MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Prayer Before Dawn, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far, Angels Wear White, Rodin, Schiele, Witch Files, 3rd Night, Official Story, Iron Mask … More

A Prayer Before Dawn: Blu-ray
At a time when anyone with a cellphone can make a movie and distribute it on the Internet for the world to see, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discover something truly new and different. Thousands of movies about boxing and wrestling have been made by Hollywood studios, alone. Typically, the fighters are in pursuit of fame, financial independence or personal redemption for past sins. The best of them compete at the highest levels of the industry for awards and box-office glory. The rest of them have found audiences, simply by conforming to clichés, convention and tropes. Today, of course, boxing and wrestling aren’t the only games in town. Women no longer are a novelty in the ring/octogon and martial-arts aren’t limited to kung fu and other Asian-based pastimes. Not to be left out of the action, WWE Studios continues to churn out genre pictures that mix well-known commercial actors with wrestlers from the company’s stable of “superstars” and “divas.” It often does so in collaborations with existing production and distribution companies. By sticking to the same routines and storylines that dictate the results of Smackdowns and other televised matches, audiences aren’t required to invest much sweat equity into the outcomes of straight-to-DVD flicks and animated features starring such actor/athletes as John Cena, Shawn Michaels The Miz, Randy Orton, Kane, Maryse Ouellet, Naomi. The distance between these movies and such classics as Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, Requiem for A Heavyweight, The Wrestler and Fat City is roughly the same as the gap separating most of the comedies starring “Saturday Night Live” alums and those created by Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis and John Hughes.

The only reason I mention this is because of the release on DVD/Blu-ray of Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn, an unapologetically brutal and emotionally taxing drama about survival within the confines of a Thai prison. It reminds me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008), in which a prisoner played by Tom Hardy turned a seven-year sentence for bank robbery into a 34-year bit, spent mostly in solitary confinement. Hardy also played an MMA fighter, who’s pitted against his estranged brother (Joel Edgerton) and their alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), in Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (2011). I’d hate to see A Prayer Before Dawn get lost in the everyday shuffle of DVD/Blu-rays whose covers only promise more of the same old thing. Like Bronson, the protagonist here is based on an actual person, Billy Moore, and his book, “A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prisons.” The excellent British actor Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”) plays Moore, a troubled British national who travels to Thailand to find steady work and a comfortable lifestyle. After finding work as a Muay Thai boxer and stuntman, he becomes addicted to yaba (a.k.a., the “madness drug” and “Nazi speed”) and is convicted of possessing stolen goods and a firearm. The prison to which he’s sent is entirely populated – or, so it seems – by hard-core Thai criminals, who prey on the weak and trade in contraband, including cigarettes, drugs and sexual favors. Many, if not most of the inmates are adorned with elaborate tattoos that cover them from head to foot.

As evidenced in previous Thai prison movies, in which western tourists are jailed for attempting to transport drugs at the behest of people they meet in Bangkok or Phuket, the Chiang Mai facility in A Prayer Before Dawn is accurately described as a “hellhole.” The prisoners sleep on the floor, as if they’re sardines in a can. Privacy doesn’t exist, and corruption not only is accepted, but it’s enforced by gang leaders, guards, black-marketeers and administrators. It takes time for the seriously addicted and routinely beaten Moore – who can only guess at what he’s being told by fellow prisoners and guards — to convince the prison’s boxing coach to give him a shot to prove himself in the ring. If he succeeds, he’ll be allowed to room with the other fighters, at least, and eat a higher quality of what passes for food there. He also finds something resembling love in the person of his black-market contact, an attractive “lady boy.” Anyone who can remember Brad Davis in Midnight Express (1982), will see a lot of Billy Hayes in Moore, although the former’s only hope for survival was to escape the Turkish prison. In A Prayer Before Dawn, Moore would be lucky to survive long enough to be released in due time, but only if he makes the kick-boxing team and his battered body can withstand the punishment … something the prison doctor doesn’t think is possible. Adding to the verisimilitude is Sauvaire’s decision to cast men who had served time in Thai prisons; put Cole through months of extensive training; and have him spend time with the real Billy Moore and his family in Liverpool before shooting started. The climatic fight was filmed in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines. Because few, if any punches are pulled, A Prayer Before Dawn isn’t a movie that can be enjoyed, exactly … certainly not by anyone who winces at cuts and bruises in traditional boxing movies. It is, however, a powerfully effective drama about survival under the most extreme circumstances. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Locked Inside the Walls: Making A Prayer Before Dawn” and “Billy Moore: In His Own Words.”

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Blu-ray
The title of Gus van Sant’s sometimes difficult, but always compelling portrait of quadriplegic artist John Callahan is taken from one of his cartoons, in which a mounted posse surrounds an empty wheelchair, left in the middle of a desert. The sheriff says, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” It also provided the title for his first autobiography, published in 1990. The biopic might have just as easily been, “Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?,” after his second “quasi-memoir,” released in 1998. Seven years later, Dutch filmmaker Simone de Vries made a documentary on Callahan, Touch Me Where I Can Feel. Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens before the 1972 accident that severed his spine and nearly killed him. He was 21 when it happened and already addicted to alcohol for nine years. Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) wasn’t driving his Volkswagen Bug the night it crashed into a utility pole, going somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 miles per hour. His designated driver (Jack Black) had been drinking all day, as well, and wound up with little more than a scratch. The Portland native, who could never get over the fact that he was adopted as an infant, was left paralyzed from the diaphragm down and lost the use of many of his upper-body muscles. Fortuitously, he could extend his fingers and eventually, after much therapy, hold a pen in his right hand. To draw, he guided his right hand slowly across a page with his left, producing rudimentary, even childlike images. As he gained more control of his hands, Callahan’s sketches began to reflect his jaundiced view of how people in the mainstream population reacted to men and women with severe handicaps and vice versa.

When he finally found outlets for the cartoons – including Portland’s alternative Willamette Weekly – their inky black humor disturbed able-bodied readers more than those with disabilities. It gave him a reputation for being politically incorrect and a butcher of sacred cows. They were compared to the work of such irreverent cartoonists as Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, Charles Rodrigues and Gary Larson. “My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands,” Callahan said in a 2010 interview in the New York Times. “Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot focuses on the turbulent years between the accident and his first real tastes of success. Because the accident did nothing to quell Callahan’s thirst for destructive quantities of booze, the film also concentrates on his reluctant embrace of Alcoholic Anonymous, its 12-step program and the people in his weekly small-group meetings. As powerful as Phoenix’s portrayal is here, it’s Jonah Hill’s depiction of group leader, Donny, that many viewers will find to be the most nuanced and moving. Donny, who bears a resemblance to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, operates outside the usual parameters of AA, opening his opulent home up to addicts and people with terminal illnesses, including Udo Kier. Once Callahan finally commits to following the 12-step approach, Donny’s unorthodox prodding keeps him from backsliding. I hope Hill and Phoenix are remembered at awards time. Rooney Mara is also very good as the woman who teaches Callahan that love is still an option for him. The Amazon Studios release was accorded limited distribution and consideration by critics. In addition to his memoirs and cartoon collections, two animated cartoon series have been based on Callahan’s cartoons: “Pelswick, a children’s show on Nickelodeon” and “Quads,” a Canadian-Australian co-production. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Inside the Accident” and “Inside the Hospital.”

Angels Wear White
This involving crime drama appears to have eluded the usual efforts of Chinese censors, whose job it is to prevent citizens and foreigners from seeing the blemishes in a society tightly controlled by Communist Party officials. Typically, movies that depict corruption, decay and overt sexuality are banned from exhibition in the PRC, and the better-known filmmakers don’t even bother to submit them to the board. They’re required to find traction on the international festival circuit before being accorded exposure in arthouses outside China. It’s remarkable that Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, which could be read as an indictment of pervasive social injustice, collusion between police and politicians, male entitlement and the sexual abuse of young girls, was chosen to represent the country at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and 2019 Academy Awards. Qu’s roots in Chinese independent cinema may have suggested to censors that the film’s avoidance of lurid and sensationalistic depictions of crimes, along with a decidedly arty approach to the acting and visuals, guaranteed that the action-driven masses would avoid it like the plague … just as audiences around the world tend to do. Moreover, Angels Wear White demands patience and a willingness on the part of viewers to accept the deliberately paced narrative and characters’ reluctance to do the right thing. A little understanding of the location’s history doesn’t hurt, either. The film’s protagonist, Xiaomi (Wen Qi) cleans rooms in an upscale “love motel,” located in a provincial seaside town, near Hainan. The island, one of several in the far southeastern province, is being groomed as major destination for adult tourists – not just Chinese — attracted to the tropical climate, beaches, water sports, golf and other activities, as well as as an escape from the teeming, polluted urban centers.

Angels Wear White looks as if it were shot in the monsoon season, when tourism is down and the tawdry beach attractions – including a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe, her skirts swept up, as they were in The Seven Year Itch– are being repaired or removed. On the one night she subs for co-worker Lili (Peng Jing) at the front desk, Xiaomi observes a high-ranking district commissioner, with two pre-teen girls in tow, checking into the motel. Through surveillance monitors, Xiaomi sees him force himself into their room. Instinctively, she records everything with her iPhone. For fear of losing her job, however, she says nothing. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Wen (Zhou Meijun), one of the victims, becomes increasingly despondent and unruly at school. Concerned for her mental health, Wen’s parents are given reason to believe that she might have been raped, while drinking, at a party. A medical exam confirms their worst fear. On “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Olivia Benson would have cut through the bureaucratic bullshit like a fork through Jello. Here, though, everyone from the bribe-paying hotel owner, to the doctors and parents’ female lawyer (Shi Ke), knows that the game is fixed. Xiaomi is culpable for watching the wrong monitor at the wrong time; Wen’s mother instinctively blames the girl for being in the wrong room with the wrong person at the wrong time; and the lawyer is powerless in a system where easily corrupted men make the rules. (And, yes, Chairman Mao and his last wife, Jiang Qing, probably are spinning in their graves right now, over the direction the revolution is heading.) Again, Qu succeeds in delivering her message on how women and children have been marginalized in today’s PRC, without resorting to polemics or blanketly tarring all men. As Qu, whose Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear Award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, told a reporter for Singapore’s Strait Times, “When everything is up for sale, how can a young girl find the right answer for herself and move forward? This has all gotten a lot more complicated.” This is not to say, however, that such incidents are non-existent outside China. Just ask Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was punished by  Republican lawmakers for coming forward about her rape.

Rodin: Blu-ray
Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden
The cavalcade of movies about the lives of painters and sculptors continues apace this week, with eponymous biopics of Belle Époque artists Auguste Rodin and Egon Schiele. In recent years, we’ve seen noteworthy biopics and documentaries on Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, JMW Turner, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Eva Hesse, Maud Lewis, Séraphine de Senlis, Paul Cézanne, Johannes Vermeer and the above-mentioned John Callahan. French sculptor Rodin’s most productive period overlapped with the emergence of Schiele, the Austrian painter who died in in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, his career only beginning to take shape. Rodin was wealthy and his work was work well-recognized during his lifetime, while Schiele’s paintings only began to sell in the year he died. Jacques Doillon’s Rodin and Dieter Berner’s Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden both reflect the men’s very different personalities and that of their cities. If you already appreciate their work, both films should appeal to your sense of curiosity, at least. Otherwise, they might come off as dry as an untouched canvas. On the plus side, for some viewers, anyway, the models spend most of their time on screen posing in the nude or changing their period clothing … in the interest of art, of course.

Anyone who’s seen Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel (1988) or Juliet Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915 (2013) will already know a lot about what goes on in Rodin. The film opens in Paris, 1880, when the 40-year-old sculptor (Vincent Lindon) finally receives his first state commission, “The Gates of Hell,” which will include “The Kiss” and “The Thinker.” Constantly working, he splits his time with his lifelong partner, Rose (Séverine Caneele), and his gifted student and mistress, Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin), who will become his creative assistant, muse and a talented sculptor in her own right. Things turn ugly when they begin to compete for credit, patrons and even models, and Auguste brings the demanding Rose into their household. Claudel’s tragic fall isn’t part of Doillon’s story, as it is in “1915.” What’s most entertaining is the time Rodin spends outside the studio, with such high-profile personalities as Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Cézanne, Octave Mirbeau, Claude Monet and Adèle Abruzzesi, one of his favorite models. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds the half-hour, “Sculpting Rodin,” which offers interesting interviews with Doillon and author Véronique Mattiussi.

Berner’s aptly titled Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden opens in 1907 or 1908, when Schiele was beginning to assert himself outside the shadow of his mentor, Gustav Klimt, and he began to explore the human form and human sexuality. Some of his work merged Klimt’s decorative eroticism with figurative distortions that included elongations, deformities and graphic sexuality. Schiele’s self-portraits and nudes also heightened his profile. Here, the artist’s private life frequently takes precedent over his painting, with depictions of Schiele’s sordid relationship with his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner); fascination with the exotic dancer, Moa Mandu (Larissa Breidbach); longtime affair with Klimt’s former model Wally Neuzil (Valerie Pachner); and marriage of economic convenience to Edith Harms (Marie Jung). In 1912, Schiele and Wally move to a studio outside Vienna, where his life is further complicated by his questionable arrest – at least, in Berner’s eyes — for seducing a girl below the age of consent and sketches of her deemed pornographic. Even though he avoids prison, he can’t avoid being drafted into the war or having his breakout year interrupted by the Spanish flu. Newcomer Noah Saavedra’s portrayal of the playboy painter is more convincing than the story’s timeline, which feels squished, even within the 110-minute framework.

The Witch Files
The cover of this surprisingly enjoyable addition to the teen-witch subgenre carries a sticker that advises, “Rated Tween.” It doesn’t quite substitute for an actual MPAA rating, but it’s difficult to see how The Witch Files would qualify as anything higher or lower than PG-13. I’d probably dial it down to PG, but I don’t get a vote. Broken down to its individual parts, it’s easy to see how writer/director Kyle Rankin (Night of the Living Deb) was influenced by such teen faves as The Craft, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Mean Girls, “Bewitched,” The Blair Witch Project and The Breakfast Club. This isn’t to say that it’s transparently derivative or exploitative, however. If anything, The Witch Files reminds me of a pilot for a television series on the CW, Paramount Network, Disney Channel or MTV. While spending a dull detention period together, an unlikely gathering of teenage girls discovers one of their cohorts may or may not possess supernatural powers. Intrigued, they follow her into the local woods, where she harnesses the energy of witches who were persecuted by villagers hundreds of years ago. Realizing they’re now able to make every desire a reality, the girls form a coven. Before long, they not only have the entire school under their control, but they’re able to shoplift and walk out on lunch tabs under the eyes of the proprietors. They’re even able to convince a salesman at a local dealership that he signed off on a contract for an expensive sports car, without collecting a penny. Naturally, the girls abuse their gift by using it to harm the students who picked on them and do other things that attract the attention of local police, one of whom (Padgett Brewster) has a personal interest in witchcraft. Holly Taylor (“The Americans”) assumes the lead role, as a reporter for the school newspaper that’s assigned her to capture footage of the coven’s activities. At 20, Taylor easily passes for a high school senior, whose nerdy glasses and willingness to stick her nose into other kids’ affairs might cause problems with the ruling clique. Britt Flatmo (Super 8), Tara Robinson (“Criminal Minds”), Tayla Fernandez (“The King of the Sun”), Autumn Read and Adrienne Rose White (“Quirky Female Protagonist”) represent a cross-section of the school’s female population, while Valerie Mahaffey (“Young Sheldon”) and Stephanie Atkinson (“Island Zero”) play typically befuddled moms. The movie’s male cast members play key supporting roles, but they are overmatched by the effervescence of the girls. Oh, yeah, one of the girls is even shown riding a broomstick.

3rd Night
In his debut as writer/director/producer/editor, Aussie filmmaker Adam Graveley could be excused for throwing into 3rd Night everything he learned in college, studying advertising and design, and making films for business clients in Perth. If a kitchen sink had been available, he might have been forgiven for throwing it into the production, as well. At 72 minutes, however, there wasn’t much room in 3rd Night for frills or extraneous exposition. It helps, then, that Gravely based his thriller on themes that are as familiar to viewers as a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In it, an attractive young couple decides to escape the turmoil of city life and buy a home in the middle of an orchard, on the fringe of the Western Australian bush. It only takes a few hours for Megan (Jesse McGinn) and Jonathan (Robert Hartburn) to sense that someone or something is watching them. (No one in this type of film appears to have heard of curtains or shades.) Neither does it take much time for their cat, Nook, to go missing in the orchard. Unbeknownst to the couple, a father and son team of poachers, participating in a “rabbit cull,” have taken up residence in the orchard and are living off the land. While it’s easy to suspect the hunters of mistaking Nook for one of Bugs’ far-flung relatives and having the cat for dinner, it doesn’t square with the opening scene, in which a girl is dragged into the trees and presumably murdered by someone or something lurking in the orchard. Neither would it explain the hunters’ own suspicion that they’re being watched or how a series of warning letters is being left inside the house. And, that’s a good thing, because, otherwise, Megan and Jonathan continue to do the same dumb things everyone in their situation does in movies such as 3rd Night, like jogging alone through the orchard, taking showers with the windows open and wandering around the property, unarmed, looking for clues. As the story approaches the 60-minute mark, though, Graveley rachets up the atmosphere of dread to the point where he’s able to pull a rather large rabbit out of his hat. The loose ends aren’t long enough to spoil the ending, which should surprise and satisfy most genre buffs.

The Official Story: Blu-ray
It could be argued that the re-release of Luis Puenzo’s still frightening political drama, The Official Story (1985) – co-written with fellow Argentine Aída Bortnik — was timed to coincide with the rise of right-wing and nationalist governments around the world and growing fear that the widespread repression of human rights, prevalent in the 1970s, could return without warning. It is one of several movies made in the wake of South America’s “dirty wars” that recounted the atrocities still fresh in minds of people who lost sons and daughters to the juntas’ executioners, were interrogated and tortured by CIA-trained police, discovered that their grandchildren were adopted by friends of government officials and learned the names of informers still living among them. It was preceded by Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (1972) and Missing (1982), which described aspects of the dirty wars conducted in Uruguay and Chile, and was followed by  Héctor Olivera’s Night of the Pencils (1986), Jeanine Meerapfel’s The Girlfriend (1988), Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994), Marcelo Piñeyro’s Kamchatka (2002), Gastón Biraben’s Captive (2003) and Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). In Brazil, post-junta reaction to Operation Condor and its own dirty war was reflected in Héctor Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Bruno Barreto’s Four Days in September (1997) and Cao Hamburger’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006). Operation Condor was nominally intended to eradicate communist or Soviet influence in South America, and to suppress active or potential opposition movements against the U.S.-supported governments. Henry Kissinger’s “green light” opened the door for the arrests, torturing and disappearances of students, liberals, progressives, intellectuals, union leaders, as well as outright Marxists, left-wing activists and insurgents. Because so many bodies were dumped from planes over the ocean, or buried in mass graves, the final death toll may never be known.

The Official Story is set in Buenos Aires during the final year of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Some people who fled the country felt comfortable enough with recent moves toward democracy to return home, even knowing that their opinions could still land them in jail. Héctor Alterio and Norma Aleandro play Roberto and Alicia, a bourgeois couple for whom Operation Condor may as well have never occurred. He’s a successful businessman, who’s comfortable with current government policies, while she’s a history teacher who’s blissfully unaware of the bad things that happened in the last 10 years. Her latest class of students has committed itself to ignoring the usual curriculum and demanding a more honest discussion of the abuses in the dirty war. For whatever reason, Alicia has elected to accept “the official story,” which doesn’t include torture, rape and los desaparecidos (the missing). It isn’t until one of her closest friends, who’s spent the last several years in Spain, describes what happened to her while detained, that Alicia begins to question her opinions. On her way home from work one day, she passes by a demonstration by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, which has become a weekly event in Buenos Aires, since 1977. The mothers and grandmothers of people who’ve vanished want to force the government to tell them where their loved ones have been taken and if they’re still alive. Because the government doesn’t want to bring any additional attention to the demonstrations – or spark more sympathy for their cause – it allowed the women to gather and wave placards, so long as they don’t stop moving. (Government leaders, already being pressed on economic stagnation and calls for elections, launched an invasion of the Falklands Islands, if for no other reason than to stir the patriotism of the Argentine public. It had the opposite effect.)

Prompted by her students’ forceful demands, Alicia investigates their charges at the offices set up by the dissidents. After much soul-searching, Alicia is persuaded by one of the marchers to look into the possibility that her 5-year-old adopted daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro), might have been taken from her birth parents before they were killed and awarded to Roberto for his loyalty to the junta. He vehemently and, at one point, violently denies the accusation. The closer Alicia gets to the truth, the closer Roberto comes to being reprimanded by his superiors. He also fears that they might lose their daughter to the grandmother or vengeful officials. Alicia doesn’t want that to happen, of course, but becomes concerned that any further action on her part might prove her husband right. And, as if to prove his point, Roberto begins to receive calls at home from people who refuse to tell him their names. Apparently, this was a common tactic used by police to warn people they didn’t trust against continuing whatever it is the government doesn’t want them to do. Even after the junta had officially relinquished control, anonymous threats continued. According to Puenzo, Analia’s mother was forcefully encouraged to pull her from the production … or else. The threat was taken seriously enough for the producers to announce through the press that production had been completed and only some mop-up work remained. In fact, production continued in secret until 1985. The Cohen/SPHE release adds an exhaustive set of interviews with the filmmakers and a featurette on the restoration process.

The Mother the Son and the Grandmother
This obscure first feature from Chilean multi-hyphenate Benjamin Brunet describes how a 27-year-old photographer returns to his hometown, to record its demise, but discovers a surrogate family of diehard stragglers. Cristóbal travels to Chaitén, on the southern coast of Chile, after it’s been destroyed by a volcanic eruption and subsequent flooding, caused by a mudslide. Searching for his childhood home, amid the ruins, he meets Ana, a strong-willed whose sick elderly mother, María, refuses to leave town to seek treatment. After Ana observes Cristóbal wandering around the devastated mining town, she asks María’s permission to provide him with food and shelter, however meager. In return, he volunteers to watch the elderly woman, freeing Ana to take care of business of her own. Although dangerously ill, María is still pretty spry. They take walks and discuss what happened to the town and the people who used to live there. Together, the trio form a tight, if temporary family. Brunet renders the relationship with great sensitivity and more than a little humor and reflection on his birth family. On the film’s website, The Mother the Son and the Grandmother is described as “docu-fiction.” (Chaitén is a real town, on the Gulf of Corcovado in southern Chile. In 2008, the Chaitén volcano erupted for the first time since around 1640. The residents were evacuated ahead of the ashfall and monstrous lahar that caused the Blanco River to overflow its banks and excavate a new course through the town. A few hundred people were able to return and eke out a living from the land.)

The Man in the Iron Mask: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
As near as I can tell, Leonardo di Caprio has spent most of the last six years – apart from the time he spent making The Revenant – chasing supermodels around the planet, promoting environmental issues and producing … if producing qualifies as work. Never fear, because Di Caprio’s near-term dance card includes two projects with Martin Scorsese, another with Quentin Tarantino and an adaptation of Stephan Talty’s book, “The Black Hand.” While his fans anxiously await the release of these movies, they can sate their appetite with a golden oldie, The Man in the Iron Mask, based on characters from Alexandre Dumas’s “D’Artagnan Romances” and plot elements of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.” Among the characters are the Four Musketeers: Athos (John Malkovich), Artemis (Jeremy Irons), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), all of whom are reaching their expiration date. Fresh off Titanic, DiCaprio handles the twin roles of the cruel, selfish King Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin brother, Phillippe, who’s spent the last 10 years inside the Bastille, with his head encased in an iron mask. Because of the king’s uncaring attitude toward his starving subjects, the natives have gotten restless. The Musketeers think it might be possible for Phillippe to replace his brother on the throne and put France back on the right track. First, however, they must convince D’Artagnan to quit his cushy job protecting the king and Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), who’s fallen under his spell. While it sounds like fun, the reins were handed to veteran writer, first-time director Randall Wallace (Braveheart), who should have focused his energies on the screenplay, which bears almost no resemblance to period history or the book on which its based. Despite reviews that were mixed, at best, Leo’s young, female fans flocked to see The Man in the Iron Mask, which did much better in foreign markets than at home. The new Blu-ray edition benefits from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; fresh interviews with producer Paul Hitchcock and production designer Anthony Pratt; commentary with Wallace; and featurettes, “Myth and the Musketeers,” “Director’s Take,” behind-the-scenes material and alternate mask prototypes.

Starchaser: The Legend of Orin: Blu-ray
Heavily promoted at the time of its release as the first animated feature made in 3D, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985) will look downright primitive to anyone whose first exposure to feature-length 3D was Robert Zemeckis’ large-format The Polar Express (2004). That film is credited as the first animated film to use motion-capture technology and the first feature-length film to be released in both 35mm and IMAX 3D. I’m not sure why “Starchaser” wasn’t released on Blu-ray 3D, as well as standard 2D. The only thing multi-dimensional here is the lenticular slip case, which is a far cry from the real thing. Upon its release, critics were quick to point out the story’s resemblance to Star Wars and characters who aped Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Even so, they had kind things to say about the animation and certain story elements. “Starchaser” takes place on the planet Trinia, where human slaves are kept in the vast Mine-World at the center of the planet. The humans are herded by robot slaves and forced to dig crystals for the robot god, Zygon. When a slave boy, Orin, unearths a sword hilt, an elderly man appears, telling him that his people belong on the surface and that he can lead them away from servitude to robots. Orin escapes to the surface, where he befriends the smuggler Dagg Debrini and is thrown into a series of intergalactic adventures as he fights to bring down Zygon. And, so it goes.

PBS: POV: Dark Money
PBS: Frontline: Separated: Children at the Border
I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection #4
In deciding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court held that corporations, unions and other organizations enjoy the same rights as individual citizens to contribute money to advocate for or against political candidates. In doing so, it opened the floodgates for anonymous donors to special-interest groups to spend as much money as they desired to sway elections, referendums and legislation. While “Super PACs” would be required to reveal individual donors and limit its contributions to campaign committees, regulated by the FEC, non-profit “dark money” groups are only required to file reports to the IRS, and not in any timely manner. And, while PAC money is limited to political action, expenditures by dark-money groups “must not have politics as their primary purpose.” Such a loophole allows a single individual or group to create both types of entities, combining their powers and making it difficult to trace the original source of funds. Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it isn’t likely that such rulings – obviously favoring conservative politicians beholding to obscenely wealthy individuals – will change anytime soon. PBS’ essential documentary presentation, “POV: Dark Money,” explains how “we the people” are impacted by the influence of untraceable corporate money on our elections and elected officials. It does so by taking viewers to Montana – a “frontline in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide” — to follow an intrepid local journalist who’s working to expose the real-life impacts of the court’s Citizens United decision.

Although the situation along the border separating the U.S. and Mexico remains fluid, and ICE continues to devise new strategies to warehouse children separated from their parents, lessons can still be learned from the “Frontline” presentation “Separated: Children at the Border,” which aired at the end of July. Co-producer Marcela Gaviria has been investigating the treatment of minors at the border for more than a year. With on-the-ground reporting in Central America and at the border, the film explores how the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy – Barak Obama’s failed ideas, too — has played out. Among the children we meet is 6-year-old Meybelin, whose father fled El Salvador with her to escape violence. After crossing into America and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol, they were separated, with her father, Arnovis, deported, and Meybelin held in an Arizona shelter for 33 days before being sent back to him in El Salvador, where gang violence continues unabated.

There aren’t many people around anymore able to remember early-1950s shows like “I Married Joan,” one of several vintage titles in VCI Entertainment’s “Classic TV Collection.” There was nothing coincidental about the similarities between NBC’s “I Married Joan” and CBS’ “I Love Lucy,” which competed against each other from 1952 to 1955. (“I Love Lucy” had already begun its historic six-season run.) The show centers on Joan, a “scatterbrained” housewife, and her husband, Bradley Stevens, who was a staid and settled domestic court judge. The characters, played by Joan Davis and Jim Backus, differed from Lucy and Ricky in three obvious ways: 1) Davis was blond and Lucy, a redhead, 2) the Stevens lived in a single-story house, while, at the time, the Ricardos occupied an apartment in New York, and 3) unlike Ricky Ricardo, Brad’s dialogue was delivered in unaccented English … although it might have been fun to hear how Backus’ alter ego, J. Quincy Magoo, might have handled the same lines. Otherwise, Davis and Ball both were gifted comediennes – as women comics were once called – who’d already proven themselves in other mediums. The “scatterbrained” image didn’t prevent their characters from routinely outfoxing their husbands and coming out on top in most situations. While talented supporting characters helped advance the plots, none of them were as essential to the show as Fred and Ethel Mertz. The VCI Entertainment collection is comprised on 10 episodes from all three seasons. (The series was canceled in the spring of 1955, when Davis began experiencing heart trouble. It was one of the first shows to take advantage of off-network syndication for repeat airings. On May 22, 1961, the 48-year-old Davis died of a heart attack at her home in Palm Springs.)

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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