MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Last Flag, Westfront 1918, My Art, Viva L’Italia, Gothic, Viva Espana and more

Last Flag Flying: Blu-ray
At first glance, the best reason for picking up Last Flag Flying are the names on the promotional material. The Amazon Studios production was directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood), adapted from a novel by co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan (Cinderella Liberty) and stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. (Good enough for me, anyway.) Last Flag Flying also got extremely positive reviews. But Linklater’s heartfelt story about whether honor and the bonds of brotherhood still matter, played in no more than 110 domestic theaters, earning  just under a million dollars before shipping off to ancillary markets, where money figures are kept close to a studio’s vest. When it was released, just ahead of Veterans Day, many pundits predicted Last Flag Flying might produce an Oscar nomination, or two, but it was ignored … not “snubbed,” ignored. That’s what happens when a picture underperforms in the marketplace for no good reason. Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) re-unites with his old buddies, ex-Marines Sal Nealon (Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Fishbourne), to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. After their arrival at Dover Air Force Base, where the caskets of America’s dead warriors are shipped, Shepherd is made privy to details about his son’s death that make him reconsider plans for his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Ponicsan’s 2005 novel was inspired, in part, by the government’s 18-year policy, begun in the first Bush administration, forbidding photographers and videographers from covering the unloading and warehousing of flag-draped caskets, as if it were embarrassed by the sacrifices made by the dead men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author decided to make a statement about that practice – since rescinded – and the lies told soldiers, parents and millions of other patriotic Americans to justify the expansion of the war on terrorism into Iraq and losses suffered in it.

In doing so, Ponicsan called upon characters introduced in his 1970 novel, “The Last Detail,” adapted three years later by Hal Ashby and Robert Towne, to play 30-years-older versions of themselves. That picture was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Randy Quaid) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. Linklater decided not to reprise the same characters, insisting that Last Flag Flying was a “spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail, in which Nicholson’s Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky leads a detail assigned to escort Seaman Larry Meadows (Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison to serve an unconsciously long sentence for a petty crime. Despite the loose connection, some of the same railroad tracks used to transport Meadows to Portsmouth were borrowed to carry the casket bearing Shep’s son to Portsmouth for the no-frills, non-military burial. Like Ashby, Linklater not only sought actors who could handle the film’s dramatic elements but also add a humorous touch for the more light-hearted and profane moments. The balance is maintained throughout the picture, which asks several still relevant questions about our government’s tendency to lie first and let investigative journalists sort out the facts later. The question of whether honor and brotherhood carry expiration dates is answered satisfactorily, as well. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews and a featurette on shooting on Veterans’ Day.

Westfront 1918: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Kameradschaft: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Two truly great movies about the inescapable horrors of war were released almost simultaneously in the spring of 1930. Both argued against the use of violence to settle disagreements between nations, using the trench warfare on Germany’s western front as a symbol for the futility of attempting to do so, anyway. Tellingly, Adolph Hitler’s government banned both movies from being shown, arguing that they advanced pacifism over manly tests of strength; falsely represented Germany’s role in the war as cowardly; and could hamper the ability of belligerent nations from conscripting soldiers and waging war. If only a work of art were that powerful. Of the two pictures, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the better-known today, if only because it became the first talkie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and has better withstood the test of time. Moreover, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same title was considered required reading for tens of thousands of American high school students. (Last year, in his belated Nobel Lecture, Bob Dylan cited it as being of one of his primary literary influences.) The lesser known film, G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, probably received little exposure here, outside New York; was adapted from a less popular book, “Four Infantrymen on the Western Front,” by Ernst Johannsen; and only recently was restored, from a master positive from the BFI National Archive Collection and missing scenes re-inserted using a duplicate negative from the Swiss firm, Praesens-Film. The original camera negative has been lost.

Westfront 1918 was Pabst’s first sound film, arriving only months after his Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl and The White Hell of Pitz Palu hit theaters. It is a mercilessly realistic depiction of the nightmare that scarred a generation of German, French and British soldiers, who entered the war for honorable reasons and lost them in the stalemate of trench warfare. Because it is set toward the end of the conflict, Pabst was able to replicate the frustration and fatigue that plagued soldiers who’d been enduring miserable conditions for several years already. The Americans had only recently entered the conflagration, avoiding much of the action in the trenches. He also followed a few key characters while they were home on leave or on the lam, during which they could see how the war had devastated civilians. Unless compromises were made, food was nearly impossible for non-combatants to acquire on the open market. One soldier finds his wife in bed with the son of the town butcher, whose shop is downstairs from their apartment. Westfront 1918 delivers images of war and battlefronts that recall comparable scenes in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. They include epic sweeps across the treeless vistas and trenches surrounded by coils of barbed wire and bomb craters, and fortifications drenched in rainwater and filled with exhausted men afraid to raise their heads, for fear of being used as target practice. It’s worth noting that “All Quiet on the Western Front” was released before the Production Code was instituted, allowing Milestone to show graphic images of death and dismemberment. The splendid Criterion Collection benefits from a high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a fascinating French television broadcast of French and German World War I veterans, reacting to the film, in 1969; a 2016 interview with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak; a new restoration demonstration, featuring Martin Koerber and Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek; and an essay by author and critic Luc Sante.

In a similarly humanistic mine-disaster drama, Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931) almost serves as a sequel to Westfront 1918. Here, though, former German soldiers put their historic differences with their French neighbors aside long enough to help rescue miners trapped 2,000 feet below the surface of a shared border. Although still divided by memories of relatives and friends lost in the trench warfare, the German workers immediately volunteer – no real debate was necessary – to risk their own lives in solidarity with fellow miners. They’re even able to convince their boss to free up equipment to be used in the mission. After Pabst depicts their trucks crashing through the gates at the border, he gets down to the business of staging a rescue that stands up nearly 90 years after it was first shot. Once again, Pabst and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner capture the horror of being stuck hopelessly so far underground, as well as the relief on their faces when their German comrades arrive. The same is true for the townsfolk gathered above them. Although the scenes that take place inside the mine look extremely real, they were, in fact, they were shot on sets meticulously designed by Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht. It isn’t until late in the story that we learn that the border separating the two countries had been redrawn after the war and was a cause of constant resentment by the German citizens. Moreover, the imaginary line extends to the miners’ level, where a shaft has been gated to reflect post-war realities. The likelihood that the line would be redrawn in the not-too-distant future is clearly implied. Kameradschaft (a.k.a., “Comradeship” and “La Tragédie de la mine”) is based on the Courrières mine disaster in 1906, where rescue efforts after a coal-dust explosion were hampered by the lack of trained mine rescuers. Expert teams from Paris and miners from the Westphalia region of Germany came to the assistance of the French miners. Even so, 1,099 men and boys lost their lives. Even less of Kameradschaft was available to restorers than Westfront 1918, and the finished print is missing a couple of segments. The Blu-ray adds a new interview with German film scholar Hermann Barth on the film’s production; a 1988 interview with editor Jean Oser; a 2016 interview with Horak on the historical context of the film; and an essay by Sante.

Rendel: Dark Vengeance: Blu-ray
In a comic-book world dominated by American writers and illustrators, it’s nice to discover a foreign-born superhero who measures up to some of the toughest hombres our artists have created in the service of all that’s good, just, holy and commercially viable at the global box office. The fact that Rendel: Dark Vengeance is of Finnish origin – the first superhero feature to emerge from that country, apparently — is duly noted in all the articles and publicity I’ve read about the movie, after its arrival at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Although Rendel bears a passing resemble to DC Comics’ Bat-Man and Marvel’s Punisher, the character is an original creation of graphic designer and art director Jesse Haaja, who came up with the idea for a homegrown vigilante character nearly 20 years ago, while still a schoolboy. Clad in tight black leather from head to toe, Rendel is motivated by revenge and hatred for those responsible for ordering the murders of his wife and daughter. They are members of a criminal organization, VALA, led by the merciless Mr. Erola (Matti Onnismaa), a corrupt industrialist, and his hoodlum son, Rotikka (Rami Rusinen). Under his alias, Rämö, Rendel (Kris Gummerus) had learned that VALA is testing potentially toxic vaccines on children in Third World countries, under the auspices of legitimate relief agencies, in preparation of a larger rollout in Europe through underground sources. Erola profits whether the vaccines succeed or fail. Rendel is born after Rämö is awakened from a nightmare by a mysterious woman, Marla (Alina Tomnikov), who whispers to him, “Every single member of VALA must die.” The only true superpower Rendel possesses is an ability to withstand and inflict great pain and punishment to those assigned to eliminate him. The cool leather outfit helps him survive, as well. Rendel unleashes his own special brand of justice against VALA, threatening to put an end to the distribution of the vaccine. As the blood spills and the money burns, however, VALA recruits a group of mercenaries to do what others seemingly can’t. Needless to say, Haaja wasn’t able to command the kind of budget Hollywood accords its creative teams. He made do with lighting and set designs that emphasized the story’s dark and brutal underpinnings and characters whose roles weren’t dependent on a long and complicated backstory. Lovers of comic-book action should still get a kick out of watching Haaja’s fresh take on a familiar genre. Even though he only has three shorts on his drawing boards currently, I’d be very surprised if someone in Hollywood hasn’t already noticed what he was able to do with a small budget and unlimited ambition. My only question is, where are these dark avengers hiding when we really need them?

My Art
I was having trouble coming up with a way to interest readers in Laurie Simmons’ almost painfully self-aware, last-shot-at-glory drama, My Art, when I finally recalled the link I’d missed at the beginning of the film. When Lena Dunham appeared in a short, expository cameo, it should have alerted me to the likelihood that My Art may not be a strictly fictional endeavor, just as “Girls” evolved from its creator’s personal history, attitudes and hang-ups. A few minutes later, when several examples of the protagonist’s art work are displayed, I flashed on Dunham’s breakthrough feature, Tiny Furniture (2010), which featured some of the same miniature props. Later, putting 2 and 2 together, it finally dawned on me that Simmons not only is Dunham’s real-life mother, but the work that her character — 65-year-old Ellie Shine — is creating during a working vacation in Upstate New York resembles pieces Simmons has already exhibited. I might also have recognized Grace Dunham, Simmons’ other artistic daughter, who also co-starred in Tiny Furniture. It was far easier to get through My Art without making the connections earlier. By accepting a wealthy friend’s invitation to housesit her almost-too-perfect home and sprawling estate, Ellie hopes to gain the inspiration and tranquility she needs to complete a project important to her. Never mind that the conceit probably would be dismissed as a novelty act by a pretentious artist, who’s grown tired of teaching for a paycheck, anywhere outside New York. She’s accompanied only by her dog, Bing, who’s lost control of the muscles in his rear legs and needs Ellie as much as she needs him. (It doesn’t look like a trick you could teach a stunt dog.) At first, the artist is irritated by the familiarity of the property’s overly friendly gardeners – one an inactive actor — who occasionally intrude on her musings. Soon enough, however, Ellie sees how they might fill a void in her video installation, which involves mimicking famous actresses in their most popular roles. It’s kind of like the photographs of Cindy Sherman, except in digitally captured homages to classic motion pictures. For the scenes to work, Ellie requires the presence of costumed male actors, with whom to share dialogue. Newfound friends, played by Robert Clohessy, John Rothman and Joshua Safdie, nicely fill the bill in scenes from Morocco, Some Like It Hot, A Clockwork Orange, The Misfits and other TCM favorites. “You can never be Clark Gable, I can never be Marilyn Monroe,” Ellie tells a doubtful co-star. “I just want to see what it looks like.” What it looks like is a prime example of how Hollywood casting directors actually know what they’re doing and rarely make mistakes. The biggest problem for me was Simmons, herself, however. By playing what I assume to be an idealized version of herself, My Art comes across as a vanity project. I couldn’t help wondering how Jill Clayburgh would have interpreted the character, if only she had lived long enough to do it. Parker Posey, Barbara Sukowa, Blair Brown do well in supporting roles.

Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween: Blu-ray
If it’s true that only a fool argues with success, how does one explain the propensity of mainstream critics to continue to review every new installment of Tyler Perry’s “Medea” saga as if it’s going to surprise them by being good or believe that Perry’s constituency gives a flying fig about their opinions. Despite reviews that bordered on the contemptuous, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween was as close a sure thing as there is the industry in mid-October. And, while it may not have raked in the same amount of money as previous releases, “Boo 2” nearly doubled its production budget – it was shot in five days — without having to waste a whole lot of money on marketing costs. This Halloween, Brian’s daughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), wants to attend the frat party being held at a haunted campground. (Last year’s party caused the fraternity to lose its party privileges.) The 18-year-old gets permission from her mother, Debrah (Taja V. Simpson), but Brian (Perry), Madea (Perry), Joe (Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely) aren’t anxious to authorize her partying with a Murderers Row of movieland slashers, splatterers, serial killers, demons and horny boys. Hilarity ensues, of course, when the old-timers visit the campsite themselves. “Boo 2” reportedly was thisclose to getting a R-rating – it didn’t – but not for anything its target audience would find remotely offensive. The Blu-ray adds outtakes, deleted scenes and featurettes “Caddy Whack Boo” and “Why We Love Joe!” I’ve seen worse.

Napping Princess: Blu-ray
Legend of the Naga Pearls: Blu-ray
The alternative title of Kenji Kamiyama’s first stand-alone feature – Napping Princess, after it was changed from “Ancien and the Magic Tablet,” alludes to his heroine’s remarkable ability to nod off almost at will and enter the fantasy kingdom, Heartland. For a little while, at least, Morikawa Kokone is Princess Ancien, a precocious little girl of royal birth, able to unravel mysteries related to the challenges she faces in both Heartland and non-fantasy world. Heartland, it seems, is a vertical kingdom that revolves entirely around cars. In fact, the royal residence sits high above the factory that churns out the automobiles that Ancien watches from her lofty perch, barely moving, in a permanent state of gridlock. The princess carries a “magic tablet” she uses to give life to various machines, including a blue toy bear named Joy, and a transformative motorcycle, Heart. The king disapproves of this, however, and orders Ancien confined to her tower. To combat his chief nemesis, Colossus, a gigantic monster of molten metal, the king builds a force of giant robots. For her part, Ancien enlists a biker named Peach to assist her in the ultimate battle. (I was reminded of the seaborne beast in Cloverfield.) Meanwhile, the king’s chief adviser, Bewan, conspires against him. The other half of Napping Princess is set in is 2020, three days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Brina Palencia, the same actress who voices Ancien, in English, also takes on Kokone, whom the princess resembles. Kokone is finishing up her school term and, when she isn’t dozing off, considering where to go to college. She lives with her single father, Momotarō, in Okayama Prefecture. He’s a gruff and eccentric car mechanic of few words, who has a jacket similar to that worn by Peach, as well as a robotic bear, motorcycle and cracked tablet similar to those seen in Kokone’s dreams. Her mother perished in an accident while she was young and Momotarō’s silence on her death leaves her suspicious of what else he isn’t telling her. In the leadup to the Olympics, Momotarō is framed and arrested for stealing technology from a powerful corporation. Kokone and her childhood friend, Morio, take it upon themselves to save him, basing their investigation, in part, on clues she remembers from sojourns in Heartland. It requires them to travel to Tokyo, where her father is being held by authorities. If the plot sounds a tad too complex for younger viewers, Kamiyama offers plenty of entry points and diversions for them to stay involved in the story. The main thing working in Napping Princess’ favor is that most American viewers won’t be able to differentiate it from the wonderful animated features generated by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Afterwards, fans of anime and Japanimation will get more from the bonus features than newcomers. They include a subtitled interview with Kamiyama; his introduction at the Japanese premiere; the cast’s greeting at the premiere; a featurette on capturing Okayama’s scenery; and quintessentially goofy interview show that looks as if it were shot in a spare room of a convention center.

Unlike other Chinese fantasy adventures, Legend of the Naga Pearls isn’t rooted in ancient myths and legends, or the heroics of warriors chronicled by dynastic historians. The blend of real-life and CGI-generated characters recalls Disney, while the story is consistent with Chinese folklore. In an animated sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a “My Little Pony” adventure, Yang Lei introduces the central conflict in the largely family-family film: a battle between the Winged People and Humans for the control of the idyllic city of Uranopolis. The Humans prevailed, but without eradicating the Winged People, whose crippling loss was the ability to fly. The story then transitions to live-action and the introduction of protagonist Ni Kongkong (Darren Wang), who, after being bullied and disfigured as a child, grows into the self-appointed role of “prince of thieves.” The title refers to a collection of magical pearls that have ensured the future of the Winged People, but, after the war, fell into the hands of Humans. Xuelie, a royal descendant of the Winged People, commits himself to finding the omnipotent pearls and restoring his peoples’ powers and status in the fictional world of Novoland. Ni (Darren Wang) and constable Raven (Zhang Tianai), a deceptively strong and beautiful woman of winged ancestry, want to track down the pearls, if only to return balance to their universe and prevent another terrible war. In a conceit that could irritate adults and delight children, Ni is accompanied wherever he goes by a cartoon pangolin, Oka, whose superpower is emitting brown-tinged farts that can be directed at their enemies. Here, some writers have detected a possible reference to Disney’s Aladdin – the pangolin, not the farts — with Aka sitting in for the monkey, Abu, and Raven for Princess Jasmine. The CGI-dominated segments of Legend of the Naga Pearls are splendidly drawn – possibly with a 3D version in mind – and the real-life locations are easy on the eyes, as well. Costumes, set design and other technical merits are also strong.

Class of 1999: Blu-ray
Gothic: Blu-ray
Mark Lester and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner’s potentially prophetic Class of 1999 extends a conceit that originated way back in 1955, in Blackboard Jungle. They ask viewers to imagine how a student body comprised of punks and hoodlums might react to a disciplinary policy administered by robotic teachers modeled after RoboCop and the Terminator. Not only are the robots programmed to teach, but their software also directs them when to kick ass to maintain order. Lester had mined the same vein, eight years earlier, in Class of 1984. The physical similarities between the two high schools argue that the only things that have changed in 15 years – Hollywood time – is that the students have grown more out of control and the physical plants no longer are fit for teaching. If the story is entirely predictable, Class of 1999 is enhanced by terrific makeup effects, robotics and costume design. Pam Grier’s breasts double as rocket launchers … do I have to say more? Lester also was able to recruit Malcolm McDowell, Stacy Keach and the excellent character actor, John P. Ryan (It’s Alive!). The only student who’s particularly memorable is Joshua John Miller, who also played the pee-wee psycho in River’s Edge. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Lester and interviews with Lester and co-producer Eugene Mazzola; screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner; special-effects creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton; and director of photography Mark Irwin.

The other January release from Vestron’s fine Collector’s Series, Gothic, is Ken Russell’s fever-dream depiction of the stormy night at Lord Byron’s residence, on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva, when two of English literature’s greatest horror novels were born: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” and Dr. John William Polidori’s “Vampyre.” In 1985, when Gothic was released, Russell’s name above the title was as much of a trademark as Technicolor or Dolby. Still, commercial considerations demanded that Russell’s instincts not be as scandalous as those demonstrated in The Devils, Savage Messiah and Lisztomania, a decade earlier. Had this leopard really changed his spots or would those evil instincts return to inform Gothic, as well? I’m happy to report that they did. Although the details vary, it was at the Villa Diodati, in the summer of 1816, that the exiled Romantic poet (Gabriel Byrne) and his personal physician (Timothy Spall) hosted the 18-year-old author and her future husband, Percy Shelley (Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands), and her ditzy, star-struck stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr). The weather not being conducive to enjoying the lakeside accommodations, they remained indoors, taking turns reading German ghost stories, translated into French from “Fantasmagoriana.” Byron then proposed they “each write a ghost story.” Neither of the resultant novels fit that description, but they’ve obviously stood the test of time. Mary’s night is spent fighting off nightmares and frightening hallucinations, possibly brought about by too many drops of the doctor’s laudanum in the wine served before, during and after dinner. If Russell actually had tempered his natural tendency to push the limits of the medium, newcomers to his work wouldn’t know it from the more grotesque imagery and salacious behavior on display here. After the laudanum kicks in, Gothic wanders well far off the beaten path. Special features include vintage commentary with Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia; isolated score selections and an interview with composer Thomas Dolby; and new interviews with Sands, screenwriter Stephen Volk and director of Photography Mike Southon.

The Sunshine Makers
Red Krokodil: Directors Cut: Blu-ray
Timothy Leary wasn’t even out of his teens when lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, on November 16, 1938, at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. It wasn’t until five years later, when Hofmann accidentally ingested an unknown quantity of the chemical, that LSD’s psychedelic properties were revealed. It was introduced as a commercial medication, Delysid. for various psychiatric uses in 1947. In the 1950s, CIA officials began testing LSD as an agent for mind control and chemical warfare on government employees, military personnel, doctors, prostitutes, mentally ill patients and other civilians, usually without their subjects’ knowledge. In the harrowing six-part Netflix docudrama series, Wormwood, Errol Morris describes what happened after CIA biological-warfare scientist Frank Olson was covertly dosed by his supervisor and, nine days later, plunged to his death from the window of a hotel room in New York City. The agency convinced reporters that his death was a suicide, but Morris, working at the behest of family members, effectively argued that Olson’s was anything but self-motivated. Among the test subject who experienced more pleasant trips were novelist Ken Kesey, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and actor Cary Grant. Well before the CIA was forced to acknowledge its role in the top-secret tests, LSD’s potential as a recreational drug was openly promoted by Kesey, San Francisco rock groups and Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a., Ram Dass). The unauthorized production and dissemination of LSD was prohibited in 1967, ensuring a rise in interest in the drug by the uninitiated and rise of highly lucrative underground distribution networks. That much is common knowledge … although young people today might consider it to be ancient history.

Although cocaine supplanted LSD has the designer drug of choice it the 1980s, it has never really gone out of vogue as a recreational drug. Then, too, scientists are more interested than ever in researching its therapeutic and medicinal powers. Cosmo Feilding-Mellen and writer Connie Littlefield’s informative and surprisingly light-hearted The Sunshine Makers may not equate Stanley Owsley, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully with Hollywood anti-heroes Barry Seal and Pablo Escobar, but the FBI and other law-enforcement officials sure did. The science nerds had anticipated the popularity of LSD by creating a pharmaceutical apparatus to produce millions of tabs of relatively pure Orange Sunshine acid and a distribution network that presaged the Colombian and Mexican cartel. While racking in the dough, they justified their criminal enterprise by convincing themselves they were doing God’s work … freeing the minds and libidos of American youth. The Sunshine Makers also introduces us to some of their financiers, traffickers and girlfriends/accomplices, through flashback segments and interviews conducted before Sand’s death last April. It also features fresh input from the law-enforcement agents who chased them around the country and put Sand and Scully, at least, in prison. The Sunshine Makers shouldn’t be confused with William A. Kirkley’s Orange Sunshine, which focused on the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of surfers and hippies that became the largest supplier of LSD during the ’60s and ’70s, selling Sand and Scully’s products.

After the prohibition of LSD was imposed and arrests mounted, underground chemists and dealers opened the distribution stream to drugs that were laced with speed and other pollutants. Pressure also mounted to produce stronger, more addictive and increasingly more dangerous products for the consumption of users, not limited to flower children and Deadheads. Ecstasy proved to be a relatively safe alternative to crystal meth, opiates and other mind-altering substances, but, since it didn’t come with instructions, could prove fatal. Domiziano Cristopharo and Francesco Scardone’s exceedingly disturbing Red Krokodil portrays the effects of one such pain-killing drug on one pitiable survivor of a Chernobyl-like disaster. His substance of choice is desomorphine, commonly known in its homemade form as “krokodil.” The drug, formulated at about the same time as LSD, didn’t become popular in Russia until a crackdown on heroin production around 2010 and new restrictions on the sale of codeine-containing medications. Its street name comes from the similarity of an addict’s skin, damaged by the drug use, to crocodile leather. The sole non-hallucinatory character in Red Krokodil is Him (Brock Madon), a man seemingly in his 20s, who suddenly finds himself alone in a large city devastated by a nuclear bomb. His physical decay, due to a massive intake of the drug, is mirrored in his mind, where a frightening reality mixes with unpleasant fantasies. Adding to the horror of degradation is the setting: a small apartment overlooking the ruined city. Like Him’s clothes, it has been befouled by feces, garbage and other debris. Anyone who had trouble sitting through the second half of Requiem for a Dream won’t make it through 10 minutes of Red Krokodil. Also scary is the score, which was composed by London-based musical collective, the Heliocentrics. Kids, don’t try this drug at home.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Edition: Blu-ray
There’s no question that this 1978 musical parody of mid-century horror tropes and B-movie clichés holds an esteemed place in the modern history of motion pictures. Although it was universally lambasted by mainstream and alternative critics, alike – while at the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr opined, “Self-conscious camp, the lowest artistic category known to man” — and featured actors, sets and special effects that weren’t even up to snuff 40 years ago, it encouraged a generation of filmmakers to cut every corner necessary to make films outside the Hollywood pipeline and create their own distribution channels. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes may have been shot on 35mm film, but its arrival at the dawn of the camcorder and video-cassette age inspired amateur auteurs and actors to exploit the new home-entertainment platform for their own purposes. There’s no reason to regurgitate the plot here … suffice it to say that John De Bello did for tomatoes what Hitchcock did for seagulls. It spawned three direct sequels, a cartoon series for Fox, a couple of books, comics, three different video games and a 1999 homage in Greek filmmaker Panos H. Koutras’ immortal “I epithesi tou gigantiaiou moussaka” (The Attack of the Giant Moussaka). Plans for a remake have occasionally been forwarded, but why spend good money on a lousy re-boot when you can upgrade the original every five years, or so, on the latest video platform. MVD Rewind has done just that with its spanking-new Blu-ray “Special Edition,” which features a newly remastered 4K digital transfer of the film; high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD pressings; original 2.0 Mono Audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray); commentary from co-writer/director DeBello, co-writer/co-star Steve Peace and ”creator” Costa Dillon; three deleted scenes; seven featurettes of varying length and historical value; ”Gone with the Babusuland,” the original 8mm short that inspired Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, with optional audio commentary; “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” the original 8mm short film, with optional audio commentary; a production design photo gallery; collectible poster; radio spots; original theatrical trailer; and Easter eggs. I can’t wait for the definitive 4K UHD edition to be announced by Criterion Collection.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Following the success of Dario Argento’s debut feature, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, distributor Titanus asked the writer/director to deliver a follow-up in short order. That film, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, was granted a greatly enhanced budget and heralded in its U.S. marketing campaign as ”nine times more suspenseful” than its predecessor, which had received some positive reviews here only a few months earlier. The additional money allowed for the casting of higher profile non-Italian actors than Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall, as well as risking an English-language dialogue track. Importing Karl Malden and James Franciscus, and Germans Horst Frank and Catherine Spaak, to fill the most visible roles gave the movie the lift it needed to overcome a narrative that feels a tad rushed, even now. The story, itself, leans toward American genre norms. (At one point, it even borrows dialogue directly from Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”) Even so, The Cat O’ Nine Tails represents giallo at its most accessible and purely entertaining, which is to say that the ratio of violence to nudity favors the garroting and knife play, over gratuitous, if welcome sexuality. Before a break-in occurs at a secretive genetics institute, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arno (Karl Malden) overhears men in a nearby car discussing a scheme to blackmail one of the institute’s scientists. After learning about the resultant crime and murder, he teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to crack the case. Before long, bodies begin to pile up and the two amateur sleuths find their own lives imperiled in their search for the truth. To further dissuade the brilliant gamester, Franco’s young niece, Lori, is put directly in harm’s way by the conspirators. If the sum of the individual clues – nine, to be precise — doesn’t amount to a completely logical ending, well, it hardly matters. “Cat” swiftly led directly to the third and final entry in Argento’s so-called ”Animal Trilogy” of giallo thrillers, all of which were brilliantly scored by Ennio Morricone. Triva buffs might recognize 10-year-old Cinzia De Carolis (Lori) from Antonio Margheriti’s otherwise forgettable Cannibal Apocalypse (1980). The Arrow Films release offers a 4K restoration from the original camera negative; separate HD and SD discs; new commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; fresh interviews with co-writer/director Argento, De Carolis, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti and production manager Angelo Iacono; script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp; double-sided fold-out poster; four lobby card reproductions; and a limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay by Argento and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes.

Viva L’Italia: Blu-ray
Although statues of the great Italian general, politician and nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi can be found in many American cities, his contributions to his country’s reunification and liberation from tyranny may be the least studied of all revolutionaries by students here. The same can be said of Roberto Rossellini’s excellent Viva L’Italia, which chronicles the 1860 Expedition of the Thousand to conquer Italy’s disparate kingdoms under the banner of Victor Emmanuel II. The epic story opens with the violent quelling of an uprising in Sicily, but quickly moves north to Quarto, near Genoa, where Garibaldi has assembled a motley corps of volunteers and arranged for them to sail to Marsala. It’s where the Bourbons rule the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and their constituents might be ready to revolt. Vastly outgunned and outnumbered, the 1,000-man army gathers steam and hundreds more volunteers and weapons with every new victory. Garibaldi’s enlightened leadership and strategizing leads to a plebiscite that brings Naples and Sicily into the Kingdom of Sardinia, the last territorial conquest before the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, on March 17, 1861. Rossellini was commissioned by the government to make Viva L’Italia (a.k.a., “Garibaldi”) as part of the country’s centennial celebration. He approached the assignment as he had The Flowers of St. Francis, presenting the main character in neo-realist mode, as though he were making “a documentary made after the event, trying to figure out what happened,” he allowed. “I tried to lace myself in front of the events of a century ago, the way a documentarist would have done who had the good fortune to follow Garibaldi’s campaign with his camera.” Apart from the expository dialogue and strategizing, what makes the film extraordinary are the battle scenes, which appear to have been shot from the perspective of the general’s binoculars, capturing wide swaths of contested territory from a perch overlooking the action. From that distance, the movements of combatants resembled those of red, black and brown ants attacking a watermelon left behind by picnickers. Renzo Ricci, who had just finished working with Michelangelo Antonioni on L’Avventura, delivers an appropriately understated portrayal of Garibaldi. The nicely restored Arrow Blu-ray adds the shorter American version; a new interview with Rossellini’s assistant on the film, Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust); ”I Am Garibaldi,” a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, author of “The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films”; and a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips. The first pressing adds illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by filmmaker and critic Michael Pattison.

Belle Epoque: Blu-ray
Jamon Jamon: Blu-ray
Red Squirrel: Blu-ray
Vacas: Blu-ray
Tierra: Blu-ray
The latest shipment of Blu-ray upgrades from Olive Films contained five truly exceptional Spanish movies from the 1990s. Apart from being distinctively different modern classics, each offers early glimpses of some of today’s most celebrated European actors. In Fernando Trueba’s period rom/com/dram Belle Epoque (1992), a Spanish army deserter, perhaps anticipating the Civil War, finds himself at the doorway to a lovely country villa, without many options open to him or allegiances. Soon, however, he wins the trust of the owner, whose four lovely daughters are about to pay him a visit. It creates a scenario in which he falls in love with all of them and they with him. Although the farmer envisions him as a future son-in-law, his sexually aggressive daughters’ designs on him are more immediate. The very different young women are played by Miriam Díaz-Aroca (High Heels), Ariadna Gil (Pan’s Labyrinth), Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También) and future Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), while Jorge Sanz (The Girl of Your Dreams) is the lucky deserter. All are uniquely suited to their parts. Belle Epoque would deservedly win that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Trueba would go on to direct such international hits as the animated Chico & Rita, musical-documentary Calle 54 and World War II com/dram The Artist and the Model. It’s been 25 years since I last saw the film and it still holds up.

Eighteen-year-old Cruz made her feature debut that same year in Bigas Luna’s sexy Silver Lion-winner, Jamon Jamon, alongside another future Oscar-winner, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Jordi Mollà (Lucky Star), Anna Galiena (The Hairdresser’s Husband) and Stefania Sandrelli (The Conformist). It traces the romantic entanglements of the beautiful and pregnant underwear-factory worker, Silvia (Cruz); her momma’s-boy lovers and heir to the factory fortune, Jose Luis (Mollà); a male underwear model, jamon delivery man and would-be-bullfighter, Raul (Bardem); Conchita (Sandrelli), the family matriarch and Raul’s lover; and Silvia’s ravishing mother (Galiena), who, when she isn’t running a roadside bar, turns tricks in the back room. (Jose Luis pays her to suckle her breasts). Through a series of Machiavellian plot machinations, Conchita will seek to tear apart the relationship between her wealthy son and the working-class Silvia, while seducing the underwear model for her own gratification. Meanwhile, Silvia and Raul fall in lust for each other, forcing Jose Luis to grow an extra pair of huevos. Melodramatic, surreal (a duel using ham legs is a highlight) and oozing with sexual tension, Jamón Jamón is soap opera at its grandest. In both films, Cruz turns in performances that anticipate her rise as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Julio Medem (Sex & Lucia) is represented by three new Blu-ray releases: Vacas (1992), The Red Squirrel (1993) and Tierra (1996). His debut feature (“Cows”) is set in Spain’s lush, mountainous Basque Country, between 1870-1935. It chronicles a bitter rivalry between male members of the Mendiluze and Iriguibel families, stretching from the Third Carlist War through the Spanish Civil War. Their deep-seated hatred for each other dates back to a war-time act that left brave Carmelo Mendiluze (Kandido Uranga) dead on the battlefield and the cowardly deserter Manuel Iriguibel (Karra Elejalde) crippled but alive. Years pass and animosity between the families still overshadows the lives, loves and futures of younger members, who don’t want anything to do with it. The rivalry plays out in log-chopping contests, midnight liaisons and a strategic escape to the United States. All along, the patriarch of one of the families (Txema Blasco) paints surrealistic portraits of cows and invents contraptions designed to kill marauding boars. Vacas’ tragic outcome is both inevitable and as painful to observe from afar as the deterioration of Spain in the Civil War.

The Red Squirrel opens with a serious motorcycle accident that keeps suicidal Jota from jumping off a bridge, as he administers to the pretty young rider, Lisa (Emma Suárez), whose only lasting injury is the loss of her memory. Reinvigorated by his ability to keep her from drifting into unconsciousness, Jota (Nancho Novo) decides to claim Lisa from the hospital as his live-in girlfriend. She agrees to go along with the ruse, taking an early exit to go on a camping vacation together. The clues to Lisa’s identity and background slowly reveal themselves through hypnosis, involuntary flashbacks and visual references to her past, including a red squirrel. Things get creepier as her memory returns and her new life begins to intersect with the one she just left. Suárez would go on to win awards for her work in Agustí Vila’s family drama, The Mosquito Net (2010), and Pedro Almodóvar’s 2016 “return to female-centric storytelling,” Julieta (2016), while Nova would excel in Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) and Gerardo Vera’s period drama La Celestina (1969), alongside Cruz. Three years later, Medem would reteam Suárez, Novo, Blasco and Carmelo Gómez, in Tierra (“Earth”), which is a different kind of strange entirely. Gomez plays Angel, an exterminator recently released from a mental hospital, who’s hired to rid a small Spanish town of tiny grubs in the soil. The local wine-making industry has found these pests responsible for giving their product a distinctive “earthy” taste that has divided wine connoisseurs. Angel becomes involved with two beautiful and very different women (Suárez, Karra Elejalde), enrages their lovers and angers a local Gypsy clan by accusing them of stealing money from him. Can either of these women accept the fact that Angel travels with a “ghost” of himself, or that he routinely speaks with residents recently killed in lightning strikes? Tierra echoes themes advanced in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), but in a less melancholy way.

None of the packages contain bonus features contained in previous versions. Still, for lovers of Spanish cinema, all five titles are must-sees.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria Season 2: UK Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: NOVA: Bird Brain
Nickelodeon: Nella the Princess Knight
For those who simply can’t get enough of the British royal family, 2017 was a very good year. In addition to the anticipation leading to Prince Harry popping the question to his American sweetie pie, Meghan Markle, they had two very different versions of his great-great-great-great-grandmum Queen Victoria to savor. In the Oscar-nominated Victoria & Abdul, Dame Judi Dench reprised her portrayal of the queen in Mrs Brown, in 1997, this time advancing the calendar to the celebration of her Golden Jubilee. Stephen Frears’ handsomely staged comedy/drama depicts the real-life relationship between the monarch and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim. The unlikelihood of such a friendship occurring only made the movie that much more compelling. Last January, the eight-part ITV mini-series, “Victoria,” began its run on PBS, as part its “Masterpiece” franchise. It was received here with great ratings and positive reviews. In December, as well, Netflix’s “The Crown” began it’s second-season run, focusing on Queen Elizabeth’s role in the Suez Crisis in 1956, through the retirement of the Queen’s third Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1963, following the Profumo scandal, and the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. Two more seasons have already been green-lit. In England, “Victoria” has already completed its second season, which was followed by a Christmas special. It explains why the DVD/Blu-ray collection of Season Two episodes is being made available, even before PBS has aired the fourth part of its seasonal run. (Because PBS doesn’t insert commercials into its shows, apparently there’s no loss of revenues. Affiliates can even offer the Season Two package, usually at the full retail price, to subscribers.) I don’t know how the “UK Edition” differs from the PBS series, but affiliates have the option of trimming for content or to squeeze in Pledge Month pitches. As any faithful viewer could have predicted, the second series follows the still young Victoria (Jenna Coleman) as she struggles with managing her role as Queen and seeing to the needs of her husband and children. For his part, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) is acclimating himself to his own duties, especially when it comes to filling in for his recuperating wife. There’s no question they’re in love, but don’t be surprised if a certain Green-Eyed Monster pops in for a cameo. As Victoria’s reign continues into the 1840s, her kingdom experiences constitutional challenges and scandals at court, the rise of the Chartist movement, the devastating Irish Potato Famine and revolutions in Europe. The Blu-ray adds more than 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The premise behind the “NOVA” presentation, “Bird Brain,” is that our feathered friends are no dumber than the average bear and, as such, smarter than most politicians. But, regular “NOVA” viewers would already know that. Birds have the same advanced problem-solving skills we usually assume are unique to humans. Parrots plan for the future; jackdaws “read” human faces; and crows solve multi-step puzzles with pebbles, sticks and hooks. The birds shown here reveal skills that even 3- or 4-year-old children have difficulty mastering, including putting off collecting one reward to get a bigger one later. Watch as scientists test avian aptitude and challenge our basic notions of intelligence.

Also newly available on DVD from PBS are “Slavery and the Making of America” on the financial benefits of a moral outrage that led to war; the “Frontline” report, “Putin’s Revenge,” which explains how President Trump has been trumped by his fickle friend in Moscow; “VA: The Human Cost of War,” takes a broad look at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs … it’s successes and failures; the “American Experience” documentary, “The Gilded Age,” on how prosperity served to uplift and divide the country at the end of the 19th Century; and “Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street: Season 1,” the latest in a long line of mouth-watering cooking shows on the network. From Smithsonian comes “Black Wings,” on the history of African-American aviators who took to the air, where color doesn’t matter; and “The Real Mad Men of Advertising,” which follows the evolution of advertising from the 1950s through the 1980s, via interviews with the industry’s top ad executives, and through classic ads and commercials.

Nickelodeon’s unconventional princess, Nella, is bringing action-packed adventures into the home-theater arena with her first DVD release. Fans can join the 8-year-old Brit on daring quests, as she transforms into a princess knight and courageously defends her kingdom. Whether she’s searching for a lost invitation or rescuing a phoenix, Nella stands up for what’s right. “Nella the Princess Knight” features eight episodes from the show’s first season: “Knighty Knight Dragons,” “Inside and Seek,” “Sir Clod,” “Up All Knight,” “Princess Nella’s Orc-Hestra,” “The Blaine Game,” “Big Birthday Surprise” and “That’s What Best Friends Are For.”

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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