MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more

Venom: Blu-ray/4K UHD
There are a couple of different ways to watch superhero movies. One is to approach them with only a basic knowledge of the character and its various alias and origin stories. For example, it’s enough to know that Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the one who wears the red costume, including a full-face mask, and is distinguished by his ability to cling to surfaces, shoot spider-webs from wrist-mounted devices and detect danger with his “spider-sense.” It’s also useful, but not essential to know that Spider-Man inherited his moral and ethical code — “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” – from his guardian, the late Uncle Ben. The other way is to approach every new movie with the passion and curiosity of someone who arranges his/her vacation schedule around the annual San Diego Comic and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of one or more characters and storylines, from inception to screen. For anyone over, say, 15, to fully appreciate Ruben Fleischer’s Venom,  it’s necessary to possess a working knowledge of Eddie Brock/Venom’s origin story and those of several other key characters. If not, it’s just another vehicle to show off cool CGI effects, in the service of a disposal story makes little narrative sense. My ass-backwards approach to Venom’s pleasures only derived from an hour, or so, spent researching what I’d just seen.

As portrayed by the ever-watchable Tom Hardy, Brock is a disgraced San Francisco journalist, who lost his job and fiancé (Michelle Williams) in a scandal involving the evil Life  Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In his weakened state, Brock provides a perfect host for an alien symbiote. Wait, what the hell is a symbiote? It’s probably enough to know that these alien creatures attach themselves to humans in a manner possibly inspired by William Castle’s The Tingler and uses the host’s oxygen to merge into a single predatory entity, through which it’s able to attack its enemies. Conveniently, Venom and Brock share the same goal. Comic-book geeks can trace Venom’s lineage to a cameo in Web of Spider-Man #18 (September 1986) and a more complete reveal in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988). The symbiote, and a few others who arrived with it, have served at various times, as supervillains and antiheros, depending on their various hosts. If the original Spider-Man connection is played down in the movie, fans already know how Venom, Riot, Blue and Carnage related to Peter Parker and other vulnerable hosts in their subsequent comic-book and TV iterations. And, while they might not understand why this Marvel Entertainment product ended up at Sony, instead of Disney or Paramount, they probably assume, correctly, that it’s a subject best left to Wikipedia nerds, like moi.

Although Venom didn’t crack the magic billion-dollar barrier, it broke a couple of box-office records and did well enough to ensure franchise status. In the U.S., where critics were far less than kind, Venom surprised observers by grossing $80.2 million on its opening weekend. A month later, in China, it pulled in the equivalent of $111 million on the opening weekend. But, dig this, Sony’s official Chinese social media marketing campaign portrayed Venom as “a loving and caring boyfriend.” An article on on November 26 described an early fan-made meme, facetiously depicting Venom as a socialist hero who just wants everyone to join the Chinese Communist Party. Even though it was a “sardonic take on American movies that make a point to cater to Chinese audiences,” it went viral. The PRC debut ranks ahead of the $75.8 million opening for Ant-Man and the Wasp earlier this year and just behind the $84.4 million opening for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Even though a scene shot in San Francisco’s Chinatown was deemed merely coincidental to Sony’s campaign, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see more Asian-American or Asian-based actors show up in prominent roles in subsequent action epics. By contrast, however, Warners’ “An Unexpected Tale of Picking Gold” (a.k.a., Crazy Rich Asians) tanked miserably at the Chinese box office and with critics, one of whom referred to it as a “Panda Express of Chinese culture.” (It also may have had to do with the focus on materialism; the Mandarin accents; and audiences’ expectations of seeing Chinese actors in more traditional fare.) Audience surveys set Venom’s demographic appeal at 59 percent male and 64 percent under 25 years of age. Those numbers aren’t  necessarily consistent with those registered by other action hits.

Hardy adds welcome sparks of humor to human half of his character, and the CGI half doesn’t disappointment, either. Of the supporting cast, only Woody Harrelson/Carnage stands out, in a performance that mimics Hannibal Lector’s confinement to a cage in The Silence of the Lambs. SPHE’s impressive 4K UHD edition of Venom should be considered by families looking for a stocking stuffer in advance of Santa’s delivery of an ultra-high-definition playback unit. It’s enhanced by Dolby Vision  HDR and a Dolby Atmos audio track. It can be played in Venom Mode,” which allows viewers to engage pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics and other hidden references. Bonus features include deleted and extended scenes; the featurettes, “Ride to Hospital,” “Car Alarm,” “San Quentin,” “From Symbiote to Screen,” “The Lethal Protector in Action,” “Designing Venom” and “Symbiote Secrets”; pre-visualization sequences; “Venom” music video, by Eminem, and “Sunflower,” by Post Malone and Swae Lee; and a sneak preview of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

The Super: Blu-ray
In New York City, at least, building superintendents hold an exalted position among other blue-collar workers. Although they sometimes look as if they might have just finished shoveling coal into the boiler – in movies and television shows, at least – some of them control aspects of their tenants’ lives that border on godlike … or demonic. In the hands of German director Stephan Rick (The Dark Side of the Moon) and John J. McLaughlin (Hitchcock), the haunted-tenement thriller, The Super, makes the man holding the job a little of both. In it, former cop Phil Lodge (Patrick John Flueger) takes a job as a superintendent in a Manhattan apartment building. Joining him are his troubled teenage daughter, Violet (Taylor Richardson), and her younger sibling, Rose (Mattea Marie Conforti), who are forced to bunk together in a storage room. When a teenager goes missing, along with several other tenants, Lodge suspects a sadistic murderer may be roaming the shadowy corridors and that his daughters’ lives are in danger. As bad, the building’s master key has gone missing and everyone is vulnerable to attack. Phil has two colleagues: Julio (Yul Vazquez) and Walter (Val Kilmer), who, when he isn’t fixing things, conjures black-magic spells and wanders through the building looking guilty as hell. (His gaunt demeanor and raspy voice can be attributed to Kilmer’s two-year battle with throat cancer.) As is usual in shows created by producer Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), identifying the guilty party isn’t as simple as picking out the most-likely suspects and prosecuting them in court. In fact, unless they’re that episode’s guest star, the first suspects are typically the first to be cleared of suspicion. Observant viewers should, however, be able to identify the scent of something fishy emanating from the bowels of the building and predict one or more of the final twists. They may not satisfy thrill-seekers, but they’re unexpected, nonetheless. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “He Has Your Keys: Making The Super.”

Snowflake: Blu-ray
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that justified comparisons to the early work of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and the Coen Brothers. So many offbeat crime thrillers in the late-1990s and early-’00s were directly influenced by the holy trinity, I simply assumed that a generation of film-school graduates were more influenced by Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens than by Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Donald Siegel. Even so, publicity blurbs on posters and DVD covers needlessly continue to point out the obvious the similarities in new releases. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that an incoming class of first-time writers and directors are just as likely to emulate genre specialists in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. In Snowflake, a completely off-the-wall crime thriller from Germany, the debt to Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens is simply too obvious to ignore. It’s also one of the things that make it easy to recommend.

Virtual newcomers Adolfo J. Kolmerer and “guest director” William James, working from a screenplay by Arend Remmers, have set Snowflake in a dystopian Berlin, where chaos reigns, but residents go about their business as usual. It opens with a couple of young guys debating the quality of the kebab sandwiches served in a restaurant whose floor is littered with fresh corpses. Guns in hand, Javid (Reza Brojerdi) and Tan (Erkin Acar) stroll out of the joint as if nothing untoward has happened, stealing a car to make their getaway. The next morning, they notice a screenplay in the backseat of their makeshift bedroom and are astonished by the script’s word-for-word duplication of their conversation in the restaurant. Moreover, the stage directions and setting also match the bloodbath there. The further they get into the screenplay, the more they recognize their own words, even as they’re being spoken. They trace the name of the screenwriter to a dentist’s office somewhere in Berlin, where the man holding the drill is an aspiring screenwriter. After some light, but effective torture is applied, Arend (Alexander Schubert), admits to writing the screenplay. What he can’t explain is how he’s been able to anticipate their every move and utterance. Javid and Tan assume he’s a soothsayer, however, and demand that he keeps writing the script. They expect a happy ending –for them, anyway – but don’t understand that Arend’s scenarios are divinely inspired. They take a copy of it along with them in their pursuit of a right-wing prophet they blame for the murders of family members. If nothing else, the screenplay allows them to stay one or two steps ahead of teenage assassin Eliana (Xenia Assenza), whose parents were among the innocent bystanders, killed in the restaurant shootout at the restaurant. She’s seeking revenge, too, but only learns about the fascist connection later.

Along with her friend and bodyguard, Carson (David Masterson), Eli contacts a former cult leader, Caleb (David Grant), who appears to be certifiably crazy, but refers her to several increasingly dangerous bounty hunters. Somewhere along the way, she’s joined by superhero vigilante Hyper Electro Man (Mathis Landwehr), who possesses a powerful gift, but isn’t infallible. Caleb also points Eli in the direction of the dangerous right-wing tele-kook, who resembles Adolf Hitler and has assembled a bunker full of stormtroopers. Before finding the hideout, Eli and the bounty hunters converge on a cabaret, where a winged angel in white is entertaining the audience. Schneeflöckchen (Judith Hoersch), has, like a snowflake, descended from the rafters, as if she were an extra in Wim Wenders’ Berlin-set masterpiece, Wings of Desire. By the end of her performance, her wings will be tainted red with blood. By this point in the narrative, it’s become difficult to say if Snowflake is playing out as dictated by the dentist’s imagination or everyone’s heading in the same direction on their own volition. For anyone who’s gotten this far, however, it doesn’t really matter. One of the ways Snowflake resembles Pulp Fiction, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Fargo is how quickly and unpredictably violence erupts in otherwise quiet settings. Viewers are as surprised by the escalation into violence as the victims. Considering how many years it took to make Snowflake, and on such a miniscule budget, it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers come up with next. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette.

Marie Curie
Scarred Hearts
MGM and Mervyn Leroy’s 1943 biopic, Madame Curie, merged science and romance in the service of melodrama that covered only half of her remarkable career and fudged elements of her life deemed controversial. It starred box-office favorites Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, who would be finalists in two of the seven Oscar categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture. (I love the fact that Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work on the script was rejected.) Several other biographies have followed Madam Curie, including the bio-comedy, Les palmes de M. Schutz (1997), in which Isabelle Huppert played the Polish/French scientist. Marie Noëlle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2016) adds much to a layperson’s understanding of her Nobel Prize-winning accomplishments, as well as those of her husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), who preceded her in death; her married lover, Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter); and Marie and Pierre’s similarly gifted daughters. The movie deftly depicts, as well, a European community blessed with great wealth and scientific curiosity, but divided by radical and traditional political notions, ethnocentrism, male chauvinism and anti-Semitism, all of which affected Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Karolina Gruszka). Although she wasn’t Jewish, or particularly religious, any foreigner who rocked the status quo in France faced accusations of being Jewish or agitators. Marie was born in Warsaw, in 1867, when the Kingdom of Poland was part of the Russian Empire, and she was a staunch advocate of a separate Polish state. Even after winning the first of her two Nobel Prizes, Skłodowska-Curie was treated by the scientific establishment as a mere participant in Pierre’s accomplishments and  was denied recognition, access to adequate facilities and prestigious positions in the academies. The headline-making scandal that followed Pierre’s death shown a spotlight on Marie that wouldn’t have been directed at her male peers in the same context. Several years older than Langevin, she was imprecisely tarred as a Jewish adulterer and homewrecker.

Marie’s feminist credentials are cemented in a speech she delivered in 1911, while accepting her history-making second Nobel Prize, an honor delayed by the scandal: “We should be less curious to know people, and more curious to know their thoughts.” Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how overtly Noëlle and cinematographer Michal Englert depict her sexual re-awakening after Pierre’s death in a carriage accident. It  includes several semi-nude sequences, that are posed and shot in a gauzy light that recalls the photography in early issues of Penthouse magazine, although there’s nothing remotely pornographic about them. One of the scenes that didn’t require a gauzy haze takes place in 1922, as members of the League of Nations’ newly created International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation – including Curie and Albert Einstein – stroll along a sun-lit beach. When he praises her as the leading female scientist of their time, she chides him for not including male scientists, as well. Gruszka’s performance, alternately stoic and vulnerable, should serve as a reminder that portrayals of women in the sciences need not be reserved for actresses who moonlight as models for cosmetics companies. Their characters can be every bit as deep, complex and alluring as any male filmmaker’s clichéd notion of how a perfect woman should act. (Having just re-watched Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, with microbiologists played by Elizabeth Shue, Kim Dickens and Mary Randle, I think it’s a valid observation.) The production design nicely captures the look of the period — from shadowy laboratories, to the gilded hallways of academia – in exacting detail, as well.

Also, from Big World Pictures, comes Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, an absorbing, if grueling drama based on the writings of Max Blecher (a.k.a., M. Blecher), a Romanian Jewish writer who died of bone tuberculosis in 1938. Lucian Teodor Rus plays Emanuel, a patient suffering from the same crippling ailment, also called Pott’s disease, who’s confined to a seaside sanitarium in Berck-sur-Mer, France, where he faces torturous therapy and years of confinement in bed. Although he’s sometimes imprisoned in a full- or half-cast, Emanuel’s mind is free to wander where it will, sometimes in the darkness, but largely in places that lift the human spirit. Title cards, with subtitled passages from Blecher’s meditative writing, separate the scenes and anticipate what’s going on his mind, on- and off-screen. Emanuel’s also adept at reciting lines from his poetry, and by others (Kierkegaard), by memory. As horrifying as the disease is, patients celebrate the absence of doctors, nurses and orderlies by partying, debating the political upheaval in Germany and making love, as best they can. Viewers are encouraged to find their own metaphors for the wave of fascism that’s about to imprison Europe. Also very good are Ivana Mladenović, as a self-assured former patient, and Ilinca Harnut, as a similarly incapacitated woman from a nearby room. Their awkward attempts at shifting from bed-to-bed and making love like armadillos – I’m guessing — offer some comic relief, but, even when they fail, you have to hand it to them for trying. While the 141-minute running time, largely static camera, 1.85:1 academy flat aspect ratio and obscure literary references may not  contribute to a seamless viewing experience, anyone who found inspiration in The Sessions (2012), Rust and Bone (2012) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) should find something in Scarred Hearts to enjoy.

Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon
This somewhat troubling documentary may not be targeted directly at parents of children who spend their every waking moment in front of a video screen — playing loud games and cursing when they’re interrupted — but it could save them from a world of trouble down the road. John Keating’s Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon enters the largely unexplored realm of professional ”eSports,” as told through the eyes of two of the world’s best “StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty” players. Anyone who found “Dungeons & Dragons” to be a disturbing alternative to tagging and shoplifting, back in the day, may see something even more unnerving in the new eSports craze. Unlike graffiti, however, an addiction to eSports could pay off down the road. Introduced a 1998, the real-time-strategy game, “StarCraft,” went on to become the foundation of eSports and the force behind the on-line streaming medium, Twitch. The global phenomenon began in modest South Korean Internet cafés, as PC bangs, and exploded from there. “Gamechangers” follows two of the world’s top professional gamers, “MC” and “MMA,” neither of whom look as if they’ve begun to shave yet but have helped lift their families out of poverty on the way to becoming niche celebrities.

BlizzCon, then, is to eGamers what ComicCon long has been to comic books and cosplay freaks. It’s an annual gaming convention held by Blizzard Entertainment to promote its major franchises: “Warcraft,” “StarCraft,” “Diablo,” “Hearthstone,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “Overwatch.” The first BlizzCon was held in October 2005 and since then all the standing-room-only conventions have been staged at the Anaheim Convention Center, near the company’s corporate headquarters in Irvine. Although Koreans dominate the 2014 championships, shown here, it’s worth knowing that, for the first time in competition history, an outsider — Joona “Serral” Sotala, a soft-spoken Zerg player from Finland — broke through the logjam, by winning the WCS Global Finals. The 20-year-old took home $280,000 from that contest, alone. The documentary probably will remind some older viewers of the World Series of Poker craze, except with better visuals and even more sloppily dressed competitors. It covers the matches, eight months’ worth of preparation and contests, and interviews with parents, who probably hope their sons – no women in sight, except in the crowd and handing out trophies – will consider using their earnings for college.

We, The Marines: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Thanks to the miracle of 4K UHD and large-format theaters, it’s safe to say that MacGillivray Freeman’s We, The Marines is the best-looking recruitment film since Top Gun. Originally created to be shown on the Giant Screen-certified Medal of Honor Theater at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s museum, in Quantico, Virginia, it is now available for home viewing. At 38-minutes, any movie recalling the history of any branch of the military would suffer from extreme brevity and subjective editing and that’s the case here. We, The Marines is short on combat footage and long on the ordeal men and women recruits face when they decide to join the corps. If it omits the dehumanizing profanities, occasional physical abuse and politically incorrect characterizations dished out by Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, in Full Metal Jacket (1987) – and, for that matter, Louis Gossett Jr.’s Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) — We, the Marines goes quite a bit further into the intense training all leathernecks undergo at book camps in South Carolina and southern California. As narrated by 88-year-old Gene Hackman, a former Marine who came out of retirement for this assignment, the movie then takes viewers to training facilities in the desert, swamps and mountains that simulate conditions Marines may face in combat, no matter the season or cause.

The most exhilarating 4K footage, perhaps, comes in the air, as already well-conditioned Marines take their first jumps from the rear end of a troop transport. Or, maybe, it’s underwater footage of a large submersible in which they’re taught to evacuate a sinking vehicle, after it flips over and descends into murky water. While not coming out and saying as much, We, the Marines also makes it clear that any debate over unjustified wars and politically motivated missions – the flag-raising at Iwo Jima is rightfully highlighted, while the so-called “victory” at Khe Sanh is ignored — is superseded by the Marines’ do-or-die approach to their jobs and burning desire to make sure everyone comes back alive … which, of course, they don’t. It also shows the pride in the faces of newly minted Marines, as well as those of parents and family members – along  with sighs of relief — when they arrive home safe and sound. The package includes extended interviews and footage.

Who We Are Now: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I’m not sure how the voters for Independent Spirit awards overlooked Julianne Nicholson’s performance in Who We Are Now. Sure, Matthew Newton’s ensemble drama was only accorded a brief release in a handful of theaters in the first weeks of summer. Typically, though, the Indies can sniff out great acting in small movies from any distance and, to qualify, they only need to be shown at a festival, or two, or an abandoned drive-in Texas to qualify. For what it’s worth, critics at the 2017 TIFF were unanimous in their praise and gave good marks to the film, as well. AMPAS voters don’t concern themselves with movies that barely register a blip on the radar screen, so no surprise there. The key characters in Who We Are Now are at a place in their lives where shit happens on a fairly regular basis and there isn’t a thing they can do about it. Recently released from prison, Beth (Nicholson) is working with her public defender, Carl (Jimmy Smits), to get her son back from her sister, who was awarded legal custody while Beth was sent away for 10 years on a manslaughter beef. Gabby (Jess Weixler) and her husband, Sam (Scott Cohen), decided not to tell the boy about his birth mother, however, referring to Beth as an aunt and finally take out a restraining order to prevent her from dropping in unexpectedly. It’s been a year since Beth was released and she’s begun to think that Gabby and Sam will make the order permanent.  She’s working at a nail salon and experiences a #MeToo moment with the manager of a restaurant manager (Jason Biggs) who has no intention of hiring a felon. Carl’s idealistic young protégé, Jess (Emma Roberts), is nearly as much an emotional basket case as Beth, but for very different reasons. When Carl announces his intention to take a job in Washington and give her his job, Jess’ insecurities rise to the surface. After a tough case unexpectedly goes sideways, she’s ready to cash in her chips and go home. It doesn’t help, either, that her mother (Lea Thompson) is a demanding bitch. By the time she crosses paths with Beth, Jess is well on her way to becoming a semi-functional alcoholic. Other plotlines intersect, but Beth and Jess’ stories are the most compelling. Nicholson and Roberts keep viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting for their characters to implode. Who We Are Now may not be a barrel of laughs, but as a showcase for great acting, it’s tough to beat.

Forty Guns: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Panique: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
A Dry White Season: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Topping off a typically eclectic month of new releases from Criterion Collection is a Western unlike any I’ve ever seen. Watch Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) alongside Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks – a 2018 addition to the National Film Registry – and you’ll understand how the revisionist subgenre evolved from such early classics as Nicolaus Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman’s High Noon (1952), and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957). A decade later, the elimination of the Production Code and influence of spaghetti Westerns eliminated any needed to work around earlier taboos. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) opened the door for such bold statements as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Forty Guns wasn’t an attempt to reinvent the Western, just personalize it according to Fuller’s own beliefs, ethics and vision. If he wasn’t given much time or money to make it, he was allowed the luxury of CinemaScope, cranes and unusually long tracking shots. Because it’s set in Cochise County, Arizona, it’s possible to see in the Bonnell brothers (Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Robert Dix) references to Earp brothers, while Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond is said to represent Ike Clanton, who, unlike his brother, Billy, survived Tombstone’s fabled Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At a mere 5-foot-5, Stanwyck’s character stands toe-to-toe with Sullivan’s 6-foot-2 Griff Bonell, a former gunfighter now serving warrants on criminals, one of whom serves in Drummond’s personal dragoon regiment.

The protagonist and antagonist nearly collide in the famous opening scene in which the Bonnells are nearing town in a buckboard wagon and the dragoons are riding  hell-bent-for-leather in the opposite direction. They’re led by the domineering, corrupt, matriarchal cattle queen, who’s dressed in black and riding a white stallion. Impressive, by any cowgirl standards. No need to spoil anything further, except to say Forty Guns – previously titled, “Woman With a Whip” — tweaks such tropes and clichés as the singing cowboy (Jidge Carroll), western hygiene and, of course, the role of women in the Old West. In addition to Drummond, the town’s leading gunsmith is played by Ziva Rodann, who kind of resembles Sandra Dee, and I didn’t see any prostitutes. (In Johnny Guitar, Joan Crawford played a saloon keeper, who also had imperious ambitions.) If American critics failed to embrace Fuller and Ray’s pictures, they would influence several critics-turned-auteurs in the French New Wave. Even today, however, Forty Guns does take some getting used to. Criterion’s pristine 4K restoration is supplemented by new interviews with Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller, and critic/author Imogen Sara Smith; the feature-length documentary, A Fuller Life (2013), by Samantha Fuller, featuring admirers of her father’s work and collaborators Wim Wenders, William Friedkin, Mark Hamill, James Franco, Monte Hellman, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke and Constance Towers; a stills gallery; a vintage commentary by Fuller; and an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and excerpts from Fuller’s 2002 autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.”

Fans of Belgian writer Georges Simenon and his beloved literary creation, the French police detective Jules Maigret, may not be familiar with the protagonist of his 1933 novel, “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire,” from which Panique (1946) was adapted … in French (twice), Spanish and Portuguese. Unlike Maigret, Monsieur Hire’s an unmarried loner, Jewish, a bit of a slob, and a voyeur. He carries a camera, just in case something unusual occurs. That’s exactly what happens when one of Hire’s neighbors is found dead near the town square. He doesn’t let on that he knows who the killer is until a plot to frame him is revealed and his affection for Alice (Viviane Romance), a gorgeous ex-con he spies in a rooming house across the street, turns his mind to mush. By the time he realizes that Alice is in cahoots with the slick conman for whom she took a three-year fall in prison, she’s planted evidence on Hire and Albert (Paul Bernard) has whipped the crowd into a frenzy of hatred toward “the outsider.”  The truth will emerge, but too late to do him any good. Hence, the lack of a sequel or prequel to Julien Duvivier’s heart-breaking post-war drama, other than Patrice Leconte’s fine 1989 remake, Monsieur Hire. Panique was the first movie Duvivier made in France after returning to Europe from a self-imposed wartime hiatus in the United States. Before the war, he developed an international reputation with such award-winning films as Christine (1937), Pépé le Moko (1937), The Great Waltz (1938) and La fin du jour (1939). Like other French filmmakers who spent the war years in the United States, Duvivier was greeted with suspicion and animosity by people who endured the Occupation. He was well-aware of the likelihood that some of them had collaborated with the Nazis and informed on their Jewish neighbors. Duvivier allows viewers a brief respite in the narrative when Hire and Alice appear to come to an arrangement on Albert’s deceit and guilt. It’s short-lived, however, because, well, as they say on the noir blogs, cherchez le femme. And, speaking of noir, Duvivier must have learned something during his time in Hollywood, because Panique is as good an example of the subgenre as has been released in recent months. Simon, who delivered unforgettable performances in Marcel Carné Port of Shadows (1938), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) is in top form here. The revelation, though, is Valentine, a radiant actress whose smile could lead any man down the wrong — or right — path. The 2K restoration is enhanced by “The Art of Subtitling,” an interesting short doc by Bruce Goldstein, founder and copresident of Rialto Pictures; an interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of novelist Georges Simenon; a 2015 conversation between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about Duvivier and the film’s production history; and essays by Duvivier expert Lenny Borger and film scholar James Quandt.

Set in 1976, when apartheid in South Africa showed no signs of easing, Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season was released in 1989, a long year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, however, the outcry against apartheid, outside South Africa, was still largely limited to college campuses and left-leaning activist groups. It wouldn’t be until 1986, 14 years after U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums first initiated action on the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, that American legislators formally agreed to impose sanctions on the South African government and international industries that continued to do business there. Hollywood movies that dealt with apartheid in South Africa – as was the case with films about the battle against segregation in the American South – typically found a white actor to serve as co-protagonist. Here, Donald Sutherland plays Johannesburg schoolteacher Ben Du Toit, who, like everyone else in his orbit, believes what he’s told about allegations of atrocities against blacks by the government: that only terrorists and communists are being targeted in the State of Emergency. It isn’t until his black gardener, Gordon (Winston Ntshona) informs Du Toit of beatings inflicted on his son, with whom the teacher’s own boy plays, that he begins to investigate such claims himself. Willing, at first, to believe the lies told him by local authorities, Du Toit doesn’t become convinced of the brutality until he witnesses the effects on the corpse of someone he’s met.

As his involvement grows, so, too, does his estrangement from family members, friends and associates. Although Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley) insisted on using South African actors to play black characters, she knew that money would be scarce, unless prominent American and European actors also committed to the project. Besides Sutherland, she was able to recruit German star Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) to play a vicious cop; Susan Sarandon, as an anti-apartheid activist; Gerard Thoolen, from the Netherlands; Michael Gambon, from Ireland; Brits Susannah Harker, Richard Wilson, Paul Brooke, Ronald Pickup; and South African ex-pat Janet Suzman. It wasn’t until Palcy convinced Marlon Brando to join the the party that the deal was sealed. It required him to emerged from nine years of retirement and work for scale, but he respected the anti-apartheid cause. His portrayal of a civil-rights lawyer, grilling corrupt cops and doctors at an inquest into a black man’s death by torture, is something to behold. Palcy and Colin Welland (Chariots of Fire) adapted A Dry White Season from a novel by André Brink and the director’s own surreptitious research. If it feels a bit dated, well, that’s a small price to pay for freedom. Criterion’s 4K restoration adds a fresh Palcy, conducted by film critic Scott Foundas; a vintage “Today” interview with Sutherland; a 1995 interview Palcy conducted with Nelson Mandela; “Five Scenes,” a new program featuring Palcy’s work; and an essay by filmmaker and scholar Jyoti Mistry (Impunity).

The other December release from Criterion is Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), another a la carte offering from the company’s must-have “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema.”

The Advocates
Lest we forget the true meaning of Christmas and Christianity, Rémi Kessler’s debut documentary, The Advocates, reminds us of the many homeless people in Los Angeles who aren’t likely to find any room at the inn or, for that matter, anywhere else on Christmas Eve. It also introduces us to advocates with three different relief agencies, whose job is to find homes for the homeless, but not before they commit to remaining sober and being cleared by mental-health authorities. While  they occasionally are warmed by the thanks of the people who benefit from their tireless efforts, they’re too often frustrated by the backsliding, bureaucratic regulations and by politicians unwilling to back their promises up with money. The immensity of the job is spelled out in statistics: of the half-million homeless men and women in the U.S., 25 percent of them are in California. In Los Angeles, alone, nearly 54,000 people are missing a roof over their heads on any given night. They live in abandoned cars, under viaducts and on Skid Row sidewalks. The Advocates traces the problem back to Reagan-era cost-cutting and well-meaning human-rights activists, who bought the lies told by legislators who said they’d provide housing and meals for the patients who’d lose their rooms in mental-health facilities. Instead, they were put on buses and given one-way tickets to downtown L.A., San Francisco or San Diego. Since then, however, they’ve been joined by people who lost their jobs and no longer can afford the astronomical rents or get by on minimum-wage gigs. The doc features advocates Claudia Perez, Rudy Salinas and Mel Tillekeratne, and the organizational work of LA on Cloud9, which benefits the homeless and their pets; and Monday Night Mission, which provides food and clothing to residents of Skid Row.

Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia
In the 1946 book, “Confessions of a Story Writer,” Paul Gallico wrote: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” Three years later, when Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith reportedly was asked if turning out a daily column was a chore, he replied, “Why, no, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Although the likelihood of artist Vincent Castiglia having been inspired by either quote is slim, the methodology is the same. The 36-year-old Brooklyn native uses his own blood to create hauntingly surreal images of human bodies in abstract form. Inspired by years of extreme childhood abuse and drug addiction, there are probably a few drops of sweat and tears mixed into the blood, as well. From darkness, however, came light and, eventually, sobriety. The easiest way to characterize Castiglia’s work is to compare it to that of H.R. Giger, whose biomechanical imagery inspired the creatures in Alien, Species and Prometheus. Giger, who also used art as therapy, is well represented in John Borowski’s Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia. Although they appear to have channeled each other’s nightmares, Castiglia’s paintings are distinguished by a biological precision that matches that of an anatomical draftsman. Margaret Cho, who commissioned the artist to paint her portrait in her own blood, is interviewed in the film, alongside the late Gregg Allman, Damien Echols, Kerry King and Gary Holt of the heavy metal band Slayer, and record executive Michael Alago.

Stocking stuffers
De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films: Blu-ray
Typically, when people consider the careers of Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro, the lists begin with their first big hits or critically lauded indies. De Palma’s big break came with the deliberately Hitchcockian Sisters, which succeeded on its own artistic merits and remains a staple of the evil-twin subgenre. It led directly to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976) and Carrie (1976). Before De Niro became known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather: Part II), he turned heads in the baseball-drama, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971). The rest might have been left to history, as they say, if it weren’t for the reminders of formative work displayed in Arrow Video’s “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films.” Nearly two decades before they worked together on The Untouchables (1987), their earliest professional work was seen by a relative handful of viewers in the three films showcased here: The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). More interesting as predictors of things to come than fully formed entertainments, all three are easy to watch and present a view of 1960s New York that’s more Midnight Cowboy (1969) than “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” More to the point, they demonstrate how much each man progressed, artistically, in a short period of time. Greetings, which De Palma co-wrote with Charles Hirsch, is an episodic Godardian dramedy, by way of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), that focuses on a trio of twentysomething male  friends: a conspiracy theorist, a struggling soft-core filmmaker and a chatty voyeur (De Niro). They’ve either dodged the draft or are being coached to avoid it. Once that occurs, they get involved with various  other schemes to make money and/or get laid. For reasons I still don’t completely understand, Greetings was the first American film to receive an X certificate in the new ratings system.

De Palma co-wrote and co-directed The Wedding Party with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe. Shot five years before Greetings was released, it finally made it to the big screen in 1969. It concerns a young man (Charles Pfluger), who proposes to his girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) before he’s considered all the ramifications of such a decision. Because it’s set in on the weekend of the marriage, in a pleasant rural location, The Wedding Party recalls such movies as A Wedding (1978), Cousins (1989) and Margot at the Wedding (2007). Less experimental than Greetings and Hi, Mom, The Wedding Party offers little more to contemporary viewers than early glimpses of Clayburgh and De Niro, neither of whom appear to have completely shed their baby fat. In fact, with his modified flat-top haircut, De Niro is a dead ringer for Billy Gray, of “Father Knows Best.” More familiar is his Jon Rubin, in Hi, Mom! While he’s an extension of his character in Greetings, De Niro appears to be channeling Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets (1973). Here, the just-returned Vietnam veteran rents a Greenwich Village apartment that could charitably described as a slum-within-a-slum. (The landlord is played by an almost unrecognizable Charles Durning.) It’s only advantage, besides a roof, is the clear view it provides of the apartment building across the street, whose tenants aren’t familiar with the concept of curtains. He talks the pornographer he met in Greetings (Allan Garfield) into fronting him the money to buy a camera and, in due time, delivering a hard-core version of Rear Window. While surveying an apartment in which three young women seem  to spend their every waking hour changing their clothes, he notices that one of them (Jennifer Salt) is out of step with her friends. He’s inspired to set up a sexual encounter with her, which he’ll film on automatic pilot from his apartment, using  the ruse of a misdirected computer date. The scheme fails, miserably, but in a way that showcases both actors’ ability to rise above the material and take command of a situation that unexpectedly blossoms into something.

The botched attempt at hard-core porn causes Rubin to change mediums. He joins a confrontational off-off-off-Broadway theater company that specializes in making white, liberal audiences as uncomfortable as possible. I’ve seen my share of these sorts of things and “Be Black, Baby” made me squirm, as well. Viewers should know that “Hi, Mom!” and “Greetings” both reflect the late-1960s’ absence of borders when it came to sexist, racist and homophobic dialogue and insult-trading. The profane dialogue sounds so foreign today that you begin to wonder if that’s the way everyone conversed in the radicalized era. Many did, but not for long. Also, there’s an extremely discomfiting rape that probably wouldn’t get past the ratings board, today. The Arrow package benefits from 2K restorations of all three films; a pair of informative interviews with writer/producer Hirsch; commentary on Greetings by Glenn Kenny, author of “Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor”; an appreciation of De Palma and De Niro’s collaborations by critic and filmmaker Howard S. Berger; interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney; newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and fresh writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, plus an archived interview with Palma and Hirsch.

2018 World Series: Boston Red Sox: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
World Series Champions 2018: Boston Red Sox: Blu-ray
One of the more recent holiday rituals to emerge on DVD/Blu-ray has been the release of recapitulations of the annual Fall Classic. They used to arrive in time for the next baseball season, but, by then, most fans’ thoughts were already on their favorite team’s chance in the coming year. From the point of view of Shout!Factory, the distributor of “2018 World Series: Boston Red Sox: Collector’s Edition” and “World Series Champions 2018: Boston Red Sox,” the preference probably would have been for the Los Angeles Dodgers to upset the highly formidable BoSox. Nothing against the New England faithful, but, when it comes to market share, the only better pairing would have been a Yankees/Dodgers series that went seven games and included a couple of no-hitters. Second choice would have been a Dodgers’ victory over the reigning champs, the Houston Astros, the team that beat them a year earlier. As things went, the series’ highlight was the historic 18-inning Game 3, which ended with a L.A. victory and a record number of East Coast viewers who either dozed off before it ended or skipped work or school the next morning. The “World Series Collector’s Edition” includes all five games of the World Series; the Bosox’s pennant-clinching ALCS Game 5 and a bonus disc of the ALDS-clinching Game 4, versus the Yankees; optional audio feeds, including the national-television feed, home radio, away radio and the Spanish-language broadcast; and a Sleevestats insert, with game trivia and official stats. “World Series Champions 2018” focuses specifically on the final series. Previous year’s editions included full coverage of the playoff series, seasonal highlight and, if memory serves, victory parades.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Despite Scream Factory’s swell 4K restoration of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), the movie remains essential only to genre buffs and Christopher Lee and Hammer Horror completists. Among other things, the vampire makes his first appearance – or, if you will, resurrection – 40 minutes into the narrative and Lee is silent throughout the picture. That said, however, his minute-long manifestation is a thing of pre-CGI beauty. After blood is poured on Dracula’s ashes, a series of 12 locked-down dissolves take him from dust to a fully formed vampire, whose bony hand is the first thing that emerges from the sarcophagus. Dracula: Prince of Darkness takes place in 1895, eight years after the count’s demise in Horror of Dracula (1958). Four English tourists are stranded in the mysterious village of Karlsbad, a sinister and remote place with a deadly, dark legend. Against the advice of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), they hop into a driverless coach that takes them directly to the not-quite-abandoned castle, where shit happens. The Blu-ray edition includes both the UK and shorter U.S. versions of the film; new commentaries with author Troy Howarth and filmmaker Constantine Nasr and writer/producer Steve Haberman, as well as ported-over commentary with cast members Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley and Lee; a “World of Hammer” episode, “Dracula and the Undead”; “Back to Black: The Making of Dracula: Prince of Darkness”; a stills gallery; and Super 8 behind-the-scenes footage.

Bloody Birthday: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1981, parents groups and critics raised a stink over splatter flicks featuring psycho killers dressed in Santa costumes.  At the same time, the R-rated killer-kid thriller, Bloody Birthday (1981), opened and closed without much controversy attached to it. In an interview included in the bonus features attached to this Arrow Video release, film journalist Chris Alexander accurately describes the antagonists as “the Little Rascals from hell.” In my opinion, exploitation films in which children kill children, as well as parents, cops and neighbors, trump evil Santas every day of the week. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher or expectant parent watching Bloody Birthday – not many did, apparently – and not re-considering their decision to expand the minds of impressionable youngsters and bringing a potential psychopath into the world. Yeah, yeah … I know it’s only movie, but, 37 years later, it still has the capacity to creep out adult viewers. Who knows what makes a kid turn bad … bad genes, abusive parents, an addiction to airplane glue, born under a bad sign? In Bloody Birthday, three children are born almost simultaneously in the same hospital, at the same time as a solar eclipse is occurring outside. Flash-forward 10 years and a pair of teenagers is murdered while making out in an empty grave in the local graveyard. We don’t see the killers, but it doesn’t take long for Hunt to reveal the fact that they’ve yet to reach puberty. At first, the same three kids from the hospital stage murders to look like accidents or the acts of sick adults. It doesn’t take long before they skip the formalities and kill with only the slightest concern for being caught. Even when a friend of the sociopathic trio turns on them, no one over 18 believes him.

Perhaps, you can guess what happens as the movie unspools. It would be difficult, however, to foresee just how devilishly inventive the kids are when it comes to murder. Otherwise, though, Bloody Birthday follows the same slasher blueprint – sex/death/exposition, in 10-minute intervals — popularized by John Carpenter (Halloween) and Bob Clark (Black Christmas). Viewers already were conditioned to fear off-kilter kids from such thrillers as The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), The Omen (1976) and Halloween (1978), which was Hunt’s primary influence. It probably would be the last time Hunt and Carpenter’s name would be mentioned in the same discussion. Even so, Bloody Birthday managed to hit every beat as written. Much of the credit goes as well to the actors who played parents, siblings, teachers — Lori Lethin, Julie Brown, Joe Penny, Susan Strasberg – and the kids, K.C. Martel, Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne and Andrew Freeman. Arrow accorded Bloody Birthday the kind of sendoff it usually reserves for arthouse classics, with a 2K restoration from original film elements; new commentary tracks with Hunt and the Hysteria Continues; fresh interviews with Lethin and Alexander; an archival interview with producer Max Rosenberg; reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and a booklet, with new writing by Lee Gambin.

Starman: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Considering that John Carpenter’s first big splash in Hollywood came as co-writer/director of the brilliant pre-Star Wars parody, Dark Star (1974), making the leap from horror, back to sci-fi, in Starman (1984), probably wasn’t all that imposing a proposition. Getting the movie from concept to screen would prove to be an infinitely more difficult undertaking. The original Starman  script, by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, was purchased by Columbia shortly before it optioned Steven Spielberg’s “Night Skies,” soon to be known worldwide as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio wasn’t interested in making two movies featuring visitors from outer space and took a pass on the one they thought would appeal mostly to children. History reminds us that Universal’s “E.T.” not only beat Columbia’s project to the megaplexes, but it also destroyed the market for mega-budget alien-visitation movies for years. It’s just as well, because Starman was already caught in a thicket, referred to in the business as “development hell.” It meant that the project was tossed around Columbia’s executive offices like a potato made of plutonium. Before it found its way to Carpenter’s lap, ace script doctor Dean Riesner had been rewritten it seven times for six different potential directors. All of them had reasons of their own for turning the project down, including not wanting to be seen as competing with the “E.T.” juggernaut or, for that matter, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). One of them simply didn’t see eye-to-eye with executive producer Michael Douglas. Finally, Riesner was told to leave well enough alone, but, at Carpenter’s request, eliminate its “heavy political implications.” For all his work, the WGA wouldn’t allow Riesner to share the writers’ credit with Evans and Gideon (Stand by Me).

The deceptively simple story begins in northern Wisconsin, where an alien probe vehicle, crash lands in a forest. The pilot, who’s literally a small bundle of energy, is on a mission from the mother ship to acknowledge that his civilization had received transmissions from the gold phonographic disk, carried on Voyager 2, and wanted to contact NASA scientists about the digital entreaty for peaceful relations. As could be predicted by any child with a Luke Skywalker action figure, however, Air Force pilots were instructed to shoot it down, instead. Welcome to Earth, sucker. Starman’s first stop is a nearby cabin, where he/she/it assumes the identity of the owner’s husband, who closely resembles Jeff Bridges. Starman is as clueless about the ways of earthlings as Chauncey Gardiner was of political machinations in Being There. The alien has salvaged seven small silver spheres from the ruined probe. He uses the first to send a message to his cohorts alerting them to the hostility displayed by earthlings. He arranges to rendezvous with them in three days’ time at Meteor Crater, just east of Winslow, Arizona. Carpenter, who was eager to shed his image as a maker of exploitative thrillers, decided to emphasize the cross-country rapport that evolves between Starman and Jenny (Karen Allen), over special effects. (Think, a sci-fi version It Happened One Night.) Their journey takes them from the Land of Cheese, through Tennessee, into American Southwest. To solve a problem caused by Jenny’s missing purse, Carpenter adds an unplanned stop in Las Vegas, where the alien plays the slots like a golden fiddle. Finally, there’s a race to get to the crater before a fleet of U.S. Army helicopters. The climax is both appropriate and heart-wrenching. Bridges, who studied the behavior of birds to prepare for his role, received a Best Actor nomination from AMPAS. The Shout!Factory Blu-ray includes the new featurette, “They Came from Hollywood: Re-Visiting Starman,” with Carpenter, Bridges, Charles Martin Smith and script supervisor Sandy King-Carpenter; an older commentary track with Carpenter and Bridges; and a vintage featurette. Because of a brief scene of sexuality, I think Starman almost certainly would be certified PG-13 today, instead of the PG it’s carried since 1984. There’s no real violence or gore, despite an army officer’s desire to obliterate the alien and Jenny before they reach Meteor Crater.

Sleepover: Special Edition: Blu-ray
One of the things that made mainstream movie reviewers want to slit their wrists in the Golden Age of Criticism was being told by their editors that they had to review films for and about teenagers, starring teenage actors, and made on budgets that ensured fair-to-middlin results, at best. The late, great Roger Ebert, eulogized as being “without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic,” was 62 when he reviewed Sleepover, a 2004 comedy for and about 14-year-old girls, one of whom would experience a Cinderella moment before the night was over. Another would find a boyfriend who liked her, even though she was overweight, and the popular clique would take it on the chin after a winner-take-all scavenger hunt with a group of girls only slightly less attractive than they are. Roger didn’t have to allot Sleepover, which he would dismiss with a single star, seven thoughtfully rendered paragraphs of opinion, but he did. Maybe, it was because the movie co-starred Jane Lynch, Jeff Garlin and Steve Carell in substantially longer than cameo roles. Stephen Holden, of the august New York Times, was 63 when he gave Sleepover a similarly negative seven-paragraph review. The only favorable review I found was from the Los Angeles Times, by Kevin Thomas, then 68. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey, who, in 2004 was one of only a few women writing about movies full-time, didn’t think much of it, either.

I’m not trying to say that Sleepover was a great teen comedy – like, say, Clueless (1995) – or even a good one — like Valley Girl (1983) – or that director Joe Nussbaum and writer Elisa Bell were making points that went over the heads of critics old enough to be the characters’ grandparents. It wasn’t. The point I’m trying to make, if any, is that assigning heavyweight critics to review lightweight movies was, and continues to be, a waste of everyone’s time and brain cells. (For the record, I don’t consider myself to be a heavyweight anything.)The criticism added nothing to their own serious discourse on those movies of the same period that demanded to be taken seriously by teens and adults: Thirteen (2003), Juno (2007), Mean Girls (2004), Hard Candy (2005), Brick (2006) and Easy A (2010). In 2018, Sleepover clone probably would open a cable network, as did Disney Channel’s “High School Musical,” or gone straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. And, it probably would find its target audience of pubescent and prepubescent girls, who identified with the bright and youthful characters, and some boys intrigued by the whole sleepover mythos, and they probably would have enjoyed it. If anyone cared to analyze it, the reviews would have contextualized the product and probably given it a passing grade. One of the things about the movie I did find noteworthy was the how far the actors have come in 14 years. In 2004, most of the girls played their age — a rarity in teen movies – and looked like high school freshmen. When they wanted to ditch the sleepover and play grownup, one or two of girls would borrow their mom’s makeup and dress the way Mickey Mouse Club graduates do when they go clubbing in Las Vegas. Today, the no-longer-teenage actors are seasoned veterans, approaching 30. (In 2004, some of them already were veterans of sitcoms and made-for-TV movies.) Brie Larson went on to win an Academy Award for Room (2016); Alexa PenaVega won an ALMA for From Prada to Nada (2011); Mika Boorem recently wrote, directed and starred in; Sara Paxton plays a pivotal role in The Front Runner (2018); Scout Taylor-Compton has six films in post-production; Summer Glau was honored for her work in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”; and Eileen April Boylan was a featured player on “Greek” and “South of Nowhere.” Some have even earned their own pages on Mr. Skin. The young men have done pretty well, too. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Nussbaum and several of the girls; a making-of featurette; ”A Guide to the Perfect Sleepover”; actress profiles; “Sleepover Confessions”; a gag reel; wrap-party reel; and behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
This well-respected 1979 comedy eased Steve Martin’s transition from standup comedy to big-budget movies. The Jerk may not have cost a fortune to produce, but its success opened doors in Hollywood most people didn’t know existed. Martin’s “happy idiot” Navin Johnson combines elements of  Voltaire’s “Candide” with characters created from his off-the-wall standup routines. Here, it’s the bit in which he plays the adopted son of dirt-poor African-American sharecroppers, who grows up blissfully unaware of the fact that his birth parents were dead, and his skin wouldn’t darken when he turned 18.. The dead giveaway was that Navin wasn’t born with a natural sense of rhythm and only learned how to snap his fingers and tap his feet to a song he hears on the radio, Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra’s “Crazy Rhythm.” (How far would that gag play today?) Martin’s offbeat sense of humor was an easy match for the comic timing and sensibility brought to the project by director Carl Reiner and writers Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias. The idea was for the screenplay to include one big laugh per page, at least, and, of course, some worked better than others. Navin’s relationship with Bernadette Peters’ non-judgmental beauty, Marie, was informed by their own off-screen relationship, which allowed for some funny extemporaneous moments and unforced romantic interludes. I remember my son loving The Jerk on cassette when he was much younger and I have no reason to believe that, apart from some crude language, it couldn’t be enjoyed by families, today. (Feel free to ignore the absurdly prudish R-rating still attached to the movie.) The remastered Blu-ray adds new conversations with Martin and Reiner, and Elias and Gottlieb; a featurette on learning to play “Tonight You Belong to Me” on ukulele; and a funny outtake, “The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova.”

Pick of the Litter
If there’s one thing that dogs have over cats, it’s their willingness to serve as guides and support-animals for humans with impaired vision and separation anxiety. Although I’ve known a few felines that could be described as supportive, the thought of turning a tabby into a guide cat is worthy of an “SNL” sketch. In Pick of the Litter, we’re introduced to Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and Phil, five spirited puppies, who, from the moment they’re born, begin a strenuous journey to become guide dogs for the blind. A rigorous two-year process takes the pups from the care of selfless foster volunteers, to specialized trainers and, if they make the cut, a lifelong human companion. At every step of the way, the puppies are tested, challenged, and evaluated.

Charlie Steel
The Comedians
The second batch of digitally-remastered movies from Indiepix Films’ “Retro Afrika” series couldn’t possibly be more different than A Dry White Season, which was of the same period and, of course, banned from exhibition in South Africa. Their release on DVD, nearly 30 years after they were pulled from circulation, speaks volumes about one of the lesser tolls of apartheid. In the 1970-80s, black African audiences had little or no access to movie theaters. With the approval of the government, a white construction executive began churning out dozens of genre films, starring Zulu actors and shown in the townships, ostensibly to pacify the masses. The ones I’ve seen resemble serials shown in American theaters in the 1930-40s, except without cliffhanger endings. Everything about them spelled c-h-e-a-p, but, given the lack of alternatives, audiences made the most of what they were given. And, of course, they provided jobs for native African actors and crews, when there were none available anywhere else. I doubt that the audiences were offended by them, either.

In Charlie Steel (1984), Sol Rachilo’s renowned P.I. is called upon to rescue a friend’s daughter (Sonto Mazibuko), who’s kidnapped by a gang demanding a stiff ransom. Charlie infiltrates the gang, but he is betrayed before he can complete his mission. The musical score suggests that Rachilo was familiar with American blaxploitation flicks. (For some reason, the dialogue is in English with English subtitles. The next two titles are in Zulu, with English subtitles.) Coenie Dippenaar’s old-fashioned Western, Revenge, follows a gentle homesteader, whose wife is raped and killed by a gang of desperadoes, while he’s away tending his crop. Their son is injured attempting to protect his mother. The aggrieved husband calls on a retired gunfighter, living nearby, to teach him how to exact revenge and come out standing. The action couldn’t be any more phony – and there’s virtually no bloodshed – but Revenge has a recognizable plot and a satisfying ending. In Japie van der Merwe’s The Comedians a slick-talking conman “borrows” a friend’s magic ring with the intention of using it to become wealthy and impress his wife. The plan works, for a few hours, anyway, but goes astray when the gods who control such things get wind of his greedy desires. The comedy is extremely broad, but the music makes up for bad acting.

Forever My Love: Holiday Classic Edition
Romy Schneider made cinematic history in her career-defining role as Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, the Bavarian-born princess, who, at 16, married Emperor Franz Joseph I and was immediately thrust into a role for which she wasn’t prepared and didn’t particularly enjoy. Neither was Sissi, as she was casually known, prepared for her domineering mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who would assume the task of raising their children and treat her as an unwanted guest in her own home. As she grew into the role of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (and other principalities), though, Sissi led the kind of life that would fill three movies, released a year apart, nearly a century later. Ernst Marischka’s  trilogy was a hit in theaters and became a popular Christmas presentation on television in German-speaking countries. In 1962, the 5½-hour series — Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957) — was condensed into a single147-minute, English-language release, Forever My Love. If the that sounds familiar, it’s also the title of Burt Bacharach’s original theme song for the movie. Bonus material includes, “From Romy to Sissi,” a 20-minute making-of featurette and rare footage of Sissi’s great-grandson at the movies, in an excerpt from the documentary Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress.

Comedy Central: Nathan for You: The Complete Series
Perry Como’s Olde English Christmas
Mantovani: The King of Strings
In the frequently hilarious, often informative and sometimes unnerving docu-reality series, “Nathan for You,” Canadian writer and comedian Nathan Fielder uses his business-school education to help owners of struggling businesses find creative ways to turn a profit. They don’t always work, but nothing ventured, nothing gained … right? One of the show’s long-running story arcs concerns Fielder and his social awkwardness, which bears comparison to Woody Allen’s early schtick. The thing is, though, he never breaks character from his deadpan demeanor and rarely seems terribly concerned about embarrassing his guinea pigs for the sake of the show. “Nathan for You” lasted four years on Comedy Central and probably would have been extended, if Fielder didn’t want to move on to other projects. The episodes look extremely labor-intensive and, for them to work, he had to work with the business owners until the schemes panned out or flopped. That’s expensive. Among the highlights of the nine-disc set are his “infamous” gas-rebate excursion, the grand opening of a Dumb Starbucks franchise and the feature-length series finale, “Finding Frances.” In the cringe-inducing episode, Fielder attempts to help Bill Gates impersonator William Heath reunite with his high school sweetheart, who he ditched to try his luck in Hollywood and has, ever since, regretted losing. Their mission required booking thousands of miles of air travel and weeks spent sharing motel rooms. The deeper they get into the search – using social media, yearbooks and, even, setting up a fake reunion — the less trustworthy and likeable Heath became. At the same time, after Fielder hires an escort simply to be nice to the guy, he begins to fall for her friendly, outgoing approach and underplayed Southern charm. Fielder wasn’t accustomed to such a no-frills, if expensive dating system. Being as inept in his pursuit of companionship as the escort is comfortable in her work, the love connection was never a sure thing. The questions left unanswered include why she agreed to out herself as an escort on television and whether they continued to see each on a non-professional basis. The bonus material adds a deleted scene from “Finding Frances” and commentaries on select episodes.

The names, Perry Como and Mantovani, may not mean much to post-Baby Boomers, but, for an older generation of music lovers, they’re still as familiar as yesterday’s news. In a career that spanned more than a half-century, Como sold millions of records – “Hot Diggety,” “Round and Round,” “Catch a Falling Star,” among them — and pioneered a weekly musical/variety show – “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” (1946-’67) — which became one of the most successful in television history. Likely many such hosts, Mr. C stepped back from the spotlight to allow his guests to shine, getting the biggest laughs and joining him in duets. His smooth, easy-listening, general-audience, slow-flame ballads characterized popular music in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. After his show left the air, he’d regularly return to TV in seasonal specials that attracted mainstream audiences, not necessarily interested in whoever’s on “The Sonny & Cher Show” or “Laugh-In.” “Perry Como’s Olde English Christmas” represents his 1977 winter showcase. Among the guests are singers Petula Clark and Leo Sayer, Olympic figure skater John Curry and Irish actress Gemma Craven. Naturally, it’s filled with traditional carols and pop-oriented songs. The DVD adds footage from his television appearances, spanning the 1950s through 1980s.

Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was an Anglo-Italian conductor, composer and arranger of light-orchestra music with an emphasis on “cascading strings.” The reference guide, British Hit Singles & Albums, described Mantovani – single name, please — as “Britain’s most successful album act before the Beatles … the first to sell over a million stereo albums and [have] six albums simultaneously in the U.S. Top 30 in 1959.” From the 1950s to the 1970s, alone, he sold 70 million records. This unexpected documentary, Mantovani: The King of Strings, tells the story of the man and his music.



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2 Responses to “The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more”

  1. I’m missing something. What exactly do you disagree with in the column? I’ve yet to see the new Spider-Man and, thus, have no opinion. BTW, if you’re a Stan Lee-cameo completist, there’s a good one in Venom.


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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