MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Eighth Grade, No. 1 Fan, Jeannette, Moe Berg, 12th Man, La Familia, Molly, Sarno, Making a Killing, All Styles … More

Eighth Grade
For some teenagers, middle school and high school are a breeze. Socializing isn’t a problem and there are never enough clubs, teams and activities to join. For others, they’re torture. The ordeal feels as if it’s never going to end and even the promise of a stint in the wartime military comes as a relief to the bullying, cliques, zits and dateless weekends. The cruelest irony comes later, though, when the more fortunate ones have found work in jobs they think will last for a lifetime, only to discover that adult life is just like high school and all the same rules apply. All the personality types that made high school so unpleasant are found in business offices, politics, factories and, probably, at the Pentagon. And, in the current economic climate, the options are few and none … rebels without a cause need not apply. Unemployment is a bitch. Watching Bo Burnham’s hyper-perceptive dramedy, Eighth Grade, is like experiencing every awkward moment all over, again. In fact, it’s difficult to say if Burnham’s debut is targeted at kids, who will see themselves in the various characters and situations, or adults, who will cringe with embarrassment at memories of who they once were. In this regard, Eighth Grade could be a documentary.

Because today’s middle-school students have never known a world without the Internet, social media and texting, they’ve been catapulted into an arena once reserved for college students and adults. The kids we meet here willingly share their ideas, joys, struggles, anxieties and depression electronically with friends and strangers, alike. Not all the feedback is reliable, helpful or wise, of course. In an environment in which nearly every student has a cellphone and is glued to it like a permanent appendage, some Boomer parents may recall the scenes in Bye Bye Birdie in which all gossip is transmitted by rotary telephones, and they’re hard-wired to the wall. Texting is limited to Western Union telegrams and video screens are only be found in living rooms. (Remember when Paul Lynde asked the musical question, “Kids … what’s the matter with kids today?”) In Eighth Grade, Burnham doesn’t rely on embellishments, exaggerations or stereotyping to make his story work. Everyday reality provides all the drama the story needs. Neither did he feel the need the need to add a Jeff Spicoli surrogate for comic relief.

Burnham’s protagonist is, by all appearances, a perfectly normal 13-year-old in her final week of 8th Grade at a suburban middle school in New York. Unlike most movies about kids in their teens, the actress playing Kayla (Elsie Fisher) was the same age as her character during the film’s production. The cringe-worthy moments in Eighth Grade were still fresh in her mind and those of the supporting-cast members. In public, Kayla is so shy and withdrawn that she’s voted “Most Quiet Girl” in year-end “honors.” Her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), worries that her sullenness and negativity can be traced to something other than the age-specific orneriness girls usually reserve for their moms. In private, on her YouTube vlogs and Instagram page, however, Kayla is the complete opposite: chatty, self-assured and wise beyond her years. (Her acne seems to disappear, as well.) She dispenses advice to kids her age, as if she’s experienced all the hard knocks personally and lived to share them. During the week, Kayla attends a “shadow program” at a local high school, during which she experiences unconditional acceptance for the first time and gets a sneak peek at some of the things that excite, depress and appall kids at the next level. It’s worth noting that the 28-year-old Burnham began his own performance career on YouTube in March 2006, and his videos have been viewed more 234 million times. (How is this even possible?) He’s since appeared in three specials on Comedy Central and co-created and starred in the MTV television series, “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.” The Blu-ray adds commentary with Burnham and Fisher; the featurette, “You’re Not Alone: Life in Eighth Grade”; a music video; and deleted scenes. I’m not sure that Eighth Grade qualifies as family entertainment – teens hate to share embarrassing moments and potential talking points with adults – but it’s a film that demands to be seen by kids and parents, together or separately.

Number One Fan
The reliably terrific French actress Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon) plays the title character in this fresh and twisty crime drama about a middle-age fangirl, who experiences a dark and totally unpredictable relationship with the object of her obsession. For the past two decades, Muriel has followed the handsome crooner Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte) on his tours around Europe, but mostly crushes on him from afar. A beautician in a waxing salon, the tall and frightfully thin blond is notorious for making up tall tales and spending every waking moment catching up on Lacroix’s career. One night, out of the blue, the singer appears at her door to ask a favor. Lacroix has accidentally killed his girlfriend during one of their regular arguments and he needs her help to dispose of the body. He knows that her loyalty will preclude her from questioning his role in the woman’s death and alerting the police. Lacroix asks her to drive her car from Paris to Switzerland, but not to look at the rolled-up rug he’s put in its trunk. Once over the border, she is to go to his sister’s and hand over instructions. What could go wrong? Well, just about everything, if not in ways that could be expected from the moment the singer shows up at the divorced mother of two’s door. The first thing that runs counter to Lacroix’s plan is the immediate doubt expressed by two police detectives – a pair of feuding lovers – about his claim that his girlfriend simply disappeared. I won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of Number One Fan by explaining how the cops are able to link Muriel to Lacroix or how circumstances conspire to keep them one step ahead of them, without expending much energy. First-time writer/director Jeanne Herry is the daughter of actor Miou-Miou and the singer Julien Clerc, so she probably brought some first-hand insight to the project. (SPOILER ALERT follows …) Number One Fan likely was informed, as well, by the real-life story of Bertrand Cantat, the frontman of French band Noir Désir. In 2004, he was jailed after the death of his girlfriend, the actor Marie Trintignant. She was filming in Lithuania in 2003 and, while there, the pair had an argument. The blows he inflicted resulted in her death five days later. That may be too close a coincidence for the comfort of some viewers.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
Way back in the Pleistocene Age, when the Catholic Church wasn’t mired in scandal and lawsuits, Sunday school and parochial students were frequently asked to watch short films and slide shows about the lives of the saints. (And, no, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew wasn’t one of them.) This was years before “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and, for that matter, the songs “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” turned the Lord’s only begotten son into a rock idol. The full, original version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, wouldn’t be re-discovered in a janitor’s closet at a Oslo mental institution until 1982. Based on the actual record of the 19-year-old heroine’s one-sided trial, Dreyer’s spare depiction forever elevated the future saint’s story of extreme faith and voluntary martyrdom from the realm of historical fantasy and French Catholic dogma. Bruno Dumont’s disarmingly unconventional musical, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, opens in northeast France,

in 1425, at the height of the Hundred Years War. Eight-year-old Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) is looking after her sheep in a pristine riverside meadow outside her village. One day, she tells her friend, Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier), that she cannot bear to see the suffering caused during the English occupation. Neither can she comprehend what individual acts of charity accomplish, since suffering never diminishes. She also wonders if Jesus has died in vain. A Franciscan nun, Madame Gervaise, urges Jeannette to abandon her concerns to divine Providence and nonviolent acceptance of suffering and evil. Jeannette will receive visions of the Archangel Michael (Anaïs Rivière), Saint Margaret (Aline Charles) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Elise Charles), instructing her to take up arms in support of Charles VII and recover France from English domination.

As Jeannette grows into the teenage Jeanne, the girls’ roles are assumed by Jeanne Voisin and Victoria Lefebvre. Now about 15, she wrestles with her inaction after receiving her heavenly call. Jeannette concludes as the 17-year-old Jeanne mounts up for the fateful journey that would lead to the lifting of the siege of Orléans. What makes Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc unique is Dumont’s decision to use songs to advance the narrative and amplify Joan’s commitment to the cause. The girls’ prayers and ponderings are adapted from the dramatic lyricism of Charles Péguy’s meditations, “The Mystery of the Charity” (1910) and “Jeanne d’Arc” (1897). They also accompany the joyous dances, playful gymnastics and romps in a stream that runs through the meadow. The eclectic musical backing blends electronica, Baroque themes and guitar-shredding hard rock. It takes some time to get comfortable with the conceit – some viewers won’t buy it, at all – but the actors are nothing less than convincing. If details in Dumont’s script could spark debate among historians and theologians, “Jeanette” is exactly the kind of unabashedly innovative interpretation of religious history that could encourage young people to embrace the Church or make them think twice before fleeing the scandals and hypocrisy. The DVD adds an informative Q&A with Dumont and deleted scenes.

The Catcher Was a Spy
The title character in Ben Lewin’s compelling period biopic is Moe Berg, a journeyman baseball player whose modest stats are dwarfed by his service to Allied cause in World War II. Although he played 15 seasons in the major leagues, almost entirely for four American League teams, Berg was used primarily as a backup catcher. Within the game, itself, he was known for being “the brainiest guy in baseball,” although legendary manager Casey Stengel once described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Both sides of the Harlem native’s personality are on full display in the movie based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.” Indeed, Berg’s baseball card is the only one display at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here, Berg is played by the ever-reliable Paul Rudd, who’s surrounded by an all-star cast that includes Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Giancarlo Giannini, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce and Paul Giamatti (son of the former baseball commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti). Berg’s first unofficial foray into the spy game came on a good-will tour to Japan, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. After learning that war was imminent, he used the 16-mm Bell & Howell camera he carried with him — borrowed from MovietoneNews – to surveil Tokyo’s unusually busy harbor from the top of Saint Luke’s Hospital, in nearby Tsujiki. After the declaration of war, Berg surprised State Department officials with the amateur footage. A graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, Berg spoke several languages and regularly read 10 newspapers a day. This, alone, made him an ideal candidate for the OSS. Also crucial was his ability to keep a secret, a skill alluded to in The Catcher Was a Spy by his refusal to acknowledge speculation of his sexuality … except when a rookie makes the mistake of calling him a “faggot.”

The question is deemed irrelevant in the execution of his primary mission: sneaking into Europe to meet and interview Axis scientist, to determine their progress in building an atomic bomb. Although Berg was instructed to kill a leading physicist if he refused to cooperate, he succeeded in creating a post-war path for defectors and scientists willing to provide crucial intelligence on the location of hidden laboratories, storage facilities and factories. As if to confirm Stengel’s assessment, Berg’s next nearly 30 years on Earth would be shrouded in mystery, seclusion and difficult relations with his siblings. Berg turned down the Medal of Freedom that he was rewarded after his retirement from the OSS. It was awarded posthumously, with his sister accepting on his behalf. More interesting than riveting, The Catcher Was a Spy is competently directed by Ben Lewin (The Sessions) and adapted by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan). The Prague locations add credibility to the wartime settings.  Even so, the production only skims the surface of Berg’s story. I doubt that there was much money left for frills or further exploration of Berg’s heroism after the actors were paid. (Berg may not have been a practicing Jew, but it didn’t mean that anti-Semitism didn’t play a role in his isolation from the crowd. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg’s nearly unmatched talent made him a larger target for bigots.) Considering what Steven Spielberg was able to accomplish in Bridge of Spies (2015), I can’t help but wonder what he might have been able to do with Dawidoff’s book, given a similarly excellent cast, a lot more money and another half-hour of screen time. The DVD adds several deleted scenes.

The 12th Man: Blu-ray
If we wait long enough, there’s a very good chance we’ll be able to watch movies about all the heroes of World War II, not just those from the United States. Just as The Catcher Was a Spy re-introduces Moe Berg to a generation of Americans for whom WWII must seem like ancient history, Harald Zwart’s The 12th Man relates the remarkable story of a Norwegian commando hardly known outside Scandinavia. In 1940, after the Nazi invasion of Norway, Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) slipped into neutral Sweden, where he was convicted of espionage and expelled from the country. After having travelled through the Soviet Union, Africa and the U.S., he arrived in the UK, where he joined the Norwegian Company Linge. The unit’s most celebrated actions involved raids on the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant, which produced the heavy water necessary for German scientists to continue work on the atomic bomb (also referenced in The Catcher Was a Spy), and the attacks on the Thamshavn Line railroad that carried pyrites being extracted at the mine at Løkken Verk. In 1943, after a failed sabotage mission leaves 11 of his comrades dead or captured on an island in the far-northern Tromsøysundet strait, Baalsruud commits all his strength to delivering important documents to resistance fighters in Sweden. Having been swept overboard into the frigid waters off Tromsa, Baalsrud’s escape is further hindered by having his toe shoot off by a German pursuer. With other soldiers nipping at his heels, he risks turning into an ice cube by swimming 300 meters to Rebbenesøya island.

Wehrmacht troopers argue against braving the same elements, by pursuing the bleeding man any further. Their request is vetoed by SS officer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who refuses to believe the 12th invader is dead and fears that Baalsrud’s escape to Sweden could ruin his career. (It didn’t, but, after testifying at Nuremburg, he was hung by Yugoslav authorities.) Throughout Baalsrud’s 40-day ordeal, he has nothing to protect him from the elements, beyond the kindness of strangers. Even then, he is forced to contend with frost bite, gangrene, snow blindness and malnutrition. A maker of technical instruments, by trade, he wasn’t prepared for the ordeal. Who would be? There’s no reason to spoil Zwart’s depiction of Baalsrud harrowing journey, except to say that The 12th Man also testifies to the heroism of the Norwegian patriots who risked their lives to protect a stranger and get him to his destination. The film’s spectacular Arctic Circle locations mirror the terrain traversed by Baalsrud. (The route has become something of tourist attraction.) One of The 12th Man’s most astonishing scenes takes place near the borders of Norway, Finland and Sweden, where his Sami protectors use a huge herd of reindeer to help him sneak past a German watchtower. The strategy doesn’t work as planned, but the scramble to improvise is exciting to watch. The only previous dramatization of Baalsrud’s journey came in 1957, with Arne Skouen’s Nine Lives, which was nominated for an Oscar and voted Norway’s best film of all time.

La Familia
For as long as most people can remember, the news out of Venezuela has been bleak. Tens of thousands of mostly poor people have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and the humanitarian crisis threatens to cause turmoil throughout South America. (President Trump has already discussed a military incursion.) Without beating anyone over the head with polemics, Gustavo Rondón Córdova has crafted a film, La Familia, that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. Set and shot in one of Caracas’ worst barrios, it opens with a group of boys in their early teens – if that – playing the kind of games that typically end in someone getting hurt. They should be in school, of course, but receive no encouragement or incentives to do so. All they have to do is look around them to understand that even a vocational- or trade-school education no longer guarantees a job and a living wage. The drama begins when an older gang member introduces a handgun into the mix. It destroys the balance among equals and results in a serious, perhaps fatal accident when one of the boys uses it to intimidate 12-year-old Pedro (Reggie Reyes), who has no intention of being robbed or pushed around. Because the instigator has been seriously wounded in the altercation, Pedro understands instinctively that his fate is now sealed. So, does his father, Andres (Giovanni García).

In a dog-eat-dog culture that demands eye-for-an-eye justice, they know that the boy’s older brothers will target him for retribution, and, if Pedro somehow manages to escape their wrath, unethical police routinely settle such matters by acting as judge, jury and executioner. Andres’ future within the community is doomed, as well. The hard-working laborer decides immediately to leave their home behind, if only to relocate to a place in the municipality of 7 million souls where he can work and protect Pedro anonymously. That’s easier said than done, of course. Besides scrambling for low-paying work at construction sites or private homes, Andres waits tables at night. If nothing else, it provides him with bottles of booze to sell in the underground marketplace. At first, Pedro bristles at his father’s demand that he tags along one his jobs. All he wants to do is defy Andres by sneaking back into the barrio to discover if his best friend is OK, which he isn’t. Then, something borderline miraculous happens. Pedro begins the redemption process by taking an interest in his father’s work and putting some sweat equity into his future. That doesn’t mean that Pedro won’t screw things up by returning to the scene of the crime, however. At 82 minutes, Córdova probably knew that La Familia couldn’t provide answers for his country’s core problems or assure viewers that everything will turn out OK for his protagonists. Instead, he decided to focus on closing the distance between a rebellious boy and the father who worked too many hours to make a positive impression on his son. Even if audiences are left wondering what will happen to them – and, by extension, their country — it’s a start. As usual, the Film Movement package includes a short film, “Les Miserables,” about a trio of corrupt cops, who are caught in the act of beating a suspect by a group of kids with a camera attached to their drone.

Molly: Blu-ray
Death Race: Beyond Anarchy: Blu-ray
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian-based movies have come and gone with increasing regularity over the last 50 years. That’s when Planet of the Apes (1968) – co-written by “Twilight Zone” creator, Rod Serling – raised the ante on the sci-fi worlds created by H.G. Welles and Jules Verne, as if in anticipation of the Hollywood fantasy factory. Ironically, it was Woody Allen’s futuristic romp, Sleeper (1973), that kept the subgenre going in advance of such now-classic titles as A Boy and His Dog (1975), Death Race 2000 (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Deathsport (1978) and Mad Max (1979), none of which was dependent on space aliens for the threatened demise of civilization. Tank Girl (1995) not only took place in a post-apocalyptic environment, but it’s the rare sci-fi flick in which the story revolves around a female character (Lori Petty), with punk, riot grrrl, feminist and lesbian characteristics. In a world that allows time-shifting, Petty’s Tank Girl could easily have been the mother or grandmother of Chloë Grace Moretz’ Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl, in Kick-Ass (2010), and the protagonist in the newly released actioner from the Netherlands, Molly (2017). At first glance, red-haired Molly (Julia Batelaan) resembles the geek goddess of every high school computer nerd’s favorite wet dream. Molly wears unfashionable glasses and knee pads, has unruly hair and wears clothes she might have salvaged from a dumpster. More to the point, however, Molly’s tool belt is festooned with knives, swords and spiky things. Her backpack contains a hacksaw-like gizmo with a razor-sharp blade and she also wields a bow and arrow. And, while she’s proficient in all forms of post-apocalyptic cutlery and martial arts, her secret weapon is of a more sonic variety. When the evil showman and bookie, Deacon (Joost Bolt), hears rumors of a girl with superpowers, roaming the beach near his fort, he sends his Mad Maxian thugs out to capture her. Meanwhile, Molly has discovered a young child, living alone in a cabin in the wasteland, waiting for the unlikely return of her parents. Molly now must protect the child and fight off the marauders at the same time. When the girl is kidnapped, Molly reveals herself to the mad showman and risks her life to save her. The hand-to-hand combat reportedly was captured by co-directors Colinda Bongers and Thijs Meuwese in a single-take scene that lasts nearly a half-hour. Made on what must have been a miniscule budget, Molly makes full use of every penny invested in it. I doubt if a larger budget would have added much to the fun. The Artsploitation Films’ Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

The Death Race franchise, which began in 1975 under the watchful eyes of producer Roger Corman, exists in a post-apocalyptic universe all its own. The installments have arrived in the form of sequels, prequels, remakes, an unrelated (if curiously similar) video game, feature films and direct-to-DVD originals. Death Race: Beyond Anarchy is the fourth edition to be released under the direct imprimatur of Paul W.S. Anderson, as producer and some combination of writer and/or director. Corman is credited as producer and/or executive producer of four of the seven films – including the ill-fated 1978 sequel, Deathsport (a.k.a., “Death Race 2050”) — while his wife, Julie, is listed as exec producer of the 2017 Death Race 2050. Got that? “Death Race: Beyond Anarchy: Unrated and Unhinged” was supposed to have been released last January, along with three other Anderson-related titles, but was pushed all the way back to October 2. I have no idea why. The version submitted to the MPAA was “rated R for strong violence and language throughout, nudity and sexual content.” What the “unrated/unhinged” version adds is anyone’s guess, because both weigh in at 111 minutes and feature oodles of T&A, gore and violence. Just for the record, Danny Trejo returns as the ruthless bookie, Goldberg. After a failed attack on inmate and legendary driver, Frankenstein, Black Ops specialist Connor Gibson (Zach McGowan) infiltrates a super-maximum federal prison with one goal: enter the immoral and illegal Death Race and take Frankenstein down. Connor enlists the help of Baltimore Bob (Danny Glover) and Lists (Fred Koehler), and unexpectedly falls in love with bartending beauty, Jane (Christine Marzano). There are no guards, no rules, no track and no room for fear. Shot in Bulgaria, under the direction of Don Michael Paul (Sniper: Legacy), it’s reasonably well made and devotees of this sort of thing should find it exhilarating. The Blu-ray includes featurettes, “Inside the Anarchy,” “Time Served: Lists & Goldberg” and “On the Streets of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy” and commentary with Paul and McGowan.

Feral: Blu-ray
When are characters in indie horror flicks going to realize that creatures who live in the woods – four- and two-legged — aren’t all warm and fuzzy, domesticated or there for the convenience of nature photographers. Ramshackle cabins remain abandoned for good reasons. And that it pays to listen to the locals, who know that some of the legends are true and cellphone signals fade once you’ve left the highway. I don’t know how many movies about things that go bump in the woods have been made since Deliverance (1972) kind of, sort of kick-started the subgenre – evil hillbillies, helpless city slickers – but it clearly didn’t begin with Creature from Black Lake (1976), Rituals (1977), Don’t Go in the Woods (1981), The Evil Dead (1981) and The Forest (1982), and it most assuredly didn’t end with Cabin Fever (2002) or, even, Travis Z’s 2016 remake. Newly released into DVD/Blu-ray/VOD is Mark H. Young’s Feral, in which a diseased creature lies in wait for six medical students on a weekend holiday in the woods. One by one, they become infected with a “feral disease,” turning them into rabid, bloodthirsty being, and they begin to turn on each other. The group is comprised of nice-guy Matt (George Finn) and the sweet-natured Brie (Renee Olstead); her best friend, Alice (Scout Taylor-Compton), and Alice’s new lover, Jules (Olivia Luccardi); and alpha-male Jesse (Brock Kelly), who has brought along his own new girlfriend, Gina (Landry Allbright). A cabin in the woods is inhabited by a hermit (Lew Temple), who alerts the students to the danger facing them, but isn’t taken seriously. The only slight variation on the theme comes when the Final Girl(s) turn out to be lesbians. The special effects are appropriately grisly.

While Jason Goldberg (“Punk’d”) and Nick Kreiss’ cabin-in-the-woods thriller, Afraid, doesn’t involve zombies, it does borrow from other hoary subgenres: hidden cameras, found-footage, a fiendish voyeur. In it, a couple (Alanna Masterson, George Bryne) goes on what they hope to be a romantic weekend getaway. It turns into a nightmare when they discover they are constantly being watched. Viewers already know that, though, because Afraid is entirely shown from the point of view of surveillance camera footage. There’s a subplot involving a wireless connection that’s monitored, as well. It isn’t enough to save the movie, but completists shouldn’t be overly disappointed.

Pin Cushion
Judging solely by the evidence presented in British writer/director Deborah Haywood’s debut film, Pin Cushion, growing up weird in a small Midlands town is no picnic. In an interview with the Midland Movies blog, Haywood described it as “emotionally biographical” and “a dark fairytale love story between an oddball mother (Joanna Scanlan) and daughter (Lily Newmark) and how their moving to a new town affects their relationship.” The films that inspired Pin Cushion include Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Brian de Palma’s Carrie, Peter Jackson Heavenly Creatures and Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Doll’s House. And, yes, Newmark’s Iona looks very much like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Scanlan is extremely convincing as Iona’s mother and best friend, Lyn, whose eccentricities may be related to mental illness. Newmark’s transition from target to acceptance among the school’s ruling elite – are they friends or frenemies? — does nothing to improve Lyn’s ability to cope with short-term separation anxiety. The problem is that Pin Cushion, while quirky, isn’t particularly endearing. Haywood’s somewhat unusual decision to shoot parts of the film inside the same Midlands school at which she was bullied shows that she isn’t lacking in chutzpah and the same goes for Pin Cushion.

Making a Killing
It’s always fun to see what happens when actors known for performances in supporting and character roles get an opportunity to shine in lead parts or as equal partners in an ensemble cast. In Devin Hume’s contemporary noir, Making a Killing – based on a true crime — the instantly recognizable Mike Starr (“Mr. Mercedes”) plays Arthur Herring, the mayor, priest and mortician in a small town nestled in the mountains of New Mexico. A year ago, Arthur and his brother, Vincent (Jude Moran), agreed to safeguard a fellow mortician’s rare-coin collection, while he served time in prison on a molestation beef. When the greedy old coot is released and demands that his coins be returned, the brothers hatch an elaborate scheme to keep his treasure for themselves. Although the ex-con isn’t in Making a Killing all that long, Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) makes his time on screen memorable. Things get complicated for the brothers when a cocky African-American investigator from the state capital (Michael Jai White) arrives in the quaint little town to check out a murder that no one, including the police, is particularly interested in solving. Meanwhile, Arthur doesn’t want to raise suspicions by immediately fulfilling a promise to his brother to use the money to move to Alaska. Naturally, this causes a rift between them wide enough for the investigator to exploit to his advantage. Adding to the intrigue is a cunning waitress, Connie (Aida Turturro), who also hopes to get between the brothers. Sally Kirkland, who, in 1988, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress (Anna), plays the ex-con’s devoted and possibly larcenous secretary. Considering that Making a Killing was set and shot in New Mexico, it’s nice to see that Hume found room in the story for Native American actors         David Midthunder and Brian McGill in visible roles. There are a few times when the modest budget makes its presence known, but, as modern attempts at noir go these days, Making a Killing isn’t bad. Be sure to stay tuned for the epilogue.

Saving Faith
It seems odd that Beijing Hualu Baina Film & TV would be listed among the distributors of Saving Faith, alongside such familiar names as Grindstone Entertainment Group and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Presumably, movies made for Christian audiences in the United States would be banned outright or censored to the point where the family-friendly message is leeched from the narrative. I wouldn’t know. Saving Faith seems as if it’s harmless enough to pass muster, even in officially atheist China. Still, there’s nothing the Communist Party fears more than an insurrection by Christians, especially those in the far-flung provinces, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims recently were rounded up and sent to re-education camps. BHBF&T is a major company in the region and wouldn’t shell out a lot of money for a movie that’s lost its heart and teeth. One of the movie’s stars is Knoxville-born comedian Henry Cho, who is of Korean descent and a professed Christian. (Within the industry, his nickname is Mr. Clean.) So, maybe, the company is distributing Saving Grace in the southern half of the divided country. The story revolves around the efforts of Tennesseans Faith Scott (Jenn Gotzon Chandler) and her Uncle Donny (Donny Richmond) to save Clinton’s struggling Ritz Theater. Faith is a good-ol’-Southern-gal, while Uncle Donny is a former country singer who tired of being a road warrior. Forty years after the death of Elvis Presley, Uncle Donny maintains the same haircut worn by the King in his fat-and-sweaty period. To keep the property out of the clutches of a greedy local businessman, they commit themselves to putting on a big Christmas show, for which they hope to sell lots of tickets. To this end, Uncle Donny contacts his old pals Vince Gill and his wife, Amy Grant, “The Queen of Christian Pop.” The businessman will stop at nothing to prevent this from happening, however, so what’s needed is another Festivus, er, Christmas miracle. Victoria Jackson, Michael W. Smith, Jim E. Chandler, Jay DeMarcus and, of all people, skater Scott Hamilton all contribute to the inspirational, if highly predictable film.

Confessions of a Young American Housewife/Sin in the Suburbs: Blu-ray
Two years ago, Film Movement unveiled its acquisition of “classic titles” by the notorious sexploitation and erotica filmmaker, Joe Sarno. The relationship had already begun in 2014, when the New York-based company released A Life in Dirty Movies, a captivating documentary about Sarno and his wife, Peggy, and their attempt to make one last film, in Sweden, before his death in 2010. It must have sold well, because Film Movement and Film Media have since partnered to restore and release Vampire Ecstasy (1973) and Sin You Sinners (1963). The second installment included All the Sins of Sodom (1968) and Vibrations (1968). The newly restored and repackaged triple-feature, Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974), Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and Warm Nights & Hot Pleasures (1964) is now available for the titillation of old fans and edification of those of us interested in the evolution of sexploitation and pornography in the 1960-70s. To this end, Sin in the Suburbs may be of the most interest to buffs. It was made at the dawn of the sexual revolution, when movies and television shows based on such novels as “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” were gaining traction among mainstream audiences, and Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger were finding acceptance outside the underground. For Sin in the Suburbs, Sarno went so far as to research reports of wife-swapping, group gropes, secret sex clubs, key parties and rampant adultery in parts of America previously considered to be square and conformist. The film, which is largely devoid of T&A, depicts alternative sexual behavior with candor, while also telling a recognizable, somewhat moralistic story.  The slightly more graphic Warm Nights & Hot Pleasures follows three ambitious college graduates (a.k.a., coeds) – Hugh Hefner would have characterized them as prototypical “girls next-door” — eager to split the boonies and make their mark on Broadway. After renting a room from a model for men’s magazines, they’re immersed in a lurid world of wild parties, risqué men’s clubs and tattered casting couches. Soon, each woman must decide how far she is willing to go for some semblance of stardom. Because everything takes places 50 years before the #MeToo movement, the film’s prescience is worth noting. The men are appropriately sleazy and the women in dire need of a gift certificate for Frederick’s of Hollywood. (The lingerie looks as if it was ordered from a Sears catalogue.) Sin in the Suburbs includes commentaries by historian Tim Lucas, and with Joe and Peggy Sarno, producer and documentarian Michael Vraney (That’s Sexploitation!) and Frank Henenlotter (Frankenhooker).

Confessions of a Young American Housewife is noteworthy for a couple of different reasons. Released two years after the hard-core classics, Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, made headlines, and a year after The Devil in Miss Jones, “Confessions” risked irrelevance by being decidedly soft-core (the absence of penetration of any orifice) and telling a story that demanded one’s attention. Unlike the other films in this package, “Confessions” was shot in color, as well. Already a genre star, Jennifer Welles plays recent widow Jennifer Robinson – Mrs. Robinson, if you will – who pays a visit on her daughter, Carole (Mary Mendum), who lives in a Manhattan apartment building with her husband, Eddie (David Hausman), and their swinger neighbors, Anna (Chris Jordan) and Pete (Eric Edwards). Initially, Carole fears that her vivacious 37-year-old mother will spoil the party, but she proves to be increasingly permissive. In fact, as hard as she tries, Jennifer is incapable of turning down the sexual overtures of her daughter’s friends. She even initiates a hookup with a grocery-delivery guy, whose wife just left him for another man. Normally, this would be more than enough drama to fill in the blanks between sex scenes in a hard-core movie. At 105 minutes, “Confessions” is 44 minutes longer than “Throat” and a half-hour longer than “Green Door.” The sex scenes are undeniably hot, if tame compared to the action in other “Golden Age” adult films. Somehow, Sarno gets enough from his actors – most of them already tested in XXX films and loops — to keep the reasonably compelling narrative moving in a forwardly direction. If I’m not mistaken, it would set a standard for other filmmakers in the Boogie Nights era. The Film Movement package adds a “mini-commentary” by Sarno; full commentary by Tim Lucas; and deleted and alternative scenes.

A Swingers Weekend
I don’t know if polyamory exists outside the R-rated borders of the premium-cable universe or if it’s simply a fancy word for swinging. One of things that differentiate swingers from the couples introduced in Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married & Dating” is that swingers consider their seemingly random sexual hookups — as practiced within groups of like-minded men and women — to be a lifestyle choice, while polyamorous families (a.k.a., pods) maintain monogamous relationships with more than one “spouse.” Wife-swapping, previously mapped in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), is something else entirely. Don’t quote me on any of that, because I only know what I hear on talk- and reality-based shows. Writer/director Jon E. Cohen’s debut feature, A Swingers Weekend – with fellow freshman co-writer Nicola Sammeroff – appears not to have a firm hold on either concept. The story opens at a posh lakeside house owned or leased by Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk, Randal Edwards), who’ve invited fellow yuppies TeeJay and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostina) for a weekend of mutually sanctioned wife-swapping. Their plans are upended when a third, previously invited couple, Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernick, Mia Kirshner), shows up unexpectedly. By not honoring the RSVP ritual, the intruders have messed with Lisa’s math. After an uneasy dinner, the guests pair for their first night of extra-marital bliss … not.  None of them seems particularly comfortable in their own skin – or pajamas – let alone in a bed with someone whose genitalia are unfamiliar to them. Predictably, each of the couplings turn out differently, with each of the men and women interpreting the results according to their own emotional needs. Of the six individuals, three of them enjoy the sex enough to wake up with a smile, and one finds it revelatory. The other two profit from other aspects of the arrangement. In due course, however, a full range of human emotions come into play, threatening to ruin everyone’s marriage. A Swingers Weekend’s greatest flaw, besides the misleading title and lack of nudity, is the discrepancy between the talent of the seasoned actors and the weaknesses built into the screenplay by inexperienced filmmakers. By the afternoon of the second day, genuine interpersonal dynamics are trumped by safe and predictable clichés and under-the-covers foreplay. Richard Pell’s music, the attractive ensemble cast – four out of six of them, anyway — and the lovely setting make A Swinger’s Weekend a better fit for the small- screen streaming and rentals.

Showtime: All Styles
Power Rangers: Choujin Sentai Jetman: The Complete Series
PBS: Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like
Sesame Street: Elmo’s World: Elmo Explores
Nick Jr.: Top Wing
Nick Jr: Snow Awesome
Angela Tucker’s debut feature, All Styles, is a dance drama about a young hip-hop artist, Brandon (Dushaunt Fik-Shun Stegall), who is rejected by his old crew for heading off to college before a major competition. Dissed from afar, Brandon assembles a ragtag crew of amateurs to face off against his former friends, all of whom have professional ambitions. A prize of $50,000 is at stake. Stegall is a veteran of “So You Think You Can Dance,” as are Hokuto “Hok” Konishi and Emilio Dosal. Heather Morris appeared in 95 episodes of “Glee” and was a back-up dancer for Beyoncé. It goes without saying that the dancing is quite a bit more entertaining than any mystery surrounding the outcome of the contest.

What I know about the “Power Rangers” universe wouldn’t fill a thimble and, judging from the Wikipedia page devoted to “Choujin Sentai Jetman,” I’d need another entire childhood to master the details. What I do know is that Shout!Factory has released the entire 51-episode series, which aired on Japan’s TV Asahi from February 15, 1991, to February 14, 1992. It is the last “Sentai” series, until “Ressha Sentai ToQger,” to not get adapted into a “Power Rangers” series. The boxed set, “Power Rangers: Choujin Sentai Jetman: The Complete Series,” is the first pre-“Mighty Morphin Sentai” series to be released in North America on DVD. The Japanese tokusatsu is the 15th entry in the long running “Super Sentai” series. Apparently, it was intended to be one of the first entries into what would become known as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” but the heavy drama and adult-oriented content proved difficult to adapt to western tastes. Neither, reportedly, was Fox keen on a show about teenagers with avian powers.

PBS’ celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” kicked off last March with “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like.” The hourlong documentary – plus 30 minutes of bonus material added to the DVD — pays tribute to the beloved Fred Rogers and the nearly 900 episodes of his landmark children’s television program. The retrospective, hosted by Michael Keaton, takes viewers on memorable visits to Koko the Gorilla and to the Crayola crayon factory. Loving testimony is provided by Judd Apatow, Joyce DiDonato, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Kratt, John Lithgow, Nicholas Ma, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Silverman, Esperanza Spalding and Caroll Spinney.

From PBS’ “Sesame Street” collection, “Elmo’s World: Elmo Explores” provides a bright and lively update of the venerable series. Here, Elmo tackles 13 topics with his new friend, Smartie the Smartphone, and his old pal, Mr. Noodle. Pre-schoolers will enjoy learning along with Elmo about painting, cooking, homes, habitats, Father’s Day, skin, camouflage, recycling, instruments, books, seasons, siblings and colors, with two episodes of “The Furchester Hotel” and three classic “Elmo’s World” episodes: “Music,” “Pets” and “Drawing.”

Nick Jr.’s “Top Wing” introduces best friends and cadets-in-training at Top Wing Academy — Swift, Penny, Rod and Brody — where they learn what it takes to gain their wings and become rescue birds on Big Swirl Island. Swift is a blue jay and the fastest pilot at the academy; Penny, the only female in the group, is a penguin; Brody is a puffin, who takes a more grounded approach; and Rod, a rooster who’s is ready to fly around the island in his all-terrain vehicle. The four friends are joined by their mentor, Speedy, who helps the cadets on their different missions. “Top Wing” focuses on the importance of teamwork and the ability to successfully solve problems. The DVD is comprised of seven Season One episodes, “Time to Earn Our Wings,” “Race Through Danger Canyon,” “Rod’s Big Jump,” “Treasure Map Mission,” “Goose on the Loose,” “Shirley Squirrely Flies Away” and “Lunch Box Rescue.”

Also from Nick Jr, “Snow Awesome” takes pre-schoolers on winter adventures culled from the channel’s popular preschool series “Nella the Princess Knight,” “Sunny Day” and “Shimmer and Shine.”

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2 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup: Eighth Grade, No. 1 Fan, Jeannette, Moe Berg, 12th Man, La Familia, Molly, Sarno, Making a Killing, All Styles … More”

  1. David Pearce says:

    I recently bought and watched THE CATCHER WAS A SPY. The movie is fine, but my complaint is the very flimsy and sub-standard case the film comes in. Collectors buy films to keep usually, and we do expect much better cases than this. It seems saving money is more important than giving the collector something of quality. US distributors are much worse in this regard than the UK, where good quality cases are the norm. No more cheap black DVD boxes please.

  2. Gary Dretzka says:

    I was struck by the unappealing art, which looked cheap alongside the names of such stars. It probably would have been a problem for distributors when consumers actually browsed through stores where they could touch the boxes and get a good look at art.


Gary Dretzka on: The DVD Wrapup: Ophelia, Ambition, Werewolf in Girls' Dorm, Byleth, Humble Pie, Good Omens, Yellowstone …More

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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