MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Avengers, Ninko, Escape, Aim for the Heart, Yellow Birds, Affairs of State, Gregorio Cortez, 200 Motels, Done to Your Daughters?, S.F. Brownrigg, Muppet Babies, BBC Earth … More

Avengers: Infinity War: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
If I were asked to summarize Avengers: Infinity War for someone who’s been in a coma for the last 20 years, or so, I’d compare it to a crossover sequel to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The House of Frankstein (1944), which featured a mad scientist, played by Boris Karloff; J. Carrol Naish, as his hunchback assistant; Glenn Strange, as the Monster; the Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney Jr.; and John Carradine as Count Dracula. Early drafts of the story reportedly involved more characters from the Universal Monsters stable, including the Mummy, Ape Woman, Mad Ghoul, and the Invisible Man. The studio attempted to capture lightning in a bottle twice more, in House of Dracula (1944) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In the 37-year-long span bridging the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Leech Woman (1960), Universal’s stable would grow to include a couple dozen more creepy characters. The differences between the protagonist/antagonists of the Universal Monsters movies and the superheroes in Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe owe everything to comic-book origins, advanced digital and CGI technology, and lavish budgets unimaginable in the 1930s.

Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, not only featured such familiar actors as Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Provine, but cameos and supporting roles filled by 60 other well-known and beloved comedians. There would have been more, but United Artists had to draw the budgetary line somewhere. In it, a car driven by “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), an ex-convict wanted by police in a tuna-factory robbery 15 years ago, careens off a winding mountain road near Palm Desert. Just before he dies (literally kicking a bucket), Grogan tells the horrified motorists who come to his rescue about $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park, near the Mexican border, under “… a big W.” After the men break their promise to collaborate in the search and share the money, they go off on their separate ways – with their wives and a mother-in-law – to beat the others to the treasure. Tracy is wearily wonderful as the cop who’s been on Grogan’s trail for years and who orders police units in the vicinity to monitor the movements of the Good Samaritans. Not an easy task, as it turns out. The movie was a huge hit and won several awards.

Avengers: Infinity War made a ton of money, too, especially overseas, where fully two-thirds of its total $2.045-billion haul originated. And, looking ahead, it’s entirely possible that “Infinity Wars,” Black Panther and Deadpool 2 – all based on comics by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee – could end up competing for the dubious honor of carrying home the first Oscar as Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. There’s no question that the second sequel to The Avengers is an exceedingly entertaining and frequently exciting cinematic experience. But, as Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek observed, “[It] isn’t really a beginning, but more of a middle or an end with a new piece of yarn attached. You need to have seen and internalized every one of the previous 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to fully get it.” That might have presented a problem for the folks at Marvel/Disney studios, if they hadn’t already taken it into consideration and targeted its marketing directly at audiences that actually have “seen and internalized every one of the previous 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.” I can’t imagine anyone jumping into any MCU picture without having first watched more than a half-dozen installments of Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy as comics or films. The film is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger). It features an ensemble cast, including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt. Not as many as “Mad World,” a lot of folks.

Josh Brolin is largely unrecognizable as the film’s antagonist, Thanos, who’s appeared in previous MCU segments, but without the actor’s name attached to the character. Here, the Titan despot’s mission is to collect all six of the Infinity Stones, which would allow him to impose his will on all of reality and “re-balance the universe.” Having acquired the Power Stone from the planet Xandar, Thanos and his lieutenants intercept a spaceship carrying the last survivors of Asgard. As they extract the Space Stone from the Tesseract, Thanos subdues Thor, overpowers Hulk and kills Loki. The more stones Thanos collects, the more powerful he becomes. The corpses pile up like kindling in this extremely dark segment of “Infinity War.” When the Avengers and Guardians get involved, the mood lightens noticeably. Even the titanic battles are staged with an eye for laughs … or, at least, entertainment. By the time the smoke clears – 149 minutes, give or take — plenty of room is left for an already planned third sequel. For anyone still sitting on the fence as to upgrading to 4K UHD, the release of “Infinity War” provides a very good reason for making the leap. The difference in audio/visual quality between the Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions is substantial, and there’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray. The experience is more vibrant, immersive and enjoyable. The bonus features, stored on the Blu-ray disc, include “The Mad Titan,” focusing on Thanos; “Beyond the Battle: Titan,” on the climactic struggle on Thanos’ ruined world; “Beyond the Battle: Wakanda,” which describes how the epic battle in Africa was staged; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary, with the Russos, Markus and McFeely.

The Suffering of Ninko
The elegant ukiyo-e woodcut print on the cover of Norihiro Niwatsukino’s debut feature, The Suffering of Ninko, provides only a hint at what to expect on the DVD inside the box. Neither do the pictures and text on the back cover do it much justice. Set in Japan’s Edo period, the story begins in a Buddhist monastery, where the novice monk Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is working his tail off to prove to his superiors just how worthy he is to advance within the order’s hierarchy. He would love to be able to demonstrate his virtue and spiritual purity, as well, but he suffers from a terrible burden. Whenever he leaves the monastery to gather alms, he’s mobbed by women desirous of his sexual healing. His charms aren’t wasted on those fellow monks so-inclined, either. His dilemma, of course, involves his desire to remain chaste and focused while being assaulted by women for whom clothes are only a temporary encumbrance.  After a troubling encounter with a naked woman wearing a Noh mask, he sets out on a journey to purify himself of these sexual advances and haunting fantasies. One day, he arrives in a village decimated by the rapacious mountain goddess, Yama-Onna, (Miho Wakabayashi), who’s seduced and killed all the young men. The village chief begs Ninko to join forces with a ronin, Kanzo (Hideta Iwaishi), to eliminate the sorceress. Now, if this hot-monk scenario sounds as if it would make a terrific comedy in the pinku eiga tradition – Japanese for soft-core porn – you’d be right. Niwatsukino has other things in mind, however. One of them is to create an erotic fantasy in a less exploitative tradition. By setting The Suffering of Ninko in the 16th Century, he’s able to alternate live action and folkloric storytelling with ukiyo-e and a mandala-style animated sequence. While there’s plenty of nudity on display, it never feels gratuitous or excessive … or, maybe, it is and I was OK with it. The inevitable confrontation between the innocent monk and corruptive demon is enhanced by Edo-inspired shunga erotica, animations and a lovely rendition of Ravel’s “Bolero,” played with traditional Japanese instruments.

The Escape
In Dominic Savage’s not fully realized woman-on-the-verge drama, The Escape, the gifted English actress Gemma Arterton — Bond Girl Strawberry Fields, in Quantum of Solace (2008) – plays a housewife in a London suburb, who, you guessed it, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her plight isn’t something we haven’t seen before in movies and television shows ranging from Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Montenegro (1981) to “Desperate Housewives.” On the surface, it would appear as if Tara is living the perfect life. Her husband has a good job, they have a swell house, the requisite number of kids and enough money for occasional luxuries. Sound familiar? So, will this: Tara’s husband, Mark (Dominic Cooper), is obsessed with his job, self-absorbed and frequently insensitive; the house has begun to feel like a prison; the kids never stop demanding her time and presence; and she doesn’t have the energy left to enjoy the “good life” that Mark’s income affords her. One day, at a used book kiosk, she discovers an album of medieval tapestries that trigger her imagination. When Mark accuses her of paying more attention to the book than to his needs, and the kids are crying uncontrollably, Tara purchases a one-way ticket to Paris, where she can pretend, at least, that her problems are behind her. If The Escape were a tad less predictable, Tara wouldn’t hook up with the first guy she meets in a museum — the tapestry she loves is on exhibit there — and converses with him as if they were college kids attempting to make an impression on each other. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it isn’t likely to satisfy many viewers. In fact, they might find it offensive. There’s nothing wrong with Arterton’s performance, though. She makes us feel Tara’s pain and frustration, as well as the relief that comes when she arrives in Paris, checks into her hotel and realizes that she’s able to breathe freely for the first time in years, if only temporarily.

The Yellow Birds
I haven’t read the novel upon which Alexandre Moors adapted his sophomore feature, The Yellow Birds. After reading a few summaries and reviews, though, I doubt that the movie captured the essence of what Kevin Powers wanted to convey. The original screenplay by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) was rewritten by R.F.I. Porto, who collaborated with Moors previously on Blue Caprice. According to the author, himself a veteran of the war in Iraq, the novel is an invention of his imagination, based on his experiences there and on the home front, as well as questions about this country’s feigned dedication to the soldiers fighting the war. Those are foremost in the minds of the movie’s protagonists, too. The novel was very well received by critics and named a finalist for a National Book Award. Books about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Syria, have fared better than the movie adaptations have at the box office. It’s almost as if the same Americans who’ve stopped paying attention to the war in Powers’ novel have also decided that movies based on the conflict aren’t worth their attention, either. They will, however, buy a veteran a beer and thank him or her for their “service.” When it comes to demanding an end to the fighting and dying, however, the folks back home have very little to say.

But, back to the movie. The Yellow Birds is set in a war-ravaged section of Iraq, where every patrol and reconnaissance mission could be expected to end badly for someone. Soldiers Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) forge a deep bond of friendship and trust, because, in part, they both hail from the same part of the country. Bartle, who’s three years older than Murph, is troubled by a promise he made to Murph’s mother (Jennifer Aniston) before their deployment. She asked him not only to protect her 18-year-old, but also tell her the circumstances of his death, if it comes to that. The men share a strong relationship with Sergeant Sterling (Jack Huston), who’s anguished by his role in the fighting. After Murphy is wounded, he develops a crush on the nurse (Aylin Tezel) he credits with saving his life. She represents the only good thing that’s happened to him during his tour of duty and, when she’s taken away from him, he falls apart. Back on duty, Murphy is separated from his platoon, leaving his buddies and viewers to wonder whether he’s gotten lost, killed, captured or gone AWOL. When the search ends in Iraq, the drama picks up back home. The Yellow Birds is such an unrelievedly sad movie that it made me wonder if Murphy’s disappearance is based on something in the book or real life, or if the screenplay upped the ante on cruelty just to bring something different to the drama. It was that hard to watch. The actors, including Toni Collette as Bartle’s cynical mother, deliver convincing performances, however. Daniel Landin’s cinematography (Morocco-for-Iraq) also manages to convey a side of the war that’s rarely touched in such movies.

Only a writer/director with an overabundance of chutzpah would attempt to build his first feature on a foundation of such visually disparate elements as the Spaghetti Western, neo-noir crime drama, graphic-novel imagery and attitudes cribbed from the Tarantino/Rodriguez brain trust. The musical soundtrack makes similarly audacious leaps, as well, from folk songs to Ennio Morricone’s leftovers. Pickings isn’t unwatchable, by any stretch of the imagination. The actors are game for whatever Usher Morgan throws their way and the barroom setting keeps them from wandering too far beyond the limits of his overly hard-boiled dialogue. In Morgan’s debut, Elyse Price plays a single mother and bar owner – it’s called Pickings – somewhere in small-town Michigan. A tall Southern blond, Jo Lee Haywood, runs the pleasantly appointed establishment with her emotionally fragile elder daughter, Scarlett (Katie Vincent), and sisters Doris (Michelle Holland) and May (Lynne Jordan). (Her other kids are much younger, but no less spunky.) Gangsters, presumably from Detroit, covet Pickings, and decide to make a move on it. Because they aren’t aware of Jo Lee’s underworld past, the extortionists are taken by surprise by her unwillingness to cooperate with them. They’re also taken by surprise by her brother, Boone (Joel Bernard), who dresses like Timothy Olyphant’s character, in “Justified,” and brings spaghetti-sauce to the story. With every new wave of ridiculously stereotypical Italian gangsters that arrives at Pickings, demanding a piece of it, Morgan changes the color palette, sometimes draining the color entirely from their faces. What worked in Sin City, however, gets diluted in the mix of gimmicks here. The DVD adds Morgan’s commentary, deleted scenes, a music video and a couple of short featurettes.

Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart
Movies featuring serial killers are as common here as movies about the Zombie Apocalypse and teenagers coming of age. Not so, in France and most other countries in the world, where the media haven’t been as inclined to portray sociopaths as potential antagonists in movies and television shows, and audiences aren’t as titillated by the intricacies of their crimes. France has had more than its fair share of serial killers and mass murderers, though. They include Henri Désiré Landru, who inspired the character of Monsieur Verdoux, played by Charlie Chaplin, and Baron Gilles de Rais, a 15th Century Satanist reputed to have murdered 400 children. Cedric Anger’s engrossing thriller, Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart (2014) tells the story of notorious serial killer Alain Lamare (here renamed Frank Neuhart), who exclusively targeted young women, while simultaneously trying to start a love affair with his married cleaning lady (Ana Girardot). In a truly mordant twist, while Lamare (Guillaume Canet) is terrorizing an agricultural region north of Paris in the winter of 1978-79, he’s also serving the state as a gendarme tasked with apprehending the killer. Lamare starts his reign of terror by running girls on scooters off the road and speeding away into the night. After ditching the stolen cars, he’s sometimes called to the scene of the crime. His methodology will evolve into something more blunt and obvious, such as picking up young women still clueless enough to hitchhike during a crime wave, driving to the nearest field and shooting them in the head. When Lamare does show something resembling remorse, he assuages his guilt by self-flagellation, wrapping his arms with barbed wire and bathing in a tub full of ice. Anger co-wrote the screenplay for André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter (2014), which also starred Canet (Tell No One), from a book on the “Oise killer” by Yvan Stefanovitch and Martine Laroche. In addition to the film’s thriller aspects, it also serves as a decent procedural, demonstrating how a department might even be able to exploit false leads in the successful pursuit of a monster in their ranks. Americans who dread experiencing French cinema, as much as they are repulsed by snails and frog legs, shouldn’t have any problem digesting Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart, subtitles and all. It’s simple, direct, familiar and light on dialogue. It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that Anger is a former critic for Cahiers du cinema and writer/director of The Killer and The Lawyer, genre pieces that weren’t accorded distribution here, despite good reviews at festivals.

Affairs of State: Blu-ray
It would be difficult for a filmmaker to approach the subject of electoral politics with any more cynicism than the real-life politicians, operatives and scenarios they hope to depict on the big screen. It’s as if an entire generation of aspiring campaign workers, fund-raisers and analysts studied All the President’s Men, all of them coming away with the same message: cover your tracks, so you won’t get caught. Somehow, the buffoons hired to run Donald Trump’s corrupt, if ultimately successful presidential campaign failed to learn the lesson. Not only did they leave tracks that led directly to their doors, but, if Special Counsel Robert Mueller has his way, most of them will also get caught. It explains why nothing that happens in Eric Bross and Tom Cudworth’s political power trip, Affairs of State, seems remotely implausible. Outlandish, yes … impossible, no. David Corenswet plays an aspiring campaign aide, Michael Lawson, who will do almost anything to advance from the ranks of muckraking journalists to a job with the rare candidate who shares his ideals. His lesbian roommate, Callie Roland (Thora Birch), uses the skills she honed as a journalist to become an ace private investigator, with a special interest in the private lives of candidates. Her research will help him land a job on the staff of an ace campaign strategist, Rob Reynolds (Adrian Grenier), who possesses fewer scruples than any of the Watergate burglars. Before that can come to pass, however, Michael will be required to sexually satisfy wealthy Republican donor, Mary Maples (Faye Grant), and Sen. John Baines’s second wife, Judith (Mimi Rogers), who’s as insatiable as he is. Michael also will become involved with the conservative presidential candidate’s troubled daughter, Darcy (Grace Victoria Fox), who once attempted to stab her stepmother. Callie chastises Michael for joining forces with the sleazeball campaign strategist, but also agrees to accept money to do undercover work for him, herself. Eventually, Michael, Rob and Callie all will pay for their sins, even as the ship of state steams its way to another ignoble port. For the most part, Bross keeps Affairs of State light and sexy enough to satisfy fans of Lifetime movies – at 62 and 61, Rogers and Grant remain remarkably hot – as well as fans of prime-time network sitcoms. Vladimir Putin doesn’t make an appearance, but, perhaps, Bross is saving that for a sequel.

The House of Tomorrow: Blu-ray
To fully appreciate and enjoy writer/director Peter Livolsi’s quirky debut film, The House of Tomorrow, it helps to have a basic knowledge of American architect, systems theorist, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller and what his work meant to a generation of environmentalists, green-power advocates and forward-thinkers in the 1960s. Not only did Fuller introduce the geodesic dome to a generation of communards, hippies and rich eccentrics, but he also helped popularize the concept of Spaceship Earth. Since 1982, millions of visitors to Walt Disney World Resort have been exposed to a physical manifestation of Spaceship Earth theory, in the form of the huge geodesic sphere that serves as the symbolic structure of Epcot Center. Although it contains a popular dark-ride attraction, it’s provided visitors with opportunities to expand their knowledge of Whole Earth philosophy. “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth,” Fuller wrote, in 1968, “(is that) an instruction manual didn’t come with it.” In The House of Tomorrow, Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) plays Josephine Prendergast, a gray-haired disciple of “Bucky” Fuller, who lives in wonderfully designed and fully furnished geodesic dome, with her orphaned grandson, Sebastian (Asa Butterfield). The fully functional and impressively appointed house is used as a learning center for students in schools in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul. Asa is home-schooled by his grandmother, who attempts to keep the boy as unaffected by mainstream cultural values, processed food and commercial influences as possible. The brainwashing has been successful.

Asa’s life changes dramatically when, during a home tour, he’s introduced to the Whitcomb family. Alan Whitcomb (Nick Offerman) is an open-minded minister, who leads youth-group activities at a local church. Since his divorce from his alcoholic wife (Michaela Watkins), Alan’s worked hard to keep his disaffected son, Jared (Alex Wolff), from rejecting his transplanted heart, and keeping his sexually precocious daughter, Meredith (Maude Apatow) from ruining her future. If they occasionally bristle at his admonitions, they also acknowledge his good intentions and authority. Jared and Asa strike up a very tentative friendship, based on a mutual love for hard-core punk music, while Meredith takes a shine to Asa for his uncommonly gentle demeanor and innocence, which derives from never being further from his nanna than she deems safe. In effect, he’s the original clean slate. After Asa gets into an argument with Josephine over her politically correct dictates and obsession with “Bucky,” he moves in with the Whitcombs. Although, their influence isn’t completely corruptive, Asa enthusiastically forms a punk band with Jared and allows himself to fall for the slightly older Meredith in an increasingly non-Platonic way. The biggest obstructions to a happy ending to “House” are health crises faced by Jared and Josephine in the first half of the movie. Livolsi keeps a fairly tight grip on the generational fissures that produce the drama here. Because it plays off clichés associated with the 1960s and 1990s, “House” – based on a 2010 novel by Peter Bognanni – “House” should appeal to a broad audience of parents, teenagers and former subscribers to the Whole Earth Catalogue. It arrives with a lengthy discussion between Burstyn and Livolsi, a post-screening Q&A from the New York movie premiere and audio commentary by cast and director.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties: Blu-ray
John Cameron Mitchell and Philippa Goslett’s inventive rom/com musical, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, doesn’t benefit at all from a title that may remind potential viewers of such mid-aught mediocrities as Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! (2004), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), “How I Met Your Mother” (2005) and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008), none of which it resembles. If anything, it bears a closer relationship to Mike Nichols’ sci-fi curiosity, What Planet Are You From? (2000). It would have taken more than the three weeks that How to Talk to Girls at Parties was available in theaters – 103, to be exact – for fans of Mitchell’s previous indie features, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Shortbus (2006) and Rabbit Hole (2010), to realize that he had anything with it. Or, that it was based on a short story by acclaimed fantasist Neil Gaiman (Stardust). Or, that beyond Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp, the cast included such standouts as Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Matt Lucas, Tom Brooke, Elarica Johnson, Joey Ansah and Joanna Scanlan. Oh, I get it, now. Too many Brits … regardless of the fact that so many of them appeared in “Harry Potter.” As the story goes, an alien touring the galaxy breaks away from her group and meets two young inhabitants of “the most dangerous place in the universe: the London suburb of Croydon.” It’s 1977 and a shy suburban London teenager, Enn (Sharp), enjoys sneaking out with his mates to after-hours punk parties. One night, they stumble upon a bizarre gathering of sexy teenagers, who seem as if they are from another planet … which, of course, they are. Enn falls madly in love with Zan (Fanning), the rebellious alien teenager, who, despite her allegiance to her strange colony, is fascinated by the lad. Together, they embark on a delirious adventure through the kinetic punk-rock world of 1970s London. Among the bands they watch is the Dyschords, managed by a chain-smoking woman, Boadicea (Kidman), who changes costumes and wigs with great frequency. Inadvertently, they trigger a series of events that will lead to the ultimate showdown of punks vs. aliens. The brilliantly colorful Blu-ray includes commentary with Mitchell, Fanning and Sharp; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.

Destined to Ride
It isn’t often that you encounter a G-rated film whose appeal isn’t limited to kids under 8-years-old and their parents, who pretend to be interested in it. Destined to Ride is as wholesome as you’d expect a film with a G-rating to be, but the MPAA is curiously stingy with the designation. (Meanwhile, several Disney films that feature scenes designed to teach kids how to deal with death and the loss of parents, maintain their G-rating, as if entitled to it.) Here, Lily (Madeline Carroll) suddenly finds her normal life – cheerleading, gymnastics etc. — turned upside down, when she is forced to leave her friends to spend the summer on a remote ranch with her free-spirited aunt (Denise Richards). Her widowed father (Joey Lawrence) is too busy to focus on Lily’s well-being and she’s left with no choice but to make the best of a bad situation. She is surprised to meet an unlikely group of friends, whose lives revolve around their horses, and accept her without reservations. Talk about G-rated, they even teach her how to square dance. When her aunt is threatened by an unfriendly neighbor, Lily knows it is up to her and Pistachio — the horse she’s grown to love — to save the ranch and to find her destiny along the way. In doing so, she utilizes all the girl power available to her and a new BFF. The scenery is nice and the drama of a horse race with real stakes add to the enjoyment.

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There could hardly be a better time to discover – or re-discover, as the case may be – one of the best Westerns made in the last 50 years. It also happens to be one of the best chase movies made in the same period. Based on the book, “With His Pistol in His Hand,” by Americo Paredes, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’ current relevancy derives not as much on the debate over illegal immigration as the historic racism that informs every discussion over who should be allowed to cross the Rio Grande to do work Americans wouldn’t be paid well to do or is escaping violence back home. Ever since Texas was successfully wrested from Mexico, in 1848, Tejanos of Hispanic and Mestizo heritage have been discriminated against by white Americans with the same ferocity as that reserved for Africans in the south and Chinese in the west. It is estimated that at least 597 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched between 1848 and 1928, and laws were passed to the exclude them from public institutions, businesses, homeowners associations and schools. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and Chicano Movement of the 1950-60s, conditions have improved for many, if not all Americans of color. The ugly debate over how to deal with illegal immigration on our southern border – triggered by the inflammatory rhetoric employed by Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries – has revived traditional prejudices and tensions. When director Robert M. Young and co-writer Victor Villaseñor put their heads together on the screenplay for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, their approach to depicting racism, injustice and exclusion was framed as a historical drama, inspired by a corrido (folk ballad) still sung in the Rio Grande Valley. In 1982, Edward James Olmos was known primarily for his portrayal of El Pachuco in the stage and film productions of Luis Valdez’ play, “Zoot Suit.” He had also turned in memorable performances in Wolfen and Blade Runner. He would star in, produce and promote this, the rare movie made for Hispanic audiences that didn’t involve gangs.

It is set in 1901, when Gregorio Cortez and his brother, Romaldo (Pepe Serna), worked as tenant farmers on the Thulemeyer ranch, outside of Kenedy, Texas, halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. After learning that Gregorio had acquired a mare from a Mexican resident of Kenedy by way of trade, Karnes County Sheriff W.T. “Brack” Morris (Timothy Scott) went to the ranch to check out rumors of a recent theft of a horse in his jurisdiction. A faulty translation by a deputy led to a misunderstanding between Morris and the Cortez brothers. When Morris moved to arrest Gregorio, Romaldo got between the two men. After the sheriff shot his brother, Gregorio shot and killed Morris, clearly in self-defense. (Mexican horse thieves, guilty or accused, could be lynched for no other reason than their ethnicity.) The deputy raced back to town to round up a posse, while Cortez headed to the ranch of Martín and Refugia Robledo, several miles north of Kenedy. At the Robledo home, Gonzales County Sheriff Robert M. Glover (Michael McGuire) and his “posseman” Henry Schnabel exchanged shots with Cortez, leaving the two lawmen dead. The fugitive walked nearly 100 miles to the home of a friend, Ceferino Flores, who provided him a horse and saddle. Cortez then headed due south, toward Laredo. The ensuing 10-day manhunt, with as many as 400 men, was led by Sherriff Frank Fly (James Gannon) and Texas Rangers Captain Rogers (Brion James). A train was used to bring in new men, fresh horses and other supplies.

The story is told through the filter of a reporter, Blakely (Bruce McGill), who is given exceptional access to key lawmen. The material he filed via telegraph provides readers with the points of view of sheriffs, deputies and Rangers who had a big ax to grind with Cortez, specifically, and Mexicans, in general. In fact, Texas newspapers were openly racist in their coverage of the tragedy, some going so far as to wonder why Cortez hadn’t already been arrested and lynched. When he is finally captured – betrayed by an acquaintance for the reward – the drama turns to the Gonzales County jail, which is still standing, and courtroom. Cortez narrowly avoids being pulled from his cell and lynched by a mob led by Ned Beatty, of all people. Remarkably, not everyone bought the official line handed out by newspapers, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Defense attorney B.R. Abernathy (Barry Corbin) delivers an impassioned, well-reasoned argument for Cortez having acted in self-defense and within his rights. He was convicted, but the fight continued for another dozen years. It’s no secret that the verdict was subsequently overturned, and Cortez was eventually, if not immediately pardoned. In addition to excerpts from Blakley’s dispatches, Young weaves instrumentals based on “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” into the narrative, reserving a performance of the full song until the end. Rugged Western landscapes are elegantly shot by Reynaldo Villalobos, as are the chase scenes, which obviously were captured on the run. What, you haven’t heard of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez before now? The blame lies on backers and distributors who had no faith in the movie’s ability to coax Hispanic viewers into theaters, a theory proven false in the four-walled L.A. release, but bungled badly in the New York showcase. Its failure is explained in featurettes found in the pristine Criterion Collection release, including new interviews with Olmos and Chon A. Noriega, author of “Shot in America: Television, the State and the Rise of Chicano Cinema”; a cast-and-crew panel from 2016, featuring Olmos, Young, Villalobos, producer Moctesuma Esparza and actors McGill, Serna, Tom Bower and Rosana DeSoto; and an essay by film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.

200 Motels
In his prime, Frank Zappa could take such mundane objects as brown shoes, pumpkins and dental floss and spin a symphony of electronic sounds around them. His iconoclastic sense of humor was superseded only by a passion for making music – rock, R&B, classical, jazz, doo-wop — that couldn’t be formatted for the convenience of deejays and music executives … until “Valley Girl,” anyway. The name, Spike Jones, may not mean a lot to young people today – even those with an interest in Zappa’s work – but their mutual ability to merge social commentary and satire with deceptively intricate composition made them two peas in pod. Their bands were comprised of musical misfits, who not only were required to play their instruments brilliantly, but also provide sound effects, wisecracks and wear costumes when called upon by the maestro. Zappa may have looked like a freak, but he disavowed the use of mind-altering substances. That fact, alone, confused audiences and critics, alike, upon their first exposure to 200 Motels. It was too easily characterized a “psychedelic,” simply because the emerging video technology allowed co-directors Zappa and Tony Palmer to experiment freely with all sorts of sensory impulses. Zappa boiled down the movie’s theme to four words, however, “Touring makes you crazy,” explaining that the idea for the film came to him while the Mothers of Invention were on the road, visiting the cities and staying in places that all began to look like fictional Centerville after a while.

See if this makes any sense to you: 200 Motels opens with Larry the Dwarf (Ringo Starr) descending onto a television soundstage, carrying a steaming genie lamp. When the German announcer (Theodore Bikel) asks him why he is dressed as Frank Zappa, Larry responds that Frank forces him to dress up to have sex with a nun (Keith Moon), playing the harp. The announcer, who’s actually an American named Rance Muhammitz, states that Larry’s statements are part of the score to 200 Motels, a movie that occurred as a fantasy while the Mothers of Invention were touring. As the band, which includes Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan (a.k.a., Flo and Eddie), Ian Underwood, Aynsley Dunbar and George Duke performs, Muhammitz elaborates on the ways in which touring makes innovative people crazy. The band members’ main concerns are the search for groupies and the desire to get paid, neither of which are sure things on the road. The story, interspersed with performances by the Mothers and the Royal Symphony Orchestra, continues as the band members wreak havoc in Centerville, a typical American town with its Rancid Boutique, Cheesy Motel, Fake Nightclub, Redneck Eats Cafe, groupies and an honest-to-goodness Main Street. 200 Motels was shot on videotape, at Pinewood Studios, London, in five days, at the beginning of February 1971. It’s been cited as the first British-made example of the videotape-to-film process.

Walking Tall: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When it comes to remakes of long-ago genre hits, the majority can be written off as redundant, pointless or merely unnecessary. Profits are never guaranteed. While it might be fun to watch Lady Gaga attempt to make audiences forget the performances turned in by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand in previous editions of A Star Is Born, I’m not looking forward to watching Bradley Cooper direct himself in the role once played by Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson. For every hit foreign movie successfully transplanted in American soil (La Cage aux Folles/The Birdcage), recast with a substantially different actor (The Nutty Professor) or updated to take advantage of shifts in technology or popular vices (Scarface), there are a dozen remakes that were non-starters from Day One: Straw Dogs (2011), The Last House on the Left (2009), Death Wish (2018) and Walking Tall (2018), none of which lived up to the reputation of the original versions and could be streamed for less than the price of a ticket to the remake. The 1973 version of Walking Tall (1973), which was inspired by a one-man-gang named Buford Pusser, was part of a wave of surprise genre flicks, in which a single man stood up for his sense of right and wrong against formidable odds. Among the others were Billy Jack (1971), Death Wish (1974), Dirty Harry (1971) and Straw Dogs (1971), although the latter two titles weren’t necessarily considered to be genre pictures. They’ve all been either remade or recycled in a sequel factory. Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs even went so far as to directly lift the poster art from Sam Peckinpah’s original.

The image of “The Rock,” as he was then still known, carrying a wood fence post on the cover of the 2004 adaptation of Walking Tall told potential ticket-buyers and DVD renters all they needed to know about what they could expect. It would still be a few years before Dwayne Johnson dropped his WWE nickname entirely and become one of Hollywood’s most popular and bankable stars. Here, though, his character, Chris Vaughn, still had to retain some of the qualities that made Pusser a populist hero. Although the setting has shifted from rural Tennessee to the scenic Alaskan countryside, the basic touchstones remain the same. The protagonist is a decorated U.S. Special Forces veteran, who returns to his hometown to find it overrun by crime, corruption and addicted teenagers. The center of all vice activity is a legal, if mob-controlled casino, which doubles as a strip joint, brothel and drug dispensary. It’s run by one of Vaughn’s former pal, Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), who rakes in the money from the casino, while the mobsters handle the other stuff. The script begins to fall apart when, after Vaughn is invited to visit the casino by his old friend, one of the craps dealers switches the dice to favor the house. A child could spot the ruse and Vaughn decides that he won’t be played for sucker, by trashing the slot machines and busting up all but one of the bouncers. After landing in the hospital, he’s given a reason to finish the job after his nephew nearly OD’s on crystal meth. Once again, the sheriff sides with the Hamilton, who presses charges.

Naturally Vaughn gives the kind of rousing final argument that will get him elected sheriff and nearly killed by the mobster and bad cops he wants to eliminate. He might as well be back in Afghanistan for all the fire power used against him. Oh, did I forget to mention, Vaughan also is given the opportunity to rescue a former girlfriend (Ashley Scott) from a life of depravity, by encouraging her to quit her job as a lap-dancer and join the ranks of the decent folks in town. The action is pretty well rendered, if excessive, but Johnny Knoxville (“Jackass”) adds plenty of comic relief. Hollywood’s several versions of Pusser’s life and career smacked of revisionism. By changing the name of the protagonist, the filmmakers were allowed the luxury of compacting the campaign to eliminate him and forgo the assassination of Pusser’s wife … not for lack of trying were Vaughn’s relatives spared. The circumstances surrounding Pusser’s election are fudged, as is the scope of the threat by the Dixie Mafia. In an odd coincidence, Pusser once wrestled professionally under the name, Buford the Bear, before grapplers were expected to be rock stars, as well as athletes-in-disguise. In this Walking Tall, viewers are allowed the freedom of thinking that Vaughn and his loved ones “lived happily ever after.” The same couldn’t be said of Pusser, whose fatal automobile accident, some say, was an assassination. Neither does the highly personable Rock/Vaughn bear a close resemblance to the first movieland Pusser: Joe Don Baker, an actor who looked as if he ate nails for breakfast and washed them down with kerosene. (Pusser looked as if was a lineman on a Packers team coached by Vince Lombardi.) That’s why I’d probably think better of Walking Tall if its producers had revised the title, along with the protagonist’s name. They probably didn’t think the Rock was ready for prime time. He would soon prove them wrong. The DVD adds commentaries by Johnson and Bray, with contributions by editor Robert Ivison and DP Glen MacPherson; a stunts featurette; deleted scenes; bloopers; an alternate ending; and photo gallery.

What Have They Done to Your Daughters? Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1972, director Massimo Dallamano broke new ground in giallo with the deeply disturbing and unusually graphic What Have You Done to Solange? Two years later, he followed it up with an even darker semi-sequel, What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, which is equal parts giallo and poliziottesco and as garishly violent and sexy as these sorts of films got. (Hard core inserts were shot, but not used.) A third installment in Dallamono’s so-called “schoolgirls-in-peril trilogy” was on the drawing boards when he died in an automobile accident. Considering the carnage and sexuality on display in the first two films, I can’t imagine what a third entry would have had to show to top them. In his book, “Italian Crime Filmography, 1968–1980,” Roberto Curti described “Daughters” as the best of the giallo and poliziottesco hybrids. If recent releases of giallo films by Arrow have whetted your appetite for more, put “Daughters” and “Solange” on your reserve list.

The mystery begins when a teenage girl is found hanging from the rafters of a privately rented attic … naked, pregnant and violated. It is not a pretty sight. Even so, a photograph of the body is published in a tabloid, before she can even be identified. When the photographer is arrested, pieces of the puzzle begin falling into place. Dogged Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) and Assistant District Attorney Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) are assigned to the case, the scope of which grows substantially when they discover that the dead girl was part of a ring of underage prostitutes, who cater to perverts of some wealth and station. As the police begin to zero in on the killer’s motivation, at least, a cleaver-wielding, motorcycle-riding killer begins taking out potential witnesses. Although he makes the case more complicated, the clues he leaves behind help accelerate the search. Especially curious is why a killer would emerge from the shadows so early in the investigation, when her death is presumed to be self-inflicted? The answer to that question will surface when the names on the girls’ client lists are revealed and the depth of the men’s depravity forces a full investigation. In addition to Arrow’s splendid restoration work, the package benefits from new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “Masters and Slaves: Power, Corruption & Decadence in the Cinema of Massimo Dallamano,” a fresh video essay by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine; “Eternal Melody,” an interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani; “Dallamano’s Touch,” an interview with editor Antonio Siciliano; and unused hardcore footage shot for the film by Massimo Dallamano, using body doubles; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Michael Mackenzie.

From the Grindhouse to Your House
S.F. Brownrigg Grindhouse Double Feature: Ultimate Edition: Blu-ray
American Guinea Pig: The Song of Solomon: Blu-ray
Laserblast: VHS Retro Big Box Collection: Blu-ray
Return of the Living Dead, Part II: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Lady Street Fighter: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Unborn: Blu-ray
If the description of What Have They Done to Your Daughters makes it sound too high class for your tastes, or not sordid enough, check out these hard-core titles. A good place to start would be VCI Entertainment’s “S.F. Brownrigg Grindhouse Double Feature,” featuring early splatter specimens, 1974’s Don’t Open the Door (a.k.a., “Don’t Hang Up”) and 1973’s Don’t Look in the Basement. Those are two of the five movies Brownrigg directed before disappearing giving up big-screen ambitions in 1986. The others are Scum of the Earth (1974), Keep My Grave Open (1977) and Thinkin’ Big (1986). In the 1960s, he also enjoyed the distinction of having worked on the sound for The Naked Witch, The 7th Commandment, Strange Compulsion, High Yellow and Zontar: The Thing from Venus, and edited Attack of the Eye Creatures (1965). It’s said that Brownrigg wanted to make a sequel to Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), but, thank goodness, it wasn’t to be. As for the business at hand, however. In Don’t Open the Door, pretty, blond Susan Bracken plays a dutiful grand-daughter, who goes home to take care of her elderly grandmother, but, once there, she finds herself trapped inside the big, largely empty house with a homicidal maniac. The sicko hides behind the house’s interior walls and he communicates with her via an internal telephone connection. Despite the fact that the setup would have made more sense 20-30 years later, when wireless phones became commonplace, it’s pretty effective. Brownrigg amped up the sound in such a way that the phone’s initial ring is as explosive as a cherry bomb. Don’t Open the Basement is significantly more cheesy and exploitative, as it takes place in hospital for the criminally insane, where, as an experiment, several inmates have been allowed to act out their psychotic delusions. When a new staffer (Rosie Holotik) arrives at the residential-looking hospital without warning to the attending nurses, the patients direct their twisted attention at her. This causes the nurses to wonder if she might have ulterior motives, besides wanting a paycheck. The 2K restorations probably cost VCI more money than it took Brownrigg to complete both films. The package adds a new commentary on DLITB, with film historian David Del Valle and genre director, David Decoteau (Puppet Master III: Toulons Revenge) and other tantalizing VCI trailers.

From Unearthed Films comes The Song of Solomon, a nasty piece of business that has nothing to do with romantic verses in the Old Testament – as far as I could tell, anyway – and everything to do with attempting to make the ancient rite performed in The Exorcist look like the extraction of a wisdom tooth. Both are painful to watch, but the exorcism in The Song of Solomon looks as if it was being conducted by blind priests using gardening tools. After my confusion wore off, I realized that the Blu-ray jacket conveniently left off the fact that it was the third installment in writer/director Stephen Biro’s “American Guinea Pig” series of torture-porn releases, which includes American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore and American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock (directed by Marcus Koch). It represents DIY filmmaking at its least refined. Here, after Mary (Jessica Cameron) witnesses the brutal suicide of her father, she becomes possessed by the devil. While Satan’s wrath is being unleashed outside the walls of her home, the Church has sent several inept priests to eliminate the demon from deep inside her body. While it apparently has something to do with the Antichrist and biblical prophecy, I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Even though the narrative makes no logical sense, the extremely gory special effects exude a crude charm. Their creation is described in lengthy interviews with special-effects artist Marcus Koch, DP Chris Hilleke and writer/director Biro. Other aspects of the production are detailed by actors Cameron and Gene Palubicki, who also composed the music. There are behind-the-scenes featurettes, outtakes, a photo gallery and a pair of commentary tracks. It’s a good thing Biro owns the DVD label.

The latest entry in Full Moon’s “VHS Retro Big Box Collection” series is Laserblast, a work of seriously undernourished sci-fi from 1978 that is said to be one of the favorite movies of the MST3K crew. It’s easy to see why. Even if the SOL crew had been shown the movie a dozen times, the astronerds couldn’t possibly have run out of funny things to say about it. Laserblast opens somewhere in the Mojave Desert, where a green-skinned man with a laser cannon attached to his arm is minding his own business. A spaceship that could have been built for a Buck Rogers serial lands nearby, dispatching a pair of aliens who resemble deshelled tortoises. The aliens then depart, leaving behind the laserblaster and medallion that allowed him to operate it. A lonely teenager (Kim Milford) discovers the gun and pendant and begins to blow things up real good. As Billy revels in the power of the weapon, he begins to change, his skin taking on a green hue and his mind becoming more and more malevolent. As the tainted teen becomes more powerful and lethal, it’s up to the local authorities and the aliens to stop him before he begins to do some real damage. Besides Milford, who died only 10 years later, Laserblast co-stars such familiar faces as Roddy McDowall, Keenan Wynn, dweeb icon Eddie Deezan, Gianni Russo (a.k.a., Carlo Rizzi), burly Dennis Burkley and Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, a semi-legendary porn star, groupie and tragic figure. It also boasts the first feature-length score by Joel Goldsmith (son of composer Jerry Goldsmith), who also died before his time. The special box set contains the remastered Blu-ray; an alien figurine in a collectible blister pack; and new commentary by director Charles Band and composer Richard Band, who sound as if they’re auditioning for MST3K.

The success of Dan O’Bannon’s zombie sendup. Return of the Living Dead, was something of a happy accident, in that it came about only through much legal wrangling and a complete reimagining of the original script. To distance “Living Dead” sequels from those in George A. Romero’s own “Dead Trilogy,” O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien) added a healthy dollop of comedy, as well as the zombie’s brain-eating conceit. He is noticeably missing from the 1988 sequel to the 1985 sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Part II, which was, itself, rendered unnecessary by Troma’s Toxic Avenger (1984). Here, a barrel of toxic gas falls off the back of a military truck, landing in a culvert near a cemetery. Mischievous neighborhood boys discover the barrel and open it, unaware of the evil contained within. A deadly green vapor escapes and turns living people into brain-eating zombies and causes the dead to rise from their graves to do the same. Otherwise, with the exception of a Michael Jackson impression, it’s pretty much the same-old, same-old.

Any resemblance between James Bryan’s Lady Street Fighter (1981) and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Street Fighter (1974) is pretty much limited to the gender of the protagonist. Otherwise … well … in the opinion of critic Jim McLennan of the authoritative Girls With Guns website (“Home of the Action Heroine”), “This is legitimately terrible. This is among the worst films I’ve ever seen. And I speak as someone with over 25 years of watching really bad films.” I’ve seen worse, but I would hesitate to recall one, for fear of bringing back bad memories. The folks at American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) aren’t all that particular, however. They treat their babies with TLC, no matter how ugly they are. Here, an Eastern European beauty, Linda Allen (Renee Harmon), flies to Los Angeles to track down the mobsters who tortured and murdered her sister. They were trying to recover a tape with information that would be incriminating to them. Linda’s investigation locates a pimp, who may or may not be the murderer she is seeking. At 73, minutes, how much could go wrong? Plenty. A new 2K transfer of this trash-action “classic” adds a bit of zip to Harmon’s outfits. Look for appearances by Trace Carradine, “the most elusive Carradine brother of all” and Liz Renay, a onetime Las Vegas “showgirl” and “moll” of L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the uncredited director James Bryan and members of the AGFA team; some truly far-out trailers from the company’s vault; liner notes by Annie Choi, of Bleeding Skull; and the bonus movie: Revenge of Lady Street Fighter, the unreleased sequel that looks exactly like the original.

Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Rodman Flender (Idle Hands), the 1991 evil-baby thriller, The Unborn, contains several more redeemable moments than other pictures listed here, but not many. It was more than a little bit influenced by It’s Alive and Rosemary’s Baby, without finding the glue that kept those movies together. Brooke Adams plays Virginia Marshall, a woman who’s struggling with fertility issues and depression, and has experienced miscarriages, as well. Desperate to conceive, she is directed to a doctor that other women say has worked miracles for them. Sure enough, she becomes pregnant. Before long, however, she begins to experience rashes and spasms in her tummy. The same symptoms occur with friends in her Lamaze group. Virginia’s husband, Brad (Jeff Hayenga), downplays the problems, arguing that pregnancies can be difficult, but worth the aggravation. Apparently, their pediatrician graduated from the Joseph Mengele School of Medicine and there’s a very good reason why Brad demands that she carry the fetus to term. Despite some genuinely creepy moments, The Unborn is to derivative and predictable to be truly effective. What it does have, though, are appearances by Lisa Kudrow and Kathy Griffin that qualify as being longer than the blink of an eye. Kudrow’s twitches are more pronounced than they would be later, but, I suspect, that’s what the director wanted of an aide who leads male patients to the masturbation chamber. Griffin is as loud and in-your-wife as ever. British musician Gary Numan (“Cars”) composed the musical soundtrack, his first, for the movie.

National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: Unrated: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I reviewed National Lampoon’s Van Wilder – sometimes called the “Party Liaison Edition” — in an upgraded Blu-ray format, when it was released in early May of this years. And, no, I don’t know why Lionsgate waited only another three months to send out it’s Blu-ray/4K UHD combo package. So, just for the record, I can report that the most significant upgrade here is the Dolby Atmos Track on the 4K UHD disc. Most of the featurettes included on previous editions have been ported over to the Blu-ray disc contained here. I doubt if fans of the movie will want to go out of their way to upgrade to the combo package, if they’ve already purchased the most recent Blu-ray release. Those with newly acquired 4K UHD units and much older DVD editions should consider it, though.

Disney Junior: Muppet Babies: Time to Play PBS/BBC Earth: Kingdoms of the Sky: Blu-ray
PBS/BBC Earth: Earth’s Natural Wonders: Life at the Extremes: Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS: 10 That Changed America: Season 2
Parents, don’t let the title confuse you. A VHS compilation, “Muppet Babies: Time to Play,” was released in 1994, at a total length of 48 minutes. That’s the one you may still remember from your youths. If, perchance, you still have a pristine copy lying around, see what it’s worth on eBay. It might surprise you. The DVD edition of “Muppet Babies: Time to Play!” – complete with an extraneous exclamation point — is something new and reasonably different. A couple of other VHS collections were released at about the same time, but nothing since then. The hesitation can likely be traced to licensing rights to musical and visual material included in the individual episodes that may have grown too expensive to renew. No such problem will arise with Disney Junior’s new reboot of the original 1984-91 animated series, because licensing issues are something the company no longer will abide. As opposed to the traditional animation of the original show, the new series uses CGI animation. It’s still targeted to children ages 4–7, with each episode consisting of two 11-minute stories. If it means anything to parents, Tom Warburton, creator of Cartoon Network’s “Codename: Kids Next Door” is the series’ executive producer, while former “SpongeBob SquarePants” writer Eric Shaw serves as the story editor. In any case, the new 92-minute compilation – not including bonus material — retains several of the younger incarnations of the classic Muppet characters, adding Baby Kermit, Baby Piggy, Baby Fozzie, Baby Gonzo, Baby Animal, “Miss Nanny” and the first appearance of Summer Penguin. In addition to four double-episodes, there’s 10 “Show & Tell Shorts” and 6 music videos. The “Show & Tell Shorts” give the individual character a chance to shine by themselves. The music videos are taken from six of the story songs.

I don’t care how many of those “100 Places to Visit Before You Die” lists you peruse, there’s no chance in hell – or on BBC’s “Earth” – that any of us will visit most or, perhaps, a small fraction of the spectacular places explored in “Kingdoms of the Sky” and “Earth’s Natural Wonders: Life at the Extremes.” And, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Try to imagine a list of “100 Places to Visit Before You Die” that might have been compiled by your grandparents and consider how many of them might now be worth the effort of visiting. Most of them have been corrupted by commercialism, trampled by tourists or turned into foreign-language versions of an American mall. Mount Everest has become a high-altitude dumping ground for the refuse of wannabe mountaineers too lazy to pick up after themselves. Depending on the season, Venice is unaffordable, disgustingly polluted or infested by filthy pigeons and tourists, like yourself. Likewise, San Francisco is unaffordable and, besides, an open-air Porta Potty for predatory panhandlers. New York, Acapulco, Rio de Jaineiro … fuggedaboutit. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t visit these cities in your lifetimes … just not to expect the kind of experiences your grandparents might have enjoyed. Watching the BBC’s travel and nature programming from the comfort of one’s home – especially on Blu-ray — is the best way I’ve found to visit places I should visit before I die, qbut won’t. It’s also the most environmentally safe, price-conscious and comfortable. And, besides, there’s no way for civilians to appreciate nature’s bounty in the same way it’s captured by crack teams of explorers, researchers, cinematographers and sound crews willing to wait, sometimes for months, to capture just one of the many images of animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, fish, plant life, scenery and, yes, people available to viewers in these Blu-rays. And, they do it in conditions that most of us couldn’t endure or afford.

Over the course of an easy-on-the-eyes 159 minutes, “Kingdoms of the Sky” reveals the extraordinary animals and remarkable people who make a home on the highest and most formidable mountain ranges of the world. The segments focus on the Himalaya, Rockies and Andes, which have largely defied mankind’s efforts to degrade and exploit them. “Earth’s Natural Wonders: Life at the Extremes, Season 2” is divided into three hourlong segments: “Surviving the Extreme,” “Surviving with Animals” and “Surviving Against the Odds.” They take us to locations that exist on a breathtaking and massive scale, from vast mountain ranges to   impenetrable rainforests and dazzling tropical islands. How many of them will remain untamed in the next 50-100 years is anyone’s guess.

The PBS documentary series, “10 That Changed America” reintroduces Americans to places many of us have already visited – or pass every day — but rarely have been able to fully appreciate. The first season covered 10 homes, parks and towns that changed our nation in ways not covered by school curriculum. In the second season, we’re invited to explore the stories behind 10 familiar monuments, streets and “modern marvels” – 30, in all — and the historical moments that inspired them. If nothing else, the series reminded me of how much I didn’t know about things I’ve taken for granted for most of my life. These would include the roads that were built over paths that connected towns, forts  or trading posts in colonial times and bridges that continue to stand while more modern spans collapse, killing motorists and pedestrians. I didn’t think I’d be able to sit through the 168 minutes contained in DVD package, but I was happily surprised to discover how much I learned.

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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