MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Quiet Place, Dietrich/Steinberg, A Ciambra, Maborosi, Chappaquiddick, Josephine Baker, Lean on Pete, Jazz Ambassadors, Blue Desert … More

A Quiet Place: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Even though I tend not to watch movies in a theater, before reviewing the DVD/Blu-ray version – especially the blockbusters – I try to keep track of what’s opening and whether the films are likely to be diminished in the home-viewing experience. When Paramount’s extremely clever horror/thriller A Quiet Place arrived at my home, in its Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR version, my initial reaction was that it spent a week or two, tops, in theaters, before embarking on its small-screen afterlife. For a moment, perhaps, my eyes mistook A Quiet Place for the title of the 1985 dystopian thriller, from New Zealand, The Quiet Earth. Geoff Murphy’s film only opened on one screen here, capturing $16,375 over its one-week run, a number that’s better than it looks. According to the numbers-crunchers at Box Office Mojo, it would somehow go on to make $2.12 million in its final domestic tally. It would be deemed a legitimate cult classic, as well as one of the 10 best last-man-on-Earth titles, as measured in a 2013 IndieWire poll, and by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times. Attaining cult status was never a problem for the producers of A Quiet Place, as it shot out of the gate on its opening weekend and never looked back. It ended up with a domestic haul of $187.3 million and another $143.2 million in foreign sales, against an estimated production budget of $17 million. That’s impressive.

The twist here involves the curious aftermath of a cataclysmic event — probably a direct hit by a meteor populated with alien spawn – that, in 2020, wipes out most of humanity. Its payload of sightless creatures, possessing hypersensitive hearing and seemingly impenetrable exoskeletons, has attacked and devoured anything that makes noise. How the Abbott family has managed to survive is anyone’s guess. The advantage they hold over other Earthlings appears to be that they’re conversant in American Sign Language – a pre-teen daughter is deaf, as is the actress playing her (Millicent Simmonds) – and have found refuge on a farm, far from any urban center. Apparently, all the birds and insects have been eradicated, making it easier for the creatures to discern the presence of humans. We learn this when 4-year-old Beau is swept away by one of the spider-like aliens, only seconds after he begins to play with a battery-powered toy on the way home from a family food run. Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) had taken the toy and its batteries away from the boy, after he discovered it in a deserted supermarket, but his older sister, Regan, gave it back to him. Unbeknownst to her, Beau had already taken the batteries from his dad and inserted them in the model jet fighter. In the flash of an eye, little Beau is toast. Conveniently, Lee Abbott is an engineer/survivalist, who hasn’t given up on locating other human life via his short-wave radio setup. His wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), is a doctor and pregnant with their fourth child. Regan and Beau’s brother, Marcus (Noah Jupe), are required to grow up fast in the year that passes since their sibling’s abduction. At a spare 90 minutes, The Quiet Place leaves no room for padding. And, while the soundtrack carries virtually no dialogue or non-ambient noise, an intense level of suspense is maintained throughout the movie.

Krasinski, who triples as director and co-screenwriter, enjoyed a leg-up by working alongside his real-life wife, Blunt. He also benefitted from a crack production team that found myriad ways to amplify the sounds of silence, forcing viewers to buy into the drama through its strategic use of noise, ranging from a baby’s whimper to fireworks. It works, too. The other difference between The Quiet Place and other sci-fi/horror thrillers is the limited deployment of the well-conceived creatures. We know they’re out there, lurking in the cornfields, but have no idea of how many there are, how they communicate and what their goal might be, if any. I don’t know how long it took Paramount, co-producers Krasinski, Michael Bay (Transformers) and Brad Fuller (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck (Nightlight), to commit to a sequel, but the script leaves plenty of room for one, with or without the same cast members. The bonus features bundled onto the Blu-ray disc in the combo package include “Reading the Quiet: Behind the Scenes of A Quiet Place”; “The Sound of Darkness: Editing Sound for A Quiet Place”; and “A Reason for Silence: The Visual Effects of A Quiet Place.” While none is very long, each contributes to our enjoyment of the movie. The Blu-ray and 4K UHD/HDR editions are both very good technically, but trained eyes probably will be able to see the positive difference in the higher-res picture.

Lean on Pete: Blu-ray
One way to tell that Lean on Pete is a horse movie of different color is the positioning of credits on the jacket of the DVD/Blu-ray package, in comparison to how the same information is emphasized on the theatrical poster. The lovely image of the equine title character, being led by the protagonist, Charley (Charlie Plummer), under a star-filled western sky, is de-emphasized by half on the DVD cover. Above it are the names of three of the movie’s human stars –Plummer, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Buscemi — and a composite photo of them in front of a shed of some sort. Also accorded more prominence are the awards won at three major festivals, bracketed between laurel-leaf parentheses; a graphic device announcing that Lean on Pete is a New York Times “Critics Pick”; and the words “A Film by Andrew Haigh” and “Based on the Acclaimed Book,” written by Willy Vlautin (“The Motel Life”). Haigh previously wrote and directed the compelling arthouse drama 45 Years, which is a picture that his target audience should recognize. In a recent interview, Haigh was only exaggerating a tiny bit when he referred to Buscemi and Sevigny as “the king and queen of American independent cinema.” Seeing them together of the cover of Lean on Pete, wearing clothes that don’t fit their previous screen personae, should pique the curiosity of the indie crowd. The reference to Manohla Dargis’ rave review in the certificate should carry the same weight as the Dove Foundation Seal of Approval does for family and faith-based products and the Certified Fresh logo from Rotten Tomatoes does for popcorn fare. The marketing racket used to be so simple.

Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher or Amanda, is terrific as a Portland teenager, condemned to live with his ne’er-do-well father until he’s able to sprout the wings he’ll need to fly somewhere more conducive to his budding intellect. Always in need of money for food and other essentials, Charley is intrigued by a horse he spots at one of the barns he passes on his daily runs. During a chance meeting with the horse’s cantankerous owner, Del (Buscemi), the boy is offered a job shoveling manure. As distasteful as it is, Charley enjoys the opportunity to be around Lean on Pete, a quarter-horse nearly at the end of its racing career, After his father is seriously injured in a brawl, and hospitalized, Charley decides to take up residence in an unused stall at the local racetrack, where he finds acceptance and camaraderie. He’s also able to get Lean on Pete in shape for a last hurrah, ridden by a semi-retired jockey, Bonnie (Sevigny), who’s aware of all Del’s tricks. When he learns of the trainer’s plan to pocket the earnings from Lean on Pete’s unexpected victory and money from an unscrupulous Mexican rancher, Charley loads the horse into a trailer and heads for points unknown in Del’s pickup truck. His only known relative is an aunt living somewhere in Wyoming, although that’s as close to an address as he has. It’s at this point that Lean on Pete turns into something of a hybrid of classic buddy and road films, except with several perilous encounters with Red State citizenry along the way. They sleep under the stars and Charley panhandles to buy food for himself, oats for the horse and gas for the truck, which inevitably breaks down. After it does, they head to Wyoming in the same way as cowboys did a hundred years earlier. Lean on Pete pretty much follows the episodic flow of the novel, creating surprises around every turn and an ending that doesn’t feel contrived. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Searching for Home: Making Lean on Pete.”

Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, 1930-1935: Blu-ray
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Criterion Collection’s truly wonderful “Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood” on top of most critics’ year-end summations of the best DVD/Blu-rays and gift sets. Although Dietrich is no stranger to TMC, Netflix and Amazon subscribers, it’s difficult to imagine a better way to binge on her work than to start at the beginning, paying special attention to von Sternberg’s impeccable use of shadow and light in their creation. Qualities that may have been overlooked by casual viewers stand out like signpost in these fully upgraded editions of Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress and, Dietrich’s favorite, The Devil Is a Woman. Moreover, expert analysis in newly made featurettes tells viewers what to look for in terms of the director’s technical prowess – behind and alongside the camera – and what makes the movies noteworthy in this regard. The Criterion Collection upgrades adds so much more enjoyment to the experience, it’s as if we’re seeing and hearing the films for the first time. I was especially impressed by the clarity of the dialogue, which is sharper, smarter and more inciteful than I remember it being.

It’s worth recalling, as well, that the Austrian-born von Sternberg was already a fixture in Hollywood when he was chosen by Emil Jannings (The Last Command) and producer Erich Pommer (Metropolis) to make Germany’s first major sound picture, The Blue Angel, and to shoot it in Berlin in English, as well as German. (It explains why the classic film isn’t included here, even though it was released here after Morocco.) It’s also fun to watch these pre-code movies intact. Look closely and you can even see a few unadorned breasts. The suggestive dialogue, slightly revealing costumes and innuendoes speak for themselves … as does Dietrich’s incomparable screen presence.

The special features, which are almost worth the price of admission, alone, begin with new 2K or 4K restorations of all six films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays. Then, there are fresh interviews with film scholars Janet Bergstrom and Homay King; director Josef von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas; Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg; and costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis. Also engrossing are a documentary about Dietrich’s German origins, featuring film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg; a new documentary on Dietrich’s status as a feminist icon, featuring film scholars Mary Des Jardins, Amy Lawrence and Patricia White; “The Legionnaire and the Lady,” a 1936 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco, featuring Dietrich and Clark Gable; a video essay by critics Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López; “The Fashion Side of Hollywood,” a wonderful 1935 publicity short featuring Dietrich and costume designer Travis Banton; a television interview with Dietrich, on Danish television, from 1971; and a book featuring essays by critics Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins and Farran Smith Nehme. While the word, “iconic,” is thrown around willy-nilly by publicists and reporters, Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Mae West defined the term at a time when everything was changing in Hollywood and Depression-era audiences needed something glamorous to call their own.

A Ciambra: Blu-ray
Rocco and His Brothers
Although the links connecting Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra (2017) and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) appear, at first glance, to be tenuous, consider: both were made in Italy, one in the south and the other about southerners in the north; they both reflect the challenges facing displaced persons in unfamiliar environments; they share neo-realist roots; the performances by the ensemble casts are nothing short of electrifying; and both DVD/Blu-ray editions carry the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese. (He also exec-produced A Ciambra in its theatrical run.) It’s likely that Scorsese was impressed by Carpignano’s debut feature, Mediterranea (2015), one of the earliest in what has become a wave of films about 21st-century migrants risking everything to seek a better life in Europe. It follows the perilous journey of two friends from Burkina Faso, who cross the Mediterranean to settle in Italy. To say that they’re greeted warmly by the locals would be an exaggeration. In fact, Mediterranea and Carpignano’s short film “A Chjàna” were inspired, in large part, by the ethnic cleansing carried out by residents of Rosarno on itinerant crop-pickers, primarily from Ghana. A Ciambra is also set in Calabria, this time in a community where Italians, Romani and African migrants coexist in uneasy tension. Italian authorities probably thought they were doing Gypsy families a favor by creating apartment blocs for them to live, in lieu of being allowed to migrate freely across borders in caravans, as is their tradition. Instead of waiting for the buildings to be finished, however, some Romani squatters moved into the half-completed units and began adding their own makeshift touches to them.

By electing not to top off the project, authorities effectively created a ghetto supported by criminal activities, including auto theft and stripping construction sites of recyclable metals. They’re joined in these illegal endeavors by similarly inventive African migrants. (The bigger fish in the port city of Gioia Tauro are reeled in by the ‘Ndrangheta, a.k.a., the Calabrian mafia.) Carpignano didn’t have to look too far for material — amateur actors, either – to inform his slice-of-life drama, which, likewise, was adapted from an earlier short, “Young Lions of Gypsy” (2014). In the lead roles, the mixed-race filmmaker simply re-cast 14-year-old Pio Amato and Koudous Seihon, a Burkinan migrant he discovered during a protest in Rosarna and inserted into “A Chjàna.” Here, Pio is required to take over the family business after his father and older brother are arrested for stealing and repurposing copper wiring. Pio thinks he’s ready to handle the responsibility – he as a solid connection in the African community, Ayiva (Seihon), who serves as a surrogate brother — but, eventually, finds that he’s jumped into the deep end and forgotten that he can’t swim. A Ciambra probably can be accused of perpetuating stereotypes of Gypsy criminality – African immigrants, as well – but, having lived in the region for several years, Carpignano probably has already faced and responded to such complaints. (He was raised between New York and Rome.) The film’s hard edges are softened a bit by recollections of tradition Roma life by a grandparent and Pio’s waking dream of a horse walking around the city streets, freely and unencumbered. The worthwhile bonus features include “A Ciambra: The Other Side of the Story” and deleted scenes.

Rocco and His Brothers, of course, needs no introduction to arthouse buffs and lovers of Italian cinema, in general. Set among Milan’s struggling working-class community on the brink of Italy’s post-war “economic miracle,” it opens with the arrival of a family from the country’s largely rural south at Milan’s cavernous railroad terminus. Recently widowed Rosaria Parondi leads her loyal brood of four handsome sons — ranging from pre-teen to twentysomething — in a procession headed for the apartment of her eldest son, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás). He migrated to the industrial north several years earlier and she fully expects him to make room for the family, no matter how cramped they would be. Instead, they arrive at his mailing address, just in time to join the party marking Vincenzo’s betrothal to the Milanese beauty, Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale), a celebration to which they weren’t invited. After some squabbling between future mothers-in-law, Rosaria is rudely informed that there’s no room at the inn and the Parondis will have to find lodging elsewhere. Good luck. For a while, at least, they crowd into the unheated basement of a tenement largely populated with southerners, who, we learn, are notorious for neglecting to pay the rent and falling back on Milan’s welfare system. Like other migrants of the period, the sons all eventually find jobs that, with luck, could lead to better jobs up the economic ladder.

The earthy Simone (Renato Salvatori) turns to boxing, while the thoughtful dreamboat Rocco (Alain Delon) finds work in a dry-cleaners dominated by young women, upwardly mobile Ciro (Max Cartier) studies, and little Luca does odd jobs around the neighborhood. One evening, out of the blue, a spunky prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot), hides from her father in their makeshift apartment. Visconti allows Nadia to seduce viewers, much in the same way as she puts a hook into the mouth of Simone and reels him into her boat. Time passes and, with Simone no longer able to afford Nadia’s company, he focuses on his promising boxing career. Rocco is drafted into the navy; Ciro gets a job at the Alfa-Romeo plant; Vincenzo and Ginette become parents; and little Luca delivers groceries on his bicycle. Nadia runs into Rocco in a coastal town after spending a year in prison for solicitation and services. He convinces her to walk the straight and narrow path with him as his guide. When word of their romance finally reaches the constantly broke and drunk Simone, he turns their sibling rivalry into a war, and things get ugly fast … or as fast as things can get in a three-hour movie. Shot in the streets, workspaces and underground boxing clubs of Milan, Rocco and His Brothers qualifies as neo-realism, however late in the genre’s lifespan. The decidedly non-neo The Leopard, The Stranger, The Damned and Death in Venice would follow in its wake. The splendid Milestone set opens with Scorsese’s introduction to the amazing restoration, as well as praise for Visconte, Giuseppe Rotunno’s “lustrous” and “pearly” B&W cinematography and Nino Rota’s operatic score. A second disc adds six minutes of outtakes; “Before and After,” a side-by-side demonstration of the results of the restoration efforts; and lengthy interviews with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of co-writer Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and interviews with cast and crew members Claudia Cardinale, Mario Garbuglia, Annie Girardot, Guiseppe Rotunno, Piero Tosi and Suso Cecchi d’Amico.

Milestone has done a similarly spectacular job with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s dreamlike debut feature, Maborosi (1995). It follows in the wake of Arrow Academy’s impressive “Family Values: Three Films by Hirokazu Kore-eda,” containing I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2011) and After the Storm (2016). His courtroom drama, The Third Murder, opens here later in July and 2018 Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters is set for a Thanksgiving release. Few, if any filmmakers in the world are working at a higher level than the 56-year-old Tokyo native. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert described Maborosi as a “Japanese film of astonishing beauty and sadness, the story of a woman whose happiness is destroyed in an instant by an event that seems to have no reason. Time passes, she picks up some of the pieces, and she is even distracted sometimes by happiness. But at her center is a void, a great unanswered question.” It hasn’t gotten any less impressive in the 23 years since Ebert wrote those words and the “great unanswered question” still hangs in the air, just as explanations for so many other suicides remain elusive to survivors. Based on a novel by Teru Miyamoto, Maborosi follows a young woman’s struggle with grief and loneliness after her heretofore cheerful factory-worker husband, Ikuo (Asano Tanobu), apparently commits suicide – having walked into an on-rushing train, his corpse is too badly mangled to identify with complete accuracy — without warning or reason, leaving behind his wife and 3-month-old infant.

Four or five years later, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) consults with a marriage broker, who introduces her to an Osaka widower, Tamio (Naitoh Takashi), with a small daughter of his own. They’ll take up residency in Tamio’s home town, a coastal fishing village on the Sea of Japan. The kids get along famously, and Kore-eda allows Yomiko a few moments of genuine happiness with her husband and child. Even so, the largely affectless woman remains consumed by grief and unanswerable questions. The title comes from the answer her second husband gives to her question, “Why did he do it?” Rather than having planned to kill himself, Tamio suggests, Ikuo was entranced by the oncoming light of the train’s engine. “Maborosi” is defined as a light or visual siren that entices mariners to get too close to rocks or to follow it into the endless distance. She’s also saddened by the memory of a dream in which her beloved grandmother is fleeing — going to her home village to die — and the disappearance of her crab vendor. A poetically framed funeral procession, shot from a distance, is, at once, soothing and mysterious. Special features include commentary by film scholar Linda Ehrlich and Yuki Togawa Gergotz; the introspective short documentary, “Birthplace,” during which Esumi revisits the coastal village; and new English subtitles by Linda Hoaglund, with the assistance of Judith Aley and Ehrlich.

Hotel Salvation
In the 1960s, Jessica Mitford’s landmark work of investigative journalism, “The American Way of Death,” and Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s satire, “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy,” delivered what appeared to be a staggering one-two punch on the funeral industry. Although the publication of Mitford’s best-selling book inspired consumer advocates and raised the hackles of funeral-industry executives, it wasn’t until the Federal Trade Commission began its own investigation of the industry, in the late 1970s, that a set of regulations would be imposed on morticians, including providing clients with a detailed price list of all goods and services, informing them that embalming is not required by law, and allowing families to plan alternative funerals that did not follow traditional patterns. While cremations became more widely accepted by American consumers and clergy, the Funeral Trade Rule of 1984 did little to stem the rising costs of funerals and hard-sell tactics directed at grieving family members who still demand “dignified” sendoffs for relatives. And, while The Loved One (1965) effectively skewered the excesses of Forest Lawn and other “theme” cemeteries, it might have had the unintended effect of alerting bereaved consumers to the existence of pet mortuaries – also featured in Mondo Cane (1962) — and the eventual scattering of ashes in space. In 1973, the Neptune Society began offering full-service cremations and the dispersal of ashes at sea, including the Neptune Memorial Reef, located 3.25 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida. Sometimes, though, unscrupulous morticians burned the bodies, skipping the disposal of the ashes entirely.

Several Indian movies and documentaries have been set in part or in whole in the holy city of Varanasi (a.k.a., Benares), including Masaan, the 2015 FIPRESCI Prize-winner at Cannes, and Satyajit Ray’s FIPRESCI-winner at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, Aparajito (1956). Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimages by people close to death. Varanasi is known for its many ghats — embankments made of stone steps, where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions – two of them being reserved for cremations and the scattering of ashes in the Ganges. Shubhashish Bhutiani’s excellent debut feature, Hotel Salvation, observes the ritual from the point of view of an accountant, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), whose seemingly healthy father believes that a recent series of ominous dreams foreshadow his imminent death and he needs his son to accompany him to Varanasi. Rajiv attempts to convince 77-year-old Daya (Lalit Behl) to hold on until things settle down at work and actually feels sick. At once stubborn and free-spirited, the man refuses to listen to reason, however. Although I’ve seen several movies in which the cremation ritual is depicted, I wasn’t aware of the hotels – not dissimilar to hospices – established just above the ghats, where patrons can prepare for death and salvation.

The Mukti Bhawan, an approximation of the title, Hotel Salvation, is a cheap and rundown establishment that offers nothing in the way of comfort and convenience, and management expects its guests to die quickly or leave on their feet after 15 days. Daya, a retired school teacher, is fine with the bare-boned accommodations, while Rajiv is appalled by the cramped quarters, cockroaches and mice. It doesn’t take long for him to get tired of fulfilling his father’s many petty demands, which he’s perfectly capable of handling. While we commiserate with Rajiv, it’s impossible not to marvel at how well Daya fits in with the other guests, whether they’re chanting to beat the band, enjoying their favorite TV shows or sharing meals in their rooms. He even appears to fall in love with a lovely woman, Vimia (Navnindra Behl), who expected to die there years earlier, alongside her husband, but is too nice to evict. Vimia makes sure that Daya and Rajiv are well fed and follow the rules – no meat, no alcohol, no cigarettes, but marijuana and hashish are OK – and kept in relatively good spirits. Sensing her husband’s frustration, Rajiv’s wife and daughter pay a visit, as well. Daya’s relationship with his open-minded granddaughter is in direct contrast to his prickly relations with the strait-laced Rajiv. By now, Hotel Salvation has evolved into a story where faith and family become intertwined, and death is merely the next step in longer journey. In addition to the fine acting, Bhutiani benefits from a subtly evocative acoustic score by Tajdar Junaid and cinematography that captures both the claustrophobic living conditions at Mukti Bhawan and the wide-screen majesty of the Ganges. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and short film “Que La Nuit Soit Douce.”

Chappaquiddick: Blu-ray</strongThe popularity of the parlor game, “What If …,” typically is traced to a mythical “The Twilight Zone” episode in which a woman travels back in time to kill the baby Adolph Hitler. In fact, “Cradle of Darkness,” didn’t air on the revived series until October 2, 2002, with the then-obscure Katherine Heigl playing Andrea Collins, the Hitler family’s housemaid. Or, maybe it appeared on an earlier episode of “Thriller” or “The Outer Limits.” Anyone who’s read H.G. Welles’ “The Time Machine,” or its Classics Illustrated adaptation, has had to consider the question as it is applies to Hitler and the killers of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther and Malcolm X. It’s impossible to come away from John Curran’s frequently riveting docudrama, Chappaquiddick, without playing the “What If …” game. It revisits the events that occurred immediately before and after the car in which Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) was riding careened off the side of the narrow bridge connecting Chappaquiddick Island to a secluded ocean beach just beyond it. It ended up submerged, upside-down, in tide-swept Poucha Pond. The Oldsmobile belonged to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke), who somehow was able to escape the car, while his 28-year-old passenger struggled futilely for air. Although Chappaquiddick relives the bright and personable campaign aide’s final day on Earth, its emphasis is on the despicable cover-up that began even before the car was discovered and traced to Kennedy. Kopechne, who was raised in New Jersey, was among a group of six single women invited to the island for a reunion of the so-called Boiler Room Girls. All had worked tirelessly on the presidential run of Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated a year earlier.

The men at the party all were associated with various Kennedy family interests, as well. They were considerably older than the “girls” and all but one of them was married. It was assumed at the time — if never proven — that Kennedy was inebriated at the time he supposedly volunteered to drive Kopechne to the last ferry back to Edgartown, on Martha’s Vinyard, where she was staying. Instead, he took a wrong turn, which led to the single-lane, unlit Dike Bridge. Working off a densely constructed script by first-timers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan neither absolves Kennedy nor condemns him, beyond the slap on the wrist given him by a family-favored judge. The senator admitted his fault in a statement delivered to the press, several hours he neglected to inform the police of the incident. There’s an implication that Kopechne might not have drowned, if Kennedy had immediately phoned police and a dive team was dispatched within the next half-hour. None of this information – or speculation, for that matter – is particularly new or open to debate. While we’re shown Kennedy fleeing the scene, it’s never been made clear how he managed to exit the car. He claimed that he didn’t know and may have suffered a concussion, which doesn’t explain why he didn’t call police until late the next morning. Until that time, he appears to have been more interested in circling the wagons and calling in family loyalists to minimize the damage. Their deliberations and decisions made that day are what makes Chappaquiddick such an unsettling experience. Neither is ailing patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy (Bruce Dern) made to look like anything but the slimy ex-bootlegger and WWII isolationist, who used his friends in the Cosa Nostra to help JFK beat Richard Nixon. Although he could barely speak, the old man urged Teddy to craft an “alibi” as soon as possible. He was supposed to say that Kopechne had borrowed his car and made the wrong turn onto Dike Road, instead of taking the fork that led to the ferry. Before the alibi could be set in motion, however, the senator delivered his admission of negligence to the sheriff.

We actually begin to feel sorry for Kennedy when his father berates him for blowing the alibi and effectively derailing any chance he had for a presidential run in 1972, against Nixon. He’s told that he was never cut out to be president and was an embarrassment to the family. Instead of resigning from the Senate, Teddy accepted his guilt and inability to mount a campaign for the presidency in 1972 and 1980. He became a formidable presence in the Senate, for decades to come. He may have made a great president, but we’ll never know. If there is a single shining performance in Chappaquiddick, it’s delivered by Australian native Clarke, who not only is a dead-ringer for the senator, but an actor of considerable talent, who’s also proven himself in such entertainments as Mudbound, Everest, Zero Dark, Thirty, Lawless and the Showtime mini-series, “Brotherhood.” Also good are Ed Helms, as Kennedy’s lawyer, cousin, fixer and conscience, Joe Gargan; Taylor Nichols, as longtime Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson; Clancy Brown, as the oily former Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara; Jim Gaffigan, as Kennedy confidante and outgoing U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Paul F. Markham; and Olivia Thirlby, as the most outwardly randy Boiler Girl, Rachel Schiff. As a thoroughly pissed off and unsympathetic Joan Bennett Kennedy, Andria Blackman delivers the film’s most unforgettably caustic moment. Frankly, though, as good as it is – Curran’s previous credits include We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil and Tracks – I doubt that Chappaquiddick will resonate with many people younger than 50, for whom Camelot is a musical and the Kennedy clan is old news. The bonus features include the 25-minute making-of featurette, “A Reckoning: Revisiting Chappaquiddick” and “Bridge to the Past: Editing the Film.”

The French Way: Blu-ray
Even if her radiant smile and cursively drawn name dominate the cover of this curious Blu-ray release from Kit Parker Films (via MVD Video Distributors), Josephine Baker’s performance in The French Way supports those of actors whose appeal was limited to French-speaking actors. Even so, it’s the only reason for the corny Romeo/Juliet romcom to exist, more than 70 years after its debut. The film was made in Paris, in 1940, as the Nazis were preparing to march into the city. It wouldn’t be released into French theaters until 1945. Jacques de Baroncelli, who started directing films in 1915, was approaching the end of career when he was tapped to make The French Way, whose non-singing parts went to Georges Marchal, Micheline Presle, Jean Tissier, Raymond Aimos, Gabrielle Dorziat and Saturnin Fabre. Baker already was huge star in Europe, coming off Zouzou, opposite the great Jean Gabin. In The French Way, she plays nightclub chanteuse Zazu Clairon, whose primary role here is to bring her star-crossed neighbors together, despite their parents’ longstanding, totally silly feud. The comedy derives from watching the cranky parents spark, while waiting out the bombing raids in their cellars. Seventy years later, the Blu-ray only really takes off when Baker’s singing in her nightclub.

American audiences wouldn’t get to see most of Baker’s limited film work until the 1950s. A noticeably abridged version of The French Way, which didn’t include any of the risqué dancing for she was known, wouldn’t reach these shores until 1952. Princess Tam-Tam (1935) was denied the Production Code Administration’s Seal of Approval, due to the insinuation of an interracial relationship. As a result, most mainstream theaters in the United States failed to show to film. Some independent cinemas screened it without the seal and it became a mainstay in cinemas catering to predominantly black audiences throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Baker fought such discrimination throughout her entire career, refusing to perform in clubs in the U.S. and other places that restricted ticket sales to white audiences only. She became a worldwide sensation after moving to Europe during the 1920s, primarily through her exuberant dancing of the Charleston, Black Bottom and the Danse Sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. One of the hottest celebrities during the Jazz Age, Baker would walk down the Champs-Elysees. Pablo Picasso described her as, “Tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.” During World War II, she worked as a spy for the French resistance and later was decorated for her support. In 1949, a Baker returned in triumph to the Folies Bergere.

In 1951, Baker was invited back to the United States for a nightclub engagement in Miami. After winning a public battle over desegregating the club’s audience, Baker followed up her sold-out run at the club with a national tour. It climaxed with a parade in front of 100,000 people in Harlem, in honor of her being anointed the NAACP’s “Woman of the Year.” Nonetheless, New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her because she was black. This not only led to a confrontation with columnist Walter Winchell, who falsely accused of her of being a communist sympathizer, but a public show of support from Grace Kelly, who was in the restaurant. (Twenty years later, after Baker went broke, Princess Grace would offer her a place to live in Monaco.)  In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with the Légion d’honneur medal. She was the only official female speaker. Sadly, the Blu-ray arrives without any bonus material. I’d love to see a musical bio-pic on Baker, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Beyoncé. Previous docudramas didn’t really do the trick. In the meantime, I suggest Googling “Josephine Baker” or heading straight to YouTube to watch performances from the mid-1920s to just before her death in 1975, at 1968, leaving behind a “Rainbow Tribe” of adopted children, from several different nationalities, racial and religious and religious backgrounds.

Blue Desert
By setting this intriguing flight of existential fancy in the two places in South America that couldn’t be less alike – Brasilia and Chile’s Atacama Desert – multimedia artist Eder Santos has created a movie, Deserto Azul (2014), that is equal parts baffling and beautiful. The federal capital of Brazil, founded in 1960, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Modernist architecture for its futuristic buildings, mostly constructed from glass, steel and reinforced concrete and divided by large patches of greenery. In 50 years, it has grown from nothing, to what’s estimated to be the country’s third most populous city. By contrast, Chile’s vast, extremely arid Atacama Desert makes Death Valley look overcrowded. It is between these two locations that a young Brazilian man, Ele, is teleported during the 94-minute course of Deserto Azul, which shouldn’t be confused with the 1990 Blue Desert, which starred Courteney Cox and D.B. Sweeney. In an age “devoid of memory and truth,” Ele is driven by intuition and dreams in his search for the meaning of life and existence. One of the ways he accomplishes this is by hopping on a crowded motion-simulator platform that wouldn’t be out of place at a large American amusement park, and, once seated, putting on the wraparound optical device handed out by the “flight attendant.”

While strolling through the starkly beautiful Atacama, Ele encounters a man (Ângelo Antônio) spraying blue paint on rock formations, if for no other reason than he considers it to be his life’s mission to blur the lines between Earth and the two-mooned sky. (Don’t ask.) Back home, Ele is invited to attend a disco/rave along with other lonely, alienated strangers, attracted by the ethereal music and intoxicating ambience. It’s here that he meets Alma (Maria Luisa Mendonça), a singer so beautiful she could give eyesight to the blind … or, in Ele’s case, meaning to his life. Have I already mentioned that Santos was, in part, inspired by Yoko Ono’s 1964 book of conceptual art, “Grapefruit,” and Brazilian author Machado de Assis? According to the presenters of the PIPA Prize, Deserto Azul “is a result of the artist’s continuous experimentation with video language and his relationship with the visual arts.” It takes some work on the part of viewers, but those looking for a challenge could fall in love with it.

FilmRise on DVD
The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce
The Man Who Saw Too Much
24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters
Women Who Kill
Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!
I Dream in Another Language
Free and Easy
The FilmRise titles included in the latest package from MVD Entertainment Group have previously been released through VOD and MOD (manufactured on demand) outlets. Apparently, they were sent out on Blu-ray last summer, but weren’t easy to find. The MVD releases are on DVD and stripped of bonus features. The audio/visual presentation is quite good, however, and the selections are wonderfully eclectic.

With basketball fever still in the air and LeBron James’ name on everyone’s lips, at least in Los Angeles, there’s no better time to check out The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce, a highly entertaining documentary on the city’s amateur-hoops subculture. For 45 years, the Drew League has been a fixture in South-Central. With roots as a pickup game for local playground stars and athletes from nearby colleges, the six-team Drew League took its name from the bandbox school gym at which the games were played. They emphasized fierce competition over name recognition and featured the rapid-fire, in-your-face action of an amateur pickup game in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or SoCal. The gym has also served as a demilitarized zone for rival gang-bangers. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Drew remained open as a valued community outlet. During the 2011 NBA lockout, Drew became a gathering place for some of the league’s biggest stars, competing against local talent. After a five-year stop at school that charged organizers an arm and a leg to maintain, the games now take place at King Drew High School, where 28 teams enjoy newer facilities and expanded space for teeming crowds. Co-directed by former NBA All-Star Baron Davis, who grew up in South-Central and continues to play in Drew games, The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce traces the league’s roots by focusing less on the occasional superstar visit – James, Kobe, James Harden, Byron Scott, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, Xzibit — than the organizers, fans, announcers and players who’ve participated since Day One. It also explains what the league and basketball have meant to the impoverished, but proud community.

Trisha Ziff’s excellent documentary The Man Who Saw Too Much introduces us to Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides, who, since his pre-teen years, has spent his life shooting images of death, tragedy and violence in Mexico City. As such, Metinides is as well known to readers of Spanish-language tabloids as Arthur “Weegee” Fellig was to New Yorkers during the 1930s and 1940s. His work not only captures gruesome scenes of human tragedy, but also the curious reactions of onlookers. Need I mention that The Man Who Saw Too Much isn’t for the squeamish.

Ever since the days of one- and two-reel shorts, movie posters have been as much a part of the universal cinematic experience as popcorn, sticky floors and noisy neighbors. Not only do they play a key role in the marketing of new pictures and creation of stars, but posters are considered by many to be highly collectible works of art and memorabilia. Kevin Burke’s 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters explores the colorful history of the one-sheet, with a tight focus on the artists – many of them anonymous – whose work has meant so much to the industry. It also examines how movie-poster illustration has become something of a “lost art,” due to marketing trends that favor Photoshopped images over lithography, and copy-cat designs over original ideas. In addition to much dazzling artwork, Burke’s film is informed by interviews with several artists and collectors.

Ingrid Jungermann wrote, directed and stars in Women Who Kill, a droll comedy about murder and women who have committed murder … or, may have. Jungermann plays the commitment-phobic Morgan, who, along with her ex-girlfriend, Jean (Ann Carr), have gained a following in the podcast community for their interest in female serial killers. There’s a chance they may still have feelings for each other – beyond living in the same apartment and sleeping in the same bed — but co-dependence takes a back seat when Morgan meets a mysterious and exotically beautiful stranger, Simone (Sheila Vand), during her shift at a food coop in a gentrified section of Park Slope, Brooklyn.  When Jean shows her roommate proof that Simone may not be who she says she is, Morgan accuses her of trying to ruin the best thing that’s ever happened to her. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Morgan begins to notice things in Simone’s behavior that suggest Jean’s warning may not be as self-serving as it sounds. Together, Morgan and Jean investigate Simone as if she were a subject of their podcast, uncovering disturbing clues — a death at the coop, a missing friend, a murder weapon — leading them to suspect she’s capable of murder. The big question becomes: Is Morgan’s life truly in danger or is she simply afraid of what it means to be in a relationship.

For the sake of brevity, let’s call Felipe Bragança’s intriguingly titled Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl, a “West Side Story”-like tragedy, in which a 13-year-old Brazilian boy, Joca, and Basano, a 14-year-old Paraguayan Guarani Indian girl, on the brink of womanhood. Their villages are separated by the swiftly flowing Apa River, which, a century ago, carried the bodies of thousands of victims of a terrible war to the sea, and, today, still transports “floaters” to a watery grave. Basano, who calls herself the Tattooed Queen of the Apa River, knows far better than the infatuated Joca what could happen if they succumbed to their attraction to each other. Already, motorcycle gangs from opposite sides of the river battle for control of the region’s roads and bridges. Joca’s older brother has been engaged in a sexual relationship with the girlfriend of the rival gang’s leader, which angers women on both sides of the Apa. Once she hits puberty, Basano appears less interested in addressing Joca’s passion than in stirring up trouble between the boys who meet on bicycles on the bridge over the Apa.  “Alligator Girl” contains many debut performances, so the acting is frequently choppy and underwhelming. The film’s saving grace is Glauco Firpo’s hypnotic cinematography, which takes full advantage of the unblemished setting. Having already written Love for Sale, The Escape of the Monkey Woman and The Joy, Bragança seems to feel comfortably at home along the border regions of central South America and with the urban and rural poor of Brazil.

Ernesto and Carlos Contreras’ I Dream in Another Language also benefits from a concrete sense of place and a fascination with people living so far off the grid that traces of an ancient language still reverberate through a tropical jungle. A linguist from the University of Veracruz has traveled to the village to record and translate that language, once spoken by hundreds, maybe thousands of indigenous people, but now is only understood by two old men. The problem is that Isauro and Evaristo haven’t spoken to each other in any language for more than 50 years. Their feud began over dibs on a Spanish-speaking girl, with whom only one of them could converse. There’s another reason, but it needn’t be revealed here. The only way for the linguist, Martin, to succeed is to get them to converse, with one of them translating. Martin has also fallen in love with one of the men’s granddaughter, Lluvia, whose future lies somewhere other than the village. As befits any movie from the tropics, a certain amount of magical realism also informs the drama. As Martin will soon learn, the dying language is very much alive among the animals and vegetation in the jungle that surrounds a mysterious cave, which serves as the portal to the afterlife to Indians who once spoke the language.

Free and Easy doesn’t even come close to describing the tone of Geng Jun’s absurdist deadpan comedy. “Uptight and Frightened” probably would have been more accurate, but minus the same je ne sais quoi. When a man purporting to be traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, in what appears to be the dead of winter, he encounters a young fellow who attempts to intimidate him with kung fu. Instead, the salesman invites his assailant to sniff the aroma of a bar of soap. After the kung fu fighter does so, he collapses in a heap. It frees the salesman to steal his wallet, without doing anything seriously harmful. This happens over and over, again, until the few people still in town attempt to stop the thefts. Slowly, the one-man crime wave inspires other locals – including the exceedingly lethargic police, an arborist and a fake monk — to work up their own scams, to very mixed results. Free and Easy takes a lot of getting used to … especially at a pace that almost seems as frozen as the fields surrounding the town. Fans of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki shouldn’t have any problem getting used to it, however.

To make Supergirl, Jessie Auritt followed world-champion “power lifter” Naomi Kutin around the country, from her record-breaking lift/squat/whatever at 9 years old, to her bat mitzvah, at 12. Naturally, the media beat a path to her door. Not only does Naomi take a great deal of pride in her achievements – as she should – but she also begins to buy into “supergirl” hype. Having lifted a few weights in my time, I was more than a bit put off by the girl’s obsession with training and making weight in her division. I’m no doctor, even if I play one on the Internet sometimes, but I doubt that it’s healthy for a pre-pubescent girl or boy to risk doing serious damage to their rapidly developing bodies by pushing it to extremes, every day, for hours at a time. Having a dad who’s also a committed weight lifter, as well as a hyper-supportive mom and brother to pump up her young ego, can’t help but promote excessive behavior. Still, different strokes for different folks … right? Miraculously, Naomi appears to lead a normal life outside the basement gym and tournaments. Auritt’s parallel focus in “Supergirl” is observing the family of Orthodox Jews square Naomi’s avocation with religious guidelines that, at first glance, anyway, would appear to prohibit such things for girls. The parents appear to have justified their decision to themselves, however, which is OK, I suppose. Supergirl is interesting, but, even at 80 minutes, the achievements of pre-teen power lifter aren’t all that compelling. Maybe I’d feel differently if Naomi and her dad were more committed to making the Olympics team or getting a scholarship, instead of merely breaking records.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! Blu-ray
Seijun Suzuki was still in good standing at Nikkatsu, when, in 1963, he made Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! It was the kind of over-the-top gangster flick that signaled just how far the director was willing to go to test the limits of the studio’s patience for unorthodox filmmaking, especially that intended for general audiences. The break would come four years later with Branded to Kill, an even more stylized Yakuza mashup, starring the wonderful Jô Shishido, who, in 1956, underwent the plastic surgery and injections that gave him the big, round cheeks that would remind audiences of a chipmunk. Intentionally far out, “Detective Bureau” recalled for me the parodies of genre clichés made by Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker (Police Squad!), not long afterwards. The story follows police detective Hideo Tajima (Shishido), who, tasked with tracking down stolen firearms, turns an underworld grudge into a bloodbath. In doing so, Suzuki transforms what might have been merely a colorful potboiler into a send-up of cultural colonialism and post-war greed. Between the shootouts, he adds several nightclub set pieces – featuring flashy showgirls and a virginal damsel in distress — so goofy they wouldn’t have been out of place in an Elvis Presley movie. It pays to check out the bonus featurette, in which the ever-entertaining Japanese-cinema expert Tony Rayns explains how none of the gunplay in the film could have taken place as depicted. (Tough gun laws forced real-life gangsters to rely on knives and swords.) He places “Detective Bureau” within the context of studio politics, Suzuki’s roller-coaster career and then-current Japanese history. Besides the interview, the Arrow Video package looks terrific, as usual, adding a gallery of original production stills and a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.

Modern Life Is Rubbish
Daniel Jerome Gill and Philip Gawthorne ‘s re-working of their 2009 short of the same title derives from an album of classic 1990s Britpop, “Modern Life Is Rubbish,” by Blur. The title was inspired by graffiti stenciled along Bayswater Road, in London, created by an anarchist group. The band’s frontman, Damon Albarn, said the phrase reflected the “rubbish” of the past that accumulated over time and stifled creativity. He told journalist John Harris that he thought the phrase was “the most significant comment on popular culture since the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK.’” It also reflected the band’s general displeasure with what its members observed of American life in a recent tour, as well as the rock press’ infatuation with a rival band, Suede. It’s one of the CDs that triggers flashbacks in Modern Life Is Rubbish, as a soon-to-be-divorced couple divides the music they’ve collected over 10 years. Liam (Josh Whitehouse) and Natalie (Freya Mavor) first connected in a store specializing in used vinyl. At the time, Liam was an aspiring musician, who picked up girls by showing off his knowledge of rock music and its arcana. Natalie, who allowed the handsome stranger to prattle on, while she collected ideas for the album covers she one day hoped to design. As their relationship progressed, Liam struggled to make a dent in the brutally competitive music scene, without compromising his high-falutin ideals, while Natalie eventually succumbed to the lure of a job that paid real money and satisfied many of her creative urges. Finally, after 10 years together, they split over Natalie’s unwillingness to put up with Liam’s aggressively childish pursuit of rock-’n’-roll purity, in a band called Headcleaner. After making the heartbreaking decision to separate, they split their prized music library, lingering over albums and CD covers that represent high points in their relationship. The only questions facing viewers, then, are how long it will take for the music that served as chapters in their love story to pull them back together and what will trigger their inevitable rapprochement. The sentimentality oozes from the contrivances deployed in the final scenes like a PB&J sandwich in which too much of both ingredients is applied to the bread. At its best, Modern Life Is Rubbish recalls bits and pieces of High Fidelity (2000), 500 Days of Summer (2009) and 9 Songs (2004). At its worst, Liam is to Blur what Herman’s Hermits were to the Rolling Stones. The musical soundtrack does, however, benefit from songs by such period-appropriate bands as The 1975, The Vaccines, Stereophonics, The Libertines, Radiohead, Warpaint, Frightened Rabbit and Billie Marten.

William H. Macy seems so comfortable playing the thoroughly unlikable patriarch of the world’s most dysfunctional family, in Showtime’s “Shameless,” it’s difficult to understand how, as director, he let the half-baked dramatic comedy, Krystal, come apart at the seams. Apparently, it’s taken him 14 years to bring Will Aldis’ unwieldly story and screenplay to the screen. Shooting was supposed to begin in February 2015, in Atlanta, with Jane Fonda, Josh Hutcherson, Sienna Miller and John Hawkes announced in the lead roles. Macy was only slated to direct the film, but, when the recasting process cut into his schedule, he assumed the role of the kooky father, Dr. Wyatt Ogburn, opposite his real-life wife, Felicity Huffman, playing movie wife, Poppy Ogburn. Their youngest son, Taylor (Nick Robinson), is a swell kid, with only one discernable problem. The teenager lives with a condition called paroxysmal atrial tachycardia, which means his heart beats abnormally fast during periods of physical or emotional stress. It’s for this reason that Taylor’s parents have maintained a household based on maintained on order, stability and lack of excitement. The first time his condition manifests itself is when he stumbles upon Wyatt’s Playboy collection in the basement. Beyond the usual shame attached to such embarrassing discoveries by adolescent boys, this one comes with a highly elevated heartbeat and a guardian demon. Another near-death experience comes at the beach, when he spots a beautiful older woman, Krystal (Rosario Dawson), and his heart goes into overdrive. He’s taken to the hospital, where the strangely laid-back Dr. Lyle Farley (William Fichtner) quickly diagnoses the problem and injects Taylor with a drug to calm the palpitations. Later, while working at an art gallery run by Kathy Bates, he spots Krystal walking to a building where the Alcoholic Anonymous meeting is taking place. Not surprisingly, Taylor follows here into the meeting, which his boss also attends, and pretends to have a substance-abuse problem.

Here’s where things begin to spin out of control, however. Not only does “the program” give him easy access to his heart’s desire, but he adopts the person of one of the guest speakers (Rick Fox), a cool dude who rides a Harley. Although Krystal isn’t terribly impressed, the bad-boy routine works on her wheelchair-bound son, whose negative attitude is causing him problems at school. Their friendship puts Taylor in direct contact with the boy’s ex-con father, who caused Krystal’s addiction problems and wants her to take him back. But wait, there’s more. Krystal, who turned to stripping and prostitution, has a potentially embarrassing connection to Taylor’s father, who isn’t nearly as pious as he appears to be. By the time the movie begins to close in on the 90-minute mark, the linkages between characters get so thick that they begin to overshadow previous plot points and characters. Even with his bad heart, Taylor is called upon to rescue Krystal and her son from a life of despair and addiction. Krystal isn’t devoid of humor, by any means. It’s the missed opportunities and reliance on slapstick that finally short-circuits the story.

PBS: The Jazz Ambassadors
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Endeavour, The Complete Fifth Season
PBS: Going to War
Lifetime: I Am Elizabeth Smart
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fifth Season
PBS Kids: 20 Music Tales
Throughout most of the early years of the Cold War, Americans held to the belief that their democracy made the U.S. the “greatest country in the history of the world.” We’d saved the planet from fascism after all – twice, if you count World War I – refugees from the Eastern Bloc were clamoring to find work and raise their families here. And, yet, Soviet propagandists and the left-wing media in developing countries continued to find ways to score points with “the masses” simply by pointing to this country’s Achilles heels: our support for colonial powers in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia and our government’s unwillingness to put an end to segregation in the South. And, although unions made tremendous gains in the 1950-60s, industrialists fought against every one of them. President Eisenhower, who wouldn’t be allowed to represent today’s Republican Party in the White House, knew that we were losing the battle in the press and decided to listen to the advice of the African-American Democratic who represented Harlem in the House of Representatives. In 1955, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. convinced Ike that jazz could be used as a not-so-secret weapon against totalitarianism, especially in places where people of color were oppressed. While the musicians refused to serve as shills for a country that enforced Jim Crow laws in states and municipalities across a large swath of the U.S., they enjoyed spreading the good news of this country’s greatest cultural export. For the next decade, America’s most influential jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck, along with their racially-integrated bands, traveled the globe to perform as cultural ambassadors. It wouldn’t take long, however, for the bigots in power to neutralize the work being done by the artists. News of the mutilation and murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old youth from Chicago, killed while visiting an uncle in Mississippi, traveled fast and no amount of USIA spin could prevent it from making headlines around the world. The State of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury. (A year later, they would acknowledge committing the crime; in 2017, the woman who accused Till of whistling at her told the Associated Press that she had lied and the boy had made no overture to her.) The illuminating PBS documentary, “The Jazz Ambassadors,” revisits the successes and near failure of the musicians’ mission, as well as efforts by Southern Democrats and congressional Republicans to choke funds from the program. The story is told through striking archival film footage, photos, interviews and radio clips, with iconic performances throughout the hourlong documentary. Also fascinating is the recollection of Goodman’s 1962 tour of Poland and the Soviet Union, where students and jazz lovers defied KGB goons to get closer to the artists they loved.

Set in the mid- to late-1960s, the ITV/Masterpiece British series, “Endeavour,” focuses on the early career of Inspector Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) after he left Lonsdale College of Oxford University — without taking a degree — and spent a short time in the Royal Corps of Signals as a cipher clerk. He would return to Oxford as a member of the Carshall-Newtown Police Department, which kept him busy with a surprising number of violent crimes. “Endeavour, The Complete Fifth Season” (UK Edition) picks up in 1968 and Endeavour’s recent promotion to Detective Sergeant. He is assigned with a new Detective Constable, George Fancy (Lewis Peek), who initially doesn’t impress him. Meanwhile, Joan Thursday is back in town; DCI Thursday’s plans for retirement hang in a balance; and the future of Cowley Police Station continues to be debated. I don’t imagine that a spoiler alert is necessary to inform fans that a sixth series, set to air in 2019, has been announced.

For most of the last 100 years, filmmakers have grappled with their inability to accurately depict the hellish conditions faced by fighting men and women in the heat of combat. Such movies as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan have come closer to capturing the chaos, intensity and insanity of war than most other films, which have been limited by convention and viewers’ ability to stomach images of graphic violence. They’ve also been bound by the assumption that audiences prefer supporting their forces overseas from afar, than to witness the conditions that require heroism and call attention to the limits of bravery and training. Until the Vietnam War, returning soldiers were reluctant to relate their wartime experience to anyone except buddies gathered at VFW, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America functions. Most of them still refrain from discussing their experiences with relatives and friends. Although I can’t honestly say that the PBS documentary, “Going to War,” fully illustrates what happens in combat, it does explain why many veterans of several different American wars have such a difficult time dealing with their memories. It begins at boot camp, where men and women recruits relinquish their individual identities in the service of a greater good. It follows them into their first combat experiences, where they put into practice the concepts of selflessness and comradery beaten into them weeks and months earlier. They’re then asked to recall their first encounters with the death of comrades and enemies, alike. Leading the exploration are Sebastian Junger, bestselling author and director of the Academy Award-nominated film, Restrepo, and Karl Marlantes, decorated Marine officer and author of the memoir, “What It is Like to Go to War.”

If Sarah and Tory Walker’s docudrama for Lifetime, “I Am Elizabeth Smart,” doesn’t shed much new light on the 2002 kidnapping, multiple rapes and attempted brainwashing of the Salt Lake City teenager, it’s probably a blessing. There’s no questioning the sordid behavior and sick intentions of her captors, and the emotional and physical pain she endured. What makes this film different from previous films and true-crime series on the crime and rescue is the participation of the victim, Smart, as narrator, producer and source. It has a strangely dampening effect on the already flat drama, which leaves most of the horror to the imagination of viewers. Lookalike blond Alana Boden (“Mr Selfridge”) tries her best to approximate 14-year-old Smart’s experience, but her age, 21, neutralizes the story’s shock value. I think the same can be said about the actors who play the captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee (Skeet Ulrich, Deirdre Lovejoy), who, while sadistic and narcissistic, don’t look nearly as insane as the actors who’ve portrayed Charles Manson or his female posse. In fact, the movie leaves out much of Mitchell and Barzee’s backstory, which begins with his extreme interpretations of Mormon doctrine and includes a flock of abused children between them from multiple partners. Neither does it question how the SLC police could have allowed such an obvious suspect to avoid capture, even after questioning the Smart’s former handyman. It’s possible that the producers dialed back the ugliest aspects of the case, so that it could be accessible to Lifetime audiences, parents and teens who could benefit from the lessons taught here on child abuse, computer crimes, trafficking and pornography. They have been causes foremost in Smart’s mind since being freed from captivity and beginning to raise a family of her own.

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fifth Season” opens with a long-awaited appearance by Dick Martin’s dream guest, Raquel Welch, and such memorable sketches as “Martha Mitchell’s Mystery Phone Calls,” a Raquel Welch/Ruth Buzzi duet, “Ernestine Calls the White House,” “Return of the Swizzlers” and “The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award.” Arte Johnson departed after the 1970-71 season, when he demanded and got star billing … sort of.  So did Henry Gibson. They were replaced by former “Hogan’s Heroes” stars Richard Dawson and Larry Hovis. The show celebrated its 100th episode with a reunion of several original cast members, including John Wayne, Tiny Tim and alumni Johnson, Gibson Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley and Teresa Graves. Musical interludes are provided by Robert Goulet, Charo and Three Dog Night. Other fifth-season guests Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Carol Channing, Petula Clark, Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Gene Hackman, Rita Hayworth, Hugh Hefner, Bob Hope, Paul Lynde, Liza Minnelli, Agnes Moorehead, Joe Namath, Carroll O’Connor, Vincent Price, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Sugar Ray Robinson, Bill Russell, Vin Scully, Doc Severinsen, Jacqueline Susann and Henny Youngman.

From PBS Kids comes “20 Music Tale,” which features four hours’ worth of educational programs related to music and dance. The subjects range from forming a schoolyard marching band to helping Ludwig van Beethoven write a symphony. The selections are compiled from “Caillou,” “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Dinosaur Train,” “Nature Cat,” “Odd Squad,” “Peg + Cat,” “Reading Rainbow,” “Wild Kratts” and “Wordworld.”

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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