MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Wrinkle in Time, Peter Pan, Hurricane Heist, Oh Lucy!, Freak Show, Great Silence, Smash Palace, Satellite Girl and more

A Wrinkle in Time: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Peter Pan: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
Not having read the book upon which Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time is based – the studio’s second adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel in the last 15 years – I won’t chance basing my review on other writers’ comparisons with the novel. For all I know, it’s 100 percent accurate. The fact that Ava DuVernay’s highly ambitious, if too frequently inert adaptation went unseen by so many of the book’s admirers speaks volumes. Apparently, DuVernay’s decision to make the Murry family multiracial didn’t sit well with some readers. Indeed, A Wrinkle in Time may be the most self-consciously diverse – some would say, politically correct – big-studio movie I’ve ever seen, at least in the casting of principles and extras. It didn’t bother me, really, but it was impossible to not be distracted by the flaunting of Hollywood’s color line. A Wrinkle in Time follows adoptive siblings Meg and Charles Wallace Murry (Storm Reid, Deric McCabe) on their epic science-fantasy quest to find their astrophysicist father, Dr. Alexander Murry (Chris Pine), who disappeared after an embarrassing presentation before his peers. His scientist wife, Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is convinced that her husband solved the question of humanity’s existence and was teleported to another world for further investigation. His long absence has scarred Meg and Charles Wallace emotionally and impacted their ability to perform at the level expected of them at school. Meg’s only friend is the handsome Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), who risks his BMOC status by embracing Meg’s theories and determination to find her father. The youthful astral travelers will soon learn that he’s trapped on Camazotz, a dark smudge in the universe that’s home to the IT (David Oyelowo). The IT represents all the greed, anger, pride, selfishness and low self-esteem in the world.

One night, Charles Wallace opens the door to their home to a red-haired stranger, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who closely resembles Glinda the Good Witch, in The Wizard of Oz. She informs him of the tesseract, a type of space-travel his father had mastered. A few hours later, when Calvin joins Meg and Charles Wallace in their backyard, Mrs. Whatsit appears with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and an older woman, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who stands about 30 feet tall. They will lead Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace through a tesseract, to the considerably brighter and more colorful planet, Uriel. There’s no way to summarize what happens next without larding it with spoiler alerts. Suffice it to say that their adventure has only just begun and it’s a doozy. The idea was to produce a CGI-enhanced adaptation of the prize-winning book – which was rejected by two dozen publishers – on the budgetary scale of The Chronicles of Narnia, Bridge to Terabithia and District 9. That pipedream didn’t last long, however. The total production and marketing budget ballooned to around $250 million, which meant that A Wrinkle in Time would have had to gross around $400 million to break even. Opening weekend tallies quick disabused Disney of that notion. The studio decided not to push its (bad) luck, electing to pull the picture from foreign markets. Instead, it settled for a huge write-off. Some pundits blamed its disappointing, second-place opening on the dominance of Black Panther, then still No. 1 in its fourth weekend. Ironically, perhaps, both the Disney releases were helmed by African-American filmmakers.

The good news is that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t as mediocre as the numbers would suggest. Apart from the frightening decision to cast Oprah as a gigantic fairy princess, there are plenty of things to recommend it, especially to viewers with 4K UHD players. The movie’s color palette is brilliantly displayed in scenes that are delightfully fanciful or downright scary, considering the age of the protagonists.  What’s missing is narrative flow. Visually, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t all that distant from The Wizard of Oz, a movie that is as vibrant today as it was in 1939. The only visible seam was the one connecting the black-and-white opening and Dorothy’s Technicolor dream, and it was obliterated by the tornado and crash landing of the house in Munchkinland. DuVernay’s story unfolds as if there are semi-colons between the scenes. By contrast, L’Engle’s book and its sequels kept readers racing through their pages to see what’s coming next. Not only has it been named to a Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children, but it’s also one of the most “challenged” by parents who want to ban it from curriculums and libraries. Evangelicals have pointed to the book’s inclusion of witchcraft, crystal balls and “listing the name of Jesus Christ together with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists and religious leaders, when referring to those who defend earth against evil.” He didn’t? Conservatives object to L’Engle’s depiction of “conformity” and the “status quo” as bad things, and that, within every society, there is a powerful dominant group that challenges minority interests. They don’t? Despite the censorial demands, “A Wrinkle in Time” has won the Newbery Medal, Sequoyah Book Award and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. The Blu-ray disc, which is included in the package, contains the half-hour “A Journey Through Time,” which covers Ava DuVernay’s direction, reinventing the book for modern sensibilities, casting and performances, character qualities, costumes and makeup, sets and shooting locations; deleted scenes, with optional commentary; commentary with DuVernay, first assistant director Michael Moore, visual-effects supervisor Richard McBride, screenwriter Jennifer Lee, producer Jim Whitaker, film editor Spencer Averick and production designer Naomi Shohan; music videos “I Believe,” performed by DJ Khaled and Demi Lovato, and Chloe X Halle’s “Warrior”; and bloopers.

In its sixth home-video iteration to date, Peter Pan (1953) joins six previous Disney classics – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Bambi, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp — in its Signature Collection. As has been the case with previous additions to the series, it features the same excellent 1080p video transfer that enhanced the 2013 Diamond Edition, as well as the same DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. A 4K UHD upgrade would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have fit the studio’s normal release pattern, which teases viewers with a few new bonus features, in lieu of far more substantial. Anyone who already owns the Diamond Edition will have to decide for themselves if the handful of fresh featurettes is worth another investment in nostalgia. They include “Stories From Walt’s Office: Walt & Flight,” in which Rebecca Cline and Edward Ovalle from the Walt Disney Archives reveal items in the boss’ office that had to do with flight, including models of Walt Disney’s private airplanes; “A Darling Conversation With Wendy & John: Kathryn Beaumont and Paul Collins,” in which the voicing actors reflect on their time at the Disney Studio; and sing-along versions of “You Can Fly”-Oke and “Never Smile at a Crocodile”-Oke. The preview supplementary package appears to have been ported over intact.

The Hurricane Heist: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
When director Rob Cohen is on his game, as he’s been in The Fast and the Furious (2001), xXx (2002) and Dragonheart (1996), it’s easy to forgive him for the movies’ inconsistencies, illogical choices and silly set pieces. Why bother, when you’re having a good time? Hurricane Heist is no different. In it, a small militia of high-tech crooks, bent cops and special-forces types use the cover of a Category 5 hurricane to invade a U.S. Treasury facility on the Gulf Coast (of Bulgaria). The goal is to steal several truckloads’ worth of currency taken out of circulation ahead of the bills being shredded.  No one would expect such a brazen heist to take place while tornadoes, fierce winds and tide surges wreak havoc on the population. But, what better time? The problem, of course, comes in being able to pinpoint precisely when and where the next monster storm will hit and arrange for a delivery to made just before that happens. The plan’s mastermind would also be required to coordinate the movements of at least three different agencies. Once inside the mint, the gang can count on the cooperation of deep-cover officials and strategically placed computer geeks. Piece of cake, right? Only if you discount the loyalty of a dogged Treasury agent and a storm tracker with a vehicle able to withstand 300-mph winds and machine-gun bullets, simultaneously.

Set against a background of impenetrable noise and blinding rain, Hurricane Heist offers non-stop action and enough sophisticated weaponry and technology to invade Cuba. When the storm finally hits, its cyclonic gusts take full aim at a convoy of trucks leaving the mint and pursuers willing to die to prevent the recirculation of worn-out bills. Hurricane Heist combines key elements of Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996), Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) in the service of entertainment that goes great with a full liter of Classic Coke, a mountain of Junior Mints and a tub of popcorn, with extra butter. Of course, two of the female crooks are required to defend themselves while wearing cocktail dresses and heels, while the sharpshooting Treasury agent is allowed the luxury of combat fatigues and sensible shoes. If the bad guys couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a machine gun, the good cops can’t miss. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a shout-out to Timothy McVeigh written into the dialogue. He’s the American terrorist who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, on April 19, 1995. The Blu-ray extras include Cohen’s commentary; deleted scenes; “The Eye of the Storm,” making-of featurette; a VFX reel; and informative “Hollywood Heist: A Conversation With Rob Cohen,” in which he looks back on more than 40 years of making films for mainstream audiences, sizing up the state of the Industry along the way.

Oh Lucy!: Blu-ray
Atsuko Hirayanagi’s kooky debut feature, Oh Lucy!, is a cross-cultural dramedy that has reminded some observers of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) and Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015). In the latter, Sally Field plays a 60-year-old Staten Island resident, who, to quote Henry David Thoreau, is among “the mass of men (and women) leading lives of quiet desperation.” In these movies, Doris and Lucy have been granted the opportunity to avoid “going to the grave with the song still in them.” Here, Shinobu Terajima (Caterpillar) plays Setsuko, an emotionally stifled Tokyo office worker, who, if she’s lucky, will someday be accorded the kind of retirement party in which bosses and employees pretend they’re one big, happy family. It’s at one such function that Setsuko momentarily breaks out of her shell and bursts the bubble of a retiree who was enjoying the platitudes. She regrets her outburst almost immediately, knowing that she’ll be demoted or fired in the morning.  In Setsuko’s case, to borrow a phrase coined by Alexander Graham Bell, “When one door closes another door opens.” And, unlike so many of her fellow Japanese office workers, Setsuko makes the leap through that open door.

Knocking on her door is her flighty niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), to whom she’s lent money for English lessons and has decided to blow off the class and move to the U.S. When Setsuko goes to the makeshift school for a refund, she’s embraced – literally and figuratively – by the instructor, John (Josh Hartnett), who gives her a blond wig to wear while exchanging generic American greetings with a Japanese gentleman wearing a black toupee. While it’s a weird way to learn another language, the wigs have a liberating effect on both students. As “Lucy,” Setsuko experiences feelings and desires she never knew she had. The problem comes when John abruptly quits the job and his more traditional replacement isn’t to Seduko’s liking.

It doesn’t take long before she realizes that John followed Mika to Los Angeles, and that the girl is probably pregnant. Seduko decides to take Mika up on her offer to visit the U.S., using an address on a postcard as her only signpost. Seduko’s sourpuss sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), insists on coming along on the trip, if only to scold her daughter unmercifully. It’s at this point that Oh Lucy threatens to become “Seduko and Ayako’s Excellent Adventure,” which would have been OK with me, too. Instead, the sisters quickly discover that John is a penniless slacker and Mika has split for San Diego, which is where his wife and daughter impatiently await his next child-support check. Before they’re able to find Mika, Seduko, Ayako and John spend a restless night in a seedy no-tell motel, among the city’s biker bars and tattoo parlors. I wouldn’t call the ending, which takes place back in Tokyo, happy, exactly, but it is satisfying. Oh Lucy benefits greatly from its origins as a thesis film of the same title, film, which, in 2014, received N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts’ Wasserman Award. It went on to win more than 25 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival. The feature-length version was nominated at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature. Bonus features include deleted scenes and an interview at the New York Asian Film Festival with the Japanese-American filmmaker.

Freak Show: Blu-ray
Trudie Styler’s extremely moving and frequently quite funny debut feature, Freak Show, could hardly be more topical. It is inspired by the many teachers, administrators and parents across the country, who invariably rise to the bait whenever gender-fluid students are elected prom or homecoming queen. (We rarely hear about the lesbians and cross-dressing girls, if any, who are picked to be king.) Students have all sorts of reasons for thwarting tradition by voting for the Ts in the LGBTQ spectrum. I suspect that it has less to do with choosing the boy or girl who best represents the student body in such contests, than to thumb their collective noses at tradition and test the patience of teachers, principals and conservative classmates. Like tulips, every new spring brings with it a widely reported outcry over a cross-dressing prom king or queen, and gay and interracial dating at such events. You can set your watch to it. In Freak Show, British rising star Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game) is absolutely fabulous as Billy Bloom, a rich transfer student at an exclusive high school, who makes Johnny Weir and Boy George seem butch. There’s no question that Billy, whose supportive, if self-centered mother is played by Bette Midler, wants to make as big a splash as possible in his new surroundings. He wears clothes that wouldn’t be out of place at a drag show on the Las Vegas Strip and quotes Oscar Wilde whenever the situation merits narrative comment.

At first, Billy is treated by his fellow students as an escaped attraction from a Coney Island freak show … hence the title. As the bullies, jocks and mean girls raise the ante on their harassment, however, he gains the sympathy of kids who aren’t part of the ruling cliques. (One of the fallacies of high school life is that the so-called popular kids are always vastly outnumbered by the dweebs, outcasts and ciphers, who are too timid to call out their tormentors.) He accomplishes this with his irrepressible sense of humor and style. Among the kids who first warm to Billy are a star athlete (Ian Nelson) and a hipster girl he calls Blah Blah Blah (AnnaSophia Robb). The rest follow when he’s beaten savagely in the lavatory and taken to a hospital. It’s when he decides to run for the title of homecoming queen. His primary competition is a toxic cheerleader, Lynette (Abigail Breslin), who’s spent most of her 17 years on Earth anticipating being named queen. (It’s also likely to be the highlight of the rest of her life.) The rest of Freak Show offers enough surprises to keep skeptical viewers involved, including an unexpected rapprochement with his much-maligned father (Larry Pine). The movie was adapted from the popular 2007 YA novel by former club kid, James St. James. For those who don’t follow rock royalty, the director is better known as Mrs. Sting.

Our Blood Is Wine
By the time Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, Georgians of the South Caucasus had been converting the juice of grapes into varietal wine for thousands of years. Not knowing its source, the bridegroom at Cana praised the master of the banquet for having saved the best wine until last. It became known as Jesus’ first miracle. The ancestors of the Georgian farmers and vintners we meet in Emily Railsback’s fascinating documentary Our Blood Is Wine have employed more traditional methods to create wines many imbibers consider to be miraculous. Accompanied by Chicago sommelier Jeremy Quinn, Railsback was afforded intimate access to rural family life in the Republic of Georgia as they explored the rebirth of 8,000-year-old winemaking traditions. The roots of Georgian viticulture have been traced back to 6000 BC, when farmers stored the fermented juice of the harvest in large clay vessels (kvevris) that are buried in the ground. When full, the vessels are topped with a wooden lid, covered and sealed with earth, until the wine is judged ready for drinking. The process endured until the formation of the Soviet Union, when communist officials decided that it was inefficient and could be improved by throwing all the different varieties of grapes into a big vat and adding sugar to hasten the fermentation. After the republic was established, Russia slapped an embargo on production and exports, while also accusing vintners of using counterfeit labels. Even so, some of the vintners managed to produce wine in clay pots for personal use. By using unobtrusive iPhone technology, Railsback records the voices and ancestral legacies of modern Georgians, with an eye out for varieties of grapes only grown and harvested in out-of-the way wine-growing regions (and forests). The revival received a boost when UNESCO added the ancient traditional Georgian winemaking method, using the kvevri jars, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The DVD adds alternate scenes, traditional chants and songs, and a sketch and poster gallery.

The Midnight Man: Blu-ray
Devil’s Gate: Blu-ray
From IFC Midnight/Scream Factory comes the American remake of the Irish haunted-game thriller, The Midnight Man (2013). While it doesn’t necessarily improve on the original, Travis Zariwny’s film benefits from the inclusion of Lin Shaye, Robert Englund and rising scream queen, Gabrielle Haugh. On a snowy night in her grandmother’s sprawling mansion, teenager Alex (Haugh) and her best friend Miles (Grayson Gabriel) discover a mysterious box hidden away in the attic. Inside are instructions for the Midnight Game, a pagan ritual said to summon the players’ greatest fears. Because the movie opens with a flashback to a previous experience with the game, viewers already know to expect the kind of thrills and chills generally associated with movies involving Ouija boards and mysterious incantations. While the eponymous monster is sufficiently convincing for a straight-to-video release, it’s the performances by horror veterans Shaye and Englund that should attract genre buffs to Zariwny’s Americanization of Rob Kennedy’s Midnight Man. In a welcome surprise, the Scream package includes Kennedy’s stripped-down original. In it, an unsuspecting teenage girl, Alex (Philippa Carson), summons the mythical Midnight Man, while she’s babysitting for her granny. In addition to the title monster, Alex is tormented by an evil clown and her sporadically possessed grandmother. If it doesn’t stand up under scrutiny, Carson’s portrayal of a teenager left to her own devices is truly precious. Apart from her reactions to the demons tormenting her, Alex spends much of the movie’s first 20 minutes mugging for the camera and reacting in silly ways to her mother’s phone calls and other stimuli. It’s as if Carson were auditioning for a road-show revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” or “Grease.” Legend has it that Midnight Man is the first feature film in the history of Irish cinema to get a U.S. remake.

Another decent IFC Midnight/Scream Factory release is Devil’s Gate, an alien-invasion story that owes as much to horror as sci-fi. In it, FBI special agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) is assigned to travel to Devil’s Gate, a small town in the middle of Nowhere, North Dakota (Manitoba, really), to investigate the disappearance of Maria Pritchard (Bridget Regan) and her son, Jonah. Her prime suspect is the head of the household, Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia), who lives on a farm that hasn’t seen a harvestable crop in years. Jackson has already disposed of one stranded motorist, looking for a jump, and his general demeanor is that of a full-blown paranoiac. Sensing that Jackson may simply be a harmless looney, the local sheriff urges Francis to give him a pass. When she ignores his advice, he insists that she be accompanied by Deputy Conrad “Colt” Salter (Shawn Ashmore), who once considered Jackson to be a friend. Together, they manage to subdue the suspect, who cautions them against what they’re likely to find while searching the house … and, for good reason. Moreover, a mysterious force prevents Colt’s car from starting and reaching the sheriff by phone or walkie-talkie. Forced to remain in the farmhouse overnight, they’re terrorized by something emitting lightning bursts from cyclonic storm clouds. While the scene reveals the dynamics of the film’s central mystery, the visual effects come off as anticlimactic. The real suspense had been exhausted an hour earlier.

Altered Perception
The cover image on the DVD package containing Kate Rees Davies’ debut feature, Altered Perception, shows a syringe about to be inserted into the eye of a young woman … or, at least, hovering over the iris, which resembles a button that could be worn on the uniform of a Defense Department official. I suspect that it’s supposed remind potential viewers of a giallo, such as Dario Argento’s Opera, whose DVD carried a photo of a terrified woman being prevented from blinking by needles inserted in her eyelids. In fact, the only thing the two movies have in common is … well, nothing. In reality, though, the syringe is about as menacing as a drugstore eye-dropper. It’s used to dispense an experimental drug designed to alter perceptions during trauma and stress. If it works on humans, surely, it could be used to ease socio-political tensions that threaten world peace. So much for the horror angle. In fact, the story concerns the couples who’ve volunteered for the government’s poorly monitored trials on average humans. Viewers already know that something will go terribly wrong for one couple, at least, and that the people supervising the trials have no firm idea of when to pull the plug on them.

Like the monitors, whose deliberations we observe, the couples deal rather poorly with personal problems that could be handled better by a priest, lawyer or psychiatrist. Or, instead dropping DPT in the subjects’ eyes, they could simply offer them a hit of Ecstasy. I don’t mean to belittle the couples’ problems, but they have nothing to do with horror or sci-fi. Altered Perception is a relationship drama disguised as a genre flick. Among the cast members are co-writers Jon Huertas (“This Is Us”) and Jennifer Blanc-Biehn (The Night Visitor 2: Heather’s Story). She plays the wife of a man who only recently has become disturbed by her previous employment as a prostitute. Instead of lessening the tension between them, the drug exacerbates his jealousy and paranoia. A lesbian couple suddenly comes to loggerheads over the possibility that one of the women was raped by the other’s brother, and the victim is being blamed for letting him do it. The other couple is plagued by the wife’s insane jealousy an affair she imagines her husband is having with his secretary. The story reminded less of Opera than the soft-core relationships classic, Married People, Single Sex, which was pitched as “an erotic tableaux of sexual dysfunction.” The filmmakers’ points about the carelessness and malfeasance that accompany drug trials are more effectively made in text blocks that accompany the narrative.

Satellite Girl and Milk Cow: Blu-ray
The Steam Engines of Oz: Blu-ray
Any attempt to summarize what occurs in Chang Hyung-yun’s highly whimsical animated feature, Satellite Girl and Milk Cow, is bound to sound ridiculous. I’ve read several attempts to do just that and they all make the movie sound like an exercise in grammar-school surrealism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. Bottom line, however, you’ll have to watch the movie to believe any of the setups and, even then, you might come away dizzy, as they take anthropomorphism to new extremes. This isn’t necessary a bad thing, either. Here goes: after circling the planet for a couple of decades, photographing the Korean Peninsula, a decommissioned satellite, KITSAT-1, picks up a lovelorn ballad on its antennae and descends to Earth to find the source of such sincere emotions. On its way down, however, KITSAT-1 is transformed into a mechanized teenage girl, Il-ho. Meanwhile, when singer-songwriter Kyung-chun suffers the heartbreak of being dumped by his girlfriend, he turns into a cow. This prompts Incinerator, a 20-foot-tall furnace that tracks down and devours creatures with lonely hearts, to make the cow its next victim. Aided by the wise and powerful Merlin – a wizard who has been turned into a roll of toilet paper – the characters are also required to dodge a wily porcine witch and other nefarious adversaries. Finally, the craziness makes way for a touching story about love, acceptance and identity. Kids are likely to be more taken by the scatological gags, which include Merlin’s magical incantation, “toilet paper kleenex popee popee.” The Korean production probably owes something to Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which has been turning out features just as fanciful for years. Satellite Girl and Milk Cow isn’t nearly as refined and coherent as the average Studio Ghibli release, but the industry is still learning how to run. The special features include Chang’s similarly bizarre 2007 short, “Coffee Vending Machine and Its Sword Short,” which resembles some of Klasky-Csupo’s early work for Nickelodeon. In it, a once-legendary swordsman, known as Murimjeilgeom, is reincarnated a coffee-vending machine. The newly steeled warrior, Jin Yeong-yeong, becomes infatuated with a girl, Hye-mi, who enjoys drinking wine. must discover his place in the new world he inhabits. He also is required to deal with a zebra assassin.

In all, L. Frank Baum wrote 14 best-selling children’s books about Oz and its enchanted inhabitants, as well as a spin off-series of six stories for early readers. After his death in 1919, author Ruth Plumly Thompson, illustrator John R. Neill (who had previously collaborated with Baum on his Oz books) and several other writers and artists continued the series. There are now more than 50 novels based upon Baum’s saga. In 2013, Canada’s Arcana Comics published Erik Hendrix, Sean Patrick O’ Reilly and Yannis Roumboulias’ graphic novel, “The Steam Engines of Oz,” which was just turned into an animated feature by O’Reilly. It is set a century after Dorothy first arrived in the fantasy land and much has changed. Emerald City is ruled with an iron fist by the Tin Man, who has banned magic, singing and other forms of entertainment. The heavily industrialized wasteland is protected by stormtroopers, while surrounding forests are populated with fierce creatures, winged monkeys and Munchkins preparing to take back the city.

The story’s anti-fascist overtones could easily put young fans of The Wizard of Oz off their feeds for a while, so parents shouldn’t blindly use The Steam Engines of Oz has a babysitter. It helps, as well, to be aware of the term, “steam punk,” which is how the movie has been described. Oz’s only hope rests with a young engineer, Victoria Wright, who’s in charge of keeping the city’s 19th Century power plant in operation. Because it’s considered to be such an important duty, Victoria has not been allowed to leave the underground, maybe since she was born. She’s tracked down by good witch Locasta and her flying monkeys, who convince her to abandon her responsibilities and join the resistance. The movie’s climactic showdown features a battle on the ground and in the air. The animatic techniques used here harken back to the early days of computer animation, possibly for budgetary reasons. It’s a tad disconcerting, at first, but the entertaining story makes up for the shortcuts.

The Great Silence: 50th Anniversary Restoration: Blu-ray
In the leadup to the release of The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino told reporters that his influences included The Thing (1982), “Bonanza” (1959), “The Virginian” (1962), “The High Chaparral” (1967) and his own Reservoir Dogs (1992). On the “connections” link on, more than three dozen direct links to other sources are cited, ranging from Citizen Kane (1941) and The Iceman Cometh (1973), to Annie Hall (1977). Tarantino has always been known as a walking encyclopedia of cinematic history and pop culture, so anything in his films that looks like a homage or direct reference probably is. One major influence that might have flown over the heads of Tarantino’s fans is the Italian “snow Western,” The Great Silence (1968), Sergio Corbucci’s follow-up to Django (1966), Navajo Joe (1966) and The Cruel Ones (1967). That’s because the ultra-violent flick was kept hidden from U.S. audiences until 2001, when a DVD version was released, and, again in 2012, when in it was shown in L.A. and New York. Reportedly, when The Great Silence was screened for Darryl F. Zanuck to determine whether 20th Century Fox would release it in the U.S., he reportedly was so offended by the movie that he refused to distribute it here. The company saw no problem, though, with handling it in Italy and several other markets. Zanuck wasn’t the only viewer disturbed by The Great Silence, especially its revisionist ending, which broke several unwritten rules of the genre and, according to Corbucci’s widow, Nori, was inspired by the recent murders of Che Guevara and Malcolm X. None of this is to imply that The Great Silence can’t be enjoyed simply as a gorgeously mounted Western that overflows with action, violence and great mountain scenery. It’s winter in the Utah high country and a gang of bounty hunters, led by Loco (Klaus Kinski), is racing the deadline of an amnesty that could take the rewards off the heads of a gang of “outlaws,” also hiding in the back country.

The bounty hunters have been killing the wanted men, instead of going through the hassle of delivering them to the corrupt government official who doles out the blood money, whether they’re dead or alive. As the killing spree continues, the mute gunslinger, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), rides into town to make sure everyone plays fair and the citizenry is protected. Clearly, Loco and Silence will eventually face off against each other in mortal combat. The only question that remains is who will be left standing after the shooting starts. It’s a classic Western setup, absent a traditional Western solution. After 50 years, The Great Silence retains the power to shock and disturb casual fans and genre buffs in equal measure. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the work of cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti, Ennio Morricone’s own revisionist score and the acting of Trintignant, Kinski and Vonetta McGee, the rare African-American co-star in any Western of the day. The Film Movement package adds “Cox on Corbucci,” in which filmmaker and author Alex Cox surveys Corbucci’s career and how The Great Silence fits within his oeuvre; the surprisingly entertaining and informative 1968 documentary, “Western, Italian Style”; two never-before-seen alternate endings, including the option to play one of them with Cox’s commentary; an original and contemporary theatrical trailer; and “Ending the Silence,” a new essay by film critic Simon Abrams.

Smash Palace: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Premiering at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, Smash Palace was Roger Donaldson’s second feature, following the success of Sleeping Dogs, a film which had heralded the arrival of a revived Kiwi cinema. (Both have been given a facelift by Arrow Academy.)  If the title refers to a gigantic junk yard and final resting place for ruined cars and trucks, it also will come to represent the disintegrating marriage of a former Formula 1 driver, Al (Bruno Lawrence), and his fish-out-of-water French wife, Jacqui (Anna Jemison). They met when she nursed him back to health following a career-ending injury. After they married, the couple returned to Al’s native New Zealand to take over his father’s wrecking-yard business and raise a family. As so often happens, the husband’s devotion to his wife is superseded by his all-consuming desire to design and build a race car capable of impressing the big boys in Europe. Compared to the life Jacqui led in France, Al’s patch of rural New Zealand must of have reminded her of Dogpatch, in the Li’l Abner comics. While Al does share his passion with their daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson), he neglects Jacqui’s occasional desire to leave the junkyard and attend a party or dance. He transfers that responsibility to his close friend, Ray (Keith Aberdein), a local cop for whom his wife develops something resembling a crush.

By the time Al figures out what’s developed between them, it’s too late. In an act of unsupportable sexual aggression, Al convinces Jacqui that she needs to leave home with Georgie or go mad. Eventually, the macho mechanic decides he can’t take sharing his wife and daughter with his friend and kidnaps the girl. Before taking her to the van he’s hidden in the woods, Al grabs his shotgun and pushes his truck over a cliff to misdirect his pursuers. Having become conditioned to the tragic results of such marital disputes, naturally we fear the worst for Georgie. Donaldson’s clever resolution to the stalemate demonstrates why he soon would be entrusted with such properties as The Bounty (1984), No Way Out (1987) and Cocktail (1988). The Blu-ray adds commentary by Donaldson and stunt driver Steve Millen; “The Making of Smash Palace,” a 51-minute documentary featuring interviews with Donaldson, actor Keith Aberdein and filmmaker Geoff Murphy; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and an illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Ian Barr, a vintage review by Pauline Kael and the original press book.

Escape Plan: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
In what read more like an obituary than a weekend business report, the authoritative Box Office Mojo dismissed the October 17, 2013, superstar pairing du jour, thusly: “Escape Plan opened to $9.9 million this weekend. That’s more than this year’s solo outings for Sylvester Stallone (Bullet to the Head) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand), though that’s not saying much. Escape Plan would have been one of the biggest movies of the year, if it had been released in the 1980s, but, unfortunately, it’s 2013. The 80s nostalgia card has already been played in the two Expendables movies, as has the Stallone/Schwarzenegger pairing.” Considering that Arnold was just coming off an eight-year stretch as “The Governator” and probably was still feeling the sting of being caught cheating on his ex-wife, Maria Shriver, that might have seemed a bit harsh. Although Stallone was still getting by, appearing in sequels and adding his voice to animated features, the pairing must have reeked of desperation to younger audiences. The big surprise would come a couple of years later, when the reappearance of his trademark alter ego, Rocky Balboa, in Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015), would be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role category. (Coogler would be handed the reins of Black Panther.) The Box Office Mojo report also pointed that “Escape Plan‘s audience was 55 percent male and 61 percent over the age of 30,” which represents one of the Industry’s least-favorite demographics. Nevertheless, speaking here for all white males over the age of 30, Escape Plan isn’t nearly as bad a movie as the numbers suggest. It offers plenty of goofy, illogical fun in an easily digestible package, especially in its 4K UHD iteration. None of the action is remotely feasible, but the presence of the old-school superheroes renders such concerns mute.

Stallone stars as Ray Breslin, a former lawyer who literally wrote the book on breaking out of prisons. He works freelance for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, identifying the weak spots of penitentiaries by entering them as an undercover inmate and escaping. When he’s pulled off the street and transferred to a previously unknown maximum-security facility, Breslin knows he may be facing his toughest challenge. Among other things, he’s never heard of the place, let alone where it’s located. Although he’s twice as old as most of his fellow prisoners, Schwarzenegger’s Emil Rottmayer is respected and feared in equal measure. In near record time, Breslin and Rottmayer hook up as kindred spirits and co-conspirators, under the watchful eye of Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), his omniscient security cameras and comically uniformed guards. Due to a demonic double-cross, Hobbes already knows that his newest prisoner isn’t who he’s pretending to be, and he intends to beat him at his own game. The cells, which appear to be made of plexiglass, form a honeycomb pattern and are controlled by the unseen hands of computer jockeys. The prison might, indeed, be impenetrable and inescapable, but the prisoners are given curiously long periods of time to mingle and conspire to their hearts content. Still, the prison’s location on Earth would appear to preclude any potential breakout. But, nooooooo … A greater mystery is posed by the fact that someone has greenlit “Escape Plan 2: Hades” and “Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station,” with Dave Bautista filling in for Arnold. Both are likely to receive theatrical releases in foreign markets, but open on VOD platforms and Blu-ray here. The 4K UHD package includes commentary with director Mikael Håfström (The Rite) and co-writer Miles Chapman (Road House 2: Last Call); deleted scenes; and featurettes “Executing the Plan: The Making of Escape Plan,” “Maximum Security: The Real-Life Tomb” and “Clash of the Titans.”

Frank & Eva: Blu-ray
I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Pim de la Parra’s 1973 soft-core “artsploitation” flick, Frank & Eva, as a classic anything, but it does have two things to recommend it, at least. Placed in its historical context, it represents the kind of erotica being produced in Europe by Radley Metzger, Dino Risi, Lucio Fulci and Tinto Brass on the eve of The Golden Age of Porn. The other noteworthy feature in Frank & Eva is newcomer Sylvia Kristel, who, within two years, would became an international sensation in Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle. In it, the wife of a French diplomat in Bangkok embarks on a voyage of sexual discovery in Thailand and the Seychelles. Kristal would continue to portray variations of the same character until 1993. In Frank & Eva, however, she plays a hot and sexy distraction for Frank (Hugo Metsers), an overheated playboy who can’t help but cheat on his even hotter and sexier wife, Eva (Willeke van Ammelrooy). Although they can’t seem to live with or without each other, Eva decides to try, anyway, by starting an affair with a mutual friend. There’s nothing particularly complicated or artistic going on here, but the stars appear to be enjoying themselves, with or without clothes. The Cult Epics Blu-ray adds new commentary by Pim de la Parra; the entertaining documentary, “Up Front & Naked: Sex in Dutch Films,” with Willeke van Ammelrooy; a Frank & Eva poster and photo gallery; a Sylvia Kristel poster gallery; and original theatrical trailers.

Genetically Modified Children
As has been pathetically clear, President Trump is obsessed with eliminating every progressive piece of legislation and regulation passed in the Obama administration, as well as environmental laws introduced in the Clinton and Bush years. He’s never really explained why he’s ordered his thoroughly corrupt EPA chief Scott Pruitt to re-pollute the planet and return to the days when air and water were unfit for human consumption. The closest he’s come to an explanation is to repeat ad nauseam, “make America great again.” The highly disturbing Cinema Libre documentary, Genetically Modified Children, describes what happens when American conglomerates and other multinational interests are allowed – indeed, encouraged by stockholders – to foist dangerous compounds on poor farmers in Third World countries and demand they utilize proven toxins on their crops. Anyone who thinks that current debate over GMOs is too difficult to understand or overstated ought to check out what people in less-protected environments are exposed to everyday. As a prime example, low-income tobacco farmers in South America are experiencing skyrocketing cancer rates, with even more devastating repercussions affecting their children. They include severe physical deformities and mental disabilities. Choosing between poverty or poison, Latin American growers have no choice but to use harmful chemicals, such as the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto s Roundup) and Bayer s insecticide, Confidor, if they want to certify and sell their crops to Big Tobacco. As patent and regulatory laws continue to favor the profits of Monsanto and chemical companies, the tobacco makes its way into the hands and mouths of consumers worldwide in Philip Morris products. It’s entirely possible that the poisons used to harvest the crops have contaminated the farmers’ blood and are modifying the human genome, creating genetically modified children. And, perhaps, equally shocking, studies show that the tobacco industry spent $9.5 billion on marketing in 2016, but didn’t it feel it necessary to provide face masks, gloves or goggles for the impoverished Argentinians paid pennies to package the chemicals that grow the tobacco. As long as Trump and Pruitt are in office, they probably never will, either.

Disney Channel: Ducktales: Destination: Adventure
Nickelodeon: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Twenty-First Season: Blu-ray
Smithsonian: The Real Story
Like most people, I tend to stop listening when someone opines, “There are only two kinds of people in the world, the ones who like X and the ones who prefer Y.” If only life were so simple. There is something to be said, however, about the validity of any debate over the predilections of people who prefer Mickey Mouse over Donald Duck, and vice versa. I’m in the latter camp and always have been. If the competition were strictly between the two principles, I’d give the edge to Donald 51/49. Throw in Huey, Dewey, Louis, Scrooge McDuck and Daisy, and there’s no contest. Webbigail “Webby” Vanderquack gets a thumbs-up, as well, if only for her new voice, provided by Kate Micucci (“Garfunkel and Oates”). In the latest compilation, ““Ducktales: Destination: Adventure”,” Uncle Scrooge has buried the hatchet with his nephew, after not speaking to each other for 10 years. When he agrees to watch the boys, Scrooge is inspired to take them on several new treasure-hunting expeditions, with Webby along for the ride. The destinations include an ancient tomb in Toth-Ra; the mountain peak of Mt. Neverrest; and a vacation island for Greek gods. As a bonus, the six-episode set also contains two vintage episodes from the final season of the original 1980s’ Disney Afternoon series, starring Alan Young as Uncle Scrooge. Micucci is joined by fellow voice actors David Tennant, Danny Pudi, Bobby Moynihan, Ben Schwartz, Tony Anselmo and, as Fenton Crackshell-Cabrera (a.k.a., Gizmoduck), Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Having already aired on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008, Paramount is celebrating the 10th-year anniversary of the demise of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” by compiling all 85 episode and releasing them in hi-def, which is the ideal platform for all animated titles. It tells the story of the young Airbender/Avatar, Aang, a successor to a long line of Avatars, who must master all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is set in an Asiatic world, in which some people can manipulate the classical elements with a psychokinetic variant of the Chinese martial arts known as “bending.” It is presented in a style that combines anime with American cartoons and relies on the imagery of pan-Asian, Inuit and New World societies. The series spans the discovery of 12-year-old Aang in a frozen iceberg, through his mastery of all four elements, and from the battle at Ba Sing Se to the final showdown with the Fire Nation. The television series should not be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action feature film, released in 2010, which received caustically negative reviews, was criticized by cast members and aborted plans for a trilogy. (The fact is, however, the movie enjoyed an excellent opening weekend and total worldwide revenues of nearly $320 million, against an estimated production budget of $150 million.) The series was nominated for — and won — Annie Awards, Genesis Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award and a Peabody Award. A compilation of the sequel series, “The Legend of Korra,” was released in Blu-ray in December 2016. The nine-disc Blu-ray package adds commentaries, interviews (including one with Shyamalan), quite a few behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.

The episodes collected in “South Park: The Complete Twenty-First Season” could hardly be more topical. Nearly six months after the last one aired, we’re still talking about fake news. North Korea, the national opioid epidemic, home-improvement shows, volcanoes, bullying, Netflix, Facebook and tweets. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone shifted from the continuity-driven approach of Season 20, to a return to the shows that stood on their own. The events of one episode were sometimes referenced in subsequent episodes, and the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Cartman and Heidi gave the show one serialized storyline to explore over the course of the fall. Otherwise, most of the humor focused on the kids of South Park Elementary. As for extras, all that’s included is “#Socialcommentary” and a mini-commentary for each episode. On-screen tweets shed some insight into each episode, while Matt and Trey share a few brief comments about each episode.

Historians could spend their entire careers bursting bubbles blown by Hollywood myth-makers to inspire audiences desperate for heroes and inspiration. Only a few of them would make enough money to support themselves, however. If viewers wanted their bubbles burst, they’d be pushing for bond issues to build mega-libraries, instead of spending their earnings in megaplexes. In the meantime, the Smithsonian’s intDisney Channel: Ducktales: Destination Adventureriguing documentary series, “The Real Story” will have to suffice. The latest entries in its DVD catalogue include examinations of the theories presented as facts in Braveheart, True Grit and Live Free or Die Hard, popular entertainments that may or may not stand up to scrutiny. Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace’s Braveheart won Academy Awards in five of the ten categories it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. Gibson made William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish warrior, an unforgettable Hollywood character. But how historically accurate is the film? The show’s producers examine new archeological evidence, reveal recently deciphered manuscripts and conduct forensic experiments to uncover the facts behind this mythic leader of men’s legend. And, while “The True Story” doesn’t spoil any of the fun, it made me wish that video cameras had been invented early enough to capture the ferocity of the actual battles.

The line that divides fact and fiction in the Old West is as long and wide as the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers. The difference between good and evil has also been left in the hands of Hollywood storytellers, who took certain indisputable truths – cows and horses have four legs, and bullets can kill people – and used them as a foundation for a monument to America’s past. Even if both adaptations of True Grit were based on the same novel by Charles Portis, the differences between them were numerous and clearly visible. (In the 1969 original, Rooster Cogburn wearts his eye-patch on his left eye, while, in the 2010 remake, it’s on the gunman’s right eye.) Jeff Bridges’ nomination marked the seventh time in Oscar history that one actor has been nominated for playing a role that had already earned another actor a top prize. “The True Story” explores a violent and unforgiving time in America’s history to determine how both of Hollywood’s Roosters and Matties would have   handled the actual hangings, shootouts and kidnappings that were part and parcel of life in the Wild West.

In Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth chapter in the high-octane action franchise, a mastermind cyber-criminal holds the world hostage by wreaking havoc via the Internet. Blessedly, Bruce Willis is still around to keep America great. While it’s an entertaining thriller, with all of the usual embellishments on display, its story may be the most plausible of the three episodes. Similar attacks have threatened our national security and continue to do so. The weaponry, however, is put to the test.

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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