, moving his camera nimbly from proscenium to ceiling, backstage to balconies. A subplot involving several trained crows is equal parts scary and funny. Interview (21:41, HD) with Dario Argento (recorded in 2016) finds the director in an upbeat mood, labeling “Opera” as one of his best films. The helmer recounts production inspiration, with Argento looking to bring a sense of Verdi’s “Macbeth” to the screen, though with a lot more ravens, which were difficult to control, with one bird even biting Argento’s lip. The feature’s technical achievements are examined, including elaborate cinematography needs, including a camera rig built inside an opera house that simulated raven flight (BTS footage is supplied to show how this was done). Argento shares his musical influences at the time, his difficult relationship with star Cristina Marsillach, and how certain special effects were pulled off. The Blu-ray adds lively interviews with Argento and McNamara.

Red Trees: Blu-ray
Marina Willer’s visual essay on her family’s survival, displacement and reinvention under the harshest of circumstances stretches the traditional boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Its impressionistic approach is suggested in the title, Red Trees, which refers to how her Austrian-born father discovered he was colorblind. (At 10, Alfred Willer was made aware of the fact that the leaves he drew on trees were red, not green, and disappeared ahead of a flaming background.) The focus is on her father and grandfather, who survived the German occupation of Prague, only because they possessed a secret non-military formula that the Nazis desired and their chemists were too busy creating implements of destruction to replicate. Alfred’s father, Vilem, had discovered a way to synthetically produce citric acid, which, at the time, was used as food preservative. Fortunately, the Nazis were convinced that Vilem carried the formula in his head and, therefore, was too valuable to kill. That fact that he was married to a woman who wasn’t Jewish didn’t hurt. The Willers constituted one of only 12 Jewish families in Prague to survive the war … barely. The family fled Czechoslovakia for a new life in Brazil, a rapidly developing country that welcomed the talents Jewish immigrants brought to it. Alfred marveled at the country’s tightly knit multicultural fabric and, after mastering Portuguese, contributed his own accomplishments to the mix as an architect. The more impressionistic aspect of the film details the sentimental journey daughter Marina encouraged her father to embark upon in the Czech Republic. Like so many other survivors of wartime madness, Alfred had rarely shared recollections of the period with loved ones. They were simply too traumatic and close to the surface to discuss. Upon his return to Prague, the good and bad memories came flooding back and he finally was able to share them with Marina. Very few words are needed to describe the powerful impact of the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of the Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis are inscribed, or their return to Vilem’s factory, where machinery has stood idle for decades and the boots and coats of long-dead laborers still hang from the ceiling of the changing room. The only footage of concentration camps was taken at nearby Theresienstadt, which the SS used as a showcase for visiting dignitaries and Red Cross workers. In fact, thousands of Jews were murdered at Theresienstadt, which also served as a transit center for captives on their way to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The past is brought vividly to life by the voices of Alfred, who bears a striking resemblance to Leonard Cohen, and narrator Tim Pigott-Smith. Marina was assisted in her quest by Oscar-nominated cinematographer César Charlone (City of God) and co-writers Brian Eley and Leena Telén. Not being a typical Holocaust documentary, Red Trees opens itself to criticism from viewers who might wonder why images of death, depravity and brutality are missing from the narrative and, perhaps, the degree to which Vilem may have collaborated with the enemy to save his family. Prague, itself, often stands out as more of tourist destination than a place that today might be too comfortable with its past. Clearly, though, Alfred has a fascinating story to tell and it was only through the determination of his daughter to know her father that his memories were unlocked. Finally, Red Trees demands that we consider what the many thousands of immigrants seeking new homes today could bring to their own adopted countries.

Chasing the Dragon: Blu-ray
Western viewers may be at a disadvantage here, in that the events depicted in Chasing the Dragon are as familiar to longtime residents of Hong Kong as the Miami mayhem described in Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Hard-core criminals and sociopathic killers once terrorized those cities, while providing fodder for writers of television shows and movies. If the perpetrators of violence occasionally came off as being more charismatic and enviable than the cops chasing them, well, that’s always been the nature of the beast. Carefully choreographed firefights at discos, car chases and martial-arts massacres are sexier than procedurals and sell more tickets than documentaries. Duh. It explains why I didn’t pay much attention to the facts obliterated by the balls-to-the-wall action in Jason Kwan and Wong Jing’s recollection of Hong Kong’s drug wars in the 1960-70s. I don’t suppose anyone on the island bothered themselves with the accuracy of the portrayal of Al Capone, in either version of “The Untouchables” or Scarface, either. That’s exactly what troubled some of the hometown critics after watching what they considered to the filmmakers’ overly sanitized portrayals of real-life drug kingpin Crippled Ho, by Donnie Yen, and the notorious police detective Lee Rock (a.k.a., Lui Lok), by Andy Lau. At this point in their career, the pundits surmised, neither of the superstar actors wanted to portray criminals as anything less than intermittently sympathetic anti-heroes, battling mutual enemies. As is the case with so many Hong Kong films today, Chasing the Dragon is a virtual remake of previous hits. In 1991’s To Be Number One, Ho was portrayed as a Godfather-esque figure, while a young Lau memorably played the same crooked police officer in the Lee Rock trilogy (1991-92). In real life, both characters were linked by their arrival in Hong Kong as immigrants and the proximity of their homes on the mainland. They meet here when Ho and his friends are arrested in a brawl with local gang member and, after recognizing them as homeboys, Rock saves them from an unwarranted beating by British police. Having a powerful cop in his corner allowed Ho’s criminal acumen to blossom and, once established, they would become allies in the island’s heroin trade. In Chasing the Dragon, all four of the earlier movies have been merged into one, with the additional enemy of a corrupt and brutal British cop. (That wouldn’t have passed muster in movies made before the transfer of power.) There’s plenty of action to go around here, along with a story that occasionally pulls at the heartstrings.

Jesus Meets the Gay Man
The Revival
100 Men
Typically, there’s nothing funny about the way bible-thumping evangelists and other opportunists treat gays and lesbians in sermons, political rhetoric and in the media. The targets of their poisonous claims have only recently been able to stand tall and openly challenge their misreading of scripture. Beyond holding pride parades, signing petitions and pressuring entertainment executives to tell their stories accurately and more frequency, gays and lesbians have made their presence known at the ballot box. It’s still difficult to use humor as a shield against bigotry and intolerance, however. It would be nice to think that progressive Red State preachers might find a way to use Jean-Claude Lafond’s funny and observant documentary, Jesus Meets the Gay Man to bridge the gap between fundamentalist Christians and the “LGBTQIA” community … yes, the acronym keeps growing. Lafond asks the same question untold thousands of Christians ask themselves each day, when confronted with ethical dilemmas and moral quandaries: what would Jesus do? He expands the question to include, “What would Jesus do if, upon His return to Earth, he encountered an openly gay man, lesbian etc.” Lafont does so in comic sketches, song-and-dance numbers, gags, interviews and animations. He also employs common sense and critical thinking. If the sketch comedy isn’t as polished as that performed by Monty Python, Second City or on “SNL,” it’s only because Jesus Meets the Gay Man’s was less than what most televangelists spend on their dry-cleaning each week. Even so, there are more hits than misses, and none of the humor is designed to disparage church-going believers. The DVD adds two hours of interviews and deleted scenes.

There’s nothing terribly funny in director Jennifer Gerber and writer Samuel Brett Williams’ The Revival, but it delivers a powerful punch as a deliberately provocative story about a rural Southern pastor confronting his sexual identity. The cover art appears to promise a faith-based drama in which one or both male characters in the photograph succumbs to the other’s sexual entreaties and/or is talked into committing to conversion therapy. A tall, black cross stands between them … usually, a sure sign that religious message contained therein would satisfy Vice President Mike Pence’s concept of family entertainment. The Revival, adapted from Williams’ play, is far more complex and potentially divisive than that, however. That’s because it’s a performance-driven story whose progressive message gets murkier as the climax approaches. David Rysdahl and Zachary Booth deliver impressive performances as Pastor Eli, the mousy minister of a failing rural congregation, and Daniel, the rough-hewn stranger who one day shows up after church for a free meal. Eli’s deceptively timid wife, June (Lucy Faust), is pregnant and worried that her husband is spending too much time trying to save the soul of a single interloper, instead of inspiring the members of his late father’s dwindling ministry. When she receives a photo of the two men in flagrante delicto, she forces the backsliding Eli to make a concrete decision on their future together, quick. Williams’ script paints him into a corner that a Harvard Divinity School graduate, like Eli, should have been able to see coming and escape before he became trapped. As it is, there’s no credible solution to Eli’s dilemma and the one forwarded in The Revival will infuriate the half of the potential audience that applauded the preacher’s earlier acceptance of his sexuality. Conversely, the explicit sexual material could turn off the conservative audience it’s trying to reach. In the commentary, Gerber and Williams admit to a certain ambiguity here that, they hope, might encourage positive debates in church groups. It can only accomplish that if The Revival gets that far, however. The DVD also adds deleted scenes and an alternative ending.

The title, 100 Men, reminds me of the half-dozen, or so, romantic comedies I’ve seen in which a guy puts together a list of women he’s dated and intends to contact before getting married, dying or dealing with a venereal disease he may have passed along to them (“Lovesick”). Another variation on the theme informed Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, in which a recently dumped guy (Bill Murray) receives an anonymous letter from a former lover, informing him that he has a son who may be looking for him. With the assistance of a freelance sleuth, who lives next-door, he embarks on a cross-country search for his old flames. In 100 Men, Paul Oremland presents a personal overview of his life as a gay man, by tracking down and chatting with men he’s met through sex. In the process, he finds himself exploring four decades of changing attitudes toward homosexuality. Because he’s lived in cities around the world, the documentary offers a bit more diversity of experience than if he’d stayed put in San Francisco or WeHo.

Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt
When Islamic radicals invaded the American Embassy in Teheran, taking dozens of employees hostage, the news media seemed at a loss for historical perspective. Eventually, viewers and readers were informed of widespread hostility that could be traced to Iran’s 1953 coup d’état, which was a covert Anglo-American operation that led to the overthrow of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and re-establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty. Instead of pursuing democratic and societal reforms, Mohammad Reza Shah used oil profits to create a state that favored wealthy Iranians and his western allies, while vigorously cracking down on dissent. It opened the door to the embassy to followers of exiled Muslim cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, who fanned the flames of revolt from abroad. The roots of anti-Americanism in the Arab world go even deeper and are every bit as misunderstood. Michal Goldman’s illuminating Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt is the first film aimed at American audiences about Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Arab world’s most transformative leaders. As the Cold War raged, Nasser and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru made headlines here for their ability – or lack thereof – to leverage their resources and strategic importance to the U.S. and Soviet Union in pursuit of their newly independent governments’ goals. Since their deaths, it’s been easier for the media to ignore – or, oversimplify – the undercurrents of dissent, despair and revolution in the Middle East, Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Indian subcontinent. If the events leading to the Iranian Revolution, Palestinian Intifadas, Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War caught westerners by surprise, it’s only because no one had bothered to draw parallels between the Boston Tea Party and the many insurrections and intifadas triggered by the same desire for freedom from tyranny. Goodman spent four years following Egypt’s contribution to the Arab Spring listening to peasants and professors, secularists and Islamists describe Nasser’s contributions to Egyptian independence and prosperity, while also debating the legacy of a world leader who died at 52, with many of his dreams unrealized.

Shockwave: Countdown to Disaster
The Sword and the Claw: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Video nerds are always on the alert for movies that are “so bad it’s good.” Now that the VOD and straight-to-Internet marketplaces have filled the niches once held by straight-to-video and straight-to-DVD flicks, a new segment has emerged. Let’s call it, “too cheesy for Syfy” or, if you will, “too sappy for Lifetime.” Shockwave: Countdown to Disaster’s director Nick Lyon and co-writers Blaine Chiappetta, Rafael Jordan and Ari Novak have previously contributed such epic “straight to …” titles as Earthtastrophe, Stormageddon, Cowboys vs Dinosaurs, Puppy Swap Love Unleashed, Poseidon Rex and Timber the Treasure Dog. It isn’t easy to find financing for unpromising subgenre films, let alone getting them made, so every picture that succeeds in making it past the post-production stage should be considered a triumph. I would be remiss if I neglected to point out, however, just how pathetically illogical and goofy Shockwave really is. It opens somewhere in a Middle Eastern war zone, where terrorists have kidnapped a pair of American scientists – or some such – and threaten to set off a mega-weapon if their demands aren’t met. When American soldiers intercept the convoy, the terrorists make good on their pledge. So far, so good … but we’re only 10 minutes into the movie. The newly triggered “seismic super weapon” was designed to burrow into the earth and do what millions of children around the world have attempted to accomplish: dig a hole from one side of the planet to the other. In the U.S., the futile exercise used to be called, “digging a hole to China.” When massive volcanic storms, earthquakes and tornadoes are reported in major cities around the world, geophysicist Kate Ferris (Stacey Oristano) tries to convince the Department of Defense the shockwaves are the direct result of the unleashed weapon cutting a path through the planet’s crust, mantle and toxic inner core … twice. Somehow, Kate is able to make it to the Sierra Nevada, where her husband and daughter are doing seismic research unrelated to the attack, and sense a disaster on the horizon. As is usually the case in such entertainments, a small, dedicated group of amateurs and volunteers is the only thing preventing the destruction of the planet from a monster, weapon and/or the intransigence of government officials. They needn’t have bothered.

Typically, a 1975 action-genre flick from Turkey – actually, the rare Greek-Turkish co-production – shouldn’t qualify for inclusion in an item about movies that are so bad they’re good, but The Sword and the Claw is the real deal. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. One sage critic described it as, “Conan the Barbarian meets the Three Stooges meets Dolemite, with more lo-fi bloodshed, pop-art visuals, and bizarro dubbing than the boundaries of reality can handle.” I can’t top that summary. Turkish genre legend Cuneyt Arkin plays Süleyman Sah/Kiliçaslan, the son of a murdered king whose hands were cut off by the assassins. The unwitting heir to the crown was raised by a pride of lions and taught to survive as a feral beast. As is the wont of superheroes everywhere, he acquires superpowers linked to appendages he acquires along the way. Here, they’re mechanical lion’s claws, not unlike the Wolverine’s razor-sharp fingers. He dedicates himself to overthrowing the regime he doesn’t realize killed his father. (He was born after being hidden in a forest by his mother.) He accomplishes this by teaming up with the king’s former bodyguard and launching an all-out assault against the pretender. The Sword & the Claw is truly a unique experience. It further benefits from a fresh 4K transfer from the only 35mm theatrical print know to be in existence; action trailers from the AGFA vault; the 1981 Korean kung-fu thriller, Brawl Busters, starring Black Jack Chan, featuring a new 2K scan from an original theatrical print; and reversible cover art, with illustrations by Alexis Ziritt.

A Dog and Pony Show
Perhaps, the only fitting punishment for Harvey Weinstein for his atrocious behavior towards women – besides being flogged by his accusers during commercial breaks at the Oscars ceremony –would be forcing him to watch A Dog and Pony Show on a never-ending loop until he succumbs to madness. No offense is intended towards director Demetrius Navarro or anyone else involved in the live-action, talking-animal comedy, whose meager budget even precluded animating the lips of the circus and barnyard characters. I can’t imagine the average 4-year-old noticing the difference, but, for parents roped into watching it with their kids, the experience borders on the tortuous … that, and the fart jokes. It’s the story of Dede, a famous performing circus dog that gets left behind when her show leaves town. She’s discovered by Billy, a lonely city kid who’s just moved to a nearby ranch. Can the vain and arrogant dog get along with the farm’s eccentric critters, including a sleep-deprived rooster, a gassy cow and a hypochondriac horse? Then, there’s the bumbling thieves from a rival circus, who recognize a star attraction when they see one. So, how does Weinstein fit into this review? He reportedly was responsible for blackballing the movie’s female lead, Mira Sorvino – a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard University and Oscar-winner for Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – from projects helmed by Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). In reviewing movies in which she’s appeared since the blacklisting began, I’ve wondered why such a talented, well-credentialed actress – you can add beautiful, articulate and extremely likable to that description – could be stuck playing as many unmemorable roles as she has in the last 15 years, or so. Even Sorvino didn’t know the answer to that, until Jackson admitted buying into Harvey and Bob’s smear campaign. She could have walked through every scene in which she appears in The Dog and Pony Show, but, instead, Sorvino brightens this very dull movie every time she appears in it.

PBS: NOVA: Killer Hurricanes/Killer Floods
With the possible exception of President Trump’s dangerous pissing match with North Korean despot Kim Jung-um, there was no bigger story in the media than effects of severe weather on Americans, especially. Some learned scientists have blamed it on global warming, while more skeptical observers dismiss the hellish series of disasters as coincidence. A few moronic pastors have even credited God with using floods, volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes and other unusual meteorological disturbances as punishment for society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage. In a series of episodes dedicated to the question of whether these catastrophes are getting stronger, more frequent and deadlier, producers of PBS’ “NOVA” have discovered that our planet has been shaped by meteorological and geological phenomena infinitely more powerful than what’s being experienced today. In “Killer Hurricanes,” they dig into nautical archives and other personal accounts to solve the riddle of an 18th Century superstorm in the Caribbean that left 20,000 dead bodies in its wake. It remains the highest known death toll of any single weather event. To reconstruct its epic scale and investigate what made it so devastating, “NOVA” joins historians and storm sleuths, as they track down clues in eyewitness chronicles, old ruins and computer simulations. Their evidence points to a terrifying, 300-mile-wide storm, with wind speeds probably exceeding 230 miles an hour and 25-foot-high surges that demolished everything in their path. Nor was the Great Hurricane of 1780 an isolated incident in the annals of recorded history. We can expect more to come.

Researchers have speculated that the flood that prompted Noah to build an ark large enough to replenish the world’s population of wildlife and domesticated animals may have some basis in scientific fact, as well as biblical mythology. They also think Moses’ ability to lead his people across the Red Sea could be credited to the coincidence of a mighty earthquake – the same one that doomed Atlantis – and the tsunami it triggered caused the waters to recede long enough to expose the sea’s floor. In “Killer Floods,” the “NOVA” team travels to the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington, where the level prairie gives way to gargantuan rock formations, house-sized boulders, a cliff carved by a waterfall twice the height of Niagara and potholes large enough to swallow cars. The scientists depict catastrophic Ice Age floods more powerful than all the world’s top-10 rivers combined. They also uncover the geologic fingerprints of other colossal mega-floods in Iceland and on the seabed of the English Channel.

Trump: The Art of the Insult
When conspiracy theorist and mockumentary maker Joel Gilbert ventures too far away from easily parodied rock musicians and takes on liberal politicians, as he did in the scabrous anti-Obama documentary Dreams from My Real Father, he goes from amusing to dangerous at lightning speed. I enjoyed his far-fetched Elvis Found Alive (2012), which, at first, was marketed as a documentary, as was Paul McCartney Really Is Dead (2010), then reclassified as mockumentary. Non-fiction is easier to produce if a filmmaker isn’t required to back up his assertions with facts. The only relevant fact explored in Trump: The Art of the Insult is the inarguable assertion that the future POTUS used childish insults, insensitive ridicule and nonsensical nicknames to convince voters that he might be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin and the liberal establishment better than his Republican opponents and “Crooked Hillary.” Anyone who attempted to challenge his opinions with meaningful arguments, facts and scientific data was immediately lampooned and belittled by the former host of the fake-realism show, “The Apprentice.” Here, Gilbert twists the title of Trump’s best-selling, if not terribly reliable book, “The Art of the Deal,” into the eye-catching, if even less credible, Art of the Insult. By comparison to Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jim Jeffries, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and other creatively abusive entertainers, Trump has always been a fraud. Still, you can’t argue with success, and all Gibson had to do in Art of the Insult was piece together enough video clips from the debates, campaign trail and media coverage to fill 95 minutes of screen time. Trump emerges as a marketing genius and performance artist, who, despite being a Manhattan billionaire and pervert, captured the hearts of middle America. Gilbert didn’t have to do much research or put in much hard work to prove that point.

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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