MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: In the Fade, Insult, In Between, Please Stand By, Kaleidoscope, Schlock, The Unwilling, Tremors, Capitalism and more

In the Fade: Blu-ray

In Fatih Akin’s award-winning drama, In the Fade, we’re asked to share the grief of a woman whose husband and son are murdered in a racially motivated bombing so intense that police say they were burned beyond recognition. German-born Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is married to a Turk – once convicted for selling hashish, not that it matters – whose business is in a part of Hamburg where the immigration community has been vulnerable to attacks by nationalist and anti-immigration groups. Just after she drops her son off at his dad’s office, Katja cautions a young woman against leaving her bicycle unlocked on the street. By the time she returns to pick them up, the bomb has already been detonated and the damage done.

The police promise to explore every possible avenue to identify the perpetrators, of course, and Katja provides their sketch artist with a remarkably accurate description of the woman she saw. Well before the investigators are willing to commit to a suspect, Katja assumes correctly that neo-Nazis were responsible. It wouldn’t be the first time Hitler’s bastard grandchildren used violence to terrorize guest workers. Thanks to the dead-on sketch, it doesn’t take police long to make arrests and hand prosecutors what they consider to be an airtight case against the woman and her husband.  In the film’s second of three chapters, however, their case springs a leak that allows a demonic defense attorney to introduce a slim shadow of doubt in the minds of the judicial tribunal. While the young neo-Nazi couple couldn’t even convince family members of their innocence, the judges bought into the defense’s claim that they were in Greece, enjoying the company of a member of that beleaguered country’s fascist party. A jury probably would have seen right through the ruse, but, in the judges’ minds, the prosecution hadn’t proven beyond a doubt that the defendants’ signatures on a ledger weren’t forged. It nullified fingerprint evidence, Katja’s memory and compelling testimony by the male defendant’s father. The outburst of joy shared by the defense team trips the same kind of wire inside of Katja that devastated the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman when O.J. Simpson celebrated his acquittal in open court.

In an interview contained in the DVD/Blu-ray’s bonus package, Akin articulates the dilemma faced by Katya and, by inference, all survivors of such man-made tragedies. What happens to a woman when her primary source of happiness and self-esteem – her husband and child – is stolen from her in little more than a heartbeat? For the rest of Katja’s life, when she looks at herself in mirror, she’ll see a victim in the place where a wife and mother once stood. Worse, perhaps, how can she strive to live a normal life, knowing that the people whose action triggered the greatest pain a wife and mother can endure won’t be penalized? Suffice to say that Akin provides Katya not only the opportunity to avenge the crime – and time to consider her options — but also the possibility of a successful appeal of the verdict. If Akin makes it clear that Katya can never be made whole again, he demands of viewers that they bear part of Katja’s burden, at least, by taking a stand on the option she chooses. Because we may be forced to make the same choice someday, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Even though Kruger was named Best Actress at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and Akin was nominated for a Palme d’Or, neither made the cut in Academy Award competition. (In the Fade was named Best Foreign Language Picture by the HFPA.) It’s an extremely powerful movie, even if some of the narrative points could have been sharpened. The supplemental package includes “Behind In the Fade: The Story,” with Kruger and Akin, and separate interviews with the writer and director.

Aside: With each new mass murder of children in schools and terrorist attack in Europe, it becomes easier for jaded adults to compartmentalize the horror and write it off as something else we can’t control. The companies that manufacture the weapons that are purchased by teenage sociopaths risk nothing for such extreme manifestations of their greed and suicidal militants don’t concern themselves with opinion polls. The students who’ve been marching to call attention to their very real fears of being gunned down outside their lockers shouldn’t despair when our lawmakers do what they’ve always done when NRA lobbyists take them to lunch. Congress and state legislatures, but they shouldn’t despair if nothing comes of their efforts. Ballots can be as effective as bullets when it comes to getting some jobs done. As much as we empathize with the families of the victims, most of us will never feel the same pain or bear the same emotional burden as they do. That’s a good thing.

The Insult: Blu-ray
Like In the Fade, Ziad Doueiri’s provocative drama, The Insult, asks viewers to follow two proud men’s pursuit of justice to the point where the tether breaks and the court’s verdict is finally rendered meaningless. Set in today’s Beirut, where the scars of a long and bloody civil war are still visible, a Lebanese Christian and Palestinian refugee exchange insults that re-open scars that should’ve healed long ago. In the U.S., such verbal exchanges occur every day, especially in traffic jams and acrimonious political debates. Typically, even the worst insults are protected by the First Amendment and libel suits are rarely worth the cost it takes to file one. Here, auto mechanic Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) gets into a squabble with a construction foreman, Yasser (Kamel El Basha), over some water that dripped on him from Tony’s balcony. On closer examination, Yasser notices that the drainage pipe has been illegally installed and offers to fix it. Even though Tony slams the door in his face, Yasser tells his men to replace the gutter, as stipulated by law. Infuriated by the gesture, Tony smashes the plastic pipe to smithereens, causing Yasser to call him the Arabic equivalent of “fucking prick.”

At that precise moment, their argument ceases to be about an illegally installed drain pipe and who’s responsible for repairing it. Tony demands an apology for the insult, but Yasser isn’t about to relinquish the high ground. Worried about lost time and money, Yasser’s boss convinces him to apologize, however insincerely. Enflamed by a televised speech by the slain Christian leader Bachir Gemayel, Tony responds to Yasser’s advance by saying, “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” Yasser then punches the mechanic, cracking two of his ribs. This time, Yasser is arrested and charged with assault, which could prompt a small fortune in fines. Since Palestinians aren’t allowed to hold jobs that a Lebanese worker wouldn’t consider to be beneath him, Yasser could be ruined, whether he wins or loses. Frustrated, the judges pretty much throw up their hands, effectively absolving Yasser from any guilt. This doesn’t sit well with Tony, of course, and he accepts an offer from a highly placed lawyer, Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), to appeal the case. His tactics include dredging up memories of 40-year-old atrocities and antagonisms barely suppressed since the civil war.

Because Yasser’s lawyer just so happens to be Wajdi’s daughter, Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud), it’s difficult not to sense how much of the disposition of the case is invested in their familial rivalry and potential for lost pride. As things heat up, the Palestinian and Christian spectators begin to hurl insults at each other that dwarf the “fucking prick” that set everything off. A reporter captures this on an iPhone, setting off fights in the streets of Beirut. Even the prime minister is rebuffed when tries to intervene. Doueiri and co-writer Joelle Touma, who collaborated on the underseen Lila Says, devise some interesting ways to pull this pot of hot water off the front burner before it boils over. Two of them involve out-of-court encounters between the two men, and they should come as a complete surprise to viewers. The Insult was Lebanon’s first-ever Oscar finalist in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The Cohen Media package adds the wide-ranging “Conversations From the Quad,” with Doueiri and Richard Pena.

In Between
Although I’m reluctant to compare Maysaloun Hamoud’s remarkable debut feature, In Between, to HBO’s “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” I will risk the guffaws if it means that some adventurous readers will take a chance on something new and very different. It follows three strong and independent-minded Palestinian women, who share an apartment in Tel Aviv, largely unburdened by the constraints of conservative parents and oppressive religious dictates. I say “largely” because one of them, Nour (Shaden Kanboura), who’s introduced early on as a graduate student from a small village, dutifully wears a hijab and is engaged to a fundamentalist who despairs of her roommates. The other two are equally fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and dress in a way that makes them completely indistinguishable from their Jewish contemporaries. Ultra-chic lawyer Layla (Mouna Hawa) and lesbian disc jockey Salma (Sana Jammelieh), are part of a Palestinian cultural underground, which means they partake in drugs, alcohol and boogey until the cows come home. At first glance, it would appear as if Nour is there to spark debate and ridicule about her traditional ways and the juxtaposition between the roommates’ opposing views of propriety. The absence of such discord is as refreshing as it is surprising. It isn’t until Nour’s fiancé begins to show his true colors that the hypocrisies of religious life in modern Israel and Palestine are addressed.

They’re revealed, as well, when Layla’s seemingly perfect boyfriend refuses to introduce her to his conservative family. Salma makes the mistake of bringing home her new girlfriend, a doctor, for a dinner meant to introduce her to yet another clueless male suitor. When Salma’s Christian mother discovers them in a casual embrace, she brings it to the attention of her intolerant husband, who, after smacking her in the face, forbids his daughter to return to Tel Aviv. Her detention doesn’t last any longer than it takes for her parents to fall asleep. The region’s politics and discord are handled in the subtlest way possible. No one is required to pass through any roadblocks or be frisked by handsy Israeli soldiers. The nightclubs they frequent could be found anywhere outside the Middle East and there are no explosions or sounds of gunfire in the distance to remind us of the cold realities of life for Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more of the lead actors, especially Hawa, whose exotic beauty and wild hairdos are almost unique in the Middle Eastern cinema. It will also be interesting to see if Hamoud will be able to make pictures that continue to surprise us with diverse characters and atypical situations. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and short film, “Scent of the Morning,” by Hamoud.

Please Stand By
What do you think are the odds of a young autistic savant, with a “Star Trek” obsession, to find herself lost in a strange city and be rescued by a cop, who, like her, speaks fluent Klingon? Not great, I’ll admit, but of such unlikely coincidences are some delightfully offbeat dramedies born. Because autism isn’t one of those disorders that can be depicted in a one-size-fits-all performance, I’m willing to believe that Dakota Fanning did the research necessary to portray the “Star Trek” obsessive, Wendy, not only to her satisfaction but director Ben Lewin and writers: Michael Golamco, who adapted the screenplay for Please Stand By from his stage play. Patton Oswald’s too-brief take on the Klingon-literate cop is such a treat that it practically demands a sequel of its own. Wendy lives in an assisted-living facility in San Francisco, where the resident psychiatrist, Scottie (Toni Collette), has found a job that she can handle with few frustrations and convinced her to keep a notebook with all the tips she needs to get to and from work at the local Cinnabon, without crossing Market Street. Making eye-contact with other people is something that comes and goes, and she still gets temperamental when denied the ability to move back home with her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), and her newborn daughter. As a lover of all things “Star Trek,” Wendy dedicates all her free time to winning a screenplay competition. To do so, she must get her epic 500-page script into the Paramount mailroom, no later than 5 p.m. four days hence. When a tantrum threatens to blow the deadline, Wendy decides to hop a bus to L.A. and hand-deliver it. Not surprisingly, the 400-mile journey presents more than a few miscues. Scottie and Audrey locate Wendy, thanks to the Klingon cop, but she comes close to blowing the deadline, anyway. If you think that it’s a foregone conclusion she’ll win the $100,000 prize, think again. Please Stand By won’t conform with everyone’s concept of a good time, but Fanning’s fans shouldn’t mind the contrivances and Oswald’s contribution is worth the wait.

Kaleidoscope: Blu-ray
There may be no more versatile actor in the world than Toby Jones, who, somehow, at 5-foot-5, stands out in any crowd of actors that surrounds him. Written and directed by his brother, Rupert, Kaleidoscope is a claustrophobic thriller that largely takes place within the head of a schizophrenic ex-con, Carl, who lives in a cramped apartment atop a crowded London housing estate. The less literally viewers take what happens to Carl in the first 15-20 minutes of the film, the more likely they’ll be to accept what happens to him thereafter. Carl has arranged an Internet date with a woman, Abby (Sinead Matthews), who is either out to steal his money or earn it on her back. With an accent that betrays her working-class roots, Abby is wonderfully exuberant and playful with Carl. It isn’t until she notices the surgeon’s saw below the sink and books never returned to the prison library that she begins to worry. So, do we. After Abby is locked in the bathroom and Carl returns from a quick trip outdoors, the apartment looks as if it were torn apart by burglars searching for an elusive prize or a damsel in extreme distress. Very soon, Carl’s mother, Aileen (Anne Reid) appears almost out of thin air, making him very nervous and defensive. Someone claiming to be Abby’s husband also knocks on the door of the apartment. Meanwhile, Carl is shown washing clothes that we’ve seen on Abby and carrying a large duffel bag around the estate. Clearly, screenwriter/director Jones wants us to believe actor Jones has committed a heinous crime and Aileen is interrupting his plans to dispose of the evidence. On closer investigation, though, nothing is quite what it seems to be inside the apartment or Carl’s head. Fortunately, the three central performances are good enough to warrant instant replays and repeat viewings. It pays to watch the bonus interviews and making-of featurette.

The Unwilling: Blu-ray
This nifty little horror/thriller (81 minutes) has been making the rounds of specialty festivals since 2016, probably in search of a distributor that knows how to market genre-straddlers and cares enough about its products to spend some money on them. Finally, however, The Unwilling was released straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. There’s nothing wrong with Jonathan Heap’s cast, which includes Lance Henriksen, co-writer David Lipper, Dina Meyer, Jake Thomas, Robert Rusler, Bree Williamson, Austin Highsmith and Levy Tran. Henriksen’s name on the packaging, alone, should be enough to boost sales and downloads during the opening week. He plays the evil patriarch of a family whose members suffer from such things as OCD, narcissism, drug addiction and the great equalizer, greed. After the old man dies, they gather at his residence for the reading of the will. Shortly after their arrival, a strange antique box is delivered to the house and the son, David (Lipper), places it on the coffee table. David recalls seeing the chest in his father’s office as a child, but he doesn’t know what it contains. Six long needles protrude from the box, which appears to have a mind of its own. When the family members prick their fingers on them, a wish is granted. One seeks wealth and is rewarded with a gold bar that could be used in an expensive game of hot potato. Another one desires drugs to feed his habit and they kill him. Meanwhile, the house itself appears to be haunted by apparitions and other things that go bump in the night. Not all the loose ends are tied by the time the end credits begin to roll, but viewers shouldn’t be disappointed by the special effects and highly efficient acting. The package adds several interviews with cast and crew.

Once Upon a Time: Blu-ray
Epic Chinese fantasies have become an exportable product in the same way that American comic-book adventures now are one of this country’s most profitable commodities. They do very well in the movie-hungry PRC and are attracting niche audiences here theatrically and on DVD/Blu-ray. If Chinese authorities really wanted to retaliate against President Trump’s call for punitive tariffs on its products, they could add a fee to the sale of tickets to see Hollywood blockbusters there. MPAA and studio executives would scream bloody murder, of course, as would representatives of the Chinese exhibition industry. It’s taken years of tough negotiations just to get Chinese officials to raise the quota of foreign-made movies to 34. What’s sexier … a punitive tariff on Chinese steel and Mardi Gras beads or a retaliatory strike summer popcorn movies? Talks were going smoothly until Trump got a bug up his ass one morning and launched an ill-considered tweet storm. If talks fail, the studios could round up its A-listers and put on a charm campaign modeled after the NRA. Because cinematic exports from China are currently so marginal, any tit-for-tat tax would be meaningless. Such a scenario came to mind after watching Once Upon a Time, a big-budget CGI fantasy that attracted large crowds at Chinese theaters and is indicative of the progress being made in competing with American pictures. Such impressively staged epics aren’t the only kinds of movies that have improved over the last decade, or so. So, too, have historical and crime dramas made by filmmakers once forced to work outside the PRC or in Hong Kong. Censorship has limited the import and production of romances that are deemed to risqué for Chinese audiences. While the 50 Shades trilogy has done boffo business overseas and along the Pacific Rim, it’s been banned from exhibition in China and Malaysia. That hasn’t prevented pirates from circulating bootlegged copies, of course, and profiting from them.

All of that speculation is a roundabout way of delaying my comments on Once Upon a Time, a film that risks sensory overload and requires a Wikipedia scorecard to keep the characters straight. It is based on Qi Tang’s best-selling fantasy novel, “Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms,” which has already inspired a 58-episode maxi-series, “Eternal Love,” and an English translation titled “To the Sky Kingdom.” Being unfamiliar with the source material, it’s difficult for me to say with any certainty if I’ve grasped all the subtleties of the story. All I needed to know, really, is that it is the story of Bai Qian (Yifei Liu), a goddess and monarch from the Heavenly Realms, who, in her first life, was the disciple of the God of War, Mo Yuan (Yang Yang). After a devastating conflict, Mo Yuan’s soul was destroyed while sealing the ghost lord Qing Cang (Yikuan Yan). Seventy thousand years later, while Bai Qian is trying to prevent the Demon Lord from breaking free, she is sent to the mortal realm to undergo a trial to become a High Goddess. There, she meets Ye Hua (Mark Chao), with whom she falls in love and eventually marries. However, their love ends tragically. Three-hundred years later, the two star-crossed lovers meet again as deities, but all her memories have been erased. By the way, crown prince Ye Hua is 90,000 years younger than Bai Qian. That’s only a rough outline of what happens during the 109-minute course of Zhao Xiaoding and Anthony LaMolinara’s effects-laden movie. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette. Apparently, it was almost entirely made inside a studio where the color presentation, wire work and green-screen activity were closely monitored and tightly controlled.

Schlock: Blu-ray
Actors in gorilla costumes have been entertaining moviegoers ever since the 1918 silent film, Tarzan of the Apes. Even as the suits have become more realistic, knowing that there’s a human being inside impacts our enjoyment of a movie, TV show or comedy sketch. (David Warner’s impersonations in Karel Reisz’ Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment are still my favorite.) Adding a cigar, sunglasses or hat to the mix – as Ernie Kovacs did in his Nairobi Trio skits — only makes the gorillas funnier. In Schlock, John Landis’ 1973 debut as writer/director, he also donned a gorilla suit to play the title character, a long-slumbering “banana monster” who awakens after spending 20 million years in a cave below the surface of the San Fernando Valley. The beast can’t seem to decide if he wants to be cute and cuddly or a menace to humanity. With no more reason to exist than Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), Schlock benefits greatly from Landis’ appreciation of timeless Hollywood genre clichés and B-movie tropes. After escaping from his hole in the ground below modern-day Agoura, Schlock falls in love with a blind teenager who thinks he’s a large dog. When she regains her sight and realizes her mistake, the girl’s horror sparks a massacre. He must be stopped. Not only did the personally-financed no-budget flick introduce Landis to Hollywood, but it also gave makeup artist Rick Baker his first big break. It didn’t take long for Landis to be handed the reins to Animal House and The Blues Brothers, and Baker would begin contributing to such blockbusters as The Exorcist, King Kong and Star Wars. Schlock has just been released on a limited-edition Blu-ray by the German distributor, Turbine Media Group, through its Facebook page. It offers several entertaining featurettes, including a lengthy dialogue with Landis and some fellow film nerds, in which he covers his early career in Hollywood and Europe, making Spaghetti Westerns.

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell
For those of you who’ve grown weary of keeping score at home, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is the sixth entry in a franchise that began in 1990 and has also spawned a couple of TV series and several video games. As far as I can tell, the common denominators are star Michael Gross, as Burt/Hiram Gummer, and his invertebrate nemeses, the Graboids. For 25 years, Gummer has been the only thing standing between the subterranean worm-like creatures and Armageddon, or something closely resembling the end of the world. Here, Burt and his son, Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), find themselves up to their ears in Graboids and Ass-Blasters, when they head to Canada to investigate a series of deadly attacks. Arriving at a remote research facility on the frozen Arctic tundra, Burt begins to suspect that Graboids are secretly being weaponized. Before he can prove his theory, however, he is sidelined by Graboid venom. With just 48 hours to live, the only hope is to create an antidote from fresh venom. To do that, someone will have to figure out how to milk a worm. Yes, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is every bit as silly and stupid as it sounds. If one is in the mood for such brain-numbing entertainment, however, it probably will do the trick. The bonus material adds “The Making of Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell,” “Anatomy of a Scene” and “Inside Chang’s Market.”

For his first theatrical feature, Follower, Ryan Justice has elected to make a found-footage “thriller” about the dangers of living one’s life in the crowded fast lanes of social media. For no good reason that I can discern, Brooke and Caleb (Amanda Delaney, Justin Maina) are known far and wide for her work as a yoga and lifestyle guru, and his reputation as a celebrity boyfriend. As such, they intend to webcast their celebration of a special anniversary, which they’ve arranged to take place on a camping trip in the backwoods of Florida. The problem is, of course, that neither of them account for the possibility that they will be stalked by two of their followers, hence the title. Conveniently, Nick and Jake (Sean Michael Gloria, Nishant Gogna) are two aspiring filmmakers intent on making a documentary on how easy it is to track someone down through social media … and kill them. Pretty easy, I’d say. Another problem arises when the two couples are confronted by a group of swamping-dwelling cultists, wearing white togas and wielding mad cutlery. The cautionary tale about social-media surveillance doesn’t kick in until well after most viewers will have stopped watching.

Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games: Blu-ray
With the world’s honey-bee population in danger of being snuffed out, it’s comforting to know that one century-long hive is thriving and shows no sign of being extinguished. The roots of Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games extend all the way back to 1912, when Waldemar Bonsels’ 200-page book, “The Adventures of Maya the Bee” was published in Germany. It has since been re-printed in many other languages and revised to tone down the author’s more militaristic undertones. The first adaptation into film was German director Wolfram Junghans’ 1924 silent feature – it “starred” real insects — which was restored in 2005. In 1975, a 52-episode anime series aired on Japanese television and around the world. It wasn’t shown on American television until 1990, when it joined the Nickelodeon lineup. A second series was commissioned 1979, but it didn’t enjoy the same positive response as the original.  In 2012, Studio 100 Animation produced 78 episodes of 13 minutes in length. It was shown here on Netflix, until a parent noticed the outline of a penis etched on a log in the background of a scene and it was canceled. A 2014 film, rendered in 3D CGI animation, was based upon the 2012 series. There’s also been an opera, puppet musical, stage musical and video games based on “Maya the Honey Bee.”  Shout Factory’s straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray Maya the Bee 2: The Honey Games – co-directed by Noel Cleary, Sergio Delfino and Alexs Stadermann – borrows elements of The Hunger Games, after an overenthusiastic Maya accidentally embarrasses the Empress of Buzztropolis. Maya and Willy are required to accept the benefits of teamwork, if they’re going to save the hide. The package adds the featurette, “The Making of Maya The Bee 2: The Honey Games.”

Van Wilder: Unrated Version: Blu-ray
In its wisdom, Lionsgate has decided to re-release its rated/unrated Blu-ray edition of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (a.k.a., “Van Wilder: Party Liaison”), a comedy that could be dismissed as sophomoric if the protagonist wasn’t a seventh-year student, who has no plans to graduate. At this point in his college career, Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is content to be a full-service party planner, pimp, facilitator and all-around ne’er-do-well. That is, until his father learns that his tuition money is being flushed down the toilet and he decides to turn off the tap. Moreover, his behavior is embarrassing the school’s administration and a cute cub reporter at the school’s paper (Tara Reid) has been assigned an expose on how such a thing is possible. The simple answer would be: anyone who can afford to pay tuition can stay in school for has long as he or she maintains a certain grade average or continues to show forward momentum. If a lack of interest in claiming adulthood were all it takes to warrant an investigation, half of the nation’s graduate students and most our professional athletes would be eligible for the cover of Time magazine. Here, it’s simply a ruse to endear Wilder to the reporter, whose boyfriend is a complete dick. If Van Wilder is guaranteed to elicit laughter from each incoming class of college freshman, all most adults will be left with are some bulldog-testicle sight gags and two more minutes of risqué humor in the unrated version. They presumably include several extended flashes of coed boobs and poo-poo gags. While Reynolds’ career has survived Van WilderDeadpool 2 opens in a couple of weeks — poor Tara Reid, who’s very cute here, has had to settle for starring roles in the Sharknado series.

Capitalism: A Six-Part Series
Marx Reloaded
PBS: Spying on the Royals
Smithsonian: Civil War 360
One of the great fallacies of American life is a top-down confusion of the terms “democracy” and “capitalism.” Schools have done a pretty good job explaining how our democracy works and differs from other forms of government. What is overlooked is the role capitalism has played in the shaping of our democracy and maintenance of the status quo, from an early acceptance of slavery and discrimination against women and minorities, to the bailout of the banks after the 2008 Depression and current return to laissez-faire principles … or, lack thereof. From French television, “Capitalism: A Six-Part Series” delivers a college-level exploration of how the economies of the world’s most stable democracies work and how vulnerable they are to the whims … not of capitalism, but capitalists. Ilan Ziv’s documentary is neither an indictment of capitalism, nor an endorsement of communism or socialism. It traces the evolution of capitalism from the great thinkers who influenced Adam Smith, through the academics who interpreted “The Wealth of Nations” for future generations, and on to bankers who brought the world to its knees in 2008. What emerges most clearly, however, is the sad reality that capitalism couldn’t have survived and flourished without colonialism, slavery, greed, fear and corruption to prop it up. A bit more time devoted to the allure and failures of communism might have been useful, but the time devoted to a closer reading of Karl Marx’s theories is extremely useful. The 2014, pre-Trump documentary took two years to produce. It was filmed in 22 countries and features interviews with 21 of the world’s leading economists, historians, sociologists and political scientists. They include Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, James Kenneth Galbraith, Kari Polanyi Levitt, Lord Robert Skidelsky, Dr. Kwame Osei and Dr. Wang Ming. As someone who resisted taking any economics courses in colleges, I found “Capitalism” to be a surprisingly accessible and frequently eye-opening experience.

Also from Icarus Films, Marx Reloaded is a 2011 German documentary short, written and directed by the British writer and theorist Jason Barker, which appeared on several European networks and symposiums. It features interviews with several well-known philosophers and economists, who manage to put a human face on a figure known principally for his great beard and utopian vision. In fact, his critique of capitalism has stood the test of time and may be as relevant today as it has ever been. If that sounds ridiculous, especially in light of the collapse of Soviet-style communism in Europe and rise of market-based communism in China, it’s worth a second listen. In the United States, workers who rejected their unions now are forced to kowtow to the greed of plant owners whose roots in American soil have proven to be very shallow, while also having to listen to pundits extol the virtues of a robotic society. There’s certainly no dismissing Marx’s observations of commodity fetishism. At 53 lively minutes, “Marx Reloaded” asks questions that are becoming increasingly relevant in a world of haves and have nots. It arrives with Bob Godfrey’s short animated film, “Marx for Beginners,” adapted from a graphic novel by Mexican cartoonist Ruis.

Perhaps, because of Wallis Simpson’s American background, the abdication of King Edward VIII has been looked upon as an affair of the heart, pure and simple. We were more willing to forgive the couple for their political indiscretions before and after World War II, because they were considered harmless and fun to observe in social settings. They survived nicely for the next 25 years, largely on the fruits of the British Empire and the kindness of peers. The PBS presentation, “Spying on the Royals,” examines their story stripped of romanticism and schmaltz. Classified documents that have gone unseen for more than 70 years bring to light the secret story of the stunning events of 1936, detailing what could have devolved into the most controversial espionage operation in British history. As it is, the spying, wire-tapping and cooperation between intelligence agencies – in Britain, throughout Europe and the U.S. – went undiscovered by the press for decades. If the would-be monarch had, in fact, favored Adolph Hitler over the leaders of other European nations, it’s possible that German troops might have been allowed to invade England without a struggle. Edward might have been retained as figurehead leader of the country and rubber stamp for Nazi policies. That’s the worst-case scenario, anyway. As it was, the prince and duchess were uprooted from their live of luxury in Portugal – officially neutral, but a haven for fascists – and sent to the Bahamas to count coconuts and monitor the comings and goings of U-boats.

Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” was successful, in part, because it employed a bit of artistic chicanery, zooming and panning across still images of Mathew Brady’s photographs; having celebrities with lovely voices read excerpts from letters, diaries and journals written by soldiers, officers, politicians and spouses; and backing them up with music that triggered emotional responses from viewers. In the Smithsonian Channel’s similarly fascinating, if less riveting, “Civil War 360,” fresh insights into the conflagration are provided through the displays of historical objects, memorabilia and artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian museums. Some have been put on display, while others have been deemed too fragile for exhibition. The three-part series explores famous and little-known aspects of the Civil War, from the perspectives of the Union, the Confederacy and the millions of enslaved people struggling for freedom. It is hosted by Ashley Judd, Trace Adkins, and Dennis Haysbert, all of whom had ancestors greatly affected by the war.

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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