MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup: Incredibles 2, Superman, Midaq Alley, La Boyita, 7th Day, Longing, Breaking Brooklyn, Mara, Capra Goes to War, Sleepwalkers, The Circus, Native America … More

Incredibles 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Superman: The Movie: Blu-ray/4K UHD
It isn’t difficult to find a direct link from Superman to Mr. Incredible – or, if you prefer, from Clark Kent to Bob Parr – and it extends well beyond their trademark uniforms and insignias. If Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation hadn’t leapt from the pages of Action Comics #1—first published on April 18, 1938 – and captured the fancy of Americans of all ages, it isn’t likely that Superman: The Movie would have been released, 40 years later, and the family of superheroes in The Incredibles might look more like Batman than Kal-L, from Krypton. And, even that presupposes that Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation – alternately known as the Bat-Man, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight and World’s Greatest Detective – found an audience worth pursuing. Just as Superman and Batman found everlasting life in mediums other than ink and paper, so, too, have the Incredibles made the leap from one-off feature to potential franchise. Writer/director Brad Bird was in no hurry to make a sequel to his Oscar- and Annie-winning blockbuster and international sensation. In an interview included in Disney/Pixar’s outstanding Incredibles 2 Blu-ray/4K UHD package, Bird explains why he waited a studio-record 14 years to agree to a sequel. (It would have been 15 years, but Disney decided to push the release up to June 2018.) Without citing other superhero franchises that sagged creatively after being rushed into a sequel or prequel, Bird said he would only do a follow-up if he could come up with a story that was just as good as, or better than, its predecessor. Pixar had already advanced the narratives in Cars/Car2, Monsters, Inc/Monsters University and Finding Nemo/Finding Dory by switching protagonists, so the risk/reward ratio wasn’t worrisome from the creative point-of-view. Perhaps, Bird was inspired by a repeat viewing of Mr. Mom on a cable network, because that’s pretty much the conceit in Incredibles 2.

The Incredibles ended with the Parr family and other superheroes forced to adhere to certain restrictions, dictated by the Superhero Relocation Program. No matter how much good the characters did in the battle against supervillains, the collateral damage to the community’s infrastructure caused the citizenry to demand reforms. Banished to a place where conformity is the norm, Bon and Helen (a.k.a., Elastigirl) raise their growing brood in relative peace. Underminer, introduced late in the original story, returns early in the sequel with a plan to steal all the money from the Metroville Bank. Coincidentally, the Parrs are in town and illegally rush to foil Underminer’s destructive plot. While the crook gets away with the money, the Parrs and Lucius Best (a.k.a., Frozone) are able keep the city from being destroyed by his out-of-control mechanical mole. Even so, the government shuts down the relocation program, forcing superheroes to fend for themselves financially. Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), owner of the DevTech telecommunications corporation, and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), who admire superheroes and want to get their banishment lifted. They propose a publicity stunt to regain the public’s trust, featuring the charismatic Elastigirl. Bob agrees to stay home and mind teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dashiell (Huckleberry Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). “How tough can it be,” wonders Bob, who soon will require the help of Lucius (Samuel L Jackson). As Jack-Jack’s superpowers reveal themselves, the men find themselves completely at wit’s end. Meanwhile, Helen discovers that one of the Deavors, at least, is exploiting her good intentions, while conspiring with other villains to neutralize the Incredibles and other superheroes. The extended family, including Jack-Jack, fight back with ferocity and plenty of trademark Pixar humor. The PG-rated Incredibles 2 made a ton of money – make that, several tons – and set box-office records for animated features around the planet. Now, here’s the rub. At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is not only the longest Pixar movie to date, but it’s also the longest computer-animated movie feature, beating Cars‘ record as longest Pixar film, 157 minutes. Box-office returns argue against the length being an obstacle to most viewers’ enjoyment of the picture. The home-viewing experience is less immersive than in theaters, however, so time may not fly at the same velocity.

Meanwhile, there’s almost nothing new to be said about Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, except that it holds up remarkably well after 40 years of repeat viewings. The late Christopher Reeve remains terrific in the title role, as are the spot-on performances by Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Glenn Ford and Jackie Cooper. John Williams’ score is amazing and John Barry’s set design is still a delight. If, at times, the special effects look seriously outmoded, by contemporary standards, they’re never a distraction. I can’t imagine a better double-feature for family viewing. The Dolby Vision HDR presentation freshens the overall look of the 40-year-old film, while the Dolby Atmos audio track makes it sound noticeably better than ever. Anyone who’s purchased the extended-cut and director’s-cut versions should know that the new volume contains only the theatrical versions of Superman. The bonus features have been ported over, as well. Watching Brando in the excellent making-of featurette is fun, as are the 58-minute Superman and the Mole-Men and Bugs Bunny spoofs.

The bonus features on Incredible 2 can be found on a separate Blu-ray disc. They include a new “Auntie Edna” mini-movie, in which Bob visits designer Edna Mode (Bird), hoping that a superhero suit might harness some of Jack-Jack’s energy; 10 deleted scenes, with introductions; several very good making-of and background featurettes, with interviews and demonstrations; “Strong Coffee,” a lesson in animation with Bird; “SuperBaby,” a hip-hop music video and documentary hosted by Frankie and Paige from Disney Channel’s “Bizaardvark”; commentary, with several different creators; the theatrical short, “Bao,” about an aging Chinese mom, suffering from empty-nest syndrome, gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy; outtakes; and behind-the-scenes stories.

Midaq Alley: Blu-ray
There are two equally convenient ways to convince American viewers to take a chance on Jorge Fons and Vicente Leñero’s tightly woven urban drama, Midaq Alley (1994). The first derives from the fact that it was adapted from a novel by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner, Najeeb Mahfouz. Screenwriter Leñero (The Crime of Padre Amaro) transferred the narrative from the teeming back streets of Cairo, to the poor, working-class neighborhood, El Callejón de los Milagros (The Alley of Miracles), in downtown Mexico City. The second reason is the presence of 29-year-old Salma Hayek, who was about to make the cross-border leap from appearing in Mexican telenovelas, to starring in American indies. In another year, she’d be able use an incendiary performance in Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado as her calling card. Here, Hayek plays the neighborhood enchantress, Alma, daughter of a tarot reader, whose one true love, Abel (Juan Manuel Bernal), decides to try his luck in the United States before committing to marriage. She pledges to wait for him, while Abel promises to return home with his pockets bulging with dollar bills.

Instead, Alma is seduced by a debonair older man, who charts her ruin from the moment he lays his eyes on her. Abel’s traveling companion is Chava (Juan Manuel Bernal), whose cantina-owner father has just traded the affections of his longtime wife for a “platonic” love affair with a much younger man. Outraged, Chava attacks the man in a shower room, thus risking permanent estrangement from his father. He’ll return home with a wife and baby, who the grandmother embraces, but is snubbed by the old man. A third storyline involves Susanita (Margarita Sanz), a genuinely unattractive landlady so desperate for love that she’s willing to give her body and wealth to the first man who appears to confirm a prophesy revealed in a tarot reading. Before and after Midaq Alley, Fons’ career was largely focused on long-running telenovelas. At a none-too-brisk 140 minutes, the film sometimes feels as if it would have made a better mini-series than stand-alone feature. What’s there is just fine, though. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette; an introduction from Hayek and Fons; and a new essay by Cinema Tropical founder Carlos A Gutiérrez.

La Boyita
While American filmmakers have only recently begun to feel more comfortable addressing LGBTQ issues in mainstream movies, there are subjects that most still step gingerly around. This is especially true when it comes to children and the ambiguity of gender in their own lives and the people around them. Fortunately, the same reluctance hasn’t prevented the occasional foreign indie from looking at tough subjects through eyes of kids who haven’t the vaguest idea of what the letters in L-G-B-T-Q represent. Ma Vie en Rose (1997), Beautiful Boxer (2004), XXY (2007), 52 Tuesdays (2013) and La Boyita (2009) – then known as “The Last Summer of La Boyita” – are titles that made the rounds of festivals and occasionally found a booking in an arthouse. Even though Julia Solomonoff’s La Boyita has already been released in some markets, it remained on the festival circuit until 2016 and is now available on DVD here, through Film Movement. In it, a pre-pubescent girl, Jorgelina (Guadalupe Alonso), decides not to vacation on the Argentine coast with her mother and older sister, instead electing to go to her father’s ranch in the country. Not only wasn’t Jorgelina anxious to be ignored by her boy-crazy sister, but she also anticipated spending time with her old friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), the son of farmhands. Solomonoff (Hermanas) teases viewers with hints that Mario is hiding a secret from Jorgelina and other kids her age. Even so, Mario also is in training to compete in an upcoming horse race and is a tenacious worker in the fields.

It isn’t until Jorgelina notices that her friend has bled on a fleece saddle blanket that she asks her father, a doctor, to check on Mario’s
“stomach aches.” He’s more interested in getting back in the saddle and going back to work, however. When the doctor asks Mario’s mother if the boy’s pediatrician had discussed the probability the he was an intersex child, she only looks out a window at her husband. I don’t want to spoil what comes next, but, by now, it’s pretty obvious. Not having enough money to meet with specialists, Mario’s mother decided that any decision could wait for a more opportune time, which never came. Her husband was left in the dark, as was Mario. His father takes the doctor’s news badly, practically blaming his son for his own condition. What won’t be spoiled here is how Mario and Jorgelina deal with the revelation, except to say that Solomonoff handles it with the appropriate degree of sensitivity and an awareness of her viewers’ investment in the story.

The 7th Day: Blu-ray
By 2004, when The 7th Day was released in Spain, 72-year-old Carlos Saura had almost completely committed his output to dramas, documentaries and performance films that unite music, dance and imagery. It was sandwiched between Salomé (2002) – which follows preparations for a flamenco adaptation of the biblical story — and Iberia (2005), a series of dances inspired by composer Isaac Albéniz’ suite of the same title. Among the many accolades Saura received at festivals and in year-end polls, his Mama Turns 100 (1979), Carmen (1983) and Tango (1998) were nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The 7th Day took many fans and pundits by surprise for its lack of cultural themes. It is set in an isolated village, Extremadura, where the Jiménez and Fuentes families have a violent history of land disputes, jealousy, envy and violence. The hatred between the two families surfaces in the 1960s, when Amadeo Jiménez (Juan Diego) abruptly backs out on his commitment to marry Luciana Fuentes (Victoria Abril). Feeling betrayed, Luciana expresses a vengeful wish on Amadeo within earshot of her madly devoted brother. Jerónimo (Ramón Fontseré) interprets his sister’s wish literally, resulting in the young man’s murder in an open field. Although Jerónimo is easily captured and sentenced to 30 years in prison, the bad blood results in the Fuentes’ home being torched, with the family matriarch still inside. The perpetrator isn’t apprehended. Even so, the remaining Fuentes siblings decide to move to another town.

Twenty years later, when Jerónimo is released on parole, he avenges his mother’s death by heading straight to Extremadura, where he attacks Amadeo’s brother, Jose (José Garcia), and is sent back to prison. When he dies, his brothers and sisters plot yet another act of revenge. That, however, is only half of the story, as conceived by screenwriter Ray Loriga (Live Flesh) and narrated by Jose’s eldest daughter, Isabel (Yohana Cobo), who experiences an excruciating love story of her own. When Jose’s wounds heal, his wife tries to convince him to move far away from the town and leave the vendetta behind him, before it’s too late. Likewise, Isabella can’t wait to relocate to a much bigger city, where she can realize her dreams and enjoy a more culturally vital environment. Whether Jose can tear himself away from the place where his family’s blood has been so violently spilled is always in doubt. Fate will once again push the question to the front burner, in an act of extreme violence and inexplicable cowardice. It mirrors some of the tragedies Saura has depicted on screen and the stage. Finally, The 7th Day comes down to yet another tale of star-crossed families: one haunted by uneasy ghosts, and the other looking toward an unknown future for relief. The ending reflects the tragic consequences of not being able to let go to the past and settle for an emotional stalemate. Sadly, vendettas based on blood oaths and squabbles over property and perceived slights have stifled peace and progress in rural Spain and other European countries show little sign of abating.

This bittersweet and completely unexpected Israeli dramedy reveals its surprises slowly, in an evenly paced manner that defies viewers to determine, early on, where the dram pauses and the edy begins. Writer/director Savi Gabizon returned to the big screen, 14 years after his previous string of popular films – Nina’s Tragedies, Lovesick on Nana Street, Shuroo – with festival-favorite, Longing. In it, Ariel (Shai Avivi), a gloomy factory owner, is told by a former lover, Ronit (Asi Levi), that he fathered a son, 20 years earlier. More perplexed than hurt or angry, the confirmed bachelor then learns that their son, Adam (Adam Gabay), was killed only a few days earlier, in a traffic accident. Ronit admits that she resisted the urge to tell him about her pregnancy, figuring correctly that he would have insisted on an abortion. At first, Ariel only agrees to attend the interment ceremony at a cemetery near the family’s hometown. Alone, due to unforeseen complications, he begins a conversation with a man who’s tending the grave of his teenage daughter, who committed suicide.

During their chat, Ariel begins to feel the first stirrings of fatherhood and it grows when the mortician asks him to stand in for his son’s mother and stepfather. After agreeing to stick around a few days, Ariel commits himself to learning as much about Adam as he can. The more he discovers, the murkier becomes his impression of how the boy lived his life and what he might become. The surprises include his expulsion from his school for stalking a teacher, Yael (Neta Riskin), and scribbling obscene poetry inspired by her on nearby wall; his considerable talent as a pianist; his participation in a failed drug deal; and his sexual relationship with an underage girl (Ella Armony), at whose home he once stayed. While stunned by the revelations, Ariel becomes curiously paternal, making excuses for Adam and examining the root causes of his behavior. Stranger, still, after listening to a story told by the other mourning father at the graveyard, Ariel agrees to a “ghost wedding” between the children – yes, such things exist — so they can be happily united in the afterlife. Selling that seemingly preposterous notion to families that have known Adam and the girl for as long as they were alive proves difficult, if not impossible, however. Gabizon’s deadpan approach to such a curious resolution may not result in big laughs, but the humor is deeply felt and endearing.

Breaking Brooklyn
Whenever I come across a DVD whose jacket features an image of a boy or girl striking a pose or popping a move, I can’t help but prejudge the movie contained therein. The “let’s-put-on-show,” “gotta-dance” subgenres extend at least as far back as Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms (1939), with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952). For nearly 30 years, now, break-dancing and hip-hop have dominated the category. Even as the dancing became more daring and exciting, however, everything else in these movies became predictable and dull … for old-timers like me, at least. So, I didn’t expect much of anything new from Paul Becker’s Breaking Brooklyn, whose cover boy is 12-year-old Colin Critchley, who is white and demonstrably flexible. The thing that separates Paul Becker’s dance-filled drama from the pack is the estimable presence of Louis Gossett Jr. and Vondi Curtis-Hall, as veteran hoofers who’ve become estranged since their style of dance almost became extinct. Gossett plays Miles Bryant, a dance teacher and former performer struggling to keep his family-owned theater alive. Into his life comes Aaron (Critchley), a self-taught tapper, who also happens to be homeless, as is his older brother, Albee (Nathan Kress). Their father (Brian Tarantina) is a ne’er-do-well, who thinks dancing is for sissies. The let’s-put-on-a-show moment arrives when the theater is about to go under and the boys collaborate on a benefit to save it. For this to happen, they’ll have to convince Curtis-Hall to mend fences with Gossett’s character. Even if you can see Breaking Brooklyn’s ending from Queens and the Bronx, Becker finds fresh ways to make it work.  Madeleine Mantock, Liza Colón-Zayas, Kalani Hillike and Laura Weissbecker also contribute. The presence of the two old lions raises Breaking Brooklyn above the rest of the dancer crop.

Mara: Blu-ray
Final Score: Blu-ray
Although all aspiring screenwriters enter the profession with the kind of confidence that borders on arrogance, only a handful realize the dream of seeing their name at the end of a credit roll … even on movies that bypass theaters. In a neat coincidence, Jonathan Frank’s name appears on a pair of thrillers arriving within a week of each other on DVD/Blu-ray. The first, Mara, follows forensic psychologist Dr. Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko) as she investigates the deaths of people who were suffering from sleep paralysis before being terrorized by the eponymous demon. And, no, the nightmare-inducing monster isn’t related to Rooney or Kate Mara. In fact, maras are associated with wraith-like creatures in Germanic and Scandinavian folklore … a female demon who torments people in their sleep by crouching on their chests or stomachs, or by causing terrifying visions. In 2013, a Swedish film of the same title tackled the same legend, albeit with copious nudity and 21 fewer minutes in length. In Frank’s screenplay – directed and co-written by newcomer Clive Tonge – the badly contorted “sleep demon” here is played 6-foot-6¾ string bean, Javier Botet, who’s also appeared in Slender Man, It, The Mummy and The Conjuring 2. (He has a genetic disorder, Marfan Syndrome, which affects his body’s connective tissue and makes him attractive to the casting directors of horror films.) Fuller is assigned to the murder of a man who has been strangled in his sleep by his wife (Rosie Fellner) and the only witness is their 8-year-old daughter, Sophie (Mackenzie Imsand). The police, of course, are too lazy to connect the dots between the legend and the spate of killings in their district, so Fuller does the work for them, at great personal risk. Mara may own the record for the number of jump scares and explosive musical cues in a 98-minute movie. Instead of being used selectively, they punctuate nearly every scene, thus losing their punch after a half-hour, or so. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, which doesn’t mention the Swedish movie.

Frank’s name is also attached to Scott Mann’s terrorist-abduction drama, Final Score, which is far less beholding to special-effects tricks for its thrills … not of the audio variety, at least. In a series of coincidences that only make sense in straight-to-video flicks starring former WWE superstars – or, 20 years ago, in a Bruce Willis vehicle – a group of Russian-separatist terrorists takes control of a soccer match in a crowded, soon-to-be-demolished British stadium. A former soldier, played by Dave “The Animal” Bautista, just happens to be attending the same contest with his niece, whose father was killed in Afghanistan under his command. Racked with guilt, but alert to his duties as a citizen, he attempts to prevent a powerful bomb from killing scores of spectators, while also saving the girl (Lara Peake). The whole one-man-army approach is ridiculous, of course, but Mann (Heist) does a nice job choreographing the tick-tock action, and Frank’s script – co-written with David and Keith Lynch – adds enough unexpected humor to complete the Die Hard-wannabe loop. The packed-stadium setting adds to the tension, while Ray Stevenson (Thor), Pierce Brosnan (The World Is Not Enough) and Stella Paris add to the fun.

Girls vs Gangsters
The Hangover wasn’t the first comedy that milked belly laughs from over-the-top bachelor parties – it was preceded by the early Tom Hanks vehicle, Bachelor Party (1984) — and China’s Girls vs Gangsters won’t be the last rip-off of Todd Phillips outrageous romp to fail. While only infrequently funny, Barbara Wong Chun-chun’s bachelorette-party comedy is inarguably risible. This isn’t to suggest that “GvG” is so bad it’s good, only that it sometimes resembles the car wreck you can’t resist watching. It’s fair to ask why I’m not comparing “GvG” to such bachelorette-party comedies as Rough Night and Bridesmaids, which attempted to out-raunchy the boys. Well, first and foremost is the presence of Mike Tyson and a tiger, although probably not the one that stole the show in The Hangover. The other reason is that it’s entirely possible that The Hangover was never shown in mainland China, because it didn’t meet the standards of PRC censors. Maybe it was available on bootleg DVDs, or in Hong Kong, but Chinese audiences are largely drawn to big-budget action, sci-fi and comic-book pictures, not comedies. So, almost no one in the audience would recognize the resemblance, anyway. In fact, viewers would more likely consider “GvG” to be a sequel to Wong’s extremely popular rom-com, Girls (2014).  After becoming engaged, Xiwen (Ivy Chen) is persuaded by her friend Kimmy (Fiona Sit) to hop on a plane heading for Vietnam, where another friend is planning the bachelorette party to end all such parties. Fellow BFFs Jialan (Ning Chang) and Jingjing (Wang Shuilin) agree to join them.

As was the case in The Hangover, a disastrous first night sets the tone for the rest of the weekend. After spending the evening in the company of a wealthy Vietnamese gangster, who also fancies himself as a pop star, three of the women wake up on a beach, virtually naked, and chained to a locked metal box. One has a tattoo of Elvis on her neck that wasn’t there when she passed through customs. They have no memory of how they got to the beach, let alone what happened to their clothes. They soon find themselves in a beachside cabin belonging to Dragon (Tyson), a half-Korean/half-black bodybuilder, who lounges around in boxing gear and offers to find someone to break the chains on their wrists. Instant of finding cute outfits befitting their bubbling personalities and western tastes, Dragon picks out some colorful trunks, which fit their petite bodies perfectly … from bust to mid-thigh. First, however, they’re scared out of their wits by his pet tiger, lounging the house’s walk-in closet. The rest of Girls vs. Gangsters involves the ladies’ quest to recover their memory and find their missing friend, who has problems of her own. While the actresses are almost impossibly cute and game, amid the slapstick, whining and scatological gags, the dialogue is hopelessly lame and, dare I say, condescending to their characters, who appear to belong to the PRC’s bourgeoise upper-crust. And, while I don’t think “GvG” will necessarily appeal to audiences drawn to Crazy Rich Asians (2018), I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie was being marketed in that direction. On the plus side, too, is Pakie Chan’s cinematography, which nicely captures the sensual appeal of post-war Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a., Saigon), which is a bustling urban center. The DVD adds an interview with the director and an English track. (The feature’s dialogue bounces between Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and English.)

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Blu-ray
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra joined tens of thousands of Americans in enlisting for duty in the U.S. Army. At 44, Capra was past the age of conscription and already was an extremely successful filmmaker — It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life — and president of the Screen Directors Guild. Although the Sicilian-born Capra probably would have proudly served his adopted country in any capacity, he received a commission as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. For the next four years, his job involved heading a special section on morale to explain to soldiers “why the hell they’re in uniform.” (The Japanese sneak attack effectively ended America’s flirtation with isolationism.) The seven documentaries in the Why We Fight series weren’t intended to be perceived as propaganda. That description was reserved for films made for German and Japanese audiences, who may not have been aware of their governments’ official rationale for war. Before jumping feet-first into his assignment, Capra studied Leni Riefenstahl’s “terrifying” Triumph of the Will, even then considered to a masterpiece of propaganda. Capra knew he was facing a daunting task and, although he successfully recruited Hollywood specialists to his team, his budgets and resources were limited to what the government was willing to provide.

His strategy was to “let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause … and the justness of ours.” The films were informed by enemy speeches, films, newsreels, newspaper articles and lists of hostile actions by Axis powers. “I thought of the bible. There was one sentence in it that always gave me goose pimples: ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” As author/historian James McBride notes in his 35-minute precede and introductions to the individual titles in Olive Films’ Mr. Capra Goes to War, the director would be required to bend the truth, according to the winds blowing from the White House and Pentagon. While depicting the unquestioned heroism of Soviet soldiers and citizens, he wasn’t allowed to explain how Stalin’s fascism differed from Hitler’s fascism, if at all. (Not much, but he was on our side.) In “The Negro Soldier,” Capra and his associates were forced to overlook slavery, Jim Crow racism and lynching. Nonetheless, most of what the Allied soldiers saw in the Why We Fight films was based on verifiable facts and known military strategies by Axis powers. Depicting the ravages of combat, as well as the lives of soldiers on the front lines and the home front, five of the films in which Capra was involved are represented in this special hi-def edition, presenteds in cooperation with the National Archives: Tunisian Victory, Prelude to War, The Battle of Russia, The Negro Soldier and Your Job in Germany, which was written by Theodor S. Geisel (a.k.a., Dr. Seuss).

Art School Confidential: Blu-ray
PBS: Art 21: Art in the 21st Century, Season 9
To fully appreciate Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’ niche-noir drama, Art School Confidential, it helps to understand the difference between students whose only commitment is to their chosen artistic discipline, not to a broader understanding of the humanities or sciences. While it’s possible to study things other than art, music, dance and writing, the emphasis is on mastering the creative process and using it to further one’s own goals. The fictional university portrayed in Art School Confidential is based on the Pratt Institute, which Clowes attended and served as the inspiration for the satirical comic of the same title. It includes such cynical advice as, “If you must go to art school, for God’s sake, make the most of it. … Seldom, if ever again in life, will you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations,” and “”Remember, the only piece of paper less valuable than one of your paintings is a B.F.A. degree.” Clowes’ drawings also form the basis for Zwigoff’s depictions of students, instructors, administrators, gallery owners and dissipated graduates. Early in the narrative, a sophomore studies the faces of a fresh crop of students in a basic drawing class, overseen by John Malkovich, an actor who’s played more pretentious characters than almost anyone else in Hollywood.

After the young man rattles off his impressions – based solely on stereotypes and clichés – the film’s protagonist, Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), asks where he fits into the picture. The answer to that question will reveal itself in due course, both to Jerome and viewers. Jerome believes that the tiny East Coast college, Strathmore, can accommodate his stated ambition to become the world’s greatest artist, like his hero, Picasso. Unfortunately, Jerome’s portraiture isn’t admired by his fellow freshman as he highly as he thinks it deserves to be. Neither does he hesitate to pass harsh judgments on his classmates’ work, some of which is applauded by the instructor. The one thing he does come away with from the class is a dangerous obsession with a beautiful nude model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who’s the daughter of a successful artist Jerome admires. It’s difficult to tell if Audrey’s a breath of fresh air in a stuffy environment or just another art-gallery groupie. Although she allows Jerome a peek into her world, he’s mortified to learn that Audrey is hooking up with a fellow student, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose work he despises and who looks as if he should be attending Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship. To set her straight, Jerome devises a scheme that may or may not have something to do with a serial strangler who’s terrorizing the campus. Desperate, he concocts a risky plan to make a name for himself and win her back. Anyone unfamiliar with Zwigoff’s previous work – Louie Bluie, Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa – may not get the overriding joke, but supporting performances by Jim Broadbent, Angelica Huston and Adam Scott add a silver lining to Zwigoff’s typically dark clouds. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a blooper reel and a Sundance featurette.

Some of the people making a living – meager, though it may be – in the world of art have been the subject of profiles in the PBS series “Art 21: Art in the 21st Century.” The Peabody Award-winning biennial program allows viewers to observe the artists at work, watch as they transform inspiration into art, and hear how they struggle with both the physical and visual challenges of achieving their visions. The documentary series provides a window into contemporary art that is ordinarily hidden from public view. Continuing the thematic focus introduced two years ago, Season Nine draws upon artists’ relationships with the places in which they work: Berlin, Johannesburg and the San Francisco Bay area. Eleven artists and one nonprofit art center make art, talk about it and wrestle with complicated histories, conceptions of gender and the implications of technology, migration and other issues not discussed in Art School Confidential.

Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers: Blu-ray
Every time a vintage horror film is re-released on DVD/Blu-ray, I check out the reviews that greeted it upon the time of its release. With certain notable exceptions, the movies adapted from Stephen King novels and stories generally have received unenthusiastic reviews, as well as the occasional failing mark. As is so often the case with remakes, even the titles that were severely attacked look better in hindsight than the movies that have washed ashore in the flood of straight-to-video/DVD titles. Sleepwalkers (1990), based on an original Stephen King screenplay, may fall well short of greatness, but it can be viewed today without the burden of asking the quality-vs.-quantity question that’s dogged the author throughout most of his career. Sleepwalkers is based on a legend, carried over from the Old Country, about nomadic, shapeshifting “energy vampires,” who feed off the lifeforce of virgin women. Though they normally maintain human shape, they can transform into their natural form — human-sized bipedal werecats — at will. They are more resilient than humans and have powers of both telekinesis and illusion.

In this small Indiana town, a newly arrived mother and son, Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige, Brian Krause), stalk a beautiful teenage virgin, Tanya Robertson (Mädchen Amick). Tanya values her chastity and Charles reveals his hand too soon, shifting his shape into that of a large cat, while attempting to seduce her during a picnic in a cemetery. Knowing that her son may have lost his best opportunity at stealing her life force and extending the ancient vampire lineage, Mary orders him to try again, this time without the courting ritual. It results in a rampage that can only be stopped by the intervention of a small army of pet-sized cats able to sense the presence of evil and attack when threatened. If Streetwalkers owes a debt of gratitude for the basic conceit to Jacques Tourneur and Paul Schrader’s Cat People, the special werecat makeup is right out of “Michael Jackson’s Thriller.”  This was director Mick Garris’ first of seven adaptations of King stories. Despite the negative reviews, Sleepwalkers made some money at the box office and in VHS. The Scream Factory package adds new commentary with Garris, Amick and Krause; “Feline Trouble,” an interview with Garris; “When Charles Met Tanya,” a conversation with Amick and Krause; “Family Values,” a chat with Krige; “Feline Trouble: The FX of Stephen King,” with special make-up-effects creator Tony Gardner and prosthetics designer Mike Smithson; and a ported-over behind-the-scenes featurette and still gallery.

Law Abiding Citizen: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Like every other revenge film made in the long wake of the original Death Wish (1974), Law Abiding Citizen encourages viewers to side with the vigilante as he terminates the people who killed his loved ones. We sympathize with his belief that the courts are more interested in protecting the rights of criminals and defendants than keeping innocent civilians safe. In the nearly concurrent Dirty Harry series, a vigilante cop stood in for a citizenry enraged by a judiciary too shorthanded to contest plea bargains and stand up to bleeding-hear liberals. For many years, the ACLU, overly aggressive defense lawyers and namby-pamby judges were considered to be more responsible for America’s rising crime rate than poverty, the proliferation of handguns, understaffed police forces, underpaid prosecutors, drugs and good old-fashioned greed. Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush’s use of a racist attack ad in the 1988 campaign – falsely blaming his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for furloughing convicted felon Willie Horton – fanned the fears of white voters already willing to condemn liberals for crime in the streets. (Thirty years later, President Trump used the same gambit in portraying Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. as criminals, terrorists and children who will leach off the country’s welfare system.)

In the twisty revenge thriller, Law Abiding Citizen (2009), F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) and writer Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet) adopted the basic plot device that propelled Death Wish, while adding attacks that could only be pulled off by a criminal genius. Viewers are kept in the dark about the CIA background of Gerard Butler’s Clyde Shelton, who, in the film’s opening moments, is bound, gagged and forced to watch the rape of his wife and off-screen murder of their daughter. That Shelton is allowed to live is either the ultimate act of torture or a major blunder on the part of the two men, who, after being arrested, were found guilty of the crime. What horrifies Shelton is having to watch prosecutors cut a deal with the man most likely to have committed the murders, in exchange for turning on his partner. One is given a sentence that allows him to walk away from prison after only a few years in stir, while the other dies in a mysteriously botched execution. Most viewers, I suspect, weren’t all that upset that the least guilty of the two home invaders was given a lethal injection, even if the chemicals that did the trick were switched to inflict maximum pain and agony. Neither were audiences – then and, presumably, now – terribly unhappy with the punishment Clyde inflicts on the greater fiend, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), after he walks out of prison a free man. It’s when Shelton decides to eliminate everyone who he believes is responsible for Darby’s plea deal and release that we’re asked to take a stand against killing tangentially involved prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and bystanders … innocent and otherwise. Normally, that would be a no-brainer, but we’re impressed by Shelton’s genius in coordinating a devastating killing spree from solitary confinement.

Jamie Fox plays the prosecutor Shelton blames most for the injustice, even though he didn’t want to present the plea bargain in the first place, wasn’t in favor of Darby’s early release and isn’t unhappy when he’s found dismembered in a warehouse owned by Shelton. Still, he was photographed alongside the killer on the courtroom steps after he’s released, and that’s enough to get the vigilante’s blood boiling. Now, viewers are left in the quandary created by our admiration for Clyde’s ingenuity and our positive feelings for Fox, his family and one or two of the other targets, including characters played by Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Viola Davis, Bruce McGill and Michael Irby. It isn’t fair … but that’s Hollywood. Butler’s good, even when we’re distracted by his resemblance to fellow countryman Mel Gibson. The Blu-ray/UHD package includes archival featurettes, “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen,” “Law in Black and White: Behind the Scenes,” “Preliminary Arguments: The Visual Effects of Law Abiding Citizen,” “The Verdict: Winning Trailer Mash-Up”; and an audio commentary with producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel. I’m not sure the 4K UHD upgrade adds enough to recommend it to fans who already own previous hi-def editions.

King Cohen: Blu-ray
Documentaries about the men and women who make movies for a living are beginning to pile up like movies about undead humanoids who devour the brains of living beings. Also beginning to pile up like the bodies left behind in the Zombie Apocalypse are documentaries about the people who make such horror flicks. King Cohen introduces viewers too young to remember such exploitation classics as Black Caesar, It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff to the man who made them, as well as dozens of other drive-in faves, And, while it’s never wise to look too closely into the production of hot dogs, bologna and B-movies, chatting with an unabashed master of exploitation films can be enlightening and entertaining. King Cohen features all sorts of interviews with filmmakers and actors who helped Larry Cohen fulfill his visions. They include Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, J.J. Abrams, John Landis, Michael Moriarty, Fred Williamson, Yaphet Kotto, Rick Baker, Barbara Carrera and Mick Garris. Cohen chimes in with personal insights into the work, process and legacy of an auteur, with a resume that spans 50 years.

PBS: American Experience: The Circus
PBS: Frontline: Our Man in Tehran
PBS: Native America
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 3
Discovery: Dating Game Killer
Smithsonian: The Obama Years: The Power of Words
PBS: Sesame Street: The Magical Wand Chase
Despite its European roots, there’s been nothing quite so American as the circus, and its red, white and blue roots extend all the way back to earliest years of the union. Today, the traditional circus is approaching endangered-species status, with no safety net underneath it. The recent four-hour “American Experience” presentation, “The Circus,” demonstrates how the entertainment institution’s rise paralleled that of the nation, as it enjoyed immediate acceptance by the public, expanded its reach to the edges of the frontier, made lots of money, subsumed its competition, imported talent from around the world and was an early-adopter of advanced technology. The larger-than-life ambitions of the impresarios matched the appetite of its audiences for thrills, chills, laughs and surprises. Then, the circus found itself in a jam, as competition for the eyes of paying customers was split between movies, organized sports and television. Ironically, the greatest obstacle to year-after-year growth was the same thing that attracted return audiences: the annual struggle to come up with new, different and promotable acts. The PBS mini-series explores the colorful history of the circus, from the first one-ring equestrian show at the end of the 18th Century, to 1956, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. It does so through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential show-business minds of the late 19th Century, stopping short of the Feld family’s purchase of the business and short-term burst in popularity and high-quality acts. Operations closed in May 2017, a year after its trademark elephant act was retired. Old-timers who can still remember circus parades, tent raisings and midways will find “The Circus” to be wonderfully nostalgic, while younger family members probably will be full of questions about what they’ve just seen and what they’re missing.

The timely four-hour “Frontline” presentation, “Our Man in Tehran,” chronicles journalist Thomas Erdbrink’s 17-year stint in Iran. Now chief correspondent and Tehran bureau chief for the New York Times, he is one of the last western journalists living in the country. Over the course of four years, beginning in 2014, Erdbrink was given permission to travel with a crew from Dutch television around the country, meeting people and hearing stories about their lives and hopes and fears, in one of the most isolated, belligerent and misunderstood countries in the world. Fluent in Farsi and married to an Iranian photojournalist, Erdbrink visits Iranians from all walks of life to reveal the intricacies of their private worlds and the challenges of living under theocratic leaders. During the same period of time, optimism over the nuclear pact with the Obama administration and the lifting of sanctions was dampened by President Trump’s politically motivated re-imposition of sanctions and threats of war from Islamic leaders. One of the most interesting revelations comes in discussions with “Mr. Big Mouth,” one of the most impassioned spouters of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric during rallies and marches. An unlikely friendship develops as he slowly adopts western ways and even allows his wife to get a driver’s license.

In 1995, CBS presented the six-hour-plus documentary mini-series, “500 Nations,” which charted the history of hundreds of Indian tribes, beginning in pre-Columbian times and ending with the Battle of Wounded Knee, in 1890. Co-produced by Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves), it was one of the first productions to present an all-encompassing and objective history of tribes that were almost completely eradicated by genocidal policies designed to ease the expansion west of European settlers and businesses driven by greed and gold fever. PBS’ “Native America” takes a very different tack in chronicling the scientific, spiritual and astronomical history of first-nation people. The series reaches back 15,000 years to reveal massive cities aligned to the fluctuations of the sun, stars and planets. An estimated100 million people were connected by social networks spanning two continents. Made with the active participation of Native American communities and filmed in some of the most spectacular locations in the hemisphere, “Native America” reveals an ancient and still thriving culture whose splendor and ingenuity is only now beginning to be fully understood and appreciated. The producers were given access to several of tribes’ most sacred shrines, ceremonies and petroglyphs not easily accessible to the public. It uses 21st Century tools, including multispectral imaging and DNA analysis, to uncover incredible narratives of America’s past, venturing into Amazonian caves containing the Americas’ earliest art and interactive solar calendar, exploring a massive tunnel beneath a pyramid at the center of one of ancient America’s largest cities and mapping the heavens in celestially aligned cities.

The fourth season of PBS’ highly popular “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Poldark,” opens in 1796, when mine owner Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) is forced to enter politics to defend Cornwall and those he loves from an empowered MP George Warleggan (Jack Farthing). It takes him to the nation’s capital and into new perils. As Hugh Armitage (Josh Whitehouse) prepares to capture Warleggan’s seat as Truro’s MP, Ross fears that Hugh is challenging his marriage. Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) remains caught in the middle, even as she’s required to play peacemaker elsewhere. Meanwhile, the rising price of grain is a recipe for riot. Like any good prime-time soap, there’s plenty of loss, love, shifting alliances, illness and the continuing cycle of life. The Cornwall scenery doesn’t disappoint, either.

PBS’ “Shakespeare Uncovered” may not be for beginners – or dummies, either – but neither does it require an MFA or PhD to enjoy it. A familiarity with the plays and curiosity about what you might have missed the first or second time through them is enough. “Series 3” adds six chapters with new hosts, who weave their personal passions with history and analysis to tell the stories behind the stories in Shakespeare’s famous works. They include “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Helen Hunt; “The Merchant of Venice,” with F. Murray Abraham; “Measure for Measure,” with Romola Garai; “Julius Caesar,” with Brian Cox; “The Winter’s Tale,” with Simon Russell Beale; and Antony Sher, on “Richard III.” In addition to the expected array of historical backgrounders and academic analysis, “Shakespeare Uncovered” goes on location to the bard’s haunts and the settings for the works, while revisiting performances from stage performances and movie adaptations.

The thing that’s always bothered me about the dating shows that keep popping up in syndication is the likelihood that the screening process leaves something to be desired. Just as games shows don’t reveal the amount of taxes that lucky contestants will be required to pay on their winnings, relationship shows rarely update viewers on the dates that ended in visits to psychiatrists or police precincts. The ones that ended so badly they were funny were useful to producers – especially in DVD compilations of “uncensored” dates — while the ones that ended so badly that they were disastrous never did. The September 13, 1978, taping of “The Dating Game” provided an excellent case in point. What bachelorette Cheryl Bradshaw didn’t know about bachelor No. 1, Rodney Alcala, was that he had committed at least four prior murders and would add several dozen more to that total before he was arrested. If it weren’t for a healthy jolt of women’s intuition, Bradshaw’s dream date could have ended up on the police blotter. After chatting with the winning sociopath backstage, she decided to take a pass. A closer screening of contestants might have eliminated Alcala from consideration … but, maybe not. Discovery’s “Dating Game Killer” doesn’t dwell on the potential for such a horror occurring, but it makes for a dandy title. Even without it, Alcala’s story would be interesting to fans of real-crime series. The case revealed holes in the judicial system that allowed Alcala and other canny criminals to slip through safety nets already in place. With it, however, the dramatizations are extremely compelling. Guillermo Díaz (“Scandal”) plays the killer; Tanya van Graan (24 Hours to Live) plays the extremely fortunate bachelorette; and the always wonderful Carrie Preston (“Claws”), plays the mother of one of Alcala’s victims.

After Barack Obama was replaced in the Oval Office, it took nearly a year for him to speak out on what he felt were the injustices forwarded by President Trump, whose mission it’s been to remove all evidence that the previous administration existed. A few months before the midterm elections, however, he felt it necessary to step forward to counter Trump’s offensive. Obama’s speeches and commentary reminded Democrats of what launched him into our national consciousness, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and what’s been missing since January 2017. The Smithsonian Channel’s “The Obama Years: The Power of Words” delves into the former-POTUS’ rhetorical gift and why it still matters. Interviews with historians and key figures in his writing process give rare insights into these iconic speeches, as well as the Obama presidency and the man himself.

Sesame Street’s 48th season began with the all-new primetime special, “The Magical Wand Chase,” filmed on location in three vibrant New York City neighborhoods. While taking her friends on a hot-air-balloon ride, Abby Cadabby, loses her wand to a curious bird, voiced by Elizabeth Banks. Without Abby’s wand, they can’t get back to Sesame Street. Pursuing the bird in their hot-air balloon, Abby and the gang visit new neighborhoods and discover new foods, music and languages. “The Magical Wand Chase” is deeply connected to the season’s respect-and-understanding curriculum, using the tapestry of the city to show kids that kindness is universal and new friends can be found anywhere. (It also marks the first time the show has shot a feature-length special on location since 1994.)

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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