MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: La Belle Noiseuse, 50 Shades Freed, 4K Titles, Paradox, Manifesto, Dear White People, Butterflies and more

La Belle Noiseuse: Blu-ray
“Take My Word for It” might be a better title for this column, especially as it applies to movies that went to straight-to-video or streaming or are made by filmmakers yet to establish reputations. Jacques Rivette’s 1991 masterpiece, La Belle Noiseuse, doesn’t fit those categories, but, with its four-hour length and ready availability of an inferior 125-minute cut, La Belle Noiseuse: Divertimento, Cohen Media’s upgraded Blu-ray may benefit from any endorsement. La Belle Noiseuse (The Beautiful Troublemaker) won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes and was nominated for a Palme d’Or. Roger Ebert called it “the best film I have ever seen about the physical creation of art, and about the painful bond between an artist and his muse.” The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa named it one of his two favorite movies of the 1990s — with Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks – calling it the best filmed display of a struggle of an artist doing his craft, as well as a movie he would have liked to have directed. The four-hour length didn’t bother them or most of the other mainstream critics who saw La Belle Noiseuse in its first release. Michel Piccoli plays the artist, Frenhofer, who, judging solely from his lovely countryside chateau/studio in Provence, did very well for himself before developing a crippling creative block a decade earlier. At the time, his wife, Liz (Jane Birkin), served as his principle model and muse. Although they’re still married and supportive of each other, something is missing in that part of their relationship.

When a young artist, Nicolas (David Bursztein), visits the reclusive artist with his beautiful, if slightly aloof girlfriend, Marianne (Béart), Frenhofer is inspired to return to a painting he long ago abandoned, using her as his model. Liz recognizes the spark and encourages Marianne to stick around. She’ll be asked to pose nude for long periods of time and in positions that will test her patience and strength. It would be easy for viewers to assume that sometime in the laborious process, Frenhofer will try to use patriarchal status to coerce her into having sex. While there’s plenty of contact between them, including the occasional shared cigarette, things don’t progress in that way. And, in the era of #MeToo correctness, we’re happy they don’t. This isn’t to say, however, that Marianne and Frenhofer don’t begin to develop a shared obsession for the work, “La Belle Noiseuse,” or that it doesn’t impact negatively on their relationships with Liz and Nicolas. It’s also reflected in the artist’s process, which Rivette depicts in painstaking detail. Like everyone else in the movie, except Frenhofer, viewers are left guessing as to how the final painting might look. The paintings and sketches to which we’ve been made privy are as disturbing as they are revealing of the artist’s tortured state of mind. La Belle Noiseuse is based on Honoré de Balzac’s short story, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” and inspired, as well, by elements of Henry James’ “The Liar,” “The Figure in the Carpet” and “The Aspern Papers.” The Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Richard Suchenski; an archival interview with Rivette; and an interview with co-writers Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent.

Fifty Shades Freed: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray: 4K UHD
Here’s a spoiler you won’t read anywhere else: you can tell when Anastasia is truly angry at her demanding husband when she chooses to wear pantyhose, instead of the black thigh-highs she favors while being tortured by Christian, working at the office and hanging out in one of Seattle’s many coffee shops. It may be a small point, but in this, the final chapter of the “Fifty Shades” series, she’s given precious few ways to declare her independence. It’s about time. Few franchises have been more immune to the opinions of critics, who probably hoped they could clip this turkey’s wings before they would be forced to review the other two installments of E.L. James’s Teflon Trilogy. Like Ronald Reagan, whose presidency was compared to the chemical used to coat cookware, nothing negative sticks to the “Fifty Shades” franchise. Fifty Shades Freed is no different in this regard. Despite reviews that would make some filmmakers weep, admirers of the best-selling book pushed the trilogy past the billion-dollar barrier, based on global ticket sales. Consider this, as well: despite Metacritic scores of 46, 33 and 31, viewers’ opinions on CinemaScore rose from Fifty Shades of Grey’s C+, to the B+ shared by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Grades for sequels rarely improve. The opening weekend audience for “Freed” saw the highest ratio of female-to-male audiences yet in the series, with women making up 75 percent of opening-weekend moviegoers and women under the age of 30 comprising 55 percent of that audience. It’s safe to assume that male viewers bailed on their dates after being dragged to the first part, disappointed by the lack of below-the-belt nudity and a realization they could never measure up to Christian financially or sartorially. (It’s almost impossible to maintain a two-day growth of facial hair, without shaving every so often.) Women, even those with an aversion to nipple clips and whips, apparently found the highly fictionalized romance to their liking. I wonder how many of them have graduated to Barbet Schroeder Maîtresse, Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary or Radley Metzger’s The Image, all of which do a better job of depicting the pleasures of pain.

In Fifty Shades Freed, it doesn’t take Christian more than a couple of minutes to show his true shades of gray. His unwarranted jealousy surfaces at the wedding reception and continues throughout most of the film’s remaining 110 minutes. And, while he gives Ana every reason to doubt his fidelity – with his real-estate agent and, of course, Mrs. Robinson (Kim Basinger) – her anger at his callous behavior lasts only so long as it takes Christian to purchase an ever-costlier gift … like a private jet at their beck and call, an expensive sports car and top-shelf whips, dildos and butt plugs. (Unlike the novel, Ana isn’t depicted using the latter.) Christian buys a fabulous bayside mansion – seen in an earlier film – without even bothering to consult his better half. Neither does his sexy interior designer (Arielle Kebbel) ask Ana about her plans to gut the Old World interior and replace it with the latest look favored by subscribers to Architectural Digest. For once, though, Anastasia stands up for herself, by insisting the designer piss up a rope. Later, she’ll forgive Christian for berating her on a French beach for shedding her top to sunbathe, while every other woman has her ta-tas on full display. In “Freed,” Christian turns out to be nothing more than just another grumpy and overly possessive guy, who treats his wife like property. When Anastasia informs him of their accidental pregnancy, Christian freaks out and demands she get an abortion. It isn’t until an old nemesis, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), threatens to kill Ana and his sister, Mia (Rita Ora), that he pulls up his big-boy pants and rides to her rescue. Blessedly, it isn’t accompanied by Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.”

The very capable director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) returns to the director’s chair, but he appears to have been handcuffed by a cliché-ridden script. I should have guessed that the screenwriter, Niall Leonard (“Wire in the Blood”), is married to author/producer James and that his only other big-screen credit is for Fifty Shades Darker. His background as a writer of television mini-series – some quite good — is pretty obvious. John Schwartzman’s cinematography enhances the Blu-ray and 4K UHD additions, as does Danny Elfman’s complementary score. From what I can gather, the difference between the rated and unrated versions of Fifty Shades Freed is the inclusion of a couple of brief scenes that were shown in the trailer, but, then, trimmed for the theatrical release. Bassinger appears in a couple of those very brief segments. The bonus package adds the self-explanatory deleted scene, “Hickey and Apology”; a 33-minute making-of featurette, “The Final Climax”; “Christian & Ana by Jamie & Dakota,” in which the actors discuss their characters; “An Intimate Conversation,” with James and actor Eric Johnson; and music videos, “For You (Fifty Shades Freed)” by Liam Payne and Rita Ora, “Capital Letters” by Hailee Steinfeld x Bloodpop, and “Heaven” by Julia Michaels. If James ever runs out of money, she’s left a bit of room for a third sequel.

Saving Private Ryan: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Braveheart: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Gladiator: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Source Code: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Paramount’s impeccable 4K upgrade of Steven Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat’s Saving Private Ryan: Commemorative 20th Anniversary Edition couldn’t possibly improve upon the film’s gut-wrenching depiction of the Omaha Beach assault on D-Day. Nor does it enhance the heart-wrenching drama that accompanies the search for PFC James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the last-surviving brother of four servicemen killed in the Normandy invasion. How could it? Even so, Spielberg’s graphic portrayal of the slaughter – accented by sonic effects that made some viewers dodge imaginary bullets – could hardly be more impactful, no matter the video or audio format. What makes the new UHD edition of Saving Private Ryan an essential purchase for owners of the latest home-theater technology is a 12-bit Dolby Vision presentation that comes as close to replicating the big-screen experience as is currently possible. The Dolby Atmos audio track makes the sounds of war that much more frightening and the dialogue more legible. Two decades later, it’s fun to see how many of the cast members would go on to enjoy substantial show-business careers. It’s also worth recalling the controversy that erupted after Saving Private Ryan inexplicably lost out to Shakespeare in Love for the Best Picture Oscar. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 5:  Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing and Best Director for Spielberg. Credit for the upset went to Miramax’s unprecedented promotional campaign and the faulty memories of academy voters, who had no trouble remembering their reactions to the December release of Shakespeare in Love, but who forgot what drove audiences to Saving Private Ryan five months earlier. The upset was one of the things that helped turn Harvey Weinstein into the notoriously untouchable bully he would become, until being cut down to size for sexual abuse two decades later. The separate 4K UHD disc doesn’t include any new bonus features. The Blu-ray-combo disc contains previously issued featurettes, interviews and commentaries.

And, while we’re discussing advanced technology, it’s worth noting ahead of time that Paramount is also about to re-release a pair of its monster hits from 1995 and 2001, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR. Unlike “Private Ryan,” both won the Best Picture Oscar they so richly deserved, along with a bunch of other trophies and nominations. All three are enhanced by the addition of 2160p/Dolby Vision and a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Fans who purchased earlier Blu-ray editions – including the subpar transfer of Gladiator, since repaired – should know not to expect any new bonus material on the 4K UHD. The already adequate featurettes have been ported over to the Blu-ray discs included in the package. Superfans will have to decide for themselves if the noticeably better audio/visual presentation – closer to the theatrical experience — is worth another investment in money and time. Most, I think, will say it is.

Also new to Blu-ray 4K UHD is Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley’s high-voltage action/thriller, Source Code, from Lionsgate. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal plays U.S. Army pilot Captain Colter Stevens, who wakes up one morning on a commuter train headed to Chicago. Because the last thing he can remember is being on a mission in Afghanistan, Stevens is completely disoriented and annoyed about his inability to figure out what’s happening to him. His traveling partner, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), is more amused by his confusion than alarmed. When Stevens looks at himself in the bathroom, he appears to be someone else: a school teacher named Sean Fentress. As he attempts to come to grips with this revelation, the train explodes, killing everyone aboard. This time, when Stevens regains consciousness, he’s inside a dimly lit cockpit, communicating with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She verifies Stevens’ original identity and insists he stay “on mission” to find the train bomber, before a second bomb explodes in downtown Chicago. Turns out, Stevens is trapped inside the “Source Code,” an experimental device designed by scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). In the computer-generated realm, he experiences the last eight minutes of another compatible person’s life within an alternative timeline. It’s tricky, but, once the gimmick is revealed, viewers shouldn’t have any problem playing along with it. It, too, benefits from a 2160p UHD and Dolby Atmos upgrade. It adds commentary with Jones, Ripley and Gyllenhaal, and “5 Crazy Details You Might Have Missed.”


Blood and Glory
If most sports movies are founded on certain clichés and tropes, it’s refreshing to find a guard-vs.-prisoners flick that breaks new ground. The first iteration of Robert Aldrich The Longest Yard (1974) certainly did, as it captured the anti-establishment fervor of the period. So did the rigged football game in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1972), which added a couple of Vietnam-era touches. Although John Huston’s 1981 soccer drama, Victory (a.k.a., “Escape to Victory”), pitted Allied prisoners of war – including Sylvester Stallone and Pele — against a team of German all-stars in occupied Paris, it was inspired by two European movies, released in the early 1960s. The Hungarian black-and-white drama, Two Half-Times in Hell, and Soviet Tretiy taym (a.k.a., The Last Game) honed much closer to eyewitness reports from an actual soccer game, known as the Death Match. During the German occupation of Kiev, several members of Dynamo Kiev formed a team with other bakery employees, playing in a league against teams supported by the Ukranian puppet government and German military. After they beat a team from a local German Air Force base, the league was disbanded and several of the team members were arrested by the Gestapo, with four reportedly executed. It’s entirely possible, as well, that the Death Match inspired the central conflict in Sean Else’s Blood and Glory, which is set in 1901, during the Second Boer War. The compelling, if all-too-familiar drama follows Willem Morkel, a Boer/Afrikaans farmer who is captured and sent to a British P.O.W. camp on St. Helena Island, halfway between Argentina and Namibia, in the Atlantic Ocean.

The prisoners are treated harshly, forced to break rocks from morning until evening, and fed poorly. While the guards are preoccupied, watching their mates partake in a game of rugby, one of the prisoners sneaks behind them to steal a uniform. He’s caught, of course, and sentenced to be executed. The film’s protagonist, a farmer named Willem Morkel (Stian Bam), offers a deal to the brutal Australian camp commander, Colonel Swannell (Grant Swanby). If the prisoners can beat the soldiers in a game of rugby, Swannell must agree to postpone the execution. If not, Morkel agrees to be executed alongside his fellow P.O.W. As is typically the case in these David-vs.-Goliath setups, the prisoners will have to be taught how to play the game and practice only after their work day is done. Swannell also ensures that the prisoners are undernourished, underequipped and unprepared to lose a key player when one mysteriously drowns. I’m sure you can guess the rest, except for the fact that the island’s British governor (Michael Richard) and his daughter (Charlotte Salt) are appalled by the mistreatment of their temporary Afrikaner guests by fellow Brits. Blood and Glory alludes to the possibility that South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, evolved from that game and one of the players went on to play for the South Africa National Rugby Union team. I couldn’t find anything to back up those assertions, however. Nonetheless, anyone who’s a sucker for such movies should enjoy this one.

Valentina’s Wedding
Lionsgate and Pantelion’s latest cross-border collaboration, “La Boda de Valentina” (Valentina’s Wedding) did pretty well in its opening weekend in 331 U.S. theaters. It would go on to collect nearly $2.8 million here, while raking in another $8.3 million worth of pesos in its concurrent international run. While the stars are largely familiar from Mexican telenovelas and English-language soaps, I don’t know if the distributors focused their marketing efforts on those viewers. Recent Pantelion titles I’ve reviewed are Everybody Loves Somebody, How to Be a Latin Lover, 3 Idiots and the animated feature, Condorito: La Película. None would be confused with high-brow fare, but arthouse audiences don’t watch soap operas … except on PBS. The title character is played by the very appealing Marimar Vega (Daniel and Ana), whose telenovelas include “Silvana Sin Lana Amor,” “Cautivo” and “Eternamente tuya.” Valentina has the “perfect” life in New York, with the perfect job and a perfect American boyfriend, Jason (Ryan Carnes). They plan on getting married, but Jason can’t understand why she refuses to do it in Mexico, surrounded by her family. It isn’t until her thoroughly dysfunctional and scandalous relatives demand that Valentina return to Mexico City, and pretend to be married to her ex-boyfriend, Angel (Omar Chaparro), do we fully appreciate why she’s keeping them at a distance. Naturally, as romcom conventions demand, she reluctantly agrees to return home and go along with the ruse, to protect her father’s political campaign. If you’ve already guessed that Valentina’s proximity to Angel will test her devotion to Jason, give yourself a pat on the back. When she asks Angel to show Jason around the capital, it’s also safe to assume that the two men either will kill each other or find bromance. By the end of the movie, one of the three characters will be left standing at the altar, but it wasn’t the one I would have chosen. Too bad. Coincidentally, perhaps, Vega’s next picture is “La Boda de la Abuela,” in which she plays a character named Ana, from another series of rom-coms.

The Devil Incarnate: Blu-ray
Widely considered to be the dean of Spanish horror films, in the Golden Era of European exploitation, at least, Paul Naschy (a.k.a., Jacinto Molina Alvarez) has been overshadowed here by the purveyors of Italian Westerns, giallo and cannibal epics. To the extent that Naschy is known outside Europe, it’s for his portrayal of the tormented werewolf Waldermar Daninsky, a character he introduced in Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968) and reprised in a dozen subsequent sequels. Like his hero, Lon Chaney Jr., Naschy also played such horror mainstays as the Mummy, Jack the Ripper, Dracula, the Hunchback, the Frankenstein monster, Phantom of the Opera and, in The Devil Incarnate (1979), the ruler of all that’s dark and evil in the universe. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Belushi, the devil has decided to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, by impersonating a mere mortal to investigate what’s happening on Earth. He couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time or place than16th Century Spain, which was embroiled in the Spanish Inquisition. It was a time when the monarchy entrusted priests with the responsibility of maintaining Catholic orthodoxy and, in doing so, could easily be mistaken for emissaries of Satan. Together with a human companion, Tomas, Leonardo wanders through the countryside like Don Quixote, encountering all sorts of local gentry, nuns, knights and prostitutes, who are ripe to be plucked of their riches and virtue. Neither is Leonardo reluctant to delegate his authority to underlings willing to do his dirty work for him. Eventually, though, the devil finds he’s no match for the devious desires and unbridled greed of God’s earthly creations. Unlike most of Naschy’s horror films, The Devil Incarnate can stand on its own as a bawdy picaresque that doesn’t rely on makeup effects and gore for its appeal. Besides Naschy, it stars Sara Lezana, David Rocha, Ana Harpo, Blanca Estrada, and Irene Gutiérrez Caba. The Mondo Macabro edition, the first to be released on Blu-ray here, was created from a 4k scan of the original negative. It includes an introduction by Naschy; interviews with Rocha and sons Sergio and Bruno Molina; a tour of Naschy’s study and home; and commentary by Troy Howarth. The Mondo Macabro previews are almost worth the price of a rental, themselves.

The House That Dripped Blood: Blu-ray
House of Evil
Forty years after Amicus Productions quit producing genre films in England, it’s easy to confuse its output with that of Hammer Film Productions, which, by the end of the 1960s, was starting to lose market share. While they shared many of the same stars and themes, Amicus favored the anthology format. In this regard, The House That Dripped Blood fits neatly alongside Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Torture Garden, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and From Beyond the Grave. While some worked better than others on the big screen, the format does better on DVD/Blu-ray. The segments in The House That Dripped Blood not only share an overarching setting and other connective tissue, but they also were written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) or based upon his stories. The film is a collection of four short stories linked by the association of each one’s protagonist with the eponymous building, which existed for a time on a far corner of the Shepperton Studios lot. Their title and source are, “Method for Murder” (Fury #7, July 1962), in which a hack writer of horror stories (Denholm Elliott) moves into the house with his wife (Joanna Dunham), only to be haunted by visions of the psychopathic central character of his latest novel; “Waxworks” (Weird Tales #33, January 1939) features

a retired stockbroker (Peter Cushing) and his friend (Joss Ackland), who become fixated with a wax museum that appears to contain a model of a lady they both knew; “Sweets to the Sweet” (Weird Tales, Volume 39 #10, March 1947) with Nyree Dawn Porter playing a private teacher hired by a wealthy widower (Christopher Lee) to mind his strange young daughter (Chloe Franks); and “The Cloak” (Unknown, May 1939), in which a temperamental actor (Jon Pertwee) moves into the house, not far from where he’s shooting a vampire film, already occupied by a voluptuous vampire (Ingrid Pitt). The Shout Factory upgrade adds commentaries by film historian/author Troy Howarth and with director Peter Duffell and author Jonathan Rigby; a new interview with second assistant director Mike Higgins; the vintage featurette, “A-Rated Horror Film,” featuring Duffell and actors Geoffrey Bayldon, Ingrid Pitt and Chloe Franks; and original marketing material.

In addition to being the title of a 2017 Italian horror flick newly released into DVD, House of Evil practically defines the subgenre in which it exists, Evil Houses. In Marco Ristori and Luca Boni’s follow-up to Zombie Massacre 2: Reich of the Dead (2015), a young married couple is turning their back on city life by moving to a spacious mansion outside Florence. Eighty-five minutes doesn’t leave much room for exposition, so things begin to take a turn toward the weird almost immediately, with sightings of people who shouldn’t be standing in the field outside and the occasional ghost. Unbeknownst to the couple, their new home was the scene of a heinous crime and the perpetrator — or his spirit – doesn’t appear to have left the premises. As time passes, the husband, John (Andrew Harwood Mills), grows more and more distant from pregnant wife, Kate (Lucy Drive). Finally, when Kate’s best friend, Corrine (Désirée Giorgetti), and a seemingly innocuous local priest (David White), reveal the house’s sad history, House of Evil begins to resemble an all-too-obvious cross-fertilization of Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror. If it doesn’t break any new ground, at least it looks good and offers more than a few old-school chills.

Paradox: Blu-ray
When the teenage daughter of Hong Kong police negotiator Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) goes missing in Thailand, her trail leads to an American gangster, Sacha (Chris Collins), who is operating an organ-smuggling ring in Bangkok. The 16-year-old went there to visit a friend after she informed Chung-Chi that she’s pregnant and Daddy Dearest had her boyfriend arrested. With his conscience weighing heavy on him, the cop travels to Thailand, where he’s confronted with a thick wall of political and governmental corruption. Fortunately, he’s met there by fellow Chinese cop Tsui Kit (Yue Wu) and his Thai partner, Tak (Tony Jaa), presumably the only two honest police officers in Southeast Asia. A series of clues not only leads Chung-Chi to the gangsters who hold his daughter’s fate in their hands — it hinges on the teetering health of a top city official — but he also finds himself in a position to expose the smuggling ring and take out Sasha. Any more information would qualify as major spoiler. The bottom line is that Paradox (a.k.a., “Kill Zone 3”) overflows with action – choreographed by Sammo Hung – and it’s more violent than usual. Wu and Jaa contribute as much of their considerable skills to the mix as Koo. If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because Paradox is the third installment in Wilson Yip’s “SPL” series, after Kill Zone and A Time for Consequences, or that it could describe a third sequel to Taken, with Koo sitting in for Liam Neeson. Yip also directed the “Ip Man” trilogy. The Blu-ray adds interviews and making-of material.

In Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, an extremely versatile Cate Blanchett portrays 13 individual characters, recounting 12 artists’ manifestos in as many different disguises. In doing so, she recalls Anna Deavere Smith, in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”; Lily Tomlin, in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”; and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, in which a half-dozen disparate characters embody a different aspect of Bob Dylan’s life. In the latter, Blanchett played Jude Quinn, an alias for the Dylan represented in D.A. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back (1967). In retrospect, Manifest makes I’m Not There look like an episode of “Biography.” Originally a video installation, with all 13 sections playing simultaneously, on a loop, on 13 different screens, Manifesto was exhibited first at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, in Blanchett’s hometown, Melbourne, alongside one of her two Oscars. It draws on the writings of Futurists, Dadaists, Fluxus artists, Suprematists, Situationists, Dogma 95 and other artist groups, as well as the musings of such individual artists as Claes Oldenburg, Yvonne Rainer, Kazimir Malevich, Andre Breton, Elaine Frances Sturtevant, Sol LeWitt and Jim Jarmusch. Blanchett performs these “new manifestos” as “a contemporary call to action,” while inhabiting the personae of a school teacher, puppeteer, newsreader, factory worker and homeless man, among others. On film, at least, it’s a tough slog. Extras include a conversation with Blanchett and Rosefeldt.

Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God … Be Back By Five: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Several years before Jon Cryer hit the jackpot playing Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men, he was still known primarily as the scene-stealing Duckie, in Howard Deutch and John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink (1986). And, truth be told, if it weren’t Cryer’s hilariously passionate dance to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” he might only have been remembered for bit parts in sitcoms. Now, he’s as recognizable as anyone in Hollywood. In between those two career highlights, though, Cryer co-wrote and starred in Richard Schenkman’s intriguingly titled The Pompatus of Love and Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God … Be Back By Five, which was probably too long to fit on any exhibiter’s marquee. Today, both the independently made pictures probably would fall under the category of “bro’s will be bro’s,” but, in the mid- to late-1990s, they offered decent alternatives to big-budget studio films. “Went to Coney Island” spent two years on the festival circuit before being accorded a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release in 2000. It’s been given a fresh Blu-ray polish by MVD for its Rewind Collection, with a new introduction by the principles and vintage commentary, interviews, a making-of featurette, Schenkman’s short comedy, “The Producer,” and a mini-poster. The movie follows three childhood friends as they grow into men in one of New York City’s slow lanes. None is particularly successful, but Cryer’s character, at least, doesn’t have the added burden of an alcohol/gambling addiction and bipolar disorder. When Richie (Rafael Baez) mysteriously disappears, Daniel (Cryer) and Stan (Rick Stear) take it upon themselves to find him and report back to his mother. The invisible trail takes them to the Coney Island, which, in the dead of winter, more closely resembles a slum than an amusement park. Only a few attractions and restaurants are open, and they’re mostly populated by people who don’t want to be there. When they do find Richie, he’s been off his meds for some time and clearly off his rocker. Meanwhile, Stan’s bookie has run out of patience with him and is threatening bodily harm. Being an indie dramedy, “Went to Coney Island” doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. It does, however, deliver a well-acted story, with some clever dialogue and an unusual setting. Other recognizable contributors include Ione Skye, Frank Whaley, Dominic Chianese, Leslie Hendrix Judy Reyes and Peter Gerety.

Netflix: Dear White People: Season One
PBS: Nature: Sex, Lies and Butterflies
PBS: The Art of the Shine
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Bubble Puppy’s Awesome Adventures
It isn’t likely that most viewers have been exposed to the Netflix series, “Dear White People,” let along Justin Simien’s feature film of the same title, upon which it’s based. It describes the day-to-day experiences of a diverse group of black students at a fictional Ivy League college that “isn’t as post-racial” as it considers itself to be. The Netflix series opens with a party thrown by the white, male staff of Winchester University’s satirical magazine, Pastiche. For some ungodly reason known only to themselves, the overindulged students think it might be fun to attend in blackface. Apparently, their intent was to protest the controversial campus radio show, “Dear White People,” hosted by black student Samantha White (Logan Browning), during which she points out the many racist occurrences on campus and how white people should respond to them. It also examines concerns about such timely issues as appropriation, assimilation, elitism and exiting various closets. Samantha is a bundle of contradictions, herself. They include having a white lover and being a rabble-rouser, when a little logic and patience might have worked better. She exasperates the turmoil caused by the party, which was banned by the African-American dean, but somehow managed to go on, nonetheless. After a popular black BMOC is held at gunpoint after another party, the overriding issue becomes police brutality. When the protests threaten the school’s tranquility, key benefactors threaten to pull $10 million from the minority-enrollment program. Sam must decide whether to continuing making waves or appease the school’s backers. “Dear White People” could have been a cliché-ridden mess, but it feels completely real and original. Season One episodes depict the growing furor through the eyes and personalities of other students. “Dear White People” plays out over 10 lively half-hour episodes. Season Two has already begun on the premium Netflix streaming service.

Watching PBS’ spectacularly photograpahed “Sex, Lies and Butterflies,” I was once again reminded how far we’ve come in the last couple of decades when it comes to learning about the wonders of science and nature. Take moths and butterflies, for example. Who can forget taking pop quizzes that, first, required students to spell “metamorphosis” correctly and, then, relate how it applies to the life cycle of butterflies and moths, naming each new stage of development. Given that most students already had a rudimentary knowledge of how such beautiful creatures come to be, it wouldn’t be the greatest challenge we’d faced in high school. Still, most of what we learned was gleaned from textbooks or collections of insects pinned to a board. Compare those memories to what’s revealed in a single 60-minute episode of “Nature,” whose producers were able to follow scientists on research missions around the world and eavesdrop on findings once impossible to imagine. In one visit to Africa, the scientists used hyper-sound and macro-filming techniques to study a concentration of moths being attacked by bats, guided to their prey by sonar. What they didn’t know going into the investigation was that the flying insects weren’t nearly as defenseless as we previously thought they were. Far from being sitting ducks, if you will, apparently they’re able to block the bat’s radar, using audio responses not unlike those employed by stealth weapons. Butterflies and moths have survived for more than 50 million years, and in a dazzling array of nearly 20,000 different species, so they must be doing something right. Also examined are their 360-degree vision, deceptive camouflage, chemical deterrents and ability to take advantage of high-altitude winds to travel from continent to continent in a relative flash. The Blu-ray presentation is splendid. The episode is narrated by Paul Giamatti.

Among the rites of passage that have pretty much disappeared over time are those related to boys and their grown-up shoes. Before Nike, Adidas and Puma began manufacturing footwear that would henceforth be deemed appropriate for all occasions, dads insisted that their sons learn how to spit-shine their shoes until they could pass muster in a lineup at boot camp. Some would even go so far as to purchase do-it-yourself kits, complete with buffing rags, brushes and daubers, cleaning soap, various creams and waxes, scraper, shoehorns, foot grips and polishes in several different colors … maybe, even, a couple of spare sets of laces. Unlike the stiff, black leather shoes we were forced to wear to special events, the ritual could be fun. The next step in a boy’s transition to manly footwear typically arrived with a surprise visit to a shoeshine parlor or “smoke shop,” where you sat on a chair high above the resident bootblacks and let a pro take care of business, with a snap of the buffing cloth and tap on the toe upon completion. A boy could learn a lot while waiting his turn for a shine – such institutions were replete with such adult toys as tobacco, cigars and condoms — but rarely in the company of his dad. At one time, it also was possible for hotel guests of both genders to leave their shoes outside their door at night and wake up to newly shined shows in the morning, next to the day’s newspaper. Today, it’s widely considered to be a lost and largely unnecessary discipline. Or, is it? The delightful PBS presentation, “The Art of the Shine,” argues against the total disappearance of shoeshine professionals, outside the occasional train station or casino lobby. It does so by visiting some of the men and women who still make their living from it. They include the brash street shiners of New York City, the masked shoe shine boys of La Paz, a survivor of the Sarajevo sniper war and old pros who now command $8 per shine in barber shops and boutique operations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the men and women we meet gave up lucrative jobs and college degrees for the relative freedom of shining the shoes of a never-ending variety of customers.

Time Life/WEA has reached Season Four (1970–71) in its a la carte rollout of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” episodes. The regular cast now includes Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin, Johnny Brown, Dennis Allen, Ann Elder, Nancie Phillips, Barbara Sharma, Harvey Jason, Richard Dawson and Byron Gilliam. It opens with the inclusion of guest celebrity Art Carney and includes such goodies as a boxing match between Sammy Davis Jr. and Wilt Chamberlain; Goldie Hawn’s return, after winning an Oscar for Cactus Flower; Ernestine’s calls to Aristotle Onassis and Gore Vidal; and Don Rickles impersonating Arlene Francis, a then-famous game-show contestant that no one under 80 is likely to remember. Look for cameos by Joey Bishop, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Carol Channing, Tim Conway, Bing Crosby, Phyllis Diller, David Frost, Andy Griffith, Peter Lawford, Rich Little, Bob Newhart, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Rod Serling, Orson Welles and Flip Wilson. The package is comprised of seven DVDs, containing all 26 episodes, plus bonus interviews with Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson. Sensitive souls should know that the term “politically correct” didn’t exist in 1970 and many of the jokes wouldn’t make the cut today.

The latest release of episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Bubble Guppies” puts a tight focus on “Bubble Puppy’s Awesome Adventures.” Voiced by Frank Welker (“Scoobie-Do!”), their “rambunctious pet” is Gil’s adopted pet puppy and best friend. He has orange and white fur, and a green collar with a yellow fish license. The third and fourth season episodes include “Temple of the Lost Puppy,” “Wizard of Oz-Tralia,” “The New Doghouse,” “Sheep Doggy” and “Bubble Kitty.”

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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