MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: American Animals, Book Club, Woman Walks Ahead, Bound, Mind Game, Shadowbuilder, Poetic Trilogy, Boss N-word, Crazy Six, My Life With James Dean … More

American Animals: Blu-ray
Not all art thieves are as cool as Steve McQueen in the Thomas Crown Affair; as endearing as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in Ocean’s 12; as slick as Roger Duchesne, in Bob le Flambeur; as delightfully hapless as Peter Ustinov, in Topkapi; or, even, as misguided as the lovestruck glazier in The Theft of the Mona Lisa. Most aren’t the least bit sympathetic. Typically, the stolen paintings, jewel-encrusted daggers and ancient artifacts wind up in safes or on shelves in the homes of unscrupulous collectors. Art lovers and museum-goers are the innocent bystanders in thefts perpetrated by gangsters, tomb raiders and grave robbers. Even so, the intricacies of such crimes make them perfect for exploitation by screenwriters. Unlike movies about zombies and superheroes, any plot that details the purloining of valuable objects requires a modicum of research and imagination, after all. As entertaining a film as American Animals is, it’s simply impossible to find anything remotely positive to say about characters who conspire to steal something as close to the hearts of Americans as original editions of John James Audubon’s extraordinary “Birds of America.” The best that can be said is that the ineptness of the doofuses involved in the theft inspired writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) to make a crime drama as compelling – and frequently outlandish– as American Animals. If, however, the Southern-fried bozos damaged any of the treasures during their ill-conceived caper, had accidentally killed the librarian they tazed, or had managed to hand them off to a fence who could profit from making them disappear, the movie would be more depressing than entertaining. (I suppose that the same can be said of most crime-based pictures, though.) Among the books and manuscripts stolen on December 17, 2004 from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, were an 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”; an illuminated manuscript from 1425; a two-volume set of the 15th Century horticultural masterpiece, “Hortus Sanitatis”; 20 original Audubon pencil drawings; and “A Synopsis of the Birds of North America.”

Because the narrative frequently jumps between interviews with the amateur thieves portrayed in the movie and staged depictions of their crime, there’s hardly any need for a spoiler alert in reviews of American Animals. They pulled it off; no one was killed; the art wasn’t damaged; and they paid the price for their ill-considered act. In 2003, Lexington high-school buddies Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) and Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) were bored students, looking for something to jump-start their young lives. After visiting the Transylvania library, a lightbulb – however dim – went off over their heads. Upon closer inspection, it was determined that the primary deterrent would be librarian Jean “B.J.” Gooch (Ann Dowd). Most of their preparation apparently involved watching such Hollywood heist flicks as Reservoir Dogs, from which they borrowed their aliases, Ocean’s 11 and Snatch. Now a quartet, they gang also wore costumes that might have been inspired by1955 version of The Ladykillers. It isn’t clear if, as depicted, one of the young men went to Amsterdam to meet with a fence (Udo Kier), prior to the crime, or if he merely pocketed the money set aside for expenses. Clearly, though, their decision to research the value of their haul at a New Year auction house raised the red flag that led to their ultimate demise. As Layton points out, none of the thieves was inspired by poverty or a tendency toward felonious behavior. They were simply disenchanted with pursuing a college degree, saw an opportunity for what they perceived to be an easy payday and took it. While the story had already been outlined in a 2015 Vanity Fair article, Layton was able to take advantage of the release of the thieves from prison to get their perspective on the incident. He borrowed a few tricks from his excellent 2012 documentary, The Imposter, which centered on the mystery surrounding a young Spanish man’s claim of being a Texas teen, who’d disappeared three years earlier. The American Animals Blu-ray arrives with commentary by Layton and cast members; a deleted scene; production featurettes; and a stills gallery. The fate of the men who committed the crime isn’t revealed until the closing credits.

Book Club: Blu-ray
Oprah Winfrey may not have invented book clubs, but her commendable desire to spark a discussion about noteworthy titles sparked a new interest in reading among her viewers, many of whom had previously limited their consumption of novels to potboilers and bodice-rippers. Launched in 1996, its impact was immediately felt on best-seller lists, library rentals and used-books stores. The media bowed to her genius and, once again, proclaimed her Queen of the World. The idea wasn’t particularly new, however. In her short story, “Xingu,” published in 1916, Edith Wharton satirized the Lunch Club in her fictional Hillbridge, which, she observed, was comprised of “indomitable huntresses of erudition,” who gathered monthly “to pursue Culture in banks.” Instead of contenting themselves with discussing literature, though, the ladies’ time together was consumed by petty disputes and adhering to the social graces of the time. In Bill Holderman’s 2018 directorial debut, Book Club — co-written with freshman scripter Erin Simms and possibly inspired by Helen Hooven Santmyer’s 1982 best-seller, “…And Ladies of the Club” – we’re introduced to four women who’ve have participated in a monthly book club for 30 years. Santmyer’s soapy novel spanned the years 1868-1932. Book Club describes what happens when characters played by Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen agree to read and discuss E.L. James’ steamy exposition of an S&M courtship, “50 Shades of Grey” (2011). Not having read the book that triggered the print and film trilogies, I can’t say why four highly educated, successful and attractive women would get so hot and bothered by a story that, at least in the 2015 film adaptation, barely warranted the R-rating the prudes at the MPAA ratings board bestowed on it.

After feigning their shock at the idea of being handcuffed to a bedpost, the women begin to weigh the current state of their current relationships and sex lives. Only Fonda’s character, a prominent hotelier, appears to be enjoying any semblance of the latter, although it consists primarily of hit-and-run trysts with younger men. The pursuit of a judicial career has weighed heavily on Bergen’s character, while the children of Keaton’s newly widowed character (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) have begun to treat her as if she’s ready to be deposited in a nursing home. Steenburgen’s problem has more to do with the lack of emotional interest shown to her by her newly retired husband (Craig T. Nelson). At this point, it’s worth noting that none of the women looks anything less than gorgeous and easily would qualify as a GILF, as defined in the Urban Dictionary. After introducing the women’s crises, Holderman pretty much jettisons the “50 Shades” plot device to concentrate on the women’s frequently funny efforts to get their grooves back. This also allows room for Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Wallace Shawn and Richard Dreyfuss to enter the picture as suitors and potential lovers … not that anything comes easy for them in this regard. With a powerhouse lineup of stars and exemplary production values – the cosmetics budget for both the female and male actors must have been astronomical – it would have been difficult for women viewers, especially, not to find reasons to endorse the movie. As much as I hate to say it, though, Book Club probably would have been in better hands if Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give) had stepped in, either to doctor the script or add some muscle to the narrative as director.

Still, there’s no arguing with success at the box office. Even going up against juggernauts Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Book Club performed ahead of expectations, thanks to a loyal audience base that was 80 percent women, 88 percent over 35, and 60 percent over the age of 50. The domestic take was just north of $68.5 million, against a budget estimated to be about $10 million. (Did the stars work for scale?) Consider this, too: its cast includes four Oscar winners (Keaton, Fonda, Steenburgen, Dreyfuss) and two Oscar nominees (Bergen, Garcia). Moreover, Keaton, Fonda and Bergen have each dated Warren Beatty at some point in their lives, as has Johnson’s ex-wife Melanie Griffith. Johnson and Griffith’s daughter, Dakota Johnson, starred as Anastasia Steele in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Even as we cheer for 72-year-old Keaton and 62-year-old Garcia to hook up, it’s worth recalling that they played nephew and aunt in The Godfather: Part III. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the many infuriating examples overly conspicuous product placement, which include plugs for the two later chapters in the “Grey” trilogy and cameos by the author and her husband.

Woman Walks Ahead: Blu-ray
While it wouldn’t be wise for a student to take the facts as presented in Woman Walks Ahead as gospel, its heart is the right place and the tragedy of the Plains Indians is depicted with the reverence it warrants. Unlike most of the Westerns made in the last 100 years, the facts-to-errors ratio in Susanna White’s gorgeously shot film – New Mexico for South Dakota – is within an acceptable range. Steven Knight’s story is based on Brooklyn portrait artist Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who, in the late 1880s, journeyed to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in Dakota Territory. Here, her sole goal is to paint portraits of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota. In real life, Weldon was already a strong advocate of Native American rights and the portraits were incidental to her work with the spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation. Even so, in Woman Walks Ahead, she’s portrayed as something of an innocent abroad. While feisty and unimpressed by the racist diatribes of Indian Agent James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds) and U.S. Army Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), she’s looks as out of place on the reservation as any refined Easterner would be in the still very Wild West. Unlike Weldon in real life, Chastain’s character gradually learns of the threat to the Plains Indians posed by the Dawes Act of 1887, which was created to grease the expropriation of vast portions of the Great Sioux Reservation. It would open the land to white settlers and ensure statehood for North Dakota and South Dakota. The Indian population would be squeezed even tighter into reservations devoid of game, arable land and schools.

In Woman Walks Ahead, Weldon’s activism not only sparked by the miserable treatment of Indians by military and government officials, but also her ability to see through their lies when tribal leaders are invited to vote on provisions of the Dawes Act. Until she convinces Sitting Bull to intervene, the results of the election are a foregone conclusion. Because Greyeyes is substantially younger and more handsome than Sitting Bull was at the time, the movie leaves open the possibility of a love connection being made between the protagonists. When they aren’t squabbling over the ground rules for the paintings, they flirt tentatively, then openly, soon becoming close friends and allies. This doesn’t go unnoticed at the fort, where the non-Native Americans consider Weldon to be Sitting Bull’s “whore” and their enemy. Chastain and Greyeyes make a terrific team. Her characterization grows more credible with every new test of her character and resolve. The only possible glitch in Greyeyes’ portrayal comes in his youthful appearance – at 59, Sitting Bull looked like a man who’d spent most of his life outside, in harsh conditions – although Chastain doesn’t much resemble photographs of Weldon, either. Sitting Bull already was 13 years removed from the Battle of the Little Bighorn and had toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Weldon’s arrival coincides with the rise of the Ghost Dance Movement and McLaughlin’s decision to arrest Sitting Bull, largely to prevent him from leaving the reservation for Wounded Knee Creek, where the dancers were gathering and would be slaughtered. The movie implicates an Indian marksman, acting on McLaughlin’s orders, in the assassination of the chief. In real life, he was shot at much closer range and under the cover of a disturbance created by his own people. Either way, it’s a tragedy that wouldn’t be fully rectified for another 100 years. If Woman Walks Ahead is enhanced by fine acting all around and Mike Eley’s evocative cinematography, its graphic depictions of genocidal practices and racist slurs are practically unbearable to watch. Learning about Weldon – another woman largely ignored by historians – is a big plus, though. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a making-of featurette with White, as well as deleted scenes.

Bound: Blu-ray
I can’t remember if my first exposure to Bound was in a theater, screening room or on VHS. It got a bit lost among the many neo-noir crime dramas released in the 1990s and the Wachowski “brothers” were were barely known outside of a couple of Hollywood zip codes and members of the gaming and comics communities. They were only a couple of years removed from running a house painting and construction business in Chicago, while also writing for Marvel Comics. Immediately before writing and directing Bound, they’d collaborated on a screenplay for Assassins, which, to their dismay, was rewritten by director Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland. The experience led to their decision to always direct what they wrote, which is exactly how Bound was born. Today, of course, the Wachowskis are widely known and admired for creating the Matrix trilogy and other challenging sci-fi/fantasy fare, but also for transitioning from Larry and Andy to Lana and Lilly. That part of their personal story wouldn’t be known outside the rumor mill for several more years. One person interviewed on a featurette in Bound’s Blu-ray package insists that their attention to detail in Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon’s incendiary sex scenes was influenced by their evolving attitudes toward LGBT issues. If so, it flew right over my head. Twenty years later, Bound is full of indications that Wachowskis had more on their minds than a contemporized homage to Hollywood’s noir tradition. In a 1998 interview, they said that the film is about “the boxes people make of their lives,” and that it is not only gay people who “live in closets.” The highly memorable sex scenes were choreographed by feminist writer and sex educator Susie Bright, who also appears on the commentary track.

The Wachowskis were fans of Bright and sent her a copy of the script with a letter asking her to be an extra in the film. She was especially impressed by the fact that it was about women enjoying having sex and not apologizing for it. Bright recalls an early screening in San Francisco, at which a lesbian-heavy audience loudly reacted with approval to cues and symbolic motifs that went over the heads of people like me. Tilly’s hypersexual Violet shares an upscale Chicago apartment building with her mafioso boyfriend, Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet meets Gershon’s Corky, an equally hot ex-con in plumber’s drag, who’s entering the door to the apartment next-door to fix the pipes. Violet sets up a rendezvous by dropping an earring into the drain of her kitchen sink. Corky is more than happy to extract it from the elbow joint, for free. Just as they’re about to get cozy, Caesar arrives home early. He buys their story and insists on paying for the work. Not long afterwards, Corky and Violet get it on for real. They also cook up a scheme to steal $2 million in laundered mob money that’s sitting in a safe in Violet’s apartment. It won’t be easy to pull off – Caesar’s bosses already mistrust him, for good reason — but the women are motivated by their desire to break out of their boxes and leave Caesar in their wake. Bound is as violent as it is sexy. Both aspects are enhanced by the Olive Films Blu-ray upgrade and several minutes of additional material in the director’s-cut version. If you’ve already watched Bound in a previous iteration, I recommend watching the featurettes ahead of a second viewing or listening to the vintage commentary track, with the Wachowskis, Tilly, Gershon, Pantoliano, Bright and editor Zach Staenberg. Also good are featurettes “Modern Noir: The Sights & Sounds of Bound,” with director of photography Bill Pope, editor Zach Staenberg and composer Don Davis; “Femme Fatales,” with Gershon and Tilly; “Here’s Johnny!,” with Christopher Meloni; “The Difference Between You and Me,” with professors B. Ruby Rich and Jennifer Moorman; “Part and Parcel,” with titles designer Patti Podesta; and an eight-page illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by critic Guinevere Turner.

Mind Game: Blu-ray
Masaaki Yuasa and Kôji Morimoto’s wondrously eclectic Mind Game is a must-see for anyone who assumes that the past, present and future of Japanimation can be traced to the drawing boards at Studio Ghibli and artists hoping to fill the vacuum left behind by the (temporary) retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. Based on a manga by Robin Nishi (“Soul Flower Train”), the genre-scrambling anime debuted here briefly at the 2005 New York Asian Film Festival, then pretty much disappeared until a sighting at the 2016 Nashville Japanese Film Festival. In between, Mind Game was screened at various international gatherings of animation buffs and, apparently, on Netflix. At the time of its release, western viewers and critics were discovering the wonders of anime in such delights as Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008), thanks, in large part, to distribution deals with Disney and GKIDS. I suspect that the reason Mind Game wasn’t accorded the same exposure as Miyazaki’s features is its distinctly non-Ghibli look and characters. Neither is it a film that will appeal to family audiences. Its messages aren’t delivered by princesses, anthropomorphic creatures or fairies; the language can be coarse; the female protagonist’s unusually prominent breasts are a subject of much discussion; fetishes are explored; the pacing is frenetic; and characters die or are murdered. In fact, death is an essential part of the film’s narrative.

The movie’s protagonist, Nishi, is inspired by the author of the underground comic upon which Mind Game was based and some elements of the story are said to be autobiographical. If so, he’s led a roller-coaster life. Cutting to the chase, the story hinges on Nishi’s death at the hands of Yakuza thugs – one of them, “the Maradona of Osaka” –into whose path he stumbles after reuniting with Myon, the girl he fell in love with in second grade and, years later, continues to carry a torch. She’s being chased through the subway by mob enforcers demanding money owed to loan sharks by her scoundrel father. After the violent encounter in the coffee shop, Nishi’s path through the afterlife is diverted by a return visit to the restaurant, this time with a very different outcome. After dispatching with the gunman, Nishi grabs Myon and her sister and escapes in his muscle car. During a high-speed chase through city streets, right out of The Fast and the Furious, the car careens off a bridge, finally landing in the belly of a whale. They’re greeted there by a hermit, living in an undigested shipwreck, surrounded by sex toys and memorabilia from his boyhood. He treats his guests to a meal inspired by the fare at a “New York sushi bar.” Given a second chance at life, Nishi reminisces about “things that I regret leaving behind in the outside world.” Among them are the porn tapes he didn’t have time to hide from his mother and the neighborhood animals that will go unfed in his absence. The rest of Mind Game passes by in a virtual dream state, combining inky, hand-drawn animation with flashes of live-action imagery and flyovers of Japanese villages and great cities, from Paris to Osaka.

The question that hangs over the nearly 103-minute adventure is whether Nishi will be able to leave the whale’s belly and find another portal to heaven, or he’ll be allowed to return to Earth with Myon and Yan a changed man. No longer a “loser,” he’ll be driven to live each moment to the fullest. The artists help viewers keep the wildly disparate elements straight by frequently changing the color palette to denote shifts in time, tone and cinematic influences, from Hollywood blockbusters, to Ghibli’s and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry delicate watercolors, and bargain-basement anime . One artist makes a cameo in the guise of a cigarette-smoking fish. The film’s music, produced by Shinichiro Watanabe and Seiichi Yamamoto, spans the globe, as well, opening with a Brazilian samba and including storms of percussive noise. I hesitate to consign Mind Game to the list of animated features lumped together as psychedelia, but I was reminded a bit of Yellow Submarine and some of Ralph Bakshi’s more colorful fantasies. It’s very much its own creature, though. To fully appreciate the filmmakers’ intentions and influences, repeat viewings are advised, as is a perusal of bonus features that include commentary on individual scenes.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy, 1996-2012: Blu-ray
Naming a series of films, The Poetic Trilogy, practically dares viewers to find something in them that justifies the conceit, whether it’s a lyricism that retains the ethereal form of a poem or spontaneity based on sudden impulses … like jazz. While a narrative poem, such as Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” easily translates into prose, a folk ballad or film, most others simply deliver sensory prompts useful in setting a scene, creating a character or suggesting dialogue. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010) used animated sequences to interpret parts of Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous  poem, while employing actors to depict events in his early life, including the now-celebrated Six Gallery reading of the poem, the blossoming of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation, and the 1957 obscenity trial. Animation often provides a useful shortcut when interpreting poetic images. That, however, is not what Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf had in mind when he envisioned The Poetic Trilogy. As difficult as it is to translate poetry into film, it’s just that difficult to describe how Makhmalbaf managed to turn cinematic images into poetry, as light and ethereal as a sonnet. The Arrow Academy release features the deceptively folkloric dramas, Gabbeh (1996) and The Silence (1998), and an interpretive documentary, The Gardener (2012), none of which have been easy to find here, even in arthouses.

Gabbeh opens with an intricately woven Persian rug “floating” down a swiftly flowing stream. It belongs to an elderly couple, who stopped to wash the ceremonial gabbeh (rug in Farsi), which depicts a heart-rending story of love and loss. We know this because, while the couple argues over who will put on the boots used to get the rug clean, a radiantly veiled woman suddenly appears to narrate the tale, in which she plays an intricate role. The interpretation provided by Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat), describes a seemingly unconsummated romance with a handsome horseman, also replicated on the carpet. Makhmalbaf not only connects Gabbeh to her dashing would-be lover, but also to the elderly couple’s personal history. In addition to being extremely lyrical, the story provides the filmmaker with several opportunities to expand upon sensory impulses that recall paintings by René Magritte. At one point, an old man literally grabs colors from nature and uses them to amplify his own story. Imbued with Sufi subtext, The Silence features a blind Tajik boy, Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), who earns rent money for his mother (Goibibi Ziadolahyeva) by tuning instruments and running errands for a man who turns blocks of wood and metallic string into music. Because his grandmother once led him to believe that the Koran forbids listening to music not specifically designed to glorify Islam, the boy puts cotton in his ears as he wanders past shops and coffeehouses. His acute sense of hearing cuts through the buffers, though, causing his daily walks to school and work to be delayed by the sonorous music of a musician wearing an ornamental sheepskin Cossack hat. Desperate to prevent their landlord from evicting his family, Khorshid summons the courage to ask the musician for money. Instead, the man offers the services of his band to convince the tightwad to cut the boy’s mother some slack. Finally, while strolling through a bazaar filled with drummers, the boy’s innate sense of rhythm conjures an atonal version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that’s nothing short of magical.

The Gardener is an imaginative documentary-within-a-documentary, in which Makhmalbaf, and his son, Maysam, travel to the Bahá’í World Centre on Mount Carmel, in Haifa, to ponder questions related to the role world religions play in the contemporary world. The Bahá’í Faith, which originated in Iran 170 years ago, is a borderless religion with 7 million followers. It is, however, banned in many Islamic countries and, in Iran, its members have been tormented and persecuted for many decades. This, despite the fact it teaches the essential worth of all religions, as well as the unity and equality of all people. The film is staged among the shrine’s spectacularly beautiful, immaculately tended and artistically conceived Monument Gardens. They provide unique backdrops for Makhmalbaf and Maysam’s spirited discussions on their own beliefs and the possibility that God has given up on humanity. As he witnesses the blissful looks on the faces of refugees from war-torn nations, the father listens closely to the advice of a gardener, who sees God’s glory and wisdom manifested most profoundly in flowers, fruit trees and other greenery. Meanwhile, the son visits the three most significant religious sites in Jerusalem … and, not incidentally, the catalysts for much violence and suffering. One of the devices the gardener uses to reflect on the garden’s beauty is a medium-sized, borderless mirror. It creates a parallel universe comprised exclusively of brilliantly colored and harmonically arranged blossoms. Makhamlbaf invites the gardener to bring the mirror with him to Haifa’s seashore to view the waves from the same perspective. As simple as it is, the mirror provides profound visual experiences … and, yes, poetry in motion. The Silence and Gabbeh benefit from 2K restorations, from the original camera negatives, as well as 1080p) presentations of all three films and original Persian soundtracks, with uncompressed LPCM audio. The package adds commentary on Gabbeh by critic Godfrey Cheshire; “Poetry in Motion,” an in-depth conversation between Makhmalbaf and critic Jonathan Romney; “Mohsen With Closed Eyes,” an imaginatively conceived interview with Makhmalbaf on The Silence; stills and a collections gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing by film academic Negar Mottahedeh and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Boss: Blu-ray
Anyone born after the trial of O.J. Simpson might be stunned to learn that an American movie released in 1975 not only was originally titled, Boss Nigger (a.k.a., “The Black Bounty Killer”), but also was marketed and advertised as such. Critics referred to the title freely in their reviews, some of which were extremely positive. The N-word, as it’s now known, is used repeatedly in the blaxploitation vehicle – more often than in Blazing Saddles (1974) and any of Quentin Tarantino’s films – which was directed by a white filmmaker, Jack Arnold (Creature From the Black Lagoon), and written and co-produced by former football star Fred Williamson, a black man, who also starred in it. It wasn’t the first or last movie that used the word in its title. Williamson also starred in The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973), and The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger (1978), follow suit. Four early one-reelers also used the word in their titles. In almost all these cases, the titles of the video and television versions were necessarily neutralized. Like Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks satire, Williamson’s eponymous character follows a circuitous path to assuming the position of sheriff in a western town without one. As a bounty hunter, Boss already had a license to “hunt white folks for a change.” When he and his comic sidekick, Amos (D’Urville Martin), ride into the town of San Miguel, they infuriate the locals by imposing a $20 fine each time they use the n-word in their presence. The first to be penalized is the town’s banker, while the next is the mayor. Neither does Boss endear himself to the constituency by hooking up with the town’s white schoolteacher (Barbara Leigh), a former Southern belle who can’t resist his charms. Despite being continually insulted and denigrated, Boss and Amos defend the town and its womenfolk against a vicious outlaw gang led by Jed Clayton (William Smith) and his notorious gang, who blackmail the town for supplies to be safe. Boss is very much a product of its time. The trailers promoted its “Get whitey” theme, while also promising plenty of action. A scene in which an outlaw threatens to trample a boy, who’s gotten in the way of his horse, is downright harrowing (and explained in a making-of featurette). The climatic showdown between Williamson and Smith also holds up. The Blu-ray package adds an informal “Conversation with Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson,” which is as much about football as his acting; “A Boss Memory,” with producer Myrl Schrelbman; and “Jack Arnold Tribute,” by producer Myrl Schrelbman.

Crazy Six: Blu-ray
Blast: Blu-ray
Autumn in New York: Blu-ray
Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The MVD Rewind Collection has enjoyed a busy summer, launching two new labels – the MVD Marquee Collection and MVD Classics – designed to differentiate its lines and bring out more cult and independent films on Blu-ray. Titles in the Marquee grouping, a release says, “might be a little too new to be considered ‘cult,’ but old enough to be ‘catalogue,’” Some will be new to Blu-ray and others will be re-releases of titles that have gone out of print and are being brought back. MVD Classics collection will consist of titles that “kinda fall in between the MVD Rewind Collection and the MVD Marquee Collection and might be a little too obscure for those labels.” Not all the latter will be released on Blu-ray.

Released in 1997 and filmed in Bratislava, Slovakia, Marquee’s Crazy Six exploits the fact that the promise of democracy in former Eastern Bloc countries had begun to fade and criminals have begun to take advantage of corrupt leaders and easy money. The families we meet here are vying for control of the lucrative underground weapons and technology trade. Crazy Six (Rob Lowe) and Dirty Mao (Mario Van Peebles) are the unlikely leaders of two rival mob families, which form an uneasy alliance to overthrow Raul (Ice-T), the head of one of the largest crime cartels in Europe. But when the mission goes awry, Crimeland turns into a deadly battleground, with prominent gangsters all going for the jugular. Standing between the criminals and anarchy is the cowboy-hatted lawman, Dakota (Burt Reynolds), and an ex-junkie European chanteuse, Anna (Ivana Milicevic), whose sultry presence dilutes some of the film’s wackier conceits. While genre specialist Albert Pyun only manages to make Lowe look wildly out of place as a crack-smoking gangster – his career would rebound soon enough – he elicits compelling performances from Reynolds and Milicevic.

Also from Marquee comes Pyun’s 1997 terrorist thriller, Blast, which purports to depict a terrorist attack planned to disrupt the 1996 Summer Games, in Atlanta, but was quietly thwarted by FBI agents, lifeguards and a janitor. While police and other security forces are paying attention elsewhere, a well-oiled team of heavily armed terrorists led by the brutal Omodo (Andrew Divoff) breaks into a swimming venue, taking the American women’s team hostage. Omodo is perfectly willing to sacrifice the pretty young swimmers one-by-one – they’re conveniently left shivering in their suits – to advance his nebulous cause. (Sharp eyes might detect a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth among the hostages.) What he doesn’t take into consideration is the facility’s janitor, a former Tae Kwon Do champion, who knows its layout better than anyone. Totally unprepared for an assault of this magnitude, a desperate President orders the F.B.I. to enlist the services of Interpol counter-terrorism expert, Leo (Rutger Hauer), who coordinates rescue efforts via video monitors with the trapped janitor. The only thing missing is a cameo by Bruce Willis. Blast’s biggest problem comes in the viewers’ awareness of a domestic terrorist’s successful attack on a crowd gathered at Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. The bombing killed a spectator, wounded 111 others and caused the death of a bystander by a heart attack. More interesting than anything in Blast was the subsequent investigation of the cowardly bombing, which lasted seven years, but began with the tarring of a genuine hero, Richard Jewell, in the media. In 2003, Eric Robert Rudolph was charged with and confessed to the Olympics bombing, as well as others at two abortion clinics and a gay bar.

And now for something completely different from MVD’s Rewind Collection, Autumn in New York (2000). It’s the kind of weeper Hollywood has routinely churned out since 1912, when the Franco-American Film Company became the first of many studios to adapt Alexandre Dumas’ novel, “Camille.” Here, Richard Gere plays a 50ish Manhattan restaurateur and “consummate playboy,” who, in another Hollywood fantasy, finds true love in the company of a charming and radiantly beautiful 22-year-old, portrayed by a 29-year-old Winona Ryder. A one-night-stand begets a relationship they hope will be permanent, but both know will be cut short by a serious illness. Among the things that happen in the interim are a temporary breakup and a surprise reconnection with the illegitimate daughter (Vera Farmiga) he’s never met. By the time the inevitable tragedy occurs – no spoiler alert needed – Gere’s character has become a very different man. Unlike Love Story (1970), whose characters were similar in age, if not social backgrounds, Autumn in New York failed to break even in its domestic release. It may have been saved by foreign box-office receipts, but not by much. Co-stars Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, J.K. Simmons, Jill Hennessy, Sam Trammell and Mary Beth Hurt survived the debacle to work again another day, as did screenwriter Allison Burnett. If anyone took the heat for the bad reviews and disappointing revenues, it was Joan Chen, whose directorial career came to a screeching halt. Two years earlier, the Shanghai-born actress had garnered excellent notices for her debut at the helm of the Mandarin-language drama, Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. After Autumn in New York, the first Hollywood film to be directed by an Asian woman, zilch. Maybe, with the success of Crazy Rich Asians, she’ll get another chance.

Released straight-to-DVD in 1998, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder benefits from a head-to-tail makeover by the folks at the MVD Rewind Collection. Originally dismissed as an attempt to feed off the popularity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as the growing interest in Canuxploitation flicks, Jamie Dixon’s directorial debut takes advantage of his special-effects background, while also being handcuffed by a tight budget. Not having seen Shadowbuilder in its original iteration, I can only surmise that the upgrade to Blu-ray makes it look significantly better than it did in 1998. And, the story really isn’t half-bad, compared to most genre fare finding distribution today. The always-good Michael Rooker plays a priest determined to cripple a plan by a smoky demon to eliminate a child who’s been divinely marked for sainthood. The priest shows up in time to destroy worshipers gathered in an empty warehouse, but not soon enough to prevent the devil’s minion from escaping into the city’s sewer system. Travelling underground, the demon eventually resurfaces in Grand River, a peaceful little Canadian town in which the boy (Kevin Zegers) lives with his mother (Leslie Hope). Papers left behind at the site of the massacre, lead Father Vassey to Grand River, where the creature is consuming the human blood it needs to replenish its strength. As usual, one thing leads to another and the priest sets up a final confrontation in a quaint Catholic Church. Although even his best friends probably couldn’t recognize him, Ontario actor Andrew Jackson makes a perfectly respectable monster, whose inky black tentacles and powerful puffs of smoke deliver quite a punch.  The MVD “Special Edition” adds a new, 33-minute-long making-of featurette, a backgrounder on the visual effects, an interview with Zegers. reversible artwork and a collectible poster.

Brainscan: Blu-ray
While extremely dated, Scream Factory’s upgraded edition of John Flynn and Andrew Kevin Walker’s cyber-thriller, Brainscan (1994), should provide 96 minutes of nostalgic fun for anyone who can remember when computer games required a CD-ROM. Edward Furlong (Terminator 2) plays Michael, a lonely teenager obsessed with interactive video games, movie monsters and other nerdy pursuits. After ordering a game advertised in Fangoria, Michael and his only friend, Kyle (Jamie Marsh) discover that its interactive component requires them to perform the evil biddings of “The Trickster” (T. Ryder Smith) or face the consequences. The high-tech wizardry penetrates his subconscious, where Trickster’s dark impulses lead him through a deadly maze of murder, deception and desire. Pursued by homicide detective (Frank Langella) and prodded by the cyber-villain, Michael is torn between the worlds of good and evil, life and death. The Trickster makes sure that the boys find it difficult to discern the boundaries separating reality and fantasy. Amy Hargreaves (“13 Reasons Why”) plays the girl-next-door, who somehow forgets to close the curtains in her bedroom, even when she senses that Michael’s watching her undress through binoculars and recording it on his camcorder. The Blu-ray adds new commentary with AD Tara Georges Flynn; interviews with screenwriter Walker (Se7en), Smith, special-makeup-effects supervisor Steve Johnson and effects artists Andy Schoneberg and Mike Smithson, and composer George S. Clinton; the behind-the-scenes featurette, “Trickin’ With Trickster”; a deleted scene; behind-the-scenes footage; marketing material; and a stills gallery.

My Life With Jam Dean
Brotherly Love
Even if it fails to meet certain criteria traditionally associated with screwball cesomedies, I can’t think of a better way to describe the French export, My Life With James Dean. It describes what happens when a freshman filmmaker, Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse), is invited to showcase his film, “My Life With James Dean,” at a theater in a small town on the Normandy coast. His trip gets off to a bad start when he realizes that he’s left his laptop at home and a boy steals his cellphone, leaving him dependent on the kindness of strangers. Worse, his host, Sylvie van Rood (Nathalie Richard), is AWOL and the theater’s two employees aren’t aware of any special screening. When the projectionist does find the explicitly gay film, which isn’t about the American actor, it’s shown to an audience of one elderly woman. What she thinks of the movie is never made clear, nor is it easy to see why such a graphic film would be exhibited here, especially in the off-season. The tall, handsome projectionist, Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), on the other hand, is so moved by what he’s seen that it prompts him to exit the closet in which he’s been living. While Géraud’s room reservation was made, at least, the kooky receptionist (Juliette Damiens) seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for him to relax. The next morning, a sincerely apologetic Sylvie connects with the filmmaker, explaining that her roller-coaster relationship with her girlfriend had taken yet another turn for the worse and she’d simply forgotten him. Balthazar also shows up, pledging his willingness to do anything – anything – to make Géraud’s stay happier. With his star/lover making himself scarce to him, Géraud decides to take him up on the offer. This sets up another row of dominoes, which will fall in several unexpected directions, most of them amusing.  If the movie-within-the-movie is described as sexually explicit, the movie itself isn’t any more graphic than La Cage aux Folles. The only questionable moment comes when Balthazar reveals something personal that could change everything, including our perception of the protagonist.

Brotherly Love is the movie adaptation of Salvatore Sapienza’s Lambda Literary Award-nominated novel, “Seventy Times Seven.” I wish the title weren’t altered to appeal – I’m guessing – to viewers looking for something more stimulating than a bible lesson, however relevant. “Jesus instructed us to forgive those who have wronged us seventy times seven times,” is the message Vito Fortunato (writer/director Anthony J. Caruso) delivers to the boys in his high school religion class. Fortunato is an out-gay seminarian, in the final stages of being ordained a brother in the Catholic Church. He may not advertise his penchant for partying and cruising, but he doesn’t keep his proclivities hidden very deeply from his immediate supervisors and fellow seminarians. Before committing to breaking the Church’s laws every time he puts on his vestments, Fortunato agrees to spend some time at a Catholic AIDS Care Center in Austin. Although he isn’t shown doing any good deeds there, Fortunato receives all sorts of advice and support from priests and brothers who’ve asked themselves the same questions. At the same time, he falls for an appealing landscaper, Gabe (Derek Babb), who encourages Fortunato to fish or cut bait. Most of this is played for laughs by characters who fit the description of likeable stereotypes and reference every gay icon and cultural touchstone that can fit into its overlong 118-minute length. Sapienza’s novel is set in the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic forced clergy to provide real answers to tough questions posed by parishioners dealing with the crises in their lives. Twenty-five years later, priests are still confronting the same basic issues. The answer to one of them, “Can a man of faith be true to his God and sexual identity, and still wear the collar?,” has now been clouded by sexual-abuse scandals within the Church and the devious ways it’s dealt with them. Caruso’s decision to star in Brotherly Love, which he also directed and wrote, probably was forced by budgetary considerations. It can be argued that it served to trivialize issues that probably were handled differently in the book.

PBS: Garfield’s Halloween Adventure
PBS Kids: Ready Jet Go! Jet’s First Halloween
I don’t know when “Garfield in Disguise” morphed into “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure,” but it probably came about when holiday spending began to soar into 10-figure numbers. (Last year, it reached an estimated $9.1 billion.) Between candy, costumes and haunted houses, consumers dished out an average of $86.1, which was up more than $3 from 2016. These Halloween-themed DVDs arrived before commercial expectations for 2018 could be predicted, with others hot on their trail. The Halloween special, “Garfield in Disguise,” first aired in 1985, near October 31. It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program and was adapted into an an illustrated children’s book. As “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure,” it’s become a perennial treat. In it, Garfield and Odie put on their pirate costumes to get as much Halloween candy as possible. After a successful night trick-or-treating, Garfield spots even more houses across the river. Once they get there, though, they wind up in a haunted house, where real ghostly pirates are expected to arrive any minute. The DVD also includes “Garfield Goes Hollywood,” during which Jon, Garfield and Odie win a local TV talent contest and head to Hollywood for the finals.

Having debuted on October 24, 2016, PBS Kids’ “Ready Jet Go! Jet’s First Halloween” is a far fresher commodity. In the two-parter, Sydney, Sean and Mindy make a list of everything they need to do to give Jet a classic Halloween experience, including carving jack-o-lanterns, dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating through the neighborhood. Celery takes the kids on a quick trip to space to see what causes a lunar eclipse, while a neighbor briefs them on the Red Moon phenomenon.  Carrot and Celery turn their garage into a haunted house. Jet and Sunspot even make Mindy’s Halloween wish of seeing a witch fly across the Red Moon on a broom come true. Produced in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Ready Jet Go!” is aimed at kids

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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