MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Bye Bye Germany, John From, Marrowbone, Wildling, Dead Shack, Bitter Money, Big Fish & Begonia, Street Mobster, US Fest, No Offense … More

Bye Bye Germany
This is one of those wartime stories that’s too good not to be true … or, at least, inspired by a true story. Bye Bye Germany takes place at approximately same time as the events depicted in George Clooney’s The Good German, if several hundred miles to the southwest of Nuremburg, in a similarly devastated Frankfurt. The trials were continuing, as was the hunt for Nazi collaborators and war criminals hoping to escape detection, before heading to South America or the United States to make rockets and fight the red menace. Here, a group of Holocaust survivors is awaiting their opportunity to leave Germany, for Palestine, Canada or the United States. It wasn’t as easy to escape the ravages of war and residual anti-Semitism as most people today think it was. According to a postscript added to Sam Garbarski and Michael Bergmann’s compelling dramedy Bye Bye Germany — based on Bergmann’s semi-autobiographical novels “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes” — approximately 4,000 German Jews returned “home” after the defeat of the Nazi regime. Many of them, we’re also told, remained at a loss as to how to explain their conflicted choice to their children and Jews who had already found new homes elsewhere. One of the them is David Bermann, a native Frankfurter played very effectively by Moritz Bleibtreu (The Baader Meinhof Complex). Bermann organizes a tight-knit group of survivors, all of whom are living in a camp for displaced persons and struggling to raise the money necessary to say, “bye, bye Germany.” Not unlike the characters in Ocean’s 11, all the men bring a specific skill to the table. Bermann’s family ran an emporium for fine linens that was among the city’s swankiest stores, until Jewish businesses were seized, and their owners were arrested. Because he still considers himself to be an expert in the schmatte game, Bermann arranges for his band of peddlers to access French linens on the black market and sell them to the relatives of German soldiers killed in action, whose names and addresses he found listed in the obituaries and notices on bulletin boards. A natural-born comedian and hustler, Bermann teaches his pals some of the skills necessary to prosper as a door-to-door salesmen, offering fine bed linens nicely wrapped in amusing pitches. It’s the former trait that causes him problems with U.S. authorities.

Bermann’s request for a license to do business in the occupied zone is denied by military investigators, who suspect that he was a collaborator. His case officer, Sara Simon, played with icy resolve by Antje Traue (“Berlin Station”), wants to know why has two passports, in different names, and how he came to be invited to Hitler ‘s mountain retreat. They’re good questions, especially considering that everyone else in his family was killed in a death camp, and his answers almost sound as if he cut them from whole cloth. As his story goes, Bermann’s stereotypically fat and deceptively jolly boss at a labor camp, Kleinschmitt (Joachim Paul Assböck), was an SS officer with direct links to Berlin headquarters. After winning a do-or-die comedy competition in the camp, Bermann was invited – well, ordered — to cheer up Der Fuhrer at his retreat. Because the Nazis maintained such precise records of its prisoners and victims, Bermann could easily be mistaken for a collaborator. Special Agent Simon even goes to the trouble of bringing Kleinschmitt into her office – presumably on his way to the gallows – to see how Bermann would react to seeing him, again. As typically happens in such scenarios, Simon begins to warm to the personable schmatte peddler – a visit to his family’s ransacked store helps certify his integrity – and he, to her. It’s at about this time in the narrative that the gang’s profits are stolen by a black marketeer, who fears that Bermann’s laddies are infringing on his territory. If the uneasy blend of comedy and drama occasionally threatens to get away from Garbinski (Irina Palm), Bye Bye Germany succeeds on the strength of the ensemble cast and the appeal of a wartime story that’s truly unique. The DVD arrives with the short film, “Strings.”

To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story
Like the characters in Bye Bye Germany, Holocaust survivor Joe Engel spent several years in camps for displaced persons, before finding a home in the United States. Although the documentary To Auschwitz and Back isn’t nearly as polished, cinematic or deeply researched as other films we’ve seen on the Holocaust, it would fit neatly alongside Schindler’s List or Shoah on any shelf reserved for films on the subject. Born in Zakroczym, Poland, in 1927, Engel was taken from his parents by the Nazis, at 14, and forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. He never saw his parents again, as they were among the first group of Jews transported to the death camps. In 1942, Engel was sent to Birkenau and, soon thereafter, Auschwitz, where he was placed in a bricklaying school. Although the decision saved him from the gas chamber, Engel witnessed many of the worst atrocities committed there. Three years later, as the Red Army advanced through Poland, he was loaded on a train with other camp survivors to meet their fate in Germany. Somehow, Engel escaped from the boxcar prison, avoided his pursuers and joined a resistance group of about 200 that, among other things, attacked police stations.

After the war, Engel returned to Poland, where he learned that his sister had survived and was living in Belgium, and that two brothers also were alive. Through a refugee agency in the camp, he managed to contact an aunt in the United States, and she finally provided the affidavit that allowed him to immigrate. One day after arriving in New Orleans, on the first ship carrying refugees to the South, he was given a ticket to Charleston. After scraping for work, he was able to open a dry-cleaning business, which supported Engel and a couple of nephews until his retirement, several decades later. (One of the nephews, Michael Engel, now a dentist, convinced director Ron Small to make the film and appears in it alongside his uncle.) Now 90, Engel has spent much of his life in the U.S. ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten. He’s recalled his experiences for students at local schools and universities, as well as his favorite bench in a public park. With the assistance of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s film and photographic archives, Small has created a 47-minute film that weaves oral history with archival material in the service of a documentary that is as painfully graphic as any I’ve seen. Still, it’s Engel’s spirit that triumphs over evil here. I won’t be surprised if someone in Hollywood attempts to expand To Auschwitz and Back –which took only two days to film and two more to edit — into something a bit more theatrical. It couldn’t possibly be more dramatic.

John From: Blu-ray
Rarely does a week go by without one or two coming-of-age films arriving in my mail box. This week, there were nearly a half-dozen, and not all of them from American directors, for whom the subgenre offers a convenient refuge from creative blockage. Portuguese co-writer/director Joao Nicolau (The Sword and the Rose) exploits the de rigueur boredom and alienation of a pair of teenage girls, wasting most of their summer vacation watching the world go by on the porch of a Lisbon apartment. Their parents have given up attempting to amuse the girls, who alleviate their boredom by primping for parties and toying with the feelings of the boys who hang out downstairs. Tired of exchanging e-mails, they correspond by trading notes secreted inside a light fixture in the complex’s elevator. It’s a clever touch. Their general state of ennui evaporates rather abruptly one morning, when they notice a newly arrived tenant feeding his little boy on his terrace, a floor below them. Obviously much older, Filipe (Filipe Vargas) represents the kind of handsome single dad – a photographer, too – who convinces teenage girls that older men aren’t all as clueless as their fathers … it’s the flip side of the MILF phenomenon. It doesn’t take long before Rita (Julia Palha) and Sara (Clara Riedenstein) discover that Filipe is responsible for an exhibition of photographs he shot while living among native tribes in Melanesia, as well as the collection of masks and other artifacts. After stealing a feather from one of the headdresses on display, Rita goes out of her way to make Filipe’s acquaintance and endear herself to his son. I never got the impression that Rita’s attraction to Filipe was any more sexual than it would be with any pedagogical figure who introduced them to a world they never knew existed.

In this case, his art connected Rita with people whose lives are infinitely more interesting – to a middle-class girl stuck in a big-city high-rise, anyway — in a faraway corner of Papua New Guinea, where cannibals and crocodiles vied for the same food. (Michael Rockefeller was drawn to the same magnet.) Without losing a beat, or hopping on a plane, she literally goes native, by adopting the facial makeup, clothing and customs of the people in the photographs. Her sudden transformation brings John From to life, by adding a wonderfully new and exotic color palette, rhythms not associated with modern pop music and genuine passion for something new and different. Rita also becomes entranced with the John Frum religion, associated with the post-World War II cargo cults. There isn’t much more left to reveal without ruining the fun for everyone. I don’t know why John From failed to find distribution here. Respected critic Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered it while judging a film festival in Madrid and made it one of his top-10 choices for 2016. As for the actors, Palha has already carved a niche in Portuguese- and Spanish-language television series, while the red-haired Riedenstein is completing her second feature. I hope we get to see more of them here.

Marrowbone: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Set in a corner of rural America that time appears to have forgot, Marrowbone (a.k.a., “The Secret of Marrowbone”) was, in fact, shot in Spain by first-time director Sergio G. Sánchez, who previously penned the English-language tsunami thriller, The Impossible (2012), and Spanish-language horror, The Orphanage (2007). In it, four siblings move from England to America with their mother to escape a troubled, if murky past. When she dies unexpectedly, they vow to stay together in the Marrowbone family’s decaying mansion, which may or may not be haunted, infested with demonic raccoons or about to be foreclosed upon by a devious lawyer, Porter (Kyle Soller). In her final hours, the mother (Nicola Harrison) demands of the oldest son, Jack (George MacKay), the she be buried in the house’s yard and news of her death be kept secret until he’s 21. If not, the lawyer could take over the property and, perhaps, turn it over to the children’s abusive father. Like almost everything else in the movie, Porter’s overall purpose in recovering the mansion is left mysterious … except for his obvious contempt for Jack, who stole his girlfriend, Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a neighbor and keeper of the town’s dust-encrusted records. Even more mysterious is the bullet that is shot through an upstairs window, when one of the girls is peering through it, and the subsequent six-month period of lost time, when something evil happens to Jack. Again, we don’t know what it is – or could be – until much later in the movie. As you can imagine, anything I could reveal about Marrowbone’s second half – beyond the ghost, raccoons and lawyer’s lack of scruples — would require a series of spoilers so thick with capital letters and asterisks that they would render any summary incomprehensible. In fact, though, most of the movie’s enjoyment derives from its many chilling twists and unrevealed secrets, including an ocean and shoreline that don’t come into play until later in the story. The palpably ambiguous and Gothic-lite atmosphere is expertly maintained throughout by Sánchez’ cinematographer Xavi Giménez (Agora), composer Fernando Velázquez (Crimson Peak), production designer Patrick Salvador (Automata) and actors, who also include Charlie Heaton (“Stranger Things”), Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) and youngster Matthew Stagg (“War & Peace”). It adds deleted/extended scenes, a making-of featurette and effects reel.

Measure of a Man
I wonder who decided that it would be a good idea to go with Measure of a Man, when the title of Robert Lipsyte’s YA source novel, “One Fat Summer,” was better in every way possible. My first guess would be that someone feared taking on the nation’s growing legion of “fat activists” head-on, merely for the crime of pointing out the protagonist’s least attractive feature and forcing him to come to grips with it before he can come of age. Hey, stranger things happen every day in a politically correct world gone wild. Somehow, though, it’s hard to imagine anything being gained by changing Measure of Man into “One Fat-Acceptance Summer.” Being overweight may be Bobby Marks’ most obvious handicap – pardon the characterization – but it isn’t what’s really eating him.  In the summer of 1976, the 17-year-old’s vacation has already been ruined by his parents’ unwillingness to put their differences on hold for more than a few days. His older sister/ally finds refuge in the arms of a cool boy a bit older than her, leaving her decidedly non-cool brother in the lurch. The only friend he has in the resort is a teenage girl, who likes Bobby (Blake Cooper) for who he is and how he thinks, without deducting style points for his physique and unruly red hair. She’s decided to spend most of the summer away from the Rhode Island retreat, in New York, dealing with a cosmetic problem of her own. The leader of a wolfpack of local bullies senses his weakness and begins using Bobby as his personal punching bag.

Then, when he finally gets up the gumption to get a summer job, the only one available to him is tending the gratuitously large yard of a mansion owned by a tightwad tycoon, Doctor Kahn (Donald Sutherland), who, as Mike Ditka once said about George Halas, “throws nickels around like they were manhole covers.” Worse … whenever the old man decides to dock his pay for doing sloppy work – his opinion, only – Bobby is forced to listen to the blowhard share a lifetime’s worth of bromides and clichés about the value of being meticulous. But, c’mon, if Bobby can’t lose weight jogging to Doctor Kahn’s estate and toiling in his garden under the midday sun, it’s only because he chooses to relieve his anxieties at the nearest Dairy Queen or director Jim Loach (Oranges and Sunshine) and screenwriter David Scearce (A Single Man) have clogged his sweat glands. Measure of a Man overcomes such complaints by putting its rather large heart on full display throughout its 100-minute length. We sympathize with Bobby for all the right reasons and appreciate the filmmakers’ ability to tie everything together in a tidy bow near its end. The only truly sour note hit is an attack by the town bullies that is far too cruel and graphic within the context of a summer dramedy. Judy Greer and Luke Wilson are welcome additions to the cast, even in the smallish roles of Bobby’s parents. As usual, Sutherland threatens to steal the show in every scene in which he appears, while also lending the movie its title.

Wildling: Blu-ray
Pyewacket: Blu-ray
In a pair of interviews conducted in advance of Wildling’s April 13, 2018, debut on VOD and digital HD outlets, Bel Powley argued that what her character Anna, experiences in the movie “is symbolic of what every girl goes through when she becomes a woman.” As a baby, Anna was kidnapped in the woods by a creepy fellow she calls “Daddy” (Brad Dourif), who locks in her in the attic of his home and controls her every waking moment, until she reaches puberty at 16. It doesn’t qualify as torture exactly, until she begins to display the first signs of impending womanhood. That’s when Daddy attempts to “treat her illness” with injections of a special drug, while simultaneously protecting her from an evil force, lurking in the forest. After observing how the chemicals are destroying Anna’s body, Daddy attempts to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Finally freed from her prison, Anna agrees to move in with Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) and her protective younger brother, Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), and attend the local high school. As the after-effects of Daddy’s injections wear off, Anna’s body begins to develop normally … for a teenage werewolf. She also begins to re-experience nightmares that had ended earlier in her childhood. One day, she even begins chasing a deer through the forest. She’s prevented from stepping on a tripwire, holding back a spiked weapon, by a one-eyed man (James LeGros) decked out in head-to-toe wolf-skin and fur. It’s from this point forward that Anna is forced to deal with the reality of being what’s been characterized as a “post-feminist werewolf,” capable of protecting herself from bullies, rapists and lynch mobs. By now, Daddy has been released from the hospital, fully intent on preventing Anna from accepting her destiny as a wildling. In his debut as co-writer/director of a theatrical feature, Fritz Böhm maintains a high level of suspense and horror throughout the film’s 92-minute length, when the secrets of Anna’s birth and abduction are revealed. I suspect that freshman co-writer Florian Eder contributed a bit more to the feminist angle than Böhm, however. Wildling received high marks from genre and mainstream critics, alike.

In, Pyewacket, writer/director Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) uses an extreme example of typical mother-daughter angst as a foundation for another good thriller, this time set in the woods of Ontario. The central characters are Leah (Nicole Munoz), a Goth teen with a strong interest in the occult, and her mother, Mrs. Reyes (Laurie Holden), who’s been a nervous wreck since the death of her husband, a year earlier. When Leah gets into a spot of bother at her high school, it gives Mrs. Reyes an excuse to move to a home in the woods one hour away from all the bad memories of her marriage. Inconveniently, it’s also an hour away from Leah’s school and friends, which becomes a rather large bone of contention between them. At 24, Muñoz is every bit as convincing as a teenager as Powley is in Wildling, at 26. Leah’s already gotten a tattoo of a pentagram on her hand, so it comes as little surprise when she starts collecting incantations from a book of spells to sic the spirit of the Pyewacket on her mom’s ass. Long story short: her long trips into the woods to summon the legendary witch produce the usual array of unexpected results. It sets off a series of events that Leah is unable to control.

Dead Shack
By now, it takes quite a bit more than some clever dialogue, jump scares and the imaginative application of special-effects makeup to interest me in a zombie flick. To paraphrase Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” “I’ve grown accustomed to their faces.” Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Warm Bodies, ParaNorman and Fido, Peter Ricq’s darkly hilarious and exceedingly gory Dead Shack finds its grove early and stays on track for most of the next 85 minutes. As far as I know it wasn’t released in the U.S. and the only recognizable star is Lauren Holly, whose biggest hits came early in her career, but has continued to work steadily ever since. Decked out for most of the movie in a zombie-proof outfit, fashioned from thick, full-body leather, and a metal helmet, possibly inspired by Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly, she’s unrecognizable. The rest of the cast members possibly could be picked out of a lineup in Canada, but it hardly matters. The tentative protagonist here is Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood), a handsome teenage boy who joins his friend Colin’s family for a weekend of fun in the Canadian wilderness. Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) is the kind of half-pint jokester who’s adept at making everyone around him uncomfortable, while also getting them to laugh at his antics. His older sister, Summer (Lizzie Boys), probably wouldn’t mind hooking up with Jason at some point during the weekend, but, for the time being, she’s content to play hard-to-get.

In a bit of twist, the truly irresponsible characters here are Colin’s divorced father, Roger (Donavon Stinson), and his younger, trophy girlfriend, Lisa (Valerie Tian), both of whom intend to get hammered and stay hammered throughout the trip. While the he adults are doing just that, the kids explore the densely forested neighborhood. They come to a house that could hardly look more ordinary. Upon further inspection, they spy the Neighbor Lady (Holly) feeding a pair of local hoodlums to her “zombie family” members, who normally remain caged in a closet. The kids immediately run back to their cabin to tell Roger of the strange goings-on next store. By this time, however, he’s so wasted that their report makes him laugh so hard that he can’t help but check it out for himself. What happens next, and throughout the second half of the movie, is a series of encounters that Ricq (“Freaktown”) has choreographed to take full advantage of the kids’ naivete when it comes to killing zombies and the Neighbor Lady’s desire to collect fresh meat for her “children.” If it’s difficult for a filmmaker to repulse and amuse audiences simultaneously, Ricq manages to pull it off with little seeming effort. I don’t know if he would have benefitted much from an infusion of money or higher-profile actors. I doubt it. The DVD comes with a lengthy making-of featurette.

Bitter Money
As is usually the case when President Trump gets the urge to play King of the World, his legislation-by-Twitter edicts ultimately hurt the people who can absorb their impact least. That is certainly the case with tariffs that will cost more jobs than they can possibly save and deprive working-class men and women of incomes they can’t bear to lose. One of POTUS’ pet peeves is the balance of trade with China. In Wang Bing’s grueling documentary Bitter Money, we’re introduced to some of the people at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, who work for the Chinese equivalent of pennies-an-hour to make deeply discounted clothing sold at Walmart, Costco and stores trying to dump Ivanka Trump’s newly deceased clothing lines. (Coming soon to a Dollar Store near you, minus the labels.) Bing’s fly-on-the-wall approach is ideal for exposing just how horrifying life can be for the estimated 300,000 workers, many of them migrants from rural areas in surrounding provinces, who’ve moved to Huzhou to find jobs in the 18,000 clothing factories there. The cameras follow a dozen of these workers, or so, both at work, where they may labor for more than 12 hours a day, and, in their off-hours, as they hang around shabby dorms drinking, dreaming of home, worrying about getting paid and trying to decide whether their jobs are worth keeping.

The camera observes them carefully, moving from one conversation to another, and along a line of constantly pulsating sewing machines. Bing doesn’t have to make grand statements about the monotonous, mind-numbing nature of the work. Nor does he point out egregious lapses in safety regulations or unhealthy environments. He doesn’t have to do anything more than keep the cameras rolling. The real tragedy comes in knowing that these people are unlikely to return home any time soon with enough money to ensure a better life for their families. When the tariffs kick in, and the outsourcing moves to sweatshops in Bangladesh and India, the government won’t be able to provide for their welfare … even if it wanted to do so. During America’s Great Migration North, at least, whites and blacks from the rural South were able to send money home, while keeping some for themselves. The same happened after World War II, when displaced people from Europe were invited to fill factory jobs here. Illegal immigrants for Mexico battled for the same privilege in the fields owned by insanely greedy growers. Not so in China, at least for unskilled and basically uneducated workers we meet here, as well as in Bing’s other documentaries. (Most of them go unseen in the PRC.)  If Bitter Money doesn’t leave much room for hope, it demonstrates the strength and perseverance of people whose lives we touch every time we shop for bargains in back-to-school and Black Friday sales.

Big Fish & Begonia: Blu-ray
Digimon Adventure tri: Coexistence
Elena of Avalor: Realm of the Jaquins
The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island: Blu-ray
Up until recently, there really wasn’t anything to be gained from comparing animated features made in Chinese to those created by Japanese studios. Until the short-lived retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli dominated sales of animated features from Asia to the rest of the world, along with every new episode in Kunihiko Yuyama’s “Pokémon” series and Mamoru Hosoda release (Wolf Children). It carved a foothold in the U.S., marketplace, with such titles as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. In 2016, Makoto Shinkai’s animated romance/fantasy/drama Your Name rose to No. 8 on the chart listing the highest-grossing traditionally animated films, based on worldwide sales. The latest entry in Akiyoshi Hongo and Keitarô Motonaga’s Digimon franchise, Digimon Adventure tri: Coexistence, has just been released, as well. It is the fifth of six feature-length movies in the “DAt” series, which pits inhabitants of the Real World with those in Digital World. A flying cat, Meicoomon, and its teenage-girl partner, Mochizuki Meiko, are in the forefront of the battle to save the world from total destruction … as usual. It’s taken a while for Chinese animators to compete on an even basis with Japanese and American studios, but they’ve made noticeable inroads lately. That’s good news for everyone.

Last year, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun’s epic fantasy, Big Fish & Begonia, joined the computer-animated Monkey King: Hero Is Back (2015) at the top of the Chinese charts. Its 12-year journey to the big screen began in May 2004, when Zhang and Liang produced a short flash animation, also called “Big Fish & Begonia,” which was received favorably enough to encourage them to develop it into a feature-length film. Subsequent lapses in financing caused it to be shelved twice, at least. The success of Monkey King: Hero Is Back and other animated films based on Chinese legends brought new money to the table and, ultimately, record numbers and extremely positive reviews. The story was inspired by a myth from the ancient Taoist classic “Zhuangzi,” as well as other time-honored Chinese tales, such as “Classic of Mountains and Seas” and “In Search of the Supernatural.” As the story goes, a mystical race of beings dwells in the lower reaches of the ocean, controlling the tides and the changing of the seasons. One of these beings, a restless 16-year-old girl, Chun, decides to experience the human world as something more than a mere observer. (Blimey, another coming-of-age flick!) She’s allowed to do so, but in the guise of dolphin. Trapped in a vortex, she is saved at the last minute by a human boy, who drowns during his heroic act. Consumed by guilt, Chun commits herself to giving the boy his life back, again. As protector of his soul, Chun must defeat those who stand in her way, including members of her own family. Big Fish & Begonia is quite a bit more complicated than that brief description makes it sound, but not so elaborate that it would scare off general audiences. Moreover, the intricacy and beauty of the artwork was praised as being in the same league as Ghibli products, along with its empowered teenage-girl protagonist, environmental themes, fantasy sequences and anthropomorphic animals. Special features on the gorgeous Shout Factory Blu-ray include a making-of documentary, music videos and the short film which inspired the movie.

Debuting in 2016 on Disney Junior, “Elena of Avalor” spun off from the popular animated series, “Sofia the First,” to become Disney’s first Latin American princess. Combining multiple Latin American cultures, “Elena of Avalor: Realm of the Jaquins” combines four music-filled episodes of the show, in which the crown princess (Aimee Carrero) soars through a hidden gateway into Vallestrella, which is the mysterious, dazzling domain of the jaquins … flying jaguars.  On the way there, she accidentally clears the way for evil siblings Victor and Carla Delgado (Lou Diamond Phillips, Myrna Velasco), who hope to unleash an evil forest sprite, who, they believe, can help them take over Avalor. Elena now must find the jaquins’ legendary Sunbird Oracle to succeed in her mission. The disc also features 10 bonus shorts. Also along for the ride are Noël Wells, Cheech Marin, Jane Fonda, Jenna Ortega, Christian Lanz and other veterans of Coco and Disney programming.

Somehow, my influences growing up didn’t include American first-grade teacher Gertrude Chandler Warner, who, in the 1920s, wrote the first of a series of books under the umbrella title, “The Boxcar Children.” It tells the story of four orphaned children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, who create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. They eventually meet their grandfather, who, unlike reports to the contrary, is a kind and wealthy man. When the children agree to live with him, he moves the beloved boxcar to his backyard, so the children can use it as a playhouse. In subsequent books, the children experience many adventures and mysteries in their neighborhood or at the locations they visit with their grandfather on breaks from school. While only the first 19 of the more than 150 stories in the series were written by Warner, all of the books would carry the byline, “Created by Gertrude Chandler Warner.” Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the original book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” In 2012, School Library Journal ranked it among the all-time “Top 100 Chapter Books” for children. Even so, it took 90 years for “The Boxcar Children” to be adapted for the screen, with Martin Sheen, J. K. Simmons, Zachary Gordon, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Jadon Sand voicing the principle characters. A sequel, “The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island,” is now available in DVD/Blu-ray. In it, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny spend the summer on their grandfather’s private island. The kids think they’re alone, until they come upon Joe (Dane DeHaan), who is friendly, helpful and inexplicably living on their island.

Sunset Society
Like the late, great Carrie Fisher, whose participation in the “Star Wars” franchise may continue for an eternity, the similarly late, great Ian Fraser Kilmister (a.k.a., “Lemmy From Motörhead”) will live forever in the hearts and minds of metalheads everywhere. And, like “Star War” nerds, they’re never going away, either. Lemmy has already appeared posthumously in as many movies as Fischer, who shuffled off this mortal coil 364 days after the British rock icon. The newly released Sunset Society and Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High may not win the same respect from critics as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX, but the closest Fisher came to the Academy Award she deserved was being included in the show’s annual In Memoriam montage, alongside her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died a day later. Alone or alongside Motörhead, Lemmy has failed to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, something he deserves, as well. A life-size statue of the singular rocker and collector of Nazi memorabilia stands on the patio of the Rainbow Bar & Grill, on the Sunset Strip, while statuettes of Princess Leia in full slave drag go for a small fortune on eBay. I suppose that I could stretch this comparison thing out for a few more sentences, at least, but why bother?

Phoebe Dollar and Rolfe Kanefsky’s low-budget Sunset Society depicts a clandestine gathering place in Hollywood, where heavy-metal vampires can drink whiskey, play cards and swap body fluids with their soon-to-be-eternal groupies. Lemmy plays Ace, the club’s Big Kahuna, who fears exposure to the media spotlight as much as he avoids direct exposure to sunlight. In an attempt to keep a lid on his organization, Ace enlists the help of Frankie (Ron Jeremy), Sophia (Phoebe Dollar) and Mr. Cross (Robert Donavan) to prevent a hooker from selling a do-it-yourself DVD, showing real vampire activity on the Sunset Strip, on the open market. Meanwhile, Dagger (Dizzy Reed), a disgruntled vampire, desperately wants to return to the realm of living, breathing humans. Head-bangers will relish the lively mix of blood, sex, animation and rock-’n’-roll, even during Sunset Society’s more amateurish moments … of which there are many. Everyone else … not so much. The DVD adds a featurette on the Lemmy statue being unveiled at the Rainbow Bar and Grill; a photo slideshow; and some tasty previews from Cleopatra.

Transporter 3: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Adrenaline junkies must be among the earliest of early adopters to the 4K UHD format, because they currently appear to be the primary target of studio sales initiatives. Lionsgate’s Transporter 3 serves as a prime example of a shot-on-film action picture that doesn’t benefit as much from the visual upgrade, as it does from the addition of an explosive Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Movies that were shot digitally and, then, transferred to Blu-ray/4K UHD, look and sound markedly more robust than their standard-DVD counterparts. If the movies in Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen’s “Transporter” franchise – which includes a television series and reboot, without Jason Statham — haven’t broken any records in their theatrical runs, here and abroad, it’s likely that all of them have done well in their video afterlives. For the record, Frank Martin (Statham) is a highly skilled driver known only as “The Transporter.” He will deliver anything, no questions asked, always on time, and he is known as the best in the business. Rule Number 1: “Once the deal is made, it is final”; Rule Number 2: “No names,”; and Rule Number 3: “Never open the package.” In Chapter Three, Martin is commissioned to transport Valentina, the kidnapped daughter of a Ukrainian government official, from Marseilles to Odessa on the Black Sea. Along the way, he’s required to battle thugs, who want to intercept the “package,” while avoiding the alluring charm of Leningrad-native Natalya Rudakova, a red-headed beauty who looks exponentially more sensational than she acts. At some point, the two are connected by bracelets designed to explode if they get too far away from each other. Frankly, I lost track of the characters’ motivations after about 15 minutes and stopped caring 15 minutes after that. That doesn’t mean, however, that I stopped watching the movie. Director Olivier Megaton (Taken 2) managed to reel me back in, both times, with truly exciting and imaginative chase and fight scenes, and the scenery of the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and Marseille. All of the featurettes from the original Blu-ray have been ported over to the combo package.

The US Festival: 1982 The US Generation
In 1982, when The US Festival: 1982 The US Generation was first filmed, I was still recovering from my move from sunny SoCal to the winter and summer wonderland that Chicago wasn’t then and may never be. (OK, the festivals now make summer tolerable, at least.)  I recall hearing about a festival being held in someplace called Glen Helen – which, at the time, was a sunbaked regional park near San Bernardino, without an exit ramp to call its own – at which musical performances would be the sideshow to tents manned by Apple employees pimping first- and second-generation computer products. For the next 36 years, the only times I recalled Glen Helen, at all, came when passing the concert venue on the way to Las Vegas or stuck in traffic approaching the, yes, exit ramp. It’s taken all that time for the film based on the festival to make it to a handful of screens around California, television and DVD. As much as I could have lived without the countless hosannas to concert promoter Bill Graham and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, I began to feel nostalgic for a music festival that, while hellishly hot, came off exactly as planned … maybe better. What I didn’t know is that Wozniak financed the event with his own money and Graham delivered some of the top acts of the time, some of whom were still feeling the bad vibes emanating from Altamont and Woodstock. (As historic and remarkable as the Woodstock hoedown was, it wasn’t much fun for the acts and hippies who forgot to pack rain gear, food and other things they couldn’t live without for three or four days.) Glenn Aveni’s documentary is enhanced by sparklingly-shot performances by The Police, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, Jackson Browne, The Cars, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Ramones, Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar and The B52s. Squabbles over video rights prevented some of the other acts from being shown on the doc, but the ones that are here are in top form. It’s also fascinating to watch the transformation of the regional park into a first-class concert venue, with amphitheater seating (standing, mostly) for several hundred-thousand people and enough portable toilets to serve the lot of them. The interviews with participants – vintage and newly recorded –are interesting, even if they tend to be redundant and, in some cases, self-serving. They include archived chats with Johnny & Joey Ramone, Carlos Santana, Sting, Ric Ocasek, Danny Elfman and Fred Schneider, plus newer ones with Wozniak, Mick Fleetwood, Eddie Money, Marky Ramone, Kate Pierson, Stewart Copeland and Mickey Hart. If anything, the US Festival serves as the legitimate precursor to Coachella.

Street Mobster: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Within minutes of Street Mobster’s first head-on rush into the kind of violent confrontations that would distinguish A Clockwork Orange and Mean Streets – all released within months of each other, in the early 1970s – anti-hero Isamu Okita tells us, “I like fighting and girls, but not gambling.” Okita (Bunta Sugawara) probably would enjoy gambling as much as his other vices, but he constantly loses money playing cards and other Japanese games. We also learn that he was born on the same day Japan lost World War II, to a prostitute/junkie mother who he smacked around as a kid and drove to an early death, in a ditch. After two stints in reform school, he ends up running his own street gang in an area controlled by the powerful Takigawa family. After coercing young women into taking jobs in brothels and stabbing several mobsters in a public bath, Okita gets his post-graduate degree in criminal studies in a real, grown-up prison. The game changed drastically while he was away, however, and the rough-and-tumble stuff no longer was tolerated by the chieftains of the crime syndicates. Even so, upon his return to Kawasaki, he senses a vacuum in the vice rackets, so popular with the lower castes. Ironically, when Okita re-enters the prostitution racket, one of the first women he meets is Kimiyo (Mayumi Nagisa), who he had raped and forced into the sex trade.

If he narrowly escapes the reunion with his life, at least he comes manages to assuage her anger and turn her into an ally.  He and his men enter an uneasy truce with the rival Yato gang, but it implodes under the weight of Okita’s ego and rage problems. That much information, alone, should be enough to hook genre buffs and fans of extreme Japanese cinema. (Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer comes to mind.) Street Mobster was Kinji Fukasaku’s contribution to Toei’s six-part Gendai Yakuza series of unrelated films by different directors, all starring Sugawara. By 1972, modern yakuza films had pretty much reached the end of their run in Japan, where mobsters had become as slick and oily as mainstream business executives and the politicians they corrupted. A year later, though, Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series looked back at the mob’s post-war years, telling stories that didn’t hinge on the eccentricities of a single character, as was the case with Street Mobster. By the end of the decade, he was focusing his attention on samurai and sci-fi flicks. His final project was the highly controversial “teen-death game” drama, Battle Royale, which provided a blueprint for “The Hunger Games” and a half-dozen other such survivalist movies. Because American distributors feared Battle Royale could inspire Columbine-like tragedies, it wouldn’t be released officially in the U.S. for another 10 years. (It took 30 years for Street Mobster to be released here.) The Arrow release contains commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Jasper Sharp.

Acorn: No Offense: Series 1
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Season 11
One way to determine if a television series might be worth sampling is to check out the names of the executive producers attached to the project. Stephen Bochco, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tyler Perry, David E. Kelley, Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes and Dick Wolf are among an elite group of American producers whose names are their bond when it comes to predictability popular programming. The same holds true with the shows we’ve enjoyed from the BBC and ITV and are starting to see from Europe via the miracle of streaming services such as Acorn, MHz and Britbox. If the name Paul Abbott doesn’t ring a bell, the titles of the shows he’s written for or created certainly will: “Coronation Street,” “Cracker,” “Shameless,” “Reckless,” “Touching Evil,” “Clocking Off” and “State of Play.” Like the UK version of “Shameless,” his latest series, “No Offense,” is a sometimes extremely dark dramedy set in working-class Manchester. In the first season of the truly offbeat police procedural, Detective Inspector Viv Deering (Joanna Scanlan) – described as a cast-iron cop, with a tough-love approach — leads a motley team of investigators at the fictional Manchester Metropolitan Police Department. Detective Constable Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy) misses out on a promotion to Detective Superintendent due to a mistake, but she proceeds to uncover a link between a murder, the body of a drowned woman and the disappearance of a third girl. The team soon realizes that someone is killing girls with Down syndrome, and, while working on different cases, attempts to solve the case as more girls come into danger. Although the prime suspect is killed while fleeing arrest, suspicion soon falls on a far more unexpected person, with links to the department heads. As was the case with “Shameless,” the characters are quite unlike those to whom American viewers have become accustomed through the sanitizing lens of broadcast television. They do, however, resemble the eccentric cops and civilians we met on “NYPD Blue” and “Hillstreet Blues.” A second season has already aired in England, with a third soon to follow.

Also, from Acorn Media, but of Canadian persuasion, comes the 11th season compilation of “Murdoch Mysteries” episodes …  18 of them, plus bonus material. This was my first introduction to the CBC series, so I didn’t know quite what to expect. Frankly, at first glance, I assumed it would end up being something more in line with Hallmark Channel’s “When Calls the Heart,” another period series, set in Canada, with lead characters, who outwardly, at least, lead prim and proper lives, with both the male and female characters as buttoned-down as their Edwardian fashions. In the popular Hallmark show, crimes are solved by Mounties, sometimes with the assistance of an enlightened citizenry. “Murdoch Mysteries” is set a few thousand miles to the east, in the bustling metropolis of Toronto, during roughly the same period. Instead of Mounties, the crimes – some rather grisly – are investigated by a clean-cut, if surprisingly appealing group of detectives, who couldn’t be more Canadian if they carried hockey sticks, instead of batons. The primary conceit isn’t all that different than the one that informed “The Wild Wild West,” however. Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), of the Toronto Constabulary, solves many of his cases using methods of detection that were unusual at the time, sometimes completely unknown. They include fingerprinting (“finger marks”), blood testing, surveillance, and trace evidence. As the series evolved, Murdoch’s methodology advanced closer to technologies accepted much later in the century. Season 11 opens with Murdoch languishing in jail, accused of murder, and Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris), Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) and Detective Watts (Daniel Maslany) racing to prove his innocence. His main squeeze, Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy), remains in hiding from the corrupt forces that have taken over Station House No. 4. Once that injustice is settled, the season progresses with cases involving poisoned wine, high-speed transportation, botched organ transplants and anti-Semitic riots. Along the way, such historical figures as Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert H. Goddard and Theodore Roosevelt are introduced to give Murdoch an opportunity to absorb their knowledge.

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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